It’s everywhere: God, the Bible, sinners, commandments, the fires of judgement. The whole theological lot is currently centre-stage in pop culture, news media and university lecture halls across the nation. You can’t even escape religious discussion at the two-star-review end of the cinema.
And that (possibly lower down) is exactly where you find the new Jack Black comedy, Year One. I haven’t endured such a dense smog of sexual stereotypes, fart jokes and poo-eating since Year 8 sailing camp. But the film’s real subject matter is religion, ancient and modern and your need to be set free from it. Religion is not only ridiculous but also corrupt, and you must pursue your own destiny, whatever you think that might be. Jack Black is Zed, a primitive slacker who gets mistaken for the Chosen One via a series of unlikely coincidences and fabrications. He is booted out of his village for eating the forbidden fruit (“it has a kind of knowledge-y taste”) and, with his sidekick Oh (a nerdy ancient brainiac), encounters the brothers Cain and Abel and the patriarch Abraham before heading to the biblical city of Sodom.
The plot doesn’t really matter; it’s the film’s view on religion and human freedom that makes it worth talking about.
The film makes a few assumptions that I question. First, it assumes you know the stories recorded in the book of Genesis. You need to know that eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not on; you need to know who Cain and Abel are; you need to know that Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac; and you need to know that Sodom was a city full of wickedness.
How did you go? Since I have recently taught postgraduate students who were surprised to find the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, I’m not convinced that Australian audiences necessarily have even this degree of biblical literacy. I even recall Jewish friends asking me where they could find the story of Noah. Furthermore, the film only works if you don’t know too much of the actual Bible account, because it mangles every character and story in order to get the joke. It’s a playground parody of truly Abrahamic faith: Judaism, Christianity or, in fact, Islam.
The film’s second assumption is that you will find its ridiculing of religion funny. Some of it worked for me (being partial to a circumcision joke), but I would be supportive of the Jewish person who found the film’s treatment of Abraham insulting, degrading and belittling. It is hard to imagine a defence of this film in court: “Your Honour, the bit of the Bible about the foreskins, we all know that’s kind of stupid, don’t we? Besides, we cut out a lot of the bestiality jokes”.
There’s a lot to laugh about in religion. Christopher Hitchens does it in a more witty manner in his book God Is Not Great, but the method is the same: find a culturally weird element of a religion; talk about it without any explanation of context, history, meaning, cultural development or ethical dimension; get an easy laugh at the God-fearers and their ludicrous practices. It’s easy to crack jokes at circumcision, but much harder to work out what this practice was actually about.
One more assumption made in Year One deserves a closer look. The main characters are assumed to be on a journey of discovery—discovery of themselves, yes, in true individualistic fashion, but also discovery of true values and the spiritual reality behind the façade of organised religion. All the authority figures in the film are also figures of fun, and that is a standard contemporary stance. We never trust authority, whether it is religious or political. But being anti-authority still doesn’t equate, even at this popular level, with being anti-God.
Both Zed and Oh are still interested in the reality of God; they are by no means hardened atheists but ‘soft humanists’. They question God’s existence, but they pray nevertheless. This suggests to me that there’s still some real spiritual questing going on in the midst of the crude stupidity; in fact, I speculate that some of the crude stupidity is a kind of anxious reaction in those behind the film (and the audience they represent) to the very seriousness of the God question.
The whole approach to religion in Year One really is vulgar and unfair, but this is comedy so we don’t mind. And, because, we live in a society that is conditioned by the largely Christian-ish attitudes of tolerance, generosity, and the pursuit of peace, no-one gets a fatwa put on them. Just the awful condemnation of … two stars.
Greg Clarke is co-director of the Centre for Public Christianity This article originally appeared on The Punch