Sanford and Son’s Bible Thumping Aunt

Fred Sanford’s arch-nemesis in the classic TV series Sanford and Son was Esther Anderson, sister to dear departed Elizabeth. Elizabeth was of course Sanford’s wife before passing on and the recurring gag of him faking a heart attack would have him bewailing, “You hear that, Elizabeth? I’m coming to join ya, honey!” And she more than just disapproved of Fred marrying her sister, she knew God disapproved of Fred too.

I’m kind of hooked on this new channel Antenna TV as I sit here and draw. There’s no doubt many of the old shows were devoid of laughs and tried too hard for character humor such as Too Close for Comfort with Ted Knight as a cartoonist (that’s a cartoonist?!), but when you get to All in the Family and Sanford and Son then you start laughing. Maybe that’s because they were born of British counterparts or maybe because they always were breaking the boring mold set by the time period’s TV standards.

One of the funniest characters has to be Aunt Esther, played with comedic genius by LaWanda Page, because where else would you see a Baptist Bible thumper parodied in such a manner? Especially one who is a stereotype of all the little old ladies from the American black church. Certainly, not on any prime time sitcoms I know of today?

The episode I watched last night was sans Sanford (he was off on a trip) and so Grady Wilson was filling in and making Fred’s son Lamont’s life miserable. Finally, Lamont tricks Grady into going to a skin-flick downtown somewhere with a free ticket and then invites his friends over to party. Grady figures out he’s been had, tries to get back in but is locked out. So who does he go to? Aunt Esther and and her Bible study club. They break in under the false pretense that Grady will let them use Sanford’s place for prayer and worship, but find Lamont and his best friend are getting “hot and heavy” with two girls. Esther starts yelling, “Jezebels” and swinging her purse and all the Bible thumping ladies go on the attack until the poor, helpless girls run for their lives.

I find it all hilarious. Now to be fair to Christians, the parody is warm-hearted. I’m sure within the black church it is not uncommon to have a little old lady who could kick the devil’s ass herself. BUT you wouldn’t want her after you! Fred Sanford is hardly innocent but he more closely represents the rest of us then Aunt Esther. We want to be free of the drag of church and judgments on our lifestyle. Humor is wrapped up in pain and therefore the haughty behavior of little old lady Bible thumpers range from annoyance to sorrow as they tear apart families with an exaggeration of sin and the need for repentance.

Bible thumping Esther is yet another example in our pop culture which we amuse ourselves with because we don’t want to be her. She’s crazy and fanatical, even if everything she is saying is straight from God’s lips or quoted from the Bible. Why is that? Maybe we just don’t like to be told what to do or think, especially when we’re just having a good time–like making out (use birth control if it gets too hot!)? Or perhaps, deep down inside, we think a good portion of the Bible doesn’t apply to us and that, generally speaking, we’re good people.

Either way, here’s to LaWanda Page for her depiction of Bible thumping Esther. Thanks for the laughter.

Absolutes in Seattle, ‘Here Comes the Brides’

This is a commentary on an obscure TV show, but I found it fascinating in case anyone else ever catches it on TV. They have started a network called “Antenna” which plays old TV shows, many of which have disappeared from basic cable because of the onslaught of new material.  The show I’m watching is called Here Comes the Brides, loosely inspired by the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and takes place in Seattle in the 1860s (where I live nearby). The cast features some recognizable character actors like David Soul of Starsky and Hutch and Joan Blondell from several classic movies including my favorite Topper Returns.

This particular episode I’m watching, as I am writing, has the small town of Seattle deciding to hire a sheriff and being foolish enough to sign an ironclad contract. The contract stipulates a 3 year stint and that he will enforce the laws of Seattle to the letter. Which the Sheriff proceeds to do as he examines every law on the book and starts by shutting down his own inaugration because of the outdated curfew law. Then he proceeds to throw a couple in jail for making-out past curfew. More minor violations ensue that are ridiculous simply because the people all know each other and don’t find it necessary to enforce the petty laws. When the sheriff asks the town mayor why the laws are there, he has trouble explaining and finally says: “Because every town needs laws!”

The problem is that commonsense isn’t considered as well as context. It struck me as similar to the absolutism present in conservative Christian theology which can’t understand civilized society without the laws of God or rather the absoluteness of God–the law book being The Bible. There is even a reference in the show when a drunkard is looking out the jail window alongside an upstanding citizen in the same fix. The drunkard keeps asking him if he got jailed for gambling? For Drinking? Etc? And the citizen keeps saying no, those vices were against his religion. The drunkard finally says something to the extent that the citizen is trapped in and out of jail.

“Without law enforcement you would have anarchy,” argues the sheriff when confronted by a lenient judge. The town of Seattle is in trouble. The local saloon is shut down because of an expired business license and everyone’s lives are pointlessly disrupted and fearful because they think they’re going to do something wrong without intending to. It’s a Libertarian nightmare.

Now while I see the problem with the proclaimed absolutes–the letter of the town law–Christians may see this episode and say it is similar to the Pharisees and legalism. The question is, how do we define “absolutes” and how do we define the legalism? There is no comprehensive (absolute) list in the Bible of all the laws we need for moral and civilized living. As I made the point in one of my comics, there is no “Thou Shalt Not Rape!” Christopher Hitchens in his book God is Not Great went further and said there is no law against other crimes such as child molestation. Fact is, there are rules in the Bible we would find appalling such as wife stealing. Where are these absolutes that Christians keep talking about that we cannot function without?

As shown in this humble little TV show Here Comes the Brides, people come together and argue and debate the rules until they make sense. Sometimes, as with government, we leave stupid rules (absolutes) on the books which no one observes because in an unspoken manner we dismiss them as unnecessary. God is not necessary to have a civilized society. Similar to the town rules in this show, there are outdated rules in the Bible. Should we go by the letter of the law or use our secular reasoning powers to dismiss unnecessary Biblical rules? And isn’t this in conflict with the idea of Christian absolutes? Because ideally, absolutes are supposed to transcend time. Wiki gives the definition as: “The Absolute is the concept of an unconditional reality which transcends limited, conditional, everyday existence.”

Unlike relativists, I don’t dismiss the idea of absolutes outright, but not in the sense that they exist by themselves devoid of context and transcend human history or conditions. Christians would have to agree that absolutes don’t exist by themselves either, they hinge on God decreeing them, even if God decrees genocide, rape or murder because God is good and therefore there is no way to actually establish that God is good apart from God. For all you know God is dead and you’re talking to  Satan because unfortunately God does not talk for himself– he apparently has everyone else interpret for him. So similar to the “context or condition of a God that exists” for Christians, absolutes are only absolute with context/conditions and in a secular society that means they hinge on the needs of the society itself and a healthy dose of philosophical and political debate may be required before they are accepted as absolute. Also, an absolute can be discarded if it no longer makes sense. This is going to drive the Christian literalist nuts–“But it’s an absolute!” however, this again has to do with context and if you feel I’m abusing the word then tell me how an absolute can exist on its own without context? 

What we have done is simply tweaked the word, made it temporal, or dare I say relative to the situation.  Oooh, relativism! But relativism is so misunderstood and Christians hear it as “anything goes!” By reclaiming the word “absolute” as temporal or fitting into context it is easier to understand. Such as the day of Sabbath was once Saturday and now it is Sunday–does that invalidate the rule for resting on the Sabbath? No, the concept is the same , only the day had to change to fit society’s needs. Which leads us to the question: Why are Christian bookstores making their employees work on Sunday?

This may be what relativists are trying to say when they proclaim, “There are no absolutes,” which is a contradiction. I feel it is better to reclaim the word and make sense of it because Christians make a fair point when they ask, “Then how can murder be wrong if the law against murder is not absolute?” The difference is how we interpret the word absolute and who owns it–God or secular society? An absolute can exist, but is not eternal. Or some absolutes may stand the test of time and be perceived as eternal (but how can anything be judged to be eternal as we can never get to the end of “eternal”?). Murder is one absolute that is standing the test of time and increasing in value. It is the closest moral and rule of law that we have that is an eternal absolute. There is little to none debate with an intention to discard it.

Murder is the most obvious and easiest to understand example for the sake of this commentary (and all from an old western). You can say, “Murder is evil,” but why? Well, God says so.” But what if God commits murder? Well, no, if God kills someone, it’s not murder? Then the law against murder is not absolute, it’s only absolute to the will of God (again, a condition) which gives us no way to determine if God is good. God could be a monster we need to battle against and avoid being enslaved so he can do with us what he wants. 

But the secular humanist says no, murder is evil because it is detrimental to humanity as a whole and our societies. Civilization cannot function and it breaks down and implodes when people or groups of people are going about willy-nilly murdering people. It just doesn’t work and is an offense against our evolved ability to empathize. Humanity thrives and society flourishes when we outlaw murder and do everything possible to prevent it. It is survival of the fittest–group survival for mutual benefit. Hitler may have made murder moral in his own eyes and in German eyes, but it cost him and the German people everything.

Oddly enough, the societies struggling in the Middle East are the ones besieged by religious absolutes that can’t understand modern context. And in the secular United States, we thrive with unprecedented religious beliefs because of our secular ideal of religous freedom and tolerance. Don’t tell me that God calls for religious freedom? He is a jealous God. It is not a perfect society that is thriving, but one of the best so far. We continue to debate and argue, the most heated of which is abortion, and we are better for it instead of a decree from God where we mindlessly obey because as we grow as a society we become increasingly complex. The answers are not always easy. The outdated absolutes of The Bible–the outdated laws–no longer fit our context. Absolutes without context are no longer absolute. They’re useless. The way Christians have claimed the word “absolute” leads one to believe that we can never get rid of them, but that’s what Christians say. If they don’t work, toss them and come up with new absolutes (not easy to do). Whoever said that absolutes were eternal? Not just Christians, but philosophers as well–but they were and are wrong. 

In this episode of Here Comes the Brides, how did the town get rid of the Sheriff? They found another useless law that only put the sheriff in charge of poaching and not in charge of the people. The sheriff can’t very well object when it is the letter of the law. If it doesn’t apply to him then it isn’t absolute.

SIDENOTE: What an imperfect rambling on absolutes, feel free to deconstruct it as I was thinking out loud. Still, I don’t see why we have to discard the term “absolute” but simply tweak  it. We’re not completely eliminating the meaning which is what Christians and believers in God fear most and I can see their viewpoint. By demanding context it makes sense, not in classical philisophical or theological terms, but by fitting our modern way of thinking as in the past both philosophers and theologians used to think the mind existed apart from the brain and therefore that may have led the thinking that moral ideas existed by themselves too. Science tells us that mind is a result of the brain. We need to revise our understanding of the word absolute. Christians use reason to extract from the Bible what fits our modern times, they should be able to get this concept and not feel bad about giving into a mild form of relativism. It does not mean you are saying that your Christian values are equal to the values of another culture, they can still be superior. All you’re acknowledging is that absolutes have conditions and context in order to be absolute.

‘The Great Pumpkin’ is a Cartoon for Atheists

Would you be shocked to hear that Charles Schulz considered himself to be a secular humanist at the end of his life? Certainly, he may not have been an atheist but he obviously had grown tired of sentimental religion. “‘I despise those shallow religious comics,’ he said. ‘Dennis the Menace, for instance, is the most shallow. When they show him praying–I just can’t stand that sort of thing, talking to God about some cutesy thing that he’d done during the day.'” This from an interview by David Templeton which can be found on Metroactive.com.

I’ve written before about It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown because even as a Christian I was fascinated by how Linus was treated concerning his faith in this mystical gourd. Linus even states himself, while writing a letter to The Great Pumpkin, that if this being isn’t real he doesn’t want to know. In other words, blind faith. His defense against Charlie Brown’s derision is that he’ll stop believing in The Great Pumpkin if Charlie Brown will stop believing in the guy in the red suit and beard.

I’m sure Schulz must have believed in God at the time, but you have to wonder if he was working out his theological position on faith. The entire cartoon is a parody of religious faith because Linus, like a Christian waiting for the return of Christ, never meets up with his revered vegetable.

I’m not the only atheist who has considered this cartoon to be anti-religious. On the forums for AChristianAndAnAtheist.com there is a discussion of the cartoon and on the forums for FayFreethinkers.com one person in a discussion on religious cartoons wrote, “…’The Great Pumpkin?’ What a great anti-religious teaching tool!”

So let’s make it official. I realize that Schulz might not have sanctified this, but pop culture is often decided on by the public, not the artist–I say we claim It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown for atheists, agnostics and freethinkers. It’s very Freethunk! If you have a family, have them watch it as a tradition for Halloween or watch it on your own with friends. Discuss the lesson with your kids or friends after the cartoon is done. And you should definitely note the lesson with your Christian friends since they hold Schulz up as one of their own. You might say that It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown is nostalgic Halloween freethinking.

Update 10/23/2012: I wanted to add this link to the others I used. It has several quotes including the ones mentioned in the post, but it does specify that Schulz was a member of the Church of God even as he considered himself a humanist. I didn’t want to leave the impression that Schulz had rejected religion or God, he may have simply reinterpreted such faith with leanings towards secularism. He also had bouts of depression and insecurity (no surprise there considering his comic strip characters) and may have even wavered back and forth from religion to philosophy.

The point of this article was not so much that Schulz was a secular humanist, but that his Great Pumpkin cartoon is geared heavily towards skepticism of the supernatural and of god-like figures. This is especially interesting considering that Linus in the first TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas takes time to tell us the real meaning of Christmas in a short sermon. There is also the well known book The Gospel According to the Peanuts (approved by Schulz) which interprets the comic strip as theology for Christians. Could Schulz see what he had created with the allegory of The Great Pumpkin? Or like Linus, did he care not to know that his god could be a fake?

Three’s Company – Reverend Takes a Bribe

The elderly church patron feeling welcomed at Jack's Bistro

If you start reading my articles regularly you will realize I have an eclectic combination of bad taste and highbrow sensibilities. In the same evening I might watch an absorbing PBS documentary on evolution and then settle down to relax with a collection of poorly scripted sitcom reruns.

Which is why I have Three’s Company in my DVD collection. Being a fan of old vaudeville routines and slapstick, I appreciate the nonsense of this series as lighthearted and without malice–even when it is offensive it still feels inoffensive. The sexual innuendo that some conservative viewers might have a problem with I view as really charming in contrast to the blunt fashion of sexual humor in many other movies and series in the recent past. I would say Three’s Company with all of its blunders is appropriate for kids in general and should be watched as a family so Mom and Dad can either explain the jokes or just laugh at them as the kids trying to figure out what is so funny. Lucille Ball, the queen of classic blunder comedy and wholesome entertainment loved the show so much she guest hosted a best-of special of all the classic moments.

The reason I bring up Three’s Companyon this site is that the show got away with satirizing the more prude elements of American Society without being meanspirited. To give due credit to the premise, the show was originally based on a British sitcom Man About the House and then turned into an American hit quite by accident (nobody thought the show would do as well as it did. Even if you haven’t watched the show, you are probably aware that it starred the late John Ritter as Jack, who lives with two other girls in the same apartment–and they never “get it on.” A very innocent, but naughty show that tweaked what was polite and then seemed to apologize for going too far with a sheepish smile, only to do it again and again on each episode.

One episode I’d like to draw your attention to is called “The Brunch,” collected on the DVD set  for Season 7 where Jack has started his own restaurant called “Jack’s Bistro.” He is about to lose his liquor license because a certain Reverend Gilmore shut down the previous restaurant in the same building. The offending establishment was a tavern of sorts that attracted hookers. Jack has to prove he runs a clean joint suitable for the church public (hookers are a big no-no with the church unless it is behind closed doors). In that manner he will be allowed to serve wine.

SIDENOTE: How ridiculous it is that we are still under religious constraints on alcohol. Moderation in all things, is definitely my motto, but why is Sunday off limits for selling liquor? Because of the Christian religion! Of course wine can still be bought at any grocery store because I guess it is acceptable due to Jesus turning water into wine?

To be sophisticated you have to wear glasses

In order to prove he is an upright restaurant owner, Jack rigs the place with Janet and Terri dressed in their Sunday best as well as Larry bringing a sophisticated date(which means a hot blonde wearing glasses, see the picture on the left). As usual the situation is controlled until an unforeseen element is introduced. In this case, newlyweds. The good Reverend is seated and served and eventually warms up to the bistro as being godly enough to “allow” it to do business. Off to the side, one of his church patrons, an elderly woman is seated with Janet and Terri who do their best to make her feel welcome–which as an apparent widow she appreciates.

But damn those newlyweds, they start going at it and Jack has his hands full trying to keep Reverend Gilmore’s judgmental eyes away from their passionate kissing (aw hell, they’re married anyways). Add to that Mr. Furley, played by the hilarious Don Knotts, who starts drinking the champagne he’s serving and Larry’s date who likes to seductively dance once she has a couple sips of champagne herself and Jack’s Bistro is a sexy, happening spot. The Reverend finally turns around to see all the inappropriate behavior, which is none of Jack’s fault, and his wrath is restored. Fortunately, the elderly church patron steps in and defends Jack because he made her feel welcome and accepted. The Reverend is not swayed until she reminds him of her upcoming contribution to the church and then he suddenly kowtows like all good politicians–because churches are more political than holy, aren’t they? They have to meet the demands of their “paying’ pew members and can’t stand on principal alone, which is one of the reasons I got fed up with the mainstream church.  Three’s Company gets away with exposing this hypocrisy using a neatly wrapped ending to a series of sight gags. This is one of the better episodes from Season 7, not to mention Terri appearing in a bikini (yowza).

The uptight Reverend Gilmore wants no nonsense from Jack

With Freethunk, I probably am reading too much into this episode, but again the idea is to find these tidbits and give them notice as a nice escape from religious sensitivities. I don’t think anyone would have a problem with friends like Jack, Janet and Terri and yet they certainly don’t seem to be church attending Christians–far from it. They’re just good people, much like many Americans who find it is better to sleep in on Sundays than to be stressed out by a guilt-filled sermon followed by a gluttonous afternoon potluck (bad for the heart).

With services like Netflix, you can use your que to build a playlist similar to your music, and therefore I’m hoping some of my recommendations will get into the mix. I don’t believe Netflix allows for user playlists yet because they are probably scared of categories like “Best Atheist Movies” or “Best Skeptical TV Episodes.” I think it may come about somehow though.