Monday, December 9, 2013

Agents of SHIELD, Psychonauts, and Pope Francis All Walk into a Bar...

I’m really enjoying Agents of SHIELD. I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe (well, with the exception of Iron Man 3, which was a big disappointment), and seeing it from ‘ground level’ of the people handling day-to-day weirdness is pretty darn cool.  
That said, the episode from the week before last was a little annoying (though the fact that they managed to include a bit of classic X-Men lore without violating the rights issues involved almost made up for it) in that its victims of the week were Hollywood! Christians. For those who don’t know, Hollywood! Christians are apparently what the film/television industry think Christians are like. They’re basically people who were apparently trapped in amber somewhere around the Babylonian exile and were revived to found small-town America. So, they’re constantly terrified of God and think whatever happens is His punishment and they freak out and attack anyone who is even mildly 'different' or who just seems to be having a hard time.
This episode focused on a woman who was safety inspector for a research facility that ended up exploding. Then weird things start happening around her, causing her to think God is sending demons to punish her.
Okay, first the obvious question; where the hell is this woman’s pastor? If she is as religious as she’s depicted, and if the small town is as close-knit and religious as it’s supposed to be, shouldn’t they have at least one or two ministers handy? What are they doing while this woman is suffering an emotional breakdown and thinking that she’s surrounded by demonic tormentors?
Maybe this is some weird, super-insulated Protestant sect or something, but shouldn’t at least someone involved be bringing up God’s mercy? Shouldn’t someone be pointing out that messing up on your job, even when it leads to a few deaths, is a minor sin at most, and certainly not one that’s going to get you demonic punishment on Earth? Why doesn’t anyone point out the extreme absurdity of her assumptions, even with regards to her own beliefs? And when one of the main cast quotes ‘God is love,’ why does it seem to come as a profound revelation to this woman? What the heck kind of whacked-out church is running this town anyway, and why did someone think it was the perfect place to build a Large Haledon Collider?  
Now, this points to a very annoying tendency. It seems like many people see Christianity as neatly divided into two mutually exclusive types; the good and the bad. Good Christianity is all about God’s love and mercy, by which they mean “He doesn’t really care what we do, just so long as we don’t hurt anyone.” Bad Christianity is all about God’s wrath and threatens hellfire and punishment and all the rest. The first kind respond to sin with a “God loves you just the way you are” if it’s socially acceptable and a “you make me sad and I’ll pray for you” if it isn’t. The second kind just declare that everyone they have any reason to dislike or think ill of is going to hell and are eager to help them along.
Whenever I encounter this division I feel like Raz’s father at the end of Psychonauts (fast version: an excellent game about a boy who runs away from the circus to attend a summer camp for psychics) when he sees the evil-but-completely-inaccurate mental image his son has of him: “Is that really how you see me?”  
The truth, of course, is that both ‘types’ of Christianity bear only the most tenuous relationship to the real thing. “Good” Christianity is a parody of God’s mercy, which seems to say that, since no sin is beyond His mercy, that means anything we or anyone else happens to like doing is perfectly alright and it’s an evil unchristian thing to even call it a sin (but it’s okay to call calling it a sin a sin). It is, as C.S. Lewis so perceptively described it, the desire for, not a father in Heaven, but a grandfather in Heaven: “a senile benevolence that, as the saying goes, ‘likes to see young people having a good time.’” Basically, this kind of Christianity is little more than a kind of mental comfort blanket: you cozy up with it when you’re down, but it has no practical effect on the rest of your life. It is the Christianity of toothless platitudes like “I feel X, but you may feel different” and “well, so long as you’re basically a good person everything is alright” or “of course I don’t believe in a God who would exclude anyone!” It’s a Christianity so diluted with public opinion and the ‘spirit of the age’ that it’s reduced to little more than secularism with a slight hint of Christianity (the religious equivalent of hot ham water).
“Bad” Christianity, I find, is much more often encountered in movies and books than in real life. The real life equivalent usually boils down to “but look, this is wrong and you shouldn’t be doing it!” But since it’s such a common image, and because I know something like it does exist, I’ll deal with it anyway. Obviously, constant warnings of God’s wrath and predictions of Hell for other people are not part of the Christian life. Christianity is the belief that “God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son” to save it and Our Lord specifically forbade us from speculating on each other’s final destination.
But there’s not really any need to argue against “bad” Christianity, is there? It’s less a position people commonly hold than a parody used to pressure people into embracing “good” Christianity. It exists to say “well, either you’re screaming at people that they deserve to go to Hell or you accept and support whoever we tell you to. Those are your only two options.”
The truth, like Razputin’s father, is that we have a grotesquely warped vision of Christianity, one in which concerns and warnings turn into vicious hatred or offers of help and forgiveness turn into permission to do whatever you want. It’s the childish, unreasoning response of someone who simply doesn’t want to hear what you have to say because it threatens to disrupt his own wishes. It’s to be expected of Raz because he’s about ten (we all remember how evil our parents seemed when they told us that we couldn’t play video games today because we forgot our homework for the third time in a row), but the fact that a goodly chunk of the population continues it into adulthood should be a source of intense vicarious embarrassment for us.
                As well as, frankly, a source of shame for Christians. Somehow or other we’ve come to the point where a large part of the population can swallow bizarre caricatures of us without rolling their eyes at the absurdity of it. We can say that it’s because the media and academia and all the other usual suspects hate us, and that may be true, but that would just emphasize the fact that we need to do a better job of sharing the faith.
                This, incidentally, is what I think Pope Francis has been getting at; people have a warped, ‘meat-circus’ view of Christianity and it is up to us to correct it. Apparently, the way we’ve been going about it hasn’t been working very well, so we need to try something else.
What do we need to do? Well how should I know ("I'm a dentist!"); let’s keep listening and see what the Pope thinks.   

Vivat Christus Rex!

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