oh, mercy me

First some chitchat, then I'll get down to what I want to talk about.

Xmas is coming, and with it come all the reactions people have to Xmas.

Street people and shoppers flood the shopping districts. The building where I work has live musicians performing downstairs, soothing all the hardworking businesspeople, and me as well. TV and internet news sources compete for airtime about who's angry that who's messing up whose experience of the holiday. Mom gets clingy and begins to draw any possible source of emotional support slowly towards her like a half-awake octopus that isn't entirely sure what's tangled up in its tentacles but is quite convinced that part of it has to be delicious.

As for me, I have been a little tense and suspicious and growly. I have been reading more things about things that happen in real life, which make me angry. In contrast to all of Pournelle's Jupter novels, which Amber has thoughtfully provided for me through Baen, which all make me feel better and more empowered and such. And Dave has finally gotten me to the point where I can pay attention to football without getting angry--I told him the other day I'd achieved a critical mass of knowledge. Meaning that at some point in the future it is inevitable that I will watch something footbally happen on a screen, understand it immediately, and react to it just like a sport-caring-about person would. :D He is so cool, I don't even feel like a hypocrite for it. Just havin' my mind expanded, is all.

And then there's this, which I found posted on Sean the Blogonaut's old website. Please, watch, enjoy! I've already emailed it to Meg, since the rant is the sort of thing I can picture her laughing her ass off to. Eh, Amber will probably also like it, since the guy gets in a potshot at just about everybody and ends with a spirited "Merry Christmas!" Dave doesn't usually go in for random internet people talking unless it's about sports or Magic, but again, who knows.

On to the meat of the post!

I read Sean the Blogonaut and John Weaver's blog, Against Biblical Counseling, because their principal issue of concern is an organization called Mercy Ministries. It gets financial backing from Hillsong church and Gloria Jean's coffee stores. This place bills itself as offering Christian psychological treatment facilities for young women with mental illnesses, substance abuse problems, or who are recovering victims of abuse.

But in fact these centers offer only a cookie-cutter set of exercises on the Restoring the Foundations model, all led by bible students rather than psychological professionals. Seriously, just read the RTF cant in that link. Then try to imagine you are a teenage girl struggling with anorexia, and having bible students not trained in therapy and not much older than you are trying to passive-aggressively bully you into following the steps they need for you to follow in order for them to feel successful and get petted and praised by their mentors.

I most emphatically never was in a Mercy facility. Never been in a mental treatment program of any kind myself. Although I'm not sure whether to be proud of my own sneakiness in avoiding crossing that magic line where they'll send you, or annoyed at my caretakers over the years for not giving me the opportunity to go. From what I've heard from friends and relatives who've been, a lot depends on the way things are structured at an individual place, and what kind of human beings are running it. The personalities of the people around you make the difference between a useful Purgatory and a living Hell at the best of times. How much more so when it is one's own personality which has turned into an enemy, instead of a means of exploration and expression?

But there is just something about the Mercy situation that captivates and holds my interest. Because I have had a not insignificant amount of experience with the Pentecostal spiritualist crowd. And yes, they are spiritualists. I have come to recognize that whether you stick a Jesus fish on the side of your wrench, it is still a wrench, and all kinds of people have all kinds of tools and use them in whatever ways seem good to them, regardless of nominal creed. There was the whole range of human kindness and human wickedness--at all the different churches we went to as kids and teens, the now-defunct Pentecostal grade school where I did grades 6 through 8 and Meg did (I think) 2 through 4, the various prayer meetings and camps and retreats and things I've been to over the years.

In greater and lesser degrees, all the sprawling arms of the charismatic Christian movement has little pockets like Mercy in it. Where some deep-in-denial demagogue like Nancy Alcorn has put themselves in charge of someone else for a purpose they believe is right, using methods they have convinced themselves must be sound. ("It worked for ME, so it HAS to work for you, or else the problem is with YOU!") While in reality what they are perpetrating is a mockery of the principles of their religion and a hideous cruelty.

Once you start to say, "Oh, it's all right, they're religious, we don't have to hold them to the same standards as a secular psychological treatment program", you start to blur the boundaries between socially agreed-upon beliefs and facts in external reality. There is a difference, of course, between the primarily psychological harm wrought by organizations like Mercy, and the kind of atrocities where Christianity's ideas and words are used as an excuse for out-and-out torture and mass hysteria. But I believe the difference is only one of degree, and is entirely circumstantial. If times got a little harder, if people were a little less willing to investigate and sue, if survivors were a little less angry and honest, it could get much worse. So very quickly.

Which brings me back to Xmas.

As I was reminded by the Big Bang Theory (one of our favorite sitcoms these days), Christmas as a midwinter solstice fesitval evolved out of the Roman tradition of Saturnalia. As one character put it: People would bring evergreen branches into their homes as an act of sympathetic magic to encourage the return of spring. Saturn, who was Kronos in the Greek version, was the grandfather of all the gods. Temples to Saturn were the original banks. He represents the inexorable forces in the world, limitations like time and death and gravity, against which people must eternally struggle.

I haven't read too much on the subject, but the symbolism of the festival gives me an idea. The true meaning of Saturnalia is that ALL things have limits--even limits themselves. The things which bind us also give us shape. Death comes--but only after life. Without life, there could be no such thing as death. Without existence, the threat of nonexistence would have no power. Winter always returns--only to leave again. Gravity drags us down--but also holds us together. Gravity cuddles the oceans against the earth, wraps the air around the oceans. The gravity of the moon tugs against the gravity of the earth. Without it the earth might well have become a dreary wasteland like Mars or an endless storm of ammonia and nitrates like Venus. Yet in the dynamic balance between two sources of limitation, a little pocket, teeming with possibility and hope, springs up in the midst of a lifeless void.

Limitations only throw into sharper focus that something exists to be limited. Something must once have begun in order for an end to come, and something is always beginning.

Crazy people lie and cheat and do harm--first to themselves, and only afterwards to everyone they can get into their clutches. But they make themselves miserable, and turn their entire life histories into litanies of shame. When there is no one left who will believe them, no one left to whom they can exploit, it is to their own victims that they must always turn for mercy. Because nobody else even cares that they exist.

Happy monkey everybody! A fiercely determined Saturnalia to all, and to all a good night.


kisekileia said...

I really like what you said about the range of human kindness and human wickedness at churches and mental health facilities. I was spiritually abused, in a way that ultimately contributed to my leaving evangelicalism and turned me into a spiritual skeptic (I'm still a Christian, but I'm a cynical, skeptical, uncertain Anglican rather than a much more certain evangelical) when I was 16 at the same Christian camp where I was wonderfully loved and had a conversion experience when I was 12. It's very instructive to me that so many of the best and worst moments of my life, and such a combination of love and abuse, happened at the same camp.