Tag Archives: atheism

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Where is Thy Sting?

This episode begins very shortly after the last one left off. Connie and her mother are going through Mildred’s things, and they discover a lovely music box that plays “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” is inscribed with “From Bill, First Timothy 6:17-19, in my prayers that you may find true treasure.”

Then they go pick up Connie’s father, Bill, at the airport. He is surly, but rather than rest up at a hotel, he wants to go straight to the funeral home and discuss arrangements. They meet with the funeral director, a local pastor and Mildred’s pastor from New York. As they talk, Connie says that she wants the funeral to be more than just a standard dour experience. She has been thinking about how hopeful Mildred was at the end, and how for Christians death isn’t an end, but a transition to a new and better life. She wants the funeral to focus more on celebrating that. Bill is furious.

“If you’re thinking that my mother’s funeral service is going to be some kind of a party, well then you’re on the wrong track.”

The others try to calm him down and suggest a balanced service, in which they talk about the sadness of her loss but also the hope she felt for a life afterwards, but Bill isn’t interested. He continues to mock Connie’s idea, accuses everyone else of ganging up on him, then storms out.

Now, usually I give a full summary and save my thoughts for the end. This is going to be one of the exceptions. There’s just too much to talk about here, and too much that changes from scene to scene, so I have to give my analysis as I go. Here, Bill is clearly being an asshole, and I don’t think his grief is an adequate excuse. Everyone else in that room is grieving too, with the possible exception of the funeral director. What’s more, all of them will need different things to help them through. That’s a pretty normal situation after someone dies. Connie shared the thing that is helping her through this, and how she would like to incorporate that into the funeral. But she didn’t demand it; she merely brought it up, which is what this meeting is for. Bill clearly needs something else, and doesn’t seem to know exactly what that is, which is rough. But his first response is to attack Connie, who is hurting just as much as he is. That’s only okay if you’re about five.

Afterwards, Connie talks the situation out with Jack and Eugene. It’s Eugene, of all people, who takes it upon himself to explain how Bill is probably feeling.

“Alas, take it from one who has explored many philosophies of life and death. If he considers death a void, then it may make him wonder if life itself is a void as well.”

This introduces us to the idea that, without God, there is no such thing as coping. They illustrate it with Bill, who is not only an atheist, but a nihilist. Contrary to popular belief among fundamentalists, most of the time those two don’t go together. I’m not going to say it’s never accurate, only that nihilism is not a sustainable ideology. We don’t do well with lacking meaning – it’s a human thing. To be a nihilist is to crave for a reason to be anything else. But that reason is not necessarily found in religion. I find it primarily in the people I love and the fight for social justice. I’ve known atheists who find it in a futurist’s utopian vision, an artist’s work, a family to care for, or a never-ending search for self-improvement. All of these things have value, here and now. It’s just a matter of discovering what speaks to you.

The idea of a nihilistic atheist being the norm is common. Fundamentalist Christians cling to it particularly hard, I think partly because they spend so much time putting down the worth of the world we have here. It is constantly compared to the value of the glorious, eternal afterlife. The present world is, at best, a pale facsimile, and at worst an active distraction. Switching mentalities from that to one where earthly love and human well-being is a perfectly valid reason to live and have hope is well, a bit awkward to pull off, even if you’re just switching your thinking temporarily to empathize with an unbeliever. I also think there’s a bit of confirm bias and survivor’s bias mixed in. Confirmation bias because fundamentalists want to see atheists this way, rather than consider that someone might be satisfied and happy without God, so they assume any happy atheist is lying. Survivor’s bias because the rare nihilistic atheists are the most likely to convert, and thus are the former atheists Christians are most familiar with.

This idea is impressed on the audience more when Connie’s mother talks to Bill, back at the house. She tries to reiterate Connie’s point about the balance of life and death, and the reward for believers.

“Well, that’s great, but if you believe the way Bill Kendall believes, you live and you die and the people you leave behind spend years trying to get over losing you.”

She also shows him the music box, and asks if he knows what the inscription means… kind of a weird question, given his clearly expressed disinterest in the Bible. He doesn’t know, he’s annoyed by the whole thing, and he goes for a “walk,” and isn’t seen until the viewing is almost over.

When he turns up, at the very end of the viewing, he is staggeringly drunk. He cries, snarks, and waxes poetic… if you expand the definition of poetry to slobbering doggerel.

“I am grieving the loss of my mother the only way I know how. You do it by having happy funerals and I do it by trying to forget.”

I have mixed feelings about this scene. On the one hand, I love how, despite his relentlessly dickish behavior, you are made to feel for Bill. He’s no simple villain. He’s a human being who is expressing his pain destructively, but you are made to feel his grief along with him nonetheless. On the other hand, it’s clear that the writers of AIO struggle to understand how a non-believer truly thinks and acts. Even for a nihilistic atheist, Bill’s statement is a little too on the nose, too perfectly aligned with where the writers are determined to take us.

Bill manages to behave through the funeral, and afterwards he goes up with Connie and her mother to view Mildred one last time. He reflects that the service was actually quite beautiful, contrary to his expectations. He also reveals that he and his second wife are getting a divorce. He feels like a failure on every level; he can’t keep his marriages together, he missed his mother’s final days because he was off on a cruise, and he can’t help making a mess of the mourning process, swinging his grief around like a club that keeps everyone at bay. Connie comes in with her solution. He needs to become a Christian. She emphasizes that the Bible verse on the box was an exhortation to pray for unbelievers, especially those obsessed with money and fancy living, and how it proves that Mildred wanted nothing more than for Bill to accept Christ. Bill reiterates that he can’t believe, and can’t forgive himself either. Connie tries again, and Bill runs off. Connie’s mother reflects that they probably won’t see him again, and how she’s realized that she has a choice between handling life the way Connie does or handling it the way Bill does, and it’s about time she became an official Christian.

I’ve already explained how bad that dichotomy is, so I’ll go into the other big problem with this scene. Based on my experience, there are two ways to deal constructively with someone acting like Bill; someone full of pain who is simultaneously incapable of caring for themselves and lashing out at others. First, you can put up some boundaries to protect yourself from their attacks, and focus on your own healing. Second, you can sit down with them, listen to them, let them vent while taking nothing they say personally, and hope that somewhere along the line you both figure out what they need. Both are valid choices. The latter can be noble and admirable, but when you can’t juggle your pain and theirs at the same time, which is typical, there’s no shame in the former. Better to successfully heal one person than try and fail to heal two.

What’s not okay is to insist on this being the moment the other person radically change their worldview, so they can grieve correctly and heal in the way you’ve decided they need to. Healing is complicated, beliefs are complicated, human development is complicated, and all of the above are incredibly personal. In the scene at the funeral, what Connie does is like trying to collect an insect with a sledgehammer. She is saying he can’t heal and grow unless he somehow acquires a belief in God. He doesn’t believe, and can’t will himself to accept it, because nobody can even at the best of times. Bill is too raw for her statements to do anything but drive him deeper into a feeling of hopelessness.

I do agree that, in the long run, Bill needs deep, transformative change in order to become a functioning adult. But Connie, at the end of this episode, expects him to convert entirely to her method of coping, and offers no other way to help him. In a way, she’s doing the same thing he did to her earlier in the episode. She goes about it in a nicer way, but she is still more hurtful than helpful, for exactly the same reason; she’s refusing to acknowledge that his pain needs to be dealt with on its own terms.

Final ratings

Best Part: When Jack and Eugene go to the funeral and are just their adorable selves. Which is to say, Jack quietly listens and hugs and makes everything feel a little warmer, and Eugene goes on a ramble about “the historical development of necrology and it’s impact on Etruscan archaeology…” and then remembers he’s at a funeral and apologizes a few thousand times. It’s sweet. 

Worst Part: It’s a tough call between the various lines that oversimplify the nature of unbelief, and how unbelievers can cope with death. The worst, I think, is actually Eugene’s. Eugene is a kind of intellectual jack of all trades, and at this point in the series he’s actually something of an agnostic. Eugene is probably my second favorite character after Connie, but all too often, AIO uses him as a legitimizing mouthpiece. He confidently asserts something that we are to assume is well founded, because A. he’s smart and B. he’s not a full-fledged believer so it’s also coming from an objective perspective. But of course, those statements are written without any actual research. His statements don’t follow his character or a coherent philosophy, but are simply what the writers want him to say, dressed up with the aide of a thesaurus.

Story Rating: Honestly, if I just look at the bare bones plot, without the ideas explicitly discussed, it’s a pretty good idea for a story. The central conflict is between two different methods of grieving; that’s interesting. The execution isn’t all bad either. Many of the scenes are well constructed and much of the dialog sounds like how actual humans talk. There’s still a bit that’s stilted, but overall… B – 

Moral Rating: “If you don’t believe in my exact religion, clearly you can’t cope with death and you’re doomed to misery forever.” D – 

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: A Touch of Healing

This episode takes place during a period where Whit was off in the Middle East, being a missionary adventurer archaeologist (no, I’m not making that up), and Whit’s End was run by his son Jason and his old friend Jack. This was actually a pretty good time. See, they couldn’t bring in a new character who would usurp Whit’s status as most perfectest human being, and instead they replaced him with two guys with good hearts and human flaws. Jason is proactive and inventive, eager to adapt new technology and trends to engage the kids at Whit’s End but often too hasty. Jack is more cautious and old fashioned. He needs Jason’s energy to keep up with the times, but he can also see where Jason is rushing in without considering all the potential drawbacks. As a result, formulaic answers delivered by a Mary Sue were replaced with actual debate and compromise, and room for the audience to think longer about an issue before deciding who they agreed with. It not only made the morals less trite, but also tended to force the episode quality up.

In this episode, Jason has developed a new program for the Imagination Station. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, which is astounding because it is a major part of the AIO canon; in brief, it puts kids into a world where they act out a story, programmed in by Whit or Jason, but brought to life “by the power of imagination.” It does actually seem to penetrate the mind directly, rather than just being a glorified virtual reality machine, which has some freaky ass implications. But I’ll have more opportunities to get into this later.

For now, Jason has realized that, since disabled kids can imagine they don’t have disabilities, he can program the Imagination Station to put them through an adventure, completely able bodied. Jack felt like there could be problems with this, but couldn’t offer anything beyond a vague bad feeling, and Jason more or less took that as a challenge. He went straight from idea to implementation to trying the program out on some Whit’s End regulars.

His first test case, Jenny, does not go as planned. Jenny was born blind. She can’t accurately imagine being sighted, and as she talks about it upon leaving the Imagination Station, it seems that she also doesn’t really see her blindness as a fault. It’s just a part of her, and she has a good life just the way she is. The second one, with Zachary, who became quadriplegic in a car accident, goes much better. He walks and runs, and what’s more, sees this as absolute heaven. This is, by the way, the same Zachary from Letting Go, but earlier. He was still adjusting in that episode, but here he’s positively raw from the double shock of losing his father and becoming disabled. As soon as he is pulled out of the program he becomes enraged and demands to be sent back. His mother, Eileen, who was not informed about what Jason was about to do, is furious. Jack takes Eileen’s side, but Jason can only think about how happy Zachary was during the program, and can’t understand their problem.

Meanwhile, Connie and her Mom are welcoming Connie’s paternal grandmother, Mildred into their home for the foreseeable future. Connie’s father, as you may recall, is largely absentee, and Mildred is dealing with some ongoing heart problems. It says a lot about Connie’s family life that she’s the one unanimously chosen as the best suited to take care of her grandmother. Mildred is sweet, warm and utterly delightful. Unfortunately, during her visit, her health takes a sudden and dramatic turn for the worst. She is admitted to the hospital, and when Connie visits, the two of them spend much of their time in prayer.

The next day, Jason finds out from Eileen that Zachary was a wreck after the Imagination Station. He threw tantrums and, when he finally went to bed, she found him crying in his sleep. He has also been refusing to go to physical therapy. PT apparently has the potential to help him, but it’s a slow, frustrating process for a kid who is already emotionally scarred. Zachary says that there’s no point anymore, since he can just go into the Imagination Station and walk like he could before. Eileen asks how Zachary is supposed to cope with reality when Jason has created a perfect fantasy for him to escape to. Jason, still wanting to defend his invention, thinks that maybe later on, Zachary’s experiences in the Imagination Station can help him be more motivated to go through therapy. Jack takes him aside and tries to show him how he’s undermining an already stressed out parent. He argues that it’s always been a policy of Whit’s End to never contradict parents when it comes to their kids. Jason doesn’t like that policy. I don’t either, but in this instance I’ve gotta take Jack’s side. He’s started messing around with Zachary’s healing process without even consulting his mother, and that’s seriously unacceptable.

The episode then cuts to Connie and Mildred in the hospital. By now, Mildred knows her own body pretty well, and she wants no more hopeful double talk from the doctors. She lists the problems, the transplants she would need to survive and her slim odds of getting them, and sums up her condition as terminal. The doctors are stunned, but admit she’s right. Mildred thanks them for their honesty, and Connie asks her why they have been praying if there’s no realistic hope.

Instead of saying they are praying for a miracle, Mildred says that the prayers aren’t for herself, but for Connie; for her to have strength, whatever happens next. A short time later, she slips into a coma.

Over the next several days, while Connie works to prepare herself for the worst, Whit’s End is mobbed by disabled kids. Jason sees that Zachary’s not alone in his reaction. These kids have a brief experience of cheap release, but they leave either angry, because they have to return to a reality that now feels doubly unfair, or disappointed, because like Jenny they lack the experiences that let the program work on them. For those who can use the program, they mostly went through the same kind of pain Zachary did. The Imagination Station makes them go from a world where they’re struggling to learn how to be different, to a world where everything is as it was before, and then are thrust back into the real world, with no coping mechanisms, no tools to adapt to the transition. He hasn’t invented a way to heal them, but a way to torture them. He suspends the program indefinitely, until he can figure out a way to make it genuinely work for the kids, and apologizes publicly for the damage he has done.

Jack goes to visit Connie and Zachary. The conversations he has with both of them are about turning to God for emotional healing, even when the physical healing we hope for doesn’t come. These talks are both very different from the ones Whit gives. Jack spends a lot more time listening. There’s no railroading them into a predetermined point, so you get the sense that he doesn’t come in with an agenda. He hears what the other person says, gives his honest response, and then listens to see what they made of it. You know, like an actual conversation. With Connie, they meander through faith, prayer, sin, pain and the afterlife. She doesn’t emerge with any new answers, but she feels heard and loved in a way she didn’t get in the previous review. With Zachary, there’s a “let me tell you about Jesus” talk, but it comes up naturally as a result of Jack sharing his philosophy on spiritual healing, and Zachary asking to hear more.

In the end, Eileen and Zachary both are converted. Mildred dies, but Connie finds comfort in her belief that they will see each other again in heaven.

It is clearly indicated that the official message is that God is a more powerful force for healing, particularly mental and spiritual healing, than medicine and technology. I don’t agree with that basic premise, in partly because I think the latter exist and the former don’t, and also because my experiences with mental health have shown the opposite. Religion tended to exacerbate the problem, modern medicine had very good results for me. At the same time, this topic is handled with unusual nuance in this episode, and that does make it better.

In this episode, characters who disagree with the official moral aren’t strawmen. They have reasons and are given the space to fully explain them, so even though they end up proved wrong, you can still think about circumstances under which they might have been right. If Jason had collaborated with physical therapists and parents, for example, he might have set up a more helpful program; perhaps one where it’s a reward for therapy, to make the results more tangible.

The other thing that works well here is that there’s something organic about how faith is used. Connie, Mildred and Jenny have a long personal history of faith, so it makes sense that they turn to it. As for the conversion, while I don’t like what Jack says (he calls people who don’t believe in Jesus “spiritually handicapped”) I do think he has a right to share his faith with those who are interested, and Eileen and Zachary don’t feel forced into an out of character religious experience for the sake of the story.

Science has brought us a long way, but there are many things they can only alleviate, or haven’t been able to solve at all. The history of science is also full of therapies that were tried and did not work, or have the potential to be applied in both helpful and abusive ways (think electroshock therapy or lobotomies). While meds have made a significant difference in my life, and therapy can help many others, for other people religion is genuinely a source of emotional healing, and that’s great. When it comes to mental health, I’m happy for anyone who finds something that works for them.

Of course, this episode avoids a big potential problem by only portraying characters who are happy to turn to Christianity for healing. I’ve already talked some about ways that religion can be counterproductive for people with mental health problems. In the next review, Connie’s father shows up for Mildred’s funeral, and we get to look at how AIO treats characters who are hurting, and unwilling to convert.

Final ratings

Best Part: Jack comforting Connie. It was so genuinely warm, and after Fences I was really ready for her to get talked to like a human being and not a troublesome project.

Worst Part: They keep referencing an earlier episode where Jason tried to invent an arcade game that taught kids about the Bible, and Jack was so shocked because, you know, video games. That episode, to AIO’s credit, did not force Jason to realize video games were evil; only that they were loud and needed to be put in a soundproof room so they don’t disrupt the rest of the shop. The writers almost seem to feel guilty about making that compromise, because now Jack keeps saying that they can’t be healthy, what with all the lights and noise and punching buttons.

Literally, he complains about the kids punching buttons. The whole time, I’m thinking, “you hear that your childhood BFF invented something that literally induces hallucinations in minors and you’re fine with this, but video games are bad because buttons???”

It was a minor point that didn’t detract too much from the overall episode, but it was still annoying.

Story Rating: The dialog was natural, and the conflicts progressed very naturally. At no point did the story feel like it was relying on contrivances or manipulation to make it’s point. I got genuinely invested in all the characters and how things were going to turn out. A

Moral Rating: I think the basic point is problematic, but of all the takes on this idea, they took the best one. C +

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Fences

When this episode begins, Connie is waltzing through Whit’s End, narrating her sundae-making like she’s on a game show and complimenting everyone in sight. Her father is coming to town. As we learned in previous episodes, Connie’s parents have divorced, a rarity in Odyssey, and her father lives back in California. We, the audience, have never met him, and it’s implied that she has barely seen him since they moved. So it’s devastating when, upon arriving home, her mother says he cancelled his trip.

Apparently her father’s new wife’s mother is sick. Connie tries to be understanding, but she can’t help but mope through life for the next several days, and things only get worse when she learns that her father has a chain of upcoming business trips and meetings, and so has no plans to reschedule his visit with her.

Whit and Eugene, her coworker, notice her sudden change in behavior and ask her about it. She is honest about how she feels; miserable, mixed with a little guilt over feeling miserable. No matter how often she tells herself the reasons for his cancellation were out of his control, the hurt will not subside. So she goes through the motions of her ordinary life, hoping that eventually non-nauseating emotions will return again. Whit and Eugene have an aside about how she is behaving. They agree on the following; 1. Connie is upset about her father, 2. They want to help her, 3. Connie won’t let them help her.

The first point is rather obvious. She says as much, explicitly. The second is an admirable response, and an expected one. The third, however, is bizarre. The problem is not that she won’t let them help her, but that there’s nothing they can do to help. Connie’s sadness is not an inappropriate reaction. Whit and Eugene cannot change her father’s mind, nor can they fly to California and drag him back to see her, and furthermore Connie can’t ask them to. Instead of accepting this, they frame it as Connie being stubborn, and hope for her to get her mind back on God. It feels almost like they are blaming her for not enabling them to fix her. What do they expect? Do they want her to give them an itemized list of things that will make her feel better? There’s nothing wrong with her. A truly upsetting thing happened, and she’s going to be blue for a little while.

Now, I can think of one thing they could do that might make her feel better, if not immediately, then in the long run; validate her pain. Part of what’s hurting is the contradiction between her conscious desire to defend her father, and her unconscious understanding that something is up with his behavior. And one character does do this, albeit accidentally. Her elderly neighbor, Mr. Mitchell, is having a fence put up, courtesy of his son, who hopes it will help protect him. While they watch the construction, they chat about family. Connie asks, if his son lived in California, and couldn’t come visit, but Mr. Mitchell could get around more easily, how often would he visit? Mr. Mitchell says he would make the trip four or five times a year. Connie is dumbfounded, but Mr. Mitchell doesn’t think it’s a surprising answer. He loves his son, and no matter the distance he would have to make visiting a priority. Connie realizes that the problem isn’t her. It’s her father. Yes, life gets in the way, but the problem isn’t that this one time, he had trouble with his schedule. The problem is that Connie, his own child, is about seventieth on his list of priorities, which just makes him a shitty human being.

What does this revelation make Connie? A feminazi.

No, seriously. That’s what they think the next logical step in this character arc should be.

She gives a Bible study lesson that consists of listing every man who ever screwed up in the Bible, quoting verses that announce that men are filth (it’s never pointed out that she’s using examples where the Bible is actually saying humanity is filth and using “men” and “all actual human beings” interchangeably because sexist archaic language) and making posters of male models with their heads cut off. This causes every girl in her Bible study to spontaneously form the Men-Haters Club and go around locking boys in closets.

Again, I’m not making this up. That is literally what happens; they corner guys, lecture them on how awful they are, and lock them in closets. Because of one crappy lesson.

There is so much wrong with this. First, if Connie has the ability to so radically change people’s behavior with one lesson, that is a seriously misapplied talent. She should be going into peace talks and hostage negotiations. Second, this reaction makes no sense as a consequence of what happened to her. I thought it was weird even when I was a kid, and now I find positively enraging. I’ve also known actual women who, after a series of traumatic experiences, went through a distrusting-men-generally phase, but mostly it’s nothing like this. They are still basically tolerant and get-along-y towards the real human beings in their lives, but take a little longer to really trust new men, and get really into analyzing the ways that male privilege and toxic masculinity does teach men to solve problems in aggressive, hurtful ways. That’s not to say people who aren’t truly, actively mean to men in general don’t exist, just that there’s really only one type of person who does that; an asshole. Connie’s not an asshole. That’s what gets me really mad. Why the show is willing to assassinate Connie’s character like this? Of all the ways for her to act out, why the hell did they go with something uncharacteristically mean and petty?

I’m sure the answer has nothing to do with a desire to squeeze in a message about how feminism equals men hating, so as to discourage their female listeners from paying attention to actual feminists.

Anyway, Whit gets mad at her and tells her not to come back to Whit’s End until she gets her act together. He’s not firing her, he’s just… grounding her? I’m not saying it’s unreasonable for him to keep her out like this in response to those things, just pointing out that his role in her life is weird. He switches so frequently between mentor who happens to also be her boss and boss who happens to be her mentor that it gets hard to figure out the boundaries.

The resolution is shitty and contrived. Mr. Mitchell has a heart attack, on his porch and out of sight because of his fence, and he nearly dies but a series of coincidences let Connie find him just in time. She’s a hero, and Whit arrives to lecture her about how the fence that nearly killed him is a metaphor for the bad writing attitude that is cutting her off from people who want to take care of her. If she wants to get better, she needs to let people help her, and also God. God will fix everything, and if he hasn’t already it’s because she didn’t let him. Connie says that he’s right, and she’s now suddenly her normal happy self. Her father’s still a piece of shit, and he’s still rejecting her in a way that would fuck up a real human being in a serious long term way, but she is totally fine, because she realized her whole life can be explained with a metaphor about fences.

I was torn between putting this under the upcoming social issues theme, to talk about the shitty straw man representation of feminism, and mental health, to talk about what they teach kids about how to handle stressful, painful situations. It ultimately went under the latter because I think the straw feminist problem of the former is fairly obvious; too obvious to even be worthy of analysis. What’s more insidious is the fact that they let a misguided attempt at making fun of feminism get in the way of handling an important character moment for one of their most significant cast members. Connie is being rejected by her father. That is one of the most painful experiences possible. Yet, instead of showing how she gradually goes through a grieving process and eventually arrives at a semblance of acceptance and closure, they force her to lash out in a way that is out of character, then berate her for not being perfectly well behaved throughout the entire episode.

There is nothing complex or constructive here. Worse, because her actions do not resemble actual human behavior, this show, which prides itself on being a moral authority for kids, does not leave them with any constructive guides on how to handle real pain. Instead it has aphorisms about shutting people out and how that’s bad; it’s true, but without a well-constructed story, those aren’t enlightening. They’re just generic cliches. AIO is capable of writing complex character stories, as we saw last week. But unfortunately, this type of story, where they go for a contrived, cheap plot device, an obvious epiphany, and no real character growth, is far more common.

Final ratings

Best Part: the brief moment of happiness at the beginning

Worst Part: The Men-Hater’s Club

Story Rating: Contrived and awkward. D –

Moral Rating: Remember everything positive I about the last episode? This is the complete opposite of that. Also D –

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Afraid, Not!

For my first theme in this reboot, I’ll be talking about how Adventures in Odyssey handles mental health. The fourth episode I ever reviewed was awful. It took a kid with every symptom of an anxiety disorder, made her fear magically go away by singing about God, and ended by informing anxious kids everywhere that God’s love casts out fear. Sounds positive, but the real world impact of that message tends to be damaging to people with real medical problems. They absorb the belief that their condition wouldn’t exist if they just loved God enough, which tends to A. actively make the symptoms worse and B. discourage them from seeking treatment. That’s not to say you can’t use religion to comfort fearful kids, just that you need to be thoughtful about how you use it.

This episode takes up the topic of childhood anxiety again, and I’m happy to say it genuinely does a better job. The story opens with a kid named Danny refusing to go to school. His parents assume he’s just going through a school-hating phase, so they give him a lecture about the importance of education and see him off. But before the day is over, his mother is called to come pick him up. Sometime between leaving home and getting to school, Danny got a black eye.

It takes a while to get him to open about what happened, but it turns out he has a stalker. No, seriously. Danny walks to school every day. A girl from another school has a crush on him, and she has been cutting classes to follow him around. She’s been getting aggressive, chasing him and demanding that he say he likes her, and finally she punched him in the face. Which… wow, dark shit. I’m not even going to say this is unrealistic, because I know this kind of thing sometimes happens, but it’s unusual for AIO. They’re usually too committed to the Mayberry picket fence image to admit that this kind of intense harassment is a reality.

The principal convinces Danny’s parents to call the police. They’re worried that’s too drastic, but eventually agree. I’m torn about this solution. On the one hand, I think this does need to be taken seriously. On the other hand, I’ve heard some scary stories about cops being sent to handle misbehaving kids and taking things way too far. Danny seems to be seven or eight, and this girl is implied to be only a little bit older. I worked with aggressive kids for about five years and could probably do a whole post on my thoughts and experiences, but this isn’t the place for it. So I’ll just say that it’s complicated and cops usually aren’t well informed about the difference between handling a kid and an adult. (not that they have all been doing great with the latter either, #blacklivesmatter)

Anyway, the next morning Danny is afraid to go to school, even though his father has agreed to drive him until the girl is caught, but before this conflict is resolved they are called to the station to identify a girl the police found in the woods. The girl is scared straight offscreen, and everybody expects that Danny should be fine from now on. A woman cop even jokes about how this isn’t actually that unusual, and how she once gave a kid a fat lip because he said he wouldn’t say he liked her.

Um, ew. Seriously lady, either you followed him and pushed him around for several days, in which case that wasn’t ok and the fact that you think it was makes me think you shouldn’t be a cop, or you just had a stupid one-time fight and learned from it, in which case you were being a regular kid, in which case you shouldn’t be comparing the two situations and normalizing her behavior.

I do feel the need to acknowledge that part of their intent is to emphasize that Danny isn’t a wimp for being beaten up by a girl, no matter how he feels. That is great, honestly. That’s an important message, especially coming from a show that is normally so gender conformist. I just have a problem with how they went about it.

After this uncomfortable detour, the episode gets back on a good path. As I said, people tend to assume he’s fine now, but he’s not. He puts off walking home from school until the last minute, because even though the girl probably won’t bother him again, he can’t be sure. When one of his teachers realizes what’s going on, he offers to give Danny a ride home, but Danny refuses. The kid isn’t just terrified of his stalker. He’s also scared of the kids, who might mock him for needing help and being beat up by a girl.

I think Danny’s reaction is much more nuanced and realistic than the portrayal of Shirley in that earlier episode on anxiety. I like that he’s torn between different fears, that he feels like he doesn’t have good options, and that he feels the pressure to put on a brave face even though he doesn’t want to. He feels like a person in this episode, in a way that designated-lesson-learning-kid-of-the-week often doesn’t. After he refuses his teacher’s offer of help, he spends the walk home looking out for signs that the girl is still out there, waiting for him. When he starts hearing snapping twigs, he tries to convince himself it’s all in his head, until he no longer can deny that there is definitely someone else in the woods with him.

Just as he’s about to run for it, Whit emerges. This being a small town, Whit already knows the rough outline of what happened, and he listens to Danny talk about it some more. He tells Danny that he gets scared sometimes too, and when he does there’s a Bible verse he likes to remember. He offers to teach it to Danny while they walk together, giving the kid a face-saving excuse to have some companionship.

Isaiah 41:10. Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.

The next morning, Danny tells his parents he doesn’t want to be driven to school. He wants to walk, and use his verse to stay brave. They remind him that his father doesn’t mind, and it’s okay if he’s not ready to walk to school, but Danny insists. He wants to learn to face his fear. I really love that. This is how you actually deal with fear; not by finding a way to erase it, but finding a way to move through it, even when it’s hard. And for the record, I don’t care whether that way is a Bible verse or an Oprah quote or showtunes from Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog. I personally prefer the latter, but you do you.

As he’s walking through the woods, he gets ambushed by Rusty, a recurring bully character. Rusty teases him for having been beat up by a girl and then demands his lunch money, but Danny starts shouting his Bible verse. Rusty, already freaked out by this weird behavior, hears somebody approaching to investigate and takes off. That person turns out to be Whit, who congratulates Danny on standing up for himself, and the two walk off together into the sunset.

Well, not the sunset, because it’s morning, but there’s a definite metaphorical sunsettiness.

This episode is good because it never tells Danny that he doesn’t get to be scared. Instead, it gives him tools to be brave despite his fear, and vicariously makes the viewers stand up for themselves. This is how battling real world anxiety works, whether normal or pathological. The religious angle is much healthier here; there’s a universe of difference between “truly loving God stops you from being afraid” and “God is looking out for you, even when you are scared.”

Final Ratings

Best Part: Danny standing up to Rusty

Worst Part: the whole bit with the cops

Story Rating: B+

Moral Rating: A+

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic Atheist: The Day After Christmas

This episode opens with Chris, the annoying bookend morals woman, telling us all how we can experience the joy of Christmas even after we have gotten bored with our toys. Okay, place your bets now. Is it A. going to church a lot B. taking all of Whit’s advice all the time or C. giving to others?

Well, actually it’s C. Yay!

The problem with Adventures in Odyssey isn’t that a hundred percent of the official morals are terrible message. In fact, most of the time, I do agree with them. What has bothered me about AIO, as I’ve been revisiting the episodes, isn’t the message as much as the execution. The best message in the world can be spoiled by the way you convey it.

It opens with a kid named Annie hanging out at Whit’s End. She has been told to get out of the house by her parents, who are sick of her whining about being bored. Which is really their fault; after all, they only gave her a doll, and a moving teddy bear, and new shoes and a coat, and jewelry, and some kind of combination.

Yeah, she’s kind of a brat. Whit listens to her spoiled tirade, with admirable patience, and then invites her on his yearly trip to bring Christmas to a church Foster Creek, a place that has never before been mentioned and never will be again.

Annie: Isn’t that like a, well, you know?

Whit: A ghetto?

Annie: Yeah.

Whit: Well, some people call it that.

Uh, no Whit. You just called it that. If you don’t like the word, come up with another one, otherwise fucking own it.

As they drive through Foster Creek, Annie squeals over the dirt and the houses that Whit confirms are made of literal cardboard. In the church, we meet Reverend Pike, who gushes over Whit’s arrival and everything he has brought. He’s clearly coded as Black by his voice, but he isn’t using AAVE. Frankly, he’s using a voice I usually associate with the Uncle Tom-ish butler in a movie made around 1930. We also meet Tommy, a troubled boy who Reverend Pike is trying to look after.

Tommy also doesn’t speak with AAVE, but rather speaks exactly like Whit and Annie. I remember specifically noting this as a kid. Normally, Odyssey uses accents constantly, both to establish character and to disguise the fact that they are re-using voice actors. The accents they use are usually for minor, one-off characters, and they usually correspond to stereotypes. Characters will be given Italian accents because they are passionate, Scottish accents because they are brusque, New York Jewish accents because they are stingy and quarrelsome, New Jersey mafia accents because they are delinquents, all in a small town that is otherwise portrayed as culturally homogenous. Now they are going out of their way to portray this as a place where you would expect, going by stereotypes, to hear AAVE, but it’s conspicuously absent. Instead, to signal that Reverend Pike is nice, he is given a voice that screams “Uncle Tom,” and Tommy has a standard Midwestern voice.

I could argue here that it’s entirely possible that Tommy just speaks that way, or is code switching around Annie, but that wasn’t the interpretation that honestly came to mind when I was a kid. Nor do I think it was the interpretation AIO intended. When I was a kid, I knew Tommy would speak AAVE in the real world, but they were making him speak “normally” as a sort of kindness. I was surrounded by people who treated AAVE as, not an English dialect like any other, but a sign of incredible ignorance at best and actual moral decay at worst. AIO was bestowing some dignity on him that his natural accent would strip him of. The pastor’s accent though, one that is associated with submissiveness to whites, was perfectly acceptable, and in fact established him as a “good one.”

I didn’t grow up with anyone who expressed active hatred towards Black people, but a different kind of racism was ubiquitous. It was primarily expressed in a “we won’t mention that Black culture exists, because it’s such a horrible thing” approach. And let me be clear; it’s still very damaging. It enables the more violent kind of racism, but even on it’s own, it sends a constant message that Black people are inferior, while patting itself on the back for not mentioning it.

Now, thanks to others speaking out, I’ve unlearned that message. I now understand that AAVE is just like Bostonian and Cockney and Irish English, and that Odyssey’s omission wasn’t “PC.” It was erasure.

Anyway, Whit apparently wanted to bring Annie to the nursing home to meet some of his friends, but he is reminded by the pastor that they won’t let children in at this time. So he’s forced to leave her behind, with Tommy. Naturally, being the official bad kid of the episode, he drags her off to ogle a crazy cat lady. On the way, though, they are harassed by a gang called The Locos. The Locos definitely have accents. I don’t honestly know what kind of accent it is. It doesn’t sound like even a reasonable approximation of how any real people talk. It’s just kind of generically offensive.

Tommy abandons Annie, who is rescued by Mrs. Rossini, the crazy old cat lady. Annie learns that Mrs. Rossini is lonely and unsure who to trust in this neighborhood, and has developed a tough exterior to drive away the Locos, but otherwise is rather sweet. They drink cocoa and talk about her cats, Christmas, and Mrs. Rossini’s life before her husband died and the neighborhood turned bad.

Mrs. Rossini is a nuanced and interesting character, and seeing Annie open up and learn about the perspective of someone less privileged was actually very interesting. But it’s also maddening that, of all the characters in this ghetto, the only one who gets any development is the only one who could easily be interpreted as white. She, like Tommy and Annie has a standard Midwestern accent. Her Italian surname, while conceivable on an African-American, is more likely to belong to a white person. She mentions living in this neighborhood when it was nicer. Your average white conservative child is utterly ignorant about redlining. There is almost no chance they would interpret this as “this area was nice before banks began discriminatory lending practices, and city planners cut us off from all resources with a superhighway and deliberately neglected our infrastructure in favor of taking care of predominantly white neighborhoods, therefore creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of racial inequality.” When I was a kid, I interpreted “it was nice once,” as “it was white once.”

Anyway, the police catch the Locos and Annie is safely returned to Whit, and they all have a nice Christmas party together at the church. Annie is now excited to return and help Mrs. Rossini out, and Chris spells out for all of us that the Official Moral of this episode is to experience Christmas joy by helping others.

As I’ve mentioned before, Odyssey is very selective about how you are supposed to reach out to. Anyone who would cause you to question your ordinary way of thinking is treated as foolish at best, dangerous at worst. The neighborhood Whit takes Annie to is one where her values and norms might be questioned, but the only person she connects with is someone who is exactly like her aside from being older and poorer. Whit, too, doesn’t seem really connected to these people. In contrast with Mrs. Rossini, Reverend Pike is flat, and your classic recipient of the white savior trope. Annie bonds with Mrs. Rossini and plans to return regularly to bring her cat food and check up on her. Everything that Whit and Reverend Pike say suggests that Whit only comes to Foster Creek once a year, to play Santa Claus and receive their gratitude. Whites are characters. Blacks are background.

This is especially disturbing because I feel like the audience of AIO is primed to absorb toxic messages about race. It’s an overwhelmingly white subculture. It’s also an isolated kind of white. I was lucky. I grew up on the coast in an incredibly diverse county, and had many friends to educate me. I’m not sure your average AIO listener has it. Mostly they are kids in white towns who grow up hearing lots of angry rants about immigrants stealing our jobs. Plus, they are raised to treat AIO episodes as practically gospel, not to analyze and criticize them, and the show overall discourages it’s listeners from listening to those dangerous liberals who might educate them about race.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Mrs. Rossini. I wish she had been Black, but that doesn’t change the fact that I liked her.

Worst Part: Seeing how long I ranted about them, I’m gonna have to say all the accents.

Story/Moral: Normally I separate these, but this time it feels right to consider them together. This episode has good bones. The basic structure is both an interesting story and a valuable lesson. Then it animates it almost entirely with a very subtle and insidious kind of racism.

This episode isn’t about race. This episode is about charity. But what is charity when you don’t bother to see the recipients as human? When you don’t listen to their real needs? When you show up for accolades on Christmas and don’t look at the issues impacting their everyday life? What is charity when the only people worthy of real understanding and help throughout the year are the ones who are just like you?

It’s an exercise in self-congratulation. This episode preaches charity, but it doesn’t really teach it.

D-

An Open Letter to Mattea: Love and Truth and the Survivor’s Bias

Hello again Mattea,

As promised, here’s a full post’s worth of a response to your comment on my Screwtape Letters review. Sorry for the delay; I’ve been a bit preoccupied with the political situation. In my post I took apart Lewis’ explanation of why sex outside of marriage is condemned, and I noted that I’ve never heard another good reason for why sex is bad, or bad outside of that specific context. You gave your explanation, and it makes sense from your perspective, but it doesn’t really contain anything that’s convincing to somebody who doesn’t already believe in, not only Jesus, but your specific interpretation of Jesus, love, and purity.

Hopefully you can see that yourself, and I don’t have to spell out why; if you’d like a fuller explanation let me know in the comments. That doesn’t really bother me because you also said you won’t tell somebody else how to live their life. As I said in that chapter, if you have made a person decision to remain a virgin until marriage, based on your understanding of your own religion, I have no problem whatsoever with that. I don’t think you’re a loser or missing out, as you seemed to think I might. Props to you for living life your own way; my only issue is with people who let their religion dictate somebody else’s sex life. Since that’s not you, we have no problem.

The part I really want to respond to starts here.

“But as a Christian, I have a deep desire to see the lives around me experience the same joy and love and peace that I have in Jesus.”

You were homeschooled, I was homeschooled, you mentioned you’re twenty-one and you have been a Christian your whole life (or at least you’ve been Christian 21 years and you are a college student, correct me if I jumped to the wrong conclusion there). I can relate to that. I was only a little younger than you when I left the faith. So much of what you said resonated with my memories of how I used to think, and particularly with my ideas of what the world outside was like. Because my access to that world was very limited, I had a lot of misconceptions about life from somebody else’s perspective.

You were willing to be very personal about your experiences and perspectives, so what I really want to do isn’t argue, so much as share what life has been like for me, growing up the way you did and then seeing another side.

For example, you said, “whenever I hear people’s stories about how they left the church, they [didn’t] believe God exists, or [they] ‘fell away.'” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the survivor’s bias. The classic example is WWII planes, where they tried to determine structural weaknesses in bombers by analyzing the bullet holes in aircraft that returned from missions. But however much they reinforced those areas, the number of planes shot down never changed, until they realized their mistake. They were looking at the bullet holes in the planes that survived. This gave them no information about why planes fell down.

In the church, you hear conversion stories, or stories about falling away and returning to the fold. Ministers and evangelists often assume these stories are typical of people’s experiences in the secular world, but they aren’t representative at all. And, for the record, atheist activists also make this mistake. They hear stories of former believers who had traumatic, toxic experiences, and assume that is representative of all believers. Again, it’s not that simple. This is why I don’t proselytize anymore. I want everyone in the world to be happy, loved and fulfilled; I don’t presume the journey there will look the same for everyone.

So here’s my deconversion story, which I share not to convince you to leave Christianity, but just so you’ll know something of the data that you aren’t being exposed to.

My faith was built on three things. First was a model of how the world worked. It was extremely self-referential, but it still had its own internal logic. Everything held up, but every piece was dependent on every other piece. Second was a community of people who all lived according to the same framework. Third was a handful of experiences that seemed to confirm a few of those pieces, and, by extension, the entire framework.

Yes, I too had experiences that, at one point, I thought made my beliefs unassailable.  There was a time when I was walking to an acting class, and I felt extremely anxious. I prayed, and felt a presence standing beside me. There was a time when I was confirmed, and I felt like I was about to step out of my body and soar. I thought this must be the Holy Spirit alighting on me. There were many times when I spoke in tongues during church services, and there were times when someone came and delivered a message to me from God.

So, if I had experiences like this, why would I ever doubt? Well, for one thing, I learned about how people from other religions, ones I considered absolutely false or even inspired by demons, had similar experiences. I read scientific explanations for them; states of self-hypnosis, group mentalities, cold reading, altered consciousness inspired by social pressure, etc. Learning this was positively creepy, because once I knew it, I had three choices.

Number one; I could believe that, of all the religions and denominations out there, one was divine and the rest were inspired by Satan, who was mimicking God’s work. This was comforting as long as I assumed I was in the right one, but the more I thought about the mathematics of that, the more terrifying this idea was. After all, the false, Satan-inspired religions outnumbered the one true faith, and most people blindly follow whatever religion they were raised in. Statistically, what were the real odds that I had happened to be born into the one true religion? If I assumed Satan could mimic God, I could never be sure I was following good and not evil.

Number two; believe that God existed, but was not the exclusively Protestant Christian God I had been raised with. He was in, if not all religions, than most of them, and if you got some details about his life wrong he wouldn’t hold it against you, so long as your heart was in the right place. This seemed sensible, comforting, and deeply blasphemous. If I chose to believe this, I could never admit it to the Christians around me. They were the sort of people who genuinely believed Catholics and Mormons were going to hell; to propose that God might speak through Islam or Hinduism or even Wiccan was as good as abandoning our religion altogether.

Number three; believe the materialistic scientists were right. All of this was a consequence of a brain that was easily deceived by social pressure and my own expectations.

As I read more about the way these feelings of mine could be simulated by stage magicians and fake psychics, the last seemed more and more likely. Also, I noticed disturbing patterns in the way all my churches talked about evidence for the supernatural. If a story was hard to confirm, it was by far more compelling and fantastic than any that I could confirm. People had stories of a friend of a friend of a friend who was healed of cancer, or prayed a man back to live. But nobody I knew was ever healed. Oh, but that was fine! God and mysterious ways and plans and all that. Meanwhile, I had the evidence of the divinely inspired outbursts people had in church; prophecies and messages from God and speaking in tongues. Of course, a stranger walking in might say that these people were just improvising and believing they were inspired by God because of social pressure…

It was all right to have evidence for God, but nobody was allowed to talk about evidence against. If evidence lined up, it was repeated and celebrated. If it didn’t, it was dismissed on any excuse at all. This was problematic, because in my own personal life, I felt like God was letting me down.

Take that anxiety attack outside the acting class, for example. It was far from the worst I ever experienced. There were jobs I had to quit, events I had to miss, and days I spent unable to stop crying. Once I had an anxiety attack so bad I couldn’t move. I don’t remember how long, because I couldn’t even turn my head to look at a clock. I just lay on a couch, feeling like I was encased in a cement mold, crying in terror. None of those resulted in a comforting presence.

The explanation most consistent with Christianity was that God had sent me aid when I needed it but also gave me opportunities to grow on my own. But the truth is, I didn’t really need that acting class. I wanted it, but it didn’t change my life or create lasting friendships. The opportunities I missed because of anxiety attacks were more important than the one where God “saved” me.

Besides, what I really needed wasn’t a sense of an angel. I had a mental health problem, and I needed to see a doctor. I couldn’t drive because of my anxiety, and my parents were willfully blind to my condition. When I told my parents about the paralyzing attack, they said it was because I hadn’t eaten enough. They were obsessed with healthy diets, and that was their go-to explanation for any anxiety attack of mine. But I knew for a fact that I had eaten enough that day. I had been keeping track, and diet wasn’t helping. The experience taught me that my mind and my body could betray me, and my parents would not take it seriously. If God was there when I needed him most, why didn’t he tell my parents to take me to a doctor?

The explanation a scientist would give for all that, on the other hand, was that the anxiety outside the acting class was relatively mild because the circumstances weren’t overly triggering, and my disorder was less severe at that point. Because it was mild, I could fight it by envisioning a comforting image, which, because of my religious upbringing, I gave spiritual significance. Later, as my mental health deteriorated, I lost the ability to comfort myself. This makes more sense to me.

As I said, three things upheld my belief; models, experience and community. By now you have some understanding of how the experiences that once seemed ironclad evidence became flimsy excuses. Research also meant that I could see how other people understood the world differently. I could see other models that people had, and how in many ways they explained the world better than mine. What remained was community, and that scared me. Because the truth was, my place in the community was entirely dependent on my faith. I could not exist among my old friends and family as an unbeliever, as a person with an adjusted model.

Remember how I described that model? How circular and self-referential it was, and how it stood on its own but moving or removing a single piece would send the whole thing crashing down? I envied those with other models, because they were malleable. They could be shifted around, repainted, parts replaced, replacement parts replaced again, and the whole thing still stood. They could learn that a certain part didn’t work, and make it into something better. I loved truth. I was afraid of going to hell if I happened to be wrong. So I decided to let my beliefs fall apart, and see if I could build up something better.

This was not when I lost my faith. This was when I remained in the church, but debated people, questioned my ideas, and tried to reform myself. It was also when I made new friends, and it was then that I discovered something. I had been miserable all along.

This is another statement of yours that got me.

Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ – Philippians 3:8

I’m only “preaching” to you because I want you to have what I have. He really is everything.

I remember feeling that way. I remember believing that nothing in my life was good except the love of Christ, and I’m not even talking about my anxiety disorder. I’m talking about something I had been raised with since birth; the understanding the only thing of any worth was the love of Jesus Christ. In prayer and worship I meditated on this and believed. In those moments of worship I felt an overwhelming love that I lived on.

That love was like candy. It was an intense, blissful sensation that produced energetic highs, and then let me crash down. It did not build me up into a strong, resilient person, because to believe myself worthy of God’s love I had to degrade myself as sinful (the irony of that worldview; I was filth, and only by acknowledging it wholeheartedly could I allow myself to feel the high of a God who loved me despite my worthlessness). My soul, for lack of a better word, was emaciated, an anorexic surviving on tic-tacs and glue. When I left the church for the company of unbelievers, the love they offered me was not the empty, worldly thing that had been described to me. It was a rough, flawed love, not an idealized one, but it had the nourishing qualities of crusty bread, crunchy apples and thick stew. The ideas and love I was encountering were soup and bread and apples and milk. Being seen as the weird, curious, queer boy I was, and loved for it, put meat back on my bones.

After years of questioning, I realized that atheism made more sense to me than any of the religions out there. It was a pragmatic decision. I am perfectly comfortable sharing the world with people who have religious beliefs. I am also comfortable with the idea that I might one day encounter new evidence that might change my mind. In the meantime, I am growing, I am learning, and I am loved.

And that’s what I, in turn, want for you. I don’t care whether you find it in Christianity or Buddhism or some other religion or abandoning religion altogether. If you have it now, I am happy to hear it. If you don’t, don’t be afraid to go looking for it.

Sincerely,

Lane William Brown

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic-Atheist: The Boy Who Didn’t Go to Church

This episode opens with recurring child-in-need-of-a-lesson Jack stopping by Whit’s End just in time to catch a rehearsal of a church skit. Ah, church skits. I remember you well. In retrospect, they were fun to put on, but the plots tended to teeter just on the edge of “so bad it’s good” without quite making it there. This episode captures the obliviously cloying blandness perfectly.

Jack wants to watch, because he loves theater, and while they set everything up he chats with Whit. Whit mentions that he hasn’t seen Jack around at church much lately. Jack knows he’s in trouble, and stammers something about being busy. Lucky for him, Whit drops it. Yeah, that won’t last long. You know if Whit doesn’t immediately rant, he’s already forming a manipulative ploy to make Jack do what he wan- I mean, a brilliant plan to set the young whippersnapper back on the right path.

Connie comes along and announces that they can’t do the rehearsal after all, because their lead actor is out sick. Everyone is disappointed, but Whit suggests handing Jack a script and letting him read the part. Jack is thrilled, and everyone else takes their places.

The play is about a charitable group called the Brotherhood of Dutiful Youth, or The Body. Er, BODY. BoDY? I dunno, it’s a radio show. Their leader is Mr. Headley, whose job is to tell everyone to do the exact things they do every week. First he sends out I. C. Freely to locate people who might need help. Then Miss Lipman and R. U. Listening go talk to them about their problems and figure out what they need. Hans Armstrong does most of the actual work, and John LeFeet, Jack’s character, is essentially everyone else’s chauffeur.

He doesn’t find this work particularly satisfying, so one day he decides to quit and start his own group, called the LeFeets. It doesn’t go so well. They can’t even manage step one; find people who actually need help.

Yeah, that’s about 3/4 of the episode right there. There’s a lot of filler, mostly body based puns. And let me be clear, I have nothing but respect for that. It’s just not great for review purposes.

Anyway, after being unable to help anyone for, um, ages, they finally get a gig… delivering a care package. Carrying stuff. Which is kind of exactly what they had been doing all along. Initially they are mad that this is all anyone seems to want from them, but after the job has been completed, John LeFeet realizes he feels great. In fact, he hasn’t been this happy since he left The Body, so he disbands the LeFeets and returns.

Unfortunately, he returns to find an empty room, where I. C. Freely is just packing up the last of her things. She explains that without John LeFeet, they had no one to take them anywhere, and couldn’t do anything.

Bit of an ableist conclusion, if you ask me.

No, but for real, there was no way they could just find somebody else with a car, or, like, drive themselves. They had to have John LeFeet or they were all sitting around in this room twiddling their thumbs. Or, at least they weren’t able to get up and help people, but they were able to get up and go find other jobs? This level of logic is pretty typical for a church skit, to be honest. It also creates a mood whiplash, as all the puns and silliness end and John realizes he has ruined everything, and falls to his knees with an epic “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

Even this is pretty normal. About a third of skits are all puns until the end, until you realize that because somebody failed to evangelize their neighbor/disobeyed a law that made no sense and could easily have been explained but wasn’t because this is a metaphor for original sin/went to a party, everything is terrible forever. But again, Jack hasn’t been to church much lately, so he’s apparently forgotten how preachy skits work. He asks Whit about the sudden tone change, and Whit explains that people have been leaving church lately, and this skit is there to show them why that’s so terrible. In his words;

“A lot of people are like John LeFeet. They don’t like where God has put them. Instead of being a foot, they’d rather be a hand or a head. After a while they start feeling like they really aren’t getting anything out of the church, so they stop coming.”

This is bullshit on so many levels.

First, that’s not why most people stop going to church. They stop believing, or come to feel their religion is not the most important part of their life. Nothing about that story addressed faith or belief. But perhaps that’s deliberate, because the second issue is that it’s going to be performed at church, in front of people who are still going. It’s not meant to address the concerns of non-church goers, regardless of what Whit says. It’s meant to stop other people from leaving.

Which brings me to the second point. Whit says God has placed everyone in the church exactly where he wants them. I’ll put aside my own beliefs (or lack thereof) and argue on his terms for a moment. People change, evolve, learn and grow. Just because God places someone in one place at one time, why would that mean he wants them to stay there forever? Consider Jack, for example. Let’s say he was feeling dissatisfied. He’s also just proven that he’s a good actor. He loves the theater, and since they didn’t have enough people for an understudy, clearly they need more people like him. So why didn’t Whit bring him back by inviting him to help with the play to begin with? Why guilt trip him, instead of utilizing his talents?

And that guilt trip is my third, and final point. This isn’t about making people feel joyful and satisfied in their work. It’s not about understanding them as evolving human beings and working with them. It’s about making them feel like if they ever change things then everything will be ruined and it’s all their fault. It’s sugar coated coercion.

Which, come to think of it, is another reason why people leave the church. Kind of hard to develop an authentic faith with all that pressure.

Final ratings

Best bit: the puns, which to be honest aren’t that great, but I still have nothing but respect for them.

Worst bit: Seriously, none of these people have cars?

Story: I actually liked the setup. Just not where they went with it. C-

Moral: Poorly thought out. D-

 

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic-Atheist: Bad Company

Yesterday, I wrote my first positive review of an AIO episode. The story was decent, and the moral was on the importance of being kind and loving to everyone. Unfortunately, when I was listening to it, the happy feels did not last long, because right on the other side of the tape was this shitshow.

Yes, I’m listening to tapes. I didn’t want to give Focus on the Family any of my money, so instead I got my Mom to give me all our old cassettes and invested in one of the planet’s last walkmans.

This is how Chris opens the episode.

“Choosing our friends is one of the most important choices we’ll ever make, because our friends often affect the way we act and how we think.”

As far as she goes, I agree. The people who are close to us affect our behavior, and it’s worthwhile to choose your influences wisely. I also don’t think this necessarily contradicts the message of the previous episode. You can show basic human decency to someone who isn’t your close friend; in fact as a general rule you should. But there are definitely ways to put those two ideas together that aren’t good.

There are two plots in this story. In the first, Donna Barclay is going to hang out with her friend Rachel. As she tells her Mom where she’s going, Mrs. Barclay expresses some concerns. She thinks Rachel is rude and a bad influence. Donna insists that Rachel doesn’t influence her behavior, that all the pair of them do is wander, chat and window shop. Mrs. Barclay wants to trust Donna around her, but it’s clear that’s a struggle. Ultimately, she doesn’t stop Donna from going, despite her misgivings.

Meanwhile, Connie tells Whit about a new Bible study that’s got her excited. He immediately starts probing about where it is, who leads it and what they will be teaching. And, with only the information that A. a friend invited her and B. it’s not affiliated with a specific church he knows of, he starts warning her off of it.

“Just because it’s a Bible study doesn’t mean that they’ll teach the right things about the Bible.”

Connie has to promise to give a full report to get him off her back.

Again, he doesn’t tell her she can’t go… but this feels very different from the case with Mrs. Barclay and Donna. In one case you have a parent/child relationship. Mrs. Barclay sounded like the typical mother adjusting to the fact that her daughter is now a teenager. Expressing some misgivings but trusting Donna’s judgment was a completely reasonable reaction. Whit, on the other hand, has a nebulous friend/employer/mentor relationship with Connie. There is a power imbalance, but not a clear sense of where his influence in her life begins and ends. Sometimes he actively interferes with her life, and other times he lets her make her own decisions. In this episode, he doesn’t stop her from going, but he doesn’t stop her in a way that seems very magnanimous, like he’s showing such generosity by letting her go to this Bible study which he has not personally vetted. Mrs. Barclay’s ambivalence is acknowledging Donna’s independence. Whit’s ambivalence suggests that he feels entitled to dictate Connie’s religious development.

Donna and Rachel meet up at the mall. In the space of about a minute, Rachel complains about Donna’s parents, complains about all parents, says she hates church, says she not only stopped going but made her parents stop… They are working so hard to establish her as a BAD INFLUENCE I’m honestly shocked that she doesn’t invite Donna to a strip club. Although, for all that, the one thing she doesn’t do is mock Donna about going to church. In fact, she specifically says, “no offense, it’s all right if you like that kind of thing. I just don’t.”

Next, we see Connie at the Bible study. Turns out, this isn’t a conventional Bible study. The leader, Mr. Grayson, doesn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, and has a Quaker-like philosophy about the divine speaker in all of us. They aren’t even going to be reading the Bible tonight. They’re drawing from another book by a modern historian. We cut away before we find out the details of what that book says, what it’s qualifications are, whether this book is one of several they study or whether it’s their surrogate Bible, or anything else specific about their religious philosophy. The point is that this man’s version of Christianity isn’t the same as Whit’s. As far as the episode is concerned, he is established as BAD INFLUENCE and we can move on, back to Donna and Rachel, who are being tailed by a mall cop.

Apparently Rachel’s a shoplifter. Yeah, we jumped straight from “doesn’t go to church” to “actual thief.” Donna only finds out when the mall cop catches up to them. Rachel takes off, leaving Donna to deal with the fallout. Donna chooses to pay for the earrings herself to stop them from pressing charges against Rachel. When they meet up later, not only does she not get reimbursed, but Rachel actually mocks Donna for being such a… nice and responsible person?

Next Connie returns to give Whit her report. She’s confused, because she thinks some of what Mr. Grayson said made sense. At the time she had a lot of questions, but when she asked them, Mr. Grayson did this thing where he offered counterarguments? Like, instead of just insisting he was right, he had evidence and sources and shit? She’s not used to logic, so it was very disorienting. Luckily for her, Whit has an answer to all of his arguments.

“Mr. Grayson is wrong. Absolutely without question or doubt wrong.”

Well, that’s that settled. This episode doesn’t even give us Mr. Grayson’s arguments in full. It’s just Whit repeating that he’s right because he’s right because he’s right because he’s right. Then he admonishes Connie for not being careful about what information she puts into her head.

“Keep an open mind? Open to what? To teachings that go against the Bible?… You need time to grow in the Lord, mature in the word. Then maybe you’ll be able to defend yourself against ridiculous ideas… This is why I was so concerned about you going to that Bible study. You have to be careful about who’s teaching you and what they’re trying to teach.”

Remember kids, if you go to hell for having the wrong ideas, it’s your own fault. Better to cocoon yourself in one perspective so you never risk having a wrong thought.

But what if you’re cocooned in the wrong perspective from the-

NO WRONG THOUGHTS!

In all seriousness, Whit claims to be nurturing Connie’s faith, but is it really faith if you just refuse to listen to somebody else’s side? Who died and made Whit the one true prophet of the Lord? He’s pressuring her to conform all of her beliefs to his; what he calls faith, I call control.

But what I call control they call faith, so her story ends with Whit agreeing to lead his own Bible study for Connie and her friends. We are all expected to be happy about that. Anyway……

After the events of the day, Mrs. Barclay comforts Donna. Needless to say, she and Rachel are no longer friends. I’m pretty happy about that. Rachel is a spiteful little brat who doesn’t deserve a friend like Donna. Her refusal to reimburse Donna for the earrings is proof that she’s the kind of person who will take advantage of someone else’s kindness. She’s toxic and Donna should stay far away from her. That’s not what bothers me about this storyline.

What bothers me is the pervasive attitude that, because Rachel is a non-believer and doesn’t go to church, Donna should have expected this. Mrs. Barclay’s concern at the beginning is that Rachel is a bad influence. Rachel has clearly not influenced Donna in the least; the behavior of the two girls could not be more different. Yet, Donna isn’t treated, by her mother or the episode, like a smart, kind girl who should have been trusted all along. She’s treated like a girl who was doing something wrong simply by associating with Rachel, and has now learned the error of her ways.

Final ratings

Best bit: I dunno. The ten seconds Mr. Grayson got to talk? Not because I agreed with him either, but at least he sounded like someone you could have an interesting, nonjudgmental conversation with.

Worst bit: Literally everything else.

Story: There’s barely a story to review here, outside of the moral. Just a mess of straw men and designated moral authorities. F

Moral: “Don’t hang out with people I disagree with, they’re all evil.” That’s not even an F. That’s like a Z-

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic-Atheist: The Greatest of These

This episode opens with a classroom spelling bee, and a kid named Oscar has the final word. He alone will determine whether his team ties with their opponents, or loses. The teacher has said that the losing team will do the winning teams homework, but if they tie, there’s no homework for anyone. And the teacher seems to have a soft spot, because he gives Oscar the shortest word yet, “laugh.”

Oscar steps up and carefully sounds it out.

“L. A. P. H?”

Thankfully the poor kid makes it out of the school alive.

In the very next scene, his team captain from the bee, Robyn Jacobs, finds out she is also partnered with him for the upcoming science fair. This would upset anyone, and Robyn is a smart perfectionist who lacks patience with those less gifted than her. And here I’ve got to give AIO credit. They are not the best at the whole “show don’t tell” thing, but this opening was great. It established the characters and their conflict perfectly. I know where this story is going, but I don’t feel like I’ve been talked down to.

And then in the next scene Connie shows up to ask Whit what agape means. So much for subtlety. Now, if you didn’t grow up with Bible camp, you’re probably pronouncing that uh-gayp and wondering how bad Connie’s high school must be if she doesn’t know it means “hanging open.” That’s what’s confusing her. She found it in the Bible Study she leads. It’s in a passage about love, and they’re trying to figure out how “hanging open” applies to love in any kind of Biblical sense.

Er. That came out wrong.

Anyway, Whit explains that it’s a Greek word, pronounced more like uh-gah-pay, and if he tells her now it will spoil the end of the episode deprive her of valuable experience. Valuable looking-up-Greek-words experience.

Connie leaves and Robyn shows up, steeling herself for her meeting with Oscar to discuss their science project. Her preferred method of venting is a long rant over ice cream, which, you know, valid. Unfortunately, she doesn’t realize that the whole point of venting is to get your bad feelings OUT, so you can act like a decent human being when the time comes. When Oscar shows up, she’s a fucking brat to him.

Which is a shame, because Oscar actually has a pretty good idea for a model volcano. With a little encouragement from Whit, he gets the idea out there, and Robyn starts actually treating him like a partner.

While the kids work on their project, Connie continues her research, and Whit engages in a little research of his own. Connie discovers that agape means unconditional love. Whit figures out that Oscar has dyslexia.

Before they can do anything with this information, Robyn and Oscar are ready to test their volcano. They call Whit and Connie in to observe, and initially it works, but then, when it’s time to shut it off, the thing doesn’t stop. It keeps going and going and overloads. Fake lava is splattered all around the room and their project is a smoking mess.

Robyn, distraught, tries to figure out what went wrong. The answer is discovered almost as soon as she looks at the on/off switch. Oscar never shut it off.

She calls him dumb and useless and storms out. Oscar agrees with her, and follows her out in tears.

A few days later, Robyn is talking to Whit about trying to change partners. Whit tries to get her to give him another chance, and when she won’t listen, he explains that Oscar’s dyslexia is to blame for the error, because it makes him read things backwards.

Wait, what? Like, that’s not only not how dyslexia works at all, but how would that apply to the switches even if it were true? The switches would just say, “no” and “ffo.” Still pretty easy to see which one is off, on account of it’s got an F in it. And again, NOT HOW DYSLEXIA WORKS. 

Anyway…

Robyn now feels bad for how she’s been treating him, but Whit isn’t done. He talks to her about agape; unconditional love. The kind of love Christians are supposed to have for everyone. Robyn tries to point out all the times she has helped Oscar, but Whit doesn’t let that slide either. If her treatment of him elsewhere in this episode is anything to go by, she might have done him favors, but that’s not the same thing as love. She treats him in a way that makes him feel pathetic for needing her help in the first place. Oscar didn’t deserve that. He deserved loving treatment from Robyn, right from the start. Not when it was easy, or convenient, or when he was doing what she wanted him to do. He deserved to be loved all along.

Oscar shows up, and Robyn apologizes to him. She says she wants to keep working with him, and finish their project together. Oscar, being a nice guy, accepts her apology and they get back to work.

Unconditional love is a topic that many Bible school teachers don’t handle well, in my experience.

In my own upbringing, unconditional love was a concept used in many ways. Sometimes it was used to mean “have compassion even when it’s inconvenient.” Other times it was used to mean “don’t set reasonable boundaries with abusers, that could hurt their feelings.” What I like about this episode is that it is made abundantly clear that Oscar’s behavior might be frustrating to Robyn, but it’s not harmful. Robyn is smart. She has a lifetime of As ahead of her, and one project won’t spoil that. That might be why her teacher put them together in the first place. Robyn doesn’t need yet another perfect grade. She has the privilege of being naturally intelligent and non-disabled. What she needs is to learn patience for other people who aren’t as quick as she is.

Oscar, meanwhile, isn’t trying to take advantage of her. He’s genuinely trying his best, and you can see that even before you learn about his learning disability. For once, I think Whit is completely right. There could have been any number of reasons why he was struggling; dyslexia, problems at home or just not being bright as she was. Robyn could see that his heart was in the right place. She could see that he needs help. Her compassion and kindness shouldn’t be dependent on knowing exactly why.

Final ratings

Best bit: Oscar. Everything about Oscar.

Worst bit: Seriously, though, that’s not how dyslexia works.

Story: B+

Moral: A

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic Atheist: Emotional Baggage

This story opens with Connie’s Mom talking to someone on the phone. Apparently there’s a surprise visitor coming. When Mrs. Kendall hangs up there’s some light-hearted banter. Connie will be giving up her room, and banished to the sofa. She and her Mom are joking about cricks in the neck and the resulting Quasimodo posture.

Then Connie learns the mystery guest is her Aunt Helen, and completely loses it.

As previously mentioned, Connie’s parents are divorced, but apparently her Mom is still on friendly terms with many people from her ex-husband’s side of the family, including Helen. Connie, on the other hand, has nothing but bad memories of Helen. The two of them are actually quite close in age, and Connie remembers being bullied by her. Mrs. Kendall doesn’t remember things the same way. She just recalls two kids being a bit bratty together, sometimes getting along and sometimes not. This dissonance only makes Connie more angry, and she storms out of the house.

The story cuts to Whit. We first find him talking to a girl, Tracy, while he organizes some leftover materials. He’s got lumber, bricks, and random sacks of feathers. He has no idea what to do with all of it, other than keep it neat for now.

Tracy has sought him out for the scoop on which of her friends are going to a party. Turns out, she’s trying to avoid a whole crowd of girls from the cheerleading squad. There’s been middle school drama.

Specifically, Harriet Paulson picked Bobbi McCormack instead of Donna Barclay for the cheerleading squad, but Donna didn’t really want to join, so she was going to step down, giving Gailene Harding, an alternate, a chance to step up, and Gailene had promised to make Tracy her flag bearer. So by picking Bobbi over Donna, Harriet cheated Tracy out of the flag bearing squad. Tracy believes the whole gang had it in for her, and was trying to get her hopes up and then crush them.

Whit feels the urge to give her some kind of advice, but he’s still dazed from simply processing all of that. His train of thought is interrupted by a call from Mrs. Kendall, which is how he finds out about their fight. He finds Connie in the back room of Whit’s End, where she’s setting up an old cot, determined to avoid Helen for the duration of the visit.

With a little prying, he gets at the real reason Connie is so angry. Helen introduced Connie’s father to the woman he left her mother for.

Connie doesn’t even know if her mother knows, and isn’t sure how to tell her. The divorce is still fairly fresh. Whit doesn’t know the story beyond those broad strokes, but he does think Connie is probably overreacting. Which… I think he might be right, but he might also be wrong. He doesn’t know Helen, Connie’s father or his new girlfriend. All he knows is that Connie is hurting, which he acknowledges, and he does allow her to stay at Whit’s End until Helen leaves. But he clearly isn’t happy about it.

When he goes back to the front, he finds Tracy’s situation has already been resolved. Turns out, Harriet Paulson wanted Tracy to be her flag bearer all along anyway, so clearly there was no conspiracy. Whit talks to Tracy about how she narrowly avoided carrying around a grudge for her entire life. He compares grudges to infections that take over your soul, and also to carrying a heavy load through your life. Tracy, high on her new revelation, wants to take on the world. She wants to tell everyone in the world how wonderful people can be if you give them a chance. She wants draw cartoons of people carrying around heavy boulders labeled “grudge” and show everyone on the planet, so they’ll know how silly they are being.

This gives Whit an idea.

He sets up a relay race with the leftover bricks and feathers. He ropes Connie in, under the pretense that Tracy needs a partner. The rules are as follows:

  1. The first person in each team runs to the end of the field, picks up an object, and brings the sack back to their partner, who must repeat the process.
  2. The next round is the same, only you pick up two objects. This goes on for four rounds.
  3. At any point, the runner can choose bricks or feathers. There are no extra points for choosing a brick.

Connie is surprised by that last rule. It seems like there’s no point to having bricks as an option at all. Clearly, she hasn’t yet realized she’s being preached at.

Tracy, under Whit’s instructions, runs first and chooses bricks every time. At the end Connie is staggering around under a bag of ten bricks, long after everyone else has left, and Whit takes the opportunity to lecture her on grudges. He tells her she’s choosing to hold onto her grudge against Helen, and it’s destroying her from the inside. He tells her she needs to let God take away her anger.

Then Mrs. Kendall shows up. Before When even began his game, he called Connie’s Mom and told her to come over, stating that Connie was ready to talk. He says he was taking a chance, which I think is putting it rather mildly. Connie concedes and goes back to her house to get ready for Helen’s arrival.

You know, I nearly liked this one. I do think grudges can be destructive. I do think it’s important to learn how to forgive. But the way Whit goes about teaching this lesson to Connie is terrible.

First of all, he draws a simple equivalency between a little middle school drama and a turbulent, broken family. Kids Tracy’s age are collectively going through an asshole phase and need to learn to give each other second chances and not jump to conclusions. They have an equal opportunity to learn and grow. Family is complicated. There are power imbalances and subtle dynamics. Nobody can assume, from a ten second summary, to understand exactly what’s going on in someone else’s family. Connie might be simplifying Helen in her mind. She might be remembering a distorted version of her childhood, and falsely attributing bad intent to what happened later. Or maybe Helen truly is manipulative and cruel. Maybe she did intentionally set Connie’s father and his new girlfriend up. I don’t know, and neither does Whit. The second possibility matters, because if Helen is that bad, maybe Connie’s anger is a necessary defense mechanism.

Second, even if Connie is holding onto a grudge, Whit is applying far too much pressure to make her give it up NOW. It’s like his pride as a community fixer is at stake, and he will make Connie give in whether or not she’s ready. He sets up a humiliating game, lectures her when she’s exhausted and then puts her on the spot with her mother. Is Connie genuinely forgiving at the end of this episode? Because I think a normal human being would just be too beaten down to keep arguing.

Third, once again, instead of understanding the real underlying cause of a problem, Whit is just deciding that certain emotions she’s feeling are WRONG and she needs to stop feeling them today. That will make him feel good in the short term, but as to whether or not it will make her life better, well, that’s pretty much a crapshoot. Genuine healing takes time and it’s not Whit’s job to set that schedule.

Listening to this episode, what stood out to me was that Connie is clearly still adjusting to life after her parent’s divorce. Superficially, she’s doing pretty well, but there are deep wounds under the surface and she hasn’t really processed everything yet. Her Mom also seems to have already processed things, but isn’t in a good place to empathize with where Connie is. If I were in Whit’s shoes, my priority would be to give Connie a space where she can feel safe to talk. That means no assumptions and no judgment. Just listen to her talk about what happened, from her perspective, and how that made her feel.

One thing I’d want to say to her is that when something like this happens, we often feel the need to blame someone. That can be tricky, because sometimes one or two people of the people responsible are also people we don’t want to blame. Connie’s father cheated. She loves her father. It’s very likely that, on some level, Helen is being used to wall off a whole flood of bad feelings about him. This is completely normal. I think it would be good to point out that possibility, but gently, and not with any demands that she agree with me today.

Connie is a person, flawed but ultimately sociable and warm. She doesn’t want to be this walled-off, angry person. The problem, as I see it, is that she doesn’t have the resources to deal with this shitty situation. Her mother is overwhelmed by her own issues, she’s been cut off from all her former friends, and her closest confidante is a man who views everyone around him as a project. Give her a space to sort through her feelings properly, and she will come to the right conclusion.

Final ratings

Best bit: The thirty seconds of mother/daughter banter before everything goes to shit.

Worst bit: The goddamn manipulative bullshit relay race.

Story: Completely trampled by the moral. D

Moral: Went for something good but completely missed the mark on execution. Also D