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Maria Alexander

(s)Word Slinger

Tag: Jesus

“The Question”

As mentioned in a previous essay, my parents were syncretists. (Or should I say syn-cray-tists?) Picking and choosing whatever they liked from each Judeo-Christian religion we visited, they held contradictory beliefs without apparent conflict — that is, until their teenage daughter confronted them one day. (That would be me.) I was 16 at the time of this incident, and we were all supposedly evangelical Christians.

Names have been changed to protect the innocent. And by innocent, I mean no one in my family.

 

The Question

 

Emily drops me off at my home in Cameron Park one Saturday afternoon after I spend the night at her house.

“I’m home!” I call out, letting my backpack slide from my shoulder. The odor of spicy taco meat wafts towards the front door like plumes of alchemical smoke from a medieval Mexican lab. I silently beg God that the cheese is done because the grater never fails to slice the flesh from my knuckles.

“Hello Mawee-ah!” my father squeals in a girly voice. He careens toward me in his dingy brown polyester pants and oyster white dress shirt spattered with food from last night’s dinner, not to mention fresh dribbles of this morning’s coffee. He wants his “kiss,” which means squashing a slobbery, noisy smooch on my cheek as he makes noises like a squeegee on muddy glass. I reluctantly offer my cheek, putting up a hand between him and my burgundy sweatshirt. While other teen girls cut their sweatshirts Flash Dance–style so that they drape off one shoulder, I’ve re-sewn mine into a Renaissance-style bodice. It laces up the front through metallic grommets with a leather thong over an indigo Academic Decathalon t-shirt that I’ve slashed strategically atop the sleeves and in the cleavage. This is my style: New Wave Renaissance Nerd Princess.

My father, an unworthy peasant, continues. “Did you eat lunch with Emily, Mawee-ah?”

“Yup!” I plow down the hallway towards my bedroom at full tilt, as if I could possibly escape The Question.

He abruptly ceases his baby babble, face darkening as his jowls sweat violence. “What did you eat?” he growls. And now, The Question: “Did you eat pork? YOU DIDN’T EAT PORK, DID YOU?”

Every time I leave their presence and return, The Question hits me like Chinese water torture. Did you eat pork? And every time he asks, I usually brush it off with a breezy “No.” To which he consistently responds, “Good! Because pork is a damn dirty meat! I don’t want any daughter of mine eating it.”

But this time the flint of impatience strikes my flammable teenage hormones and I explode in fiery defiance. “Yes! I ate pepperoni and sausage pizza! So what?”

My mother emerges from the master bedroom with a basket of laundry. She’s a domestic chameleon, her butterscotch slacks and vanilla blouse blending into the walls and carpet. “Awwww, Maria! You didn’t!” The way she says it, you’d think I had announced I’d spent the night at Emily’s robbing banks and shooting heroin.

“I did! Because I’m a born-again Christian, saved by the blood of the lamb, and the bible says I can eat whatever I want!” My bible study is about to payoff. Maybe.

“I’ll show you what the bible says.” My father stomps into the family room towards the lamp stand by the couch where his weathered King James Bible sits. On top of his bible squats his Inter-Linear Greek-English New Testament with Commentary. He loves reading the Greek in low, dry whispers, relishing his arcane knowledge over our monolingual ignorance. He could be making it up, for all I know.

Down the hallway, Danielle’s bedroom door flings open. She explodes from her adolescent alcázar. It wavers with the haze of cheap perfumes, Michael Jackson’s music pulsating within. Great feathery earrings swing from her swarthy lobes as she wades into the fray, heavily glossed lips ready for argument. “Dad? Dad! There’s nothing wrong with pork!” she yells.

Like my father, my pubescent sister has one volume for everything: raucous.

“You be quiet!” he roars.

The volume in the house cranks up as the two of them squabble, Danielle defending my position without any better argument than simply repeatedly shouting, “We’re not Jewish!” Of course, they never ask Danielle what she eats. She and her friends probably go to Long John Silvers for plates of greasy popcorn shrimp and juicy crab legs drizzled with butter. Unlike me, she’s also allowed to listen to rock music – that is, if one can call Michael Jackson “music.” Meanwhile, I have to hide my 45s of Annie Lenox, Pink Floyd and Iron Maiden in the album jackets of Brahms and Grieg to play whenever my family leaves the house.

“You go ahead and look that up. I’ll be in here with proof!” I dump my backpack on my bedroom floor and close the door. I then pull my New International Version bible off the bookcase shelf where it lives with my mother’s religious books, and collapse on my bed.

I’ve known this fight was coming. Thanks to my father’s penchant for violence, I’ve avoided the confrontation as long as I can. My heart now jackhammers in my chest as I anticipate something just short of Armageddon. Sick of the hypocrisy and ignorance, I am going to prove to them that the Jewish food laws don’t apply to us and then maybe — just maybe — my father will stop annoying the living hell out of me with The Question.

I examine the passages in the bible I’ve highlighted and memorized. Although quaking with apprehension, I briefly fantasize about an idyllic dinner at Sizzler ordering shrimps with my steak and potato.

The shouting between my sister and father stops. After a moment, someone knocks on my door.

“Come in.”

My father shambles in without even a bible in hand. I wonder what’s up, as he’s never knocked in his entire life and loves dragging out that Inter-Linear book for no reason. It feels unfair to duel an unarmed opponent, but I figure it’s his theological funeral. Of course, it could be my literal funeral.

“What’s this about you eating pork?” His gruffness is shockingly subdued. Still, you could have swapped the phrase “eating pork” for “smoking hash” or “cutting class.” Disappointment paints pouches under his eyes, his gaze strafing the walls rather than meeting mine. He enters the room and shuts the door, plopping down on the sagging edge of the bed.

I point to the bible lying open before me. “Dad, it says right here — ”

He grimaces. “I don’t care what it says. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

“Yes, it does! In Romans chapter 14, verse 14 it says, ‘As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.’ And then he says, ‘But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.’”

I reign in my enthusiasm for a moment to avoid stumbling into the next verse, which says, ‘If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.’ I leave that out because I don’t consider my family to be “brothers,” and “love” rarely figures in the father equation. Besides, verse 16 follows, which somewhat undermines the previous verse. It says, ‘Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.’ I take this to mean merely that I shouldn’t eat unclean meat in front of people who are offended by it and that I should defend my actions when called on it. But I want to end the quote on a strong point, not one that seems to concede to my father’s bizarre obsession.

My line of reasoning clear, I bravely knot my thread of logic so that it can’t slip: “So, according to the bible, for you, it’s unclean. But for me, it’s not! And as long as I don’t eat in front of you, I’m acting in love. That’s what the bible says.” Although I wait with triumph for his concession, I also keep one eyeball on the window as an escape route.

“Maria, Maria.” He wrinkles his nose, his glasses nudging upwards. “The Old Testament lays out the food laws for a reason. It’s forbidden to eat unclean meat. Pigs and cloven-hoofed animals are filthy.”

Actually, cows have cloven hooves, but they chew their cud and therefore remain on Moses’ menu. Since my father is from Chicago and neither of us has ever seen a real live cow except in a field from the car window, the error is understandable. I let the error slide in favor of addressing the more egregious issue.

“Don’t you see that we’re Christian now and we don’t have to follow those laws?” I tear through the pages to 1 Corinthians, chapter 10 and read out loud from verse 25. “’Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, The earth is the lord’s and everything in it.’” I drill a finger into the page and turn the book towards him.

A tap on the door. “Ah, Maria? Steve?” My mother pushes open the door slightly, peering inside.

Jabbing a thumb at her over his shoulder, my father slides off the bed. “Listen to your mother.” He shuffles out as my mother ambles inside.

Stunned by his denial yet undaunted, I gear up to pitch the argument to my mother, although I know from many a debacle that the fabric of her reasoning is badly frayed. But since she’s here, I figure I might as well try.

“So what’s going on?” Her face lights up with excitement as she lowers herself onto the bed. She probably enjoys being included for once in an “intellectual” discussion between my father and I.

I show her the passages I showed my father and make the identical argument, which I end by saying, “Paul said it! It’s right there!”

My mother shrinks up into herself, folding her arms over her bulging abdomen. She squints at me as she doles out what will go down in history as the least scholarly response ever uttered: “But honey, Paul was the least popular of the disciples.”

Um.

“Nobody liked him,” she continues. “So, in other words, we don’t have to listen to him if we don’t want to.”

“Nobody liked him?” My mouth drops open and my mind somersaults as it attempts to follow the corkscrew logic. “He wrote, like, half the New Testament! I’d say he’s pretty seriously important!”

“But he wasn’t that important.” She turns up her nose with apparent indignation. The statement seems to clear up things for her. Standing from the bed, she digs her hands into her hips in her signature pose. “Are you having lunch with us? Or did you eat already with Emily?”

“I ate, Mom.”

“Oh. Well, then help me with the laundry.”

My mother’s logic has me hog-tied. My hopes of ever escaping The Question spiral down the gorge of insanity. I’ve been denied a rational discussion and, with despair, I realize I’ll only ever have peace once I leave the house.

That won’t happen soon enough.

Why We Need to Stop Saying That Something Isn’t “Christian”

As some of you know who’ve read my silly personal essay, I’m a recovering Pentecostal. When I was a teenager, I went to the Assemblies of God Church (just like Sarah Palin), and later continued onto the far less intense yet just as committed denomination of the Evangelical Covenant Church. In my childhood before that, my family converted to Judaism for several years. I went to Hebrew school and attended synagogue in the San Fernando Valley.

I have a long history of biblical study. While I certainly am not as up on my verse quoting as I used to be since I ceased to be a believer in 1996, I’ve been thoroughly steeped in both Old and New Testaments. As a result, while imperfect, my understanding of what many would call The Word of God is better than average. And I recall vividly the intellectual Cirque du Soleil I had to perform each day to make sense of my life as I tried to follow Christ.

So, when I see a non-believer telling Christians what is or isn’t “Christian” — and I see it multiple times a day in my social media feeds — it’s clear that they have a superficial understanding of the Bible. Of course, the definition of “Christian” has been an apocalypse-inducing topic for 2000 years. But the surface definition that secular people are using is only creating deeper rancor in our discourse as we struggle with cultural issues like the rights of LGBTQA people.

Did Jesus Preach Acceptance?

The greatest secular misconception about Jesus regards The Golden Rule. He certainly did preach in Mark 12:31, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” And in Matthew 7:12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (New International Version)

We love this. It makes sense and helps us get along, creating a more compassionate society. It’s not necessarily acceptance, though, or even tolerance, which is what secular folk crave.

You see, Jesus profoundly contradicts himself in other verses, giving Christians the ability to construct a far harsher, more nuanced stance on social issues.

The Catch

Many non-believers don’t understand Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament. You know Leviticus? That book with all the horrific commandments about stoning people to death for committing adultery and homosexuality? We like to trot out some of the more esoteric and ridiculous-sounding verses from that book as examples of its irrelevance to modern life, like how it’s an abomination to wear mixed fabrics or to eat shellfish.

But here’s what Jesus says about The Law in Matthew 5:17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

By these words, Jesus was not only down with not eating shellfish, he was for stoning your daughter to death for adultery.

But What About “Casting the First Stone”?

This story (which was not even in the original Greek text) is told at the beginning of John 8. Most secular people are familiar with Jesus’ words in verse 7: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

What most do not know is how that story ends in verses 10-11.

“Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’

11No one, sir,’ she said.

‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’

That’s my emphasis. It’s clear that even when Jesus was hypocrisy hunting, he didn’t let anyone off the hook. Just replace “leave your life of sin” with “stop having gay sex,” and you’ll see what I mean.

It’s a Hot Mess

I first encountered the crazy dance between Jesus and The Law when I was in my early teens, trying to convince my parents who had purportedly converted back to Christianity that it was okay to eat “unclean” meat like pepperoni. One verse would say one thing, but the next two would reverse the previous conclusion. Whenever I questioned pastors and Bible teachers, they sorted out the contradictions by making priorities. Who cares if you eat pork? Just don’t murder anyone or sleep with the wrong person at the wrong time. That’s more serious.

So, Christians actually have quite the scriptural arsenal at their disposal if they want to create an argument, say, against gay couples adopting children or for denying employees health coverage for abortifacients (or what they think is an abortifacient, anyway). It’s perfectly “Christian” to do anything legally or morally that supports what the Bible says about certain human behaviors, even in the Old Testament.

That’s why secular folk are better off not playing the “This isn’t Christian” card in social issue debates. It doesn’t in the least, nor should it, shame a believer into thinking they don’t understand the Bible when they do — far better than the person making the accusation, in fact. You can imagine how infuriating and insulting that might be. Think about the last time someone contradicted your understanding about climate change evidence or even the age of the earth. We’re not talking about the same kind of data, obviously, but it’s the same reaction.

It’s totally legitimate to point out that people are clinging to some verses over others, such as eating lobster over stoning people to death. (For the record, even in my holy roller days, I was always a lot more about eating lobster. Not so much about stoning.) That’s getting to a deeper issue about biblical inconsistencies, but it isn’t about being Christian per se.

The Stronger Position

And I understand why this is so frustrating. The rest of us for the most part like to see the similarities in religions, to take the wisdom of each to create a more loving and peaceful place for us all. We seek tolerance in a world where religious conflict is eating us alive, destroying nations, ripping apart families, murdering LGBTQA people, and oppressing women and young girls. In our rage, our fear, we latch onto anything that might give us leverage in our discourse. But this, I’m afraid, isn’t it.

I don’t have any answers. All we can do is continue our quest for compassion and tolerance, to promote peace and understanding where possible, and to fight for justice for those who have been treated unfairly. Staying on our own turf and speaking about the benefits of compassion and inclusion rather than venturing into a religious debate when we don’t know the intricacies of that religion is the stronger position, giving us a more powerful voice.

And now I’m going to go eat some pepperoni.

(I’m also turning off comments. For the sake of my sanity and time, I have no interest in publishing the sort of debates that might ensue here. Thanks for your understanding.)

Forgetting “A Fish Called Wanda”

Last night, I re-watched A Fish Called Wanda with my boyfriend, who’d seen it dozens of times and had even memorized the script. I’d seen it when it came out with my then-boyfriend (who would later become my ex-husband).

The thing is, I didn’t remember a single thing about it. In fact, whenever someone would mention the film, I’d feel an aching, nauseated hole in my memory. Not just a dislike, but a visceral unpleasantness. And I had no idea why.

Netflix said I’d give A Fish Called Wanda almost 5 stars. I mean, like, all the stars except the tiny corner of the last star. Holy sure thing, Batman! I’ve rated enough Netflix movies over the years that it’s pretty accurate. All those red stars combined with my beloved’s enthusiasm for the film made me decide to re-watch it.

And I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s brilliant — the twisting plot, the fantastic acting, the characters, all with Kevin Kline huffing a patent leather boot. But as I watched the movie, I realized exactly how I’d not only forgotten the film, but why I shoved it off into Vague Hateville.

I was an Evangelical Christian when I saw it.

It wasn’t that I didn’t think Jesus approved of crime comedy. He seemed pretty okay with my infatuation with Inspector Clouseau and the Pink Panther movies, as well as my love for Get Smart and The Naked Gun. (If I had known about my future friend Alan Spencer’s Sledge Hammer, I’d have been totally smitten with that, too.)

No. It was because I was terrified of Jamie Lee Curtis’s incredible sexual power. Wielded by her sharp intelligence, her body was deadlier than any gun — or steamroller — brandished in the film. Between the extramarital affair and the multiple backstabbing affairs, I was terrified of her seductive powers. Not only were her actions “sinful,” she was unstoppable. And appealing…

Was Michael Palin fantastic as the stuttering, animal-loving bank robber? Yes. Was John Cleese completely endearing as the domestically challenged barrister? Yes. Was Kevin Kline hilarious every time he tried to “apologize”? Fuck yes. But all I had remembered was the vaguely sick, horrified feeling I’d had when I’d realized how powerful sex was: the “bad” thing I’d been fighting my whole life, whether it was the painful fallout of my father’s affairs or my own, more innocent quirks.

And Jamie Lee Curtis just proved it was all true. Sex outside of a proper Christian marriage was, without a doubt, bad bad bad.

I’ve changed my mind about a lot of films since I was “unsaved” in 1996. Like The Piano. Oh, god. When I’d first seen the film, I’d watched with satisfaction as Flora tattled on her ho mama, which led to the axe scene with George. I’d been so uncomfortable with the infidelity, I could barely stand watching the film. But as soon as I was “unsaved,” I watched the film again on a whim and OH MY GOD! I LOVED IT! I loved every moment, every detail, every gorgeous shot, Michael Nyman’s haunting music…just everything. And I cried during the axe scene. Oh, god! No! Ada! Poor Ada! I felt sorry for George, too, but not when he turned into the axe-wielding asshole.

Afterward, I thought, “Christ. Do I have to re-watch every goddamned movie I’ve ever disliked before now?”

I stuck to comedies mostly, like The Life of Brian. I could barely tolerate it before, but now I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVED IT with blasphemy sauce on top! I probably appreciated it more than most people.

Cinema opened up to me. Books. Music. I stood awash in the glorious downpour of human experience with new-found compassion for human frailty. It wasn’t that I suddenly had no moral guidelines. Far from it! I had strong feelings of right and wrong, but for once no one was dictating them to me and I could appreciate nuances of circumstance. I no longer obsessively checked everything I took in against some soupy salvation list that’s ingredients changed depending on the perspective of the pastor I consulted. And the maddening, deafening inner din of “Is this of the world? Or of Christ? Is this godly? Would Jesus approve?” had finally fucking stopped. That peace that Christians talk about? The one that “surpasses understanding”? Once Jesus had cleared the room, it arrived at last. I met art quietly by myself — just me with my intellect, my tastes, my sense of humor. I could still reject a story because of its violence against women, racism, or what have you, but my inner compass interfered far less with my ability to enjoy a story for what it was.

Best of all, I could tell my own stories without worrying about what Jesus or anyone else thought. I started writing and never stopped…

To be honest, I still don’t like Wanda. (I’m not sure we’re supposed to, anyway.) And I am certainly not thrilled with the message that the right man with enough money can tame a woman and make her behave, either. Still, I really enjoyed A Fish Called Wanda.

I give it four stars.

Narrative Interaction, Fandom and Christianity

Cover of the WyrdCon Companion Book.

The WyrdCon Companion Book has been published! It’s free, fully interactive and includes my paper that takes on Henry Jenkins, Harry Potter and 2000 years of Christianity. It’s called, “The Greatest Story Ever Interacted With.” Not for the easily offended…

Download the book PDF here.

Check out an excerpt from the first half of the paper:

Narrative Interaction: Filling in the Gaps

Narrative interaction entails the myriad ways in which audiences contribute to and celebrate their favorite stories. Fan fiction—defined as the fiction produced by fans based on a popular novel, movie, TV show or other franchise—is one of the best known forms of interacting with a narrative. According to scholar Francesca Coppa, fan fiction “fill[s] the need of a mostly female audience for fictional narratives that expand the boundary of the official source products offered on the television and movie screen.”[1] Transmedia storytelling pioneer Henry Jenkins says, “Fan fiction can be seen as an unauthorized expansion of these media franchises into new directions which reflect the reader’s desire to ‘fill in the gaps’ they have discovered in the commercially produced material.”

Fan fiction is only one type of narrative interaction or what Jenkins calls “participatory culture.” He explains, “patterns of media consumption have been profoundly altered by a succession of new media technologies which enable average citizens to participate in the archiving, annotation, appropriation, transformation, and recirculation of media content. Participatory culture refers to the new style of consumerism that emerges in this environment.”

But “participatory culture” didn’t begin with the emergence of new technologies.  Participation in the narrative of Christianity—including annotation, appropriation, transformation and recirculation—has been ongoing for centuries. The practice of storytelling to fill in the gaps predates Christianity itself.


[1] Bacon-Smith, Camille (2000). Science Fiction Culture. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 112–113. ISBN 978-0-8122-1530-4.

Read the whole paper now!

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