Tag: Fundamentalism

13Mar

Religulove

When we enrolled Natalie in first grade last September, we opted out of religion class. Even though we share some fundamental beliefs with the Roman Catholic Church, we weren’t comfortable with her learning doctrine as an academic subject. Frankly, I find it incredibly dangerous when any religion is painted in the same black and white lines as grammar or algebra—right versus wrong, subject to a grade—and I’d like to think that we would have opted out of the class even if it had taught our exact beliefs. (Sunday School is a whole ‘nother ball of wax, but it’s easier to discuss what the girls learn there without having to discredit the entire academic system.)

I was at peace with our decision until we picked Natalie up after her first Friday at school. She was as cheerful as ever, happily recounting how she had gotten to go out in the hallway during religion hour and watch the other teachers have their coffee. I was… less cheerful. Bit by bit, Dan and I uncovered that Natalie was the only child in the entire elementary school in the entire course of its history to opt out of religion class, and the teachers didn’t know what to do with her other than send her out of the room. My heart thudded straight down onto our granite tiles.

I know all too well what it is to be the odd child out… the only kid at the grocery mid-morning, the only girl in our homeschool group wearing a jumper, the only teen not pledging for True Love Waits. I remember the icy sense of exposure and the sharp loneliness, and I’ve never, ever, evereverever wanted to subject my daughters to them. However, that’s exactly what I found myself doing that Friday, wielding religious principles that banished my six-year-old to the hallway.

I hurt all over for her, but Natalie was clearly not bothered by skipping class, so Dan and I didn’t push the issue. Instead, we talked to the teachers and arranged for her to join the other first-grade class while hers was doing religion. Some of the other parents overheard us, and the next Friday, Natalie was joined by a little boy. For all the countercultural drama we were putting her through, at least she was no longer alone.

The subject of religion class hasn’t really come up in the months since, but this morning, the little boy’s mother caught up with me after school drop-off. “Guess what I found!” she chirped, taking my arm as if this were the seventy millionth instead of the very first time we’d talked. (I immediately wanted to kick myself for not introducing myself sooner. Or, you know, at all.) “Looking through my son’s workbook, I found a little note he had written during religion hour: ‘Dear Natalie, you are beautiful!’” We laughed together, and I felt a little like crying and a little like skipping all at once. She asked about our church (evangelical), and I asked about theirs (Muslim), and it didn’t matter a single bit that some members of both our religions dedicate energy to hating each other. Our faiths didn’t affect our ability to be friends.

And yes, I know I’m realizing things all the time on this blog that are probably common sense to most people and it’s got to be irritating by now, but I realized in those three minutes of conversation that this is the lesson we’re teaching Natalie with our lives here. She and her classmates might not attend the same church, but our families’ homes are open to each other. We share meals and swap recipes and give each other’s children rides, and if I hadn’t been bracing myself so hard against alienation, I might have noticed sooner that there was no need. Our differences don’t prevent us from loving each other well. Our separate journeys with God don’t make us enemies. That this is even possible makes my soul giddy with hope, and I find myself grateful in a way I couldn’t have imagined last September that my daughter gets a front-row seat.

27Feb

How I Talk to Little Girls (And Why)

It popped up on my Facebook feed last summer once, twice, fifteen times before I started seeing it discussed on prominent blogs. Entire circles of social media lit up at once in a universal Aha! moment at the idea that we are doing a grave disservice to little girls when we compliment their beauty. Lisa Bloom’s article is fascinating and powerful (if you haven’t read it yet, it’s well worth three minutes of your time!), and I am grateful that voices like hers are being heard over the endless glittery din of beauty propaganda. I appreciate her point that commenting on a girl’s beauty disrespects her mind and sets her up for a lifetime of body image issues. However, I also disagree.

I grew up within an extreme religious subculture that required parents to squelch their parental instincts in favor of specific protocol. Our lifestyle encouraged education and Colonial-era homemaking skills while discouraging physical beauty, so most of the compliments I heard growing up fell under the category of accomplishments. My parents freely celebrated my brains and talents, but what I heard even more acutely was the silence when I’d model a new dress.

We didn’t have a television and I wasn’t allowed to look at magazine covers at the grocery store, but some innate girlish part of me had an idea of what beautiful looked like, and I knew it wasn’t me. Few things throughout my childhood hurt as badly as looking in the mirror each morning and feeling sure that if I were even the tiniest bit pretty, someone would have mentioned it to me. I despised my fair skin, my strawberry-blonde hair, and my gangly legs with their perpetually skinned knees, and I absolutely loathed the freckles splattered across my cheeks. In fact, I carried such a low view of my appearance with me to university that I had no response the first time a classmate told me I was beautiful. Clearly, the man was a few fries short of a Happy Meal. (Love you, dear!)

Self-esteem is an ongoing issue for me, but I determined early on not to pass my history of mirror-hate on to my two daughters. The first half of my strategy is by far the hardest: appreciating myself. Every disparaging comment I make about my figure, every gesture of disgust or embarrassment, every dismissal of compliments is soaked up immediately by my girls’ big blue eyes, and it’s scary as hell to remember that I am their introduction course to womanhood. My words about myself will affect what they see in the mirror for their entire lives, and you know what? That day when they survey their own stretch-marked mama bodies and feel like someone rearranged them without their consent and consider the merits of muu-muus and wonder where to even begin with the concealer, even then they will be radiantly beautiful. Which means I have to accept the possibility that I am too.

The other part of my strategy is less about reversing thought patterns and more about giving my instincts permission to love unabashedly. My girls are both artistic, imaginative, curious, and kind; they do brave things and learn from mistakes, and I let them know how much I admire them for it. They are also beautiful. It’s the truth, and my defense against mother-bias is that I’ve never met a little girl who wasn’t beautiful. Their innocence and mischief, their uninhibited smiles, the darling gaps of missing teeth, the residual glow from heaven’s handprint… pure beauty, yes?

I can’t keep such precious, transformative truth a secret, so I tell them. I talk with my daughters about books and brains, but I also let them know how their loveliness fills my eyes to overflowing. It’s just a comment here or there, nothing pre-meditated, but when their daddy smiles proud and tells them they’re beautiful, both six-year-old Natalie and four-year-old Sophie respond in delight: “I know!” There is no trace either of self-deprecation or of conceit (though I’m working with them on a more socially acceptable response) and not even a whisper of wishing they were different. They are beautiful, just as themselves, and they know it.

I follow the same philosophy when talking to the girls’ friends. Their appearances are never the focus of conversation, but I also don’t ignore their new haircuts or sparkling smiles or the outfits they cheerfully cobbled together themselves. I am all too aware of the images and ads that will dog them their whole lives about not being skinny or tan or fashionable enough, and I hope that my voice carries more than its share of weight when it tells them that they are enough. Even in first grade, they are inside-and-out beautiful, and I want them to know this to their core before marketing campaigns try to convince them otherwise.

I believe that we are doing a grave disservice to little girls when we ignore any part of who they are in an effort to control their priorities. I believe that our instinct to celebrate their loveliness in addition to their intelligence and courage and talent exists because we are meant to be holistic beings—soul, spirit, mind, and body. I believe that beauty and brains are in no way mutually exclusive and that we need to stop perpetuating the myth of Either-Or. I believe that our children need to hear every bit of the good we see in them and need to hear it often enough to start answering from a place too far within them for media onslaughts to touch…“I know!”

13Feb

Like a Child

Last September, Sarah Bessey shared an incredibly touching post about the prayer of a two-year-old girl when she didn’t know how to express hurt over her parents’ failing marriage. The little girl simply prayed through her tears, “Jesus. Mommy. Daddy.” and trusted that he would understand.

Perhaps that post touched such a deep chord with me because I don’t know how to put words to prayers either. In the religious culture of my childhood, prayer was a minefield requiring spiritually PC language and doctrinal gymnastics while we conjured up select interpretations of scripture like robed genies to our aid. Talking to God required as much ceremony and flattery as approaching a volatile dictator; it was more strategic groveling than anything, and it wounded me all the more for being labeled as love.

I knew the right words, but they came to represent a complicated and soul-mangling kind of subservience to me. Even now, if someone puts me on the spot to pray aloud, I can feel the old scripts grind into my heart with muddy boot heels. (Hopefully, no one notices me tripping flat over the initial “Dear God…”) For all my belief in a rule-breaking, boundlessly loving God and in miracle answers, I still can’t bring myself to frame requests with words. I won’t go back to groveling for scraps of divine favor.

So I feel prayer, and I soak it in through my headphones, and I breathe it on the open air, and I feel our connection the way I sense light through my eyelids. However, none of it quite replaces the intentionality of conversation… and so I turn to this.

Jesus. Dan.

Jesus. Natalie.

Jesus. Sophie.

Jesus. The friend being torn slowly apart by divorce proceedings.

Jesus. The friend heartbroken by infertility.

Jesus. The loved ones facing major life decisions.

Jesus. Our own major life decisions.

Jesus. Our finances.

Jesus. Our marriage.

Jesus. This complicated soul-life I wrestle and grow and wake with.

And I trust him to understand.

7Aug

Redress

It was prayer request time, the same way every other Sunday School class of my childhood had ended, and I was trying to think of something innocuous to say. The previous week after my dabble in hyperbole, my teacher had prayed earnestly that God would calm my fears of dying a gory, cancerous death from my head cold. The rest of the 7th grade girls had nearly hyperventilated with snickering. This morning though, they simply looked bored. I wished I could master the look too, but I suspected it required mascara and/or cleavage. Also, it’s pretty hard to look bored when your bangs are pointing skyward in defiance of your otherwise flat hair (and all known laws of fashion).

L, the femme fatale of the group, finally raised a manicured hand. “I’d like to ask for prayer for my little brother,” she purred. “He’s struggling with jealousy because my parents won’t let him wear jeans to church.” She rested her hand just so on her stonewashed flares and fixed me in a catty stare. The other girls followed suit.

I wanted to die. Even a gory, cancerous death via head cold would have been preferable to sitting there facing down the 7th Grade Girls Sunday School Coolness Squad. I knew as well as everyone in the room (excluding our oblivious teacher perhaps) that L’s prayer request was a work of artisanal malice handcrafted just for me, but how was I supposed to defend myself? I was, after all, wearing a dress.

The last dress I had seen on any of my contemporaries had been two years before, and it had been a chic little number with barely-there sleeves and tailored lines. My dress, on the other hand, was designed with shoplifters in mind. The skirt alone could have concealed a bin of foursquare balls, the sleeves already resembled 3-liter bottles, and let’s not underestimate the potential of a colonial-era collar billowing over a repressed chest.  In that moment, I thought what I had thought a thousand times before with all the determination of an Uncool Kid who has no other recourse: When I grow up, I will NEVER wear dresses.

~~~

I haven’t quite stuck to my guns on this one. My husband’s suits hang in front of a handful of sequiny formals I wore in college (and should probably relinquish to the dress-up bin), and I invested in an unpretentious sweater dress before job interviews last winter. However, dresses for church? Well, here’s a typical Sunday morning scenario from pretty much my entire adult life:
I open up the closet whispering, I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.
I take out a dress reminding myself, This one is actually cool; normal people wear things like this.
I put on the cursed garment mumbling through gritted teeth, Lo, I will fear no dresses for I am now a grown woman.
I look in the mirror.
I cry.
I throw the dress into the back of the closet and put on jeans.

Something’s been shifting for me lately though. Maybe it’s having enough birthdays under my belt that I finally feel more like a bona fide grown up and less like a ten-year-old in high heels. Maybe it’s accepting my girls’ absolute refusal to wear pants because skirts are so pretty, watch me twirl, wheeee! Maybe I finally have the magical amount of distance from that Sunday School room with the catty stares and the loathing of all things poofy. Whatever the reason may be, I spent my birthday money this year on something that would have shocked my 7th grade self—something whimsical, orange (really, is there any better color in the world?), and decidedly dress.

Folks, I wore it to church this morning…

Dressed to heal

 

…and I didn’t even cry.

30Jul

Breaking the Rules

I’m sitting halfway out of an open window, bare feet double-dipped in sunlight, espresso and milk on the rocks in my favorite mug. It’s just what I needed after a week of sulking weather and self-doubt. It’s also the first time in awhile I’ve been able to sit and corral all the little thought-bytes sifting around my soul, and seeing the bigger picture of what I’ve been processing piecemeal lately is its own kind of sunlight therapy.

Here’s the thing—

If traditional, commonly-accepted Christian interpretations of the Bible are true, then I am a better parent than God is (even when I’m grumpy).
The “good news” is just one facet of the worst news imaginable.
Free will is a test designed to fail.
There is no such thing as unconditional love.
The end justifies pretty much any means.
Jesus was a terrible evangelist.
It really is all up to me.

I have done enough mucking around in my soul over the last decade to say this with absolute certainty: If traditional, commonly-accepted Christian interpretations of the Bible are true, then I want nothing to do with God.

Nothing.

My philosophy professor in college taught that we are only motivated by a desire for truth, and I want to argue with him as strongly now as I did at my desk nine years ago. The idea that a God whose master plan involves eternal torture for most of humankind might really be truth is the thought that sends my spirituality into hiding the most quickly. If it’s true, then I’m damned anyway because I cannot—and would not, even if I could—love the orchestrator of infinite cruelty.

The spin on all of this is that I have felt God. I’ve looked miracles full in the face. I know the thrill of a nudged heart, the mystery of peace replacing panic, and the deep-rooted sparkle of love breaking rules, and the rule it’s breaking down right now is that I have to choose between my own conscience and truth… or at least other people’s version of truth.

Here in the sunlight, this statement doesn’t seem to carry the weight of all its sleepless nights and shadowed days, but I’ll say it anyway: I believe in God. This belief isn’t a thing I can dismiss any more than I can will away cloudy Julys or untannable skin or a questioning mind, but I’ve come to recognize it requires sacrifice on my part. I have to give up the notion that any of the seven translations of Bibles on our bookshelf is a perfect, untouched directive straight from divine lips. I have to let go of the mental hierarchy we make of religious leaders/teachers/authors with us laypersons on the rung marked “Irrelevant.” I have to say goodbye to my reputation as a good Christian and welcome labels like “heretic,” “apostate,” and “disturber of the peace.”

In essence, I have to give up the three things much of Christianity is built on—Bible worship, traditional teachings, and the appearance of holiness. I would never have imagined sacrifice for the sake of my beliefs looking like this. (Avoiding miniskirts and cigarettes? Well duh. Martyrdom? Sure. But voluntarily free-falling off the edge of orthodoxy? Uh… no.) However, if my path lies somewhere outside of traditional, commonly-accepted Christian interpretations of the Bible,
and if Jesus was a glimpse of the true God,
and if the heart-nudges I’ve felt are merely previews,
and if unconditional love matters, wins, is
then I’m willing to give up everything I’ve ever stood for—and then some—to find out where this belief will take me.

If I’m not mistaken, this is what they call faith.

 

25May

Untethered

I don’t know where to start writing about this, even just for myself. It’s too big for me, too heavy, and my soul just wants to stretch out on a beach chair in some blissfully deserted part of the world and fall asleep to the sound of waves. How do I write through where I am now without coming across as fickle or, as more than one person has suggested, deluded?

It’s true—my perspective was warped by years of religious brainwashing and abuse in God’s name—but if nothing else, growing up with people who swallowed someone else’s ideology taught me not to do the same. I refuse to adopt a belief system just because others tell me to, and that applies to Christianity as well. Have I ever believed in God because my own story and experiences led me there? Have I ever even had that option?

I once thought that every good thing that happened to me was an act of divine benevolence. Scholarships, job offers, relationships, fast recoveries, relationships—each a personalized stamp of God’s approval and generosity.  What does that mean for my friends who had to work their way through college though? What of my friends living off of unemployment? What of those who didn’t meet Mr. Right or never recovered or had their homes destroyed by a natural disaster or went bankrupt or lost a child? Where I used to see God’s puppet strings, I now see coincidence because I can’t deal with the implications of an all-powerful benefactor playing favorites.

It doesn’t mean God isn’t good. Rachel Held Evans wrote about the same internal debate, and I’m relieved to know that the struggle isn’t confined to my own head and that others have found other ways of measuring God’s goodness. In nature, for instance, I can’t help seeing the beauty of its blueprint… but I don’t see perfection, and I don’t see personal intention. Whether the sky cooperates for someone’s outdoor wedding or a hurricane devastates thousands of families, I simply see a flawed universe set to random.

And I understand now more than ever why some Christians I know cling to their beliefs at the expense of everything else in their lives, even peace of mind. Coming untethered from a doctrinal picket line is a frightening experience, and there is only a hairline difference between feeling liberated and feeling lost (I tend to vacillate between the two). I can’t turn off my questions any more than I can turn off my instinct to breathe, but I wish I could. Some days, I am absolutely certain I would choose unthinking acceptance over this mind that tracks down holes more easily than it does happiness.

I have problems with a lot of people who claim to take their marching orders directly from God, and this casts doubt on the whole notion of a converted life (at least a life converted from assholery). I have even bigger problems with the Bible, questions that I fear have no answers aside from churchy platitudes, and as much as I might want to, I cannot sincerely subscribe to the whole traditional Christianity package. I cannot accept that a loving God created people for heaven and then set their defaults to hell. I cannot believe that a Jesus who taught turning the other cheek represents the same deity who went around wiping out heathen nations in the Old Testament. I cannot see my way past the violence or the inconsistencies or the staggering injustice of what some call the “Good News.” I just can’t.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this leaves me. I’m not rejecting faith, but I can’t flash a denominational membership card either, and even the space just beyond the old tether’s radius is unfamiliar territory. My biggest hope is that God isn’t tied to the picket line either and that my uncertain journey forward will bring us face to face, maybe in an open-air café without closing hours where he can answer every question I’ve ever penned in my journal or posed to uncomprehending pastors or sensed without being able to articulate. More than anything, I want God to be real and different than I was always told, and I think this longing counts as faith for me right now. And if I am simply deluded, I  pray I’ll eventually stumble across that beach chair.

 

5May

Eucharift

Our church doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas. I’ve heard of other churches that choose not to as well, most citing pagan or consumerist holiday origins as the reason, but ours shies away from it for the opposite reason: it’s too religious. More specifically, it’s too Catholic.

I sympathize with their need to differentiate themselves from the national religion. Here in Italy, the Pope is held up as truth incarnate, and the small Brethren congregation with which we share Sunday mornings is anxious to dispel the notion of religious royalty. In fact, we don’t even have a paid pastor. All church members are seen as equal participants among each other and with God, and the inclusive environment is incredibly welcome for those like me who run screaming from the word “orthodoxy.”

I’m not sure how welcome a Catholic visitor would feel though. While it isn’t often said aloud, the general consensus seems to be that Catholics do not know the real God; they base their lives on superstition, worship idols, and enslave themselves to greed (the clergy) or fear (the parishioners). They need to be saved just as badly as Buddhists or even Wiccans do.

However, I simply can’t make the stereotype match up with the Catholics I personally know. It’s easy enough to say a certain denomination (or religion, depending on your viewpoint) has it all wrong, but can I honestly make that verdict about my Catholic friend who prays regularly for me and launches heart-to-hearts about our life’s passions? What about my ex-fundamentalist friend who finds solace from her oppressive past at Mass every week? What about the devout family friends who uprooted their lives to keep a mentally disabled relative from losing her inheritance?

How can I say that I, with my ever-evolving doubts and struggles, have exclusive rights to the God we all seek?

I twice attended Mass when I was living in the States, and both times, I stayed conspicuously in my seat while the rest of the church filed to the front for the Eucharist. I reasoned that I was merely an onlooker of a foreign religious ritual and that participating would be on par with apostasy. (Never mind that my own church’s monthly communion service was essentially the same thing, give or take a priest.) If I were to go back now, though, it wouldn’t be as a tourist. Rather, I’d go as a fellow believer, doubter, stumbler, and seeker. And while I probably wouldn’t agree on a lot of doctrinal points, and while the reverent liturgy of the service might chafe my nonconformist sensibilities, and while my current church could have some strong opinions over it (thankfully, we don’t do excommunication), the slot vacated by my superiority complex would be just about the right size for a concept called loving my neighbors… and maybe even learning from them too.

Rally to Restore Unity

[Joining the Rally to Restore Unity going on this week on Rachel Held Evans’ blog. Want to play along?]

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