I grew up in a household where Sunday church attendance was assumed, the Bible was memorized, and converting others was encouraged. I was better off than some, because I was never told that having faith meant checking my critical thinking at the door, but there were certain things, like the absolute infallibility of the Bible, that I was told never to question.
This is the lens through which I watched another movie that is on my “must see” list: Religulous. It is a travel-style documentary that follows commentator Bill Maher as he visits with the faithful of many religions, pointing out the obvious inconsistencies and hypocrisies of their worldviews.
There is the standard cadre of usual suspects: The idiots at the Creation Museum in Kentucky who have an exhibit featuring a triceratops with a saddle, the Prosperity Gospel minister who insists that Jesus was wealthy and fashionable and the Orthodox Jew who has devoted his life to finding loopholes in Sabbath observance. There were also sincere believers who, foolish as their actions may be, were kind and loving. My favorite scene featured a group of burly truckers whom Maher described as being Christ-like. He made the insightful observation in their trucker’s chapel service that he understands why people who feel like they have nothing else — like those in prison or on a battlefield — cling to faith, but is befuddled by people living safe, secure, normal lives who feel the need to seek out a higher authority to explain how the world works.
While the narrator and lead character, Bill Maher, appears to be the chief instigator, Religulous has director Larry Charles’ fingerprints all over it. Maher’s personal and political perspective is essential to the film, but Charles’ penchant for ambushing people who may not even realize that they have ridiculous beliefs is what makes the picture worthwhile. Charles also brilliantly injects vintage footage into the film, reminding us that religion has been around for a while, and will continue to be around for a while longer.
The one part of the film in which we see Maher take over, a lengthy diatribe that blames religion for virtually every evil ever to occur on earth, ends up a mess. As Maher’s polemic blares, we see clips of wars, pestilence and famine, all presumably brought about by man’s pursuit of God.
Maher’s impeccable timing and demeanor paid off in what was probably the most poignant moment of the film. While interviewing Sen. Mark Pryor, Maher asked whether the American people could trust a lawmaker who believed in things like talking snakes. When Pryor responded with “well, you don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate” Maher was able to maintain complete composure, nonplussed as Pryor awkwardly tried to chuckle his way out of his obvious misstatement.
Was Religulous a bit condescending and snarky? Of course. It certainly wasn’t intended to change anyone’s mind about the world, so in that sense it was, well, preaching to the choir. But, it was an interesting trip with some brilliant minds.
Well, what better way to reflect on Religulous than our very own holy-sounding St. Francis, Aaron Chamberlin’s creation on Camelback Road just east of Central. I visited with a friend and barely made it into the packed parking lot that it shares with Red Modern Furniture, one of my favorite furniture browsing galleries. The parking lot was so crowded, in fact, that the valet ended up parking my car in the neighboring AutoZone lot.
It took a moment to figure out how to get in the restaurant, but once we determined that the front door was, indeed, in the front, we were promptly seated. The decor is clever, contemporary and meticulously executed — lots of exposed wood, steel, concrete, etc. The kitchen isn’t open as much as it is the center and hub of activity of the space.
We started out with a baked goat cheese appetizer, which consists of a tomato sauce topped with goat cheese, garnished with a walnut pesto baked in a small crock. Served with crostini, it is one of the best starters I have had in Phoenix in a long time. The cheese was just the right balance, and the walnut pesto was perfectly conceived and executed. Of the vegetarian options (one of which appears to be a mishmash of veggies designed to quiet an outspoken activist that you accidentally bring on a date), I chose the flatbread with black mission figs and goat cheese, topped with arugula. The light, crispy flatbread was divine and the figs balanced the goat cheese perfectly. A nutty arugula was the perfect crown for this brick oven masterpiece, and I was sad that I could only finish half of the dish in one sitting.
Downsides? Everything in the kitchen seems to be right on track, although the price points seem just slightly on the high side. Dinner for two with one glass of wine worked out to $52 plus gratuity. The service and ambiance were worth it, though… Oh, and you have to check out the bathroom sinks — they are clever.