"Jesus.......fiddling with his cell phone."


An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            Bill Maher: “I just ask questions.” And ask he does throughout “Religulous.” As you may suspect, this is a documentary with an agenda. Maher has chosen his subjects for their commitment to dogma. Doubt is his product; it’s what he promotes in “Religulous,” and the result is often hilarious.

            Raised Catholic in a Catholic/Jewish family, the young Bill Maher was delighted when told the family would no longer go to church. He hated having to wake up on Sunday mornings, hated getting dressed up, and was bored unto misery sitting through the service. His mother’s displeasure with the stand of the church on birth control became his reprieve.

            Maher challenges clerics to explain why the Old and New Testaments don’t match and wonders what Jesus did between being the baby we all know and the adult wanderer. Talking to the Reverend Jeremiah Cummings, who has no degree of any kind but lives the life of a prince, Maher wonders about the contrast between the legendary simplicity of Jesus’ life and Cummings’ own grand style. Dressed in a $2000 suit, adorned with gold jewelry, and shod in lizard shoes, Cummings replies that “Jesus dressed very well, in fine linen. Money comes, money happens.”

            Standing in front of the Vatican, Maher muses that the elaborate dress and homes of popes and priests are at odds with their Savior. “Would Jesus have lived here?” To another cleric he suggests that the idea of God sitting up there listening to millions of people murmuring to him is as impossible as Santa Claus dropping presents down every chimney in the world.

            Maher draws marvelous contradictions from his subjects not so much to prove them wrong as to get the rest of us to question the foundations Christians have been taught as truth. He screens quotes from Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin that disavow religion and postulates that 16% of our population has no religious affiliation. “It’s the great untapped minority,” he says, “and it’s time they came out.” He reminds us that if we belonged to other organizations that promoted bigotry, homophobia, and misogyny, we would resign from them.

            Maher does all this with the silences of a man who can’t believe what he has just heard. And he does it with good humor, leaving his often confused subjects with a parting handshake, a smile, and a skeptical shake of his head. At a religious tourist site, he interviews a man playing the part of Jesus (and fiddling with his cell phone) and asks, “When you go out for dinner, do people recognize you?”

            Will Bill Maher’s movie spark discussions of the faith and traditions that most of the citizenry regard as private territory? Probably. Let’s hope we can lace our own conversations with the same irony and humor that run through his movie. In “Religulous” Part II, Maher may possibly stumble on the vast difference between the literal interpretation of myth and myth as a symbolic guidepost.

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