Skip to content

Sex, Shame, and Rape Culture

2014 May 29

Since Elliot Rodger went on his rampage this past weekend after writing a manifesto detailing how since a “pretty blonde girl” in middle school bullied and mocked him (wouldn’t go out with him) he hates women and sought violent revenge on them, the media has been abuzz with commentary about the rampant misogyny in our culture. Story after story of women who have been sexually violated by men in one way or another flooded the internet reminding the world that women have ample cause to fear men because so many men see women simply as bodies they can use for their own pleasure. Rape culture is alive and well and this most recent (deadly) temper-tantrum of this boy who didn’t get to play with all the toys he thought he was entitled to is just one more scene in that ongoing narrative.

I’m appreciative that the pervasive misogyny of our culture is being called out. Women are speaking out that their bodies are their own and that is a good thing. But as I’ve watched this story unfold, I can’t help but think that what is being addressed here are symptoms not causes. We can raise our voices, perhaps get better laws protecting women from assault, but all of that simply scratches the surface. There is an entire cultural narrative at work here shoring up the systemic violence against women and until we change the very way we think about things, little will actually change.

So basically we need to be talking about sex.

How we conceive of sex is broken and results in acts of violence. Sometimes that violence is physical, but much more frequently it simply appears in the form of violating the humanity of a person by turning them into a commodity. And I’m not talking about casual visual objectification or even using porn here. That’s a scapegoat. The root of this is much deeper and pervasive in our culture.

Arthur Cho’s brilliant response to the shooting pointed out the failings of this mentality. When guys think that by being strong, rich, or powerful or even by being the sweet supportive friend they are doing things to earn or win the right to sex with a woman they are promoting the idea that women (and sex) are commodities. Seeing that pattern it becomes easy to call out the guy who calls girls bullies and bitches because they won’t have sex with him. He thinks he is entitled to sex and gets pissed off when his actions don’t earn him what he wants. Women don’t want to feel like a conquest or a whore to be bought, but having already been cast as such a commodity in the eyes of the guy, that he then resorts to whatever means necessary to get what he thinks he deserves is not all that surprising.

That aspect of rape culture is easy to spot. But we rarely go further and see that the idea of women (and sex) as commodities is pervasive in our culture. For most of Western history, women were blatantly stated to be the property of a man. They belonged to their father who then arranged a deal to transfer that ownership to her husband in exchange for power, influence, or simply hard cash. Women and their sexuality were therefore something to be guarded and used as bargaining chips in this economic exchange of goods. Fathers and husbands owned the woman, and so treated her sexuality especially as an investment to be preserved until it was possessed by her new owner. In the Western world today, this exchange is perhaps not so overtly economic, but nevertheless remains in different guises. Relationships are still arranged through State controlled legal contracts or else they are seen as incomplete or even sinful. The father often still gives the man permission to marry (or date) his daughter and then gives her away to him in front of witnesses as the contract is signed. Girls are taught to preserve their virginity above all else as their most precious commodity to be preserved for “the one.” Some girls are even encouraged to pledge their virginity to their fathers until the time when it can be transferred to their husband. It is a romanticized version of the historical buying and selling of a woman’s sexuality, but it is a commodity exchange nonetheless.

At the core of this commodification of sex, is the notion that sex itself is a necessary evil which therefore must be regulated and highly controlled. That such an idea pervades Western culture is not that surprising given our roots in Greek Platonic thought that bifurcated the mind and body disparaging the base natural functions of the flesh. That the early Christians threw out Jewish notions of holistic selves and bought fully into the Greek view ensured that sex be cast as evil and therefore have such strange economic regulations applied to it. It was begrudgingly admitted that men might have sexual needs that should be met (erections can be difficult to hide…), so women were bought and sold to meet that need, but it was still cast as a source of shame.

The problem here is that we can rail against the objectification or commoditization of women in rape culture all we want, but what is really at issue here are our cultural attitudes toward the body and sex that created (and preserve) the system in the first place. What if instead of letting our fear of those who see sex as an entitlement cause us to continue to cast sex as a corrupting force of evil that we must transcend, we (like Maslow) embrace our bodies and admit that sex is a basic physiological human need. It is a need all people (yes, even women) have that is not shameful and that we should not be embarrassed to desire to have met. Not that anyone is responsible to meet that need for us, nor that we are entitled to use others for our needs, but that we simply start to admit that our sexuality is an integral part of ourselves.

This is a far cry from the culture of shame that held well into the 20th century that women were not even capable of having orgasms and that at times insisted that a woman be sent to prison for witchcraft or to a hospital to be treated for hysteria if she showed signs of sexual arousal. If women are mere objects of economic exchange that men win or earn to meet the man’s needs, of course any sign of pleasure on the woman’s part is dangerous. Far better to teach her to be ashamed of her sexuality, to preserve her virginity at all costs, and to limit her physical activities to only the man with the right to own her (and slut-shame her if she dares to meet her own needs as she will). Keep yourself pure, preserve and conserve, conceal don’t feel, are the mantras thrown at women to keep them in their place. Let them get riled up about people finding pleasure in the human form and rage about how that objectifies women as long as they remain blind to the fact that their very lives (and especially their attitude of disgust toward the erotic) are the result of their complete and total objectification and commodification.

Thing is, it’s a lot more complicated to let people embrace their bodies and their sexuality. Instead of being a source of shame that turns sex into an economic exchange where there are winners and losers leading to attitudes of entitlement and resentment, people come to know their personal needs, desires, and boundaries. Sex can be celebrated and given not only for one’s own pleasure but as a gift to another. No one has a right to anyone else, but no one can also force someone to shut down or hide their sexuality so that they can horde that commodity for themselves. Each person having his or her own boundaries and expression of sexuality is of course far more complicated than one-size fits all shame-based regulations, but it is also far healthier than the rape culture of objectification that we currently have.

The question is, how much do we really want to change the way things are? Is eliminating rape culture worth rethinking the entire culture of shame our society is built upon? Or is tweaking the status quo and feeling like we have done something good enough? Change takes time and effort and is resisted at every turn. And as we have seen so often in this country, such equal distributions of wealth, agency and power challenge the hegemony of the rich and the powerful who want to keep it all for themselves and so they call equality evil and parade out various harmless scapegoats to be attacked instead. Will we let that happen yet again in this country? With our very bodies? Or will we stage the cultural revolution necessary to put an end to rape culture?

Never Pray Again

2014 May 14
by Julie Clawson

This post is part of a blog tour for the book Never Pray Again by Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson. I received a copy of the book as a participant in this blog tour.

Prayer can hurt. All too often it serves as the easy way to meet one’s spiritual quota for the day. Pray before meals thanking God for the food while ignoring the plight of the impoverished workers who labored unseen to bring you the food, send up prayers for stuff you need much like you would wish upon a star, pray that the people/sinners you don’t like will become more like you and check, you’ve done your duty for the day. This is called being close to God. This is the extent of many Christians’ daily spiritual practices. While it may seem benign this sort of praying can often do more harm than good.

As Never Pray Again delves into, prayer often misses the point of what it means to be a Christian. Instead of following the way of Jesus and living into one’s faith, prayer is used as means to look spiritual but not actually do anything. But prayer is not a substitute for action – for actually living out one’s faith. We can hurt ourselves by restricting ourselves from fully embracing our faith when we merely rely on perfunctory prayers, but we also fail to do God’s work in the world. We are God’s hands and feet in this world, it does no good to ask God to fix something in this world unless we are willing to function as such. We let hurt and suffering in this world thrive when all we do is pray. Faith is about going and doing, not simply making a wish and feeling like we’ve been let off the hook.

It is in the chapter titled “Heal!” that the book explores some of the ways prayer can be the most harmful. It is common in churches to pray for the healing of people – from people with cancer, to those with mobility issues, to even those with mental illnesses. And while it may sound extreme the prayers to ‘pray the gay away,’ or that a man or women would live into their God-ordained gender roles, or even that calamity might befall a person in order to stop them from the ‘sinful path’ they might be on are far more common than we would like to believe. I personally have been told by people that they would pray for me because of my belief that women could be pastors. That I shouldn’t take medicine to help with my anxiety issues but that I just needed to cast my cares on God in prayer and I would be just fine. I even grew up being told in church that if I just prayed enough God would heal my arm (I was born missing my left arm below the elbow). And conference after conference I attend think they are being inclusive of disability when they invite people who work with the disabled (and not the actual disabled) to speak about how they serve (seek to heal) those who are different.

The problem with these sorts of prayers and perspectives, as the chapter points out, is that they assume there is some default way of being in this world and that if you don’t measure up to the default you are deficient in some way and so therefore must be healed to be made whole. People who diverge from the default mold are broken and must be fixed. From gays and lesbians, to independent women, to the obese, to the disabled, to the mentally ill – these are signs of not abiding by a culture norm and so must be things people need healing from. These people are lesser than the default model and so must be changed in order to become whole according to whatever the culture currently happens to be defining that as.

Yes, there are some illnesses that people want to heal from so their suffering ends. Others find that using a wheelchair or prosthetic limb or taking an antidepressant helps them function with more ease in the world. There are steps of healing that are necessary and good and that help people become their full selves. But therein lies the distinction. They do not need healing so that they can be more like the default norm, they seek healing and aid because they want to be fully themselves. There is brokenness all around us and in us that prevents us from being whole or loving others into wholeness. But often it is the very implication that one must be healed (become more like the default norm) that causes the most hurt and pain. When families are kicked out of churches because the church can’t deal with their kid with autism, or a person in a wheelchair is effectively shunned because no one is comfortable interacting with a person they know will never be ‘whole’ like them, or someone prays that you would be healed of something that you consider an integral part of your identity, it is hard not to come to believe that one can never be whole and accepted as they are. They accept their place as broken and inferior and come to despise their very selves for being something other than the culture’s default norm. This is not healing; this is the creation of brokenness.

So as the chapter explores, our perspective of what healing means needs to shift. To heal is not to become like the cultural norm, it is to embrace all people for who they are and to communally help us all to live into wholeness. Being with, truly with, someone in a way that shows you love them for who they are is far more difficult than condescendingly sending up a prayer that people not like you need to be healed, but it is the only way to live into both your and their wholeness.

Transfiguring the Everyday

2014 March 3

This is the text of the sermon I preached at Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio, TX for Transfiguration Sunday March 2, 2014

Matthew 17

Do you ever wonder why so many tales end with a “happily ever after.” The adventure is over, the battle has been won, true love has been found, so therefore there is no more story to tell. The climax is reached, the excitement is past, and the reader must be left with the contentment that all is well. We don’t need to know about the day to day life of the Prince and Princess after they wed, the PTSD of that soldier who can never quite get over the war – all the storyteller wants us to know is that a grand and beautiful thing happened and everyone lived happily ever after.

If you’re anywhere near as big of a geek as I am, you might know that Tolkien originally had an additional epilogue to his Lord of the Rings trilogy. It takes place years after the events in the stories – long after the ring is destroyed and the true king returns to the land. It is of Sam sitting at home with his wife and children telling the story of his adventures, and one of his daughters laments how sad it is to hear the tales because real life is nothing like the stories her father tells. The day to day reality of life, so easily summed up as “and they lived happily ever after,” isn’t all that exciting. There are chores to do, meals to cook, work to go to. One doesn’t feel like one is living an epic adventure in the mundanity of the everyday.

transfiguration-iconI’ve always seen the Transfiguration narrative as one of those moments of epic adventure. Peter, James, and John got to see Jesus revealed in all his glory. As Peter later described it they got to be witnesses to the majesty, to hear the voice directly from heaven, and were moved in that moment to be as lamps shining in dark places. They literally had a mountaintop faith experience that could not help but make them want to respond with offers of service.

It is an experience familiar to many of us. We’ve had those moments when we have been on the spiritual mountaintop in one fashion or another. Perhaps the encounter with the full majesty of Jesus is what brought us to faith or renewed our faith. Perhaps reading a book or listening to a speaker awoke in us that desire to shine as lamps in the world of darkness, working to right the evils and injustices in the world. But as many of us also know, those mountaintop experiences don’t last. We only get a brief moment with the transfigured majesty of Jesus and then we are returned to the everyday.

And of course we have to figure out what to do in the aftermath.

It’s fascinating to look at how the disciples tried to cope with something as overwhelming as an encounter with the transfigured Jesus.

Their first suggestion – build tents to house the majesty of Jesus in. Perhaps it was to honor the greatness of the one transfigured, but whatever the rationale, their first impulse was to contain that glory.

They were human. There was a mountaintop moment and they wanted to build a structure to preserve it in. They didn’t want to forget the moment in the mundane everyday, they wanted to keep it close. It was such a significant moment that they needed to impose some order on it to preserve it and keep the experience going.

Is this not how we so often treat our religious experiences? We have dramatic encounters with God, we are moved to care for the least of these, and often our first impulse is to create a structure to contain it. We construct churches and denominations, we develop rituals, we start committees, we plan missions. Not that any of these things are bad things, but sometimes we end up missing the real point because of them. What matters is the encounter – of having our lives transformed by the majesty of God. When we try to preserve that encounter by creating structures around it, our gaze often gets obscured by those very structures. The containers for the encounter become what is most important to us, sometimes even to the extent that we forget the transformative experience itself.

It is like that popular Zen story of the ritual cat which I’m sure many of you have heard. The story goes that once when a spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher would write scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice. What mattered was the meditation and yet it was the ritual that over time became the center of the focus.

Thankfully, Jesus tried to sway his disciples away from such habits on the mountainside. No tents were put up and they were encouraged to focus on that moment of worship instead. At the same time Jesus also knew the danger of the other typical way they could respond to the experience. He had to warn them not to tell about the encounter, for while it was astoundingly meaningful to them in that moment, the telling of it would not have quite the same impact on others. In fact he tells them that many have had the opportunity for such encounters, they saw Elijah, they saw John the Baptist, and it didn’t drastically change their lives. They simply continued to do as they pleased. Maybe they had listened to John speak or had even been baptized, and yet that mountaintop experience was not enough to alter their day to day life.

Jesus knew that the tale could not simply end “and having experienced John’s baptism, he lived happily ever after” or even “having seen Jesus transfigured on the mountainside, his disciples served him faithfully and unwaveringly for the rest of their lives.” Because it simply was not true. We know that not much later Peter denies even knowing Jesus, his disciples can’t stay awake to keep him company in Gethsemane, and almost all of them desert him when he hangs on the cross. This one moment of glory did not change everything. The day to day discipleship proved much more difficult.

On one hand I find this discouraging. If seeing Jesus transfigured before them wasn’t enough to move his own disciples beyond the dangerous tendencies to contain that glory or to lose hope in the everyday, what does that mean for us as we attempt to be faithful disciples some two thousand years later? Oh, we might have our mountain top moments, but nothing compared to encountering Jesus transfigured into glory. How are we as regular people with ordinary everyday lives even to dream of living as hope-filled disciples without falling into the dangers of missing the point behind the known safety of structure and ritual or of simply getting caught up in the everyday mundanity of life? How can we live out that call to daily love God and love others, seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God when even the disciples seemed to have difficulty doing so?

I wouldn’t dare presume to have the answer to that question. But I do want to share a story that gives me some hope.

For those of you who have explored the infrequently read and seemingly daunting Minor Prophets section of the Bible, you may already be familiar with the story of Amos.

A poor herdsman from Judah, Amos was part of a population that was subservient to Israel at the time of the divided kingdom. Judah in that position therefore bore the brunt of the expenses of Israel, with the poor and needy of the land frequently being used and abused to cover the expenditures of those in power. Through the manipulation of debt and credit, the wealthy had amassed more and more of the land at the expense of poor landowners. Some scholars believe that the only thing that would have even brought a poor shepherd like Amos to the big city of Jerusalem was the requirement that he pay tribute to those that controlled his lands at an official festival. It is what happened when he journey to Jerusalem that changed him though. If this was a contemporary event, the click-bait headline would be “Poor herdsman travels to Jerusalem, you’ll never believe what he does next!” For what this struggling working class man saw in Jerusalem was a population that not only lived in extravagance, but one that had stopped asking questions about if they were living in the ways of the Lord. In fact they not only had stopped asking questions about whether their lifestyles based on the oppression of the poor reflected God’s desires, they had been told by the powers that be that it was not proper (or permitted) to ask questions that challenged the ways of Israel.

Seeing this abandonment of the faith in the guise of apathy moved Amos, who was not a religious professional, to speak the word of the Lord to Israel. Although the governing religious hierarchy told him to not prophecy against the ways of Israel, Amos knew he could not remain silent about the injustices he saw. He saw the people going through the rituals of religion as normal while the poor were exploited on their behalf. So this ordinary man took up the mantle of prophet – one who calls people to live into God’s ways. The message he delivered on the streets of Jerusalem was that God hates their worship gatherings and the noise of their praise songs because they have given up on caring about what it actually means to be God’s people. Amos told them – Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches,… who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!”

Israel was enjoying the prosperity injustice and oppression of the poor gave them and therefore had accepted the injunction against questioning the practices of the government and economic system (because why would they question something that let them live a comfortable life?). Amos, this ordinary guy from the countryside, called them to instead to stop exploiting the poor and let justice roll across the land. He begged them to ask the hard questions of themselves and of their rulers – to be disciples despite the cost to their day to day lives. But, of course, questioning the status quo is dangerous. Jerusalem had no interest in hearing the word of the Lord that challenged their economic prosperity. The powers that be moved to silence his prophecy and evicted Amos from Jerusalem. And yet the witness of this man who was moved by the day to day reality of the world to be a better disciple and to call others to do the same stands as scripture in our Bibles.

So while at first it may seem that the story of a guy who has his own book in the Bible might not seem like the best encouragement for us everyday people, I find it to be quite inspiring. Why? Because for Amos, the everyday reality of the world was transfigured in a way that led him to acts of worship much in the same way the disciples who saw the transfigured Jesus were moved. Amos saw the suffering of those around him, the injustice of those who lived comfortably at the expense of others, and the silence of the religious community on such matters and his world was changed. This was his everyday world and it moved him to serve as a prophet of God – calling God’s people to actually live in the ways of righteousness and justice that God demands of them.

And just like Amos – this is our everyday world. Our world is filled with injustice. Women trafficked into sex slavery. Workers repeatedly cheated of wages in sweatshops so that our clothes and electronics can be cheap. People who are hungry. People without access to clean water or affordable medical care. If we open our eyes we can see the same injustices in our world that Amos did in his – and if we choose to look in the right way, such can be our daily mountaintop experience calling us to lives of discipleship – not to lose hope or try to contain it in meaningless structures somehow, but to lives as prophets of God turning the world to God’s ways.

jesus benchFor you see, Jesus is transfigured every day at every moment in the world around us. We are reminded in Matthew 25 that whatever we do for the least of those amongst us, we do for Jesus. Jesus is transfigured every day in the guise of the hungry, the poor, the immigrant, the oppressed worker, the homeless, and the sick. We might not have access to one great dazzling mountaintop moment where we encounter the transfigured Jesus, but if we have the eyes to see, we encounter the transfigured Jesus every moment of every day. When we eat food grown by slaves or buy clothes made by oppressed worker we encounter Jesus. When we deny medical care to those who need it or stay silent as aid for the hungry is slashed in our country, we are doing those things to Jesus.

C.S. Lewis referred to this transfiguration of the everyday as being burdened with the weight of the glory of others. If we had the eyes to see we would be overwhelmed he wrote to see that the world is populated with those whom we might refer to as gods and goddesses if we were to see the full glory of God that is in them. To carry the burden of upholding the image of God in our neighbor, to see in them the transfigured Jesus, is our daily task of discipleship. It is not as simple and no where near as easy as ‘happily ever after.’ It truly is a burden to deal with the glory of the everyday but it is far more hopeful.

So when we lament that the thrill of mountaintop experiences may pass or when we get lost in the rituals and structures we build to try and preserve our moments of encounter with Jesus, we would do well to think like Amos instead and see the glory in the every day. To bear that weight of glory by doing to the least of these as we would for Jesus. To transfigure the everyday and become better disciples for it.

Communion and the Church

2014 January 30

In my last blog post, “Giving Up or Growing Up?” I wrote “I love the idea of the church. A group of people who in gathering around a shared meal of bread and wine commit to being one body—one family devoted to the disciplines of love and forgiveness and the commitment to make the ways of the realm of God present on earth as in heaven. I will always be part of that community” even as I declared that I am done with participating in religious structures that harm others. Interestingly, a common response I received to that post was “So, you’re giving up going to church?”

I get that in our culture the term “church” refers to a place or at best an event. I get that trying to hold fast to the idea that the term ecclesia refers to the people – gathered or called together for a purpose (mattering not if they are physically together in any particular place at any given time) – can be a losing battle these days. But this is one of those things I have to hold fast to. We do not go to, get together for, or do church, we are the church.

That matters.

Oh, it is trendy to talk about being the church, but such discussions quickly dissolve into how we do church. There must be rules and schedules and planned activities and (most importantly) codes of hierarchies and etiquette that must be observed. It’s like being roommates with Sheldon Cooper. It’s not about community, but about staying within the bounds of predetermined appropriate patterns of behavior.

With such responses to my post fresh in my mind, I then read (and got really annoyed by) Preston Yancey’s post “When if the Eucharist is just a symbol, to hell with it.” It hit me that we do to church what we have done to the Eucharist. The historical shift in Christianity from the Body of Christ being the people for whom the bread and the wine were a blessing, to the Body becoming the actual elements removed agency and identity from the people. Adding pseudo-magical ideas like transubstantiation and consubstantiation to theologically back-up that shift (yes, I know I just pissed off most of Christendom…) further distanced people from an identify as being the church to those who do church. Now there can be people arguing that if the elements of the Eucharist are just a symbol of who we are and not something mystical in and of itself, then to hell with it.

We have obviously lost ourselves along the way.

But the critique and the confusion got me thinking. If we are the church that lives in community and choose to demonstrate that we are part of this family together by breaking bread and sharing wine together, then maybe we need a third way between mystical elements and mere symbol to think about that act. Something that moves beyond the lists of rules that set strict boundaries for who we permit to share our bread but which also helps us be and not just do church.

(And this is where I let my nerd show.)

Linguists talk about the power of certain forms of language to perform in their utterance that which they mean. Referred to as speech acts, the idea is that by saying something, we do something, as when in saying “I promise” I actually am making a promise or when a minister joins two people in marriage saying, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” We have mystically applied this idea to Eucharist (by saying the elements are blessed they become so), but what if Communion (and yes I used this term deliberately) was seen as being like an actual speech act. In breaking bread and drinking wine together (in whatever form that actually takes) we are performing the act of being a community, a family, the Body of Christ. It isn’t the symbolism of or the rules around the ritual, but the fact that bread and wine are shared that matters.

Communion is more than a symbol because eating with each other is a vital part of life. And it is not something mystically transformed and delivered by only the one invested with the power to say the right incantation over it. It is far more powerful and active than that. We are a community when we commune with each other and since we are human, that is almost always around food. In the church I used to serve, we called this being foodal (a riff on missional). We did life together over food. We were the church when we were being a community around a table. Over the years, I’ve affirmed my identity as part of the body of Christ by sharing Doritos and Mountain Dew with teens in a youth group. I’ve affirmed this identity by raiding a diaper bag and sharing juice boxes and animal crackers. I’ve affirmed this identity at potlucks, in taking meals to families with newborns, and having dinner with friends. I remember the ways of Christ through such communion, but live it directly in simply being in community. And yes, sadly, I’ve had people refuse to commune with me because the bread wasn’t of the correct type, because the food didn’t pass through the hands of an ordained priest, and because I lacked a penis and therefore could not offer them the food of our shared table. But more often than not I’ve broken bread and shared the cup in joyous ways with my brothers and sisters.

I am not giving up on being the church. I will continue to break bread and share wine as an act of community with those who have chosen to follow in the way of Jesus and live out the dreams of God on earth (or who simply want to join in the community of those who do). For in eating that bread and drinking that wine with whoever so desires to share the table I live into my identity as part of the body of Christ – I am the church.

Giving Up or Growing Up?: Some Thoughts on Church

2014 January 21

Some might call it resignation or failure; I prefer to see it as maturity.

In a recent conversation with a seminary friend, we both expressed how tired we were with churches that continue to give lip service to being welcoming and inclusive of the gifts of all, but which in reality never seem to actually do anything. The conversation was specifically about women in ministry. Both of us have spent years in Christian circles that are still uneasy accepting women as equal participants in the work of the church. In theory they might say it’s okay for women to preach or be ordained and perhaps they might even speak out against the groups that obviously restrict women, but when it comes down to the practical reality of it all, women are never allowed any real voice. So we’ve served as advocates, trying to bring attention to the voices of women, encouraging leaders to open their eyes to their latent sexism, and hoping we can be a source of change from within the realms we participate in. And yet have seen little change.

I admitted in that conversation though that I was tired of that role. How long was I willing to stay within a broken system helping it slowing become more of a life-giving place of welcome when in reality all I was doing was lending a little extra life-support to a system that doesn’t appear to be getting better. So I mused that sometimes we just have to let things simply die off so that that which is healthy has room to thrive.

Hence why some may accuse me of giving up on the church as we know it.

Maybe.

I prefer to think I’m growing up.

It’s not like the church hasn’t been able to do the dignified death thing before. Yes, most change in the church is a long arduous process often plagued with schism and violence. But not always. For example -Following the ban as set forth by Dionysius the Bishop of Alexandria at the beginning of the third century women who were menstruating were not allowed to participate in the sacraments or approach the alter. Except for a brief challenge to this rule by Pope Gregory the Great in 597 (for did not Jesus permit the bleeding woman to touch his cloak?) this ban was near-unanimously agreed upon for most of Christian history. Although the ban naturally did not apply in anti-sacramental Protestant churches following the Reformation, it remained articulated (if not always followed) in Lutheran, Anglican, and Catholic churches until the mid-twentieth century. And then it simply faded away. Most Christians these days have utterly forgotten that this ban ever existed. It died as more life-affirming practices naturally grew up to take its place.

You see, I love the idea of the church. A group of people who in gathering around a shared meal of bread and wine commit to being one body—one family devoted to the disciplines of love and forgiveness and the commitment to make the ways of the realm of God present on earth as in heaven. I will always be part of that community.

I’m just too tired to waste my energy defending structures that do harm in this world, that teach the inferiority of some, that silence the voices of others, that preach selfishness instead of compassion, that don’t bother to welcome and include all, or that care more for trappings of a building, or altar, or style of worship than they do about living as the family that calls itself the body of Christ. I’m fine with participating in the beautiful and cherishing the depth of tradition, but never when it has such high costs.

Maturity for me right now means letting go of that which needs to die and pursuing that which allows life to thrive. I need to grow up.

The Deep Silences

2014 January 16
by Julie Clawson

“Where a story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of the silence. … Who then tells a finer story than any of us? Silence does. And where does one read a deeper tale than upon the most perfectly printed page of the most precious book? Upon the blank page.” – Isak Dinesen, “The Blank Page”

As I contemplated the emptiness of the silence in my life, I was reminded of a story that has haunted me ever since I first read it some years ago in college. Isak Dinesen’s short story “The Blank Page,” although well-crafted and seeped in rich language appears simple enough as a story, but it is the silence of the blank page it offers that remains with the reader. I hate to summarize such a poignant (and truly very short) tale, so I highly encourage you to read it in full here. But it is a tale of an old story-teller who tells of an old order of Carmelite nuns in Portugal who spun the finest linen in all the land. So fine that it was used for the bridal sheets of the daughters of the noble families of the land. The bridal sheet that would only be used once and then the morning after hung out on the balcony to proclaim to the world that the bride had indeed been a virgin. The nuns would then receive back the central part of the sheet, a dark stain upon snow white linen, and hang it in a gilded frame in the convent’s main hall. Visitors would come to gaze upon these “marks of honor” and find their own meanings in the markings. But of course, there is one sheet that differs from the others, one that within its golden frame remains snow-white from corner to corner – a blank page. And as Dinesen writes, “It is in front of this piece of pure, white linen that the old princesses of Portugal—worldly wise, dutiful, long-suffering queens, wives and mothers—and their noble old playmates, bridesmaids and maids-of-honor have most often stood still. It is in front of the blank page that old and young nuns, with the Mother Abbess herself, sink into deepest thought.”

There is more meaning in the untold stories, the what-ifs, the dreams, and the unexpected turns of life than in the seemingly perfectly constructed tales. The depths of questions, of pain, and of pleasure in the silences are their own stories. The silence is sometimes deep.

I’m ready to plumb those depths.

The Empty Silences

2014 January 14
by Julie Clawson

It’s been quiet here on this blog of late. It’s been hard to write. Hence the silence.

I feel like my life has been buffering – in such a constant state of transition that nothing ever seems to be fully resolving. Ideas that bounce around in my head of all the intriguing topics I want to explore in writing remain locked away inside there. When life just seems to be one giant emotional quandary that I can’t (for a variety of reasons) write about here, it somehow seemed false to prattle on about theology, and culture, and faith, and all those things that felt so far outside myself. And so I inevitably became silent, even as I ruminated in my own silence. Yet the longer I kept my thoughts inside and kept my voice silent, the more filled with silence my own mind became. Because I felt I couldn’t speak, I lost the ability to have anything to say.

The silence became an empty silence.

121On my trip to England and Wales this past December I visited the ruins of Caerphilly Castle in Southern Wales. My visit fell on a weekday in the off-season on a near-freezing and drizzling day. Needless to say I was the only person touring the castle that afternoon. At first I was secretly delighted to have the crumbling archways, damp corridors, and blustery towers to myself. But I wanted more than just the silence of the ruins. I wanted to know its stories or at least to populate its grand hall with tales of conquering knights and court intrigue. But devoid of listening ears, the emptiness of its silence pervaded instead. More than that the stories weren’t being told, it felt like they had drifted away over time as the silence retook the crumbling stones.

It reminded me of that thoroughly Welsh poet R.S. Thomas’ poem “In Church”

Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.

Sometimes it takes encountering the emptiness and asking questions into the silence before one realizes that the shadows have advanced on an inanimate body. Sometimes to embrace that silence in the darkness is a needed respite. But sometimes it slowly takes possession until the moment one realizes the walls no longer tell stories and that inanimate body in shock realizes that it is half-sick of shadows and wonders if it is possible for dry bones to live once again.

2013 Books

2013 December 30
by Julie Clawson

So 2013 has been quite a year. I’m sure I could write any number of retrospectives that would be meaningful to no one but me. But as I do every year, I thought I’d post the list of books I read in the past year. It as much as anything is a record of where I have been and what has been shaping me. It always fascinates me to hear what others are reading as I see that as one of the biggest insights into who they are, so this is a slice of me from this past year. Feel free to comment of the list or make suggestions for what I should read next year!

Non-fiction

Fiction

Win a Copy of Talking Taboo

2013 November 5
by Julie Clawson

Adobe Photoshop PDFI am very excited to announce the official publication of Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank about Faith. This collection of essays from a diverse group of Christian women addresses the issues women face that are often taboo topics in the church. And so we are talking about them.

My chapter, “On Being a Strong Woman,” addresses cultural conceptions of strength and the difficulty of defining strength from both a feminist and Beatitude-affirming Christian perspective. And because it’s me, it’s also about superheroes.

Here’s the official description of Talking Taboo from the amazing editors Erin Lane and Enuma Okoro–

What happens when young, American women speak the unspeakable about our experiences of faith? This collection of essays unearths the taboos that have stifled us, divided us, and prevented us from feeling at home in our Christian communities.

We are Erin Lane and Enuma Okoro, and we are ridiculously excited to be working on a new anthology for the I Speak For Myself series. Our book is called Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank about Faith and is set to publish in October of 2013 from White Cloud Press. But Talking Taboo is not just a book – it’s a collection of essays that can start a movement of people getting frank about faith across the globe and risking the scrutiny of showing up as their imperfect selves in the world.

But perhaps the coolest part of this book – this whole series, really – is that you get to hear women speak for themselves. This takes the pressure off having to agree with them or even “tolerate” them, and instead you get to bear witness to the people who are living in your neighborhoods, communities, churches, and home. Pour a cup of tea. Pull up a chair. Get to know us. Maybe you’ll get to know something of God a little better, too, in the process.

Talking Taboo is now available for purchase. But if you want to win a copy I invite you to share your personal response to the question – What taboos prevent you from feeling at home in Christian communities? Leave your response in the comments before 1PM Central on Friday Nov. 8 for a chance to win a free copy of the book.

I’m very curious what stories will be told and what perspectives on taboos will emerge. While I don’t want to stifle truth-telling here, I would add that I would appreciate these posts be about true taboos we face and not just complaints that a few people might disagree with you on a certain topic in particular churches. And this isn’t just about taboos women face or restricted to gendered issues either. Do you see taboos around race, economics, science, philosophy, liturgy? Share your story and be entered to win a copy of the book.

The Healing Doctor

2013 November 2
by Julie Clawson

This post is part of a synchroblog for Doctor Who and Religion Day

doctor who sonicIn the Series 1 episode “The Doctor Dances,” the Doctor and his companions Rose Tyler and the newly joined Captain Jack Harkness find themselves cornered by hospital patients infected with alien technology. Captain Jack brags about his sonic blaster and asks what sort of weapon the Doctor is carrying. Jack is incredulous that the Doctor merely has a sonic screwdriver, quipping “Who looks at a screwdriver and thinks, ‘Ooh, this could be a little more sonic?” Although said in a moment of humor, the answer is, of course, the Doctor. Instead of carrying a weapon that can threaten and destroy, he brandishes an implement of repair as his go-to device. As one who seeks to heal the wounds of the universe, he has no need of a blaster that could be used to coerce or manipulate others into doing his will. Instead he uses the sonic screwdriver as he works alongside others in order to heal what is broken.

The Doctor’s aversion to displays of strength and power, even to the point of rejecting weapons, echoes descriptions of a God who operates from a position of weakness. Unlike depictions of an all-powerful God who reigns above all things and can use fear of punishment to coerce followers to his will, a weak God operates out of compassion to heal the wounded. The Doctor’s choice to carry a tool of repair instead of a weapon of destruction models what it means to exchange the way of strength and power for the ways of weakness and love. This stance is what author John Caputo refers to as taking place in an “anarchic field of reversals and displacements” which appears “wherever the least and most undesirable are favored while the best and most powerful are put on the defensive.” It echoes Mary’s Magnificat where the rulers are brought down from thrones and the lowly lifted up. When he is at his best, the Doctor mirrors the very description of the divine that scriptures offer up and the Church has largely ignored.

One sees an example of this in the 2007 Christmas special, “Voyage of the Damned”, as the Doctor displays his inclination to stand alongside the least and undesirable in even the ordinary moments of life. Having found himself on a luxury cruise spaceship, the Doctor is immediately drawn to a couple that seems out of place in the opulent settings. While most of the guests on the ship are thin, attractive, and impeccably dressed, this particular couple is rather overweight and dressed in garishly tacky clothes. They are in the process of gorging themselves on the ample free food when the Doctor joins them at their table. He soon discovers that unlike the rest of the guests on the cruise ship, this couple won the trip through a raffle and are enjoying a vacation they never dreamed they would have. Soon though it becomes apparent that a group of the other guests are making fun of this couple. Overhearing this mocking of the undesirables in their midst, the Doctor with humor in his eyes draws out his sonic screwdriver and uses it to pop the cork of a bottle of champagne at the table of the mockers. They are drenched in the resulting spray and the Doctor assumes an innocent look. It is a demonstration of that very reversal of roles where the powerful are brought down and the humble lifted up, done not maliciously but with well-timed humor. It is an affirmation of Walter Wink’s assertion that “The Powers That Be literally stand on their dignity. Nothing depotentiates them faster than deft lampooning. By refusing to be awed by their power, the powerless are emboldened to seize the initiative, even where structural change is not possible.”

It is Amy Pond in her first trip out into the universe in the TARDIS in the episode “The Beast Below” who voices aloud the depth of compassion of the Doctor. Despite the Doctor’s protest that he just travels the universe to observe and not to interfere, she can’t help but notice that when he sees a small girl in pain he cannot but step in and help her out. As Amy points out to the Doctor, “You ‘never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets,’ unless there’s children crying.” From his position of weakness, the Doctor cannot help but notice the suffering of the innocent. He embodies the description of one who “fills the hungry with good things” and wipes away every tear.

It will be curious to see in “The Day of the Doctor” who the Doctor who is not the Doctor truly is. For when he stops extending infinite compassion, seeks power instead of leveling playing fields, and turns aside from his role as healer of the universe, he is most certainly no longer the Doctor. Throughout history, believers have tried to turn God into something God is not. Lust for power and an affinity for violence are not the traits of one who loves and heals. The Doctor serves as a reminder of what such a God should look like, and how utterly tragic it is when he does not.

Prayer, Spells, and God, Perhaps

2013 October 1
by Julie Clawson

This post is part of a blog tour around John Caputo’s latest book – The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. My post engages Chapter 2 “The Insistence of God.” I was sent a review copy of the book as part of participating in this blog tour.

For the last few years, my favorite description of the work of theology has been Catherine Keller’s evocative “incantations on the edge of uncertainty.” For unlike the strong theologies of ages past that all too often mirrored the monarchical power structures of their day, I am drawn to the idea of theology as the process of responding as best one can into the uncertainty of the world, not knowing if one’s response will serve on the side of good or ill, but nevertheless responding anyway.

It is for theologians of this new sort that John Caputo calls for in his most recent work, The Insistence of God. Theologians of the future, theologians of risk. Those who are willing to “stage a coup that steals the word ‘theology’ out from under the nose of the palace theologians” and who are “a curse and affliction to the patriarchal and homophobic power of the powers that be but a blessing to the people of God.” Theologians who ask what theology looks like when it is written by “the outlaws, the outliers, the out of power, the troublemakers, the poor, the rogues.” Theologians who realize what a dangerous act it is to recite incantations that call upon the name of God – who know what a perilous act it is to pray.

As Caputo argues, to pray is to encounter the projectile that is God. It doesn’t matter so much that God exists, but that God (or the idea of God) insists – that the call of God insists that we respond and come to divine aid. This is a call to respond in hope that, maybe, just perhaps, a better world is possible. Prayer is not our projection onto a God of our needs, but an exposure to trauma that is the tumultuous call of God that attacks our narcissism and pushes us outside of ourselves. God, as Caputo writes, is a problem that won’t go away, that is constantly stirring up trouble and leaving us to deal with it. We might, perhaps, respond to this call and set things on a different course “for better or worse.” Therein lies the peril. To pray, to respond to God, is to risk this new course, hoping that perhaps it is for the better and not worse.

For God to be alive in this world means that the people of God encounter the insistence of God and respond with action. If this call goes unheard, elicits no response, then God is indeed dead and we have killed him. The call of God therefore is a continually posed question that we may perchance answer or resist. There is no God at work in the world without us.

Perhaps Caputo’s presentation of prayer as this sort of incantation on the edge of uncertainty can be best understood through the illustration of one of the most famous literary incantations of our time. In J.K. Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, she introduced the Latin-ish spell “Expecto Patronum.” Loosely translated, it means “I await a patron or protector.” The spell is used to produce a “patronus” that fends off the Dementors – creatures that suck all that is good out of you and make you feel like you will never be happy again. At one point, Harry Potter is about to be destroyed by the Dementors when a powerful patronus appears to save him. He believes that the patronus was cast (inexplicably) by his dead father, come back to protect and save him. He later, through an act of time-travel, realizes that it is not his father, but he himself who casts the patronus. He almost let the Dementors win waiting around for his father to appear to save him before he realized that he was his own protector. To incant the words “Expecto Patronum” is to be drawn out of oneself into the realization that only by choosing to respond oneself can there be any chance that one might be saved.

This is the trauma of prayer as Caputo describes it. He argues that what we need are theologians willing to risk it all through such responses. Those who pray with “eyes wide open,” hoping against hope for what may come even though we (nor God) know not what it may be. To always ask the question that has no known answer and yet risk asking it anyway.

Slaying Dragons

2013 September 20

In probably the most bizarre reaction to the recent Navy Yard shooting, Elizabeth Hasselbeck (of Survivor and The View fame) argued on Fox & Friends that after situations like these instead of gun control what we really need to be talking about is video-game control. Since apparently the gunmen in recent shootings were addicted to violent video games, she argues that it is not gun control that we need but limitations on how long people are allowed to play video games each day. Amusing hypocrisy aside, her comments brought to mind the arguments of two books I recently read on the need to immerse ourselves in realms of fantasy (even violent fantasy) but to not at the same time be dehumanized by relying on the supernatural.

In his book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, Gerard Jones sifts through numerous studies to argue that far from encouraging children to acts of real violence, fantasy violence helps youth by giving them safe outlets to grapple with their intense emotions and fears. He argues -

“For young people to develop selves that serve them well in life, they need modeling, mentoring, guidance, communication, and limitations. But they also need to fantasize, and play, and lose themselves in stories. That’s how they reorganize the world into forms they can manipulate. That’s how they explore and take some control over their own thoughts and emotions. That’s how they kill their monsters.”

children brave knightsWhile I find the argument regarding whether or not children should play violent games to be fascinating, what intrigues me the most is the idea that it is in fantasy that we learn how to kill our monsters. This is an argument that I often make when I am talking to groups about The Hunger Games and some parent inevitably complains that the books are far too violent for them to allow their teen to read. I reply that these are books about the futility of violence which show the painful and devastating realities that violence, even justified violence, wreaks upon the world. If youth only hear that they must avoid stories that tell the truth about violence while at the same time hear that “justified” violence requires their unquestioning support, then they will never learn how to cope with the very real effects of actual violence. Sometimes children need to be reassured that dragons can be slayed, but they also need to learn that dragons are complex and can sometimes take years to oust from their lair.

When the film of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo came out I was asked if I thought the depiction of the very violent rape would encourage people to do likewise. I answered that no, on the contrary, now more people will realize how absolutely horrific something that we often hush up and ignore actually is. That whole series of books went into the dark corners of abuse of women and children and the system that supports sex trafficking not to glorify them or make them sexy, but to expose them. Topics that we are afraid or too helpless to deal with in reality have to be dealt with in story or else we lose hope. The hackers in the Millennium Trilogy are the heroes because they are the only ones capable in the modern world of exposing a corrupt system that sacrifices women. We needed as a culture to see that if we are creative and brave enough sometimes the biggest and baddest dragons can be defeated. Only story could do that for us.

Yet at the same time, we can also become so wrapped up in the supernatural magic we find in story that we can fail to fully live out the paths they inspire us to take. Right after finishing Killing Monsters, I started reading Kester Brewin’s After Magic: Moves Beyond Super-Nature, From Batman to Shakespeare. In it Kester argues -

“The most heroic thing we can do is to give up on our childhood dreams of being superheroes, and to free ourselves from their addictive lure. We need also to let go of our hope that some other superpower—whether religion, technology or a political formulation—will bring eternal peace and equilibrium. Great institutions can do brilliant work, but the inescapable problem with our projection onto them of super-natural ability is the large, dehumanizing demands that they create.”

It is only when Prospero rejects magic or Bruce Wayne rejects the Batman that they are finally able to live in a way that affirms instead of uses and destroys humanity. Even though they intended to use their access to the “super-natural” for good, it came at a cost to both them and the culture around them. Just as a child who is constantly sheltered or not permitted to imagine defeating their monsters might never truly learn how, so too those who never move beyond that place of fantasy. If the superhero is always the savior, then there is no place for one to live into their full humanity. And yes, that superhero can be the government, or the army, or even faith and prayer. Projecting the assumption that something super will be there to rescue us abdicates our responsibility to ourselves and to others. The idea gives us hope, but in reality we must live out that hope in order to make it real. It’s complex and complicated. It’s easier to blame video games for violence or to pray that God/Superman/Republicans/Obi-won Kenobi will come to our aid. It’s easier because it means we don’t have to face our monsters, we don’t have to slay any dragons.

But that makes our story very poor indeed. We need to tell better stories.