Jul 10, 2009

Movie Review: Marjoe (1972)

Marjoe is the best documentary film about evangelical religion that you have probably never heard of. I don’t recall exactly how I came across it–but somehow it found its way into my Netflix queue, languished at the bottom for months, and finally made it to my mailbox and DVD player. And what a wonderful, unexpected treasure it was.

The subject of the film, is one Marjoe Gortner–what kind of name is “Marjoe” anyway, you are asking? Why, it is a portmanteau of the names Mary and Joseph! If that gives you a feeling for what his parents must have been like, wait till you see them in the film. For Marjoe was groomed very early on by his devout family to be a child preacher. As the beginning of the film documents, this sort of thing was wildly popular decades ago in the South (and if you’ve seen Jesus Camp, you’ll know the tradition of having children “minister” is still alive). The old footage of a red-haired child shouting from a pulpit is at once a comical and disturbing sight. But the point of the film is not about Marjoe the child, but about the expose he’d create during his adult life.

As he grew older, Marjoe luckily came to reject the religious beliefs that were instilled in him, though he continued to preach as a way to earn a living. Once his conscience began to bother him about the way he and the others of his profession so easily fleeced the gullible, he came up with the act of contrition that is this film: he invited a crew to go “on tour” with him and document the tricks of the trade – not only those he used, but those of his unknowing fellow preachers. As you might imagine, the results can be rather hilarious, in the same way that Sacha Baron Cohen’s films are, since the behaviors captured on celluloid are genuine.

My favorite scene involved a conversation with another minister and his family. They all somehow find themselves discussing the possibility that a charlatan might parade as a preacher with no intent other than to defraud the sheep, but conclude that they’d rather easily be able to spot such a fake. I wondered if they ever saw the film and realized just how badly they got owned?

won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1972. Apparently it did not have a widespread distribution at the time, especially in the American South, where there were concerns that it would spark outrage. Yes, it would, and it still would, I’d venture. I’ll hold out hope that eventually, our public schools will provide an objective Survey of Religion curriculum and that this film will be part of it. Probably not in my lifetime, though.

Jul 3, 2009

Book Review: The Trouble with Islam Today

A few days ago, while in the grocery store checkout line, I found myself scanning the rack of idiot magazines and tabloids. Between the obligatory images of Angelina and the preternaturally beaming Rachel Ray, I saw this headline on the National Examiner’s cover: “Obama’s Top-Secret Meetings With Muslims: His Shocking Pact With The Enemy.”

This is moronic at several levels. What bothered me the most was not that some portion of the population might seriously believe President Obama to be involved in such a conspiracy, but rather, that their worldviews are so simplistic that they categorically see Muslims as “enemies” of the United States. And what’s more, I reckoned, the majority of such people are almost certainly a subset of those that assert “America is a Christian Nation.” I thought of that embarrassment to my home state of Minnesota, the unnamed woman at a John McCain town hall meeting from October of 2008, that suggested that Obama was “… an Arab!”

These instances are bona fide examples of what has been termed “Islamaphobia.” I’ve seen it firsthand, too, in the form a devout Catholic, conservative coworker of mine, that often voices a concern that will we all one day be forced to “wear a diaper on our head and bow to the east.”

It behooves us nontheists, then, when we take the occasion to put Islam in our sights, to do so with the clarity, even-handedness, and care that these fundamentalist Christians eschew. Pointing out that Islam, as a set of beliefs, is chock full of absurdities and dangerous notions is certainly not a form of prejudice. Just because some bigots continue to paint a huge swath of humanity with a very broad brush should not prevent us from denouncing the irrationalities and consequences of believing in nonsense, regardless of what corner of the globe the nonsense comes from.

In the way of offering an outstanding example of a blistering and fair attack on Islam that is not “Islamaphobic”, I recommend one that comes from a practitioner of the same faith: Irshad Manji. Her critique is in a book called The Trouble With Islam Today.

Manji calls herself a Muslim “Refusenik”: an openly lesbian, feminist, progressive Muslim whose religious views are so far removed from mainstream Islam that it is difficult, for me at least, to consider her an adherent to the same core Muslim faith. Her book is as fiercely critical of the problems with Islam as is Sam Harris’ The End of Faith. Where it differs is that, by mounting her assault on fundamentalism from within the tradition (as a Muslim championing change, as opposed to a non-Muslim calling for it), she is more likely to gain an audience among those that most need to hear the message. And this is nothing to sneeze at.

The book begins in the form of an open letter to all Muslims: a shockingly candid letter that has probably earned her a few death threats. “Islam is on very thin ice with me,” she begins, and then goes on to identify the unique features and problems endemic to the faith she was raised in: “The trouble with Islam today is that literalism is going mainstream, worldwide.” She even acknowledges that fact about the genealogical paths of belief that many others won’t admit: “Most of us Muslims aren’t Muslims because we think about it, but rather because we’re born that way.”

Manji looks at a number of issues with important ramifications: The preponderance of fundamentalism, tribalism, the mistreatment of women (”Those who wish to flog women on the flimsiest of charges can get the necessary backup from the Koran”), terror (”Being self-critical means coming clean about the nasty side of the Koran, and how it informs terrorism”), and the tension with the west (”We can’t pin our basest ills on America. The cancer begins with us.”) And while some of the book is aimed at Muslims, imploring them to take a very hard look at what they believe and how they behave, she is refreshing in her advocacy that Islam should be put under the microscope by the rest of us:

Note to non-Muslims: Dare to ruin the romance of the moment. Open societies remain open because people take the risk of asking questions–out loud. Questions like, “Why is it so easy to draw thousands of Muslims into the streets to denounce France’s ban on the hajib, but impossible to draw even a fraction of those demonstrators into the streets to protest Saudi Arabia’s imposition of the hijab? … Non-Muslims do the world no favors by pushing the moral mute button as soon as Muslims start speaking. Dare to ruin the moment.

It goes without saying that, as I am an atheist, I still regard the watered-down Islam that Manji practices to have features just as much at odds with reality as those in other, more traditional religions. But while progressive theists like her have worldviews dissimilar from our naturalistic one, they share with us much common ground, in that they too seek a world free of theocracy, religious intolerance, and fundamentalism. They are some of the best friends that the non-religious have. The Trouble With Islam Today is a good example of pushing for change from within–change that could lead to a more secular, humane, and peaceful version of a what is still a very immature religion. Will that ever happen with Islam? I’ve no idea, but I welcome Manji’s attempt to make it happen. As much as many of us would like to see religious belief simply jettisoned altogether, it isn’t realistic to expect that to happen anytime soon. I’ll gladly accept believers moving to a more progressive, liberal kind of religion as a second choice.