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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.”

Read more at Weekly Standard

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

The Future of a Free Iran May Lie with a Restoration of the Shah

June 25 2018

Examining the recent waves of protest and political unrest in the Islamic Republic—from women shunning the hijab to truckers going out on strike—Sohrab Ahmari considers what would happen in the event of an actual collapse of the regime. Through an analysis of Iranian history, he concludes that the country would best be served by placing Reza Pahlavi, the son and heir of its last shah, at the head of a constitutional monarchy:

The end of Islamist rule in Iran would be a world-historical event and an unalloyed good for the country and its neighbors, marking a return to normalcy four decades after the Ayatollah Khomeini founded his regime. . . . But what exactly is that normalcy? . . .

First, Iranian political culture demands a living source of authority to embody the will of the nation and stand above a fractious and ethnically heterogenous society. Put another way, Iranians need a “shah” of some sort. They have never lived collectively without one, and their political imagination has always been directed toward a throne. The constitutionalist experiment of the early 20th century coexisted (badly) with monarchic authority, and the current Islamic Republic has a supreme leader—which is to say, a shah by another name. It is the height of utopianism to imagine that a 2,500-year-old tradition can be wiped away. The presence of a shah, [however], needn’t mean the absence of rule of law, deliberative politics, or any of the other elements of ordered liberty that the West cherishes in its own systems. . . .

Second, Iranian political culture demands a source of continuity with Persian history. The anxieties associated with modernity and centuries of historical discontinuity drove Iranians into the arms of Khomeini and his bearded minions, who promised a connection to Shiite tradition. Khomeinism turned out to be a bloody failure, but there is scant reason to imagine the thirst for continuity has been quenched. . . . Iranian nationalism . . . could be the answer, and, to judge by the nationalist tone of the current upheaval, it is the one the people have already hit upon.

When protestors chant “We Will Die to Get Iran Back,” “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, My Life Only for Iran,” and “Let Syria Be, Do Something for Me,” they are expressing a positive vision of Iranian nationhood: no longer do they wish to pay the price for the regime’s Shiite hegemonic ambitions. Iranian blood should be spilled for Iran, not Gaza, which for most Iranians is little more than a geographical abstraction. It is precisely its nationalist dimension that makes the current revolt the most potent the mullahs have yet faced. Nationalism, after all, is a much stronger force and in Iran the longing for historical continuity runs much deeper than liberal-democratic aspiration. Westerners who wish to see a replay of Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 in today’s Iran will find the lessons of Iranian history hard and distasteful, but Iranians and their friends who wish to see past the Islamic Republic must pay heed.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Iran, Nationalism, Politics & Current Affairs, Shah