Feminists can be Christians, too

Lot's Wife - medieval stained glass detail, Ca...

Image of Lot's Wife by chrisjohnbeckett via Flickr

I am a Christian. I believe that following Jesus is about kindness, compassion, for meeting people where they are, for practicing empathy. I think the Bible contains metaphorical truth, historical truth, and that it’s a record of human struggle with faith and the human story of encounters with the divine.

As a feminist, I am afraid to admit that I am a Christian, because I’m afraid you won’t take me seriously anymore. That you’ll think that I live my life and govern my relationships with legalism (i.e., using the Bible to make “rules”). Sometimes, those who are also struggling to follow Jesus as a path to following God act in ways that are intolerant, uncompassionate, and inhospitable. These fellow believers make people uncomfortable, claiming to speak for God, claiming to know when another person is sinning, claiming the Bible as incontrovertible truth with a capital T. They use this belief to say that love between two people of the same sex is a sin, to reduce women to objects and servants, and to consume the Earth’s resources.

These people, my brothers and sisters in Christ, are using God’s name in vain. They are speaking for Him without the humility to admit that they may be wrong. I have recently been made aware that silence on the issue of faith and belief may also be using God’s name in vain, because I am part of God’s voice in this world. Silence implies shame.

Here’s what I want to make the liberal, feminist blogosphere aware of — the Bible is open to interpretation, and when it is being used as a tool of bigotry, literacy is the only way to educate those whose minds are open, those who are not using God’s name in vain.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Genesis chapter 19, verses 1 through 19, narrates the story of Lot inviting two strangers, angels, into his home in the city of Sodom. The bigoted citizens of the city, who already do not like Lot, because he is also a foreigner, demand him to hand over his guests. Most translations I’ve read demand that the guests be turned over to the mob so that they can “have sex” with them. Lot pleads with them not to do this wicked thing, and offers his virgin daughters to the mob instead. Before this can happen, the angels strike the mob blind, and ultimately, as a result, the city of Sodom is destroyed.

This passage is the source of the word sodomy, which is less judgementally known as anal sex. Those who believe that homosexuality is a sin cite this passage as a proof that God hates sodomites – i.e. those who have anal sex, i.e. gay men.

But, feminist readers, does this not also sound like attempted gang rape?  Complete with rape apologist language of “have sex”? Could this passage be a story about how rape is not to be tolerated? Instead of teaching how a certain kind of sex is wicked, could the passage be teaching that a lack of consent, that force in a sex act is wicked?

As feminists, it is easy to get up in arms and distracted with the way that Lot offered his daughters to be raped to protect his guests. It is not nice to think about, but in the historical context, women were objects — and we must acknowledge this. To apply our current values on historical circumstance is futile — we will always be disappointed. The knowledge that women’s value used to be different can be a source of strength, too. How far women have come, and yet how far we have to go. Just as life is now, the Bible is a mixed bag. There are both wins and losses, victories and defeats.

What I take heart in is that God did not allow Lot’s daughters to be raped either (at this juncture of the story, at least. The ultimate fate of Lot’s daughters is a different story). God through his angels intervened, and did not allow anyone to be raped that day; the city was destroyed for that attempted act of violence.

At least, that’s how I read the passage as a feminist.

The Church is still a human institution, I get it.  Sometimes the acts of Christians are incredibly hard to defend. The Bible is a human work. Not all passages are easy to explain in a way that makes us feel good.  Sometimes humans use God’s name to legitimize their bigotry and privilege. Sometimes people who believe in justice, in tearing down privilege, and are Christians forget to invoke God. Both are wrong.

My mission here is to record my activism. Sometimes that activism occurs in the context of Church. I shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it.

Baby Wears Blue: Medical Edition

medela lactina select breast pump single breas...

The medical-grade breast pump we rented was like this, only in a box instead of on wheels.

Sylvie was five weeks old when I needed to return the breast pump we had rented to the hospital. I put her in her sling, and carried the hulking package into the hospital. Every time people were able to catch my eye, and even some times when they were not, they exclaimed over the little baby in my arms. They generally fell into two categories.

“How precious/sweet/beautiful! How old?” — Notice that they avoided any pronouns at all in this exclamation. They waited until I started talking, and then adopted the pronoun that I used.

“It’s so tiny!” — That’s right, people who did use pronouns went so far to use “it” to avoid being wrong, even though using “it” for a person is generally considered insulting and inappropriate. People are not objects, after all. “They are,” similarly avoiding being wrong.

There was one person who made the assumption: When I sat down to rest in the lobby, before trekking out to the car (I was still recovering from my c-section at this point), one woman brazenly came over to me and looked into the sling. Seeing the blue she said, “So precious! It’s a boy, right?” I half nodded, surprised and caught off guard despite the experiment, but in the course of the conversation I used “she” or “her” and the woman corrected to match my pronoun use.

The attention for my baby surprised me. (In fact, my mother-in-law asked me what the most surprising part of parenthood has been, and I said, “The attention we get everywhere we go.” She chalked it up to babies being a symbol of hope. I’m not sure that’s it, but I don’t have a better explanation.) But the lack of real discomfort also surprised me — that, I suppose, was because it was actually pretty hard to see what Sylvie was wearing, considering she was only five pounds and was being engulfed by the sling.

The next day, the onsie wasn’t dirty, so she wore it again.

We had a well baby visit, two weeks after we came home from the hospital, for Sylvie to have her first Hep B shot (these are usually given in the hospital to newborns, but we deferred because we didn’t think she had enough muscle, being premature).  The pediatrician we go to is a single-doctor practice, and we’ve seen the same nurse each time we’ve gone. Now, the nurse knew that Sylvie is a girl, but I expected some feedback on the way she was dressed — after all, these doctors and nurses are supposed to be authorities in my parenting life.

Maybe it was because babies spend most of their time at a doctor’s office naked, but the nurse didn’t say anything. And the doctor didn’t even see what she was wearing.

I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly. Or maybe I do. I was expecting people to be uncomfortable — and there were some signs of that. Without seeing what she was wearing while Sylvie was in the sling (which is white, by the way), people didn’t want to make a mistake. I was expecting people in positions of authority to tell me what to do regarding the gender presentation of my infant; they didn’t — for which, ultimately, I am glad.

The dominant culture of “New Momism”

 

Praise mothers in rhetoric, revile them in public policy, and make them pay to prove their love.

The Book

The Mommy Myth, by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels, outlines the trajectory of the rhetoric surrounding mothers in the mass media, the revulsion that mothers are subjected to in public policy, and finally, how mothers and children have become a market. From this rich framework, they have this thesis:  While we have come far from the Feminine Mystique, the problem has a new name (New Momism) that is couched in the rhetoric of feminism itself (i.e. choice).

Douglas and Michaels call this problem the New Momism, for reasons that they astutely and accurately outline in the introduction to their book. I suggest you read it — here, let me link you to a pdf version — because the introduction is quick, to the point, and almost stands alone from the rest of the book.

But what I find really interesting about the book is that it outlines, very precisely, the cultural “rules” surrounding motherhood. Of course, they’re critiquing it, and they’re using it as a call to activism, but the rules that they put together for being a celebrity mother (the pinnacle of motherhood in the media, they argue) are not all that different what I’d imagine a list of rules for being a good mother would be — or at least what makes a good mother on television, in the movies, in advertisements, and in our heads.

The rules are (From pages 126-130):

  1. The mom is gorgeous, in clear control of her destiny, and her husband loves her even more once she becomes pregnant and the baby is born.
  2. They are always radiantly happy when they are with their kids.
  3. They always look and feel fabulous — better than ever — while pregnant, because they are nutrition experts and eat exactly what they should and have the discipline to exercise regularly.
  4. Whatever your schedule, whatever institutional constraints you confront that keep you away from or less involved with your kids, it must be clear that they are your number-one priority, no matter what.

And, to be honest, this is how I have imagined motherhood. I have imagined that Tim and I would conceive, which is a word that is imbued with strange magic, that he and I would be joyous and in love, that there would be no ambiguity as we prepared for the birth of our child. I would be a joyful and attentive mother, and Tim would be a doting and remarkable father, and we’d all live happily ever after, at least until the kids became teenagers.

I’m cringing as I’m writing this, realizing how hopelessly naive I probably sound to someone who is a parent. And I think I knew it was hopelessly naive — I was 9 when my little brother was born, I helped take care of him as an infant. I spent my middle school and high school careers babysitting. I know how much attention and care infants need, how their older siblings get jealous, I know about toys being flung across rooms, and trying to stop children from hitting each other and making them go to bed. I know how big of a mess they make, and how boring it can be to play games about a bajillion developmental stages below yours.

So, mothers out there, and aspiring mothers out there… have you ever bought into this ideal?

There’s much, much more to this review, but I’m trying to keep it bite sized. So, for now, the common conception of what a good mother is in popular culture.

Book of Love

When I first began to date Tim in college, I took to emailing my younger sister to get her advice. (You see, she is the emotional one, and I am the logical one. We’re better balanced now, but four years ago, less so.) In discussing our respective love lives, it was that word exactly that came up — love. What is love?

I just finished a book called Talk of Love by Ann Swidler. I found out about it from a post on Sociological Images. Ann Swidler conducted a study about the way that a narrow population of white, suburban, heterosexual California couples and how they talked about love. She took their comments and framed two cultural models of love.

Mythic Love

  1. Love is a clear, all-or-nothing choice.
  2. The person you love is unique, and idealized.
  3. Your choice to love is made in defiance of social forces.
  4. The choice to love permanently resolves an individual’s destiny.

In other words: “They met, and it was love at first sight. There would never be another girl (boy) for him (her). No one could come between them. They overcame obstacles and lived happily ever after.” (113) This is easily identified as the mythic love that appears in books and movies, the kind of love that people like to scoff at.

Prosaic-Realism

  1. Real love is not sudden or certain. It grows slowly and is often ambivalent and confused. Love does not require a dramatic choice but may result from circumstance, accident, or inertia.
  2. There is no “one true love.” One can love many people in a variety of different ways.
  3. The kind of love that leads to marriage should not depend on irrational feeling in defiance of social convention, but on compatibility and on practical trains that make persons good life partners. The fewer obstacles that people have to overcome, the happier they are likely to be.
  4. Love does not necessarily last forever. Love and marriage do not settle either personal identity or social destiny. Rather ‘than guaranteeing that one will live ‘happily ever after,’ love requires continuing hard work, compromise, and change.

This is the kind of love that, as the Sociological Images post states, drives both the psychological and religious self-help industries. It is the kind of love that I identify in the day to day struggles of being married.

So What?

Swidler goes on to argue that the two concepts of love are used differently by the same people, that both are coherent cultural constructs that help us navigate our confusing  world.

What I mean to say (and Swidler argues) is that people use the “realistic” view of love to manage and interpret ongoing relationships, and struggle with the day to day realities of being married.

However, the mythic formula is used to formulate arguments on whether or not to marry or stay married. The mainstays of a “decisive choice” and a “unique other” are available because one is either married or they’re not, and one is only married to one person at a time. The institution of marriage is governed by this mythic understanding. The mythic understanding upholds the instution of marriage, and the institution of marriage upholds the mythic understanding.

For me, this has all sorts of implications.

As a writer, it means that romances in the modern sense has to have several dimensions to be realistic — one where there is a lot of certainty, and one where there is potentially a lot of ambivalence. If characters want to get married, it means that they will convince each other and their families of the certainty of their love. If they don’t want to get married, they will probably be a lot less certain, and conflicts with their friends and family may arise.

As an LGTBQ Ally (As an ally, I am always in training. Feel free to correct me, those who self-identify), it puts a whole new spin on the fight for equal marriage rights. For one, there is a school of thought within the movement that marriage is not radical enough. On the other hand, there is a school of thought that says that without marriage, love relationships will never be legitimate in the mainstream heterosexual understanding of love relationships.

As a married person, I recognize that the growing uncertainty of marriage in our society contributes to the need to understand love differently. (Oh, the books that I have read and will continue to read on the self-help marriage subject!) But, as Ann Swidler says, as long as people want to believe that love lasts forever, the mythic love ideal will last.

What do you think?

What is love? Do the visions of love that Ann Swidler put forth make sense to you? Are there other understandings that you would propose? (Ha, pun unintended!) Continue reading