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.


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.
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.
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:


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:


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.

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.

  • 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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