Tag: Theology


That Damn Proverbs 31 Woman*

The story goes that once upon a time, an aging queen sat her son down for a chat. “Listen, Lem,” she began, “Those girls you keep bringing home? Well, I ain’t saying that they’re gold diggers, but they ain’t messin’ with no broke goatherds, capisce? You’re a king, so let’s cut to the chase: WHAT IN THE HOLY HOLISHKES ARE YOU THINKING? What you need is a virtuous girl, by which I mean one who can knit—designer knitting, mind you, that generates enough income to fund her real-estate business. Obviously, she’ll make all of your clothes too… yes, even those scarlet ski pants of which you’re so fond. She’ll arrange a steady stream of extracurricular activities to keep the kids busy while you’re hanging out with your buddies so she can work her daily shift in the soup kitchen, and it probably goes without saying that she won’t have time to sleep. Ever. Now go find her!” And all the maidens of the kingdom fled in terror. The end.

That’s more or less how the Biblical book of Proverbs wraps up, and it makes for one of the most horrifying Bible study topics I’ve ever experienced. Groups of women meet up to wade in guilt together and discuss how they can start measuring up to Mrs. Proverbs 31, which is kind of ridiculous when you consider that Lemuel’s gal would have had no time for Bible studies herself. Things get desperate, and if you don’t think modern women would start stitching dresses  just to be more virtuous, think again. Even the ladies who go with a more “letter of the law” approach leave the Bible studies with dark circles forming preemptively under their eyes.

I doubt King Lemuel’s mom imagined her motherly advice would ever be construed as God’s Will For Womankind. Furthermore, I doubt that the womanizing, perpetually hung-over Lem ever found a wife to fit his ideal (er, make that his mom’s ideal). The virtuous wife was a fantasy spun from parental reproach, a strong work ethic, and good old-fashioned hyperbole, and there is no evidence suggesting that such a superwoman ever existed. In fact, the latter third of the Bible makes it clear that God is much more interested in our sincerity and love than in how late we stay up knitting.

I guess what bothers me so much about this famous chapter is that King Lemuel’s mother adds one more voice to the chorus telling us women we’re not enough—not productive enough, talented enough, skinny enough, smart enough… fill in the blank. And when the aging queen’s advice is taken as God’s decree because it shows up in the Bible, the not-enoughs take on the full weight of divinity. It’s no longer a simple matter of “I am not enough;” it becomes “God thinks I am not enough.”

Yet Jesus is the one who comforted a housewife flustered over her massive to-do list: “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.” It didn’t matter that what she was worked up over was Jesus’s dinner; he would forego a feast to enjoy her company. And to another woman who wasted a year’s wages on a perfume bath for his feet (rather than giving that money to the poor as Jesus’s dinner hosts angrily insisted she should have done, as the Proverbs 31 woman would have done), he extended kindness, gratitude, and the grace she had been craving.

I’m not saying that Lemuel’s mom didn’t have some good points—as long as they’re taken with a grain of salt and a glassful of cultural perspective—but I find myself wishing that King Lem had acted a bit more kingly to start with and let that damn Proverbs 31 woman rest as all women should: in peace.


* Title and topic inspired by a dear friend.


Sadness Concentrate

I wanted to write something upbeat and entertaining this afternoon—maybe a holiday gift guide (though there are already plenty floating around the ‘net) or a weekend anecdote. However, I can’t seem to shake a concentrated sadness, so I’m sitting down with a steaming mug of chai to hear it out and send it gently on its way.

A couple of my grade school friends had their first babies within the last year and have formed a moms’ support group based largely on the teachings of Michael & Debi Pearl. These teachings mandate that a wife acknowledge her husband as her lord (yes, really) and submit unquestioningly to his desires and opinions; if her hobbies, relationships, or spiritual life prevent her from meeting her husband’s every need, she must give them up (and obviously, a career is out of the question). These teachings also instruct parents to dominate their children through manipulation and violence in order to produce automatic obedience and have already resulted in at least two brutal deaths. Unbelievably, many parents are willing to accept this call to cruelty because it touts itself as godly.

I recently saw a glowing article in a conservative magazine of how my old friends get together regularly to read this poisonous ideology and discuss how to implement it within their growing families, and it sends my stomach into a tailspin. If my friends are devoutly following the Pearls’ teaching, then their infants already know the sting of a stick against their tender skin. I can’t help thinking about those sweet babies this afternoon, about how innocent they are to the fact that their mothers are studying up on how best to “break their wills.”

The subject of child abuse gives me an itchy trigger finger, but a diatribe from me isn’t going to set anything right, and it would only mask my authentic reaction… which is heartbreaking empathy. I know something about what those little ones are going to endure, and I have an idea of the regret my friends will experience when (if) they let themselves realize what horror they were willing to perpetrate simply because an author claimed it was God’s will. I can only imagine what my friends will go through as well in giving up their individuality in order to stroke their husbands’ egos until death do them part. There is so much pain in store for those families, but I’m in no position to convince them of it. All I can do is sit here with my sadness sipping chai before I send it off in search of stray miracles.


Injustice, Double-Scooped

Here’s my problem with grace.

Terrorists attack New York City, killing thousands of people, and a conservative public figure follows an illogical accusation of feminists, gays, and pagans by saying that the people who died probably deserved it.

Forest fires ravage parts of southern California, and a famous radio and television host tells its victims they had it coming for hating America.

Young men die overseas, and a Baptist pastor brings his extended family to their funerals with signs saying “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Cripple Soldiers.”

A hurricane takes a tremendous number of lives and livelihoods along the Gulf of Mexico, and the founder of a Christian organization blames the destruction on New Orleans’ wickedness.

An earthquake destroys much of the poorest country in the Americas, and a prominent televangelist tells them they brought it on themselves by making a pact with the devil.

A seven-year-old girl is beaten to death by her parents who are steadfastly following a parenting movement, and the author of that movement laughs in response.

A college student subjected to a cruel invasion of privacy ends his life, and it’s only a matter of time before someone issues the first official “good riddance” statement.

There are many, many Christians doing immeasurable good in the world, but it seems like the ones who get the most attention are the ones spewing prejudice, judgment, paranoia, and calls to violence. It makes me so furious I can’t see straight, their bitterness blurring my vision and reflected back at them. I don’t hear a trace of Jesus in what they say, but I’m afraid that their victims do, and the injustice eats me alive.

Enter my problem: The Jesus I know—the one who taught compassion and wonder and unfailing love, who healed heathens and hung out with society’s rejects, who befriended prostitutes, who famously wept at a funeral, whose words still inspire incredible acts of kindness—came to bring a double scoop of grace to people tied up in laws and traditions. He showed that all the religious regulations people tried to follow were tyrants and insatiable ones at that. He came, despite the murderous impulses of near-sighted men, to demonstrate the spacious love just beyond their line of vision.

Which means there is compassion for the Jerry Falwells and the Pat Robertsons of the world too. While the injustice of indiscriminate grace gnaws at me almost as much as Christian hate-rhetoric does, it’s also the main difference between the God they know and the God I am growing to know… and that one difference makes all the difference to me.


The Hope

Part III
(Preface here, Part I here, Part II here)

As I reached my teenage years and my privacy began to be invaded in increasingly traumatic ways, I reached out to friends I had met through our on-again-off-again homeschool group. My parents found out and cut off my contact with them, my lifeline. I plunged into a depression so severe that only my dysfunctional view of God kept me from suicide. I knew that God was on my parents’ side, which meant that he was against me, which meant that I had a one-way ticket to hell waiting for me just on the other side of death. No matter how unbearable my life seemed, it was still preferable to being burned alive for eternity.

Around this time, I started being sent to seminars and camps where I was taught how to debate with anyone who might try to sway me from my parents’ beliefs. My desperate knowitallitude was in danger of growing insufferable, but it was during one of those courses that everything began to change for me. I was fifteen and going through a class that fit the entirety of history into our fundamentalist worldview. I had heard it all before, but something clicked in my head that year and I realized with startling clarity how limited our little group of God’s elect really was. We were so adamant about being the only right ones that we were proudly dooming all other ethnic groups, political opinions, religious affiliations, and even hairstyles throughout all of time to a hell that was already overpopulated with abortionists. It just didn’t make sense anymore, and the most startling thought of my life took hold of my mind: What if God isn’t exactly how we believe?

Within a year, I left home to go away to school. Looking back, I regret that I didn’t do anything to help my siblings at that time, but thinking for myself was still so new that I was feeling my way in complete darkness. There was hope in the darkness, though, and that hope was worth pressing through every doubt and fear to grasp.

Hope that I wasn’t some sort of cosmic mistake.
Hope that God loved me.
Hope that God loved other people too, even people with mohawks.
Hope that the pain I had gone through wasn’t my fault.
Hope that doubts wouldn’t destroy or doom me.
Hope that I would be beautiful one day.
Hope that peace and authentic happiness were waiting in my future.

I’m still finding my way, and I probably will be for the rest of my life; formative years are not easily replaced. However, every one of those hopes has proven itself true—and not just true because an opinionated author said so but because I’m living it.

(To be continued…)


The Net

Part I

(Preface here)

I should start by acknowledging that this will not be easy, and not just because of the subject material. The net around my childhood was woven from spiritual, physical, intellectual, and psychological components, and I still can’t identify all the hands that helped to create it. A lot of my memories have been repressed or distorted, and I have no desire to unearth every detail. However, I know for certain that in the net’s efforts to guide me, it nearly strangled me… and that my parents were the ones caught in it first.

Early in their marriage, they became involved with a religious group that could accurately be termed a cult. The leader required members to donate all their money, cut off family ties, and accept his every word as divine revelation. I would find it amazing that one man could dupe so many people into mindlessly obeying him except that I know his tactics by heart. All he had to do was quote a few Bible verses out of context—“Lean not on your own understanding,” “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked,” and “Your ways are not [God’s] ways”—and top it with a few scoops of religious guilt, and sensitive souls were easily convinced that the warnings in their hearts and minds were just part of Satan’s ruse. If you’re not allowed to think for yourself or trust your own instincts, you have no option but blindly following someone who claims to have first dibs on the truth.

While my parents never officially joined the group, it made a deep impression on them. They saw large families of helpful and obedient children with a refreshing disregard for what the rest of the world thought about their uncut hair and homemade jumpers. Women taught their children at home and tended sickness with natural remedies. Men worked the communal farm or crafted artisan furniture. Instead of watching TV in the evenings, everyone would gather to sing and pray. To an impressionable young couple looking in, the group was clearly following the lifestyle that God wanted for his people.

When I was still young, our family moved away from the group and settled in a fairly large city where the cult leader’s absence was filled by teachings from Bill Gothard, Bob Jones Jr., Michael Farris, Mary Pride, Gary Bauer, Jonathan Lindvall, Michael & Debi Pearl, and other Christian fundamentalists. To my parents’ credit, they embraced these teachings because they wanted to do the right thing, and I don’t think they ever once realized the insidious spiritual manipulation happening to them. If God commanded them to throw away the birth control and homeschool their ever-growing brood, who were they to argue? If God wanted them isolated from the world, how could they disobey? If God dangled their children’s souls over open flames and said the only way to save them from hell was to beat them until their wills were broken, what else could they do?

I don’t believe for a second that God really wanted any of those things from them. I’ve struggled for a very long time with how to process God’s involvement in my childhood, and the only answer that brings me peace is knowing that he is not forceful. God did not force those fundamentalist authors to stop writing their propaganda any more than he forced my parents to stop reading it. I think God tried to communicate with my parents the way he does with me now, through intuition and thought-nudges, through the emotions that help us sort out good from bad. Had my parents listened to those, they would have seen our home life for what it truly was—terrifying, heartbreaking, and fraught. However, they had been taught to dismiss both mind and heart as misleading, so my childhood was left to the mercy of religious extremists.

Perhaps I should clarify: There was no mercy.

(To be continued)


Fwd: Crusade

Three of the contacts in my e-mail address book have yet to realize that the Age of Forwards is dead. All three are relatives, and they tend to take some strong political stances that I don’t share, so for the sake of staying on good terms with my family at large, I usually delete these forwards without a glance. Today, however, two of them sent the same e-mail, and I made the mistake of reading it:

“Saturday, May 8, 2010 is WALK NAKED IN AMERICA DAY!
If a Muslim male looks upon a naked woman, other than his wife, he must commit suicide. In an effort to help weed out neighborhood terrorists, all women in America are asked to walk out of their house at 1:00pm, completely naked, and circle their neighborhood block for one hour.”

I felt sick, perhaps even more than I did a few weeks ago when that Facebook status was making the rounds. You probably saw some variation of it: “Dear God, I noticed you’ve been taking my favorite celebrities, and I just wanted you to know that Obama is my favorite president.”

But this isn’t a post about politics. This is about death.


Yesterday, a woman I had never met passed away. Her husband was one of my university classmates, but I hadn’t kept up with his life until last week when their story spread among my circle of acquaintances. She was six months pregnant with their fourth child when she had to undergo an emergency operation to remove cancerous spots from her lungs. She went into cardiac arrest. The baby was delivered healthy, albeit extremely premature, but my schoolmate’s wife slipped away after a few days of desperate attempts to save her life.

I did not know this woman personally, and from what I’ve heard about her, we would not have had a lot in common. However, I joined the thousands of friends and supporters hoping, praying for a miracle, and I now grieve her death along with them. Her children will grow up without her goodnight kisses. Her husband will face the difficult decisions ahead alone. Everyone who loved her, everyone who would have come to love her, every person she would have touched along the corridors of a full-term life is now bereft. Nothing about this is remotely funny.

I think of our next door neighbors in the States, a married couple with a young son and a taxi business. We swapped power tools, shared watermelon in the backyard, and tried together to help a neighborhood boy caught in a tragic situation. They gave us Natalie’s first bicycle. The husband mowed our lawn along with his. They also happened to be devout Muslims. If we categorized them as terrorists for their belief in Allah, we would deserve to be categorized as Crusaders for our belief in God. However, prejudice is probably a reality they have learned to put up with a long time ago.

But to joke about forcing our next-door neighbor to commit suicide? To turn the idea of leaving his son fatherless, his wife widowed, and his friends brokenhearted into some kind of patriotic comedy? To quip about tricking God into offing the president? To slap an animated gif onto a death wish and call it funny? It makes me see stars. That professed Christians can be not simply callous but malicious about other people’s lives shocks, saddens, and enrages me all at once, and I have to say… sentiments like that help me understand where a terrorist might find motivation in the first place.


Conscience on a Ledge

Over the last few weeks, throughout early morning writing sessions, late night socializing, and the swirl of multicolored tasks that make up the in-betweens, my heart has had trouble resting easy. For once, it’s not due to any great dissatisfaction with life. My days tip more toward busyness than boredom, but I’m grateful for the creative luxury of molding my own time, for the daily check-up with my priorities. I’m happy with our family life too and our current balance between stability and excitement. Strong friendships are in the works. Opportunities abound. We can see the light at the end of the credit card statement.

However, my thankfulness and energy buzz have slunk away in shame following each new mention of Haiti. Stories like this and this, not to mention the news reports, aid auctions, and countless pleas for money, forced tragedy into my periphery. Millions without shelter or food or medical supplies… airports blocked, adoptions halted, supplies looted… impulsive relief groups stealing children… the chaos of some trying to do the right thing and others trying just to stay alive compounded with whether I should donate €10 with a text message or buy a cookbook or bid on a painting or empty PayPal’s pockets into any number of beseeching hands… I felt like I was examining calamity through a thousand microscopes.

Around the same time, a friend asked me to read her boss’s new blog exploring social justice issues like human trafficking, burdensome charity, and water allotment. Our church took up a drive to help impoverished leprosy victims in India. Compassion International brought bloggers to Kenya to report on local children’s living conditions and the need for sponsors. I heard the refreshingly-controversial Derek Webb’s “Rich Young Ruler”… and my conscience went into dizzy overdrive.

What am I supposed to do with the whole world’s sorrow at my fingertips?

It’s an honest question. I believe we humans were made to care, deeply, about each other. I see it as part of our divine imprint, the throb of compassion when we see someone in pain, the ability and drive to meet each other’s unique needs. Discomfort over suffering in our world shouldn’t be shrugged off easily; it’s what makes us humane. However, the accessibility of information makes it especially difficult for me to find my place among seven billion wishful thinkers.

Should we stop paying off debt, forget about retirement savings, and send the money to charity? Should we move back to the States where we could make a lot more and live on a lot less? Should we do away with date nights, family vacations, and birthday presents?  How can we possibly choose between the desperate situations stippling the globe?

My heart chimes in from time to time to talk my conscience off the ledge. It tells me that unfocused guilt is neither healthy nor helpful. It looks me in the eyes and says that I cannot cure the world and that even if it were possible, my job is not to do so. My heart is convinced that the needs I should be attending to belong to the people already in my life—a refugee mom at church without baby blankets, a lonely landlord eating supper alone, neighbors with health problems, a friend who’s struggling in her marriage, another caught in a messy divorce, yet another mourning the death of her child. Every day, I have opportunities to ease specific burdens, to spread kindness face-to-face.

This strikes me as true religion, every bit as significant as disaster relief for third-world countries. It’s how I can make a positive, lasting difference even with limited resources and my own family to care for, and it feels fundamentally right. So why is my conscience still crouched halfway out a windowsill obsessing about the wide, wounded world that needs a cure?

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