Two Types of Rebellion, Part Two: Acceptable Disobedience and Unacceptable Obedience


It’s well known that you can gum up a bureaucracy by following all the rules perfectly, literally,  and inflexibly. It’s even been used as a tactic of protest. 

You can also push back against a social system by taking the expectations TOO literally, like actually openly choosing virginity, which is what the churches preach and the schools encourage,  but no one much expects teens to actually do. 

But real pushback against expectations comes with the near certainty of real abuse and ostracization. 

Taking the rules too seriously really didn’t cost me much: I’d been socially awkward since early childhood and had no popularity to hoard or squander. I had no game, and would probably have been just as virginal had I tried to “get some.” 

The few close friends I had were mostly on the same page and were geeks and nerds enough to bond together regardless of any differences we had.

And high schoolers never drink good alcohol. Skipping cheap beer and liquor (and the associated hangover) is no loss.

Waiting for good wine and single-malt scotch was surely worth it. You can read that as a metaphor for the other things I skipped in high school, if you’d like. 

But gay and transgender teens with much greater social skills than I have literally faced death just for admitting to who they are. And it still happens sometimes. 

Those who don’t face violence still often face rejection, even from family. They often face cruelty,  discrimination, misgendering,  and a cavalcade of ignorant, invasive questions from people who should know how to mind their own business. 

And they’re often not even intentionally rebelling. Their mere existence is an affront to the system. 

Often, as a nerd, I wondered how the system could tell us to do all these things:  get good grades, say no to drugs and alcohol, remain sexually abstinent, and then treat us so terribly.

I never understood the point of the rules, which is to enforce conformity and consumerism, nor how vital a role acceptable disobedience plays.

In short, I didn’t understand anything about the social structure,  and I certainly didn’t understand real resistance. 

And I had no idea what real outsiders faced. 

Book sense I had in spades … common sense, not so much.

Two Types of Rebellion, Part One: Unwitting Servants

Reading Kester Brewin’s Mutiny and reflecting on rebels I have known in my life,  I’ve come to believe that there are two types of rebels, at least in recent American society: 

  • Those whose rebellion supports the social structure
  • Those whose rebellion actually threatens the established order 

We’ll talk about the first group,  the rebels whose actions prop up the culture they’re rebelling against, today.  The second group will have to wait. 

The first group of rebels skips class, drinks,  has lots of sex in high school, drives too fast, plays a little dirty in business deals, keeps a “woman on the side, ” etc.

They may be reckless, selfish, irreverent, even criminal,  but they do it in normal, understandable ways. 

They uphold the power structure, even as they outwardly flout it. 

Occasionally one of them has to be punished to keep up the illusion that their rebellion is unacceptable, but it’s usually a woman (Martha Stewart or the girl who gets pregnant in high school), or the punishment is usually nominal (most white collar criminals,  Brock Turner). 

They typically “sow their wild oats” and then “grow out of it,” or else “bend the rules” or “play the system.”

They’re a necessary part of the system, though few of them would admit it.

Their rebellions serve as a pressure valve in the social system, just as their occasional scapegoating punishment serves to pacify and sanctify the self-righteous anger of the common people who live by the rules and are upset to see the cheaters prosper. 

Their rebellious acts are safely within the respectable, heteronormative, generally white male dominated traditional culture. 

Some of these acts are so common they’re not even rebellious any more, but almost expected. An “out and proud virgin” is more transgressive than the typical “having sex and hiding the fact from their parents” high schooler. 

Of course,  neither is nearly as transgressive (or likely to receive abuse) as an out LGBT+ teen, but we’ll talk about actual challenges to the social order later. 

I think Rush sum up the frustrations of a nerdy, studious kid watching the almost Huxleyan acceptable deviations of high school perfectly in one music video:

Ruining My Childhood! Updating White Male “Franchises,” Part 3

Friday’s post about updating all-white, all-male franchises left one major, legitimate question unaddressed:

Why change existing franchises? Why not just make some new characters?

The answer is pretty simple:

These are the cornerstones of our popular culture, and right now they are all white or all male or both.

Think about it: Superman, The Avengers, James Bond, Doctor Who, Star Wars, and many others are white male territory. To be sure, there are exceptions, but they tend to either be niche products or come from the mind and estate of Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek, Andromeda, etc.).

Any new, diverse properties will be competing against these titans for a spot in the pop cultural pantheon.

And we’ve seen how that turns out for the “comic girls.” They’re seen as lesser, also-ran versions or sidekicks. As good as the new Supergirl tv series is, there’s no question that she’s a knock-off of Superman. And Batgirl is in many ways a sidekick character, at least in mass media (comics, alas, are no longer truly “mass” in the sense that tv and movies are).

And look at She-Hulk, as awesome a character as she is (civil rights lawyer, cosmopolitan fun-loving single woman, Avenger, Fantastic Four member, and fourth-wall breaker long before Deadpool was a twinkle in Deathstroke’s eye patch). She’s never seen on tv or movies, and on the rare occasion she ends up in so much as a cartoon, she gets demoted to a disgruntled “living greenscreen” stunt double.

But if the baton is passed in some way in a major mass media production, the popular culture is changed to better reflect the reality of the world it both represents and influences.

Star Wars: the Force Awakens added a new generation of leads: Rey, a woman, Poe, a Latino man, and Finn, a black man. It expanded the franchise, and certainly served as a refreshing counterpart to the tin-eared racism of the prequels.

For ensembles or teams like the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Avengers, this is easy. As the original (white, male) actors rotate off, bring a more diverse group of characters to the forefront. Marvel’s already starting to do this, with Black Panther and Captain Marvel movies already in various stages of pre-production, and with the addition of Scarlet Witch and Black Panther to the cast of Captain America: Civil War.

James Bond replaces its lead actor every decade or so anyway. Give Idris Elba a turn and see how it goes. If you want someone younger, try  It can’t be worse than the last half of Pierce Brosnan’s run.

Doctor Who has the same situation, with the Doctor’s regenerations. It’s easy enough to cast a woman, and/or a person of color.It isn’t hard to do. Some franchises are already doing it. It just requires the will to make it happen. And maybe if enough of us ask, it will start to happen. It’s already starting. The momentum might be unstoppable. I surely hope it is.Or we could just watch another 10,000 shows about white male antiheroes. Blech.

The Log in Our Eye (Divorce and Gay Marriage, Part 2)

Photo by Tangopaso and Musaromana, Creative Commons

Photo by Tangopaso and Musaromana, Creative Commons

Depending on which study you look at, divorce rates among Evangelicals or Born-Again Christians are either equal to the national average or well below it. But they’re never under 25%. So one marriage out of four, at least, ends in divorce.

Whether this is better than the national average or not, it’s still very high. Much higher than you’d think, given Jesus’s strong words against divorce.

Why is this so? I don’t know, but I have a few observations.  I’ll work through them in more detail in subsequent posts, but today I’ll simply give an overview.

Idolatry of Family – we Evangelicals see the family as paramount. We ignore the Apostle Paul’s words about celibacy (1 Cor 7:8-9), and we push everyone to get married early.

The pressure is so subtle, we don’t even realize it’s there, but we’re soaking in it every day of our lives. We get married before we’re ready, and it sets too many of us on the path to divorce.

Purity Culture – alongside the pressure to marry young is the overwhelming pressure (at least on girls) to stay “pure” for marriage.

The ugly flip side of this is that girls who have sex before they are married (and something like 80% do), are often shamed, treated like damaged goods. Elizabeth Smart’s story is a chilling example of this. The emotional scars this shaming leaves can affect marriage for years down the line.

Purity Culture’s Empty Promises – If the stick wasn’t enough, purity culture has an equally damaging carrot. It’s implied, and sometimes even stated outright, that if you wait until your wedding night, everything will be awesome.

The truth is, virginity is no magic key to a perfect marriage. This should be obvious, and it’s a sign of how messed up things are that it isn’t.

Having mystically high expectations set up that reality can’t realistically meet? Not a good foundation for a marriage.

Game Face Churchianity – you’d think that at church, among your fellow believers, would be the place to share your struggles, to show vulnerability, to be true and authentic, even when it isn’t pretty.

Well, you’d think that unless you’d ever actually been to church.

Pray Away the Gay – I went to a Baptist college as an undergraduate. Several men I knew there got married right out of college, just like they were supposed to (see #1, above). Some even had kids, just like they were supposed to.

Then, down the line, they realized they were gay. Or they admitted to themselves that they were gay. Or they just couldn’t repress the fact that they were gay anymore.

Reparative therapy doesn’t work. That’s been proven to the point that the APA and AMA are both resolutely against it. Marrying a woman and hoping it will all work out certainly doesn’t work.

Dragging a woman (and even children) through that unnecessary hell is just plain inexcusable, but the greater guilt is on those who pressured the gay man to do it.

So What’s Left?

Maybe the answer isn’t found in Jesus’ words about divorce, but in his words about self-examination and self-righteousness in Matthew 7:3-5.

3 Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye?

5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

America: New Jerusalem or Nova Roma?

624px-Flag-of-USA

Which one is America? The shining city on the hill, or the iron-fisted empire?

From a secular perspective, it’s clear that America is an exceptional nation. In technology, medicine, and research of all kinds, we’re world-class. In military might, we are the clear world leader.

We’re wealthy, strong, dominant. Our culture and language penetrates far beyond our borders, and people want to live here so strongly they’re willing to sneak in and live as fugitives.

But what does that mean to those of us who are both Americans and Christians?

What does it mean for the genuine desire among so many American Christians to get back to when America was a Christian nation, a godly nation? What does it mean for the equally genuine belief that America was never a godly nation?

What does it mean for us as citizens of a democracy? What path do we choose? Where do our allegiances lie?

If you see America as a city on a hill, even one that is somewhat fallen, then you see it as a special nation. A nation favored by God and destined to bring the world closer to Christ. In this mindset, it is vital to fight to preserve traditional American values (because they are closer to that original city on the hill) and to fight to enshrine Christian values in the laws of America.

On the other hand, if you see America as more like Rome, a powerful empire that is both good and bad, prosperous and brutal, you feel a separation. It’s not that America isn’t a great nation. It’s that great nations serve the powerful, and sometimes leave destruction in their wake. Jesus didn’t call us to dominate, but to serve.

America was built on African slavery and the destruction and conquest of the Native Americans. But without America, Hitler may have conquered the world. Without America, democracy may never have spread to Europe and beyond.

Evil is wrapped around good, like wheat and chaff. It’s like this in every nation, but the powerful ones especially.

Those of us who are skeptical of the culture wars, the attempts to force America’s laws to conform to our ideas of Christianity, aren’t just lukewarm or wishy-washy. We aren’t all sellouts to popular culture.

We have serious problems hitching our wagons to an Empire as bloody as Rome ever was. We have serious problems fighting to restore America’s morality, because American morality isn’t Christian morality.

We know that people get hurt, our witness gets clouded, and our hearts grow harder when we speak in language of disgust, of enmity, of power.

And we know that power brokers and politicians lap it up. Dollar-sign men who never feared God will speak with the tongues of angels, praying down brimstone, to get our votes.

Worse, perhaps, are the politicians who believe it – uncritically, unquestioningly – that we are right, that God is on our side, that we are justified.  And that those who doubt, or defer, or question are weak and contemptible. And anyone who stands against us deserves whatever they get.

So, America, who are you?

The great empire?

The beast?

The city on the hill?

 

39 Million Reasons to Hate the Culture War

In the last ten years, various conservative and Christian political groups have spent tens of millions of dollars to fighting against the legalization of gay marriage.Over $39 million was given to promote just one initiative, California’s Proposition 8.

What does $39 million buy?

World Vision lists a deep well (which can provide clean water for an entire village, preventing cholera and other outbreaks that kill many infants and children every year) at $13,700, a home for orphaned children at $5,100, a school at $22,000, and a health clinic at $39,000.  You could have one of each for $79,800. So you could transform 488 towns in developing nations for $39 million, touching literally millions of lives over many generations.

With $39 million, you could set up a foundation and use the interest and dividends from the principal to help people. That would give you, conservatively, $429,000 million a year (anyone who can’t get 1.1% on $39 million needs to find a new financial advisor). That sum would sponsor over 1,000 children through World Vision, forever.

Instead, we spend our $39 million making sure two men and two women can’t get married in one state. And we spend more fighting it in the courts.

Even if we ignore the emotional costs to our gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual neighbors.

Even if we ignore the spiritual costs of getting in bed with a money-and-power driven government in order to continue pressing down an already subordinate class of people.

Even if this culture war can be justified in theory, its opportunity costs cannot be justified, because they are paid in the sickness, pain and death of others.

We pay for our traditional, 1950’s-inspired lifestyle in the blood of the world’s poor.

Tell me how this follows Jesus’s example?

Tell me how this fulfills the Greatest Commandment?

Tell me how this honors Christ’s name?

 

Four Types of Violence, Part Five: Some Parting Thoughts

Peace Sign made of garlic, photo by David Goehring, Creative Commons

Good for the World, Good on Spaghetti
Photo by David Goehring, Creative Commons

I’ve been talking about violence a lot lately, and I think it’s time to bring it to a close now.  Kurt Willems has a great series here outlining a powerful argument for total pacifism among Christians.  Needless to say, there are other interpretations.  MT at Biblical Self Defense  discusses several OT and NT passages that relate to self defense, including armed self-defense, as not just a necessary evil, but a positive good.

Though I have not yet been swayed to the point of actual pacifism, I have to say that Kurt Willems’ arguments have profoundly affected me. He’s helped me to reassess my overall attitude towards violence done in my name as an American, the violence in the media that I consume, and the violence in the culture that I create.

And let’s face it, our American culture is awash in violence. We glorify revenge at every turn. Even as Christians, if you look at the time we spend watching violent films and TV, we probably glorify “good guys killing bad guys” more than we glorify God.

So what is the answer? I’m afraid I don’t have the whole answer. I may never have it. But I’ll keep wrestling with it. I know this much for sure:

Even without being convinced of true pacifism, the kind that would not use force to resist a home invader who threatens my pregnant wife, the kind that would not use force to resist the Nazis in World War II – even without taking that (admittedly radical) step … I can commit to pursuing peace today, through:

  • Questioning the violent actions my government takes, whether declared wars or unilateral (even unmanned) actions
  • Questioning the level of violence used in our justice system, especially against peaceful protesters and nonviolent offenders
  • Questioning the violence that is allowed to happen by authorities turning a blind eye or simply being overwhelmed: bullying in schools, beatings and rape in prisons.
  • Turning the other cheek in personal disputes, refusing to use even verbal ‘violence’
  • Protesting verbal violence, especially misogynist and racist bullying
  • Valuing the lives of foreigners in distant nations as much as I do my own, especially if they are civilians
  • Examining the culture I consume and create, and expunging anything that glorifies violence as a positive good.

The Great American Persecution

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1883

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1883

Let me start by saying one thing:

Losing our privileged position as the default religion and arbiter of culture is not the same as enduring persecution.

Let me repeat that:  Losing our privileged position as the default religion and arbiter of culture is not the same as enduring persecution.

This sentiment bothers me, because it not only promotes an ugly, us-versus-them mentality among American Christians, but it cheapens the blood of actual martyrs worldwide.

According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as quoted in 2011 in Catholic World News each year approximately 105,000 Christians are martyred.

That means they were killed.

Some were hacked apart with machetes (common in sub-Saharan Africa).  Some were shot (common everywhere).  Some were tortured to death, even raped (unfortunately, that’s also common everywhere).  Some just “vanished” thanks to repressive governments and their secret police.  That is persecution.

Not being able to have mandatory school prayer, or even authority-figure-led school prayer at government-run, tax-funded schools is not persecution.  It’s the government actually taking the First Amendment seriously.  Students can still lead prayers, so long as other students’ presence is not mandatory.  Religious student associations can still meet and pray or study the Bible (Fellowship of Christian Athletes, for example).

I grew up in a small southern town, surrounded by grandparents and great grandparents, an unincorporated community that time forgot.  So don’t get me wrong, I understand how much of an adjustment it can be to go from a safe, comfortable set of small differences (Baptist vs. Methodist jokes, all in good humor, and told over cold, tangy coleslaw and crispy-hot catfish breaded in cornmeal) to a wide world that defies such easy categorizations.

Interracial marriages?  Gay couples?  Immigrants with brown skin and “strange” religions?  Body alterations, online communities, people creating new categories to put themselves in, satire-religions like the Pastafarians, the Dischordians, and the Church of the Sub-Genius?  Is anything ‘normal’ anymore?

No, and it never was.  Homogeneity can become an idol, and we end up worshiping the time when our cultural brand reigned supreme, unchallenged by tides of immigration, litigation, and information.  Losing that isn’t persecution.  Losing that stranglehold on culture isn’t persecution, but it might feel that way sometimes.

Losing our cultural supremacy may even be the beginning of authenticity, of being more like the Apostles:  a dozen good Jews who’d been raised in their Judean monoculture, but who carried the Gospel to Greeks and Asians and other foreigners who spoke with strange accents, ate strange foods, and followed strange customs.

It may even make us more like Jesus, who actively engaged with and loved people society placed as outsiders – racial and religious outsiders like the Samaritans, social outsiders like the tax collectors, and economic outsiders like the poor and disabled.

Cultural Analysis: Horror as Ethical Violence

Dragon and Woman, painted by William Blake, circa 1805

Dragon and Woman by William Blake, circa 1805

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the violent imagination and ethical ways to approach violence in fiction.  Too much of American culture glorifies violence.  The way that good overcomes evil in TV, movies, many books, and even toy lines, is by kicking its butt.  Good beats evil because good shoots straighter, hits harder, has better toys, and keeps on fighting.  And in small doses, violence can teach the virtue of courage.  But we don’t get small doses.  We are, to quote the Palmolive commercial, “soaking in it.”

So that leads me to wonder, is there an ethical way to portray violence in fiction?  I’ll look at some other possibilities later, but here I’ll consider horror.  On the one hand, horror seems ethical because it explicitly presents the violence as horrific.  We are supposed to be repulsed by the violence we see.  There is no celebration of violence as glorious or righteous.  And even though much of the time the survivors use violence to overcome the killer or monster that is stalking them, they always pay a great cost.

This cost comes both in blood (horror stories typically have a high body count) and in the characters’ peace of mind. They will never again be as innocent, as naive, as carefree as they were.  They have met a great evil, passed through the darkness, and are no longer the same.  Often, they have killed for the first time, and it does not leave them untouched.

At its best, horror echoes the ancient legends: Orpheus descending into Hades to rescue his wife; a red-cloaked girl facing a great wolf who’d devoured her grandmother; Dante’s passage through inferno, purgatory, and paradise.  Horror, at its best, is the primal fairy tale: the innocent encountering the unnatural, and emerging changed.  Hidden amidst its armies and castles, The Lord of the Rings includes a fairy tale (or perhaps a horror novel), the story of four young friends who brave the lair of hell itself to destroy a profound and threatening evil.

But at its worst, horror mutilates young, usually sexually attractive, bodies for our thrills and titillation.  At its worst, slasher horror slut-shames women quite literally to death.  First, the young woman has sex (showing the gratuitous T&A shot), and then, she is slaughtered in gory Technicolor.  Meanwhile, the virgin survives to the end, to escape or kill the slasher.

When I speak of horror’s ethical approach to violence, I speak of Stephen King’s Desperation, not Friday the Thirteenth Part 27.   I speak of normal people caught up in a desperate situation, one that involves a terrible encounter with evil, one that tests their wills, their faith, their wits, their endurance.  The evil is overcome, often at great sacrifice, in a cathartic climax.  The universal story of good overcoming evil is retold, with the important reminder that such victories are never won without cost.  Without blood, there is no remission of sins.

So what do you think?  Is there an ethical way to portray violence in fiction?  If so, is horror one of those ways?

…On the Other Hand, America Isn’t Righteous Now (part 1)

I always heard it was okay to talk to yourself, that you should only really get worried when you start arguing with yourself.  Well, here goes…

Over the last three days, I’ve taken my shots at the idea that America was once a righteous nation, and that we’re now in a deep moral decline.  You can read the details here, here, and here.  And I still believe that’s true: we have the lowest violent crime rate in 40 years and the lowest abortion rate in 20 years.  Our violent crime rate’s been decreasing almost every single year for the last 20 years, even through the Great Recession.  Hatred and discrimination are fading like cancer markers after a round of chemotherapy.

That said, I would be a liar and a hypocrite if I didn’t point out the counterarguments.  Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely no time period in American history where “righteous” even comes close to fitting.  To be “righteous,” a man or nation cannot be blemished by hatred or greed or arrogance or corruption.  Tell me there was one minute since America’s founding where these did not apply.  Righteousness requires nothing less than perfection, otherwise it’s just filthy rags.

But it is also true that twenty-first century America has some real issues and problems that twentieth-century America didn’t.  I already mentioned easy access to pornography.  This danger can’t be overstated.

Filmed pornography is a powerful social evil not only because of its corrosive effect on its viewers, but because of the sometimes awful conditions its performers work under, as Chris Hedges highlights here.  Too many (though of course not all) porn performers have suffered sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence.  Many struggle with addiction to painkillers, which often have to be taken because of the … difficult and uncomfortable … feats they are called on to perform.  Some of the shiftier, “amateur” productions even use trafficked women as “performers.”

The commoditization of sexuality has seeped into our culture, almost subconsciously.  Just as women are achieving professional equality, and even exceeding men in college enrollment, objectification takes an ugly turn.  The motive may be profit, but the effect of making films of violent, rough group sex is to put women back in their place, not as equals, but as “sluts” and “whores.”

And I don’t think it’s just visual pornography that’s damaging.  Fifty Shades of Gray may be famous, but it’s just one example of a massively profitable written erotica business, aimed mostly at women.  While it’s true that no actors were harmed in the making of this novel, that doesn’t mean it isn’t spiritually dangerous to the readers.  Sadomasochistic elements aside, can there be any benefit from turning our sexual imaginations away from intimacy and toward spectacle, performance, and anatomical dimensions?

I wandered into this genre thanks to Laurel K. Hamilton.  Her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series began as paranormal noir, featuring a strong female character who was actually celibate.  Anita had been burned by her ex-fiance, and had decided to wait to have sex until she was really married.  That, combined with an interesting love triangle, provided an unusual and fascinating emotional backdrop for the supernatural crimes she investigated.

There were no sex scenes in the first five books.  The sixth had one relatively short scene, which was unremarkable for the noir genre.  Then, things changed.  Each book became more and more explicit, adding in elements of bondage, sadomasochism, group sex, etc. until the genre had utterly switched to erotica.  Not even paranormal romance, but erotica.

And more than a few of her long-term readers were left shaking our heads, wondering if anyone got the number of the bus that hit us.

I’m not saying this to condemn Ms. Hamilton: she can write what she wants.  Clearly, the market agrees.  Her sales numbers have not fallen off.  But I’ve read this stuff, and I know that for me, at least, it’s not healthy.  It’s not okay.  I’d wager that St. Paul would not call it  profitable or beneficial.

It’s also an example of how, as Pamela Paul wrote, “it is easier to get pornography than avoid it.”  I started reading a series with no sex scenes, no indication that there would even be explicit sex scenes, and after I’d gotten attached to the characters, things changed.

Not that I needed a book to swerve me.  After all, my Spam Folder is full of things I wouldn’t dare repeat here.  The hardest of the hardcore is just a Google Search away.  And, as the pornification of America progresses, “mainstream” movies and tv shows begin to push – not pornography itself, but a sex-as-commodity mindset that is the most damaging part of porn.

And how do we shelter our kids from this?  I have no idea.  I have a feeling our  computers will grow passwords and monitoring software before our (as yet unborn) child figures out how to turn them on.  That’s not a 100% solution, not even close.  Kids can get access at other peoples’ houses.  But I’m not sure there’s any way to prepare children for something like this.

I don’t actually have a solution.

One thing I can definitely try to do is be a part of whatever solution does exist, rather than part of the problem.  I will do my best to avoid even semi-pornographic material and to purge every vestige of sex-as-commodity thinking that has seeped into my brain.  That’s the first step.