tim on texas

Lovely article by Tim Minchin on his concert tour of Texas. I do love that man.

 

 

Advertisements

trick-or-treating: why we did it

Halloween is a relatively new celebration in Australia. My memory of it as a child was my father harumphing about ‘American nonsense’ and ‘cultural imperialism’. But as giggling around the nighttime streets collecting armfuls of treats from strangers started to really take off, he let us go anyway. (Goodonya, Dad!)

An awful lot of Australian’s probably felt like my dad did. Many probably still do. We’re a small nation and a new one, still struggling to build an identity we can call our own. That’s not an easy task when your homes are flooded with American television programs, our children’s heroes grown in some far flung field. So I sympathise with those who are resistant to the imposition of a new holiday which has no real meaning in this country. I really do.

Then, in my 20 years as a Christian fundamentalist, my justification for rejecting the celebration of Halloween was based on my belief that it glorified the satanic. It was difficult for me to see how dressing children as witches and ghouls could possibly be compatible with the purity and holiness we were valued so highly. So we ignored it more or less. Although I kept lollies by the door for visiting children. I was never quite so bah, humbug as to hand out toothbrushes, or worse, Bibles as we’ve heard some do. Nearly, but not quite.

For several years, our family also boycotted Christmas believing that it’s pagan roots and contemporary materialism were taints we could not ignore. We toyed with holding a ‘birthday party for Jesus’ instead and even did it one year – with cake, balloons and all – but frankly, it just didn’t fly. Later, to the horror of one of the stricter families in our home church group, we embraced Christmas wholeheartedly once more, building in additional symbolism in order to help our children remember important truths about the birth, death and resurrection of Christ. Looking back, I wonder how explaining as we dressed the tree that ‘this string of red beads is symbolic of the blood Christ shed for us when he died on a tree for our sins’ could have seemed a festive thought to share with my babies. 

But at the time it made sense. For us, everything had to have meaning. Everything had to sit in the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ basket. There are few shades of grey, few acceptable variations. There was no spectrum of faith for us. Our idea of what constituted a Christian, or appropriate Christian practice was narrow, quite rigid and based on the Bible. 

So, anyway, today I no longer hold concerns about either imperialism or satanism. But as Halloween drew closer this week, and my children started asking whether we could go trick-or-treating for the first time, I uncovered another layer of reluctance lurking in my heart. I found myself saying, that I just can’t see it is OK to knock on strangers’ doors and ask for food. Begging doesn’t do it for me. Too proud I suppose. I don’t even like those smorgasbords where you hold out your plate like Oliver, smiling with gratitude should the chef deign to fling a slice of overcooked beef in your direction. They always make me feel kind of dirty.

So I fobbed and fobbed…and would have managed to let it pass us by if my friend Lynette had not called at the last minute and said she was going to take her daughter to a nice quiet set of streets for some chocolatey fun. She assured me there were some Americans and Canadians living there who were always thrilled when children came a-calling. Pressed to make a decision with almost no notice (and not wanting to miss a chance to do a bit of street walking with a girlfriend) I agreed.

So the bairns frocked up and off we set. I felt nervous at first. What if someone chased my children off their stoop with a broom? Or shrieked that they were imperialised beggar brats who should go home and memorise some Henry Lawson? But no such horrors transpired. We carefully selected only those homes with porch lights on and front doors tantalisingly ajar. People couldn’t have been nicer, or more pleased to fill our children’s bags with enough chocolates and lollies to give us all a dreadful night’s sleep and a serious sugar hangover the next day. We bumped into other trick-or-treaters and frightened each other with giggly boos. The kids laughed and chattered as they ran from door to door, scarcely able to believe how good this was. Free lollies! From strangers! And all you had to do was smile nicely and hold out your bag. It was a dream come true.

So…the days when I would require a profound meaning to drive me to participate in the fun are long gone. And I no longer care a snip either about Halloween’s roots, or that trick-or-treating is only appropriate for those who can’t afford to come by chocolates in the ordinary way. From now on, instead of constructing arguments for rejecting Halloween – or any other celebration on offer, I’m going to limit my analysis to this: Life is just too short to miss any opportunity to enjoy watching children – mine or anyone else’s – laughing out loud in frank delight.

the child catchers

Sunday night, here in Australia, the ABC TV program Sunday Best screened the disturbing US-made documentary Jesus Camp. Made in 2006, many American readers will have seen it already but I think this was the first time it has screened in Australia. I found I was a little nervous as I sat down to watch it. My friend Vyckie Garrison had mentioned the doco should come with a trigger warning for ex-fundamentalists. She was right. So much of it was horrifyingly familiar, depicting scenes I had witnessed in churches in Australia many times when I was a Pentecostal myself.

For those who haven’t seen it, Jesus Camp follows a group of young children as they prepare for and then attend a camp conducted by North Dakota pastor Becky Fischer, founder and director of Kids in Ministry International (KIMI). The featured children seemed to be from conservative evangelical, homeschooling families, and their parents, many of whom attended camp with them, were apparently unphased by Fischer’s bullying and mad-eyed rants, or by the bat-shit crazy things she got the kids to do (having them speak a blessing to a life-sized cardboard cut out of George Bush springs to mind).

A video of ‘highlights’ (using the term in its broadest sense here :)) is embedded below.

Evidently, Becky Fischer was bombarded with emails and letters from angry viewers after the documentary first screened in the US. The North Dakota campsite where Jesus Camp was filmed banned Fisher and her team from returning after vandals made their feelings about Fischer and her methods known. But KIMI’s disturbing ‘ministry’ to children continues nonetheless.

Fischer’s particular schtick is getting kids involved in ‘the supernatural’. By this she means that she is gifted to teach children how to connect directly to God, to speak to him and to hear him speak, to experience supernatural power flowing from God to the child and so on to transform a sinful world. Fischer’s camps run for 3 – 4 days and cover a huge range of supernatural techniques. At the (relatively) harmless end of that spectrum, this involves getting the kids ‘filled with the [Holy] Spirit‘, and encouraging them to speak in tongues. At its nuttier extremities though, kids are instructed how to engage in direct prayer warfare against Satan, have visions, prophesy, heal the sick, and perform ‘signs, wonders and miracles’. Apart from attending camps like the one in the documentary, kids learn how to do this through instruction from their own church leaders who have studied Fischer’s DVD courses broadly entitled, School of Supernatural Children’s Ministry (which is at least better than its former, rather chilling name, Leading the Lambs to the Lion Training Institute).

Fischer’s charismatic ilk reminds me very much of my own experiences at Clark Taylor’s Christian Outreach Centre (COC) in Brisbane in the 80s – the church where I landed when I was first drawn into Christianity at the age of 19. I taught Sunday School at that church and while the children’s workers didn’t engage in the kinds of activities I saw in Jesus Camp, I can well imagine that Fischer’s practices would have been held in very high regard had COC leadership known about them. The then-3500-strong COC congregation was subjected to the ministry of many visiting American evangelists at least as flaky as Fischer and, like Fischer, COC leadership believed that to reach a lost world you should earnestly seek to convert its children – as early as possible. Buses were sent out from COC to underprivileged suburbs each Sunday morning and Christian workers wearing appealing animal character costumes and offering handfuls of lollipops (and the promise of more) would lure children on to buses and ferry them to church. It gives me shivers to think of it now.

 

Sir Robert Helpmann as The Child Catcher, 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' (1968)

 

In my twenties I left COC in favour of the Assemblies of God (AoG) denomination of Hillsong fame. My then-husband studied to be a minister at the AoG ministerial training college in Katoomba. The AoG was more conservative than COC and other similar charismatic denominations in those days. But the winds of change were blowing and bringing with them the madness of faith healers Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth E. Hagin, and that of utter charlatans such as Benny Hinn and Rodney Howard Brown. By the time I was in my late-twenties, the Toronto Blessing had hit and in-church craziness shot to a terrifying new level. If you think I might be exaggerating, take a peek at this video which shows behaviours typical of Toronto-influenced church services at the time. I witnesses spectacles such as those depicted – people shaking, rolling on the floor, laughing uncontrollably, and (I kid you not) ‘barking in the Spirit’ – more than once in Australian AoG churches. It was believed to be a revival, an outpouring of God’s Spirit on his people. Yes, even the barking.

I left this rather frightening kind of Christianity behind and settled into a much duller but less overtly weird form of conservative fundamentalism. I didn’t jump ship because I disagreed with the notion that believers could connect directly with God and experience some kind of supernatural power. I left because, in my view at the time, these Pentecostal leaders were foolish to be accepting that just because these bizarre extremes occurred (a) in church and (b) to people who claimed to be Christians, they must therefore be signs from God – regardless of what the Bible might have to say on the subject. It was this new and incredibly popular wave of belief in what was seen and experienced rather than what was written in the Book that frightened me. It seemed to me as though the church was standing on the edge of some dark abyss and leaping forward with no possible way of imaging what lay beyond. I found solace with believers who valued the commandments in the relatively nice, safe Book with it’s comfortingly ancient and only tangentially relevant stories of prophets and faith healers.

I’ve written elsewhere that the Christian fundamentalists’ commitment to the teachings in the Bible, despite reliable evidence to the contrary or indeed common sense, no longer holds any appeal for me. But frankly, I’d probably take a busload of my old Quiverfull fundy friends in preference to a small handful of Becky Fischers. Her type manage to combine the crushing weight of religious fear, condemnation and guilt, and add to it the terrifying notion that if you notice the appearance of a sudden, vivid thought or an image springs seemingly unbidden to your mind, you should consider it a direct communication from the Almighty and act on it without hesitation. Indeed, to hesitate would be to sinfully disobey the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The implications of this kind of belief would probably genuinely terrify many a free-thinking person.

And of course, Fischer isn’t preaching this to adults. The penitents broken and sobbing with remorse at her altar, having realised they have served God with less than a whole tiny heart are children between the ages of 6 and 12. And Fischer’s reach isn’t limited to American children either. Kids in Ministry International has an Australian branch based right here in my own city, Brisbane. At that site, you can even find a special section devoted to selling DVDs for teaching Fischer’s doctrine and methods to babies and preschoolers.

It is probably almost impossible for those who have never been inside fundamentalist Christianity to understand why parents would allow their children to be subject to such blatant emotional manipulation and brainwashing. Let me try and explain: To the fundamentalist parent, Heaven and Hell are real, literal places and God gets to decide to which of those you will go depending on how you have lived your life on earth. Like all parents, Christian fundamentalists love their children; the very worst thing they can imagine happening to them is that they grow up in a home where Jesus is known – and yet finish spending eternity in fiery torment. Desperate to ensure their children follow the path to Paradise, many grasp frantically at any system which purports to assist or, better yet, guarantee success in raising God-loving offspring. Fischer’s program claims to turn ordinary children into spiritual and evangelistic powerhouses with direct access to the throne room of Heaven. This is an irresistible offer for these kinds of parents.

Fischer’s message is also highly appealing to children raised in these kinds of homes. Of course, they want to please God, and of course they notice how thrilled their parents are when they are apparently ‘touched by the Spirit’ in these meetings as they commit their lives to Christian service with tears of joy. In Jesus Camp, Fischer used a multitude of tricks to draw the children in: colourful props, delicious treats, engaging stories as well as bullying and lambasting, guilt, condemnation, and threats of hellfire. The desire for a solid sense of belonging with God and other believers, combined with the thrill of being different from (and better than) ‘the world’ has a seductive power, and committing to those ideals offers an emotional payout that it would be rare to find offered in any other context.

I am not able to find any Australian churches who have purchased Becky Fischer’s School of Supernatural Children’s Ministry DVDs – at least, none that will admit it on their websites. But I can tell you than this interest in teaching a mystical, supernaturally-oriented Christianity seems to be on the rise. Churches like Westlife not far from me in Springfield, Qld have attracted media attention* for running School of the Supernatural courses where they claim can teach people to cure cancer. Numerous other Australian churches run similar programs built on the teachings of US-based Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry. And while these churches might be at the whacky end of the billabong, their pool is getting wider and wider all the time. The churches that are growing their congregations are the arm-waving, Pentecostal, flee-from-hellfire-and-prophesy-on-the-way sort. Of particular concern is that these are the churches from which the Australian government-funded National School Chaplaincy Program draws many of its workers.

My point is, Australians who watched Jesus Camp on Sunday shouldn’t imagine that the craziness depicted is a purely Americian phenomenon. The same dangerous, psyche-cracking nonsense is being preached at Australians – including, I believe, children – as I write. We can only wait and see what the fruit will be. My bet, sadly, is that we’ll see a spike in adolescent and young adult psychiatric illness as a result.

 

* The article cited states that Westlife and its School of the Supernatural are linked to the well known AoG church Hillsong, however Hillsong denies any such association.

anorexia art

I’ve posted some art I produced for my current university unit on my other blog All the Way Out. I used the opportunity as a vehicle to tell some of my daughter’s Anorexia story. Feel free to take a peek.

Here’s the first in the series. View the whole series here.

'Anorexia #1: The Arrival'. Jane Douglas, 2011. Digital photomontage.

christian guys and porkie pies

>>Editing to note: The article was published by On Line Opinion 3o May, 2011.  Welcome to visitors who have followed a link from that site.

***

While others have already written about recent public statements by Christian leaders such as Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Jim Wallace and organisations such as Access Ministries, as a former fundamentalist pastor’s wife – no longer a believer – I’d like to share my perspective.

Until quite recently, I was a supporter of ACL and admired Jim Wallace for ‘standing up for Christian values’ which I, like many of my former friends, felt were under attack in Australia. Precisely what values were in danger of being quashed by godless atheists is now lost to me but I do at least remember feeling that we Christians were part of a small, embattled subculture, significantly under-represented in the public arena. I heard chaplains speak in church many times and remember that I, like most, if not all, of those in the pews were positive about the work chaplains were doing ‘reaching unchurched kids for Jesus’ in public schools.

So, while the content of Jim Wallace’s racist and anti-gay Anzac Day tweet was evidently deeply shocking to many non-religious people, it was precisely what I would have expected to hear from any serious Christian fundamentalist in a closed meeting with likeminded believers. I was somewhat taken aback that Wallace was so indiscrete as to share his true thoughts on twitter – but not wholly surprised as I will explain.

Church organisations and their private activities have not been of very much interest to anyone but themselves for…well…a long, long time. Christians have become used to this lack of scrutiny and, in my experience, have forgotten how out of step with the rest of the community many of their beliefs and attitudes are. I mentioned this in a church setting on a number of occasions. Once, at the end of a brief course on the how-tos of discipling new converts, I approached the group leader and asked what she would see as the difference between what she’d just shared with us and, say, the coercive and controlling strategies used by a cult – apart from the obvious fact that our beliefs were right. The leader, I think, experienced a Douglas Adamsesque upside-down-pink-bistro moment and was unable even to imagine a response to such a peculiar query. There was an awkward silence as she looked at me blankly, then smiled kindly, and walked away.

This incapacity to imagine how Christian, in-house communications might appear to those on the outside helps to explain Jim Wallace’s indiscretion. I imagine he just forgot for a moment that non-believers also follow him on twitter and was simply revealing what he really thinks about gay people and Muslims. But instead of either manning up and and taking the hit for his admission, or offering a sincere apology, Wallace immediately went on the attack, blaming those who brought his tweet to the attention of the media, saying that it was they who were causing the trouble, and accepting no responsibility whatsoever for provoking the storm that ensued as a result of his tweet.

There were Christian commentators, Bill Muehlenberg for one, who expressed disappointment that Wallace later offered a half-baked non-apology instead of standing by his bigoted beliefs. I expect there are many Christians who would agree with Muehlenberg on that score. After all, Wallace declares himself not just a Christian but a representative of the majority of Christians in Australia and we know that honesty is a virtue particularly valued in that faith community. Is it then unreasonable to expect a Christian representative should at least be able to take responsibility for his own words and abstain from telling porkies when questioned about them?

I imagine that many Australian Christians would also like to see Access Ministries, the primary supplier of chaplains to Australian public schools and a fundamentally Christian organisation, stand up for what it believes instead of hiding behind a facade of smiling but dishonest niceness as it is currently doing. Recent scrutiny of the contents of teaching materials, websites, newsletters and articles by and about Access Ministries have revealed, among other things, that Access, in breach of their contract with state education departments, and despite protestations to the contrary, their own publications reveal that Access Ministries chaplains have been merrily evangelising our kids in the school yard all along. A flurry of bottom-covering ensued last week as Access Ministries rushed to remove incriminating material from public view.

But I imagine no Christian would have be surprised by these revelations in the slightest. Chaplaincy organisations have never concealed their agenda to fulfil Jesus’s Great Commission of ‘making disciples of all men’, at least, they’ve been frank with other Christians about their aims. Indeed, it’s because that idea has broad Christian support that chaplains are able to attract private donations to subsidise their work. It’s just that, until now, no-one who wasn’t already a fan has apparently bothered to read their websites or newsletters to check whether they were indeed as harmlessly altruistic as they claimed.

But the cat is out of the bag. In the words of Access Ministries CEO, Evonne Paddison ‘…the greatest mission field we have in Australia [is] our children and our students. We need to go and make disciples.’ No-one, I think, is suggesting that this is incompatible with the Christian faith; enthusiastic evangelism is entirely consistent with a belief that, again in Paddison’s words, ‘without Jesus, our students are lost’. But subsequent to the public outcry caused by Paddison’s address, Access Ministries, instead of coming clean, released an explanation that attempted to perpetuate the lie that chaplains wouldn’t think of sharing the gospel with our children and that we should stop listening to the lefty, atheist ratbags who say they would. How very like Jim Wallace’s response.

I’m not the only one who finds this level of dishonesty staggering. The only explanation I’ve been able to come up with for the apparent ease with which Access Ministries continues to lie is that they are twisting another injunction of Jesus: to go out into a world of ‘wolves’ and be ‘as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves’ (Matthew 10:16). But I wonder if they bend the truth at their peril. Apart from numerous bible verses which threaten hellfire for liars, it seems to me that this particular sort of dishonesty, claiming they are not wholehearted followers of Christ when in fact they are, skims perilously close to the nastier ‘denying Christ’ kind of lie. And Christians well-understand the eternal consequences of those.

I’d like to see Christian organisations of all sorts fess up to the fact that they are (gasp) followers of Christ and admit that that carries with it certain obligations such as sharing their faith at any reasonable opportunity. I’d like them to honestly explain what they’ve been doing in our schools and state what they intend to do in the future. Then parents, principals and the State can decide if it’s appropriate that they continue to get paid to access our children. And if not, Christian organisations can go back to preaching on street corners or some other non-taxpayer-funded activity in an effort to attract converts.

But, for heaven’s sake, enough of this despicable deception; it really is a humiliating spectacle. Christian or not, no-one ought to be telling lies with the ease and frequency that these Christian leaders are. It is a sickening charade. And they’re not fooling anyone anyway.

talking with fundies

Posting here a comment left on this post about fundamentalism by Vyckie D. Garrison. Thanks, V!

>>Editing to add: Vyckie and friends write and support women coming out of Quiverful fundamentalism at No Longer Quivering. Check  it out :)<<

It is true that when challenged on their narrow-minded views, fundamentalists will interpret such “persecution” as evidence that they truly know the mind of God and are righteously doing His work.It is also true that it’s possible for fundamentalists to change (as evidenced by Jane ~ and me too!) ~ often those who are steadfastly convinced and seemingly immovable are the very ones who experience the most spectacular collapse of their entire “biblical worldview.”A few more notorious fundamentalists who changed: Frank Schaeffer (son of Christian apologist, Frances Schaeffer), Nate Phelps (son of WBC fanatic, Fred Phelps), Bishop John Shelby Spong, Sue Kidd Monk (Dance of the Dissident Daughter), … I know there are others whom I am not thinking of …For those who have an opportunity to engage with a fundamentalist and want to make an honest attempt to break through the “stainless steel tube” which channels their every thought to the narrow confines of “biblical orthodoxy” ~ try these strategies:1) Ask questions. Don’t assume that you know what fundamentalists believe and why.There are two categories of fundy believers: those who’ve jumped on the bible-believing bandwagon as part of their salvation experience without really thinking through the whole fundamentalist paradigm at all, and those who have carefully thought through every minute detail of their belief system.By asking questions such as, “Please explain to me what you mean when you say that the bible is the Word of God?” or “Can you tell me the process by which you understand God’s will?” ~ you give the fundies in the first category a chance to start thinking about what they believe, and those in the second category will (as an automatic response of their thoughtful nature) quickly anticipate what objections you might have to their reasoning ~ and in the process, find the holes in their logic themselves ~ they may not admit it right away ~ but they’ll keep thinking about the problems until they either figure a way to justify and rationalize it or (and this does happen!) they have to admit to themselves that their argument does not hold up under careful scrutiny.

2) Translate their thought-stopping language.

It’s not necessary to be judgmental, snarky or condescending here. When a fundy uses “Christianese” ~ simply ask them what that means and then restate their response using ordinary language.

For example: When a fundy says, We love the sinner but hate the sin ~ ask for specific examples ~ what does loving the sinner but hating his sin look like in a real-life situation? After listening to the fundamentalist’s response, restate it this way: You are talking about making a distinction between what a person does and who/what that person is.

No need to be malicious or argumentative in your translation ~ this is just another simple way to get a fundy’s thought processes going again.

3) Use real-life examples to demonstrate that people and situations are often complicated and cannot always be addressed in black & white terms.

It is only necessary to make a single connection for the fundamentalist to the humanity of those outside their extremely limited point of reference to plant major doubts as to their absolutist idealism.

For me ~ it was a nun who came to my bedside after the delivery of my 3rd child. While she read a simple prayer from her prayer book for my health and safety, I was praying silently to God, “Lord, are you really going to send this gentle, kind old woman to Hell because she believes what the Catholic church taught her about who You are and what You require?” From that point on ~ even though I remained a fundamentalist Christian ~ deep down in my heart, I was a universalist.

4) Make it personal.

Fundamentalists are human ~ and as Brian McClaren states, we are all people in a predicament ~ only fundies can’t admit their personal predicaments because it’s a bad witness. So they smile and they tell you they’re okay and everything’s good.

But we know better.

Be the sort of compassionate, nonjudgemental person that the fundy can relax and be real with. If a fundamentalist were to admit her struggles to her “like-minded” circle of friends, the whole company would have to engage in a “the Lord works all things for good” dialogue of faith, trust and obedience ~ most likely, she’ll stick with the smile and skip the tiring ritual.

If you are honest ~ without the need to justify or rationalize or pretend ~ it will be a huge relief and a nearly-impossible-to-resist opportunity for a fundy to open up and be real too. If she can admit to you that sometimes she feels like sassing her husband ~ and you don’t make her feel like she ought to be ashamed for even thinking such thoughts ~ it won’t be long before she’ll tell you things you would never believe would enter a fundy head!!

Don’t beat her up with her imperfections ~ her own heart and mind are already doing plenty of that ~ not to mention her fundamentalist friends who are her only “support system.”

Didn’t mean to type so much here ~ Jane ~ :P Loved your post ~ and it got me thinking … What a relief to be finally out of the fundy cave ~ free to think outside the box of the “biblical worldview.”

conduct unbecoming

As I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of the current system whereby the State funds underqualified faith-oriented workers as the only dedicated emotional support person provided to students in public schools. In fact, it seems an increasing number of parents of all sorts are pretty tiffy that tax dollars are being used to pay religious workers to evangelise their kids.

This proselytising is not officially sanctioned. The Department of Education, Science and Training’s National School Chaplaincy Guidelines (p. 25) states:

“While recognising that an individual chaplain will in good faith express views and articulate values consistent with his or her denomination or religious beliefs, a chaplain should not take advantage of his or her privileged position to proselytise for that denomination or religious belief.”

Scripture Union Queensland is the largest supplier of chaplains in this state. Their Support School Chaplains website, which appears designed to allay the fears of secular parents and, perhaps, state Education Departments, apparently agrees with Education Queensland guidelines:

In accordance with Education Queensland guidelines, SU QLD chaplains are trained not to take advantage of their position to proselytise for their denomination or religious belief.

However, Scripture Union Qld’s main website lists the aims of the organisation thus:

It’s no wonder secular parents are concerned. Indeed anyone who is familiar with the Great Commission would find assertions that evangelism is not what chaplains are about hard to swallow. For those who don’t know, according to the Christian Bible, this primary directive was among the last instructions given by Jesus to his followers before his ascension to heaven. It runs like this:

[Jesus] said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:15-16)

Indeed, Scripture Union’s stated aims (above) are a fair explanation of how Christians generally understand this central command should be played out in real life.

Frankly, I’m disappointed Scripture Union and other groups are being so disingenuous about their motivation for involvement in school chaplaincy. Scripture Union Queensland CEO, Tim Mander was recently quoted in The Courier Mail as saying,

I call chaplains the Salvos of the schoolyard. They serve without judgement and show their faith by their love, not what they say.

For non-Australian readers, by ‘Salvos’, Mr Mander means members of the Salvation Army, a once-evangelistic but now social welfare-oriented body that is generally well-accepted and even broadly supported by ordinary Australians. Tim, apparently, wants us to believe that Scripture Union is a purely nominal religious organisation populated by harmless do-gooders with no actual agenda.

Funny, that’s not what he says when he’s preaching to the converted. In an article in Christian Today Australia, Mander was more frank about the role of school chaplains:

Chaplains are making sensational inroads in bringing young people, their families, and entire communities, into a closer relationship with God,” he said.

That’s more like it. And, indeed, if Tim really believes what the Book says about the judgement that awaits the unbelievers he purports to love, his stated desire to share his beliefs with others are appropriately consistent.

What I find really disappointing is the dishonesty with which Tim Mander’s Scripture Union and other Christian organisations are handling the recent scrutiny of parents and the public. Facing the first serious challenge to their State-funded presence in schools in a century, groups like Scripture Union are scratching around to find plausible justifications for their continuing to enjoy the privilege of almost exclusive access to our children. They’ve realised that ‘ours is the real God’ and ‘we were here first’ no longer cut the mustard. But instead of fessing up and coming clean about their agenda – and thus allowing the parents and educators of Australia to put SU services on the table with other options and make an informed choice – Scripture Union et al have gone for a smoke and mirrors strategy. If there’s a name for ‘insisting something is true when it isn’t’ that isn’t a synonym for ‘lies’, I’d like to know what it is.

Frankly, if I were Tim Mander, I’d be ashamed of myself. And I might be wondering how much further I could go before I’d have crossed the line and have committed a frank denial of Christ. Indeed, I’d like to hear Tim explain how his denial that the reason he is the head of Scripture Union is to lead others to Christ doesn’t put him in danger of sharing the same eternal hotel suite as the ‘militant atheists’ who are buggering around with his heretofore unassailably secure job.

It’s time for Christians to tell the truth about what they are really doing in our schools and let parents and educators decide if they want them there. Then, fully informed, if a majority of parents in a particular school community decide that’s what they want for their children, well and good. But this sneaky underhandedness is not becoming for folk who profess to bepositive role models for students‘. And I, for one, am thoroughly disgusted by it.

pick, pick, pick

I should declare in advance that this post is likely to seem rather pedantic and whiny to the majority of normal humans. But bear with me and, with luck, I’ll look less of a goody-two-shoes, girly swat wanker at the end than the beginning. I do hope some of you manage to make it through anyway.

As I’ve mentioned, I am an Open Universities Australia student. OUA provides a convenient if slightly schizophrenic method of gaining a degree – students select from a smorgasbord of units offered by some 16 different tertiary institutions. Thus, although my degree will ultimately be awarded by Griffith University, so far I’ve taken units not only from that institution but also Macquarie, Murdoch and Monash universities and RMIT.

And that won’t be the end of it. I have a couple of subjects on my wishlist that are provided by Swinburne University – which means [whinge warning] another student number to remember, and one more badly-designed Blackboard interface to navigate. My OUA friend, December, who is studying at her fourth university so far describes us as ‘uni whores’ – like tarts on a Friday night we dash about town devising aliases and collecting numbers. It’s rather exhausting and we’re not certain we won’t contract a nasty burning rash before we’re done.

Anyway, the point of all that is to say that I’ve already had the opportunity to compare institutional standards to some degree which has left me with a peculiar dilemma: how to decide which of those unis has the worst record on proofreading its tutorial materials; which is the most inept with grammar, spelling and punctuation? Frankly, there’s not much in it.

Many of my uni friends have complained that if tutors are going to rabbit on in such a snippy and self-righteous tone about their high expectations for students’ writing, it seems a bit rude that they don’t hold themselves to at least a similar standard. Fair call, in my view, for a number of reasons. But lecturers and course writers with sloppy writing standards seem to be the rule rather than the exception in my university experience so far.

Take for example these excerpts from a document provided to me and my fellow students this week. It was produced by one of the universities listed above, but I could have selected similar samplings from the materials of any of the universities I’ve studied with so far. These snippets are from the Glossary of Art Terms provided to students. It was written, I think, by my course convenor or lecturer.

I’ve been trying to temper my pedantic tendencies lately so was able to find it in my heart to forgive the writer for explaining the concept of metamorphosis by pointing to ‘cattapillars’ which, evidently, are creatures that transform into butterflies. Hey, a simple spelling mistake or typographical error – we all make them.

Then, ever broadminded, I was willing to overlook his explanation that the term ‘hue’ describes a colour in its purest form, without the ‘edition’ of either black or white (although I admit tooth grinding featured in the absolution process). But I am also not a great poofreader of my own work (heh, heh) so I sympathise.

But, tolerant as I am, I cannot exhonerate that man for asserting that ‘Montages tend to compose the differing source material into more seemless, unified compositions’. Seemless? Unforgiveable!

Irritatingly, the document was supplied in an HTML format thus denying me the catharsis of taking to it with a red pen. (I realise I could have printed it out but, even for me, that seemed a little pathological.)

If the fact that those errors got through the writing and proofreading stages and all the way to publication without so much as an ‘Oh, my God! Are you an idiot?’ doesn’t make your blood boil, I imagine you are thinking about now that I should perhaps get a boyfriend and shut the hell up. I mean, does it really matter that one university has just outed itself as less of a paragon of educational prowess and, perhaps, more of nest of lazy, illiterate public servants unable to gain respectable employment in the commercial world? Well, yes. Actually, it does. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

The late, Richard Mitchell, also known as The Underground Grammarian, thought so too. In his book, Less than Words Can Say*, Mitchell relates the story of a fourth grade teacher who dashed off a letter to the editor of her local paper, incensed at errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation she had detected in a published article. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, her letter went to print full of similar mistakes including mismanaged capitalisation, punctuation and syntax. She even wrote ‘aloud’ in place of ‘allowed’ when referring to the ‘artical’ in question. Being a concerned parent, a grammar philosopher and not just a pinch-cheeked pedant, Mitchell reasonably asks,

So what the hell is going on here? Who hires these people? Where do they come from?

and

What could be more satisfying than a legitimate and documented complaint against those people in the schools who tell us so haughtily that they know what they’re doing?

He continues:

The questions are good ones. Who does hire teachers who can’t spell? Where do they come from? The questions grow more ominous the more we think about them. Just as we suspect that this teacher’s ineptitude in spelling is not limited to those two words, so we must suspect that she has other ineptitudes as well. We see already that her education has been less than perfect. Is her knowledge of arithmetic, for instance, also less than perfect? How well informed is she about history and science? Those very misspellings–don’t they seem characteristic of a person who simply hasn’t done much reading? That is, after all, the way most of us learn to spell correctly. When you’ve seen “allowed” and “aloud” thousands of times on the page, you just know which is which. And if this teacher hasn’t done much reading, how likely is she to be well informed about history and science, or any of those things in which we expect her to instruct our children?

Well, who did hire her? Some principal, presumably, or some committee, or somebody. Let’s imagine that it was a committee. What did they look for in her credentials? In her letter of application, were there errors? Would the members of the committee have been able to detect them? Would some of them say, even now, that a silly misspelled word here and there is too trivial to worry about?

And where did she come from? Some school graduated her, and some board granted her a certificate to teach. Did she just slip through the cracks in the system? Is she the only member of her class, the only graduate of her college, whose spelling is shaky? Of all of those teachers and incipient teachers, is she the only one who doesn’t seem to have done much reading? The professors who wrote her references–did they mention that she had some problems with spelling? Did they know that she had some problems with spelling? Had they read any of her writing? Did she do any writing? As much writing as she did reading, perhaps? If your physician’s elementary training in anatomy were as uncertain as this teacher’s spelling, would you think it too trivial to worry about?

The implications of the poor standards revealed in these university tutorial materials are not insignificant. If the fundamental mechanics of English don’t matter to my university lecturers, what else do they not care about? Or are they so ill-educated that they simply don’t know about homophones such as ‘seemless’ and ‘seamless’? And if that’s the case, what else don’t they know?

Which leads me to ask: Can I trust this university to provide me with what I thought was implied in our contract – the arrangement where I give them some $20,000 in exchange for what I had hoped would be the beginnings of an excellent education? How might I know in advance? What might the indicators be? Perhaps the institutions’ written communications? Or am I just a nitpicking fusspot who should shut the f*ck up and smile as I hand over another $6000 next year? After all, whatever the standard of the course content, I’ll get a nice, frameable piece of paper at the end, right?

Sigh.

(Oh, and should it turn out that this post went to publication full of undetected typos, I’ll be claiming Jane’s Law was at work 🙂

* A free, online copy of Richard Mitchell’s Less than Words Can Say is available here. His other definitely-worth-a-read title The Graves of Academe is also available to read free at the same site.

good design advice

Because it’s rather awesome.

Acknowledgement: Posters available for sale from Good Fucking Design Advice.

the stainless steel tube of fundamentalism

The end of the siege. Waco, Texas, February 28, 1993.

As a former fundamentalist, I’d like to comment on another aspect of the recent Jim Wallace episode.

It’s probably perplexing to many that Wallace seemed unable to acknowledge the inappropriateness of his remark, indeed, that he seemed blind to all but the attack of his detractors on himself and, in his view, everything he holds dear.  This article by Bill Muehlenberg is similar in tone. But Muehlenberg ups the ante by using the truly disgusting term ‘gaystapo’ to describe what he identifies as one of ‘the usual suspects’: the ‘homosexual lobby’ and their ‘stalinist agenda’.

Because of my fundamentalist experience, this sort of language is uncomfortably familiar. Indeed both of these men are communicating precisely the way I would expect, although I imagine their pigheadedness must be incredibly frustrating for those who have never sat on that side of the fence. So let me try and cast a little light on it from an ex-fundy perspective. But be warned, what I am about to say may offend both Christians and perhaps to some atheists (thus pretty well knocking out all my friends in one fell swoop). I apologise for that in advance.

Being a fundamentalist is like living inside a stainless-steel tunnel. Truths that may seem perfectly obvious to other people just bounce right off without leaving a mark. Fundamentalists simply don’t see stuff they don’t already agree with. By and large they peer at the world through the very narrow hole at the end of their gun-barrel hidey hole and need to expend very little energy rejecting ideas that are contrary to their firmly-held views. These views are so staunchly inflexible because they are based on an unchanging document which they take to be the Word of God.

Try and see it from their perspective: The Book explains how Christians should understand the world. It tells them about God, about man, about heaven and hell, how to think and feel and act about pretty well everything. Many Christians hold an absolute belief that the words in the Book literally are directions straight from the God they love and serve. If the book says that all homosexuals will suffer hellfire, or that women are to live subordinate to men, who are they to argue? In fact, to do so would be unthinkable. It’s only logical: If God is real, and that really is his book, then the only sensible course is to obey whatever it says, to learn to think as God apparently thinks. He is God and therefore the one who gets to make the rules after all.

Although I appreciate that may sound silly to someone who has never thought that way, my purpose is not to ridicule those ideas or to suggest that people who hold ones which differ from mine are stupid – I know that is not the case. It is simply to say: Those ideas are beliefs. We all have them. And nobody is going to change our beliefs by shouting us. In fact, in the case of fundamentalists, it tends to have to opposite effect: It can make them go all Branch Davidian on you. Looking out of that stainless steel tube as people scream obscenities and throw poop at things that you know for sure are precious to God just makes you surer that moving into you and your kids into a bullet-proof metal abode was a good plan. After all, the Book says that if you are getting it right, ‘the world will hate you‘. Remember Waco? Believing they were under attack just made those poor cult members super-glad they had had the foresight to collect an arsenal, and more determined than ever to defend themselves and their children come what may. Nobody said, ‘Oops, yep, you were right. We’ve been pretty silly about all this. Coming out now. Thanks.’

I understand completely why people find men like Wallace and Muehlenberg and everything they stand for so deeply offensive. And I fully appreciate that offence provokes a deep rage that often finds form in a spluttering, obscenity-peppered response. I’ve indulged in more than one splutter myself in the past few days. As a catharsis, I admit its efficacy; and if you feel you need to do it, far be it from me to suggest you stop. But I do want to point out that screaming at men who have built such a sturdy wall around themselves will achieve virtually nothing…but make them more likely to repeat their offensive actions – and worse – at a later date.

And, I imagine, each time they find themselves the victims of twitter sprays, Wallace and friends rub their hands together with glee: It’s a PR free kick: they know they are likely to gain at least few new followers who sympathise with them in their sad persecution. This is why Wallace would focus on the attack and not his comments during his Sunrise appearance: He is ignoring us. He knows who he’s trying to reach and what they want to hear. There are a lot of disenfranchised Australians who agree with these fundamentalist commentators. Shouting abuse at Wallace will probably effectively stop most of those people from openly standing up and voicing their views for fear of becoming a target for attack – but it won’t alter their beliefs. The more Wallace is attacked, the more support I believe he is likely to gain.

I’m not suggesting that views such as Wallace voiced on Anzac Day should not be challenged. Of course they must. I’m not suggesting that everyone should go out of their way to be polite. Wallace and Muehlenberg’s views stink and that needs to be said. My object is not to chastise those who were understandably disgusted at Wallace’s tweet and vented their rage. But I believe it’s worth understanding what the likely effect of hurling abuse will be on Australia’s fundamentalists and the even more numerous moderate Christians: The leaders will hunker down, toughen up and become more hateful in their communications; the followers will quietly grow in number and resolve.

And we shouldn’t think we’ve seen any more than the tip of the iceberg of Wallace and Muehlenberg’s frothing zeal. Their views are almost indistinguishable from those of Westboro Baptist Church and many Australian Christians feel a strong connection to some other pretty scary US-based zealots as well. I suspect the ugliness has not anything like peaked.

My point is, you aren’t going to reach someone who lives in a bullet-proof cave no matter what you say. My advice is to forget about trying. If those fundamentalists are ever going to change their beliefs, it will not be because someone abused them into it. However, there are a lot of Australians who are sitting in the middle of issues such same-sex marriage who will listen and so may be influenced. Frankly, I think they find it difficult to sympathise with the more extreme communications from both camps. Those who want to influence this large, silent public might like to consider that undecided moderates are watching, and beginning to form their own beliefs.

I, at least, think that’s worth considering.