Friday, February 1, 2013

Heralds of the New Age Past: Phil Phillips' Toy Story


From the November 2009 E-Block. And on this note, a bulletin: I've come to a scheduled place where I evaluate the practical use of various projects, and the two blogs (Ticker and Forge) are taking a clear back seat to e-books and vids. So the Ticker from now on will only be used for 1) past E-Block items; 2) book reviews; 3) any time I have something to say that would fit here -- such as when someone like Norman Geisler says something that needs attention. Plus of course 4) guest pieces.

In any event, this entry from the E-Block is sort of fun -- how many of you remember this book?

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The book Turmoil in the Toybox by Phil Phillips may seem an odd one for the Heralds of the New Age Past series, given the subject matter. But I think it belongs for good reason. The premise of Phillips was that certain toys of the 80s were in some sense quite literal tools of Satan for spreading New Age ideas. Hence in that sense, Phillips was arguing that toys of the day were a preparation for something more insidious. 

And how well does he argue this? There's a sort of paradoxical quality to the way Phillips went about his business. On the one hand, he could make some quite solid, reasonable points from professional psychology -- in places where he stuck to his sources. On the other hand, when it came to providing his own views of matters, Phillips frequently went off the deep end, as it were, and sounded almost paranoid about the alleged satanic influences of certain toys.

I will frame some of these matters in terms of my findings here on fantasy literature, and with the caveat that as one who is the parent only of a small, spoiled poodle, I do not presume to give much advice to parents on things like the selection of toys. Nevertheless it is hard not to ask certain questions of "panic button" incidents related by Phillips in this book. Always, there is a dichotomy between the responsibility of a consumer to inspect a product and gauge its impact, and the responsibility of the producer to make a product safe and useful. There are times when we must ask Phillips if he is not weighing too heavily against the producers and not asking enough questions of the parents. With those caveats in place, let's get to the text, starting with general procedural observations.
  • I am naturally suspicious of anyone who claims to have heard God speak to them of any matter (see articles in this issue on John Bevere and Charles Stanley), so I found it somewhat disturbing that Phillips speaks of God using an "inner voice" to tell him to start a ministry about toys. [16-17] It is not of course that I think God incapable of so speaking, as we have noted in replies previously to Joyce Meyer. Rather, it is that such claims tend to be forwarded by those without any epistemologigical frame of reference for discerning God's voice from their own imagination. This in turn leads to questions about Phillips' discernment on other matters. But since he provides no epistemology for determining when he is actually hearing God's voice, not much more can be said.
  • Phillips is also far too uncritical in accepting claims that Tibetian monks are able to actually levitate "100 feet in the air and travel more than a quarter of a mile." [92] Really? It would have been nice for Phillips to append a footnote for this claim, but he does not.
  • Even if I were not a preterist, I would find Phillips' repeated assessments such as these disturbing, if not paranoid: "....Satan is gaining control of the minds of millions of children everywhere," [17] "Satan was trying to keep [Phillips' toy ministry] from being launched" by means of things like non-working camera equipment [18]; "the subtle means Satan uses to take control of a child's mind" [83]; by buying certain toys "we are promoting Satan's work of subtle deception," [153] etc. Would Satan really think that influencing toy manufacturers was the best way to change the world? Doesn't it seem he'd be busier with things like high-level moral issues? Aren't humans capable of doing things like this themselves?
  • In fairness, as noted, Phillips derives a great deal of excellent material from psychologists about the influence of toys on a child's development and their purpose in reinforcing positive values [29]; about the mental effects of television viewing on cognition [46]; about toys as merely vehicles for commercial exploitation [51f]; and of toys like Barbie promoting overdone ideals of beauty. [73f] But this, again, is not from Phillips' own hand, and one suspect that Phillips merely uses these findings to advantage, without critical analysis. Even though he may be right in their use, it does not signify that Phillips himself is reliable as a source of critical nature.
  • Thankfully, Phillips also issues caveats leaving it to a parents' discretion what toys they ought to buy [68], and urges gradual weaning from such toys [172] when it would have been easy for him to assume a more dictatorial mode and urge parents to trash the toys "NOW" (as indeed did happen, according to some Amazon reviews of this book). Still, with all that talk of Satan's involvement, it is hard to see anyone avoiding a more dictatorial directive implied.
  • Yet in contrast, one is again constrained to ask whether Phillips is too easily letting parents off the hook. The anecdotal story of the little boy who was seen in a church parking lot holding a He-Man action figure aloft, shouting, "He-Man has more power than Jesus" [36-7], leads naturally to the question of what sort of Christology the child's parents, church, and church teachers were offering. Phillips does at least close with advice to parents on what they can do [179f] but it would have been better placed at the start of the book.
So much for general matters; now what of Phillips' evaluation of specific toys? I will as in my article on fantasy refrain from commenting on any subject I know little about (eg, Dungeons and Dragons). Here's what I do know something of:

  • In his evaluation of "Cabbage Patch Kids" [69f], Phillips make much of those who treat the dolls as "an extension of reality" by having marriages between the dolls, having them sent to summer camp, or having them specially cleaned. Perhaps this is too much. Perhaps it is also too much that some people who fish or hunt anthropomorphize their prey (eg, giving names to fish), or spoil their pets. But if there is any confusion between reality and non-reality here, isn't that something simple a parent should have resolved quickly and easily when the doll was first presented as a gift? Phillips also admits that there are parallels to exercises in which students are "parents" to an egg, but he thinks this is too much to handle for a child of 4 or 5. It isn't, really, with proper preparation: Children of the Biblical world were prepared for much harsher realities at that age, and were married as early as 12. It is not that children are incapable so much as that we have shifted the goalposts of maturity as a result of added leisure time.
In the end, Phillips' claim of "subtle influences" used such that "a wedge is inserted to make a wider gap for Satan and his influences to enter a child's mind" [65] seem all too much like a sort of spiritual paranoia -- or else, the fears of one whose own mind is not disciplined enough to be critical and resist such straightforward and simple "influences" as are proposed.
  • Smurfs. I'll admit that as a younger person I found this particular series fascinating, and that the work of the artist (Peyo) was an early influence on my own artistic style. So I frequently enjoyed the program (though I did not buy the toys). Phillips' reaction to this series is predictable: Much is made over the series being "laden with the occult" with the expected response that the Bible forbids the practices of magic. These comments from the fantasy article are of relevance here:
    Witchcraft is no more or less than asking (via request or ritual) some other being to perform X action on your behalf. As such, it is viewed in the Bible as a practice that impugns God's sovereignty. Witches were asked to circumvent the will of YHWH, as it were, and assume control (by themselves or with the use of other beings) over that which YHWH claimed exclusive province. Ask this question: If this is not the case, then why would it be wrong to ask a witch to make rain, but not wrong to ask a cloud-seeder to do the same with an airplane and with science?
    There is more: In the ancient world the witch was one who engaged in a brokerage relationship between some power and the person making the request. In the Bible God alone serves as the patron/suzerain to whom one is to make petitions. To engage in brokerage with a witch was to, again, deny God's sovereignty and exclusive patronage.
    In this light, objections to the use of magic in Tolkein are misplaced. Tolkein has envisioned a world in which persons like Gandalf are credentialed brokers for the power of God. They are to be read in terms of prophets -- persons authorized to broker God's power and favor. If this is not so, then we are forced to explain why ie, Elijah or Elisha causing flour and oil to multiply, or parting rivers, is not "witchcraft".
    So what can we say then of Phillips' evaluation of the Smurfs in this light? Not much. If I may play "Smurf's advocate" for a moment: The series could arguably be supposed to have been in a world like Narnia where such practices were never forbidden; some sort of earthlike place which is not our own world. Papa Smurf may then have been an "authorized broker" of certain powers (while Gargamel would not have been).
    But if Phillips was worried about children imitating the program in this respect, then arguably a parent has failed to provide some prior education. And truly, such overanalysis is not required anyway. Phillips, even as we, adds his own background to the narrative in which Papa Smurf operates as one fully aware of the laws of Leviticus (or similar laws), and violates them anyway. Such assumptions would be quite gratutious.
  • My Little Pony. No, I didn't watch this one, but Phillips' contention that the unicorn is a symbol of the Antichrist (!) [79] is based on a rather strained reading of Daniel in which he supposes that the "little horn" that comes from the ten horns is some sort of unicorn (never mind that it's just a horn with no horse body attached). It's even worse when you take it as I do, in preterist terms, where the little horn in either Vespasian or Titus. The paired contention that the rainbow is a New Age symbol is better attested [80], even if still too presumptuous to read into the story, but connecting the residing of a character among mushrooms in terms of "drug users" who use hallucinogenin mushrooms is simply bizarre.
  • He-Man. This corny show, I admit, was a guilty pleasure of mine for a time, but I never took it quite as seriously as Phillips, who makes rather too much of children imitating He-Man's catchphrase, "By the power of Grayskull!" His legalistic response to this: "God's Word warns us that only by the blood of Jesus do humans have any power and authority over others. There is no mention of the power of Grayskull." [89] Aside from the pedantic nature of this last comment (as if indeed our intelligence is so worthy of insult as to suppose that we might think "the power of Grayskull" is found anywhere in Scripture), I can find nothing that says that "only by the blood of Jesus" is there any authority or power over others. Really? Do we need the blood of Jesus to plug in a microwave? Or to become a police officer? Again, as in reference to the Smurfs above, Phillips takes these things far too seriously -- and fails to give enough responsibility to parents to prevent and correct overzealous interpretations by children. One wonders whether if indeed, as parents who wrote to Phillips said, their third child's first words were, "I have the power," [90] such parents are doing their full duty as parents.
    Also rather strained is Phillips' regard towards a He-Man character who carries a "cobra head staff." Phillips warns us solmenly, "In many countries, the cobra is worshipped as a god." [92] In ancient Egypt, cats were worshipped as gods; so does Phillips also wish to advocate not having cats as pets? Will we next be told not to attend Cats the musical? Somehow, I find it doubtful that cobra decorations were chosen for any such purpose as implied; how many viewers will even know of cobras being regarded of deities?
  • Power Lords. I never saw this one either. But Phillip's concern that the name "Power Lords" somehow "implies that these figures are equal to God" is extremely far-fetched. [120] Though Phillips notes that "God tells us he is the only Lord" the word "lord" is also frequently used in the NT as a designation like "sir" -- and as well, I wonder if Phillips will next move to rebuke the British House of Lords for claiming to be gods. Phillips also disparages the shape-shifting abilities of the Power Lords characters on the basis that "the Lord tells us He created us in His image." [121] This is the same mistake made by Mormons regarding image language, which has nothing to do with our appearance or form, but with God's delegated authority to us.
  • Classics. Lest you suppose any may be spared Phillips' wrath, not even Wile E. Coyote gets off: The fact that he survives so many traumatic events leads Phillips to say that children will get the idea that violence will not have effects. [163-64] In one sense, I won't deny this: I have used Wile E. Coyote before as a humorous example of how people today do not understand how ugly death can be. But is this a problem because of Chuck Jones, or a problem because of human ignorance? Clearly the producers of these cartoons do not think that comic violence is always non-lethal and non-injuring, so it must be a problem with ignorance. Of course, this is part of a broader debate wherein even material like The Three Stooges is argued to be too violent. I can only wonder how proponents of such views would have survived in, say, 14th century BC Palestine.
In close, we might wonder what became of Phillips, and I must honestly say that I am unsure. There is no reference I can find to his ministry that is current, and his publisher's website has a notice of closure at this typing. He is down as publishing a number of books up until ten years or so ago (including an expose' of the Power Rangers), but disappeared after that.

Given his poor methodology, I can only be thankful, as I suspect hed next be after me for my work on The Annals of Hearthstone.

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