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 The Theology of South Park

As much as they hate each other, the one thing that Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush have in common is a theological understanding of a world being divided between the forces of good and evil with each believing he is clearly on the side of good.

President Bush sees himself as most strongly influenced by Jesus Christ, a compassionate conservative who responds to what he sees as a completely unprovoked attack with a mixture of care packages and bombs. Bin Laden, who considers himself one of the true followers of Mohammed, believes that he is clearly on a mission to cleanse the infidels who have disrespected sacred monuments, supported oppressive governments, and kept his people in extreme poverty.

Neither they nor their followers can see any shades of gray. You're either for us or against us; for freedom or tyranny; with the infidels or the pious. And both lay a strong claim of having God's blessings.

This, of course, is not a new rhetorical strategy; throughout time, many countries have tried to legitimize their interests by calling forth God as a sponsor. Voltaire calls this practice into question throughout Candide as does Mark Twain in his short story, "The War Prayer."

The absurdity of believing too fully in a system that draws clear lines between good and evil was also evident to Eugene Ionesco when, during the second World War, he witnessed the consequences of a blind faith in fascism, a system that fully aligned itself with God's blessing and thus did not allow for uncertainty, shades of gray, or a sense of humor. His play, Rhinoceros, in which people turn into the title beast because of their adherence to fascist attitudes, was originally intended to be a satire of the period, yet after World War II, Ionesco argued that the play demonstrates the dangers of any political system that becomes infested with metaphysical certainty.

I believe that this is the tradition that Matt Stone and Trey Parker are following in their animated television series, South Park. Throughout the series, Stone and Parker not only challenge America's claim to moral superiority, but also question whether good and evil can exist in a pure form in any political or even metaphysical system. In light of the recent, aforementioned events, this point of view seems more timely now than ever.

The series is set in a small town in Colorado, focusing primarily on the lives of four children: Stan Marsh, Kyle Brotlovsky, Kenny McCormick, and, most prominently, Eric Cartman. These characters resonate with the ones found in perhaps the most famous piece from theater of the absurd, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

Stan and Kyle, like Estragon and Vladimir, are the most normal and interchangeable. The only major differences between them are the color of their hats and their religions; Kyle is Jewish and thus has to be kept out of Christmas celebrations, but other than this time of year, this difference does not matter much to them. Cartman is clearly the series Pozzo, both are loud, rude, and have an ever present need to have their authority respected. Kenny is very much like Lucky, perceptive but somewhat incomprehensible and certainly the most abused. In every episode, Kenny dies a horrible death, only to be resurrected in the next one to die in a different, yet equally horrible manner. Like the characters in Waiting for Godot, the South Park kids seem to be waiting for someone to come and make sense out of their world.

The kids' confusion stems from their refusal to accept the contradictions in American society itself. For instance, the kids become very frustrated when their favorite television show is canceled due to its vulgar content of two men farting in each others' faces. They don't understand why their parents find the content of this show offensive and don't seem to mind the violence that permeates so many of the other shows. They also can't understand why their parents worry so much about potty humor on television when they make similar jokes among themselves when a flu epidemic runs through the city. The reason they can't understand their parents' reactions is simple; there's nothing to understand, except that their parents have a very warped sense of morality. However, the parents are not entirely to blame for their lack of insight either because the central religious figures that inspire their morality are just as confused as they are as to what is right and wrong.

Jesus is alive and well in South Park. He looks just as most Americans expect him to, like a Northern European hippie; he owns a nice suburban home and dispenses advice on his cable access show where viewers call in with their problems. Here is an example of a typical exchange:

Caller: Hello, this is Martin….
Jesus: Martin from Aspen Park; yes, I know.
Caller: How the Hell did you know that?
Jesus: Well, maybe because I'm the Son of God, Braniac; now do you have a question?
Caller: I have a cousin who cheated on the SAT's and…
Jesus: Tell little Gregory that cheating is lying and lying is wrong no matter what the circumstance.
Caller: Ok thanks for the advice, Jesus.

This is clearly not the Jesus of the Bible, but the Jesus of American convenience. Like many preachers, he utilizes modern technologies to give out stock answers to stock questions.

Jesus' stock answers can be seen as a satire on Americans' simplistic religious views, smoothing out the demands ("sell all you have and give it to the poor") and the complications, making the issues all fit into a rather unambiguous, easy morality. But there's still another dimension to this exchange. Jesus isn't shown as the ultimate expression of good, but as an ordinary guy who gets annoyed at his caller's stupidity. This image of Jesus as less than perfect comes up in several episodes: he's afraid to wrestle Satan on Pay Per View, he has trouble booking his father (God) to appear with him in Las Vegas, he admits that he slept with Eric Cartman's mother, and he even uses his own name in vain.

And Jesus is not the only religious super star to be shown as flawed. In just one episode, Parker and Stone manage to potentially offend all the world's religious followers.

The premise is that David Blaine, a popular magician, starts to take himself too seriously and begins his own cult. In order to save the South Park boys from his influence, Jesus attempts to show that his magic is still superior by challenging Blaine to a battle of miracles in front of a large audience. Jesus tries to win the crowd back with a not so impressive display of magic, changing water into wine by asking the audience to turn around and then switching pitchers. David Blaine counters by eating his own head, turning himself into a deck of cards, and flying off the stage, clearly winning this "magician's battle." Jesus decides he cannot face him alone and calls together the "Super Best Friends," consisting of the spiritual leaders Buddah, Mohammed, Lao Tsu, Krishna, Moses, and even Joseph Smith of the Mormons. Together, they are able to defeat David Blaine, but it is clear that individually none of them have all the answers, none of them are without flaws, and not one of them could have won the battle on their own.

Since none of the religious founders are absolutely perfect, it follows that there is no, single true religion with an exclusive claim to representing good. When Stan meets the group for the first time, he is shocked:

Stan: So you mean to tell me that even though people fight and argue over different religions, you guys are all actually friends?
Mohammad: More than friends, young boy, we are super best friends with the desire to fight for justice.

Although this exchange could be dismissed as simply a goofy attempt to insert religious figures into an incongruous format (most notably the seventies cartoon, The Justice League of America), it does raise a serious point. Instead of bickering over which leader had the most impressive miracles or has the greatest following today, we might try to learn from each of them in order to come to a greater understanding of what they all stand for: compassion, greater equality and human dignity.

To further challenge the notion of their being only one true religion, South Park provides a vision of how absurd heaven would be if only one group got in. When one of the parents dies and is sent to hell, he immediately protests that he was a good, practicing Protestant all of his life. At which point, a demon interrupts him to let him know that he failed to back the true religion, the Mormons. The glimpse we get of a heaven filled only with Mormons is not a pretty picture. No diversity, no discussions, nothing to do except to participate in plays about why drinking coffee is bad for you. Heaven is shown as such a boring, white bread place that hell is clearly preferable, an inevitable result of a singular vision of good and evil dominating the cosmos.

Despite this weird vision of heaven, God, at least, is not Mormon. In fact, it is rather difficult to describe what God is. The first time God appears is to help Jesus celebrate New Year's Eve, 2000. When he makes his surprise appearance, the response of everyone in the audience is "that's God?" About the only way he meets the common expectations is through his deep, resonant voice, but physically God is shown as a strange, diminutive creature with a kind of lizard head, a pointed tail and a tongue that occasionally catches flies. Not terrifying, certainly not awe inspiring, but somewhat cute, this is a hands off God who leaves us alone to make our own mistakes and solve our own problems. Again, this rather goofy picture raises a serious message, for if God is not something humans can fully understand, then no single group should lay claim to having God's complete confidence or blessing for their actions.

If good is not as pure as we expect it to be, evil is certainly not as bad. Satan is also a recurring character and although he's drawn as a classic devil-red, muscular, with horns--he's only scary in appearance. In fact, the emotion he inspires is more one of pity than of fear, for he's shown as a tragic gay man, who can't seem to find an ideal relationship. With his first lover, Saddam Hussein, he plays the role of an emotionally abused woman, tired of being used for just sex:

Satan: What's it like up on Earth, Saddam? Tell me about it again.
Saddam: (rubbing Satan's arm seductively) Let's not talk; let's get busy.
Satan: Do you remember when you first got here? We used to talk all night long. We would just lie in bed and talk.
Saddam: Well yeah, cause I was still waiting to get you in bed dummy.

Although Satan manages to recover enough personal pride to dump Saddam, he finds himself bored when he gets involved with Chris, a nineties man who is too open minded and understanding. Satan becomes so confused about his love life that he turns to God for advice. After listening to his problems, God expresses amazement and disgust that his once powerful adversary has become such a wimp, not because of his sexual preference but because he's unable to be happy on his own.

In short, with God being a kind of aloof lizard type thing, Jesus doing talk shows, and Satan completely occupied by his own relationships, there is no absolute good or evil pushing and pulling the folks of South Park. No wonder American society is full of contradictions; that's the nature of everything. As the show continually demonstrates, acknowledging that we are not yet perfect is the first step in becoming something better. Such a message not only seems refreshing in light of the rhetoric that has followed the events of September 11th, but also in comparison to so much that is popular at this time; Star Wars, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Lord of the Rings all present visions of clearly defined good and evil. Though it is fun to momentarily escape into these dualistic universes, it is important not to equate them with our own. When we do, South Park can bring us back to Earth with that dose of reality the absurd has always provided.

January 2002

From Randy Fallows

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