Last night, hit by both “my brain is flat-lining after a long day” and an absurd level of contentment–despite running into the awkward moment earlier in the evening at the grocery store checkout when my debit card declined a $5 transaction and I was scrounging for pennies in my change purse [we’re okay, it was just coincidental timing with a check going out earlier than I thought it would]–I pulled out Regina Spektor, my 4B pencils and a sketchbook.

I hadn’t drawn in a while. The kneaded eraser was new and I worked it until it was soft, sharpened pencils, trimmed my blending stick, and finally started sketching. I was trying to sketch the back and shoulders of a woman, but little things were off. The shoulders were too short or too slumped, the arms were slightly off-kilter, and the neck was ungainly. I realized this was more than just being out of practice. I just really didn’t have a good grasp of the anatomy of the way the shoulder meets the arm and the back. I didn’t know how to shade it properly, and I didn’t have internet to pull up an image search for reference. This made me realize two things: 1) I need to take a figure drawing class [I’ll have to save up for that], and 2) I hadn’t done any serious nude figure studies before.

I have always loved drawing people, but when I was really into it, during high school, I mostly kept myself to just drawing faces. Drawing the body came with too many unspoken taboos–once, I drew a flamenco dancer in a red dress, and left her body as shapeless as I possibly could, altering the dress to be “modest.” Carolyn Mahaney’s Modesty Checklist was all the rage at our church at the time, and every girl who was “serious” about her faith had it practically memorized. It was taped up on the wall by bedroom mirrors, and we were all quick to help each other adhere to this list. It would be normal to hear one girl comment to the other that her neckline was revealing and she should go adjust it–and did she need any safety pins for that? I went along with it, and accepted it as good.

Some of the points made by Carolyn are just fine. I agree with the principle of the thing. There’s a place for being discreet and being modest and not dressing inappropriately. But the spirit of that checklist however–I now realize–is blatantly legalistic. The mentality it promotes created a subconscious fear of the body–even a bizarre detachment of “self” from the body–in the minds of girls who were taught to believe in the message of this highly detailed modesty rulebook.

How Modesty Made Me Fat” is one girl’s experience living with this mindset (afraid of being seductive, pretty, sexy, noticed) and while her struggle became extreme, it’s pretty true to the insidiousness of this way of thinking. Homeschooled girls don’t always dress like homeschooled girls because they “aren’t socialized enough.” Homeschooled girls mostly dress like they do because they are taught that the female form is something to be afraid of (and by inference, inherently sinful). I have been that girl, afraid to get noticed for having a feminine body.

To a degree, this awkwardness is part and parcel with normal adolescence. During puberty we are more self-conscious and have to learn to identify as whole selves with our newly-matured bodies. But fear is not healthy and trying to hide who we are as women is just silly.

This fear of a normal, adult body affects how you see everything. For example: around the time this checklist came out, my sister and her friend took my mom’s art history book (a huge, gorgeous book full of giant glossy pages with color images of every major artwork until the late 20th century), and they pulled out a big black Sharpie and drew 1) boxers on Michelangelo’s David and all the other male nudes, and 2) one-piece bathing suits/bras on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and all the other female nudes. From my understanding of the story, they thought my parents would be glad to have all that wicked nudity taken care of so that the book would be “appropriate.” Instead, my mom was [rightfully] mortified.

This mindset breeds fear of self in women, and more than that, it objectifies men. These modesty teachings are promoted with good intent–to “keep our brothers from stumbling” [lusting] and to protect girls from . . . men’s lust. The logic doesn’t work; the assumption is that men are helpless against their natural attraction to the female form and the sometimes inevitable result of desiring that form, and so all men (in the minds of these girls) become helpless slaves to lust.

This creates even more unnatural distance between the sexes in homeschool/conservative Christian circles. Girls become (naturally) suspicious of guys, of being alone in the same room (even if it’s a public area!) as a man (what if he decides to rape me?!), of being told by a guy that they look pretty (Oh no he must be lusting after me! Did I dress modestly enough?), etc. I’m using a bit of hyperbole here, but the underlying point remains: extreme modesty teachings creates unnecessary fear in the minds of girls and teaches them to assumes the worst of men and the inner thoughts of men.

This teaching also hurts how boys and young men think about themselves. Their sexual desires become the central evil in their lives and undue focus is given to how sinful these [normal, natural] desires are. Lust is sin, yes. But talking to adolescents mainly about lust and modesty and how evil sexual desire is will make them feel utterly enslaved to these things.

It’s the “don’t think about pink elephants” principle–talking about how wrong something is in an unbalanced manner will feed an unhealthy fascination with the issue. Guys don’t have to be slaves to lust. It’s possible for a guy to acknowledge “that woman has a beautiful body” and not be aroused sexually. But the all-or-nothing modesty/lust paradigm leaves no room for this, and so men remain suspect and are brought to assume that they can’t help themselves if they do lust–and the women just need to be more modest, to protect everyone. It’s really demeaning for both sexes.

Now, not every conservative Christian or homeschooling family believes this just like I described above. However, there’s a lot of this mess influencing a lot of people, and I heartily believe that this is not how God intended us to see each other or our own bodies. The body is often a beautiful thing and it is possible for a woman to be womanly and attractive without generating lust in men. It’s also possible that a man will lust after a woman in a potato sack, just because he knows she’s a woman.

Blanket assumptions about the hearts of others are never really unhelpful, and the thinking patterns they create are difficult to overcome. Christianity needs to refresh its theology of the body to combat these assumptions.

And I really need to find a model so I can practice drawing shoulders. Any volunteers?


When I say I’m a feminist, all I mean is that women should be treated like Jesus treated them. In love, fairness, justice, and equality under the law. The majority of women around the world today are not treated with fairness and justice. This is why I call myself a Christian feminist. – Abby at Little Stories [It’s a really good post. Go read the whole thing.]

Where I come from, to identify with the feminist movement or feminist theory is the social equivalent of having a baby out of wedlock and enjoying the shock value, using the f-word in front of the Baptist pastor’s wife just to make her cry/blush, or wearing a pentagram and a mohawk to church because you hate your parents. It’s assumed that if you’re a feminist, you’re giving God the middle finger and plan to do whatever the hell you want to do.

That assumption is so wrong, and I confess I get impatient with those who believe this. People who identify themselves as feminists can sometimes be like that, yes. But then again, the Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t represent those who define themselves as Christians, does it?

The majority of feminists are just trying to live their lives in a thoughtful, ethical manner–respecting everyone, including themselves. Equality cuts both ways. Ethically consistent feminists will seek justice for any who are oppressed, and sometimes that happens to be women.

As an English major, feminism is a word that has a whole world of loaded meaning–and none of it matches up with the bra-burning, baby-killing, men-hating stereotype painted by the conservative Christian ghetto.

Feminist literary theory seems easy to me. At its simplest, it basically examines the text as if it were a photographic negative–what’s missing speaks the loudest. The absence of men in such and such roles, and the absence of women in these other roles, the masculine-heavy language used by the women in a text written by a male author, etc. You approach the text with your assumptions inverted, and see what you find. At its most complex, it tangles psychoanalytic theories of linguistics with feminine absences/presences and delves into subconscious nuances in the very words of a text. That’s where it gets fascinating, really. And my English professors would probably pale at the truncated and caricatured description I just gave–it’s a lot more complex than just what I [tried] to describe. Sorry, Messer.

The reason I feel that feminist theory is easy is this: up until the late 1800s, most books were written by men in a male-dominant culture. Feminist criticism can have a field day with almost anything written before Feminist theory came along and everyone started being self-aware in their writings. (meta-meta. This sort of writing became like an internet meme among novelists in the last 50 years and it’s really annoying.) It’s easy to find something new to pick apart for its misogyny and absence of feminine language. It becomes a cop-out among English students just trying to get a degree without putting a lot of original thought into their theses, while looking like they are because the text they’ve chosen hasn’t been analyzed in depth before from the feminist perspective.

. . . this doesn’t sound anything like the feminism you know, does it?

My point is, “feminist” is a loaded word, and using it in its fullest academic meaning will earn me dirty looks and incredulity from most conservative Christians.

Dear Christians, please lay down your arms, and make sure that word means what you think it means before teaching your children that [insert a word used to describe a group of people] don’t love Jesus.


Even though I’m an English major with a passion for editing and good grammar, I still write in all lowercase when I’m on IM. I write poetry in lowercase, too. I think it’s because when I allow myself to be transparent, I’m still afraid [of getting squelched? being too confident in my own opinions?] and want to protect myself by speaking more softly and appearing less definite. Thus: lowercase. I have nothing to fear, but the habit of undermining my own thoughts still holds.

Similarly, when I was about 14, I developed a bad habit/minor speech impediment–I mumbled. My dad would get annoyed at me and lecture me repeatedly for “swallowing my words,” and then I’d get embarrassed and either say “never mind” or repeat myself until he understood me or I got angry and just yelled the words and then ran off and cried. My confidence was shot. I second-guessed the worth of my thoughts, my opinions, my emotions, everything. And so I mumbled things, assuming that if someone was interested in what I had to say, they would listen closely and understand. I also got in the habit of undercutting my own sense of humor, adding “just kidding” to the end of a somewhat witty comment, and eclipsing the wit with my own insecurity. It became excruciatingly awkward, but if I did feel like someone really cared and would listen to me without condemnation, the mumbling would stop and I could speak with confidence.

I’m not writing here to wallow in pain, but sometimes it needs to be processed. Today I read a paragraph that triggered a host of memories for me, memories of the darkness and fear that made me so insecure as a teenager. Blogger Melissa wrote:

My parents told us that if people saw us outside during school hours, we would get taken away and put in foster homes where they would make us go to school. I remember crawling underneath the windows in the front of the house, because I was afraid someone outside would see me and call the police. One time a family friend knocked at the door during school hours, and my sister ran to open it. I heard the commotion from the other end of the house and ran in the kitchen screaming “don’t open the door!!” and when I rounded the corner and realized that the door was already open and there were no policemen waiting to take us away, I shrank away in embarrassment. I remember being outside and hearing the screams of a sister being spanked for what seemed like an eternity, and besides that usual sick feeling in my stomach for what she was going through, my main worry was that since the window was open, someone might hear and call the police. One time when I was babysitting my siblings, a chair got knocked over and broke the dining room window. I cried, and yelled at all the kids that now someone would see the broken window and think that dad was a drunk who beat us, and they would call the police. (From her post “Rights of a Child Part 2“)

This description matches parts of my childhood quite well. We were afraid of strangers asking questions about why were were out of school, we had rules about how to answer the door or phone during school hours, and it was always a bad day when a sibling’s misbehavior and its consequences could be heard outside of the house. “Quiet! The neighbors might hear you and call the police!” we would tell each other. Fear seemed to dominate our homeschooling, and we were always on the defensive about our lifestyle.

This was not always how it was, and the day to day of my childhood was pretty happy. My family is full of creative people and we were almost given total free reign to draw, paint, narrate, imagine, create, build, etc. I have many happy memories of my dad playing guitar and reading to us before bed, of camping trips and learning to appreciate nature from mom. My siblings and I mostly got along, and life was fine. We didn’t have any tangible troubles to point to, and we certainly had many things to be thankful for. Our parents loved us.

I was the outspoken, spunky kid who wanted to do everything, see everything, know everything, be everything. I told my mom once, “When I grow up I want to be a candymaker veterinarian ballerina writer teacher and go hiking all the time.” I was un-self-conscious and would talk to anyone about anything (but mostly about how I thought Jesus was amazing and they should think so, too).

Once, when I felt that my Sunday school teachers were patronizing my fifth grade class by giving out candy for bringing a Bible and candy for acting out the story of Jonah (with no “this teaches us about God because…” follow-up or lesson), I wrote a long letter to our pastor in pencil on binder paper and told him that this was unacceptable and we were old enough to learn real things about God. (He pulled me aside the next week and told me that was inappropriate and did my parents know? I told him they didn’t, and if he wasn’t going to fix the problem, I would stop going to Sunday school and just sit in the sermons. So I did, and they were just as bad. My parents thought this was hilarious.)

In short, I was a confident, slightly stuck-up kid with a passion for knowing and talking about truth. But when my family moved across the country when I was 12 (for a host of reasons…another story for another day), my world fell apart in ways I wouldn’t realize until years afterward.

After our move, I was introduced to the Sovereign Grace Ministries culture. Actually, more like immersed in it. Our first week there, we got moved in and unpacked by SGM families, and my sister and I were invited to a “welcome to the church” party with all the girls our age. Things seemed okay, initially. [Looking back, this was a classic SGM love-bombing, and we didn’t develop deep relationships with many of the families who helped us out and welcomed us. I’m glad they helped—it made the move easier—and I know they meant well. But most of them never noticed us  when, a couple of years later, we had a really rough season and desperately needed help.]

We stuck out, as a family, from the other folks at our church. I called adults by their first names (until I was swiftly rebuked), I liked both feminine and masculine things (ballet, softball, shooting, camping, horses, etc.), I was a fashion disaster, I wanted to go to college, and our family was (compared with the other families in our church) somewhat poor. The other girls—the popular ones—would go out to movies and go to the mall to hang out. I would be restricted from these things by money and morals (“that movie isn’t from a Biblical world view”) and my friend group dwindled as a result.

Most of the other families in this church were homeschoolers, too, but that common ground disappeared quickly—the majority of these homeschoolers participated in co-ops where moms taught and the kids went to classes with their peers for various subjects. These might be once or twice a week, or every day for part of the day. My parents wouldn’t put us in these, though, saying that we couldn’t afford it (both the time and money). My dad also commented on these co-ops, saying that “they don’t really homeschool—it’s ‘faux-schooling.’” His opinion was that these other parents weren’t as committed to raising their kids in a godly manner and were shipping their kids off to be taught by other people (which he thought was lazy and irresponsible).

However, he was simultaneously becoming less and less involved in our family’s educational choices and we had limited resources for text books and curricula. The cognitive dissonance of this manifested itself in my mom’s rising stress levels and I began to shoulder more of the housework and help watch my siblings more.

In the meantime, my friends kept going to co-ops and the mall, and I’d see them at church on Sundays and try to talk about things I was learning, books I was reading, and daily family life—and it grew increasingly evident that no one could relate to my experiences and that almost no one wanted to take the time to get to know me and understand my family and my passion for new ideas. Several girls who had initially been wonderfully welcoming (and whom I had begun to count as dear confidantes) faded out of my life and moved on to be close with other girls who were more “cool.”

Around that same time, my mom was pregnant with twins (siblings #6 and #7) and our family life revolved around doctor’s appointments for her, and then for the babies. Life was full and overwhelming and my siblings got restless and edgy with mom being so absorbed with two newborns. I took on more around the house, and school fell to the wayside completely. For a period of six weeks, we had at least three doctor’s appointments every week and I was babysitting for some reason or another every day. Mom was utterly exhausted and had a hard time recovering from her pregnancy, and it seemed that every day was in crisis mode on cruise control.

These circumstances made a social outlier of me and my family, and I felt like I had been pushed aside by everyone at my church as if I wasn’t either too different or just not worth their time. In the meantime, high school was a struggle for me (finding time and a place to work in peace was hard) and my mom had another baby and fell into post-partum depression, which really didn’t lift for the next four or five years.

I was a hollow person, tired of being so busy at home, and desperate for friends and time to pursue my own interests. And I stopped speaking with confidence, and grew afraid of letting anyone get to know me, for fear of being rejected again.

Miraculously, God provided an online community for me and I eventually made a few very dear friends, but it still never quite filled the void of fellowship, and I was still very insecure.

Going to college was something I had always assumed I would do, and as someone who loved to learn and think about abstract theories, college seemed like it would be a kid-in-a-candyshop experience for me. However, my church taught that women were designed to find their highest satisfaction in homemaking. So, most of my friends assumed that they would not go to college, that they would stay at home and learn domestic skills, that they might work as a secretary at the church office part time, and that eventually they would marry some godly SGM guy (ideally, a pastoral candidate, or at least a potential care group leader) and then they would make a bunch of happy babies and stay at home and homeschool them all.

Since I had just spent the last 6 years of my life playing second mom to my siblings and was already quite competent with household management, I thought that this was utter nonsense. They would be bored to death before the honeymoon was over!

In a word, I didn’t fit. I was worn out by the circumstances surrounding daily life with my family, and I couldn’t live up to academic standards, social norms, or my own hopes for myself.

I don’t think I was ever technically depressed, but all this took a major toll on me, as my confidence withered and I retreated to the recesses of my bedroom to create an alternative imaginary reality where I could decompress. Novels, art projects, and writing stories became my refuge, and I suppressed emotions (loneliness, feeling inadequate, yearning for affection, desires for acceptance and affirmation) through imagination until my own feelings were distant and vague in comparison with the stories I threw myself into.

This was only noticed as it affected my high school grades, and I lost practically an entire year of school. My parents cranked up the academic pressure and accountability, and my academics did improve, but the deeper issues lay untouched. They were themselves too burned out to be able to offer helpful support beyond guilt-trips to finish school well.

A lot of women coming out of CP families have experienced an overwhelming flood of difficult-to-process emotions, bottled up over years of living in denial of normal emotions, or living in repressive environments, or just being too busy to process themselves and their lives as they lived them. Sometimes this aftermath is so strong that they are very rightly diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Sometimes it’s just a matter intense frustration with relearning what the heck a normal person, a normal Christian living in grace, is supposed to do with normal emotions. What does one do with the grief over dreams left to wither for practical or irrationally motivated CP-like reasons under the auspices of honoring God.  With processing friendships that unraveled or turned sour over things that should not have mattered. With years of loneliness. With weariness. With a marriage that didn’t happen at all or didn’t happen the way you thought it would. With lingering insecurities over various aspects of “being normal.” [how does it work?]

Recovery is slow. Grace works thoroughly, not quickly. In the meantime, I still IM in lowercase. But I don’t mumble.


I’ve been stewing on this for a while.

As an English major, I’ve studied some Feminist theory and think it’s a fascinating mental exercise (I also think it’s lazy academics, most of the time, but that’s another issue). As the daughter of conservative Christians attempting to revive/reinvent orthodoxy (“reinvent” in the sense that they didn’t grow up in the Church and were trying to create a coherent theological praxis for life) in an age marked by the Church’s decline, I grew up reading books like Let Me Be A Woman by Elisabeth Elliot, What’s The Difference by John Piper, and reading magazines and blogs which highlighted the beauties of femininity and the home.

Some of that reading was handed to me by my parents, some was required study for church groups, some was just motivated by my own earnest hunger to learn more about God and what it means to be a Christian. I’m almost always hungry to think things through and study issues that pique my curiosity, and “Biblical gender roles” has always been high on that list.

From an email I wrote to a friend last month:

My husband and I had a silly fight last night. [edit: It was my fault. This is not uncommon. I am a girl, I have a temper, I tend to over-think everything, and I tend to over-think everything out loud. Poor guy. Good thing for me, he’s patient. Anyway, we had this fight.] And I was being irrational and ranting at him, and he made reference to Proverbs 21:9 (the contentious wife/better to live on the corner of the housetop, etc.). It was fitting, I admit.

However, my retort then was, “If the Bible had been written in any part by women, there would have been verses about hard-hearted husbands in it, too!” …which was silly and rude, but the thought had never occurred to me before. And I sheepishly admit that I still think it’s true–the Bible is a male-dominant text, and if women had been educated enough to be in a position where they could have contributed to the Canon, there might just have been proverbs about husbands, and there might have been a lot more poetic books.

I was musing about how my husband and I have a relationship that’s really not based on “headship” and “submission”  or even “initiation and response” (key phrases for those subscribing to “Biblical Complementarianism”). As I wrote to this same friend:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the word “helpmeet.” Apparently the original words  [in Hebrew] mean something more like someone who is a highly skilled and practiced partner in battle–like in a partnership where both understand and respond to each other fluidly and adroitly, and they are working strongly together for the same end.

“Mutual submission” is a phrase that the proponents of “egalitarian marriage” like to use–the husband and the wife are equals, each submitting to each other to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Maybe the wife does some typical “manly” jobs around the house (or vice versa), because she’s just better at them than her husband–maybe she’s an accountant and he’s an artist, so she manages the finances and he decorates. Or maybe he cooks breakfast for her every morning, and she keeps the schedule moving.

Complementarians like to be specific. They tend to like stereotypical gender roles as patterns to emulate. Vision Forum’s catalog is a pretty standard example of this played out to its logical extremes. Blogger Libby Anne does a nice job of picking this apart. This gender role specificity in conservative America/conservative Christianity can result in weirdly stiff ideals or models for marriages, parenting, and relationships in general. Girls who are tomboys feel out of place and stifled, boys who are more bookish or indoorsy feel insecure and unmanly.

The same sort of thinking about “gender roles” results in experimental gender neutral schools. An ideal of a certain sort of gender role (here it’s none and all) is held up, and kids are raised in ways that encourage them to be just like that ideal.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is this: gender roles in the Bible were partially social constructs (that is, defined by cultural norms and assumptions) and partially God’s design–women couldn’t own property, women weren’t well-educated, women weren’t respected (the Pharisees regularly thanked God that they weren’t “born a woman or a slave.” Oh, yeah, and slavery isn’t directly condemned by the Bible…).

Gender roles in the 1950s or 1980s (yes, opposite ends of the spectrum) were partially social constructs and partially God’s design. Even those gender-neutral schools are exhibiting something that’s attempting to be largely a social construct  (homosexuality/any sexuality is cool) and a little bit of God’s design (everyone is unique).

God did design men and women to be different. God did design all humans to be equal. God did design all humans to be individually unique. God didn’t design women to be subservient doormats, and God didn’t design men to be tyrants. Conversely: women are not to be power-hungry bitches, and men are not to be whiny couch potatoes.

Perhaps the phrase “Biblical gender roles” ought to be laid aside. After all, no two women will quite be alike in skills, interests, or character. And no two men will mirror each other closely enough for there to be detailed rules about how a Christian man ought to act. There are definitely Biblical guidelines for how to relate to other people, and there are Biblical guidelines for how men and women are to care well for each other in marriage–Christ is the model there.

But I’m just a little tired of tidy “Biblical gender roles” being the answer to all relationship problems. And maybe I’d like to remind patriarchal Christians that there was at least one female bishop/regional elder in the early church. Her name was Junia.  What do you make of that?