It’s tough being a celebrity Scientologist, and not only on the bank balance. First John Travolta had to deal with the critical reaction to his dream project, Battlefield Earth. Then Tom Cruise had to contend with all the horrible rumours about kidnapping, brainwashing and possible bogus alien impregnation that stemmed from his innocent and pure love with Katie Holmes. Now Isaac Hayes is so appalled by South Park‘s attacks on religion that he’s quit in a Hubbardian huff.
He’s been accused of hypocrisy by the show’s creators, and it’s certainly true that the show has slammed religion ever since the short on which the series was based, in which Jesus gets into a smackdown with Santa. But I’ve seen the episode, and I can imagine why a Scientologist would head for the hills pretty quickly.
So how offensive was it? You can judge for yourself – there’s a clip from it at YouTube. Particularly harsh – or from another perspective, words, funny – is the extended clip telling the story of Xenu, the evil alien overlord allegedly responsible for all the problems we face in our everyday lives, which can be overcome through Scientology ‘auditing’. This fairly implausible story is acted out with a caption saying “This is what Scientologists actually believe”. I think it’s called being hoisted by your own petard.
Subsequently in the episode, the church’s leader reveals that it’s all an elaborate scam, a position with which I’ve some sympathy. I’ve been fascinated by Scientology ever since the church’s representatives used to regularly stop me on the way home from school to offer me a free personality test (perhaps that’s how Tom recruited Katie?). This has now been turned into a “stress test”, which I saw them conducting opposite the Town Hall only on Saturday – click here for a dodgy phone picture.
In all that time I’ve never heard whether the Church of Scientology acknowledges whether the reports about Xenu are correct, but I’m willing to bet Comedy Central’s lawyers looked into it pretty closely before allowing the episode to go to air.
Not all of the episode’s brilliantly satirical, though. There’s an extended sequence where Tom Cruise gets sulky and locks himself in Stan’s closet. Giving every single character the opportunity to yell “Tom Cruise is in the closet and won’t come out!” You know, like a literal illustration of all those gay rumours. Brilliant. And by the time John Travolta joins him, it’s gotten very dull.
This goes with the territory taboo-breaking shows like South Park sometimes get carried away with their own daring and forget to make it funny. The other controversial religion episode, ‘Bloody Mary’ – which screened only two weeks after the Scientology one – doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs either.
But the attacks on Scientology, as opposed to Cruise, are right on target, and my first reaction to the story about Hayes quitting was to mock him. As you may have deduced, I haven’t enormous respect for the religion of L. Ron Hubbard.
But then I somewhat guiltily remembered my position on those infamous cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, which was that it was just too much trouble, and that they weren’t good enough to be worth publishing. Is this a double standard? Is it OK to offend Scientologists and not Muslims? Does the violence of the reaction to the cartoons mean that my opinion is based on fear? I suspect ultimately I’d argue that there’s a difference between South Park and the cartoons in terms of the accuracy of Parker and Stone’s satire, which far exceeds the infamous bomb-turban.
South Park was much braver, unsurprisingly. Depicting the Prophet is old hat for them – they did it in a 2001 episode called ‘Super Best Friends’ (it’s from the same series as their post-9/11 effort ‘Osama Bin Laden Has Farty Pants’), which was an earlier, slightly subtler attack on Scientology. It got no reaction whatsoever from Muslim clerics at the time, in the UK at least.
We shouldn’t be afraid to make value judgements about religions. They themselves certainly aren’t when they say that all other religions are wrong. And in a free society, anyone should be allowed to critique them, even with the unfortunate byproduct of offending some of their adherents. (John Howard and Peter Costello certainly haven’t been dissuaded lately.) Religions are big enough and powerful enough to look after themselves. And Scientology certainly is, even if it chooses to do so via peculiar statements from Tom Cruise, who seems increasingly unfortunate that the church bans psychiatry.
To use a Scientologist term, I reckon their religion is “fair game“, for South Park and for anybody. And that Hayes felt he had to leave ultimately just shows how on-target South Park’s lampooning was.