Monday, December 20, 2010

sending out the wolves

"We let a wolf into the church," Rexrode mused, "and now we can't get him out."

I wish I could say that this story about a small CofC in VA frightens me because it surprises me. Instead, it frightens me precisely because I don't find it that surprising.

I've never blogged directly about the things in my experience which render this narrative unsurprising. I've alluded to them only once, writing,
...[our] churches generally don't concern themselves with psych profiles or background checks for people who voluntarily go overseas to do mission work--these people raise their funds, typically from several churches, and so at least some of those churches don't necessarily know them personally or well, and yet we give people money at the drop of a hat and send them off--just trusting that we can take them at their word, because they say they're wanting to do this great work for the Lord. Even if we don't really know them from Adam.

Maybe that's awesome. But it's also naive.

And it totally backfires. Sometimes.

Because sometimes the people we fund are not good people. Sometimes they are terrible people, who do very bad things, all paid for out of church budgets by people who feel comfortable assuming that they can just take someone's word for it that all they want to do is serve God.
I see the exact same issue here in this story of the Harrisonburg Church of Christ--and for that reason, I wish I could agree with the reporter that this small church community "is an unlikely setting...for the kind of Southern Gothic tale involving murder and mendacity and money and treachery and, by many accounts, the handiwork of Satan himself." Instead I find it, sadly, a quite predictable setting. The only difference between what I've seen and this story is geography: this time, they invited the wolf in, instead of sending him out into the mission field. 

And so, of course, this means that this time, the wolf got caught. What happens to the wolves we send out into the world outside of our little red brick churches?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


The question on overt instances of sexualization of women and girls in church came up in discussion on the soccer field-church post. I've heard some strange things from pulpits over the years--strange, and yes I have no doubt unintentional, things...and you may have too. I'm wondering what examples come to your mind of the sexualization of women and girls in your experience of the c'sofC.

One simple one that occurs to me at the moment--pegged to a specific memory, but something which I must have seen dozens of versions of at this point--is the way in which a missionary and his wife were introduced during a Sunday morning service. He was introduced by name, lauded for his work and his talents and his willingness to sacrifice, etc., and then his new bride was brought up, introduced as "his lovely wife" and then--if I remember correctly--he was publicly congratulated on his fine catch.

It's like the Sunday morning version of that awful commercial I've been nauseated by during the Daily Show the last few weeks--the one where the wedding is "the jungle" and the dude is on the prowl, so skillful that he gets "his prize" to come to him. Pardon me while I go vomit. And no, it's not morning sickness.

Friday, December 10, 2010

toward a zombie cyborg theology

Because cyborgs are cooler.

But also because zombies, as cultural figures, are inherently anthropologically dualistic. Think about it: you take a human person, give'em a zombie bite, and the person dies but their dead body, who is not the person you used to know, becomes reanimated by an external force of some kind and then tries to eat your brains. This is precisely why, of course, we can kill zombies with impunity and without remorse: they are not human anymore. They are not the person they were; that essential self is gone, and the body that looks like the person you used to know is just a dead vehicle being driven by something else. --You just don't get more dualistic than that!

So it's curious to me that the read of The Walking Dead in the blog post from, "Toward a Zombie Theology," is that the working anthropology is materialistic:
"But even with Christian overtones the writers of Walking Dead end up coming down in favor of brain-based consciousness. In death, including the death of the brain, Dr. Jenner says, “Everything you ever were, or will be…[is] gone.” 
Note: I haven't been watching this show, so the interpretation of the show may well be right on target...which means that the writers of the show should be wrestling with how to reconcile the inherent dualism of zombies with their attempt at materialism. In any case, my point is that zombies, as a symbolic monstrous posthuman figure in our cultural landscape, are much more at home with garden-variety dualism of body/soul than they are with materialism of any sort, reductive or non-reductive.

Whereas cyborgs, on the other hand, are resolutely materialistic. What makes a cyborg? Some sort of bodily merging of biology and technology--flesh and machine. Now, we think of human persons and machines as categorically different, not least because machines don't have "souls"--which we can just define here very loosely as that essential inner thing which animates a creature. Machines are not animated; humans are--basic categorical difference. So, what the cyborg does, conceptually, is render that categorical difference highly questionable. If a single creature is part human and part machine--then what is the difference between human and machine? And if we can create (and we regularly do, let's note) humans that actually are to some degree "part machine" and they are much better off thus--that is to say, able to flourish as humans because of their part-machine-ness--then, part of being human includes the potential of interfacing and merging with technology and making it a functional part of ourselves. Here, then, the definition of human shifts into one with an emphasis on embodiment, and the surprising ways our bodies are configurable. That's moving away from dualism with a vengeance.

So the question posed in response to zombies is actually much better posed in response to cyborgs:
"So does this leave theology out in the cold? The dominant theological understanding for anthropology in Christianity is still dualistic, a synthesis of the physical body and an immaterial spirit or soul, but in recent years those advocating a monistic view of human nature have arisen, articulating a perspective they call “nonreductive physicalism.” This view, advocated by scholars like Fuller Seminary’s Nancey Murphy, recognizes the significance of the cognitive neurosciences that have cast doubt on philosophical and theological concepts of the soul, but argues for human significance and the divine as opposed to materialist interpretations in the field."
Do we need a concept of the soul in order to faithfully interpret the biblical canon and the Christian tradition? I would argue, rather, we would probably do better to dump it in order to better understand both our own scripture and Christian tradition and the best available (and constantly evolving) scientific witness on the anthropological question.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

a quick note

The blog post "gender, identity and the church" is now up as a podcast via Half the Church. You can find it here.

if the church were a soccer field

I came across an article today about girls playing sports--and the way in which excelling or simply participating in a sport gives girls a way to think about themselves and their bodies in a context free of sexualization. In playing sports and becoming athletes, girls learn to value their bodies for "what they can do" and not just for how they look, or how other people perceive them as sexually desirable.

This rings anecdotally true for me--I played center fullback on my high school soccer team and I loved it, though, admittedly, I was as anxious a performer on the field as I was anywhere else. Even so, on the field, I was a necessary and competent part of a team. When I subbed out, they missed me. I remember a game where we were five goals up in a shut-out and the coach took me out in the second half for a bit; while I was on the sidelines the opposing team scored two goals. I was told to get back in there. Now that's validation. Someday when I have an office I'll hang my senior MVP award on the wall next to my PhD.

The article on girls & sports links to an APA report on girls' sexualization. Toward the end of the report, the authors name several possible agents and avenues for the construction of alternatives to the overwhelming sexualization of girls present in US culture. One of those possible agents, as you might expect, is parents & family. One is sports and extracurricular activities. One is religion. And it should be; this makes sense. Our churches should absolutely be able to and active in providing a context of validation and self-definition for our girls that is free of the cultural context of sexualization.

And I had to ask myself, do our churches do this?

I'm afraid that if I answer honestly, I might have to answer no.

It is a sad thing to reflect that playing soccer may have done more for me as a girl than sitting in church. And I'm not alone; Naomi Walters writes
In retrospect, maybe part of the reason I was so drawn to soccer is because I was good at it and my skills were utilized there. In my youth group, the females were the most consistent members. When it came to “Youth Sunday” we did all of the planning, and yet, were forced to delegate everything we had planned to male execution. It was clear from an early age that I was born to be a leader, and since I couldn’t do that at church, maybe I played soccer instead? It feels good to be a vital part of a team, a leading force, a fully participating member.
Is the practice of silencing women in our churches an overt form of sexualization akin to the onslaught of sexualized media images, Bratz dolls and pinkified princessing our girls endure as a routine and mostly unremarked aspect of girlhood? No. But is it a covert reinforcement of the hypersexualized message that girls' bodies are objects that define and restrict them?

Yeah. I think so.

Maybe you're disposed to think that there's no obvious connection between our practice of silencing women in the church and the sexualization of women and girls in our surrounding culture. After all, the most common defense of our practice is that it's biblical and therefore counter-cultural in the best possible way. And what does being silent in the assembly have to do with sexuality? How does accepting the God-created differences between men and women and their concomitant different roles have anything to do with sexualization of girls and women in the larger culture?

But these practices are not counter-cultural. These doctrines and practices fall right into step with messages from our culture that female bodies define women and girls differently than male bodies define men, and that these female bodies fall under the authority of others--others who get to define when and where and how these bodies should be used, when and where and how these bodies are valuable. This is the same message that women and girls get in the form of sexualization, in which others define when and where and how their female bodies are valuable--that is, desirable. The only difference is the lack of an overt sexual component--but this does not, IMO, make the underlying message any less disconcerting or anxiety-producing. And it certainly does not provide a basis from which the sexualized message of our culture can be subverted.

And this means we need to take a good hard honest look at the knee-jerk defensive claim that we're being "biblical" and "counter-cultural." We need to take a good, hard, honest look at what our doctrine and our practice really does to the women and the girls in the pews of our churches. It's not that we're getting it all wrong--as I've said before. But the gospel message that could--and does--subvert the dominant cultural sexualization of girls and women, the message that God has created and chosen and gifted and loved and called without qualification, is one that isn't consistent with the church's practice of silencing and restricting of women. And we need to take a good hard honest look at this inconsistency.

If the church were a soccer field, little girls could discover just how much they could really do--and we would cheer for them.