Grasping to Believe

Over on Slacktivist Fred Clark has done a short series discussing the historic disruption of progressive causes in America from their religious roots.  It’s a good series; you should go read it.  While I was reading through it, I was struck by the story of the conflict between the American Bible Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society.  The abolitionists, citing the recurring motifs of emancipation and freedom that appear throughout the narratives collected in the Bible, felt that facilitating slaves’ access to the Bible was an essential part of promoting the cause of abolition.  They petitioned repeatedly for the American Bible Society to help provide Bibles to slaves in the South, but the Society demurred because they were afraid of upsetting their southern slaveholding membership who also recognized these motifs in the Bible.  The long and short of it is that through a confluence of events and the pressures of slaveholders, the organization that had as its central mission the spread of access to the Bible helped to withhold it from people living in slavery and, at the same time, declared itself the true champion of the Bible’s centrality to Christian life.

They were so insistent in this messaging that it has been a central feature of socially conservative white Christianity in America ever since.  This point has been so thoroughly conceded to conservatives that any expression of faith is automatically assumed to carry with it a sort of anti-progressiveness.  It’s a major part of white evangelical identity, with subcultural markers like denying the science of evolution, insisting that nonviable zygotes and fetuses are equivalent to human beings, declaring monogamous heterosexual marriage to be the only marriage ordained by God, and clinging to gender norms that arose in Victorian England all stemming from a belief that these are necessary parts of any kind of walk of faith.  This idea is so deeply ingrained that even progressives often cop to a secular stance on social issues, assuming that the socially conservative position coincides with the religious one.

This has been a difficult paradigm to live within as I’ve left white evangelicalism and become significantly more politically liberal.  White Christian traditions in America, and in the South especially, don’t have a lot of room for people with liberal politics.  It’s a risky thing to participate in a church community, especially one where the group demands that you profess their core beliefs uniformly before you can officially belong, and be open about political opinions that run counter to the established narrative.  You’re viewed as an odd Christian, someone who’s not doing well with their spiritual walk.  A robust faith is defined by adherence to the Republican party line.

The result of this cultural narrative is that even when I understand implicitly that my political opinions don’t negate my ability to participate in my faith, the lack of faith communities that would affirm my combination of political and religious identities forces one or the other to atrophy.  Politics are easily reinforced, so that aspect of myself has grown stronger, but I haven’t had the same nurturance on the religious side.  Every passing year makes my identity as a Christian feel less and less secure, and I’m not happy that this is the case.  The love of social justice that has come with my becoming more liberal has always been rooted in my faith; I see in Jesus’ life and teachings a model for better treatment of my fellow human beings.  It’s just become so difficult to take hold of the imagination of faith in the pursuit of justice.

That’s why I’ve been really moved by the series at Slacktivist.  In the second entry, Clark provides a quote from Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” which seizes on that imagination in a way that I’ve rarely seen it expressed:

But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.

For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throng of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that “pure and undefiled religion” which is from above, and which is “first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” But a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there; and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man. All this we affirm to be true of the popular church, and the popular worship of our land and nation — a religion, a church, and a worship which, on the authority of inspired wisdom, we pronounce to be an abomination in the sight of God.

That’s heady stuff, though it’s nowhere near the entirety of Douglass’s critique of American Christianity.  He follows with a quote from the book of Isaiah that underlines the hypocrisy of which the American church stands accused:

“Bring no more vain ablations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea! when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.”

This is the call for justice that gets so often undermined in the white American church.  This is the message that I want infused into my faith, married to the drive for positive action.

I’ve thought on and off that if I’m looking for this expression of faith, I should seriously consider going back to doing regular Bible study.  This was one of those activities you just did in the white evangelical subculture, and after my break from that tradition I set it aside; part of it was wanting that time for other things, and part of it was needing distance from stuff that served as a reminder of the subculture I left.  I think there’s been enough time now that a lot of the really hurt parts have healed, so I might get back into reading the Bible.

One surprising place where I have been seeing this element of social justice married with genuine expressions of faith is in the fiction I’ve been reading by Muslim authors.  I’m an unapologetic fan of G Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel comic, and one of the major reasons I love it so much is that an important dimension of Kamala’s motivation as a superhero is her desire to express her faith in a way that genuinely helps others.  One of the ongoing threads of the series is that Kamala’s struggling to balance her superheroics with her regular life, and in more recent issues she’s doing that with the support of her mother, who has figured out her secret identity.  Also (and this one is more recent), I’ve been reading Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, which is a second world fantasy with a setting that’s heavily based on Arabic cultures.  Though the characters aren’t explicitly Muslim, it’s clear that faith is a significant part of everyone’s lives regardless of their perspectives on social issues (there’s a wonderful contrast between the ghul hunter Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, who’s world-weary and less concerned with standing on ceremony, and his assistant Raseed bas Raseed, a young man living as an ascetic who still believes strongly in the rightness of social hierarchies; both are portrayed as devout men despite their differing worldviews).  These characters who belong to different faith traditions and seek out social justice appear so much more vibrant than what I’ve seen depicted in American Christianity, progressive or otherwise.

The more I’ve been reflecting on this lack of progressive Christian exemplars (and the broader problem of liberalism being viewed as a more secular social tradition), the more angry I’ve found myself becoming.  When I first converted to Christianity, I felt like I had found something that helped make my life seem more complete.  I’m a generally pessimistic person, and I’ve always had difficulty coping with the possibility of a meaningless universe.  Nihilism’s not my bag, and existentialism’s really poor comfort, so learning to adhere to a philosophy that has a supernatural foundation was a major part of helping me manage those dark moments that I suspect everyone has periodically.  Christianity is a great comfort in that regard, but the poisonous sanctimony of white evangelicalism makes it hard to maintain any faith that’s even adjacent to that tradition.

There was a period a couple years ago, right after I started becoming liberal, when I felt strongly that it’s important to stake out a claim in Christianity as a progressive, to declare as loudly as possible that Jesus is not just for pearl-clutching, homophobic, white supremacist anti-abortionists.  I went rounds with people on the internet arguing this fact, and in at least one case that I still recall vividly, I was denied the title of Christian by another believer.

That incident hurt a lot.  I wrote a pretty extensive series (“Walk Humbly” and its subsequent posts) dissecting the conversation in question because I wanted to process what had happened.  I’d never been accused of heresy before, and it was not a pleasant feeling.  In a lot of ways, that experience severely damaged my connection with Christianity; it absolutely broke my affinity for evangelicalism.  I was angry for a long time, and then eventually the anger was replaced with a desire just to not be associated with the source of all that toxicity.  I hadn’t been attending a church at that point (it’s just hard to find one that’s not socially conservative in the South), but afterwards I actively avoided it.  The rare occasions when I needed to go, usually when visiting with friends who were still evangelical, I felt nothing but unease.

These days I don’t think much about the fact that I’m not active in a Christian community.  That’s just how my life has been shaped.  It used to be that when the thought did cross my mind it was mostly tinged with sadness; I’d think of white evangelicalism as toxic, but that was something endemic to the subculture, not something its members were actively choosing.  These days, the sadness is turning more to anger; like many people, my mind’s just never that far from American politics, and I remember that it’s white evangelicals who screwed the rest of the country over, and I remember that they chose this, and I remember that they refuse to let anyone else claim Christianity.

I don’t know what to do with my faith anymore; it’s this precious, fragile thing that I keep stowed away for fear of any more damage coming to it.  But faith without works is useless, isn’t it?

Dating and “Christian” Values

I was browsing my news feed the other day, and I came across this post from Kotaku.  They have a biweekly dating advice column that I usually pass over because the thought of reading about the romantic woes of what I presume are mostly male letter writers usually doesn’t have any sort of appeal; male gamers tend to fit a certain profile, and I prefer to subject myself to minimum eye rolls in the course of any given day.

This one caught my interest precisely because I knew it was going to cause me some eye rolls, but morbid curiosity got the better of me.  It’s titled “My Crush Keeps Betraying My Christian Values.”

Stop and take a moment to consider what lies waiting in this letter.  How many ways will the writer slut shame the object of his infatuation, and how myopic is he that he can’t differentiate between what he thinks is important and what another human being thinks is important?

I had to know.

Let’s see what the letter writer has to say:

I am an 18-year-old homeschooled guy who has never dated anyone before.

Full stop.

There are a couple things implied by this introduction that need to be addressed.  They’re not even things that should be ridiculed.  First thing is the writer’s age.  I’ve worked with teenagers for a few years now, and the one thing I can say with pretty strong certainty is that they don’t have a clue about relationships at eighteen.  Developmentally speaking, you’re not fully mature until your early twenties, let alone filled with the experiential wisdom that allows you to understand that relationships are built on the give and take between two people according to their individual needs and desires.  Second thing is that if this kid’s been home schooled, then he’s doubly sheltered (necessary caveat: not all home schooling is bad; home schooling based on a fundamentalist desire to shield your children from the culture at large is).  Again, neither of these factors is his fault; by themselves they don’t imply the writer’s worthy of ridicule.  They do suggest that whatever follows, he’s going to need the core advice that he spend some time engaging with the world outside his home and church to help round out his perspective on whatever issues he’s asking for help with.

Let’s move on.

In the recent years, I’ve had a secret crush on a certain girl (I’ll refer to her as ‘L’). We’ve known each other since we were little grade school kids romping around on the beach and having fun, and we grew up as friends. Everything seemed nice and rosy up until middle school. That’s when L took a turn for the worse (behaviorally and morally). She called stupid the idea of waiting until marriage to have sex, something which utterly contradicts what I believe as a Christian, according to the Bible. Although I still liked L, it saddened me deeply to learn of her new viewpoints. Things hadn’t gotten much better in the years to come. She succumbed to the flirtations of other guys without restraint, going along with anything just to be given attention (all the while that I watched it all dejectedly). She’s even casually dropped a couple f-bombs when sharing with me some mildly bothersome experiences from school. Despite all these metaphorical daggers being inadvertently stabbed into my heart through the years, I’ve still had a crush on her, and somehow kept alive a faint glimmer of hope. My heart has refused to acknowledge that the way things are now is how they’ll be forevermore.

Here’s the background on the object of this kid’s affections, L.  The first, most obvious thing, is that she is, in his mind, every bit an object.  There’s room for him to feel disappointed that L doesn’t share his beliefs, but what he describes here goes way beyond that.  The phrase, “She succumbed to the flirtations of other guys,” utterly removes her agency with regard to how she chooses to pursue romantic relationships.  L isn’t given any credit for making her own decisions or having her own motivations here.  Even the elaboration that she “[goes] along with anything to be given attention” suggests that what motivation the writer does perceive from her is based in vanity rather than any sort of desire based in intimacy or even simple libido (make no mistake that the writer’s phrasing is just a series of euphemisms for L’s active sex life, which he thinks of as something distasteful).

Also note how this section closes out with a ton of wallowing in his own bad feels for how her decisions about her personal life are constant betrayals to him despite his own admission that he’s never professed a romantic interest in her.  People can make their own choices about their relationships, and it’s dickish to claim entitlement to someone else’s affections if they’ve never agreed to reciprocate in the first place.

One last bit of information now:

And as for the dating situation: like I said, I have never dated anyone yet. I have been cautious and vigilant in whom I’d even consider as a potential date. Any fault I’d see would be a turnoff, and I just couldn’t seem to gain any ground.

I have had an idealistic perspective on dating in general. My dream is to marry my first date; I want to make it count. I want to be able to say I have never dated anyone before I would have met my future wife.

It’s important to remember that this is a kid writing this letter; he’s young and naive, and he probably has no clue how warped any of his perspective is.  The simple answer to his ideas about dating is this: don’t expect anyone to be perfect, and practice maintaining relationships so that down the road you can have a successful marriage if that’s what you want.  Sex is not a prerequisite for dating, and if you feel strongly that you should wait until marriage, then communicate that with your romantic partners up front.

What’s not so simple is the writer’s underlying assumption that he’s going to find a perfect partner.  This line, “Any fault I’d see would be a turnoff,” is gross.  It feeds into the Madonna/whore dichotomy that a lot of men fall into in their conception of women.  The simple advice counteracts it, but it ignores the specific problem of failing to see half the human population as fully human.

The fascination with not dating before marriage also smacks of the subculture that buys into Joshua Harris’s message in I Kissed Dating Goodbye: A New Attitude Toward Romance and Relationships.  Harris was twenty-three and unmarried when he published his book, and it’s pretty obvious that a lot of what he had to say at the time was simply built on the assumptions that young people with little experience make about things.  If you’re interested in getting an overview of the book and why it’s very not good, you can check out Samantha Field’s review series (first post found here).

Again, it’s important to remember that a lot of this kid’s perspective is derived from the fact that he’s a kid.  He’s immature, and through no fault of his own he was raised in a subculture that’s instilled some seriously damaging ideas about how women should behave.  Having said that, the fact that he’s a product of his culture doesn’t reduce the potential harm he could do to people near him (the failure to recognize boundaries, the unrealistic expectations placed on other people, the self-obsession are all traits that could lead to abusive behavior in the future).

Now, a separate issue that I want to address with this column is in the comments themselves (you would think I’d know better than to read comments, especially on a site like Kotaku where there’s a large population of entitled men who don’t grok their own sense of entitlement).  It’s been a while since I touched on this topic, but I figured it was time to bring it up again.

Christianity is not monolithic.  American evangelical and fundamentalist Christians do not have a monopoly on Christian belief.  To say that a person’s sex life offends your beliefs as a Christian erases all the Christians who don’t have a problem with premarital sex.  Do not assume that any one person’s Christian beliefs (regardless of whether they say they believe something “according to the Bible,” because hermeneutics are things that exist) are representative of all Christians’ beliefs.

I saw so many comments to this letter along the lines of, “That was pretty harsh advice, so here’s a Christian perspective” that would then include so many of the same sexist assumptions the writer makes in his letter that it was infuriating.  Christianity is an old, complex religion, and there is a lot of room for disagreement about its details, and it’s tiring to see evangelicals, fundamentalists, and non-Christians alike perpetuating the idea that it is only a fundamentalist Christian theology that’s representative of the faith as a whole.

Free Comic Book Day 2016 Postmortem #3: The Free Comics

All things considered, I think a one month delay between actually getting the comics for Free Comic Book Day and doing a write up on what I thought of them isn’t so bad.  I mean, it’s been a very eventful month, so talking about comics was a little low on the priorities list, you know?

Anyway, I’ve taken the original twenty-two comics that I picked up and paired them down considerably.  A good portion of the comics that I read just didn’t resonate with me very strongly, either in a positive or negative way, so I won’t be covering them at all.  Unless you go back my first post about this year’s haul, you probably won’t notice what’s missing anyway.

In no particular order:

The Tick Free Comic Book Day 2016 – The thing I’ve learned about the Tick (besides the fact that he’s a fun send up of silly superhero cliches) is that his publisher, New England Comics, puts out a really nice free issue every year.  My biggest complaint with a lot of free comics is that they’re usually promotional issues with only previews of stories and a lot of other material that may or may not be interesting.  With the Tick books, you know that the whole thing is going to be complete stories, and they’ll be pretty entertaining.

We Can Never Go Home / Young Terrorists – The two stories paired in this volume have in common female protagonists and an underlying sense of youthful disaffection with life.  The first story follows a sixteen-year-old girl named Morgan who’s incredibly bored with her life until she has an encounter with a superpowered girl who’s being attacked by a SWAT team.  It’s barely more than an introduction to a story, but Morgan’s flip attitude towards the mundane (she repeatedly makes fun of her boyfriend for taking her to a cheap motel for sex) is charming, even if her nonreaction to her boyfriend’s death at the story’s end is a little off putting.  The second story is also mostly set up, but it introduces a protagonist named Sera, who has grown up in the mold of typical wunderkind-type characters.  In the present Sera is a prisoner in a camp where she fights other inmates for entertainment.  Alternating with the present-day story are flashbacks of Sera’s childhood and the odd relationship she has with her father.

Archie #1 – I’ve read the first issue of the Archie reboot before (it’s a fun slice of life story; the fact that Fiona Staples illustrates goes a long way towards making it so engaging; there’s something perversely silly about seeing Riverdale characters making the exact same faces that you see in Saga as punchlines to dirty jokes), but the Free Comic Book Day edition also includes a preview of the Jughead reboot, which is illustrated by Erica Henderson of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.  Getting one issue with art by two artists that I particularly like is a good deal for free, and the stories themselves are fun too.

Valiant 2016 – This is mostly a preview issue with only a few pages of introduction to all the comics it’s advertising for Valiant’s shared universe summer event 4001 AD.  I don’t know much about Valiant’s usual line up (I hear they’re a good alternative to the big two if you like shared universes but want comics that aren’t so conventional), and I’m not terribly into most of what’s on display here, but I did like the preview of the Faith miniseries.  I’ve seen stuff about Faith before, but getting to actually read a few pages of it helped me get a better sense of what it’s about.  The basic idea is that it’s a standard superhero-struggling-with-secret-identity story, but Faith’s normal job is as a blogger, and she happens to be plus-sized.  In terms of body diversity, that’s a pretty big deal.

Bob’s Burgers – I’ve seen a couple seasons of Bob’s Burgers, and generally I like it.  It’s not quite like classic Simpsons in its humor, but its close enough to be entertaining.  The free offering enjoys the luxury of being a humor book with a bunch of short stories that get to serve primarily as vehicles for jokes based on the characters’ established personalities.  It does this job very well, and each story centered on one of the Belcher family does them justice.  Tina’s story is particularly delightful.

DC SuperHero Girls – This one’s an all-ages book that ties into DC’s web series and toy line of the same name that follows versions of many of their flagship female characters attending a superhero high school.  The book itself isn’t anything particularly special, but it’s ground for some good discussion of how not to do POC characters in a story.  There’s a really good critique by Robert Jones, Jr. over at The Middle Spaces that’s worth checking out.

Civil War II – I was hoping I’d be able to say something intelligent about this crossover event and the recent Captain America movie by now, but I tend to skip Marvel’s summer comic events, and I’ve not made time to hit up the movie theater yet.  The prologue story found here is perfectly cromulent in its way, but it is kind of troubling that the inciting incident of the event has to do with the death of James Rhodes, War Machine.  Evan Narcisse at io9 wrote a good op-ed about the problems that come with making Rhodey’s death the catalyst for a summer event framed around the differences of two white heroes (something that I suspect is echoed at least in part in Captain America: Civil War since the trailers aren’t shy about the fact that what personally aggrieves Tony Stark in his feud with Steve Rogers is that Rhodey gets seriously injured while trying to apprehend Bucky).

Captain America: Steve Rogers – Besides the fact that the title on the book clearly says Steve Rogers: Captain America (seriously, if you’re subtitling your book, put the subtitle below the title, because otherwise it’s just really confusing), the big thing with this issue is that it precedes the whole Hydra Cap bombshell of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1.  I haven’t read that issue myself, so I don’t know if this is a standalone story or if it’s just a preview of stuff that’s included in that first issue (could go either way).  Absent the Hydra stuff, there’s nothing here that’s really odd; Steve’s new costume and shield are introduced (it’s totally a gimmick shield, with a laser cutter on the pointy end, and a breakaway section that confuses mooks when they try to grab the shield in combat), and we get to spend some time with Sam Wilson and his new sidekick Joaquin, who have a lovely meta-discussion about Sam’s place as Captain America now that Steve’s reclaiming the mantle.  There’s one page that’s a little weird where Steve threatens to torture a Hydra agent for information (can we please just let go of the idea of torture as an effective way to get intel?), but overall it’s a fun story that focuses just on Steve’s return to form.  Now if only they hadn’t done that Hydra thing…

Oddly Normal – On paper there’s nothing especially outstanding about Oddly Normal; it’s a story about a tween girl who resents being a misfit because her father is human and her mother is a witch from a magical realm called Fignation, and after a birthday wish goes awry she has to go on a quest to find her parents whom she made disappear.  The execution struck me as funny and sweet in ways that aren’t saccharine (Oddly’s a pretty cynical girl, and the detail about how being half witch makes her sensitive to rain are a cute twist on the Wizard of Oz trope it references).  If I were looking for an all-ages book for someone, I’d seriously consider this one based on the strength of its first issue.

Bongo Comics Free-For-All! – It’s a bunch of Simpsons stories.  Like The Tick and Bob’s Burgers, this issue enjoys being entirely self-contained with stories that are fun, feel true to the the characters, and don’t have to worry about carrying any further burden than being immediately entertaining.  I also found the story about Homer and Bart as a food-themed crimefighting duo to be a lot of fun.

The Legend of Korra – This issue includes three stories: the eponymous Korra story, and two back up features set in the How to Train Your Dragon and Plants Vs. Zombies universes.  The Plants story isn’t much to write home about, but the other two stories are good.  You don’t need to have any prior knowledge of the Korra series to enjoy this brief flashback story explaining how Korra meets her animal companion Naga (I’ve never seen an episode of the series, though I have seen all of The Last Airbender, so Katara’s cameo at the beginning was pretty fun).  The Dragon story is a sweet memorial tale where many of the major characters from How to Train Your Dragon 2 share their favorite memories of Stoick, who dies at the end of that movie.

Boom! Studios 2016 Summer Blast – This one’s a preview book with an assortment of beginnings to longer tales that are targeted towards all-ages the readers.  The big standouts here are the Lumberjanes feature and the intro for the Goldie Vance series.  I read the first volume of Lumberjanes a couple months ago and loved it, so getting to revisit those characters, even if only for a few pages, was nice.  Goldie Vance looks to be a series about a girl detective based out of a hotel in the tourist town of St. Pascal, Florida.  The ’60s period vibe and cast of characters of color are pretty delightful.

Attack on Titan Anthology – This preview book for a much larger anthology that’s releasing in October 2016 features a few stories set in the Attack on Titan universe.  I’ve heard this series is quite good, but I’ve not seen any of the anime or read any of the manga.  What I found notable about this book is that the three major stories being previewed have a variety of takes on the concept.  The first one caught my interest based on the artist’s interview that follows the preview, where he talks about how he imagines the concept of deranged naked giants being a metaphor for being a child living with an alcoholic adult.  The second, which is tackles convention culture and the ways sexual harassment gets normalized in those spaces (and illustrated by Babs Tarr of the Batgirl reboot of the last few years) feels like a fun premise, even with the ending splash page indicating the mundane stuff gets interrupted by the appearance of an for-real Titan.  The third story preview is too short to have much substance besides establishing the central characters, an elderly couple whose son was killed by a Titan eighteen years ago, but the art is remarkably good.

Serenity: Firefly Class 03-K64 – Like the other Dark Horse offering, Korra, this issue has three short stories in a variety of universes.  The cover story is set in the Firefly universe and is a straightforward “meet the characters” story in the form of River Tam telling Zoe and Wash’s infant daughter a fairy tale version of the major events of the television series and the Serenity movie.  It’s a sweet story, though it does recapitulate the gag from one Firefly episode where River is terrified at the sight of Shepherd Book with his hair unbound; I’ve seen it pointed out somewhere in the past that this joke’s highly problematic as it relies on a narrative that Black people who don’t conform to white social norms (like having natural hair) are scary.  The back up stories set in the Hellboy and Alien universes are perfectly fine for what they are, but they don’t really resonate with me.

And that’s it for Free Comic Book Day 2016.  I’m looking forward to next year, and in the meantime I’ve picked up a couple of possible series to look into.

Sexuality and Spirituality in Orange Is The New Black

The third season of Orange is the New Black is really good.  It took Rachael and me a month to get around to watching it because we’ve had other things lined up on our to-watch list (for example, if you haven’t seen Call The Midwife, you should, because it is amazing but you won’t realize that until you sit down and just start watching), but once we started, we zoomed through the whole season in about four days.

Orange‘s third season is notable mostly because it’s the first season in the series that really feels like it’s built around an ensemble cast.  The creators mentioned when Season Two launched last year that they had intended all along to do an ensemble show, but the first season had to focus heavily on Piper as the protagonist in order to sell the concept; once the show amassed a fanbase, they felt more confident in the second season to de-emphasize Piper’s story in favor of focusing on many of the other inmates, though it still felt like Piper was the star of the show for much of the second season.  In Season Three, it’s very clear that she’s on even footing with the rest of the inmates narratively speaking.

The biggest way this is evidenced is the way Piper only has a significant part in one of the seasons’s several ongoing plotlines; she decides to begin a business selling used inmate panties, and in the process grows more and more ruthless while dealing with the realities of managing an illegal business from inside prison (the plotline has overtones of Breaking Bad, but in a comical way that doesn’t really diminish either series through comparison).  There’s also some relationship drama between Piper and Alex, who has found herself back in Litchfield after Piper snitched on her at the end of the second season and is now suffering from anxiety and mild paranoia at being trapped in a place where her old employer Kubra could find her.

And that’s it for Piper’s involvement in the season.

Orange Is the New Black (2013) Poster

Faith is a major motif of the third season, and it’s obvious that this was totally intentional. (Image credit: IMDb)

In a lot of ways Piper’s plotline feels pretty heavily divorced from the other threads that are going on in this season, but that seems mostly to stem from a difference in thematic purpose.  Piper’s plot is about her continuing descent into her identity as a hardened criminal, while everyone else is searching for a means of connecting with someone or something.  The two most common types of connection that pop up in this season are related to romance and expressions of faith as ways of coping with loneliness and isolation.

You see a lot of this underlying motif in things like the promotional card for the season, which depicts several of the main characters posing on prayer candles like saints, and the arcs for previously minor characters like Norma and Cindy (Norma inadvertently starts her own cult, and Cindy starts a scam to get kosher meals that leads her to decide to sincerely convert to Judaism when she gets caught).  It all culminates with the season finale which explores the history of various characters’ defining spiritual moments (Healy’s flashback, like everything else about him, is the worst) and various epiphanies that they have in the present.

At the same time that faith is an overt motif in the season, you also have a lot of interplay with the sexuality of the characters, as this season explores Poussey’s feelings of isolation over being the only lesbian in her prison family, which leads her to get involved with Norma’s cult (which, coincidentally, grows out of Norma’s appropriation of Gloria’s Santeria practice), Boo’s misadventures trying to scam a stand-in for the Westboro Baptist Church by pretending to be a converted ex-lesbian, and Doggett’s gradual departure from the fundamentalist rhetoric that made her such an effective villain in the first season as she develops her friendship with Boo and comes to terms with her rape at the hands of a prison guard.  All of these characters are looking for ways of connecting with others while trapped in an extreme situation, and I think it’s really interesting how this desire for connection gets expressed communally (almost all of the overt expressions of faith that we see are done with other people; the point’s especially sharp in the finale when Cindy gathers the Jews she knows to convene a beit din to confirm her as a Jew and she emphasizes that she needs to have acknowledgement from three people for her conversion to be legitimate) in response to interpersonal frustrations.  There are certainly stories that center around the successful growth of an interpersonal relationship, but the overwhelming response to instances of romantic rejection or frustration is to seek shelter in a faith community (and in Doggett’s case, where her faith community has explicitly failed her, the pattern’s reversed so she seeks solace from her friendship with Boo).

I don’t really know if there’s any larger intent behind the pattern of communal faith versus interpersonal relationships, but it was pretty interesting to note.  I think this new season of Orange is the New Black is the strongest one yet though, so definitely check it out if you haven’t already.

Justice League Part 9: Conquering Faith?

Last time I mentioned that Jephthah is included in Hebrews 11’s list of exemplars of faith.  I think it’s an odd inclusion, but then, the whole section regarding the figures from Judges is odd.  Here it is:

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. […]

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

I skipped over verses 35-38 because the Hebrews author seems to be discussing saints and martyrs from the early Church period there.  Verses 39 and 40 seem to be addressing all of the paragons that are listed in this chapter, including the judges.

Here we get the list of paragons from the Book of Judges, and it’s a strange list for sure.  As I’ve mentioned before, it includes Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah.  Clearly this is an abridged list, since the writer says that there’s not enough time to extort the acts of faith from every significant figure in Israel’s history, but I still find it odd who made the cut.  Gideon makes sense, and so does Barak, but why are Samson and Jephthah included when Deborah was left out?  I haven’t discussed Samson yet, but he’s basically the ancient version of an irresponsible fratboy, and Jephthah’s a cutthroat who murdered his daughter.  In both of their stories they do accomplish some things that help Israel out, but they are rather terrible human beings.

I know the standard argument that faith is not dependent upon a person’s character, and the fact that Samson and Jephthah are awful should emphasize how God can redeem anyone for his purposes.  I’ll even give that Samson has a redemptive moment at his death when he asks God to give him one last burst of strength (so he can get his revenge on the Philistines, I might add).  I just don’t know what’s commendable about the faith of these two though.  In a sense it’s childlike, because they trust that God can give them what they want, but what they want is still petty and destructive.  I don’t see them hoping for something beyond what’s in front of them, and I don’t know what to do with that.

Perhaps more problematic for me (and this may simply be a personal problem) is the suggestion that faith is what enabled these men’s conquests.  I’m currently enamored with the concept of love as a weak force that overcomes forces of power through patience and kindness.  God is not interested in conquest, but reconciliation.  I can understand how the writer of the Book of Judges might have seen military conquest as demonstrating exemplary faith, but moving forward into the letter to the Hebrews, when the writer had the context of Christ’s ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection to incorporate, it doesn’t jive so well.  I don’t know how to resolve that problem, but I suspect it lies somewhere in the realm of understanding what the writer of Hebrews was trying to communicate to their audience, while contending with all of their cultural presuppositions as well.

Anyway, next week we’ll move on to Samson so we can talk about why he’s such a popular figure to turn into a Sunday school hero for children.

Some Stuff That’s Nifty 7/16/13

Y’all ready for this?

Gaming

1. What the starter Pokemon are really doing while you try to pick one out.

2. You have to pay attention to what the answer’s asking for, Jeopardy contestants.  Such a shame, except for that one guy who got it right.  Still, with such a softball question, I wonder why none of them bet all their winnings.

3. Someone finally picked up on my idea that minifigs make for good tabletop miniatures.  It’s not a LEGO product, and there’s hardly any information yet, but it’s exciting nonetheless.

Comics

1. This version of Wonder Woman seems to be, objectively, the best version of Wonder Woman.

Batman (album)

This is not the Batman album you’re looking for. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2. I’ve never heard the Prince soundtrack to the original Batman movie.  This plot synopsis of what that movie might be like makes me curious.

3. Maybe the Batman Prince movie could include some of these props that Batman kept over the years of his adventures.  I can totally see hoarding as part of Batman’s psychosis, by the way.  After all, he has an entire cave to fill up.

4. If you liked the Wonder Woman spot above, Cartoon Network has uploaded to Youtube a bunch of their animated shorts that run between shows on their DC Nation cartoon block.  I’ve not had a chance to look at all of these myself yet, but they look like a lot of fun.  Update (7/17/13): I’ve watched through most of the shorts, and they are generally very fun animation with some good comedy bits thrown in.  I didn’t watch all the Aardman shorts, but they seem to be primarily dialogue driven based on what kids say about superheroes.  Enjoy at your leisure.

5. Here’s a review of a new book that explores from a psychological perspective the appeal of superheroes.  It sounds like the book that’s being reviewed isn’t that great, but the article makes mention of another recent book about superheroes and religion that contains a comparison of the superhero myth to people’s desire for control in their lives through the lens of Alcoholics Anonymous.  I think I’m more interested in that book.

Religion

1. An excellent meditation on the ultimate foundation of Christian faith.

Weird Science

1. A dancing spider robot, for all my arachnophobic friends.

2. An article about how we might have difficulty communicating with space aliens because of differences in how our various senses operate.  I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords and hope that they will treat my bacteria very well.

3. Sorry, arachnophobes.  Here’s another creepy crawly thing that also happens to be the tail of a snake.  So, bonus creeps?

Science

1. An article highlighting all the ways that a lot of evolutionary psychologists are jerks and just kind of wrong about their approach to human nature.

Movies

1. Jon Negroni has constructed a General Theory of Pixar over at his blog.  It seems kind of crazy for my tastes, but I have to admit that the attention to finding minute connections is impressive.

2. There’s rumor that an X-Force movie is in the planning stages, and it’s going to feature the team that was led by Cable during the ’90s.  As I mentioned before, I hate Cable’s X-Force team, mostly because it was an abominable mutilation of the New Mutants (probably my favorite single series in the X-Men canon).

3. I made a pretty big deal about how much I liked Man of Steel, but as with any movie, there are always going to be things you can pick at through more in depth analysis.  This video points out some of the bigger plot holes that I didn’t catch on my own viewing (of course, these are mostly plot holes because if they’d been solved the way the video suggests, the movie would have been about an hour shorter.  It’s a fair point.  I still like the movie.

Music

1. I became a fan of Johnny Cash just shortly after his death back in 2003.  His music’s fantastic.  Here’s a crowd sourced art project depicting sketches of Cash from stills of the video for his final studio recording, “There Ain’t No Grave.”  It’s haunting.

And that’s everything from my little corner of the internet.

Faith

The Faith of the Centurion

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

Matthew 8:5-13

Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic

Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic (Photo credit: jakebouma)

The Gospel of Matthew is probably my favorite book of the Bible.  I’ve read it at least 20 times.  When I was a young believer, I had the good fortune to go to a large weekend conference where I attended a workshop on some subject or another related to evangelism.  I’ve long since forgotten the subject of that workshop, to be honest, but I remember speaking with one guy there who said, “If you want to introduce someone to Jesus, you should start with Matthew, because that book has the most red in it.”  He meant that Matthew has more instances of Jesus speaking than any of the other Gospels, so it’s a good book to put together a picture of Jesus’ character.

I’ve since concluded that the best way to introduce someone to Jesus is actually to just act like him, but I still think Matthew is a great place to start for a Christian hoping to be more like Christ.

The passage that I’ve pulled out at the top of this post illustrates how Jesus described the virtue of faith.  The centurion came to Jesus asking him to heal an ill servant, and Jesus was ready to rush to the centurion’s home.  The centurion explained that Jesus’ physical presence wouldn’t be necessary, because he understood how authority works.  You tell someone under your command to do something, and they do it, regardless of whether you’re watching.  The centurion reasoned that because Jesus had been performing miraculous healings he had authority over the world in a way that allowed him to cure ailments by simply saying that they were cured.  The centurion had never observed this characteristic of Jesus’ power, but he believed it was so, and Jesus commended the centurion for his faith.

I love this account, because it shows that there is a direct connection between reason and faith.  The modern popular understanding of faith typically follows a model of belief without evidence.  It’s best exemplified in the famous scene from Peter Pan when Peter asks the audience to clap and cheer to show they believe in fairies in order to revive Tinkerbell.  We know there’s no evidence for fairies, but here we call it faith to believe in them anyway, hence the common accusation that people of faith believe in a magical sky wizard.

I can’t express how frustrated I am by the popular definition of faith.

C.S. Lewis has an excellent illustration of how reason-based faith works in the real world.  In Mere Christianity, he discusses the concept of anesthetic.  We all know based on evidence that anesthetic is effective and when used properly will keep you safely unconscious while a surgeon has to operate on you.  Even if you’ve never had surgery, you believe this is true.  When you actually find yourself under the knife, you may panic initially.  What if the anesthetic doesn’t knock me out?  What if I wake up in the middle of the surgery (by the way, that happened to me when I was five and busted up my knee; I only remember being conscious for a few seconds, but I recall it being very horrifying.  Fortunately, they put me back under quickly)?  These thoughts race through your head and you doubt, but your reason bolsters your faith that the anesthetic will do its job.

Critics of faith in God like to point out that this is still magical thinking, because there’s no scientific evidence supporting the existence of God.  I say that’s true.  God is by definition a supernatural being, and because science, in order to better understand the physical world, dismisses supernatural causes it cannot produce any evidence for God’s existence.  At the same time, it can’t produce any evidence against his existence either, so I think we should all agree that scientific thought is an unproductive avenue for discerning God’s presence.

For me, my belief in God’s existence is predicated on my adherence to a metaphysical framework that acknowledges the possibility of a supernatural force outside the universe.  That framework is supported by my understanding of moral principals that humanity generally holds up as ideal.

My faith is based in reason, and though I do not see God, I believe he is there.

What about you guys?  What’s the foundation of your belief or nonbelief?