Tag Archives: gender

silence and selfhood

By the end of the first week of classes, I am in tears. Half of my conversations make it obvious that I am a woman in a man’s world, or at least a man’s program. The other half of my conversations make it clear that I am no longer fully a student; my peers expect me to be something more—the opinion of women everywhere, the voice of a movement, at once leader and sacrificial lamb. In my last class of the week, the professor is discussing issues of women’s initiative and agency. It is exactly what I have been attempting to bring out of the mostly-silent women of my cohort, the parts of myself I have been expending on the students’ behalf. I am exhausted.

I share this with the professor after class; she understands completely, even better than I do. “It’s very bad to be exhausted at the beginning,” she states. I nod and unsuccessfully try to keep even more tears from falling. “I wonder,” she begins, slowly, with care, “if the strength that is in you could be for you.” Earlier, I would have claimed that others needed my strength on their behalf more than I needed it for myself, but it’s too obvious that that is no longer true, if it ever was. When she suggests that I practice silence, something in me feels the unfamiliar pull of hope. From my first weeks in this building I had been deemed The Woman Who Speaks (or, more often spoken, The Girl Who Talks). Silence feels like a good practice, one in which I could learn other ways to be engaged with the material, where I could find space within myself for peace, where I could demand others to allow me the silence they maintain, all while inviting those unheard voices to fill the space I leave open.

Silence is capacious. In silence, there is room for me. In silence, room is made for others. I hope that silence would also allow space for God to encounter me. I know myself to be too tired to chase after God. Still, I could make room for the Divine to come in, I could be watchful for moments to welcome such a Being.

I adopt the practice of silence in every class, and often outside of it as well. Even in moments when I want to speak, I allow my silence to fill the room. I notice my breathing. In extended silences, lying in bed at night, or observing the descent of rain while the heat of my morning tea passes into my palms, I put tiny breath prayers with my pneuma, my breath, my spirit. Most often, my prayer is the characters of the Ineffable Name: inhale yod, exhale he, inhale vav, exhale he. In moments of frustration, I use another Hebrew word associated with breath, and more commonly linked with meaninglessness, the soon-vanishing vapor of expelled ether, hebel. Both Hebrew words are scripted over my rib cage, and I watch them rise and fall through the shower steam as I contemplate God within this broken body.  I focus on sensation, I practice mindfulness. I feel cool air welcomed into my body, warmed, allowed to leave as space is made for another benevolent breath. When I eat, I try to really taste. As I fold laundry, I touch the texture of each garment. I knit and notice the delicate softness of the wool as I tangle it into a big and beautiful knot.

Each Sunday evening I drag myself to my version of church: the yoga studio. It is a safe space, an hour and a half in which no one expects me to speak brilliantly, no one looks to me for wisdom nor guidance. Unlike traditional churches, no one asks me to volunteer, host, lead, or give of myself—as though self is something with which I can part, a sweater to shrug off. One week my thoughts drift away during shavasana, as they are wont to do, as my mind begins to realize how beautiful this corpse pose is, how stunning that I, who can barely relax my muscles around those with whom I am intimately involved, choose to let go of all tension and awareness while surrounded by strangers. I am vulnerable, entirely exposed, and my eyes are shut. Despite my years of martial arts training, if anyone wanted to kill me right now, they could. I am thinking this, without anxiety, when I feel the warm palms and thin fingers of my instructor encapsulate my ankles. My inhale catches in my throat and ocean drops roll down my temple and God is with us, between us, in us. The same vulnerability that could lead to my death also opened me up to such warm, unexpected, and tender kindness. I am undone.

In school, silence continues. Nearly halfway through the term, people start wondering about it. One student approaches me while I am working at the front desk and says, “I’ve been missing your voice in Theology,” where we had been discussing feminist theologies. I choose my words carefully to convey appreciation that I was noticed, but underneath I feel the tug of the rope around my neck, students leading me to slaughter. The next Theology class, the conversation turns towards feminism once again. A couple students talk about how to find space for women to speak, the professor rightly points out that creating space can’t just be something that happens out in other places, it needs to start in this classroom, between each of us. “How can we be with one another, make space and find space?” We’re about to go on break, the conversation will end here—as it always does, as if asking the question is enough. I tentatively start raising my hand, put it back down, start putting it up again, lower. The professor sees me and starts unpinning her own microphone in urgency to make room for me to speak; she, too, has been both aware and supportive of my silence.

When I take the microphone it feels heavy and suddenly unfamiliar. “I haven’t spoken yet in this class,” I say, and realize the semester is half over. My pulse races, my breath quickens. This is unlike me; I’m familiar with the amplification of my voice in this room. “I hope that those of you who are often silent feel my silence as an invitation,” I look around to some of those women’s faces; their eyes are in their laps. I persevere, “I hope you feel that space is being made for you. And those of you who often talk, who speak every thought you have,” I’m very selectively making eye contact with certain students, “I hope you hear my silence as an invitation to join me in making space.” I shakily turn off the mic, we go on break. The next week is a jumble of processing, outspoken men thanking me for confronting them, quiet women avoiding me and their boyfriends explaining that they feel like I’m forcing them to speak, others just thanking me for explaining—my silence had been tangible and unknown.

I’m processing, too, but it’s tiring and trying and needs to stop. It’s early and will probably rain any minute, but I lace up, throw on a hoodie, run along the canal. The trees shine against the layered grays of the sky, branches sway in front of the stable lines of the bridge. The occasional biker whirs by, the whisper of leaves cuddling against one another, occasionally huddling tightly enough to offer glimpses of the water. It’s quiet. I run until my breath overwhelms my aural space and the sensation in my lungs overtakes all. The leaves are getting brighter and invite me farther down the path.

Suddenly the trees open up and there is a clearing leading to the water. I turn, leave the trail, allow my pace to slow as I approach the waves. I stretch the tightness out of my hamstrings and watch the inky blue shallows carry leaves as though they’re golden treasures, unexpectedly inherited and loosely held. I don’t know where they’ll be carried, but they’re here right now, and they’re beautiful. The water falls towards its unknown destination; it does not care how many gold pieces join it. A half dozen ducks glide by, or appear to. I know they’re not really gliding; under the calm surface, they’re paddling like mad, just like the rest of us. I decide I’d rather be the water than the ducks, held by the firm steadiness of the rock riverbed, with effortless and natural direction. I wonder if a duck can choose to stop paddling, allow the water to carry it, and survive.

The images stay with me for days. When I try to explain to my husband the warm darkness of the water, the brilliance of the leaves, the rocks that hold the stream and give it direction without ever moving—I can’t find sufficient words. I choke up. He understands, I think, or at least he surrounds me with his arms, and that’s enough.

Perceptions of me are changing. Previously, my struggle, tears, sadnesses had been viewed with a kind of courageous vulnerability. One woman told me, that first semester, that she wanted to sit at my table to see when I cry, because that would signal to her that she should be feeling more than she is. When even my emotions, my falling-apart-ness, were viewed as leadership, I was always on display. When I pointed out that such pedestals are tall and shaky and easy to fall off, people thought that even the falling was beautiful and taught them about themselves, so I was never allowed to fully crash off the pedestal. When I cried that it’s lonely on a pedestal, people said they were there for me, but it was clear that they were there to keep me on the pedestal. Now, students are finally starting to see that my struggle is real and the cost is deep. They still come to me with problems and questions, but more quietly. Most no longer approach me as a rockstar sage, but come to me as a person. They ask how I’m doing, too.

Back in the large classroom for Theology, and the professor is teaching on sin. She summarizes a feminist understanding in which sin for women is not pride, but is essentially a lack, underdevelopment, or negation of self, a dependence on others for self-definition, a deficiency of a center. Not owning one’s self and agency can be an affront to God. And such a shortfall often manifests in service and silence. I recognize this sin in many of my classmates. Is this my silence, too? No: my silence is on the far side of self-hood, a practice in centering and developing my self in order to find my place within community. I recognize that this is not a sinful way of being, it is a spiritual and God-directed practice.

Still, it’s clear that soon I will need to continue to move forward, to allow the waterway to carry me beyond this clearing. Practices and prayers may fit for a time, but they should lead us to a new place, a new way of being. Prayers are a practice of becoming. We each must be ever-moving towards the self we were created to be, the forgotten person we already are.

This paper was written in Fall 2012 for Pat Loughery’s class “Prayer, Practice & Presence.” Students were asked to discuss their spiritual growth and process through the term. It has taken me a year to publish this because I still cry whenever I try to edit it.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

the human movement

For the first time, I dropped a class. After one session.

Still, I learned something.

I learned that you can be a respected editor, a decent writer, an in-demand speaker, and keep company with Impressive People–and still be the kind of person I wouldn’t want to be. In fact, it might even require a strand of arrogant narcissism to become such a success. I learned that what matters most to me is the character of an individual, not their list of successes and achievements.

In another class, while giving introductions, we were asked to share what we hope to do after graduating. After half a dozen men shared their career aspirations, I hesitated, then stated that after graduation I hope to be a gardener, and a writer, and a mother, and a good friend, and maybe spend some time attempting to articulate the ways that our bodies teach us about the Divine in ways that words do not.

I am ambitious in that I want to do good work, but I am not ambitious in a career-oriented, worldly, everybody-look-at-me sense. I don’t want to promote my blog. I don’t want to follow people hoping they follow me back. I don’t want to cultivate a persona. I want to live a full life and be a whole-hearted person, and our current society does not measure ambition nor success on such criteria.

There are times–more than I’d care to admit–that I worry I’m failing the feminist movement. And I probably am. And yet, perhaps I am furthering the human movement, the movement that does not place the burden on doing it all—whether it’s “gain all the money and power” or “do all the housework and childrearing” or “gain all the career goals AND be the perfect wife/mother”—but instead places equal emphasis on doing and being. That’s something, I believe, that would benefit women and men and culture and the world.

After writing this, I heard Arianna Huffington’s commencement address in which she states that our current definitions of success aren’t working for women, aren’t working for men, and aren’t working for polar bears. Listen to it here.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

my sin

Sin is complicated. It would be so convenient if there were a list, encompassing every detail of life, of the permissible and the unacceptable. I could memorize the list, then be set for a happy and simple career.

But it’s not that way, or at least it shouldn’t be. For one man, sin might be pride, the over-valuation of his opinions and over-exertion of his agency. For his wife, sin might be humility, an under-exertion of agency, a lack of a defining sense of self.

Recently, I had a run of long days, so much so that I started my days exhausted and ended them in despair. In those moments before sleep, temptations are strong. I murmur to my husband, “I don’t have to work.”

“No, you don’t,” he agrees, knowing the pattern of this conversation.

“I could be a mom all the time.”

“You could.”

“I could have a garden, and put things in cans. I’d learn how to sew our pajamas. Our house would be so clean…” I allow myself to slip into this fantasy for a few escapist minutes. Yes, life could be so easy. I’d make my own schedule. Laundry would be folded while it was still warm from the dryer—or better yet, I’d take the time to hang wet laundry and let the sun dry it, folding it at dusk. Pinterest could supply me with a never-ending list of projects for my ideal home, activitiesfor my hypothetical children, and, if unfulfilled, I could fill my time making items to sell. The only struggles I’d experience would be the small self-inflicted ones: learning how to embroider a french knot. Yes, life would be serene.

But I don’t even manage to fall asleep before I feel the Spirit pushing me out of the fantasy. Don’t deny you identity! she screams. Don’t check out! I need your agency in your body!

This is sin, at its core: the attempt to be fulfilled by something less than what God desires for me. The life I described above might be a Spirit-willed outpouring of identity for another, but I know it’s not me. So I get up, I hear the Ghost, I sit at my desk and struggle through writing a few hundred words and reading a few thousand others. And I wait in my want to see what might become of my work, to see the unveiling of the person I was created to be.

My despair.

[What despair looks like for me.]

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

sexist gifts

I’ve been compiling my Christmas list for gifts to craft or buy for loved ones in my life. I flip through gift guides looking for inspiration and ideas, seeing if anything triggers thoughts of someone I know. Most gift guides are sorted by gender, which is not entirely useful. Women’s guides are full of jewelry, clothing, kitchen gadgets, art/craft supplies, and what my aunt calls “smelly stuff”–soaps, lotions and perfumes. Which is mostly fine, except for many men who are cooks, artists, and fashion-forward dressers. I’ll admit to being inspired by women’s gift guides for male friends. More than once.

Gift guides for men, truthfully, are downright insulting. “Smelly stuff” is only acceptable if it’s bacon-scented or beer-infused soap. There is only one kitchen gadget: bottle openers. On walls, on keychains, on sandals. Apparently men must have a half dozen ways to open a beer at any given time. The lack of food prep gifts would make you think that perhaps men weren’t interested in food, but there are plenty of edible options: most of it bacon-flavored, chocolate-covered, beer-infused, or some combination thereof. There are also a lot of games: lego sets, videogames, “silly putty or other slimy substance“, and nostalgic toys from childhood.

Is this an accurate image of men in our culture? This is the portrayal of children. They must be coerced to use soap, they only want to eat fatty or sugary foods, they’re excited about the same games and toys you would give prepubescent boys. (Did you click on the link to bacon-scented soap? From a company called “Perpetual Kid”. All I did was google “bacon soap”, and it came up first.)

The only difference? If you’re romantically involved with him, you’re encouraged to give him massage oil (presumably for you to use on him) and lingerie (for him to use on you).

This isn’t the men I know. And these aren’t the gifts I give. But when blog after blog, magazine upon magazine, gift guides from so many sources echo the same sentiments, I can only assume that this is, at least to some extent, a reality in many gift-exchanges across USAmerica.

I want to urge: don’t believe the media. We often have conversations around unrealistic images of women’s bodies and how those should not be the expectations. How dare we ask that men view us more fully than our media caricatures, when we perpetuate the caricatures of them? Let’s talk about the portrayal of men as stupid, sloppy, and childish, and work to restore their dignity. Which makes a thoughtful Christmas gift carry within it a deeper, better gift: respect.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

parts in a whole: differentiation and integration in god and humanity

Humans are created in the image of a relational, trinitarian God characterized by plurality within unity. Relationships with other people inform an understanding of God; relationship with God informs understanding of others; and so the spiral continues to inform and build upon itself. The internal selves of both God and people, God’s stance with humanity, and interactions among humans are all defined by relationship comprised of both differentiation and unity. To live in the tension between the two is to fully step into one’s human condition, as the balance of differentiation and unity are essential to God, to individuals, and to relationships.

The essential nature of God is to be relational in his own self. He exists in a plurality that is also an integrated unity. In Genesis 1, God participates in a self-directed dialogue in which he resolves within himself to create mankind “in our image” (Genesis 1:26). Jurgen Moltmann writes that the conversation “presupposes that the author of the self-exhortation has a relation to himself. And a relationship to one’s own self in turn presupposes a self-differentiation and the possibility of self-identification. The subject is then singular in the plural, or a plural in a singular.” God’s use of the pronoun ‘our’ tells us that he is differentiated within himself and can address himself.

At the same time, God maintains singularity. It is a foundational tenet of Judaism that there is only one God, and Christian faith adheres to the same truth. When Jesus was asked the most important commandment, he asserts the Shema, which begins: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Mark 12:29). Jesus, who is a part of the relational Trinity, views the most important, essential, vital commandment to be that God is a unified being. God himself reminds us that, above all, God is one.

It is a sign of health to recognize the plurality within one’s being, to be able to internally address oneself, to recognize that the voices in my head are a part of who I am. A vital trait for proactive work is self-differentiation: it’s how we weigh pros and cons, form a plan of action, and resolve within ourselves to do, act, and create. Erwin Singer writes that “personal attentiveness” is necessary for engagement with others and the world. One’s attention must be capable of being “attuned to the subtleties of one’s own personal reactions, capable of aiding the listener in his quest to grasp the full nature of what is communicated”; indeed, attention is only possible with a sensitivity within the listener to one’s own self. Here again, we might discuss the Shema: the people are first called to “hear,” as many Hebrew prayers begin. It is a call, as Singer writes, to profound listening “with one’s viscera, with one’s full being: an attending to one’s inner voices.” It is a reminder that we must be attuned to the plurality within our unified being.

Of course, without being balanced by an understanding of unity within ourselves, such thinking can de-center an individual. It’s common to speak of life as a segmented pie: there are pieces labeled ‘work life,’ ‘sex life,’ ‘spiritual life,’ and so on. One example of segmentation is western notions of femininity and masculinity, which are greatly ingrained within USAmerican culture. There exists a strict barrier between the two, and any transgression can emasculate a man or defeminize a woman. However, scripture shows us that masculinity and femininity don’t need to be strictly defined; there is a healthier way to relate within ourselves. Janet Soskice writes that each member of the Trinity can be portrayed in procreative imagery of human feminine and human masculine. Similarly, both feminine and masculine traits co-exist within an individual: a man who loves to nurture children can still be predominantly masculine; a man who is split-gendered is still a singular man. The understanding of one’s self as whole is essential.

The divide between soul and body has been solidly argued. Soskice writes  that “Augustine calls us up into the mind,” and he greatly influenced Christian theology by emphasizing the interior life, or the soul, over the physical. As a result, a popular belief is that bearing the image of God is something humans carry only in their souls. Soskice notes that such an intellectual understanding of imago Dei contributes to “loss of the body.” The incarnation in Jesus is evidence against this intellectual understanding: God became bodily, and so it is important to recognize that we are bodily as well. Creation itself is also evidence in favor of bodyliness: God in his infinite wisdom created humans to be embodied creatures; we must recognize some level of importance in his design.

Just as God is relational within herself, the nature of a human is to be relational in his or her own self. One oft-repeated quotation from a work of Walter Miller states “You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body, temporarily” (my italics), which denies the importance of physicality by labeling the body as something we own rather than something we are. Although we humans do tend to differentiate between physical and emotional or intellectual selves, it is vital to one’s well-being to maintain a sense of unity and integrity. Such self-unity can lead to God, and it is here that the bodily spiritual disciplines make sense. Soskice discusses Julian of Norwich’s atonement theology, or the idea of “at-one-ing.” At-one-ment occurs through Christ, who makes all his kin. Even more physically, atonement can be read as a-tone-ment. Thich Nhat Hanh states “in Buddhist meditation, body and mind become one.” Yoga tones the body in order to prepare the body for sitting meditation as well as to attune the mind/body connection. Yoga emphasizes mindfulness, in which “we make peace with our body,” and with God, who becomes present within the encounter with our unified self.

The trinitarian nature of God is sometimes explained as correlating to the way we construct our personal identities: Christ is analogous to the body, God to the mind, and the Spirit to our soul or, metaphorically, heart. What is often forgotten in this explanation is the aspect of unity: God still recognizes himself as one unified and integrated being, and each human, being a bearer of his image, is to remember his or her own integrity as well. It is essential that individuals recognize their own selves as one: body connected to soul, mind developed because of bodily experiences; the interplay between the three is infinite. Karl Barth plays with the interconnections between the mental and physical when he writes that God establishes man “as soul and body, constituting the unity and order of his being.” One’s soul must not be elevated as something more essential than the body, for a man “is bodily soul, as he is also besouled body. … Soul would not be soul, if it were not bodily, and body would not be body, if it were not besouled.” Each individual must maintain the tension of what it is to be human: both body and soul, the balancing act, as Rob Bell writes, between “angels and animals. … Animals have a physical body but no spirit. … An angel is a being with a spirit but without a body.” To live the tension that holds both plurality and unity is a part of what it means to be created imago Dei.

The essential nature between God and humans is relation. Humans relate to God even when unaware they are relating, and even as they deny doing so. Because we are differentiated from God, we are able to respond to her as one outside our own self. God is loving, and the nature of love is that it cannot be coerced, so she gives us the freedom to respond in any manner we wish. We would be unable to truly love God if we weren’t given the choice to not love God. However, while there is freedom to respond in any way, Alistair McFadyen notes that “there is no freedom not to respond. … We can refuse to enter into dialogue: we cannot, however, avoid being in relation with God.” Simply put, when two beings exist, there is always a relationship between the two, even if the relationship is backs turned to one another. Arguably, those who greatly struggle against religion have more contact with God than those who submit to it; a push requires more contact than a bow.

At the same time as this differentiation takes place, a unity between God and humanity exists. Bell argues that God is as close as our own breath, the holy tetragrammaton unpronounceable because the letters “were essentially breathing sounds.” Therefore, the divine breath lives in every person; the Spirit is our breath. With such an integrated understanding, being a bearer of God’s image is as inescapable as relation with her. God’s presence with the world as a whole is reflected in ecological doctrine of creation, which Moltmann claims recognizes “the presence of God in the world and the presence of the world in God.” The picture is hard to imagine — is God smaller than the world and thus in it, or larger than the world and thus the world is in her? The language defies differentiation. Ken Wilber explains that Spirit includes and transcends all that exists: “It’s the highest rung in the ladder, but it’s also the wood out of which the entire ladder is made.” This is the mysterious unity: we are part of the ladder, and yet the ladder is part of us. God is in humanity, and humanity is in God.

If human breath is Spirit and the world is God, the question remains of where Christ is represented in unity with humanity. Ronald Rolheiser answers that he is visible in his followers: “In the incarnation God has chosen, marvelously, to let his power flow through us, to let our flesh give reality to his power.” More blatantly: “Your touch is Christ’s touch.” The church is a reminder to the world that Jesus did not only live, die, and live again; he lived, died, and continues to live through the Christian community. Encountering imago Christi is less about looking within one’s self as it is about looking around at one’s community. When Christ was resurrected, the disciples repeatedly failed to recognize him. It would demystify the miracle of Christ’s resurrection to state that the disciples simply began to see the incarnation in their fellow humans; I do believe that it really was the person of Jesus who returned to the disciples. However, after a few encounters without immediate recognition, the disciples must have developed an awareness that Jesus could show up at any time, must have been on the lookout for him in everyone… and finding him in everyone. They suddenly had eyes to see, and found Christ in the legions.

The nature of humankind is to be in relation with one another as God is in relation with herself. McFadyen writes that “the three divine Persons are united by sharing uniquely in a common nature”, and similarly, humans are to recognize themselves as a unity that shares the commonality of the human condition. It is not enough to recognize that I am an image-bearer of God; I must also see the spark of the divine in my sister, my neighbor, and my enemy. The oft-repeated cliché that we all bleed is true, and yet few people live as though it is. Although we all have the same essential needs—air, food, clean water—we continue to pollute the skies and seas and competitively hoarde resources. Re-ordering the world in such a way that love is communicated brings the presence of the divine into existence. As Peter Rollins writes, God is not an object worthy of love, rather “God is found in the very act of love itself”. For example, as Advent Conspiracy (2011) notes, Americans spend 450 billion dollars a year on Christmas, and yet the global clean water crisis could be solved with a comparatively minuscule 20 billion dollars a year. A humanity that exists as a unity would not allow such injustice. Recognizing individuals across the globe as brothers and sisters, as continuations of our own existence and as bearers of the divine image, would radically alter the way we spend, consume, eat, live. It is in such a recognition of unity that a relationship between people points to God and glimpses of his Kingdom become reality.

At the same time, the differentiation of humanity need not be destructive, but can be a reflection of God. One of the most visible aspects is sexual differentiation, designed by God in the creation accounts of both Genesis 1 and 2. Moltmann states that the “human plural is supposed to correspond to the divine singular”; it is difference that sparks relation between male and female that reflects God’s image. The trinitarian God is three in one, and we are “singular in the plural,” one humanity divided into two beings. What is significant about the sexual plurality is that it was an intended image for both distinction and relation. In McFadyen’s view, the sexes were created “in encounter rather than simple opposition.” God’s plan was for us to complete one another through encounter and dialogue.

Humans are also differentiated from one another on an individual level. In order to have genuine encounter, one person cannot absorb the identity of another. Each must retain his or her own self. This is necessary for true relationship as defined by Martin Buber’s in I and Thou. As McFadyen explains, “distinct identity is impossible except through relation, and relation possible only through the distance which separates the partners.” There must be two independent selves in order for healthy interdependence and freedom to take place. It is through the uniqueness of each individual in interaction with others that defines “their orientation on one another.” In terms Buber would use, there must be an ‘I’ against which ‘You’ can stand—I have no identity unless it is differentiated from the identity of those I encounter. There must be boundaries of individuation in order to have something to push against and to embrace.

God’s plurality within unity leads us to understand the same aspects of ourselves as individuals, as a community, and in our relations to others. Similarly, the differentiation within human relationships points us back to a God whom our image reflects, informing us of his nature. The question who am I? is always followed by the question who is God? The answer can begin to be found, as McFadyen states, in “structures of divine and human being [which] both contain a dialogical encounter between separate but intrinsically related beings.” Individually, relationally, and divinely, we are both differentiated and unified; how we handle the tension between the two drastically alters the world in which we live.

This piece was originally written as an assignment for Interpersonal Foundations with Roy Barsness. Students were asked to write the basis of their belief system including imago Dei, imago Christi, theological anthropology, and interpersonal relationships.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

the works of lady gaga, one of the prophets in the reign of obama

Israel had many prophets, but today the church isn’t adding anyone’s words to the Biblical canon. When did God stop speaking? Did humanity stop needing prophets once Jesus lived, died, and lived again? Perhaps a better question is: when did we refuse to see the prophets in our midst? Pop star Lady Gaga is more than an entertainer, she is a prophetic voice of today. Through her fashion and performance art, Lady Gaga functions as prophet for secular USAmerica, which can aid the church in learning how to better engage contemporary USAmerican culture. This piece will define the traditional role of the prophet, evaluate how Lady Gaga can be understood to fulfill such a role within USAmerican culture, and reflect on the ways that Gaga’s work as a prophet questions the church’s engagement of today’s culture.

The primary role of a prophet is to fight injustice. Dan Allender explains that a prophet is one who actively stands outside of society in order to critique the injustices within society, with the hope of bringing about sociocultural change and reconciling groups of people who have been opposed to one another. The prophet “creates a vision for the future and exposes the reality of the present” by provoking her or his audience. Traditional tools of the prophet include “piercing narrative, powerful images, prescient poetry” and a willingness to “bear the consequence of being viewed as an enemy of the status quo.” Such artistry and suffering is employed by the prophet to create a compelling vision of what the situation could be if justice were carried out, if love and mercy were lived.

Perhaps most notable is Lady Gaga’s prophetic work against injustice against the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer) community. She came out as bisexual to both acceptance and criticism from the queer community: she has been “accused of not being gay enough” to claim bisexuality nor to be a representative voice. However, claiming bisexuality to a national audience, regardless of the depth of its truthfulness, was a prophetic move: Gaga chose to align herself with the marginalized, removing herself from the hetero-normative mainstream culture. As many prophets before her, she actively stands outside of the cultural norm in order to actively engage and critique culture’s treatment of a marginalized people.

“Born This Way” Live Performance

Lady Gaga adopts the prophet’s work of reconciling groups by working to reconcile LGBTQ and heterosexual individuals, who often have been viewed as oppositional. “Born This Way,” the chart-topping track on an album of the same name, has been accepted by many within the queer community as a new anthem, much like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Cher’s “Believe” have been in the past. What is significant about the song is its overt shout-out to the LGBTQ community; even more significant is that she includes heterosexuals:

“No matter gay, straight, or bi,

lesbian, transgendered life,

I’m on the right track, baby,

I was born to survive.”

This is more than an effort to speak on behalf of LGBTQ individuals, more than a matter of advancing rights for the gay community. The lyrics of “Born This Way” unites the LGBTQ and heterosexual communities. Live performances of the piece end with Gaga and her male and female dance company bending towards one another in a circular, all-embracing hug. The performance offers an image that speaks to a vision of what our reality could be, one in which gay individuals are not only equal, but lovingly included. Her image calls us toward the possible reality in which we are one, united humanity that includes multiple sexualities and sexual orientations.

Prophets must bear the consequence of provoking controversy and disrupting the status quo. As a result of Lady Gaga’s involvement with the LGBTQ community, many rumors have been started in an attempt to slander and shame her. One of the most direct attacks on her sexuality has been the rumor that she has a penis. Rather than retaliating (and effectively proving that she would be ashamed to be part of the transgendered community), Gaga claims to love the rumor. She states: “‘This has been the greatest accomplishment of my life: to get young people to throw away what society has taught them is wrong.’” If fans believe her to be transgendered and still come to her performances, listen to her music, and support her work, Gaga takes it as a hopeful sign for future inclusion of transgendered individuals in society. Rather than suffer, Gaga reframes the consequence into a cause for celebration.

Another consequence has been the protestors who gather outside of Monster Balls, Lady Gaga’s stadium concerts. One writer recalls a concert in Nashville in which picketers held signs “urging ‘homosexuals’ and other ‘sinners’ to ‘repent’.” During the show, Gaga shouted from stage, “Jesus loves every fucking one of you!” before launching into a raucous performance, “as if to say, the only proper theological response to bigotry and hatred is to dance in its face.” Prophet Gaga practices a living theology; rather than discussing abstractions, she moves into actions.

The Meat Dress

Lady Gaga has also served as a prophet is in the conversation of gender. In this realm, Gaga exposes the reality of the present by reflecting back to her audience what the present really looks like. She holds up a mirror, and the reflection is startling. Gaga as prophet “exposes the hardness of the heart.” One of the most notable examples is the ‘meat dress’, which Gaga wore at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Feminist Kate Durbin notes that “masculinists see but a piece of meat, so Gaga gives them exactly what they ‘see’ – a piece of meat. In order, of course, that the Male Gaze might ‘see’ itself.” The powerful fashion image of a celebrity wearing raw beef holds up a critical mirror to the way members of USAmerican society view and objectify women.

Some of her other fashion pieces have been similarly tied to society’s treatment of women. Lady Gaga has worn many weapon-inspired bras, including a flame-thrower bra in the music video for “Bad Romance,” a ‘gun bra’ in her video for “Alejandro,” and a ‘fire bra’ to the Much Music Awards and on the cover of GQ magazine. Durbin states that, like many women, Gaga’s “breasts were seen as a weapon, therefore she was going to literally turn them into that.” Gaga hears the narrative society tells women and exposes the flaws and pain in the narrative through constructing a powerful fashion image.

An equally blatant statement about gender was the introduction of Gaga’s alter-ego, Jo Calderone, at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. The opening monologue made it clear that this performer was not Lady Gaga as Jo Calderone: “Gaga? Yeah, her,” Jo says while pointing to some vague distance; Gaga is not here. To further emphasize the opposition between Gaga and Jo, he informs the audience, “She [Gaga] left me [Jo].” Gaga, according to Jo, groups him in with other men: “She said I’m just like the last one.” Jo, for his part, dances in a company comprised entirely of men; the audience does not see a single woman on stage during the performance. This is not an image of a woman who includes masculinity into her being. Instead, she is one body, portraying both a female and a male who are in opposition to one another. Similarly, the viewers are one humanity in opposition to one another as a result of the gender divide. The audience knows it to be absurd for Gaga to critique Jo, just as it is equally absurd for Jo to feel left out from Gaga’s life, since they are one and the same. The audience can then look back on themselves and see that they create divides within the one humanity, divides where there should be unity. Gaga-versus-Jo is a picture of humanity, a mirror for how we relate across the sexes.

Jo Calderone

An additional role of the prophet is to expose idolatry. James Danaher writes that in today’s USAmerican culture “what we recognize and revere about a person is their celebrity status.” USAmericans unknowingly idolize celebrity and the formation of identity that leads to celebrity status. We join the game, attempting to construct an identity for ourselves to gain some amount of fame. At the same time, we hate celebrities for their status and for having the resources to continually re-create their identities, so eventually we demand their destruction.

Gaga, while seeming to be part of the system that perpetuates obsession with celebrity and identity construction, undermines the system and shows that it leads to death and destruction. In her performance of “Paparazzi” at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Gaga opens by naming the idol USAmericans have come to worship, and recognizes her potential position as sacrifice: “I pray the fame won’t take my life.” The fame is the god that this society has made, and it demands ritual sacrifice. By the end of the show, Gaga is covered in blood and hanging from a rope, enacting her own death. She had explained the performance idea to her label by asking “I imagine that my pop career could be quite long and people will wonder for a very long time what my demise will look like, so why don’t we show them?” By walking, willingly, to her own enacted death, she showed the audience what they do to celebrities: demand violent destruction. The image does what prophetic images are meant to do, which is to “disrupt denial and expose the subtle and overt idolatry of the heart.” Having shown the audience her destruction, Gaga is then free of the audience’s demands on identity because she has fulfilled that identity and shown that it leads to death. After that moment, all her work is free to be performed without inhibition because it is enacted in the shadow of her own death. The audience are no longer able to impose an identity on her; it is she who identifies herself with true identity/ies.

According to Allender, an important piece of the work for a prophet is to be a “servant of the church who stands outside the church in order to invite those who appear to be in it to return to true worship.” Lady Gaga’s work as a prophet within the secular community questions and critiques the church, inviting its members to return to what we too-often refuse to see as good news and worship. Gaga, in acting as a secular prophet, aligns herself with the marginalized people of the LGBTQ community. The church should be convicted: we are called to stand with the oppressed and marginalized, and instead are the ones excluding and condemning. As Gaga reconciles and unifies queer and straight peoples, the church creates divides with hateful language on picket signs. Gaga’s work asks the church: what is a loving response to individuals, regardless of sexual orientation? Her scream of Jesus’s love followed by dance questions: what would action look like on your part? Can you ever stop the debates over scripture and sin long enough to act?

Gaga’s use of fashion and performance art raise questions of communication. Gaga confronts the culture through symbols that it fluently understands: music, performance, and fashion. The church insists on using scripture as its primary form of engagement, but for many people in USAmerica, the text does not carry authority over their lives. How could the church better engage culture on its own terms? What would happen if we ceased to articulate and defend every position, and made room for a conversation through image and action that made sense to today’s culture, within and outside of the church?

2009 VMA Performance

Finally, Gaga’s enacted death to expose the idolatry of celebrity questions the way the church teaches the narrative of Jesus crucified. We often have sermons trying to explain what Jesus did, but her bloody performance and murderous stare ask: how would the church enact the narrative? Pastors try to educate congregants by explaining the historical context of the cross, but what if they moved the narrative into the context of today’s culture? What would we critique? What idols would we expose? How can the church live into the story of life, nonviolent death, and resurrection in a way that speaks to the contemporary world?

The prophet known as Lady Gaga is doing God’s work in secular USAmerica. Rather than fight her, the church would be wise to allow itself to be critiqued by her exposures and educated by her forms of communication. After all, God has often provided prophets who have worked outside the church to invite the church itself to repentance; we should not be surprised that the Living God is still speaking, should not be startled to see a prophet in our midst. The proper response might be gratitude and worship: perhaps a dance would be appropriate.

This piece was originally written for Cultural Exegesis: Pop Culture and the Kingdom, taught by Kj Swanson and Jev Forsberg. Students were asked to use a piece of culture to inform theology.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

the hunger games, gender, and god

Our society struggles with gender identity. Some people have concrete ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman while others question if there are any traits essential to gender. Everyone seems to be attempting to bend society to their preferences, whether for stricter gender conformity or for a move towards androgyny or multiplicity. For Christians, questions of gender are taking place not only horizontally in society, but also vertically: is God masculine or feminine? Is it acceptable to use both feminine and masculine pronouns when referring to God? Is it preferable to do so? In the first novel of her Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins presents an image of a post-gender society that helps us imagine the Kingdom of God as a reality, a society in which individuals live out of true identity without societal pressure to conform to a predetermined gendered concept of identity.

The main characters of The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta, give a glimpse of gender within the Kingdom of God. They do not conform the gender norms of our current society, and thus question the existence of such societal norms. Peeta, an emotional and artistic baker, values connection over hierarchy and bonds through shared feelings at least as much as shared experiences. Because of his traditionally feminine qualities, many have been interested in Peeta’s portrayal of feminized masculinity, some even criticizing Collins for having unfavorably over-feminized a lead character. Katniss herself is a stoic and emotionally distant hunter. It is easy to view the relationship between Katniss and Peeta as a gender-role reversal even through the limited lens of their primary daily occupation: she a hunter, he a baker.

Fan art of Peeta

However, such statements assume that the culturally constructed norms of gender we hold today are in some way intrinsic to human males and females. Reviewers attempting to place our current understanding of gender onto Peeta and Katniss have a hard time of it. Kelsey Wallace concludes her character evaluation of Peeta by writing, “If Gale is the bad boy, Peeta is, well, something else. Not the good boy exactly, but maybe the nice boy.” In some way, Peeta resists categorization. Indeed, the entire society of Panem seems to resist categorization to the extent that it could be described as post-gender. In District Twelve, survival matters more than conformity so much so that no one seems surprised by a young girl who ventures outside the protection of the fence to hunt and gather. The other spectrum of society in the Capitol also defies our current gender norms. Both men and women are concerned with fashion and appearance; even the simplest style of Cinna, Katniss’s male stylist, calls for gold eyeliner.

Rather than imposing our society onto Panem and its inhabitants, we would be wise to allow the text to question our internalized understanding of gender roles. Why are we, the readers, surprised by a female archer, or a man in makeup? Why are some of us angered by Peeta’s vulnerability, or by Katniss’s inability to intuit Peeta’s emotions? We have been so indoctrinated by the gender norms of our culture that we can’t even see past them when another society, another way of being, is presented.

A new way of looking at gender is exactly what Collins offers her readers. While Katniss is preparing for the pre-Games interview, she is trying to figure out how best to present herself: “charming? Aloof? Fierce? … I’m too ‘vulnerable’ for ferocity. I’m not witty. Funny. Sexy. Or mysterious.” Unable to categorize herself in either (from today’s standpoint) feminine or masculine roles, she vents to her stylist: “I just can’t be one of those people [my coach] wants me to be.” Like many individuals in today’s world, Katniss just can’t force herself to fit into a culturally-dictated cookie-cutter role, regardless of its femininity or masculinity. Cinna offers a solution to both Katniss and the reader that is at once obvious and beautiful:

“Why don’t you just be yourself?”

Amidst the questions of Katniss’s combination of masculinity and femininity, and Peeta’s (over-)feminized depiction, critics have missed Cinna’s prophecy. Is Katniss a masculine woman? Is Peeta a feminine man? Within the world of the novel, the questions don’t apply: Katniss is Katniss; Peeta is Peeta.

Fan art of Katniss

The God of the Bible can be understood to include both feminine and masculine traits. In the beginning, God creates “male and female” in Her/His image. Throughout Scripture, God is described with masculine images such as father (e.g., Hosea 11:1) and king (e.g., Psalm 29:10), as well as feminine depictions such as mother (e.g., Isaiah 66:13). Surely, this is a God whose identity is carried and reflected by both men and women. With this understanding, in the Kingdom of God both masculine and feminine genders will be not only tolerated, but accepted and celebrated.

However, such a view, as hopeful as it sounds, is too limited, too unimaginative. The God of scripture includes and transcends gender. From the anthropomorphic images of God as father, king, and mother, we could easily picture God as a male or female figure. However, to do so would be to misconstrue the characteristic being invoked. As Hebrew scholar David Stein notes, “Personification was employed as a vehicle to convey a statement about deity—and especially about one’s relationship with deity.” What is being invoked in the image of father or mother is an aspect of relationship, a situational similarity, rather than the full, embodied, engendered being. Such an understanding of the text gives a clearer understanding of what the scriptural author wants to invoke in the audience. It also clarifies seemingly paradoxical images, such as “suck at the breast of kings”, in which a female biological function of nursing is ascribed to male rulers. To understand the personifications of God too literally means to deny the grand all-ness of a Divinity that transcends all human boundaries and definition, including gender.

Genesis 1 not only sets the stage for the entire story, it introduces the character and event of God with a powerful first impression of a being who is beyond every human category. This God creates and orders the universe with a word; it is part of this deity’s identity to surpass all traits of humans, meaning that this being is almost nothing like a human. Such a God is so other that “the audience not only receives no warrant to ascribe social gender, but would be hard pressed to do so.” Just as Collins’s created society of Panem does not ask questions of Katniss’s nor Peeta’s gender, the audience receives no warrant to ascribe social gender either. Those who do have an equally hard time, as demonstrated above. Stein, emphasizing the importance of first impressions, summarizes the rule for understanding the transcendent inclusiveness of God with regards to gender: “What is inappropriate to the opening, do not do what’s joined to it—that is, the whole Torah. The rest is commentary—and translation.” How, then, should gender be understood in a Kingdom that lives under a God who is introduced to be beyond human understanding?

Christian theologians have been easily sidetracked by our own understandings of gender and identity in the debate over God’s masculine and feminine descriptions. Some attempt to equally disperse masculine and feminine pronouns, others try to discern which parts of the Trinity are which gender. As a solution, to paraphrase Cinna, why don’t we just let God be God? If Christians are to read Scripture to understand the character of God, as Stein claims the people of ancient Israel did, we must not allow vision to be clouded by the predominant culture’s misunderstandings and false truths. Doing so would be to superimpose our paradigm onto God, effectively killing the living God and creating an idol in humanity’s image. Just as readers of The Hunger Games can fully appreciate the narrative by allowing Katniss and Peeta to live out of their truest selves, so should even the most critical reader of scripture allow God to be the true God, without attempts to superimpose a gendered box onto Her/Him.

A Kingdom of God understanding of gender, then, must reflect a God who acts uniquely and creates humanity in Her/His image. Although a dystopia, Panem presents a society that appears to be largely beyond concerns of gender roles, whether such nonchalance is the result of desperate survival, as it is in District Twelve, or boredom and body decoration, as it is in the Capitol. In Panem, people are intrigued and impressed by the full identity of Katniss, not only that she’s a strong woman. Even more so, the audience of the Games is captivated by Peeta’s emotional vulnerability and intuitive ability to connect, and not only because he is a man doing so. Rather than praising individuals for breaking gender boundaries, Panem is a society that allows individuals to live out of their truest identity and understanding of self. May we anticipate a Kingdom in which we are accepted and celebrated for living out of our true self rather than a societal expectation, in which gender is secondary to identity.

Tagged , , , , ,