Bleeding Ink: Chick Tracts and my Evangelical Childhood

It was the mid eighties. I lived in Flemingdon Park, a mostly immigrant-populated neighbourhood on the edge of Toronto. My family – and I mean my whole family, three generations of it – attended Flemingdon Park Pentecostal Church. Of the church, I remember every detail. I remember the hardwood pews I sometimes helped my grandmother polish. I remember the chandeliers with a hundred small lights that seemed opulent next to our rented boxes, each with the same bulk-bought light fixtures. I remember the washrooms where we watched women fix their lipstick in their Sunday best, two piece polyester suits and hats with lace and flowers and small craft store birds. Sometimes their eye would meet and they’d give a knowing nod as a mother brought Jesus to their child with hands and purse straps and coat hangers.

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Pretty on the outside…

The Jesus freak movement of the seventies brought swaths of people (including my family) to religion, but it was the hard-nosed, cult-like, almost mythically weird evangelism of the eighties that kept them. Somewhere along the way, the idea that god is love gave way to the sure-fire knowledge that god was right. And as god’s chosen folks, we were right by proxy. Several times a week, we gathered in the red brick building on Grenoble Drive and listened to stories of hell, fire and redemption. My brain, always a little bit sideways, took it all in. I believed every word of it.

To explain it to someone who hasn’t been through it, imagine you were raised watching horror films every day from as early as you can remember. Only, instead of your parents assuring you it was all just a made up story, they told you it was real. All of it. They told you Freddy and Jason and Pinhead and Leatherface were real. They told you the only thing that was standing between you and them was constant prayer, never-ending obedience and diligent belief. Imagine that the judge who determined whether or not you were given over to them was always watching. Not a single moment was your own. One mistake and you would be theirs. To assure your safety, your salvation, you were hit whenever you strayed, even in thought. That was my childhood. That and potlucks, music and felt cut-outs of Noah’s ark.

An important part of our church was evangelism. We sent missionaries around the world. We rented buses to go protest women’s clinics. We delivered religious tracts door to door.

We delivered Chick tracts door to door. Jack Chick was the one man hate-machine behind the infamous comic books that still see distribution around the world. Filled with horrific racist, sexist and homophobic caricatures and oversimplified theology, Chick tracts were the preferred outreach tracts of evangelicals. The recipe was simple. Sin was shown, fear was instilled, redemption was promised and the then “sinners prayer” (which appears nowhere in the bible) was said. After that? Well, we were never given a very clear after picture, unless we were shown their ascension to heaven, the door prize for living the anti-social perfection of the Chick reality.

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I’m the short one…

On occasion, my church would do a Chick tract delivery day. On that day, we would walk the neighbourhood in small groups, carrying shopping bags or pulling trundle buggies filled with small, black and white comics that invited people to join our cause – or else. Stamped on the back was the name and address of the church. The idea was they would read the book, find god and need a place to turn.

I was an anxious child. I’m an anxious adult. For me, the idea of going door to door sent nervous tingles through my whole system. I would get dizzy just thinking about it. Still, fear of hell won out, so off I went, eagerly dropping tracts in mail boxes or through apartment mail slots, joining my mother in preaching to the folks who opened their doors to us. I remember my mother and a person of another belief system having a debate as I stood clutching my Chick tracts. Behind them was their child, looking equally unsettled.
“You love your child,” My mother said, “But you’re condemning them to hell.”
“I could say the same to you.” They replied.
I met eyes with my fellow condemned soul and said nothing.

When the day of delivery was over, each of the children was given a “comic” to take home. A gift for sharing the spirit. I was given The Poor Little Witch, a comic that only really makes sense if you remember the Satanist panic of the eighties. In it, a girl named Mandy wishes in front of a candle that girls will stop picking on her in gym class. By the end, she’s drinking baby blood. I’m not exaggerating.

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I re-read this comic often, praying the prayer at the back. Somewhere along the way I lost it, but I never forgot its heavy-handed message or the fear it set in my stomach.

You see, Chick tracts didn’t just serve the purpose of recruitment. Chick tracts were fear pamphlets. Each one served to create a massive them and a tiny righteous us. As children in our church, we were expected to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. Obediently, we excused ourselves from school lessons, avoided making friends with sinners and closed our eyes if we passed an ad that might provoke sinful thoughts. These tracts confirmed that our isolation was not just right, but life-saving. What if I should talk to the wrong teacher and end up drinking baby blood at threat of knife point? What if I listen to the wrong music and let demons into my body? What if I forget for the smallest moment that I am a sinner and lose it all?

To most, the passing of Jack Chick is a cultural hiccup. It’s a chance to laugh at the funny books that tell such ludicrous lies that people wonder if they might be parody.

For me its a reminder of the weird horror movie I grew up in. One where demons were real and torture was promised as a punishment for reading the wrong book or thinking the wrong thought.

As they die, these men like Oral Roberts and Paul Crouch and Jack Chick, we children of their legacy keep on. We peel away the horror stories and find ourselves. We find a narrative that is not black and white, sketched in righteous fury. We revel in grey and ignore the nightmares that sometimes haunt us of blood and ink and fear.

We grow up and leave these comic books behind.

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Happy From The Outside In

Silence is golden. I swear I’ve heard a song that says that…

I fell silent. If you’re new to my blog, this is probably a good time to tell you I have a mood disorder and ADHD, so that’s going to happen from time to time.

If you’d like an idea when it’s apt to happen, two sure markers are the coming of winter and a really successful blog entry. I’ve recently seen both. It snowed last week. (I’m sorry Canada. I just cant.) Also, I wrote about my experiences growing up in a cultishly Christian household. I did this as part of a reflection on the life of Kim Davis, a woman who has beliefs that she holds dearly that she’d really like to impose on other folks. It seemed to resonate, and it was widely read. Being read scares me, which might make you wonder why I write at all. As a wise man once said: Don’t ask me why I write. Ask me why I cannot stop.

Now I’m in what Garfield liked to call a deep blue funk, but I’m doing what I can to pull my way out. I’m trying something new. I’m going from the outside, in.

Clap along if you feel kinda meh about life in general...

Clap along if you feel kinda meh about life in general…

I’ve spent 20+ years in some sort of therapy or another. That happens when you’re a teenager and you’re in the system. I’ve been therapized, de-sensitized, exorcised (literally) and medicated. I’ve tried really hard to fix what I didn’t break.

It hasn’t worked (I’m functioning – I’m resilient – but I’m not happy.) My new plan? Mend it the way it was busted: from the outside, in.

My plan is to try to treat myself just as well as the folks who mistreated me treated me poorly. It’s a tall order, but I’d like to think I’m up to it. In that spirit, if there’s anything you do that makes you feel like a million smiles (bucks are over-rated and in short supply) let me know below. My plan is to try them all. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I’ve spent years trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. Time to figure out what makes me happy.

Kim Davis and The God of Glowering Women

Dear God, please smite all the folks I don't like.

Dear God, please smite all the folks I don’t like with your magic smitey hand.

I know Kim Davis. Not personally, mind you, but I know her. She is my mother, my aunts, the women who yelled at us for being drowsy during long sermons and gave us candies for memorizing Bible verses. I know her.

I know her because I lived in the world she inhabits. She is part of the Pentecostal movement, the movement that raised me. Like my mother, she found Jesus as a grown woman. She probably found Jesus out of some combination of desperation, emptiness and a desire to be in control, while also surrendering control. The surrender comes with obeying all of the many, varied and often ridiculous rules laid out ostensibly by the Bible, but more honestly, by the clergy and the “head office.” The control comes from imposing those same rules, not just on yourself, but on your family, your community and anyone who thinks differently than you. The control comes from being right – not through years of searching and trying, but by reading the manual. Pentecostalism is a bit like assembling IKEA furniture. As long as you follow all the instructions, you’ll get to hëavën.

When I look at her, I see those women. I see the stubborn, closed-off hatred disguised as piety. I see the surety that comes from having a side in a fight, from backing a team that always wins because it sets the rules. I also recognize the fervour of a new recruit. Davis “found” Jesus just four years ago. She’s still fresh. And the fresh ones make the best mouthpieces. They echo because they haven’t done their homework yet.

I did my homework. After believing for years, I started to doubt (mostly because praying felt a lot like talking to myself.) In order to challenge that doubt, I read all the books I could find about what I believed. I read the books Constantine cut out of the Bible. I read works written contemporaneous to it. I read books by biblical scholars and professors and pastors. I attended sermons and services and sleep-away camps. I mainlined god. I searched and researched the way a person should before using their religion to oppress others.

I looked and I found contradictions and problems and lies and hypocrisy and a lot of political finagling. What I didn’t find was an absolute truth. Absolute truth doesn’t come easily, if it exists at all. You can’t go to an expensive building in your best clothes and find absolute truth. No one can hand it to you. Even if they do, that will be their truth, not yours.

In all of my searching and reading and hunting, the closest thing I’ve ever found are four words: First, do no harm. That’s my truth. I will never expect it to be anyone else’s. My favourite passage from the Bible-I-do-not-follow remains, to this day, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

In the end, what I see when I look at the be-smocked and matron-haired woman who resembles my childhood is a person who chose a path that would both forgive all her shortcomings and let her judge other’s. I see someone who thinks that four years of learning means that she has the answers. With those answers she has built an ideological wall that no amount of rational discourse can climb.

So while folks mock Kim Davis, while they rally behind hashtags that vilify or martyr her, I’m remembering an easier time. A time when I knew I was right, without considering all the variables. A time when singing the right songs and saying the right prayers meant a super-hero in sandals had my back. A time when I did not have to consider why people do what they do, because demons and angels were the answer to most of the behaviour of sinners and saints.

It is easy to be holy for eschewing lipstick or mainstream music or signing documents that let others express their love and commitment. It’s easy to be right because a man behind a pulpit says you are.

When I walked away, I gave up self-assurance for self-searching. I gave up the right to judge for the right to choose, the right to love and the right to ask questions. It was not an easy trade and it destroyed a part of me that felt pure, in that it was naive and simple. I think I was happier then. I was happier trying to convert my school friends and shame people whose lives were pointed in a different direction than mine. I was happier as a girl who glowered and judged and wore long skirts and held longer grudges.

I was happier. But I know – I know for a fact – that I did more harm.

Crime and Sin – How Churches Fail Victims of Sexual Assault

When I was a teenager, I attended Rexdale Alliance Church. I was one of very few teenagers at the church, if not the only one, who was not living at home. As I’ve outlined here, I had a fucking hard start and it didn’t get easier when I left home. I was young, but I looked even younger.

This was taken a few years later. I still looked like a kid at 20.

This was taken a few years later. I still looked like a kid at 20.

Add to my childish visage the fact that I was shockingly naive due to my religious upbringing, and I made a perfect victim.

My church had a youth group that met weekly. I was trying to hold on to my last vestiges of normalcy so I made the effort, travelling from Malton to Rexdale by bus for one of the events. I was still, I think, under the belief that it all had a reason and there was a god protecting me. Or something.

After the event, one of the youth leaders offered me a ride home.

This youth leader was closer to my father’s age than mine. He was the sort of man who sported a mullet like it was still fashionable and talked about sports like he was actually invested in the outcome. He wore his jeans tight and his t-shirts tucked in. It was like no one had told him the 80s were over. He thought he was still a teenager.

Perhaps that’s why he did what he did.

On the way home, he started asking me about how hard it was living on my own. I was honest. Most of the time I was struggling to make ends meet. I was tired from working and going to school. I was lonely.

That’s when he put $100 on the dashboard.

“If I gave you that…” He paused like he was gathering his courage, “Would you strip for me?”

At this point, I had never had consensual sex. I was too body shy to wear a bikini at the beach. I was still reeling from the sexual abuse I had experienced at home.

“I won’t touch you.” He kept going like my silence indicated contemplation and not shock.

I mumbled a refusal.

“I won’t hurt you. I just want to watch you.”

A that, I demanded he let me out of the car. He pulled over and pressed a $20 bill into my hand.

“Keep that. You need it.” I did need it, but I didn’t want it. I tossed it back in the car and walked the rest of the way home.

The next day, I called the church and reported him.

A few days later, I was given their official response: He had repented. Since he had repented, I was supposed to forgive him. He left a message on my machine asking for my forgiveness. It was also made pretty clear that since he was forgiven (by god) that I wasn’t to “spread rumours” about him. I was to keep it to myself.

I did.

He stayed at the church. I eventually left.

While my experiences don’t hold many parallels with the mess created by the Duggars, one theme carries through both narratives: If god forgives a sin, then there was no crime.

While I know better than to read the comments, I still do it. In relation to the Duggar story, there seem to be two schools of thought. One says that a pedophile is a pedophile and that hurting children is always a cause for outrage. Another says that god forgives, so why can’t we?

Beyond the obvious fact that our country does not operate by biblical law, the answer is that gods do not speak for victims of crime. One’s godhead may forgive them a sin, but they cannot absolve a person of their civil responsibilities. Sin and crime are not the same thing.

For example: Same sex love is a sin to some belief systems, but it is not a crime. Hitting a child with an implement is not a sin in some belief systems, but it is a crime. To assert that forgiveness of a sin by a non-universal godhead forgives a crime committed against a fellow human being ignores completely the rules set in place to protect people like the girls involved in the Duggar case and like me. By placing the arbitrary and randomly enforced rules of one sect of a religion over the rules of society, by seeing crimes as sins, churches do a disservice to their own followers.

In the end, what mattered most to teenaged me was the clear message that the safety of my body was secondary to the protection of his soul. My reality was not as important as his abstract self. His forgiveness was a prayer away. If I were to pursue it beyond that, I would be sinning against my “brother.”

That is the trap of calling a crime a sin. A sin can be washed away with a few words. A crime cannot.

Eyeballs And Planks – Looking For The Bigot In Me

Recently I called out folks who crap on Feminism by explaining exactly what it means to me and why it still matters. I went into the reality of what it brought to my life and how, as a philosophy, it helped me move from a place of oppression to a place of (at least more) self-determination.

I felt like it was important to share what it meant to me, because, as I noted in my previous blog, it was the stories of other women that opened the heavily locked door for me. I wanted my story to be a part of that, while expressing some growing frustrations.

Still, calling other people out is messy business. It forces you to, in a way, call yourself out as well.

In trying to understand the people I was challenging I asked myself, is there a comparable group, movement or identity that I found as problematic as some people find Feminism?

Oh, very yes.

This is an totally un-sourced and probably made up thing that Gandhi tweeted from beyond the grave. See? Ghost Gandhi agrees.

This is an totally un-sourced and probably made up thing that Gandhi tweeted from beyond the grave. See? Ghost Gandhi agrees.

Christianity.

Admittedly, I grew up in an evangelical home that, while being biblical literalists, also did the whole cherry-picking thing. I was raised in the second worst version of Christianity (only the Phelps really have us beat.)

Still I asked myself, how do I approach people to whom these beliefs are important? Do I treat I feel superior and smug? (Sometimes.) Am I angry? (Often.) Am I dismissive? (Pretty much.)

There are clearly differences between Christianity and Feminism. Christianity, though there are a million interpretations and hundreds of versions, has only one, final source material. It’s the bible or nothing. And it’s a deeply, deeply problematic source material full of equal parts love and condemnation, packed with impossible rules and open to wildly divergent doctrines.

Feminism is a growing idea. It’s not done yet. It’s open to debate that calls on any and all sources, including voices just now developing. There is no big book of Feminism. This is part of what makes it an easy target, actually. We don’t have rules for what being a Feminist means. We are individuals who are part of a movement, not adherents following the same teacher.

Still, despite the considerable differences, it’s the closest comparative I could find.

At Christmas, I posted this graphic:

Because it's true...

Because it’s true…

In a way, it was my knee-jerk response to the overwhelming amount of religiosity that takes over from pretty much October onward (though Hallmark started in August and I almost wept.) Still, it was a knee-jerk response. It wasn’t a well thought out conversation as to why the original images were getting tiresome or what focusing on one mis-timed ritual really says about us. It was dismissive. And it was equally as dismissive to homo-hating, woman-oppressing, evolution-denying, over-the-toppers as it was to the folks who have rainbow stickers right on their church announcement boards.

I think of a friend whose wife is a minister, something my church would never have allowed. A man who loves both theology and science fiction. A man raised by missionaries who question colonialism. An American who married a Canadian! I mean, this dude is complex. Can I be dismissive of the hooting, howling bigots and not be dismissive of him?

And this is where the comparison to Feminism serves it’s best purpose. Christianity, like, Feminism, is a big name. It’s a box. A cereal box, if you follow. And in that box are many different flavours of marshmallows and some of those carboard-y things that you eat first so the milk will turn purple and you can just eat marshmallows at the end…

No wait…

Now I’m just hungry.

*shakes head*

Okay. It’s like a box. And not everything in the box is the same. By judging everything in the box by the same standard, you’re ignoring the fact that, frankly, the only thing that really ties these things together is the box. It can be hard to judge people/feminists/christians/cereal pieces on a case by case basis, because there are so freaking many of them and that would take way too much time. And a box full of something can do more damage if dropped on your foot than each individual piece can.

Still, we need the box. Feminists need to work as a group to create change. We would not have our voting rights if women had not worked together to demand it. We would not have women’s shelters if groups of women had not come together to build them (I recently got to meet a woman who helped found one of Toronto’s first – amazing human being!) There are times when groups need to pull together to force change. I don’t think we’re out of that time yet. So what does this all mean?

Well, I wish I had a simple wrap up. I feel like there should be a great one-liner that will make all the preceding work, but it’s never that simple, is it?

Here goes: I’m still asking people to back up off Feminism and really listen to women and study the statistics and acknowledge us. Don’t dismiss us based on what one woman said or did. To use specific examples to promote disenfranchising a whole group of humans is not helpful.

As for me, I’ve not stopped growing. I will never (again) be religious, I suspect. I will never view my experiences in Christianity fondly. However, I will try to separate out the compassionate from the hateful and the sincere and good from the, well, also hateful. Seriously dudes. Less hate.

Oh wait! There’s totally a great one liner to end this all. One of the many translations of the bible includes this gem, and I fully support at least these two lines of the book (though I’ve taken the liberty of replacing ‘brother’ with ‘friend’.)

“How can you say to your friend, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the plank is in your own eye? First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your friend’s eye.”

See? Christianity. Not all bad.