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Embracing Sexual Incarnation

2013 August 22
by Julie Clawson

Sex seems to be all over my Facebook feed these days, and not in a good way. From links to The Gospel Coalition’s recent post asserting sex (especially queer sex) is just “yucky” and that describing it should trigger our gag reflex to Anne Marie Miller’s viral post “Three things you don’t know about your children and sex,” what I’m seeing is an underlying fear of not just sex but the idea of being embodied persons in this world. While The Gospel Coalition’s post is thankfully receiving ample criticism, the comments that accompany the links to Miller’s article run along the lines of “so tragic,” “this breaks my heart,” and “what an awful sex-crazed culture we live in.” Her post attempts to inform parents that contrary to what they may hope, children these days have in fact been molested, have seen porn, and have masturbated. It then encourages parents to help kids overcome such sexual sin and find release from shame.

I cringed reading the article. What does it say about how we view sex and our bodies when masturbating and discovering that one is a sexual embodied creature are cast as as evil and horrible as child molestation? When the natural sexual impulse is equated with damaging and toxic sexual behavior, it becomes impossible to have a healthy conception of sex or one’s physical body. Yes, there are some disgusting and evil things being done to children in this world that they need to find healing from, but I would argue that embracing themselves as incarnate, in the flesh, beings is not something that needs to be fixed. In fact, the opposite is true. It is when we deny our bodies and refuse to embrace our flesh that we become broken.

When I spoke on this topic at the Wild Goose festival recently, the first question I was asked was from a man who wanted to know how he could embrace the body and yet not look at women as objects of sexual attraction. In some ways I applauded his impulse. Men these days are becoming more aware of how demeaning it is to reduce women to mere sexual objects for which I am grateful. Yet in the sex-shaming culture that we live in, the alternative to reducing women (and men) to mere objects is to reject their sexual embodiment and instill a sense of guilt about our natural sexual impulses. My response to him was that it is just as demeaning to refuse to acknowledge the sexual embodiedness of another as it is to reduce a person to merely that. There is nothing wrong with being sexually attracted to other people, to find them desirable. Desire isn’t the issue; it is what we do with that desire that matters. Acknowledging and affirming that desire is one thing, letting that desire control you to the point that you do damage to yourself or the other person is toxic.

For when we repress our nature as sexual beings, we cease to be our full selves. This does not mean we must all give into every sexual impulse or desire we have, but acknowledge that they are a vital and normal part of who we are. The proponents of a theology of embodiment argue that in order for people to understand themselves (or God) they must do so from the sensual position of being in a body. As James Nelson argues in his book Body Theology, if the incarnation (the being in the flesh) is understood more inclusively,

“Then the fleshly experience of each of us becomes vitally important to our experiences of God. Then the fully physical, sweating, lubricating, menstruating, ejaculating, urinating, defecating bodies that we are—in sickness and in health—are the central vehicles of God’s embodiment in our experience.”

One cannot be whole unless one moves beyond assumed divisions of the mind and body and stops despising the body, even the sexual body, as sinful or an embarrassment.

I affirm those wanting to bring healing to children who have been hurt sexually, but I fear that teaching them to despise their body and deny its natural impulses will be equally as damaging. A deeper, more loving response would be to help youths (and adults!) accept and respect their embodiment – even as sexual beings. Instead of shaming children for natural curiosity and forcing them to become bifurcated shadows of themselves, forever filled with unease and guilt about any form of sexual impulse, we can love them by introducing healthy, life-affirming ways to discover that integral aspect of themselves. As Rita Brock writes in Proverbs of Ashes

“Love is most fully incarnate when human beings are present in many dimensions of themselves—physically, spiritually, emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually present. Physical love is an important dimension of eros, a life-sustaining power that finds expression in many relationships. The love of flesh includes birth, care of the dying, nourishment of children, and tender affection, as well as sexual intimacy. The more present human being can be to each other, as the fullest selves they can be, the more complete the love.”

Closer to Fine – Wild Goose 2013

2013 August 13

“I’m trying to tell you something about my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
The best thing you’ve ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously, it’s only life after all”
- Closer to Fine, Indigo Girls

I didn’t know if I could do Wild Goose this year. After Mike informed me at the beginning of the summer that our marriage of 13+ years was over, life was turned upside down. I was in shock. I went into survival mode. I haven’t been able to write and I barely knew how to put into words the turmoil I was going through. The idea of going to the Wild Goose, intended to be our family vacation this year, was overwhelming. I’ve always been a private, reserved person emotionally – which has usually simply been code for not being real. But somehow I knew that I couldn’t go to the Wild Goose this year and not be real. For once, to not refrain from being open and honest and fully myself. It’s just that sort of gathering – raw and dismantling.

Wild Goose has been a place where for the last couple of years I have found hope. Hope for the community that despite not knowing if or what it believes still calls itself the body of Christ, but more importantly hope that a better world is indeed possible. The nature of a festival moves one beyond pretense and comfort, where it is easier to see that there is good at work in the world despite the apathy and ignorance that usually cloud our vision. I caught glimpses of that hope this year, but in all honesty I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to grasp hold of those glimpses as they flickered by. Everything was simply too close to allow hope and revolution to capture my imagination this year.

I needed something far more basic. I needed the fantastic community of friends I have developed over the past decade, but whom I only get to see maybe once or twice a year at these events. I needed long conversations over beer, late-night dance parties in the mud, and hot-tubbing until the wee small hours of the morning. I needed to laugh and let go enough to be able to see how deeply real and deeply absurd it was to be up on a stage caked in mud fielding questions about how to talk to teens about masturbation and how BDSM challenges the dangers of patriarchy.

And I needed to stand in a field Saturday evening singing along with the Indigo Girls, as loudly as I could, the lyrics to Closer to Fine and discover that I actually meant them.

148On Friday I had gathered at the beer tent for one of my favorite Wild Goose traditions – Beer & Hymns. Believers and skeptics join together over beer to sing with that wonderful mix of awe, irony, nostalgia, and anger the classic robust hymns of the Christian tradition. Yet not even with a wistful nostalgia could I join in on singing It is Well with My Soul. Of course it is not well with my soul. And the very lines that “thou hast taught me to say it is well with my soul” represent the very aspects of the faith world that I fear the most these days. I’m done being told what to believe, what to feel, how to act, how to process, how to package things up in meaningless but convenient packages. I’m done parroting the faith equivalent of “I’m fine” just because it is expected of me. That pull to appear to accept that all is well kept me from treating my depression for years. I don’t play that game anymore.

But amidst the community at Wild Goose, I found that while I could not sing It is Well with My Soul, I could sing Closer to Fine.

That despite my tendencies to overthink, overanalyze, internalize, and take everything far too seriously I am able to let go enough to just be. Some days that means be okay, other days, be a complete mess. And that’s okay.

So thank you Wild Goose for letting me dance in a field and realize – “There’s more than one answer to these questions pointing me in crooked line. The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.”

Talking Taboo

2013 May 7
by Julie Clawson

Adobe Photoshop PDFSo I know it’s been quiet here the last few weeks. I’m finishing up seminary and the process of completing my thesis and all the other final projects has utterly consumed my time. But in the midst of the busyness, I’m excited to announce a new book project that I am honored to be a part of. I have contributed an essay to the forthcoming Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank about Faith. Here’s what the editors have to say about the book -

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.

My contribution explores what it means to be a strong woman. I got to write about superheroes (which was pretty awesome). I ask why is it that now that women are being portrayed as “strong” and heroic in the media that generally means they are super-violent and cold-hearted? When did that become our definition of strength?

Here’s what others are saying about Talking Taboo -

  • A diverse range of voices rise together in a song of solidarity and sisterhood in Talking Taboo. Bold and beautifully written, these essays will make you giggle, weep, roll your eyes, cheer, balk, gasp, and whisper prayers of thanks. Each story gives the reader permission–permission to speak, permission to ask questions, permission to follow Jesus and serve the church without cramming into a mold. This book is a gift. I hope many will cherish it. – Rachel Held Evans
  • When I look over my books and see how few women theologians/leaders are named in the footnotes compared to the men, I’m sad and determined to do what I can to turn the tide toward balance. That’s one reason I’m thrilled to read Talking Taboo. It introduces me – and I hope you too – to many new leaders who deserve our attention and respect. I’m grateful to Enuma Okoro, Erin Lane, and all the contributors. By presenting women leaders/theologians/writers/thinkers who are as smart as they are brave, Talking Taboo will help us redress an imbalance that has been in place for far too long (as my footnotes evidence) … which is just one of many taboos that it’s time to talk about. - Brian McLaren
  • This array of more than forty stories of Christian women in America is about sexism in church and society, sexism that takes a great variety of forms and has shaped and distorted women’s lives in endless ways. Yet these women are all emerging from these distortions and discovering a God who loves them and a good self that loves oneself. The insightful stories in Talking Taboo bring us in many ways to that hopeful place. - Rosemary Radford Reuther
  • How did Christianity—a faith founded on the reality of “the Word become flesh”—get tied in knots and torn asunder over gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, and other features of the God-given fact we live embodied lives? Scholars argue over that question, but this much is clear: women have been the main victims of this heresy, to the immense loss of both church and world. In the clear and honest words of the women who “talk taboo” in this book, we hear voices of truth that can help Christians reclaim respect for flesh and come to feel more at home in their own skins. Talking Taboo is an important book, one that should be read and discussed in every church in the land. - Parker J. Palmer

This is an exciting project and I can’t wait to be part of the conversations it sparks. We need your help in spreading the word about the book. Share about the book in your networks and, if you can, help give the book momentum by pre-ordering a copy. Visit the book’s campaign on at Indiegogo to contribute and find out more!

Alleluia, The Doctor Returns

2013 April 4

As posted at The Huffington Post Religion blog -

believeI’ll admit it: I was more excited about the return of “Doctor Who” than about Easter. Some may say this makes me a poor Christian — that it should be the communal celebration of the Resurrection that my hearts yearns for the most — but honestly, in the past few years it has been in this story of a self-proclaimed madman with a box that I have encountered the most meaningful depictions of the divine. Easter in many churches these days has become more about creating the most perfect liturgy, scientifically trying to prove the resurrection, or demanding that one must believe in divine child abuse in order to be saved than about celebrating a God whose healing love inspires us to believe and go do likewise. For that I have “Doctor Who.”

“Doctor Who” is one of the longest running television shows in history with its first episode airing in November 1963. In 2005, the BBC rebooted the show with a postmodern audience in mind and it has since gathered a worldwide fan base. The show follows the adventures of a witty and hyper-intelligent humanoid alien “Time Lord” known simply as The Doctor, who travels the universe in his time machine, the TARDIS. The Doctor generally travels with a companion and, as his title suggests, often finds himself in situations which are in need of healing and repair. One cannot argue that “Doctor Who” is necessarily a Christian or even theistic show (despite its habit of having Christmas and Easter specials) or even that the Doctor is intended to be equated with God. The two men who have creatively led and written many of the episodes of the BBC reboot of the show, Russell Davies and Stephen Moffat, are both self-proclaimed atheists. Yet, as producers and writers, they frequently address religious themes and use the character of the Doctor to challenge hollow and dangerous conceptions of God. It is in their attempts to use the Doctor to deconstruct inward-focused religion which has little relevance in a world full of injustice and pain that an alternative, more meaningful, vision of God emerges.

Jack Caputo has argued that a God that makes sense in our postmodern era is a God defined by weakness instead of strength. By weakness he does not mean a “weakness that lacks the power of faith or the courage for action” but a weakness that stands on the side of the powerless, that participates in the reversals which displace the high and mighty and lift up the lowly, and that keeps hope alive when life appears to be hopeless. Caputo writes in “The Weakness of God,” “You see the weak force that stirs within the name of God only when someone casts it in the form of a narrative, tells mad stories and perplexing parables about it.” It is in these mad tales that resonate with the imagination of the age that many of us are encountering an image of God more meaningful than what is being presented in many churches these days.

As we watch “Doctor Who,” we encounter the story of one who far from being above humanity, comes alongside us to not only suffer with us, but inspire us to do the hard work of creating a better world. We see in the tale of the Doctor an example of a figure who calls followers to lives of adventure and wonder, practices radical forgiveness, and welcomes the marginalized and defends the powerless. It is an potential image of the divine that inspires hope, and which (for me at least) grasps what it means to live the way of life Jesus modeled far better than do the pointless attempts to orchestrate the perfect worship service or defend the plausibility of miracles.

So, as the show returned this Easter weekend, I eagerly anticipated immersing myself once again in a narrative about one who saves the world by calling it to participate in acts of healing and love. I wish I could say that I knew I could encounter the same in churches this Easter. As a committed Christ follower, I am tired of Easter being reduced to mechanics. I want more than marathon services or reiterations of the details of Christ’s death and resurrection that try to convince me that merely believing that something happened is the purpose of being a Christian. I want to be called to join in on the adventure of healing the world, in welcoming the marginalized, and living in the revolutionary way of Jesus. Thankfully, “Doctor Who” is brave enough to tell such mad tales even when the church is not.

The Danger of the Light

2013 February 21

For Lent this year the church I attend is exploring the idea of light – of entering into the light, of letting light illuminate the truth. As much as Christians like to talk about the light shining into the darkness, we often forget how dangerous light can be. Light reveals things that we would rather keep hidden. Light forces us to face truths we would rather ignore. We forget in our haste to claim Jesus as a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path that carrying a light in the darkness isn’t safe. In the world pre-electricity, to go out into the darkness with a lamp or torch was not an act of the wise. Walking around in a pitch-black night with a torch made you a target for wild animals or other ill-intending creatures of the night. Hiding one’s light under a bushel is safe, shining a light is dangerous.

lachish_ewerAs I listened to the discussion last Sunday, the illustration that came to mind was the repeated attempts one reads of in the Hebrew Scriptures to remove the lampstands from the Temple. Granted, the scriptures speak of removing the presence of the pagan goddess Asherah and tearing down the poles or trees erected to her in the Temple, but as archeology shows, those poles in the temple were the lampstands or menorahs. Asherah as a symbol of the feminine and embodiment of sexuality and reproduction was depicted by a tree with seven branches in bloom (to represent fertility) as shown in the picture, exactly the way lampstands for the tabernacle/temple are described in Exodus 25. It was this symbol of the female and of sexuality that was repeatedly removed from the temple, only to return again and again.

I couldn’t help but think about the symbolism of this act of removing a lampstand of the feminine from the official place of worship. Light is dangerous. It illuminates structures of oppression and reveals the truth and beauty of women and the body. Such things are scary to a culture trying to cling to hierarchies of patriarchal power. It is easier to extinguish the light, throw the lampstands away, than to gaze upon that which it reveals.

This idea returned to me this week as I was discussing the scriptures read in the early church in one of my classes. The canon of books and letters Christians read pre-Constantine was significantly different than the established canon we have now. Most interestingly was that they included accounts of martyrdoms (like The Martyrdom of Polycarp) in the texts they looked to for worship and comfort. The point was made that pre-Christendom these texts of martyrdom that gave comfort to those suffering persecution as well as encouraged them to resist the ways of empire although popular in the early church were kept out of the canon once Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. Illuminating the oppressions and temptations of empire became too dangerous. It was easier to extinguish that light than to see what it revealed.

Even now to hold up lights illuminating the voice of women, the beauty of the body, or the ills of empire is dangerous. It is scary to have the truth revealed under the light. Doing so makes one a target of ridicule and accusations of heresy. Light makes it impossible to continue in the darkness of the status quo, once truth is revealed it cannot be ignored, only rejected. But that is the risk we take when we embrace the one who claims to be the light.

Celebrating Valentine’s Day During Lent

2013 February 14

There is something a bit awkward about Valentine’s Day falling the day after Ash Wednesday this year. The day defined by chocolate, wine, flowers and basic indulgence following on the heels of the day when many Christians commit to fasting from such very indulgences presents a dilemma for those serious about observing the rhythms of the church year. The question arises – how can one participate in the Lenten practices of sacrifice on a day dedicated to celebrating the joys of love?

I wonder though if the problem is not so much this year’s particular calendar, but the individualistic ways we have come to view both Lent and love.

Lent traditionally is a season of penance and sacrifice intended to prepare the Christian community for the period of remembering the events of Holy Week, but in contemporary times those sacrifices are often only of the personal kind. We give up pleasures (chocolate) or habits (Facebook or TV) for the sake of drawing ourselves closer to God. But while pietism that relies solely on personal sacrifices that affect us and us alone can serve to draw us emotionally closer to God it can also make it easier for us to forget that our faith is not something that concerns just us.

If we believe in the Christian teachings that we exist as members of the body of Christ then the disciplines we engage in should always work towards the good of that body. The gospels speak of practices like uplifting the lowly, welcoming the outcast, and making God’s house a place of prayer for all peoples as part of what it means to work for the good of that body. While being personally closer to God might serve the good of the body in some ways, it is rare that Lenten practices are conceived in such a way. Giving up chocolate might help my diet and make it difficult to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, but it has very little to do with working for the good of others.

In fact, according to the legends, Saint Valentine provides a better example of living into those gospel ways than our modern observances of Lent. The stories hold that Valentine was a Roman priest who lived during the reign of Claudius Gothicus. The official imperial policy of the day was that it was illegal for Christians to be married or receive aid of any kind, but Valentine chose to defy the laws of the land and marry couples anyway. For this he was arrested and martyred on February 14th.

To me, Valentine’s actions embody what it means to live as a member of a body. He chose to love and serve others despite the imperial voices dictating that he withhold aid. As a priest, he could easily have devoted himself in such a time of persecution to personal devotions that would have drawn him closer to God (and saved his own neck), but instead he opted to help those in need and include those the powers-that-be demanded be excluded. He became a martyr for the sake of love.

I wonder how different the church could be if during the season of Lent this year, we Christians chose not to see Valentine’s Day as an awkward dilemma to deal with but as a guide for our practices. What if we too chose to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of love?

Instead of giving up chocolate or Facebook for Lent, we could work to aid those our culture dictates we exclude. We could provide the blessing of marriage to those our culture forbids to let marry. We could provide aid to those our culture says are unwelcome sojourners in our midst. We could work to ensure that our churches truly are a welcoming house of prayer for all peoples. It may be uncomfortable and perhaps even difficult to work for the good of those our culture would rather us despise or exclude (although I doubt it will get us beheaded), but perhaps that’s what being a martyr for the sake of love means these days.

It is a lot easier to focus on our personal spiritual development than it is to work for the good of others. Perhaps not eating chocolate for a few weeks might help us pray more, but the way of Christ implies that the discipline of sacrifice should extend beyond just ourselves to help create the sort of world where the lowly are uplifted and the outcast welcomed. Having Valentine’s Day at the very start of Lent this year can be about more than just us feeling guilty about indulging during Lent, it can remind us that sacrificing ourselves for the sake of love is the greatest sacrifice of all.

Celebrating the Flesh

2013 February 12
by Julie Clawson

It’s Mardi Gras. Carnival. The days of embodied celebration before Lent. And beyond a few announcements of church pancake suppers tonight, I’ve heard not a word about either from within the church world this year. Oh, I’ve heard people in professional ministry talk (complain really) about planning their Lenten observances for weeks, but as far as I can tell the period between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday is not a time of celebration but merely a prep period for Lent.

Mardi Gras and Carnival are the embarrassing uncle of the church year. The one’s we don’t like to talk about. Those strange grafted-on “pagan” celebrations that root us firmly in this world and don’t let us pretend that we truly are just souls having a temporary bodily experience. In the Western church, it’s fine to focus on ways we can deny our bodies for the sake of spirituality during Lent, but the mere mention of celebrating bodies is suspect. A fest of the flesh just reeks too much of sin to be embraced. Sex and bodies must always be seen as corrupt and evil, not places of joy or truth. And so the age old dualism that separates mind and body remains.

Even those who call for liberation from structures that oppress get uncomfortable when the bodies they advocate freedom for do, well, bodily things. I recently read this great quote from Marcella Althaus-Reid on the ways feminist and liberation theologians still adhere to this view that incarnate flesh is sinful -

If the shanty townspeople go in procession carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary and demanding jobs, they seem to become God’s option for the poor. However, when the same shanty townspeople mount a carnival centered on a transvestite Christ accompanied by a Drag Queen Mary Magdalene kissing his wounds, singing songs of political criticism, they are not anymore God’s option for the poor. Carnivals in Latin America are the Christmas of the indecent, and yet they are invisible in theological discourse.

Catherine Keller refers to this as our fear of incarnate or incarnal love. Love and religious practice have become disconnected from the body except for the habit of denying the body. We have lost the ability to celebrate and express joy in our body and not feel guilty about it. Mardi gras and Carnival are reminders that some have not lost that gift and bought into our Western dualistic disparagement of the body. Perhaps it is time to stop rushing past them or ignoring them in shame and embrace the wholistic worship that we are so desperately lacking in the Western church.

Emerging in Hope

2013 January 31

Following the Emergence Christianity gathering a few weeks ago, there have been numerous conversations on blogs, podcasts, and Facebook around the nature of the conversation and who exactly gets to define it. I don’t want to rehash the arguments here nor do I have time for the ill-informed “the emerging church is dead” comments. The world has changed and the church (whether it likes it or not) is changing with it as it has always done. Yes, there were those who claimed the label “emerging” because it was the latest fad and there are those still trying to apply it like a veneer to a dying institution, but what is happening around the world is far larger than any one manifestation of the phenomenon.

But responding to change is never easy. When it is obvious that the way things have been done are no longer working one has the option of simply staking one’s claim in the past or adapting to the new situation. Yet to adapt implies the uncertainty of change and that can lead to fear. Fear of the unknown, yes, but also fear that in making changes we will just be repeating the same mistakes that have come before.

In the midst of all these discussions on emergence, I came across this passage in Anselm Min’s The Solidarity of Others in a Divided World that helped clarify the situation for me -

William James once spoke of two attitudes toward truth and error. One attitude is that of the sceptic, who is driven by an obsessive fear of falling into error and does not want to believe in anything except of sufficient evidence. The other is the attitude of the pragmatist, who is more driven by the hope of finding truth than by the fear of falling into error and is therefore willing to risk even believing in error in order to find truth. Deconstruction is more like the sceptic than the pragmatist. It is fundamentally fearful of all determinate embodiments of human sociality in history because of the terror of the same. It may offer prayers and tears for the coming of the wholly other and its messianic justice, but it does not want to dirty its hands by working at establishing determinate institutions of religion and politics. In the name of differance it flees, in neognostic fashion, from the historical determinacy of matter, body, senses, objectivity, and sociality; from the world of presence, identity, and totality; and takes refuge in the dream of the impossible. (44)

While I would not be so quick to dismiss the need for deconstruction, I see the danger of getting caught up in its cycle of fear. It is one thing to diagnose the problems in the church and its disconnect from the realities of the world, but while voicing such might be a necessary part of a healing process or the claiming of permission to seek freedom, it can be easy to let fear confine us to the refuge of this dream of the impossible.

We have seen the pain and the problems in the church and we want something better. Yet the idea of imperfect people imperfectly trying to put flesh to the idea of moving forward in hope is scary. They will mess things up, they will create broken systems, and they will fail in their attempts to embody the dreams and ideals of the emerging ethos. Inevitably, structures and institutions will develop as the pragmatists seek to build rather than just dream. And because such things have terrorized in the past they in and of themselves are feared. It then becomes easier to attack those who try to actually do something than it is to take that step into the unknown.

I like to dream and to deconstruct, but I need to have hope. I need to have some solid ground upon which to place my feet as I journey towards that hope. I need to see ideas assume flesh and exist in social actualities. I’m not all that good at making it happen, but at heart I am a pragmatist. I cannot just say that a better world is possible, I need to live it. Even if that means I might fail or (what’s even scarier) never stop journeying towards hope always in the process of deconstructing and building.

I am emerging not just out of something but into something. I am done with talk for the sake of talk (or even for the sake of hearing if my voice resonates with others); I need to do something that affirms hope. That is how I am moving forward these days.

Do You Hear the People Sing?

2013 January 23

Obama inaugurationThere has, of course, in the past couple of days been much talk about Obama’s inauguration speech (and just about as much talk about Michelle Obama’s haircut and dress, but that’s a whole different issue). It is difficult to even begin to comment on the speech because as soon as you say anything supportive or positive you get labeled as an Obama-worshiping fanatic. So just to be clear – I have some serious issues with Obama, especially with his record of violence and for sometimes being too weak to stand up to bullies and just get stuff done already.

That said, I was fascinated with the tone of his inaugural speech.

I honestly could care less that he used the language of the right to promote leftist (actually, more like centrist) ideas. What I loved was the language of action and hope.

Choir w_Name B_11.40_0As I was watching the inauguration I cringed a bit as I heard the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir start to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The triumphalist eschatological imagery of “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on” isn’t exactly the sort of Christianity (even in a civil religion guise) that I want to see on display, especially at an event like this. Then I was reminded that this was an abolitionist hymn. The coming of the Lord was in fact the Union soldiers trampling the South. In its odd postmillennial theology this hymn teaches that the crushing of the South was in fact part of a much larger series of events—the very Second Coming of Christ and the realization of God’s kingdom on earth. The hope is that we, with our own actions, can bring about the realization of the full and complete reign of God on earth.

But barely a decade after writing those lyrics Julia Ward Howe had changed her tune. She had witnessed a bloody war and the detestation it wrought. No longer was she advocating violence as the means of bringing about the reign of God, but instead was a proponent of peace. For anyone with open enough eyes to see the realities of war and the pain in the world, it is hard to hold onto such a vision of hope through military conquest.

As I heard that song sung at the inauguration I could not help but be reminded of the final song from Les Miserables

Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise

They will live again in freedom in the garden of the lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!

While in stage productions of the musical this song is sung by the entire cast, the recent movie had it sung on the barricades by those who had died. That disturbed me. Here are the miserable of the earth, those who suffer under the system that cares little for their needs, and the message of hope is that someday after death in the garden of the lord the chains of oppression will be broken and all will have their reward. After seeing Cosette and Marius have their “hey look we are rich and happy now” wedding this message that someday the miserable will escape and find comfort did not play well. It doesn’t matter if we hear the people sing or dream of a world beyond the barricade (much less work to make it a reality) if all that matters is that reward comes in heaven someday after we die.

This message is just the flip side of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Hope – the realization of the Kingdom of God – in these views must be fully here and now or only in the world to come.

The problem is that neither view is actually hopeful and both are a bit dangerous. Either one assumes responsibility for saving the world (which is never our responsibility to bear) and becomes discouraged and disillusioned when it doesn’t fully happen or one doesn’t see the need to work for change in the present since what matters most is the life to come. Meanwhile the poor are always with us and the miserable remain.

So it was with these thoughts about the failings of such eschatology that assumes either an already or not yet view of the Kingdom that I listened to Obama’s speech and found in his words a balance of these extremes. That is not to say that I liked everything he said or that I think Obama or politics is our only hope (so don’t even go there). What I liked was that he modeled a way of talking about hope that admits to the realities of suffering in the here and now and that doing what we can for those who suffer is a neverending process. There were no promises of a perfect world or guarantees that we can eradicate poverty, hunger, or prejudice in our time, but instead a reminder that our job is to join in on the ongoing struggle to put into effect our values. We are following that guiding star, Obama noted, just like those before us did at Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. Working on the side of hope is never something that we ever finish doing or something we can put off for another day, but the essence of our very day to day journey.

That, sadly, is a message that many in the church seem to have forgotten. Hope can be present here and now, but it is also always something to be seeking as well. God’s Kingdom is both to come and made present now when we live in its ways.

I applaud the President’s speech for highlighting that reality. But I also wonder, why does it take a Presidential address for this message to be stated? Why isn’t the church the one known for speaking of hope in such ways?

On Disability and Sola Scriptura

2013 January 16

And now for the disability post.

During the Q&A time with Phyllis Tickle at the Emergence Christianity gathering a woman who uses a wheelchair asked what I thought was one of the most important and telling questions of the event. She commented that even though emergence Christians talk about LGBT folks being the last great “Other” that the church needs to accept, in reality it is people with disabilities who are still otherized the most by the church and asked Phyllis what can be done about that.

I applauded her question.

That’s the thing to do in these sorts of gatherings. When someone dares to bring up the elephants in the room or be a voice for unrepresented voices one applauds if one cares.

I was the only one in a cathedral full of people who applauded her question. It was literally just the sound of one hand clapping.

Phyllis responded that disability is not a truly otherizing or controversial concern for the church because it doesn’t challenge the conception of sola scriptura, next question. I think Phyllis is spot on with her theory that the issues that challenge the church the most are those that shake up our perceived understanding of scripture. If we cling to sola scriptura and our interpretation of that scripture is that slavery is okay, women cannot teach in church, or that same-sex relationships are a sin then to accept those things is to disrupt our entire conception of the scripture. Given the philosophical framework of most Protestants and the lingering predominance of sola scriptura, I fully agree with her description of why such issues caused such turmoil for the church.

What I don’t agree with is that disability is not a challenge to sola scriptura.

I would argue that people with disabilities are in fact the most otherized group of people in the church. Whether it is dealt with well or not, most Christians would agree that racism is wrong and that we should love people of all colors of skin. Many churches would also say that sexism is evil and quite a few even allow women to serve as pastors. It’s trendy to engage in interreligious dialogue and LGBT advocacy is the undisputed cause of the moment. Not so much when it comes to welcoming and showing support for the differently abled.

Basically, we are not and never will be cool. While I fully acknowledge the damaging effect positive stereotypes can have – there is something to be said for the hip factor of Queer folk in advancing their cause. But no one brags about their cool disabled friend they go shopping with. We don’t have Pride parades that end up being the most fun event of the season. There are no sitcoms about witty and fabulous disabled people. Not that this is a competition, just the facts that we are hard to like. We are the awkward ones. We are the ones who are so used to the stares and the pointing fingers and the laughter that we’ve learned to brace ourselves as we enter most social situations knowing that we make other people uncomfortable. For better or worse we have never had the option of a closet to hide in to escape the taunts of the world. We are the freaks and it will never, ever, be trendy to advocate for us much less see us as something other than Other.

Secondly, standing in solidarity with us is costly, literally. If a church starts talking about offering programs for the disabled or even putting in an access ramp they quickly encounter the hard data of the cash it will cost them. Most decide that it is more fiscally responsible to just ignore us. Yes, I get that churches that chose to be welcoming and inclusive of the LGBT community know that there might possibly be a financial cost to that decision. But as members leave and take their tithes with them, the blow is softened by knowing that the loss of income came because the church chose the moral high ground over bigotry. It is easier to accept potential cost than swallow the price tag up front.

But beyond those factors, what I have discovered regarding why disability advocacy is not a cause emergence Christianity (or any form of Christianity really) cares about is that the traditional biblical notions about disability have not yet been challenged the way ideas about slavery, women, and Queers have. Instead of seeing people with disabilities as whole people to be equally welcomed in the body of Christ, there is still a ruling belief in the church that we are broken people in need of healing. We are people to be served and changed, not people to be included and fought for.

Think about the songs we sing (even last week at the Emergence Christianity gathering). The lyrics are all about the poor and the blind being made whole or about rejoicing that “I once was blind but now I see.” If we were singing “I once was gay but now I’m straight” or “I once was Native but now I’m civilized” there would be an uproar, but no one sees any issue in singing such about the differently abled. It is still permissible to assume an absolute normative and cast anyone who appears different as the incomplete other that must be healed and made whole before they can be accepted like everyone else.

church disabledThe church still repeats the cultural mores of the biblical worlds. Those with imperfections of the body were barred from serving in the Tabernacle and the Temple. Even animals with defects could not be offered up to God in sacrifice. Only those who appeared normative, unblemished, could be accepted as pure and holy sacrifices to God. People with disabilities could not even enter the Temple to worship, but had to remain in the courtyard of the women and the Gentiles. The imperfection of our body made us unacceptable to God. Over time Gentiles, women, and slaves came to be seen as whole persons made in the image of God and therefore worthy of service, but the stigma of incompleteness remains on those with disability.

Phyllis was partially right in her response. Disability isn’t an issue challenging sola scriptura. But that’s because there has yet to be a vocal and vibrant call within the church to challenge ancient cultural assumptions that continue to cast us as Other. And honestly, I don’t know if there ever will be given how “uncool” we are and how costly it is to welcome us fully. That one could even state that how the church conceives of disability isn’t an issue is quite telling of how little attention is given to us at all.

It’s uncomfortable to be the sole person clapping for this cause in a room full of people who generally seem committed to being as welcoming and inclusive as possible. And it’s indicative of how far we still have to go.

See also J.C. Mitchell’s response.

Emergence Christianity, Women, and the Fall of Christendom

2013 January 14

Last week I was able to attend the Emergence Christianity Gathering in Memphis, TN. In truth, I went mostly to see old friends and to get the fix that comes from surrounding myself (for a few days at least) with people who ask the same sorts of questions I ask. Not that we all think the same, but sometimes I just need that freedom to be myself for a few days. So on that level, the Gathering was amazing. I had some great conversations, heard some good Blues bands, and ate enough barbeque to last a lifetime.

And for the most part, I enjoyed the content of the conference. Yes, there was a serious lack of diversity on stage and amidst attendees. Yes, meeting in a cathedral makes for a very uncomfortable venue. But for what this event was (a celebration of Phyllis Tickle’s life and work), I was prepared to deal with those.

And then came the final session.

There’s no denying that the final session was just weird. Even those who weren’t offended by what was said there thought it was a very odd way to end a conference. I’ve had both people who were there and who were following along on Twitter asking me what the hell happened. I can’t really explain why it happened, but I want to spend some time responding.

A big part of the problem was that people coming to an emergence Christianity event, especially to hear such an intelligent woman as Phyllis, were not expecting to disagree with her much less hear her say such confusing and hurful things about women, people with disabilities (more on this one another day), and African-Americans. From what I gathered, people came there hopeful for what is emerging in the church and left feeing bewildered. They expected to perhaps disagree with some speakers, but Phyllis is beloved and so the disconnect was far more jarring. I’ve heard Phyllis give versions of these lectures before, but never draw the conclusions she did at this event, so even to me, it was unsettling.

The main content of the gathering was Phyllis doing her whole overview of church history to explain where the church is today and how we got here. It’s a fantastic, albeit cursory, survey of church history which far too few Christians have any knowledge whatsoever about. In her talks, she is always one to make snarky comments or sex jokes that no one but a woman pushing 80 can get away with, but the unsettling pattern in her storytelling this time was to blame women for the demise of Christendom. In the final session Phyllis described the rise and fall of Constantinian Christianity and pointed to the emancipation of women in the 20th century as a catalyst for that decline. While most of us there would agree that the fall of Christendom is a very good thing and that women’s liberation significantly changed our culture, it was where Phyllis went with from there that caused the discomfort.

Phyllis described the freedoms working outside the home in WW2 and the ability to control our cycles the Pill brought women and argued that such things led to the destruction of the nuclear family and therefore the foundation of the civil religion of Christendom. While it is a narrow assessment of causality, I can agree with the descriptive observation that such things changed our culture. But then she jumped from these changes as that which brought an end to Christendom to describing how such changes led to the destruction of the ways the faith is passed on to new generations which thereby resulted in a biblically illiterate society. As she described it, when mom is not at home weaving the stories of scripture and the church calendar into her day to day activities in front of her children, they do not receive the basics of the faith. One cannot apparently have a sacred family meal over Papa John’s pizza picked up on the way home from work the same way that one can if one is baking bread, doing family crafts, and eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Phyllis ended the session by encouraging us to discover ways to be back in the kitchen with our children and finding crafty ways to import the rhythms of the church year to them. Essentially to focus on the family and all that. That is the great emergence. The end.

You can see why people left bewildered.

The story as she told it made sense – constructed narratives work that way – women are to blame for the post-Christian era and if we just got back in the home the faith could thrive again. But it is important to note that in her narrative instead of focusing on what has emerged that brings hope in this world, she was telling the story of why things have changed – which are two vastly different perspectives. At some point in telling the story of change it is hard not to get nostalgic about one point or another and hold a sugar-coated vision of that time up as the period we must all try to harken back towards. The problem with such an approach is that it ignores the underside of said period and it imposes guilt upon those who find hope outside that period’s restrictions.

In making the argument that religion was far stronger when the nuclear family (as defined by a working father and stay at home mother) reigned one not only limits the definition of who gets to represent proper religion but also romanticizes a system that was far more broken than is often realized. The truth is, not all Christian families had the luxury of living such a white middle-class, middle-America lifestyle. Even ignoring the patterns of faith outside the Western world, it is only a small demographic of people who ever had a mother at home teaching the children the church year as she cooked their supper. To hold such up as a goal for contemporary Christians to return to privileges white, middle-class, liturgical faith as the only true or acceptable way to be a faithful Christian. While there is nothing wrong with living in such ways, it is not nor never has been the only way to live one’s faith or impart it to one’s children.

To lament that our culture ever changed from such a family structure (even though only a few ever lived it to begin with) also ignores the ills of that very structure. The shift in the Reformation period that empowered women by making them the spiritual leader in the home has over time not only ostracized men from spiritual practices (because such things are “just” for women) but also restricted women’s service to God to just within the household. This way of thinking does a disservice to men, women, and the Kingdom of God. Perpetuating the notion that it is the role of women to care for the spiritual development of their family in their home ignores the fact that it was causing problems for the faith long before the practice began to decline.

missed memoSimilarly, upholding this family structure ignores that the development of the modern nuclear family wasn’t exactly a healthy historical development. Prior to the Victorian era’s turn to individualized nuclear family dwellings, people lived far more communally. Multiple generations lived together and villages functioned as extended family. There was no such thing as a woman keeping house herself. No one ever had to cook, clean, manage the house, watch the kids, and educate the kids on her own. Younger teens helped around the house. Kids could wander the village knowing that most people there would take care of them and that they too were expected to help others as needed. Crying babies were watched by the tween girls or elderly women while the women devoted themselves to other tasks. The development of the nuclear family took all of those support structures away from women. Those who were not rich enough to afford servants to help them were expected for the first time in history to bear the burden of all the household tasks alone. A few enlightened men in recent decades have begun to lend a hand, but it is rare that extended families much less the community (including the church) feel any need to help women with these tasks – expecting her instead to be some sort of supermom who can do it all. At the same time the turn toward isolated nuclear families took away the safety that being in community provides. When generations live together and everyone in the village knows each other’s business it is a lot harder for abuse of women and children to be hidden. Not that it didn’t happen or that women weren’t treated as property during those periods, but the façade of the nuclear family hid many ills that a nostalgic romanticized view ignores. It was not a sustainable system, and it is no surprise that by the mid-twentieth century women were both “running for the shelter of mother’s little helper” and seeking freedom from such unrealistic expectations.

But just because the story can be told in such a way that explains why things have changed in a regretful fashion doesn’t mean that is the only way the story must be told. Allowing women to lead family devotions was a huge hopeful step forward in empowering women once upon a time. The freedom that working outside the home and the Pill brought women gave them hope of being fully themselves and the ability to stand on their own two feet apart from abusive and controlling husbands and fathers. I think many of us at the Emergence Christianity Gathering were shocked that such stories of hope were ignored in favor of one that piled on the same stale guilt that we have come to expect from traditional religion. I’m not saying that Phyllis Tickle can’t believe whatever she wants about the role and place of women or tell the story of history through her own particular biases, but what dawned on many of us during this final session was that she was no longer telling a story of emergence. The end of the story as she told it was not one of hope and promise, but one of restrictions and guilt that we are already well acquainted with. It hurt to hear that from her, and many couldn’t bring themselves to admit that they had problems with how she told the story – just that it felt like a really weird ending to the conference. It is like we were waiting for permission to disagree, to state that was not the only way to tell the story.

So here I go – as much as I am grateful for Phyllis and admire much of her work, she does not possess the only truth regarding what is emerging. It is okay to tell the story of where we have been as a story of hope and liberation instead of merely one of regrettable change. We are still figuring out how to live within this emerging world and what were once whispered ideas and conversations are now unquestioned facts about the evolution of our culture. Not knowing where we came from is dangerous, but so is staking our claim in a misunderstood past. We are constantly negotiating what it means to witness with hope within this present moment without simply re-iterating the past. How we tell our story determines the shape of that witness.

So my question for Emergence Christians is – how can we use this awkward moment to push us to start telling this story of hope?

2012 Books

2013 January 8
by Julie Clawson

Usually at the end of the year I post a list of the books I read that year. I’m a tad late this year, but this is mostly for my own benefit anyway. But it’s always fun to post the list and see if others have read the same books or have suggestions that this list might spark.

As for favorites, I very much enjoyed diving into books on Theopoetics and Social Trinitarianism. Both were topics I needed to research for writing projects and the ideas have captured my imagination. Those approaches to theology (which overlap quite a bit) make sense to me and will be frameworks I will be returning to. As for the fiction I read my favorite this year was Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches. It is one of those books that so thoroughly draws you into its narrative that it takes a moment to reorient yourself to reality once you look up from its pages. Maybe it’s because her career started as an academic or because it is her first novel (and firsts are always the most well written, but obvious reasons), but it was one of the most well-written works of popular fiction I have read in a long time. I am currently devouring its sequel and eagerly await the announcement of the third book’s publication date. For similar (but opposite) reasons, I wouldn’t recommend the Hendees’ Noble Dead series. The first two books were okay for that genre (fantasy/vampire hunter), but obviously once they got the contract for the multiple book series the writing quality plummeted. I know that writers once they are expected to pump out that book a year don’t have the time to construct as engaging of a novel as they did to first catch an agents’s/publisher’s eye, but sometimes it is just far too obviously bad.

But enough complaining, here’s the list. I would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations!