True Religion

Statler-and-waldorfForty years ago this month, Jim Henson launched “The Muppet Show” on primetime television. While it only lasted for five seasons, it remains an iconic memory for me and my generation. We all watched it – parents, children, and teens – in the era before YouTube, Reality TV, and streaming video. Remarkably, most everyone I knew loved it (these were singing and dancing puppets after all), and those who didn’t were few. And as Elizabeth Hyde Stevens has written, she being a Muppet aficionado and Jim Henson historian, “Anyone from Generation X who didn’t like the Muppets can’t be trusted.”

It was a star-studded cast, what with Gonzo, Fozzie, Kermit, Ms. Piggy, the Swedish Chef, and a parade of human actors, comedians, and singers gracing the stage. Yet, no reference to “The Muppet Show” would be complete without discussing those puppeteering merchants of bewailing complaint: Statler and Waldorf – those were the two old, heckling men – named after New York hotels – who sat in the balcony and complained about, well, everything.

The actors could not deliver their lines properly; the show’s writers were rank amateurs; the special guests were made to feel unwelcome; the producers were garbage. While everyone else at the show was having a magnificent time, they were miserable.  Though closer to the action than anybody else, though possessing the best seats in the house, they could never enjoy themselves. The only time they were even remotely pleased was when they could point out the failures of those who fell beneath their critical, bulging eyes.

If there is a more accurate and picturesque description of the state of hardened, cynical, religion then I don’t know what it is. It is easy for religionists to sit on their lofty perches to cast scathing reviews on everyone around them. They seethe and wallow about in their indignation, constantly angry at those who never measure up, wagging their heads, holding their noses, and mumbling to one another about their dissatisfaction with, well, everything.

This pattern seems to be exactly that – a pattern. It is the norm from ancient times until today, cutting across all cultural and religious lines: Religion can make people mean. And it’s clear how this happens. When someone is convinced beyond any doubt that his or her elevated position is the correct one – and the only one – he or she is empowered to belittle, lambaste, and condemn all others.

Partly, this is why religion can be so attractive to bullies and tyrants, and why it can breed so much anger, vitriol, and damnation: When a person is certain about God, convinced that he or she speaks unimpeachably for God, then those who are “beneath” him or her, are not worthy of respect.

However, one should never use his or her religion as an excuse for personal nastiness or to defend arrogance. For “true religion is to look after those who are oppressed,” and in the words of the Hebrew prophet, “To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”

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