Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Conservative Christian's Guide to Not Sucking: Evangelism

Sometimes my dad tells this story about how he met a televangelist, and the guy was praying for him, and then he just kind of pushed him. Like, you know how sometimes someone will just be so overwhelmed by the Spirit or whatever that they just keel over? This guy was trying to…encourage that, I guess.

On the subject of my personal experience with evangelism: Once, in a seventh or eighth grade study hall, I watched a group of girls attempt to convert a boy in our class to Christianity. There are two pertinent things to note here.

      1)      The boy in question was an immigrant with a very recent family history of death by way of religious persecution, hence the immigration.

          2)    The girls were quite concerned, and made it clear that they were concerned, about his inevitable eventual placement in Hell, should he not see the light.

To be fair, we were twelve, and they were genuinely concerned about his well-being. I would like to believe that most evangelists are genuinely concerned about the well-being of those they minister to. But a lot of them, even the trained, professional ones who went to Bible school, seem to have missed a majorly important memo: “You are going to Hell” is not an effective method of evangelism.

Let’s take a moment and think about it logically. People are not going to be influenced by the threat of something they don’t believe in, okay? You can’t tell an atheist to shape up or he’s going to hell, anymore than you can tell a thirty five year old to shape up or Santa won’t come this year. It’s the same reason you can’t have a creation-evolution debate with the Bible as your main source of evidence, no matter how much you try, or how much you whine about it. People are not going to be swayed by something they don’t believe exists.

Also (and this one is as much about basic human decency as it is about logic), if you have to resist to scare tactics to push your product, it’s probably not worth having.

The words “You are going to Hell” are, indeed, a dire warning, but they are not functioning in the way you intend. They don’t say “change your ways and accept the Lord.” They say “here comes a total jerk I gotta get out of here.”

Not the message you’re going for, right?

Here’s how you actually reach people: Love. Acceptance. Open-mindedness and a willingness to listen and try to understand. Don’t ever approach someone with the goal of “saving” them. Approach them with the goal of making a new friend, and let things go from there.

If you have to talk about religion, this is how you’re going to do it. You’re going to ask them about the details of what they believe. You’re going to ask them why they believe what they believe. You’re going to offer the same information about yourself, if requested, and do your best to provide an honest, thoughtful answer, something well beyond “because it’s true” or “the Bible says so.” You’re going to offer something personal. You’re going to ask for clarification when something about their belief system doesn’t make sense to you, not as a stern interrogator looking for holes in an argument, but as a friend genuinely seeking to understand an alternate point of view.

You may recall, when Jesus gets to ranking the commandments, his list goes as follows:

       1)      Love God

       2)      Love everyone else

Golden Rule, right? So, hey, if you wouldn’t like some random stranger screaming in the street about how wrong you are, try not to be that person, ‘kay?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

All Your Favorite Princesses Are Sluts

The first time—okay, the first several times—I read most fairy tales, I was aware, probably, of the concept of sex, but it wasn’t something that I thought about at all. So it took me a few—okay, several—years to figure out how many of my favorite characters were going at it like bunnies.

They embraced. He came into her room and lay down in her bed. Will you marry me? Will you marry me? Will you marry me? Newsflash, guys: fairy tales are all about sex and death, sometimes at the same time (See: Snow White).

Forget Disney. Honey, she banged that boy. It’s right there in the text.

It’s astounding. All of the things my parents tried to protect me from, and there I was holed up in my bedroom with a book of fairy tales, reading about bestiality and necrophilia. And none of us had any idea. My parents assumed that fairy tales were safe. I was barely aware of sex on a conceptual level until high school, and I didn’t have much actual comprehension of the idea until well into college.

And now, well. I feel like someone as sheltered as me should not have this high an awareness of the sexual undertones of classic children’s stories, but here we are. None of your favorite princesses are exactly unicorn-luring material. I’m not actually going to call them sluts in the text here; that seems unkind. It was just an attention-grabber.

But you need to understand that these stories do not exist in a vacuum. There are hundreds of years of history behind them, and you need to be aware of the cultural implications. This stuff didn’t start out the way we tell it now. Basile’s princesses didn’t wait until marriage. Perrault’s princesses may have, sometimes, but the dude’s a whole big mess with his pretentious self-righteous Moral-at-the-End-of-the-Story, and his local contemporaries (more on them later) sure didn’t make their girls wait. Asbjornsen and Moe were not about the abstinence, and neither were the Grimms.

In fact, I have here, for your viewing pleasure, a list of stories in which the heroes and heroines didn’t bother with an “I do.”

       1.       East of the Sun, West of the Moon
·         Every night in the dark, guys.
       2.       Beauty and the Beast
·         Fun fact: “Will you marry me?” is a mistranslation. It’s actually “Will you sleep with me?” Beauty said yes, and the spell got broke once the deed was done, so, you know.  Not even in human form when they got down and dirty.
       3.       Prince Lindworm
·         This comes after she tortures him mercilessly, and before he turns from a tortured snake monster into a handsome prince. Can we all say “yuck”?
       4.       The Twelve Dancing Princesses
·         Come on, you know “danced through their shoes each night” has gotta be a euphemism.
       5.       The Frog Prince
·         All he wanted was to lie in bed with her, and she threw him against a wall! So let’s count this as a technicality, because it totally would have happened if she wasn’t the only princess in the history of ever to find bestiality squicky.

And on our This Is Concerning List:

       1.       Sleeping Beauty
·         rape
       2.       Snow White
·         necrophilia
       3.       Rapunzel
·         Seriously questionable consent

There isn't actually a whole lot of point here. Um. Avoid stereotyping, I guess?

Oh! Hey. Got it.

Look, I love these girls. But any day now, we can totally stop holding them as cartoony paragons of virtue. Honesty is the best policy, after all, and I think it could do some good things regarding the upcoming topic of folklore and feminism.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

On the Nature of the Mer-Soul: A Question

(Yes, I am here again, and I will wring a happy ending out of this story if it kills me.)

Per her agreement with the Sea Witch, the Little Mermaid was to receive legs and a human soul in exchange for her tongue, contingent on her marriage to the prince. The direct physical exchange, tongue for legs, was made on the spot.

Both legs and the potential soul were cancelled in favor of sea-foaminess upon her unequivocal failure to marry the prince, i.e. his marriage to someone else.

Now, my question regards that potential soul—namely, is it indeed potential, or an item of actual existence? Did the exchange go tongue for legs, marriage for soul? Like a pay half now, pay half when the job is done kind of deal?

In that case the Little Mermaid would be a mermaid with legs until her marriage, at which point the soul would kick in and she would be human.

Alternatively, it may have happened all at once. For the price of just one tongue, you too can experience legs and soul for an unlimited time! (Fine print: Prices and shipping may vary. Only valid at participating locations. Final purchase dependent on successful completion of wedding ceremony. Side effects may include, but are not limited to, death and transformation into sea foam.)

In this case, the Little Mermaid would actually be a Little Human from her arrival on land right up until her untimely demise.

Then the question becomes, if the soul was ever present, when exactly did it depart? Did it cease to exist the moment the prince said “I do”? Or did it happen when the rest of her turned to sea foam?

And then we must consider the nature of the soul itself. The story has confirmed that souls may be created; does this mean that they may also be destroyed? But the text does specify, on multiple occasions, that we are dealing with an immortal soul. So our final question is, if the soul comes into existence at the same time as the legs, does it go poof when things take a turn for the foamy, or does it, true to its immortal nature, go up into Heaven while the body goes down into the sea?

(This is all, of course, being considered in light of the version where the mermaid dies, rather than the one where she becomes a Daughter of the Air and spends a few centuries earning a soul; that version opens up a whole slew of theological issues in regards to faith vs. works. We don’t have time for that. Maybe next week.)

And in the end, it all comes down to what it always comes down to, for me, when we talk about The Little Mermaid. Does she get the better end of the deal? Can we count this as a happy ending?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Trouble with Christian Fiction

Hi. My name is Jenny, I’m a Christian, and I hate Christian fiction. Like, deeply. Passionately. The entire concept disgusts me. I’m guessing that’s not the reaction they were going for.

In my experience, there are two defining characteristics of Christian fiction.

  1. Poor Quality. We have done ourselves a huge disservice by breaking away from mainstream publishing. The editing skill is, frankly, just not there. Christian publishers publish books on the basis of their being Christian—not on the content, style, or actual skill level of the authors. The writing is mediocre, the plot is mediocre, and no one has pushed these writers to excel at anything beyond including God in their work, as if a book is good merely by virtue of being Biblically sound, and there is no point in aiming for any additional goals.

  2. Selfishness. I have never, never seen a book marked “Christian Fiction” that was even remotely accessible to non-Christians. I’m here for a story, people. If I wanted a sermon, I’d be in a church, not a library. Even if the stories themselves were accessible, that little “Christian Fiction” tag on the spine would turn away any non-Christian readers.

    Guys. As Christians, your job is to share the word of God with others. I mean, fishers of men? Come on! This is like setting a mouse trap in the basement and calling it fishing.

    Newsflash: it is possible to write a book with Christian characters and/or morals that can still be enjoyed by people who are not Christians. Like, if you’ve been given a talent for writing, how dare you use it to help other Christians hide away in their own little sanctuary of perceived holiness instead of using it to help touch people who actually needed to be helped and reached out to? It’s the ultimate example of preaching to the choir. You’re not here for that, guys. You’re not here for that. 

I’m a Christian, but I would much rather read a book about a Muslim girl than a Christian one. Why? Because there’s not a “Muslim Fiction” section at the bookstore.  A book about Muslim characters may include all of the values and worldviews that go along with Islam, but there’s not an exclusive little club for that book, so it’s going to be accessible to me, despite my general lack of knowledge or interest in Islam. It’s going to be designed to reach a broader audience.

If you’re a Christian, your goal should always be to reach a broader audience.

No other religion has a genre to itself. And no religion should, including Christianity. It’s a poor marketing strategy, is what it is. If we got rid of this whole stupid Christian fiction thing, and Christian authors had to go through normal publishers, being “Godly” wouldn’t be enough, and the books would be held to a higher standard of quality, as they already should be. You wouldn’t get away with writing a book that, by its very nature, excluded a large part of the reading population, because no publisher would stand for it.

By all means, write books as Christians. But please, please stop writing Christian fiction, because its very existence is a disgrace to both your faith and good literature.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Contemporary Folklore and the Death of Oral Traditions

I’ve seen several articles over the last couple months about how oral traditions are dying out, and taking some stories with them. I’ve also been thinking a lot about comic books lately. These things are related.

I’ve never relied on oral tradition, because I read whatever I can get my hands on, and after the first time I got my hands on some fairy tales, there was really no going back. But sometimes I’ll be talking to other people, and say things like, “Oh, it’s like that part of the Twelve Dancing Princesses where,” or “what if we tried that thing from the Russian version of,” and they have no idea what I’m talking about. And it’s happened countless times, but somehow I never expect it—these stories are such a major part of my life that I struggle to imagine people living without them.

So maybe these people I talk to don’t know about The Pied Piper or The Princess and the Pea because their parents never told them stories, and maybe in a couple generations those stories will only be known by people like me who happen to find fairy tale collections at the library.

But oral traditions have been on the way out for a good hundred years now, and they’re probably not coming back.

So here’s where the comics come into it: there’s a Thor movie coming out soon. We just got the trailer for the Justice League movie. Everyone is still freaking out about Wonder Woman, a new season of Young Justice is on the way, and between Marvel and DC we have, like, a dozen live action TVs shows based on comic books. So everyone on the internet is talking about this stuff, arguing about this stuff. That’s not canon, that’s not canon, that’s not canon anymore, those characters hate each other, those characters love each other, they used to be married but in the reboot they’ve never even met.

I’ve talked before about folklore and fanfiction, and I think comics fall into basically the same realm. Batman’s been around for nearly eighty years, guys. He’s been written by dozens of writers. There isn't, as far as I’m concerned, such a thing as canon Batman. You can’t say that any particular version of Batman is wrong, because Batman’s already been written, and even legitimately published, in all of those different versions. Christian Bale Batman and Adam West Batman hold the exact same weight.

The Justice League, the Avengers? Those are the American equivalent of fairy tales. Everyone knows them, at least a little, somewhere in the back of their minds. They’re the same stories told over and over again, slightly different in each telling, no longer belonging to one person but to the entire world that they’re a part of.

Yeah, oral traditions are dying. It sucks, but hey, if it bugs you so much, find an audience and start telling stories. Personally, I’m pretty glad that isn't the main method of storytelling anymore.

I will never, ever know where my favorite fairy tale started. No one will. The earliest version of Cinderella is lost to time because it spread by word-of-mouth; there is no record of the first time someone told it. You can trace it back to Greek mythology, you can trace it back to ancient China, but you can never say, definitively, this is the place where this story started, this is how it was told the first time it was told.

Any version of Cinderella from the last few centuries? All the different details are perfectly preserved. We know exactly how Superman’s origin story was told the first time it was told, and we can watch the changes unfold over the decades. I can watch the original pilot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then I can watch the pilot that actually aired, and then I can read thousands of fanfics that tell that story slightly differently, and I know where all of those things are. I know where to find them. I know where they started. I can begin with the earliest version of a story ever told, and I can watch how different variants branch off, and trace the changes over time, the places people were in when they changed things, why they made things different, whether it was because they forgot or heard it secondhand, whether they hated something about the original or just really, really wanted something important to them incorporated.

I can do all of that with Beauty and the Beast, but never from the beginning. I can take you back to the novel, and work my way through history from there. I can take you back to earlier French stories about enchanted bridegrooms, to The Pig King or The Golden Root in Italy, to Cupid and Psyche or Hades and Persephone in ancient Greece. But I can never go to the original. And that means I’ll never know the full story of Beauty and the Beast, the true depth of its significance, the farthest reaches of its potential.

Because a story is more than the words that make it up. A single story is also an entire world, encompassing the people who’ve told it, the people who’ve heard it, the places where it’s been told—a story has a beginning and an end, but it is also infinite, and I can never have it in its entirety. The beginnings of my favorite fairy tales are lost forever.

But not Batman. Not Buffy. They didn’t start until oral traditions started to die, and that means I can have it all. And so can someone a hundred years from now, because everything is documented. So keep telling stories. Don’t let that tradition die; don’t lose the power of words rolling out of your mouth and into something eternal. But please, please, write them down as well.