Tuesday, May 30, 2006

South Park and Religion, Part I

There's a Guardian essay by Julian Baggini on Simpsons and philosophy. The article is mostly about what might be called philosophy of religion. It has started me thinking about another animated show that reallly does engage seriously -- it is paradoxical to say that -- with religious issues, without requiring much reading into the matter at all, namely, South Park.

Now, to understand the South Park take on religion(s), one has to recognize a few things first. The first and perhaps most important of these is that South Park episodes are, each and every one, thrown together at the last minute. This means that the execution of the episode is usually rather slapdash. Because a lot of the actual animation is stylized, it's usually not to the visual detriment of the show (which has never aimed for high animation production values anyway), but it does mean that that the quality of the episodes varies considerably. On the other side, because they do things last minute, Stone and Parker are able to revise out bad ideas even at the last moment; and thus even the worst episodes usually have some redeeming features, in terms of humor and serious thought.

The second and more obvious things that has be recognized is that South Park is Rabelaisian about everything it discusses. Most people who find South Park offensive find it offensive not because of any positions explored by Parker and Stone in the series but because they are turned off by the rude and crude of much of the presentation. But South Park is rarely merely rude and crude in its humor -- although occasionally it comes close to being so.

South Park has dealt with religious matters on multiple occasions; and when it does so, it rarely does so in the generic way the Simpsons does. The quality of these episodes varies considerably, as one would expect. Two of the better ones are Red Hot Catholic Love (episode 608) and All About Mormons (episode 712). The most famous episode dealing with religious matters is the Scientology episode, Trapped in the Closet (episode 912); but its general approach to Scientologists is actually very similar to the Mormon episode's approach to the Latter-Day Saints; the primary difference between the two episodes being that Scientology provides more room for making fun of the self-importance of celebrities. So I'll just take the first two and summarize them with some comments.

(1) Red Hot Catholic Love (episode 608). This, which I think is probably objectively the best of all the religion episodes South Park has done, opens in the midst of the molestation scandals. At South Park Catholic Church, Father Maxi announces that it's the time of year when bishops and priests from around the country are organizing the Young Men's Catholic Retreat, which this year will be a river cruise focusing on the theme of Jesus as the Navigator of our lives. After Mass, a bunch of parents get together, worried about this whole idea; they decide that they are not letting their children go on a cruise with a bunch of priests. Since they no longer trust even Father Maxi, they get a counselor who specializes in determining whether children have been abused. When the counselor speaks to the children, they all describe Maxi as "nice," "cool," and "compassionate" -- that last one is significant in light of how the episode unfolds -- and are completely bewildered by some of the more explicit questions the counselor asks. In the meantime, the parents all decide that they are fed up with the Catholic church because of the scandals, and agree to become atheists. Later on, as the kids are trying to figure out what some of the counselor's questions meant, Cartman hits on the idea that, since when we eat through our mouths we defecate through our butts, perhaps if we eat through our butts we would defecate out of our mouths. The kids aren't convinced, but Cartman manages to do it. (Yes, this is all heading somewhere.)

At Diocesan headquarters, Maxi has called a meeting about the scandals, which have begun to take a serious toll on attendance at Mass. Maxi voices the concern that if this continues they might lose almost everyone; but he is shocked that the priests think the problem is that children are reporting the cases rather than that the cases are happening at all. When he insists that the problem here is sexual misconduct rather than the reporting of it, he finds that all the priests are assuming that everyone (including Maxi himself) have done it. Angrily, Maxi tells them, "We are here to bring the light of God, not harm the innocent!" but when he realizes that he's not getting through, he decides that he has to go to the Vatican and report such a terrible problem personally. At the Vatican, however, he finds that things are no better; and again has to repeat, to the disbelieving ears of Cardinals from Italy, Morocco, France, Britain, and the alien planet of Gelgamek that he thinks the solution to the problem is for priests not to engage in sexual misconduct. When told that it is not considered wrong in the "Holy Document of Vatican Law," Maxi replies that this only means that the Holy Document of Vatican Law needs to be changed; the behavior should be wrong, and, if necessary, priests should be allowed to marry. However, he is told that the Holy Document of Vatican Law simply can't be changed, because no one knows where it is. It's somewhere in the Catacombs, guarded by terrible traps; but that's all anyone knows. Maxi decides that he must find it, at whatever danger to himself. Searching for the Holy Document of Vatican Law, Maxi comes across an old man who tells him that only a man whose heart is truly with the Lord will find it; Maxi manages to evade all the traps and find the document.

In the meantime, back at home, it becomes discovered that Cartman's method of eating is healthier than the normal method; and the newly atheistic parents have a dinner party in which they talk at great length about how much better their lives are now that they are atheists, and about how "a bunch of stories about people slaughtering goats" has no relevance to the modern world, and about how atheists are persecuted in our society, by (for instance) having to say 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance. All the while, since they are eating by the Cartman method, they are defecating out of their mouths.

At the Vatican, Fr. Maxi returns with the Holy Document of Vatican Law, asking them to change it now so that it reads that priests are not allowed to have sex with boys. The Cardinals tell him, however, that the Pope has decided that they will ask "the highest source." Fr. Maxi is very impressed by this for a moment, but is considerably less so when he finds that "the highest source" is the great Queen Spider, who simply refuses to allow the document to be changed. At this Maxi loses his cool completely:

Alright, that does it!!! I've had enough!!! You people have completely lost touch with the outside world! You sit in this big room with your Gelgameks and your Queen Spider, and none of it applies to what being a Catholic is all about!!

When the Cardinals bring up the Holy Document of Vatican Law again, Maxi replies, "To hell with the Holy Document of Vatican Law!" He does what any God-fearing Catholic would do under the circumstances: he burns down the Vatican. When told that He's killed Catholicism, Fr. Maxi replies:

No I didn't! All that's dead are your stupid laws and rules! You've forgotten what being a Catholic is all about. This... book. You see, these are just stories. Stories that are meant to help people in the right direction. Love your neighbor. Be a good person. That's it! And when you start turning the stories into literal translations of hierarchies and power, well... Well, you end up with this. People are losing faith because they don't see how what you've turned the religion into applies to them! They've lost touch with any idea of any kind of religion, and when they have no mythology to try and live their lives by, well, they just start spewing a bunch of crap out of their mouths!

The atheist parents at home have been rejoicing at home as they watch the Vatican burning on TV; but they are stopped up short at hearing this last line, because they have quite literally been spewing a bunch of crap out of their mouths. Because of Maxi's speech, the parents return to the fold. When Stan asks if this means that they will have to go to church on Sundays again, his father replies, "No, it means we get to."

A few brief points. One of the things Parker and Stone are good at is portraying a mood. It would be easy enough to point out that the 'Holy Document of Vatican Law' doesn't exist, that molestation of children and sex outside of marriage is clearly a sin by Catholic standards, that the Cardinals of the Catholic Church don't take orders from Queen Spider, or that there are no Gelgamek Catholics. But the point of all these divergences from fact is not to give a rigorous depiction of the scandals, but to portray a mood, and the mood is that of someone who is utterly bewildered by the actual hierarchical responses to the actual scandals. For such people, the response might as well be decided by people from Gelgamek or by appealing to a web-spinning spider, for all the sense they could make of it.

Fr. Maxi's approach to the subject is clearly on the liberal side (one notices this from the moment he suggests marriage for priests as a partial solution); but it's noteworthy that it is a genuinely Catholic approach. What makes Fr. Maxi the hero of this episode is that he truly believes that the Catholic Church is there to bring the light of God, that he truly believes that Catholic thought is relevant to everyone, and that he acts out of a genuine compassion and desire for the right. One of his admirable qualities throughout the episode is that he lets no web-spinning get in the way of recognizing the importance of people. This episode took a lot of criticism for portraying Catholic priests as alcoholic child molesters, but it's actually a story of a virtuous Catholic priest fighting ecclesiastical corruption for the good of the Church. (There were also people who criticized it for the burning of the Vatican; but I think such criticisms are indications of a need for different priorities.) The portrayal of Fr. Maxi isn't the portrayal of a saint -- Fr. Maxi may share with St. Peter Damian a refusal to stand for corruption in the Church, but he's no Peter Damian; nonetheless, it is the portrayal of a hero, and a genuinely Catholic hero at that. Catholics could do worse than take Fr. Maxi's protest as a motto: "We're here to bring the light of God, not harm the innocent!"

Stone and Parker are no friends of organized religion of any kind; but it is interesting how critical they are of atheists who aren't willing to extend a modicum of respect to those with religious sensibilities. The great irony of this episode, which makes it one of the better-designed episodes in the series, is that Fr. Maxi's speech, an attack on forms of Catholic obfuscation that drive people away from the Church or make them think it irrelevant to their lives, falls hardest not on the Catholics but on a certain type of atheist, the kind who pride themselves on their rational superiority over religious believers, who are contemptuous of people who live their lives according to a mythology and yet have substituted it with nothing but "spewing crap out of their mouths."

All in all it's a thought-provoking episode. That's long enough for a post. I'll talk about the Mormon episode in another post at some point.

Part II

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