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Social Issues

the books I didn’t read

It’s Banned Books Week, and surprisingly it’s made me feel things. I’ve been to the library and Politics & Prose, and both have had huge displays of banned books, encouraging patrons to take one of these books home. Growing up as a homeschooler, conversations surrounding things like banning books from public school libraries didn’t really concern me. I wasn’t exactly happy about that form of censorship, but it felt like it wasn’t my concern– and I also probably agreed with the people who didn’t want their children having access to Harry Potter.

I didn’t think any of it affected me.

But it did.

Because my family was eyeballs deep in cultish fundamentalism when I was old enough to read books more challenging than Nancy Drew and Little House on the Prairie, I wasn’t able to experience a lot of the common touchstones for people my age. As much as my partner hates Catcher in the Rye, at least he read it. When I think about the literature I read in high school, I want to cry.

For ninth grade I read several Charles Dickens and Jane Austen novels (Mansfield Park, Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and A Christmas Carol) and a family friend gave me a set of Reader’s Digest Condensed. For tenth grade we used BJUPress’ Elements of Literature and I read The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick that year. Eleventh grade gave me Call of the Wild and Sea Wolf as well as A Beka’s American Literature. Twelfth was English Literature and more Jane Austen. I didn’t read anything written after 1904 all the way through high school, and my mother was apprehensive about me reading something by Jack London, who she knew was an atheist and socialist.

Through college it was more of the same, even in my “British Novel” class which should have included Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley, but didn’t. It wasn’t until I’d graduated until I’d read a significant piece of literature written more recently than WWI.

I was so clueless about what I’d missed that it took me going through an entire graduate program in literature for me to really get it, and it wasn’t until I’d taken classes in post-modern and utopian/dystopian literature that I’d start to understand. Up until that point– up until my last semester– I’d focused on Enlightenment and Romantic-era literature, primarily British, although I made an exception for Poe. I had a number of conversations with several different professors in which I professed that “new stuff” (which, in context, meant post-1900) just “wasn’t for me.” I just didn’t enjoy modern literature the way I really wanted to dig into Shakespeare and Tennyson and Mary Shelley.

At the time, I couldn’t see how I was still being affected by the culture I was raised in. I had a perception of what I thought modern and post-modern literature was, but that perception had been given to me by conspiratorial self-righteous Christians. I thought I didn’t want to read modern literature because I thought it was all hopeless and dead and cynical and dark and full of doomsday rhetoric. Granted, some of it is, but I had no idea that I’d read Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and feel so deeply altered and enriched and challenged and uplifted.

It took me until graduate school to have the experience that most Americans have in high school– sitting in a room, talking together about the questions and challenges posed by an important work of modern literature. Everything I’d grown up reading was usually two hundred, three hundred years old– and that sort of distance made it easy to feel wholly removed from anything the book might have been trying to ask me. It was easy to read Pride and Prejudice and walk away from it comfortable and content in how I’d be able to marry for love– and completely miss any criticism about classism or sexism that Austen might have been trying to make.

I was reading old books, reading them with the thought that they did not speak to my life, and I was reading them alone. Simply saying “I’ve read the collected works of Jane Austen” was enough to impress people, but neither of us understood how profound my ignorance was.

If I’d read Farenheit 451 or 1984 or Lord of the Flies or To Kill a Mockingbird or Things Fall Apart I might have been able to see and understand some things about my life. I don’t think I could have walked away from Scout’s story and see what the racist leaders of my community wanted me to see. I don’t think I could have read 1984 and not realized how my church was using its own version of Newspeak. Lord of the Flies would have challenged the way I saw my community. Things Fall Apart would have upended everything I thought I knew about missionaries and nationalism.

Instead, I read a lot of Lori Wick and Love Inspired. I read the books that the adults in my life were comfortable with me reading– books that wouldn’t challenge any of their (or my own) ideas, books that didn’t ask any hard questions they might not have been able to answer. Safe books. Easy books. Antiquated and archaic and adorable and aristocratic books– only books that enforced the perceptions we already had.

Photo by Mike

learning the words: beauty


Today’s guest post is from Boze Herrington, who blogs about art, poetry, fantasy, religion, and popular culture at The Talking Llama. “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.

“Boze, why are you reading Shakespeare when you should be preparing for the end times?”

In the cult I was a part of in college, statements like this were often used as a way of attacking the spiritual maturity of believers who were “distracted” by culture or beauty. We believed that when Jesus returned to the earth in the next couple of decades, he would preside over the largest book burnings and CD burnings the world had ever seen. Any songs, movies, or novels deemed insufficiently Christian would be purged from the shelves of the libraries and scrubbed from the memories of the faithful, forever.

Unfortunately this mindset is typical of the thinking of many American Evangelicals. Things are not good in themselves but only to the extent that they directly portray Jesus.

For example, someone might engage in corporal acts of mercy such as feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, and battling human trafficking. But unless this person is a born-again believer who presents the Gospel while doing it, it’s a “false justice,” a counterfeit justice, and a forerunner of the Antichrist’s end-times humanitarian movement. “If it’s not Jesus,” I’ve been told, “it’s not justice.”

Likewise with beauty. I’m an artist and a writer; I love beautiful things. But throughout my life I’ve been told that “God is not found in books and seminaries and museums,” that the music of Mozart and Beethoven is not honoring to Jesus, that I’m wasting my time looking for glimpses of God’s beauty in the material world when the fullness of his self-revelation is found in the Bible. And not being theologically empowered to deal with these accusations, I suffered for years with guilt and shame and self-condemnation, thinking I was a horrible person because I was fascinated with art, with culture, with the things of this world.


“A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music, and nature,” said Pope Benedict, “can be dangerous.” For the vast majority of the world’s Christians who belong to one of the great sacramental traditions (Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox), the world is an enchanted place.

In the Catholic faith to which I belong now, we have what are called “the three Transcendentals.” The three Transcendentals are Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. These are the ultimate desires of all humanity, the qualities towards which all of us are striving whether we know it or not.

And here’s what’s remarkable about it. God is not only connected in some tangential way with each of these three things. He IS each of these three things. He’s more than good; he is Goodness itself. He’s more than true; he is Truth. He’s not merely beautiful; he is Beauty.

What this means, ultimately, is that whatever is true, whatever is good, whatever is beautiful in the world or in human culture points to and reflects Jesus.

I can never fully convey the freedom I felt the first time it occurred to me that a song didn’t have to mention Jesus a certain number of times in order to honor him. The elegant lament of a French horn, the spirited clamor of castanets, the saxophone’s hopeless wail are all good in themselves because they reflect something in God’s heart, because Jesus is the incarnation of the reason by which the universe is woven and ordered, and music, good music, is inherently rational, and beautiful, and good.

“This is my Father’s world; he shines in all that’s fair.” And you don’t need to have a vision of the throne room up in heaven to see the splendor of God shining, for beauty isn’t some ethereal, abstract thing to be mentally apprehended; beauty is a tangible thing, a thing to be seen and tasted and savored, a thing of the body as well as the heart. Beauty himself has taken on flesh and lived among us. And in saving and sanctifying the world he has begun restoring it to its original goodness.

All my life I’ve been told that nothing matters except Jesus. The reality is that everything matters because of Jesus. And we see glimpses of his beauty in all that is good.

In the towering sobriety of high mountains,
In the playfulness and cunning of foxes and ‘possums,
In the shimmering vastness of dark waters,
In the splendor of fire and swiftness of wind,
In the elegiac phrasing of a novel by Fitzgerald,
In the radiant polyphony of a forty-piece motet,
In the infinite capacity for love and reflection expressed in a human face.

Like the bread and wine of the sacraments, through the Incarnation the whole world is now gloriously transformed into an icon of God.


how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Psalms, part three

bell tower

My last semester in graduate school I took a class called Poetics. It was one of those classes that shook me to my foundations– intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. The class discussions were heavy and illuminating, and exposed to me to so many ideas I’d never had the opportunity to work through before. We talked about the intersection of our lives with literature, and why that mattered to us. Why were we all a bunch of literature grad students, sitting around gabbing about Chaucer and Dante and Camus? What did any of that mean, really?

The breadth and depth of what we covered is too enormous to get into right now, but I’ll never forget the first time something we were talking about really connected with me. The professor had asked us to read a few articles about sublimity, and we read Peri Hypsous by Longinus. According to Longinus, the “sublime” is something in literature, or art, that is capable of evoking “ecstasy” in the reader. It is primarily a spiritual and emotional response, and Longinus argues that the presence of the sublime in writing elevates the piece to “art” or “greatness.” This has gradually evolved into aesthetic literary theory: studying literature for its beauty– its sublimity.

I was staring down at my desk, listening to the discussion, fiddling with my pen and trying to refrain from doodling. The reading had been extremely difficult for me, as I hadn’t really understood anything Longinus had argued, and it seemed inherently biased. How could he possibly make the argument that some literature is “great” because of what is essentially an emotional response? Emotions are subjective, and no reader is going to have the exact same response to a work as another reader. There’s no possible means of quantifying an emotional response. It’s a useless way of examining literature.

Something the professor asked caught my attention– she asked us when we had our first “sublime” response to literature. What was the very first piece we read that demanded that we engage all of our attention, emotional and intellectual? I tried to come up with something– but nearly all the supposedly “great” literature had never really stirred me in the way that any one in the room was talking about. I’d never had that kind of response. Plus, the kind of reactions they were talking about just sounded so . . . melodramatic. They were tossing around words like “awe” and “breathless” and “wonder.” No book had ever taken my breath away.

But, like a starburst, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” sprung into my mind, so fully-formed I could almost see the words springing up at me off the page– I could see my English Literature textbook from 11th grade in perfect detail. And the words from section IV were on the tip of my tongue, waiting to spill out.

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

And then I was not in classroom DH 2009. I was in the rickety office chair with the padding falling out the bottom and the chipping layer of cream spray paint flaking onto the torn vinyl. I was sitting at my school desk in the office, picking at the exposed particle board on the corner, reading “The Hollow Men” for the first time. The introduction in my textbook had labeled the poem “post-modern” and was using it as an example of how post-modern poets didn’t care about communicating anything, just wrote their words into meaningless, empty space.

But when I read it . . . it struck a chord buried so deeply inside of me it was a tone I’d never heard before. It resonated, and I felt my whole body thrum like the lowest bell on a campanile. My fifteen-year-old brain had no idea what to do with the poem– there was no “literal” meaning I could grasp, although my textbook included footnotes on some of the symbolism and imagery and allusions. Nothing about it made logical sense, but somehow . . . somehow, I just knew what it meant– but it was a sightless, stumbling, expressionless knowing. I read it countless times that day, over and over again, and I could feel the words soaking into my bones and changing me. I could see “sunlight on a broken column.” I could hear whispering “as quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass.” I could hear the faint echo of children singing “here we go round the prickly pear.” I could touch the “raised stones” in the desert.

The present snapped me back, and returning to that moment jarred me, put my teeth on edge. Something about sitting in that room suddenly felt so tiny and cramped and airless.

“The Hollow Men.” I think I might have interrupted someone in the middle of a sentence. “T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men.'” I met my professor’s eyes, and I felt tears stinging the back of my throat, threatening to make me cry in a room full of people. “The only way I can even begin to understand it is through the sublime, through my emotional response.”

Joy leapt into her face– I don’t know if she knew what I’d just experienced, just remembered, but she understood. “Yes!” she exclaimed, her whole body coming alight with life and energy. “Yes, I know just what you mean. ‘The Hollow Men’ is a perfect example for this.”

At this point, the memory fades out into a ambiguous golden glow. I sat through the rest of the class, beaming to myself.


Even now, when I read “The Hollow Men,” I can feel the same inexorable tug in my viscera. There’s just something there that sings when I read it, and, to this day, I still consider it one of the most beautiful, haunting poems I’ve ever read.

It took me a long time to realize this, but the questions I had about the sublime and Longinus when I walked into that classroom were the absolutely wrong questions. Every person’s emotional response will be different, and yes, this response is completely unquantifiable.

That doesn’t matter.

That doesn’t matter at all.

Emotions, and emotional responses, are treated as less than. As insignificant. As unimportant. As incapable of contributing to a productive discussion. Emotions, and the people that have them, are denigrated, mocked, belittled, and shamed. Reason and intellect are the only things that can make a difference. It’s “just the facts, ma’am,” because how we feel about those facts is beside the point. Or, even daring to have feelings about the facts somehow removes some of the “fact-ness”.

This is wrong. This is completely and utterly inhuman. There’s no dichotomy here. Emotions don’t pose a threat to reason. The best example I can think of is Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “n____,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

That single, beautiful sentence is emotion. It is emotion begging to be heard. The Civil Rights Movement didn’t ultimately begin to succeed because of any one person’s logic, or any lawyer’s ability to debate. It started here– when we, as a nation, looked into the eyes of a six year old girl.

That is what emotion can do, and that is why it is feared and controlled. Because emotion demands a response. Emotion can’t be ignored, or shouted down. Emotion is part of all of us, and when we dismiss it, we fail everything about ourselves.

Social Issues

why fundamentalists hated Harry (hint: it wasn't the magic)

harry potter

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published when I was ten years old. I was not really aware of it– never really heard about it, really, until the first movie was released when I was fourteen. My first encounter with Harry Potter was in World Magazine, which my mother subscribed to for my “current events” papers I had to write for school. It’s a conservative Christian news source, and much like the textbooks we were using, ABeka, it markets itself based on its “Christian worldview.” I read an article by Roberta Ahmanson about the first book, where she said this:

Ms. Rowling has created a character who truly goes where fairy tales have never gone before: Harry, the character every child reader identifies with, the character every child internalizes, is a sorcerer.

Other World Magazine writers, especially Susan Olasky, wrote other reviews as the books and movies released. There was a common thread throughout these reviews, and nearly everyone agreed– Harry Potter books were dangerous, but not necessarily because of the witchcraft, although that was problematic. No, the real problem was that “moral ambiguity and alienation of youth are strong themes.”

Hmm. Moral ambiguity? Did you read the books? Oh, right– what you’re probably talking about is the scene where Harry Potter gets to ride a broom for the first time. Neville Longbottom breaks his arm, and while the professor takes him to the nurse, she tells the remaining students that if any of them try to ride while she’s gone, they’ll be kicked out “faster than you can say Quidditch.” Draco Malfoy grabs Neville’s remembral and flies off with it– Harry chases him down and gets the remembral back. When Professor McGonagall catches him, she rewards him by making him Gryffindor’s “seeker,” a position on the Quidditch team.

And that, my friend, is “moral ambiguity and alienation of youth.” Moral ambiguity because, when Harry defends his friend, another boy who was being bullied, and stands up to the rich and powerful oppressor– he is rewarded. Oh. My. Word. How horrible.

Fundamentalists are incapable of seeing it that way, though. In their head, Harry Potter disobeyed a direct order and he should have been punished. Harry showed initiative, and courage, and he did the morally right thing even though it might have gotten him in trouble– and that is “morally ambiguous.” Harry Potter is teaching our children that it’s ok if they disobey us! They’ll even get rewarded for it! This is terrible! It must be stopped! Several parents said this in a school board meeting when they claimed that the books have a “serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect, and sheer evil.” To many parents, the problem wasn’t the witchcraft– although an entire documentary was made about how the books made witchcraft “look innocent,” and there were tons of others crying out against it as some sort of gateway magic–no, the problem was that it encouraged independence, free thinking, initiative, courage, friendship, and doing what you know is right even when authority figures (like Dolores Umbridge) think you’re wrong– even when you’re a child. That was the real problem. Not our children wanting to become warlocks and wizards– the real terror was that our children might start thinking for themselves.

(side note: when Umbridge takes over Hogwarts and stars implementing all her “crazy” and “insane” rules . . . nearly all of those were actual rules at my fundamentalist college)

And that was when it started. Suddenly, every parent I knew was worried about the books their children were reading. Any book marketed for teenagers, even if it was from a Christian publishing house, was suspect. What is it teaching our youth? Is it teaching them that rebellion (which is as the sin of witcraft) is ok? Does someone break a rule and not get punished for it? Is immorality ever rewarded? Does the out-of-wedlock pregnant teen girl get a boyfriend in the end? Does a girl sneak out at night and never get caught? Does she ever back-talk her mother without being reprimanded?

By the time I got to college, many of my friends had given up reading. Some of us would only read non-fiction and considered fiction a “waste of time.” Fiction books, to teenagers growing up in heavy-handed fundamentalist environments, were a waste of time, because any book that made it through the filter was probably not worth reading. I managed alright– the pastor’s wife had given me an entire set of Reader’s Digest abridged classics because she wouldn’t let her children read them. We went to the library every week, and I could read all the Nancy Drew books my heart could desire– the old yellow ones, mind you. Not the new ones where Nancy jokes and laughs with her father. Those were disrespectful. I read the Boxcar Children books by the bucket load . . . but I wanted more.I managed to read the Jedi Apprentice series, the Chronicles of Narnia, and the Lord of the Rings by sneaking them out of the library, hiding them under the bathroom sink, and reading them a few pages at a time.

When I was in my late teens, the initial reaction was over for most of us. The parents I knew started relaxing . . . but it was too late for those of us who’d been children when Harry Potter came out. Most of us grew up reading nothing except missionary biographies and one-hundred-year-old devotional texts. I was lucky, because I was plucky enough– and loved reading enough– that I persisted even when my authority figures outright forbade me from reading them. I got in trouble a few times when I told fairy tales when I was babysitting. Most of us, however, have been robbed of our rich literary and cultural heritage. We were denied magic, myth, folklore, and faerie. We never got to read books with breadth and scope, that depicted an honest– and sometimes raw– understanding of human nature. Our books, and as a consequence our imagination, were sterilized and then locked in a box.

But, today, I am excited for when I have my own children, that they will get to read. That I will tell them fairy tales as their bed time stories. That I will encourage them to believe in a world that has magic. I am thrilled that my children will grow up in a world where Harry, Percy, Frodo,  and Lucy can be their friends.


escaping complementarianism through escapist literature (why I read romance novels)

romance novels

One of the things that I was extremely grateful for after my ex-fiancé broke our engagement was my student teaching at the Academy. I was working between 100 to 110 hours every week, so until about late October I had no time to really let what had happened get to me. I put off thinking about it until I had the time and space to break down.

So it wasn’t until about a month and a half after the fact that it really hit me– that he had broken off our relationship, and I wasn’t getting married. At this point, a few things started happening, and one of them was that I couldn’t sleep. I was routinely going two or three days without sleeping, and sometime in November I didn’t sleep at all for a solid week. I felt like I was slowly going crazy, and I knew I had to start getting regular sleep– somehow.

I turned to books. I’ve always turned to reading when something in my life was distressing, and this time was no different. I initially went to all the old stand-bys– Lori Wick, Janette Oke . . . but something that I very quickly realized was that the relationships between men and women in standard “Christian romance” novels reflected the same patterns that had existed in my relationship with John*. Books by these women, in particular, espoused a heavily complementarian view of relationships as a model for all relationships, and for reasons I didn’t really understand at the time, it creeped me out.

This was when I discovered romance novels.

I had been taught, from a very early age, that romance novels were utter rubbish. They were the dregs of literature– the basest thing a young woman could possibly put in her head. There have been many accusations made against the entire genre: they bring feminism to a screeching halt. Some believe that romance novels are inherently addictive, that women read these compulsively. One of the more common arguments I’ve heard is that romance novels are either equivalent to visual pornography, or are emotional porn for women (and, for fundamentalists who aspire to maintain emotional purity, this element is especially dangerous). A more unique argument is that romance novels are an example of women trying to fight against the curse— which is our ‘natural state’ apart from Christ. Occasionally, the women who were teaching me about the evils of the romance novel drew distinctions between Harlequin and Jane Austen, but not often. Some arguments pose that romance novels are defined by their “negative characteristics”; if they include erotica, if they are some form of “escapism”, if they encourage discontentment (especially dissatisfaction with your husband), or if they give the reader–and this is probably the most emphasized evil– an unrealistic expectation of love, romance, and marriage.

But I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of that. I needed to escape my life, at least for a few hours at a time. I couldn’t stand the reality I was living in, and I wanted a story to reassure me that love was still a good thing, that falling in love was an experience worth having. In my reality, what I had mistaken for “love” had betrayed me, violently. My “happy ending” was gone, but I wanted to believe that a happy ending still existed– somewhere, even if it was in a book. I bought Johanna Lindsey’s Once a Princess, and I loved every second of it. It was a thrilling chase story, but the plot was uncomplicated and straightforward. It didn’t involve a whole lot of me trying to anticipate the author– at one point, I described romance novels as “macaroni and cheese for the brain.” Sure, it may not have the challenge of Ulysses, but who wants “steak” all of the time?

Looking back, there’s an interesting conundrum surrounding the romance genre. On one hand, the very existence of the romance novel is a feminist realization. Romance novels declare women to be the author of their fate, that they get to choose love, that they have control over their bodies, and they can, shockingly, experience pleasure. The more erotic scenes feature attentive lovers who place the woman at the very center of their attention.* Romance novels, with nearly one voice, declare that a woman is right when she seeks equality, justice– that she deserves to be valued for herself.

Also, this video on the history of the romance novel as a feminist movement is amazing.

On the other hand, romance novels very frequently enforce some shallow gender stereotypes, so there’s that.

But, for me, romance novels helped me re-order my priorities as a woman. It helped me realize that being a strong, feisty, independent, stubborn-as-hell woman was a good thing that I should never surrender to anyone, for any reason. They helped me laugh again, and for a few hours, they could cheer me up. I could believe that love wasn’t always going to hurt me. It painted a picture of different version of male/female relationships, one where the woman had a voice, and was truly an equal partner.

What do you think of the romance novel genre? Does it undermine feminism? Do you think we should exercise more caution if we’re going to read romance novels? Or, has reading a romance novel been a positive experience for you?

*the link is to Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, which I think every single woman on the planet should read. One of her central arguments is that making the woman the primary focus of sex generally makes sex a better experience for everyone.


my own feminist awakening

In order to finish my grad school application, I had to take one more English class, and I chose to take American Women Writers from an online university, as it seemed the most interesting– the literary canon at my undergrad was dominated, nearly exclusively, by WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant– I’d never heard this term until grad school). The only time I remember reading anything by a female author was an excerpt from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor for my American Literature class, and Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch by George Elliot for British Novel. Everything else I read was written by men– even in my English Literature class, as we completely passed over any of the female Romantic and Victorian writers– and didn’t cover post-modernism at all, except for T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, as he wrote that post-conversion and was acceptable. I was totally unaware of the sometimes revolutionary achievements of women in literature, and the first time I heard references to women writers was in the context of Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti — and the only thing she could say to describe it was that it was a “disgusting, horrible little piece and you should be glad I didn’t make you read it.”

I didn’t even realize that this was a gaping hole in my education– that eliminating the feminist writers after 1850 was a deliberate, universal choice made by my university’s professors. I had no real idea the lengths they went to in order to nearly deify the men in the canon. Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were the best, most important writers in English and American literature– and that’s all anyone need know. We even avoided male authors who wrote somewhat feminist views into their writing, like Oscar Wilde. Lolita was treated as barely more than erotic fiction. We never discussed the systematic oppression of women in Victorian England– not even when we read The Mayor of Casterbridge and the main character sells his wife in the opening chapter. My professor made a brief comment on how selling your wife was a common legal practice, and then she moved on.

Even though I wasn’t aware of this gap, I still somehow felt the lack, and my curiosity compelled me to take a class on women writers.

I hated it.

It was one of the most miserable experiences I’d ever had.

I hated most of the books we were required to read. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath repulsed me– Esther’s character was so… so blind. Why wasn’t she grateful for all those amazing opportunities that just landed in her lap? I grew angry with the characters in The Joy Luck Club, as every single one of those daughters spent the entire book disrespecting their mothers. The events in Sethe’s life of Beloved shocked and horrified me. How could she possibly do that to her child? Don’t even get me started on The Poisonwood Bible (stupid book making Christians look bad).

But no book infuriated me more than The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I had trouble even reading it through until the end, and when I reached the final scene when Edna begins swimming, I threw it down in sheer disgust. Her character and all of the events in the plot disgusted me. Edna Pontellier was the absolute worst character I’d even encountered in literature. I despised her.

I also didn’t really like any of the other characters in the book, but the only character I could stand at all was Léonce, Edna’s husband. He could still be maddeningly difficult, but I could at least sympathize with him.

So you can imagine my dismay when most of the postings on the online discussion board were about how much my classmates disliked Léonce. I had trouble taking that in. They liked Edna? How in the world could anyone like that insufferable woman! So, I wrote this:

It was difficult to read about these characters because I reacted so viscerally.  I was drawn to Léonce Pontellier for mostly negative reasons—I liked him because I did not like anyone else. Edna was a selfish, childish, petulant, ego-centric person before her “awakening” and that transformation only exacerbated serious character deficiencies. Adele forces her opinion on other people. Mademoiselle Reisz encourages self-absorption and illicit sin. Robert is a manipulative cad. Léonce is the only central character that acts with morals, principle, character, and is also the only person to have the true motivation of love.

Although he was a man of his time, and hence a bit controlling with a great many expectations, none of those expectations were out or proportion or overly demanding. He is devoted to his wife—he sends her chocolates when he is away, and the night that she refuses to accompany him to bed, he sits with her. When he does express concern over Edna’s complete disregard of responsibility, he does it reasonably. He doesn’t care if she decides not to receive callers— he just asks that she offer an explanation. He doesn’t mind if she pursues art—but he does mind the complete neglect of the household and the children. He tries to keep her focused on the value of her family and her friends. After he consults the doctor, he does his best to “let her alone,” hoping that Edna will come to her senses and see how much he loves her. Not without his own faults and shortcomings, he does his best in a difficult situation. Even after his wife tells him that weddings are a sham and to “go away, you bother me,” he tries to do what is right by her. Maybe if Edna had been mature enough to recognize that she possessed the heart of an honorable man she might have responded differently.


Holy…. mackerel was I BLIND.

Son of a biscuit.

If you’re familiar with patriocentric and complementarian rhetoric, you should easily be able to see how it came spewing out of me, here.

I’ve since read the book again. I’ve read all of these books again, recently.

Esther was a woman born into a society with mountainous expectations and a complete disregard for her suffering.

The Chinese daughters in The Joy Luck Club were caught between two worlds, two cultures, and struggling to make sense of their reality– to love and honor their mothers, and yet still be their own person.

Sethe knew her daughter faced a lifetime of horror, abuse, deprivation, and shame– and in an act of loving desperation tried to save her.

The Price daughters grew up in a household of tyranny and oppression, but still managed to escape and find fulfillment.

And Edna . . . oh, Edna . . .

Edna was me.

Edna Pontellier is every daughter affected by the patriocentric movement. She is every woman who has been told, her entire life, that she can have only one possible purpose, and that purpose is in being the perfect wife and mother. She is every little girl who grows up comfortable and familiar with the lies of people like the Vision Forum who tell us that Victorian society was the brightest moment of human development. She is every woman who has been trapped, controlled, oppressed, and abused by a system that exalts men and tells husbands to “expect their due.”

She was me when I refused to leave my abusive fiancé, when I accepted the curses and the shame he heaped on me. She was me every time I was put down from the pulpit, every time I was told my existence, my body, did not belong to me, that I was the property of some faceless, future man.

Fundamentalism and Christian patriarchy’s worst nightmare is that a woman could realize that she is independent, that she is valuable, that she is a person with wants and wishes and dreams all of her own.

Since my first reading of The Awakening, I’ve had my own. I’ve been lost in life and beauty, overcome and transformed by ethereal powers, drawn, pulled, and caressed by an ocean of new ideas, new thoughts. I can proclaim, with all my heart, that I am woman, hear me roar.

Photo by Tracy

sexism in Christian romance novels

If you haven’t read Who Brings Forth the Wind by Lori Wick, thank your lucky stars.

Done thanking them?


I, unfortunately, have read this book . . . many much more times than I would like to admit. Growing up IFB, your reading choices are pretty limited. Grace Livingston Hill and Elsie Dinsmore top most lists, and nearly every IFB teenager girl I met had a copy of Stepping Heavenward in her purse. My mother was slightly more liberal, and I was allowed to read Lori Wick, Lauraine Snelling, and Janette Oke.

I started to refuse reading this *ahem* tripe after I discovered actual literature– including, but not limited to, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde . . . and Orson Scott Card, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick . . . (I might maybe be a huge geek).

However, I was pretty familiar with Lori Wick’s Kensington Chronicles, including the above. The essentials of the plot are as follows:

Innocent, naive country virgin goes to London for the Season.
Bitter, trust-issues, oppressive and controlling Duke wants her to be his mistress.
She says no, she’ll only be an honest woman.
They get married.
Bitter, trust-issues Duke “catches” her in the arms of another man.
He sends his now-pregnant-but-she-has-no-idea wife away.
She gets saved.
They are re-united.
Years and years and many children and grandchildren later, he gets saved, too.

Follow? Ok. Good.

The question that most of the book centers around lies in the simple question: how does the Duke get saved?

The answer, my friends, is that she is good, obedient, submissive wife, and through her adoring flexibility and compassion, wins his heart. He never would have gotten saved if she had done things like stand up for herself, or her children, and told her abusive husband to go screw himself. No, she was sweet, and loving, and kind, and considerate, and only because of that was he able to understand the Love of God and Come to a Saving Knowledge of Jesus Christ.


One of the most problematic elements, I believe, facing modern conservative evangelicalism is that sexism is so horribly, horribly rampant. It completely saturates nearly everything it touches. The church I attended with my parents for three years after we left the IFB movement was not that much different when it comes to sexism. Women are ignored, regardless of ability, in favor of men filling the same role.

A woman can do it better? No, she can’t! She’s not a man! So, even if she could do it better, no one would follow or trust her, and her leadership would be ineffectual and all her efforts would be fruitless. If a man did it, even poorly, at least he could be respected and people would listen to him.

I attended a Sunday school class that was only women, and the pastor’s wife stood up and explained to us that it was okay that a woman would be speaking, because they’re only women present. Nothing to worry about here, she “joked.”

The associate pastor’s wife stood up and gave a “lesson” on how not “submitting” to your husband is a sin. Her anecdote was an encounter she had with her husband, who asked her where an item he’d lost was. She was doing the dishes. She told him she didn’t know, and why didn’t he look for it, she was busy. Oh, my word, how she sinnnnnned against her husband. She felt so guilty that she immediately dropped what was doing and went and found it for him. Because good wives submit to their husbands. Good wives are “helpmeets.” Good wives drop anything they are doing, always, because they are there to help support their husband, and how can he go and be a Great Christian Leader if he’s distracted by looking for his socks?


There’s been a lot of focus recently, on “biblical manhood” and “biblical womanhood.”

And I’m puzzled because, frankly, I don’t really see any such thing in the Bible.

Can someone please show me where the “Fruit of the Spirit for Men” and the “Fruit of the Spirit for Women” is, because I’ve looked, and I can’t find it. But, supposedly, it’s there.

What I do find are universal calls to service, to action, to love. There’s no difference between a good Christian man and a good Christian woman. We’re both told to seek love, joy, peace, patience, long-suffering, temperance, forgiveness, compassion. In Christ, there is no male nor female. Dividing up all these aspects of Christianity into “manly virtues” and “feminine virtues” is such a load of chickenshit. Follow Christ, and being a good man, or woman, will come.

Photo by Sela Yair

spectacles, seeing it God’s way, and why books are bad

When you ask an IFB man about the 60s, usually his first response is to shudder. Disgust, revulsion, disdain, condescension, and if you’re lucky, maybe even pity, crosses his face. Here’s what I knew about the 60s growing up:

  • free love — which I vaguely thought of under the same heading as “orgy,” although I didn’t know what that was, either.
  • abstract art — also evil, although they didn’t usually mean Rothko. Think Piss Christ.
  • McCarthyism– completely legitimate. Any means of uncovering Communist sympathizers are justified.
  • draft dodgers — Clinton. ‘Nuff said.
  • Woodstock — I had no idea this was a music festival until two years ago.
  • student activism– although, I never heard it called this, but it was the reason why I was discouraged from going to college. Also, the reason why all secular schools are of the Devil. See: Kent State.
  • the Beatles: if you ask an IFB preacher to name the most evil song ever written, he’ll probably tell you “Imagine.” I remember gasping in horror when a friend of mine admitted that “All you Need is Love” was one of her favorite songs.

And that about sums it up. The 60s were bad, but absolutely nothing was worse than Post-Modern Ideologies. To really understand what I’m talking about, you should go watch How Should we Then Live? by Francis Schaeffer. It’s basically The Rise and Fall of the American Empire in video form, and Schaeffer blames a lot of our social and moral problems on the “decadence” of the 60s.

So how do we counter Post-Modern Ideologies, in which our culture is steeped?

The answer, simply, is our Weltanschauung.

Or, more specifically, a “Christian worldview.”

Heard that before?

Thought so.

Here’s the problem with having a “Christian worldview” in an IFB or conservative evangelical culture: you have no hand in the formation of said worldview. When my Sunday school teachers, and, later, my professors, started talking about a “Christian worldview,” what they were really doing is indoctrinating me. Brainwashing me. Having a Christian worldview meant seeing it their way, with no dissension. Dissension was penalized, sometimes severely. I came pretty close to failing a bunch of classes my junior and senior years because I got stubborn. Only my pretty strong desire to get the hell out of there by graduating kept me from antagonizing my teachers more.

I took a class my junior year that helped clarify things for me: British Novel.

I had to write  a paper defining and personalizing my “Christian worldview.”  And I remember having a passing, idle thought while I was writing it:

Boy, Mrs. E probably has to read a lot of the same thing. That must be hideously boring.

And then it hit me: we’re all writing the same thing.

The only way that’s possible, really, is if either: a) all the students are thinking the same thing, or b) all the students know they’re supposed to be thinking the same thing.

Uh-oh, I thought.

The day Mrs. E had announced our “worldview essay,” she put up a slide. It had a pair of 19th century glasses at the top, and underneath it, in bold italics, were the words “God’s spectacles.” She spent the next fifty minutes explaining how to critique literature using a “Christian worldview.” Essentially, Christians need to Judge whether or not a work is acceptable, and we can do this by asking a specific set of questions.

  • Is immorality praised or rewarded, or is the author amoral?
  • Can you see the Gospel Message?
  • Analyze the author’s personal philosophy. Is he a naturalist? existentialist?
  • Do the characters or plot reinforce Absolute Truth?

And so on, but I imagine you get the picture. Now, none of these are, on their own, bad questions. However, they can lead to some bad places when they are coupled with a rabid, vengeful need to criminalize Post-Modern Ideologies. It can also lead to horrible kitsch taking the place of art (see: nearly any book published by Bethany House). And, most notably, it ends up with many of the people I interact with dismissing entire classes and periods of art. I know people who refuse to read anything published after 1940. I know several people who reject any form of fictional narrative.

Two years ago, I found the BBC’s list of the best 100 novels, and an article saying that most people had only read six of them. In a burst of reader’s pride, I posted it on facebook, and put in boldprint the books I’d already read.

I received some harsh criticisms for reading some of the books I had in the comments and through IM. People who had been my friend for many years,  and knew me fairly well, called my faith and my relationship with God into question. How could I have inundated my mind with such, tripe, garbage, filth, trash, bilge, bunk, and, detritus? (oo0h, burn, “detritus”)

Keep in mind that what they were referring to wasn’t even Harry Potter or something conservative Christians are infamous for fervently hating. They were talking about:

  • Wuthering Heights
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Anna Karenina
  • Lord of the Flies
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Lolita
  • Counte of Monte Christo
  • Moby Dick
  • Vanity Fair
  • Les Misérables

But I had dissented. I had read them. I had learned great, abiding, timeless truths from them. I had even, unspeakably, enjoyed some of them. And, Mrs. E, who also spent another class period dedicated to the Unthinkable Horrors and Agonizing Tortures of Graduate School and Literary Theory, would probably smack me over the head with her metaphysical ruler.

Oh, wait. Metaphysical is also a bad word.

Photo by Alexis