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They Know It When They See It

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Some Catholic school alumni are traumatized by the experience. I don’t think I was, if only because what I experienced in the church itself—specifically, from a particular priest—was far worse than any misfortune I incurred in the classroom.

Moreover, I did nothing to deserve sexual exploitation at the hands of that prelate. But some might argue that I had the impact of Sister Elizabeth’s hand against my face coming to me as a consequence of my insolence. 

So what was my offense? Another kid mentioned something about a movie popular at the time—Midnight Cowboy, if I remember correctly.  “Nobody should see it,” she pronounced.  “It’s dirty.”

To which I retorted, “How do you know?”

The funny thing, in recalling the episode more than half a century later, is that I wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass, though I had the capacity for it. My question, really, was almost innocent; it just kind of popped out of me.

And I think, perhaps, she reacted more out of shock that even though I could be snarky—I’ve concluded that it’s part of my DNA—I actually was a rather well-behaved kid and a good student.  Plus, being an altar boy gave me some cachet in that milieu at a time when I didn’t know, and people I knew didn’t use, words like “cachet” and “milieu.” If anything, I suspect that until that moment, she rather liked me—or, at least hated me less than she and other nuns seemed to hate other kids.

So what got me to thinking about that episode? A recent news story. To wit: a parent in a Utah school district filed a petition to have a book banned from a local school.

All right . . .You probably think that there’s nothing unusual about that. After all, the Beehive State is one of the most conservative states in the nation. It may well have been the closest thing the United States had to a theocracy until Ron De Santis, Kay Ivey, and Greg Abbott started to make the fantasies of the Christian Right come true. 

Ah, but there’s a twist to this story. Actually, two twists. One is the book in question. The other: The parent in question has actually read the book.

That I had to write the previous sentence speaks volumes (yes, I know) about the current state of affairs. The folks who are emptying bookshelves in your kid’s school or your library don’t make sheepish admissions, as I might about having lived in New York City for much of my life, but never having visited the Statue of Liberty, about not having ventured between the covers of what they would keep from the rest of us. They boast about it and double down on their ignorance by saying they didn’t need to thumb through the pages; they just had to scan the reviews or ads for it.

That is why, if your kid is going to learn the truth about intergenerational trauma or brutality that underlies relationships that are supposed to nurture and protect the people in them, it won’t come from Maus or The Bluest Eyeat least, until Junior and Missy are old enough to procure or borrow them on their own, just as they won’t be able to look at Michelangelo’s David until they take a trip to Italy.

And, in the school district in which the parent I mentioned filed the petition, the yung’uns won’t learn about adultery, incest, and drunkenness from the book that the parent wants to ban. Just think of the irreparable harm that wonderfully responsible adult is sparing young, innocent people by shielding them from this:

See now, I have two daughters who have not known a man; please, let me bring them to you, and you may do with them as you wish.

Oh, but it gets worse:

Then they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. Thus both the daughters of Lot were with child by their father.

Neither of those passages depicts any suitable role models. Nor does this:

[W]henever he went to his brother’s wife, he would waste his semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. 

In addition to drunkenness, pimping children, incest, adultery (with an in-law, no less!), and masturbation, the book in question also mentions homosexuality, bestiality, fratricide, homicide, and hit-and-run fatherhood. Not the sort of stuff you want your precious child to dive into, is it?

The ostensible purpose of bringing up all of those topics is to warn people away from them—well, except for the homicide and hit-and-run fatherhood: Depending on who does those things—specifically, one who does them—they can be justified. But, still, you don’t want your kids to do such things, do you?

And if you don’t want your little ones to end up in Chelsea or the Castro district, you don’t want to learn about “alternative lifestyles” at such a young age. Perhaps that’s how the parent in question felt in filing the petition to ban the book I’m about to mention.

Since I know my audience, I am sure that, by now, most of you realize that book is The Book—a.k.a., the Bible.

Now, the parent—whose name and other identifying information were not made public—probably doesn’t want to make the Bible disappear from school bookshelves. A state legislator named Ken Ivory called the petition a “political stunt” (as if members of his own party haven’t pulled them!) and points out that the state law the parent cited as the basis for the ban is intended to keep “pornographic material” from soiling the hands and minds of babes. That same law, which purports to define what is “obscene”: It doesn’t have to be the work as a whole; it merely needs to contain mentions of sexual arousal, stimulation, or any number of other human activities.

Sir Kenneth Clark admitted that he could not define “civilization.” But, turning his gaze to the Notre Dame cathedral, he said, “I know I’m looking at it.” When, in giving his opinion in Jacobellus vs. Ohio (1964), US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart conceded that he couldn’t define “obscenity,” but insisted, “I know it when I see it.” Most people, if they’re being honest, would admit they can’t articulate a cogent, succinct definition of what they want to encourage or keep from their kid any more than a kid can learn what is right or wrong—or simply what a parent or other authority figure doesn’t approve of—unless they see examples of it. If you don’t want your children to masturbate or pleasure themselves with your family’s dog (something that was legal, under most circumstances, in Sweden until 2014 ), how do they know to avoid it (which, of course, they won’t, at least in the case of solo sex) if they don’t know what it is or why it’s so wrong?

I think that’s the point of the petition. If anything containing nudity or depicting sex acts is banned, not only will Fifty Shades of Gray white out or fade to black (If I were going to ban it for anything, it would be its awful writing. How do I know about it?;-)), the Bible and any number of textbooks would be consigned to the ash heap. Hmm . . . Maybe that’s the point: After all, the book banners’ (and garden-variety bigots’) champions know they need “low information voters” to get elected!

Oh, and Sister Elizabeth, wherever you are: If you actually saw Midnight Cowboy, all is forgiven. Entre nous, it’s really good. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone if you agree!


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    Re: brutality in the bible. I comment here about the several dissonances that I finally confronted and, as a result, I deconverted. The pivotal one was that I was preparing to lead a team which took a weekly school assembly for 5-7yos as we’d done for years. We were working our way through the OT, I loved those great stories about those cutsie animals on the ark, or the dramatic David and Goliath, the amazing miracle of Jonah etc. We’d got to Daniel and I suddenly found I couldn’t do it. I consulted my vicar who had 3 boisterous boys and she said kids watch far worse things than the fiery furnace every day on TV. She didn’t take the point that we were supposed to be telling (indoctrinating) them about a god of infinite love. I took the executive decision to skip Daniel and started the NT instead. And deconverted pretty much there and then! My 3 and 5yo g/children’s other g/parents are very fundy and creationist. They’ve already taught them a catchy song, ‘Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, into the furnace you must go.’ Their mum is restricting their visits as they also told them, just last month that their little buddy’s family are sinners…..cos they’re veggie….they should know that god gave us animals to kill and eat, apparently the bible orders it!

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    As bad as Fifty Shades is, on various levels, it has had great use as a discipleship tool and brought many into the fellowship. However, when they saw the required discipline, many realized they could not truly take that final step of accepting and committing to what was expected, and fell off the path. The reward is on for those few who endure to the end.

    The push to keep people ignorant is very sad. Even in my very strict household -with a very conservative Christian preacher father, and deep indoctrination, and strict rules for how I lived – I was allowed to read and taught to be a critical thinker. It was important to know why we believed as we did, and living in ignorance was not helpful to that goal.

    My father, a highly respected, God centered, Nazarene minister, read everything he could find. He read and studied the Koran. He read the Hebrew Scriptures. He studied Hinduism. He had several Buddhist books. He loved astronomy and science. He would read books that were popular, some which they would ban today, because he wanted to understand and be educated.

    In his view, his God was bigger than any of these things he would read and learn. His faith in his god was strong and could not be overcome by books, rival religions, or anything that challenged Christian theology.

    He had a lot of beliefs I considered to be wrong and many that were quite harmful to others. He viewed the world through a very conservative, very strict Christian viewpoint. But he did not live in the fear of knowledge and education.

    You are right MJ. I think the right believes it is important to keep these low information voters. This is how they maintain power.

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    MJ, I agree with you that the GOP has banked their existence and success in large part in appealing to and promoting the conditions of propagating low-education, ignorant voters. Higher education is viewed as THE ENEMY: public schools/teachers are trying to indoctrinate your kid; colleges are bastions of liberal indoctrination; public funds should go toward religious schools or homeschooling materials because of “parents’ rights”. When I was a student in the 80s, the message among the right was “they took prayer and God out of public schools so send your kid to private Christian schools.” When my kids were starting school in the mid 2000s my mom was parroting “you should homeschool”. (My response was something along the lines of “no fucking way” because we live in a goodschool district in a state ranked nationally #2 for public education. And even though my husband is a trained educator who graduated #1 in his class from what was at the time the #1 education program in the nation, we agreed that homeschooling was an inferior option for us).

    I feel that the person who proposed banning the Bible for pornography is a kindred spirit! I am generally opposed to book banning, but this is an attempt to make a point that needs to be made.

    I feel like I am the only person on the planet that hated the Fifty Shades of Grey series. The writing was horrible. The plot was trite. And I felt like the female protagonist was little more than a young woman taken advantage of by a wealthy old er man – while she was trying to convince herself that she was an independent woman in control of her destiny. No, honey, a rich man thought you were pretty, bought you expensive gifts, bought a company for you, let you think you were running it, while using you for sex. Did I mention how much I hated those books? I felt obligated to read them due to the hubbub, but I feel like I wasted hours of my life on them.

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    I always love your guest posts but this particular line has brought me out of the shadows to high-five you:

    “Plus, being an altar boy gave me some cachet in that milieu at a time when I didn’t know, and people I knew didn’t use, words like “cachet” and “milieu.””


    • Avatar
      Yulya Sevelova

      Hi, MJ. I was really intrigued by your post here,and I knew a few kids growing up who were forced to go to a parochial school,aka Catholic school,who told me how the nuns and priests were so abusive. As in hitting, verbal/ emotional abuse. They never brought up sexual incidents, though it could have happened anyway. I always wondered WHY abuse these kids in your care, when you are so pro- natalist ?? It made no sense to me then, I went to public schools in Los Angeles during my youth,some of them gang- infested. Literal gladiator academies,lol ! That nun who slapped you,I hope your parents raised hell with HER. When one is abused at these institutions, I always agree in principle that lawsuits are called for. In the 90’s, it was Native Americans up in Canada that first brought up this subject, and then after this happened, there was that Cardinal Law scandal back in Massachusetts. Anyone remember that ? This started an avalanche of people coming forward to relate what befell them as students, in Catholic and other religious schools. I was so shocked, outraged. But not too surprised,as hatred of children is promoted as normal in such places. Churches being number one in that sorry category. I’d love to see that nun who slapped you get her comeuppance, if she’s still alive. Along with that priest who attacked you as an altar boy. I call molestation attacking, no other definition for such acts. You faced these situations with aplomb. It didn’t destroy you to that point of suicide or violence. Kudos.

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Bruce Gerencser