Mercy and misogyny

Cherry tree in April

The other day, I glimpsed the profile of a young man who was the spitting image of a freckled fundamentalist boy from my childhood. I blanched and suddenly felt a spasm of terror. It wasn’t this boy, grown up (ostensibly because this boy still lives in the basement of his parents’ house), but I was still shaken. On the whole, I had a very happy childhood, and my parents are these lovely, fun human beings, but I dislike being reminded of the community I was raised in: the fundamentalist homeschooling enclave.

Primarily, when I remember that time, I recall the crushing sensation of misogyny. Of existing in a network of people in which you have no agency on account of your gender.

To list all of the overt and subtle misogyny I faced as a homeschooled girl would be exhausting. The anecdotes and comments still rise to the surface, however, in my daily life, even though I now feel so personally and ideologically removed from that community. Being told, by an adult man, that I was projecting sexual promiscuity because I wore lipstick to church once. When a young man, just two years older than me, told me that I ought to take his plate after he finished eating, because that was my job, as a docile, submissive woman. Reading comments from two fathers of my friends, on my teenaged blog, that I was a handmaiden of the devil and an agent of whoredom for writing that my friend should not be imprisoned at home by her father for 40 days for hugging her boyfriend. Countless remarks about how I should dress, how I should act, how I should submit to and serve men and boys.

My parents, thankfully, did not force this attitude on us. I wore power suits and heels so that I could tower over the scrawny boys in debate league. My sister was a champion in hockey (arguably one of the least traditionally feminine sports). But there were still vestiges of this pressure at home, to be the good, quiet Christian woman — even though my mother modeled leadership and authority, divorced from male control, on a daily basis. My sisters and I all turned out to be independent, confident feminists, because that is what my mother is, even if she would never call herself that.

Gender discrimination is the only discrimination I’ve experienced, and so I cling to it, like a bitter badge of honor. I swap horror stories with other women. I delight in making eyes widen at parties with tales of indignities from my strongly patriarchal past.

I have become appallingly sensitive to misogynistic attitudes in other people, in art, in culture. Like my fearful German shepherd, my hackles go up at the first hint of danger and disapprobation.

If no one’s ever despised you for your sex, it is difficult to care about sexism because it is necessarily foreign to you.

Remembering this helps me have mercy on men who don’t think feminism is needed or that women have enough rights already. Most likely, these men have never had anyone oppress them because they were male; the very notion is unfathomable to them. No one has ever told them that, merely because they were born male, they are less intelligent, incapable of leadership, intended to be subservient, or a sex object open to public derision and comment. It is therefore difficult for many men to be empathetic with women on this front.

Lately, however, I have been wondering, what is the point? What is the spiritual fruit of this feeling of having escaped? What heart-based good can experiencing and enduring discrimination yield?

I think I am finally sensing the beginning of such fruit in my life. It is the first time I have been able to say the word mercy in conjunction with the men, both known and unknown, who have belittled me. I probably won’t ever forget the comments and attitudes espoused by the homeschool patriarchs in my past life, but with this added understanding, I can forgive. And that is surely a place to start.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

The endearing Jesus

Click for source.

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.

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Freedom (#4)

Freedom.

#4: FREEDOM, Jonathan Franzen.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

I’m perpetually astonished when people say they don’t like Jonathan Franzen. Or say that he’s overrated. Or that they find his books boring. It floors me every time. Because I am so in love with Jonathan Franzen. I think he is doing for the modern American novel what Tolstoy did for the modern Western novel. Freedom is a good example of why I think that.

This much-anticipated and much-hyped book came out in summer of 2010, but I wasn’t able to get it at the library until early 2011. Everyone was reading it. And for good reason. As the New York Times called it in a judicious review, it’s simply “a masterpiece of American fiction.” That’s a fair assessment. Not many American novels published since Freedom can match its scope, insight, and ambition.

Franzen writes primarily about families and about the terrible, domestic things they can do to each other, often in subtle and unintentional ways. Freedom tells the story of the failing marriage of Walter and Patty Berglund. The arrival of Walter’s long-time best friend, jaded, old rockstar Richard Katz, and the introduction of Walter’s pretty, idealistic assistant, Lalitha, further complicate the Berglund’s already complicated relationship. In their estrangement from one another, Patty seeks therapy and a deeper relationship with Richard Katz, while Walter becomes even more extreme about his environmental activism and edges closer to an affair with Lalitha. But, amid all of this unraveling, Franzen permits us to care deeply about Patty and Walter and hope for some form of reconciliation.

As part of Patty’s therapy, her counselor asks her to write her autobiography. We are privileged to read chapters of Patty’s autobiography in the novel, and I would claim that her parts are some of the best in the entire book. Patty Berglund is an incredible character and she is the main reason why anyone should read Freedom. I don’t think I’ve met a character this past year who was so living and tangible. Her voice is sympathetic, honest, and believable, and in the hands of a gifted, precise Franzen, she becomes the simultaneously compassionate and pitiful protagonist. We are cheering for Patty throughout the novel; we desperately want her to get her happy ending, a slice of the American Dream.

On the whole, I think The Corrections (which was ranked my no. 1 novel I read last year) may be his better work. But this is wholeheartedly worth every second of your time. It was the Great Novel of 2010 and it stands to be reckoned with for many years after that.

Jonathan Franzen has his finger solidly on the pulse of American life and Freedom is proof of his accuracy and attention to our modernized and isolated existences. The grace and mercy he extends his characters is breathtaking. His novels, in a strange and perhaps unintentional way, make us ache for Someone to extend the same kind of grace and mercy over our own isolated lives.

(P.S. The only thing I didn’t like about Freedom was its cover. What is that dumb blue bird doing there? Why is he way out of proportion? What does he want??)

Things you get if you’re homeschooled

Religious Homeschool Kids
Homeschooled? OK, not like this. Source: Still from "Mean Girls."

The scene above from “Mean Girls” is what most people seem to think when they find out you were homeschooled.

The fact that I was homeschooled from kindergarten through my senior year of high school is not something that I often divulge to people (until now, I guess, Internets), because you get asked about a million insulting questions right after that. “Did you have any friends? How were you socialized? Did you even learn about evolution? How did your parents teach you everything you needed to know? Do you make all of your own clothes? Was college really, really hard for you? But you seem so NORMAL!” And so on. Sigh.

That said, today I was reflecting on the reasons why I’m thankful I was homeschooled.

So, here’s my list:

Things You Get If You’re Homeschooled, Apart from a Lot of Discrimination

  • An extremely high tolerance for “weird” people and “nerds.” Later in life, you have a lot of grace and common language with these people, because you were/are one yourself or spent a lot of time with them. Either way, homeschooling makes you patient with the uncool.
  • A total lack of pop culture references from your childhood. If you grow up without TV, like we did, you have to pretend that you really miss Nickelodeon shows and 90’s bands that you are supposed to cherish just to appear normal. Even today, when people are like, “OMG, don’t you wish you could watch ‘Saved by the Bell’ all day??” I always pretend like it’s my favorite, too, even though I’ve never seen it. As Emily likes to say, “I cultivate a nostalgia for a childhood I never experienced.”
  • Great rapport and ease of conversation with grown-ups. Yeah, we dress funky, but your parents love us because we carry on conversations with them like mini-adults.
  • A curious mind and an excitement about learning. Unlike our more traditionally educated peers, homeschoolers often have no shame about loving school. We didn’t get recess or video games or texting; our default hobbies were usually an extension of our educations. Best day in the world for me? Library day!
  • Natural ease with humans of all ages. We spent time with adults, babies, and kids of our own age every day, rather than just kids of our same grade. This means you could entrust your infant to just about any homeschooler and he or she would be equipped to care for it, solely from their experience raising their own six siblings day in and day out.
  • Interests and knowledge in unusual areas. We can’t just join the school soccer team like everyone else. So you meet kids who are free to follow their own bizarre passions and became self-taught experts in things such as calculus, roller hockey, the Elvish “language,” debating the implications of medical malpractice law, tap dancing, origami, mastering the viola, and castrating goats.

Yeah, it was a weird way to grow up. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.