Tag: Theology

25May

When a Good Offense is the Best Defense for Abuse

Growing up Quiverfull, I was always aware that we had more to prove than ordinary families did. When we attracted public stares, whether for being out on a school morning or simply for the novelty of so many stair-step children at the salad bar, my siblings and I took our cue to behave as much like miniature, meek adults as possible. I, as the oldest of eight, took this especially to heart. When relatives brought up concerns over my parents’ choice to homeschool, I knew that my grades were our first line of defense. When various adults from church took me aside and told me I could talk to them about anything, I said thank you and clamped my mouth tight around my smile.

Our lifestyle was hard to defend, which made defending it all the more essential to us.

The truth is that we adopted fundamentalist ideologies like patriarchy, authoritarian parenting, and legalism out of fear, not because they bettered our lives. We believed thunder-voiced leaders who told us that isolation from the world was the only way to save our souls. God’s wrath was a specter shadowing every aspect of our daily life from what we ate to how childish energy should be managed, and when we suffered, it was for our own failure to measure up. Telling onlookers the truth was never an option.

Instead, we took up offense as our best defense.

We proclaimed that public-schoolers were idiots with inferior educations as we hid the fact that one of my siblings struggled with learning disabilities that only got worse through horrific at-home “treatments.”

We loudly judged the physical and emotional closeness we saw in couples who were dating (as opposed to family-chaperoned “courting”) while we buried shameful secrets about what can happen in a family when the males are given authority over the females’ bodies.

We declared that children were not safe around homosexuals or social workers or atheists or Democrats even as my siblings and I wore extra clothes to cover the bruises we had sustained in our own home.

I was used as an example of how successful the Quiverfull movement was in producing superior future leaders who would take back the United States for God, though I was told in private that I had no potential and no character, that I was stupid and regrettable and damned.

It’s clear to me in retrospect that promoting our lifestyle was a strategy to deflect attention away from our dysfunction. Mind you, I’m not sure that it worked. My husband points out that having adults continually offer me a listening ear wasn’t normal; many people in our church and neighborhood must have sensed that our home life was much less idyllic than we pretended. However, our loyalty to our beliefs was our shield, and if we had been offered a reality television show from which to champion our choices, I believe we would have taken it.

Yes, this is about the Duggar scandal. It’s about why I was so utterly unsurprised last week when news broke that Josh Duggar has a history of sexually preying on young girls including several of his sisters. While the circumstances of our childhoods were not identical, the ideologies behind them were, and I know firsthand how quickly evil can incubate in an isolated and repressive environment.

It’s no coincidence that Bill Gothard, founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles whose lifestyle teachings heavily influenced both my family and the Duggars, was ousted from his organization last year after thirty-four accusations of sexual abuse by women who worked for him. Nor is it mere chance that Doug Phillips, founder of another Christian organization that widely promoted patriarchy, homeschooling, and other common tenants of the Quiverfull lifestyle, has had his life unravel over the last year after news of his infidelity and a sexual abuse lawsuit by his children’s former nanny. Despite how adamantly these two men spoke out against worldliness and impropriety during their careers, their positions of “God-sanctioned” power gave them the perfect opportunity to act on their impulses. Perhaps it’s even why they spoke so adamantly.

The best defense is a good offense, and how can you better divert attention from your own sexual behavior than to preach against others’? How can you further distance yourself from a history of child molestation than to take a job publicly implying that LGBT individuals are a threat to children? How can you cover up the sexual abuse perpetrated on and by your children any more thoroughly than to publicize yourselves as the model Christian family? “The lady doth protest too much” may not apply to every situation, but Shakespeare was a better judge of human character than most.

My point is that none of us should be surprised by the news of Josh Duggar’s crimes or his parents’ attempts to cover them up. The system of beliefs under which he and I both grew up creates an environment in which the powerful can inflict abuse with few repercussions, their victims can be made to feel responsible, and defending the family lifestyle is more important than helping the family heal. Growing up Quiverfull taught me to hide family secrets through misdirection, offering up my ultra-modest wardrobe and political rants and Bible memorization trophies to public scrutiny so that no one would guess the horrors happening behind the scenes. Last week’s news is just another reminder that I was not alone in this.

As sickening as the Duggar scandal is to hear, I’m hopeful that its exposure will offer a counterpoint to the façade of a happy, healthy family that they’ve televised over the last six and a half years. The cocktail of movements I call Quiverfull for lack of a more comprehensive term is nothing to be admired. Rather, it is a control-based system that allows—and sometimes encourages—different forms of abuse while publicly touting itself as God’s ideal, and the more people who recognize this in the wake of current news, the more understanding and support we will be able to offer its victims.

21Nov

Jesus Gives (or, How Is This Thing Worth It?)

Possibly the most significant search of my adult life has been for honest theology.

By that, I mean I’ve been seeking out ways of understanding God that don’t require me to shut down my curiosity, ignore my doubts, or twist pieces of the puzzle until they finally fit into the bigger picture. This isn’t to say that I’m against any sense of mystery in my spiritual journey. In fact, getting comfortable with not-knowing has helped me more than textbooks full of pat answers ever did. I just want to be sure that the experts who talk to me about God and the Bible and the difficult points of Christianity have wrestled their way through the kinds of questions that I do. I want my doctrine to come with rug burns. 

I’m sharing today at A Deeper Story about one such question and the grammar lesson that helped me toward an answer. There’s no expert advice here, but I can guarantee you this—

It’s honest.

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

My philosophy professor was a bright-eyed man with a Shakespearean sense of humor, but even that did not help me feel goodwill toward him the day our class discussion turned toward Jesus. It wasn’t that our views on Jesus were so very different. After all, we were at an evangelical Christian university with a strong Southern Baptist bent; folks there might disagree on whether the wine of Jesus’ first miracle wasn’t in fact Welch’s grape juice, but we all took as a given that Jesus was God incarnate and the basis of our faith.

It was the why behind my professor’s faith that made me feel as though a swarm of midges had invaded the classroom.

“We follow Jesus because he is The Truth,” my professor declared, all but dusting his hands with the certainty of his words. “Seeking truth is our greatest motivation in life, and God is true. That’s why Christianity has flourished throughout time. It’s why all of you are Christians today.”

I had to fight back an impulse to jump to my feet spluttering like a shaken can of Coke.

Instead, I raised my hand and explained—hopefully more calmly than I felt—that I disagreed. That not even God expects us to follow him out of a pure, Buddha-esque devotion to truth. That the Bible is full of incentives: healing, hope, blessing, joy, the divine trump card of salvation, even imperviousness to poison. That we follow God not out of some sense of philosophical duty but because he makes us an offer we can’t refuse.

My professor looked at me like I had just stepped off the madman set of King Lear, and I spent the rest of the class silent, fuming, and a little shocked by the intensity of whatever was fizzing around inside of me. So what if my professor approached spirituality as a quest for truth? Why should his view on the matter provoke such wild resistance in me?

The answer, as I was later able to articulate to myself in the privacy of my dorm room, was that I’d already experienced enough Truth to last me the rest of my life and then some. My childhood faith had been mapped out in the stark lines of right versus wrong. I’d learned to follow God because he demanded it of me, and how else do you react to a deity holding all the cards? You play along. You nod your head yes sir and no sir. You worship as instructed. You sing “I love you Lord” while trying to convince yourself that the emotion sweeping you isn’t actually the definition of holy terror.

College is where I finally began to extricate myself from the tyranny of Truth. Friends prayed with me weekly that I’d be able to absorb the idea that God loved me—really loved me, with the kind of crinkle-eyed affection that might just mean he liked me too—and I started to curate bits and pieces of a new perspective on Christianity that would welcome my heart and soul and experiences and emotions and curiosity in addition to my mind. I was only toe-deep into this process though when my philosophy professor declared that our ultimate goal is Truth and sent my fragile new setup spinning.

Why, REALLY? I wanted to ask him. My soul had been chafed threadbare by esoteric arguments; what I needed was for God’s goodness to be real, observable, woven through the fabric of everyday me. I needed someone to look me straight in the eyes and tell me what drew them back to Jesus when the costs began to mount. How was following God worth it?

/ / /

Just over a year ago, we moved from one side of our neighborhood to the other, a distance of about half a mile. My husband and I decided to move partly because it would reduce our rent by half (one small plus of the economic crisis) but also because we felt cut off from our purpose in the beautiful large house on the hill. The image that we felt ourselves projecting from that house was one of wealth, self-sufficiency, and pulled-togetherness, even if reality sang a different tune. To be honest, it was gratifying to be seen as people winning at life. However, we felt the hollowness of that as well, the vertical distance it was creating between others and us. Our pulled-together appearance was only an illusion, but it was an isolating one, and after four years there, Jesus’s words on social justice had stopped making sense to us.

So we moved. We found a fifth-floor apartment on the other side of the neighborhood that would meet our work-from-home needs, and we began to understand just how much of a difference half a mile can make. Where my writing desk used to look out over olive groves, it now faces a row of gray government-subsidized housing. Our girls play with neighborhood kids on the concrete patio beneath our building instead of in a private backyard. The cloak of respectability is worn thin here, and we see brokenness lived out on the public stage of our block every day—domestic disputes, child abuse, mental illness, shouts of “Whore!” and “Bitch!” reverberating through broad daylight.

We’re out of the bubble just as we’d hoped. We’re finally getting the chance to wrap our arms around neighbors in crisis and engage meaningfully with our community. The cost though… Oh friends, the cost. I’d anticipated the sacrifice of our time, our mental energy, and our convenience, but I hadn’t considered that we’d also have to let go of our expectations. I hadn’t realized that the happy ending clause I’d tacked onto my willingness to serve was going to be rendered obsolete almost immediately. I’ve had to face that, in all likelihood, the people I help aren’t going to reward me by getting better,and it’s shaken up old questions to splutter and fizz around inside me.

Why continue? Why carry out Jesus’s directives to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger and love the enemy when I don’t get to claim any [immediate or measurable] benefits? How is following God worth what it’s costing me? What gives, Jesus?

For better or worse, I’ve always needed to know what God offers in terms I can wrap my hopelessly practical mind around. “Fire insurance” isn’t a good enough reason for me; neither is the search for truth or the promise of heaven or any number of moral pats on the back. My impatient streak takes over and requires that I know exactly what Jesus is bringing into my here and now.

Which brings me to the major difference between my questions twelve years ago at college and my questions today: an answer.

A few years ago, I was reading through Raising Hell by Julie Ferwerda when a certain paragraph stopped me short. In it, the author points out that John 3:16 was originally written in the present progressive tense instead of the future one that most of us are familiar with. (Any of you allergic to grammar, just bear with me a second.)

“For thus God loves the world, so that He gives His only-begotten Son, that everyone who is believing in Him should not be perishing, but may be having life age-abiding.” (Concordant Literal Translation)

Ferwerda argues that the use of the present progressive—is believing, not be perishing, may be having life—is intentional and meant to convey that both salvation and soul-death are current processes. “Think of it like a green plant thriving by a water source, or withering away for lack of water,” she writes. Spiritual life or death now. Heaven or hell here. Salvation not as an insurance policy but as an active component of the life I lead every day. Kingdom, come.

The name Immanuel has been breaking me open and putting me back together lately because I really can sense God with me, setting the world right through touches of divine nonsense–my door opened to a neighbor who’s not going to change but who needs love anyway; a neighbor’s door opened to me even though my savior complex is showing; grace in the present progressive for us all. This grace is the why for me, the offer I can’t refuse. It’s what redeems the everyday moments and the cost of persistence. It’s the truest evidence of Immanuel to me, the truest expression of healing and hope and salvation-in-real-time, so true in fact that even I might be persuaded to call it The Truth.

 

image source (art by Banksy)

24Sep

The Motherheart of God: A New Picture

I had the singular pleasure of getting to know Adriel Booker this summer over ravioli and wine in a medieval village overlooking the fields of Tuscany at sunset. (It did not suck.) She’s a stunning lady, inside and out, whose own stories of unconventional faith and expat living could have fueled a month’s worth of “Me too!” style dinner conversations if only we’d had the time. She’s hosting a beautiful series on her blog about the nurturing, female aspects of God’s character—something that tends to be overlooked, dismissed, or even denounced as heresy in mainstream Christian circles—and I’m honored to be sharing my story as part of it today:

~~~

I was nine or ten, around the age that my own wide-eyed, freckle-nosed daughter is now, when the Children’s Director at my church picked The Ten Commandments for movie night. My friends and I were not overly enthusiastic about the choice; we would rather have given our church’s bedraggled McGee and Me VHS collection another spin than watched a Bible drama from our grandparents’ generation. Nevertheless, two scenes from the movie caught my full attention. One was the Halloween-worthy arrival of the Angel of Death, portrayed by a creeping vapor that poisoned firstborn sons on the spot. (It still gives me the shivers.) The other was the moment that Moses raised his arms under a roiling black sky in order to part the Red Sea. That image snapped into my mind like a missing puzzle piece. It was the exact visual representation of everything my young heart believed about God.

Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments

The fierce intensity in Charlton Heston’s eyes, his dominating stance, the power symbolized by his arm-cuffs, even his thickly silvered beard—all of it filled in my mental image of God as neatly as if Charlton himself had graced the pages of my Bible. That God was a muscly Caucasian man in his sixties, I had no doubt. Perhaps that had already been suggested to me through Bible cartoons or maybe it was a projection of my own small worldview, but I knew exactly what I was seeing when Moses spread his arms across our church’s TV screen: Father. Judge. Ruler. Smiter. The Divine Patriarch. The All-Powerful Begetter. God.

This visual cemented itself onto my mind’s eye and didn’t budge for many, many years. When I had my heart broken as a teen and tried to find comfort in prayer, I couldn’t get past the image of God’s penetrating glare. When I got engaged to my husband and found myself yo-yoing between hopes and fears about our upcoming marriage, I felt sure that the God who waged wars and parted seas couldn’t care less about my emotional upheaval. When I entered the misty and profoundly tender world of motherhood, I felt more removed than ever from this deity with his big beard, big stick, and wild eyes. I could no more imagine him nurturing than I could imagine him putting on a pink uniform and dishing up ice cream at the mall.

Aside from deliberate sin, womanhood felt like the furthest possible point one could be from God on the spectrum of humanity.

Five years ago, however, Charlton-Heston God was chipped out of my perspective over the course of a single Sunday morning.

{Continue reading over at Adriel’s place}

image source

10Sep

Book Stories: The Meme

No doubt you’ve seen it making the rounds through Facebook:

“List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t think too hard or try to give ‘right’ answers, just write down 10 that have affected you/moved you/caused you to neglect your family, job, and basic hygiene for 36 hours straight/invaded your dreams/ prompted you to abandon dignity in favor of cosplay* or fan fiction/necessitated the author’s taking out a restraining order against you.”

*Not a sex act, sorry. “Cosplay” is short for costume play, which is short for dressing up like something else, which is admittedly delightful and fun but almost certainly not dignified.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve bounced up and down in your computer chair willing someone to tag you so you too can compile your list. Such is the power of the meme that one is not psychologically able to start thinking about her 10 books until she has been granted permission to do so by social media. (Please tell me I’m not the only one with a compulsive respect for pointless or nonexistent boundaries.) To the relief of my list-loving heart, I have now been tagged (thanks, Rachael!), and rather than listing my ten books as a Facebook status, I wanted to introduce them here, Book Stories style.


(Eggplant nails at Erika’s request)

1. Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery

When I first read the Anne of Green Gables series as a girl, I only really liked the first book about Anne’s childhood and then the three final books about her children’s escapades. The middle books about Anne’s career hopes, love interests, and coming-of-age heartaches bored me… until one day, they didn’t. I was in between college semesters and boyfriends of my own when I picked Anne of Avonlea off my dusty bookshelf and cried right through the final page. L.M. Montgomery is magic, folks. (But you already knew that.) 

2. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

I was still a newlywed, pre-babies and only about two inches into my recovery from fundamentalism when a friend recommended Blue Like Jazz. I read it aloud to Dan, a chapter each night before bed, and it was like discovering my right to breathe. It very well may have been the first time that I’d heard God spoken about conversationally, without religious jargon, as if he actually had a place in everyday life. This book is spiritual stress relief.

3. On Writing by Stephen King

I can’t remember exactly when I snagged this off the shelf at Barnes & Noble, but I do know that it’s scarcely left my writing desk since. I only pick it up to read when I’m working on fiction because a page or two is all it takes for story inspiration to rush at me like a telepathic kid out of a haunted hotel. I should point out that my preferred genre is not that of the good Mr. King, but damned if he doesn’t make my mind itch to create something new.

4. The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss

I know, I know, everything about this book screams GIMMICKY! It was a crash course in entrepreneurship for Dan and I though. We got it a couple of years ago during our transition into self-employment, and while it did not catapult us into the ranks of “the new rich” or reduce our workweek to four hours, it did give us the gift of perspective. We now use terms like “batching” and “80/20” in everyday life (most often when trying to get out of housework, but still), and whenever I’m feeling discouraged about our rolling job situation, I let the FHWW remind me that we’re normal… ish. Not alone, at any rate.

5. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

I’m not sure what it says about me that the book I read most frequently for the pure joy if it was a high school reading assignment. To be fair to myself, though, it’s not like I go around toting Oedipus Rex on beach vacations or cracking open The Complete Works of Shakespeare on flights. Have you ever watched the darling film Il Postino where Pablo Neruda teaches an uneducated Italian postman about metaphor? This book is what taught me.

6. Hope Beyond Hell by Gerry Beauchemin

Over the year and a half following our move to Italy and Sophie’s birth, depression effectively broke down all my internal religious etiquette. I called up a friend from the States who I knew wouldn’t disown me when she heard that I could no longer believe in a God who made eternal torture the default destiny for humankind. She knew exactly what I was talking about and suggested that I read Hope Beyond Hell. I don’t think I’m putting it too dramatically when I say that this book saved my faith.

7. Field Guide to Now by Christina Rosalie

Christina’s blog is largely responsible for getting me writing again back in 2007. Her way of noticing the undercurrents of art in daily life and making poetry of their prose stirs up answering instincts in me. Hers is a creativity founded on intention and delight, and this book is one of my favorite things to read in the pre-dawn hours with a notepad and pen in hand. It makes me want to live and create and then live some more.

8. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

1130. That’s how many pages of small text my unabridged copy contains. And I loved every one of them. Often after work, the summer I was 18, I’d drive to an uptown Starbucks where I’d order a venti coconut frappuccino and sit in the sunshine to read… and read… and read. Dantès’s revenge is so complicated and satisfying to read that I didn’t know whether to celebrate or to cry when I reached the end. I’ll be reading this one again… next time I have an entire summer of afternoons at my disposal (ha!).

9. The Shack by Wm. Paul Young

I almost don’t even want to talk about this book because it’s meant so much to me. Hope Beyond Hell is what saved my faith, but The Shack is what saved my heart. I first read it on a Sunday morning while Dan and the girls were at church. It was a day when all the weight of my fundamentalist upbringing was suffocating me, and I felt so wounded by Christianity that all I could do was lie on the sofa and reach for this book that a friend had lent me. And I met a God of love in it.

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) by J.K. Rowling

Roughly estimating, I’d say… oh, 99.81273% of the 10 Books lists that I’ve seen circulating on Facebook have included the Harry Potter series. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how deeply the story of The Boy Who Lived gets to us? The final book of the series came out right as we were moving to Italy, and I saved it to read in the hospital before and after Sophie’s birth. That was a frightening and larger-than-life time for me—having a baby three months after moving to another country whose language I did not yet speak—and Harry Potter & Gang’s story helped give me both an escape and the courage to stay.

All right, then. I tag YOU to share 10 books that have stayed with you in some way (even just here in the comments if you don’t want to go all Facebook-official on it). No right or wrong answers, remember, and if you have forsaken hygiene or dignity for the sake of those books, then know you’re in good company.

22Aug

Book Stories: The Escape Artist

If you’ve been following my blog for any time, then you know 1) that I identify as Christian, and 2) that “Christian” means something very different to me today than it did when I was growing up fundamentalist. The Christianity I experienced as a kid was a members-only club with lifestyle requirements and political loyalties, whereas the kind that I’m discovering and embracing in adulthood is more of an open-air party in which the only common denominator is Jesus. I am more grateful than I can say for the freedom to see God differently. Disengaging myself from the mindsets that formed me, though, has been about as easy as performing a total skeletal transplant on myself.

Take gender roles. The Christian subculture in which I grew up basically assigned one of two identities to everyone at birth. The first identity was “Leader” and came with secondary characteristics such as strength, outspokenness, superior reasoning skills, and money-making prowess. The second identity was “Follower” and brought with it expectations of docility, fertility, weakmindedness, and a knack for the domestic arts. The one and only basis for choosing which identity to bestow on a baby was which set of body parts he or she had.

I can’t speak much to the experience of growing up male in that system, but I do know what it was like to grow up under the “Follower” heading. Because I had been born female, my calling in life was to act as support staff to the males put in authority over me. Our family wasn’t nearly as rigid in this as many other patriarchal families; I was encouraged to get summer jobs and to go to university, experiences that many girls, seen only as homemakers-in-training, are denied. (In fact, one of my favorite posts to write this year was What Our Parents Did Right.)

Still though, I grew up under a list of gender-specific shoulds, some of them directly taught and some of them just implied:

A woman should defer to her father’s or husband’s judgment in all things as her own way of thinking is flawed.

A woman should always seek to diminish herself; her body, her voice, and her actions should never draw attention.

A woman should work tirelessly and selflessly in her home sphere, managing household tasks and child-raising so expertly that her husband never needs to be burdened with them.

A woman should understand that her purpose in life is to help her man fulfill his.

…for the Bible tells me so.

Actually, the Bible’s part in these gender prescriptions was always a little confusing to me. We didn’t follow Bible verses saying women needed to avoid jewelry or wear head coverings to pray, but we agreed most adamantly with verses saying women shouldn’t teach men (at least not from a pulpit), that they should obey their husbands, and that they should busy themselves at home. Despite the pick-and-choose nature of our theology, the message was the same: Men were God’s white-collar workers, and women were his field hands. And this message stuck with me, deeply.

Even after I had moved halfway across the world with a husband who considers me equal and the beginnings of a fulfilling profession, I felt my fundamentalist identity like a choke chain. In my mind, being a woman was so linked to inadequacy that I couldn’t look at a single aspect of my life without guilt. I wasn’t organized enough, diligent enough, submissive enough, successful enough, conventional enough, reproductive enough, energetic enough, religious enough. Plus, I could only manage something like .003% of what that damn Proverbs 31 woman did on any given day.

And then I read this:

Book Stories - A Year of Biblical Womanhood

“As I saw how powerful and affirming this ancient blessing could be, I decided it was time for Christian women to take back Proverbs 31. Somewhere along the way… we abandoned the meaning of the poem by focusing on the specifics, and it became just another impossible standard by which to measure our failures. We turned an anthem into an assignment, a poem into a job description.” – Rachel Held Evans

I had at least one friend (hi, A!) think that A Year of Biblical Womanhood was about how to be more fundamentalist based on its title and, you know, the whole woman-in-a-head-covering-banished-to-her-roof thing. What isn’t quite so obvious from the cover is the author’s tongue firmly in cheek and heart firmly for women like me caught in the chokehold of “Biblical Womanhood.” Really, those two words should always be in ironic quotes because, as Rachel shows in alternately hilarious and touching experiments, there is no such thing.

I read the book about a year and a half ago, and it was like an escape artist had personally come to spring me from the cramped confines of “Follower.” I do still struggle with feelings of guilt and not-enoughness; if Dan and I are in such a busy work period that we’re having trouble keeping up with household tasks, my first instinct is to berate myself for neglecting my responsibilities, for prioritizing my work over righteously clean floors. Or if I say something at a dinner party and everyone turns to listen, my inclination is to shrink back and turn the conversation over to someone with more a more valid viewpoint. The difference is that I can now recognize these wilting instincts as byproducts of an identity that was never meant to be mine. I can see cultural preference where once I only saw divine prejudice, and I can choose not to be ruled by it.

Rachel even got me to like Proverbs 31, which I consider a feat of staggering proportions. Or should I say… biblical?

“Could an ancient collection of sacred texts, spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own, really offer a single cohesive formula for how to be a woman?” she asks in her introduction. “Do all the women of Scripture fit into this same mold? Must I?” And in her answer, I found a way to keep both the Bible and myself. Pure gift.

In this series, I’m foregoing traditional book reviews and instead sharing Book Stories—why certain books have impacted me, how they’ve entwined themselves through my life, and what the long-term effects are. After all, what better way to talk about stories than through the medium of story?

(If you have your own close encounter of the literary kind you’d like to share here, just send it on over to hello{at}bethanybassett{dot}com.) 

27Mar

I Am Not an Abomination, and Neither Are You

When I was a girl, I believed I was fundamentally wrong. The exact term that rings in my memory is “an abomination to God.” An abomination. I didn’t have any context for that word outside of the Bible—in fact, I’m not sure I do even now—but I understood that its five syllables shook with the intensity of God’s disgust.

I gave proud looks.
I was deceitful.
I pushed back against rules.

I’d memorized verses declaring each of those things an abomination, a detestable affront to God, and over time, the word worked its way past my actions and straight into my identity. I didn’t try to be proud, see. I couldn’t help it; my entire theology was based on micromanaging myself toward perfection, and any time that I succeeded, my natural reaction was pride. I didn’t have many grounds to feel good about myself, but if I was managing more holiness than someone else in a certain area, my mind latched onto smugness like a drowning cat to a piece of driftwood. Pride wasn’t my choice; it just was. And that made me an abomination.

The same went for my deceitful and rebellious streaks. Lying and hiding were coping mechanisms for me, my body’s only strategy for self-defense. Rebellion was likewise instinctual; I never flouted rules, but I endlessly wrestled with the ones that suffocated me, trying to find loopholes through which to breathe. I was born with a question mark tattooed on my soul, and I believed the only reason God didn’t smite me for it was because Jesus had him on a choke chain.

There is a fiercely painful dissonance in believing that the one who made you is repulsed by who you are. I don’t think this is a sensation unique to my experience either. Mainstream Christianity teaches that we are born with a “sin nature” that God cannot abide, even though God is the maker and creator of all, and that we must perform series of steps to effectively hide our depravity from him before it is used as grounds to condemn us. I have heard thousands of sermons over the years to that effect.

Believing this way, that God considered who-I-was an abomination, stamped the dark impression of guilt onto my every waking moment. Not even those times of smugness when I was particularly rocking at righteousness could blunt my impression that God was gagging in my direction. I ricocheted endlessly between self-loathing and pride, my psyche working overtime to protect me from my theology. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out that this was a nightmarish way to live.

All the same, I had it easy in one regard: Nobody ganged up with God against me. If anything, I was praised by other Christians for striving so hard after holiness. Not once in my life has a group of people discriminated against me over those parts of myself that the Bible calls abominations. If I have ever defended my identity, it’s because I’ve wanted to, not because I’ve been under attack. I find instant acceptance in most Christian circles despite the ways in which my habits diverge from accepted biblical standards, and fellow believers’ open arms have strengthened the faith that I might have abandoned long ago without their support.

Not everyone is so privileged.

Among all the “abominations” listed in the Bible, from telling lies to eating shrimp to stirring up conflict to shedding innocent blood, the evangelical Christian community has picked out one on which to concentrate its outrage. You already know which one. You can’t help but know it. It’s on Saturday night’s news and on Sunday morning’s PowerPoint and on legislative drawing tables around the world. It’s the mountain on which we are willing to let others die.

This week, evangelicals became so incensed over World Vision, a humanitarian aid organization, expanding its hiring policy to allow married gay Christians that thousands of children lost their sponsorships. Let me put that in other words: People who claim to follow Jesus stopped providing nutrition, education, and health care to impoverished children in order to make a theological point.

Just before getting into bed last night, I saw that World Vision had reversed its decision, caving after two short days of uproar. The news settled on my heart like a boulder, and I lay awake for a long time exploring the contours of that weight. Being a Christian has never made me so sad.

I know what it’s like to feel that God despises my identity but not what it must feel like to have millions of fellow humans joining in. I can’t imagine having even just one person so repulsed by who-I-am that he or she would withdraw help from a child and call it my fault. I can’t imagine trying to reconcile my faith with my orientation only to have a nation of heterosexuals shouting from every available platform that I was choosing deviance. I can’t imagine having my heart and soul and talents rejected outright by the Christian community due to an inflexible interpretation of a few select Bible verses.

Can you imagine it?

I’m positive that the sorrow I feel today is a pale shadow of the pain my LGBT brothers and sisters are experiencing this week… this month… this lifetime during which they will be dragged again and again into a religious culture war in which everyone loses. Other writers have already made the points that bear repeating this week (see Rachel Held Evans, Jamie Wright, Jen Hatmaker, Erika Morrison, Nish Weiseth, and Kristen Howerton), and I know better than to think I can singlehandedly change popular doctrine. I do think it’s important though that I lend my voice to the discussion—if nothing else, so that my own LGBT friends will know that they’re not the brunt of every Christian’s theology.

I am grateful all the way to my bone marrow that my view of God did not stay rooted in that oppressive past. I still read the Bible but with very different eyes. Jesus is real to me now—unconditional love is real to me now—and through the clarity of that love, everything I once thought about religion is up for grabs. Except the view of a single human soul as an abomination. That’s not up for grabs. That’s just straight-up gone.

26Feb

Judge Not, Lest It Be Legalized

I had planned to work on my next installment of Open-Source Parenting this morning, but my attention keeps being pulled on a single thread away from our own small family, across the ocean, and straight to the heart of Arizona.

I’m doing my best to understand both sides of the debate being waged right now over Senate Bill 1062 (which some frustrated groups are calling the Anti-Gay Bill). I’ve read the text of the bill itself as well as arguments by intelligent and well-meaning people on both sides of the issue, and I have some thoughts of my own that I’d like to share. First, though, if you’re not familiar with what’s going on, here’s my completely non-professional, non-expert recap:

Last Thursday, Arizona Senate passed a bill that exempts individuals and organizations from “any law” (yes, you read that right) that prevents them from using their property in accordance with their religious beliefs. The text of the bill stipulates that that these convictions do not have to be “compulsory or central to a larger system of religious beliefs” (i.e. – as long as you believe it, it counts). The bill does not mention sexual orientation at all, but Arizona policymakers claim that the bill was drafted in direct response to an anti-discrimination lawsuit won—wrongfully, they believe—by a lesbian last year. Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, has until the 28th to veto the bill if she chooses; otherwise, it will become law.

Everyone, it seems, is in an uproar. People on one side of the debate (which isn’t cut as clearly along party lines as you might think) argue that this bill will protect religious freedom while those on the other side see the bill as taking freedom away. I’d like to believe that this law would only be used to enforce things like a venue-owner’s right to turn down a group of Satanists who want to use the facilities for their necromancy party. That sounds reasonable, right? But let’s be honest—whether or not the bill refers to homosexuality, it is setting a new precedent in the LGBT debate.

Unless the governor vetoes the bill, it will soon be legal for Arizona restaurants to turn away gay individuals (and presumably even those who seem gay, as we are dealing solely with beliefs here). Based on sexual orientation alone, someone can be blocked from entering a movie theater, a civic council meeting, even a town square. Doctors, policemen, firemen, and social workers would be within their rights to refuse service as long as a “religious belief” is motivating them. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that hate crimes could be upheld in court.

Do you see how scary this is to me, this carte blanche given to individuals to exert something as subjective and unverifiable as belief over the law?

It’s easy for my mind to jump straight to other religions, to those whose belief systems go contrary to my sense of ethics, to all the vague possibilities of horror that a practicing jihadist could wreak under the protection of SB1062. I’m only qualified to speak for one religion though—Christianity. I’m quite familiar with our Bible, with what is described in its pages as sin. I have not seen the part of the Bible that requires us to judge, shun, or otherwise discriminate against those who sin, but many Christians feel differently, and based on the Bible alone, here is a small sampling of the people on whom Arizona Christians will have the right to turn their backs:

  • Anyone divorced (unless for reasons of infidelity) or remarried following a divorce
  • Unwed mothers
  • Couples arguing with each other
  • Misbehaving kids
  • Anyone with a credit card balance
  • Anyone with a tattoo
  • Women wearing boyfriend jeans
  • Anyone out or about on a Sunday
  • Overeaters

You get the point. By claiming the Bible as their witness, Christians can justify discriminating against pretty much anyone they want to. Actually, let me rephrase that. If this law goes into effect, Christians will be legally able to justify discriminating against pretty much anyone. I make that distinction because whether or not the government says it’s okay to kick a gay couple out of your restaurant, that doesn’t mean God says it’s okay.

Those sins listed in the Bible? The ones from which we pick and choose our preferred ammunition against those different from us? They’re meant to point us inward, to direct us back to the territory of our very own hearts where we can then work together with God to address our particular brands of un-love. (It is also worth noting that there are many “sins” referenced in the Bible that are limited to the cultures and circumstances of its original audiences. No matter how literally Christians may claim to read the Bible, very few still believe that eating pork or wearing jewelry are wrong.) If you’re interested in reading more about sin and Christians’ misplaced sense of duty in the “culture wars,” I highly recommend Micah J. Murray’s post from earlier this month.

Here is my stance, based entirely on what I’ve come to believe about God and my role as a citizen of humanity: My job is love. Period. It is neither my responsibility nor my right to judge my fellow humans as less worthy than myself. (In fact, Jesus had some pretty strong words against judging.) If you believe differently than I do, if your identity or choices do not line up with my own moral code, even if you’re straight-up my enemy, my job is still to love you.

And I want to be clear about something: Saying that a discriminatory action is made “in love” does not make it so. We love each other through our actions, not our semantics, and refusing to serve someone because they burden our religious sensibilities is about as unloving a gesture as we could make no matter how we try to spin it. What’s more, I would argue that those of us who follow Jesus are especially bound to kindness through the example of his life. How easily do we forget that Jesus spent his time on Earth serving the morally reprehensible? How easily do we skip over “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone?”

My heart is heavy today for Arizona, for the states considering similar ballots, and for all the people who will end up caught in the cycles of judgment. Every time that I think the American civil rights battle is well and truly over, something like SB1062 comes along to prod it back to life, and I realize just how far we still are from treating everyone as an equal. Yes, I care that we have religious freedom, but I also care that our freedom not be at the expense or to the detriment of others. I care mostly deeply that those of us who follow the Bible not twist its message into a weapon against the very people we’re here to love.

If you don’t agree with my stance on SB1062, that’s okay. I still respect your opinion. However, I hope you’ll carefully consider that our rights and what-is-right don’t always match up… and that the freedom to judge others’ worth for ourselves and treat whomever we want like a second-class citizen might not count as freedom at all.

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