Wednesday, May 31, 2006

South Park and Religion, Part II

Continuing the discussion of South Park and religion. As Don noted in the comments on the previous post, I need to clarify my claim about "Stone and Parker being no friends of organized religion of any kind". This is perhaps overstated, since the primary target for their criticism is not organized religion as such, but institutions, particularly those that seek to impose beliefs. Stone and Parker are actually quite friendly even to religious beliefs they think are insane; and this comes out clearly in the second episode I will discuss. As with the other, I will summarize it and briefly comment. (This one is harder to summarize, because much of the story is carried by the musical portions, which admit of no easy summary -- I don't even try. You can find transcripts for almost all South Park episodes online, so if you are interested in such matters you can look it up yourself.)

2) All about the Mormons (episode 712). In this episode, a new kid, Gary Harrison, comes to South Park from Utah. Gary is a sort of all-American boy: he was state champion in wrestling and in tennis, had a 40 grade point average at his old school, and has been in two national toothpaste commercials. Naturally, the South Park kids dislike him from the first moment they meet him. They decide that Stan Marsh should beat him up. When Stan confronts Gary, however, he is disarmed by Gary's overwhelmingly polite charm, and ends up being invited to dinner.

When he arrives at the Harrison household, he enters a world very different from any he has ever known. The Harrisons are engaged in Family Home Evening, a time when they turn off the television and just entertain each other with games, stories, and music. At one point in the evening, the Harrisons are ready to read a story from the Book of Mormon; but, on finding out that Stan has never heard of Joseph Smith, they instead decide to tell the story of Joseph Smith. Smith's story is told throughout the episode in a musical format in which the lyrics are punctuated by lines that are at the beginning ambiguous between 'dum, dum, dum, dum, dum' and 'dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb', but which soon enough become less ambiguous. Parker and Stone stay fairly close to the real storyline, although (as one might expect) they aren't afraid to diverge from it on several points in order to underline the general theme that Mormons as astoundingly credulous.

Stan returns home from the Harrisons, profoundly aware that his family has nothing like the strong bonds that unite the Harrisons. (When he asks his father, Randy, why they don't have Family Home Evening, his father replies that they do -- they just call it Friday Night Kegger.) When it comes out that the Harrisons have been talking religion to Stan, Randy angrily sets out for the Harrisons' house to beat up Gary Harrison, Sr. for trying to indoctrinate his son into being a 'religious kook'. However, the experience of Stan repeats itself with Randy: completely disarmed by the Harrisons' good-natured civility, he comes in for a snack. The Harrisons apologize profusely if they seemed to be pushing their religion on Stan, because that wasn't their intention. As Karen Harrison says:

Randy, the last thing we want is for people to think we're pushing our religion. We know there are a lot of beliefs out there and ours just works for us.

Randy's anger now defused, his curiosity awakens, and he asks the Harrisons what Mormons believe, which leads into another musical retelling of part of the story fo Joseph Smith. Randy comes back to the Marsh household with the news that they will be having dinner at the Harrisons' and that the Marshes are going to become Mormon.

The Marshes start up a Family Home Evening in imitation of the Harrisons. Stan, who is fairly consistently portrayed throughout the South Park series as level-headed and logical, is having considerable difficulty with some of the elements of the Joseph Smith story he has been hearing. When the Harrisons arrive, they tell the story of the lost 116 pages of the Book of Lehi, which, according to Gary, Sr., proves that Joseph Smith was for real. Stan, however, is stunned by it, asking, "Mormons actually know this story and they still believe Joseph Smith was a prophet?" When told that it is a matter of faith, Stan can't hold himself back:

No, it's a matter of logic! If you're gonna say things that have been proven wrong, like that the first man and woman lived in Missouri, and that Native Americans came from Jerusalem, then you'd better have something to back it up. All you've got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat, and then couldn't do it again when the translations were hidden!

The Harrisons are unphased by this, saying that the Marshes can believe whatever they want, with Gary, Jr. even shouting a Hooray for their freedom to do so. Stan is fed up, so scolds the Harrisons for trying to weasel their religion into the discourse by being so nice all the time.

The next day, however, Gary, Jr., responds in kind:

Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don't care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that's stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you're so high and mighty you couldn't look past my religion and just be my friend back. You've got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.

He then ends with swearing, thus (finally) earning him the respect of other kids. (A recurring theme in South Park is a sort of child's poetic justice in which kids who don't usually swear demolish their opponents by swearing precisely because they don't usually swear.)

A few brief comments. One of the notable things about this episode, and is fairly common in South Park's treatment of religions generally, is that, setting aside the obvious insinuations of absurd credulity, the rank and file of the membership is portrayed in a very positive light. (This is also seen in the Scientology episode, in which Scientologists who aren't celebrities or in the inner circles are portrayed as friendly, upbeat, likable people, despite believing crazy things.) The idea is that the LDS way of life, however irrational one considers it on the speculative level, makes an immense amount of sense at the practical level: it strengthens family ties, encourages improvement in moral character, advocates helping other people, and places a powerful and needed emphasis on kinship and friendship.

This sums up, to an extent, the general attitude of South Park to religious belief. A lot of it is weird. But in a sense this doesn't matter. Our relationship with members of these religions is not to be determined by the internal consistency and evidential basis of the religion, but by a more public set of factors: the role they play in increasing the cohesion of society, in inspiring people to seek the morally right, in the way in which the religion improves the private and public lives of its individual members. People who lose sight of this are not contributing to progress, because they are losing sight of the fact that there can be no progress unless there is a moral direction for it. And attacking people for something that, at least in their particular case, underwrites a moral way of life is the very antithesis of establishing a moral direction for progress. This is not to say that all views are the same, or that they are all equally good -- the unsparing and repeated references to the Mormon belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet as 'dumb, dumb, dumb' is enough to make that clear. But it's a matter of keeping one's priorities clear.

There are lots of things about this pragmatic view that one might find to disagree with. What's noteworthy, however, is how thoughtful it is. Since the emphasis is perpetually on the improvement of everyone's life -- on "loving your family, being nice and helping people," as Gary puts it, or on "Love your neighbor. Be a good person," as Fr. Maxi put it in the Red Hot Catholic Love episode -- the stance challenges everyone to work for everyone else's good, and to make the primary standard of social acceptance not whether others believe as you do, but whether they act admirably. It sets up a real place for religion (however strange others may think it) in civil discourse, which is guided by precisely this end: to aid people in being better human beings. It's possible to argue, from many different positions, that this isn't quite adequate in some way; but it's not possible, I think, to argue soundly that this view is obviously absurd. In fact, quite the opposite: it's a lesson about admiring and respecting people even when you think they have completely missed the boat as far as their beliefs go.

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