The rules are funny, the ideas behind them are not

“I have a much harder time explaining that,” Samantha writes at Defeating Dragons. But she goes on to do a good job of explaining something I’ve also found it hard to explain.

She starts by describing the always good-for-a-laugh stories that we can tell — those of us who grew up among fundamentalist Christians, having to abide by whole catalogues of rules that seem alien, arbitrary and impossible to others who don’t share this background:

I joke about people carrying rulers around to make sure that my skirt was exactly three inches below my knee. I bandy around with all the crazy stories – all the ways that my life experience was so horribly different from theirs. About how boys and girls couldn’t sit next to each other, how there always had to be at least an entire chair or a foot of space between them. How we sewed all the kick pleats in our skirt shut, because skirt slits are like playing peek-a-boo with the backs of our calves. How I have five-minute-long songs memorized on why the King James is the only good Bible.

I’ve got those stories, too. I’ve told some of them here. My wife still cracks up every time I talk about Christian Service Brigade — the fundie alternative to Boy Scouts. (My old boys’ brigade shirt still hangs in my closet — I worked hard for those merit badges.) And the leg warmers story from my private Christian high school always gets a big laugh.

But Samantha’s thoughts about such experiences is much like my own:

It’s the part of me that rarely ever bothers me at all, really. Living under it was oppressive, don’t get me wrong, but now … it’s mostly just something I can brush off and ignore. It’s fodder for good stories, and that’s about it.

Those stories evoke pity or bewilderment. How did you ever manage to live with …? But the rules themselves were just the rules. They could be intrusive and annoying, and many of them seemed as bewildering to those of us who obeyed them and even to those who enforced them as they seem to outsiders. But it wasn’t the content of the rules that was harmful. It was the ideas behind them and beneath them — the notions about God and about humanity that required such an ever-expanding, legalistic framework.

That is, as Samantha writes, harder to explain. And it’s not as funny.

Because the spirit, the beliefs, the ideas, the system that keeps the legalism alive is the problem. There’s nothing there worth protecting, and all of it deserves to be destroyed. Because this system is built on an ugly foundation of power, abuse, domination, and control. The people who perpetuate it aren’t there because they genuinely love people and want to protect them. Legalism gives them the power to wield massive control over entire groups of people – but they can only do that not because of the rules, but because of belief.

Belief in a God whose most dominant, over-riding characteristic is a demand for absolute righteousness, for the acknowledgement of his children that they are completely broken, miserable, worms, barely even worthy of his attention. Belief in a God that is so gracious and loving that he daily overcomes his disgust, his revulsion, to reach out of heaven and show mercy to us. Belief that we, as humans, must exercise all of our resources, all of our attention, in a daily battle to crucify our flesh and take up our cross – but these words mean something different, something harsh and bleak and wretched. Belief that everything about our human experience is tainted, stained, and worthless – that there isn’t anything that can be enjoyed, because all of it is unclean. Our bodies, our music, our entertainments, our world – all of it is is ruthlessly designed to pull us off the straight and narrow, and that if anything feels good, it must be bad, and if we enjoy something, it is only because our hearts are deceitfully wicked and who can know it. We must not ever follow our heart, trust our instincts, go with our gut, because that is only lust and once it has conceived it brings forth death.

That is what is underneath it all – dark, creeping, insidious.

That is what I want to shine a light on and expose. That is what I fight.

Because I believe something different.

Go read the whole thing.

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  • Hth

    It’s a good post, but I draw the line much closer in than she does. It’s true that the spirit of control and coercion behind the rules is the source of a lot of misery, but the *content* of the rules is problematic, too. If people were required to wear fresh lasagna on their head every third Saturday, that would be good for a laugh, I guess, but meaningless except for the skewed power dynamic required to enforce it. But these are not arbitrary rules. These are precisely chosen, defined, and targeted rules that exist *not just* to reinforce the rulemakers’ ability to control the ruleobeyers, but in and of themselves to sow mistrust, shame, and vigilant paranoia around, in almost every example, *women’s bodies and sexuality.* Secondarily about men’s bodies and sexuality, and only a distant third with one vote (Fred’s NotBoyScouts) the fear of the corrupting influence of secular society.

    These are not arbitrary rules. They are rules created to make people believe something very specific, not just about power, *but about women.* That’s the content of them, not just the spirit behind them. Sewing your kickpleats closed to prove that you love God isn’t just some funny hoop they make you jump through. It’s a specific demand that you acquiesce to their belief that beauty and desire are filthy and hateful to God, and that you prove your love to God by participating in the nonstop policing of your own body, lest you ever be thought beautiful (by you or anyone else), lest you ever experience desire (as an object or as a subject).

    They’re not silly until you start thinking about them. They were never silly at all. They’re poisonous to the full experience of our humanity (“our” meaning everybody’s, not only women’s) and incompatible with Christ’s call to life abundant. They’re toxic in the spirit *and* the letter.

  • forgedimagination

    Hi, this is Samantha, the author.

    I just wanted to thank you for contributing this to the conversation. One blog post, obviously, isn’t enough to cover this territory, and I absolutely agree with you. The rules are designed to do all of what you’ve described.

  • Carstonio

    Very true. I’m tempted to settle for an obvious explanation – the rules were created specifically to keep women below men in a social hierarchy. But that seems incomplete to me. Both men and women experience desire. My theory is that many males become terrified of their own penises in puberty. At that age they can get erections at very inopportune and embarrassing times, so they transfer this resentment onto females and wrongly blame them.

  • Hth

    Yeah, I think there’s a lot of anxiety around male sexuality, too, and the way these cultures deal with it is to offload it onto women via classic projection. If sexuality is monstrous, then their sexual urges can’t come from them — that would make them monsters. Someone or something else must be monstrous instead — it’s the Devil, or it’s The World (which is of the Devil), or it’s women (through whom the Devil does his work), but in any case you’re definitely surrounded on all sides by it. It’s not an ideology that’s designed to make men very comfortable, either, and that’s where Samantha hits on a really important point — that it’s designed to make sure *no one* ever feels good enough or safe enough or at peace in any way.

    Why, ultimately? It’s a fascinating question. I think you’re probably right that it’s partially rooted in adolescent psychosexual fears of lacking control over one’s own body, which is legitimately a terrifying aspect of puberty for anyone. The angry anticlericals are probably also right that it’s partially about marketing — if people really feel good enough and at peace, people with a product to sell are always at a disadvantage, whether your product is green coffee extract or salvation. Sometimes I have secret Gnostic twinges, and I think maybe some kind of mad demiurge or horrifying alien archons have been driving us insane for millennia now, but let’s not get into that in polite company. *g*

    Okay, wow, I don’t know why I’m so typey-typey today!

  • Alix

    I don’t disagree, but I will say, as someone who was sort of half-immersed in fundie culture, that from a personal perspective, it’s freeing to look back on this stuff as silly.

    It’s also a way of reconciling two disparate things – the harm you mention and the fact that these weren’t (by and large) monsters and the experiences weren’t (for the most part) a relentless parade of horror. It’s a way of reconciling the ways in which the memories are good or at least not horrible with the utter stupidity of authoritarianism.

    There are worse reactions to authoritarianism than to laugh at it.

  • Alix

    Also, fwiw, I think a lot of the arbitrary rules and other shit fundies pull really is ridiculous. The place they come from isn’t funny, and the effects (intended and otherwise) aren’t, but I do think it actually is worth pointing out how utterly stupid a lot of this crap is.

    In my experience, authoritarians are very concerned with being taken utterly seriously and treated with the utmost dignity and respect. In that sense, finding them silly and small and funny in a cockeyed way is hitting them right where it hurts most, and exposing them as the ridiculous spouters of utter horseshit that they are.

  • The_L1985

    Oh, totally! The sort of people who get tangled up in legalism, as a general rule, are very bad at laughing at themselves. Pointing out how ridiculous their rules are is about the only way to get under their skin–and that’s also the only way they could possibly consider changing.

  • Hth

    That’s a really legit perspective. I tend to lean toward “if you laugh it off, you’ll start to believe it’s just a joke and not deathly serious,” but yeah, I can see how for other people, “if you laugh it off you rob it of its power to make you miserable” can be powerful and healing. Thanks for adding that.

  • Alix

    Admittedly, I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who does consider jokes/humor a serious matter – if for no other reason than that what we find funny (and why we find it so) reveals a lot about us. So I’m the sort of person who never believes a joke is “just” a joke.

  • AnonaMiss

    Belief that everything about our human experience is tainted, stained, and worthless – that there isn’t anything that can be enjoyed, because all of it is unclean.

    This is a fairly close description of how I used to feel about humanity even without being part of a toxic culture – because of my depression. It’s an odd parallel.

  • banancat

    It’s really interesting how mental illness can manifest. I have OCD and sometimes I see religious practices that make me think the person in power who came up with them had OCD. I feel this way about some of the more extreme Kosher rules like having separate dishes and even dishwashers. The idea of the invisible particle “contaminant” surviving hot water and soap as some intangible invisible taint really hits home for me. And I don’t even mean this in a disparaging way, nor am I trying to make light of practices that people sincerely hold.

    So I wonder if other aspects of religions, especially the more extreme ones, were influenced by the mental illnesses of people in power. I’m not using it as an insult like “churches be cray-cray”, but just that mental illness is common and a part of society and I wonder what it influenced in the context of religious practice.

  • alfgifu

    I wonder if other aspects of religions, especially the more extreme ones, were influenced by the mental illnesses of people in power.


    My Christianity was one of my lifelines when I was depressed, but it was also one of the places where there were plenty of familiar hooks for the depression. I’m very lucky that the Anglican tradition I’ve been brought up in, the churches I attended, and the other believers I knew at the time all emphasised the ‘God is love, and all that is not love is not God’ way of thinking.

    One of the consequences is that my understanding of my faith has been shaped by my depression. Living in a world that understands depression as an illness, I’ve been able to use that for balance. Without the modern perspective, I can easily imagine using the depressed-alfgifu mental framework to understand Christianity / God / faith. Which would be bad.

    There’s an example that I think is this sort of thing in C S Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. Screwtape advises his nephew to tempt his human charge into apathy, and the description of how this could eat up the man’s life sends shivers up my spine. It’s understood as a sin, in context, but it reads like a serious illness to me.

  • Persia

    I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided,” and there was a whole discussion about religion in the early days of the Americas and how, basically, depressed and hopeless it was.

  • Lori

    The Church of Christ has a well-deserved reputation for being really fundie and yet I’m constantly amazed by how much more restrictive other fundie childhoods were. I literally never had anyone measure my skirt. There was definitely such a thing as “too short”, but it was above the knee by a good bit and no one ever whipped out a ruler or made us kneel in order to enforce proper length. I was aware that some people were really hung up on the King Jame’s Version, but it wasn’t part of my upbringing. I had no idea that there even was a song explaining why it’s the OTB.

    I was raised with the idea that we’re all sinners and broken and need grace and blah, blah, blah, but it never seemed to tip over into this kind of overt toxicity. The sexism was, and remains, bad but it never had this kind of obviously creepy edge and I find myself really wondering why. The only thing I can think is that the lack of a central controlling body changes the dynamic. Individual congregations can get weird, but there’s no mechanism for pushing that weirdness out to all the other congregations and getting that kind of social critical mass behind it.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    If possible I think those rules are even worse, because then it’s subjective: whose “too short” varies from person to person.

    Then again, the very arbitrariness of the metric works to keep those in power from having to account to the people who may fall afoul of such rules.

    Reminds me of the line from 1984: “(nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws)”

  • Lori

    No one in power ever said anything about my clothes. Ever. What I wore was an issue between me & my parents. When I say that there was such thing as “too short” I mean that there was a point past which people would give you, and your parents, the side eye over it. That’s all. I suppose that if things were short enough or tight enough or cleavage-y enough at church the elders might have had a word with the person, but I never knew it to happen. People stayed within the general social boundaries for the reasons that most people stay within the boundaries of their social group, but it wasn’t 1984.

  • Lori

    I just remembered a situation when I was given explicit rules about my clothes—summer camp. The “what to pack” list included some rules about clothes. The gist was basically that since you were away from home without your parents, family or congregational variations in standards weren’t going to work. Everyone needed to be on the same page and, as always, the page was determined by some of the more conservative folks.

    I don’t remember what the rules were for the boys (although I know that they had some). Girls couldn’t wear bikinis. Shorts had to be no more than X inches above the knee, but I don’t remember what X was. You couldn’t wear halters or midriff baring tops and your bra straps couldn’t show, so tank tops were OK but spaghetti straps were not. I don’t remember how the bra rule was phrased, but it was made clear that if you’d developed enough to have breasts you were expected to wear an appropriate one.

    There was a similar set of guidelines when I did my one semester at a church affiliated college. I had no issue with it when it was one week in the summer and I wanted to be there. I had a lot more problem with it when I was 18 years old, living at a place I didn’t want to be.

  • Eric Boersma

    For what it’s worth, those rules are pretty similar to the (fairly not-fundamentalist) church camps that I attended growing up, too.

  • Lori

    That makes sense. Like I said, I had no issue with the rules for camp. IIRC the shorts were a little on the long side, but other than that the rules didn’t strike me as horribly restrictive or weird. My parents weren’t incredibly strict about my clothing, but with the possible exception of the shorts they wouldn’t have let me wear most of the forbidden stuff, even assuming that I had wanted to, so it’s not like I had to have a separate wardrobe for camp.

  • VMtheCoyote

    Thank you for this – for posting the link, for writing about it, and for all the shared laughter that often heals, about those rule-bound childhoods. I have talked before – waxed lyrical, even – about the joy of discovering a church and a faith actually based on joy, rather than guilt and shame and rigidly enforced power dynamics. But I think some of the fear will alway be with me, and with many or most who dealt with that strain as kids. It is good, really good, to remember that we’re not alone, and to laugh rather than cry.

  • aunursa

    How I have five-minute-long songs memorized on why the King James is the only good Bible.

    As a member of a religion whose adherents regularly read our Bible in the original language, I marvel at those Christians who practically grant divine status to a translation (and one that was designed to promote a particular theology.)

  • dpolicar

    Yeah, I frequently get a superior-feeling chuckle over this myself.

    When that happens, I try to remind myself that the idea that some translators in the early 1600s were divinely inspired to write down the true word of god isn’t actually any sillier than the idea that some scribes 2-3000 years ago were divinely inspired to do the same thing, and I have no real basis for feeling tribal superiority.

    (Of course, I then indulge in a superior-feeling chuckle over not believing any such things myself… and on it goes…)

  • Lori

    There’s also the fact that Jews only need to learn one language to read their texts and that growing the religion via conversion isn’t a goal. Not right or wrong, just a different set of demands/needs.

  • dpolicar

    Also, an important part of the Jewish tradition is the resistance to cultural assimilation. That is, Jews are encouraged to be visibly and obviously different from the larger Gentile community among whom we have always lived: to dress differently, to eat differently, celebrate different holidays, etc. Worshiping in a different language is not unrelated to that.

  • aunursa

    My comment was not intended as a slight of Christianity, only of those Christians who pledge their allegiance to a particular Bible translation.

  • dpolicar

    (nods) Yup. That’s how I took it. I specifically had in mind the KJV, hence the early 1600s reference, though the same reasoning applies to any translation.

  • The_L1985

    The best are the brain-breakingly bad statements, like the bumper sticker I saw at age 8, the contents of which have stuck with me:

    “If the KJV was good enough for the apostles, it’s good enough for me!”

    Even at age 8, it was clear to me what was wrong with that sentence.

  • drkrick

    One can hope it was a joke. But it brings to mind the friend who responded as asked to a “Honk If You Love Jesus” sticker and got flipped the bird.

  • arcseconds

    I was all ‘WTF?’ when I first heard about this. My next reaction was ‘how clever’. I had always thought that the history of the text of the Bible (codification, transmission, textual variants, debates over meanings/appropriate translations of individual words) was a powerful argument against treating it as a text written by God in any kind of straightforward sense, and therefore a powerful argument against Biblical literalism, and also something that might get people to think rather than continuing to recite verses.

    But you can put a stop to all of that by declaring that your version of the Bible is the one correct divinely inspired version!

  • arcseconds

    The situation for Jews isn’t totally dissimilar, though. The Masoretic
    text was compiled in the 9th and 10th centuries, so the current version
    of the text is only a few centuries old (and only a few centuries older
    than the KJV).

    Also, just because you know the language
    doesn’t mean you know what the words meant when the text was written.
    If you learnt it as a second language, there’s a risk of assuming a word means exactly the same as the corresponding word in your native language. If it’s your native tongue, then you’re exposed to linguistic drift (which must be more of a thing now that Hebrew is back from the dead).

    It’s quite possible for someone reading a good translation to understand the text better than someone reading it in the original language.

    Not that this helps the KJV-only people, of course: the KJV is already old enough for this to be an issue with English!

  • aunursa

    Many Jews read the original language and also read a translation. The problem with the KJV-only crowd is that they may forget that they are reading a human translation. I wouln’t be surprised if some of them believe, for example, that Jesus spoke in an archaic English.

  • Carstonio

    Imagine a Shakespeare version of the Gospels.

  • AnonymousSam

    I’m halfway surprised there’s not one already, given there is a theory Shakespeare helped write the KJV.

    Also of note: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars.

  • Eric Boersma

    That Shakespeare theory is exquisite.

  • Mark Z.

    And on that subject: Star Wars as an Icelandic saga.

  • MarkTemporis

    Like Thor! Which is every bit as silly. It would be amusing to consider Shakespearean English to be sort of a lingua franca among deities, so that Buddha, Kali, Marduk, and all the other deities who came up nowhere near Europe all sound like, say, Christopher Lee.

  • dpolicar

    Some in fact do. This makes me sad when I encounter it. It’s not nearly as popular as Caucasian Jesus, admittedly, which makes me sad far more often.

  • Hilary

    Not to mention the joys of reading English in a book that opens right to left. I’ve a few books that are 90% English to 10% Hebrew, and they still open right to left since the Hebrew is the original, everything else is translation and commentary. You get used to it. And even when I can’t read the Hebrew that’s side by side with the English in my Torah and Tanakh, at least it’s there as a visual reminder that the ancient Hebrews and Israelites didn’t speak English.

  • arcseconds

    Manga fans have the same joys :-)

    I had a friend who, for some reason, had been reading texts with Hebrew in it. As a kind of puzzle, he attempted to work out what the Hebrew was saying despite not knowing anything about the language. He got quite a surprise when he finally realised it read from right to left :-)

  • Hilary

    I have the entire Rurouni Kenshin series, and it is fun to read it R to L, since I’m already used to that.

  • ReverendRef

    a translation that was designed to promote a particular theology.

    Not to mention that it was a theology that was pro-divine right of kings. James needed to counter the reformers who had their sights set on him as well. My head wants to explode from trying to reconcile how the descendents of the religious Puritan movement are now claiming the only acceptable Bible is the one designed to counter the Puritans and show the king in a positive light.

  • Another_Matt

    Yeah, I was always taught that KJV was the only version translated by Bible-Believing Christians. The idea was that God would never let anything so important fail at any point, when taken up by the earnest faithful. It’s basically a big “screw you” to Bible scholarship — yet another way of making the tribe distinct from The World.

    Also, this attitude is really no different from early Christians’ beliefs about the superiority of the Septuagint.

  • Christyinlosangeles

    I was not in Boys Brigade, but I was in Pioneer Girls, the equivalent for girls. It was never explicitly stated WHY the Girls Scouts were bad and it was understood that you could purchase the cookies – because even fundies like cookies – but the general impression was that the feminists were somehow involved with the whole enterprise, thereby infecting it with baby killing and general godlessness.

    I grew up with a lot fewer overtly ridiculous rules – although I was told with a straight face in Sunday School that Henry Kissinger was probably the anti-Christ and that the Rapture would happen as soon as ten countries joined the European Union – but I was swimming in notions of original sin (and a fair amount of abuse as an extra bonus) and a God who I should love because he was kind enough to let my miserable self live. I still struggle with the feeling that the deepest truth about me is that I suck, that I am somehow inherently a failure and bad, and there is nothing I can do about it, because it’s nothing I’m doing – It’s who I am. It’s really hard to explain to people who didn’t grow up with it, and incredibly hard to shake.

  • redsixwing

    I have liked this not because the situation is likable, but because this rings familiar and true, and it’s incredibly hard to shake, but it is possible to do it.

    *offers internet hugs*

  • MarkTemporis

    I’ll sort of have to give your old church the Henry Kissinger bit. I’d imagine the Antichrist as a bit more charismatic and a little less evil, though.

  • The_L1985

    I’d heard that the GSA supported PP, which was of course an “abortion mill” and therefore evil.

    If it’s true, I need to buy lots more cookies next year. PP needs support. :3

  • Cathy W

    GSUSA and PP team up to provide (totally voluntary!) fact-based sex education to girls in the middle school and high school programs. This has resulted in people who don’t like fact-based sex ed trying to organize a boycott of Girl Scout cookies the last few years. I don’t think they’ve had a lot of luck, though.

  • Christyinlosangeles

    Well, sure, as long as it doesn’t bother you that there’s a little bit of Satan in every single Thin Mint.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Tasty, tasty Satan.

  • L E

    Mmmmmm. Thiiiiin miiiinnts.

  • Boze Herrington

    Mmmm. Sacrilicious.

  • Joykins

    as a Pioneer Girl, I totally envied the boys in Boys Brigade because they got to do cool stuff like Pinewood Derby and hikes and canoeing trips and camping and we got…arts and crafts and singing, pretty much. Sexism at play: the boys got all the cool activities. I couldn’t go to Girl Scouts because of a scheduling conflict (they met before my Christian school even let out); I don’t think there was a sense in the 1970s that Girl Scouts were unacceptable, but that church-sponsored programs were morally superior.

    Yes, the rules at my Christian school were somewhat arbitrary, especially when it came to dress, but so are rules for any school (like a pass to go to the bathroom).

  • lawrence090469

    I worked for an insurance company in the early ’90s. My boss was a full magic underwear Mormon, as well as an insufferable douchebag. He once distributed a memo on dress code policy specifying that skirts could be no more than two inches above the knee. There was a photocopied ruler on the bottom for reference. So, naturally, I used the copier to enlarge the ruler about 300% and spliced it back on the original. And of course I made a bunch of these and left them lying around. I admit to being a miscreant with almost no innate respect for authority, but nobody liked this guy. It wasn’t the last time he would get punked.

  • FearlessSon

    Fortunately, every rule has a loophole. (NSFW)

  • Veleda_k

    A thousand points to you for Garfunkel and Oates.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Hehehe. Loophole.

  • P J Evans

    My public HS had a dress code that wasn’t much different. Sandals – banned (for being ‘suggestive’, I heard); bead necklace – it was the mid-60s -banned. Boys could wear jeans (and cowboy boots) one day a year. Skirts had to reach either the floor in front if you were kneeling, or the back of the knee. (No skirts either longer or shorter, so maxis were out as well as minis.)

  • Hexep

    Whoa~ why not longer? No ankle length skirts?

    We all had to wear uniforms in school…

  • The_L1985

    Because hippies wore maxi skirts. And the principal didn’t want you going out to San Francisco with flowers in your hair.

    (No really–those long peasant skirts that are back in style? There’s a reason that today’s hippies wear them.)

  • Wednesday

    …because they’re comfortable, or because they let women violate social norms about bodyhair without being overt about it?

  • Elizabeth Coleman

    That’s why I wear them, though in recent years, I wear shorter stuff too and just say screw you, people who are wierded out by hairy legs.

  • alfgifu

    Speaking of policing the rules and missing the spirit:

    [The vicar] said: “F*** is not a blasphemy, it’s a vulgarity, an Old English word. Whoever saw this on my car perhaps did not notice that there are two other stickers on there, on either side of it, one a Hebrew text about the transformation of the world, and the other from the sixth chapter of Micah, which says ‘Do Justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God’.”

    The offending bumper sticker apparently read WTFWJD. And both her bishop and Rowan Williams are cool with it. :)

  • Invisible Neutrino