How Do We Address Fundamentalism?

I’ve had a lot of thoughts swirling around in the last week about a bunch of apparently disparate topics that have a single common denominator.

Last Tuesday, while Rachael and I were coping with the inconvenience that comes from an ice storm in Georgia that knocks out your power for most of the day, I came across a great article discussing the state of mind of contemporary evangelicalism and making a case that the movement has a lot in common with nineteenth century liberalism (this is a school of theological thought, not a contemporary political ideology), and I was particularly struck by an idea that it offered that evangelicals exist within a mindset that they are fighting against modernist thought through their theological positions while being unaware that they can’t possibly escape their inherent modernism resulting from the peculiarity of when and where they are living in time and culture.  It’s a good article, and you should go read it.

Then on Friday, Fred Clark at Slacktivist began a three post series discussing a point of contention he has with the otherwise excellent longform article by Graeme Wood at The Atlantic about the theological motivations of the Islamic State (these are all excellent reads, and you should read them as well if you have the time and inclination).  Clark’s primary point is that the Islamic State is fundamentalist in relation to the rest of Islam in a manner similar to how adherents of the eschatology presented in the Left Behind series of books are fundamentalist in relation to the rest of Christianity (I’m more educated about varieties of Christianity than I am about varieties of Islam, so I apologize to anyone for whom I’m oversimplifying the relationship between the Islamic State and the rest of Islam or undersimplifying the relationship between one particular kind of Christian fundamentalism with the rest of Christianity).  The most salient point to take from the comparison is that any kind of fundamentalism will claim stronger legitimacy than its related, more moderate, ideologies, but the rest of us are making a mistake in judgment if we allow that claim to stand unchallenged (let alone for now the problem that more moderate ideologies will tend to not jump in on the “No True Scotsman” action, and thereby lose the rhetorical advantage of a really stupid fallacy).

After reading all that, I then began thinking about GamerGate, because it’s a topic of frequent derision in my Twitter feed (and rightfully so), and it occurred to me that GamerGaters are falling into the same intellectual patterns as religious fundamentalists.  I regret that I’ve lost the link to an article that made a pretty compelling argument that GamerGate is a manifestation of current politically conservative ideology, but given the strong connection that conservatism in America has with Christian fundamentalism, that idea seems like an apropos one.  More recently, in a similar vein, there was this article from VG24/7 discussing the fact that some game developers have started actively trying to shame gaming news outlets for discussing all the horribleness surrounding GamerGate; there’s something in the way this insistence that problematic elements of the community be downplayed that resonates with the idea of fundamentalists being given legitimacy simply because they say they’re more legitimate than everyone else speaking a different vision than them.

I’ve been pondering all these threads and wondering what connects them, and I think it goes to something that Cara Ellison, a writer on sex and video games (sometimes even at the same time!), tweeted this week in response to the Mark Kern story:

Replace the phrase “videogame” with Christian or Muslim and you get a similar vibe.

The thing I’m trying to get at is that fundamentalist groups have a tendency to be obsessed with exclusivity to the point of saying that no one outside of their purview can claim a similar identity.  The Islamic State engages in takfir (excommunication) of Muslims who disagree with them, Christian fundamentalists are fond of saying that only they have a claim on Real True Christianity (to borrow a phrase from Fred Clark), and GamerGaters (along with many others in gaming) obsess over the difference between a “hardcore” gamer and everyone else.  These distinctions are largely pointless and fail to acknowledge the much broader spectrum of opinions contained within any of the larger identities of Muslim, Christian, or gamer.

So how do we deal with the fundamentalists?  Often these people represent an extreme portion of the community, and their extremism is built on the self-concept that they are infallibly right in their opinion.  Very often, arguing with any of these people directly is pointless, and in many situations can actually end up being harmful.

I think the ultimate solution is more about educating people outside of fundamentalism rather than trying to persuade people within fundamentalism.  We have to address others who don’t understand that fundamentalists really are an extreme group within a larger community, and they really have no greater claim to legitimacy than any other group.  If we can teach people about that important difference, then fundamentalists will gradually lose their grip on the popular narrative of what it means to belong to a given group.  People of faith do not have to be antiquarians who want to return to an imagined golden era and are willing to enforce barbaric rules in order to achieve that end, and gamers do not have to be misogynist manchildren who throw temper tantrums when people who don’t look like them want to engage with their hobby as well.

What about you?  Do you have any other thoughts on how people can reduce the influence of fundamentalist narratives on popular thought?

Reading Twin Towers

Happy December!

So, Chick just published a new tract, which is cause for great rejoicing because it’s trippy as all get out.  Seriously, this one starts with a story of high adventure and naval warfare where the Pope is at the helm of a ship that’s under constant attack from enemies of the Catholic Church who lob bombs and books and tracts at it, and how the ship gets magically repaired by the power of the Twin Towers.

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My favorite image from this tract is the Pope at the helm of the ship, decked out in full ceremonial garb. It’s just so delightfully absurd. (Image credit:

No, not the ones that were destroyed in New York twelve years ago by terrorists.  If that’s what you were thinking I wouldn’t blame you, but no, these Twin Towers have absolutely nothing to do with that significant historical event that utterly changed the face of American political discourse.  Obviously, Chick has no interest in that event for this tract, because it’s not specifically anti-Muslim, although after reading stuff like Mama’s Girls, I was really expecting there to be some weird conspiracy connection.

But no, there is none of that kookery in this tract.  It’s just anti-Catholic kookery instead.

So this tract, called Twin Towers, is a generic “the Catholic Church is an evil deceptive institution founded by the devil” screed.  The two towers referenced in the title refer to the Catholic Church’s veneration of Mary and its doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine consumed during the administration of the Eucharist really becomes the body and blood of Christ).  These are common elements of Chick’s anti-Catholic literature, and he tends to gloss over the finer points of both doctrines so they are more easily represented as institutionalized idolatry.  As a Protestant, I honestly can’t comment very much on the theology of Mary’s veneration or transubstantiation (I believe that Mary was equally fallen with the rest of humanity and that the Eucharist, while a significant spiritual exercise, is symbolic in nature), but I seriously doubt that Chick has a credible understanding of the doctrines either, especially when these tracts are so openly hostile to a different faith tradition that still claims the divinity of Jesus.

One final note I want to touch on with this new tract is that Chick’s quick to explain that Jesus hates the Catholic Church because of the Book of Revelation.  Revelation is a fantastic book, not only because of its surreal imagery, but also because it’s an apocalypse.  This book was written as a polemic against the Roman Empire, and the device for conveying the author’s criticism of Rome came through as an end-of-the-world narrative where Babylon, an ancient former oppressor, stood in for the contemporary oppressor.  I’ll give Chick credit for recognizing that a lot of Revelation is a direct attack on Rome, but he’s just so far off base interpreting Rome to mean the Roman Catholic Church that was established as a state institution with Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in the early fourth century.  The writer of Revelation was railing against the excesses of a decadent society that didn’t care for the poor and sick, that indulged in material excess for the privileged few at the expense of all others, that really persecuted Christians (read: killed them).  These are societal ills, not ecclesiastic ones, and if the current institution of the Catholic Church indulges in some of these things (any large scale institution is vulnerable to corruption) then that is relevant only so far as it’s an organization made up of people, with all the fallibility of anything that people create and maintain.

As always, if you have comments or thoughts to contribute (even if you disagree with me, so long as it’s civil) I want to hear about it below.

What the Heck, Walking Dead Comic? (Also, Yay, Walking Dead Show!)

I’ve been on a little bit of a zombie kick as of late (maybe because Halloween–Happy Halloween everyone!), mostly because of all my opportunities to catch up on Walking Dead stuff.

It’s been really fantastic.  I finished Season 3, and I definitely think the show is much improved over Season 2.  The horrific things felt pretty pitch perfect to me, and there were actually plenty of hope spots throughout this season’s narrative.  Andrea’s arc in particular strikes me as especially poignant (I’m going to discuss spoilers from here on, so come back later if you haven’t seen Season 3 and care not to know what happens in advance) with her back-and-forth between Woodbury and the main group trying to prevent a war.  In the finale, when she’s sitting in the torture room talking with Milton (I think she’s talking with Milton; I’m slightly fuzzy on details at the moment) she explains that she could have prevented all the death if she had just killed the Governor when she had the opportunity.  I think that it’s supposed to be ironic, implying that all the killing that’s happened since that point is Andrea’s fault (driven home by the fact that the Governor guns down his own people in the finale right around the same time if my memory’s not faulty), but I really couldn’t bring myself to judge Andrea harshly.

See, like I’ve mentioned previously, The Walking Dead is a series that’s mostly concerned with the questions of how we maintain our humanity (an interesting concept in itself, since depending on your worldview, humanity’s a quality that’s either what makes us essentially dignified creatures or base ones) when stripped of all the modern comforts and advantages that allow us to think about things beyond basic survival.  It’s kind of like asking if it’s possible for people to even aspire towards higher goals on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs while they’re constantly bombarded with threats to basic safety (as a side note, I think this upending of the theoretical hierarchy is a core concept in ideologies of sacrifice, like Christianity).

English: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Resized,...

English: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Resized, renamed, and cropped version of File:Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs.svg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyway, getting back to Andrea, I think that it’s supremely noble of her to try so hard to find a bloodless solution to a problem that involves a lot of desperate people (and one very psychologically disturbed one).  A pragmatic view would call her naive, and I can see that; the Governor’s death early on would have prevented a lot of pain and death for innocent people.  Still, Andrea’s remarkable because she’s a character who actually sees value in the Governor (who, for all his sadism, I find somewhat sympathetic, if only because it’s clear that he’s been slowly going insane due to the stress of his situation–keep in mind, of course, that he’s still very much a villain, since his introductory episode shows him killing a group of ragged soldiers in order to take their supplies rather than trying to incorporate them into his township).  As a viewer, I kept hoping that the Governor would get offed, and I’ll admit I was disappointed that he got away at the end of the season.  As a Christian (yeah, I’m pulling out the C-card; by the way, for a really thoughtful expression of what I find admirable in Andrea’s attempts to stop the fighting, read Shane Claiborne’s response to a recent article that Mark Driscoll posted about Christian pacifism), I wanted to see him redeemed, even after all the awful things he did.  Merle got his redemption in this season, after a really good run as a villain, so I’m hoping to see something similar in the Governor (although given the trajectory of his character, I doubt the writers would do anything so dramatic, if only because I think it’d be immensely difficult to get most of the audience to sympathize with him again) down the road.

Anyhow, that’s enough about the show (I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I liked about this season), especially since this post was (if the title is anything to go by) supposed to be about my frustration with the Walking Dead comic.

I’m not sure where to start in cataloging what irks me about the comic, just because there’s so much.  A lot of characters that I love in the show are so difficult to read in the comic, partly because they’re so remarkably different from how they’ve developed on the show, and partly because the comic takes a much more cynical view of the series’s central question.  The show, for all its darkness, includes moments of hope, like Season 3’s ending where Rick chooses to invite the survivors of Woodbury to join his group in the prison (which he seems to emphasize to Carl is the right thing to do, after Carl shot a boy from Woodbury who had been surrendering to him).  I’ve not finished reading the Woodbury arc in the comic yet (I honestly don’t even know if it gets wrapped up in the first compendium) but I seriously doubt that it’s going to end with that kind of reconciliation.  Also, where I have some real sympathy for the Governor in the show, the same character in the comic just makes me feel sick.  He’s even more sadistic without any of the apparent charisma, and he continues to do things that are just more and more horrific in comparison to his counterpart on the show.  The two versions share the back story of the zombified daughter that he keeps in his apartment, but where it’s sadly tragic in the show, it’s just pathetic in the comic (perhaps it’s because the Governor’s just so flip about feeding Penny body parts from people he’s captured).

Anyhow, that’s enough ranting for now.  Both versions of this series are incredibly compelling, but I definitely prefer one over the other.

Reading Boo!

So Halloween is this Thursday (hurray!), and I thought that it would be timely to take a look at one of the Chick tracts surrounding that silliest of holidays.

This week’s tract is called Boo! and it has nothing to do with either of these lovely people:


Boo! (Image credit:

Boo! (Image credit:

Aren’t they cute?

Getting back to the subject at hand, our tract gives the story of a Halloween party gone horribly wrong followed by a guy and his pastor talking about Satan.

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I know I hate it when I forget to bring my chainsaw to my birthday party. (Image credit:

The scene opens on Camp Basil Bub (clearly we’re dealing with Canadians who really love their Italian food) where a nameless guy is telling his nameless friend about the great deal that he got for renting out the entire campground for $50.  I mention that these two guys are nameless because it’s not important (spoiler alert: they die along with everyone else at this Halloween party).  At least in giving us a horror story about mass murder and ritual sacrifice, Chick understands that no one cares about the jerks who are going to be our ritual sacrifice (I’ve probably seen Cabin in the Woods too many times now) for this tract.

Of course, as with any party that involves high schoolers and sacrificing cats, Satan has to show up with a pumpkin on his head to terrorize everyone, saying that he’d rather have human sacrifices than feline ones.  In the confusion someone manages to call the cops, who show up and discover that they’re facing the devil (also, these cops have a bizarre dialect that seems like a mash-up of Irish colloquialisms and Southern drawl; really weird for Canadians), which leads them to abandon all hope and run for their lives.  Satan gets bored with the party (it ended at midnight, how lame is that?) and decides to go cruising into town for more mayhem, but he gets driven away by a kid who’s spending the evening praying at his church.

After Satan heads for the hills, the boy and his pastor sit down to talk about why Halloween’s just an awful thing that no one should celebrate ever.

The reality of it is that Halloween’s a holiday with a very complicated past.  There’s no real consensus over whether it has its origins in the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain (as suggested by Chick) or it’s an originally Christian (take that, Chick!) holiday developed as part of the celebration of the saints (All Hallows’ Day, which falls on November 1, leaving October 31 with the moniker All Hallows’ Eve).  Of course, the theory of Christian origin has the holiday beginning as part of the Catholic liturgical calendar, so maybe in Chick-world it doesn’t matter because either way Halloween was created by Satan.

Of course, that’s the point of all this scaremongering.  Chick wants us to fear Satanism in its myriad forms (read: anything that’s not Chick’s brand of Christianity), and that’s best done by raising the specter of cat killing cults and teenagers who engage in witchcraft.

The tract wraps up with the standard altar call that Chick always ends his tracts with, but the way he phrases it here is kind of hilarious:

If you believe Jesus died for your sins… and receive Him as your personal Saviour, you will be saved (from hell).

I love the parenthetical “from hell” that’s added to the end, just in case the reader has failed to understand exactly what’s at stake.  “If you don’t accept Jesus, you’re going to hell!  Accept him so you can be saved!  From hell!  Did I mention you should be afraid of hell?  Because you should.  It’s hell.  Literally.”

I saw a video recently about a pastor who was having his kid stay home with him on Halloween so they could hand out tracts to trick-or-treaters (his son was pretty young, definitely still single-digits age-wise).  The guy spins this as something amazing and awesome that he’s doing with his kid as a way to share the gospel.  Except that, you know, he’s teaching his kid that the way to share the gospel with people is to just give them something that someone else wrote (without telling them) instead of actually getting to know these folks who come to his doorstep looking to do something celebratory as a community.

That’s all largely a tangent from the main point of this post, but I thought it bore mentioning.  Have a happy Halloween, everyone.

Reading Mama’s Girls

Up to this point in my ongoing critique of Chick tracts, I’ve been careful to avoid any of the tracts that directly attack other non-Protestant religions.  I consider myself a Protestant, and that’s the faith tradition that I’m most well-versed in, so when it comes to Chick’s anti-Catholicism or anti-Islam tracts, I feel like I’m a little bit in over my head (mostly because refuting Chick’s claims with facts would take some serious research on my part, and as I was always fond of saying in undergrad, I hate doing research).  Keeping that in mind, I’m going to jump into a doozy of one today.

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There’s a lot more tract after these panels, but I can’t go on. It just seems pointless to make a reasoned argument against someone who uses a comic book as the foundation of their case. (Image credit:

So this week’s tract is called Mama’s Girls, and it doesn’t tell a story so much as explain some Chick-world history wherein Catholicism was founded by Satan and is (secretly, of course) the driving force behind several religious and ideological movements that have threatened True Christianity.  The metaphor Chick chooses to employ in this tract is taken from an image that John uses in Revelation to describe Babylon (a common stand-in in Jewish literature following the Babylonian Exile for whatever oppressive force the author actually wanted to rail against–in this case it was the Roman Empire), where he characterizes it as a prostitute who has written on her head “The Mother of Prostitutes.”  Chick takes this passage and decides that it’s appropriate to personify the Roman Catholic Church as a whore who has numerous (female) children who are also all destructive and dangerous to Christianity.

I should stop here and point out that it’s seriously problematic to personify anything you find systematically dangerous as a seductive female.  I know that Chick’s just running with the image from Revelation, but that’s a literary convention from two thousand years ago.  In our present time, I don’t think it’s necessary or appropriate to perpetuate tropes like the seductive female as part of any kind of social commentary.  Chick obviously disagrees with me.

Anyway, after some expository panels that explain how the Catholic Church was founded by Satan following Jesus’ crucifixion as a way of countering the burgeoning Christian movement (I’m no early Church historian, but I’m pretty sure the sponsoring of the Church by Constantine, while theologically complicated, was not an event that really impeded the spread of the gospel of Jesus) we’re introduced to Catholicism’s “firstborn,” Islam.

No, I don’t know how Islam is supposed to have been secretly established by a Catholic conspiracy to help them take control of Jerusalem away from Jews and Christians.  Perhaps if I were to read what’s surely a highly respected, peer-reviewed scholarly text like the one that’s referenced in the footnotes of this tract I could better understand the argument here (no, actually it’s a comic book that Chick Publications put out themselves).

You know what?  I’m done.  I don’t think any criticism I could offer about factual inaccuracies in this tract will top this single salient point: where I’ve been operating under the assumption for months now that when I saw those footnotes in Chick tracts where they referenced their own publications, it was always at least a book that attempted to look like it was based in serious research, I have now found that actually those are just comic books the company produces.  Yeah, I can’t go anywhere else with that.  I think it’s time I wrap this feature up and move on to something else.

Nah, I’m gonna keep working with the Chick tracts, but now I’m going to laugh a lot more while I’m doing it.  See you next time.

Reading The Bully

Our Chick tract this week is categorized as a story intended to help people dealing with one of life’s struggles: anger.  If anyone is curious, the other life struggles that has written tracts specifically for include: drug abuse, depression/suicide, homosexuality, abortion, gangs, and gambling.  In future installments I’ll probably take a look at these issues and what Chick suggests to deal with them (Spoiler alert: the answer’s Jesus).

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Harry makes Ashley swear never to go near those horrible, dangerous people at again. (Image credit:

Anyway, The Bully is a story that deals with an abusive, alcoholic father, Harry, and his daughter, Ashley.  Harry despises religion because his dead wife used to pray all the time, and it irritated him.  He also mentions with pride that he used to beat her just for going to church and reading the Bible.

Clearly, Harry is angry with the Church about something.

The problem is that we’re never told what he’s angry about.  Was he mistreated by someone in the Church when he was younger?  Did he resent the fact that his wife had a social life that didn’t revolve around him?  Does he have a personal beef with God for failing to answer one of his prayers, one that was really important for Harry to have answered?  We don’t know, because the story never tells us.

Okay, I’m going to pause for a second and make a point here.  Uncontrolled anger can definitely be a real issue.  I work with lots of kids who have anger problems, and they very regularly do things that are not excusable.  But anger does not come out of a vacuum.  If you were to give someone this tract as a way of opening dialogue about how Christ can help them deal with their anger issues, it would have a lot more credibility if it showed the angry guy as having something he was actually angry at.

As it stands, Harry really is just a bully, as the title implies, but he’s not an angry bully.  He’s interested in exercising his power, and inexplicably he expresses this need for power by being abusive towards people who are positively disposed towards religion.  There may be a real motivation behind his actions, but the story doesn’t tell us, so it’s just as likely that he’s just a sociopath, in which case he doesn’t need Jesus to heal his anger; he needs a licensed psychiatrist who can assist him with appropriate therapy and perhaps medication to fix his brain chemistry.

Going back to the story, Harry is so angry that his daughter might be falling in with the church crowd that he makes her swear that she’ll never “read the Bible again, or pray, or get saved” or else he’ll throw her out on the street.

And Ashley agrees to it.

So we flash forward a couple years to find that Harry has succeeded in turning Ashley into a raging alcoholic, like himself.  She’s passed out drunk one night, so he decides to go to the bar by himself, where he promptly has a heart attack and dies.

Then at the hospital they revive him (hurray for medical technology!).  Harry, who had a vision of hell while he was dead, decides the only place he can go for answers is the church of a pastor whom he beat up previously.  The pastor is understandably wary of another encounter, though he does explain to Harry that he has to repent in order to avoid hell.

Coincidentally, I’ve noticed a pattern with Chick tracts; they always want you to avoid going to hell, but they never talk about how great it is to be in the presence of Christ.  My father-in-law once asked me the question, would I want to go to heaven if Jesus weren’t there?  I’ll admit that it threw me at first but upon thinking about it, I started to understand what he was getting at.  The great thing about Christianity is that it’s about trying to draw closer to and be like this amazing person, Jesus.  I’d probably go so far as to say it’s the central desire of any Christian.  So getting back to the question, if Jesus weren’t in heaven, I wouldn’t want to be there.  Of course, it’s kind of a paradox, because heaven, more accurately defined, is the location of Christ.  He’s the reason it’s heaven in the first place.  All this is to say that Christians are really excited about heaven, but it’s not because we’re afraid of hell.  There are much better reasons to be a Christian than just to avoid being punished, and I think the makers of Chick tracts are missing that.

Of course, Harry gets saved (read: avoids damnation) and he manages to get his alcoholic daughter to repent as well while she’s on her death bed (she’s dying of cirrhosis of the liver), so unlike the last Chick tract, this one actually has a happy ending, I guess?  There wasn’t a whole lot in here about how Jesus can help a person deal with their anger though, which I admit was disappointing after the prominent billing it got on the website.

What about you guys?  Are there any Chick tracts that you’d like to see me take a look at in this ongoing series?

Reading The Last Generation

I just… I don’t know where to start with this.

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God help us, indeed. (Image credit:

Today I’m taking a look at a Chick Tract that a friend of mine recommended.  He billed it as Hitler Youth crossed with roving abortion squads, though once he found and linked me to it, we were both disappointed that there were actually no abortion squads in sight.  That doesn’t change the fact that this is the most absurd thing I’ve read to date.

This tract is titled The Last Generation, and it’s an apocalypse story (my favorite!) that’s set in the “near future”, which is apparently some time after 1992.  As you may expect, this is a story about the Rapture, complete with all the trappings of things that are going to happen very soon that will signal the end of the world as it descends into madness and a full-blown hate-on for Christianity.  Fred Clark over at Slacktivist has many words that he can share regarding the problems with this kind of thinking (my personal favorite is the fact that these narratives have been prominent in popular culture since the ’70s and forty years later we’re still waiting for the very soon).

Anyway, this is the story of a family of Christians who find themselves having to go into hiding after the World Government declares Christianity illegal and the youngest son, a kid who’s probably supposed to be around 10, rats them out to get “a big reward.”

I’m not entirely sure what the reward’s supposed to be, but I imagine a lifetime’s supply of pixie sticks.

There are so many things wrong with what’s going on in this story.  Bobby, the horrible child, who his own family calls a monster (that’s showing some real Christian charity there, folks) storms home after a day at school where he’s been ridiculed by his classmates because his parents are still married and straight.  His teacher, an avowed witch, was telling them about how animals would make great sacrifices for Halloween.  Also, apparently in his school they teach about reincarnation.  Also, because he’s a brat, Bobby threatens to turn in his parents for child abuse when they tell him to go to bed.

Okay, let’s stop and take a look at those things in order, shall we?

The current political mood in America at large is that gay people should have equal access to the legal rights conferred by being in a marriage as recognized by the government.  This has nothing to do with removing rights from straight people.  If anything, the gay rights movement has been marriage affirming as it upholds that relationship model.  There’s certainly nothing being said by gay rights activists that suggests they want straight people to become gay; that runs counter to the belief of many people that sexual orientation is biologically determined.  Just as “ex-gay ministry” is a cruel attempt to stamp out a core part of a gay person’s identity, any sort of “ex-straight therapy” would be in the same vein.

Then there’s the talk about the teacher who’s sharing her religion in the classroom.  Ironically, I find this believable, but only because in the context of the story Paganism is the dominant religion.  It’s safe for the teacher to discuss her beliefs because her students share them.  The same thing happens all the time in communities with a homogenous cultural background.  As I’ve written before, the alarming thing about this behavior is that it creates feelings of isolation in minorities who find themselves in those homogenous communities (for another perspective, here’s an article I came across the other day discussing the same incident).  Yes, what the teacher in the story is doing is awful, but it’s not for the reasons Chick wants us to think.  He’s railing against the loss of Christian privilege in government spaces, and rationalizing this as something bad because he suspects other religions will move in and fill the hole.  I don’t think he’s capable of considering that a negative religious space (meaning not a space that’s hostile to faith, but a space that refrains from endorsing any faith over another) might be a good thing for a diverse community.  As a teacher who deals with a population of students who are almost entirely culturally Christian, I also understand that there’s an ethical prohibition on teaching about my faith in my capacity as a government educator.  Though it doesn’t always feel like it, I serve my students as a mentor, and my personal opinions can have consequences on their development.

On a related note, the conceit in this story that there could possibly be a government endorsed world religion is absurd.  The protection against such a thing, at least in America, is the Establishment Clause in our Constitution.  It’s good that Christianity is not legally endorsed by the government.  That maintains a precedent that protects against the nightmare scenario that Chick’s trying to scare us with here.

This tract is just exhausting.  It runs rife with little nightmare images of hippies, drugs, scary men in ridiculous getups, and a jab at Catholicism in the very first panel (Chick is notoriously anti-Catholic).  There’s too much here to criticize.  When I first read this tract, I couldn’t help laughing at the sheer number of absurd concepts and leaps of logic that went into its writing.  Really, it’s a far cry worse than Dark Dungeons, which focused on just one piece of pop culture to attack.  Here, the assault feels overwhelming.  I would laugh, but as I think more and more on it, I feel something more akin to pity that Chick lives in such a paranoid world where everything is out to get him.

Reading Dark Dungeons

I was at my friend Houston’s birthday party the other night, and the subject of my blog came up in conversation.  Because I have this peculiar intersection of nerd interests and Christianity, another friend, Maurice, suggested that I take a look at some Chick Tracts.

If you’ve never had the misfortune of encountering a Chick Tract, then it works like this.  The creator, Jack Chick, has been publishing evangelism tracts for about 50 years that tackle a wide range of topics that are going to send you to hell.  Invariably, the things that will cause you eternal damnation are not just heresies within the Church; they are also heresies within the politically conservative tribe.  Some of the positions are very extreme, and according to Chick, even people who belong to the Church are going to hell because they don’t hold these same views.

As a Christian, I believe that following Jesus is, objectively, the best way of life.  I understand that it can be difficult sometimes, and there’s lots of disagreement within the Church about how one goes about it.  Nonetheless, I believe in the overarching doctrine of grace, and whatever mistakes we make as individuals in our journey, God is loving enough to forgive us.

Somewhere buried in the mess that is a Chick Tract, that idea still holds sway, but it’s buried very deep under a lot of other stuff that’s ugly, foolish, and a lot of times untrue.

In Dark Dungeons by Jack Chick, a girl gets in...

In Dark Dungeons by Jack Chick, a girl gets involved in Wicca through the “occult training” she receives while playing D&D. Later she converts to Christianity and rejects the game, burning the materials and avoiding Hell; which it is explicitly stated will be the destination of all D&D players. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take for example the infamous anti-Dungeons & Dragons tract, Dark Dungeons (because the tracts are supposed to be evangelism tools, the company makes their contents freely available online).

In this tract, we follow the parallel stories of Debbie and Marcie who are members of a small group of role-players headed by the Dungeon Master Ms. Frost (though her hair’s dark, this character is oddly reminiscent of another Ms. Frost during her villainous years; I wonder if Jack Chick’s secretly a superhero fan and just doesn’t want to admit it).  Debbie’s character, a wizard (or cleric; Chick doesn’t think it’s important enough to get these vital details right despite his hard hitting expose of the satanic influence D&D has on the youth), has recently reached level 8, so Ms. Frost dubs her ready to start learning real magic.  Marcie’s thief, conversely, was poorly designed and has died, so Marcie’s kicked out of the group, which sends her into a desperate spiral that ends with her suicide.  Debbie winds up embroiled in a coven of witches, leaving her feeling destitute until Mike the Handsome White Kid tells her about Jesus and invites her to a meeting where the speaker says the way to salvation is following Christ and burning all marks of the youth subculture satanic influence including rock’n’roll music and D&D books.  The story ends with a repentant Debbie setting her life straight and burning her books while she submits to the clearly right older male authority.

Besides my gripes over Chick’s bizarre advocacy for the King James Version being the only authoritative version of the Bible (I wonder seriously what his thoughts are on translations in other languages), I think the biggest problem with this story is that it’s incredibly ignorant about the subculture that its attacking.  Anyone who’s ever played a tabletop role-playing game knows that it’s typically an event where a group of friends gather and enjoy each other’s company as they try to tell a collaborative story.  There are no dark satanic rituals, just jokes and laughter and complaints that we can’t find the cheetos.

Heck, if anything, I’d say that role-playing is a really positive experience for a lot of people, because if gives you a chance to build social skills with others and it’s an activity that helps you learn how to tell a better story.  All of my NaNoWriMo novels are based on characters that I created for an ongoing D&D campaign (yes, you can laugh, but I’ll follow up by asking if you’d be willing to read one of them for me), and I think that the story writing that went into that campaign and the development of those characters went a long way towards helping me in thinking about how I build narratives in my other fiction.  I’d call it indispensable to my growth as a writer.

What about you guys?  Do you have any tabletop gaming experiences that are going to send you to hell were really positive and helped you grow creatively?

On the Rhetoric of Spiritual Warfare

The job of Christians on Earth is to be like Christ in all possible ways.  We’re supposed to take the attitude of willing servants who put the needs of others before our own.  As Micah put it, we should “act justly and [love] mercy and [walk] humbly with [our] God.”

We are called to push back the Fall.

I’ve gradually grown into a progressive theology of Christianity over the past few years.  I believe that our world is largely broken, but we are capable of improving it as agents of God.  It’s foolish to say that things are always getting worse or that things are always getting better; things are in the state they’re in, and depending on the actions and moods of humanity as a whole, the scales tip more towards beauty or chaos with each moment.

Vanquishing Satan

Vanquishing Satan (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

This ongoing balancing act can be characterized as the conflict between God and satanic forces, which is at the heart of spiritual warfare rhetoric.  I’ve been thinking about this since reading a series that Richard Beck at Experimental Theology posted in the last couple weeks about how progressive Christians should reclaim the warfare rhetoric to help energize the movement.  It’s a great read, and if you have a couple hours, you should go through the entire 12 part series.

Beck’s argument for reclaiming spiritual warfare stands on two books, Greg Boyd’s God at War and John Caputo’s The Weakness of God.  I won’t bore you with a lot of details about these works, because Beck’s analysis of them is much more readable than any slapdash thing I could write.  He uses these books to come to several basic premises for why progressive Christians should adopt the warfare rhetoric:

1. Based on the theodicy as laid out in the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, evil is an ever-present force in Creation.  Our job, as inhabitants of Creation and followers of God, is to oppose that evil wherever we find it.  The question of where the evil came from isn’t really relevant to our call to oppose it.

2. Evil exists because of God’s inherent weakness through his exclusive employment of “the weak force of love” to act within Creation.

3. Because God’s nature leaves him inherently weak and a plurality of other forces; including death, destruction, and dehumanization; exist in the world, the Christian life is an experience of constant battle between God’s weak force of love and all the other forces that we could characterize as satanic.

Beck establishes a theodicy that posits God is not omnipotent, because it would be against his very nature to employ brute force in accomplishing any goal.  It relates to the kenosis idea that I wrote about previously.  Because of this nonpotence, if you will, Creation is in a state of chaos where forces that rely on power are wreaking havoc.  Our job, as followers of Christ, is to oppose those forces with the tools that the Holy Spirit equips us with: kindness, mercy, love.  Though I think there are a lot of questions to deal with in engaging with a theodicy of divine nonpotence, the essential thrust of it is attractive.

In my more contemplative moments, I look at the language that Beck’s advocating for, and I see it as largely a rhetorical trick to fire people up.  You are going out to fight for something.  Heck yeah, that sounds awesome!

But it’s just rhetoric.

My fervor for opposing injustice isn’t diminished because I don’t think of myself as being in the midst of a battle.  The aggressive language of spiritual warfare hews very close to contradicting the methods that Christians are supposed to use.  We reject displays of power because Christ rejected them in favor of patient persuasion.

Of course, then I read about something that really irritates me, something that strikes me as incredibly unjust, and I feel ready to go fight.  I read yesterday morning that Texas’s House of Representatives passed the anti-abortion legislation that Wendy Davis opposed in their last special session with an 11-hour filibuster.  I received that news via one of my blog feeds along with some crowing about this moral victory.

It is not a moral victory.

Let me say up front that I am very much pro-life.  I wish that no one had to have an abortion.  Saying that, I know that our world isn’t perfect, and abortions happen.  They happen largely because of other societal evils like poverty.  Therefore, it’s ignorant and hateful to legislate the necessary evil away instead of trying to do something about the causes.  The decision to have or not have an abortion is a difficult, gut-wrenching one that’s complicated by economic factors as much as emotional ones, and this kind of legislation is going to make it exceptionally difficult for women who need to get abortions because their families can’t survive with yet another mouth to feed or because they will lose their jobs if they take the necessary time off to travel to a clinic where the procedure can be done.  Even more than that, what about cases like Beatriz, a young mother in El Salvador who needs an abortion to save her own life while her baby has anencephaly, meaning that most of its brain hasn’t developed.  The child is effectively dead whether the pregnancy gets carried to term or not but the El Salvador government refused to grant an exception to its abortion ban to improve Beatriz’s chances of survival.  For a more in-depth look at the medical reasons for having an abortion, check out this article by Darshak Sanghavi, a practicing pediatrician. He points out that with new legislation that prevents abortions after 20 weeks that parents-to-be who are concerned about birth defects may be moved to abort earlier in the pregnancy before they know for sure if there is a real problem.  We’re talking here about people who want to have children being put in a situation where they either have to abort early to avoid any potential risk of serious birth defects or ride out the full pregnancy and have no option to stop if they do find out about something seriously wrong with the child because it’s too late.

That is creating a burden where we should be trying to ease the ones that already exist.  In Beck’s language, it stinks of a satanic abuse of power.

In moments like those, I understand the appeal of spiritual warfare rhetoric.

God help us oppose these demonic forces of power in the world.

Hippie Jesus Peace

There’s a King of the Hill episode that I love.  It’s the one where Christmas is saved by the indomitable spirit of JC–that is, Jimmy Carter.  It also has a delightful joke early on when Hank is trying to share some cheer with his father in a store by discussing a tree ornament that says “Peace on Earth.”  Hank’s father, a stodgy old veteran of World War II thinks that’s hippie talk, to which Hank replies, “No, Dad, this is Jesus Peace, not Hippie Peace!”

I thought it was funny anyway.

So Hank goes ahead and makes this distinction between the kind of peace that Christ wants for us and the kind of peace that the hippies want.

Let’s parse that a little bit.

What kind of peace does Jesus talk about?  In John 14 he associates his peace with the Holy Spirit.  As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit inhabits us when we become followers of Christ; in this passage it seems that that habitation grants us a kind of spiritual peace.  I’m not sure what that entails, but it generally appears to be something internal to each individual.

What kind of peace do hippies talk about?  An end to war, famine, poverty.  You know, all the stuff that makes rational people do harmful things to one another.  They appear to be talking primarily about a worldly peace, something that affects a community.  Also, I’m aware that the hippie movement of the ’60s was directed primarily at the Vietnam War, but I’ve met a few former hippies, and in those individual cases, their feelings about Vietnam extrapolated to feelings about all the conflicts that have happened since then.  Yes, I’m defending my assertion with anecdotal evidence, but just stick with me on this.

There’s another passage from the Gospels where Jesus discusses peace too:

34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn

“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36     a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’[c]

Matthew 10:34-36

That kind of sounds like Jesus is opposed to the whole anti-war thing.

Oh wait, I forgot to include the bit just before that.

32 “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.

Matthew 10:32-33

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

“You better recognize, yo!”  Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales.  The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The division Jesus talks about here is one between those who acknowledge him and those who don’t.  Well, that still kind of sucks because it implies that there’s a split between Christians and non-Christians.  To be fair, there is a distinction between the groups (it mostly just has to do with our opinions on JC–I’m talking about Jesus this time).  Outside of that, the people in both groups pretty much run the gamut in terms of character.

“So what?” you might ask.  “Christians acknowledge Christ and non-Christians don’t.  What’s the big deal about that?”

Well, the big deal comes from the fact that Jesus tells us how we acknowledge him.  It’s not quite as simple as saying, “Yo, Jesus!”

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats.  To paraphrase, a King goes through his flock and separates sheep and goats into their own herds.  The sheep are the righteous subjects, and the King says to them, “You belong to me because of your actions; you clothed me when naked, fed me when hungry, gave me shelter when tired, cared for me when sick, visited me when incarcerated.”  The sheep say, “What?  We don’t remember doing that stuff for you, King.”  And the King’s response is, “When you did those things for people who needed that care, you did them for me as well.”  The goats get the same explanation but in reverse.  Because they did not offer care to those that needed it, they did not acknowledge the King, so they are split off.

So, about that division between people who acknowledge Jesus and those who don’t.  Before I go further, I should point out that this is going to touch on a major debate that different parts of the Church disagree rather forcefully about.  The debate in question is whether salvation is affected by faith or by works.  The passage that typically sets off this debate comes from Ephesians 2:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2: 8-10

I interpret this passage to mean that our salvation–grace–is extended by means of our faith in Christ.  So in a very real way, acknowledging Christ matters from a spiritual standpoint.  Without the initial faith, the Holy Spirit cannot inhabit us.  At the same time, the passage goes on to say that this faith enables us, as members of the Church, to do the kind of work that Jesus talks about doing in his parable of the sheep and the goats.  The works are not the method of salvation but an expression of it.

So going back to the question of Jesus Peace and Hippie Peace.  Based on Jesus’ parable, it sounds like his peace comes to people who clothe the naked, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, and remember the imprisoned.  In this case bringing about the worldly peace leads to the spiritual peace.

It sounds like a paradox, because implying that doing good works gets you recognized by Christ goes directly against the doctrine of salvation through faith.  I don’t think that’s quite the case though.  Jesus’ parable talks about him recognizing those acts done for him, even though the people who do them don’t necessarily know for whom they’re working.

It’s a similar idea to that put forward by C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle when he discusses the actions of a soldier who follows the god Tash; this soldier acts honorably, and when the world ends and he faces Aslan he finds that he’s accepted even though he was always a faithful follower of Tash.  Aslan tells him that no good act can be done except in his name, regardless of what the person committing the act believes.

Essentially, Jesus sees and loves all faithful works, even if they are not motivated by the Holy Spirit.  His Peace is intimately connected with Hippie Peace.

I guess Hank was wrong about that one (though it’s still a good joke).