Friday, October 17, 2003

Apparently, Even God Loves Raymond

Vancouver has a Christian TV station - channel 10 - called NOW TV. They show a lot of religious stuff, and they flesh out their lineup with programs which, while not specifically Christian, promote values consistent with such a station. If you think about it, Everybody Loves Raymond (ELR) does have a lot going for it in the Family Values department. Deborah stays home with the kids, Ray is a Man's Man, being a sports writer, and all, and despite the arguing and the oddball comedy, the Barrone family conforms nicely to a conservative Christian model. Part and parcel are the stereotyped roles of men (lousy with words, constantly acting like good-natured idiots, easily manipulated by promises or denials of food and sex), women (nagging, concerned with appearances, verbose, heavily domesticated) and children (namely, hardly ever seen and definitely not heard). And everything I've seen suggests that these are the gendered, hierarchical behaviours expected and endorsed by the conservative Christian establishment.

I do get a kick out of the fact that they blank out every time anyone says hell, damn, etc., which all get said a whole lot on ELR.

What really slays me is that at the end of each show these two bozos in folding director's chairs discuss the preceeding episode from a Christian perspective. They assess the Christian lessons that the show teaches. Which, if the people at NOW TV will forgive me, is a load of hooey. See, there is the odd episode of ELR, and in fact of many sitcoms out there, that tries to teach a specifically religious lesson - for instance, there's an episode of ELR where Ray goes back to church after a long absence. But there are loads of other episodes that simply do not have anything to do with Christianity, other than the vague cultural fact of the family's Catholicism. So the bozos take whatever pat, glib, shallow moral each episode offers (and every episode of every sitcom has somebody learning that they should be generous or tell the truth or take the homely girl on a date, or whatever), and turn it into a pat, glib, shallow interpretation of Scripture.


And speaking of pat, glib, shallow spiritualism:

The Faith Quandry
Inevitably, when people get to know each other, they end up having a big talk about religion. Often, especially in families or circles of friends where there are differing views on religion, the folks who agree will gather to chat about the other guys and their whacky ideas, or else disagreeing parties will enter the same tired old dance around issues they've debated ad nauseum already. I don't really think there's any reason to discuss religion. Either you're preaching to the choir, or you're not going to convince anybody anyway.

Except. Personally, I have a lot of issues with religion. There are loads of things I haven't figured out, loads of things that I have conflicting ideas about, and loads of things that I just don't understand - but desperately want to! So, maybe I enter into ultimately unfulfilling discussions with people about religion because I'm trying to define my own take on what, for me, remains a thorny and complicated issue.

I was flipping channels this rainy Vancouver afternoon when I encountered, on NOW TV, a broadcast from a local church. The woman speaking was from somewhere in the deep South. She was engaged in a stern lecture, at times scathing, about the usual stuff - taking Jesus as your Saviour, obeying God's will, et cetera. And she was making a number of very compelling points: that we should forgive others, rather than seeking retribution. That we need to grow as people, that we cannot be static individuals, that humans should mature and develop, and should be responsible for their actions. That people can choose to wallow in their sorrows, or they can choose to rise above and move on, and learn from the negative experiences. I agree with all of these points, but man do I not agree with her reasons behind them! I believe in forgiveness because I know none of us is perfect, and I wish to be forgiven for my own inevitable transgressions. I believe that compassion and forgiveness are essential to foster peace in the world. She, on the other hand, was arguing that we forgive because if we don't, GOD won't forgive us our sins. And we should not seek retribution because punishing people for their sins is GOD's job. Furthermore, she was stating point blank that, even though she herself had never been assaulted or abused, people who had been so wronged were still not eligible to receive God's grace until they'd forgiven the people who'd hurt them.

Now, I do think that in order to heal oneself, one must make peace. And I think forgiveness is essential to that peace. But I would never have the audacity to tell someone who had been hurt, damaged, in a way that I actually can't imagine, that they MUST forgive their assailants, or lose out on eternal life. See, as soon as you accept as true the idea of Heaven, of salvation in the afterlife, you also accept that there are certain things people must do in this life in order to attain Heaven. And quite frankly, I am opposed to these conditions, and to the fact that the "saved" or the "born again" feel they have the authority to dictate these conditions to others. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that just anyone should get past the pearly gates. But I don't know if I like a God who says, "yeah, being a good person isn't enough - you also have to take me as your lord in order to enter Heaven." Why isn't being good sufficient? Is it because nobody can be perfectly good, so everyone is going to be good in different ways, and to different degrees, and it's hard to impose standards under those conditions? What, God can't look into the hearts of humans and tell whether or not we've striven as best we could to be good? I think most evangelical Christians believe that by definition a person can't be *as* good without having accepted Jesus as their Saviour as they can be once they are born again. It's like until you let go and plunge full force into God's goodness - by accepting the tenets and prescripts of Christianity - you'll always be holding back that little bit, and it won't be enough.

Notice I said "most evangelical Christians believe". Believe. Not think, not understand, but believe. They have faith. They have FAITH. At some point, early or late, in any religious discussion, it boils down to whether you believe or not. Religious faith is not built on proof, logic, or facts. It simply isn't. Loads of reasonable, rational, educated people believe in God, and I do not think they arrived at that belief through a series of logical steps. Rather, they have felt the presence of God, or the Spirit has moved them, or they have heard the Word and "known it to be true." They've just known, without having to be shown any hard evidence, in the same way that I know peace is better than war, love better than hate - I don't have to back up my argument, because it's not something I'm trying to prove. It's just what I know.

I believe this to be Christian faith: That something within people resonates with what they are hearing from the Christian movement, from evangelists, and they are moved to believe. I know this sounds overly simple, but it "rings true." The trouble is, I think, that evangelists also believe that we all have that something inside us, every last one of us, and that we are simply not adequately receptive. We need to be cajoled, coaxed, urged, and even occasionally threatened with eternal damnation in order to believe. And I sometimes wonder if evangelists don't stretch the truth a little in order to give fence-sitters the shove they need to fall into faith.

I don't, I can't, believe, as the lady on today's show asserted, that during the three days after he was crucified but before he was resurrected, Christ went down into Hell and demanded the keys to Death, Hell, and The Grave, because since he had broken the rules and entered Hell even though he had never committed any sin, he had "the legal right" (her words) to demand those keys. And what, Satan, that stickler for bureaucratic i-dotting and t-crossing, said, "Well, Mr. Christ, I see your papers are in order and you do have a legal right to these keys, so here you go?" This was her explanation for why we have to take Jesus as our Lord and Saviour in order to escape death and Hell - he's already been down there and picked up the keys . . . okay, she lost me again. How does him having the keys keep the saved from ending up there? He's locked the door, so their souls can't get in? But other, unsaved, souls can still get in, so maybe it was a special key that only locks the door to the saved . . . I give up. Again, not only does this story not ring true for me, it actually undermines any twinge of "hey, maybe she's got a point" that might have taken hold of my mind.

There are other things Biblical that don't ring true for me: the Immaculate Conception and the Ressurection, for two, which is why I really can't call myself a Christian, even if I believe in Christ's teachings. What frustrates me, what I strive to understand but can't, is how intelligent, reasonable people have no trouble believing not only these things, but also a whole host of other ludicrous assertions thrust upon them by the evangelical establishment.

A Stone Can't Fly, And Grandma Can't Fly, Therefore Grandma is a Stone

One of the attempted methods of converting us doubters is persuasion through logical argument. And as I'm sure the choir to which I'm preaching will agree, it's a shoddy and false logic, of the sort demonstrated in the title. But I think the most dangerous logic of all that the believers use is this: "the preachers speak the word of God, and I believe the word of God, therefore I believe whatever the preachers say." They're forgetting that a person can speak the word of God sometimes. But that person is not without fault, without error, unable to make mistakes. I think we can all agree that only God is so perfect.

Mothering Necessitates Invention

With an infant's unerring ability to distinguish between fun, forbidden delights and boring old toys, J can always be found crawling towards one of the following: the venetian blinds on the balcony door, anything in a plastic bag, the VCR, the glass-topped end tables, the cords sticking out of the back of the computer, and the pilot light on the gas fireplace. I filled his carseat with toys and wedged it between the couch and the wall, so that it's accessible in a challenging, tantalizing way - like the cords in back of the computer - and he hasn't so much as glanced at it. Given that when they're babies is the only time we even stand a chance of outsmarting our kids, I think all parents become mental contortionists in our effort to pull one over on our beloved offspring. Here are a few ways in which I've attempted to outwit J:

The Decoy Book
Nothing says excitement like that crinkling, leafy thing that adults are always holding in front of their faces with such undivided attention - the book/newspaper/magazine. So, I put last week's TV Guide somewhere accessible (but not obvious), and let him go to town. It appears to take him the better part of a week to demolish one, and we just pick up the torn out pages as they appear.

The Post-Modern Cushion Fort
Since we don't have baby gates, I've taken to removing the cushions and throw pillows from the couches and blocking access to the most tempting diversions - the VCR, the blinds, and the glass end tables. I also use chairs (which have floor-length skirts around their legs) to block the computer. I consider the result a compelling subversion of the dominant high-power-businessman persona of the apartment's furnishings, while simultaneously highlighting the "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" nature of the corporate male's urban one bedroom apartment, i.e. it is merely a reincarnation of the little boy's cushion fort as an exertion of independence from . . . oh, who cares? J thinks it's a fun game, and it keeps him from wrecking the blinds.

This is like Minesweeper, but with Cheerios. Every morning I put J on the living room floor and scatter a handful of Cheerios all over the carpet. It's then his job to roam the living room, sampling whatever he encounters (which he would do anyway), and eating the Cheerios. If I make him sit in the high chair to eat breakfast, he just gets grumpy. And, since babies don't so much seem to eat everything they find as just evaluate it through "mouthing", I hope this reinforces for him the idea that there are some things we eat (Cheerios, say), and others we don't (lint, hair, leaves, bits of TV Guide . . . ). I think it's working - he's getting more selective with what he puts in his mouth off the living room floor. Why waste your time on newsprint when there's a perfectly good Cheerio to munch? Plus, this way he's *choosing* to eat the Cheerios he encounters, rather than having me thrust eating upon him. And, to reassure the squeamish, I do vacuum regularly.

Sing, You Fool

Parents sing to their kids. I'm not sure how universal this is, but I've noticed that other parents of small children seem without exception to sing to them. Sometimes it's actual children's songs, but more often than not it's whatever song happens to enter our heads at the moment the kid's grumpy, often with modified lyrics. Most parents' repertoires seem to include bastardizations of the Flintstone's theme and Frosty the Snowman, which goes to show what sticks in our psyches from our own childhoods. Also, parents don't give a gosh darn who hears them when they are serenading their little ones, as long as it gets the job done. For example, J often grouches when I change him, and the other day I was already mid-diaper change in the bathroom when I realized I'd been singing The Poop Song (don't ask) in front of our friend who was visiting . . . and this morning J, and probably the neighbours, heard a rousing rendition of that classic "Mom's Washing Her Hair, All the Babies Stare." Inventing rhymes on the spot has never been a strength for me. I did manage to rhyme feet with sweet, and arms with charms, and face with place, but I couldn't think of anything for legs other than . . . eggs? Like he cares - I'm covered with bubbles and singing like a maniac. As far as he's concerned, it's the best show on Earth.