Free Sparlock!, or: A Wizard, A True Star

Most of my closest, and many of my casual, friends know about my religious upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness. It’s been 30 years since I got out. The first ten of those years were spent in a mild panic. The ten years after those were spent gathering information and self-reprogramming. Then there was a three-year span in which I ran gleefully amok, for which I owe the city of Olympia, WA great thanks and a number of unpaid sanitation bills.

The last seven years I’ve tried living in the material world, an effort that’s been at least partly successful.

I’ve read many ex-JW books, including lots of depressing, artless bummers and three great works. I’ve completed the intellectual turnaround, which is a lot harder than it looks. Most of all I’ve stopped writing about the JW’s, not so much because it was no fun, but in a strategic act of reclamation. I wanted to stop blaming my failures on my JW childhood, because I needed to own my failures – otherwise, I couldn’t plausibly take credit for my successes. I didn’t want to allow the religion any vestige of control over my current life. I keep up with its developments, of course, and try to help out my posse of other ex-JW’s in any way I can. But the reportage? Nah, I’m done. You can set news alerts for JW’s and you’ll get the straight dope more efficiently than I’m willing to do.

These have been challenging canonical times for Jehovah's Witnesses and their administrative/publishing arm, the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society. The last 15 years have been a public relations nightmare. Their opposition, largely consisting of ex-JW's the Society affectionately refer to as “apostates,” have been empowered by the internet. They’ve had to tighten things up. You don’t see JW’s on Facebook anymore (at least you’re not supposed to).

But I’ve remained outside the informal press corps, by and large. To get my dander up would take something more than the kissable clamp of policy shift, and that’s kind of boring to outsiders. There wasn’t anything truly accessible I could present to those outside the Society’s sphere of influence -- nothing I could show them to say, “See? This is how it feels!” and have them understand it. And I thought the Society, enduring the most embarrassing publicity stretch in its history, would not do anything so blatantly manipulative or controversial that it would attract attention.

I mean, come on! It’s not like the Watchtower Society is going to do something crazy, like launch a Pixar-style series of child-targeted animated stories that encourage them to fear their own innocence, develop shallow Pavlovian responses, demonize outsiders and refrain from questioning physical or perceived authority, right? Ha, of course not! That’ll never happen in a million ye--


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Oh, shit.

If you haven’t already done so, watch the video first. The rest of this won’t make sense without it. I’ll wait. In fact, I’ll watch it again along with you. I have great control over my gag reflex at this time of night.

This little vignette is a swing for the fences in the history of the Watchtower’s kid-oriented efforts. Obviously servitude and obedience are hard sells to the youth set, and it took them a long time to get started. In my lifetime, there was the 1971 book Listening To The Great Teacher, which told Christian parables in kid-speak. They put em dashes after the hypothetical questions so the kids would have time to respond. But the pictures were lousy, so in 1978 they came up with My Book Of Bible Stories, which had proper color illustrations. That was four years before I quit, so I am largely unfamiliar with any kiddie publications they might have made after then. My research uncovered a possible remix of the 1971 tome in 2006 called Learn From The Great Teacher, but I haven’t seen its contents.

But now, a mere 16 and a half years since Pixar changed the world with Toy Story, The Watchtower Society has figured out that children enjoy animation, and this summer – right now! – they’re launching a new DVD series, Become Jehovah’s Friend: Listen, Obey And Be Blessed. What you see above is Episode 2 of that series.

Yes, yes. This is exactly what is was like. We were taught fear, ostracizing, and blind compliance, by adults whose CGI capture rate was about 12 frames per hour. There’s not even a cursory attempt at subtlety in this one.

You will read many internet arguments against this video. Here are mine:
  • There is no proof that toys are gateways to lifestyles they appear to represent. I don’t know many people who chose their existential path at an early age, and certainly none that based their life outlook on a toy. Come on! I had a Stretch Armstrong as a kid, but that doesn’t mean I wanted to rubberize my arms. I had a Six Million Dollar Man toy, but I didn’t want to shove transistors into my spleen. I had a G.I. Joe but that didn’t make me want to work out. I played with other girls’ Ken dolls but I didn’t end up gay.

    The idea that Sparlock The Warrior Wizard might implant magic (or magick) impulses based on its product description is unsupported by any evidence. Of course, that argument means nothing to those who’ve already made up their minds. And speaking of wizards:

  • Wizardry isn’t bad because it doesn’t exist. You may express an interest in the occult or something, and that’s fine. If that’s your narrative option for explaining your beliefs and decisions, it’s perfectly valid. I am skeptical, of course, but not closed off. I don’t, however, believe our hectic modern life has room for pylon-hatted alchemists who unleash torrents of incontinent doves at the flick of a wand. Certainly none in such atrocious wardrobes.

    Meaning: wizards are fictional characters. They do not speak the truth because they’re not there. The wizard is an archetype, a representation. A way to explain things. A device to move the plot. An excuse for Dorothy to take a day hike on a shock-yellow road with three guys I really don’t want to sit next to on the bus. (A trip that, it turns out, wasn’t even real in the fiction; it was depicted as a dream.)

  • Saying “Jehovah hates magic” is like saying P.T. Barnum hated circus freaks. Meaning: It’s kind of the backbone of your business, you know? It’s rude to bite the hand that feeds. If Jehovah hates magic, explain the Red Sea parting, lepers being cured on the spot, turning water into wine and raising the dead. I don’t believe those jobs were outsourced.

  • The video doesn’t explain exactly why Jehovah hates magic. All that’s said is that he hates it and that seeing other people have even a tactile relationship with it “makes him sad.” That’s not enough doctrinal evidence for me.

    I realize, of course, that kids may not have the time and patience to hear theological discussions, but that’s no reason to eliminate them. By reducing the kid’s options to a yes/no, on/off, either/or construction without bothering to explain it, except for its having something to do with a mood-swinging deity’s legendary crankiness, you’re not teaching the kid anything. You’re programming.

    Believe you me, sometimes I wish my 4-year-old son Hank had a circuit breaker. A lot of my eardrum would still be intact. But he’s a human being. He’s organized for complex thought. To keep him from comprehending that range of choices would be cheating him out of his prospects, you know? And it would reflect lack of respect for the originator of his being, which some people choose to anthropomorphize as a dude named “God.”

    Of course, noted, the Watchtower Society doesn’t really have a stake in their members’ potential intelligence. It is not one of their deliverables.

  • It unintentionally imbues the toy with power. Look, if this toy is powerful enough to piss Jehovah off, that’s one hell of a toy. I would question whether I’d want to keep vicariously hanging with a god who keeps misplacing his calendar about when the apocalypse is supposed to get here, or to wield a plastic figurine that apparently has the clout to make him mad. Especially since that presumably mass-produced toy probably costs significantly less than an iPad.

  • It underestimates kids’ intelligence and robs them of their creativity. Kids are not stupid. You can force them into either/or, consequence-driven directives, but they know in the back of their minds reality’s more like a matrix. You’re not going to stop them from eventually finding that out on a more direct level. 

  • It’s a shallow, cynical, spiteful and evil attempt to maintain crowd control by gently introducing blind obedience to an organization whose reclusive leaders, I assure you, do not give the barest sliver of fuck-all about their rank-and-file members' lives or happiness. But I don’t really have an opinion on that.

  • And finally, perhaps the most important, salient point to a number of my geek friends: The animation sucks.
End the tyranny. Free yourselves. Free Caleb. Free Sparlock!

(Note: The video shown in this piece is a mirrored copy of the original, which has vanished from the web due to copyright concerns.)
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