Archive for the ‘Charm School Notes’ Category

There’s no torture in charm school

September 9, 2009
Back to Dante, via Blake

Back to Dante's hell

Comparing life in Christian Charm School to such high levels of torment may seem histrionic, but recent articles about our government’s role in torture warrant some attention for the Charm Marm.

A recent story in the New York Times discusses the involvement of two psychologists in developing our military’s interrogation tactics. One of the doctors in particular was an admirer of Dr. Martin Seligman’s groundbreaking work on “learned helplessness.” As the Times explains:

“Dr. Seligman had discovered in the 1960s that dogs that learned they could do nothing to avoid small electric shocks would become listless and simply whine and endure the shocks even after being given a chance to escape.”

The article goes on to explain that this idea of learned helplessness later became “an influential concept in the treatment of human depression…”

It’s worth noting that Dr. Seligman was horrified that his work had been used in torture. Nonetheless, the psychologist working for the military “believed that producing learned helplessness in a Qaeda interrogation subject might ensure that he would comply with his captor’s demands.”

My point with all of this unpleasantness is that I read about learned helplessness years ago in a book about the effects of growing up in a fundamentalist culture. The way it’s instilled through church teachings is subtle and rarely involves torture-device-wielding fiends.

Still, it’s what happens. If as a child you deeply internalize certain teachings about your place in the world, you cede all of your power to something outside yourself. You seek only to move toward this amorphous thing known as “God’s will.” You believe you’re only doing something good when you’re focusing on others.

After all, what have we learned so far in Christian Charm School if not that our value rests in looking pretty and pleasing others? (Both goals are rather out of our control, yes?)

Undoing that background noise of passivity can be a long process. Recognizing the tendency for what it is helps, as does taking back your power in all kinds of small ways, even through the kinds of happy delights I write about on the Charm-o-Matic.

Also helpful:

  • Deciding that your own energy and feelings matter. (Sounds obvious, right? Only if you never quite imagined it could be true.)
  • Becoming aware that you can make all kinds of choices that affect your life in quantifiable ways every minute of the day and finding ways to increase your own happiness level. (You know, instead of merely working toward some reward – or avoiding some punishment – after death.)

I realize that I’m simplifying a complicated psychological concept here and that there are plenty of causes for passivity. I’m just saying: Religion and torture – who knew? (Oh, I guess everyone alive in Europe during the Inquisition knew.)


Charm school found in hell

June 2, 2009
Thank heaven for my fireproof GPS

Thank heaven for my fireproof GPS.

Pinpointing Christian Charm School‘s exact location in hell was a long and arduous journey. I’m not one to bury the lead: Turns out it’s in the eighth circle with those who practice fraudulent rhetoric and divisiveness. I know, right? You’d think it would have been in the fifth circle with wrath and sullenness or somewhere up in the first circle of limbo. Nice try hiding it, Satan. We’re onto you now.

What’s hard to explain about Christian Charm School is how serious the religious programming seems when you’re in the midst of it, how unavoidable its conclusions are when you believe your survival depends on being an imminently good girl, and how long the subconscious patterns linger unless you uproot them.

Indoctrination was part of the charm school package. Brimstone was not sold separately. Step right up, sweet girlies … get your hairbrushes and your paralyzing fear, all in one package. Two for the price of misery.

I remember shrinking during one sermon in particular when I was 11 or so, as the preacher snarled, “If you haven’t saved any souls yet, what are doing wasting space on this planet?” Puritan minister Cotton Mather would have been proud. Of course, that happened outside of charm class, but these threads were woven together to form one hell of a tapestry. The ideas are taught to be fiendishly inextricable for the most earnest of souls, so just like that, every hairdo and every prayer were equally necessary keys for our salvation. And if we didn’t save souls and look pretty doing it, it seemed we barely deserved to be alive.

So with that, I give you three keys that will unlock you from any circle of fundamentalist hell. There are more keys, of course – so many more glorious keys – but these are the ones I’m using to Undo the Charm Marm today.

1. The scripture is much more powerful if you don’t impose a literal interpretation on it. I was trained to fear any dogma that treated the Bible metaphorically instead of literally, from the creation story to the apocalypse. But so much information is at our fingertips now that blows this approach out of the water (and doesn’t require you to leave your spirituality behind).

  • For more, one good place to start is reading Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman.

2. The church as an institution needs to evolve. Not because it’s politically correct, not because society is changing, not for any reason except to go toward what’s true. Why is the church afraid to change? Because it functions for its own rules to reinforce its own authority. It’s caught in a painfully limiting way of seeing the world.

3. Finding the divine within yourself isn’t heresy and it isn’t “new age-y.” It’s the path of ancient mystics and saints. For that matter, it’s the path Jesus taught, too; the church puts a very different spin on that, of course. The basic idea here is that Jesus revealed the divine so completely that others came to see him as the only revelation of God, instead of as one manifestation of God. (Believe me, I was trained well – I know the fundamentalists will start quoting John 14:6 at this point.)

We’ll have some more liberating keys later. This is charm class, after all, so we wouldn’t want to go much longer without taking a break to brush our hair. Before we go, though, here are two other books with  sweeping views of the universe that are guaranteed to free you from any circle of hell.

Is there charm school in hell?

March 31, 2009

Dante's path to charm class

Some of my dear readers have been wondering whether charm school is really all that evil. I understand the confusion.

Charm school itself is a perfectly lovely idea. Charm school that causes little girlies to think that the consequences for missteps involve eternal damnation in a burning lake of fire, though – that’s just not cool (especially when combined with a complete fundamentalist regimen, which is definitely not part of a healthy breakfast).

Sometimes, these distinctions are subtle. Dante’s inferno aside, literature has shown us that the devil – or whatever personification of evil floats your boat across the River Styx – is at his wiliest when he’s less obvious than horns and a pitchfork.

Witness the very dapper Satan on CW’s surprisingly amusing Reaper. Or recall the C.S. Lewis space trilogy in which the devil drives someone mad just by being incredibly annoying and childish. How about that Northern Exposure episode when the friendly, balding devil sold hot tubs? To conclude this random whirlwind of  cultural devilry, I hereby boldly assert my personal theory that the devil, in fact, does not wear Prada but is more likely to be found sporting something from Talbot’s.

Anyway, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether something is pretty dang cute or whether it emanates from the pit of hell.

So on the next episode of Jesus Goes to Charm School, we’ll explore Dante’s circles of hell to find out where Christian Charm School is located in the morass…

How I turned up in charm school with Jesus

September 19, 2008

I was born the year we landed on the moon, but I went to school on another planet entirely.

Growing up sheltered in a city nestled among Midwestern cornfields, I thought drinking wine was sinful (how could I anticipate the flawlessness of a pinot noir?) and listening to rock ‘n’ roll was a fast track to Hades (the Beatles had satanic backwards messages! I heard the proof!). I’ll just say it: I was groomed to be one of those conservative, evangelical fundamentalists.

Growing up in this world meant I thought I was on the only path to a heaven, and other people were going to a very hot hell. I was naive, confident and, frankly, rude. I wasn’t trying to be rude, but I was on my way to heaven, see, so things were pretty much just between me and God – my fellow human race be damned if they disagreed.  And besides, I was very busy looking pretty for Jesus.*

My book, my bane, my muse.

As I learned early, when one is on such a path to heaven, it is imperative that one walks quietly and sits properly. Jesus likes that kind of thing.

In the Christian school I attended, the boys went outside for P.E. while the girls stayed inside for charm class, under the implied tutelage of Jesus himself. My appropriately pink “Christian Charm Manual” brims with illustrations that obligingly show how a smile and well-coiffed hair work in tandem with a pure heart.

Now that I’ve had a proper education, lived all around the country, traveled all around the world and enjoyed a spectacularly fascinating (to me, anyway) career, I can look back and be amused by the quirky education that defined my early days.

Pulled out of public school after Kindergarten, I attended a small, Baptist, conspiracy-theory school run by a member of the John Birch society. He was a man devoted not only to instilling girlish charm but also to fighting the communists. During one fateful year, we learned all about the secret communist plot to take over America through the United Nations. Our principal based his curriculum on books that would never become classics – we read J. Edgar Hoover instead of Dickens, and especially instead of Dickinson.

I suppose literature seemed irrelevant when only Jesus could save us from the secular humanists and communists who would steal our souls and throw us in concentration camps. (Only the communists wanted us arrested, not the secular humanists, as far as we knew. Not that we’d have put it past ’em.) The indoctrination worked: I was an earnest evangelical.

So that’s my story, but I didn’t stick to it. More about that in my charmifesto. For me, the way to a new, shimmering metaphorical place meant several years of gradual shifts – after I knew what I didn’t believe, I wanted a full intellectual and emotional grasp of what I did believe. I rewired my brain. I found a new way of being in the world (which hasn’t happened to involve anything resembling church for many years). And I think it’s downright charming.

Now I’m blogging – about the old charm school and my newfound charm-i-ness. Those of us who’ve found a peaceful way in the world need to talk about it. So please enjoy. Just don’t slouch when reading – turns out Jesus doesn’t like that kind of thing. Just kidding, Jesus.