Tag Archives: culture

thanksgiving hopping

Thanksgiving is approaching and my entire school is buzzing with the formation of plans. Some students are going home; some are planning small, swanky soirees; others are hosting giant potlucks. Of course, with so many plans happening on one day, there are many students who are invited to many Thanksgivings. Some say ‘yes’ to the first invitation that comes their way, or to the one with their closest friends. Others agonize over where to spend the day. But there’s another category: Thanksgiving hoppers.

I imagine the habit of Thanksgiving hopping started—painfully, gruelingly—with divorce situations. For many of my friends, it’s considered a fun way to spend the holiday. Often it means getting in as many Thanksgivings as possible; other times it means planning to be with one group for lunch and another for dinner, splitting the day between friends.

I find the practice infuriating. As a hostess and a friend, yes, of course, but even more so as a spiritually conscientious person. Because Thanksgiving hopping is the opposite of giving thanks. A proper Thanksgiving means being right where you are with deep gratitude, about savoring the rich quality of food and drink and relationship, about being in a moment of eternity because there is nowhere else to be. Thanksgiving hopping is about gluttony, sacrificing quality for quantity, and watching the clock to get to wherever you promised to be next.

By attempting to be with everyone, you’re really being with no one. You’re with the pain in your gut from too many side dishes, you’re with the clock on your phone trying to gauge how long you can stay without offending the host of the next event. You don’t stay put long enough to allow the slow build of relationship and relaxation to culminate in the quiet joy of deep contentment. You’re missing out on what’s right in front of you, and worse, you’re depriving your friends of the gift that is you and your full presence.

We spend every other day of the year rushing from one place to the next. Take this one day to slow down and really be where you are. Give us this day to give thanks with you. Give us this day to give thanks for you.

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gratitude now!

Recently, I was in the checkout line at the grocery store when I noticed the cover of the latest Real Simple Magazine.

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What especially caught my eye was the circled blurb on the side of the cover: “feel grateful now,” it lures. “12 ways to live in the moment,” the promise continues.

I burst out laughing. Heads turned. But really, what a truly absurd marketing strategy. Who is hooked by the commercialization of gratitude? Are we Americans really so out of touch with slow practices of gratitude that we think our hollow inconsiderateness can be fixed in a few steps? Are we so consumeristic that we think we can buy our way to inner serenity at the newsstand? Are we really so out of touch with our souls?

The demand to feel grateful immediately is not a way to cultivate gratitude. Gratitude is a slow noticing, it is a practiced living into the moment, is recognition of desire for exactly what is present. GK Chesterton wrote that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. Henry Van Dyke said that gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness received. There are many ways to describe gratitude and its working within our beings, but none of its descriptions have a sense that it’s something you can demand, instantly. An old Seinfeld episode loops through my head, slightly altered: everyone is screaming “Gratitude now!”

Gratitude can’t fall under the category of instant gratification and can’t be bought because accumulating is fundamentally at odds with gratitude. When you are grateful, you measure your hearts desires with your life and surroundings and find that they match. There is no need to add more when you are grateful for what you have. The wish for more—whether “more” is a shiny magazine,or the promise of gratitude itself—the wish for more is what murders gratitude.

My first step to feeling grateful in this moment: recognizing that my both my bookshelf and my life are whole without a quick-fix magazine.

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good vs bad

Have you seen last night’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart? The first segment is a compilation of news clips of “experts” and anchors asking whether major, complex issues are good or bad. It’d be funnier if it weren’t so tragic.

Watching it, I keep thinking that this is at least partly the church’s fault. We’ve spent so many years listing and categorizing sins, condoning and condemning acts, that we’ve created very strict black and white frames through which to view the world. And then we shamed and praised our children into using those frames. And now those children are adults and can’t bear the complexity of a world full of gray areas.

How can we engage sin and brokenness authentically and honestly while also holding the tension of complexity, grayness, grace?

How can the church be about meaning rather than mere goodness?

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the commodification of charity

TOMS became popular because it represented a humanitarian cause. You didn’t just buy yourself shoes, you bought someone else shoes, too. The distinctive style and little flag on the heel became a sign-exchange value, telling people not only the “look how cool I am” of the Nike swoosh, but also “look how generous I am.”

So it’s no surprise that knock-offs started popping up everywhere. The same distinctive cloth-wrapped style, although sans the blue-striped flag and the “One for One” mission statement. I’ve actually heard women brag that they would never buy real TOMS, they’re so expensive, but found ones just like them for only half the price! What a steal!

I know I’m supposed to do the woman-bonding thing and congratulate her on her stealthy hunting shopping skills, but what I want to say is this:

Well, of course you found ones at half the price, because you’re only buying shoes for yourself. You want the sign-exchange value of “look how generous I am” without actually having to give anything. You want it on the cheap. You want to look giving but without it actually costing you anything.

This is especially true of Toms, given the company’s philanthropic nature, but it’s USAmerican consumerism all over the place. We want it to look real, but we want it made less expensive, regardless of how many people we hurt. Forget the second-pair-of-shoes cost of charity; we don’t even care about labor conditions for the people making our items or if the materials are durable, much less sustainably grown. If you aren’t going to do the research on that, the absolute least you can do is think about why it is you want that new piece, what you’re hoping that purse or those shoes will say about your person—and then make it true.

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The Sun Salutation

For whatever reason, God has felt distant. I’m from West Michigan, where it’s not unheard of to go multiple weeks without a glimpse of sun. God feels like that lately: I know she must be there, but there have been too many dreary days since I’ve experienced warmth on my skin, since I’ve seen a ray of sunhope to spark serotonin-certainty in my cerebrum.

In an effort to clear the clouds and re-establish contact, I purchased a book of common prayer. The first few days I read from it regularly—morning, midday, and evening—telling myself that even though I didn’t feel anything beyond the words, I would if I could just stick with it. Soon it became a twice-a-day habit, then down to one. At that point, it seemed to have proven itself unhelpful to me, and I stopped attempting to force it.

It was then that I looked closely at those obscuring clouds blocking me from my Creator that I realized they weren’t made of vapor, at least not any less figuratively so than anything else under the sun. Their darkness is a locust swarm of ink smudges, wasp words buzzing, moths teeming toward the light. The mass is the accumulation of words around God, years of it from the Christian publishing industry, the words of many pastors, centuries of liturgies, manuscripts dating back millennia. The prayer book is just my most recent layer, each page creating moth-flies flocking toward the light. I needed to move beyond the words.

My yoga mat was waiting for me in the corner of my closet. I had tried to practice on my own since moving to Seattle, but never felt revitalized, couldn’t keep committed. There’s something to be said for a faith community, for a leader in liturgy. I’ve known for the last year that I needed to find a studio of good people with whom I could practice, but kept putting it off. Knowing this paper was due soon, I used it as an excuse to commit the time and money to reinvigorating my spiritual practice. Sunday night I arrived at a studio to find the temple hidden on my yoga mat, held within my body.

I didn’t know a single person in the studio, yet—as is often the case with yoga classes—there was an immediate sense of unity. In the first few moments, we align our breathing. I think of the tetragrammaton tattooed on my ribs and recite the Sh’ma in my head: Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad. The still-scabbed four-character name of God was inked the week prior, put on my skin as a reminder that every breath and sigh is an utterance of the name of God. As I use my inhales to lengthen my spine and exhales to bend deeper, it feels true.

As with other spiritual practices, the community sustained me. There are times when I, on my own, wouldn’t have held a pose so long, would have allowed the weakness in my thighs and biceps to win. But I look around at the others in their practice, spine-arches on a ceiling, from my inverted perspective, and I persevere. We breath together. I borrow their energy; I lend them mine. We’re all in this together, I think. We all suffer. Keep going.

We end our practice as dusk is deepening and the golden hour makes the room shine warmly.  Together, we inhale, and together, we exhale an ‘om’. It was powerful – a sound so large, warm, and round that it echoed not only through my vocal chords but my lungs, my body, my very being. My deep contralto grounded the higher notes, an interweaving between us that brought out resonances that were more than the sum of the parts. I choked on a sob, the ‘om’ not the same without me but going on nonetheless. My participation isn’t vital, but it is wanted. And when I can’t participate, the community sustains me. I have never attended a church as openly and calmly supportive.

I don’t think that my spiritual dry spell is over; I’m not naive enough to believe that one yoga class is enough to both clear away the swarm and destroy the nests. I think back to the time period of my conversion: it began with weekly yoga classes, grew to include running, and as I shaped my life around formative practices it exploded to include church service, krav maga, more regular yoga, a young adults group, strength training, becoming church leadership… . No, the problem isn’t solved, and I can’t re-trace the journey that’s behind me. Still, this feels like a move in the right direction, a place to be supported, sustained, and to listen for what God is calling me to next.

This piece was originally written for course called Prayer, Presence, & Practice, taught by Pat Loughery. Students were asked to reflect on their current spiritual practices as they are.

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media marriages

On December 29, I wake up and whisper “happy anniversary” to my husband.  On January 28, he gives me a birthday gift (and  I give him his, six days late, because we always agree to not do gifts so shortly after Christmas and I don’t want him to feel obligated to get me one because I always get him one; but we both do, anyway). When I want him to know I love him, I hug him, or text him, or sometimes slip a note in his folded shirts for him to find later.

What I don’t do: write on his Facebook wall. Tweet about it. Write a status update in which I tag him.

I want my husband to know I love him. And yes, you, our friend, his family member, my acquaintance, you will probably be able to tell I love my husband because of the way we are with one another, because of the way we talk about one another, because of the way we look at each other. I don’t need to convince you of it, because it’s true, and as something true, it’s already evident.

By posting flowery love notes to social media (especially people who use social media pretty much exclusively for this), I don’t think you love your spouse. I think you want me to think you love your spouse. I think you care more about the appearance than the reality. I wonder if I can tell that you and your spouse love one another by the way you are across the room from each other at a party. I wonder what your tone is struggling to hide. I wonder what your eyes can’t hide.

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review of “our mother st paul”

In Our Mother Saint Paul, Beverly Roberts Gaventa explores the metaphors of Paul’s oft-neglected maternal imagery and examines his letters within an apocalyptic context. In Part 1, maternal imagery is examined to show that Paul is “an authority who does not conform to standard norms of authority.” Part 2 explores the Pauline letters with questions of apocalyptic theology at the forefront.

Gaventa recognizes that maternal images are complex metaphorical movements that are too often dismissed. Paternal imagery is of one-time begetting and is not the same category as maternal imagery, which reflects an on-going nurturing relationship. As such, it describes the vocation of the apostolic office and is associated with apocalyptic contexts. As aids in explaining the maternal imagery, Gaventa utilizes the history of traditions; the sociocultural context in which the letters were written, especially gender construction within the Greco-Roman world; and ‘metaphor theory’, which Gaventa explains as the use of metaphor as “an invitation to intimacy” and to change our minds.

Specifically, Gaventa is interested in the cohesion of Paul’s use of familial and kinship metaphors, noting that “metaphors having to do with nurture are almost exclusively associated with mothers” and generative metaphors that “may structure large aspects of thought.” The imagery has implications for Paul’s understanding of both leadership and women’s roles.

The first four chapters address specific maternal images employed in Paul’s letters, beginning with that of apostles as infants and nurses (1 Thessalonians 2:7), a mixed metaphor Gaventa explains through the social context. With this image, Paul is struggling to identify two aspects of the apostolic role: childlike in that he does not seek benefit, and nurse-like in that he is responsible in tending his charges with care and affection. Such metaphors of family life establish believers as a family, which restructures society and reconceptualizes conventional roles. The apostolic task is not ordinary, and “one must employ categories that seem outrageous.”

Next, Gaventa addresses the image of Paul in labor with the Galatians in his womb and the object of labor being Christ (Galatians 4:19). The metaphor may seem confused, but Gaventa shows it to be intentional. Through examining the Greek, Gaventa understands the verse to be about the apostolic vocation’s association with the anguish of the coming apocalyptic era, and the goal of anguish is that Christ be formed within communities. Paul’s work as an apostle occurs within apocalyptic framework that looks toward the incorporation of the entire cosmos into Christ. This is not about the action of Paul to another individual, but the action of God toward humanity.

The third image examined is Paul as nurse supplying milk to ‘infant’ believers not ready for solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). The metaphor here reinforces familial language within the community of believers while also undermining culturally approved masculine roles. Whereas other commentators focus on paternal imagery later in the passage and even try to link this image with it, a nursing mother cannot be replaced with a father. She examines the Greco-Roman cultural understanding of sexuality—in which women were understood to be inverted males, femininity was a threat to masculinity, and strict norms for ‘real men’ were followed—to conclude that Paul “effectively concedes the culturally predisposed battle for his masculinity” and moves to the margins of acceptability. Gaventa compares Paul’s loss of status to his later images as a planter of someone else’s field, a servant of someone else’s builder, and also to “the crucified Jesus, who is no more a ‘real man’ by the world’s standards than is a nursing Paul.”

The final piece of maternal imagery addressed is of creation itself in labor (Romans 8:22). Gaventa argues that “all creation” includes humanity, even non-Jew and non-Christian. The labor of creation births nothing, but rather waits for God’s action. Meanwhile, creation continues to be sold into slavery, although the resurrection means that the powers, ultimately, will not prevail. What Paul affirms is the future redemption of creation despite the fact that “anti-God powers” of Sin and Death continue to separate humanity from God.

Chapter Five transitions from specific metaphors into the overall theology of Paul. Questions of permission and prohibition are not Paul’s priority of vocation. Gaventa focuses on Galatians in order to see what might be gleaned from a letter that is decidedly male in its issues, characters, and decision-making. When the question is no longer primarily about Paul’s understanding of women, the letter is liberated to speak to theological concerns that affect all humanity. The reader is free to hear the ways in which the gospel’s arrival obliterates law, systems that measure achievements, and identity constructions that separate rather than connect, such as culture, religion, socioeconomic status, and gender.

In Part Two, Gaventa places the maternal metaphors into the apocalyptic nature of Paul’s theology. Through examining, primarily, Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans, she reveals Paul’s theology to emphasize (a) the presence of the ongoing apocalypse that invades all realms of life and (b) the gospel that God revealed victory in the ongoing struggle between good and evil through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In Galatians 1 through 4, Paul focuses on the singularity of the gospel and on the relationship of believers to the gospel. He sees Galatians as seeking to please outsiders in the same way he had done previously, and instructs that they must not submit to the elements of the world. What rules the text is the conviction “there is only one gospel and that it puts an end to all prior commitments, conventions, and value systems. [Tradition, law, social barriers, and feast days] are alike insofar as they threaten to undermine the exclusive claim of the gospel.” Paul uses his own experience as an example of the gospel’s work and power, using his life to point to something beyond himself. Although the presenting problem of circumcision in Galatians 3 and 4 is a question concerning the law, Gaventa looks past the symptom to the central theological issue of the identity and accomplishments of Jesus Christ. “What the Galatians seek in the law is the certainty that they have a firm place in the church of God and that they know what God requires of them. It is precisely this certainty, and every other form of certainty, that Paul rejects with his claim about the exclusivity and singularity of Jesus Christ.” Paul’s Christology puts the crucifixion at the focus, through which humanity is freed not only from legal practices but from all identifications, whether within law or outside it. The new creation brought about by the crucifixion allows for no augmentation by the law nor any other power or loyalty.

The final chapters of Our Mother Saint Paul investigate Paul’s letter to the Romans to understand the cosmic battle between God and the anti-God powers as well as the community of believers. Gaventa examines the phrase “God handed them over” with the understanding that God surrendered humanity to the anti-God powers, specifically to uncleanness/impurity, dishonorable passions, and deformed mind. In Paul’s understanding, these are not human characteristics but powers; humans always live in the grasp of some power. Having already handed over humanity, the crucifixion is the point at which God hands over his own Son, which is not the victory of the powers but their unmasking and sure defeat.

Paul’s letter to the Romans emphasizes that the battle against evil is not simply a list of transgressions to condemn or avoid, it is God’s own enemy. Sin is not confined to behavior but is a power that entered the world, became an enslaving force, unleashed its partner Death, and corrupts even God’s law. As God once handed humanity over to Sin, he has handed over Jesus for its defeat. Baptism means the individual is dead to Sin, although capable of transgression (lowercase sin). On a cosmic level Sin is no longer the enslaving power; grace holds dominion. Ultimately, God will destroy evil on behalf of humanity.

Gaventa also considers Romans to see what it might suggest about community. She observes that Paul invokes a common memory of what has happened in the gospel with the hope that a shared interpretation will shape the future and unity of the community. The community’s behavior is characterized by an upbuilding of others within the community and reaching out to the outsider. Community boundaries are wide and yet distinguish a “line between those who are living and those who remain in the power of Death.” However, Paul does not stigmatize outsiders; he is caringly concerned for them.

Gaventa shows Romans to be a display of Paul’s theologizing. His theology is not a starting point but an end product that is fluid in light of changing events. God, for Paul, is ‘on the loose’ and uncontainable. The demands of such an all-encompassing God affect every area of human life and creation itself. Paul maintains that God is faithful, but faithfulness does not imply predictability. What may look like rejection to Israel is not unfaithfulness but is faithfulness to all creation, as God works to transform all. Paul’s fluid understanding allows room for a God who unexpectedly surpasses his promises.

Reviewers have much to praise in Gaventa’s work. McNeel writes that Gaventa shows maternal images to be “an essential part of Paul’s theologizing, both about apostolic ministry and about the cosmic battle going on between God and the anti-God forces of the universe.” The common critique is the fragmented argument of the work as a whole, especially between the two parts. Ascough relates that in early chapters the reader is left “wondering how the term ‘apocalyptic’ is being used.” The chapters on apocalyptic theology, McNeel notes, apparently “were not composed with maternal imagery in mind.”

While I agree that the book reads as two distinct works, her war-faring language is more problematic for me. Gaventa employs war imagery to describe conflict between powers. She states that “God wages war”, and that believers are God’s weapons. However, she also describes a God who “delivered up humanity”; the weapons (humanity) have been handed over. I protest: This God does not battle, he surrenders and dies on a cross. This God does not crush opponents, but becomes vulnerable to them. Feminists recognize the way language shapes cultural structures, and war-faring language is no exception. By employing primarily war imagery in theology and depicting a battle-ready God, Gaventa perpetuates philosophies of righteous war and systems of violence.

This review written for Feminist Hermeneutics with Jo-Ann Badley; all students were asked to write a review of this text.

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feminists, christians, corinthians

In USAmerica today, everyone is talking about sex. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that throughout history everyone has been talking about sex, and USAmerica is in the midst of the present manifestation of an ancient issue. Today, sexual behavior for women is often presented as a choice between two extremes: purity or promiscuity; prude or liberated. However, neither stance is helpful for a fully human life: firm answers applied to everybody lacks compassion and imagination, as Paul can help Christians understand.

Sex-positive feminists believe sex to be natural and beneficial. Sex between consenting adults is encouraged as sexual desire is understood as a natural part of human experience that should not be denied or repressed. Indeed, desire cannot be repressed without negative consequences on the individual; sexual repression and anything that promotes repression are treated as the primary enemies. This view of sex is often criticized as being irreverent, but that is an oversimplification. Many sex-positive individuals have a high view of sex and use language of intimate connection.

The sex-positive way of life can be problematic for women. If sex becomes a high priority, then a woman’s value can become tied up in her sexual accomplishment or ability to find a partner. Also problematic is when attention shifts from equal abilities and equal rights into a desire to prove that women can behave as men in ways men have been criticized, such as deception with regards to the intention of the relationship beyond sex or libertine “Don Juan” behavior. One woman notes that “the feminist sex-positive cultural attitude boiled down to … ‘I’m more sex-positive than you.’” For women who adopt this competitive mentality and find it unfulfilling, “the failure of this approach in their own lives became, in their minds, the failure of postmodern feminist philosophy as a whole.” In a reactionary move against the lifestyle, such women sometimes jump to the opposite extreme: chastity and submission in the name of Christianity.

Presently, the Christian stance on sexuality emphasizes abstinence, chastity, or purity outside of marriage. The primary enemies here are promiscuity and premarital sex. Tim Stafford speaks for many when he asserts that “Christians can tell young people when it is right to have sex for the first time: on the day you marry.” Stafford characterizes sex outside marriage as “a compulsive need,” an abuse of self and others, and depersonalized “biological stimulation.” Without debating the truth of such statements, it is enough to say that such language does not match many individuals’ felt experience of sex. Many find an outsider labeling consensual sex enjoyed by both partners as ‘abuse’ to be offensive, as is the notion that sex is depersonalized based only on the evidence of not having a marriage certificate.

The emphasis on virginity is problematic for, as Julia Duin emphasizes, “we only give away our purity once.” What is told to widows, those who come to Christianity later in life, and—perhaps most distressingly—rape victims? The downside of the purity narrative is one of damaged goods, defeat, and despair. Also problematic are the solutions to denying desire recommended to celibate Christians, which carry tones of avoidance and repression that set up bad habits for marriage. Julia Duin suggests Christians “find something to care about more than sex,” exercise, and “figure out what stimulates wrong desires and avoid that.” The language of avoidance simultaneously makes sex more desirable—the ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’ of morality—and creates problematic expectations for sex in marriage after a lifetime of denying desire to be felt. “Wrong desires” aren’t instantly renamed “right” when a marriage license is signed.

Helpful in mediating such extremes in the conversation are Paul’s words to the church in Corinth: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything.” Whatever the problem the Corinthians brought to Paul, they justify it by saying they have the right to do anything. What’s notable is that Paul doesn’t disagree. As a community who lives post-resurrection, they know that sin has no ultimate power, and thus all things are lawful. It is on this point that much of Christian language around sex fails to convince, for by focusing on sin, the good news of the forgiveness of sins is denied. There is no question of lawfulness: because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Crucified, “all things are lawful.” It is on this same point that sex-positive feminists are correct: they have the right and the ability to do anything.

However, Paul adds some nuance to the argument by pointing out that not everything is beneficial and can become enslaving. He draws attention the large gap between what is permitted and what is best for living a life of wholeness. We are free to do anything, but that doesn’t mean we should; true freedom is the ability to go without whatever is craved. Again, many Christians have missed this nuance. The Driscolls dedicate an entire chapter of their recent book to addressing various sexual issues, answering if they are (a) lawful, (b) helpful, and (c) enslaving, as though the evaluation of three separate issues can lead to a clear answer of what is permissible.

But what Paul writes here is not a clear answer. He doesn’t respond to the Corinthians’ concern by explaining that it is unlawful, why it’s unhelpful, and how it’s enslaving. Instead, he opens up readers to a stance of evaluation and discernment. Creating a new law is not only unhelpful, it is detrimental to when it becomes a barrier to entering the church community. The difference between permissible and beneficial has been forgotten by many feminists as well, both sex-positive and anti-pornography. Paul reminds us all that what is beneficial for one person may be enslaving for another: a nightly glass of wine might mean heart health for one and an awakening of alcoholism for another. Paul’s response honors the fact that in the breadth of human experience, there are no tidy answers.

Paul’s openness to the complexity of human life highlights an underlying problem of both sides: they lead to either/or, black-or-white thinking. From the Christian side, a woman is either labeled pure or damaged; more crudely, virgin or whore. From the sexual liberation side, women are either free or oppressed, slut (used with a reclaimed positive sense) or prude. Neither lens allows for a wide variety of human experience. For example, where is there room for widows—are they ‘ruined’ for a second marriage? Or are they prude because they enjoyed sex only within the confines of marriage?

Another underlying problem with both sex-positive feminism and chastity-focused Christianity is that the focus on sex is unimaginative. Oftentimes, both sexual behavior and the debate around sex emerges as a symptom of much larger issues. For example, Duin states that “People are looking for something big enough to die for. Not finding that, they’ll settle for comfort and pleasure.” However, she herself becomes sidetracked into believing that the root problem is the sexual impulse when the real issue is boredom and safety. Rather than asking “How can we help Christians not have sex?” she would do better to be asking “How can we help others find and commit to something big enough to die for?”

Stafford is equally unimaginative. He emphasizes legal marriage even as he acknowledges that ancient Israel had no such customs because of the closeness of community. Rather than advocate involved community—a genuine problem for many in USAmerica today—he relies on the legal system to guarantee that a couple will fulfill obligations to one another post-sex, a solution that relies on a gentile system in order to discourage a gentile way of life. Why not advocate for improved, involved community, the real lack from which our culture is suffering?

There are no easy answers in the realm of human sexuality. Rather than becoming entrenched in arguments, may the conversation shift to an imaginative exploration of the root problems and discuss them compassionately with space made for one another’s experiences.

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Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby (2013)

The opening of a story sets the lens through which the rest of the story will be understood. When we read “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Dickens is grooming us to look for parallels to compare and contrast with one another. When Austen announces that  ” It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” the reader is prepared that this is a work about social status–money and marriage.

So when Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby changed the opening lines, changed the wisdom Nick Carraway recounts from his father, they aren’t merely changing a line. They’re changing our lens to a new focus–a softer one.

The movie begins with Nick stating that his father told him to “look for the best in everyone.” As a result, the story becomes a narrative about compassion, empathy, kindness. The audience is asking themselves: What features make Gatsby great, despite his shortcomings? Can we see them despite his criminal behavior and emotional immaturity, as Nick so obviously does? Can we forgive Tom and Daisy for their carelessness and see the best in them?

The novel gives us a much stronger lens, both poignant and relevant, especially in the wake of the Occupy movement:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

And with holding that advice intact, the narrative becomes something entirely beyond empathy. It becomes a criticism of the American Dream, a portrayal of rugged individualism turned sour, a critique of the wealth that enables and encourages carelessness. We see Gatsby as a victim of a system that lied to him about wealth and equality–he could never make the jump from being new money to being old money, can never bridge the gap between West Egg and East Egg. We stop pitying George for his poverty and see it as the direct result of Tom’s manipulation. We see the way that Daisy, an eternal soul, becomes a display of wealth just as much as the cut and quality of a suit.

We see that hope and perseverance just aren’t enough in a system as broken as ours.

kind

What happens when the narrative lens is “seeing the best in everyone.”

...but they shouldn't, because Gatsby's narrative exposes everything that's broken with the system.

…but they shouldn’t, because Gatsby’s narrative exposes everything that’s broken with the system.

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the office finale

For the bulk of nine years, fans of The Office have watched Jim.

Sure, we like the other characters too, we may even care about them. But Jim is the one who acts, the one who pines and pursues, the one  who pranks and plans. We wait for Pam to react, to respond, to reciprocate, but for the most part she’s a woman to whom things happen; more specifically, a woman to whom Jim happens. She’s the princess to be rescued—from Roy, from her own self-doubt about her artistic capacities, most recently from her doubt of Jim.

But in the finale, Pam finally accepts her agency. She even admits that she’s learned and moved slowly—four years to get to the man who worked five feet from her desk. By giving her the final recap of her time on film, she has the final say of the way the narrative can be read. It may not be heroic, but it is honest, and it is the story of many, if not most, women in our society. We are taught to be timid and small, and it takes much of our adult life to move into controlling our own lives, it takes us “so long to do so many important things.” We are happy when a man buys a house for us because we feel like someone cares for us and is in control, but that  falls so far short of having the kind of agency to make a decision for ourselves. And we see where that kind of “love” leads Jim and Pam—Jim continues to make the decisions, as Pam withers in her smallness.

In the final minutes of The Office, Pam re-narrates the series into a feminist one. She remembers her identity, and acts out of it in bold agency. Like so many woman, she is ambivalent, happy where she is while lamenting the time lost. And like so many woman, she hopes that her lessons will make it easier for those watching, for the next generation of women.

“It would just make my heart soar if someone out there saw this and she said to herself: Be strong. Trust yourself. Love yourself. Conquer your fears. Just go after what you want, and act fast, because life just isn’t that long.”

pam

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