StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Thoughts on Faith and RELIGULOUS

Posted in Film, Religion, Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on October 21, 2008

We saw Religulous last night at BAM Rose Cinema. I can only raise my shoulders and say, “Eh…so-so.”

I appreciate how Bill Maher provided stark evidence for how the story of Jesus’ life is not an original story; in fact, many b.c. myths in the Mediterranean region told similar and often the exact same tales about a virgin birth, a water-walker, an execution, and a resurrection with three female witnesses.

I like how Maher took many of our elected officials (like John McCain) to task for claiming that the founding fathers were Christians when, in fact, they were Enlightenment Deists, many of whom openly abhorred Christianity.

I appreciate Bill Maher’s debunking of gay conversions.

He wasn’t afraid to expose the messages of violence, intolerance, and hatred in the Bible and the Koran.

He wasn’t afraid to abjure certain Muslims who proclaim Islam a religion of peace and love while, at the same time, advocating genocide and Jihad. (This is particularly ballsy when you consider the fates of Salman Rushdie, who narrowly escaped death for denouncing the Koran in The Satanic Verses, and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, whose throat was cut in Amsterdam, almost to the point of decapitation, for releasing a ten-minute movie called Submission, which depicted violence against women in Islamic communities.)

But most of the time, Bill Maher came off as a cocky bastard, cornering even well-meaning, average Joe members of various religious faiths with gotcha questions. In the past, I have enjoyed his comedy. I agree with many of his political views, though I’m far more on the Democratic than Libertarian side of the leftist spectrum. I have no problem with him being a staunch atheist/agnostic. But, in his iconoclasm, he’s just as dogmatic as many of the people he condemns.

Religious intrusions into government are despicable. Scam-artist preachers deserve full exposure and, in many cases, prison. Rabbis who side with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are meshuga turncoats. Gay conversions: well, let’s just say I busted out my pompoms the day that call-boy called out Ted Haggard for their crystal-meth booty calls and I’ll be the first one to upload videos on Youtube when we find Fred Phelps in a leather bar.

But why should Maher go out of his way to condemn ordinary people who have a deep, abiding sense of spirituality and who find solace in their religions? Why does he have to bully them? He even claims that they’re enabling the destruction of civilization simply for having found spiritual outlets.

Interestingly, he did not seem to come down so hard on the Catholics – the faith in which he was raised, though his mother is Jewish. He spoke to two priests. One was an astronomer who flatly refuted the doctrine of creationism and fundamentalist approaches to the Bible. This priest was Maher’s ally in this regard and they seemed quite chummy. But I sense that Maher would not have found it so easy to stump that learned clergyman with his trademark smirk and touche line of inquiry in the same way he did with the hayseeds, rubes and moron senator in the Deep South. Maybe that’s why he didn’t try. The other priest was a grizzled Good Time Charlie who chuckled with Maher over how loony Catholics can get, treating saints like polytheistic gods, and how an impecunious itinerant like Jesus wouldn’t have established the Vatican of all places.

If he wanted to bust out the Roman Catholic church, he could have found plenty of opportunities. The plethoric scandals surrounding pedophile priests, for example, were left untouched.

As a Buddhist, I wondered what my favorite Buddhist teachers would have to say about Maher’s peacocking bravado. It was then that I went back to the book Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by the wondrous Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg whom I saw lecture for the second time at The Interdependence Project last week. Here is her passage on skillful doubt:

In order to deepen our faith, we have to be able to try things out, to wonder, to doubt. In fact, faith is strengthened by doubt when doubt is a sincere, critical questioning combined with deep trust in our own right and ability to discern the truth. In Buddhism, this kind of questioning is known as skillful doubt. For doubt to be skillful we have to be close enough to an issue to care about it, yet open enough to let questioning come alive.

In the following paragraphs, she speaks directly to the kind of unskillful doubt that Bill Maher manifested in his treatment of the faithful in Religulous:

Unlike skillful doubt, which brings us closer to exploring the truth, unskillful doubt pulls us farther away…this kind of “walk away” doubt manifests as cynicism. Cynicism is actually a self-protective mechanism. A cynical stance allows us to feel smart and unthreatened without really being involved. We can look sophisticated, and we can remain safe, aloof, and at a distance. Maybe we are frightened and hold ourselves apart from life in order to comment on it, rather than grapple with difficult questions…We feel impervious and confident, knowing that we’re not gullible, we’re not going to be swayed…

The tendency to fixate on big, unanswerable questions – “Is there a God?” “How does karma work?” “Was there a beginning to the Universe? was characterized as “a desert, a jungle, a puppet show, the writhing entanglement of speculation” by the Buddha. Our obsessions with such questions would lead only to personal resentments and sorrow, not to wisdom or peace, he said. When feverish disputes on such issues rose up around him, instead of joining in and offering a theoretical answer, he urged everyone to find answers for themselves, in a way that would help them resolve the suffering in their lives. To arrive at that resolution of suffering is the point of skillful doubt.

I saw some informed perspectives in Religulous, but mostly rude, unskillful doubt.

And I don’t want his hectoring ass coming in my room, asking me why I’m on my meditation cushion. It’s none of his goddamn business.

(Note: documentaries that do far better jobs of revealing the disastrous effects of fundamentalism and orthodoxy: Trembling Before G-d, Jesus Camp, Hell House, and Jihad for Love.)

Derek Jarman, 85A, and Jihad

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on May 29, 2008

Derek Jarman

Hey, everyone. Did you see the arts section of Sunday’s New York Times? There’s a big piece on the life of filmmaker Derek Jarman called “Gay, Punk and Ever the Provocateur.” The reporter laments that, despite his prolificness and genius, Jarman never quite became a household name. I have to admit, I didn’t know who he was either until the reporter ran down his list of films – Sebastiane (1976), Jubilee (1977), The Angelic Conversation (1985),The Garden (1990), Edward II (1991), and Wittingstein (1993) – and I realized I’d seen all of them.

Sebastiane Cover

My partner Julius loves Sebastiane and owns the DVD, but, to me, it seems like an excuse for cockshots and lurid, homoerotic reinterpretations of religious motifs – plus, that pig scene, ugh! – just like his portrayal of a gay Jesus in The Garden. See that cover up there? And that’s just the foreplay!


But Jubilee and Edward II were a gold standard for both punk and queer cinema. Jarman sure got in on the ground floor of punk with Jubilee. Can’t wait to see Isaac Julien’s documentary on Jarman called Derek, which premiered at Sundance in January and will be at MOMA from June 9 to June 16. It covers Jarman’s life from the 1940’s until his death from AIDS complications in 1994.

Speaking of Gay Punk Iconoclasts, I have been laboring over a new piece called “85A.” Set in Chicago after George H.W. Bush’s inauguration in 1989, it explores the mind of a Johnny Rotten-obsessed 15-year-old from a racist home and neighborhood, who is flunking out of Catholic school, dreams of moving to England, has a black-punk paramour-mentor named Tressa, and has an affair with his therapist Dr. Strykeroth, whom his parents sent him to, largely to correct his gay leanings. If the story keeps unraveling the way it has been, I’m going to be strangled by my own plot twists. But, hey, it beats the hell out of writer’s block!

Julius and I went to see A Jihad for Love at IFC on Sunday. Man alive, Catholic guilt’s got nothing on this! Kind of like in Trembling Before G-d, which portrayed the struggle of gays in the Orthodox Jewish community, almost all those filmed in Jihad had their faces blurred. Some openly condemned themselves for the very condition that they wished for members of their faith community to accept. Then the film shows the inside of the prison where the 52 men busted for sodomy in Egypt (really, most of them had only been at a gay party on a Nile liner) in 2001 were sentenced to three additional years in prison after having already¬† served a one-year sentence. The courts shrouded each convict in white hoods like Klansmen – it was enough to give you nightmares. They interviewed one guy who managed to escape his sentence and flee to Paris, where the French government granted him refugee status. They never said how he broke out, though. Julius suspects there was some sort of bribery involved that the filmmaker could not mention without someone back in Egypt getting killed. That being said, it was informative, brave, heartrending and well worth the trip to the Village.