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fundamentalism

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
Theology

this is your brain on fundamentalism

I grew up in Christian fundamentalism, and now I’m a progressive Christian. Surprisingly, at least to me, that particular path is an unusual one, although probably not rare. Speaking from personal observation, it seems like the more usual route out of Christian fundamentalism isn’t liberal Christianity, but atheism.

Unfortunately, it seems like there’s a lot of atheists out there who gave up on their religion, but didn’t give up fundamentalism. A little while ago I remarked on Twitter that it seems like atheists have more in common with Christian fundamentalists in their views on the Bible than they do with me. A few people were surprised by this. In short, it can be summed up by a saying in survivor communities: you can take the person out of a fundamentalism, but you can’t always take fundamentalism out of the person.

What I’m not saying is that this is inevitable– many of my close friends are atheists/agnostics who went through a time of being progressive Christians first. Their ultimate problem wasn’t fundamentalism, really, it was lack of belief. I think that’s true of most (if not all) atheists, even the ones who haven’t let go of a fundamentalist understanding of religion; they may not like their understanding of Christianity, but that’s not why they’re atheists.

It’s perpetually frustrating to me, though, that there’s a certain movement of atheists that brand me as an idiot because I’m religious, or that I’m incapable of being reasonable or logical because I have faith. To this type of atheist, if I don’t accept fundamentalist Christianity as the Only True Way of being a Christian, I’m being inconsistent. Over the course of many conversations, I’ve usually found out that they were at one point Christian fundamentalists.

They may not believe in god anymore, but many never stopped to examine the root claims of the belief system they were raised in. They still think the fundamentalists are right about Christianity– and about how to parse evidence. Part of the reason many argue the way they do is that they’re still operating inside of a fundamentalist mindset, only without religion. To many, Modernism is the only “correct” way to reason, and Truth and demonstrable, provable, physical fact are inseparable.

I was fortunate in the way my faith evolved. I started embracing my questions and doubts after I married a person who holds the feet of every single idea to the fire. He tries to smash every argument to bits to see if it’s worth making. He interrogates a question from every angle and won’t be happy until he’s thought about a new concept from multiple perspectives. All of that prompted me to do the same, and the end result is that I didn’t use the same framework I’d always used to evaluate evidence and questions. I didn’t rely purely on Modernist reasoning in order to deconstruct my faith system and start building it back up.

I’m drawn to dichotomies, to absolutes, to if then statements, and either or views of reality. Part of that is the fact that I’m an ISTJ with a heavily dominant sensing preference, but the biggest reason is that I grew up a fundamentalist. I want things to either be true or false, right or wrong, provable or poppycock. To this day, there are moments where I have to fight with myself to acknowledge that more than one thing can be True at the same time, even though they may seem contradictory. I have to force myself to live in the tension, to think of arguments as a matter of degree and nuance rather than totally right or totally wrong.

On the other hand, it’s almost as equally frustrating when people don’t understand fundamentalism, and what it does to people. They don’t know that fundamentalists are ruled by logical consistency before any other consideration. What may seem like utter nonsense to you or me makes perfect sense if you understand the premise they’re working with and follow it to its conclusion.

Take the fact that fundamentalists can be gigantic assholes to their friends and family. To an outsider, it may seem like we did nothing but endlessly bully and criticize each other– how in the world could we possibly be friends, let alone like each other? If they were to ask me when I was a fundamentalist why I behaved like this, I would’ve said “faithful are the wounds of a friend,” along with a quip about how being harsh and exacting is the only way to be loving. That sounds absurd to the rest of us — being an asshole is not loving– but to them, it’s the only possible outcome. You must “edify” your friends toward righteousness. Anything less is the opposite of loving.

Or, another example: the fact that a lot of fundamentalist/conservative Christians think that an LGBT person who isn’t celibate or resisting same-sex attraction can’t possibly be a Christian. It goes like this:

  1. Being a Christian means being indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
  2. The Holy Spirit pricks your conscience when you sin.
  3. God the Father chastens his children for their sin.
  4. Same-sex attraction (or acting on it) is a sin.
  5. Therefore, if you do not feel convicted or chastened or guilty, you are not a Christian.

This works out to the almost desperate measures many Christians take to show how sinful LGBT people are. Unless LGBT  people acknowledge that what they’re doing is sin, they cannot be saved. You have to repent of your sin. They must show us this, or we will die and burn in hell for all eternity, and what kind of person would they be if they just sat by and “tolerated” us? If they didn’t do everything they could, no matter how awful it may seem to others, to save the lost LGBT people how could they sleep at night?

Ergo, Christians think that their bigotry and hatred is loving. This is why they can say “love the sinner, hate the sin” and feel that there’s no inconsistency between their words and their actions. They’re trying to save us from eternal damnation. If you believe that I’m destined to that fate unless I turn from my bisexuality, seemingly extreme measures are necessary in order to be loving. It’s like that old “poisoned cookie” illustration– if you know someone’s about to eat a poisoned cookie and die, leaping across the room and smacking it out of their hand is the only logical action to take, no matter how “foolish” it might appear to others.

Fundamentalism isn’t populated by unreasonable people; the problem is that they’re all too reasonable. If you don’t understand this, then a lot of other things are going to appear bizarre. Why are evangelicals supporting Trump? Why does Cruz not have a problem with pastors who want to stone LGBT people to death? Why is Islamaphobia such an issue in movement atheism? Why do MRAs want to legalize rape? Why can’t women drive in Saudi Arabia? Why are some feminists TERFs?

To fight a thing, you have to know a thing. And that’s not just an external fight, either– I believe there’s a battle for fundamentalism going on inside each of us. In many ways, it’s far easier to fall into dichotomies and binaries than it is to resist them. Harsh dualities help us make sense of complex problems. But … we can’t let ourselves fall into those traps, because that’s when we start to lose compassion and let our heads overtake our hearts.

Photo by Mike
Social Issues

for the beauty of the earth

Me and basically anyone who knows me well has a running joke: if it’s the most expensive one in the store, that’s the one I want. It’s hilarious because I gravitate toward those items without knowing it. The most expensive lamp. The most expensive pair of heels. The most expensive necklace. The most expensive hat. At times, it’s uncanny. I can think of only a handful of times where the item I liked the best wasn’t the most expensive, but even then it was usually the second most expensive.

I have no idea where this “talent” came from. I grew up as a military brat so it’s not like I had the chance to develop a taste for the finer things in life. My circumstances are different now than what they were when I was a kid, but I’m not exactly Scrooge McDuck-ing it through a pile of gold coins. We have the ability to save up and make investments in decent furniture and things like that, but it does take time and it can only happen because we’re careful.

But, I look around my home– we’ve finally finished unpacking– and I’m proud of how lovely it is. Yeah it’s Walmart tables and Ikea bookcases, but on the other hand I have a beautifully framed print of John Singer-Sargent’s “Incensing the Veil,” gorgeous curtains, an eclectic collection of antique teacups, knick-knacks from all over the world (thanks to a great-grandfather who traveled), and when you put it all together I think it’s marvelous.

Handsome and I hung up our artwork last weekend– a six-hour-endeavor that involved a lot of spacial reasoning and math, neither of which are my strengths– and when we were done I stood back and almost cried because it was so beautiful. It was the last thing I needed to make this place feel like my home, and it’s not just some nesting instinct.

I’ve always been spellbound by beauty in any form. Music, nature, art, architecture, food, fashion, literature, makeup … I’m enraptured every time I play Smetna’s “Moldau,” or when I see moonlight sparkling in a woodland clearing, or when I take a of bite chicken alfredo, or when I walk around some of the grand architecture of my nation’s capital. I always want those moments to last forever. And, last week, when I felt that last bit click into place in my home, something inside of me breathed out a trembling breath of relief.

For most of my life I felt guilty about this impulse, this need for my life to be enriched by order and beauty. I thought my attraction to quality and elegance made me discontent and materialistic and selfish. The fact that I’m frequently repulsed by kitsch and spaces that don’t include any sense of proportion or artfulness made me think that I was a morally deficient person. There must be something wrong with me if I placed that much value on physical things that cost way too much money.

Growing up in the church I did, which had hideous red-and-black carpet, country-blue padded pews and orange glass in the windows, was an interesting experience. The first time I stepped inside a few-centuries-old Catholic church it took my breath away. I had no idea churches (outside of European cathedrals) could be beautiful. In graduate school, I ended up tolerating a Calvinistic-leaning church largely because the church had Gothic arches and stained glass windows (I’m a sucker for Gothic arches).

In graduate school I started realizing that appreciating beauty wasn’t a failing but something ingrained in our collective human soul, built into us by a world of symmetry and saturated color. Even then, though, I still thought of my desire for “nice things” as emblematic of my problem with covetousness. If something about me weren’t corrupted then I wouldn’t constantly be gliding through the “Home Decor” board on Pinterest. I wouldn’t exclaim and ooh! and ah! over Tiffany settings. I wouldn’t drool over Jimmy Choo or Valentino shoes. I wouldn’t constantly want things– and not just anything, but nice things.

Anytime I read a piece on the virtues of minimalism, or the value of casting off the useless and ultimately selfish drive to acquire, I felt twinges and pangs. Why couldn’t I be happy with a tiny home? Why do I always have a running list of things I want to save up for? Our couch is heading toward lumpiness and broken springs, but if I were truly capable of contentment I’d wait until we really needed to replace it instead of already picking out its replacement. When the KonMari method took the internet by storm a bit ago it was pretty frustrating because I look around my home and think all of this brings me joy. That is not a helpful standard.

Then, a few years ago, I took a few Myers-Briggs tests and they all pegged me as an ISTJ, and I read this in one of the profiles:

ISTJs usually have a great sense of space and function, and artistic appreciation. Their homes are likely to be tastefully furnished and immaculately maintained. They are acutely aware of their senses, and want to be in surroundings which fit their need for structure, order, and beauty.

Wait– what?

It had never occurred to me that so much of what I thought of as “materialism” and “covetousness” could be a feature of my personality. I’d never connected the dots between I am extremely observant and detail oriented with I want my surroundings to be in order and pleasant. I’m very much a fan of “a place for everything and everything in its place,” and it’s been extremely helpful for me to know that what something looks like doesn’t matter as much to me as whether or not it is put away. It’s not like my house is never messy, heavens no. But every few weeks when I go through it and tidy and vacuum and dust and mop and scrub I’m so much happier. It’s like a static inside my head goes away.

In fundamentalism, there are very few things, if any, that could be considered morally neutral. I think there is absolutely a line where “wanting things” could become unhealthy or destructive– I could end up in an uncontrollable amount of debt or I could start prioritizing my new sofa over helping people who need it. But it took me a long time to accept that simply looking at something, thinking it’s pretty, and evaluating whether or not it’s something I want to buy is not a moral failing.

For most of my life I felt condemned for something that is a natural consequence of my personality, for appreciating beauty when the world around me could not be more dazzling. It’s amazing how an abusive religion can get inside of your head and twist ordinary things into something worth castigating you over.

Theology

Christians understand your feelings better than you

[content note: fundie-speak about “conviction”]

As you all know, a little while ago I attended The Reformation Project’s conference, and it was an experience I appreciated and enjoyed. It wasn’t completely sunshine and roses for me, as Friday morning a couple protestors showed up outside the church. I ignored them every time I walked past until I was coming back from lunch and had an hour to kill, so I stopped to listen to a conversation one of the other conference attendees was having with the “leader” of the two.

I’m not sure how long I just listened, but eventually I got roped in and the other woman left after a few minutes. I stayed and continued to talk, mostly just asking questions because what he was arguing I found honestly confusing for a while. Eventually I figured out that he was saying “openly gay-and-in-a-relationship people can’t be Christians because it’s impossible for a Christian to live in unrepentant sin,” but that followed statements like “Christians aren’t proud,” which I found hysterical and really just said this man is a little out there and not living on the same planet as me.

There were even a few upsides to the conversation– it became clear to me early on that he wasn’t as familiar with the Bible as I am and that he couldn’t really deviate from his homophobic script much and that he also didn’t really understand things like cultural context very well. I think I even managed to get him to go “huh– I’ve never seen that before” at one point (I pointed out the “born eunuchs” passage to him, which I don’t think he’d ever read before while wearing his “I’m thinking about non-hetero-cisgender-conforming people” cap).

Eventually, though, my hour was up and I had to go in order to get to the panel discussion I was attending, so I started extricating myself from the conversation, and this is where our discussion went south in a hurry.

As I started to leave, he told me that the only reason I was leaving was that I was being convicted. I knew I was denying God’s truth, and I just wanted to avoid the pricking of the Holy Spirit on my conscience.

I honestly don’t know if what I did next was smart or not, but I’m a little proud of myself for being able to do it. I took my sunglasses off and looked him dead square in the eye and told him that no, I am not being convicted, I know what you’re doing, and that is not ok. And then I walked away, barely making it inside the church atrium before I broke down. I barely made it to the bathroom–my legs gave out a couple times– but I knew what was happening. I’d been triggered.

I was triggered because “you’re just being convicted” is one of the most powerful ways spiritual abusers controlled me for my entire life. And, as I’ve been thinking about what he said for a couple weeks, I’ve realized why that particular phrase caused the reaction in me that it did.

It’s an absolutely hideous thing to say to someone for a few reasons. First, when a fundiegelical is talking to someone, and they’re being a homophobic or sexist bigot, and the person they are talking to becomes frustrated or otherwise visibly emotional, a frequent go-to response is “you’re being convicted, I can tell.” They are completely confident that your response has nothing to do with them being mean or aggressive or even downright nasty and vindictive. It is not their fault if you become angry, even– that’s only proof of your “conviction.” It relieves the fundiegelical from any responsibility not to be an asshole. They can be an asshole all they want and when someone gets upset, they don’t have to feel guilty.

Second, it is erasure. I wasn’t actually upset with this particular person until he said this– I was just amused and then I had to leave because I was busy— but I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been legitimately and appropriately upset and been told that I haven’t been hurt by their words, I’m just feeling the Holy Spirit. These people take my natural emotional response and say no, that is not what you are experiencing. I know better than you, and what you are feeling isn’t anger with me. It’s anger with GOD. I had a pretty simple motivation for leaving, like “my panel starts in a few minutes, bye,” but even if I had been upset with him, that would have been a legitimate reason for me not to want to talk to him anymore.

It is an odious thing to do. I am me, I understand what I’m feeling and most of the time I understand why I’m feeling that way. No one has the right to assume they know more about me than I do, especially a self-righteous stranger standing on a street corner. No one should ever erase someone’s motivations for an action and substitute their own.

Photo by Haldean Brown
Theology

Plymouth Brethren Dropouts

crossroads

One of the friends I’ve made in the blogging world and on twitter is Dani Kelley. She’s an amazing woman, and just getting to know her online has been a joy and a comfort– and watching her journey this year has been incredible. She is strong, intelligent, and brave, and so far one of the best people I’ve met on the internet since I started blogging.

She has recently started a new blog, called Plymouth Brethren Dropouts, which is the fundamentalist denomination she grew up in. There are many resources for ex-fundamentalists and spiritual abuse survivors, but as she was looking for people coming out of the Plymouth Brethren denomination, she wasn’t finding very many resources for people like her. So, being amazing, she started her own.

The website already has plenty of resources, so I wanted to recommend it here. I don’t know how many of my readers have experience with the Plymouth Brethren denomination, or if you know anyone who has, but I wanted to point you in this direction just in case. I have some people in my life who grew up in this movement, so I’m really happy Dani’s created this.

~~~~~~~~~~

And, it’s Thanksgiving! I’m on holiday, so I’ll see you all again on Monday! Happy holidays!

Theology

fundamentalism as methodology

founation

Last week I wrote a post on “15 things not to say to a recovering fundamentalist.” The reaction I got completely blew me away, and I’m grateful for the response. Rebuilding our lives after something like Christian fundamentalism has torn through it is not an easy thing to do, and I hope that the stories we shared can help in that process for some of us.

A few of the reactions I got were . . . well, let’s just call them “interesting.” Ironically, many of these comments were variations of the “15 Things Not to Say,” which I thought was hysterical. Which, granted, it’s the internet, and you’re totally allowed to disagree with me, but still. Many of these comments were also about what I expected, and, thankfully, I came prepared. However, I don’t want to respond to each comment individually (many of which I did not publish because they violated my comment policy), because my answers would be pretty much the same. Most of the really intense negative reactions came from these sections, so that’s what I’m going to focus on today.

12. “Fundamentalism isn’t really Christianity.”

Oh, boy. I get this one so much, and I’m never entirely sure how to respond to it, because damn. What do they think Christianity is then? It’s a pretty big religion, and it’s got an awful lot of denominations. If believing that Jesus is God, literally came to earth, was crucified and resurrected and now sits on the right hand of the father, and he did all of this to save us from our sins doesn’t qualify you for Christianity, I’d like to see what does. Fundamentalism is an especially pernicious sub-culture in Christianity, but it’s not something totally different. They believe a lot of the exact same stuff that most Christians do . . .

15. “Your critiques of Christianity aren’t valid, because you’re just confusing it with your fundamentalist background.”

However, fundamentalism is really just a microcosm of Christianity in general. It’s not that there’s anything about fundamentalism that is super off-the-radar crazy that makes it obviously bad. All it is, really, is a concentrated version of Christianity. Think of every single thing you’ve ever run into at your completely normal, run-of-the-mill Protestant churches, and I guarantee you that you’ll find it in a fundamentalist church. They’re not different, really, they’re just intensified . . .

Many, many, many people intensely disagreed with me about this. I got accused of a lot of stuff, as well, one of which was “obviously not knowing my history,” which is funny, because I spent over a week writing posts on the history of Christian fundamentalism in America. A lot of people thought that I was being ridiculous, that it is “so incredibly clear” that fundamentalism is, in fact, nothing like Christianity. They bear no resemblance whatsoever.

Which, in the interests of being fair, I do agree with them on one general point: I think the spirit of fundamentalism and the spirit Jesus taught his believers are not the same thing. There are really good reasons why I’m no longer a fundamentalist, but still consider myself a Christian (although a liberal one). In that sense, which one reader called the “essence” of Christianity, I tend to agree– fundamentalism isn’t what Christianity is supposed to be.

However, that’s not the point I made. While I think that fundamentalism falls far short of an “ideal” Christianity, it is not that different from the typical American evangelical or Protestant church. That’s not to say that all of Christianity has elements of fundamentalism in it. I never made that claim, and I found the experience of people putting words in my mouth on that aspect unpleasant. I said, specifically, that in your average evangelical or Protestant church, you’re likely to find something in common with a fundamentalist stance.

If you’re not familiar with Marsden’s book Fundamentalism and American Culture, and you’re at all interested in Christian fundamentalism or the Religious Right, I highly recommend that you read it. Marsden is the one who quipped that a “fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something,” and I tend to agree with him, obviously. Another good book (much shorter and lighter read) is Olson’s Pocket History of Evangelical Theology, and he makes the argument that “Most . . . evangelicals do not wish to be called fundamentalists, even though their basic theological orientation is not very different.”

Which leads me to my main point: the difference between fundamentalism and typical American evangelicalism is not WHAT, it’s HOW.

If you ask the question “what does your typical fundamentalist believe and your typical evangelical believe that’s different?” the answer is going to be, most of the time, not that much. Theologically, they share a lot of the same territory. Christian theology, which I’ve said before, is not a monolith. There are as many theological perspectives and beliefs as there are Christians. There is no such thing as universal agreement about pretty much anything (although, there are concepts like the regula fidei). However, among evangelical Christians and fundamentalists, consensus exists for many ideas.

The problem is not what they believe. It’s how they go about believing it.

I talk about Christian fundamentalism, because that’s what I have experience with. However, fundamentalism, as a concept, isn’t strictly Christian. There’s fundamentalist versions and fundamentalist groups of nearly any ideology. I’ve talked to so many fundamentalist atheists, and fundamentalist feminists, and fundamentalist Democrats, and it all gets incredibly exhausting.

Fundamentalism, at its core, is a methodology. It’s a framework. It’s a way of thinking. It’s human pride and arrogance. It’s the belief that I’m right and everyone who doesn’t agree with me exactly is completely, utterly wrong. Modern fundamentalists believe that there are some things in their ideology that simply are not open for discussion. There are certain things that cannot be challenged, no matter how badly they need to be debated. Anytime that that ideas come before the needs of people, what you’re probably dealing with is fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is rigidity, inflexibility. And it’s about advocating and promoting that inability to bend– about proselytizing some into agreeing that these are the ideas that we will fight for no matter how much we hurt people.

That is what I mean when I say you can find aspects of fundamentalism in pretty much any American church. Because, unfortunately, human nature seems to want to get fundamentalist about things. We like confidence and certainty and believing we’re the only ones who got it right. We don’t like change. Having to work through very hard, difficult questions can be a painful experience– and avoiding those questions is easy. That’s how fundamentalism can creep up on virtually anyone, even me. I have to watch out for it, too. I can get just as fundamentalist about my belief that it’s important to admit you don’t have all the answers as a traditional Christian fundamentalist can get about knowing all the answers.

Avoiding Christian fundamentalism isn’t about making sure you don’t believe the same thing they do. It’s about remembering that God is Love, and God loves us, and that Jesus said “they shall know you by your love,” and that he never said anything about “being recognizable by your correct theology.” The greatest commandment, after all, is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

Feminism

my body is not a stumbling block

culottes 2

The picture above was taken while I was in high school. I am wearing a specific pattern of “culotte,” or “split skirt,” that was distributed by First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, and Hyles-Anderson College. This particular pattern was voluminous– there was an 8-inch yolk, and box pleats circled around my hips. The idea behind the pattern was that the yolk and the pleats created enough space that you couldn’t see what my actual shape was underneath all of that fabric. I was not allowed to wear any other kind of culotte pattern— not the “loose” basketball shorts, or “loose” Bermudas, or anything else that was permissible for many of the young women I knew– although, as far as I can remember, all the women in my church wore this pattern.

I developed a gigantic, curvaceous, apple-bottom ass when I was around 14. I have the stretch marks to prove it. And as soon as I started developing, the comments started flooding in.

Samantha, you have a lot of junk in your trunk!

Samantha, have you thought about Spanx? Your butt wiggles when you walk.

Samantha, you should put some control-top panty hose on. It would help with that jiggle.

Samantha, you need to be very careful when you walk up to the piano. Don’t take such a large step onto the platform.

Samantha, suck in your stomach and tilt your hips forward. It’ll help your bottom be less noticeable.

Samantha, you need to work out more. Your bouncing rear-end is distracting my husband. 

I could go on. I have searingly vivid memories of hundreds of comments like this, given to me by incredibly well-meaning men and women– people in my church who honestly cared about me, who to this day still care about me, and who I still respect and love. These men and women have played such a huge role in my life, but every time I think about the instructions I received from them concerning modesty, I want to curl up into a ball until the pain goes away.

They didn’t mean for this to happen. I’m positive they’d be horrified if they knew I carried these wounds with me– wounds that still bleed, even though it’s been years since I’ve heard anything like this.

When I picked out my wedding dress, a gorgeous sleeveless gown with a sweetheart neckline, my immediate concern was what people would think when the wedding pictures went up on facebook. I would likely never hear it directly from them, but I could see their faces in my mind– their lips purse, their faces twist, their heads shake. Look at that dress, they would tut-tut. Her neckline is so low! I can’t believe her parents would let her wear that. And her husband, what must he be like, to let his wife flaunt herself like this?

When I pushed my credit card across the counter, I felt… proud. Because I knew what I’d just accomplished, and it had been monumental: don’t let the bastards get you down, and I thought, and I scheduled my first fitting.

So, today, when I read this article on her.meneutics by Peter Chin, I had to fight with myself. Because I could hear all of those people– people I respect, people who mean a great deal to me– I could hear them in his words. I could hear how loving and gentle he must feel. I could practically picture the look on his face– the tenderness and compassion he truly feels and wants all Christian women to know, to understand how sincere he is, how he doesn’t want us to be hurt by his words, that all he wants is to encourage us to do, think, feel, and react in the way that he thinks is “appropriate” and “mature.”

But all his words did was make me want to scream. To pick up anything and smash it. To lay in my bed and cry until I couldn’t feel anything anymore.

Because, honestly, while I appreciate how kindly he worded his thoughts, it doesn’t change the fact that the ideas he’s promoting hurt people. And yes, they hurt me, and I’m a human so I’m not above reading things into what he said that aren’t there, but I am desperately trying to be fair. I’m not taking issue with his wording, or with his motives– I take issue with the idea.

To say that “modesty is the loving prerogative of the mature” is to instantly label anyone who disagrees with him as unloving and immature, and this is how he begins his argument. This immediately silences anyone who disagrees with him, because we can quite easily be dismissed. We think he’s wrong not because we have research, or personal experience, or even the Bible on our side– we disagree with him because we aren’t exercising true Christian love and maturity. This comment is setting up a false dichotomy between him and the “otherness” of women who have been abused and silenced by teachings exactly like what he’s promoting.

And then he goes to Romans 14, which he does, thankfully, quote the passage in full, instead of ripping out single verses that is so common in this format. But, just because he gives us a lot of context doesn’t remove a basic problem with what Peter, and so many others like him, have done. By using Romans 14, Peter is borrowing from and contributing to a culture where women’s bodies are less than objects– we are unclean objects.

To be fair, he never explicitly says this– in fact, in some places, it seems like he’s trying to deny this idea, but the problem is that women’s bodies as unclean objects is the fundamental premise behind “modesty.” You cannot remove this concept and leave modesty teachings any ground to stand on.

I realize that is a huge claim, so let me explain.

In explanations about modesty like what Peter has given here, the pattern to their argument is:

1) of course, a woman’s body is beautiful, and good. God made it.
2) however, a woman’s body is also sexual, and that sexuality causes men to lust after them.
3) so, out of love, shouldn’t women do everything they can to make sure their brother doesn’t sin?

And then, they frequently go to Romans 14, or passages like it, to talk about the idea of the stumbling block, and how it is every Christian’s duty to “help the weaker brother.”

However, the “weaker brother” in the case of modesty is all men, and the situation being considered is that at least some men see women’s bodies as unclean, and shouldn’t we cater to that? Shouldn’t we do everything within our power to help them avoid temptation and sin? Isn’t that our mature Christian duty?

Hopefully you can intuit the connection. Romans 14 is talking about Christians who think some things (like food) are unclean, and some don’t, but the people who don’t think an item is unclean should still be aware of those who do, and make accommodations for them. When you replace the concept of clean and unclean food with women’s bodies, the only result is that women’s bodies can be perceived as inherently and integrally unclean.

(Some could argue that it’s not our bodies that are unclean, only how we choose to dress those bodies, but that’s not consistent, because the argument goes that men are lusting after the women’s bodies, not their clothes.)

When I was a teenager, and my womanly body began developing, the reaction was not to my clothes– it was never to my clothes. It was to my body, and most of the attention focused on my rear end, which could not be disguised no matter how I walked or what I wore. Nothing— and I do mean absolutely nothing — could change the fact that I had a large, shapely ass or hide it well enough to remove it from my “weaker brother’s” field of vision. No matter what I wore, I was still on the receiving end of cat calls, jeers, slurs– I was stared at, grabbed at, slapped, and mocked, because my body was unclean, and my body was under the purview of what men thought about it.

If I was touched inappropriately, it was not because he was a pervert, it was because I was dressed “inappropriately” (to borrow Peter’s term) and it had caused my brother to stumble.

If I caught one of the young men (or even married men, on occasion) staring at me, it wasn’t because they were not exercising self-control. It was because what I was wearing had caused them to lust after me. It was my “Christian duty” if I was going to “love my weaker brother” and “be strong and mature” to do my dead-level best to make sure that never happened.

But, over the course of well over a dozen years, what I discovered was that no level of modesty could prevent even good, godly, Christian men from lusting after my body if they weren’t exercising self-restraint. I could not make myself shapeless enough, ugly enough, undesirable enough, to escape male attention. It just wasn’t possible.

But what I have learned since then is that there is nothing about my body that I need to hide. My body is beautiful, wonderful, given to me by God, and meant to be fully enjoyed. My body is not unclean– there is nothing about myself, my physicality, my sexuality, none of it, that can “cause” men to lust, or force good men, against their will, to objectify me. I a person, with all the complicated messiness that entails– and my body is fully a part of who I am. It can’t be reduced down to “clean” or “unclean” based on how I dress it– to try to do that is to deny my humanity.

And I love my brothers enough to know that they are capable of making the choice not to objectify and demean their sisters– no matter what they look like or what they’re wearing.

Theology

learning the words: dishonor

mushu

Today’s guest post is from Lana Hope, who blogs about her travels all over the globe and how living in other cultures has dramatically changed her perspective on Christianity at Wide Open Ground. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

As a daughter of fundamentalism, dishonor referred broadly not only to speaking ill remarks to an elder or damaging their reputation, but also living life as a way that reflected different tastes and opinions of the elder.  Let me illustrate. Today I was in a conversation with two homeschool moms; I’ll call them Mom and Friend. This is how it went:

Mom: Do your kids like the sunscreen you made?
Friend: One of my girls like it. The other did not.
Mom: Why?
Friend: I think that’s just my daughter for you.
Mom: Maybe she just does not like to use what you make.
Friend: I don’t think so. My girls know better. That would be dishonoring.
Mom: But some girls do not like their mother’s creations. They like their own.
Friend: No, no, no, no. I would nip that one. Not allowed. Dishonoring.
Me:*trying to decide if I should laugh or fight*

(typical homeschool conversation about making things from scratch, by the way)

As I bit my tongue, I felt the pain of those girls, who cannot even express their own opinions without being dishonoring toward their parents.

My mother never cared about her sunscreen, but I experienced similar dynamics. Negative emotion itself was dishonoring because that was rooted in anger – in unforgiveness, in pain, in bitterness, in a child’s distorted perception. No matter if the parent does wrong, the child is wrong for speaking up, for giving voice to her pain. Even now that I am an adult, and my mother can admit her wrong, I am still equally wrong in her mind– because I spoke up for myself.

“You dishonor us” becomes the negative tool wherein the child of fundamentalism is silenced. But her opinions, her struggles, her personality, her tastes, never go away. They just get bottled within.

Today I am learning a new definition of dishonor as I seek to love all people as my equal, as I seek to fulfill my obligation to other people without obsession with my personal reputation. Today I am learning what it really means to dishonor someone – when we strip people of their basic personality and opinions in order to make God in our own image, when we care more about ourselves than we do other people.

I’ve had to learn this through the pain. When I first started caring for a group of troubled tweens and teens in Southeast Asia where I worked, my reaction was to fight back when they made rude remarks. My reaction was to “nip” them. My reaction was to ground them. But I soon realized that silencing all their burdens would never take away the pain in their hearts. I realized I could not make the world about me. These kids spoke rudely mainly because they had been dishonored in the past. My job – as their caregiver, friend, second mom, and teacher – was to honor them by treating them as a human, created in the image of God.

In fundamentalism when we treat children as beneath the parent, we create their souls in the image of the parent, not the image of God. We mold, squish, and bend them until all the pain comes straight up, and the child is labeled rebellious. I hope to do this better with my kids, but like all daughters of fundamentalism, relearning the words is not easy.

Feminism

fun and learning to have it

ferris beuller

On top of going off the fundamentalist deep-end and realizing that Christians all have some basic things in common, I also started looking into some of the things I’d been told all my life were so horrifically sinful a good Christian girl would never consider even touching them.

I purchased Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on audiobook for the 13-hour cross-country road trip I had to take to get to grad school. And instead of hearing a frightfully woven tale full of Satan-loving, demon-worshiping witchcraft, I was enthralled by a story that taught courage, loyalty, friendship, honesty, integrity, intelligence, and sacrifice. I went and bought the rest of books, and realized that if I’d read Harry Potter when I was growing up, I might have made Hermione Granger my role model– and learned to value myself because of my geeky, know-it-all awkwardness instead of in spite of it. I might have valued intelligence, knowledge, and learning even when nearly everyone I knew told me that those things were silly, inconsequential rubbish–for a girl.

One of the friends I made in grad school, right off the bat, was Morgan*. We hit it off right away over a shared love of all things geek– and coffee. She took me in hand and led me to Mecca– well, the Honors Office, where there was free coffee. At the time. Now its 25c for a cup. Not bad, even then. She also introduced me to that most wicked, most foul, of all television: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (also, just so this is clear: Joss Whedon is a god among men). Anyhoo, when she suggested one late, late night after we’d watched Twelfth Night that we watch Buffy, I was wary. I knew that show was of the devil– literally. There were vampires. But, I nodded, tentatively, and settled in with a cup of late-night coffee and watched episode one. It was cheesy, corny, and absolutely brilliant. If you watch it and don’t like Spike, you don’t have a soul (pun intended, for you Buffy fans).

I also fell in love with comedy. This is true of conservative evangelicals at large, but, as par for the course, more especially true of IFBs. Things can be funny– as long as they are also squeaky-clean. And I do mean sparkling clean. No swears, no body humor, nothing even skimming the surface of innuendo. And IFBs jump at mere shadows of innuendo– they see it everywhere, even where “normal” people wouldn’t. Everything has been corrupted by “free love,” and our morally bankrupt, debauched society has ruined comedy and humor for everyone everywhere. Sometimes I wonder if they’ve read Shakespeare, who is absolutely ribald, but then I remember . . . no, my fundamentalist college edited all of that out. Literally. They re-wrote Shakespeare’s comedies to make him less funny. It’s a crime against literature.

Morgan also went through some of her favorite YouTube funnies. Like Eddie Izzard. Now, if you don’t know who Eddie Izzard is– he drops the f-bomb. This is a word that was not tolerated at all at home. My parents used Kids-in-Mind to see if a movie would be appropriate for family viewing. We still watched things like James Bond– with a lot of fast-forwarding. Mom and dad never particularly objected to violence– I watched The Patriot, Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan and all the zombie movies I could stomach. Which is a lot. I love zombie movies (double tap!). But if a movie had swearing– oooh buddy. Nope. Eddie Izzard also does a touch of drag. He wears makeup and heeled boots. And he’s hysterical. As is Craig FergusonHow I Met your Mother, and the character of Barney Stinson, represents everything I was taught to despise and assiduously avoid. Turns out, despising him is part of the hilarity. I had been told that if I filled my mind with these, that I would be ruined for all good, godly company. Also, IFB types rarely had a sense of humor, in my experience. When I first started stretching my boundaries, I was called a prude more than once. At one point in my life, I would have worn “prude” as a badge of honor, as a mark of high distinction. I aspired to be as prudish as possible. But . . . when someone calls you a “prude,” I discovered, it’s not a compliment. It means they know you’re judging them.

I became even more daring, if you can believe it. I invited a boy over– when no one else was home— and we sat on my couch and watched TV. That was it. Just because we were alone didn’t mean we were suddenly completely unbridled by our raging hormones. I had grown up being terrified of myself. Of what I could be capable of doing. In one of the great moments in sci-fi movie magic, Forbidden Planet, Morbius explains how the monsters from the id (Freud’s term for the subconscious) destroyed a planet and wiped out an entire civilization. This was what I was taught about my fallen human nature. It is wholly untrustworthy. My heart is “deceitfully wicked.” Given even the slightest opportunity, my sinful nature will overwhelm my common sense and my conscience and force me into unspeakable acts.

When I started making friends and “hanging out”– a new concept to me, I’d never done that before– I initially resisted alcohol. Like most Baptists, IFBs see all alcohol as a sin. The only things I knew about “the devil’s water” were related to the radio program Unshackledand how alcohol always led men to their doom, caused them to beat their wives, and destroyed their families and their lives. I was told once that if I ever touched alcohol, I would probably be a “mean drunk.” I was terrified that if I ever let it cross my lips that I would be enslaved by an instant addiction.  Whenever someone offered me a drink at any of these “parties” (not the drunken frat-boy keggers I’d assumed they would all be), I turned it down, and learned to walk around with a Solo cup in my hand, just so I wouldn’t have to say “no thanks” every five minutes.

One night, I decided– to hell with it. I wasn’t going to be so afraid. I knew I wasn’t secretly some deviant that would go against everything I believed the instant my inhibitions were a little looser. So, I tried it. Decided that beer is terrible, whiskey is like drinking gasoline, and that the only thing I liked was a white Russian. And the only thing that happened? I asked a guy friend if I could touch his hair — which, if you know me, is not out of the ordinary. I’d do that completely sober. And I learned that there is a difference between drinking alcohol because it tastes good (white Russians are like a frapuccino, only better) and getting wasted and being an ass. And no, I didn’t turn into a jerk. I stayed up all night, laughing with my friend at his birthday party, listening to Squirrelex and Pink Floyd, playing video games and having– yes, oh yes– innocent fun. I crashed on his sofa, ate breakfast with his roommate’s girlfriend, and went home. And I was, shockingly, just fine.

And the best lesson I learned through all of this exploring was that hardly anything of what I’d been taught were the visible “hallmarks” of being a Christian mattered. I’d been so paralyzed by fear, by the unending agony of wondering what would they think if they knew? And I realized that most of my “friends,” for most of my life, were not really my friends at all. They were just another system of confinement. Friends, in IFB circles, are people who “sharpen” you. They exist not to support you, or care about you, but to make sure you stay on the straight and narrow. They monitor you, and “challenge” you when they think you’re slipping. Their only purpose in your life is to judge you. To condemn, not to love.

What I discovered when I branched out into “lasciviousness,” was, instead of a deep black pit of despair where I would be broken and alone, I found a place where no one could freaking care less about what I did. If I wanted to laugh at a fart joke, I could. If I wanted to shake it to “Twist and Shout” like Ferris Beuller, I could. In fact, my girlfriends would join in, and we’d dance and laugh until we couldn’t dance and laugh no more. I could stand on top of a clothing display in Wal-Mart and sing The Christmas Song at the top of my lungs. I could strut my stuff playing air guitar a la Marty McFly’s Johnny B Goode, in the middle of Aéropastale, if I wanted. I could be happy, and show it in any way that struck my fancy. Living life with abandon wasn’t going to kill me, or lead me into fiery damnation. I learned to embrace impulse and spontaneity, to drink in wonder, happiness, and contentment in a way I never could before.

Theology

How I stopped worrying and learned to love Deconstructionism

deconstructivist building

During one “prayer group,” at my fundamentalist college, a woman asked us to pray for an assignment she was working on called (commence boom-y announcer voice) “The Annotated Bibliography!” She was incredibly frustrated with it, called it a stupid, pointless waste of time, but it was an assignment that required a lot of time and and an exacting, precise level of dedication. When I took Advanced Grammar and Bibliography, I was handed the same assignment, and I realized the hellish nature of what she had been describing. The instructions for the assignment were four pages long, 10 pt font, single spaced. When the professor handed it out, she explained that the assignment, if done well, would take a minimum of forty hours’ work.

And what was this assignment you asked? Reading dictionaries and usage manuals.

Not just reading, really– we also had to evaluate them based on a very specific set of criteria. My professor explained the rationale thusly:

It may seem obvious, but the Bible was given to us in the form of language; [H]e also promised to preserve [H]is [W]ord, so in order to preserve [H]is [W]ord effectively, [H]e was required to preserve all words, in general. That is why it is every Christian’s duty to use language correctly to the best of their ability. If language were allowed to lose meaning and clarity, then we would lose the ability to read Scripture properly.

And yes, to my everlasting shame, I bought this explanation hook, line, and sinker. I even managed to end up in an argument with several of my graduate students my first year, for what are now obvious reasons. It was a humiliating conversation for me, simply because the gaping holes in the argument were glaringly obvious to my fellow graduate students, but not to me. To me, this line of reasoning was solid– unshakable even. I even went up to my professor after the class was over and thanked her for showing this to me. She hugged me and told me she was glad I’d understood the “true purpose of class” because “so few” did.

I completely missed the fact that this argument can only be effective when it is sitting on top of a huge ideological web– a web so interwoven that it’s impossible to talk about it to another human being coherently. To a sane person, this argument leads to “bad grammar” = “sin” which is . . . ridiculous. It also cannot function in a world of change. Cultures progresses, adapts, accommodates– and language changes with it. Meanings of words change; we create new words as we need them. Our language describes the world we live in, and it can do nothing else.

The fundamentalist point of view is also the ideological enemy of anything remotely post-modern or deconstructionist. Deconstructionism, to fundamentalist educators, represents some of the worst evil that can possibly exist. Deconstructionism is the tool of Satan, and he has used it to destroy people’s lives and bring nations to their knees. Every time I heard it discussed while I was in college, it was accompanied by a call for students to defend Absolute Truth at all costs. As long as we had Absolute Truth, we could not be “taken unawares” by post-modernism or deconstructionism or moral relativism. The Bible, as long as we believe in Absolute Truth, is utterly impervious to any of these things.

My first semester in grad school, I enrolled in Advanced Literary Criticism. It was a difficult class to adjust to, because I had no experience in literary theory or literary criticism. I’d never even heard those words before– and for someone who studied English in college, this is a massive oversight. It’s like a nursing major not studying anatomy– it’s that important. My professor was throwing words and terms around that I had zero context for, so the first few weeks, when we were studying phenomenology, I struggled mightily. The second area of literary theory we studied was Deconstructionism, and after my professor explained how it is performed on a text, he asked us to deconstruct Genesis 3:1-7.

I went into the assignment with confidence, but also not quite sure how I was supposed to do the assignment. It’s the Bible. It can’t be deconstructed.

After I finished the assignment, I was in tears. Horrified. Dismayed. And suddenly, on very shaky ground philosophically. Deconstructing the passage had been ridiculously easy. Child’s play. The only things that deconstructionism, as a theory, does is help the reader identify binaries in the text. It’s not that complicated once you start doing it. And once you find the binaries, you identify the tension between the opposites in the text.

The funny thing is– applying deconstructionism didn’t change anything about that passage. It revealed binaries and tensions, that’s all. It revealed the same kinds of binaries and tensions that exist in any piece of writing ever recorded on stone, or paper, or animal skin. Binaries, on a textual level, don’t point to inherent contradictions in the text. Deconstructionism’s purpose as a literary theory is just another tool– it’s just another way to look at writing and language and figure out what it means– or doesn’t mean. Ultimately, it is a more honest way of approaching a text, because the basic premise of deconstructionism is: the reader doesn’t understand what this means.

That’s why fundamentalists can’t exist in a world where meaning in language is a fuzzy, fluid thing. If the meaning of a text is fluid, it cannot be applied universally to Every Single Last Human Being on the Whole Planet for All of Time. Admitting that what a passage means to one person may not be what it means to another completely destroys fundamentalism. They cannot be flexible– everything about their approach to faith is rigid and unyielding– being “steadfast in the faith” (i.e.: purposely blind to other points of view) is the very essentialness of what being a fundamentalist is. If there is not one meaning–their meaning–then they cannot be the Only Authority on the Interpretation of Scripture. They cannot control your life with their legalistic, Pharisaical, back-breaking religion. They lose their basis for teaching doctrine.

In short– post-modernism and Deconstructionism rebuilt my faith–because it allowed me the liberty and freedom that Christ promised.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming, didja, oh ye fundamentalist college?

ps. as an interesting side note, you can’t identify as many binaries in more modern translations of the Bible, like the English Standard, that you can in the King James. Curious.