The God Who Wasn't There

**1/2

Reviewed by: Chris

For Wagner fans, by the time you sit through the several hours of opera comprising Gotterdammerung, you have had your spirits raised by the noble efforts of mankind and you probably don’t feel too upset that the ancient Norse gods get their come-uppance. Gotterdammerung, the ‘fall of gods’, creates an emotional intensity and compelling vision for Man. Such that, when the gods are shown to be peripheral, we might feel sadness at the loss of a dream, but also acceptance. They are no longer the “main players.”

It is exactly this type of ‘compelling vision’ that is lacking in the quite scientific and otherwise attractive diatribes by god-botherers such as Richard Dawkins or, in this case, main-man Sam Harris. Their principal focus is on demolishing the myth. Which might be all very noble, but about as effective as saying “fast-food is bad for you.”

The God Who Wasn’t There is something like a low-budget pilot for Religulous. But instead of attacking religion and superstition in its entirety, it focuses on the Jesus Christ of the New Testament. Its first and biggest mistake is not presenting a powerful, inspiring alternative to Christian dogma. A throwaway comment towards the end, regretting how the science of genetics is held back, is not quite enough.

Atheists might see it and nod their heads sagely. Will Christians go to see a film disproving their religion? The target audience seems very shaky. A six minute recap of the Jesus story told by playing old gospel-story movies speeded up is five minutes too long.

The second big mistake (and one that Religulous committed in spades) is treating Christianity as a bit of a joke. It might be harmful, it might be inaccurate, but if the harm caused by religion is as serious as the protagonists claim, it is hardly a joking matter. (Not to mention, it's needlessly offensive.)

With a serious subject, should we not expect some serious analysis? The God Who Wasn’t There does (accurately) go over the timelines and correspondences showing that a) there is no historical evidence for the man referred to in the Gospels as Jesus Christ and b) that the corroborating evidence suggests that accounts avowing he was an actual person are probably fabricated. In legal terms, we might say “on the balance of probabilities” rather than “beyond all reasonable doubt.” But a more mature approach would examine historians such as Gibbon and Burckhardt by name, and show beyond reasonable doubt how such myths come into being, using the standard diegetic tools found in the Jesus story of the New Testament.

Unfortunately director-writer Brian Flemming is a fundamentalist Christian turned atheist, not a scholar, although he does feature many respected scholars in the film. Consequently his enthusiasm often outstrips his ablities. Relying on a contestable translation of a passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews for instance ­– rather than looking at it in its original language – is sloppy. An episode of Dispatches or even Panorama would have done better. The strongest section of The God Who Wasn’t There is perhaps a tentative analysis of what might be termed Christian ‘blood-lust.’ It looks at the various portrayals of Jesus Christ in cinema and produces some convincing statistics showing how Mel Gibson’s blood-and torture -filled Passion Of The Christ is by far and away the most popular Jesus film to date.

The historicity and lack of historicity surrounding the Jesus Christ of the New Testament is undoubtedly worthy of serious study and investigative journalism – at least on an individual basis, by any responsible citizen. But hectoring, fun-filled films such as this are little more than blunt stabs in the air. They have neither the wit of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian nor the depth required for effective documentary, however well-meaning. Something requiring the gravity of An Inconvenient Truth has been dished up with as much aplomb as a medley of moans over an unwanted Xmas present.

Non-documentary, such as Gotterdammerung and Pullman’s (excellent) The Golden Compass, can use many life-affirming examples that would have to be brought to light differently with documentary, and possibly come closer to the bone when comparing truth and myth. Yet perhaps Flemming should be congratulated for his courage. The opposition such films gather from religious zealots is considerable. Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman were sent death threats over their parts in the Golden Compass. Bill Maher, director of Religulous, received a death threat shortly after his movie opened. Both Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins receive death threats over their work. Flemming might not have produced the most intelligent critique of the Jesus Christ story, but his moral courage is not lacking.

Reviewed on: 17 Oct 2012
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A documentary challenging the historicity of Jesus Christ.
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Director: Brian Flemming

Writer: Brian Flemming

Starring: Brian Flemming, Sam Harris

Year: 2005

Runtime: 62 minutes

Country: US

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