Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Bill Maher’s Kind of Poison

On a recent trip, at the end of a long day, I dragged myself to a hotel room and sprawled out on the bed to unwind. Heh heh. Unwind? I made the mistake of turning on the TV, where the first thing I encountered was Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” with his sneering sarcarsm fully on display. I admit, I’m not a regular viewer (strange as it seems, we don’t get HBO) and I didn’t watch this episode for long. Frankly, I can’t stomach much from Maher.

Maybe he’s like Don Rickles; his TV persona is all spewing and venom, while in normal life he’s a decent guy. I hope so. All I know is that he appears to take a particularly cruel pleasure at launching invective at people he thinks are idiots, or are corrupt, or both.

I know HBO is supposed to be edgy and all that. I just don’t understand the popularity of Maher’s brand of “hip, incisive commentary.” Am I just not getting it? Does he want us to take him seriously? How does one laugh at his attacks, even if they include witty oneliners? Maybe my sense of humor is underdeveloped, but I swear, I don’t get the attraction. He was plain mean to the guests who tried not to agree with him, even to offer a challenge to his tirade. The “conversation” seemed a bit like shooting fish in a barrel.

Which brings me to my point. Bill Maher strikes me as a tragic indicator of American popular culture, which has become pervasively poisonous. The line between serious, if pointed, critique and downright character assassination has been badly breached. If this is really what we like to watch, then we as a society are slowing eat out our own souls.

There are several ironies for me in this scenario. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (may he rest in peace) were and are regularly excoriated for their judgmental hyperbole. They both have said some pretty inexcusable things on national TV. I can say without a shred of doubt, however, that there is no one more hateful than Bill Maher, unless, of course, there is someone worse, admidst the gazillion cable and satellite stations available to people willing to pay. He is unequaled in setting the standard for hate speech on television. It doesn’t seem to bother people much. And that’s what worries me.

We’d better start paying attention. May Bill Maher’s schtick shrivel and die for lack of viewers.

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March 21, 2008 Posted by | Pop Culture | 1 Comment

Are You a Literalist or a…?

When researchers are trying to explain the factions among Christians, they often use views on the Bible as a way of finding the faultlines. Some people take the Bible “literally,” others symbolically.

“Literalists” and (I don’t know of one word, so I’ll make one) “metaphorists” usually don’t travel in the same circles. In my experience, the literalists proudly tout their literalism (although, having heard sermons from preachers in this camp, I know that they often interpret the Bible quite symbolically) while the metaphorists vociferously insist that they are NOT like the literalists.

I refuse to issue a “pox on both your houses” because I think it is too easy – even cowardly – to run to the middle and say “I’m a moderate” just for the sake of position. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll position myself. I found help in Scot McKnight’s fascinating “Hermeneutical Personality Test” in the Winter 2008″Leadership” Magazine. I discovered that I’m on the conservative side of moderate. So now you know. I’m a moderate – sort of.

What are you? Does it matter? I think it does and I think we could stand for a little more literal interpretation, especially these days. I think so because the mood of our culture has swung far to the metaphorical side, with serious consequences. The trend in attitudes toward the Bible (especially among younger people) is not toward violent literalism, but toward empty symbolism. “The Bible can say pretty much whatever you want it to say,” is an increasingly prevalent attitude.

We need to quit talking so much about the dangers of a literalist interpretation of the Bible (forget the fracus over Genesis and evolution) and we ought to start considering the dangers of an overly symbolic, metaphorical reading. The pendulum is swinging the other way and we ought to pay attention.

March 3, 2008 Posted by | Bible | Leave a comment