When I posted about Dannah Gresh’s concerning (and poorly composed) chapel sermon at Grove City College on Tuesday, I figured I wouldn’t get much response.

I guess I assumed that most Christian leaders are like those I grew up with — ensconced in their own success and emotionally unmovable when criticized rightly. Pastors and teachers I encountered along my path were usually those who would listen gravely to what you had to say, and then effectively smile and pat you on the head with some platitude or smooth response, and never really hear your hurt or perspective. There was no empathy or genuine concern about how they affected people. Usually, what got their attention was the threat of bad PR, not a hurting individual.

Since then, I’ve learned that there are good pastors. The pastor who cared for me during my last two years of college, the pastor who’s been praying for me as I work through hard personal things right now, the professors at Grove City who have a ministerial relationship with the students under their watch. These individuals (with their relatively small spheres of influence) have given me a lot of hope, personally.

But when it came to those with big public ministries, I retained my cynicism. From where I sit, I have observed that fame does things to people. It looks like it’s easy to be wrapped up in the numbers and the tour and the new topic or book and forget that there are real people receiving and engaging with your message. That people are sometimes basing their whole spiritual life on your ideas and what you say deeply impacts the decisions they make and the way they live. I think it’s for this reason that James reminded his audience that teachers will be judged more strictly.

So. When I posted yesterday, I didn’t know what to expect, but I certaintly didn’t expect Dannah Gresh to personally respond. And I never expected her to respond with gentleness and apology, with an attitude of “please let me make this right.” But I thought I’d at least make sure she was aware we were talking about her message, and I posed this on her Facebook fan page:

FB dannah gresh

I didn’t think she’d respond. I sort of half-assumed she’d even delete the post. But she didn’t delete it and she did respond to me.

And, oh my. This gives me hope for the Church in new ways. Here’s her comment (she posted the same comment on Shaney’s piece, though not on Dianna’s):

dannah gresh comment

Not long after the comment went up, I received an email from her with an invitation to talk over the phone and continue the conversation. We’ve corresponded briefly, and she’s for real. This isn’t a stop-the-bad-blogs-from-talking-about-me move. This is a real, heartfelt desire to avoid the rape culture elements of the Christian purity movement and a sincere attempt at engaging us here.

I’m excited to see where this goes. She still hasn’t addressed Dianna’s concerns about her use of the word Hebrew word “ahava” (which, to be fair, I’m not educated enough to seriously address the nuances of the translation) and the rape of Dinah, but I’m hopeful that she will.

The purity movement is so well-intended, but it’s strayed into legalism and modesty checklists and straw man caricatures of feminism and blaming the victim. This is not okay. But perhaps there’s some hope for addressing these issues, after all?

***

A further clarification for those who felt like her story was certainly hyperbole (which it did turn out to be) and that those criticizing her sermon were “nitpicking” — words mean things. You can’t excuse someone’s careless words on assuming the best about their intent when they have such a big public presence. If she said it in a public forum, it’s up for public discussion, and it’s her job to communicate clearly to avoid sending the wrong message about abuse.

I know we’re all Christians and it’s a good impulse to try to be nice about things, but that’s not appropriate in situations like these, where she was speaking to (guessimating based on my years attending GCC chapels) an audience of 500-700 students and is regularly publishing mainstream Christian books and leads a multi-level ministry to young people of various ages and helps run a blog about  these topics. Statistically speaking, there are those who were in her audience on Tuesday morning who are currently in abusive relationships or have experienced abuse, and without her clarification, the message they heard was “don’t be needy,” “don’t fall in love,” and “being thrown against a wall is okay if your partner really loves you.”

This is why her clarification and engagement with our concerns is so, so important and encouraging.

Thank you, Dannah. Let’s keep talking.


Harbison Chapel, Grove City College

<< Please see the update on this situation here. >>

 While I may have some mixed feelings about elements of the institution that is my alma mater, I admit, I am quite fond of Grove City College. It’s a good place with good people. I am grateful for everyone there who invested in me and for the time I had in that community.

But as an alumna, I have to say something when this Tuesday’s chapel speaker told a story about intimate partner violence and called it an example of agape love with no qualifications.

That is wrong.

Here’s the quote, transcribed from the audio file (click to listen!) by Dianna Anderson. The sermon (message? talk?) was only about 20 minutes long, but Dannah Gresh packed a lot into that time. This is the part that concerns me the most:

In the New Testament, there’s a more familiar word that you’re probably [pause] aware of…the word ‘agape.’ The Love of God or Christ for humankind, unselfish love of one person for another, without sexual implication. Brotherly love. A love feast.

There’s a lot of sisters in the room right now looking for some brotherly love. They just don’t know that’s what they need.

….

[Quotes Ephesians 5:25, claims agape is the type of love a husband extends to his wife, says that if men are not willing to “step up,” they are not ready for love]

“And here’s the thing, as I was looking over my dating years with my husband, as we were college students. I remember one very distinct time. I was thinking ‘when were the times that he expressed agape love to me?’ I could think of a lot of really neat ones, but I thought of one that was probably harder for him than all the rest.

You see, we had recently gotten engaged and I was living in an apartment and going to summer school so I could finish up a little early – not that I was in a hurry to get married or anything. And he came to see me. And we hadn’t seen each other for months and we missed each other very much. And it probably took one fifth of a second when he was inside of that apartment for us to realize we were really in love. And we found ourselves horizontal on the sofa. And it really wasn’t okay. You get the picture.

But it lasted about a second and before I knew it, my fiancé picked me up off the sofa, threw me against the wall, and ran outside of my apartment.

[awkward laughter]

Yes, I felt horribly rejected.

[more laughter]

But I brushed myself off and I walked outside and I said “What was that?”

And he said, opening the car door, “Get in, we need a chaperone. I can’t be alone with you. We’re going to Professor Haffy’s house.”

[more laughter]

And we spent the weekend in one of our professor’s homes.

That’s agape.

So, I know what she meant. She meant that if you’re crossing moral lines with your significant other, it’s self-sacrificially loving (agape) to help uphold standards or take the high road and stop whatever questionable activity (which may cause sin or be sin…it’s not clear) for the sake of everyone involved. This is generally common sense, though her assumptions about what is and isn’t right here are questionable and, worse, vague.

But what she essentially said is this: premarital sex or lust is worse than intimate partner violence. Or in other words: it’s okay to abuse your girlfriend if it’s going to keep you from having sex with her before getting married.

She could have chosen to qualify this story, to comment, “now, throwing me against a wall was WRONG and he would never do that now,” or something similarly clarifying. But she did not do that. 

And by having Dannah up there in the College-endorsed Harbison Chapel pulpit on a Tuesday morning when students are given chapel credit for listening to this talk, Grove City College is complicit in this endorsement until they state otherwise.

I tweeted at the College’s Twitter account yesterday and was retweeted by others about this, and the feed manager has yet to respond. I assume that they’re busy or someone’s on vacation, because this should not be a difficult question. The College should be able to quickly and easily respond to this, as should anyone else who heard the talk.

Throwing your fiancée up against a wall is abusive and wrong and never okay for anyone, Christian or non-Christian.

I have a host of other problems with this talk — how Gresh is illiterate about what “feminism” and “chauvinism” mean, how her bad use of Hebrew, Greek, and her proof-texting make her a living straw man argument against having women teaching in the church. How her invalidation of emotions for women (and her silence on men with emotions of their own) was appalling and insensitive (and next door to gaslighting). How she mistakenly argued that Dinah’s rape was an example of love. How silly the ending illustration was.

But these are just symptoms of ignorance.

Stating that intimate partner violence is “agape” love is inexcusable.  It’s dangerous and wrong. This is the stuff that has the potential to damage lives forever. 

Grove City College, I’m calling you out. You’re better than this. Make this right.

——–
Check out this post by Shaney in response to Dannah’s talk. A post by Dianna on this is also forthcoming here.