Gimme That Ol' Time Religion


The creators of the animated series South Park are treating audiences to another satire of religion, a Broadway musical comedy called "The Book of Mormon" which they describe as "an atheist's love letter to religion." David Brooks in the New York Times, pinpoints why this love letter gets it all wrong.

David Brooks

First of all, sincere kudos to the New York Times for running columnist David Brooks' extremely thoughtful review of The Book of Mormon. Brooks' review, "Creed or Chaos?", is just the kind of piece one wouldn't expect to find in the bastion of secularism. Two cheers for the NYT for being broadminded enough to allow Brooks' stout defense of religion!

For Brooks, The Book of Mormon admittedly quite amusing, even uplifting, but the redeeming uplift of its central message is exactly wrong. The Book of Mormon's message, as Brooks describes it, is that while religious creeds are so much rotten and destructive muck, "religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally; as long as people understand that all religions ultimately preach love and service underneath their superficial particulars; as long as people practice their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different beliefs."

Love and service – that's all that matters. The rest of religion deserves the crudest skewering, which Parker and Stone are only too happy to give it. Of course, since Parker describes The Book of Mormon as "an atheist's love letter to religion," they obviously think they're doing religion a favor by enlightening it.

The problem with this view, as Brooks makes clear, is that "its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn't actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False."

One would think that this would be evident to the show's creators. The plot entails a couple of Mormon missionaries going to Uganda in Africa, where they find AIDS, tribal despotic cruelty, genital mutilation of women, famine, and poverty. In short, social chaos. In the musical, the missionaries learn that creeds don't cure chaos, niceness does. And religion can be useful if it simply gives up creeds and helps people be nice.

Is feel-good niceness of the sort preached by Parker and Stone really strong enough to face actual social and moral chaos? "I was once in an AIDS-ravaged village in southern Africa," Brooks notes dryly. "The vague humanism of the outside do-gooders didn't do much to get people to alter their risky behavior. The blunt theological talk of the church ladies – right and wrong, salvation and damnation – seemed to have a better effect."

The best cure for Parker and Stone of their self-congratulatory preaching about what's really needed in a place of chaos like Uganda would be to go and work there for a year – certainly they could live off the profits of The Book of Mormon in the meantime – and see how well their upbeat message plays amidst the real thing.

The simple point is that sin is too deep and complex to be dealt with through brisk and breezy do-goodery of the type cheerfully preached by Parker and Stone. Sin is deep and complex because human nature is deep and complex. The depth and complexity of the Christian creed matches the depth and complexity of both.

Brooks offers the hard-edged and no-nonsense 20th century apologist Dorothy Sayers essay, "Creed or Chaos?" as an antidote to the vagaries of Parker and Stone. "It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously," Sayers chided the wish-washers of doctrine in her own day. "It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism."

It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism."

That uncompromising realism at the heart of Christian doctrine reaches the very depths of the corrupt but often sincere human heart – the heart that revels in destructive sex, the heart of the tyrant that murders, the heart of the rapist, the worn out heart of the war-torn and afflicted, the hopeless heart of the starving children and the hardened heart of those who blithely ignore their plight, and even the self-satisfied, scatologically-saturated hearts of the likes of Parker and Stone. It is as hard, tough, exacting, and complex as it needs to be to reach the depths of real sin among real people.

Against the feel-good message of Parker and Stone, Christians understand that while vague feelings of wanting to do good often underlie good intentions, good intentions are notorious for paving the road going in the wrong direction. That's because vague feelings can't take the place of real, hard-won wisdom, the kind of wisdom about the world and human nature that is embedded in theological doctrines. "Rigorous theology," maintains Brooks, "provides believers with a map of reality. These maps may seem dry and schematic – most maps do compared with reality – but they contain the accumulated wisdom of thousands of co-believers who through the centuries have faced similar journeys and trials."

Feelings by themselves are not a good guide. We are creatures of both heart and mind. "Rigorous theology allows believers to examine the world intellectually as well as emotionally," notes Brooks. Being creatures of mind too, we want more than just feeling good. "Many people want to understand the eternal logic of the universe, using reason and logic to wrestle with concrete assertions and teachings."

Finally, deep doctrinal content keeps people from becoming the tools of the manipulators of pop culture. "Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity," Brooks points out. "Without timeless rules, we all have a tendency to be swept up in the temper of the moment. But tough-minded theologies are countercultural. They insist on principles and practices that provide an antidote to mere fashion."




Benjamin Wiker. "Gimme That Ol' Time Religion." tothesource (April 28, 2011).

This article reprinted with permission from tothesource.

Tothesource is a forum for integrating thinking and action within a moral framework that takes into account our contemporary situation. We will report the insights of cultural experts to the specific issues we face believing these sources will embolden people to greater faith and action.


Benjamin Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is the author of 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn't Help, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, The Mystery of the Periodic Table, and co-author of Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature and Architects of the Culture of Death. He lives with his wife and seven children in Hopedale, OH.

Copyright © 2011 tothesource

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