Category Archives: Religion

D&D Will Kill You: That One Alarmist Comic is a Movie Now

If anyone sits down and watches Reefer Madness nowadays, chances are they’re probably stoned. The 1936 anti-marijuana movie, if it’s viewed at all, is generally only watched by aficionados of the very substance that it’s attempting to decry, viewers reveling in retro irony.

Pictured: Game night at my place, every Tuesday

Pictured: Game night at my place, every Tuesday

Dark Dungeons, a forty-minute film released earlier this month, calls back to Reefer Madness’ unintentional kitsch by being a faithful adaptation of one of the most infamous religious comics ever made. You’ve probably been handed a Jack Chick Tract at some point. The small, black-and-white comics handed out by street preachers and self-appointed missionaries warn of hell and damnation for listening to rock music, doing drugs, being a member of the Catholic church, and, memorably, playing Dungeons and Dragons. The Dark Dungeons comic is a tiny screed against fantasy roleplaying games. According to Chick, if you roll dice and pretend to be an elf you’re on your way to dealing with black magic, worshipping Satan, and killing yourself. The only way out is to trust Jesus and burn your fantasy novels. Really. Read the comic. It ends with a book burning.

The short screed is very much a product of its time. Heavy metal, Satanism, dark magic(k) and imagined occult conspiracies were a persistent bugbear of the 1970s and 80s. Bands bedecked themselves in “Satanic” imagery in order to look edgy, and Beatrice Sparks (the literary charlatan behind Go Ask Alice) “discovered” a (fake) diary about a kid who’d supposedly gotten involved with the occult. Dungeons and Dragons, a game where kids pretended to be magical people who cast magic and sometimes worshipped fictional gods, was the source of a healthy amount of pearl-clutching, and Dark Dungeons is the apex/nadir of all of the hype and hoopla of that era.

Two things happened, though, that soon destroyed America’s obsession with the dangerous, imagined occult. The first is that grunge and gangsta rap unseated pentagram-strewn hair metal as the dangerous genre du jour. Soon, being edgy wasn’t about invoking demons or screaming about hell. Being transgressive was about drive bys, drugs, and not giving a shit. By the middle nineties, the panic over kids worshipping Satan seemed ridiculous.

The second thing (related to the first) is that popular culture gradually realized that people who are obsessed with demons and elves are fucking dorks.

This wasn’t exactly a secret or a revelation, of course. This is Spinal Tap is all about how metalheads who sing about Stonehenge are sort of doofy, and even if more genuinely dangerous music hadn’t showed up, the whole metal/occult/Satan thing would have probably drowned in its own excess anyway. Anymore, bands that steep themselves in sword and sorcery type imagery do so in such a way that acknowledge their inherent ridiculousness. Any pretense of actual edge takes a back seat to deliberate kitsch.

The point is, a cultural wave that was previously perceived as dangerous very quickly turned into a source of ridicule, and the shocked masses of that era look not so much like they are clutching at pearls, but straws.

The Dark Dungeons film does not need to be a spoof of 70s and 80s moral panic. In fact, it is officially licensed by Jack Chick, and every single line of dialogue from the comic makes it into the movie. Make no mistake, the folks who made this movie are a bunch of gaming dorks with cameras who completely disagree with the source material, but the filmmakers are smart enough to know that they don’t need to wink at the audience very much, if at all. Chick’s words and ideas about how D&D will lead to demon-summoning and suicide are their own, best counter-argument. The movie isn’t a masterpiece (there’s some Cthulhu stuff in there that feels sort of forced) but does work as a sort of reverse-engineered Reefer Madness. The only people who are ever going to watch it are dorks like me, but when I saw it I got a bit of nostalgia for a time that, admittedly, I was a bit too young to take part in.

I looked around at the other gaming people in the room and thought. “Hey guys, remember when the preachers and moms were afraid of us? Remember when we were dangerous? That was kind of fucking cool.

Someone in the BBC Has a Sick (and Admirable) Sense of Humor

I can draw only one conclusion from this picture from a BBC slideshow:  The ages-long rift between Anglicans and Catholics still hasn’t healed, and the BBC is trying to undermine the Pope by trying to make him look as leering and creepy as possible.

With kids.  The pope is leering at a bunch of kids.  If your organization has a problem with child rape, why the hell would your P.R. department ever let you within a hundred feet of children?  Christ, this picture is unfortunate- the only thing missing is a creepy van.  I’ll bet that somewhere in the BBC, the photo editors are chuckling about how goddamn clever they are.

A Certain Mosque

The issue of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” has been greatly distressing.  All manner of bigotry and nastiness has surfaced on the right, of course, but what I’ve found quite distressing is that leftists have been quiet on what seems to me to be a clear-cut issue of tolerance and liberty.

When Obama said that Muslims definitively have the right to build their community center on private property, my heart fluttered a little.  I was immensely pleased and got a little bit of the “Yes We Can!” vibe again.
Then he backpedaled.  He said he was not commenting on the “wisdom” of the Cordoba Center’s construction.  My heart fell.
This issue should not even be a controversy.  At all.  This is the U.S., and one of the best, most admirable things that we’ve ever done is institutionalize freedom of religion.  No one is compelled to belong to a state church or religion.  No one is required to believe anything that the state tells them to.  Citizens are free to assemble, discuss, and believe whatever they like.  That is, really, quite profoundly incredible.
I’m an atheist- I don’t believe in any kind of god or gods, and that philosophical stance is immensely important to me.  However, I think it would be massively deplorable if even atheism was enforced as a state religion.  The state should be utterly neutral in these matters.
That neutrality is not exciting or sexy.  It is not amazingly compelling.  It is, really, massively boring to have one of the most powerful entities in the history of humankind (the U.S. government) not take stands on issues such as religion.
That unsexy boredom, though, allows for so much else to transpire.  The U.S. is a stew of religions and philosophy, of mutually contradictory worldviews and outlooks.  That pluralism is utterly fantastic.  As fervently as I cling to my own philosophy, I would never, ever, want the state to enforce it.  Not even my philosophy is worthy of a breach of state neutrality.
This is profoundly important, and I really do believe that having a government divorced from any religion whatsoever (even mine!) is very, very important to maintaining a civilization.  The very idea that we should prefer one philosophy over another (on private property, no less!) is cause for distress.
I keep hoping that someone on the left will express this.  I keep wishing that some Democrat will take a principled stand and inform America that religious liberty is one of the most fundamental pillars of our free state.
But, I have my doubts.  Right now, I can’t identify any admirable leftists in government.  I wish I could, but there’s no one.
That distresses me far more than anything Gingrich or Palin says.

Late Evening of the Living Dead Bicyclists

Last night I found myself wearing a Jesus costume and leading a coterie of bicyclists dressed as zombies around NE Portland. Our fair city’s (now annual) zombie bike ride was upon us, and for a number of reasons I suddenly found myself leading the thing. Needing to stand out from the biking horde of slavering cyclists, I decided to comport myself as the most famous zombie ever, a dude who shambled out of his grave three days after a rather nasty torture/execution session.

We met up in a park, and my friend L was good enough to show up with a batch of corn syrup, red food dye, and flour. As I’d only recently had the responsibility of the ride foisted on me, and didn’t have any fake blood, L was a lifesaver (or rather, unlifersaver) for bringing the hemoglobin. A few pictures-
Here’s L, devouring her somewhat chagrined boyfriend:

This gentleman did the “military guy gets zombified” thing. He had very creepy teeth.

“BEEEEERR!”

Slathered in L’s fake blood, this girl looked a bit more like Carrie than a zombie, but she certainly pulled it off. She should watch out, though, because the girl behind her seems to be contemplating Carrie-centric mastication.

Our attempt at a zombie last supper:

You can’t really see it in the picture, but these girls are covered in glitter blood. We decided they were Twilight zombies.

Zombie dance! We stopped at three places, and rocked out to Thriller at two of them. The night closed with zombie karaoke at a tiki bar where numerous zombies (as in the drink) were consumed. I decided that the best thing for Zombie Jesus to sing would be Highway to Hell.
As people went home, more than a few of them said “Thank you, Jesus!” I kind of love my lifestyle.

Performance!

Last night I found myself on stage with a microphone in my hand in front of a room full of complete strangers. I could feel my heart banging against my ribcage, and I wondered if the mike was able to pick up the beats and gasps of my cardiopulmonary system. I’d been wearing a long-sleeved shirt, but ditched it in favor of a black tee. Freedom of movement and looseness were necessary. I was sweating and filled with a very specific kind of fear. The primal part of my system was telling me to run away, to get the hell off the stage. I had to tell that part of my brain though, as well as my heart, lungs, and sweaty forehead, to shut the fuck up.

“We’re doing this,” I mentally said to my rebellious brain-stem, “we’re doing this and it’s going to be great.” At the comedy open mike I’d already seen one guy bomb horribly. At the very least, I would not be the least-funny person on stage that night.

I opened my mouth and heard the parting of my lips amplified by the mike. “I was raised Catholic,” I said. There were a few “Whoos!” from the audience. I proceeded to talk about being an altar boy, and launched into a routine about how I never got molested.

“I was an altar boy for a lot of priests,” I said, “and I never got molested. Ever. What I want to know is-” and here I did my best to adopt a put-out expression, “why the fuck not? I mean, I’m not that bad looking of a guy! I was even sexier when I was fourteen. I ran cross-country- I was fit! And I didn’t even get a wink from a single priest. Nothing! Quite frankly, I feel left out.”

For the next few minutes filled the air with absolutely filthy material about pedophilia, the Catholic church, and how God was an asshole because he cuckolded Joseph. I made jokes about Mary was probably a pushy Jewish mother, and how if God had any manners he would have offered to have had a threesome with Mary and Joseph instead of just going behind the dude’s back.

I chose sex and religion because I thought it would be easy to joke about. Joking about the Catholic church and sex is kind of like selecting Ryu in Street Fighter- it’s cheap, easy, and gives you an overinflated sense of your own skill. The subject matter, though, seemed to make a lot of the audience very uncomfortable. I had a few people laughing consistently (I was pleased that they were other comedians) most of the audience seemed to be squirming uncomfortably as I called God an asshole for knocking up Mary and then never calling her back.

Their discomfort made me in turn uncomfortable. I thought to myself “I’m offending people! Shit! I should have done my routine about ancient Greece!” I realized that working with that kind of subject matter means that you have to not give a shit about the people who are uncomfortable or offended. If you’re going to talk about God giving Mary the best orgasm in history, you have be prepared to deal with the people who think that’s gross. I did my best to focus on the people who were laughing, and stay positive.

I finished my routine, got off the stage, and my heart rate immediately dropped. My back muscles loosened, and I breathed easier. The host shook my hand and told me “right on.” I sat back down. Prior to my routine I’d been too nervous to drink the beer that I’d ordered from the bar. I sat down and almost immediately drank all of it.

As I was sitting down and drinking my beer, my dominant thought was “I want to do that again!”

I felt loose and exhilarated. Despite seeing audience members squirm awkwardly, I wanted to go on stage and do another comedy routine. Punching through the fear, the pressure to perform, and the feeling of actually succeeding at being engaging, actually making people laugh, was a huge rush. I had all kinds of endorphins firing through my system, and I was enjoying a very familiar sensation.

I enjoy public speaking. I enjoy getting in front of groups and being interesting, funny, and engaging. I did speech and debate in high school (where I did pretty well at competitive stand up), was the speaker at my high school graduation. I was in a band in college, and have been a teacher, tour guide, and wedding officiant. Maybe I’m a huge narcissist, but feeling a roomful of eyes on me, and then being able to power through the nervousness and actually perform is my drug of choice.

I love the idea of being alone on stage. There is nothing there. Nothing. Everything that comes off stage has to do with you. The mood, the audience reaction, the vibe of the room- it all comes from your voice, body language, and presence. I want to be that kind of person, the kind of person who can fill a room with just their voice, and make people react with just a gesture. The instant gratification is also nice- as much as I like writing, I can’t see my audience. Closing the gap between creation and reaction is, quite frankly, just neat.

I admit that I love hearing myself talk, being the center of attention, and being able to charm a crowd of people. I will do stand up again, probably soon. It will probably be a while before I do another routine about sex and the Catholic church, though. I have a routine about ancient Greece I’ve been working on, and some jokes about science fiction. I don’t care about my rebellious brainstem- I wanna go again!

You Know What Doesn’t Stand Up to Logic? The Book of Genesis.

Addendum: Seph has corrected my reasoning in this post in the comments section. Turns out the probability does not actually reach one. I shouldn’t try to post about math, but I still think that it’s utterly unreasonable to assume that a set of humans, over an infinite amount of time, wouldn’t try to do something interesting.

There are lots of things that bug me about the Bible. Lots of things. (And yes, this atheist has actually read every single word of the New Jerusalem edition that resides at my parents house. I was a precocious teenager…)

Today’s Dinosaur Comics reminds me of a particular annoyance of mine: Adam and Eve are essentially in a no-win situation in Genesis. Setting aside issues of Biblical literalism and evolution for the time being, the math just doesn’t work.

Here’s the problem: At this point, Death hasn’t been introduced into the world, yet, so Adam, Eve, and everything around them is immortal and can exist for an eternity. Also, the Tree of Knowledge is just sitting right there, and every day there’s the chance that they might eat it.

So, we’ve got a system where every moment there is a probability that something might happen, as well as an infinite amount of time. Within an infinite amount of time the probability of anything (except zero) become one. Therefore, over an infinite amount of time it is a mathematical certitude that one of them will eat the fruit. (And it does just say “fruit,” in the text, it’s only an apple by tradition.)

Think about it- if you roll a six sided die an infinite amount of times, the probability of rolling a four at some point becomes certain. Over an infinite amount of time, the probability humanity being expelled from the garden also becomes certain.

In conclusion, religion is kind of silly. One could point out things like this all day, but that would just be kind of cheap and misanthropic.

"There is Grandeur in This View of Life."

I just saw Richard Dawkins speak. Pardon me, but I’m feeling inspired. I enjoy being an atheist, and am happy because of it. A few reasons why:

No external divine benediction is necessary for things to be beautiful, meaningful, of value. Being an atheist, I know that I must make my own way in the world, that I must pursue what I find rewarding, what makes me happy, what is good. No other force will deliver this. No god, angel or saint will come to my, or anyone else’s, aide and therefore I know that I must be active in my pursuit for satisfaction in life. The only life that I’ll ever have, wherein I know it is my duty to make it as good as possible.

Likewise, I know that things are wonderful not because hint at something larger or divine. They are wonderful because they are. Sunsets and reddening clouds need not be orchestrated by god to be beautiful. Beauty, in absence of director or agency, simply is. It springs up and presents itself out of literally the basic building blocks of the universe. With the intercession of absolutely nothing, the world is supremely amazing.

When I look at another human being, I know that I’m looking at one of the most complex phenomena that exists in the universe, a system like myself that contains depths and wonder. We are complicated. We are amazingly and wonderfully fascinating and beautiful, and it is intrinsic. If we attribute our higher emotions and impulses to the divine, we sell ourselves short. By saying “all good comes from God,” we severely discredit ourselves. Human beings are wellsprings of empathy, creativity, love and compassion. We are authors of profound goodness. No divine being interceded and to create the love between you and your family and friends. No angel is overseeing the connections so many make on a daily basis. That comes, entirely, from ourselves, and for that we should be joyful.

To those who say that such a view of the world is “mechanistic” I’d reply- what a glorious mechanism it is. How wonderful and amazing it is that such a mechanism, the universe, exists at all, and has managed to produce life, intelligence, and and wonderful phenomena all by itself. It is a “mechanism,” yes, and it is precisely because of that that we exist at all. It is precisely because of the mechanistic achievements of the cosmos that we have stars, planets, life, multicellular organisms, intelligence, and creativity. It is precisely because things are mechanistic- regular, predictable, systematic- that we have evolved here in all of our functional complexity. That mechanistic view of life itself, of the world itself, should not be dismissed as cold. Instead, we should see the system of the world for what it is, a glorious set of machinery so amazing that it encompasses love, humanity, and the whole spectrum of who we are.

It is all there is, and it is enough.