A Television Show Set in the Afterlife Sends Up America’s Post-Christian Theology

Feb. 19 2018

The sitcom The Good Place, poised to enter its third season, is based on a novel premise: the selfish main character, Eleanor, has found herself mistakenly sent to heaven. To keep her secret safe, her heavenly husband—who had been an ethics professor in this world—gives her lessons in how to be a good person so that she can successfully blend in among the saved. Alexi Sargeant, who finds the show “unexpectedly profound,” writes in his review:

The Good Place . . . begins by skewering shallowly sentimental ideas of heaven and then transitions to asking (sincerely!) how a bad person can become good. . . . [It] explores and then explodes “moralistic therapeutic deism,” the mushy, post-Christian pseudo-religion of America’s youth diagnosed by the sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Moralistic therapeutic deism posits that God wants you to be happy but otherwise stays out of the way and that nice people go to heaven when they die. The Good Place starts off as a Technicolor Divine Comedy for the therapeutic deist universe. The twists of the show suggest [the show’s creator] is well aware of the extent to which this worldview is lame and saccharine. . . .

One whole episode is spent running variations on the famous “trolley problem,” the allegedly ethics-clarifying hypothetical that asks you to decide how you would act if an out-of-control trolley were on course to run over several people. Would you pull a lever to direct the trolley if it meant it would run over only one person? Would you push a person into the trolley’s path? . . . [The episode’s plot seems to be] suggesting there is something demonic about the trolley problem itself, or at least about the utilitarian interpretations that make it a numbers game—as if any evil can be made good if a malicious mastermind adds enough arbitrary consequences to refraining from evil.

In one of its best moves, writes Sargent, the series employs a single well-executed plot twist that “upends audience expectations and retroactively makes this sappy, chichi heaven a satire of our impoverished imaginings of eternal bliss.”

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More about: Afterlife, Arts & Culture, Decline of religion, Ethics, Television

 

For Israelis, Anti-Zionism Kills

Dec. 14 2018

This week alone, anti-Zionists have killed multiple Israelis in a series of attacks; these follow the revelations that Hizballah succeeded in digging multiple attack tunnels from Lebanon into northern Israel. Simultaneously, some recent news stories in the U.S. have occasioned pious reminders that anti-Zionism should not be conflated with anti-Semitism. Bret Stephens notes that it is anti-Zionists, not defenders of Israel, who do the most to blur that distinction:

Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way from, say, readers of the New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. . . . Anti-Zionism might have been a respectable point of view before 1948, when the question of Israel’s existence was in the future and up for debate. Today, anti-Zionism is a call for the elimination of a state—details to follow regarding the fate befalling those who currently live in it. . . .

Anti-Zionism is ideologically unique in insisting that one state, and one state only, doesn’t just have to change. It has to go. By a coincidence that its adherents insist is entirely innocent, this happens to be the Jewish state, making anti-Zionists either the most disingenuous of ideologues or the most obtuse. When then-CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill called last month for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” and later claimed to be ignorant of what the slogan really meant, it was hard to tell in which category he fell.

Does this make someone with Hill’s views an anti-Semite? It’s like asking whether a person who believes in [the principle of] separate-but-equal must necessarily be a racist. In theory, no. In reality, another story. The typical aim of the anti-Semite is legal or social discrimination against some set of Jews. The explicit aim of the anti-Zionist is political or physical dispossession.

What’s worse: to be denied membership in a country club because you’re Jewish, or driven from your ancestral homeland and sovereign state for the same reason? If anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are meaningfully distinct (I think they are not), the human consequences of the latter are direr.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Palestinian terror