The False Narrative of Martyrdom in “I’m Not Ashamed”

What angers me most about the horrible Christian movie I’m Not Ashamed is its absolutely shameless contortion of a child’s brutal, senseless death to advance a very clear political agenda. Today I’ll walk you through how that task was accomplished–and show you why we absolutely must reject it.

(Markus Daams, CC.)
(Markus Daams, CC.)

Shamelessness, Defined.

The very night of the massacre, the Christians, who came onto that newsgroup [alt.atheism] to practice incredibly amateur apologetics, claimed that the shooters were atheists motivated by atheism. The next day, a narratve of targeting Christians was put forth. Within the week, the claim of that scene of asking people if they’re Christian and killing those who said they were.

That was how fast it came up.

WingedBeast, in a well-deserved featured comment

In 1999, I was living in Kansas eking out a hand-to-mouth existence. I was years out of high school and college. But I remember Columbine. Oh yes, I remember it. Not as vividly as those living closer to the site of the event or those who were in the same age cohort as the victims of the event, no, but I do remember it and the sick sensation I felt when I beheld how much changed in some ways, and how little changed in so many other ways.

It did not take long at all for those pursuing political agendas to twist the events that horrific day to suit their purposes. Very quickly the media spun a narrative about the event that tried to make sense of what was in reality a senseless act of wanton destruction. That main narrative runs thusly:

Two disturbed boys became atheists. Thus fed on the lies of evolutionism, Nazism, and violent video games, they came to their high school one fine day to destroy those students who’d made their lives a hell on earth. They targeted Christians and athletes because they saw those two groups as being mainly responsible for their miseries, and when they’d finally run out of victims fitting those groups they destroyed themselves in turn. Their attack on Columbine High School constitutes a real live example of Christian persecution, and at least two victims of their rage and hatred  (Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall) can now be considered genuine martyrs for the faith. Christians must heed the lessons “God” is teaching them: they must take great care to ensure that atheism never gains an upper hand over American society, because attacks like this one go hand in hand with non-belief.

It’s a hell of a narrative. It’s not the only one. Others developed quickly in the wake of the attack, and most of us have heard those narratives: that the attacks were a case of bullying gone hideously wrong, of video games and transgressive music (Marilyn Manson in particular was singled out here) luring two kids down the dark path of evil, of a pair of nerds finally getting their ultimate revenge against jocks, and much more.

All of these narratives are wrong.

But they are comforting to people who absolutely need to find a way to make an incomprehensible evil understandable, and who moreover need to find a way to control the situation to feel safe.

Christians, particularly the toxic kind we generally discuss around this blog, fit those two criteria to a tee. They follow a god who they truly believe (or at least say they truly believe) is in charge of the entire planet and cosmos and wouldn’t ever let anything happen to anybody without a reason for it. This god has a plan, you see, and nobody can disobey his plan. Further, they are a fearful and enraged group in general, and their answer to any societal ill they perceive is to clamp down even harder on whoever they can possibly get their grabby hands on. When a person acts out, their answer will always be to control that person harder. It’s the only tool they have in their toolbox for dealing with problems.

Toxic Christians have another reason for spinning false narratives: quite a few of them ache to be genuinely persecuted to feel like they’re doing Christianity right. They love the idea of becoming martyrs. But they live in an increasingly tolerant society that affords them a vast many privileges that non-Christians simply do not get. Martyrdom for them simply isn’t in the cards, especially not on a societal level. They have no idea what real persecution looks like–to the point that I really think that if any real persecution actually even brushed up against them, they’d fold like a knife-pleated blouse.

Thus, even small and relatively minor pushback and corrections of their overreach–as we’re seeing now in the way Creationists are getting slapped away from science classrooms, and in how Christian monuments are being removed from taxpayers’ public property–get magnified into genuine and real persecution on par with the myths created about the birth of the religion. These myths get treated as reality in a dysfunctional group that lacks both the necessary tether on reality that all groups need to avoid spinning into fanaticism and the apparatus with which to examine claims and reject untruthful ones.

The Worst False Narrative.

I’m Not Ashamed doesn’t stop at creating false narratives around the killers themselves and the nature of their assault on the high school.

In the movie itself, in several places, Rachel is depicted as writing about and verbally expressing her desire to give her life to Jesus. This kind of talk is encouraged in fundagelicalism particularly, though normally it’s seen as a metaphor rather than a literal desire to physically die for Christianity’s furtherance. Teenybopper Christians get infused with this kind of imagery frequently and in their innocent, bombastic way take the idea seriously that mean ole secular America will one day frog-march them to guillotines and flamethrowers if they insist that they are unashamed of the Gospel.

The movie also pushes the martyr narrative hard by expressly imputing Rachel’s growing ostracism from her peers and schoolmates to her religious fervor.

The problem here is that she’s not particularly fervent.

Rachel attends a Bible study often, but until the end of the movie she’s shown attending wild parties full of drinking and smoking (and probably drugs too, who knows). She gets a car and very quickly her father discovers empty booze bottles in its backseat, meaning that she was carting people around who were very likely drinking right then. Her crush is a boy whose religious affiliation is not known but who is, if he’s Christian, definitely not the right kind of Christian according to fundagelicals; she spends most of the school year pursuing him and obsessing about him. Most of her evenings are taken up with drama practice for the play; her mother even expresses concern that Rachel goes to these practices almost every day. When she almost throws herself off a building, it is her dog-tag necklace (a gift from Nathan, who wears a similar one–it might even be the same one he wore at first) that pulls her back by reminding her that someone in this world cares for her, rather than a religious insight that occurs to her. And right after she pulls herself from the brink of death, she rushes not into prayer but into Nathan’s very physical (if Platonically-friendly) embrace.

I could also add here her attempts to control the men around her–by holding her stepfather Larry’s hand and refusing to let go till he smiles (after having had her request to use his car flat-out rejected), or by demanding that Nathan let her buy him much-needed food or else she’ll play in traffic. She’s basically still a child and the incidents are presented fairly innocuously, but it’s chilling to imagine how controlling fundagelicals can be and how these innocent-seeming control attempts tend to magnify rather than wither away as the people practicing them are rewarded by the targets of this behavior with compliance.

We never see Rachel doing much that seems overtly Christian. When one character openly wonders if she’s going to try to convert him to her denomination, she says wearily that she’s not “that kind of Christian.” In fact we have no idea what denomination she’s joined. She doesn’t attend church that we know of outside of the evening Bible studies, which I thought were 12-step program meetings at first because they take place in a barebones, dimly-lit basement space somewhere in the worst part of Littleton, which looks strikingly similar to the worst part of, say, Detroit rather than part of the upper-middle-class suburban town that I always thought Littleton was like. When we finally see her at her part-time job at the deli after she returns from Shreveport a supposedly-changed, newly-saved Christian, she’s quite ready to throw a homeless lady out of the place at her boss’ command rather than feed the woman or help her–it’s another woman entirely who steps in to help the homeless lady and prevent her from being ejected back onto the street. This charity impresses the teen, but her new religious fervor sure didn’t help anybody at all.

Except for her mooning over Jesus in a few scenes, there’s little here to suggest that she’s really all that devoted to her faith.

Trying on a New Hat.

I remember being a lot like Rachel in a lot of ways when I joined the Southern Baptists at 16. Like her, I ached to find meaning and purpose in my life, and like her I desperately wanted to figure out what my identity was. I can see hints in her home life, as presented in the movie, as leading her to desire the same firm structure that I once did. I would reckon that a lot of kids that age are very similar.

Often kids like Rachel (and 16-year-old me) seem like they will “try on” different identities and ways of standing out from the crowd before settling on one that seems to work best for them. That’s what the obsession with hats was likely all about. A little kid who felt devastated by her parents’ divorce found something cute and sweet she could do to get attention and create a little personal space for herself by wearing stuff that nobody else was wearing. As she got older, though, the hat-wearing was increasingly seen as too childish by her friends. So she found something else: Christianity. Sure, it backfired when her friends rejected it, but she had a whole new group of friends who only encouraged her in her fervor and added fuel to her fire. Had she not been murdered, the chances are extremely good that she’d have mellowed out in time when she began to perceive the opportunities that she was losing by pursuing her uber-Christian leanings.

But the moviemakers here had very different ideas about what Rachel Scott was all about. The movie character’s religious posturing–for that is what it is–is magnified and very likely woven out of imaginary cloth, given her decidedly sinful behavior by fundagelical standards. It has the feel of being plastered on. One evening she’s tentatively hitting on her crush at a wild party; the next morning she’s getting weepy about giving up her life for Jesus and whining that “her faith” is driving her friends away.

This girl is not a very good candidate for the mantle of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ martyr. That doesn’t mean I don’t sympathize with her family over her loss; it’s tragic and horrific in every sense of the word. She seems like she was a sweet young woman who really wanted to do good and help people. But she wasn’t murdered because of her faith. She was murdered for no reason at all, and to a fundagelical, that simple truth is simply unacceptable.

PureFlix had to work with what they had, I guess. That’s why the moviemakers insist repeatedly that Rachel’s “faith” is what is causing her growing ostracism. It’s not her faith at all; most of her peers are probably Christian and many are probably quite devoted to their faith, statistically speaking at least. She’s simply being obnoxious, and they don’t like it. I know this is kinda #notallChristians, but seriously, many if not most Christians are not obnoxious and they manage to keep friends around. But these assertions feed into the martyr picture PureFlix wants to paint.

The one interesting part of the movie in this regard is one that PureFlix probably didn’t intend to reveal. At the end of the movie, on the last morning of her life, Rachel argues with her brother Craig about his choice to wear a white ballcap to school that day. She herself wears a silly floppy (white) hat and has a small treasure-trove of similarly silly hats, but Craig’s ballcap is suddenly an affront to her. And after reflection it’s easy to see why: when she wears her silly hats, it’s a way to express her individuality in shorthand–a very obvious and visible symbol of how she isn’t part of the herd. Her brother’s white ballcap, by contrast, is an expression of his membership (or at least desired membership) in the loosely-defined tribe of athletes who dominate the school, so she doesn’t want him to wear it. Her last control attempt is rejected, incidentally; Craig retrieves his cap and wears it to school despite her efforts to grab it away from him. (Remember, Craig survived the massacre; he was in the library, but pretended to have died in a hail of bullets. But one narrative that emerged from the event was that the killers were targeting kids in white caps. The movie never makes that connection–they never show any part of the actual massacre after Rachel’s death. As far as they’re concerned, that’s the end of the story for them. It is an ugly dismissal of all the other victims, and it’s glaring in its stark heavy-handedness.)

Hats are an expression of individuality to Rachel in this movie, not an expression of belonging. It’s noteworthy that when she’s trying to fit in with her peers, she tends to put the hats away. But as she transitions away from hat-wearing, she finds another and equally odd accessory to wear to tell everyone who looks at her that she’s a special little snowflake: a gigantic wooden cross necklace. I’m not kidding. It fulfills exactly the same function as the hats once did–and I feel like I’m on very safe ground in asserting that her religious posturing is probably meant to fulfill that function as well.

Rejecting the False Narrative.

And as we mourned the dead it struck me that every time that this happens, it not only opens up an opportunity to advance personal and political agendas, it becomes top priority for most of us to do so. And yet again kids were dead and nothing was done.

Buzzfeed Video, “Me and Mass Shootings.”

So PureFlix has helped to invent a martyr. They’ve exaggerated any detail that might lend itself to supporting this vision, while ignoring all the stuff she does that contradicts that position. They also ignore the beliefs of the kids around Rachel, distort reality considerably to make Rachel’s home life seem more topsy-turvy, and feed into the false narratives already created about the massacre to make Rachel’s death all the more indicative of a modern martyr for TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ when it is nothing of the sort.

It seems like Christians in America are so eager to embrace this false sort of martyrdom that they will leap upon anything at all to further their goals of regaining their former domination over the Western world. By pushing Rachel’s story at their tribe, they try to frighten the flocks into thinking that evil atheists–as the killers are repeatedly painted as–are out to murder their children, but they also try to imbue young Christians with a sort of false bravado meant to buoy their faith through doubts. Worse yet, these false narratives teach the sheep to interpret any much-needed and fully justified pushback as “persecution.” This movie is manipulative trash on every single level: dishonest, duplicitous, skeevy, sketchy, trash. It is porn for TRUE CHRISTIANS™. But it is also a warning to the rest of us.

We must continue to push against these false narratives and expose toxic Christians for the constant stream of lies and misrepresentations they tell in their religion’s desperate last hours as they flail frantically to recruit new members and keep their existing butts planted firmly in pews. The situation sure as hell ain’t gonna get better in the near future. These are truly the “post-truth” days, when as far as some folks are concerned, if it should be true or even just feels true, then it might as well be true.

One last thought before we go. Did you notice the quote at the top of the post? And do you remember that the books of the New Testament were written decades–if not centuries–after the events they describe? If a teenager can catapult to false martyrdom within 24 hours, to the point where it’s only decades later that we’re starting to figure out the truth about the awful day in which she died, how much trust d’you suppose I put into the earliest writings about Christianity’s first stumbling years? My estimation of the tribe in general plummets more and more every day, it seems.

We’re finally back on track! See you Tuesday as we look at bait-and-switch advertising and the cognitive bias that makes the tactic pay off for its perpetrators.

 

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