Tag Archives: Christianity

You Spring For the Rum, I’ll Get the Drugs

23 Jan

I first became aware of the Amish practice of Rumspringa from watching The Devil’s Playground, a documentary about Amish teenagers. After viewing that movie, my understanding was that Rumspringa is an Amish person’s last chance to engage the “English” world of sin, debauchery, and other types of fun. I figured that it made good sense: by allowing its members to sow their wild oats, the Amish religion can retain at least some of its members, should they feel vacuousness in the secular world of ironic t-shirts and gangster rap music. It was my small-minded assumption that everyone in the world wants to watch shitty prime-time sitcoms and play with their digital watches which led me to believe that Rumspringa is a structured allowance to sin, an attempt to abate any future curiosities and non-Amish leanings. I mean, those Islamic fundamentalists are just jealous and hate our freedoms, right? All they want is to sink their teeth into a salty Quarter Pounder with Cheese. But they can’t, and that frustrates them, so they hijack planes and stone women to death.

Then I read the book Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish by Tom Shachtman. Let me say right away that you should not read this book. It is very poorly-written, and in fact comes across like a medium-grade master’s thesis for a third-tier university. It’s not so much an essay as it is a string of direct quotes from Amish teenagers, who–surprise, surprise–are not a whole lot more articulate than their “English” counterparts. Curse words are inexplicably redacted with a bracketed “[expletive deleted]” like it’s the fucking Nixon White House tapes or something. Buddy, if I’m old enough to read about Amish kids smoking crystal meth, then I can probably handle a few instances of the s-word. The writing is shitty and dry, and may have benefited from a few bad words peppered among the ridiculous dialog.

That being said, the information contained within Rumspringa was very interesting. I came to learn more about Amish life and mores, and had a few of my preconceptions shattered. For one thing, like in any religion, there are many different sects and beliefs under the umbrella of the Amish religion. Amish people do not eschew every modern convenience, and in fact there are regular meetings among Amish communities to determine what, if any, technologies can be applied to daily life. It’s a struggle to keep a balance between living an austere existence, which will involve some suffering, but still working efficiently in a way that will compete with “English” suppliers of the same goods. For instance, some communities would not allow gas-powered plows on their farms, though their use had been suggested year after year. But most of these communities will have one communal telephone, which is integral to doing business. And if that telephone gets used occasionally to contact distant relatives, well there’s no great harm done.

More interesting to me was the actual philosophy behind Rumspringa. It has little to do with sowing your oats, as I thought, and everything to do with the Anabaptist tradition of only accommodating members who join of their own free will and cognizance. People are baptized as adults, and that baptism is a pact between the adherent and his church, not a direct communion with God. In fact, being baptized Amish doesn’t itself guarantee passage to heaven, which is the usual cornerstone promise a church offers for your tithing. People born to Amish families are raised in the Amish tradition, but when they are old enough to think for themselves, they can then choose to join the church or not. While deciding, they are free to live life however they wish.

I had assumed that Rumspringa would last roughly between the ages of sixteen to twenty-one, but I found that many Amish-born people stay in a technical limbo for much longer than that. The trick here is that if you don’t join the Amish faith, then you will simply be the “English” relative of an Amish family, allowed contact with them and even to stay at home, if the father sees fit, until you make a choice one way or the other. But if you do join up and then decide to change your mind later, then you stand a possibility of being shunned; contact will be severely limited and you will not be allowed to share meals or in functions with the community. Seems to me that the best way to hedge your bets would be not to join, that way you can sin to the degree that you like and still talk to your mother from time to time. But that is, of course, my secular view of things. Certain churches demand allegiance as a kind of threat: join us or your family, your community, and your God will hate you. The Amish church is, in this sense, more liberal than some other Christian denominations. You should only join the church knowing full well what is expected of you and because you think it is right, not because you’re afraid of losing touch with your family.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to sit and talk with an Amish woman, who lived on a farm in southern Wisconsin with her large family. She invited myself and my friends in for some incredibly weak tea and bland ginger cookies. The house was cozy but relatively bare, not jammed with lamps and framed pictures and plush furniture like my own home. The floor was covered in a fine, brown dust of tracked manure. While the younger girls tended to the youngest children, I conversed with the matriarch of the family who was very pleasant and accommodating. It was a few years after 9/11, and the Amish woman asked me about it. I began to relate my personal story of the day, when she cut me off: “No, I mean, what happened that day? Some structures were blown up? Did it affect New York?” She was aware that a serious event had occurred, but didn’t know any of the specifics. Trying to look at it from her perspective, I can’t say that any of the specifics mattered. There was a great loss of life, the president used that to justify military action, and the exact figures and dates are minor compared to those points. From my perspective, the events of 9/11 were a turning point for world politics and how America would be perceived in the twenty-first century. To this woman, it was just more calamitous noise coming from the secular world. How did the events of 9/11 affect this woman, her family, and their farm? Most importantly, how did it impact the price of eggs?

Big Bang Theory Isn’t That Fucking Good

7 Mar

I’ve been watching seasons of the CBS sitcom Big Bang Theory on DVD recently. It’s a decent sitcom with a serviceable premise: four genius-level nerds with differing and severe social disorders cope with life in Los Angeles, city of beautiful people. Plus, a hot chick lives across the hall from two of them which adds to the stammering merriment. It’s pretty satisfying in the way I feel that most television should be: each episode is fairly well encapsulated and the situation resets to its default by the time each half hour is up. In the current season I’m watching, season three, the main character begins dating the blond woman from across the hall, but this is no more a progression in the story as it is fodder for several more ludicrous premises.

So I’m pretty okay with Big Bang Theory. However, I find it unbelievable that it’s the highest-rated sitcom on Thursday nights and one of the highest-rated comedies on television, period. Thursday night, my patient readers and millions of television watchers will recall, is when NBC runs three hours of comedy programming, at least an hour of which is worthwhile. And the kicker is that one of the more worthwhile shows, Community, goes up against Big Bang Theory head-to-head each week, and loses.

If you’ve never seen either show, well you’ve probably stopped reading this essay by now. But if you’ve seen both shows, then you might be as befuddled as I. Using my New York myopia, I can see how Big Bang Theory might be more palatable to middle America than Community, but the former blows the latter away in ratings every week, practically quadruple the number of viewers. And part of me (the same New York myopia, just a different facet) feels like Big Bang Theory wouldn’t sit will with the Bible Belt and fundamentalist America. I mean, the show’s theme song describes the creation of the universe through the big bang theory and goes on to detail evolution. The main characters are physicists trying to determine the behaviors of subatomic particles. And there was even one episode where the most autistic character decried Christmas as a pointless sham. I don’t think that would fly in Kentucky.

Seems to me that the real culprit here is the Nielsen ratings system, a technique developed by Arthur Nielsen in the 1920s to establish demographic groups, then applied to radio in the 1930s, and finally to television in the 1950s. Even armchair statisticians would be thoroughly impressed with Nielsen’s model, which extrapolates the entire nation’s television viewing habits from a small sample. There’s only one flaw with the Neilsen ratings system, and that is the system doesn’t really work.

I think it worked many decades ago when the sampling was much lower. To have a television in 1950 was a big deal, they were expensive and often entire families and groups of neighbors huddled around them to watch the flickering screen. There were only three broadcast networks which ran during daylight hours; programming was limited. Now, most homes with televisions have two or three in them. The kids have their own, the parents have one in the living room, one in the bedroom. Often, people could be watching PBS downstairs and American Idol upstairs. So the notion of “household viewing” doesn’t apply as much any more. It didn’t even apply when I was a kid and would be watching Growing Pains in my room while my parents watched Some Boring Foreign Movie downstairs, and my grandmother would watch Dynasty or Some Shit on the first floor.

But the main problem with the Nielsen ratings system is the stupidly small size of the absolutely not random sampling of the populace by which they make their determinations. There are twenty-five thousand households participating in the Nielsen system–all of them by choice, all of them aware that they are contributing to these ratings–and that only constitutes 0.02% of the total households in America. So 0.02% of the television watchers in America determine which show is most popular, and therefore which show can charge the most for advertising. I don’t give a shit what anyone says, Community is far and away a better show than Big Bang Theory, though some manufacturers might not bode well the idea of advertising during a prime-time television show where the main character wears hair gel. And so these companies might have a vested interest in perpetuating the outmoded Nielsen technique.

Or maybe not. It may not be a great conspiracy, merely a bumbling, shitty system that we’re saddled with, even though the technology exists today that can determine viewers’ habits to a much more specific degree. Our own cable and digital satellite companies know more about America’s viewing habits than the Nielsen ratings system, for crap’s sake. It seems unfair that a relatively witty and creative show like Community must be relegated to obscurity, and probably an early cancellation, because this one statistics company has turned its sights on a lot of hardcore Big Bang Theory fans instead of taking a better sample. However, the fact that we’re using this antiquated system does give me some hope that perhaps people aren’t as entranced by American Idol as the numbers purport. Now I’m really kidding myself.

Jesus Land Is a Good Book if You Want to Feel Weird

1 Mar

I just finished reading Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres last night. Lest you think I spend all of my time reading non-fiction books about Christian weirdos, I’ll clear up any rumors: I don’t. My girlfriend lent me both of these books, and religious zealots and other freaks are simply some of the interests that we share. It was actually useful for me to read Rapture Ready! before Jesus Land because the former gave me some insight into the Christian Evangelical world, though from a decidedly more pleasant angle. The running theme through both the retail Evangelical world and the process of converting one’s faith through fear is that there’s no holds barred when it comes to witnessing for Christ. Nothing is off limits when the final result is someone’s eternal salvation, even if it means you have to completely break their spirit here on earth.

Jesus Land is a memoir about the author’s late teen years, growing up in a strict Christian household with her two adopted Black brothers, mean mother and temperamental father on some dusty, fucked-up farmland in the middle of Indiana. The book is divided into two parts, helpfully labeled “part one” and “part two.” The first part deals mostly with the author and her adopted brother of the same age dealing with racism and bullying and a shitty home situation, which is exacerbated by the mother’s insane fundamentalist leanings. The older adopted brother molests the author, part of a cycle of abuse perpetrated by their father, which just makes the situation even shittier. The complexity of the relationships between everyone, severed and then rejoined again along lines of gender, color, age and dogma is very interesting, and the author does a good job weaving this familial lattice so the reader can comprehend it, or at least comprehend the pattern.

I don’t read a ton of memoirs, but I have read a few, and I feel this needs to be said: I don’t want to read another point-of-view account of a teenage girl losing her virginity ever again unless it is germane to the story. It’s ridiculous, all of these poor women pinned down by pimply jaggovs who struggle with bra clasps and breathe hot beer breath in their faces…enough. We get it. Your first time wasn’t on a gilded cloud fucking a unicorn or something. Sorry that my teenage hormones had to burst your teenage hormones’ bubble, but I’d like to point out that my first time wasn’t with Tawny Kitaen on the hood of a Thunderbird, either. Beer breath settles on the just and unjust alike.

Anyway, this particular book can’t be held too guilty for that, but it is a little self-serving. Why shouldn’t it be? Jesus Land is a memoir, after all. Part two of the book deals with the author and her adopted brother (the one closest to her age, not the one that molested her) being sent to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. It’s pretty brutal, and more than once I winced while reading the author’s account of the cruelty that adults heaped on spindly children. However, I was more captivated and interested in part one of the book, how a family can operate so dysfunctionally for so long. My girlfriend remembered part two of the book more, which makes sense since it was more sensational. I’ll probably remember scenes from part two more as time goes on.

I’m glad I read this book, it was well-written and engaging and offered some insight into the retarded world of Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. It certainly makes one wonder how screwed up the average person is; not everyone is articulate enough to come from the shit side of this experience and write a lucid memoir. How many people that we see each day, how many cashiers, bus drivers, teachers and police had their brains warped by similar experiences? It kind of makes you feel weird to think about. Thank goodness I grew up in a Satanic household where we did penance by stuffing ourselves with candy corn.
(Incidentally, all of the pics in this essay were stolen from the author’s website, http://www.juliascheeres.com/. Check it out after you’ve read the book.)

Yeah So Rapture Ready! is a Pretty Okay Book

24 Feb

I finished Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready! about a week ago, and even though I ruminated on it here and here, I figured I should give it a full review because, well, I said I would. Plus, it’s a reasonably worthwhile book if Evangelical Christian pop culture is something you’re interested in. Frankly, you should be interested in it and you should find the bulk of it hilarious. But I dunno, maybe you’re one of those stuck up types who can’t chuckle at a picture of Jesus on a coffee mug or something.

Radosh’s year-long excursion through the world of retail Evangelism begins at a Christian rock festival, and takes the reader to such disparate settings as the Holy Land Experience in Florida and a Christian rave in Ohio. There’s even Ultimate Christian Wrestling, an idea which is simultaneously obvious and ridiculous considering Christ’s commitment to non-violence. But then if we start dissecting that particular bit of hypocrisy, I’ll never get done with this essay. Throughout the author’s travels, we join him in a bit of snickering about the silliness of it all, but for the most part he is respectful and even-handed concerning the whole crazy circus. Even when he meets Bibleman, he doesn’t just cock his head and suspiciously say to the guy, “Bibleman? Really?” Which is precisely what I would do.

In fact, we do precious little snickering at those wacky Evangelists, and one of the problems with this book. I was surprised to learn that Daniel Radosh has written and staffed for several revered humor publications, because Rapture Ready! didn’t strike me as particularly funny at all. I mean, it wasn’t unfunny, but it certainly wasn’t a guffaw-laden romp through Christian breath mints and Jesus-loving heavy metal bands. The author successfully attempted to humanize the pop Christian world, which effectively takes the fun out of it. I don’t want to respect some kid wearing a t-shirt with a Reese’s logo that’s been changed to “Jesus,” I want to smirk and chortle and think about how much smarter I am. If I wanted to empathize with my fellow man, I’d read the fucking bible.

Still, while it was kind of a dry read, it was still reasonably enjoyable and packed with the kind of anecdotes you want to read upon picking the book up. My favorite interactions are when Radosh informs his hosts that he is Jewish, and they embrace him as part of the new born again Christian support of Israel, the subtext of which is that a Jewish state is integral to the fomenting of Armageddon. I also learned quite a bit reading this book, which I can’t knock. If Christian pop culture is interesting to you, then I’m not sure there’s another book out there to compete with this. But if you’re looking for a highly readable book which points fingers at the religious right wing component of America, well then you’ll probably have to watch Bill Maher or something.

Have You Ever Heard of God?

18 Feb

I have about a hundred pages left in Rapture Ready! by Daniel Radosh. I mentioned the in another essay, but for those who didn’t read it and don’t like to click links, the book details a year of Radosh’s life among Evangelical Christians, soaking up their burgeoning pop culture. It’s a decent read, I’ll probably review it when I’m done, but reading the book has made me recall other brushes with Evangelism in my life.

One sort of funny incident happened when I was in my twenties and visiting a friend at a college in upstate New York. We were hanging out on a porch swing outside an ice cream parlor–yes, it was that innocent–when a kid about our age came over and asked, “Have you ever heard of God?” We all chuckled and I probably made a snide comment. Have I ever heard of God? What the fuck kind of question is that? Most people define themselves by which God, if any, they believe in. As I recall, we jeered him until he sneaked away bashfully into the night. Of all the nerve!

You know, I hadn’t thought about that incident in about fifteen years. I routinely chat up religious pamphleteers and proselytizers because…I don’t know why. I think it’s fun. I don’t try to poke holes in their beliefs, I don’t contest them, but I will lie and say I belong to a religion that I don’t. “I am a lapsed Lutheran,” I might tell a Jew for Jesus, “but I am looking for some kind of spiritual insight.” Part of me wants to hear the spiel, part of me wants to chortle inwardly at another person’s earnestness. However, there is part of me that wants to engage this person because I want them to know that people are listening, even if the chance that I will ever attend a sermon or even seriously consider the literature being handed out is so remote, it’s more likely that I am the son of God than I will ever accept a messiah. It’s sort of a strange tendency I have to prove that people are good when, in fact, all evidence points to the contrary.

I am like this with girlfriends, too. There have been more than a few women I’ve dated because their stories about being mistreated by men in the past touched me deeply, and I wanted to prove that all men aren’t the same. So I went through the motions of being a Good Boyfriend, offered lots of platitudes and promises for the future. Eventually, reality catches up with the facade: I can’t rightly pretend to be deeply in love for the rest of my life. The truth that I don’t really give a shit comes before too long. That’s usually what happens, and these relationships end with me ironically being the worst boyfriend that woman’s ever had.

But back to this kid who asked if we’d ever heard of God, in reading Rapture Ready! I’ve come to see this kid (who could be a pedophile meth addict now, I have no idea) as being particularly brave, if a little naive. “Have you ever heard of God?” is a pretty good ice-breaker, it makes people chuckle and puts them at ease for the bombshell about God’s wrath you’re about to disseminate. Another good opener might be, “Has anyone seen God? He was right here a second ago but I can’t find him.” There’s a lot going on in the question, “Have you ever heard of God?” It personifies God, implies that God is someone you can know, and also allows a dialogue where someone can begin telling their side of the story, i.e. “You’ve heard of God, but here’s the truth about the dude.”

The main problem with that kind of opener, and it’s a problem I see with a lot of witnessing in America, is that it’s only ready for a few types of responses. The best would be “Of course I have heard of God, I am a Christian.” That leaves the person asking the question a lane where he or she can start expressing what they think God’s about. However, that question isn’t ready for a response like, “I heard of God, he’s the guy who gave my grandmother cancer.” Or “I have heard of God, and what I’ve heard is a bunch of retarded bullshit.” Whatever the response to the question, the person asking it is only prepared to answer with the same shtick. You could say, “Yeah, God and I are butt buddies,” and the person asking can only reply with tales of creationism and God’s love, or they can walk away in disgust, a tacit win for the secular world.

I am a big fan of the Prayer Channel because much of the programming is so insipid and ridiculous. One of my favorite shows is The Way of the Master, which is a witnessing technique developed by some dude that looks like he deals pot to junior high school students. Kirk Cameron is the spokesperson for this thing and is heavily featured on the program, which consists of Christians stopping people on the street and harassing them. “Do you think you’ll go to heaven?” is often the first question, to which the person being asked responds in the affirmative. “Have you ever lied?” is the next question, which is also replied to affirmatively. The Way of the Master disciple then proves that the person being grilled is a sinner and is going to Hell, based on quoted scripture, and that they essentially aren’t being pious enough.

I suppose this works if the person being targeted considers themselves a good Christian. But what if they don’t give a fuck? Does Way of the Master’s way only work to guilt existing Christians into being even better Christians? If someone asked me if I thought I was going to Heaven, I would tell them that I don’t. I think it’s a stupid concept and its inconsistencies are so many that I have neither the space or time to go into them. What first needs to happen, then, is for me to be convinced about Heaven existing. Asking me if I’ve lied or if I’ve ever lusted is inconsequential. Of course I’ve fucking lied and I don’t give a shit. I lied to you at the beginning of this conversation when I said I was a lapsed Lutheran.

I guess my point is that I have to respect someone who can gather up the nerve to approach someone else and share their thoughts on theology. At the same time, it’s stupid for an interviewer to ask questions when they’re only prepared to deal with a certain set of answers. If Evangelists really want to convert people for their own good, then approaching them with such an obvious agenda is probably not the best idea. It’s like if I wanted to advertise a brand of cream soda, I wouldn’t approach someone drinking root beer and tell them they’re sipping it wrong. Instead, I’d point out that I have a drink they can use in the same way as the beverage they’re currently drinking, but it will taste a whole lot better! Only after I get them hooked on my cream soda do I ask for a tithing.

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