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Today we’re talking about comic books and how I got a jolt upside the head from one.

A long time ago, I read a Sandman comic book about how a bunch of people found themselves trapped in a diner one dark night by a being of godlike power. Because it was Sandman, things get really weird really quickly–that godlike being, John Dee, starts commanding them to do terrible things. In the next 24 hours, the patrons of this diner will hurt each other, have sex with each other, and ultimately kill each other–all at John Dee’s whim. At least at the start of the comic, most of the people involved think that they’re the ones coming up with all of these ideas; they don’t realize that they are being controlled for the most part.

The Sandman: The Dream Hunters
The Sandman: The Dream Hunters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I ran into this comic at a formative stage in my deconversion. It’d been published in 1989, but I didn’t see it until some five or ten years later at a comic shop (if something popular happened between 1986ish and 1998ish, chances are I didn’t know about it at the time–#pentecostalworldproblems). What startled me was how easily this evil being took control of the diners and made their decisions for them. But what caught my attention even more was how similar he is to one of the other characters in the comic–a mortal waitress who is an aspiring writer. She has a habit of “writing what she knows,” so she’s taken her regulars and written them into her stories as characters–after she tidies up their lives and fixes all their perceived problems to better fit into her fantasies. A young lesbian woman, for example, realizes that she’s really straight and marries a man in the waitress’ written version of her life. Alas, these tidy little rewrites can occur only in her own mind; she knows that she has no power to enforce her unilateral decisions in the real world. John Dee suffers no such limitations; he does the same thing the waitress does but in a very real and literal way, such as forcing that same young woman to have enthusiastic sex with a man behind the diner’s counter.

I’ve known similar people who did similar tidying-up on the lives of real people–and been the target of one of those sanitizing acts. It’s one of the creepiest things I’ve ever experienced, too, to realize that everything I was, everything I held dear, everything I stood for, was simply brushed aside by this supposed friend who thought I’d be ever so much happier if I just gave in and had kids and became the happy, docile, submissive hausfrau that she just knew lurked within my feminist, childfree heart. My own desires and will meant nothing because they didn’t fit into her worldview and were too messy to reconcile with her wishful fantasies about what Christian women should be like. It’s worth noting that she was well into her 20s and had never been on a date, while I was married and probably had a much more solid idea of what relationships entailed than she did (and a much better notion of the serious limitations of and potential abuses contained within the fundagelical notion of “complementarianism”), but that didn’t stop her from having some very firm opinions about exactly what kind of life would make me happy.

If I was creeped out by this writer’s tidying-up of my life, I was downright startled to see that our mutual friends bought into what she’d written by agreeing wholeheartedly with her. Apparently my most personal, intimate decisions were up for their adjudication and judgement. Had they had the power, I’ve no doubt they’d have forced me into that kind of life and been totally convinced the whole time that they were acting in my best interests and that I would be absolutely happy once the dust had settled. They all thought that an unexpected, unwanted pregnancy was exactly what I needed to figure myself out, and were all looking forward to when–not if–it happened. Yeah, that was a very entertaining little intervention that I endured that day, let me tell you what.

In this manner, they were only doing exactly what they thought their god did, just on a different level. They thought that our god routinely did exactly what they were doing–“guiding” people by directing them and forcing circumstances upon them to make them do what he wanted. The much-loved saying goes, “When God closes one door, he opens another.” That’s what it means: that this god forces events upon people or prevents events from happening, all for a purpose. It means that when an adverse circumstance arises or a much-desired event fails to happen, obviously that means that the Christian is meant to do some other thing, and should be grateful for the attention he or she received and for the direction thus provided. It means that the Christian’s god has thoughtfully “tidied up” that person’s life by pushing him or her onto the desired path.

I’m sure some Christians disagree with that saying, but I’ve never met any or heard of any myself. It is one of those deepities that Christians really seem to love. One Christian site even has a writeup of why such closed doors are wonderful: they prevent mistakes and buy Christians time to prepare for whatever it was they were supposed to do, apparently. But more to the point, these strong-arming gestures are about the only way that Christians can actually tell what their god wants them to do. Even that Christian site, as gushing and glurging as it is about how wunnerful such denied opportunities and imposed events are, indirectly concedes that point. Once all the other doors get closed–in other words, once all the other avenues of action are prevented–then the Christian can finally see what direction is divinely ordained.

What happened to free will in such a vision, though? Isn’t free will–the notion that people freely choose to follow or not follow this god–supposed to be kind of important? If someone is being forced into a course of action, doesn’t that kind of invalidate that person’s free will in choosing to follow that action and more to the point doesn’t the removal of free will mean that someone is neither laudable nor culpable when making a forced decision when there are no other feasible options? When a god directly meddles with people’s decisions to get them to make the ones he wants them to make, then why bother with the charade at all? And why hold those same humans accountable for making the wrong decisions when he’s made it perfectly clear that he can easily meddle with them–but chooses not to sometimes?

It seems narcissistic to me that Christians imagine that there’s this divine being up in the sky who is busily setting up a big huge complicated lab-rat maze for them each to run through, forcing them into one decision after another so they can get through to the big reward at the end. I remember as a Christian how I wondered why it was that my god seemed intensely interested in completely micro-managing some people’s lives but ignored so many other people. I felt like I was one of the people he largely ignored; even after copious prayer and Bible study, I didn’t have the faintest idea what he wanted me to do or not do, and I admit I was a little envious of those Christians who seemed so very positive of “God’s will” for their own lives. It took a long time to realize that most of them were just faking it till they made it–they didn’t have any idea any more than I did.

I see this trope of “closed doors” and divine direction as part of toxic Christianity’s pervasive culture of fear and intimidation. It is used to frighten Christians into behaving themselves. Worrying about what path to take makes Christians second-guess themselves constantly and leaves them open to manipulation by those who at least seem more certain of that path. Even in movies like 2010’s What If…, whose major concern is this god’s will for particular people, true-blue Christian characters openly fret and worry about doing the wrong thing, making the wrong decision, and getting their god’s will totally wrong–and thereby totally ruining their lives forever and ever and ever, because of course life is cut-and-dried that way and people only ever get one shot at correctly guessing this god’s divine wishes. That awful movie is also notable because it “tidies up” its main character’s life in the exact same way that the villain and the waitress in that Sandman comic do–in a literal sense, it gives him a do-over by sending him back in time and refusing to let him have his life back until he damned well appreciates his god a little more. Oh, I just bet Christians wish they could have that kind of power over people!

Just as I realized way back when, I see looking at that movie that its main character’s entire life is totally inconsequential; nothing he has ever done matters. His last fifteen years of life are negligible and can be erased totally. Just as Job’s entire family got murdered for a cheap bet between Yahweh and Lucifer, this movie just negates every single accomplishment and triumph its main character may have experienced in his entire adult life–to force him back through time because he didn’t learn the lessons that some dick of a god decided he should have learned. And like Christians don’t even worry about Job’s murdered family because hey he got another family that was even BETTER so he wasn’t sad! (and this is a rationalization I have actually heard from TRUE CHRISTIANS™ any number of times), I’m sure that all the friends and loved ones that What If‘s main character had will just vanish like Marty McFly’s siblings and nobody will notice. And yes, that is exactly how I felt my Christian friends were treating me because I didn’t fit their idea of how my life should go.

At the end of that comic book, Dream–the series’ hero–shows up at the diner, but his arrival is too late; the people in the diner are all dead by that point and the whole world is shuddering in madness because of John Dee. Dream has to put everything to rights before he can proceed with his main storyline. What’s really remarkable here is just how little this ending resembles anything we’ve ever seen in the real world. But I spent many years convinced that stuff like this–exactly like this–happened all the time. It was hard for me to wake up to the realization that no, actually, it did not.

That scenario, really, is the best argument there is for the non-existence of a supernatural being who can control and push people into doing things. If it were even remotely possible, I have to think we’d see this sort of result sometimes. (Before you ask, I do not think that the popularity of Uggs boots can be attributed to such supernatural tampering.) But that doesn’t stop this god’s most loyal adherents from claiming up and down that they know exactly what he wants–as if anybody outside the bubble is fooled.

I’m very glad to be out of a religion that thinks that my life is total chicken-scratching and that nothing I do matters unless I’ve somehow sussed out a divinely-handed-down purpose from a very coy god who won’t make his wishes clear but who will hold it totally against me if I get it wrong. In its complexity and impossible, arcane unguessability, it totally reminds me of that Silent Hills teaser trailer’s solution. And I’ll just say this: though I know that fundagelicals could retro-fit any number of reasons why this might be so, my life’s going a lot better now that I’m away from that merry-go-round of self-doubt and second-guessing and anguished wondering. I got up and left the diner, and the world looks so much better away from that mess.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...