‘Religulous’ is Ridiculous?

From the DVD jacket:

In this new comedy… comedian and TV host Bill Maher takes a pilgrimage across the globe on a mind-opening journey into the ultimate taboo: questioning religion.  Meeting the high and low from different religions, Maher simply asks questions, like “Why is faith good?” “Why doesn’t an all-powerful God speak to us directly?” and “How can otherwise rational people believe in a talking snake?”  For anyone who’s even a little spiritually curious, this divine entertainment will deepen your faith…in comedy!

Let’s just say that even from the jacket, it is obvious that there are quite a disparity of opinions being expressed in this “documentary” that comes in the spirit of a Michael Moore film.  Bill Maher has quite the abrasive personality that is also darkly engaging.  This seems to be at least at some level a personal journey for him.  The film starts with a conversation with his mother and is salted with his own experiences in being 50% Catholic and 50% Christian.

The Approach

With any media like this that takes a variety of shots and pot-shots at faith and religion, it is easy to get defensive and say that the film-makers are biased and prejudiced.  Yet, we have to remember that these are not characters in a book or roles in a fantasy film.  The film-makers are real people and something has driven a passion to put something like this together and ask these kind of questions.  I take the time to listen to these comments with compassion and empathy, trying not only to hear the actual questions but to understand the life that they represent and the motivation for that passion.  Please keep that in mind as you consider my comments and observations.  If you are missing the good questions and becoming offended by Maher’s observations, it may be appropriate to check yourself.  This may be for you a bit of a personal experiment to assess your tolerance level for hearing tough questions that need to be answered if we want to be relevant to people that Jesus has charged us to reach (Mark 13:9-11).

Unbelievable Evidence

A major theme in the film is really a good question: how can perfectly normal people believe in talking animals and the sun standing still?  It is not an unusual question, but it makes a fair observation of the fact that there are so many things that most people would never really believe, except that it is written in the Bible.  Embedded within this question is also an observation: if people believe this book without question, how can they really know that what they believe is true?

Why do you believe that the Bible is true?  Remember in school how you were not allowed to use the word you are defining in its definition?  It goes the same in this case: no fair using part of Scripture to prove that it is true.  The reason we need to ask these questions is it says a lot about how difficult it is to share our faith when part of being a Christian means that people have to believe “ridiculous” stories to become part of the faith.  It may be worthwhile to read the book Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner.

Corrupted and Off Message

Have you noticed how many TV preachers have gold rings, bracelets, and tie tacks?  How about all the multi-million dollar church buildings with big-screen televisions?  What about the pope who lives in a palace?  Do any of these images match with a man who had no home of his own and warned against being rich?

Not only do many pastors have a lot, but they also work very hard to say that it is all biblical.  Pastors of the “prosperity gospel” preach that if you give then you will be equally blessed, which to them means wealth, health, and fine-living.  The Bible does challenge us to test God with our giving, but it never says that we will be millionaires if we do.  I completely respect people who handle money like Rick Warren who says publicly that he “reverse tithes” meaning that he and his family only live on 10% of the family’s income and give the rest away.

How can people feel confident in becoming a part of a group of people who live so defensively contrary to the message that they share?

Genesis and the Beginning

Has there been enough said about this issue?  This is such a fundamental issue for this reason: if Christians do not believe something with evidence, then how can any of their other ideas be legitimate?  Folks, this is history rhyming with itself.  Galileo said that the earth was not the center of the universe, which was the truth, but his “belief” was rejected by the church who attacked his “theory” with a series of Scripture passages.  They said that if these passages were not true, then the entire book could not be trusted.  That is exactly what Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum, said in this film.  His final defense against Maher’s questions: “Are you God?”

Please do not hear this as being “anti-creation” or “pro-evolution,” but here are a few observations.  First, the film featured Father George Coyne, PhD (Vatican Observatory) who pointed out that the age of science is separated from the biblical period by a span of time no less than several hundred years.  We think very differently than the writers of the Bible and so his conclusion is that the Bible cannot be read as a science book.

Secondly, even though the Bible is usually published with one singular cover, it is a library of 66 books.  If one story in one of those 66 is proven incorrect, it does not mean that the other 65 books are false.  It is nothing but foolish to think that the first story has to be defended for fear that the greatest story loses.  We believe that it is the Word of God and as the Word of God will it not stand against such claims?

If somehow we can set aside this issue, can you imagine how much stronger our message can be?  Instead of spending so much time collecting proof of our beginning and putting that time into spreading the news of our new beginning, perhaps we will have a more common ground where we can challenge one another with open dialogue.  And perhaps many more people can meet God in the process.

Conclusion

There was much more in this film about Christianity, and it also talked about Scientology, Islam, Mormonism, and others.  Bill Maher had no more trouble with Christianity than with the others on the same question that kept coming up over and over: how could otherwise normal people believe such things?  We could easily dismiss these observations, but he represents a person that we believe Jesus included when he suffered and died (remember John 3:16?).  Bill Maher and people who think like him are not demons, they are human beings.  Let us take the time to listen with compassion and empathy and address their concerns.  Let us be willing to put down our torches and stop protesting about secondary issues and remember our mission: to preach Christ and him crucified.

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About Aaron Gardner

Aaron is a counselor and student of the Bible, passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. He lives in central Indiana with his wife, one-year-old son and their two dogs. View all posts by Aaron Gardner

10 responses to “‘Religulous’ is Ridiculous?

  • Disciple

    Hi, Aaron 🙂

    I agree with you. We need to listen and converse with atheists and anyone who has questions. I’ve had questions too and I spent about 40 years trying to find anyone who might have answers, real answers, before I found Catholicism. Now I’ve spent 13 years studying the answers I found, asking more questions and the process continues.

    I value my conversations with atheists, agnostics and other believers, because I discover my ares of weakness, the places where my understanding or my arguments don’t hold up; and, most importantly, I learn that I cannot persuade or convert anybody to anything. God can. I learn to remind myself to pray, ask for guidance, and that it is His will I am here to accomplish, not my own; God’s will for them be done, not mine. (This is something God has been teaching me the last year or two. Maybe I’m even beginning to learn it!)

    Bottom line, what we all need is understanding, compassion, sincerity, and a strong commitment to truth. I think those things are absolutely necessary for real dialogue. Poking fun at, ridiculing, and insulting someone’s beliefs is rarely a way of fostering fruitful dialogue. But most folks who proceed in such fashion don’t seem to really be interested in engaging in dialogue. They seem, rather, to be interested in being ideologues, making bad jokes and taking cheap shots at easy targets to the amusement of other adolescents. And that’s really okay; that way, serious dialogue is left to others and that is probably for the best.

  • Ryan Georgioff

    First, let me premise my reflections with thanks for referring me to your blog, and for taking time to both read and comment on my own thoughts. It demonstrates a tremendous ability to actually listen (one of the chief problems in discussions of any deep nature with most persons of faith, in my experience).

    I gather from elsewhere on your site that you might consider yourself a kind of emergent Christian, whether that term is one you would like to self-identify with or not. Your blogroll lists both Brian McLaren and Mark Driscoll, both of whom serve as kinds of spokespersons, among others, for this vibrant, young movement of progressive and moderate Christians.

    These are things that I know because for several years I counted myself among these postmodern recreationists — and I searched genuinely within that paradigm for some semblance of quantifiable truth; for some way to truly test the merits of this ideology I had so committed myself to. It was almost like a kind of delayed buyer’s remorse; though the idea made sense at the time, the more I thought about it the more I realized that I should have put the questions presented by religious faith through a much more stringent set of criticisms than had ever been suggested by anyone within the various congregations I participated in.

    This is an egregious deficiency in the church that ought to be approached honestly and critically by people of all faiths (though my personal proximity to the Christian faith naturally leads me to focus primarily on its influences).

    With that preamble, I will attempt to address some of the questions you present regarding Maher’s film:

    You say:

    “Why do you believe that the Bible is true? Remember in school how you were not allowed to use the word you are defining in its definition? It goes the same in this case: no fair using part of Scripture to prove that it is true.”

    On the one hand, I applaud this approach to what is commonly a taboo question for Christians. It is troubling that the very existence of the Bible is almost always used as an argument for not only the existence of a divine will, but also of one which reflects our distinctly human proclivities and neurosis. Unsubstantiated claims can (obviously) never stand up to the kind of scrutiny which a secular perspective requires. Such a declaration is simply untenable, yet this nuance is often lost to the “truly” devout.

    On the other hand, you out yourself in the very next breath:

    “The reason we need to ask these questions is it says a lot about how difficult it is to share our faith when part of being a Christian means that people have to believe “ridiculous” stories to become part of the faith.”

    Thus, rather than asking questions simply for the sake of free inquiry, and for the questions’ own sake, you are posing them to understand the undevout — almost as if psychologically profiling a lunatic in order to fix him. I know I pose this in the extreme, and I don’t mean to unfairly conflate; it’s just a flaw that I see in your approach.

    You say:

    “Not only do many pastors have a lot, but they also work very hard to say that it is all biblical.” A damned fine assessment.”

    This reality irked me from my earliest conceptions of the religious hierarchy. In many ways, I always noticed that the most strident voices often embodied the most inane and threatening positions within the church. How do you justify a fleet of fancy cars while your congregants tithe their meagre remaining possessions, they truly seeking higher truth and eternal satisfaction and justice, even as they are taken advantage of? The justifications, sadly, start and end within scripture.

    You say:

    “I completely respect people who handle money like Rick Warren who says publicly that he “reverse tithes” meaning that he and his family only live on 10% of the family’s income and give the rest away.”

    Careful when remembering who we are talking about here. While it is true that brute force of money can always overpower the more nuanced forces at work in this world, the decision to employ the former typically comes at the expense of the latter (or so it seems). Think about Warren’s humanitarian work on behalf of HIV/AIDS and his contributions (like what you mention regarding “reverse tithe”), and he seems like an evenly keeled, productive citizen like any other, a role model for a church struggling for identity. Perhaps this explains the broad appeal of his “Purpose-Drive Life” spiritual manifesto; it does, in some ways, unify a broad spectrum of Christian belief, with all its theological, and therefore moral implications.

    Dig a bit deeper, however, and this method may not be as useful as it once seemed. Sure, Warren seems to be searching for the heart of the matter just as we are; but the conclusions he comes to are in many ways damning to the Christian fellowship. I do not feel the need to expand upon this thought, it being in many ways self-evident.

    You say:

    “Please do not hear this as being ‘anti-creation’ or ‘pro-evolution,’ but here are a few observations:

    First, the film featured Father George Coyne, PhD (Vatican Observatory) who pointed out that the age of science is separated from the biblical period by a span of time no less than several hundred years. We think very differently than the writers of the Bible and so his conclusion is that the Bible cannot be read as a science book.

    Secondly, even though the Bible is usually published with one singular cover, it is a library of 66 books. If one story in one of those 66 is proven incorrect, it does not mean that the other 65 books are false. It is nothing but foolish to think that the first story has to be defended for fear that the greatest story loses. We believe that it is the Word of God and as the Word of God will it not stand against such claims?”

    With a great deal of humility, I recognize in these paragraphs a kind of eager longing to reconcile what you have found to be beautiful within Christianity with modernist rationality and its accompanying precepts. I recognize this as a “fellow traveler” of sorts — as someone who has walked a similar path. For the final years of my faith, I sought all kinds of liberal justifications and reinterpretations of scripture to satisfy a kind of just faith I could live with. Given many of those troubling factors you described, it can be difficult to reconcile what is clearly your innate sense of rationality and logic with the conflicting claims of biblical truth.

    In this, you have made a piercing point: that Christianity’s critics ought to consider the bible with a more nuanced perspective. However, I cannot affirm this approach because of the necessary amount of compromise and concession this requires. Do you not sometimes feel that perhaps within your progressive conceptions of Christianity — within this deep soul-searching and intellectual reflection — that perhaps you take too much license with scripture? I certainly felt that way for the latter years I spent in the pews.

    The only thing left to address is Bill Maher himself as a kind of “icon” for “new atheism,” a term that is coming into vogue not due to the efforts of vacuous secularists but rather the obscurantism of individuals such as David Bentley Hart — whose intellect is sharp but, by my reasoning, misguided.

    As blogger “Orac” from http://scienceblogs.com/insolence has persistently been reminding me and others of is that: 1) Maher is a comedian, and we ought to use a different kind of criteria when judging works of this type; and 2) that he has in the past made some statements premised off questionable pseudoscience, at least according to what Orac and others within the scientific community have described. This does not destroy his credibility; it simply makes him human.

    I don’t know if I will ever get around to watching this movie, and in some ways I feel I don’t have to — it is a familiar plotline of cynicism and ridicule, all too often employed in all kinds of arguments, through ad hominem and other backpedaling discourses.

  • Aaron

    Thank you!

    You have captured the heart of what I was going for in this post. The issue is much less about whether or not we agree but that Bill Maher is not only a public figure, but a human being that is in need of God… and to me that means honest and open dialogue about his questions. He may not be willing to honestly sit down (as evidenced by his spurious comments and choice of outrageous clips), but that does not mean that we have to close our doors.

  • Aaron

    Ryan,

    First of all THANK YOU for your comments!

    A friend of mine has recently pointed out to me that I am in many ways misrepresenting myself with some things on my blog; as you have noticed the blogroll is one that can be misleading. I am really working on opening my reading to learn about many expressions of faith, especially within Christianity. Unfortunately that is not currently reflected in my blogroll, so thanks for pointing that out.

    I have certainly read quite a lot from the Emergent/Emerging church movement. There are certainly problems there, but they say that it is a growing conversation. There are also good points and some things that they are going good at reclaiming, so I want to latch on to that.

    But can we not say that about every tradition/denomination?

    My intention and the spirit that I am trying to present here is that we can certainly point out problems, but it is just as important to point out the gems. It is also in effort to open dialogue. I think that in spite of the challenges that may be presented, there is the fact that if we are believers, whether emergent, charismatic, evangelical, fundamentalist, we are all at the same table. We do agree on basic tenants and we can be thankful to God for giving us the gift of mercy where we fall short.

    Just because we are at the same table does not mean we share the same bed.

    I earnestly believe that atheists are also on that “journey.” Many have come out of churches with disillusionment about what can be argued as scientific fact that is ignored by the church. My heart breaks for them.

    I have posed this question in other forums and maybe this is a good place for it too: if I believe in the book of John, believe on Christ, but later read about Balaam’s ass and have a hard time believing that, am I still a Christian? To put it another way: what is the minimum requirement to be invited to the same table. And once you are there, are we having open, humble dialogue about issues that we see differently?

    See I don’t think that finding a starting place is a compromise. I think that it is a view that considers that we are all on a journey of belief and that we are allowed to take a chunk at a time.

    Again, Ryan, THANK YOU for your comments. It helps to keep me grounded and challenges me to be sure that I am not too far out of corral. I hope that we can continue to dialogue about how to be both true to the gospel message and yet keep the doors open and accessible.

  • gayandevangelical

    Some great thoughts here, Aaron. First, the disagreements:

    “Remember in school how you were not allowed to use the word you are defining in its definition? It goes the same in this case: no fair using part of Scripture to prove that it is true.”

    I’m not convinced this is the best way to defend Scripture. Scripture itself testifies to it’s truth, being God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking and training in all righteousness. If I take my experience, “I have a love for the Scriptures because they seem true to me,” then I have not actually legitimately claimed truth for the Bible. External evidences are fickle as well…using them proves A God or A set of Scriptures, but it doesn’t prove the RIGHT God. Scripture DOES line up with History, but it still seems a fickle way to prove or disprove Scripture.

    So, I supposed I’d turn the question onto you and say, why do YOU believe Scripture to be true?

    “How can people feel confident in becoming a part of a group of people who live so defensively contrary to the message that they share?”

    Referring to prosperity preachers, I’d say that they are actually living in consonance with the message they share…and it’s not the biblical gospel. I guess I differentiate between sharing and claiming. Perhaps others do not, but I think it’s an important distinction. When evaluating their message, we can compare what they say to the Scriptures and say, “Does this message reflect the problem of sin and the solution of Christ’s being given as a ransom for many, for the literal securing of souls at the cross?” If it does not, it is not the Christian gospel.

    In another way, however, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The outside world sees the label “Christian” and recognizes the disparity. And for that, those teachers will answer gravely for their sins apart from Christ, if indeed they ARE apart from Christ. If they are found to be misrepresenting the faith and are not from among us, they will be told to depart, for Christ never knew (biblical sense of knowing) them. Scary stuff, my friend. And it sets up another stumbling stone to the gospel when the Apostle Paul is very clear that the only stone of offense is to be the foolishness of Christ.

    “If one story in one of those 66 is proven incorrect, it does not mean that the other 65 books are false.”

    I’m not certain that Scripture can be so divided. Christ did not treat Scripture that way. We must affirm its unity because Peter and Paul did…and they did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So if we were going to divide the testimony of Scripture from under its unified whole, we would have to determine upon what grounds we do so.

    You raise great questions, Aaron. Thanks for pointing this stuff out…and I hope to hear your response to my inquiries as time allows!

  • Aaron

    Just a few thoughts in response:

    If I take my experience, “I have a love for the Scriptures because they seem true to me,” then I have not actually legitimately claimed truth for the Bible.

    Not sure that I am claiming that this is a good idea. When we say that they “seem true” it is a rather subjective way of approaching something that we are meant to stake our lives and our eternity on. I think that it is equally inappropriate to base our faith on only one verse from the very book that is in a sense “on trial.” The main purpose of my challenge here is that a singular statement from the book testifying to its own truth is really not reliable in proving its reliability. There is much more in the history of the Bible, its writing, its transmission, and its cohesive testimony that is much more substantial as a case for its validity as the Word of God.

    I’m not certain that Scripture can be so divided.

    …This is a valid concern and something that I have been working through myself. To lay out a few thoughts: first there are instances in which the people, whether it was the Jews or the New Testament Christians, did not have all the documents today that we call the Bible. In some cases the documents did not yet exist and in some cases some were lost and later rediscovered. Where would that leave the people at that time who would not have knowledge of portions of the Law or gospels from which to draw guidance?

    If I read the gospel of John and come to believe that what I have read is true and accept Christ’s payment for my sins, then read about Balaam’s donkey speaking and find it difficult to believe, am I still a Christian? Am I allowed time and opportunity to work through my unbelief?

  • Ryan Georgioff

    You say: “If I read the gospel of John and come to believe that what I have read is true and accept Christ’s payment for my sins, then read about Balaam’s donkey speaking and find it difficult to believe, am I still a Christian? Am I allowed time and opportunity to work through my unbelief?”

    It seems like we have a responsibility to ask these questions earnestly, or what is faith? Is it garden-variety “personal belief,” or is it substantial, deliberate, and powerful? What if it is neither? This should be not a footnote or an afterthought, but a pressing, fundamental question (in my opinion).

    Noticed that you edited the comments for quotes… and accidently chopped up some of my comments. Not a big deal, but you might want to change those for coherence.

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