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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"Christians Aren't Perfect" When It's Convenient

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I recently saw an image like the one above being shared on social media. It says "Christians aren't perfect... just forgiven." Actually, the version I saw added a bunch more, about "When I say I'm a Christian, I'm not saying I'm better than anyone else, I'm saying I'm weak and I need God" and so on.

Yeah, and I'm not okay with this.

By itself, "Christians aren't perfect" is a true statement, and something all Christians should remember. Being humble, being honest about your mistakes- those are all good things.

But.

Has anyone else noticed that the phrase "Christians aren't perfect" only tends to come out when a Christian did something bad and someone is trying to convince us that it doesn't matter?

Y'all remember when we found out that Josh Duggar had molested 5 girls when he was a teenager? Christians on my facebook page shared a blog post that basically said, "Geez, you guys, why is anyone surprised by this? We have never claimed Christians are perfect! Of course Josh Duggar is a sinner, and we are all sinners! Nothing to see here!"

(And then "the world", which, as we all know, has abandoned the very concept of morality, argued that molesting children is a big f***ing deal and yeah we know no one is perfect but we're pretty sure "don't molest children" is a reasonable expectation.)

When a Christian does something bad, Christians all want to talk about "it's not a big deal, because Christians aren't perfect."

But what about when they want to tell other people how to live their lives?

Christians want to tell everybody who's not allowed to have sex with whom. "The bible is clear," they say. In other words, "my understanding of God's laws about sex is perfect."

And then there's evangelism. Christians know that everyone needs Jesus, and that your life definitely sucks if you don't have a personal relationship with Jesus. And then a non-Christian says "no, I'm fine. I don't have a 'God-shaped hole in my heart'." Ah, but the Christian knows not to believe it. The Christian knows- with perfect certainty- that no one can be truly happy without believing the correct things about Jesus.

Every time Christians judge someone and say "this person is sinning", every time Christians judge someone and say "this person is not a real Christian." What they're really saying is "My definition of 'sin' is perfect. My definition of 'Christian' is perfect."

What they're really saying is "Christians aren't perfect, but are still perfectly qualified to tell everybody else how to live their lives."

And I just realized, that's the whole point.

When they say "Christians aren't perfect" they're only talking about behavior. They're only saying "we don't follow the rules all the time", not "we might be wrong about what the rules are." 

Wow. Suddenly "Christians aren't perfect" doesn't sound humble at all. What it really means is "we know all the right answers, you'd better listen to us... oh but don't expect us to actually obey all these rules we talk about, we're not perfect ya know."

Yeah, okay. Then they wonder why "the world" thinks we're judgmental.

"Christians aren't perfect. They just want you to be." Image source.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Blogaround

A tiger swimming. Image source.
1. 8 Exonerated Prisoners on Their First Week Out (posted September 10) "Then I got up to leave, and every step that I took, nobody stopped me."

2. The Dad Who Wrote a Check Using “Common Core” Math Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About (posted September 21) "That’s what great math students learn how to do, too. They see a problem and they just know how to manipulate the information at their disposal. They knew how to step away from the algorithms. They didn’t need a “recipe” because they understood how to mess around with the numbers to get the answer they wanted."

3. #MasculinitySoFragile Hashtag Highlights Toxic Masculinity’s Weak Points (posted September 23) "#MasculinitySoFragile Guys have to say "no homo" when showing affection to another guy, which is like saying "no Oedipus" when u hug ur mom."

4. Evangelical Conference on Transgender “Confusion” Has Zero Transgender Speakers (posted September 23) "This isn’t a conference; this is the active plotting of maltreatment that could have deadly consequences."

5. The Real Theological Challenge of Evolution (posted September 16) "What do we make of the notion that God created a world so well-equipped for extinction that 99.9% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct? Or that God created a world with parameters in which biological strategies such as predation and parasitism are so rewarding that they are virtually inevitable?"

6. [trigger warning- child sexual abuse] Jamie Wight, Maranatha, & Sexual Predation Unrecognized (posted September 23) "Fathers are taught to expect to be approached by godly young men hoping to wed their daughters. In this context, Stan and the Greenfields likely saw Matthew and Jamin as earnest and well qualified young men who had simply jumped the gun by a few years."

7. Stat check: No, women couldn’t just “go somewhere else” if Planned Parenthood closed (posted September 24) "State data shows that without Planned Parenthood in the network, the public program provided care to about 9 percent fewer women than it did in 2011. In the West Texas region, women served by that program declined by 40 percent between 2011 and 2013 — the same year that Planned Parenthood closed two clinics in that area of the state."


8. Chinese President 习近平 Xi Jinping visited the US and it is all over the news here (I'm in China).

Here are some articles from the English side of the internet:
Obama and Xi Jinping of China Agree to Steps on Cybertheft
FACT SHEET: President Xi Jinping’s State Visit to the United States
Mark Zuckerberg Met With Xi Jinping and Spoke Only in Chinese  Good for him! I want to see a video though.
XI Jinping of China visits Washington D.C. (21 images)

And from the Chinese side of the internet:
习近平访美中方成果清单发布  [Results of Xi Jinping's visit to the US] This one includes an 8-minute video of Xi's arrival at the White House, with a ceremony and everything.
彭丽媛和米歇尔为赴美大熊猫幼崽命名 [Peng Liyuan and Michelle name the American panda cub] 10 photos here. Also this one has a video of the name reveal and Peng Liyuan saying some stuff (in Chinese) about pandas and cooperation between China and the US.
习近平访问西雅图林肯高中 获赠1号球衣 [Xi Jinping visits Lincoln High School in Seattle and receives a #1 football jersey] 12 photos here.

9. Ben Carson’s claim that ‘taqiyya’ encourages Muslims ‘to lie to achieve your goals’ (posted September 22) This is hilarious to me because Christians lie ALL THE TIME if they think it's in service to Jesus. They lie about abortion, birth control, and sex. They use scare tactics and portray LGBT people as monsters who want to destroy society. They find deceptive ways to force people to listen to a "gospel presentation." How about removing the plank in your own eye before giving your uninformed opinion of Muslims?

10. Ahab and Jezebel in Psalm 45 (posted September 26) Is Psalm 45 the wedding song for Ahab and Jezebel?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Church is a Safe Place for Awful Beliefs

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So I went to a church small group this week. And basically I want to know if I can be honest there, if people will accept me, if people will believe that I am a Christian.

But.

I don't see how that could even be possible. Because we have such fundamentally different ideas of what church is, and what Christianity is.

Basically, for many evangelical Christians, the church is the one place they can go where people will encourage and support their prejudiced and unloving beliefs.

Say you're a Christian who opposes marriage equality. People will call you hateful, bigoted, homophobic. But you know you are not those things. You LOVE gay people! You just believe that the bible says people of the same gender aren't allowed to marry each other, and trans people don't exist.

You tell your friends, acquaintances, and coworkers that you believe marriage is just between one man and one woman, and they'll wonder what the heck is wrong with you. But you go to church and say it, and you'll find people who understand. They'll agree with you about how our society has lost its morals. They'll say "nowadays, people think that if you love someone, it means you agree with everything they do. But we have to speak the truth in love."

And I'm over here, looking for a church that accepts LGBT people 100%. No "we love you, but..." That's an impossible dream, I tell myself, maybe I can at least find a church that believes it's okay for Christians to have different views on this. Maybe I can at least find a church where people believe that my 100% acceptance of LGBT people is firmly rooted in my understanding of Jesus, the bible, God's love, etc, and has nothing to do with being "led astray by the world."

But how could that be? How could I be accepted in a church which is also considered to be a "safe place" for people to express their anti-LGBT views without being challenged?

Or we could look at sexism. Some Christians believe that a wife is supposed to submit to her husband; the husband is supposed to be the leader. And women shouldn't be allowed in the highest levels of church leadership. Because, the bible. You go out in public and say things like that, and people will be like "do you think it is the year 1950? Take your sexism and GTFO."

But you know you are not being sexist. You love women! You believe men and women are equal, but God made us for different roles. And it hurts that people would call you a misogynist when you're just trying to obey God.

So you go to church, and you find people who treat these issues as very important. They preach sermons on what wifely submission looks like in various situations. They have long discussions on the difference between "teaching" and "sharing." Maybe some of the church people don't think women should be barred from church leadership, but they still see your opinion as a legitimate view for a Christian to hold.

In Samantha Field's post, The Pitfalls of the Middle Ground, she says this:
At the church we left, by “compromising” on women in leadership, the flashing-neon-sign of a message they’re sending their congregation is that being misogynistic is an acceptable position that can be supported by Scripture. By embracing a false “middle ground,” they are implicitly endorsing a view of the Bible that subjugates women while simultaneously telling us that women are not important enough to fight for– or even take a damn stance for.
And I'm very sadly realizing, how could I expect anything different? How could Field have expected anything different? She assumed that caring about women would obviously be something very important for this church, but no. She believes that love and equality are central to the mission of the church, but members of her former church did not share that view. No, they saw the purpose of the church as providing a refuge for those who hold conservative, sexist interpretations of the bible.

In that same post (I totally recommend you go read the whole thing), Field says this:
The “middle ground” is nothing more but a retreat into fear. It’s the concession that something else is more important to you than defending oppressed and marginalized people.
And yes, OF COURSE something else is more important, in that church, than "defending oppressed and marginalized people". I believe that "defending oppressed and marginalized people" is the main point of Christianity, Field does too, and she believes it would be unacceptable for a church to NOT value "defending oppressed and marginalized people".

But for so many evangelical Christians, that's not the purpose of Christianity at all.

OF COURSE something is more important than "defending oppressed and marginalized people". That "something" is the bible- or rather, the correct, Real True Christian, conservative interpretation of the bible.

The church is a place Real True Christians can go where they won't have to defend their indefensible views. Where "because the bible" is seen as a legitimate argument, to support an opinion that has absolutely no basis in logic, reality, or love. Where people can empathize with how "the world" is misinterpreting your faithfulness to God and calling you "hateful."

The church is where you go to find people who affirm your belief that the bible is more important than the actual lives of actual people.

The church is a refuge for those who tie up heavy loads for others but are not willing to lift a finger to move them. The church is a safe place for those who shut the door to the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. The church is a support system for people who give a tenth of their spices- mint, dill, and cumin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law- justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

The church is a ministry for those who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Blogaround

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1. President Obama Stands With Ahmed, Tweets Perfect Response After Muslim Boy's Arrest (posted September 16) "A series of tweets in support of the boy, tagged with #IStandWithAhmed, noted the Islamophobic double standard surrounding the case, arguing had the young inventor been white with a non-Muslim name, he would have been celebrated."

2. 5 Insane Things I Was Taught In Abstinence-Only Sex Ed (posted September 13) "Horny teens talking about marriage every time they think about sex ... no way this will go wrong."

3. [trigger warning: domestic violence/abuse] Box-Office Hit War Room Made Me Shake with Rage (posted September 9) "Elizabeth tells Miss Clara about how abusive and neglectful her husband is, and instead of saying “Leave him” or “Poison his soup,” Miss Clara demands that Elizabeth pray for him, because the problem isn’t that her husband is the worst, it’s that Elizabeth just doesn’t love Jesus enough." (See also: The Cycle of Abuse in Fireproof)

4. I thought all anti-vaxxers were idiots. Then I married one. (posted September 4) "It's impossible to understand their position without considering the amount of fear that goes into the anti-vaccine narrative, and considering how people construct and deal with fear."

5. Carly Fiorina lied about Planned Parenthood and we’re calling her out on it (posted September 17) "Literally, there is no such scene on any of the heavily edited, widely discredited videos that have been released by anti-abortion extremists."

6. Everything that claims to be Christian (posted September 6) "The people who openly hate Latino immigrants and even state that they’d like to shoot and kill them almost always claim to be Christians. The people who make life difficult, daily, and mock my LGBT friends, are almost always Christians. Those who are calling the Black Lives Matter movement a “terrorist organization” or a hate group...so called Christians."

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

My Identity was in Christ

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"But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ." - Philippians 3:7

"Don't be angry, if I wash his feet with my tears and I dry them with my hair. You weren't there, the night Jesus found me. You did not feel what I felt when he wrapped his love all around me. And you don't know the cost of the oil in my alabaster box." - "Alabaster Box" by Cece Winans

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Obsession.

I was at a Christian conference, and the bible study leader asked us to write down one word to describe our faith. I wrote "obsession." And it was true.

Jesus was everything. Jesus had saved me- but I didn't use the word "saved" because for Christians, "saved" means you became a Christian. No, Jesus had rescued me. As in, literally changed my life. In less than a week, he had turned my life around- I went from completely hopeless to the happiest I could possibly be. It was a deep deep change, all the way down to my heart, all of my emotions. It wasn't just a new piece of information I started to believe, or a new plan for how to improve myself... no, I had changed, and in such a deep way that I knew it was God who did it.

It was God, God Almighty, who reached down from heaven and healed me.

And I was forever grateful. Jesus, Jesus was my love, my life. My lord, my master. Jesus was everything.

Do you know how it feels to lose everything?

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Christians talk about how our identity should be in Christ. And God is supposed to be the most important thing in our lives. And we shouldn't have idols.

And then they come to their weekly prayer meetings and say, "Can you guys pray for me? I've really been struggling with putting God first. I try to make time to read my bible, I try to remember to pray, but there are always other things that come up, and it's so hard." The idea is, we all agree that our identity should be in Christ, but it's such a faraway and impossible goal. And we should feel bad about our continued failure to reach it.

Not me though. My identity actually was in Christ.

I loved him. I thought about him constantly. He had rescued me. He was real. I had experienced his power and it was the greatest thing imaginable.

Every day I woke up early so I could spend maybe 40 minutes to an hour reading the bible, journaling, and praying. Sometimes I had an extra hour in the evening between classes and group meetings, and I'd find an empty classroom and kneel down and pray. I loved God.

When I had a crush on a boy, I would pray about it. God was in charge of my life, and any likage of boys was a possible threat. It would be a sin to like a guy "too much" and get "emotionally attached" to him. (That wouldn't be "guarding my heart." And if I acted on my feelings- even in a way as subtle as choosing to stick around and talk to the guy after bible study meetings- that would be "not waiting for God's best.") So if I liked a guy, and he was a good Christian and therefore he might be the special one that God had destined for me, I prayed. And prayed. And prayed. And begged God for a "yes" or "no." I spent hours of my spare time asking and asking and asking, listening for his (yes, his) answer. Analyzing whatever random thoughts popped up while praying, wondering if God was telling me "yes" or "no."

Sometimes God did say "no." Most of the time, I didn't get an answer and I worried about it constantly. And I never got a yes.

I prayed and I begged and I didn't allow myself to feel. But it was all worth it, because I trusted God so much. I knew God cared so deeply about my love life and about keeping me pure, inexperienced, and safe from the horrible danger that is romance.

Jesus was Lord over all of it. I thought, I will wait. And even if God wants me to be single forever, I will. I trust God.

You don't know the cost of the oil in my alabaster box.

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There was also evangelism.

I knew everyone needed Jesus. I knew every non-Christian was living every day in their own personal hell, and I knew God had the power to work a miracle and get them out of it.

And I prayed and I prayed and I prayed. I wanted to see God's power, to experience God transforming the lives of my friends. God, open his eyes. God, change her heart, God, show them that they need you.

I knew I was a missionary. Also a college student, but that wasn't anywhere near as important. I went to meetings with my Christian fellowship. I planned evangelistic events. I started bible studies. And came back home and did my homework in the middle of the night because it was the lowest priority. ... Nope, sleep was the lowest priority.

God would sustain me.

And it hurt, and I doubted, and I failed. There were times I was so excited because a new person came to my bible study, and times I felt awful because I missed an opportunity or said the wrong thing. I was locked in spiritual warfare, and I knew I just had to stay strong and keep working for Jesus. He knew. He cared. He knew I was doing the right thing.

I loved him, and it was all worth it.

Do you know what it feels like to lose that?

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God was it. God was everything. Every now and then I would identify some kind of "idol" in my life and get all freaked out and repent and consider anew how deep my sin nature ran- but for the most part, God was first in my life.

I prayed. I worshiped. I sang and danced and overflowed with joy and I wanted to share God's love with everyone. I was not ashamed of the gospel. I loved my friends so much and I knew that they needed to become Christians or they would never be truly happy. I had the awkward conversations. I didn't let social norms and politeness get in the way of telling them about God.

My identity was in Christ. My desire was that whenever someone thought of me, they couldn't help but think about Jesus too. I was happy to hear a friend of mine say that, when he was talking to some acquaintance and mentioned my name, the acquaintance said "is she the one who's always posting religious things on facebook?" I'll have you know I never posted sappy Christian-sounding platitudes and cliches. Nope, I'd heard those all a million times and I wanted to cut through all that and express the fact that my relationship with God was real and life-giving and nothing at all like a tired cliche.

That relationship defined my life, just the way that evangelicals say it should.

Now it's over.

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They said everyone needs to worship something. And people will look for satisfaction in all kinds of places, but the only one that really works is God. You can chase all kinds of other things- money, romance, family, career, fame- and you'll end up unhappy.

They said build your house on the rock. All other ground is sinking sand.

I gave everything to God. It was hard, but it didn't feel like a sacrifice because I knew that living without him would be hell on earth.

Whatever was to my profit I considered loss for the sake of Christ.

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I was driven. I was devoted. And Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." So I started to listen to people who were different from me, so I could understand them and love them. So I could help them get out of their sin and find God.

I listened and read so many people talk about things I didn't agree with. Telling personal stories about their lives that I didn't agree with. They said it was okay for them to live that way, but I knew it wasn't, and I looked for uncertainties in their tone, for places where their confidence cracked because they were living a lie.

Because I knew, and God knew, that you can't have a truly happy life unless it's centered on Jesus. I was on his team. We were on a mission to save the world.

Until I bailed on the mission.

Because how many times can you read people's accounts of their own personal lives, and believe every one of them is lying? (Or at least, lying to themselves?)

I read about a gay man who had spent most of his life thinking he was broken, but finally he accepted himself, and now he's in a relationship with a man, and he's happier than he's ever been. I can read that and think, "No, he's secretly unhappy." But what happens when I read similar stories, again and again and again? How many times can I reassure myself, "No, these people are wrong about their own personal lives, and I know what they really need"?

I read a blog by an atheist who said no, she doesn't have a "God-shaped hole." She is actually totally fine with her life. There is no deep unresolved unhappiness. I can decide, "No, she secretly is unhappy, she'll realize it eventually." But how long can I keep that up, faced with an onslaught of personal testimonies which contradict what I was taught?

In the face of this new evidence, I changed my beliefs. I decided that to truly love someone means to believe them when they talk about their own personal life and their own needs.

But my God didn't change. How could he? Don't you know Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever? This was the God I prayed to because I wanted him to stop same-sex marriage from becoming legal. We were a team. We were fighting for the same things.

I admitted I had been wrong, that I didn't have enough information at that time, and that's why I opposed LGBT rights and thought everyone needed to become a Christian.

But God wouldn't admit he was wrong.

The God I had trusted, that I loved so much, that I devoted my life to, without limit. And all this time, we had been fighting for the wrong things. I didn't know any better. But what about God? He must have known. And his goals- my goals- were things that were actually hurting people.

Do you know how it feels to see the one you love more than anything else turn into a monster?

What's supposed to happen to me, when my identity is in Christ, but I can't have anything to do with that version of "Christ" anymore?

It hurts so bad. I've lost my identity. I've lost everything.

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Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Blogaround

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1. The uncanny sex fiends of Christianity Today (No. 2) (posted September 1) "Take a moment for gratitude here. This could’ve been you — raised and groomed for leadership in an ultra-Calvinist sect that conceives of God’s grace as something that reveals itself to us primarily through fear and shame. Imagine what it would mean to have been indoctrinated (literally) to believe that grief and loneliness aren’t natural, human emotions, but sinful flaws through which Satan works to tempt us. (To fully appreciate that, understand that you would have been taught your whole life that those adjectives — “natural” and “human” — refer to something dirty, wicked and depraved. Thus, Calvinism.)"

2. When Peer Review Lets You Down: A YEC Quote Problem (posted August 31) "Roughly half of Christ's references to Scripture were quotations from Genesis." Nope.

3. The Enduring Myth of Black Criminality (posted September 10)

4. Watch Elizabeth Warren’s Speech in Defense of Planned Parenthood (posted August 4) "The government doesn't fund abortions, period. A vote today to defund Planned Parenthood is not a vote to defund abortions. It's a vote to defund cancer screenings and birth control and basic health care for millions of women."

5. How a Tradition That Says ‘Thou Shalt Not Lie’ Justifies Deception (posted September 1) "When you are absolutely, fundamentally certain of what your deity thinks about something, it’s not a hard leap to think that your deity would want you to do almost anything to achieve those ends. And that makes the decision to lie about the facts quite easy, even if your own holy book tells you not to."

6. What Jesus Meant When He Said, “I Didn’t Come To Bring Peace, But A Sword” (posted September 8) "When you love people radically like Jesus loved many outside of Christianity will say, “Wow, that’s a kind of Christianity I could go for!” but you will quite often end up a prophet without honor in your own hometown and among your own family."

7. ignoring friendship is destroying the Church (posted September 11) "I have never, not once, heard a message on the topic 'this is how you can have a good friendship.'"

8. Everybody in dresses: Why does gender neutral clothing always mean ‘boy’ clothes for girls? (posted September 11) "There is such a devaluing of anything traditionally feminine that we’d rather chuck it out triumphantly than ever demean our boys with it."

9. Rallying to Help a Homeschooled Christian Kid Who Got Thrown Out After He Came Out (posted September 10) "In addition to forcing him to move out of the house, Joel’s parents demanded that he stop using his last name—their last name—publicly. Joel, she explained, still loves his parents and doesn't want to cause them more pain. So he agreed to stop using his last name."

10. Protecting ‘our Christian values’ (posted September 12) "'You’re doing a lot to help the refugees,' one woman asked. 'What are you doing to protect our Christian values?' That is an amazing question — almost eloquent in its obtuse blasphemy."

11. the pitfalls of the middle ground (posted September 2) "The “middle ground” is a way for people who don’t really want to admit to being sexist or homophobic bigots to look and feel like they’re really Nice Christians™."

Saturday, September 12, 2015

I remember when I was young and sheltered and afraid of the world

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So, did you hear? Some freshman at Duke University are refusing to read the book "Fun Home", because... Christianity. "Fun Home" is a graphic novel by Allison Bechdel, about issues with her family, her father's suicide, and her identity as a lesbian.

The reason for some students' objection is that it is a graphic novel. It has pictures. And some of those pictures show female masturbation and sexual experiences.

I've seen several blog posts about this, and they tend to misrepresent the situation. They say that the students are refusing to read it because they don't want to listen to viewpoints they disagree with. They don't want their beliefs to be challenged. THAT'S NOT IT AT ALL. (One post, If Duke freshmen can’t read “Fun Home,” they shouldn’t read the Bible, has some really important things to say about the bible, but it misses the point about the Duke freshmen.)

Helpfully, we have this post, which explains the students' thought process: I’m a Duke freshman. Here’s why I refused to read ‘Fun Home.', by Brian Grasso. Here's why he's not reading it:
After researching the book’s content and reading a portion of it, I chose to opt out of the assignment. My choice had nothing to do with the ideas presented. I’m not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide. I’m not even opposed to reading Freud, Marx or Darwin. I know that I’ll have to grapple with ideas I don’t agree with, even ideas that I find immoral.

But in the Bible, Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he says in Matthew 5:28-29. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” This theme is reiterated by Paul who warns, “flee from sexual immorality.”

I think there is an important distinction between images and written words. If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. But viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex. My beliefs extend to pop culture and even Renaissance art depicting sex.
I believe him.

It's not anything about "this book promotes an opinion that I disagree with."

It's "looking at any kind of sexual image could cause me to sin."

Yeah. It's the idea that it is actually dangerous and harmful to look at nudity. It will make you impure. It will probably make you imagine having sex with the person pictured. It could send you into a spiral of porn addiction.

(As a side note, it's really interesting to me that he talks about the "distinction between images and written words". Not everyone in purity culture would agree with him there. Some would say that even learning about sex or anatomy would be a dangerous temptation.)

Also, does anyone else think it's weird that the sexual images in "Fun Home" are about a woman discovering her own sexuality, and Grasso uses the term "lust"? (He cites the verse where Jesus says "if anyone looks at a woman lustfully".) It's all about The Male Gaze, huh? A woman talks about her sexual identity, and a man can't conceptualize it in any other way besides "would I like to have sex with her?" Right. I haven't read the book, but I'm guessing that's not the point.

Anyway, what I want to say is, I can relate to this fear of sex. No seriously, that's what it is, a fear of sex. I was in purity culture, and I believed that anything remotely sexual was a slippery slope into the worst kind of immorality. First you accidentally happen to look at a NSFW photo on the internet, next thing you know, you're addicted to porn and it's ruined your life.

I didn't even know anything about my own body. Sure, in sex ed in high school, we labelled the parts on the diagram, but it was just some abstract knowledge to me, something I learned just so I could pass the test in class. It never occurred to me that what we learned in sex ed was supposed to be useful in our lives in a practical way. To even think about my own body parts was probably the first step to becoming addicted to masturbation.

Additionally, in purity culture, if someone looks at porn or masturbates occasionally, this counts as being "addicted." The only acceptable amount is NONE AT ALL. (See this article: No, Porn Addiction Is Not Really a Thing.) And the slope was so slippery, we had to be afraid of what we might do, we had to assume we were animals with out-of-control sex drives, and even one step outside the rules of purity culture and our sin nature would take over.

He doesn't say it explicitly, but that's what I see when I read Grasso's article. He's afraid. He can't even look at the sexual images in "Fun Home" or else he might commit some kind of terrible sin. Ehhhh I don't want to speculate too much about him because I don't know him, but I can tell you about myself: I was afraid of my own desires- so much so that I believed it was sin to even determine the exact nature of what those desires were. I mean, obviously if I wasn't working so hard to "take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ" I would just want sex all the time, right? Everyone does, right? (Spoiler: no, they don't.)

Perhaps the most interesting part of this whole thing is that Grasso doesn't realize how completely unconvincing his argument is to the rest of us. You know, those of us who have looked as sexual images and lived to tell the tale. Maybe we watched porn- maybe even ON PURPOSE [oh gasp the horror], or maybe it just happened to pop up. Maybe we read a biology textbook. Maybe we saw naked people in art. And nothing bad happened. It is really not a big deal at all.

And this article got published in the Washington Post, and I have to wonder, why? What is he expecting? I think most people will read it and think "oh this is an odd quirk related to his religion" and then there's a discussion to be had over whether we should respect and accommodate odd quirky religious beliefs. But no one is going to be convinced to agree with him- not unless you're already a member of that subculture.

The subtitle on his article is "It's not about being uncomfortable. It's about being asked to do something that I think is immoral." Yes, he is trying to tell you that looking at a picture, for educational reasons, is immoral. (I actually think the reason he's been misunderstood and people think he's saying "I don't want to read anything that challenges my beliefs" is that it just comes across as such a bizarre thing. He is saying it's immoral to look at any kind of sexual picture. Context doesn't matter. Yes, really.)

And it doesn't matter what he says, or how well-written his article is. Our lived experience tells us we can look at nudity and absolutely nothing bad happens. (Within feminism, there's a conversation to be had about porn and what kind of messages it promotes, is it healthy or not, etc. And also, consent! So maybe it's not technically accurate to say 'absolutely nothing bad happens.' But this has nothing to do with a fear of becoming corrupted by just seeing a sexual image.)

I did that. I made the arguments from one step to another. Jesus says this. Therefore we do this. And sex will cause this. Therefore we do this. Everything followed logically, but I had no idea what I was talking about. Just imagine this situation: I had no real-world experience about anything sexual- because of course I didn't, I was a good pure girl (but of course I didn't believe I was pure- I was sure I had ruined that long ago, by not "guarding my heart" or whatever), and I tried explain my position to other people, tried to convince them. How well do you think that's going to go? I'm trying to tell people that I need to constantly (and in a very paranoid way) "take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ" or else I fear I'll become the worst kind of pervert- and my intention in communicating this struggle is to "set an example" and inspire others to do the same.

Like, really? Is that going to be convincing to anyone? It didn't matter how much logic I put into it, or how internally consistent my view was. People who are just "normal", who don't live in fear of their own sex drive, who have knowledge about what sex is and have *gasp* looked at porn and/or masturbated and it didn't ruin their lives at all... they probably wouldn't even understand what I was trying to say. (Or maybe they'd take the "I admire your commitment to your religion" approach, without realizing the hell I was creating/ purity culture was creating in my life, without realizing that I fully believed they should also be striving to live in that hell. Without realizing that I believed by not following purity culture, they were living every day in an even more awful hell.)

That's what I see when I read Grasso's article about not reading "Fun Home." Fear of sex, fear that a single "pornographic" image can awaken the monster that you've been taught lives in you, and all covered up in layers of nice-sounding religious language.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Christianity IS Good News in Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

"God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond the right way. Then God will torture you forever. In hell. Huh?" Image source.
Let's talk about Rob Bell's book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. I've just read it and I'm happy to report that it was fantastic. It touched on many different topics- heaven, hell, the nature of God- weaving them together into an entire worldview in which Christianity truly is good news.

I really love Bell's descriptions of heaven, hell, and Jesus. He dedicates an entire 40-page chapter to the idea of heaven, and you guys, it's a really compelling read. He examines the bible's use of the term "eternal life" and the idea of heaven existing both now and in the future, both here on earth and elsewhere, and that ultimately heaven and earth will become one. (Remember how Jesus prayed "your kingdom come"?)

Personally, I believe that the Christian life isn't about getting people "saved" so that they're okay after they die, but it's about working to bring the kingdom of God to the earth now. That's pretty much the idea that Bell presents in his chapter on heaven.

(Click here to listen to the song "Heaven is a place on earth". I feel that would be appropriate background music for this blog post.)

Similarly, the book describes hell-on-earth. There is violence, there is suffering, people treat each other inhumanely. And "hell" is the best word we have to describe such horrors. And after death, there will also be a hell for people who continue to reject love and goodness.

What I love most about Bell's descriptions of heaven and hell are how relatable they are. He writes about our experiences of love and happiness on earth, and how heaven is even more of that. And how we experience suffering on earth, and we make choices that hurt others and it all ends badly, and hell is even more of that.

Before, back when I was a Real True Christian and believed in the "traditional view" of hell, I believed heaven was infinitely, unimaginably good, and hell was infinitely, unimaginably bad. I also believed that Real True Christians go to heaven, and everyone else goes to hell- but I didn't want my non-Christian friends to go to hell, so I was all about evangelism.

Because I believed that the pain of hell was so infinite, something I could never imagine, something that could never be compared to anything on earth, it didn't matter how much my evangelism hurt people, as long as it increased their chance of escaping hell. The people in my college Christian fellowship would always talk about how we were scared to do evangelism because what if it ruined a friendship? We were going to tell people about their sin and how they deserved to go to hell, and we knew we would come across as hurtful and judgmental. (We did it out of love though- we genuinely loved our non-Christian friends, and our belief in a traditional hell twisted that love into something nasty.)

But since I believed in an infinite hell, the risk of hurting people and ruining friendships was a small price to pay. Negligible, next to the torture they're going to face in hell.

Given an infinitely good heaven and an infinitely bad hell, nothing we do in our earthly lives matters, except those things that push people closer to "accepting Jesus" and going to heaven. Sometimes Christians are criticized for only caring about "getting people saved" and not doing much about helping people who are suffering now- if you believe in an infinitely bad hell, and all non-Christians go there, then it has to be that way.

That's why it means so much to me that heaven and hell in "Love Wins" are comparable to our experiences here on earth. If I'm treating people disrespectfully in the name of evangelism, well I'm kind of creating my own little hell. And the rewards of heaven or sufferings of hell are not big enough to make that not matter.

And Bell emphasizes it's not about "getting in" to heaven, it's about being the kind of person who can live happily and peacefully in a world with perfect equality. If you're jealous, or selfish, or you think you deserve more than other people, you won't do well in heaven.

On that note, let's talk about how exactly you "get in" to the heaven described in "Love Wins." The book presented a few variations on this, so it's not clear to me which one exactly Bell believes, but it's something along these lines: Heaven is accepting love, goodness, etc, and hell is rejecting them. Sometimes the book uses language about God- rejecting or accepting God's love, something like that. And you'll probably get an eternity of chances to accept or reject it.

It's very significant that that Bell doesn't at all relate heaven and hell to believing certain facts about Jesus. (That's probably why he was criticized so much by Real True Christians when this book was published.) I completely agree with him on this point- it doesn't make any sense to base eternal judgment on one's understanding of an event that happened 2000 years ago. God is love, God is everywhere, and we all have an equal chance to accept or reject love. That's what heaven is really about. Doesn't matter if you are aware that love comes from God. (And can I just say, I also love Bell's description of Jesus.)

However, the book did have one huge weakness: It did not address the idea that "we are all so sinful, we deserve hell by default," which is what I used to believe, what I was taught by evangelical Christianity. In this line of thinking, every sin- no matter how small- is an infinite crime against God. If you're not perfect- if you sin EVEN ONCE- then you can't be in heaven with God. If you keep the entire law but stumble at one point, you're a lawbreaker, am I right?

In other words, all people should go to hell, and it's only through believing in Jesus that some of us can get out of it. (And if you don't think it's "justice" for everyone to go to hell for the smallest of sins, well, you're so warped by sin you don't even realize how sinful you are, you have no idea what justice really is.)

So it's not exactly accurate to say that in the "traditional" view, people go to hell for believing the "wrong" religion. Technically, they go to hell because they are sinful and deserve to go to hell anyway. Everyone- Christians and non-Christians- deserves to go to hell. Isn't it nice (merciful) of God to send Jesus to die and create a loophole to get a tiny minority out of the hell we deserve?

Because Bell never directly addresses this idea, I think it would be very easy for people who believe in that version of hell to completely dismiss him. (He's not taking sin seriously, right? Does he even care about God's holiness?) And maybe even for people who want to believe the good news of "Love Wins" but are still stuck on "but but but ... God's justice means everyone goes to hell... right?" (I was stuck there for a while. I think it was Dianna Anderson who got me out, with some variation of the "why would God's justice be a completely different thing from our understanding of justice" argument.)

Overall though, this book is able to make a biblical case for Christian universalism. (Bell doesn't use that term- he calls it "exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity" which means it is only Jesus who saves, but Jesus can save someone without that person having the "correct" beliefs about Jesus.)

Many critics wrote blog posts about how Bell used scripture all wrong in this book. This is a really weird criticism, in my opinion, because almost every page in "Love Wins" includes a bible reference. The whole thing is very much grounded in ideas found in the bible.

However, Bell seems to view the bible in a very different way than what I was taught by evangelicals. I believed that every single word of scripture was important and good and inspired by God, and we have to take very seriously the entire thing, even the parts we don't like. We have to use a lot of logic and do research and study ancient languages and find out the historical and cultural context and interpret everything, find out what God was trying to say. We need to believe in and obey whatever conclusions come out of this process, even if they make no sense, even if they seem awful and unjust. TOO BAD. That's what it means to respect the bible, yes?

But I don't think that way any more (thank God). And Rob Bell doesn't either. He isn't coming from the angle of "the bible is the end-all and be-all, nothing else matters, and we need to study every single bit of it or else the argument is invalid"- instead, he seems to be starting from questions like "What is God like?" and "What kind of story is history?" He's searching the bible for a God who's truly loving, a God actually worth believing in.

(Having said that, I don't want to give the impression that Bell is ignoring passages on hell. The book actually lists all the times where the bible uses the word "hell" and explains the context in each case.)

So there's a biblical argument to be made, and I think it's great. However, this is just a start. I've been reading the bible my entire life assuming the biblical writers believed "Christians go to heaven, non-Christians go to hell [ie infinite eternal torture] and that's God's justice" and for so many passages, it's really really hard for me to even imagine another interpretation.

Let's take John 3:16 for example. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

Obviously, "believes in him" means "believes that Jesus (who was fully God and fully man) lived and died and resurrected to save us from our sins (and this is the only way to be saved), and commits their life to Jesus" [in other words, "is a Real True Christian"].

Obviously, "perish" means "go to hell." (Which is obviously a place of infinite eternal torture.)

Obviously, "have eternal life" means "go to heaven."

So this verse is clearly saying that Christians go to heaven and non-Christians go to hell. Right? I mean, I read it, and I don't even realize I'm making all these assumptions (the ones in the "obviously" statements above).

I mean, I don't believe "Christians go to heaven and non-Christians go to hell", but what else can you even do with John 3:16?

"Love Wins" talks about the verses with the word "hell" and how it's not the hell that so many of us were taught. The book also talks about "life" and "death" having a deeper meaning about the quality of life we are living now. But really, it's just a start.

You could read this whole book, excitedly decide "wow, the bible DOESN'T actually teach the version of hell the church taught me! This is great!" and then go open the bible and read 1 verse (maybe John 3:16, but there are many others) and decide "oh... nevermind... non-Christians go to hell." (Even though that's not what John 3:16 says. Or is it?)

My point is, for those of us coming out of this "traditional view of hell", we need someone to teach us an entirely new way to read the bible. That's not what "Love Wins" sets out to do, and that's fine. "The Bible Tells Me So" by Peter Enns is a really good book for that topic. And I'm currently looking for others. Any recommendations?

All right this blog post is already super-long but there are just a few more things I'd like to mention. I have some concerns about the idea that "you create your own hell" because it seems to be based on the American evangelical misconception that my sin is just about me and my relationship with God.

By "you create your own hell", I mean that "Love Wins" says that you create a kind of hell when you choose to reject love and goodness. If we're talking about our earthly lives, I completely agree, and I believe this hell hurts others and yourself. But in the realm of life after death, this idea doesn't make sense anymore. I define "sin" as something that hurts people (other people or yourself), and how can you hurt other people when they're in heaven? In Bell's view of life after death, heaven means all is well, and hell is being miserable because of your own selfishness/jealousy/etc. But what about the idea of our sin hurting other people? So sin works completely differently in heaven than it does on earth? The only kind of sin that exists in the afterlife- the only possible way to choose evil over good- is "I have a bad attitude"?

I feel like this aspect of "Love Wins" is heavily influenced by the individualism in American culture and American Christianity. In the version of the gospel that I was taught, sin was a problem because it would break my relationship with God. Some sins also hurt other people, but that wasn't really the point. Something was a sin because the bible said it was a sin, and that's that.

In reality, though, our sins affect other people, and there are society-wide sins like racism that hurt entire demographics of people. Those who are underprivileged suffer disproportionately for the sins of the powerful. And having an individualized, over-spiritualized "our sin separates us from God" view of sin is a convenient way to ignore the ways you involuntarily contribute to the sinful and unjust structures in society.

I believe that in the kingdom of God- in heaven- there will be real justice and equality. No one will have to live in fear of violence- and therefore, no one will be able to behave violently toward others. There will be no inequality. It will be very different than the way we live here on earth.

Overall, I loved this book. Bell's descriptions of heaven, hell, and Jesus resonate with me. This is the kind of world I want to believe in. This is a gospel that actually makes sense and is truly good news. This is a God who really loves, who is love. It won't be convincing to those firmly in the "traditional view of hell" camp, but for anyone like me, who longs for the kingdom of God to come on earth, it's great to hear someone say "love wins."

Monday, September 7, 2015

Blogaround

Image source.
1. 7 Things ‘Fiscally Conservative, But Socially Liberal’ People Don’t Understand (posted August 30) "'Fiscally conservative' means slashing support systems that help the poor, lowering taxes for the rich, cutting corners for big business, and screwing labor – policies that both worsen poverty and make it even more of an inescapable trap."

2. Farewell to the Missionary Hero (posted August 24) "Gone are the days when missionaries could spiritualize a relationship for a prayer letter. Now, she says, they have to be honest, or people will find out. In the same way, the public nature of missionary lives encourages treating people as people, not as items on a conversion checklist. If the people you’re writing home about are also Facebook friends, there’s no room for self-glorifying embellishment."

3. xkcd Survey (posted September 2) YOU GUYS YOU GUYS YOU GUYS. Take this survey, full of bizarre questions.

4. Wil Wheaton's summaries of various Star Trek: TNG episodes. For you trekkies out there. These are fantastic.

5. Alecia Pennington, "The Girl Who Doesn't Exist," Can Now Prove She Does (posted September 4) Hooray!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Don't Guard Your Heart

Christian parodies of popular songs are all fun and games until... this:



What we have here is "the Christian version" of Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass." It's called "Super Grace" and the lyrics are available here.

Usually Christian parody songs are just kind of silly and cheesy, and I find them delightful in moderation. But this one, oh this one. This one has some really dark stuff from purity culture, stuff about "guarding your heart."

To summarize the lyrics: In the verses, the singer describes the kind of man she is looking for. "He's always in prayer and above reproach. / He's a Jesus-loving man, man / trusting in God's plan, plan / waiting for the band, band / he'll just hold my hand, hand." Totally dedicated to God, not having premarital sex, etc.

And then the chorus.

"Christian boys got my heart beat running away
But I need to guard my heart so I'll pray,
God give me your hallelujah hallelujah grace
God I need your hallelujah hallelujah grace
Give me your super grace."

Oh my.

In other words, the song is saying this: "I really really like boys. GOD HELP I NEED YOUR GRACE!"

In case you missed it: A young, single woman is very interested in men, and sees this as a crisis requiring God's intervention.

And THAT is purity culture.

This idea is captured in the phrase "but I need to guard my heart." "Guard your heart" is a term from Proverbs 4:23, where a teacher gives his son advice about wisdom, so obviously it means "girls, be really paranoid about liking a guy 'too much'", yes? (Well, that's what it means in purity culture.)

"Super Grace" isn't just some silly harmless parody song. You guys, I've lived this way. Whenever I had a crush, I would go home and pray. And pray and pray and pray. And agonize over everything. I wanted to spend more time with the guy, but any positive interaction with him would just make my crush bigger- which meant I was "giving away part of my heart" which meant I definitely wasn't "guarding my heart."

I was terrified and I begged God for help. I begged that God would give me an answer- was this the guy that God had destined to be my husband? (If not, then there must never be any romantic connection between me and him- then I wouldn't be "pure" for my actual future husband.) I begged that God would take away the feelings. I prayed that God would never let me have a crush on a guy unless he was The One.

"Guard your heart" means "be terrified of your own emotions and desires." It means "don't like a boy 'too much', and we're never going to define what 'too much' is." It means "having a crush now can ruin your chance of having a happy marriage in the future."

And if you think I'm misinterpreting "Super Grace", and I'm seeing all this unhealthy stuff that's not there, kindly take a look at this bit:

"See, I want to be a wife but I must wait.
Oh no no no no I have to wait.
Oh no no no no I have to wait. Yeah.
But Christian boys got my heart beat running away.
But I have to guard my heart so I'll pray,
God give me your hallelujah hallelujah grace,
God I need your hallelujah hallelujah grace,
Give me your super grace."

The song jumps straight from having a crush ("Christian boys got my heart beat running away") to marriage. There is nothing in between. You have a crush, but you can never act on it- you must wait for God to say yes, and then you can date and get married. (Note: In the version of purity culture I followed, God's approval to begin dating didn't necessarily mean you were in the clear and you would definitely marry that person.) (And notice I said "in the clear"- I believed that being single was safe, and being married was safe, but the process of moving from "single" to "married" was a terrifyingly dangerous minefield of impurity. Better commit your entire life to this person AS SOON AS POSSIBLE so you don't have the possibility of breaking up hanging over your head.)

Also, the song "Super Grace" inadvertently does a FANTASTIC job of showing the mixed messages that purity culture gives teenage girls. In the verses, the singer describes exactly what characteristics she's looking for in a potential husband. In the chorus, she prays that God would save her from her attraction to guys. And you know that both of those are things the church taught her. Seriously- all the characteristics she describes are about being an upstanding Christian. There are no "worldly" concerns like finding a guy who's attractive, fun, compatible with her, etc. They are all church-approved desires, and yet she still thinks she needs God to save her from them. Uh, yeah, mixed messages.

Spock finds it highly illogical. Image source.
Purity culture says we should all be as romantically and sexually inexperienced as possible, until we get married. But then, what to do with the large numbers of teenage girls who are totally interested in boys? (Also, guess what- not all girls are romantically/sexually attracted to boys, and that's fine too.) Purity culture redirects this energy into a longing for one's "future husband." Yep. Instead of talking about the guys we liked, we were supposed to make lists of the characteristics we wanted in a future husband. Instead of dating, we were supposed to focus on becoming more godly and becoming better wives for our future husbands. Instead of being in a romantic relationship, we were supposed to write letters to our future husbands.

Instead of learning about concepts like respect, communication, and consent, which are necessary for healthy relationships, we were supposed to focus all our energy on stamping out any romantic or sexual thought or desire that may cross our minds, in order to be pure for our future husbands.

That's what "guard your heart" means. It is not a cute little saying. It is not life-giving. "Guard your heart" is a vortex of fear and guilt. It's an unending cycle of feeling awful because you're unable to completely squash your God-given emotions.

"Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Proverbs 4:23"
Grumpy Cat: "NO."
Image sources here and here.

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