September 6, 2018

Religious defiance and historical denial

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 3:51 pm by chavisory

religious meme[Image is a peaceful scene of stones forming a path across a waterway, flanked by bamboo and hanging lanterns. Text reads “A religious person will do what he is told…no matter what is right…whereas a spiritual person will do what is right…no matter what he is told…”]

Y’all know by now I basically live to rip facile nonsense like this to shreds, right?

This post is derived from a debate I had a little bit ago with a Facebook friend on the subject of this meme. I have, ad nauseam, pointed out the categorical falsehoods being committed by witticisms like this and the basic bigotries that they represent. It’s virtually a reflex. There are things I would so much rather be doing with my time, but I have a really hard time letting misrepresentations like this stand without comment.

Believe it or not, I am actually starting to feel like me doing that has, possibly, reached the limit of its utility.

But something else strikes me about this meme, which is its erasure of the role that religious communities have historically played in supporting and participating in civil disobedience, most memorably as far as American history goes in the Civil Rights Movement, but also in the abolitionist movement and in the Resistance to the Nazis in WWII in Europe. MLK, Jr. was a pastor. A Lutheran pastor in Germany led an assassination attempt on Hitler. A whole plethora of religiously-based organizations have been active in the fight for marriage equality, including pastors defying the rules of their own churches to perform marriages they could be defrocked for.

And, it being the case that we are currently reckoning with a situation in which Russian troll farms turn out to have massively infiltrated and manipulated internet leftist/social justice/activist networks with some devilishly clever misinformation campaigns…I do not take it for granted that that erasure is either coincidental or accidental.

When a basically source-less piece of internet jetsam seems to serve the purpose of alienating progressive communities from each other, even to the point of denying each other’s existence and of decades/centuries of calculated disobedience on the part of religious people…I would really question where it’s coming from, and who wants you to believe it and why.

Something we learned in biology classes, over and over again, was “form follows function.”

What’s the possible function of something like this? To reassure a certain number of people of their pre-existing convictions and prejudices, sure, but also to obscure the undeniable existence of religious disobedience to people who might not have knowledge of that history, for whatever reason.

A few months ago, there was, briefly, an occupation of an ICE facility here in Manhattan. And I wasn’t close to the planning or the groups leading the action, but I followed along on Twitter from the moment I heard of the occupation–about three days after it had apparently started–and went down to drop off snacks at one point and found a scant two dozen people there. Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon and the building was closed for the weekend so it wasn’t a time of high likelihood of clashes with ICE personnel, police, or vehicles. Attendance looked to be higher at other times, judging from social media, but never even remotely reached the proportions of the Portland occupation, though NYC is a far larger city with no lack of activist-minded populace who turned out en masse for the airport protests in the wake of the first attempted travel ban and revelations that separated immigrant kids were being flown into LGA in the dead of night.

And I was confused to find there seemed to have been virtually no involvement of local progressive religious groups, which was incredibly odd in light of the fact that immigration justice is among the signature issues of several of them.

Why wouldn’t they have reached out to local religious communities who prominently work on this issue for signal boosting and support? Did they simply not know that those groups are involved in that work? Or that they even exist? Are they operating too much in an ideological cul-de-sac in other regards so that the possibility was rejected or never came up at all?

I don’t know; I’m speculating somewhat. Regardless, I don’t think it’s a mistake the Resistance can afford to keep making. It is possibly more crucial now than it has ever been in some of our remembered lifetimes that we use all of the moral solidarity and strength in numbers that we have available.

Here’s another example: A Tumblr blog, now known to have been an IRA-linked propaganda blog, commented on a tweet about three female medical students from India, Japan, and Syria, who completed their training as doctors in Philadelphia in 1885, to the effect that because they were women of color, we know nothing about them.

But we do. To the extent that these ladies were the subjects of the doctoral dissertation of someone who I actually know. The knowledge of their lives and accomplishments was actually being hidden from us by a purported leftist activist blog.

And I think there’s a real danger, too, in assuming that anyone who is simply wrong on the internet, or with whom we disagree about strategy, is a Russian bot. I don’t assume that this particular meme was the product of a Russian troll farm rather than just a regular internet denizen rebranding their own self-satisfied ignorance as enlightenment. Quite possibly the author of this little piece of misinformation meant nothing but to take a swipe at what they perceive as the purposeless dutifulness of religious folk. But when the primary function of a piece of rhetoric seems to be fracturing or inhibiting the formation of coalitions of progressive communities…

To deny the very existence of acts of defiance by religious people and the presence of religious people in movements of civil disobedience…

To deny the provenance of some of the most effective tactics of civil disobedience ever known…

To deny younger idealistic people the knowledge of who many of those who took part in those actions were, where to find them, and how to talk to them…

To specifically deny the agency of religious communities of color in moral decision-making in resisting oppression…

Then I also no longer assume innocent wrongheadedness over its being designed to do so.

[Updated to add: This is a great article about how personal faith informs even secular social justice organizing that I ran across after originally publishing this post.]

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November 27, 2015

Religious erasure is still erasure

Posted in Reflections tagged , , at 12:29 pm by chavisory

I lost a Facebook friend a few weeks ago. We didn’t know each other offline.  I wonder if things would’ve gone differently if we had.  A meme featuring what sounded like a Richard Dawkins-derived quote was shared. I protested. The conversation didn’t recover.

So here’s the thing. I understand that a lot of people say strident and absolutist things about religion out of anger at their own experiences. I can completely and fully accept someone else’s right to be hurt and resentful of their own bad religious experience. I am fully aware that such experiences are all too common and entirely real. No shortage of people have no shortage of solid reasons to be resentful of the religion they grew up with.

And I still just can’t deal with it when they go around declaring that “religion” is only ever this oppressive, anti-thought, patriarchal monolith. Because almost intrinsically, what that’s saying is, “Your faith tradition, your community, your religious background, don’t exist. Because religion that isn’t like this doesn’t exist.”

It’s no more true than the fact that the taiga exists makes deciduous forests not exist.

Those are both ecosystems. They’re both forests. They share some important features of forest ecosystems. But they are also different ecosystems in vital ways.

Temperate rainforests and tropical rainforests also both exist. Subtropical deserts and alpine deserts both exist.

I think I have not seen any other topic, especially among otherwise very well-educated, liberal people, about which it is still so accepted to say “My experience is the only genuine one. This was my experience, so that’s the way it really is.” And not just accepted, but considered clever and enlightened.

We don’t accept that with regard to sexuality or ethnic or cultural background, or gender, or even linguistic background (with AAVE and Appalachian dialects increasingly recognized as fully valid ways to speak English—there isn’t just one static, proper incarnation of “real” English). We increasingly don’t accept it with regard to neurology or disability.

(What I’m absolutely not saying is that anti-religious bigotry is the “last acceptable prejudice.” It isn’t. It’s simply a popular one in some factions of society. It’s not the last acceptable prejudice, but it is one of the broadest common examples of a No True Scotsman fallacy.)

But it is hugely acceptable and even considered laudable in many intellectual circles to declare “This is what religion is and this is what religion does and this is categorically true because it was my experience.”

Things get painfully ironic when anti-religion absolutists claiming that faith fundamentally precludes the exercise of rational skills, refuse to apply those same skills themselves when, and only when, the topic is the mere existence of varieties of religious faith other than those with which they are familiar. Then very observable facts don’t matter. World history doesn’t matter. Cultural diversity isn’t a thing. Religion only ever behaves in one way.

Listen. I have spent the vast majority of my life fighting my own erasure in multiple ways. There are so damned many ways in which people have tried to write me out of my own experience. “No, you can’t be both this and this.” Real people don’t work like that. I don’t understand, so you are mistaken about your own experience.

You are what we say you are and your experiences are what we say they are.

It didn’t work when I was ten, and it doesn’t now.

I don’t believe for a single solitary second that religious belief should be held above criticism or interrogation, or that the implications of statements of faith shouldn’t have to stand up to some kind of critical or ethical examination. There are all kinds of debates about religious thought that I’m happy to have, and that we should as a society be having. Pretty much the one fight that I just can’t with right now is that religious faith like that which I’ve experienced my entire life doesn’t actually exist. Or isn’t actually religion because it’s not what someone who doesn’t share that experience has decided it must be.

(And anyway, if religion is only, ever, inevitably repressive, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-intellectual, authoritarian, etc…. then how do we expect to be able to ask religious communities to be better? If the only true alternative is that they cease to exist? We actually lose a lot of ability to make useful criticisms if religion can only be considered as this insidious, monolithic, one-dimensional thing, not taking into account actual diversity of belief and practice.)

And I’m just at a point right now where I can’t cope with it or engage with it. And I don’t think that fully owning the fact that so many people have been hurt by religion means that I have to shut up and take it in the face of blatant denial of the very existence or possibility of experiences that are not that, or of communities like the one I grew up in and like the one I’m blessed enough to have now, and of even more faith experiences outside even my own ability to imagine or conceive of.

There’s a difference between listening, and consenting to erasure.

But having these arguments turns out to be constructive an infinitesimally small percentage of the time.

Relationships in which I have to continually defend the existence and acceptability of something pretty integral to who I am and my experience of the world are not relationships I have the energy for right now. And frankly I become skeptical of your feminism or your anti-racism or your neurodiversity acceptance if you then go and say “Religion should be eradicated.” That’s a serious qualifier on your support for the self-determination of people whose religious or faith experience is intrinsically tied up with their lived experience of gender, family, racial identity, culture, or neurodivergence.

I think people can be not bad people, and be validly hurt in ways that don’t play well together, and with sadness, I conclude that that may be the case if someone else’s pain means that they have to make these absolutist pronouncements that fundamentally misrepresent or erase another group of people and their belief systems.

September 26, 2014

Signal-boosting post!

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 1:32 pm by chavisory

There are so, so many issues and projects and new art and fundraising campaigns out there right now that deserve time and attention and money, and I could almost write a post per day every day to get to all of them.  If I could I would just give the money to every project I like that needs it, but for the present moment I’ll have to settle for calling your attention to a few of my favorites:

1.  The deadline is coming up for submissions to Typed Words, Loud Voices!  This will be an anthology of writing by people who are non-speaking either some of the time or all of the time, who type to communicate.  The editors are Amy Sequenzia and Ibby Grace, two of my favorite advocates and bloggers.  Project description and submission guidelines are here!

2.  The Autism Women’s Network is planning an anthology on autism and race, and we have less than two days left in our fundraising campaign, with almost 50% of our goal to go!  This book is so important because the vast majority of discussion and visibility of autism centers on white autistic men, while autistic people of color suffer from an immense lack of recognition and understanding.

Project information and fundraiser are here.  If you are interested in submitting writing, guidelines are here.

3.  The WordPlay Shakespeare series, which I’ve been working on for about two years now with the New Book Press, has just released its third edition, Romeo & Juliet!  These are Shakespeare’s plays in dual text and video e-book format, and include both the full text and video of its performance by really stellar Broadway and Off-Broadway actors on every page, along with note-taking and study tools.

Almost every person, and teachers especially, who we show samples to, says that they wish they’d had these when they learned Shakespeare in high school.  I’m immensely proud of them, Romeo & Juliet is probably the play I’ve had the most fun working on so far as we’ve refined our understanding and process for this hybridized film/theater/new media format of production, and is available on iTunes and iBooks now.

4.  On Monday night, we had the CD release party and concert for the cast recording of Tamar of the River, a fantastically distinctive new musical that I stage managed last fall, the second original cast recording to be released for a show of mine.  If you have an interest in unique vocal music or storytelling technique, this is a piece you’ll probably love, and proceeds benefit Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings together young people from regions of seemingly intractable conflicts to work towards peaceful solutions.

5.  Out of Order is still fundraising!  This is a documentary about the journeys of LGBTQ candidates for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA), amidst evolving attitudes in the church about what it means to be both queer and a Christian.  I was excited for this to be out, like, yesterday, and the team (all of whom are working pro-bono out of belief in the importance of this film) is in a fundraising push to finish editing and post-production.

Please take a look at any or all of these that may be relevant to your interests. : )

September 5, 2014

[This is an automated message]

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 9:32 am by chavisory

I’m sorry, you appear to be trying to have an argument with a conservative evangelical and/or scriptural literalist or inerrantist variety of Christian.

As I am not one, I am unable to usefully participate further in this discussion with you on the essential nature of faith or religion, and/or the supposed conflict between faith and science, or between faith and critical thinking.

To continue this conversation in acknowledgement that progressive/non-literalist interpretations of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam exist and are equally authentic expressions of faith, press [1].

To continue this conversation in recognition that non-Western, non-Abrahamic, non-theistic, non-hierarchical belief systems exist, and are as fully valid religions as conservative fundamentalist Christianity, press [2].

To continue this conversation in recognition that heterogeneity of belief and practice exist and are accepted within most faith communities, press [3].

To attempt to locate a conservative/evangelical/literal fundamentalist with whom to continue this conversation as before, please hang up and try again.

Best of luck in your search.

Goodbye.

(I wrote this after feeling like I could have used something like it to copy/paste into most of the discussions I’ve seen lately about the nature of religious belief, and it would’ve been a better use of my time and energy than the arguments I participated in.)

March 7, 2014

This I don’t believe

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 2:21 pm by chavisory

Less often than I used to have the time for, but still on a fairly regular basis, I wind up in debates with atheists online, when I protest some ultra-generalized hysterical but maddening mischaracterization of Christianity or of religion in general.

Just for instance:  “But Christianity teaches that women are subordinate to men,” and I blink confusedly and go “…wait, what?”

Because mine didn’t, and doesn’t.

I ran across this graphic a while back….

I'm an atheist

[Graphic reads: “I’m an atheist.  I believe the existence of any deity has never been proven and is unlikely to ever be proven.  I believe that good can and should be done without worrying whether or not you’ve done sufficient good to be rewarded.”]

And the funny thing is, I could just as easily say the exact same thing as a Christian.

In fact, most of the time, most of the things that I’m presumed to believe by aggressive atheists, if I identify myself as a Christian, are not only not the case, but nonsensical to what I actually believe.

And while what I do believe in is more difficult to verbalize, what I actually don’t believe in is easy.

*

I don’t believe God is a bearded magical guy who lives in the sky.

I don’t believe the existence of God has been proven, or is likely to ever be.  I’m not even particularly sure that it should be, were it even possible.

I do not believe in doing good or being decent to other people only because some authority tells me to, or offers the reward of heaven or threatens the punishment of hell.

I probably don’t believe in heaven or hell as literal places at all.

I don’t believe that the way you get sent to either one is by sufficiently appeasing or pissing off God, or for believing or not believing in the right religion or the right deities.  I don’t believe that because I (obviously) think my beliefs are true, that other faith systems’ beliefs must necessarily be false.

I don’t believe in a God who particularly enjoys punishing people for normal experiences of being human, or who rejects people for who they are or who they love.  I don’t believe in a God who demands an unreasonable level of perfection or obedience to an archaic and unchanging system of rules.

I don’t believe in a God who demands that we not question or doubt or use our capacity for critical thinking.

I don’t all that much believe in what most people think of as magic or the supernatural.

I don’t believe the existence or action of God is necessary to explain what simply isn’t understood by science yet.  I don’t believe that the wonder or beauty of creation or the natural world is dependent on us just not understanding how it works.  I don’t believe that what we don’t understand yet is particularly strong evidence for the existence of God.

I don’t believe that the reality of evolution is in any way antithetical to anything truly important about my religious beliefs.  I really, really don’t.

(So I don’t believe, either, that the fact that neurological capacity for spiritual experiences can be shown to have evolved, in any way undermines or contradicts the authenticity or significance of that experience.)

I don’t believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God.  I don’t believe the Bible was written by anyone but people, who had historical and cultural contexts, histories, emotional lives, and agendas of their own.

I don’t believe that morality can only originate in religion.

I don’t rely on a pastor to tell me what to do or how to think.

I don’t need to believe in a heaven or an afterlife to escape fear of death.  (Which is not a particularly effective strategy anyway—I still fear death.)

I don’t need to believe in an all-powerful protector in order to not fear life.

*

So let’s go ahead and get past this part of the debate:  these are the things I really don’t believe.  If those are the only terms in which someone else can understand what religion is or what its significance might be to a person or to a culture, that’s not my fault or a weakness in my belief system.  I am not under any obligation to say “Oh, you’re right, of course, my faith system is what you say it is regardless of how little you understand about the actual experience of it.”

I’m not trying to convert anyone, to convince you to believe anything you have no genuine inclination to.  And I’m not arguing that religion shouldn’t be criticized when it exhibits real problems or when real harm is done in its name or under its influence, but relying on one-dimensional caricature to do that, insisting that religious belief by definition consists of things that for a lot of people it really doesn’t, is as unfair as it is unhelpful.

Describe the God you’ve rejected.  Describe the God you don’t believe in.  Maybe I don’t believe that God either.” —Timothy Keller

April 22, 2013

Just a thought

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 12:28 am by chavisory

I’ve heard it said often that the problem with the doctrine of reincarnation is that it encourages people to slack off about living life fully, giving the illusion that we have unlimited time to screw around or watch television.

From a common Christian point of view, the problem is the illusion that we have unlimited time to repent our sins and reconcile with God before we’re called to judgment.  That we can sin without limit or consequence because we’ll always have more time to get it right.

But I think it would mean something much, much better, if it were true in any way.

It would mean that all of the world’s greatest people, everyone we’ve loved, everyone who’s meant a great deal to us, everyone whose work has changed our lives…is still here with us.

But we can’t know who they are now.  They could be anyone and they could be anywhere.

And so every single chance you have to show goodness or kindness to another person, is a chance to show it to any person who’s ever lived and died.

Far from the idea of reincarnation being an excuse not to live life to the fullest, I think it’s an invitation to live as well as we can and show as much goodness as we can to everyone around us.

April 8, 2013

Prop closet treasure

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:32 am by chavisory

I was reorganizing a props closet recently when I found this fellow.

Puppet 1

I got all of his strings untangled to try to see how he works; he’s a marionette, but seems to be missing the wooden handhold that would allow a puppeteer to operate his legs independently from his arms and head.

He’s beautiful, and also clearly not a toy or a prop.  He looks like a traditional puppet of some kind.  (In most cultures other than ours, puppet theater is a serious traditional storytelling form for adults as well as children.)  And here’s my real embarrassment:  I wrote my final paper for graduation with honors in college on the religious frameworks underpinning various East Asian puppet theater traditions…and I had no idea what this guy is.

puppet face

He looks Indian or Hindu, perhaps, and preliminary image Googling reveals a resemblance to the string puppets of a tradition called Bommalattam, but those marionettes are described as being about 3 feet tall, and this one is only just over a foot, and also more detailed and ornate.  I dug out a copy of my paper to skim through, but he doesn’t fit the description of anything that I studied.

puppet feet

It’s past my bedtime, but I’m a little obsessed now with figuring out more about him.  I’ll have to resume research in the morning, though if anyone else is geek enough to have any idea, I would be thankful to know.

April 7, 2013

Out of Order new trailer!

Posted in Marginalization tagged , , , , at 1:40 am by chavisory

Really happy to see an update from the Out of Order team this week.  Seeing this film get made is a wish very dear to me.  It will come as no surprise to anyone, probably, that I treasure stories of people being told that they’re not supposed to exist, and then doing it anyway.

And also because I’ve had people who are not allies to the cause of equality tell me that they’re really and truly trying to understand the position of people who consider themselves both faithful Christians, and avowedly queer.  Being able to point them to this film would be a great place to start, but it has to get made first.

Earlier this year I shared the first trailer for this documentary project.  I know that everything and everyone is asking for your time or money for something, and I know that queer Presbyterian aspiring clergy might seem an obscure or marginally important topic for a documentary, but the filmmakers have this to say:

This important film is about people making a stand for what they believe in. It’s not merely about Christians or gay and transgender people. It’s about wider humanity and doing what’s right, despite institutions telling you you’re wrong, broken and don’t belong.

I know that’s something that probably a majority of my followers can identify with in some way.

They have an IndieGoGo campaign.  They’re just over halfway to their funding goal, and have four days left in the campaign.  Pledge levels start at only $5!

February 28, 2013

Religion is not the problem

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 8:26 pm by chavisory

So there’s more than one way in which I’m sick of being told that the way I think and experience the world is a blight on humanity that needs to be wiped off the face of the earth.

Recently I had a heated Facebook discussion with a friend over this Times Room for Debate entry, which not only argues that religion is not a reliable source of morality, but also posits that atheism shouldn’t seek to replace religion, but to end it…unfortunately employing a host of unfounded generalizations and leaps of illogic.

In the interest of both critical thinking and compassion, can we look at what, practically and humanly, ending religion would mean?

Various cultures and government regimes, at various times, have tried, hard, to get rid of religion or specific religions.  I do not know of an instance in which it has gone well, in which the attempt didn’t involve egregious violence and human rights abuses, or in which the culture in question was left ultimately better off.  Or in which it even remotely worked.

Beyond whatever personal spiritual significance or comfort they hold to individual believers, religious thought and traditions are the cornerstones of more than a few minority cultures and communities.  Who is anyone to say that these cultures have no value, to put oneself in a position of choosing which other people’s communities, community rituals, values, and devotions, should be suppressed and eliminated?  If we’re talking about the distinction between religion and morality, what is the morality of depriving a minority population of its rights of self-definition and community traditions and values?

Has anyone really thought about how we would prevent people or communities from transmitting their belief systems to their children?  If you knock down every church building, how are you going to keep people from teaching their children to pray alone in bed at night?  How are you going to prevent me from hearing God in the wind in the trees or in the silences between raindrops?  How are you going to prevent people from infusing art and literature with religious thought?

And before somebody answers that the solution to ending religious belief is just to teach people better facts, understand this:  Religions are not arbitrary sets of false, irrational, or mistaken beliefs, or collections of simple superstitions of cause and effect or magical thinking or carrot/stick promises of punishment or reward for belief or behavior (though they can contain all of those things), which could simply be undone by giving people better information.  (That thunder is the result of colliding warm and cool air masses and not the gods having wrestling matches, for instance.  I know what causes thunder.  That knowledge has never yet prevented the experience of it from being spiritual to me.)  They are complex narrative frameworks of symbol, metaphor, and allegory.  They are stories and vocabularies for a class of experiences that you can’t simply forbid people from having.  You can’t keep someone from having an experience by denying them the language for representing or coping with it.

And so unless you’re going to all-out eliminate storytelling, you’re not going to keep people who are so inclined from finding personal significance and guidance in storytelling, or from using a certain type of story–myth, fable, fairytale, whatever you want to call it–to give shape and understandability to their experiences.

It’s not fair or intellectually honest to presuppose that those experiences are false or trivial just because you don’t share them.  And frankly narcissistic to declare that, because you don’t understand or share it, that mode of perception needs to be eliminated from the realm of human experience and meaning.

There is bad religion, just as there is bad music and bad writing, but we don’t talk about doing away with those forms of thought and expression just because a lot of it is of poor quality.  There is religion that advances truly terrible values; that doesn’t make religion inherently destructive or wrong any more than Twilight‘s existence makes all teen fantasy literature poorly written and abusive relationship-glorifying.  It is a medium, not an end, not an ultimate good or evil in itself.

In the same way that the overwhelming (and baffling) success of Twilight tells us nothing about teen fantasy literature’s inherent quality or worth (the genre also includes the Wrinkle in Time quartet, His Dark Materials, and the Earthsea cycle), the popularity of anti-intellectual or violent fundamentalism tells us nothing about what religion inherently is or has to be.  It is one manifestation.

Religion is not morality, we should do a better job of talking about what both of those things are and are not, and I fully agree that religion can’t be said to be the exclusive or superior source of morality.  But that doesn’t make it either worthless, or worthy of eradication.

January 7, 2013

What everyone gets wrong about Susan

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:53 pm by chavisory

The Chronicles of Narnia have been some of the most formative books in my life, a situation in which I know I’m not alone.  I got my set as a Christmas present from my grandparents when I was 11 or 12.

There’s a common criticism of them, however, out of many quite reasonable ones, that’s irritated me for a long time.

He may not have been the first to think it or to say it, but author Philip Pullman’s articulation of what he finds wrong with the books, encapsulated in the problem of what happened to Susan Pevensie and why, when she does not return to aid Narnia in the final book of the series, may be most responsible for a now widespread interpretation that Susan is cast out of Heaven because she grew up and embraced her sexuality.  Indeed, I think I have hardly ever had a conversation about these books since college in which “The Problem of Susan” didn’t feature prominently in their criticism:

Susan isn’t allowed into the stable and the reason given is that she’s growing up. She’s become far too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly: ‘She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.’ This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality. Here’s a child whose body is changing and who’s naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one’s body and one’s feelings. She’s doing what everyone has to do in order to grow up.

And it is a god who hates life because he denies children life. In the final Narnia book he gives the children the end-of-term treat of being killed in a railway accident so they can go to heaven. It’s a filthy thing to do. Susan is shut out from salvation because she is doing what every other child who has ever been born has done – she is beginning to sense the developing changes in her body and its effect on the opposite sex.

It’s tempting and convenient, because it echoes charges so commonly made against Christianity as a whole–that it’s intrinsically set up to punish natural human sexuality, among other things like critical thinking and self-determination.

It’s too bad that Pullman’s interpretation is practically unsupported by the text.  You’d have to take the passage in question completely out of context of the entire rest of the series for it to be even remotely plausible; indeed, even by quoting it incompletely, he leads his listeners in a nearly complete distortion of the reasoning behind Susan’s exile.

Here is the incident, from The Last Battle, which Pullman cites:

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these.  “If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another.  Has not your Majesty two sisters?  Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have!  Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.  She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly.  “I wish she would grow up.  She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age.  Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

Susan is not just doing what she needs to do to grow up.  The reason given is not that she’s growing up; the text itself refutes this.  Lady Polly, the speaker after Lucy’s now-infamous line, denies that growing up is what Susan is doing at all.

She is pretending that her previous experiences in Narnia never happened.  She denies the people she knew there, who she loved and who loved her, people who died for her and what they meant to her, what she’s been through and everything she’s done up to this point.  She calls all of it a childish game.

Nor is there any defiance of the will of Aslan here, who has never in this entire story forced any of these people into any task or burden or mortal danger against their own free will.  Who has in fact, repeatedly, stood by and let them actively make bad choices.  She doesn’t hear an order from Aslan and say “no,” “I don’t want to,” “not this time,” or “fuck you, I’m not a plaything.”  She denies that she ever knew him.

Some other points of Narnian history further illuminate the absurdity of Pullman’s claims:

1. That time in Prince Caspian when Bacchus showed up for a romp…

The crowd and dance round Aslan (for it had become a dance once more) grew so thick and rapid that Lucy was confused.  She never saw where certain other people came from who were soon capering about among the trees.  One was a youth, dressed only in a fawn-skin, with vine-leaves wreathed in his curly hair.  His face would have been almost too pretty for a boy’s, if it had not looked so extremely wild.  You felt, as Edmund said when he saw him a few days later, “There’s a chap who might do anything–absolutely anything.”  He seemed to have a great many names–Bromios, Bassareus, and the Ram, were three of them.  There were a lot of girls with him, as wild as he….

“Is it a Romp, Aslan?” cried the youth.  And apparently it was.

And it’s a delightfully saucy good time, for a god who supposedly hates life and is into damning children for sensual exploration.

2.  Susan herself, in The Horse and His Boy, is described as having multiple suitors.  She’s being courted for marriage by Prince Rabadash of Calormen…

“Now, Madam,” the King was saying to Queen Susan (the lady who had kissed Shasta).  “What think you?  We have been in this city fully three weeks.  Have you yet settled in your mind whether you will marry this dark-faced lover of yours, this Prince Rabadash, or no?”

…but she’s awfully sweet on Corin, Prince of Archenland (though here she’s mistaken a runaway slave named Shasta for the prince)…

But he had no time to think of that before the most beautiful lady he had ever seen rose from her place and threw her arms around him and kissed him, saying:

“Oh Corin, Corin, how could you?  And thou and I such close friends ever since thy mother died.  And what should I have said to thy royal father if I came home without thee?  Would have been a cause almost of war between Archenland and Narnia which are friends time out of mind.  It was naught, playmate, very naught of thee to use us so.”

There is no condemnation whatsoever stated or implied for her romantic activities.

3. Lasaraleen

A minor character who also occurs in The Horse and His Boy, Lasaraleen is a childhood friend of Aravis, and perhaps unexpectedly, one of my favorite characters in the series.  She’s a party girl, socialite, and trophy wife…and perhaps the most totally and unabashedly herself of anyone in this world.  She loves luxury, being seen, and having a good time.

[Aravis] remembered now that Lasaraleen had always been like that, interested in clothes and parties and gossip.  Aravis had always been more interested in bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming.  You will guess that each thought the other silly.

We’re supposed to see Lasaraleen as doofy and shallow, but she’s also affectionate and loyal.  She helps her friend escape from being caught and returned to an arranged marriage at serious risk to herself, and no further particularly harsh criticism is made of her life choices.

4.  Other adults have come and returned to Narnia before.

-King Frank and Queen Helen

Former London cabbie Frank and washerwoman Nellie become Narnia’s first king and queen in The Magician’s Nephew.  They are already adults when brought to Narnia (albeit accidentally in Frank’s case).  Aslan treats them with trust and respect and is clearly not expecting chastity, but children and grandchildren from them.

“Rise up King and Queen of Narnia, father and mother of many kings that shall be in Narnia and the Isles and Archenland.”

-Digory Kirk and Polly Plummer

The first human children to stumble into Narnia, they return as adults (probably in their 60’s or 70’s) with the others for the Last Battle.  Peter and Edmund, wearing beards at their reappearance, are also young adult men by this point.  Presumably they’ve all done what they had to do to grow up, and it didn’t include betraying the memory of everyone they’ve ever loved.

Nothing in the world of this story indicates that any of the other protagonists who have grown up either in Narnia or out of it, did not go through “naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one’s body and one’s feelings.”  Nothing.  Because, as Pullman correctly observes, these feelings and explorations are fairly universal.

The gravity of Susan’s sin is not in her embrace of superficial frippery, or in any normal adolescent desire on her part for adulthood, sexual experimentation, maturity, or self-determination.  It’s her betrayal of her true self.  It’s her denial of her own emotional history and experience, and what a lot of other people went through by her side.

And even for that, nobody bars the doors of the Stable to Susan as she begs to go through to eternal life.  She is not in Narnia, because she, for her own reasons, chose not to get on the train whose demise brought her siblings and former mentors back to Narnia for the Last Battle.  Susan may have saved her (earthly) life by not getting on that train, but at the ultimate cost of her own authenticity.

Ability to return to your true home requires acceptance of who you really are.  That’s not something that Aslan, or the Emperor Over the Sea, or all the forces of Deeper Magic are capable of doing for her.

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