Apocolypse … how?

August 17, 2009
Slate to the rescue/apocolypse

Slate to the rescue / apocalypse

Today’s charm school break is sponsored by the apocalypse.

If you grew up going to Christian charm school, you also may have been sent to prophecy conferences in your spare time to learn the many ways in which the world could end.

Perhaps your family attended scary movies in the ’70s about what happens to those who are “left behind” after the rapture. Perhaps after dinner, your parents read aloud to you from classics such as 666. Perhaps your fundamentalist grade school taught conspiracy theories that involved Christians being taken to concentration camps in black helicopters.

When you think about it, it’s sort of a miracle that you’re so clever, evolved and carefree these days, isn’t it?

Anyway, whether you grew up anticipating the four horsemen around every corner or not, you likely will be unable to resist Slate.com’s handy new Chose Your Own Apocalypse feature. It focuses on theories about the demise of America and not the entire world, but that ought to cover things for now. We pilgrims have had it coming for years.


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…

Spiritual girth, bust size and two inches of holiness

February 28, 2009

Measured appeal?

The students at my particular right-wing school were measured in all sorts of ways on a regular basis. The principal or his wife (beehive hairdo!) would walk into class for a dress code check, for example, and everyone would stand. For boys, hair had to be a half-inch above their shirt collars, or something like that. For girls, skirt hemlines had to fall at least two inches below the knees. Then the wardrobe & hair check would be over, and we returned to studying our conspiracy-theory curriculum about how the United Nations was a plot to spread communism to the United States. All in a day’s education.

When the hour for Christian Charm Class rolled around, though, the Charm Marm really kicked the measuring stick up a notch. One page of my workbook includes instructions about how to accurately measure your bust, waist, hips and so on, with a chart to fill in the numbers. A handy note advises that “Bust and hips should be equal, with waist ten inches smaller. A variation of two inches is allowable.”

So … Jesus wants us to be pin-up girls?

The next page asks how we measure up spiritually, with checklists to report on our use of “spiritual vitamins” and our “healthy appetite for God’s word.” (I guess one could get a little overly voracious and end up spiritually chunky?)

The real stroke of madness comes on the page about “spiritual proportions.” Another checklist awaits the maidens under the heading, “Am I in perfect form?”

  • Is your head of moderate size? Or do you act as though you know more than others?
  • Are your shoulders broad enough to bear others’ burdens? Do you cheerfully lighten the load of those around you?
  • Are your knees limber, ready to kneel in submission?

Yes, it really says that. I swear on my holy measuring tape that I’m not making this up. We’re evidently to believe that God wants us to take our spiritual vitamins, so that our bust, waist and hips are in proper proportion. Then we’re to be sure the rest of our body is performing admirably as well: Our head mustn’t be big enough to reveal that we know more than others, our shoulders must serve the sole purpose of bearing other people’s burdens and our knees must be limber enough to show submission on a dime.

In other words, we’re supposed to look voluptuous but only speak or move when we’re humbling ourselves or helping others. It’s this kind of thinking that led the early church fathers to invent the story about Mary Magdalene being a prostitute. We’re to be as meek as Mary the mother of Jesus and as alluring as Mary the mythical hooker. Can you say “hooker with a heart of gold”? I think I need another spiritual vitamin.

Undo the Charm Marm: Whatever body you have, it’s none of the Charm Marm’s business. Besides, I’ve been told that you’re shockingly beautiful.

That aside, wouldn’t the Charm Marm also have to admit, according to her beliefs, that God seems to make bodies in quite a few shapes and sizes? And if we’re following the Bible here, didn’t Jesus say to love not only others but also yourself? Oh, and wasn’t there something about not judging? That seemed important at the time.

So let’s rethink the list about heads, shoulders and knees.

  • I’ll tell you what’s important about your head: Pay attention to your ideas, and share them. Act on them.
  • As for your shoulders, take on the responsibility of your own happiness, which will include avoiding situations with harsh measuring sticks.
  • I’m not sure what to say about your knees. Symbolism should only be taken so far. Go ahead and keep them limber, I guess, so you can keep walking after you turn 100. Take your calcium and vitamin D, too.

Instead of worrying about having proportions that will make you the next Pin-Up for Jesus, give yourself a good proportion of care. Leave the criticism, um, behind. Because believe me, two inches never mattered so little.

Hair: It’s not just what’s on your head anymore

February 5, 2009

The next lesson in the Christian Charm Manual reveals the answer to one of the great spiritual mysteries pondered by mystics and theologians through the ages: Which hairstyles are God-approved? And does God have one favorite hairstyle?

In the tried and true method of Cosmo, the Charm Marm gives the girlies a multiple choice quiz on this page. The questions:

  • Should I be overly concerned with my hair?
  • What should be my motive in striving for lovely hair?
  • Should I choose an extreme or elaborate hairdo?
  • Should I change the basic color of my hair?

With the right answers, we can get to chopping and curling immediately! Holy approval is only a visit to a beautician away! Forget a nunnery – get thee to a beauty salon!

The wrong answers – and there are decidedly wrong answers – are as interesting as the right ones. The upshot of the quiz is that since “if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her” (have I thanked you lately for that one, Apostle Paul?), some time should be spent to keep hair “clean, well-groomed and attractive.” A girl should be careful, though, that her motive is not “to outdo the other girls” or “to attract attention” but rather to be admired so that her “influence will count for Christ.” Naturally, this leads to “modest, simplistic” styles.

I think we know where this is going – a girl’s hair should be mostly straight but not overly straightened. One doesn’t want the eye to linger. It should have enough wave to hint of a smile and to suggest an upbeat demeanor. But beware of unchecked curls that may appear untamed.


Fourth & final holy hair mystery revealed!

Finally, the quiz reveals that God is the only qualified expert to determine your proper hair color. The fourth question discloses that in coloring your hair, you gain nothing and lose your “unaffected naturalness.” In addition, the false color might make you appear to be unsure of your personal worth. Ah, there’s the catch. Whether you really feel worthy (enough to attract attention, perhaps?) isn’t the point; it’s whether you appear to feel worthy that matters.

In other words:
Appearing to have confidence: Good!
Actually having enough confidence to make bold choices: Bad!

Attracting attention: Bad!
Being admired in order to attract attention for God: Good!
Blending in: Also good!

Appearing to care about appearance: Bad!
Caring about appearance: Good!

In addition to the skewed version of beauty and why it may or may not matter, this approach encourages a basic if subtle dishonesty and a disconnection from your true self. And listen, kitty cats, even if you’ve long stopped believing obviously absurd notions such as that Jesus prefers your hair a certain way, those underlying beliefs can remain in your subconscious patterns.

Undo the Charm Marm:
However nice it may be for your hairstyle to reflect something about who you are, I’m 100 percent sure that Jesus never had any rules about it. I have no objection to lovely hair. I own more than one comb, and I condition my locks regularly. I expect corporations to encourage me to have an inordinate preoccupation with my hair. I expect them to conduct scientific tests and haul out experts who will try willy-nilly to get me to buy their products in an onslaught of ads. But religious hair instruction is more insidious than media assaults on a girl’s self-esteem.

As Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English point out in For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts Advice to Women, when experts and official figures give advice, they nearly always over the decades have pointed women toward domesticity with “the solemn and intimidating authority of science to back them up.” In Christian Charm Class, science gets replaced by God (just refer to the six-day creation story taught in my school’s science class), and the pressure to appear a certain way gets all muddled together with whether a lake of fire is in your eternal future and whether you’re disappointing your ultimate authority figure with every stroke of your brush.

So here’s a new quiz for you, Charm Marm:

  • Do you have a clear sense of what makes you a unique person?
  • Do you have the confidence to express that part of yourself, even if it involves (gasp!) attracting attention?
  • Does your passion for life come through in all sorts of ways, maybe including your hairdo and maybe not?

Fair enough.

SNL’s other church lady

February 3, 2009
Julia Sweeney's show

Julia Sweeney's one-woman show

Today’s charm school break is sponsored by atheism.

I’m so happy that Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God is finally out on DVD. The former Saturday Night Live star’s story about giving up her religious views after trying first to reclaim them is smart, touching and funny. (It was first performed as a one-woman show in a few cities and then was available as an audio book, which you can still find on iTunes.)

I love this performance. Anyone who’s only seen the writer-actress as Pat on SNL might be surprised at her intellectual curiosity; she’s more than just a funny girl as she digs down to find out for herself what’s at the heart of the teachings she once accepted. The result, full of both sweeping commentary and tiny moments of discovery, is brilliant.

While recounting her path away from the church, Julia (may I call her Julia?) is conversational and uplifting – ironically, she proves to be as inspiring as any self-help guru could want to be, even though she debunks New Age thinking right alongside traditional religion.

Even if you’re not interested in letting go of your beliefs, this monologue is a must-see, must-listen kind of performance. Just experiencing her ride vicariously is a liberating sensation.

The Charm Marm wouldn’t approve, but I certainly do.

View trailer & such (music auto-plays at this link)
Letting Go of God DVD, $14.99

Looking for charm in all the wrong places

January 26, 2009
Vow of perpetual pleasing

Vow of perpetual pleasing

Lesson the next: Steadfast vows of charmed misdirection.

On page 7 of the Christian Charm Manual, the Charm Marm asks the sweet girlies for another commitment:  “I want to be attractive and charming, so that I will please others. I realize that this will not come about through wishful dreaming. I realize that I must work toward that goal diligently and steadfastly.” Later on the page, there’s a checkbox to make it official: “Therefore, I will practice the rules of health and beauty presented during this Charm Course, insofar as I am able to do so.”

Oh, check that!

A second commitment about spending time in God’s presence each day goes alongside that one, which is perfectly lovely, of course – I have no objection to communing with the divine. But the dastardly Charm Marm equates loving God with pleasing others in the most superficial way … as if Jesus wants nothing more from us than to please the pants off of everyone we encounter. (Not literally, sweet girlies – please!)

The Charm Marm doesn’t consider that perhaps we eager beavers in her charge are here on earth to fulfill our own missions, that we need to develop our own skills, and that we deserve a chance to shine in our own way instead of running around getting steadfast about becoming attractive to others.

Nor does the Charm Marm warn that sometimes “others” don’t want the right things, that they have their own problems to work out, that they might not have our best interests in mind, that they might not have pure intentions themselves, or that they might have absolutely no business expecting us to please them.

Every which way but pleased
What she does do is give us a fill-in-the-blanks list of things to improve so that we’ll appear more charming – an action plan for the charm-impaired. I do find my list amusing. I decided to improve “my face,” for one thing. I’m not sure what I planned to do about that, really, since I rarely suffered breakouts. Did I want to switch from a heart-shaped face to the more enviable oval shape? Perhaps that would stand out less or be a little closer to godly perfection. Perhaps I felt pointy chins were akin to the devil’s pitchfork.


Please unto others?

As for my “get organized” vow, maybe I was cheating. It just so happened that I was a whirlwind of tidiness as a wee lass. On more than one occasion, I asked my mother for permission to organize her kitchen cupboards. Even before my life became busy with kindergarten, I asked my big brother if didn’t he pretty please want to put me in charge of keeping his dresser drawers neat. (He politely declined.) I was already pretty steadfast about improving other peoples’ lives with the most demure attitude, you see.

Charm school was extreme submissiveness training. We sweet things were taught to be perpetually pleasing to others by having no boundaries or will of our own. Think of the energy we were instructed to apply simply to making ourselves mild, minor characters in other people’s stories.

Undo the Charm Marm: It’s time for submissiveness de-programming. Maybe it is time to get steadfast and diligent, but not about pleasing others … how about developing a backbone, discovering our talents, and expressing ourselves?

Someone should have taught us to speak up for ourselves, chickadees. Here’s a shocking revelation: expressing emotions and original thoughts isn’t being surly. So it’s time to make up for lost time. Assert your own will at will, if you will.

Let’s all just assume we’re on earth to do something that only we can do. There. Next step: Realize that you’re wasting time by wantonly pleasing every Tom, Dick, Harry, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Yes, of course, it’s good to help others; however, unconsciously filling other people’s needs while remaining unaware of your own is a cop-out. Flittering around from need to need means you’re frittering away your very particular energy. So here’s a new vow: Yes to fritters, no to frittering.

How many calories are in that Bible verse?

December 17, 2008

Counting calories and checking off Bible chapters … it’s like chocolate and peanut butter … no, make that oil and vinegar. Yep, it’s an emulsion of fear. A sad salad of limitations.  And it’s awfully hard to undress a salad.

While other lessons in the Christian Charm Manual can be vague about what exactly the sweet girlies should do to deserve their salvation, this two-page spread stuns with its specificity: holiness through calorie counting. This pairing manages to turn spirituality into both a simplistic process and an unpleasant one. Now that’s what I call empty calories, chickadees.


Mmm, donuts and Revelation.

Although the charts open onto the same page, it’s unclear whether they work in tandem. For example, will the Charm Marm excuse an extra soda cracker (25 calories!) if we throw in an extra Bible chapter? Or maybe just a verse or two will do for such a slim indulgence.

It’s as if the Powers That Were sat around their dour conference room table and said, “Hmm, let’s give these sweet girlies the sense of an impending,  omnipresent measuring stick to inspect their dull duties at every turn. Yes, that sounds about right. Let’s drain the goodness out of every last activity, shall we? Let’s give them a sense of trepidation related to the very food they need to survive. Oh, let’s do.”

Let’s go to the source on this one. I’m sure all Christian Charm School drop-outs remember the story about Jesus and the hungry crowd. You’d think the Charm Marm would have noticed that that the miracle didn’t provide just enough bread & fish so that the women attending wouldn’t be tempted to take in more calories than they should. The story says at least a dozen baskets were left over after everyone was full. In fact, doesn’t the very idea of a miracle (which occurred, as I recall, right after the Beatitudes) seem at odds with restrictions?

Undo the Charm Marm: Counting is for math class. You deserve to be fully nourished. Just because I call you “chickadees,” don’t eat like one. A little seed here and there does not a charmed life make. Your soul is your long-distance power source, and it doesn’t count calories. While I’m at it, self-deprivation is more perilous than any number of calories, counted or otherwise.

Of course, it’s good to be healthy. I’m friendly with certain fruits and vegetables. I walk a lot and sometimes run, but only while listening to super fun music. I regularly eat ice cream and chocolate. I try to eat animal products of the hormone-free, antibiotic-free and free-to-roam varieties … but I can occasionally be seen eating fast food. In sum, I recommend the following plan: Be healthy most of the time. The rest of the time, don’t worry about it.

If you happen to be fond of lists (as I indeed am) just make sure they’re more helpful than bossy. And, you know, don’t let anyone suggest that you might burn in hell for all eternity if you veer off-spreadsheet. Replace the mean charts with the idea that nothing less than a feast will do, metaphorical and otherwise. What if instead of going at life with a checklist in hand, we did everything with a sense of abundance? To the feasting tables, chickadees!

14th-century poet to the rescue

December 3, 2008
Ralph Waldo Emerson called Hafiz "a poet for poets."

Emerson called Hafiz "a poet for poets."

Today’s Charm School Break is sponsored by the 14th century.

The Persian poet Hafiz was born about 100 years after the better-known Rumi. They both wrote mystical love poems, but Hafiz is slightly more surreal.

His work has this odd mix of earthly references and heavenly insights – the effect is jarring and undeniably joyful. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorites, Of Course Things Like That Can Happen:

The sun rolls through
The sky meadows every day,
And a billion cells run
To the top of a leaf to scream and applaud
And smash things in their joy.

Of course things like that can happen.

Rivers stay up all night and chant;
Luminous fish jump out of the water
Spitting emeralds at all talk of Heaven
Being anywhere else but – Right Here!

Clouds pull each other’s pants down
And point and laugh.

O my dear,
Of course things like that can happen.

Light stretches its arms
Open even more
And shouts to you, because you are His lover,
To forget your harsh actions of the past
And just Dance!

Oh my … the Charm Marm certainly would not approve of clouds pulling each other’s pants down. She wouldn’t likely encourage the little girlies in her charge to forget their harsh actions of the past and just dance, either. So I’d much rather have a holiday meal with Hafiz, who both inspires and reassures me. Here’s to getting medieval on the Charm Marm.

I Heard God Laughing: Poems of Hope and Joy, $10.20 at Amazon.com

Brush your way to glory

November 11, 2008

No Christian Charm Manual-style how-to on hair styling would be complete without a reminder that girls are “the weaker vessel.” The lesson entitled “Femininity – My ‘Crowning Glory'” includes this picture of a gleaming but docile visage above these four instructions “to be truly feminine.”

Brush your way to glory.

Calling all weaker vessels ...

1.    See that you look like a girl – not a boy.
2.    Don’t usurp the role of the male.
3.    Cultivate a quiet, gentle spirit.
4.    Value your chastity.

Here, the Charm Marm teaches the quiet glory of styling one’s hair in an attractively submissive fashion. This particular hairstyling niche seems overlooked by fashion magazines these days. How is a girl to know which products will train her to coif stay perfectly obedient all the day long? One’s bangs must be compliant, one’s length must be meek, one’s ponytails must be modest but not faint-hearted. And one’s hairstyle must not pose a threat to nearby males.

The verses the Charm Marm includes on this workbook page include, “I suffer not a woman … to usurp authority over the man,” a reference to “the weaker vessel” and a reminder that a woman is a mere “help meet.” I confess that I generally find hair-care instructions to be confusing, but never quite this demoralizing.

I won’t attempt to go at the whole gender-religion thing in one blog entry. Suffice it to say that Jesus was  revolutionary about the role of women in society, treating them as equally important vessels of divinity. The men who followed him simply didn’t get it, and the men who determined what went into the Bible had their patriarchal political agendas to boot.

So why, a couple of thousand years later, are sweet little girlies being instructed about their limited importance? Because we’re only charming if we know our place? We’re only charming if we sit quietly and act pleased just to be allowed in the building? We’re only charming if we acknowledge that our very existence starts us off in the minus column – and that we’re supposed to stay there? And it’s so important that we understand our inadequacies that even our hair must convey the proper tone?

Usurpers, grab your brushes!

This workbook page reminds me of a church service I once attended in Knoxville, Tennessee. On that spring day, the pastor behind his pulpit found his way to the topic of women. I believe Eve was mentioned. He seemed anxious to give her a good scolding. He allowed – perhaps fancying himself magnanimous – that women could occasionally speak in church, especially if teaching children. “We can trust you dangerous hussies to give directions to little kids now and then,” the preacher didn’t really say but surely implied, “but don’t you temptresses ever tell me or others of male persuasion what to do.”

Oh, and did I mention that it was Mother’s Day? I think most of the women were downstairs preparing the potluck anyway, so I guess they’d already gotten the message.

Undo the Charm Marm: This ludicrousness of this lesson on hair grooming and gender politics is a little easier to see than the more subtle misogyny that pervades many church gatherings. The bottom line is that if anyone tries to make you feel powerless or fearful, it’s your divine right – yea, verily, your sacred duty – to ignore them. Give the culprit a decidedly un-demure look if you have to. Nobody, whether male, female, extra terrestrial, preacher, pitcher or belly itcher, has the right to diminish you. It’s not your responsibility to sport a submissive hairdo, chickadees – it’s your responsibility to stand up and be the full extent of who you are. And seriously, aren’t gender stereotypes so boring at this point? Charm school students who are bored, raise your hands. These cheap shots are tedious, destructive nonsense and have no more actual heft than a pretty, little hair on your head.

Maybe if the apostle Paul had ever actually met Jesus, he would have understood that a woman’s glory is being fully and completely who she is, instead of telling the Corinthians that “if a women have long hair it is a glory to her.”