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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

An Elegy to Pope Francis the Liberal

     When the current Pope put on the hat last March, the world was watching. From the start, Pope Francis was far from an ordinary member of the seminary. Born in Argentina, the first ever Pope from the southern hemisphere, and the first non-European Pope for more than a century, he seemed to be exactly the kind of outsider who might shake things up in the the extent that the Vatican can be shaken up, that is. This was a public image that was hugely embraced by the media and repeated often, and is controversial today. What does the Pope of today really think about issues like homosexuality, abortion, and birth control? (Spoiler alert: he's not as much of a Good Guy as you think.)
His waving style is also decidedly un-Popelike.
     One line that I see getting tossed around quite a lot is that Pope Francis has declared that "all atheists are redeemed." While this is technically true, this is the Pope we're talking about here--he chooses his words quite carefully. When the papal quote was first spoken, there was some substantial controversy over what he had meant. (See the comments section in the previous link for good times.) Did the Pope truly just give atheists a free pass into heaven? Were we bros now? Not really, as it turns out. A close look at the Bible passages he references, along with a few technicalities, should be kept in mind. He informed the world that all atheists are redeemed, but redeemed=/=automatically saved. All atheists are redeemed in the same way that all pedophiles are redeemed--we both have a chance to accept Jesus in our hearts etc. etc. and although the Pope was creating an image of tolerance, he was also just reminding everybody that "it's not too late, folks."
     Another issue that the Pope has spoken some interesting words about is the Church's stance on homosexuality. To the best of my knowledge, Pope Francis has never asserted that every homosexual person is hell-bound, only the ones that act on their sexual impulses. Remember kids, you can go to heaven as long as you remain chaste your entire life--while you're at it, why not join the priesthood? Also, this is the same man who openly opposed gay marriage while he was in a position of power in Argentina and referred to it as the work of the Devil and a "destructive attack on God's plan." Despite these, uhh, small quibbles, though, he thinks that gay people are great! He's been hailed by the media as the least harsh Pope on homosexuality so far, though, so that's something.
     Just to go down the laundry list, the Pope has also said that abortion is "horrific" and something that good Christians ought not to do, although notably he has approved the use of contraception to control disease, which is pretty great. At the same time, though, he's still not allowing women to be priests, he really enjoys reminding people that everyone who accepts Christ must also accept the Church, he thinks that homosexual adoption is not cool, and has reminded us all that his first loyalty will always be to Church doctrine. While I'm at it, this guy is not a comic book villain, he has some excellent qualities--his stance on the importance of Catholics to assist the poor and needy has always been rock-solid and he has even taken steps to reduce the Vatican's wealth.
     So how progressive is Francis, really? I think it's clear that the media's trumped-up and oversimplified version isn't accurate--this is not Pope Francis the Liberal, and not a man who wants to seriously mess things up in the Vatican. He's made some great steps forward, to be sure--never forget, the last Pope thought that contraception was never okay and that every last gay person had a one-way ticket to hell. Is the honeymoon over? What has he done well, what has he done poorly, and what can he do in the future? Tomorrow's ISSA meeting should yield some interesting discussion, so make sure not to miss it!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Pathfinder's Project: Humanist Service

Let me introduce you to a seriously awesome group of people who embarked on a year-long trip in July as a part of Foundation Beyond Belief’s first ever (and essentially the first of its kind, period) international humanist service corps, The Pathfinders Project. Foundation Beyond Belief (FBB) is a prominent non-religious charitable organization whose motto is "Humanity at Work," which is just what this program is doing.

As an intern this summer, I had the opportunity to represent FBB at The Amazing Meeting, the nation's largest secular conference, and also where I had the pleasure to meet and get to know Conor Robinson, the Director of the Pathfinders Project. He, along with Ben Blanchard, Wendy Webber, and Michelle Huey have been travelling the world doing service projects in different places every month and improving each of the communities in which they stayed. From teaching at a humanist school in Uganda, to building latrines in Haiti, to doing a clean water initiative in Ecuador, these four have done a great amount of compassionate service in a year’s time.

I doubt that I need to go into great detail about why they are doing this, because it’s pretty self-explanatory. Humanists are good without a god, good for goodness' sake, just good because it is right. Increasing the standard of living for impoverished communities is 1) the ethical thing to do, and 2) beneficial for the global community in the long run. The atheist community desperately needs a program like the Pathfinders because churches have had a long head start on organizing and sending groups internationally, the majority of which go to evangelize and build churches, which I think we can agree that that is more harmful than beneficial, and the effort could be going to something that is actually helpful and worthwhile, like digging wells.  Here is a finished latrine that they built:

Organizing this kind of service is especially important for non-believers, because we know that there is no afterlife, so all we have is this Earth and this lifetime to make it a better place. If you have attended college you are already immensely more privileged than the vast majority of people in the world, for example 1 in 9 of the world’s population does not have access to clean water. This project is the beginning of what I believe is a big step for the secular community. It is about time to that we give people an option to give back that is not through a religious community, and Foundation Beyond Belief is the pioneering organization in a shift away from solely religious service that I hope develops into many organizations aimed at giving back because it is the moral thing to do, not because an omniscient deity says that you’ll go to heaven.

So going on a year-long service trip around the world is not in the cards for you, that is okay. There are so many ways that you can do your part to be a mindful and compassionate citizen of this Earth. First and foremost, don’t take for granted the resources that you are afforded, i.e. don’t be wasteful. Don’t waste water when you’re brushing your teeth, or washing the dishes, or showering, don’t waste food, don’t waste products, etc.  Additionally, if you have the money to spare, support the Pathfinders Project or even just support Foundation Beyond Belief.

Like Pathfinder’s Project and find more about them on Facebook.

Also, Conor decided not to shave his beard or cut his hair during time he’s abroad. Here, have a look, this is him 180 days into the trip, with 150 days to go:

And here’s a picture of Ben after 180 days, he also wrote a really good blog post about his weight loss that I recommend reading: