Sunday, February 05, 2006

Princess or Satan's Daughter?

I live in the tarnished buckle of the Bible Belt. After four years here, few things about ultra-conservative Evangelical Christians surprise me. Church signs that claim my folk will burn for all eternity rarely register anymore. Half-crazed preachers standing in the middle of campus spewing venom don’t appear unusual. The local competition to see how many Jesus-fish one can attach to a car bumper no longer seems ominous.

Early in the semester, though, I went for a walk to the Student Union building. My search for a chocolate product and caffeine became derailed when I saw a new banner hanging from the ceiling of the Union’s main walkway. This area often has the standard banners created by student groups to attract new members. One sees calls for fraternity rushes, soccer practices, and Klan drives (otherwise known as Republican Party registration).

On that fateful day, however, a banner appeared with such supreme novelty that I was left speechless. Bold, but crudely painted, letters proclaimed:

    I am a Princess Because Jesus is My King

This banner pulled off some neat tricks by drawing together seemingly unrelated and irreconcilable discourses. For me, the creator of this banner had quite the set of ovaries. She ignored historical Jesus' messages of humility. Instead, this woman envisioned her religious beliefs aligned with, and even validating, the current image of a consumer princess.

Let me offer some truth in advertising. I consider myself spiritual and believe in higher powers in the cosmos (karma and all). Still, Jesus as the whole-son-of-god thing doesn’t really work for me. Don’t get me wrong. The historical Jesus had some noble ideas and hung out with a cool crowd. He liked to kick it with prostitutes, the poor, rock stars, etc. My guess is that he probably spent a bit too much time in the desert sun, though, which explains his vision of being part deity.

I offer this disclaimer because it should be clear that I have nothing particularly vested in the Christian message. I also don’t disparage those who do sincerely believe. It just doesn’t work for my view of the universe.

Yet this banner suggests just how askew U.S. Christianity has become. Most of the campus religious groups use religion to form a sense of individual identity through messages of moral superiority. There seems to be a twenty-first century version of the Gospel of Wealth emerging. This scheme links together material wealth and spiritual authority. Aspiring to the privileged, self-indulgent world of the rich is fine because the rich are the rightful beneficiaries of God’s blessings. One can ignore the poor, the sick, and the starving as long as one gives lip-service to an abstract Jesus.

For these folk, God exists only to grant them wishes. Let’s call it the I-Dream-of-Jeannie version of God. If they pray for a higher test score, God will grant it to them. If they want a new BMW, a few extra prayers at night should take care of it.

What’s disturbing is that this vision of Christianity eliminates these folk’s agency in their own life and obligation to their fellow humans. Working hard for those test scores or BMW becomes unimportant. They need not take personal responsibility for their actions or commitments.

Thus, the banner’s creator can think herself clever by playing on the modern meaning of “princess” as a spoiled brat with her religious expression. Material success testifies to one’s Christian devotion. The poor, conversely, clearly don’t pray hard enough. How else can one explain the unequal distribution of wealth in the world?


Chad said...

I've always been disturbed by the tendency in not only Christianity, but all Abrahamic religions to characterize humanity's relationship with God in terms of a secular political hierarchy.

But, anyway, I am planning to write an essay that touches on what you're talking about here - the peculiar forms American Protestantism is taking - from a (would-be) historian's perspective. I'll try to advertise it when it's ready.

tornwordo said...

It reminds me of the cruise we took in October. One of our tablemates said, God loves you, and the proof is that you are here on the ship able to afford such an experience.

Apparently, all good fortune is the result of Jesus' wishes.

Gay Erasmus said...

Interesting post.

I used to find these banners troubling, upsetting. But now my love of kitsch has kicked in, not unlike a belated dose of caffeine, and I find myself laughing at them.

My favourite banner is a Fred Phelps one: "God Hates Fag Enablers", which to me is like a gaudy tapestry composed of incongruous threads. The Judaeo-Christian God, who traditionally espouses love, hope, forgiveness, and redemption, is sutured, Frankenstein-like, to Phelps' familiar screed of hate. The robustly offensive 'Fag' is similarly attached to the quaint and politically correct 'Enablers'.

These sorts of banners are easy to mock. But religious fundamentalism in the US is serious and disturbing. We all, whether Christian or atheist, gay or straight, have a part to play in rebutting its violent stupidity.

Then again, sometimes laughter is the best form of rebuttal.

Helen the Felon said...

Like everything else, this is clearly Bush's fault.

GayProf said...

Chad: Thanks for stopping by and I look forward to hearing more from you.

Tornwordo: I wonder if the ship sank if this same couple would have decided God hated them.

GE: Then again, sometimes laughter is the best form of rebuttal.

I usually just go with liquor and pills myself. It dulls the pain.

Helen: Come to think of it, do we have any evidence that Bush didn't paint this banner himself? -- No, that's silly. He couldn't possibly spell princess.

MEK the Bear said...

Funny, Jesus did preach humility.

So much to the extent that he never actually says he himself is the son of god in the bible, (that is, if you do an exegesis on the original text) even though some bible versions claim he answered in the affirmitave when directly asked about his divine lineage this is simply not true.

The original text always has him answer "it is you who says I am".

I've been through pentecostal seminary, and this is what stuck with me the most from it, it's what turned me into polytheistic pagan modified-deist. (One who belives feminine and masculine energies created the universe but have no direct intervention with the lives of people as they're too busy ruling the universe which is a hell of a lot bigger than us.)

See, Jesus just knew how to market himself. Let people believe he's the son of god while escaping the wrath of the pharisees and sadducees of the time.

Or perhaps, even he knew he wasn't the Christ and didn't want to hurt anyones feelings.

doggerelblogger said...

I think it would be fairly safe to say that modern conservative Christians pick and choose from Jesus' teachings as they see fit. The notion of taking care of those less fortunate ("the meek shall inherit the earth", etc.) is hardly fashionable at the moment, nor is the idea of "peace on earth".

I have often wondered how, exactly, many people can call themselves "Christian" without instantly exploding into a ball of flame (further proof that God does not exist, I suppose).

- E. S. P said...

Hey Gay Prof,

New to your blog here. Was linked through MEK and Joe.

Have you read the DaVinci Code? Or saw the movie saved?
I found them very entertaining.

Like you said, I do believe that there is a higher power, be it whatever you wish to call it, in ancient sumaria it was Innana, to the Hopi Indians it is Gogyeng Sawhuti (spider grandmother).
It's fascinating when you take an objective view at religions.

Here's a little homework for you all. Walk around your town one day, and count how many churches there are. Then walk around and count how many homeless shelters there are or food kitchens. In my home town, there are 7 churches, no shelters or kitchens. (the closest thing to a shelter/kitchen is 45 min away)

I read a story once, I can't remember the name of it for the life of me, where there was a lake, and in that lake if you made a wish, it would come true. There was one rule that you had to follow though; wishes are to be given, they are not to be made for your own self.

That's how I feel about prayers. I know a lot of people who pray for themselves. Perhaps if more people prayed for others (and helped others) we wouldn't have to rely on Jesus' favor.