Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Reflection on Lent

I've been sitting on this post since the beginning of Lent because I don't really know exactly how to talk about this.

When I was younger, repentance was a burden I could not get off my shoulders no matter how many times I tried to "leave it at the foot of the cross." I never felt relieved like they promised I would. I was never good enough, never holy enough, never thin enough, never smart enough, never strong enough—not for my friends, not for my parents, not for boys, and especially not for my God. I think it was partially a bit of undiagnosed anxiety, but it was also that insidious reformed idea that has crept down into so many of our churches through time, that we humans are worms, unloveable wretches, not even worthy to be crushed underneath God's shoe.

For me, repentance was a form of trauma bonding with the Divine.

     For I know my transgressions,
     And my sin is always before me.
     Against you, you only, have I sinned
     And done what is evil in your sight;
     So you are right in your verdict
     And justified when you judge. 

I thought that verse was about how I let a guy put his arm around me while we were taking a walk on a youth group retreat. I was so weak. So sinful. So entrenched in the desires of my flesh. Not only that, but I was a liar. I had promised to have no romantic physical contact with a man until I was engaged, and I had broken that promise. My word was as good as useless.

And so on and so on.

Life has flattened out my fundamentalist fervor a little bit since then, and I know the difference now between legitimate remorse and shame and anxiety.

But I still catch myself sometimes. I still catch myself believing that God is up in heaven just waiting for me to screw up so he can smash me with a giant holy hammer and give me everything I deserve. I still catch myself cowering in fear because grace is enough to get me out of hell but grace does not mean that God isn't going to punish me with in an inch of my life.

     Do not cast me from your presence,
     Or take your Holy Spirit from me.

I really believed he might. Sometimes I still do.

Because the easy Christianity of my youth was reducible to a list of things one must avoid in order to please God: don't drink, don't smoke, don't swear, don't express your sexuality, don't watch R-rated movies, don't vote Democrat, don't miss church. And if you fail, feel really bad about it; but if you succeed, you can sleep at night knowing that God is happy with you. Well done, good and faithful servant.

Now that I know Christianity isn't about those things… I'm not always sure what it is about.

Jesus, right?

But whose interpretation of Jesus? The Jesus who has radical and unconditional compassion on the poor and the fatherless and the widowed and the oppressed and the marginalized and yes, even the sinners? Or the Jesus of the modern-day Pharisees, who mysteriously ends up being in favor of all of our behavior and hating all the same people we hate? Who's to say they don't have him right?

You can drive yourself crazy with these questions. I have.

(Image from http://www.stjamesbr.org/the-sacraments.html)

So when the somber hymn is played, when the kneelers are lowered, when the rector begins, "Let us confess our sins against God and neighbor," all I can think of are my supposed transgressions of old, easy Christianity. There's no room to meditate on the things I do that truly grieve the heart of God—the way I move through life primarily concerned with myself and my pleasure, the blind eye I regularly turn to the poor and the needy around me, the judgement and disdain and fear I harbor in my heart towards others to the point that I can no longer detect the image of God in them.  Those are the things that should come to mind when I am on my knees before God, and instead I'm reliving my 14-year-old anguish, wondering if God is still going to love me now that I let a boy put his arm around me and how I'm going to explain this to my future husband.

So for Lent, I'm repenting of repenting for things I don't need to repent for.

I'm repenting of viewing God as a vindictive monster waiting to smite me for the smallest misstep.

I'm repenting of old, easy Christianity.

And I'm taking the first step towards something new. I'm shedding the beliefs that lead nowhere but down to despair and finding the yoke to be very light indeed. I'm systematically smashing my idols of "god" in an attempt to encounter the living Christ and hoping against all hope that he is really as good as I have been told that he is.

     A broken and contrite heart, you, God, will not despise.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Some thoughts on the #creationdebate (from someone who doesn't really agree with either side)

So the #creationdebate was last night, and it went just about as I expected it to. Nye actually attempted to answer the questions asked of him and dealt for the most part in data and facts; Ham made vast unsubstantiated socio-religious claims and drew a strict but largely false dichotomy between belief in evolution and belief in the Christian God (albeit in a charming Australian accent). I'm not sure who won because people are out there claiming a victory for both sides, and I'm not sure I care. Nevertheless, I have a few thoughts I'd like to share.

1. It is a dangerous thing when we equate our interpretations of God's word with God's word itself. It became clear early on in the debate that Ken Ham honestly believes that when someone questions whether the earth is actually 6,000 years old, they are questioning the very word of God. It's no longer a particular interpretation they have a problem with—it's God himself. Christians do this all the time, when we accuse people of not believing in or valuing the Bible because they disagree with us. What we have actually done is equated our interpretation of the Bible with pure, unfiltered, uninterpreted truth—which is, in my opinion, actually impossible to acquire. Ham's insistence on referring to himself and other scientists he cited as "biblical creationists" made me wonder: is there such a thing as an "unbiblical creationist"? If so, my guess is I'd probably be one according to Ham since I believe that everything ultimately came about because of the divine direction of God but not that the earth is 6,000 years old. But that just goes to illustrate the ludicrousness of trying to equate your interpretation with the Bible itself by slapping the word "biblical" on it.


2. A lack of belief in six-day creationism or the Christian God does not necessitate a lack of morality. By far the most disturbing part of the debate for me was when Ken Ham presented a graph he intended to show how people build their worldviews. On the side that started with naturalistic evolution as the base, he added building blocks like "gay marriage," "abortion," and "euthanasia." Let's call this for what it is: nothing more than religious fear-mongering. Don't agree with me? Then babies and old people will die and the foundation of society will crumble! It's this kind of nonsense that produces Christians who hate and fear those who disagree with them, and it goes back to that old idea we hear in various forms growing up that atheists and non-theists are incapable of morality or have no reason to live morally. My question is if people who say this actually know any atheists. Because I know quite a few, and none of them are heartless jerks devoid of all sense of right and wrong. That said, I do think there is room for discussion about how people account for morality, and that discussion can be very interesting. But to say that believing in naturalistic evolution leads to euthanasia is like saying gay marriage leads to bestiality. Oh wait.

3. Avoiding tough questions or hurling Bible verses at them isn't going to solve anything. One striking difference I noticed between Nye and Ham is that Nye made a valiant attempt to answer the question at hand and the questions that were asked of him directly, whereas Ham spent most of his time seemingly trying to prove that you can be a "biblical creationist" and still make positive contributions to science. He maneuvered around questions so often and so much that at one point he forgot what the question was in the first place. When Ham did answer the questions, the theologian in me cringed. For example, when attempting to explain why the universe is expanding and how there are billions of stars that appear to be further away than 6,000 light years, he quoted one of several verses in the bible that refers to God "stretching out the heavens." Completely seriously. As if that is a scientific statement. And a legitimate answer to the question. It's bad theology, it's bad science, and I'm interested in neither. When we avoid tough questions or "Jesus-juke" them, it sends the message that in order to be a faithful Christian, you need to stop using your brain and content yourself with easy answers. Of course that's not the case, but from watching the debate last night you'd never know it.

4. Our generation is tired of the culture wars. To the point that we feel compelled to invent a wide variety of drinking games to get through them. I know people say that all the time, but I was reminded of it when I looked at my twitter feed and saw just how many people were playing a drinking game to go along with the debate. I think we instinctively know that this stuff is absurd, that winning an argument over a secondary theological issue is not really going to bring anybody into the kingdom. We watch anyway, because we like a good circus, but deep down, we know and we're tired. We've come to realize that Christians would be much better off if we stopped expending so much energy trying to get everybody to agree with us on our pet socio-political issues and loved people unconditionally, regardless of whether or not they ever agree with us. Ever.  "We are ready to lay down our arms." And pick up our whiskey, apparently.

5. There is a difference between holding fast to your faith and being willfully ignorant. This image from James McGrath shows that Ken Ham may have the two confused:


Now, to be fair, the question is a little vague. Change your mind about what, exactly? But assuming the person asking the question was referring to, oh, I don't know, THE TOPIC OF THE DEBATE perhaps, then the answer should be something like, "Compelling evidence and thoughtful reflection." Ham, however, treated the question as if it were referring to his faith itself. You see, the debate was not actually about whether or not the word of God is true. I share Ham's belief that it is. But for Ham, this is what the debate came down to because he has conflated his interpretation of the Bible with the Bible itself. I am glad that he holds fast to his faith, that he would be hesitant to give it up even in the face of seemingly contradictory evidence. But that is different than stubbornly refusing to change one's mind about a secondary theological issue even when presented with overwhelming scientific and hermeneutical evidence that your position is false. That is not faith. That is stupidity. And that is what happens when we place our faith in doctrines and belief systems and interpretations rather than in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It all falls apart if your interpretation is proved false, so you cling to your interpretation like a dying breath and stick your head in the sand. At least for me, I need a faith that is a little more robust than that.





What are your thoughts about the debate? Who do you think won and why? Did you learn anything from watching the debate/did it make you change your mind about anything? Do you think I'm a mean and nasty person for saying Ken Ham's position is "stupidity"? I'd love to hear from you in the comments section!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Blog•Ethics: The Border Police

That the current manifestation of evangelicalism in America has some very fastidious border police has been well-documented. Stray even a little beyond the perimeter of conservative evangelical "orthodoxy"and you risk incurring the wrath of a horde of angry bloggers and tweeters. They run quite a tight evangelical ship.

Of course, there's some wiggle room. Right? I bet you can disagree about dichotomy vs. trichotomy, for example. Or like. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin! But everything else—from gender roles to views of hell to a myriad of other issues that have traditionally been areas of flexibility for confessing Christians—everything else is a "gospel issue." Disagreement on these issues springs not from a difference of thoughtful and theologically grounded interpretation. No, now if you disagree it's because your sinful heart is in the wrong place, or you don't really uphold the value and authority of Scripture. Take away all that sin that's clouding your hermeneutics and in theory, everyone would agree. Probably with John Piper.

Now, aside from the fact that I'm not sure universal agreement and uniform interpretation is even a holy or God-honoring goal for those who claim to follow Jesus, I take issue with this trend for another reason. 

As Kevin Miller puts it:
To my way of thinking, Christianity isn’t about assenting to a set of propositions. It’s about following Christ. It’s not a statement of faith; it’s a way of life. It’s about loving God first of all, which frees us to love our fellow human beings, to practice self-sacrifice rather than demanding that someone be sacrificed for the sake of the group.
Jesus was a line-in-the-sand-drawing type of guy sometimes, sure, but something tells me he wouldn't have erected any sort of socio-theological border fences to decide who could follow him and who couldn't.


"Okay guys, everyone who believes gay marriage is wrong on the left, and everybody who believe it's okay on the right. No salvation for you ha ha!" -Jesus

The evangelical obsession over who is "in" and who is "out" seems to me to be not only incredibly unproductive, but also antithetical to the very heart of the gospel. And anyway, as Rachel Held Evans so aptly stated, "Maybe what makes the gospel offensive is not who it leaves out but who it welcomes in."

So what does this have to do with blogging ethics?

Well, I think we all recognize that the border police mentality is harmful when The Gospel Coalition does it. Or when John Piper does it. Or when Denny Burk does it. And rightly so. Because it is. It's rude and unchristian and it sets a very bad example both for those who are already firmly planted in the evangelical camp and for those who are on the outside looking in wondering what all the fuss is about.

But I fear, at least for myself, that I don't recognize that mentality is harmful when I do it. I don't see that when I jump down a commenter's throat for asking a sincere question, when I assume the worst motives from every blogger who disagrees with me, when I unleash the full arsenal of my argument in a single comment with reckless disregard for the heart of the person on the other end of the computer, then I am the border police.

I am the border police.

The only difference is I'm policing a different border. A more "progressive" border, sure, but maybe I haven't come so far from fundamentalism after all.

And the thing is, I don't just want to police a different border, because that mindset is fundamentally harmful and bankrupt at the core. I want to stop thinking in terms of borders, in terms of who is "in" and who is "out." I don't just want to preach to my own little choir. I want to actually change minds and hearts. I want to hold up a light. I want to point a new way forward.

In other words, I don't want to be a part of something if I have to be kept in by a fence. And I don't think many other people do either.

And I don't want to be a part of something if a single misstep or wrong question puts me at risk of getting kicked out. And I don't think many other people do either.

So I am holding myself to a higher standard, and I hope you'll join me. 

I want to make space to discuss our convictions in which everyone can participate, including those who don't share them.* I don't want to push potential allies away before they even get the chance to see for themselves why we're so passionate about all of this in the first place. 

Truth is offensive enough on its own to those who want to hide from it. I don't have to be any more offensive for its sake.

So hold me accountable, friends and yet-to-be friends. I want to do better at this. Let's walk through it together. Let's send people out rather than trying to keep them in. Let's live lives of grace and love and radical acceptance—even in the blogosphere.








*What this does NOT mean is tolerating, condoning or refusing to address abusive, unsafe or manipulative behavior or speech. That is never okay, no matter what your "convictions" are.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On Bodies as Belongings

The fact that purity culture seems to be utterly incapable of acknowledging the existence of such a thing as TIME has already been well-documented. But this post by Ryan Visconti takes it to a whole new level.

In spite of the fact that I thought the conversation about bikinis had fizzled out (at least for the summer) because "omg why are millenials leaving the church" and also "gay sex is wrong because it's icky" took center stage, Visconti seems intent on beating a dead horse. His first post, All God's Daughters Wear Bikinis?, generated such a passionate response from commenters, both positive and negative, that he felt the need to follow up with yesterday's post, Who's Body Is It Anyway?


I'll give you a hint. It's not yours.


Visconti starts by assuring everyone that he doesn't actually WANT to discuss the issue of female modesty. It's awkward because he's a man, but he feels compelled to do so anyway because there has been "a lack of teaching and instruction" on the topic. Yes Mr. Visconti, there is certainly a deficit of men telling women what to do with their bodies out there, please correct that for us.


ANYWAY.


He then describes in a way that personally made me very uncomfortable how he feels he is incapable of interacting with a scantily clad female as though she is a person:

Maybe I’m just uniquely weak, but when you stand in front of me in a bikini, I feel the need to look away from you. I feel awkward. I don’t want to have a conversation with you, because I want to leave your proximity. I don’t trust my eyes to not wander where they don’t belong, so I’m going to flee temptation.
So not only is the female body reduced to "temptation," but also this guy doesn't want anything to do with you if he can see any part of your, um, temptation. If he's reminded that your body exists in a way that does not provide him immediate access to it and that you are a mature sexual being, he wants to leave your proximity.

And this is where it really gets good. The reason he cites as justification for his discomfort?

The main issue is that your body does not primarily belong to you. Your body belongs to God first, then to your husband, and then to you. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:4) 
Now, what a verse about not withholding sex from your spouse in the context of first-century pagan false teaching has to do with wearing bikinis to the beach in America, I have no idea. But let's pretend. Let's pretend this is an appropriate hermeneutical jump to make and go with it. I think what he's saying is that 

1) "having authority over" someone's body is equivalent to their body "belonging" to you, and that 


2) it necessarily follows that because a woman's body "belongs" to her husband, only a woman's husband is allowed to see the parts of her that might draw attention to the fact that she is a mature sexual human with an actual body that has actual sex organs.


He goes on to talk to parents (well, really only fathers, since he outright admits that moms are not responsible for "protecting your daughter's virtue," only fathers are), and this is where he shows his cards. In speaking about how parents are to handle the swimsuit issue, Visconti says,

Parents, you don’t even have the right to give your daughter permission to wear a bikini. You’re giving away something that doesn’t even belong to you. You’re daughter’s body belongs to her future husband. You have the responsibility to protect her and protect what will belong to him.
 photo tumblr_m1cskilUGw1rn95k2o1_500_zpsfbd7f5a1.gif
At which point I made this face. 

Did you hear that, parents? The whims of a future husband who may or may not exist trump your convictions about what is best for your daughter and your family. Allowing other men to see that your daughter is a female human is "giving away something that doesn't even belong to you."

"'I wish more men had seen my wife in a bikini before we got married,' said no Christian man ever," Visconti jokes irreverently. Which I love so much I made a meme out of it.


Mmmm, rape culture.
Because everyone knows that when you sit down with your fiance someday to have that mythical "talk" they always warned us about in youth group abstinence sermons, the first thing he's going to ask you is, "Darling, how many men have seen you in a bikini?"

And everyone knows that the more men you've involved in your sexuality, the less you are worth and the less chance that anybody is going to want you.

See where this kind of thinking leads?

My favorite part, though, is how my body supposedly "belongs" to a person that may or may not exist. Like, I would love to be married someday. But there's no guarantee that I ever will be, and when you admit that, it makes it much harder to see how this teaching is supposed to be applied. I mean, hell, I owe this alleged future husband of mine EVERYTHING, every date, every kiss, and most especially, every view of me in a two-piece swimsuit. Sharing those things with someone else is depriving him of what is rightfully his. 

But if he doesn't exist? I don't know, something tells me that's not a possibility that Mr. Visconti entertains that much. God would never create a woman and not allow her the possibility of fulfilling her life's purpose by serving and belonging to a man, right?

When TGC posted the "gay sex is icky" article, Dianna Anderson tweeted:
And I agree. As neo-fundamentalist evangelicalism comes more and more to terms with its own growing irrelevance and loss of power and respect in the public sphere, those speaking on its behalf will get louder, and more obscene; and those on both sides of the issues will be polarized. Which I have to believe is a good thing. The truth will always set you free.

But until then, we've got to deal with posts like these. And until then, I'll be sitting over here rage-tweeting at 1 AM and looking up first century pagan teachings on abstinence and making facetious purity culture memes and trying to shed a little light in my tiny corner of the universe.

Grace and peace.

Emily

Monday, August 12, 2013

From One Millennial To Another

Hey Millennials!

How was your weekend? Did you go to church yesterday? Oh wait, what a silly question. Of course you didn't. We don't go to church anymore, you know. Never darken the doors. You were probably hungover from partying all night on Saturday anyway, and everyone knows we don't show up at church because we don't want our faith community to hold us accountable for our bad behavior. We just want a Christianity without a cost.


And besides, how could you be expected to nurse that hangover without a killer cup of coffee? I don't know about you, but I just can't with that Folgers-in-a-20-year-old-carafe business. I mean, if your church doesn't have a fully functional state of the art espresso bar… what are you even doing? Plus, I've gotta have some sweet latte art to tweet a picture of before service, cause I'm pretty obsessed with hearing myself speak and narcissistically documenting my entire life to fit in with the cool kids.

Anyway, underneath all that, there's actually some deeper issues going on. It's not just about coffee and skinny jeans and flannel shirts!

But I pretty much only want to listen to people who look like this.

Let's be real. We're just scared of vulnerability. We don't want to be truly and authentically known and loved. We'd rather hide behind our computer screens.

Besides, even if we could get past our aversion to community, going to church means that we might have to give up some of our rights! That's terrifying! We're millennialls, dammit—it's all about us. There's nothing that personally offends me more than the thought that I might have to do something other than exactly what I want to do all the time for the sake of someone else. I mean, what do you think Jesus calls me to be, selfless or something?

And speaking of life revolving around us, why hasn't the church caught on yet? It's like they just don't understand that we expect them to cater to our preferences if we're going to have anything to do with them. We just don't have the maturity to be able to worship God through a variety of different mediums and traditions! It sure would be nice if they would just let us call all the shots. Maybe then we wouldn't be leaving in droves.

Exhibit A: Millennials

Unfortunately, it just seems like we're talking past each other. 

If only the church could see that we just expect them to be perfect.

If only they could see that we don't care about remaining true to the bible or hearing scripture preached on a Sunday morning.

If only they could see that, at the end of the day, we don't want the church to transform us. We just want it to be a mirror of our own trivial and arbitrary preferences. 

And it shouldn't be a surprise to them. I mean, we're millennials, after all. We clearly know better than every generation that came before us.

Maybe someday the church will "get it." I sure hope so. But right now, the future's looking pretty bleak. I read a lot of blog posts these days by millennials leaving the church because they feel like it's become an agent of abuse in our culture, because it cares more about protecting its leaders than its children, because it objectifies and demeans women, because it has no room for questions or doubts, because it fails to acknowledge the rights and equality of LGBT individuals, because it focuses on behavior management over allegiance to Christ—any number of misleading reasons. I wish these millennials would just be honest with themselves and with others. All of those things are just excuses.

In reality, we're just self-absorbed antinomianists bent on instant gratification, conforming the church to our will, and tweeting about it incessantly.

And until the church realizes that, this conversation is going nowhere.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Power, Knowledge, and Purity (Guest Post)

This post comes to you from my sweet friend Jacob Quick. Jacob is one of my favorite men to ever grace the halls of Moody Bible Institute. He's a critical thinker, an academic, and an Actually Nice Person. He lives in Chicago with his wife Annie and tweets here, so go follow him already, and be sure to let him know if you enjoy the post!





Power, Knowledge, and Purity: The Formation of Purity Culture
By Jacob Quick

“Sexuality is one of those primary forces whose sovereignty over man is assured by man’s belief in his sovereignty over it.” – Rene Girard

Recently, much attention has been drawn to the event of purity culture in evangelical Christianity. Purity culture has been identified as the pervading objectification of women through the promotion of shame-based ethics. Women are taught, explicitly or implicitly, that their value is found in their ability to sexually please their future husband. However, with great pleasure comes great responsibility. Since women’s physical sexuality is so crucial to their value, they must never engage in sexual activity before marriage. If they do, they are “damaged goods.” 

Now, let’s take this one step further: women’s bodies are so powerful that they can cause men to stumble. Therefore, women must go to any extreme necessary so as not to “cause” men to lust after them. From here, the inner Pharisee kicks in. Rules upon rules are made for the women to abide by so that they might please their husband sexually and therefore not cause other men to derive any satisfaction from their appearance. The more other men are caused to lust after a woman, the more her worth decreases. Critics have identified that, while evangelicals want to affirm the dignity of human beings in the midst of a pornographic culture, evangelical culture has ended up doing exactly what the pornographic culture has accomplished: the oppression and objectification of women. 

What I want to do in this post is utilize the insights of Michel Foucault to understand the formation of purity culture. I think that he has made some keen observations on culture and systems as a whole that can be applied to the current situation we find ourselves in. 

Michel Foucault. He looks like a pretty happy guy.

Power/Knowledge

The symmetry of power and knowledge is crucial to all of Foucault's thought. First of all, by "power,” Foucault is not talking about something that someone or an institution possesses. Instead, power constitutes a set of actions, exertions and relations. Power is always and everywhere being exerted through actions. It is not as much of a what, but a how—not an object that one has, but a way beings relate to one another. When discussing specifically how power operates in prisons and schools, Foucault clarifies: "The power in the hierarchized surveillance of the disciplines is not possessed as a thing, or transferred as a property; it functions like a piece of machinery" (Discipline and Punish 177). Power is much more of a relational web that runs the machine of society. 

Now, how does knowledge become so wed with power? According to Foucault, you cannot have one without the other. The best way to present this idea is through the historical narrative in which Foucault embeds them. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault conducts a genealogy of western society, with the specific emphasis on our judicial systems. 

In medieval times, criminals were punished physically. One need only recall the (in)famous scenes from Braveheart to get a visual. During those times, the legal system was not concerned with kind of person psychologically the criminal was. Instead, it emphasized physical actions and physical repercussions. If a person committed a crime, then their body would suffer. With this mindset, the study of the human anatomy flourished. The more those who exerted power knew how the human body worked, the more they could use this knowledge to exert power over others. The power in physical punishment did not merely encourage knowledge of human anatomy, it helped determine what authentic knowledge was. The field of psychology was not prevalent during that time because knowledge of human anatomy was more true, more significant. This is a small example of the symbiotic role of power and knowledge.

Now, skip ahead to our time. Foucault argued that instead of targeting the body, western society now targets the soul. For instance, we focus on the psychology of suspects. What kind of a person would commit this crime? A prime example is the insanity plea: people can be relieved of a crime if it is proven that they are insane. In medieval times, that made no difference. Today, we focus on a different area of humanity: the mind/soul. Thus, it is no coincidence that we see such a rise in psychology, criminal psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, etc. in recent times. Now, we put criminals in prisons so that they become "rehabilitated." Rehabilitation is the means by which our society forms a criminal into a "healthy member" of society. Of course, one is only a healthy member of society when he/she acknowledges the validity of the "knowledge" that society deems legitimate and conforms to the system that has been formed through power. Foucault summarizes: "In short, penal imprisonment, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, covered both the deprivation of liberty and the technical transformation of individuals" (DP 233). 

This rehabilitation is accomplished through the punishment of the soul: the "breaking" of the prisoner’s psyche. The more knowledge we have of the human psyche, the more power we can exert over others. Likewise, the very power we exert over others determines what knowledge is legitimate to attain. It is a vicious cycle. In the middle ages, they needed physical investigation into nature and the human body in order to exert power over it. However, today, we need the investigation of the human sciences in order to exert power over the human soul. 

Here's another example: Nazi Germany. Hitler used propaganda to convince Nazis that Jews were inferior and parasitic. Thus, Nazis did not consider anything outside of this paradigm "knowledge." Many people were deceived by Hitler because they were brainwashed into believing such horrid lies. Hitler's control of knowledge enabled him to have unfathomable power over the people. That power, in turn, fueled the "discoveries" of Nazi scientists that led to further "knowledge." 

Panopticon: Are we Truly Free?

Now, many would think that this does not apply to our current setting in America. However, the power/knowledge event can be seen all over. In order to understand the function of power/knowledge in the western world, Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon provides a great illustration. Jeremy Bentham, a British philosopher, came up with a revolutionary and new idea for prisons. Instead of having inmates in dark, private cells, everything would be dimly lit. In this setup: the inmates could always be monitored. Interrogation rooms use this model. The suspect in the interrogation room can only see a mirror. However, on the other side, someone could be watching. Bentham was convinced that the fact that someone could be watching them at any moment would cause the prisoners to discipline themselves. 

Think about our educational system and the grading scale. Students are evaluated based on what kind of grades they achieve. These grades give the students an awareness of their role in society. If they are a 'C' student, then they know that those who exert power have this knowledge of them and therefore can exert even more power over the students. As a result, the student internalizes this punishment, and disciplines him/herself to become an ‘A’ student. The knowledge that the school is examining everything they do causes the students to conform to the norms of society. In this example, students believe that they are freely choosing to excel at school. However, there has been a sort of inception, a sleight of hand, at play. The drive to excel did not arise out of the students’ minds autonomously, but was placed there by society. The student, however, does not realize this, considering him/herself to be free. In a panopticon society, the citizens consider themselves to be free, all the while conforming to external standards. Society determines what knowledge is legitimate, and knowledge itself is legitimated through the powers at play. Foucault observes: "By assessing acts with precision, discipline judges individuals 'in truth'; the penalty that it implements is integrated into the cycle of knowledge of individuals" (DP 181). 

Now, this may sound like a bunch of paranoid ramblings. However, Foucault did not think that there was a certain group of people behind all of this, purposefully planning everything. Rather, he believed that this was just the way the world worked. Those who exert power do not necessarily know the relationship between power and knowledge, but power and knowledge determine and fuel each other nonetheless. Likewise, it should be noted that he did not consider all power to be evil. In fact, he said that power was necessary for there to be ordered societies where goodness and love could flourish. However, he was concerned with the many ways in which power is abused. Humanity always finds unique and disturbing ways to corrupt knowledge and power. 

Purity Culture

So, how does all of this relate to purity culture?  Foucault himself wrote extensively on the issue of sexuality and how the power/knowledge phenomenon has affected Western sexuality. There are many lessons to be learned, and I want to focus specifically on something that was not on Foucault's radar: purity culture. I believe that properly understanding the power/knowledge phenomenon gives us a window into the birth of the modesty movement. The only "knowledge" taught and allowed within this structure is the knowledge that a woman's value is in her body, which can sexually gratify or offend a man. As a result, all of women’s actions and decisions should be determined by the preferences of men. 

This purity culture creates an environment of shame. The "knowledge" that women are sexual objects allows the power structure to use and abuse women as it sees fit. Whether women need to be used for satisfaction or scapegoats, women become the pawns in the chess game of patriarchy. However, the power/knowledge structure allows the discipline and punishment required for this culture to be used with the utmost subtlety. Those in authority need not be the "bad guys", running around disciplining and punishing every woman who does not conform to their impossible standards. Of course, some of that is required, but the system causes women to discipline and punish themselves. This is an example of the purpose of discipline. The purpose of discipline is to train, so that subjects will discipline themselves and conform to standards. In purity culture, women are in training. They are training to become the perfect object of male gratification/protection. 

As Foucault pointed out with the Panopticon, the power/knowledge structure causes citizens to discipline and punish themselves. In purity culture, women adopt the only ideology they have access to. As a result, they discipline themselves accordingly. If a girl wears a skirt above her knees, she does not need someone to chastise her. Rather, she will be kept awake at night, asking God to forgive her for all of the innocent men she caused to stumble. She will then be ashamed of herself, causing her to adopt more and more of modesty culture's values. By the end of a process, you have a woman whose every decision is based on the preferences of men. Yet, in her mind, she's doing this out of her own "free will." She is pleased to do this, because the "knowledge" that was given her states that God is pleased when she submits to the inconceivable modesty standards. This woman will not date until she finds the "right one." Her marriage will forever be haunted by the presence of modesty culture, dictating every decision regarding their marriage as it pertains to sex, children, assigned roles in the household, etc. The parents pass purity culture down to their children and are sure to attend a church that functions within their strict, dehumanizing boundaries… and the system perpetuates.

On the flip side, women not only must make every possible move so as not to cause men to stumble, but must also remain sexually appealing. This contradiction causes severe psychological trauma. It hinders the health of their entire well-being: physically, emotionally, spiritually. Given that their bodies only have value sexually, they discipline and punish their bodies through anorexia, bulimia, etc. No authority needs to tell a woman that she must always "look better." She has already adopted that mentality and will do all of the discipline and punishment herself. Those in authority merely need to protect the knowledge within this structure, perpetuate it, and allow the system to do the dirty work for them while they sit back and reap the benefits.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The formation of purity culture is the result of the church attempting to beat the world at its own game. In response to the power/knowledge structure of our society, we attempt to control fellow believers by the same means. However, the subversive values of the Kingdom of God present a formidable alternative. Instead of creating our own power/knowledge structure, we can respond by re-enacting the weakness of God displayed on the cross. God's power is known primarily through his divine ability to experience the suffering of his creation... and redeem it. Christ conquered the powers of his day through love and truth, not power and knowledge. Christ's death initiated the untangling of the oppressive knots woven by the power structures of his day. He confronted the "knowledge" of his day with truth: demonstrating that the lowest of the low were actually the heirs of God's kingdom. 

In the same way, we can respond to power through weakness and to knowledge through truth. Contrary to the "knowledge" that Samaritans, especially Samaritan women, were scum, Jesus approached the woman at the well with the truth that she was valued by God as a person. Likewise, we must counter the "knowledge" of our day concerning the objectification of women with the truth that value is not found in gender or sexual purity, but in one's personhood. Women and men in the church find their true selves in Christ, not static gender roles that perpetuate oppression. Likewise, this is to be accomplished through the weakness of love, not the violence of power. As a result, we will experience the power of Jesus' promise in John 8:32: "And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

Monday, July 15, 2013

I Kissed a Boy and Nothing Bad Happened

"Maybe you think I'm taking this idea too far. Maybe you're saying, 'You've got to be joking. One little kiss won't have me hurtling toward certain sin.' Let me encourage you to give this idea a little more thought. For just a moment, consider the possibility that even the most innocent form of sexual expression outside of marriage could be dangerous." -Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye 
"Once you start kissing you want to move on. We didn't want to start what we couldn't finish. When a man and woman's lips meet, and their tongues penetrate each other's mouths, their process of becoming one has begun. Another way to put it is that we viewed kissing as part of the whole package of sexual union." -Joshua Harris, Boy Meets Girl 
"That's quite a progression, from an inexpert kiss at the altar to the complete unwrapping of the wedding night—believe me, my friends have pointed that out. Then again, Adam and Eve managed to figure everything out." -Bethany Torode, in an article titled "(Don't) Kiss Me" 
"It's as ridiculous to say, 'It's just a kiss!' as it is to say, 'It's just intercourse!'" -Joshua Harris, Boy Meets Girl 
"Can I say categorically that a kiss is a sin? I can say that it might be. I can say that it might take the edge off, spoil the taste and the pleasure later on. It might reduce power. It might distract the heart." -Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity



If you've ever heard these statements before, or variations of them—congratulations! You've been exposed to purity culture!

2319! We have a 2319!

Purity culture places a huge emphasis on NOT touching members of the opposite sex, policing each and every action to make sure it is not "defrauding" a brother or sister and depriving a future spouse of what is rightfully theirs. Anything that could cause somebody to be aroused or to be sexually attracted to you is labeled a sin, from immodest dress to hand-holding, and most especially, KISSING.

In purity culture, kissing is like the marijuana of sex. It's the so-called "gateway drug" to all sorts of vile and despicable acts against God, causing its participants to want to immediately strip off all their clothes and conceive children out of wedlock—or so the story goes. In high school, rather than being excited and giddy for my girlfriends when they had their first kisses, I always shook my head a little, lamenting their lapsed morals and hoping it wouldn't go too far so they'd still "have something left" to give to their future husbands, smugly satisfied that my lips were EXTRA VIRGIN LIKE OLIVE OIL.

I like to think that I've come a long way since then. But if there's one thing I've learned by doing the Purity Culture Rehab Project, it's that there is an enormous difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. That is, it's one thing to say that you believe that women can pursue men, that cat-calling is harmful, that kissing is not a sin, etc. It's an entirely different thing to make specific choices that comport with those beliefs. Your mind and heart can be liberated while your hands remain in shackles. OR YOUR LIPS.

So that is why recently, in an effort to bring who I say I am and who I actually am into closer relationship, I made a choice.



I kissed a boy.

A boy who I happen to think is very attractive and was very nice about it.

And I enjoyed it.

I actually asked him to kiss me specifically for the Rehab Project, so PERSONHOOD, and AGENCY, and he was totally cool with it. In fact, when we were initially talking about it we decided that the fact that I asked him to kiss me for a blogging project about casting off purity culture was better than the pomp and circumstance which normally accompanies the occasion since the pomp and circumstance is "systemic to the problem you're trying to fight in the first place, so screw it!" (Those were actually his words, which, YEAH, I kissed a guy who says things like that.)

I mean, obviously it was for science. "Science."

Allie Brosh, you revolutionized internet memes.

But I guess I had a pretty unscientific reaction to the whole thing, because in the middle of kissing this guy, I just started laughing. Because it was funny. Kissing is funny, and the fact that I was kissing him for a blogging project was funny, and the fact that I had managed to go 22 years without getting kissed was funny. The whole situation was just suddenly hilarious to me and to be honest, a little underwhelming. NOT THAT IT WASN'T GREAT, because it was, I really liked it; but I couldn't stop thinking, this is what everybody's been wringing their hands about? That's what we swore was going to be the downfall of Christian decency and marital happiness? I expected it to feel more sinful, like killing puppies or leaving empty ice cube trays in the freezer. Instead, it was just fun. AND FUNNY.

So maybe it was an unconventional first kiss. I'm okay with that. I pretty much haven't done anything normally my entire life. And I'm proud of myself for having the courage to ask and to follow through, in spite of lingering tendrils of purity culture-induced insecurities. Also I am proud of myself for sharing the story now for THE ENTIRE INTERNET AND MY PARENTS TO READ.

And now, I want to hear from you. What messages about physical affection between the sexes and specifically kissing did you receive growing up? How did they effect you and your relationships, and how do you feel now? Also, any and all first kiss stories welcome. :)





This post is part of the Purity Culture Rehab Project. If you liked it, please take the time to check out the other posts in the series, as well as my best friend/roommate/co-adventurer Hannah, who's blogging alongside me about boys, kissing, red lipstick, and all manner of other scandalous topics. xoxo! -Emily

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