Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Heading¬†just finished¬†Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, I found myself wondering, not for the first time,¬†why vampires, zombies¬†and werewolves make for such popular subjects. Even accounting for boom-and-bust periods, they still dominate in comparison to stories about other kinds of semi-human mythological creatures. Fairies, angels, demons, witches¬†and succubi all have strong followings, but what is it about shapeshifters, bloodsuckers and the undead¬†that we just can’t get enough of? Why are nagas, centaurs, sylphs, dryads, ifrit, djin and selkies (to name but¬†a few) so comparatively¬†underrepresented?

There’s no one aswer to that question, but as I was mulling things over, it occurred to me that, unlike any of the other creatures listed above, vampires, zombies¬†and werewolves exist outside of any specific¬†religious context. Historically speaking, they are creatures of folklore more than creatures of myth, and while many cultures have stories about shape-shifters, the concept is strong enough to stand apart. By contrast, succubi, incubi, angels and demons are all heavily embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition; witches have been¬†demonised by and therefore incorporated into¬†many religions, but are also associated with a variety of pagan and neopagan traditions in their own right. Nagas hail from the Vedic/Hindu tradition; centaurs, sylphs, dryads, hamadryads, oceanids and¬†nereids are part of Greek mythology;¬† fairies and selkies are from Celtic and Irish mythology;¬†and¬†djinn and ifrit are from the magic of old Arabia.

While religious and mythological origins are hardly a barrier to¬†the reimagining of fantastic creatures¬†for new stories¬†– indeed, they¬†frequently contribute to a rich sense of¬†worldbuilding – perhaps there’s an argument to be made that this selfsame quality also forces¬†writers¬†to¬†address the¬†traditional context of (say) angels¬†before a new schema can be introduced. Which isn’t to say that vampire (or zombie, or werewolf) stories don’t have¬†to tackle existing preconceptions of their main species, so to speak –¬†rather,¬†it’s a question of associated beliefs.¬†Zombies, vampires and werewolves don’t exist as part of any religious or mythological canon.¬†Mentioning a vampire protagonist does not¬†infer¬†the existence of old gods in the way that dryads or¬†demons might, and while there’s certainly a strong tradition of involving Christianity in vampire, zombie and werewolf¬†narratives, the fact remains that neither species¬†is an¬†intrinsic part of Christianity or the Christian mythos. Instead, their ungodliness has been extrapolated in retrospect, making it¬†comparatively easy to remove.¬†Challenging the ungodliness of demons, however, or questioning the saintliness of angels, requires a much more determined assault on established cannon.

Put simply, it is easy to turn¬†vampires, werewolves and zombies into secular protagonists – and therefore to adapt them to modern scenarios – precisely because¬†they lack concrete allegience¬†to established mythological frameworks. Other creatures and species, of necessity, bring more baggage¬†with them: there are stronger assumptions to be overwritten, and especially when¬†the existence of one race (say dryads) goes hand in hand with the existence of another (say centaurs), it is less common to try and¬†recreate dryads as the sole magical¬†species of a given story. Which isn’t a bad thing in the slightest – but it might go some way towards explaining why vampires, weres and zombies are constantly being reinvented, and why their mythological bretheren tend to dwell in¬†bigger, more magical¬†worlds.

What does everyone else think?

Consider the following story: the refusal of a Christian school to¬†train a Muslim teaching student. Rachida Dahlal, of Victoria University, was knocked back on her application to undergo work experience at Heathdale Christian College on the grounds of her faith. The university’s acting vice-chancellor pointed out that Mrs Dahlal, a devout Muslim who wears the hijab, had already been ‘counselled’ about Heathdale’s policy of ‘taking those whose values aligned to its own’, while school principal Reynald Tibben rather contradictingly stated that the school’s position was not that they had ‘anything against her or her beliefs’, but rather that their education policy was ‘nominal, it’s actually what parents want for their kids’, and that¬† hiring a Muslim teacher¬†would have been both ‘inappropriate’ and ‘confusing’ for students.

For those who might question¬†Mrs Dahlal’s¬†choice of Heathdale to begin with,¬†her decision was based on the proximity of the school¬†to her home, and its position as one of few institutions offering both French and mathematics, her specialty subjects. Given also that it was her choice, and made in full knowledge of the school’s denomination, Principal Tibben’s guff about her likely discomfort during morning prayers seems frankly condescending. Would he have been so concerned about hiring an¬†atheist? Would a Jewish¬†applicant have been equally off-limits? In Mr Tibben’s eyes, would¬†the presence of such people¬†have proven¬†similarly ‘confusing’ to students? Or is it just the fact that Mrs Dahlal’s faith is visible through her hijab, and not merely an internal ideology? More and more, it seems, society is struggling with the notion of discrimination; but what this case exemplifies – and yet what few people are willing to acknowledge – is that any set of beliefs associated with a specific ideal is, by definition, discriminatory.

This is not something we can legislate away. The vast majority of human interactions are predicated on conflict: disagreements over a favourite film, the appropriate price of food, who has the greatest claim to which resources, which is the best way to discipline children, how the universe began. At the far end of the scale are grandoise religious and philosophical abstractions, while at the other are trivial matters, debates that no sane person would try to legalise. But the middle regions are often indistinct, a blend of all such concerns, and it is here we live our lives. Politically, socially, sexually and legally, we have moved forwards in recent decades, making headway against racism, sexism, homophibia, explotation of children and religio-cultural discrimination; and yet despite its presence at the forefront of many such debates Рif not all of them Рthe discrimination inherent in religious systems has remained the elephant in the room.

Put simply: if a person believes that their own religion¬†is unshakeably correct to the exclusion of all other systems, and then refuses to hire a worker on the grounds that they are living outside of God’s rule and will set a bad example to other employees, passing a law to prevent them from doing so becomes tantamount to declaring that the logic which underpins their faith is wrong. The same thing lies at the heart of all the legislative drama over gay marriage: how do you allow someone freedom of religion while simultaneously declaring that certain of their religious or ideological¬†tenets¬†constitute a violation of human rights? There’s not an easy answer. But to anyone who believes in the separation of church and state, different religious beliefs¬†should be¬†equally accommodated – or refused – under the law, be they derived from shari’a, the Talmud or the Bible. Defending¬†the values of one faith on the basis of its historical relationship to the nation is neither objective nor helpful: instead, it only serves to embed a lopsided definition of discrimination and entitlement¬†in our cultural identity.

Which brings us back to Heathdale Christian College, and the reason why, in our secular state, Reynald Tibben should be found to have acted wrongly: because although¬†a fair¬†state¬†must allow the existence of both¬†secular and¬†denominational schools, it should have no vested interest in preventing overlap between the two. Just as state schools hire teachers of all faiths, so too should their denominational equivalents. The difference between such institutions should be purely a matter of extra religious instruction, not the individual disposition of¬†their teachers. Because if things¬†are otherwise – if we state that a school has the right to hire or fire teachers on the basis of their personal¬†values¬†– then we may as well say that other Christian principals are equally¬†within¬†their grounds to fire teachers for apostasy, for expressing agnosticism or for religious conversion. The fact that Mrs Duhlal practises Islam does not affect her ability to¬†speak French or teach mathematics, just as the Christianity of her students should not affect their ability to learn. As the saying goes, it’s impossible to please everyone.¬†At the most basic level, discrimination simply means choice: to differentiate between one thing and another. We load the word with negative connotations, conflating it with prejudice¬†in all instances, but saying that our society disciminates against racism is just as valid a useage as complementing someone on their discriminating taste. Because discrimination, be it deemed neutural, positive or negative, figures equally in choice, legislation and religion alike. And the sooner we start to confront that fact, the better for all of us.

There is a saying: those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

In light of human nature, I feel moved to posit a companion phrase: that those who know history are still capable of repeating it, particularly if they thought it was a good idea the first time round.

With that in mind, here are three recent, related, news articles:

1. The tradition of Albanian sworn virgins;

2. The rise of hymenoplasty among young French women; and

3. The advent of American purity balls.

As far as the history of womens’ rights is concerned, I’m a remarkably privileged person. I wasn’t raised to believe that sex before marriage was bad (or, conversely, threatened with shame, penalty, violence or social exile should I indulge in it). Although I’m happily married now, I had a choice about how to live my life, with whom and under what circumstances. I was taught that women and men are equal.¬†I live in an era of contraception and¬†sexual freedom, and believe these are both good things.¬†And because of my friends and family; because of my¬†Australian citizenship, race, socio-economic status and – yes – atheism, I’ve never had to fight for this to be the case. ¬†

In a nutshell: I take these freedoms for granted. To a certain extent, I can’t help it – because I’ve never had to seriously defend them. Oh, there were times early on at primary school when boys would tease or exclude me from games because I was a girl, and therefore The Enemy, but the fact that I was persistent, assertive and more than a little tomboyish meant that, nine times out of ten, I¬†won them over. As a teenager, I butted heads with blokes about the social role of women, and as a university student, I went online and debated feminism (of a sort) with Christian Evangelists, but these were all theoretical debates, and¬†society¬† – I knew – was On My Side. Day-to-day, I’ve never been kept back, excluded, ridiculed, restricted or punished for being female: my gender has never earned me a separate set of social rules or expectations. Unlike my mother, I’ve never had a bank laugh at me for trying to take¬†out a loan as an umarried woman. I know these are recent developments, and I’m grateful for them. Should the need arise, I’d be ready to come to their defence. I also know women in most of the rest of the world aren’t half so lucky.

But what I struggle with – what I really struggle with – is the idea¬†that glass ceilings, sexism and¬†patriarchy still exist, not overseas, but in my society. The idea that western democracies can still have double standards where women are concerned feels…wrong. Logically, I know it’s true. And despite a wealth of inner scepticism, it’s not that I’m sceptical when I hear of it – not in the least. It’s just so far¬†removed from my own experience that it’s like finding a sweatshop under the local council.

Take the idea of purity balls, for instance. The article mentions talk of making a similar thing for boys, but only as an afterthought.¬†The problem isn’t with encouraging teen abstience: it’s in the execution and the mindset. Because only girls are targeted. There is no balancing idea that mothers keep the virtue of their sons: rather, it harks back to the day when men passed their daughters on to other men, and the women went quietly. One father, at least, drew a line at the idea of Indian-style arranged marriages, just wanting the parents to be involved, but presumably this can happen without attending a¬†purity ball. As a system, it seems more likely to encourage parental veto of potential suitors than not – mostly because these dads use the word¬†suitors to begin with, a term which¬†connotes the necessity of permission. And where permission can be granted as a matter of course – by gum, it can be withheld. ¬†

‘Purity’ isn’t a helpful word, either, because more than promoting abstience until¬†such-and-such a¬†time, it actively¬†suggests dirtiness, or wrongness, in the alternative. This, I suspect, is the¬†core of why abstinence-only sex education programs¬†fail: they consider virginity more important than waiting until you’re ready. This isn’t a semantic distinction. As a religious concept, virginity means considerably more than¬†not having had sex. It implies¬†waiting, not until you’re ready, but until marriage, committing to this ideal rather than simply being sensible about the circumstances of your first time. Because, sooner or later, there will be a first time. Exalting virginity rather than talking about¬†being comfortable¬†– which, of necessity, means talking about actual sex – isn’t a great approach. And purity balls, as an extension of the concept, are hardly a step up.

They’re¬†a step down, in fact, because they’re only aimed at girls. Unplanned pregnancies aren’t fun, especially for teenagers, but the idea that female virtue needs to be guarded that much more closely because women give birth overlooks the whole notion of male involvement as anything other than guardians.¬†It says¬†that because¬†boys can’t¬†get pregnant by slipping in the abstience stakes, there’s less (or no) need to worry; the fact that¬†they can still impregnant girls is, apparently, the girl’s problem. Jumping to another glaring anachronism, the whole ‘purity ball’ concept hinges on daddy giving his daughter to a strapping lad, as opposed – say – to someone else’s daughter. That, methinks, is a whole ‘nother issue for the type of folk likely to attend purity balls, but damned if it doesn’t rate a mention. ¬†

Hymenoplasty – surgery to reconstruct the appearance of virginity – is another concern. In France, young Muslim women in particular have been paying to have it done before their weddings, which raises an interesting question of sexual progression vs. traditionalism. Clearly, their husbands-to-be place a value on virginity, as one notorious court-case has made clear; but the women themselves, comfortable with sex outside of marriage, need only the semblance.¬†Need, not want: this is a key point. They feel they’ll be punished for having had sex, and¬†sadly, in some instances, they will be.¬†

The last sworn virgins in Albania¬†are now old women; they’ve lived their whole lives as men, on the condition that they never have sex. In some instances, it was all they could do in a patriarchal society where their family had lost the male head of the household; others, doubtless, chose as much from sexual orientation as a desire¬†for social standing.¬†Oddly, the basis for this system was the¬†appropriate weregild – blood-price – paid¬†for the deaths of different people. Women were¬†worth less¬†than men; but virgins were worth the same. Logically, then, a virgin was as good as a man, and for as long as she stayed a virgin, a woman could live as a man.¬†As ever, there’s no¬†extra worth for a virgin male, because¬†regardless of where on the globe you are – France, America, the Middle East, Albania –¬†virginity is only praised in women. Sometimes, we pretend otherwise. But not often.

And in this spirit, we have father-daughter purity balls.

In this spirit, we have hymenoplasty before traditional weddings.

In this spirit, we have women only equal to men through celibacy – and even then, they cannot live in equality as women, but must take on the role of men.

Because in this spirit, women are not equal.

Writing on his blog about Dua Khalil, a 17-year-old girl beaten to death in an honour killing while a mob looked on, Joss Whedon had the following to say:

“How did more than half the people in the world come out incorrectly? I have spent a good part of my life trying to do that math, and I‚Äôm no closer to a viable equation. And I have yet to find a culture that doesn‚Äôt buy into it. Women‚Äôs inferiority ‚Äď in fact, their malevolence — is as ingrained in American popular culture as it is anywhere they‚Äôre sporting burkhas. I find it in movies, I hear it in the jokes of colleagues, I see it plastered on billboards, and not just the ones for horror movies. Women are weak. Women are manipulative. Women are somehow morally unfinished.

“…I can‚Äôt contain my despair, for Dua Khalil, for humanity, for the world we‚Äôre shaping…I look and I see the earth in flames. Her face was nothing but red.”¬†

Because no matter how civilised or enlightened we think ourselves, if we want our daughters to be pure and virginal above all else, and if we punish them for straying, then this is where we are headed. 

And history, as Shirley Bassey sang, keeps on repeating.

Gay marriage is now legal in California.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a long overdue development. The claim that marriage is just for men and women has always rung hollow, not in the least because no religion or culture ‘owns’ the concept. Marriage wasn’t exported to the rest of the world by a particular group: rather, the idea has flourished with variety in almost every human culture. The Christian argument that gay marriage is invalid because God dislikes homosexuality is, ultimately, hypocritical: people are already married under the auspices of different, scripturally untenable traditions, religious or otherwise, but nobody is protesting those. Unless the dissenters start taking placards to Hindu ceremonies, they’ve already acknowledged that the state has a right to legalise marriage in a non-Christian context. Protesting homosexuality is, in this sense, mere semantics.

 

Whether the church must preside over gay weddings is a different issue ‚Äď one, methinks, which is best left to a case-by-case basis. Or would be, if not for the uneasy truce between discrimination law and religious tradition. This, perhaps, is the legalistic nub of the problem: if the church were to be treated like any other organisation, then any refusal to ‘serve’ couples on the basis of sexual orientation would count as discrimination, with all the liabilities that entails. Going back a few decades, it’s the equivalent of hanging a ‘no blacks’ sign in a shop window. It’s a no-brainer to say that political uproar would follow any instance of the state trying to force a church to marry a gay couple against its will ‚Äď and yet, a similar uproar would result if shari’a law were allowed to trump that of the state.

 

Socially, we’re at a turning point. Overseas as well as at home, western nations have begun the institution of universal human rights: protection from racial, religious or sexual discrimination, women’s rights, the rights of the child. In many cases, this has involved colliding head-on with previous religious or cultural mores: the idea of rape inside marriage, for instance, remains non-existent in many countries; in others, the marriage of girls as young as ten or thirteen is still common practice. But more and more, we are reaching a point at which, if we are to remain faithful to the idea of innate, universal rights, we must actively contradict religious doctrine ‚Äď our own, as well as that of others.

 

Due to a combination of religious, historical and socio-cultural factors, many such rights are already part of western law, while still allowing for difference between individual nations. In many instances, Christian practice has already changed to accommodate these rights: the investiture of women bishops, the availability of contraception, the right of divorce and, in some cases, the legalisation of abortion are all examples of this. But with the exception of women in the church, the scriptural arguments against these things tend to be contextually extrapolated, rather than explicitly forbidden. Even divorce, while frowned upon, is ultimately permissible in a number of instances.

 

Homosexuality, however, is expressly called a sin. The most doctrinal leeway to be found is in forgiving it, as one might forgive theft or murder. With this in mind, it is almost miraculous to consider how much the gay rights movement has achieved. But still, the church has not been required to alter its own position. This is the wall foreign aid workers have run up against time and again: the idea that an injustice, if backed by religion, cannot be assailed in the usual fashion. At some level, total change is always circumscribed by ‚Äď ironically ‚Äď the universal right to freedom of religion, the worst incarnation of which, as with freedom of speech, is the freedom to be purposefully bigoted.

 

Sooner or later, the system needs must bend. There are three potential outcomes, only one of which seems even vagely palatable. But until that day comes, I’ll be content with such progress as comes my way. California now allows gay marriage – and I say, good on ’em.