Monday, March 31, 2014

Christian Culture: The Funny, The Sad, and The Not-So-Kosher

It's hard to believe that a large portion of my life was spent in an isolated Christian community. It was my school, it was my free time, it was the decor at my mom's. Maybe that's why I liked reading so much. No matter where I was, in a sense, I could get away from it all: church cult-y-ness and family problems.

It's understandable that I've repressed a lot of my childhood and adolescence. I'm an atheist, after all. I never openly identified as Christian, but then again, where I come from, Christianity, like heterosexuality, is just something people assume. I tried to blend in as well as I could regardless. With that comes a lot of cognitive dissonance, a lot of trauma, and a lot of funny memories, actually.

This past month in ISSA, we held a screening of a movie called The Lock In produced by Rich Praytor and Beverly Banks for Holy Moly Pictures about a group of teens encountering demon possession (or a haunting? it's hard to tell) after viewing paper pornography. At one point, the youth pastor makes a statement about 'reds and blues making purples.' One of our members yelled out, "Wait, what?"

I turned around to try and explain that 'reds' meant 'females' and 'blues' meant 'boys' and 'purple' is any kind of canoodling. Usually kissing. Or sex. You know, the simple stuff.

But of course, that wasn't the worst part of the movie. The obvious costume changes, poor camera handling, and unprofessional acting were testament enough. About halfway in, I get extremely nauseous and had to excuse myself. Whatever intestinal thing I had going from eating too many dried apricots was immensely aggravated by the shoddy, shaking images and high pitched screaming.

Anyway, the event itself reminded me of a lot of interesting/funny/sad aspects of Christian youth culture. Where to start?

1. "No blues and reds making purple in the closet." Or something to that effect. We've been over this one, but I have to stress how ridiculous this is. Way to gender-binary, guys. And the color thing is so arbitrary. Also, a closet? Really? Them even saying this makes me think, "All right. Someone has had to have done this before for them to issue a warning." Which makes it even funnier. Gotta love that abstinence! Until you don't and have no idea what to do when proximal to an attractive human.

2. Watching movies like the Left Behind series, Passion of the Christ, The Ten Commandments, and Veggie Tales. These productions are slightly higher budget, so I have to admit, they aren't entirely painful to watch. But still, they're on par with the recent flick "God's Not Dead." The focus is always on the 'non-believers' who are then forced to a) repent b) reveal why they 'hate God' c) look really sad d) all of the above. Oh well. At least The Prince of Egypt had a really good soundtrack.

3. Family Christian bookstore, if you haven't heard of it, is like a Barnes & Noble tribute to the trinity and all things PG-13. They sell bookmarks, figurines, clothing, and bibles. A lot of bibles. It's a bible emporium. But they also advertise VBS (vacation bible school) programs, ministries, charities, and so on. Fun fact: every time my mom brought me, a car almost ran us down. And by almost, I mean, people just generally failed to halt for pedestrians in that area whenever I was near. They could sense my evil soul approaching. 

4. Lock-ins. They are, indeed, a thing. A lot of the time it's nothing fancy, and it's basically a giant sleepover. Typically a kick-off service with 'modern' Christian rock music, food, hot cocoa (and/or pop) are constituents, and video and board games major components. But when I was in middle school, our church went all out. In the gymnasium, they constructed a wrestling ring and hired professionals to entertain us. All I remember was one of the older guys in the audience saying, "Oh my god. He shaved his back. You can see the razor burn. Oooo that's got to hurt." Note: the gymnasium on Sundays also functioned as the adult chapel. So religious. Very Christ-like. Wowe. 

5. Camp. VBS and in general, camps that promise to provide religious guidance are just the weirdest kinds of camp. VBS is usually for the younger kids, and it's a little more enjoyable, because at that stage you don't really know what's going on but the songs are lively and sometimes there are puppets and they give you snacks. As children age, the amount of time spent away from home at these things may increase. But it varies from place to place. They tend not to be as dogmatic and sing-along-y stuff late in the game, but church services are still facilitated. Even on vacation.

6. Separate services. Maybe this is a given to some people, but it's a little strange, considering toddlers get lumped in with junior high kids depending on the place. Usually, it's split so that 'adults' go to one service and 'non-adults' go elsewhere. Some have daycare available during services though, which is very considerate. But after initial services, sometimes there are study groups. And again, people are separated based on grade in school. Worksheets, crafts, candy, coloring, discussion. That's what usually occurs. It's okay to be confused, but not to question too many things too quickly. You'll understand when you get older. And usually, it's for the parents and the child/teenager to decide when is a good time to assimilate into the adult chapel. There's no concrete transition point, but I'd say it's around 12-14 when the older kids want to ditch the kiddie sermons. Although, it's a bit of a misnomer to call it 'Sunday school' since I didn't really learn anything. Remember, Christians generally like to edit out all the messed up stuff. "Sodom and Gomorrah? Yes, let's tell them that story. But let's not tell them about the almost-sexual-violence-against-angels-in-disguise part, and let's certainly not tell them about the incestuous rape of Lot by his daughters directly after." 

7. That awkward moment you give in after years of belligerent comments and ask to be baptized, the whole congregation makes a show of it. You repeat some things after the pastor. Blah blah blah Jesus is the savior blah blah blah paid for sins blah blah blah in his name, Amen. And then everyone watches you get dunked in a lukewarm water filled bathtub. Like that's normal. Oftentimes, the pastor will hold your nose closed for you. Which is always intensely uncomfortable, if you don't like being touched.

8. Sometimes, people try to make Christianity culturally exclusive. One televangelist we had to watch in class during middle school made a joke that went: 'Humans can't possibly be from monkeys..but I don't know about some!' with the punch line being an image of a guy with a purple mohawk and piercings brought up on the screen as he finished his statement. Yes. Because body modifications are atypical of humanity. Not. 

While I find a lot of this hilarious, I have to acknowledge how completely 'natural' this all seems to other people, like my older cousin, who is now a chaplain and blames homosexuals for state-based tax problems. A lot of aspects of Christian culture are amusing until I remember again the major issues facing theistic communities, such as the assumption of heterosexuality and abstinence as 'moral' and 'correct,' the obligation of indoctrination versus exposure to other faiths or, everyone forbid, atheists and agnostics, evangelism (which has the potential to be, and often is colonial and dominated by ethnocentric individuals) which tends to lead to the destruction of 'unlearned' cultures and in-group conflicts (over traditions, what constitutes truth, and so on), and don't even get me started on all the 'service work' done with good intentions. Humanitarian efforts are good, but often misplaced.

Example: immediately after Hurricane Katrina, the church I attended organized two trips down. They donated all of the church's pews and focused mainly on making sure a new church could be built. Did they do other things? Yes. But they spent a lot of time and money on proselytizing when they didn't need to.

A more obvious example is the Water Project. It's a registered non-profit 501(c)(3), but a high amount of missionaries are trained to go out into sub-Saharan Africa to build wells and pumps, along with others. On their website, they state: "We are NOT a religious organization. The reason we do this work is because we are Christians." 

I hate to poke an already engorged bubble, but I think a better claim would be, "...we do this work because we care about other people." Has a slightly less self-aggrandizing ring to it.

Overall, despite giggles that may occur when I consider a culture I've chosen to leave, I'm still very critical of it for behaviors and mentalities encouraged. The only struggle? Not getting too angry.





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