Yesterday the Feminisms Fest was all about why we’re feminists. Today’s question is: why does it matter?

I read Emily Joy Allison’s post this morning about how feminism matters to her because of her younger sisters, and chuckled, because she basically wrote my post for me. But there’s a difference in our stories, and I’m still going to write my own post.

The reason feminism matters (okay, ONE reason it matters — I have a lot of other reasons) to me is because when I was introduced to the ideas of feminism, I was given the language to talk about the cognitive dissonance I was seeing in the circles I grew up in (homeschool, conservative, Christian), what I now loosely call “Christian patriarchy.”

Having the language to talk about a problem or a pain or a fear makes that issue become manageable in new ways. Naming your pain gives you power to confront the source. [I want to talk about this more! But that’s another post.]

So when I learned terms like “slut shaming” and “objectification” and “invalidation” and “privilege,” I suddenly found myself able to describe why strict modesty teachings and checklists and surveys made me uncomfortable, why I didn’t want to make a big deal about whether or not I had my first kiss at the altar, why I would be furious if an authority figure didn’t want to listen to me because I was emotional, why it bothered me so much that white Republicans were so vested in the “pro-life movement” (e.g. why did they care so much about women’s reproductive rights?). The language of feminism gave me a voice.

And it gave me a voice after these issues became intensely personal. When I got married, it was in the midst of great tension with my father. He resented that we didn’t ask his permission to kiss for the first time, wanted to be able to tell me it was unwise to marry someone with student loans and have me respond with deference to his preferences, and told my ex that when we got married he would be transferring his authority over me to my ex.  He was upset that we didn’t submit to his advice but instead consulted our consciences and the Bible and decided that we were okay with agreeing to disagree on certain “grey area” issues — to him, these were not grey areas. They were black and white areas of Christian conviction and to disagree with him was to “reject” his authority and  set a bad example for my younger siblings, leaving him open to the risk of family insurrection if my siblings decided to follow my path and make the same choices I did.

[Why he believes these things is his own story and I disagree with the results but with respect to the origins, as he has valid cause to act the way he did. But it’s an example of this sort of thinking, which is why I tell you about it.]

After all that happened, after I got married in spite of his objections [which, for the voyeurs wondering, had nothing to do with where we’re at now], I followed the path of my feminist explorations, moving from literary theory into contemporary feminist dialog. And oh, man. It set me on fire.

Now, I knew how to talk about my story. Now I understood why things hurt me or bothered me. Now I saw why I had felt so helpless to respond well when I didn’t have the vocabulary to form my ideas and responses. And having the language to talk about these things gave me the ability to start blogging here, start talking to people about what had happened, and start identifying systemic issues in conservative Christian culture which perpetuate unintentional invalidation and marginalization of women.

I see a lot of women and girls living in this world still, and while it makes me sad that they’re still “stuck” in Christian patriarchy and often defend it with eloquence and sincerity, I realize that (with the risk of sounding arrogant, so forgive me) most of them don’t see the system (they haven’t transgressed it, so they don’t know it’s limiting them) and most of them don’t have the words to describe it, even if they sense a disconnect between ideas (like: be a critical thinker! but submit to the authority of your father/pastor/husband’s teachings; we respect and cherish women! but they have to adhere to complementarian gender roles to be godly women). They can’t talk about it if they don’t have the words for it. 

Which is why, when I see stories like the one about the girl who finally left the Westboro Baptist Church, I cheer. The language of feminism indirectly made this possible. She got out because she had the language to start asking questions. And that is the key to freedom.

But without the language to discuss things, to ask questions, these women in Christian patriarchy are left with expressing how lonely they are waiting at home for Prince Charming, how exhausting it is to be 25 with 5 kids under 6, how scary sex is as a newlywed (without any sex ed), how they wished their dads would be more involved or loving, somehow (but they can’t explain it), how depressed they are at the thought of just being another stay-at-home mom and how they feel compelled to start a home business or something so they don’t get bored when it inevitably happens.

Without the language, these women amaze me in their ability to endure difficulty, to be creative and celebrate individuality within their limited spheres, with their capacity to love despite being disrespected and not listened to. It’s incredible and it’s a beautiful testimony to the power of the soul to withstand much trouble.

But, should they have to? Is it necessary? Is it worth it? I’d argue that it isn’t, and I get so, so excited when we start talking and I see them trying out new words and new ideas and learning to talk about their experiences and gain confidence to ask questions. Seeing the beauty of a soul being restored to health after years in a barren land is the most wonderful thing, and feminism’s language has shown itself to be the key to this healing over and over again.

So, feminism matters to me because of my sisters and my mom. Because of Caleigh. Because of Ruth. Because of Elizabeth Esther. Because of all the “Quivering Daughters” and the “No Longer Quivering.” Because of the stay-at-home daughters who are trying so hard to be the right sort of future wife. Because of all the stay-at-home homeschooling mamas who are killing themselves to get it right and burning themselves out in the lonely trenches of complementarian gender roles without any compromise or compassion. Because of the women suffering post-partum depression who get told that they just need to work on their sin issues and it’ll go away. Because of all the women suffering under graceless Christianity without realizing how much Jesus loves them as they are.

Feminism can help you talk about why it hurts. How to fix it, how to bring nuance and humanity and grace back into the discussion of women’s roles in the home, society, and the church. It can free you from the childishness of a world that is only black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, and let you walk out of the farmhouse and into the technicolor of Oz. It’s a beautiful world that we have here and it’s okay to enjoy it. I think that Jesus would walk out there with you.

Link up with FemFest here!


Coming out of a spiritually abusive situation is incredibly difficult.

The first and biggest step  is seeing the abuse for what it is and allowing yourself name it. Saying, “this isn’t normal; this shouldn’t be this way,” is the watershed moment which allows you to begin see what’s wrong and why.

After my moment, I needed about four years to process it all. And I didn’t realize the effects of it at once – my understanding of the severity of my situation deepened as various life experiences uncovered it more and more.

When I started dating my husband.
When I saw how the courtship model was hurting my friends.
When I saw God at work in churches outside of our church group.
When I went to England with a group of friends and an Anglican priest, who heard my story and exclaimed, “What! That’s so messed up. That’s not normal.”

Emo shot from said England trip. If I was cool, this would be on Instagram.

Emo shot from said England trip. If I was cool, this would be on Instagram.

This affirmation of my experience, of my observations, was the validation I craved. I needed to know I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t dishonoring God by thinking these things, and that the situation I had found myself in was indeed unreasonable. Talking with others coming out of Quiverfull or Christian Patriarchy communities, I’m struck by how much we all need to be told this. We’re not crazy, this is not normal or healthy, and Jesus has more for us than this.

After these things began to unravel for me, I hit a wall with reading my Bible. I couldn’t do it. I was a college sophomore, double majoring in English and “Christian Thought” (theology), and my understanding of how to read was being gutted and scrubbed. I found myself discovering that the meditational,  charismatic methods of interacting with scripture I had grown up with were emotion-driven and tended to make me the center of my study, bastardizing any good-feeling scripture passage to soothe my emotions.

And then I realized that my entire relationship to my faith was centered around a daily feeling of the Word, not a real relationship with God or an understanding of Jesus. With my emotional presets on “GUILT,” I flailed and floundered, distressed that I didn’t know how to read my Bible, agonizing over why I didn’t feel like it anymore.

***

It’s been about four years since I found myself dead to scripture in my daily devotions. Since I stopped reading because I began to hear in my head the voice of the pastor whose teachings so damaged my family every time I opened an ESV. Since my devotions stopped being habitual (for the first time since middle school) and occurred only out of emotional desperation.

It’s hard admitting that. In the circles I grew up in, it was hard to look someone in the eye and confess that I hadn’t read my Bible in a week. To say that I haven’t seriously read my Bible on a daily basis in four years is to have to fight condemnation. I am not a “bad Christian.” I am not a “backslider.” I am not “abandoning my faith.” But believing these truths is hard when I think about the number, the days it represents.

But healing takes time. It’s so slow, and we’re so busy, and the Spirit works at a pace we can stand to bear. I have desperately needed this break. I needed the time to detox, to stop hearing other people’s voices, to find myself craving God’s presence once again, and not being afraid of how I should read his Word.

Just last year, I realized that reading Eugene Peterson’s The Message didn’t set me off. So I savored that as I could. This year, I’m excited to find that the NIV version doesn’t make me feel like that pastor is reading his opinions to me through a proof-text passage. It’s safe. I can read it and think on it with integrity, and not be afraid. As a result, I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve actually wanted to read it on almost a weekly basis.

“Baby steps, baby steps.”

It’s a slow process. I’m on the mend. Other things suggest this, too. I find myself using words like thankful and grace again, without grimacing and deleting them to rephrase my sentence without religious jargon.

***

If you’re recovering from spiritual abuse, be patient with yourself. Don’t let the emotional habit of guilt drive you into a premature fix.

The best advice I got last year was from that same Anglican priest. “Follow the pain,” he said. And I was uncomfortable with that, because, really, who wants to do that? But giving myself the time to journal, to talk through, and to ponder the pain I was feeling allowed me the space to begin to heal for the first time.

We are so often rushed, so hurried to be the next iteration of our future selves, to improve, to expedite, to control. Be patient with yourself. Healing takes time.


Click for source.

I’d like to start a regular feature here about the concept of gender roles within the church, and how they affect us, why they affect us, and how they ought to affect us. I intend for this to be primarily a discussion, and I ask that you engage these posts by first laying down your assumptions. Please be willing to read these posts on their own terms, and then compare them with what you believe after you read them. I would also love to get topic suggestions and questions from my readers to address in future posts.

I’ve had this idea for over a year. It’s been kicked around with my sister, with my husband, with my friends, all in various shapes. I’ve sat on it so long for fear of losing my passion for it, for fear of processing it for myself and finding my need to write about this wane as I grow firm in my beliefs and move on. And for fear of how it will be received.

But I haven’t been able to move on, to burn off my passion with a few months of talking in private. Instead, the number of conversations I’ve had with people about these issues has grown steadily. I’ve become aware of a deep communal need to sort this out in my generation of Christians – those largely raised in the church and coming into adulthood with a unique mixture of earnestness and cynicism. I’m not alone in needing to talk about this, and I’d like to open it up on my blog to enable other Christians to discuss it as much as they need.

Before I continue, I must lay down a clarification of purpose. This blog happens to be written by a woman, but it is not a women’s blog. I’m writing for Christians, in general. I find that the young men of my generation are often just as perplexed and discouraged by these issues as the women are, and need to discuss these things equally.

I’ll get things going with the first real post for this feature later on in the week; in the meantime, I should clarify my personal biases.

***

Most of you know I was raised in a fairly patriarchal homeschooling family, and there were a lot of positives as well as negatives from that experience. I was also part of a cult-like church which emphasized strongly that a woman’s highest calling [read: any other life pursuit is looked down on] was to be a wife and mother and make a home for her family. I was the only one of my graduating peers in that church who went out of state for college, and I was one of the few girls of that group to say that I wanted a career and I wasn’t sure if I’d be a great mom one day. (I’m sure the reality was much, much more diverse than this, but it was my perception of things at the time and it reflects, I suppose, the intense loneliness I felt in that group.) I was also one of the few girls interested in questions of theology and doctrine, and often resented that I was a girl and therefore couldn’t go to seminary.

These experiences, among other things, created in me a sensitivity to gender expectations within the church. This sensitivity was jolted into personal frustration when when my dad pressured me to submit to his discernment on (read: his feelings on and the resulting decisions regarding) my relationship with my boyfriend, now husband. I pushed back against this, asking him why, if he could trust that God was speaking to and leading me to change churches, couldn’t he also trust my discernment in regard to my boyfriend’s character? The response I got was based on the assumption that daughters are to submit to the authority of their fathers until they are wed (at which point, I was told, the authority would transfer from the father to the husband).

I couldn’t believe it. My dad never meant to treat me badly, but the assumptions he was acting under were based on the teachings of the church we were part of for my teen years, and that church had been a place that (for us) fostered serious spiritual abuse. Challenging his assumptions brought our conflict to these terms: I had to prove (using verses from the Bible) that my beliefs regarding my spiritual independence from my dad’s authority was biblical, and then he would be willing to agree to disagree. This is very typical of us – our relationship has always been based in mutual respect for the other’s intellectual integrity, and still is. So, I took him up on his terms. I pulled out the concordance and the Greek lexicon and I drafted 5 sloppy pages on why I thought his interpretation of various verses, especially the NASB translation of 1 Cor. 7:36-38, wasn’t accurate, and responded with my own set of verses and commentaries to justify my spiritual emancipation from him. [As an aside, I have come to the conclusion that these sorts of hunt-and-peck use of verses as proof texts for this and that grey area issue is an abuse of scripture. The purpose of the Bible is not to give us detailed instructions on moral living, but to display the character of God and our relationship to him.]

This was a highly painful season for us. He felt rejected, I believe (which was never my intent), and I felt manipulated and unloved (but he never meant it this way). It was painful and stressful and I probably misremember t0 my own benefit.

This interaction brought to my attention, once again, the reality: in the church circles I was raised in, women are expected to defer to men, and there are significant social and relational consequences if they don’t.

Finally, two other things occurred to push me over the edge into “accidental feminism” or, really, a state of heightened awareness of the church’s messy relationship to gender issues:

First, I was attending a little Presbyterian church for a while during college, and one Sunday they were short on ushers. I heard about this and offered to help for the service.  The ushers functioned as the greeters, the distributors of the offering plates, and they also passed out the bread and wine during communion, row by row to the congregation. I was told that they’d rather go without than have me help–I was female and they didn’t want a woman distributing the elements. I was shocked. I wouldn’t be preaching; I wouldn’t be sanctifying the sacraments; I would just be handing a basket of wafers down the row, then a tray with little juice cups. But because I have a vagina, I wasn’t allowed to help.

The second thing was this: I was fighting with spiritual dryness and decided to sit down to reread the gospel and epistles from the apostle John, in an attempt to see Jesus at his most relational. Reading through these books took a lot longer than I anticipated. I was stunned by my reintroduction to this Jesus. Coming to these passages deeply empty and under significant emotional distress about the situation with my dad allowed me to come to these pages with new eyes. And I realized: Jesus loved women. Jesus didn’t treat them like the rest of society did at that time. He took them seriously, he interacted with them without shame or superiority, and he made them significant members of his entourage, and the first witnesses of his resurrection. I saw that the way Jesus treated the opposite sex was nothing like how the church was dealing with gender issues, and certainly nothing like what I was experiencing from the church as a woman. Furthermore, the Jesus of the Bible didn’t really line up very well with the ideals for “masculine Christianity” as posited by the likes of Mark Driscoll, Stephen Altrogge, Douglas Wilson, or John Piper. And then I knew that, if the church is to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world, these things would have to change.

So this English major (who was also in the middle of an honors seminar love affair with Jacques Derrida), began to reconsider all her assumptions about what the church had taught her about sexuality and gender, and revisit all the proof texts for these issues with fresh curiosity for context, audience, linguistic implications, authorial intent, etc.

Now, I’d like to take this personal study of mine public, and explore individual issues relating to the Bible, gender, and the church along with you.

***

A word of clarification regarding the title (with thanks to David for coining it!): this snarky turn of phrase refers to the modesty panel/modesty rail in the front of the first pew in most old-style churches. This panel derived from times when churches weren’t heated and parishioners needed the paneling to contain heat in the winter, but evolved into what it is today because of shrinking skirt lengths and concerns about peeping toms in the choir. Or something like that. I’m a born-and-raised Christian kid. This is my front-row perspective and I’ve decided to stop holding back on what I see.

I chose “immodesty” because I am deliberately drawing attention to grey area issues in the church, insignificant compared with the gospel and the creeds, but pertinent to most people and frequently ignored by the privileged. Immodesty, as my dad says (quite well, I think), is “drawing undue attention to oneself.” In homage to With apologies to Flannery O’Connor, I hope to draw “large pictures” for the blind that they might see what is before them – both the positive and the negative. I will draw magnified attention to these issues for the sake of those working through them, and for the sake of those who don’t yet realize that these issues are worth consideration. Furthermore, I think it’s funny that one’s awareness about this issue often starts with questioning traditional modesty teachings.

I also chose the word “rail” with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor: women with controversial or non-conformist opinions are often accused of being “shrill” or “emotional.” A shrill tirade used to be synonymous with “railing” at someone, and while I intend to be reasonable and calm, I am sure that my discussions will be called rants. So I’ll just take the liberty of truncating that: here I will reasonably “rail” about issues pertaining to gender in the church, and I might get a bit exaggerated with it to make a point. So gird up your loins! We’re going to start with the topic of modesty and lust later this week. Okay, I’m done with the cutesy puns.

Do you have ideas for topics to discuss on Immodesty Rail? Email me at mattiechatham [at] gmail [dot] com.