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Theology

the purpose of prayer

I don’t understand prayer. I don’t understand what it is, or what it’s supposed to do, well, theologically. The traditional understanding of prayer that I was given as a child and young adult doesn’t make sense to me any longer. I was taught that prayer is a combination of a) something we’re supposed to do for God just because, b) a conversation where two people get to know one another, and c) the means we have for asking our deity for things.

None of those ideas work in the same way for me anymore. The idea that God requires us to worship Them in specific ways like prayer or church attendance screams social construct to me– and again, not because social constructs aren’t important or “real,” but because I’ve come to think that Christianity is not the only way of understanding the Divine. It’s the faith system I’ve chosen, but that doesn’t make it The Only True Religion. My religion uses a specific form of prayer as part of our worship, but that’s not nearly as concrete to me as it once was. I can worship God in a variety of ways, and the primary form I’ve chosen to do that is love their sheep.

Reason #2 illuminates one of the ways I’ve always been a skeptic: even as a child the idea that prayer was “getting to know Jesus by talking to him” seemed an incredibly bogus claim. First, a conversation requires two active participants and no one was claiming that Jesus swung by for afternoon tea to chat about the weather. Second, I clearly wasn’t “getting to know Jesus” and if God already knows me the way an omniscient being would, then prayer wasn’t a means for God to know me, either. I’ve never been able to think of prayer as having a conversation with God. Maybe I talked and they listened, but that felt … frustrating. Even therapists don’t spend 100% of their time in silence listening to me talk.

What seems to be the primary function and utility of prayer for the vast majority of American Christians is to ask God for things, and that’s the biggest part I struggle with. Even Jesus’ model for prayer includes this: give us this day our daily bread is pretty clearly a request. This aspect of prayer has created theological problems for Christians for millennia because they’ve struggled to comfortably answer “why didn’t God answer my prayer?” People aren’t saved from sickness or poverty or abuse or battle all of the time, and this flies in the face of biblical promises. Jesus in Matthew 7 seems pretty blunt: “Ask, and it will be given you.” Obviously this doesn’t happen, so either Jesus has been widely misinterpreted there or he was wrong/misrepresented.

I’ve read a lot of books trying to get answers to these questions. C.S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer was not as helpful as I was hoping, and while Gregory Boyd’s Benefit of the Doubt helped me articulate a lot of the problems I was having with the typical articulation of prayer and faith, it didn’t really settle any questions on what prayer is.

One answer that has been somewhat satisfying is the idea that prayer in Christianity was intended to function a bit like meditation in other religions. There’s a long Christian tradition of contemplative prayer, or lectio divina, as well as forms like centering prayer advocated by Thomas Merton. I think it’s possible that humans need some practice like this in our lives, physically and emotionally. Stress can cause so many health problems, and taking some time to de-stress, whatever that looks like for us, seems important. Prayer being a religious practice is significant to me: people thought taking the time to meditate, to sit in the silences and just be, so important that they made it a part of the Christian religion. It all sort of got hijacked, though, and then American religious conservatives threw in a heavy dose of yellow-peril racism (“meditation is inviting demons to possess you”) so now it’s harder to have conversations about these historic forms of prayer without people getting panicky about “Eastern Mysticism.”

In spite of all that, I and some of my colleagues have openly embraced the idea of prayer-as-meditation and have replaced “prayer time” in our “devotionals” with meditation apps. I spend a lot of time studying the Bible and theology, and I spend some time contemplating or meditating. I’m learning to enjoy the act of quietness, and hopefully it’s something I’ll be able to continue in September once my life gets hectic again. I don’t have solitary “prayer” anymore, and I think my life is better for it.

The one truly valuable thing I have discovered about prayer recently is in its communal aspects. I meet with a small group/book club every week, and we still formally share prayer requests at the beginning of our discussions. For a while I was doing it simply out of habit– we’re Christians sitting in a circle getting together to talk about a religious book, of course we’re going to take prayer requests. Over time, though, I realized that this action was doing something incredibly important.

For 15-30 minutes every week, everyone gets to share what’s on their mind and heart with a group of people whose only job is to listen. It’s not a problem solving session, and while common experiences and advice might get shared that’s often absent or not the point. The entire point is that a person gets to share what they care about, or what troubles them without interruption– and they’re doing it in the context of the belief that this moment of vulnerability is sacred. Each week, I’m asking them to care about what I care about, and the response is always unanimous: yes, we care. Yes, we will listen for as long as you need. Yes, we will bring this to God. You’re important, you matter, and not just in a metaphorical sense. We will purposely set aside time and space to listen to your heart.

That’s a pretty incredible thing we’re doing, and it occurred to me that we don’t often see it occur naturally in other sorts of interactions. Usually the closest thing only happens with intimate friends or family, people that we trust quite a bit. But in the context of sharing prayer requests, there’s a formal method we all follow, and it’s been culturally ingrained into a lot of us. Create a sacred time and space for people to talk, and others to offer comfort. My small group is intentional about it, and there are a few rules in place to help prevent some of the abuses we’ve all experienced through “prayer time” at other churches. Nothing ever gets shared or talked about outside the group without express permission, and anything that gets shared in that time will never be weaponized against us later. We’ve acknowledged that what we do can only be done in trust, and we literally hold that trust as sacred.

So, long story short, I don’t understand what prayer does between me and God– but I do think I’m starting to understand what prayer does for me personally and my friends communally. If the only actual purpose of prayer is to get us to really listen to each other and form a community based on trust, then perhaps it’s worth doing whether or not it makes perfect sense.

Photo by Michael Dorausch
Theology

why Christians can’t trust psychology

At PCC, one of the classes I had to take was “Educational Psychology,” and I was initially puzzled that PCC had a class like that, let alone required every education major to take it. The world I grew up in has a deep, deep distrust of psychology– I can’t even number the times I heard it referred to as as a pseudoscience, like there’s no more truth in psychology than there is in phrenology. There’s an entire cottage industry inside conservative Christianity for “biblical” or “nouthetic” counseling as an alternative to secular therapy methods, which I strongly recommend everyone avoid.

When I got into the class, though, the confusion evaporated. The only “textbook” we were going to read for the class was called Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology, and the class only covered two topics: why every psychological theory about education is wrong, and how to emotionally abuse children in a classroom setting (which they called “classroom discipline”). Unfortunately, it was a class I did extremely well in.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog talking about Christian culture’s aversion to psychology– there’s a fivepart series on “biblical counseling” and an entire review series on Tim LaHaye’s How to Win Over Depression. Most of that time has been spent trying to show how that point of view is at odds with the evidence: therapy is helpful and can be an incredibly healing experience, while the “methods” that nouthetic “counselors” pursue have been demonstrated to merely re-traumatize victims and cause even more harm.

However, many Christians are willing to speak at length about why they don’t trust psychology, and most of it revolves around how they think it’s impossible to treat spiritual problems — because all mental health issues are of course really spiritual problems– without recognizing the Truth. Psychology, they say, tries to tell us that we’re fine and good and we just need to talk things out, while the Truth of the matter is that we’re not fine and we’re most definitely not good and we need repentance, not therapy.

Interestingly, I’ve never really addressed this claim. I’ve largely ignored it, because I was trying to show that Christians can benefit from therapy, and that the nouthetic approach to “counseling” is damaging and dangerous. However, the more I learn about psychology and therapy, the more I realize that these Christians are right to identify psychology as a threat to their faith system. Modern psychology and therapeutic techniques are fundamentally at odds with evangelical and fundamentalist theology.

I’m hardly the first person to notice this. Most of the Christians I knew growing up have been shouting about this as long as I’ve been alive or could remember. I just didn’t really see it the way they did. How could something capable of bringing healing and peace– backed up by rigorous study– be diametrically opposed to a theological system? All therapists are doing is helping us identify and respond to our emotions in a way that doesn’t cause more harm, and psychiatrists are just trying to find chemical imbalances so we can fix them. How is any of that opposed to Christianity?

And then I started looking into things like cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR, and encountered a concept known as negative and positive cognitions (link opens a PDF). As you can see, essentially every single “negative cognition”– the side of the chart that CBT/EMDR therapy methods are attempting to counteract with a “positive cognition”– is not just openly acknowledged by conservative Christianity but actively taught as essential doctrine. Evangelicalism is trying to get everyone to believe in the “negative cognition” side of the chart, while modern therapy wants the opposite.

I am a bad person. Mark 10:18, “no one is good.”
I am shameful. Isiah 64:6, we are “filthy rags” (or used feminine pads, עִדָּה means “menstruation“)
I deserve only bad things. … basically every verse interpreted as “you deserve hell’s damnation.”
My judgement cannot be trusted. Jeremiah 17:9, our heart is “deceitful” and “desperately wicked.”
I am not in control. I Chronicles 29:11-12, God is the “ruler of all things.”
I have to be perfect. Matthew 5:48,” be perfect as God is perfect.”
I am permanently damaged. Ephesians 2:1-3, we are “dead in our sin,” and wrathful “by nature.”
I am in danger. Hebrews 9:27, we are “appointed to die” and then face “judgement.”

All of the others from the chart are echoes of these, in my opinion, and I’m sure we could all sit down and think of many more verses that are used to badger us into believing that we are disgusting worms condemned by a mighty god to eternal torment. These are ideas identified by modern psychology as being harmful to our mental and emotional health, and should be overcome– and I agree. These are also just some of the theological foundations of the Christian evangelical and fundamentalist religion. The Sovereignty of God, Original Sin, and Eternal Conscious Torment … you can’t get any deeper into the bedrock of that theological system. Contradicting these also means that you’re contradicting another foundational idea: the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture.

I didn’t see this before. To me, therapy became just a helpful tool and equally as routine and normal as getting my blood pressure checked. I left behind fundamentalist teachings about psychology long before I started looking for secular therapy, so I didn’t realize how deeply it contradicted the faith system of my childhood. And because I started interacting with more “normal” evangelical Christians who also thought therapy was a good idea and “biblical counseling” is a load of poppycock, it didn’t really occur to me to examine how the fundamental assumptions of each might gainsay each other.

I take all of this as just another indication that American Christian evangelicalism and fundamentalism are unhealthy to their core. They do not promote mental, emotional, or spiritual well-being and instead lead to lifelong damage. A few years ago I adopted what I think was Jesus’ hermenuetic: a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. If an interpretation or application of Scripture leads to harming myself or others, it is bearing bad fruit and should not be considered a credible interpretation. Doctrines like eternal torment and original sin cause harm; therefore, they should be rejected. I will prefer readings and interpretations that prioritize love and justice–not empty, meaningless wrath and shame.

Theology

update on seminary

Today is a really high pain day (thanks fibromyalgia) and I have a migraine I’m having trouble kicking on top of it … so no Redeeming Love review today. I have a big week and I need to try to put myself back together a little bit. Instead I’d give you all a peek into what it’s like for me in seminary at the moment.

I’m taking two classes this semester– What is Religion and Social Analysis and Community Engagement. I’m excited about both so far, but it’s only a few weeks in so we’ll see if that feeling lasts beyond mid-terms.

For SACE, the big class project involves something called participatory action research— the description of it had so many buzz words I couldn’t help laughing because I had no idea what it really was. Then we read some work by Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, a latina theologian who is now one of my favorite people. I’m now in love with PAR, as it’s called, and I’ll be working with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice for my project. Depending on what happens with that, I might ask you to be involved with my class project– wouldn’t that be exciting? We’ve also talked a lot about #BlackLivesMatter (!!) and we’re reading a book called Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed— which is, so far, a truly enjoyable book to read as well as being inspiring.

What is Religion is one of the foundational seminary classes, and we got thrown into the deep end with Schubert Ogden’s “Theology and Religious Studies: Their Difference and the Difference It Makes.” That was … I think it was from that era in academia where if you didn’t obfuscate your writing you weren’t being scholarly enough or something. It was a little painful. But, after reading it three times I think the point he was making is an important one (theology isn’t just a massive case of special pleading, essentially).

We also turned in our first paper yesterday– a thesis proposal. It’s a little far out for me to be nailing down a thesis topic, but it’s going to be about something to do with Christian feminist ethics, so I went with it. We were required to put together a research bibliography, and I’m rather proud of it. I think it might also make an interesting reading list for anyone interested in Christian ethics, liberation theology ethics, sexual ethics, or feminist ethics. Since you’re here, reading my blog … chances are one of those is a topic of interest for you.

The bibliography is based on the paper’s requirement to demonstrate my awareness of and ability to interact with the “cultural and theological heritage” of my faith, so that’s why there’s Kant and Barth and Thomas Aquinas in there. It’s an attempt to incorporate the significant Christian ethicists in my tradition as well as pointing to all the significant and most relevant, formative texts in this particular sub-field. If anyone is noticing a huge gaping hole in this, feel free to point it out to me.

Barth, Karl. Ethics.

Cannon, Katie. Black Womanist Ethics.

Cone, James H. A Black Theology of Liberation.

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation.

Davis, Angela. The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues.

De La Torre, Miguel. Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins.

Farley, Margaret. Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.

Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins.

Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation.

Harrison, Beverly. Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion.

McInerny, Ralph. Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas.

Neibuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics.

Nelson, James B. Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology.

Parsons, Susan Frank. Feminism and Christian Ethics.

Simmons, Frederick and Brian Sorrells. Love and Christian Ethics: Tradition, Theory, and Society.

Sullivan, Roger J. An Introduction to Kant’s Ethics.

Welch, Sharon D. A Feminist Ethic of Risk, Communities of Resistance and Solidarity: A Feminist Theology of Liberation.

West, Traci C. Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter.

Bonus point for me: Embodiment was written by a professor at my seminary back in the day, and his work is one of the reasons why United is known for being one of the earliest LGBT-affirming seminaries in the country. United is also in the process of becoming a sanctuary school, and they released a statement opposing Trumperdink’s Muslim ban– just some of the many reasons why I’m happy I’m at this particular seminary right now.

I’m also taking on more work politically– I’m getting very involved with the local Democratic organization, as well as the organization that sprang out of Pantsuit Nation when the original founder decided to keep PN “story-based” (grr). It’s called Together We Will, now, and there’s local and state-level chapters of it, as well. It might be a group worth looking into if you want to be more active in your resistance to the regimeadministration.

Theology

book review: “Good Christian Sex” by Bromleigh McCleneghan

I’ve been doing this blogging thing for about three and a half years now, so I was a little surprised by how pleased I was when Harper asked if they could send me a copy of Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option–And Other Things the Bible Says about Sex by Bromleigh McCleneghan. Somehow, that signaled to me that I’d “made it” as a blogger, even though I’m still (quite happily) pretty small-time. Anyway, here’s my honest review in exchange for a free copy of the book.

***

When I first crack open the spine of a book like Good Christian Sex, the first place I turn to is the bibliography. When I got this book about a month ago I glanced over the materials she referenced, and at first was a little wary. There were a lot of pop culture references, a blog post I’ve occasionally been frustrated with, a smattering of male theologians, and a feminist author who makes a case for abstinence that I thoroughly disagree with. Looking over the table of contents made me feel a touch cautious, as well: there’s a chapter on vulnerability and another on fidelity, two concepts I’ve seen go completely sideways in Christian-oriented books.

So I was hesitant as I started reading, but quickly felt my ambivalence evaporate. Basically, if you like the things I’ve written about and spoken about regarding sex, you’re probably going to love Good Christian Sex. I heartily– and almost unreservedly– give my endorsement, which I think has happened basically never.

Broadly, what I love about it the most is its basic assumption and over-arching structure, which are a wonderful harmony of form and function. I’ve argued here, many times, that all our daily choices will inevitably be the outworking of our theology. What we believe about God and their Nature will affect our choices. If you think they’re a malevolent bully with a long list of Thou Shalt Nots, your faith and life will be fear-driven and all that entails. If, like me and Bromleigh, you believe that God is Love … well, you’re going to have an incredibly different outlook.

I love that she fully embraces this outworking. It’s clear that she’s asked the question How does “God is Love” affect our view of sexual ethics? and this book is the result. Every chapter has this motion– from the general to the particular, from the theological principle to the application. I love writing that has clear organization and flow, and Good Christian Sex didn’t disappoint.

***

Each chapter deals with its own particular topic, but they build on each other– not something that always happens in these shorter non-fiction works. What I appreciated the most was that she doesn’t flinch away from the challenges any more typical evangelical question would make when encountering her title.

I don’t want to spoil it too much, but she addresses the assumptions of the Augustinian-Platonic view of the Flesh and Spirit, and why that dualistic treatment is problematic. I appreciated that she discussed pleasure holistically before talking about pleasure in any sexual context. For many Christians, pleasure in and of itself is suspect, and she deals with that fundamental idea before moving on to desire– another thing that Christians have a long history of demonizing.

Her third chapter lays out a holistic relational and sexual ethic (one that includes LGBTQ people!), and she even managed to include some ideas that pleasantly surprised and challenged me, which I didn’t expect. I’m going to gush a little, but this chapter is basically my “Consent is Not Enough” post more fully fleshed out and in someone else’s words. I also think anyone struggling with the nonsense in I Kissed Dating Goodbye should pay special attention to her chapters on vulnerability and “A Theology of Exes,” which is an excellent argument against purity culture’s particular fears and insecurities.

The chapter on fidelity that I was fearing might sour me on the book shockingly didn’t. For my friends and readers who are poly– there’s room in there for you, and it helped me to frame some of the reservations and questions I’ve been having in a new light. I think that chapter might be, by itself, why I’m so excited about this book. It’s a layperson-accessible, non-scholarly book, and I learned something. That hasn’t happened in … a while.

***

I’m very hopeful for Good Christian Sex‘s future. It’s already going on to my list of “books to recommend to questioning people,” and I think I’ll be buying a few copies just to have on hand in case I can convince someone to read it. I think this book could be a good way to start a conversation with someone, because it so thoroughly answers the base questions that an abstinence and purity-oriented person would have. It acknowledges all the different assumptions we might have, and oh-so-gently and graciously offers a completely different way of seeing relationships and sex, built on a different model they may not be used to. I’d already made the leap to structuring my relationships — sexual and otherwise– on a foundation of respect and consent, but this book can take someone by the hand and lightly guide them to new way of outworking their faith.

Theology

a journey of unlearning

This is my first official paper for seminary. It’s for my hermenuetics class, answering the question “Who and what circumstances made me the kind of interpreter of religious texts that I am today?” A lot of this y’all have heard from me before, but I do mention a few concepts I haven’t talked about on the blog before, so if you have questions about anything I say here, feel free to ask– this was written for a man familiar with speech-act theory, after all. 🙂

***

When I was ten, my family moved to northwest Florida where we joined an Independent Fundamental Baptist church. For the next ten years we attend a church that began as unhealthy, turned toxic, and ultimately became a cult-like environment. Eventually I would attend a small fundamentalist school that was equally toxic and cult-like. Totalitarian control of our lives, especially our spiritual lives, became what I considered normal.

One of the best tools the “pastor” and the college administration used to control us was through our understanding of Scripture: what it is, how it functions, and how we are to understand it. I was taught that God preserved his Word for us, and that preserved word is the Bible, handed down to us through the “Received Texts” and translated for us into English in the Authorized Version. Not only did God preserve his Word in this manner, he also continually preserves it in our interpretations of it. Scripture will be foolish nonsense to the non-believer, but those who possess the Holy Spirit will be guided by God to a proper understanding of his Word. This is possible because of Inspiration and Inerrancy, and always results in believers comprehending the “plain meaning” of a text. We can read the Bible translated in English, devoid of any historical context or awareness of linguistic peculiarities, and arrive at a “correct” and “Spirit-led” understanding. In short, a person can rely on their status as a believer to justify any interpretation they make, for it is not really their interpretation at all.

After I graduated from college and my family had been excommunicated from our church, I finally had the opportunity to begin reassessing my framework for hermeneutics. That process began when I read God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson. Reading it was an illuminating experience, and I began questioning what I had been taught about “preservation.” I had been raised to revere the King James translators, and thought of them in the same terms as the Masoretes. I thought the 1611 translation had been a moment of divine intervention in history, a time when God brought the brightest minds of a generation together to accomplish his work on earth. Learning that the translators were just human, flawed men who politicked and lied, who were controlled by a monarch with political goals for his Bible, who sometimes misrepresented the words in order to create more beauty and poetry in English troubled me profoundly. I was forced to re-evaluate what it might mean for God to “preserve” his Word.

When I was in graduate school studying English, I was exposed to literary theory for the first time. The professor introduced us to a variety of approaches, from post-structuralism to phenomenology to psychoanalysis. One of the methods he taught us was how to “deconstruct” a text, and for homework asked us to deconstruct Genesis 3. I was confident that the Bible would be immune to deconstruction, and when I discovered the opposite I was devastated. Not only was it possible to deconstruct the Bible, it was easy. At first I did not know how to respond to this revelation, but after several years of processing my traumatic faith experiences, I felt comfortable interrogating concepts like Inerrancy and Inspiration and whether or not they should affect the act of interpretation.

Literary theory gave me the ability to understand what it means to interpret, and to be an interpreter. I confronted theories like “Death of the Author” and thought about what they might mean for the Bible. My professor provoked intense discussions about the location of the text, about meaning, about differánce and the relationship between the signifier and the signified. I began applying all those concepts to the Bible, and discovered anew beauty and value in it. Literary theory enabled me to divorce the Bible from the harmful teachings of my youth.

One of the events that helped me heal from my toxic religious upbringing was discovering feminism for myself. My background in the Quiverful and Biblical Patriarchy movements had taught me that feminism was anti-God and wholly evil, so when I encountered feminism as affirming, powerful, and truth-filled, it began unraveling my interpretations of many biblical passages. I rejected complementarianism, the doctrine that men have “headship” over women and began seeking alternate explanations for passages like Ephesians 5. This led me to Christian egalitarian circles, which seek to apply an abundance of historical context and analysis to texts, instead of relying on the “plain meaning” I had grown up with. I learned about things like the Greco-Roman Household Codes, the difference between history and myth, and appreciated the argument that the Bible cannot be separated from its historical time and place. For a while I felt invigorated, believing that the Bible could be a tool for liberation and not just the oppression I had experienced.

My feminist journey has been six years long at this point, and rather circuitous and wandering. For a long time I clung to Inspiration as a significant doctrine, although my application of it evolved for several years. My faith needed the Bible to be “of God” in a real—although ineffable—way. However, I recently came to the conclusion that whether or not Inspiration is “true” is irrelevant to how I approach interpretation. What is more important to me is an idea feminist theologians have termed a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” which sounds more ominous than it is. Before I began approaching the Bible this way, I was attempting to “re-interpret” passages to support my feminism. I was doing it with the best of intentions, but I now feel that some earnest egalitarian Christians might be allowing their needs to override an accurate rendering of the text. With a hermeneutic of suspicion, a biblical passage can be sexist, or even misogynistic, and I do not feel the need to argue with that. I approach biblical passages now with more acceptance and authenticity than I ever have before, because I no longer need those passages to “do” anything in particular.

In short, I learned to let the Bible be no more or less than what it actually is and to at least somewhat disconnect my theological system from it. I am a feminist Christian reading a Bible moored in cultures that included the oppression of women and other vulnerable minorities, and I believe it would be inaccurate to attempt to explain those oppressions away. I can believe that God is Love and the Bible is occasionally hateful without having a crisis of faith.

Photo by Loren Kerns
Theology

thoughts on my first week in seminary

I’ve spent the last week traveling– Mineeapolis, then Ann Arbor, then Lansing, back to Ann Arbor, and home again– and I had homework today, so no Redeeming Love review this week. I figured that instead I could let you all know what my first impressions of seminary are so far. First, a shout-out to Emmy Kegler who was a magnificent hostess for my stop in Minneapolis. I stayed in the attic of the most adorable bungalow ever, was cuddled by a floppy-eared cuteness puppy brigade named Gertrude and Hildegarde, and drank tea out of a Mario-themed mug. It was a good visit.

***

Very first thought on seeing campus: am I in the right place? This does not look … open. It has a creepy empty ghost-town vibe. This is due to the fact that a large part of United’s campus is dedicated prairie space, filled with native plants allowed to grow abundantly and unchecked. They also have bee hives on campus, and have beekeeping courses open to the community. It makes the front end of campus look abandoned, but it’s actually a pretty cool thing they’re doing.

Second thought: I’m not the oldest person here, not by a long-shot. I was mildly nervous that starting seminary at 29 would put me seven years ahead of most of the students; while there are many who just graduated with their bachelor’s, there were plenty of others my age or older. However, that did cause me to mistake a professor for a student, which caused a conversation she was probably too polite to indicate she didn’t exactly follow.

Leading to my third observation: the professors are incredibly engaged with the students. I’ve heard a lot of speeches about how the faculty are there to foster student growth and learning, but I think this might be the first place where I was actually convinced that was true.

Another thing I was nervous about was chapel. My experiences with college chapels thus far has been … well, they’ve largely been coercive and manipulative from start to finish. I knew I was in a progressive place, but I still felt anxious and uncertain. When I walked in and the entire seating area was blocked off by caution tape, I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with that. The speaker used it as a metaphor for how seminary can be a “dangerous” space, and it felt downright odd for someone to use an image like that and mean something like “seminary can make you feel vulnerable and challenge beliefs you didn’t know you had” instead of “you’re going to be blasted and stomped on by THE SPIRIT OF CONVICTION.” He also used the phrase liminal space, and hearing something with mystical connotations to it used in a chapel context made my heart glow just a little bit.

I went to chapel twice, and we sang hymns and songs from all over the world. I wondered if singing a Bolivian hymn or singing in Arabic would make me feel out of place, but it didn’t. It was a really lovely reminder that my American culture isn’t the only way Christianity is experienced. There was even some dancing, and we played a few icebreaker games. It was the first time in three years when someone asked me “oh, what do you write about?” and I wasn’t nervous about answering them.

***

My hands-down favorite thing so far is the library, which I’m sure surprises exactly none of you. I’m used to general-interest libraries for counties or colleges, so a special-interest library like a seminary library is a completely new experience and I’m completely head over heels in love. I also didn’t realize how much I missed honest-to-goodness librarians. I was worried about having access to research materials since I’ll be doing almost all my work a thousand miles away– but he made it clear that if I need access to something I can get it. I can also check out books for the entire term, so I looked up all the projects and papers I’ll be doing this semester and checked out a lot of books and mailed them home to myself.

I spent the day carrying around a box full of books, and people would stop and ask why. As I explained about being a distance student and looking up all the project requirements the night before, at least three people made a Hermione comparison, which of course I didn’t mind a bit. I absolutely would have read Hogwarts: A History before I even got on the Express.

Because I’m so excited (and because they arrived today): here’s what I got:

  • The Hauerwas Reader edited by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright, because people quote Hauerwas and Nouwen all of the time and I figured I should at least be familiar with one of them.
  • Is Life Sacred? by Geoffrey Drutchas– there are a surprising number of texts on abortion written by men … or maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
  • A Brief, Catholic Defense of Abortion by Daniel Dombrowski and Robert Deltete because the “Catholic” bit piqued my interest.
  • Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion by Beverly Harrison because it looked like the most comprehensive book the library had on the topic.
  • Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions by Daniel Maguire and I didn’t even look at the back cover because I’m doing a presentation on abortion for my Comparative Religious Bioethics course and taking this one home just seemed obvious.
  • Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics by Marcella Althaus-Reid looks amazing because the first chapter is titled “Indecent proposals for women who like to do theology without using underwear” and it just gets better from there.
  • Introducing Feminist Theology edited by Anne Clifford. My feminist theological education has been piecemeal so far, and I’m taking steps to correct now that I can check out $100 books.
  • Feminism is for Everybody and All About Love by bell hooks because I’ve read some of her other work but not those two in their entirety which is pretty much a sin in my book.
  • Woman Invisible: A Personal Odyssey in Christian Feminism by Marga Buhrig because it seemed interesting.
  • Feminist Theology: A Reader edited by Ann Loades because it features basically everyone, including a few names I’ve only heard of and can’t find any of their work online.
  • Rape in Marriage by Diana Russell because I reference this book all of the time and I’ve only been able to read sections of it so far. This one isn’t for a class, but because of personal interest.
  • The Battered Woman by Lenore Walker, also because I reference it– at points, on an almost-daily basis. Lenore was the one who first articulated the “Cycle Theory,” arguing that abuse follows a Honeymoon-Escalation-Incident model.
  • Battered into Submission: The Tragedy of Wife Abuse in the Christian Home by James and Phyllis Alsdurf, because many of the books I’ve read have referenced this one, and because it’s exactly up my alley.
  • and, lastly, The Religious Context of Misogynous Relational Violence: An Ethnographic Study by Norine Roberts-Oppold because it’s basically perfect. It’s her dissertation, and I’m going to try to find her and let her know I’m reading it.

***

I’ve done a few homework assignments and have more homework to do this afternoon– but I think I might be able to manage two courses ok. I’m used to graduate classes involving more work than what these two have assigned, but we’ll see what the future holds. Two of the papers are even the length of a blog post, so that works out great for me!

Photo by OiMax
Theology

Christian kindness as gaslighting

I think that at this point it’s pretty obvious I’m a “liberal” or “progressive” Christian. I’m still not entirely sure what those terms might mean (does anybody?), but I’m excluded from a variety of Christian spaces because of my beliefs. Sometimes I think that’s weird, considering I still affirm the ancient creeds of the Christian faith so I feel that when it comes down to the brass tacks of it all there’s more we can agree on than stuff we’ve can’t, but I’m learning not to let it bother me.

I want to be a part of Christian community. I meet with other Christians every week to talk about living our faith and that meets an important spiritual need for me, but I also want to be involved in the wider religious context. As much as I find Christian culture alienating and as often as I criticize it, I’m not of the mind to abandon it– not entirely.

Because of that, I’ve spent the last few years interacting with Christians that … well, we tend not to agree. In the conversations I’ve been having for the past three years, I’ve noticed a few patterns. Almost all of these interactions happen online, so of course that’s a dynamic all its own, and means that my experiences might be less nuanced than in-person encounters would allow.

Conversation Type #1: Hostile

It’s not always obvious from the beginning of the conversation that it’s going to rapidly deteriorate into verbal abuse, but it frequently starts out argumentative. The people who want to argue come to me with many assumptions about my positions, or have clearly already decided what they think about my any argument I could make. I’m not treated as a reasonable person with a credible thought process from the outset, so there’s usually no point in engaging with this type of person. If I respond at all, it’s to point them in the direction of what I think is a good post on the subject and then block them if need be.

Example: a few weeks ago I had this interaction on my blog’s Facebook wall:

Jeff Fink: Can someone provide “FACTS” to go along with the accusations?
Me: There are plenty of sources cited in the article itself.
Jeff: Child rape? Death threat? Do you have police reports, court documents, something of that nature? Thanks for checking.
Me: Like I said, there are sources cited in the article.
Jeff: So Samantha are you a true benevolent Nortic creature of peace and truth? Or are you a reptilian of the forbidden fruit?

A reptilian of the forbidden fruit? I had a good laugh and moved on.

Conversation Type #2: Open

These are my absolute favorite, and I’ve had two good experiences with this type even just this week. Today, even. A friend of mine made a remark about finding Martin Freeman attractive, and someone she knows asked for clarification on sexual objectification and the difference between commenting on a man’s appearance vs. a woman’s. The conversation went well and everyone stayed civil and kind. I’ve gotten a few comments recently on this post that I think are wonderful– here and here.

I like questions that are genuinely asking for my thoughts. We may not come out on the other side agreeing, but I think it’s important that we do our best to understand each other. I try to have compassion and charity in my heart when I approach my comment section, although that’s not always possible for reasons that might not have anything to do with the comments themselves.

Conversation Type #3: “Nice”

This is the type that prompted this whole post. This type I am done having, and while Christians aren’t the only ones who do this sort of thing in general, it takes on a whole new color when it’s a Christian doing it. Last week, Katelyn Beaty, managing editor of Christianity Today, said something incredibly dismissive, and a few of us called her on it. She responded to us, and I and Emily and Elizabeth took some time to try to explain to her why what she said was wrong. I even wrote an entire post.

But all of her responses had something in them that I’ve seen hundreds of times over the past few years:

A “teachable spirit.”

Humility.

Graciousness.

All of it false.

***

In the aftermath of that conversation, a few of us who’d participated in it or watched it happen came to a realization: we were being triggered by it. It was deeply upsetting us even though Katelyn stayed perfectly cordial for the entire discussion. Conversations with someone who isn’t being ridiculous and awful don’t usually make you want to smash everything, but that one did.

That’s when we figured it out: this type of “Nice” conversation is a form of gaslighting. In that conversation, Katelyn was attempting to subvert our observations of the interaction. Her initial comment was awful, and given all our history, obviously demonstrates that she has not listened to people like me or Elizabeth when we’ve talked to her about it in the past. She took what we had to say and tossed it right out the window … but then had the audacity to claim that she “had no idea” that there was a connection between purity culture and rape culture, that she was “sorry if she was dismissive,” that she’d “love to hear more.”

She was responding specifically to #IKDGstories and #stillpurityculture– she had already heard “more,” she just didn’t give a flying fart in space.

That’s what makes this gaslighting. She was trying to pretend that what we knew as true– that she’d seen all of us sharing how I Kissed Dating Goodbye kept us in abusive relationships and all the rest– never happened, even though her own damn tweet showed she was well aware. But, instead of getting aggressive and angry like my rapist used to, she did it all with sugar and sweetness and using our first names like she was our friend. She expected us to treat her like she meant it, like she was being honest, even though we had all the proof in the world that she couldn’t care less.

I’m merely using Katelyn because she’s a conveniently recent example, but I’ve seen this same conversation style play out over and over again, and I’m so bloody tired of it happening.

I think things like being humble, patient, and engaged are considered virtues to most Christians– it’s part of how we’re supposed to “reach the lost” and all that. But instead of being humble, being teachable, they just put on a big show and slap some syrupy niceness on it. As long as they look justifiably “nice” to the people on their side of the fence, as long as they leave plenty of wiggle room in what they could have meant, it’s acceptable. When people like me say no, this is not ok, she– and those watching– get to act like our justified anger is an overreaction.

Photo by Nicola
Theology

why a “Christian testimony” and code-switching don’t mix

I’ve been keeping busy this week with the #IKDGstories campaign, and will be doing a twitter chat at 7p eastern tonight, August 3rd (my handle is @samanthapfield). I know that many of you left comments on my I Kissed Dating Goodbye review series about how those teachings affected you, so if you wanted to share those stories more broadly, you can submit to our tumblr, or link-up your own blog post. While our intense focus will be for this week, we’re going to continue posting stories as long as they’re being submitted.

***

I wasn’t allowed to use “crude language” when I was growing up. There were a few explanations given, like “only people with limited vocabularies swear,” or “the Bible says not to take the Lord’s name in vain,” but considering I had access to Google when I was teenager, I never really understood why those were considered valid arguments. First, some studies indicate that people who use curse words might actually have larger vocabularies than those who don’t; second, I was never sure why “don’t take the Lord’s name in vain” applied not just to God dammit and Jiminy Christmas and geez but also shitake mushrooms and fudge. Also, it made a lot more sense to me for “don’t take the Lord’s name in vain” to be “don’t use God to justify really terrible decisions” and not necessarily “don’t use the phrase oh my gosh.”

There is one rule we had that I’m still thankful for, though: we didn’t use derogatory or dismissive language, like calling people “stupid,” or “retarded,” or “dumb.” Considering how many of those terms are ableist, sexist, or racist, I’m very grateful for this deeply ingrained habit.

In graduate school, I read an essay by Mark Driscoll that argued in favor of Christians using epithets and curse words. While I find Mark to be, in general, a loathsome human being, I did find that particular essay thought-provoking enough to research further. Considering Paul uses a word that is roughly equivalent to shit, I decided that since there wasn’t a Bible-based reason not to swear, I was going to figure out how “using euphemistic language” worked.

It took me a while. If you’ve ever seen Signs, I sounded a lot like Mel Gibson’s character, a priest, trying to swear. It was hilarious– my friends thought it was adorable and endearing while I was just plain embarrassed until I figured out the various parts of speech that fuck can be. As in: fucking shit is grammatically appropriate, but shitty fuck is just wrong (although, I found, that as long as you used a stream of them, it turned into something adorable: shitty fuck shit fuck fucky shit makes people laugh instead of looking at you like you’re from Mars).

However, once I started using curse words, I ran into a problem: I didn’t know how to stop.

Thankfully it never affected me professionally, except for one amusing incident. I’d had a cyst rupture on a Monday, and was back in class teaching on Wednesday, although pretty doped up on Vicodin. I forget exactly what happened, but something went wrong and I said “Oh shit” in front of my class of twenty-two freshman students at Liberty University. My boss thought it wasn’t a big deal, thank God, but still– I realized I seriously need to acquire a filter. Everyone around me had no problem switching between hanging-out-on-the-weekend-sounding-like-sailors to standing-in-the-office-talking-about-T.S Eliot, but I did.

It took me a couple years until I really got a handle on being able to switch between vocabulary sets when I needed to– like not swearing profusely around my mother, who has relaxed quite a bit from those “do not take the Lord’s name in vain” days but still isn’t entirely fond of hearing the word fuck every hour. Or, now, in front of customers at the bookstore I work in.

It confused me for a long time that this seemed to be a very natural skill set for most of my peers. Handsome started swearing in middle school, but knew from the get-go that sort of talk would not be acceptable at home. He swore with his friends, but not around his parents. Most of us pick up this habit naturally, from a young age: eventually, I figured out there’s a term for it.

It’s called code-switching, and to fundamentalist Christians, it isn’t allowed.

Code-switching is a little more complicated than just “uses curse words in some situations/contexts but not others.” Most importantly, there’s a definite racial component to how code-switching works in American culture, and I definitely don’t want to ignore that. As complex as it is, though, it’s something that fundamentalist Christians view as wrong, even sinful.

It’s sinful, because Christians are supposed to be an “effective witness.” We’re supposed to have “good testimonies.” That doesn’t mean we’re good at street preaching or have inspiring stories to share during “Testimony Hour” at church: it means that we have reputations in our communities. It should be obvious to anyone, anywhere, that we’re Christians, that we’re different. We should walk, dress, and yes even talk in a way that draws attention to Christ and his work in us. We should stand out.

All of that isn’t just an act we can drop. We’re only capable of having a good testimony if we have good character– character that will be reflected in everything we do, everything we say. If we are willing to use one vocabulary set around some people but not around others, that points to lack of consistency, of authenticity, and most especially a lack of integrity. If we act one way around our family, another in our church, another while we’re at Wal-Mart, and yet another when we’re on the job, what are we even doing? How can you possibly hope to be “the only Jesus people will ever meet” if you’re not being a shining example of Christian living 100% of the time?

This attitude is one of the many ways that fundamentalist Christian culture interferes with people being human. It is more than just normal for people to act and speak differently in different contexts, it’s expected, and it’s a good thing. We should be able to let down our barriers around people we trust not to judge us. We should be able to relax around our friends. We should be able to act in a manner expected in “professional” contexts, too.

This isn’t just yet another way that fundamentalists are weird. Now that I’m talking about it, you can probably think of a number of fundamentalist kids who just seemed off and sorta creepy– and this pressing need to always be “on” is probably why. But it’s not just something to point out that make Christian fundamentalists a little bit different: it’s a form of spiritual abuse.

In my cult-like church, spiritual abuse was often overt, like the times when the pastor targeted specific people in his sermons and lambasted them from the pulpit. More often, though, it’s subtle, and it looks like the principle that we’re always supposed to be a Christian witness. This is emotional labor, and it is horribly taxing and wearying when you’re never allowed to stop performing “good Christian.”

It’s roughly analogous to working in a customer service position: you take every customer’s rant and demand with a smile plastered on your face. You never falter in being patient, no matter how frustrating the customer is being, no matter how they berate you for something that isn’t your fault or you have no control over. By the end of the day this is utterly exhausting.

Now imagine not having an “end of the day.” That’s what it’s like to be a fundamentalist Christian, and it’s abusive.

Photo by lamdogjunkie
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
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.