Thursday, December 11, 2014

Writing & Community

A piece I wrote during my September "Facebook hiatus" was published today on the Collegeville Institute's blog. You can read it here.

Perhaps it's strange that, during a season in which I felt compelled to step back from social media, in part due to some unfortunate experiences with what I will simply sum up as bullying, I also felt compelled to write about why I love the internet. Yet it makes sense: when a space that is often home to stimulating conversations and upbuilding friendships becomes hurtful, even dangerous, it's not the location itself that's at fault. I wrote about the internet in part because I was mad that I had been made to feel (at the very least) unwelcome, if not unsafe, expressing myself in a place that is normally a boon to my creativity and well being. I was angry that I felt the need to silence an entire social network on account of a few misogynist fools. I shut out supportive voices because of the fear instilled by a few hurtful ones. That should not have felt necessary, but it did and it was.

Words can be weapons if we want them to be. But they can also be gifts.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Saturday, November 29, 2014


I started writing something about Ferguson this week, but I am not ready to share it yet. I don't think I should be. There are others to listen to first. Start here: I am utterly undone, by Brittney Cooper.

"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil..."

Monday, November 24, 2014

Wisdom & Word

My first bible column for the Mennonite World Review is out. You can read it in print or online here.

In the meantime, as you liturgy nerds out there probably know, yesterday was Christ the King Sunday. And so, I give you Stephen Colbert's liturgical dance:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Unspeakable Things

When reviewing a book, I like to give a sense of its trajectory, and pull out a few specific examples from the text that highlight the book’s strengths and weaknesses. With Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution, I find that approach difficult, because each chapter is so vibrant. Penny considers her subjects with such depth and grace, such honesty and intelligence, that to leave anything out is unsettling. I can’t quote the whole book to you; I can only say that I really hope you will read it. Penny, who is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, has long been one of my favorite political writers, due to her clear grasp of the intertwined nature of the political and the personal.

Unspeakable Things arrived at my doorstep at an opportune time. As a young writer, I am learning the consequences of speaking one’s mind in public, that it’s dangerous business simply to exist as a woman and be good at what you do. Why, I wonder, are so many men shocked and offended that women have the audacity to narrate their own stories, instead of letting someone else do it for us? With this question on my mind, I cracked the spine of Unspeakable Things:
This is not a fairy tale. This is a story about how sex and money and power put fences around our fantasies. This is a story about how gender polices our dreams. Throughout human history, the most important political battles have been fought on the territory of the imagination, and what stories we allow ourselves to tell depend on what we can imagine. (1)
Laurie Penny is not afraid to name the causes of women’s legitimate anger, nor the repercussions thereof. “One sure test of social privilege,” she writes, “is how much anger you get to express without the threat of expulsion, arrest, or social exclusion” (1). She goes on to lay out the realities of love, sex, and gender under neoliberalism, and the prevalent ideologies that dictate discourse about these subjects across the political spectrum. Penny understands that the problems we face are structural, and that their solutions will involve more than simply tweaking the existing rules. The system is broken; the storyline is flawed. And we need to overturn it if there is to be any hope of moving beyond misogynist norms. She writes:
There comes a time when you have to decide whether to change yourself to fit the story, or change the story itself. The decision gets a little easier if you understand that refusing to shape your life and personality to the contours of an unjust world is the best way to start creating a new one. 
There comes a time when you have to decide what you will permit yourself to want. 
While we’re on the subject, here’s what I want. I want mutiny. I want women and queers and everyone else who’s been worked over by gender and poverty and power, which by the way means most of us, to stop waiting to be rewarded for good behaviour. There are no gold stars coming and there are few good jobs left. Even if we buy the right clothes and work the right hours and show up every day with the same cold gag of a smile clenched between our teeth, there’s no guarantee we’ll be left alone to grow old before the flood waters come in. 
Forget it. It’s done. The social revolution that’s been clocking and stumbling down a gauntlet of a century and more, the feminist fightback, the sexual re-scripting, the tearing up of old norms of race and class and gender, it has to start again, with all of us this time, not just the rich white kids who needed it least. So it has to be mutiny. (21, emphasis mine)
What do we want, anyway? What are we supposed to want? Desires are constructed within a web of expectations about right ways of being women or men, such that sometimes what we think we want and what we actually want are not the same thing. And when you begin to realize that, to reject the story you’ve been told, the trajectory you’re supposed to follow, what then? You are confronted with the choice of refusal, of saying no to the world as is, and yes to wanting something else, something better. And you will likely be punished for that desire.

Throughout Unspeakable Things Penny lays bare truths both women and men don’t want to speak of, don’t want to hear. From “Fucked-Up Girls” and “Lost Boys” to sexism on the internet and love in dangerous times, each chapter is a treatise on a particular feature of the current landscape of gender and sexuality. Together, they make a compelling case for her central claim: that gender polices our dreams, and that all of us -- each and every one -- have to imagine a way forward together, a way out of the tangled web of categories and boxes we try to squeeze ourselves and everyone else into. We have to dare to want something more than what is currently offered, something more than “hard work, bland beauty and romance leading to money, marriage and kids: the definition of total freedom that has been allowed to conquer our imaginations, leaving no space for any other lives. But what if we want something else? Is that still allowed? What if we want freedom?” (21).

I worry that it’s not allowed. Not now. And we must dare to want it anyway.

Doubtless there are theological connections here, which Penny herself would not make but would, I hope, excuse me for wanting. The current matrix of neoliberal capitalism, of violence and social control, is not the kind of freedom Christians are called to, despite how the church has been sucked into that narrative. A vision of life beyond human categories that define and separate, of freedom made possible in the Christ who heals us all and makes us whole, as creatures who are more than the limited definitions we try to project onto one another -- sadly most of us are not taught in church to imagine that kind of freedom.

Unspeakable Things left me with a deep hunger, one that has gnawed me for years but has only now been named. I decide, daily, what I will permit myself to want -- not only for myself, but for the world I live in, for the children I may never have, for the sisters and brothers who labor day in and day out in a system that it seems will never change. What will you permit yourself to want?

I fear that I want too much.

What does it mean to refuse to change my life to fit the story, and instead to change the story itself? To use my body, my life, my voice, to help reshape the contours of an unjust world?

Penny named so many things I have felt, so many injuries I bury deep down, wounds I have almost forgotten are there but can never fully leave behind. Wounds I know are only a small part of widespread epidemics. And yet, Penny ends her book with more hope than I can sometimes muster. “Revolution begins in the human imagination,” she writes, and I want to believe her. I don’t have that kind of hope in us, though I think she is right that we must dare to imagine something more, something else, and that means relentless hope, rejecting the story as it is now being told, and joining in the re-scripting of a world turned upside down by grace.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Femmonite Book Club

I had so much fun reading and reviewing Roxane Gay’s fabulous essay collection, Bad Feminist, last month that I decided this sort of thing should become a regular feature on the blog. A Femmonite Book Club, minus the need to squeeze an extra meeting into your no doubt already overstuffed schedules. You might think of this as me turning the Femmonite into a mini virtual classroom on feminism and literature, or simply as a way to choose which of the many books published each month are, in my highly subjective opinion, worth your time.

If you’re interested in reading along, here’s the full schedule:

September: Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution
October: Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
November: Mallory Ortberg, Texts from Jane Eyre
December: Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl

Look for my review of Unspeakable Things TOMORROW!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When an Apology is Not an Apology

During a New Student Orientation panel on Diversity & Inclusion at Duke Divinity School last week Dean Richard Hays made some comments about homosexuality, and read a passage from the Methodist Book of Discipline, that many students found inappropriate and unwelcoming. In response, students planned a peaceful gathering at the DDS opening convocation on Tuesday, which you can read about in the Durham Herald-Sun here.

Then, yesterday evening, Hays sent a letter to the Duke Divinity School community in response. Even though I have tutored and precepted at Duke for two and a half years I don’t receive community emails, so I asked a student friend to forward the letter to me. Turns out I could have just waited, because the letter was publicly tweeted by DDS a while later. This should not have surprised me. The letter sounded more like a public statement than a personal letter to the community to begin with.

When people are writing letters to you about violating the university’s diversity policy and CC’ing President Brodhead, and when the newspaper is reporting that one of the top divinity schools in the country is not welcoming to LGBTQ students, as Dean you have a bit of a PR problem.

That letter was not an apology. That letter was an attempt to make sure Hays doesn't get in trouble for violating university policy. Dean Hays’ response during orientation was inappropriately timed, and his words poorly chosen. Then, to make matters worse, instead of simply acknowledging the pain he caused and apologizing, he wrote a letter attempting to explain it all away as a big misunderstanding. The letter was dismissive and disrespectful, not to mention a poor model of leadership for incoming students training to be pastors. His letter was a form of crisis communications, a PR document designed to set the record straight by putting, in print, publicly, his version of the story.

The irony of the situation is that he got himself into this mess in the first place. He was not even one of the faculty members speaking on the Diversity & Inclusion panel. He did not need to say anything. He did not need to insert his voice into the discussion. He did not need to take the mic and make sure his voice was heard. But he did. And no, people did not mishear him. They heard him loud and clear.

Dean Hays’ views on homosexuality are no mystery in the halls of Duke Divinity School. There was nothing surprising about what he said. What was surprising, and hurtful, was the time, the place, and the manner of delivery -- the context. People who were not there have asked for a transcript of what was said initially, but I do not personally think that makes much difference. More than simply what he said (which has been clearly communicated by the intelligent, capable students in attendance), what makes the difference here is when and where and how he chose to say it. I am choosing to trust the room full of students who shrank into their chairs when he spoke, who in a few brief moments went from feeling welcomed to feeling scared. Multiple eye-and-ear-witness testimonies.

I have always disagreed with Hays’ stance on sexuality, but I respect his work as a scholar and I believe in academic freedom. He can research and write what he wants, and I will research and write what I want. But this situation is different. This situation is not about whether or not Hays is himself welcoming in his theological position about human sexuality. This situation occurred because Hays overstepped a boundary, as Dean of a Divinity School that is part of a wider university that does not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation. Because he is the dean, because he can, he inserted his voice into a conversation on a topic he had not been asked to speak on -- a textbook example of the privilege of straight white men with PhDs.

When you are in a position of power, you do not get to decide what is or is not welcoming to those who are not. You cannot tell people how they should feel.

Perhaps what irked me the most about the supposed “apology,” though, was the implication that Hays is doing so much to promote inclusion in the Divinity School. It is deceptive to act as if he has ever been supportive of the Gender, Theology, and Ministry certificate program or Sacred Worth. Both of those programs are wonderful and do a lot to make DDS a safe, welcoming, thriving community for students.

Hays is not involved in them.

Other people may work hard to make the divinity school a welcoming place for LGBTQ students, but he is not one of them. To appeal to their work to absolve himself of offering a real apology is a desperate move indeed. Normally Hays walks the line between his own beliefs about sexuality and university policy, creating an atmosphere of silent unwelcome rather than this more vocal outburst. But it is frankly dishonest to imply that he is actively making DDS a welcoming place for those who identify as LGBTQ.

If Hays is serious about being supportive of the programs he name dropped, then I would suggest that he attend the GTM certificate program graduates’ final presentations every year, and learn about all of the important research they are doing. I would suggest, also, that he meet regularly with the leaders of Sacred Worth and listen to what they have to say about how to make DDS a more safe and welcoming place.

And after he listens, he should listen some more.

The use of the word "reconciliation" in that letter disgusts me. You do not get to use that word unless you are willing to do the work. You do not get to jump to reconciliation if you are not also willing to repent for the pain you inflicted, purposefully or not. Deploying the word “reconciliation” as a weapon in a letter meant not to apologize but to placate, to dismiss, is not reconciliation. It is a reminder of who controls the PR machine, of who narrates the events that take place within Duke Divinity School walls, of who decides which stories matter.

It is not the students. They do not get to tell their own stories.

They will be told what they heard, how they should feel, and that, apparently, as leaders they never have to admit that they were wrong.

Most days I am proud to be a graduate of Duke Divinity School. Studying with Amy Laura Hall, Willie Jennings, J. Kameron Carter, and others (not to mention the many doctoral students who precepted my classes and have now moved on to other institutions) has formed me as scholar and as a Christian. Many of my closest friends are people I met within the walls of Duke Divinity School. But make no mistake: those hallways do not always feel safe and welcoming, not even to me.