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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
On 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.
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!
- Silence: A Chistian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch
- The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim
- Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally in a Chaotic World by Tsh Oxenreider
- The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps by John Caputo
- After Magic: Moves Beyond Super-Nature by Kester Brewin
- Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones
- Bright Not Broken: Gifted Kids, ADHD, and Autism by Diane M. Kennedy and Rebecca S. Banks
- Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology by Johann Baptist Metz
- Eros Toward the World: Paul Tillich and the Theology of the Erotic by Alexander Irwin
- God, Desire, and a Theology of Human Sexuality by David Jensen
- The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox
- The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America by Susan Faludi
- 9.11.01: African American Leaders Respond to an American Tragedy edited by Martha J. Simmons and Frank A. Thomas
- New Feminist Christianity: Many Voices, Many Views edited by Mary E. Hunt and Diann L. Neu
- Toward a Theology of Eros: Transfiguring Passion at the Limits of Discipline edited by Virginia Burns and Catherine Keller
- Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker
- Radical Theology and the Death of God by Thomas J.J. Altizer and William Hamilton
- Hermione Granger Saves the World: Essays on the Feminist Heroine of Hogwarts edited by Christopher Bell
- The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation by Peter Berger
- God’s Democracy: American Religion after September 11 by Emilio Gentile
- Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God by Carter Heyward
- Introducing Body Theology by Lisa Isherwood and Elizabeth Stuart
- The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion by Richard Kearney
- On Paul Ricoeur: The Owl of Minerva by Richard Kearney
- Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 by Bruce Lincoln
- Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless by William Lynch
- Origins of the Theology of Hope by Douglas Meeks
- The Solidarity of Others in a Divided World: A Postmodern Theology after Postmodernism by Anselm Kyongsuk Min
- In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann
- The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation by Jurgen Moltmann
- Body Theology by James B. Nelson
- Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture by Sherry B. Ortner
- Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology by Rosemary Radford Ruether
- Terrorism TV: Popular Entertainment in Post-9/11 America by Stacy Takacs
- Toward a New Christianity: Readings in the Death of God Theology Edited by Thomas J.J. Altizer
- Love, Power, and Justice: Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications by Paul Tillich
- Liberty, Equality, Sisterhood: On the Emancipation of Women in Church and Society by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel
- Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power by Rita Brock
- Royal Airs by Sharon Shinn
- Autumn Bones: Agent of Hel by Jacqueline Carey
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
- Allegiant by Veronica Roth
- The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
- The Mortal Instruments: City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare
- The Mortal Instruments: City of Glass by Cassandra Clare
- The Mortal Instruments: City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare
- The Mortal Instruments: City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare
- The Infernal Devices: Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
- The Infernal Devices: Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare
- The Infernal Devices: Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare
- Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness
I 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.
This post is part of a synchroblog for Doctor Who and Religion Day
In 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.
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.
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.”
While 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.
Pretty girls…have pretty voices
Pretty girls…preserve their youth
Pretty girls…know all their choices
Pretty girls…don’t tell the truth
And love…love is not…the question
Cause if you wanted…you could love someone to death
Love…them straight into…the closet…afraid to draw
Afraid to draw…afraid to draw a breath
After the initial uproar surrounding the whole Miley Cyrus VMA show, the general vibe I gathered from social media, was “why are we still talking about this? This is yesterday’s news.” That attitude bothered me because the issues of slut-shaming and modesty culture that accompanied the discussions of Miley’s performance are not topics that should just be brushed aside as if they are not important enough to demand our sustained attention. Then came fellow Austinite and Wheaton grad Kimberly Hall’s viral post FYI – If You Are A Teenage Girl further shaming girls for tempting young men by posting sexual selfies on Facebook. As a mom and as one who grew up in the guilt laden modesty culture, this is something that I believe matters and needs to be discussed no matter how over it Facebook and Twitter seem to be already.
There have been some great responses to Hall’s post (see here and
here), I encourage you to read them. Although I cheered as I read those responses and the discussion they sparked, I still felt like something was lacking. It was in listening to Cary Cooper’s song “Pretty Girls” this morning that I realized that even in telling girls that you are not a slut for posting your sexy selfie and that it is not your job to make sure boys don’t stumble, we are still sending the message that sexual embodinesness is wrong. They can be lovely , intelligent girls who don’t have to believe they are at fault for how men respond to them, but they still are not allowed to be embodied in how they seek attention.
The line “Pretty girls have pretty voices … Pretty girls don’t tell the truth,” is about how as girls we get told that to be considered acceptable in this world we have to present ourselves in ways that the culture already deems acceptable. Have a pretty voice. Don’t argue. Don’t speak up. Don’t speak out on controversial issues. Abide by standard definitions of beauty, but also know that you will be shamed as a slut if you embody that beauty too much. To be a pretty girl I have to be controlled enough by another that I only reflect back to them the image they want to see in me. It is permissible to seek attention through my achievements, my hobbies, my wittiness, and even by embracing the “flaws” in my body (i.e. I love my plus-sized/disabled body), but not as a whole person embracing positive sexual embodiedness.
The original FYI post asserts that although a girl may be lovely, interesting, and smart, the posed sexy selfie isn’t who she is. And many of the responses seem to agree with that assertion. They encourage men to see past the body and see the real person as if the body is somehow separate from what makes us real people. Don’t get me wrong, I love the responses encouraging girls to be themselves and to take the time to get to know themselves. What I don’t like are the mixed messages of -
“The idea that young girls feel the need to take glamour shots of themselves in the first place makes them the most vulnerable cog in the warped beauty machine. Ideally, parents of girls should be filling them up with so much love and worth that they won’t feel the need to get compete for attention by posting racy photos online.”
So either you are a loved and complete person or you like posting sexy pictures of yourself in a bid for attention. Pretty girls don’t do that. Pretty girls conform to other images.
Here’s the thing, while I’m not exactly a duck-face in my pajamas selfie kind of girl (although I do think my TARDIS and Wonder Women pjs are pretty damn awesome), I still seek attention. I’m more the ironic raised eyebrow conveying “stop talking, you’re lowering the IQ of all of FB” sort of selfie girl. But whether our projected self-image is that of us with our kids, of us visiting some awesome place, us engaged in a favorite activity, or of a cause we support, we are inviting others to gaze upon us and know us by that image. We all desire to attract the attention of others with the images we present – we just seem to think that impressing others by presenting ourselves as a caring parent or as an accomplished writer is more appropriate than presenting ourselves as persons who also enjoy and embrace our physical embodiment. But we are all seeking attention because that is what we as relational creatures do. We want to be in the gaze of another. We want to be seen and known for who we are. And that’s okay.
So instead of freaking out about girls wanting attention, let’s admit we all want attention and address the hyprocrisy in what we deem are appropriate ways to do so. And, gasp, that might even mean having positive discussions about sexual embodiment. I want girls to be able to be themselves. Not be shamed. Not feel embarrassed for not conforming to the imposed expectations of others. To not be told that to be a “pretty girl” they must toe certain lines. To not be loved into the closet afraid to draw a breath.
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins” – T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland
In his recent interview in Entertainment Weekly (which can be read in part here) Joss Whedon mentions his dislike of movies that are not self-contained stories in and of themselves. As Mike Ryan describes in his reaction to the interview –
One of the most interesting moments of James Hibbard’s excellent EW interview with Joss Whedon comes just after a discussion about what’s wrong with the ending to The Empire Strikes Back, when Whedon shifts his point slightly to focus on a self-referential moment during Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (To read the full interview, you will have to buy a copy of Entertainment Weekly.)
“A movie has to be complete within itself; it can’t just build off the first one or play variations. You know that thing in Temple of Doom where they revisit the shooting trick? … That’s what you don’t want. And I feel that’s what all of culture is becoming — it’s becoming that moment.”
Whedon’s comment fascinated me. On one hand, I can see that Whedon might still be dealing with some unresolved bitterness about not being allowed to actually finish some of his best stories. But the idea that our culture is becoming that moment—a self-referential pastiche of stories—intrigues me. But unlike Whedon, I don’t see this as a bad thing. In fact, I believe it is the only way cultures know how to survive.
Real life is not an action/adventure film. The stories of our lives are not those of independent heroes emerging to fight arbitrary villains and then living happily ever after. We tell our stories by placing ourselves in an ongoing context of other’s stories. To stave off the chaos, we gather the fragments of the known to shore up our own stability. This is just how culture works.
In describing this aspect of culture, Richard Kearney brilliantly summarizes Paul Ricoeur –
“Each society, explains Ricoeur, invokes a tradition of mythic idealization through which it may be aligned with a stable predictable, and repeatable order of meanings. This frequently assumes the form of an ideological reiteration of the founding act of the community. It seeks to redeem society from the crises of the present by justifying actions in terms of some sanctified past, some sacred beginning. We could cite here the role played by the Aeneas myth in Roman society or the cosmology myths in Greek society, or indeed, the Celtic myths of Cuchulain and the Fianna in Irish society. Where an ancient past is lacking, a more recent past will suffice – the Declaration of Independence for the United States, the October Revolution for the former Soviet Union, and so on.”
Where in the past cultures have turned to foundational myths as their self-referential source of stability, the postmodern world finds its fragments in the ubiquity of pop culture. The movies we love, the songs we listen to, the books we read, the games we play, the sports teams we route for – these become, as William Dyrness comments, “the building blocks of our personal and group identity.” To surround ourselves with such things is to reassure ourselves of our identity and hence our stability. We tell our story by referencing these other stories. We hang movie posters in our bedrooms and wear Wonder Woman or Superman underroos when we are young, wear our favorite brand or team logo proudly when we are older (be that Polo and Gucci or DC Comics and Star Wars), and make our favorite TV shows the ones that reference our other favorite aspects of culture (Gilmore Girls, The Big Bang Theory, Chuck, Community, Parks and Recreation…). We share our playlists on Facebook and find community in constructing a fantasy football team. Our stories are constant series of self-referential moments. Our culture has already become this moment whether Joss Whedon fears it or not. These are the fragments we are shoring against our ruins.
Unlike Whedon, I like the ending of Empire Strikes Back because it isn’t self-contained – forcing Return of the Jedi to build off what came first. The story continues and I have to know what came before in order to move forward. Even as the credits roll, the audience knows that the story of the rebel alliance did not end in the ceremonial hall on Yavin or even in the Ewok village on Endor, Empire just made that truth more apparent. The Avengers eventually left the shawarma place to deal with the aftermath. Cinderella’s fairy tale wedding is just the beginning of her story not the definition of happily ever after. No story is ever self-contained, so we must continually gather fragments to build the new—to construct frameworks for our stories that we then flesh out. That we are living in a self-referential uncontained moment in our culture is not something to lament, but simply a lens to help us understand our own stories and the way we tell them. For if we don’t understand the context we are building upon it becomes far more difficult to continue with a coherent or creative plot into the next chapter.