After avoiding it for more than two years, I finally watched Bill Maher’s pseudo-documentary ‘Religulous‘ this weekend. Many of you probably already know that the title of this film is a word coined by Maher combining ‘religious’ and ‘ridiculous.’ In the film, he interviews mostly people associated with fringe religious groups in order to ‘prove’ that religion is indeed ridiculous — anti-intellectual, ignorant, hypocritical and sometimes hateful and violent.
Of course, I don’t agree with his assessment of religion or of many faithful people. That’s why I spent so much time avoiding this film. But, have to give Maher some credit — he asks really good questions. He asks how Jesus is any different from other leaders of his day, given that their stories also included being born of virgins. He asks why we must have the doctrine of original sin which just makes us feel like we are born broken and incomplete. He challenges Christian leaders who wear fancy clothes to reconcile their lifestyles with Jesus’ preaching against accumulating wealth. All good questions for which he rarely gets a good answer.
I’ve heard plenty of stories about people having been thrown out of Sunday school and confirmation classes for lifting up these kinds of questions. That’s the kind of church Bill Maher (a self-admitted former Catholic) was exposed to as a child. That’s the kind of church many experience.
I’d like to think that the churches I serve in the United Church of Christ would do a better job of answering these questions. Some of them certainly would, but many would not. The reality is that many of us are taught as children that being faithful is the same as being passive and complicit. We are not equipped to answer challenging questions, only recite pat answers. If you stifle the questions, though, I think you miss the really good stuff. Questions help you name the things you don’t understand and find ways to make sense of them … or at least learn to ask better questions.
When I entered seminary, I was pretty sure I was called by God to be there, but I wasn’t sure why (or if) I was called to be a Christian. By reading scripture and theology and asking questions, I became a passionate Christian. The incarnation, God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ, is what compelled me (and still does) . I believe in a God that was so loving that God became a human, suffered like me and redeemed this broken and imperfect world through Jesus’ death. I know, through my faith, that I am at once sinful, yet also redeemed. I need this grace each and every day, but that doesn’t make me ashamed to be human.
Unfortunately, no one said anything like that to Maher in the film. But, I bet if he had asked some different people he would have heard more answers like these. He may not have agreed with the answers, but at least wouldn’t have thought all faithful people to be ridiculous.