Running Time: 75 minutes.
Rated: Rated PG.
Andrew Denton has made a name for himself with his ABC chat show, Enough Rope. He has a habit of disarming some of his interviewees, and exacting from them a level of truthfulness that is refreshing and informative.
In this feature length documentary, Denton takes a camera, his wit and sharp mind to the 63rd National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Dallas, Texas. For the camera there is not much to see, so the film ends up a series of talking heads. For his wit there is a good amount to be amused by, or to laugh at. For his mind there are big questions with which to grapple about religious truth, knowledge and certainty.
It is easy to poke fun at fundamentalist Christian believers in the USA. From televangelists, Christian rappers and stand up comics for Christ, to slick musicians belting out praise choruses, Denton finds what he goes looking for: the weird and wacky believer with seemingly unshakeable faith.
The problem with this film is that, at least for those who of us who belong to other branches of the Christian tree, it does not cover any new ground or offer any new insights. Maybe this is because we are been more attentive to the growing profile of bible Christians over recent decades. I doubt that, however, because this group have received a lot of attention since they helped Ronald Reagan into the White House.
So Denton traipses off for a weekend in Dallas to find out what we know: these believers are sincere, anti-intellectual, socially very conservative and aware of their political clout in George Bush's America. Their faith is individualistic, based on a literal reading of the Bible and reinforced by personal religious experiences. Unlike Jesus in the Gospels, their evangelical theology has next to no social dimension to it, engaging with the poor and outcast of the world primarily to save their souls. They never talk about development, justice and peace. Their focus on the Last Days seems to be about control through fear, rather than the freedom from fear of which St Paul argued so passionately as a pre-eminent sign of faith in Christ, who also said we would "not know the time nor the hour when the Son of Man will come again in glory'.
What remains insulting is how these believers equate Christ's kingdom with their nation, and its middle class comfort. It is not new for a group of Christians to assert that they are the specially chosen people, anointed by God to lead the rest of us to salvation. The problem is it is irreconcilable the more universal claims of the New Testament. And we are left wondering how God ever got along without middle class USA.
Denton does a good job in highlighting the potentially circular nature of religious belief: we have experienced the Word of God to be the Word of God because it is the Word of God.
What he does not or cannot do is conclude is that these devout Christians are encountering less of the Word itself, but, more, their faith in the Word as it is filtered through their history, culture, time and place. This is true of all of us.
This distinction matters, because it is the basis upon which Vatican II opened up for us dialogues with all the world's great faiths. It recognizes that God works with all his children revealing to them saving truths through their history, culture, time and place.
The great problem for religious faith is when it is ceases to be faith, and becomes certainty. God On My Side profiles the dangers of a style of faith in which doubt and cautious assertion are considered sins.
For all of our problems and issues, I left this film cherishing our Catholic expression of the faith more than ever. It may do the same for you.
Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.