We were sitting in the cafeteria, from first grade to fifth, enjoying our bagged sandwiches or cheap hot lunches, when suddenly the principal burst through the doors. He held up a handful of Pokemon cards, spread in a flush, and gave a short speech on how they are “from the devil” and are not to be brought to our school ever again. Then he threw them on the floor and stomped on them.
At least, that’s how my brother remembers and tells the story. And even if the details have been heavily dramatized (which I suspect is the case), the heart of the story has to be true, because this event left an indelible impact on him. After all, the Pokemon contraband that had been seized and publicly denounced were his cards.
As far as I can remember, Pokemon were dangerous and evil because they used two major trigger words for evangelicals: “evolution” and “psychic.” Apparently Charmander growing up and becoming a dragon (or “evolving” into one) was going to cause us to abandon our rock-solid, unquestionable, unflinching belief in a literal creation of the world in 7 days. Maybe it’s true, since I no longer believe in literal 7-day creation,* but that’s a topic for another article. But either way, I certainly don’t blame Pikachu for it. Also, somehow, Abra, Kadabra, and Alakazam would teach us that we need to harness our inner psychic energies and start bending spoons and controlling minds, thus opening ourselves to invasion by legions of demons.
In reality, the only mind control about Pokemon was that it kept me coming back to Bergen’s Cards and Collectibles over and over again to spend my allowance of $2.50 on a new booster pack of cards.
The Infamous Mr. Potter
Here’s another story: I was sitting in my third-grade classroom during reading time, avidly devouring my first Harry Potter book, which had been given to me by my grandmother for Christmas. I was completely ignorant to the fame - and infamy - of these books. I had no idea they were even very popular, and I certainly had no idea that the Christian community around me considered them manuals to train young children in witchcraft or propaganda to lure them into the dark arts.
My teacher saw what I was reading and promptly sent me to the principal’s office - with no explanation. I was baffled. I don’t even remember feeling scared. I had no clue what was going on. I don’t remember the exact meeting, but one thing was made clear: I was never to bring those books to school again, and they were going to let my parents know about the trash I was reading. (In response to all this, the school made us watch a long VHS tape about the evils of Harry Potter and how connected it was to paganism and real witchcraft. Ironically, that video scared the hell out of me and taught me way more about Wiccans and Pagans than J.K. Rowling ever did.)
Fortunately for me, my mother, being a strong and hilarious woman, said to me, “That’s stupid. Keep reading those books, because they’re really good.” After all, it had been her who finished the book first. When Grammy gave it to me, apparently my mom had heard about some of the controversy, so she sat down and started flipping through the book. She loved it so much she finished The Sorcerer’s Stone in a day, and The Chamber of Secrets in the next two. I remember bringing the books to school and reading them, covertly covered by my open history book, pretending to be studying. I don’t remember if my mom knew about that part, but she probably would have laughed (and told me I should really try to follow school rules, even if they were “stupid”).
"Christian, not Catholic"
Or how about this one? I remember going to my best friend’s house and seeing that his mom had a set of rosary beads on the living room table. I had thought they were Christians, but now I wondered how they could possibly be Jesus followers, and what I had gotten myself into. After all, this family must be bowing down and praying to the false god and goddess, Mary and the Pope, practicing dead rituals with dead hearts that (they think) will earn them a spot in heaven, and committing idolatry by worshiping images of Jesus still hanging on the cross rather than the good old empty wooden ones that we had. (I still don’t understand the logic behind how that is idolatry.) Although I knew little to nothing about actual Catholicism, I had been well educated in all kinds of anti-Catholic prejudices and stereotypes, and I was told at school from the time I was quite young that we are Christian, not Catholic.
And apparently, being Christian meant an utter rejection and even fear of gays, feminists, evolutionists**, environmentalists***, Democrats, Catholics, Muslims, and (obviously) the diabolical witchcraft of Harry Potter and the devious brainwashing of Pokemon cards.
Rejection and fear. These two words basically described the heart of our interaction with culture as kids at a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian school.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about what could have made those two words so central to evangelicalism back in the day, and I’m wondering how much of it has changed. Although I’m a bit out of touch with the fundamentalist community, I don’t really see the same hyper-sensitivity around silly things like Harry Potter and Pokemon that I did when I was a kid.
And I’m wondering what caused this change, if it really is a change? Or have the rejection and fear just moved into other expressions? I’m honestly not sure, but it seems like a good bit of both. But it seems to me that, for all my frustrations with evangelicals today, there has been a promising development into maturity here. And this gives me hope.
It gives me hope that the conservative evangelical community has, in this area at least, become more “open” and even, in one sense, “tolerant.” You may raise your eyebrows, drop your jaw, or even laugh out loud when I say that. For what it's worth, I am unsure of writing the words myself, but let me give a few examples before I give my critique.
The same people who once would have demonized me for becoming friends with a Muslim without shoving Jesus down his throat have shown remarkable understanding and even support as I have built relationships with a local mosque, bringing students to inter-faith dinners and learning to have healthy dialogue. They even showed support as I took a Muslim studies class at an evangelical seminary in the Middle East, in which we met, dined, and dialogued with a number of local Muslim religious leaders.
The same people who would have drawn a thin line between Catholics and Satan-worshipers have demonstrated an openness to hearing about my Catholic friends and their theology that, even if they might disagree, they have shown willingness to listen to and understand. A group from my former church in New Hampshire now even hosts regular prayer and worship nights with a local Catholic congregation, something that would have been considered mutiny back in the day.
As I said, I’m out of touch with the Christian school I grew up in, but my younger sisters still go there, so I asked my mom today if there is anything similar to Pokemon and Harry Potter in today’s world. She texted me back just a few minutes ago, and it seems like we’ve moved on, something that became even more clear when she shared something from her days in Christian school.
Let's not stop there.
It breaks my heart that “evangelical” is now basically a dirty word so mixed up with political partisanship and division that I’m usually ashamed to even use the word. It has been dunked in the ugly muck of American imperialism, and if I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t see any way it can recover from that. So I feel like I have to try to find ways to hold onto some hope, because for better or for worse, evangelicals are still my people. They raised me, they played a big role in making me who I am (even with the many, many parts I have had to reject), and they have loved me fiercely and faithfully.
To be honest, I’m not sure if I want to be “evangelical” anymore - at least not in the American sense. So even though it’s a small glimmer of light, I’m hoping against hope that the same trajectory I’ve witnessed regarding cultural absurdities like Pokemon and Harry Potter will continue into bigger issues that so many evangelicals today are still treating with fear and rejection: things like racism and systemic injustice, women in church leadership, immigrants and refugees, and at least learning to listen to the LGBTQ+ community even if not totally agreeing with them. It might sound silly, but if we have learned how to allow our kids to play Pokemon and read Harry Potter, maybe - just maybe - we can learn how to open our doors for dialogue on other issues, too.
And maybe we’ll even find that we have a whole lot to learn.
*I’m not opposed to literal 7-day Creation on principle as a rejection of the Bible. Quite the contrary. I just think that particular theory has absolutely nothing to do with what Genesis 1 and 2 are actually trying to teach, and I think that it only takes away from what we should be learning in those chapters. So I have no problem rejecting it, but I also don’t see it as my duty to convince those who believe it to abandon their beliefs - as long as they can stop saying that denying literal 7-day creation means you’re denying the Bible and Jesus himself. I would argue you're actually taking the Bible more seriously if you read it the way it was meant to be read and learn what it was meant to teach. But again, that’s an article for another time.
**Apparently “evolutionist” is a thing, although I’ve never met someone who self-identifies as one. Still, we were told to avoid those evil, God-hating evolutionists at all costs, since they would do everything in their power to make us doubt the Bible and abandon our faith in Jesus. Nothing would delight them more than to see us reject God. For a cringy film based on this laughable premise, check out “A Matter of Faith.” I think it’s one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen - or maybe one of the most ingenious comedies.
***I actually remember being told that watching Captain Planet shouldn’t be allowed because it was a bunch of “tree hugging hippy bullcrap” propaganda that would teach us to worship the earth instead of knowing that Jesus was coming back to rapture us out and blow it to smithereens any day now. It seems like those same people obsessing over how to prove 7-day Creationism from Genesis 1-2 missed the verse that shows us God was the first environmentalist, giving us the charge of stewarding and caring for his “very good” Creation.