Monday, September 21, 2009

A Representative of the Kingdom

I heard an anecdote from my mother a while back. A preacher she knows said he went out of his house in an especially good mood one morning, and while he was on the way wherever he was going, he got behind a car that had a bumpersticker that said "Honk If You Love Jesus!" Being in a good mood and, as a minister, loving Jesus, he honked. Whereupon everyone in the car--the woman driving and her small children--all turned around and flipped him off.

He said it flattened his mood so much he turned around and went home.

People, this isn't the way to represent the body of Christ. When you identify yourself in public as a Christian,you become a representative of Christianity and thus of Christ. Flipping people off is bad PR.

When you slap a Jesus bumpersticker on your car, wear a tee-shirt with Christian slogans or graphics, or hang a big cross around your neck, you are proclaiming yourself a Christian, just the same as if you loudly announced, "I am a Christian" to all and sundry. Some of the people who see or hear your proclamation may not be familiar with Christianity or with the particular subgroup of Christianity you are a part of (if your announcement was, say, an XYZ Church Annual Picnic tee-shirt). Other of the people who see your proclamation may have a prior inclination to think negatively of Christians. So here you come saying "Honk If You Love Jesus" or "Follow Me to Church" and you proceed to act like a jackass. Which gives people in the former category a negative impression of Christians (or Christians of XYZ branch) and gives people in the latter group confirmation of their tendency to think badly of all Christians. Was that really what you wanted to do when you bought the bumpersticker?

Here's why I think this is going to become even more important than it used to be.

When you go somewhere you and your kin or kind are not much known, you become a representative of your group, like it or not. People in minority groups know this. Natalie Goldberg once wrote of going into a rural, Midwestern classroom and telling the kids she was Jewish; none of them knew anyone Jewish, so she figured that now she represented Jewish people to them--she was eating an apple, therefore all Jews eat apples sort of thing. Christians in America and perhaps especially in the Bible Belt have had the luxury of being in the majority for a long time. Even now something like 89 percent or more Americans self-identify as being at least nominally Christian. But that's going to change and do so sooner and faster than we are going to find comfortable. I'm not referring to immigrants from historically non-Christian parts of the world changing the demographics of our country. Already a lot of citizens who tick Christian subgroup XYZ or ABC on forms that ask religion could be more accurate by checking "other" and writing in "secularist who sometimes uses XYZ facilities for weddings and funerals and may bring out a manger scene tree ornament at Christmas". Throw in a little mild persecution and a great many of those people will fall away. And some of the people who remain will be people committed to redefining Christianity as something historically unrecognizable.

This means that practicing Christians will more and more often run into people who have never met a practicing Christian and have formed their view of the faith based almost wholly on the mockery of contemporary comedians and the vilification of our enemies. What you, as a known practicing Christian, do and say before such a person will either reinforce the negative opinion they've taken from pop culture or will be a witness against the caricature. Given that we're supposed to evangelize, which is better?

My point here is not to point fingers, but to point out the responsibility we take on when we display symbols that identify us as Christians. I've never worn any of those smarmy Christian tee-shirts that some people wear because I don't like them, but if I ever found one I liked, I would be reluctant to wear it in public, because it would make me feel under a greater obligation to mind myself. I do frequently wear a modest-sized Marian medal and I would hate it if I ever spoke nastily to someone or hit my shin and let out a stream of profanity and then had the people who witnessed this notice my medal; their seeing my behavior and thinking I am a jerk is one thing, their seeing my behavior and thinking Christians are jerks is another thing. I know I would hate this scenario because I let something like it happen once. (So if there were a finger pointing, it would have to point at me as well.)

Some years back I noticed myself getting angry while driving more and more often and I didn't like it. So, although I've never liked things dangling from rearview mirrors, when I got a free plastic rosary in the mail, I decided to hang it from my rearview mirror as a reminder to remember Jesus and not get angry and mutter bad things about other drivers. And it worked pretty well for weeks. Then I lost my temper worse than I ever had while driving.

I had to go pick up some medicine or something at Wal-mart and, unfortunately this was on the day before a hurricane might or might not hit us, and it was afternoon. Leaving the store after having suffered through the crowd inside, I ended up in the most godawful snarl of parking lot traffic likely to be seen in a small town. After what seemed like ages of this and escape to a less congested area seemed nigh, I witnessed a bit of what I took to be insane driving and someone nearly hit me, and I flipped out and did something I'd never before done while driving: angrily thrust two upturned fingers toward my window, while shouting the air blue.

But there's Jesus. Before I had even calmed down, I was overcome with remorse: Suppose they saw the rosary dangling from my mirror and thought all Catholics act like this? I felt horrible about it. Now, maybe it would be a finer thing to say I thought only of the wrongness of the act itself or of how sin hurts Jesus, rather than how I might have created a negative impression of my group of Christians. But if I were pure of heart, I probably wouldn't have snapped like that in the first place, and the results were good: my little bout of road rage ended, I became a much calmer driver for years after, and I found myself glancing over at my little plastic depiction of Jesus quite often.

And that's the good part of displaying symbols of our faith on or about our person: they make us think of God more often. The "bad" part of course is that they require we take on a responsibility to act as representatives of our faith; it's harder to hide when we're wearing a sign. And maybe that's a good part too.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Little Round-Up

In my last post I mentioned that I occasionally peek at John C. Wright's blog, which I found a few months back. I am not a regular reader and I haven't read back into his archives, but every time I visit his blog I find something interesting. Mr. Wright is a convert to Catholicism from atheism, as well as a writer of sf, and he writes about religious and moral issues, philosophy, sf/fantasy, with frequent mentions of his wife, She Who Must Be Obeyed. (Their "wedding photos" moved me deeply. From this and other posts, I now know that where I went wrong as a bride was in allowing misbegotten notions of male equality to prevent me from building a Pit O' Doom in front of my throne--in fact, I confess with head hung down that I even neglected to build an awe-inspiring throne. Result? One uppity husband. Listen and learn, ye maidens that have ears to hear.) His posts have made me think, made me laugh, or at least provided mild entertainment. Would that every blogger could provide half as much bang per visit.

Maybe if I were bigger on philosophy, I might visit more often, but I pretty much gave up on voluntary reading of philosophy in my mid-teens, when I decided it was all "mental masturbation", then decided that term was fun to say, and didn't miss a chance to say it for five or six years.

Another blog I like to look at sometimes these days is also written by an atheist convert to Catholicism: Jennifer Fulwiler's Conversion Diary. Mrs. Fulwiler blogs about religion, especially trying to put religious principles into practice in our everyday lives, and about young mother type stuff. Also scorpions. I mostly read the religion stuff.

I actually first saw Conversion Diary last winter when I saw an article by Fulwiler on how she became pro-life and clicked on the link to her blog at the end for a very brief visit. I didn't visit again until this summer. I can't remember where I saw that article, but I think it was pretty much the same as this blog post. If you've ever wondered how an intelligent, free-thinking, normal human female could possibly go so far wrong as to align herself with the pro-life crowd, read this post.

That first Cul de Sac collection I mentioned recently, Cul de Sac: This Exit, I got and read this past week. Good stuff, although not as good as Calvin & Hobbes. (That's called praising with faint damnation, BTW.) Uncle Pookie liked it less well. He expressed annoyance that Alice's parents don't explain things often enough, leaving her confused about many things. I argued that confusion is a pretty normal state for a four year old, even ones who don't have parents like mine who hold that children shouldn't ask questions because "children should be seen and not heard"; because there's just so very much seemingly basic stuff left to learn when you are four. Uncle Pookie also called Miss Bliss an idiot and asserted that "Alice deserves better". I didn't exactly argue against that, but I'll leave my comments on that for another time; I don't need hate mail from people in early education right now.

I finally got around to watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Excellent movie. It's a cliche to say this, but there's something for everyone--John Wayne, romance, action, political drama, a man trying to live up to his ideals, some good minor characters, and thought-provoking stuff about what it takes to settle a frontier and how we get and keep law and order. As to the question of which character is more attractive as a romantic partner, John Wayne's or Jimmy Stewart's, I have to say it is very, very close, but Tom Doniphon (John Wayne's character) nudges out Ransome Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart's) for me. It's a slight thing. They are both attractive characters. Tom Doniphon is tough and well-suited to frontier life. He's tall and manly. Plus he's played by John Wayne. Ransome Stoddard is a man of integrity, committed to his ideals, willing to stand up for law and order when it is awfully hard to do so, honest, and learned. Whereas Tom Doniphon is unafraid of Liberty Valance because he knows himself to be as tough or tougher, Ransome Stoddard (like most of us would be) is terrified of Liberty Valance when he goes out into that street to face him and yet he never backs down. That is very attractive in a man. (Or anyone else.) What puts Tom Doniphon slightly ahead for me is the way he puts his love interest's happiness ahead of his own when he lets Ransome take credit for killing Liberty Valance. It may not be the most noble thing ever done, but I think it is noble.

Question for anyone who's seen this movie: Do you think Liberty Valance was really dead already when the doctor declared him dead? Valance was scum and the doctor clearly knew that as well as anyone in town. When they turned Valance over for the doctor to look at, he barely looked at him. I think there may have been a little life fast draining away within him, and the doctor just didn't want to spend time on futile treatment of a man most people would agree needed killing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering 9/11 and "Psychological Comfort"

Today is the day we all remember (I hope) the Islamofascist terrorist attacks on the United States of America on 9/11/01. I will never willingly forget, although remembering is very unpleasant.

I remember what I was doing that morning when I found out, and all the rest of the day to boot. I remember what I did the night before: I went to my first RCIA meeting; when we walked into the next Monday's meeting, it felt as if the whole world had changed.

This year I once again prayed for the souls of the victims of those murderous attacks. I do not recall if I ever prayed for the souls of their murderers--I guess I figured they chose hell when they deliberately targeted innocent civilians for murder and were willing to die with that sin on their heads--but I did and have prayed for the souls of living terrorists and would-be terrorists. I do this because the religion I was moving toward at the time of the 9/11 attacks and am now part of requires it.
Today John C. Wright (whose blog I peek at occasionally, after having found it a few months ago), commenting on someone who sneeringly dismissed Christian faith as "psychologically comforting", says that
"...I would hesitate to call the conversion experience psychologically
comforting. Indeed, very much the opposite is the case: unlike my atheist self
of yore, I am now beholden to a higher authority, who pins me to a standard of
thought and deed very much against my nature and inclination."

Just so. I find nothing comforting or comfortable about praying for my enemies--whether terrorists who murder my countrymen or an arrogant coworker or someone who's threatened my family. I find nothing comfortable in reading a newspaper article about some disgusting child molester and being forced to consider that that person (someone even the very murders, thieves, and rapists in prison revile!) is a fellow child of God, whom Jesus died to save no less than he died to save me, and that I should pray for the person's repentance and reform. It is against my nature and my inclination. I don't like it and I don't want to do it.

Mr. Wright talks about trying to "obey the call to be charitable, loving, longsuffering, meek". I don't want to do any of that, except to be loving to my husband, and I probably fail at that as much as I do all the other stuff that I don't even want to try in the first place. But it's required, so I make my sporadic, grudging attempts at Christian virtue. And I don't find it comfortable to have to go into a confessional and name my failures aloud to another human being (much easier somehow to say in the privacy of my mind "God, I'm sorry I messed up" and leave it at that!), but it's required of me, so I do it, albeit less frequently than I should.

And I don't do these things just because I voluntarily joined this religion and my personal integrity demands that I follow its rules. I do it because I will have to answer to a higher authority than myself.

The part of the Narnia books that I keep coming back to is one that I think the books themselves repeated: Aslan is not a tame lion. I think that the real One whom Aslan is a fictionalized version of is also not a tame One. I think that He is not only "gentle Jesus, meek and mild", but the One who chased the moneylenders out of the temple with a whip, who came to bring not peace but a sword, who came to set a son against his father and a daughter against her mother. Demons feared him, and He defeated Satan with the shedding of his holy blood. One day I will have to stand before him. If you have less cause to tremble in that circumstance, then I am glad for you now, but I doubt I'll have room to give it a thought then. I have reason to tremble. Even leaving aside the thought of His fearsome justice, I don't know how I could ever raise my eyes to the presence of so much goodness.

Fortunately, my religion also teaches that He is merciful to those who seek his mercy. I hope that my nation turns from immorality and seeks his mercy. I hope that all of the victims of terrorist attacks around the world have found his mercy. I also hope--though it comes far less naturally for me--that would-be terrorists will seek his mercy before they die, expecting a reward for their murders. There is a prayer for enemies in a little Catholic prayerbook I have that desires of God that we may be saved souls together in heaven with our enemies; considering some of the jerks I've known in my own unadventurous life, let alone terrorists, that is a line hard not to choke over, but such is my faith.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Cul de Sac

In the movie The Iron Giant, there's a scene where the young boy, staying up late to eat junk food and watch scary scifi movies on TV, hears a large crash and thinks aliens have landed. He excitedly equips himself with supplies--a toy gun and a flashlight featured largely in this--and bounded out of the house to investigate. At this point, Uncle Pookie leaned over in the dark of the movie theater to whisper to me, "That's OUR child!"

Earlier this summer, I discovered the fairly new comic strip Cul de Sac and made it part of my morning read. Soon after I found it there was a strip in which four year-old Alice, who enjoys dancing on the manhole cover near her house, begs a scarf of her mother so she can run around waving it. Final panel has her, scarf tied around her face like someone in a Western, holding up her little friend Dill, who insists there's "no such thing as a bandit ballerina." Alice: "Then I'm the first! Stop and admire my dancing or I'll blow out your tires!" At which I exclaimed, "That's OUR daughter!"

Since then I've seen the YouTube video called "The Talking Stick", which gave me a similar reaction and seen a few other strips that reinforced the idea that Alice Otterloop is a fairly good approximation of what Uncle Pookie's and my DNA mixed together into a female child might look like, especially if said child took a bit more after Daddy than Mommy. It's not perfect, of course--neither of us were tantrum-throwing types, for instance, which is lucky as neither of us had mothers who would have put up with it, and I for one was a disgustingly obedient child and well-behaved, unless you count occasional grouchiness as misbehavior. (Yes, thank goodness you grew out of that, I hear someone murmuring.) But it's fairly close, and the strip overall is a good one.

Bill Watterson (creater of Calvin & Hobbes, for which blessings be upon him) wrote years ago that, while there'd been a lot of strips about little boys and childhood as seen by little boys, it still remained for us to have a strip on childhood as lived by a little girl. Reading Cul de Sac made me think this might be the one Watterson was talking about, or pretty close, so I was all the more pleasantly surprised to learn Watterson had written the introduction to the first Cul de Sac collection. I haven't bought it yet, but I think it's going to be in my next Amazon purchase.

It's a very good strip. Thompson has an interesting drawing style, a good sense of humor, and an eye for great little details, like how odd it is for small children when they notice their parents called by other names for the first time or how impressed little kids can be by things teenagers and adults ignore, like a shopping cart in a drainage ditch or the awesome responsibilities held by a teenager with a cool job like cart pusher. Thompson also has some non-cookie cutter characters too--for instance, how many eight-year old neurotics (Alice's older brother Petey) are there in comics? Petey encounters some weird kids his own age. And adorable little Dill, who's a bit eccentric himself, has a pack of never-seen older brothers whose exploits lend excitement to the strip.

You really want to give this strip a try.

As long as we're near the subject, my favorite little girl character in comic strips before Alice Otterloop and aside from the supporting character of Susie Derkins in Calvin & Hobbes, was Carmen in Prickly City. Carmen is a cute-as-a-button, little libertarian Republican who hangs out with a coyote called Winslow, but the strip's not in the running to be one of the ones Watterson was talking about, as it is a political strip, rather than being about childhood. It fell out of my small morning comic read about the time of the Democratic National Convention last year, victim of the election fatigue I was feeling pretty keenly by then, but it's a fun little strip. You can read it here.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Smart Kids, Depictions of

I have a near lifelong grievance with television depictions of intellectually gifted children. Leaving aside the frequent assumption that such children are always desperate to be "normal", what really galls me is the lazy, unthinking depiction of such children and teenagers as loving school. No exceptions--they all love it, just LOVE it! I guess that's why these hyper-intelligent TV children all do loads and loads of studying so that they can get their good grades! (Yeah, right; as a bumpersticker I once saw says, "My dog was student of the year at the local government school.")

In real life intellectually gifted children often despise school, because they are bored there. Hideously, hideously bored. A topic is introduced, said child grasps it, and then has to sit through days of having it expounded upon. Child's reading level is twelfth grade, child still has to suffer through the same fourth grade reading materials as everyone else. Child is ready for deeper explanations of causes behind historical events, child gets the same simplistic summing-up and "memorize this date" as the other children. Elementary school vocabulary tests give him words he picked up on his own a year or two before, and high school literature class has him read books he read on his own several years before. Result? Child spends the better part of twelve years bored out of his skull.

But for some reason smart children on TV always love going to school and have to do lots of studying, else how would they get those As.

I always used to think I wanted to see a depiction of just one highly intelligent child who didn't like school--just one. Still hasn't happened as far as television goes (the closest would be Malcolm in the Middle, but I never got the sense the eponymous character hated school, only hated being put into the gifted program--filled, needless to say, with kids who love school, just LOVE it), but last year it finally happened in another category of popular media--comic strips.

The new-to-me strip Frazz (launch date 2001) is named for a janitor-songwriter character who looks suspiciously like a grown-up Calvin (of Calvin & Hobbes) and features a highly intelligent child character who looks suspiciously like an eight year-old, black Calvin. Caulfield is refreshing because, as any thinking person who isn't a sitcom writer would expect of such a child, he is bored in school. He whiles away the time with drawing the Mona Lisa in his standardized test score capsules and pulling stunts on people, such as giving his race as "Callipygian", something I swear I'm going to start doing! Luckily for him, he has Frazz to talk to and play with.

Glad as I was finally to see a character like Caulfield, I find I just don't like the strip much. I put it on my daily read list (morning means news headlines and two to three comic strips) but soon took it off. There's too much about Frazz's exercise hobbies (he's a cyclist, like Calvin's dad) and it sometimes seems as if there's a moral superiority vibe coming off the strip, directed downward to people who don't exercise. I don't think I'm imagining it, but even if I am, in my non-exercising (yet still callipygian!) inferiority, deluded, the fact still remains that I'd rather be reading about Caulfield than Frazz's exercise routine. Still, I give the author, Jeff Mallett, credit for doing something new with his strip.

More later about another new (once again, only new to me) comic strip I like.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Our Days Are Numbered (Arbitrarily)

Numerology claims that days have numbers which give them vibrational energy that can affect things in certain ways. But the numbers that days are assigned are based on our calendar and calendars are (mostly) arbitrary. When you give the day's numerology number any credence, you are privileging our calendar above other calendars--a grossly imperialistic act, to be sure! Moreover, as it's all arbitrary anyway, why not just assign your own personal numbers to the day? Let every day have your lucky number, or assign days particular numbers as you think you need them. To those who would claim that the beliefs of millions who use that calendar give strength to the assigning of date numbers derived from that calendar, I would say that surely your beliefs about the day's number have more effect on your day than the beliefs of anyone else.