For those who believe Jesus actually walked this earth, the new documentary "The God Who Wasn't There" won't sit well.
Filmmaker Brian Flemming (Beyond Belief Media)
Filmmaker—and former Christian—Brian Flemming spends 62 minutes mimicking Michael Moore in an effort to show how Christianity was founded on a lie and continues to harm souls, including his own.
"Christianity was wrong about the solar system," says Flemming as narrator. "What if it's wrong about something else too?"
Flemming interviews ordinary Christians (attendees at a 2004 Billy Graham Crusade) as well as authors like Jesus Seminar fellow Robert M. Price and folklorist Alan Dundes, the latter of whom wrote Holy Writ as Oral Lit: The Bible as Folklore.
For more dramatic effect, he includes Scott Butcher, who runs RaptureLetters.com, and Ronald Sipus, the superintendent of Village Christian Schools in Sun Valley, Calif., where Flemming was "was born again at least three times, I think."
Flemming confronts Sipus and wants to argue about distinctions between reason and faith. Their conversation doesn't end well, but that's not surprising.
Flemming employs sarcasm throughout the film, relying on oversimplification for cheap laughs. His six-minute nutshell of Christianity—told a la Michael Moore and using clips from old biblical movies—is sort of amusing, but many Christians will find it irreverent and profane.
He ventures into choppy theological waters, armed with a lifejacket when he really needs a lifeboat. His central concern is what he portrays as a problematic gap between the life of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels. He puts Apostle Paul in that gap, then asserts that the New Testament writer "doesn't know any of what we would call the story of Jesus" except for his death, resurrection and ascension.
Flemming concludes that "Paul doesn't believe that Jesus was ever a human being. He's not even aware of the idea." For Flemming, Paul's Jesus existed in allegorical terms, and this is why contemporary church leaders don't discuss early church history—something Flemming "illustrates" by showing the virtual ignorance on the topic among his Christian interviewees.
Flemming hammers the link between violence and Christianity, and Exhibit A in his argument is—wait for it—"The Passion of the Christ." He also drags up that nasty Inquisition. But here is precisely where Flemming's argument is the most provocative.
For Flemming, the Inquisition wasn't a perversion of the Christian faith, but an expression of it. The same goes for Bailey Smith saying God does not hear the prayers of a Jew.
"Moderate Christianity makes no sense," argues Flemming, suggesting that the Bible really allows for no tempered approach. "Is it no wonder that so many people choose the Christian leaders who actually have the courage of their convictions?"
What's troubling, however, is that Flemming doesn't allow for the possibility that some Christians actually see and even appreciate the gray areas of life and thought. Newsflash for Flemming: Some Christians appreciate intellectual, philosophical and theological nuance. This appreciation is something Flemming presumably holds, but he himself demonstrates very little higher-order thinking.
Instead, he uses the few to represent the whole—e.g., book-burning Christians get to stand in for all the rest—so this filmed editorial can pack more punch.
Consider that as he's emphasizing the religion-violence link in Christianity, he quotes Jesus as saying in Luke 19:27, "But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me."
Yes, the text indicates that Jesus said those words—as part of the parable of the Ten Minas. Jesus ascribes the quote to the king in the parable.
Which is worse: willful misrepresentation or incredibly sloppy research? Either way, it's hard to attach much credibility to the filmmaker, even if he makes a few valid points along the way.
Swapping reliability for entertainment has never been and never will be a path to greater illumination … even if you, like Flemming, question the very nature of what lies on the other side.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Not rated. Reviewer's Note: The ideas are the only thing people would find offensive.
Director: Brian Flemming
Writer: Brian Flemming
Cast: Richard Carrier; Alan Dundes; Sam Harris; Robert M. Price.
The movie's official Web site is here.