The last of a dying breed, it seems, Leap of Faith is a funny, semi-cynical, semi-sympathetic, incisive look into the modern fad of evangelical Christianity in Small Town, America. Its ability to treat Christian evangelism wryly and cynically, yet without mocking or belittling its adherents, is something people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would do well to learn from. Lordie Lordie, we are tired of those two! But more on them later.
Leap of Faith centers around a charismatic charlatan, Jonas Nightingale (Steve Martin), and his troupe of "Angels of Mercy" (including such unexpected faces as Meatloaf! Philip Seymour Hoffman! a full-on gospel choir!). Jonas, with the help of his top assistant Jane (Debra Winger), runs a traveling Christian roadshow which features lively gospel music, on-the-spot healing, people falling into seizures and speaking tongues, and the like. One day, when their tour buses break down in a nowhere town in the middle of the country, Jonas decides to put on a show and generate some much-needed cash. He meets some resistance from the local sheriff, Will (Liam Neeson), who sees through Jonas' act immediately and disapproves of him taking advantage of the poor townsfolk. The townsfolk, in the meantime, are very poor indeed - long-suffering farmers with various tales of woe. One particularly woeful tale concerns the local diner's young waitress, Marva (Lolita Davidovich), and her disabled brother, Boyd (Lukas Haas). As Jonas and Jane get more and more mixed up with the people's lives, they find it more and more difficult to confront their preconceived notions about faith, suckers and scams.
This film, which establishes itself in the first half hour as a black comedy aimed at the cynical, urban non-Christian ("Ha ha, look at how stupid those Baptist hicks are!"), eventually becomes something much more sympathetic and even-handed. Slowly, as Jonas and Jane meaningfully engage with the community, we see the importance faith has in the lives of this highly vulnerable socioeconomic group. Even better - just when the movie has built up sympathy for the poor man and his reliance on his religion, and you think Jonas is a real jerk for conning people out of the last few pennies they have, the film flips the tables and reveals the unexpected humanity of Jonas himself. No, don't worry. He won't be "seeing the light", or even becoming a particular nice human being. But things do become complicated enough that we can't judge either the conman or the naive, superstitious victims.
Like Jesus Christ Superstar, this film should appeal to both Christians and non-Christians alike (assuming you're not too hardline, ahem, Peter Travers). What we think Travers misses about the "fake sincerity" in the end is that things aren't black and white, "Christian" or "rational", and, yes, it is possible to respect people you disagree with. Goodness, the Anglo-American New Atheism movement could do with a dollop of that humility! It's so frustrating to read those books by Dawkins and Hitchens that, because they can't understand why a human being would choose to hold a non-rational belief, naturally belittle and mock the people that do as ignorant or delusional. A much better book than any of Dawkins' or Hitchens', if you're interested in reading atheist philosophy, is George H. Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God, which makes its case using real philosophy - not ridicule.
Actually, tangential rant about Dawkins and Hitchens: another irritating factor about those two is how they seem entirely guided by a particularly ethnocentric concept of reality. Yes, the post-Enlightenment rationality is a great thing, but, as postcolonial and magic(al) realist writers can attest, the European post-Enlightenment rationality narrative is not the only narrative. There are alternative experiences of history and reality, experienced by people who weren't educated at Oxbridge in the "great classics" of Shakespeare, Eliot and other dead, white men, and who live in a far different world. What's irritating is that Dawkins or Hitchens don't allow for any leeway, they don't seem to have any sympathy for people who might hold "irrational", "non-Enlightenment approved" ideas about reality. As the father from La meglio gioventù tells his son, "You're so intelligent, yet you have so much trouble conceiving of some things!" We'd say the same to Dawkins and Hitchens, two highly educated men who seem incapable of conceiving of transcendental experience and therefore ridicule all religious believers for the logical fallacies in the most superficial interpretation of their beliefs.
We take, as an example, Christopher Hitchens' criticism of Buddhism: see page 23 of his book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:
The god Buddha was born through an opening in his mother's flank.
Illogical? Yes. But also a complete misreading of Buddhism and the role of the Buddha! (Nutshell: He's not a god.) And goodness, selling Buddhism like that is like selling Beethoven as "a composer who couldn't hear a thing" to people who have never heard any Beethoven. (Nutshell: Beethoven was amazing.)
Basically, our bottom line is that there's a lot more complexity, both philosophically and ethically, in criticizing religion. Assuming that all religion is wrong, as Dawkins and Hitchens do, assumes that (1) an ultimate truth exists out there, and (2) oops, only Dawkins and Hitchens understand it and can lead us to righteous rationality. Philosophically, that's just bollocks. Furthermore, there's also an ethical dilemma to these sweeping gestures against "Baptist hicks" or "Eastern cults" (Hitchens' phrase!): the socioeconomic background which leads people to a particular faith is often a big factor in their belief. Not everyone has the fortune to lead an unattached, educated, urban lifestyle where exploring alternative faiths is encouraged and the entire buffet of beliefs is available. It's so easy, for example, to criticize Christianity in America - especially if you're a white, university-educated, middle- to upper-class urbanite. We've always noticed how easy it is to mock Christianity in America, whereas it remains (as it should) taboo to mock Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism. We think this has to do with the fact that the most mocked Christians are the "white trash" "rednecks" who liberal urban Americans (the PPCC included, though we're trying to break the habit) assume are all close-minded bigots. In the name of tolerance, then, a great intolerance is practiced. And because the targeted group were historically empowered - that is, Christian white males - we don't allow them any leeway or sensitivity now. And so we mock their beliefs! (Interestingly, this sounds like the way poor Brahmins were treated in a post-affirmative action India - as read in Pankaj Mishra's excellent Temptations of the West.)
Phew. Long tangent. But the point is this: it's not nice to mock other people's religious beliefs, even when they make no sense to us. Leap of Faith demonstrates sensitivity and humanity by showing the mocker (Jonas and his band) and the mocked (the townsfolk) with the same amount of respect and sympathy. It's funny without being mean or cheap, and touching without being schmaltzy. We highly recommend it.