Sex In The Movies Part 2: Is Drama Evil?

macbeth-largeI spent Part 1 of my series on sexuality in movies trying to reframe the ongoing debate over depictions of sex in media. Rather than delve into whether a specific movie is worthy of our attention, I think it’s worth looking at why these debates unfold as they do.

It’s no surprise that the Puritans gave us the modern framework for these debates. But Christian distrust of the arts goes all way back to Tertullian in the year 197. In De Spectaculis, Tertullian writes:

You shall not enter circus or theatre, you shall not look on combat or show.

This quote, more than any of Paul’s admonishments in the Bible, is the one that launched social conservatism as we know it. And it’s interesting how we managed to retain the spirit of Tertullan’s warning while ignoring the fact that the “clean” alternatives American Christians condone (football, violent movies) fit Tertullian’s description far better than a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street does. The point here is that even today’s most conservative Christians find nuance within Tertullian’s statement and make more exceptions than he would have.

So how did we go from Tertullian to the Puritans? First, it’s important to note that the Puritans viewed the Catholic Church as corrupt papists. They were offended by the aesthetic excess of Catholic churches, as well as Rome’s embracement of Renaissance Art that glorified the human form. The Puritan view of the arts – which wasn’t quite as morose as you might think- functioned as a reaction to Rome by embracing minimalism. Puritans felt the need to “justify” their creative outlets by channeling them as expressions of faith (like writing psalms or reverent poetry). If you go back to the comments section of the Trevin Wax post that inspired this series, note how many commenters follow the Puritan argument that time spent away from God’s Word is time wasted.

So the American mentality towards the arts is actually a deep-rooted reaction towards the perceived creative excesses that the Catholic Church fostered. In addition to simple clothing and churches, the Puritan aesthetic also manifested itself in bans against graven images and depictions of the human form. It’s no accident that landscapes became so popular in America; outside of family portraits, depicting people in art was frowned upon.

This brings us to the theater. For more than a century, American Christians fought a vigorous war against plays or theater performances. They believed that drama was evil:

Make no mistake, the root issue that the believer faces is not the evil of the sinful content of drama, but the form of drama itself. In opposition to that evil the believer must look to the Word of God for direction and protection. By evaluating the form of drama in the light of Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity the believer discovers that drama is an evil which must be forsaken.

At first their main problem with theater wasn’t sexual content or subject matter. It was the belief that to act in a play is to deliberately lie. The actor portraying Romeo wasn’t really a lovesick man in love with a girl (whose part – like all womens’ roles – was usually played by a male actor). The actor portraying Macbeth wasn’t really a king. The whole show was based on actors intentionally deceiving the audience, and the audience reveling in the actors’ sins.

This wasn’t just a mild debate. Pious Christians rioted, ransacked, and drove out actors whenever anyone attempted to open a theater or put on a play. The war against plays was in many ways the first culture war, and it established the blueprint we still go by.

So how did the theater finally gain footing? Through church services. It was one of the the first artistic truces between church and art in our history, and it foreshadowed the church’s pattern of declaring new art forms Satanic until they found ways to utilize them for spiritual purposes.  And it happened because church attendance was in decline (yes, even in the 19th century, people backslid on attending church). A small number of pastors broke the hardline stance against theater and invited actors to perform morality plays that fit with the morning sermon. The plays were a hit, so the spirit of the free market overtook the spirit of Tertullian, and slowly but surely pastors stopped fighting against theaters.

The irony with our current debate over sex in media is that the church introduced the scandalous elements to our entertainment media. To compete with one another, some churches raised the stakes with more explicit themes. There wasn’t nudity of course, but adultery became the central topic of church plays rather than something that was vaguely hinted at.

Tracts went in the same direction. The first graphic depictions of murder and sex in American literature were written for longform tracts designed as a bait and switch to titillate readers, only to admonish them to stay away from such temptations and repent. As people grew bored with the tracts, the writers made them more salacious. The intent was to keep readers focused on the sinfulness of such behaviors. Eventually the envelope had been pushed too far and the church backed out of morality tales, unleashing them to secular culture.

My point is that the debate about whether The Wolf Of Wall Street is acceptable viewing fare should be seen as a continuation of the centuries-long distrust American Protestants have held towards the arts. And if you take that long view, it’s easy to see that a century from now Christians will probably be a little less neurotic about sex in movies than we are now.

I can understand it if some Christians view this as a validation of the slippery slope argument. And to a degree, it is.  But the problem is, as Tertullian illustrates, no matter how selective modern Christians portray themselves to be, they are much more lax in their entertainment choices than early Christians were. At a certain point they stand their own ground and see grays where Tertullian didn’t, and justify things they enjoy for no deeper reason than the fact that they enjoy it. They might put a Christianese spin on it, but it’s no different than the Christianese spin fans of Martin Scorcese movies use. Many of these these same strict Christians attend churches filled with Satanic rock music, graven images of Christ, and uncovered heads. They choose to ignore these things because they’ve accepted them as cultural norms, and therefore quite reasonable and even pleasant. They choose to battle over The Wolf of Wall Street but look the other way on football.

So I arrive at basically the same ambivalent place Trevin did, although I suspect that I’m much more willing to unapologetically embrace a director’s artistic vision. But this is an issue that Christians must figure out on their own. If Martin Scorcese’s movies lead you to temptation, by all means avoid them. The costs are greater than the gains, and you won’t be able to appreciate them if you can’t move beyond the sex or the violence. But history shows us that anyone making an emphatically declaration of what is or isn’t acceptable entertainment winds up reflecting the mores of their time rather than any universal guidelines.

Sex In The Movies Part 1: Reframing The Debate

puritans25So I’m having a little fun engaging in a discussion at Trevin Wax’s blog about the  merits of sexual content in movies. I think Trevin takes a perfectly reasonable middle ground on the issue: while he rejects the reactionary stance against pop culture that his fundamentalist upbringing bestowed upon him, he also worries that Christians have become too lax about discernment on such matters. The crux of his post comes down to this question:

My question is this: at what point do we consider a film irredeemable, or at least unwatchable? At what point do we say it is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?

I think that’s a fair question, and I appreciated the fact that he didn’t attempt to offer a definitive answer, because I don’t think there is one. I don’t really have a problem with people who are overly cautious about exposing themselves to sexuality in the arts if they genuinely struggle with temptation. If you can’t get beyond “that’s hot!” when viewing a sex scene, you’re not likely to appreciate the larger message a director might be trying to convey with that scene.

But what struck me during the course of the discussion that followed his post was how reticent people were to even admit that entertainment itself was an acceptable activity. There was a lot of “I’m more discerning than the other guy” one-upmanship, and some played the “we should be reading our Bibles instead” card. But the reactionary position ran supreme, so much so that many of the most flexible people argued for viewing such movies as a means of cultural engagement (as if they don’t really like American Idol or Iron Man – they’re just viewing it to figure out how to evangelize to their next door neighbor who does.)

I could spend a lot of time pointing out that even the reactionaries spend a hell of a lot more time enjoying pop culture than they’d care to admit – and that’s not a scandalous admission. After all, let’s not forget that Jesus’ first miracle was to liven up a party.

It’s easy for us to mistakenly assume that the parameters of these debates have always remained basically the same, with more discerning Christians staying on the straight and narrow while weaker souls allowed worldly culture to seep into their lives at ever-increasing rates. This line of argument generally assumes that depicting sexuality has always been bad, and it got exponentially worse since the 1960’s. With rare exception, these people are much more flexible about depicting violence.

But that’s not how it really happened. The reality is that while the Puritans were indeed humorless sorts who occasionally burned witches, sex was something they saw a lot of. Some of this was for logistical reasons; if you and your family were  huddled together in one-room or two-room dwellings, then you don’t have the  luxury of privacy. So you get it on in front of your kids, and if you’ve got more than one couple living under one roof, then there will be a lot of rocking and rolling going on. Puritan kids saw more sex than modern kids do, and they didn’t get the “birds and bees” speech to prepare them for it.

The study I linked to also cites public sex as a frequent occurrence. Puritans weren’t concerned with weak souls tempted by the sight of their neighbors getting it on; they were concerned with maintaining social mores, and for them that meant married sex was great no matter where it happened or who it happened in front of, while unmarried sex was a grave offense. if you were the sort of person who might be filled with lusty thoughts at the sight of people having sex, you likely had a rough time avoiding it.

Of course, the Puritans weren’t very good about maintaining sexual mores. The pregnancy rate among unmarried women could be as high as 25-30%. Men in those days did have a relatively easy out on premarital sex, though. It was assumed that premarital sex was just that – sex you had with the person you intended to marry before you got married. Naive women consented because they assumed the act was as much a sealing of the agreement to get married as the engagement is today. in addition, Puritans were just as weak-willed about sex as modern souls were, so they also had their own porn.

(Before I get back to my main topic, i would like to point out that the current evangelical stance against premarital sex is more rigid than the Puritan stance. Think about it: Puritans realized that a committed couple would likely succumb to their passions, so they were okay with premarital sex. In fact, the age of marriage for women in colonial times was surprisingly similar to our modern average: 23-26 years old. But Puritan brides were rarely virgins, and unlike modern Christians, they weren’t taught to be ashamed of that.)

So what does all of this have to do with salacious content in movies? Well, as I’ll explain in Part 2,  it’s true that Americans have always been neurotic about what entertainment they consume. But the distrust of worldly temptations we inherited form the Puritans wasn’t overt sexual content. It was about honesty.

The Right Seeks Converts, The Left Seeks Traitors

alec-baldwinBack in the 90’s I used to hang out at Christian messageboards. Ar first they helped serve as an outlet for the frustrations I felt dealing with the evangelicals I was hanging out with. Locking horns with fundamentalists online had fewer social consequences than doing the same with my Bible Study friends.

For me the most fascinating discussions took place when two fundamentalists found themselves on opposing sides of an issue, like the dating vs courting craze: Fundamentalist A would say that closely monitored dating was acceptable, while fundamentalist B would call A a foolish liberal and insist that courting was Biblically mandated. Or Fundamentalist A would b an Old Earth Creationist, while B would be a Young Earther.

Inevitably the more extreme Christian would accuse their brother or sister in Christ of being a heretic or dangerously misguided. A fascinating phenomenon would then take place: the fundamentalist whose faith was being questioned would start speaking like a moderate, and their tone would become much more polite while they defended their positions. This dynamic would escalate – the extremist becoming more aggressive, and the accused more delicate even as they pleaded for a truce – until an atheist or feminist showed up to give both fundamentalists a sweeter target.

You don’t see that happen on liberal forums. Liberals have a much harder time coping with dissension within their ranks. Witness the recent blowup regarding Alec Baldwin’s videotaped rant. I won’t delve into the particulars of Baldwin’s case; Wes Alwan has a good summary of it. Russell Brand is another example of a lefty found guilty of not being pure enough. Brand’s worthwhile essay (from which I lifted this post’s title) sums up the conservatism’s built-in political advantage well:

The right has all the advantages, just as the devil has all the best tunes. Conservatism appeals to our selfishness and fear, our desire and self-interest; they neatly nurture and then harvest the inherent and incubating individualism.

With that kind of disadvantage, the Left needs all of the help it can get. Instead, we see liberals engaging in a constant cycle of purging sinners like Baldwin, and doing so with more zeal than the conservatives who already despised the man for his politics. Women’s heath care clinics are being shut down across the country and liberals are busy fretting over whether Hollywood actors known for their off-color remarks can still be a part of the club.

Now you might be thinking that I’m guilty of making false equivalencies here. That fundamentalists sparring over doctrinal issues are in no way similar to Baldwin’s gay slurs. But here’s the point: in my examples, Fundamentalist B believes that A is preaching a false Gospel. In the end they come to no compromise, and B still believes that A is facing damnation. But they know how to make a truce and focus on their real adversaries.

Think about this: many evangelicals adore Glenn Beck. I know many evangelicals who buy Beck’s books, subscribe to his website. and follow his radio show religiously (pun intended). These people all know that Beck is a Mormon. They also believe that Glenn Beck is going to hell when he dies. That Beck’s religion has doomed millions to hellfire. They believe that Rush Limbaugh is bound for hell, too. And so is that doomed Catholic Rick Santorum.

These people don’t just disagree on minor issues like whether you can tell raunchy jokes and still be called a feminist. They believe that the moral foundation of their allies is built on falsehoods. And they look away. They take a utilitarian view and decide that these people are useful for their causes. Limbaugh and Beck might be going to hell, but they’re great at giving marching orders and rallying the troops. Not only do they get to stay in the club, they get promoted to be their loudest voices. Santorum is a warrior for one of their biggest causes, so they hold their nose, tolerate his Catholic values, and praise all the good he’s done for the pro-life cause. In spite of their reputation of being simple-minded sheep, the Right is able to approach politics with enough nuance to recognize that even heretics can join the team if they serve a useful role. While liberals fret whether they should ever allow Alec Baldwin to utter another word on causes that he’s supported for decades.

Campus Crusaders Part 7: Love In The Air

HellblazerIt took me a few months for people to figure out my role in the Campus Crusade Bible Study.  Aside from Jason (who still defended my character and my faith to the other Campus Crusaders), I had been pegged as a Seeker.

In Christian lingo, a Seeker is someone who is genuinely trying to figure out who God is or if God even exists, and they’re open to hearing the Gospel. Many evangelicals like the idea of Seekers more than they like Seekers themselves. Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of evangelical Christians who truly care about and respect Seekers wherever they’re at, but there’s also a very lopsided dynamic in the Believer-Seeker relationship. It’s assumed that anything a Seeker has to say indicates the status of their journey towards accepting Christ. As a result, no one really takes a Seeker’s opinions seriously. You get a nod and a figurative pat on the head for your contributions, but Believers are convinced that you have no spiritual insights to offer. The irony is that Believers listen very closely to what you have to say. This creates the illusion that they respect you. But Believers listen to you because after you’re gone they’re going to dissect your comments and determine their next move.

I actually enjoyed my role as a Seeker. It gave me room to play contrarian and offer unpopular opinions and thorny theological questions. Intellectually it was invigorating, because I found myself reading and studying books about the Bible to bone up on my theology. It also motivated me to read more scripture.

I found that I really didn’t care whether they thought I was saved. I gave up trying to defend my faith because I realized that their understanding of God was a lot more dysfunctional than mine was. So I’d show up at Bible Study wearing a John Constantine t-shirt, knowing that it would mess with their heads. When they’d point to my shirt and ask why I was wearing a shirt with a blonde guy standing in front of demons and skeletons, I’d proudly and politely explain the Hellblazer comic book to them.

But as the semester neared its end, I began to hear more and more about Laura and Fred, the couple who normally ran the Bible Study. Even though the members of the Bible Study still didn’t seem to like or trust each other, I was wary of Laura and Fred’s imminent return. I learned that a lot of the decisions made by the Bible Study were actually made by Laura and Fred from afar. On one hand it was nice to see how quickly they squashed the animosity over my knee incident with Marcy. In fact, at this stage any lingering suspicions regarding my supposed sexual motives had virtually disappeared. But on the other hand I got the strong sense that Laura and Fred wouldn’t tolerate Hellblazer t-shirts at their Bible Study.

But spring also brought love. Not for me, of course. (I was about to get walloped by cupid’s arrow in a few short weeks by a woman traveling well outside of evangelical circles.) But the Bible Study members were developing crushes on one another, and like the song Love Stinks, everybody was pining for someone who didn’t give a rip about them.  Oddly enough, Kaitlyn – the mousey, nervous woman who first invited me to the Bible Study -was at the center of most of the drama. Two guys- Jason and Dwight-  had approached her in secret. She rebuffed Jason immediately and strung Dwight along for weeks. Kaitlyn wasn’t anywhere near the most attractive, confident, or friendly woman in the Bible Study, so it was strange to see her become the center of attention. But she was desired because she fit the model of a Strong Christian Woman. And in spite of my insistence otherwise, she was still convinced that I longed for her.

I will give Kaitlyn credit: even though Bible Study had become one big, tangled mess of unrequited love and growing animosity between Jason and Dwight, she handled herself well. Anyone who was out of the loop would have no idea what she was dealing with.

Things came to a head when Kaitlyn finally agreed to go out on a date with Dwight.  Now in normal social circles, the two of them would just go out on a date.  But for the Campus Crusaders this was a major problem. Dwight, Jason, and Kaitlyn were the leaders of the Bible Study. Someone had to rise to the occasion to make unbiased decisions for the group, so a sweet but boisterous woman named Monica became our default leader in the absence of objectivity among the other three.

So one night Monica announces that she consulted with Laura and Fred to find out whether she should give Dwight and Kaitlyn permission to date. Keep in mind that this took place before I Kissed Dating Goodbye and the courting craze. So while the evangelical neurosis about sexual relationships wasn’t as rigid and legalistic as it is now. Laura and Fred gave Monica permission to green-light Dwight and Kaitlyn’s  budding relationship.

The amazing twist to all of this is that no one minded Monica’s presumptive decision to contact Laura and Fred except for Jason – the guy who was about to be left out in the cold! Everyone else thought that Monica’s proactive intervention was a sign of maturity and responsibility, and Dwight in particular was thrilled to receive an official blessing from Laura and Fred. But Jason and I stood alone in our protests that nobody had the right to decide who dated whom.  And unbeknownst to us, Dwight and Kaitlyn had sown the seeds of destruction for the Campus Crusaders.

Life Finds A Way (And So Do Teens)

Conservative evangelicals have tried hard to fight back against modernity. In a perverse way they should be admired for their tenacity. We’ve seen purity balls, screeds against dating (and the real lives that have been damaged by this kind of ideology), the quiverfull movement, and the list goes on and on. All of it is rooted in complementarianism, which is a modern name for good old-fashioned sexism and patriarchy. 

I read a short article  today that gave me hope. It’s written by Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, so you can imagine that they’re not as happy about it as I am. All of these attempts to suppress teenaged sexuality try to remove choices from Christian teens: no casual dating (or dating at all); no private time with any member of the opposite gender, and no friendships with the opposite gender. All of this is intended to create an asexual environment where teens conform to strict gender roles and pine for marriage.

It’s a suffocating environment, but to my pleasant surprise, there are signs that teens may have figured out a way to game the system a little bit. It’s called “talking.” The writer of the article illustrates this better than I could:

“You misunderstand,” he said, “we aren’t dating – we’re just talking.”

“Talking?” I replied, a little confused, “you mean like we’re talking right now.”

“No,” he explained, “we’re at the stage of the relationship just before dating. It’s called talking.”

Dumbfounded and feeling a little old and disconnected, I decided to investigate this new pre-dating phenomenon. “Talking,” I discovered, is a widely accepted stage in current guy/girl relationships wherein a young man and a young woman get to know each other without better defining the relationship. This isn’t even a real stage of the relationship; it’s a pre-stage. They’re not just friends; they’re not really dating or pursuing marriage; they’re “talking.”

I know that a lot of people will read this and seethe with outrage. And their outrage is justified. But I love how these teens have taken a rigid system and added a radical new element to it: talking. Hanging out with each other without taking pains to define the purpose of the relationship. Enjoying the uncertainty that comes with all relationships. Experiencing disappointment.

Jeff Goldblum’s quote from Jurassic Park above says it all: life finds a way. Even in oppressive systems, teenagers find small ways to interact with each other that resemble normal, human communication. Since noncommittal dating and hanging out are forbidden, they found a new outlet: talking. Maybe it won’t lead anywhere and they’re stay on the course their parents have mapped out for them. But maybe – just maybe – Christian teens are fighting back in way that is subversive in its normalcy.

 

Are Liberal Churches Dying?

Link

It’s funny that I started this blog with the intention of focusing on conservative Christianity, but the hot topics in the blogosphere have led me towards more critiques of liberal Christianity. Recently Ross Douthat, Scott Mcknight, and Tony Jones engaged in an interesting discussion about the future of liberal Christianity. I highly recommend reading each of these articles (including Ross’s initial post, which I did not link to), but I tend to side with Ross’s take more than the others. I admit that I’m a bit of a latecomer to this dialogue, but since it’s an ongoing issue I’ll chime in anyway.

All of them agree that the liberal church is dying – at least its current form. I agree. I live near Penn State, which is a small town with a population that doubles in size when college is in session. The surrounding boroughs have a population of  40,000, and the university currently has approximately 42,000 students. There nothing but farmland and Amish for miles around us – the nearest city is Harrisburg, which is ninety miles away. (This gives you a good idea why the Cult of Paterno has been able to fester unchecked for so long. It’s essentially a giant compound of JoePa indoctrination.)

But enough about Penn State. I’ve spent most of my energy being one of the lone voices willing to recognize the rotten core of Paterno, the university, (and even the community) that I’m burned out on the topic. Maybe another day I’ll tackle it here.

My point of raising demographics here is that, due to the well-educated population (our county almost always the lone county in the middle of the state goes blue in Presidential elections) the town has the potential to be a hotbed of liberal Christianity. The future leaders of the left-wing side of the faith, so to say. It isn’t.

The town’s church population can be summarized as follows: two Catholic Churches (one of which is the “main” Catholic church in town, while the second church is more contemporary.) We have about five main evangelical churches comprising different denominations. The relationship between them is very friendly, and collectively they’re big enough to collaborate and have as big an impact on the community as the Catholic Churches. There’s also a lot of mainline churches of varying sizes, and on the outskirts you’ll find more overly fundamentalistic churches (they even advertise themselves as being fundamentalists!). These churches tend to have much less cultural influence on the community than their Catholic and evangelical counterparts.

Among all these churches, you’ll find only four that recognize homosexuality as a valid lifestyle. I think that the homosexuality question is a good barometer for the theological tone of the community. In my view you have to look where the young people are attending to gauge the future of the faith. They will be the ones raising new families in church and becoming the next generation of pastors and leaders.

Despite all of the talk about evangelicals growing tired of the politicization of Christianity and the rigid stance against environmentalism and homosexuality many churches take, young people aren’t flocking to the liberal churches. They’re flocking to the evangelical churches.

I’ve attended about half of the churches in town at some point over the years. Most recently I’ve begun attending the Episcopal Church. The evangelical churches are young. Everywhere you look you see teenagers, college students, young couples. There are older members of course, but the energy within these churches is in their youth. One of the Baptist churches in town  has huge branch campuses attended almost exclusively by teens and college students. The church I recently left had an average age of 40, meaning you had a steady stream of couples having kids and raising them in the church. The next generation of Christians.

The mainline churches, on the other hand, are old. The Episcopal Church is full of friendly elderly people and almost no one under 40 in sight. So you have a strange paradox of gray-haired Christians eagerly embracing both liberal theology and liberal politics, and young, dynamic churches boning up on Creationism and revving up for the culture wars.

If you’re young and a liberal Christian in this town, you’re invisible. You probably don’t attend church, and you probably aren’t inclined to seek one out.

Part of the problem is that the liberal churches generally don’t advertise themselves. They advertise their food drives and soup kitchens, but the conservative churches do their share of that, too. In fact, the right-wing churches are the biggest advertisers for the liberal churches, although the advertising is universally derogatory. I didn’t realize that the local Episcopal Church respected homosexuals and had a environmental committee until I heard evangelicals grumble about the Episcopals’ godless embrace of both causes.

But the bottom line here is that it’s not just a question of attendance numbers. It’s also a question of bringing in and nurturing the next generation of Christians. The liberal churches are depending on their longtime members to keep things going. When they leave this realm, the church may leave it, too. The evangelical churches are growing even as we speak, and given the transient dynamic of a college town, they’re sending of dedicated Christians already conditioned to attend and volunteer to become the future of the church. Liberal Christianity is dying, and one of the reasons it’s dying is that it hasn’t attempted to reach young people.

Killing Childrens’ Imagination

Mike Wall has an article  at space.com about the problem (or lack of one) the discovery of extra-terrestrial life would pose for the world’s religions. The gist of his essay is that he doesn’t expect that there would be a significant impact on them, largely because many religious people have already embraced the notion that there is life on other planets.

I think that’s a reasonable assumption, but let me tell you about the other side.

Two years ago I was teaching Sunday School to my fifth grade class.  We were talking about how God created the universe, and I asked the kids if they’ve ever wondered if there is life on other planets. Now I’ve asked this question many times before in different forms to Sunday School kids, elementary kids, and so on. Immediately you expect their faces to light up and think: Star Wars! Star Trek! Men In Black! and so on, and then dive deep into speculating about what life on other planets might be like. Most of the time as a teacher I’d have to manage the discussion so kids won’t talk over each other.

Not this time.

This time when I asked them if they thought there was life on other planets, I got silence. Dead silence. Then slowly, they all shook their heads. And it wasn’t the kind of head-shaking where  they sensed that they were supposed to shake their heads because maybe Mom and Dad wouldn’t approve of them talking about aliens and outer space. It was numb, indifferent head shaking. It was like I had asked them if they knew what the higgs-boson particle was.

I jumped in, my face full of shock. “Haven’t you ever wondered if there are aliens out there? Maybe with green skin or six arms or scales instead of skin?” My voice was bright and joyful to show them that this was something that was fun to think about.

Again, heads shook. “There is no life on other planets,” one of them said with supreme confidence. Others chimed in with similar statements. Their responses weren’t defiant; it was simply a fact to them that earth was alone. They could care less about speculating over something that wasn’t true.

I tried to drill them on movies and  tv shows they had surely seen or read about. None of them had seen any of them. Not even comic books that dabbled in science fiction. I’ve never been a Star Wars fan, but I wanted to whip out that bar scene from one of the earlier movies with all the different aliens hanging out together. Forget science; I wanted to wow their imaginations.

I didn’t need to ask their parents to know what was going on. Some fundamentalists – not many, but some – see astronomy as just as dangerous to faith as biology, if not moreso, since the logistics of explaining distance and time in space makes it much harder to defend a 6,000 year old earth than evolution does. So they shut down any secular ideas about outer space the same way many parents forbid their kids to read Harry Potter. Except usually the kids who aren’t allowed to read Harry Potter know that the series exists and that Harry Potter is “bad” because of witchcraft. These kids (mind you, they were 9 and 10 years old) didn’t even know that Star Wars or Star Trek were things that existed in our universe, pop culture or otherwise.

As a friend of mine put it, those parents should have been arrested for killing their kids’ imaginations.