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Vol. 79 - No. 11
November 2008

WORD FROM THE PASTOR:             

"Religulous"

In the late Paul Newman’s finest film, Cool Hand Luke, one of the chain-gang guards reflects on why Newman’s character ended up in prison. "I hear you don’t believe in no God, Luke," the guard says. "I always wondered how a young man like you ended up on the road gang. Now I guess I know."

When I heard that Bill Maher was making an anti-God movie, my reaction was similar to that of the prison guard. Because for some time I’ve felt: There’s something not quite right about Bill Maher. That feeling stemmed from a costume Maher wore a few Halloweens ago. Steve Irwin, the "Crocodile Hunter", had just been killed by a sting ray–and children the world over were in mourning over the demise of their hero. (A tear or two flowed even in our house). Only a week or so after Irwin’s death, Bill Maher appeared at a Halloween party...costumed as the Crocodile Hunter. And lest you think Maher’s costume was an affectionate homage to the beloved Steve Irwin...consider the fact that part of the costume was a ray’s sting embedded in the chest, surrounded by a large patch of blood. Maher refused to apologize for his ghastly costume. And I thought to myself: What kind of person could even think of wearing a terrible get-up like that? What strange character defect would lead Maher to do something so unfeeling and cruel?

I hear you don’t believe in no God, Luke.

So when I plopped down my $7.50 for Maher’s film "Religulous" (bargain matinee–I ain’t paying $10.50 for atheism!), I already had all kinds of biases against Bill Maher. And he didn’t let me down. The movie was full of cheap shots and obscene blasphemy. But then, I sort of expected that. Along with the blasphemy came some surprisingly heavy-handed racism--cutting between a Hispanic preacher and Al Pacino playing "Scarface", with no apparent motivation except to make fun of the preacher’s accent. (The preacher was pretty nutty–he thinks he’s the Second Coming of Jesus–but that has nothing to do with his accent!)

Maher leaves us Lutherans pretty much alone–a few Lutheran church signboards appear early in the film, but vanish so quickly that one doesn’t even have time to read the messages on them. (I doubt if the film will be nominated for any editing Oscars). Mostly Maher focuses on the weird stuff that religion can lead to. He shows churches that preach hatred, and clergy who wear absurdly expensive clothing and jewelry. He visits a company that develops inventive technology to permit observant Jews to dodge the Sabbath command. He focuses a lot on Muslim suicide bombers, and talks a fair amount about child abuse by the clergy.

But of course, you don’t have to be an atheist to find fault with any of these things. Most religious people would also find them troubling.. So what has Maher proven by dwelling on them? That religion has a lunatic fringe? Of course it does. So do science, philosophy, politics, and practically every other human activity. Just as the lunatic fringe does not invalidate those activities, neither does it invalidate religion. It certainly doesn’t justify Maher’s conclusion that "Religion must die for mankind to live" and that we need to "grow up or die". (Can a man who once wore a dead Steve Irwin costume really tell people to "grow up" with any credibility?)

Perhaps the most moving scene in the film is when Maher is trying to rattle the faith of a group of Christian truck drivers. One of them becomes outraged and storms out of the room. The others, however, ask if they can pray for Maher–and they lay their hands on him and speak a beautiful prayer asking God to open his eyes. In this scene, the truckers are revealed as decent, caring, loving men–quite a contrast, in fact, with the nasty persona that Maher displays in most of this film. I’m surprised Maher left that scene in the movie. But then again, there are many scenes where Christians welcome him and treat him with respect and affection. It makes him look pretty bad–the people he finds so repulsive actually love him and care about him.

There’s also a powerful crucifixion scene (from the Holy Land theme park in Orlando). As I watched it, I thought: Wow, Jesus loves even Bill Maher so much that He suffered great pain for Bill. Maher tries to spoil the scene by suddenly cutting to a jetliner flying overhead–as if to say, How can we, living in an era of jet planes, believe this primitive foolishness about God dying for us? But the cut to the plane doesn’t detract from the power of the Cross. Indeed, it could even be read as saying: Even in this era of jet planes, we still need the blood of Jesus Christ..

The film includes an interview with Senator Pryor of Arkansas who says something telling: That Christianity tends to soften people, to make people more loving. And it occurred to me: the prominent spokespersons for atheism–Madeline O’Hair, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher–all have something in common. They tend to be very sarcastic, cynical, negative people. People in desperate need of "softening". It seems to me that genuine faith brings forth a certain beauty and graciousness–while unbelief tends to call forth a certain ugliness and negativity. One can even hear it in music: listen to Beethoven or Mozart (believers, even if not conventional church-guys)...then listen to Shostakovich (a reluctant atheist, but an atheist nonetheless). All of them are great composers–but in Shostakovich, one hears a sarcasm, a cynicism, a negativity, and perhaps ultimately a despair, that is foreign to Beethoven and Mozart. There is something sublime and elevating about genuine religious faith–more than anything else, it has the power to bring out beauty in humankind.

Speaking of music...over the closing credits plays a song by the Talking Heads: "The Road to Nowhere". What an interesting choice of music! Is Maher, in some deep sense, admitting that lack of faith leads to nothingness and despair? I wonder–especially since his last words in the film (after the credits are over) are: "See you in heaven." A sarcastic joke, yes–but if Dr. Freud is right, and jokes reveal our deepest feelings, then perhaps Maher is a little closer to the kingdom than one might think. Certainly we need to follow the lead of our truck driver friends, and pray for him.

God loves you and so do I!

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