Social Issues

what we lost: white supremacy, immigration, and food

Several years ago, I began to notice the patterns and connections that bind up cisheteropatriarchy with toxic masculinity. Patriarchy, with all its queerphobic and femmephobic boundary-keeping, inevitably hurts many men as it strives to keep a certain kind of man in power. Around that time, I also began arguing that one of the reasons that patriarchy should be resisted and eradicated is that it represents a nearly incomprehensible loss of opportunity. What could we have, right now, if it weren’t for patriarchy? What advancements could half the human population have contributed if they hadn’t typically been treated as property and kept chained to a stove?

It didn’t take me long to see that similar patterns exist in white supremacy and racism. What has humanity lost because of white supremacy? What have white people lost in our bigoted, racist quest for power?

For me, personally, the answer has often been: food.

If you were to meet me in “real life,” in my home– in my kitchen– you’d quickly notice that I am pretty obsessed with the entire concept of food. One of my favorite books is Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni, a thick and delightful tome I read cover-to-cover in a single sitting. I love trying new recipes, and adapting cuisines from all over the world to meet the needs of my diet and allergy restrictions. The Great British Bake Off (known in the US as The Great British Baking Show) is one of my all-time favorite things– I have watched and re-watched every single season, some of them multiple times. Nothing brings me quite as much joy as cooking for my friends and family, watching them relish roast chicken con fit or my delectable and toothsome gluten-free chocolate chip cookies.

I also read about food. A lot. I inhale foodie magazines and I’m catching up now on Anthony Bourdain’s show after reading “What Anthony Bourdain Meant to People of Color” by Joumana Khatib. Some of my favorite articles I’ve ever read and that have made a lasting impact on me have been about food: “The Struggles of Writing about Chinese Food as a Chinese Person” by Clarissa Wei has become one of my touchstones and an oft-cited resource. “How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food, then make it trendy” by Ruth Tam is what I direct people to in order to help them understand cultural appropriation. “What’s The Difference Between Ethnic Food in America vs the Homeland (And Does it Matter)?” and other articles like it, covering the immigrant experience through food, is basically a genre all to itself and one I’ll always read.

Articles that treat food as a metaphor are also a favorite. “Hunger Makes Me” by Jess Zimmerman has stuck with me for years, and the most extraordinarily, achingly beautiful article I’ve read this year is “Cravings” by my friend Hännah Ettinger.

***

I hope you’ll bookmark all these and read them later, because now I’m going to talk about a travesty of an article I read yesterday: “How Millennials Killed Mayonnaise” by Sandy Hingston, accompanied by the hilarious subtitle “The inexorable rise of identify condiments has led to hard times for the most American of foodstuffs. And that’s a shame.” I don’t often read the “How Millennials Killed _____” articles until they hit tumblr and have been properly eviscerated first, but this one was about food … so I clicked it. And then read it aloud to Handsome as we drove home from the airport, laughing so hard I cried. It’s so badly written. If I were still teaching writing, this would be the example I’d force all my students to read so they can identify purple prose.

It’s also insidiously white supremacist.

My first thought was “geez lady, so people don’t like your potato salad, get a grip.” I was also entertained by the thought that all millennials hate mayo because I use it all the time, and the people I know– mostly millennials– gobble up my deviled eggs and potato salad like they’ll never eat again. How she’s extrapolating her personal experience onto an entire generation is beyond absurd. However, I wouldn’t be writing about her today if she hadn’t written the following:

My mom was the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, born in the era in which huddled masses clambered ashore at Ellis Island, their pockets stuffed with kielbasa and chorizo and braunschweiger and makanek and lap cheong, and were processed in the great American assimilation grinder, emerging to dine happily ever after on Hatfield hot dogs and potato salad. …

America in the 1950s was full of strivers like Mom, desperate to forget family legacies of latkes and boxties and bramboráky, poring through the pages of Family Circle and Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Day for stars-and-stripes recipes that repped their newfound land. They wanted all their strangeness to dissolve into the sizzling pot of Crisco that crisped their french (not French) fries. …

Besides, the impetus seemed righteous. In a world torn asunder by the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and two World Wars, our citizenry needed to come together, be united, rally behind a collective vision of what it meant to be an American: You lived in a single-family house, you drove a station wagon, you wore bowling shirts and blue jeans, and you slathered mayonnaise on everything from BLTs to burgers to pastrami on rye. …

My mom’s side of the family have a similar history– except my reaction is not a mastubatory “patriotic” celebration, but a sense of longing and grief. I don’t see the fact that my family’s cultural heritage was beaten out of us by decades of racism and bullying as a good thing like Sandy does. It’s a horrible reality that surviving in America as an immigrant often means exchanging kifle, csirke paprikash, and dobos torte for Waldorf salad and Spam.

My great-great grandparents immigrated from eastern Europe after the death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and my great-great grandmother brought with her the recipes of her homeland. My great-grandfather taught us to make kifle for Christmas one year the way his mother used to, in pinwheels instead of little rolled crescents. She’d gotten tired of making the individual cookies for the entire family and decided to cross kifle with another Hungarian desert: beigli. For years, I made csirke paprikash by adding corn to the tomato-sour cream sauce and cooking it all up in a pressure cooker because that was how Grandpa did it: it was quick, and he liked corn. It surprised and delighted me when I found out csirke paprikash doesn’t traditionally include corn– it was what happened when my immigrant grandfather grew up in Ohio. Another family favorite is my grandmother’s spin on halupki: stuffed cabbage in a creamy bechamel instead of tomato sauce.

But so much else has been lost. My grandfather had a cookbook his mother had put together with her Hungrian/Czech/Polish neighbors, and even as a teenager I was thrilled with the discovery. I peppered him with questions: how often did she make this? What does this taste like?

It was a difficult conversation, because his answer often was “I don’t know. She’d stopped making it by the time I was old enough to remember.”

One of my grandfather’s most vivid memories is his mother shouting at his father when he occasionally reverted to Hungarian: “We’re in America now! We speak American!” There is also a thread of resentment woven through his childhood: he grew up being labeled a “Hunky” and eventually anglicized his name from “Vincze” to “Vincent” when he joined the Army Air Corps during WWII. White supremacy burdened both him and his mother with a desperate need to conform– to become bland, homogenous, and uniform. In order to be safe and successful in this country, they had to give up a centuries-old “perfect blend,” as Sandy would put it, of paprika, sour cream, and stewed tomatoes for jello molds and mayonnaise.

***

I fight white supremacy through my cooking.

There’s nothing wrong with mayonnaise– I love my potato salad, made with orange and red peppers instead of celery, and sour cream and paprika mixed with the mayonnaise– but I know in my bones that I have been robbed. White supremacy stole a whole legacy of flavors and dishes and enrobed my family’s meals in a banality of beige.

So, now I cook the delicious food we lost. The recipe I shared above for csirke paprikash is a show-stopper, and easily transformed to be gluten free (Jovial’s GF egg noodles work great). I plan on making dobos torte for my birthday in a month, and can’t wait to indulge in layers upon layers of chocolate and caramel. I’m still struggling to adapt kifle, since yeast-driven rising methods are difficult to accomplish with gluten-free flour– but I swear I’ll get there, and it will be delicious. My family also just discovered that one of my grandmothers immigrated here from Sicily as a mail-order bride, and now I’m happily buried in Sicilian-American recipes.

Arancini seems like a great place to start.

Photography by Windslash
Theology

sin is not just a “heart issue”

If you’re a person who has frequented the internet over the last month, you’ve probably heard, seen, or read discussions around whether or not companies or governments should “ban” single-use plastic straws. On one side you have people who believe that we should eliminate– or at least reduce our reliance on– single-use plastics, and disposable straws are their current target. On the other side, disability activists argue that there aren’t good alternatives to single-use plastic straws and that disabled people’s need to stay hydrated without dying due to anaphylaxis or aspiration is more important than the 0.025% of plastic floating around in our oceans, especially when abled people can just stop using disposable straws if they want to.

Another facet of the discussion has tried to point out that if you actually want to tackle the problem of plastic waste polluting our oceans, we should look at elements like industrial fishing methods, since 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is plastic fishing nets and the rest is almost entirely other pieces of fishing gear. Any environmental or climate change concern is going to have similar elements: the bulk of the waste and pollution is caused by entire industries and corporations; altering individual behavior is good but ultimately ineffective. If we actually want to address plastic waste in our oceans, we need to change the behaviors of industries and entire economies, not whether or not Deborah gets a straw in her mocha frappuccino.

Unfortunately, changing the course of an entire industry is much more difficult than telling me, individually, not to litter or use plastic straws– and it is difficult because corporations have a vested interest in making it difficult. Moving away from single-use plastics will hurt their bottom line, so they throw money at lobbyists and politicians and regulators to make sure they can keep strangling our planet with their garbage. Starbucks can announce that they’re going to phase out plastic straws and get plenty of kudos and accolades … and keep on using unrecyclable plastic-lined paper cups to the tune of 4 billion cups per year. They could start using biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable cups, but they won’t.

Industries and corporations continuously point fingers at individual consumer habits so they don’t have to make any substantive changes. Take the “Crying Indian” ad from 1971– it was paid for by a conglomeration of some of the biggest polluters in the country in order to take the focus off packaging and throw-away containers and put that focus on individual consumers. That’s the whole point: make the conversation about Deborah’s frappucino and not how Proctor & Gamble is packaging its shampoo in the Philippines.

***

All of the above functions extremely well as a metaphor for the common American Christian articulation of sin as a “heart issue.” Maybe like me you’ve noticed a pattern of influential Christian ministers referring to racism or sexism as a “heart issue,” and found it as frustrating as I do.

Framing racism or other systemic social problems as a “heart issue” accomplishes a few things. First, it centers Christianity in the conversation. If racism is a “heart issue,” then the solution is conversion or repentance– all the individually racist person needs to do is repent and allow Jesus to change their heart. If a racist person accepts Jesus into their heart and once they’ve done so, follows the Spirit’s guidance away from prejudice and towards acceptance– then racism is solved with the Christian religion. Saying racism is a “heart issue” means that we don’t need affirmative action, we need Evangelical Jesus.

Second, it allows people and their communities to escape any feeling of responsibility or guilt. If racism is truly a single person’s heart issue, and the resolution is for that person to repent, then there’s nothing that Bob or Susie is responsible for when Jim is a racist turd. If Jim is a Christian, then Jesus and the Holy Spirit will handle it. If he’s not, then there’s nothing more for Bob or Susie to do– they just have to continue being Jim’s friend so they can be a “good witness” for Christ in his life. What good would it do to tell Jim that he’s being racist, if it’s a heart issue? No, we just need to “love on him” more and “be the only Bible he’ll ever see.”

Lastly, if racism is an individual’s “heart issue,” then it’s not systemic. An indiviudal’s heart issue does not require a church, as an institution, to change. Heart issues do not ask the Church to examine itself or shift course; in fact, if racism is a heart issue than most Christian churches are doing the exactly right thing by harping on a “personal relationship with Christ” and telling its members to repent of private, individual sin.

If we were to communally acknowledge that racism or sexism or ableism is systemic, then we’d have to commit to a massive undertaking. We’d have to take a hard look at how our seminaries and ordinations and denominations and alliances and conventions operate and be honest with ourselves for the first time in history. We’d have to overhaul power structures, ordination tracks, and hiring processes– and everyone who currently enjoys all the cultural power, who wield all the political influence, would lose their access and prestige. The leadership would have to admit that it’s not God who brought them to the position they hold, not their commitment to the faith, not their hard work, but systemic, structural practices that marginalize anyone who isn’t a cis, white, heterosexual man.

It’s not coincidence that the people who stand to lose the most power, influence, and money are the ones claiming that sins like racism are an individual problem and the solution is to maintain the status quo.

Photo by Kish
Social Issues

World History and Cultures: Sumer

I am hoping that, in the future, I will be able to do more than one chapter at a time. For health reasons, though, I have to limit myself to just one for today.

Inaccuracies:

Wild Assertions:

  • Pyramids, ziggurats and Maya Temples are supposedly so similar because there was a single culture that spread from the Tower of Babel.
  • Sumerians studied astrology because “they rejected the natural revelation of the one true God,” and “turned to the stars and planets for knowledge of the future” (19).
  • “the religion of the Sumerians led to hopelessness and purposelessness” (20).
  • Civilization cannot occur without “mastering the food supply” through “effective agricultural techniques” like crop irrigation (17).
  • WHAC says history cannot be preserved without a written language; however, we know that indigenous peoples in Australia have an accurate oral history that extends as far back as 10,00 years.

Assumptions:

  • The Garden of Eden was located in the Fertile Crescent.
  • “Writing has a conservative influence on culture,” and conservatism is crucial to development of civilizations (16).
  • Cultures can supposedly be ranked and categorized, from undeveloped to “highly developed” (17).

***

The most cursory and briefest of glances through my “Inaccuracies” section reveals a fundamental problem with World History and Cultures: in order for it to be internally consistent and to stay true to its claim that their fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is historically, literally accurate, they are required to lie. They cannot tell students the truth about almost anything regarding the ancient world– to be honest, they’d be forced to acknowledge either that a) their interpretation and application of the Bible is flawed or b) the Bible is not accurate.

The chapter launches with a huge whopper of a lie: the “Rise of Sumerian civilization” was in 2300 BC– a full two thousand, two hundred years too late. However, they’ve already stated that the earth was created around 4,000 BC, which is five hundred years after the beginnings of Sumer.

They also have to assume that the Garden of Eden was a physical, historically real place and that it was located in Middle East. From there, Noah had to have landed in Turkey, and his descendants had to have traveled down the rivers to Mesopotamia and spread their culture from there. The fact that calendars, languages, schools, and technologies all arose independently in multiple cultures around the world proves that their understanding of history is not possible … so they have to lie. They have to deliberately mislead their students into believing that Sumer and only Sumer was the first to achieve lunar calendars, the wheel, schools, etc.

That they are willing to do this, and to go to this extent– 10 falsehoods in a single chapter, more than one lie per page– is disturbing.

***

In the section where they discuss the Sumerian government, they claim that Sumer was a “primitive democracy,” and then use Samuel Kramer to argue that power was in the hands of “free citizens,” that decisions affecting the entire city were made collectively. In the next paragraph, they say that “it became necessary for the city-states to adopt a strong, monarchial [sic] form of government” (19).

Untangling this actually took some digging, but first I want to point to the logic chain here. When Sumer “faced internal dissension and external threats,” a strong monarchy “became necessary.” To break it down: civil unrest and threats to national security make “strong” leaders– kings, tyrants, dictators– both necessary and, from the surrounding context, a good thing.

Again, I’m looking around at my country right now and thinking well that explains a lot. These authors aren’t just relaying history, they’re teaching a philosophy of government that bends toward authoritarianism.

There’s also a second thing happening here that isn’t immediately visible– you have to go fact-checking to discover this. They use the term “primitive democracy” to describe early Sumerian government. However, the “free citizens” who had political power in the first cities? They were they men who controlled the military power. They were the men with access to weapons and and who led fighting units. I won’t deny it makes sense that those sorts of men would control the political power in an early culture like Sumer, but it is interesting that WHAC describes this system as a democracy and not the “primitive oligarchy” it actually was. Not every person residing in the city-state had a political voice, and the authors think that this is enough to call a system a democracy.

No wonder they have no qualms oppressing voters, gerrymandering, or denying suffrage to whole classes of people. They think “democracy” and “oligarchy” are the same thing.

***

One of the main goals of this chapter is to teach that civilizations are only civilizations when they look and act like European civilizations. They give a definition of civilization that students are asked to write down verbatim several times in the section and chapter reviews:

A civilization comes into being when a people’s culture begins to include a specialized division of labor, a written language, a written code of laws, an organized form of civil government, and the developement of arts and sciences. Before any of these developments can take place, however, there must be a mastery over the food supply. All civilizations begin with the development of effective agricultural techniques. (17)

Lots of scholars argue that only one of these is necessary: writing and keeping written records. Some add other components, like social stratification or architecture. Abeka’s sticking point is “mastery over the food supply,” and they describe Sumer’s crop irrigation system at length. It’s not enough for WHAC that large groups of people can feed themselves, they have to do it in a particular way. That way looks like irrigated fields and the steady planting and harvesting of crops. It doesn’t include, for example, the way many Native American tribes practiced forestry before the arrival of European colonizers. North America wasn’t an “untamed wilderness” before the arrival of the colonizers; it just didn’t look suitably “mastered” to white people.

Abeka’s whole concept of “civilization” is deliberately exclusive, and it will be important to identify exactly who they’re excluding and why.

I didn’t identify any changes in the 3rd edition. The Fertile Crescent map in Since the Beginning is slightly more accurate; there is also more discussion of the evils of secular humanism in Sumerian culture than appears in the 10th grade version, as well as more focus on Abraham’s story.

*Some of these items are more recently discovered than the publication of World History and Cultures 2nd Edition, but have not been corrected in the latest edition.

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Feminism

Men Prefer Uneducated, Naïve Objects They Can Easily Control

So yesterday, a blog post at The Transformed Wife started floating through my feed– the author, Lori Alexander, titled it “Men Prefer Debt-Free Virgins without Tattoos.” Multiple people tagged me in the comments, asking if I would write a response and honestly I wasn’t sure I would. When Lori gave it that title, she did it deliberately to provoke a reaction (which she may now regret, she’s deleting hundreds of comments and wrote a post complaining that she’s being “slandered“), and I didn’t want her goad to be successful.

Today, though, I spent a lot of time digging through the comments (a few of which have been a joy let me tell you. Maybe she is only deleting “hate-filled” comments from the side that disagrees with her, but she seems plenty comfortable leaving up the “hate-filled” comments that agree with her), and I realized that a lot of people are generally misunderstanding what makes this particular blog post so bad. A lot of the commenters have pointed out that they have tattoos and weren’t a virgin and their husbands seem to “prefer” them just fine, and that misses the point.

When Lori Alexander says “Debt-Free Virgins without Tattoos,” the post makes it clear that she’s pointing to those items as indicative of what she sees is a larger social problem: women who aren’t utterly dependent on their husbands.

My experience growing up in complementarianism, all my research over the last few years, all the review series I’ve done on books like Captivating, Real Marriage, and Fascinating Womanhood points to one thing: complementarianism is intended to render women helpless and strip them of their autonomy. The ultimate goal for people like Lori Alexander is that women should be universally and totally dependent on their male spouse for their safety, shelter, livelihood, and purpose. Walking down the aisle as tattoo-less virgins is just a bonus– the main focus of the post is that women should not be college educated because it makes it more difficult for their husbands to control them.

There are many more reasons why Christian young women should carefully consider whether or not they go to college, especially if they want to be wives and mothers someday. Secular universities teach against the God of the Bible and His ways. It’s far from what God calls women to be and do: it teaches them to be independent, loud, and immodest instead of having meek and quiet spirits.

“The husband will need to take years teaching his wife the correct way to act, think, and live since college taught them every possible way that is wrong.” Sadly, most young Christian women wouldn’t listen to their husbands since they’ve not been taught to live in submission to their husbands.

Young women learn nothing about biblical womanhood or what it takes to run a home when they go to college. They don’t learn to serve others either. They learn the ways of the world instead.

Most girls have not read the Bible with their father (Ephesians 6:4) or husband to explain it to them (1 Corinthians 14:35). That part is important. Instead of learning it from their parents, they seek out books or movies on how to interpret the Bible which leads them down the wrong path.

Lori is heavily quoting from a letter she received and agreeing with it, and both she and the letter-writer spend hardly any time talking about tattoos or sexual purity. In fact, “tattoo” is only mentioned in the title, the first line, and the last line. Everything else is a discussion of why women shouldn’t be college-educated, and these are the reasons Lori gives:

  • they will learn to be independent
  • they won’t “listen to their husbands” and submit
  • they won’t want to be their husband’s servant
  • they’ll learn the “ways of the world”
  • they could read books and interpret the Bible for themselves

Instead, Lori advocates that women should skip college, refuse a career, have as many “precious babies” as they can squeeze out– and remain as helpless and naïve as possible. That’s the image she’s trying to evoke by using “virgin without tattoos.” She wants women to be uncorrupted by the “ways of the world,” to be innocent; what she’s describing is the idea that a woman should reach marriage a blank slate for her husband to carve. They should have no ideas of their own, and no ability to cultivate ideas on their own. What they think about their life, the decisions that affect them, and their interpretation of the Bible should all come from their husband. This is the definition of “biblical submission” that Lori wants Christian women to adapt: Think what your husband tells you to think. Do what your husband tells you to do.

Lori is absolutely correct that a college education will interfere with this goal. When I decided to go to college against the express teaching of my church, nearly everyone I knew had a fit. The pastor preached messages about it, I got Sunday school lessons dedicated to it, my best friend gave me pamphlets for “college level homemaking courses.” They all told me exactly what Lori is telling her readers: if you go to college, you won’t be able to be a godly keeper at home.

Lori is right. My church was right.

Even though I went to a hard-right fundamentalist Christian college, I still encountered independent women who had careers. Many of my instructors were women– a few were even unmarried women who lived on their own! I met other women students who wanted a career and had no intention of ever having kids. I read books. I debated classmates. I learned to formulate my own opinions and argue for what I believed in (even if I would later abandon all those arguments). I went to PCC intending to get a music degree so I could teach from home and still be a godly wife. By the time I graduated I was going to graduate school so I could move to New York and become an editor for Tor Books with no spouse-type prospects in sight.

Now I’m getting a tattoo this Christmas, had sex with my partner before we got married, and best of all, I tell him what to think about the Bible thanks to the fancy seminary degree I’ll be getting this spring. I’m all of Lori’s worst fears made flesh: ex-fundamentalist, ex-Stay-at-Home-Daughter, ex-complementarian, ex-homeschool; now pro-choice, queer, and feminist.

And I’m going to spend the rest of my life fighting against every Lori Alexander I meet.

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Uncategorized

if the biblical canon were open …

To long-time readers, something you might have noticed is that my views of the Bible have shifted quite a bit from when I first started writing this blog. I’d moved away from the inerrantist position by spring 2013, but if I knew then what my thoughts would be now five years later, 2013 me would probably be horrified. I no longer think the Bible is infallible or inerrant, and I only think it’s “inspired” in the mundane, artist-having-a-stroke-of-genius sense of the word. I think the Bible is written by humans and it can be wrong.

It’s still the framework for my belief system; I appreciate that even if it can be wrong, it’s still full of wisdom, human experiences, and rich stories — whatever else the Bible is, it is the preserved history of how many Jewish and Christian believers have tried to understand and relate to the divine. Even stripped of perfection and divinity, the Bible is still powerful, and still incredibly precious to me.

Most of the discussions around an “open canon” revolve around what would happen if we discovered and authenticated other books or letters written by the biblical authors. What if we found a letter the apostle Paul wrote to the churches at Smyrna or Berea? What if we found texts penned by the apostle Junia?

While those are fascinating questions, I’ve been mulling over what the biblical canon means to me in recent weeks, and I realized that what makes the Bible important to me includes the possibility that other books, contemporary books, could be included into a future biblical canon. I think of the biblical canon in much the same way that I view literary canon(s) more generally: works are included in a literary canon because of their cultural significance, elevated writing, quality of art and thought, and their ability to provoke a lasting response emotionally and/or philosophically.

So looking around at the books we have today that fit this definition but also include a theological component, what sorts of works do I think fit into a modern biblical canon? If we had another Council of Nicea today and were deciding what to include, what would I advocate for? It’s been an interesting thought experiment and I thought I’d share my results so far with y’all.

***

Shepherd of Hermas

I’m familiar with the Shepherd of Hermas because I was utterly obsessed post-college with the formation of our current biblical canon. For a long time and in several churches, Shepherd of Hermas was included in their canon, but it didn’t quite meet the criteria of the Nicea folks so eventually it was thrown out. I would add it back in because of its cultural significance to early Christians– it shaped a lot of theological conversations in the early church and was widely read by many of our church fathers and mothers. It also has some interesting things to say about Jesus’ divinity (why it was probably not included) and the systemic nature of sin. I like it because (in my opinion) it assumes that the study and ethics and theology are, practically speaking, the same pursuit.

Revelations of Divine Love

Written by Julian of Norwhich, Revelations of Divine Love is an absolutely essential book for modern Christians. It’s the first book written in English by a woman that we currently know of, and was rediscovered by modern Christians around the turn of the twentieth century due to her work being republished in a near-complete, accessible form. We know her writing was preserved in various places throughout England and Europe so it must have had a least some measure of popularity to have spread as far as it did, but she’s far more widely known now than she was during her lifetime. I think including Revelations of Divine Love would be an enormous boost to the canon because her theology is rooted in compassion and love. She sees God’s love as motherly, and God’s nature as primarily benevolent. Our Christian canon could certainly benefit from a lot more of that.

Camino de Perfección or El Castillo Interior (Way of Perfection or The Interior Castle)

… or perhaps both. These two are written by Teresa of Ávila, and are guides for Christian living and practice from the perspective of a Christian mystic. The Interior Castle was so well-written, well-constructed, and well-argued that Descartes ripped it off for many of his own ideas. Way of Perfection spends its time explaining how to practice contemplative prayer in order to achieve divine ecstasy, and The Interior Castle expands on that to Christian living more generally. The Interior Castle argues that the ultimate goal for any Christian is active, embodied work in helping others and making the world a better place. Shouldn’t be a surprise that I have a soft spot for Teresa (also some of her writing is … well, it would scandalize a lot of modern Christians. What’s not to like about that?)

The Prophetic Imagination

The beauty and power of Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination is summed up for me in his dedication: “For sisters in ministry who teach me daily about the power of grief and the gift of amazement.” Brueggemann is defining what he thinks a prophet should be, and what a prophet should do. He draws heavily on Moses and Jeremiah’s resistance to oppressive power structures, and looks ultimately to Jesus for our example in siding with the marginalized, vulnerable, and oppressed. I’m not sure there’s a modern work more broadly impactful than The Prophetic Imagination–in my opinion, many (most?) modern Christian conversations about how Jesus cared for the oppressed stem from this book.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree

I include this in the list because if there’s a book I think every single white Christian in the US needs to read, it’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Part of most definitions of canon is an element of “books everyone should read in order to be considered well-read,” and I’m convinced that my proposed biblical canon would have a gaping hole in it without Cone’s book. In it, he argues that the Cross gives African-American Christians the power to “discover life in death and hope in tragedy,” and challenges white Christians to confront our passive complicity. It’s a deeply powerful work.

In Memory of Her

The most common term applied to Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her is “groundbreaking,” and it is one of the foundational texts of not just Christian feminism but also how we understand the origins of the Christian church. Fiorenza is an incredible scholar and how she shines a light on how women participated in building the Church is enough to recommend In Memory of Her for my canon, but she created something more than just an academic text on Church history. She also challenges us to see beyond the patriarchal boundaries of the texts and toward a creative world that isn’t circumscribed by the limits imposed on us by centuries of male domination.

Daring Greatly

To be honest, I would wipe out the psuedepigraphic pauline epistles and replace them with Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly in a heartbeat. Brown is first and foremost a researcher, and her background and the intense work she’s done around vulnerability, shame, wholeheartedness, and empathy is the foundation for Daring Greatly, and is what makes the book so incredibly powerful. Most of the people I know who’ve read it have needed to take it in stages because of how provocative it is– it’s an eye-opener, and emotionally difficult. It’s also one of the most transformative and helpful books I’ve ever read. I consider Daring Greatly to be a modern work of public theology, even though she doesn’t use religious language in the book. I think the problems she’s discussing and their solutions are fundamentally spiritual and theological– and Daring Greatly is proof that we don’t need religion to talk about them.

Mister Rogers Neighborhood

I joke around sometimes with Handsome that Fred Rogers was the Second Coming of Christ and all of us missed it– and to be honest, I’m like 1% serious about that. An Atlantic review of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a biopic about Rogers, calls the children’s TV program “quietly radical” and that captures a lot of my feelings about Mister Rogers Neighborhood. The kindness, compassion, love, grace, bravery, and patience that Rogers exemplified and that he teaches us to replicate in our own life is life-affirming and life-giving. If we all paid attention to Rogers and applied his lessons and example to our own life, the world would be a much better place. He’s one of the reasons why I’m still happy to call myself a Christian: to me, Rogers is a modern day example of what Christianity looks like.

***

I’m curious about what all you would add, if you could. There were a lot of books I had to leave out for time’s sake– works by Du Bois, Pelagius, basically anything from the Protestant Reformation/Counter Reformation, poetry, letters, novels because there is just so much— so what would you bring with you to The Council of Nicea 2018 CE?

Photo by Ryan Hyde
Social Issues

World History and Cultures: Foundations

To make things a little bit easier on y’all the readers and myself the reviewer, I’m going to split each review post into a few sections. The intent of this is to allow me to spend the bulk of my time digging into the philosophy at work in these textbooks instead of dedicating more of it to fact-checking and the at-times incredulous claims they make. I will highlight any inaccuracies that I can spot, as well as anything noteworthy that I can’t spend time on but that is still worth discussing.

Inaccuracies:

  • The timeline only goes back to 4,000 BCE, which is labeled “creation.”
  • Humans originated in Mesopotamia and were dispersed from there.

Wild Assertions:

  • The continents “broke apart” during one man’s lifetime from a single land mass (8).
  • Evolution leads to widespread abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, and people become evolutionists to “escape their accountability to God” (4).
  • Humanism always leads to “decline and ultimate ruin” (5).

Assumptions:

  • History has a definite, identifiable structure and a narrative arc.
  • The Bible is factually, historically, literally accurate.
  • Everything following the Death and Resurrection of Christ is history’s dénouement.
  • The Tower of Babel sequence broke humanity into the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth.

***

One of the most important things I want to emphasize about studying World History and Cultures is that this is not a general survey history textbook in the sense that we would typically understand it: it is a religious history textbook. A more accurate title for it would be A History of the Christian Religion in a Global Context. It would still be full of misleading information, inaccuracies, and a stupefying amount of conjecture, but at least with a different title we would understand what it actually is in function.

However, it is also important to recognize the intention of this book, which is to provide a far-right, Christian fundamentalist interpretation of global history. Its mission is to “educate” students in a very particular, very narrow lens of viewing human events and to provide a framework for understanding current events. They’re crystal clear on this point:

The study of history is important because each generation needs to know about the people, events, and ideas of former generations in order to make wise decisions in the present …

We can learn the lessons of history and apply them to our own times and our own lives. In other words, we can begin to look at history in Christian perspective. (3-4).

The point of this textbook– the reason why Abeka commissioned it, the reasons why the authors wrote it– is to teach a generation of students to understand their position and role in modern society in a very particular way.

The primary message of the first chapter (“Foundations for the Study of History”) is that history has a definite and easily identifiable narrative arc. WHAC repeats that history has a “beginning, middle, and end” and that the Christian religion is the only means of accessing the “whys” of history. The authors will be looking to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible to shape their historical narrative, and will be using a fundamentalist understanding of God’s sovereignty to explain the “whys” instead of bothering with silly little things data or research.

Along with declaring that the Bible is the only credible source of information on “prehistoric” times (which it teaches doesn’t actually exist, since the Bible encapsulates all of history and all of it is therefore “recorded” [7]), WHAC gives two methods for contextualizing all of human history. The first is an explanation of BC and AD, the second is that history is divided into three eras: ancient, medieval, and modern (4). Their benchmarks for these eras are localized to Europe: the fall of the Roman Empire and the Protestant Reformation. I’ve written before on Christian fundamentalism’s obsession with Western Civilization— this is just one more example of it. When a Christian fundamentalist harps on the concept of “Western civilization,” they don’t just mean a broad cultural, economic, and legal heritage: they mean white and Christian.

***

Since we’re dealing with the section of WHAC that is using Genesis 1-11 to “teach” about pre-historic and proto-historic times, it’s filled to the brim with about what one would expect. Adam and Eve, Noah, and Nimrod are all definitively real people, there was a global flood, etc. It’s barely worth comment.

What did draw my attention was how they explained the rise of government and nations. They explain that “The sovereignty of God over all nations is the foundation of human government,” and then argue that “God established” the “first foundational civil ordinance” [emphasis theirs] by “ordering the death penalty for murder” (4).

Well… that certainly explains a lot.

This view of government– the view that capital punishment is the foundation of government— is inherently violent. It posits that the state’s purpose is primarily punitive, that governments do not exist to protect or help anyone, but to discipline and chastise.

At this point, please remember what WHAC has already made brutally clear: we are intended to learn from history to apply it to our current context and our actual lives. Take the lesson that government exists to punish and apply it to any current situation and what do you get?

Babies being ripped out of their mother’s sobbing arms. Women miscarrying in detention without medical care. Children dying in government shelters. Jeff Sessions invoked Romans 13 to justify his atrocities (and so does WHAC: “He did command his people to be obedient to civil authority” (5).), but the actual justification comes from this entire logic chain. If you’re anything like me, you’ve seen an infuriating number of people contend that if parents didn’t want the US government to kidnap their kids, then they shouldn’t have come here. This is where that argument begins.

***

…there are many different kinds of people. Mankind can be divided into several large groups called races. The people of each race differ from those of other races in the color of their skin, in the size and shape of their head, in the kind and color of their hair, and in many other physical features.” (6)

We need to talk about “kind.”

World History and Cultures is the 10th grade history textbook from Abeka. Many schools and parents use the same publisher for more than one course– mine did, and we used the Abeka science textbook also meant for 10th graders: Biology: God’s Living Creation. In it, 10th grade students would be learning about the young earth creationist definition of “kind.”

Abeka’s definition of “kind” is drawn from Genesis 1:12, the divine instruction for creation to reproduce after its “kind.” Kinds is a roughly similar term, in creationist parlance, to “species.” Answers in Genesis says that “if two things can breed together, then they are of the same created kind.” They (and Abeka) note that some kinds can be closer than others, and that animals from different groupings can mate and produce offspring but that the offspring will often be sterile, or have other genetic problems.

When WHAC says that there are “many different kinds of people” and that these “kinds” are “divided into several large groups,” it is making this claim in the context of Biology’s definition of “kind,” which the student would probably be reading on the same day.

Obviously they are not making the claim that people of European and African descent can’t mate and produce fertile offspring. However, they are arguing for a very particular view of racial theory: it is a real barrier, a real divide, the differences between the races are concrete, measurable, definable and “plain.” They even point to some supposedly quantifiable “shape of their head,” which is evoking the racist “scientific” field of phrenology.

They are arguing that different human races exist.

Please note that WHAC does not make this claim as a cultural one, or a historical one, or a sociopolitical one, but as a biological one. Biological definitions of race– “biologically” based means of “dividing” the races– only exist in the minds of racial supremacists.* This view is not just morally bankrupt, it has led to some of the worst acts of barbarity the world has ever known.

And they have to audacity to claim that evolution and humanism only ever lead to decline and ruin?

***

Each chapter concludes with a review– as a homeschooler, this sort of thing was my only homework. There’s eight questions for students to answer, and it’s revealing what those questions focus on. They ask the students to use the text to define evolution, humanism, and race (where the answers would be, based on the reading, “evil, evil, and a biological reality”) and to identify the “builder of the first world empire and the meaning of his name” (answer: Nimrod, “rebel”). Half the questions focus on things that are ideological in nature: remind yourselves how bad evolution and humanism are, please look up our definitely-white-supremacist definition of race again, and oh, by the way, here’s a heaping side dish of “one world governments are rebellion against God.”

And this is just the first chapter.

The third edition shortens this chapter by a half page, but all the same elements are present. Since the Beginning focuses exclusively on telling the biblical story from Genesis 1-11, and interestingly does not include any  discussion of race.

*For more reading, please check out “The Science You Need to Know to Explain why Race is Not Biological.”

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Art by Nicolas Raymond
Social Issues

World History and Cultures: the Review Introduction

World History and Cultures in Christian Perspective (which I will abbreviate as WHAC from now on) is put out by the publishing arm of Pensacola Christian College, Abeka Book (named after Rebekah Horton, one of PCC’s founders). Not only did my family use this textbook when I was in tenth grade, this is also the textbook used at PCC in their history survey classes HI 101 and 102, which were required courses for nearly every student. When I introduced the concept of reviewing WHAC on Facebook and Twitter, a few of you asked if this is a common homeschooling textbook– and yes, it is, but Abeka curriculum is widely used in many Christian schools around the world and in the US. This fact is especially concerning considering that many of these private Christian schools benefit from scholarship and voucher programs; so, if you’re a tax-paying US citizen, chances are your tax dollars are paying for books like WHAC.

A few news outlets have already done an enormous amount of work looking into these textbooks and their widespread use; I’d encourage you to read the following articles to get a good understanding of the significance and cultural power publishers like Abeka now enjoy.

Schools without Rules” at the Orlando Sentinel by Leslie Postal, Beth Kassab, and Annie Martin

Voucher Schools Championed by Betsy DeVos can Teach whatever They Want. Turns Out They Teach Lies” at Huffington Post by Rebecca Klein (normally I wouldn’t link to a HuffPo article, but Klein did an incredible job reporting this)

14 Wacky ‘Facts’ Kids Will Learn in Lousiana’s Voucher Schools” at Mother Jones by Deanna Pan

Klein found that Abeka tended to be the most popular– used in about a quarter of the Protestant schools she looked into– and the Sentinel reporters discovered that 65% of the schools they looked into in Florida used either ABeka, BJUPress, or ACE. The prevalence of these textbooks in taxpayer-funded schools should be deeply disturbing to all of us because the ideas these publishers teach are counterproductive to a democratic and free society.

That sounds conspiratorial and borderline hysterical, I know. However, it is not a coincidence that we’ve had a half dozen white supremacist domestic terrorists this year who were homeschooled using these textbooks and went to colleges like Pensacola Christian. It is not the ultimate goal of these publishers to radicalize terrorists, but it is an acceptable inevitability to the people who created these programs. The curricula exist to indoctrinate children in a “Christian perspective” of society, a perspective that explicitly includes white supremacy and Christian nationalism.

I know that’s a broad claim. Unfortunately, it won’t be difficult to prove.

***

A lot of time and attention has been given to examples from Accelerated Christian Education booklets– if you’ve seen a screen shot or picture about a conservative Christian textbook making ludicrous claims about the Loch Ness monster or how Black children are “ugly” and white children are “pretty,” chances are it’s from ACE. Their booklets have some of the most outrageous and egregious examples, so they get a lot of space in articles about conservative Christian textbooks. Abeka is the most popular publisher, though, and part of that is due to their relative circumspection. They teach all the same ideas as ACE, but they do it in a … less spectacular way. In order to expose the white supremacy at the heart of Abeka’s history textbooks, you have to spend a lot of time digging into them.

That, plus my personal experience, is why I chose to focus on Abeka. After that, I had to pick a grade and edition. I decided to start with world history because Abeka’s goals to manipulate and indoctrinate are clearer than if I were looking at US history (and, to be honest, you can throw a rock and hit a racist US history textbook). Ultimately, I decided to focus my attention on the second edition of WHAC because that was the one most commonly used by students my age. The point of examining WHAC is to expose what an entire generation of students grew up being taught, not just to point fingers at ABeka. For fairness’ sake, I also got their newest edition. I didn’t notice any significant changes, but I will note them as I go through if they change something that matters, like correcting an inaccuracy or shifting the ideological assertions.

I also got a copy of Since the Beginning: History of the World in Christian Perspective, Creation through Twentieth Century (the 7th grade Abeka history book) from my colleague, Ryan Stollar. He’s already tweeted his way through Since the Beginning, but I thought it could be useful to see what Abeka teaches before high school, since a lot of private schools cut off at eighth grade. I’ll mention Since the Beginning on occasion, just to provide more context.

***

WHAC is the product of a team of people (several of whom were my professors at PCC), but the primary authors are Jerry Combee and George Thompson. Both were difficult to identify, but I finally found their bios and … to be frank, it surprised me and made me even more suspicious.

Combee has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in political science from Emory University, and a PhD in Government from Cornell. He’s taught political philosophy at a bunch of places and was president of both Grove City College and University of Jamestown (ND). His other work is flagrantly ideological, and makes it obvious why PCC asked him to write their history textbooks.

Thompson went to Colgate University, then the University of Connecticut. His PhD is from Princeton, and all of his work has been in rhetoric and persuasion– after helping with WHAC, he went on to found an organization to teach “Verbal Judo,” a “way to defuse conflict and redirect behavior into more positive channels.” His program has been heavily utilized by US-based police forces, apparently.

Combining these two authors should make it clear that the primary purpose of World History and Cultures isn’t education, but ideological indoctrination. They didn’t seek out excellent history scholars or good research-writers, but men whose entire education and life’s work was focused on manipulation and persuasion, not the honest relaying of information and its context.

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Art by Nicolas Raymond
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?