The Magic School Bus and the Satanic Panic that ate Christianity

The Magic School Bus and the Satanic Panic that ate Christianity January 14, 2015

“Anyone who fears a God, if not God and Jesus Christ, should be outraged,” says concerned Christian mother Robyn Wilkins of Tennessee.

Wilkins may be confused about the doctrine of the Trinity, but she knows Satanism when she sees it — even if she has to squint a bit and kind of tilt her head to imagine that she sees it. And she imagines she sees it in a five-pointed star pattern in the brake lights of a Tennessee school bus.

There are 18 five-sided stars in this picture — 18 Satanic pentagrams. 18 = 3 x 6. Three sixes. 666. Do the math, people.

WMCA Action News 5 is on the story — by which I mean they ran a TV segment that didn’t in any way attempt to answer who, what, when, where, how or why; that failed to get any footage of the bus, any comment or explanation from brake-light manufacturers, bus companies, traffic safety experts or education officials. They just took the outraged mom’s cellphone pics of the back of the bus out to the sidewalks and asked a bunch of random people if they think maybe that’s, like, Satanic or something. (Oh, and they looked up the word “pentagram” in a dictionary … Journalism!)

It’s a remarkable example of how local TV news formulas allow them to put together “reports” that contain nothing in the way of actual reporting. This ain’t journalism. This is gossip. Or something slightly less informative and trustworthy than gossip.

WMCA Action News would have better served its viewers if they’d sent their “reporters” out to ask random passersby, “Hey, check this out, don’t you think this cloud looks like Kim Kardashian? Like, that part could be her hair and that could be her butt, and, like, whaddya think? Do you see it? Huh? Do you?”

But as depressing as this “news” segment is for what it tells us about the current state of local journalism, this whole spectacle is even more depressing for what it tells us about the current state of Christianity in America.

The hallmark of white evangelical discipleship in the 21st century is feigned outrage. They’ll know we are Christians by our indignant pretense.

Evangelicalism in America takes its cue from the Catholic rite of baptism: “Do you renounce Satan and all his works?” We do. We just no longer have any idea what all Satan’s works might look like. So we make stuff up and then renounce that.

That’s the flip-side of a religion that has completely forgotten what Jesus Christ and all his works look like too. Our imaginary Satan and his minions of imaginary Satanists are just the opposite of our imaginary Jesus. When your idea of Jesus neglects what Jesus himself called “the weightier matter” of justice, then your idea of Satan is going to neglect the weightier matter of injustice too.

The Satanic Panic may seem to be at low tide, but it hasn’t gone away. The more cartoonish expressions of it — playing records backwards and looking for pentagrams in Disney movies — have ebbed a bit partly due to a counter-wave of appropriate mockery and a backlash against incarcerating people on the basis of the spectral evidence of “recovered memories” and expert testimony fabricated by the likes of Mike Warnke.

But the main reason the more outlandish forms of the Satanic Panic have receded is that they’re no longer necessary. The Satanic Panic no longer needs to bid for attention from the fringes because it now enjoys a central place in American religion and American politics. It has become institutionalized in the teavangelical political-religion that remains centrally focused on its opposition to imaginary Satanic baby-killers.

Here’s how it works and why it became necessary:

You’re sitting in your car, driving to the mall, stuck in traffic just like everybody else. In this way, and in every way, you look just exactly like everybody else, you feel just like everybody else, you are just like everybody else.

But you know you’re not supposed to be just like everybody else. You’re supposed to be different somehow. Your life is supposed to be focused on and shaped by a religious devotion that sets you apart. You’re supposed to be a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people. You’re supposed to look and feel and be better than everybody else, but you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing to make that true. Or maybe you have some idea of what that would mean — some vague notion of what it would mean to take up your cross and follow — but that just seems too daunting, too unpleasant, too hard.

So you settle for a shortcut. If you can’t raise the bridge, lower the river. If you can’t set yourself apart by acting more like Jesus, you can set yourself apart by pretending that everybody else is acting more like Satan. All those other people who seem just like you might be secretly evil. They’re not disciples of Jesus, like you are, so they must be disciples of Satan. And even though they look and act and live just like you do, there must be secret, coded signs that reveal their true evil agenda of evilness. They must actually be Satanists who kill babies so that they can have lots of dirty sex, and who have lots of dirty sex so that they can kill babies.

If that’s the case, then surely you are better than them. If you can convince yourself that they are super-duper evil, then you start to seem way better than them without having to change anything at all about yourself. And if you go around in high dudgeon — perpetually outraged over all this imagined dirty sex and baby-killing — then your indignation and umbrage will clearly set you apart as one of God’s elect.

All you need to do is to find some sign, some coded signal, to confirm this suspicion about the secret depravity of your neighbors. And, hey, what’s that up ahead? Doesn’t that pattern in the brake lights of that school bus look kind of like …?

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