Divergent: Where the Politics of the Evangelical Christian Persecution Complex Meets the Big Screen

My wife and I saw Divergent today, and while I thought it was an extremely entertaining, high-quality movie, I found one thing in particular to be deeply troubling when we discussed the movie at an early dinner afterward:

Why is it that the “Erudite” faction—the intellectuals—were the evil people who were trying to take over the society and violently wipe out the “rightful” rulers, the “Abnegation” faction?

My wife was also interested in this question, so she looked up the author of the book, and discovered that the writer, Veronica Roth, was reported to be a “moralistic, devout Christian.”

Admittedly, this aroused my suspicion, and I began to look at the movie the way that I know many evangelical Christians look at society, from my own personal experiences and the experiences of friends. When I began really thinking about the movie, I started noticing several notable parallels:

1) The main character, Triss, is deeply uncomfortable about sex and firmly denies the sexual advances of her love interest, Four. The high level of her discomfort about sex becomes clear when we learn that is one of her greatest fears. Evangelical Christianity, of course, has a near obsession with premarital chastity, and Triss, the movie’s heroine, behaves exactly the way the evangelical religious culture would expect her to behave.

2) The plot is set in a post-apocalyptic world, and as anyone who has observed the “end times” element of evangelical Christianity knows, a post-apocalyptic society is a major focus of evangelical Christian thought.

3) Even though we learn that Four’s father abused him as a child, when Four’s father asks his son to save his life, Four does it—exactly what would be expected in a culture in which “honor(ing) thy mother and father” is paramount, regardless of parental transgressions.

4) The Abnegation faction consists of “simple, modest folk” who dress plainly, eat simple foods and behave, at all times, in an unfailingly virtuous way. This mirrors some of the practices—and the conceits—of many evangelical sects that discourage dressing or behaving “immodestly” and decry being “worldly.” They also harbor and shelter outcasts who have run afoul of the intelligentsia; the parallel here is that evangelicals like to view themselves as outcasts from the “immoral” society around them. It seems obvious that the “Abnegation” faction is a stand-in for evangelical Christians.

5) “Erudite,” the intellectual faction, is presented as scheming, evil, and jealous of the prerogatives of the ruling faction, which the “Abnegation” faction has somehow managed to become. How these simple, unassuming, virtuous people became the rulers of the post-apocalyptic Chicagoland is hard to imagine—unless one takes the view, as evangelical Christians in America do, that “God’s peopleare the rightful rulers of ourChristian nation.” It is also worth noting that, in Judeo-Christian texts, Satan is portrayed as scheming, evil and jealous of God, and that he uses his intellect to turn the godly toward sin—so it hardly seems a stretch to see a parallel in the movie between intellectuals and Satan himself. This linkage of intelligence and evil should be deeply troubling for those of us who value evidence and intellectual inquiry over blind faith and unquestioning obedience.

6) The Erudites, consumed by their elitist arrogance, decide that they, not the righteous Abnegation faction, should rule. They use their intellect to control and corrupt the “Dauntless” faction—the military—in order to round up and execute the Abnegation faction. This is crucially important, because it lines up, chapter-and-verse, with the tenets of the persecution complex that is rampant in American evangelical Christianity. It is taken as an article of faith among evangelical Christians that they inevitably will be persecuted for their faith. In the evangelical community, mistrust of intellectual “elitists”—who, in the evangelical view, cleverly twist and spin the truth, idolize science and other “worldly” things, deny the Bible, and generally seek to corrupt our “Christian nation”—runs very deep.

I have some personal experience that informs my knowledge of the evangelical persecution complex. When I was about 10 years old, two friends of mine from school recruited me to join an evangelical imitation of the Boy Scouts. In between hikes and campfires, we were constantly being told by our adult leaders that we, as Christians, might one day be tortured, even killed, for professing our faith. (Finally, one night we were taken into the sanctuary where the Wednesday night services were taking place, and we were told to raise our hands, close our eyes, and softly, rhythmically chant “Jesus, Jesus.” Even as a 12-year-old, I found this experience decidedly weird, and I never went back.)

In short, I think the parallels between the movie and some of the stranger obsessions of American evangelicals are frightfully clear. I can’t help but wonder whether the flurry of books and movies such as this one, as well as Noah, Son of God, the impending Exodus, the Twilight series, and some of the obviously Christian morality parables being filmed by artists such as Tyler Perry, isn’t indicative of a serious push by the evangelical community to reverse their declining hold on American culture and politics via the aggressive use of the arts.

But most of all, I’m deeply troubled by the equating of intelligent people with the forces of evil, and I think we have to be wary of letting this train of thought get down the tracks unchecked. There has long been a tendency toward mistrust of intellectuals in American society—as noted by Frenchman Alexis deTocqueville in his seminal 19th-century work Democracy in America—and in the decades that have followed Charles Darwin’s publication of his Theory of Evolution, this anti-intellectualism has been taken up in a full-throated way by fundamentalist Christians as well. I think it is extremely dangerous when popular culture begins to reinforce this longtime loathing and mistrust of intellectuals.

I can almost smell the book barbecue now.

Cutting Through The Crap On Ukraine

I know it’s folly to even engage in discussion with Republicans on this topic, but seriously, can some Republican please tell me what exactly we can do about the Russian takeover of Crimea? I keep hearing these Republican politicians yammering about Obama being weak—because they’ve been playing the “Democrats are weak” card for 70 years and they still haven’t figured out anything any more original than that—but seriously, if we had elected Mitt Romney president in 2012, what, exactly, could he have done that would have prevented or reversed what has happened over there? Here’s a hint: the honest answer is “not a damn thing,” short of starting a war, and if you really think that going to war with Russia is an intelligent thing to do, I suggest consulting a couple of fellows named Bonaparte and Hitler and asking how that worked out for them. It’s also worth noting that when Napoleon and the Nazis, respectively, froze their asses off in Russia 130 years apart, the Russians did not yet have a stockpile of nuclear weapons—or you can bet your bottom dollar that Paris and Berlin would have glowed in the dark for decades.

Of course, Obama is blamed for “being weak on Syria” and, thereby, emboldening Russia to invade a country it has no business invading, but I would suggest that our idiotic invasion of Iraq might have set more of an example—and may well have also robbed us of any moral authority or credibility we have to criticize the Russians for their actions. In fact, I could point out that Russia has a much stronger case for its actions in Crimea than we had for our actions in Iraq. The Russians at least can claim, with real justification, that Crimea is historically and ethnically Russian and may well prefer to be part of Russia. We claimed that Iraq was linked to 9-11 and was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, and when those factually challenged claims proved inconvenient, we changed our story to removing a dictator and striking a blow for democracy. I don’t suspect the Russians would have very much respect for any lectures we might want to give them about the appropriateness of armed incursions into other nations.

Now, I know that the Republicans would tell us about that glorious day when Saint Ronnie stood before the Berlin Wall and exclaimed “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” And then he circled the gates, blew his horn three times, and the wall fell. Of course, that’s not exactly the way it happened. What actually happened is that 40-plus years of U.S. containment policy, started by Harry Truman and continued by eight more presidents after him, isolated the Russians and wrecked their economy, and they had to pull back from Eastern Europe and Central Asia to save themselves from collapse. But the Gipper was on the mound when the winning run scored, so naturally, the Republicans give him all the credit, and they like to contrast his “strength” with Obama’s “weakness.” It’s a very simple and satisfying trope, but it’s also complete horse hockey, as Colonel Potter was fond of saying in M*A*S*H.

The bottom line is this: the next time a Republican yammers about Obama being “weak,” ask your Republican friend what another president might do differently. You’ll get an answer, of course, and it will be either 1) vague or 2) unrealistic. Because vague and unrealistic are what they do. But the facts on the ground are pretty simple here: if we want the Russians out of Ukraine, there won’t be a quick or satisfying solution; it will take years of isolation and economic pressure, just as it took to destroy the Soviet empire.