It’s So Romantic.

(CN: Religious abuse, domestic violence, stalking.)

Today we’re going to talk about one of the most sickening aspects of modern Christianity: this idea that the Christian god “woos” people by abusing and hurting them.

Romance isn't just for teenagers...

Romance isn’t just for teenagers… (Photo credit: Ed Yourdon)

“To woo someone” means to seek the romantic favor of that person. Normally this is done by doing sweet and thoughtful things. When you or I woo someone, we give that person presents or wash his or her car or draw cute notes with lots of hearts on them. That sweet first rush of romantic love pushes us to do all kinds of things, but they’re all meant to win someone’s heart and show off our very best side.

Uma Thurman is The Bride

Uma Thurman as The Bride (Photo credit: luvi). This is not the Christian Bride of Christ, and I don’t care how many of them seem to think so.

Seems pretty simple to me, but apparently quite a few Christians don’t know what “wooing” means.

The Bible is sometimes called a god’s love-letter to his people. “God is wooing us to marry us,” oozes one Christian blogger, and this isn’t a new idea; I heard the same kind of talk back when I was a Christian. “It’s not a light matter to be wooed by God,” exhorts another rather self-important fellow as he introduces a weirdly sexualized and lurid post about this divine wooing he imagines is happening and how “the Bride” is supposed to respond to this wooing (spoiler alert: She’s supposed to do what she’s told and go where her Groom tells her to go). Another sets up this premise: “A thorough reading of the sacred scriptures, reveals a God in love Who is continually and persistently pursuing to draw His darling Bride (us) into a holy love affair. [sic]” Of course, he doesn’t mention where Job fits into this wooing, nor the Great Flood, nor the whole Hell thing that this god allows people to suffer through, or the Holocaust, or the many Christians being killed in religious wars and conflicts all over the world.

This strangely sexual, romantic language is shot and woven through modern fundagelical culture; Christians talk about this “wooing” with open longing, women are encouraged to find men who’ll treat them just like Jesus treats the church, and Christians envision human courtship the way they envision Jesus courting the church (which is creepy enough considering that last link’s copious amounts of misogyny and gender policing). Christians are totally hooked on this “wooing” idea. They think it’s just awesome.

I even had a “wooing” experience of my own when I was Christian. While I was praying once in my teens I heard a crystal-clear male voice in my head telling me that I was to be the “Bride of Christ.” I hadn’t heard about the Book of Revelation at that point that I remembered, so I thought I was really going to be the one single Bride of Christ, as in I’d be in a white dress and I was going to marry Jesus. Far from being happy about this idea, it actually freaked me out because by now Biff and I were very heavily involved and thinking about getting married. This sort of bizarre event may well be how fringe cults get started, but thankfully I was a little too sensible (and a little too non-predatory) for that; now I think I must have heard the phrase on my first go-round in Pentecostalism, since it’s something Pentecostals say very frequently, and I just internalized it. I wasn’t prone to hearing voices, but it was a very emotional prayer session in a large group, so auditory hallucinations wouldn’t be totally unexpected in that setting. But at the time, it made perfect sense that my god was viewing me–and (as I learned very soon after that night) all of humanity–as his bride and that he was doing his best to “woo” us before our marriage. We just weren’t supposed to think a whole lot about what the wedding night was going to look like.

The idea we were taught then and that Christians are still being taught is that this god is bashing his brains out to court us. He wants to convince us humans to love him and want to marry him. So we began viewing the world in those terms. Every rainbow was a bouquet of flowers; every good bit of luck was a god slipping us a break so we’d get all gooey over him. Every gorgeous vista was handpainted and made by him to make us realize anew how much he loved us.

But this wooing takes a really dark turn when one considers what this romancing looks like in reality. The “wooing” idea suffers the same shortcoming that “intelligent design” faces, when you get down to it. For every so-called gotcha zinger like the incredible intricacy of the human eye, there are hundreds of horrifying cancers and flesh-eating microbes and genetic diseases that afflict humans. For every rainbow, there’s a tsunami killing thousands; every bit of good luck for us reminds us that there are people in the world who can’t even get enough food to eat every day. Gorgeous vistas are nice and all, but huge chunks of the Earth are all but uninhabitable and we’re facing some serious problems with arable terrain. If you’re going to talk about wooing, you also have to talk about the serious things this god is apparently totally ignoring to create Potemkin villages to impress people.

And you also have to talk about some seriously stalker-ish things Christians not only think their god is doing but also totally approve of him doing.

Here’s one of those things (and what prompted this blog post): I’ve got a lot of ex-Christian friends who have family members who are actively praying that terrible things happen to these apostates so they’ll reconvert.

You heard me. It takes a lot to surprise me, but that did it. They’re throwing their beloved ex-Christians under the bus. These “loving” Christians genuinely think that their god will do these terrible things to these apostates so they realize how much they need divine protection and love. Once they do, then they’ll come rushing back into this god’s arms.

“Please, God, I love you! Now please stop hurting me!”

I guess that’s the wooing process for a god. Be sweet and adorable till you realize that the little lady simply won’t cooperate, then lose your shit and attack her so she realizes how much you love her. Or let something terrible happen to her so she realizes that you’re really very wonderfully protective and nurturing and figures out how much she needs you.

That idea just gives me the chills!

Now, we know that prayer doesn’t really work, but inevitably bad things are going to happen to people. Bad luck rains on the just and the unjust, as the saying goes. But when that bad luck rains upon the “unjust,” meaning non-Christians, then that bad luck takes on a really morbid and uncomfortable turn. These terrible events are seen as happening for a reason, and that reason of course is that this god is “wooing” these prodigals and wanderers. I can’t help but think about how, when I was Christian, we’d hear about a resistant non-Christian having terrible luck and rejoice because now that person would be more likely to convert. Christian missionaries routinely prey upon very sick people and prisoners because they’re more vulnerable to religious entreaties, and fundagelicals have told me many times in all sincerity that they think that their current success in third-world hellholes is a sign of victory and even validation for their religion, not a sign of just how far absolutely desperate people will go to try to find some kind of help for their situations and of just how predatory fundagelical Christianity really is. Other ex-Christians have told me that they’ve heard preachers discuss some terrible hardship that’s occurred to someone out of the church with great pleasure and discuss how best to use this event as an “in” to get that person back to Jesus. The mindset entirely lacks empathy and compassion, but so does fundagelical Christianity, so hopefully nobody’s surprised there.

The message we take away is that the Christian god is happy to “woo” people with lovey-dovey stuff, but if those people insist on not loving him back, then he’s happy to ravage and abuse and brutalize people if that’s what it takes to win his girl. The ends justify the means, and if the end is winning the girl, then any means is acceptable, condoned, and even encouraged. If you’re wondering, this idea played out in my personal life as well; my then-husband Biff did all kinds of romantic things for me while he thought being wonderful would work to reconvert me and make our marriage solid again. But when he realized that that tactic wasn’t working, then he pulled out the threats and stalking. He justified it to me by whining “I had to try something, didn’t I?” In this extremism he was just doing what the Christian god does. He came by this attitude honestly. I saw it play out many times in other ways with other people.

For all the talk about “free will,” Christians don’t tend to know that they don’t have much of it. On one hand they’ll talk about their god being “a gentleman” and not forcing himself on anybody, but on the other will say that he allows this or that catastrophe or horrific event to occur because he’s mad that schoolchildren can’t be forcibly indoctrinated or because gay people can get married now. And Christians sometimes don’t even understand that what they are describing is not free will at all because free will can’t grow in ground where there exists duress and threats. At least one blogger fully recognizes that the Christian god doesn’t give a tinker’s dam about free will, and I agree fully (though not about why or what that lack-of-caring means; that piece insists that people’s wills aren’t free because they’re “enslaved to sin,” which makes it totally okay for the Christian god to force people to do things, and wow, that’s just awful). The Bible’s filled with references to the Christian god changing people’s minds and pushing them to think and do particular things.

For a deity who’s been wooing people for thousands of years, the Bible’s god sure doesn’t seem to understand what wooing actually means.

Christians must know this truth deep down, or else they wouldn’t pray for their god to do terrible things to people (or allow terrible things to happen, which is functionally the same thing as far as anybody should care) to get them to convert or reconvert. It’s nothing more than cosmic extortion and bullying–like this god is saying “Nice life you got here… it’d be a shame if anything were to, uh, happen to it through your refusal to love me…” And if people refuse to love the Christians’ god, then he is fully justified in unleashing terrible tortures upon them to make them love him. Somehow Christians still think their god is good like this blogger does even when acknowledging that why yes, he lets terrible things happen to people. I’ve given a donotlink there, so if you go there, please do note the first comment there, where an oblivious Christian chirps that these terrible things happen specifically so that non-Christians will start believing in this god–and if the terrible things kill believers so they go to heaven too, well, that’s just a bonus all the way around; the second comment is just as bad, with a spewing-forth of atrocity apologetics. I’m horrified that I used to think this way as well and praise such an inhuman monster and think that disasters and horrible events were some kind of cosmic love-song crooned by my deity to a disbelieving human race.

It’s really not very loving to pray for something bad to happen to someone, even if the Christian doing it is convinced that it’s for the “greater good.” It’s really not very loving to try to relabel a horrific event as a good thing to the people suffering from that event. It’s a denial of people’s dignity and humanity to treat their entire lives as nothing more than playthings in the hands of a capricious god who is getting awfully tired of your shenanigans, little Missy. This behavior is nothing more than actively wishing harm upon someone and doing it through an imaginary intermediary, as if that makes it all totally okay. When these Christian family members and friends say they’re praying for terrible things to happen to an ex-Christian, they are expressing nothing more than control and dominance in the same way that an abusive spouse would do it.

I sincerely wish that Christians would realize what they’re really doing when they pray for their god to “woo” someone in this obscene manner. They are describing a stalker god, not a loving god. Their god is evil. Thankfully, he’s not real, but if he were real and he did condone this kind of stalking (and this part is by no means an established case, granted), then I would reject him categorically just as I once rejected Biff–and for the same reason. Their god hurts people to comfort them afterward, in the same way that Biff would sometimes piss me off just so he could make up with me.

This kind of wooing isn’t love and it should never be confused for courtship. Hurting people to make them do something, especially something like returning to a relationship, is actually hugely abusive. In the real world we’d call that a form of domestic violence. Performing romantic gestures toward someone who is not interested in a relationship and has categorically rejected the person doing the gestures is not wooing either. It’s stalking.

Stalking and domestic violence are about control and power, not about love. It’s about dominating someone through fear.

Love can’t be anywhere near those things. I’m not sure it’s even possible to love that which threatens you or that which you fear.

I don’t worship or love bullies and stalkers. I refuse even to negotiate with them. Someone who threatens me even through an imaginary friend is showing me such supreme disrespect that I’m not sure I even want to dialogue at all with that person. I certainly do not take such behavior as loving no matter how much that person gaslights me to try to make me believe that it’s loving.

And I just want to add here that I think it’s insanely selfish and egocentric for such prayers to get said at all. It’s just astonishing to me that of all the things that Christians could pray for, of all the things they could ask their god to do, in a religion that stresses that Christians will get whatever they pray for, they choose to pray for their god to hurt people. If I knew I had a god who answered prayer on my side, I’d be doing nothing but praying for world peace or an end to hunger, not for one single person to experience serious misfortune to make them see how empty life is without Jesus. When I was Christian, see, I spent most of my time on prayers I thought had a good chance of happening (I phrased it as “in line with God’s will,” but that’s what it meant). At first those prayers were very grand indeed (world peace, an end to hunger, and mass conversion of the world), but over time they became more generic and possible (general wishes for well-being, location of lost stuff, and healing of minor injuries and sicknesses).

It’s pretty telling to me to see that these Christians are wasting any amount of time on asking for their god to do terrible things to people. It makes me think that maybe they know that they’ve got a better chance of seeing that happen than they do of seeing an end to hunger. Or even, dare I even think it?–These Christians could be asking their god to pony up some evidence for all these claims they keep making. I mean, wouldn’t that be a little bit more loving than hurting someone to force them to convert? They’d rather strong-arm someone into believing and worshiping this god than present that person with any kind of good reason for doing so?

In conclusion, Christians need to learn what wooing is and quit thinking that hurting people is a form of courtship. The Christians talking about this kind of “wooing” are just showing the world that they have no idea what love even is. And considering their savior told them to love their neighbors, considering their god is a god of love, their inability to recognize–much less show–real love is a glaring and downright bizarre blind spot in their faith system.

Until then, I reckon I’ll keep using the word “wooing” as a way of weeding out the most toxic of toxic Christians.

Posted in Religion, Feminism, Biography, Hypocrisy, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Night My House Was Exorcised, Sort Of.

Have you ever had a really embarrassing deed haunt you for years? This is one of mine. Set the Wayback Machine for the late 1980s:

English: Devil's door at St Illtyd's These doo...

English: Devil’s door at St Illtyd’s These doors, always in the shady north wall of a church, would be opened at baptisms for the exorcised devil to escape! They were usually blocked up in less superstitious, and more draught-conscious, times. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was 17 years old and had been dating Biff a few months. I’d been Pentecostal a year or so previously, but had drifted out again–to my family’s great relief. A few months after drifting out, I began dating Biff, who was not Christian in any way. He leaned eclectic Wiccan, but not the friendly fluffy sort; rather than shopping at Lucia’s Garden, the one-stop shopping source for friendly fluffy Wiccans in Houston, he bought his crystals and whatnot at the (Magick? Witch’s? Green? Can’t remember) Cauldron, which sold mostly the same stuff but had a more serious, darker vibe and thus was way cooler.

During casual conversation with him one hot, lazy Sunday afternoon, I mentioned that I’d been Pentecostal for a while before we met. He leaped on the idea with a ferocity that shocked me. He was suddenly convinced that he wanted to go to the Sunday night service that very evening and mock the Christians.

I should not have been surprised, in retrospect; it was the 80s, and “freaking the mundanes” was something people did. We’d go to the airport in full Renaissance Festival garb and gear–yes, even swords and knives. It was a much more innocent time; if someone did that now that person would be arrested, I’ve no doubt. These attention-getting stunts weren’t nearly as awesome in reality as they felt to do at the time, I’m sure. But this desire to go to church to challenge Christians wasn’t coming out of the clear blue sky, is what I’m getting at here.

I genuinely think that Biff was convinced that he’d go to church, right into the lion’s den as it were, mock the church people and get a rise out of them, and convince them that Christianity was totally wrong because he, at 19, knew all about it. I had a lot of misgivings about this idea, but I couldn’t talk him out of it. He was desperate to impress me by showing me how silly and foolish my old crowd had been, as if I needed to know that, and I think it bothered him that I still identified as Christian even though I wasn’t doing a whole lot with that identification at the moment.

Despite his many entreaties, I refused to accompany him because even I realized how lame this idea was. So he went off by himself, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

A few hours later, he returned to my house freshly-baptized and claiming he’d been exorcised of a demon of lust at that service. He even had a church-recorded tape of him growling and snapping at people during the proceedings and whatnot; I didn’t listen to it for years, but he offered it up as “proof” to anybody who doubted his conversion story. I was furious at first, but over time, convinced I was in love and that this religion was the best way to follow Jesus, I followed him back into my old church–though this time there was a way different manifestation of faith than I’d experienced that first time.

This time, the emphasis was upon spiritual warfare–specifically, warfare against demons.

I’m sure my church had had that push beforehand, but it reached a crescendo in the new crop of converts they got that year. There was a Rapture scare coming (though really, there are always Rapture scares at any given time in a Pentecostal church) and there’d been some Christian fiction books printed about demons infesting towns and people and whatnot. These books were criticized for being “Christian porn” by some of the folks in my church, but that didn’t stop people from simply devouring them. The Rapture scares were downplayed as much as possible by church leadership, who’d been through many such scares over their lifetimes, but always with a nod and a wink like they were discussing a chain letter, with the attitude of “Well, it might not work, but who knows? Better to be safe than sorry! Just hit ‘Forward,’ everybody!”

The Daughter of of Emperor Gordian is Exorcise...

The Daughter of of Emperor Gordian is Exorcised by St Triphun ( ) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This new brand of Pentecostalism wasn’t much like the sweet, Amy Grant-infused one I’d been involved in earlier. It was more militaristic, more vital, and more dedicated. It postured a lot more, too.

A big part of the posturing people did involved demons. Demons were to blame for everything. If anybody was having any kind of difficulty or trouble in life, it was demons. Can’t stop watching pornography? Demons. Can’t stop lying? Demons. Depressed? Demons. Business is down? Demons are somehow stopping people from needing whatever it is that business does or feeding them a competitor’s name. Demons were very powerful, and in the absence of discernible action on the part of either angels or the Christian god, they were strong “evidence” to us Christians that the supernatural realm was really real. There could not be demons without there also being angels and everything else, after all. Fighting demons was pretty easy, since all it required was decent suggestibility and an imagination, and such battles kept us from having to confront the deep societal and psychological issues that brought about the situations we were blaming entirely on demons.

We even had classifications for possession, which blows my mind now considering we’d never even verified for sure that demons existed. A person could be demon-possessed, which was the true-blue kind of possession where demons made that person do weird or anti-social things (and even physically impossible things, like in the movies). A person could also be demon-oppressed, which meant that you weren’t like totally possessed, but the demons still influenced you to do weird or anti-social things. I suspect now that we used “oppressed” in situations where the behavior wasn’t too outrageous or if the person in question would have been hopelessly offended at the idea of being possessed, and for that matter exorcism worked on both situations, so here I’ll just be calling both situations “possession” if that’s okay.

The idea behind exorcism was that once a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ had exorcised these evil spirits, normalcy and Christianity would return. I wasn’t ever sure just how far this demon stuff really went. Biff blamed a great number of his previous misdeeds on the demon he thought had possessed him, but it’s worth noting that every one of those misdeeds were things he kept doing after his exorcism, with the only difference being that now he expressed shame and guilt after committing them–and in this he was not alone at all; I never met anybody in the church who had been freed of demonic influence who saw any really big changes in his or her life. At the time we explained away this problem by saying that the demons had simply returned to their old haunt, which made me wonder even then why my god wasn’t powerful enough to get rid of the demons for good.

Exorcisms’ total lack of effectiveness didn’t stop me and my fellow Christians from seeing demons absolutely everywhere. Every ill in society was caused by demons. Demons waged war for every single soul and every single advance for secularism. Just as they were responsible for every problem in an individual’s life, they were also responsible for every problem in society. Bill Clinton’s election? Demons. Women wearing pants and wanting equal rights with men? Demons. Secular education? Demons. Israel’s problems? Demons. Every crime was sparked by demons. Every slapping-down of Christian privilege was caused by demons influencing society’s leaders.

And all that stood between these horrific demons and the world was a ragtag group of scruffy but totally dedicated TRUE CHRISTIANS™. It was like in the movies, but better because it was really truly happening, sort of.

This mindset continues even nowadays, with at least one Republican candidate for office suggesting in all sincerity that anybody who doesn’t like being inside a church should be forced to undergo an exorcism, since obviously the only reason anybody would ever dislike being in a church is because demons are possessing that person and there certainly could never be any other reason someone might not enjoy church services:

“If the atheist complainer is so uncomfortable when they walk into a church that there’s something inside of them squirming and making them feel these feelings of hatred toward the cross of Jesus Christ,” Klingenschmitt said, “don’t you think it’s something inside of the atheist complainer that’s wrong?”

Notice the wording there–”something inside of them.” That’s very deliberate wording. He really believes there really is “something” inside non-Christians (a group he conflates with atheists–a common mistake for fundagelical Christians to make), and once that “something” is cast out by a TRUE CHRISTIAN™–and trust me, I’m sure he knows exactly who fits that bill–then that person is then (in his words) “free to enjoy the worship of Jesus Christ.” Despite such Christians generally believing that humankind is very sinful, naturally we gravitate to churches and love being around them–unless demons are possessing us. I’m sure this mindset embarrasses a lot of Christians, but it’s still a popular view among a big swathe of ‘em.

And of course not only people but also countries, businesses, organizations, and buildings could be infested with demons.

Buildings like my house.

I lived at the time in a small Spanish-style ranch in a huge subdivision in Houston. It was a nice enough house; my family wasn’t living on base, and this was the home they’d chosen to rent. It was a little strange to be living out among non-military people and far from the base. My mom had to drive an hour to Galveston to her job, and my dad had a similarly long drive to wherever his base was (I never visited it and don’t actually know where it was or what it was even called). As far as the house went, it was a bit on the dark and dank side, like a lot of tract houses built in the 70s; its windows were way too small and few in number and it had dark carpeting. But to Biff, those aspects took on some very sinister connotations.

My boyfriend was convinced, you see, that my dad liked porn because the house was infested with demons. We’ll ignore that Biff himself dug porn even after his own exorcism and that my dad had liked porn ever since I could remember. Biff still saw my dad’s porn collection as a symptom of possession. (Quick note for young’uns: Back then, before the internet, if someone wanted to see porn, he or she had to acquire magazines or cheap videotapes.) Dad had a few videos, but mostly he liked magazines–specifically magazines with X-rated comic strips and cartoons in them (think Oglaf in print form but nowhere near as well-drawn, and if you’ve never seen Oglaf before then please be aware that this link is really, really NSFW). My dad had a bunch of these magazines, but I don’t think he was particularly obsessed with porn. To Biff, though, these normal behaviors seemed more sinister than they really were–an alarmist attitude we see in Christians nowadays, come to think of that. Porn especially is one of the great bugbears of Christian thinking, with its adherents indoctrinated to believe that all pornography is demonic and evil. So because my dad liked porn and had some porn magazines, that obviously meant my whole house was a-fluttering and choked with demons.

Our church had a procedure in place for how to deal with this situation, and Biff decided to follow it to rid his “lady’s” home of demons so she could live there in peace and maybe get the fam converted. With his bottle of Pompeiian olive oil in hand (I’m not sure why this brand was the preferred brand but it was all my church ever used for anointings; maybe its name sounded more 1st-century or something, maybe it was just the fancy brand at the time, maybe we’d scored a bulk discount, but whatever the reason was, I never unearthed it), he descended upon my home one evening while my folks were out.

To our surprise, my younger sister was home. Usually she was out–she was even more busy during the week than I was with her various extra-curricular groups and friends. I can’t remember why she was home that night. Biff was momentarily surprised, but he recovered quickly and decided that this was the perfect time to get her saved too.

I should mention that nobody in my family had followed me into this new faith. No matter how hard I tried–and I tried very hard and was a real pain in the butt, I’m sure–they just didn’t see the truths I saw. A few people at church had blamed my family’s recalcitrance on demons, and Biff had clearly taken that idea to heart. He didn’t even explain what was about to happen to my wide-eyed sister or me, but rather just began the exorcism ritual.

This ritual apparently involved rubbing olive oil liberally across every window and doorway in the house and praying very loudly and speaking in tongues to command all the demons in the house to depart. I tagged along a few feet behind him; I wasn’t in on the ritual so I didn’t know what he was doing and couldn’t participate, so I don’t remember doing much besides praying out loud.

My sister tagged along a few feet behind me, her eyes just huge. She had no idea what to make of all this spiritual warfare and her reaction made me second-guess the validity of what was happening. Clearly whatever demons were in this house, they weren’t infecting her. She was a fairly oblivious, innocent teenager.

Regardless, Biff finished in my parents’ bedroom, slathering their window with the olive oil and by this time all but screaming his prayers and commandments that the demons flee the house. I didn’t enter the room, but watched with my sister from the doorway. Biff stood in the bedroom with his hands raised ceiling-ward and prayed a few minutes more, and then he let them fall and smiled across at me like he’d just finished some great endeavor and had done it well. Not for the first time I got that powerful feeling that we were just playing pretend games like small children, that nothing we’d done was real, that he’d been yelling at the ceiling and addressing imaginary foes. But he at least seemed to think that he’d won some huge battle. He so wanted me to tell him I was proud of him and that I thought he’d done a good job.

I don’t remember if I did or not. I was pretty shocked by this whole display. I had been raised a nice Catholic girl and we just didn’t do this kind of thing in my family. We were pretty quiet people overall, spirituality-wise, and regarded excessive displays of religious fervor with a great deal of skepticism and distaste. I tried to be polite and encouraging but that’s all I could muster.

He left a little while before we expected our parents back home, after a chaste hug and kiss from me. My sister avoided me studiously, though I know we were both watching my parents to see if they acted any differently. Biff had assured me that my dad would be remarkably different and both my parents would want to go back to church and my whole family would probably be getting saved any day now because he’d removed the demons that were stopping this happy event from happening.

Obviously, none of those things occurred.

I watched my dad like a hawk and waited because I was totally convinced, despite how silly the exorcism had been, that Jesus would be “convicting him” (that’s Christianese for “making him feel really guilty”). I didn’t think Biff had really exorcised anything, but I still believed in the power of prayer–and we had prayed quite a bit for my dad to change. So that at least I was sure would happen.

I don’t know if my parents ever found out what’d happened. I sure never told them, but my sister might have. They certainly never discussed the matter with me, and my sister never wanted to even talk about it. I was pretty embarrassed by it all so I didn’t bring it up. And of course my dad didn’t act differently, and of course he and my mom never went to church with me even once after that night. And of course none of my family converted.

Nobody really thought anything else would come of that night, right? It bothered me quite a bit that the prayers hadn’t worked, but all I got from my church was vague hand-waving around why they hadn’t–all centering on us doing something wrong or “God’s time” being different than ours.

All I could hope was that my sister had forgotten about everything.

Naturally, she hadn’t.

Many, many years later, after my mom died, my sister blew into town for the funeral. While we sat in a restaurant waiting for our food to arrive, she tentatively brought up the exorcism Biff had done and told me that it’d really freaked her out and made her realize that I was involved with a bunch of whackjob nutbars. If anything, what we had done had driven her even further from what I had thought at the time was salvation. She’d known from the get-go that there weren’t any demons in that house, and she’d known that my boyfriend was just talking to and yelling at the ceiling. She’d been perfectly aware that he was just posturing and acting, but that he’d been doing it in the name of religion had really weirded her out. But she had a bit of an eccentric spiritual side herself, and what Biff–and by extension her big sister–was doing was all kind of scary for her. She wasn’t furious or anything about it, but that night had become a wedge between us; it was that night that she realized that we’d grown apart, probably for good.

I have not often gotten the opportunity to apologize for the weird stuff I did as a Christian. To be honest, I was grateful that she’d mentioned it. I took her hands across the table and told her I was really sorry for having frightened her. I was sorry I hadn’t stopped Biff when I realized what effect he was having on her. It was my home and he was a visitor, and I could have stopped him at any point when I realized my sister was getting scared by him and that she obviously wasn’t into this display of religiosity at all. She had not consented to being part of this ritual and we had steamrolled her without caring what impact it might have on her.

People live and learn. I eventually learned that it was all bullshit. Also, I’d never do anything like that now to someone who wasn’t consenting to the festivities. It bothered me a lot that 20 years later she was still remembering that night with such obvious distaste, so I think we were both happy to clear the air a little.

That fear and horror of demons I had propelled me to do and excuse a lot of overreach as a Christian, and that same fear and horror is propelling many other Christians to do the same thing today. You’d think that as Christianity fades in influence that its adherents would chill out about exorcism, but if anything the practice is growing even more popular. Pope Francis has made exorcisms official Catholic practice and thrown his support to a large group of priests who do tons of exorcisms; Catholicism has a love-hate relationship with demons and exorcism, so this support came as quite the surprise to many Catholics. It’s a little weird for me to hear that Francis, who is the teddy-bear darling warming the hearts of even many fundagelicals and atheists, talks “incessantly” of demons and is apparently fanatically interested in exorcism.

Over in Protestantism, Bob Larson, who has lost quite a bit of credibility over the years due to various debunks of his various ventures, is using exorcism to propel himself back into relevance; though popular with low Christianity‘s fans, he is having less luck with mainstream folks. He had been signed to star in a reality series (on Syfy, natch) about his exorcisms, but it got pulled right before it was supposed to air. I should just feel fortunate that Biff’s desire to grandstand religiously didn’t result in any deaths, as happens way more often than anybody’d like to think–especially to vulnerable, helpless children. Of course, Bob Larson’s hardly the only offender in that area, with exorcisms still being a totally acceptable method to some Christians of, among other things, turning gay people straight.

Of course, consent isn’t a really big deal to demon-happy Christians anyway. The whole idea of demonic possession is that demons overtake a person and make that person do and say stuff that person would never do unless thus possessed.

So much for free will, huh?

Between the Christian god strong-arming folks into doing stuff (in the guise of “wooing” them to convert to Christianity) and “something” mucking with people’s heads that must be driven out, it’s amazing people ever manage to get anything done.

Maybe the truth is nowhere near either of those two extremes. Maybe people are just, well, people, and maybe sometimes we do stuff that doesn’t always make a lot of sense even to ourselves, but there’s nothing supernatural making us do any of it.

If or when someone comes along who finds support for the very existence for the supernatural, I’ll certainly rethink things. Until then, I’m going to hang on to the “people being people” idea because it’s the only explanation I’ve heard that doesn’t entirely rely upon entire worlds of unseen, unproven beings wanting to mess with us, having the ability to do so, and reaching into our heads to twist us around as they please. It might be a lot scarier for Christians to imagine that there aren’t actually demons everywhere, but if that’s reality, then we’ve just got to get used to it as best we can so we can start addressing the very real problems people face in a way that’s actually effective.

We’re going to talk next time about this “wooing” idea, since I’m seeing it in play a lot lately. I hope you’ll join me–see you soon!

Related:
* An account of a fellow who was fundagelical around the same time I was.

Posted in Biography, Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

A Way Through the Briar Patch.

Two friends

Two friends (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(CN: Rape threats and religious abuse.)

Y’all probably know I’ve been friendly with the Christian who runs the website/blog “Quiet Christianity”, who I call “TQC.” With his permission I wanted to talk a little bit about that emerging friendship.

I can be quite leery of Christians wanting to be friendly with me. Most of the time these friendly overtures have some kind of agenda sparking them that has nothing to do with me as a person.

Sometimes they want to be friends because they have an overt wish to proselytize. This is called friendship or relationship evangelism and it’s a mean and obvious thing to do to someone; as that CARM link puts it so well, it is neither friendship nor evangelism, nor is it actually very concerned with relationships. It’s just baldfaced opportunism. It’s not a whole lot different from the tactics employed by Nice Guys™ who are nice to women only while they believe that they might get sex as a reward for their niceness. I fell for friendship evangelism once in my teens at the hands of a Southern Baptist schoolmate, but I’m a lot more careful nowadays. Thankfully, once I make clear to the Christian trying this tactic that I’m not really interested in being a project for anybody, the Christian usually vanishes from sight.

Sometimes they want to be friends because they have an opening in their demographic roster. They want to think of themselves as open-minded, and that requires them to surround themselves with a variety of people. The slot labeled “non-Christian” happens to be open, and I’ve been elected to fill it. They think they’re terribly evolved because they’re seeking out differing opinions, but in truth they aren’t planning to listen to those opinions. They act like they want to learn from me, but they don’t actually ever seem to do so. I’ve fallen for this one as recently as this year at the hands of an evangelical lay-minister, but I’m not going to ever again. I’m not someone’s token non-Christian “friend” and I see no reason to be friends with someone who doesn’t recognize my rights or dignity. If they want to learn, then they can go get that education for themselves.

A lot of decent people happen to be Christian. I don’t survey my friends to figure out their religions, but there’s probably a few in the pack. After leaving Christianity, I tried to develop the habit of not asking that question and letting people be themselves. I don’t know what religion many of my friends have, if any religion at all, and not knowing doesn’t bother me. Even my closest friends don’t tend to know where I’m at religion-wise. I lived once in a world where someone’s doctrinal soundness was the most important thing about that person–in fact the first thing one asked that person! Since leaving that world I’ve been very shy indeed about making any more moves that feel too similar to that old one. I get the sense sometimes that it’s a bit of a relief for some people that I don’t talk about that topic in private life and in that manner offer a respite from what can be for many Christians a constant battle. It’s not that I’m peeling away something important to someone; it’s just that if religious identity is supremely important to someone, that person probably isn’t going to be attracted to the idea of a real friendship with me because I really don’t want to deal with religion in my private life. I’ll engage with that subject in a lot of other ways, but I’ve learned the hard way how easily such discussions can go from 0 to 60 with hurt feelings–even when someone deliberately starts and wanted those discussions. (It only took me like 25 years to learn it, too– ugh.)

I’m telling you all this so you know what I was thinking when TQC began emailing me to chat. When someone who’s very up-front about holding Christian beliefs starts being very friendly to me in the context of my blog or social media accounts, where I’m very up-front about not holding Christian beliefs, you can bet I consider carefully how to respond to such overtures.

TQC’s group  was one I discussed here on the blog a while ago to demonstrate why Christians often alienate outsiders. His ideas were meant well, but the way they were worded often ran at odds with his stated goal, which was to be kind to people. To my astonishment, he took my criticism very graciously–amending a lot of his site’s wording and attitudes to reflect what I think he actually meant. I’ve got no trouble with the site at this point. I don’t agree with his theology, and I can safely say that no amount of niceness will make me think of joining Christianity, but it’s certainly not doing any harm to his religion’s street cred and may end up repairing some of the damage his more rambunctious peers are wreaking.

It’s very clear to me, when surveying his blog, that his approach is speaking very loudly to the people he says he wants to reach; non-Christians show up regularly to comment and they are generally very positive and friendly toward him. But I’m told that the landscape looks very different when he surveys the responses of his fellow Christians toward what he’s trying to say.

You’d think “stop being an asshole to non-Christians and start concentrating on what Jesus actually told his followers to do” would be a fairly straightforward sort of sentiment and that Christians would deeply value being told exactly where they’re going wrong with how they’re impacting outsiders, wouldn’t you?

Well, you’d be surprised.

Christianity stopped being about charity and kindness some time ago. Now it’s about chest-thumping and dominance. I’ve come to think that Christians don’t care about whether or not people actually convert to their religion. If some people do, then that’s nice, that’s welcome, they’ll take converts even on those terms. But most people won’t convert because of those tactics. It’s hard to see Christians acting out on forums and in RL and think that anybody would be enticed by that behavior. And Christians have come to think that their tactics are divinely-approved, which means they refuse to even consider changing course. Even if it alienates 99% of the outsiders on the planet, if they think Jesus said to do something, then they’ll take pride in alienating 99% of the outsiders on the planet. They’ll consider it “spiritual warfare” to behave like they do, and will wear their badge of assholeishness with honor. Pushback means that obviously they are right, and obviously that demons are trying to impede Christian progress, and obviously that they should drill down harder on being assholes.

There are oases in that desert, though. Entire movements are sprouting up around community service and trying to pull Christianity back from the dominant voices in the religion. I think it’s a doomed effort, but it’s not my call to decide how someone spends his or her time.

It distresses me to hear about such decent folk getting the abuse they get from Christian chest-thumpers. I’ve talked before about how angry I get when I hear about sane, loving good Christians getting a good taste of “Christian love” from their fellow tribemates at any perceived step away from the party line. And I do get angry. It hurts my heart to hear some of the stories I’ve heard about how loving Christians get treated by the Christian body of believers–the people who should have their back all the time, the people who should be most interested in finding consensus and community with each other. Instead they get threats and wrath and passive-aggressive taunts and jibes.

And for what, we ask again?

“Stop being an asshole and start concentrating on what Jesus actually said to do.”

It’s a simple, short, and sweet sentiment. One could base a whole religion on it, don’t you think? You’d think there’s nothing really controversial about it. And again, you’d be wrong.

It seems to amaze my Christian friends that I really don’t get a lot of pushback on this blog. I rarely get outraged Christians showing up here–usually on the blog entries about various Christian idols, weirdly enough. I’ve only had a few message me privately with demands that I justify my existence or explain all about my deconversion to their satisfaction. It’s been quite some time since the last passive-aggressive Christian smugly informed me that she’d be praying for me. And I’m not a tiny blog anymore. We get enough visitors that at least some of them must be outraged Christians. They just don’t usually talk to me–not in comments, and not in private (where comment moderation wouldn’t matter).

That said, I’ve come to suspect that I don’t get a lot of pushback from Christians because I’m not really a big threat to their worldview. I’m an ex-Christian. Most Christians can easily find some way to dismiss what I have to say and invalidate me as a person. I know how that works because I was Christian once. When I say “Christians can be real assholes to outsiders and I wish they’d stop,” they’ve got a million different ways of countering that statement to rationalize why they simply must be assholes to outsiders.

But when a Christian says the exact same thing, that’s a real challenge. That Christian doesn’t fit into the box very easily. The chest-thumping act gets shown for what it is. It’s easy to dismiss an ex-Christian; the Bible even appears to instruct Christians to do exactly that. Ah, but any Christian who talks like me is a threat to the order. Toxic Christians need everybody to be on the same page for their game to work.

That’s why Sally Quinn, the Washington Post’s own religion editor, says that it’s Christians who treat her the absolute worst. Her experience mirrors my own; when someone threatens me with rape, it’s a Christian. Other Christians report similar bad treatment from Christians for disagreeing with whatever those Christians think is real Christianity. For that matter, one of this blog’s dearest friends is a minister who used to keep a blog that, while filled with touching vignettes, also constantly detailed how abominably his own sheep treated him.

How long is it going to be before people realize that Christians are definitely not being changed for the better by a god of love?

No matter how fervently some Christians writers try to change Christians’ awful behavior toward each other, Christians can’t seem to give up treating each other like crap. Comment threads of these links I gave you are chock-full of Christians rationalizing away why they treat each other like crap–blaming atheists and non-believers for not being better people (as indeed Ms. Quinn makes the point that atheists don’t treat her a whole lot better than Christians do, just minus the rape threats) and saying that well, the boss ordered it, so neener. And if they’re treating each other like they’re all feral cats in a box, then we can’t have a lot of hope that they’ll treat people wholly outside their “tribe” any better.

That still doesn’t make me less angry and sad that the few decent people in the religion who are raising their voices and trying to make a positive difference are getting treated that way.

I wish Christians realized that it’s not just us outsiders that are watching. It’s other Christians themselves too. And sooner or later they’re going to wonder why it is that people who claim that a god is making them moral and superior people don’t act either way. Maybe they’ll wonder why a group under the threat of Hell for not following its holy book’s commands of loving their neighbors and turning the other cheek and doing charity till they’re bankrupt don’t feel a little bit more driven to actually follow those commands. Maybe they’ll start thinking about why it is that Christians have a Savior who told them to love everybody no matter what, but have evolved dozens of asterisks to handle why they don’t want to do that.

Let’s make this clear: people don’t leave Christianity because its adherents are jerks. Give folks a little credit. Eternity is forever, as the saying goes, and nothing that happens in a few finite decades could possibly matter in the face of one’s eternal fate if that claim actually turns out to be true. That said, I do think that the sheer number of Christians who are jerks feeds into a certain amount of curiosity and questioning about how that can possibly be the case if the religion’s got a real live god involved in its followers’ lives. These assholes are a symptom of Christianity’s problem, not the problem itself. They’re alienating not only outsiders like me, but also Christians like themselves. While researching this piece I ran into comment after comment from people who said they loved Jesus and do their very best to do what he said to do, but they just couldn’t belong to or identify with a group so downright evil, nasty, and hateful. Many even said they refuse to publicly state their religion because of how others now perceive the label.

When Christian leaders and the loudest voices of the religion do actually dimly perceive this situation, their solution is to try to strong-arm and manipulate these dissenters into rejoining their toxic tribe, as TQC, Sally Quinn, and a host of other Christians have discovered. But I don’t perceive these efforts as effective at all. The time when Christians could threaten, pressure, and bluster and get their way is fast fading along with the religion itself. It’s time for a radical rethinking of those tactics, and I’m not sure these toxic Christians are up to the task. Instead, it is the people they abuse and vilify who are reshaping the religion into something that might possibly maybe survive the coming century.

So yes: I’m going to keep supporting people who are saying things that matter and that are going to improve the human race, no matter what religion those people do or don’t subscribe to. And I’m going to choose my friends not on the basis of religion but on the basis of what kind of people they are.

What might surprise people about my friendship with TQC is that we don’t talk about religion all that much. We talk about books and about blogging in general and stuff like that; when we interface with religion it’s in the context of our blogs, not as personal statements. He’s never once tried to proselytize at me, and I’ve never done that back at him. I did once refer to his deity in a rather mocking way, but I apologized for it; he wasn’t offended, though, just a little startled I think at my general irreverence toward something he felt a great deal of reverence toward. I don’t think it’s very loving to casually denigrate something someone else holds important, whether it’s kids or religion or diet systems or whatever else; I don’t have to bow before it along with that person, no, but I can at least be polite.

Speaking of which, hey gang, a bit of housekeeping: last time we talked I discussed a particular internet culture and was way less than charitable toward its members. It was wrong to talk like that. I won’t be doing it again.

Next time we’re going to talk about spiritual warfare a bit more–specifically, about exorcisms. I wrote early on in this blog about Biff’s claims of having been demonically possessed and exorcised, but I was involved in an exorcism or two myself as a fundamentalist. Exorcisms are a very important idea in Christianity, and we’re seeing the concept get a lot of play in the news recently, but I’m not sure outsiders know a lot about the subculture around this idea. So I’ll be shining a light on some of the darkest corners of Christianity next–and hope you will join me.

Related: John Shore’s letter to survivors of Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) cults’ abuse.

Christians-Perfect

Posted in Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Spiritual Warfare: What’s It Good For? (Absolutely Nothing!)

Remember furries? Those are the kids who think that they’re “really” animals in human form. Back in the 90s they were the emerging weirdos of the internet and became our collective punching bags, a low status they bore with varying degrees of grace. You’d see them prancing around town in tails and ears and sometimes paw-like gloves, painting their faces with whiskers, wearing collars (if they were “really” dogs or cats), using animal terms to describe themselves and their actions (the most famous of these was “yiff,” which they thought was the sound foxes made while mating and which got adopted as slang for having sex), or even going to extremes like tattooing and body modifications to look more like what they imagined they really were. In terms of general respect, they ranked somewhere around the level of newly-assimilated Amway salespeople, but with almost no willpower, discipline, or perseverance–though they did share a total lack of self-awareness with MLM believers.

Some digital photos from Folsom Street Fair '06.

Some digital photos from Folsom Street Fair ’06. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). I don’t actually remember anymore what about them used to bother me so much.

Looking back, though, I can see that at least they were benign for the most part. They kept their weirdness largely to themselves and they weren’t really hurting anybody but themselves. Though weirdly obsessed with sex and traditional conceptualizations of beauty, they were usually pretty inoffensive people; the most offensive of them were the ones putting their private lives on TMI-mode on LiveJournal or bragging about stuff that most of us wouldn’t consider brag-worthy. Their communities were insular and unless outsiders set out to interact, chances are they wouldn’t. Now that genuinely scary and creepy weirdos proliferate all over the internet, now that people who genuinely wish harm to others and do real and devastating things to real people are shitting all over the internet, I’m sure I’m not the only person who longs for the sweet innocence of those days when furries were the worst problem the internet had.

But the human psyche longs for the feeling of significance, and it’s really hard to feel significant if one is an internet punching bag and a joke’s punchline all the time. That’s very likely why one day I ran across an exchange between a pair of battling furries that had apparently spilled past the digital-ink stage and into the stage of SPIRITUAL WARFARE.

Oh yes.

One of them wrote in his own journal that he was simply exhausted from all the SPIRITUAL WARFARE he had been doing that day on the ASTRAL PLANE. His furry-self, a dragon I think (probably with more than a few tails; most furries were way lots into anime), was feeling quite droopy from all the spellcasting and SPIRITUAL WARFARE. To hear the fellow talk, he’d spent his entire day doing this battle, which seemed to consist of him squinching up his face and muttering a lot and maybe yelling at thin air and waving his arms around until he got tired (about 3.6 nanoseconds; furries were never famous for being in fabulous physical shape). There was a little Wiccan spellcasting thrown in for good measure to set up psychic “wards” (that’s New Age-ese for a mental fence one erects around one’s mind or area to hold off psychic intruders and attacks, and yes, quite a few people take that idea very seriously).

In a flash, as I read his journal entry (linked on another website that poked fun at people like that), I got this sudden sense of recognition.

All this stuff this guy imagined–these invisible battles, these invisible enemies, these emotional and mental and even (to him) psychic efforts he was expending, I’d seen all of it elsewhere.

I’d seen people acting this way before.

I’d seen a lot of people acting this way before.

I’d acted this way myself, long ago.

We might have called this warfare different things–”wards” exist in Christianity but they call it things like “a blanket of protection” and the like–but we did the exact same thing.

When I was Christian, I had once been a warrior for Jesus, but all my battles had been like this kid’s battles–all fought on a battlefield nobody could see with human eyes.

Lacking real battles in our lives, lacking real conflict, we invented our own by imagining ourselves as Biblical-era warriors with shields and swords and spears and armored breastplates. We prayed and prayed to do battle with Satan, and that might sound absolutely like the sheerest nonsense to outsiders, but at the time, we really believed that we were fighting a huge war on that invisible battlefield.

Our leaders encouraged us to think this way, and Christian media got into the charade very early on in the 90s with Frank Peretti’s irresponsible work of fiction This Present Darkness. I’ve mentioned before that my entire church went Kookoo for Cocopuffs over this book–there were without question more people who knew the plot and details of this book better than they even knew anything about the Bible. I can see why; though there were a lot of theological problems and beyond-ludicrous plot issues in the book, and though the guy who wrote it clearly has no clue whatsoever what the New Age Movement is actually about or what neo-pagan beliefs look like in real life, it was still a better love story than the Bible, as the saying goes.

My generation–those growing into adulthood in the late 80s and early 90s–was hungry for battle. We’d grown up on the Jesus Movement‘s fervor and boundless enthusiasm for pushing the zealotry envelope. We were starting to feed on Christian quacks and sharks telling us that we were the “last generation” and that our country was in serious danger of being overtaken by demons if we didn’t do something about it.

This pandering and fearmongering entwined itself together with American exceptionalism to make a weed that choked to death everything good about our religion. We were way past the last glorious war the United States had fought, so our desire to protect America and make it great again manifested as a new militant extremism in religion. And I watched my friends–and my then-boyfriend and later husband Biff–fall right into its maw.

Now if you Google “spiritual warfare,” you’ll find thousands upon thousands of entries about the subject–over a million to be more precise. “Spiritual Warfare is Real, Difficult, and Dangerous!” shrieks one entry on the subject, which is funny because really it’s not any of those things, and then goes on to explain how to do this imaginary “warfare”–using language that is not precise, concrete, or even really coherent, with a caution that Christians “are in the fight of (their) lives” even if they can’t tell from looking at the world. Another asks, in an example of truly shoddy journalism, “Should we engage in SPIRITUAL WARFARE?” (capitals were theirs, not mine) and then goes on to declare that the question isn’t whether Christians should do it, but rather how they should do it. It goes on and on like that, link after link.

Careful readers will notice, though, that none of these breathless explanations actually contains any evidence that there’s a battle going on. They all take it as a given that one is happening and then plunge into rah-rah about how they think it should work. None of them actually define spiritual warfare in a coherent way, and there isn’t any consistent idea about what it involves or how it should be done. Conspicuously absent, as well, are any indications or signs that Christians can observe to tell whether or not their battles have been won or lost.

I want to stress here that this wasn’t the kind of language I grew up with in Christianity. This emphasis on Christians as soldiers and warriors wasn’t something I really heard before the 90s. Now it’s ubiquitous. Not a single link I saw discussed spiritual warfare in any terms but the ones I’ve mentioned here. Nobody in Christian-land is even saying “Hey, maybe this isn’t really a thing and we should concentrate on real stuff and not worry about fake battles that make us feel good but don’t accomplish anything.”

The problem, of course, is that spiritual warriors don’t have to cultivate the qualities that real ones do. One serious mark against modern fundagelical thinking is that it really doesn’t encourage much discipline, follow-through, or courage. The people in it are bullies with their strength coming from belligerence, self-delusion, and strength in numbers. That’s why their various demonstrations against the the government tend not to pull in great numbers–even when tons of Christians say they’ll be there, that’s no indication whatsoever that they will be there. At that point, embarrassed organizers have to scramble for explanations that even they don’t seem to realize raise more questions than they answer. During one of these anti-government quasi-religious demonstrations, Operation American Spring, one humiliating explanation offered for the low turnout (projections of 10-30 million people turned out to mean a few hundred, if that) was that it was a little rainy that day–because if there’s totally one thing that will stop SPIRITUAL WARRIORS FOR JESUS dead in their tracks, it’s getting their Crocs wet and their Chik-Fil-A sammiches soggy, amirite?

In place of qualities like discipline and courage, this habit Christians have of engaging in fake imaginary battles provides other qualities that aren’t nearly as positive. Early on I observed that my peers in church were very short on follow-through and often made plans that they ignored or allowed to fall apart. If I genuinely needed help or even just a listening ear, then hopefully I needed those things at times that were convenient to my friends. I wish I’d seen a lot earlier that the people I thought had my back, the people I thought were my “tribe,” were obsessed with themselves and not in any position to extend me any help or care. I was always driving friends somewhere, but when my own car died, they vanished. I once dropped everything (on my first wedding anniversary no less) to help a friend who’d had a bad car accident hours away from home, but you can guess how many boxes she helped me lug later when I was moving. While declaring that we were a family and that we were one body in Jesus, they were also simultaneously letting me down in a hundred different ways. And I’m not mad; it’d be lame to be angry at people for not doing me favors, and they had their own things going on. I’m noting it here because this lack of discipline and follow-through is curious to see in people who claim they are warriors and soldiers.

Looking back at my time in the religion and at what I see modern Christians doing nowadays, I really think that Christians need the ego boost that comes from believing that they are war heroes fighting this massive battle against unspeakable odds–and most of them will do anything to get that high except go to actual war. Real war and real soldiering is very hard work and requires a lot of tough discipline and courage. But fighting imaginary battles doesn’t require any of that stuff. It can be done by anybody who can talk a big game and who has a sufficiently developed imagination and has been coached the right way.

And thanks to the miracle of modern Christian media, that coaching is available absolutely everywhere.

No matter how lowly someone is, no matter how humble that person’s job may be, imagining a second life full of adventure and importance is a good way of overcoming the distress of living a low-end life. This situation isn’t unique to Christians; I knew quite a few folks in paganism who imagined themselves spiritual warriors or protectors or whatever whose real lives were banal and low-prestige. One particularly drama-loving woman worked part-time at a coffee hut by day, but by night she was an eclectic Wiccan High Priestess who talked, wide-eyed and histrionic, about the amazing battles she conducted by night on behalf of the forces of good (in her head). In gaming, I ran into people like that constantly as well–people using an imaginary life to compensate for a mundane real life.

I can totally see why. We all grow up with movies that tell us that even normal “farm boys” can grow up to be Dread Pirate Robertses and Lukes; we all see how girls can be whisked off to kingdoms to become the princesses they didn’t even know they were (like me–I had a long-running fantasy life as a Space Princess in my early childhood, if you might remember). Doors open into rabbitholes; one drink of a potion shrinks us down. Household pests like rats have secret kingdoms below the ground. A fireplace might transport us anywhere in the world. It’s all right there, coexisting alongside the world we can actually see. Harry Potter’s platform to Hogwarts is built right into the real train station. The Teen Titans’ tower is built right out in the middle of its home city’s river. Batman dresses up in a tuxedo and attends charity balls. Ghosts and witches and monsters lurk at the corners of our vision, waiting to be unveiled and revealed.

If you’re a Christian, then multiply all of this hidden stuff by ten.

Every single Christian I knew just ached for that hidden world. We all wanted it. We wanted to think that we walked and breathed and moved among angels and demons. We desperately craved that touch of the divine–so much so that we were willing to make stuff up if it didn’t materialize on its own. Battles occurred everywhere around us.

And the goal of all of this fighting?

Why, nothing less than the souls of every human being alive.

Imagine what an ego-boost that is.

Just imagine it!

No matter how lowly you might feel, no matter how drab your life might look, you are soooooooo important that unseen beings wage war over you.

Over you!

Yes, you!

Yeah, that’s a level of narcissism that I just couldn’t handle after a while, this idea that oh my gosh I’m just soooooo important that all this is going on to push and pull me one direction and the other, like I’m at the crux of some huge important battle that somehow I can’t perceive with any of my senses. This egocentric view of things bothered me even as a Christian; it made me wonder if maybe our god wasn’t as powerful as we thought, if battles needed to be waged that often. And this stuff wasn’t in the Bible; it might talk about spiritual armor, and one passage in the Old Testament talks about spiritual warfare, but you have to really stretch to get the idea that Christians are supposed to engage with that hidden world in the way that modern fundagelicals are convinced they should. Eventually all this nonsense about spiritual warfare got to me and I had this sudden snap realization that it was all imaginary and we were all shrieking and screaming and moaning and yelling at thin air, and that toned me down considerably.

It wasn’t long after that realization that I began drifting away from Christianity itself; once you make your roll to disbelieve that illusion, you start seeing the people still caught in its maw in a very different way. All those things I’d once thought were powerful expressions of divine strength looked like a bunch of empty posturing and weird, overdramatic flourishes. I began to see how this posturing fed into Christianist ideas of persecution and urgency–and oh my they do indeed. And I began to see how Christians used this idea of an imaginary war to pummel outsiders into compliance and seize dominance over everybody else.

Even now the imagery of war and battle pushes people–not even Christians–to force their ideas onto others (a while ago a commenter here tried to make the case that forcing unwilling women to gestate fetuses against their consent was just like drafting them into war, and I’ve seen that argument a few times since in other places, even though it’s really not a good argument). If it’s for a war, why then any overreach is justified and acceptable. Any horror is allowed. Any damage is just part of the job. And anybody who speaks against what a soldier does in a war zone is obviously a traitor. This imagery Christians use forces a sense of urgency and necessity that they couldn’t achieve otherwise and gives them a power and authority they couldn’t exercise without that claim of acting in war.

This war imagery is imagery we should challenge and be aware of when we hear it. When we hear about Christians pushing the idea of spiritual warfare, those are Christians who are gearing up to do something they couldn’t get away with otherwise. We need to be asking those hard questions like “yes yes, but how do you know this is happening?” and making them aware that they look just like the ASTRAL WARRIORS of other religions–which is to say, that they look quite foolish and obviously like they’re not actually fighting anything or anybody. To me now, there’s no difference at all between that furry kid on LiveJournal and the Christians back at my old church.

I wish fundagelicals would make up their minds though:

Is their savior a Prince of Peace?

Or is he a Lord of War?

We’re going to talk next about what being an ambassador of the Prince of Peace looks like. I do hope you will join me!

Posted in Biography, Gaming, Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Christian Charlatans.

The other day I discovered that one of this site’s favorite charlatans and bullshit artists, Joyce Meyer, has a book out about how to break bad habits, and it tied in with some stuff I’ve been thinking about lately about charlatanism in Christianity. I wanted to talk about my own experiences with that topic.

When I deconverted and it became clear that our marriage heading was for a breakup, one of the things Biff asked me to do was to go to a “Christian counselor” on the military base where he served. I don’t remember him asking to go together as a couple; he might have asked for that, but he definitely at least wanted me to go by myself to “get help” (Biff-speak for “get strong-armed into changing back to how you were before”) for all these weird and confusing notions I’d developed. This counselor was one of his buddies in the chaplain program, itself rightly notorious lately for its overreach, which you can find documented frequently at the Military Atheists website, and if you think things are bad now or just recently got that way, well, I’ve got a few stories from my time as a military wife that might raise the hackles of even the most gung-ho Christian.

In response to Biff’s request, I did something my then-husband clearly had not expected: I asked what this chaplain’s credentials were to counsel non-Christian noncombatants about marital discord or anything else.

By Biff’s blank stare of a response, I knew he had no idea what this person’s counseling credentials were. He’d suggested the fellow, it seems, purely because he was a chaplain. But our problem was not spiritual, and I don’t regard the ability to provide soldiers with spiritual guidance as an indicator of someone’s ability to provide general therapy. Nor did I regard myself as broken or in need of any psychological help. Biff was basing his recommendation on the simple fact that I now disagreed with him vehemently on a variety of matters, some religious but many not, which to him meant I was clearly sailing in choppy waters and in need of a course correction. He saw getting me reconverted as the goal, and I knew it (and he knew I knew it; as Prince Geoffrey says in The Lion in Winter, we were a very knowledgeable family)*. He was quite convinced that if he could get me back to Jesus, then all these other conflicts we were having would just fall into line, which in retrospect was laughably simplistic and naive as well as completely wrong; had I reconverted, it would not have been back to patriarchal Christianity nor to the rampant misogyny that had characterized our marriage up until my deconversion.

There was another very good reason for my resistance to the idea of visiting the chaplain he recommended. I knew that chaplains aren’t under the same rules about objectivity and non-disclosure that real therapists are, and I was quite nervous that this person might tell Biff privileged patient information or screw me up somehow with incompetence.

“Aw, he couldn’t tell me a thing,” Biff said. “You could totally sue him for a bunch of money if he did.” (Isn’t it telling that this was his glib, stated response to my concern about privacy?)

The point is, I don’t remember him ever coming up with any evidence for believing that this chaplain was in any way qualified to provide me guidance of any kind beyond the fact that he was in a position of Christian leadership. And in the 25 years or so since we had that conversation, absolutely nothing has changed in modern fundagelical Christianity.

I hear from a lot of ex-Christians whose spouses want to go to Christian counselors for one reason or another, and it’s beyond sad to me that Christians can’t understand why we don’t want to do that. I’m still exploring my own feelings on the subject, but I’m coming to some real understanding of why I don’t take Christian counselors seriously and why I think they’re generally harmful to the people who foolishly trust them.

Considering their hatred for postmodernism, or at least what they think that term means, Christians have a real tendency to shrink away from real experts in order to construct their own truths in a way that certainly looks a lot like postmodernism to me. They can call those constructed truths “timeless” and “objective” all they wish if it makes ‘em feel better, but the real truth is that most of what Christians imagine about their religion and holy book are very new conceits for the most part, ones that would be wholly foreign and unimaginable to Christians of the first century–or even to Christians of the Enlightenment or Great Awakening. They’re not interested in anything that science or rational inquiry could add to the “truths” they’ve constructed for themselves; real experts would very quickly destroy and dismantle most of these ideas they’ve gotten. So in response, they have developed their own cadre of faux-experts to reinforce these ideas.

Postmodernism is demonized by just about every single modern fundagelical there is, but for proof that they’re busy engaging in it themselves, we need look no further than this “teach the controversy” nonsense that Creationists are pushing now. I heard an interview with Duane Gish, one of the “Intelligent Design” leaders, advising that what he wanted was for children in taxpayer-funded public schools to learn “both sides” (as if Creationism is a serious “side” here–isn’t that hilare?) and then decide for themselves what they would believe about how we got so many different kinds of animals in this world.

Decide for themselves? Aren’t these the same wingnuts who freaked out over exercises in the 70s where schoolkids would debate mathematics answers among themselves in little committees to decide for themselves what “2+2″ was, and who even now lose their shit over children deciding for themselves whether or not to follow Christianity? How is it not postmodern to let children decide simple, basic scientific facts for themselves after hearing a plethora of information from some imaginary side Mr. Gish mistakenly believes contradicts the fact of evolution but it is postmodern to let kids decide about math problems and religion once they’ve heard every side?

This weird idea that objective truth can be constructed finds its nadir in “Christian” psychology.

I’ve written in the past about fundagelical distrust of education and real experts, but nowhere do we see this distrust so starkly displayed as we do with regard to the field of psychology and self-help, and nowhere do faux-experts seem to proliferate so much as they do within the mental health field.

Psychology as a field began to evolve after World War II. Freud’s weird ideas had of course been circulating around, but most people didn’t go to counselors or really even know much about what counseling was. By the 1970s, that had changed. Self-help as a book field had been taking off, and therapy was getting seen as a powerful tool for people to begin solving their problems and improving themselves.

The immediate problem with therapy, of course, is that it is secular in nature. Relying upon research or at least well-educated guesses, therapy didn’t normally draw upon religious ideas at all. It was seen immediately as unfriendly to doctrines like Original Sin and innate brokenness. Research had shown many times that Jesus either couldn’t or didn’t want to fix anybody emotionally and that calling upon him had no positive effect at all, so therapists didn’t tend to do it with patients and clients. What on earth would happen if people got told they were able to fix themselves or that they didn’t need religion to be whole? Why, the sky would fall!

Another huge problem with therapy–and, really, the field of psychology itself–was that it was client-centered. This focus was seen as removing the focus from Jesus, which of course was unacceptable even when the topic at hand was emotional distress or mental illness. While Christians might remove the focus from Jesus to get a root canal done, psychology was seen as much more suspicious; demons were known to creep into people who were distressed or ill and take control of them without their even noticing it. Psychology needed restraints and leashes that other healthcare fields simply did not.

These two problems conflicted with a growing feeling among evangelicals that the Bible really should be anything anybody should ever need to live a complete, healthy, happy life. Evangelicals were convinced that their god performed miracles and intervened directly in his followers’ lives on a constant, tangible basis, so would provide anything Christians needed–including emotional health–if they only asked sincerely enough via prayer.

The Religious Right was just getting rolling at this point, and the reverberations of their takeover of the conversation Christianity was having with America would be felt for many years to come. Their attitudes were a shift from what they saw at the time as a formulaic, uninspired, rote performance of religious devotion; they wanted to be “on fire” and wholly committed with no compromises. That meant incorporating Jesus into absolutely every aspect of one’s life, not just attending church on Sunday and then living like a secular person all week long. Fundamentalism had been a problem in Christianity for many years, but now, with the threat of secularism looming on the horizon, Christian leaders drilled down as hard as they could on dogma.

And their people listened.

*****

Christian Counseling exploded onto the scene in the 1970s. It was the perfect time for it. People were converting into the fervent, energetic, “no compromises” Jesus Movement churches and faiths, and they brought with them their respect for psychology, self-help, and therapy. But they wanted those things to have a Jesus flavor and be Biblical, or at least be in tune with what they (usually mistakenly) imagined were Biblical teachings and precepts.

In the ensuing chaos, very quickly a two-lane highway emerged with regard to mental health in most states. There was one lane where fully-credentialed, reputably-educated, board-certified, and licensed practitioners hung their shingles, and the other where almost anybody could get a license to practice general therapy or “life coaching” after a quick, easy little course in various topics the state tacked onto the license. I remember discovering in one state I lived in that it was harder to become an interior decorator (to muck up people’s homes) than it was to become a counselor (to muck up people’s heads).

Unfortunately, most people didn’t–and indeed still don’t–understand that there are huge differences between terms like “psychiatrist” and “psychologist,” much less “therapist” and “counselor” or “life coach.” And they very mistakenly believe a few things about mental health vis-a-vis Christianity that simply aren’t true.

First, they believe that Jesus is healing anybody. Sorry, but that just isn’t the case. I knew plenty of folks (like me) who prayed every single day for deliverance and healing from depression and all sorts of mental illnesses and maladies, and they’d sometimes get a “breakthrough” (that’s Christianese for serious catharsis during prayer; the rush of emotions is thought to be caused by a god reaching down and touching the person/people praying) and think they were finally healed, only to be back on their knees praying for deliverance a few days later after the euphoria passed. When the person praying is seeking physical healing, that’s bad enough. In the case of mental illness, though, this kind of delay or refusal to seek real care can have tragic repercussions.

Second, they believe that their pastors and ministers are qualified to treat serious problems. I don’t deny that some ministers are really good at loosing a little perspective on minor things, just like anybody would be who works with people for a living, but for serious things, people need to quit asking their ministers to substitute for a professional’s care. They wouldn’t ask a preacher to have a go at their wisdom teeth with a power drill, but think nothing of asking that same person to get them over chronic depression or hallucination-level PTSD. Even when the minister is totally goodhearted and tries his or her best to help, that’s asking a lot of what amounts to an amateur (some seminary programs may include a little course or semester about counseling, but that’s not going to be anywhere near as much as they’d need for serious problems). It’s not fair to dump a crisis on the shoulders of someone who isn’t fully equipped to deal with it, and the results are going to be predictably dicey.

Third, if someone who isn’t maybe totally goodhearted gets ahold of their private business like that, the results can be catastrophic. There’s no consent involved in the relationship between a minister and a parishioner. If the parishioner doesn’t take the minister’s advice, or declines to continue sessions, that minister has the power to really make that person’s life unbearable. I can’t even remember how many stories I’ve heard about ministers putting parishioners under “church discipline” for doing something like that, or gossiped about their business to outsiders. That’s why it’s super-important for someone in need to make sure to consult experts who are licensed and credentialed, experts who that person can stop seeing at any time or disagree with or ask for a further referral to someone else if it just doesn’t work out.

So with that said, let’s look at this stupid book by Joyce Meyer.

She is not licensed or credentialed as a real psychiatrist. She has no qualifications for writing this book at all. None. She just knows how to talk to Christian women. She knows how to push their buttons.

Joyce Meyer’s audience thinks that Jesus heals people. They think that all they have to do is ask their Daddy Jesus for something and he will give it to them. They think that they’re getting real, solid information about how to eliminate bad habits from their lives and build new ones. They think that building new habits is all about willpower (or won’t-power, as I had a friend say once!). They think that all it takes is a few quick, easy things to remember and those new habits will be there quick as you like. They think of Jesus as the Easy Button and the Bible as a big ole ATM that will give them an easy–or at least easier–time than is had by those who lack belief in those things’ efficacy. They think that one-liner bumper-sticker theology and slogans and catchphrases can substitute for the hard work of self-examination and character-building.

The women who flock to Joyce Meyer’s various seminars and read all her books think that prayer does something solid and tangible in the world. They think that if a minister says it, it must be true. They think that Christians would never lie to them or deceive them. They think that the Holy Spirit is giving people like Joyce Meyer special insights and discernment that can help them, in turn, live better lives.

They are wrong about all of these things.

Joyce Meyer might or might not know what the truth really is–she may or may not even believe the shit she says. I’ll give her sincerity a pass here. But I do know that she definitely at least knows how to talk to people who hold these beliefs, and she knows how to make a buck off people who don’t realize that she’s not qualified to help them.

Actual licensed, credentialed psychologists have written books about habit-building and how to break ourselves of bad habits and maintain and develop new ones. But these licensed, credentialed people do not mention Jesus every third word or spout nonsensical chirpy Christian catchphrases or advise prayer as a real solution, so Joyce Meyer’s audience will distrust these sources and seek her out instead. They won’t realize that she’s about as qualified to help them do this character work as their yard guy is, and maybe even less so because let’s face it, yard guys usually have some pretty cool insights based on living in the real world whereas I’m not sure this lady’s even seen the real world since about 1965. Her writing always has this flippy-dippy quality to it that I realize now is there because she really hasn’t got the faintest idea what reality looks like. She may well believe wholeheartedly that prayer works to build habits because maybe that’s what works for her. But the things she’s pushing her audience to do don’t look even remotely like what we know, based on decades of research, habit-building looks like for most people.

These women will read this book and be assured that they worship a wonder-working god who will answer their prayers, eventually at least. When they try to put her principles into action–which itself will be a task because I didn’t notice her giving a lot of concrete examples beyond “pray a lot” and “trust Jesus”–they will fail. And when (not if) they fail, they will blame themselves for the failure and think they are terrible people with very weak wills, or else that maybe this just means they don’t have enough faith in Jesus, when the real truth is that they chose a life coach with shitty life-coaching skills who has no real idea how to build new habits or break old ones.

The real tragedy here is that it’s very likely that none of her big fans who try this book’s ideas and fail will connect their failure to Joyce Meyer herself.

It seems downright silly to outsiders that Christians would need so desperately to Jesus-fy everything in their lives, but that’s how it is for zealots. Anything that isn’t totally tied in to Christianity and harnessed in service to what adherents believe are Christian ideas is suspicious; demons could enter into a person in such a situation, or the person might start thinking that he or she is self-reliant and doesn’t need Jesus. It’s like watching someone break his or her own knee because that person thinks walking without crutches is dangerous. Any activity that doesn’t begin and end with Jesus is hugely problematic; secularism is such a demonized and maligned concept at this point that any hint of secularism (defined as “something that doesn’t begin and end with Jesus”) gets you a reaction like you suggested making boiled babies’ toes for dinner.

Since most of our lives (even those of Christians) are generally not tinged with religion all over the place, that leaves an absolutely huge range of activities that Christian charlatans can rush into to Jesus-fy. I’m sure most of us can think of many of them, but let me just say I was surprised to discover that weight loss counseling got invaded quite some time ago. And so, apparently, has the field of habit formation.

It’s just astonishing to me, but it shouldn’t be. Even in my days as a fundamentalist, the trends were there to see.

*****

Postscript.

Right before fleeing Biff, I did go see the chaplain he’d recommended just to see what it was about. The chaplain was helping in a daycare that morning, but he had asked me to come by there for some reason.

We sat down in a small office and chatted. He considered himself a minister and pastor and took his “burden” very seriously, I could tell by how he acted and talked. I ensured before we talked that he would not be disclosing my information to anybody. That done, I made clear I was leaving under threat of physical violence, fleeing while Biff was away for a few days on lockup for thus threatening me. The chaplain tried to persuade me to stay because Biff wanted to “try again” and had persuaded this chaplain that he “really loved” me. I was just horrified–aghast even–that he’d even suggest such an obviously terrible idea. This was my first brush with Christianists who don’t take domestic violence seriously and who side with abusers over victims of domestic violence, but not my last.

I disagreed with his suggestion that I put myself in potential mortal danger to save a marriage that was in my opinion completely destroyed, and left. But before I did so, I let slip a few details that weren’t true. I knew that if he and Biff were in cahoots, that this would decidedly be stuff he’d want to tell my then-husband.

A real therapist would not be able to disclose those things. But a chaplain, contrary to Biff’s insistence, was under no such restriction. I knew that.

And later on, during his stalking of me, Biff revealed that why yes, this chaplain had told him everything we’d talked about, even the untrue things. Either he or Biff had even embellished those details to sound even more shocking.

No mention was made of lawsuits–even from a man who was always happy to contemplate legal action if it’d make him some cash.

I felt violated beyond all comparison by this disclosure. That chaplain had told the monster who was stalking me, a monster who he knew had physically threatened to harm me, intimate details of my life that I had told him in privacy. The only plus side to this violation was that most of the damning stuff Biff was accusing me of wasn’t actually true, which you must admit in retrospect is kind of funny. But there are many other people who entrust their lives to chaplains and ministers and then discover their personal business plastered all over the church grapevine–and they don’t have even that comfort to fall back upon. If you think I’m the only person whose privacy was invaded in this way by a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, by a GODLY CHRISTIAN MAN™, by a holy and anointed minister of the Lawd, think again.

Even ministers who really mean well can find themselves in over their heads with counseling tasks; many seminaries now have courses in the matter, but you and I both know that it won’t be the equal of a full credentialed degree in counseling. And damage can easily be done by well-meaning people if they are surrounded by gossips or don’t know how to secure their computers or notes, or even if they just don’t know how to counsel people who are in serious crisis.

So I hope y’all will pardon me if I absolutely flat refuse to trust any of my personal information or entrust my psyche to people who aren’t qualified to handle either. And I wish more Christians would seriously think about their reliance on amateurs and charlatans to help them in times of emotional need.

Nobody needs another quack like Joyce Meyer warbling and chirping her favorite Jesus jukes. She knows less about teaching people how to develop good habits than Mayor Rob Ford does. Her books are worse than pop-psychology; they could do some lasting harm if people think they’re seriously all you need to build good habits. At least pop-psych books are usually written by people with some kind of credentialing; all she has is some unspecified degree from some totally lackluster Bible college somewhere (and though it’s hard to find out just what subject this degree involves, if you hunt around you’ll find that it’s in theology–which I guess makes her extra-dextra more qualified to counsel anybody, at least in her head). Hers are just wishful thinking draped in Jesus.

What she provides people–especially women–is warm fuzzies. And she’s very good at it. She provides this gauzy, hazy vision of sufficiency in Jesus, this idea that if you just want something very much and read the Bible and pray a lot, you’ll totally get it because Daddy Jesus wuvs you.

People who genuinely need to learn to build good habits would be very well served by seeking out teachers who actually have qualifications to teach this difficult idea, and maybe not Jesus-fying everything they do just because it feels more Christian-y to do so.

We’re going to talk about spiritual warfare next, since I got rolling on the topic of demons and have some things to talk about there. Here’s an angel to keep you tided over:

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(* Edit: Whoops, Prince Geoffrey said that to Eleanor, who was played by Katherine Hepburn. I knew who I meant at least.)

Posted in Biography, Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

A Legend In Their Own Minds.

When someone desperately wants to have status, there are really only a couple of ways that person can go about getting it on his or her own. Either that person can go out and do something that garners status, or that person can cheat and borrow status from some other source. Guess which route religion often takes? Today I wanted to talk about that a little, in the wake of a few things I’ve been seeing around of late about super-overreaching religious weirdos.

I think it’s pretty natural for people to want respect, power, and admiration from others. Who doesn’t like being shown such deference? But getting those things can be so very hard and take so much time. There are some very good shortcuts to getting them, and a lot of people have figured out the secret. You already know who they are:

A Big Man on Campus.

A legend in their own mind.

A big fish in a little pond.

There are a lot of ways to describe the situation, but they all boil down to the same mindset: a person who really, really, really aches to have respect, power, and admiration, but doesn’t want to do a lot of work to get them.

When I was in high school, our football team’s quarterback was a dashing, attractive blonde fellow we’ll call Alec. He would have reminded you of Cap Garland from the Little House books–he had crystal-blue eyes and a smile that lit up rooms. And he worked very hard to be a good football player. I liked him; he was friendly even to a nerd like me in the classes we shared, and even invited me to one of his home parties for no reason that I can discern. He did all the stuff that football players are supposed to do, didn’t slack at school or in practice, and still cultivated the personal qualities necessary to be a pleasant and decent human being. He wasn’t a Big Man on Campus; he was just a really popular young man.

Alec wielded his considerable personal power with a surprising degree of grace; I never heard of him bullying anybody or being gratuitously unkind. It was not at all uncommon to see him holding court in the lunchroom, around the halls, or out on the fields with a crowd of people around him while he reclined or slouched slightly above them on something, just idly watching the proceedings and chatter while he relaxed. He’d distinctly earned all of his status, but he was careful not to abuse it. I don’t know how much of his behavior was studied and how much was just natural, but I do know that it was effective.

Compare and contrast this young man with my preacher ex Biff, who was also dashing and attractive but lacked any kind of discipline or fortitude. Biff thought of himself as a landless aristocrat from a long line of titled people from another country, but he also refused to display any marks whatsoever of good breeding (if he knew them at all, as he claimed he did; it’s hard to imagine someone actually understanding etiquette and then deliberately choosing to be so boorish). I was young and stupid enough to think that this goofy ungraciousness indicated a certain stylish insouciance when it fact it was a mark of supreme disrespect toward everybody around himself and a red flag of both intellectual laziness and emotional narcissism. He insulted people on purpose just to get them angry, acted blithely ignorant of every single social grace you can imagine, and lied constantly about every single thing possible.

What Biff wanted ultimately was control over others. He wanted personal power and admiration. What I did not recognize at the time was that he was testing out a few different methods of getting those things.

As trolls everywhere know, the power to anger and disrupt people is a very powerful show of control over someone else. But sooner or later, a troll’s victims will shut the game down. In real life, trolling can get someone beaten up or ostracized; online, it’s easier for the troll to move from group to group as one’s avenues are banned and blocked and people lose interest in engaging with him or her. For many trolls, that’s perfectly fine; what they want is that thrill of goading people, so it’s okay if they have to move around and start over from scratch. But Biff didn’t want just a short-term thrill like that. He wanted a court like Alec had once had. That required a steady group of admirers, a group that was fast shrinking for my then-boyfriend. By the time of his conversion into Christianity, even I’d gotten sick of his shit and was on my way out of his life, and I’d stuck around longer than any of his other now-alienated friends. He lacked the ability to be anything pleasant but wheedling and charming, had deliberately eschewed the development of social graces, and had not counted on people eventually tiring of his act. So being deliberately provocative and insulting wasn’t really working out for him.

There are several different ways to get admiration. Developing a skill–like playing football–is one way to do it. I knew a lot of young people in my school who were hugely accomplished; I had a bit of a crush on a martial artist (the first I ever met) who had caught my attention once by getting to his feet from a laying-down position without using his hands, just springing to his feet in one silken catlike motion. Musicians, singers, thespians, walking French-English dictionaries, it seemed like almost all of us had some special thing that was ours that others might admire, and all of those things required quite a bit of work to master, which Biff was singularly unwilling to do for almost anything.

Biff was a competent artist–in fact a very good, near-professional-level one–but that alone wasn’t getting him the admiration he craved. Courts of admirers (at least in my neck of the woods back then) didn’t typically sit around watching the object of their idolization draw. Nor did art really grant Biff personal power over others. I think at the time power in art came from avenues like interior design and fashion, and I’m sure you can guess how interested my then-boyfriend was in those subjects. So that wasn’t going to work either. Ironic, isn’t it? The one skill he’d bothered to cultivate was the one skill he really couldn’t use to propel himself into personal power.

Then he found out that I’d been briefly Pentecostal not too long before we’d met, and I am sure he realized almost instantly the potential of this suddenly-opened new vista of opportunity.

Fundamentalist Christianity was custom-made for someone like him. The second he walked into the church, he lit up like a supernova. He understood these people better on first encounter than even I had understood them after a long time among them. I am sure he realized immediately that they wanted drama, explosive narratives, and boyish charm, and they were infinitely forgiving, trusting, and accepting of anybody who could make up a good story.

They valued childlike behavior, which he could supply in infinite amounts with his childishness. His total lack of social graces were totally overlooked and even remarked favorably upon by the elders, who thought he was a breath of fresh air from their own stodginess. When he shrieked in made-up “tongues” and acted like a five-year-old, this was considered very very Christian indeed, and got him a ready audience of people showering him with praise and admiration for what they saw as someone approaching Jesus with the faith of a little child. (Nowadays you hear adult Christians calling their deity “Daddy-God,” and getting the same praise.)

They valued great storytelling, which he was obviously very capable of doing. Not a single person in the denomination ever fact-checked a single claim he made or story he gave about himself, which allowed him to spin yarns that still shock me to think about today. They naturally assumed he was telling the truth, because who’d ever lie about that stuff? Who’d ever lie if Jesus was inside their hearts? And because they assumed he was telling the truth, they considered him a huge success story in the religion. His testimony indicated that he’d been such a bad, bad person before, you see, that his miraculous turnaround was seen as a huge show of divine grace. That meant obviously he should be allowed to preach and testify all the time, and he should be given leadership positions despite his lack of formal qualifications for leadership and his experience in the field. He got caught lying fairly often, but he always managed to squeak out of it; his new reputation as a miracle-worker and the recipient of such divine grace carried him through any rough patches.

As for drama, oh, he could provide that in spades. He’d always gravitated to this vision of himself as a leader in his own personal tales of valor. In Christianity, that became a fascination–even an obsession–with “spiritual warfare” and Endtimes prophecies. “Endtimes” is Christianese for all the stuff that’s supposed to happen at the end of the world–the wars, the “Left Behind” Rapture nonsense, the Beast/Antichrist taking over the world, and finally the whole planet being shitcanned before being recreated for the eternal party. Fundamentalists tend to be really buggy on that subject anyway, but Biff took it to heights I’m sure our peers hadn’t quite imagined.

As for “spiritual warfare,” that’s also Christianese; in our denomination, that meant being truly and shockingly obnoxious to outsiders, grabbing for control in every single venue and conversation, and fighting to enshrine theocracy in any way possible. Fundagelicals all imagine themselves to be warriors wearing 1st-century Roman or Palestinian battle garb with real live imaginary swords in their hands and shields on their arms. When you hear about the “war on Christmas” on Faux Noise, or about yet another frivolous lawsuit from a school board about a proselytizing teacher or some local council that insists on praying before meetings, those are examples of what Christians envision as “spiritual warfare.” We’ll talk about it more soon, but for now, just know that the worst excesses and overreaches, the most boorish and insulting chest-thumping, the very slimiest manipulation tactics and distortions, all stem from this idea that Christians are fighting a very real war against the forces of Ultimate Darkness. A mindset of the ends justifying the means suited Biff down to his fingertips; he had little grasp of ideas like morality or empathy for other human beings, and the idea that he had free license to do whatever he thought necessary to achieve his–er, sorry, his god’s–goals was one that liberated him to some truly grotesque lows in behavior. And all those lows did was get him more admiration for his “sold-out,” “on-fire” spirituality.

I want to make clear that Christianity didn’t turn Biff into the awful person I’m describing. These were all traits that he’d always had, but they just hadn’t been valued in the outside secular world. A floppy, egocentric, narcissistic, goofy, childish, insulting, pandering, rude pants-on-fire liar with few other redeeming qualities just doesn’t get too far there. But in church? The sky’s the limit.

So with these suddenly-valuable traits and skills, he gathered to himself quite a large court of admirers–including, it must be said, me at first–and set about exercising his power over them–and me. He reveled in it; he loved it. He often ran into all sorts of problems, like when he inevitably got caught lying to friends, or that time he was almost late to a preaching gig, which got him a talking-to from our elderly, far more sensible pastor and also which almost saw his nascent career disintegrate before it’d even gotten started really.

It’s been said that all someone has to do to get prestige and respect, especially in fundagelical-mad America, is to put the word “Reverend” after their name. It’s also been said that fundagelical preaching’s an excellent way to make a living if you just can’t do anything else. I was shocked the first time I heard a seminary graduate reveal that most of her graduating class was well aware that the Bible was far from the inerrant, literally-true, totally-coherent document they’d all be presenting to freshly-scrubbed congregants every Sunday morning as soon as they found home churches to employ them. I asked her if any of them got so disgusted by the disconnect that they just quit and went into some other line of work. “What?” she replied in horror. “And work for a living?”

Oh, it isn’t totally easy at all for the honest ones, that’s very true. A truly goodhearted preacher will burn out very quickly under the huge workload, the sheer human misery and need, the backbiting from the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ paying his or her salary, and the total isolation and lack of a support network.

By contrast, the conjobs, the bullshit artists, the preening narcissists, they grow fat as ticks on preaching work; with it they can catapult very quickly into the upper echelons of power in America. They don’t need support; they need an audience. They don’t care if TRUE CHRISTIANS™ gossip about them; they thrive on attention. They will quickly find both audiences and attention if they’re willing to pander to the lowest elements of toxic Christianity. And they can do it all while holding the self-serving belief that nothing less than a god has given their “ministry” divine approval, because if it’s growing then obviously it’s blessed and that means they’re doing everything just fine. That’s the only barometer that matters–if anybody speaks out against them or opposes their predations, then that person is oppressed by demons or else resisting the divine influence of the “Holy Spirit.”

I am very pleased to see surveys and studies that indicate that Americans are getting way less likely to afford pastors and preachers benefit of the doubt or respect out of kneejerk custom. According to Gallup, lately pastors have been getting the lowest ratings for respect and trust since Gallup began asking the question; currently, fewer than 50% of respondents rating clergy “high or very high” with regard to their trustworthiness and honesty. And given what I know about the type of people who are the loudest members of the profession right now, I can totally understand why. I only grieve that the good eggs are getting thrown out with the bad ones, because I know some good ones and they don’t deserve that kind of tarring.

Of course, these bad eggs, these attention-hounds, will bluster and storm and thunder and say that “Satan” is behind their sudden drop in status and prestige. They will say that it “obviously” means that they are doing all the right things because opposition only happens, in their world, when someone’s doing something so well that “Satan” is upset enough about it that “he” lashes out against the person doing it. They’ll drill down all the harder on the bullshit act because that’s all they’ve got in their toolbox. All the other times Christian bullshit whisperers got caught, they were able to wriggle free and start over again with the same act a little while later. They have no reason to suspect this time will be different. They may lose a few followers, but more will come along later if they just keep shouting the same stuff they’ve been shouting (maybe a bit more extremist, a bit more racist, a bit more sexist, a bit more isolationist, a bit more bigoted, but the same ideas).

But we’ll know the truth, friends.

We’ll know better.

Every time, another person like me will slip free of the bonds and start seeing things clearly for the first time.

Every single time a clergyperson is caught doing something horrible, the public’s general friendliness to the profession is shaken a little bit more. When normal folks found out that a pervert with a known criminal record had been allowed into the pastorship of a church in Kentucky, then went on–shockingly–to molest more children there, I imagine most of them were absolutely dumbfounded. So too were the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ at that church, though for the wrong reasons; even though they’d totally known they were hiring an accused pedophile to be their church’s pastor, they’d decided on their own that he was innocent and let him run loose among their children because they value “forgiveness” over children’s safety.

Don’t expect the leaders in this fiasco to do anything but keep their chins high and keep doing things the same way as always as they hope desperately that the blowback will fade as memories dim; as their new interim pastor said,

he was “not in a position to judge anyone. We’re firm believers in the Bible so if God’s forgiven you, then we’re in no position to treat you otherwise,” Bratcher explained to WBKO last month.

I’m sure the Interim Pastor’s whining that he doesn’t want to judge anybody and that he trusts any fool who says he’s been forgiven by “god” will be a great comfort to the victims of this child rapist and their families as they deal with the fallout of his disgusting crimes.

How many of these things have to happen to the church’s own families before they stop giving pastors automatic trust and respect? Do you suppose this was the straw that will break the camel’s back of gullibility and over-trusting-ness? The rest of us already know that the Christian church, especially the loudmouthed brash side of it, is a safe harbor for predators just like bathroom tile is a safe harbor for foot fungus. When Christians themselves realize that there’s no god magically making their leaders better people than anybody else, things will finally begin changing in that toxic miasma of a culture they’ve created for themselves.

None of this would even be happening if the people in these churches looked seriously at the people coming in, ignored their Jesus smiles and ultra-earnest preacher eyebrows and considered these folks on their own merits rather than the ones they’re claiming Jesus gave them.

<> on May 16, 2013 in Washington, DC.Ted Cruz. Every picture I see of this clown, his eyebrows appear to be trying to knit themselves together and then take off into orbit.

I don’t expect Christians to wake up to reality just because they get hit with one too many of these disgusting perverts, though. It’s the financial hit that will likely do that. Churches don’t care what anybody thinks until that opinion starts costing them a lot of money. These pious Jesus-smile-wearing church leaders sanctimoniously refraining from judging perverts will start doing so in a damned hurry once not judging them starts costing them their pants. I’m not a lawsuit-happy person by nature, but I genuinely hope that the families of this Tennessee predator’s victims are already lawyering up to force their church to take a little goddamned responsibility for what they allowed to happen to their most vulnerable, defenseless members.

Part of the necessary snipping-away of Christianity’s reckless, roughshod trampling of liberty and rights is this painful recognition of how their worldview and practices have allowed people to rise to power who patently do not deserve the kind of trust and adoration that Christians are showering upon them. Just as I had to see Biff as he truly was, long ago, as someone who ached for responsibility but had no skill in exercising it in a loving or constructive way (or even really the desire to do so), just as I had to figure out that Biff had taken to Christianity because it let him finally have the admiration and respect he’d craved since childhood, just as I’d had to learn the hardest way possible that many of the worst Christians leading the religion today are there purely because they couldn’t get the fame, wealth, and power they have in religion any other way, Christians themselves are going to have to learn that too for themselves.

Considering the entire fundagelical movement is based on the concept of a god giving power and authority to those who deserve it most and heaping his approval and “blessings” on these people in the form of successful revivals and piles of money and political dominance, that’s going to be a sea change of epic proportions–and a much needed one.

Next time we’re going to talk a little more about this idea because I want to develop it a little further to discuss some other specific cases and times when Christians have been giving way too much trust to people who really don’t deserve it. Yep, it’s time to look at “Christian counselors” and a whole bunch more. I hope you’ll join me!

Posted in Biography, Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Constructive Anger in the Wake of the Hobby Lobby Ruling.

Anger can be a considerable gift. It can spur us to action and cause us to make necessary changes. But I think somehow that our culture’s sort of lost its way when it comes to channeling that anger in constructive ways. I really think a lot of that has to do with religious programming, but weirdly, that programming’s produced a nation full of people with anger management issues. It’s like we’re all just terrified of it and ignore it and avoid it at all costs, so when it bursts free from the bottling-up we’ve tried to contain it with, it tends to just spill everywhere and make a huge mess. (Hmm, I did make it sound kind of lurid there, didn’t I?)

The news is filled lately with incidents of Christian overreach. That SCOTUS decision about contraception is just one of them, but there are many others. It’s natural that we’ll feel some anger and frustration about these events. I kinda wanted to say something here about it:

Use your anger wisely and ethically.

Pick your targets carefully and well.

I’ve seen a lot of photos and stories lately about people messing up Hobby Lobby shelves and yelling at store managers and stuff. And folks, seriously, please don’t do that, okay? Don’t applaud it, don’t encourage it, and don’t do it yourselves. Making trouble for employees is about the worst way possible of dealing with our very proper anger over this business’ treatment of its employees.

The stockers and cashiers at these places–even the managers!–have less to say about Hobby Lobby’s policies than you or I even do. You’re making a mess that some poor, overworked peon’s going to have to come along and clean up, maybe making him or her late to go home, making that person’s life miserable, and for what? You’re not sending a message to Hobby Lobby’s owners. You think they seriously care if some peons have to work an extra hour or two fixing the damage you’ve done? If they actually gave two shits about the marginalized low-wage workers toiling in their stores, we wouldn’t even be having this problem with them.

In the same way, don’t yell at the Chik-Fil-A lady at the drive-thru window. She may have no idea what’s going on with her company’s gay-bashing policies. She’s probably just happy to have a job that guarantees her one weekend day off a week. She may totally agree with the policies or she may not, but yelling at her won’t do anything to change them or make her suddenly disagree with them.

You might as well go berate a janitor at the movie theater for all the “gritty reboots” and sequels filling the screens. If you’re a miserable example of humanity that might make you feel better for a little while, but it won’t actually fix any problems and it just hurts a person who can’t do anything to help you and is just as angered by the system you dislike as you are. (Heck, that employee might dislike it even more than you do.)

Worst of all, these employees’ jobs usually depend on being nice to customers, which means they are voiceless and impotent to protect and defend themselves against those customers’ attacks. Making their lives hellish just to feel like you did something concrete with your anger is nothing more than bullying.

Don’t let privileged people set unprivileged people at each other’s throats. Remember that thing I was talking about earlier, “let’s you and him fight”? That’s what’s going on when you take your anger out on someone who can’t fight back and is as oppressed as you are by the situation at hand. It’s misdirected aggression and it’s not going to help at all.

You know how you really send a clear message to privileged bigots and assholes?

You hit them in the wallet.

As Eddie Murphy’s character Billy Ray Valentine said in the very awesome movie Trading Places, “the best way you hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people.”

So that’s what we do.

Go to their website. They have a “contact” link. Use it.

Make sure that the business owners you’re upset with know that you are not stepping foot in their stores anymore. Make sure they know why. Be polite, concise, and clear about what will get you back in their stores. If you’ve spent money there before now, then outline generally how much you spent and what you bought–let them envision in their minds you at the register with those purchases–and then tell them that you’ll be spending that money elsewhere from now on. (As this link outlines, also do make sure you do your homework so you know that the problem you’re seeing is a real problem and not an urban legend.) And then, of course, follow up on the boycott threat by not buying anything from them at all.

Your lone letter won’t make a lot of difference. When I did it, I got a not-pology back from Hobby Lobby whining about “religious freedom” and “sincerely held beliefs.” So I wrote back with the great news that none of the medications they opposed actually caused abortion so they could drop this awful attempt to control their employees’ bodies, with lots of links so they could follow up for themselves. Unsurprisingly, I never got a reply back. But I stood firm and refused to let their rhetoric sway me. I knew what my goal was, and I knew the arguments involved. I didn’t yell at the customer service guy who wrote the letter to me; he had as little control over Hobby Lobby as I did. I was polite and tried to be sympathetic to him. I was very firm in addressing my concern and anger toward the right target and I asked him to pass the letter on to the right people.

This procedure is the same one I follow when I write to my elected officials, which I do about once a year; I don’t want to be a pest, but I think it’s important for people to make sure their elected officials know where they stand on things. Do they take my letters seriously? I’m sure they don’t–not by themselves. These largely male, all-white, mega-religious ignorant old farts are about as Republican as it gets, and they all consider elected office as a sort of country club with meetings. They probably don’t give a damn what one person says. Not individually.

But we’re not alone, and that’s the beauty of this idea. Alone you probably won’t do much at all, but really you’ll be a drop in a bucket, and that bucket will become a tidal wave deluge of drops.

Hobby Lobby might be able to dismiss one letter, two, a dozen as cranks, but when they start seeing all these letters dropped in like the Hogwarts letters from all those owls, if you think they won’t get a vision from Jesus advising them to quit meddling in their employees’ private lives, you’re very mistaken. Churches do this all the time when their bottom lines are finally recognized to be at stake. Remember how the Mormon church was way into polygamy and institutionalized racism–until it was either give those up or get in serious trouble with the United States or participate in some super-important basketball games? Remember how quickly in each case they got visions from their god that maybe they could stop doing that now? It was just amazing how quickly those long-held, deep convictions shifted when a serious threat appeared. When hardline conservative Christian leaders finally realize what damage they’ve done to themselves with their war on LGBTQ people, you can bet they’ll figure something out as well.

This capitulation doesn’t just happen in religion, either. Under pressure from consumers, McDonald’s put tighter restrictions on its suppliers for more humane treatment of chickens. The FDA hadn’t been able to force them to make that change, but when the bottom line got threatened, McDonald’s themselves made that shift and they did it with remarkable speed considering the sheer size of their operation. In the same way, when consumers began voicing concern about and avoiding products made with high fructose corn syrup, companies began to notice the drop in sales and reformulated their products to use less (or none) of it.

English: Angry cat

English: Angry cat (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Him a very angry kettie.

Like many modern fundagelicals, the owners of Hobby Lobby say they’re abusing their employees in the name of Jesus, but make no mistake, friends: they’re not running a non-profit operation there. They want to make money. And I’m telling you right now that if the backlash gets serious enough, they’ll find some way to reconcile their tender widdle fee-fees with employees having full access to contraception in the third-party insurance plans that those employees pay for with their own paychecks just like they pay for all kinds of other things that would probably make Hobby Lobby’s weird Republican version of Baby Jesus cry tears of blood.

But that backlash won’t come from people vandalizing Hobby Lobby stores or giving clerks and managers a tough time.

If you’re angry about an injustice, use your anger wisely. Target the people who actually matter, the people who actually will care about losing your business or attention, the people who can actually make the changes needed to be made. Don’t torture people who are suffering under those business owners. It’s not their fault, and it’s wrong to do things to make them suffer even more in the rush to protest their suffering.

We’re going to talk next time about something I’ve been thinking about lately–how certain group affiliations let people borrow status and personal power. Ever heard of a BMOC? Well, they ain’t just men, and they ain’t just on campuses. See you next time, friends.

Related:
* Don’t Do This. Shakespeare’s Sister explains beautifully why vandalizing stores isn’t an effective or constructive use of anger. If you’re not following her blog, you should be. I don’t say this about many blogs, but this one’s really an essential read.

Posted in Feminism, Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments