Wednesday, June 30, 2010

informal review of Susan Campbell's Dating Jesus

[from Christian Scholars Conference 2010]

            Reviewing a book such as this, when your experience reading it has been as emotionally intimate as this has been, is a bit terrifying—knowing that whatever I say about it, I am saying much more about myself, in many ways, than I am about this text. But to say this is in some ways offering the highest tribute possible to Susan Campbell’s memoir of growing up in the [small] c’s-of-C: her journey precedes mine chronologically, is distanced from mine geographically, and differs in personal particulars, but nonetheless describes what it means to come of age as a girl in our denomination in words so honest that not only does my narrative echo hers at certain points, but the contributed bits of the many guest bloggers’ narratives at “rude truth” do, as well.

            This is not actually a very happy thing to observe. One would have hoped, after all, that the church which Campbell describes as “frontier revivalism frozen in amber” (38) might have unstuck itself from its fossilized convictions about gender in the years that separate my coming of age from hers. But, as she rightly observes, anachronism can become a veritable badge of righteousness, and on this issue, there is still no quicker and more effective rebuttal to the attempt to voice women’s experiences as relevant than “we cannot let culture dictate the practice of the church.”

            Campbell’s voice is strong, and compelling, and like many of us who have found that strong female voices are unwelcome—not just in our official assemblies, but in our formal leadership structures, and anywhere at all if they’re asking pesky questions—she has found an alternative venue for expression for this somewhat troublesome gift of God. It may be that, as Katie Hays observed to me somewhat wryly in conversation last year at this conference, no one misses these female voices when the women who possess them leave our churches—because they never got to use them in the first place. Perhaps years have passed without anyone wondering what happened to the voice of that pre-teen girl in Sunday school who asked, why a woman can’t be a preacher. She grew up and became a reporter for the Hartford Courant, and I suppose anyone who thought about it might have concluded, “and she lived happily ever after.” Luckily for us, the same courage that propelled Campbell to verbally spar—and hold her own!—with her Sunday school teacher has produced a memoir which once again brings her voice back into our midst, even if it has to happen cloaked in the “authority of the text,” the same evasive maneuvers performed historically by so many medieval women mystics. Now, we know what we’re missing; even better, we might even figure out why.

            That is, we might, if we read, and read with ears ready to hear a narrative that is both heartbreakingly funny and gut-wrenchingly sad, with some moments of prophetic pissed-off-ness in between. Not everyone is, still. Like the comment I received from a first-year seminary student’s first encounter with James Cone, “I feel like he’s yelling at me through the pages,” there are moments of, say, “snark”—not least of which is Campbell’s habit of footnoting scriptural references for the c’s-of-C practices she describes, and it’s not an aspect of the memoir designed to court a reluctant audience.

            In my opinion, to consider this a weakness of the book is to entirely miss the point. It is not the memoir’s only strength, but it is one of its strengths, and without the “snark” it would not be the honest narrative that it is. As one blog commenter observes, “it made me feel like I was sitting at the table with her”—and what better observation could there be of the profound, dare I say, sacramental even, intimacy made possible by the disarming honesty of an author, reciprocated in the receptive honesty of a reader?

            Moreover, it misses the point—never articulated directly by Campbell, and perhaps I am over-interpreting—that snark is a coping strategy. Robert A. Heinlein—another quite snarky author, come to think of it—wrote that the difference between human beings and our primate cousins is that we have a sense of humor; we laugh, and we laugh because it hurts. It is when we can no longer snark, no longer laugh, no longer grin and bear it, that we find we must walk away.

            It seems that Campbell reached that point, a point which I still hope will never manifest itself for me, and yet, as so many of us find, walking away does not exactly translate into leaving behind. There is a reason why my Episcopal priest husband still corrects himself in the instinctive use of the first-person-plural when speaking of the Churches of Christ. There is a reason why there is a thriving online community of ex-Cof-Cers. There is a reason why a successful Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and author finds herself revisiting the narrative of her coming of age and the way in which her life is mysteriously and inextricably bound up with the church of her youth.

            And, fantastically, the reasons are not all bad. You have to willfully ignore Campbell’s words, selectively read only the sarcasm, to miss that the description “revivalism frozen in amber” is immediately followed with, “If that sounds grim, it isn’t. If it sounds soulless, it isn’t that, either. The traditions plant in the believer—even someone who walks away from the church—a deep and soulful need” (38).

            Unfortunately, the reasons aren’t all good either, and the double bind which Campbell sketches from early childhood on, the message that 1) you must do everything you can to make yourself ready and 2) a woman can’t [fill the blank], becomes a message she describes as an adult as “hardwired” (149). “I was hardwired to understand that I don’t belong in the pulpit”—a dreadful perversion in modern metaphor of Jeremiah’s experience of the fire shut up in his bones. “As big a feminist as I am,” she writes, “I have on some level embraced the limitations set before me. And I fear bucking them. And that makes me both sad and angry” (149). Yeah. Me too. And how many, many others.

            Unlike Campbell, my first experience speaking in a pulpit did not leave me sobbing in front of the congregation before I even got started. But, in the first unprecedented moment in which my body (thankfully) moved on autopilot from the front pew to mount the steps up to that honest-to-God pulpit in West Islip Church of Christ, I felt lightheaded, and my surroundings, misty and surreal. It is not an easy thing to do, rewiring your circuitry. But what else can you do, when you wake up in the middle of the night and realize that, after all, all those years ago, you’d been dating the wrong Jesus?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

no more time-outs

Clare: "what if I had no more time-outs ever? could we send all the timeouts all the way into outer space?"
me: "there's a way you could have no more time-outs ever for reals. wanna know how?"
Clare, eyes wide: "how?"
me: "You could always listen and then you would have no more time-outs."
Clare, excited: "Mommy, I GET IT!"

just for fun: 12 Arguments Evolutionists Should Avoid

12 Arguments Evolutionists Should Avoid

Saw this link on Facebook the other day, and couldn't resist. Neither should you!

I think my favorite item is #2, under which the website notes "Darwin’s own deficit of formal education" i.e., "(he earned a bachelor’s in theology)". I am so pleased to know that within the biblical worldview, a degree in theology = a deficit of education. Awesome.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

stat uncounter?

So, apparently this blog has had 0 visitors since April of this year. I don't check statcounter much anymore, being content with simply naively trusting that there is something like a readership in existence. (Perhaps my alien friends don't get counted on statcounter? Which suggests a cosmic xenophobic bias in the statcounting technology, there. Get to work on fixing that, please.)

So...helloooooooooooo? Are you there, Readers? It's me, JTB...

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

the redemptive pleasure of being wrong

an insanely wise excerpt from an interview with Ira Glass:

IG: Do you talk at all in your book about people who can never be wrong? I feel like I've known people who in an argument can never ever, ever admit they're wrong. And I find that such a fascinating and horrible thing. Those people are so embattled.

I do talk about it, yeah. Defensiveness and denial come up a lot; they really fascinate me. Part of the challenge for me in writing about it was almost like the interviewing challenge you described earliertrying to approach this really problematic position with empathy, to understand where these people were coming from and what's so frightening or intolerable to them about the possibility of being wrong. 

IG: That's really interesting. There are definitely lots of things that I don't want to be wrong about and will fight to the death over, and I'm totally obnoxious about it all the time. But I also feel like there's a kind of discovery that you're wrong that, in a safe situation, can be a real pleasure. Do you know what I mean? Like when you're arguing with someone you love and you realize, "I'm wrong, you're right," and you come together in that moment. It's such a relief. To me it's so obvious that some kinds of being wrong are OK.

the low point: commenting on "mixed marriage"

One of the low points--other than my unHappy Meal encounter--was hearing not one but two joking references to "mixed marriage" while in Nashville. The first came through a mike, immediately preceding a prayer. And, while it did occur to me at the time that it was tasteless and grossly inappropriate (especially since I had, just a few minutes before, from my vantage point at a corner table, been struck by the fact that I could count the number of black faces in the room on one hand and still have fingers left over), it didn't outrage me nearly as much as it should have. It just sort of washed past me, an enduring legacy of having grown up in the South. It wasn't until the next day, when I heard it forthrightly named as racist by someone who was paying more attention than I was, that I realized the full depth of what it means to casually joke about "mixed marriages."

The next day, I heard another joke about while standing in the middle of church. This second time, it reverberated in all of its unintentional overtones. And the nervous wry bark of a laugh with which I responded to the first reference was replaced by simply a deep sadness, without any tinge of judgment, because I too had had to learn belatedly that this is nothing to laugh about.

Once in high school I heard a pillar of our church tell a joke, standing in the center aisle of the auditorium, with a punchline that ended with the n-word. Not even tempted to laugh nervously, I just stared in confusion. We can recognize racism in our midst when it comes packaged in blatant and socially unacceptable forms. But what's the difference between a joke with the n-word and a joke about "mixed marriage"? In the end, both rely on the same categorical racism--without it, they are incoherent.

This adds a new dimension to the discussion from the Dating Jesus session at CSC 2010 about the relationship of theology and justice. I suspect--as does my bro Robert Foster, whose comment was very insightful--that dismantling injustice in one context is a gateway to becoming cognizant of the need for social justice in other contexts as well. But one problem is, many people simply don't seem to see that there's anything unjust about the role or status of women in our churches. How could that possibly be? I dimly remember not being outraged by it, but I can no longer recapture the logic of that former point of view--I can no longer remember how it feels to not be bothered by this. This leaves me with the necessity of constructing some kind of coherent intellectual explanation for what seems now to be an inexplicable blindness to justice matters.

There are surely multiple factors in this, but here is the one that seems the strongest to me right now. Men and women are supposed to be ontologically distinct--this is the crux of "hierarchical complementarianism" just as much as it is straight-up patriarchalism. (To borrow a phrase from another CSC session, hierarchical complementarianism seems to me to be the theological construct justifying "benevolent sexism." Perhaps a post for another time, there.) So it's no biggie that men do X and women do Y; they are just essentially different kinds of human beings and therefore women could never do Y and it's stupid to get angry over it.

Like the logic of "mixed marriage," the concept of hierarchical complementarianism doesn't make sense without assuming categorical difference. And if we are still, as a church, joking and laughing about mixed marriage--demonstrating that on some level we still are not questioning the working assumption that white people and black people are essentially different kinds of people--no wonder we're not able to question the same logic when it shows up with regard to gender. These two things are linked at a deep conceptual level. We cannot have gender justice without racial justice. And maybe we're banging our heads against a brick wall with some people about gender justice because we've never adequately dealt with the generations-old sin of racism that still permeates our vision of the world, even as we bow our heads to pray and stand in the middle of our churches.

Monday, June 07, 2010

unHappy Meal

Warning: this is going to be one of those miscellaneous, personal complaint posts. But honestly...just wait till you hear this!

So, Sunday morning, after working through some massive attitudinal issues with Clare, we rendezvoused with Ally and Jarrod and kids at 4th Avenue CofC in Franklin, and had a lovely morning there. Not least because I was agreeably surprised to listen to a sermon on the necessity of creative non-violence! Which is lovely in itself but also relevant to what follows.

After church, it began to rain and so we revised our lunch intentions to take the kids to McDonalds so they could run around on the inside playground area. And while I am no fan of McD's, this is a compromise I am willing to make on occasion because it's way better than the consequences of three restless kids unable to play outside all day. So, we walk in and the kids immediately join a beautiful girl about Clare's age at the toy display and start identifying which one they want, which causes some kind of ruckus with Clare who starts bawling for reasons I have to try to figure out and satisfactorily address, which I do. Then we hustle them off forthwith to playground area before any more hungry energy causes another ruckus, and then I go to the counter to order. There's a couple standing in an ambiguous place, not quite in line or at the counter but standing around sort of in the general area, hanging back, so I ask, "are y'all in line?" and they say no, so I get in line behind my bro-in-law and place my order right after him. As we're clearly together they put our trays up and start putting stuff on them, six adult meals and six kids meals all together. Then I notice a little bottle of milk, which I'd ordered for Clare, right next to my tray, and I think, why isn't this on my tray? So I start to take it but then I notice it's chocolate, which I didn't want, so I put it down and consider whether it is worth pointing out the mistake and asking for plain milk. While I'm pondering this they put a kids meal sack on the counter and announce "cheeseburger" which I'd heard Jarrod order for Levi, so I pick it up to hand to Jarrod. And out of nowhere this blond woman comes up, practically shoulder tackles me, snatches it away and says, "That's ours, and thanks for putting your hands all over it," in a super nasty voice.

Now, if you know me at all, you know that I am absolutely supremely unobservant and often almost comically stereotypically professorishly absentminded, so, it shouldn't surprise you that the obvious 2 + 2 here that these were not our items totally did not occur to me. From my point of view, it wasn't at all obvious, and even in retrospect, I feel like there was some logic to my mistake. And of course, as she said, "this is ours," I immediately handed it to her and started to say, "oh I'm sorry, here you go," but she talked right over that instinctive reply with the nasty "thanks for putting your hands all over it" as she stalks off. So I'm greatly astonished, but, like the moment with the lady in the grocery store parking lot, I'm no longer one to let these things go by internalizing shame or accepting the notion that somehow I deserve to be treated like shit. So I try again with an innocent and sincere, "I'm sorry," but she snaps back with the same nasty statement, and I say (not particularly conciliatory here), "Look, lady, I was nice to you, I even asked if you were in line, what's your problem?" But she just walks off.

I turn back around, and the employees behind the counter, who got a free front row ticket to this drama, are all looking at me and at each other with big round eyes and shrugged shoulders. One of them even said out loud, "what was that about?!" And the girl putting our order together grinned at us a few minutes later and said, "Now, I just want you to know, I'm putting my hand into this bag to put your food in it, I'm touching your food, hope that's okay," and as I left she said to me, "I mean, I'm pregnant and hormonal and I don't act like that!"

Of course, it was too much to hope that we would sit on opposite sides of the place where we could easily ignore each other. Turns out they chose a table right next to where we'd plonked down our stuff already. So, I felt like it would be remiss of me to not attempt some sort of reconciliation with this blonde nutjob. And I did my best--after all, I felt bad about calling her "lady" which is very dismissive. Plus, it had occurred to me that maybe she was pissed about something else--maybe she had seen Clare do something to her little girl while they were swarming around the toy display, and maybe there was something actually problematic that needed to be addressed, which I should know about but somehow missed.

So I approach the table, and before I even open my mouth, this woman rolls her eyes and says to her husband, "OMG, can you believe this?" So I say, "I'm sorry to interrupt your meal, but I feel like I just don't know what I might hve done to offend you, so I'd like to say that I'm sorry but I sortof need you to tell me what to actually apologize for." And she's interrupting every few words of this simple statement to say, over and over, in that same nasty tone, clipping off the ends of her words, "I--don't--want--to--talk--to--YOU."

So I give up, because she's a brick wall and not even hearing that I truly am trying to figure out what the problem is, because clearly, she's got some sort of massive problem with me. But as quickly as I turn away, I turn back again, because this is so absurd and so totally unsatisfactory. And I begin again with acknowledging that I am interrupting their time together, and sorry for that, but in case she missed it, I am genuinely trying to apologize. "What is it that I did?" I say, and stops her robotic litany of "I don't want to talk to you" to say, as if she can't believe she has to explain it, "you TOUCHED the BAG." And I said, "really? That's it. Really? Okay, then I guess I'd like to say that I'm sorry for touching the bag." But she's gone back to the "I don't want to talk to you" thing, and so I just can't manage to filter out my last comment.

"But you know, I do wash my hands after I pee."

Oh, the irony of listening to a sermon on creative non-violence and walking into this crap. I think I failed to remember the take-home phrase, "don't hit back." But Anne Shirley would plead..."if only you knew how many things I want to say and don't."

A final irony: we're all sitting there letting our kids romp around the plastic wonderland together, and at one point Clare comes running up to me in mad-tears because "Sol hurt my feelings because she growled in my face. And she won't say sorry." Me: "well, did you tell her you were hurt and why and ask for an apology?" Amswer: no. Of course not, my child is only almost 4. So I say, you have to tell her, and this is what you say. And when Sol comes up, straightway my little girl says, clearly and straightforwardly, "Sol, you hurt my feelings when you growled in my face" and Sol blinks and says immediately, "I'm sorry, Clare," and off they run together back into the plastic wonderland.

My four year old can do it. Take that, you blonde basketcase.

belated thoughts on CSC 2010

  1. I am EXHAUSTED.
  2. Presenting in 3 sessions of 6 (plus various other stuff) means NOT getting to do all the things you really want to do at a conference, namely, go to the sessions you want to hear, and freely skip sessions in order to grab a coffee with people you only see once a year. It also means not being able to live blog/tweet and thus, catch-up blogging. Sigh.
  3. Having food provided for every meal ROCKS. Way to go Lipscomb!!!
  4. The session I most wanted to attend and couldn't: Monstrous Beauty. So many awesome posthuman figures in that one...
  5. The session I most enjoyed participating in: Dating Jesus with Susan Campbell. It was not the only follow-up to last year's groundbreaking sessions on experiences of gender in the c's-of-C (and yes, I agree with JRB, when it comes time to write the next volume of Reviving the Ancient Faith for these recent and upcoming decades, last year's conference is going to be read as a turning point); there was a wonderful session convened by Dr. Sharp Penya of ACU on some results of ongoing research into gender attitudes and predictors of attitudes in our churches. But it was, I think, the session that provided that same voice of experience that last year's sessions did--and I am convinced that this is the thing most needed right now. This is not (only or primarily) an intellectual or hermeneutical matter--this is something that requires a conversaion experience of some sort. And for about 50% of CofCers, that means taking the leap into someone else's experience and making that vicarious experience their own in some sense--enough to prompt the realization that it really is and has been damaging, for many of us, and blindness to that reality is not a moral option. Not everyone will make that leap--there are lots of ways to armor yourself against it--but the immediate task is to make it impossible to be unknowingly ignorant of this reality. Some will choose to be willfully ignorant. And we can't coerce conversion. But we can--like Jesus with the rich young ruler--force people to the point of decision, and if they walk away, we can watch them do it sorrowfully...and turn to the next person, because we can also hope that not everyone will choose to be willfully ignorant of the reality of women in our midst. Not to keep blathering on too much, but again...this is the point of the "women in the CofC" blog experiment, which of course is still ongoing and the invitation is for YOU! (MOM!). I had a vision last year of women sitting primly next to each other in pews every Sunday, silently saying to themselves every week, "How long, O Lord?" and all convinced they were the only ones...while together they send up their silent collective cry to God. How long, indeed? It will remain forever deferred if we all sit silently in our pews frozen by anxiety and unable to speak, even to each other, about the vision of liberation and full range of opportunity of serving our God and our church and our world that we long for. And if you can't bring yourself to lean over and whisper something subversive to the gray-haired old lady next to you--say it here, anonymously if you must, because this is not "laleo in ecclesia" and this Theologian-at-Large and Heretic-for-Hire can take the hit. Plus, back to my original point after that massive tangential diversion, Susan Campbells ROCKS. And she said some of the things we most, most need to hear--like, why does it take a year to get a CofC on board with something which, once you see it, is (in the paraphrase of JRB) "silly right," something which makes our current typical practices obviously and untenably absurd? Why are we taking baby steps? And who are we hurting when we concede to those who require baby steps but those who are already walking wounded? Does that not matter? Why are we so unjustifiably proud of our faltering baby steps--shouldn't we be sprinting toward the goal of justice in our communities? There was also a good back-and-forth on the connection between theology and justice, which makes me wonder (and so I guess I am officially asking), was this experience of injustice within the church the door into Susan's convictions regarding social justice in the wider sense?
  6. Really really really really REALLY stoked about CSC 2011. It'll be sad to miss my annual pilgrimage to middle TN, which really is Home for me, but I shall content myself with the second-best option of Malibu (sarcasm alert here, y'all). AND, of course, the theme is religion and science, and John Polkinghorne is slated to be one of several awesome plenary speakers. Awesome! And there is so much to think many different possibilities for presentations and sessions...very exciting. Ken Reynhout, brace yourself, because I'm going to start begging you to come starting right now.
  7. People seemed to like the posthuman stuff. Always encouraging. And getting a shout-out from James Elkins in the concluding dialogue session was certainly a feather in my cap, which no longer quite fits on my great big inflated head. :)
All right, that's it for now. Next step: go home, and label an empty mayo jar "CSC 2011" and start saving the pennies. :)