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Social Issues

Stuff I’ve Been Into: July Edition

This has been a week from hell in more than one way for me, since I’m coming off period week and it’s also been the horrific shitshow that is the Republican National Convention. Thankfully, I’m leaving for vacation tonight, so I wanted to leave you with reading material, although I might pop in with a post or two next week if the mood strikes me.

Articles on Politics

The Republican National Convention and the Criminalization of Politics” by Dylan Matthews is a must-read in my opinion. If you haven’t paid any attention to the goings-on in Cleveland, Christie said that we should imprison Hillary Clinton because of her policy positions, such as negotiating with Iran. Matthews does a good job of explaining why it’s an all-around horrifically bad idea to start advocating for things like political prisoners.

Speaking of dictatorships, “Donald Trump and the Authoritarian Temptation” by Shadi Hamid was one of the better articles I’ve read over the last year that attempts to understand why Trump’s bid for the American presidency has been so successful. Considering he’s praised Putin, Kim Jong Un, al-Assad, Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein for being “tough,” “strong,” “incredible,” and “ruthless,” I think I have more than enough reason to be legitimately frightened of a Trump regime.

Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All” by Jane Meyer is probably the best profile on Trump I’ve read. It’s an interview with Tony Schwartz who “co-wrote” The Art of the Deal, and if you haven’t read it yet, it’s worth the time.

Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” by George Saunders was excellent, and I think another must-read because it does what all good journalism should: it humanizes the people we disagree with most.

Articles on Race

We’re No Angels” by Danielle Moss Lee is a heartbreaking piece about what it’s like growing up as both a girl and black, and makes it brutally clear that you can have a stellar performance record, get amazing grades, have no disciplinary problems, and still face racism from the authorities in your life. White people need it drilled into our racist heads that there is no standard a black woman could possible meet that could help her escape racism.

Stop Kidding Yourself: the Police were Created to Control Working Class and Poor People” is written by Sam Mitrani, an expert on the history of policing, especially in Chicago. It doesn’t dig into the race element in depth, but it does make it clear that “to serve and protect” is a convenient bit of myth-making.

I grew up believing that the “War Between the States” and the “War of Northern Aggression” was strictly a matter of “state’s rights.” So it knocked me on my arse when I found out that I was incredibly wrong about that. “Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy? Because our textbooks and monuments are wrong,” written by the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me (good book!) puts a lot of what I’ve learned in one place.

How a $2 Roadside Drug Test Sends Innocent People to Jail” by Ryan Gabrielson and Topher Sanders was mind blowing. I had no idea how this whole process worked, and this piece was more than just illuminating, it was infuriating.

I’ve had a difficult time trying to understand cultural appropriation. As a concept it’s not super cooperative with my tendency to want all information neatly sorted into black and white. It’s cultural, and is therefore complicated and messy and nuanced. “Why Defending Your Cultural Appropriation” by Ana Thomas was a brilliant explanation and very helpful for me.

Why I’m Skeptical of White Liberals in the Black Lives Matter Movement,” although written by a white woman, was incredibly thought-provoking. She asks a question that I think deserves incredibly serious thought and introspection, and it’s been following me around ever since I read it. She asks us to figure out how racism hurts us as white people— something that had never occurred to me before. I think she’s getting at something fundamentally true: white supremacy’s target is people of color, it benefits us as white people … but it also must therefore limit us in order to keep us in power.

Articles on Feminism

I love, love, love, love, love this metaphor for consent: the Consent Castle by Robot Hugs.

In the “solidly good things happening in the world” category, there’s a new program being funded by the NFL because they fucked up big time and are trying to balance some of their bad karma. It’s called Safe Bars, and it’s teaching bartenders how to identify sexual harassment and intervene before an assault happens.

‘Empowerment’ is Warping Women’s View of Real Power” by Ruth Whippman is one of those articles that borders on a style of feminism I fundamentally disagree with (the kind that still defines “power” and “success” in white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist terms) while still making a valid point. She also critiques things like “lean in!” and, in her words: “Sexism, in this story, is not the fault of the patriarchy or systemic injustice, but rather a regrettably unavoidable consequence of the fact that women are a pathetic bunch of compulsive apologizers with vocal fry.”

On the other side of the feminist spectrum is “What works for men doesn’t work for everyone: why cities need to start planning with women in mind” by Caroline Criado-Perez. There are a host of things in this world that people would never think of as having gendered consequences– like public parks, parking garages, snow clearing methods, bathrooms, and lighting– but they do.

Language Matters: Why I Don’t Fear being Called ‘Pro-Abortion’“by Maureen Shaw appealed to my feminist, English-major heart. The first time I ever wrote about being pro-choice, I described myself as pro-abortion, even though I was aware of all the negative associations tied up in the term. I wanted to own my public position and be proud of it, even though most of my fellow Christians would probably prefer I be ashamed about this and keep it hidden. In the same vein is “It’s Time to Say ‘Abortion’ When We’re Talking About Abortion” by Genevieve Cato.

My friend Gabby wrote “Reproductive Freedom and Pride Go Hand-in-Hand,” and it’s something I wish more of us grasped. The few times I’ve brought up reproductive rights to my gay friends, they weren’t exactly dismissive but it was clear that they thought the plight of Planned Parenthood doesn’t affect them. Considering Indiana is now experiencing a rise in HIV because Mike Pence shut PP clinics down, this isn’t something the LGBT+ community can afford to ignore. Feminism and queer rights are intrinsically tied up together.

This one could go under both race and feminism, but either way it’s another must-read: “This is What I Mean When I say ‘White Feminism.’

Books

I’m almost finished with the Kingbreaker, Kingmaker series, and while I’ve read four of them so I must be enjoying them at least a little, my original complaint from three weeks ago stands. I had such high hopes for The Relectant Mage, since the back copy and cover art made it seem like the main character was going to be a woman. Well, I’m a third of the way into it, and most of it has been from male points of view. Two villains, and she introduced three more characters last chapter– all men. Again. Le sigh.

I picked up Dietland the other day, though, and while I’m not very far along into it, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be amazing. I don’t read fiction books that aren’t in the sci-fi/fantasy category that often, but it seems like this one might be a winner.

I also grabbed Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, which I’ve had my eye on for a while. As in, multiple years, so hopefully it’s good. I’ll keep you updated on what I think.

TV

We finished season two of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and I think the season ends even better than it started. Kimmy starts therapy and decided to confront her mother, and it deals with all sorts of important things I think trauma survivors will recognize and understand.

Based on a recommendation from my sister-in-law we watched Grace and Frankie, which was one of those that we’ve been meaning to watch for a while but hadn’t gotten around to it, mostly because we’re both firmly convinced that there is no better television than The West Wing— and that’s coming from a Trekkie and a Firefly-fan. Anyway, Grace and Frankie was solidly good and enjoyable. It’s amazing watching Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin together, especially since they’re playing women seven or eight years younger than they are.

We also started Alias, and it’s hilarious. I’m not sure why the Bones theme song is better since they both sound sort of exactly the same, but it is. Jennifer Gardner’s costumes are the crème de la crème of 90s fashion, and Bradley Cooper as “plucky reporter” is also awesome. My only observation so far is that most of Sydney’s troubles could be prevented if she got better at lockpicking. Just throwing that out there.

Anyway, enjoy the rest of July!

good samaritan
Theology

The Parable of the Good Samaritan, revised

[content note: violence, racism, transphobia, misogyny]

There was once a young black man, traveling alone. It had been a long, hot, grueling day and he was eager to be home. As the hour grew late he decided to take a shortcut home through a neighborhood. There, he saw a group of men armed with clubs and guns, and he felt his heart begin to race. He told himself to stay calm, to look respectful. It didn’t do any good. He saw them start to run toward him– he put his arms in the air, but when they didn’t stop, he threw himself on the ground and prayed.

No one answered his prayer as they viciously beat him. No one came when he felt his bones begin to snap. Finally, they left him alone, in the middle of the road, and spread tape around his prone, dying body.

POLICE LINE — DO NOT CROSS, it said.

He could hear voices as people began to gather, could hear them over the pounding in his ears as his heart struggled to beat.

“He does have a wide nose. You can see it, plain as day.”

“Probably stole those skittles, anyway.”

“I heard he stands on the corner and sells cigarettes.”

“Actually, I heard it was CDs.”

He could feel their stares. He could feel it when they crossed to the other side of the street to pass by him.

***

There was once a trans woman trying to move through her day without attracting any attention. She hadn’t eaten anything, or had anything to drink, since she’d left her house that morning but it had been long enough where that didn’t matter. She had to stop at the grocery store, there wasn’t anything left to cook for her family that night, but her bladder was about to burst. She stared at the door to the ladies room, nervous but trying not to be. Finally, taking a breath and bracing herself, she slipped into the bathroom and hurried into the closest stall, heedless to how clean it was or if the toilet was clogged.

She didn’t notice the man watching her enter the bathroom. Didn’t see his hands clench into fists, or rage spark in his eyes.

Exiting the stall, she kept her eyes down and her body as small as she could make it. As she reached for the towel to dry her hands, an arm stopped her. Terrified, her stomach dropping into her feet, she met his eyes in the mirror. It was the last thing she saw before he started beating her.

Minutes later, she realized she was on the floor. Everything hurt, but she could hear voices.

“I tried to tell you about those predators.”

“It’s so sick. Gender confusion is ruining our culture.”

“Pervert. Rapist.”

What hurt even worse was the silence as they left her behind, bleeding and broken.

***

There was once a woman at a college party. It was the biggest kegger of the year, and she was out to enjoy the night with her friends– the last night she’d probably get to spend with most of them. After this it was graduation and job searching and moving away and adulthood. She didn’t want to think about it. Tonight she wanted to be carefree one last time.

She spent the night on the dance floor, had a couple drinks. After a few hours she settled onto a couch between two of her friends, but wanted one more beer before calling it a night. As she was about to get up to get it, one of her best friends offered to get it for her. Grateful, since she was tired from dancing and her shoes were killing her, she handed him her cup.

A little while later, she started feeling awful. Maybe three had been too much– but that didn’t seem right. She didn’t normally get this drunk off just three beers. Dizzy and sick, she turned to her best friend and asked him to take her home.

She doesn’t remember anything after that when she wakes up. Nauseated, she can taste bile. Slowly she realizes she’s freezing. Her dress is torn to pieces and with a horrified shock she realizes her panties are gone. What in the world happened to me? Opening her eyes, she nearly shrieks at the cockroach on the ground next to her face. Why am I behind a dumpster?

That’s when she hears the voices.

Slut. Whore.”

“He has such a bright future ahead of him.”

“Did you hear he was a swimmer?”

“Wait. Isn’t he on the football team?”

“At any rate, she shouldn’t have been drinking. What did she expect would happen?”

Each word is a knife in her heart. The sound that sinks the deepest, into her bones, is the sound of them leaving.

***

But the people who we see as a Samaritan– Syrian refugees. The #BlackLivesMatter movement. Gay Pride. Trans men and women.– the people we despise, the people who make us uncomfortable, who disrupt our otherwise “pleasant society” … as they travel, they come to where the black man lies in the road, where the trans woman is crumpled up in a bathroom, where a woman lies torn and bleeding behind a dumpster, and their hearts are stirred to compassion.

They bandage their wounds, they offer their help. They give them shelter, a space to heal and to be safe.

Jesus turns to us and asks “Which of these was a neighbor?”

The expert in the law, a man who has dozens of Bible verses at his fingertips, who goes to church every Sunday, who tithes from every paycheck and serves in the bus ministry, replies: “The ones who had mercy, who were kind.”

With a prayer that we will finally, finally, understand, Jesus whispers “Go and do thou likewise.”

Artwork by Jan Wignants
church at sunrise
Theology

what does it take to be a Christian?

I’m bumping into this question a lot recently.

I’ve started working at a bookstore, and a little while ago a man came in to kill time and chat. Most of our conversation was interesting, and at one point we started talking about faith. He grew up Christian but no longer identifies that way, and was talking about some of the problems he has with the Bible– the same problems any moral person should have, in my opinion, like the fact that it endorses genocide and slavery. My response was largely a shrug, and when he asked how I could be so ambivalent I replied with “I believe that the Bible is a complicated library the reflects a rich and ancient religious tradition. It’s the views of those who spent lifetimes trying to understand God and how they relate to us.”

Ok, so I probably wasn’t quite that eloquent, but I’ve written about this topic often enough that I’m comfortable talking about it with strangers in pick-up theological discussions. He instantly jumped on my answer though, with an actual “aha!”– telling me that attitude disqualified me from being a Christian. Christians believe the Bible is the Word of God, he said.

My response was simple, if a little heated: “A Christian is someone who follows the teachings of Christ.”

***

I can’t find the quote now, but a long time ago I read an analogy that I liked. Veganism isn’t about believing that people should follow a plant-based diet. Being vegan means actually eating a plant-based diet. If you say you believe we should only eat plants, but eat bacon every other day, you’re not actually a vegan and insisting that you are because of your “beliefs” is ridiculous. They went on to apply this example to Christianity: you can have any sort of “beliefs” about Jesus and God and the Bible, but if you fail to act like a Christian, then calling yourself a Christian because of your supposed intellectual positions is equally ridiculous.

I thought of that quote the other day when I got this comment, which I’ll quote from in part:

I would have a lot more respect for you if you would just stop applying the Christian label to yourself. In every article you seem to revile the teachings of scripture. You don’t seem to hold a confident belief in any traditional Christian doctrine. I doubt you really believe the resurrection occurred or believe there is a personal God or afterlife. So why do you cling to the title Christian?

He went on to accuse me of “infiltrating” Christianity so I can “destroy it” from the inside– honestly, it’s one of the more hilarious comments I’ve ever gotten, right along with being accused of sorcery. But, I get these sorts of comments and e-mails all the time, and they fit a spectrum of everything from frothing-at-the-mouth to concern trolling. I don’t seem to hold a confident belief in Christian doctrine, and to this sort of person that means I’m most definitely not a Christian.

The fact that I do my best to act  like Jesus taught us to doesn’t make a lick of difference.

Of course, I have the freedom to act this way because of an intellectual position: I don’t believe a loving God would subject anyone to eternal conscious torment. My views on the afterlife are continuously evolving, but that growth happens with the basic assumption that the afterlife doesn’t matter as much as the physical present. Jesus is Immanuel, God With Us; he became man and dwelt among us. He thought that our physical existence mattered so much that he took on human form.

His teachings are centered on the actions of loving God and each other with all our hearts, souls, and minds. Blessed are the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the salt of the earth– blessed are they for what they do (Mt. 5). The Kingdom of Heaven will be inherited by those who fed and housed and clothed and healed and visited (Mt. 25). On the road to Damascus, Paul was confronted by a Jesus focused on what he was doing, not what he believed (Acts 9). Later, another follower of Jesus taught that faith without works is dead (Jas. 2), and John the Beloved said “if we say we have fellowship with him and walk in darkness we lie and do not practice the truth, but if we walk in the light … the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin” (I Jn. 1).

To my childhood self– and to many others– the above paragraph is heresy. I’d toss it out, and the rest of this blog, wholesale on that paragraph alone. For it is by grace alone that we are saved, not by works. Entrance to heaven isn’t something we could possibly earn. We cannot possibly be “good enough” to deserve salvation, which is why Jesus had to be crucified. To even suggest an alternative method of seeing these passages means that I’m hopelessly lost in darkness, and most likely one of those God has given over to a reprobate mind.

Except I’m working with an entirely different context than I used to. When I was growing up, nothing was as important as where I would spend eternity– nothing. Considering I believed there were only two options– paradise or torment– that’s the only position that makes sense. In that framework, Christianity must of necessity be preoccupied, even consumed with answering the question “how do we avoid hell?” Catholics answer it one way, Protestants (in general) another– but there are thousands of conflicting views on how to be sure we’ve made it. In my childhood church it was to confess our sin, repent of it, and accept Jesus’ offering of salvation– which we did in the Sinner’s Prayer.

But that’s not my framework anymore.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t think that vein of theological questioning isn’t important. As much as Matthew 25, James 2, I Corinthians 13, and Mark 6 has become more of my Christian foundation than Romans 10, I still find concepts like the Resurrection and Salvation incredibly important to how I think of my faith. I believe in the Resurrection– in many ways, my hope is tied up in it. Part of my faith rests in everything the Resurrection means, but I don’t have to walk around firmly and intellectually convinced that the Resurrection is a factual, historical event on which our entire religion is hinged. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but whether or not it actually literally happened matters less than whether or not I follow the teachings of Jesus. Do I love my neighbor? Do I feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner? Do I feast with publicans and sinners?

The theological concepts that constitute our religion, as well as the two-millennium history we have of arguing about them, are important. They’re important enough to me that I’m planning on starting seminary this fall (if I’m accepted) … but they’re not important to what makes me a Christian. That’s based on what I do, not what I think. We now see through a glass darkly; our understandings of God and religion are cloudy, only grasped in bits and pieces. But, in this present, it’s love that we can count on.

michael austin red dress
Feminism

Redeeming Love review: Introduction

I had a root canal this morning and my copy of Francine River’s Redeeming Love hasn’t arrived yet, so today is just going to serve as an introduction. In case you’ve never heard of the book before I mentioned it as an option for me to review a while ago, here’s the summary from the back:

California’s gold country, 1850. A time when men sold their souls for a bag of gold and women sold their bodies for a place to sleep.

Angel expects nothing from men but betrayal. Sold into prostitution as a child she survives by keeping her hatred alive. And what she hates most are the men who use her, leaving her empty and dead inside.

Then she meets Michael Hosea. A man who seeks his Father’s heart in everything, Michael obeys God’s call to marry Angel and to love her unconditionally. Slowly, day by day, he defies Angel’s every bitter expectation, until despite her resistance, her frozen heart begins to thaw.

But with her unexpected softening come overwhelming feelings of unworthiness and fear. And so Angel runs. Back to the darkness, away from her husband’s pursuing love, terrified of the truth she no longer can deny: Her final healing must come from the One who loves her even more than Michael does … the One who will never let her go.

Seems like a fairly typical Christian historical romance novel, although probably slightly darker than most of the ones I read growing up. In those, women could have abuse in their background, but it was pretty much only ever alluded to in vague ways, and never dealt with it directly. Like in Lori Wick’s The Knight and the Dove — the main character, Megan, suffered abuse and neglect from her mother, but it all happened in “the past” (mostly. I think her mother slaps her once). The book never really knows how to deal with it, expect that she sleepwalks when she’s upset, something most of the characters seem to find adorable for some reason?

I’ve never read Redeeming Love before, but I’ll bet you anything that Francine probably doesn’t know the first thing about trauma, recovery, and the healing process. Notice how we’re already being set up to expect Angel to be “bitter“? I imagine Angel’s recovery will be set in terms of forgiveness and bitterness, which y’all can already guess how well I’ll react to that. Given that Redeeming Love exists in a culture that has fundamental misunderstandings of sex trafficking, there’s also going to be some myths that I’ll have to deconstruct.

Given that we’ll be talking about sex trafficking for the first bit of the book, I have to let you know that I don’t have a solidly formed opinion about this topic. Sex trafficking is clearly evil, and I think this is something we all agree on. However, there are many arguments about how to go about solving this problem, and I don’t think there is any sort of silver bullet or perfect solution.

I will say that conversations about sex trafficking in the American Christian context are muddied with our tendency to see all non-heterosexual-married sex as innately sinful. I also lean in the direction of protecting sex workers while avoiding paternalism and condescension; this means that while I find certain arguments about “sex work can only exist in a misogynistic system that views women’s bodies as consumable commodities” somewhat compelling, I also believe that all bodies and our labor are consumable commodities in a capitalistic system, and if I can consent to selling my labor at a bookstore, what’s the real difference between that and selling my labor from a bed?

I’m still not completely sold either way on whether or not there’s some quality to sex work that makes it wholly and significantly different from other forms of physical or emotional labor, but what I do know is that many sex workers find their work enjoyable and aren’t any more coerced into it than anyone else trying to put food in their mouth and roof over their head by flipping burgers or brewing cappuccinos.

Obviously this is an extremely complicated conversation, with many valid viewpoints and arguments, and I think Redeeming Love will be a good entry point into that discussion since it’s not one we’ve really had on the blog.

***

I’ve pointed you in the direction of Lindsay’s in-depth review already, but I always try to situate these review series in the larger context of how the book’s been received and what it’s meant to people, so I read a few more reviews today. There’s this one by Wife, Mom, Superwoman and another by Mike Duran here, and something popped out to me in those reviews: they both describe Michael Hosea as relentless, and both of them clearly think of this as one of his best traits.

As a Christian I understand the beauty that can be found in God’s grace, and how we can be comforted by its endless depths. I return to Christian theology again and again — despite all my doubts and struggles– because I love how it can articulate a deity of boundless love that crosses all boundaries and boxes. However, it’s interesting to me that so many people think of God as relentless, a word that conveys things like zombies and Jubal Early from Firefly. My conception of God’s love is more like sunlight and moonlight. Always there, always beautiful, but certainly not something that chases me down and drags me, desperately kicking and screaming, back into his house.

Hmm. I think we might end up talking about Christian culture’s violence-centric depictions of God, too.

Many of the 1-star reviews on Goodreads make a lot of good points, but 86% of the ratings are 4 or 5 stars, and almost a hundred thousand people have given it a 5-star rating. Phrases like “I couldn’t possibly do this book justice,” “extraordinary,” and “flawless,” are littered everywhere. Most of the reviews are essentially different wordings of “this book has deeply affected my view of God and romance,” which I find troubling. Fiction and literature are powerful things, but there’s a Twilight-level fervor in these reviews that me wonder about the connection between abusive, controlling, agency-stripping “romances” and how popular they can be.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to launching into this with y’all.

Artwork by Mick Austin
gandalf and the rohirim
Social Issues

at dawn, look to the east

One of my favorite scenes from almost any film is at the end of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, from The Two Towers. They’ve retreated from the walls, and you can feel the hope fading. You feel the same shocked horror as Eowyn when she realizes the end is coming, and coming quickly. When everything seems to be at its most dark and desperate, King Théoden looks at Aragorn, frozen, shocked, despairing.

We’re approaching the end of a horrific week, and at times I feel like we’re facing an unending, teeming horde of Uruk-Hai– but instead of facing a concrete enemy with clattering armor and raised swords, the evil we’re fighting is systemic. Police brutality, like the Uruk-Hai, is just one manifestation of the evil the One Ring represents: the temptation in all men to possess power.

On days like today, I’m reminded of why I originally named my blog Defeating the Dragons. I was referencing a Neil Gaiman paraphrase of a G. K. Chesterton quote:

Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist,
but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.

I was reminded of it yesterday as I witnessed white people all over social media ask Théoden’s question: what can men do against such reckless hate? There was despair and hopelessness- helplessness. The police have killed 566 people this year– that we know of– and 2016 is barely half over. When a problem is this big, what can we do? When it’s seemingly in every state, in every justice department, in every police force, in every prison?

But, Théoden’s crushing despair isn’t the answer in this scene. The answer is delivered through Aragorn, who isn’t removed, isn’t separate, from Théoden’s fate. He meets Théoden’s eyes unflinchingly and says “Ride out with me.” Théoden assumes that Aragorn is envisioning a last ride of blazing glory, but Aragorn contradicts him: “For Rohan. For your people.

Of course, the audience knows what Théoden doesn’t– that Gandalf told Aragorn “Look to my coming at first light on the fifth day. At dawn, look to the east.” Aragorn is trusting Gandalf to pull some miracle out of his robes, but Theodan isn’t aware of that.

Today, we need to be Théoden listening to Aragorn. To ignore our feelings of helplessness that could push us into desensitization and apathy. We could try to retreat through the passage into the mountains– or we can ride out for our people. Apathy and helplessness are beckoning, I won’t deny it– especially since, as white people, it’s not just possible but easier for us to pretend like the Uruk-Hai and the malice of Sauron isn’t a real threat to anyone. If we’re not Théoden, in the trenches at Helm’s Deep, we could be any one of the blissfully ignorant nations who believes that Saruman the White is just some puttering old wizard who mostly just hangs out in his tower. Him, trying to destroy Rohan? That’s laughable!

Turns out, though, that’s exactly what him and Wormtongue want us to believe. Empire and its oppressive power wants us to remain apathetic, is trying to convince us it’s not really our problem. Alton Stirling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland— aren’t they just minor aberrations and not worth getting ourselves worked up about? They probably did something to deserve it anyway. As long as the only people the police are routinely gunning down don’t look like me, then our police force acting like something out of a post-apocalyptic dystopian nightmare is fine. Our lives are comfortable, unruffled by the constant fear of the police. They’re our thin line of blue, after all– the ones sworn to protect and serve. They couldn’t possibly be burning down an entire forest to forge weapons and turning Orthanc into a war machine.

It’s our responsibility to banish Wormtongue– his lies and his apathy– from our holds. To listen to Aragorn even when it seems hopeless. I won’t make false promises– maybe it is hopeless. But I choose to believe that nothing is truly hopeless unless we let it be, that evil can only win if good men do nothing.

***

In this extended metaphor of a post, as white people in a country with a militarized police force and a racist legal system, we’re not actually Théoden and his men. I know it seems like we’re the ones facing a monstrous force working to crush us, but we’re not. We’re not the ones fighting for our lives against the Uruk-Hai, struggling to hold out for just one more day, one more dawn.

We’re the Rohirrim. We’re the ones with the power to do something. It’s against everything good and just that we have this power in our hands, but we have it. But we have to show up– we have to be there at dawn on the fifth day, willing to face the Uruk-Hai when we could have been running away and pretending that the fate of Helm’s Deep has nothing to do with us. Without us, Théoden falls. Without us standing up for the people of color who are our sisters and brothers and siblings, our fellow children of God, then Helm’s Deep is lost.

They can’t fight this battle on their own. They need us.

***

So, practically, what does this look like, since of course it’s not going to be one glorious moment of us rushing downhill in a single magnificent charge. Maybe we’ll have those victories, but it’s not just the Uruk-Hai. It’s not just Saruman. Those are only puppets, really, symptoms. But, we have to start somewhere.

First, start with educating yourself. Acknowledge that as a white person you do benefit from a racist system. Keep educating yourself. Stay aware, and pay attention. Listen to people of color about their experiences. Cultivate a mind and heart that responds with compassion and grief.

Then, look into what needs to be done to reform our police forces. Get involved, and listen to brown and black people about where you should direct your energies and focus. When it comes to the police, local government is crucial. Delve into the histories of the people who serve as your judges, your sheriff, your mayor. Research the histories of those running for those positions and hold them accountable. Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote. Communicate with your city councils, your district attorneys. Call your state senators and representatives and make it clear that police reform is a priority for you, their constituent.

If you can, see if you can get involved in politics– and that doesn’t necessarily mean running for public office. You can work to make sure police reform is a part of your party’s platform on the state level. You can meet up with the local Democratic or Republican committee and convince them to make police reform an important issue in your county politics. You can be the persistent widow.

Ride out with us– not for death and glory, but for our people.

For the least of these, the widow, the prisoner, the orphan.

Photo by New Line Cinema
lantern 2
Theology

thy word is a lamp unto my feet

In college I picked up Beth Moore’s So Long, Insecurity while browsing in a Lifeway. You’d think, given my interests, that would be a book I’d be excited about– and initially I was. But, in her introduction, she spends (what seems to my recollection a significant amount of) time telling us that So Long, Insecurity is a book that God wanted her to write, a book that God gave to her, and that she heard God audibly speaking to her about — and I found the whole thing off-putting.

It wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the idea of God speaking audible, actual, words to Christians– that God does this is a pretty common idea in evangelical culture. But it wasn’t something I’d ever personally experienced, and the thought of hearing God’s voice inside my head, to be quite honest, freaked me out. My instinct was that if that ever happened, it would be a sign of a significant mental illness. I was solidly certain that God did not do that, it did not make any sense, and all those people who said they heard God talking to them were either a) in genuine need of psychiatric help, b) lying, or c) confusing “God’s voice” with something else.

I still don’t think I’m wrong about that.

Interestingly enough, I’ve bumped into this concept again a few times in the past few days. At the end of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Joshua relates a story of how his parents met and fell in love. His mother, sick and tired of men hitting on her, prays that Gregg– his father– won’t call her. Gregg almost has his mind made up to call her, when this happens:

But that night Dad encountered something different. He clearly sensed God speaking to him. “Gregg, don’t call her.” (207)

There’s an interesting word there– sensed. The following muddied that up a bit, but that was the sort of thing I used to comfort myself way back when. God hadn’t actually talked to Gregg Harris, he’d just sensed something, and that was how the Holy Spirit chose to work in that moment … yadda yadda.

I spent a lot of time– a lot of time– trying to understand this Christian phenomena of people hearing God’s voice. When people were talking about it, I tended to point to two incidents in my life that felt like they were an approximation of what everyone else was going on about.

My sophomore year in college I was facing a decision: did I want to continue on in the piano performance major, switch to piano pedagogy, or completely change tacks and become a music education major– a major designed for employment (a serious question for a Stay-at-Home-Daughter). One day, as I was vacuuming my dorm room, it suddenly crystallized for me: I wanted to be an education major. The only thing holding me back, I realized, was my old church which we no longer attended. It was like an epiphany– all the doubt and worry I’d had evaporated. In relating this experience to others, I depended on language like God’s calling. At the time it felt true, but looking back it was a fairly ordinary moment. I’d been chewing on the problem for a while and had finally made a decision. When I’d finally made up my mind, I felt a sense of rightness about it– and I was convinced that was God’s doing.

The second reference point I had was after the man who raped me broke our engagement. For the next month devastated doesn’t quite encompass the despair I felt. I was rudderless, broken … and I felt ruined. Looking back over that time, I feel almost positive that if he’d asked, I would’ve taken him back in a heartbeat.

Which makes it weird that I didn’t.

About a month after he’d dumped me, he called my dorm room and asked if we could have a do-over, to ignore that the last month had ever happened. I remember everything about this moment vividly, even sharply. I felt my lips shape words, felt my jaw slide up and down, felt my lungs forcing air through my throat, felt everything get cold … and it all felt like it was happening to someone else. I told him no.

For several years I talked about this incident as though God had saved me from myself, that something had happened that made me speak those words. Today, though, I’ve learned about disassociation, and I know now that’s what happened. He called me, and hearing his voice, his needling little manipulative voice, caused me to disassociate. That floating, out-of-body, numbing experience is fairly common for trauma survivors when they encounter a trigger … such as their abuser trying to control them again. But, when I told this story to others, I attributed the dissociation to God’s intervention, to God’s voice.

I still don’t know what other Christians experience when they say they hear God’s voice.

All I know is that I was able to dress up a handful of experiences as being “God’s voice,” and everyone around me accepted it. I’m led to believe that maybe my experience isn’t unusual. Maybe we’re all dressing up our experiences as being some monumental, mystical thing when in reality they’re all fairly ordinary events.

***

Outside of the weirdness that is God speaking directly into our thoughts with things like “become a music education major” or “don’t call her,” there’s a slightly more common version. The experiences I’ve related above are generally recognized as special– even Joshua notes how God saying “don’t call her” was “something different.”

But God speaking to us is part-and-parcel of the Christian cultural experience. If you’re not experiencing God revealing Themself to you, well …

This seems to come about in a myriad of ways. Feeling peace about a decision. The tug of your conscience. Events lining up in a particular way, like a fleece being wet or dry. By far it seems the most common of these is when Bible verses spring up into you head, seemingly unbidden, at important moments. I spent the bulk of my childhood, teenage, and early adult years memorizing and hoarding Bible verses. From AWANAS, to my entire church memorizing whole books and lengthy passages together, to the endless stream of verses I had to replicate on quizzes every week in college, those are still at my fingertips.

It struck me yesterday as I was again trying to figure out what the hell Christians mean by “God’s voice speaking to them” that it’s probably nothing more significant than that. The Bible is sprinkled with apparent directives to memorize it— to write Scripture on the “tables of your heart,” and we do it because those verses are supposed to be helpful. In a moment when we’re faced with temptation, if we have God’s Word at our fingertips we’ll have the strength to defeat it. If we need to make an important decision, we’ll be impalpably guided by those verses.

It’s not that I don’t think that Scripture can be a guide, a reference point, or that it can’t be helpful. It’s a beautiful library, rich with human experience and wisdom of all kinds. I still — mostly– appreciate having so much of it knocking around inside of my head, even if it is all in Elizabethan English. And maybe it’s a good thing so many of us endeavor to make our sacred religious text a primary touchstone for our lives.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean that every time a Bible verse comes to mind that it’s God directly using that to speak to us. I memorize things easily, so I also have a lot of song lyrics and movie quotes at my disposal, and those have always come up as often as Bible verses in my walkaday life.

The problem with believing that every time a Bible verse comes floating out of long-term memory (and yes, I just saw Inside Out so I’m referencing that) is that it’s coming to us not just with the verse, but with the sermons we’ve heard about the verse, the interpretations we have about that verse. If it is God, it’s not just God– it’s our culture, our lives, the way we’ve recorded our experiences, the ways our recollection is shaped and molded over time.

I’ve gotten to the point when I can hear a phrase like God’s justice rolling down like the watersfrom Amos 5:24– and I’m not cringing away from it. It doesn’t have associations with God’s wrath and judgment. I used to hear that and picture a flood washing away a city, with dogs and children being air-lifted away from rooftops. Now, I see the way a river like the Nile or the Jordan enriches a land, how they make it possible for life to grow, for people to to thrive on their banks. That shift happened because my way of thinking about that verse shifted. My whole theological system surrounding a concept like “justice” transformed.

Nothing about those words, that verse, changed. I changed. There’s new meaning in that verse for me– it’s one of my favorites, now. But today I know better than to confuse how I understand a verse with God’s voice.

photo by Andres MH
I Kissed Dating Goodbye
Feminism

I Kissed Dating Goodbye review: 187-208

We made it all the way through to the end of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. He ends it better than some of the other books I’ve reviewed– there’s an actual summation and conclusion at the end of it, and he wraps it up in a way that makes it feel finished. Considering the number of non-fiction books I’ve read that just sort of meander their way to an ending before finally sputtering out, this is actually an accomplishment.

One of the interesting things that jumped out to me is that he finishes it like he opens it: with the assertion that he’s not really trying to tell us exactly how to “date” or “court” … but then he says that his way actually is God’s way. See here:

I hope to give a broad outline of how a God-honoring relationship can unfold … just as a one-of-a-kind snowflake can only form at a specific temperature and precipitation, a God-honoring romance can only form when we follow godly patterns and principles. (187)

We need new attitudes– values that are shaped by Scripture and a radically God-centered view of romance. (188)

I think these seasons can help us develop godly romantic relationships. (189)

The new pattern we’ve discussed is only an outline. As with anything, a couple can manipulate it to fulfill on the minimum requirements. (202)

All of these statements come with some sort of caveat in the surrounding text, like “every relationship is different, blah blah blah,” but an important thing to note is that when a fundamentalist says that, and then follows it up with “but my way is God-honoring and godly,” (like Joshua does a half dozen times), they don’t really mean it. It makes them sound like they’re reasonable and accommodating, but they’re not. His way honors God, and your way doesn’t. There’s not a lot of room for argument against that in fundamentalist culture.

Another pattern of this last section is the way he’s forcing everything to fit under a complementarian view of the world. He likes the term courtship instead of dating not because he finds an antiquated approach to the “marriage market” more biblical, but because it invokes a sense of chivalry (188). Chivalry, like I make clear at the link, is benevolent sexism that relies on sexist perceptions of women as being “weak” and needing “protection.” It should surprise no one that Joshua holds to this attitude, but it comes out in some interesting ways:

[Clearly defining the purposes of the relationship] specifically applies to the guys, who I believe should be the ones to “make the first move.” Please don’t misunderstand this as a chauvinistic attitude … the Bible clearly defines the importance of a man’s spiritual leadership in marriage, and I believe part of that leadership should begin in this season of the relationship. (196)

Oh, I’m not misunderstanding anything. Chauvinism is the belief that men are superior to women, and by saying that men are the ones who are the ones who lead, the ones who are obeyed, the ones who are submitted to for no other reason besides their gender, you are asserting that men are superior to women. I’m sick of complementarians refusing to own this. They know it’s bad, they know that it’s wrong, but they want to get all the benefits of patriarchy without copping to it.

There’s also this:

A young man out to show respect for the person responsible for the girl. If that means approaching her pastor or grandfather, do it. (197)

This is supposedly to take place once the people involved are at a life stage where considering marriage and setting up their own independent household is a mature decision, but Joshua just assumes that there will be a man in the young woman’s life who is “responsible” for her, as in she cannot make decisions on her own or take care of herself independently. In fact, in the last chapter, Joshua criticizes his mother for being too “head-strong” and “independent” at the time she met his father (205). Also notice the “man/girl” language that he’s using again. This is a small, linguistic illustration of Joshua’s belief that men are superior. Men are automatically more mature and capable than “girls.”

Also, when Handsome and I were dating, one of the things we settled on in the early days was that we weren’t going to consider anything “serious” until we’d been together for a year. That didn’t last, and it didn’t last because I was the one who said, after six months, that I wanted to become more committed. I brought it up to talk about it first– and after we talked about it together, we agreed. He proposed two months later, and we got married after dating for eleven months (I don’t recommend this for everyone, but it worked for us).

I can’t even imagine a scenario where two people are ready to consider marriage where the woman isn’t even responsible for herself and is dependent on the men in her life to tell her where to go and what to do and who to date and when to get married. It’s ridiculous.

The last section is dedicated to laying out what Joshua calls “the seasons of the relationship”:

  1. Casual friendship
  2. Deeper friendship
  3. Courtship
  4. Engagement

He obviously thinks this approach is a healthy, appropriate, and mature, and I disagree because his approach has the couple moving “beyond” or “past” friendship once they reach stage three. To him, once “romance” has entered the picture, something fundamental about the relationship shifts. Friendship isn’t intimate, friendship can’t be romantic.

I don’t think this is a healthy view of either romance or friendship. I’m within sight of thirty years old, and the lasting friendships I have are still there because of relational intimacy. We know each other extremely well– we can predict each other’s sentences, opinions, reactions. We understand our life stories, the complicated set of events and personality that make up who we are. We’ve let down walls and boundaries that keep acquaintances at arm’s length, and that comes with risk.

These sorts of relationships are rare, but they’re incredibly important. And when I look over the past few years with Handsome, I know I decided to marry him first of all because he is my friend. I wanted to move into the same house as him, talk to him every day, because of friendship. There’s very little that separates my relationship with him from my relationships with close friends– he’s just my best friend, the person I decided I was the most compatible with. There’s romance on top of that, and I’m in love with him, but that’s icing on top of our friendship cake. We enjoy the same books, the same movies, the same video games. We live life at the same pace. We have similar communication styles. We value and prioritize the same things.

The same can be said, to a lesser degree, of those I consider my friends.

Joshua envisions a life-partner relationship as being fundamentally different from friendship, as though married people have a completely different way of interacting with each other than friends do. This is probably due to the fact that he’s never been in a serious relationship, let alone married, but I’m not entirely sure that his perspective has changed much, even though he’s married now– and I think that’s because of complementarianism.

In a friendship, the man doesn’t have an automatic trump card. In a friendship, there’s no requirement for the woman to obey and submit. In a friendship, there’s no hierarchy, no authority, no spiritual headship.

Friendship implies equality.

In the end, I think that’s the saddest thing about I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Joshua seems like a decent, earnest young person. I think he would appreciate all the benefits of an egalitarian marriage, of having a competent and capable life-partner by his side, who can support him and challenge him… but he doesn’t think that anyone can have that, especially not him.

***

Next up, I’m going to be reviewing Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love. I haven’t read it before, and it’s my first fiction review on the blog, so we’ll see how that goes. Dani Kelley has some introductory notes on it, and there’s an excellent long-form review by Lindsay, so if you’re not familiar with Redeeming Love those are two good places to start. There’s also the option of reading it along with me and having a book club-style discussion in the comments. Since it’s fiction, there will be a lot more room for interpretation.

If doing a fiction review pans out, I’m thinking of digging into some of Christian culture’s favorites, like oh say The Drums of Change by Janette Oke or The Princess by Lori Wick. Let me know if that’s something y’all’d be interested in.

book haul
Social Issues

stuff I’ve been into: June edition

The picture for this post is of the book haul Handsome and I brought home from our county library book sale– which is “The Event of the Year” as far as anyone down here is concerned.

Articles

I’m a big fan of the Washington Post— I read it fairly consistently, and I love that they run pieces like “For the poor in the Ivy League, a full ride isn’t always what they imagined” by Nick Anderson fairly often. This one was especially good because it puts to bed the tired argument that minority/poor students can just “get scholarships” to solve their problems. Sure, you might have your tuition covered, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can buy food, or textbooks. Heaven forbid you want to major in a STEM field, where the textbooks are constantly updated and can cost hundreds of dollars.

I’ve been reading the blog-zine Women in Theology for several years, and I recommend them in general– they’re one of the reasons why I’m going to seminary. “A Reasonable Violence: Why the Third Way is the Worst Way” by Amaryah Shaye is a good example of the work they do. I’ve shared my own opinion on the “Third Way” perspective before, and Amaryah’s argument, I believe, is incredibly compelling. I kept wanting to grab a few pullquotes, but all of it is just too good.

My friend and colleague, Sarah Jones, wrote “The Strange Story of Sewanee, the KKK, and a Franklin County Gay/Straight Alliance” for Scalawag and it’s fully worth a read. bell hooks first coined the phrase white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy — and while it’s certainly a mouthful, it elucidates the reality we all unthinkingly live in: that misogyny, racism, homophobia are all tied up in each other. Each oppressive system perpetuates the others.

This is Why we have Women-Only Spaces, and I Don’t Want to Hear Your Complaints” by Clementine Ford wrestles with the impossible-to-meet demands women face that constantly contradict each other. I think the thesis of her piece is here:

The only conclusion I’ve been able to draw from this is that women, despite being constantly told what we MUST do to avoid danger, are actually not allowed to be in control of what those preventative actions might look like.

Bust can be a hit-or-miss feminist magazine for me, just like Jezebel and a few others– but “Why ADHD is a Feminist Issue and What Happens when its Overlooked” by S.B. Casteñeda is short, but excellent, and is a good introduction to this issue. Girls also tend to be under-diagnosed for a lot of things, like autism, and we need to keep demanding that the medical establishment corrects its misogynistic bias.

The Reluctant Memoirist” by Suki Kim is probably one of the best things I’ve read this month. She’s an investigative reporter, but yet when she tried to share her investigative journalism on North Korea — one of the most badass things I’ve ever heard of — it got billed as “memoir.” Argh gablargh. Anyway, you should read it. She’s a lot more eloquent than “argh gablargh.”

Bitch magazine, unlike Bust or Jezebel, is a publication I have a lot of respect for. When I saw that Kameron Hurley– one of my favorite authors– seriously, go read The Mirror Empire right now–had written “In Defense of Unlikable Women” for them I squeed. It’s one of the essays from her book The Geek Feminist Revolution which I’m going to buy as soon as I’m able. Two of her women characters in Mirror Empire are everything she’s arguing for in this piece, and they’re some of the best-written “unlikable women” I’ve ever encountered in literature. If you think I’m trying to get y’all to become Kameron Hurley fans– you’re right.

Books

As I mentioned above, I brought home a literal trunk-full of books from our library’s book sale, and I’ve been tearing through them. I picked up The Magician’s Apprentice by Trudi Canavan and enjoyed it so much I bought her other two trilogies in the same universe– The Black Magician trilogy and the Traitor Spy trilogy. She has an interesting plotting style, and I enjoyed the pacing of her books. Traitor Spy has a bisexual woman and a lesbian as two of the main characters, and they get a happy ending. No Bury Your Gays here. Black Magician has a side-ish/main-ish character who realizes he’s gay toward the end, and he become a main character in Traitor Spy, and wheeee I’m so happy when I read books that resonate with my lived experiences. Made me realize how tiring it can be to read about exclusively straight characters the rest of the time.

I also grabbed all of Karen Miller’s books from the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker universe. She’s a genuinely good fantasy writer, and I’m really enjoying them, but I do have one complaint: in a world where the main religious icon is a woman, you’d think there’d be other women in the books. There’s four women total in The Awakened Mage. Innkeepers, servants, stable hands, secretaries, guildmasters, guards, teachers … they are all men. The only exception is the queen, the princess, one woman who shows up for a few pages during a court hearing, and the main character’s friend. It’s frustrating that even in a fantasy novel written by a woman, the male gender is treated as the default.

I also read The Black Jewels trilogy by Anne Bishop in basically a single sitting because I’m a complete sucker for books written about insanely powerful women; but, I will warn you that while the second two books are decently entertaining, there is a lot of sexual violence in the first book– Daughter of the Blood. And I mean a lot– against women and men and the main character, who’s a child in the first book. It’s a complicated system to explain, but there’s a lot of gender essentialism and then there’s the interesting little factoid that a woman can be “broken” on her “Virgin Night” and lose her magical powers. The same is not true of men, although I think this might have been Anne’s attempt to balance out the fact that women tend to be magically stronger than the men. But …  bleh. Anyway, truly entertaining books and I liked how they referenced vampires and gargoyles without specifically invoking those archetypes … but yeah. Complicated feelings. The next two books respond to the sexual violence the main characters endured delicately and appropriately– Anne doesn’t ignore the trauma or its consequences, and there’s an organic healing process, but, like I said … it’s complicated.

I also read the Selection series by Kiera Cass, which is in that young-adult dystopian genre with the interesting twist that it’s about royalty. Again, I’m a sucker for princess-themed books, so I read them all. Not the best in the genre I’ve read, but cute. There’s four books and I think it probably should have just been two, but I understand the rationale of stretching it out a bit for younger readers.

***

I’m throwing a barbecue this weekend that I’m very excited about– hence why you’re getting a “stuff I’ve been into” post. I wish everyone a very jolly weekend, and if you’re an American citizen, happy Independence Day!

I Kissed Dating Goodbye
Feminism

I Kissed Dating Goodbye review: 165-186

“Ready for the Sack but Not for the Sacrifice” &
“What Matters at Fifty?”

We’re in the last section of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, titled “Looking Ahead,” and if you were tired of an unmarried, not-even-dating high school graduate lecturing you about your love life, then you’re just going to love this section because it’s about marriage. So, jumping right in with Joshua’s assertion that young people have an unrealistic view of what that is:

These people thing of married life as one grand, thrilling moment after another– the everyday, mundane parts of marriage are safely edited from the picture. (166)

Le sigh.

I’ve only been married three years, but, so far, the “everyday, mundane” parts are the “thrilling” parts. Cooking while he loads the dishwasher. Watching TV or readings books out loud to each other. Going on walks. Making household decisions, like choosing which garbage pickup service we want. Maybe I won’t feel like this in ten years, but for now, the times when I’m the happiest, the most content, are those simple moments.

Also, do none of these “many young adults” have parents? I spent 20+ years watching my parents be married, and while I didn’t have an inside-out understanding of what being married is like, I certainly wasn’t expecting rainbows and unicorns. I love being married, 15/10 would recommend, but I knew going in that I, as a human being, was going to be living with another human being.

He then moves on to define “what marriage is,” relying on Love that Lasts by the Ricuccis (considering Carolyn Mahaney wrote the foreward, I think this is a book written by people at his church). He (and the Ricuccis) argue that “Marriage depicts the supernatural union between Jesus and the church” (168) which… yes. Marriage is one metaphor for that relationship in Scripture.

But so are grape vines, and architecture, and armies. The metaphor is a beautiful one, even powerful– something I understood better once I was married to a wonderful person– but it is just a metaphor. American Christian culture has idolized marriage, and one of the ways they’ve done it is through over-literalizing one metaphor among many. It was convenient for them to perpetuate a whole set of cultural conceptions and roles, so they took advantage of it.

The last few pages of this chapter turn into a dumpster fire, though:

As quickly as possible, we must dispel any selfish notions that marriage is about what we can get instead of what we can give. (171)

No, Joshua, it is about both. I “get” a patient, compassionate husband who carries me when I can’t walk, who helps me clean our home when I want to entertain even though he’d almost rather be a hermit, who says “let’s get takeout” when I don’t have the energy to cook. I give my love of research (on grills, washing machines, lawn mowers, cars…), my enthusiasm and hope, my willingness to handle all those grown-up calls we have to make to water companies and medical insurers.

People who aren’t “getting” anything while “giving” everything are in unstable, unbalanced, and unhealthy relationships. If you’re not “getting” anything from your life partner, it is a problem that needs to be addressed and corrected.

And then here’s the dumpster fire. Joshua is quoting from by Ann Landers, written in 1967:

…Marriage is giving– and more important, it’s forgiving.
And it is almost always the wife who must do these things.
Then, as if that were not enough, she must be willing to forget what she forgave… (171)

and this one by who he says was written by Lena Lathrop (it wasn’t; it’s by Mary Lathrap), penned before 1895:

…You require a cook for your mutton and beef,
I require a far greater thing;
A seamstress you’re wanting for socks and shirts–
I look for a man and a king … (173)

I have ugggghhhh scrawled over the margins here. Gender roles from the 60s and the Victorian era were all the rage in the culture I shared with Joshua, and it’s both hilarious and sad that he read the Lathrap poem and thought it was some kind of encouragement to young women to “keep their standards high” (174). These are just a few lines from the whole poems he quotes, but both place the tasks of drudgery and long-suffering on the women. Men get to be kings, get to have all their faults and foibles not only forgiven but forgotten, while women are perfectly content to be cooks and seamstresses if only their husbands are “kings.”

Just … ugh.

***

So far in I Kissed Dating Goodbye, it’s been obvious that Joshua has been trying to write something resembling gender parity. If he says something negative about women as a gender, he then attempts to say something disparaging about men as a gender. In my opinion the attempts fail because he can’t acknowledge the patriarchal system that is his bread and butter, but in chapter fourteen he just clear gives up:

When I meet a beautiful girl and I’m tempted to be overly impressed by her external features, I try to imagine what this girl will look like when she’s fifty years old … This girl may be young and pretty now, but what happens when the beauty fades? … When pregnancies and stretch marks and the years add extra pounds … (175-76)

This is nothing but misogyny, and it’s a point of view that’s reinforced by the Bible, which Joshua quotes from: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting” (176).

Beauty is not fleeting; nor is it tied to youthfulness, thinness, or a lack of stretch marks. Not every person meets our white supremacist, misogynist society’s “standards” for beauty, but I know I’m not the only person who is capable of seeing beauty in every person, young or old, fat or thin. The way my mother-in-law’s eyes sparkle when she’s feeling mischievous. The delight that lights up my mother’s entire face until it feels like I’m looking at sunshine. The way my father’s face crinkles when he’s so proud of his children he could burst. The easy suppleness in the way my partner walks. The elegance in her hands when my sister-in-law is painting, the way my sister’s lips curl when she’s feeling especially fierce.

All of those are breathtakingly beautiful to me. Joshua’s view of “beauty” is so shallow and insipid it makes me sick.

The rest of the chapter is dedicated to laying out the qualities we should all look for in a mate. Because someone who thinks a fifty-year-old woman can’t be beautiful is definitely someone we should listen to about this. He places everything under two major headings, “character,” and “attitude,” and then chops those up into easily digestible bits.

How a Person Relates to God

Two brief things: first, people who aren’t Christians can have wonderful marriages. Secondly:

“It’s obvious when he really loves the Lord,” my friend Sarah said. “When he’s telling you about his love for God, you can tell he’s not distracted by you.” (178)

Bullshit. My ex could absolutely not shut up about how much he loved God, and how much he desired to serve God and become a missionary. Virtually everyone he knew would talk about how he was “on fire” for God until the cows came home. Didn’t stop him from being an abuser and a rapist. How a person “relates to God” is not something you can even begin to understand until you’ve been through life with them.

How a Person Relates to Others

The most important thing to note about this section is what he thinks is the most important and least important: how your potential significant other interacts with “the authorities” comes first, and whether or not they’re a jerk to their friends comes dead last (178-79). In his paragraph on “authorities” he makes it clear that a woman who “can’t respect a teacher’s authority will have difficulty honoring her husband.” I’ve had difficult respecting some teacher’s authority for a variety of reasons. They were bullies, or just incompetent. Just because someone is an authority doesn’t mean they automatically deserve respect. But, according to Joshua, exercising my judgment means I’m not good wifely material.

To me, the first thing that stood out to me about Handsome was that he’s empathetic. Truly understanding others is essential to his character; compassion and kindness are his first instincts in his relationships. Because I’ve gotten to know him, compassion is now a character trait I value in all my friendships. However, he has no regard for authority because they’re authority. He treats everyone with respect, but if you hurt someone it doesn’t matter to him what power you hold. This is one of the best and most wonderful things I love about him.

Personal Discipline

He spends almost two pages basically saying that we can’t be slutty (“flirtatious”) or get fat, and if we do, it’s a sign of bad character. Awesome.

An Attitude of Humility

He asks the men reading his book to observe how she “responds to conflict” in her family, and the only metric men need to use is whether or not we’re “humble enough to share blame” (182). This a tactic abusers use– the whole “it takes two to tango” idea, that it’s impossible for conflict to arise without more than one person contributing.

Often, that could be true. Most of the tense moments in my marriage come because we’re both doing something. But sometimes one person is grumpy and taking it out on the other, and there’s no equal share of blame to go around. The grumpy person needs to quit it. Sure, the other person can help by being sympathetic and understanding, but they are not to blame.

***

He finishes off the chapter by returning to “beauty,” this time emphasizing how “the spirit that lights up her sparkling eyes will still be young, vibrant, and alive” (186). It’s a rehashing of the tired trope that “beauty is more than skin deep,” but he’s still associating it with youth!

These were a couple frustrating chapters. But, good news, we’re almost done. I can’t wait to kiss this bloody book goodbye.

plant in a pot
Theology

what Christians mean when they say I’m “bitter”

My great-grandfather was stationed in the Aleutian Islands during WWII. He told us a lot of stories about living there– like being trapped inside the mess hall once because a moose was standing out in the street and no sane person screws around with a moose— but one of the tidbits that stuck out to me the most was an interesting detail about their water. It wasn’t clear, and had a bitter taste to it. When he asked someone why, they explained that the pipes were made out of wood and plants had grown through them to get to the water. Those roots left an oily residue that caused the bitterness.

That was the mental image I carried with me any time I heard a Sunday school lesson or sermon on bitterness. Most often the speaker would turn to Hebrews 12:15 where it uses the phrase “root of bitterness,” and I would think about those wooden pipes in Alaska.

In my experience, “bitterness,” much like “sin,” is one of those terms that get tossed about in Christian culture without a clear, workable definition. In contrast to colloquial use, all those sermons and lessons were pretty consistent about what bitterness is: it’s “unforgiveness fermented.” It’s holding onto a hurt or slight long after you probably should have let it go. It’s resentment.

A while ago I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate reading all those posts and sermon transcripts I’ve linked to above because bitterness was being used, almost constantly, as a cudgel to beat me. I stopped thinking about bitterness entirely, stopped evaluating whether or not I was bitter– and it’s been one of the healthiest, most life-affirming decisions I’ve ever made. If someone called me bitter, I’d mentally shrug it off because I didn’t care whether or not I was bitter. If being “bitter” was what I needed in order to deal with the pain in my life, I was going to embrace it.

It’s been a few years since all that though– conservative Christians have mostly stopped reading my blog, so I’m not hearing “you’re just bitter” every day– and I’m willing to embrace the concept of bitterness again, because I think it can accurately describe something about the human experience. We’ve all had our encounters with people that bring up some incident from their past over and over again and rant about the injustice they faced because of it. Today, though, instead of being worried about whether or not their “well is poisoned,” I acknowledge that I don’t understand their life. Maybe, when they’re talking about that one incident that seems inconsequential to me, it’s emotionally emblematic of how the entire relationship they had with that person was toxic. Maybe they need to hold on to that one moment because it’s a clear reminder to them that what happened to them wasn’t their fault, that they weren’t to blame for the abuse they suffered.

I can’t know either way, so I don’t concern myself with other people’s “bitterness” or lack of it. I know that I often return to a handful of stark moments– highlights that prove I was coerced, that he raped me. In the dark times when the whispers say you’re lying, you’re exaggerating, you’re to blame I point to that moment when I was flat on my back on filthy carpet begging him to stop.

That’s not bitterness. It’s coping. It’s hope.

Bitterness can happen to people. It’s not our job to evaluate how or why, but I think we can self-reflect and say y’know what, self, I think we can let go of that now. It’s done it’s job, and we can have peace about it. I think those moments of self-honesty are important, but they’re yours, and yours alone. It’s no one’s job to tell you when it’s an appropriate time to “let it go,” or “forgive.” You get to decide when all by yourself. For me, the answer for some people is “never”– in the sense that absolution is not mine, cannot be mine, to bestow.

Because, in the end, that’s what it seems many Christians mean when they say you’re just bitter. They mean that you haven’t absolved someone of their guilt, that you haven’t personally allowed the consequences to evaporate. In everyday Christian parlance, “forgiveness” has been confused with “absolution,” and the fact that we’re even daring to speak about an injustice or wrong means we haven’t forgiven them. That’s proof positive that we’re bitter. Heaven help us if we’re still angry about what happened while we’re speaking out.

But, most often, it seems like they’re not even talking about absolution and my refusal to not hand it out like candy. Most often, “you’re just bitter” is evangelical shorthand for “you’re criticizing something I believe is right.”

This insight revealed itself last week when a commenter on my post about the Pulse shooting told me that he’d gone back to read several of my recent posts and had concluded that I was “just bitter” and then preached a sermon at me about it. I responded light-heartedly, all the while thinking whaaaa? How could he have read my recent posts and concluded from those that I’m bitter? I went back and re-read all the ones it was obvious he was referring to, and suddenly what he meant by bitter was as plain as the nose on my face.

It meant that I disagreed with him, and that wasn’t allowed.

And it didn’t even matter how I disagreed. In some posts I was sympathetic, gracious, charitable, kind. In others– like the one where Joshua Harris described gay men as “those people are so sick!” — I said the words “this makes me angry” and “I’m furious” and that meant that I’m bitter. I disagreed. I disagreed and expressed my emotions, no less.

A woman? Expressing her opinion *gasp* forcefully?! That is not to be borne! Quick, call her bitter!

In the past three years I’ve had a lot of Christians call me bitter, and it only happens when I’m criticizing an issue they happen to think is “correct” or “biblical.” In the early days of my blog when I was mostly just chronicling my life growing up in a deeply abusive church, I had several regular readers who considered themselves conservative Christians, even fundamentalist. I was describing something they could condemn right along with me– pastors abusing congregations, Sunday school teachers telling us to essentially self-flagellate, evangelists being horrifically racist– but then I started critiquing positions they held, and suddenly I was bitter.

The first time it happened, it came from someone I considered a personal friend. She’d been cheering on my writing for the first few months, but when I turned from talking about my specific church background and directed some of my criticisms toward fundamentalism in general, she lost it. She de-friended me on Facebook, accused me “divisiveness” on top of being bitter, and declared she’d never read my blog again.

Don’t let the door hit ya, I thought, but it kept happening. Friends, colleagues, readers, they all started calling me “bitter” once I’d started making the connections, started talking about systems, started explaining to others what spiritual abuse looks like in a big-picture, top-down way.

They loved my blog as long as they got to use it to say “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican!” As long as they got to point to how bad other Christians were, they were happy. The second I said, “well, actually, this thing you do is also pretty bad,” all they had to do was accuse me of being “bitter.”

It’s an “in-group signifier,” used to police their borders and boundaries. It’s a tool used to destroy credibility– they’re linguistically stringing caution tape around my blog, to warn off other Christians like them. “This woman here is bitter, you can ignore what she says. No self-reflection necessary.”

Photo by Craig Sunter