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Monday, October 30, 2017

How Are Autistics Supposed To Know Which of Our Pain is Socially Acceptable To Express?

Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger, from the movie "Inside Out." Image source.
I recently found an article from 2015 called Unseen agony: Dismantling autism's house of pain. It says that autistic people are often perceived as being less sensitive to pain (and in some cases, truly are less sensitive to pain) but on the other hand, they also often experience pain from sensory stimuli that others might not even notice.

First there's a story from a man named Noah, who recalls his experiences of pain caused by the sound of a vacuum cleaner on wood floors:
“At first I would scream and yell for her to stop [the vacuum sound], but she had no concept that what she was doing was irritating,” Noah says. “And I had no idea that what I was feeling was not what everyone else felt.”

Noah eventually came to accept that the noise of the vacuum, like many other sensory experiences, was something he just had to suffer through. As a result, “I was very numbed off,” he says. “I could handle really intense cold or even pain and not do anything, not feel too much.”
This is so real. So, for me, I've only recently realized that other people are literally experiencing sensory input (sound, in particular) differently than I am. I've figured out that "pain" is the word to use to describe my experiences. And I've discovered the answer to the mystery that has baffled me for my entire life: Why does everyone else seem to not notice or react to overwhelming, unbearable sounds? The answer is that they literally experience sound differently than I do. I feel it as pain, and others don't.

Poor little Noah. "Noah eventually came to accept that the noise of the vacuum, like many other sensory experiences, was something he just had to suffer through." And that was my life too, as a child. That was my normal. Sometimes I suffer pain, and nobody else understands, and that's just the way it is.

The article comes back to Noah later on:
When he was working at a summer camp for children with autism, Noah says, he once heard one boy respond to another boy’s annoying, singsong repetition of “to-MAY-to, to-MAH-to” with: “Stop saying that. It feels like you’re pricking me with a thousand needles.”

Despite that sharp visual, Noah says this kind of description is only a metaphor: His sensory sensitivities don’t feel like the physical reality of a cut or bruise.

“My response will be very similar to someone who’s in pain, but it comes from a different place,” he says. “It’s just that it’s an all-encompassing, irritating process that envelops your whole brain.”
I find it interesting that they're explicitly pointing out that sensory pain doesn't feel the same as physical pain. To me, that distinction seems like something only autistic people need to know. Like, for autistic people this information is really helpful- I never thought to use the word "pain" to describe how sound felt to me until I met a therapist who used it. Because yes, it's not the same feeling as getting hit or something. But at the same time, when I tell people "loud sounds are painful for me," I don't explain that the pain is not like physical pain- because then they might think my pain isn't really real and they don't have to take it seriously. (Side note: It is a BIG DEAL that I'm able to tell people "loud sounds are painful for me." Because I've discovered that avoiding loud sounds is literally a real need I have and it is 100% valid to tell people and expect them to act accordingly. Before, I always felt like I was asking for something unreasonable and I was being pathetic and other people didn't have to take it seriously.)

I figured out I should use the word "pain" to talk about how sound feels by doing thought experiments like the following: Which would be worse- getting slapped hard or suddenly hearing fireworks? Of course they don't feel the same, but I find myself unable to choose which is worse. And that means it's valid to say hearing fireworks is painful for me.

(And I'd like to quibble with the language about "sensory sensitivities" being contrasted with "the physical reality of a cut or bruise." Sensory pain is reality too.)

The article gives some examples of autistic people who (in my opinion) really do seem to be less bothered by things that would be painful for other people. It mentions girls with Rett syndrome, who sometimes fracture bones and don't seem to feel pain from it. So yes, in some cases, autistics really do feel less pain.

But I believe a lot of this being-perceived-like-we're-not-in-pain is because of how other people don't take our sensory pain seriously, so we are taught to not express it when we feel pain. A child with autism might tell their parent that the tag in their shirt is bothering them, and the adult says it's fine, it's not a big deal, stop complaining. Of course the child is going to internalize the idea "it's wrong for me to express it when I feel pain."

Take a look at this excerpt from the article:
In a 2009 study, researchers found that the hearts of children with autism pounded faster while they had their blood drawn than did those of typical children. But the children with autism made fewer facial expressions, such as grimaces, that indicate pain, perhaps because they have a smaller repertoire of expressive behaviors in general.

“The challenge with autism is that we’re dealing with a population that has altered social behavior,” Moore says. “And pain behavior is a fundamentally social thing.”
All right. I have some things to say about this.

Let's say you're a child, and your sock is irritating you. It's like all itchy and touching your skin all wrong and you just can't stand it. So you tell you mom, and she says no, your sock is fine, it's not a big deal. So you are forced to keep wearing the socks and just endure the pain.

Let's say you go to McDonald's, and the smell of the soap in the bathroom is just unbearable. And you can't stand touching the tables, they feel a bit greasy and nasty. You keep your arms close to your body so you don't have to touch anything. You hold your breath so you don't have to smell the soap. And your parents tell you to stop it. It's not that bad, they say. Come over here and eat your food. It's FINE. The food is a little bit cold and a little bit too soft and feels nasty in your mouth. But this is the way of the world. This is your lot in life. You suffer and you just have to deal with it. You tear off the edges and eat the parts that aren't nasty, until you just can't stand to eat any more.

Then you're at school and you're in the gym with a bunch of kids, everyone's running around and it's so loud. It takes all of your energy just to withstand the sound. You just want to find a corner where you can keep to yourself and look at the floor and not make eye contact with anyone, because you're exhausted from the sensory overload. But the gym teacher tells you to stop that. You have to come and play with the other kids.

And then you go to the doctor and get blood drawn. It's scary and painful, but every day your life is scary and painful. It's just one more item on the list of things you have to endure as a normal part of living your life.

And then the adults are like "wow she is not grimacing, maybe it's not painful for her."

Or maybe it's because time after time, you told me to hide my pain. Stop making that face. Stop whining. It's fine. It's not that bad. It's not a big deal. It doesn't hurt.

How am I supposed to know that suddenly I have happened upon a situation where adults expect me to express that I'm feeling pain?

How am I supposed to know that, even though they expected me to go the whole damn day with my sock scratching me and I'm supposed to pretend I'm fine, now they're going to think something is wrong with me if I don't whine while getting blood drawn with a needle?

How are we supposed to know when adults want us to hide our pain and when they want us to show it?

During our childhoods, we're constantly told that our pain isn't real and we just need to learn to be okay with it and act like everybody else. The adults don't know that we're truly experiencing pain. And we don't know that other people aren't experiencing the same thing. We internalize the idea "when I'm in pain, I should just try to be okay with it and not bother other people." OF COURSE this has an effect on our reaction when we're experiencing something that other people believe "counts" as real pain.

And here's a wild idea: Could this constant gaslighting- where people tell us our pain isn't real- also explain other autistic behavior?

When a neurotypical child gets hurt, and an autistic child doesn't respond with the "correct" show of empathy: How are we supposed to know that we come across as uncaring and heartless if we don't make the proper facial expressions and say the proper comforting words? That's not what adults have modeled to us. Sure, they show empathy at first, until they determine that we are just complaining about "nothing" and we need to shut up about it. But we make the mistake of saying "it's not that bad" to someone who's experiencing pain that society recognizes as painful, and then suddenly everybody thinks "autistic people don't have empathy." (The question of who, in this scenario, "doesn't have empathy" will be left as an exercise for the reader.)

A lot of autistic people have trouble recognizing their own emotions, or don't show emotion in their facial expressions the way neurotypical people expect: Could this be because, from our earliest childhood moments, people have told us that our pain is not real pain? They cut off our ability to express the most basic, primal emotion. We internalize the idea that we're not actually suffering real problems, we're just pathetic and need to get over it. Adults take us to crowded, loud public places with overwhelming sensory stimuli and tell us "this is fun"- and we try to believe we are having fun, try to ignore how nervous we feel. No wonder it takes so long to even figure out what our emotions are.

And how about the autistic focus on black-and-white rules? Maybe this originated with our search for the rules governing when we're allowed to express pain and when we're not. Seems to be based on some arbitrary, absolute criteria that everyone except us understands. We can't trust our own feelings; there is some set of rules higher than us, and we mustn't break them. (As it turns out, the common thread running through all the situations where adults expect us to express pain is this: neurotypical people experience pain in those situations. Yeah. Imagine that. So simple, and yet there is NO WAY I could have figured that out as a child. How am I supposed to know when neurotypical people do or do not experience pain?)

Probably it's a stretch to say that these other autistic traits can be totally explained by gaslighting related to sensory pain. But I know that in my own life, there have been extensive, long-term consequences. I deeply internalized the idea that if I'm in pain, I should just endure it and try not to bother anyone else about it. (Yes, my parents did care about me and help me- but it always felt like "she's just a scared little kid and she's too weak to deal with these things, but we can't let her avoid them forever- she has to learn to live in the real world and 'be normal.'") I believed it would be bad to ask for accomodations related to sensory stimuli- for example, to say "I have to leave now because it's too loud in here"- that would mean I'm weak and pathetic, and I should be ashamed. I need to try to be "normal." (I still feel a lot of anxiety- my body gets shaky and my heart beats fast- when I ask for accomodations. Because I grew up believing that I should hide my pain and "stop complaining.")

So don't believe anyone who tells you autistic people experience less pain. Most of us experience more pain that others, and then on top of that, the psychological stress of being told we're doing something wrong when we express it.

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Related:
Autistic at Disneyland
Autistic at the Aquarium
The Sound

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Blogaround

A cake with layers whose colors are the asexual flag. Image source.
1. How Did Saying “Merry Christmas” Become a Judeo-Christian Value? (posted October 17) "The problem, I suspect, is that people sometimes forget that Judeo-Christian is not a synonym for evangelical Christian—because, and let’s be frank, that is how it is used."

2. An Indiana county just halted a lifesaving needle exchange program, citing the Bible (posted October 20) You'll be shocked to hear that the bible verse they cited doesn't have anything to do with needle exchange programs. Also, they literally said "morals" was the reason to NOT approve a program that saves lives. Just goes to show in conservative-Christian-land, "morals" doesn't actually mean morals at all. It never did.

3. Get a Thumbs-Up from Trick-Or-Treaters with This BB-8-O'-Lantern (posted October 18) NICE.

4. Ace Community Census. A survey to gather data on the asexual community. Go over and take it~ Even if you're not asexual you can still take it- they want some non-asexual data to compare with.

5. The 'orphan' I adopted from Uganda already had a family (posted October 13) "The travesty in this injustice is beyond words. I must be clear in the following statement: My race, country of origin, wealth (though small, it's greater than that of the vast majority of people in the world), my access to "things," my religion -- none of these privileges entitles me to the children of the poor, voiceless and underprivileged."

6. On Protecting Women from Abusers, Franklin Graham Is an Opportunist and a Hypocrite (posted October 25) "In early 2016, when Naghmeh Abedini accused her husband, Saeed Abedini, of abusing her, Graham immediately sided with her alleged abuser. Graham undermined her statements publicly and went so far as to suggest, again publicly, that she was doing the devil’s work."

7. The rules about responding to call outs aren’t working (posted October 24) "Like most formal descriptions of social skills, the rules don’t quite match reality."

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

How About We Let Disabled People Tell Us What to Think About Jesus' Healings

Blind man walking with a cane and dog.
Let's look at Matthew 20:29-34. In this story, two blind men call out to Jesus and ask him to give them their sight, and he does.

In my experience, when Christians read biblical accounts of Jesus' healings, we discuss and interpret them from a certain set of assumptions about disabilities. These are assumptions which seem, to abled people, to be so obviously true, we never even question them or realize it's possible to think in a different way. Specifically, I'm talking about beliefs like:
  1. The #1 thing a disabled person needs most is to become not-disabled.
  2. After Jesus heals them, everything is good, and they can immediately go ahead and "be a normal person."
However, I have now learned that society's beliefs about disabled people are often wrong and harmful. In particular, many disabled writers talk about how they want people to listen to them instead of spreading ignorant stereotypes, and they want society to be accessible so disabled people are not barred from participating in everyday activities that abled people take for granted. They say that it's not the disability that limits them, it's people's stereotypes and ignorance and how society is basically designed with the assumption that disabled people don't exist or aren't important. To imagine that they just need to be "healed" and then everything would be better just perpetuates the idea that there's nothing wrong with society and it's totally fine that we constantly exclude disabled people.

In my own case, loud sounds are painful for me (because of sensory reasons related to autism). If Jesus "healed" me so loud sounds weren't painful, that would be great, but it also wouldn't mean the whole loud-sounds problem is solved and done and it's all good. I have an entire lifetime of experience of people not taking me seriously when I was upset by a sound, people laughing at me, people saying my pain isn't real and "it's not that bad." I have all this emotional trauma that I'm working through now, trying to make sense of my childhood and what was really going on all those times adults told me to "be brave" and stop being so "sensitive"- and it takes years. (Blogging is cheaper than therapy...)

It would be just THE WORST if Jesus "healed" me and then other people thought, "ugh FINALLY she got over it and quit complaining"- as if my "healing" justified all the times that they wished I would just shut up and act normal. Like they did nothing wrong, all their attempts to shove a square peg in a round hole, because I finally became a round peg and gained the ability to act like they always wanted me to act. Why does "healing" mean a person becomes not-disabled, rather than abled people learning how to stop excluding and stereotyping disabled people?

So anyway, my point is, when I read this story about Jesus healing two blind men, I wanted to know what blind people think about it. And in general, what do disabled people think about Jesus' healings in the bible? I've gathered some articles here, and I would like to know if my readers have any other good resources about it or book recommendations.

Here are the links I've found:

Out of the Darkness: Examining the Rhetoric of Blindness in the Gospel of John
[In the gospel of John, p]hysical blindness may provide the necessary ground for faith to grow and emerge, but the person cannot remain physically blind. There are biblical scholars and disability activists alike who note that there are no blind disciples. Grant (Eiesland & Saliers, eds., 1998) writes, for example, "It is true that at one level the healing stories are stories of inclusion in that Jesus heals and welcomes all sorts of people into God's reign. However, the very fact that they are physically healed by Jesus suggests that physical restoration is a necessary component of their entry into the community" (p. 77). Grant also cites Donald Senior, Frederick Tiffany, and Sharon Ringe, all who have made similar points. From her perspective working with people with disabilities and government agencies in Australia, Elizabeth Hastings writes:
...with all the respect due to the ten lepers, the various possessed, and the sundry blind, lame, and deaf faithful of scripture, I reckon people who have disabilities may have been better off for the last two thousand years if Our Lord had not created quite so many miraculous cures but occasionally said, "your life is perfect as it is given to you – go ye and find its purpose and meaning," and to onlookers, "this disability is an ordinary part of human being, go ye and create the miracle of a world free of discrimination" (quoted in Calder, 2004, p. 12).
John Hull (2001) in his recent reflection on reading the Bible from his own blind perspective tries to conceive of blind men and women following Jesus through the Galilee—he cannot. Blind disciples would have been an affront to Jesus' power.

Although physical infirmity is not connected to sin in the example of the man born blind, it is, in this case, connected to ignorance of truth. In John 9, the physical condition of blindness always also connotes metaphorical blindness as a mental or spiritual condition, or ignorance. Both the literal and metaphorical meanings of blindness are always present every time the words "blind" and "to see" are used in the story. The literal and metaphorical meanings of blindness have the potential of contaminating each other in any context. There is a danger of at least implicitly, if not explicitly, associating physically blind people with mental and spiritual incapacity, and associating Jewish people, whether blind or not, with the same shortcomings.
In Search of a More Robust Theology of Disability
The idea that sight=good and blind=bad is so deeply ingrained in our culture that most of us are not even aware of its existence. I can't begin to cover all of the ways that this idea manifests itself, from sighted people giving pity to finding inspiration in how we "cope" with our "suffering" to fearing us, to assuming we have substandard lives, to fervently thanking God they are not us, to rushing up to us on the street and laying hands on us to receive healing, when we are trying to run to the grocery store before an appointment. We are constantly told in numerous subtle ways that we are "broken" or "damaged" and then in the same breath told that we are "brave" and "inspirational" when in reality to us it feels about as important as being tall or short. It is merely a physical attribute and life goes on. For a blind person, being able or willing to return the gaze of a sighted person is not an accurate measure of his dignity or self-worth. By the same token, to the blind person, the sighted person he is talking to seems undignified as a result of the noxious body odor or the grating, gravelly voice and repulsive manner of speaking even though he is meeting the other's gaze. I realize the above was used metaphorically, and thus am I also using it. Consider the actual source of dignity!

The disclaimer that "real blind people don't count" doesn't hold any water at all, because to talk about an attribute of our lives is to talk about us. You cannot propose a theology of dark skin without involving people who have dark skin, or a theology of Asian people without involving people who live in or come from Asia. You cannot talk about how God treats women in the abstract without it affecting real women and how people think about us and treat us and the ways we as people empower or disempower other people to live as Christians, or how apt we are to reject Christianity because it simply does not work as a realistic worldview.

An example of this is a discussion I read recently on social media between a group of mixed blind non-Christians and blind Christians who have experienced sighted Christians approaching them on the street and asking to lay hands on them so that Jesus can heal their blindness. The non-Christians in particular were incredibly repulsed by this experience, which unfortunately stems directly from the theology as put forth in the quoted post above.

Biblically, blind people are beggars, like Blind Bartimaeus, who come to Jesus asking to be healed, to be redeemed, to be given social standing and allowed re-entry into society. Blind people in ancient times were cursed; there is no denying that. They could not navigate or work at meaningful labor. They could not participate in civil government and were hardly better than lepers.

In third-world countries, blindness is the same today. Blind people are not offered an education and usually do not marry or have children. They are taught menial tasks such as basket weaving and are often a lifelong burden on their families or communities. They are poor, pitiful, in short, everything we assume blindness to be. My daughter, adopted from Ethiopia was "rescued" (cringe) from just such a life.

Contrast this with a blind person living in the Western developed world. Here, a blind person in ideal circumstances is taught to read and write using alternative methods. This blind person (we'll use the male pronoun for convenience and brevity) is taught to navigate using a white cane or guide dog (for example), and is allowed access to all public facilities and places of business. He can travel anywhere he wants to go by himself, and can hold a job is nearly any field. He can work meaningfully, marry and support a family, have hobbies, own and maintain a house, contribute to society, have honest dealings with other members of society and have a comparable quality of life to a person with perfect sight.
‘Lord I was deaf’. Images of Disability in the Hymnbooks
Before we began to refer to the metaphor of sight and blindness we had arrived at a discriminating criterion. This was to ask ourselves if the metaphor suggested a disparaging comparison with groups of disabled people. I would now like to suggest a more searching rationale for this. If sighted and hearing people use the imagery of light and sound to express their experiences in the world they inhabit that is natural and inevitable. However, if able bodied people make disparaging allusions to people who have very different experiences this may not only betray ignorance of those ways of life and is discourteous, but may reinforce a prejudice against disabled people that will in turn give credibility to the view that Christian faith does not offer answers to the search for equal opportunities: it may actually be part of the problem. In other words, when we consider the sliding scale of metaphors from those that refer explicitly to various impaired states through to those which merely use the various ideas of light and sound, sight and speech, we should distinguish between those that speak to our own world, the one we know and experience, and those that refer negatively to other peoples worlds of which we have no first-hand experience.

In saying this, I do not overlook the fact that there may be hymn writers who are themselves blind yet continue to use disparaging metaphors of their own condition. This is to be explained by the combination of a piety which does not adopt a critical stance towards the tradition, and immersion in the assumptions of a society in which the inferiority and the marginalisation of disabled people were simply taken for granted.

In the light of our new principle it is possible to comment on the situation of people with other impairments such as those who use wheelchairs for mobility. Biblical precedent such as the eschatological hope expressed in Isaiah 35.5 and some of the miracles in the gospels do encourage the hymn writers to refer to lame people. Lameness can be used as a disparaging metaphor for sin. Such expressions are as unacceptable as the explicitly pejorative references to blind and deaf people. Merely referring to standing up, however, comes into the category of speaking of the body’s symbolism which is natural to those who have legs and can use them. A wheelchair user should no more object to ‘stand up and bless the Lord, ye people of His choice’ than I as a blind person have any right to object to ‘the Lord is my light, my strength and my salvation’. True, the Lord is not my light, because I have no light sensation, and wheelchair users cannot respond to the invitation to stand up in the presence of the Lord. However, just as able bodied people should not thrust the demands of their experience upon others, so people with impairments should not demand that able-bodied worlds should conform to theirs. The principle is to rejoice in your own world without making disparaging remarks or setting unreasonable limits upon the natural life-worlds of others.

A limited range of disabilities are referred to in the hymnbooks. These are usually those that find a symbolic place within the vocabulary of the bible: blindness, deafness, being lame or having leprosy. We referred earlier to the hymn ‘Thine arm O, Lord in days of old’, quoting the line ‘the beggar with his sightless eyes’. This replaced the line, found in the older version, ‘the leper with his tainted life’ which has not reappeared in that particular hymn since about 1950. References to diseases such as AIDS and cancer are rarely if ever found in hymns, partly because they are contemporary conditions, and partly because they are not referred to in the bible.
Disability Theology
The most powerful discussion of God to arise from within disability studies comes from Nancy Eiesland's proposal of the Disabled God, in the book by the same title (Eiesland, 1994). Eiesland identifies herself as "a woman with disabilities, a sociologist of religion, and a professor at a seminary in the United States" (Eiesland, 1998a, p. 103). These three elements come together in her theology, which centers on what she calls "the mixed blessing of the body," especially as these relate to the lived experience of disability. From her sociological perspective, she is especially interested in theories and methods that empower and provide a foundation for political action. She uses the image of the Disabled God to support such political action, particularly through processes of resymbolization. She is also interested in deconstructing notions of normalcy. She writes: "My own body composed as it is of metal and plastic, as well as bone and flesh, is my starting point for talking about 'bones and braces bodies' as a norm of embodiment" (Eiesland, 1994, p. 22). Her proposal is a model of God that makes sense of her "normal" experience of embodiment, as well as one that supports and participates in the struggle for liberation of all people with disabilities.
Eiesland argues that traditional images of God, especially those that lead to views of disability as either a blessing or a curse, are inadequate. Within her own experience, she wondered whether such a God could even understand disability, let alone be meaningful to her. While working at a rehabilitation hospital, she asked the residents one day what they thought.
After a long silence, a young African-American man said, "If God was in a sip-puff, maybe He would understand." I was overwhelmed by this image: God in a sip-puff wheelchair, the kind used by many quadriplegics that enables them to maneuver the chair by blowing and sucking on a straw-like device. Not an omnipotent, self-sufficient God, but neither a pitiable, suffering servant. This was an image of God as a survivor, as one of those whom society would label "not feasible," "unemployable," with "questionable quality of life" (Eiesland, 2002, p. 13).

Eiesland made a connection between this image and the resurrection story in which Jesus appears to his followers and reveals his injured hands and feet (Luke 24:36-39). She notes "This wasn't exactly God in a sip-puff, but here was the resurrected Christ making good on the promise that God would be with us, embodied, as we are — disabled and divine. In this passage, I recognized a part of my hidden history as a Christian" (Eiesland, 2002, p. 14). Eiesland suggests that Jesus reveals the Disabled God, and shows that divinity (as well as humanity) is fully compatible with experiences of disability. The imago Dei includes pierced hands and feet and side. According to Eiesland, this Disabled God is part of the "hidden history" of Christianity, because seldom is the resurrected Christ recognized as a deity whose hands, feet, and side bear the marks of profound physical impairment. As Rebecca Chopp notes in the introduction to this work, "The most astonishing fact is, of course, that Christians do not have an able-bodied God as their primal image. Rather, the Disabled God promising grace through a broken body is at the center of piety, prayer, practice, and mission" (Eiesland, 1994, p. 11).
Strength in Weakness: The Bible, Disability, and the Church
From an able-bodied reading of the Bible, it is easy to assume God wants to heal every person with a disability. In the New Testament, every person who encounters Jesus blind, deaf, or lame is restored to health. But theologian Amos Yong wants the church to read the Bible differently, seeing good news for people with disabilities as they are, and not as God might change them.
Crooked Healing: Disability, Vocation and the Theology of the Cross
There are few things more potentially useful to the disabled experience than the idea of vocation. Vocation places disability in a wider spectrum of the sacred calling. It implies that disabled people and their able-bodied counterparts are on equal spiritual footing. More than that, it suggests that disabled people can be seen as conduits for God’s grace and service rather than it only images of a broken creation in need of “fixing.”
Christians who aren't disabled have a much too simplistic view of Jesus' healings in the bible. And even the biblical authors had some of the same prejudices, equating disability with sin or portraying it as incompatible with following Jesus. Just because the bible has a certain view doesn't mean it's right- it could be ableist (or anti-Semitic, or sexist, etc). We need to learn about disability by listening to actual disabled people.

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This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: On Zebedee's Sons and Counting the Cost (Matthew 20:17-28)


Next post: Either Matthew Was Dishonest, Or He Wasn't Writing an Apologetics Book (Matthew 21:1-11)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

Monday, October 23, 2017

As You May Have Noticed, I'm Ready to Read the Bible Again

Scene from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens", but the dialog is changed to Finn and Rey saying "Can I believe everything the bible says?" and Han saying, "It's true. All of it." Image source.
Hi readers~ You may have noticed that I've started up the Matthew series again. This series of posts, where I blog through the whole book of Matthew, started way back in 2012, and my plan was to do one post per week. Since then, the series has been interrupted several times on account of me being too busy or too ex-evangelical to read the bible. But I just hate it when I say I'm going to do something and then I don't finish it (which is not necessarily a good trait to have...). That's why, when I did my Honest Lent series, I was extremely clear about how I'm NOT committing to reading the bible every day- I'll just do it when I feel like it. Otherwise, I probably would have missed a few days and then felt like the whole thing was a failure because I didn't do it to the extent that I originally said I would. (See also: "it doesn't matter what good deeds you've done, if you've sinned even once then you're a sinner" and "every sin is an infinite offense against an infinitely holy God." And that's why I'm stuck feeling bad over goals I made that turned out not to be realistic.)

So the point is, I'm going to finish this Matthew stuff. In September I published White Privilege and the Rich Young Ruler (after a year-and-a-half gap in the series) and since then I'm been doing a post every 2 weeks about Matthew.

And I feel good about these posts I've written recently. They're very feminist~ talking about white privilege and minimum-wage workers and things like that, things that nobody ever talked about in any bible studies I've attended. Not reading the bible like "oh back then people used to go stand around and wait for a landowner to hire them," like they're caricatures from a faraway time and place, but realizing that that's reality for a lot of people right now. And when we recognize that people still live in poverty similar to what Jesus describes in that parable, we can't really turn it into something that only has a spiritual meaning. It will make us also want to change the system that causes that economic injustice.

What I'm saying is, it makes the bible feel a lot more real to me. I can relate those stories to issues going on in the world today. And I feel really good writing about it (though to be honest, my posts still feel a bit like I'm hesitating because I believe my interpretation is just so unusual and everyone will think "no that's OBVIOUSLY not what it means"). I'm getting more confident- though please note that (unlike everything I learned in evangelicalism) I never want to claim "this is what the passage Really Means." I don't think there necessarily is a "Really Means." It's a story, and people relate to the story in different ways.

Which brings me to this question: What really is the point, though? I'm a feminist; I read the bible and find bits that relate to feminism and happily focus on those bits. Like, that shouldn't be a surprise. And an evangelical would read the same passage and find the bits that match up with their beliefs, and focus on those. Whatever your ideology is, you'll be able to find something in the bible that can be interpreted as agreeing with you. And I don't really believe any of those interpretations are "what the author meant"- they were writing 2000 years ago, in a different language, in a different culture. They definitely couldn't have imagined we would be here today interpreting it in this way.

The meaning isn't necessarily in the story itself, but in the creative ways that people see themselves in the story, or see the story as a lens for viewing the world. And some of those interpretations have their basis in shady or immoral motivations, or they end up inspiring people to act in ways that are harmful. That's a problem, but we can't neatly classify interpretations into "good" and "harmful." Every one of them is flawed in some way. Nobody is perfect. No analogy is perfect. And even if it is "what the author really meant", that doesn't mean it's automatically good. So we should always consider the real-world consequences of understanding a story in a particular way. (Like, don't say "my interpretation is way healthier than the evangelical interpretation, therefore my interpretation is definitely good and right and won't hurt anyone unjustly.") By their fruits you will know them.

So the story is sort of a raw material that people can use to create meaning, guided by the principles they already believe. And maybe this is what the biblical writers intended when they wrote stories rather than just giving doctrines directly. Maybe Jesus spoke in parables because he didn't believe that everyone is supposed to understand his teaching in the exact same way.

But why does it have to be the bible? There are tons of other places we can find stories and interpret them in ways consistent with our own personal ideologies. The bible's not special. I personally think the Star Wars universe is full of good stories.

Anyway, the conclusion I've reached is that my interpreting the bible in a feminist way isn't necessarily something that's useful in determining what a passage "really means" or arguing against evangelical interpretations. It won't convince evangelicals- they'll be all like "she is twisting scripture!!!" I'm not able to make an argument about "this is the right way to understand it"- instead, what I'm really saying is "here is a way to connect this passage to some important idea I already believe about the world." And if you agree with the "important idea I already believe" then great. If not, my interpretation won't mean anything to you at all. Because I'm just picking out the part that agrees with my own personal beliefs, not demonstrating why those beliefs are true in the first place. (And if you're going to be like "AHA she is PICKING AND CHOOSING the parts of the bible she likes", settle down. Every Christian does this "picking and choosing." The only difference is that some of us are self-aware and some aren't.)

So really, my goal is to show that there are valid ways to read the bible besides the way I learned in church. This is really important to me because when I was an evangelical, I always thought "this is what this passage means, and anyone who says otherwise is trying to make excuses for ignoring the CLEAR TEACHING OF SCRIPTURE." But that's not true. There are multiple ways it could be read, and I don't think it makes sense to argue which is "correct" or "what the author meant." What actually matters is the real-world effects of those beliefs. You will know them by their fruit.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Asexual Awareness Week!

Image text: "And this is where I'd put my sexual attraction ... If I had one!" Image source.
Hey everyone! This week (October 22-28) is Asexual Awareness Week. So I'll make a post here with links to the blog posts I've written about asexuality:

Asexual

For This Asexual, Purity Culture Was All About Fear

3 Reasons I Need To Identify As Ace

Sex is Like an Inside Joke (Thoughts from an Asexual)

I’m Really Really REALLY Glad I Had Sex Before Marriage

Sex Was Just Not A Thing That People Did

Also, I totally HAVE TO share this link again because it is THE BEST sex ed resource I have EVER found. No euphemisms, no "heh heh if you know what I mean," no assumption that obviously this is a thing you will like and it feels good. Just straight-up defining what the terms are, and describing different ways to do sexual things, and taking seriously questions like "...but why would anyone want to do that...?"
Here it is: An Asexual’s Guide To ...

Happy Asexual Awareness Week to all the aces~

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Blogaround

1. Las Vegas Is Only the Deadliest Shooting in US History Because Black Lives Aren’t Counted (posted October 3) [content note: white supremacist violence]

2. How to Win at Monopoly and Lose All Your Friends (posted 2016) "If you want to see these people again, I recommend not gloating, but simply state that you're playing to win, and that it wasn't your idea to play Monopoly in the first place."

3. Just Who Was Jesus? An Exploration of Early Christianity (posted October 11) "I read the New Testament straight through probably twenty times, but each time I read it through I did so on the assumption that each book was inspired by God, and that they thus could not be in conflict." Yeppppppppppppp. So amazing the new things you learn when you're no longer required to believe the bible is inerrant.

4. Canadian Government Announces $800 Million In Reparations (posted October 9) "The welfare workers exercised these powers often; around 20,000 [Native American] children were taken away in all. This is now known as the Sixties Scoop."

5. India's Supreme Court Rules That Sex With A Bride Under 18 Is Rape (posted October 12)

6. Everyone Knew Houston’s Reservoirs Would Flood — Except for the People Who Bought Homes Inside Them (posted October 12)

7. What Filthy Old Birds Can Tell Us About Air Pollution (posted October 10) "By analyzing sooty birds housed in museum collections, scientists have been able to track patterns of US air pollution over the last 135 years."

8. A Trans Faith Resource List. List of resources related to trans people and Christianity. Very cool. :)

9. Maybe I’m Not Really Asexual, Because…: An Exploration of Doubts. Ooooh I really like this blog series! Especially Maybe I’m Not Really Asexual But It’s Really Just My Religious UpbringingMaybe I’m Not Really Asexual Because Isn’t Everyone Like This?, and Maybe I’m Not Really Asexual Because I Have No Idea What Sexual Attraction Is So How Do I Know If I’m Feeling It Or Not. Yeppp I've been there.

10. This is still one of my favorite worship songs:


Have a good week~

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

I Didn't Count the Cost Before I Moved To China

A group of tourists at the Great Wall of China. Image source.
Previous post: On Zebedee's Sons and Counting the Cost

I've been living in China for over 4 years now. And I'm starting to feel, more and more, the cost. How much I gave up when I chose to come live here.

It's hard, harder than I expected, and I'm realizing I didn't count the cost. Sure, I knew I was going to the other side of the world, long-term, where I'll have to learn how to live in a different culture and do everything in a different language, but I didn't know the full ramifications of what that would look like, in a practical sense.

Every year on my birthday, my family doesn't send gifts because we have our doubts about how reliable the mail system is. Instead, they say, "We'll do your birthday next time you're back in the US." And I don't make a cake for myself- because Hendrix doesn't want any, so there's no one to eat it with. (A lot of Chinese people say completely average desserts [from an American perspective] are "too sweet" and won't eat them.) Usually I go and buy one fancy piece of cake for myself. This year I asked Hendrix to buy me two pieces of cake- because a birthday cake is supposed to be something that you're still eating for the next couple days, not just one piece on your birthday. And he did, because he's great, but I feel so tired of explaining traditions that I used to just take for granted.

And when my family members in the US have a birthday, I get on Amazon and get something sent to them. Every time. And I text them to say happy birthday, because if I'm going to call there would first have to be a whole text conversation where we figure out what time we're both available to skype. With a 12-hour time difference.

No turkey for Thanksgiving here. Well, there are international grocery stores selling turkey, but it's super-expensive, and really the point of Thanksgiving is to be with family- it's not like I could put in a lot of effort finding all the correct ingredients for a Thanksgiving dinner and then it would be real Thanksgiving. It would be me worrying about getting everything right, and Hendrix trying to go along with it and be supportive but not really getting it.

For Christmas, most years I've been able to be back in the US for Christmas. But not always. And only for 1 or 2 weeks, not the whole Christmas season. I can't be there for the gradual buildup of Christmas spirit, starting with hyped-up Black Friday sales. (Which, when I lived in the US, I never went shopping on Black Friday anyway, but I still miss the whole culture surrounding it.) Yeah, Starbucks in China has their holiday-themed cups, but that just makes me miss it more. Christmas here is mostly about malls putting up decorations and having sales, using it as an opportunity to make money, rather than something the average person cares about.

I forgot Labor Day was a thing. Totally forgot. Until I saw people talking about it on twitter, the day of. I forgot Columbus Day was a thing, until I saw people talking about it on twitter. I forgot Memorial Day was a thing. I forgot Martin Luther King Day was a thing.

And missing out on these American holidays is fine if we're just talking about one time, but it's not one time, it's every single one, for years on end. I've missed four Thanksgivings in a row, and I'll keep missing Thanksgivings for the foreseeable future.

Football season. I used to watch football almost every weekend during football season, back when I lived in the US. But here, I don't have anyone to watch it with. And get this- people here think soccer is called football. It's just total linguistic chaos (and I blame the British). It's so nice when I'm back in the US and someone says the word "football" and I can be confident they're talking about football, not soccer. That's such a good feeling. And since I moved to China in 2013, I've typically only been able to watch 1 regular season game per year when I'm home for Christmas, and then when it's Superbowl Sunday I get up early (because in China it's Monday) and find a website I can stream it from. Except this year. This year I couldn't watch it at all, and that made me more homesick than ever.

I've missed weddings. Over the past few years, two different American friends have contacted me to ask if I'm still in China and if I can come to their weddings. And I have to tell them no there's just no way I can be on that continent that day. And surely there have been other friends getting married who wanted to invite me but didn't because they knew I wouldn't be able to come. If I had attended their wedding, I would have seen a bunch of friends that I haven't seen in years. But I can't.

Also missed a high school reunion. And there have been conferences and other events in the US that I would have liked to go to, but I can't. And new books that I want to read but they're not available to buy here- I have to wait til I'm in the US.

One of my grandparents died and I couldn't go to the funeral. It just wasn't possible to get enough time off work to fly all the way there and all the way back.

And in 2013 when I moved here, my parents' dog was already old, and every time I was back in the US I thought "I won't be back here for another 6 months or a year, this might be the last time I see our dog." I had to accept that. And then last year the dog died.

It's hard being so far away from my family, only seeing them twice a year. Hard to keep up with what's going on in their lives, because there's a 12-hour time difference so it takes a bunch of effort to even agree on a time we can skype. Sometimes I'm talking to my parents, and then I'm happily surprised to see my sister is there with them, because she had a day off work for some US holiday I completely forgot about. Completely forgot.

Food here is also different. The milk in China is more creamy and a little bit weird. In the US I used to drink milk so much- it was my favorite food, except it wouldn't even have occurred to me to call it my favorite food because drinking a ton of milk every day is so normal and obvious it's not even worth mentioning, right? (Yeah not in every culture.) But here in China I don't drink milk very much. It's quite sad.

Also, do you know how hard I've tried to find decent sliced bread in China? Like, sandwiches aren't part of the normal Chinese diet, so bread isn't seen as a staple food (rice and noodles are). You can't buy just a "regular" loaf of bread here. First of all, the loaves of bread will only have like 6 slices- like what is that? And a lot of times they have odd flavors, like they're sweet, or egg flavored, or have raisins. I have found bread that I deemed good enough for sandwiches, but I had to search a long time for it- and I don't even buy it any more, it's not worth the trouble, and it gets moldy fast in the Shanghai heat.

I bring my own pop-tarts from the US, because I can't buy them here. I order Cheerios online. There aren't any bagels here. And do you know how expensive cheese is?

And you know what may be even harder than the fact that I can't get all the food I like is the fact that Chinese people don't understand. Sometimes somebody asks me about what's hard about living in China, and I start talking about bread, and they're like "but just go to a bakery, we have a lot of bakeries." Yeah, none of that bread is "normal" from my American perspective (though some of it is very tasty and good for snacks). And when they continue to be confused, Hendrix tries to explain "she has a lot of requirements for bread."

Things have been happening in the US in the past few years, and all I can do is read about them on the internet. The politics and culture of the US has changed. The Black Lives Matter movement gained national attention after Mike Brown was killed in 2014. And the whole 2016 election- the Republican party nominated a clown who spent the whole campaign making increasingly shocking and hateful statements that showed he was in no way fit to be president, and somehow a ton of people voted for him. After the election, I didn't see another American until several days later- finally there was someone who understood my pain, our American pain, and we could be sad together. What's going on over there? What's happened to my country? All I can do is check the news from the other side of the world. I wish I could do more.

Also, y'all had an eclipse over there and I totally missed it.

And there's no Pokemon GO in China. I missed that whole fad.

(And maybe I would have married a white American boy if I had stayed in the US. Should I add that to the list of things I gave up when I moved to China? It's just speculation though- who knows if it actually would have happened? And I love my husband and wouldn't want to trade him for anyone else, but there are some aspects of life that would be easier if we came from the same cultural background.)

I didn't know how hard it would be to be so far from my family and my people and my culture. Sure, I knew that I was moving to the other side of the world and would only be able to go back once or twice a year, but I didn't know how it would actually feel to go to work on Thanksgiving and have no one who understands what we're "supposed" to do on that holiday.

Back then, before I came to China, I was immersed in radical Christian missions ideology. I didn't really see myself as "giving up" something, because I believed God loves everybody in the world and it's just by chance that I was born as an American with money. I didn't see my heritage and my American life as really belonging to me or as something I deserved. It all belongs to God, right? And of all the places in the world I could live, why do people expect that I would live in the US among people who share my culture? How narrow and arbitrary- right?

It all seemed so exciting and I didn't count the cost.

Really, there was no way I could have counted the cost. You can't know how it feels to miss four Thanksgivings until you've actually experienced it. I'm not saying it was a bad idea or I shouldn't have done it. I'm glad I have the experience of speaking a second language and living as a minority, and I'm really proud of myself for what I've accomplished. I'm working as an engineer and I have to speak Chinese every day at work, and it's so cool that I'm able to do that. (Also I now have a much better understanding about things like language, translation, and cultural differences, which I couldn't have gotten any other way.)

But wow, the cost. I'm on track to spend most of my 20's in China. 4 years so far- that's about 15% of my life.

Back then it seemed so easy- go, give up everything, be a missionary. And even though I didn't come to China as a missionary, my decision was heavily influenced by that ideology.

Well, sort of. More than anything else, though, it was my overwhelming desire to learn and experience a different culture and language, and take on the challenge and see if I could do it. It was the only way I could make sense of what I'd seen on my first trip to China- a several-week mission trip where I discovered that other worlds exist which are totally unlike anything I could ever imagine. Where people drink hot water and hot milk and think I'm the weird one for wanting them cold. I couldn't experience that and then just go back to my normal life.

And yeah, it was a good decision, and it was what I needed to do. But wow, the cost. I didn't count the cost. I didn't know it would be this hard. I didn't know how much I would miss the US.

Monday, October 16, 2017

God of Bad Snaps

Football players ready for the snap. Image source.
[content note: abusive Christian theology]

All right, I read this extremely bad, abusive article on Desiring God and, you know, God called me to blog about this crap: God Wounds Us Because He Loves Us.

(You can tell from the title it's going to be bad. It's actually worse than you think.)

Here's a bit from the beginning section:
Sometimes the Lord’s love for us feels like the opposite of love, but that’s only because we can’t see everything he sees. Behind the real pain he allows is an even more real love for those for whom he sent his Son (John 3:16).

The world would never call any kind of pain “love.” The world simply does not have categories for God doing whatever necessary to draw us to himself — his strength, his righteousness, his help, his peace. But his love for us explodes the world’s small categories and far surpasses its weak expectations.
First of all, "Sometimes the Lord’s love for us feels like the opposite of love, but that’s only because we can’t see everything he sees" is pretty much the dictionary definition of gaslighting. Telling someone that they're wrong about their own emotions, and they don't truly understand what they really need, so they need to just trust someone else to know what's best for them. Even though that someone else is hurting them. See, it's not really hurting them, they only think it's hurting because they don't really understand. Ugh. Gross.

And this kind of crap can be used to justify any type of immorality under the sun. Oh you think xyz is bad? Well, God says it's good, so clearly you are wrong. This ideology trains people to ignore their own conscience and simply follow an authority figure. Because they just don't know what's good for themselves. 

(Any time people start believing that the true nature of reality is something other than what we're perceiving with our own senses, you get into some very dangerous territory. That's how people justify killing in the name of God. Oh, it may look like they're doing something evil when they kill people, but actually they're doing a good thing because of these beliefs about the spiritual world which can't be proven or disproven. And the killer might truly, genuinely believe this.)

Also, I love how the writer of that Desiring God article says "The world would never call any kind of pain 'love'" as if his readers are going to be like "ah, the world, they're so foolish, they don't understand how pain can be loving", but, seriously? I read that and I was like "yep I will stick with 'the world' then. Pretty sure causing pain is NOT love."

It gets worse when the article starts giving us examples from the book of Amos:
We see this kind of unexpected and painful love in Amos. God has done everything reasonable to awaken his people to their sin and to rescue them from their rebellion against him, but they simply will not relent.

He withheld food to make them hungry: “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6). God was willing to watch them hunger if that’s what it took for them to hunger for him, again.

He stopped the rain to make them thirsty: “I also withheld the rain from you when there were yet three months to the harvest; I would send rain on one city, and send no rain on another city; one field would have rain, and the field on which it did not rain would wither; so two or three cities would wander to another city to drink water, and would not be satisfied; yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:7–8). God was willing to let them thirst if that’s what it took for them to thirst for righteousness.

He corrupted the fields to ruin their harvest: “I struck you with blight and mildew; your many gardens and your vineyards, your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured; yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:9). God was willing to compromise his people’s livelihood if that’s what it took for them to look to him for all they needed.

Most devastating of all, he even killed their loved ones: One last time from Amos: “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword, and carried away your horses, and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils; yet you did not return to me. . . . I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning; yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:10–11). God was willing even to see them die if that’s what it took for them to truly live.
Wow, I mean, God is REALLY BAD AT THIS, huh? Like, you want people to like you, so you cause terrible things to happen to them? What? Does God not understand human emotions at all?

This isn't love. This is using threats and violence to control people. If you can get them so desperate that they fear for their lives, they might choose to beg for help from their attacker. Make a deal with the devil, so to speak.

Also, wtf is going on with the "God was willing to watch them hunger if that’s what it took for them to hunger for him, again"? It's phrased as if God is the one suffering, like we should admire what a noble sacrifice God is choosing to make just because he wants so much to be close to his people. WTF? This is like in the movie "Shrek" where Lord Farquaad tells his soldiers, "Some of you may die, but it's a sacrifice I am willing to make." Y'all realize that was a joke, right? You know that line was meant to show that Lord Farquaad is a heartless jerk, right?

The god described here does not actually love these people. He is not interested in giving them blessings and happiness; what matters the most is that they worship him. If they experience blessings and happiness but ignore him, well he's not okay with that.

There are lots of things in the world that only make the news when somebody screws them up. If they do their job properly, nobody ever hears about it. Like a bad snap at the Superbowl- normally, people don't think about who is snapping the ball, but then somebody screws it up and we all learn his name and blame him.

(For those who don't know football: The "snap" is the start of a play, where the football is originally laying on the ground and then the designated player "snaps" it up so the play can start. This happens maybe 100 times each game. Occasionally there's a "bad snap" which means the player who was supposed to snap made a mistake and the football went flying or rolling on the ground in some weird direction.)

The God of evangelical Christianity is like that football player, snapping the ball. Going along, doing his job well, and he's not happy about it because he doesn't have fans. He feels like nobody appreciates what he does. Even though his work is contributing good to the world, allowing the game to happen- that's not what he wants. He wants fans.

If he is making people happy and successful, but they don't realize it's because of him, he's not okay with that. Because his goal isn't actually to make people happy or successful.

So he starts messing up the snaps. He starts dropping the ball, every single time. The whole team is thrown into confusion, trying to figure out what on earth has suddenly gone wrong and why they can't even run one play.

And his team loses. Over and over and over, because you definitely can't score any points on offense if you never have a successful snap. The snapper isn't doing his job, and it causes a huge crisis. Snapping the ball is one small simple thing that usually goes well and his teammates don't have to worry about it. But if he doesn't do it, it ruins everything for his team.

So they come and ask what's wrong and why can't he snap the ball correctly. But he still refuses, because they're not worshiping him yet. Finally it's at the point where all the players and fans are begging and offering him ANYTHING just PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE we'll do ANYTHING, if you would just snap the ball correctly. And then he agrees, and goes back to doing his job the right way. But if they ever stop worshiping him, he'll ruin the game again.

Because he's not really concerned with how other people feel. He doesn't really want to do good for the world. If his team wins but he doesn't have many fans, he counts it as a loss. If his team loses but suddenly tons and tons of people are paying attention to him, begging him to snap the ball, he calls that a win.

This is a god who's not okay with helping people if he doesn't get the credit for it. He hates it when people are living their good happy lives but not worshiping him. He believes they must be punished for that sin. He can't stand anything that's not all about him, no matter how beneficial it is to people.

That's what we see in those examples from Amos. God thought the people didn't love him enough, so he destroyed a bunch of their things, and even killed some of them.

If you ever meet a god like that, don't worship them. Don't love them. Because they never loved you. They never wanted you to have a healthy and happy life. They just want fans.

---------------------

I was called by God to write blog posts in response to the abusive theology of John Piper/ Desiring God/ The Gospel Coalition. Here are some of my other posts:
I knew Desiring God ideology is spiritual abuse, but wow.
"The Authority of Scripture" is One Hell of a Drug

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Blogaround

A bunny sitting on a stack of pancakes, with another small pancake on its head. A cat stares at it with a very disturbed expression. Image source.
1. 'Monopoly man' crashes former Equifax CEO's Senate hearing (posted October 4)

2. Hallowed Be Thy Name (posted September 27) "These words are actually a petition, a prayer for God to act in hallowing God's own name."

3. 5 Reasons for Writing about Polyamorous Families (posted October 5) "It is a vile and, to me, incomprehensible thing that so many people view the destruction of families as a lesser sin than the living out of fruitful, covenantal love between more than two people."

4. Here Are The Cities That Celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day Instead of Columbus Day (posted October 8)

5. Voices in Your Head: Evangelicals and the Voice of God (posted October 10) [content note: murder of children] "But when I met someone who was hearing voices in her head, as a young evangelical adult, I thought it was normal because that was the template my religion had provided me." Yep, Libby Anne's experiences are pretty much the same as mine.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

On Zebedee's Sons and Counting the Cost

An exhibit at the 2012 Urbana conference. Students write on pieces of paper at stick them to a giant map of the world. Image source.
[content note: ideology about how you are required to give up everything- maybe even your life- for Jesus. mention of a missionary who was murdered.]

Today let's look at Matthew 20:17-28. First, Jesus informs the disciples that he will be mocked, flogged, and crucified, and then rise again. In the second section of this passage, the mother of Zebedee's sons shows up to ask if Jesus can give her two sons places of power on his right and left.

The part I want to focus on is this:
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.
They're just like "we can" as if it's so easy. And so I want to talk about counting the cost.

When Jesus talks about "drink[ing] the cup", he's talking about suffering. Actually, he had JUST TOLD them all that he was going to be betrayed and tortured and killed. But I don't think James and John (the sons of Zebedee) really *get* it. Just like me when I was involved with radical Christian missions ideology, with all its talk of how awesome it is to suffer for God.

Radical Christian missions teaches that Christians should be willing to give up EVERYTHING for Jesus. And the very very best Christians, the most devoted and godly ones, are the ones who go live as missionaries in some poor and dangerous country.

The very very best Christians are martyrs, because they literally gave their lives for Jesus. But even if we're not martyrs, we're called to live every day 100% devoted to God- die to self and take up your cross daily. And, they said, maybe that's actually harder than being a martyr. Because it's not just a one-time thing; it's your whole entire lifestyle.

I went to InterVarsity's Urbana conference in 2009 and 2012. Urbana is ALL ABOUT radical Christian missions. Ten thousand students stood in an arena and sang worship songs about "I will go, I will go, I will go Lord send me" and "take everything I am, I'm clay within your hands." There was folklore passed around about how "Urbana is where so-and-so heard the call from God to be a missionary." We came there knowing that God might call us to give up all our possessions and dreams and plans and move to some unknown country. And we loved God and trusted God so much. We were ready.

Every day of the conference, there were speakers who talked about their experiences and how much they gave up in obedience to God, and how the results were so amazing and totally worth it. And we attended workshops about the more practical things- how to do evangelism in this or that particular setting, how to know where God was calling us to go, etc.

But they never told us to count the cost.

Yes, they did talk about the cost. They talked about "getting out of our comfort zones" and taking risks for God. They talked about how it's hard if you have parents who don't agree with your decision to be a missionary. They told stories of good Christian role models who made huge sacrifices in order to help others. They said that sometimes people have even died in service to God's call.

But all of this was presented as "yes, it's really hard, and you will suffer, but it is SO WORTH it." Because God is with you. Because you're doing something that really matters in the eyes of eternity, not just living your life for your own short-term happiness. Because even though you'll suffer when you're following God's call, it would be even worse if you didn't- God knows what's best for you.

(Related: If somebody "got saved" at one of our campus evangelistic events but then we never saw them at any bible study meetings or anything afterward, we usually concluded that they "didn't understand the cost" of following Jesus. Sometimes we blamed ourselves for only presenting the nice parts of the gospel and not talking about how one needs to lay down their life. Sometimes we blamed the person who was "saved" for not being willing to really follow Jesus.)

Radical Christian missions's talk of "the cost" is NEVER meant to say "you should seriously consider if you're okay with these costs or not- and if you decide you're not, that's perfectly valid." There was no "whoa whoa whoa slow down, let's not do anything that carries a risk of death, because that is an EXTREMELY SERIOUS thing and shouldn't be taken lightly." No. It was always "it's hard, but it's worth it because you're following God." (Imagine my surprise the first time I read a news story about a missions organization that evacuated their employees because of some epidemic or natural disaster. I thought looking at a situation realistically, assessing the danger, and taking practical steps to protect yourself is something missionaries just don't do. If God "called" you to be there, how can you leave just because you're concerned about your own safety?)

I remember one speaker at Urbana who talked about how her husband was murdered while working as a missionary in the Middle East. And she said even though it's very tragic that he lost his life, it would have been even worse if he hadn't obeyed God's call and hadn't become a missionary. He was living according to God's amazing plan for his life, and that's better than any alternative.

And maybe that's true. Maybe the work he was doing truly was so important that it was worth sacrificing his life. Sure, that's certainly possible. But that's a conclusion that should only be reached after a long period of time carefully considering his particular situation and how he/ his widow felt about it, and the results, etc. That's not the kind of statement you should just throw around as if it's axiomatically true, as if OBVIOUSLY for EVERYONE death is better than never becoming a missionary in the first place. And maybe that's not how she meant it- but as a student in that audience, the message I heard was "don't be afraid, don't worry about the cost, you should follow God's call no matter what because even if you die, that's still better than living a sad and boring life where you're just an ordinary American Christian."

We thought in terms of the story of Jonah: God calls him to go preach in Ninevah, he chooses not to, and God sends a whale to swallow him. If God calls you and you say no, your life is going to suck- it will suck even worse than if you had obeyed God and become a missionary, even though that's a really hard life too.

Radical Christian missions never said we should count the cost and make an informed decision and that it's okay to say no if the cost is just too great. (Please note, though, that it's okay to say no if you can spin it into some kind of spiritual reason, like "Missionaries all need a team of ordinary Christians to just stay in the US and support them financially- that's just as important.")

Look at Jesus' teaching in Luke 14 though:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples."
Jesus says to count the cost before becoming his disciple. In his examples about building a tower and about the king going to war, he says it's BETTER to NOT attempt some big risky thing if the cost is too great or the chance of success is too low. Could it really be that Jesus thinks it's okay for his audience to choose NOT to give up their possessions and family and follow him?

Because, in my experience in Christian culture, when people talk about "the cost of following Jesus", what they mean is that choosing to obey Jesus even though it's hard and costly is THE RIGHT ANSWER, and if someone decides not to do it because of the cost then they are a BAD AND SELFISH PERSON who is TOO AFRAID and DOESN'T TRUST GOD. 

There was never a free choice. And it's not possible to seriously consider whether the cost is worth it, if you know that you're not allowed to conclude that it's not.

In my experience in the feminist/activist blogosphere, people quite often do advise that we should count the cost. They don't use the term "count the cost"; instead they say things like "not everyone is able to give money to support this, if you're not able that's okay" and "some people have to work really inconvenient hours and so they don't have time to attend this or that activist meeting" or "it's totally fine if you're disabled and you aren't able to come to a protest, just help out in whatever other ways you can" or "it's not your responsibility to educate racists on twitter if you don't have the emotional energy for it." In other words, start by prioritizing yourself and your own health and happiness, and then from there you can make decisions about how much time/money/energy you have to put in to justice work. (There's a limit to this "letting everyone decide what they're personally willing to risk" though- if you have a lot of wealth and privilege but aren't really doing anything to help marginalized people, well you're part of the problem. Still, I don't think anyone's saying that wealthy people are morally obligated to give up EVERYTHING, or that it would be WRONG for them to live comfortable lives. Compare this with radical Christian missions, where the ideal is to give up everything.)

Jesus asks the sons of Zebedee, "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" And they said, "We can." It seemed so simple. Even though Jesus had just told them he was going to be killed, it seemed so abstract and faraway. Just like when I adhered to the ideology of radical Christian missions. They talked a big game about how we all need to give up everything for Jesus, like it's this glamorous thing that's hard but always worth it. They never talked about counting the cost. Yes, they talked about the cost- but they never said we should count it.

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There will be a post next week called I Didn't Count the Cost Before I Moved to China.

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This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: The Parable of the Living Wage (Matthew 20:1-16)

Next post: How About We Let Disabled People Tell Us What to Think About Jesus' Healings (Matthew 20:29-34)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The things I've never let myself say about worship

A crowd of people standing up during worship music time. Some of them are raising their hands. Image source.

"It's just you and God."

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My Sunday School teacher asked us, "What is worship? Is it just singing songs? Is it only something we do on Sundays?" And the answer was no, worship isn't music. The correct Sunday-School answer was that worship means doing everything in a way that honors God. It's about your whole life. Living a life fully dedicated to God. Singing songs is part of it, but that's not what worship is.

In my twenty-plus years as an evangelical, every time the "what is worship?" lesson came up, that was the answer. It's not music, it's living your whole life devoted to God.

So then, why did church people use the term "worship" as if it meant "singing church songs"? Why did they say, "So first we'll do worship and then prayer next"?

I believed the Sunday School lessons. I never referred to the singing of songs as "worship"- that's not the kind of thing you say if you believe your entire life is supposed to be constant worship. Instead, I used the term "worship music." (Later, I actually used a concordance and looked up every time the bible uses the word "worship", and guess what, it isn't used as a synonym for "religious songs" and it isn't used as a synonym for "living your entire life devoted to God." So.)

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When I was in college, I dedicated my life totally 100% to God. This was after an experience where I was overwhelmed at seeing God's mercy and goodness, and I was so full of emotion and just wanted to sing and dance and express how much I loved God. For the first time in my life, I looked forward to going to church. (Before, I went to church because of course I go to church, that's what Christians do.)

And so I became that person who sings loud and raises her hands and jumps and dances and all that. I loved it. I felt so free and emotional and close to God. The feelings I had in my heart, about my love for God and how great God is and the amazing things God had done for me- and every week at church, there was an opportunity to shout those feelings out as loud as I could.

I started sitting in the front row so I would have more space to dance around during the worship music time. I wore shoes that could be taken off easily so my feet wouldn't hurt when I knelt down. On more than one occasion, I was at a Christian conference and actually brought a skirt and changed in the bathroom before the worship time, because I wanted to look my best when I was dancing for God but the weather was too cold to wear a skirt the whole day.

I loved it; I loved singing and dancing to express my overflowing joy for God. But at the same time, I also felt a little weird. Maybe a little embarrassed.

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A foundational tenet of the Christianity I was taught was that a lot of people claim to be Christians but they're not really Christians. And going to church doesn't mean you're a Christian- "if you go to McDonald's, does that make you a hamburger?" So I was suspicious of the people I met in church. Were they really really REALLY real Christians, or were they just going along with it because it's their culture?

The sermons on worship said we should get into it with our whole hearts and not hold anything back. So why was I the only one dancing and raising my arms in every song and bowing down on the floor? Was it because other people weren't as godly as I was? Maybe they weren't real Christians.

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I'm a math person. I always liked math classes because every answer is either right or wrong. If I know the right answer, I can prove it's the right answer, and I'm confident I'm right. I didn't like English class because when you write papers, you have to explain this means this because of these reasons, but really isn't it all just a bunch of made-up opinions? What is it based on? What if I say "here's my interpretation of this literature" and everyone is like "haha what, no that's ridiculous, that's obviously not what it meant"? Who's to say who's right and who's wrong? All you have are different people's opinions on what's "ridiculous" and what's "reasonable."

Same thing with art. You can have a piece of art, and some people think it's so deep and meaningful, and some people laugh at it. And I always worried what people thought of my actions during worship time. Maybe they were laughing at me in their heads. Maybe they thought I was weird. I was up front, moving around, waving my arms, dancing, singing loud- I was very noticeable.

I remember one time, I was practicing for this dance performance for a Christian worship night thing- doing a dance I had completely made up myself, with no dance training or anything- I was practicing and showing a friend to see what she thought. And I tried to show her what I'd prepared but I just stopped and laughed at myself because I felt so nervous and weird, doing a performance in front of other people. Like what if dancing is just weird and I should feel embarrassed about the entire thing? It's art, there's no objective measure for whether it's beautiful or ridiculous. And that always bothered me.

But when Christian speakers talked about worship, they said we shouldn't think about what other people are thinking. "It's just you and God," they said. I always heard Christians say that about worship music time- "It's just you and God." And you shouldn't care what other people think.

I always used to close my eyes when I was singing. Then I couldn't see other people, and so I would be able to stop thinking about how they are probably judging me.

Sometimes strangers would come up and give me a compliment about how it's so great that I worship so freely and authentically and with my whole heart. But most people never said anything about it at all. And I worried about that. But I kept telling myself, "It's just you and God, it doesn't matter what people think."

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I discovered that I couldn't move around as much if I wasn't sitting in the front row or on the end of a row. If there were people on both sides of me, I didn't have as much space to work with. I could pretty much just put my arms straight up, but not to the sides.

I knew that it would be bad to wave my arms around too much and make the people on my left and right worried that I was going to hit them in the face. So ... that means I can't just close my eyes and worship freely- it means I have to keep my arms within a certain space and be very aware of the people around me and whether or not I'm close to hitting them. But what about "it's just you and God"? What about "you shouldn't care what other people think"?

This paradox was always a mystery to me. I deeply believed "it's just you and God" but I also felt that it wouldn't be right to let myself move around so much that I risk hitting someone accidentally. But how could those two ideas be reconciled? And the thing about hitting somebody- that was never something that was explicitly taught as "this is a sin." It was more along the lines of, uh, common sense.

The best I could figure was that God loves everybody, so if I'm loving God with my whole heart, then I also have to be nice and considerate to people- that's what God would want. So, I concluded, it's not true that "It's just you and God." Actually, "It's just God." And not hitting someone accidentally is MORE IMPORTANT than freely expressing all my love for God through dance.

It's kind of odd that I spent so much time and mental energy trying to find a justification for "it is bad to be so careless with my arm movements that I accidentally hit someone in the face" but it never occurred to me to see a conflict between the teachings on worship and the teachings on modesty. I was taught that good Christian girls should never move their bodies in a way that could be interpreted as "sexy." So I would wave my arms, shake my head, clap, jump, kneel down, turn around, and step stiffly from side to side. But absolutely no wiggling, twisting, bending, or shaking any part of my torso. That might be "immodest." (Remember, one of the foundational doctrines of modesty culture is that, as a woman, I "just can't understand" what men are going through. So I should avoid these types of movements, just in case some man thinks they are "a stumbling block." Even though I think they probably aren't.)

Why did I never ask the question, "If it's 'just you and God', then how can there be modesty-based restrictions on shaking one's butt in worship?" Maybe because the action of dancing in a "sexy" way (ie anything that risked drawing attention to my torso area rather than limbs) was intrinsically sinful- even if I was alone in my own home, I would be nervous about trying it. Whereas there was nothing inherently wrong with jumping around and waving my arms, it's just an accident of circumstances that somebody's hypothetical face happened to be right there. It was reasonable for me to imagine getting so lost in the emotions of worship that I forget there are people standing right next to me and I have to be careful not to hit them. But how can someone get so lost in worship that they move their body in a way that a good Christian girl should never ever move their body?

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The word I hated the most was "distracting."

My parents' church is way more, uh, tame than the kind of worship environment I experienced with other college students. So when I was home for the summer, I looked even more out of place, in that sanctuary of people who just stood still, or maybe occasionally slightly raised one hand. And my mom had a problem with what I did. And she had a problem with how I cheered and yelled at the part in the song about the resurrection. (You know, the cornerstone of our faith, the coolest thing that's ever happened.) She always used the word "distracting" and so now I get kind of triggered when anyone uses the word "distracting" to describe something happening at church. Apparently I was being "distracting" and it was bothering other people, they can't concentrate on worshiping God, so I just need to cut it out.

My parents said I was singing too loud, I was "screeching." I thought they should consider themselves lucky that I wasn't singing a completely different song than everyone else. Because the song the worship band was doing wasn't one of the ones I felt a deep emotional resonance with, and ya know, "it's just you and God, you shouldn't worry what other people think"- I briefly considered just singing my favorite worship song while everybody else was singing the song the worship band was doing. I never did that though, fortunately. But maybe it was because I felt I wasn't brave enough. Maybe if I was truly worshiping God with my whole heart, I would be open to doing something as bizarre and disruptive as singing an entirely different song than the rest of the church.

But I wondered, what if they were right, and I was "distracting" and I shouldn't "worship" like that? What if it's not true that "it's just you and God"? What if God wants me to care about not bothering other people?

I read Romans 14, about "not causing anyone to stumble." It meant that even though we have the freedom to do something, sometimes it's better not to do it because it might tempt some weaker person to sin. (The entire basis of "modesty.") So maybe I shouldn't worship like that if it's going to bother people?

I read 2 Samuel 6, where "Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might", and Michal gave him a hard time about it, but the bible sides with David, who says "I will become even more undignified than this." (Inspiring this worship song, which I was a huge fan of back then.) So screw anyone who has a problem with the way I worship, right?

I wished I had someone I could talk to. But would anybody else understand? Nobody else was dancing around like I was during the worship music. Maybe they don't love God as much as I do. Maybe they are those fake Christians I keep hearing about. What if they are silently judging me for how weird I am when I worship? No, I can't ask their opinion on whether it's okay to worship like this.

The closest I came to having an actual conversation about this was with my friend Kiara, who was talking about moving and expressing oneself during worship time. She held her hands up at about the level of her shoulders and said "God hasn't been this good to me," then raised her arms up, YMCA-style and said, "He's been THIS good to me." I liked that and I wanted to believe her, but at the same time, I couldn't find a logical argument that explained why certain beliefs about God would necessarily map to certain body movements. How I wished I could say that God is so good and therefore I MUST respond by worshiping in this specific way- but I couldn't.

Kiara is black, and I went to her black church one time and I loved it. From what I've seen, people in black churches get really into the singing and dancing and expressing emotions through worship music. I actually joined a student gospel choir in college, where the majority of the choir was black, just because I wanted to shout really loud about how I felt about God, and a gospel choir is the place you can do that. I had a great time. (Note, however, that in the context of being in a gospel choir, I did NOT believe "it's just you and God" because our goal was putting on a good performance. Which is a completely different thing than just being a congregation member during worship time. ... Wait a minute- how did I never notice the huge contradiction between the teaching that "worship isn't about music, it's your whole life" and "when you worship, all that matters is you and God, don't think about other people"?)

I guess I didn't really know about the concept of culture back then. It was easy for me to assume that people who moved more and looked more emotional during worship time loved God more. Easy to think that people in my parents' (very white) church weren't real Christians because they stood still while singing about God. But now I get what culture is because I moved to China. Culture is the reason that a belief about God might map to a particular body movement- and in a different culture, maybe that exact same belief doesn't inspire people to move in that particular way, and that doesn't mean their faith is any less genuine and heartfelt. In China I don't just barge in and do things the way I think they should go and "don't care what anyone else thinks." Maybe I no longer believe there's any situation where you should "not care what anyone else thinks." Maybe worship was never supposed to be "just you and God" at all.

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It always bothered me when the lyrics of a worship song said something along the lines of "I am doing this specific physical action right now" and yet we weren't actually doing it. A few examples:
If you sing that you're doing something, and you're able-bodied and could easily do the thing, but yet you're not doing it... then what about the part of the song where you sing about how much you love God- are you actually doing that or not? If you can't even be bothered to do some simple gesture, then what about the hard task of living your whole life devoted to God?

If I sing that I'm kneeling but I'm actually not kneeling because like, I don't want to do that in front of other people, they will all look at me and think I'm weird... does that mean I'm not really worshiping? Does that mean I'm not really devoted to God, because my actions are influenced by what other people will think?

If we sing "we're dancing now" but we're not dancing, then that means we don't really mean that part. And to be honest, I always felt like Christians didn't really mean all that stuff we said in church. In Sunday School they taught us that God can do anything and cares about all the details of our lives- so why did I feel awkward suggesting to another Christian that we pray when we were setting up for an event and couldn't figure out how to turn the projector on? Why did I feel weird saying things like "I belong to God" out loud anywhere other than church?

Church people said "a lot of Christians don't actually have a Christian worldview"- which means they say they believe certain Christian beliefs but mostly they just live their lives like they believe the normal things that mainstream society believes- they haven't worked through all the logical implications of their Christian beliefs and how those things should apply to all these other aspects of their lives. And after I dedicated my life fully to God, I tried to eliminate that gap between the way I lived and the things I claimed to believe. (See: #ChristianAltFacts)

And now I write hundreds of blog posts about how much that messed up my life.

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I can't tell you how many times I debated in my head when I wanted to raise my hands, or bow down, or whatever, but I was hesitating. The foundational assumption in all those debates was "if the only reason to not do this is because I would feel weird having other people see, then that's not a valid reason." Like I always have to analyze my motives, and if I discover I'm partially motivated by some "sinful" reason then that means I'm being bad. Now THAT'S "distracting."

One of my friends, let's call him Bob, had a different problem during worship. He once told me about how he felt like he shouldn't raise his hands if he wasn't feeling emotionally compelled to raise his hands. Like it would be "fake" if he did it without having the "I love God so much, I simply must raise my hands, I can't help it" feeling. He said that he was learning it's okay to do it even without the "correct" emotions, and that was helpful for him.

Yeah, because the idea of just going along and singing the songs without "really meaning it" was preached against strongly in the churches I attended. They taught that if you're singing but you're a little distracted, thinking about the things you have to do tomorrow or whatever, that's not okay and it means you are being bad and your singing doesn't really "count" as worship.

It's awful for our mental health, all these rules about which emotions we're allowed or not allowed to have. I know many ex-evangelicals have moved to more liturgical, less "emotional" churches and ended up much healthier there. Because the whole service is more or less scripted out, so congregation members can just kind of follow along, read the words they're supposed to read, and that's good enough. You don't have to constantly interrogate your own emotions and feel guilty over not having the "correct" feelings or not "really meaning it." Just make a choice to show up for church, if that's all you're able to do. And that's good enough.

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I went to InterVarsity's Urbana conference, where we worshiped in a stadium with thousands of students. I always tried to get a seat in the rows of chairs set up at ground level, rather than in the bleachers. Specifically, I wanted to be in the front row of a section or at the end of a row, because then I would have a lot of space to move and dance during the worship time.

One time, during the worship music at Urbana, I saw a group of students coming down from the bleachers so they could dance in the more open space at the ground level. But a staff member stopped them at the bottom of the stairs and said they have to go back to their seats.

I don't think I'll ever forget that. Because of all the Christian talks I had heard- many of them from actual InterVarsity staff- about how we should worship freely and not care what anyone else thinks, and all that matters is expressing your love for God. Then how could a Christian staff member stop people from coming downstairs where they could dance and worship?

I know it's about crowd control. Urbana had over ten thousand students, and when you have a group that big, you have to have very very strict rules in order to keep everything running smoothly. It was obvious that a lot of thought had been put into crowd control at Urbana- I was RIDICULOUSLY IMPRESSED by how they would block certain hallways at certain times of the day so that they didn't end up with chaos as waves of people tried to get past each other in different directions. Seriously, like every conference I've been to EXCEPT FOR URBANA has some kind of badly-planned area where people wait in line and there's a bottleneck and it wastes everybody's time. My mind was BLOWN at not seeing any of that inefficiency at Urbana. Seriously. It was amazing.

So probably everybody has to stay in the general area of their seats during worship time because otherwise you might end up with a huge crowd that gets out of control, and then when worship time is done you have to wait for them all to go back to their seats before doing the next thing and it takes FOREVER, or some kind of reason like that.

So all that talk about "it's just you and God, you shouldn't care what other people think" was a lie? More like "it's just you and God unless you're in an arena with over ten thousand people- then better not stray too far from your chosen seat."

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I never really realized how personal the lyrics of worship songs are, and how unnatural it is to express those things in public. I never thought about it, but I felt it, and I wasn't able to put those feelings into words. We sing about love, about our hearts, about our desires- these aren't things people typically discuss in public where strangers can overhear.

Maybe that's why other people didn't seem as "into it" as I was. Not because they didn't really love God, but because they didn't necessarily want to proclaim their deepest feelings about God in front of a bunch of acquaintances. And maybe that's totally okay.

In a post from 2015, Modern Worship Music is Foreplay, Or Why I Hate Going to Church, Dianna Anderson writes,
Rather, [my objection is to] the lack of restraint that these songs exhibit and the almost total lack of theological depth. Jesus is the “lover of our souls,” “drawing us closer and closer.” We talk in sexual terms about our relationship with Christ without stopping to consider what these terms mean. The music is not only sexual in nature but nearly meaningless in its theology. What do we mean when we’re saying that Jesus is the “lover of [our] soul”? How does Jesus act as a lover? Is that a road we really want to go down?

Rarely do these songs come with explication and commentary, despite being a central part of the approach to God that is a religious service. Modern worship music seems to exist solely to invoke an emotional experience, to prepare us emotionally and spiritually for the sermon and the service. It is, functionally, the foreplay of the modern evangelical service.

We call it centering ourselves on God, bringing us into the moment, but what it does functionally is create a veneer of intimate experience in the midst of a congregation that’s barely on a first name basis with each other. It’s all too often an emotional high without the attendant support needed for emotional vulnerability.

In my own experience, after years of this kind of structure to worship, I found myself unable to function well in traditional, emotionally driven worship places. There’s a time and place for communal worship, but it seems that modern Protestant, charismatic worship gives us all the emotional (and often vaguely sexual) release with none of the support and follow up it requires. As soon as I stepped away from that environment and examined it truthfully, I realized that the spiritual highs I reached in communal worship were emotionally manufactured through repetitive, vapid, theologically empty music. I never really connected with my community in the way church is supposed to.
And I think this is exactly the reason that the whole congregation stares straight ahead at the screen with the lyrics. They don't want to make eye contact with anyone else while they say the words "I'm desperate for you." This is why I wanted to jump and dance for God but on some level I didn't want anyone to notice. This is why so many talks were given about "it's just you and God, you shouldn't care what other people think"- because it's completely natural to be unwilling to express such deep emotion where other people can see.

How did I never realize that was the reason?

If only I hadn't grown up in an environment which equated emotional vulnerability and oversharing with godliness. If only someone had said "It's good and healthy to have boundaries- to have personal things which you don't go around telling everybody. Not because those things are bad or sinful, but because they're personal and you have the right to have a private life."

They all saw me kneeling on the ground, crying, dancing, singing with deep emotion about how I am giving my whole heart to God. And then they decided I'm not a real Christian because I no longer believe the "correct" evangelical teachings about hell or the bible or sex or whatever. It hurts even more, because church was the place I expressed my deepest feelings where everybody could see, and now I don't feel safe going to any church at all.

I still love God. But I don't want church people to see. I don't trust them.

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I was never able to understand my own emotions when I "felt weird" for worshiping so expressively. The only narrative available was "some Christians don't worship with their whole heart because they're worried about what other people will think, and that's bad, it means they care more about people's judgment than about loving God." I'm dancing for God, so any doubt about it must be from the devil or from my sinful nature, which doesn't want me to obey God wholeheartedly like this. Therefore I must completely ignore those doubts.

I raised my hands and yelled and danced, and I wasn't allowed to have feelings about the fact that a whole bunch of people at church could see me.

In church, Christians sing worship songs in large groups- but we're supposed to pretend that we don't. We're supposed to act like it doesn't matter if other people see us or not, and that if we have any emotions about that, then those emotions are bad, because we shouldn't care what people think. We all stay in our space and don't make eye contact while we publicly verbalize the deepest thoughts of our hearts.

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Related: The things I've never let myself say about evangelism

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