Friday, April 22, 2011

Mormons: loopy, but admirable

That's David Brooks' call, in a brilliant review of the Broadway musical, "The Book of Mormon."

Like most everyone else (except John Lahr, at the New Yorker), Brooks loved it. (Since I haven't seen a South Park episode that didn't make me laugh, I admit I'm interested in seeing it, even though I'm sure my prudish side will find some of it--maybe too much of it--revolting.) But in retrospective analysis, Brooks argues that its "vague humanism" vainly separates belief from practice when it comes to religion.

If the play has an argument, it is that religious belief is wingnut insane. "But religion itself can do enormous good," Brooks summarizes, "as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally."

Brooks rightly points out the problem with this argument:

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've wrassled with this belief/behavior split before, and here it is again in a critique of contemporary Broadway's smug and smutty, but ultimately gentle, treatment of my faith. Brooks's argument here invokes for me the astute title of rhetorician Richard Weaver's book: ideas have consequences. The question Brooks provokes is which ideas have (lasting) consequences when it comes to religion

In their popular study of the "churching of America," Finke and Stark demonstrate that when denominations shear themselves of "mystery, miracle, and mysticism," or when they turn deep commitments and convictions into "abstractions concerning virtue," they lose "market share" in the economy of belief. When there is nothing to believe, there is no reason to behave or belong in any meaningful, lasting way.

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