Oh okay, I guess we’ll do one more with Maggie. A couple weeks back, I wrote an article on Maggie Mae Fish, a lefty Youtuber reviewing Kirk Cameron’s evangelical Christian films. Her final video on the topic (here) came out shortly after, and it does some interesting other stuff to what we’ve talked about previously, so I guess we can chat about it too.
As per last time, I haven’t actually seen the film in question, so I’m not really going to be talking about the merits of Maggie’s analysis in terms of the text. That is, I’m not going to quote things from the movie and go ‘wait no you missed this aha I have owned you now.’ I’m more looking at how the video frames and discusses Christianity. And again, as per last time, these aren’t really criticisms per se. I’m more trying to parse what’s being said – I’m having a little bit of trouble with it, to be honest. Here’s my thing – cards on the table – I’m just not totally clear on the argument. Could be my fault. Could totally be me not understanding. Just let me talk this through, see if I can get my head around it.
So the film in question is Saving Christmas, starring Kirk Cameron as Kirk Cameron. The general gist of the film seems to be Kirk Cameron telling his made-up brother ‘Christian’ (like he’s fucking John Bunyan or something) about how actually consumerism at Christmas is good. That’s not my analysis, it’s just the picture presented in Maggie’s video – again, haven’t seen the film, so I’m not critiquing or commenting one way or the other. And, you know, if it is just a straight prosperity gospel film, then it can fuck off. If you’re not familiar, the prosperity gospel is basically the idea that if God loves you, you’ll get rich. It’s often attached to certain American megachurches that seem to have a little bit of a scam going on – they tell you that you have to give money to God (ie to the church) and then God will reward your faith by making you rich (He doesn’t), and then the chief pastor gets to buy a jet with all the money you gave him – it’s a whole thing. If this film is basically just preaching prosperity gospel in a straightforward and uncomplicated way, then yeah, sure, fuck it. Definitely on board with that basic critique.
I guess the thing I’m more antsy about is how some of the material around Christianity is discussed and contextualised within that framework. For instance, it feels like Maggie’s argument sometimes stumbles into some bigger religious arguments about the relationship between the material and spiritual worlds. It gets messy. The first time this issue came up starts at 5:32 – let me just quote this bit in full:
“Throughout all of Saving Christmas, even when Kirk is talking directly about Jesus and heaven, he can’t help but think in material terms. He says that the manger that Jesus lays on represents the rock that was rolled away from Jesus’s tomb, that his swaddling cloth represents the cloth that Jesus was buried in, and that the presents under the tree are the city of Bethlehem … And that the food at the table is the literal tangible sign that God loves you.”
That last bit made me pause. Isn’t it true that the food on your table is a literal tangible sign that God loves you? Isn’t that at least conceivably a respectable Christian position? Let’s step back a bit here, and take stock of some of the wider conversations. There’s a bunch of chat within Christianity about the relative value and balance of the physical and spiritual realms. At one extreme, you get people saying that the physical world is shit and awful and just absolutely dreadful (ie Calvin). At the other end, you get people saying maybe the physical world has value. Christ became a human, after all – so if God took on a physical body, physical bodies can’t be totally repugnant. Plus, you know, the physical world is kinda nice. I like food, and I like gardens, and sunshine is nice – yeah, the world isn’t all that bad. God could have made food really boring and shit, but He made it taste nice, and that’s because He loves us and He wants us to enjoy it. That’s the basic premise of materialism in Christianity. There are obviously some troubled relationships with capitalism and consumerism within that framework – but like to be clear, people also complain that the Christians down the hard spiritual end of the spectrum basically comprise a suicide cult, because they hate being in the world. So this isn’t a simple question.
Now, obviously the prosperity gospel is one of the more repulsive forms of materialism that’s developed out of our contemporary capitalist hellscape. But the problem with the prosperity gospel isn’t just about materialism. More specifically, from a Christian perspective, the PG is controversial because of its weird sense of transactional entitlement. Give money and you *will* get rich – which, no, Matthew 10, it’s more like give money and you’ll probably still get beaten to death. But materialism as a category is bigger than the prosperity gospel. It’s broader, more complex. Prosperity gospel bad, sure, but materialism – ehh, let’s say it’s contested.
And I think that’s partly where Maggie gets into trouble. She’s making a valid critique of the prosperity gospel, but she’s also muddying that with a broader set of complaints about materialism full stop. It’s too broad a net. She ends up picking fights with things she doesn’t need to be fighting. Like, yes, depending on who you’re talking to, the food on your table absolutely is a sign of God’s love. That’s not the fight to be picking right now. Really, the fact that Maggie is picking those fights, collapsing prosperity gospel and kinda broader materialism into each other, suggests that she’s maybe not fully aware of the debates she’s invoking. I mean, there’s other stuff going on too, sure. In the final minutes of the video (24:45), Maggie tells us that it was a hard video to write, coming as it did in the weeks after her grandmother’s death. “And you know what probably wouldn’t have made my Grams happier in her last days? Stuff, Kirk Cameron. Stuff.” Like – I’m sorry man, that really sucks. It makes sense that materialism would press the wrong buttons in that situation. Maggie doesn’t want to hear about how ham is proof that God loves us, she wants her grandma back. I get that. At the same time, her discussion of Christianity is clunky, to the point where it’s obscuring what would otherwise be a really strong argument.
I’ll give you another example. The materialism thing is the big clunker, but there’s other stuff that caught at me too. For instance, at 7:32, Maggie returns to the swaddling cloth / burial cloth comparison. She says that the individual stories within Saving Christmas don’t make much sense, citing that comparison as evidence:
“Like the swaddling cloth vignette. Kirk argues that the swaddling cloth somehow foreshadows the cloth that Jesus was wrapped in after he was crucified. Honestly, it’s been hard to even write a counter-argument to the swaddling scene. Not because it’s an airtight argument, but because it is so absurd. It’s like, where do you even start? … The brilliance of Kirk’s argument is in how petty and absurd it is. The point is to be that ridiculous. It’s a mockery of religion, and he’s banking on the idea that you won’t stoop to his level to disprove him.”
She goes on to describe Cameron’s interpretation of the biblical text as ‘bible coding’ – which, I’ll be honest, not a term I’d heard before. I can’t really find much about it online, aside from in the context of the Bible Code – the Dan Brown shit, you know, secret codes that you have to decipher to understand what’s going on. Is that really fair though? The swaddling cloth / burial shroud comparison is something that exists in Christian community. It’s – like it’s pretty common, in my experience. It’s not something you hear every day, but when the Easter and Christmas sermons roll round, you’ve got a solid 40% chance of hearing either about the swaddling cloth or about how myrrh is an embalming ointment symbolising Christ’s coming death. The manger as the rock – I’ve not heard that one before, personally, but it’s not particularly outrageous. Like, Augustine reads the creation of birds in the creation story as a metaphor for God sending messengers to tell us about the Word. Shit gets crazy over here. Plus the swaddling cloth thing is probably the least extreme parallel in that whole sequence. If you wanted to make a meal out of it, personally I would’ve gone with the presents as the city of Bethlehem. That is a little wacky. Swaddling cloth though – nah, nothing special. Not petty, not ridiculous, not absurd. Not a mockery of religion – not my religion, at least. It’s not even really an interpretive stretch when you consider the myrrh. Ultimately, it kinda just reads like she’s not familiar with broad swathes of Christianity. Again: end of the day, net’s too broad. Don’t need to be picking these fights to point out that the prosperity gospel is for assholes.