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
Feminism

the complicated misery of #metoo

I became aware of the #metoo movement on October 15 last year. The next day, I did something I had never done before: on facebook, to my friends, I named the men who had assaulted my body and were the reason why I could say “me, too”– I named the places where it happened, the churches where these men still serve. I pointed to the men who are responsible for the damage I have to live with, and to the power structures that still prop them up. In a way, it was liberating. I’ve carried their names inside of me for years, and every time I would describe the assaults, my soul raged at the idea that I was talking about what they had done to me while ceaselessly protecting them. It was an exhausting burden to carry, and it was a relief to finally watch it tumble away from me.

Not everything about the #metoo movement has been that liberating or relieving, however. While it was good to finally see some consequences for some people, as I watched basically every woman I’m connected to say “me, too” I braced myself for the inevitable retaliations. The response to Al Franken’s callous humiliation of a co-worker was unsurprising, but still infuriating. I could practically see the shoe dropping, though, when I read Grace’s story about her sickening evening with Aziz Ansari. I knew we were about to see a flood of articles titled “has #metoo gone too far?”

I don’t know why I was surprised when I saw a friend defend what he’d done, saying “don’t blame a lousy lover for trying his best” and arguing that Grace was at fault for going back to his apartment in the first place. This man was also a survivor of sexual assault. I’d trusted him, assumed he was safe. It was a bitter revelation to discover he wasn’t.

The miserable reality of #metoo is that when women talk about all the assaults and humiliations we endure, we’re not often talking about reportable, criminal offenses. One of the first men I met in the county where I live assaulted me—he grabbed my ass and tried to get his fingers up my shorts to touch my genitals. I fought him off me and yelled at him, only to be berated by his peers for being mean to him. Nothing he did that night was illegal in the state we were in.

When I say “me, too” I’m usually not thinking about the rapes I ultimately reported to the police. I said no, I fought back, and nothing I did mattered. Those experiences haunt me, but I’ve been able to process them, and heal from them.

What crushes me nearly every day is the countless Other Times he assaulted me. The Other Times that I can barely stand to think about. The Other Times that cause my traumatized brain to whisper horrible, frightening lies.

***

Handsome and I have been married for five years, together for six. Our love life just seems to keep getting better, too—although it does look significantly different from the beginning. It’s still thrilling and passionate, but it’s also … comfortable. There have been plenty of times when I’ve initiated sex—or he has—where neither of us are feeling totally ga-ga gangbusters awooooogah. Sometimes that still happens, but what’s more common is one of us gets horny and the other says “yeah, sure, I’m down for that” and gladly responds to encouragement, even if we didn’t start out “in the mood.” If we ever have children, that situation is likely to become even more our normal. I’m sure many people in long-term relationships are nodding their heads in understanding.

However, the trauma that’s left scars deep in my mind and my soul can be vicious. At the oddest times, it’s like I can hear an actual whisper: how is what you do with Handsome really any different from what you say were assaults? If you broke up with Handsome, would you accuse him of assaulting you, too?

I know those are lies. I know it. I know that the difference between what that abuser did to me and the sex I have with my partner are like the contrast between night and day, or black and white. Those experience cannot be compared. They have nothing in common.

When I hear a respected friend say something like “don’t blame a lousy lover for trying his best,” though, I want to curl up and die. Something at the bottom of my sternum shatters and then shrivels into dust because I suddenly know what he thinks of me. I know that if I were to put out a video recording of all those assaults, people like my friend would say I deserved it. I should have communicated better. I should have left. Those weren’t really assaults, he was just a lousy lover.

***

Most of the horror I endured in that abusive relationship were the Other Times, and they usually went something like this:

The abuser picks me up from the airport, or drives me to a friend’s house. I’m delighted to see him, because we live in different states and usually only see each other at college. On the drive, he’ll pull over somewhere and want to kiss me. At first, I’m thrilled. He’s not the best kisser in the world, but I’m just so happy that I love him and he loves me, and isn’t that what people who love each other do? So I kiss him. Maybe I play with his hair, or touch his shoulders.

He grabs my hand and puts it over his zipper. I pull my hand away from his, but he’ll get insistent. Over time, this is the moment when I learn to be afraid. I start the oh-so-careful dance of trying to stop this without getting hurt … but I am rarely, if ever, successful. He pushes my hand back to his zipper, and encourage me to undo it. I’ll resist, at first, and make mumbling negative noises, but he keeps my motionless hand trapped there while he thrusts into it. I’ll draw my body away from him, stop kissing him, and suggest we keep driving home, or to his friend’s house. He’ll ignore me.

He starts touching me above my clothes, then under them. I’ll shrink away, over and over, putting his hands back on top of my clothes or making distressed sounds. He’ll never stop. Eventually, his hands will be inside my underwear and he’ll be pawing at my genitals, kissing my lips, my neck, saying he just wants to make me feel good. I’ll try to dissuade him, to say that I know and I love him and I’ll lie and say he does make me feel good – I know what happens when I don’t try to soothe his ego when I refuse him, and it’s painful—but say we should keep driving, we’ll be late, his parents will notice we were gone too long. He doesn’t stop.

He shoves his fingers inside and it hurts so bad and sometimes I whimper, but it never matters. I learn that the fastest way to end all this is to fake an orgasm—if I don’t, he’ll just keep pumping until I’m raw and he’s yelling at me for being frigid. Sometimes at that point he’ll grab my head and force it into his lap and I’ll blow him because what is even the point of resisting, of saying no, when it never matters? The handful of times I’ve tried to be forceful … end badly. Eventually, I always quit fighting. I give up. I’ll just … lay there, or sit there. Grit my teeth and get through it. Sometimes, I’m even able to fake being engaged, sometimes I don’t even put up that little bit of resistance because everything else is just so much easier if I don’t try to fight him. It goes faster, it’s over faster; he’ll even be happy and content for a while and won’t call me a goddamn fucking bitch for making everything so difficult.

***

People are going to read me describing all that and agree with my friend. How dare I call this person an abuser, how dare I say these are assaults? If I didn’t want any of that to happen—especially repeatedly—I should’ve broken up with him. Instead of pulling away from him over and over, of repositioning his hands, instead of saying “maybe we should stop” or “your parents are going to notice we’re late” or “we should start driving” I should’ve screamed “NO!” and thrown myself out of the car. If he forced my head in his lap and his cock into my mouth, it was “confusing” and “mixed signals” for me to suck it. It’s my job to stop him.

It’s not his job to care. He’s just a lousy lover, after all.

***

I consider what Aziz Ansari and my abuser did assault. Perhaps not prosecutable, but assault. I consider it assault for the simple reason that if my abuser had ever given a shit about me, none of those Other Times could have happened. The Other Times are the result of an abuser who did not care about anyone besides himself. He did not care about making sure I was happy, that I was comfortable, that I was excited and wanted him to touch me. It never mattered to him that I was miserable, that I was obviously not interested. The only thing that mattered was keeping my resisting body in the car with him, and he did whatever was necessary to ensure that happened.

So did Aziz Ansari—he did whatever it took to keep Grace in his apartment, even though she moved away from him, even though she said “I don’t want to hate you” or “maybe on a second date.” It didn’t fucking matter that she was unhappy, and not having an enjoyable, pleasant encounter. As long as she didn’t leave—which she eventually did—he could do whatever he wanted. It was her job to stop it, and not his job to care.

That is the difference between my abuser and Handsome. That is what makes the difference between night and day. Handsome cares about me, about my happiness, about my engagement, about my pleasure. He doesn’t badger me until I give in, doesn’t use coercion to keep me in the same space as him. I matter to him. My happiness is fundamentally important to him.

This is what the #metoo movement needs to change: it’s not about what it should take for a woman to get a man to stop, or what an acceptable amount of resistance is before it crosses a line. It should be about men believing that being decent matters, and women matter, and caring about us matters.

Photo by Cia de Foto
Theology

Spirit of Prostitution: a bi reading of Gomer

This is an expository/interpretive paper I wrote for my “Interpretation as Resistance: Feminist, Womanist, and Queer Readings of the Bible.” I hope y’all enjoy it.

***

The whole LGBT movement is as phony as a three-dollar bill; look at this “B” thing in the middle; that’s just clear-cut straight-up promiscuity.

~Andrée  Sue Peterson

The ‘B’ stands for bisexual. That’s orgies! Are you really going to support this?

~James Dobson

Rebuke your mother, rebuke her, for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband. Let her remove the adulterous look from her face and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts … She said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my olive oil and my drink.

~Hosea 2:2-5

I thought that the redemptive love story of Hosea and Gomer was familiar to me. It was a metaphorical touchstone for the faith community of my adolescence, a story we referred to often as containing the Creation–Fall–Redemption arc we believed was at the core of Christianity. Gomer’s story was our story, because no matter how badly we sinned or how far we fell, God would still love and forgive us. Now, it is fascinating to me that although there are distinctive anti-Semitic tendencies in Christian fundamentalism, the way we interacted with Hosea was almost midrashic. This is demonstrated nowhere so well as in Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love, which is a retelling of the story of Hosea and Gomer set during the California Gold Rush. However, attempts to give a narrative framing to Hosea exist in abundance—evangelical Christian-style midrashim of Hosea are at bible.org, Lifeway, and Christianity Today. These retellings were more familiar to me than the text itself, and had overwritten my understanding of Hosea so much that when I read it in the NIV and Tanakh Translation, I was surprised by how much I struggled to find the narrative structure I’d grown up with.

I have been deep in the trenches with the evangelical structuring of Hosea as I’ve been doing a close reading of Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love for the past year. Over that time, the character of Gomer—and Rivers’ character, Angel—have come to mean a great deal to me for the exact reasons that Rivers, and evangelical culture more widely, condemn Gomer. My participation in this class has shown me that I love Gomer because I read her from a bipanqueer perspective, and in resisting Rivers’ framing I’ve come to play a Trickster role with the text. After all, if there’s a biblical character that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians would compare me, a bisexual woman, to—it’s Gomer. Gomer and I represent a sexuality that cannot be constrained, women who exercise our autonomy in defiance of societal expectations, and even if we arrive in a place that is culturally approved, we still represent a queer threat of instability.

In Hosea, Gomer is figurative of both women and Israel as a nation. After her introduction in the opening of the text, she is not referred to by name again. Instead, as the text develops she is replaced by generalities: woman, wife, mother, adulteress, prostitute, whore. Gomer’s badness is just women’s badness and Israel is bad when she/he/it behaves like Gomer (or like women). As a bipanqueer woman, I am frequently forced by culture to be a similar stand-in for all other queer women—or their ideas of queer women are forced onto me, regardless of their accuracy. There’s no separation of our “badness”; queer women are bad like me, and I am bad like queer women. The same thing happens in Hosea when the specificity of Gomer disappears from the text. Who she actually is doesn’t appear to matter to the writer(s), and telling her story is irrelevant. I intend to subvert this approach to the text by bringing the specificity of my story and to return Gomer as the principal character of the book.

The writers represent Gomer as a woman whose sexuality cannot be controlled, restrained or limited. She is an adulteress, “burning like an oven … blaz[ing] like a flaming fire … devour[ing her] rulers.” In the evangelical narrative framing of her character, Gomer returns again and again to her old life, which is depicted as irresistible to her. All through the text she is described as having a “spirit of prostitution,” and her unrestrainable sexuality is shown as being the core of her nature. These patterns are often applied to bipanqueer woman—our sexual appetites apparently know no bounds. We are inherently promiscuous and incapable of loyal monogamy. Many lesbian women are unwilling to enter relationships with bi women because they think we will inevitably be unfaithful or leave them. For straight men, bi women’s sexuality is still seen as unquenchable except instead of seeing this negatively, some straight men believe we are willing to engage in any sex act at any time with any person—or persons. However, I take joy in my sexuality that is free and unbounded, and I’m delighted that Gomer is the same. She knew what society thought of her—that is inescapable—but she enjoyed her sexuality, was brazen and forthright. She expressed her sexuality freely with an “adulterous look on her face,” and she knows her worth and claims it in olive oil and new wine. For Gomer and myself, it is impossible to contain not just our sexuality but the whole of ourselves. My sexuality has given me the gift of ignoring boundaries.

Another thing that is integral to Gomer’s story and my experience as a bi woman is how we exercise our autonomy. Society wants to enforce its monosexist boxes, but we can choose to live outside hetero- or homo-normative spheres. I have chosen a cis male partner, but that does not mean I have chosen a “straight” partnership. My partnership is queer because I am queer. Likewise, Gomer may have chosen Hosea, but that does not mean she chose to be circumscribed by the limits presented in Hosea. Without the assumption that Gomer is innately promiscuous, the narrative structure that she was constantly leaving her husband and returning to prostitution falls apart—it is not even necessarily supported by the text, as scholars disagree whether or not the opening verse in chapter three should be translated “Go, show love to your wife again” or “Go, befriend a woman.” Gomer chose to live with Hosea, to mother his children, but something that is clear to me as a bipanqueer woman is that Gomer did not choose to destroy herself in the process. She remained independent and autonomous, even in the face of a “yolk on her fair neck.” She defied expectations, as all bipanqueer women do.

Another facet of Gomer’s story that is analogous to my own is that she does, ultimately, choose a role and a “lifestyle” that, on the surface, conforms to her prescribed roles. She became a wife and mother, and according to the writer(s) may have “reformed.” I married a cis man, and hope to become a mother. In the meantime, I am mostly a “stay at home wife.” In an ironic twist of fate, my “lifestyle” more closely resembles the fundamentalist, patriarchal ideal than many of the women who were my peers in fundamentalism and would still consider themselves fundamentalists. A brief glance at the superficial facts of my life reveal a woman who works from home, who performs many of the traditionally feminine domestic duties like cooking and laundry. My partner takes on many of the traditionally masculine ones—managing our finances, mowing the lawn, etc. These “facts,” however, are not because we are obeying a complementarian understanding of marriage, but because I am allergic to grass and obsessed with Food Network, while my partner is genuinely overjoyed by spreadsheets. A deeper look would reveal many aspects of our lives that would horrify anti-feminists.

The text does not offer readers a deeper look into Gomer’s inner life, but if we remove the typical evangelical narrative structure and all the assumptions about her character, I believe we can achieve a more subversive and hopeful telling. Reading from a queer perspective offers the ability to see Gomer as a consistently destabilizing force. Women like Gomer and myself will always remain threats, as our sexual identities will always introduce instability into patriarchal structures. We can refuse yokes, cajoling, or demands and stay true and loyal to ourselves; the men who surround us know this, and should fear their inability to control us. Gomer knows she can provide for herself without Hosea and that she can be content, even happy, without him. I know that I do not need patriarchy, heterosexism, or monosexism to sustain either my Christian identity or my marriage. Even when we arrive at a place or a time in our lives when patriarchy or queerphobia may approve of our choices, we do not make those choices for anyone but ourselves.

Social Issues

Living in the Loopholes: Home Education and Abuse

As y’all know, I spent this past weekend in Raleigh, NC presenting at The Courage Conference with my friend and colleague Carmen Green. Preparing for that took a lot more out of me than I thought it would– we both wanted to emphasize story telling instead of getting deep into the weeds on the facts and legalities, so I spent the bulk of last week digging through the Homeschooling’s Invisible Children database looking for stories that illustrated each type of abuse we wanted to talk about. That took a toll, and then the conference was also emotionally draining. It was a good experience and I’m very glad I went, but the focus was on abuse and two days of that is just going to be hard.

I was looking forward to meeting Boz Tchividjian, who founded Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) and whose work I’ve talked a lot about. He was as incredible in person as I thought he’d be, and it was comforting to meet an older white man who actually gives a shit and is actively doing something to fight abuse in Christian culture. I also got to meet Linda Kay Klein, who is as impressive in person as she sounds on paper. She has a book on purity culture coming out next year (Man-Made Girls) and I’m now desperate to read it. The second I have a copy, I will be posting a review. Her talk on the modesty doctrine was funny and insightful and tender and beautiful, and I was definitely impressed with her.

You can still actually “attend” The Courage Conference if you’d like to– you can buy online tickets to see video recordings of the main speakers, and I think it’s worth the $20. Also, in coordination with The Courage Conference, I’ve made it possible for you to see the workshop Carmen and I did. If you make at least a $5 donation to my Patreon this month, I will contact you with a password to view the video after Patreon processes everyone’s transactions.

Also, here’s the PowerPoint presentation if you’d like to take a look at it.

Many thanks to everyone here who made presenting at this conference possible. Your readership and support over the years is why I continue doing this sort of work. The workshop we gave seemed to make a really big impact with the people who came– many said they’d learned a ton that they could instantly put to practical use to fight abuse. You made it possible for us to do that, so thank you.

Social Issues

The Courage Conference: Homeschooling & Abuse

I mentioned this in passing a bit ago, but wanted to take some time to really give this the attention it deserves. I will be presenting at The Courage Conference in Raleigh, NC on October 20-21. Here’s the description of the conference from the website:

The Courage Conference is a non-denominational event that will offer a judgement-free place for survivors of abuse (and those who love them) to gather and hear inspiring stories from other survivors about moving forward in boldness and healing. The event will also educate pastors and church leaders on the topic of abuse and introduce them to safe practices and resources for their faith community. The Courage Conference offers a unique opportunity to hear from advocates and trained professionals through inspiring keynotes talks, Q&A sessions and workshops in addition to connecting attendees with local and national resources, so you don’t have to do this alone.

I’m excited about the lineup of speakers, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk about a topic I think is not well understood. Abuse in homeschooling environments can be so headline-grabbing (children locked in closets and starved to death, chopped up and stored in freezers for years, beaten to death) that most news outlets seem to get pretty myopic. While all of those happen and definitely deserve to be addressed as the atrocities they are, the focus on what are, in actuality, a handful of cases out of millions of homeschooled children lets homeschoolers who are abusive in much more mundane ways escape notice. People can say “we’re nothing like that” or “I don’t know anyone like that” and then dismiss the need to examine their communities for the ways it might enable abuse.

These communities end up fighting any kind of oversight and frequently use the sometimes-myopic treatment of the press as a way to cry persecution. Why should they be punished with regulations and oversight because someone somewhere did something unspeakably awful? It happens again and again in the conversations I find myself in about homeschooling and the need for oversight. We end up talking past each other– they think I’m thinking of Lydia Schatz when I’m talking about my own experience and how every single child I knew in my homeschooling communities were physically abused. Not locked in closets, not starved, not murdered, but still very much abused. They feel comfortable with “self-regulation” because no one they know is an axe-wielding child murderer, and they get to ignore the other forms of abuse that may not be obvious to them.

My presentation, which I’ll be giving with Carmen Green who’s founded the Center for Home Education Policy and who you can read about here (I was background research for that article, btw), will be going over all of that for about an hour. What does abuse in homeschools actually tend to look like, and what can we do about it?

Anyway, if you can make it to Raleigh, NC in two weeks I hope to see you there. If you know of anyone who might be interested, please pass along the website. The conference still needs some funding, too. I appreciate that the organizers are trying to make this as affordable as possible, so maybe if you think educating religious leaders on abuse, trauma, and how to help is important, throw a few dollars their way?