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.

Let’s Talk Men, Sin, and Afghan Blanket Shorts

You may have read recently about the blogger in Oregon who has committed to giving up wearing leggings. She announced her commitment to the blogosphere in early January, and her post blew up, thanks in part to a social media savvy husband, who wanted the world to know the lengths to which his wife would go to keep him happy.

Her post stirred up conversations about women and modesty. Again. Because apparently, once a woman slips on a pair of leggings, other men definitely stumble, and this is a problem. Not for the men who can’t stop looking at leggings-laden women (men are wired differently, after all!), but for women, who might find leggings comfortable. Thank god there are generally only women in my exercise classes, at any rate, which keeps me from tempting others with my tights-clad middle-aged butt.

Somehow, this conversation never turns to men, and to how their clothing choices might cause me to stumble. Yes, it’s true. Sometimes I think sinful thoughts when I see what men are wearing, thoughts tainted by jealousy and resentment for sure, and maybe—on rare occasions—a bit or lust.

But only rarely. Not every much at all. And usually only in the sense of a deep longing to put on yoga pants, an urgent desire to be far more comfortable than I currently am.

Mostly, when I see colleagues wearing jeans to class every day, I have thoughts like, “Why does he get to wear jeans to work every day, but if I were to do so, I’d be considered an unprofessional slob?” and “This double standard bites” and “Why do men get to be comfortable in their clothes, and I’m stuck trying to sausage myself into tights and shoes that kill my feet?”

My jealousy leads to resentment, and pretty soon, sublimated anger, which I only express in passive-aggressive ways because I’m a Mennonite and that’s what we do.

So why are my sinful thoughts upon seeing men in jeans any less problematic than men’s sinful thoughts upon seeing women in yoga pants? Sin is sin, right?

For eons, men have been asking—no, demanding—that women dress more modestly, to protect men from stumbling. So I’d like to offer my own modest proposal. Too bad I never married a social media guru who could make my post viral, so that I also could be featured in The Oregonian.

Still, here’s my proposal. Thanks to a Facebook friend, I recently discovered a new trend for men: shorts created by afghan blankets. And I thought, why not? Why not ask that men wear these shorts so that I will no longer resent them for a double standard that says they can dress comfortably, but I cannot.
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The afghan blanket shorts are practical—everyone has a few of these blankets in their closet—and no doubt just slightly uncomfortable (a little itchy, a little drafty, just like the blankets from whence they came). They are also somewhat unattractive. Were my husband to wear them, you can trust that I would have no lustful thoughts about him. (Similar to his tan denim-wash Lee shorts, circa 1984. Ron, you hearing me?)

If only men would care a bit more for their Christian sisters and the state of women’s souls, they might take this step. Think about a different world, where men wear afghan blanket shorts and women can walk around, free from the temptation to sin.

Here’s the one potential glitch in my plan. Such shorts might make me think about a nap. But there’s nothing too sinful about that, right?

Enroll now at Christian Wife University!

Good news! Women have a new educational opportunity this spring. Why not enroll in Christian Wife University?

If you hurry, there is still space in the upcoming class “New Bride Bible Study” by Jennifer Odom White beginning January 19th. Online materials are available which will teach every new bride how to combat the “subtle and subversive evil schemes” that threaten marriages. And, apparently if you are not a new bride, White’s study will still apply.

But, perhaps you aren’t a bride but still wish to attend the Christian Wife University in hopes you will one day be one, then you could still enroll and learn from the wealth of information provided on its facebook page. Posts like “After a break-up, how can you know if you are ready to date again?” offer advice to men about how to pursue women who seem that they aren’t interested in marriage (admittedly I’m confused about why this is supposed to “minister” to single women). Or, you might want to check out the “cute” calendar from Crafting Chicks because becoming a Christian wife means you need to be organized and cutesy things make being so more fun.

Still, if you are already a Christian wife, perhaps the most helpful information can be found in learning what to do when your husband isn’t spiritually leading your household. In this podcast (part of her series called What’s a Girl to Do?) Jolene Engle answers a reader’s question: “Dear Jolene, If your husband has fallen away from Jesus, our Lord, the wife must take the lead in the household for Jesus and the religion part, right! This is a problem when one leaves the church, and becomes the prodigal son. How would you answer that?” (As an aside, I wonder why Jolene not only doesn’t see the problem of using the terms husband and girl in the same heading, but also italicizes the word girl. Stunning, such incongruity.)

Jolene’s response is worth the 10 minutes or so it will take to listen to her podcast even though you will perhaps curse a bit and maybe lose a few locks of hair in the process.

You will find out that women put men on pedestals believing them to be spiritual giants like Paul and instead we should remember they are not perfect. Using 1 Peter 3.1-6 as her reference, Jolene asserts God says it is the husband’s authority to lead, whether they accept it or not. Since God says this (and is smarter than we are) we need to listen to this passage, learning how to be quiet. It is in this way that our men will see our pure and reverent lives and may respond positively to our actions (which are quiet, remember).

As a student in the Christian Wife University this naturally raises a couple of questions for me. First, I wonder how Jolene skips from a biblical reference written by someone—a human being—at a particular time in place to “God says.” Surely she must understand that historical context is critical to constructing meaning and we cannot skip over it without distorting the message. And second, when she utilizes Sarah of Sarah-and-Abraham to illustrate how women need to trust God and accept the authority of our husbands just like Sarah did, I wonder if she has, in fact, read the narratives about them. You know: parts where Abraham has multiple wives and tries not once but twice to pawn Sarah off presumably to ensure his safety (see Genesis 12 and 20). Dismissing these details and urging women to benignly accept what their husbands dish out strikes me as problematic and potentially dangerous.

Nevertheless, Jolene helpfully reminds us that women are prone to be contentious and controlling because they are just like Eve who was deceived. Because of Eve the sin nature of women is to take over and be in control. Genesis confirms this when we learn Adam was not deceived. Instead he chose to sin because of Eve’s influence. From that time on, women have been given a choice to make. They can either be quiet, accepting submission to their husbands as God’s will for them or they can be like Eve who manipulated her man.

As you can tell, there is much to learn at the Christian Wives University. Before you enroll, however, make sure to check your critical thinking ability—something God endowed you with—at the door.

Schlafly’s New Math: Women Cause Campus Rape

In less than a week, students at George Fox University will be returning to campus for another semester of study, late-night shenanigans, and continued pursuit of a Ring by Spring. At my Christian institution, where the ratio of female to male students is about 60 to 40 (though this might have shifted with the advent of a football program), this means a buyer’s market: that is, if women are real estate, secured through a shiny engagement ring and the promise of a Pinterest wedding.

According to an article published yesterday by Phyllis Schlafly, though, this skewed ratio of female to male students—one pretty common at college and universities everywhere these days—is problematic beyond a few unhappy brides-to-be. Her article, titled “New Math on College Campuses,” proposes that recent well-publicized sex scandals on college campuses are due in some part to the preponderance of women on campus.

By “sex scandals,” Schlafly means rape cases, poorly handled by university administrators, now being investigated by the federal government (this article describes the current situation). Calling them sex scandals changes the equation: the women are more complicit, the men less guilty of brutal, criminal acts.webphyllis

And also, sexual scandals are always the woman’s fault. If they would just stay home with their parents until securing husbands, if they would allow men to compete in the men’s realm of the university, if they would stop insisting that they deserve an education, too: if all these things, then women wouldn’t get raped.

Such an easy solution, with this new math and all.

Schlafly provides several remedies to this “problem”: for one, admissions counselors could set quotas, granting entry to 50 percent men, 50 percent women. She obviously hasn’t talked to admissions folks lately, who must use intricate calculations to figure out how many students admitted will actually show up for the first day of class.

Barring this idea, universities could also stop granting loans, which would compel students to give up partying for hard labor, which would keep them busy rather than hooking up with each other. She may be on to something there, because I’m sure a minimum wage job will totally pay for that $40k education.

And if that doesn’t work, universities should just say “screw you” to Title IX and reinstitute all the men’s sports programs that have been stripped by feminists over the years. In this idea, at least, she seems stupidly sexist about men, too, saying that without ample sports opportunities in college, men have lost their “primary motivation” for getting an education in the first place. Because when ever was a college degree motivation enough for a man?

Throughout her argument, Schlafly reveals a stunning lack of understanding about high education, college sports, Title IX, feminism. Even calling college students “girls” and “boys” reflects any lack of thought or insight about college students, who are predominantly over eighteen, and therefore not really girls and boys at all.

But then again, we’re talking about Phyllis Schlafly here: the women who had made a good bit of money and fame, freely moving about the country talking and writing about her ideas, at the center of which is the sense that women need to stay at home and out of the public eye. Her entire raison d’etre has been to criticize the feminists who have destroyed culture, even as gender equality has given her a platform and a space to share her whacky ideas.

I must say, though, that this latest idea—that “sex scandals” on campus are caused by women being on campus—is perhaps her whackiest of all.

Mary, can you teach us to be courageous?

My stereo is always on overdrive in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. My favorite is anything by Mannheim Steamroller even after our German exchange student last year told me no one from Germany actually listens to them. That’s okay. I’m willing to be different.

Whatever our individual preferences, music adds a festive component to Christmas. Who doesn’t hum along with most any tune when touring the lights or wrapping gifts or making that special dessert you only have at Christmas?

As I recently looked over my Christmas selection, I was struck by a song that became popular a few years ago and continues to be one I frequently hear: Mary Did you Know. I appreciate the imaginative wondering about what Mary might have thought about the baby she brought into this world, especially because, at least as Protestants, we have given Mary short shrift. Oh sure, she figures into our manger scenes and we recognize her once or twice a year when we celebrate Christmas and Easter, but generally, I don’t think we take her very seriously.

In Luke’s gospel (and we have to focus on Luke because Matthew centers his account on Joseph while Mark and John don’t even mention Jesus’ birth), Gabriel, the angel, speaks to Mary forthrightly. This visit doesn’t take place in a dream or a vision, as often is the case in biblical narratives, but when Mary is wide awake and thinking clearly. The narrator suggests Mary was engaged when this conversation occurred, and that she was a “virgin.” While common understandings of the term “virgin” today mean someone who has not had vaginal sex, the original Greek is not as clear. The term could also mean young girl or woman. So, at best, there is ambiguity about Mary’s status.

At any rate, Mary did not immediately respond to Gabriel. It is easy to imagine her hesitancy. What does anyone say in response to “The Lord is with you?”  But when Mary heard the next statement, along with assertion that she would have a son who would be called the Son of the Most High and he would occupy the throne of David, she found her voice. How could this happen, she wanted to know, since she was not pregnant? And even though Gabriel avoided answering her question, instead saying the Holy Spirit would be present, Mary responded that she was willing to participate with God’s intention.

Such a decision involved autonomy often not recognized in Mary. Engaged to Joseph at the time, she was already considered his property. Before that she was owned by her father. That Mary did not seek permission from Joseph (or from her father, for that matter) conveys her independence. She apparently did not feel compelled to check with her fiancé or father in order to respond to Gabriel. Instead, she considered his claims and acceded to them without following appropriate social protocol.

Additionally, when she traveled to meet Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, Mary broke into song. Without priestly intervention or a male religious authority, Mary understood the spirit of God’s good news. Echoing Hannah’s song recorded in 1 Samuel 2, Mary must have been shaped not only by the gracious righteousness of God, but also by the women who went before her. Surely Mary knew by heart the ancient stories of Abraham and Moses, was familiar with leaders such as David and Solomon. Yet, when Mary spoke of her faith in God, revealing her understanding of God, she used the words of Hannah, another woman who played an integral part in God’s grand narrative by mothering Samuel.

Mary’s song, often called Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1, conveys the perspective underpinning Jesus’ actions in the gospels. It is a theology of reversals, where the strong are made weak, and the weak become strong, where the powerful are brought low and the hungry are filled. We can imagine Mary knew the lows all too well. She had been on the receiving end of social systems that disregarded groups of people: women, the poor, the sick, the hungry.

Her positive response to Gabriel surely was motivated by what she understood about God. From Hannah she knew God’s dream for humanity included freedom and liberation for all people, not just for a select few. She understood faith in God meant trusting that God would be faithful, working with God to make life more abundant for all. Mary, the lowly young woman, was the perfect person to give birth to God’s desire for humanity; in her risky decision, she showed the courage necessary to choose the better way. Mary had no idea what was in store for her as Jesus’ mother, and yet she was willing to take a chance on life with God. Her determination to cooperate without knowing the exact contours of the journey provide us today with an excellent example of what is required of us. Whatever the road entails, we can be sure it will be bumpy, because following Jesus means going into the potholes and crevices of social injustice in order to make the rough places smooth.

So maybe it is good to wonder what Mary may have known about Jesus, but it is more in tune with who she was to muster up our own courage; to join with her, creating God’s dream of love, hospitality, and especially, justice.

Perhaps we—as Christians in America—can start by re-evaluating our nationalism that has somehow meant endorsing torture as an acceptable practice. According to the Washington Post most Christians in the light of what we are learning about the CIA’s report on torture do not actually take exception to such inhumane acts, and instead think there are instances in which it is justified.

I suppose Mary—and Jesus, for that matter—have their own imaginative challenge trying to figure out how we could veer so far off course to have, in the words of Karen Armstrong, lost the entire plot. Maybe during this Christmas season, the Christ-child will birth in us a renewed heart of compassion: to love God and neighbor.

Get Busy, Mothers: It’s Your Job to Save Christmas!

The holidays are in peril again this year.

It’s true. The war on Christmas is once again raging, what with Target employees deciding to say “Happy Holidays!” rather than “Merry Christmas” when consumers plunk down serious cash for their Christmas crap. How can we really keep Christ in Christmas when even the folks over at Best Buy have decided to ignore Jesus’s birth, what with refusing to mention Christmas in their holiday circular?

Don’t get me started on those government officials who have decided to plant holiday trees in state houses. They’re Christmas trees, people. And President Obama, choosing to wish Americans a happy holiday season? Obviously, he’s forgotten that this is a Christian holiday, and that the White House needs to acknowledge our national fidelity to the one and true God.

Clearly, Christmas needs saving, else the holiday slip into complete oblivion. And who better to do the saving than Kirk Cameron.

Yes, that Kirk Cameron, erstwhile star of the 1980s sitcom “Growing Pains.” If you’ve been following Christian culture at all—and what fully dedicated person of faith hasn’t?—then you know that Mike Seaver has grown up into a painfully dogmatic evangelical who has produced such classic cinema hits like “Fireproof” and “Unstoppable.”

Cameron’s new film endeavor, “Saving Christmas,” promises to put the Christ back in Christmas, to show us the reason for the season, to make sure we all recognize why we are celebrating this holiday to begin with. And that our celebration has nothing to do with sugar cookies, even though: dang. There’s nothing better than Christmas cookie dough.cameron

There’s my problem, apparently, and every other Christian person, too, who has fixed her sights on something other than The True Meaning of Christmas.

According to Cameron, women have an extra special duty to make sure Christmas is awesomely Christ-like for their families. Except I think Cameron’s “special duty” is similar to those other special-but-different roles God has designed for women.

In a video published a few weeks ago on Cameron’s website, the savior of our culture’s certain slide into hell tells women that they bear the responsibility of making sure they are joy-filled, so that the Spirit of Christmas can be restored in their homes, and thus in the world.

According to Cameron, “If you are a mom, if you are a wife, if you are the keeper of your home, I want you to know that your joy is so important this Christmas. Because Christmas is about joy and if the joy of the Lord is your strength, remember the joy of the mom is her children’s strength.”

And now, I feel a little extra burden to be happy this Christmas: even when my kids fight over who gets to choose the Christmas tree, then disappear after decorating for only a few minutes. And when I have to step into a mall, the thought of which makes me feel hot and sweaty and impatient just thinking about it. And when I make Christmas cookies, and suddenly the boys show up, wanting a share of the dough I’ve set aside for myself.

Even then, I’m supposed to be joyful? Whew. Tall order.

Cameron tells us wives and mothers that we must sustain the joy in our home if we want Christmas to be saved at last. He says “Let your children, your family, see your joy in the way you that decorate your home this Christmas, in the food that you cook, the songs you sing, the stories you tell and the traditions that you keep.”

That seems like an overwhelming task, especially since my family rarely thinks “oh joy” when they taste the food I cook, if my sons’ faux barfing noises are any indication. (Interesting: it’s the same barfing noise they make when I try to sing along to the radio, too.)

In our home, at least, it’s not me who does the Christmas saving at any rate: I’m not the chief decorator, nor the keeper of holiday traditions. Those tasks fall to my husband, who revises and edits our attempts to decorate the Christmas tree once the boys and I go off to bed. He’s the one who has a particular way of handling Christmas morning, and has sustained the tradition of giving the kids pajamas every Christmas eve (even if, in our family lore, he gave his daughter the same ugly, itchy, tight-throated nightgown two years in a row: a tradition of its own kind, for sure!)

So I find Cameron’s message to mothers a little off-putting, as it seems so similar to other evangelical endeavors that burden mothers with the sole responsibility of nurturing their children’s spiritual well-being, of making amazing food, of sustaining a well-decorated home, of making sure everyone around them is joyful, even those for whom the holidays can be a less-than-joyful time.

Several years ago in The Oregonian, I wrote about the problematic premise of a “war on Christmas,” which suggests a cultural conflict where none should exist. Instead of berating stores and marketers for refusing to say “Merry Christmas” and insisting government offices display manger scenes, I argued that Christians should focus on what matters most in their Christmas celebrations: the birth of Jesus.

Cameron’s endeavor to “Save Christmas,” and his special exhortation to women sets our sights on something else entirely: On Cameron’s movie, certainly (coming soon to a theatre near you!); but also on the ways we continue to assume women should joyfully accept the roles delineated for them, rather than freely exploring what God calls them to be: at Christmas, and at any other time of the year.

Beth Moore, Bible Studies, and Obama

I am wading into dangerous waters.

For years I have been aware of the popularity and ubiquitous presence of Beth Moore among friends and family members of various churches. Beth Moore is, in fact, so commonplace I feel almost like a heretic as I write this post. Her Bible studies loom large in evangelical women’s groups and Sunday school classes. For goodness sake, is there anyone who can claim she doesn’t at least know who Beth Moore is, or more likely, has not studied at least one of her books?

Despite being a woman who believes she should not “preach” or teach men, few people are as well-known among contemporary Christians as Beth Moore. Even more than her omnipresence, it also is true she has made a positive contribution to many. Reading comments by people who have read her books and/or worked through her Bible studies, confirms how important she is to a lot of women (her primary audience).

Given these realities, that Beth Moore is not only wildly popular but also must have something good to say, one may wonder what exactly propels me to write about her, especially since a critique of her is likely filled with a thousand land-mines, many of them resulting a good old-fashioned Internet thrashing, I’m sure (can’t wait!). It may be that I relish too much my natural inclination to be contrary. Or (and I hope this is more right) that I think there is a reason for her popularity that has to do with reading the Bible in an “acceptable” way, one that does not challenge some of our most cherished aspects of American privilege.

For those who have any familiarity with Moore, they know to be prepared for her Bible study by having the corresponding materials and something to write with. Of course, this is in addition to utilizing their Bibles (kudos to Moore for this!). I am obviously a huge fan of taking notes, but this isn’t exactly what is expected of a Beth Moore Bible study.

Early in my education—elementary or middle school—I remember filling out worksheets; pages and pages of statements requiring me not to learn anything in particular but to find a word embedded in one place and transcribe it accurately to my worksheet. Locating the right word involved skimming texts searching for matching phrases. Such excises did not utilize my ability to think, only to recognize redundancy.

I don’t recall any of my peers clamoring for more worksheets, the desire to fill in the empty blanks a compelling task. And yet, this is the methodology Moore employs in her Bible studies. To my dismay, apparently adults have forgotten their previous disdain for such mind-numbing tasks now relishing instead the opportunity to be told which word fits the corresponding blank. Moore frequently stops speaking allowing time for her audience to fill in the blank or repeat a phrase after her.

What has changed, I wonder, to instigate such a shift? Why would we as children find filling in the blanks to be redundant and boring and yet thousands of adults flock to this kind of presentation, eagerly listening to someone, pen or pencil in hand ready to be told the correct answer to place in a worksheet?

My hunch is there is a comfort in being told what the Bible says and to accept it without question because raising questions is generally not encouraged by our churches. Perhaps for some of us we remember an early experience of questioning something in the Bible; maybe the virgin birth or perhaps the idea that God could not be known outside of Christianity. Despite these questions, more often than not Christians are encouraged to disregard questions and accept in their place a list of certainties. This approach is solidified by presenting the Bible as divine information. Our job is to collect the information into blanks and then commit it to memory.

Unfortunately, this unreflective method to the Bible not only incorrectly pits faith against religion (seen, for example in debates over evolution) it also fails to account for some of the major tenets we should understand about who God is and who we should be as people of God in the world.

If, on the other hand, we read our Bibles aware of the messiness created by a sacred document that is at once divinely inspired and also a product of human endeavor, we realize some things within it may not be as easy as stuff to fill in a blank.

One such theme is rather pointed in Deuteronomy although Moore ignores it in her current online study (at least all of the ones that have aired so far). Even though Moore frequently uses the catchy phrase “Deuteronomy-Economy” to refer to the social context of the Israelites after they have been led out of Egypt and before they enter the so-called Promised Land, she fails to take up a key point of who the Israelites are called to be. She mentions being grateful for food, praising God because that’s what we are supposed to do, and knowing our history. She leaves out the recognition that just as Jacob was an alien in Egypt so do the Israelites have aliens, orphans, and widows among them. And, as part of their worship of God, they were to care for these, the most vulnerable in their midst.

This insight is all the more troublesome for us. President Obama ignited a fire-storm of criticism this week for his decision to address immigration in more concrete ways than the Congress has done in the last several years. I can hear in the reverberations of the debate assumptions about rights as American citizens vs. rights of those from other places. What strikes me as missing from this conversation (I’m being polite to call this a conversation—practicing hospitality, you see!) is the Christian understanding that taking care of the most vulnerable among us is not only the heart of this “Deuteronomy-Economy” it is the essence of the gospel. I say this not to assume that we are a Christian nation and therefore should adopt this position but to suggest that Christians participating in this debate should recognize that part of what it means to follow the way of Jesus is to provide hospitality for the stranger.

It’s a lot easier to read Deuteronomy as the stuff that leads to Jesus’ death on the cross, the consistent theme Moore relies employs. And, maybe this is a good place for a person to start on her or his journey with the Bible. I just hope that people will not stop with such certitudes and easy answers and instead will dig deeper. Together I think we will find the Bible is not only more troublesome and problematic, but also that the way it calls us to is harder than we have imagined. But, maybe this is what Jesus meant about taking up our own crosses.

The Birth of the Pill

I’m a sucker for Terry Gross’ Fresh Air program on National Public Radio.

A couple of weeks ago I heard Gross interview author Jonathan Eig about his new book, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. Ordinarily I enjoy Gross’ interviews but seldom do I rush out and purchase the book involved, so I’m not sure exactly why this one grabbed me like it did. But as soon as I got home that night, I logged onto Amazon, made my purchase and for the next several days, watched intently for that coveted Amazon box waiting for me just outside my front door.

Honestly, I’ve been more than a little daunted by the book. Terry Gross failed to mention the hefty volume is well over 300 pages and entails a fair bit of science (not exactly the kind of thing I read for pleasure). Nevertheless, I have waded into this narrative seeking to understand a little more about how it is I arrived at my freedom. And even though I am only about one-third of the way through this detailed account of how four people in their own ways and for their own reasons ended up creating the pill, I already have a much greater appreciation for their work; for the chances they took and the sacrifices they made in order to me to have the opportunity to make my own reproductive decisions.

I vividly remember my first gynecological appointment when I asked my doctor to write a prescription for birth control. My wedding was just around the corner and much like all of the other details related to my upcoming marriage, birth control seemed to be my responsibility. In part, I think, because sex was not something we talked about in my family and also because I still had not realized the extent to which I had been shaped by patriarchal assumptions, including methods of birth control.

But there are other memories related to reproduction that loom in my memory in ways I’m sure are fundamentally different from my husband’s. During the first few years of my marriage, especially when I was in graduate school working toward my Master’s degree, I spent many nights wide awake worried that my random headache or stomach pain was a signal that I was pregnant. I carefully tracked my cycle; any variation was cause for immediate alarm.

Despite being irrational, my fear was real. Real, because I knew that even if by accident I became pregnant, it was my life—my career—that would change and not my husband’s. At least this was what I had internalized. And it fed my fear with a vengeance.

Fortunately, for me, the pill never let me down. However, as I am learning more about its development, it is clear I did not have an appropriate respect for the freedom it provided me.

Jonathan Eig’s narrative carefully spans the collaborative efforts of four intrepid people whose commitments to creating a practical and effective means of birth control resulted in the pill. Margaret Sanger played an integral role as she campaigned for the rights of women knowing that without reproductive autonomy, women would never be equal but instead would always be subject to the repercussions of sex in a way that men aren’t.

But, the pill’s development took more than a visionary, money was needed. Enter Katharine McCormick, whose experience taught her that there are circumstances in life where being able to avoid pregnancy could be beneficial. At the age of 75, McCormick contacted Sanger to see where her fortune would most benefit the National Birth Control movement. I’d say money was never so well spent.

Two others were also key. Gregory Pincus, a renegade scientist who was dismissed by Harvard University for his scientific work with in vitro fertilization, labored for many years in sub-par laboratories and with little financial support. And John Rock, a physician and Catholic whose practice and interactions with women enabled him to see the conflicts between his church’s stance regarding birth control and the real lives of women who suffered the devastating outcomes of male-centric theology, persuaded the general public that birth control was a positive development.

Even as I am still learning more details about these four trailblazers and what each of them accomplished, I continue to be astonished by how directly their work has affected my life. And mostly I feel immense gratitude.

But there is something else, something a little more gnawing that hasn’t quite let go of me. It is this: before the invention of the pill, few people thought seriously about the relationship between women’s rights and their reproductive options. Because so little consideration existed, women’s progress toward equality did not improve.

In our political discourse today, there continue to be echoes from an earlier era of those who call for restricting reproductive choices for women. And yet the relationship between women’s equality and their reproductive options is no less real now than it was in the early twentieth century. If I somehow became pregnant and didn’t discover it until my final trimester (ok; both of these are highly improbable, but give me at least the possibility of such a hypothetical situation), I would want the freedom to make the decision about what to do. And this hypothetical suggestion is much better than what many women actually face when they are raped or have no access to clinics with affordable reproductive care or for women who simply cannot afford a pregnancy let alone a birth.

Not everyone needs to agree about what constitutes a moral choice regarding reproduction: the use of the pill; the morning-after pill; other forms of birth control; or even abortion. But it seems to me disingenuous to suggest to women by our public policies that we fail to see the link between their equality and their full access to reproductive services. Ensuring that women are able to make choices about their bodies, their health, and their procreation is still a fundamental aspect of creating a society in which women are equal to men. And, as long as we fail to provide a real choice, women are not really free.

I’m pretty sure Sanger, McCormick, Pincus, and Rock would agree.

It’s a God Thing (or not) (Probably not)

Any student who has occupied space in my classroom quickly learns my writing pet peeves. Whether there is any logic behind my peevishness matters little: it is what it is.

Saying “it is what it is” captures two of my peeves in one blow:

  • I hate weak expletives (not words like shoot or darn, but those are stupid, too).
  • I hate the word “it.”

Hate might be too strong a word, I suppose. Despise, maybe? It’s not like I fail students who use “it” or “it is.” Tempting, God knows, but sometimes using “it is” seems necessary (see previous sentence).

A word even more despicable than “it” is “thing.” Thing means nothing to me: thing is a word so bereft of meaning, it could mean anything. Or something. Or everything.

So when people say that they have experienced a “God Thing,” I shudder. I know what they mean: whatever happened feels so serendipitous and providential, God must have played a role. Still, I dislike the use of “thing” in the phrase, one of the weakest words possible; and even more, I dislike the theology the phrase exemplifies: that when we experience serendipity, God must have played a role. When our lives are lousy—when our dog runs away, or our kids get the flu, or we lose our jobs/our families/our health—we don’t call that a “God thing” (except maybe the dog-running-away part).

Does God only give us a thing in serendipity?

Often, when we were in the process of adopting our two boys, people would proclaim that the adoptions were “a God Thing.” The phrase started to grate on me, much as I am grateful for these boys. I’m amazed that two kids, born in developing countries thousands of miles away, came to live in my home. I’m amazed that they survived difficult births and poor health, that they thrived, that somehow their files landed in my email. I’m amazed that I get to be their mother. I’m amazed, grateful, stunned by this gift, and by the circumstances that made this gift possible.

But I cannot see their adoption as a God Thing.

Because of this: I cannot imagine a God who would make a woman feel like she had to surrender her child to strangers, which is what my sons’ birth mothers had to do. Since their adoption, I’ve wondered often about the immense grief that could have accompanied that surrender, and the sense of loss these women might feel, and the life-long emptiness left by the departure of their babies. I wonder how they feel when they see other children the same age as my children; I wonder if they wonder about their kids. And I mourn the opportunity they’ve lost, to know these two amazing boys, who are smart and lively, fiercely noncompliant and loving all the same, and who are both wicked funny (especially when it comes to poop jokes, I might add).

That their birth moms cannot know them? Not in any way a “God Thing.”

Nor is it a “God Thing” that these women were compelled to relinquish their children, for whatever reason. Would God endorse the conditions that made this necessary? Is it God-blessed that people live in abject poverty, unable to feed their own progeny or provide them the medical care they need to survive? Does God carry disease to some people, so that they die young and cannot raise their families? Does God celebrate cultures that make it impossible for women to avoid the stigma of single motherhood?

That families cannot raise the children they bore: this is not a God Thing.

Some people will tell me that despite these awful circumstances, my sons’ adoptions are a “God Thing” because we saved them from another life: that God redeemed their difficult beginnings by compelling us to adopt them, allowing them to live a comfortable life in our Christian home.

Perhaps this idea, above all others, is hard for me to accept. I am not a savior, by virtue of my desire to have children, nor given my western privilege. My boys are not mission projects. They are autonomous beings, created in God’s own image and loved and cared for wholly by God, whether we adopted them or not. They were not taken from their home cultures and given to me by God so I could make them Christian, save them from some other religion, assure their happiness in an after life.

Several years ago, I wrote an essay to honor Mother’s Day in which I explore the complicated paradox that makes it hard for me to see adoption as a “God Thing.” Much as I love my boys, and am exceedingly grateful for their presence in my life, I know this: that my joy in being a mother comes because others, including my own sons and the mothers who bore them, have experienced a loss I cannot fathom.

In that essay, I concluded by turning to my favorite writer, Anne Lamott, who argues in Traveling Mercies that sometimes we want God to be a little less mysterious, to provide for us “permanence, a guarantee or two, the unconditional love we all long for” (p.168). Lamott says she demands assurance from God, but gets only silence. In that silence she realizes the only promise, the only thing in this life not shrouded by mystery, is “the moment, and the imperfect love of people” (168)

My sons’ adoptions remain a mystery to me. Why I was lucky enough to be their mother is also a mystery. Why I get to live where I do, with the community I have, doing work I love, surrounded by family and friends I adore: only mystery. And grace, I imagine, because I certainly didn’t do much to receive these gifts.

We can talk about serendipitous encounters as God Things, or finding a parking space near the mall entrance as a God Thing, or even adopting two of the cutest boys in Yamhill County as God Things, but such rhetoric seems to diminish the power and mystery of what a God Thing really is: this very moment, the imperfect but holy love of the people around us, and the perfect and holy love of God for us all. A God Thing can be nothing–and everything–more than that.

I’ve been thinking about God Things for awhile now, but must admit that this blog post was inspired, in part, by my need to make a shameless plug for a new book I’ve co-edited with Martha Diede and Jeremiah Webster, called The Spirit of Adoption: Writers on Religion, Adoption, Faith, and More. The book uses the stories of birthmothers, adoptees, and adoptive parents to explore the ways adoption has deepened, complicated, and reshaped the writers’ religious faith. My essay, “On (Not) Fearing God,” considers evangelical adoption ministries, my sons’ adoption into a Christian home, and how I’ve become a little (a lot?) more universalist in my worldview since becoming a mother. You can read more about the book here

 

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