Fear of Religions

There’s a narrative of fear in Christianity that seems to have been absent at the beginning.  This is evident when driving the highways of America where you’ll see billboards (which are meant for selling things) advertising the truth of a kind of biblical Fundamentalism.  On my recent trip across Pennsylvania this fear stood out in some rather obvious ways.  And it doesn’t reflect the Christianity reflected in the Good Book.  Stop and think about it: although the persecution of early believers was probably never as widespread as the usual narrative says it was, the writings we have describe facing persecution with joy.  Believing that they would be delivered, the oppressed welcomed the opportunity to prove their faith.  The Chick tracts I read as a child, however, focused intently on how scary the future persecution would be.  Fear, not joy, was the motivation for belief.

As we stopped in a turnpike rest area, we noticed a kiosk of Christian books amid snacks both salty and sweet.  The only other reading material available had to do with tourist attractions and finding directions.  It was, upon retrospect, odd.  Pondering this I recalled the narrative I heard repeatedly in my youth—a time was coming when it would be illegal to be Christian.  There would be persecution and the only proper response was a faith borne of fear.  This was not a religion of love thy neighbor.  No, this was a religion of armed survival based not on turning the other cheek, but on asserting itself with a show of firepower.  This kind of weaponized evangelicalism has taken over the narrative of Christianity.  Paul of Tarsus, knowing he would likely be executed, wrote of his joy from prison.  In the land of plenty we tremble.

The more cynical side of my experience suggests that politicians—who have learned that fear gets them elected—found in this form of Christianity a convenient set of sheep without a shepherd.  There’s fear in these billboards.  Fear that another religion may take over.  Or that secularism may make cherished beliefs illegal.  This isn’t cause for celebration, as the sermon on the mount proclaims it should be, but rather a call to arms.  In this country we have more than enough.  Among those left out, however, this fear grows just as rapidly as among those who fear they may lose the abundance they have.  They try to convert the weary traveler whose eye is drawn to the billboard.  And even those who stop for a drink of cold water which, the Bible suggests, should be freely given.

Star Struck

One of the coveted symbols of approval in my childhood was the star at the top of a paper. I watched in amazement (perhaps because they were so rare) when a teacher would inscribe a star without lifting her pencil from the paper. I thought I had never seen anything so perfectly formed. Of course, in my teenage years under the influence of Jack T. Chick and his ilk, I learned that the five-pointed star, especially in a circle, and more especially upside-down in a circle, was a satanic symbol. My childhood achievements had been, apparently, a demonic blunder. This fear of geometry still persists in America, as a story of a woman in Tennessee fighting to have “pentagrams” removed from school buses shows. The woman, who has received death threats and therefor remains anonymous, took a picture of the offending LEDs and has asked, out of religious fairness, to have the satanic symbols removed from the bus. The news reports are almost as tragi-comic as the complaint.

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The pentagram, or pentacle, has a long history, some suggest going back to the Mesopotamians. (Uh-oh! We know how they loved their magic!) In fact, the symbol was benign in religious terms until it was adopted by Christians as symbolic of the “five wounds” (zounds!) of Christ. The symbol could also be used for virtue or other wholesome meanings. The development of Wicca began in earnest only last century, although it has earlier roots. Some late Medieval occultists saw the star as a magic symbol, and the inverted pentagram was first called a symbol of “evil” in the late 1800s. As a newish religion seeking symbols to represent its virtues, Wicca adopted the pentagram and some conservative Christian groups began to argue it was satanic, representing a goat head. (The capital A represents an ox head, so there may be something to this goat. I’m not sure why goats are evil, however.) Wicca, however, is not Satanism, and is certainly not wicked.

Symbols, it is sometimes difficult to remember, have no inherent meaning. Crosses may be seen in some telephone poles and in any architectural feature that requires right angles. The swastika was a sacred symbol among various Indian religions, long before being usurped by the Nazis. And the pentagram was claimed by various religions, including Christianity, long before it was declared dangerous by some Christian groups. There may be a coven in Tennessee seeking to covert children by designing and installing taillights of school buses, but I rather doubt it. School children feel about their buses as I feel about mine on a long commute to work each day. A kind of necessary evil. The truly satanic part, I suspect just about every day, is the commute itself. There must be easier ways to win converts.

Chick Trick

Yesterday was our local town’s Earth Day clean-up day. I have always thought we lived in a clean town, and generally it’s true. When you look closer, however, the litter becomes all too obvious. Now, I know the purpose of this exercise is to get rid of pollution—my family filled five trash bags in the morning’s jaunt. As I reached for a bit of paper, I instantly recognized that I had found a half-torn page of a Jack T. Chick tract. Jack Chick is an old school Fundamentalist who draws some of the scariest cartoon evangelistic tracts imaginable. He is personally responsible for many of my childhood nightmares and phobias. Even as an adult, I still find myself believing, at some level, the tripe he serves up at the food of salvation. Children, you see, are extremely vulnerable to suggestion. Chick unremittingly claims we all deserve to burn in Hell, literally, and that only those who buy his version of Christianity can avoid it. He scares me. Instead of putting the torn comic strip in the trash, it went into my pocket. I needed to exegete it.

As a child I purchased every single Chick tract available from our local Christian bookstore. I was terrified of Hell and absolutely wanted to make sure I had double-covered every single base. A Chick tract can be read in a matter of minutes, but they can stay with you for decades. The one I found yesterday was one I’d never read. It consists of part of pages 5 and 6 of a black-on-black violence story involving a seriously looking tough guy called Ice Man. As the story opens, in media res, a photograph of “the preacher’s boy” is on a cell phone. Ice Man is seriously pissed off, and on page 6, in a drive-by shooting with an assault rifle, blows the young man away. His death, as in most Chick tracts, is violent, but bloodless. Chick spares most of the blood for the cross, where, sometimes it trickles eerily down over the repentant sinner.

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If I might be forgiven for some textual criticism, in which I might be guilty of a modicum of eisegesis, let me guess that the preacher’s boy had been suggesting that Ice Man change his sinful ways in the previous lacuna. In a fit of Icy rage, the PK becomes a sacrificial victim. Most likely, by the end of the pamphlet, Ice Man will have come to realize the evil of his ways and will end up on his knees. Depending on Chick’s mood that day, he may even end up dead. One thing is certain, the story will attempt to scare a youngster to a life of righteousness. The area where we were gathering trash is on the relative “wrong side of the tracks” for my little town. Some real violence does occur here, but it is mostly out of sight. Having grown up with Chick tracts guiding my every thought, I wonder if somebody got the message before it was too late. I see this torn page as a small sign of hope.