Sunday, December 30, 2012

I pretend to be an adult all day, but when I get home I’m the same person I’ve always been.


We’re in that nebulous time of year known simply as “the holidays.” Aside from the effort I put into reminding people that the season leading up to Christmas is Advent and that December 25 is the first day of Christmas, this doesn’t make too much difference in my day to day life just now. I am house-sitting in Durham, and working my feminist-writer-theologian butt off trying to get ready for my next residency at Queens. When I feel like my brain might explode, and remember that theoretically there’s this thing called “vacation” that people usually take this time of year, I turn to guilty pleasure television. Lately that means old episodes of Sex and the City.

Now you may be thinking, “The Femmonite watches Sex and the City? How can this be?” I got into it while I was in grad school at Duke, in truth, because I was fascinated by its popularity. I wanted to analyze it. But of course, before the first disc was over, I was hooked on the characters and the storylines. “Guilty pleasure” is not even an accurate term for it, at this point. I feel no guilt.

So I watch Sex and the City. I spend the rest of my time reading books most people would only use as doorstops. I’ve got nothing to prove.

In one of the episodes I watched last week the main character Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend Aidan moves in with her. Drama ensues. As she tries to adjust, Carrie dishes about the transition with her girlfriends at their favorite coffee shop. The trouble, she says, is that there are are certain things she likes to do that she would never want a man to see. That, and she just likes a little silence when she gets home.

As she and her friends discuss what Carries calls their “Secret Single Behaviors,” I couldn’t help but wonder (to borrow the phrase Bradshaw uses in every single column she writes for the New York Star) about my own. I realized, though, that while I share Carrie’s desire for silence, the things on my list aren’t things I particularly care about men seeing.

As a new year approaches I’m contemplating age, and the things that do and don’t change with the passage of time. What I’ve noticed is that, after playing adult all day, I like to come home and stop trying.

I wear pajamas with monkeys on them. I eat nachos for dinner. I make chocolate chip cookie dough for the sole purpose of eating it uncooked. And yes, that is my baby blanket on the futon over there.

I’m not sure that this says anything profound about me -- I value comfort, I like nachos and cookie dough, and my blanket has held up well over the years. But every time I find myself doing something like eating cheese and crackers for dinner without even bothering to use a plate, I shake my head and wonder if adulthood is all it’s cracked up to be. Oh, sure, I’m a relatively put-together gal most of the time. A gainfully employed vegetarian yogini and nonprofit board member who keeps her apartment clean and pays her bills on time. But here I am, in graduate school again, living in a studio apartment with a mini fridge. If you come over for dinner you may have to sit on my bed. My twin bed.

Anyway, I don’t have any Secret Single Behaviors, or if I do, they’re only secret by accident. I don’t think I’d mind being caught having nachos for dinner. Who doesn’t like nachos? You can join me if you’d like. I’ll even let you sit on my bed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Reviews

This week I reviewed Culture Rebel: Because the World Has Enough Desperate Housewives, by Connie Jakab, for the Englewood Review of Books. You can read my review here.

Also, in case you missed it, back in October I reviewed Does this Church Make Me Look Fat? by Rhoda Janzen. I have been a fan of Janzen's writing since I read her first work of creative nonfiction, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, and she teaches at my alma mater, Hope College. I hope you'll check out that review, also.

I've been looking at my creative nonfiction shelf (which won't be a single shelf much longer) and contemplating teaching a course on women and memoir in the future. I know who my "must read" authors are, but I want to hear yours. Who are your favorite nonfiction writers? Who would you want to have students read in such a course, and why?

Leave a comment below. And support women writers, because it's a crazy world out there.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Breaking Up With God

I intended to write a review of Sarah Sentilles’ memoir, Breaking Up With God.



That was before I read it.



I admit, though I’d read some of Sentilles’ writing on the internet and liked it a lot I was a little nervous when I cracked the cover of Breaking Up With God. Romantic relationship metaphors for God make me nervous. They remind me too much of the "Jesus is my boyfriend" type songs and books I was surrounded by growing up, the masculine image of God I’ve worked so hard to leave behind. I suspended judgment though, trusting based on Sentilles’ other work (and her Harvard education) that she would employ the relationship metaphor well.



In the prologue, she writes:



I hesitate to call what happened to my faith a breakup. I’m not completely comfortable portraying it as a love affair gone wrong. Figuring it as a romance seemed simultaneously so medieval-mystic, so patriarchal, so oedipal that it makes me cringe. Even worse, calling it a breakup means I have to come out: I have to admit to myself and to the rest of the world the kind of God I loved -- namely, a man. I’m a feminist theologian. Saying out loud I believed in a male God is like a yoga teacher smoking a pack of cigarettes every day between classes behind the studio.



She had me at oedipal. In this paragraph Sentilles gets at the gap between the God I study -- the God I want to believe in -- and the God I can’t quite quit (though I’m working on it). And so, I don’t want to write a review. Instead I want to say thank you. I want to say that in the middle of chapter five I burst into tears and had to put the book down for a while and just weep. I want to say that I am grateful for the way Sentilles weaves theology into her narrative, as both a theologian and an artist. I want to say that the story of her own spiritual and theological development, and her ultimate decision not to become a priest, helped crystallize something I’ve long struggled to put words to in my own life.



I’m not now, nor have I ever been on an "ordination track," yet that has hovered in the background for nearly a decade. People ask me about it often enough that I know I’m not the only one to wonder whether I might be called down that path. I’ve insisted, for a while now, that I’m not -- or at least not right now.



When Sentilles’ describes the end of her journey toward the priesthood -- her breakup -- I found myself in tears because I think that is what I am afraid of. I am afraid that if I go down that path, my fragile relationship with God -- and with the church -- will break. I won’t be able to hold the tensions in balance anymore, I won’t be able to carry on this lover’s quarrel with the church, to continue loving her even though I experience much that breaks my heart and makes me want to leave. To keep with the metaphor, if I were to betrothed myself to the church, I wonder how long it would take before I broke it off completely.



Our stories are very different, but when Sentilles describes the gap between the God she fell in love with and the God she came to know in her studies at Harvard, I think I understand. Or, more accurately perhaps, she helps me understand something about myself. The God I grew up with has long since ceased to be God for me, yet even as I devote much of my life to studying and teaching about God in new ways I know how deeply all of my conceptions of God have been shaped by that image I try to distance myself from now. I try to pray not to that image, but to God, but am never quite sure what I am doing, or where those words I offer up are really going. I simply do not know what I am doing when I pray.



Throughout the book, as Sentilles traces the development of her faith and her theology, she inserts short reflections such as "A Sunday School’s God," or "James Cone’s God," or "Mary Daly’s God." As she wrestles with her own conception of God -- the one she ultimately breaks up with -- Sentilles’ words reminded me of the first time I picked up Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk. I often reference this experience when talking about my faith journey, as well as my theological development, because it was that book that shattered my existing image of God, and gave me the theological tools to begin wondering what God might actually look like, if the image I’d carried in my head for so long was wrong. So many different teachers, preachers, theologians try to tell me who and what God is -- and still, deep down, has the God I pray to really changed? I don’t know.



What I do know is that the presence of women theologians like Sentilles, and stories like this, give me strength for the journey. They tell me that I am not alone. That whether I break it off, or keep pressing forward, I am going to be okay. That there are spaces of safety, of love, where I will always be welcomed.



And maybe that kind of freedom is what enables me to keep this fragile relationship intact. Maybe it is an instance of God breaking in to let me know I am loved even when I struggle to love back. Maybe it's God's way of saying to me that I am simply called to stay.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Ears to Hear


A couple weeks ago the Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South, where I work, celebrated our 35th anniversary with an event at the King’s Daughters Inn in Durham, NC. Friends of RCWMS joined us for afternoon tea, dinner, and in some cases for an overnight stay at the inn. Basically it was a giant sleepover with a group of fabulous feminist women of all ages.

After an incredible supper, catered by Durham Catering Co., and even more incredible cakes from Yellowbird Baking, we all gathered in the parlour for some evening entertainment in the form of readings, songs, and a bedtime story.

Jeanette Stokes, the Executive Director of RCWMS, had asked me to read an essay as part of the informal program. I was happy to oblige, though a little nervous. At this stage in my writing career I haven’t done many public readings, but I knew that many of the women in the audience would be my friends and mentors, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to read to a welcoming audience.

As everyone settled into their seats, Jeanette staked out a space at the front of the room as a “stage,” and made some introductory remarks, and then I stood up to begin. At Jeanette’s request I first explained a little about my blog, which was helpful because it gave me a chance to find my voice before I began reading my essay. I was worried about my ability to project my voice all the way to the back of the room, so after my introduction I paused and asked, “Can everyone hear me okay in the back?”

Everyone nodded in approval, which was not what I expected. I went on to read a piece from here on the blog, which will also appear later this month in the RCWMS newsletter. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. What has stuck with me since then is the simple fact that everyone could hear me without me having to work too terribly hard at speaking loudly. I used my usual, reasonably practiced reading voice, enunciated and projected, and that was enough. This might not seem like that big of a deal to most people, but every time -- every time -- I speak in a room full of people, no matter what the context, a man somewhere in the room asks me to speak up.

Learning to speak in my normal voice in public has been a process, and when I was first getting used to public speaking -- reading, preaching, asking questions in class, whatever -- I had to work to use my regular voice, instead of speaking more quietly than normal due to nerves. So there is something to be said for practice. But after a certain point, not being heard is not my fault anymore. Reading to a room full of women and having everyone say, in effect, “Oh yes, of course we can hear you -- please, keep going, we want to listen!” clarified this for me more than hundreds of requests to speak up ever have.

Now, I realize sometimes people are just hard of hearing, and that is a different thing. I realize, also, that acoustics can be bad. And that I really do have a higher, quieter voice than a man, so it does not carry as well. But I am finally ready to say that none of that is an excuse for not listening to women.

I am not going to cultivate a “preaching voice” that sounds like a man. That is not my voice. If God wants to speak through me, then God will use the voice she gave me.

Listening is hard work. I know this because often when I hear other women speak I have to work harder to hear them, too. But if you believe women’s voices are valuable then it is more than worth that extra effort.

In the parlour at the King’s Daughters Inn I was heard not because I spoke more loudly than usual, or because the acoustics were exceptionally good. I was heard because the women around me have practiced listening to the voices of others for their whole lives.

If you cannot hear us, you must quiet yourself. If you cannot hear us, you must train your ears to attend to new sounds. If you cannot hear us, listen.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dear Femmonite


Dear Femmonite,

I was walking in an almost entirely black neighborhood in Chicago and there was a billboard for American Apparel. It prominently featured a white woman in her underwear. My first thought was, "Hm. An advertisement with a white woman in a black neighborhood. Is this good (breaking down racial lines, even if in the name of nothing more than our mutual love of buying underwear), or is this bad (corporately colonizing an area using a foreign, "imposed" [whatever that means] standard of beauty), or is it neither per se (it's just an ad, like millions of others)?" I don't have a lot of experience thinking through these issues, so I was surprised that I even noticed it and that it stuck in my head. One of my first thoughts was, "I bet Meghan Florian has an insight or two into this”...I figured it was pretty innocuous in and of itself, but tangentially participates in some meta-evil that makes Amy Laura Hall cry.  -- University of Chicago Student

Dear University of Chicago Student,

Ah, yes. American Apparel. My first thought when I read your question was that cultural beauty norms for women are defined in terms of whiteness. So, think about things like black women chemically treating their hair to make it straight and so forth -- ways of making "bad" black hair more like "good" white hair. Or how mulatto women are considered really “hot” (maybe because they have “great hair,” or because while they have a darker skin tone they can pass as white, or many other complicated reasons). On a personal note, I think about a fifth grader I know who always wants to know how I get my hair to be so soft.

The answer, of course, is that I don’t have to do anything. That’s just how it is.

Have you read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? That book is what always comes to my mind when thinking about the power that beauty (defined in no uncertain terms by white characteristics like soft blond hair and blue eyes) holds in terms of racial formation, and the connection between beauty and certain notions of virtue. One example of the flip side, then, would be black women who go natural as a way of taking pride in their racial identity and redefining beautify.

So, in terms of the billboard, one could argue that it is selling a product that theoretically helps the consumer perform whiteness.

Then again, American Apparel could just be stupid about their billboard placement. And/or some black women might like to buy their underwear, which is fine. (Except that their advertising tends to be really sexist, but that’s a topic for another day...sweatshop free sexism, made in the U.S.A.)

All of this is, of course, way, way more complicated than I am doing justice to here, but hopefully this provides a couple of windows into beginning to think about beauty more critically. Read more Toni Morrison, and pay attention to the ways desire has been and continues to be shaped racially.

Meanwhile, I hope my fifth grade friend grows up to love her hair.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

AAR


I'm in Chicago for AAR, so my usual Monday post has been delayed. I'll offer up some thoughts later this week on my adventures with Tiny Kierkegaard.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Tiny Kierkegaard Prepares for AAR

Tiny Kierkegaard, meet John Wesley Bobblehead

It's a busy week here in Durham, what with preparing for the 35th Anniversary Celebration of the Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South, where I work, and flying off to the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Chicago next weekend. Tiny Kierkegaard (pictured above with his new pal John Wesley Bobblehead) will be accompanying me to AAR, so we'll be sure to post some pictures and thoughts on the meeting next week.

Speaking of Søren Kierkegaard, yesterday was his feast day. In honor of the Great Dane, instead of a new post I simply offer up some favorite lines from my favorite book, Works of Love:

The one who brings love along with himself as he searches for an object for his love (otherwise is it a lie that he is searching for an object – for his love) will easily, and the more easily the greater the love in him, find the object and find it to be such that it is lovable. To be able to love a person despite his weaknesses and defects and imperfections is still not perfect love, but rather this, to be able to find him lovable despite and with his weaknesses and imperfections. Let us understand each other. It is one thing fastidiously to want to eat only the choicest and most delectable dish when it is exquisitely prepared or, when this is the case, fastidiously to find one or another defect in it. It is something else not merely to be able to eat the plainer foods but to be able to find this plainer food to be the most exquisite, because the task is not to develop one's fastidiousness but to transform oneself and one's taste.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

I voted.


It is election day, and though I have strong opinions about the presidential race, that’s not actually the main thing on my mind. I am just as preoccupied by smaller issues on ballots around the country today. The death penalty in California. Gay marriage in Minnesota. A tight race for governor here in North Carolina.

I’m thinking about people in Durham running for office who I see, regularly, out and about in the city. People who care about this place. I am thinking about a college classmate in Minnesota who recently became engaged to the love of his life, and waits today to see whether his state will recognize that union as legal. I’m thinking about women whose access to healthcare will be threatened from “day one” depending on the outcome of the presidential race.

I took part in early voting weeks ago. As a mennonite, I know this is surprising to some. Not only did I vote, but I’ve been bugging my friends to get to the polls -- particularly those who are most likely to forget, or to want to talk through the ideological issues surrounding whether or not to vote as an anabaptist. I’ve had those talks. I even went with one friend and stood in line with her for moral support, after she decided to vote.

I am a straight, white, middle class, educated person. I acknowledge that this puts me in a place of privilege. I benefit from the society in which I live in many ways. And so, as both a christian and as a citizen, I think it is necessary to speak out, via my vote as well as in other ways. Not to do so feels to me like trying to deny that I benefit from society, like trying to pretend I exist in some vacuum. It feels like ignoring the people who don’t have it as good as I do, like a little slap in the face to them. “Sorry, suckers! I have the luxury of symbolically choosing not to vote, in order to make a statement about the relationship between religion and government.” Meanwhile, ordinary people are just trying to figure out how to survive from one day to the next.

I tend to think symbolic gestures are for the educated elite. Excuse me while I try to act wisely in spite of my education.

There is such a thing as systemic injustice, and if you’re not going to break that system down, then you’d better work inside it for change. I am all for christian charity, but charity within a system that perpetuates injustice and inequality will always be severely limited. Government cannot solve everything, either, not ultimately, but at the very least I see it as necessary to vote for people and policies that have a positive impact on my neighbors' lives.

How can I say I love my neighbor, and turn a blind eye to issues that impact my community? I voted because I seek to love my neighbor, not because I love “my” country. A vote is not love, but a vote may well be one of many small acts of kindness done out of love.

There is a difference between loving one’s country as in the people you live here with, and loving one’s country as an abstract ideal, a mere concept. I don’t much care for the idea of the United States. I have no interest in showing my allegiance to a world superpower. What I care about are laws that directly affect the people around me.

So I voted. Voting is not the best thing I will do in my life. It is not the most loving, the most christian, or the most virtuous. But it is a pretty good thing, I think. And until Jesus comes back I plan to keep on doing it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Risk


This morning has been a good work morning. The time change agrees with my writing habits. I try to get up at 7:00 a.m. most days, and to be at my desk somewhere between 8-9 -- a wide range, I realize, but I need serious slow coffee time most mornings before I ease into my work. The last few weeks that plan has failed miserably, however, because the combination of cold and dark is too much for me. I stay under the flannel sheets until the sun comes up.

I’m pretty happy with what I’m working on this morning. The problem is that none of it is something I feel comfortable publishing on the internet. Today is the kind of day where everything that is pressing on my mind has some intensely personal twist to it. It’s that whole philosophy and life thing, again. No separation.

Writing is risky. Writing publicly even more so, especially if you plan to take positions you know others will disagree with. You risk scrutiny, to be sure, and you risk being misunderstood. Harder still, you risk damaging relationships when your opinions differ sharply from those you care about.

I think a lot about how to navigate my own friendships with care and respect. As a writer, I am aware of the stereotype that you have to watch yourself around me because I might “put you in a book” someday. While life is my greatest resource as a writer, I don’t go around taking notes on everyone in my life each day, planning how I can utilize you for my own gain. The people in my life inevitably inspire my work, but it’s usually by accident, and never when I expect it. I am not trying to use you, nor am I trying to insult you.

And so, I hesitate to write about certain things because I don’t want to hurt or offend people I love. This is true when I write about theology and feminism, or when I write about politics (how obvious it would be to write a post today about voting! but no, not this time). It’s also true when I write about more accessible topics having to do with life and love. I have a lot of great material just sitting in my compost pile for now, because it’s going to be about ten years before I feel I can safely share it. The time constraint is partially for myself; as a writer, I need distance. Often I draft things shortly after the events that inspired me, to capture the raw emotion, to trap the intensity. Just this morning I read through pages and pages of drafts from the past six months and was surprised at the strength of the raw material. I am only just beginning to have enough distance from that material to start to shape it into something more artful. It will be years before that work can truly succeed, I think, and certainly before it can be offered up for public consumption. I need that distance from my own experiences, and -- even if I change identifying details -- many of the stories I want to tell need to be told at a few steps remove for the sake of their characters, as well.

So I seek space. And I wander around that space, looking for something to say right here, right now. None of what I’ve worked on today (except this reflection on process that you’re reading now) will be published anytime soon.

Sometimes it is risk enough to go certain places in my own mind, to put certain words on paper and admit them to myself. With time, they might grow into something more, but for now I will let the page hold them.

Monday, October 29, 2012

God is here among us


I am one of the teachers for the 3-4 year old Sunday school class at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. Sometimes this surprises people who know my theology background, and that I am also a deacon, and a preacher. Honestly though, it is ministry with children that most often reveals the limitations of my theological knowledge. The contrast between my different duties also makes plain certain assumptions people tend to make about ministry -- assumptions my church does a decent job of challenging, I think, as I've written about before.

Last year the teachers at CHMF agreed to make an effort to use gender inclusive language in class. I already use inclusive language myself, so eliminating male pronouns for God in my interactions with the children was like second nature to me. Still, when teaching I frequently come across other, less easily solved problems  of gender exclusivity. It’s one thing for me, as teacher, to refer to God only in non-gendered terms, but how do I work with a given curriculum, and somehow help the children to experience God above and beyond gendered constructs? I don’t have an answer to that question, yet, save repeated threats to write my own curriculum.

Last fall we began with a series of stories about Moses. I remember holding up the poster provided with the Sunday school materials, which showed Moses standing in front of the burning bush. Red and orange tongues of flame enveloped the bush without burning it up. My fellow teacher and I pointed to different things in the picture and asked the children to identify them. “Where is God?” I asked. One of the children pointed to the gray haired figure of Moses.

Already they’ve learned that God is a gray haired man -- a sort of cosmic grandfather.  I gently told them that no, that person was actually Moses. Then I said, “Do you know where God is in this picture? God is in the fire!”

Later on, in the spring, we heard the story of the shepherd and the lost sheep. Judy, who keeps sheep, spins, and knits, came and talked to the class about shepherding. She showed the children pictures of the animals, passed around some wool for them to touch, and answered their questions. As we transitioned to story time, and to our mostly male-centric storybook, I thought, well, the shepherd we just talked to is a woman. That day I changed all the pronouns to “she” and the children didn’t miss a beat. Of course the shepherd could be a woman. Or a man. Like Judy, or like her husband Dirk.

Children are often more receptive to this sort of thing than adults.  Our kids love to sing “Father Abraham,” and they totally get it when we say, “But some of you aren’t sons! So we’re changing the word to ‘children.’” That makes sense to them more simply than it does to adults who’ve been taught to believe that male terms apply to women, too.

Teaching children requires creativity and improvisation. I have to pay attention, and look for those little moments to tweak things, to enrich a simple message and help it stick in their minds and hearts.  And isn’t this what children require of us daily, no matter what we’re doing? Creativity, adaptability, a willingness to respond to the unexpected with loving words and actions?

I often interact with male theologians who are set in their ways, and I sometimes get in heated debates about gender language. I am tired of these arguments. I am tired of explaining myself, of trying to convince others that our words matter, that they really do in some sense create or shape the world in which we live. No matter how good my intentions, how sound my theology, I cannot simply will a mind to change. And so, I would rather create a space of love and kindness to teach children about God.

Sunday school is one of the children’s first communal experiences of God. Their tiny bodies, so full of spirit and energy, are just barely beginning to learn to quiet themselves and wonder about the divine. Mostly it’s just hard to keep their attention. Even in those moments when I think it’s impossible to get preschoolers to listen, in their joyful faces I think I can see that they are learning that God is good, and that God is here.

And every once in awhile, a silence sets in, if only for a moment. We sit criss-cross-applesauce in a circle on the floor, and I ask them to all take a deep breath, hold it, and let it out. Once more, we take a deep breath, hold it, and let it out. I ask them to close their eyes, and I say a prayer, asking God to attend to the small prayer requests they entrusted to me minutes before.  Soon we will burst out of our classroom and into the sanctuary, where they’ll wiggle and giggle next to their parents, but for a moment I believe that God really is here among us, whether the children understand that yet or not.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Kierkegaard, Mennonites, and Writing as a Work of Love


I’ve been back home in Durham for several months now, and I guess you could say I’ve recovered from my six weeks of travel around the midwest by bus and train, as well as the shock of returning to regular work after a blissful month of research and writing.

Six weeks is a long time to be away. The last time I left a place I thought of as “home” for that long was, I think, when I was 18 and going off to work at a camp the summer after I graduated from high school. From there I moved to Holland, Michigan for college, and alternated between there and camp, with short 2-3 week stints at home in Kalamazoo over holidays over the next four years. Then I moved to North Carolina for graduate school.

It took a long, long time for Durham to feel like home. My years as a student at Duke were lonely years. I didn't connect much to the city, I struggled with friendships, and I never quite felt like I fit into the academic community. Even after I had been here long enough to make friends I still felt like this was just the place I lived, not my home, not my community. I didn’t find a church that I could tolerate until I’d been here for a year and a half. A year after that I stumbled into RCWMS. Slowly, my life in Durham started to change.

After five years in a place, to go away for half the summer -- no matter how beautiful and fruitful and challenging my time away was -- was an emotional shock. A few days after I arrived in Northfield, Minnesota at St. Olaf College, I wrote in my journal, quite simply, “This is harder than I thought it would be.” Some of the difficulty was due to things I wrote about earlier in the summer while still in Minnesota; but those challenges were really secondary to the sense of uprootedness from the place that supports, loves, and challenges me in my creative and intellectual work. It was hard to be away from people that I love, and from people who love me, and this is helping me realize how love can free a person to live from their deepest desires and gifts from God.

What do I mean by that? I think I mean that my church community is a place that has, in loving me as I am, helped me grasp more fully God’s love for me, and subsequently learn to love myself more willingly, openly, honestly. In doing that, they have helped me see things about myself -- my personality, skills, gifts, knowledge, whatever -- that are worthwhile, that are my offering to the church and the world. As a writer, this means that my words come from a place of peace and are offered up as a work of love.

This makes me all the more aware, then, of the power or words for good and ill. I am human. I can as easily use language as a weapon as I can use it in love. A careful turn of phrase can be a knife in a person’s heart, can heap burning coals upon someone’s head. I am wary of a gift easily misused. In a world where words swirl around us constantly -- TV, internet, voices on the street, down the hall, across the room -- the need for care and kindness with words is ever present. The tension between violence and peacemaking takes many forms.

I’m wondering to myself, as I often do, if this has anything to do with Kierkegaard. Here is someone who wrote many, many words. Some of my favorites are from the beginning of Works of Love, in a prayer:

“How could one speak properly about love if you were forgotten, you God of love, source of all love in heaven and on earth; you who spared nothing but in love gave everything; you who are love, so that one who loves is what he is only by being in you!”

I read Works of Love as itself a work of love. And, aside from other things that I find intellectually interesting or ethically important about Kierkegaard’s work, the most important thing I have ever and I think will ever glean from him is to see writing -- and much of my other work -- in that way.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh: Genesis 2:18-24


Note: This sermon was originally given at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship on October 7, 2012.

In Genesis 2 we find ourselves in the garden, surrounded by lush green growing things, a flowing river that divides and flows out in four directions to other lands God has made. God is here, with Adam, this person God made and breathed God’s own breath into so as to give the creature life. The work of creation is nearly finished – but not quite. This creature God has made – Adam, a human creature, a creature that is like God – is alone. God, being a communal God, says that unlike everything else that has been pronounced good in Genesis 1, this aloneness is not good. God will make Adam a helper. A partner.

God makes animals of every kind – cattle, birds of the air, animals of the field – but none of these are quite what God is looking for. These creatures are not like Adam.

As I dwelt on this text this week, I found myself wondering why many of the preachers and teachers I’ve heard speak about Genesis 2 in the past are so quick to dwell on the word “helper” and to assume “help” implies hierarchy. What first strikes me when I read this passage is partnership – God creates two creatures who are suited to help one another precisely because they are like. They share some creaturely core – the breath of God, the imago dei. The animals, beautiful and strong and useful though they are, are not like Adam – they are not suitable partners for the human.

Doing a little academic sleuthing confirmed my hunch about the word used for “helper,” in Genesis, also – Phyllis Trible notes that it’s a relational term, not one which specifies position or inferiority. She puts this quite succinctly after discussing various uses of the term, when she writes, “God is the helper superior to man; the animals are helpers inferior to man; woman is the helper equal to man.” If God helps us, there’s something a bit off about the assumption that the helper is subject to the one helped.

And so, returning to our narrative, God puts Adam to sleep. Adam is passive in the creation of Eve. He’s knocked out cold, and exercises no control over bringing her into existence. He is not a participant, a spectator, or a consultant. Eve is God’s creation. And so, Eve, like Adam, owes her existence to God alone. Both Adam and Eve are created from fragile materials – dust, a rib – and in both cases those materials depend upon God’s careful shaping of those raw materials into human creatures.

In seminary, I half jokingly wore a button on my backpack that said, “You can have your rib back” as a tongue in cheek response to classmates who might question women’s place in a divinity school classroom, but in truth even the rib doesn’t imply inferiority. On the contrary, Trible attributes solidarity and equality to the very rib so often used as justification for patriarchy.

This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called woman, for out of man this one was taken.

Trible reflects on this as follows:

“The pun proclaims both the similarity and the differentiation of female and male. Before this [the text has] used only the generic term 'adham...Only with the specific creation of woman ('ishshah) occurs the first specific term for man as male ('ish). In other words, sexuality is simultaneous for woman and man...Man as male does not precede woman as female but happens concurrently with her.”

So here we have a passage that affirms the creation of human creatures as interdependent – helpers and partners, who live in mutuality and discovery.

I think that’s beautiful. And so not the world that we live in most days.

Still, in some ways, as I prepared this week, this passage felt like an odd choice to preach to our congregation. Here is a community in which I see many different ways of being together, male and female, modeled in the people around me. The creativity and mutuality of your lives is encouraging to me. I continue to learn from the ways you compose your lives, your marriages, and your families. We’re not particularly patriarchal around here.

And yet I think this passage – insofar as it speaks of the creation of all humanity – speaks beyond the context of the individual couples it is often applied to. The common misreadings I’ve alluded to aren’t simply a result of reading hierarchy into a text where there is none; the misreading also comes from reading the passage as applicable to one man, and one woman, rather than to all human creatures in our lives together.

I’ve been intrigued by the dialogue happening recently in some pretty mainsteam news outlets about the state of women in the world. There’s a lot of talk about “The War on Women,” and articles about “The End of Men,” and “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” have been posted and reposted all over the internet. As I have read these various pieces – agreeing with parts of some, and parts of others, it’s struck me that we often risk completely missing the real problem.

The problem is that the conversation in our wider society assumes hierarchy. In order for women to “win,” men have to “lose.” Improvement for some ultimately means suffering for others. Our existence as gendered people is inevitably wrapped up in a power struggle.

Unfortunately, our moral imaginations as church folks seem to be formed more by this way of seeing the world than by the God who created us to help one another.

This summer, while I was doing research at the Kierkegaard Library in Minnesota, I got in an argument with a group of young men about male headship. The five guys I found myself sitting around a table with wanted to convince me, the token feminist at Kierkegaard Camp, that male headship was fine in theory because in practice women are usually in control of their families and their husbands. The old saying that “Man is the head, but women is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she wants to,” comes to mind. This wasn’t the first time I’d had this conversation with other Christians, and I am sure it won’t be the last.

Simply put, something is deeply wrong when this is our best vision of a so-called egalitarian world. Do we really think this is God’s best for us? In this picture, rather than mutual helpers, or partnership, we imagine marriage as a power struggle, and spouses as manipulative and scheming. One partner inevitably dominates the other in his or her attempts to control the relationship.

That’s not what we see prescribed in Genesis 2, and it’s not the trajectory I see in the rest of scripture, either, though we can read plenty of examples of how humans fail time and again.

I feel confident stating that Christian marriage is not about domination. I feel equally confident saying that our lives together as Christians – as gendered human beings in the world – are not meant to be about domination, either.

Rather than reading into Genesis a social structure that affirms our own fallen attempts to manipulate hierarchies to our own advantage, we might rather hear in this passage a call to repent of the many ways we grasp at power we were never meant to have.

In our lives together, one-on-one in friendships, and marriages, and in our wider communities, these same dynamics are at work. Do we play the power game? In our jobs, in church life, in our families, do we use our positions and particularities to get our own way? Or do we seek to affirm different relationships – relationships of neighborly love, of partnership, of helping? Relationships mediated by the God who created us all from fragile materials and gave us to one another not to lord over each other but because we need one another? Because truly, it is not good for us to be alone.

Today is World Communion Sunday, and as such we come to a table that has no place for our hierarchies. It does have room for all of the particularities of our flesh and bone, though, for all of the pain of broken relationships. This is as true for us here in Chapel Hill as it is for churches all over the world sharing this meal today – those who we are united with in this common practice, as we proclaim that Christ has reconciled us to God, calling us to be companions and servants as we seek to do God’s work in the world.

Adam says of Eve, this is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh; Jesus says to us, this is my body, that is for you. We come to this table, together, equal before God – equally broken and in need of grace, equally gifted with God’s redeeming love.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Composing A Life

“There has been a tendency to look ahead to some sort of utopia in which women will no longer be torn by the conflicting claims and desires that so often turn their pathways into zigzags or, at best, spirals. And yet these very conflicting claims are affirmations of value. It would be easier to live with greater clarity of ambition, to follow goals that beckon toward a single upward progression. But perhaps what women have to offer in the world today, in which men and women both must learn to deal with new orders of complexity and rapid change, lies in the very rejection of forced choices: work or home, strength or vulnerability, caring or competition, trust or questioning. Truth may not be so simple.” (Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing A Life)

Three years out of seminary, I find that the pieced-together work life I thought was my way of weathering the storm of the recession (graduating in May of 2009 with a degree in Theology was not optimal) has actually turned into a career.

I shouldn’t be surprise that my adult life has taken an unconventional shape -- after all, I was educated at home from Kindergarten through 12th grade, and I’ve always had a bit of a stubborn, independent streak. I make things up as I go along. So far it seems to be working. Still, my tendency at first was to view my cobbled together part-time jobs as a stop on the way to a full-time job with health benefits. A quick glance to the top of this page provides a good example of why that has not proven to be the case. As a blogger, I have chosen to focus on these three descriptors: feminist, mennonite, theologian. In my work life, I’ve taken on many titles in the last three years, but the ones I continue to claim gladly are as follows: writer, non-profit communications guru, writing and philosophy tutor, and occasional editor.

I like my work. But I am frequently torn between these different responsibilities, and Google calendar has become my best friend as I navigate an ever shifting schedule. When Leslie Knope’s work at the Parks Department on the show Parks & Recreation is suffering due to her campaign for city council, Ron Swanson tells her, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” Sometimes I feel like Leslie Knope. Except that I require more sleep than she does, leaving even less time for my various responsibilities.

A more traditional work life is really appealing, sometimes. Yet when I look at what’s out there, none of it fits. Who I am and the work I love doesn’t fit into any one job -- at least not any job I’ve found, yet. I’ve realized I would rather make a little less money (well, maybe a lot less), and have more freedom. Life -- even if we live long -- is very short, in the grander scheme of things. If I live to retirement, I’d rather not only then start to pursue the things I’ve wanted my whole life. I’m going to start doing that now, health insurance be damned.

Framing this theologically, I would say that I find myself called to several different things. I’m multi-vocational. The work that I find most life-giving -- and the work where I am most aware of God using my gifts and abilities -- doesn’t fit into a very neat career right now. Some of it isn’t even the stuff that’s paid. Teaching Sunday School to four year olds, preaching, and doing my homework (since I’m also a full-time student, lord have mercy) are as much a part of my calling and vocation as my communications work and tutoring.

Living this way feels really unstable most of the time. I worry about getting sick, not only because my catastrophic-only insurance won’t cover an office visit, but because I am paid hourly, and missed worked means less money coming in. I worry, too, that all the effort I am pouring into my writing will never amount to anything. I worry, because while I value my work as an artist regardless of success (financial or otherwise), I also value the ability to pay my rent and buy groceries.

I don’t have the answers to any of this. I just know that life, like art, has become a creative process for me. I am, as Bateson puts it, composing a life. In a changing economy, I can’t help but think this sort of creativity will be my greatest asset in the years to come. This way of living? It’s working. I don’t live in my parent’s basement, I’m never late on my rent, and I’m happy doing good work that matters to people.

Meanwhile, a funded writing residency and socialized medicine would be nice additions.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Baking A Book


The last twenty minutes of my Monday morning writing time were spent in the kitchen, mixing up a batch of banana bread, rather than at my desk in my studio. This sort of procrastination or avoidance tactic is not uncommon for me. I like to bake, and everyone needs to eat, so I think of cooking as productive procrastination. As I buttered the loaf pan this morning and then poured the bread batter into it, though, I noticed something else going on.

As some of you know, I am back in school, pursuing an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Queens is a low-residency program, so I’m still living and working in Durham, juggling several jobs along with school, which makes my morning writing hours precious. I have to safeguard this time. Thus, when I find myself baking bread instead of editing my next manuscript submission or staring at a blank page trying to pound out a shitty first draft, I can feel like a bit of a failure. I said “No!” to other things so that I would have this time to write, so why am I not writing?

The simple, true answer is that this work I am doing is slow. I do show up -- most days -- and do some work. It’s difficult, life-giving work. I see bits of progress here and there. Every once in awhile I write a sentence that makes me think, yes, I can do this. Rarely I get a whole paragraph like that, and maybe just maybe an entire essay from time to time. This is fine. This is how it is supposed to work, I think. Good art doesn’t happen overnight. So, I will continue to take the long view.

Still. Sometime a person needs to see some results.

In those moments, into the kitchen I go. Flour, sugar, butter, eggs, mashed bananas, vanilla, baking soda, a pinch of salt. Stir. Bake. Write a few words or read some poems while the apartment is filled with delicious smells. In just over an hour from bowl to belly, I have made something. And I can promise you I am more than capable of eating the whole loaf in under 24 hours.

Maybe my productive procrastination isn’t actually procrastination after all. Maybe it represents the knowledge that there are many kinds of sustenance, that simple, practical tasks give my mind time to moodle, and that after a cup of tea and a slice of something sweet I really will feel encouraged to continue going about the work of creating.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Place At The Table

I am in Northfield, Minnesota at St. Olaf College, at the Howard and Edna Hong Kierkegaard Library, where I am currently a Summer Fellow. As some of my readers may know, I’ve been in love with Kierkegaard since my sophomore year at Hope College. After encountering the great Dane’s work in my Modern Philosophy class with Jim Allis, I found myself reading Fear and Trembling on the beach over the summer, and subsequently changed my major. Reading Kierkegaard changed my life, not just in terms of choosing a career path, but more importantly in offering up language and ideas that enabled me to wrestle with the faith of my childhood when I was unable to see a way forward on my own.

That is an abbreviated back story to what’s been on my mind today, in my research at the library and in the workshop I attended this afternoon with the other Summer Fellows and the Young Scholars. My project here is still taking shape, but at the very least I can say that it continues some of the work I began in my masters thesis at Duke, which focused on Kierkegaard’s Works of Love (hereafter abbreviated WL). I attempted to read WL alongside one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works, Stages on Life’s Way (hereafter abbreviated SLW), in a rather different way than most scholars of his work. My basic starting point was that WL is a book primarily concerned with Christian discipleship, rather than mere philosophical and/or theological speculation. Ergo, rather than arguing for a specific point within the texts themselves, I argued for a reading of WL and SLW in which the various characters Kierkegaard inhabits in SLW embody flawed attempts at love that provide an instructive contrast with the discourses in WL.

That also is an abbreviation, and doesn’t do either of the texts (or even my own thesis) justice, but for our current purposes it will do just fine. With my advisor’s blessing I was able to propose a reading of the texts that I considered to be both faithful and edifying, without stressing over the body of scholarship that assumes an alternate (possibly misguided) interpretation of both texts. I realize now that this was an ambitious project for a masters student; I’m glad I didn’t know then what I know now, or that I was willing to ignore some of what I did know for the sake of the paper I felt I needed to write.

Now. “What does all of this have to do with the femmonite?” you might be asking. For starters, the pseudonymous text I took on in my thesis, SLW, and the work I’m focusing on in my work here, Either/Or (hereafter EO), are both full of material ripe for feminist deconstruction. Furthermore, Kierkegaard himself, like his contemporaries, is a “product of his time” (to use the popular turn of phrase too often employed to let a thinker of the hook for being a misogynist), and even WL -- a text that I deeply love -- can’t be read by anyone with a feminist consciousness without sometimes wanting to throw it across the room. This thinker who I love -- who has formed much of my theological imagination -- is flawed. And so, my first question today (and the coming weeks) is this: How am I to make sense of my love for Kierkegaard’s work, and the ways it informs my own, and what am I to do in general when trying to glean knowledge from imperfect -- mostly male -- philosophers and theologians of the past?

This morning I stumbled on a text by Celine Leon, called The Neither/Nor of the Second Sex: Kierkegaard on Women, Sexual Difference, and Sexual Relations. It’s an excellent companion to my research on EO. In the preface to the book she asks, “Should a philosopher -- rather than be excused by a contextualization that makes him a victim of the biases of his time -- not be held responsible for having unquestioningly embraced the stereotypical viewpoints that circulated around him?” She goes on to note both that the true test of any philosophy is that it welcomes careful criticism. And so, because I love his work, in the coming weeks I hope I can hold Kierkegaard responsible for the things he has written, just as I expect to be held responsible for my own words.

The second question on my mind in a lived question. I think Kierkegaard would approve of that, even if my particular lived experience is one that at best never would have occurred to him, and at worst he would have considered ridiculous in the first place, given that it’s situated in my context a woman philosopher -- something I don’t think he would have taken seriously.

Here’s the scene: I arrive at the library this morning, and have to walk through a lounge full of twenty-something aged young men who are scattered around the ever-flowing coffee pot. Once I cut a path through the wilderness of testosterone and caffeine, I enter the library itself, and take a seat across from a few more young men, and  proceed to read Leon’s aforementioned book on the second sex. My point should be obvious.

There are other women in the program of course, thank God, but we are vastly outnumbered. Looking at the list of Summer Fellows and Young Scholars prior to this week I had noticed this fact, but I didn’t realize just how lopsided it would feel to be back among the philosopher crowd  24/7 until everyone arrived.

Flash forward to this afternoon, when we were all to attend a workshop with John Davenport from Fordham. Workshop content aside (I had mixed reactions) what most concerned me, again, was the gender dynamic in the room. The set up was such that there was an inner circle at the table, and various seats scattered around behind. The Summer Fellows were invited to sit at the table, and the young scholars to take the seats that remained. I took my seat and watched people fill in around me -- that is to say, I watched the men fill in around me. When about twenty of them had done so, I motioned several times to a couple of other women to grab the remaining seats. After a bit of encouragement they slid into the last two chairs.

It has been a long time since I have been so acutely, physically aware that I am taking part in a masculine conversation, that my place at the table has been questionable throughout the history of philosophy, that even if no one would dare question my place at the table now (at least not strictly on the basis of gender), I am nonetheless being invited into the conversation on someone else’s terms. I am allowed to be here, if I play by the rules. (If you’re wondering why I brought up my thesis, perhaps you can see now. I did not play by the rules when I wrote it.)

Sitting in the inner circle, on the fifth floor of the English department at St. Olaf, I realized -- maybe for the first time -- that in such situations there are always two trains of thought in my head. I can never be focused only on the actual material at hand. At least half of my brain is engaged with the intense emotional energy it takes just to hold my place at the table, to own it, to be there fully and deservedly, not timidly, not wondering whether I am really as smart as those around me.

I left exhausted, though not because of the mental rigor of the conversation. It was an interesting talk, but personally I didn’t find it mind blowing. It did more to reinforce my existing viewpoints on EO an SLW than to challenge them, though I appreciate and respect Davenport’s work. The exhaustion was all a result of holding the space. I had forgotten -- or maybe simply not allowed myself to notice in the past -- just how draining it is to maintain my confidence in such a setting, especially after having spent the morning reading Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms, who mostly insist that women are all heart, not intellect.

As I walked down the hill from campus to Finholt house, at first I found myself thinking things would be easier if I wasn’t constantly aware of these dynamics. But then I realized that’s simply not true. For me, the only reason I have been able to persevere and be here (here meaning as a woman in academia) is that I am aware of these dynamics. If I was not, I would have given up a long time ago, claiming -- and probably honestly believing -- I quit because I don’t have what it takes.

Being here I have felt that ugly inferiority complex knocking on the door, and it takes everything I have to keep it out sometimes. That challenge may never leave me. The patronizing male colleagues probably aren’t going anywhere, either. But as someone who is aware of all of this, it means something to invite someone else to slip into those empty seats at the table next to me. It means something to refuse to abandon philosophy to one half of the population, the half who finds me cute and amusing but can’t quite believe I also have a brain.

I’m not going anywhere. I’ve got work to do, and if you find that amusing you are the one who has a lot to learn.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Creativity and Procrastination

I'm on my way to the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, MI. I'll be facilitating a discussion circle on creativity and preaching while I am there, and during my eight hour train layover in DC today, I'm sitting in a sweet French cafe enjoying a latte. My intention was to work on the outline for my discussion circle... so obviously I'm blogging instead.

I preached this past Sunday, which was the second Sunday of Easter. Oddly enough, I preached on this same Sunday last year, so on the topic of creativity and preaching it's worth noting that this was a challenge. I found myself thinking, "I like what I said about Thomas last year; can't I just preach the same sermon over again?"

I did write a new sermon, of course, but the first one has been on my mind, along with how preaching on the same texts multiple times relates to the circle I'll be leading, so I decided to share the first sermon here:

The Miracle of Faith: A Sermon on John 20:19-31

It's late in the evening, and the disciples are gathered in secret, huddled in a circle, maybe, talking in hushed tones. So much has happened in a week. So many of their hopes dashed. Their expectations of  power and glory breathed their last breaths on Good Friday. It is finished.

Yet there are rumors. Rumors that the tomb was found empty that morning. Have grave robbers stolen Christ's body? Or is it as Mary told them – has he been seen, alive, somehow, despite what they saw, contrary to everything they know about the permanence of death?

Jesus words in the days leading up to the crucifixion must haunt them. “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me” (John 16:16). How had they not understood that this was what was coming? Or, did they still not understand what Jesus had been trying to tell them?

On Easter Sunday we proclaimed, “He is risen!” as we do every year. There is some holy mystery in reenacting this process of death, burial, and resurrection again and again. The repetition forms us to dwell in that place of expectation, even though we believe that he will rise – that he has in fact already risen. We tend to think of history as moving forward, a narrative of progress, fixed points on a straight time line, yet in the church we return to this moment over and over again, reliving the transformation from darkness into light.

And today, having walked through the wilderness of Lent, through Jesus' death and burial, to Resurrection Sunday, we stand on the other side, where Easter continues with stories of Christ's post-resurrection appearances. He is risen, and his disciples, unlike us, are experiencing that miraculous absurdity for the first time. As far as they know, he has died. So now, they sit together in dark corners, ask in hushed whispers, “Can it be true?” Can what Mary saw be true? They keep the doors locked against the authorities, and live in fear of the danger their association with Jesus might bring. They might feel secure, for a little while now, barricaded in a back room.

It is then that Jesus shows up. His traditional greeting, “Peace be with you,” takes on a little extra meaning for me, as it's hard to imagine that the disciples weren't afraid. Not only did they think Jesus was dead, the doors are locked. He is risen – and he has learned to walk through walls!  They probably needed to be calmed a little, fearful and joyful all at once.

Someone was missing, though: Thomas. I wonder where he was that night, while the others gathered in secret. Wandering the streets, maybe, trying to make sense of what had happened between Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, and the events of past week. What now? How does one go on living when the one you have devoted your life to has died?

I have always resonated with this story about Thomas, perhaps more than any other story in the gospels. I want to see, to touch, not just to be told to believe. I know that I am not the only one who turns to this skeptical disciple for some comfort and reassurance that disciples doubt, too. Thomas's doubt plays out in an unexpected way, though. It's tempting to juxtapose the believing disciples with the doubting Thomas, but let's look again.

Jesus appeared to the disciples; they saw his hands and his side with their own eyes, and rejoiced. Now Thomas is getting a secondhand account from them. With all the turmoil of recent events, it must be disconcerting to hear his brothers say they have seen the Lord. There is a precision and carefulness about Thomas and his probing questions. They've been through a lot; might the disciples just be imaging things? After all, a flesh and bone person cannot enter a locked room without opening the door, not to mention a dead man.

Yet Thomas doesn't completely refuse to believe. He says “unless.” So much hinges on that unless. Unless I see the mark of the nails, unless I put my fingers in the holes, unless I can put my hand in his side, I will not believe. Of course the others believed – they had seen. In that “unless” there is some willingness to imagine that what they are telling him is true.

After all, there are some who would disbelieve a miracle even when it has happened before their own eyes – some who would try to explain it away. He wasn't really dead in the first place, maybe, or it was all part of some big conspiracy. This is impossible. People who are dead stay dead.

When Jesus appears to Thomas and says, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” it doesn't seem to me that he's referring to the other disciples. We, on the other hand, celebrating Easter again and again – we only have the accounts of others, in the gospels. We have not seen Jesus in the flesh, walking, breathing, talking; we cannot touch his open wounds. We did not watch him die, or experience the absurdity of him walking through our walls three days later.

Perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that Thomas's request was not ignored. “Unless I see... I will not believe.” Bold words. Jesus comes to him, greets him as he did the other disciples, with words of peace. Does Thomas recoil? Question whether this is really Jesus, some phantom hallucination, or worse? No. He cries, “My Lord and my God!”

In thinking about Thomas, Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov comes to my mind. Dostoevsky describes the young Alyosha, who is known as a holy fool, as a realist, which at first I find strange. Isn't Alyosha, who has been living in a monastery, the faithful one, and isn't his brother Ivan the intellectual, the skeptical realist? The description reads:

Oh, of course, in the monastery he believed absolutely in miracles, but in my opinion miracles will never confound a realist. It is not miracles that bring a realist to faith. A true realist, if he is not a believer, will always find in himself the strength and ability not to believe in miracles as well, and if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact. And even if he does admit it, he will admit it as a fact of nature that was previously unknown to him. In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith. Once the realist comes to believe then, precisely because of his realism, he must allow for miracles. The Apostle Thomas declared that he would not believe until he saw, and when he saw, he said: “My Lord and my God!” Was it the miracle that made him believe? Most likely not, but he believed first and foremost because he wished to believe, and maybe already fully believed in his secret heart even as he was saying: “I will not believe until I see.” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, chapter 5.)
Perhaps rather than thinking of Thomas merely as doubter, we can also understand him as one who has faith enough to ask to see the miracle of the resurrection with his own eyes. In his own heart, didn't he  want to believe? Is that sometimes all that we are capable of? Interestingly, we're never actually told whether Thomas touches Jesus. He doesn't say, “Okay, you proved it.” His response isn't as calculated or careful, perhaps, as his initial words to the other disciples were. When Jesus stands before him, Thomas recognizes him as the living God.

So Thomas's curiosity leads to something good. Ancient commentators seem to wonder a lot about why he was so concerned with seeing Christ's wounds in particular. “Why Thomas, do you alone, a little too clever a sleuth for your own good, insist that only the wounds be brought forward in testimony of faith?” Thomas's doubt focuses on the wounded Christ, which while it seems to be important proof that this is the same man who was in fact crucified, begs the question: what if the wounds had been healed? After all, if a man can rise from the dead, surely he can heal some nail holes? I'm not convinced that it is the wounds, ultimately, that convince Thomas, though.

Jesus has performed signs and wonders – has healed people – throughout the gospel of John, culminating in these post-resurrection appearances. Thomas finds himself face to face with the God who has done so many signs and wonders, in fact, that “if every one of them were written down...the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

Perhaps the doubting Thomases of the present need to see that God continues to work more signs and wonders in and through us, now. We need to see signs of life, not merely wounds. We need to remember not merely Jesus' suffering, but his love, love which heals, love which gives life. What is it that moves Thomas to his proclamation? Not the wounds, but the sight of Jesus, alive. Because he lives, we live – he breaths spirit into our broken bodies, resurrects us from our pain and brokenness, to wholeness, to healing.

Another of today's passages, from 1 Peter, expresses this as birth: “By [God's] great mercy [God] has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3). This image is echoed a few chapters back in John, also, when Jesus said to the disciples, “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (16:21).

Jesus gave birth to us, and delights in our lives, breathes on us and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22). Rather than living in fear, like the disciples locked in a back room, we can breathe spirit and truth into the lives of those around us, so that we might participate in the work of healing the world, that our bodies might live as signs that he is risen.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Origins

What do you get when you mix feminism, anabaptism, and a theological education? A femmonite.

“A femmonite?” you ask.

Yes, a femmonite. That’s the closest I can come to a one-word explanation of my peculiar approach to theology and ecclesiology.

I spent some time among Baptists as a child, grew up mostly in the Christian Reformed Church in west Michigan, attended (and for many years worked at) an evangelical christian camp, and finally graduated from a Reformed Church of America college, where my religion professors encouraged (or required) me to visit churches of traditions other than my own throughout my education. Then I went to a Methodist seminary. Suffice it to say that I was denominationally confused for a long time, and while I had an ecclesiology, it was a work in progress. Maybe it still is.

Oddly enough, it was my experience at that Methodist seminary -- ahem, Duke -- that slowly led me (a searching philosophy and religion double major with an interest in feminist theology) to the Anabaptists. At the same time, seminary also shook my existing commitment to feminism and reinforced my belief in its continued relevance for the church. Before entering the theological academy I had no idea just how few cracks have actually been made in the “stained glass ceiling.” Whether through frustrating conversations in classes, the challenges faced by my young women friends in field education and their first jobs as pastors, or the roadblocks along my own academic path, it has become clear to me that despite my classmates’ assertions that we’re “post-feminism,” we are anything but.

Let me quite clear about how I understand the relationship between faith and feminism. Feminism is not something to tack on after the fact. I am a feminist because I am a christian. (I will say more in the future about how the Mennonite church in particular fits into this conversation, but for now let’s keep it broad.)

So, what do I mean when I say: a) I am a feminist, and b) I am a feminist because I am a christian?

One of my dearest religion professors always said that whoever defines the terms wins the argument. Well, then, here is what I mean by feminism, drawing on bell hooks:
"Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. I love this definition...because it so clearly states that the movement is not about being anti-male. It makes it clear that the problem is sexism. And that clarity helps us remember that all of us, female and male, have been socialized from birth on to accept sexist thought and action. As a consequence, females can be just as sexist as men. And while that does not excuse or justify male domination, it does mean that it would be naive and wrong minded for feminist thinkers to see the movement as simplistically being for women against men. To end patriarchy (another way of naming the institutionalized sexism) we need to be clear that we are all participants in perpetuating sexism until we change our minds and hearts, until we let go sexist thought and action and replace it with feminist thought and action.(bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000, 2-3.)
This is a rich definition, with many implications for church folks, but for the time being my point is this: In saying that I am a feminist, the most basic thing that I mean is that I am anti-sexism. That, at least, is a starting point, and one which might clarify my second point, that I am a feminist because I am a christian. I believe the gospel is anti-sexism through and through. I believe that Christ calls us beyond constructed genders, biological differences, social class, and whatever other distinctions you want to include, into a life together that doesn’t look much like anything we now know. If the Jesus you know reinforces social hierarchies, abuses power, inflicts violence, and dehumanizes women -- well, I’ve never met that guy. And I’d prefer not to.

Insofar as feminism is concerned with the question of women’s full humanity, from a theological standpoint it’s also about who we believe does or does not bear the image of God. What does it mean to say that we image God together? That multi-gendered, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, economically diverse, differently abled, intergenerational communities reveal God’s face in infinite and beautiful ways?

On this blog, I hope to delve into some of those questions. I’m also interested in questions like, “What is a women?” and “How do we redefine masculinity -- or should we?” I intend to explore gender identity and sexual orientation, issues of class and race and how they intersect with gender and sexuality, postcolonial thought, and the challenges of violence/non-violence in a broken world. That is why this is not a blog about “feminist theology” straight up. It’s about doing theology and feminism, together, in the context of the church and in conversation with the wider world.

If this strikes you as a queer endeavor, well, it is -- and I hope you'll keep reading.