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.

  • 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. :)

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino
  • 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).

  • Wednesday

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

  • L E

    Mmmmmm. Thiiiiin miiiinnts.

  • 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.

  • Boze Herrington

    Mmmm. Sacrilicious.

  • 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.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Hehehe. Loophole.


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