In which Marilynne Robinson says everything I wanted to say in my previous post. This is long, but it’s great, and it gets at the heart of my intention. The entire essay (and this book) is luminous and wise, and I recommend it highly. Robinson is American Christianity’s greatest treasure. Without further ado:
There is an implied religious rationale or impetus and obligation behind very deplorable trends in contemporary society. The arming of the fearful and resentful and unstable with military weapons, supported by the constant reiteration of tales that make mortal enemies of their fellow citizens and elected government, is pursued with a special passion in regions that claim to be profoundly and uniquely Christian, and well mannered, to boot. Biblicist that I am, I watch constantly for any least fragment of a Gospel that could, however obliquely, however remotely, cast all this in any but a satanically negative light. I am moving, reluctantly, toward the conclusion that these Christians, if they read their Bibles, are not much impressed by what they find there.
In any case, how is it possible, given this economics of dark grievance that has so benefited arms manufacturers, cable celebrities, gold mongers, and manufacturers of postapocalyptic grocery items, that they can not only claim Christianity but can also substantially empty the word of other meanings and associations? I’m a Christian, insofar as I can be. As a matter of demographics, of heritage, of acculturation, of affinity, identification, loyalty. I aspire, with uneven results, to satisfying its moral and spiritual standards, as I understand them. I have other loyalties that are important to me, to secularism, for example. To political democracy. These loyalties are either implied by my Christianity or are highly compatible with it. I am a Christian. There are any number of things a statement of this kind might mean and not mean, the tradition and its history being so complex. To my utter chagrin, at this moment in America it can be taken to mean that I look favorably on the death penalty, that I object to food stamps or Medicaid, that I expect marriage equality to unknit the social fabric and bring down wrath, even that I believe Christianity itself to be imperiled by a sinister media cabal. It pains me to have to say in many settings that these are all things I object to strenuously on religious grounds, having read those Gospels. Persons of my ilk, the old mainline, typically do object just as strenuously, and on these same grounds. But they are unaccountably quiet about it. And here we have a great part of the reason that these gun-touting resenters of the poor and of the stranger can claim and occupy a major citadel of the culture almost unchallenged.
From “Memory,” in The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson.
Upon reading the lyrics of Joanna Newsom’s new album, Divers, one is filled with an acute sense of despair and wonder. How is it fair that one woman should possess all of these gifts?
I want so badly to write this thing, this thing I have been mulling over for about a year, but I realized that I cannot write a good narrative. I don’t know how to write dialogue; I can only tell. I am afraid of mimicking the way people speak. In the same moment, I realize I am also afraid of cats, in a fundamental way. I am afraid of cats, like I am afraid of writing dialogue, because I do not understand how they work.
(I should not be blogging. I have had wine.)
I love how much my husband loves women artists. It is a rare thing in a man, I think.
I don’t think I could ever have a cat, even though I admire them from afar. For one, I abhor keeping any pet that shits in your house. For another, I mistrust an animal that has no sense of mercy.
At a recent dinner, in front of a table full of super-intelligent, beautiful, agnostic women, I admitted that I went to church on a regular basis. I felt shy and exposed, and felt like I should have stopped myself, but I was received kindly and graciously, without apparent judgment. Some of them seemed curious about this admission. We talked freely about religion and what we liked about it, what we felt it could add to our lives.
“Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing. We admire decency and we despise death but even the mountains seem to shift in the space of a night and perhaps the exhibitionist at the corner of Chestnut and Elm streets is more significant than the lovely woman with a bar of sunlight in her hair, putting a fresh piece of cuttlebone in the nightingale’s cage. Just let me give you one example of chaos and if you disbelieve me look honestly into your own past and see if you can’t find a comparable experience…”
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.
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.
In your second novel, Gilead, the protagonist is a pastor, John Ames. Do you think of yourself as a religious writer?
I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.
When I was a young blogger, I wrote more freely about my faith. At that time, I assumed that all of my readers were also like-minded Christians. This was a fair assumption, since I think my mom, my grandparents, and my sisters were my only readers. But over the past two years or so, I’ve more or less stopped writing about my faith and I regret that. The gospel is important to me, but you’d never get that impression by reading this blog. I write about all of the other things that are important to me–Guion, friends, family, books, dogs–but not about Jesus.
Here’s my best guess as to why I stopped doing this. I have followed the tendency of many bloggers to whitewash my life. The one thing you learn about blogging for a few years is that you can’t express an opinion about anything without offending someone. Because of this, I have tried to avoid topics that are inherently personal and offensive, like religion and politics. While most casual readers could probably divine my political leanings (it is evident that I am not a Sarah Palin or FOX news fan), it would be trickier to actually figure out what I believe about God.
Lately, I’ve tended to keep my thoughts about God closer to my chest. I have many friends who are not Christians. I am hesitant to write about my many religiously oriented thoughts and concerns for fear of alienating people. Even I don’t like to read long-winded and highly emotional posts about religion. It’s not often enjoyable and it is often hard to relate to; faith is, by definition, such an intensely personal thing. Even more than puppies and books. It’s generally more enjoyable to read a post about someone’s kitchen makeover than it is to read a post about their internal turmoil over transubstantiation. Intensely personal things are not always blog (aka, The Entire Internet Can Read This) material.
However. All of this to say: I think there are appropriate and considerate ways to write about one’s faith on the Interwebs. I am going to try to do this with more frequency, but I think I’ll also spend some time studying good examples. Mrs. Pinckney and Betsey come to mind as people I know who blog gracefully and fluidly about the intersection between Jesus and life. I hold them up as valuable examples.
So, here’s a short attempt:
Part II. I Knew I Was Not Magnificent
No one enjoys receiving criticism. But when you don’t hear it for a while, you start to think that you’re pretty awesome. Boy, there’s nothing wrong with me! I am the best.
If we’re lucky, however, we have people in our lives who are able and willing to tell us that this is not the case. After a few months of believing that I was super, I’ve received a lot of criticism from important people in my life over the past few weeks. As these people pointed out, I am grumpy, judgmental, and anxious. I am an energetic young curmudgeon most of the time. I am fundamentally cynical about most things. I am an obsessive planner because I tend to expect worst possible outcomes and because I thrive on a high degree of responsibility.
As these people kindly pointed out, these aren’t the best personality traits. I had more or less forgotten about these unfortunate aspects of myself until I heard these reminders. To be pushed back to God, to a place of humility–it is a necessary chore. I think God speaks to us through other people sometimes. Often, through our closest friends and loved family–and sometimes, through a much-lauded hipster musician.
We were listening to Bon Iver’s new album on our drive to North Carolina this weekend. The gorgeous song “Holocene” came on and we talked briefly about the chorus.
we smoked the screen to make it what it was to be
now to know it in my memory:
… and at once I knew I was not magnificent
high above the highway aisle
(jagged vacancy, thick with ice)
I could see for miles, miles, miles…
“I knew I was not magnificent.” What a simple and perfect expression. It’s that place of humility that we all have to reach with ourselves at some point or another. Acknowledging that I am not magnificent was a surprisingly difficult thing to do. Difficult, but essential.
Last night, we had 12 friends over to watch “Babies” with us. Guion and I watched it on Friday night, but were so eager to watch it again that we had to host a showing. Particularly, Guion hatched a plan to invite all of our childless friends, with the intent of persuading them to procreate, so that, in his words, “I can enjoy your babies without having any of the responsibility of raising them.” Exactly. We lit candles and passed around chocolate. It was a very romantic and fun evening. And, apparently, our scheme worked… very quickly. After the movie ended and we were all sitting around chatting, a brief silence fell and one of our married couples looked at each other and laughed briefly. “Well, I guess this is as good a time as any… Your plan worked, because WE’RE PREGNANT!” And they weren’t kidding. Ensue lots of hugs and laughter at the sheer appropriateness of it all.
Seriously, though. You have to watch this movie. It’s so sweet and uplifting. (And yet I still don’t want to have a baby of my own. Clearly, we’re doing good work convincing our friends to reproduce!)
Monday Snax, in the house:
How to Stop a Baby From Crying. Speaking of babies… I don’t know how I feel about taking advice from a self-proclaimed “baby whisperer,” but this method does seem to work. Guion and I need to study up, because it looks like we’re going to be busy babysitters in the near future! (Wise Bread)
Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans. According to this Pew Forum study, Jews, atheists, and Mormons know the most about religion. How do you shape up? Take the actual survey here. How did you do? I got 15 out of 15 right. I don’t think it’s all that hard, and I don’t really consider myself all that knowledgeable of world religions. (New York Times)
Women of the World. My little sister on things she’s been learning, reading, and watching about women’s rights. Love that kid. (Como Say What?)
Study: Bilingual Dolphins. Reason no. 4,508 why dolphins are THE coolest animals alive. A recent study shows that two different dolphin species–who communicate with different lexicons–create a pidgin language (like Spanglish) to talk to each other when they meet. The coolest thing I’ve heard all week. (TakePart)
Nancy and Jonathan, the Yadkin Valley. Sharon Clark is one of my favorite wedding photographers, and I read her blog religiously. You can imagine my surprise and delight when I saw our friends Nancy and Jonathan featured in this gorgeous engagement shoot. (Smitten Photography)
Topography. How does she do it? Beautiful topographical invitations from calligrapher Betsy Dunlap. (Betsy Dunlap)
What We Wore. Whoa. Hello, Most Hipster Family Alive. (Bleubird Vintage Blog)
Past & Present: Windsor Chair History and Resources. Design Sponge’s feature on Windsor chairs. We’ve had these chairs at our long, weather-beaten kitchen table for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always harbored a deep fondness for them. (Design Sponge)