"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Christian fundamentalists often are as keen to promote the rights of parents as they are to block the rights of women and gays. Congressman Mark Meadows is the Sunday school Bible teacher and former restaurant owner from North Carolina who rallied the Tea Party in shutting down government operations this month. His passion for killing contraceptive access has been on national display. Less known is the fact that Meadows also is spearheading a fight against rights and protections for children. He is the lead sponsor of a “parental rights amendment” that has 64 signers in Congress.
Or consider Scott Lively, the anti-gay preacher who recently announced that he is running for governor of Massachusetts. Lively is known internationally for fanning the sometimes lethal flames of homophobia in Uganda. But his admirers see him as more than a single-issue candidate. According to Tea Party enthusiast Brian Camenker, “He is principled, pro-family, pro-life, pro-traditional marriage, pro-2nd-amendment, pro-religion, pro-parents’ rights, and utterly fearless.”
Conservatives like Meadows and Lively oppose both national and international protections for children—including compulsory education—which they see as government overreach. Thanks to their advocacy, the United States is one of two nations (out of 196) that has failed to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. (We stand with Somalia!) They also oppose the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities because it “replaces parental rights with the ‘best interest of the child’ standard.”
Why do parent rights make it onto the Tea Party list along with God, guns, gays and gyno-politics? To answer that question, one needs to look no further than the Bible. Futurist Sara Robinson points out that women in the Bible are actually possessions of men, protected (when they are) by property laws rather than civil rights laws. In this regard, women of the Iron Age fall into the same category with slaves, livestock and children.
Modern Christians like to depict children as the little lambs of Jesus, who is their Good Shepherd. Sunday school teachers sing, “Red and yellow, black and white/They are precious in his sight.” Preachers quote a verse from the book of Matthew which says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea”(Matthew 18:6NIV).
But the broader theme of scripture is that a man’s children are his possessions, to be trained, traded and treated as he sees fit, even if it kills them. This concept of the child emerges in the Hebrew Tanakh, beginning with the book of Genesis, and continues into the Christian New Testament. Stories, commandments, legal codes, and theology are built on this premise and make sense only when we understand fatherhood to mean ownership.
Sacrifice your son. Abraham is considered the father of the Great Middle Eastern religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. According to the story, God promises Abraham a son whose offspring will be as numerous as the stars. The boy, Isaac, is born to Abraham and his wife Sarah in their old age, and they treasure him to the point that they even drive off Sarah’s slave, Hagar, who had been used to produce an interim heir. But then God tests Abraham.
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” (Genesis 22:1-12nasv)
Abraham complies. He lies to his wife, saying he and Isaac will return. Then he deceives Isaac, who has carried the wood for the sacrifice, and then ties him up. At the last minute an angel intervenes. Although Isaac is old enough to hike with enough firewood on his back to consume a human body, at no point does the story suggest that he is an independent person with a right to life or even that his preference matters.
Take my daughters. Lot is a righteous man, apparently the only righteous man living in the evil city Sodom. When two beautiful angels come to stay as his guests, the men of the city surround the house, demanding rape rights. To fulfill his obligations as a host, Lot offers them an alternative: “Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” (Gen 19:8nrsv). As in the story of Isaac, the girls themselves have no say in the matter. Their father has absolute authority over their bodies. (Mind you, in another story they subvert his twisted priorities by getting him drunk and taking turns with him. Lack of consent is the Biblical norm when it comes to sex, but that is another topic.)
Keep this one and you can have the other one, too. Abraham’s grandson Jacob falls in love with a girl named Rachel. But as in so many folkand fairy tales, the sweet and desirable young beauty has an elder sister who is less appealing. In this ancient Hebrew version, Rachel’s father Laban says that Jacob can have Rachel if he tends Laban’s flocks seven years, which he does. Alas, Jacob wakes up the night after the wedding and realizes he has bedded the wrong sister, Leah. He is furious. Laban then says that if Jacob goes through with the week-long ritual of union to Leah, he can have Rachel as well. It’s a deal, if not between gentlemen, at least between men, and Jacob takes it (Genesis 29:15-30nrsv).
Thanks for the slaughter. Jephthah is an impetuous guy. The son of a prostitute, he is driven off by his father’s legitimate sons and heads a band of outlaws until his once high and mighty relatives come groveling. They beg him to lead an army against their enemies, the Ammonites. Jephthah can’t resist pointing out the reversal of fortunes, but accepts the role. In the words of the Bible writer, “the spirit of the Lord comes upon him.” He wins his battles, and in gratitude, Jephthah vows to sacrifice the first being who greets him when he returned home. The unlucky greeter happens to be his only child. Faced with imminent death, she asks for a month in the wilderness to mourn her virginity, and on her return Jephthah follows through with his vow. His filicide is “counted as righteousness” on his part. Note that the assumption in this story is that any living being who might greet him upon his return to the house—wife, servant, child, or sheep—is his to offer up if he sees fit (Judges 11:29-40nrsv).
A daughter to the victor. Daughters in the Bible rarely are threatened with human sacrifice, but they routinely are given in marriage as their fathers see fit, often in order to cement diplomatic ties or to reward military exploits. In the book of Judges, the chieftain Caleb promises his daughter to any man who manages to conquer the city of Hebron (Judges 1:12-13). As she is handed off, the cagey daughter negotiates some real estate in the deal.
In the Hebrew Bible, premarital sex is regulated legally within a property framework. A used female is damaged goods, and consequently a rapist can be forced to buy the girl he has violated, from her owner—her father. (See “What the Bible Says about Rape and Rape Babies.”) An unmarried female who voluntarily becomes “impure” can be put down, and a married woman who is suspected of adultery can be forced to drink poison. The Bible records an intense focus on bloodlines and genealogies in the cultures from which it emerged, not unlike the elaborate records modern ranchers keep about the breeding of stock. In this context a fertile female is a specific kind of wealth. That said, females aren’t the only children treated as paternal assets.
Pox on your firstborn. Many cultures of the Ancient Near East practiced primogeniture, meaning that firstborn sons had a unique right to inherit the wealth of their fathers. No surprise that firstborns were highly valued. In the Exodus story, God sends a series of plagues on the Egyptians, each time hardening Pharaoh’s heart so he won’t let the Israelite slaves leave. Locusts strip crops, frogs invade houses and rivers turn to blood—all building toward the ultimate plague: The Egyptians wake up one morning to find that the firstborn in each house is dead. As in the other Bible stories I’ve described, these dead children are a means to an end. The moral questions turn not on their own actions or right to life but on a cosmic game being played out between God and adults. The power of God’s chess move lies in what their death costs their parents, including the Pharaoh himself (Exodus 11).
All’s well that ends well. In the story of Job, Satan and God play out another epic contest. God says, Job is my man. Satan says, If I strip him bare, he will curse you. God says, Go for it. There’s a lot to go for; Job has been blessed with seven sons and three daughters, “seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants.” As the contest proceeds, Job’s vast wealth gets decimated, and a strong wind collapses the roof, crushing his sons and daughters while they party together (Job 1). But all is OK in the end, because God replaces them with seven new sons and three new daughters to go with his new livestock and other riches. (Job 42: 12-13).
Beware the iniquity of grandparents. The Ten Commandments are thought of by Bible believers as the ultimate moral code. Most don’t know that the Bible contains several versions, for example here and here. The most familiar version of the Ten Commandments opens and closes with verses that ensconce children and women, respectively, as extensions of men. In Commandment 10, women get included in a property list (don’t covet your neighbor’s ox or ass or wife…), while in Commandment 1 children are proxies through which God can punish anyone who doesn’t give Jehovah his due:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.” (Exodus 20:5)
Baby bashing is sweet payback. If God himself is thought to punish children for the sins of their fathers, it should come as no surprise that his followers do the same and fantasize about harming children when they want revenge. After the occupation of Jerusalem, the Psalmist relishes one such fantasy:
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock! (Psalms 137:9)
In an ethics class, a passage like this might open a conversation about punishment by proxy—about, say, blood feuds or terrorism or the vengeance instinct itself. In the Bible, though, it simply stands as an expression of anguish penned during a time when collective punishment was so normal that it was essentially invisible. They say a fish has no concept of water because it knows nothing else. So it is with the Bible writers, who seem to have no concept of an alternate world in which women and children have rights of their own to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; a world in which parents nurture their children but don’t own them, in which the personhood and autonomy (and ethical responsibilities) of a child correspond to what that child is able to think, feel and do.
Christian fundamentalists swim in an Iron Age sea. Believing the Bible to be the literally perfect word of God, they sanctify fragments of culture from a time when our ancestors had yet to discover the spinning wheel or the simple lifesaving power of hand-washing. When people make the Bible into a Golden Calf—a practice some call bibliolatry—they lose their ability to think outside the book. Parents—meaning fathers—are elevated to the top of an ancient hierarchy in which position is power and might makes right.
Oh Jesus. No single Bible story has done more to ensconce this degraded concept of childhood than the story of Jesus himself. The Christ stories draw elements from earlier narratives all the way back to that first image of Isaac on the altar. As understood by many American Christians, Jesus is the ultimate filial sacrifice, the ultimate lamb without blemish, the ultimate target of proxy punishment in a world where two wrongs somehow make a right. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” (John 3:16).
God gave his child. He gave his. Just like Abraham and Laban and Jephtheh and Lot and Caleb.
The Bible is an imperfect record of our imperfect ancestors struggling to understand what is real and right and how to live in moral community with each other. Until Christians are able to take the Book off its pedestal they will continue to get child protection wrong, and wounded children will continue to pay the price.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
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