The Ain't I a Woman blog examines the many ways Christian culture lets women know exactly who they should be. We deconstruct those messages that we find troubling--and, in the process, construct a different message: one that allows Christian women to be all that God intended.

Why We All Need Good Christian Sex (A Review)

good-christian-sex-coverI want to start this post by naming my bias I have against books in the Christian marketplace; I recognize the problematic nature of this bias, since I am a writer who has always worked with Christian publishers, and have read many excellent books by other authors who identify as Christian. But when Bromleigh McCleneghan’s agent wrote, asking if our blog would consider doing a review of her book, Good Christian Sex, my initial thought was “oh boy, this promises to be all kinds of horrible.”

Maybe it was mid-summer optimism that made me say yes to writing a review. Or maybe it was the book’s subtitle, Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And Other Things the Bible Says about Sex. Whatever the case, I am grateful for the opportunity to read what is, in my mind, the best book I’ve encountered about Christianity and sex, and I’m hopeful that her ideas can begin to shift the ways Christians talk about sex and sexuality.

McCleneghan uses her own observations as a pastor, as well as her personal experiences, to develop a sexual ethic that especially resonates with me because it doesn’t turn immediately to the polar extremes with which too many Christians tend to view sex. Instead, she explores the nuances of sex and sexuality, hoping that, fundamentally and in all things, “we know love, joy, holiness, and pleasure in these lives God has given us.”

Good Christian Sex begins to dismantle some of the deeply entrenched views Christians tend to have about sex, including the contradictory notions that sex outside of marriage is deeply shameful, but sex within the bounds of marriage will always be amazing, pleasurable, mind-blowing. We tend to swim through a stew of mixed messages about sex, not even aware of how pervasive shame and confusion about sex and sexuality cloud our worldview.

Case in point: I realized that having a book titled Good Christian Sex seemed a bit embarrassing to me, especially given the cover image of two hands seemingly on the cusp of intimacy. I found myself obscuring the book’s title while I read, not really wanting others to know I was reading a book about S-E-X, even if it was the good Christian kind. (And oh, the mortification: here I am, writing a review about a sex book!)

Clearly, I need an author like McCleneghan to help me untangle my many complex and contradictory thoughts about good Christian sex, and gratefully, she delivers. McCleneghan wades into difficult territory, with chapters on masturbation, vulnerability, desire, intimacy, and fidelity, among other topics. But instead of providing quick prohibitions against such acts as self-pleasure and sex outside of marriage, the author takes time to consider what the Bible says, what church tradition has said, and how Christians can live rightly in a sexual ethic that recognizes and loves, rather than objectifies, the Other.

Indeed, the central claim around which she builds her case is compelling; McCleneghan suggests a theology of sexuality should focus on a “single norm”: “Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.” She considers Martin Buber’s I and Thou, noting that the world is structured by two relational dynamics: I-It and I-Thou. When we relate as “I-It,” we are relating to something as an object, to be used; when we relate as “I-Thou,” we relate to the other as someone who we value and, she writes, we “understand them as we would ourselves: as subjects, as actors and agents; people, complicated, living people, just like us.” Because God is the “Eternal Thou,” both the Other and God can only be known through a moving, changing, dynamic relationship, unlike our connection to an object, to be used for our purposes.

Seen through this lens, good Christian sex is not about prohibition and limitation, and is not a list of rigid rules through which we see and relate to the other, because in that rigidity, the other ceases to be a complex person, but merely an object by which we measure our own righteousness. Instead, McCleneghan challenges readers to check their motives to assure that every encounter with another is based on justice: on doing what is fair and right for and desired by the Other. This is hard work, she reminds us, and sometimes a list of sexual do’s and don’ts is far easier to navigate.

Perhaps this is one of the many reasons I like McCleneghan’s book so much. Rather than resorting to the easy catalogue of what monogamous Christians should or should not do during intimacy (or even, whether only heterosexual people can have good Christian sex), McCleneghan does the important work of calling us to consider the value of sex, and also the significant ways we are created for relationship. She argues well that sex can be holy and sacramental, fun and pleasurable, capable of healing and of destroying.

Good Christian Sex challenges me to consider intimate relationships in different ways; perhaps more significantly, McCleneghan has helped me to consider how I will talk about sex and sexuality with my boys, now only minutes away from adulthood and from learning what it means to love another person, wholly, completely, intimately. McCleneghan says loving another in this way is “terribly simple; it’s harder than it sounds.”

“Everything Happens for a Reason” Sucks as Theology

One prominent adoption narrative I reject completely is that God always planned for me to parent my sons: that somehow, even though Benjamin and Samuel were born thousands of miles from Oregon, God pulled some strings, engineered some circumstances, and gave me two of the best kids in the world.

Here’s why I reject this ideology of “God’s Plan” for adoption: Because I refuse to believe that God caused suffering and loss just so that I could be a mother. God did not manufacture difficult life events for mothers in India and Vietnam, compelling them to relinquish their children to me. God also did not want my sons to lose familial relationships and cultural ties in their birth countries so I could raise them. If God’s plan is for women to suffer the loss of their babies, and children the loss of their birth mothers, then I’m not sure that God is someone, or something, I want to worship.

The idea of God’s plan in the midst of loss has been on mind a lot lately, because it seems like so many people in my life are suffering immense pain. People I know are struggling with the serious illnesses and deaths of parents, of spouses, of life-long friends, of children. Some are contending with the difficult work of raising teenagers. Others are facing the dissolution of marriages. Violence seems ubiquitous, both at the world-wide level, where a terrorist’s murder of children at a wedding no longer fazes us as it once did; and at the local level, as Kendra wrote about last week, mourning a friend, a victim of domestic violence.

Many people choose to believe God has a greater plan in mind for those who suffer, and Christian culture is good at providing ready-made clichés in the midst of loss: That Everything Happens For A Reason, and God is trying to teach us something when bad things happen. Or that God believes we have a lesson to learn, and is allowing us to suffer for our own moral education. Or that because God’s plan is greater than we understand, we should accept suffering, rejoicing in the mystery of God’s beautiful design.

I am grateful that people are beginning to call bullshit on this ideology of “God’s Plan” in the face of suffering. In the last few months especially, I’ve found several resources incredibly helpful in reshaping my own understanding of loss.

The first is Jessica Kelley’s book, Lord Willing? Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death, which has transformed both my understanding of God’s role in suffering and has given me new language to use in thinking about suffering. Kelley’s book is emotionally challenging, and I cried through much of it, especially in the detailed story of her son’s death at age four from aggressive cancer. Kelley deconstructs what she calls the Christian “blueprint worldview,” which says that her son’s death was part of God’s great plan, or that God allowed her son to die so that we might see God’s glory. She also challenges the idea that God used Henry’s death for educative purposes. Who needed a lesson, she asks: a four-year-old boy who underwent immense pain? Parents who were trying to live a righteous life? Kelley’s book offers a different understanding of God, one that posits a God whose very essence is love, and who cries alongside us when we suffer. (Last spring, I wrote a more complete review of the book here, for Mennonite World Review; you can find more of Kelley’s story here.)

Several recent posts by Benjamin Corey at his Patheos blog have echoed what Kelley posits in Lord Willing? Writing about his family’s heartbreaking adoption loss, Corey shares his deep grief and his acknowledgment that sometimes, shitty stuff happens, and not because God plans it to. In a subsequent post, titled “If God’s the Cause of Our Suffering, He’s Kinda a Jerk (Just Sayin’),” Corey outlines an understanding of God and suffering that is similar to Kelley’s: If God’s very essence is love and goodness, as the Bible tells us, then God will not cause us to suffer; if God allows suffering to happen so that we can learn something, God is perpetuating evil, and that is against God’s essence.

At the church I attend, Newberg Friends, our pastor Gregg Koskela has been doing a sermon series on suffering. You can read the transcripts here, on Gregg’s blog. Though we are only two sermons into the series, I already appreciate so much Gregg’s ability to acknowledge the problematic nature of a theology that says if we do everything good and right, God rewards us and we will live happily ever after; if we stumble, God will teach us a lesson and bad stuff will happen. I’ve lived under the weight of that theology for my entire adult life, certain that if I fail as a believer, God will smack me down. Gregg reminds us that God doesn’t operate that way, but that God promises to walk with us, even through darkness, especially through darkness. Often, God works through the love, comfort, and presence of others, holding space with us through suffering.

One important point these writers and thinkers make again and again is that, when we experience great loss, God is with us, mourning as we mourn. Because God’s essence is love and goodness, we are also called to bring love and goodness to the world. If we believe in a deity that allows suffering, or who hopes to teach us through suffering, we are stripped of our agency. In what Kelley calls a “warfare worldview,” though, God longs for us to fight for good alongside God.

Although it’s easy to be paralyzed by the suffering of others, or of ourselves, we are called to work with God to fight evil with love and goodness. One of my dearest friends is bearing witness to this idea as her father faces complications from ALS, a debilitating and terminal illness. Two years ago she couldn’t have imagined doing the “ice bucket challenge” to raise money for ALS research; this year, she is actively advocating to fund research that might someday lead to a cure. You can read more of her family’s story(and contribute to an ALS fundraising walk, if you are willing) here.

I am confident that God is walking alongside this beautiful family, and I have learned a lot from them about grace, mercy, patience, and love; but God did not cause their suffering, nor did God allow an ALS diagnosis to happen for God’s glorification or to teach anyone a lesson. That kind of theology sucks, as does that kind of God. Of this, at least, I am certain.

Kate Wiant and Violence Against Women

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Our community is devastated.

Sunday afternoon an act of family violence occurred leaving our beloved librarian, Kate Wiant, dead. It appears she was shot by her husband who later killed himself, all while their young daughter watched.

For those of us who knew Kate, this rage against her is hard to fathom for she was the kindest, most gentle and gracious spirit on campus. To interact with her was to brighten one’s day. She was just that kind of positive force, a smile always on her face. And so, because of who she was, we cannot reconcile that with what was done to her by her spouse. She was murdered by someone she loved in front of their child.

There are no words for the grief we feel, for the horror we imagine took place before she took her last breath.

And still, we will start classes this week. For many of us we will feel that life should stop, that we should have longer to resolve our tremendous loss with how we move forward.

For me, among other classes this semester, I will be teaching Introduction to the New Testament. As I think about this challenge in light of Kate’s death, I cannot but be reminded of how easily we have dismissed family violence as something we don’t need to address as long as it doesn’t directly affect us. We seldom talk about the reality that 85% of victims of family violence are women or that according to the American Psychological Association, 4,774,000 women each year experience physical violence by an intimate partner. These statistics should move us to action and yet, we hardly give them a passing thought.

You may be wondering how Kate’s murder is related to teaching the New Testament.

How often do we seriously examine the violence in the Bible, especially its violence against women? Because of the Bible’s pervasive place within our culture, we who look to it as a sacred text need to be more honest about its problems and our continuing silence about them. Until we look more critically at ourselves for being too silent for too long about how Christianity uses the Bible as a tool to promote patriarchal culture and therefore how inattentive we have been to the devastating effects of this culture on women and children, we as a society will perpetuate more horrific scenarios. One where even reports on such violent acts can conclude of Kate’s daughter, “she was not injured.” Of course she was; this little one’s life will never be the same.

For me, I will honor Kate when I walk into the classroom this week. I will witness to what a wonderful person she was and how sorry I am she is no longer with us.

And I will not be silent about our culture of violence, nor about our need to be real about the Bible.

 

A response to Dallas

Like you, the events of the last couple of weeks have left me feeling a host of emotions: anger, disappointment, fear, sadness. The anxiety I feel—and have experienced for several months—is exhausting. And I know I am not alone in this. You feel it, too.

Dallas

Sunday morning I opened my Dallas Morning News to the front page where a single eye filled with the Dallas skyline stared back at me shedding a tear. The editorial urged its readers to “learn to understand each other, to really hear one another, to learn from each other.” And then I looked at my facebook feed where some of my friends were posting their opposition to gun regulations, opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, their uncritical support of police and policing policies.

And I wondered: do we have the capacity to learn, to really listen?

It was in the midst of this despair that I folded the paper and drove across Dallas to meet with a small group who gathers once a month in a classroom at Richland College called New Wineskins. There, we celebrate the Divine Feminine. There we help each other see that while it is easy to give up hope for this world so riddled with violence, Sophia points to a path that cultivates peace and justice.

Have you noticed the one constant that lies at the heart of the violence we continue to witness? This was the question that became our focus Sunday morning. It’s so obvious that it never is mentioned or considered. News pundits don’t talk about it. Pastors all over the country didn’t talk about it even as both rushed to offer their insights about the events in Dallas and around the nation.

Do you ever wonder why women are seldom the perpetrators of violence and instead are most often the ones who suffer from it?

Do you wonder what the world would be like if women were in equal partnership with men?

Do you wonder how our churches might respond to these tragedies if women were pastors?

Do you wonder how our laws and society would be structured if women had at least equal input?

Do you wonder how differently we would conduct international affairs or even policing in our streets if women were the architects of our system?

In our New Wineskins gathering Sunday we spoke of our vision of justice:

“We envision a land where the truth that all people are created equal will become a reality. Our vision is of a land where ‘liberty and justice’ for all is more than a pledge. Our vision is of a land where women and men of all colors, abilities, and sexual orientations will share equally in opportunities and blessings. We envision an end to war not only across the seas but in our own city streets, an end to abuse of all kinds on the job and in the home. Our vision includes faith communities in which all share equally in leadership and ministry, communities which give sacred value to female divinity as well as to male divinity. We envision a land free of discrimination and injustice in any form. We sound a call to freedom in our institutions and in our homes. We call for individual freedom from external definition, freedom to follow the voice within. We call for freedom to love, to create, to laugh, to learn, to grow, to become all we are meant to be.”—Jann Aldredge-Clanton

It’s a vision worth considering.

Twisting Faith: Evangelicals and Trump

We have had a full year to become numb to Donald Trump’s incessant lies. One after another they spew from his mouth with little push back from the media. And, who can blame them, really? It seems those who support Trump in his bid for the presidency care little about facts and instead are rallying behind a vapid promise of making America great.

This blind loyalty for Trump extends, apparently, to Christian conservatives who yesterday met with Trump to galvanize their relationship. According to The Dallas Morning News, the event included the likes of Franklin Graham, James Dobson, and Tony Perkins, essentially all of the old evangelical guard. And, that guard has been rewarded by Trump’s decision to have an evangelical advisory board composed of Jack Graham, Robert Jeffress, Kenneth Copeland, James Robison, and Robert Morris. Oh, and one woman: Michelle Bachmann.

All of this is good news to evangelicals because in his speech to them yesterday in New York, Trump admitted that religious liberty is the number one question and that he believes “we’ve got to spiritize this country.” Religious liberty and a Muslim ban? Spiritize, really?

In contrast to such blatant pandering (on both sides), and to correct Trump’s lie that Hillary Clinton’s faith is “not out there,” I suggest spending just a little bit of time digging into Secretary Clinton’s religious underpinnings. In 2014 she spoke at the United Methodist Women’s Assembly. She shared about her experiences in the church of her youth, of being confirmed, of what she learned through her youth group, of why she has spent her life working on behalf of the “least of these.”

If someone is looking to vote on a presidential candidate based upon a faith conviction, Hillary is the one who has not only read the Bible; she understands God’s call on our lives to be persons whose actions reflect our convictions. Check out what she says about Jesus’ instructions to feed the multitude, for example.

If evangelicals cannot see this clear distinction between someone pandering for support from a faith community and someone whose lifetime of faith is reflected in her work, then they are simply not paying attention.

China’s Masculinity Problem and America’s Solution

According to The New York Times, China has a boy problem. More specifically, “a generation of timid, self-centered and effeminate boys” (quoted by The Dallas Morning News, Feb. 7, 2016) is plaguing China to such a degree that the government has decided to take action.

While I certainly applaud China’s attentiveness to the need for boys to act more like boys and less like girls because, you know, acting like a girl is about the worse thing ever, I’d suggest there is more that could (and perhaps should) be done to address this disturbing problem.

But first, what excellent measures are underway so far?

To their credit, in a similar fashion of American girls signing purity pledges to their fathers, Chinese boys in some schools are signing petitions to “act like real men.” Presumably acting like real men includes martial arts, working on computers and knowing physics, all classes designed in Zhengzhou to achieve more “real men.” Or, in Hangzhou, “bringing out the men in boys” includes taekwondo as part of a summer camp program.

Too, the Chinese government is recruiting more male teachers whose maleness is intended to “salvage masculinity,” because, let’s face it, having too many female teachers at any age is worrisome. I mean, who can really trust women with knowing stuff, much less being able to teach it to boys?

While these efforts to teach their young boys to “man up” are laudable, China is really missing a huge opportunity to undergird their men with just the right kind of aggressiveness. So, maybe China should take a page out of America’s successful handbook.

According to The Associated Press, an average of 760 Americans was killed with guns annually by spouses, ex-spouses or dating partners between 2006 and 2014. 80% of those killed were women. (The Dallas Morning News, Feb. 6, 2016).

gun

Guns, in and of themselves are not bad, of course, and guns themselves do nothing but sit in dusty drawers. Furthermore, I’m sure it is pure coincidence that the vast majority of people killed by such innocent weapons are women and that the massive NRA lobby is merely protecting a time-honored freedom and we should not make any unwarranted logical assessment between the prolific availability of guns/lax gun regulation and disproportionate deaths of women.

Still, I imagine if China is really serious about its masculinity problem, the government may want to look to our American practice of protecting guns, even at the expense of women. We know a thing or two about cultivating masculine preference.

The (Gendered) Problem with Performance Reviews

evalsEven now, twenty years into my teaching career, I still fear the performance reviews that come at every semester’s end, when my students spend 10-15 minutes evaluating my course on anonymous forms. These evaluations are returned to me about a month into the new term, compelling me toward yet another panic attack.

Since I began teaching, I’ve opened these envelops with trembling hands and behind my locked office door, a private moment affording me an opportunity to hear just what students think about me. (Though not wholly private, as these performance reviews are read by my chair and my dean, and in years when I was up for tenure or promotion, by a personnel committee made up of peers from across campus.)

Although I recognize the need for student evaluations and performance reviews, this process also sucks, both in the figurative sense, but also in the literal sense of sucking my confidence away. Several recent studies suggest the entire performance review process, in universities and elsewhere, sucks a bit more for women than for men. New reports out this week argues that, according to NPR, “student evaluations are systematically biased against women — so much so, in fact, that they’re better mirrors of gender bias than they are of what they are supposed to be measuring: teaching quality.”

This statistical analysis reflects what Inside Higher Education reported last year: in a small pilot project at North Carolina State, when students assume an online professor is male, they will provide more positive reviews than when the teacher is assumed to be female. That study concluded “a female instructor would have to work harder than a male to receive comparable ratings,” all other aspects of the courses being equal. You can read the fascinating—and depressing—construction of the study, and its results, here.

As the Inside Higher Ed. report suggests, earlier research about teaching evaluations also concluded that women are often expected to be more nurturing and supportive than their male colleagues, even though taking on these character traits may make them seem less authoritative.

The more recent study, published on the ScienceOpen web page, concludes that gender influences even how students rate seemingly objective aspects of teaching, “such as how promptly assignments are graded,” and that “gender biases can be large enough to cause more effective teachers” to get lower evaluation scores than less effective teachers.

A recent report in The Economist suggests students more often use the term “brilliant” to describe their male professors, and more often use the term “horrible” to describe their female professors. Apparently, in fields like English, the disparity between female and male professors is especially wide in this regard: students find their male professors more brilliant and less horrible by wide margins, compared to fields like mathematics.

I should probably be shocked by such a study, but am not, in part because I remember my own reaction to professors when I was an undergraduate: when the English department hired a female faculty member, I was initially disappointed, believing the new hire would not be as authoritative, nor as inspiring, as her male colleagues. It took me about 1.5 semesters to realize my initial, incredibly biased perception was wrong, and I now can’t imagine being where I am in life without her influence.

As an instructor, too, I have recognized the many ways my gender informs students’ response to me, and there have been occasions where I am almost certain that the male professors in my department—indeed, in the entire institution—are treated far differently than their female colleagues.

Students who undermine their female professors in the classroom, or who show disregard for their professors’ knowledge or who speak out of turn in those classrooms, often show far more deference in classes where my male colleagues are teaching. This has been especially true at the Christian university where I teach, and where some students have deeply internalized the sense that women shouldn’t be teaching—shouldn’t be in the workplace—at all.

And now there is data to substantiate this sense that gender biases definitely do exist in the classroom. Unfortunately, bad student evaluations do more than merely make professors despair: they are used by institutions for promotion and tenure, and can be the difference between someone getting and keeping a job—or not.

When universities are grappling with how they can recruit and retain women for faculty positions, they might need to start here, by recognizing the ways seemingly “objective” student evaluations—in addition to other institutional policies and procedures—are part of a system that creates an uneven playing field for women. Doing away with anonymous student evaluations might be one place to make sure that playing field becomes more fair.

Marco Rubio: On Choosing Wayne Grudem

I’m a political junky. While I have no idea what season of Survivor we are now witnessing, nor even where such people are surviving, I can tell you when Mark Shields and David Brooks offer their assessments of the week’s political developments (Friday evenings midway through the PBS News Hour). I only know the name Kardashian because it is impossible NOT to hear the name, but I don’t know anything more than it is ubiquitous in American pop culture. On the other hand, I religiously watch Rachel Maddow and occasionally Fox News to get the “fair and balanced” perspective (ahem).

Even though I spend way too much time listening to political news, I seldom post on FB about my political leanings, figuring many if not most of my friends really don’t care to know. And that’s ok. I probably don’t want to know too much about their political allegiances, either.

So, if you are looking for me to say something about who deserves your vote in this post, I fear you will largely be disappointed. Still, because of our research for If Eve Only Knew I may have some information that could be useful, especially to women planning to vote in our upcoming primaries.

Earlier this month, Republican candidate Marco Rubio announced his Religious Liberty Advisory Board. This fifteen member panel is composed of a well-known mega-church pastor, some academics, even a non-Christian. Some could say it is surprisingly diverse. Unless, of course, gender is any consideration.

Rubio, perhaps sharing some similarity with former candidate Mitt Romney, needs more assistance locating skilled women who can advise him because in this list of fifteen people chosen for their expertise in all things religious, only one woman made the cut: Kelly Fiedorek, legal counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom.

I suppose one could say this dearth of women among Rubio’s Advisory council is an oversight on his part (this hardly seems possible) and given another chance, he might see the wisdom of locating a few women (he might ask Romney to borrow his “binder of women”). On the other hand, maybe women—and those who are concerned that political leaders are held accountable as representing all segments of our population—should give Rubio’s choices further scrutiny.

A member of Rubio’s Board is Wayne Grudem, a professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary. Grudem represents a movement within Christianity that urges women to resist working outside of the home while encouraging them to see their primary responsibilities as those of mother and wife. Grudem and an organization he helped create—The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood—have worked relentlessly to jettison feminism, claiming it is antithetical to Christian teaching. This way of seeing the Bible not only limits women so that they feel guilty about developing themselves as whole persons, it puts limits on the ways God works in the world.

Maybe Marco Rubio did not vet Grudem as much as he should have. On the other hand, perhaps this kind of patriarchal vision is in keeping with Rubio’s convictions. Either way, I’d think all primary voters should take the members of Rubio’s advisory board seriously. A democracy is built upon the necessity of doing so.

For more on Grudem and the Complementarian movement, see Chapter 6, Setting Captives Free, of If Eve Only Knew.