Then everybody dies

Culture | A faithful dwarf and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Campaigning from the closet," Sept. 19, 1998

A god-friendly movie
Hot on the heels of The Truman Show, Jim Carrey is back in another movie with religious overtones. This time he is Joe, the narrator of Simon Birch (rated PG for language, thematic elements, and accident scene), who thinks back to when he was a kid (Joseph Mazello) and the title character (Ian Michael Smith) was his best friend. This adolescent boy afflicted with dwarfism and a bad heart says that God wants to make him a hero. Joe lives without a father, while Simon's parents are very distant. Neither has many friends, so they turn to each other when things get bad. Early in the movie we are told that both Simon and Joe's mother will pass away. Joe says that through these experiences, Simon taught him to believe in God. Happily, the movie never tries to point a finger at God for all their tragedies, thus sparing us the bubble-headed Buddhist bliss of typical Hollywood faith; however, the God of Simon Birch in still cut out of celluloid. Simon's day-to-day behavior is actually brattier than his cohorts. His faith is something he clings to in hope of a deus ex machina ending to his sad life. It also brings the promise of an emotional climax and teary-eyed deathbed scene. For all the emotion, it is hard to see this kid as a spiritual role model. These themes of faith and tragedy are hard to portray on the screen, even when handled properly. Depending on the viewer's mood, Simon Birch is either poignant or too melodramatic. Religion as quackery
Can Eastern mysticism help cure heart disease? Megastar spiritualist Deepak Chopra says yes in his slickly titled book Healing the Heart: A Spiritual Approach to Reversing Coronary Artery Disease. Here he applies his cross of Western medicine and something called Ayurveda, which is purported to be a 5,000-year-old medical system. Think of this as self-realization with a Blue Cross card. Mr. Chopra is peddling snake oil for the soul that mixes take-care-of-yourself medical advice, a few wisps of New Age metaphysics, and a collection of Indian recipes. "Health is the harmonious integration of our consciousness, our physical selves, and the universe around us," Mr. Chopra says. "The universe is our extended body, and our bodies contain the universe." Not to mention a few clogged arteries. Mr. Chopra turns his theology into a type of personality test. People are either Vatta, Pitta, or Kapha dominant-and this imbalance may be making you sick. So eat right, listen to the primordial sounds of nature, and find your inner self. Behind his M.D., Mr. Chopra is selling spirituality on easy terms. Eastern abstractions combine with American pragmatism to raise serious cash for Mr. Chopra, who launched himself into the spotlight as a flak for transcendental meditation. He offers the benefits of spiritual health with no sacrifice. A little exercise, a little meditation, and a good serving of blueberry bliss balls can make life grand. The reason his books sell by the bushel basket is they present religion as nothing more than a spiritual vitamin. But you die anyway
One of the 20th century's most famous pieces of muckraking journalism has been updated for the '90s. Jessica Mitford finished The American Way of Death Revisited just before passing away herself from cancer. This exposé of the funeral industry takes no prisoners in accusing morticians of stuffing the bereaved with unnecessary expenses. Originally published in 1963, Ms. Mitford made herself a journalistic celebrity with her inside look at the trade-from bizarre embalming practices to the secrecy surrounding the wholesale cost of caskets. She says that undertakers regularly lie about the laws concerning the handling of dead bodies, thus forcing additional expense to meet bogus regulations. While much about American society has changed since the 1960s, Ms. Mitford says the funeral business is still the same. Most people believe in only having simple, inexpensive preparations for themselves. Yet when a loved one dies, one's sorrow combines with the sales pitch of the funeral home's "grief counselor" (read: salesman). The result is thousands of dollars in expenses that will quickly be forgotten or eaten by worms. Ms. Mitford devotes a chapter to describing how morticians are terrified by the presence of pastors in funeral decisions. Their attention to stewardship is bad for business-and the author cites a variety of sources ranging from Bishop Pike on the left to Larry Burkett on the right as supporting a more moderate treatment of earthly remains. But Ms. Mitford filters her critique through her own extreme liberalism. Such an anti-business philosophy doesn't want anyone to make any money. She constantly calls for more federal regulation of morticians. At one point in her jeremiad against embalming, she castigates funeral directors who refuse to handle the bodily fluids of AIDS victims and pokes them with the Americans with Disabilities Act. How America deals with funerals is a symptom of a bigger disease: the denial of death. Since most believe that the end of life is either mere cessation or some vaguely blissful afterlife, death must be shoved offscreen. Since most affluent people no longer see death as commonplace, it can be ignored. Then it comes screaming in their faces, leaving them wide open to questionable sales practices. Better funerals need better theology, recognizing both the wages of sin and the hope of the resurrection.

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