A couple weeks back, it was 7:45 am and I was grumpy. My good friend Mark was arguing with me in the car on our way to the metro. We’ve been carpooling every day since Christmas, and he’s a morning person. And he likes to argue. Mark is one of my favorite people, but I’m not a morning person, not these days. Fortunately for both of us, he got smart and made me coffee on this particular morning. So I was enough of a person to keep up with his thoughts and wasn’t just smiling and nodding this time.

The subject at hand was how I tell stories on my blog. He was bothered, because he knew there’s a post I wrote where I told a story about a guy who told me that God told him that I was The One. What he knows is that it’s not just one story, but two or three similar stories, cobbled together to eliminate identifying details and avoid highlighting just one person. I did this because I wanted to use the story, the particular line “God told me you were the one,” without being unkind to the person(s) who used that line. But it’s my story — it happened to me. So I know I have the right to tell it, but I want to be judicious.

His objection is that cobbling the stories together isn’t true and so he was telling me that I shouldn’t have told the story at all if I wasn’t going to be faithful to tell exactly how it happened.

We ended up agreeing to disagree, but I keep thinking back to this conversation. I still think what I did was fine, but there have been some instances lately where bloggers have appropriated the stories and experiences of others they know in order to make a point later on in the post.

There’s a formula for this, and it goes like so:

  1. Great Quote For Hook
  2. Full Anecdote In Longer Story Form With Tweetable Soundbites
  3. Transition About How Blogger Reflects On Story/Event/Moment
  4. Bible Verses And Some Explication
  5. Full Point of Post, Driven Home
  6. Catchy Close-Out Lines, Usually Tweetable

It works well for blogging, and though I will probably continue to wryly jab at it in private, I use it sometimes myself. It makes sense — the story and the soundbites are palatable, quick, and engaging. It’s the same method used by the devotionals our mothers kept in the powder rooms of our childhood homes. It’s not quite storytelling and it’s not quite theology and it meets the layman’s need for a quick wisdom story snack in a pinch.

But it’s bad theology and bad art, most of the time. It’s the writer’s Thomas Kinkade — not technically talented, not true to life or true to truth. It makes you feel good and think on nice things for a few minutes, and then you leave it, largely unchanged.

No, no, you say. Your favorite bloggers have changed you! They are good writers!

Yes, they can be. I’ve been hugely influenced, challenged, healed, moved by deep and heart-full blog posts, had my understanding of theology shaken and made strong by fantastic theological posts, and have witten my fair share of attempts at thoughtful stuff here.

But the best bloggers either let story have full reign and use the power of the narrative to make a point without telling you what it is at the end, just to make sure you get it. This is why Deeper Story has been such a huge thing for the Christian blogging community. They tell stories for the sake of the story, because it moved them, changed them as Christians. But they let their readers do the legwork of connecting the dots, respecting their intelligence and prizing the power of a good story told well.

And this is why bloggers like Rachel Held EvansDianna Anderson, Libby Anne, and Peter Enns have been so successful, too. They write layman’s theology, philosophy, ethics, etc. on their blogs, and they respect their readers and the craft of writing. I see this when they don’t rely on cheap story hooks or anecdotes to grab their readers’ attention, when they don’t make every line purple prose or tweetable, when they treat their readers like smart, thinking adults who want to practice their faith (or lack thereof) with intellectual integrity.

But then you get post’s like Preston’s this morning on Deeper Story, which lectured instead of telling a story. And posts like mine, with the cobbled-together details of three events in one to make a point. And posts like Emily’s on Prodigal, which hurt so many people with her flippant aside about her grandmother’s suicide.

And there’s something there worth saying, worth telling. It burns in our bones until we write it. Preston’s post was good and timely for a host of reasons. People responded overwhelmingly and positively to mine. Emily’s written a follow-up post about her grandmother’s suicide, telling more, trying to tell it better.

But we need to know when to tell a story and when to write an essay. Blogging is too quick, too easy, sometimes. Slowing down, picking the right genre and the right platform for a piece can make the difference between choosing the good or the best.

***

I’d like to respond a bit specifically to Preston’s discussion of how we tell stories and how we preach here, on our little corners of the internet. As I said, it’s a good post. But all these thoughts about stories and how we tell them got stirred up by it, and I have some problems with what he said (as well as with his choice of platform).

I agree with him in essence. When you’re telling stories for a didactic point, your theology matters, because otherwise you’re prostituting story to make a theological argument, and the story is a manipulative tool to open the heart of the reader to the follow-up message.

Christians are particularly prone to this type of narrative, the story-moral-go-therefore. We like to have a good story because we’re human. But because we’re Christian and Everything Matters Because Of The Gospel, we crave that tidy conclusion or moral. We want the platitude, the answer, the systematic theology. We are just like the two housewives in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People.” We have a platitude for every situation in life and we want to tell you about it. No life event, no personal story, no heartache is exempt.

But it doesn’t work like that. You can’t have good art with a platitude at the end, you can’t tell a story and have the story be good if you’re trying to tie it down to a moral-shaped chair. It will wriggle and writhe and resist, and you’ll start chopping off limbs to make it fit just so, and soon you have the bleeding stump of a story, lying still and interesting and ugly, all nicely fitting on your platitude-shaped chair. This is what happened with Emily’s post and her comment about her grandmother. It sort of fit the point she was making, so she trimmed it down to size for effect, and voila! You have a hook. But it’s bad art and bad art usually means bad theology. Respect the form of the story, the craft of argumentation and rhetoric, and you’ll have good art. Don’t bastardize it for your platitude.

Good theology can be captured in a story, but the story has to be dominant and the metaphor cannot be stretched to unnatural places that bend the story out of shape and out of sorts.

***

I have one other problem with Preston’s post: not everyone can go to St. Andrews college and sit under N.T. Wright and devote their lives to theology. Not everyone has time or resources for exegesis, learning Greek well, or examining the pre-Nicean fathers. I have friends who do these things and I am so excited for them because it’s needed and good and sacred. And, quite frankly, I wish I was able to do all these things, too. And maybe I feel a bit helpless because my life situation doesn’t allow me to be in that season or that place, studying theology and Church history the way they deserve to be studied. And I feel like a bit of an academic beggar, craving a bit more information, a bit more depth, the crumbs from the table of our best seminaries. (Not to mention the myriad of posts I could write about how this makes me feel as a post-QF woman who grew up being told women couldn’t be pastors or argue theology well if their male headship said it wasn’t so.)

I am happy for Preston. Deeper Story and readers like me benefit from his immersion in the world of academic theology. It’s really cool for him and good for us. I hope he doesn’t stop blogging.

But he’s also the beneficiary of educational privilege. And, quite frankly, it’s not fair to expect that everyone study theology as well or as thoroughly as he is able to. Writers of your average Christian-issues-intellectually-thoughtful blog aren’t scholars. We have day jobs and commutes, children and husbands, life drama, depression, PTSD, church commitments, etc. We are the Body. We have different parts to play.

So, yes. We need to be careful to pick our genre correctly, to use integrity in our storytelling, and to take care with our theology. We need to learn our limits and not try to tell stories that aren’t ours or write essays we’re not qualified to write.

Yet, yet. It’s okay to be messy and make mistakes and accidentally write a heretical post and have to take it back later when we realize we’re wrong (one of my favorite things about the bloggers I read is that they’re not afraid to write apology posts and say they were wrong). Let’s try to be realistic about our expectations.

[But when you all start writing books and have proper editors and academic resources, all bets are off, my friends.]


Being the first of most of my friends, either from church or college, to get married has made it necessary to do my own research on birth control options, without having many married female friends to pass information onto me about their decisions and research (this is, of course, because in conservative Christian circles, it’s usually assumed that you don’t have sex before marriage, and so education about birth control is either passed on by hearsay, your mom’s [usually bad] experience with it, or WORLD magazine articles about the pro-life movement). Any information I received was either 20 years outdated, sketchy on the science, or based on Catholic “rhythm method” information about how the female fertility cycle works.

My mom’s a nurse, so I like to take medical science seriously and believe in the worth of precautionary measures and immunizations and all that stuff that’s often dismissed in super-conservative circles as bad science and propaganda from pharmaceutical companies. While I am suspicious of the FDA and pharmaceutical groups and their back room brokerage, I do believe that most of the fine print information for medications is as accurate as possible, and I have the curiosity and patience to sort through it.

So when Kevin and I got engaged, we talked a lot about our expectations for family planning and what we felt convicted about and called to (to use the common phrases). Since I came from a big family where I had been heavily involved in helping with my younger siblings, I really didn’t feel comfortable trying to have kids right away. I [rightly, so far] felt like God had a lot of things to teach me before I became a mom, and we both wanted some time to be a married couple together before starting a family. (This is a bigger issue for some people–“Is God okay with me trying to control when I become a parent? Is this an issue where I lack faith?”–than it was for us. These questions are worth prayerfully considering on your own and together as a couple. For us, we felt like we would honor God better by waiting a bit so we could be a more mature couple and give our kids stable home, financially and emotionally and spiritually.)

We didn’t want to try to use the fertility charting method, since it would be hard for me, for various reasons, to get an accurate prediction. Once we were agreed that we both liked babies, wanted some eventually but not right away, and that we are pro-life, Kevin told me that what we decided to use was up to me, saying “it’s your body, you decide. Just talk me to me about it and explain why.” Then I got real cozy with researching hormonal birth control methods and why the pro-life movement is so strongly opposed to most of them.

What I found surprised me. Most of the information I had heard growing up was based on half-science, old science, or Catholic theology (which is a different thing entirely, and I’ll get into that a bit more later). And just for the record, my mom wasn’t the source of this misinformation–she understood the science, but she and dad felt a particular call (not just the Quiverfull-that’s-what-every-godly-couple-does! groupthink) to have a large family right away. But what I found is that, if you’re protestant, there’s no reason why you can’t be staunchly pro-life and ethically use most hormonal forms of contraception. (I’m going to leave out, for the sake of time and space, discussion of why a Christian would want to control fertility and only have planned babies. The protestant position on this is usually pretty laissez-faire as long as the right-to-life of a fetus is upheld. The Catholic perspective is much more complex. For my part, I want children and am very “pro-life”–on this issue, the death penalty, and war.)

The biggest problem that I see is simply a lack of education on the subject. A lot of abstinence-only sex-ed leaves out information on what contraceptives are and how they work, because it’s assumed that if you educate kids on that, they’ll feel more comfortable having sex. This is a weak argument–if kids are horny and don’t have the self-control or moral impetus to abstain, they’ll just have sex anyway. Abstinence-affirming sex ed with information on contraceptives could potentially prevent a lot more abortions than continuing to promote abstinence-only.

In homeschool circles, sex-ed is usually absent altogether, which is an even worse issue. This causes fear and body image problems and a ton of guilt issues that just shouldn’t exist for Christians. But I digress.

So, common things I heard about birth control that aren’t true (I’m not going to cite a lot of sources, because I want to encourage you to do your own Google search and read the fine print yourself. Also because I’m lazy, and I’d prefer to keep this post to layman’s terms.):

  1. All hormonal birth control is abortifacient.
  2. If you use the pill for a certain amount of time, it’ll be harder to have a baby later or might even make you infertile.
  3. Hormonal birth control might be abortifacient, but we don’t know. However, all morning-after pills cause abortions.
  4. Birth control should only be discussed once a couple is engaged, otherwise it’ll encourage premarital sex.

[if you think of other common assertions that should be discussed, comment and let me know!]

Here’s what I learned, in response to each of those statements!

One. Most birth control isn’t hormonally strong enough to cause an abortion if taken during pregnancy, and it’s designed to work in such a way that conception can’t occur if taken properly. The pill comes in two forms: one type uses a combination of the hormones progesterone and estrogen, and this fools the body into thinking that the woman is pregnant. Although ovulation and a period still happen, the uterine lining is thickened so an egg can’t implant , and the cervix forms a mucus plug during ovulation to prevent sperm from passing through. Essentially this allows for a normal cycle (using placebo pills to initiate a period), but creates an environment where it’s essentially impossible for fertilization to occur.

The second type iprogesterone only, and this inhibits ovulation altogether and stops the usual cycle from occurring. This is the method, I believe, which caused some infertility scares in the past, but I understand that this issue has been eliminated and doctors generally agree that there are no real detriments from preventing ovulation and a period from occurring–the earlier issues was caused by the hormone dosage.

There are, obviously, some risks associated (however inconclusively–increased risk of breast or cervical cancer for those with genetic predispositions to these diseases), and some side effects (water retention, moodiness, etc.), but the side effects are usually minimal or none if you’re on a dosage and hormonal proportion that works well for your body type and preexisting issues. (For example, I was on a pill for 9 months which made me prone to anxiety attacks, and once I switched to one that had a different variant of progesterone, as well as a slightly different progesterone to estrogen ratio, the mood swings and anxiety subsided and I was more my normal self. The downside was that on the previous medication, I didn’t have any cramping, but on the new one I experience some normal cramping on the first day of my cycle. )

The primary concern I’ve come across from pro-lifers who are okay (in theory) with the pill and accept that it won’t cause an abortion if taken according to the doctor’s instructions is this: if I miss a day, the packet tells me to take two pills in a row. It also says that if I miss 3 days in a row, I need to use other forms of BC and wait for my period to start before going back on the pill. Does this mean it’s trying to overcompensate and abort an accidental conception?  I don’t think so, and here’s why: one day isn’t long enough for conception to happen–it’s just trying to keep you from experiencing “breakthrough bleeding” mid-cycle (caused by missing the hormones for a day or two). With the three-day instruction, if your body goes back to its own cycle in the fastest way possible (conception after 3 days would be highly unlikely) and you do accidentally conceive in those 3 days, the direction to stop taking the pill is to prevent birth defects if you are pregnant at that point (taking the pill then wouldn’t cause an abortion, but it might hinder proper development a bit). If you haven’t conceived and have missed 3 days of the pill, the instructions still ask you to stop taking it because your body has experienced withdrawal from the hormones and needs to “reset” by going through the normal period cycle before you can restart the medication.

Two. The pill/patch/Nuva ring (I’m going to just lump these together as “the pill” or “BC” from here on out) have been constantly improved since they first came out. Various brands have had problems and lawsuits over the side effects, and each time this happens, the company producing the drug has had to go back to the drawing board and try to improve the “recipe” to eliminate these issues, just like any other big manufacturer. They want customer loyalty. In the 70s and 80s, there were definitely issues where some forms of hormonal birth control made it harder to conceive right after discontinuing use, and some even caused infertility.

These issues have largely been eliminated now, though it depends, of course, on how fertile you were before going on the BC, how much of the hormone is in your system and how long your body will take to adjust to start cycling normally again. A lot of this is more connected to your own metabolism, cycle length, and natural hormone balances. Because hormonal BC has been improved so much since the 80s, infertility issues after using BC are going to be preexisting issues with your own body and not the fault of the pill. Check with your gynecologist to make sure you get the best hormonal option for your body–because every woman is different, different hormonal cocktails will work better with your body than with mine or anyone else’s.

This is the benefit of coming to BC right now–there’s been enough time and research put into this so that there are a lot of different dosage options and just about everything is a refined and improved version of the stuff our moms had available to them.I had irregular cycles, but no major issues like endometriosis,  and I have high metabolism and a naturally low BMI, so I needed a low-dosage option. Someone else might be better off using a higher dosage or a different proportion of progesterone and estrogen in their BC than what I use.

Three. The morning-after pill isn’t actually an abortifacient, either, even though it’s designed to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex. There are three main types of the morning-after pill and they use different hormone combinations/dosages to thicken internal mucus and delay ovulation. This creates an unwelcome environment for sperm and allows the woman’s body to hold off on releasing an egg until after the longest potential life span of sperm. The one emergency contraceptive that would be unethical for a Christian to use is the RU-486 pill, which does terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester. Personally, I think that the RU-486 is as morally wrong as abortion. But I also think that victims of incest or rape should have access to the standard morning-after pill as a matter of course.

Four. I think every adolescent should be educated about birth control. And I think that a couple should discuss their expectations and ethical beliefs long before they get engaged–these are issues where it’d be healthy for spouses to be in agreement. I appreciate Kevin’s respect in letting me decided what I’m most comfortable with, but I also really want him to be equally comfortable with the choices we make in this area.

Beyond all this, girls should be comfortable with their bodies and taught to understand how things work and why, and hormonal birth control can be a great help for a woman with endometriosis, irregular cycles, painful cramps, etc. Even if a girl isn’t sexually active and doesn’t need to get a pap smear or vaginal exam done, it’s healthy for her to go to a gynecologist to just discuss her cycle and make sure there aren’t any issues that may need investigation or treatment–things like delayed puberty or missed periods are often symptoms of an eating disorder or intense stress; severe cramps can signal endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome or a hormone imbalance, etc. These things are significant, and parental insecurity about a sex talk isn’t a good reason to avoid helping your daughter know why her body works the way it does and how to know if something is amiss.

What else am I missing here? Feel free to raise questions in the comments–but be kind to me. I’m strongly pro-life (don’t bother arguing this), I’m not a chemist or a doctor, so this is just what I’ve learned through research, and I might be wrong. Check with a real doctor if you’re unsure about something, and correct me if you have medical qualification on this subject and see a mistake I’ve made out of my inexperience.

Finally, regarding the Catholic position (and I’ll just summarize generally because I’m not a Catholic–feel free to chime in if you are!): Catholics have a very detailed theology of the body that overshadows their theology of marriage and the purpose of it. Protestants don’t consider marriage to be a sacrament, and this is the fundamental difference. Because marriage is one of the seven Catholic sacraments, procreation in marriage is a sacred duty and the ability of that union to give life has a higher sacramental value than is commonly held by protestants. Therefore, any contraception is considered to be going against God’s design for marriage. This would include, I have been told, even the use of condoms. As a result, Catholics attempting to delay pregnancy will typically use a method where the couple charts the woman’s fertility via temperature readings,  learning to understand what types of mucus are discharged during peak fertility, etc. When the woman’s 3-5 day fertile window opens up, they will abstain if they want to avoid pregnancy. This is actually a pretty safe method of preventing pregnancy (and a really useful tool if you’re trying to conceive), but you have to really pay attention to your body’s rhythms and be very accurate with the temperature readings and subsequent charting (there’s actually some good technology available to make this easier, too). It’s a lot of work, but if marriage is a sacrament for procreation in your theology, it is worthwhile and ethical.