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.