Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Devil's Picturebook no. 1 : Joker

Growing up, I went to church camp every summer. One year, my cabin mate Charlie brought a deck of playing cards his recently deceased grandfather had given him. Our preacher (who was also Camp Director) saw the cards sitting in Charlie's suitcase and confiscated them, saying he wanted to show us something special with them. I thought we were in for a great magic show: a lesson in one handed shuffling, palming or a quick demonstration of three-card Monte. Later that night, we all gathered in the main meeting hall. I knew it would be special because they had lit a fire in the large fireplace even though it was the middle of summer. The Camp Director came up front after the obligatory prayer, holding the cards with no table in sight. I knew that meant no three-card Monte or table tricks of any kind, so maybe it would be a “vanish” or some other manipulation routine.
The Camp Director then began his patter about how playing cards have a secret history that we have all forgotten about, or perhaps suppressed. Playing cards used to have nicknames like: “The Devil’s Bible” and ‘The Devil’s Picture Book.’ Divining from regular playing cards is an old practice. They were used for fortune-telling, and this is strictly forbidden in the Bible:
Deuteronomy 18:10-12   10 There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch.  11 Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.  12 For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee.
 In 1423, a German preacher called them the invention of the devil and his hearers made a huge bonfire of cards in the town square. Our preacher then began peeling Charlie's grandpa's cards off one by one dramatically explaining the "secret" meaning behind each one. He started with the Joker: "The Joker represents Jesus, the son of God. Joker means fool. Therefore Jesus is being held up to ridicule. The joker is also said to be the offspring of the Jack and the mother of harlots." With a look of disgust he flicked the card into the fire (which, I admit, looked kinda cool and was the closest thing to a card trick he did that night). The Camp Director went on through the rest of Charlie's grandpa's deck, explaining with more and more fervor the evils of the pasteboard gateways to a life of sin and blasphemy. Charlie balled tears of grief, and I imagine he saw his grandpa in every single one of those cards, a memory of him burning with each flick into the fire.
That preacher was never Camp Director again after that year.
This year once a week I will pick a random card from my own deck of cards and share the meaning, or let it be an instigator to some random thought.  I want to let them create their own narrative—create, not destroy.

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