Brian Flemming is looking forward to Tuesday’s KC screening of his controversial film “The God Who Wasn’t There.” He never quite knows what kind of situation he’s going to walk into.
“In San Francisco the screening was promoted by local atheists, and that’s who we got,” Flemming said in a phone conversation from Los Angeles.
“In Louisville it was promoted via the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which provided participants for the panel discussion that followed the film. The network among fundamentalists is strong, and so a lot of them turned out to see the dean of the seminary kick my butt.”
“It didn’t happen.”
Borrowing the satiric techniques employed by Michael Moore in documentaries like “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Flemming has made an hourlong film arguing that Jesus Christ never existed. It screens at 7:30 tonight at the Tivoli Manor Square theater in an event sponsored by the local chapter of Open Circle.
Flemming’s argument — which has been around for more than a century — centers on the nearly 40 years between Jesus’ death and the writing of the first Gospel accounts of his life. The voice of the early church was St. Paul, who in his epistles to Christian congregations around the Roman world wrote about theology and proper lifestyles, but not at all about the life of Jesus here on Earth.
That suggests to Flemming, 39, that Paul had no knowledge of Jesus’ life and that Bible stories of that life were created retroactively to support the theology.
Moreover, Flemming argues, the qualities attributed to Jesus — miracle working, death and resurrection — were common to dozens of gods worshipped during that era.
“To a certain degree I’ve made a comedy about Jesus,” said Flemming, who grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley and attended a fundamentalist Christian school. “Once the film became about my own experiences with religion, my own personality crept into it. Things I find funny or upsetting about Christianity began coming out.
“It was a natural outgrowth of making a very personal movie entirely on my own. I had no financial backing, nobody making demands. This is where digital technology is taking filmmaking. You can make a personal film without a committee. You’re as free to express yourself as is someone writing a book.”
One of the film’s targets is “The Passion of the Christ.” Flemming’s movie uses unauthorized clips from “Passion” to enumerate the film’s many acts of sadism.
So far “Passion” director Mel Gibson’s lawyers haven’t bothered him, Flemming said, “because they know they’d lose. The courts have ruled that it’s OK to sample other people’s work if the purpose is to comment, criticize or satirize. And that’s what I’m doing.”
Flemming said his parents are “typical, non-Bible-thumping Methodists. They weren’t nearly as fundamentalist as the school they sent me to. Which is good, since they’re not as disturbed by my movie as they might have been.”
Flemming believes a lot of people who go through intense fundamentalist teaching actually steer away from it as adults. “There’s an inherent skepticism toward religion that most people have. So what you’ll see with these one-time fundamentalists is that they won’t actually deny God, but they’ll live in a way that suggests they’re not taking religion too seriously.”
Not that Flemming thinks that’s a good way to live.
“Liberal Christianity makes no sense at all. In their hearts a lot of liberal Christians are atheists or agnostics who are afraid to say so. That’s a tribute to the culture of fear that is Christianity today. Even people who believe there’s nothing to it are afraid to say so. Maybe they figure they’ve got an insurance policy if they pay lip service to religion.
“It’s really funny at these sessions when I go off on moderate Christians and the fundamentalists are nodding their heads in agreement. Not that we have much in common. Liberal Christians may be afraid to say the truth out loud, but they at least know what it is. Fundamentalists, I think, are often just deeply insane.”
Most Christians know very little about their religion, Flemming said. “They say the Bible guides their lives, but they know nothing about how the Bible was created, how those books were chosen to be part of the Bible. Their ignorance of some very basic history is incredible. Almost nothing makes less sense than your average Christian explaining Christianity.”
Flemming said he’s more interested in seeing his film debated than in making money from it. “I’ve given away the theatrical rights so that anybody can screen it. Anybody who buys the DVD has the right to show it theatrically, charge admission, whatever.”