Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Wretches and Kings"

This afternoon I skimmed a New York Times article talking about some protestors marching on Wall Street.  And again I was faced with a question which deeply troubles me: could all of these countercultural lifestyles exist if it were not for the very structures which they’ve dedicated their lives to protesting?

First of all, it is the Western, capitalist America which has provided the education which first opened many of these peoples’ minds.  Any serious social critique has, at some point or another, been advocated by people in the top levels of academia.  And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most protest movements have found a wide base of support within the student community.  I’m not saying that education could not exist outside the current system, but the current system is responsible for the education which these protestors received.  It’s doubly ironic: “the system” breeds those who question it, and the questioners are deeply indebted to “the system”.

Second, everyone who questions American democracy and capitalism, from whatever viewpoint (Christian, Communist, anarchist, hippie, or whatever else is out there) still depends on so many of the benefits this system provides.  That’s not surprising – it’s basically impossible to live in this country and not largely depend on such benefits.  I am just curious to know how many of these people would be willing to give up as much as possible and truly try to live out what they’re espousing at a deep level.  I’m not saying that they all wouldn’t, but I think a lot of people need to choose between tempering their rhetoric and radicalizing their lifestyle.

I am not saying that there isn’t sometimes a disconnect between belief and lifestyle.  It happens.  It especially happens when you’re busy trying to figure out how your beliefs can be expressed in your lifestyle.  But I think there are a lot of people (maybe even myself included) who spend days pointing fingers, saying what the government ought to do, how the system ought to change, when they really should take a long look in the mirror first.

There is absolutely a place for marching in protests.  There is a place for having opinions.  But I think many times we like to substitute talking about things and doing all the classic “slacktivist” activities [buying the T-shirt, donating a couple of dollars, protesting, calling your Senator, updating your facebook status] for a lot of actual lifestyle changes which we know we should really implement.  If we aren’t living our lives according to our beliefs (even if those ideals may, after all, be tempered with a bit of pragmatism), any activism will really only go so far.

I’m not claiming to be even remotely perfect in this sense!  Trust me, I know my life is hardly exemplary of all the ideals I like to espouse.  But I am working on what will no doubt be a long and messy process of trying to be more integrated and less compartmentalized.

It takes courage to live what you believe.  It also takes wisdom and love and humility and patience.  God grant us grace.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Positive Differences

This weekend I was reminded of the great value of friendships (my life is definitely blessed; I get reminded of this a lot).  And here is one of my favorite things: I love being friends with people who are not exactly like me.

I love hanging out with friends, shooting the breeze about random stuff, sharing inside jokes.  I love the fact that my one friend and I could both feel the same about the little kitten we tried to rescue.  I love that moment when you’re like, “oh yeah, me too!”

But I also love that feeling when I’m talking to someone who looks at life differently than I do.  I’m thinking of one incident in particular, where I was catching up with a friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of months.  I started telling him about some things I had been thinking related to my future, the sociological research I want to do.  And because my friend is more conservative than I am, he asked some really insightful questions that I hadn’t necessarily thought of.  Even just the process of explaining to him my ideas, I found myself balancing out some of the things I had been thinking.  It isn’t that I thought he would judge me or be unhappy with my original thoughts.  But bringing my own ideas into this interaction with someone different than myself helped me to think in a different perspective than I had been thinking.

My favorite thing about having good, solid friendships with people whose viewpoints sometimes differ from mine is that we are still such good friends.  In our world, people often think that disagreement is necessarily hostile.  I think, if it’s on a foundation of love and caring, as part of a good relationship, disagreement can actually be a very positive experience.

It’s so valuable to have friends with diversity of experience, diversity of opinion, diversity of skill.  If the community you bring around yourself is homogenous, you’re missing out.

Thank you, everyone in my life.  You have built into me in ways that you don’t know, maybe even in ways I don’t fully know.

With gratitude,

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why I Love America

At present, patriotism is an emotion which I cannot seem to muster up within myself.  A lot of people, especially in the nationalistic decades early in the 20th century, found lack of patriotism to be “unnatural.”  So if that’s the case, I guess I’m “unnatural.”  I even wrote an essay last year arguing that Christians ought to reexamine their priorities, placing loyalty to God’s kingdom far above patriotism.

But some recent work that I’ve been doing on an article about sexual harassment law in America has led me to reflect on some of the truly good things about America.  I’m no proponent of American exceptionalism, but in the course of human events it just so happens that I was born in America, so I know more about how these particular qualities have been exemplified in the United States.   It’s not for me to say whether or not any other nation on earth has done a good job with these things.  I dare say some have done better than America, some worse.  But for what it’s worth, here are some reasons that America is really a great place to live.

I said once that America was founded on the idea that all white land-holding males are created equal.  And I think that’s irrefutable.  But although the founding fathers made some classist, racist, sexist assumptions, they created a system in which the ideals of liberty, justice, and civil rights could be expanded, explored, and exploited to their fullest potential.  The battle for true equality has been quite ugly at times, but within the American system there is space for that battle to be waged.  Since the late 1700’s, the narrow concept of civil rights and liberties originally subscribed to by our founding fathers has been expanded beyond all recognition.  There is still so much work left to be done, but America is a place where such work can be done, indeed where we expect that such work will be done.

The first amendment to the Constitution has not always been consistently upheld.  But in general, America is a place designed to allow for and even celebrate diversity.  Diversity of opinion, diversity of practice, indeed for the most part any diversity which isn’t an actual national security threat, is part of the American tradition.  I’m not saying that we’ve perfectly stuck to this ideal, not by a long shot.  But I think we’re getting better at it.  Homogeneity is boring, and let’s face it, in a country the size of the United States, it’s basically impossible.  So I’m glad Americans enjoy embracing diversity, even if it’s more often than not a watered-down pop cultural version.

And finally, I am grateful that America is in general, safe.  As a rule, the police and the military do a good job of keeping the average citizen’s life relatively safe, while not intruding on personal freedoms.  I’m not saying our system is perfect, but at the same time, I don’t really fear that I’ll come to harm as I go about my everyday life.  And that is something I shouldn't take for granted.

So, though I’m not terribly patriotic, I am grateful for these benefits of the American system.  We’re not perfect, and there are plenty of things we could do better.  But this country is a pretty great place to live, so I’m thankful that I was born here.

(As a side note, if we think America is so great, why are we so stingy about letting other people in to share this place with us? *ahem* immigration reform *cough, cough*…but that’s another post for another day.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Poetic Hiatus

I wrote the following a couple of years ago when studying political communications:

Voices, speaking
Ten thousand billion words
Until we’re dead
Of American opinions
And buried under newsprint
Running red
Ideas’ blood
Some empty, some pregnant
With something like eternal truth
How can we find it?
Amid electrical impulses
Flickering through wires
Through nerves
Through brains and city lights
Amid the sounds
From throats and stereos
Megaphones and coffeeshops
The breaths we take
The last few
Spent searching for what’s right
A choice that leads to life
Lungs expand
Harder, faster
As we move closer
Through the newsprint in the dark

Monday, September 5, 2011

Why Christian Young Men Are Undateable

This is something which has really been bothering me lately: why are so many conservative Christian young men impossible for a self-respecting young woman to date?

Well, aside from the fact that I know for a fact many very conservative (read: borderline fundamentalist) young Christians have been taught that self-respect is a psycho-babble way to make pride look acceptable, thus smuggling the worst of all sins into our lives.  I’ll write about this in a later post.

What I’m worried about here is the high concentration of douchebags I’ve met at Christian university.  I didn’t really think there was a relation between the douchebag quotient and the amount of solid conservative Christian teaching until recently, and then it struck me in all its simple obviousness:

When a man is taught all his life that women were created specifically to submit to him, he has a pretty narrow chance of growing up with a positive view of women.

I had already been dealing with the flip side, that women will have a hard time growing up into independent, self-respecting people if they are taught that their highest calling and only proper role in life is to submit to a man.  Yes, that’s an oversimplification of the current complementarian view, but when you’re a kid you don’t go with subtleties.  You hear, “women submit” and you figure that therefore it’s impossible to fulfill your role in life if there is no man in your life.  I know, I know, can open, worms everywhere.  But let’s get back to the men.

I understand the Biblical exegesis which backs up complementarianism.  I understand why so many conservative Christians think egalitarianism, let alone feminism, is totally unbiblical, mainly because I myself believed that until about two years ago.  But I have seen so much un-Christlike behavior from men, stemming from the attitudes planted in them by the gender-role teaching they’ve received, that I think the current permutation of complementarianism in conservative Christianity is indefensible.

In conservative Christian circles, men are used to seeing leadership positions filled up solely by men.  Men are used to being told that it is their responsibility to lead (and women’s responsibility to submit).  The books approved by conservative Christians are written by men (unless they are written for women, in which case female authorship is permissible).  Although the world of business and politics and academia is noticeably more equal in gender representation than it was twenty or thirty years ago, the church remains solidly male-dominated.

So Christian young men grow up expecting that they will spend their lives in positions of leadership, responsibility, and authority, while women will be doing things like organizing potluck dinners and teaching kindergarten Sunday School classes.  In other words, while men engage in complex issues of theology, breadwinning, and soulwinning, women will be doing things behind-the-scenes, womanly things that require no higher education, no special cognitive abilities, and no substantive interaction with men outside of the home (the lack of substantive interaction only reinforces the supposition that female intellectual activity is inferior – men don’t often encounter evidence to the contrary).  The men will spend their time after church doing an in-depth theological criticism of the church down the street, while the women will spend their time talking about the various developmental milestones their infants and toddlers have reached.  For the most part, a woman will receive biblical instruction either from the pastor or from her husband.  Woman-to-woman biblical instruction takes place strictly in small group settings, usually accompanied by pastries and assisted by pastel-colored devotional books written by theologically correct but not terribly substantive Christian women approved by the male leadership of the church.

In fact, at a certain church I know well, the whole paradigm is aptly captured in the baffling fact that the speaker for the women’s conference is always a man.  I wish I were joking.

No matter how much the advocates of this sort of complementarianism insist that their view does not demean women at all, it still ends up giving the impression that men are in some sense more important or more valuable than women.  The (male) leadership in these Christian circles spend a lot of time convincing women that their God-given gifts and abilities are really being used to the fullest possible extent within the home and in various not-too-visible service positions at church.  If a man believes his wife’s talents suit her for cooking dinner and teaching the children to read, while his talents suit him for anything from engineering to Biblical ministry to consulting to…well, just about anything anyone in the world can dream up, he’s not going to really view her as an equal.  If she was created only and solely to help him and support him and submit to him, why should he consider her just as valuable as himself?  (I know the objections these men will raise: They will say that I am measuring value by the world’s standards.  Although a woman’s role may seem less important, it is really equally valuable, just different.  To which I say: Good to know that “separate but equal” is still alive and well somewhere.  Have fun living in the 1950’s.  Send me a postcard.)

And this goes back to the un-Christlike behavior I was talking about.  I recall a lot of stories where Jesus spoke to women as though they were his intellectual equals, capable of spiritual reflection and independent thought and action.  This was especially radical, of course, in a world where women were viewed as little more than property.  I recall no stories in which Jesus told a woman that her place was to submit to him.  And Jesus never treated a woman in a utilitarian fashion, as a means to an end.  In fact, in the famous story of Mary and Martha, he had a perfect opportunity to do so.  Yet he was much more interested in serving Mary by discipling her than in asking her to go fulfill her culturally-approved female role of serving him.  I have yet to see anything like this in a conservative Christian home.  In typical hospitality situations, the husband will sit in the living room, talking theology or some other edifying topic with the guests, and the wife is free to join them of course – after she’s finished making sure dinner is cooked and the table set.  I wonder what would happen if the husband went into the kitchen and said, “Hey honey, let me put the finishing touches on that casserole and set the table – John and Cindy have these really good thoughts they’ve been sharing about Deuteronomy and I want you to have the chance to be a part of that conversation.”  Complementarian?  Not entirely.  Christ-like?  Totally.

Sidebar: for an excellent treatment of Paul’s writing on submission, I would refer you to Rob Bell’s book “Sex God.”  If you don’t have the time to read it, or if your friends will cast you out as an unbeliever and a heretic if they find out you’ve been reading Rob Bell, here’s the summary: it’s in the context of all believers submitting to one another, it is addressing the woman as an equal individual with the free will to choose, and Paul does not move on to tell men that they must force women to submit but rather to tell men that they too must live so sacrificially in relation to their wives that it is likened to dying.  Next time a man tells his wife to submit to him, try asking him when was the last time he laid down his life for her.  Chances are, the situation he thinks can only be resolved by her submission could be resolved just as well if he chose to live sacrificially.

I’m not even going to address all the numerous parallels I’ve had thrown at me in my life between a child’s submission to a parent and a wife’s submission to her husband.  Garbage of that sort hardly even merits derision, much less an actual response.

And so, considering the view of women advocated by the typical really conservative church, it comes as no surprise that I, a young woman with a positive self-concept and a decent respect for her own intellectual capacity, would find it difficult to date a typical conservative Christian young man.

But what really makes me sad is when I see young Christian women, women with deep spiritual insight, servant’s hearts, and great intellectual capacity deny all of that because the man they’re dating wants them to step into a box he’s labeled “submission.”  And it’s a vicious example of circular reasoning: he is the spiritual head of the relationship, so he gets to define what submission means, and she has to do it because after all he is the spiritual head of the relationship.  If these women were not Christians, they would likely be able to pursue careers where they would affect the world in countless positive ways.  Since they are Christians, dating Christian young men, they will give up any really great career because they must not outshine their future husband, and they will eventually give up any career at all in favor of being a “keeper at home.”  Everything inside them that says they should be leading a ministry to homeless teens, should be painting masterpieces that speak to the human experience, should be writing theology books that could rival John MacArthur’s, is labeled antithetical to a meek and quiet spirit.

I think that if all the good abilities and gifts God has brought together into the unique person that is you are being suppressed and shuffled aside so you can fit into someone else’s idea of submission, you’re doing it so, so wrong.

Maybe I’ve exaggerated a little, or maybe you haven’t been exposed to the manic streak of gender-role rhetoric I’ve had to endure.  But from what I have seen, this is a huge problem.  I watch it stalk around the campus of the university I graduated from every single day in the form of men who have been told they’re kings of the earth from day one and women who stop up their ears at any mention of “equality,” lest it taint their joyful and submissive spirits.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Meet My Dear Friend, Sarcasm

…and its uptown cousin, irony.

I introduce you to these two concepts now because I will be using them liberally in the future.  And why not?  All of Western civilization has bequeathed to me this rich heritage.  Who am I to deny the power of an expertly placed snide remark?

Of course real irony takes a touch perhaps more delicate than mine.  So mostly I will be using sarcasm.

I think that irony and sarcasm, especially as tools of social critique, are the privilege of…well, of the privileged.  Social critique requires being able to take a larger view, to place oneself outside of one’s circumstances, at least long enough to craft that particularly barbed sarcastic phrase.  For the most part, the desperately poor are too busy surviving to achieve that distance.  I think this is why sarcasm and irony have been so prevalent in Western society for the past two hundred years at least, and why it’s hardly the predominant form of humor in the majority of third-world countries.

Furthermore, practitioners of sarcasm and irony are usually fairly well-educated.  I don’t know if this is because the current Western intellectual tradition emphasizes skepticism, a sort of ivory-tower second-cousin to irony and sarcasm, or if it’s because a broad view of the world encourages cynicism.  It’s a sad fact that the broadening of the mind frequently leads to the crushing of innocent ideals, just as surely as the broadening of the American freeway leads to the crushing of innocent woodland creatures.  And when those ideals are crushed, the young and educated turn to irony, if they are talented, or sarcasm, if they are not so talented, and go on their way.  (And for some, it's possible that irony and sarcasm descend on them in that moment when they receive their diplomas and realize that, underneath the cap and gown, they are now just one more tally-mark in that statistic that tracks jobless youth living in their parents' basements.  But that's just another ideal being crushed, the ideal that a four-year-degree guarantees a completely fulfilling, productive, and economically secure life thereafter.)

I’m not sure if my generation has really taken irony to its apogee.  After all, in that field, we’ve mostly just produced a bunch of hipsters.  We haven’t produced a Charles Dickens, or an Oscar Wilde, or an F. Scott Fitzgerald.  At least not yet.  However, I’m pretty sure America has never been so full of the reasonably well-off, well-educated, wielding sarcasm which is sharper than the proverbial two-edged sword.

And I’m not ashamed to join their ranks.  Some might say that sarcasm is ingratitude, or laziness, or evidence of a bad attitude.  But I don’t think so.  I think it’s just our way of taking a step back and poking fun at ourselves.  We’re the world’s most affluent culture and hence a little ridiculous.  Why refuse to exploit this goldmine of potential hilarity simply because our mining implements are also used by every wise-mouth middle-schooler trying to circumvent a history paper?

Spending the night with irony’s non-elitist cousin,