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]


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.]


And we’re baaaack. Commonplace links went away when I stopped reading blogs for a month or so.

This week there’s been a fantastic rash of posts on virginity and Christian culture, and I’m really excited that this is being discussed.

I have been hesitant to say so, but I have become increasingly convinced that the concept of virginity is a concept created for male power/social control and not a medical or spiritual reality (and for those suffering from homeschool sex-ed or abstinence-only sex-ed and don’t know what I mean by this, go watch Laci Green explain). I have also discovered that the Bible really isn’t clear on the question: is consensual premarital sex between two consenting, adult, and committed individuals sinful? Instead it seems to suggest that sexuality is wonderful and powerful and deeply intimate (and therefore either so very good or so very damaging), and that God’s best plan is for sex to be a safe place for mutual benefit and love and pleasure and possibly procreation. Marriage is logically the place where this can best happen, but there’s no indication that it’s the only place it can happen. 

[That is what I think. We can disagree.]

So, here’s the best posts on virginity that I’ve read this week. Go read and ponder and soak up the grace.

Virginity: New & Improved — Elizabeth Esther

Whenever we seek to improve upon virtue, we are actually creating an idol. Furthermore, by elevating virginity to the ethereal realms of unicorns and angels, we place an unfair burden upon the shoulders of real, human beings.

And that’s what concerns me the most. The New & Improved Virginity places a heavy weight of shame upon women—even those whoare virgins.

I was a virgin and I didn’t feel “pure enough”  because I’d kissed a couple boys before my husband. I was a virgin and I felt horribly defiled because I’d discovered this crazy, secret thing called masturbating. I was a virgin and I was disappointed to realize that my ‘sacrifice’ didn’t automatically result in a happily ever after marriage.

I was a virgin and I felt superior to “damaged” women. The purity culture showed no compassion for me so I had no compassion for myself or women who had “chosen” to “give away” their virtue.

I am damaged goods — Sarah Bessey at Deeper Story

And so here, now, I’ll stand up and say it, the way I wish someone had said it to me fifteen years ago when I was sitting in that packed auditorium with my heart racing, wrists aching, eyes stinging, drowning and silenced by the imposition of shame masquerading as ashes of repentance:

“So, you had sex before you were married.

It’s okay.

Really. It’s okay.

There is no shame in Christ’s love. Let him without sin cast the first stone. You are more than your virginity – or lack thereof – and more than your sexual past.

Your marriage is not doomed because you said yes to the boys you loved as a young woman. Your husband won’t hold it against you, he’s not that weak and ego-driven, choose a man marked by grace.

And the coup de grace, delivered by Emily Maynard at Prodigal — The day I turned in my v-card

I’m done blanketing all sexual experience outside of marriage as sin and never acknowledging that abuse can happen within a marriage. I’m done with Christians enforcing oppression in the name of purity.

I am not a virgin or a non-virgin.

I am a human. I am Emily.


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.