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Social Issues

Man Enough by Nate Pyle — Review

I first heard about Nate Pyle a while ago, when I read his post “Seeing a Woman” after a colleague posted it on Facebook. I appreciated what he had to say there, and over the last two years he’s become someone with whom I don’t always see eye-to-eye, but I still appreciate. I’ve shared his work a few times, and his voice has proven to be extremely effective at reaching an audience I usually can’t.

So when Sarah Bessey (another person I don’t always see eye-to-eye with) posted a blurb on her page about Man Enough: How Jesus Redefines Manhood, I was curious, and after looking into it I decided this was a book I needed to review (and thanks to my Patrons, I was able to buy it).

There was only one thing I didn’t like about Man Enough. There is a general feel of “the exceptions prove the rule” approach to gender essentialism. While he acknowledges that some women and some men won’t conform to whatever concept he’s discussing at the time, he is comfortable with saying “all women” and “all men” or things like this:

When I play with my young nieces, we never play this game [breaking things like lego towers]; rather, we play house. The imaginative games are always relational in nature … They are always face-to-face and involve a lot of talking.

While extremely simplistic, these examples highlight a general difference between men and women. Men love to be agents of change in the world. … Even in these differences [some men value strength, others value creativity, etc], there is commonality– changing and influencing the world according to our will. (160)

Personally, I think that the wide acceptance of gender essentialism hurts church and ministry effectiveness. If you believe that there is something(s) inherent to being a man or a woman, that will always be a part of how you view them; in my opinion, that view prevents you from seeing a person, in big or small ways, as a unique individual with their own gifts, priorities, and weaknesses. In this case– “men like to be agents of change”– it made me think, well what the hell does he think women like me are doing? If you ask most of the people who know me, they’d tell you “being an agent of change” is my #1 desire, every other priority pales in comparison, and I don’t think I’m an “exception.” I can think of a lot of men who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about this, while nearly every woman I know does.

A book that’s 194 pages long will, by necessity, have some generalities, but I think Nate needs to step back and evaluate this gender essentialist question some more. Is it that men and women have inherent differences, or that the harsh gender binary in America has given men and women, generally speaking, a similar set of experiences and expectations that are divided along strictly regulated lines? That he doesn’t seem to have wrestled with this is a significant weakness in his argument.

But that’s my only real problem, and even I can admit that a lot of his “I’m not trying to erase gender differences” bits are probably intended to make a conservative evangelical comfortable in a book that shouts about a lot of feminist and social justice issues. I highlighted a lot of things I loved, like these:

The inherent danger of equating some Christlike characteristics with masculinity but not with femininity is that we fail to engage women in discipleship that calls them and sanctifies them into the image of Christ. (49)

The problem with militant portrayals of Jesus is that they can quickly and easily be co-opted to endorse the subjugation of those deemed less than masculine– whether that is expressed through racism, sexism, or homophobia. (66)

Using the gospel to reinforce gender roles and ideals redirects our attention away from its central goal: that men and woman will become like Jesus. (157)

I think the strength of this book is that it addresses a lot of the systemic problems present in modern, and extremely gendered, evangelicalism. Nate explains the history and cultural movements that brought us here, and points out that parts of “Christian culture” may not be Christian at all– and he does it all without using feminist or social justice buzzwords that could be off-putting to the very people who desperately need to read this.

One of my favorite themes that he weaves through the second half of the book is that modern “masculinity” is anti-vulnerability in pretty much every conceivable way, but that choosing to be vulnerable is how we develop intimacy in our relationships; it’s how we can make the truest, deepest connections. I encountered that lesson– again– last week when my pro-choice article went up on xoJane. I was taking a beating in the comment section until I was vulnerable. I would have had every right to be defensive, but I chose to be vulnerable with people who were attacking me, to be honest about the grief and remorse I feel. That decision changed some people’s minds and affected others who might have been on the fence about me. I was able to make connections with people– however fleeting they might have been.

Vulnerability is hard. Most of the time it sucks because it requires a level of introspection and self-awareness that can be painful. Vulnerability frequently means risking pain, because truly exposing ourselves is almost always a risk. Nate blends in his own story of coming to terms with vulnerability, honesty, and authenticity in his life, and how embracing those principles enabled him to love others the way he feels called by Christ to do– and it was interesting seeing him trace his steps in his journey toward understanding who he actually is, and not living up to what culture– Christian or secular– says he must be.

In short, I very much recommend this book. I think it is successful for its intended audience, and I’ve known a lot of men who could have used the encouragement in this book. I spend a lot of time on this blog going through the books that put Christian women into a cage, but Man Enough reminded me that it’s not just women who are affected by gender roles. I could never have embraced my true identity in complementarianism, but neither can a lot of men. As long as we’re all being forcefully shoved into a box we don’t fit in, no one is going to be free, or whole.

Social Issues

Review: "The Zimzum of Love": Introduction to the Series

Hello, again! I hope everyone had an enjoyable holiday season. Mine was a good, long break that I definitely needed– didn’t really realize how much I needed it, although by the end of last week I was antsy to get back to work. Unfortunately, I bruised/broke my tailbone this weekend, which has made sitting down … uncomfortable. Right now I’m anticipating being able to keep to my schedule (except for this weekperiod week), but we’ll see how it goes. I’m not going to push myself, as how fast my tailbone heals depends almost entirely on how careful I am with it.

Anyway, many of you, my lovely readers, have asked me to take a change of pace in my review-series project, and look at a book that I might actually be able to recommend, so I picked up Rob and Kristen Bell’s The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage, as I’ve heard positive things about it. It’s a fairly short book, so I don’t think it’ll take me three months to get through like the other books have.

First off, responses to this book are pretty mixed. The reviews on Amazon are anything from “Plain and simple Rob Bell has become a wacko and a heretic” to calling the book “brilliant.” The middle-of-the-road opinion is that it’s straightforward, uncomplicated, and helpful, although not amazing. I was encouraged by people who said things like “this books isn’t as sexist as other Christian books on the subject”– so, we’ll see how it goes.

My first impressions of it from reading the jacket copy was that it’s a little unconventional. The only other book I’ve read by Rob Bell is Love Wins, which came across as a prose-poem to me, so I was expecting something different from mainstream evangelical culture, and the jacket copy for this made me thing of books like The Secret. The mystic feel to the language isn’t off-putting to me, but I can imagine a lot of evangelicals rejecting this book outright because it seems to embrace “Eastern Mysticism” (#eyeroll).

It’s structured very conversationally with lots of cute stick-figure illustrations that are gender neutral, y’all. The only thing to differentiate the two figures is their hair, but both hairstyles aren’t gender signifiers. They do use “husband” and “wife” language instead of “partner,” which was a little bit frustrating, but honestly that might have been an editorial decision as they make it clear in the opening pages that they support marriage equality.

What I did really enjoy overall was the feeling I got that Kristen was actually a co-writer. Grace Driscoll had her name on the cover of Real Marriage, but she barely participated in the book. Kristen’s voice is featured as an equal half, which was a relief.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to getting into this with all of you, and I hope that perhaps some of you could read along with me since it won’t be the typical torture-and-agony fest.

I am happy to be back.

Social Issues

"Good God, Lousy World, and Me" by Holly Burkhalter

good god

It took me a little while to make it all the way through this book because I couldn’t stop crying– sad and happy tears. There were so many times when all I could do was shake my head and laugh and think dear LORD do I ever know what she means.

One of the things that I’ve loved about all the books I’ve read from Convergent has been that the authors are not just honest. I’ve read plenty of books where the voicing has been authentic, when you could feel how genuine the author is– but Convergent books take it one step further. Almost all of the other religious books I’ve read are desperately trying to wrap up all of their books with a bow, to tie it up with a neat, uncomplicated, applicable message. Even Rachel Held Evans– whose writing I love– sort of beats you over the head with her point at times.

Holly’s book doesn’t do that. She invites you into the struggles of her life and is straight with you the entire way through, but she leaves it to you to think about what she’s said. There are very few conclusions presented anywhere in the book, and they’re all in the context of this is my story, this is where I’ve gotten.

At times, it’s actually been a frustrating thing to experience, for me. The fundamentalist that lives in a tiny sliver of my brain gets upset and starts shouting no, just tell me what to think about this! Make an argument for your position and defend it, dammit! That Holly never does that is a beautiful thing, and I’m glad that the part of me that wants the neatly packaged apologetics manual is getting smaller.

I want an answer to the question that was at the core of Holly’s life: If God is good, why is there so much suffering? It is the single greatest roadblock to my faith, and there are many days when I can’t get around it, and Holly talks about the days when she couldn’t get around it, either– both as a non-believer and as a Christian. I’m still there, inhabiting this question, and I can’t see a point in my near future where I’ve settled this, where I’ve resolved it. Holly hasn’t either– and that comforted me. I’ve grown to strongly resent it when much older Christians are blithe about suffering, who seem perfectly content to ignore the darkness in this world and chirp about how amazing God is when they keep their tire from going flat.

That was one of my favorite stories Holly shares– it was about a woman who praised God for keeping their tires inflated when they were in the middle of a war-torn, genocide-stricken African country. Holly’s reaction is my reaction– seriously?! How can someone thank God for the state of some rubber when they just spent all day talking to people ripped apart by shrapnel?

That the bulk of Christian culture seems just as happy to not truly, actually confront the darkness and evil in this world is one of the biggest things that bothers me about it. They can effortlessly hide so far behind their privilege that they can’t even identify the fact that they’re hiding. Well, Holy confronts it– has spent her entire adult life face-to-face with it, and came out on the other side of it a believer.

That gives me a lot of hope. Some days I’m barely holding on to my faith, and the darkest moments come when I have to ask myself is the only reason why I’m still a Christian because I don’t want to face the bleak reality of a world without God in it?

Holly, over the course of her book, points to all the reasons why she believes in God. Because of prayer (a concept I do not understand … at all), because of compassion, and empathy, and love, and kindness, and help. Because of Christians, because of people, who see a world full of pain and want to do something to end it.

Reading this book helped settle some of my doubts, although they’ll never be completely gone. It’s nice when love is the answer to a question you’ll always have.

note: I received this book in exchange for my review on “Blogging for Books.”


"Spiritual Misfit" by Michelle DeRusha

spiritual misfit

Recently, I was invited by a friend of mine to join Crown’s Blogging for Books, which I think is a fantastic idea mostly because I get free books. The first book I ordered was Michelle DeRusha’s Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith.

The title resonated with me. I’ve always felt a bit like an outsider no matter what situation I was in, but most especially in church. There was always a part of me that wondered do I belong here, really belong? I still don’t have an answer to that question, but Spiritual Misfit helped.

If there was a single word I could choose for this book, it would be “comforting.” Michelle is approaching the questions I am struggling with right now with the perspective of someone much older. She’s been through a lot of what I’m going through, but now she’s on the far side of it looking back. I found a lot of value in that perspective, especially since Michelle is so honest about what it was like for her.

Another way to describe it would be beautifully ordinary. All my life I’ve never had to be told to “stop and smell the roses”—the simple wonders have always fascinated me, and it’s the small things I treasure. Cuddling with my partner while we watch Wolverine and the X-Men and munch on pumpkin loaf makes me so happy I could cry. Michelle’s book is filled with those kinds of moments—and her descriptions are delicate, but moving.

The thing that I appreciated the most about Spiritual Misfit was that Michelle’s approach to her faith is a bit like what mine is growing into. She emphasizes the importance of living your faith. The time in her life that the book focuses on was a time when she wasn’t sure if God existed, or if she had a “relationship with Jesus”—she saw other people having experiences that she didn’t share, and that was when I identified the most with Michelle. When other people are busy having spiritual epiphanies, I’ve been the skeptic silently observing, unable to believe in a reality I couldn’t seem to experience.

Instead of fixating on the intellectual questions, however, Micelle chooses to make her own “leap of faith” by trying to live by the teachings of Jesus. That decision makes so much sense to me, and it’s what I’m currently trying to embrace. I may never have a come-to-Jesus moment, but I can do my best to follow his teachings. She says something toward the end that I loved:

For a long time I was waiting for the perfect moment to declare my faith: the moment I had everything figured out, all the questions answered, the wrestling match finished. In the past I assumed my faith would “begin” when all my questions had answers, when I felt a certain way, when I acted in a certain way. I was waiting for all the pieces to fall into place so I could declare, once and for all, without a shadow of doubt, that I believed in God.

The reality, of course, is that the pieces of my faith had been falling into place all along. Asking “Why not?” was my way of surrendering, of accepting that the single, perfect moment, the moment when my questions were finally answered once and for all, was never going to happen. Asking “Why not?” was my way of realizing I could jump and still have questions. I didn’t know it at the time, but asking “Why not?” was my way of saying yes to Jesus’ invitation to jump.

Part of me doesn’t really like that. Like Michelle, I am an intellectual person, and I crave order and understanding. I just spent the last few months studying Trinitarianism, and it was … unbelievably frustrating. The fact that 2,000 years later Christians are all essentially shrugging our shoulders about something that is supposed to be one of THE defining doctrines of our religion… yup. I do not handle that well. I’d rather believe in a heresy like modalism than have it be that nebulous and incomprehensible.

So the fact that Michelle has gotten to this point in her life and has never found the answers that I spend most of my time desperately searching for—makes me sad, while somehow, still offering me peace. I’ve been trying to learn to “live in the gray,” to accept that it’s the questions that matter, but that is difficult when everything inside is screaming but I want to know.

Spiritual Misfit is a book about living in the gray, of not just enduring, but embracing the questions. It was comforting, and peaceful, and beautiful, and funny, and touching, and honest. I’d recommend giving it a read.


"Girl at the End of the World" by Elizabeth Esther

girl at the end of the world

I started reading Elizabeth Esther’s blog around this time last year. I don’t remember how I found her– probably by following a long trail of link-crumbs– but the second I stumbled into her talking about Michael and Debi Pearl and Victoria’s Secret panties, I was hooked. When I found out that she was writing a book, I knew I wanted it. When I found out that she was writing about her “escape from fundamentalism in search of faith with a future,” I knew it would be a book I’d need to read.

I was right.

I got it in the mail a few weeks ago, and I finished it by that night because I couldn’t put it down. Handsome (my partner) would try to ask me a question and I would just make a shushing motion and then read him a quote, mostly because I wanted to start running through the streets reading it out loud, but that would be crazy.

Fortunately, I have a blog, and I can run through the internet’s streets shouting about this book.

There were so many moments when I had to stop and cry because all I could think was I’ve been there, I know this, I know what this is like, this is what it’s like SOMEONE KNOWS WHAT IT’S LIKE.

When she described Sister Kathleen I thought of one of the women in my church-cult. She was bright, and vivacious, and she laughed as loud and as free as she wanted. She did her hair in fancy up-dos. She wore makeup. She came to church once wearing a slightly-shorter-than-knee-length chiffon skirt that scandalized the 12-year-old version of me, and yet . . . I wanted to be her. She was bright and lovely. She was my Kathleen.

She told of how she started seeing boys for the first time, the first time she had a crush, the first time she fell in love, and I remembered sitting in the Palm’s Grille with my first ever crush and he’s promising to write me letters and my heart is turning over in my chest because a boy just promised to write me letters, oh, what does this mean, could he be the one, no, don’t think about that you can’t give your heart away like this.

Then she talks about how her father forced her to resign from the positions she’d earned at school, and my heart stops. And I start crying. Because I know that feeling. I know the weight of that boulder crushing my chest. I wish it wasn’t something I could understand, but oh I do.

That is what Elizabeth captured. She took all those moments– all the heart-thrilling, heart-shattering moments– and wrapped them up in a book. She wrote a book about what she went through, but it is also a book about what we went through. There are burning-bright memories in the minds of every child who grew up in cultish fundamentalism, and they are so bright we flinch away from them, so gharishly vivid we don’t know how to put them into words.

She gave that to us. She gave us the words.

But the most wonderfully beautiful thing about what she’s written is that it isn’t just a book for us. I believe it could be powerful and healing for many of us, but it’s also for the not-us.

I’m looking across the living room at my partner as I read it, at my wonderful partner who loves me but doesn’t understand. It’s good that he doesn’t know this, that he doesn’t have to carry this, but there are times when he looks at me and his eyes are sad because I am at the dining room table trying to eat a grilled cheese sandwich and I can’t because I’m sobbing into my tomato soup because the pastor made a joke about spanking infants in the sermon that morning and all I can see are terrified baby eyes staring at me.

If you care about someone who grew up in a spiritually abusive church and you didn’t– you need to read this book. It’ll show you the way things probably were for them.

If you’re a pastor, you need to read this book, because it will open up an entire world of hurt and suffering and pain that is mind-bendingly difficult to understand unless you’ve been there. Elizabeth will take you there.

And she’ll show all of us what it looks like on the other side. The still-hurting, still-healing side, but also the getting better side.