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The following is an edited combination of two posts I put up on my personal blog almost a year ago. After a conversation of sorts with a commenter on my Maher-ulous post, I thought these were germane to the discussion (tangentially, at least).


I’ll begin with a scene from a Simpsons episode:

Flanders:(reading softly to Rod and Todd)…And then Harry Potter, and all his friends…went straight to Hell for practicing witchcraft!
Rod and Todd: Yay!!!

My brother bought me the Harry Potter anthology for my birthday this past fall. I started them after the Christmas holiday and was instantly aware of why the books enjoy such outrageous popularity: they’re very entertaining (go figure). I finished book 7 just last week, and have to admit, I’m sad that there are no more left to read.

Of course, as a Christian, I am accutely aware of the controversy surrounding these books. So aware, in fact, that I’m going to address this controversy very little in this post. Instead, I want to think about a bigger issue: Should Christians ever “forbid”, “ban,” or even disregard ceratin media?

We might also consider how the content of said media plays into our choice. Compare the Harry Potter series with something like Pullman’s “His Dark Materials.” The former is just Halloween made real, while the latter is a subtle (though ferocious), attack against the Christian worldview (per the author’s own admission). What about Nietzsche? Dawkins? Harris?

Like most matters in life, I think a blanket answer is impossible, but here are some initial thoughts:

1) If a Christian man or woman has never had any serious interaction with something that challenges their world view, I would maintain that their faith and witness is significantly weakened. I strongly believe that faith is like a muscle: if it is not used, it atrophies; moreover, if it is not challenged, it will not grow.

2) Christians must thoughtfully engage with their culture. Automatic and uneducated dismissal of non-Christian media is horribly damaging to our witness in the world. This doesn’t require that we live ever-immersed in non-Christian books and films, but it does mean that we at least consider them thoughtfully as they come into public view.

3) We should guard ourselves agaisnt stumbling blocks. If a particularly raunchy movie comes out to much fanfare and discussion, there are ways I can learn about it without compromising my purity (e.g., Wikipedia, IMDB, Amazon). Clearly, we shouldn’t watch pornography so that we can better interact with the millions caught in its snares.

4) As parents, we certainly must take great care in how we walk the balance of guarding our children against that which might harm them, and teaching them to stand firm in a hostile world (c.f., point #1). Pray for wisdom.

So, should Christians ever ban, forbid, or disregard certain media? My answer, for those who want to read between the lines, is “no” with a “but.” The “no” stems largely from the fact that I believe Christians must thoughtfully engage their culture.  The “but” finds most of its basis in stumbling blocks: We have to be watchful of what we ingest, and how much.  Moreover, what we ingest may also impact our brothers and sisters around us (c.f., 1 Cor. 8:9-13; 10:31-33).

The matter of media becomes much more complicated with respect to children. As I watch my son grow up, I’m already thinking ahead to how I balance protection with allowing an instructive bump or bruise. Of course, with the Harry Potter books, I find them as harmless as any other fiction I’ve read. I will be quite comfortable letting Henry read them when he’s of age, and will lose little sleep wondering if he’ll become Wiccan as a result.

One anonymous commenter has expressed certainty that children wouldn’t pick up on religious subtexts within books (e.g., Potter, Narnia, His Dark Materials). I think this is a tough nut to crack, so I’m not as certain. As Danny mentioned, their (our) worldview is shaped, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, by our culture, and what our minds ingest day to day. If a child (or adult) reads many books with a strong anti-authority or anti-institution bias (e.g., His Dark Materials, Catcher in the Rye) it is quite possible that s/he may begin to develop a suspicion of authority in part thanks to these books.

Now, again, this isn’t intrinsically wrong. In my anonymous poster’s words, “Isn’t it better to allow, and even encourage, our children to read these books, even the most controversial, and then provide the opportunity for safe, frank discussion of the issues therein?” Yea and Amen.

What we mustn’t forget, however, is that sometimes these “issues” are hard to get at, because they are subtexts: they’re subtle, and often dovetail very nicely with the cultural milieu. They are the unexamined assumptions that litter our culture today: We don’t really know whence they came, but they’re always there, coating the lens through which we view the world. In this way, I would almost prefer overt assaults on Christianity over and against the subtle ones: they’re easier to target and discuss.

This just to say that with regards to media, we must be prepared to carefully examine the assumptions and subtexts in what our children read. Note that said assumptions aren’t necessarily bad. Take Harry Potter: (1) There’s a very clear line drawn between good and evil. Even more, Human egalitarianism is clearly associated with the “good” and cultural elitism is clearly associated with “evil.” (2) The theme of friendship is honestly portrayed, complete with arguments and reconciliations. (3) Self-sacrifice for a greater good is a neon sign throughout.

So, read and watch everything, and let your kids do the same (age appropriate and within reason, of course!) BUT be ever ready to uncover and examine the unsaid but implied, good and bad. I would go so far as to say that we would do well to apply such advice to anything we encounter.

Finally, I would add that we should be sure to watch our diet: Watch and read everything, yes, but be sure that you’re spending copious time engaging with the Truth, too. Harry Potter will entertain, but God’s Word will sustain. Assaults on our faith can challenge and strenthen us, but so also can the Word. Let’s thoughtfully engage on both ends, and all across, the spectrum. Given our fallen world and hearts, I submit that the scales of our diet should always tip towards “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…or praiseworthy” (Php. 4:8).  Even more, “whether [we] eat or drink or whatever [we] do, [let’s] do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

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As promised, I wanted to continue exploring some of the issues brought about by the recent release of “Religulous,” starring Bill Maher. To be clear, the intention in my first post was really to bring up some of the issues that surface when we consider the premise of Maher’s film. I cannot review the film itself, as I have not seen it, though from reviews and trailers I did offer a few reasons why it may not be worthy of any serious consideration, save that it provides an opportunity to share the Truth. I therefore agree with commenter smhjr: Religulous is not a threat, but an opportunity, and perhaps a catalyst spurring others to ask good questions about faith and religion (questions, mind you, for which Christianity has satisfying answers, so long as you’re willing to dig deep enough, and perhaps even talk to people other than those on the fringe of reason).

However, I do find the genre of Religulous more troublesome, hence the promised “real danger” I mentioned in the teaser at the end of my first post. For me, my worry is that films like Religulous, or similar media that lampoon people or institutions on moral grounds, foster an unhealthy attitude towards important issues. In this sense, Religulous is worthy of serious consideration.

Consider The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Each day politicians or the media that cover them are sliced and diced with great skill. Double talk, direct contradictions, or otherwise ridiculous statements are put right out in the open thanks to some brilliant editing and smart writing. The result is the fulfillment of Stewart’s admitted intention: Many “schnicks and giggles.” A comparison of Maher’s work and Stewart’s reveals similarities in method, intent, and result.

I must make the point upfront that Stewart and Maher are not “harmless” by virtue of their profession. In other words, we can’t say “Relax, it’s just a joke.” Your chosen profession or genre does not absolve you from social responsibility. Comedians writing comedy ought to be held responsible for taking a part in shaping public opinions and attitudes as much as anybody else. Repeatedly making the president of our country look incompetent is perfectly legal in our country, but it has real consequences for the social milieu. The same applies to Maher and religion.

That said, whence the resultant “danger” of Religulous, The Daily Show, and their like? First, I believe that such humor, if viewed frequently and uncritically, will subtly desensitize us to the gravity of some of the issues at stake. What, after all, is intrinsically funny about people killing each other over religious differences? Or (ostensibly) corrupt politicians running our country aground? Comedy by its nature requires some trivialization and/or emotional distance from the issue(s) at stake. Most of us have made the social faux pas of telling a joke at a party about a certain issue only to find that somebody nearby has suffered greatly from that about which we poke fun. Popularizing humor that plays on serious issues requires a loosening of sensitivities to real suffering. Suffering which, for most who are laughing, happens “out there.”

Second, Stewart and Maher do such a good job of making their point that in the end you’re left feeling helpless. For Maher, we’re proffered the notion that any member of an organized religion is ipso facto irrational. In Stewart’s case, we’re sold that politicians and the news media are so hopelessly bankrupt that there’s no point in actually doing something about it. In the end, any real engagement with serious issues is so futile or pointless that laughing about it is all we can do. Where I live, cynicism about politics and religion is rampant, and media like Maher’s and Stewart’s fuel that cynicism. At my last check, cynicism rarely brought about any lasting good, if any good at all.

The “real danger,” then, of Religulous is more subtle than the knee-jerk offense it may create. Like The Daily Show, and others of similar stripe, these media engender cynicism or apathy to serious issues. If indeed said issues are worthy of the moral offense that underlies the comedy itself, for all their intelligence, Maher and Stewart are a part of the very problems they purport to condemn.

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No doubt there will be (and have been) a flurry of people writing about Bill Maher’s new film, “Religulous” (e.g., J.P. Holding’s site). At the prompting of a friend, I figured I might as well join the fray. I have not seen this film, nor do I have any plans to do so. My best analysis is that the point of the film is to have a good laugh while showing that religion is ridiculous, hence the titular portmanteau “Religulous” (and my smart-alec title).

I hesitate to write a full scale essay on this, because I’m ambivalent about whether or not the film is worth any serious consideration. For my money, it seems to fall somewhere between The Da Vinci Code and a “Fossils not Gospels” bumper sticker. Here’s why:

(1) Straw man arguments, anyone? It’s easy to refute religion when “religion” is an amalgam of cherry picked individuals and fringe groups that make your point for you. Where are the interviews with D.A. Carson, William Lane Craig, or N.T. Wright? How about a thoughtful Muslim scholar? No, instead, Maher visits a Muslim gay bar in the Netherlands.

(2) Maher’s thesis, in so far as I can tell, is that religion is not just silly, but dangerous and ultimately harmful (paging Karl Marx…). For Maher, religion is dishonest and stops people from thinking. Apparently a sardonic film purposed for big laughs makes people think. Maher states himself that his “primary motivation” is comedy. Ipso facto, I don’t see why he should be taken seriously, unless you’re apt change your worldview after watching a particularly good Seinfeld re-run.

(3) Director Larry Charles sums up the harm of religion this way: “If I believe that Jesus is God and you believe Mohammed is God, then no matter how tolerant we are, we are never going to meet. All you have to do is push that one more step, then somebody’s like, ‘You’re in the way of people believing in Jesus,’ and ‘You’re in the way of people believing in Mohammed,’ and the only answer is to kill you.” Ruductionistic? Check. Superficial? Check. Grossly misinformed? Check plus (e.g., Muslims don’t believe that Mohammed is God).

Any observer would note that Maher objects to religion largely on moral grounds: Why is religion bad? Because ultimately it ends up with people killing each other. Because it’s full of hypocrites. Because it discourages thoughtful interaction with the real world in lieu of blind submission to jejune mythologies. The problem is that he cannot tell me why murder, hypocrisy, or mindlessness are “bad,” because he’s lost any reference point beyond himself. All he can really say is that he doesn’t like murder. He cannot say that murder wrong for all people.  If he wants to make an absolute moral claim, he needs some absolute authority to do so.  Maher has none.

Could he appeal to law? Do government authorities tell us what’s right and wrong? Was a German in 1941 therefore justified in murdering a Jew? Does he appeal to a majority? I don’t think he would want to appeal to a majority, since throughout human history, his views don’t even register on the demographic radar. Let’s not forget the impossibility of agreeing to what’s right and wrong across the human landscape.  Would he appeal to some flavor of god?  Maher proclaims himself an apatheist, so he does believe in a higher power, albeit an irrelevant one.  Maher will therefore get no help from his unknowable god, since said god does not speak, nor are the attributes of this god apparent to anyone except Maher himself.

All that said, as a Christian, I do maintain that Maher is worth some attention because, merited it or not, he’s getting lots of it. People will be talking about “Religulous,” and thoughtful Christians need to be able to engage with the threads of popular conversation. Furthermore, and just like The Da Vinci Code, it provides an opportunity for sharing the Truth in a sea of distortions and lies.

Finally, I cannot in good conscience write the above without stressing that Bill Maher is not my enemy. He, like me, is a sinner desperately in need of a great Savior. He is loved by God, and created in His image. Therefore, I love him as a brother in humanity. However, I cannot suffer lightly his behavior, which mocks the one who sustains us, and decries as silly or dangerous all that most of humanity holds dear.

Stay tuned for Part II: Maher’s “Jon Stewart” complex and the real danger.

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