November 2009


Despite my great affection for beer, I’m mostly what you’d call an evangelical Christian.  I am, according to a college boyfriend, also “pretty dang left wing.”  But a lot of the people I know and love are not. I don’t think disagreeing with me politically is inherently problematic. I don’t think being a Republican makes you a bad person. And I certainly don’t think it makes you a bad Christian.

But one thing that will always trouble me about many right wing Christians is their affection for conservative talk radio. Here’s one of the very good reasons why:

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I once suggested that one of my friends looked like Hitler.  She was started to cry, which I didn’t mean for her to do.  She’d put a little too much product in her short, side-parted hair: she had not invaded Poland or sought the death of anyone in particular.  She hadn’t even grown a funny little mustache.  I felt like an asshole and immediately apologized for my ill-considered effort at humorous hyperbole.

You know what hyperbole is, right?  It’s when you make a giant exaggeration.

I’m the best looking church secretary in the world!

That was, based on what I’ve seen, not hyberbole.  But you get my meaning.

Hyperbole isn’t inherently bad, any more than being a Republican is inherently bad.  But in the United States, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be sexually assaulted at some time in their life.  Someone you know, probably someone you love, has been or will be a victim of sexual assault.  I’m guessing those people don’t think what Rush Limbaugh has to say about what’s happening to his big fat wallet is all that funny.

And I do not know why any one, Christian or not, would applaud that kind of hurtful, hateful speech by plastering a “Rush is Right” sticker on their car.

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I have naturally curly hair.  But for the past two years or so, I’ve been wearing it short and coaxing it straight with a blowdrier and prayer.  Or straighter, anyway.  I’ve also spent the past two years tossing my head so that my phantom hair will flutter about me in a point-emphasizing fashion.  I’m growing out my hair.

Finally, it’s long enough that I’m sort of convinced I can wear it curly without looking a hot mess.  I’m trying to look like Annie Clark, although I may look slightly more like, well, someone else.  Anyway.  Yesterday at work I had the following conversation with a lovely, elderly woman:

Ooh.  I love your hair.

Oh, thanks.

Who did your perm?

I laughed and said Jesus*, I guess.

Where on earth did you find a Mexican who does hair?

I have curly hair.  It’s natural.

Ohh. 

*I realize this is in an inaccurate depiction of the work of the Trinity.  Sorry, guys.

“Christ-the-King Sized” isn’t an appropriate name for a coffee cup, right?

If anyone were to ask me to teach a class on the Protestant Reformation–and I live in perpetual hope that someone will–I would make a series of jokes about eating disorders.  Imagine, I would say, that people in the late Renaissance can be divided into anorexics and bulemics, those who feverishly pursue unreachable standards of holiness and those who chuck money into church collection plates in cynical hope of purchasing expiation.  It is a situation begging for intervention, for transformation.

This weekend I helped a friend move.  While I emptied out his kitchen cabinets, he packed up his bookshelf.   I got bored of dropping canned curries into cardboard boxes and wandered over to check out his books.  At the top of one stack I found a slick, picture-filled book about Biblical manhood by a pastor of a local megachurch.  It was, my friend assured me, a gift and only on the top of the stack only because it was little.

I decided to take a taffy-and-Biblical-manhood break from my packing and settled down to read a little.  The taffy was delicious.  The book, on the other hand, was the written equivalent of scab-picking: of course you know it’ll hurt and bleed, but somehow it’s an irresistible, pleasurable activity.  The book included gems like “a successful man makes more money than his wife can spend; a successful woman marries a man who makes more money than she can spend.”  The steam coming out of my ears made a noise like an old timey factory whistle.

Finally, I gave up on reading and threw away my taffy wrappers.  I shook the book in my friend’s face.

I’m going to put this in the recycling where it belongs.

“It was a gift,” he sighed.  “Please don’t.”

I threw the book back in the box where I found it and flounced off to wrap paper towels around jars of olives.  He has a lot of jars of olives.

“Are you a sexist?”  I called from the next room after a while.  “Have I known you lo these many years and missed knowing this about you?  That you’re a piggie?”

My friend stepped into the kitchen.  He was holding a Sid Vicious action figure, an irony that did not escape me because irony never escapes me.  It’s my super power.

“Are you kidding?  If I were a sexist do you think I could put up with you for more than three minutes at a time?  Or that you’d be friends with me?”

“Oh.  That’s a good point.”

“You can be fairly intolerant of things like that, like sexism.”

“As well I should be.”

“All right.”

I went back to packing things up.  While I wrapped drinking glasses in kitchen towels, I thought about that stupid book.  I couldn’t stop thinking about that stupid book.  I gnawed my lips and sighed and slammed pots and pans around.  That stupid fucking book.

I am not, by anyone’s definition, a particularly successful woman.  One of my best ideas of the past week was covering the threadbare bits of my decade-old dressy winter coat with a vintage satin trim.  If I were successful, I think I’d probably go out and buy a new coat or, more likely, an awesome vintage coat with a matching tam and without worn cuffs.  If I were successful I’d have health insurance and interesting weekend plans on a more regular basis.  If I were successful, I wouldn’t work as a church secretary.  My lack of professional success is a bit of sore spot with me, however attributable it may be to the economy–or, as I prefer to think of it, to George W Bush.

And, if you’d like to consider relationship statuses by restrictive binaries, I suppose you could consider my own “unsuccessful.”  I am single.  I have removed my shoes to throw them at a significant other in a public place.  And he fucking deserved it.  I have dated a fellow who once knocked my head on a brick wall while attempting to deliver Deborah-Kerr-movie-style kiss in the snow.  I once abruptly proposed a stranger and I embark together on a life of crime.  I prefer to consider my love life “interesting” rather than unsuccessful.  Or “lively” or “anecdote-rich” or, even, “not the sole defining characteristic of my life.”

Yeah.  That’s right.  I don’t think being single is the most important thing about me.  I like to think the more Church Ratty adjectives might be “bookish” or “acerbic” or “secretly kind” or “stubborn” or, even “Christian.”  But I’m beginning to understand this is a minority opinion.  Three sweet church ladies in as many weeks have told me how much they wish there was a Sunday School class for me.  I suspect that, if there were, my small church would fill it with divorcees with children my own age and college freshmen.  Our own not-quite colony of the leperously unloved.

A few years back, a Sunday school class I attended at a much larger church was bifurcated into a “young marrieds” class and a “only slightly younger than Jesus” class.  I gave the slightly youngers a try that first week after the split.

“Oh,” one very old man whom I’d always like asked, “honey, don’t you want to be with the people your age?”

“You mean in the Character, Commitment, and Christ class?  No.  I don’t like studies with alliterations in their titles.”

“What?”

“Have a wonderful week, Mr Very Old Man.  I’ll see you later.”

I spent the hour before church service at a donut shop for the next few weeks.  The donut shop was a brisk twenty minute walk from church, so I called it “Cardio, Crisco, and Christ.”  Or I should have.

Once I made what I now regard as a grave mistake.  I was dating a boy, and, after a few too many shoes thrown for very good reasons, we decided to seek out the wise counsel of our pastor.

“You know what I always tell couples?”

Hm?

“I always tell them that men are pigs and women are crazy.”

I should’ve gotten up.  I should’ve smiled politely and said thank you for your time and left.  Or, maybe I should’ve rather less politely pointed out that it’s reductive and insulting to claim men are eternally id-driven and women are eternally irrational–and a piss-poor point to begin a counseling session with.  I didn’t.  I stayed for an hour with my legs crossed at the ankle and my fingers and my stomach in awkward knots.  I stayed to discover that the problem with my relationship was me, that I am a bitch.  In his defense, he didn’t use the b-word.  I recall a series of  tentative adjectives like “stubborn” and “opinionated:” words that I consider positive ones and words that he did not.  Until then, I’d always thought he’d kind of liked me.

That evening in the pastor’s office was years ago.  Some nights when I can’t sleep and the whole world seems a grayer, colder place than I can manage, I still think about that and wonder if maybe I’m just a bitch.  The notion, under my diligent fingers, stings and bleeds freshly in a way that the long ago heartbreak of that relationship never does.

I’m pretty sure, though, bitch isn’t the word.

My father is the reason I’m a feminist.  If I say that in front of him he shifts uneasily and rubs his big, browned hands across his forehead.  He’s right-leaning and probably didn’t mean to hatch offspring who use the f-word.  But he is.  My whole life he’s respectfully considered my opinions on things, even when I was very young and my opinions were fatuous ones.  He handed me power tools when I asked for them.  Now, he didn’t always or even often agree with me and my many opinions.  And he knew that my attempts to, say, spit logs with a maul and wedge were destined for failure: I swung the maul high over my head and was carried backward by its momentum to land with a breathless woof in the snow.   I couldn’t raise my arms above my shoulders for a couple of days, but I always felt his steady consideration that I was a person capable of thought and of action and that it would be foolish to pretend other I was otherwise, to do anything but run at life with my wits and abilities thrust out like lances.

Capable.  That’s more like it.

Good Reverend, I am capable and not meant to pretend otherwise.

Capability is Biblical womanhood.  We are no less made in the image of God than men.  We are no less heirs to his kingdom.  We are no less beloved.  We are no less gifted.

Once I went to a conference of Christian women.  One of the speakers stood up and said simply Jesus loves women.  She said it again.  And again.  And once more.  She had mall-hair and a JC Penney’s pantsuit.  She had on sensible navy pumps and, I suspect, knee-his.  Jesus loves women.  I realized I was crying, that my breaths were ragged and hard-fought around the lump in my throat.  I realized that the girl friend I came with was crying.  I realized that people all around me were crying.

Jesus loves women.  Right now I’m sitting at my desk typing and I’m thinking about crying all over again.  At the time I wondered why this message was so affecting to a room full of people who mostly grew up singing Jesus Loves Me This I Know and pasting Smile God Loves You stickers on their Bible covers.  I don’t wonder that now.

The message the church delivers to women is so often contrary to the message of God.  It’s a message of rejection, of alienation.

The author of my friend’s book on Biblical manhood–oh, what the heck, his name is Ronnie Floyd and in addition to patriarchal oppression he loves baseball, Republican candidates for public office, and, presumably, long walks on the beach–claims in his book that a successful family must, must, must have a male head.  His two congregations have thousands of members.  How many hundreds of those members are single mothers?  Has he considered the impact his words may have when he tells these women that they are incapable parents, that their families are doomed to failure.  Perhaps sensitivity to these issues, to these women would be weak and womanish.

Floyd and so many other voices of the Biblical manhood movement fear the “feminizing” of our culture and of the church.  Church members are, broadly speaking, more likely to be female than male.  Perhaps many church activities are not as, forgive me, “relevant” to men as to women.  If that is the case, I do believe it’s a problem.  Men need church.  Men need Christ.  There are many things, though, I find deeply troubling about the rhetoric employed in this discussion of men in the church.  If “feminizing” is being used disparagingly, then femininity is being disparaged.  Women are weak, women are foolish, women are irrational.  And men, men must fight such things.  The implication here, the logical extension is that men must fight women.

Historically the general tenor of Western Christianity has been masculine.  The notion that men are being driven from church by a flurry of floral patterns is laughable in the face of, say, 1950-odd years of masculinity.  Let us acknowledge this history.

The pastor where I work and attend church recently preached a sermon on Peter 2:18, a passage that exhorts slaves to submit to their masters.  He was thinking only of how that passage could be applied to employees and employers, a handy lesson on workplace ethics.  Not long before, he’d spoken on David and Bathsheba and the nature of temptation.  These are powerful, meaningful passages of Scripture.  Passages we ought to consider.  But it’s impossible for some, perhaps many, people to read Peter without thinking about 350 years of slavery in the United States and the ways these words were used to keep an oppressed people “in their place.”  It’s impossible to read the story of Bathsheba without reading a story of one of God’s favorites raping a woman and arranging her husband’s murder.  These are stories we should approach with fear, with trembling.   These aren’t stories for glib relation to our daily lives.  These are stories that slice flesh.

Every time I hear a pastor exhorting men to exercise headship in their marriage, I hear the weary voice of one of my best girl friends assuring me over the phone that yes she was okay after the emergency surgeries that followed a beating by her husband but no the baby was gone.  They went to church nearly every Sunday.

Every time I hear someone opine that women ought not lead men into temptation with their wiles, I think about the woman who told me that maybe I ought to dress more conservatively because her husband, who has since become a deacon of the church we all attended, couldn’t stop staring at my tits.  I was wearing a turtleneck sweater at the time and, as always, an un-noteworthy pair of breasts.  And I think about a local pastor who, after being accused of raping a young woman, instigated a letter writing campaign among his congregants that portrayed the alledged victim as a slut, a tease, and a liar and about the newspaper editor who ran their letters.  The pastor was, perhaps not surprisingly, found guilty.  Perhaps we were, as good church folk suggested, both asking for it.  As was, certainly , Bathsheba who committed the unthinkable crime of bathing in exactly the same manner as everyone else.

And sometimes, just for fun, I recall the pastor who, after he found out I’m a distance runner told me that he once ran eight miles so fast that when his sweat dried he had salt all over his face–every time he saw me.  Or the pastor I once interviewed for a college course who told me, seconds after saying he hadn’t gone to college because a minister of the Lord didn’t need to worry himself none over those worldly, worldly things, that I was smart to be such a pretty little thing.

These are wounds.  This history of violence, this dismissal of the role Christianity has played are wounds.  These little notions that women are silly or incapable, that women ought to be nicer, that the single ones must be sequestered from Good Monogamous Husbands because they’re probably morally questionable or they’d be married by now, that women really need a date to get into heaven, they’re small but they’re wounds too.  They’re the reasons that a message like “Jesus loves women” is so powerful, is so weep-worthy.

In my mind Biblical manhood has nothing to do with declaring oneself the boss of everything or with making insulting remarks about women.  The passage in which Paul instructs women to submit to their husbands, he first instructs said husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church.  The first part of this passage doesn’t get nearly the press I think it deserves.  Men aren’t being instructed to love women, to love their sisters in Christ with the kind of sacrificial love described herein.  I’m not speaking here specifically of romance.  I’m not suggesting that pastors ought to exhort men and women to wander about like characters in adolescent daydreams muttering bad poetry to and about one another right before dying of love.

What if the sacrifice we’re called upon to make is the sacrifice of our pleasing and comfortable assumptions?  The assumption that I’m better or that you’re better or that one of us really ought to have unlimited power and authority over the other.   The assumption that all women like pink clothes, crying in movies and not thinking too hard, that rational, strong-bodied men are here to make sure none of those likes get, like, out of control.   The assumption that the prejudices of our society are reflections of God’s perfect will in our lives.  The assumption that the assertation of women’s state before God is somehow a challenge to men’s.  The assumption that there is and perhaps ought to be war between the sexes.  The assumption that someone has to be the one to bleed.