Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Believe it or not


Religion examined in 'Oh My God?'

Hugh Jackman is a celebrity talking-head in Oh My God?
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"I'm not a militant atheist. I'm not a passionate, hard-core extremist atheist. I'm not an angry atheist. But I have been an atheist, and I've only lapsed when I've taken LSD." – Dale Launer, quoted in Peter Rodger's Oh My God?

A laid-back Hollywood screenwriter proudly extols his atheism in a film that is altogether too polite to far too many suspect cults and nutty belief systems. In Oh My God?, an elderly Hindu man recalls his mother handing him a knife with which to guard himself and the chastity of his young sister during the chaotic period when Muslim and Hindu mobs battled in the streets after the British partition of India. The man recounts how Muslim and Hindu neighbors who had co-existed peacefully for decades now sought each other's blood. It is moments like this when one prays that Peter Rodger, a chatty novice filmmaker who doubles as his own cameraman, will pluck up the courage to confront the religious demons unleashed by the collapse of both the British and the Soviet empires. Rodger prepares us for a good old theological donnybrook by including in his cast a prickly gaggle of mostly British celebrity non-believers like Sir Bob Geldof. Ultimately, his ability to conjure up a hypnotically arresting series of images of Third World peoples practicing their colorful rituals (warning: be advised that a goat is sacrificed at approximately 47 minutes into the film) distracts Rodger from taking sides, or carving out a coherent message.

Five minutes into the film, Rodger presents his lone "religious extremist," a traditionally attired Muslim man who drops in periodically, thumbing through a pocket Koran, delivering mini-fatwas such as the ominously specific injunction: "To kill a homosexual is a good action in the sight of God."

This queer-bashing dictum is then dropped without further explanation. Later Rodger attempts, through clever time-lapse editing to hoist this bozo on his own hateful interpretation of his sacred text, but the trick loses its impact when an LA-based Muslim authority proves too wishy-washy to defend a moderate form of the faith.

Rodger means to provide a multicultural counterweight to the prickly if mean-spirited faith-bashing polemics of Bill Maher's Religulous. While Maher was perhaps too quick to hold every God-based belief up to merciless if extremely entertaining ridicule, Rodger, without meaning to, gives us a modern tower of Babel, where competing faiths clash futilely like so many late-night TV sermons.

It is left to ex-Beatle Ringo Starr to offer what should have been a curtain-closing mantra, "God is Love." As I watched the closing credits, I felt that somewhere, whether up in the sky or the other place, some 1960s guru, Alan Watts or Allen Ginsberg, should be performing a celestial Ohmm.

For an engrossing cautionary tale supporting the need for belief, consult the director's cut of Richard Kelly's brilliant Donnie Darko, a fable about staving off the end of the world.

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