Not a Review of a Review of Religuous. Maybe! Or, maybe not!

And yes, that title is supposed to be confusing. It represents my state of mind after picking up last week’s copy of Entertainment Weekly Tuesday night, and reading Owen Gleiberman’s review of Bill Maher’s recent documentary-slash-humor film, Religuous. (The review can be found at’s site, here.)

Before I go any further, let me try to make clear that I am not about to review the movie: I haven’t seen it, and I haven’t read enough about it from pro-and-con directions to think I have much right to even a second-hand opinion about it. Nor am I trying to review Owen’s review. Exactly. I think.

Okay, in hindsight, having written my article: maybe I am reviewing the review. {lopsided g} Because the review leaves me wondering just what in the heck I-the-reader-who-hasn’t-seen-the-film am supposed to think about the film.

One the one hand, Owen gives us statements like the following; call them Category A: Maher is “curious” and “inquiring” about religion, with “childlike logical glee”. The film “isn’t an attack upon God”. Maher, “for all his showy atheistic ‘doubt’... truly wants to know what makes [religion] tick,” and toward that end “leaves no stone tablet unturned”. {rimshot}

So, how does Maher go about this process of curious, childlike (innocent?) logical inquiry into all aspects of what makes religion tick?

According to Owen, in the following statements (call them Category B): Maher is a “wryly contemptuous... bombs-away provocateur” who gleefully engages in a “blasphemous detonation of all things holy and scriptural”, “grilling” people about their religious faith (including his mother, whose own faith stance is somewhat confusingly reported: she “was a Jew”, but isn’t decribed in the review as a professing Catholic although Maher was raised that way), “scathing” at “worm[ing] his way into the niggling contradictions” of cherished belief systems, “attacking” the “vain, deluded things human beings say and do in [God’s] name”, and who is at least “trying to crucify religion” while propagating his view that the Big Three Theisms are only “fairy tales for adults”.

Uh. Yeah. Because those are the kinds of things innocently playful but logical people do, who truly want in their inquiries to know what makes something tick.

I could see writing Category A remarks about an objectively agnostic or even a sympathetic-yet-atheistic inquiry that looked into the positive as well as the negative side of the ledger of “religion”. In fact, I personally know agnostics and atheists who do that kind of thing.

And I could see writing Category B remarks about either a zealous but well-intentioned witch-hunt (so to speak), or a egotistical vanity project, or an attempt at cynically milking audience reaction in order to score some ticket sales (and more likely book and eventual DVD sales or rentals.)

But I have trouble imagining myself writing both kinds of statements about the same piece of work.

Perhaps Owen thinks Bill Maher is at least being fair in his criticisms and targets? Uh... (“[Maher is] only too happy to be the skunk at the garden party”, “[the film] may be on some level indefensible”, “Does Maher take cheap shots? More than you can count.” “[concerning the film as a whole] he doesn’t [even] really pretend to be fair”) Apparently even Owen doesn’t think Maher is playing fair.

Perhaps Owen doesn’t care because he thinks being unfair is what ‘religion’ (and/or the Big Three Theisms in particular) overall deserves? Uh... (“If you believe, as I do, that religion has been the prime civilizing force in our world, then Religulous may on some level be indefensible.”), not that either.

I suppose I could conclude that Owen’s admiration of the film (he rates it ‘A-’) is due largely to his admiration of Maher’s “prickly honesty” in “putting his idiosyncrasies right out there, even when they tick people off”. Thus, in regard to Owen’s own explanation for why he thinks the movie “may on some level be indefensible”: “But that’s why I’m glad Maher made it.”

Or I might conclude Owen is glad Maher made a broadly unfair and at some level indefensible movie, because “It’s also galvanizingly topical, since Maher’s view is that anyone who is powerful enough to have his or her finger on the nuclear button should not be overly eager for the Rapture.” (Thus making the film “the first movie jape of the Sarah Palin era.”) Hm. Hadn’t heard that Sarah Palin was overly eager for the Rapture, on a par with, say, various politically activist clerics in Muslim theocracies; but then I don’t keep up with politics much. (Though enough to know there are plenty of things that people on the nuclear button should not be overly eager for.) And maybe the defensibility of an indefensible movie, is that at least Maher doesn’t resort (I suppose??) to broadly fictional satire like David Zucker’s recent neo-conservative An American Carol (also reviewed this week at EW, sort of.)

I dunno. I don’t want to be unfair to Owen Gleiberman. Maybe there was plenty of fair criticism and/or appreciation in the film, too, but Owen didn’t think readers would find that interesting or relevant. Or maybe his editors cut it out in order to save room for this week’s “Critical Mass” report (sidebarred on the same page as the Religulous review) or for EW’s interview of the film’s writer/director Larry Charles (sidebarred at about the same length as the film’s review on the previous page. He doesn’t give any evidence of trying to give a balanced as well as entertaining film, either; though he does nevertheless have a goal of “reaching the people that would never dream of seeing a movie that questions their religion” and showing them “how absurd the foundations are”, rather than talking “to the people that agree with me”.)

But I have problems with the idea of an indefensibly unfair film being given a grade of A- because the reviewer admires the indefensible unfairness of the film (finding it frequently hilarious) and/or because such indefensive unfairness suits his political preferences. So, I’m hoping there was more to the film than that, in its substance, and for some reason Owen didn’t report that.

For discussion: would any of our readers think it appropriate either to highly grade a film you yourself think is indefensibly unfair to its target due to your admiration of its prickly unfairness (or maybe because it takes swipes at the political/ideological party you oppose); or else to give it high grades for other reasons, but not focus very much on those reasons when writing a review of the movie for people who haven’t seen it? (Note that this could be asked from your standpoint as editor/publisher of such a review, instead.)



Jason Pratt said…
Just a marker for comment tracking.

Anonymous said…
That's a REALLY complicated question, and I'm not sure exactly how to answer it except to reflect a little bit on my response to similar movies.

I loved "Sicko" and "Bowling for Columbine" which attacked "the bad guys" as I see it, but I found the way some of the material was presented deeply disturbing-- basically, I thought some parts were highly manipulative propaganda. I appreciated a few good laughs at the expense of the opposition, but, as documentaries go, they are hugely irresponsible.

There's the rub.

Films like "Sicko" and "Religulous" are, in my opinion, an entirely new genre of non-fiction satires that need to be judged and PRESENTED TO THE PUBLIC as such-- NOT as "documentaries." The only thing that would make such a film indefensible is if it holds itself out as a truly objective piece of journalism.

Satire, of all varieties and from all directions, is good for us. I probably won't get a chance to see An American Carol, but the trailer is hysterical even though I agree with Moore on a lot of issues. Same goes for South Park, which basically tears into liberals and conservatives alike, even if sometimes unfairly oversimplifying some of the issues. Satire keeps us honest, humbles us, and forces us to rethink things.

It's only a problem when it masquerades as something else. Distorting the truth for entertainment and a laugh is not a problem if you know that it's for a laugh. Trying to get a laugh, however, for the purpose of distorting people's perception of the truth, is scary. That's when it crosses the line into propaganda.
BK said…
Having heard more than enough from Mr. Mahrer's views over the years, I have no doubt that Category B will be the main theme and content of the movie. I believe that this effort to use Category A language and make Mahrer sound fair is quite probably disingenuous.

I wonder if Owen Gleiberman is a psudonym for Keith Olbermann.
Jason Pratt said…
Thanks for the thoughtful reply, LG! Much appreciated! AAC was a movie that my Mom and I both thought we'd find hilarious based on the trailers, but the more I hear and think about it, the less I care for actually watching it. I expect I'll find it annoying more than funny--I have a very high regard for some political liberals and so I can be sensitive to attacks in their direction. But at least it's an obviously fictional spoof.

I agree with satire being a good cultural thing--in moderation. Like pepper on a pizza. {g} But I admire it more when it's internally directed self-criticism, with constructive as well as corrosive points. (This is why I consider the canonization of the Book of Jonah to be one of the marvels of ancient western civilization. {s!})


Keith Olbermann...? (I don't recognize the name.)

BK said…

Keith Olbermann is a left-leaning political commenter on MSNBC who (as near as I can tell) shares Mahrer's views.

But I just saw that Dr. Craig Hazen has written a review of the movie itself. It can be found here. Dr. Hazen says the following:

Christianity gets more than two thirds of the attention in the film. Were there any thoughtful and penetrating objections to Christianity in the film? No. Did they interview any thoughtful and accomplished Christian scholars. No. The closest they came to this was an interview with renowned scientist Dr. Francis Collins whose segment in the film made almost no sense indicating that they had butchered it down to nubs in the editing room.

Maher does bring up two points that are argued on occasion by knowledgeable opponents of Christianity. These are 1) that the New Testament was produced generations after the events they record, and 2) that the basic story of Jesus is simply a retelling of myths that predated him, myths that came out of Mitharism and Egyptian religion.

The latter argument is itself a retelling of the myth re-popularlized by Dan Brown in the The Da Vinci Code. Bill Maher and Dan Brown made the inexcusable error of never actually consulting experts in these ancient religions—or even doing a brief Google search. For instance, Prof. Gunter Wagner has set forth the conclusion of the evidence attempting to link Christianity with Mithraism. Writes Wagner, “Mithras does not belong to the dying and rising gods, and no death and resurrection ritual has ever been associated with this cult. Moreover, on account of the lateness of its spread, there is no evidence of the Mithras cult influencing primitive Christianity.”

As for the idea that the New Testament was written much later than Christians have traditionally believed, again, even a cursory study of the facts of the case would be helpful to people like Maher who claim to have objections based on evidence. It has been for many years the consensus of most modern scholars—believers and skeptics alike—that the Gospels were written in the latter half of the First Century AD The most common date ranges for the authorship of these documents are 70-80 AD for Matthew, 60-70 for Mark, 70-80 for Luke, and 80-90 for John. Since Jesus departed earth around 30 AD, these dates of authorship all fall into the generation that had first-hand contact with the events recorded. Maher simply seems to buy the popular mythologies and unquestioned assumptions that often pass for knowledge about early Christian history.

If a careful examination of the evidence did not drive Bill Maher to his conclusions about Christianity, then what did? Maher is wide open in the movie about the religious environment of his childhood. He was raised in a religiously schizophrenic home with a Roman Catholic mother and a Jewish father. He attended mass and Catholic school until he was thirteen when his family suddenly stopped. His mother said it was because she and her husband were tired of feeling guilty about using birth control. It wouldn’t be a stretch to propose a causal relationship between the way Maher’s family treated Christianity like a semi-useful fiction and Bill’s adult conclusion that Christianity is bunk. It reminds me of the great atheist of last century, Bertrand Russell. We really don’t get much in the way of substance when we read Russell’s famous book, Why I Am Not a Christian. But we seem to get far greater insight about Russell’s rejection of Christianity when we read his less famous autobiography. Like Maher, Russell’s dysfunctional religious upbringing seems to be far weightier than any rational argument in moving him to godlessness.
BK said…
One of these days, I'm going to learn how to spell Maher. I DID IT!!!!
Anonymous said…
Fair?! Who said life was fair?

Suck it up.
Jason Pratt said…
Actually, my point was rather more boring than that, Gol. {g} I'm interested in studying and learning from the critical disjunction of the review as an object lesson; and/or perhaps as evidence that something else was going on in the review than was evident on the surface.

I can only speculate about the latter possibilities, but I tried to come up with some speculative options that were both feasible in the publishing world (weird though they might sound!) and not indicative of intentional disingenuousness on Owen's part.

Because while the world may or may not be fair, I know that I'm supposed to be fair. {s}

(Which is also a curious critical disjunction, that I'm certain is indicative of more than is evident on the surface! {g!})

Anonymous said…

Is this what passes for intelligent conversation amongst you people?
Jason Pratt said…
Yes, Gol, all the meaning is in the emoticons. Ignore everything between the emoticons; those other letters are merely random plonking I did on the keyboard to distract people from the weakness of the argument I was making in the meanings of the emoticons. Of course, those meanings are only accessible to Christians who have reached at least the 66th rank of my particular theological Order, which is who I was actually writing to, not you.

Also, those arcane markings give me control over your computer's operating system via sorcery.

In order to learn what I did to your computer, you'll have to engage in long internet searches on obscure sites (the addresses of which I won't tell you); but I expect somebody somewhere has spilled the gnosti-code for the benefit of the uninitiated.


Anonymous said…
No, you have not made use of emoticons (at least, I have not seen you make use of emoticons). Random letters crammed inside curly-brackets do not constitute an emoticon.
Jason Pratt said…
Random letters such as 's' (for smile), 'g' (for grin), both of which have long been standard emoticon abbreviations; and 'rimshot' which stands for 'rimshot'.

I use curly brackets now as a uniform habit, because some systems treat square brackets as coding signals and other systems (like this one in Blogger) treat greater/less-than signs as html signals. Curly brackets are, for the most part, safe from coding miscues. And I routinely spell out anything more complex than smiles or grins (such as the rimshot.)

None of which should be confused with the other non-random letters I typed, which is where the conversation was actually taking place. Not in the emoticons. But then, you clearly were never interested in having a conversation in the first place. (Which is known as flamebaiting. But I politely gave you the benefit of the doubt at first anyway.)

Anonymous said…
The word "random" isn't a part of your vocabulary, is it?
Jason Pratt said…
Sure it is; but I prefer to use the term in reference to things that are actually, y'know, random.



(hint: the g inside those fancy brackets isn't random... see rabbinic principle #2328 above in the original post. That number was randomly generated, btw, though for humor's sake I'm pretending it wasn't.)

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