Christian Mary Sues

Christian Mary Sues February 6, 2014

This blog writes itself. Case in point:

The night before last, my doorbell rang. I wasn’t decent, so Mr. Captain answered it. I heard a brief conversation, ending with him politely declining whatever the person at our door wanted to sell, and when he got back, I asked who it’d been.

“One of our neighbors. He wanted to invite us to his church.”

I turned and stared at him. “You’re kidding. He’s never even talked to us.”

“No, but he invited us anyway.”

Now, I want you to think about this incident as we talk about what we’re going to talk about today. This Christian neighbor of mine doesn’t even know who we are. He’s never talked to us, though he’s undoubtedly seen us around this apartment complex; it’s not that big and the buildings are close. He’s never welcomed us to the neighborhood or shown the least bit of interest in us as people. But he wants us to go to his church with him. He knows better than we do what we should do with our lives, and he was arrogant enough to presume upon our generosity by interrupting our quiet evening at home to sell us his snake oil. And in the day or so since the invitation, he’s not said a word to us since we declined.

If he’s got a “relationship, not a religion,” as so many of these Christians say nowadays to look more hip and hardcore than their peers, then his relationship skills could certainly use a little work.

The visit prompted some thoughts in me, though not the ones he likely would have wanted to have provoked. I thought back to all the times I’d invited people to church, and how, after they’d declined, I was so mortified to talk to them again; I had always been so embarrassed, like I’d been caught “Jesus-zoning” them. I wondered about this guy–why he felt moved to bang on people’s doors at nine-o-jesus-it-can’t-be-nine-o’clock on a weeknight to invite everybody to his church. From the tone of his voice, he’d seemed all right, but I felt distinctly annoyed at his presumption the more I thought about it. I wondered if he realized how insincere he’d come off to both Mr. Captain and myself; I wondered if he knew we felt like notches in his Bible cover, or if it’d even bother him to have inspired those feelings.

The visit also tied in very neatly with a book I’ve been reading lately.

The book, unChristian, is pretty good, its Christian-centric pandering aside, but there was a thing in it that really stood out to me. The research the author did said that only about 1/3 of non-Christians believed Christians really cared about them when they were proselytizing at them. However–and this was the real shock–two-thirds of Christians were absolutely convinced that their targets thought they were genuine (p. 68).  Think about that for a second. Christians generally are convinced that they’re behaving one way, but the targets of their behavior are seeing something totally different.

In other words, these Christians are behaving like Mary Sues.

In the gaming world, there isn’t a much worse accusation someone can fling at a bad roleplayer as having a Mary Sue character (male characters occasionally get called Gary Stus or some variation, but for ease of writing, I’m sticking with the more common female name as it covers all genders).

Example of a 'typical' Mary Sue, with unusual ...
Example of a ‘typical’ Mary Sue, with unusual hair and eyes, a birthmark, detailed clothing, and a suggested mix of two species (human and fairy). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lot of concepts get bound up in the Mary Sue idea. At its heart, a Mary Sue is a sort of wish-fulfillment character. She’s perfect. If she has flaws, they’re goofy and loveable flaws or don’t really impact her much (like Bella Swan’s klutziness and social awkwardness). She’s unique–usually as otherworldly as someone can possibly be, because one’s worthiness as a human being is tied up in how “special” and “unique” that person is, and that carries over into roleplaying in this player’s mind. The Sue is pretty, popular, and sweet (probably totally unlike the player, who desperately wishes s/he was that awesome and unique), she’s special in every way, and everybody around her is in love with her–even people who don’t swing that way or who have no reason at all to like her. She saves the day, is the belle of the ball, makes the hero’s heart do loop-the-loops, and generally is a perfect little princess. A dark backstory is usually implied, because a hero can’t exist without a tragic past. Male Sues, of course, are stereotypical awesome men–strong, masculine, handsome, but sensitive and sexy too, and no woman can possibly resist them. Neither gender handles botched or failed rolls very well, as you might imagine, since failing to hit someone in combat or failing to do something awesome is a personal affront to the Sue’s player. Some of the biggest dramas in gaming happen when a GM refuses to let a Sue have his or her way despite what the dice (or the roleplaying) say should happen.

Think about someone you’ve known like that in real life–and we all have, let’s face it. That kind of person is a total jackass. Usually their self-perceptions don’t come anywhere near reality. The kids in school who think that being “sweet to their friends, but don’t cross them or they’ll turn into raging psychopaths!” (which is a word-for-word phrase I used to see on character applications on the games I used to administer online) is a positive trait are actually downright excruciating to be around. They aren’t nearly as interesting, knowledgeable, or compassionate as they think they are.

Now, sometimes gamers will run into well-done characters who act this way, and their players know perfectly well that their characters are actually self-entitled, self-important, ego-inflated jackasses. That can be a lot of fun, if it’s done right. Usually there’s some story arc involved where the character gets awakened to his or her Mary Sue-ness and becomes a better person thereby.

But usually, it isn’t that way at all. The players of these characters really, truly think that they’re roleplaying Jesus or something, and it’s usually a total shock to them that no, actually, their fellow gamers aren’t nearly as impressed by the Mary Sue as the player of the Mary Sue is.

Unfortunately, along with not realizing that a Mary Sue is what’s getting portrayed, these gamers also demand that the other players play along with their fantasy even if the character isn’t even in the least sympathetic or played to provoke the kind of response the Sue’s typist wants to provoke. You can probably imagine that most gamers just try to avoid Sues and their players; it doesn’t do a lot of good to tell such players that their roleplaying is awful and their characters are two-dimensional, blatant ego masturbatory aids. Most of us have tried to help such gamers move past their need to play Sues, but I’ve learned what a waste of time that is. The people who play Sues play them because they need to play them. That’s a level of “broken” that normal people aren’t going to be able to help fix.

In the same way, Christians who are convinced they are “loving” or “compassionate” are usually just displaying their own lack of self-awareness. Ever tried to tell one of these sorts of Christian that you don’t actually find their behavior very loving or compassionate? They get indignant. How dare we not play along with their roleplaying?

In the same way that “Nice Guys” often have a very mechanical view of how relationships work (insert “niceness” and “favors,” get “sex” and “love” from the Vagina Vending Machine) and gamers can have a very mechanical view of how to portray qualities like “ferocity” and “nobility,” I think Christians can sometimes get caught up in a very mechanical view of how to represent love and compassion. They get told that acting in a certain way is always going to be taken as loving or compassionate, and they get this idea in their heads that they’re the action-stars of their very own movie. They mean to represent love and compassion, after all. So the rest of us are required to nod and smile and suspend disbelief, and agree that they are being loving and compassionate.

The problem is that Christians, just like Nice Guys, just like gamers, don’t realize that they’re not the ones who get to judge whether the portrayal is a certain way. Their audience is. The mark of behaving lovingly is that the target of that behavior feels, well, loved afterward. But Christians have removed that requisite from their rulebook. To them, “love” can be so foul and hateful that nobody observing that behavior would ever think it was supposed to be “loving” without being explicitly told it was. And their version of “compassion” often carries with it such awful control and abusiveness vibes that only these zealots could ever think it was truly compassionate.

Christians often get accused of living in a bubble, that they wear blinkers to protect themselves from reality, that they are sheltered. And nowhere do we see these traits in action than in the realm of the gaping chasm between “how Christians want people to see them” and “how Christians actually are seen by the people around them.”

We all probably have some cherished delusions about how we act and what we’re like as people, but we’re not under a mandate of being loving or else facing eternal torture for not being loving. I seriously don’t get how Christians can hear, over and over again, a steady drumbeat of “this is not loving” and “this isn’t actually compassionate” and “you’re hateful” and “you’re pushing me away” and still think of themselves as loving and compassionate people. The only way they can do it is to tell themselves that sometimes people just don’t understand what “tough love” is and sometimes a child doesn’t always like being disciplined, and not only is that a gross mischaracterization of what “tough love” actually is, but I resent the implication that I’m some kind of little child who needs to be spanked. I’m an adult, I deserve and demand respect, and I have a right to my feelings and opinions.

Being condescended at by paternalistic Christians who are convinced I need to be spanked and brought into line by force if necessary for my own good is about the worst strategy possible for making me feel loved or cherished. But then, I don’t seriously think the goal is really to show love, but to express and regain dominance over me. Christians may say they want to love their neighbor, but what they really want is control over their neighbors’ private lives.

The only way they can feel justified is if we obey them and fall into line. The only way to satisfy their fantasy is to appease them and play along. They’re not interested in what we think, because we are downright inconvenient–a necessary obstacle that must be navigated in their internal movie. They know if they really ask us what we think, we’re going to say “We don’t feel loved at all.” And that doesn’t fit the narrative these Christians have in mind. The only ways they can still think of themselves as loving is to either not ask for any sort of input or feedback, or else to negate the criticisms they get (by making us look like ungrateful brats who just don’t understand why their “parents” act this way).

That’s not love. That’s abuse.

If I tell someone I love him, but I’m always doing things that person hates and that make that person feel minimized, emotionally hurt, and degraded, then it doesn’t matter how much I want that person to see me as loving or how lovingly I intend to act toward him. The simple truth is that he’s the one who gets to decide if I’m being loving or not. What matters is that he feels unloved despite my best intentions. I can either hand-wave that away and try to convince him that he’s just wrong and needs to start seeing my degrading, dehumanizing behavior toward him as loving (a tactic called “gaslighting” and something abusive partners often do), or else I can learn what kind of things he really thinks are loving and start doing those things. Even if I don’t personally feel like the behaviors he values are actually loving, his perceptions of them as loving are still valid and still need to be addressed. What I’m not going to do is just keep doing hateful, abusive things to him and insist he consider them loving.

It’s easy to see which direction Christianity’s gone.

It seems very clear to me that most Christians are a level of “broken” that normal people just aren’t going to be able to fix. It’s going to take a lot of them realizing just how hateful and abusive they are before we start seeing some real change in how Christians engage with the world. It’s going to take some real soul-searching and vulnerability. But it has to happen. The religion’s already known way more for what it hates and disapproves of than anything about what it loves. People are already leaving in droves because they know what real love is, and they know it is not found in the vast majority of Christian churches and fellowship groups. Even those who identify as Christians are leaving churches, not just those who’ve deconverted, and I’m hearing them specifically say they are leaving because they didn’t see Jesus in those churches and didn’t see love in the folks around them. But the ones remaining aren’t seeing that they aren’t being loving. And they aren’t interested in hearing anything that contradicts their narrative. When confronted with contradiction, most of them will manage the resulting cognitive dissonance by rationalization or else outright denial.

To grow as people, we need other people’s feedback. To learn what really is loving, we have to talk to those around us to make sure we are really being loving. We need to have the corrective influence of trusted friends and loved ones, and we need to be able to own up to our own un-loving behaviors so we can move closer toward the goal of loving. Otherwise we’re just living out a Mary Sue fantasy. And I don’t know about you, but love is worth finding out what the people I love really value. It’s worth not pressing my own ideas onto them, but rather showing them respect and valuing them as people. It’s worth living in reality instead of in some movie playing in my head.

In short, I choose to live in reality. Speaking of which, next time we’re going to talk a little about the creationism debate. I wasn’t expecting it to be such a slam-dunk, and hadn’t expected to write about it at all because I didn’t figure it would impact much. But it totally has. I see that it fits in very nicely with the current stuff I’m covering about Mary Sues. We’re going to talk about why creationism, as a concept, illustrates the sheltered evangelical mindset and why it’s become such an in-group marker belief–and why losing this insistence on delusion is about all that is going to save Christianity at this point. Please join me.

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