Woohoo! New hard drive and my Mac is back in black. And guess what? Our friend Neil is heading over to Patheos with his Godless in Dixie blog! He’s hit the big time. Feel free to congratulate him! I’m happy for what he’s accomplished, and proud to call him a friend.
I’ve been thinking lately about how people construct their self-images and how those constructions can vary radically from how they really are perceived by others around them, and obviously there’s a lot to chew on there so it’s been taking some time to formulate what I’m trying to say. But this helped me quite a bit, this thing I read in Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads, which is must-read for anyone into food history, regarding Americans’ attitude toward cooking and eating in the 1960s (p. 266):
What they all shared was their lack of culinary experience…and the naive and very enthusiastic conviction that symbolic gestures could take the place of experience. Want to be a real gourmet? Well then, whisk up a foreign specialty! It’s easy! Want to make health foods? Sprinkle grated carrots and sprouts on everything and anything. Want to glamorize that casserole? Just add sour cream or cream of mushroom soup or almonds.
I read that last night in bed and lifted my gaze to the ceiling in sudden understanding. That paragraph tied in to that thing about identity-construction that I’ve been thinking about lately. I used to be like that myself, you see, about cooking. Cream of mushroom soup took the place of any sauce or gravy. If cooking something on medium for 20 minutes was good, then I cooked it for 10 minutes on high and wondered why the pot’s bottom always got scorched. The smoke alarm was one of my cooking gadgets. I once set boiling water on fire and have turned Cream of Wheat into a solid. I was helpless without package mixes for everything from spaghetti sauce to cake to cornbread muffins to biscuit gravy. Garlic powder and dried onions were perfectly equivalent to fresh, just as canned vegetables were. Pineapple chunks magically made anything they were added to “Hawaiian” (and damn it, I really should have known better on this one, since I lived across the street from Waikiki Beach till I was seven years old). I had no idea how to cook until I went on a low-carb regime in my early 30s. I didn’t actually have any idea what food was supposed to taste like. But I still wanted to feel like I was eating good food and that I was a decent cook, like many people did then and still do, and the packaged-food industry was right there to offer me the illusion of both of those things.
I was quick to grab for those illusions because the alternative seemed unattainable. If someone’s never made or eaten a proper béchamel sauce, for example, as I had not, then that person’s not going to know what it’s supposed to be like or how insanely easy it is to make from scratch or how easy it is to customize with the addition of various cheeses or slight shifts in tactics. Add some crumbled gorgonzola, serve over roasted new potatoes tossed in butter, garlic, and parsley–it’s seriously out of this world. With Cheddar or Monterey Jack and a jot of Tabasco, this sauce makes an excellent macaroni & cheese. Thin it or thicken it as needed to make biscuit gravy or the “glue” in breakfast burritos. One can even let the butter and flour cook to brown for a roux, then add broth instead of milk and simmer browned pork chops, onions, and peppers in it, though at this point we’ve left proper béchamel territory. But if someone doesn’t have the first idea how to make a basic béchamel then it all looks very mysterious and complicated, and sure, cream of mushroom soup starts looking like a great idea. And that person might, as I once did, start thinking that a canned-soup or dry-packaged-mix shortcut is perfectly fine-tasting and acceptable compared to what is imagined to be the very hard work of actually learning how to make this very mysterious, complicated-seeming sauce from scratch.
And I could use those mixes and cans of soup, concoct and construct rather than cook my food, and still feel like a total gourmet, all la-di-dah and posh and fancy, and nobody would ever know that I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was doing. Now please understand: I’m not shaming people who use those products; there is a seriously poor-shaming, classist element to that line of thinking that bothers me quite a bit and I don’t want to go there. I’m saying that the problem is not that these products exist or that people use them, but that in my own personal case, I personally was using these products instead of learning how to cook and I thought I was still being all gourmet and highbrow and a great cook when I really wasn’t at all. I was allowing myself to buy into the illusion of gourmet cooking without developing any of the skills needed to cook. I thought I’d found the angle here, the magic get-out-of-effort-free card that would let me cook just like Julia Child without owning so much as a whisk. And the results pleased the people I cooked for because they were raised with a similar attitude toward food and they’d never had proper cooking either. I took pride in my ability to prepare these ersatz products and saw no reason at all to do anything different like learn better techniques.
I’m seeing the same attitude in right-wing religion, with the same results.
Some months ago I heard about this wingnut Christian group out of Virginia, the Family Foundation, that was planning a hunger strike in August to protest equal marriage. It was going to last 40 days. They’re not totally clear on what exactly the goal of this hunger strike is, but that’s not very surprising to me. I’ve read their own writeup of this farce and I still don’t know what they think this fast of theirs is supposed to do. Do they think that their state’s government will be coerced and strong-armed into denying people their Constitutional rights to marry so these wingnuts don’t starve to death? Do they think their god will personally show up (taking a break from giving babies malaria, as the song goes) to make gay people straight or personally coerce and strong-arm a secular government into denying people their Constitutional rights to marry at the behest of his starving followers? I seriously can’t tell, and I don’t think they can either. The hilarious part is that quite a few Christians are actually totally on board with equal marriage, so their insistence that they speak for this god is even weirder than it looks at first glance.
Hunger strikes are serious business. Here’s a basic writeup about them that discusses how religious people especially have used them for some time to call attention to great injustices. When someone has been treated poorly, that person might well choose to refuse food to call attention to that mistreatment. The idea is that the target of this strike will feel embarrassed by the striker’s self-denial and hopefully try very hard to come to some kind of resolution with the striker. According to that Wiki link, the longest hunger strikes have lasted into the 50-80ish day marks.
Though not technically hunger strikes, fasting has a very long tradition in Christian mythology. The character of Jesus was said to fast for 40 days and 40 nights, during which time Satan came to him to tempt him into joining the Dark Side. Many Christian denominations practice some type of self-denial during Lent to commemorate that story (and my grandparents, who were strict Catholics, never ate meat on Fridays, Lent or not, because of it–and even today the smell of buttered spaghetti can take me right back to Grandma’s kitchen). Fasts may also be practiced at other times, as in this toxic-Christian anti-marriage demonstration that we’re discussing. According to About.com, which echoes what I was taught when I was Christian, fasting mainly trains the mind toward the Christian god and makes Christians pay more attention to spiritual matters. It’s a way of developing discipline and fortitude as well and moving past the physical body by denying its needs. The way it was explained to me was that our bodies are sinful and animal in nature, and by refusing to give in to our bodies’ hunger, we demonstrated that we were more than just beasts. At no point was fasting presented as a way of getting our way or a method of strong-arming our god or a secular government into doing something we wanted.
So much for an unchanging Gospel. I guess this Family Foundation group didn’t notice About.com’s writeup about what fasting isn’t:
Spiritual fasting is not a way to earn God’s favor by getting him to do something for us. Rather, the purpose is to produce a transformation in us—a clearer, more focused attention and dependence upon God. Fasting is never to be a public display of spirituality—it is between you and God alone. In fact, Jesus specifically instructed us in Matthew 6:16-18 to let our fasting be done privately and in humility, else we forfeit the benefits.
Let’s be clear about something right now: equal marriage doesn’t actually impact a single member of the Family Foundation. They are planning this fast purely to spite people they don’t even know and to ruin the lives of total strangers so they can retain a feeling of dominance and privilege. They are using this fast to thump their chests about how wonderfully sanctimonious they are and to remind everybody that they really, really, really, really hate gay people (though I’m guessing they’d be the first to say that they just lurrrrve gay people–they just don’t want them to have the same basic legal protections and civil rights that straight people get, which might feel like hate but really it’s love if you redefine it just right).
Groups like this one are terrified of what equal marriage might mean for their culture, but let’s face it: their culture is sick and diseased; it depends upon unwarranted privilege and the tyranny of the majority to exist. What they’re really afraid of is losing that privilege and no longer having that tyranny to get their way. A society that gives equal rights to all of its citizens is a society far less likely to give Christians unwarranted extra rights. America’s flat refusal to allow Christians to dominate the discussion about civil liberties anymore is seen by these Christians–rightly, it must be conceded–as a threat to their dominance in general. Every single time a group rises up and refuses to let Christians steamroll them, Christians know that a little bit of their privilege is getting peeled away. That can’t be easy to endure, but I know I’m not the only person losing patience with their pity-parties and foot-stomping and chest-thumping. Every single time I hear a Christian bleat and whine about having equal rights “rammed down my throat,” I wonder why that Christian is more concerned about who’s controlling the dialogue than with the fact that a huge injustice is being perpetrated by their religion’s leaders that is genuinely hurting LGBTQ people, especially young people, and hurting their religion’s numbers as a whole, destroying its credibility, and ruining its reputation.
That injustice doesn’t matter at all to toxic Christians, though. These Christians imagine themselves as spiritual warriors, out to change their entire world through the power of their fasting and prayer.
The problem is that fasting and prayer take time and are difficult to do for long periods. They require discipline and fortitude. They require actually doing something. And toxic Christians especially love to think of themselves as big Kahunas, but don’t have the discipline to follow through on anything that requires them to do more than stuff their faces and scream epithets. Chik-Fil-A under fire for bigotry? Given an excuse to buy unhealthy fast food, they’ll line up around the block to buy chicken sandwiches and sugary sodas and Tweet offensive photos of themselves holding the bags and cups like it’s some grand gesture on their part. But ask them to drive for miles to get to a demonstration protesting the scary black Kenyan Muslim atheist alien in the White House? Forget it. They’ll attack and terrorize frightened children because children are small and easy to victimize, but you’ll notice that we don’t often hear about them doing similar demonstrations targeting adult men–and it’s not hard to think of a reason why.
I think that the Christians in charge of this 40-day fast can also foresee that their target demographic (lazy, spiritually-childish Christians who completely lack self-awareness or follow-through) might have trouble with doing something as demonstrably difficult as not eating for 40 solid days, and I think this because now the news has come out that (h/t to Wonkette) now the group is saying that this “fast” can actually just be imaginary and still totally count. Yep, you heard me: a toxic Christian can participate in this “fast” and still eat whatever he or she wants. Pink News has also reproduced the group’s own “prescription” for the fast, which makes their god look like a horrifically abusive, controlling husband, and there’s also a link to their beyond-laughable video, so feel free to mosey over there and take a look because holy cow that video is awesomely bad.
If you can’t go there at present, then here’s Pink News’ money quote: “The group opposed to re-defining the definition of marriage seem to be re-defining the meaning of a fast.”
Doesn’t that just perfectly sum everything up? They’ve already long ago redefined love to allow themselves to hate and abuse people, so why would they balk at redefining fasting to allow themselves to do it without actually inconveniencing themselves in any way?
I’m hoping that some of these toxic Christians actually try to do the fast. I don’t wish them harm at all; to the contrary, I suspect that developing some discipline might actually lead them to start looking critically at their worldview. When I was Christian, I was taught that during a fast, I was supposed to use the time I would have spent eating to pray more and study the Bible more than usual. And look where I am now! There is a reason why there’s a standing joke that the easiest way to make someone non-Christian is to get that person to actually study the Bible.
But if a toxic Christian thinks that taking part in a fast can be done without actually fasting, then that person is very unlikely to develop those mental habits and very unlikely to look critically at his or her worldview. We don’t tend to grow without challenges, and fasting is a big challenge in a culture that is surrounded with food 24/7. So a Christian engaging in this totally-for-real fake “fast” is doing the same exact thing I used to do when I bought cans of cream of mushroom soup: trying to achieve piety and sanctity through shortcuts and substitutes, trying to demonstrate holiness without doing anything actually holy, trying to impress a god without actually doing anything impressive. It’s a farce and a sham, and nothing could better illustrate the sheer bass-ackward “listen to what I say and ignore what I do” hypocrisy of the Religious Right than this “fast” they’re proposing. It’s hard to imagine any deity being fooled by this blatant, sanctimonious showboating, or feeling anything but insulted by his followers taking such shortcuts in his name to avoid doing anything genuinely difficult or making any real sacrifices.
My own illusions about cooking fell apart eventually. The way I was eating was killing me, to put it simply and without exaggeration. I ended up ” this close to diabetes and was suffering a great number of chronic, medication-requiring health problems. Reality itself butted up against my pretenses, and when reality goes up against pretenses, reality tends to win–for me at least. When I went low-carb under a doctor’s orders, I learned quickly that all those shortcuts were off my food list. What was left was pretty much steak, which I didn’t know how to cook well, and salad. At that point, in my early 30s, I finally took the plunge and learned how to really cook just to avoid eating leathery steak and green salad every single day. Now I look back in astonishment that I ever ate that way and wasted all that money on convenience products that weren’t even half as good as the real thing. I’d rather have reality than the illusion, and spend the time to really learn how to do something than take a shortcut that won’t taste as good.
What I learned from that whole episode is that the real thing is better than the shortcut illusion in many more ways than just in the arena of food.
I hope that some few Christians will be jolted out of their smug complacency by this idea of a fast that isn’t really a fast to persuade a god who doesn’t actually exist to do something that any just and loving deity would never do in the first place in a secular country that was actually founded with the express intention of not allowing zealotry any foothold in government. It’s hard to imagine a gesture emptier and more full of fail than this one.