Brooks on “The Book of Mormon”

David Brooks is one of the very few conservative commentators I can read without retching. He offers dispassionate, reasoned argument unlike the screeching, foaming rants of Michelle Malkin (I think she should be tested for rabies), and he has nothing of the tinfoil-hat paranoia of Glenn Beck (Sha-na-na-na. Hey, hey, hey. Goodbye.). I like Brooks’ style too—straightforward and unaffected, unlike the prissy pontifications of George Will or the pomposity of Charles Krauthammer. In last Saturday’s (4/23) Houston Chronicle Brooks’ column reflects on important issues raised by, of all things, a Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, written by, of all people, the creators of South Park.

Now, South Park is an entertainment I can take or leave (mostly leave), but The Book of Mormon sounds like a hoot. The reviews have been raves and audiences are enthusiastic. The show is about Mormon missionaries to Uganda, a nation devastated by AIDS and megalomaniacal warlords. According to Brooks, the show pokes fun at Mormon beliefs, but treats its characters with humanity and respect. Of course, Mormon beliefs go beyond bizarre into cloud-cuckoo-land: God lives on the planet Kolob, you can access genealogical records and save your ancestors postmortem, God planted twelve golden tablets in upstate New York, some Native Americans are related to Biblical Israelites, your can’t drink coffee, you have to wear funny underwear, you have to eat lime Jell-O (just kidding!), and so forth.

Yet, the message of The Book of Mormon (the musical) is that what matters about religion is that it inspires people to do good and courageous things, despite the weird dogmas and the pointless proscriptions (no tea either!). Indeed, says Brooks, the playwrights imply that religion would be an unalloyed good if people would take religious teachings metaphorically and not literally and would see that the essence of religion is service to others, not adherence to absolutist creeds. Brooks comments:

This warm theme infuses the play with humanity and compassion. It also plays very well to an educated American audience. Many Americans have always admired the style of belief that is spiritual but not doctrinal, pluralistic and not exclusive, which offers tools for serving the greater good but is not marred by intolerant theological judgments.

Brooks counters that the religions that actually motivate people to heroic acts of compassion and self-sacrifice are not the easygoing, genial, pluralistic ones but the rigorous, uncongenial, uncompromising ones:

That’s because people are not gods. No matter how special some individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own or avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.

Brooks seems not to have heard of Bertrand Russell. Russell was born into the aristocracy in an aristocratic age and could easily have lived a life of indulgence in the privileges of his class. Instead, he became a socialist and ran for Parliament on the Labour ticket. He opened a progressive school, and served time in prison for protesting against the First World War. In 1961, at the age of 89, he was arrested again for demonstrating against nuclear weapons. Along the way, Russell wrote seventy books, 20,000 letters, and innumerable articles and essays. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and is recognized as one of the leading philosophers of the 20th Century. Agree or disagree with Russell, you will still have to admit that he was by no means lazy and that he imposed high standards on himself and tried very hard to live up to them. He also made a pretty fair effort to understand the world. Russell required neither the bribery of heaven nor the threat of hell to accomplish these things.

Well, Brooks might concede, Russell was a very special case. The vast majority need much firmer guidance if they are to achieve great things. Discipline means doing what you do not want to do when you do not want to do it and few people have the inner resources to impose such a regimen on themselves. Even the apparently pointless rules have their purpose:

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.

Actually, what such acts reinforce is not so much self-control but unquestioning and unhesitating obedience. This is why military training imposes such detailed and stringent rules governing the minutiae of personal appearance and behavior. If your sergeant lets you get sloppy about making your bed or tucking in your shirt, then you might hesitate when ordered to charge up Hamburger Hill. Clearly, in combat you have to have people who will obey orders instantly and without question. I’m not so sure this is a virtue in the vast majority of other situations. A religion that can get you to not drink coffee, or not eat oysters, or take ritual baths after menstruating, or wear your hair in funny dangling curls, or never shave your beard, or not uncover your face in public, or…will have an easier time getting you to strap on a bomb and set it off on a crowded bus.

This last point is the obvious reply to Brooks. You want heroic acts of self-sacrifice? Isn’t this what the suicide bomber is doing? The families and communities of successful suicide bombers celebrate them precisely as heroes whose supreme devotion has led them to the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. Heroic acts of terrorism are just the flip side of heroic acts of compassion. Give me the pluralistic, mushy, muddle-headed, tolerant, easygoing religion any day. Such namby-pamby religions may produce fewer Mother Teresas than the fierce old creeds, but they will also generate fewer Osama bin Ladens.

Still, Brooks thinks that the creeds give us the guidance of ancient wisdom:

Rigorous theology 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.

Really? If the Mormon beliefs represent the accumulated wisdom of ages, then I would have to say that the doctrines of Scientologists and Raelians do also.

Actually, here Brooks is probably thinking not of LDS beliefs but something like the Nicene Creed. Is the Nicene Creed a “map of reality?” Much of it hardly seems intelligible. Consider this part:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;

Huh? Does Brooks, or anyone, really understands what homoousios (“of one Being”) really means? Besides, all creeds are social constructs, and reflect not eternal verities but the contingencies of local circumstance at the place and time of their formulation. The politics of the Constantinian age had more to do with the Nicene formulations than any dictates of Scripture or reason. The whole wording of the Creed’s Christological pronouncements, “…eternally begotten of the Father…Light from Light, true God of true God…of one Being with the Father” is a consequence of the acrimonious dispute between rival theologians Arius and Athanasius. This dispute was as much political, social, cultural, and ethnic as it was religious and, like all such disputes, was ultimately about power. Constantine wanted a united Church to consolidate his power. When people recite the Nicene Creed in church they are giving voice to a political manifesto of the Fourth Century. Of course, apologists will say that the “right” side won in those ancient disputes, but had the Arians won their present day defenders would be saying the same thing.

The upshot is that Brooks may well be right that, for instance, Catholicism is more effective in inspiring heroic acts of self-sacrificial devotion than, say, Unitarianism. I wonder, though, did Unitarians ever burn anyone at the stake?

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12132821431322748921 LadyAtheist

    People doing good things in the name of their religion in no way makes the tenets of that religion accurate and true, but believers keep saying things like that. grrrrr

    I think the reason they say that is the deep down they don't belong to the religion because of any of its fairy tales but because they like belonging to it. It's not what they are willing to do for it or whether Christ was willing to die (for 3 days, which is less than an eyeblink for an eternal being) it's what their religion does for them that makes them cling to it. They only bring up the good works crap when they're challenged by atheists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    LadyAtheist,

    Conservatives are most irritating when they do not argue that the creeds are true, but that they are good because they keep the rabble in check. Paul Johnson ends his otherwise terrific history of Christianity with these parting words:

    "Christianity has not made man secure or happy or even dignified. But it supplies a hope. It is a civilizing agent. It helps to cage the beast."

    Such conservative sophisticates certainly do not see themselves as beasts that need caging. Neither do they subscribe to the simple, naive pieties of the common folk. I sincerely doubt that David Brooks has ever been to camp meeting (I have!). For them, the ferocious old creeds get the masses to work hard, not get uppity, and keep their pants zipped–and that is why they resent criticism of those doctrines.


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