Why Christians Need to Read Fiction

Last week I sent a Google form out to the faculty and staff to collect book recommendations that I could put up around the school. The goal was to model a love of reading for our students, and also give them some ideas of things they might like.

Of the responses I got, nearly all of them were Christian books – Christian biographies, Christian self-help books, Christian fiction.

I’m not entirely sure why I was surprised; I work at a Christian school, after all. But it made me a little sad. Do my coworkers feel like they have to present a certain persona when recommending books to students? Do they genuinely believe these are books middle and high school students would be interested in? Are they really not reading anything else?

We need stories. At the very center of human existence is storytelling — it is present in every culture in some form or fashion. And yet, Christians, or at least modern American evangelical Christians, seem to have lost the desire for stories. Which is strange, considering that Jesus’s primary method of teaching was through telling stories.

I’m currently reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart with my 10th grade students. It’s the story of an Ibo man, Okonkwo, who is constantly at war with himself and the world around him. This conflict only worsens when the British empire arrives. This week we’ve reached the point in the novel when Achebe presents two different Christian missionaries who come to Umuofia, Mr. Brown and Mr. Smith.

Mr. Brown approaches his mission with humility and kindness, providing services that are useful to the village, learning about the clan’s beliefs, and attempting to speak to the people in a way they would understand. He eventually falls ill and is replaced by Mr. Smith, a “different kind of man” who “saw things as black and white…as a battlefield in which the children of light were locked in mortal conflict with the sons of darkness.” He is described as being “filled with wrath” and causes serious conflict in the village.

What’s difficult for many of my students, though, is that both of these men are painted as outside invaders. They are white men, in league with the colonizing force that is enslaving and oppressing the Ibo people. Mr. Smith’s adherence to traditional color symbolism, in which black is evil and white is good, is purposeful, of course; Achebe uses it to underscore the racist worldview of the British missionaries who sought to “civilize” the African “savage.” Even Mr. Brown, with all his kindness and understanding, is a disruptive force that leads to destruction for the characters.

This portrayal of missionary work is very different from the portrayal most Christians see on Sunday morning or read about in “Christian living” books. And without books like Things Fall Apart, we risk never breaking out of our myopic view of the world, a myopic view which leads people to write things like the following:

“Missionaries go to places that the rest of us don’t. They work their way into cultures that some of us like to pretend don’t exist. And, to the best of their abilities, they try to leave that culture better than when they found it. All for the glory of God.”

I ran across this in a blog post* intended to encourage Christian teachers in their work, but was stunned by the obvious cultural superiority inherent in it. “They try to leave that culture better than when they found it”? Better according to who? Is the gospel not relevant in every culture? Or does it demand conformity to our Western sensibilities?

It’s the kind of statement I would never have questioned if I hadn’t read books like Things Fall Apart or The Poisonwood Bible, books where the Christian pastor isn’t always the perfect hero of the story, where saying a prayer doesn’t help the protagonist kick the winning field goal, where life is messy and difficult and doctrine doesn’t make it neater or easier.

I needed those stories. They forced me to confront my own assumptions and biases in a way that statistics and facts never could. They made people in far off places real and alive, not just projects to be fixed or souls to be won.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about echo chambers, about how we all live in these bubbles that just repeat back to us the things we already believe. It’s true for everyone — we tend to gravitate towards people and things that confirm what we believe to be true and reject what we consider false. We don’t like to be made uncomfortable.

But there’s another result to this — when we live in these echo chambers, we begin to speak a different language. It happens gradually and subtly, until you think this is just the language that everyone speaks and you can’t understand why someone else would misinterpret you.

I grew up in the church, and I always liked being the one who knew the answers. I could quote verses and pray the right way and say all the right things. And it never occurred to me to question this language because I knew what I meant and the people around me knew what I meant and when they spoke, I knew what they meant, too. Clearly any miscommunication that happened wasn’t our fault.

And then over the course of a few years I went from having mostly Christian friends to having mostly non-Christian friends. And y’all, we sound weird from outside the bubble.

I remember a time I was sitting in Panera, eating a delicious lunch and reading my comic books, and there were two women who appeared to be in their early 20s at the table next to me. They weren’t keeping their voices down and our tables were close together, so I could hear most of their conversation. It was full of talk about callings and leadings and waiting to hear God’s voice and the Lord’s hand being on things and it struck me how much that must sound like nonsense to anyone who isn’t part of the church.

Now, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with “Christianese”, especially when you’re having conversations with people who do understand what you’re saying. But so many Christians take that language outside of the church building, and then get frustrated when people they are trying to minister to don’t feel loved or cared for by them. They don’t realize they’re speaking a different language.

Books, and stories in particular, can help with that. Stories expose you to the way other people think and speak and see the world. They can give you the language to express that feeling you’ve always had but could never explain. They can give you common ground with people, a place to start a conversation from.

Stories teach us about things that we would never be able to experience otherwise, or that we would hope to never experience. We don’t have to agree with everything in a story in order to learn from it. We just have to willing to think critically and allow ourselves to be challenged by the story.

(side note: this is why I’ve never understood parents forbidding their children to read things that aren’t Christian or “wholesome” — books are probably the safest way for kids to learn about difficult and dangerous things. Wouldn’t you rather they read stories about teenagers doing dumb stuff, and then be able to talk to them about it and examine it from the safety of your living room then have them go try to find out about those things on their own?)

When we allow ourselves to be challenged by stories, we grow in our ability to love others. When we read The Bell Jar, we become less likely to tell someone with mental illness that they just need to pray harder. When we read If I Was Your Girl, we become better able to understand what it means to be transgender. When we read Homegoing or The Underground Railroad, we become less likely to tell black people to get over the past and move on. When we read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe or I’ll Give You the Sun, we become less likely to minimize or mischaracterize the love between LGBTQ+ people.

Stories have the power to humanize and to dehumanize. When we choose to read stories by and about people who have traditionally been dehumanized, we push back just a little against the forces of oppression and destruction in our world. It allows us to hear their voices in their language, to learn what they value and care about, and to see the world, and also ourselves, through their eyes.

I realize that most of what I’ve talked about so far revolves around being challenged and made uncomfortable by fiction. If I left it there, I would be doing you a huge disservice.

We should also read fiction because it is fun.

So many Christians think that if something is fun, it is a waste of time. Fun can be a byproduct, or you can have fun while also doing something purposeful, but fun just for the sake of fun? Not allowed.

My friends, if that is what you believe, you are missing out on the abundant life (oh look, I can still speak Christianese sometimes :) ).

We are made in the image of God, and the very first thing we learn about God is that God created.** God made things that are beautiful and terrifying and hilarious and weird. If we are made in God’s image, then we are also creators. It seems to me that logically, we would also be made to enjoy things that we and others have created.

Think about a little kid drawing a picture or building something — doing something creative. What do they do when they finish? Do they just sit there feeling accomplished? No — they beg everyone they can find to come look at this thing they made! And their joy in creating is deepened and widened by the other person enjoying the creation.

We are made for joy. Galatians does not list duty or efficiency as the fruit of the spirit, but it does list joy. Stories, in all their forms, are fun and can bring us great joy. They can be beautiful or terrifying or hilarious or weird or a combination of all of those things. They can make us laugh or make us cry. They remind us of fond memories and old friends. They give us hope — that love can conquer all, that evil will be defeated, that one person really can make a difference.

Stories reflect back to us all the messy, glorious, difficult, quiet, frustrating, and magical parts of life and remind us how lucky we are to be alive right now.

So go read a book, or a comic book, or a poem. Or if reading really just isn’t your thing, go watch a movie, or a play, or a ballet. Or listen to that one album that makes you feel alive. And if you can’t think of anything that makes you feel that way, ask a friend to share their favorites with you. I’d be happy to give you some recommendations, if you’d like.


* Read that blog post here, if you want.
**My pastor, Jonathan McIntosh, was the first person I ever heard say this, and I will be forever grateful for it.

Why I’m Weary

I have never wished more fervently for the ability to disconnect, to not feel, to not care.

This week has been exhausting, and it’s only Wednesday.

I’m trying to stay informed, but there just seems to be too much. I’m trying to perform well at my job, but I’m distracted and tired and the grading keeps piling up. I’m trying to take care of myself, but I don’t really know how because nothing I’ve tried seems to allow me to rest.

I see other people continuing on with their lives, saying things like “I’m not really into politics,” and I wonder what it must be like to be able to ignore the things that are happening around us. I don’t mean this to sound like judgement; if I’m honest, I’m jealous of that ability. I’ve always been someone who cares “too much,” if there is such a thing.

But when I read about yet another thing the President has done, or about another bill that’s been introduced, or another call to action that I should be a part of, it’s not just political; it’s personal.

I have friends with pre-existing conditions who are afraid they won’t be able to afford their medication, which puts their jobs and even lives at risk. I have friends whose marriages and parental rights are at risk. I have students – bright, passionate, amazing students who were brought to this country as children – who are at risk of losing their DACA status and being deported. I have friends who work to prevent violence against women and help women who have already been victims whose funding is at risk of being cut.

I look at the water protectors at Standing Rock and I know that the constant, repeated violations of their rights going back centuries is personal to them. I look at Muslims and other religious minorities and I know that immigration limits and rhetoric that fosters suspicion and fear is personal to them. I look at women and I know that a system that they feel seeks to control them, but does not punish rapists is personal to them. I look at the black community and I know that discussion of “empowering law enforcement” and a “law and order administration” is personal to them. I look at black children in the Shelby County Juvenile Court system and I know that the harsher treatment they receive is personal to them. I look at families who aren’t fortunate enough to be at my school and I know that lack of quality education options, even if they had a voucher, is personal to them.

I don’t know how to ignore any of this. I don’t know how to stop posting about it, to stop talking about it. I don’t know how to stop checking the news to see what else has happened since the last time I looked. I don’t know how to stop worrying about all the issues I’m missing because they’re not on my radar. I’m not at nearly as great a risk as others, and I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the next four years.

I don’t know how to bring this burden to Jesus when so much of the church community doesn’t think I should be feeling burdened at all.

I don’t want to be ruled by fear. I want to have hope, I want to look for solutions, I want to build bridges. I want to be able to rest when I need to and fight when I need to. I want to not be so tired and upset.

I just really don’t know how to make my bleeding heart stop bleeding.

2016: Books

Looking back over my Goodreads challenge from this year, I was surprised to find that I had actually read quite a bit of nonfiction. In fact, I read more nonfiction than adult fiction, which is a very weird thing for me. Most of these lists weren’t necessarily written in 2016, but these are my favorite things I read this year.

Young Adult Books

  1. Legend, Prodigy, and Champion by Marie Lu – This series officially became my favorite YA dystopian series. There are a lot of those, but I loved that this one included characters who weren’t white and also did a lot of different things. Where most of the series end with the big revolution that overthrows the corrupt government, this series goes farther and asks tough questions about what it really means to build a just, fair, and prosperous society.
  2. The Weight of Feathers and When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore – Oh man, I am so glad I found this author, so I had to include both of her books. The Weight of Feathers is one of the coolest examples of the star-crossed lovers trope I’ve ever read with an extremely satisfying ending. When the Moon Was Ours is beautiful and ethereal and tender and I just really loved Miel and Sam. Both of them fall under the magical realism genre, so they can be a bit strange if you’re not expecting that, but both of them are beautiful.
  3. The Love That Split the World by Emily Henry – Another magical realism-ish book, and one that I was very happy to receive in my OwlCrate box earlier this year. It’s got parallel universes and Native American mythology and romance and great characters. A really, really cool read.
  4. If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo – A book about a trans character written by a trans author = a really important #ownvoices narrative. #ownvoices is a hashtag started by Corinne Duyvis to highlight books about diverse characters written by that same diverse group. While no one person speaks for an entire group, and Russo is clear about that, #ownvoices narratives avoid a lot of the harmful stereotypes that crop up when people outside of a particular group try to write about it. This book is also just a really lovely story about love and family and friendship.
  5. Beast by Brie Spangler – I picked up this book because the cover is gorgeous. And then I realized it was a Beauty and the Beast adaptation – yes please! And then I read the blurb and realized that it was also about a trans character and I got even more excited (don’t worry – the trans character is the Beauty, not the Beast). The book itself ended up being delightful. I saw some reviews that didn’t like the main character, but his narration sounded spot on to me, and I spend a lot of time with teenagers.

“Real” Adult Books

  1. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – This book deserves every award it’s received. A lot of times I don’t find that award-winning books live up to the hype, but this one does. It’s brutal, because Whitehead refuses to sugarcoat anything, but that’s part of what makes it so good. Definitely worth the read.
  2. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and The Fire This Time edited by Jesmyn Ward – I highly recommend both of these works to anyone who wants to better understand the African-American experience in the US. James Baldwin’s work is seminal and should probably required reading in every high school curriculum, and the essays and other works that Ward compiled are eye-opening and moving. If you need facts and statistics, most people will point you to The New Jim Crow, but I think these personal stories are just as important for understanding race relations in America.
  3. Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey – Bessey seems to find away to say all the things I’m feeling about theology and the church, just much more eloquently and coherently. Her writing is always such an encouragement to me, and this book was no different. She reminds me that it’s okay to not have all the answers because I know the One who does.
  4. The Awakening by Kate Chopin – I’m almost glad I never had to read it in high school, because I’m pretty sure I would have hated it. I would have called Edna selfish and annoying and I would have completely missed the point of the book. Reading it as an adult though, was an absolute pleasure.
  5. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – I have a pretty good idea about how I would have reacted to The Awakening because I did have to read this one and that’s exactly how I reacted. Oh boy was I wrong. This book is exquisite and high school me was an idiot. If you’ve never read either of these, put them on your list for 2017.

2016: Movies

Everyone likes to talk about how the movie industry is unoriginal and dying. And yes, there were a lot of sequels and adaptations this year, but that’s not always a bad thing. There was still plenty of good stuff out there this year, and here are some of my favorites.

Most Beautiful: Moonlight

I’m still not over how beautiful this movie was. The visuals were stunning, even when the setting wasn’t a place that would normally be considered pretty. And the performances! The entire last third of the movie was all about facial expressions and body language and everything that was going unsaid underneath the dialogue. I just really, really loved this movie.

Runner-up: La La Land

Most Laughs: Ghostbusters

 

I had so much fun watching this movie. I know there were lots of people whining about how unnecessary the adaptation was, but I’ve never seen the original and never had any desire to see the original. But with this cast? Sign me up. And it definitely didn’t disappoint. I saw it twice in theaters and definitely wouldn’t mind watching it a bunch more.

Runner-up: Love and Friendship

Best Acting: Fences

I saw a tweet or something where someone said that the acting in Fences was so good, they forgot they weren’t watching real people. That’s a rare thing, especially with actors as recognizable as Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, but it’s absolutely true in this movie. Major kudos to August Wilson for creating a character in Troy Maxon that I simultaneously hated and sympathized with, and to Denzel Washington for bringing him to life.

Runner-up: Loving

Best Kid’s Movie: Kubo and the Two Strings

Okay, so I never saw Finding Dory or Moana, but I’m pretty sure this would still stand. This movie was gorgeous and had so much heart. The ending made me weep and filled me with so much joy and hope, feelings that we all desperately need these days. My only quibble is that I wish the main characters had been played by Japanese voice actors rather than just the supporting characters, but it’s still such a beautiful story.

Runner-up: Zootopia (although I’m pretty sure it’s the only other one I saw)

Best “Based on a True Story”: Hidden Figures

I just saw this one yesterday and I am sooooo glad the limited release included Memphis so I didn’t have to wait until next week. The women in this movie, and all the others like them, deserve all the awards and accolades, and they went years without receiving any credit or acknowledgement of their contributions. I hope the movie kills at the box office and inspires a whole slew of movies highlighting the contributions of those who have been left out of the history books.

Runner-up: Queen of Katwe

Best Mainstream Movie that Probably Won’t Win Awards: Star Trek Beyond

I’ve liked the previous Star Trek reboot movies, but this one felt the most like what people who love Star Trek talk about when they talk about why they love it. Rather than just being about explosions and Captain Kirk’s angst/womanizing/whatever, it was about teamwork and friendship and unity and working together to create a better, more peaceful future. Yes, please – more of this.

Runner-up: The Magnificent Seven

Most Frustrating: Captain America: Civil War

I’m mostly focusing on the positive in these posts, but I can’t write about movies in 2016 without talking about this at all. I love Marvel. I’ve loved Marvel since Iron Man, although it was really after Captain America: The First Avenger that I really became a superhero fan. I’ve watched Winter Soldier more times than I can count. And I really wish I had gotten a third Cap movie that actually brought the story arc from the first two movies to a close and continued the character arc that was being set up there. Civil War was a fun Avengers movie, and a far better one than Age of Ultron, but I just really want to pop over to the alternate universe where the Russos got to make the Captain America: Fallen Son movie they mentioned before the whole RDJ deal happened and Civil War became a thing. I think it would have been really good.

2016: TV

There’s too much TV. It’s impossible to keep up with everything and there’s always something new that people are talking about and telling you to watch. Of course, the plus side is that there’s something out there for pretty much anyone; you just have to find it. Here are some of the things I found in 2016.

Favorite returning shows:

  1. The Americans – This show just gets better and better. The acting, the writing – all of it is so consistently good and compelling. And while I’m sad the end is in sight, I’m thrilled beyond belief to know that the writers know exactly how many episodes they have left. I can’t wait to see what they have planned for the last two seasons.
  2. Brooklyn 99 – This and black-ish are pretty much the only sitcoms I can stand to watch. The cast is diverse, the characters are more than stereotypes, and most of all, the humor isn’t rooted in meanness. That feels so rare these days. Also, Andre Braugher as Holt is one of the greatest comedic performances in history.
  3. Jane the Virgin – I had fallen behind and was thinking I didn’t really enjoy this one as much as I used to, but then I watched 4 episodes in one day to catch up and remembered why I love it so much. The plots are ridiculous and over the top, but the characters are so human and real that the ridiculousness just becomes fun.
  4. Supergirl – My annoyance with the treatment of Jimmy Olson and the introduction of Conventionally Attractive White Male Love Interest aside, Supergirl is still one of the shows I tend to watch within 24 hours of it airing. It survived the move to the CW mostly unharmed and the Alex Danvers storyline was one of the best LGBTQ narratives I’ve ever seen. And it also provided a wonderful example of why positive representation is so important.
  5. The Flash – When it comes to comics and movies, I’m a total Marvel girl, but while I could never really get into Agents of SHIELD, I still love The Flash. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and has mostly avoided getting bogged down in complicated mythology, which actually makes it fun to watch. It’s consistently entertaining without requiring a lot of effort, which means it’s one of the few shows that rarely stacks up on my DVR.
  6. Honorable mentions: black-ish, Vikings, The Great British Baking Show

Favorite new shows:

  1. Queen Sugar – I don’t even have the words to describe how great this show is. Let’s put it this way: I willingly called DirecTV to find a way to add the network it’s on just for this show, and I haven’t regretted it for a second. Put Ava Duvernay in charge of all the things.
  2. Pitch – I was worried that Pitch wouldn’t be good, mostly because I so badly wanted it to be good. But it’s better than good. Ginny Baker is a wonderful, multifaceted character and the show manages to avoid pigeonholing her into any of the expected stereotypes. I don’t even like baseball and I love this show.
  3. The Get Down – While everyone else was obsessing over Stranger Things (which I watched and enjoyed), I was obsessing over The Get Down. The music is great, the story lines are great, the acting is great. It’s also just really fun to see the connections between the roots of hip hop and nerd culture and everything else that was going on in the late 1970s.
  4. Luke Cage – Luke Cage was the best thing Marvel did in TV or movies this year. As with many of the 13-episode shows that have premiered on Netflix in the past couple of years, there are a few episodes in the middle that feel like too much wheel-spinning, especially if you binge-watch, but the show as a whole is seriously entertaining. It’s got a seriously talented cast, some genuinely shocking moments, and the glorious, glorious Misty Knight.
  5. Leverage – Okay, I’m cheating. Leverage isn’t new (all 5 seasons are on Netflix), but it was new to me and I’m so glad I watched it. The character growth over the course of the series is phenomenal and it accomplishes the rare feat of coming to a completely satisfying ending. It’s clever, funny, and hopeful, and you should watch it.

2016: It wasn’t all bad

2016 has been rough for a lot of people, and it’s easy to look at the horizon that is 2017 and think about all the potential catastrophes it could bring. And there’s definitely a time and place to do that – we can’t work to prevent catastrophe if we pretend it’s not real.

But personally, I need to end this year and start the new one on a positive note. Otherwise I might not actually show up for work on January 3, and that would definitely lead to catastrophe. So in an effort to remember the good stuff in 2016, I’m going to be posting a series of lists of some of my favorite things from the past 12 months.

First up, experiences (in reverse chronological order):

  1. Meeting Siena Mae – my niece was born on December 26, which was perfect timing for me to get to see her before coming back to Memphis (sorry she’ll be the youngest on the soccer team, Becca). She’s objectively the cutest baby in the entire world and I can’t wait to watch her grow and change over the years.
  2. Turning 30 – So that happened. I felt a lot of cultural pressure to have some sort of crisis about this, but really, it wasn’t a big thing. And so far, being 30 is pretty great. It’s still weird to sometimes stop and realize that I’m the adultiest adult in the room, but I’m also pretty content with how my life is working out (especially now that I’m moving in February).
  3. New York City – In July, I took myself on vacation to New York City. I stayed at an Airbnb in Brooklyn and did whatever I wanted for four days in the city. I ended up getting to see four Broadway shows – Fun Home, Hamilton, The Color Purple, and Shuffle Along. While Hamilton was obviously the highlight (and the reason for the trip in the first place), the others were excellent in their own right and the whole experience was good for my soul. I also got my 5th tattoo as a souvenir while I was there.
  4. Boston – in March, I went to Boston to meet up with who real life people know as my “internet friends”. Really, they’re much more than that. I may have met them on the internet, but I probably talk to them more than anyone else thanks to the magic of group texts. Lauren couldn’t make it, which was a bummer, but we had a great time hanging out and getting matching tattoos and actually inhabiting the same physical space for only the second time.
  5. Buffalo – technically, this was at the tail end of 2015, but I like round numbers, so I’m including it. While being a Buffalo Bills fan has been disappointing enough to drive me into the arms of another sport (hockey is great fun!), finally getting to go to a game in Buffalo was an awesome experience. Plus it was fun to see all the places my parents lived and spend time with family.

Stay tuned for my favorite books, TV, and movies over the next couple of days!

Toxic Masculinity and Biblical Manhood

I had an epiphany in church this morning. I’ve been trying to figure out for a long time why so many conversations about “biblical manhood” make me uncomfortable. I’ve written about it before (and that was before I became quite as much of a “rabid” feminist), but I felt like there was still something off. Obviously I want my brothers in Christ, and all men, to be liberated from the confines of toxic masculinity, but every time it came up in a sermon, it felt like the hairs on the back of my neck were standing straight up.

This morning I figured it out and posted the following statement on facebook: Churches that attempt to fix toxic masculinity without addressing the fact that it’s rooted in misogyny will never succeed.

Often the response I hear from the church to the “big boys don’t cry” messages our culture sends is “Emotions aren’t unmasculine! You can have feelings and be sensitive and still be a man!”

And while I believe that’s true, it doesn’t actually get at the heart of the problem. The reason sensitivity and emotions are so discouraged in boys and men is because those things are seen as feminine, and the absolute worst thing a boy or man can be is feminine.

Think about it – so many insults and exhortations surrounding men involve eliminating any trace of femininity. You throw/run/kick/act like a girl. Man up. Grow a pair. Don’t be a pussy (or pansy, if it’s coming from a church guy). These are all rooted in the belief that being like a woman is weak, shameful, less than being like a man.

The solution to this is not to divorce things like sensitivity and tenderness from femininity; it’s to stop acting like femininity is something terrible.

Pastors can talk about David being overcome by emotion and Jesus inviting the little children to Him until they are blue in the face, but they also need to acknowledge that our broader culture still considers those traits to be signs of weakness. And the only reason they are considered weak and invaluable because they are seen as feminine traits.

It’s misogyny. And we have to deal with that honestly.

So maybe instead of another sermon or retreat about “how to be a man,” we could start teaching men how to value femininity, whether it appears in women, other men, or themselves.

Catharsis

Over the past few weeks (months, years), I’ve seen a lot and heard a lot that has given me a lot of feelings and frustrations. This morning, this is what came out of it.


“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.”

A nice sentiment.
But what about your words?
What about your votes?
What about your actions?
What about the rhetoric you spread, the beliefs you hold, the systems you prop up when
there isn’t a mass shooting on the news?

“Such a senseless tragedy.”

A tragedy, yes.
Senseless?
Cancer, miscarriage, freak car accidents – these are senseless tragedies.
A young man raping an unconscious girl?
That’s not senseless – it’s the result of parents who forgot to teach their son that women are people
And a culture that told him he could have whatever he wanted if he just had the strength to reach out and take it
Black people dying at the hands of police isn’t senseless
It’s the result of a culture built on a foundation of slavery and oppression that refuses to look at itself in the mirror
And a criminal justice system that believes you are innocent until proven guilty, but only as long as you are white or wearing a badge
A man feeling the need to fire a gun on a crowd isn’t senseless
It’s anger and fear, stirred up, manipulated by those who see him as nothing but a pawn in their own quest for power, with a healthy dose of toxic masculinity sprinkled on top

“We live in a broken world. God has a plan.”

Yes, this world is broken.
Yes, I believe God has a plan.
Us.
We are the ones who are supposed to make the world less broken
We are supposed to bind up the brokenhearted
To proclaim liberty to the captives
To open the prison to those who are bound
Why don’t we insist on a literal interpretation of that verse?
We pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven
But take no responsibility for building that kingdom
We silence voices that don’t sound like ours
We protect leaders who cover up abuses
We argue about bathrooms and wedding cakes because we take God and his commands seriously
Unless God says to show love and kindness and gentleness
Unless the command is to sell all you have and give it to the poor
We are the temple of the Holy Spirit
The body of Christ
The very hands and feet of Jesus
What good is that if we are not trying to build a world in which 50 people are not gunned down while celebrating who they are?
What good is that if we are not protecting those who have historically been the most likely to suffer harm?
What good is that if we are not creating space for the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the oppressed, the abused?
What good is that if all it gets me is a mansion in heaven where I can watch the rest of the world burn?

Why I’m Not Pro-Life…or Pro-Choice

Let’s start some shit, shall we?

It’s election season, which means there are lots of arguments about all kinds of different things. And since this presidential election likely has Supreme Court nomination ramifications, one of the big issues that comes up is abortion.

What’s interesting to me is that I find myself in conversations where people assume that of course I’m pro-life or of course I’m pro-choice, even though I frequently disagree with both of those camps. While I would assert that this is an issue with a lot of nuance and gray areas, it seems to me that most people consider it to be a purely black and white issue.

My feminist friends post things that tell me that if I’m not pro-choice, my feminism is shit (and also probably racist). My Christian friends post things that tell me that if I don’t vote pro-life, my Christianity is shit (and also probably racist).

(This blog post is not really going to address the fact that black women and black communities are frequently used as rhetorical devices and argumentative pawns by the white people who dominate this conversation, but I will say that it’s gross and disgusting and should definitely stop.)

Well, I guess my feminism and my Christianity are both shit, because I refuse to align with either side in this debate. Both sides are hypocritical and both sides are more concerned with yelling and talking past each other than they are with listening. Both sides use the facts and narratives and perspectives that support their side and stick their fingers in their ears when something might contradict their view.

This issue does not have a cut-and-dry, black-and-white “right” answer and anyone who insists it does is being intellectually dishonest. People who seek abortions are not one-size-fits-all, so no answer is going to fit 100% of the time. I’ve gotten to see the two sides from the inside and I want to give them both some things to consider.

To my pro-choice friends: I get that you want the government to get their hands off your body. I really, really do. But to call a fetus a clump of cells and act like there’s nothing else going on there “because science” isn’t the most solid of arguments. Tell a woman who miscarried at 6 weeks or 8 weeks or at any point, really, that it was just a clump of cells and let me know how that works out for you.

Yes, a pregnant woman has a right to bodily autonomy the same way we can’t force people to donate their organs even if it would save a life. The difference is that a kidney does not have autonomy because it’s a kidney. A fetus is a human being to at least some extent which means it also has its own bodily autonomy. It’s not just another organ.

And I can already hear you screaming at me – “it’s not a human being when it’s a fetus!” Okay. When does it become a human being? When it’s born? When it could survive outside the womb? When it can feed itself as a child? You have to address that question. It can’t be legally considered a person when a pregnant woman is murdered and not legally considered a person when a pregnant woman wants to abort it. Y’all love to talk about hypocrisy on the pro-life side, but you’ve got to deal with your own inconsistencies as well. Too often pro-choice arguments refuse to deal with the question of when we consider a human life to be a human life, and not addressing that question can open the door to a whole lot of messy things like eugenics and euthanasia.

And I get that the pro-life side is hypocritical. Especially ostensibly pro-life politicians who see no problem with the death penalty or police brutality or carpet-bombing or drone strikes. Sure, hypocrisy makes it really hard to listen to an argument, but it doesn’t actually mean the argument is wrong.

To my pro-life friends: YOUR HYPOCRISY MAKES IT REALLY HARD TO LISTEN TO YOUR ARGUMENT. You know what else makes it hard to listen? Misinformation, picket signs, and scare tactics.

You care so much about the sanctity of human life that you want to make it impossible for women to get an abortion, but once the baby is born she’s on her own? And God forbid she actually learn about effective birth control methods in the first place? Or have access to those birth control methods, or even basic healthcare, regardless of her socioeconomic status? And the best way to go about doing this is by standing on college campuses and street corners and outside Planned Parenthood with giant signs screaming at people?

You need to actually listen to women, and you need to listen to women who are not exactly the same as you. You’ve heard from women who view motherhood as the greatest gift they’ve ever received, and that’s great. You’ve heard from women who have had abortions and feel immense regret and sadness and sometimes even trauma because of them, and those stories are important.

But there are also women who have had abortions and do not feel regret or trauma, who still believe that it was the best decision they could have made for themselves and their family. There are women for whom having a child would not feel like a gift, but would actually feel like a death sentence. I, for one, have a viscerally negative reaction to even the thought of pregnancy, and motherhood has never been something I’ve desired. But just like I can’t take those personal feelings and extrapolate them to all women, you can’t act like every woman would embrace pregnancy and motherhood as a gift if she just tried.

If you truly care about protecting life, you also need to be concerned about the lives of women who are not like you. You cannot just make abortion illegal, wipe your hands, and call it a day. You have to be a part of building a society where a positive pregnancy test doesn’t feel like financial ruin or the loss of a career or a loss of personhood. You have to acknowledge that carrying a baby to term and giving it up for adoption is not an “easy alternative.” You need to have compassion for the living, breathing women who are affected by this issue. Millions of women feel like they have no options or control over what happens to their bodies – we have to address that. Abortion is a symptom, not the root of the problem.

Oh yeah, and quit dehumanizing the other side by calling them murderers and baby-killers and acting like any woman who gets an abortion is just a selfish whore who should have kept her legs closed. If you think pregnancy is a just punishment for what you consider bad morals and women should just suffer the consequences, you’re not pro-life; you’re an asshole.

Look, those on either side of this issue want people to live happy, healthy lives and want children to be safe and cared for. We need to stop with the rhetoric and the pithy catchphrases. We need to stop shouting over each other and dismissing the other perspective out of hand. We have to start listening. We have to learn empathy.

The older I get and the more I learn, the more convinced I am that the best way to start dealing with so many problems is by listening to those we don’t usually hear. Maybe that means that the next time the issue comes up, you don’t actually share your perspective. This is super hard; trust me, I know. Ask anyone who eats lunch with me at work – I really like sharing my perspective. But if this issue is as important as we all say it is, it’s worth putting aside our own desire to have all the answers. It’s worth listening to someone else for awhile.

Stained Glass

Because of the time change today, I had the pleasure of being at church this evening while the sun was setting rather than after it was already dark. Towards the end of the service, the light was shining through some of the stained glass windows, throwing patterns onto the walls. We were singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and it was beautiful.

I was conflicted in that moment, though. There I was, surrounded by the beauty of the windows and the music and my church family, and yet I could not help being reminded of my recent struggles with the church. I love Jesus and I love the individual Christians that I work with and grew up with and sit in the pews with, but the church, y’all. The church, especially the American church, has been hard to love lately.

A big part of my struggle has come from seeing more clearly what the church looks like from the outside. Growing up, I didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t part of the church. Sure, there were plenty of non-Christians that I went to school with, but I generally wasn’t friends with them (and I don’t blame them – I was obnoxious). For most of my life, I was surrounded by other Christians and most of my best friends were the ones I made at church.

And I now find myself in a position where even though I work at a Christian school and attend church each week, most of my closest friends would not call themselves Christians. Especially in the online communities I’m a part of, I feel like I’m getting a chance to be a fly on the wall, to hear what people say about us when they don’t think we’re in the room (or alternatively, flat out don’t care if we hear).

And y’all, it’s not good. It can be easy to believe the world really does know us by our love when we exist in our church bubbles. And on the rare occasion we step outside that bubble, we love to interpret the negative things we see and hear as persecution aimed against us (I know I used to love to see it that way). But I’ll tell you this – those outside our church walls do not look at us and see love. They do not see grace or mercy or kindness or compassion. They do not see the beauty that I see inside the church.

There’s a church in Austin called Gethsemane Lutheran Church that I went on a field trip to when I was in elementary school (those are the kinds of field trips you go on when you go to a Christian school). We went there because they have beautiful stained glass windows. Here’s the thing about stained glass, though: it’s not beautiful from the outside.

Here’s what Gethsemane looks like inside:

img_7676

I loved standing inside of it. Maybe it’s the romantic in me, but as a girl who grew up in a nondenominational church with few windows and terrible carpet, those windows made me feel a whole lot of beautiful things.

But here’s what it looks like from the outside:

gethsemane_lutheran_church

You can’t see the colors or the pictures. It just looks like a jumbled mess of dark glass. Sitting inside my church tonight, I looked at the lit-up windows and knew that from the outside they would not be nearly as beautiful.

Those of us who have been a part of the church know how beautiful it can be. Yes, many of us have been hurt and wounded by the church in various ways. But if your stories are anything like mine, we have also been loved and cared for and supported. We have seen healing and redemption and reconciliation and all the other things the bride of Christ is supposed to be about. So why aren’t those things obvious from the outside?

We have to figure out a way to turn our stained glass windows around. We have to figure out how to make the light shine in the other direction as well. It’s not enough for the inside of our churches to be beautiful places; we should also be making the world outside our walls more beautiful too.

  • A collection of ramblings and musings on Jesus, life, education, family, and anything else that pops into my head.

    Twitter: @rachel_heather
    Email: raltsman@gmail.com
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