God Who Wasn't There, TheReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/11/05 13:34:10
You know how Christianity is one of the world’s most powerful religions, one that dictates the political policies of entire nations? And you know how millions of people have been persecuted or even killed in the name of Jesus Christ? And you know how entire corporations work overtime to appease the demands (and gain the spending money) of fundamentalist Christians? Well, um, hey. Funny story. Turns out this Jesus guy never actually existed. Huh.At least, that’s the argument posed by Brian Flemming in his destined-to-be-controversial documentary “The God Who Wasn’t There.” His film sets out to debunk the very basis of Christianity, and he doesn’t too shabby of a job, either.
Flemming gets his key arguments out of the way pretty early. The main issues at hand are the notions that the story of Jesus seems to have much in common with familiar myths, and that there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus to be found in historical writings. For the former, interviewees discuss how early Christians, in writing parables about a son of God, lifted popular hero themes, with the story of Jesus matching many points found in the legends of such characters as Hercules and Dionysus; also, the idea of Jesus as one brutally killed fits with fashionable themes of sacrifice. For the latter, Flemming’s research points out that no accounts written in the time of Jesus mention him at all; he doesn’t pop up at all until around 70 AD, and those accounts read as fairly allegorical.
The most important argument the film makes, however, comes as a question: why is it that in any other area of life, the burden of proof is on the one making the claim - but in faith, the burden of proof sits on the shoulders of the disbeliever? As one interviewee puts it, any time someone pops up to say they saw a UFO, they’re shouted down by rational thinkers demanding proof. But any time a neighbor, minister, or United States president stands up and starts talking about an invisible man in the sky, it’s considered in bad taste to ask him to kindly back things up.
Of course, at the very heart of religion is the purity of believing without proof. But what happens when proof starts to win out? Ah, that’s when the leaders learn to cover their tracks, be it with shaky comments (“the Bible is real because it says it’s real”), defense that relies on further faith (“other instances of messiah prophecy fulfillment before the time of Christ were created by the devil in a smart bit of pre-planned lie-making”), or, most effective of all, the ol’ sit-down-and-shut-up strike (“to deny the Holy Spirit is the only unforgivable sin”). “The greatest crime in fundamentalist Christianity,” Flemming tells us in his narration, “is to think.”
Pretty heavy stuff, yes? The problem here is that Flemming doesn’t go as in depth with his arguments as he should. For some reason, he cuts himself off early (the running time is a mere 62 minutes, and that’s including credits), when there’s obviously enough discussion material to keep him going for much longer - and with the opposing arguments such comments are bound to attract, the more ammunition Flemming can have at his side, the better. (The DVD of the film includes hours of extra commentary and interviews to help Flemming’s case - so why not include some of this information in the film itself?)
Even if Flemming were locked into that 62 minute running time, he could have placed this information in the unnecessary middle section, in which he sidetracks to discuss Christianity’s fixation on bloodshed, going so far as to display a minute-by-minute account of the violence seen in “The Passion of the Christ” (or as Flemming jokingly calls it, “The Smashin’ of the Christ”). It’s a fascinating topic - but here, with priorities being elsewhere in such a short presentation, it really belongs in another movie.
The same can be said with Flemming’s other sidetrack, which dares to ask why the Inquisition is looked down upon by modern Christians, considering how those kooky Spaniards were just going by what it says to do in the Bible. It’s too glossed over to fully work, although the point comes across enough: why believe in Jesus unless you’re willing to go whole hog with the religion? How can followers cherry pick their beliefs?
Ah, that’s the question that leads us to the real point of the movie. For “The God Who Wasn’t There” is, after all the snarky commentary and historical digging, nothing but an autobiography about Flemming’s crisis of faith. We learn that Flemming is a former born-again Christian who began to seriously doubt his beliefs once he was told not to bother looking too deeply into things. We’re taken back to Flemming’s old school, where he was taught rigid conformity and an overwhelming doctrine. He confronts his old schoolmaster with his doubts and with his issues with being so strict with the students - a conversation that becomes more involving on a personal level than on an intellectual one. His return to the school’s chapel manages to compress the entire film into a few short minutes: here’s a guy who’s angry with his past, and we get to watch him deal with it, frustration and all.
And that’s why Flemming’s movie is worth watching. The film is well researched, true, and there’s a heavy dose of wit that makes it all gleefully entertaining, yes, but this is more about a personal journey, and watching Flemming’s inner anger spill out is powerful stuff.
Finally, it should be noted that despite the nature of the film, and despite Fleming’s tendency to side with those agreeing with him (an obvious case in such a film, but it’s worth mentioning to those of you who might think this, being a documentary, comes without a bias), the movie is never condescending to Christians themselves. Flemming’s not ashamed to say that he found Scott Butcher, webmaster behind RaptureLetters.com (where believers can request an email to be sent to unbelieving loved ones after they get called up to heaven during the end times), to be a nice, warm, smart fellow, despite his looking and sounding silly. His man-on-the-street interviews, held before and after a Billy Graham crusade, are quite friendly. He’s not afraid to add comments from one Jesus-is-fiction believer that the guy still loves the religion anyway, because of all that’s good about it. Another filmmaker would’ve edited this stuff to make himself look better (and/or his opposition look worse), but Flemming wisely keeps it all there, showing us a more involving warts-and-all account of himself.So will “The God Who Wasn’t There” change any minds? Perhaps a few, but not more than that. Its arguments are too thin as seen here on their own, its presentation a bit too unfocused to hit as sharply as it could have, and, most of all, people are simply too stubborn to be bothered with viewpoints not agreeing with their own. But with luck, it will get people thinking, talking, arguing, and perhaps that is all Flemming really wants. If a religion so powerful demands that questions not be asked, the film suggests, maybe it’s for the best to ask away. And Flemming’s daring enough to get us started.
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