Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Christmas to all!

Here's a recent photo of William in his obligatory Christmas outfit. I'm sure he's going to get more presents than is morally conscionable from his Mimi, but I suppose that goes along with being absolutely adorable and her only grandchild (for now). Meanwhile, we're hoping for at least a few days without schoolwork over the Christmas break. But, my first General Exam is fast-approaching in May, so I will have to make time for some studying. Nevertheless, we're going to make time to love and enjoy one another and I hope you and yours do the same. Happy Christmas to all!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Abby Johnson: A Journey to Pro-Life

Honestly, I'm not a big fan of the newspaper for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, the Southern Baptist Texan. The editor, Gary Ledbetter, and I have exchanged emails on a number of occasions and I've written official letters to the editor more times than I can count (mostly protesting their narrow-minded, politically conservative agenda). But, they are carrying a story this month that is very important, I think. And, it is regretfully being ignored by the majority of major news networks, except for Fox News (which, I have to say, I don't really consider a news network).

And so, I encourage you to read this story. Although I'm sure Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and Ann Coulter will make Abby Johnson their latest "Joe the Plumber," I think it is obvious she is not a ideologue, nor is she being insincere in the story of her journey out of the abortion rights "camp." Indeed, she seems like someone who is thoughtful, intelligent, and decidedly pro-woman. So, take a look when you have the time and consider the power of Abby's story. I, for one, am grateful for her witness.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Discerning the "We" in America's Wars

This Sunday, the minister of the church we were visiting began his sermon with a disturbing story from the Pacific War: an invasion by US Marines to re-take one of many, tiny islands from the Japanese in the Allies’ “island hopping” campaign. He described in some detail the US tactics in battle, including the use of flamethrowers, which the Marines employed en masse to clear Japanese trenches and bunker complexes. Such brutal measures, combined with the sheer number of US forces, contributed to their victory, but at great cost to both sides. The minister reported that the bodies of thousands of dead men lay rotting on the island for many days after the battle’s end.

By using this illustration, the minister certainly was not glorifying warfare or the resulting carnage. In fact, he compared the island battle to the judgment of God upon the nations in Isaiah 34:2-3: “The LORD is angry with all nations; his wrath is upon all their armies. He will totally destroy them, he will give them over to slaughter. Their slain will be thrown out, their dead bodies will send up a stench; the mountains will be soaked with their blood.” And certainly the minister is not unique in his use of a war narrative in his sermon, for the annals of US warfare have been popular sources for preaching in America for some time.

Even so, there was something about the way the minister told the story that was troubling to me. When he described the reasons for the Marines’ invasion and the goals of the island hopping strategy, he used the pronoun “we”: “We needed to take back strategic islands from the Japanese.” As he portrayed in detail the methods US troops used to kill Japanese soldiers, again he used “we”: “We used flamethrowers to clear out Japanese bunkers.” And, when he detailed the carnage that followed the Marines’ victory, he used “we”: “We suffered tremendous losses, but we re-captured the island.” This may seem like a non-issue to most readers. I’m sure none of the worshipers this morning thought anything of this matter. But, I think his use of a first-person, collective pronoun to tell a bloody war story while preaching to the Church is seriously problematic.

In what follows, I will briefly discuss why I respectfully disagree with the minister’s use of “we-language.” I will organize my thoughts on this matter by addressing the following three questions: (1) Where are we? (2) Who are we? (3) What are we to do about America’s wars? For most readers, this will be more of a “first word” than a “last word.” Honestly, in a short reflection paper, it is impossible to answer all the questions or fill in all the possible gaps. But my ultimate hope is to begin to re-frame the way we—followers of Jesus in American churches—perceive ourselves in relation to the United States and its many wars.

Where Are We?
I don’t think we can really address the central question “Who are we?” without first answering the question, “Where are we?” For the sake of our discussion, the simple answer is the United States of America. This is the country in which we dwell—me, most of my readers, not to mention the minister and the church setting described above. I would like to “unpack” this answer at more depth, however, realizing that the USA as a location for living life is not a neutral concept, especially for Christians. This will be a difficult task, for it is a bit like examining the water we are swimming in. But, with critical reflection and open minds, I think we can approach at least a quasi-objective perspective. So, what can we say about the United States of America? Where exactly are we?

The first thing we can say is that the USA is a nation-state. This means that it derives its political legitimacy by serving as a sovereign entity for a nation as a sovereign territorial unit. Typically, a nation is understood to be a cultural and/or ethnic entity and a state is understood to be a political and geopolitical entity. So, the term “nation-state” implies that these two geographically coincide, which makes it different from pre-national states. Some distinguishing marks of a modern nation are a united economy and a centralized government and public administration—both of which are evident in the US. But, the most important aspect of the nation-state for our present discussion is the creation of a uniform national culture through state policy.

This is especially true in the US, where the population does not necessarily have a common ethnicity, common language, or shared culture. One way (but not the only way) of dealing with this is through the creation of national systems of compulsory primary education with a relatively uniform curriculum. This ensures that the national language is spread and the national history taught, in such a way as to promote and hold up an idealized picture of the nation-state. In the US, this national history has taken on mythological status, so that stories of the “Founding Fathers,” the Revolutionary War, and most major wars since, rival even the biblical narratives in their power, romance, and ability to captivate the imagination.

This leads me, and many others, to the conclusion that America is more than just a modern nation-state. Based upon its historical mythology, the US has become the embodiment of numerous powerful ideals, which have a charismatic hold on its citizens and those aspiring to be citizens: freedom, equality, justice, and happiness, just to name a few. But, these ideals are markedly undefined, so that they can be reinterpreted and re-imagined to suit every potential interpreter. This allows for America the nation-state to make all the various religious traditions subordinate to its own purposes and ideals. Each tradition learns to tell its own version of the American story, writing themselves into America’s history and allowing themselves to be devoted to the American project in a way that works with their tradition.

So, Roman Catholics can see themselves as the rightful heirs and protectors of the American project even as Southern Baptists see themselves in a similar light. In this way, the various religious stories represented by the citizens of the US, including the Christian story, becomes subordinate to and enmeshed with the winsome, romantic story of the American nation-state. This synthesis of the Christian religion and American ideology has created a civil religion of sorts, which is at times indistinguishable from the religion of Jesus Christ practiced and preached by the Church.

This is seriously problematic when we recall our initial assertion that the United States is, above all, a nation-state. And, like all nation-states, its main focus is self-preservation and self-promotion. There is no way around this. It is what nations and nation-states do. Without any agreement on what constitutes the Good or the good life, nation-states promote their way of life, seek their own success, and advance their own causes. (Or, more accurately, the life, success, and causes of the majority.) Certainly, the American government has involved American tax dollars in humanitarian assistance and other forms of aid worldwide, and that this is a good thing. But, it does not change the fact that America is like every other nation-state on the planet: it prioritizes its own. Trade deals are negotiated for this reason, immigration laws are created for this reason, and yes, wars are fought for this reason.

Getting back to the idea of American mythology, some have argued (I think, rightly) that war making is a necessity to maintain American ideals. Indeed, the American story is impossible to tell without the wars that have occupied its population since its inception. Wars bring unity to an otherwise divided people and provide a common enemy—a “them” for “us” to hate. Wars perpetuate the myth of invincibility and the unique blessing of God. And, the blood sacrifices of young lives are deemed essential for the preservation of the American ideals mentioned above. Furthermore, with every sacrifice of American life in war, another, future sacrifice is justified, so that the past dead are honored and it is assured that they have not died in vain. In this way, warfare is essential to the American nation-state and buttressed by the powerful American ideals and common mythology, to which all its citizens ascribe.

Now, we cannot leave the subject of “Where are we?” without thinking about this issue at a deeper theological level. Even though the New Testament speaks affirmatively, at times, of earthly governments (Rom 13), there is no doubt that it is equally critical of the kind of all-encompassing and all-subsuming power wielded by nation-states like the US (Rev 13). Indeed, in light of the way we have described the American mythology above, I think it is justified to suggest, with many others, that the US is one of many “principalities and powers,” which ultimately seek to rival the Kingdom of God (Rom 8:38; Eph 6:12; Col 1:16; 2:15). This is evident in the fact that the American story has often co-opted and absorbed the story of Christ, so much so that Christians think nothing of the demand to kill in order to advance American purposes and for the sake of American ideals. In this way, the American nation-state becomes a rival to Jesus Christ and his Kingdom.

Who Are We?
Based on the above description of the United States, I hope it is clear why the question, “Who are we?” is not a simple one. Being a citizen of the US is a complicated matter in and of itself, but being Christian citizens of the US—being the Church in the US—is a matter that can border on the indecipherable. Even so, we cannot allow the “where” to determine the “who”—we cannot allow the American story to be the defining reality for the Church. The source from which we must determine who we are is the word of God, which testifies to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. God’s story, not the American story, is the determining reality for Christians. And, even though the Church may claim to know the story well, I think that perhaps a little reminder is in order.

When Jesus of Nazareth emerged on the stage of world history he announced that the healing power of God’s reign had decisively broken into creation. His proclamation of this good news came at the climactic moment of the story of God’s redemptive work as told in the Hebrew scriptures, a story extending back to God’s original promise in Adam and Eve, and arising from God’s intention in his covenant with Israel. The gospel announced that in Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, the power of God to renew the entire creation was now present.

Jesus explained this liberating, nonviolent power by his teaching and demonstrated it in his life and deeds. He battled the powers of sin and evil through his sacrificial death on the cross and gained the ultimate victory. In his resurrection Jesus entered as “the firstborn among many” into the resurrection life of the new creation. Before his ascension he commissioned his followers to continue his mission until he returned, making the Gospel known and initiating people from all nations into the reign of God. With the power of Jesus’ presence, the initiation into the reign of God takes place by submerging disciples in the Trinitarian reality and teaching them to obey everything Jesus taught.

Jesus now reigns in power at the right hand of God over all creation and by his Spirit, is revealing his restorative and comprehensive rule through his people as they embody and proclaim the good news. One day God’s reign will be fully realized through the new heavens and new earth. At that time, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Creator, Redeemer, and Lord. Until then the church is called to participate in the Spirit’s work of making known the good news as a witness to, and sign of the reign of God.

So then, what does this story mean for us? Jesus Christ has called us to be his disciples, or apprentices, in the Kingdom of God, out of every tribe, language, people, and nation. He has established the Church to be the witnessing community to signify and embody the new creation. And, because Jesus Christ is Lord over all, Christians have no claim on the progress of history, nor can they allow themselves to be defined by their nation-state. This means that the “we” of the Church is significantly different from the “we” of the US. The stories are different. The heroes are different. The calling is different. The practices are different. This gets to the heart of the why the “we” in the minister’s war story bothered me so much. It presumes that these differences don’t exist and subsumes the Church’s “we” into the nation-state’s “we.” But, if we derive our identity from God’s story rather than the mythology of America, we realize that we—the Church of Jesus Christ—transcends nationalism and the earthly priorities of the nation-state.

What Should We Do About America’s Wars?
So what? President Barack Obama just announced that he is sending 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, a war that the US has been engaged in for eight years. This is in addition to the 36,000 troops already there, not to mention the 130,000 troops presently in Iraq, with who knows how many paid military “contractors” in both countries. Now that we know where we are and who we are, what are we to do about that? While I will refrain from making absolute statements about what Christians in America must or must not do, I think a path of critical questioning is important to help us to re-think the role of Christians in the American nation-state and re-frame the way Christians view themselves in relation to America’s wars.

First, we should begin by recognizing who the rightful “we” is when the wars of the US are addressed and refuse to allow ourselves to be included in the religion of American nationalism. There is no doubt that Christian citizenship is a complicated matter, which I do not have the space to explore in any depth now. But, if nothing else, Christians must take seriously that the Church is a reality that transcends the boundaries of nation-state, even the most powerful and winsome nation-state on earth. And, the task of the Church is to be a community of witnesses to the reality of God’s reconciliation of the world. So, any practice, any agenda, any mission, anything, that co-opts this task or threatens its efficacy must be rebuked for what it is—a rival to the Kingdom of God—and set aside.

We can begin extracting ourselves from the “we” of America by critically examining the many ways in which the priorities and ideals of the American nation-state conflict with the practices and beliefs of the Church. This means asking counter-cultural questions and acting upon our answers. Is patriotism a Christian virtue? Are constructs like capitalism, democracy, and federalism compatible with Christianity? In what way does America set up an opposing “church” to the Church of Jesus Christ? Are the enemies of America the enemies of the Christian? And, perhaps most controversially, should Christians kill for the American nation-state?

People who claim the label “realists” will say that to question the use of warfare and the Christian’s participation in it is unrealistic and irresponsible. War is a tragic reality of our sinful world and Christians must accept this and do their best to live within it. But, my response is that war is not the reality of our world—the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ is. His death, resurrection, and ascension are the defining reality for the world, not the violent and brutal methods that nation-states use to defend their borders, their economies, and their positions of power. The real realists are those who see war for what it is: the violent disfigurement of the image of God and the bloody dismemberment of the body of Christ. Jesus Christ has proven that nonviolent love is the way of God in the world and the real realists are those who seek to live faithfully in light of this truth.

Once, a long time ago, before the state church of Constantine, the age of the Enlightenment, or the “American dream,” the belief in Jesus made the Christian sect a target for persecution and social ostracism because they refused the compelling voice of Caesar who demanded, “Worship me! Kill for me!” Certainly, in his escalation of troop levels, President Obama is not making such a blatantly anti-Christian demand. Even so, I urge my readers not to be drawn in to the trap of reading the Christian “we” into the nation-state’s “we.” For this move has served in years past to wrench from the hands of the Church its God-given power to witness to the Kingdom of God in this present evil age. We are the Church in the midst of the American nation-state and no matter the complexities and difficulties of this situation, we answer to one King and one Kingdom, neither of which fly the red, white, and blue.

Sources and References for Further Reading
Baxter, Michael J. “Dispelling the ‘We’ Fallacy from the Body of Christ: The Task of Catholics in a Time of War.” Dissent from the Homeland: Essays after September 11. Eds. Stanley Hauerwas and Frank Lentricchia. Durham, NC: Duke Unviersity Press, 2003. pp. 107-120.

Hauerwas, Stanley. “Why War is a Moral Necessity for America or How Realistic is Realism?” Criswell Theological Review, N.S. 6/1 (Fall 2008): 57-70.

Hauerwas, Stanley. “Sacrificing the Sacrifices of War.” Criswell Theological Review, N.S. 4 (Spring 2007): 77-95.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” Theorizing Citizenship. Ed. Ronald Beiner. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1995. pp. 209-228.

Wolters, Albert M. Creation Regained. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.

Yoder, John Howard. Christians Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution. Eds. Theodore J. Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Thank God for "Happy Holidays"

I know that I haven't posted anything new in a month and I'm deeply regretful. But, I've been expending all my energy to stay afloat in my first semester in the UD Ph.D. program. So, in lieu of something new, I thought I'd offer a favorite post from December 24, 2007. Merry Christmas to you and yours!
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Thank God for "Happy Holidays"

Around this time of year, there's lots of talk among Christians and non-Christians alike about two little words: "Merry Christmas." The controversy, of course, is over who says it, who doesn't say it, and why.

Headlines over the past few years have accused and defended a number of corporations because of their use or disuse of the phrase. Wal-Mart, Macy's, Target, Sear's and many more have suffered the wrath of self-appointed Christmas warriors, determined to put the "Christ" back in Christmas through boycotts, news coverage, angry phone calls, and innumerable petitions.

I know that it matters little what I think amidst the nationwide media frenzy, but I would like to state and explain my position for the record: I don't want them to say, "Merry Christmas."

I am aware that we live in a culture that is not only increasingly non-Christian, but also anti-Christian. Although many of our founding mothers and fathers ascribed to some form of Christian faith, America is no longer a Christian nation. The US is a pluralist society, a reality that is exceedingly uncomfortable for Christians who are used to being in the majority and in positions of civic authority and power.

The rising pluralism has led to a rising push to accomodate the various faiths represented among us. There are both good and bad points in this accommodation, too many to spell out here. But, the important fact is that most Christians don't like it. We don't like it at all.

And so, among other things, we have the "battle for Christmas." It seems that the many proponents of the "war" to bring back Christmas view themselves as grass-roots saviors of the season. With enough phone calls and boycotts, they can pressure American corporations into not accommodating the pluralism of our society, supposedly symbolized by instructing their employees to say, "Merry Christmas," rather than the undeniably mundane, "Happy Holidays," or, even worse, "Season's Greetings."

I won't deny that I prefer to wish my fellow Americans, "Merry Christmas." And, I prefer to hear the same from others. The phrases "Happy Holidays," and "Season's Greetings," are silly and meaningless--poor replacements for a greeting that reminds our neighbors of the reason for our happy merry-making. Even so, I find the whole controversy both tremendously ironic and sadly pitiful. Allow me to explain.

The Christmas celebration is a commemoration and thanksgiving to God for the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ. According to the accounts of Jesus' birth in Matthew and Luke, Jesus was born to an unwed, teenage girl in the backwoods of Palestine. He was birthed in a dirty hovel, with a feeding trough for a bassinet and strips of rags for a delivery blanket. His first visitors were shepherds, some of the filthiest workers of the ancient world, who carried the stench of sheep feces, dampness, and dirt everywhere they went.

Our king, the Lord of lords, was brought into the world in the humblest of ways, to the commonest of people, for the sake of the lowly. Corporations like Wal-Mart, Target, and Sears are led by powerful men and women who profit from the greed and materialism of the masses. They pay millions, maybe even billions, in order to put commercials on TV, radio, and billboards seeking to convince you that your life is meaningless without their product. They associate happiness and fulfillment with buying, having, and hoarding. Moreover, these corporations work very hard to be sure they offer the least amount of insurance and protection to the least amount of their employees. When their stock dips too low, they fire hardworking Americans and ship jobs overseas where they can get cheaper labor.

These people are not necessarily malicious themselves, but they are a part of a system working great evil among us, a conspiracy of materialism deceiving millions and leading them away from the kingdom of God that belongs to the poor. And yet, in an irony of ironies, Christians of America are demanding that these same major corporations parrot the announcement of Jesus' birth.

To me, this is both ironic and pitiful. Are we really so desperate for the American culture to acknowledge us and make us comfortable that we want corporate America heralding the arrival of the Savior? Are we really so void of fervor for true Gospel living and authentic Gospel preaching that we need Target and Wal-Mart to pick up the slack? Are we really so ignorant of the revolutionary nature of the Good News that we want to employ Caesar and his minions to prop-up the Kingdom of God in America? I hope not.

So, in the "battle for Christmas," please count me out. I would be happy to celebrate Jesus' birth with the person himself or herself after their shift. But, I don't need or want a representative of powerful corporations wishing me a "Merry Christmas." I am seeking to figure out exactly what my Savior's birth has to say to me as his follower, but I definitely don't need the aid of Macy's in discerning such truths.

I am a Christian increasingly uncomfortable in our non-Christian/anti-Christian society and that's just fine with me. I should be uncomfortable. I should feel at odds with my culture. That's the way its supposed to be. So, the next time someone wishes me, "Happy Holidays," I'm not going to scowl. I'm going to thank God that the Kingdom is coming to turn everything upside down, and that it all started in a filthy stable in the backwoods of Bethlehem, and that God doesn't need corporate America to bring it all to pass.

Friday, November 6, 2009

"Evil People Do Evil Things": A Friend's Reflection on the Shooting at Fort Hood

Regarding the tragic shooting in Fort Hood, Texas, a friend and young writer, blogger, and Christian thinker, David Sessions, offers a short but pointed perspective on his blog for Patrol Magazine. David is the Editor of Patrol, a self-described "independent daily magazine where young post-evangelical writers explore their interactions with art, culture, politics, and technology." I find his post refreshing in a time of shrillness and fear-mongering. Check it out here. Come to think of it, I always enjoy checking in on what David and his other contributors have to say at Patrol, even if I don't always agree. I recommend it to you, as well.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Stranger in a Foreign Land: A Baptist Studying in a Catholic University

This semester I am in a fantastic seminar on the Christian ethics of peace and war, led by Dr. Michael Baxter, a visiting professor from the University of Notre Dame. Of course, we're focusing on U.S. Catholic social teaching, particularly in the 20th Century, with readings from a few Protestants mixed in.

Even as I'm thoroughly enjoying this deep foray into an important ethical issue, I'm being constantly reminded that I am a stranger in a foreign land--a Baptist in a Catholic institution. I'm certainly not the only Baptist or the only Protestant in the program--there are, in fact, many non-Catholics in the M.A. and Ph.D. programs--but I do seem to be the one least acquainted with Catholic theology and moral teaching. So... this makes for fun (and humbling) times. I'd like to share one such humorous incident from this past week.

We've been covering the Cold War period in class and part of our reading on the debate over nuclear policy in the 1980s involved the 1983 pastoral letter from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, titled "The Challenge of Peace." In this work, the Bishops attempt to apply just war principles to the issue of nuclear deterrence. When this reading was assigned to us in class, Dr. Baxter also recommended verbally that we look at another work, which he called "Gaudy and Mitspez."

I assumed that this was a book on a similar issue, co-authored by guys with the last names "Gaudy" and "Mitspez," with which most people in the class were acquainted. So, like any insecure first-year Ph.D. student, I didn't ask what it was--I would find out for myself.

And so, I diligently searched for the volume so as to acquaint myself with the contents. Searching the UD library, however, turned up nothing. I tried a number of variations on the spelling: "Goudy" and "Mitzpez"; "Gaudi" and "Metspez"; "Gowdy" and "Mitspes." Still nothing. So, I took a crack at Amazon.com. (You can find lots of obscure books on there, for sale by used book sellers.) But, once again, my search turned up nothing.

And so, when all else fails, turn to Google! I googled all the various spellings of "Gaudy and Mitspez" I could think of and still came up with absolutely nothing. Seemingly defeated, I resigned myself to arriving at class without having acquainted myself with the work of "Gaudy and Mitspez," something I was now certain had to be a "Catholic thing," that an unschooled Baptist like me wouldn't be able to find without help.

In class tonight, however, I had a bit of a revelation--an unveiling of my ignorance, you might say. I was looking at one of the articles we were discussing, when I noticed a text referenced in the footnotes. It was called, in Latin, "Gaudium et Spes." That's when the clouds parted and the sun came out. I may have heard Dr. Baxter reference two English authors, "Gaudy and Mitspez," but what he really said was Latin: Gaudium et Spes. Doh!

With the help of Wikipedia, I now know that this phrase means "Joy and Hope," and it is the official title of the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World," which came out of the Second Vatican Council. This document is an overview of the Catholic Church's teachings about humanity's relationship to society. (You can read other documents from Vatican II here.)

Now that I've had a good laugh at myself, I've filed away this little experience in my mind for safe keeping. Next time a professor or student references a work that I can barely understand or cannot locate with the almighty Google, I can be 99.9% certain he or she was speaking Latin. First-year Baptist doctoral student, welcome to the Roman Catholic university!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

We've Moved!


Personal Update: Ronnie, William, and I, along with our two boxers and three cats, have (miraculously) sold our home in Hamilton and purchased a 1920s bungalow in Dayton, very close to the University. The move brings me closer to the school, where I'm studying and working, and hopefully, opens up new doors for us in terms of finding a community of faith and making friends. We will miss being close to my mom, Will's Mimi, and a good friend of mine, but we think its the right move overall. We'll spend the next few weeks in relative chaos trying to unpack and acclimate to our new city environment. Feel free to say a few prayers for all of us!

Friday, September 25, 2009

More on Feminism and Abortion

For more information about an organized movement of feminists against abortion, please explore the Feminists For Life website. This movement is not explicitly Christian, or any other religious persuasion, but many of their members come out of a Judeo-Christian tradition.

Also, Amy Laura Hall (Duke University) and Jana Bennett (University of Dayton) are two present-day Christian feminist scholars (Hall is a Protestant and Bennett a Catholic) who are writing about issues of women, children, abortion, and reproduction. Look for their works on Amazon and other book-sellers.

I'd especially recommend Hall's volume, Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction.

Also, my readers might be interested to know that I have the privilege of serving as Jana Bennett's Graduate Assistant this year at the University of Dayton.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thoughts on Feminism and Abortion

For a long time, it has been assumed of the women's rights movement generally, and the abortion rights movement specifically, that feminism and abortion naturally go together. Surely, this is what one is made to believe by the majority of public spokespersons, activist representatives, and talking-heads on all sides of the issue. Yet, as I have pondered the feminism to which I ascribe (Christian feminism) and read the works of a variety of other like-minded women, I think that this assumption is sorely mistaken. In fact, I think it is quite legitimate to offer a feminist reasoning against abortion, both as a personal choice and social practice.

First, I think its important to make a distinction between "on the street" feminism and feminism as a worldview. "On the street" feminism, which is what is espoused by your average young American female, understands women's liberation primarily as the right of a woman to do what she pleases. (This may include the right to be paid equally and have equal rights generally, too, but the focus is personal choice.) In this mindset, it is perfectly in keeping with feminism for a woman to work her way through college as an exotic dancer, provided that's what she chooses to do. The issue of main importance is that a woman's choices are not dictated to her by a man (husband, boyfriend, father), or a male-dominated group (government, intelligentsia, church).

Now, this perspective on feminism isn't entirely mistaken. As a movement, feminism is globally and socially focused, directing its efforts toward the emancipation of women as a whole. This is done primarily by seeking for women the same rights as men in modern society, especially in the political, social, and economic realms. Often, these efforts are focused upon the removal of obstacles, such as beliefs, values, attitudes, and social structures, which hinder liberation (read: freedom).

This is somewhat in keeping with the "on the street" feminism described above, in the sense that feminism is seeking for women to be free to form their own future--one without oppression, violence, and hierarchy--and allowing for, yes, personal choice. But, I would argue that as a Christian theology and worldview, feminism is much more than this. If feminism is associated mainly with a woman's choice, it is significantly and dangerously truncated.

In its Christian form, feminism at its best is the pursuit of the flourishing of the human race as a whole and especially marginalized peoples: women of color, children, the impoverished, and the disabled. As I see it, in this "brand" of feminism, the pursuit of female liberation is held in tension with the pursuit of human flourishing. A balance is being pursued between freedom of the self and responsibility to and for the other.

So, getting back to abortion, I think it is "on the street" feminism, largely divorced from its roots in feminism as a worldview (and certainly Christian feminism), that is responsible for the emphasis on the woman's right to choose in today's abortion debates. (I should say that I do not debate in theory, the woman's right to choose what is done to and with her body. There are too many examples worldwide of women's bodies being mutilated and abused against her will for me not to [i.e., female circumcision, wife battering, sex trafficking, etc]. But, I am eager to point out that feminism is much, much more than an ideology that supports personal choice. It has a constructive, redemptive end, as well.)

And so, in an attempt to think about abortion (and the surrounding issue of female sexuality) from a Christian feminist perspective, allow me to tease out some thoughts in a rough, fairly undeveloped form. I know that I am not the first person to think in this way. Feminists of a variety of faiths--especially Catholic feminists--have been saying similar things for some time. But, this topic is fairly new to me. So, in the name of learning, I invite your (charitable) comments and (civil) interaction.

I think it can be argued that many women, particularly young women, have a mixture of antagonism, fear, and confusion regarding their bodies. Although feminism seeks to value the female body and lift it up as good, I think women continue to be informed by the patriarchal majority in how they view their bodies, particularly their sexuality.

For example, for the majority of American men, the feminine ideal is a lean, twenty-something, who dresses provocatively and is comfortable with illicit sexual liaisons. Hence, we hear women on MTV taking great pride in their ability to have a "one night stand" with a man and have no emotional problem with it at all. And, more often than not, this pride in sexual promiscuity is provided for with a variety of birth control methods.

But, Christian feminism would say that there are two major problems with this. First, the female body is not like the male body. Men can have sexual intercourse without consequence to themselves (other than sexually transmitted diseases, of course). Women, however, have the built-in capacity to conceive, carry, and bear children, as a result of their sexual encounters. The idea of sex without consequences, mutual regard, attachment, or responsibility is a very worldly and a very male concept--it arises solely from the male experience. By their very nature, women cannot have sexual intercourse without the possibility--even probability--of conceiving a child. Somehow, American women have lost touch with this reality.

Second, women who have adopted the predominantly male view of their bodies--that they must be able to act as men in their sexual encounters--develop a detrimental and thoroughly un-liberating antagonism toward their reproductive ability. The desire to participate in sexual intercourse in the way men do and the desire to be the detached, infertile, ideal woman that men want, leads them to do a variety of things to squelch their body's natural potential.

Women, by their nature, have the capacity to produce and nurture children. This is a fact. And it is a good thing. This is a primary way women are to be differentiated from men. No matter how hard modern women may try to do so, they cannot ignore their body's natural capabilities without serious consequences.

Christian feminism seeks to embrace the female body's reproductive power, to honor, protect, and nurture it for the benefit both of self and society. The female body is good. For centuries men characterized the female form as weak and contrary to the ideal. Men were associated with the mind (all things rational, strong, and powerful) and women were associated with the body (all things emotional, earthly, and weak). Because of the bodily changes women undergo--especially menstruation and childbirth--women were considered defective, dirty, and problematic. I think this idea is still embedded in the way women's bodies are spoken of, by men and women alike, and it is something that feminism should oppose.

And so, while it is certainly within a woman's rights to choose to have sexual intercourse with whoever she pleases (she is liberated, after all, and has embraced the fact that she's a "sexual being"), it is unnatural and wrong for her to expect that her body can cease its ability to conceive children when she does so--even with the use of a variety of birth controls.

In my opinion, the feminist ideal would be for women to embrace their reproductive potential--their natural ability to make children--and seek to live in responsible relationship to it. Live according to your moral convictions (or lack thereof), certainly. But do so with a view to your nature as a woman--your nature as a sexual and reproductive being.

Moreover, just as the female body is good, so also the fruit of the female body is good. The capacity to bring forth life is natural to the way of women and, going further, something to be valued and honored. Even as feminism seeks to create a world where women live without fear of exploitation, abuse, rape, and murder, so also feminism should seek to create world where the fruit of women's bodies are welcomed, cherished, and believed valuable enough to protect.

Life is, indeed, sacred. Women know this instinctively. And the lives women hold within them are sacred. And, going further, the lives women (and men) bring into the world and nurture into adulthood are sacred. For a feminist, then, sanctity of life means not just preventing a woman's child from being killed in the womb, but also ensuring the child's nourishment, health, and development outside the womb. (Hence, I believe the issue of abortion must not be divorced from the issues of poverty, health care, and education. But these are topics for another time.)

Finally, there is something deeply problematic in the way women have been conditioned to view children. Although I am by no means a believer in "quiverfull" ideology, and would have serious differences with their sympathizers on a number of levels (and they with me), the general view of American society that children are a problem, an obstruction even, to the lives of women, is false. This is the perspective held by many and is especially apparent in the view of (mostly male) employers regarding their female employees.

Christian feminism says that children are not an obstruction, either to women's liberation or the female pursuit of self-fulfillment (whether in a particular line of work or some other arena). As I see it, this negative view of children is mostly the product of a male-dominated society (and some feminist's imbibing of their ethos), which doesn't want to take responsibility for the fruit of their loins or partner fully with women in child-rearing. Further, male employers don't want either to provide financial security for women attending to the earliest stages of motherhood (maternity leave) or accept the possible financial repercussions of women placing ultimate significance in new life and mothering. God forbid the almighty dollar bow at the feet of a mere child!

Along these lines, I think a feminist must reject both the male-chauvinist rejection of working mothers (because of the financial liability) and the traditionalist rejection of working mothers (because of sharply differentiated gender roles), concluding that mothering and working go hand-in-hand, no matter what one's work is conceived to be (from accounting to quilting to zoology). Using one's gifts and abilities to serve one's neighbor and the common good (the proper Christian understanding of "work") is not closed off to women because they accept and follow-through on their body's capacity to bear children. But, once again, this means that feminists can and should support efforts to change the way society views and organizes "work," so that it is a more inviting environment, conducive to the valuing of mothering in general, and children in particular.

All this taken together leads me to conclude that abortion is not just wrong from a Christian perspective (as most of my evangelical friends argue the point), but also wrong from a feminist perspective. Women should value their bodies as distinctly female--capable of producing new life--and live responsibly in light of this truth. The fruit of their bodies--living, breathing, vulnerable children--is to be protected and nurtured, not treated as a problem to be done away with. The feminist drive to work for the flourishing of the human race extends to unborn children, as well, and desires a civil society that will value the fruit of their bodies and foster the lives of children. As an accepted social practice, abortion does not lead to the flourishing of women in particular, or the human race in general, especially in case of the most vulnerable and marginalized among us--the unborn.

In saying all this, though, I should say that I am not an idealist, nor am I unaware of the difficulties and complexities of many women's personal circumstances. I have never been faced with a surprising and unwelcome pregnancy. I am not familiar with the many difficult circumstances under which women choose an abortion (i.e., poverty, abuse, rape, and others). I am not calloused to the very real fear and anxiety that drives such women to abortion clinics. And, I am painfully aware that we live in a society where many who are adamantly opposed to abortion are just as adamantly opposed to lifting a finger (or paying a cent more in taxes) toward helping the woman who bravely chooses life.

Yet, I have concluded that ultimately, it does not benefit women or contribute to human flourishing to have a society that views their body's fertility as a problem and the children they produce as an obstruction. As a general practice, abortion contributes to this and should be opposed.

The details as to how to do this are another matter, entirely (another post for another time). For now, the above ideas are what I've been thinking recently about the relation of abortion to Christian feminism. Hopefully this can be good "food for thought" for feminists and traditionalists, alike. I'm interested in what you think.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Guest Blog for CincyMissionary.com

My friend, Jeff Flowers, invited me to provide a guest post on his blog, CincyMissionary.com. Jeff is a pastor at The Bridge, an urban church in uptown Cincinnati (with whom my family has been privileged to worship for the past five months), as well as a consultant for church leaders, and an all-around good human being. Jeff is a creative, intelligent, and sincere follower of Jesus. Enjoy perusing his blog after you take a look at my thoughts.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Theology of Stretch Marks

I have a friend who is preparing for the birth of her first child. The other day, she mentioned to me the vexing problems of stretch marks, sagging breasts, and dark-circled eyes--all of which "come with the territory" of pregnancy, birth, and infant caregiving. As I pondered this concern about the physical marks of childbearing--which I share and find myself lamenting on a regular basis--I arrived at some theological reflections that I would like to share.

Throughout human history, childbearing has been both a momentous and hazardous task for women. Our modern medical advances in the West cloud the reality that when women give birth, they are taking their own lives and the life of their child into their hands. They and they alone, even with the most attentive, technologically advanced care, are able to bring the fruit of their womb into the world. And this responsibility is a weighty and sometimes terrifying one.

There is a reason that so many women, for so long, perished in childbirth. And even now, in the non-Western world, childbearing remains a very dangerous endeavor. (Hence, the practice of midwifery was developed, where women partner with women to aid them in making the journey through labor, delivery, and into a new life.) No matter their religion, socio-economic status, or ethnicity, women who labor to bring new life into the world stand at the edge of what their bodies can endure and push just a little bit further--all so that another can live. Facing full-on the limits of their creaturely existence, women forge ahead and discover just how mighty frail creatures of dust can be.

As a result of their labors, which are varied and different for every woman, mothers bear in their bodies the marks of their creative process. Skin is stretched. Flesh is torn. Blood is shed. And even after time and care have brought healing to the body, the marks remain.

What shall we make of these scars? Most women, not to mention men, grimace at the fleshly realities of childbirth. The process is an assault on the "ideal"--gritty, messy, earthly, and imperfect. When the ideal woman is conceived as a Caucasian 21 year-old, with an aerobically sculpted body and no sign of "weakness" or strain, then the woman giving birth is a frightening, ugly prospect. And, in the same way, the scars that remain after the event are an unfortunate, even gross, alteration to the human body that must be hidden or removed, if possible.

But, what do we as Christians have to say about these things? Is there a Christian theology of stretch marks (so to speak)?

The God-man Jesus Christ labored on our behalf seeking after the redemption of the world. He took into his own body the sin, evil, and suffering of the world and triumphed over it through the cross. Even as the resurrected God-man, however, Jesus bears in his body the scars of his laborious sacrifice on our behalf. Whatever way one chooses to conceive of the resurrected body, Jesus was able to show the very real nail scars to the disciples and Thomas could place his fingers within the marks. The place where a sword pierced through flesh, muscle, and bone had closed over and healed, but the sign of the assault remained.

Let us observe, however, that for Jesus, these marks are not embarrassing signs of imperfection, something unsightly to be covered up with make-up or removed with plastic surgery. Instead, they are a beautiful indicator of Jesus' true humanity and a profound testimony of God's nature to the world. Because of Jesus' scars, we know that it not against the nature of our God to become human flesh (thereby affirming human frailty as good and blessed). And, it is not against the nature of our God to suffer within a bodily existence and experience death for the life of creation. In Jesus, God was bringing forth a new creation, with torn flesh, shed blood, and great travail.

Women who embark on the journey of creating, bearing, and bringing forth life do so in a sign picture of the work of Christ. Christ presents his scars to the disciples as proof of his finished work, bodily triumph over sin and death, and the new life available in him. So also women present their scars to the world as proof of their completed trial, bodily triumph, and production of new life.

Sadly, not all women who labor bring forth living children as the fruit of their work. This profound tragedy is something I cannot imagine having to endure. But, I would think that even these emotional wounds are not rebuffed by the women who bear them, but cradled gently as the weak and sore places in their hearts, where the child they lost should be. These marks cannot be extricated from their souls anymore than the physical marks can from their bodies. And both can be viewed as a experiential type of the redemptive scars of Jesus Christ.

In this theological sketch, I am not suggesting that childbirth is a redemptive act on par with the work of Christ on the cross. Of course not. But, I am saying that the scars of childbirth--the signs of travail and suffering for the purpose of new life--are to be presented to the world as a sign of womanly, bodily victory. Just as Jesus viewed his own marks as significant, so also women should embrace and celebrate the marks left upon their bodies by the dangerous, glorious work of childbirth.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

William @ 4 Months

William is turning four months-old on Saturday. He's the delight of our lives. Here are a few choice photos from the past couple weeks. Enjoy!




Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fall '09 Reading List

I've had a number of people ask what I'll be reading this term, so I thought I would share for the sake of the interested (and maybe even for the not-so-interested).

For those authors you are unfamiliar with (and there were quite a number of those for me!), I refer you to Google or Wikipedia or any other research tool of your choice. And, just as a side note, I encourage my readers not to read those who are content only to say why so-and-so is wrong, heretical, dangerous, etc. Instead, read those who write with an appreciation for the author and a willingness to present their ideas in the best possible light, even if they disagree. That is the kind of Christian kindness and intellectual honesty we would want shown to our viewpoints, so let us show it to others, as well.

For a required general course on contemporary theological research, I'm reading the following (in no particular order):

- Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992).

- Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, translated by D. C. Schindler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1963).

- John Milbank, The Suspended Middle: Henri De Lubac and the Debate Concerning the Supernatural (London: SCM Press, 2005).

- Henri de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, Milestones in Catholic Theology, translated by Rosemary Sheed (New York: Crossroad, 1998).

- Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971).

- David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 2002).

- George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1984).

- Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Thoelogy (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001).

For an elective course on Christian ethics and social practice, particularly related to issues of war and peace, I am reading the following (in no particular order):

- Paul Ramsey, War and the Christian Conscience: How Shall Modern War Be Conducted Justly? (Durham: Duke University Press, 1961).

- Paul Ramsey, The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1968).

- Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 1977).

- Richard B. Miller, Editor, War in the Twentieth Century, Sources in Theological Ethics (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).

- Lisa Sowle Cahill, Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994).

- John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

- John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, Edited by Theodore J. Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009).

- John Courtney Murray, S.J., We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1960).

And, finally, as part of my Graduate Assistantship, I am helping another professor with her undergraduate classes on Christian Marriage. In preparation, I will be reading a number of articles and selections from several volumes, but the book assigned to the class is as follows:

- David Cloutier, Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (Winona, MN: St. Mary's Press, 2007).

As you can see, this is going to be a very busy semester. Your prayers are certainly appreciated!

Friday, August 21, 2009

What's Next: August '09 to ???

Tomorrow I will begin the first phase of the Ph.D. program in theology in the Religious Studies department of the University of Dayton. UD is a Roman Catholic, Marianist institution, with a well-respected faculty and penchants for attracting a variety of Protestant, Catholic, and Baptist students. (For all the Protestants and Baptists out there, it would be worth your time to take a look at the story of the Marianists. I recommend reading more about them here, here, and here.

Many of my readers will wonder, I'm sure, why I chose the University of Dayton. There are a number of good reasons, but four are primary. First, and most simply, it is the best option for us within the area. Dayton is a reasonable driving distance (45 minutes) and has a reasonable cost of living in the event we decide to relocate there.

Second, they accepted me and offered a generous Graduate Assistantship, which provides tuition remission and a stipend. This means I will work for a professor for the duration of the first phase (assuming I am renewed every year), providing research assistance, teaching assistance, and other duties as assigned. Also, from my second year forward, I will teach two sections of the introductory level Religion course for UD undergraduates (a required class for all degree programs). This kind of responsibility so early in the Ph.D. process is an invaluable experience for those hoping to teach theology in the future.

Third, they are a proudly Catholic institution and I am dreadfully unschooled in US Catholicism and Catholic theology generally. Often, doing theology in conservative evangelicalism (or more narrowly, in the Southern Baptist realm) is a bit like listening to yourself speak. (I hope you know what I mean. Even those who disagree strongly tend to disagree strongly about issues unique to evangelicalism, not engaging the broader Christian traditions, who also have tremendously valuable things to say.) I wanted a more ecumenical and more challenging environment to experience the highest level of my education.

Finally, the Religious Studies department is intentionally interdisciplinary, encouraging the use of a variety of academic disciplines in the pursuit of truth. Thus, we will be expected to engage history and historiography, theology and ethics, biblical studies, philosophy, social sciences, and other areas as they are relevant to our course of study.

As far as the details of the next several years, it is estimated that I will spend three years in the first phase, completing required credit hours, passing a series of three general exams (covering biblical studies, history, and theology and ethics), mastering three research skills (Latin and two other research languages), and passing the final qualifying exam (covering the U.S. Catholic experience, broadly conceived). Then, I will spend about two years in the second phase, completing and defending my dissertation.

I am grateful to the Religious Studies department for their willingness to take on an evangelical like me, with a background so steeped in the Southern Baptist world. So far, as I have attended the department orientations, I have met a variety of interesting people from all sorts of Christian traditions. I look forward to the time I will spend with them and I anticipate with gratitude the way that their presence will form me as a scholar and a person.

By the way, on a more personal note, Ronnie and I will be working it out with his employer so that one of us (or Will's grandmother, my mom) will be taking care of him on a rotating basis throughout my time in school. I have plenty of fears and concerns about my ability to mother and study well, but since we are convinced that UD is the right move for me, then we must trust also that God will show us the way. I have been told on numerous occasions by those who have completed the journey that both parenting and grad school are unpredictable roller-coaster rides, so its perfectly natural to combine the two. We'll see if that proves to be true for us.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What Happened: August '07 to August '09

(Note: There are many sides to every story and I can only tell ours from mine. I do not pretend that I am blameless or that I do not have anything to learn from the story that follows. I have put this post off for many months, but I share it with you now because I feel like its time. You will notice I have disabled the "reader comments." I do so because I don't believe it is necessary to debate the story as I present it, or to allow free reign for negative things to be said about the church, the pastor, or us. As I see it, our story is what it is.)

Ronnie and I visited Cincinnati for the first time in July 2007. At that time, we were happily serving in a small Baptist church in Fairfield, TX. Although a fundamentalist fellowship at heart, which never ceased to present challenges for both of us (especially me), we found a pocket of grace in the midst of the congregation, making lifelong friends and getting to know a number of Spirit-filled followers of Jesus. Also, we served with a great pastor, with a heart for people and God's mission in the world. For this reason, when another pastor called and wanted us to consider joining his fellowship in the Cincinnati area (doing high school and college student ministry), we weren't interested. Eventually, however, we were persuaded that we should give it a chance.

During our visit, we were presented with a story of a church on a journey. Although tough times had plagued them in the past, including a church split and an exorbitant debt, the people were ready to "take off" and join God in his work. We were told that the so-called "worship wars" were no longer an issue, that liberty in Christ was very real, and the congregation was a church "not about religion." Based upon this, and a number of other factors (including the prayers of friends and family), Ronnie and I decided that this was God's invitation to do something new--to be a part of a church much closer to our vision of what church is meant to be (i.e., freedom in Christ, grace for all, etc.).

So, Ronnie moved to the Cincinnati area at the end of August, while I remained in Fairfield, living with dear friends, to finish up my graduate degree at Truett Seminary. It was a lonely few months, but we made it. And, upon my graduation, I joined Ronnie in December 2007, moving into the home we bought in Hamilton. A friend of ours--a former student of Ronnie's--joined us, too, to become a part of the church's worship ministry.

Unfortunately, neither the leadership of the church nor the church itself turned out to be what we were made to believe they would be. In fact, it was almost the exact opposite. (This is not said with any sense of malice toward the congregation. Not at all! People are where they are in their journey with Jesus. We were simply made to think they were at a different place in their journey--a place more in keeping with our own philosophy of ministry and overall discipleship.) Although we tried for several months to work within the structure and situation with which we were presented, eventually the friction between us and the pastor began to heat up.

More than once, Ronnie was told he needed to set and meet a "quota" for "decisions" and "baptisms" in the youth group. More than once, he was chastised for the so-called diminutive size of his ministry. Although attendance in the church was steadily dropping (and had been dropping even before we arrived), Ronnie was expected to steadily increase his numbers. More than once, his teaching methods and topics of study were criticized, especially when the cost of discipleship and matters of social justice were discussed. And, more than once, Ronnie endured both veiled and not-so-veiled questions about his commitment to evangelism, love for students, overall calling to ministry, and even the security of his job.

(I should say, as well, that all of these conflicts over philosophy, vision, and method were tremendously surprising to us, especially since we made it a point to be brutally honest throughout the interviewing process. Although communication is not fool-proof, by any means, I have serious doubts that we were so greatly misunderstood. I have a hunch that those in the hiring process heard what they wanted to hear from us and didn't carefully consider how our views and ideas would work with their own.)

Over time, the friend who came with us from Texas became so discouraged he moved back. The junior high pastor who served alongside Ronnie felt compelled to resign. When that happened, he was asked to take over the junior high ministry, in addition to his own, with no additional help--in personnel or financial compensation. Although he was willing to give it a chance--to do his best for the sake of the students--by that time, Ronnie felt he had little to no support from the pastor and was, therefore, being set up to fail.

At one point, in the midst of yet another session of criticism and discouragement, he even offered the pastor his resignation, saying, "I'm clearly not meeting your expectations, so why don't I make room for you to find the person who will?" But, he was told that he couldn't leave, "because the church can't handle another staff member leaving."

Let me say, as well, that during the year and a half we served at the church, the pastor's attitude and behavior went through a serious transformation. At first, there was a spirit of warmth, camaraderie, and support. But, as the months went by, the church numbers dwindled and the financial burden increased, and the pastor became--at least in his behavior toward the staff--reclusive, angry, detached, and defensive. If this caused problems for their office environment, imagine what it did for the spiritual environment. It is not an exaggeration to say that, eventually, our time spent at the physical church building (not with the people, to whom we felt a God-given obligation to love and serve!), became a spiritually toxic experience. With every passing staff meeting, with every Sunday sermon, I felt like we were drifting into an abyss.

Now, I should say that we went through a period of a few months where I wondered if the problem was with us. We truly sought God and searched the depths of our own hearts to see if we were missing something. Yes, we were tired and frustrated with the situation. Yes, some things Ronnie could do better and try harder at. But, overall, we determined that our hearts were right with God and in the right posture toward his church. In the end, I am convinced that we were not the primary "problem."

Toward the end of our tenure there, even the addition of another staff member, a sort of "last ditch" effort to reinvigorate the church and energize the pastor's vision, could not make the situation improve. In fact, it quickly worsened. Now, we were hearing things about the pastor and various deacons wanting Ronnie "out"--not believing he was fulfilling his duties to the church. There were all kinds of rumors being spread about Ronnie, almost all of which were related to our perspective on Christians and alcohol (another blog post for another time). I was receiving nasty emails and posts on my blog from supposed church members calling into question the legitimacy of my salvation and telling us to leave. All in all, despite what I believe to be our best efforts, our relationship with the pastor and the church was at a breaking point.

Finally, during an especially bad staff meeting, where the pastor was again placing the responsibility for the church's failing attendance and budget at the feet of the staff--verbally berating them and demanding obedience to his newest plan to "fix" things--Ronnie decided he couldn't take it anymore. He resigned on the spot and walked out. That Wednesday night was our last day of employment at the church.

We shed many, many tears over our departure and truly agonized over the way it affected the students, who had been ignorant of the "behind-the-scenes" problems. It was not their fault at all and yet they were the ones who suffered the most. I have no easy answer for that, nor can I explain away the pain and hurt we caused many of them. It hurt them badly and yet, I feel like we had no other choice.

Looking back, I suppose there were other ways to handle our exit. Sure, we could have given the customary two weeks notice. But, as we've mulled it over since then, we've determined that doing so would have allowed the pastor to maintain a facade of health and happiness. We would have been forced to give a "nice" little speech to the church about God calling us someplace else. And, this would have been duplicitous in the extreme. The reality was Ronnie (and I) couldn't bear to serve with him for another day. Period. Although Ronnie loved the students and their families, although he felt called of God to shepherd them, he could no longer do so as long as the pastor remained in his post.

Over the course of the next few days, other staff threatened their resignations, as well. But, in the end, the pastor resigned instead, leaving behind a battered and broken staff in the midst of a confused and angry congregation.

There were short-lived discussions of Ronnie returning to the church, but those fizzled out quickly once we realized the strength of the opposition to him among some deacons and the lack of trust he had with much of the church leadership. You can't shepherd among people who don't want to follow you. It certainly didn't help that the pastor had been speaking badly of him to the leadership for some time. We found out that there had been discussions of him being fired for several months before his resignation. Needless to say, in addition to the hurt, pain, and sadness about the entire experience, the sense of betrayal we were left with was deep and strong--remaining to this day.

Throughout our last six months at the church, I was pregnant with William. And I would by lying if I said that thinking of his arrival had no effect on our decision to leave. While some would say that we should have stayed at the church, if for no other reason than financial security for William's sake, we determined we didn't want his earliest exposure to church to be within such a toxic situation. Like his namesakes, William Wallace and William Wilberforce, we chose freedom for him, instead of enslavement (to a paycheck).

I'm sure there will be varying opinions about the choices we've made. I'm sure many will call us stupid, naive, foolish, arrogant, etc. But, to put it bluntly, we don't care. Though we're struggling financially and may lose our home to foreclosure, though we have felt spiritually adrift and even abandoned at times, though we've been deeply lonely without a stable community of faith, we have found liberation from the situation and the pastor's domineering leadership to be a sweet and welcomed relief. When there is peace in nothing else, there is peace in that.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Satire: The Case Against Male Pastors*

*Note: The following post was inspired by an email I received from a blogger friend and is most certainly satire. I say this because, unfortunately, I'm not confident in the ability of some to recognize it as such. In this post, I satirize not only the evangelical arguments against women in ministry [by turning them on the matter of men in ministry], but also the cartoonish views of masculinity, femininity, and family perpetuated in evangelical circles. I hope you can smile just a little bit, even if the satire makes you uncomfortable. Also, know that you have permission not to like it. Not everyone enjoys satire and I don't expect everyone to enjoy this one either.

The question of who can and should serve as pastors within Christ's church has been a subject of controversy and struggle for hundreds of years. While most of God's people have resolved this issue and conduct their churches in a manner pleasing to God, many have wandered into iniquity and promoted the idea that men--yes, men--can serve as pastors. I have been alarmed at the number of my fellow evangelicals who continue to insist upon this perspective, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As a result, I provide the following post for my readers: The Case Against Male Pastors.

In the beginning, the first couple faced their first real test by the Serpent of Old. When Eve was offered the forbidden fruit and she succumbed to temptation, the Bible attests that Adam was alongside her: "When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it." In this, the first chance for a man to shepherd another in the direction of righteousness, Adam fails miserably and caused the downfall of the whole human race. Clearly, therefore, God is permanently displeased with male shepherds and they are an abomination in his sight.

Despite the fact that our sinful, perverted culture has promoted the dangerous idea that men should be nurturing, kind, emotionally mature, and sensitive, we must resist the cultural shift and insist that men remain the role given to them by God. The nurturing, caring responsibilities of a pastor violate the God-given order, to which men must conform, no matter what "enlightened" minds say about it. Men should stick to the tasks that best suit them: shooting things, beating people up, and hunting. With such responsibilities to fulfill, pastoring is not an option.

The Old Testament is clear that men belong in the workplace so that they can bring home the bacon. Over and over in the Hebrew history, we see the men going to the fields to work the land or raise animals, while the women stay home, nurture the children, and keep the household in order. Men have no business managing the household of God when it is clear that women are the ones who have been developing, over thousands of years, the gifts and skill-set needed to do so expertly.

Furthermore, the testimony of the New Testament is that the closest disciples of Jesus were all men. Sadly, not only did a man betray Jesus for a sack of money, but all of them abandoned Jesus upon his arrest. It was the women who steadfastly followed Jesus to the cross and then came to prepare his body after his death. And, it was a woman who first saw and spoke to Jesus after his resurrection, and the first one to be sent to inform others (the male disciples) of the Good News. Clearly, women make up the most loyal and faithful disciples of Jesus and they were originally entrusted with the full Gospel message. Therefore, women should be the ones entrusted with the shepherding of other disciples.

Also, men's bodies are an obvious stumbling block for female parishioners. Just as Potiphar's wife was lured by Joseph's good looks, and Delilah by Samson's rippling muscles, so also Christian women are constantly tempted by the good looks of male pastors. Although there is nothing in scripture that denotes the male form to be a problem for their ministry, common sense says that they simply cannot perform the duties of pastor without causing a major problem in the thought lives of impressionable women. In this sense, when men voluntarily submit to the leadership of women in church, they find the best way to protect the minds and hearts of their sisters in Christ.

Moreover, the Bible is clear that men are to be the spiritual leaders of their homes. The hierarchy of the home is clear: God first, husband second, wife third, and children last. Each answers to their superior for matters of spirituality and none have more responsibility than the husband, who must answer to God for the spiritual state of his wife and kids. If a husband is being obedient to the Word and takes this sacred trust seriously, then he will not have the time or energy necessary to shepherd others. With the eternal souls of his family on the line, a godly man would not want to distract himself with the spiritual concerns of others. Therefore, since the wife is not responsible for her own spirituality, she is the one best suited for caring for the lives of fellow Christians as their pastor.

Finally, the advances of psychology and neurology have shown that men and women are very different in their minds and emotions. While women are adept at multi-tasking, managing relationships, and seeing the connectedness of all things, men tend to compartmentalize, blunder through relationships, and disregard the symbiosis of all things. Also, men are generally out of touch with their feelings, struggle to empathize, and do not naturally show mercy. This means that, through no fault of their own, men are ill-equipped to be pastors, for their mind and emotions are not set up that way. Rather than bemoan this limitation, however, we should rejoice in the profound differences between men and women and thank God for the clarity we have received through the sciences in recent years.

All of these arguments do not mean, however, that men are not equal to women. Of course not! Men and women are equal in essence, but different in function. Men and women are equal in their place before God, but different in their place in the church. It is not because of any defect or malformation in men that makes them unsuitable for the pastorate. It is just the way God intends it to be.

Men are still capable of having a vibrant and meaningful place in the ministry of God's church. Among other things, men can mow the church grounds, count the money, pick up heavy furniture, and eat at the potlucks. Men can be recognized on Father's Day, saluted on Memorial Day and Veteran's Day, and acknowledged by the church on their birthday. With so many blessed ways to serve God's people, why would men desire to usurp God's order and pursue anything else?

Being a man is a high calling and it deserves our utmost respect. Let us women support men in their endeavor to pursue God's best, honoring their service to the church, even if they cannot serve as the church's pastor.

Monday, July 13, 2009

I Do Not Need a Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ

Note: What follows is a little bit like a rant and a little bit like a prayer. I don't know what category it should fall into, really, but I thank my readers in advance for accepting my honesty without reproach. You may quibble with my quibbles, but know that the desperate heart behind the words is real.

Life has been tough recently. And, frankly, I haven't done life very well, either. While I think I've adjusted to motherhood pretty well, and I've managed not to make any major blunders with William so far, in every other way, I have struggled. If life is an ocean, then I've been dog-paddling inefficiently for weeks, occasionally dipping below the surface, only to pop up a few seconds later gasping and sputtering, and flailing for help. Unfortunately, there's not a rescue boat in sight.

In all this, I have found myself feeling very alone. Although my two degrees in theology tell me that God is everywhere-present and will never leave me or forsake me, I have walked around for weeks with a hollow belly--the kind of feeling you get when you haven't eaten all day--the hunger gnawing at your insides like a rottweiler chomping a rawhide bone. The hollowness has been almost unbearable, particularly since circumstances in our life are such that what I really want is a warm, enveloping feeling of peace and security. But, this comfort has eluded me.

Which brings me to the title of this blog. I've heard many fellow Christians going through similarly difficult times proclaim, "If it weren't for my relationship with Jesus, I don't know what I'd do." Or, "I don't know what people do who don't have a relationship with Jesus."

Of course, I understand where they are coming from and the idea they intend to convey when then say such things. They are saying that without their faith in Christ, they would be without hope. Even so, perhaps its the theologian in me, but in light of my current circumstances and spiritual state, I feel compelled to quibble with the verbiage.

When I examine my heart in light of recent struggles, I realize that my relationship with Jesus Christ is not enough. Yes, I have a relationship with Jesus. In part, at least, I know what makes him happy and sad. I know some of his favorite sayings and most memorable stories. And, he knows all theses things about me, as well. I can speak to him and expect him to respond. I can become angry with him, and he with me, and we can "make up" and enjoy each others company again.

Yes, I have a relationship with Jesus--a unique one, for sure--but I have a "relationship" with my Starbucks barista and regular handy-man, as well.

As I see it, there's a problem with the word "relationship," for it says nothing about the proximity of the two persons to one another, nor does it properly address the spiritual trajectory intended for all those who characterize themselves as Christians. The truth is, I do not need a relationship with Jesus Christ (and neither do you). What I need is union with him. The chief end of all Christians is not a good relationship with Jesus, it is union with Christ.

Right now, my "relationship" with Jesus brings me little peace, comfort, or joy. I know he is with me, but I feel like there's a smog of unspoken tensions and misunderstandings clouding the space between us. We continue to "relate" to each other, but not in the way that brings me ultimate freedom, or Christ ultimate glory. Because I am only in a "relationship" with him, I continue to live my own way, think my own thoughts, make my own plans, and then throw a toddleresque temper tantrum when Jesus doesn't conform to my will.

Thus, my conclusion: my relationship with Christ isn't good enough. I need to be one with him. What I need is not give-and-take with him--I need to be completely undone and consumed within his goodness and grace. I need the life of Christ to become my life--"it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20). I need to experience (and not just pay lip-service to) the life of one who "abides" in Christ and knows for a fact that apart from him, the Vine, I can do nothing (John 15:5).

I need to be so united with Jesus that every minute of every day I'm smiling when he smiles, weeping when he weeps, and laughing when he laughs. Only by union with Christ can I truly know myself, for through the eyes of Truth, I can finally see what is true about me. I need the security that comes, not from knowing all--for even Jesus did not know some of the Father's plans--but from resting in the love of the Father, who cares for us. Only through union--oneness of mind and spirit--with Christ, can I truly "cease striving and know God" (Ps 46:10).

The good news is, in the words of Brennan Manning: "Love by its nature seeks union." This means that even as I observe my present life and realize how impoverished my spirit has become, I know that the love of Christ is such that he is already seeking to unite with me and provide satisfaction. It is the nature of Love to do this and it is the nature of our God, as well. In a sense, he cannot help it. Christ's foolish, serendipitous, jealous, and unbounded love compels him to woo me into union with him. If only I would stop flailing in the ocean, give up my hunger pains, and surrender. Let us pray for each other as we pursue that end.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A month later...

For those of you who have children, I don't have to tell you that the first few weeks and months with your baby pass like a whirlwind. Although we have many things going on in our little corner of the Kingdom, my world has narrowed and focused for the present on our little boy. As it should be, of course.

This means that while I may have many thoughts I'd like to share, most of them relate in some way to diapers, sleeping/eating patterns, the pros and cons of snaps versus zippers, and the genius of pack-n-plays. And, even when I have something substantive to say, I have a list of things to do a mile long that take precedence for now.

So, in lieu of profound reflections and deep thoughts, I will share some more pictures. What follows is a small sampling taken of Will over the past week. He's now almost 8 weeks old and, according to his pediatrician, 14 lbs and 24.5 inches. Will is smiling, cooing, gurgling, and working on holding his head up. We love him more and more every day. Enjoy!









Monday, May 25, 2009

Proud Mommy Pictures

Just a few pictures of Will, who's turning 3 weeks old on Tuesday...







Friday, May 15, 2009

William Hunter McGowin

Our son, William Hunter McGowin, was born May 5, 2009. 9 lbs, 2 oz, 22 1/4 in. Ronnie coached me through a natural childbirth with the help of a nurse-midwife, and it was an incredible experience, to say the least. Perhaps I will have more to share about that later. For now, please know that everything went well and both he and I are healthy and happy. The McGowin household is slowly adjusting to life with a newborn and Will is slowly adjusting to life with us. Thank you all for your prayers and encouragement. God is very good.



Saturday, April 25, 2009

"Pastoral Authority"? Part 2

Based upon my previous post, I'm sure it is clear that I have serious problems with the way in which "pastoral authority" is preached and practiced, both in the SBC and in broader evangelical circles. Perhaps these problems are self-evident to most, but in case they are not, let me explain.

The first and most obvious problem with "pastoral authority," is the teaching of the New Testament that the head of the Church is Jesus Christ. While it may be organizationally convenient and structurally expedient to give the authority to lead, manage, and envision the church to the "senior pastor" (much as businesses give that authority to their well-paid CEOs), this does not make the practice any less unbiblical and, frankly, un-Christian. Indeed, when one soberly surveys the references to the "head of the church" in the NT, one is convicted by the seriousness of the blasphemy involved with claiming any kind of "headship" or "authority" for the pastor.

"That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way" (Eph 1:19-23; see also Col 1:17-19).

"God...appointed [Christ] to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way." I'm reticent even to comment, because the point seems so clear. How dare we claim any authority for any other person in the church, whether the pastor, the deacons, the elders, or any other leadership body? Granted, spiritual gifts have been distributed by Christ for the building up of the body and roles have been given to persons within the church for the orderly worship of Christ, but neither of these scenarios involves the dispensing of authority for headship within the church. Jesus is the head of his Church. Period.

Another problem I observe with the way we speak of pastors and their authority arises when we deal honestly with the teaching of Jesus on titles and the exercise of authority. Surely, if Jesus is the head of the Church, then we should yield to him when it comes to matters of leadership. And, what does Jesus have to say about it?

"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matt 23:8-12).

In this discourse, Jesus is harshly condemning the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, while contrasting it with the way in which his disciples are to behave. A contemporary paraphrase of the behavior he condemns in verses 5-7, when applied to the position of pastor, might sound something like this:

"Everything these leaders do is done for men to see: They make their Bibles big and heavy, and their prayers long and flowery; they love to be given the best seats and the first servings at parties, and to sit on the stage in the church service, for all to see; they love to be recognized at the mall and grocery stores, and to have people call them 'Pastor.'"

This is not to say, of course, that most pastors knowingly and intentionally behave this way. Usually, pride, whether in great or small amounts, is much more insidious and hidden deep within our hearts. Blatant grabs at position, power, and prestige are rare, I think. But, believe it or not, I have actually been instructed by one pastor, that it would be a "spiritual discipline" to call him "Pastor," especially in front of church members and people in the community. In his words, the people needed to be "taught to respect his position," and honor his role as pastor, and the title "Pastor," which we were to use of him in every instance, would help them to learn.

This kind of thinking is exactly why Jesus taught his disciples not to allow themselves to be called, "Rabbi," "Teacher," or "Father," and it is the exact opposite of the kind of leadership Jesus says has a place in the Kingdom of God. This parallels with his pointed instruction following James and John's presumptuous request in Matt 20, where Jesus says, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Can it really be any clearer?

Another theological problem with the way pastoral authority is preached and practiced is that it is in conflict with the New Testament's teaching on spiritual gifts in the life of the Church. The pastor-teacher gift is one of many gifts (and offices) given by the Holy Spirit for the building up of the body of Christ, but evangelicals have made this gift the only truly important gift in the functioning of the body. In fact, as I said in my first post, entire organizations and businesses have been started for the sole purpose of promoting the exercise of one man's preaching/teaching gift. (Not to mention the number of churches that have begun on the basis of one pastor-teacher's gifting. Frank Viola has something to say about this in his book, Reimagining Church.).

A brief survey of the discussions of spiritual gifts in the New Testament lead me to make a few observations: (1) the gifts/offices of the church are dispensed by the Spirit of God, under the headship of Jesus Christ; (2) never is "authority" given to people possessing particular gifts/offices; (3) when "authority" is mentioned in the context of exercising the gifts, it is always derived.

The final issue I have with "pastoral authority" is the way that it is always used in conjunction with patriarchal theology and male-centered organizational structures. Just as the "ideal" Christian family unit is understood to be arranged in a hierarchy--husband, wife, children--so also, the "ideal" Christian church is understood to be arranged in a hierarchy--pastor, congregation (or pastor, deacons, congregation; or pastor, elders, congregation; whatever the case may be).

Don't believe me that these two ideas go hand-in-hand? Consider a biblical debate I had in Bible college (and have heard repeated in local SBC churches since then) over the identification of the "head-covering" spoken of by Paul in 1 Cor 11. Even as the common argument was made that the head-covering of the wife is her husband (with the implication being that she goes through him to get to God), so also I heard many students attempt to make the case that the head-covering of the single woman is... her pastor (!!!).

Talk about a hermeneutical leap, no? But, if the husband is the head of the wife and the pastor is the head of the church (in the hierarchal model), then it makes perfect sense that the pastor would be the head of the unmarried women in the church. (And, do I even need to point out how quickly this sort of thinking leads down the path of countless male-dominated cults, where the women are subservient to the men, particularly the male leader of the organization? The potential for perversion in this scenario is significant.)

In both cases, whether a hierarchal view of marriage or a hierarchal view of church, I understand the arrangement to be biblically wrong-headed and spiritually detrimental. Let me quote the teachings of Jesus again: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Authority in the Kingdom of God is reserved for Jesus Christ alone, who has been given the highest place "above all rulers and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come." When there is any authority exercised by his people, it is always derivative and always based upon his example and call: not to be served, but to serve. This goes for pastors, as well as any other member of the body of Christ.