Writers should read. Unfortunately, I spend most of my free time writing, and I read woefully less than I should. That changed, when on the recommendation of friend and writer Alexandru Constantin, I picked up Inherent Vice by world-famous recluse Thomas Pynchon.
I liked this book a lot. I spent very many nights up past the point of reasonableness reading it even though it is one of those books where one should only read a chapter per session in order to savor it instead of plowing through like I did. I had heard that Pynchon was famous for dense novels with complex plots, and while Inherent Vice was written from the POV of a drug-addled, though amiable, pot-head PI, and though the plot incorporated elements of noir, conspiracy theory, crime drama, SoCal hippie culture circa 1970, MK Ultra, surf music, and maritime law, it never felt confusing. To be fair, I have heard this book called “Pynchon lite,” so maybe his other works will prove more difficult to read.
In any event, I have to say that I do not like hippies and at least philosophically found myself rooting somewhat for the counter-subversive elements in the story, though they were not always sympathetically portrayed.
But they were not unsympathetically portrayed either. A very delicate balance.
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Every Christian reading can picture this: you settle in for a book or a movie or some hot new episodic TV drama on one of the major streaming services. You have your little drink, maybe a snack, or maybe nothing because you’re health-conscious like that. Things start off good, perhaps even intriguing, and then you come to it: the character trope that lurks in wait any time the R-word rears its head in any modern work (no, not that R-word, you retard).
Yes, it’s the Hypocritical Christian™! And guess what: they’re the real bad guy!
This Hypocritical Christian™ embodies all of the worst stereotypes you can imagine. They are, in no particular order:
- Low IQ
- Misogynistic (if male) and self-loathing (if female)
- Sexually repressed
- Lack a “serious” education
And so on.
In general, the Hypocritical Christian™ has a faith which is an obstacle to be overcome, either by the protagonists, or themselves if they want to enter into the ranks of the truly good people and not superstitious weirdos. The Hypocritical Christian™ can be saved—I don’t mean in the sense of saved by the Lord’s grace—if only they renounce those pesky religious beliefs.
There are a few caveats here. There is far more leeway for non-white Christian characters to be non-Hypocritical. Members of other religious faiths are also allowed to be non-Hypocritical and sincere in their belief, a courtesy never afforded to the archetypical Hypocritical Christian™ who is often both totally superstitious and only believes this stuff because it gives him some sort of power over others.
The best Christian in modern works—and I’m using 1965 as my demarcation for “Modern” for reasons beyond the scope of this post—is the one who is willing to compromise core beliefs, or even jettison them altogether.
This is all pretty standard stuff if you’ve been paying attention.
The point is, have you ever voiced your displeasure with this? Have you ever mentioned to someone in person, or online, or if you’re willing to admit your age written a letter, pointing out these offensively negative portrayals?
If so, what has the response been? I bet even with my rudimentary powers of ESP, I can tell you what a good chunk of them have been:
“If you see yourself in the Christian character who goosesteps to Wehrmacht battle hymns in full Third Reich regalia while beating poor and marginalized POCs with a giant iron Cross, well then maybe that’s because you’re a bigot!”
I am throwing down the bullshit card on this one.
Art is powerful. Art can say things people will listen to because how things are said by whom matters far more than the actual informational content. Tale as old as time.
It doesn’t matter that these Hypocritical Christian™ characters are grossly offensive stereotypes with little basis in reality: they are put out in slickly produced entertainment packages and portrayed by actors skilled in manipulating emotion in order to elicit a deeply primal response in viewers who think that, if something appears on a screen, then by golly it’s real.
Besides, “Well, some Christians are like that.”
Really? Let’s play this game with other groups of people and stereotypes about them and see how comfortable you are mouthing these platitudes.
If you are offended by something you see in a work of art, there is a near-100 percent chance it is because the creator intentionally put it there to piss people like you off. It is tailor-made to both trigger you and create a negative connection in the minds of others between that identity and very bad things that society says are mean and nasty.
Look at Nazis. The Nazis were bad, no doubt, and the world is better of with them not in it. But they have been turned into the embodiment of ultimate evil to such a ridiculous degree, that people find Satan less-evil than Mean Mr. Mustache and his Merry Band of Teutonic Terrors.
And this embodiment of evil is deliberately linked to you by creators of fiction who hate you.
If you see yourself in portrayals like this, whether you’re a Christian or some other despised group in America today, it’s not on you. It’s on them. Because you don’t see yourself in the “Nazi” part of the Hypocritical Christian™, you see yourself in the Christian part.
And that’s the point. These people hate you.
* * *
Thomas Pynchon almost made me like hippies. Almost.
See, Doc Sportello is such a unique character, a hippie private investigator with a heart of gold underneath the haze of marijuana smoke. He wants to do the right thing because it’s right, degenerate ways aside. But I can’t quite come out and say he’s doing the right thing on the moral level because he, like most of the freaks and weirdos he calls friends, literally screw anything that moves. And I get that this was a part of the hippie lifestyle, but other than one junkie couple, nobody seems to face any consequences for engaging in such a destructive lifestyle. No VD, no unwanted pregnancy, no heartache and heartbreak from purely transactional relationships, nothing.
I also get that it’s a book which presented a dreamlike view of the entire time and place, but as we all know, fiction is powerful.
And yet . . . and yet Pynchon does a beautiful job of not unduly praising Doc and his crew, nor of unduly condemning his antagonists save for a few who are pure evil because they’re evil and not because of their immutable characteristics.
It’s a really delicate dance that only master novelists like Pynchon can pull off. He presents these characters as they are and leaves it up to the reader to make their own value judgments. Maybe you are sympathetic to Bigfoot Bjornsen and his hippie-hating ways. That’s cool, even though Bigfoot is hardly perfect. Bigfoot is never portrayed as the butt of jokes because he’s a conservative type of anti-hippie Nixonite. He’s just an interesting character with his own goals and motivations for achieving them who sets out to get what he wants come hell or high water. Just like every other character.
If you see yourself in Bigfoot, great. If you see yourself in Doc, that’s great too. Neither are particularly insulting characters. But they sure are interesting.
* * *
I would like to remind everyone that it’s okay to be offended. This goofy “Only immature and insecure losers get offended” attitude is neither mature nor proof of one’s solid mental constitution. It’s a deliberate repudiation of one’s natural disgust reflex.
Gross things should offend you. Unnatural things should offend you. Perverse things should offend you. Lies should offend you. Especially if these lies are about you.
“But if you see yourself in this disturbingly graphic depiction of Catholics as kiddie-diddlers, well then, that’s on you! It’s just art.”
No. Nothing is ever “just” art.
* * *
This raises a broader point about our moment in culture. Do you notice how you don’t see gay villains? You just don’t. You don’t see black villains unless the hero is also black, and even then, the black villain will be sympathetic with a cause that is just and whose fault is solely the methods used. Female villains with a male hero are clearly out of the question.
Remember after 9/11 when we weren’t even able to have Muslims portrayed as bad guys on film or TV? Why is that? The fear that Muslims might see themselves in these portrayals? Did the makers of motion pictures have the same deference to the sore feelings of German-Americans during the 1930s and 40s?
So instead, the real villains in post-9/11 fiction tended to be disgruntled soldiers, the U.S. government (plausible), and—get this—Christian fundamentalists.
But if you saw yourself in that, it must be because you are a Hypocritical Christian™, and a terrorist to boot!
* * *
I would like to remind everyone that if you’re offended by a portrayal of a certain type of person in one of my books, chances are that its deliberate.
Check out my books here and let me know how you think I did.