(Content notice: Mistreatment of a child.)
We’re going to start by backing up a little in time. Okay, by a “little” I mean 40 years-ish, but what’s a few decades between friends?
During a very painful and lonely stretch of my childhood, I did exactly what fundagelicals say everyone ought to do: I turned to Jesus. Today I’ll show you how well that worked out for me.
My mother remarried a serviceman when I was around 6 or 7 and we stayed for a year with my grandparents while that serviceman was doing some training thing. After that, my little family moved away from Maryland when I was about 10 to rejoin him when he’d finished. He was stationed in a quaint little Northern Californian village. I blossomed overnight into a rangy, long-legged colt of a girl; I was always outside on my bicycle or building one of a series of “forts” out of whatever came to hand through lawful means or non-.
Having been thoroughly indoctrinated after an early childhood of protracted heathenism by my very religious grandparents, I rousted my little sister out of bed every Sunday morning, got us dressed, and set our feet on the long road to the local Catholic church. Mom and Dad didn’t attend; Dad’s faith was not what one would term definitive, and as fervent a Catholic as Mom was, she was still not only excommunicated but even more importantly a working mom who wasn’t about to waste half a weekend getting dressed up and sitting in a church she wasn’t even a member in good standing of anymore, being divorced and scandalously remarried and all. But neither of my parents objected to the kids going as long as we didn’t wake them up in the process.
Obviously, I was in it to see Jesus. And I’m not talking about that metaphorical way that most churches mean the term. I had figured out that adults didn’t like it when I talked about the sign I’d seen so long ago anymore (“Jesus visits here every Sunday!”), but it was always in the back of my mind. One day he’d stroll into the church and go “what’s up, y’all?” and I was not about to miss that.
Dial “W” for WTFOMGBBQ.
On the long walk home from church, we’d drop by the small corner grocery store for homemade burritos to warm our frozen little hands (even in the summer, my memories are always of cold hands on the walk home), and it was here, while waiting for the butcher to make my burrito, that I got my first real look at real comic books. If my mother had only known what would happen if I were unsupervised like that! All this time I’d been devouring the comic books Mom and Dad liked, which meant Richie Rich and Sgt. Rock respectively, neither of which especially appealed to a dreamy-eyed little forest nymph. But now I got my hands on The New Teen Titans, Justice League, Dial H for Hero, and a host of others that embedded themselves in my child-mind. I began foregoing the burrito to get a variety pack of comic books instead for the same 25 cents.
The sheer potential in these colorful pages blew my mind. These were certainly not the bone-dry missals I read ahead in at church when I just couldn’t pay attention to the service, or the (if I may be so bold) rather trite and mature by turns comics my parents favored. And they all merged together in my head. Pneumatic-bosomed alien princesses, green-skinned shapeshifters, and caped dark knights ate at the same table comfortably with Jesus, angels, demons, and saints. A whole world of amazing stuff lurked beneath a banal, everyday surface, and it was being kept from me. I hungered and yearned to scratch under that banality to find the real world underneath. I didn’t stop to consider why Jesus might seem so much like the superheroes in my comic books, of course, but I ached to uncover the world of wonder which church and comics alike promised me existed.
My family was not a perfect one; Mom had chosen a husband with an even more explosive temper than the first one had had. Little wonder I viewed being outside and at church as a refuge. The law finally caught up with Dad and after a short period of separation and counseling, he stopped beating the holy living shit out of me and my sister. Instead, he launched in on the verbal and emotional abuse.
Amid this disheartening development, the military up-ended me from my forest paradise and relocated my little family to the Deep South.
Wherein I Dive into a Compensation Fantasy.
I hated Alabama. There’s no other way to put it. I hated it with a passion that approached purity in its single-mindedness. It was hot, muggy, and I hated every single person there. I went from a fairly chipper and happy kid to a rather sullen adolescent. I hated my school, hated my racist, bullying schoolmates, and oh yes I hated the narrow-minded teachers who even I could tell were ignorant hicks except when they wanted to flirt up the students they fancied. I even hated the house I had to live in and was convinced that it was either haunted or cursed because of how oppressed I felt inside it, and my dad was doing his level best to induce me to commit suicide before I even hit puberty.
In response to my despair, I gained 30 pounds and vanished into a self-made world of books, comics, and Atari video games. Wherever Jesus was when I was getting bullied or needled to within an inch of just giving up, he was being very quiet, but I never noticed. I stopped going to church because it was too far to walk to, but my sudden sharp lack of formal religious instruction didn’t make much of a difference to the rather startling theology I’d developed for myself.
To me, Jesus was like a best friend who would never, ever abandon me. He was my very own personal private superhero. He’d swoop in and save me one day. No matter how often I was disappointed by his lack of response (which was “every time”), my faith didn’t wane or falter. I didn’t realize that there were all sorts of verses about how his followers were going to suffer on his behalf. No, he was going to come save me at some point. I was sure of it. I just had to stay faithful. I didn’t realize that God had let plenty of other people fall to very bad ends–or that sometimes he even sometimes set those people up for those ends, like Job and of course Adam and Eve. It would have been very difficult to maintain my illusions had I run across those verses and really considered what they were saying.
Later I would meet Christians who regarded him as a father figure–like a perfect parent, despite all the signs to the contrary (atrocity apologists, I’m looking all stink-eyed at you). I’d meet women who thought of Jesus as their boyfriend or husband, like some perfect lover with chiseled abs who never criticized, always listened, and was always supportive. I’d marvel at how flexible Jesus was for all these people–he really could be just about anything.
It seems clear to me now that people put robes on Jesus to match what they most need in the idea of him. He’s a supportive boyfriend for women who can’t find good godly husbands. He’s a parent figure to people with turbulent families. He’s a military leader to conspiracy nuts who like to imagine him with a machine gun in his hands. He’s an American Ayn-Rand style capitalist to evangelicals who need to justify why they’re lobbying with all their might against healthcare and welfare programs. He’s a rewarder of wealth and prosperity to McFamilies who need to justify why they’re buying three SUVs and huge houses. What so few of these Christians really understand is that their leader was a complete socialist firebrand. I certainly didn’t realize what a revolutionary person those early Gospels depict, and I doubt very many modern evangelicals realize it now.
In fanfic (fan-written fiction stories using settings and characters from established TV series, movies, actors, books, etc), there’s a custom of noting just what variant of a character is being used. For example, “Hurt!Snape” is a version of Severus Snape who openly displays his physical or emotional pain, or “Slave!Snape” meaning a version of Snape who has been enslaved. You can go here to see a bunch of stories illustrating that point. These distinctions allow readers to spend their time reading only stories about the type of Snape they want to see.
It’s very hard for me to see all these incarnations of Jesus and not use the same conventions. Buddy!Jesus is just one that you’ve all probably heard of thanks to the movie Dogma. But there are so many others: Boyfriend!Jesus. Daddy!Jesus. Capitalist!Jesus. And none of them really look much like what the Bible depicts, not that I take the Bible seriously, but Christians do, so you’d think they would know something like this considering it’s really about the only source they have of the most important being in their entire world.
How many Christians today would really want to do what Jesus said to do, to live like he said they should live, act like how he told them to act, and suffer like he promised they would suffer? I’d reckon not many. I was once desperate to find a Christianity that did this, because I didn’t realize just how untrustworthy the Bible was or how immoral its underlying concepts were. But I never did find a Christianity like that. The few that did seem to be at least a little like that were riddled with scandals and decidedly un-Christlike behavior. Really, the more hardcore the form of Christianity, I can say with complete sincerity and not even a little of my usual hyperbole, the more prone to abuse it was. These guys have had 2000 years to figure out how to do this right, and they still haven’t managed to make a denomination that is both really Biblical but also not abusive. I’m going to call this myth busted.
If this were a diet, we’d have given up a long time ago, but it’s a religion, so its adherents keep trying and trying to make it work the way the source book says it should work. When they fail, they blame themselves instead of the utter unworkability of the teachings they’ve absorbed. Depressing, isn’t it?
The simple truth is this: the Bible’s not very clearly written. And most Christians have little to no idea what’s really in it. If they really thought Jesus was so important, I’d expect them to know a bit more about him and what the Bible says of him. But they don’t. The few things they do kind of know just a little are so easily twisted and turned into whatever Crack!Jesus they need that I don’t trust their takes on him at all. They’ve got a mannequin they can dress up however they want, but what’s really under all those American-flag and Tuxedo Mask costumes? What’s really under the Superman cape? Whatever it is, it was lost long ago to the mists of history. Now what we have is a Jesus whose presentation says more about its presenter than the presenter perhaps intends it to say.
To me, a child needing help and comfort, he was a superhero.
To the middle-aged single lady, he’s a husband figure.
To slaves long ago, he was a liberator.
To the gun-toting NRA member, he’s a militiaman.
To the soccer mom and dad, he’s a milk-pale, weak-chinned teacher with flowing hippie locks.
To evangelicals he’s the strong-armed protector of decency and terrifier of feminists.
And so on. I saw what I needed most to see just as Christians have always done and as they do now. Why, it’s almost as if there is no real Jesus and we’re just making one up that makes us happiest.
But I would rather see what really exists instead of what I want to see. The world is tough, and I can’t make my way through it imagining things that aren’t there or else I won’t ever improve my situation legitimately. Very few things improve because they’re ignored or plastered over with imaginary solutions. Hands clasped in prayer are by definition not making anything real happen.
The worst thing about believing in a superhero Jesus, though, is that it blinded me to the very real superheroes in my world and made me think that only certain people who got ultra-lucky (or ultra un-lucky, in Starfire’s or Batman’s cases) could be superheroes. There are already heroes that walk among us, though they lack capes and superpowers, and the really cool thing about them is that any one of us could join their ranks in some way. I hope that as a race we can move past wishing and hoping for someone to swoop in and save us so we can work on becoming the heroes we ourselves need–and, yes, deserve.
The nice thing about believing in one of these variants of Jesus is that a whole crowd of people thought just like I did about him. Billions of Christians couldn’t possibly be wrong… could they? Join me next time for a discussion of Christian tribalism.
PS: You’ll pry my copy of NTT #1 out of my cold, dead hands.
This post was tidied up a little bit on 10/3/2016.