How can you still be a Christian?

Saturday selfie

I ask myself this question quite a bit. And I hear it from others.

Just last week, I met an acquaintance who said she was interested in coming to our church. She implied that she was surprised that I went to church, based on my Twitter feed (which is usually a motley assortment of left-wing propaganda, book reviews, and dog photos). “I follow you on Twitter,” she said, “and I’m…” I interrupted her and finished the statement: “… surprised that I’m so liberal?” She laughed and nodded.

So, how can I still be a Christian? In light of everything that we think we know about Christians today? Some thoughts.

1: The GOP does not own nor speak for Christianity, as much as they would like to think that they do. Republicans and the conservative right have co-opted Christianity for political purposes, and they have wielded it with frightening power since the rise of the Religious Right. This is what most Americans think about when we think about Christians today. An inbred church picketing military funerals and shouting about how much God hates you. Politicians who, in the purported name of Jesus, are proponents of preventing the poor from receiving “handouts,” keeping out refugees, teaching or even learning any science at all, giving everyone access to an assault rifle, and barring women from reproductive rights. This, I am happy to say, is not the universal church, even if the Religious Right may be its loudest and most powerful faction.

2: Christianity is not static, and it has progressed, in various denominations, beyond some of its judgmental, fearful peers. I, for one, am a proud Episcopalian, and I’d wager that I have more in common ideologically with a run-of-the-mill agnostic than your average Southern Baptist. We Episcopalians stand on the “liberal” side of various issues (such as ordaining women and gay people) and yet still believe in Jesus. Imagine that.

3: We are personally so grateful to be part of a church community that believes that we cannot save ourselves. We attend a church that preaches, day in and day out, that we have all fallen short of the glory of God and are all in need of forgiveness. Yes, even us so-called and self-identified Christian righteous. We are no better than anyone else, and judging others is a waste of your wild, only life (not to mention baldly hypocritical). More about how this church saved my faith in another post.

4: The person of Jesus is about grace and freedom, not law and judgment. Don’t believe any Christian or any church who tells you otherwise, because they clearly are not very familiar with the Gospel.

Yes, sometimes it feels like a theological high-wire act to maintain my personal faith amid the din of ignorant, hate-mongering politicians who claim to represent my religion. It is hard. Guion and I talk about this a lot. We sometimes feel very ideologically lonely.

But there it is. I still identify as a Christian, because I still identify with a Jesus who embodied freedom, grace, and no-strings-attached love. He has nothing to do with a close-minded, hate-filled, and judgmental religion. And so neither do I.

Favorite books from June

The best books I read in June:

H is for Hawk

H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald. Stop everything and go read this book. It entranced me completely. Macdonald is a masterful writer, and she held me in her spell for the entirety of this gorgeously written book — part grief memoir, part goshawk guide, part meditation on the beauty and mortality of the natural world.

My Struggle: Book 1

My Struggle, Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard. The Norwegian Proust! It is everything everyone says it is (magnificent, breathtaking, compelling, mystifying). I read it on the plane to and from Iceland, and it made that sum total of 12 hours in air feel like a beautiful passing minute.

Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus

Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, Robert Farrar Capon. To a skeptical, literature-loving, doubt-filled Christian like myself, the pleasures of reading Capon are vast. This book brightened my own weak conception of my faith and what matters about it in the end.

Mislaid

Mislaid, Nell Zink. Bizarre and impeccably told. The New Yorker  profile on Nell Zink made me intensely curious about her, and I devoured this novel, her most recent, with great fervor. The frequent references to the University of Virginia and the Virginia countryside, in which I reside, were also delightful.

Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood

Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, Steven Mintz. I’ve always found American history interesting, and this is a particularly interesting history textbook. Steven Mintz covers the movements within American childhood (and parenting) from the Puritans to Columbine High School. It’s extremely fascinating. We’ve come a long way, regarding children, and we’ve changed our collective minds about them over and over again.

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy; translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This is the third time I’ve read AK, and it never fails to please and delight. Read for my church book club. I love the way that this novel, after centuries, still has the power to enchant and enrage readers (our book club was divided strongly into pro- and anti-Anna camps). I think it’s an immortal work of art.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not To Have Kids

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, ed. Meghan Daum. I’ll probably still have kids, Mom, but it was intensely interesting to read a variety of perspectives on why people choose not to have them. I read this book in a sitting, with great focus, on my deck. It was only after I’d finished that I looked up and thought, The only reason I was able to read this book in one breathless sitting is precisely because I do not have children.  So there’s that. The women’s perspectives, naturally, were more resonant with me on a theoretical level, but the three men’s essays were the funniest and most lighthearted on the topic (probably because men, biologically and culturally, can be more laissez-faire about childrearing).

Austerlitz

Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald. I’m not sure if I really get  German literature, but this was beautiful and unusual, even if the prose was murky and dark at times. The photographs were so fascinating to me.

What did you read in June? Any recommendations?

The freedom of the body

(For Kandyce, who asked.)

Visiting baby Auden
Meeting baby A., April 2013.

If you can control a woman’s body, you can control the entire trajectory of her life.

You can keep her at home, endlessly pregnant, and caring for numerous children. You can prevent her from getting an education and a fulfilling career and achieving even the basest level of respect in society. Don’t give her unfettered access to contraception or abortion. Don’t let her make any choices about her body and thus her life until you have given her explicit permission. Don’t let her assume for a second that she is a free agent. Keep her in her place, preferably with violence or harassment, both in public and in private. Constantly remind her that even her body is not her own. And finally, preferably, express all of these limitations with the backing power of your religion.

I have been thinking about physical autonomy lately — specifically, a woman’s body from the perspective of religion.

Far and away, religious institutions are the groups most concerned with controlling and restricting women’s rights, specifically, her body and her ability to make decisions about it.

This troubles me, as a person, and specifically, as a person who identifies as a Christian.

A hallmark of the most conservative branch of every major religion — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism — is the urgent need to control women’s bodies. This is a natural belief, because women have traditionally been seen simply as the property of men. From the beginning of recorded history, women have not been human; women are objects, to be used, bought, sold, and controlled. Drawing from its patriarchal roots, fundamentalist religion is therefore obsessed with sex and ownership of a woman’s body. When she is young, her virginity is her most important quality. Centuries ago, brides were subjected to bloody-sheet tests; today, an American girl is bedecked with “True Love Waits” rings or publicly shamed for being a “slut,” both practices reminding her that a preserved mythical hymen and a virginal reputation is her highest calling. Keeping her veiled, literally, from male attention is crucial. She ought not be trusted to take care of herself; the male authority figures in her life will take care of that. Mutilate her genitals so that she cannot experience sexual pleasure. Keep her perpetually cognizant that her body’s sole purpose is for man’s use and for the production of offspring. When she gets a bit older, get her and keep her pregnant. Don’t let her make any choices about when to get pregnant and if to stay pregnant. Marry her to an eligible man, who will then assume responsibility for her body. She will still not be trusted to take care of herself. A man will do that for her until she dies.

I am a Christian, but I confess that it is sometimes hard to be one when I think about these historical remnants. I am even more troubled by the still-prevalent Christian attitude toward women’s bodies and autonomy. Today, Catholics and most conservative Protestants are very concerned about controlling a woman’s body and decreeing its proper uses, all with the purported backing of God Almighty.

Because I am only qualified to write about Christianity, as it is the religion I know well, I am thus limiting this discussion to Christian women. (But I’d still love to hear from you on this topic if you are familiar with other religions. Please chime in.)

As I have written before, Jesus valued women as human beings, which is really saying something, considering the time in which he lived. The early church also valued women as human beings, and we know that women were called apostles and priests and served as deacons and as leaders in the church.

But not too long after its founding, Christianity fell back to its strongly patriarchal roots. The revered church fathers — Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, among others — and later early reformers — Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley — have all said appallingly hateful things about women, along with hundreds of their fellow male theologians.

Church leaders today are a bit quieter about their hatred of women, but misogyny is still palpable in many of the conservative church’s teachings. For me, denominations obsessed with controlling women’s bodies and sexuality are the most vivid signifier of this entrenched Christian belief that women are evil, untrustworthy, and lesser creatures.

In the United States, there is a frightening trend of anti-reproductive rights, inspired by conservative religion. As the gay rights movement in the United States is increasingly achieving success with marriage equality, the women’s reproductive rights movement seems to be losing ground.* (*A point that Jill Lepore made in her recent New Yorker piece on the legal history surrounding reproductive rights and the choice justices made between privacy and equality.) Because we, as a culture often politically motivated by Christian thought, don’t care about women’s equality, corporations get to decide whether women can have access to affordable contraception and the right to a safe, legal abortion is being curtailed wherever possible. If you can control a woman’s body, you can control her entire life.

So, why is conservative Christianity fixated on women’s bodies and how can I still call myself a Christian and a feminist?

The first question merits a simple answer. There is power in tradition, and power begets the desire for more power. Conservative Christian denominations (Catholics, evangelicals, many of the so-called reformed church movements) care about controlling women’s bodies because (a) they always have done so and (b) they don’t want to be usurped. Subjugating women is an excellent way to maintain the power of the patriarchy in the church. Keep women “in their place” by denying them the power to regulate their own bodies. Don’t ordain them. Don’t let them hold any positions of leadership in any sphere, whether at home or in the church — and in this way, keep sinking your denomination further into oblivion and cultural irrelevance.

This, therefore, is my sincere hope: that denominations that refuse to accept women as people will die out. Hold to your precious patriarchal ideals for as long as you can, but I believe (and I think I have to believe, for my sanity) that such a misogynistic theology (and, indeed, many of the men who hold fast to it) are slowly and actually dying.

This hope is how I can still be a Christian and a feminist. I belong to a famously progressive denomination that ordains women and gay people, and this branch of the church gives me hope. I am blessed to know women priests who are changing the way that the church interprets gender. I am inspired by their faith and their hope for transformation. I believe that I belong to a religion that was intended to be FOR half of its most faithful adherents — women. We certainly got off to a rocky start, and we are still stumbling, but I don’t think we’ve seen the endgame of Christianity in relation to women.

Home and garden, May 2015
Forbidden fruit. (Baby apples in our backyard). May 2015.

In the meantime, what can be done for the majority of American Christian women suffocating under the weight of patriarchal tradition?

Campaign for churches to ordain women. Until women can be accepted at the highest levels of church leadership, major Christian denominations will never truly respect women as human beings and equal children of God. Elect women as leaders in a public, congregation-facing way. Start conversations about women in church history. Educate the clergy and laypeople; help men see women — and women see themselves — as equally valid partners in the kingdom of God. Preach equality. Don’t stop talking about this. And in this way, perhaps, women’s bodies — and hearts and minds — can be freed from the shackles of conservative religion.

Why I don’t write much about my faith

Here’s the thing.

I used to write more about Christianity on this blog and on my previous blogs. I think my mom wishes I wrote more about it (and less about women’s rights in the context of the church, probably). I understand where she’s coming from. You write about what you care about, so if I’m not writing about God, it may lead one to the conclusion that I don’t care much about God.

This is not true. I’ve just made the decision not to write much about Christianity in this space. Here are a few reasons why.

  • As my readership has gradually expanded beyond my blood relatives, I am not writing to a homogenous Christian audience anymore.
  • Expressing opinions about God is a sure-fire way to attract conflict. I am really, really weary of people arguing about Christianity on the Internet. I’d prefer that that didn’t happen here, as much as it lies within my control.
  • I’d rather have an in-person conversation with you about God than read comments about my poorly expressed beliefs on my blog.

Rest assured, I am not done with Jesus. I still talk about and to him on a regular basis. I’d just prefer not to do it here. That’s all.

Keep the windows open

windows

Frenzy

By Anne Sexton

I am not lazy.
I am not on the amphetamine of the soul.
I am, each day,
typing out the God
my typewriter believes in.
Very quick. Very intense,
like a wolf at a live heart.
Not lazy.
When a lazy man, they say,
looks toward heaven,
the angels close the window.

Oh angels,
keep the windows open
so that I may reach in
and steal each object,
objects that tell me the sea is not dying,
objects that tell me the dirt has a life-wish,
that the Christ who walked for me,
walked on true ground
and that this frenzy,
like bees stinging the heart all morning,
will keep the angels
with their windows open,
wide as an English bathtub.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

LOVE this poem. It hits me with such truth and deep, personal applicability today.

We are headed to Southern Pines for the weekend, to see both sets of our parents and, most of all, to meet precious baby Georgia! (Georgia being my parents-in-laws’ new puppy.) I can’t wait. I just hope Pyrrha plays gently and doesn’t try to snack on the wee babe.

Oh, and Happy Anna Howard Shaw Day!

In a world

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“In a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible.”

–Eleanor of Aquitaine in A Lion in Winter.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .
So thankful for so many things right now, especially thinking about the abundance of God’s grace. Wishing you a joyful Easter (or Passover or just a joyful weekend, if you observe neither)!

The endearing Jesus

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I’ve more or less passed that point in my young life where I feel like I have to be ready to give a defense of my faith. When I was in high school, I went to evangelical apologetics camps that made you believe that everyone was out to get you for being a Christian. When I was in college, I learned this wasn’t true but that people still wanted to know why you identified as a Jesus follower. You spent time brushing up on your coming-to-Jesus story, on theological debates, on political or popular intersections or conflicts with your faith.

Now, in post-university life, I realize that adults tend to be more or less uninterested in other adults’ religious convictions. You go to church, sit in a pew with like-minded people, but if you don’t, no one particularly cares. Everyone minds his or her own business. This is all well and good, I suppose, but you get unused to having to actually talk to anyone about why you are a Christian.

I was reminded about all of this a few weeks ago. I was confronted by someone who seemed somewhat aghast and maybe even upset that I was a Christian. The person was relieved to learn I wasn’t Catholic (the Catholic church being the primary source of this person’s anger toward Christianity) but suspicious and perhaps pitying that I went to church and was an “active Christian.”

Then the question came: “Do you think you’re a Christian just because your parents are?”

I fumbled around for an answer. I said that yes, maybe, I was, but that I also went through my own phase of doubt and rediscovery in college. At 20, I finally felt like I wanted Jesus for myself–not for my parents’ approval or my community’s reassurance. It wasn’t a very coherent answer. The person nodded, perhaps appeased, perhaps even more wary.

But this is what I really wanted to say:

In the past few years, I feel more and more that Jesus has endeared himself to me. He is more real to me now than he ever was and yet I understand him very differently than I did when I first started becoming acquainted with him. Grace can be a palpable thing. I am surprised by grace on a daily basis, because I so often forget how real it is. Yes, I get irked with a lot of modern Christianity, too. We can talk about the veracity of scripture, the atrocities of the church, the hypocritical Christians you know, the apparent misogyny of the Catholic church, but I don’t really want to talk about those things. Let’s talk about Jesus. Because Jesus is what counts.

A small sampling of things I cannot do

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Lent is all about reflection and about how we’re pretty much down in the dumps when we’re sans Savior. In accordance with that, here’s my seriously truncated list of things I cannot do.

I can’t:

  • Throw a football.
  • Do math above a fifth-grade level. (Probably. I haven’t tried. The only math I do on a regular basis is calculate tips, and sometimes I don’t even do that accurately.)
  • Eat chocolate without melting some portion of it into my clothes. Chocolate is really hard to get out of most fabric, kids. You’ve been warned.
  • Read anything, anywhere without looking for grammatical or punctuation errors.
  • Take politicians seriously.
  • Touch my toes. (Have you seen how long my legs are? I protest! They are too long!)
  • Dance.
  • Wear cable-knit sweaters. (But, really, who can? Welsh or Irish farmers may be the only ones.)
  • Pass a dog without wanting to pet it.
  • Watch war movies. See also: Talk about war movies.
  • Drive a manual transmission car. We got a 10-minute lesson from a car salesman in August, but I felt like we were all going to die in a jerky, fiery blaze the whole time I was behind the wheel and on the clutch.
  • Read music.
  • Watch golf for more than three minutes without crying out from desperate, desperate boredom.
  • Skateboard. Not that I’ve ever tried. Or have any desire to try. It is easily the most stressful form of transportation to observe.
  • Watch FOX News without my blood pressure spiking significantly.
  • Enjoy a trip to the mall.
  • Make crafts.
  • Hide my emotions from my face.
  • Open wine bottles without seriously messing up or losing the cork.
  • Let my feet touch the bottom of a slimy lake or river without wanting to vomit. I can walk barefoot on rocks in a stream all day long, but please, please don’t ask me to put them in the green slime. See: Trip to Rivanna swimming hole, circa summer 2010, in which I bailed and sat on a log near the very pregnant and beautiful Cate.
  • Kill animals or watch animals being killed. See also: Kill people or watch people being killed.
  • Tell a joke without making an allusion to Liz Lemon or a member of the Bluth family.

And these are just a FEW of them! I can’t do so many things. Lenten conclusion? Jesus is OK with this list.

Lenten aspirations

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After tonight’s Ash Wednesday service, Lent begins. It is a season I look forward to, even though it is one of somberness and reflection. I look forward to it for several reasons: Learning the beauty of the liturgical calendar as a recovering non-denominational, cultivating a spirit of anticipation alongside nature, and recognizing our daily need for God, even in the most mundane things.

For Lent last year, I resolved to not eat any synthetic sugar, to pray and meditate daily, and to memorize a poem and a psalm with Guion. The last two didn’t really happen and the first one should just be a life resolution, but I did focus more on that one.

This year, these are my Lenten aspirations:

  1. Per my previously announced desire to commune more with nature, I am going to spend at least 20 minutes a day outside. That sounds like a pitifully small amount, but I believe that it will actually be hard on weeknights. That’s my goal, though. I feel closest to God when I am outside and yet I don’t spend a lot of time outdoors. This is something I seriously want to change and Lent is the ideal season in which to start. I’ll be watching and waiting along with the earth.
  2. Memorize Psalm 16. For REAL this time.
  3. Stop my bad conversational habits: Gossiping and interrupting people. These ought to be year-round aspirations, but I like the boundaries of Lent for its focus on these specific surrenders.
  4. Stop reading snarky/mean-spirited blogs.
  5. We are establishing a mutual goal of not being online when we’re home together. I’m also very excited about this.

These aren’t ambitious goals; in fact, they are things that I should be doing constantly. As Liz E. reminded me, though, we’re not seeking Lent surrenders to brag or to highlight how spiritually ambitious we are. Rather, we observe Lent to say: Here I am, waiting. Make me more like you.