Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Review: The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission by David E. Fitch

David E. Fitch is B.R. Lindner Professor of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL and a pastor at Life on the Vine Christian Community in suburban Chicago. In 2005 he published The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies. He has a blog called Reclaiming the Mission. According to his blog, he considers himself an Anabaptist (or, Neo-anabaptist). His most recent book is the subject of this review: The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission.

Up front, I have to be honest. I didn't have any idea who David Fitch was when my friend, Todd Littleton, asked if I would be interested in reviewing his most recent book. I said "yes" mostly because of our friendship, with little to no real expectation for the book I would be reviewing. I was even more skeptical when I saw that the title references the "end of evangelicalism"--an issue that has been talked (almost) to death in the blogosphere.

With that in mind, let me just say that this book was a very pleasant surprise. To put it simply, Fitch's work is deeply insightful, carefully articulated, and charitably expressed. It is probably the most informed consideration of US evangelicalism I've ever read. (What more could you ask for, right?) I'm grateful for the opportunity to read it and provide a review (and endorsement!). I'm going to outline the book below, providing something of an overview of the material, as well as some relevant comments and critique that arise along the way.

In the "Introduction," Fitch presents the foundational problem for US evangelicalism as he sees it. In public perception and political influence, evangelicalism is in the midst of a great decline. He illustrates this decline in a number of ways and then poses the question: "Is our way of life failing to make the gospel compelling amidst the society in which we live?" His answer to this question is a resounding "yes." And, the crux of the issue is that evangelical beliefs and practices are no longer shaping our communal life in such a way that it embodies the Gospel (xiv, xv).

Fitch chooses to approach this crisis in evangelicalism using political theology, for the "politic" of evangelicalism is what is at issue. This is not primarily speaking of our various alliances within US national politics. Instead, this is speaking of "our way of life together unified and formed into an organic whole by our beliefs and practices of those beliefs" (xvi). This is our "politic" in a broad, holistic sense--what kinds of people we are in the world.

He goes on to explain that he is going to use the political theory of Slavoj Zizek to critique the corporate existence of evangelicals in order to show how we have devolved into an "empty politic." This empty politic, Fitch argues, has "shaped us as a people inhospitable to God's mission" (xvi). Then, he will propose what he calls a "politic of fullness," which he defines as one that "participates in the life of the Incarnate Christ as a work of the Father, extended through the Spirit into the world" (xvii). Despite the critical work that will be done (and there is a lot of it!), Fitch's aim is not to dismantle evangelicalism, but to "seek to provide an opening for evangelicalism to be renewed and to flourish into the missional calling that lies before us in the new post-Christendom West" (xvii).

In Chapter 1, Fitch describes what he believes to be the decline of evangelicalism in the US. Over a ten year period, he illustrates this decline by pointing to our diminishing national political influence, the proliferation of negative portrayals of evangelicals, the rise of leaders and movements to criticize evangelicalism (including Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, and others), and the very high numbers of defection from evangelicalism, especially among college students. Fitch goes on to characterize this decline as a "political ideology in crisis." By looking at evangelicalism as an ideology, Fitch intends to explore the ways our belief system, or doctrine, has shaped us into "a certain kind of people with certain ways of life" (8).

The focus of his critique will be three core theological beliefs which, he argues, now function as "ideological objects around which evangelicals rally" (11). He draws these three beliefs from the description of evangelicalism proposed by historians David Bebbington and Mark Noll, and they include: (1) a high view of the authority of the Bible; (2) a strong belief in personal conversion experience; and (3) an activist engagement with culture. It is important to note that when Fitch takes these doctrinal elements under consideration, he does not deny them or suggest that they are wrong. Instead, he approaches them as the "ideological objects" they have become.

One of the important points of this chapter is the frankly stated notion that, "Our social presence (or lack thereof) has impaired our witness for the gospel" (9). This statement resonates with me in a big way. It seems that this is the nagging hunch most of us--my evangelical friends and colleagues and I--have had at the back of our minds for some time, but none of us really wanted to put it into words. Fitch just says it. And, I think he's right. Our body politic, the emptiness that exists where our compelling Christian life should be, is harming our mission in North America.

The next chapter is probably the most dense of the book, in which Fitch outlines the political and cultural theories of Slavoj Zizek. At this point, I won't go into detail about the relevant terms and ideas. To do so would mean replicating large portions of the chapter! Suffice it to say, Fitch provides a careful and clear explanation of the earlier period of Zizek's work for those unfamiliar with his thought (just about everyone!). He will use Zizek's philosophy to critique evangelicalism as a political ideology. He compares the use of Zizek to sitting down with a good therapist. Using Zizek's understanding of the way "empty politics" work, Fitch will provides a "psychoanalysis" of evangelicalism, helping to diagnosis our pathologies and neuroses. Fitch is careful to say, though, that Zizek will only help locate the problems; ultimately, his atheistic, nihilistic philosophy cannot provide the remedy.

In the chapters that follow, Fitch turns his attention to the three central "Master-Signifiers" of evangelicalism: "the Inerrant Bible," "the Decision for Christ," and "the Christian Nation." Again, it is important to realize that Fitch is NOT denying these ideas, theologically or otherwise. Instead, he is critiquing the way these ideas have come to function within evangelicalism--as empty ideological symbols that serve as litmus tests for identity, rather than formative doctrines that make evangelicals into committed, fruit-producing disciples of Jesus. He reveals the emptiness of these ideological objects by examining events in recent evangelical history ("irruptions") that reveal in sometimes bizarre and embarrassing ways, the failure of the evangelical politic in the US context.

Although all three chapters make compelling arguments, I found that the chapter on "the Inerrant Bible" resonated the most from personal experience. Based upon many years within evangelical churches and institutions, I think Fitch's conclusions regarding the way the ideological object of "inerrancy" functions in evangelical life is spot-on. "Damning" is the word that comes to mind. Here's an excerpt of Fitch's argument:

"The assertion of 'inerrancy'...acts as an identifier used to assert the organization's, church's, or one's own personal evangelical orthodoxy. It serves to generate a certain ideological identification that we are conservative Bible-believing Christians who can be trusted. It serves to identify a group as 'not liberal.' The actual belief, however, in 'the Inerrant Bible' means little in terms of what each evangelical organization or church actually believes about biblical interpretation, the manuscripts, and/or internal contradictions as exposed by higher biblical critics. It instead functions purely as a symbol, an 'empty signifier,' that binds evangelicals together for certain political purposes" (56).

After Fitch applies Zizek to evangelicalism, critiquing and exposing the three "Master-Signifiers" that have emptied our politic of fullness, in Chapter 6 he turns his attention to "Recovering the Core of Our Politics for Mission." Here, he outlines what he considers to be the possibility for a redeemed politic ("politic of fullness") that will be "a participation of people together in the gift of God the Father that enters into the world in the incarnate Christ as the Sent One and is extended into the world via the Holy Spirit...Here, at the Incarnation, the gift is full, and we are invited as a people into participating in the fullness of God's love flowing forth within the endless plenitude of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" (126). In pursuit of this goal, Fitch suggests that what is needed is not a rejection of the three evangelical distinctives, previously critiqued, but an overcoming of their detachment from Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son, who is the center of our political existence.

Then, Fitch considers each of the three evangelical doctrinal commitments in conversation with important contemporary Christian theologians, imagining a revised version of these commitments firmly rooted in the Incarnate Christ. Again, space and time limitations mean that I can't address the details of these arguments. Fitch engages with a dizzying plethora of theologians and to consider each of the engagements in turn would take a long series of blog posts. Some of the important thinkers Fitch employs for his project include Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Kevin Vanhoozer, N.T. Wright, John Milbank, Dallas Willard, Henri de Lubac, William Cavanaugh, and John Howard Yoder.

When Fitch concludes Chapter 6, he has set forth a new direction for an evangelical theology and practice that will shape a people for God's mission. Though much more remains to be done (something he readily admits!), I think Fitch has gone a long way toward charting course of theological reflection for evangelicalism. Ultimately, he rightly calls on the work of Stanley Hauerwas to shore up his project, urging us "that if the character of our political existence does not emulate the gospel we preach, we should examine our belief and practice for the ways it has made such a social condition possible." Fitch's book is a call to do just that and a big contribution toward making this enterprise possible.

Finally, in the book's "Epilogue," Fitch considers three movements within evangelicalism over the past ten to fifteen years and critically considers them as "possibilities for new faithfulness." Charitable and careful in his criticism, Fitch suggests places of weakness and strength within the work of representative thinkers Peter Rollins, Brian McLaren, Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost (together). He concludes that "the emerging church movements, the missional church movements, as well as the neo-monastic and house church movements all show enormous promise for nurturing a new faithfulness" (200). Still, in his studied opinion, the outcome of their work for evangelicalism will depend upon their ability to avoid the "ideological traps" that Fitch points out.

Before addressing a few critical comments about Fitch's book, I should begin again by saying that I heartily recommend this volume. Fitch is a careful, deep thinker with an obvious love for Christ and the people of God. With The End of Evangelicalism?, he has made a very important contribution to evangelical theology and the endeavor of re-visioning the evangelical witness in North America.

With that in mind, I have three points of criticism and/or engagement with Fitch's work. The first has to do with his assertion that doctrines form people. This is the operative assumption when he says, "Evangelicals need to understand both how these doctrines have formed us as a people and to question whether indeed the resultant character of that community is congruent with the gospel we evangelicals have been called to proclaim to the nations" (12). I do not debate his overall point here. In fact, I completely agree. But, I think its important to point out that the formation of a people is a much more complicated process. We can't simply point to doctrines, for they are ideas--abstract notions that cannot actually "do" anything. What forms people is liturgy, ritual, behavior, and story (among other things). These things contain, communicate, and enact doctrine, but they aren't simply doctrine. For example, in reference to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, we could point to the AWANA children's program or expository preaching as things that form people based upon a particular doctrine. The doctrine itself didn't necessarily do the forming, but the practices did. I don't think Fitch would contest me on this point, but I think it is one that should be made.

Another question I have about this book relates to the basic categories of "fallen politic" versus "Christian politic" or "politic of fullness." I am very sympathetic with Fitch's conclusion that evangelicalism has, by and large, become a "fallen politic." The reified "ideological objects" he critiques have left us with an unredeeming cultural presence in the US. But, I have to wonder if the dualism of "fallen politic" versus "politic of fullness" ever really pans out. That is to say, isn't the church always-already-everywhere dealing with both? From early on, it seems the church, as a situated body of people struggling with the way Gospel interacts with culture, has always navigated the blurry edges between enculturation and syncretism--faithfulnss and "fallenness," if you will. Furthermore, because the church is the people of God, bearing the marks of Christ, can the church ever be completely fallen? And, because the church is full of sinful, broken human beings, can the church ever be completely "full"?

As careful as Fitch's analysis is, I wonder if it isn't even more complicated than he asserts. Christian compromise and cooperation with evil is nothing new, nor is it something we can completely avoid--especially in light of globalization and the proliferation of new technologies. There are always more and more people available to us to sin against! I am not a Niebuhrian realist, but I am incapable of an all-in dichotomy in the church-world relationship, either. Perfection is not possible for the body of Christ until the Lord's reign is inaugurated in full. In the mean time, I have to think that evangelicals will always deal with a mixture of "fallen" and "full" elements within our body politic. So, the question is, what do we do with that? What do we do with a body politic that is always-already-everywhere fallen and full?

Finally, in light of Fitch's criticism of evangelicalism's three major "ideological obejcts," I have to wonder about the way complementarian gender dualism functions in evangelicalism, too. Although not traditionally a part of the "fundamentals" from which twentieth century evangelicalism was birthed, a rigid sense of gender roles has become another hallmark of US evangelicalism today. (This, despite the work of such egalitarian evangelical organizations like Christians for Biblical Equality.) Ever since the 1920s, strong notions of masculinity and femininity, framed in patriarchal terms, has been a hallmark of fundamentalist evangelicalism from early on. Thanks to the likes of Al Mohler, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Paige Patterson, et al, a hierarchical view of gender relations has become yet another litmus test for orthodoxy in recent decades. And, in my estimation, it could be argued that it too has become a "Master-Signifier"--an empty ideological object that contributes nothing of real practical (read: missional) effect in the lives of evangelical Christians. To put it in Fitch's terms, it could be argued that the complementarian model of gender dualism is not shaping our communal life in such a way that it embodies the Gospel.

I see this when so-called "traditional" wives and mothers speak in exalted language about the importance of submission to their "spiritual heads" (their husbands) and then turn around and giggle in private about the wife being the "neck" that turns the "head" where she pleases. I see this when evangelicals erupted in debate over the 2008 vice presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin--an accomplished politician and mother of five. Despite very clearly established norms of gender relations for "regular" women, evangelical leaders found themselves contorting themselves in theological gymnastics seeking a way to affirm the legitimacy of Palin's very public role, despite her calling as wife and mother. And, I see this in the absurdity of bans on women preachers being interpreted to prohibit women speaking from the pulpit, praying in public, and voicing opinions in church meetings. (These are examples of what Fitch calls examples of "overidentification," which display the emptiness and absurdity of the ideology at its core.) All of these things (and more) suggest to me that, perhaps, the hierarchical gender relations constantly spouted by the evangelical faithful are another "ideological object" worthy of deconstruction within evangelicalism today.

Before concluding this review, I should address a few practical points for potential readers of The End of Evangelicalism?. First, it is important to keep in mind that Fitch's work in this volume is not an easy read, even for educated laypersons. It is in an academic book series and engages with the work of a little known political and cultural theorist. The reader will need to be able to engage with a description of Zizek's political and cultural theory, as well as a number of important 20th Century theological figures. Personally, I think the mental workout one will receive is worth the effort, but this is something potential readers will want to keep in mind before dolling out the required cash.

Speaking of cash, if you look it up on Amazon, you'll see the book priced at a hefty $28, for a paperback (!). But, let me just say that if you are an evangelical seeking to think critically about your context, especially a minister, lay leader, professor, or other vocation within the evangelical milieu, this book is worth the price. And that's coming from a mother of two children with a youth minister husband, living on a graduate student stipend!

After reading David Fitch's The End of Evangelicalism, I have put his previous volume, The Great Giveaway on my Amazon Wish List. I will continue to think deeply about the issues he has raised while I pursue my own vocation as theological teacher in evangelicalism today. And, I look forward to reading more from him in the future.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

What she said!

When I wrote my little rant several days ago about not wanting to talk about women in ministry anymore, I was reacting to feelings that Laura Rector expresses very well in this ABP article: Don't try to "fix" women in ministry. All I can say is: What she said!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Case Against Male Pastors

This is a re-posted and slightly tweaked piece from the past. I found it particularly amusing recently in light of some things Ronnie and I are reading. Perhaps its a bad sign that I amuse myself with it, but hopefully my readers will share in the laughs, too. I find myself unable to write anything original at the moment as I finish up research papers for the semester. Enjoy!
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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 in 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, opening jars, 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 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.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Birth of William Hunter McGowin, May 5, 2009

In honor of William's second birthday today, I've finally finished the story of his birth, which I've been meaning to complete since his first week of life. That tells you how busy we've been in the past two years! Warning to my readers, though. Although I have tried not to be too graphic, there are some very "earthy" details in the below account (it is about childbirth after all!). I know not everyone who frequents my blog is interested in such things, so feel free to skip this post if you're squeamish.

I should say by way of background that I have had both of my children naturally, with a midwife, using the Bradley Method of Natural Childbirth (more information about that is available here. Although William's birth had some difficulties (as you'll read below), I wouldn't do it any other way (nor will I with any future children we may be blessed with). I found both experiences empowering in a profound way and they were incredibly unifying events for Ronnie and me, as we birthed our children together.

Happy birthday to my little boy! He was my joyful and anxious entry into motherhood and its been a journey of endless rewards ever since!


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I woke up around 4 AM on May 5, 2009 with what I thought were stomach cramps. I got up and attempted to use the bathroom, to no effect. I lied back down next to Ronnie and tried to go back to sleep, but my stomach was growling and the cramps were still there periodically. So, I went downstairs and made myself a bowl of cereal.

After finishing my cereal, it was around 4:45 and I realized that I was still feeling the cramps, but now they were coming in waves. The sensation would start on my left side and tighten all across the lower part of my abdomen, then spread to my lower back as a dull ache. They seemed to last about 30 seconds each and then fade away. At this point, it occurred to me that I could be starting the early part of labor. So, I sat in the big armchair and timed a few of the contractions myself. When I couldn’t go back to sleep, I went back upstairs and crawled into bed with Ronnie. He was due to wake up around 5:30 to go to work.

When his alarm went off, I told him, “Honey, I think I might be having contractions.” I explained to him what had happened and he agreed that he should time them with his phone’s stopwatch and see where I really was. After several contractions, we observed that I was having contractions every six to seven minutes for about 45-50 seconds. We discussed whether or not Ronnie should go to work, but I told him that I wanted him at home with me. At that point, it became very real to me that the baby was on the way and I needed to put into practice all that we had learned from the Bradley Method.

We spent about an hour in bed together, timing the contractions, talking, and practicing the relaxation techniques. The ache in my lower back was getting worse and I had Ronnie begin putting pressure on it when the contraction started. Around 7 AM I decided to call the midwife because the contractions were maintaining their length and repetition. I spoke with Cyndi and she told me that it sounded like I was in early labor and I should wait to come into the hospital until the contractions were 60-90 seconds long and three to five minutes apart or my water broke, whatever came first.

At that point, we decided I would take a shower and then we would head downstairs so that Ronnie could get breakfast and do laundry to prepare our hospital bag. I sat in the big armchair again and we watched recorded TV shows while he did his work. We stopped timing the contractions for a few hours and I just concentrated on full relaxation with every contraction. They were increasing in intensity, although not at a regular pace. We finally re-started timing them around 11 AM. It was around that time that I went to the bathroom and saw that I was losing my mucous plug. The contractions were still around 60 seconds long and about 5 minutes apart.

The contractions were very uncomfortable at this point, so I lay down on the couch. But, the lack of support for my hips did nothing to help the ache in my lower back, so I asked Ronnie if we could go back upstairs. He got out the twin size mattress from his study and put it on the floor in our room. He put sheets on it and arranged pillows for me. I lay down there and he gave me the stopwatch to use while he showered and packed. I was very self-absorbed by this point because the contractions had reached a strong intensity and my lower back, especially, ached tremendously.

By the time Ronnie was done showering and getting ready, I was thinking it was time to go to the hospital. But, knowing what the Bradley Method says about delaying your time at the hospital, Ronnie wanted to wait more. I did another hour or so of contractions while he finished packing and then, finally, I said I wanted to go to the hospital. The contractions were around 60 seconds long and four to five minutes apart. Also, I was getting to a place where I didn’t want to be moved and I was concerned we wouldn’t make it to the hospital if we didn’t go then. We called the midwife again and informed them we were going to be leaving soon.

Relaxing for the contractions while I was standing was very difficult. All the movement involved with getting ready to leave made the contractions come closer together, which made our preparations very slow. And, I needed Ronnie to do constant counter-pressure on my lower back to counteract the strong ache I was feeling with each contraction. When Ronnie went to start the car and put everything in it, I lied down on the couch again. My anxiety level was getting very high and I was very worried at the pain I might experience in the car ride to the hospital. I wasn’t sure I could make it and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to maintain my concentration once we got to the hospital. When Ronnie sat down next to me to encourage me, I threw up. Thankfully, it was all cranberry juice and water!

[Two years later, I finally finished the birth story!]

Ronnie says we left for the hospital around 3 PM. The ride to the hospital was hard. I inclined the front seat and did my best to relax through every contraction, breathing slowly and steadily. The seats felt so uncomfortable and my lower back ached fiercely, but without Ronnie’s help, I couldn’t have the counter-pressure that would alleviate some of the hurt. While Ronnie drove (slowly and carefully, at my insistence!), he made phone calls to some family and friends, letting them know I was in labor.

When we arrived at Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati, we were able to get valet service, so that Ronnie wouldn’t have to leave me. I was given a wheelchair ride while Ronnie carried the bags. All the while, I’m trying to relax through contractions, despite the fact that all the moving and stress was making it more difficult to do so. I remember being afraid that I wouldn’t be able to “get back on track” mentally once we got settled. But, I was too involved in relaxing my body to talk anymore.

We arrived at the nurse’s station on the maternity floor where a blonde happy-go-lucky nurse greeted us. Despite the fact that Ronnie told her I was in active labor, she continued to talk to me. I remember being very annoyed that she wanted to talk to me despite my obvious unwillingness to do so, but I didn’t have the energy to do anything about it. I simply waited for contractions to pass, breathing through them, before answering her questions. The nurse seemed to have no idea the urgency I was feeling and took her sweet time. It seems like we sat at that desk for a long time, but I’m sure it was only a few minutes. I know that while I was breathing and relaxing through a particularly hard contraction, someone was wheeling another wheelchair by me and crashed into the corner of my chair. It was very painful at the moment—but again, I couldn’t interrupt my relaxation to get angry. I couldn’t spare the energy!

They finally moved me into the triage room, where they wanted to monitor my contractions, “to be sure you’re really in labor.” When they said this I wanted to scream, but I didn’t—I was relaxing! When we got into the triage room, Ronnie helped me change into the nightgown I wanted to wear for the labor. And, the nurse hooked me up to the electronic fetal monitor. The bed they laid me on was horribly uncomfortable for my back aches and no matter which way I turned, I couldn’t relax fully. Our time in the triage room was extended much longer than it should have been because the belt for the monitor kept falling off. And, I remember that an aid had to come in at least twice because the machine wasn’t working properly and wasn’t recording anything! At one point, she actually had the gall to say, “Are you even having contractions?” I think she was quite lucky that I WAS having contractions, otherwise I might have hurt her!

At this point, Ronnie went into the hall and asked a nurse when we were going to get a room. She replied that they were very busy at the moment and would not be able to get us a “good room" right away. I was horrified at the thought of staying in that triage room anymore, so I told Ronnie I didn’t care where they put us. Just get us someplace permanent so I could get back to focusing on my labor.

Meanwhile, my midwife finally arrived—to my relief. The first thing she did was check my dilation. We were still on the super-uncomfortable triage bed and it was quite painful when she did the examination, but when she announced that I was 6.5 cm dilated, it was worth it. I was almost there! And, somehow, as soon as they knew I was so far along, a “good room” magically opened for me. Go figure.

(After the birth, my mom told me that the blonde nurse from the nurse’s station came up to her and told her to apologize to me because she didn’t think I was really in labor. She said she can typically tell when a woman is really in labor and I was too “quiet and calm.” I wanted to go back to her and say, “That’s precisely the point!”)

I had the choice to walk to the room myself or take the wheelchair. I knew the walk would probably be good for the advancement of my labor, but I just couldn’t imagine having to relax through all the contractions on the way to the room. So, I opted for the chair. And, we arrived at the room speedily. Ronnie thinks it was around 4:30 when we got there.

Honestly, what happened from that point on is now something of a blur. The change from 7 to 10 cms was quite overwhelming in terms of what my body was doing. I had to work very, very hard to remain as relaxed as possible, to allow the contractions to advance without my body getting in the way. And, looking back, I’m not sure how well I did that. The back pain I was experiencing was overwhelming--far worse than the contractions. And, try as we might, no matter what position I got into, we couldn’t get William to turn around (from posterior to anterior). All the while, Ronnie never left my side. He talked me through every contraction, applying very hard counter-pressure on my back, and providing me with ice water when I needed it. He was so helpful and attentive, the midwife had very little to do. She sat in the corner in a rocking chair waiting for the “action” to begin.

I remember that the midwife had a woman with her who was in training as a midwife. And, a number of nurses kept coming in and out to see what was going on. I felt a bit like an exhibit, but I was too busy trying to concentrate to care. As requested, they never once offered me pain medication and I never once asked for it. Ronnie had succeeded in making sure I was confident in my ability to birth our baby. He was all the help I needed! At some point, the midwife did offer to break my water to speed along the transition phase, but I said no.

Eventually, I was feeling overwhelmed with the sensation of William descending and I began having the urge to push. I asked the midwife to check me again and she announced I was at 9.5 cms. She said that if I wanted to, she thought I could push when I felt the urge and see what happens. At that point, I realized I wanted my mom to be with us when William arrived. Though we had discussed no one else being in the room until it was all over, I asked the nurse to get my mom. I think Ronnie was surprised, but he was so focused on helping me, he didn’t object.

I began to push around 7 PM. They put up a mirror so that I could see the progress, but I was too focused on pushing to pay much attention, really. I was so glad to be at the end, I didn’t really care about anything else. I just wanted to be done. My water broke finally as I was pushing. When William’s head finally emerged, there was rejoicing. There was a flurry of activity because he came out with his cord wrapped very tightly around his neck. The midwife had to cut the cord and instructed me to push the rest of him out. I did, but nothing happened. She said loudly, “Emily, you need to push now!” And, I said, “I am!” Nothing was happening. At that point, they realized that William’s shoulders were stuck. The midwife called for help and nurses came running in.

Again, the rest is a blur, but I remember a nurse pushing down hard on my abdomen and the midwife maneuvering William’s body out. It only took 60 seconds total to get William out, but it felt like an eternity. It was a very scary few minutes, full of all kinds of emotions. At first, I was frightened by the pain of William’s emerging and the tearing I could feel happening. But then, I was overcome with fear at the fact that William was stuck. And when they finally got him out, I was desperate to know that he was all right.

They took him immediately to check his vital signs and all I could do was watch as they worked with him across the room. I remember his cry finally and the nurse assuring me that he was OK. And, although everything else is a blur, I distinctly remember seeing his big blue eyes staring at me across the room, blinking slowly and watching everything. He didn’t cry much at all. We just looked at each other for what felt like hours.

I had wanted to nurse William right away after birth, but they were concerned about his lack of oxygen during the period he was stuck. They told me his stats, 9 lbs 2 oz, and that they were going to transfer him to the NICU for observation. Ronnie, as we had agreed beforehand, went with him. He told me after the fact that he was very torn about leaving me. He knew he was supposed to go with William, but he didn’t want to leave me behind. I was still very emotional following the birth—the joy of giving birth followed by the fear of something being wrong, followed by relief that all was OK. Thankfully, my mom was there and she held my hand and talked to me while I pushed out the placenta and had a few stitches put in. (It was a blessing that the tearing wasn’t nearly as bad as it felt. There’s no doubt that I did not need to be cut—even with a 9 lb. baby! The midwife definitely made sure the tearing wasn’t as bad as it could have been, applying counter-pressure and applying warm oil as I was pushing William out.)

William was in the NICU for about an hour before they finally brought him to me. We were very grateful that he suffered no harm from the delay in getting him out and his body was unharmed, despite the forceful efforts made to to remove him. The time I spent waiting on William was a very strange experience. I had done this wonderful thing—birthed a baby naturally with my husband by my side—but I didn’t have my child! My arms felt empty without him.

When he finally arrived, he was asleep, with his two middle fingers stuck into his mouth. We took pictures as a family and then I held him as they wheeled us to our overnight room and we got settled there. It was only then that I was able to nurse him for the first time. William was a ferocious eater from his first day. I think he must have nursed all night long!