Sunday, December 11, 2005

South Park, Scientology, Evangelicals & Ridicule of New Religions

Comedy Central’s South Park is known for its less than reverent satire where no group is safe from the comedic probe. But the program recently pushed the envelope even further with an episode that unloaded both barrels at Scientology and Tom Cruise. The episode, titled “Trapped in the Closet,” lampooned high level Scientology teachings, and questioned the sexual orientation of Tom Cruise, a vocal Scientology advocate. The boldness of the producers in the satirical attack on Scientology and Cruise is curious, and perhaps foolhardy. Mr. Cruise has successfully sued tabloids which questioned his sexual orientation, and the Church of Scientology is well-known for an aggressive use of litigation against its critics. The legal hassles that may follow in the wake of this episode hardly seem worth the few chuckles that may have come forth in connection with this episode.

This is not the first time South Park has lampooned religion. Christianity provides frequent fodder, and other new religions have come into the producers’ crosshairs. An episode that aired in 1993 titled “All About the Mormons,” pulled no punches in its treatment of this popular American religion. Most Mormons would have found the episode offensive, if they were aware of it, of course. No doubt South Park is not part of the normal viewing habits for devout LDS.

Sadly, a few evangelicals found the episode funny, and even went so far as to recommend it to fellow countercult apologists. This led to an interesting paper by Douglas Cowan, professor of Sociology and Religious Studies, who is is in transition to a new teaching position at Renison College/University of Waterloo in Canada. The paper is titled “Episode 712: South Park, Ridicule, and the Cultural Construction of Religious Rivalry,” and it is published in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. The journal is must reading for those interested in the intersection between these two disciplines. The article is worth reading for those evangelicals who want to explore the issue of ridicule as it relates to perceived religious rivals in American culture.

We seem to forget how reasonable a religion seems to its adherents, yet how unbelievable it seems to outsiders. After all, ancient Christianity was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, no matter how sensible it seems to modern evangelicals. And we also forget that to post-Christendom peoples of the West, Christianity's proclamation of an incarnating and resurrected God seems as outlandish a claim as those of the ill-fated Heaven's Gate UFO religion. In my view, it's one thing for members of a religious group to engage in self-deprecating humor, but it's quite another for us to relish and commend the ridicule of religious others.

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