On the Making of Mini-Mes.

I, Robot (film)

I, Robot (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while ago there was a movie out called I, Robot. One of its most disturbing scenes, to me, was one in which the hero must search for a robot who is hiding in a factory among a sea of newly-built robots. The robots–all alike, all identical, all mindless and unmoving and unaware–were an image that has always stuck with me. It took a while to figure out why I thought that scene was so eerie, but you know me–I’m tenacious. Eventually I realized that that scene captured how I felt when I was a Christian–like a robot in the middle of a big group of robots, and how I see Christians acting even today–like their main goal and focus is on creating people who are exactly alike and completely homogenous.

Indeed, there ain’t much that bothers fundagelicals as much as people not believing the same exact way they do, and a distressingly large part of their time and resources go into creating clones of themselves among those who are different–and the more different, the more eager these Christians are to push these folks into the fundie mold. We’re going to look at this mindset today and talk a little about why it’s an indicator of the sickness in the religion itself.

A while ago, when talking about a movie about a mixed-faith relationship, He’s In Love With a Church Girl, I noticed that the movie only considered one outcome of the clash of faiths to be acceptable: the “worldly” guy had to convert to Christianity. Indeed, when you look at blog sites and books written by Christians regarding being “unequally yoked” with non-believers, that’s the goal for them as well. They don’t consider any other outcome as divinely blessed or even condoned. Heck, you get this kind of Christian into a group of other Christians, and the first thing you’ll see is that person whipping out the spiritual yardstick to figure out where the other Christians don’t measure up–and then that Christian will start fighting to get everybody on the same exact page theologically that s/he is on.

I’m sure that most non-Christians could tell the same stories I do of feeling like Christians take my mere existence as a challenge, of feeling like Christians can’t and won’t rest till they’ve bashed me back into the right shape. But it goes so much deeper than them trying to force ex-Christians back into shape. There’s a whole pervasive distrust of the idea of someone refusing that shaping.

Fundagelical Christianity is built upon this idea of homogeneity and sameness in its adherents. One of the biggest myths I believed about marriage was that any two people should be able to make a marriage work if Jesus had ordained that they should marry. It didn’t matter what the two people were like or what they wanted out of life; if Jesus had said they should be together, then they’d find some magical way to make that work. I had this idea that marriage partners were more or less interchangeable–that you could plug any two people together and as long as they had differently-shaped genitalia, they could make a marriage work if they were basing it on Jesus. I saw my god as smoothing those rough edges of differing personalities and individuality to make us all capable of marrying pretty much anybody.

I got that idea from my perception of Christians as this huge monolithic group of people who were more or less interchangeable in my god’s big plan. Often I’d hear a pastor or preacher or evangelist or missionary (always male, of course) talk about how they felt they were the very last person who should be assigned this or that task, but they’d felt led to do it, and obviously it was the right thing to do. The idea of the reluctant warrior permeated my culture and frequently showed up in sermons and presentations. As Moses had been unsuited, our god chose vessels who had unknown strengths and unsuspected powers, and just like our mostly-doctored-up testimonies, these stories always ended with dramatic victories and turnarounds that showed how very wise our god must have been after all to choose exactly the right person, even if that person hadn’t realized it. But what these tales also did was show me that it didn’t matter what someone’s strengths, abilities, or even interests were: our god moved us around and did whatever he wanted anyway, without regard for any of that, and we had to be able to just drop whatever we were doing to do what he needed–whatever that was.

We called ourselves “sheep”–and though we always assumed our god knew us apart from each other, can anybody else tell one sheep from another? We called ourselves “soldiers”–and one thing you can say about armies is that they don’t typically value a lot of individuality. We wore almost-identical clothing, did our hair almost exactly the same way (my friend Mike, who’d loaned me that reference Bible, called it “the Pentecostal Pouf”), listened to the same music, and channeled our interests into the correct paths in church, with women serving as Sunday School teachers or in the music ministry, and men doing the leadership stuff. Children were trained to be obedient and unquestioning, with the slightest show of defiance treated like World War III. When we talked about tradition, we were envisioning one big tradition for everybody; when we yearned for “the good old days,” we were not yearning for a multicultural, diverse, robust society but one with people like us in it–white, Christian, cis-gendered, conservative, and straight. When we talked about the perfect family, there was only one type of family we imagined. Hell, even our “speaking in tongues” all sounded about the same, like what you’d imagine an Ancient Near Eastern language might sound like if it got channeled through a toddler-aged Larry the Cable Guy.

Once converted, we fully expected “the Spirit” to “convict” our target to make him or her act, dress, and talk more like us. Think I’m kidding? I was explicitly told exactly this about a week after my baptism into the Pentecostal church, when an older man told me that he was praying that “god” would “convict me about skirts,” since I was wearing pants. Even when I began wearing skirts, they weren’t the right kind of skirts–they were the gorgeous, dramatically-gem-colored challis prints that everybody in the 80s was wearing, not the simple circle skirts of cotton that my church favored. So slowly I was “convicted” by simple group pressure until my wardrobe was correct and my hair was grown out and my makeup thrown away. And I began parroting the same apologetics my peers did, leaping on the same trends they did, and doing all the same stuff they were doing. I stopped writing, stopped reading anything that wasn’t pre-approved, and stopped doing all the other extracurricular stuff I’d been doing before my conversion to concentrate only on church activities. I stopped feeling proud of my accomplishments (those were of “the world” anyway and it wasn’t humble to feel pride) and tried to cultivate that calm, cheerful, generous demeanor that my church preferred in women.

I didn’t even notice this process of homogenization till it was completed, when it was far too late to object to the end result. Not for nothing do you sometimes hear such Christians called “god-bots” by derisive outsiders. That was me. I was a robot in a sea of identical robots, able to be picked up and plugged into any project by my god, interchangeable, with some slight variations in skills and aptitudes, but none of those really mattered.

So I can say with perfect assurance that when we witnessed to people, what we were really trying to do was make our target more like us.  When we told someone we were praying for them, what we were praying for was that our target would start thinking like we did. We were bringing that person into the fold. We were saving that person from the world, which was seen as dangerously unpredictable, ambiguous, and chaotic. Where outsiders might appreciate the world’s tender nuances and subtle shades of grey, we saw threatening ambiguity that we had to resolve as quickly as possible. Our very conceptualization of creation itself saw our god as creating order out of disorder, law out of chaos.

When we waded into that crazily-erratic world to find lost sheep to save or to fight in our god’s battles, we saw ourselves as the saviors of those lost souls. We saw ourselves as their champions, bringing our way of life and our wisdom to those poor damned people, lifting them out of that unpredictable chaos and into order alongside us.

There’s something truly insidious about this kind of proselytization; it doesn’t look like “saving” people so much as forcing people to be the same to reinforce cultural dominance and reassure these Christians of their privilege. I really think that one reason that such Christians tend to react so poorly to rejection of their strong-arming is that outsiders aren’t just rejecting their piss-poor arguments, immoral reasoning, and total lack of objective evidence. We’re also rejecting the arguments, reasoning, and fake evidence that was more than good enough to convince these Christians of their claims, and thereby invalidating and challenging their intelligence, discernment, moral capacities, hell, even their entire lives. We’re rejecting the insistence to become like them and saying that we see what they are–and want no part of it.

It’s really no wonder to me to see that so many toxic Christians in America (and to a lesser extent elsewhere) are turning their eyes away from their own home cultures to other countries.

Missionary work is in Christians’ blood. They think that Jesus told them to spread his gospel through the world, a task now called “the Great Commission.” Though this command is, as we’ve discussed, almost certainly a later addition to the Gospels, and though this command’s interpretation is definitely up for debate, it caught on with Christians very quickly. Today this verse is used as one of the “permission slips” that Christians love to lean on when accused of hypocrisy and, in this case, manipulative overreach and abuse of others (we’ll talk more about this idea of “permission slips” next time, because I can already tell we’ll need some time to explore it). Obviously they’re going to look like they’re preying upon unwary people and manipulating them, but they’re just (insert totally whiny tone here) following the Great Commission, so therefore nobody’s allowed to say anything about it!

Just as I’ve criticized Christians in “unequally yoked” marriages of wanting their illusion of the Happy Christian Marriage even at the expense of the mental health and comfort of their own mates, it seems to me that Christians in general want that “Happy Christian Culture” illusion to make themselves feel more comfortable. They may mask it in wide-eyed proclamations of fear that their god will hit us with a meteor if we give people equal rights for being what they think is sinful, but the truth is, they’re more comfortable around people who are like them. And the more unlike them people are, the less comfortable they seem and the more such Christians will want to “fix” them so they seem more similar.

Back in the 90s, when I was a newlywed, I belonged to a church that took missionary work very seriously. As part of a missionary’s appeal one night, Biff (my then-husband, who was angling for a preaching career) and I committed to sponsoring an African child. We got letters and drawings every so often from a person who said she was our child, as well as little presents like a string of gingerbread-man paper garlands that she had ostensibly made herself.

Now, if you’re not too sure about how that works, here’s the low-down: you think you’re getting to sponsor an individual child. You send money to a group every month, and they in turn act like they’re giving it straight to that child’s family. You get, in return, letters and pictures that are ostensibly written and drawn by “your” child, as he or she progresses through the charity’s educational system, and learn a little about the culture in which that child ostensibly lives.

Did you catch all those uses of the word “ostensibly?” Good for you.

What’s actually going on in most cases (and in the case of the charity that’d been pushed at me and Biff) is that the money goes to that child’s community and helps clothe and feed a bunch of kids, and send a bunch of kids to school. Probably. I wish that’d been made a little more clear to me back then, because I was both peeved at hearing it, because I felt like I’d been deceived, and relieved at hearing it, because that actually made a lot more sense than just going family-by-family. And, of course, a lot of that money goes to upkeep of the charity itself, as well as, often, into evangelism efforts to “save” the people in that community. And I had no way of actually knowing that any of the letters and drawings we received from “our” child were actually written by her; indeed, when one journalist who’d sponsored a child for over ten years through World Vision finally met her in person, he discovered that not only did she not know English (which her letters had said she was doing great in learning!) but that she had no idea that she even had a sponsor; moreover, the only benefits she had ever seen from World Vision were precisely one (1) pen and one (1) denim jacket that she was wearing the day of her interview. World Vision, like the charity I was involved with, doesn’t exactly make its various sponsors aware of how the money is actually being used.

This paper outlines some serious critiques of aid organizations, particularly World Vision, calling it a “Trojan horse” for US policy and accusing it of giving aid money not to community leaders, as promised, but to local evangelical church leaders. It goes on to mention several other disturbing facets of world aid, namely that groups that provide this aid seem more interested in making other countries into mini-USAs and their people mini-me Christians–sometimes even in open defiance of their own charter rules around proselytization (such as World Vision has). When Mitt Romney turned out to have dodged the draft by going on a missionary tour of France, his and his wife’s famous insistence that he’d done something just as worthy as going to war (rightfully) shocked and outraged outsiders, but had I heard it as a young Pentecostal, chances are I’d have agreed at least a tiny bit with the sentiment.

So had I known at the time that my money might be going to a little bit of evangelism or US cultural dominance, I wouldn’t have minded. I didn’t know any better. At the time, I regarded people’s souls as being as important as their stomachs and my culture as the bestest in the whole wide world, and in these mindsets I wasn’t alone. I wanted the whole world to be just like me: Christian, and moreover Protestant, and moreover fundagelical, and moreover Pentecostal, if I could humanly arrange it. Now things are a lot different. I know that missionary groups often don’t have or show a lot of respect for local customs and culture, and that they often care a lot more about spreading their religious views than about actually helping the people in these cultures–a phenomenon called Religious Imperialism.

There is a much darker side to this imperialism, and we’re seeing it lately with the “Kill the Gays” legislation going on in Uganda. The success of this legislation has a great deal to do with right-wing Christianists from America, like Scott Lively, who figured out that while Americans are wanting less and less to do with their toxic message of bigotry and legalism, Africans seem very receptive to that exact message. There’s a very ugly racist vibe I get from what I see of Mr. Lively’s behavior and work there; it seems a lot like he’s pounced on that part of the world because he sees the people in that part of the world as more gullible and naively trusting. Unsurprisingly, he’s on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s watch list of bigots and hatemongers (and also not surprisingly, he’s a historical revisionist, according to that link–in his demented, broken little brain-pan, the Nazis were actually gay guys, and gay guys today are the real anti-Semites; isn’t it just the wackiest thing how often anti-gay bigots also turn out to be hugely racist, hugely fundagelical, and hugely anti-Semitic?). Scott Lively’s just one of a number of fundagelical bigots who are finding the pickings easy in Africa and other troubled areas; his buddy-in-bigotry, Rick Warren (yes, the Purpose-Driven guy), has also been busy in Uganda inciting hate and fear against LGBTQ people. Fundagelicals’ aid often doesn’t come with the same accountability requirements as more mainstream groups’ aid would have, making it way easier for these groups to gain the allegiance of corrupt local evangelical church leaders, who are way more likely to misuse the funds.

And one can also see some truly ugly hatemongering in Russia along the same exact lines. American fundagelicals are also responsible for similar laws and attitudes there. Larry Jacobs, of the “World Congress of Families,” has been a busy little bee indeed in Russia, spreading hate speech and complete lies about LGBTQ people. It is not hard to imagine that he’s spending so much energy on Russia because America seems less and less interested in helping him create his vision of the Happy Christian Culture.

When I see Americans doing this stuff abroad, it really makes me think of that old poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” like we feel like it’s our duty to export our way of life and ideas to other cultures, like those cultures’ current way of life is childish, barbaric, and savage and they need civilizing and taming from us.

But even worse than treating these cultures like they’re feral little children in need of nice white saviors, sometimes we treat the saving like it’s a stop on a tourist visit. I remember my mind just being blown by the idea of young Christians begging for money to go on missionary trips to places like Jamaica and Hawaii. But more than that, I’ve actually heard ex-Christians talk about these mission trips–that most of the “missionaries” involved really do regard the outing as a nice Jesus-tinged vacation that they can put on their resumés and college entrance applications to demonstrate how civic-minded they are. I’ve also been personally told by someone who wanted to go on one of these trips that young people who look too much like the natives of whatever barbaric locale is being saved get turned down so nice white exotic-looking kids can go instead. Once there, the kids spend time doing busy-work and enjoying the sights, sometimes “witnessing” to locals.

Most of these trips are, as you can guess, a total and complete waste of time if not downright damaging to the cultures being treated like a zoo exhibit for the entertainment of oblivious young Christians. One blogger calls them “poverty vacations” for good reason; I’ve also heard them called “sanctified vacations.” The kids who go to these mission trips usually don’t speak the local language and lack the skills needed to do some real good, like carpentry or plumbing. And the churches hosting them have to spend a lot of money to keep them housed, fed, and entertained.

That’s not counting the obvious party destinations like Jamaica and France, of course. The appeal of going somewhere like that is quite clear to me. I hadn’t realized there were so many people in those places that had never, ever heard of Christianity, had you? It’s kind of funny when one hears about missionaries coming to America from countries like China for the exact same reason–do these missionaries actually think they’re going to encounter loads of pagans or something? Do you hear about that and think what I do: “Wait, that’s something Americans do, not something Americans get done to us!”

But it’s all worrrrrrrth it to share “Jesus” with these places. When they’re done, the culture will be just a little bit more civilized, just a little bit more American, and just a little bit whiter in mindset.

Must save the poor savages.

And get a killer tan.

Join me next time as we talk about the various “permission slip” Bible verses Christians misuse to stomp on outsiders and exert control over stuff that’s really none of their bidness.

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How Not to Be a Compelling Witness.

It’s almost a pity that most of modern Christianity has this major hard-on for evangelism and “spreading the gospel,” considering how bad most of their adherents are at actually doing it.

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

Sermon on the Mount. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) And then he posted a sarcastic advice animal on Imgur and everybody got butthurt.

It is just mind-blowing to me that this religion’s most vocal members, fundagelicals, consider converting and persuading people to be their entire reason for existence, but are so singularly disinterested in actually doing an effective job of it. It’s like they get stuffed full of ideas about how witnessing and evangelism are supposed to work, and there are only two outcomes they understand: either their target will be overwhelmed with the light of Jesus and fall to his or her knees babbling in tongues, or else their target will arrogantly refuse to accept the overwhelming light of Jesus and then the fight is on.

But in the real world, that’s not how it works. I see Christians putting themselves out there, either indignantly defending their idol or else earnestly wheedling and manipulating non-believers, because they think they’re supposed to do it, even though they’re doing it really badly. They don’t even want to learn how to do it well. They don’t want to learn how people really think. They don’t want to learn what really is persuasive. They don’t want to open themselves up to treating others ethically and lovingly. That would totally go against their Evangelism Script that they’ve got in their heads.

Jesus or a Gun

Jesus or a Gun (Photo credit: Wikipedia). WWJD?

I’m dead convinced that there are Christians who’d be way better off as witnesses by just never talking about their religious convictions or opinions among outsiders, like ever. They’re are that bad at it, and that poor of an example of their faith. I ran into one this week online and it was just so comical to see how bad she was at sharing her faith and persuading others of its validity. I’d think she was a troll except that I’ve known people IRL who were like that, so once again Poe’s Law pecker-slaps us in the face.

It reminds me a little of the American Republican Party, these Christians. Republicans talk a big game about wanting women and minorities to vote for their otherwise hopelessly-unelectable candidates, but they don’t want to get those blocs by actually talking about stuff women and minorities care about, nor about accomplishing tasks those groups care about. They want to keep acting like totally bugfuck-insane misogynists and racists, but they still want those votes–they just want them on Republicans’ own terms. They want to have their cake and force it to gestate, too: they want to keep the party exactly as it is now, as the slobbering knob-polishing tool of rich white male-centered Christianist interests, but they want to attract blocs of voters who traditionally want nothing to do with those interests. It can’t be easy for them, the poor dears.

So confronted with this very obvious dilemma, Republicans’ answer is to keep saying that they care about the things that women and minorities care about, to keep insisting that they’re not really totally out to destroy the rights of women and minorities, and hope that their constant gaffes and foot-in-mouth-and-set-on-fire missteps aren’t remembered at the polls. But their strategy does not, at this point, seem to include actually behaving like candidates who’ll attract women and minorities. That’d require work and a lot of essential changes to their mindset as well as some major re-tooling of their entire platform (which consists of pandering to angry, terrified white mid- to lower-class Christians who think feminists are evil and minorities aren’t quite human), and we know how well authoritarian-minded fundagelicals love them some change, right?

In the same exact way, toxic Christians who want to convert people say they want to win souls, but they want to win them on their own terms exclusively. They don’t want to actually learn how to win souls in a way that is not creepily manipulative or intellectually dishonest. They want to do it on their own terms. At least I can kind of understand why Christians are so bad at witnessing. Republicans baffle me completely–they’ve got bazillions of dollars to throw at finding real solutions to their problems, but throw all that money at think tanks and surveys and still want nothing to do with the reality that gets unearthed. Fundagelical Christians at least tend to be amateur orators and piss-poor philosophers filled with spiritual zeal and way too few critical thinking skills.

But I’m not sure even that excuses them. They’re still people, and as such, as people, they get confronted every single day with situations that require them to either persuade others or face attempts at persuasion themselves. From the moment they wake up to their clock radios and hear the ads on the morning show, from the moment they arrive at their workplaces and start going to their early-morning meetings, Christians are persuading and being persuaded. An ad comes on for a new sandwich shop that’s not too far off the path to work: the Christian hears it, and weighs the information it presents to decide if maybe it’s worth going to eat there once. The Christian stages a meeting where she must convince a new client to spend more money than the client had originally intended. An insurance salesperson tries to convince our Christian to do something different the homeowner’s policy. A cell phone ad in the paper is advising that a new contract will get you a special deal on a new phone, and maybe the Christian calls in to ask about it and negotiate a deal worth signing a new contract*. That night our Christian tries to convince the rest of the family that they can, indeed, afford a vacation to Disneyland. A relative tries to persuade our Christian to go in on an MLM scam involving water filters or herbal supplements or whatever. A friend is talking about a new diet she’s trying, the Christian’s partner would love to try something new and kinda freaky in bed… it goes on and on.

We’re humans, and part of the human condition is learning to work cooperatively. Working cooperatively means we have to sometimes persuade the rest of the group to do something they weren’t going to do otherwise. And it’s not like we’re terrible at doing it. Even as little children, we learn negotiation skills. Anybody who’s ever done hard time around toddlers knows that even before they can talk, they’re testing boundaries, asking for stuff and attention, and making counter-offers of their own to get their way. It’s a fascinating thing to see, how even the smallest of children intuit and learn how to manipulate the various adults around them, changing approaches to suit particular targets and adjusting their “sales pitch” according to the reception they’re getting.

Why do fundagelical Christians seem to totally forget what they’ve learned by the time they’re old enough to “spread the gospel”? For people who say they’re desperate to save the lost, these folks are the most hilariously inept at presenting a compelling reason to “get saved” that I’ve ever seen. And I wonder when my old worldview of Christianity changed into this Keystone Kops level of clownish, strong-arming, dishonest, arrogant, smug idiocy.

When I was a Christian, that was my focus, you see–to save people. I wept copious tears over the souls of my loved ones and family members. It bothered me hugely to think about them going to Hell (and no, I didn’t really stop to think about how ghastly it was that I still worshiped and “loved” the grotesque being who’d be responsible, if even indirectly, for their gruesome torture!). I wanted to save them from their fate. And yes, I wanted them to love this revoltingly wicked god the same way I thought I did. With those goals in mind, I studied how best to approach them. I tried to find angles of approach I thought they would understand. I studied how to build some kind of persuasive case for the people I wanted to reach. I tried my best to be as wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove, as the Bible verse goes. Because I recognized that a bad witness was worse than no witness at all, I didn’t witness to people I didn’t think I could at least make some kind of positive impact on, or wade into waters that were just too far out of my swimming ability. I figured that Jesus surely would have some other way of reaching them, if he really wanted to reach them, and if he gave me the sudden gift of insight, I’d use it, but otherwise, I wouldn’t damage the future soul-harvest of some other Christian better suited to talk to this person. To that person, I would only be as good an example of Christianity as I could, so at least I wouldn’t be the “bad Christian” such a person would remember later and stumble over.

Above all, I did not ever talk to non-believers the way that Christians routinely talk to me. I didn’t even know anybody who’d ever talk to non-believers the way I see Christians talking to people these days. Nobody, not even my crazy preacher husband at the time, Biff, would be so horrible to people as I see Christians acting all the time in real life and online.

Today, on Facebook, a Christian gal who doesn’t even know me tried to tell me that I’m unhappy (which is wrong) and that it wasn’t “nice” to ask her to actually present a compelling case for her religious claims, then repeatedly told detractors that we were all simply wrong without giving anybody any further information or elaboration; I could not even guess why she thought any of this act was compelling. I’ve been following elsewhere a long comment thread on a Patheos post asking for non-believers to please tell Christians what we wish they’d hear; its comments long ago devolved into Christians wading in to preach and proselytize at non-believers–and insult them in every way imaginable for not being believers, and of course threaten us with Hell for not believing (thankfully, their mods are quick to weed those folks out, but it’s like trying to control an ant invasion in a caramel factory). In the news, Christians constantly whine and mewl about being “persecuted” for having to treat LGBTQ people like real humans with real human rights; in one state, Christian-pandering legislators want to enshrine the Bible into law as their state’s official book–but of course they’re not trying to offend non-believers, heaven forbid!

“It’s not meant to be offensive,” Mr. Carmody said. “There’s no requirement that [residents] would have to follow this particular text.”

And I’m sure that this mealy-mouthed, callow, obviously dishonest evasion has fooled all the fundagelicals in that state, but it has not fooled anybody else. But if non-believers and non-toxic Christians are offended by their blatant violation of the law, then obviously that is our problem and if we speak out against their overreach, why, then we’ll be persecuting them. What’s really shocking is that these Christians actually think any of this is making their religion look like an option to anybody outside the faith. When we stop and think that no, they don’t actually care about converting people but rather just want to put their boots on the throats of those they view as inferior, these constant offenses and blatant power grabs start making a lot more sense. And that’s how I realized what the real core of the problem is.

Over and over again, Christians mistreat non-believers and completely mis-handle “sharing the good news” with us. I submit that their mistreatment goes well beyond simple ignorance and into what I truly believe is willful and self-serving ignorance. It’s not hard to find a non-believer these days to ask questions of. People even write entire blog posts about how to talk to non-believers (like this great one from Dan Fincke. It’s not hard to learn how to talk to people and engage them, if someone really wants to learn to do that. We’re not shy at all.

Given how easy it would be to learn to do better, I’ve got to wonder why Christians would ever treat people so outrageously abusively and ineptly, when they say their primary focus is on “saving” people from this horrible-but-unverified fate they are convinced exists.

Could it be that these Christians aren’t actually interested in doing the thing they say they’re trying to do?

Let’s consider this question for just a moment.

We’ve got a group of people who say that their goal is one thing, but their tactics go a different direction entirely. Taking them at their word, their tactics–treating people like shit, being hateful and controlling, acting smug and condescending, being brutally cruel and insulting, and shamelessly forcing their religion on outsiders at every opportunity–don’t make a bit of sense considering their stated goals of converting people to their way of thinking. We’ve talked before about how anti-abortion groups do the same thing, about how their stated goals of lowering abortion rates do not even in the slightest mesh with their tactics, which are either completely irrelevant to their goal (like demonstrating at clinics) or work actively against their goal (like their increasingly hostile stance toward contraceptive access). And this might be the same situation.

Could it be that these Christians don’t actually give a damn if they “save” anybody?

Could it be there’s some other reason they’re “sharing the good news” in such an incredibly hateful and controlling way?

Let’s look at their actual behaviors and tactics. Without knowing what their goal was, if you were some space alien who’d never been to Earth and you were seeing fundagelicals as a group for the first time, what would you say they were trying to accomplish after observing them in action?

Would you think for a single heartbeat that converting outsiders to their way of life was the goal?

I don’t think it would be. I think you, as a space alien, would think instead that they were trying to reinforce their privilege and reassert their dominance over outsiders. I think you’d know that nobody sane would ever want to convert to a religion whose believers mistreated people the way that toxic Christians routinely do.

Taking that first lady I mentioned a minute ago, how do you think she imagined her encounter was going to go? If she’d gotten any kind of positive reception, it would have blown her mind. She wasn’t interested in being taken well. She didn’t have the slightest idea how to engage with any kind of skepticism or criticism besides condemning it, hand-waving it aside, and then ultimately ignoring it. Had I suddenly said I wanted to convert to her kind of Christianity, a) she’d have probably fainted, but b) at that point I’d be converting to a religion that values someone like how she has presented herself in the context of her religion: a smug, controlling, intellectually dishonest, emotionally manipulative, gaslighting, tone- and gender-policing, arrogant, condescending, meddling, small-minded, close-minded, myopic, doublespeaking abuser. Do I have any reason to suspect that her little group of believers at her church are any different at all from her? Do I have any reason to suspect that her behavior is frowned upon by her church or denomination? No, I don’t. So why in the world would I ever want to join a group that is very likely made up of people like her? Does she seriously imagine anybody’d ever do that?

But by reacting negatively to her repeated baseless claims, by simply refusing to buy into her blandishments, by quite literally laughing at her blatant attempts to manipulate and coerce us, we gave her something that she couldn’t get anywhere else: we gave her the thrill of feeling persecuted and the delicious joy of feeling smug and right in the midst of so many people she thinks are wrong. Controllers don’t like not having someone to control. They get genuinely antsy when nobody’s opposing them. And they really hate being ignored. There isn’t much that gives as great a thrill to such people than trying to strong-arm someone spiritually, is there?

So I don’t think that fundagelicals really care about converting anybody as much as they might say they do. If they really cared about converting people, they’d push aside their dogma and parroted apologetics and learn what really works. If they really cared about persuading folks who by now are well-used to dodging their fallacies and debunked miracle claims, they’d learn how to engage us and how to structure and tailor their approaches; they’d learn what we really consider loving, and they’d learn what offends us and what to say and not say to make us receptive to at least discussing things with them.

Tellingly, they are doing none of this. Just like the Jesus Republican Party is doing on the national scale, they are doing on the personal scale. If being abusive and controlling isn’t working, then the problem is obviously that they are not being abusive and controlling enough. If treating people like shit isn’t persuading them, then the problem is obviously they are not marginalizing us enough yet. If fallacies and debunked miracle claims don’t work to get our attention, then obviously they need more fallacies and wilder miracle claims. I’ve never seen a group so wholeheartedly dedicated to the idea of doing everything possible to fix a problem except learn why that problem really exists or how that problem can actually be addressed.

And if we outsiders get completely turned off by their constant gaffes and blatantly offensive words and deeds, then obviously that just means that Jesus is convicting us and they need to keep doing it harder. If we non-believers refuse to comply and conform, then we must be hammered at over and over and over again to force us to comply and conform. If we non-believers stop trusting them to be honest about even the color of the very sky, then clearly they just need to learn to lie better.

This isn’t about conversion. It’s not even about love. Love listens and seeks to build bridges. What fundagelicals are doing here is ignoring outsiders’ very real complaints about their behavior and bludgeoning us with rocks to make us shut up and go along with at least one of the scripts they love so much.

I think what they want is the fight. I think what they want is the superiority and the feeling of being underdogs waging war on an unspeakably-powerful enemy. Not much else in fundagelicals’ lives makes them feel superior, I’m guessing; most of the country despises and distrusts them at this point, their truth claims are being debunked left and right; they’re losing social dominance at every turn. People in fundagelical churches tend to be lower-educated, lower-earning, poorer, more gullible, more unhealthy, more dysfunctional, and more likely to be living in a hellhole of crime and poverty than folks who aren’t in those churches. But dangit, at least they have the good fortune to believe just the right sort of nonsense! That, at least, they can use to look down on folks who are better-educated, healthier, and less gullible than they are.

Fundagelicals want converts, yes, but they want those encounters to go along according to the apologetics script they’ve got in their heads. Very few non-believers will fit into that script. There are very specific things these Christians know how to address in witnessing, and non-believers who are willing to dance according to the outlined feet on the floor are a lovely surprise for them.

Once they’ve figured out that their target ain’t converting and ain’t following the Conversion Script, though, then they pull out the Fight Script. That’s the one they use most, since the vast majority of their attempts at witnessing do not go a single bit like the Conversion Script says they should go.

I know that I’ve outlined a really nasty idea here. I recoil just thinking about it. But I don’t see much other alternative to it. I cannot see fundagelicals’ hamfisted attempts to strong-arm others into conforming and converting without seeing an attempt, at its core, to oppress others and get a renewed reason to feel smug and superior to those being oppressed. Fundagelicals’ attempts to convert people are little more than a coat of whitewash hiding a core of true hatred and fear.

My predictions seem to be borne out when I protest my poor treatment at the hands of these Christians and get, in return, that I just don’t know better. I need to totally re-define my ideas about morality and love to encompass what these abusers are doing to me. I need to let them abuse me. I need to allow my own victimization and I need to understand that their religion tells them they simply must do things this way, and they’re just followin’ orders like good little soldiers.

I call bullshit.


I know that toxic Christians are not very likely to read this post, much less heed it if they do read it, but I’d say to them, if I thought it’d do any good: If you want to at least open a real dialogue with me about your faith, then you need to make sure that you are presenting yourself as a true servant of Jesus.

You need to be humble, loving, gentle-hearted, generous, kind, and fair. You need to treat me with kindness, humbleness, graciousness, respect, courtesy, and good humor. If you don’t like how someone acts toward you, then you need to either swallow back your pride and irritation and forgive that person seventy times seven, or you need to not fucking open your gaping pie-hole to witness in the first place if you can’t finish the job.

True servants of Jesus–people who really know and understand that Love Chapter of their own Bible–don’t try to cold-read victims. They don’t manipulate people’s fears and prey upon the vulnerable and weak, condemn them, force their faith upon them, treat them hatefully, demand they conform to the Christian’s erroneous ideas about what behaviors are loving and which aren’t, mischaracterize them, or when all else fails simply lie to them.

I don’t ask Christians to be experts in biology, history, archaeology, or any of the many other subjects they only dimly comprehend but think they’re experts in. It’s embarrassing to see them get buried whenever they trot out their David Barton revisionism or Ken Ham lunacy, but these fake experts aren’t the biggest problem their worldview has. Christians themselves are.

So I do at least ask them to be able to demonstrate the very most essential and basic tenets of their faith–you know, that love your neighbor stuff they long ago discarded as boring and hard. If the Christian can’t do that, then not much else is going to seem compelling.

See, I know the big secret about religions: none of them make valid truth claims. None of them! I know that what makes a religion valid isn’t how historically or scientifically accurate its sourcebooks are or if it gets real miracles. The smart religions don’t even go there. What makes a religion valid is how well its people love each other and outsiders, how they help society progress forward, how they improve and unite the human race, and how they grow spiritually. But fundagelicals don’t do a single bit of any of that. They do the dead opposite of all of those things–in addition to insisting that their sourcebook is a valid history and science book when it just isn’t and their miracles are real when they just aren’t. That’s how I know their religion isn’t valid.

And I think that’s a big part of why fundagelical Christianity is dragging the whole religion down the toilet with itself as it fades into irrelevance. Christians like these are simply not compelling witnesses for their faith. In fact, their entire witnessing paradigm is not one designed to gain converts (though if some come in that way, that’s fine) but rather to enforce cultural dominance and their own privilege and feelings of unwarranted superiority over other people. Until fundagelicals wake up to this huge mismatch between their tactics and goals, they are going to continue alienating the very people they say they want most to reach–and they are going to continue fading in power as their own people get disgusted by their overreach and cruelties and walk away along with those of us who long ago rejected their grab for our (possibly non-existent) souls.

This was going to be a short post, but holy COW it got long. Thanks for reading all this. And do please join me next time as we talk about imperialism, since we’re heading into that time of year when young Christians start begging for money to go on expensive vacations mission trips to bring the “good news” to the pagan wilds of Hawaii and Jamaica, and the topic’s kind of related to this one. See you soon.

* Note to those who don’t know a lot about the inner workings of cell-phone companies: there is no deal that should be worth you signing a contract with a cell-phone company. Ever. Don’t do it. Contracts are for people who don’t know how to math.


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Posted in Guides, Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Why Christians Need to Stop Acting like Polyamory is Bestiality Lite.

I was invited to march with the Vancouver Poly...

Sign: Vancouver Polyamory group in the 2011 pride parade (Photo credit: theslowlane)

Today we are going to talk about one of the many, many consensual expressions of sexuality to be found among humans: polyamory, which is the practice of or interest in maintaining several sexual/romantic relationships concurrently. And we are going to talk about why toxic Christians have latched onto the idea of polyamory, and why they need to quit doing that.

Before we begin, because I notice we’ve got a lot of new folks coming in from all sorts of places, let me preface with a very warm welcome and a couple of disclaimers. First, I am not a Christian or an atheist. Second, I’m aware that there are many, many flavors of Christianity. And third, what we’re really criticizing here is a particular mindset within Christianity that I’ve started calling toxic Christianity, which is not restricted to fundagelicals by any stretch, but seems most prevalent in that group. And last, please review our Rules of Engagement before you post if you’re new. Okay? Great! Let’s begin.

A Quick Overview.

First, let’s talk about what polyamory is: the practice of or interest in maintaining more than one relationship at the same time. That’s a pretty basic definition, isn’t it? But we’re not talking about cheating, which is promising to stay faithful to just one person and sneaking behind that person’s back to have a second (or third, or fourth…) relationship or liaison. We’re not talking about being unfaithful to anybody. We’re talking about someone whose partners are aware that they are not an exclusive couple.

English: Former Speaker of the House at CPAC in .

English: Former Speaker of the House at CPAC in . (Photo credit: Wikipedia). SOUNDS LEGIT.

Most of us know about polyamory because of TV shows like “Sister Wives” or “Big Love,” so most of us probably associate the practice most with weird religious groups. Others of us might associate the idea with “open marriage,” which seems like a synonym for a husband who wants a little strange in his diet, and indeed, the way that Newt Gingrich famously pitched the idea to his wife seems to be the way that most women come into contact with the concept. That was the big deal in the 70s–I have some old paperbacks my mom bought and presumably read about this very idea, and they painted some really hair-raising images of reluctant wives exposed to STDs and worse as they sullenly followed their gleeful man-child husbands into swingers’ dens.

Obviously, little of that is truly representative at all of the folks who live this way (there’s a standing joke about the “open marriage” practice Newt was after–”Relationship broken! Add more people!“). But mainly, we think of it when we think of religious whackjobs.

In fact, there’s a huge divide I perceive between quasi-religious practice and non-religious practice of polyamory. For a start, when religious people start doing polyamory, usually it’s going to be depressingly misogynistic, with younger-than-average brides and one husband who holds the reins in the family. The family groupings tend to clump together into communities of like-minded religious zealots, especially off in the middle of nowhere to avoid scrutiny. Young lower-status men may find themselves run off from the group so they won’t be as much of a threat or competition to the higher-status men. What I’m saying here is that the problem isn’t especially the polyamory itself, but in how the women and lower-status men involved in those groups tend to be treated. Even what Newt Gingrich did to his wife as she lay on her sickbed could be seen in a religious context; right-wing Christians have enshrined a husband’s sexual needs into law, and those needs must be met somehow, anyhow, no matter what, the wife’s sickness be damned.

In non-religious groups, by contrast, I’ve noticed equal numbers of men and women participating in relationships, and all of the parties involved have a say in how the relationship(s) progress. They normally live right out in the middle of other folks, existing right under the noses of their neighbors. They normally don’t clump together into communities and don’t insist on religious homogeneity.

The polyamory I am talking about is more the second type than the first. It involves consenting adults deciding how they are going to handle their relationships on their own. It involves grown-ups handling their own business their own way. There are no laws being broken and no adults or children being harmed or marginalized. It’s just people choosing to do things a little differently, is all.

And there is nothing like a grown-up deciding to defy and (worse still) ignore toxic Christians’ insistence on how relationships between grown-ups should look to get toxic Christians to completely lose their collective shit.

Who Chooses This Kind of Relationship?

I’ve known a lot of polyamorous people over the years. The one thing I can say about them is that whatever wiring is required in a person to make him or her jealous, polyamorous people don’t have that wiring.

Humans have been practicing one form or another of polyamory for many thousands of years. If anything, we’re wired for it or for serial monogamy, which is the other major form of relationship we practice, in which we pursue one relationship at a time but have many in our lives, or even just infidelity, in which we pretend to be faithful to someone but have illicit pairings behind our partner’s back.

Generally, when we find out that a partner has extracurricular interests, we get super-jealous–we feel angry, hurt, betrayed, and humiliated. We want revenge. We feel pain at realizing that we are not our partner’s only lover.

But what if it wasn’t like that for us? What if we didn’t feel that kind of betrayal or pain? Jealousy is not a sign of love. Love doesn’t mean those who love will feel jealous, either. People often confuse themselves about jealousy, but really it’s most often an expression of insecurity and control, not love. And polyamorous people don’t feel that kind of insecurity. I realize that to most monogamous folks, it’s just alien to consider not feeling jealous, but it’s probably also alien to most straight folks to consider feeling genuinely attracted to someone of the same gender. Alien doesn’t mean morally wrong.

A long time ago, at a pagan party I was at, my boyfriend at the time discovered that one of our mutual friends was polyamorous and had two girlfriends. He stared at our friend and blurted out, “How do you find the time?” Other people might have asked “How do you avoid jealousy?” or “How do you keep your girlfriends from finding out about and wanting to kill each other?” But my boyfriend just wanted to know how our friend managed to maintain quality relationships with limited time. That was probably the first time I ever noticed that my boyfriend lacked that jealousy wiring.

Indeed, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that about all my boyfriend was missing, compared to our polyamorous friend, was enough time to maintain a second (or third, or fourth) relationship–and a partner who didn’t mind. He had never expressed a desire to control me in any way, nor had he ever seemed in the slightest jealous about anything I ever did or anybody I ever spent time with.

We got to know a variety of polyamorous groups as we went along with this community. Some were established groups (with three or four permanent members); one of these had three kids among the two women involved, and both women were happy and grateful to have the extra help around the house. Some involved a straight or bisexual couple, either or each of whom might have outside relationships. One couple was a poly man with a monogamous woman who didn’t seem to mind if her husband had discreet outside relationships. And some were just one man or woman who maintained a variety of relationships on their own terms. All of these relationships involved a lot of communication, honesty, and trust; all parties involved had rules about who they could contact, how the contact would work, and what priority competing requests would have. It was downright dizzying, but fascinating too–I’ve always been simply mesmerized by how people figure out how to handle their relationships. They were all pretty stable; most had lasted many years with their primary partner, longer than I ever had at that point with anybody.

Unsurprisingly, after we broke up, my now-ex-boyfriend decided to try polyamory. To his astonishment (but not mine!), it seemed to work really well for him. Not long after our breakup and his entry into polyamorous society, he met and much later married a polyamorous woman. I don’t know how he finds the time to maintain extra relationships even now, but both he and his wife do have outside interests. They’ve been together and married, almost to the week, the same amount of time my husband and I have, with no signs of weakness or instability so far.

Now, would I have gone along with polyamory had he decided it might be a good answer for him? No, I know better. I’m not able to even think about living that way. But my ex-boyfriend and his wife both choose to live that way, and it is their right as adults to do so. I’m happy they’ve found an arrangement that makes them happy. One of the big ideas in the alternative community is “Your Kink is OK” (YKIOK)–it’s about not feeling threatened that someone else wants to go a direction that’s really different from the one you want for your own life. His decision does not invalidate my own.

One might also say that it’s not always puppies and rainbows for all of these folks, either; just as monogamous couples can have drama, so can polyamorous groups. And as you can guess, the more people are involved in a relationship, the more explosive the drama seems to be. But the existence of drama doesn’t mean that something should be outlawed. They’re all adults, and they have the right to choose to get into something that might result in drama.

In all their various arrangements, polyamorous folks are like many other friends of mine–people who have communicated clearly and honestly with all parties involved about what’s going on; people who are totally okay with their choice; people who have arranged their lives in a way that feels meaningful and pleasing to them.

The Problem.

Unfortunately, a big chunk of Americans think that this arrangement is not only inferior but shouldn’t be allowed. A lot of those Americans use the Bible to justify why they are intruding on other adults’ private lives. And a lot of those Americans are attacking polyamory as part of their attack on equal marriage.

I guess I should just feel relieved that toxic Christians are slowly, finally, learning that comparing equal marriage to bestiality and pedophilia is not okay. Now they’ve leaped to comparing it to polyamory–to excuse why they are demanding that equal marriage not be allowed. They’ll say it on message boards and comment threads, ending with a “tee-hee! And we sure don’t want polygamy to become okay, now do we?!?” like of course all good and moral people don’t want to see that, right? I can easily see that they’re playing upon people’s unfamiliarity with the idea and their natural knee-jerk personal responses to it, much like they were doing when they compared equal marriage to pedophilia or bestiality. They are counting on people just knowing about the religious-whackjob side of the lifestyle, not the one I’ve outlined here. All they did was take the “is like X!” and put a new word in there, one that isn’t quite as emotionally-charged, one that isn’t as obviously unlike equal marriage. And we’re just supposed to forget all the stuff they said about the previous X they used. The arguments are precisely the same. The objections are exactly the same too. They just plugged a new word into it. Now you have grandmothers who probably never even heard of polyamory before parroting these lame arguments and calling polyamorous people “discredits” to the human race (and yes, I heard that personally on a comment thread last week).

Once you start noticing this word-substitution, it’s hard to stop seeing it. Mitt Romney famously compared equal marriage to polygamy (and drug use!) back in 2012. Rick Santorum also famously warned that legalizing equal marriage would be a tacit approval of polygamy, and we’ve had to patiently explain to this dunce, who folks once thought might rule America, why that isn’t true. And when Utah shockingly decriminalized polygamy, we then had to explain why equal marriage itself hadn’t really had any effect on that decision.

I can see why Christians would consider it that way. Both equal marriage and polygamy involve people going a way different direction than the toxic-Christian playbook says they should go. The very existence of long-term LGBTQ couples and polyamorous groups is a raised middle finger to the mold that such Christians insist all men and women should be able to force themselves into fitting.

But Christians making such comparisons are just pissing on their own shoes. Here is why, and again, we’re not talking about religious whackjobs who are in it more to get lots of young women into their beds and doing their laundry; that brand of misogyny is a whole different kettle of fish; we’re talking about the folks who choose this relationship style not out of religious extremism but out of personal cognizance and a clear desire to show respect and honesty toward all partners:

* Like a LGBTQ person’s personal choices of partner, polyamory is a person’s personal choice. In the same way that a LGBTQ person is born that way, someone who goes into polyamory is born with a different kind of wiring about monogamy. Some people are much happier in same-sex relationships. Other people are much happier when they’re not forcing themselves to be monogamous. Wouldn’t you hate to be the woman married to a guy who was trying to force himself to be straight? Think about that–and how inevitable it is that you’ll find your husband watching gay internet porn or sneaking off to bath-houses or whatever it is closeted gay men do nowadays when they try to get married to women and force themselves to act straight. In the same way, if someone’s just not able to be monogamous, isn’t it a lot better if that person is totally honest about it and seeks partners who know what’s going on and consent to it?

* Snidely denigrating polyamorous people just reminds us that these Christians are upset about people making their own personal, private choices about their own lives. And it reminds us as well that such Christians think that not only do they have a say in other people’s private lives, but that they have an obligation to stick their snoots into those other folks’ lives.

* Inevitably, we’re going to wonder why anybody should have a say in someone else’s personal life, and we’re going to wonder if polyamory is really that bad of a problem that it simply must be disapproved at and stopped by any means possible. Again, the big problem with polyamory is when it’s done out of religious zealotry, when there’s a much greater risk of people being treated badly. Remove that risk, make everybody of-age and consenting, and make sure that honor, respect, and courtesy are the premium values, and what exactly are Christians upset about here? Someone’s boinking someone Christians didn’t pre-approve? OH NOES! Won’t somebody think of the tender widdle fee-fees of the CHRISTIANS?

* And we’re going to see, if we follow that logic, that what a polyamorous couple (or grouping) does in their private life does not impact anybody else in the very slightest. My ex-boyfriend being able to have several girlfriends at once does not make my marriage less secure any more than a gay woman being able to marry her one true (female) love makes it less secure. Polyamory may well ensure that children have an easier time getting the resources and attention they need to grow up happy and healthy, and it certainly allows adults a lot more freedom around the house when the burdens of housekeeping are shared and the costs of living are halved further. I never saw a kid growing up in that environment who was mouthy or mean-spirited. Nor did I ever see a woman in that environment who looked put-upon or victimized somehow. So exactly how is a polyamorous group impacting anybody negatively?

This comparison is just not a parallel that Christians would be making if they had any sense at all. All they’re doing is making us realize just how invalid their hamfisted attempts to control other people are. I sense a sea change in how Americans view each others’ private lives; there’s still a huge chunk of people who really think that their vision of relationships is the only valid vision of them, and will do absolutely anything to keep that vision enshrined in law and cultural dominance. But there’s a growing tide of people who see, correctly, that the only people who have the right to dictate how someone lives are the people directly involved, and drawing comparisons this way only serves to make more of us realize that meddling in one type of relationship is just as bad as meddling in the other. We knew all along that diddling animals and children is not okay because animals and children can’t consent to the goings-on. But in poyamory, if they’re all adults, we are more squeamish about overriding someone else’s personal choices–as we should be!

I know that a lot of this discomfort is coming from a place of insecurity. A lot of stuff is changing, and a lot of those changes revolve around how men and women are defining themselves and setting up their private lives. Christians used to be the defining and pre-eminent voice in culture, and they used to set the tone for gender roles and relationships. That’s not the case anymore. I know they probably feel very uncomfortable with not knowing just how to respond to these varied and infinitely flexible new ideas. And I know they’re very uncomfortable with being knocked down from the top of the pyramid of power.

Remember, a big part of what draws people to fundamentalism is the rigidity and authoritarianism of its worldview. Such a worldview puts fundagelicals at the top of the heap and makes them superior to all other people, and then gives them permission to try to control other people and to dominate society as best they can. It confers a privilege upon adherents that outsiders can hardly even imagine. It tells them that their opinions are vitally important just because they are fundagelicals and had the wild luck to run across and believe just the right sort of nonsense.

And now, suddenly, they don’t have that control and dominance anymore. Fundagelicals don’t handle ambiguity or loss of privilege very well, and they really don’t like seeing that their input is no longer required for the rest of us to live our lives happily and meaningfully. We’re no longer asking them for that input, or welcoming it. It’s little wonder that they’re losing their shit over polyamory just like they did over LGBT people living their lives authentically and openly.

A Final Word.

To the people reading this piece who still, somehow, for some reason, think they have some kind of right to tell other adults how they’ll conduct their private relationships, I’ll say this: you already know polyamorous people. Just like women who’ve had abortions, just like LGBTQ people, just like atheists, they walk among you. They may even sit beside you at church. You might even think very highly of that person. So be aware of what you’re saying about someone else’s private choices. Just as even I’m perceptive enough to notice the switcheroo in the “gay marriage is just like X” argument, I’m sure poly folks have noticed as well that suddenly they’re being put into the variable just like pedophiles and beast-lovers were once. And that’s not okay.

There are only a few questions we need to concern ourselves with here when we see a relationship pinging our radar like Ramius’ sub in The Hunt for Red October:

* Is everybody involved 18+?

* Is everybody there of his or her own free will?

* Do we lack signs of direct (physical/emotional/sexual/abandonment) abuse that would require legal intervention to protect anybody being victimized?

If those three things check out “yes,” then the affair in question is none of our goddamned business (and you might notice that religious-nut groups practicing polygamy miss on all three counts depressingly often). Even if we don’t like the relationship, even if we’re not okay with the kind of sex going on there, even if we feel that it’s just too dramatic for words, even if we’re uncomfortable with knowing it exists–if nobody’s being legally-actionably hurt and everybody’s of-age and consensually there, then it’s not any of my business what they do, or Christians’ business either.

“Mind your own damned business” may well become the cardinal virtue of the new millennium.

A pity Jesus never really talked about that, but I suspect that even if he had, that would have just quickly become one of the “optional” verses.

On that note, I would like to apologize to the polyamory community if I have gotten anything wrong with terminology or communicated monogamous privilege too much. Feel free to correct me on any point that I’ve gotten wrong or said poorly. I realize I am an outsider and my experience with the community is based upon personal interaction with polyamorous folks and reading books/sites about it like The Ethical Slut. I am not trying to remove polyamorous voices or silence anybody, or distract from primary sources of information. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I’m just sick of hearing that people who I personally know to be good people, people who are trying to be good to each other, people who just want to live their lives free of meddling and nosiness, are getting compared to animal-fuckers and child-predators even indirectly. I’m sick of people I know and yes, love being called discredits to humanity. I’m sick of Christianists’ shameless grab for power and dominance and their constant attempts to strong-arm and wrestle control away from private people making unapproved personal decisions. I want it to stop, and I perceive that the first step in resolving a problem is calling out that the problem exists. This problem exists. If enough people recognize that it exists, then we can start dealing with it. Thank you all for listening. This seems like a good place to say: I heart you all.

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

The Time I Encountered a Professor Like Dr. Radisson.

I’m noticing that the blog pieces I’ve written so far about God’s Not Dead have really touched a chord in folks, so I wanted to talk a little bit today about what happened when I actually did run across a professor who was nastily anti-theist.

As Christians themselves are saying left and right, yes, obviously there are a few professors out there like the nasty, mean-spirited, egotistical, arrogant, tyrannical, beyond-abusive Dr. Radisson. Yes, I’m sure there are. That doesn’t mean this movie’s representation of him is anything less than a straw man though; the movie is shamelessly pandering and evangelical in scope, and they want audiences to believe that Dr. Radisson is somehow representative of atheists or professors in general.

But you see, even there, the characterization fails on every level, because even if Dr. Radisson really existed, the confrontation would probably not work the way the movie insists it would. And I know this personally.

Animal House - Delta Tau Chi (ΔΤΧ) (1978) ...i...

This is what it felt like sometimes.

Set the Wayback Machine for about 1989. I don’t remember exactly what year it was, freshman or sophomore. My memory paints the class as an intro archaeology course with quite a few students, though maybe it was sociology. The professor was a lean, leathery fellow who really, really, really did not like Christianity, and he took my appearance in the class (remember, I wore the Fundie Burkha, so I was as obvious as an Amish girl at a video arcade) as permission to rag on Christians up and down at every opportunity. He never missed a cheap shot–every opportunity he got, he said something snarky and snide, always while giving me specifically the side-eye.

His decision to act this way was, to say the least, baffling.

Let’s remember, please, that even though “Nones” are the fastest-growing religious demographic in America at present, even today most students on a college campus will be Christian. But as a recent commenter astutely noticed, movies like God’s Not Dead–and the Christians who like this type of glurge and dreck–all seem to think that the only version of Christianity that exists is the fundagelical kind. Therefore, even if a student identifies as Christian, it won’t be the right kind of Christian or the fervent enough sort of Christian. He had absolutely no reason to think that his classroom wasn’t drenched in Christians, even if they weren’t as out-there as I was.

It stressed me out enormously to hear him talking so disrespectfully, and I knew other students were uncomfortable as well because I saw their reactions from my seat, but I didn’t want to be one of those reactionary Christians who freaks out over every little thing. It actually took a lot for me to say something. Still does. Plus, this was an intro course and I was very new to college, as were the vast bulk of my peers in that class, and we still felt a little insecure about challenging authority figures. And I had not said a single word about Christianity during this class because nothing they were talking about was really relevant to that subject. (I wasn’t ever a young-earther, remember, so not much I ran into at college was a real problem.) But he went over the line one day about something. I don’t remember exactly what, just that it was fairly early in the course. I  just knew that I’d had about damn enough of his attitude.

After class, I went up to him and waited till he wasn’t surrounded by students so we could talk privately. I told him that I was sure he could guess that I wasn’t pleased with his criticism of my faith system, but moreover, I was confused because his criticism seemed to have nothing to do with either the subject of the class nor of the topic he was discussing today. In fact, his critical words seemed to be nothing but his own vindictive need to snipe and snark against me personally. I told him I’d vastly appreciate it if he kept his religious opinions to himself and just teach me the subject I was paying him to teach me, and in return, once the semester was over, I promised never to darken his doorway ever again and then we would all be happy.

He looked at me for a long while. I had not threatened to do anything. I just had said he needed to quit being nasty. And I wasn’t backing down. Finally he nodded and said he was sorry, and thanked me for being so understanding.

That didn’t entirely curb his nastiness–this guy really did not like Christianity, especially the sort I embodied–but it did help a lot, and we got through the semester without any further kerfluffles. I actually made a good grade in the class. It’s worth noting that he was the only, only, only professor I had who was even vaguely critical of Christianity–out of many dozens over the years. I also worked at the university so brushed up against educators in all sorts of colleges associated therewith, and did not meet any professors like him in that capacity either. I’ve never met any non-believer like him who abused captive audiences like that–usually that’s Christians, not non-Christians! So he was an anomaly, to be sure. I’m noticing in the God’s Not Dead blog posts around the net, a number of other educators are speaking up about how weird and anomalous the villain of the movie really is, all of them bearing out and confirming my own experiences and observations.

So to sum up: I ran into a professor who was a total jerkweed to me about my religion. I asked him politely to stop. He stopped. The semester ended without further issues. It’s not very dramatic at all really.

And that, I reckon is how things usually work.

Are there professors like Dr. Radisson out there? Yes, there are, though I doubt any are brazen enough to call themselves the gods of their classrooms or do the stuff that character had his intro Philosophy students doing (in my direct experience, I can tell you that intro Phil courses are usually about wedge-in, wedge-out proof styles and learning to argue, maybe stuff about particular highly-regarded philosophers and their schools of thought, not high-end examinations of religious systems or “trials by jury” of religious claims). But I bet the vast majority of these anti-theistic professors bend pretty quickly when a student protests and requests greater civility.

But that wouldn’t make nearly as cool of a movie, would it?

There is something else I would like to mention.

I do not remember a single thing this snarky professor said about Christianity.

Not a single thing.

Nothing he said made an impact then, either. I certainly didn’t go all wide-eyed and suddenly realize what a fool I was being. If anything, his snideness only made me more defensive and more determined. I did not get curious about what he was saying. I did not even consider that he might have some kind of point. He was offensive for the sake of being offensive. He had no interest in a discussion; he didn’t care about anything I had to say. He was using his platform as a professor and my status as a student to force me to listen to him, and all it did was make me resentful.

The reason I bring this facet of the story into focus here is because I think it could be helpful to both Christians and non-believers of all stripes. Christians think that if they can just force non-believers to sit there and listen to their indoctrination, that they’ll convert people, just as this professor (and quite possibly other non-believers, though I’ve only ever met the one who thought this way) thought that his captive audience would hear what he had to say and deconvert.

Being nasty and sarcastic to people does not make them more willing to listen to whatever we have to say. Now, it doesn’t automatically invalidate whatever they’re trying to prove. Tone trolling is not acceptable. But spirituality is more about emotions than it is facts. People don’t believe in religions because there’s evidence for any religion’s claims. They believe in them because these ideas feed them somehow, for good or ill. Making people defensive is just not a good way to bring them to a safe headspace where they can freely examine their ideas and ask big important questions. And forcing them to sit there and listen is not ever going to do anything but backfire.

Remember the professor I discussed last time, the M.Div. who taught the literature class? He did so much more to make me question my beliefs and bring me to that safe headspace than this snarky professor ever did. He didn’t coddle me or blow sunshine up my butt, but I still remember the stuff he said and did 20+ years later. I don’t even remember exactly what class the snarky dude taught anymore. I hope that tells y’all as much as it tells me.

Next time, we’re going to talk about polyamory and how the Religious Right is starting to abuse polyamorous people now that they can’t compare gay people to pedophiles without getting major flack for it, and it’s time we began noticing this behavior and calling it out for the nosy, meddlesome privilege-enforcement that it is. I hope you’ll join me.

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The Death of the (Non-Existent) Christian State.

Count on Christians to mourn the death of something that never existed in the first place. No, I’m not talking about Jesus. I’m talking about their idea of the “Christian state:” this gauzy notion of and desire for a government run by Christians that forces everybody–Christian or not–to live more or less the way that most Christians think people should live, that gives preference to Christians and Christianity, and that is by turns indifferent to and hostile toward other religions and atheism. When you hear a Christian moaning about “the good old days,” they are almost certainly talking about this nebulous time when Christians were completely dominant over others, and a big part of that notion of dominance comes from the idea that the government has a part in enforcing and propagating Christian belief.

Disclaimer: We’re talking here about a fairly small-but-stridently-vocal segment of the religion, not every Christian in the world (thank goodness!), and as always, I want to be careful to delineate that fact before we get started. I’m talking about Christians who think “the good old days” were actually good, not the sane and loving Christians who are as horrified by those days of abusive overreach and miserable oppression as the rest of us are.

Alas for Christians of all stripes, Christianity is now failing fast–faster than any of us could ever have hoped, faster than any of us could possibly have believed. The only question at this point is whether it’ll be a surprisingly quick fade, or a sudden leap to irrelevance. So we are hearing more and more upset Christians reacting to their sudden, unexpected loss of dominance and privilege.

Though fundagelical Christianists (the term means roughly “extremist Christians who would really love to usher in a new theocratic state if only the rest of us would let them”) are still very clearly in the denial phase of their grief, with some of them not even out of their initial pre-recognition panic about the numbers of young people who are turning their backs on religious affiliation, the writing is nonetheless on the wall. And as is often the case in matters religious, Europe appears to be a bit ahead of us over here on the other side of the pond, so we can take a good look at what’s going on there and get a sneak preview of what we may well be experiencing here in a couple of decades. That sneak preview shows us that Christianity’s dominance and chokehold on politics may seem terrifying right now for anybody sane, but it is the last gasp of a dying religion whose adherents are very much on the wrong side of history–and moreover that they are swiftly becoming a quaint relic of yesteryear, much as we today look at those schools down South that still can’t have racially-integrated Proms.

And it’s about time. Christian Dominionism is based upon a bunch of faulty premises: that a huge chunk of people are the same type of Christians as the Dominionists are, and so of course their governments should be Christian as well; that Christians are by their nature more moral and upright than non-believers are, so they know best how to handle everything, and so their will should override our own wills, and they have some sort of special dispensation from their god to force the rest of us to heel.

Holy Week at Santhome Basilica, Chennai (HDR)

Holy Week at Santhome Basilica, Chennai (HDR) (Photo credit: Wikipedia). All the lonely people–where do they all come from?

The first part of that series of premises is totally false at this point: here’s a neat article about the vast gulf between “people claiming to be Christian” and “people who actually attend church regularly.” In England, over 70% of the population claims to be Christian, but less than 2% attend church! Now, obviously, someone can be a terribly fervent Christian and not attend church very often, but you don’t see that mindset in fundagelical Christianity much; that mindset stresses outward shows of piety, and one of the outward shows of piety fundagelicals really take seriously is frequent church attendance (when I was a Pentecostal, I was in church almost every single day or night, sometimes both; the very least one could slide away with was three times a week–Sunday morning and evening, plus midweek). The Christians who are most eager to take control of our government are definitely not the “spiritual but not religious” types who see church attendance as–at most–optional. As for the second, we’ll be getting to that in a bit here, hang in there.

Now, this decline in religiosity is happening in the States too, of course; we know that most folks here do not attend church regularly if at all. I live in a hugely Christian area, and even so, there are not many churches–and of the ones there are, their parking lots are usually only half-full even on Sunday mornings. So I can see this decline even here, in an area known for its religious folks, and chances are you folks can too. Start looking at church parking lots–the big churches, those are going to be full, but the small and average-sized ones are likely going to be nowhere near crowded. And the folks you see walking into those churches, statistically, will be middle-aged and older folks, not young families or newlyweds or even college kids; without new blood, churches don’t normally survive very long.

And with those churches’ decline in population will come an inevitable decline in Christian dominance in politics. It had to happen–like any pendulum, it had to swing from one extreme to another. We had a taste of what things were like with a pack of meddling, hypocritical busybodies in charge, and now we’re going to have to clean house. And we will, because we must, because Christian dominionism was from its very inception a diseased, sick outgrowth of a hypocritical, deluded, power-mad variant of Christianity.

The concept of the Christian state was borne of political expediency. Someone–Dick Nixon, most likely–figured out that he could use Christian outrage about abortion and integration and whatnot to propel himself to victory, and suddenly conservatives began really appealing to hard-liner Christian fundagelicals. It was absolutely shameless, and it worked so marvelously that this strategy of pandering was the Republican go-to for the next fifty years or so. To get elections won, fundagelicals would even climb in bed with (SHUDDER) Catholics or (GASP!) Mormons–but what mattered most was that “Christian values”–defined here as anti-women’s rights, anti-LGBTQ rights, racism, a weird kind of Old South fetishism, and science-denialism to the exclusion of any other “value”–were being forced onto Americans for their own good whether they liked it or not.

And this conceptualization of the Perfect Christian State took over in Christians’ minds for quite a while, but it couldn’t last forever–not with the advent of the Internet and easy access to information, and not once people began to really see just what a Christianist-dominated government looked like. And we saw exactly what it looked like.

It looked like women who’d died trying to access abortion care they desperately needed.

It looked like huge numbers of teenagers pregnant and stricken with STDs because they were given incomplete or erroneous information about their bodies and told just not to have sex.

It looked like gay kids committing suicide rather than be “broken” and forced into a life of celibacy or else face the specter of eternal torture at the hands of their “loving” deity, and like LGBTQ people being demonized, arrested, imprisoned, and physically harmed just for the “crime” of loving the “wrong” person or for dressing or acting the “wrong” way.

It looked like a wave of violence the likes of which we have never seen, thanks I think in large part to a society that celebrates childishness and infantilization and refuses to teach young folks how to channel their powerful impulses and strong emotions in a safe and mature manner–and in large part thanks to a religious worldview that has deadened our moral compass with a shocking and breathtaking redefinition of hatefulness, bigotry, marginalization, abuse, oppression, and degradation into love in order to more effectively steamroll and hurt outsiders.

It looked like an increasingly polarized and judgmental bunch of religious fanatics who don’t care who they trample or dehumanize as long as they get power over others and indoctrinate everybody they get their filthy hands upon.

It looked like denial of the truth, self-serving distortions of reality, removal of basic American rights like the right to vote, and of course flat-out lies as Christianist politicians have tried to wrestle votes by any means possible from an increasingly hostile populace.

Think I’m kidding? Let’s just look at one state, and just one week. In South Carolina alone, we had the following things happen:
* On Tuesday, A guy wigged out and shot his girlfriend, her relatives, and some children–a couple of kids escaped, but he got two of them.
* On Thursday, a county employee got sentenced for embezzling an impressive amount of money. On the same day, an elementary school principal got booked for not reporting some abuse that’d occurred at his school. (Don’t you wonder what that abuse was?)
* On Friday, a 13-year-old girl had to go to the hospital with a bleeding head wound she’d gotten from her mother, a 30-year-old woman who thought it was awesome to hit her own child in the head with a fucking hair-styling iron.
* Yesterday, a morphine-addicted mother killed her newborn baby with breastmilk; she’d somehow omitted revealing that she was pregnant or nursing when getting the prescription for the drugs from her doctor, and somehow also omitted mentioning she was totally strung out on morphine to her OB/GYN.

And South Carolina is about as fundie as it comes. Apparently nobody got the memo to the good people of that state that they are supposed to be living the dream rather than destroying themselves like rats in a crowded cage–and threatening and hurting dissenters while they’re at it. Wouldn’t you guess that a state as gung-ho as this one would have wonderful Christians living in peace and harmony in a downright utopia? How could it possibly be that a state this Christianist, this invested in dominionism, this utterly dedicated to Christian ideals, could possibly be such a hellhole of poverty, crime, abuse, and violence?

My answer to that question is that the Christians dominating those areas are trying to enforce poorly-thought-out ideals without caring in the least whether or not those ideals actually work in the real world on real people. Fundagelical ideals just don’t work. We’re finally starting to realize that, the same way we slowly began to notice that “family values” politicians were usually the ones getting caught diddling gay guys and children or visiting prostitutes or whatever. But rather than adjust the ideals for reality, which fundagelicals cannot do because they are convinced they got those ideals straight from their god, they drill down all the harder on those unworkable concepts and try to find some way to shoehorn them into society even if they must lie and sneak around to do it. They celebrate the few people those ideals seem to work okay for, but ignore or denigrate the many for whole those ideals produce nothing but pain–including themselves.

If you look too far in other super-Christian states, you will see the same endless litany of misery and abuse and predation. It wearies the spirit, but I encourage you to do it. You will not see a Utopia in any of these states. You will only see the Hell Christians imagine we are bound for. To get your optimism back, though, you can look at the more secular states–which are way closer to that Utopian ideal than any Christianist state is, in pretty much every single direction. It’s the craziest thing, this idea that the harder you try to force Christianist dominance onto people the worse they do, and it seems this concept’s reverse is also true.

This dysfunction we see in the South and in other Christian-heavy areas is what happens when Christians get their hands on government, and it is not a pretty sight. But they either totally don’t see the reality through their Christian fog, or else they deny it entirely or act like it’s all just a packaging or marketing failure. For the last ten years I’ve been getting this clear impression that they’re convinced that if they just tweak the concept the right way, if they just package it better, if they just sell it correctly, if they just say the right magic words to explain it, then suddenly they’ll start winning again, but I just don’t see that happening. There just isn’t going to be some magical incantation that makes it okay to strip people of their civil liberties and human rights. There won’t be some magic way to sell the dismantling of the middle class nor the marginalization of certain groups of people.

So the concept of the Christian state is dying, and I hope it gets done dying very soon.

Are you wondering when it began to die?

The concept of the Christian state failed when Christians decided that two people wanting to love each other forever in a formal union was more upsetting than millions of people without health insurance. It failed when Christians decided that they cared more about fetuses than they do about the reality of struggling women. It failed when the rest of us learned that Christians can look straight past poverty and find a hundred and one reasons to justify owning SUVs and sprawling McMansions in the suburbs, but get their panties in a total bind at the idea of a person having consensual sex outside of marriage.

The concept of the Christian state failed when Christians decided that they knew better than all the rest of us how we ought to live our lives in every single minute detail, and when they decided that anybody who stepped outside those bounds–especially as touching sex–needed to be punished.

I use the terminology “the concept of the Christian state” here very deliberately, though, because I don’t think there ever really was one of those, at least in the US. It was not founded as one, no matter what delusional nutbar revisionist Christianists want to believe, and over and over again, we have affirmed that there is a distinct separation between church and state–a freedom of and from religion (not just for Christians, as–again–delusional nutbar revisionist Christianists want to believe). There was only the idea of the Christian state, one that lawmakers struggled to make happen or fought against seeing happen, one that voters got manipulated into supporting or else fought at the polls to deny. Christian dominance was a very ill-fitting dress forced and tied onto a mannequin–the Constitution–that simply did not fit the dress, and I think we’re finally seeing that now.

Oh, there’ll be some pushback as we climb out of the pit of religious dogma. Already in England some jerkwad has already insisted that England is Christian, and atheists should “get over it.” (Note the poll on that page, though: the majority of respondents disagree!) I wonder if he’s talking to himself or to us? And in the same way, that earlier link I gave you to Christian Post has the author insisting that after all, the church isn’t going anywhere because Jesus is in charge of it, so don’t worry at all and stick your heads back in the sand, my little lovely ostrich chicks… It’ll be interesting to see what those two folks say in another decade, won’t it?

But we may not need to wait that long.

You might like this piece, written by a Christian leader over in the UK, about how gay marriage indicates the end of the “Christian state” as Christians like to imagine it. It’s an interesting piece, as much for its tunnel vision as for its air of sullen resignation. For example, the author writes that he’s got a sad that equal marriage has somehow become the main “defining issue” of churches:

It is a pity that same-sex marriage has become the defining issue, as opposed to say the authority of the Bible or the atonement, but in God’s providence the introduction of gay marriage will force a choice between obedience to the Word of God, which clearly prohibits sexual intimacy between people of the same gender, and accepting how the state defines marriage.

And then, two sentences later, he uses same-sex marriage as the defining mark of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church and one that’s doing Christianity totally wrong.

I encourage you to read the piece, no matter what religious persuasion you might have. It’s an amazing bit of defeatism, one that tries to rescue some good from the fire, but it’s got a lot of good points to it: namely, that Christians have long been used to the comfort and security of cultural dominance and hegemony, but their religion shouldn’t depend on it, and they need to quit acting like whinybutt victims and bleating about their delusions of false, nonexistent persecution and start getting on with all that stuff Jesus actually told them to do.

Running governments is not what Jesus told Christians to do. Running other people’s lives is not what he told them to do either. Tittering at sex like prurient teenagers and making sex the most important thing in the whole Christian faith is especially not what he told them to do. Taking care of poor people and ministering to the sick is what he told them to do. If you don’t know that the Great Commission was actually a much later addition to the Gospels, then you might add “spread the Good News” to that list.

But if Christians could actually manage those tasks, then we wouldn’t be in the pickle we are now, would we?

None of that should involve “forcing people to live in a way that makes Christians feel cozy and comfortably dominant.” After all, if we are not Christian, then it hardly matters if we have sex or not–so why be so adamant about punishing us for having it? If we are not Christian, then why does it matter if we drink or do not drink, if we shop on Sundays or not, if we are straight or gay or polyamorous or whatever else, as long as we are not causing physical harm or loss to anybody else? Virgins go to Hell too, don’t they? Are Christians tacitly admitting here that works can lead someone to salvation? Or are they afraid that their god isn’t actually “convicting” anybody at all and without their dominance, nobody’d live the way they want people to live?

Yeah, it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens as Christianity becomes less and less well-regarded and as its more extremist elements’ politics becomes more and more abhorrent to voters. I’m glad to be alive to see it all happen.

We’re going to talk next about another college anecdote of mine, one I mentioned briefly but want to expand upon: this time I had to talk to a very antagonistic professor of mine. See, sometimes–rarely, but it happens–a professor really is kind of antagonistic toward Christianity, and I’d like to share what happened when I ran into one. I hope you will join me on that journey.

* A Handy Guide to Christian Outrage, because I can already guess that someone reading this piece will need it.
* How secularism will benefit Christians.
* Another day, another Republican sexual scandal. But this one involves a man and woman, not two men or a child or anything, so don’t worry, he won’t be losing his job or nothin’.

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A “God’s Not Dead” Retrospective: The Day I Debated the M.Div. Dean of My College.

The backlash continues against that stupid movie God’s Not Dead (which is at this point rounding 20% on Rotten Tomatoes’ review site and a 16% on Metacritic). Christians defend it to the skies–check out the responses to the reviews posted on that first link; people never comment on reviews, except for when the review is critical of a Christian movie, at which point every fundie in the world seems to crawl out of the woodwork to angrily blast the reviewer as an idiot who just doesn’t understand how awesome the Christian god is.

But I can see why there’s such defensiveness. You see, this idea of a young Christian student standing up to a college professor is a very, very old one, and rooted in reality besides. I know, because it happened to me personally in one of my very first college classes. I’ve talked before about a historical class that occurred in my junior year that was instrumental in realizing how non-historical most Christian folklore is, but what I’m going to talk about today was well before that. This was either my first or second semester, what we’re going to look at today.


Dangerfield-elliot-leda-and-the-swan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Zoom in with me: a crisp pale blue sky scudding with a few gauzy clouds, and me rushing past the weird Greek-mythology modern-art sculpture outside the lecture hall. It was called “Leda and the Swan,” but it didn’t bear much resemblance to anything I could see, much less to the ancient story of Zeus sexing up the Queen of Sparta. I was already kind of riled and discombobulated by the sculpture when I got into the lecture hall. Clearly this was not going to be a proper Christian environment at all.

I was 18 years old and such a sweet, fresh-faced girl, innocent and trusting beyond all reckoning–in a way that would be difficult to find in an 18-year-old nowadays, I think. Willowy rather than curvy, tall and a little gangly, still awkwardly wearing the calf-length circle skirts and bobby-socks that my church considered the Fundie Burkha, I had been a fundamentalist for only a couple of years at that point, but a lifelong Christian in general. I was dating Biff, and the medium-sized church to which we belonged pressed us relentlessly about setting a date for our inevitable wedding. I had lived in the Christian Bubble to one extent or another for my whole life, and now I was attending a very multicultural, diverse state university. The population of this school was easily into the many tens of thousands.

I was one of the few students to live on-campus in the middle of what I would only later discover was a hellhole of crime and poverty. I didn’t know it, though. I knew I could walk on-campus and feel safe, and I loved the way the school’s streetlamps turned the night sky wine-dark and purple in the quadrangle courtyard. It tears me up a little remembering that precise color, even today, and I think I’ve been looking for it ever since those days. The library was what I imagined Heaven would be like; I often went there and looked for the “new arrivals” bookshelf and grabbed something off it just to expose myself to something new that I’d never have seen otherwise (which is how I became something of a local expert regarding the culture of Tibetan nomads).

Part of college is being exposed to new ideas, but another bigger part is being exposed to new types of people. I was friends with a number of fundagelical young people also living on-campus; some of them were Southern Baptists, some were with Maranatha (a way less hardcore evangelical-type church), some were with other denominations entirely. Some were Classics Studies majors–which is a polite way of saying pre-pre-divinity school, in the way that many Biology majors are pre-pre-med and many History majors are pre-pre-law. We went to each others’ churches; we sometimes attended chapel together, though none of us were happy with such an ecumenical arrangement. We ate together and spent time in our dorm rooms together, earnestly hashing out deep theological questions while Biff worked on this or that sculpture in his room nearby (he was a Fine Arts major for a while, which is a polite way of saying pre-poverty). We made up songs and sang and studied and prayed and made sure to take classes together.

But this class was a step too far, and I could not take it with any of my friends–they were either past their first year in our school’s core program, or else not in the program at all.

I’m telling you all this so you know that I hadn’t been alone or bereft of backup or wingpeople at any point since becoming a Christian until that day.

Now, however, I was alone–alone in a sea of strange faces that looked at me in my fundie burkha clothes like I was a space alien; alone in a swarm of students who wore worldly clothes and talked in worldly ways and clearly, obviously, plainly knew absolutely nothing about the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

In a way, such a thought was a heady challenge for someone like me. I was determined to show them all just what a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ looks like.

You wanna yell “Timber!” or shall I?

The class was a doozy–one of those multidisciplinary things popular in the 80s and 90s that drew from all sorts of fields like archaeology, literature, poetry, drama, you name it, to create a general overview of the entire human condition. And today was going to be a firecracker of a day.

The week previously, you see, I’d noticed that according to the syllabus, that Monday we were going to talk about the Book of Job. We’d been discussing a few stories from the Old Testament, and I’d become increasingly agitated about the idea of discussing the Bible’s mythology and folktales as just literature. These were things that had really truly happened, or so I thought still, and it offended me that someone could talk about it with less-than-reverent tones. This wasn’t just a neat story to me. It was totally true and real, and these people were going to shit all over it, I was just convinced.

I went all week in a misery until one of my friends, Mike, asked me what was wrong. He was an odd duck–tall, well-built, handsome in an outdoorsy way, with curly blonde hair and a bad-boy beard; had he been that age just a couple decades later, he’d have started a megachurch and been known as its edgy hipster pastor. Now, though, in 1988, he was just an odd duck trying to be as true to the Bible as he could without falling into the dreaded trap of excessive legalism. I secretly liked his version of Christianity quite a bit, but it didn’t especially matter what I liked or disliked; it mattered what was right, so I had to content myself with admiring Maranatha, his church, from a discreet distance while disapproving of it in my out-loud voice.

I confessed my misgivings about the upcoming lecture. Mike understood completely; Biff was outraged, but Mike suggested a different approach from pitching a fit: being as wise as a serpent but gentle as a dove.

“But how?” I asked, still very stressed.

“You’ll use the Book of Job to argue the Book of Job.”

I didn’t quite understand. He went to his room around the corner and returned with a rather large Bible he didn’t use every day. It was, he told me, a Thompson Chain Reference Bible, and it was the answer to my every question. You see, nothing in the Bible is really isolated; it all kind of relates to itself in all sorts of ways, and it is believed that you can’t really lift one book (like Job) out of it without considering its relationship to the other books. What Mike was talking about, and what this Bible was doing, was illustrating the Christian concept of Types and Shadows, which Pentecostals are all about so it clicked immediately for me. He said he’d let me borrow it till after the class, and I’d need every moment to prepare, so I gratefully accepted his loan and excused myself to go back to my room to study.

And I did.

I studied all weekend. I read, I took notes, and I prayed. It amazes me how much time I spent on it, but then, I did take a week not long ago to make a perfect community garden for my Sims 3 build. So full-frontal nerdity runs deep for me.

I was up against the lecturer of the class, who held–among many other qualifications–a Masters of Divinity from a very large and well-regarded seminary. He was a genial and friendly fellow in that reserved way you normally only see from upper-crust Britons. He moved serenely through the sometimes loud and rowdy crowd of Honors students like a particularly stately whale through a pod of frolicking dolphins. I don’t think I ever saw him in anything less than a three-piece suit at any point in my time at that school. He was not just the lecturer of the class, but the dean of the entire school itself as well as a hugely-well-regarded professor in whatever his field actually was (I still don’t actually know what it was–literature, I guess).

But my sincerely-held ignorance was just as good as his book-larnin’ and edumacashun, and I truly believed that Jesus would speak through me if I just made myself available as a conduit. The eternal souls of hundreds of students as well as my professor’s depended upon me doing it right. So you can bet I worked hard to empty myself of fleshly ambitions and desires so that Jesus could use me on Monday.

That Monday I walked past the weird pagan sculpture and sat down near the back of the lecture hall, and waited as it filled up. And it did. This was a large hall, but the class was required for our school and every student had to take it.

Cringing yet? I am, remembering that day. Oh gosh, I was such a twit.

The professor began to talk about the Book of Job, and I squirmed and flinched as I tried to seek an opening in what he was saying. Finally, finally, he got to some aspect of it that I could seize upon. I don’t even remember just what anymore, just that it related somehow to the story of the Tower of Babel (maybe something like this?). I raised my hand, and he called on me.

I said one last quick prayer and stood up. I still remember how my skirt fell across my legs as I stood. I still remember every face, hundreds of them, turning to me. I still remember the faint hesitation in his face, perhaps because I’d spoken up briefly before about various other similar situations that’d cropped up, perhaps because I probably had a decidedly determined look on my face and he had a feeling about what was coming.

Using the notes I had studiously taken, I delivered a passionate monologue about how one could not just take the Book of Job separately from the Bible because it was all divinely-inspired to work together seamlessly, and talking about it separately was like talking only about one chapter from a really long book out of context. I talked about how details from Job improved our understanding of other books and illuminated other stories entirely all through the Bible. Basically, I demonstrated just how good humans are at spotting correlations and patterns even where none actually exist. A chemical rush went through my entire body as I spoke, which I took to mean that Jesus was speaking through me. People’d been telling me for years that I had a unique skill to say just the right thing sometimes, and that day I was on fire.

And to my astonishment, the professor let me do it. He let me talk. Sometimes he’d inject some gently-humorous comment, sometimes he’d spar with me a little, but he let me talk for a good ten minutes. I don’t know why. Perhaps he thought I was adding something to the discussion; perhaps he was tired; perhaps he was letting me hang myself.

When I was finished, he did one of those things that super-educated but gentle-hearted people do when confronted with rampant ignorance and desperate belief: with two sentences, he more or less negated everything I had said. He agreed totally with what I was saying, but still saw the material as worth examining as literature in its own right. He didn’t disagree at all, but still wanted to do this, even knowing what I’d just said was part of the belief system of a great many Christians (he did not say “all Christians” or imply it was universal, which I did not miss noticing). Was I okay with that?

I really didn’t have much of a choice, so I summoned as gracious a smile as I could and nodded. “Good,” he said and continued his lecture. I sat down, feeling strangely deflated and depleted. He talked briefly about types and shadows for the students who had no idea what’d just happened, and then continued with the lecture.

I wasn’t sure what effect I’d had, but it was the first time I’d ever stood up to an authority figure regarding my faith–and it would not be the last. Afterward, a few students I didn’t know came over to tell me how much they’d admired what I’d done; none actually materialized into converts, and many seemed a bit annoyed that I’d shanghaied the class to basically preach, though nobody actually said anything negative to me at all.

Ironically, the next week we got told we’d be studying the story of the Tower of Babel, and when the professor announced the change to the syllabus (yes, it hadn’t been on there originally), he specifically looked through the crowd for me and asked if that was acceptable, with that same soft reserved smile he’d given me that fateful day.

One thing was crystal clear:

He wasn’t afraid of me at all.

Nothing I said really fazed him.

Jesus had not actually convicted him at all.

This hadn’t gone a single bit like the Chick tract and urban legends said it should have.

How had this happened?!? I was in shock. He was a Christian, right? He’d gone to seminary. Why was he not agreeing with me? Why was he persisting in this disastrous course?

But he wanted an answer, so I smiled and said of course that was fine, because I’d made my point and didn’t need to make it again, though internally I was seething at this display of disrespect toward the Bible. I couldn’t understand how an educated person could surgically extract one story from it like it was no big deal, without considering it in full context.

In retrospect, I think he respected that I’d made my case not just with emotions or the standard fundie talking points, but with fairly solid theological sources. I think he understood right away that I’d spent a lot of time preparing for what I’d said.

Like any real and decent professor, he wanted to teach me how to think, and letting me make as good a case as I humanly could was part of that process. I was probably not the only student riled up about how he was teaching the Book of Job, and probably I was saying stuff he suspected many students were thinking. I suspect now that he got at least one episode like this every semester, and he was just relieved it’d happened so early in the syllabus. Letting me get all those objections into the air allowed him to address them definitively.

See, that is how real professors handle overly-zealous students. They don’t bat them down; they don’t insult them; they don’t treat them like dirt for disagreeing.

And looking back, it was a marvel he got me to even grudgingly accept the idea of treating the Bible like it was any other ancient document, and I don’t think he’d have convinced me to do it while treating me with disrespect or unkindness.

Moving past my idolization of the Bible itself was a big part of my eventual waking-up, so I count that day as one of those “defining moments” in my life, and as I survey the outraged Christians defending their lame-ass little movie to the skies, I think it’s important to note that the trope it’s talking about–the student standing up to the professor–is not only an important part of Christian mythology but also something some Christians (like the 18-year-old me) have actually gone through personally.

Meeting a very theologically-educated person who did not idolize the Bible was a big part of that process. Had this educated person treated me like Professor Radisson treated his student in that movie, I would have understood such blatant persecution and would have reacted much the same way the fictional student had; I’d kind of expected opposition like that, actually, and was almost disappointed that I hadn’t gotten it. It would have fully justified my zeal and allowed me to persist in believing that Christians were persecuted by higher education. But he didn’t do that, and by treating me with respect, he pulled me into reality and kept me from falling into that persecution fantasy.

So yes: I see movies like God’s Not Dead as revenge fantasies from Christians who don’t actually know how real professors operate or what good education looks like. Myths like these are how Christians think higher education works, and they’re really how Christians desperately wish they worked.

The reality, however, is nowhere near those fantasies, and I know that personally, and now you do too.

I’d rather go with reality than fantasy, personally, even if the reality is a little more scary to contemplate and nowhere near as self-serving or personally complimentary.

Speaking of which, we’re going to talk about a Christian leader who has finally seen that the day of the “Christian state” is now over. Well, sort of anyway. Please do join me next time.

* Dan Fincke responds to an outraged Christian blogger regarding his negative review of God’s Not Dead.

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Posted in Biography, Religion, The Games We Play, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Unequally Yoked Club: When Love Becomes Contempt.

Hemant Mehta, the owner of the popular atheist blog The Friendly Atheist, recently came out with a new YouTube video for mixed-faith couples. It’s good advice all the way around, much of it focusing on parenting, but a lot about how to interact personally with one’s partner. I’d say this is actually wonderful advice for Christians in general for how to treat non-Christians. Ultimately, he’s trying to tell both partners not to become contemptuous of each other. The video comes at a timely place for me at least, so I wanted to talk about contempt today.

The opposite of love is not hate, but contempt. I once heard a marriage therapist say that once she sees a couple treat each other contemptuously, she knows their marriage is over. That’s some pretty serious stuff, right there. And I don’t think we as a society really understand how to avoid doing that.

What does contempt look like, then? It is rolled eyes. That “mommy” or “daddy” tone that assumes the other person is an idiot or a child. A sneer or curled lip. It is, as the link puts it so well, a combination of anger and disgust–anger at being opposed or frustrated, disgust at having to remain near the person causing that opposition or frustration.

It is splaining of all types (that thing contemptuous people do when they explain something to someone who probably already knows the facts being explained). It is withholding important information or lying because the other person just won’t understand or get what’s going on. It is insulting one’s partner or being sarcastic to hurt the other person or zing them or shame them.

Contempt lives for the momentary high of slamming another person. It gloats in smug superiority, whether false or true–it doesn’t really matter either way. It coils around its treasure like a dragon and awaits intruders. It seeks to wound, and wound, and wound.

And as you might guess, contempt is not loving at all.

So why do Christians do it so often?

I tangled with yet another internet Christian this week and was reminded again of how contempt differs from love when I saw how this person behaved toward those who disagreed with him. What’s hilarious is that he was contemptuous about something he was simply objectively wrong about–no, sorry, there actually is no persecution of American Christians, just a little bit of privilege getting peeled back. When he called me “moronic” for correcting him on that point, I told him I felt very, very loved. You can guess how that went over (a whine about how he was “only human”, as if that excused everything). I’m still not sure if he was just a Poe, or if he was totally serious, but his contempt definitely was.

Contempt is not meek. It is not humble. It does not care about those it hurts. It just wants to win. That’s all it wants. It gets frustrated and it lashes out when it doesn’t get its way.

I wish I could say I have always been immune to contempt, but I am as human as the Christian I mentioned above. I knew my relationship with one of my past boyfriends was over when I caught myself rolling my eyes at something he said that annoyed me. We were bickering, both of us doing various contemptuous things, and that meant that we did not respect each other anymore or consider each other important or worth treating well. It meant that we were getting frustrated by the tiniest little things, and that we weren’t communicating anymore.

Somewhere along the way we had fallen out of love; neither of us knew exactly when. One rebuff too many; one rejection too far; one argument that’d spiralled out of control too quickly. It all seems like it happens so subtly, doesn’t it? One day you wake up and what you had once is simply gone, like it never was at all.

We must be vigilant against contempt toward those we love, and toward those we disagree with.

I guess that’s why Christianity is failing as hard as it is: it claims to be built upon a foundation of love, but a vast pack of its members live only to express sheer contempt toward outsiders. Like this Christian I interacted with this week, they use “being right and better than everybody else” as part of their self-image, and derive much of their self-worth from being on the ground floor of this great massive truth that they know and everybody else does not.

But there’s no love in that “truth” they think they have any more than there is objective truth to it, and we outsiders can tell that there isn’t.

Contempt we know well. In this age of reality TV and talk shows, we can spot contempt pretty quickly. Even children know how to perfectly express contempt. And Christians are not immune from showing it either, especially toward those they are increasingly disgusted by and frustrated with. It’s fast becoming their go-to method of dealing with opposition–that “because shut up, that’s why” feeling that we’ve been seeing more and more lately out of both camps. Every hurled “libtard” and “Rethuglican” epithet, every nasty comment about atheists and yes, religious folks, every contemptuous statement about how non-Christians all secretly believe or how all Christians are actually ignorant dolts… they are all part and parcel of what is happening in our society as people become less and less able to love and communicate with each other.

Love ? I love love love you.

Love ? I love love love you. (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Love, however, love confuses us. We don’t know how to deal with love. It comes out of nowhere and hits us on the noggins and embraces us instead of trying to zing us. Love holds out its hand instead of slapping at us. Love asks instead of tells. Love seeks to understand instead of putting down the other. Love tries to find a way instead of closing the door. Love shares the gold instead of curling up around it.

What an amazing world it would be if Christians actually showed love. That’s just about worth basing a religion off of, isn’t it? For my money, that’s about all there is in this world–how we interact, and how we treat each other. We’re all in this world together, and not a single one of us really knows what, if anything, comes after this life. Seems awfully wasteful to spend the one life we know for sure we’re getting trying to one-up the other hairless apes sharing this tiny ball of rock whizzing along the outer arm of a tiny galaxy in a tiny corner of the universe, doesn’t it?

My friends, please don’t treat the people you love with contempt. If you find yourself doing it, stop and ask yourself what’s causing it, and see if there’s some other way of handling whatever the irritant is. The rolled eyes and curled lips are the symptom of a very sad disease, and whether they’re being expressed toward someone of differing religious beliefs on a movie review’s comment thread or toward the person we thought we were spending the rest of our lives with, it’s just not going to do much that is constructive or productive.

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Posted in Hypocrisy, Religion, The Games We Play | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments