Today we’re going to talk about how toxic Christians (who can be loosely defined as “those Christians that sane, normal, loving Christians instantly try to distance themselves from the moment they say something stupid”) mischaracterize non-believers and what that means for their religion.
A meatspace friend of mine called to tell me a few days ago that he was bored so he went to go see God’s Not Dead, the latest bit of Christian schlock, by himself during the middle of the day. He said, a little ruefully, “I didn’t realize I was sitting in the middle of a whole bunch of church groups. I think I pissed off everybody there.” I asked how he managed to do that, because he’s a very nice British fellow. He said, “I don’t think I was supposed to laugh as much as I did.” Then, with a chill, he realized the actors onscreen were totally serious.
I wasn’t all that surprised to hear him say that. If you hear about the synopsis of the movie and think that someone dramatized that old, tired Chick tract, “Big Daddy,” then you’d probably be right: a sweet, innocent Christian lad enrolls in a college course only to discover that he will be asked by his god to stand up for poor widdle beleaguered Jesus against an evil, nasty atheist professor. Because of his bravery and superior Romulan weaponry, our TRUE CHRISTIAN™ hero defeats the bad guy and shows Christians everywhere how to win their own battles against atheists, like this movie is the supersekrit weapon of the humans against the aliens in Independence Day. Hooray for Jesus!
If you thought this movie’s storyline also sounded a lot like one of the current urban-legend darlings making the rounds in email and on Facebook walls around the internet, “Dropped Chalk,” you’d also be right: a plucky-yet-humble young Christian wins a battle of wits against the big mean old professor who thought he knew everything, in yet another case (in Christian imaginations, anyway) of a “normal Joe” who demolishes a super-edumacated know-it-all. Of course, after the protagonist in the urban legend wins the match, he gets to preach at the classroom for a while, just like Christians dearly wish they could do and get away with it.
Our friend Dan Fincke is in the middle of what sounds like a truly epic review of the movie itself, having seen it finally; his summation so far is “I AM WRITING AN 8000 WORD REVIEW OF THIS MOVIE AND YOU ARE ALL GOING TO READ IT,” and he’s completely correct (except about the length; it’s considerably longer so far), because he is a philosophy professor and–as my friend himself pointed out, and as I’d noticed as well–he knows something which this execrable movie’s creators do not know, which is how college philosophy professors actually operate in the real world. He’s already done a review of the trailer itself, which I heartily recommend, and I also suggest you keep your eyes peeled on his blog for when he finishes the full review because it is going to be the best movie smackdown written since Roger Ebert compared watching The Brown Bunny to getting a colonoscopy. (Here is the first and second of his critique, and I can see why it took so long for him to put that second one up!)
The main problem with God’s Not Dead is that it relies upon a couple of conceits to sell itself that will make toxic Christians very happy, but which will either puzzle or infuriate non-toxic Christians and non-Christians alike.
The first problem is that whoever made this movie never actually took a college philosophy course. I have. Now, I can’t say I’ve taken more than two basic intro courses, but that’s two more than the movie’s script-writers have taken. I was actually a fundamentalist during my college years, as I think I’ve mentioned, and though we are talking about some years ago, I can absolutely promise you that philosophy courses do not talk about the kinds of things that this movie thinks they talk about, and philosophy professors don’t act the way this movie clearly thinks they do. (Nor do philosophy majors; I knew a bunch who were evangelical Christians–and I was well-known as the only non-philosophy major on campus who could actually hold a conversation with them. Where do you suppose philosophy professors come from, if not philosophy undergraduates?)
The people who made this movie might not ever have attended secular universities at all, because I’ll be honest with you, a professor who talked like the one in this movie does–even in just the trailer!–would get himself fired in very short order. There’ve been some very dramatic stories of late about professors who said stuff that was kind of, maybe, possibly, a little teeny weeny bit critical of Christianity who ended up in major trouble, but aside from the ones trying to sneak creationism into classes, you don’t really see professors ever making a huge stink about being Christian or non-Christian. Let’s not forget that even though most Christian teenagers are going to pull back a little on the zealotry throttle by their college years, they’re still at least nominally identifying as Christian, and their parents are almost certainly still Christian–so it is not in a university’s best interest to alienate them too much or too gratuitously.
It’s worth noting that even as a fundamentalist Christian, I only had one–ONE–professor who ever talked any smack about my faith, and that was an archaeology professor who cooled it once I politely asked him, after one such class where he was sharply and needlessly critical for no reason whatsoever, to stop. A professor well-known for calling himself a god in his classroom or for tenaciously belittling or abusing Christians would not last long in most universities. Do such people exist? It’s a big world; I’m sure there are some somewhere, but this trope is nowhere near as prevalent as Christians seem to think it is.
The second problem, which is considerably worse, is that this movie makes a characterization of non-Christians in the most offensive, most obviously untrue manner possible to make a point it could not otherwise make without such blatant and offensive mischaracterization of outsiders.
This movie is nothing more than a re-enactment of an old and much-beloved urban legend, a wish-fulfillment fantasy, for toxic Christians who don’t understand why everybody isn’t Christian. It is “glurge,” which is defined at Snopes.com (a debunking site) as a type of urban legend. Glurge is a sickly-sweet syrup that disguises a message that actually isn’t very good or true at all. When you examine glurge, you quickly discover that what it’s really saying is beyond offensive and mean-spirited, but it uses puppies, angels, toddlers, strangely-unverifiable miracles, or incidents of heroism to disguise its offensive and mean-spirited message. Most Christians will never get as far as figuring out what that offensive, mean-spirited message even is–but outsiders can usually spot it quickly. You can probably guess that 99% of the cutesy-poo stories Christians pass along in email and from pulpits (and, lately, Republicans’ political conjobbery) are glurge. And lately, someone figured out that Christians will pay good money to see movies based on glurge folklore.
As I mentioned above, this movie is a distillation of several glurge stories very dear to Christians lately. In this case, the glurge revolves around a meaniepie-squared-deluxe atheist professor who is just maaaaad at the Christian god. He’s upset and offended over something that the Christian god did to him. All he needs is for some Magic Christian to come up to him and explain things the right way, and he will succumb to the awesome power of the Big Ole Christian Smile.
This movie gives toxic Christians the easy answer they need to hear: why, atheists are just angry at your god! They’re just upset over some imagined slight committed against them! Certainly they’re not angry at you, oh no, never at you! Also philosophy is demonic and higher education is totally evil. And then Christians get told to figure out what is making their target atheist so angry and upset, fix it, and ta-da! The person will convert.
When Christians grab for these easy answers, it tells you they’re not interested in hearing the real answers. Pat Robertson, for example, thinks that atheist women must have been abused or raped by predators preaching the Bible at them during their abuse–he just can’t imagine any other reason, because a woman’s atheism is, in his crazyverse, “something beyond normal human experience.” The poor dear also thinks gay men were abused or molested in their childhood too, so clearly he’s not operating on all thrusters, but in both cases, he and the Christians who are trying so hard to figure out why people are the way they are are missing two important points: that, first, it’s none of their damned business why someone is an atheist or how it is that gay people exist. Second, if they really wanted to know, they could ask–but the answers wouldn’t look very much like the glurge they’ve been living on, which is probably why they don’t just ask.
The world does not look much at all like what toxic Christians think it looks like, does it? In the real world, people are gay because they are born that way. Atheists haven’t ever seen compelling evidence for any gods. Plenty of female atheists have never been abused, and the ones who have don’t tend to link their abuse with their disbelief. It speaks very poorly of Christians that they reach for such bizarre and tired excuses, when the reality of the matter is so easy to see–and it is equally obvious that by trying to box up non-believers this way, they are trying to avoid engaging with the actual reasons why people are the way they are. This movie and those stories like it are nothing more than an excuse not to delve deeper into the truth. These stories are the reassurance, the comforting pat on the hand, that Christians crave to justify keeping on going the way they’re going.
The Christians who gobble and lap up the glurge in this movie are the target audience for the weird movie Rick Santorum’s movie studio is putting out soon too, some bit of nonsensical idiocy called The Redemption of Henry Myers. I saw the trailer, and while my knowledge of Wild West-era history is a teeny bit shaky (I worked for a while on a Wild West-themed online game that took its history seriously, so I’m not a dummy about it, just not an expert), it’s obviously nowhere near as shaky as that of the people who made this movie.
Let’s just say this now: nobody back then talked that way. Ever. I literally cringed just listening to the trailer’s dialogue. But this is how Christians think non-Christians talk now, and more importantly, this is what Christians desperately wish it was really like to interact with non-Christians. Remember when we talked about that equally horrible He’s in Love With a Church Girl sermon of a movie? These movies are pitched not to non-believers, no matter what their creators say, but to believers. Like all apologetics materials, these pieces of inestimable crap are meant to keep believers happy, not to make more believers out of non-believers. These movies vaguely see the discrepancy between “real non-Christians” and “what Christianity says non-Christians are like,” and they square that circle very badly.
And they show Christians winning, which real life hasn’t been doing a whole lot of lately, so I can see why these movies appeal to them. In movie-land, miracles happen all the time, non-believers always convert grandly in the nick of time, and Christians win every single debate. It reminds me very much of the Twilight series, in how the vacuous, bland main character is nothing but a wish-fulfillment vehicle for teenaged girls to crawl into so they can fantasize that they’re the hot girl being fought over by two hot guys. In the exact same way, a Christian who might be smarting a bit from the smackdowns being delivered left and right by an increasingly-hostile and impatient society can immerse him- or herself in these awful movies and be reminded of a happy, wonderful time when nobody got away for long with questioning Christian primacy and dominance, and nobody ever managed to summon a convincing argument against the religion, or withstood awful Christian apologetics. In movie-land, the horrible arguments that would get Christians laughed offstage succeed, and they succeed every single time.
A Christian who watches these sorts of movies and TV shows might well come out of them convinced that non-believers say things like “Nobody could ever forgive what I’ve done!” Or that atheists were abused in childhood. Or that all criminals are non-Christians. Or that philosophy is some kind of major threat against Christianity, or that philosophy instructors are angry at the Christian god, or that universities in general are places that only the biggest bravest Christians dare to tread. They might well come out of these movies thinking, as well, that it’s some signal mark of bravery to “stand up” for their religion, or that they are being persecuted by non-believers, or that they are somehow being treated unfairly when they don’t get to legally discriminate against others.
And what does it all mean?
It means that there’s a big swathe of Christians out there who have no earthly clue why anybody would ever reject their religion, and no interest at all in finding out this information. That means either that they are completely unaware of the objections that we non-believers raise against their belief system and worldview, or else that they have successfully memorized and internalized a whole series of rationalizations and faulty arguments against those objections. That also means that their religion is built around the idea of either shielding believers from those objections and dissenters, or else minimizing their impact if believers should happen to accidentally encounter any.
Now, this is going to work for a lot of believers. We’ve talked plenty of times about how Christianity forms a sort of buffer zone between fearful, furious believers and the real world. Because Christianity gives those people all the excuse they need to reject social justice and refuse to move ahead with the rest of us when we make new scientific and social discoveries, they have no reason at all to make scary changes or contemplate threats to their dominance.
But we have to move past fairy-tale thinking. We have to join the real world. If Christianity were true, it would not need glurge to sustain itself. That it does seem to live only on this sickly-sweet syrup tells me that it doesn’t have real food to offer anybody. This is a religion that sees outsiders as starving, but all it has to offer is sticky candy.
This movie–and the ones like it coming out lately–tells me that Christianity is on its last legs. If it were doing fine, it would not need something this offensively, blatantly untrue to share its message. If it were a really healthy religion, it wouldn’t need to offer this to its adherents. Christianity must be just terrified of the truth of reality. It must be just scared shitless to show what atheists and higher education are really like. And it must be downright blind if it thinks that non-believers–and probably no few number of believers–won’t realize that (as Dan Fincke pointed out) the people actually doing the arrogant posturing, lying, dehumanizing, and belittling of others are the toxic Christians themselves.
This new age of Christian movie-glurge is still kind of recent to tell what effect it will have on believers, but I’m going to guess right now that it’s going to drive people away when they see how untrue its characterizations of outsiders really are. When someone finds out that philosophy professors aren’t really like they are in this movie, or that atheists weren’t really upset about a god they don’t even believe exists, or that non-believers don’t all totally secretly believe in their god (seriously, that is just insulting!), I bet that at least a few of them are going to wonder what else is not true. And they’re going to find out what else is not true. And they’re going to reject a religion that seems to have only lies to offer its people, like I did long ago.
I truly hope that there will come a day, years from now, when Christians will look back at this era of movie-making and lies and wonder what they were thinking and shake their heads sadly at the lunacy of their forebears. As it is, I don’t think Christianity’s going to last a whole lot longer. Its leaders are getting more daring and bold in their lies, and I think they’re doing it because they are absolutely desperate. These are the flailings of a drowning person; the last-ditch “put it all in the pot” gamble of a man who realizes he’s just spent his mortgage at the poker table.
Either Christianity as a whole rejects such manipulation and lies, or else it sinks with the ship into oblivion. Either way, humanity wins.
I wonder what glurge-tastic urban legend they’ll put to screen next to give themselves a little egotistical thrill at the expense of reality, compassion, and the truth?
We’re going to talk a little more about glurge next, and specifically, the messages that non-believers hear when believers parrot and forward glurge stories. When you hear a Christian praising stories like God’s Not Dead, you know that such a Christian has no idea that really it’s a hugely offensive and dishonest story that demonizes non-believers and encourages soulless cruelty toward outsiders in the name of getting them converted by any means possible. I’m going to examine a few of these urban legends and fairy tales and discuss why they aren’t nearly as awesome as Christians think they are, and I’ll be shooting my mouth off about why Christians seem to cling so much to these awful lies. And as always, I would love to see you there.