I feel like Stuff Christian Culture Likes is the comedy version of my Immodesty Rail pieces. If you don’t know Stephanie Drury‘s work yet, check it out. Her best work may be her themed Twitter search-and-retweet moments.

So, along those lines: stuff Christian culture likes [to do]:

Demand inappropriate justification for deeply personal decisions.

Maybe this is also a Southern culture thing. But if the South is Christ-haunted, the culture there is certainly also very inbred with church culture.

For example: when a divorced Christian (or a Christian dating a divorced person) is asked by another Christian if the divorce occurred on “biblical grounds” (or a similar question). You think you’re supported by someone, you think your trauma (if you’re the divorcé[e]) or joy (if you’re dating one) is safe to share with this particular person, and then you get hit with the icy water of presumption and judgment. And in that moment between the asking and the telling, you know that your ability to be vulnerable with this person ever again is dependent upon your answer. You are on the defensive, and you have to prove to the other person that your choices are worth their respect, that your decisions are good enough for them to take you seriously–either just as a mature adult, or as a “true” Christian.

It’s kinda traumatizing, and it’s irrational. It’s the milder, more benevolent version of that same sort of thinking that leads people to ask a rape victim if s/he was asking for it.

And I don’t think Christians mean to be so hurtful and oblivious–the discourse of most American Christian culture is premised on the assumption that love looks like challenging each other to be our best selves (in some way or another), instead of loving each other as if we were our best selves. The burden of hope should be placed on the possibility of being one’s best self, not on the act of achieving that possibility. It’s basic Works vs. New Identity in Christ stuff.

When I first told people what had happened, what my ex had decided, someone close to me asked me “What’s your theology of divorce?” and I was just devastated. Compassion and care and offers of support and help should have been the first response I got from this individual, not a one-line request to justify my actions (or, really, my ex’s actions). 

Similarly, demanding to know if there were “biblical grounds” for a divorce is like asking if a rape was legitimate. You don’t do it.

The concept of “biblical grounds” itself is flawed in the same ways that the idea of “biblical manhood and womanhood” is flawed–cultural norms are interlaced with the textual directives and you cannot draw a simple, direct parallel across the ages and say that the Bible’s most direct standards for grounds for divorce are culturally appropriate today. There is definitely ethical overlap, but the framework must be contextualized for the sake of interpretational integrity.

Beyond that, the thing that most people who haven’t personally experience a divorce (and even some who have) overlook is this: it’s more common for people to take the decision to go through with a divorce much, much more seriously than they do the decision to get married. They just don’t jump into it in a rush, eyes blinded by emotion. Some do, naturally, but it’s legally much easier to get married than to get divorced, and there’s a usually whole lot less incentive to change the status quo by ending a marriage. It’s hard to untangle two lives, it’s hard to go through the legal process and emerge intact, and it’s socially much, much harder to tell your friends and family that you’re divorcing than it is to tell them you’re getting hitched.

Black and white assumptions never help anyone. Compassion is an act of the imagination, at its root, and so before you go and ask if a marriage ended on “biblical grounds” or “who was at fault?” take a moment and put yourself in their shoes, and imagine what it must be like to be in that place.

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

[for some good voices on divorce and healing, check out: Natalie Trust, Letters From Scarlet, and A Christian Girl’s Guide to Divorce]


Two weeks ago, I was walking along the water in Hallandale Beach, FL, talking with my childhood best friend, Jori. We were comparing notes on our childhoods — an uncanny thing if you’re like me and negative memories get locked up in the subconscious. Both of our families were large, creative, unruly homeschoolers, loving to read and play games and create imaginary worlds and art. We spent a lot of time in each other’s homes, as our parents would swap sets of kids for weekend getaways (you watch ours for our anniversary and we’ll do the same for yours!) and were close in that way where you stop pretending to have it all together when these people are around. My mom made them do chores at our house, and her mom had us babysit for her grocery shopping outings when we were at hers, and so forth.

We were both the oldest, and both introverts in loud groups of people living in tight quarters. Jori and I were both really good at hiding out to read in peace, and really good at “having it all together” to keep the family drama to a minimum and set good examples for the younger kids.

There was a blog, then a book, that influenced me a lot during these years. The premise was that young people could be responsible and mature if they were expected to be responsible and mature. That teenage-dom was a cultural farce to promote immaturity. That 15 year olds could be adults if they tried.

These ideas went hand-in-glove with the way my parents raised me and what our church expected of Jori and me. Godly teenagers don’t give in to hormones and emotions and set an example for their peers and take their faith and life seriously. Good children respect their parents and are responsible and mature and don’t set bad examples for their siblings.

I was always complimented by the moms of my friends and my parents’ friends for how mature and responsible and articulate I was. I did all the right things. I helped out with my family, I was the good kid. If I was upset about something, I talked about it with my parents. If I was really bad, I broke curfew by 20 minutes coming home from a babysitting job or a church function.

When I went to college, I made myself really obnoxious to my peers by being a snob about pop culture and refusing to do spontaneous, sophomoric stunts (like pull all-nighters or drink energy drinks or go to Niagara Falls for the weekend instead of writing a paper). I was painfully responsible. And painfully awkward and naive.

My friend Ashleigh posted yesterday on this, and her comments about getting married young were so similar to my own experience:

When John and I were engaged and I was approaching both my high school graduation and my wedding day, people who asked about my post-graduation plans would furrow their brows and cluck their tongues, warning against getting married “before I knew who I was.” My eyes would roll into my skull while I sweetly recited a sentence or two about growing up together, being confident in my own being, not seeing the need to wait until I reached an arbitrary milestone and suddenly knew who I was before I married this guy.

Naivety is both endearing and infuriating.

At 17 and still even at 23, I believed I was above the process, I could avoid the messy years by simply not living them, jumping ahead, becoming the older version of myself sooner rather than later.

But 25 crept up on a muddy, bruised version of me. Hair flying, face streaked with tears and sweat, grieving the security I had taken for granted, I remembered the line from that Anne Hathaway movie.

Apparently everyone is a little bit lost at 25.

I’m discovering something: there were a LOT of us who grew up this way in the conservative homeschool culture. We were the high school poster kids for successful parenting in the Christian world. We did all the right things we were supposed to do, and then we set out to be successful adults for real, only this time we were entering normal society to do it.

Life doesn’t really go the way you expect it to go. And humans are not machines you can program to walk the straight and narrow all their days by restrictions and moral instruction.

People are messy creatures, who love and feel and breathe and weep and rage. I don’t think the system accounted for us loving and grieving and asking hard questions. Growing up is hard and messy and a messy season or three will happen to you, no matter how hard you try to have it all together and do all the right things.

Jori and I were talking about the people we knew from our childhoods, about how it seems now like it’s just a waiting game to see when people from that legalistic subculture will hit their breaking point and let go and be messy. Even adult women, moms of many years with grandchildren and grey hair are bound to go through this — if they never let go and learned to be comfortable with themselves and with not knowing all the answers to deep questions.

The saddest stories, though, are those who fight it, who hide their struggles and isolate themselves to keep up the facade of idyllic Christian homeschoolerdom. It’s not worth the depression and loneliness and anxiety.

I feel like I aged backwards — like I went from age 12 to being 30-something and mature, to finally letting myself free from all these expectations and let myself be messy and explore and enjoy life, and now I’m back at an age that’s closer to my real one, loving life and learning lots and meeting people and experiencing things. Embracing the questions and the process of stretching and growing. It’s been so good for me, and all of those on the “other side” who talk to me about this backwards growing up and the freedom they’ve found have similar stories. The healing and wholeness and delight in being yourself, loving yourself where you’re at, and not performing for your church or homeschool community.

If you’re on the brink of this, if you feel yourself losing control of things, needing rest and grace and acceptance, let go? God’s love for you is not based on doing hard things or being the right person or having it all together. In fact, it’s going to be harder for you to accept God’s unconditional, boundless, intimate love for you if you can’t accept yourself where you’re at, not where you think you should be.

Breathe into the stretch. It’s okay. You’re held.


My purpose with almost everything I write here is to communicate two things: 1) you are not alone and shame is not from Jesus, and 2) it is possible to develop an authentic theology of the body and live as an embodied sexual being and experience both healthy boundaries and real grace.

These two things have never been more true than for this post.

Please be gentle with me and with each other as we discuss this.

To begin, I’d like to tell you a story.

***

I didn’t have much of a sense of shame or self-awareness when I was young. I happily shed my clothes to play in the sprinklers in the front yard, and scandalized the neighbors (I was banned from playing with several neighbor kids because going nekkid in the sprinklers at 5 years old on a hot California afternoon in July was being a “bad influence”). I finger painted in my panties in our backyard at six, proudly drawing a red H on my chest and prancing around with it to show my parents. I skinny dipped in my best friend’s backyard pool with no thought that anyone wouldn’t do such a thing if given the chance.

I chatted up strangers at the grocery store and asked impertinent questions like “when are you going to have a baby? why is your skin brown? how old are you? do you know Jesus? do you like being fat?”

My mom used to say that God had given a child like me to introvert parents “to stretch us out of our comfort zone.”

And one summer evening, when I was 7 or 8, it was one of those evenings where the light fades late in the day and small children are restless in bed because they can still hear friends playing out in the street and the blinds are still glowing with sunset light. And as I was trying so very hard to be obedient and stay in bed and be quiet and fall asleep, I discovered a secret.

A few weeks later, my mom checked in with me and discovered me touching myself and we had a talk about it. “It helps me fall asleep quickly, Mom!” I explained.

“Well, it’s not really a good habit to get into,” she said. “Try to sleep with your hands away from your private parts.”

So I complied. Or tried to.

I was hooked. It felt amazing. But I managed to refrain more often that not, and kept it from becoming a habit.

Until I was 15 and more stressed than I had ever been before, with so much constant chaos at home, little privacy, regular demands on my time to babysit and help the family, lots of pressure to keep up in school (I was falling behind due to the chaos of toddler twin brothers and another infant in the house). And I was increasingly isolated from my peers as more and more of the things they became involved with were Things Our Family Doesn’t Do (movies, NCFCA debate, ballroom dance club, teen “care group” at church, top 40 radio, pop concerts, etc.). On top of all that, I found myself no longer getting along well with my roommate sister, and the constant tension between us over how to decorate our 10′ x 10′ bedroom, when lights-out should be, who could play music when, etc., sucked us both dry emotionally.

And so, to relieve the stress and distract my affection-starved self, I became addicted to sneaking romance novels from the library and reading them behind my school books. But after a while, I became fed up with the clichés and stock characters, and replaced this with a habit of masturbating when I was stressed and overwhelmed.

Dear reader, I didn’t realize that I was doing it to relieve stress, but looking back on how incredibly tense those three years were, I see it all now: that was my primary outlet and it was because I craved  affirmation, connection, unconditional love, and I wasn’t getting it at home and I couldn’t get it elsewhere AND. and. I was 15 and newly horny as hell. I thought instead that I was horribly perverted and a vile, filthy sinner.

I have the pain-laced journal entries from those three years to prove it. Usually confessory, they read something like this (spaced out at about two of these entries per week):

1) Frustration over some conflict with family member (during which description I beat myself up for being bothered by these things at all and ask God to make me more loving, loyal, content, peaceful).

2) Grief and appalled shame that I masturbated AGAIN.

3) Thanking God for being good to me even if I’m such a horrible worm and detestable in his eyes (cue long dramatic description akin to that found in Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”).

What happened, between the mild conversation with my mother (who, to her credit, never ever told me that masturbation was a sin or that my sex drive was wrong or shameful) when I was 8 and this perpetual emotional self-flagellation for my wickedness?

A couple of things happened: first, I got caught up in a church culture where shame and self-loathing were used by authority figures to prey on the insecurities of their congregants for the purposes of social control. Second, I became displaced when we moved from California and lost a lot of my self-confidence when I was introduced to Southern social expectations and felt the pressure to conform to [what seemed to me] bizarre standards of dignity and politeness. Suddenly I was immersed in a culture where sinner, sinner, sinner was emphasized spiritually, and girls were expected to be ethereal, saintly, soft-spoken, and elevated above the physical.

Happy little dirt-and-trees-and-creeks-and-loud-laughter-and-louder-ideas me was totally lost, and I was overeager to perform well and please everyone. But I had this secret.

And so I was caught in an overpowering sense of fear, shame, and guilt. I was the messed up one, the girl who wished she could attend the men’s retreat session on lust and pornography. The girl who was afraid to date someone because what might happen if I “woke love” and my desires increased more than they are now?! I was embarrassed because I liked my body, and all my friends hated theirs and dieted and binged and cut and hid theirs under frumpy clothes. I did, too, for fear of boys looking at me, but secretly I dreamed that someone might notice me beyond my frumpy clothes and see that I could pretty and desirable if I got a chance to try being so. And they all chattered on about what the most romantic proposal might be and who’d end up having the first baby, while I wondered what it might be like to be kissed and wondered if I was the only one among us who felt this way.

The rest of the story goes like an American rags-to-riches story, where I steeled myself with the power of shame and I fought hard and worked harder at school and chores and keeping busy, and I read myself to sleep at night and eventually broke the habit. I was free.

And I swore to myself that I would never tell anyone. Not even my husband. Because it was too dark and shameful and no one could ever know that I was that sort of person. 

***

Here’s the thing, though. That wasn’t a victory.

I killed a habit. But I sold my soul to shame in order to do it.

And the problem wasn’t whether masturbating was right or wrong. The problem was that I was using it to cope with stress. I sought out the cathartic high instead of facing the real issues I was living with — loneliness, anxiety, fear, anger. It could have been any number of things — I could have discovered cutting, I could have developed an unhealthy relationship with food, or become obsessed with working out or studying. But instead I developed an imbalanced, unhealthy relationship to my sexuality.

But like any “addict,” I supplanted one addiction for another to overcome the initial habit: I replaced masturbating with emotional self-flagellation.

And I never addressed the most fundamental missing puzzle piece to this whole thing: I never bothered to pair up a grace-centered understanding of myself as BOTH a child of God and a sexual being.

Stopping the “addiction” didn’t fix what was broken.

***

I’ve been thrilled to see so many wonderful faithful saints raising their voices to challenge the shame-centered Church teachings on virginity. This is a start to healing in the church that has long been needed.

Here’s my bone to pick with the Church on this: we can’t possibly create healthy marriages and a healthy theology of the body (and ourselves as sexual beings) if we assume that men are the only ones with sex drives, the only ones tempted to seek out titillation, the only ones prone to thinking with their genitals.

I’m sorry. That’s bullshit. My vagina likes to try to make my decisions for me, too.

Men are no more rapists in their natural state than I am asexual in my natural state.

These caricatures deny us both our humanity and a chance at a decent conversation about our sexuality and bodies and God’s intent for these beautiful, mysterious, pleasurable, soul-touching things we’re capable of creating when joined together in the fullness of human connection.

Limiting the conversation to “guard your heart” and “porn is wrong” and “don’t have sex, you’ll be damaged goods” is cheating ourselves out of mature discussions about why these things work the way they do, why our bodies are important, why emotions are beautiful and powerful and dangerously good, and traps us in a black-and-white world where we can only think with childish terms of understanding and control the deeper, more mature intuitions of our emotions and bodies with the blunt tool of fear and shame.

Shame as a tool for control creates perversions and nullifies grace. It does things like: twisting developing sexual habits so that some of my peers can only get off when they feel shame or pain; preventing virgin newlyweds from having happy and safe honeymoon sex because they’re unlearning years and years of fear-based self-control; letting married women think that sex should/can only be on their husbands’ terms of use/desire (e.g., she should only be turned on by what turns him on because they’re soul mates/made for each other/designed for each other); keeping married couples from communicating about what they like/don’t like in the bedroom, because of unspoken expectations about How Sex Is Done; etc., etc.

I’ve known people who got married and couldn’t have sex without having panic attacks, throwing up/feeling nauseous, tensing up and being unable to follow through with penetration (both him and her), feeling dirty and ashamed for desiring one’s spouse, for asking for any sexual favor from one’s spouse, and the list goes on. This is directly caused by the Church (okay, fine, the evangelical church) abdicating from a nuanced, mature, intellectual discussion of a Christian understanding of sex and the body jointly. These two things should never be discussed in isolation from each other.

I am not just a soul. I am an embodied being and my body is who I am just as much as my soul is. God made me this way and called it good. And part of this existence is that he made me a woman and he gave me a healthy sex drive and my body is good and I like sex.

And sex is spiritual AND physical, intimate and natural, meaningful and a bodily function. All together. At once.

Masturbation is natural and not necessarily sinful on its own. But objectifying human beings for sexual pleasure is wrong just as it’s wrong to be addicted to anything. Both choices are compromising to the soul.

But the worst is shame. An appropriate grief for sin is right and good. But dwelling on your sin and obsessing to the point of self-loathing? Jesus never taught that.

Perfect love casts out fear. Living life with delight in Jesus and in the grace found in relationship with him sets us free from fear, from shame, from being chained to shame or lust or arrogant self-righteousness.

Instead we receive each day with the promise of wholeness through identifying ourselves with Jesus and living without fear.

Dear friends. You are not alone.

Don’t be afraid.


Here’s your week’s list of reads. Discuss in the comments if something rubs you wrong or you’re curious about why I chose to feature a piece.

Some politician named Mourdock made a statement that, out of context, was highly offensive to feminists/rape victims. Basically he believes that Babies = Gift From God, so he assumes that while Rape = Bad, Babies (from rape) = still Gift From God. But what it sounded like was that he was suggesting that rape victims be thankful they got raped, because Babies, you guys! Here’s one of many posts on this from the perspective of the offended party. I posted it on Facebook yesterday, with this commentary, and we had a lively discussion:

I am consistently bothered by WASP men who jump on the comments about rape and pregnancy (like Akin and Mourdock) with their comments about no exceptions for abortion bans, because babies! Life! Imago Dei!

Yes. Technically these men are correct. Morally, they have the high ethical ground.

But there is a hollow lack of compassion in these over-eager attempts to comment on the correct moral choice for a rape victim, and it seems to me that their privilege in our society as straight white Protestant men has blinded them to the pain and anguish of such a situation and led them into turning these women into abstractions, useful for political gesturing. This is wrong. These women are real people, loved by God.

Can we give rape victims the respect of not making them abstractions for our political discussions? It’s not sweeping the issue of life as a gift from God under the rug to respect these women and let them grieve privately. It’s not endorsing abortion to respect their experience (and your lack thereof) to hold your tongue and not paint in broad strokes how you think they should act or feel. 

Life is a gift from God. Your ethical patronizing is not.

I highlighted this wonderful, wonderful post on relationship and obedience in parenting by my mom in the comments on my last post (which, oh my. Got so much traffic. Really blown away by you all. Thank you.) and everyone should go read it.

A NY Times blog addresses the horrific agricultural situation in America, and suggests a simple fix (which may or may not be the best option, but it’s worth reading).

My good friend Eric writes an essay against legalism as part of a series he’s doing. He suggests that labeling people (he jokingly calls those who habitually do this to organize their world “Labelists”) is contrary to God’s law of love, and undermines the gospel, and promotes legalism. Loving it so far.

The Diocese of South Carolina has broken off from the Episcopal church over longstanding differences of opinion on issues of orthodoxy. Our rector used to be part of this diocese. Pray for the Church.

A beautiful, beautiful essay on the Book of Common Prayer in the New Yorker. I love this so much, as I attended several evensong services at Salisbury, and it’s still my favorite cathedral I’ve ever visited.

For those of us who have been hurt by fundamentalist Christianity, here’s a reminder from Peter Enns on why we need to still love these brothers and sisters in Christ.

A funny way to teach yourself to detect the passive voice in your writing.

Random House and Putnam Penguin are considering a merger. This would be horrific for the book selling industry, and is largely the natural reaction to Amazon and da gubbamit. Support your local independent booksellers, kids!

There is a style guide for web typography. I’m in love.

I spell my name with an umlaut (keyboard shortcut alt+0228, fyi) and so of course I loved this little essay on umlauts and Volapük.

My 6,128 Favorite Books: an essay on reading in the WSJ. Lovely. Those who know, know. And if you know, you will love this piece.

fascinating article on memes in political journalism and what they do to the political discourse.

The State of the Short Story, by the editor of The Paris Review, Lorin Stein. I’m a sucker for short stories. Stein explores how we read and why we read short stories.

Happy Friday! I’ll have another post for you tomorrow, as part of the series on food