Saturday, October 4, 2008

Religulous Un-Inverted

Salon.com's reviewers seem to hate movies more often than not, so it is not surprising that Andrew O'Hehir, its reviewer of Bill Maher's Religulous, should dislike the film. Fair enough; he's not required to like it. But there's a rather glaring oversight in his criticism of the film that this passage captures well enough. Notice anything?

In this Borat-meets-Michael Moore world tour of religious extremism, which encompasses Jerusalem, the London Underground, the Hague, an African-American megachurch in North Carolina and an ultra-Orthodox Jewish village in suburban New York, Maher is pretty good at making boobs and fanatics look like boobs and fanatics. He reveals Miami minister José Luis de Jesús Miranda, who has claimed to be both Jesus Christ and the antichrist, as an anti-Semitic moron, and U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, a middle-of-the-road Arkansas Democrat, as a garden-variety American moron who refuses to commit to believing in either evolution or creationism. (As Pryor himself says, you don't have to pass an I.Q. test to be a senator.)

Maher is kicked out of the Vatican in Rome and the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, and prayed for by the worshipers at the Truckers' Chapel in Raleigh, N.C. He avoids eviction at the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Fla., and spends quite a bit of time with the park's Jesus impersonator, a slick bastard who stays with him quip for quip. He himself walks out on Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, an anti-Zionist Jew who attended Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's so-called Holocaust conference, and pretty much refuses to let British Islamic rapper Aki Nawaz (aka Propa-Gandhi) get a word in edgewise. [emphases mine]
For me, what stands out about the places and parties I highlighted is how easy they are to find. To find exponents of Mormonism, Maher went to their headquarters in Utah; to find Catholics, he went to the Vatican; to find rock-ribbed American evangelicals, he went to the places and attractions they're known to frequent. Granted, he didn't go to Mecca to find Muslims, and that's probably because he prefers to stay alive, but he did go to Jerusalem and to places in Europe where Muslims can be found.

Maher went to famous places and not-so-famous places, but he seemingly had no trouble locating "boobs and fanatics" from one end of the free world to the other. So when O'Hehir confidently declares that "any serious theologian from the mainstream Christian or Jewish traditions would have eaten his lunch for him," I am inclined to concede the point and call it the red herring it is.

If we lived in a world where top-shelf thinkers and serious theologicans were the last few people clinging to a literalistic form of the major religious traditions, then Maher wouldn't have much of a movie because the "talking snake" version of faith would be as sequestered and bounded as, say, Milton studies. But in the world where we do live, Maher just had to step outside his hotel to find people who claim to believe in talking snakes, enchanted underwear, deathless prophets, pregnant virgins, dancing angels, and more.

(via PZ Myers, who has a more elaborate take-down of O'Hehir's take-down.)

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