“Love and abuse cannot coexist.” – bell hooks.

It’s been over a year since I first read bell hook’s masterful treatise on love, All About Love: New Visions.  The book called to and was answered by changes stirring in my heart, little epiphanies cracking the surface of my reality, and it was the catalyst for a radical reevaluation of what love meant and how I practiced it.

I have always craved justice and sincerity. As a child, I distrusted adults who laughed too much or were effusive with praise or compliments. I gravitated toward those who were sarcastic, cynical, pointed. Pastors were suspect unless they seemed to have a healthy respect for suffering.

And yet, I was divided from myself in my own cynicism, emotionally connecting to missionary stories,  reading the Anne Shirley books over and over, and accepting the tenets of courtship and fundamentalist neo-Calvinism without question for the sake of the utopian emotional future they offered. I was too cynical to ever seriously write letters to my future husband, but secretly hoped that the gilded fidelity of guarding my heart and wearing a purity ring would secure me true love where I could hang my cynic’s hat by the door and stretch out by the hearth and have a marriage where I could get my belly rubbed and never fear betrayal or complicated emotions.

Emotional idealism of this sort is dishonest and lazy, and I paid dearly for my naïveté and blind trust. I could wear out pages with my experiential research on cultivated codependency in courtship culture and cultivated female helplessness in patriarchy, but the larger thing I have learned is less specific to male\female relationships or romantic relationships and more relevant to relationships in general, and is especially relevant to relationships touched by fundamentalist thinking on the part of one or both parties.

Fundamentalism, when I use the word, generally implies a measure of absolutism and hierarchy of belief. It is a relational militarization of ideology at its core (which is why I believe it is not something religious people have exclusive province over). Fundamentalism says “my way is better and our relationship is going to be defined by that assumption or we have an impasse.” It costs relational parity and ends humane discussion.

In the slice of human experience where I come from, fundamentalist Christian homeschooling, it exhibits itself when a parent asserts their “right” over their child in the name of ideological purity of some sort and negates that child’s right to autonomy and voice.

Example: “you will not bring Harry Potter into my house” because you, the parent, believe that witchcraft is worse than the sin of rebellion (see the story of King Saul) and rebellion is the sin that caused the fall, and witchcraft is aligning oneself with the enemy of God, and you want your household to follow in the ways of God (“as for me and my house…”) and you believe that God has called you to be the spiritual head of the home (circle of blessing) and your child is under your authority because you are under God’s authority, and Harry Potter does not condemn witchcraft as being of the devil, therefore: your child has no rights when under your roof because of God’s ordained spiritual hierarchy and you are accountable to him to protect your child from evil and Harry Potter threatens that order and your ability to be blessed by God for following in his ways…so Harry Potter has to go, no matter what your kid has to say about redemption narratives and metaphor and literary genres. By doing so, you are honoring God, and any opposition to this order is your child’s natural sin nature expressing itself and an opportunity to use corrective discipline to help your child along in the path to sanctification and honor God in their own life.

In fundamentalism, ideology and hierarchy > person and emotional healthy relationships. Every. Damn. Time.

bell hooks writes that “abuse and love cannot coexist” because (as Christian theology teaches) love is about considering another person’s best interest. When I chose to break the rules of courtship and tell my boyfriend I loved him before we were engaged, I did so because I believed that if we broke up, my promise of “I love you” would still be true: if our relationship ended, it would be because the relationship was no longer in his or my best interest and love does not demand the other partner to suffer to satisfy the other. Love should not be mutable, but the terms of the relationship will be in order to be consistent with love. Love respects the other as a separate, autonomous individual with unique needs. Love does not require the other person to fix your emotional problems. Love is considerate, respectful, ethical, generous. Love is not craven, demanding, or manipulative.

This cuts two ways. Loving others well is easier (and probably better) the better you are at loving yourself well. It’s hard to love someone else well if you are abusive toward yourself, and if you try you’re more  likely to expect the other party to love you the way you should be loving yourself, and then resent them for not fixing your emotional disassociation with yourself. No person, no religious belief, no creature comfort will be able to fix the fundamental need for self-acceptance. I’ve been learning this, and it’s not easy. I can deflect and distract myself, but there is no substitute for sitting with my own emotions and owning them to myself and accepting that the me I’m living with is messy and not quite all who I want to be. I have to live with (and learn to love) me in real time, as I grow and learn, and not with my idealized future version of myself. This means also recognizing when I’m in unhealthy relationships or situations and being responsible for standing up for myself, and not expecting others to read my mind or know my needs and rescue me. Boundaries, communication, and actively engaging my day-to-day life and owning my responsibility to and for myself: these are ways I can engage in loving myself well.

Loving others well is an extension of understanding how to love myself. I need to respect the fact that others need different things and that what is good for me might not be good for them, that my perception of reality might not be their story, that they may be growing and learning faster or slower than I am. I respect them as individuals and not as caricatures or emotional food sources for myself, and that paves the way for healthy relationship.

This means: I cannot demand my more fundamentalist friends to change their beliefs on things, because their emotional needs (and reasons for holding on to various positions) are different from mine. I can, however, write about what I’ve learned and how various elements of religious fundamentalism have been harmful. I can also limit the ability of their more negative positions to affect me personally by reducing my exposure to toxic relational dynamics, and I can also appeal to their desire to love others when I see them hurting people close to me and ask for them to change how they treat people based on our shared assumption that they care about the other person’s best interest. (In this vein, a great opportunity Clare had before her was recently leveraged against me to require that I change the offensive-to-patriarchy language in her “Fuck the Patriarchy” post. The situation has now resolved itself, and I have reverted the post back to the original content, but necessary steps have also been taken to remove myself from being able to be manipulated by those who value image and control over people.)

This also means: when a friend has to go no contact with a family member because of abuse, or when someone’s marriage ends and you don’t know all the details, respect their choices. You don’t know what’s best for them and we are in danger of practicing the fallacy of a “single story” when we require someone to meet our socially acceptable normal behavior because we think that they should be in relationship with someone that “normal” people have in their lives. Eliminating abusive relationships from my life seems heartless from the outside, but it’s been a way I’ve learned to love myself: by admitting what (or who) I can and cannot handle if I am going to be mentally healthy and thrive. It seems heartless, but in reality, it’s a way of having compassion for myself and not expecting others to do that work for me.

I recently had a treasured friendship end because of a non-conventional theological position (but one I think has sufficient evidence in the Bible to be supported) that I hold and have written some about. The details are moot, and were moot to the end of the friendship, too. The point, however, was: if you are a Christian, you cannot support this position, and until you recant, I cannot be your friend. It’s the same mindset as I demonstrated before with Harry Potter: ideology supersedes the individual. I’m saddened by the outcome, but there’s no way to debate the issue because our starting premises are so far divided. What has been healthy and freeing and brought light to my life is seen by this individual as a darkness that threatens to devour the “real” me and is an affront to their own perception of themselves: if I am right, then everything they’re betting on is wrong. As high-stakes spiritual premises go, they can’t afford to be wrong, and so I must go. It’s understandable. I love this person, and as I understand the emotional cost of this sort of gamble, I know that this decision is (in their estimation) in the best interest of this person for the sake of their mental health, and it’s not my place to question that. I’m sad for my loss, but if I am honest about caring for them, I need to let them go and wish them the best from afar.

And I need to be honest, too. In my pilgrimage to understand love and to heal, I’ve had to reconcile myself to the fact that church and Christian culture are antithetical to my emotional and mental stability. The solvency of Christianity for some, I believe, is viable and good. I think the church can be better and radically change lives for good. I think the teachings of Jesus are precious and radical and good. There is much that I love, but I have had to remove myself from it and remove it from me in order to be kind to myself. All things are lawful, etc. For me this means: I’m not a Christian anymore.

The damage done to my brain by code-switching in Christianese and by tiptoeing around emotional land mines from my time in the cult outweigh the worth of holding onto the Creeds for the Creeds’ sake. If Jesus is the Christ and all of that is true, then I’d rather be a Calormen in the end and be sound of mind and live ethically and love well than be a martyr for something that has fostered so much suffering.

I do not recant anything I have written. I still love the things I have always loved. I still believe in the power of radical love to transform. I still believe in the magic of community and the mystery of burden-bearing and communion. I still love justice and mercy and crave light and truth.

But it is the learning of the loving that calls me to keep exploring, and so I’m discarding things that are impotent or emotionally destructive. I’m not merely disassociating from the label of “Christian”or organized church in pursuit of being a “Jesus-follower.” I am closing that chapter completely. I’m not sure if I’m an atheist or just agnostic, but I don’t think it’s salient right now. For now, what I know is: this path has taken me away from Christianity and that has been immensely freeing and healing.

I’ve known this for a while, but I wanted to sit with it for a season first, to be sure. And, honestly, I was afraid to tell you.

You readers have been along with me for quite the unexpected journey. I originally started this blog as a place to try to do some fiction and poetry writing, assuming that I’d be able to be productive in those things now that I was graduated from college, employed in an adult job, and settled into married life. What followed was so far from that reality that it seems a little hysterical to think about, now. I wouldn’t trade this journey for that reality, though, and I am thankful for how much I have learned and grown through it. And I’m thankful for those of you who have supported and loved and stayed with me since then. I’m excited to see what comes next, and I’d be touched if you are, too.

A housekeeping note: Once I can get a few things sorted out, the header image of this blog will change and I’ll just write under my name rather than a blog title–Wine and Marble has served a good purpose, but no longer fits what goes on here. Just a heads up.


I think the biggest confusion in this whole my-sister-is-a-viral-blogger-after-her-first-post thing (besides the part where everyone is assuming her surname is Ettinger — it isn’t, and she’s a minor. So, my parents have requested anyone using her real name please redact it for her privacy), was about why Clare cared about the modesty guidelines more than getting kicked out of prom.

Everyone is reacting along the lines of “oh how HORRIBLE that she got kicked out of this momentous life event!” or “she’s being a drama queen and just wants attention because she didn’t get her prom night.” Neither are true.

While I won’t deny that Clare is an extrovert with a Just Plain Fancy sort of joie-de-vivre about her, she is not a drama queen out for attention. She didn’t write her post because she was upset about missing her prom. And she didn’t lie about what happened — my sister has always had a fierce sense of justice and I’d encourage everyone to actually read her original post rather than just the news articles or petty reactions by her peers. (I’m sorry your prom got so much heat. No one, least of all me and Clare, expected this would generate so much attention.)

For those who aren’t familiar with our background or what going to a homeschool prom like this one implies, let me give you a bit of context.

1) It was a big deal for Clare to be allowed to go to prom. I wasn’t allowed to go to a prom (though there was one and many of my friends went). The homeschool scene in Richmond is rich in cultural appreciation, and some awesome ballroom cotillion groups exist for extracurriculars. But my dad and I had lots of fights throughout high school because he would not permit me to participate in any of their Friday night dances, out of moral objections. Obviously, this standard has now changed, which is pretty awesome for Clare.

2) Our family was part of a cult group (see here for coverage of a sex offender’s trial that shows how the pastors in this cult have been exposed for covering up sexual abuse and pedophilia) and if you’re confused about what that kind of childhood looks like, go read my piece for Cracked.com about growing up in this culture. More details on this stuff and how it related to sexuality and autonomy can be found in my Immodesty Rail series. And a great response to the parental angle in all of this, written by my friend Ashley, can be found here.

3) HOWEVER, that prom (while it was held in a church), wasn’t explicitly Christian. That said, homeschool culture is predominately conservative Christians and the majority of people at that prom were probably your good old-fashioned family values voters who chose to homeschool their kids because they wanted to keep their children away from corrupting influences in the public schools — sex, drugs, gays, abortion, global warming, mini skirts. (I jest. Partly.) But that’s why it was convenient for the parents to hold it in a church rather than another facility, and that’s why modesty standards were imposed on attendees (this year the rules were actually a lot less stringent than in years past).

4) Modesty standards do not hold the same social weight as your average dress code. Which is why a homeschool dad would feel himself legitimately entitled to comment on a girl’s outfit at such an event.

Point #4 there is really the crux of all this, and it’s why Clare originally called the people who shamed her for her dress “rape culture activists.” I’m going to follow up on this with a post later this week, but for now, I’m going to let Clare speak for herself once more. And this time, she made you a video. Enjoy!


UPDATE

Everything crashed again, sorry, sorry, etc. We had a SNAFU with servers and switching and WordPress accounts and the fastest way to get this up and running again was to jump the gun on switching Wine & Marble to a domain of my own name, etc. It got complicated, Kiery King is a web fairy wizard, and everyone should go give hen lots of love and probably some alcohol.

Carry on.

::end update::

Hi and welcome, new readers!

I’m sitting here with my cat on my lap trying to take a deep breath and process the last couple hours. Thank you for reading, for your support, and for breaking my blog.

I think we’re up and running again, and so now I wanted to do a little follow-up on the Cracked piece.

First: my parents left the cult and my family’s doing a lot better. My younger siblings are getting much more normal childhoods than I did — all my challenging the system is finally starting to pay off. My parents sent me a big box of goodies this week for an early birthday present and there were references to Disney movies and birthday parties and I even got a chocolate Easter bunny!

Second: My friend whose novel was burned — she’s doing a lot better. After that she got into UVA and got a full ride (but her parents hid her mail and kept her from attending), so she ran away from home and got herself set up, living and working in another state. She’s healing and growing and has started writing fiction again (finally!). She wrote a short story for Swan Children’s inaugural issue. Right now, she’s saving to go to college (she wants to be a doctor) and has plans to do a workaway program this summer in Europe and write more. Freedom is sweet!

What to do if you want to help:

Raise awareness. This stuff is ongoing and hard to spot if you don’t know the signs. Cults are less about doctrine and more about social control tactics.

Patriarchal purity/rape culture infects the world of Christian colleges (and their horrific mishandling of rape cases) — see, for example, the ongoing story at Patrick Henry College.

Spiritual abuse is also rampant in independent evangelical churches, and my good friend Elizabeth Esther just published her fantastic memoir about her experiences in a similar cult to the one I grew up in. It’s a quick read and covers a lot.

On the positive side, there are folks working to reform and heal the American evangelical church from these horrific ideologies. People working on that include Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, the good folks at Deeper Story, The Wartburg Watch, and Convergent Books.

The homeschooling side of my story is where the biggest ongoing need for reform is, and a quick overview of that can be found in this piece by Kathryn Joyce on us “homeschool apostates.” Groups working to change the state of homeschooling to eradicate abuse, patriarchy, and religious isolationism and dominionism include: Homeschoolers Anonymous, the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, and Homeschooling’s Invisible Children.

If you want to help me out personally: recovery is slow, I’ll be honest. I’m doing a lot better these days than I have been in a long time, but I’m still underemployed and running a tight ship to stay afloat. There’s a tip jar on the side of my blog if you want to buy me a coffee or a tank of gas, but no pressure. I’d be thrilled if you liked The Swan Children and The YA Wallpaper on Facebook and followed us on YouTube — I’m super passionate about the healing power of art and beauty, and about amazing feminist writing and good novels.

I’ll also occasionally run a fundraiser project to help a Quiverfull escapee get on his/her feet. Right now my friend Becca is trying to pay off hospital bills from her gallbladder surgery by selling her music album, and there’s a scholarship contestant we’re upvoting for a chance to go to school without parental support.

And finally: If you related to my piece and thought you were alone:

HI. YOU ARE NOT CRAZY.
::hugs::

Come hang out with us over at Recovering Grace, Homeschoolers Anonymous, etc. Find us on Facebook. We have support groups for you. <3

And if you want book recommendations for how to recover from this stuff, I highly recommend the following:

1) All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks

2) Boundaries, Cloud and Townsend

3) Daring Greatly, Brené Brown

4) Quivering Daughters, McFarland


I’ve been waiting for this book to come out for months. It finally showed up on my doorstep on Friday (it releases tomorrow, but I got lucky and got an ARC) and I gobbled it up by Sunday morning, reading it during stolen moments here and there.

Blogger Elizabeth Esther isn’t everyone’s cuppa tea. She’s not that poised goddess of tact and diplomacy we all so admire in Rachel Held Evans. She’s not just a funny adult Catholic convert you want to buddy up with over beers to talk about boys and babies and the pope.

She’s larger-than-life, she’s sloppy, she’s enthusiastic, and she’s loud. Her Catholicism is deeply personal and sometimes off-putting. She wears headscarves to church. She live-tweets American Idol. She has Twitter-rant ADHD and reads more books than I can keep up with, and has a daily schedule that’s probably more demanding than the president’s–yet she’s often able to write a blog post a day (when, you know, she’s not writing a book) and be a good friend and pour herself into everyone and everything she loves with abandon.

When we met up this past fall, I wasn’t sure if we’d get along. Our stories have a lot of overlap, but I’m an introvert and she’s not. I’m stiff and awkward when I get uncomfortable and she gets happy-puppy affectionate.

Guys, I can’t review this book without talking about the woman who wrote it. I don’t know how it will come across to someone who’s never met her, but as I was reading Girl At The End Of The World, all I could think was “damn, her voice is so clear.” Every event unfolds and I can hear her telling these stories. I can hear her laughing at herself, I can hear her tender heartbreak and forgiveness as she talks about her parents, and I can hear her admiration and devotion when she talks about her husband, Matt.

This book rings true.

Memoir is tricky. I love to hate Joan Didion because she’s such a good writer, but her voice is so very much that of an unreliable narrator to me that I find myself in internal dissent with anything she says. I want a new vantage point, other angles. There are other authors whose memoir messes with me in this way–they’re ever so slightly out of sync with themselves and can’t quite hear themselves talk when they write about their lives. It’s uncomfortable to read.

This book is uncomfortable to read, but that’s not why. Elizabeth Esther has taken the memories from her formative years in her grandparents’ cult and grabbed these memories by the ears and showed us their bald faces–crooked teeth, handsome eyes, bad breath, and all. There is no disingenuous narration. There is only the agony of being a child, craving security and affection, and getting told that God doesn’t like you and your parents will beat you because of it.

This book is a love letter, from Elizabeth Esther to her child self.  And, I think too, it’s a love letter to her own five children — who are the reasons she found the strength to leave the cult and seek out a God who loves. It’s a promise to work against the curse of legalism, shame, and abuse, to give her babies a family life with the love and security that little EE didn’t get to know.

We’re getting to eavesdrop on these conversations, as readers. We’re being handed her heart and we’re given permission to look at her scars. I’d feel more guilty about that if her writing of dialogue wasn’t so vivid and funny. But it is, and so I read and laughed and lost myself in the story. And I offer it to you, if you can stomach it, with this commendation:

Look how beautiful she is. 


If a divorced person told you he or she was worried about the wisdom of you marrying your fiancé[e], would you listen?

Or would you disqualify her advice because of her failure to make her marriage work? Even if she did everything right according to the Christian system and listened to her parents, waited to have sex until her wedding night, prayed exhaustively about the decision, and sought lots of counsel from pastors and mentors?

I am not going to be getting any brownie points among Christians for this piece, but this been driving me nuts and what else is my blog for?

Here is my best advice for good Christian kids looking to get married: have sex already.

I’m watching too many couples play Russian roulette with their lives because they aren’t listening to their gut instincts about who they want or need to spend their lives with because they happened to have found one person somewhat enchanting and willing to play the Christian marriage game and the stakes are: your whole future on this decision, made in the worst possible state of mind, horny celibacy.

Hermeneutically speaking, St. Paul’s “it’s better to marry than to burn with passion” was probably not about what you think it’s about. All my books are in storage in boxes, so I’d love to have someone with an accessible library help me out with citations here, but it’s pretty widely accepted in schools of theology that he was talking about couples disturbing idealistic celibate communities by sneaking off to have sex and making everyone feel either jealous and upset. As in: don’t be Gnostic, early church! It’s okay to not require celibacy of all Christians. C.f., Reasons why no one should ever be forced into celibate living against their will.  Not a lot of people have that gift, and that’s what Paul was acknowledging in that well-worn passage.

But what that passage doesn’t say (and honestly, what no passage in the Bible says) is “God’s best plan for your life is to be a virgin when you get married.” Seriously. Look for it. It’s not there. Two years ago a couple ex-fundy friends and I started hunting for it when we started to be troubled by why courtship was failing and why we were seeing so many unhappy marriages with good Christian kids like us who followed the rules. So we started searching the Bible ourselves and we haven’t found a much biblical basis for Christian purity culture and how it treats virginity and sexual experience.

There’s a whole lot about sex in the Bible, I learned. Most of it is dictated by the assumption that societies required clearly defined patriarchal lineage in order to operate (e.g., if your wife wasn’t a virgin when you married her, how would you know if her kids were yours and thus keep your family property and name in tact for the future?). Such things were very much a part of the historical period in which the Bible was written, but those things related to preservation of pure bloodlines are really irrelevant to our social order today. We can have healthy, happy communities without needing to be constantly in fear of the threat of a bastard child. Once that’s established, looking at the rest of the verses in the Bible about sex, it becomes evident that the sexual ethics laid out are essentially those of respecting each other and not abusing sex as a tool for power or domination or for revenge. It is, quite simply, an ethic of sexual behavior that values consent and human dignity and respect for social propriety within the context of an ancient patriarch-dominated culture.

If that was our culture today, it would be much more directly applicable, but that isn’t where and how we’re living. Today, we have a lot more freedom, a lot more ground gained in the realm of respecting diverse people groups and identities, and a lot less risk in terms of economic security and social honor riding on our sexual behavior.

Therefore I believe, based on my research, that it’s possible to have consensual, safe, and private sex* outside of marriage and not be transgressing any of the basic ethical guidelines for sexual behavior as laid out in the Bible.

But all that is just contextual framework for my primary point.

Christian culture over-values virginity at marriage so much that it heightens to an unreasonable degree the tension of an already momentous and risky decision. Marriage is, in a lot of ways, a jump off the cliff of adulthood that forces you to come face to face with yourself, and that’s when you find out just how much you can depend on yourself [to be mature and kind], without the parachute or training wheels of an easy exit. Most of us find as newlyweds that our selves aren’t really all that dependable, and we’re actually pretty selfish and immature.

Within Christian purity culture, sex, as an unknown and desirable thing (known to be powerful and good, but forbidden), necessarily becomes the bullet that we imagine blowing our brains out with if we pull the trigger at the wrong time, and we trick ourselves into believing that marriage will somehow protect us from spiritual suicide by pre-marital sex. We can’t know better if we’re still treating sex as a huge scary-and-wonderful unknown entity, but you’d think that our elders/wisers/more-experienced influencers would bother to let us in on the game before we sign on the dotted line.

But they don’t. Instead, pastors and parents and Bible study leaders and youth group mentors have bought into and perpetuated a false fundamental assumption that binds us to shame and ignorance as a necessary part of spiritual integrity: 1) we are required to take them at their word that sex is life-changing and terrible (in both senses of that word), and 2) we are required to make our trust in their definition of sex a fundamental assumption into how we weigh out relationships and how we decide who and when to marry. The bogey of sex thus becomes a looming question mark for us and the already-significant risks of choosing to get married to someone become exponentially more risky because there’s a huge piece of the marriage-choice puzzle that we are required to leave up to chance (which our good mentors have named God’s Will to keep us quiet).

Thus, when we good [read: virgin] Christian kids decide to accept this system, trusting our parents and pastors’ terms and wisdom, and denying ourselves basic understanding of ourselves as sexual beings (which we are, but they help us overlook this by telling us that perpetual fear and denial of sexuality is a form of healthy [and therefore godly] sexuality), sex as an unknown other becomes a non-factor in our choices for who we date and who and when we marry, or it becomes the secret but driving factor for who and when we marry. It must remain secret as a motive, because everyone knows that marrying just to have sex is a bad idea, but there is no other alternative for healthy, safe, and consensual sexual experience when we have bought into this system.

And if we are unlucky enough to be just a little too horny to effectively deny the existence of our sexuality until the approved time and place (the wedding night), we are caught in an impossible place where in order to keep being Good Christian Kids, we have to not question what our parents and pastors have told us—which is, essentially, that everything I just laid out in layman’s hermeneutics about biblical sexual ethics is lies and that God’s best plan for sexuality is total ignorance and total commitment to one person and one form of sexual experience forever and ever, amen—and to jump through all the Christian social hoops to land in bed with someone and not get ostracized or shamed for wanting to have sex in the first place

Or you just keep your head down and have sex and keep that part of your life so very secret and separate from your public social life, for fear of being found out for what you know they will think you are: a Bad Kid** with wanton desires and a sense of judgment that cannot be trusted.

So, in the end, if you want to be labeled a Good Christian Kid, you play by the rules that your parents and pastors have laid out for you, and inevitably (if you find another Good Christian Kid you like well enough, who likes you well enough, and who also agrees to play by the rules of this game) you’ll find yourself sitting somewhere with your boyfriend or girlfriend, and you’ll have a choice.

You’ll be just turned on enough with this person for the first time to realize that sex is probably something powerful (which means your parents and pastors must have been right, after all), and you’ll both be feeling it, and you’ll both realize that this situation can end in two ways: one, you follow the feeling and have sex and ruin your standing as a GCK in your own mind forever, even if no one ever finds out.  Or, two, you’ll indulge the feeling and fool around just enough to get scared of how good it feels and “put on the brakes” (a timeless analogy used by youth pastors everywhere, as if sex is a car rolling unobstructed toward a large and frightening cliff), which is to say: you stop and feel ashamed of yourself and look at your partner in crime and realize that no one can ever know except the two of you (because even a little sexual “sin” is enough to ruin your Good Christian Kid status), and that you are probably going to marry this person and you are probably going to be happy about it. Whether or not you really are happy doesn’t matter, because you’ve been practiced at denying parts of yourself (read: an accidental follower of Christian Gnosticism) for long enough that what’s one more thing? If you’re married, you’re going to be having sex, which means one less thing to ignore—and so your desire for real happiness can replace sexuality under the wraps of self-control and shame.

And then you’re trapped, because you let your pastors and parents think through your sexuality for you (which is such a bad idea, seeing as sexuality is such a unique and individual thing), and you got married because that was the only way to explore your sexuality and stay sane in the face of such overwhelming social pressure and potential shame, and if you’re really lucky you’ll both be moderately happy and mostly sexually compatible and have enough in common to make a pretty decent life out of a pretty bizarre and unbalanced decision.

But the chances of ending up with that ending to your story are pretty slim—and after my marriage ended, the stories of unhappy marriages launched on these terms started coming to me out of the woodwork. Our pastors and parents may adore Dannah Gresh, Josh Harris, and the Ludys, but those relationship and purity gurus are the lucky ones selling their stories through books and speaking events. They do not represent the vast majority of American Christians, and while they mean well, their idyllic solutions have shortchanged most people who bought into their system out of blind trust.

So, as a divorced woman who did everything right by the assumptions of that system and found that it was full of empty promises and bad hermeneutics, I dare you to think for yourself about your sexuality and your beliefs. Put down the gun—stop playing Russian roulette with your life on someone else’s word.

*Consent requires consent of all parties affected, so naturally, if you’re married and assuming that your marriage means exclusive sexual fidelity to your spouse, then you don’t cheat. Likewise if you’re in a relationship and the terms of the relationship mean that your girlfriend/spouse/partner/fiancé isn’t comfortable with you having close friendships with members of the gender that you’re attracted to sexually, then you honor those boundaries and act in a way that respects your partner’s comfort zone.

**In either scenario, young adults, who are pushed and urged to be mature and wise because that’s godly, are still socially seen and treated as children—and I think that, subconsciously, sexual experience functions as the only real coming of age signifier in this Christian subculture, which is an entirely different subject, but one that also ought to be scrutinized for bullshit.


Okay, so, basically, my blog is currently useless if you’re not familiar with Brené Brown’s work on shame, especially Daring Greatly. Just get a copy already. [On another note, I’m still working on a follow-up to my post on leaving fundamentalist thinking, but I’ve moved this week and had a family member in the hospital and have been generally too drained to write a good piece on that yet. It’ll happen as soon as I can.]

I used to own a copy of Humility by C.J. Mahaney. I used to think it was a really good book.

I used to beat myself up a lot over how “proud” I was, a concept drawn from SGM’s teachings inspired by C.J. and the Puritans. My desire to be right, my desire for safe relationships, my desire to be heard–all these were twisted in my interpretation of them and lumped in a pile in my mind, under a big black sign that read “PRIDEFUL SINNER.”

Pride, as they defined it in SGM, is “contending for supremacy with God” (Jerry Bridges). Any attempt to control your life, to assert your likes, dislikes, boundaries, or ambitions was written off as “idolatry” and “selfish” and “proud.”

Arrogance was a label of a tent that expanded in SGM to cover anything that wasn’t following the social code of correct behavior. Doubting or anxious? Your lack of faith exhibits pride. Depressed? Prideful doubt of God’s goodwill toward you. Making plans for your life and dreaming/learning/exploring about what and who you really want to do and be? Pride and refusing to listen prayerfully to God’s will for your life.

I suspect that this stuff was harsher for women in SGM (and the fundamentalist homeschooling community at large) than it was for men, because men were required to learn their skill sets, urged to find mentors, and assumed to follow their dreams (of some sort) and have careers and aspirations. Women were not. Gender roles were stricter for us–godly women aspired to be housewives and mothers, and anything outside of that was a spiritual open doorway to pride. Aspirations outside of the wife/mother/housekeeper role might be permitted, if you were quiet and meek and self-deprecating and insecure enough in your potential. Men with aspirations were taught to give lip-service to this sort of attitude as well, but they were never socially required to really adhere to it with the same intensity of guilt trips and care group self-shaming sessions that women were.

I was thinking on this the other day–I wrote a poem (which I may share here later) and I wrote it about the fierce beauty of a healthy, strong woman who is confident in herself. Which is, really, a positive sort of pride. I realized a few things, which I want to talk about here.

Pride, in its actual real-life definition, is a double-edged concept. It can be a false, inflated sense of self-importance (a sort of delusion, really), or it can be a secure feeling of worth and belonging of some sort, a warm connection to someone or something. My baby sister has no shame in her artistic attempts–if I get a box from home, it’s full of paintings and drawings she’s made. And she puts them on the fridge and sends them to work with our dad and it’s not a big deal. She doesn’t act self-important about her art, but she is happy with it and shares it with people. It’s pride in her work, and it’s deserved and healthy. And I am proud of her and her cheery lack of self-consciousness with her art. It’s healthy and that’s good, and so I am pleased and heart-warmed by it. That’s the other side of pride.

And the thing that I’m realizing, is that in all the years that I beat myself up for being proud, I was never really proud. I may have been immature and naive and selfish, but I wasn’t deluded in my importance (okay maybe sometimes with younger siblings when I was babysitting), not really. I was afraid of myself. I was afraid of being large and taking up space and having a voice and things to say and having people hear me. I was afraid of being good at anything that would prevent me from being mostly invisible. I gravitated toward excelling in supporting social roles, toward excelling in domestic skills, and toward excelling at being unobtrusive.

I was not proud in either sense of the word. And I was living in shame, afraid of existing much at all. And I think we should be proud in the healthy sense of the word.

My favorite example of this is my friend Kiery, who has been making art since hen’s parents rejected hen when hen decided, at 18, to move out and marry hen’s boyfriend/unofficial fiancé (only unofficial because of the parents’ attempts to break them up). Hen’s family was vicious and abusive to hen’s assertion of independence, and Kiery went into emotional cocooning as a newlywed, but eventually started painting and drawing. The process has been slow and agonizing at points–I know Kiery has fought a lot of internal voices telling hen to stop and that the art is worthless. But hen’s art has improved SO much, and Kiery’s doing a comic strip with a friend, running a gaming vlog, and making some really cool pieces of art. It’s taken years, but there’s a wholeness to what Kiery makes that has been the result of lots of self-nurturing and patience with henself that I really respect and admire. It’s been like watching a butterfly emerge and dry its wings in the sunlight. It’s so beautiful and good.

I aspire to things. So do you. And it’s not sinful or “prideful” to be honest and encouraging and kind to yourself about that.


Fundamentalism isn’t an ideology, it’s a habit of thought patterns. Fundamentalism is based in fear. Fear of not being heard, fear of being invalidated, fear of attack, of erasure, of silencing.

Fundamentalism can be present in any community regardless of ethics or system of belief.

The reason that I started questioning the Christian fundamentalism I grew up with was because I saw people valuing the system of belief as more important than having compassion for hurting people in our community. I was upset that our value system put being right over sitting with someone in pain and empathizing with them in their vulnerable place.

I think that’s why most of us left the system of legalism, fundamentalist Christianity, Christian patriarchy—whatever you want to call it. We saw the system steamrolling people in pain—either us or those we loved—and realized that the system didn’t work for outliers, for those who didn’t fit the boxes or couldn’t follow the rules. We suddenly saw the marginalized, and realized that we were in a broken system and needed a new paradigm to stop marginalizing people if we wanted to have integrity in our claim to love as an ethic of life.

And so we stepped out of the too-small shoes of whatever ideology we’d been living in, and tried to listen and learn and practice consistent compassion and fight shame. We learned about self-care and about boundaries, we learned to question authority structures and say no. We learned the value of listening to those less privileged than us, and we adopted the language of feminism and intersectionality—clumsily at first, for most of us, but with sincere desire to be different from what we’d been before.

But fundamentalism isn’t something you can leave by deciding you’re LGBTQ* affirming, or by reading bell hooks, or by finally expressing the anger you felt when you were marginalized in your former world.

All of these things are good, but being “feminist” or “progressive” or even coming out as atheist can’t really do a thing for unlearning fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism is fundamentally a defensive position. It is not easily open to nuance, it uses synecdoche on first impressions to assume that one or two interactions is the sum of a person’s essence. It is too interested in self-defensive labeling of everyone and everything to have the patience to sit with someone and try to learn how much their good intentions are reflected in their actions over time—it doesn’t have time for those who are learning or need to ask a million questions before they can grasp concepts that may have come quickly to us.

In the book Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, Nathaniel is talking to a woman about teaching the sailors complex math tricks to navigate more accurately, but they’re not picking it up very quickly and he’s impatient. She chides him, saying [I’m paraphrasing] “Don’t kick the chair because you ran into it in the dark. It’s not the chair’s fault it’s like that.” She goes on to encourage him to try to get to know the sailors individually to understand how their different personalities might inform how he can best approach teaching them to navigate the stars well.

I think about this scene often, because sometimes I’m the quick one who picks things up intuitively, and I don’t always remember that not everyone else is like that. And sometimes I’m the one with clumsy emotional intelligence, and I step on toes without realizing it, and need to have things explained to me in nice, small words so I can understand.

I am not advocating re-traumatizing yourself for the sake of helping someone who you find triggering. That is not your job. Boundaries are good. Take care of yourself.

But: I think it’s inconsistent and a bit mean to have believe you’ve left Christian fundamentalism and to rail against its treatment of the underprivileged and to claim that you’re an ally—and to choose to publicly label someone as “unsafe” for some intent-to-action clumsiness despite evidence that they’re trying to change and learn, just like you. They may very well be unsafe for you or for others and I’m all for eliminating negative influences from one’s personal life. But I can’t help but think how grateful I have been for the kind people in my life who have chosen to sit with me in my ignorance and inconsistencies and help me unlearn my bigotry without labeling me or shaming me.

Compassion is an act of the imagination, right? Shame is the tool of fundamentalists to silence and control the borders of a community. I don’t want to be right and educated well about intersectionality and feminism and my privilege, and fail to have compassion for those who are not as far along in the learning curve as I might be. I remember what it was like to be there. Do you?

Leaving fundamentalism is more about a laying down an irrational craving to be right (oh, I love you my darling Gryffindors, but…) and a taking up of compassion and imagination and epistemological humility than it is about learning and using the right labels and theories. The ethics of unlearning fundamentalism must go much deeper than just jumping to the other side of your line in the sand.

Safe people aren’t relationally fundamentalist. Safe people are compassionate people.