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SamanthaField

Feminism

Men Prefer Uneducated, Naïve Objects They Can Easily Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori is right. My church was right.

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

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

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

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Uncategorized

if the biblical canon were open …

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

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

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

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

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

***

Shepherd of Hermas

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

Revelations of Divine Love

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

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

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

The Prophetic Imagination

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

The Cross and the Lynching Tree

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

In Memory of Her

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

Daring Greatly

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

Mister Rogers Neighborhood

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

***

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

Photo by Ryan Hyde
Social Issues

World History and Cultures: Foundations

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

Inaccuracies:

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

Wild Assertions:

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

Assumptions:

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Well… that certainly explains a lot.

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

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

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

***

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

We need to talk about “kind.”

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

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

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

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

They are arguing that different human races exist.

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

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

***

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

And this is just the first chapter.

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

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

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Art by Nicolas Raymond
Social Issues

World History and Cultures: the Review Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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Art by Nicolas Raymond
Feminism

Redeeming Love: the abuser wins

Plot summary:

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy shit.

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

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

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

“I could’ve said no.”

“Did you know that then?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

 

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

 

Theology

disappointment is the guide to happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

I’m grateful.

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

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

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

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

Photography by Peter Toporowski
Feminism

Redeeming Love: moral relativity

Content note: child sexual assault, discussions of sexual violence

Plot summary:

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God told Michael to kidnap her.

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

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

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

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

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

This is when I started crying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Feminism

Redeeming Love: A Year in the Life

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

Plot Summary:

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

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

***

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

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

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

and this one:

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Everything about this section is eyeroll inducing.

Theology

for Thanos so loved the world

Note: lots of spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he didn’t.

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

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

Image belongs to Marvel Studios
Theology

smashing the church patriarchy

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

And I’ve noticed a pattern.

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

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

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

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

I’m not sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photography by Allison Matherly