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Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Subject Yourself

*Deep breathe*

Okay, I think the best way to handle this is to describing the episode without criticism, to capture how I perceived it as a kid. Then I’ll go into what stood out to me as an adult.

It opens with Lawrence Hodges, eternal troublemaker, waiting at Whit’s End for his mother to pick him up. He is chatting with Jack Allen about his new braces. Unsurprisingly, he hates them. They’re uncomfortable, they stop him from eating half the food he likes, and he has to wear them for two years. Jack Allen encourages him to be patient and follow his orthodontist’s directions, but Lawrence is still moody.

Mrs. Hodges shows up. She was delayed by a meeting to go over the new history curriculum for next year, and she is not happy with it. She isn’t very specific, but one thing that bothers her is the absence of religion, outside of descriptions of indigenous beliefs. Jack Allen says he heard something on the news about “revisionist history,” which he defines as textbooks that try to downplay the role of Christianity in American heritage. He thought that only big cities like New York or Chicago were doing that kind of thing, not places like Odyssey. But apparently he’s wrong, and he’s dismayed that Mrs. Hodges will have to teach it.

Later, Mrs. Hodges goes to the principal to talk about the new curriculum. She shows him a list of problems. The principal did not remember there being any issues, but she says there were events that were left out, and more importantly, no discussion of the Christianity that laid the foundation of those events. When he asks if she is religious, she says yes, but emphasizes that this is not relevant to her problem. She gives Washington and Lincoln as examples of figures who you can’t discuss without also discussing their faith. They go on talking, and I’ll skim over what was said because, as I said, as a kid the details went over my head. I’ll get back into them later. What did stuck was the sense that this textbook was clearly trying to brainwash kids into thinking all Christians and white people were evil.

Tension builds when the principal brings up the potential repercussions of fighting the curriculum. He thinks the government will slash their budget. He mentions an after-school program for special needs children that she works with. It’s an example of the kind of thing they could have to cut if they lose funding. He urges her to not rock the boat.

Meanwhile, Jack Allen catches Lawrence with a huge bag of snacks and candy from the “don’t eat” list. Lawrence tries to justify his shopping trip, but his arguments boil down to “but I really like sticky candy.” He’s also been having a miserable time at home. He and his mother fight every night over the headgear that comes with his braces. He hates sleeping with it, almost as much as he hates the nightly cleaning routines. Jack listens and encourages him to follow the orthodontists’ rules, but also use his imagination to make the experience more bearable.

This gives Lawrence an idea. He asks his Mom if he can get his braces colored. She doesn’t have time to talk through scheduling and costs, as she is distracted by the problems she has found in the textbook. She does like the idea of coloring Lawrence’s braces, and reassures him that she will get to it, but right now is not a good time. Lawrence is not happy to hear this. Patience isn’t a strength of his.

Mrs. Hodges goes back to the principal. Some other teachers have shared similar concerns, and she asks the principal to take them to talk this decision over with the school board. He is reluctant, but when she threatens to go to the press, he caves. He, and the board, would prefer a private discussion over a public fury. The principal does warn Mrs. Hodges that if this does not go her way, it could ruin her entire career. Mrs. Hodges is prepared to take that risk.

While his mom goes to the meeting, Lawrence waits at Whit’s End once again. He gleefully shows off his new, technicolored braces. Which he colored himself. Yeah, he got tired of waiting for the appointment, which is a whole week away, so he just helped himself to some paint leftover from his roller derby kit. Although he does now feel a little queasy…

Jack facepalms and rushes Lawrence to the emergency room.

Mrs. Hodges presents her case to the board. She is asked whether this is just discomfort over being confronted with a perspective that is different from hers, and she says she is positive that is not the issue. As she explains it, being a teacher she is used to dealing with other points of view. This book simply takes it too far.

They go over the potential consequences to her career and the school’s budget. She acknowledges those risks, but insists that an accurate, balanced look at events is crucial to education, and this textbook is simply indoctrinating students. It also opens the door to further strongarming of teachers and ideological issues. She says she would rather resign than teach the curriculum. The board thanks her for her time, and then adjourns to discuss the issue.

Mrs. Hodges then gets the message to meet Jack and Lawrence at the hospital.

Lawrence was made to throw up the paint, and is doing fine now. Jack shakes his head over Lawrence’s impatience, and Lawrence is now a little more ready to work on that character flaw. Jack impresses on him that, more than just being patient, he also needs to listen to those in authority. Lawrence then brings up his mother and her little rebellion against the school board. Jack talks about the difference between standing up as a kid to people who have expertise that you don’t (like medical knowledge about healthy teeth), and standing up as an adult who has a responsibility to protest when she sees something that is wrong. It’s a pretty good speech, honestly.

A week later, Lawrence gets his teeth colored the right way, and he loves them. Mrs. Hodges also gets news from the school board. They decided to hold off on any changes in the curriculum until they have time to take a more careful look at the material.

Cue the happy music!

Okay, so as a kid I thought this was a pretty solid episode. I didn’t really know anything about history other than what my parents taught me, and I pretty much took it for granted that AIO could teach me no wrong, so I assumed the textbook was exactly as bad as she said it was. Then I listened to it again, with more information under my belt.

Revisionist history is not just about erasing Christianity, whatever Jack Allen says. It is any approach to history that challenges a dominant narrative. It’s not inherently good or inherently bad. Like all academia, it’s only as good as the evidence that supports it.

History is, as the cliche goes, written by the victors. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say they get a crack at the first draft. Every historian writes with a perspective that will inevitably color their narrative. Sometimes they do their best to stick to the facts despite their own biases. Other times they cherry pick the facts that best fit their own biases. Sometimes they actively make shit up. Western academia is built around the idea that if you constantly question and challenge your own ideas, then the truth will eventually triumph over the lies. Revisionist history is simply a natural part of this process.

As a kid, though, Jack Allen’s skewed definition made perfect sense to me. I was being homeschooled in part because my parents didn’t trust the government to not brainwash me with secularism and liberalism. A big part of my education was learning how important religion was to everything, especially history and the founding ideals of America.

As it turned out, much of what I was taught was wrong. I didn’t learn how Thomas Jefferson cut out parts of the Bible that he disagreed with, or how Benjamin Franklin was a deist, which by 1770s standards was nearly atheism. I taught that Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were devout men. I was not taught that Samuel Morse wanted to use his telegraph machine to spread anti-Catholic propaganda, Alexander Graham Bell was a racist, ableist eugenicist, and Thomas Edison was an all-around dick. Oh, and of course it was not reasonable to suggest that people like Washington or Jefferson used the Bible to justify keeping slaves. Religion got credit for the good, never the bad.

When she gives her speech to the board, Mrs. Hodges claims to have a seven page single spaced list of errors, which she has provided to the board. Obviously a half hour episode was not going to have time to show all of them, so we have to judge it on the basis of the issues she does bring up. I already described her first issue. She thinks the Founding Fathers and other figures cannot be understood without a discussion of their faith. Obviously, for some historical figures, she is right. On the other hand, many others were passively religious, or actively critical of religion. And sometimes religion was used to justify atrocities, like how Manifest Destiny was used to justify genocide of the Native Americans. I do agree that balance is important to understanding history, but I think our ideas of balance are very different.

For example, Mrs. Hodes doesn’t think this textbook isn’t particularly fair to white settlers. She says that they talk about the settler’s slaughter of Indians but not vice versa. That’s not a fair comparison. At most, I’d acknowledge that there were inevitably cases where white non-combatants were killed by Natives, because Native Americans are human beings and any large group of human beings contains a few shitty ones. But in terms of the scale, context and stakes, there is no fair analysis that makes white settlers anything but invading imperialists. The indigenous peoples were there first; that’s why they’re called indigenous. We attacked without provocation, we broke our own treaties and we corralled the survivors into shithole reservations. And if you still think their slaughter of us and our slaughter of them is comparable, ask yourself, how many of us are left? How many of them? Entire tribes were wiped out, entire languages lost. We committed genocide, and it’s our moral imperative to admit that.

Similarly, she talks about how unfair it is that Christian missionaries are described torturing Indians. Well, tough. That happened. She complains that there’s no mention of Aztec human sacrifice. I’m pretty sure kids will find out about that one through cultural osmosis, so chill out. Plus, this sounds like a US history textbook, and that was more South and Central America, so that’s not especially relevant. She even complains that it doesn’t even mention the pilgrims at Thanksgiving, which… ugh.

Okay, for those who don’t already know, the history we are taught as kids is extremely skewed. There was one Thanksgiving that kind of resembles the kindergarten play version, and a ton of others that were held specifically to celebrate. If you want to know more, here’s some links. Besides, even if the sweet holiday version were completely true, would it really be historically relevant? If the best moment in European/Indian relations you can think of is one reasonably pleasant dinner party, that tells you something right there.

The last problem she describes is that the textbook “makes it sound like religious leaders were responsible for slavery.” That’s an ambiguous phrase. Do they specifically paint a picture of bishops sitting in a dark room hatching a plan to enslave Africans? ‘Cause yeah, that would not be correct. But “responsible” can also mean responsible for allowing it to happen, or justifying it. Christian preachers absolutely did that. She also says they aren’t credited with abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. That’s a fair point.  There were religious leaders both condemning and defending slavery.

A few paragraphs ago, I put a pin into the whole concept of whether or not the real complexities of religion in the US would be in line with AIO’s philosophy or not. Not every Christian in American history preached Christianity exactly the way AIO does. Quakers, for example, were probably the most famously anti-slavery denomination, and they were vocal activists. AIO is a fan of original sin. Quakers talk instead about the inner light of God which inhabits everyone, and many Quakers do not believe conversion is necessary for salvation. They also value the Bible but do not consider it infallible or the final word. Unitarians, who frequently reject even the divinity of Christ, were also typically abolitionists. As we know from episodes like Bad  Company, AIO does not look kindly on this kind of liberal Christianity. Meanwhile, Southern Baptists, whose doctrines align far more closely with AIO, literally became Southern Baptists because their leadership refused to condemn slavery.

I can headcanon Mrs. Hodges as a person who understood all this, and whose ideal textbook would not only celebrate Christian heritage, but also criticize Christianity’s failings and celebrate the diversity of religious beliefs among those who had, on the whole, an influence for good. But it does not change the fact that in their own writings on history, AIO certainly does not reach for this balance. Their definition of Christianity is narrow, to the point of cutting out many modern Christians, let alone earlier religious movements. I’m also not saying all the AIO-style Christians defended slavery and all the hippie Christians attacked it, but there’s a general trend here.

Mrs. Hodges says that this is “what we accused the Nazis of doing.” But the problem wasn’t the act of revising, just as Hitler’s problem wasn’t the gift of eloquence and Communism’s problem wasn’t the idea of regulating businesses… oh wait, AIO’s staff probably thinks the last one was the problem. Well, moving on. The problem happened when they lied, and cut out everyone who disagreed with the lie. And AIO is portraying the cutting out of Mrs. Hodges as an attack on people who disagree. That’s not what is really happening. In our society, there is still back and forth over education and textbooks. Sometimes I agree with what goes in and sometimes I don’t. And, most tellingly, I don’t think anything that Mrs. Hodges complains about is a serious inaccuracy. In some cases they are overcorrecting, but even there, society has so much of the opposite perspective… kids are going to hear your side too, Mrs. Hodges.

And here we get into my real problem. She makes an argument, a very good argument, that there’s something suspicious about a textbook that constantly picks and chooses what to include and what not to. Well, that can apply to the whole of AIO. They constantly pick and choose pro-Christian perspectives. They constantly pick and choose pro-traditional gender role perspectives. They constantly pick and choose pro-white perspectives. And when society presents them with alternate perspectives, they pick the most extreme example and cry foul.

Final Ratings

Best Part: This time my favorite part wasn’t a single scene, but an element of Mrs. Hodges’ character. She isn’t an aggressive person. On the contrary, she is very sweet and easygoing. This episode gradually revealed an inner strength to her that was both surprising and realistic. They say “beware the nice ones” for a good reason. Often the people who are softest on the surface have the most strength inside.

Worst Part: Jack’s skewed, scaremongering description of revisionist history.

Story Rating: Truth is, in terms of basic plot structures, this is one of the better ones. While it’s a bit obvious where it is going, it is tense, it engages the reader, and it uses Lawrence’s subplot as a good tension reliever. Hey, I split up the moral and story ratings for a reason! B+

Moral Rating: As with so many of these political themes, I have to split the difference between the ostensible moral message, and the underlying political ideas. The basic idea that authority should be respected in some cases and challenged in others is dead on, and they introduce some ways to tell the difference that are reasonable and accessible to kids. That’s an incredibly important set of ideas. But underneath it, they try to whitewash the racial and cultural imperialism that has marred our country’s history for so long. That’s incredibly damaging. So what the hell should I give this?

Well, if I’m analyzing this episode in isolation, halfway between an A+ and an F- is a C. If I’m analyzing it in the context of other themes, I’d have to weight the F side and give it a D-. Do with that what you will.

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Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Arizona Sunrise

(apologies for posting this so late in the day. It’s been a helluva week)

I’ve described some problematic race portrayals on Adventures in Odyssey. People of color are inevitably either submissive to or violent enemies of heroic white people. This series also whitewashes historical people of color, even when all characters should be Middle-Eastern Semitic peoples.

Among white people, there’s a tendency to describe racism as something exhibited by swastika tattooed skinheads and absolutely nobody else. This is especially a problem in right-wing religious GOP-loyal communities, but white liberals are hardly exempt from it. And, god, the deeper I get into this topic the more I feel like I’m not the right person to describe it. The whole problem starts with white people talking to other white people, who haven’t experienced racism, about what racism really is. We tend to soften up our descriptions in order to make each other feel comfortable, and conversations about oppression and bigotry shouldn’t be soft and comfy.

So this episode isn’t going to explain everything about racism in all it’s forms and why they are bad. You should be looking for blogs written by POC for that. I’m just going to explain where, on the great wheel of all the diverse types of racism, AIO fits in, because that will be important context for the next video.

And to demonstrate what AIO’s race problem is, there is no better episode than Arizona Sunrise.

This episode opens with a chance meeting between Jack Allen, a friend of Whit’s who has recently opened an antique shop in town, and Cody, a small child plagued by homework. He’s supposed to do a report on a famous person from the Old West, a task which is unsurmountable because, as he says, he doesn’t know any famous people.

As luck would have it, Jack was just researching the history of an antique saddle he received. It was the property of Reverend James Klinger, a circuit preacher who preached in the Arizona territory. He even still has the page with Klinger’s biography open in his computer, and he invites Cody to look it over and see if this would be a good candidate for his report.

The article starts by talking about the Apache wars coming to an end, and “resentment between white and Indian alike.”

Well, that’s, um, a highly colored characterization. We’ll put a pin in that for now.

We open on James Klinger reading the Bible to a group of Apaches, and talking about sin, death and redemption. He asks them if they are following. They all say they don’t, so he prepares to break it down for them. He first asks if an Apache would ever die for his enemy. One of them immediately responds that no, an Apache would kill their enemy. Lol, what charming savages. But don’t worry, we’re dodging that bullet with Klinger’s jovial admission that many white people would as well. All Apaches, many but not all white people, gosh, we are being fair minded here, aren’t we?

Klinger goes on to explain that sin makes us like God’s enemy, yet he chose to forgive us and even die to pay the price for our sins. The Apache find this bewildering but interesting. They say they’ll think over these ideas, and Klinger says that is all that he asks. He says good-bye to them and sets off with his companion/bodyguard/heterosexual life partner, Reese. Reese asks if he expects these savages to ever turn around, and Klinger laughs and says he has to try.

A rider comes up to drag them back to the fort, because the captain is outraged about something or other. Said captain yells at Klinger for a while about how horrible and savage Apaches are, and when Klinger again says that we are all heathens under the eyes of God, at some point or another. The captain agrees but repeats that no Apache has “the ability or inclination to change.”

This back and forth goes on for a while, which Klinger not exactly denying that Apaches are heathens or savages, just asserting that he has a calling to try his best, whatever they do. Here’s where I want to make a distinction between Klinger the character and the overall message of the episode. There’s a possible argument to be made that Klinger disagrees seriously with the captain’s characterization, and is simply choosing his battles. Or maybe you don’t agree with that reading of the character at all, and that while his intentions are good he also takes an infantilizing, paternalistic attitude towards the Apaches. It’s a brief episode, so you can read a lot into his motivations from scene to scene, and what you project probably has more to do with you and your experiences than anything else. What we do know is that this episode, having limited time, has made multiple characters bring up the message that salvation is needed by some white people and all Apaches. It’s pretty safe to assume this is a perspective the writers want us to take.

The captain seems to be trying to persuade Klinger that the Apache are not worth saving, and he even brings up the fact that Klinger’s mother was killed by Apaches. But when Klinger insists that this is his calling, and nothing will dissuade him, the captain suddenly tells him that Messia, an old chief, has gone out into the desert to die. It’s supposed to be an old custom of theirs.

I did try to find evidence for this ritual. I read through several online articles on Apache death rituals, and while there was certainly some variation between different tribes, I didn’t see anything like this described, especially in the sites curated by actual Native Americans.

Anyway, the captain’s information is out of character, because everything in the dialog up until now made it clear that he in no way wants Klinger to go preach to any Apaches. The captain thinks it’s a waste of time that aggravates tensions and makes it harder to keep the peace. But Klinger has only been more and more insistent that he will do anything he can to convert as many Apaches as he can. So the captain’s response is to tell him about someone who is A. about to die and B. clearly not into the Christian thing, as he’s still doing the “old Apache spiritual tradition” thing. Yeah, that’s real in character. This unnamed authority figure is definitely a fleshed out person, not a walking tool for exposition.

Anyway, Klinger announces that he’s going to go make conversion happen. Plus, if he can also save Messia’s life, bonus. But definitely the conversion thing, as the priority.

He and Reese first go to Messia’s old village, where most of the villagers want him to clear out and stop meddling. But Messia’s granddaughter, Nalicadaeh, comes up to ask about this whole Western medicine thing. Klinger has emphasized that his doctors may be able to save Messia’s life, and Nalicadaeh believes him. Messia’s her only family, so she can’t stand to lose him. The tribe threatens to cut her out if she helps Klinger, so she decides to convert on the spot.

If you listen to people who have had some experience being pressured to convert, or otherwise abandon their culture and home, it is always a painful experience, regardless of their reasons. But as Nalicadaeh talks to Klinger, she shows no sign of conflict or mourning over her decision. She talks excitedly about what her new God can help her do, and focuses on the search. You could, again, interpret her character many ways. This could be putting on a brave face or overcompensating so Klinger will believe in her conversion and help her. But either way, the episode is not giving any complexity to her situation. From Klinger’s perspective, she is both saved from eternal damnation, and might also get her grandfather back. The fact that she has also been separated from her home forever… we aren’t invited to think about that.

And there’s another character/story distinction of note. Klinger has no idea what is wrong with Messia. He probably doesn’t know how ignorant doctors of his era were, but he certainly does know that there are many diseases where the best they can do is make the patient comfortable, then wait and see. He also probably knows that most diseases of old age are in this category. The hope he offers Nalicadaeh is slim to illusory, and he knows it. But, again, from a character perspective, maybe it does come from genuine optimism.

The writers, on the other hand, know (or could easily find out) the state of medicine in 1887. It’s not good, especially when the patient was an elderly person. Antibiotics were a theoretical possibility discussed among the doctors who bought into this newfangled “germ theory of disease” notion. Surgeries were a last resort, because even if the infection didn’t get you, blood loss probably would. A few mad scientists were messing around, rather controversially, with transfusions, but they wouldn’t figure out how to do it safely until the early twentieth century. The point is, whatever Messia needs, from heart surgery, to a removed tumor, to a bacterial infection healed, even the most competent doctor of the era probably couldn’t pull it off.

Additionally, medicines weren’t regulated in 1887. You pretty much had two options; herbal remedies based on tradition and folklore, or “patent medicines,” which were cure-alls peddled by travelling con artists. Of the two, traditional herbal remedies were the better option, as they were given by someone who actually had to stick around and see what worked and what didn’t. Patent medicines were mostly just alcohol and promises.

This matters, because Klinger is about to be heroized for bringing an old man to Western medical doctors, when the reality is there was nothing Western doctors could do that couldn’t be done just as well by Apache healers. And the writers have no excuse not to know this.

Back to the episode. When they stop to rest, Klinger and Nalicadaeh share stories of families lost to the war. He lost his family to the Apache, she lost hers to white people. Oh, how tragic it is that both of these people came from warring sides, each of which were in a morally equivalent position.

Sigh.

Nalicadaeh does not want to stop. She wants to keep seeking Messia through the night, while Klinger and Reese insist that they make camp for the night. Their debate is interrupted by Pialsiney, an Apache scout from the fort who claims to have been sent by the captain. Apparently the Apaches are only keeping the peace while Messia lives, and so the captain has done an ideological about face, re: saving Indians. During this conversation, Nalicadaeh sneaks off, forcing them to continue the search for both her and her grandfather.

Nalicadaeh finds Messia and guides Reese, Klinger and Pialsiney to him. She says he is very sick and must be taken to a doctor quickly. Pialsiney immediately reveals that his story was a lie. Apparently Messia killed Pialsiney’s family, in revenge for their collaboration with the white men. Messia does not deny this, and even points out the war trophies he took from them. He wants to die, Pialsiney wants to kill him, this all works out. But this talk of war trophies draws Klinger’s eyes to a familiar necklace. Turns out, Messia is the one who killed Klinger’s mother. Dun dun duuuuuunnnnn!

Yeah, obviously this isn’t going to change Klinger’s mind. I should admit that the acting is good here. He really sells us on the difficulty behind Klinger’s decision to not take revenge, or allow Pialsiney to take it. But obviously this is the only way it was going to happen. There’s gotta be a message about God and forgiveness, and a dramatic display of self sacrifice that convinces Messia to convert. So Klinger physically shields Messia and gives a speech, and then Reese subdues Pialsiney and they all head back to the fort.

Also they see a sunrise, and that’s significant because Nalicadaeh had been afraid Messia would not live to see it, and there’s an episode title namedrop along with swelling dramatic music.

We cut back to Cody reading the article aloud, and he narrates that Messia survives for several more years and converts along with Nalicadaeh, and eventually many others in their village. Cody gets excited about this story and declares that he will definitely write it up for his history day project, because, as Jack Allen says, it’s so sad that we don’t hear more about how epic and wonderful missionaries were.

Now, I thought that this would be a hard episode, because I would have to do tons of research on the reality of James Klinger, and contrast the real person with the character. Uh… not so much.

Many listeners have written in to ask if the story of James Klinger in
Arizona Sunrise is a true one. In the episode, a circuit-riding minister
sets out to save the life and the soul of an old Apache warrior. Though the
characters in this episode were fictional, the story is based on an actual
historical event. Apaches did go out into the wilderness when they thought
it was their time to die. In 1905, a Lutheran pastor went searching for an
Apache chief who had done just that. He found the chief, brought him
back to civilization, and nursed him back to health.

Link here.

There is no information that would enable us to look the story up for ourselves. This, combined with the fact that I couldn’t find any reference to that as a custom, makes me distrust their source. There was a market for sensationalized stories about Native Americans for a very, very long time, a lot of nonsense got passed off as fact, and when it comes to indigenous cultures you have to trace your sources carefully.

This is also as good a time as any to mention that I could not even find evidence that Messia, Nalicadaeh or Pialsiney are actually names in any Native American language. Searching for either Nalicadaeh or Pialsiney just gave me two pages of Google results, all of which were references to this episode on AIO fan sites. Messia brought a lot of sites where somebody had misspelled Messiah.

So we see a fake story, framed as real to an impressionable audience, which misrepresents Western medicine as superior at a time when it really wasn’t. The hero is a man whose life mission is to convince Native Americans to abandon their beliefs and culture for his, while the writers have seemingly not bothered to do even the slightest research on what those beliefs actually were.

When I was growing up, I knew a lot of adults who agreed with a lot of racist stereotypes, from savage Indians to lazy Latinos to ignorant Black people, and they were always quick to clarify that it wasn’t the people, not the skin color or genetics, no, it was just the culture. Brown people could be just as good as white people, so long as they took on white culture. But people of color who acted, you know, non-white, those people were a problem.

And I’m upset to admit it, but as a little kid, I bought it, until I started reading books that actually celebrated non-white cultures. Not all of those books were good quality, and many came from the weirdly fetishistic liberal culture that put every non-European culture onto a pedestal of enlightenment. But they lead me to an important realization; I was being taught to judge other cultures without even being taught what those cultures were. Cultures are complicated as hell. There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” culture; all cultures have good and bad aspects, because they are made up of complicated humans who themselves have good and bad aspects. And nobody is either free from or completely controlled by their culture. Offloading old stereotypes onto “cultural differences” isn’t an evolution beyond racism. It’s the same old bigotry, with a new hat on.

In my next episode, I’ll talk more about how this fits into the overall philosophy of Adventures in Odyssey.

Final Ratings

Best Moment: I kinda liked Nalicadaeh running off to make the guys follow her. Way to game the system, kiddo!

Worst Moment: Any of the bits where they go on about savage Apache ways could count, but Pialsiney has a bit where he specifies that he wants to kill Messia slowly with a knife, because that’s “the Apache way.” I really hate that the line that most condemns Apache culture comes from an actual Apache… it’s like they are trying to lend an extra veneer of authenticity.

Story Rating: I mean, it was entertaining, in a mindless, inaccurate, white man’s burden King Solomon’s Mines kind of way. Oh, and in an era where there weren’t nearly as many excuses for not doing your research. Plus you’ve got to make sure you don’t notice any of the plot holes, like the captain’s lack of a character, or the clumsy frame device. So, you know, C-

Moral Rating: So, with many of these political posts, I have to make a distinction between the implicit social message and the explicitly stated moral. Obviously the explicit message is about forgiveness and how it’s awesome, and I don’t want people to think I don’t approve of that part. I’m generally pro-forgiving, although when I get to the forgiveness section I’ll be pointing out some episodes where I think their ideas about forgiveness are weirdly skewed. But you know, when it comes to the decision to kill or not kill someone who once wronged you but is now a sickly old man who can no longer hurt you and who you think deserves a second chance, I’m all for it.

But there also is some proselytizing, from Jack and Chris, about how missionaries were awesome and epic and important to history and whatnot. I… well could say a lot. For now I’ll just say that I think, if they were so awesome and important, why the fuck didn’t you write an episode around a missionary who actually existed?

So, an A for “forgiveness is good,” a D for “missionaries are so epic and historically important that I can completely make up a story about a fake missionary doing fake epic things,” and an F for “brown people are okay, they just need to be saved.”

We’ll call that a D+, I guess.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Back to Bethlehem, Part 3

When last we left off, Judah was pestering Connie and making plans to ask her master (aka Eugene) about owning her body and entire life from now on marrying her.

Then they run into the Romans, and Judah insists on eavesdropping. Felix and Lucanus are expecting some kind of revolt, but have opposite views on how to handle it. Felix is spoiling for a fight. Lucanus is hoping to de-escalate any situation that arises. Once that has been re-established for the audience, Lucanus announces he’s sleeping in the courtyard, since there’s no inn. It’s not like he could commandeer any building he wants or anything.

Next comes a jarring cut to the sound of a baby crying, and Connie announcing to the men that Jesus has been born. Off-screen. Which, you know, is fine. It’s not like we were building up to that moment or anything.

Eugene and Connie have about ten seconds of back and forth. Connie is thrilled by what she just witnessed, and she’s just shouting about how Eugene should have been there. Eugene makes a point about how he couldn’t, old timey traditions say “no mensfolk allowed in the birthing chambers.”

This almost feels like they are trying to reward Connie for enduring all this sexism. This entire adventure has sucked for her, but at least she got to see one thing Eugene didn’t get to witness! It’s a pretty lousy compensation. It’s not like his absence somehow made it more special. I mean, I’ve certainly heard people arguing that sexism was fine because while women are dehumanized they are also idolized, and stuff like childbirth and menstruation gets to be all magical and inaccessible and those two things totally balance out…. wait, is that actually the point they are trying to make?

You know what, let’s put a pin in that. We are almost at the end.

Eugene goes to get Hezekiah. While waiting for him to return, Connie to accidentally runs into General Lucanus, who is pretty much playing creepster bingo. Interrupting her work and ignoring her protests? Check. Ignores multiple attempts to leave? Check. Says he’s been watching her? Takes her hands without her permission and talks about how soft and delicate they are? Asks if she wants to go to Rome, and then cuts immediately to “I’ll speak to your master about it” without giving her a chance to give a clear yes or no? Check check checkity check.

It’s like he knows the story is almost over and he is way behind Judah on the creepster scale.

Speaking of Judah, he pops out of nowhere and heroically announces that no, he’s not taking her to Rome! Because who needs all that “respect a woman’s choices” crap when you can just have two men fight over which choice she doesn’t get to make?

So Lucanus and Judah have a swordfight while Connie begs them to stop. They both ignore her. Lucanus easily beats Judah, then Connie knocks Lucanus out with a water pot. Judah, once again, is upset that she helped, and then decides to just kill Lucanus while he’s unconscious and helpless. Wow, my hero.

Connie won’t let him, proving once and for all that even if these guys gave a shit about her as a person, and even if they weren’t just simulations in a computer program, she would still be way too good for either of them.

Naturally, as Judah respects neither basic human ethics nor Connie’s point of view, she can’t just say “don’t do the bad thing” and let that be that. No no no, she’s more stalling him with an argument until some menfolks come along to actually stop it. Hey, you know who we haven’t seen for a while? Eugene and Hezekiah.

They come in, see her arguing with Judah and wrestle his sword away. Hezekiah and Judah rant politics vs religion at each other for a little while, without listening to what the other is saying. Then the Romans show up. Felix arrests Hezekiah and Eugene, assuming that being in the vicinity of an unconscious Roman means they are somehow guilty of something, while Judah runs off.

I’ve given this episode a lot of grief for inaccuracy, both historical and human, but they got one thing right. If a guy’s ego can’t handle a woman helping out, then, when you leave him to handle his own shit, he’ll be a total wuss.

Once the coast is clear, Judah returns and tells Connie that he’s running off. Again. In a more permanent sense this time. He asks her forgiveness for being stubborn. She adds immature and inconsiderate to the list, but does forgive him. See previous statement, re: her being way too good for him. But oh-uh, Felix once again shows up and arrests him.

Is it just me, or is this episode mostly just people showing up and disappearing and showing up again?

Well, now all the men are locked up and none of them have gotten to see baby Jesus. We don’t have time for a cool jailbreak, so instead Lucanus regains consciousness. He tells Felix that Judah isn’t to blame. He was attacked by a “wild-eyed revolutionary, but all I see here is a jealous boyfriend.” Wow, nice burn. You’re still a creepy-ass motherfucker. He tells Felix that Eugene and Hezekiah aren’t responsible either, and tells everyone to go to bed.

Later Judah retracts the proposal that Connie totally didn’t accept, because the feelings of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Dude, you’re not Humphrey Bogart, there’s no plane, and she did not come to you last night asking that you decide for all of us because everything is too complicated. You’re a loudmouthed wuss with no real plans except taking off, and she’s a woman who has repeatedly told you she’s not interested.

Also, in a battle of the two creepsters, you’re the non-imperialist of an appropriate age, yet you still managed to be the less likable character. Just, fuck off already.

Shepherds show up raving about angels, and after they’ve had their turn to fawn over the baby, Eugene, Connie and Hezekiah finally get to meet Jesus. I mean, Connie already has, but now she gets to do it with Eugene. And a random old guy. Hezekiah gushes over the baby, and Eugene starts crying. He ends the program, as he’s too choked up to continue.

Aaaand that’s it. That’s seriously where the story ends. Whit and Connie are all, “aw, Eugene got emotional? That’s so sweeeet,” and roll credits.

I’ve already said a lot about the three major issues with this story. Eugene’s character arc relies on him forgetting that this is all a simulation, and he’s canonically a computer scientist. The historical accuracy is overhyped, to say the least. And Connie spends most of the time being subjected to one kind of humiliation or another. Each of those things are problematic individually, but I’ve talked plenty about that during parts one and two. Now I want to look at how they all interact together, because even if they had been executed better, they are a very incongruous mix.

Good writers use thematic elements to link disparate elements together. Les Miserables, for example, follows a large cast of characters, many of whom never meet. It contains stories so complex that an entire revolution becomes a subplot and we are all cool with it. But every story element feels like it belongs, because of their thematic links. They all show characters who are powerless against systemic oppression, but able to alleviate each other’s pain with small acts of individual kindness. So what is the point of Back to Bethlehem?

Well, at the beginning, Eugene and Connie have a conflict. They trust Whit to resolve it with his computer program because he is so wise and all-knowing. That’s why the continued, if somewhat undeserved, insistence  The text of that conflict is that Eugene is skeptical of the Nativity story, while Connie views it through sappy eggnog tinted glasses. This is a narrative from a Christian perspective, so naturally Eugene needs his skepticism to be fixed, so he can eventually become religious and not burn for all eternity in hell, simply for expecting evidence. Okay, internally consistent if not something I can really approve of. Why does Connie need her perspective changed?

As I said last time, while I think Connie’s feminist leanings are awesome, I still am in favor of her learning a more complex understanding of women’s history. But I don’t think this episode showed that happening. She spent a lot of time being humiliated, dehumanized and harassed, and very little time appreciating her work. The only happy moment she really had was when she witnessed the birth of Jesus, and that was mostly offscreen. If we are assuming AIO is aiming to teach her what I thought she needed to learn, that was a very clumsy execution.

But there’s another way to look at this story. See, I’ve said over and over again that Connie was humiliated, but her reactions aren’t those of someone in real pain. She is experiencing days of isolation, but doesn’t act lonely. She is experiencing days of hard manual labor, but doesn’t act exhausted. She is experiencing sexual harassment, but doesn’t act scared.  She rants and grumbles, sure, but in a way that only someone mildly inconvenienced has energy to do.

Also, while the argument that started all this might have been about the realism of conventional nativity scenes, the subtext was about sexism. In the middle of some normal teasing, Eugene took offense at a comment that threatened his masculinity, and reacted by pretending she should, for some reason, follow old fashioned sexist norms.

Then, during one of her final scenes, she is overjoyed at witnessing a birth that men were barred from.

I think the real point of this was to tell Connie that things weren’t all that bad back in sexism times.

As to the writer’s actual intent, I don’t know. I don’t live in their minds. But I do know that, when talking to men, especially older men, experiences of sexism often get discounted. As a kid, I was often told that things used to be so much more unfair and nobody minded. The fact that people bothered to change things is, apparently, not proof enough that somebody minded. I also notice that, now that I’ve transitioned, simply being male is enough to make people take my experiences of female gender bias more believable. I tell men who routinely dismiss sexual harassment about what it was like to be scared to wander down the streets, and they pause. They are startled. They take me seriously, because I’m trans male. My point is, I don’t think it’s unfair to think that these writers might be writing this episode to show little girls how sexism really isn’t that bad, because it’s a mentality I encounter all the time, among both conservative and liberal men.

And even if that was not their intent, I think it is worth taking a bit of a death of the author stance here. When I listened to this episode, for the first time in years, I did not remember how sexist this episode was towards Connie. That is, each event individually felt familiar, but I was thinking, for the first time, “holy shitballs, Connie is being picked on for her gender in literally every scene.” Sometimes, I actually remembered finding the scenes of harassment funny, even though, when I was placed in Connie’s shoes in real life, I found it painful and dehumanizing.

I think that’s why we don’t get to see Jesus’ actual birth. We are watching and laughing at Connie, but we are feeling with Eugene. They are both protagonists, but Eugene is the locus of empathy. His feelings matter, and are (however inaccurately) developed. Hers don’t, and we get to laugh at them.

I’m featuring this as part of my politics theme, because it did the best job of showing how AIO treats gender issues, on the rare occasion that they are addressed even sort of explicitly.

Hardly anybody on this show breaks with gender norms in any way. Girls like shopping and makeup, women are either housewives or have an appropriately feminine job description. And to be honest, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Many women are like that, and if, as a writer, you prefer writing femme women, that’s cool. It also shows femme women as strong. Lisa from my prior episode was a great example. She’s both outspoken and a girly girl, and the episode shows how her gentle caregiving approach is not inherently less valuable than Nick’s manly confrontational one. I genuinely think stories like that are awesome.

But it does sometimes have female characters complain about sexism, and when that happens, those complaints are rarely taken seriously. They are instead used as setups for jokes at the female characters’ expense. Sexism passes without comment, while feminist characters are quietly humiliated.

This show rarely does anything as straightforward as argue against women’s issues. It just quietly normalizes sexism, so subtly you can’t even be sure how intentional it is.

Final Ratings

Best Moment: Eugene is worried that his name won’t fit in with the denizens of the Imagination Station. So he introduces himself as Eugenius. The more you think about it the funnier it gets.

Worst Moment: The one where you realized that Whit actually had think up a program where his teenaged employee gets not one but two virtual reality stalkers. I just hope there’s something to the program that stops General Lucanus from treating girls who are younger than her that way. The more you think about it, the creepier it gets.

Moral Rating: What was even the point!?!?! I mean, I guess I just spent several paragraphs speculating on the point, but even my best guess was equal parts shoddy and shitty. F

Story Rating: To be honest, if you took the adventure out of the Imagination Station, and made Eugene and Connie two regular travelers who happen to meet Mary and Joseph in ancient Bethlehem, this might be a pretty good story. But the Imagination Station sucks the drama out of every plot point. How does Hezekiah know that Jesus is the Messiah? Because he was programmed to. It’s the Imagination Station. Are Connie and Eugene going to find Mary and Joseph? Of course they are. That’s the point of the whole adventure. It’s the Imagination Station. Will either of Connie’s icky suitors win her over? Probably not, because both of these people will cease to exist once the program ends, because it’s the motherfreakin’ Imagination Station! D-

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Back to Bethlehem, Part 2

When the last episode left off, Felix was harassing Hezekiah for no reason other than this story needs a bad guy, and the two guys sexually harassing Connie won’t do. Connie yells at Felix to stop, but he ignores her, because she’s a girl, but then Judah pops up out of nowhere and Felix is all, “sweet, new target! I look way cooler beating up on a young man than an elderly one.” Connie continues to beg that he stop, and continues to be ignored. Finally Lucanus returns and breaks it up.

Afterwards, Connie and Judah have a nice bonding moment over their shared passion for politics and justice and standing up to The Man. Yeah, no, I’m just kidding. Instead, Judah complains about the humiliation of being defended by a woman. Nice. Real nice, man.

Well, now that we’ve exhausted that plot point, it’s time for Joseph and Mary to show up! Benjamin says they don’t have any space, but Connie convinces him to put them up in the stable. Hezekiah hovers and fanboys over the pair until Eugene drags him away. Eugene may be socially awkward, but even he sees the faux pas of drooling over an exhausted pregnant woman.

Side rant; when Joseph reveals his fiance is pregnant, Benjamin says a sarcastic “mazel tov.” Ummm…. mazel tov is a modern Yiddish idiom. I mean, the words are Hebrew, but the phrase isn’t, based on my internet research. I bring that up for three reasons.

First, this episode has prided itself on historical accuracy, but there isn’t much to back up their boast. Little details like this make the pseudo-intellectual bravado more irritating. Second, Benjamin has a pronounced Yiddish accent, but not every Jewish character does. Mary doesn’t, Joseph doesn’t, Judah doesn’t, and most of the extras don’t. Benjamin is a stingy, self-absorbed businessman. A funny one who you are supposed to like, but he does not care about people. He cares about the stability of his inn. Hezekiah also has an accent, as does Benjamin’s wife, so it’s not like every character who sounds stereotypical is also greedy, but of the three Benjamin gets the most dialog. Third, the Yiddish phrases and accent create a paradoxical whitewashing effect. Sure, they say everyone is Middle Eastern and Jewish (except Connie, Eugene and the two Romans). But by making a few people sound stereotypically Yiddish and the rest sound like they come from Idaho, it’s hard not to picture an Ashkenazi minority among a white majority, when instead everyone should be Middle Eastern.

Okay, rant over. There will episodes where I can talk more about the racial politics of AIO.

Connie continues to do chores around the inn while the women tease her for her housekeeping ignorance. The women also bond over past experiences with childbirth and work, which… well, it’s the closest this episode comes to really teaching Connie something new. I do think it’s important to understand that, historically, traditional women’s work might have put women on the lower strata of society, but it also could bring meaning and community. If you’ve read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (and everyone should), a central point was how modern conveniences like microwaves and dishwashers stripped feminine work of required skill and therefore pride. This, combined with the isolation of suburbia, left women lonely, bored, and preoccupied with putting up an appearance of a feminine ideal that technology had rendered superfluous.

Breaking down the divisions between men’s and women’s work was essential for letting women take meaningful roles in society again. Unfortunately, when historical scorn of women’s work was combined with efforts to leave the confines of the home, feminism became conflated with femmephobia. Lots of more qualified people have talked about this, and I’m happy to say that while it is a problem, it is also a problem that is being discussed constructively in feminist circles. Meanwhile, the world outside of feminism tends to, on the one hand, mock feminists for being anti-feminine, and on the other, do nothing to actually portray housework as important and valuable.

This episode is a perfect example of that. There’s even a brief exchange where Connie asks, incredulously, if all this work is really necessary. A woman responds, “it is if we don’t want our families to complain.” Not “starve” but “complain.” The phrase conjures up images of the women in the fifties who actually did cook just to stop their families from complaining. Sure, some genuinely had a passion for it, but many cooked because a fancy meal cooked by a stay at home mom was a status symbol. They could have just as easily ordered takeout or reheated something frozen, and had time to pursue other life choices, but that would have emasculated their husbands, and heaven forbid the men just learn to be less fragile in their masculinity!

That wasn’t the reality for women of ancient times. They cooked to keep their families fed. They sewed to keep them warm. They cleaned to keep them healthy. Conflating modern housework with the housework of old times simultaneously puts down the legitimate problems of the former while degrading the importance of the latter. The writers don’t seem to truly understand their own criticisms of Connie’s feminism, which is why, instead of learning to participate in the feminine community and take pride in their work, she is just embarrassed.

And it’s about to get worse. Shepherds show up, loudly announcing they are about to head to the hills where everything will be nice and quiet. We, who know there will soon be angels freaking them all out, are supposed to find this hilariously ironic. Ok, whatever.

Connie asks them a bit about sheep herding. Big mistake. The main shepherd first say, “and who might you be, pretty little girl,” in this intensely condescending voice, and then laugh about a girl being curious about a man’s job.

There is no narrative reason for the shepherds to show up. They poke their heads in to ask if Benjamin is around, and they seem to just want to say hello before they leave. Nothing in the story changes because of their arrival, nor are they used to establish some “historical accuracy” about the work of shepherds. All you learn is that they sometimes went out into the fields because that’s literally where the grass was, and also they smelled bad. These are short episodes, and we’ve spent several minutes where nothing happens except Connie gets picked on for not fitting into this uber historically accurate sexist old timey Israel.

Uuuuuuuuuuuugggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Hezekiah takes Eugene back to his home, which is full of toys that he has been carving for years in the expectation that he would one day have the opportunity to give them to baby Jesus. Eugene is blown away by the level of effort and all the blind faith that it took. This is really Eugene and Hezekiah’s dynamic in a nutshell. Hezekiah knows things about the virgin birth, and Eugene is blown away by his intuitions, and Hezekiah being all “yeah, isn’t faith amazing!” Then Eugene is all, “I’m so conflicted because this level of faith does not make sense and yet is so moving!”

Um………. YOU’RE ALL IN A VIRTUAL REALITY MACHINE!!! Hezekiah can say or do or know anything, because he’s not real! Whit made him up! If Eugene were a real agnostic skeptic, not a figment of the AIO writer’s imaginings, he would not be impressed by this shit.

But enough of that. Benjamin’s wife Rebecca starts asking Connie about possibly settling down in Bethlehem, because Judah clearly has the hots for her. This makes Connie highly uncomfortable. Not only does she not reciprocate those feelings, but she can’t exactly say “neither you nor Judah are actually real so this is literally impossible whether I want it or not.” Rebecca still reads Connie’s hesitation and keeps trying to pressure Connie to be emotionally okay with Judah’s attraction, which is such a mindfuck. Even though neither Judah nor Rebecca are real, they are realistic, and Connie is immersed in their world to such a degree that she can’t help empathizing with them. So Connie genuinely feels the pressure to play along with the Judah love story, just to avoid disappointing them. But the more she does, the more attached she gets to people who, as soon as the program stops, will cease to exist. She can be distant and uncomfortable now, or attached and miserable later.

On top of all this, Rebecca isn’t actually seeking Connie’s consent for the relationship. Sure, part of her is really into the idea of seeing a match unfold; enough to be all, “what, you don’t like Judah? You don’t like Bethlehem? Give me a reason for disliking either of these things so I can condescendingly shoot it down.” I guess she likes the idea of these two hotheads together, or she thinks its her duty to make Connie find the security of a spouse, or something like that. But at the same time, she does not empathize with Connie’s powerlessness or discomfort. In fact, she seems to be reveling in the schadenfreude of Connie’s discomfort. Rebecca is half old woman identifying with the oppressor and imposing sexist norms on the next generation, half first grader squealing, “Judah’s got a crush on yo-ou!”

Oh, also there’s a huge dose of “his constant immature petulance is just proof he likes you, boys will be boys, this is a normal and healthy way for relationships to start” thrown in. Again, this is a program Whit devised for kids.

I wish this was one of the areas where I could complain about implausibility, but I’ve known too many older women who actually are like that, so……

Mary’s labor begins and, well, it’s pretty much just a repeat of the plot points from the cooking scene. Connie is supposed to help, but is lost and confused. Rebecca is exasperated by Connie’s incompetence, and this is not used as an opportunity to teach Connie about old timey female bonding but merely to laugh at Connie’s ignorance of ancient midwifery. Meanwhile, Benjamin, Joseph, Hezekiah and Eugene wait for the baby. This too is just a retread of the previous Eugene/Hezekiah scene. The three not-real men debate the various levels of faith and skepticism they have been programmed with, and Eugene is blown away by the faith of the faithful, even though he knows it’s just a virtual reality program.

In our final scene, Judah meets Connie by the well, where she is getting water for Mary. He startles her into spilling the water. Then he helps her draw another bucket, and apologizes for yelling at her earlier, but it’s one of those weird apologies that is mostly guilt trip. He’s so miserable and humiliated all the time, and Connie made it worse and that’s her fault. But also he admires her for being so bold and brazen as to stand up to him. She’s not like all the other girls! (TM) He wants to know what she thinks of him. By which I mean he wants to pester and pester her until she kind of admits that maybe if a thousand different things were different she might be into him. At that stunning confession of love, he announces that he will speak to her master Eugene about a marriage. He ignores literally every attempt of hers to say no, and runs off to find Eugene, because it’s Eugene’s consent that really matters.

Also he spills the second bucket and leaves her to draw the third on her own. Worst. Proposal. Ever.

This story has one more episode to go, and my plan is to post the final part on Christmas Eve. Apologies for getting this up a little late; I was feeling sick and didn’t get to work on this episode as much as I wanted. Thanks for your patience, enjoy your holidays, and look for part three in just four days!

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Back to Bethlehem, Part 1

I’m back from the land of Nanowrimo! Thanks to everyone for your patience, and we will now resume the political theme, with an episode that just happens to be seasonal.

This Christmas special opens with Chris interviewing Dr. Julius Schnitzelbanker, a stereotypical mad scientist with an annoyingly nasal voice. He has an invention that transmogrifies random objects into commercialized holiday paraphernalia, like tinsel and eggnog cartons and shit. He brags about the money he’ll make off of this, and Chris tsk tsks, because clearly he doesn’t get the True Meaning of Christmas (TM). But this is just a silly cold open frame device thingy, so they don’t have time to really get into it. Instead Chris uses his own device to transmogrify him into a Tinkerbell ornament.

Well, whatever we’re supposed to learn from that, I’m sure it will tie neatly into the main themes of the episode.

The episode proper opens with Whit making a new Nativity display. He wants some reference photos, so Connie and Eugene are posing in costume. While they pose, they rib each other over how silly they feel in their first century robes and tunics. Eugene mentions not having a period accurate beard, and Connie teases him for not being able to grow one. He immediately takes serious offense and lectures her on how, in the first century, she wouldn’t be allowed to speak to him that way. She would be required to speak only when spoken to, cause that’s how things were for the womenfolk.

Uhhhh… WTF?

Connie rebuts that she is playing Mary and Mary was special. She’s missing the obvious “last I checked, this wasn’t the first century” response, but hey, we’ve all had staircase wit. Eugene says that he bets she thinks Mary also had a halo and gave birth in a nice clean stable with no labor pains and the animals smelled nice and the baby never cried. Wow, way to strawman her, dude. Connie, caught completely off guard and being a genuine fan of the Hollywood Nativity, goes with “well, who knows, because God,” as her counterargument. Look, nobody said she was a candidate for the debate team.

Connie and Eugene often get into silly arguments that escalate quickly, but even for them, this is ridiculous. Whit finally intervenes. He says that obviously Connie struck a nerve, but bringing up antiquated gender norms to get on her nerves is not an okay response. They both need to take a deep breath, think about how this conversation made them feel, and then share that with each other and really listen, like two people who are friends and adults.

Oh wait. That’s what I would have said if I were Whit. No, that’s not what he says at all. He says this all important historical accuracy question should be settled with a trip in the Imagination Station.

Wait, what? Whaaaaaaat?

First of all, the historical Nativity is not even close to the important thing going on. The important thing is that Eugene and Connie are being assholes, Eugene in particular, as he is being sexist as well as petty. Second of all, even if historical accuracy was the issue, your solution is “let’s see what my magic hallucination machine says?”

Just… Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat????

But naturally, both Eugene and Connie are totally on board with this. The Imagination Station drops them in ancient Bethlehem, where they see a crowd around a young zealot shouting about Roman oppression and coming change.

Man, I haven’t seen such detailed historical accuracy since Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

An innkeeper named Benjamin fears that this chaos will bring Roman attention and ruin his business. He breaks up the crowd. Eugene thinks Benjamin might be a good lead on the whole Mary and Joseph situation, and runs off to speak to him. Connie, meanwhile, tells Judah, the zealot, that she doesn’t think his approach of screaming at people is likely to be helpful. He immediately scoffs and asks what a woman would know about it. She’s not taking that bullshit from a first century hologram, so she starts listing all the things she can do that he probably can’t. Judah is lost for words, mostly because she’s talking about oil changes and making double decker sundaes and he is completely lost.

Then she starts ranting about guys like Eugene treating her like she’s just a human tool for jobs that are beneath them. Just as she does, Eugene himself turns up, and announces that Connie will be working at Benjamin’s inn. How did this come about so quickly? Oh, Eugene just told Benjamin that Connie is his servant girl and he has the right to pawn her off at his convenience. You know, like slavery, but we’re saying servant because it’s a kid’s show.

Why has Eugene done this? Well, Benjamin told him about a weird old guy named Hezekiah, who rants about the coming Messiah a lot. Eugene wants to go find Hezekiah, and insists that Connie can’t come with him, because women, wandering the streets, totally not cool back then.

What exactly is supposed to happen to her? She’s in a virtual reality program.

Yeah, there’s this whole thing in Imagination Station episodes where the characters act like they have actually gone back in time and there is actual shit at stake? I guess it makes sense. Games are more fun if you pretend they are real, and this is supposed to be fun. But on the other hand, games are also more fun when you know you won’t be harmed. Whit explicitly said this was a program he had already been working on. The Imagination Station is for kids. So are we supposed to believe that Whit programmed a lot of sexual harassment in to teach little girls that they had to be afraid to roam old timey streets alone? Or just that Eugene is letting his sexist perceptions color his expectations for what he and Connie will experience? I dunno. Let’s see which interpretation is better supported by events as they unfold.

Anyway, the job at the inn introduces Connie to one of the two main things she will be doing this episode; performing menial chores while grumbling about gender. The other thing will be dodging sexual harassment.

Man, I wish I was kidding.

Her first stalker comes when a pair of Roman officers show up. Captain Felix is just concerned with getting a room. General Lucanus is just concerned with informing Connie that she has the look of a princess, rather than a serving girl. Oh, but he can’t tell her that to her face. She’s a lowly female common person. Instead he turns to Captain Felix and pointedly talks about how hot Connie is. Nothing turns a girl on like talking about her like she’s a piece of art in a museum. And I say girl, because Connie is canonically fifteen or sixteen at this point in the series. She is also clearly put off by this, but neither Roman acknowledges her reaction at all.

Eugene returns to the inn, and tells Connie he hasn’t found Hezekiah. He thinks that maybe this inn, which they’ve happened to turn up next to, is the one where Mary and Joseph will turn up.

No, really? You think that this virtual reality simulation, made to let you encounter the Nativity, dropped you right where the birth of Jesus would go down? What a stretch.

Eugene’s actual reasons are threefold. The first two are rather transparent efforts by the authors to impress us with their Historical Accuracy (TM). Unfortunately, they get things wrong. First, Eugene says that this inn has real rooms, which wasn’t actually common back then. Typically inns just had large communal hostel-type spaces that the guests all shared. And since the Bible says “there was no room for them at the inn,” the Official Nativity Inn must have had rooms, right? Uh, no, actually. First, even in English, “no room” can mean “we have several rooms and none are available” or “there is no space to cram another person into this general area.” Second, when you are looking at the original Greek, it’s not clear that inn was even the best translation.

Eugene’s second big clue is that this inn has a stable, which they initially overlooked because it’s in a cave instead of a big red barn… yeah. Big red barns would have been an anachronism. Knowing that is not as impressive as you think it is. Also, again, if you read the above link, the whole stable thing itself might be a mistranslation.

Eugene’s final reason for thinking they are already at the right inn? This inn has a massive shining star hanging over it, and everyone’s been talking about it since they arrived. No, really?! You think that might be a clue?

Finally Hezekiah shows up at the inn, talking about stars and Messiahs and signs from the scriptures. Eugene is interested, even though nothing Hezekiah says actually brings up new information to us. It is news to the Roman officers, however. General Lucanus thinks Hezekiah is just a harmless old kook, but Captain Felix hasn’t punched anybody in way too long. He tries to make the case that Hezekiah is a dangerous radical who must be dealt with, even though nobody takes Hezekiah that seriously and he’s not even saying anything directly against the Roman Empire to begin with.

Lucanus is all, “yeah, whatever, I’m gonna go do literally anything else, don’t rough him up too much,” which Felix hears as, “blah blah blah rough him up blah blah.” He starts pushing Hezekiah around, Connie starts yelling for him to stop, and then Chris breaks in to announce that the story will be continued in part two!

Dun dun duuuuuuunnnnn!

They do take the time to wrap up the opening teaser, however. Chris turns Dr. Schnitzelbank back into a human, and after listening to that episode he’s all on board with the spirit of Christmas. Even though nobody talked about the spirit of Christmas at all during that episode. Mary and Joseph haven’t shown up, let alone Jesus. I’m guessing his real reasoning is “say whatever the crazy lady wants, I don’t want to be a Tinkerbell ornament again.”

I too will be continuing the story in part two, so until then, happy holidays!

(that’s right, I said it. I’m a dirty, dirty heathen)

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Viva la Difference

It’s probably not surprising, given that this is a product of Focus on the Family, that politics and social issues is not one of the topics I think they handled particularly well. I not only have come to disagree on them when it comes to most issues, but disagree in a way that creates an impasse. It’s one thing to disagree with someone, but be willing to be convinced, and have them return the sentiment. It’s another thing to have your core assumptions and values so diametrically opposed that neither of you could persuade the other without also fundamentally rocking your worldview. On most issues, AIO and I disagree in the latter sense, and in this way I think we unfortunately mirror our society as a whole.

Yet, I do like to start my topical sections out on a positive note, and there’s one particular episode that debunks a serious misconception about conservative Christianity. I’m going to temporarily put aside my politically outraged liberal hat, so I can talk about one political lesson that was incredibly positive. I don’t just bring this up because I want cookies for being fair minded, but also because I think that if you’re going to fight a toxic mentality, you need to fully understand it. I think that sometimes we waste our time fighting something that isn’t actually a problem, and that gets in the way of the bigger, more uncomfortable problems.

So without further ado, I would like to introduce you to the Mulligans. Mike and Tracy are the parents, Lisa is their daughter, and they also take care of their cousin Nick. Nick has a good heart, but is so preoccupied with being cool that he usually ends up being the biggest dork around. Lisa is blind, spunky and an ardent animal lover. To her delight, the family lives on a farm where they’ve rehomed various exotic animals from a closed zoo. They took in the animals because they have made an agreement to “always say yes to God.” In other words, when somebody comes to them needing help, they will find a way to do it.

Have I mentioned I really, really like the Mulligans?

On the Mulligan zoo-farm, they all have their own assigned critters. Nick and Lisa have very different techniques for wrangling them, and they are getting on each other’s nerves. For example, as they are unloading some new animals, Lisa’s sweet talk approach with her ostriches gets them into their pen at approximately the rate of sloth. Meanwhile, Nick’s baby elephant, Gus, isn’t eating. Nick’s main ideas have been, A. try to somehow pry Gus’s mouth open and shovel some food in or B. explain to him the error of his ways. These have not been particularly effective. Lisa thinks Gus is probably scared and would cooperate better after some TLC; Nick thinks that if she would stop serenading the birds and just shoo them they might possibly stop being in his way all the time.

Whit comes in the middle of this chaos with a request. There’s a single mother he knows who is going into the hospital for a long stay, and her daughters need a place to stay. Mike and Tracy say they want to pray about it, but it’s pretty clear where this is going. Even they joke about the farm turning into a city.

The next day, Lisa and Nick get into a fight over lunch. She makes a lot of the meals and has gone full blown vegetarian lately. Nick is not adapting well to the rabbit lifestyle. Tracy tries to settle this argument by convincing him to take a turn cooking. At first he insists he’s too macho for that, but she points out that some of the best chefs in the world are men.

For AIO, this is some mind blowing gender subversion.

Anyway, he’s convinced, and while he goes off, Lisa rants about his macho attitude towards everything. Tracy uses diversity in the animal kingdom to talk about how different gender expressions can both be good. Lisa has never had a brother, nor has Nick had a sister. When Nick does things a different way, and Lisa automatically assumes. But when it comes to animals, she doesn’t like one animal more for travelling in herds instead of living solo, or having feathers instead of fur. They’re all different, and she loves them all for what they are. Tracy encourages her to see her own femininity and Nick’s masculinity like fur and feathers; not better or worse, just different.

Once the speech is over, they go to check in on what Nick’s doing for lunch, or as Lisa says, what he’s doing to it. He presents them with, hot dog and sausage sandwiches, sprinkled with bacon, wrapped in bologna, topped with spam. That is mostly a direct quote, but I’ve left out Lisa’s agonized gagging.

I guess lunch meat withdrawal is a thing.

Lisa gets physically sick and Tracy goes to help her out, while Mike does his best to enjoy the… meal?

A bit later, as Nick is taking another shot at feeding Gus, Mike goes in to broach the topic of the girls Whit wanted them to look after. He starts by checking in with how Nick’s adjusting to having a sister. Nick talks about girls being weird, and Mike gives his own talk about how boring the world would be if men and women were exactly alike. He also takes it a little further, bringing up how all the other differences between us can make us  better; how being around people who aren’t exactly like us can enrich us as people, and challenge us to grow in ways that we never would if everybody was exactly the same. It’s a great speech, but unfortunately it’s interrupted by escaping ostriches.

Aaaaah, life on a zoo.

So there’s four ostriches and four people. They figure that if they each take a bird, they can bring them all back before any of the birds get to the highway. Tracy, Mike and Nick all bring their animals in pretty quickly, but Lisa has some trouble with her bird. Her approach, lovey-dovey as always, instead makes the ostrich think, “yeah, I can take this bitch,” and it starts pecking her.

Ostriches can be fucking vicious, and Lisa, being blind, can’t dodge. She quickly becomes utterly panicked. Nick charges in and scares the ostrich back into the herd. Lisa’s shaken, but recovers quickly, and wonders what went wrong. Nick answers that sometimes you just have to cut the sweet talk and show them who’s boss. She admits he has a point, which Nick makes sure to milk for all it’s worth until her gratitude turns into exasperation.

Awww, he’s learning how to be a brother!

So point one to the macho method, but Lisa’s back up for the next round. After she is bandaged up, she finds Nick once against wrestling unsuccessfully with Gus. She starts sweet talking and cuddling the little guy, and suddenly Gus opens his mouth for the bottle. After a little experimentation, they realize that when they lean on his trunk, he feels like his mother is above him and he’s ready to eat. Go team gender diversity!

Just as Nick is talking about them having solved their gender related issues, Whit shows up, bringing Jessica and Janelle, the twin girls. Nick is taken aback, as Mike didn’t actually get to the “fyi, we got more kids coming on board” part of the talk. There was a little crisis with some escaped dinosaurs, remember?

Well, this is inconvenient, as Jessica and Janelle are Black, and at first they worry that he’s reacting to that. Of course it’s just that he’s surprised by new people, plus now he’s outnumbered by girls three to one. These two kids, already stressed by their mother’s health crisis and being taken in by strangers, had to also experience a moment of worry that they were going to be stuck with a massive racist, only to learn that he’s just a slight misogynist. What a hilarious misunderstanding!

So… yeah. That ending was awkward as hell. I’d love to go into a whole rant about the problems with introducing someone’s marginalized identity by having an It’s-Not-Bigotry-It’s-Just-A-Misunderstanding Scene (TM), but I really don’t have space for it, so I’ll just acknowledge that it is a problem, and save the why for another time. While I’m acknowledging issues, there’s some cisheteronormativity in both Tracy and Mike’s speeches; as in “of course Nick acts that way, he’s a guy. We can predict the exact ways you two are different based on your genders.” You have to wonder if they would be as supportive of Nick and Lisa’s different personalities if they were both boys, or both girls.

But as far as the episode goes with the moral, their point is awesome. They do have a firm grasp of the heart of inclusion and diversity; different can be good. Different is what makes life interesting and beautiful, and often our differences enable us to help each other. Our talents and strengths can balance each other out, and the benefits of diversity are well worth the work it can sometimes take to get along. AIO and I actually totally agree on this basic principle.

I know all too many liberals who think conservatives don’t get this principle, but I think many of them do, in an abstract sense. I was pretty deeply entrenched in conservative Christian fundamentalism, and I constantly got the message that differences were gifts from God. It wasn’t about a difference of basic principles, but a list of exceptions to that principle; this one doesn’t count as a good difference, nor does this one, nor that, nor that. In my next reviews, I’ll try to not only show how some identities were marginalized, but also try to explain why this happens, and hopefully explore some ideas on how to better address bigotry in our political culture.

Final Ratings

Best Part: I love so many moments, but the scene where Lisa and Nick finally co-operate to help Gus is so fulfilling and heartwarming. And it has a happy baby elephant! It’s tough to compete with that.

Worst Part: Jessica and Janelle’s awkward introduction.

Morality Rating: This is an important idea, well illustrated by the story. A+

Story Rating: Funny, well paced and brings the main idea up in a way that feels natural. A+

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: An Act of Nobility

Now, before I get to AIO’s coverage of social and political issues, I’m going into the second meta-moralizing episode. Last time, I talked about how their standard format can lead to some spectacularly bland storytelling, and rather confusing messages, because they are often unwilling to break the mold when the story demands it. This time, I’m going to talk about a dissonance between their confidence and their understanding.

The episode opens with Isaac moping at Whit’s End about surprise homework. Seems that, in history class, his teacher asked if anybody knew what nobility meant, and Isaac said it was kings and dukes and lords and so on. Whit immediately thinks he knows the problem.

“Let me guess. She said there was a lot more to nobility than rank and title.”

No, Whit, it’s a fucking history class, not an ethics or philosophy class. The word may have multiple meanings but in this context she is clearly looking for a description of the feudal system… oh wait. That’s exactly what she said?

Well, that’s a plot twist.

She then made Isaac write a report on the true meaning of nobility, even though he apparently still doesn’t have a clue what she meant. Okay then.

So Whit offers to- No, hang on. I’m still not over this. You mean to tell me that she brought up the topic of nobility, in a history class, told the first kid who answered that he was wrong, and then just moved on? What did she bring nobility up for if it wasn’t going to be integral to the lesson? And what the hell was with the random punishment homework?

Maybe she actually asked the class for a definition of mobility, and when Isaac piped up she thought, “oh, a derailing smartass, I’ll show him,” then continued her lesson on early capitalism and the opportunities brought by re-emergence of the merchant middle class in medieval Europe.

Anyway, Whit offers to tell a story to help Isaac understand the true meaning of nobility. He has one stipulation though; Isaac can’t use the story in his report. You’d think this is because plagiarism is a bad habit to start this young, but you’d only think that because you haven’t heard other AIO episodes. Whit does this all the time. He tells stories to kids who can’t think of ideas for their biography paper or history report, and at the end they’re all, “gee whiz, Mr. Whitaker, what a great story! I’ll sit down and write up those things you said right now!” Apparently teachers in Odyssey accept, “the nice old man from the ice cream shop told me” as a cited reference. Which leaves Whit’s refusal to let Isaac use the story in his paper as mysteerrriiiooouuussss.

Whit’s story centers around an American named James Armer, who is vacationing in the quaint little Slavic nation of Muldavia. He’s out for a walk one day when he sees a plane in trouble. When it crashes in a nearby field, he runs out to help, but a pair of men appear and yell at him to get away. As soon as they set eyes on him, they are stunned, and he barks at them to help the pilot. The three of them get the pilot out and into James’ cabin, and the reason for their reaction becomes plain. James and the pilot look identical; what’s more the pilot is none other than Crown Prince Roderick of Muldavia.

Now’s as good a time as any to reveal that Whit is basically retelling The Prisoner of Zenda.

The two men are General Farnam and Dr. Monroe, two trusted advisers (with weirdly non-Slavic names) to the royal family, and the prince ran off to enjoy a bit of freedom before the coronation. They had been following him on foot because they were concerned… They mention that luckily his plane isn’t very fast, so this was possible, but it still bothered me. I mean, they weren’t just keeping it in sight. They were on it, immediately, the moment it crashed. I did a little research, and the slowest planes are still in the 30-45 mph range. Slower than that and they physically can’t stay airborne. Plus, this one is the private toy of a crown prince. I can buy that with a little country he can’t afford the biggest, fastest one in existence, but he’s got to have one at least a notch above the slowest in the world. Old timey-ness isn’t an excuse either. Even the Wright brother’s second flight went 37 mph, and we got to 100 mph planes within the first decade of manned aircraft… I’m spending way too much time on this. Sorry guys.

So, it turns out the crash was no accident. Dr. Monroe recovers a wine bottle from the wreckage, which he says was drugged. He and General Farnam pour over the label that says Von Warburg sellers, while James, to his credit, freaks out over the fact that this motherfucker was drinking and flying at the same time!

They’re all, “yes, yes, we’re very concerned, he’s so irresponsible, but still. The real issue is that he’s rightful heir to the throne, while Baron Von Warburg is an illegitimate cousin, so that’s where our moral priorities lie.” Furthermore, Prince Roderick refuses to listen to his adviser’s info on how corrupt and evil Von Warburg is. If Roderick doesn’t make it to the coronation, and thanks to his drugged state he won’t, he forfeits the crown and the evil cousin can take over.

James, having now been convinced of the rightfulness of this hereditary monarchy, offers to dress up as Roderick for the coronation and switch back once Roderick recovers.

So the next day he gets crowned while Baron Von Warburg bemoans the failure of his evil plan, in an extra slimy voice to prove that he’s a villain. The trio head back to the cabin, where the Prince has woken up and is totally incapable of grasping that this scheme was devised to help him. He insists that clearly James the imposter is out to take his throne permanently, with the two advisers’ aide… or possibly just fooling them… he’s fuzzy on the details. This particular part isn’t bad writing. They are intentionally establishing Prince Roderick as entitled and too dumb to come up with a decent conspiracy plot to justify his own knee-jerk suspicions. So, he’s not only a thrill-seeking alcoholic but also utterly devoid of common sense. Are we sure we don’t want Von Warburg to take over? He isn’t a swell guy either, but his only definite crime is the attempted assassination, I could see that being the act of a morally grey character trying to avert a greater catastrophe. Hardly unprecedented; Catherine the Great’s husband died of a mysterious and convenient illness shortly after she got sneaky-coronated, and she was one of Russia’s less sucky rulers.

And speaking of Von Warburg, he was suspicious of the failure of his brilliant attempt and followed the trio after the ceremony. He and his henchmen burst in with a gun, announce that A. yes they are totally evil, and were from the beginning B. they figure they will just shoot everybody and stage it like they killed each other off. And as the only armed people in the room, they can do this quite easily, right now. Too easily for the plot, so instead Von Warburg tells his henchman to go tie them up first. Now Von Warburg can’t shoot into the crowd without risking hitting his own man, and they’re both already outnumbered two to one, so the heroes have the advantage back. James plays the hero by tackling the henchmen, there’s a scuffle, and unsurprisingly the villains do not come out well.

A few days after everything goes down, Roderick and James are taking a walk and having a heart to heart. Roderick apologizes for being a dick… well, he’s still a clueless reckless irresponsible dolt, but he owns it when he is proven wrong, so he’s at least one qualification better than the dude pretending to run my country.

Obviously James can’t have any special recognition, as that will ruin the whole deception, but Roderick insists on giving him something. James says he lost his watch on the way over, and Roderick gives him a lovely pocket watch that plays a tune when you open it. They part ways, after some reflections about how interesting it is that James acted more kingly than the guy who was technically king.

Whit triumphantly announces that he has now illustrated what true nobility is all about. So, I guess, being brave and doing things for the good of others and stuff. Not wrong, but a little vague. Really what’s going on here is that we went on expecting good behavior from nobles for so many generations, cause clearly God would only have rewarded them with such power and status if they were good, and after a while the world “nobility” came to mean both “not a peasant” and “generally being a swell kind of person.” Whit could have saved himself a lot of time.

Isaac walks off, with a parting line about how it’s too bad that stories like that don’t ever happen in real life, then another kid asks Whit what time it is. Whit opens up a pocket watch that plays the same music as the one Roderick gives to James. So clearly the real reason Whit didn’t want Isaac to tell it is because it’s a super secret real adventure he had, and if it ever gets out, say in a shitty homework assignment from one kid, then the political stability of the kingdom of Muldavia would be destroyed!

Wait, it’s still a hereditary monarchy? Did the USSR just go, “comrades, this place is too tiny for even us to give a shit about,” or what?

In my regular sections, I hold AIO to a high standard. I don’t just criticize them for bad messages and messages poorly conveyed. I point out what they never bring up, and I do that because AIO markets itself as such a great and comprehensive moral authority. I thought it was important to review an episode that illustrates this. Normally this emphasis comes from Chris’s intros and outros, but as I said last time, they are pretty bland and I don’t want to go into them every time. But they are there. They do give an impressionable kid the sense that these are stories you should be paying attention to, because they know everything. To be honest, little kid me loved this episode because it had castles and fights in it, but I didn’t really get the point about nobility. But I assumed they knew what they were talking about, because this is Adventures in Odyssey! They are so confident about how much they know all the things!

Yet when you break it down, we don’t even get a clear idea of what the moral sense of nobility is. On the one hand, we clearly have James being brave and self-sacrificing, but in ways that the average person will never get a chance to be. So we have to see these actions as a sort of synecdoche. He’s using a small example of moral action as a stand in for generally holding oneself to a high standard and being willing to do what’s right at a high personal cost. Also, is the point that we shouldn’t worry about NOT being royalty, since we can already be noble in our behavior? Or that hierarchy is meaningless without right behavior to back it up? Either way, it’s  not a very meaningful point to their audience of modern American children. We told the nobility to stuff it back in 1776.

There’s nothing wrong with putting out a meh episode every now and then. There is something wrong with building yourself up as the moral authority when some days you can’t even get your own message straight.

Final Ratings

Best Bit: The fight scene was pretty exciting to me when I was a kid. The sheer stupidity of the villains’ action brings it down a few notches, but the narration is still well done. Plus, there’s not a lot of competition, so by process of elimination… yeah.

Worst Bit: Oh god. Do I pick the watch thing? The history teacher? The bit where they followed a plane on foot? It’s a hard call, but since the history homework frame device sets up so many problems in the rest of the story, I have to go with that. Close call though.

Story Rating: All they did was rip off The Prisoner of Zenda, and they weren’t even that creative about it. Hell, even their choice of which book to rip off is uncreative. Everybody has done a Prisoner of Zenda. Doctor Who’s version had androids. D

Moral Rating: Yes yes, it’s very good to be a good person, as opposed to a not-good one. C

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: The Time of Our Lives

(sorry for the delay. I thought I’d work a half shift today, come home, do a final polish, and post it only an hour or so late. But at work things got, well, let’s just say it didn’t end up being a half shift. Again, so sorry!)

This is my fourth and last review on the topic of stewardship, so I want to emphasize that AIO loves this topic. In fact, now is a good time to explain that the more they cover a topic, the fewer episodes I end up reviewing. This and the previous mental health section are perfect illustrations of why. They covered mental health sporadically, often indirectly, and episodes sometimes contradicted each other, yet as a kid I didn’t pick up on how poorly they understand the issue. I cobbled their incoherent explanations into something that needed to be debunked later in my life. As a result, nearly every episode that touched on mental health demanded its own review. With stewardship, their position was so coherent and comprehensive that I could easily pick some representative highlights. Many episodes were, essentially, “the first story from Tales of Moderation, but as it’s own episode” or “Making the Grade, but with chores.” And many of them were great stories, but I’ve got a lot of ground to cover with this series. I gotta move on sometime.

Anyway, this episode is a show within a show; an Adventures in Odyssey episode presented as an in-universe episode of Kid’s Radio. I don’t think I’ve explained Kid’s Radio before. It’s um, a radio station. In Odyssey. For kids. Pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.

This Kid’s Radio special is a Twilight Zone parody, with Connie doing a rather bad female-Rod-Serling impression. It’s called the Twi-Life Zone, because it’s life lessons I guess?

We are first introduced to thirteen year old Kathy, who loves malls. LOOOOVES malls. All her spare time is spent at the mall. As she wanders with her friend Julie, they check out a piano store, where Kathy plays a piece and talks about her dreams of playing Carnegie Hall and marrying Kyle from their school. They then split up briefly, so Kathy can check on a sale that Julie isn’t interested in. When Kathy finishes and tries to find her, she instead finds a woman in her twenties who claims to be Julie. When Kathy looks in the mirror, she realizes she too has aged to twenty-three.

That’s right, it was a tiiiimme waaaaarp!!!!!

Julie is getting married, and Kathy, having been thirteen five minutes ago, had no idea. Julie isn’t surprised, and snidely responds that she sent the invite to the mall. That’s not how that works, Julie. Not unless Kathy manages a store there or something, which, given that the whole moral is how she’s wasting her time at the mall, is probably not the case.

From here, the story becomes fairly repetitive. Kathy tries to do things she took for granted, like play the piano, and finds her adult self has forgotten them. She encounters people she knew, barely recognizes them, and finds they’ve moved on with their lives. In every case, the cause for her loss keeps returning to the mall. She spends all her time there, and so she has lost anything else that might matter to her.

The idea of time travelling as a metaphor for time wasting is cool, but to work, Kathy should only encounter things that she could have lost either by time travelling, or by repeatedly choosing a fun but unproductive activity over things with more lasting consequences.  Some problems Kathy encounters fit this. She has lost touch with her best friend, doesn’t know her baby nephew’s name, and she can no longer play the piano. On the other hand, a good chunk of the story is spent establishing that her family moved in the past ten years and she’s forgotten where they, or she, now live. That’s horrifying, but not really a “wasted your time in the mall” problem. It’s an “I was involuntarily sucked into a wormhole” problem. Then there’s the fact that her crush ended up marrying somebody else; hate to break it to you Kathy, but that probably would have happened anyway. At the same time, she has up to date information on every sale in a ten mile radius, and the exact fabric content of a dress that adult Kathy bought. So, does she only know what she knew at age 13, or does she also have the information of adult Kathy? If the former, how does she know exactly where tennis shoes are 40% off, and if the latter, why the fuck can’t she find her own house?

Additionally, we are told she is obsessed with the mall, but not shown that she is neglecting everything else. We literally see (well, hear) her practice piano in the piano store, and she does a damn good job. Obsession alone is not evidence of wasted time; everybody needs down time, as other AIO episodes acknowledge.

Kathy story ends abruptly, and we turn to the story of Jeremy, chronic watcher of television. One day, the police break in. Unbeknownst to Jeremy, TVs are now illegal, due to their inherent time sucking properties. The cops lecture him, confiscate his TV and suggest that he go read a book or something.

“Go read a book” is such a cliche, and when you think about it, is it inherently more constructive? I suppose a even a bad book demands some level of thought and focus, while you can mindlessly flip through channels, not even fully absorbing the content. Plus, you get fewer product placements in a book. That said, there are books that are trashy, ill informed wastes of time, and shows that are truly thought provoking and artistic. Is a book really inherently better than a TV show of similar quality? Or do we just dump on TV because it is new? Fun fact; novels were once considered lurid wastes of time, and dangerous to a person’s mental stability. Especially when women read them.

Anyway Jeremy gives up reading after about one sentence, goes looking for something else to do, and finds an old mini television in the garage. He turns it on, and it works okay. But the police get a random hunch that he’s got another set, double back at the exact right time and catch him. Also somehow they know to check the garage first, even though last time they burst into his living room. Because…..?

Also, where the heck are Jeremy’s parents in all this? There is a line between exaggerated metaphor and weird shit pulled from your ass. And if you look behind you, right now, you might even be able to see it.

Anyway, Jeremy takes off, carrying the TV, with the cops in hot pursuit. He, a kid who rarely leaves his couch, and is lugging an old appliance, manages to outpace several adults trained in foot pursuit, and he is only foiled in his escape by the random appearance of a cliff.

Obviously, his first move is to throw the TV over it. Cause, you know, he loves it so much he can’t bear to see them take it? And destroying it is better?

One cop’s immediate response is a dismayed “there goes the evidence!” Hey, dipshit, if you need it that bad, there’s probably recognizably TV-ish fragments around there somewhere. Plus, you broke into a private home without a warrant, terrorized an unsupervised child, and then went back to do it a second time on a whim. I’m pretty sure you’re living in a dystopic police state.

Anyway, they then attempt to arrest him, and he jumps. Off the cliff. Because TV.

You know, every consequence of his bad habit has come directly from the fact of it being illegal. If he were just sitting on his own, he might arguably be making bad choices for his own health, but he wouldn’t be choosing between the prison industrial complex and a literal cliff. Plus, we can clearly see that the cops don’t actually have a workable plan for dealing with Jeremy’s problem. They just take away this thing he’s become dependent on. Then when he fails to immediately adapt to this TV-less world, they hound him, a kid in an emotionally fucked up state. All without bothering to wonder what so messed up this kid’s life that he ended up in this state of dependence in the first place.

Lane must now pause, take a deep breathe, remember this is not the episode to discuss his views on the war on drugs. Breathe in. Breathe out. Save it for another rant. Okay, I’m good now.

The cops continue their “magically knowing things” streak by assuming that he survived the fall and will be making it for the state lines. Apparently TV watching is still legal in neighboring states. They mount a full-scale manhunt for this one kid, and when they find him, the main cop rappels down from a friggin’ helicopter, where he… lets Jeremy go. Not because he’s realized the absurdity of this law, but because living as a TV-obsessed person will punish him more than they ever could.

whut

what?

WHAAAAAAAAATTTTT!

THEN WHY THE HELL DO YOU HAVE THIS LAW IN THE FIRST PLACE!

WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK??!!

Yeah, that line of ridiculousness is not even visible from here.

Both protagonists then meet up as adults in a Time Wasters Anonymous meeting to talk about how they need help. Then, instead of demonstrating a story arc where they use therapy to learn how to prioritize better and work on their problems, the Twi-life zone conceit is suddenly revealed, and they are sent back in time to change their child selves. They find their younger selves hanging out in the appliance section of a department store, where Kathy can shop while Jeremy watches TV. So, in order to change their pasts and save their futures, they run up and yell about how they must have “something more constructive to do.”

Shockingly, a cliched line that never works when actual parents say it also doesn’t work when utter strangers say it. Even when those utter strangers accost you in a mall claiming they’re your future selves. Kathy and Jeremy scoff and leave, while adult Kathy and Jeremy are left crying that they are trapped in the Twi-life Zone foooorrreeeevvveeeerrrr!

No, like, literally. They say that, with the long drawn out echoy wail on “forever.” It’s bad.

There are obvious problems with this one, but the biggest one is that they are using circumstances outside the protagonist’s control to demonstrate a problem that is all about choices. Kathy didn’t choose to enter a wormhole, and Jeremy didn’t choose to ban TV. We are forced to take the narrator’s word for it that they would suffer with or without those things; their obsessions are told, not shown.

For all that, the moral isn’t bad. It’s more just lazy. Obviously, you can waste your time on things that are fun but pointless. Obviously there are things that are difficult in the short term, but more rewarding in the long run, and it can be easy to understand that, but much harder to choose, moment by moment, to do the harder thing.

Unfortunately, the writers of this story seem to have just assumed that, since their premise was obviously correct, they could throw just anything together and create a good episode. They didn’t. They really didn’t.

Final Ratings

Best Part: No truly good moments. Most scenes self-sabotage in one way or another. The only real exception is the moment where Kathy’s old piano teacher proves she can’t play anymore. They successfully made their point, and gave it some authentic emotional impact, which shows what this episode could have been if, ironically, they had put more time and effort into it. 

Worst Part: Why the fucking hell would you go through all that just to let him go?!?!?!?!

Story Rating: Oh god. D-

Moral Rating: If they didn’t repeatedly state that this is about wasting time, one could be forgiven for assuming this was an episode about how TV and malls are inherently evil. As it is, their intent was made extremely obvious, so I can hold off talking about that problem for now. C-

Final Ratings For Stewardship Topic

Best Episode: Tales of Moderation

Worst Episode: Time of Our Lives

Good Things They Said: Don’t make money and material goods the center of your life. Seek a good work/life balance. Realize that your goals will require work to accomplish, and not all of that work will be fun. If you spend all your time doing things you want to do now, you miss out on future opportunities. Do take breaks and take care of yourself, but don’t be tempted into an easy route that will end up hurting you or someone else. 

Bad Things They Said: Honestly, there wasn’t anything I would consider bad, just times that the good ideas listed above weren’t handled very well. I reviewed what I thought were their three greatest episodes and one of their worst, but they fill the full spectrum between these extremes. 

Things They Failed to Address: So, in right-wing conservative world, there’s a common assumption that the problems of the poor can be solved simply by giving them better values and shit. There’s no admission that there may be systemic issues of inequality that need to be addressed on a social level; that’s a thought that at best doesn’t occur to them, and at worst is rejected outright. This show doesn’t do anything to correct that. 

But honestly, there’s a difference between a set of values being bad, and simply not being a panacea. There weren’t any episodes, as far as the ones I had access to, that directly blamed poor people for their poverty. There are other problems with how the show handles social and political problems, but those are better discussed elsewhere. Like in my next section, for example!

Overall Rating: I want to give this a full A, but episodes like Time of Our Lives do exist, and lazy writing in an episode about personal responsibility irks me so much I’m tempted to give them an A-, just for spite. What do you think, award winning comedy Community?

Okay, fine. I’m keeping the D and C minuses above, cause those were super earned, but the overall topic gets a full A.

 

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Making the Grade

This episode opens with Lawrence Hodges making an invisibility potion to escape the evil agents of Destructo, which to the uninitiated looks an awful lot like hiding in his closet to avoid science homework. His mother, being one of those uninitiated, says that until he does his homework he won’t go to the Barclay family’s party. This is enough to make Lawrence abandon his top secret mission and participate in the reality occupied by the rest of us. Albeit reluctantly.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned Lawrence yet, but that paragraph tells you pretty much everything you need to know.

Lawrence is excited mainly so he can hang out with Jimmy Barclay, his babysitter/cool older friend, but the party is really more of a celebration for the parents. George Barclay has recently been accepted into seminary school, to fulfill his dream of being a pastor. Mary Barclay is pregnant with their third child. Everyone is excited for the new family member. They’re less enthusiastic about her cravings for anchovies on ice cream, mashed potatoes topped with caramel popcorn and ketchup frosted chocolate cake.

In the wake of all these changes, Jimmy is thinking about what he wants to do with his life, especially now that career day is coming up. It’s going to be a big deal. He’s going to fill out questionnaires, meet with counselors, and potentially even get to take a field trip. As he has been looking over his options, he has found himself obsessively returning to the idea of being a paramedic. He loves the thought of being first in line in the fight to save somebody’s life.

George encourages him, as does Lawrence, when he finally gets there. Granted, Lawrence doesn’t actually know what a paramedic does, but he figures that if it’s something Jimmy wants to do, it’s automatically awesome. Lawrence, by the way, wants to work for the NSA and the FBI, as a double agent. I don’t think anyone has explained to him what a double agent actually is.

While Jimmy meets with the counselor, Lawrence gets into another battle with his mother over science homework. With the lure of the Barclay’s party gone, she is forced to rely on the old “no TV until it’s done” game. Which, of course, is easily thwarted by watching TV when she’s not around. So she tries for making homework a little more fun. What if he’s a world famous spy trying to smuggle formulas out of the enemy countries?

“Nice try Mom, but I already tried that. World famous spies only need to know how to get the formulas out, not why E=MC squared.”

Yeah, she really shouldn’t have tried to out-imagine Lawrence. What makes this all worse is that she’s a teacher herself. Unfortunately she teaches history, so she can’t counter his defend Einstein’s formula with a description of spacetime itself bending to preserve the speed of light. So she plays the Mom card instead.

Willing to concede the battle, but not the war, Lawrence goes to enlist Jimmy’s help. He finds Jimmy practicing CPR on his sister’s doll. The counselor loved his idea, is taking him on one of those cool field trips to meet professionals in his field of interest. He’s nervous, and wants to impress his paramedic mentor with first aid knowledge. So on the whole, Jimmy is a bit distracted right now. But he can relate to Lawrence’s detestation of science, and promises that, after he’s done academically overachieving, he’ll help Lawrence underachieve.

So he goes to meet the paramedic, and finds the job as cool as he thought, but then gets a nasty shock. Turns out, science is relevant to the medical field. Whoda thunk it? To impress this on him, the paramedic delivers rapid fire questions about hypertension, conversion rates, and second vs third degree burns, barely giving Jimmy time to realize he doesn’t know before hitting him with another question. The paramedic emphasizes that he doesn’t want Jimmy to be discouraged. But he does want Jimmy to understand that, as a paramedic, his ability to recall this information instantly will be the difference between someone else’s life or death.

This is a completely fair thing to do, but it does mean Jimmy comes home pretty depressed. George gives him a talk. As a new seminary student, he can relate to not loving his studies. He is taking eschatology, hermeneutics and Ancient Greek, and can barely get through the titles of his classes without wanting to fall asleep. But he’s going to do it, because he wants to be the best pastor he can. Even as he says this, George admits that he feels like he’s being a bad role model.

“I feel like I’ve just broken one of the cardinal rules of parenting… you know, the one that says ‘Thou shalt not admit disliking school.'”

Jimmy has the opposite view, however. A moment of vulnerable honesty has had more impact on him than years of rote lines about the value of education. And it inspires him to go be a better role model himself.

As the rules of narrative progression dictate, he goes to see Lawrence just in time to witness another homework argument. His mother has reached the point of threatening to sell the TV and anything else fun. Lawrence counters that he would rather have splinters pushed under his toenails and be covered in killer bees than do any more homework. She calmly says “that can be arranged.” Yeah, she’s all out of fucks.

Jimmy dashes Lawrence’s hopes of reinforcement. He admits that all this boring crap (seriously, someone get them some Neil DeGrasse Tyson lectures!) is important after all. He’s not willing to enable Lawrence’s procrastination. He is, however, willing to give some free tutoring. He’s got catching up to do, and teaching Lawrence is probably a decent way to give himself a refresher. Lawrence is torn. On the one hand, the agents of Destructo are, at this very moment, gaining the advantage while he and his elders are all distracted by such trivial matters. On the other hand, in his world Jimmy is basically God. In the end, hero worship wins the day. Jimmy has probably spared us all an annoying Broadchurch “how could such a horrifying child murder happen in a swell town like this” storyline.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Once again, I love George’s talk. The decision to make this a moment of empathy rather than a state-the-theme lecture was a good one; the theme is definitely there, but the scene has authenticity and catharsis that those scenes can so easily lack.

Worst Part: There’s a scene I left out, just before George and Jimmy’s talk, where Jimmy talks to his sister Donna about careers that wouldn’t require doing well in some kind of academia. They settle on politics. Seriously? You don’t need to study for politics? Look, I know politicians are eternally fun to dump on, but this kind of thinking how we get Trump and Kim Jong-Un playing “I’m not touching you” with nukes.

Although, technically they’ve both got high ranking jobs in the field, so maybe she has a point. The distant rattling you hear is my nervous laughter in the face of the Apocalypse.

Story Rating: Fun and funny. A little obvious where it’s going, but executed well enough to make up for that. A

Moral Rating: It follows the same pattern of common sense expressed clearly. Gets it’s message across while still having fun and not being condescending. A+

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Easy Money

Up next in the discussion of stewardship, we have the epic saga of two kids who reeeeally want to play street hockey.

Sam Johnson and Brian “Butch” Evans are looking at gear and finding out that quality sports equipment is expensive. Neither of them think their parents will help, but Sam suggests taking on odd jobs. Butch vows that he’ll do whatever it takes. Guess which one quits after their first gig?

In all fairness, they spend two hours scrubbing the floor of a mechanic’s garage, who says the cleaner they get it the more they’ll be paid, but when it’s paycheck time it’s suddenly a flat three dollars an hour rate. This is from 1995, so that’s maybe not quite as bad as it would be now, but it’s still a shit deal. Especially since the equipment they are saving for is apparently over $50.

Sam, who has zero negotiating skills, accepts. Butch storms out, and on his way home he meets Mac. Now, in this episode, Sam has a normal person name and generic midwestern accent, Butch has a tough guy nickname but a generic accent, and Mac has the tough guy nickname and a bad New York accent. So you can pretty much figure out the morality alignment right there. Mac hears about Butch’s money troubles, and tells him he can get money without lifting a finger. He bets Butch he can make a tough jump shot, fails, and hands over a dollar, and a business card.

Basically, Mac’s a bookie.

You know, AIO and it’s Christian ilk is full of characters trying to corrupt our protagonists, so as to make conservative fundie kids feel properly paranoid about the secular world. But hey, at least this version of the trope has an actual motive.

Anyway, the mechanic offers Sam a steady job. All he has to do is get up at 5:30 am so he can bike over to the garage, scrub floors for an hour, accept three dollars for his trouble, and then make it to school having already exhausted himself. What a swell and non-exploitative guy. Sam asks his parents’ permission, and after talking to him about making sure it doesn’t take too much out of him, and being willing to stop if he can’t handle it, they say it’s okay. I’d complain about this, but you know, I do think kids need to take risks. I’d call it irresponsible parenting if they weren’t keeping any kind of eye on him, but since that’s not the case, I think this is awesome. Plus, I’m pretty sure they don’t know how badly he’s being compensated. Man, I know it was the nineties, but that still bothers me.

From here, the progression of the characters is easy to foresee. Butch takes bigger and bigger risks, but as he keeps winning, he has no intention of quitting, even after he can afford the hockey equipment. And Sam, well, there’s this one scene where he’s reminded that he promised to put together a booth for some charity carnival. He tries to sit down and think of ideas but can’t stay awake. In the end, he shows up with a garbage can and a bunch of balls for people to toss in, and if they succeed they get to pick from an exciting box of junk Sam could grab out of his room. Mr. Barclay gives it a go and tries so hard to be polite and seem so thrilled to have won a pencil. With teeth marks on it. By throwing a ball about two feet. Meanwhile Sam is such a zombie he wouldn’t notice if Gordon Ramsey himself showed up.

And yet, when the mechanic offers to let him come in even earlier, Sam says yes. This time he doesn’t check with his parents, but just agrees to wake up at 4:30, in the interest of getting his hockey gear a few weeks earlier. No doubt, despite protesting that Butch is earning his money the wrong way, he is irked that Butch beat him to the games. But he doesn’t keep this up for long before his father catches him sneaking out. Instead of forcing him to quit, Sam’s dad talks him through the things he has jeopardized for this job. He’s falling asleep in school and church, he’s risking his health, and he isn’t able to fulfill any other responsibilities. There’s a difference between honestly earning something, and making a job your only priority. Sam decides that, after today, he will quit the job, and go back to after school odd jobs.

Butch’s overconfidence in his hot streak finally starts to kick him in the pants. It’s ambiguous whether he is honestly losing, or whether Mac fed him easy wins until he was hooked enough to bet big and lose big. Regardless, after cleaning him out of his savings, Mac tantalizes Butch with the huge stakes in the upcoming Odyssey/Connellsville game. Butch sells his baseball card collection to get into the pot, and is still short of the minimum bet. He borrows 50 bucks from Mac, and promptly loses it.

And what ironic consequence does this episode have in store? Well, Mac strongarms him into giving up the hockey equipment, of course. Butch loses his taste for gambling, and joins Sam once again on his odd jobs.

All of this hits a good balance between having a clear moral, but willing to avoid a single, simple state the theme moment. It explores a few different nuances of the idea of earning money responsibly; avoiding scams, recognizing when you’re being played, putting in honest work, not shortchanging other priorities in the single minded pursuit of one goal. One thing I like about morality tales with a bit more scope is that they encourage a person to think in terms of overall balance. When AIO tells one story with a single target theme, then another story with a single target theme, I feel like they’ve expressed two ideas, and I want to criticize them for the third and fourth and fifth ideas that they have neglected. When they acknowledge in one story that there’s a need to look out for multiple wrong paths and pitfalls, they’re suggesting that the world doesn’t always offer a single clear path, and that you have too look at all the variables and alternatives. They’re encouraging analysis of a problematic human tendency, not rigid adherence to a single maxim.

Final Ratings

Best Part: I really love the consistent emphasis from Sam’s Dad on independence. So often AIO parents are little autocrats, and in the real world this creates adults who don’t know how to think for themselves. Sam, on the other hand, gets a balance of guidance and autonomy, and I think that’s great. 

Worst Part: I can usually think of something, but I’m honestly drawing a blank.

Story Rating: Events move at a nice engaging pace, there’s a good use of humor, it all comes to a satisfying end… Yeah, good job on this one. A+

Moral Rating: Good ideas explored with common sense. A+