Friday, November 5, 2010

Tie Ins

The Jesus Youth greet you, Unbeliever.
Today, in the church mail, I got the flyer for Group Publishing's Sunday School offerings for 2011.  Group is a tightly run and moderately evangelical shop.  They have their finger on the pulse of our culture, and their stuff is nearly always tied in to major media events.

If there's a pending cinematic extravaganza, an ultra-hyped Hollywood summer blockbuster, you're guaranteed that they'll capitalize on it by producing coursework that harmonizes with whatever the mass market zeitgeist happens to be.  Got a Pirates of the Caribbean flick coming out?  It'll be seafaring VBS.  Finding Nemo coming out?  Expect lots of fish themed Jesus stuff.  I'm actually a bit surprised they haven't done something with zombies.  It's mostly innocuous, positive, well-produced material.  Although it tends to be a bit treacly for my tastes, my own church has used it plenty in past.

This upcoming summer, the next Transformers movie is going to hit Cineplexes near you.  It'll be in 3D, loud and blangy and more-in-your-face than ever.  So of course, the flyer I got in the mail gives good-customer-me a preview of the "Transformer"-themed Jesus curriculum that Group will be pitching out.  A bunch of backlit sword-wielding Jesus children grin out at you, their armor emblazoned with glowing crosses.  The little one in the middle looks remarkably like a young Glenn Beck.

It struck an odd chord. Not because tying the Gospel to big stupid-loud ultraviolent blockbusters seems to dilute the Jesus message, though it does.  Not because the iconography has almost crossed over into Leni Riefenstahl territory, though it has. 

Rather, it's because I'm in the habit of dream-sharing with my children.  If we have a particularly interesting one, we discuss it, exploring its meaning.  My ten year old son, whose dreams are often...well...strangely prescient...had a long vivid dream that he recounted to me in extended detail yesterday.  It was about a dark and violent force that was sweeping across the country.  It was an army, one that brought with it destruction.  He and his friends fought against it, but it proved too strong.

Last night, he showed me a picture of one of the warriors in the army, a little pencil drawing he'd done.  It was an armored robotic figure brandishing a long sword.  Emblazoned on its chest was a cross.  "That's the power source, Dad," said he.  "It uses it to power its weapon.  To defeat it, you have to take out its power source."

It was exactly what I saw in my mailbox this morning.

Tie-ins can be rather odd.


  1. The Glenn Beck comment made me laugh.

    The imagery seems more suited to Iron Man than Transformers... unless we're talking Voltron. Then the sword totally makes sense ;-)

    Regardless, my CBD catalog is getting stranger. Some of the product descriptions are so flippant that I think they're deliberately insulting their customer base. Examples: "Create eye-catching multimedia presentations--and capture hearts for God!" or "Fully loaded with nearly 75 hours of God's Word--yet small enough to fit in your hand!"

  2. Ug. If Christianity is a memetic organism, then VBS a reproductive organ. It's purpose is literally to indoctrinate children.

    It's interesting to consider this in conjunction with your recent post on Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. When Tim Burton gives Alice a sword and a suit of armor, it's evidence for the decline of our culture, presumably because of our movement away from the values of Christ towards an obsession with violent conflict. (I would say that Victorian culture was hardly any better, and that the idea of war as the narrative structure of myth is probably innately human, and that the myths of Christianity -- some of your favorite even -- are just as culpable. "The Last Battle?" said Ginger, the skeptical cat.)

    Weaponizing Christianity for children is nothing new or unusual. Observe:

  3. @ Browning: By that metric, public schools are the memetic genitalia of government, and home schoolers are memetically Oedipal. Ain't nuthin' wrong with teaching.

    But as to war, that's a fair observation. Warfare is a pretty common element of all mythopoetics, including my own. I'm challenged most by how it articulates itself in a low-attention-span culture that struggles to grasp metaphor. If you understand, for instance, the "armor of God" as being truth, and righteousness, and humility, and acts of mercy, you're set. But we...err...fumble the basics.

    While martial conflict can be effectively used to articulate other forms of struggle, a society that seems increasingly militarized can hear those images as justifying all manner of unpleasantness.

    How far can that go? See, for instance, this, particularly at 6:06: Listen through to the song.

  4. @ David. There is some truth in what you say about government and schools. Certainly, public school can be the memetic genitalia of government. The Pledge of Allegiance is compulsory for my six-year-old daughter, for instance. But I am willing to let her weather a little light indoctrination in the service of her education. And there's a significant difference between teaching and indoctrination that you are whistling past.

    You don't get "indoctrinated" in the principles of algebra, for example. You may learn them by rote before you understand them, but they are truths that anyone with sufficient intellect can question and verify. If that weren't so, they'd be a tedious, useless ritual. The value of pi will be the same no matter what planet you are from. If you claim that pi has a different value (as the Bible does), it is a relatively trivial matter for someone even slightly competent to prove that you are wrong.

    But, say, the Nicene Creed? That's a different kind of thing altogether. You can't discover it for yourself. You can only learn it from an authority. Eventually, you just have to take someone's word. And not Stephen Hawking's word either, but the word of a string of anonymous raconteurs going back several centuries. And, because something like the Nicene Creed is so outlandishly unlikely, it requires that you accept it without question. It's built into the "organism" itself. "Believe this without evidence. It is immoral to do otherwise, and your compliance is enforced with a system of supernatural rewards and punishments." Unlike algebra, such a memetic organism requires for its survival and propagation fresh minds that are insufficiently equipped with the skepticism to resist it.

  5. @David.

    Thinking about this is not a purely academic exercise for me. I had to consider this past summer whether I wanted my kids to go a Group VBS program -- specifically the sea-faring introduction to the Acts of the Apostles that you alluded to in your post. In principle, I'm not necessarily opposed to this. I went to Sunday School myself. I cherish my own familiarity with scripture. I want my kids to know the myths of their culture. Also, I could have used a little peace to work in the summer, it was cheaper than camp, and who doesn't like games, and snacks, and other kids to play with? What harm? So I seriously considered it. If nothing else, it inspired me to re-read Acts, which I hadn't done in a while.

    Ug. Here's the hook: Paul took an exciting sea voyage to Malta! See, the Bible is full of swash-buckling fun! One day the kids were to make snake snacks with jello and gummi worms. Okay, squishy deliciousness, but the point being? To illustrate the principle that God protects the faithful, say, from deadly snake venom, as he did with Paul! And all of this was part of an over-arching message that believing in the things that the Bible says will earn you God's protection, from shipwrecks, poison... Heck, he'll even spring you from jail!

    That's just... wrong. And hearing it from trusted grown-ups, reinforced with silly, colorful Wiggles-esque musical theater... Of course, my kids would buy it. They believe in Santa, in fairies, in monsters. It's just their nature to be credulous. And the point of this program seemed to me to be to praise credulity as a virtue. Why? Because that's how religion survives. Plant the notion in their heads at an early age that it is good to believe in fantastic claims without evidence -- that skepticism is ill-advised and dangerous -- and they'll have a harder time shaking it even after their minds have matured enough to do so.

    I actually want my kids to know the Bible. But I don't want them to get it bowdlerized and tarted up with the sensational trappings of contemporary pop culture. Let them experience as it really is: weird, confusing, grim, tedious, dubious, and really, really out of date.

  6. @ Browning: Two questions: 1) was this at your wife's church, and 2) Did they go?

    The challenge when you're talking little ones is that honestly, they're not going to remember jack-diddly about anything of complexity. I'm not against fun, dagflabbit.

    Worrying about a Group VBS because you're afraid it'll indoctrinate your kids is like keeping them from trick or treating because you don't want them to be Wiccan. Your delightfully whimsical pups in particular aren't going to be pushovers, my friend.

    My issue with Group's stuff is that it's too simplistic...not at the little kid level, but when you reach the age when critical thinking and asking questions of meaning and material accuracy start arising. Then, you need to engage kids in those stories, so they can see them as they really are: weird, confusing, often grim, sometimes contradictory, sometimes joyous, and really, really fundamentally powerful.

  7. Is it just me or as Browning gotten sloppy? His jackassery is showing around the edges. Usually his posts are at least somewhat articulate, but he really seems to be losing it lately and just showing the angry "I'm better than you" core that lies at the heart of most American atheists.

  8. @Anonymous.
    Hmmm... It think it's just you.

  9. @David. Yes, my wife's church. And no, they didn't go. We found the money to send them to science and theater camp, where they learned about volcanos and stage directions. They had a blast.

    There's a difference between VBS and trick-or-treating. Even if my kids belive in monsters, the message they get from all the adults in their lives are that monsters can be fun to play pretend about, but they aren't real. When I take them around the block, I don't say, "Now remember, kids. Trick or treating is fun, but the real reason for the season is that the world is infested with evil spirits who will harm you if you aren't careful."

    A better analogy would be the annual Christmas pageant. See, I have no problem with that at all. I think it's delightful. I take my kids. They dress like shepherds or angels. We sing the songs and we eat the cookies. I tell them the stories myself, with great verve, and when they ask if it's true, I say, "I don't think so, but some people do. You have to decide for yourself. Everyone does." And when they say, "I believe it's true," I say, "Okay." Because they're four and six. I tell them I believed it when I was their age as well.

    I think my main objection to Group VBS is that, at it's core, it's explicit purpose is to make the kids believe the stories, and to teach that they have to believe them to be a good person. And to pull that off, they have to repackage the stories in a way that is kind of cynically calculated to get past the kids' natural defenses. It's candy-coated, and some of it is poisonous.

    I mean most of the Bible is not something I want my six-year-old to read. Even Acts. I think the story of Ananias and Sapphira is horrifying. If you read about it today in CNN you'd know exactly what happened. "A married couple, both members of a small radical religious cult, were found mysteriously dead after it was discovered that they'd withheld a fraction of their personal wealth from collective fund administered by the cult's leaders. "God struck them down," said one of the leaders. Police are baffled. Reportedly, other members of the cult are terrified as a result." There's something a little sickening to me about the idea of taking the less frightening "miracles" from the same book and Barnifying them.

    It also sounds like your saying that I am foolish to worry about it at all because, hey! Who are we kidding? VBS is harmless! It's completely ineffective!

    Isn't the whole point that the kids get the message?

  10. @ Browning: Yes, of course the point is to teach it.

    I'm just not sure, in the midst of all the crafts and movie tie-ins and catchy poppy tunes and gummy worms, whether or not the core stuff gets through, or if it's drowned out by the fluff.

    I agree with you. A Christmas pageant is far better. It's just the story, re-enacted. Straight up, told by the storytellers who first told it, with no sharks or pirates or robot warriors.