Feminism

Redeeming Love: the abuser wins

Plot summary:

  • Angel is “born again.”
  • Opens the House of Magdelena, begins educating former prostitutes and teaching them job skills
  • After three years, Miriam convinces Paul to go look for Angel
  • He finds her, tells her he married Miriam and Michael is still waiting for her
  • She decides to abandon her non-profit and go back to farming with Michael
  • Reunites with Michael by walking to him while stripping naked to “humiliate” herself before him
  • Epilogue: they have four children, she goes back to the House for visits, they die happy

***

I started this review series of Redeeming Love two years ago, and now we’re finally at the end. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, and I’m happy that I’ve made it all the way through this book and created a resource that exposes all the damage, harm, and abuse this book could perpetuate. Here at the end, Francine becomes about as subtle as a sledgehammer with her themes.

In the last few chapters, she foregrounds the contrast between Michael and Paul. They were set up as foils in the first half of the book, and Francine reminds us of their differences in the last pages. In a confrontation with Miriam, he shouts at her and says some spiteful, thoughtless things—and concludes their fight by “storming out” (425). We’re supposed to compare this sort of behavior with Michael, who is supposedly level-headed and reasonable as opposed to Paul, who shouts and gets mean when he’s upset.

This is troubling, because this perpetuates a belief about relationship dynamics that keeps victims locked in their abuser’s grasp: abusive behavior is always loud and obvious. It’s shouting matches and slammed doors. If a person is patient, calm, and reasonable even while he is kidnapping and sexually assaulting you, then how can it really be abuse? In reality, though, abusers are careful, measured, and thoughtful. Abuse is not an anger problem, it doesn’t happen when people like Paul get upset and fly off the handle. Abuse is about careful application, thoroughness, and patience. It usually looks like Michael’s calm, not Paul’s rage. Even if they are screaming and throwing things, it was carefully considered decision to do so.

Another significant theme comes straight from evangelical theology, and we see it most obviously in two places:

Oh, Lord, why was I so blind? Why couldn’t I hear? Why did it take so much pain for me to see that you have been there reaching out to me all along? (427)

Had his own faith and conviction been so weak she couldn’t see it? Had the cruelty she suffered and her own powerlessness against it taught her nothing? Did she still think she had control of her life? (433)

The theological principle here is that God will use any means necessary in order to draw his wayward children to him—both saved and unsaved. He is “relentless” in his pursuit of our souls. To put it bluntly: God will use pain and suffering, if necessary, to teach us that he in fact controls everything and that our only option is to turn to him for salvation.

This is what abusers teach their victims. They will use pain – beatings, verbal battering, rape—in order to demonstrate that they hold all the power, all the control. The victim does not get to make decisions about what they want to do – like own a small cabin and keep a garden, for example. Francine is blunt about it, too. During Angel’s conversion scene, we get this:

And do you signify your life to Jesus now before these witnesses? If so, would you signify by saying ‘I do’?”

Words meant for a wedding ceremony. A sad smile touched her lips. With Michael she had said “Why not” rather than “I do”; she had come to the end of her endurance and felt she had no choice. She felt that now. She had come to the end of her struggles, the end of her fight to survive on her own. She needed God. (428)

Holy shit.

Just a reminder: at the start of this whole mess, she decided to provoke the bouncer into beating her to death, is delirious when Michael shows up, and he kidnaps her. He takes her out to a remote area and every time she tries to leave he physically drags her back while she is kicking and screaming and throwing herself out of a moving wagon. And Francine draws a clear parallel to Michael kidnapping her and Angel’s conversion experience. Life was like Magowan’s beating, the tool God needed to make her vulnerable enough to kidnap into salvation.

Again … holy shit. Every once in a while, I think “maybe I’m being too cynical, maybe I should give Francine the benefit of the doubt here, maybe this is just a really uncharitable reading of the text” and then she goes and spouts nonsense like this.

The last theme that Francine wants to remind us all of before she ends the book is that Francine was culpable for her own exploitation and abuse, that she was partly responsible for a significant part of her suffering. On remaking herself, she chooses demure dresses in drab colors—a contrast to the “temptation” that satin gowns presented to her when she’d been kidnapped by Duke. During her conversation with Paul, they talk about the night Paul “assists” an escape attempt from Michael and he insisted she “pay” him:

“I could’ve said no.”

“Did you know that then?”

She didn’t speak for a moment. “Some part of me must have known. Maybe I just didn’t want to. Maybe it was my way to draw your blood. I don’t know anymore.” (449)

I’m flabbergasted. She had been kidnapped by a stranger, a man who won’t even use her name, who won’t let her leave, who actually wanted to murder her, and the only person who can get her out of there decides to demand she “pay” him in sex … and she “could’ve said no.” In the rest of her musings on this, Angel sees the “repercussions” from her “choice” as a “stone lying cold and hard in the silent pool” making the people around her broken, “desperate” and “ruptured.”

What’s particularly infuriating about this passage is that Francine knows that people like me exist. She knows that a woman like myself would read the section and argue that “saying no” was not a legitimate option. Francine wants to proof her book against this criticism, so she tells the reader that Angel is to blame for having sex with Paul, and to blame for all the “disruption” that “choice” caused between Paul and Michael.

This section damns Redeeming Love in a way few other passages do. Francine, as the author, is aware enough to hang a lantern on that night and what it means. She wants us to know that she considers abused, vulnerable, exploited woman to be just as guilty as the monsters who exploit them.

***

Redeeming Love is the story of an abuser who kidnaps an unconscious woman, barely restrains himself from murdering her, and gets what he wants in the end: a victim returning like a prodigal wife to kneel down, sobbing, at his feet begging forgiveness for wanting to be free of him.

According to Francine, writing this was a “form of worship” and everything in Redeeming Love was a “gift from the Lord” (467).

I hope her god never gives anyone another “gift” like this.

 

p.s. why did she have to go back to farming in the middle of nowhere, why couldn’t Michael have moved to San Francisco and helped her run her non-profit oh wait because women can’t be independent that’s from Satan

 

Theology

disappointment is the guide to happiness

For most of my life, I was not allowed to experience disappointment. That doesn’t mean that nothing ever happened that could disappoint me—just that when it did happen, I wasn’t allowed to feel disappointed. If I ever expressed my disappointment to a peer, friend, or adult in my life the standard response was that I should be grateful for an event, circumstance, or item because after all it’s only the saving grace of God that’s keeping me from being tortured in hell forever.

Writing it out like that it sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. A few months after I’d gotten married I was talking to a trusted person about something that had gone wrong in my life and how I didn’t deserve what was happening to me, and their response was “well, you should be grateful because what you really deserve is hell.” They said it … almost glibly. They’d said it so often and to so many people that the sheer horror of it couldn’t even hit them.

This thread was woven into nearly every aspect of my life. I was forced to be “thankful” for any misery, unhappiness, disappointment, or discontent because what else could a hopeless wretch like myself dare to expect? I should be happy with what I’ve got and thankful it’s not any worse. The result of this mentality was twofold: I never learned how to deal with disappointment appropriately, and I never learned what gratitude is or learned how to be truly thankful.

The intended result of cutting me off from “negative” emotions like anger or disappointment was to prevent me from feeling them, but how anyone thought that was ever going to work is beyond me. I still experienced the entire emotional spectrum but was taught to ignore a significant section of it, to bury those feelings. With all their talk of not letting bitterness fester you’d think they’d be more conscious of what unresolved disappointment can do to a person, but no.

Stunted emotional growth doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Once I started deconstructing the fundamentalist ideology I’d been raised in, a lot of things started to grate on some incredibly raw nerves. I wanted to lean in to being disappointed—to throw massive pity parties and lay in bed and mope and do all the things children do when they’re learning to self-regulate. I was essentially trying to cram two decades of disappointment into a year so I could get it all out of my system and learn to cope with it better. During that time period I really learned to hate the phrase “an attitude of gratitude” and any of its linguistic compatriots. Anyone trying to tell me that gratitude is the key to happiness would provoke a run-screaming-into-the-hills reaction.

In my personal experience up until that point, gratitude was most definitely not the key to happiness. I’d been forced to try that for almost as long as I could remember and nope. I wanted nothing to do with the entire concept—no one was ever going to tell me to “be ye thankful” ever again if I could help it.

***

Recently, I’ve learned that part of the healing work, part of recovering from fundamentalism, is learning to separate out the parts that are true but that fundamentalists got wrong. For a long time I had to reject all of it wholesale, because tossing the baby out with the bathwather was the only way to set myself free from the entire toxic system. For years I didn’t believe that bothering to recover any of that would be healthy or helpful.

Last weekend, though, I realized that gratitude is actually woven through all my happiness. Because I’ve learned how to experience disappointment, I could finally recognize gratitude. In my experience, they’re two sides of the same coin. Disappointment has been an overwhelming experience for me over the last five years—nothing quite makes me want to curl up into a ball like disappointment. I’ve finally experienced the truth of a “hope deferred maketh the heart sick,” and the past few weeks have been a double helping. I actually went to bed in the middle of the day and cried myself to sleep a few times last week.

But, not just despite the disappointment but because of it, gratitude has shone even brighter. Now it’s a golden thread in my life, helping me to refocus and revealing the good things that exist in the middle of sorrow. I’m horribly disappointed that something I’ve been working on personally for the last year and half got ripped out of my hands and stomped on, but gratitude lets me see how it’s not been for nothing. I have friends I wouldn’t have made otherwise, connections and resources that are going to help me tremendously in other work I want to do. I’ve learned and grown and gained important skills.

I’m grateful.

What the fundamentalists got wrong is that I am not grateful instead of being disappointed. I’m both. I can recognize that what’s happening is unjust and unfair and sensible, reasonable people wouldn’t be behaving this way … and I can look at everything I’ve gained by being a part of it. I wouldn’t really be able to understand the full picture of my life right now without both of these feelings.

Gratitude is present in everything that makes me happy, or feel accomplished, or content; and it’s there in everything that hurts. Sometimes I’m so grateful it makes me dizzy—I can have a weekend full of good food, supportive friends, entertaining movies, satisfying gaming victories, beautiful landscapes and sleeping in and thinking about it makes my head explode a little bit how it’s possible for one person to be this happy. Gratitude is feeling so full of joy and contentment I might burst from it.

None of it would be possible, though, without disappointment as an emotional transition color. By embracing disappointment, I can understand my worth as a person. I can understand the way things are versus the way things ought to be and know where I fit, where my place is at the moment.

Disappointment guides me to gratitude by pointing out what’s wrong so I can see what’s right.

Photography by Peter Toporowski
Feminism

Redeeming Love: moral relativity

Content note: child sexual assault, discussions of sexual violence

Plot summary:

  • Angel arrives in San Francisco, gets a job as a cook
  • The café burns down and Duke finds her
  • Duke threatens Angel’s employer to coerce her, imprisons her in his gambling hall
  • He wants her to be his madam but she’ll have to be raped for a week first
  • When he introduces her to his customers, they tell her to sing—she sings “Rock of Ages”
  • A rich, Christian banker wanders in and rescues her
  • She confronts Duke and gets the keys to the rooms of children he’s been raping
  • They leave with the child sexual assault victims, go to the banker’s house
  • Miriam and Paul get married, God talks to Michael some more

***

This section of the book made me so angry and frustrated that I cried. There’s been a lot about Redeeming Love that is absolutely rage-inducing—most notably that Michael is a textbook abuser who kidnaps a woman, assaults her, and threatens to murder her but he’s the “good guy”—but this section took the cake. We’re nearing the end with only one more section to go after this, and Francine’s narrative is starting to force the reader to some conclusions.

I’m angry because of the conclusions that these chapters draw about the nature of God.

I didn’t talk about this too much last week because I knew these chapters were coming, but a point that Francine made crystal clear to her audience is that this time Angel is running away because God wants her to. On every previous escape attempt, Angel leaving Michael was framed as her sinful longing for independence; this time God wants her to go and it’s Satan’s voice that tries to persuade her to stay. During a brief interlude with Michael while he’s furiously chopping wood, God tells him that Angel has made Michael her idol, and worships her abuser-kidnapper-husband instead of God so God had to send her away—to “teach her a lesson” is implied (383).

Angel arrives in San Francisco with no clue how she’s going to make a living and stumbles—on God’s verbal direction (377)—into a restaurant that is clearly struggling because the former cook … was not nice. She offers to cook for the owner, and Francine tells us that this is exactly where God wants her to be. Angel is doing exactly what God wants, and he provided her with this employment opportunity right when she was at her wit’s end and wondering how she was going to get any food that evening.

He didn’t give her this idea before this moment. Even when he tells her to go into the restaurant he doesn’t explain why, but she’s beyond exhausted and doesn’t question the prompting. God waited until Angel was quite literally wandering around the streets of San Francisco, exhausted and hungry, before he decided to intervene and help her.

This is a common torture method: deny your victim sleep or food and then prey on them when they’re at their most vulnerable. This is what God is doing to Angel. He’s torturing her into doing what he wants.

It also didn’t escape my notice that she got this job because of skills that Michael forcer her to have when he kidnapped her, and the Altmans helped develop. Angel would be an incredible saleswoman, for example—she’s written as being incredibly perceptive, finds people easy to read, and is naturally charming. We saw how good she was at this during a previous escape attempt, when she found a job at a mercantile. But oh, no—this time the job she gets is a job her abuser equipped her to have, and an explicitly domestic one at that.

That isn’t the end of the torture Francine’s God-character employs. It gets worse.

After the fire, Duke—the man who raped her for her entire childhood—discovers her and coerces her into going with him by threatening her employer. Once they’re in Duke’s gambling hall, he imprisons her so Angel is essentially kidnapped again. Ironically, there’s actually no text-based evidence for why Duke’s assault and kidnapping are wrong but when Michael kidnaps and assaults her it’s fine and good and wonderful. The only difference?

God told Michael to kidnap her.

I guess I’m not surprised that this is the justification an evangelical Christian uses. That is how their ethical system works: sin is wrong because God said so and if God tells you to do something then it’s fine. The fact that Duke and Michael take the exact same actions doesn’t even merit a discussion. And evangelicals complain that “post-modernism” has allowed secular ethics to be “relative.” In Francine’s book, literally, it’s A-OK to kidnap someone as long as God told you to.

We’re getting to the climax of Francine’s character arc, if not the plot. She’s accepted the role Michael forced her into—she’s a good cook now, she finally adopts his name and goes by Mrs. Hosea—and now she has to face temptation in order to commit to God’s plan for her life.

This temptation comes from Duke. The man who abused and raped her, who murdered anyone who helped her. In Redeeming Love, Angel is in San Francisco because God told her to be there. She works at the café because God told her to. The café that is across the street from Duke’s gambling hall (388). No other café in San Francisco would do, it had to be the one that would guarantee that Duke would find her again. This is despicable. Monstrous. If I knew God had put me in a position where my abuser and rapist could find me and hurt me again? I’d figure out a way to get a god-killing bullet and then shoot him with it.

While Duke has her imprisoned, her gives her a warm bath and nice clothes and nice bedding and good food. She hasn’t eaten all day because of the fire, and Duke gives her steak and chocolate cake. When she eats it—because why wouldn’t she?—this is her reaction, which the text indicates is the “right” one:

I’m so weak! Look at me! Stuffing myself on Duke’s food. I’m selling my soul for a steak and a slice of chocolate cake when I swore I’d starve before I went back to my old ways. I don’t know how to be good! (394)

This is when I started crying.

Francine writes Angel as being tempted by Duke. The child rapist. She puts Angel back into a rapist’s clutches, and then sets up this situation as being tempting to Angel. I can’t even put into words how sickening this is. She gives food to her hungry, exhausted character and eating it is bad? What is she even trying to accomplish with this scene? I’m so angry and hurt and utterly mystified that this book is still a leading best-seller in Christian fiction.

Unfortunately, there’s more, and it gets ugly. Angel reveals everything that’s happened to her since she left New York—when she tells Duke about Michael, the narrative framing she uses is Michael’s, not hers. Every time she ran away from her kidnapper? That night when he threatened to murder her and physically dragged her kicking and screaming onto his wagon and back to the farm? This is how she recalls it:

He came and got me out. He fought our way out. And he took me home again. He forgave me. (396).

This is the abuser’s revisionist narrative. Michael’s gaslighting of Angel worked.

I didn’t know it was possible to be even more disappointed by Redeeming Love, but I am.

The climactic scene comes when Duke parades her in front of the crowd he’s going to have rape her. When Angel comes out on stage, though, she feels sorry for all these men and then remembers a hymn Michael taught her—“Rock of Ages.” She sings it, and in the most hackneyed, stereotypical, trope I’ve ever seen in Christian fiction she brings all the would-be rapists back to themselves with her purity, innocence, and righteousness. Her goodness makes them all feel sheepish and embarrassed, but it’s Duke’s reaction that is … it would be hilarious if I weren’t so angry with Francine. He’s afraid because Angel sang a hymn. She’s able to rip his shirt open and remove the keys from a chain around his neck because her hymn-singing righteousness has apparently made him as effective as a lamp.

The message Francine is driving home is how relentless, unfeeling, cruel, dictatorial, and unbelievably petty God is.

Francince’s God wants Angel to be happy, but only as long as she worships him and puts him first. In order to ensure that she does this, he’s going to make her feel like a worthless person who can’t make her husband happy by giving him lots of babies. Then he’s doing to almost let her starve before offering her help– but that help is going to put her right back into the clutches of the man who raped her over and over again. He’ll take her to the brink of being raped for an entire week straight so that she learns to pray and trust and believe in God. He’s going to drag her to a rock bottom of constant, unending rape and listening to children being raped so that she has no choice but to beg him to rescue her.

This is a goddamn protection racket. Believe in me, worship me, or I’ll force you out of your happy marriage and let you be raped? What the fuck is this?

 

Feminism

Redeeming Love: A Year in the Life

A little while ago my good friend and colleague Libby Anne linked to my Redeeming Love review series and that was just the kick in the pants I needed to get back on the Book Reviewing Horse so here we are.

Plot Summary:

  • Elizabeth Altman is pregnant
  • She asks Angel to help her deliver the baby
  • Angel decides Michael needs a wife that can have babies
  • She leaves for San Francisco, tells Miriam to make Michael happy

The chapters take place over the course of almost a year—this plotline starts in late spring with Angel deciding to leave by early in the next spring. I’m pretty sure that it takes place over this time period so that Francine can get hamfisted with the planting and harvest imagery, as well as with Nativity references for the events around Christmas. I don’t think anyone’s ever accused her of being a subtle writer.

***

At this point, we are starting to see some significant changes in Angel’s character. Since this is a character-driven book, I’d expect to see these types of things happening at the closing of the second act, which is about where we are. What’s frustrating to me is that the changes are completely uninteresting, and the reason why they’re uninteresting is that Francine is bound by evangelical theologies about morality and gender.

In the beginning, Angel is “bad” because she is bitter and independent, and these are the qualities that need to be changed to make her a “good” character. By chapter 25, Angel is losing her bitterness and independence, and becoming the “Silently Suffering Saint” archetype. I recognized it immediately in this line:

Angel refused to defend herself against Paul. What was the point? She was polite. She was silent. (335)

and this one:

If Paul called her a harlot to her face, she would take it and say nothing. (363)

because as a budding teenager writer I wrote this character over and over again. All my heroines were the Silently Suffering Saint, champions of Inner Resolve and knights of the Moral High Ground, where good women endure endless harms and abuses with Quiet Steadfastness. I was not that person—not even a little bit—but oh how I longed to be. The only time I’ve ever come the close into fitting this mold was in an abusive relationship. I was convinced my abuser was shaping me into the godly woman I could never attain on my own, a woman who takes the hits and “says nothing.”

Later, after I had finally escaped from that abuse, multiple people in my life told me that I would know I was “recovering” from the abuse when I stopped talking about it. This is the pattern we’re seeing in Angel’s character—her goodness is directly related to how much she can shut up and let a man get away with being vicious and cruel to her. We know this is the “right” track for Angel to follow, since we get “he would respect her silence” from Michael a few pages into the chapter (339).

These types of character arcs are just incredibly boring. An Angel that reforms while still retaining her wit, her fire, could be interesting—at the very least, entertaining. Instead, we get the same insipid Martyr character that high-handed morality plays have been trying to sell us on for centuries.

***

Angel also starts literally hearing the voice of God: a still, small, and yet audible voice that is being hopelessly cryptic. He says to “Come forth, beloved” and when Angel understandably goes “huh?” she gets nothing (336). At one point, a “sweet fragrance filled the darkened cabin” and a voice “fills the room” and says “I am.” She tries to talk back, but “no answer came. No voice filled the stillness” (345). When harvest comes and she’s shucking corn, God tells her “You have to die to be reborn.” Again, Angel’s response is “huh?” but receives nothing more from God (357-58).

We know from the times that Angel listens to Michael talk and read the Bible that all the religious lingo is utterly foreign to her and she can’t make heads or tails of it. She’s having the same reaction to the stuff God is literally saying to her, personally, as when Michael reads the Bible.

This framing of God is consistent with what I got in conservative Christian theology. I was taught that I needed to memorize as much Scripture as I possibly could, because we need to give the Holy Spirit the power to communicate with us, and that comes from having the Word of God “written on the table of our hearts.” If we have Scripture memorized, then anytime we think of a verse we’ve memorized, that’s the Holy Spirit trying to tell us something. Apparently, God is like Mrs. Who from A Wrinkle in Time except unlike her, he can only use biblical allusions instead of the universe’s entire library.

There’s also the concept that only born-again Christians are capable of understanding Scripture. I was taught that the Bible would appear “foolish” to all non-Christians who tried to read it, and that this was why non-believers think the Bible can be criticized and mocked. They don’t have the Holy Spirit guiding them to a true understanding of what the Bible says. Angel can’t understand God because she’s not “open” to receiving his words.

The end result of all this theology ending up in Redeeming Love is that God looks petty and ridiculous.

***

The primary conflict of this section is that Angel is barren while her neighbor is pregnant, and this is a constant reminder that she will never be able to “give” Michael children and a family of his own. At one point before the baby is born, Miriam tells Angel “[Childbirth] is a woman’s reason for being, isn’t it? Our divine privilege: to bring new life into the world and nurture it” (355).

This sort of statement popping up here makes me suspicious that Christians write an overwhelming amount of historical fiction so that they can get away with forcing their ideology into everything. A teenage girl saying something like in a contemporary setting would be ludicrous, or invoke the assumption that the character is probably cloyingly Old Fashioned. But in a book set during the California Gold Rush, this would be a perfectly ordinary thing to say! (supposedly.)

Point being: this is not just present in Redeeming Love for historical color—it’s there because this is something the author agrees with. Pregnancy and childbirth, according to Francine, is the single purpose God intends a woman to serve. Francine could have chosen a more compassionate path, one that could have brought a lot of comfort and possible healing to women who struggle with both infertility and the constant cultural demand that they incubate offspring or they’re useless. She could have left Angel childless and depicted a happy ending with Angel and Michael that showed that Christians can still be happy even if they aren’t living out the Nuclear Family ideal.

Instead, by the end, Angel is not actually barren. Or she was barren, but God miraculously cures her and she has babies with Michael. She’s given the “divine privilege” of childbirth—which, if this section is to be believed, can happen with a minimal amount of fuss. In fact, if you’re a Good Enough Christian, you can keep sitting in front of the fire, mending your husband’s shirts, until moments before the baby is born! In fact, contractions and labor can be experienced in total silence (there’s that Silent theme again, huh) so that your other kids don’t even know something might be going on with mom!

Everything about this section is eyeroll inducing.

Theology

for Thanos so loved the world

Note: lots of spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War

I saw Avengers: Infinity War a few weeks ago and have been ruminating on it ever since. I enjoyed watching it and am doubly excited now for Captain Marvel after what we saw on Fury’s souped-up space pager. There were a few elements that frustrated me a touch – you can’t love someone and murder them at the same time, whoever designed the Soul Stone “test” is obviously a monster—but on the whole I … liked it. I think. If I still like it next summer will depend a lot on what they do with the Snapture in Avengers 4.

I abandoned all pretense of separating the “secular” and the “sacred” back in my undergraduate days, and in the last couple of years I’ve become intentional about blending pop culture into my theological conversations. Lord of the Rings, A Wrinkle in Time, Wheel of Time, Mistborn … they’ve all given me tools and metaphors to chew on theological ideas.

When I saw Black Panther in February, I talked the ear off of anyone who would listen about the resurrection motif the film uses and how it relates to Black liberation theology, especially how Kelly Brown Douglas articulated the meaning of the Resurrection in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. What Black Panther had to say about resurrection was beautiful and incredibly meaningful, and I thought about it a lot over the Easter season. What if my Christian understanding of Christ’s resurrection looked more like what we saw in Black Panther, and less like what I’ve been handed by a European tradition enmeshed in misogyny and white supremacy?

But back to Infinity War and theology. Last week, a good friend of mine shared a meme that reads:

“For Thanos so loved the universe that he sacrificed his only daughter to save half of the universe.” ~ Avengers 3:16

It made me stop in my tracks with how piercingly accurate it is, and how thoroughly it eviscerates the common evangelical approach to understanding the Cross. I abandoned penal substitionary atonement theory years ago, and the reasons why are encapsulated almost perfectly in that meme.

Thanos is the villain of Avengers: Infinity War, one of the biggest “Big Bads” in Marvel comic history; he’s the despicable monster every single franchise in the MCU has been preparing us for. I’ve been curious to see how the MCU was going to adapt Thanos’ story ever since the “to challenge them is to court death” line from the mid-credits Avengers scene. Infinity War finally gave us the full explanation: Thanos is on a mission to save the world—he “kills and tortures and calls it mercy,” as Gamora put it. He goes from planet to planet, slaughtering half of its population and decimating its infrastructure, because he believes that every single sentient species in the galaxy is destined to annihilate itself by draining a finite set of resources. That’s taking too long, though, so he finds an faster way: get all the Infinity Stones so that he can eliminate half of the universe’s resource-consuming population with a “snap” of his fingers.

In the film we learn that Gamora discovered the location of one of the Infinity Stones, and Thanos … persuades … her to tell him where it is. Once they get to that planet, Thanos is told by a ghost-like figure that he has to sacrifice what he loves most in order to acquire the Soul Stone. Long story short, he throws Gamora over a cliff but feels really bad about it. It’s just the sacrifice he has to make to save the world.

That’s what penal substitionary atonement theory is. That’s what most American Christians believe about the Cross—their belief systems casts God in the same villainous role as Thanos.

In penal substitutionary atonement theory, all sentient species – in evangelicalism’s case, homo sapiens—are destined not for mere annihilation, but for eternal conscious torment. This is the only possible outcome for the decision two people made in our ancient history—God told our precursors what would happen if they consumed a certain resource, but they did it anyway. According to many Christians, God doomed us all to an eternity of conscious torment because of the sin we’ve inherited from Adam.

There’s an echo of that in Infinity War—Thanos shows a sub-set of the Avengers what his home planet, Titan, looked like when it was a paradise, like Eden. He warned his people of what would happen if their lust for the “fruit” of unrestrained consumption went unchecked—they would “certainly die”—and he was right. Titan ignored him, and his paradise was destroyed. He believes this will happen everywhere, on every planet … unless he saves them by electing some to survive in a New Paradise that he creates. He’s even more merciful than the American evangelical god if you think about it—he’s going to save half of everyone in the universe. American evangelical theology teaches that “straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, and few there be that find it.” The number of earth’s population who have ever been saved from the flames of Hell is far less than half.

There’s a gaping hole in both Thanos’ plan and penal substitionary atonement theory. Thanos and God are predestining everyone in the universe to death—or worse, eternal conscious torment, being tortured forever in a lake of fire—when with all their power they could choose another option if they wanted to. With all the Stones in the Gauntlet, granting Thanos the ability to shape the entire universe however he sees fit, he could double the universe’s resources. He could give every planet a renewable energy source capable of meeting any conceivable need. He holds the power and life and death in his hands, and he’s deliberately choosing death.

The same is true of penal substitionary atonement theory’s god. He could have decided that Adam and Eve were responsible for their own sin and that their descendants wouldn’t inherit their repercussions. But he didn’t. He could have decided against punishing Adam and Eve, along with the rest of us, with Hell. But he didn’t. He could have decided to simply forgive everyone’s Inherited Sin that he saddled us with in the first place. But he didn’t. He could have made Jesus’ sacrifice enough for everyone instead of Electing only a cosmic handful—or without requiring a Sinner’s Prayer from a scattered few.

But he didn’t.

In evangelicalism, Jesus’s death on the Cross is framed as the greatest act of love and sacrifice that has ever occurred in the history of the universe. Without Jesus dying for our sins, God would supposedly be forced to let everyone burn forever.

I’m sure Thanos felt the same way about throwing Gamora over a cliff.

Image belongs to Marvel Studios
Theology

smashing the church patriarchy

Since I’ve entered seminary, at no surprise to anyone, I’ve become friends with a lot of fellow seminarians and pastors. Something I’ve discovered is that being friends on facebook with one pastor or minister means that I’ll be seeing their interactions with a lot of other pastors and ministers. Over the past couple of years I’ve seen them like or comment on a bunch of posts, and many of those posts have been celebratory. Ordinations, baptisms, commissions, and all the rest are in the background of my life now in a way that they’ve never been before. The conversations around those topics are a steady staple of the discussions I see.

And I’ve noticed a pattern.

It’s a good pattern—considering the circles I run in, most of the people I know and who they know are feminists, queer folks, and other people engaged in justice and liberation work. I’ve seen a lot of celebrations over the last two years; ordinations of women and queer folks, electing women into positions of church leadership, marrying two queer women ministers. This week, the ELCA elected Patricia Davenport as a bishop, and she’ll be the first Black woman to serve as bishop anywhere the ELCA. Considering I know a lot of Lutherans (it happens when your seminary is in Minneapolis, apparently), many of the people I know were excited and happy about this—rightly so.

As a Christian feminist, a metric butt-ton of the work is laser focused on the gender imbalance in Christian ministry. It’s true across every single denomination, even the most liberal and progressive, that men far outnumber women at every level of ministry. Even in the United Church of Christ, only a third of all local church pastors are women, even though women are 47% of the UCC’s ordained ministers. Reaching gender parity is something many of my colleagues promote and are actively working toward.

In the evangelical world that I still have half a foot in, arguments in favor of women serving in church leadership happen basically every day. I’ve seen it happen so many times in so many venues that at this point I know the patterns of the debate by heart. I know what arguments each side will make, how those arguments will be picked apart, what evidence is going to be brought up, and I know when the conversation will either end or devolve into purposeless bickering. As you can probably guess, it’s not an argument I get involved in personally very often as I rarely think it’s worth my time. My experience being a feminist on the internet has taught me not to throw my pearls before swine.

But there is one thing that all these conversations—both the celebrations and the arguments—have made me question: is this the work Christian feminists should be doing? Is convincing everyone that women are indeed permitted to become pastors a good use of our time? Is promoting women in church leadership, reaching denominational gender parity, truly a Christian feminist goal?

I’m not sure.

The last time I was regularly attending a traditional church was in February 2015—I quit going after the pastor gave a Valentine’s Day-themed sermon that was absolutely infuriating and I couldn’t take the misogyny and queerphobia anymore. After that I tried the local UMC and ELCA churches, but neither was an ideal fit for me. It’s been three years since I’ve consistently darkened a church door, and honestly, those three years have been, on a spiritual level, the healthiest of my life. I’ve explored my faith more, and more deeply, than ever before. I’ve grown more as a person and a Christian since I stopped attending a traditional church. I’ve read the Bible more. I started seminary, with no intention of seeking ordination, but just to learn more about my faith, and it’s been an extraordinary experience.

However, there’s a reason why I’m using the term “traditional church.” In the last three years, I never stopped being a part of the church, and not in the “I’m a Christian so I’m a member of the church’s body” metaphysical sense. I go to church every Sunday: it’s just in my home and it’s seven people praying together and talking about our faith, Christianity, the Bible, and theological books (which includes books like A Wrinkle in Time). We call ourselves a “book club” or a “small group,” but that’s my church.

What this experience has taught me is the value of relational power (Linthicum’s Transforming Power did a lot to form my thinking about what “relational power” is if you’d like to learn more). Linthicum sets it up as relational vs. unilateral (“dominating” or “constitutional,” pg. 81) power, but I’m starting to see it as relational vs. hierarchical power. A question I keep asking myself is can we have equality in a hierarchical system? Can hierarchical power be feminist?

I’m starting to think the answer to that question is “No.”

In my church, there is no pastor. There is no leader. We all have different gifts, different perspectives, and we benefit from all of them equally. I’m in seminary and my gifts are toward research and recall—I can remember lots of useful factoids and references. One person in my church is incredibly emotionally intelligent, and she can be so amazingly perceptive. She has a knack for cutting through a lot of the academic bullshit that I can get stuck in to get to the heart of a passage. Another woman is endlessly full of questions, and challenges all of us to seek deeper, to know better. Two of our other members are really good at keeping all our questions and interpretations and applications in perspective—what would this really look like if we started acting on it?

We all contribute, and we do so on equal footing. None of our gifts or perspectives is seen as better than another—I’m in seminary, and that means exactly squat when it comes to the leadership of the group … because there is no leadership of the group. This hasn’t been intentional. It just happened, because we had no need for anyone to serve in that role. Without anyone “in charge,” there’s absolutely no reason to worry about whether or not power is being shared equitably. It just is.

It probably doesn’t hurt that there’s five women and two men. Given that, part of me wonders if this “just happened” because we are mostly women. Is this what a feminist church could look like? A group of equals where every gift is utilized and every person is valued?

Should we be really trying to make more women powerful so that they’re as powerful as men, or should we be eliminating the power structure that’s created all these problems in the first place? Is patriarchy intrinsically hierarchical? Can the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house?

I’m not positive one way or another, but I think progressive Christians need to seriously wrestle with questions like these if our institutions have a chance at becoming healthy, non-harmful, equitable spaces.

Photography by Allison Matherly
Feminism

what white women can learn from Zeresh

I think I might have mentioned more than once that I enjoyed my “Interpretation as Resistance: Womanist, Feminist, and Queer Readings of the Bible” class last semester. One of the themes that really hit home for me about womanist interpretation is what it asks of me, as a white woman. I can’t use womanism as an interpretive lens, but I can look at a passage or story and ask myself what about the villain or oppressor (or oppressiveness) do I have in common, because of my whiteness?

The story we used in class was of Sarah and Hagar, and we read multiple interpretations–feminist, womanist, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim–about the time when Sarah goes to Abraham and has Hagar driven out. It was an amazing conversation, and I’ll never forget what one of my professors, Alika Galloway, highlighted: Sarah and Hagar could have bonded, could have been united, could have loved each other as sisters. They could have raised their sons together, and leaned on each other to survive. Instead, Sarah oppressed and exploited Hagar at every turn, and when Hagar threatened her power and authority in the camp, had her banished into the desert to die. White women, Alika said, are like Sarah in that passage.

Abraham had essentially sex trafficked Sarah to the Pharaoh of Egypt just a few chapters earlier. White women are oppressed by sexism and misogyny, and experience the same sort of violence from our partners that Abraham did to Sarah. But, instead of truly turning to other women who share those experiences, we often choose to survive this patriarchal system by exploiting white supremacy to grasp whatever power we can.

As we discussed this in class, the first character from the Bible that came to my mind was Zeresh. If you’ve never heard of her, don’t be embarrassed– basically no one I’ve talked to about her since then knows who she is. She’s Haman’s wife from Esther, and I know of her because of an animated Bible story I had as a child that featured her as a character. In that video she’s given more lines than she even has in the Tanakh, so I’ve known my whole life that Haman didn’t come up with the idea to execute Mordecai: his wife did.

Ever since last semester I’ve been thinking about what white women can learn from Zeresh, and I wrote an article about it for Sojourners. You can read it here, and I hope you do.

Social Issues

The Misuse and Abuse of “Gaslighting”

The ride home from church was the most miserable thirteen minutes I’d ever spent in a car. My parents were gone, in south Florida dealing with my late uncle’s house and furniture and baseball card collection, so a pastor’s daughter was staying with my sister and me over the weekend since we weren’t quite old enough to be left by ourselves.

That morning, in church, the pastor had taught from the Parable of the Talents, and his words have been branded into my memory. Even though over a decade has come and gone since that Sunday, I can feel the pew underneath me, see the wood paneling on the wall next to me, watch the light filtering in through wavy, colored glass. I feel my stomach wrench as I see necks in the congregation stiffen, fighting the urge to turn around and look at me. I’m still not sure what most of those people felt for me in that moment: pity or recrimination?

He spoke about the man who buried his talent into the sand, and then, without looking directly at me, told everyone that “a young lady sitting here in this church service” had stopped playing the piano for the congregational singing because I was rebelling against God and burying my talent in the sand. According to him, it had nothing to do with the tendonitis that we were desperately trying to heal without needing surgery. No, I was vain and ambitious and God was going to punish me for my sin.

I got home and went straight into my parent’s bedroom. I shut the door behind me, grabbed the phone from a nightstand, and then shut myself in my mother’s closet. Curled up in her laundry, I called my parents and sobbed out what had happened.

My father demanded a private meeting with the pastor the very next week. Calmly but fiercely he confronted the pastor over what he’d done, and that he expected an apology. Without missing a beat, the pastor looked my father and I dead square in the eyes and lied. Yes, he’d mentioned that someone wasn’t using their piano talent, but he was not talking about me. He was talking about a different person, an older man who could also play the piano. I had misunderstood him. I’d taken what he’d said personally when I shouldn’t have—but shouldn’t we take this as a sign that the Holy Spirit was convicting me, if I’d heard him talk about a different person and assumed it applied to myself?

I protested—“no, you said ‘a young lady sitting here in this church service’”—but he stuck with his hideous lie. All through that horrifying argument he insisted that I’d over-reacted, that I was being overly defensive, that I was selfishly and childishly making everything about me. Toward the end he started swaying my father. Wasn’t it reasonable that I’d just misunderstood him? I even started doubting myself. Maybe he hadn’t attacked me, personally, from the pulpit. Maybe he was right.

***

Over the last few years, I’ve watched as “gaslighting” has become a more familiar term to many of us. The first time I encountered the word, it was almost a the-veil-has-parted, scales-have-fallen-from-my-eyes moment. I found peace and comfort in that word, because I finally understood what had been happening to me for most of my life. What that pastor did was gaslighting. What an abusive rapist did to me was gaslighting. It made everything make sense. Finally, I had a word for what I had only been able to experience silently: desperation so real, so hard, I could choke on it. Panic, confusion, and humiliation all at once.

Gaslighting works because it is so utterly shocking, so incomprehensible. What kind of a person tells his wife that she’s imagining things for thinking the gaslights have not changed after he just changed them? Who would do that? Our generally empathetic, rational minds assume: no one. No one could do that. Instead, the more reasonable answer is that our memory is faulty, that our comprehension is flawed. After all, we’re only human. We can make mistakes. We don’t always remember things accurately.

Abusers do this specifically to destabilize their victims, to cause them to mistrust their own perception. It’s a core tactic that makes the rest of the abuse possible: the victim learns to trust the abuser to provide the narrative. Over time, their very identity can be supplanted by what the abuser wants.

For years, I was grateful that gaslighting was getting so much attention, because it’s one of the most alien parts of a victim’s life, and it can be extremely difficult to explain. Just remembering—reliving—that meeting in the pastor’s office makes me shake. I physically flinch away from thinking about it. All the times an abuser has twisted everything around me until I doubt my own memory and sense of self … it’s devastating, and the effects are long lasting. It took a very long time for me to be confident in my memory of that sermon, and even now I can feel the stirrings of doubt.

However, I’m becoming convinced that “gaslighting” is going to lose its usefulness because people are casually misusing it. There have been a few times over the last year, even, where I’ve seen people use “gaslighting” maliciously.

As people have begun using the term more frequently, what has stayed with it is the implicit moral judgment it makes: gaslighting is not just bad, not just impolite, not just harmful: it’s abusive. Describing a person’s conversation, or social media comment/interaction (since, let’s be honest, I’ve seen this happen most often on Facebook and Twitter), as “gaslighting” means that the person opposing you in the discussion is being more than unfair, they’re being abusive. Once the accusation has been made, it substantively changes the interaction. Suddenly, it’s about whether or not this person is behaving abusively, and that’s an incredibly serious matter that deserves the proper amount of concern. Considering this accusation gets tossed out among people who know what gaslighting even is, the reaction is usually swift and nearly universal: stop. Get out, get away from us, we don’t serve your kind here.

In a way, I understand why it happens. As an abuse survivor, one of the things that can send me for a loop is when someone questions my honesty or accuses me of deceit. Since I’m a feminist on the internet who frequently talks about sexual assault, that happens … well, it happens a lot. In the beginning, someone saying I’m a liar would keep me up at night. I spent a lot of time defending myself, trying to prove them wrong, until I realized how absolutely pointless that was. Even after developing a pretty thick skin, “you’re lying!” still bothers me in a way few other types of harassment do.

When I’m in a discussion, I can sometimes feel triggered by someone dismissing me, denying my experiences, belittling them, or just plain disagreeing. Sometimes, it feels like I’m back in that office being gaslighted into believing I am capable of making up entire statements out of hole cloth and mistaking my imagination for the truth. So, I get it. I get why we could be in a conversation, especially with a hostile person, and start feeling that way again and trusting our instincts. If we feel the same way we did when we were being gaslighted, well, then, they’re gaslighting.

I think we need to be more cautious.

Over the last several years, I’ve seen “gaslighting” come out as an accusation so many times when what is happening is not actually gaslighting. People can be jerks without resorting to gaslighting. People can be obtuse—even deliberately obtuse. Our experiences can be dismissed, and we can be made to feel irrelevant, noisy, bothersome. Our totally appropriate anger can be derided as an over-reaction. People can be infuriating when they refuse to trust the words we’ve chosen for our stories. They can lie and manipulate. It’s utterly galling when any of the above happens, and that sort of behavior deserves to be called out. Expecting our discussion partners—even hostile ones—to converse in good faith is reasonable and we should hold them to that standard.

I want future abuse survivors to hear the term “gaslighting” for the first time and have it mean something to them, the way it did for me. I want it to exist for them as the beacon it was for me, for it to restore them to themselves. I want it to say to them “you can trust yourself, you aren’t crazy, you are not imagining it.”

That’s not going to happen if we keep accusing people of “gaslighting” when we actually mean “you’re being an ass, please stop.”

Photography by Steve Snodgrass

Theology

top 12 books for progressive Christianity 101

One of the questions I get asked most often is “what are the books I should read to learn about progressive Christianity?” or a variant of that, like “what are some good books to get away from evangelicalism/fundamentalism?” I get this question often enough I thought it might be a good idea to have a basic list to refer people to. Also, as I’ve been moving through progressive Christian spaces, this question comes up a lot and in my opinion the answers are usually … let’s just say they can be frustrating. Usually the responses are limited to recommending books by straight old white men. Not that NT Wright, Bart Ehrman, John Spong, Marcus Borg et al shouldn’t be read, but that it’s disappointing when these are always the first names on people’s lips. So, without further ado:

A Word on Bible Translations:

If you’re like me, you were taught that the King James Version is the only translation a True Believer™ is allowed to read and study. When I first got away from that mode of thinking, the translation I picked up was the English Standard which has… issues. I quickly moved on to reading the NIV, and then I discovered The Message. If you’re coming from a fundamentalist background where you’re used to being bludgeoned with Scripture or you have difficulty trying to read familiar passages with new theological lenses, The Message can be a really great tool in rediscovering the Bible.

For study, I primarily use two books: the Jewish Annotated New Testament, which uses the NRSV and is footnoted with commentary from Jewish scholars– it also includes some really great essays and the frontmatter for each book or letter is phenomenal. When studying what most Christians refer to as the “Old Testament,” I use the Jewish Study Bible, which uses the JPS Tanakh Translation. The commentary comes from both Orthodox and Reform Judaic scholars, and it’s been instrumental in how I explore the Tanakh.

Intersectional Feminism

I cannot say enough good things about Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne by Wilda Gafney. If you’re unfamiliar with midrash, it’s a Jewish approach to storytelling from Scripture, and Gafney infuses it with her African-American hermenuetical tradition; the result is beautiful and insightful. It is utterly unlike anything I’ve encountered in fundiegeliclaism, and I think it should be the starting place of anyone returning to the Bible as an post- or ex-vangelical. It’s a bit of a tome, but since it’s broken up into the individual stories it’s easy to sit down and read one story at at time.

Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible edited by Robert Goss and Mona West is a collection of essays by LGBT+ persons of faith, and is a solid introduction to looking at the Bible through a queer lens. It’s not too academic, but each essay explores its topic well.

No list like this can be complete in my opinion without recommending Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives by Phyllis Trible. This book is one of the most fundamental Christian feminist texts in existence, and is referenced constantly by basically every Christian feminist theologian I’ve ever read. This book forces us to reckon with the Bible as it is, not the sanitized version that gets preached from fundiegelical pulpits.

Ada María Isasi-Díaz is one of the most significant modern theologians, and her point of view on the Christian religious tradition is incredibly healing and hopeful. Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century is the place to start with her writing and exploring theology outside of the overwhelmingly dominant White Masculine way of experiencing faith.

For a bit of a kick and a lot of fun, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics by Marcella Althaus-Reid is … oh, it’s interesting. And different. And shocking. And thought-provoking. It’s a little bit out there, but it certainly makes you re-evaluate a lot of things. It’s also broken up into essays, so you can digest it one segment at a time.

If you have access to academic databases through your college or public library, “Anti-Judaism in Feminist Interpretation” by Judith Plaskow is a must-read. Anti-Judaism and antisemitism is rife in modern Christian feminism, and a lot of it is based in the idea that Jesus was a feminist in opposition to Judaism’s supposed misogyny. That argument is absolutely everywhere and we need to burn it down.

Bibliology

While I do think progressive Christianity should primarily look to women, LGBT+ folx and persons of color, that doesn’t mean I don’t think anything written by straight white dudes is worthless. The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns is fantastic. It’s lighthearted and easy to read, as well as being a good introductory source to a more holistic, nuanced, and honest understanding of the Bible.

Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics by Jeanine Brown is a textbook and is one of the denser books in this list, but when it comes to hermeneutics it’s probably best to read a introductory text like this– and why not read one written by a woman? This one goes down easier if you’re already familiar with literary theories like reader-response, but it can be read on its own. I’d recommend that you read it slowly and take a highlighter with you.

To be honest, this category is dominated by the old straight white guys. John Spong owns this category practically by himself, although Bart Ehrman comes in at a close second. I’ve got two entire shelves dedicated to this topic, but the only other book I recommend as an introduction is adjacent to this topic: God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson. For us former KJV-onlies, it blows the lid off all the lies. I was never the same after I read this book in college.

Liberation Theology

This category is difficult to dig into, as the fundamental texts by Gutierrez and Cone are not really on the 101-level, in my opinion. A Theology of Liberation and A Black Theology of Liberation are wonderful, but incredibly dense. I’d start with The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone. This book focuses on the American context, and is an incredibly powerful look into race and religion.

One of the most transformational books I’ve ever read is Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas. It’s a short book with a narrow focus so some of her arguments can seem a little bit truncated– but trust me when I say that she’s got American Christian racism nailed to the effin’ wall. If there’s a single book on this list that helps deconstruct modern American fundiegelicalism, it’s this one. Read it.

Jesus

Marcus Borg dominates this whole section and Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary is great and all, but I tell people to start with Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is Jewish, not a Christian, and that’s one of the reasons why I recommend her book so often (she’s also one of the commentators in the NT I use for study). Getting a fresh perspective that doesn’t come with all of fundiegelicalism’s baggage has been crucial for me.

If you want to have lots of your ideas about Jesus challenged, you can start with Borg’s concept of “pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus,” or just go straight to a perspective that pissed off a lot of fundiegelcals: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. It’s a good reminder that Islam and Christianity are close relatives in the arena of Major World Religions, and that who Jesus was matters to people who aren’t American Christians. I’m not sure it’s the best book out there on this topic (Bart Ehrman and Marcus Borg wrote more compelling books, in my opinion), but progressive Christianity, to me, is about forcing ourselves to grow.

***

This is of course not an exhaustive list– these are just the books I’ve read that have helped me grow the most, or prompted the most reevaluation. Most of these I’ve read over the last ten years, but a few have been my textbooks for seminary classes. In compiling this list, I’ve shown a deliberate preference for women and people of color– although I’ve read far more books by straight white men and own at least a half dozen by Borg, Ehrman, and Spong … each. Rob Bell, Brian Zahnd, Jonathan Martin, Preston Yancey: I’ve inhaled them all. But, I’ve come to the conclusion that being truly progressive means stepping over some of the more prominent, influential books to get to the heart of progressive Christianity, which is always found in the margins and among the ones pushed away from the table.

I hope a few of these can be as transformative for you as they were for me.

Photo by Ginny
Social Issues

on HSLDA and homeschooling culture

When I found out about the Turpin parents and how they had starved and tortured their children, like most of my colleagues who have been fighting for more protections for homeschooled students … I was unsurprised. Horrified, sickened, heartbroken, but not surprised. This isn’t even the first time parents have starved and tortured more than a dozen kids in California since 2000. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear about yet another case of a “homeschooling” parent abusing or murdering their children.

For a lot of reasons– in my opinion, primarily the pictures that show the family in matching clothes that don’t change from year to year– the Turpin story made international news. 20/20 did a story on them, as did many other US-based national media outlets. Friends of mine that live overseas from me read about it in their newspapers. The common theme: how could this have happened?!

The answer is easy: The Home School Legal Defense Association.

I started pitching pieces about the Turpins, explaining exactly how that was possible and how they were able to get away with it for decades, and an editor at The Establishment was interested. In our conversation, she asked a lot of really great questions about HSLDA, and the piece morphed into an explanation of the political power HSLDA wields in American politics. I’ve been interviewing people, including the heads of HSLDA and Generation Joshua, for about a month now, and the article came out this morning.

I am hoping this article can become a resource, hopefully a touchstone for people trying to explain HSLDA and how homeschooling culture has become what it is: a bastion, a legal shelter, for abusers and killers. As far as I’m aware, this is the first article anywhere covering the HSLDA like this, in a way that’s accessible and can be read in about five-ten minutes.

You can read it here: “Meet HSLDA, the Most Powerful Religious-Right Lobby You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Also, if you use the Medium app, The Establishment is a really awesome online magazine and you should totally follow them.

Photo by R. Nial Bradshaw