Saturday, December 29, 2012

outside voices

Outside voices are loud.

Both my daughters seem to have been born with a mutant superpower--an internal megaphone attached to their vocal cords inside their bodies that amplifies every syllable to an eardrum-reverberating volume. They seem to be actually physically incapable of producing anything other than an outside voice.

A lot of times, this makes me want to clap my hands over my ears, close my eyes, and howl at outside volumes myself just in order to break through the constant audial chaos. It's a real trigger for my anxiety. Unfortunately.

In rare moments of quiet, when I don't feel battered by the overwhelming soundwaves, I am grateful that my daughters are gifted with loud voices and strong wills and brave spirits and, yes, even talents for defiance. They're going to need those things, in this world, which still prefers its women to be seen but not heard. My daughters, I predict, won't take that sort of thing quietly. They don't tend to take anything quietly, really. Not even Eucharist. (Zadie has an adorable and very loud habit of yelling, "daddy! daddy! daddy!" as we approach the altar.)

But mostly, I want to shut the outside voices out.

I've been pondering this on and off for awhile, as one of the take-aways from the discussion on my "James" experiment post and the kerfuffle that prompted it. There's a serious and difficult challenge in discerning which voices to listen to, and which to ignore--which critiques to take to heart, and which criticisms to let bounce off thick skin.

It's something of a truism, I think, to observe that prophetic critique must be offered from within the boundaries of existing relationship. The prophets were part of their communities; they spoke to their people as part of them, not as strangers or aliens or hermits. They were part of the group they critiqued, accused, even on occasion condemned. They spoke as a part of the "us."

This conviction forms a large part of why I have continued, stubbornly, to remain a participating member of the Churches of Christ, the church that I grew up in and which has formed me and my faith my whole life. I have a lot of criticisms to level at my church; I think they're fair, that they're needed, that they must be voiced, that they must be heard. And so I do my best to be heard, as one of the "us," because to speak from the inside is, I've long assumed, to speak from a position of greater privilege and therefore greater likelihood of being heard.

All this is probably true.

But what I've come to realize--slowly, slowly--over the last couple of years, is that this assumption also works to shut out the outside voices, when we assume that the only legitimate prophetic critique can come from the inside.

And that's not true.

I've spent some time over the last couple of years listening to a lot of "outside voices" in various forums. I am convinced that the Churches of Christ would be a stronger and truer body of Christ if more of the folks in power--those influential preachers with the blogs and the pulpits and the lectureship invites, those university admins, those editor-bishops, those elders at the local congregations--were hearing those outside voices too.

"Ex-CofC'ers" have a lot to say. It needs to be heard. It's rough, it's awful, it's heartwrenching, it's shameful, it's condemnatory, and it needs to be heard. And taken to heart.

Those outside voices are loud. They're grating. They're unwelcome and they are inappropriate and they are, frankly, pissed off. And as long as we write them off as over the top criticism from the outside, rather than legit prophetic critique from one of "us," we risk perpetrating the same behaviors and doctrines and attitudes that have so critically wounded a great many people.

We need to hear from the women who've left because the church that inspired their service told them "no." We need to hear from the sexual abuse survivors who have left because the church sheltered and defended the wrong people. We need to hear from the scientists and philosophers and intellectuals who've left because they were required to check their brains at the door in order to worship the God they wanted to believe in. We need to hear from the gay and lesbian and queer folk who left because they were taught God could only love them if they were someone else entirely. We need to hear from the disillusioned who saw that preaching and practice never quite matched up. We need to hear from the people who haven't "stuck it out" in the name of church unity or family harmony or whatever, from the people who see things differently because they are looking in from the outside.

If we're not hearing them, it's not because they're not trying to be heard. They're using their outside voices, and if we can't hear them, it's because we're choosing to listen only to the inside voices.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Made up mommy songs

Please stop screaming (repeat 2x)
Please stop screaming at me

It's time to go to sleep (repeat)
You know i love you very much
And it's time to go to sleep

Who loves her baby, even when she's (fill in with undesirable state of being here)?
Who loves her baby, all the time?
Oh mama does, mama does, mama loves her baby
Mama loves her baby, all the time.


Just my way of getting through the day, dears! (The Samaritans were engaged.)

Friday, December 21, 2012

what is it, exactly, we want to stop?

Maybe most of you were fortunate enough to miss the NRA press conference this afternoon. I happened to have the news on in the bedroom while wrassling the kids into the bathtub and saw most of it. It can be summed up handily in one simple quote:

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun."

I'm not going to link to statistics, or studies, or articles that point out that there were in fact armed guards on site at Columbine and other places.

Instead I'm going to ask a simple question. What is it, exactly, that we want to prevent?

Because if we listen to Wayne LaPierre, spokesman for the NRA, what we're seeking to prevent is not the occurrence of mass shootings. That, as far as he and the NRA are concerned, is inevitable and we must just resign ourselves to living in a country where elementary school kids and moviegoers and high school kids and random children asleep in their beds are all possible gunshot victims and fatalities waiting to happen. The only thing LaPierre and the NRA want to change is HOW those shootings occur. It doesn't advocate preventing them.

Take a look at that direct quote above. The thing it doesn't question is, bad guys will have guns. So, they say, resigning to the inevitable, we have to make sure "good guys" have guns too.

Why not--let's just be crazy and think out of the box!--make it HARDER for "bad guys" to get guns?

Because without a gun, no matter how bad the bad guy is, he won't be shooting anybody.

The NRA's position isn't about preventing shootings like the one in Newtown, CT. It's about accepting them,  as inevitable, and telling us how to live with them and prepare for the next one.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mary: Virgin, Mother, Cyborg

I grew up in a church that makes a point every Christmas and and every Easter to not celebrate these days as anything special. After all, we "celebrate Easter every Sunday." And Christmas "isn't really Jesus's birthday." Etc.

So it goes without saying that we don't do a lot of reflection on Mary. Maybe, we might talk about Mary on "Ladies' Day," as an example of how we should accept God's will for our lives, or we might hear something about Mary as Jesus' mother in a Mother's Day sermon, or something. But Mary, Mother of God? Not a phrase I heard growing up. Theotokos? I didn't know that word till after I started my Master's degree in theology. Praying to Mary? Blasphemy!

Now that I'm married to the Rector of an Anglo-Catholic parish in the Episcopal Church, I've a front row seat for observing what Marian devotion means to people, and a couple weekends ago my spouse led a series of Advent meditations centered around The Feast of the Conception, on which Mary's--not Jesus'--conception is remembered. And since one of the privileges of being a clergy spouse is getting to read, comment, edit and critique your spouse's sermons etc., I have learned a lot about Marian devotion. I mean, a whole lot. My hubby is one smart dude.

So, for the first time ever, really, I'm sorting out what Mary, mother of Jesus, means to me, as a Christian and a theologian and a woman and a mother.

Maybe it's odd, but I've never felt particularly drawn to Mary. Or maybe it's completely predictable, given that I occupy a more "masculine" (quotes intended) space within my church; Mary has become such an archetypal "feminine" figure in many ways. This remains the basic obstacle for me, theologically, in embracing Mary as an important figure in my own spirituality. Even though I now am able to embrace my identity as a mother, and as a woman in many other modes as well, I resist the facile essentialist assumption that because of my gender, I need Mary. On the other hand, of course, there's a need to remember that not all the important agents in the gospel narrative were male--because just as it isn't necessary for women to identify with other women, it shouldn't be necessary to make them identify with men by default either, simply because we've ignored the presence and importance of women in the narrative.

But how we remember Mary--who we imagine her to be--makes a difference.

It won't surprise too many of you, probably, that I'm not a huge fan of the phrase "Blessed Virgin." There are a lot of reasons for this. I grew up understanding that while, of course, Jesus' birth was miraculous, Mary did not remain a perpetual virgin, because, according to the biblical text, Jesus had brothers and sisters. (I've often wondered what it must have been like to be Jesus' sibling...I've imagined it being less than awesome, frankly, because how could you compete with the perfect? Not really a set up for domestic harmony, here.) But this is not really the substance of my objection. Rather, it's that the notion that Mary, in order to be holy, must necessarily have remained virginal her entire life. The virgin birth is about Jesus--a signal that this child is divine and unique. When this narrative is interpreted through later, problematic notions of original sin and sexuality, the virgin birth becomes about Mary instead..and then, by extension, about all women, feeding the problematic cult of purity that makes women sexual objects (the good ones, untouched/untouchable, the bad ones, well, you know). How can we celebrate the goodness of creation, the goodness of our own human bodies, if we continue to assume that to be sexual is to be impure and unholy?

There is of course a logic in making the theological connection of Jesus' miraculous birth back to Mary. Mary is singled out, chosen, called by God to an extraordinary and difficult undertaking. All parenting qualifies for "extraordinary and difficult," in its own way, but Mary is called upon to accept the additional burdens of suspicion and disbelief and insecurity, in a culture where women were not economically independent and where her social status and existential security depended on a man who was going to have to get over the fact of this pregnancy. Surely this was not arbitrary--Mary didn't happen to win (or lose?) the Heavenly Coin Toss and get picked to bear the Savior of the world. Certainly the witness of the church through the ages has been that Mary was an appropriate person for this extraordinary task--a task that would require much more out of her than quiet submission to the will of the divine other.

But this is not signaled for me in the insistence on her virginity. Talking about Mary as blessed virgin makes passive receptivity of divine prerogative and untouchable purity specific female virtues--both of which remove our focus from the actual agency of Mary and of women. And this is, I think, an even more pervasive and difficult problem than the problem of the purity myth and virginity.

But "mother of God," I can work with. Even better, "Maria Lactans"--see image, right. Yes: you're seeing what you think you're seeing. Mary, Mother of God, is squirting milk into Bernard of Clairvaux's mouth. Talk about a recovery of embodiment!

It is possible, as well, to move from "mother of God" into a focus on mothering--a move from status to action, from object to agent. Imagine what it must have been like to have accepted the task of being one of the primary moral and spiritual influences in the formation of Jesus as a human being. All parenting is active and fraught, but, wow.

But the same important caveat must be repeated: women are not universal, essential mothers, in nature if not in fact. This is not how we should view Mary as Mother of God; and, of course, she is not only for women.

So I've been seeking another way to imagine Mary. A way to talk about her that avoids maternal essentialism, that avoids masculine/feminine complementarianism, that avoids elevating passivity over moral agency.

And it struck me that I might think of the Annunciation as a foreshadowing of the Garden of Gethsemane. Like Jesus, Mary is confronted with a divine will for her life that differs from her own expectations, and must respond.

But my read of the moment in Gethsemane is not one in which, in order to follow God's will, Jesus must negate his own. I grew up with that old hymn with the four verses that starts, "all of self and none of Thee" and moves through "some of self and some of Thee" to "none of self, all of Thee." It's a mindset that assumes an ontology of fullness and rigid boundaries--if we invite God in, we must give ourselves up. This sort of negation, it seems to me, is problematic, in that it implies that God requires the rejection rather than the acceptance of ourselves, if we are to be holy images of God. But my "cyborg" read of the moment in Gethsemane is not one in which Jesus must negate who he is in order to embrace the call of God, but one in which the boundaries between human and divine will are being actively negotiated, and end in a hybrid collaboration that models our own possible collaborations with the divine.

So--applying this to Mary, I now hear her back and forth with the angel, that direct messenger of the divine will, a bit differently. "How can this be?" she asks--a healthy pushback against the temptation to simply let oneself be overwhelmed by the force of a divine pronouncement. The possibility of divine coercion fades a bit, here, and so also the necessity of valorization of female receptivity and submission. "Let it be to me as you have said," she replies--and this now sounds to me like, "okay, I can work with you on this."

This is a Mary I can work with.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

politicizing and the political

Brad East at Resident Theology has pushed back a bit on the kind of response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy sketched out below, in my last post. You can find Brad's thoughtful post here. Click over and read it, before continuing.

There is a lot that we agree on, which surprises me not at all. But I want to offer some pushback of my own on a couple-three points (for those of you unfamiliar, that's a Southern thing, couple-three.)

Brad describes the main transgression of opening up public dialogue around the contested issue of gun control as "politicizing." However, unlike many, he offers a definition of what he means by the word, and a reason he believes it's bad. Brad writes, "to politicize something is to make it a means to another end." And to take something as raw and horrifying and recent and still-bleeding as this tragedy is, and use it instrumentally to gain some sort of end, is wrong.

I doubt anyone would disagree with that.

Where I diverge, however, is the assumption that calls for gun control are politicizing. They're political, to be sure. But they're not politicized in the way defined above. Responding to the gunning down of innocents with calls for getting rid of guns seems to me to be pretty damn germane, not some kind of prestidigitarian politicizing tricksiness. I'm not concerned about an "issue." I'm not using the deaths of children to further an "agenda." Nor am I crowing, "see? I told you so, we need better gun control." This is my "why, Lord?"--but it is not an abstract theological question, because it is "why have we not acted to prevent this possibility? why have we let this happen, again?"

I have a 6-year-old little girl, that I send to school Monday through Friday. I have a 6-year-old little girl that I want desperately to have some reasonable belief and confidence in the safety of, when I do that. I have a 6-year-old little girl that I want to enter her 1st grade classroom with joy and anticipation, and not anxiety and fear because if it happened to someone else, maybe it will happen again, to her. This isn't passing over the deaths of 20 6- and 7-year-olds and their teachers in pursuit of political points. This is, in fact, about them. This is about the others who might follow. This is about repentance.

Second, I do firmly believe that there is practical action we can take, as a nation and within our communities, to address aspects of a problem that would have been horrifying in the singular but which has become a recurrent pattern. This does not make the mistake of rendering "evil explainable." I don't anticipate that I will ever understand the deeper metaphysical question of why anything like this would ever happen. But if we load all the guilty agency onto one 20-year-old gunman, and ignore the ways in which we have allowed ourselves to be complicit in the conditions that make this event possible--that's rendering evil "explainable" in the worst way, because it forecloses on any action that might make it impossible in the future. We can, at the very least, work toward the modest goal of making it harder for people to kill so, shall we say, efficiently.

Finally, and this is I think a very interesting point, Brad criticizes the facile and ubiquitous opposition of politics and prayer. I find this to be very helpful, and in fact, my unease with a simple opposition is what drove the concluding sentences of my previous post, ending with, "we need politics motivated by our prayers." But to suggest that the only appropriate responses to this tragedy are silence or prayer, and ruling out political (not politicized!) speech is to reinscribe the opposition.

What we need, I think, is all sorts of speech: prayer, outrage, anger, speechlessness. All at once. We need the political and the theological and the personal. And we need, each of us, to take from the confusing babble the piece we need at that moment. Not everyone mourns the same way. Not everyone needs the same thing. Me, I need to wail with Rachel, and refusing to be comforted, get up and go to the gates and make my voice heard: do not let this happen again.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tuesday to Friday

On Tuesday afternoon when I left to pick up Clare from school, I noticed some police cars gathering just a few doors down the street. I was late, as usual, so I thought, hmmm, that's a lot of police cars, and then went on.

They were still there when we got back, and an ambulance was just pulling away. Police were still there, interviewing people on the lawn and looking very busy.

I'm still not sure what happened; there's an ongoing investigation; but we do know it was a home invasion.

On my street.

And now, every single person in this country who has ever loved a child is fixated on the horror story unfolding on our news channels. Children dead. There is no explanation that will ever make sense of this. But the real horror is that it's happened before, many times. And it will happen again unless we do something different in response, this time.

My friend Jennifer Bayne is right: it's exactly time to politicize the hell out of this, because politics is the way we organize our lives together on this planet. And right now we're not living with each other. We're killing each other.

We can do better. We have to do better.

Like the desolate mother in Ramah, I refuse to be comforted. Comfort brings resolution, complacency, forgetfulness. We don't need comfort. We need some anger. We need the energy and clarity that such anger brings. And we need to put that to work.

We need to make it harder for people to kill people with guns. We need to make it impossible.

Start a petition like my friend Jen Bayne. Speak up like my friend Ken, even if people slap you down. Pledge like my friend Scott to write, to lobby, to rally, to educate others about the need for gun control. Write the people whose job it is to represent you and make policy for all of us. And do your part in confronting the subculture of violence and hatred and shaming that explodes, not out of nowhere, in the middle of elementary schools and kills 5-year-olds and their teachers.

We need more than prayer. We need politics. We need politics motivated by our prayers.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

lunch lady

One of the great things about my daughter's school, St. Philip's Academy, is the deliberate way in which a sense of real community is cultivated. Kids socialize across grade levels in academic and extra-curricular activities. Parents are incorporated into the school community and encouraged to volunteer in all sorts of ways, within their kid's classroom and in the school generally.

One of the most notable aspects of St. Philip's, one that has been written up in various venues (see this on Jamie Oliver's site), is the food. It's amazing. The school has a rooftop garden and a learning kitchen, and the kids learn about eating seasonally, locally and also implicitly, the often-overlooked fact that food comes from somewhere other than a store shelf. There is a salad bar stocked with seasonal offerings available everyday, as well as chef-prepared hot entree and side, and fruit to finish. Without exaggeration, I can say that my daughter eats a multi-course restaurant quality lunch every single day, in her school cafeteria.

It was hectic, it was loud, it was work. The kids aren't sorted by grade but sit together at assigned tables and seats. Each seat has an assigned task--someone gets the water and the cups, someone gets the silverware and plates, someone gets the food, others clean up after. And they eat family-style: just another way to emphasize that community is about everybody, about working together, about paying attention to each other, about sharing and listening.

And afterward, I got to eat: eggs florentine, turkey bacon and roasted sweet potato hash, ruby red grapefruit for dessert. A-ma-zing.

Monday, December 10, 2012

from LOVEboldly

Here's a link to my interview with LOVEboldly, in which I freely ramble on "faith and sexuality."

rhetorical square

Who is it Valenti is talking to?

When the presumed audience shifts, how does that shift the message?

This virtual classroom exercise is brought to you today by The Rhetorical Square, the letter F, and the number 667.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Christmastime repost

(from 2005 archives)

theological reflections on "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer"

One of my favorite perennial Christmas classics is that edition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer where Burl Ives narrates as Sam the Talking Snowman and sings. You know, the one where the little figurines move around jerkily but endearingly. (For some interesting info about this classic, click here.)

My favorite character in this thing is Hermey, the Elf who wants to be a dentist. Hermey reveals this sick unnatural ambition in a conversation with the Elf Boss, who lectures him threateningly:

Hermey, miserably: Not happy in my work, I guess.
Head Elf: WHAT??!
Hermey: I just don't like to make toys.
Head Elf: Oh well if that's all...WHAT??!! You don't like to make toys?!
Hermey: No.
Head Elf, to others: Hermey doen't like to make toys!
Others: (repeat it down down the line) and in chorus: Shame on you!
Head Elf: Do you mind telling me what you DO wanna do?
Hermey: Well sir, someday, I'd like to be...a dentist.
Head Elf: A DENTIST? Good grief!
Hermey: We need one up here...I've been studying it, it's fascinating, you've no idea, molars and bicuspids and incisors--
Head Elf: Now, listen, you. You're an elf, and elves make toys. Now get to work!

The ontology undergirding the Head Elf's reprimand of Hermey leaves no room for consideration of an elf who deviates from his "nature" by not liking to make toys. It's simply inconceivable. Hermey's attempt to "fit in" is stymied when, engrossed in the task of providing teeth for some dolls, he misses elf practice and suffers another confrontation with the Head Elf, which concludes with the Head Elf's vicious assertion, "You'll NEVER fit in!" Miserable, Hermey jumps out the window in self-imposed exile, his only option to be true to himself.

Rudolph's situation is parallel. Born with the disgusting congenital deformity of a red glowing nose, his parents are horrified (even his own mother can only weakly offer, "we'll have to overlook it," while his father goes so far as to actually hide it by daubing mud on his son's face.) Later, at the "reindeer games," Rudolph outshines the other reindeer in skill, but when his prosthesis falls off, everyone gasps and his erstwhile playmates mock and shun. The authority figures echo this attitude: the Coach gathers everyone up and leads them away, saying loudly, "From now on, we won't let Rudolph join in any of our reindeer games!"

Santa's role throughout most of the cartoon is to legitimize the prejudices against the misfits already evident in lesser members of the Christmastown community. When Santa visits the newly birthed Rudolph, his unthinking prejudice becomes plain when he comments that Rudoplh had better grow out of it if he ever wants to be on his team of flying reindeer. Santa's behavior at the scene of the reindeer games is even more disturbing; like his pronouncement at Rudolph's birth, he says, "What a pity; he had a nice takeoff, too." For Santa, Rudolph's skill is less important than his nose, an arbitrary physical attribute. A distant and authoritarian figure, Santa is unaware of Hermey's plight (apparently the welfare of elves is beneath his notice) and condemning of Rudolph's gall in considering himself a reindeer of the same worth and dignity as the others.

Rudolph and Hermey get together, and a few lines of their "misfit theme song" are revealing:

"We're a couple of misfits, we're a couple of misfits--
What's the matter with misfits?
That's where we fit in.

We may be different from the rest...
But who decides the test
of what is really best?"

In "Christmastown," those who decide "the test of what is really best" seem to be the tyrannical and thoughtless majority, reinforced by authoritarian sanction by Santa, the pseudo-benevolent despot. Those who question the status quo--those who are already marginalized--are mocked, punished, and driven out of the community.

Over the years it's become apparent to me that this simple children's cartoon contains some real subversive elements: Hermey's misfit-ness is the result of apparent "choice," but the kind of choice where the alternatives are to be true or false to oneself. Rudolph's misfit-ness is the result of birth rather than choice. Change "dentist" to "gay" and "red nose" to "black skin." Now the subversive message is clear: Santa is racist, the Head Elf and the elf community is homophobic, and "Christmastown" is really "Whiteytown."

Given this subtext, the change of heart on the parts of Santa and the Head Elf at the end are more than just the formulaic ending to a well-known Christmas fable. Although it takes a prodigious feat of community service on both Hermey's and Rudolph's parts (each requiring skills peculiar to their misfit-ness) to bring the authorities and the community to repentance, repentance is indeed the note sounded in the conclusion. Everyone, including Santa, apologizes to the misfits. And in the end, difference is valorized rather than exiled.

Monday, December 03, 2012

the benefit of the penis

Unlike some people, I've never had the burden of needing to blog or comment anonymously or semi-anonymously in the entire time I've had an "internet presence." Pretty much as soon as I started blogging, JTB became my online monicker, and has always been linked to a personal description full of both personal and professional identifiers. On Google, Blogger, Wordpress, you name it, I comment as JTB.

Until today.

I've been following with some interest, given my previous interaction with the blog on the limerick thing, the conversation on Theoblogy in response to Tony's question, "where are the women." My first reaction to this post was positive--despite what some criticized as a prejudicial phrasing of the question--because, after all, concern about the unintended homogeneity of our communities, particularly our Christian communities, is a commendable concern. Moreover, it seemed clear from the post that Tony felt the absence of women's voices on his blog commentary to be a lack and that he was asking for feedback to rectify what he considered a problem.

Very quickly, as the comment thread spun itself out, a couple of things became clear. The first was that many women did not feel like the comment threads were a space they could enter and be heard or respected; various reasons were offered for this. The second was that Tony was quick to defend his good intentions against these proffered possible reasons for the lack of women's voices in the blog comments.

Since I myself had dared to enter the fray on the limerick discussion, and had been hard put to defend my (and Julie's) critique of the limerick contest in conversation with Tony and others, including having to absorb without retaliation more than a few unconstructive and personal comments, I think the suggestion that the general atmosphere of the blog as hostile to women's voices is pretty accurate. That's not to suggest that this is anyone's intention; on the contrary--it's clearly unintentional. But it is something that can be intentionally addressed, which is what I took Tony's post "where are the women" to be a step toward.

Of course, to move toward intentionally addressing an unintentionally hostile atmosphere, you must, as my friend Jimmy has suggested, first stop and listen. Even if it's hard. Even, I dare to suggest, when it's angry.

Of course, no one really likes to listen to angry people. So maybe it's no surprise that the only female commenter to get a respectful "thanks, helpful as always" response was Rachel Held Evans, who very carefully modulated her comment in an exaggerated "feminine" tone, complete with parenthetical giggling:
"...Now I’m going to get all radically honest: I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why, but sometimes I still feel a little uncomfortable with the emerging church dudes. Maybe it’s the CONSTANT need to return, (giggling), to the vagina controversy (my goodness! i’m so over it, guys! can we please talk about something else? like, my BOOK maybe?), or maybe it’s the fact that at emergent events there’s always enough alcohol flowing to encourage at least one guy to say something mildly inappropriate, or maybe it’s because I still don’t know what the hell process theology is, or maybe it’s because theology is sometimes treated as a sport with winners and losers and points scored…I don’t know. It’s like, when I’m a woman in the conservative evangelical world I feel completely invisible; when I’m a woman in the progressive/emerging world I feel a bit exposed, like a spectacle. I hate offering that critique without any solution to it..and without even defining it properly… but it’s just what popped into my head. Maybe some other women can comment on it."
It's a conundrum that women constantly face in any dialogue, f2f or online: do we duke it out with the boys on their own terms? Or do we go with the non-threatening, sweet "feminine" persona? How can we best be heard? And when does playing this "feminine" game work in yielding strategic gains, and when does it stop working, as it clearly acquiesces to problematic assumptions regarding gender? And how do we make that determination? And is there any way to free ourselves from these two highly unsatisfactory options, and just, you know, speak our minds without so much angst?

I started this blog, waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back when, as an exercise in using my voice, precisely because the hypermasculine and competitive culture of the doctoral seminar was giving me anxiety attacks. I needed a space where I could just say what I thought, without the second guessing and the queasy stomach and the trembling hands and the uncontrolled flushing on my neck. And it worked. I found a voice as JTB.

Anyhow: following up on a suggestion by someone else in one of the discussion threads in this set of posts, today I thought I would try an experiment.

So I commented under the name "James." And wrote exactly what I would have written as JTB. That is to say, I was myself. With a pretend penis.

And lo and behold! Not only was I respectfully engaged, I actually won agreement from someone who challenged my original comment.

As JTB, in response to my numerous comments on the limerick contest post, I was told my critique was ludicrous; that to  hold my opinion suggested I lacked even a modicum of common sense; that I labored under various mistaken assumptions; that I was a buzz kill; that I was vaginal retentive (as opposed to anal, that's for boys only?); I was even limericked about (a particularly sly dig, given the context); I was never acknowledged by name or as a colleague; and genuine follow-up questions went unanswered completely.

As James, I was addressed by name; asked genuinely critical questions; received an affirmation of the importance of my point; and when I defended my original point, received a concession from my respectful challenger.

In case you're doubtful that my writing style remained consistent, with only the apparent gender of the name as a variant, here are the stats from the "gender guesser":

Comments as "James" on "Benefit of the Doubt":

Genre: Informal
  Female = 196
  Male   = 1400
  Difference = 1204; 87.71%
  Verdict: MALE

Comments as "JTB" on "Feminist Theologians Don't Like Our Vagina Limericks":

Genre: Informal
  Female = 1583
  Male   = 3255
  Difference = 1672; 67.27%
  Verdict: MALE

Make what you will of this. But here's the takeaway as I see it, and if you don't mind, I'll let James have the last word--"he" seems to be more successful a communicator than JTB:
"I don’t mean to suggest that some are free of the responsibility of charitable interpretation, sympathetic imagination, or in Tony’s phrase, benefit of the doubt. Of course he, and you, [are] correct to suggest everyone must do this for successful dialogue. What I want to underscore however is that in many cases benefit [of] the doubt is synonymous with privilege, in that some of us are accustomed to taking for granted that our actions and statements will be received accordingly–and others, sadly, are not. Tony occupies a place of privilege in discourse here first because it is his blog, and in this case, the privilege of being white, male, straight and theologically educated is also not irrelevant given the topic. Tony’s suggestion is right on; but I think it is misdirected if we think it should be directed at commenters first and foremost."
Tony, your female and feminist commenters deserve the benefit of the doubt. We appreciate your desire to hear our voices. We spoke up at your invitation. Some of what we had to say was angry. Some of it was hard to hear. Some of it (maybe) even crossed that fuzzy line into personal. But we offered our voices in a space you yourself intuited wasn't quite welcoming, because you asked. So give us the benefit of the doubt. Because we don't have the benefit of the penis.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

where are the women?

It's so very, very tempting to write a top ten list to answer this.

10. Busy getting shit done, fools.
9. Working hard for the money while you tweet about your awesomeness.
8. Outside propping up the oversized ego that doesn't fit inside the house.
7. In the girls bathroom having a real conversation. (This one's for Lisa, Jen & Erin!)
6. ...yeah, well, you get the picture. Snarky snark snark, etc.

My friend, colleague, ethicist, listener and excellent thinker-with Jimmy McCarty has a beautiful blog post in answer to this question, where are the women?, which has plagued many folks in a variety of public and virtual spaces. The last time I saw this question pop up on an internet forum, it was on the IEET blog, a transhumanist think-space and very male-dominated. And intriguingly, the conversation as I remember tracked pretty closely with the responses on Tony Jones's post at Theoblogy--intriguing, because these two communities are in some ways complete ideological opposites, and yet they are plagued with an identical problem. As virtual extensions of male-dominated spaces (science/technology/academy, church/seminary) women are rarely seen or heard in the comment threads and in the virtual community. Where are we? And why aren't we there along with our bros, when we could be? What's up with that?

Jimmy's blog post advises three simple therapeutic interventions: 1) shut up; 2) listen; 3) collaborate. To which I can only say, amen, amen and amen.

Of course, that's hella difficult to do, especially when 1) you have a lot to say yourself (don't we all!); 2) you're bound to hear some angry shit from people who've been shouting on the margins for years while being ignored and still have to get an official invite to join the "real" conversation--and that's hard to listen to without wanting to defend yourself; 3) collaboration means inviting real transformation and change, in the discourse and in yourself. But: that's the medicine. You want women and other excluded folks in your community? Don't try to convince us why we're wrong about not liking your policy or your tone or whatever. Figure out what it is about your space or your platform that actively excludes us: shut up, listen, and collaborate. In a word, stop mansplaining.

[update: Tony has followed up with this gracious response to yesterday's post and comments.]

Anyhow: Jimmy's got that all wrapped up, I think, so I've been thinking about another way to get at this, and one that has some interesting ramifications for me as a blogger/writer/academic/churchy-type person. I've been thinking about audience: not just in terms of stats and demographics of actual audiences, but in terms of intended audiences. I still tend to write this little personal blog with the sense that my audience (like me) is primarily Church of Christ, either currently or historically, and that affects both how I write (simple things like abbreviations and taken-for-granted CofC shibboleths, the epitome of which is, of course, 728b) and what I write about--simply because it affects what I find interesting or bothersome enough to work out here on the blog. To be sure, I also blog about other things--feminist theology more broadly, or theology and science, or poop in the bathtub, you know, the usual mix--but my CofC identity is pretty much front and center. (Take the Harding University presidential search post below as an example--itself a response to something that happened in the CofC blogosphere. It's parochial.) So...that's not bad or anything. In a lot of ways, it's just me being who I am: a feminist theologian somewhat uncomfortably situated within the Church of Christ, for better or worse.

But what if I imagined my audience as bigger, broader, and more diverse than people who share my ecclesial peculiarity? What if I imagined that some of my former NBTS colleagues or students might read this thing? What if I kept in mind that people with histories of sexual or relational or spiritual abuse might read this blog? What if I kept in mind that friends from China might read something here?

It would change some things. And realizing this, I think that's one potential strategy forward in constructively addressing the question of where all the women are. Who are you writing for? Who are you, as you construct your post, imagining will be reading it? Who's there, and who isn't?

Importantly, this strategy doesn't ask us to be anyone other than who we are or demand that we transpose ourselves from our actual location in the world into someone else's imagined location. It means that, as a feminist theologian uncomfortably at home in the Churches of Christ, I try to speak intelligibly to more than just my own "kind." Not speak for others, but speak for myself to others. It's a small shift, but an important one. Maybe, even, a prerequisite (0), before Jimmy's (1) shut up, (2) listen, (3) collaborate.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

JTB on Harding's Presidential Transition

So, Rich Little has been hosting a series of guest bloggers sharing their thoughts on our alma mater's Presidential transition. So I thought I'd share the perspective of an out of work alumna on my own blog. (These thoughts will be a lot less polished than the high-profile public statements on Rich's blog.)

Like the bloggers that shared their thoughts so far, I have fond memories of Harding. Those memories revolve around a roommate who is the longest-standing female friend of my life and her husband and the girls I played soccer with and the year I roomed with my little sister and HUF and the classmates I learned with and the professors I learned from.

I also have some terrible memories. Harding is the place where I entered into a mode of such deep self-deception that I willingly continued what I now understand was an emotionally abusive relationship, and subsequently a depression that didn't lift until years after leaving there.

It seems appropriate in the midst of all the nostalgia and fond reminiscing, meant as a sort of bona fides for "despite the fact that I'm going to be slightly critical but first let me prove to you how much I love Harding," to point out that "the Harding experience" is not wholly positive for everyone. And hell, I was a rule-following straight white CofC girl from Tennessee--it's not like I didn't fit the Harding mold. I imagine "the Harding experience" might have been significantly more nightmarish if I were gay, or a Baptist who loved her instrumental music.

Others have expressed eloquently their concerns about transparency and academic rigor and faithfulness and the inadequacy of maintaining the status quo as a strategy for leadership in an institution. These are excellent concerns, but they aren't my primary concerns. It surprised me to begin drafting this post and realize that what I most wanted to say didn't, after all, revolve around the academic implications of the presidential transition. It's important to me, as a professional academic myself; don't get me wrong. I think this decision reflects a larger trend of decline of terminal degrees in the faculty, particularly Bible department faculty. This makes me sad, because I personally received an education from Harding that prepared me well for subsequent degree programs. I would like to trust that this was still a priority, but this decision doesn't bode well.

But even that's not why I won't send my daughters there. I won't send my daughters there because I don't want them to experience a culture where the second-class status of women is so unquestioned that it not only shapes chapel, Bible classes, church, devotionals and specifically God-related stuff, but pretty much the whole "Harding experience."

Is that too large a claim? I don't think so. I was an RA in Cathcart, Searcy Hall and New Marrieds; every night for three years I made curfew rounds, every week I did a housekeeping check. I policed dress code violations. And as everyone at Harding knows, these things only apply to girls. Even then, I knew this was something to grumble about as more than just an annoyance. An institution that literally keeps its girls locked up in a tower, and then, because we're safe under lock and key, lets the boys be boys? Sure, that's not sexist or anything.

Then there's that whole "MRS" degree thing. My dad still shakes his head in disbelief when he tells how, in the new Harding parent thing he went to, President Burks guaranteed everyone that their child would find their future spouse at Harding. (He always ends that anecdote with threatening to get his money back, though I'll note that as a technicality, I did meet Brent at Harding even if he never bothered to ask me out while there.) I took a class where married students got an extra "skip" and where we were told we'd get extra credit for going on a first date during the semester (that turned out to be false advertising--I tried it.) Only married students can live off-campus. Oh, and there's that better-not-to-burn-with-lust thing plus the front lawn--talk about entrapment... Even leaving aside the questionable ethics of promoting a culture that rushes people into marriage (a huge issue to just politely bracket!), the marriage factory culture creates an assumption that at least some female students are not there as students but as sex objects--I mean, future brides.

And then there's the serious stuff. The way that female students get penalized differently than male students for having sex. The way that women aren't always offered the same academic scholarship opportunities that men are. The way that everyone knew it was laughable to even pretend that a female candidate for the position of President had a chance in hell of actually getting it.

The way that, in a relationship that I was sure was going to get me my own Mrs. degree, I took emotional abuse as my due penalty for disclosing past sins of my previous dating life. Because, after all, I owed this guy total honesty and had grievously betrayed him before I even met him and so it was all my fault. The way that for years after I struggled to regain any confidence that anyone could ever love me, such a damaged wreck.

The great irony for me is that Harding is where I simultaneously learned my second-place place and began my process of unlearning it. Harding is the place where I took the infamous class called "Christian Home"--and even then knew enough to pitch the textbook across the dorm room more than once before giving up reading it. Harding is the place where I met my spouse, an ardent feminist and liberated man indeed. Harding is the place I learned biblical Greek--but "for fun," because what would be the point of taking it seriously? Harding is the place where I learned to craft my voice; Harding is the place that taught me I'd have to go to China to use it. Harding is the place where I preached my first sermon. And Harding is the place where I was told not to go to seminary because I'd be "getting dressed up with no place to go."

The critiques of this presidential decision that worry about the inadequacy of preservation of the status quo as an institutional leadership strategy aren't wrong. But many fall short of addressing the real question, which is, what is wrong with the status quo? Why shouldn't it, after all, be maintained?

There's much more to say in answer to that. But this is my answer. This is one thing that is wrong with the status quo. And the one thing on which everyone seems to agree, supporters and critics alike, is that this is what the presidential decision here was all about.

So, I hope that's wrong. I hope that some of these deeply embedded practices in Harding's campus life, policies, and institutional structure are named, recognized as a problem, and constructively addressed. Because you shouldn't have to unlearn as much you learned at college. Because your faith shouldn't be an instrument of oppression, externally or internally. Because God made us with brains and guts and voices as well as wombs and vaginas, and we're supposed to use all of it as we see fit to the greater glory of God. Because Harding ought to be helping its women do exactly that, not locking them in a tower.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

the GOP's "demographic dilemma"

I lost count how many times I heard this and variations of this phrase on the news this morning. And it reminds me forcefully of something I learned from a wise colleague not long ago.

"Demographics" is code.

And the GOP's "demographic dilemma" is a polite way to avoid pointing out that their chosen political strategy was racist. And the question all the pundits are so politely talking about--how will the Republican party answer their "demographic dilemma?" is being analyzed in terms of ideology versus pragmatism and educated guesses about which attitude will prevail.

But no one seems to be saying this. A representative democracy must actually represent: represent the people who live and work and go to school and vote and care. People with uteruses. People with accents. People with health problems. People with kids. People with money and without.

This shouldn't be about pragmatism. It should be about democracy.

Two nights ago I read "Horton Hears a Who" as Clare's bedtime story. All the invisible Whos on the dust speck are shouting out, "we are here, we are here, we are here!" I want to know what the Kangaroo party is going to do now.

Monday, November 05, 2012

"her body doesn't belong to you!"

My current parenting conundrum is the recurring difficulty in getting my 6-year-old daughter to quit hauling around her 1-year-old sister around like a sack of potatoes. And jumping on her head. And moving around her sister's arms and legs like she's a great big animate doll. And yelling at her to quit picking her nose (an irony, since I still can't keep her 6-year-old fingers from digging for gold). Over and over and over I say, calmly, exasperatedly, quietly, loudly, in small words, in big words, in just-in-time-edited words, "her body is not your plaything, it does not belong to you, she is not your toy, treat her body with respect, she is a person just like you, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah." Yeah. The thing is, she understands all that. It just doesn't make a difference in what she does. Yet.

So this weekend I'm saying this thing over and over, as a frustrated mommy, and it hits me. I'm also saying this same thing over and over, as a frustrated feminist theologian, on that glorious series of tubes that connects us all (except for when horrible hybrid hurricane nor'easters disrupt things), the Internet. My weekend has a weird symmetrical monotony.

So, once upon a time, a much-anticipated book by a well-known author was dropped by a major Christian bookstore chain, apparently for containing a reference to the vagina. And there was protest. And there was a promotional contest for free copies of the book, which invited limerick submissions specifically referencing vaginas. Then there were a couple of people with time on their hands and brains in their heads, and vaginas, who felt a little odd about that--appreciative of the spirit of the whole thing but a little unsure about the strategy. And there was discussion. And ongoing discussion.

What I want to do here is blog through what I think is the best critical observation offered yet, which is that there's a bit of hypocrisy involved in Chris, Julie and me objecting to the limerick contest hosted by Tony as participating rather than subverting the dominant cultural assumption that women's bodies (and in this case it is one specific woman's body) are "public property," in the sense that it's okay for them to be objects of commentary and public consumption. I stand by that critique. I think the contest can't subvert that assumption, and I think that that is the underlying assumption that makes the original "Vaginagate" kerfuffle at Lifeway truly problematic. It's not just simple censorship, in other words. There's something else going on. The interesting critique of our effort at pointing this out is that--this is my gloss on it--that of course we're doing the same thing. We're talking about vaginas as public objects--and again, in this case, the whole discussion is at least loosely tied to one specific woman's body. And look! I'm blogging about it! I'm doing it again! Argh!

Is it hypocritical? I'd contest that characterization. I'd say rather that this conundrum neatly demonstrates the larger point Julie and I were getting at, which is the difficulty of negotiating these contextual assumptions and power dynamics in efforts to stand with others as allies and craft meaningful gestures of solidarity. We don't stand above that any more than the original contest does.

Leaving it here might be depressing--as if the ultimate conclusion is just that everything is bound to be flawed at some level, and oh well. Zenme ban, what can you do. That's not untrue--I think that taking ethical stands and risking action is always going to involve that kind of flaw. Purity is not an actual thing in this world. I'm not really looking for a pure gesture of solidarity.

But that doesn't mean that, when we get ready to jump in and get our hands dirty, that there aren't better and worse ways to go about it and we just shouldn't feel like it's necessary to take the time to ask that question. As my favorite philosopher says, "we must cast our lot with some ways of living and not other ways"--even if all ways of living mean that our hands will undoubtedly be unclean. So, the hard question is, how could it have been done better? Is it possible for the contest to have been framed in a way that did take into account the problem of women's bodies as publicly consumable objects, and avoided compounding that issue?

That's an open question. Winning answers might receive a book about cyborgs. :)

And this quick post is the best this theologian-at-large mama can do, because it's time to pick up the big girl from school.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

A conversation with Clare

Listening to Peggy Seeger's "Gonna Be An Engineer" this morning from my Girl Power Playlist, Clare listened intently. "What's this song about Mom?" she asked. "It's about all the things people have told her about being a girl that are wrong." "Oh," she said. Then, "I think being an engineer sounds like one of the cool jobs." "It is cool. Did you know you know someone who's an engineer? J's daddy is an engineer. You can ask him about when we visit next if you want." "That would be awesome!" Pause and listen to the lyrics some more: engineer could never have a baby..." And a snort of laughter from the backseat. "Mom! That one was REALLY wrong! J's dad is an engineer and he has TWO babies!"

Sunday, September 02, 2012

It's probably really annoying for Ryan North that multiple someones have made the Dino Comics template available so freely on the series of tubes we all rely on. But I offer this in sincere tribute to his genius. T-Rex and Utahraptor make excellent objective mouthpieces for our human religious hermeneutical squabblings. Also: if you like the idea of having fun making your own Dino Comics, check this out: a whiteboard template for writing passive-aggressive but comedic messages to your significant other!

Friday, August 31, 2012

moms say the darnedest things

Well, not me. I say the damnedest things and unfortunately, Clare now knows all the words she--and I--should not say.

My mom, however, manages to say the most astonishing things, and their force is undiminished by their (mostly) G-ratedness.

While I'll stand by the last post, there is as you might guess a certain "rest of the story" that goes unreported. And while indeed that was the comment, I missed a great deal of its intent--as if I hadn't known that having a serious convo in a room full of small children enjoying (mostly) themselves very loudly was the sort of absurdity that farces are made of. Anyhow. The good thing is, we finished the truncated convo over the phone a couple days ago, with only poop in the bath and pee on the floor to complicate things.

So, though my mom is blessed (so she says) without giving a damn, sorry, darn, what anyone who might read this blog thinks about her, she was a bit peeved to come off as June Cleaver. Which she is not.

And that is true, and in the impossibly long version if the previous post (now deleted and only recoverable for those with supergeek skills), I had a long paragraph reflecting on what it is I learned from my mom as she negotiated these matters herself.

And what I learned was that, like me, my mom believes that being a good parent to your children is your most important priority, and at the same time, is a woman of intellect and drive and vision that she requires a context larger than the four walls of her own house to operate in. When my mom began, after her years as SAHM with the three of us, her professional life in education, I watched her work hard, receive professional recognition, and enjoy seeing that what she did was significant in people's lives. She's still doing that. My mom is one of those teachers that grown people with their own kids walk up to and say, "do you remember me?"

I didn't have June Cleaver as a mom. I had someone a damn, er, darn sight better.

Even if she does say the darnedest things sometimes.

Monday, August 27, 2012

I look HOT.

That's what my 6-year-old said to me as she twirled in her dress. "I look HOT in this. Right, Mama?"

"No, honey," I said. "You look wonderful, and beautiful, and fancy, and super-cute, and your dress is awesome, but you don't look 'hot.'"

"Yes I do. I look HOT." And she waggled her hips for good measure.

"Do you know what 'hot' means?"

"Um, duh. Like I look really good and--stylish."

"No, sweetie. 'Hot' means you look sexy. And sexy is something grown-up bodies can look like, but your body isn't grown up yet. So, you look great--but you don't look hot. And no one should think you look hot, because you're not grown up enough yet to look hot or be sexy."

"Oh. Well, I'll just have to tell the girls at school to stop saying 'hot' then. I guess they don't know. But I can teach them!"

Yep. Yep, you can.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

her first wedding

Last Saturday, Clare went to her first wedding. She was ecstatic about it--planned her outfit meticulously, asked me to put her hair in curlers the night before, demanded to wear a pair of heels from her dress-up chest (sigh)...and donned her pink fairy wings for the occasion. She also enthusiastically embraced the role of junior amateur photographer and I now have a small collecton of blurry photos of people standing around in a church on my camera roll. She had a great time--as we all did, except for maybe Zadie, who was uncharacteristically silent all the way to Brooklyn and then, as soon as we entered the church, decided that this wide open echoing space was constructed just so that she could fill it up with bee-yoo-tee-full noise. I spent a lot of the ceremony walking her around in the back, vainly shushing.

I am very glad she was loud and that we were hanging around in the back, or I'd've missed my favorite moment of the wedding: the fist-pump and "YES!" on the way out. :)

Clare was still full of excitement about her first wedding on Sunday. When her Sunday school teacher asked the kids if anyone had done anything especially awesome this weekend, Clare's hand shot up into the air like a rocket. "I did!" she exclaimed. "I went to a WEDDING!!!" That's great, said her teacher. Then, "did the bride look beautiful in her dress?" (This was not, as you might think, a generic follow-up question--she knows my fancy, girly girl well.) "Um," said Clare after a pause. "Well, it was two boys actually." And teacher says, without skipping a beat: "Oh. Well, did they both look very handsome?" Which, of course, they did. You can't help but be your handsomest when glowing with happiness.

After this exchange--the first time I've seen my girl be her full natural chatterbox self in Sunday school--she turned and looked over her shoulder at me & Z on the couch, grinned, and gave me a thumbs up. Full of joy and completely pleased with herself at having such a great weekend report to share.

Thanks, guys. You made our weekend. Blessings on beginning your married life together!

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

And then she said,

"I'm glad you didn't get that job."

I think she was trying to make me feel better.

I know what she meant. At least this year, I won't be juggling a full-time gig and the demands of a newborn, increasingly sleep-deprived and constantly facing feelings of professional and domestic and personal failure. At least now I can stop feeling guilty for leaving my baby to go to class and for all the volunteering I couldn't do at my eldest's school, and equally guilty for all the sketchy lecture notes and belatedly returned papers. At least now, I'll only have one full-time, demanding job, instead of trying to juggle two.

At least now I might get some sleep.

But I'm not happy I didn't get the job, and despite understanding, mostly, what I think my mom wasn't comforting.

Because just like being a mom is who I am, so is being a theologian. Losing a job doesn't make me not a theologian, of course, but it does mean I no longer have a forum or reliable opportunities to theologize. And it means that there's no place in my life where I am regularly affirmed in that aspect of my identity, in the form of collegiality, respect, and, of course, not insignificantly, financially. (Toilets not only seem indifferent to regular faithful scrubbing; they're pretty meh on professional God-talk as well. Likewise, the piles of laundry and stacks of dirty dishes remain unmoved by my eloquence in invoking divine intervention.)

While I welcome the recognition that juggling full-time paid employment and a newborn is an attempt to live the superhuman impossible, I don't think it's because being a mom and being a theologian (or whatever your vocation) is essentially mutually exclusive. I suspect that my mom does, and so, she's uncomplicatedly happy that I no longer am attempting to juggle impossibilities. I'll be happier, I think she thinks, without trying to carry a full-time teaching load. I'll get some rest. I'll be able to do fun things with my children. I'll be able to keep the house to a satisfactory if minimal standard of orderliness. I'll be able to knit, make bread, read books for fun, do yoga, go on walks, blog, play, nap, feed my family nutritiously and deliciously and feel virtuous about it, volunteer at Clare's school, etc., etc. All the stuff I haven't done in a very long time because every single waking minute had to be devoted to Getting Something Utterly Necessary Done--while staving off the looming anxiety about the other pressing agenda items that therefore weren't getting done because I was doing Something Else Utterly Necessary.

It sounds absolutely reasonable. And I'll do all that stuff, and more besides. I can fill up my time. But I'm not going to be happier. I may be better rested, I may be healthier, skinnier, a little less tense, but I won't be happier. Because I'll be missing doing one of the things I love most.

I theologize. I can't help it. For awhile I had a forum for this, and now...well, I have a blog. And a Facebook group. (Not that y'all are chopped liver. Love and kisses!)

What I need--what we all need--are workplaces that value our motherhood, and households that value our vocations.

That, and I could use a job.

Monday, June 25, 2012

At the Newark MVC

It's as grim and pointless as you're imagining.

And so I'm imagining ways to make it less grim and awful.

First, the number of small, suffering children (and therefore, mothers) stuck here in a dirty crowded place with nothing to do but howl their misery to the unfeeling ceiling tiles above (heaven not being visible in this place). Why the hell are there not childcare facilities attached to every MVC and every other horrible place people are legally obligated to go and sit and wait for one reason or another? How hard would it be to sort that out? I mean, IKEA has a play area for goodness sake.

Second: Starbucks is missing an incredible revenue source from a captive, restless, bored and probably mostly hungry crowd. In fact, I bet that they could cash in on a lot of folks twice: get here needing your morning coffee and you might still be here, starving, at lunchtime.

And how hard would it be to get rid of those completely dehumanizing cattle rope lines and give people little buzzers like in restaurants? Put comfy chairs around instead of things arranged in rows like we're all back in after school detention?...Hell, let's just SELL the MVC to Starbuck's altogether, with a % of the profits coming back to the state, and make the whole place a cafe and add a revenue stream without raising property taxes. Are you listening, Gov. Christie?! Tossing out pearls, here.

At the Newark MVC

It's as grim and pointless as you're imagining.

And so I'm imagining ways to make it less grim and awful.

First, the number of small, suffering children (and therefore, mothers) stuck here in a dirty crowded place with nothing to do but howl their misery to the unfeeling ceiling tiles above (heaven not being visible in this place). Why the hell are there not childcare facilities attached to every MVC and every other horrible place people are legally obligated to go and sit and wait for one reason or another? How hard would it be to sort that out? I mean, IKEA has a play area for goodness sake.

Second: Starbucks is missing an incredible revenue source from a captive, restless, bored and probably mostly hungry crowd. In fact, I bet that they could cash in on a lot of folks twice: get here needing your morning coffee and you might still be here, starving, at lunchtime.

And how hard would it be to get rid of those completely dehumanizing cattle rope lines and give people little buzzers like in restaurants? Put comfy chairs around instead of things arranged in rows like we're all back in after school detention?...Hell, let's just SELL the MVC to Starbuck's altogether, with a % of the profits coming back to the state, and make the whole place a cafe and add a revenue stream without raising property taxes. Are you listening, Gov. Christie?! Tossing out pearls, here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Thoughts on Christian Scholars Conference 2012 (Part 1)

I still have not quite recovered from my insanely busy schedule at this year's CSC: 4 out of 6 concurrent sessions, three of them basically back-to-back on Friday, and one Saturday morning. Plus, trying to promote the book on the side...and then skedaddle back up to NJ for a week packed full of Clare's 6th birthday, kindergarten graduation, Family Field Day, annual church picnic...and poor me and baby Z are still trying to get back into some kind of normal rhythm. Believe me, at least at this moment, I am looking forward to SAHM status for awhile.

The really annoying thing about being so booked for a conference is that you miss all the really interesting sessions you want to attend, because you're giving a paper or running a session yourself somewhere else. And so I missed some of the most important things of the conference, and am quite grumpy about it; and so some of what I'm about to say is not firsthand. I was off talking about cyborgs while other people were slogging through some of the most important and crucial and difficult work of reconciliation elsewhere.

For those of you who aren't "CofC" or who are but are unfamiliar with the conference, a little background here. The theme for this year's conference, a conference for interdisciplinary Christian scholarship, was "reconciliation." It was a deliberate, and salutary--if long overdue--move to focus specifically on the topic of racial reconciliation, both broadly and specifically within our own Church of Christ denominational history. That history is, it's always seemed to me, especially egregious on this issue; I'm not a historian, and that's a personal opinion more so than a scholarly one, and it may just be that I'm more sensitive to the sins of my own people than those of others. It is, however, undeniable that our tradition and its representative institutions have a great deal to confess to and repent of, and we have been unpardonably slow in doing so.

In the session “Race and Reconciliation in Churches of Christ: Civil Rights Activism at Harding College, 1949-1964” convened by Jeff Baker and Michael Brown, a story which I (though an alumna) had certainly never before heard told emerged--a story of both moral conviction and courage and of moral cowardice and conformity. You can read that story here. In brief, it's a story of student activists making their voice heard, calling for integration of the university--and the story of the administrators of the time turning a deaf ear.

It's a stark contrast to another story that got told at the CSC, a story that I am pleased, not to have told myself, but to have aided in the facilitating of the telling. 

Two years ago I sat in Academic Dean's office at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, in a preliminary convo about an adjunct gig, and heard for the first time the acronym "ARTT," which stands for Anti-Racism Transformation Team. As the Dean, Dr. Renee House, described ARTT and its purpose, its importance to the seminary and some the changes within the seminary community that had come about through ARTT, I found myself thinking two thoughts: first, "I want this job. This is a place I want to be," and second, "this is something that my CofC alma maters need to know about." 

And then, unexpectedly, I found myself once more on the NBTS campus as a full-time prof...and the upcoming CSC's theme was "reconciliation." And I realized I might could make something happen, for real. 

So I started talking about it. And I enlisted the help of Jeff Baker and Jimmy McCarty, and I started twisting Jesse Pettengill's arm, and I started trying to figure out how one goes about organizing a session of this sort. It's not my strong suit. But as St. Paul says: God's strength is perfected in weakness, and if God can organize something through me then I think that's about the strongest argument for God's existence anyone can hope to come across.

And it came together. It came together at the last minute, and it involved some creative Plan B type thinking, but it came together beautifully, and it was, I think, a really powerful testimony to the potential of human beings and, importantly, human institutions, to hear challenging and unwelcome truths and to respond graciously, honestly, repentantly, and actively. See, at NBTS, the story also starts with students: students who courageously voiced an uncomfortable truth to the powers-that-be, that this institution, despite the good intentions of those who peopled it, remained racist in significant, systemic, structural ways. But unlike the HU administrators who found reason upon reason not to listen to those voices, those in power at NBTS listened, and took decisive action. The Board of Trustees created a mandate for ARTT--without even fully understanding what this action would mean, but knowing that it was necessary. And it has changed things. Not everything--and certainly not everything that needs to be changed. But NBTS offers an example of what it means to take the task of becoming an anti-racist institution seriously, and living with and through the consequences of that effort. We can do more than wring our hands. We can do more than raise our consciousnesses. We can do more than formally apologize. We can do more than just talk. That's what this institution's example can teach us in the C'sofC. 

The final word belongs, I think, to Dr. Warren Dennis: "We should not be afraid of this. We're bigger than this...we are much, much bigger than this."

Monday, May 21, 2012

My superpower

Today I volunteered for an hour at Clare's school, while the kindergartners made cheese in the Learning Kitchen. (Yeah, she goes to an incredible school like that!) While they were watching the process they were answering questions, like "what animals make milk we can drink?" Cows. Sheep. And:

"Clare, you have another animal that makes milk?"

"humans." Slight pause. "My mommy makes milk."

Yes, I do. And so proud of my little girl naming it like it's the most normal and obvious thing in the world...'cause it is!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Which Side Are You On?

Just bought the new Ani DiFranco album, Which Side Are You On?, this week. It's amazing--it's hard to choose which song cuts the deepest. For starters, track 1 gives a first person narrative in a homeless woman's voice, who laments--or rejoices?--"every time I open my mouth, I take off my clothes." But there's a line in the following song which strikes me every time as just right:

"Trust: women will still take you to their breast. Trust: women will always do their best."

It's a political song, about a lot of political issues concerning women--but for me, this is what they all come to. Trust. Trust us. Trust us as human beings. Trust us as grown-ups. As citizens. As moral agents. As bearers of the imago dei, twice over. Trust that the decisions we make for ourselves and our children are the best decisions we can make, and that we understand--understand in a way no one else can--what they are and what they mean. Trust: women will still take you to their breast. Trust: women will always do their best.

"amendment" by Ani DiFranco

wouldn't it be nice if

we had an amendment

to give civil rights to


to once and for all just

really lay it down from

a point of view of


I know what you're thinking

that's just redundant

chicks got it good now

they can almost be president

but worker against worker

time and time again

as the rich use certain issues as a tool

and when I said we need the ....? cause I'm a fool

it's cause without it nobody can get away

with anything cruel

you don't need to go far like

just over to Canada

to feel the height and sense of

live and let live

what is it about Americans

like so many pitbulls

trained to attack them

to never give

we gotta come down abortion

put it down in the books for good

as central to the civil rights of women

make diversity acceptable

make it finally understood

through the civil rights of women

and if you don't like abortion

don't have an abortion

teach your children

how they can avoid them

but don't treat all women

like they are your children

compassion has many faces

many names

and if men can kill

and be decorated instead of blamed

when a woman called onto mother

can choose to refrain

and contrary to aeons

of oldtime religion

your body is your only true dominion

nature is not here to serve you

or at any cost to preserve you

that's just some preacherman's oldtime opinion

life is sacred

life is all so profane

a woman's life

it must be hers to name

let an amendment

put this brutal game to rest

trust women will still take you to their breast

trust women will always do their best

trust that our differences make us stronger, not less

in this amendment

family structure shall be free

to be the right to civil union

if we take unions of all kinds

unions of hearts and minds

to give society communion

let's do more than tolerate

let gay and straight resonate

and emanate all things human

with equal rights and

equal protection

intolerance finally ruined

and then there's the kids rights

they'll naturally be on board

a funnel through which

womens' lives are poured

our family is so big and we're all so very small

let a web of relationship be laid over it all

over the strata of power piled up into the sky

over the illusion of autonomy on which it relies

over any absolute that nature does not supply

...and the birds say woman shall regain her place
in the circle of women, ina sacred space
 turn off the machine, put away them knives
this amendment shall deliver from bondage, midwives

Thursday, March 01, 2012

call it like it is

I dislike euphemisms. Perhaps this can be attributed to early childhood training; Mom was a biology major and taught us to label our anatomy and functions accurately. I didn't learn any cutesy demeaning nicknames for my genitalia. I have a vagina, boys have a penis, no one has a "v-jay-jay" or a "wee-wee" or whatever. There's even an apocryphal story in my family about Mom trying to teach the barely articulate toddler me the word "urinate," because she hated hearing other small kids yelling in grocery stores "Mama I have to pee-pee" and stuff. This, so they tell me, resulted in a tearful confrontation in which I burst out with "I am not a Nate! You're a Nate!"

So. Maybe it's my mama's fault, but I have little patience for euphemism, in just about all contexts. (Which helps, now that I think of it, to explain my attraction to the blog motif of "rude truth." Rude--straight up--unvarnished--blunt, non-euphemistic talk to be had here, y'all.)

A large part of my personal frustration with politics therefore takes the form of hating the euphemistic mode of communication taken for granted there. Particularly on issues of race or sex where euphemisms contribute to, not just befuddlement, but the maintenance of the status quo. If you can't label it accurately, you can't talk about it honestly.

One thing bugging me in particular these days is this "social issues," "culture wars," "religious freedom" (?!), "values voters" stuff. Campaigning as the real Christian or most Christian candidate, while dragging up the euphemistically labeled "social issues" (abortion, contraception) to attract the euphemistically called "values voters" (a certain brand of nationalistic biblicist who want a Christian theocracy) is just another form of blatant identity politics, even if no one will call it that, and it's high time we did. It's also, not coincidentally, the current manifestation of white identity politics. And that puts "Christian identity" in bed with racism, whether or not you want to say so out loud.

I think these phrases ought to hit our ears like the dirty words they are. Euphemisms are pretty masks for ugly realities, and meant to be so so that we can leave the social contract to ignore ugly reality undisturbed.

Another apocryphal story comes to mind now, thus one from college and by way of JBB. Once upon a time there was a stand-up Christian dude, who had obeyed all the laws and commandments since he was a child, even studiously and obediently avoiding all cursing and foul language, except that he frequently used the n-word. A friend of his was greatly disturbed by this and confronted him but to no avail. And so this friend devised a plan: every time he heard that word from the guy, he would respond by yelling "FUCK!" as loud as he could. Pretty soon Mr. Stand-Up Christian got the point.

Call it like it is.

Christian identity is being euphemized into a racist, sexist political identity by people who see this as their route to power. I think Christians should probably be objecting to that. Don't you?

Monday, February 20, 2012

So, tonight I made a vegetable curry and got out my "Extending the Table" cookbook to make chapati, and noticed, not for the first time, the anecdote on the bottom of the page. (See picture.) this time, however, I though, "this is why we need birth control."

Not (just) because we ought to be in charge of our own bodies. But because we are also in charge of theirs.


So, I've been wanting a nickname for Z. Of course, Zada Eloise already has nicknames: we call her Zadie, I call her Z, but I wanted a term of endearment. One that fit her emerging, adventuresome, curious, exuberant personality.

We called Clare "Clare-Bear" from the very beginning almost. The nickname that came to my mind for her sister was "scamp." A sort of combo of impish and scamper--perfect for my little explorer. But then Brent objected: you can't call her that, hd said. It sounds like "skank" combined with "tramp."


So, I started over. What sort of nickname could I find for my energetic happy girl that suggested her fearlessness and awesomeness? And then my sister rescued me. Scout, she said. It's perfect.

It is. And now she responds to "Scout" almost as readily as she does "Zadie."