Two recent NY Times columns tackle religion (in a good way)

April 28, 2011

Columnist David Brooks writes this week about the hit Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park. The musical, about a couple of Mormon missionaries in Uganda, pokes fun at Mormonism but not Mormons. The reviews I’ve read indicate that despite the musical’s raunchiness, it has a surprising amount of heart.

Brooks likes the musical, but he pays close attention to the message it communicates about religion.

The central theme of “The Book of Mormon” is that many religious stories are silly — the idea that God would plant golden plates in upstate New York. Many religious doctrines are rigid and out of touch.

But 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.

These two paragraphs, in my view, perfectly summarize where popular culture stands in relation to religion in America. Lest we think that Brooks endorses this kind of vague religiosity, he continues:

The only problem with “The Book of Mormon” (you realize when thinking about it later) 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.

I couldn’t agree more. As we’ve just come through the season of Lent, I appreciate this insight as well:

Rigorous codes of conduct allow people to build their character. Changes in behavior change the mind, so small acts of ritual reinforce networks in the brain. A Mormon denying herself coffee may seem like a silly thing, but regular acts of discipline can lay the foundation for extraordinary acts of self-control when it counts the most.

There’s more good stuff here. I commend it to you to read.

Columnist Ross Douthat has a column entitled “A Case for Hell,” which echoes my own reasons for believing that hell exists (as much as I may wish that it didn’t). He writes that the fact that hell has lost its grip on Americans’ religious imagination is a “peculiar paradox of modernity”: “As our lives have grown longer and more comfortable, our sense of outrage at human suffering — its scope, and its apparent randomness — has grown sharper as well.”

But here’s the heart of the matter:

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score…

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

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