Friday, February 9, 2007

Teen Girl Squad: Simony 101

It's been a good week for teaching, which probably means that Sunday will be a zoo, just to keep us from feeling cocky. In Teen Girl Squad Wednesday night, I gave them a tough, morally complex problem, and though they didnt' solve it (and I didn't expect them to--*I* haven't solved it, either), they understood its facets.

We began by talking about the scriptures in Jesus' time. When His disciples talk about scripture, they mean the Old Testament. Sometimes Jesus teaches people by quoting the Old Testament, but sometimes, He tells them these strange stories. These stories are not scriptural, in the context of Jesus' time. They also are fictional. The farmer who spreads his seeds on the rocky ground, in the thorny place, and on the good soil is not a real person, any more than farmer McGregor from Peter Rabbit. They are, however, true, despite being fictional.

Jesus tells His disciples, when they ask Him why He speaks in parables, that it's in fulfillment of a prophecy--those who are called to understand, will, and those who are not, will think He's talking about a literal farmer. The people whose hearts are open to the message will see it--whether in scripture or in a simple story. Those whose hearts are not, will not.

We then started talking about the books and movies that I had asked them to bring. I started first, with The Complete Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, selected at random from my bookshelf. Winnie the Pooh is not an overtly Christian book. I doubt that Milne wrote it by thinking, "I'm going to write a book with Christian morals splashed all over it." Regardless, the messages of the stories are consistently about accepting the hand you're dealt and being joyful with it, supporting your friends and living in community, trying to get the honey from the beehive, but understanding that, some times, it wasn't meant for you. Those are all morals that I would consider positive, and even Christian. We went around the room after that, each of the girls talking about the movie or book that she brought, and thinking about how the Christian message might appear in it. Most of them did pretty well, once they understood what I was trying to talk about. Two of the girls brought Harry Potter books, and once they had talked about the messages of friendship, determination, and bravery in the books, we talked a little bit about the controversy surrounding the series. Some of the parents at our church buy into the whole "Harry Potter is satanic" thing. Because I didn't know if any of these girls' parents were in that group, I tried to tread lightly. "You know that some people think that Harry Potter is promoting witchcraft and things," I began. "But when Hanna and Bree read these stories, they see morals that are very positive. There's even a lot of self-sacrifice, people taking pain for others, which is the epitome of the Christian story. This is a good example of what Jesus was saying earlier. Those who are looking for nothing in particular will see an innocent story. Those whose eyes are filled with the love of God will understand the love in the story. Other people, though, see hatred everywhere. There's even a group that says that Sesame Street is anti-Christian. Think about what you're seeing, before you pass judgement on it." And then we moved on (though I heard some gasps and giggles at the thought that Sesame Street could be dangerous). The last girl to talk about her movie was Katie, who had brought Pirates of the Carribean (the first one). She struggled to come up with positive messages for that one, and I didn't remember the film well enough to help her much. Finally, I said, "At the end, don't Elizabeth and Will take punishment in their friend's place?" Katie nodded. "Can you think of anyone else who did that?" She just looked at me. One of the other girls whispered to her, "Jesus!"
"Oh, right, Jesus," she said. She's long been one I've worried about. Now I worry further.

We also talked about the concept of "garbage in, garbage out." I wanted to be very clear that I was not saying that they could watch anything so long as they sifted for the positive morals. My point was only that there are positive morals in books that aren't labeled "Christian." I think they got that. They all had heard really bad "Christian" pop, where "you just take out the word 'Jesus' and put in 'baby,' and you've got a top 40 hit."

I worry that I may have given the impression that it is necessarily wrong to sell something to the "Christian" market. After all, many artists and musicians are acting from real faith, and it happens that what they have to say would be relelvant to Christians, and not to many others. I, for one, imagine that I will at some point publish something in a Christian magazine, because most non-Christians aren't that interested in, for example, teaching Sunday school. Artists and writers, like preachers, need to eat. I might try to clarify that one for my girls next time we're all together.

Then we talked about Christians as a market force. I told them about how, when Mel Gibson wanted to make The Passion (just as a disclaimer: I actually found the film offensive. For demonstration purposes in this discussion, however, it is a useful example), studio execs laughed at him, no one would give him any money. "You're going to make a film in Latin and Aramaic?" they had said. "You're nuts!" So, he got together his private funding, and the rest is history. The girls all knew that bit. The thing I told them that they hadn't previously known was that, immediately following the success of The Passion, everyone in the marketing world was talking about how this Christian market was bigger than they had thought, and how they needed to get more of these Christians' money. The girls were pretty appalled. I don't think they had never thought about it that way before. We talked about "Testamints" (mints with scriptures on the box),"WWJD" bracelets, T-shirts with a Christian slogan on them. "What are the people who create these items really selling you? Does the money go to churches or missions or the poor?" They were speechless. "They're selling you a way to advertise that you are Christian, when really, we should advertise our Christianity through the way we live and the way we treat other people. Have you ever been cut off in traffic by someone who had a Christian bumper sticker?" I asked. Most of them don't drive yet, but all of them had seen that one happen.

I remembered, though I didn't share, when I was in high school and the WWJD bracelets were "in". A girl asked me why I wasn't wearing one, and I just shrugged. I was, at the time, an agnostic, and what Jesus would or wouldn't have done didn't matter much to me. I also thought they were tacky and stupid. The girl, who must some how not have noticed my consistent absence from events like "Pray at the Flagpole," informed me that if I wasn't willing to let other people see my love for Jesus, I must not really love Him. I guess she was right there, in a sense, but even now as an adult Christian, I don't wear a cross, and the only Christian T-shirts I have are ones given to me for working at youth events. I just don't feel compelled to play to that kind of marketing.

We discussed an excercise we had done a while ago, where we looked at advertisements and talked about what they were really being sold. These ads all had messages like, "If you use this shampoo, you'll have a hot boyfriend!" and similar. They had gotten "Biblezines" at Daughters of the King this fall, and I reminded them of those. "What are Biblezines doing?" I asked.
"They're just putting the Bible in a form that appeals to girls," Hanna said.
"Do you need to be sold on the Bible?" I asked.
"No," said Amanda, "but maybe someone who wouldn't read the Bible ordinarily would pick up a Biblezine because it looks cooler."
"Ok," I challenged them, "All of you got Biblezines. Did anyone read a whole book of the New Testament--even a short epistle--or did you just flip through looking for the pictures and reading the sidebars?"
All of them admitted that they hadn't read much of the text.
Amanda had been to Daughters of the King twice, and so had received two Biblezines. "When I got the first one, I was really excited about it, and I read some of it. The words they used were easy to understand. This year, though, I looked through it, and I realized that it was just the same thing, with different pictures."
"Yes," I said, "and you are two years older than you were the first time that you went. Little kids, you have to sell things to. They're only ready for spiritual milk--something easy to digest, in an appealing form. That's why we have VeggieTales and Bible action figures. Grown-up people shouldn't need that level of salesmanship. Adults are ready for some meat--they don't need to be lured in with superficial packaging."

I pointed out that my own Bible, replete with footnotes, is definitely designed to appeal to someone who wants to feel smart (someone else bought it for me, but I left out that detail for the purposes of self-deprication). All Bibles are packaged to send a certain message, either of formality or trendiness or personalization. "I'm not telling you not to buy what ever Bible you want, or not to wear jewelry with crosses on it, or not to listen to Christian music. I just want you to think about what you're being sold. I want you to evaluate it and think for yourself." I think (or at least hope) that they understood what I was talking about.

Amanda said that her mom thinks it's really good that so many "Christian" products are on the market these days, because more people will be exposed to the message. "Like, if you have Testamints, someone might ask you about the scripture on the box."
"Who would ask you about your mint box?" Ashley countered.
Amanda conceded the point, and then said, "But I see what you're saying, too, about how it can be a bad thing."
She got the moral ambiguity, and I didn't really know what to say there. "Your mom is right, kind of. I'm just asking you to be aware of these market forces." I didn't have the heart to tell her that, in all of my pagan hippie dirt-worshiper days, I never would have seen a "Jesus is my co-pilot" bumper sticker and thought, "He should be mine, too!"

Over all, though, it was a good class, and very challenging for all of us.

Now what am I going to do with them next month?

PS, I started thinking about this whole "Christian market" thing because of this article in the New Yorker, which is a pretty good read.

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