Sunday, September 23, 2012

Enjoy family life...with parrots

Yesterday some Jehovah's Witnesses came to the door. I was not available, but fortunately they left a pamphlet curled under the door handle. I say "fortunately" because while I would rather wash a battleship with a kitchen sponge than engage in five minutes' worth of theological debate with any sort of evangelist, I do appreciate being kept abreast of the form that these attempts at conversion tend to take. It's been a long time since a Chick tract was stuffed under my car's windshield wiper one rainy day whilst I was attending a lecture given by Bishop John Shelby Spong at a Unitarian Universalist church, you see, and I was curious to learn about the form of a Jehovah's Witness missive left when the party whose home is visited unannounced and uninvited proves to be curiously not at hand.

As an owner of two budgies, I was instantly charmed by the inclusion of a blue-throated Macaw in this cover image to signify family happiness. One can't help but wonder how it gets along with the two overweight Jack Russell terriers being petted by a daughter who looks rather like I looked and dressed when I about six-- in the early 1980's. Son with the unfortunate bowl-cut hairdo could use some work on declarative pointing as he seems to be a little unclear on where the bird is (or maybe he finds Dad's chin really fascinating), while Mom sits on...something and gazes adoringly at something out of frame, long past the object closest to her face which happens to be Dad's crotch. "Enjoy Family Life" is the title, bizarrely enough, but the subtitles are even better: "Can families really be happy?" asks the first one. "How is it possible?" wonders the second. If you're the sort of person to ask these questions, one of those folks who finds him or herself gobsmacked at the very idea of a family being something other than miserable, well here's your solution...get a parrot.

No, apparently that's not the entire solution, as can be seen in the fact that the pamphlet continues. "Do you know any families that are as united and happy as those seen in this tract?" it asks. Well yes, actually, because I've been to a Sears portrait studio. I appear in several similar pictures, as do most Americans who have ever lived, judging by this site. And those are with our actual families! There's no telling whether the Dockers clan above is actually related to each other, or whether they came from the Happy Family subdivision of Central Casting.
If we want to know how to have a Happy Family (TM), the pamphlet continues, you would think that the best way to go about doing so is to consult the originator of marriage and family, if such a being exists. But doeshe/she/it/they?
Actually, hold that question-- because the pamphlet sure does-- in favor of something else: "Interestingly, many believe that the family arrangement had no Originator [sic]. The Encyclopedia Americana says "Some scholars are inclined to trace the origin of marriage to pairing arrangements of animals below man."

Wait, what?

I had to look this one up. I found a Google books result for The Encyclopedia Americana, and went to the listing for marriage. Under Marriage, it reads
In the natural history sense of the word marriage may be defined as a more or less durable union between male and female lasting till after the birth and rearing of offspring. In the ethical and legal sense marriage is a union between man and woman living in complete community of life for the establishment of family.   
In the natural history sense of the word marriage may be said to exist among many of the animals below man. Pair marriage is common among the birds and some of the higher mammals. It especially characterizes the anthropoid apes, the pair marriage of the chimpanzee being monogamous and durable, probably not unlike that of primitive man. The origin of marriage is therefore to be sought in the family, rather than the origin of family in the marriage.  
The function of marriage in human society is twofold: 1) to regulate the relations between the sexes and 2) to determine the relation of the child to the community. This latter function is often overlooked, but is quite as important in any scientific consideration of marriage as the former.
This edition of The Encyclopedia Americana was published in 1919...and boy, does it show. But all it's really saying about the origin of marriage is that animals other than humans form lasting pair bonds, which it would be silly to deny-- although the claim that chimpanzees form "monogamous and durable" pair bonds is overstating things, to put it lightly. Chimpanzees along with their notoriously sex-crazed and very non-monogamous cousins the bonobos have large testicles precisely because of their promiscuous ways, in order for males to engage in regular sperm competition with their rivals. And they're equally related to "primitive man," which is to say that they're equally related to modern us.

The pamphlet uses this to claim that there are "scholars" who insist that the family has no Originator [sic], but while this is certainly true, you don't find that claim in this passage of The Encyclopedia Americana-- if anything, it would be logical to infer from said passage that the Originator is originator of all marriage and families; not just those of humans. I wonder if this even occurred to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Probably not, because the temptation to use something published nearly a century ago in contrast to the more sensical-sounding religious doctrine was just too great to pass up. But if there's one aspect in which they agree with the long-dead author(s) of that particular entry of The Encyclopedia Americana on Marriage, it's that marriage functions to "regulate the relations between the sexes."

Why? Because the Originator-- oh heck, let's just let the cat out of the bag and call him Jesus, because lord knows that no other deity could be behind the creation of everything-- set certain standards in place, standards which must not be violated! Under no circumstances must we pursue "life-styles" which contravene what Jesus wants for us, and if we do, the repercussions will take the form of Unhappy Families! Unlike these lovely people seen here, in which Father levitates a red rubber ball just above his palm for the benefit of Baby, who is not nearly old enough to psychically manipulate it herself. We know Baby is a "her," incidentally, by the pink clothing--the relations between the sexes must be regulated. Repeat that to yourself, Borg-style, over and over: You will be assimilated. The relations between the sexes must be regulated. You will be assimilated. The relations between sexes must be regulated. These are the words Mother lovingly chants to Baby as she holds her aloft, and Baby stares into space away from both Mother and Father in order to concentrate on absorbing this important standard so that it will never be violated.

But what is the standard for regulation of relations between the sexes, exactly? Well, let's see here...husbands, you must love your wife as your own body. Oh dear. Have you seen how little regard some husbands have for their own bodies? The husband is to "assign his wife honor," by giving her "special" attention (I guess this means attention beyond that earned by the UPS guy), including tenderness, understanding, and reassurance, and valuing her opinion and listening to her. Wouldn't any family benefit if the husband treats his wife with concern, as he would want to be treated? Well, fact, wouldn't it save time to just note that since they both presumably want to be treated this way, they should treat each other this way?

No, apparently not-- you need to remind the husbands to love the "girl" they married, because otherwise they'll forget and cheat on her.

Actually I'll give this pamphlet props for the fact that it is remarkably even-handed when it comes to instructing spouses how to treat each other...and by that, I mean that it ignores the significant patches of the Bible which are not even-handed in that regard. Such as the most famous, Ephesians 5:22-24, over which the Anglican Church of Sydney Australia has received some grief lately:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

1 Timothy 3:1-7 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? 

1 Peter 3:1-6 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands

Genesis 3: 16 To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

And so on and so on. If you want to find a biblical basis for separate-but-decidedly-not-equal in a marriage, there is no shortage of material. And as the Supreme Court has said, even separate-but-equal does not cut it-- you cannot come back and say "But the bible tells husbands to be nice and loving and respectful and kind to their wives!" as if that makes everything okay. As we remember, the bible also tells masters to be kind to their slaves, and slaves to be obedient to their masters.

Basically, this pamphlet attempts to proselytize by picking out the most innocuous, bland, inoffensive-but-also-not-remotely-insightful passages in the bible about how spouses should treat each other, and how they should relate to their children and how their children should relate to them. The problem is, of course, the fact that 1) any of the advice cherry-picked is so banal and generic that it wouldn't merit a mention in Marriage For Dummies, and 2) it's cherry-picked from a document (the bible) which says a lot of things about how spouses should relate to each other than no (presumably secular) Marriage For Dummies guide would include, and 3) unfortunately, offering marriage and family advice from the Originator of the universe doesn't carry much weight if you haven't first shown that a) there is an originator of the universe, and b) he/she/it/they give a damn about how people conduct their marriages and families, and c) you know what he/she/it/they want. On that topic,  or, you know, any topic.

Imagine someone came to your door offering a guide called Marriage And Family According to Xenu. Would you care what was in it? At all?

My guess is no. And so, Jehovah's Witnesses....
...I doubt it.


  1. I applaud your patience. I would not have gotten through that.

  2. Is that girl in the last picture trying to remove her father's head?

  3. Gretchen, this is hysterical. We Unitarians can be kind of goofy sometimes but we own up to our responsibility and don't claim god made us do it. I reblogged you, hope you don't mind.

  4. Next time you find a Chick Tract do that.

  5. I once overheard a conversation between an engaged couple who are evangelical Christians.

    Her: We need to start the Bible readings for this preparing for marriage course
    Him: Like Ephesians where it says 'wives submit to your husbands'?
    Her: Yes and then we can discuss how that *really* means both people should respect each other.

  6. So they don't lead with no birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year celebrations?

  7. Dr X, When you have a parrot you don't *need* birthdays

  8. You know, a few years ago, I would have said the same thing, and agreed with you. I used to see others living a life that I saw as objectively wrong."They're living a lie! Why don't they know they're wrong?"

    Now, I have a different take on it. I think happiness is so hard to come by that if people can find it in something I don't think is true, I'm still happy for them.