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Tuesday, March 09, 2004
 
Hang Your Head, Gray Lady

You have printed in your pages what must be the most actively empty and stupid collection of words in your history, under the headline "Hooked on Heaven Lite." Quoth David Brooks:

Who worries you most, Mel Gibson or Mitch Albom? Do you fear Gibson, the religious zealot, the man accused of narrow sectarianism and anti-Semitism, or Albom, the guy who writes sweet best sellers like "Tuesdays With Morrie" and "The Five People You Meet in Heaven?"

I worry about Albom more, because while religious dogmatism is always a danger, it is less of a problem for us today than the soft-core spirituality that is its opposite. As any tour around the TV dial will make abundantly clear, we do not live in Mel Gibson's fire-and-brimstone universe. Instead, we live in a psychobabble nation. We've got more to fear from the easygoing narcissism that is so much part of the atmosphere nobody even thinks to protest or get angry about it.

Perhaps nobody is protesting or getting angry about our "easygoing narcissism" because it hasn't repeatedly been correlated with intolerance, repression, war, and, occasionally, genocide. I'm sure the Iraqis and Afghanis don't think we've gone soft.

In this heaven, God and his glory are not the center of attention. It's all about you.

Here, sins are not washed away. Instead, hurt is washed away. The language of good and evil is replaced by the language of trauma and recovery. There is no vice and virtue, no moral framework to locate the individual within the cosmic infinity of the universe. Instead there are just the right emotions ? Do you feel good about yourself? ? buttressed by an endless string of vague bromides about how special each person is, and how much we are all mystically connected in the flowing river of life.

I seem to recall a certain messiah who reduced all morality to "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Or, in other words, to human feelings. As for me, I'll take bromides over brimstone every day of the week. I don't happen to agree that we'd be better if we were only more sheep-like.

Brooks attempts to convince his readers that "Our general problem is not that we're too dogmatic. Our more common problems come from the other end of the continuum." If our president is to be believed, the greatest threat to the future of our nation and world peace is the rising tide of Islamic extremism. We are better than our enemies, we are told, because we are a free nation where everyone has the inborn right to express his or her opinion and to act as he or she sees fit, free from the dictates of tyranny.

Brooks evidently disagrees, citing with disapproval Christopher Lasch's idea of "the theraputic mentality[,] an anti-religion that tries to liberate people from the idea that they should submit to a higher authority, so they can focus more obsessively on their own emotional needs."

To what higher authority should we be submitting ourselves, David? God isn't down here, telling us what to do, unless you are able to discern the will of the divine in tornadoes and car crashes (and 9/11?). To whom, then? Should we abase ourselves before ministers? Priests? Imams? Rabbis? Lamas? Madmen? To which ones in particular, David?

Worst of all, Brooks neglects to point out even one negative consequence, however far in the future, that will follow from our putative shift away from "the rich moral framework of organized religion or rigorous philosophy"* It's almost as if he's counting on some universal disgust arising from exposure to words like "narcissism," "obsessively," and "schmaltzy" to do his lifting for him. He doesn't bother to make his own point.

If there's something more to be feared than Gibson's exclusionary zealotry or Albom's nonprescriptive theraputic depictions, it's the proliferation of poorly-reasoned, ill-informed, and nakedly pandering spew such as "Hooked on Heaven Lite" in our newspaper of record.

* I'd bet Brooks couldn't come up with a rigorous philosophy meeting his criteria that wasn't stuffed to the gills with religion.