The secret she was keeping welled up into tears. “Mom, I have something I need to tell you.” Most of the time she didn’t have the opportunity to keep secrets – somehow, she always got caught. Yet, this one thing – this one really important thing – she managed to keep hidden for months. But she couldn’t keep it hidden any longer. Her confession came just days after I got offered a contract to write a book. In the midst of her confession, the truth came out – she was afraid that what she had done would ruin my reputation as an author and kill my book deal. My heart broke, and the tears that had been welling up in her eyes came pouring out of mine.
One thing I wanted to be certain of as a parent was to distinguish between poor choices, bad behavior and “being bad.” So, my husband and I try to remind each other not say things like, “bad girl” or “I can’t believe you were dumb enough to do that.” We try to correct bad behavior, and encourage them to make wise choices. We try not to shame them.
We’ve heard about the difference between guilt and shame:
- Guilt = I did something bad/wrong
- Shame = I am bad/wrong
Guilt is supposed to lead to confession and when wrong things are corrected, hopefully guilt leads to transformation into being more properly human. On the other hand, shame almost certainly leads to hiding wrong behavior for fear of rejection and abandonment because of the idea that doing something wrong means there is something fundamentally wrong with the core of who I am.
But, no matter how hard we try as parents to correct wrong behavior and avoid shaming our children, somehow shame still manages to infect them. We say, “that was a bad thing you did” instead of “you are so bad!” We train them to ask for forgiveness and try to teach them how to make better choices. Then, we say we forgive them, but we keep treating them as if they are going to keep doing that wrong thing we corrected them for last month. We try to trust them to learn from their mistakes, while we question them and give them the third degree making them prove their goodness over and over again. Somewhere deep inside we know they will make poor choices again, a part of us remembers they are not perfect, but we have forgotten that it’s kindness that leads to a change of heart.
As my heart was breaking, I reached over and embraced my precious daughter. My heart was not broken over the really important poor choice she had made. No, it was broken over the fear of rejection that kept it hidden for so many months, the fear that her poor choice might lead to my rejection too. Not only did she imagine that what she had done made her a bad person, but she feared it would make me bad too. You see, shame is infectious. It spreads like a dragnet catching many in it’s trap. It sweeps us in, and before we know it we are snatched out of the life-giving water of grace and acceptance and dumped onto the hard, dry ground of fear and self-loathing.
I wrapped my arms around her and told her how much I love her. I assured her that she had not ruined my reputation. I reminded her that she is not defined by her mistakes. I am amazed by the courage she showed that day. In the face of paralyzing fear, she opened her heart and let me see her cry. She shared her pain and fear of rejection. She confessed that she felt like she had failed me, and failed herself. I held her tender heart in my hands as she melted in my arms.
Some youth at church knew of the trouble she had gotten herself into – the things she got caught doing, the things that rumours had revealed. It was hard for her to go to church knowing they knew those things about her, knowing they might sit in judgment and talk about her behind her back. Even “good Christians” gossip. But gossip isn’t something you can go to jail for. Some Sundays she felt the condemning glances more than others, but she kept showing up and opening up her heart to those she trusted to keep on loving her and accepting her no matter what. Somedays she felt like she didn’t really fit in. Was she even worthy of being called a Christian after all those mistakes she had made?
There was a bit of subtle shunning and shaming that troubled her heart. She was rarely invited to be a part of the events for students who were “on fire” for Jesus. Some assumed she didn’t care about Jesus as much as others who talked about their faith all the time. But Jesus is as real to her as to anyone else. Maybe even more real. She knows about grace. She knows about unconditional love. While some are standing around raising their stones of condemnation, she hears Jesus calling her daughter. She hears Jesus inviting her to go and sin no more. She hears Jesus and answers, with a cry from deep within her heart, yes, I will go.
It’s hard to shake the labels of shame – sinner, heathen, failure, troubled teen, rebellious, uncommitted, unfaithful, worldly, materialistic, selfish, hypocrite, lost, and out of control. Those are just a few of the labels that get thrown around in Christian culture – the culture that is supposed to be the fount of grace, the bringers of hope, the bearers of good news. It takes courage to share your heart not knowing whether grace will be offered or shame will be smeared.
My daughter has shown such courage. She keeps opening up her heart to me and to her friends and has found power in her vulnerability. She stands stronger today because she had the courage to confess, to let me and others see her failures and listen to her heart cry as she needed to know she was worthy of love even in the midst of her deepest sorrow and regret. She may have made a few bad choices, but haven’t we all?
Dear daughter, I love you and always will. I love your courage to be honest with me no matter what fears may be tempting you to hide in shame. I love the beauty of your deepest heart cry, your longing to love and be loved, your hope to find grace and peace in a world filled with shame and fear. I love your passion to help deliver others from the power of shame and systems of oppression. I love the way you offer grace to others and refuse to pick up stones of condemnation. I love the way you stand strong and offer strength to others when they are feeling weakened by shame and fear.
Dear daughter, I offer this poem as encouragement to help you know you are not alone. I am with you in this struggle of faith and hope and will always love you more than you know.
There is place within me – my spirit, my heart, my soul,
That place of deep emotion that prompts the tears to roll.
That place of voiceless moaning struggles to find an ear:
Lord, are you listening? I need to know You are here!
Lord, tell me, are you out there? Have you heard my cry?
Please, Lord, pay attention, I’m afraid you’ve passed me by.
Have I sinned one time too many, are you counting each time I fall?
Is there some logical reason why you don’t seem to answer my call?
I have heard that your grace is sufficient to meet my every need,
And in every way that I have failed, your purposes still succeed.
I anticipate your voice, Spirit of Wisdom and Truth, I know I have been heard.
That place so deep within me clings tightly to your word.
In the dark night my soul gets weary and my heart begins to fail.
Yet, I know just like the morning, your light will soon prevail.
O daughter, when you’re darkened by fear and you sense and endless night,
Remember Jesus our Redeemer who alone can make it right.
Jesus cleanses us from all our sin and makes us white as snow.
Like a mother, our loving, kind and gracious God loves you more than you’ll ever know.
This post is part of the June Synchroblog: Ordinary Courage, where bloggers were asked to write about Brené Brown‘s idea that “ordinary courage is putting our vulnerability on the line.” The other contributors for this month are:
This Is Courage by Jen Bradbury
Being Vulnerable by Phil Lancaster
Moving Forward Takes Courage by Paul W. Meier
How to Become a Flasher by Glenn Hager
Ordinary Courage by Elaine Hansen
Courage, Hope, Generosity by Carol Kuniholm
The Courage to Fail by Wendy McCaig
The Greatest Act of Courage by Jeremy Myers
Sharing One’s Heart by K. W. Leslie
All I See Is Rocks by Tim Nichols
I Wonder What Would Happen by Liz Dyer
What is Ordinary Courage? by Jennifer Stahl
Loving Courageously by Doreen A. Mannion
Heart Cry: The Courage to Confess by Elizabeth Chapin
The Act to the Miraculous by VisionHub
the spiritual practice of showing up & telling the truth by Kathy Escobar
It’s What We Teach by Margaret Boelman
On April 26-27 I participated in the second Annual Sacred Friendship Gathering. This year’s gathering focused on Bold Boundaries: Expanding Friendship between Men & Women. We discussed friendship between men and women from many angles and I participated in a Roundtable on Modesty, Beauty, and Friendship. I presented a session on how we talk to girls about boys and how we talk to boys about girls – and how we talk with our teens about friendship with God. One of my favorite sessions was Hugo Schwyzer speaking on the “myth of male weakness” – an idea we hear embedded in such expressions as, “Boys will be boys.”
As I mentioned in the first of this series of posts, I often wonder, what is the root of the objectification of women we see played out in rape culture, beauty myths and modesty doctrines? Is it the remnants of ancient cultures treating women as property for millennia? Is it the influence of TV and print media in the context of capitalism that uses sex to sell everything? Is this oversexualization and objectification of women and girls a new thing or is it just a new instance of an old, old story replayed on the stage of women’s lives today?
Here are a few possible connections to some old stories that keep running into each other in my head:
Adam and Eve and the blame game – “it’s her fault …”
“Woman, you are the gate to hell.” -Tertullian, Early Church Father, d. 225
“Women should not be enlightened or educated in any way. They should, in fact, be segregated as they are the cause of hideous and involuntary erections in holy men.” -Augustine, Early Church Father, d. 430
Patriarchy as a system of ownership – women and children are property of men and exist to serve them and further their cause, purposes, desires and name
“Woman was merely man’s helpmate, a function which pertains to her alone. She is not the image of God but as far as man is concerned, he is by himself the image of God.” -Augustine, d. 430
“[Woman] was made only to assist with procreation.” -Aquinas, d. 1275
“A woman’s place is in the home.” -Calvin, d. 1564
“Woman was made for only one reason, to serve and obey man.” -Knox, d. 1572
Combining the above and other teachings, we get the ideal that a woman’s place is in the kitchen and the bedroom.
Separate and distinct gender roles limiting women’s roles in church and the home (the development of separate spheres is much more complex, but these ideas contributed to the formation of the ideal)
Media representations of women as consumables and objects of male sexual pleasure (detailed in the documentary Killing Us Softly 4)
Christian marriage relationship “experts” advising women to make sure they look good for their husbands, “After all, the whole idea is to be attractive to him.” (His Needs, Her Needs first published in 1988) and the implication that women who “let themselves go” are partly to blame if a husband strays. (Rachel Held Evans comments on this idea here
This list is just a sneak peak into some of the ways I connect things in my head. I am not trying to make a scientific argument for the connection of these ideas, and there are many other points on the grid connecting these ideas over time, as well as outliers who have spoken up for equality over the centuries. I have only noted a few of the dominant ideas regarding women’s roles in Western Christianity and their connection with culture. Others are doing serious scholarly work in this area, like Mimi Haddad of Christians for Biblical Equality who reminds us in a Priscilla Paper’s article from 2012, ideas have consequences.
How we think about the differences between men and women, and why those differences exist, has consequences. Modesty doctrines, rape culture, beauty myths and sex trafficking did not develop in a vacuum. We can see the power of cultural messages and genetic memories of patriarchy as even respected theologians and heroes of Christian faith found it difficult to escape the influence of those powerful ideas. Research relating to neurological changes caused by long-term exposure to ideas and behaviors is a growing field. The scientific term for this is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is complicated and we have yet to understand its implications for society, but on a surface level it may offer hope for the future. A simple way of talking about neuroplasticity is through using route terminology. Neurologically speaking, routes exist in the brain that determine how we respond to certain stimuli. Scientists once thought most routes were quite permanent. But, this idea of neuroplasticity is revealing that our brains are more malleable than we once thought and that pre-programmed routes can be changed. In short, our brains are changed by our experiences, our attachments, our communities and other forces outside of ourselves and often outside of our control.
So, when we talk about ideas like, “men are visual” and “women are relational” we often speak of them as “this is the way it’s always been” or “this is the way God made us.” And then we justify harm with expressions like, “Boys will be boys,” and minimize a husband’s cheating with comments like Pat Robertson’s, “Stop talking about the cheating. He cheated on you. Well, he’s a man. O.K.” If that’s the way God intended men to be, then I’m not sure I want to follow such a God!
But, the idea of neuroplasticity, or the malleability of the brain, make the idea that men or women are hard-wired permanently to behave in certain ways hard to hold onto. Instead, it gives rise to the possibility that this is the way we have become – perhaps men have evolved as more visual, but also have evolved as viewing women as possessions after millennia of cultural conditioning. Many Christians look to the Genesis story of creation in the Hebrew Bible to try to understand “the way we are made,” including the making of the differences between men and women. Interpretations of these differences have run the gamut and arguments for the continuing oppression and subjugation of women have been borne out of certain interpretations while arguments for equality and mutuality have also been brought forth from the narrative.
Rather than try to re-interpret Genesis narratives of human origins to understand gender differences, I’d like to look at a few interpretations that connect with ideas of neuroplasticity. Theologian Kathryn Tanner argues in Christ the Key that what it means to be human is to be shaped and formed by forces outside of ourselves. Tanner writes, “to an unusual degree, human nature takes shape in conformity to what helps it grow.” She goes on to argue that we were made for a strong attachment to God as our source of growth and life. For Tanner, Christ is the Key to our ability to be shaped and formed by our Creator God. But, instead of being shaped by God, perhaps over time we have been shaped by other powerful forces outside of ourselves.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer imagines the separation of humanity into male and female as an affirmation of our creatureliness and our limitations – God is our source of life, our loving relationship with others reminds us of our limitations as we are interdependent upon one another for the sustaining and flourishing of life. We need outside sources in order to “know good and evil.” In Bonhoeffer’s interpretation, God intended to be our shaping and defining source, but humans chose to try to become the source of the knowledge of good and evil for themselves. Bonhoeffer sees the results of imagining that we can be our own best shaping and defining influence to have it’s most tragic consequences in the context of gender relationships. He writes in Creation and Fall:
that one person claims a right to the other, claims to be entitled to possess the other, and thereby denies and destroys the creaturely nature of the other person. This obsessive desire of one human being for another finds its primordial expression in unbridled sexuality. The unbridled sexuality of the human being who transgresses his or her boundary is a refusal to recognize any limit at all; it is a boundless obsessive desire to be without any limits. Unbridled sexuality is a passionate hatred of any limit.
It’s hard for me to imagine God’s intentions for what it means to be male and female, feminine or masculine, woman, man, boy, or girl from such a short narrative. Perhaps the Genesis narrative speaks more about our inability to connect to Creator God and Creator God’s shaping and forming influence? Without a strong connection with our creator, we never really learned how God intended for us to be human in the variety and differences of our human forms. Instead, perhaps our differences have developed as a result of patriarchal systems of ownership and cultures of entitlement – such systems and cultures that set one one kind of human over another and imprison us all in boxes that limit our ability to connect with God and with one another?
When I first met my husband, I was tightly wrapped in the “good Christian woman” box – I was all covered up, with edges perfectly taped so the seams wouldn’t show, and bound with a multitude of ribbons and decorated with ornamental bows. Even though I had aspired to be the first woman president when I was seven years old, all that was part of my past, and I was learning to be the quiet, responsive, “true-love waits as a re-born virgin” kind of woman. I had worked long and hard to fit into that box, and with the help of mentoring by elders’ wives and pastors’ wives, I thought my odds of snagging that up-and-coming pastor or church leader were greatly increased. While I was willing to remain single and aspired to go to the mission field (after all that’s where single women who are leaders go, right?), I still made a list of what I was looking for in a potential husband. Pastor, leader and missionary were at the top of my list. But, the odds were not in my favor.
We met at work and he was not a professing follower of Jesus. He had only been to church a handful of times, and half of those were for weddings or funerals. We became good friends through group cycling outings with co-workers on Saturdays. We worked at a software company and my department worked on PCs, while he worked in the UNIX department. The joke around the office was that I was trying to convert him to Christianity and he was trying to convert me to UNIX. The happy ending is that we were both converted – he now believes that Jesus is Lord and I am convinced that UNIX is a far superior operating system.
In the midst of our developing friendship, I fell in love. But, it wasn’t until after I fell in love that I decided to rip up my list. As the door was closed on yet another opportunity to serve as a missionary, I met with my pastor and told him about the man who was pursuing me at work. His only question was whether Ken would fit in the “good Christian man” box – could he be my spiritual leader? From the outside, my husband looked like he would fit well into my man-box. Even though he was a new Christian, I was sure he would learn and grow to become a strong leader. I knew he was a man of character and would stand up for what he believed. After all, he became a card-carrying Republican at age 18 and still carried that card even after attending UC Santa Cruz, one of the most liberal colleges on the planet! We talked a bit about how he would be a spiritual leader in our pre-marital counseling, and our counselor suspected we were a good fit for one another. It turns out, he was right – but it’s taken a while for us to figure out how we best fit together – something we are still figuring out even to this day!
We tried to relate to each other from within those boxes (I kept bursting out and having to retie the ribbons and restick the bows) and it didn’t take long for me to notice that my husband really didn’t fit in the man box I had created, but that didn’t stop me from trying to force him into it. One of the manifestations of my woman box included a serious disdain for The Simpsons. Marge was as far from the ideal woman as I could imagine, and I don’t think they even make Homer-sized man boxes! And my husband was a huge fan of The Simpsons! Our conflict over The Simpsons was in some ways a depiction of many other conflicts. We began to find it increasingly difficult to relate to one another from within those constricting boxes, and even struggled to relate to God. I kept feeling guilty about my ravenous hunger for understanding the Bible and theology. And I kept pressuring my husband to relate to God in the same way I did – because he was the one who was supposed to be teaching me these things. But he didn’t connect with God in that way. He connects through serving, and he enjoys learning about the historical aspects of the Bible. Besides, he had no interest in teaching me anything. Especially since I was already such a know-it-all!
As my husband and I began to break through our boxes and the Holy Spirit began to unbind the constricting ribbons from our souls, we learned to enjoy each others differences and uniqueness in a variety of ways. We have learned that it’s OK that Ken is better in the kitchen and I am better at leading family devotions. Our family enjoys God so much more when each of us is expressing our authentic selves and loving and serving one another in community out of our own passions, desires and abilities. I still work in the kitchen, and my husband still leads prayer in our devotional time – our passions do not exempt us from serving one another even out of our weaknesses. But, we are not shaming one another anymore for not fitting into some imaginary man or woman box! These imaginary boxes are not created not by God, they are created by the unseen powers of the systems of this world that are not in alignment with God’s Kingdom vision of unity in Christ. Man boxes and woman boxes only serve to build up barriers and create a greater divide between us. They intensify our differences instead of unite us in our common humanity. Jesus’ prayer for us is to be united in community as Father, Son and Spirit are united in relationship in the Trinity.
One of the most constricting ribbons that had to be loosed from my imaginary woman box was my disdain for The Simpsons. I had to unloose my literalism and fear that by watching The Simpsons we would somehow become The Simpsons. As the ribbons unraveled and the wrapping came loose, I learned to understand the satire of The Simpsons and appreciate it’s constructive social criticism. And, my husband has not become Homer, my kids have not become Bart, though I think one of my girls might be a bit like Lisa. And the only time I’ve resembled Marge much was on Halloween. We regularly watch The Simpsons together as a family and then we do family devotions together. We teach our kids to think critically about culture and the world around them, we teach them to read their Bible critically and seek understanding within the context of family and community. And, we pray for one another and for others.
It’s easy to try to put people in boxes. It’s easy to accept these boxes uncritically as “natural” or “what God intended” or “that’s the way we are supposed to be.” There are a variety of man boxes and woman boxes, and some are more harmful than others. When talking to boys about girls, we need to help them see the boxes they might be stuck in. Tony Porter’s TED Talk does a good job of exposing one of the most harmful man boxes that we need to help deliver young people from.
In my next blog post in this series I will write about how we can help young men and women see the boxes they are constructing, or have been constructed for them. I will also suggest some ways we can deconstruct these imaginary boxes within the context of families and the church.
This is the first post in a series on Talking to Boys about Girls.
I’ve never been to Steubenville. But, I am a Buckeye. I was born at The Ohio State University Hospital and I graduated from The Ohio State University. I imagine Steubenville is a lot like many other Midwest towns. Along with boasting the production of frequent college football champions, the Midwest is one region that boasts higher church attendance than most regions of the country. I wonder if the Steubenville boys who were convicted of rape in March 2013 went to church? If they did, would they have heard anything at church that would have helped them make different choices? Most of us are aware of the media oversexualization of girls (if not, I recommend So Sexy So Soon). What messages are boys getting in Sunday School and Youth Group to counter the media messages? Recently, at the Northwest Ministry Conference I spoke to youth leaders about how to talk to boys about girls. As a mother of four strong, fun-loving and smart daughters, I’m concerned about the rape culture and what our faith communities are doing about it. Before I share some ideas of what youth leaders (and families!) can do, I’d like to share a story of how this oversexualization is not just happening outside the church building.
When he picked her up from Sunday School, the teacher pulled my husband aside. The teacher was concerned about her attire. That warm summer Sunday she was wearing an ankle-length, light blue spaghetti-strap dress that came with a lace, cap-sleeved short jacket, which she had decided not to wear. Her teacher told my husband he thought her bare shoulders were a problem and that she should cover up in the future. She was five years old.
When we found each other in what’s called “the mallway” on our way out of our mega-church, my daughter seemed a little less excited than usual to tell me about her Sunday School craft, which definitely needed explanation. At this stage of our parenting, we had to divide and conquer in order to get all our kids picked up in our large church. My husband picked up the two older girls from Sunday School, while I headed to the nursery to gather our baby and toddler. After we found each other in the mallway, my five-year-old came and clung to my side as her younger sister ran to greet her daddy.
She was not usually the clingy type, so I knew something was up. She hung her head, as if in shame, as I stroked her curls and shot my husband an inquisitive look. My husband offered, with a slight tone of exasperation, an explanation for her downcast demeanor, telling me what the Sunday School teacher had said. I tried to hide my annoyance, not really knowing what to think and wondering when bare girl shoulders became a problem. I put my hand on her bare shoulder and it seemed as if the shame spread from her to me in one great surge, submerging me into my own pool of fear and shame. Unfortunately, my annoyance and shame suddenly got misdirected and I curtly asked my little girl, “What happened to your jacket? Why didn’t you wear it to church today?”
How would you respond in this situation? How would you respond if this happened at age 7 or age 10? What about age 13 or after your daughter had begun developing breasts and hips? Who decides when and whether showing a little skin is a problem for girls? Who told this 40-something-year-old, male Sunday School teacher that bare five-year-old girl shoulders were a problem? Who was it a problem for? The five-year-old boys in the class? Or the teacher?
When I was five, I was still taking baths with my four-year-old boy cousin and nobody thought twice about us being naked together in the tub at grandma’s house. There was an innocence and almost asexuality about our preschool bodies. Even after entering elementary school, most boys and girls did not look at or think of each other in objectifying ways. Sure, I had a crush on a boy in second grade and thought he was cute, but our language for those experiences is much different than the language children use today. Our interest in others different from us was marked more by the normal curiosity of developing children who are trying to navigate difference and what it means to be a boy or a girl in the world. One of the primary developmental tasks at that stage, from three to six years, is to acquire information about the world, self, body, and gender roles.
Today, by the time our girls and boys reach the age of 9-10, they are likely to have already been exposed to many images of sexualized girl bodies. From the 10″ Bratz fashion dolls wearing fishnet tights, which are similar to but outsold Barbie dolls in 2006, to the video that went viral in 2010 of seven-year-old girls dancing to Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies” dressed in sexy lingerie and gyrating in ways that mimic sexual intercourse, the sexualization of girlhood has become pervasive.
“Increasingly over the past 10 years, we’ve seen an escalation in the sexualization of young girls,” says Deborah Tolman, professor of social welfare and psychology and founding director of the ASAP Initiative, which does research and analysis of sexuality for action and policy. “There’s an inappropriate imposition of sexuality on young girls, and, as girls enter adolescence, they’re learning to sexualize themselves,” she says. Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne are deeply worried about the price children pay for the sexualization of their childhood. “Girls and boys constantly encounter sexual messages and images that they cannot understand and that can confuse and frighten them. A narrow definition of femininity and sexuality encourages girls to focus heavily on appearance and sex appeal. They learn at a very young age that their value is determined by how beautiful, thin, ‘hot,’ and sexy they are.”
The primary message communicated through the media is that women exist for the pleasure and consumption of men – they are objects to be possessed, owned and used to fulfill male needs, desires and dreams. Unfortunately, adolescent boys are one of the largest target audiences for some of the more extreme versions of this message as illustrated in the Media Education Foundation documentary film, Dreamworlds 3. Unfortunately, boys and young men who attend church and go to youth groups are not immune from the influence of these dreamworlds.
Oversexualization and objectification of women and girls in the media has been met with response from the church – and the most common responses are the intensification or adaptation of modesty doctrines. An intensification of modesty doctrines teaches girls to cover up their sexy bodies, because the media is right, their bodies are sexual and therefore dangerous for boy’s visual consumption. The subtle message is that they should be ashamed of their bodies and that they are responsible for boy’s and men’s lustful looks. Emily Maynard, a Portland blogger writing for ChurchLeaders says, “I don’t think dressing according to a set of modesty rules will ever stop another person from lusting.”
An adaptation of the modesty message is the “modest is hottest” and the Live31 ideals. The Live31 ideal says, “I’d rather have a Proverbs 31 woman than a Victoria’s Secret model.” One of the expressions of the “modest is hottest” ideal that I find quite disturbing is the frequent declarations of young pastors about how hot their wives are and how they married out of their league. This too oft repeated praise of pastor’s wives, while likely intended to honor their wives, unfortunately reinforces the media message that a woman’s worth is in her attractiveness or sexuality. What about all those girls who don’t fit into either the media ideal of the hot chick, or the church ideal of the “modest is hottest” Proverbs 31 woman – do they have any chances at love and marriage? And is romantic love, marriage, childbearing and serving a husband the highest ideal for women so that we should organize ourselves around making ourselves attractive – either according to the media standards or the church standards – in order to be a true woman?
While teaching our girls to dress appropriately in unassuming ways is important, strict modesty rules and the “modest is hottest” message are doing more harm than good by setting up equally unrealistic and unattainable ideals and are merely the flipside of the media objectification of women. As Sharon Hodde Miller notes in her Christianity Today article on modesty, “The Christian rhetoric of modesty, rather than offering believers an alternative to the sexual objectification of women, often continues the objectification, just in a different form.”
I often wonder, what is the root of all this objectification of women? Is it the remnants of ancient cultures treating women as property for millennia? Is it the influence of TV and print media in the context of capitalism that uses sex to sell everything? Is this oversexualization and objectification of women and girls a new thing or is it just a new instantiation of an old, old story replayed on the stage of women’s lives today?
On April 26-27 I will be joining others at Bold Boundaries in Chicago to discuss friendship between men and women and will participate in a Roundtable on Modesty, Beauty, and Friendship. I have a lot of questions about how we talk to our girls about boys and how we talk to boys about girls – both in our private spaces in our homes and our public spaces of Sunday School and Youth Groups. In my next blog I will continue to wrestle with these questions about how we, the people of the church, often continue the objectification of women and offer some ideas on what we can do to change.
Today I celebrate with women around the globe. “Annually on 8 March, thousands of events are held throughout the world to inspire women and celebrate achievements. A global web of rich and diverse local activity connects women from all around the world ranging from political rallies, business conferences, government activities and networking events through to local women’s craft markets, theatric performances, fashion parades and more.”
In celebration of International Women’s Day, I am posting my review of Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology written for my Global Theology class last term.
Oh, the comfort –
The inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person,
Having neither to weigh thoughts,
Nor measure words — but pouring them
All right out — just as they are –
Chaff and grain together –
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them –
Keep what is worth keeping — and with the breath of kindness
Blow the rest away.
This oft quoted saying about friendship deeply influences my study of theology, for whether theologies are written by women or men, by my contemporaries or ancient fathers, by third world and indigenous people or white Western men and women, we have all been invited to be cooperative friends of Jesus in this work of theology and as friends, we must offer each other safe places to think theologically where we trust each other’s faithful hands to sift our words. We must also pray to be imbued with the wisdom of Christ to discern what is worth keeping and empowered by the kind breath of the Spirit to blow the rest away. This friendship quote has occasionally been misattributed to George Eliot, a female author of the Victorian era who used a male pen name in hopes that her works would be taken seriously and to avoid stereotypes about female authors. Unfortunately, our situation today has not changed much in the realm of theological and religious writing by women. As in the Victorian era, women theologians are often not taken seriously or stereotyped in one way or another. One recent example is from an article regarding reviews of Sarah Sentilles’ spiritual memoir. Sarah Sentilles writes, “Even though I have two graduate degrees from Harvard—including a doctorate in theology—many reviewers failed to treat me as a scholar of religion. The reviews were infantilizing and patronizing.”# In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, Kwok Pui-Lan, originally from Hong Kong and currently Professor of Christian Theology and Spirituality at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, seeks to give an overview of Third World and Indigenous Women doing theology from a place of struggle against patriarchal church structures where they are often not taken seriously or stereotyped in some way. In their struggle against patriarchy many of these women have worked to create alternative and safer spaces in which to nurture their theological thinking# and so I read their articles as a cooperative friend of Jesus with them and receive their outpouring of theological thinking in this spirit of friendship.
Hope Abundant is divided into four parts: Context and Theology; Scripture; Christology; and Body, Sexuality and Spirituality. While the first section deals primarily with critiquing historical theologies and explaining the contextual nature of indigenous and Third World women’s theologies, this theme is a constant theme throughout the volume. The contextual nature of women’s theology is not limited to the context of social setting or geopolitical location, but includes the context of embodiment and is an “engendered” theology.# This engendered theology affirms the biblical conviction that men and women are created in God’s image. Such an engendered theology “in itself demands that women too must live in dignity. Any pattern of discrimination, domination, or oppression is contrary to God’s justice.”# Kanyoro argues that engendered theology must reject “the assumption that the roles of men and women have been fixed, either by Creator or by culture” and must include women’s voices, especially African women’s voices, as a “matter of justice, not simply one of choice.”#
In reading the various articles critiquing patriarchy, and nearly every article offered some sort of critique of systems of domination, one could conclude that patriarchy as it is often experienced by women is a form of sicut deus# – a way of humanity, including men in power especially, seeking to rule in place of God. Wong Wai Ching Angela argues that patriarchy “makes captives of men as well as women” and that both men and women need to see the true nature of patriarchal systems of domination in order to work together as the cooperative friends God intended them to be in creation.# We see this theme again as Mercy Amba Oduyoye writes, “I am convinced that Jesus died so that the patriarchal God might die and that Jesus rose so that the true God revealed in Jesus might rise in our lives, and in our communities.”# Wong Wai Ching Angela writes powerfully of the hope of Asian women theologians:
“Our vision is to see men and women in communities of genuine partnership, with true reciprocity and mutual respect, in communities that care not only for people but for our whole planet earth. We envision a new world; a transformed world; a world that truly mirrors God’s design; a just, caring, and peace-filled world – indeed a new creation. We dare to dream…”#
New creation and creation-care themes offer another common thread in the tapestry of Third World and idigenous women’s theologies. Native feminist liberation theologies tend to give priority to a right ordering of relations so as to be in balance with one another and in balance with with all creation, as well as focus on ethics as integral to the discipline of theology.# Aboriginal spirituality illumines the ideas of salvation as the healing of creation and sabbath as integral to that healing by promoting “healing concepts such as stillness, a natural closeness to God, and an intimate relationship with nature.”# While some of the authors went a little too far in removing God from the image of male powers and imbuing the earth with a life of it’s own, their work of reimagining our understanding of God’s intimate relationship with creation and our embodied existence is worthy work. They entrust us with their outpourings – “chaff and grain together” – and it is up to others to sift through them with a faithful hand and a breath of kindness. African women’s theologies continue in this theme offering a theology of creation that shows “God’s plan for the sacredness of all life.” Another key theme regarding creation care is expressed succinctly by Isabel Apawo Phiri when she says, “There is interdependency and goodness of creation.”# That these ideas are born in the midst of such suffering amazes me, but should we be surprised by the hope these women find in Jesus Christ? Of her experience with HIV/AIDS affected and infected people who go to churches seeking healing, Phiri writes:
“Despite the fact that many people who are critically ill die at the churches, people do not lose hope in a God who is a healer. They still go to church in droves to seek Jesus the healer. Jesus becomes their last hope. They hope for physical healing. Hope in Jesus as healer is what gives them motivation to face another day, even up to the deathbed. They cling to hope for healing.”#
Indeed, hope is abundant in these Third World and indigenous women’s theologies as they discover a God of justice who is on the side of the oppressed – who is on their side as oppressed women – the God who’s highness is most beautifully revealed in his descending# through the incarnation and suffering on the cross. Carmelita Usog explains her understanding of women’s spirituality for justice as a spirituality to and for the other, especially the oppressed. This spirituality is not just understood in the context of God as creator, or the incarnation of Jesus, but through the ongoing and indwelling life of the Spirit. “It is a holistic spirituality in touch with the movement of the Holy Spirit, not only in people’s lives but also in the whole of creation.”# The idea of trinity as interdependence instead of hierarchy and as related to creation care not just human relationships is addressed in a number of articles, but the hope of being included in this dance of interdependence is beautifully portrayed as Usog writes, “Women’s spirituality for justice can blossom only if the liberating Spirit is allowed to move us beyond our fears, doubts, hesitations, and insecurities. Everything and everyone is related. No one can be herself without doing work for justice.”# This abundant hope that flourishes among these women who have experienced much exclusion and suffering gives me hope in the possibility of God’s new creation. As these women show us, we must work together as cooperative friends of Jesus with men and women around the world from all races, genders, class, and cultures to live lives of creative goodness in the power of the Holy Spirit for the sake of others.
One of the new ideas I encountered in Hope Abundant is the idea of using gender analysis for theological explorations. By using gender analysis women theologians “seek to learn about and understand how our societies are organized and how power is used by different groups of people, by men and women, by young and old, and by people of varying economic means.”# This idea of gender analysis is built upon the concept of intersectionality, a feminist sociological theory explaining the interrelatedness between systems of oppression including race, gender, class and ethnicity. This type of analysis makes sense to me as we are encouraged that whatever we do for the least of these we do for Christ. (Matthew 25:40) This new concept connects with another new idea of doing theology from the perspective of the oppressed. Privileging the poor and oppressed in our theological endeavors affects me personally as an aspiring woman theologian who, while I may have experienced mild forms of oppression and feeling silenced in the Church, my experience as a somewhat silenced yet privileged woman may help bridge the gap between the theologies of privileged white men and oppressed Third World and indigenous women as I experience an interrelatedness with both. Meng Yanling of China explains the value of feminist theology well when she says,
“It is difficult for people to accept Chinese feminist theology because of the influence of traditional culture on the one hand, and because of misunderstanding of many biblical passages on the other. So from the very beginning the term ‘feminist theology’ often raises a lot of doubts, even a lot of hackles. But I believe it is a very suitable term to express an important theological trend in the church today. Perhaps in the course of its development, there has been this or that type of deviation, but no development leads smoothly from beginning to maturity and perfection. There must be a process of searching and exploration before moving onto a healthy path.”#
A third somewhat new idea encountered in my reading is the idea of enacted theology. Musa Dube argues, “The question of how different flesh and blood readers have acted out the biblical story in history, and how their act illumines some meaning of the text needs to be integrated into academic biblical studies.” She goes on to say, “The biblical story itself invites its readers to identify with it and to act it out in history.”# It feels like it’s a dance – by acting out the narrative we are interpreting the narrative while the narrative is also interpreting us. The community plays a critical role as we enact the narrative together and offer helpful correctives when our interpretations go awry. And of course, the Trinity plays an important role in this dance of narrative with humanity in leading us into all truth as Barth notes of Jesus Christ the centre of the drama, “It is the truth of the real or the reality of the true which here enters the field: God speaks, God acts, God is in the midst. The very Word with which we are here concerned is an act, this act, which as such is the Word, is Revelation.”# This connects with something we have been talking about in the Society of Vineyard Scholars to which I belong. We say that our practices are often smarter than our best theologies and we need to learn to exegete our practices in developing a theology of the Vineyard movement. Perhaps a post-colonial feminist exegesis of Vineyard practices will be a valuable contribution to the developing theology of the movement.
One of the biggest questions that was raised for me in reading this text is how do I engage with and learn from feminist theology without going so far as to reject all male images of God and ascribe to the earth some sort of goddess status. Roger Olson, an evangelical and Arminian theologian, has been posting some blogs about feminism. I respect his scholarship and his blogs might be a good place to start to engage the topic from a perspective of suspicion. But, I would also like to read more from feminist theologians who have gone too far, in my opinion and in the opinion of other Christian theologians I respect, and try to understand for myself where the falling off points are. I hope to be able to engage theologians I disagree with from the standpoint of friendship I noted at the beginning and rather than go on a witch hunt or search for heresy, I hope to take and sift with a faithful hand the chaff and the grain together, trusting the kind wind of the Spirit to blow in and through me.
Another question that was raised for me is the role of formal theological education. As noted before about the Vineyard movement recognizing that our practices are often smarter than our theologies, what do we need to do in our theological education institutions to exegete the practices of Third World and indigenous women, as well as others who are oppressed to learn from them and understand God from their perspective? I’m not sure how to explore this question more fully, but I do believe that assignments like this are a step in the right direction. Perhaps doing some ministry work in a context with oppressed people may lead to a better understanding of how the oppressed view God.
It never ceases to amaze me how hope is so abundant among the poor and the oppressed. We would do well to be the kind of friends to the poor and oppressed so they can safely do the the work of theology and enlighten those of us in positions of privilege and power.
[#]Sarah Sentilles, “The Pen is Mightier: Sexist Responses to Women Writing About Religion,” (Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Summer/Autumn 2012 (Vol. 40, Nos. 3 & 4)), http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news-events/harvard-divinity-bulletin/articles/the-pen-is-mightier accessed 10/15/12.
[#] Kwok Pui-lan, Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010),10.
[#] Musimbi R. A. Kanyoro, Engendered Communal Theology: African Women’s Contribution to Theology in the Twenty-first Century, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 19-35.
[#] Ibid., 25.
[#] Ibid., 26, 32.
[# Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: a Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3, ed. Martin Rüter, vol. 3 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 111.
[#] Wong Wai Chang Angela, Women Doing Theology with the Asian Ecumenical Movement, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 36-50.
[#] Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Jesus Christ, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 167-185.
[#] Wong, ibid., 48.
[#] Andrea Smith, Dismantling the Master’s House with the Master’s Tools: Native Feminist Liberation Theologies, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 72-85.
[#] Lee Miena Skye, Australian Aboriginal Women’s Christologies, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 194-202.
[#] Isabel Apawo Phiri, HIV/AIDS: An African Theological Response in Mission, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 219-228.
[#] Ibid., 226.
[#] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (New York: Harper Perennial, 1959), 40.
[#] Carmelita Usog, Women’s Spirituality for Justice, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 255-266.
[#] Musimbi R. A. Kanyoro, ibid., 23.
[#] Meng Yanling, Women, Faith, Marriage: A Feminist Look at the Challenges for Women, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 239.
[#] Musa W. Dube, Toward A Post-Colonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, In Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. Kwok Pui-lan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 90.
[#] Barth, ibid., 67.
Barth, Karl. Dogmatics in Outline. New York: Harper Perennial, 1959.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Creation and Fall: a Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3. Edited by Martin Rüter. Vol. 3) of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Pui-lan, Kwok. Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010.
Sentilles, Sarah. “The Pen is Mightier: Sexist Responses to Women Writing About Religion.” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Summer/Autumn 2012 (Vol. 40, Nos. 3 & 4). http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news-events/harvard-divinity-bulletin/articles/the-pen-is-mightier accessed 10/15/12.
Chemistry, Crushes and the Complexity of Attraction
by Elizabeth Chapin
This post is part of the February Synchroblog, “Cross Gender Friendships.” I have listed the links to all the contributing blogs at the end of this post.
We never had the talk. You know, the “defining the relationship” talk. I knew we would remain just friends, after all, Johnny had a girlfriend back home and he wasn’t the “I can cheat on my girlfriend while at college and get away with it” type. But, by the middle of our second semester, I knew Johnny loved me too. Even though he loved me, he had chosen to be and stay romantically involved with his girlfriend at home. So, our love had limits. And limits are a good thing. We are creatures, not God, so we will always have limits no matter how hard we try to live as if we are limitless.
In many ways it was refreshing and healing to have a guy care about me without expecting to have sex with me. I had already experienced my share of “looking for love in all the wrong places” kind of relationships. Many were one-night stands with guys who didn’t even remember my name in the morning, others were, in today’s jargon, “friends with benefits” relationships, though I’m not sure how I benefited from those friendships. Most of the time I didn’t feel loved or cared for, and there were times when I felt more like an object than a human being after receiving those benefits – or was I the one giving the benefits? I’m not sure. It was all very complicated.
And then there was that time I kissed a girl, and… Oh, the experimentation of college days. She was one of my best friends and I really enjoyed hanging out with her. One night we were just fooling around and it never went any farther than that kiss with me. But, I could tell she enjoyed hanging out with one of her volleyball teammates even more than with me. I wasn’t jealous. We were still good friends. After a few months, things started to shift for her. We had many late night conversations as she wrestled with the complicated new feelings she was experiencing. The biggest question she asked over and over again as her tears mingled with her fears was, “What am I going to tell my parents?” We walked the beach until the wee hours of the morning the night before she traveled home to “come out” to her parents. Her parents eventually accepted her decision, though not without much questioning.
Friendship is complicated. And with the blurring of all sorts of boundaries it’s getting even more complicated. The big idea about why men and women can’t be friends is because of sexual attraction. But, attraction is not just limited to the opposite sex – it never has been and it never will be. As Jennifer Ellen Ould writes, “Attraction is always a part of friendship. It’s just that when it comes to men and women, we are conditioned to associate any attraction at all with sexual interest.”
So, what do we do with chemistry, crushes and the complexity of attraction in relationships? First of all, I suggest, we rethink the binary of attraction. Janell Williams Paris in The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are argues that our labeling people based on their sexual attraction and where they fit in the gender binary world we have created limits our understanding of what it means to be human. Paris, along with others, argues that we need to reframe our understanding of gender as a spectrum, rather than a binary. I would add, we need to expand our boundaries of attraction from a binary of “hot or not” to a spectrum that allows for friendships to grow and flourish between all kinds of humans.
In the “hot or not” binary, relationships between men and women are reduced to sexual attraction and our biological function. We are more than that. We are not animals. We are humans. We are created to love one another and to remind one another of what it means to be human. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant German theologian doing theology during Nazi Germany, proposes that the effects of the fall are seen most profoundly in cross-gender relationships saying, “unbridled sexuality … is a mad acceleration of the fall.”
We see this mad acceleration in the failure to recognize the beauty of friendship between men and women. We see this mad acceleration in the assumption that attraction leads to unbridled sexuality. We see this mad acceleration when a woman is attracted to another woman and assumes she must then be a lesbian. Jesus came to reverse the effects of the fall – to stop this mad acceleration of unbridled sexuality. The Bible shows us that intimate friendship between the same genders as well as cross-genders is possible. Dan Brennan writes about the significance of when Jesus met Mary for cross-gender friendship in his book Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women.
To counter the distortion of objectification and oversexualization that continues to accelerate all around us, stricter boundaries separating men and women are not the answer. And with the increase in same-sex relationships, pretty soon we will have to extend those boundaries to include all humans and we will be left on our own. We are created for one another – not just to procreate – that’s Darwin’s idea. We are created for love and communion, with one another and with God. The fall separated what God had joined together. Christ came to bring us back together.
But what do we do with the chemistry, crushes and normal attraction between humans? I would like to propose that God wired us to desire attachment to one another for the purpose of loving one another and encouraging one another to be more properly human. When we reject that attraction and refuse to attach to one another in properly human ways, we work against what the Spirit of God is doing to restore our humanity. Here’s one way I have tried to cooperate with the creative goodness of God in cross-gender friendships in my life.
He was the worship leader of the campus ministry and he lived in the dorm next door to mine. We started hanging out quite often and really enjoyed each others company. We would talk about our classes, our Bible studies, ministry, and our mutual friendships. One day we went to lunch together and he told me he wondered whether I was hoping we would be more than friends and wanted to let me know his feelings on the matter. He was not interested in getting romantically involved. There were moments when I was attracted to him and wondered whether our friendship would someday turn to romance, but more than anything, I enjoyed his friendship. I could have easily given up on our friendship thinking that it wasn’t worth my time if he was only interested in being “just friends”. Or, he could have avoided me after I told him I was attracted to him for fear of causing me to stumble or some other nonsense. Instead, we decided to stick with one another and grow our friendship.
He was graduating at the end of that year, so we didn’t have much time to grow our friendship, but the time that we did have laid the groundwork for a long and joyful friendship. We kept in touch for many years after college and I regret to say that we eventually lost track of one another. But those years of friendship laid the groundwork for many future cross-gender friendships that have shaped and formed me into a better human.
Since then, I have decided to turn my feelings of chemistry and crushes into spiritual disciplines.
- Instead of pining, I spend time praying for my friend.
- Instead of fantasizing, I focus on serving my friend.
- Instead of wondering whether they like me back, I reach out and call, write, or visit my friend and offer a listening ear or words of encouragement.
All the passion that comes along with attraction can fuel faithful friendships that help shape and form us into more suitable humans – the kind of humans that don’t define friendship based on gender or sex, but rather on love. Dear friends, let us love one another.
If you are interested in exploring more ideas about restorative cross-gender friendships, join me in Chicago on April 26-27 for the next Sacred Friendship Gathering on Bold Boundaries: Expanding Friendship Between Men and Women.
Here’s the list of links to the contributing blogs:
Chris Jefferies – Best of both
Jeremy Myers – Are Cross-Gender Friendships Possible
Lynne Tait – Little Boxes
Dan Brennan – Cross-Gender Friendship: Jesus and the Post-Romantic Age
Glenn Hager – Sluts and Horndogs
Jennifer Ellen – A Different Kind of Valentine
Alise Wright - What I get from my cross-gender friend
Liz Dyer – Cross-Gender Friendships and the Church
Jonalyn Fincher – Why I Don’t Give out Sex like Gold Star Stickers
Maria Kettleson Anderson - Myth and Reality: Cross-Gender Friendships
Bram Cools - Nothing More Natural Than Cross-Gender Friendships?
Marta Layton – True Friendship: Two Bodies, One Soul
Kathy Escobar – The Road To Equality Is Paved With Friendship
Karl Wheeler – Friends at First Sight
Jim Henderson – Jesus Had A Thing for Women and So Do I
Rachel Held Evans, author of the New York Times Bestseller, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, offered a collection of blog posts today on virginity and asks whether Christians idolize virginity. The ensuing comments (nearly 300 as of the writing of this blog) expose the complexity of this issue as well as the shame, pain, and other unintended consequences of messages that equate purity with virginity.
Our tendency to equate purity to virginity as simply a physical reality is reminiscent of the Pharisees and their focus on the external purity rituals while neglecting the heart. Jesus corrects this attitude in many ways including his teaching on lust (Matthew 5:28) – that a lustful attitude is a form of adultery, which was mostly considered a physical act, as well as a violation of property rights. But, the opposite error of imagining purity as only a state of mind is also a problem as it imagines that what we do in our body is of little consequence to our spirit and soul. Certainly, we see many who are victims of rape or sexual abuse needing to make a disconnection between their body and their mind/soul/spirit for survival, but this is not healthy, true to our human nature nor what God intends for humans who are created to image their creator.
Both of these positions assume that purity is something we can possess within ourselves, or out of our own resources. Recently I’ve been reading Christ the Key by Theologian Kathryn Tanner who notes, “Like angels, humans can acquire the virtues that perfect them only by participating in what is other than themselves, the Word that in its simplicity is itself those things without acquiring them.” (Tanner, Christ the Key, Kindle Location 498) We are misguided to think of any human (even a newborn?) as pure in any sense apart from the pure light of Christ illuminating the whole person. Even in the Garden, God was the source of all purity and goodness, as Tanner quotes Gregory of Nyssa from “On Virginity,” that in the Garden we were “to enjoy the good in its purity . . . and to enjoy that, is in my judgment nothing else than ever to be with God, and to feel ceaselessly and continually this delight, unalloyed by anything that could tear us away from it.” (Tanner, Kindle Location 604 – I would like to read Gregory of Nyssa source on this topic!)
When we equate purity with virginity, we create a system in which we imagine we can somehow be pure apart from God. When we reject purity as virginity, and imagine purity as a state of mind, we create a system in which what we do with our bodies doesn’t matter but still seek to be pure apart from God. God is the only source of purity for us and we must be careful to teach our children well to look to God as the source of all of the goodness in their lives. By looking to Christ as our source, and allowing Christ to transform us, can we acquire the virtue of purity? To what degree can we “be pure”? Tanner notes, “when our minds are therefore formed according to the divine image, so are our bodies.” (Tanner, Kindle Location 983) Is this a unidirectional interface – the image of Christ affects our mind which then affects our bodies? If purity is something outside of ourselves, how then do we talk about, think about sexual ethics and what it means to be joined to another human being in such an intimate way?
These discussions about purity and virginity are complicated and raise many questions about what we believe about God, about living in community, and about what it means to be human. Together, we must work toward a sexual ethic that speaks more about integrity and what it means to be appropriately human than creating an in and out proposition where young people who choose to have sex before marriage are shamed and shunned while young people who wait to have sex until marriage are paralyzed by the “sex is evil” messages that they end up in therapists offices not long after their wedding night!
We must also make room for those who are abused, raped, and sexually trafficked to be welcome in our midst without feeling like lepers. And we must recognize the gender imbalance in these conversations and the implications for both men and women when the evangelical response to over-sexualization is an equally distorted over-sexualization asking for men to protect women’s vaginas! As if women are property again!!
As a young Christian, I heard the “Why Wait?” messages and was deeply shamed by them since I had not waited. Years later, after a period of abstaining from sex until marriage, I struggled deeply with wounds – not just from being shamed for not waiting, but from the pain of abuse by men who mistreated me and claimed to be entitled to possess me for their own pleasure, denying my humanity in the process. While most of my premarital sexual experiences were consensual, as a young teenager I don’t think I realized what I was consenting to. I was looking for love in all the wrong places and instead found many men who viewed women as sexual objects to possess for their own pleasure.
Here’s a reflection I wrote a while ago echoing the pain that only God can heal:
The arrow penetrated and lodged within my heart of hearts, deep under my skin. The wound healed over on the surface it seemed and only a crooked and painted scar remained. I tried to ignore the pain inside that the crooked scar was trying to hide. I told myself the wound was healed, there was no more bleeding – the skin was sealed. Yet deep inside the poisonous arrow remained and when I touched the scar, I winced in pain. The voices in my head said I’m scarred for life, there isn’t a man who would want me as a wife. Your sin has marred you beyond repair, there isn’t a man who will truly care. My heart was shattered as I believed the lies, and I found it impossible to trust most any guy. I thought they all only wanted to gain personal pleasure while giving me pain. I thought I had failed God and that God would deny my desire for intimacy and then I would cry.
Thank you, Rachel Held Evans, Elizabeth Esther, Sarah Bessey, Carolyn Custis James, and Dianna Anderson, for asking hard questions, telling real stories, and working to mitigate the unintended consequences of the purity=virginity message. As a mother of four daughters, ages 14-20, I am deeply concerned about these messages. Hopefully together we can write a new message that leads to life, health and human flourishing for women and men alike.
“Sit still and be quiet!” Perhaps I should have used all caps when writing that, as it was not the calm and quiet instruction offered a four year old with a soft touch on the shoulder. No, it was the forceful command of a violent and rageful man – my father. I often heard that command barked out at me when I was young. But the most tangible memory is of hearing it around the dining room table. The dining room was off limits except when we ate there together as a family or with guests. The table was larger than life and the chairs were a deep, dark wood with gold embroidered upholstery. The fear of spilling something on the upholstery was almost as overwhelming as the fear aroused when sharply reminded to “sit still and be quiet!”
I loved my father (he passed away in 2006) but I also feared him. My mother tried to hide the black eyes and bruises, but we knew. And when we crossed the line (Dad’s line), we didn’t just get swats to correct our behavior. No, we received a whipping with his leather belt. I learned quickly from my sister, I didn’t ever want to see that belt taken off. So, I invented many ways of hiding. But, there were times when my “motor-mouth” got the best of me. And I would hear those words, loud and clear, “SIT STILL AND BE QUIET!” I can almost hear them even now as I write, and my heart is tempted to race. It’s almost an instinctual response – the kind that puts you into “fight or flight” mode. I always prefered flight over fight. Snuggling up to my mom’s legs and hiding under her skirt was a common safe haven when I was four.
This wound from my childhood has taken on a life of it’s own at times. It’s kind of like a poisoned arrow was shot into my heart. The arrow may have been removed, but the poisoned tip was left behind. The wound has scarred over, but the pain remains beneath the surface and the poison seeps into my whole body and colors my interpretations of present events.
For instance, when I was checking out Student Ministries in my local church to see if it was where God wanted me to serve during this season, I visited for a few weeks and chatted with a few of the leaders. One Sunday, I shared with the Student Ministries Pastor some things I had experienced. He asked me if I was considering serving with the students and almost instantly my heart started to race. I didn’t realize it, but sometimes just talking with authority figures activates the poison from my past. I have learned enough to recognize the symptoms and didn’t run away and hide this time. Instead, I calmly responded and told him I would set a time to come in and talk to him about it. It didn’t take long for the fearful messages to start flooding my head – “He’s going to tell you that you talk too much and he only wants leaders who just listen and do what he says.” Now, it was obvious to others that that’s not the way this pastor works. He welcomes thoughtful and creative leaders and values what they have to say. But, my past experiences were coloring my present imagination and I could almost hear the words, “Sit still and be quiet.”
My sense of God leading me to work with Student Ministries was strong enough to inspire me to keep going, but at that moment I was very tempted to run and hide. Every fiber of my being wanted to escape the fear and just find some safe place to hide. Unfortunately, I’m too big to hide under my mom’s skirt anymore – and she rarely wears skirts or dresses anyway. Fortunately, God had other plans for me, plans for further healing and deliverance from the fear and from the lies that too frequently flooded my imagination. I scheduled an appointment with the Student Ministries Pastor, but knew I needed to speak with my prayer counselor first. As I met with my prayer counselor, she helped me make the connections between my heart-racing response to the pastor and the terror I experienced when I was young. During our time of prayer, the Holy Spirit helped me find that poisoned-arrow tip and with laser-like skill, God removed the poisoned tip and through the healing power of Christ in me, the poison was removed.
Here are some of the steps I took to experience healing from this poison within me:
- I recognized the root source of the fear – the terror of being raised in a home filled with violence and verbal abuse.
- I found a tangible memory that embodied that fear.
- I thought about what I wanted to say to my Dad in that situation, but couldn’t.
- I recognized and confessed my anger and rage toward my dad and his terrorizing behavior.
- I asked God to give me the gift of forgiveness for my dad and to forgive me for my anger and rage toward my dad.
- God helped me see the lies I believed about myself – like, “Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say.” “You really should just be calm and quiet like all the other Christian girls/women.” Etc. Then I acknowledged them as lies and chose not to believe them.
- I asked God to show me the truth – what does God think about me? Does God want me to “sit still and be quiet”? What is God inviting me to do or be?
It would be nice if that one prayer experience delivered me from all fear for all time, but that’s not the way healing happened for me in this instance. As part of the healing, God showed me a picture of the kind of joyful life I am invited to participate in with Christ and the Holy Spirit. In prayer, I imagined myself as a little girl at that larger-than-life dining room table, but instead of my Dad sitting there at the head of the table, Jesus was standing there holding his hand out and inviting me to climb up over the gold-embroidered upholstery and jump up onto the table and dance. It was a beautiful image – very healing and freeing. But sometimes I still fear those who remind me of my dad in some way or another. I wish the fear was completely gone. Sometimes God heals instantly, but other times it’s a process. Perhaps it’s often a process to remind me to cling to Christ and depend on the Holy Spirit in my life…
One Bible verse the Spirit keeps bringing to mind is 1 John 4:8, “Perfect love casts out fear.” This love that is referenced here is not my love – it’s not, “If you love perfectly you will not be afraid.” It’s not about another human love, like, “If your dad (or pastor or spouse) loves you perfectly, you won’t have to fear.” The only source of perfect love that I know of is God’s love. That’s the love that I cling to whenever I am tempted to fear. And that’s the love that is inviting me not to sit still and be quiet, but to get up and DANCE!