Taylor Swift, Donald Trump, and the desire for authenticity

Last week Ryan Adams released a cover album of Taylor Swift’s 1989 and the music world lost its mind over it. I posted this article critiquing the way music critics responded to the album on Facebook and was a bit surprised by some of the responses it received.

After a number of conversations, both about that article and in the past, what it seems to boil down to is that many people feel Taylor Swift lacks authenticity – she is too packaged, too marketed, too affected. Rather than being an honest artist, she has meticulously crafted a particular image and used it to make money. On the other hand, Ryan Adams, with his out-of-the-mainstream, stripped-down aesthetic, was able to reveal the heart of Swift’s music because he is more authentic. Many critics felt that his interpretations of the songs were more honest and real, and therefore better.

The whole situation made me wonder why exactly we consider authenticity to be so desirable, especially from artists and especially now that “authentic” is a buzzword that only sometimes actually means “honest”. The belief that an artist with an acoustic guitar is by default less produced and more real than a pop artist or someone who creates EDM or a hip-hop artist who uses her computer to create beats seems silly to me. This is exactly where the backlash against “hipsters” came from – they cultivate and produce an image that strives to appear authentic. From the perspective of someone who admittedly just listens to whatever music she likes, without a whole lot of knowledge of what makes it “good”, guys with beards and guitars seem just as produced as Taylor Swift. It happens in different ways, but any artist who has achieved any sort of recognition is to some extent manufactured.

This happens in daily life as well. Everyone complains about how social media has caused us to edit our lives and make ourselves look better than we really are, but I’m pretty sure we were doing that before Facebook was a thing. Sure, social media creates a larger platform for it, but people have always exaggerated and edited and told fish tales. And you know, I don’t think editing yourself is necessarily a bad thing.

As a teacher, I have a particular image and persona that is just as meticulously crafted as Taylor Swift’s. My students do not know everything about me. They don’t know every thought that passes through my head or all of my natural reactions to things. And this is good! It’s professionalism! Editing myself and using my teacher persona in the classroom makes me a better teacher.

The same goes for social media. The things I talk about on Facebook are different from the things I say on Tumblr which are different from the things I tell my best friends. The audience and purpose are different, so the content and presentation are different. Does this make me somehow dishonest or inauthentic? If it does, I’m not sure I really mind all that much.

If I were always being my most “authentic” self, I would probably be a really rude person. We teach children to think before they speak because we recognize that the first thing that pops into our head is rarely the kindest and best thing to actually say. But by valuing authenticity so highly, we’ve actually encouraged a lack of tact that can be incredibly damaging, all in the name of “straight talk” and “being who I am without apology” – which is where Donald Trump comes in.

The most common thing I’ve heard from Trump supporters is that he speaks his mind. They are so sick of political correctness and vague speeches that Trump feels like a refreshing new thing (side note: I don’t understand why so many people are so annoyed by political correctness…what exactly is the problem with doing your best to not hurt and offend people by choosing your words carefully?). And Trump definitely seems unapologetically authentic. But is that a good thing? Do we value speaking your mind so highly that we have no concern about what the things he says reveals about his mind? To me, he just seems to be a few orders of magnitude higher than people who excuse their own rudeness by saying they are just being honest and that anyone who doesn’t like it should stop being so sensitive.

We all package and market ourselves. We choose the way that we dress and the way that we speak in order to portray a certain image. We do it in job interviews and at parties and on social media. And sometimes, choosing not to complain about that coworker on Facebook or make that comment in front of your boss isn’t being inauthentic, but rather being a decent human being. Having a filter and acting appropriately professional are actually considered marks of maturity in most industries – why is it different in entertainment and politics?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t value honesty or be vulnerable with the people in our lives. I’m also not saying that you have to like Taylor Swift. I’m just saying that instead of valuing authenticity above all things and at all times, maybe we should try to focus on the types of authenticity we really consider important and not worry so much about who is the more honest musician.

Why I Want to Be a God Connoisseur

My church is currently in a series on the Psalms and what it means to have a heart for God and it has been a really lovely few weeks. This morning our pastor talked about cultivating a taste for God and he brought up the difference between being a God connoisseur and being a God expert.

When we think of connoisseurs, we normally think of pretentious wine drinkers talking about tannins and oak flavor and all that business. But Jonathan pointed out that being a connoisseur of something is really just about studying something for the purpose of enjoying it more. Experts study something so that they can know more – it’s about collecting information and seeing all the parts of something and having the greatest understanding of the topic. Connoisseurs, on the other hand, use study as a way to heighten their experience and increase their enjoyment of the thing they are studying.

I really like this analogy; it’s one that makes sense to me as someone who grew up in a church that greatly valued doctrine and theology and knowledge, but was honestly a bit lacking in other areas. Also, as someone who loves learning and collecting facts, it can be very easy for me to fall into the trap of becoming a God expert while missing out on the joy of being a God connoisseur.

On the way home from church, I started thinking about how far we might be able to take that analogy.

(I like pushing analogies to their breaking point; what can I say? I’m an English teacher. I know it’s weird, but go with me.)

I began to think about why people don’t become connoisseurs. If we know that learning more about wine or music or art or baseball will increase our enjoyment of those things, why don’t we do that?

One obvious reason is time. We don’t always want to put in the time (and often money) that it requires to become a connoisseur. But I think there are some other reasons as well that led me to some interesting thoughts about what it means to be a God connoisseur.

One of the best things about being a connoisseur is getting to hang out with other connoisseurs who love the thing you love, but experts and gatekeepers can make the idea of becoming a connoisseur seem less appealing. These are the people who are more concerned with making sure you’re enjoying the thing the right way than they are with sharing in the joy with you. They will tell you that a “real” connoisseur couldn’t possibly enjoy pop music or merlot or whatever. They have so many rules and requirements that you begin to wonder if they actually enjoy the thing they say they enjoy. Being a connoisseur often means increasing the amount of contact you have with these experts and gatekeepers, which can not only put a damper on the connoisseur’s enjoyment (it’s hard to enjoy your glass of wine when you’re surrounded by people arguing about whether or not you should be enjoying that particular glass), but can often be a deterrent to someone who is just beginning to be interested.

We see this in the church. Instead of being God connoisseurs who want to share our enjoyment of Him with those around us, we become God experts and gatekeepers. We insist there is one right way to enjoy God (our way, of course) and create checklists of rules that everyone must submit to in order to really say that they are a Christian. We become experts who just shout ideas at each other instead of connoisseurs who want to hear about each other’s experiences. And we do this so much that we can begin to wonder whether it’s really worth it after all, and people look at us from the outside and begin to wonder if we even enjoy this God we are spending so much time arguing about (hint: it is worth it – I’m getting there).

Another thing that I think can keep us from wanting to become connoisseurs is that it can seem a bit like a double-edged sword. Sure, being a wine connoisseur increases your enjoyment of good wine, but it might also mean that you no longer really enjoy the $5 wine you used to pick up at the grocery store. As you learn more about something, the differences between good and great become more obvious, and you might feel like you can no longer enjoy the things that are just good. The highs are higher, but the lows are lower. I know nothing about ballet, so every ballet I see looks beautiful, but someone who has studied ballet will notice all the flaws and this might limit their enjoyment.

I don’t necessarily think this loss of enjoyment has to be true with things like ballet and art and music, but I’m much more interested in what this means when we stretch the God connoisseur analogy to this place. Because the truth is that there will always be good wine and bad wine, good movies and bad movies, good baseball and bad baseball, the one true God and the idols we attempt to put in His place. As our enjoyment of God increases, it is only our enjoyment of lesser gods that decreases.

At first, that can sound similar to the “become a Christian and give up everything you like” schtick so many of us have heard so many times, but because God is the creator and the Giver of all good gifts, that’s not actually how it ends up working. You don’t have to burn your secular music or never see an R-rated movie or live a life of asceticism.

The more we know and enjoy God, the more we will enjoy nature because we will see Him in it. The more we know and enjoy God, the more we will enjoy stories because we will see Him in them. The more we know and enjoy God, the more we will enjoy science and music and baseball and good food because we will see Him in those things.

And since we ourselves are made in the image of God, the more we know and enjoy God, the more we will enjoy our fellow human beings because we will see God in them.

We do not have to fear that becoming a God connoisseur will mean missing out on any good thing, because He is the best thing and every good and perfect thing comes from Him. What a beautiful truth to live in.

Why I…Have No Idea What To Title This Thing

Normally when I post things to this blog, I read them over once and then hit publish. This post has been through multiple edits and revisions in an attempt to make sure I am being thorough and respectful and effectively conveying my thoughts. It’s long. Really really long. Sorry I’m not sorry :)

The past few weeks have been full of conversations about gender and sexuality and their relationship to Christianity and the church. From the rising visibility of transgender issues to the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on marriage equality, there have been plenty of opinions on social media and many, many different perspectives both from within and outside the church.

I’m not here to talk about the SCOTUS decision or what our secular government should be doing; I think I’ve made my view on that abundantly clear (if you’re not sure, just go scroll through my Facebook page). But what’s happening in politics is causing a lot of discussion within the church and amongst my friends.

Because I choose my friends well and pretty selectively curate my social media feeds, I have managed to glimpse the extreme hatred mostly just in my peripheral vision. Thankfully the people I associate with are generally not the ones using the SCOTUS ruling to proclaim the end times or shouting “death to gays” or lamenting the end of American supremacy or whatever (at least not publicly anyway).

What I have seen a lot of, though, are attempts to be loving while also being incredibly pedantic about Christian beliefs and the Bible. Some of these responses were written by my friends themselves, while others were written by prominent pastors/bloggers/etc. and just posted by people I know. Either way, I have some words for the people writing and posting these things.

First, I greatly appreciate that you are approaching this issue from a place of love. For many of you, I know that the love you are talking about is authentic and real because my real life interactions with you have been consistently loving. For others, I am giving you the benefit of the doubt because I try to do that with people. (For a few who have issues with tone, I’m giving you a strong side-eye at your use of the word “love” and restraining myself from adding this to the comments:



I do hope you understand, however, that many people who do not know you in real life and have not actually been loved in real life by Christians are going to respond with skepticism to your assertion that your words come from a place of love. Until the church is consistently providing safe places for LGBTQ teens who are kicked out of their homes and supporting depressed/suicidal LGBTQ people with services other than conversion therapy and actually building relationships with LGBTQ people outside of seeing them as a “mission field”, your words of love are going to ring hollow. I’m not saying your words are not sincere; just making sure that you understand how they will be perceived in light of the church’s historical (and continuing) treatment of LGBTQ people.

Secondly, some thoughts on your explanations of theology and the Bible and Christian teaching. I think I get where you’re coming from. I really do. I’m a teacher; I understand the urge to explain things. You see a group of people who have different views than you, and in your attempt to be loving you assume those views come from ignorance or a lack of exposure to the gospel. And maybe sometimes that is the case. But I’m wondering who you are speaking to in these posts.

Are you speaking to LGBTQ non-Christians? If you are, I’m gonna tell you right now – I doubt they’re listening. Most of them are going to see Christianity and same-sex relationships mentioned in one headline and keep on scrolling. The church has been very loud about same-sex relationships for a very long time; most LGBTQ people assume they already know what you’re going to say. If that’s your audience, you’d be better off actually being friends with some LGBTQ non-Christians – and by friends, I mean actual friends. Not using them as your token friend or starting a friendship with an ulterior motive. Non-Christians are people; not projects (but that’s a topic that needs a whole separate post).

Are you speaking to Christians under your leadership who have questions about what the Bible says about same-sex relationships? Cool. Then address your post to them and not to LGBTQ people. You might be better off having these conversations in person though, where there can be an actual conversation and not just the 7th circle of hell that is internet comment sections. You may also want to include your sources. Who decided that was the correct interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2? Who decided the best translation of that word was homosexuality? All Scripture is God-breathed, but translation and interpretation is a human endeavor. Are you really seeking to inform, or just convince people to agree with you?

Finally, and as I suspect for many of you, are you speaking to LGBTQ and LGBTQ-affirming Christians in your posts? Because this is when things get a bit pedantic. I have seen a lot of assertions and insinuations, even in very lovingly and carefully worded posts, that if a Christian is LGBTQ or LGBTQ-affirming, they must have an incomplete understanding of the gospel or do not value Scripture. If this is your intended audience, your post sounds like you are trying to educate fellow Christians on how to be an actual Christian, as if our views on sexuality are some sort of litmus test for authentic salvation.

I get that you may be trying to educate people, and responding to a different opinion with education can be a great way to have a discussion, but only if both sides are willing to listen. Here’s the thing: I was raised in the church. I know the arguments against same-sex relationships. I know the arguments about complementarianism. I know the arguments about why women shouldn’t be pastors or speak in church.

But up until a few years ago, I didn’t know the arguments for the other side. And yes, there are Christian, biblical arguments for the other side of all of those issues. It was reading those arguments that changed my perspective. Christians who ascribe to egalitarianism and believe that women can be pastors and affirm the LGBTQ community (or any combination of those things) have not necessarily thrown away the Bible. We have not been swayed by the world’s values or rejected the authority of Scripture or started down the dreaded “slippery slope” toward lawlessness or whatever else your impression is. We are simply interpreting the Bible differently than you.

Look, it is literally my job to interpret text and to teach others how to interpret text. In my classroom we mostly read books that were originally written in English and that are at most 400 years old (the one exception would be the Odyssey). All of these texts have tons more text written about them with varying interpretations and opinions. And when it comes to something older or something translated, things get even trickier. I can read two different translations of the exact same passage from Antigone and they can have completely different connotations. Even when we read A Thousand Splendid Suns, a book from 2008, my resident and I will have discussions about the meaning and importance of particular passages when we plan what to share with our students.

Theologians and scholars have debated all kinds of things for as long as there have been theologians and scholars. It’s why we have denominations. But one of the things that has made me grow very weary in the evangelical church is this insistence on having all the answers. Everyone is so sure the Bible is clear and that they have the right interpretation and all the theologians who agree with them are good and all the theologians who disagree with them are misinterpreting things.

Now before you start quoting things at me and talking about church history and traditional interpretations, let me just stop you. Church history is important and should absolutely be valued and probably actually needs to be taught a lot more than it is. But do not pretend that Augustine and Luther and Calvin were perfectly objective individuals whose interpretations of Scripture were completely unaffected by the politics and culture of their times. The church leaders who excommunicated Galileo thought they were interpreting the Bible objectively and accurately, as did the white church leaders who supported and encouraged the practice of slavery and the continued enforcement of Jim Crow laws.

There are so many factors that play into translation and interpretation. Genre matters, setting matters, author’s purpose matters, original audience matters. Our own context and our own experiences inform the way we read and interpret anything. That’s just part of being human: we do the best we can with the knowledge we have, and when we know better, hopefully we do better (yes, I’m shamelessly paraphrasing that quote that’s attributed to Maya Angelou).

I’m not exactly without a dog in this fight. As an asexual woman who finds her gender to be about as useful a label as her zodiac sign, my story does not follow what so many both implicitly and explicitly describe as God’s best. For many years, I wondered whether I was broken and questioned my salvation because I couldn’t seem to be the kind of Christian woman I was “supposed” to be. When I started listening to and reading other Christian perspectives on gender and sexuality and accepting that those aspects of me might be different than the norm, it did not feel like I was walking away from God. Rather, it felt like I was finally becoming the person God made me to be. Yes, there has been loneliness involved in the process and some feelings of isolation from the church, but there has also been incredible peace. To hear others characterize what has been a very sweet and life-giving season as me compromising my faith has been really, really hard.

So my question is this – have you considered the other side? Have you read about the history of same-sex relationships, and how what we use that phrase to describe is vastly different from what Paul was talking about in Romans and 1 Corinthians? Have you considered that many of the verses that are traditionally interpreted as being about same-sex relationships might actually be about sexual violence and the lack of consent? Have you thought about how our understanding of Genesis 1 & 2 and gender roles within marriage has been influenced by hundreds of years of patriarchal society in which women were considered as little more than property?

Chances are most LGBTQ and LGBTQ-affirming Christians have heard your arguments. Have you heard theirs?


If you are interested, here are some places you might start:

Ben Irwin answers the 40 questions posed by Kevin DeYoung in his Gospel Coalition post

Matthew Vines asks 40 questions of his own

The Reformation Project has lots of resources and information

The ladies at A Queer Calling provide a particularly unique perspective that I have found incredibly enlightening

Matthew Vines, Eliel Cruz, Dianna E. Anderson, and Rachel Held Evans have all talked about issues related to gender and sexuality in various places, both online and in print (there are others, of course; these are basically the ones I follow on Twitter).

If you noticed my mention of asexuality and are wondering what the heck that is, start here. If you have legitimate questions about me personally that are not answered there, ask away. If you have rude/invasive questions about things that are none of your business, just don’t.

Why I Will Call Caitlyn Jenner By Her Name

1. Because she has asked me to.

I wish I could just leave it at that. I wasn’t really planning on saying anything about this topic (goodness knows there have been more than enough thinkpieces already), but the more I’ve seen being posted on facebook, the more I’ve felt like maybe my perspective could bring something unique to the conversation among those who follow this blog.

I have seen a lot of articles and posts by Christians who are “worried about Bruce”, who are “standing by their convictions”, who are “loving by telling the truth”. Many of these start with the phrase “I don’t know Bruce Jenner,” which is exactly the problem. It is not our job to “lovingly discipline” anyone who is not directly under our pastoral authority or with whom we already have a close, loving relationship based on trust. And when we do lovingly discipline our brothers and sisters, I’m pretty sure we don’t usually do it in blog posts for all the world to see.

Biology, gender, and sexuality are all incredibly complex. Anyone who wants to claim differently is…well, I don’t know what they are. It seems obvious to me that these are not black and white concepts, just from my own personal experience. And yet I still see people arguing that biological sex and gender are one and the same; people who would never ignore the nurture side of the nature vs. nurture argument are ready to completely throw it out the window when it comes to gender. (side note: if all that determines manhood or womanhood is what’s between our legs, why have I had to listen to so many sermons about biblical manhood?)

This is ridiculous. Would you tell a woman who has had a hysterectomy or a mastectomy that she is not a woman? What about a woman who is unable to have children? Is she not really a woman anymore? “Well, those aren’t choices. Those are because of the fall.” Well, ok. Am I sinful for not wanting to have children? Are you going to lovingly correct me for going against God’s design when I say that I am choosing to never “be fruitful and multiply”? Am I not living as a real woman of God if I make that choice?

People have been using the rhetoric that Caitlyn Jenner has “chosen” to be a woman. That she looked around at the world and herself, and said, “I don’t want to be man; I want to be a woman.” Try thinking about it this way instead (this is shamelessly stolen from a post I’ve seen on Tumblr):

Imagine for a moment that you are exactly who you are right now. You have all your same personality traits, all your same likes and dislikes, you are a man or a woman or whatever. And now imagine that your body looks so much like a different gender that the world automatically treats you like that is what you are.

I know this can feel unimaginable. I don’t claim to fully understand it. But when they tell me that this is their experience, I will listen to them. I will not negate their experiences just because some people have decided they know exactly what God was saying in Genesis and Romans.

I love God and I love my Bible. I believe that Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. But I also understand the nuances of translation and interpretation enough that I am not going to claim this is a black and white issue. I believe that a God who created all of the diversity in nature is also capable of creating diversity in gender. If someone tells me that God created them transgender, I will believe them.

Beyond all the theological arguments and psychological arguments and biological arguments, I will call Caitlyn Jenner by her name for two reasons: because she has asked me to, and because this past year one of my students came out to me as transgender. If referring to a celebrity by the correct name and pronouns will make it clear to my students that I am a safe place, I will do it.

Chances are you know someone who is transgender or queer* or questioning their gender identity or their sexuality. The way you respond to big celebrity stories like Caitlyn Jenner’s sends a message about how you would likely respond to them if they were honest with you. Consider carefully what message you want to send.

*I am using queer as the umbrella term used by many within the LGBT+ community. It is not intended as a slur. If it upsets you, please let me know and I will edit.

Why I Probably Won’t See The DUFF

This was originally posted over on my new Tumblr Rachel Watches Things. It’s a project I started when I made a kind of late New Year’s Resolution that I won’t pay money to see any movies centered around straight white men in 2015. There’s a post that outlines my options each week that usually goes up on Wednesday and then reviews of what I see and other thoughts related to movies and representation. It’s going to be more focused than this blog has ever dreamed of being, but I thought this particular post had a bit of crossover appeal. Enjoy!

So The DUFF comes out this weekend and on the surface it kind of seems like something I would enjoy. I’ve enjoyed Mae Whitman in the things I’ve seen her in (which isn’t all that much, honestly) and high school rom coms are a genre that I usually enjoy. I mean, 10 Things I Hate About You is still one of my absolute favorites, and I loved things like Drive Me Crazy and Never Been Kissed, even though they were completely ridiculous. I’ve actually never seen American Pie or any of the sequels because raunchy comedy isn’t my jam, but The DUFF seems more like a 2015 She’s All That than anything else.

From what I’ve gathered, the basic premise is that Bianca finds out the she’s been labeled the “duff” among her friends – the Designated Ugly Fat Friend – and enlists the help of the hot-but-terrible-guy to change things. Cue makeover montage, high school shenanigans, hot-but-terrible-guy turning out to not be so terrible, everyone learning lessons, etc.

[minor spoiler – although really, don’t we all know where this is going?]

Based on the previews and the summaries I’ve read, it seems like the movie is at least attempting to send a positive message. According to Wikipedia, Bianca wins by “reminding everyone that no matter what people look or act like, we are all someone’s DUFF… and that’s totally fine.” And that’s cool, I guess? Although it still seems to be asserting that there is, in fact, a hierarchical order to things and it’s more important to remember that there are people both above and below you than it is to, oh I don’t know, dismantle the whole system?

[end of spoiler]

Aside from the fact that I’m not sure I like the message it’s sending (although since I haven’t seen it, I can’t say for sure), and the fact that Mae Whitman is neither ugly nor fat, I’m not sure I want to see this movie. It just hits a little to close to home for me.

Story time!

10 years ago I worked at a movie theater. I got 4 free tickets a day, so I often brought groups of friends with me to the movies. One night three of my friends and I went to something, and the next day I was working with the guy who had taken our tickets. He told me that he thought it was interesting that groups of girls always had one friend who was less attractive. He had noticed this phenomenon again when I came in with my friends – they were all really hot. Implying that I, of course, was the less attractive friend.

He tried to engage me in conversation about this ~*super interesting*~ sociological phenomenon and because 18-year-old me was much less sure of herself and also keenly aware that all of her friends were more “conventionally beautiful” than her, I let him keep talking instead of punching him in the face.

And I’d love to say that I shrugged it off because who cares what he thought, but clearly I didn’t. Even ten years later, I still remember how I felt during that conversation and how it painfully confirmed what I already knew – that I was not thin enough or pretty enough or sweet enough or funny enough or enough of whatever thing it was that boys were looking for.

It seems silly to not go see a movie just because of a dumb comment someone made so long ago. But it’s taken a lot of work to be happy and content with who I am and going to see something that could dredge up all the insecurities of 18-year-old me just isn’t worth it. If you see it and it turns out to be awesome and empowering and uplifting, let me know. In the meantime, I’ll go find something else to watch.

Why You Should See Selma

As is pretty much always the case, there were plenty of buzzworthy movies in 2014. As someone who loves movies and keeps up with reviews and awards and such, this time of year is full of things of interest to me. While I rarely have had the time or inclination to see all of the films that are likely to be nominated for the major awards, I have usually paid enough attention to the buzz to know basically what the big films are about.

With the Golden Globes tomorrow night and the Oscars around the corner, awards season is in full swing and most of the movies generating most of the buzz look very, very familiar: white male coming-of-age, white male genius, white male misunderstood genius, white male antihero, white male historical figure, etc., etc., etc., and other variations thereof. The box office hits paint a slightly different picture, but there are still overwhelmingly white male superheroes and white male action stars and an entire cast of fairy tale characters that are somehow exclusively white.

This is nothing new, or really at all surprising. And I thoroughly enjoyed plenty of those movies – many of them rightly deserve the acclaim and success they have achieved.

But today I saw Selma.

I have attempted about 5 times to write the next sentence of this post, but have been unable to. I do not have the words to describe how I felt watching this movie or how I felt after this movie ended. I think I have a pretty wide vocabulary (I am an English teacher), but I have failed to come up with the adjectives necessary to adequately describe the experience. The best I can do is this: when the movie ended, the thought ringing most loudly through my head was “More. I want more like this.”

In most conversations I have had where Selma has come up, it has been described as “the movie about MLK.” But there is a reason the movie is called Selma and not King. Dr. King is in it and is a central figure, but the story is not about him. It is about a community. It is about a place and time. It is about a movement. It is about what happens not just when “a man stands up and says enough is enough,” but about when an entire group of people does. It is about the forces that limit progress and cast doubt and challenge people’s faith. It is about the difficulty of bringing a group of individuals together to work towards a common goal, and about what can be achieved when those individuals persevere through those difficulties and find a way to bring about change.

Selma puts Dr. King in context in a way that I have never seen before. The movie humanizes him, and it is so striking because it reveals how often he has been deified in previous narratives, particularly narratives crafted by white storytellers, whether that be in popular media or in high school textbooks. By taking Dr. King off the pedestal he is so often placed on and showing him as one among many, it not only makes for a more compelling story, but also elevates all the others around him who were so important to the work of the Civil Rights Movement. I knew the name Ralph Abernathy because he was with Dr. King when he was assassinated in Memphis. But I didn’t know the name Jimmie Lee Jackson or Bayard Rustin or James Orange or Andrew Young or Amelia Boynton or Diane Nash or James Bevel or John Lewis. This movie made me want to take a course on every single one of them.

The movie also made me want to learn more about the SCLC and SNCC and other organizations that are left out of the conversation on the Civil Rights Movement, who worked long and hard at grassroots efforts to build momentum for those larger pieces of legislation that we tend to focus on.

Speaking of legislation, I know there has been criticism of the way President Johnson is depicted in the movie, saying it paints him as more antagonistic than he actually was towards the movement. And maybe that criticism is valid; it’s not something I’m an expert on, so I don’t know. But the criticism reminds me of a post that’s been circulating Tumblr over the past couple of months that talks about the length of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The post points out that we forget how long the Civil Rights Movement took and asserts that it might be because we hate to think that the United States resisted changing. We want to believe that most white people just didn’t know how bad it was, and that when they found out, they immediately worked to fix it.

History paints a different story – one of apathy and indifference, if not outright obstruction, to the movement. And if the makers of Selma chose to use President Johnson as the representative of that reality for the sake of the narrative, I’m ok with that. Honestly, it’s about time. How many historical figures of color have been misrepresented by popular media for the sake of drama? And how many white figures have been polished up and shown in their best light in order to advance a particular narrative? This is a common necessity in storytelling, and as someone with a basic knowledge of American history and a pretty good understanding of how our government functions, the portrayal of President Johnson was not beyond the bounds of belief.

But I don’t want discussions of that one aspect to distract from the bigger picture. Selma is a triumph of filmmaking. The film is exquisite and unflinching and compelling at every moment, as well as extraordinarily prescient considering it was written before Ferguson and the other events of late 2014. Many of the speeches and conversations would not seem wildly anachronistic if they were to occur today. It is beautifully designed and beautifully costumed and beautifully filmed and beautifully acted (as big of a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as I am, and as much as I enjoyed his portrayal of Alan Turing, if David Oyelowo does not win all the awards, it will be a travesty. Director Ava DuVernay also deserves all the awards).

Selma is without a doubt worth your time and the price of admission.

To My Friends Who Are Struggling

There are a number of people close to me going through difficult things right now. This is for them.

To My Friends Who Are Struggling:

It has been my experience that the stories that seem the silliest on the surface hold the most truth. In Lord of the Rings, a story filled with walking trees and wizards and small men with hairy feet, Gandalf tells Frodo that in difficult times “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” In The Little Prince, the fox tells the little prince that it is worth the weeping to be tamed. In The Princess Bride, Westley says that “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

You don’t need me to tell you that life is pain; you are feeling it now. And you don’t need me to tell you that it will all be worth it in the end, because, well, that’s just not a very helpful statement when you’re in the midst of the darkness.

I don’t know why you are having to go through this. I don’t know why my life is easy right now and yours is extraordinarily difficult.  I mean, I know the “right” answers – the cliches, the verses, the platitudes. I’ve read The Problem of Pain and can tell you all the intellectual reasons why bad things happen to good people in a world created by a loving God. I could tell you those things, but I won’t.

Instead, I will tell you this.

I admire your strength. I admire the way you get up every morning and go to work and talk to people and exist in the world even when all you want to do is crawl back under the covers. I admire the way you are fighting against bitterness and hopelessness. I admire the way you do what needs to be done each day while also carrying a burden that not everyone can see.

I admire your weakness. I admire the way you allow yourself to cry and grieve. I admire the way you admit your own faults. I admire the way you are not trying to carry this burden on your own. I admire the way you recognize that you cannot do this on your own and ask for help.

Let me also tell you this.

I am in your corner. I’ve got your back. I am your girl. You are not a burden or an imposition or a Debbie Downer or anything like that. Whatever you need, whenever you need it – it’s yours.

I cannot make your difficult circumstances disappear. But I can walk with you through them, the way you have walked with me through so many things. I can distract you when you need distracting. I can bring you tissues when you need to cry. I can shut up when you just need everyone to shut up.

You are not alone.

I love you.

Why I Am Thankful For My Depression

Depression sucks. Since I was diagnosed over 10 years ago (which, by the way, what!? 10 years!?), my depression has been a source of pain and confusion in my life. It has harmed my relationships, impeded my professional life, and at times caused me to doubt my salvation. At its mildest, it will knock me off kilter for a couple of days. At its worst, it will make getting out of bed feel like climbing Mount Everest.

Even with all of that, I found myself in my classroom yesterday thanking God for my depression.

Yesterday I had one of those classes that reminds me why I teach. My job is hard, and no one in their right mind teaches for the money. We do it for the lightbulb moments, for the chance to share the things we love with others. And more and more, I do it because teenagers are human beings with rich internal lives, and it’s important to me that they have an adult who recognizes that fact.

My biggest goal for my students is that they will be people who have empathy. I approach everything we read as an opportunity to put ourselves in someone else’s place, to look at things from a different perspective. I ask them to relate not only to characters who are similar to them, but to characters who are vastly different. And we often find that the characters who seem to be lightyears away from us are actually more like us than we think.

This week my 10th graders began reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. It is a difficult book that has a lot of tough scenes and confronts a lot of difficult issues, but is also a favorite among my students. In just the fifth chapter, a character commits suicide in a particularly devastating way. Because I know it is a hard chapter to read, I always give my students a warning before they read it that it could be emotional for them and the first thing we do the next day is spend time journalling our thoughts so that they have a place to process what they’re feeling.

Yesterday in one class, that journalling led to open weeping from a number of students. This is my third year teaching these particular students, and they know that my classroom is a safe place for this kind of thing (which is quite honestly probably the achievement I am most proud of in my life – no joke). We talked about how we saw reflections of ourselves in the character that committed suicide and in that character’s family members and even in the character who is a bit of a villain at this point in the story. We talked about how life is hard and how we wish that we could step outside and see ourselves as characters in a book and know that the story was going somewhere. We talked about how that character was in a situation where she could not ask for help, and how grateful we are that we can ask for help. We talked about how asking for help is strength, not weakness.

We didn’t write a paragraph about how Hosseini’s use of third person limited point of view affects the reader like we were supposed to. We cried and talked and wrestled with our feelings, and then we watched a video of ducks sliding down a waterslide to cheer ourselves up before heading off into the rest of the day.

A lot of people would probably consider me to be too “soft” on my students. They may think that I spend too much time talking about fluff and not enough time on analytical skills or grammar rules. They may think that I am too open about my personal life and that I shouldn’t bring up my own struggles with depression in the classroom. Well, I have never once regretted being open with my students about that. If my oversharing can give me the opportunity to speak into the lives of students who are hurting, I will accept any negative consequences that come with it.

I looked at my students crying together and comforting each other and wrestling with these difficult things and I was filled with both joy and heartache. Joy at seeing the way they love each other and for the opportunity to love them myself; heartache that they even have to feel this pain in the first place.

The students that I get to interact with every day are the most amazing people I have ever met in my life. They work so much harder than I ever did as a student and complain about it much less. They look at the world around them and see the challenges that they are going to face and rather than becoming cynical and giving up, they are trying to think of ways to make it better. And it kills me that this world and our culture and other adults in their lives make them feel like they are not good enough, like they are ridiculous, like they do not have the right to feel the things that they feel.

If I can do nothing else, I want my students to leave my classroom knowing without a doubt that every single person on the face of this planet is a valuable human being, no matter what. Race, religion, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, education – none of that has any bearing on a human being’s intrinsic value. If I can teach them that, I honestly don’t care if they can correctly use a semicolon.

Why I Am Sad

It seems a bit silly, really. It’s not like I knew Robin Williams. I wouldn’t even have really labelled myself a fan; not the way I consider myself of a fan of other actors and entertainers. And yet he was such a part of my landscape growing up and I find myself unexpectedly saddened by his passing tonight.

I don’t know how many times my sister and I watched Hook. I think I actually gave it to her on DVD for Christmas or something just a couple of years ago. That movie taught me that growing up didn’t have to mean abandoning fun.

Aladdin, like the Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast before it and the Lion King after it, was one of my favorites. It’s still fun to watch because as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten more and more of the Genie’s references and impressions so it always feels like there’s something new.

There are three movies I will always associate with my time in youth group – Braveheart, Shawshank Redemption, and Dead Poets Society. We were shown so many clips from those three, but I still love Dead Poets Society just as much now as I did then. As unrealistic as any movie about teachers is, I still hope to be at least a little bit like Mr. Keating.

What can I even say about Good Will Hunting? Just thinking about the scene where Sean tells Will over and over and over that it’s not his fault can make me tear up.

There’s another Robin Williams movie that few people seem to talk about (probably for good reason) but that has always stuck in my mind: Patch Adams. I remember feeling blindsided by the less-than-happy ending. As far as I can remember, that movie was my first experience with seeing a character I loved die unexpectedly. I’m sure if I watched it now I would see it coming, but in the moment I remember feeling gutted.

When I think about Robin Williams, it is not the hilarity that I remember (although he was certainly hilarious). Rather, I remember the poignancy. When you look at his body of work, there is so often a layer of sadness or tragedy threaded through the jokes and laughter. He knew the world was not a happy place and so he sought to brighten it a little for the rest of us.

Today I stood in front of my students and told them that I teach English because I believe that reading and writing are important. And while reading and writing are necessary skills for college success and employment opportunities, they are important for something much bigger. Stories matter. When we read (or watch) other people’s stories, we walk a mile in their shoes. When we write our stories, we amplify our own voices. Stories have power and I want my students to have the ability to both understand them and create them.

Robin Williams will not get to tell the rest of his story. I have seen so many comments online wondering how someone so full of joy and life could have suffered from depression. I have also already seen comments online saying he should have fought harder against his addictions, fought harder against his depression, faced up to his weaknesses and “moved on”. It breaks my heart because that is not how depression works. And I fear that his story will be twisted into something it was not.

Robin Williams was a storyteller. He taught us to laugh at ourselves. He taught us to never stop having fun. He taught us to seize the day. He taught us to FEEL – pain, delight, sorrow, joy, heartbreak, love, etc. His work may seem silly or frivolous or superfluous; it may seem unimportant in light of all the tragedy that surrounds us every day. But it’s not.

Telling stories is never unimportant. And I will miss his stories.

Why I Want Birthday Presents

I have a really awesome classroom library. Back when I worked at Kingsbury, I had a Donors Choose project funded which provided me with about $400 worth of books. Since then I have built up my collection to the point where I had to buy another 6-foot bookshelf for my classroom to hold them all. Some of these books have been donated (thanks Mom!), but a lot of them are just because I have a serious inability to walk into a bookstore and not buy something.

Last year when I started living on my own, that was one of the extra splurges that had to go. I still had plenty of books though, so it wasn’t really a problem. By the end of the year, though, a lot of books had wandered off my shelves and not come back. This happens, of course, but since I wasn’t replenishing throughout the year as much, I now have a lot of gaps.

I also really want to increase the amount of diversity I have on my shelves. Most of what I have came from me wandering around bookstores picking up things that looked interesting to me. But there’s a lot of great stuff out there that either isn’t on the shelf at my bookstore or that doesn’t necessarily catch my eye at first glance. I want to purposeful about making sure my students have a wide variety books that feature characters who look like them.

Finally, I will be teaching my 10th graders for the third year in a row and I have some voracious readers in that class. Some of them have read pretty much every book on my shelf that is even remotely interesting to them. They are mainly the ones I am thinking of when I feel the need to restock.

So what does this have to do with birthday presents? Well, my birthday is coming up on August 9th and I’ve put together an Amazon wish list of books that I’d love to have in my classroom. I pulled this list from best seller lists, my own knowledge of what my kids like, and recommendation lists from the Diversity in YA website. If you feel so inclined, click on over and peruse the list. If you see something that strikes your fancy, buy me a birthday present!

It’s for the kids! Children are the future! Insert other inspirational cliche here! :)


  • 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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