Today’s cinema adventure: The God Who Wasn’t There, a 2005 documentary by Brian Flemming, which examines fundamentalist Christian beliefs in contrast against the historical facts around the origin of the religion and explores the impact of such beliefs in a modern social and political environment. Controversial by its very nature, the film makes no pretense of objectivity, presenting its case with a heavy tone of bemused irony and using duplicitous confrontational tactics to elicit responses from interviewees, and ultimately representing the filmmaker’s personal attempt to repudiate, once and for all, his own past as a fundamentalist Christian and take a stand against the supposed moral authority that dominated his former life. More in the nature of propaganda than documentary, it’s a film that nevertheless succeeds in making its point with verifiable and persuasive facts, and, perhaps more importantly, does so in a highly entertaining manner.
The man behind the camera (and occasionally in front of it) is no stranger to controversy over his work; his previous film, Nothing So Strange, sparked outrage over its depiction of a fictitious assassination of Bill Gates, presented in “mockumentary” style. This time around, he fueled the fires already swirling about his film with various marketing and publicity ploys, including an internet contest offering free DVDs of the movie for the first 1001 people to submit a video in which they blaspheme themselves by denying the existence of the Holy Spirit. Needless to say, the filmmaker exhibits a fondness for deliberate incitement that finds its way into The God Who Wasn’t There.
Flemming structures his film into two distinct parts. In the first half, he looks at the difference between the commonly held ideas surrounding the early days of the Christian faith and the factual information in the historical record, making the case that the commonly accepted story of Jesus is a myth, deliberately created by the founders of the church and understood as such by both them and their early followers; he goes so far as to suggest that Jesus never existed as a real person, and that literal interpretation of his life story as presented in the Bible and the surrounding traditions is in direct opposition not only to historical evidence, but even to the writings of early Christians such as the apostle Paul. In the second part of the film, he explores the effect of fundamentalist beliefs in modern society, including the idea of “The Rapture,” and culminates with a visit to the principal of the private Christian elementary school he attended as a child, examining the doctrine that the one unforgiveable sin is to disbelieve the existence of the Holy Spirit- and drawing his conclusion that the greatest blasphemy of all, in the eyes of the Christian church, is to think.
Despite its title, Flemming’s film does not directly address the existence or non-existence of God, per se; his purpose is a temporal one, namely to expose the fallacies and contradictions at the core of modern Christianity and illustrate how a belief in these outdated and misinterpreted ideas affects life in a contemporary world- not just life for the believers, but for everyone else in a society largely influenced by their prejudices and moral agendas. To say that his premise is contentious is an understatement; but it’s certainly nothing new. The ideas he presents in his analysis of the supposed life of Jesus and its basis in literal historical fact are familiar to anyone who has ever examined the faith from the perspective of comparative mythology, and there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of books devoted to the subject- indeed, the authors of some of these books are among the experts Flemming interviews in his movie. As for the portrayal of fundamentalist Christians and their relationship to the larger culture, the basic conflict between religious dogma and reasonable political policy has been a subject of debate ever since the dawn of the Age of Reason- a fact clearly reflected by the long-standing democratic doctrine mandating the separation of church and state. The God Who Wasn’t There is not a groundbreaking source of new information or world-changing ideas; rather, it is a presentation of well-documented, oft-repeated facts, heavily flavored with flippant cynicism born of the necessity for addressing the issue yet again in a modern, supposedly enlightened world.
It is, in fact, this snarky tone that makes Flemming’s movie enjoyable. In illustrating his points, he finds amusing and pointed ways to emphasize the enormous gap between contemporary reason and the antiquated notions of fundamentalist religious beliefs. From his opening narration detailing the centuries-long dispute between science and faith regarding the revolution of the earth around the sun (or vice-versa, as the church would have kept it), to his heavy utilization of excerpts from The Passion Play (an early, stodgy French silent about the life of Jesus) and The Living Bible (a creaky “educational” film from the 1950s), he makes it clear that- in his estimation, anyway- the fiercely held tenets of Christianity are seriously out-of-step with the intellectual standards demanded by life in the present day; and through his use of interviews with hardcore believers in the faith, he underscores his observation that the majority of modern fundamentalists are not only misinformed and ignorant of the true history of their religion, they are in fact defiantly uninterested in learning anything about it. Their alliance to faith is so deeply ingrained, they exhibit skepticism and mistrust towards empirical knowledge rather than entertain any ideas which might lead them to question their beliefs. It would be easy to accuse Flemming of painting Christians as uneducated and delusional, were it not that some of the experts he brings to the discussion profess their own belief in a more enlightened interpretation of the faith- though it’s also worth noting that, in one sequence, the filmmaker points out that the idea of “moderate” Christianity, taken from the standpoint of strict adherence to Biblical teachings, is in fact not Christianity at all.
The God Who Wasn’t There features a number of sequences that are both entertaining and alarming, but one in particular stands out. Roughly midway through the film’s short running time, serving as a sort of segue from the mythological analysis into the more direct examination of the modern church, Flemming looks at the connection between Christianity and the earlier, blood-sacrificing religions that marked the culture in which it sprang up. There are obvious correlations in these ancient mythologies to the Christian idea of a man being brutally, ritualistically murdered in order to redeem the sins of everyone else; but Flemming points out how this obsession with bloodshed seems to persist within Christian consciousness even today, centuries beyond these primitive, paganistic origins. To illustrate this, he looks at the popularity of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, by far the most financially successful movie ever made about Jesus; using clips from the film, edited together for maximum effect, he focuses attention on the excessive amount of highly explicit blood and gore used by Gibson, creating a scene-by-scene gore analysis showing that only a small percentage of the running time is actually blood-free, and pointing out that such an overwhelming use of graphic violence is the result of a calculated, deliberate effort on the part of the director- and one which, clearly, paid off, tapping sufficiently into something deep within the Christian community that made them come to see his movie in droves. Gibson, it’s worth mentioning, tried unsuccessfully to bring legal action against Flemming. Apparently, the free publicity for his movie was not enough to make him comfortable with the implication that his pious epic was motivated by exploitative greed.
It probably goes without saying that Flemming’s movie is designed to provoke controversy and stimulate discussion about its subject matter. It is also no surprise that the issues it deals with are so emotionally volatile; the challenge of maintaining religious faith in the face of ever-increasing scientific knowledge has never been easy, and it grows more difficult every day in our world of stem-cell research and Higgs-Boson particles. The fact is, however, that The God Who Wasn’t There, like the numerous other contemporary films which challenge dogmatic religious beliefs, is not likely to be seen by many of the viewers at which it is optimistically aimed; and even if it were, those for whom fundamental belief is a cornerstone of daily life are not prone to being swayed by any amount of factual information, an observation made abundantly clear by Flemming in the film itself. As a result, his movie can be characterized as the proverbial “preaching to the choir,” in the sense that most of his audience will already be sympathetic, if not pre-acquainted, with the concepts he presents. Nevertheless, it’s a fun presentation to sit through, if you’re comfortable with using intellect in the realm of spirituality- his use of graphics in illustrating his research is eye-catchingly flashy and clever, and his musical accompaniment (executed by himself, under the pseudonym “DJ Madson”) is appropriately hip and contemporary, at least by 2005 standards. It’s also possible that there is an audience, situated in the middle-ground of this question, who may benefit from Flemming’s work here; those who are on the brink, indoctrinated by years in a church-centric environment who nevertheless have questions and doubts- in short, people who are like he once was, himself. For them, watching The God Who Wasn’t There might be an eye-opening, life-altering experience, one which has the potential to make a difference in the way they see the world and, by extension, the way they affect it. After all, the social and political issues examined here have grown even more pertinent over the seven years since the movie was made; the conflict between fundamentalist thinking and social progressivism has never been more pronounced- or more imperative- in recent memory. I, for one, hope there are those who are drawn to Flemming’s movie by curiosity and find that it helps them choose, finally, to come over the fence on which they have been sitting for so long.