Super chill book review: Sand Talk (Tyson Yunkaporta)

I read Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World (HarperOne, 2020) a couple months ago in the midst of a several-days-long cat crisis. (Kitty is doing well now, thank you). So I may have been a bit distracted. So maybe take everything I say with an extra large grain of salt. (Maybe a teaspoon?) 

That said, I found the book fascinating and very much worth reading, although I’m sure large important parts of it probably went right over my (very distracted) head. I appreciated Yunkaporta’s Aboriginal Australian perspectives on the world—some of which I recognized from reading other indigenous writers, and others of which were newer to me. 

Here are some quotes that stood out and some things Yunkaporta helped me think about:

1) On Schrodinger’s cat (speaking of cat issues…yikes):

“In this famous thought experiment, you imagine putting a cat in a box with some poison. You don’t know if it has died yet because you can’t see it, so in that moment the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead…

From an Aboriginal cosmological point of view, the uncertainty problem is resolved when you admit you are part of the field and accept your subjectivity. If you want to know what’s in the box so bad, drink the poison yourself and climb in…I begin to see the uncertainty principle not as a law but as an expression of frustration about the impossibility of achieving godlike scientific objectivity” (p. 42)

I like this idea of admitting we are part of the field. That feels right to me. We are, by nature, subjective. And Schrodinger’s cat always struck me as kind of ridiculous, even though I know it’s a little more complicated than just putting a cat in a box with poison—and that it was meant to expose the absurdity of a particular view of quantum mechanics in the first place. (Because really. Poor sweet Whiskers is either alive or dead. You just don’t know which one yet.)

So I appreciated the point about the “impossibility of achieving godlike scientific objectivity.” Why would we think that this is possible? And why would it be the goal in the first place? 

As Yunkaporta goes on to say, “Scientists currently have to remove all traces of themselves from experiments, otherwise their data is considered to be contaminated. Contaminated with what? With the filthy reality of belongingness? The toxic realization that if we can’t stand outside of a field we can’t own it?” (p. 42)

Dude’s got some sarcasm. And he’s also got some points. There’s a conflict between wanting to own things and recognizing that we are part of them. There’s a tension between experiencing belonging and obtaining (a toxic sort of) power. There’s a connection between wanting to achieve objectivity and wanting to stand outside a system; between wanting to stand outside a system and wanting control over that system, or at least the illusion of control.

Colonizing powers and the white dudes in charge of them have made one set of choices when faced with these tensions. Ownership, objectivity, outside-ness, control, power. Yunkaporta invites us to consider a different set of choices, and I’m all for it.

2) On how non-indigenous folks often view indigenous folks, and what we’re looking for when we look to them:

“I don’t think most people have the same definition of sustainability that I do. I hear them talking about sustainable exponential growth while ignoring the fact that most of the world’s topsoil is now at the bottom of the sea. It is difficult to talk to people about the impossible physics of civilization, especially if you are Aboriginal: you perform and display the paint and feathers, the pretty bits of your culture, and talk about your unique connection to the land while people look through glass boxes at you, but you are not supposed to look back or describe what you see” (p. 51).

As a white U.S. American trying to listen to and learn from Indigenous folks, I need this perspective. Am I just interested in looking at “the pretty bits of culture,” or am I interested in hearing people describe what they see when they look back at me and my world? 

As Yunkaporta writes later, “‘Strong indigenous voices’ need to be doing more than recounting our subjective experiences; we also need to be examining the narratives of the occupying culture and challenging them with counter-narratives” (p. 116). 

I think that’s what I really like about this book in general. It’s all about looking back. It’s about challenging occupying narratives. This is a gift—and one that those of us from occupying cultures who realize things aren’t working desperately need.

3) I appreciate Yunkaporta’s language around being “a custodian rather than an owner of lands, communities, or knowledge” (p. 82). Maybe it’s just another way to speak of what many Christians might call stewardship. God invites us not to dominate and subdue the earth (as Genesis 1:28 has too often been understood) but to steward the earth. To care for it well.

Yunkaporta refers to humans as a “custodial species,” which, to me, goes even beyond the idea of stewardship. (Or at least is a refreshingly different way to talk about it.) I wonder if, in our imagination, a steward still stands apart from the land (or communities, or knowledge) she is stewarding, but a custodial species is part of this land (or these communities, or this knowledge). 

As custodians rather than owners, Yunkaporta writes, we erase hierarchies and find a new sort of mutuality and belonging. The custodial role “demands the relinquishing of artificial power and control, immersion in the astounding patterns of creation that only emerge through the free movement of all agents and elements within a system” (p. 82). Which can be hella chaotic. But also good. We were not meant to control, but to care. We were not meant to limit creation but to allow its beauty and goodness to emerge freely. 

4) This story got me thinking, as you might imagine, about that one time Jesus told some fishermen they would become “fishers of people” (e.g. Matt 4:19):

“I once visited an Aboriginal community school in the Northern Territory that was using the metaphor of Aboriginal fishing nets as an education framework. This may have worked as an idea of school and community weaving their different threads together to make the nets, then the students using the nets to catch fish, with the fish representing knowledge and social/cultural capital. But this was not the case. The fish in the net represented the children themselves, and the river represented the community, promoting a very problematic image of the school as an entity that captures children and takes them away to be consumed.

We have to be careful of the metaphors we use to make meaning, because metaphors are the language of spirit, and that’s how we operate in our fields of existence either to increase or decrease connectedness within creation” (p. 105).

When Christians use metaphors like “fishers of people”—or, somewhat similarly, “the fields are ripe for harvest” (John 4:35) or “the harvest is plentiful” (Luke 10:20)—what are we really saying? Is there a way to use these metaphors that doesn’t imply that humans are, as Yunkaporta puts it, being captured and taken away for consumption? Do we need new metaphors that better say what we want them to say (and avoid implying what we don’t want them to imply)?

I think these things are worth thinking about. 

5) I read this part and thought of how Jesus talked about becoming like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (e.g. Matt 18:3):

“Anybody who has small children, or works with them, will be familiar with the qualities of an undomesticated mind. It is wild and unschooled, teeming with innate knowledge processes. Children perform tasks they have not encountered before and you wonder, ‘Where the hell did they learn that?’ They play with absolute dedication and fierce concentration. They learn languages perfectly, to the limits of their adult role models, without explicit instruction and at a phenomenal rate. Most of what we learn in our lifetimes today is during the first few years of childhood” (pp. 135-6).

This is a take on what it means to be like a little kid that I don’t often hear in church-y contexts. What if becoming like a child isn’t just about the things we sometimes assume—like being honest, or being humble, or being curious (although these are certainly good things too)? What if it’s also about being totally wild? 

I’m intrigued by this idea of an “undomesticated mind”—and by the possibility that this might be something God wants for us. That God wants for us that kind of freedom—that kind of Untamed-ness (to borrow Glennon Doyle’s book title), if you will. 

6) Here’s a longer quote that felt pretty clutch to me:

“We still endure longer work hours than our roles require today, for reasons of social control rather than productivity. It’s difficult to find the mental space to question systems of power when we’re working eight hours, then trying to lift heavy weights that don’t need lifting or pedaling bikes that go nowhere for an hour so we don’t die of a heart attack from being stuck for a third of our lives in a physically restrictive workspace. We sleep for another third of our lives (although not if we have small children), then the rest is divided between life-maintenance tasks, commuting, and using the few remaining minutes to connect with loved ones, if we have any. Somewhere in there we also need to find time to study and retrain, unless we want to finish up homeless when our industries inevitably collapse or change direction.

The job is the unquestioned goal for all free citizens of the world—the ultimate public good. It is the clearly stated exit goal of all education and the only sanctioned reason for acquiring knowledge. But if we think about it for a moment, jobs are not what we want. We want shelter, food, strong relationships, a livable habitat, stimulating learning activity, and time to perform valued tasks in which we excel. I don’t know of many jobs that will allow access to more than two or three of those things at a time, unless you have a particularly benevolent owner or employers.

I am often told that I should be grateful for the progress that Western civilization has brought to these shores. I am not. This life of work-or-die is not an improvement on preinvasion living, which involved only a few hours of work a day for shelter and sustenance, performing tasks that people do now for leisure activities on their yearly vacations: fishing, collecting plants, hunting, camping, and so forth. The rest of the day was for fun, strengthening relationships, ritual and ceremony, cultural expression, intellectual pursuits, and the expert crafting of exceptional objects…We have been lied to about the ‘harsh survival’ lifestyles of the past. There was nothing harsh about it. If it was so harsh—such a brutish, menial struggle for existence—then we would not have evolved to become the delicate, intelligent creatures that we are” (pp. 139-40).

Yunkaporta reflects on how “there is no word for work in my home language and none in any other Aboriginal language I have seen” (p. 141). I thought all this was fascinating. I resonate with the idea that an eight-plus hour work day is more about social control than productivity. (I remember reducing my hours at the health tech start-up I used to work for from 40 hrs/week to 30 hrs/week and feeling like I got about the same amount done. Because who can mentally focus on a particular set of tasks for 8 hrs/day?) 

I also resonate with Yunkaporta’s list of things we actually want when we say we want a job. (After all, as this viral Twitter thread from a few weeks ago made clear, no one wants to work anymore…and no one has wanted to work anymore for, like, a really long time.) 

Maybe, as Yunkaporta says, only two or three of these things that we want are available to us through most of our jobs, most of the time—but maybe by operating together as communities we can make more of these things available to more people. “Shelter, food, strong relationships, a livable habitat, stimulating learning activity, and time to perform valued tasks in which we excel.” It doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

That’s all I’ve got for now. As always, holler with your thoughts if you’ve read the book, or if you haven’t read the book, or if anything here connected with you.

Super chill book review: God is a Black Woman (Christena Cleveland)

God is a Black Woman by Christena Cleveland (HarperOne, 2022)—what a book. It’s basically a mix of spot-on critiques of what Cleveland calls whitemalegod (you may know the one) and compelling explorations of what it can look like to ditch whitemalegod and seek the Sacred Black Feminine instead.  

I was a fan of Cleveland’s work back when she was trying to help the white-dominated evangelical church do better in terms of racial justice; I’m still a fan of her work now that she’s jumped ship and is finding healthier, more honest, more life-giving forms of faith outside of white evangelical spaces. 

I feel like I’m over here rooting Cleveland on in her journey. And I’m grateful for her being willing to share this journey with anyone who would benefit from reading about it. Which is lots and lots of us, I think.

A few thoughts and memorable quotes:

1) Cleveland’s book kind of strikes me as a race-conscious version of The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (by Sue Monk Kidd) for a new generation. I really enjoyed The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and learned a ton from it—and I also felt its whiteness. 

I’m grateful for Cleveland’s exploration not just of the Divine Feminine—who many of us might imagine, by default, to be just as white as whitemalegod—but specifically of the Divine Black Feminine. This brings so much richness and complexity into the picture. 

As Cleveland writes, “She is the God who has a special love for the most marginalized because She too has known marginalization” (p. 17). That feels right to me. I’m not Black, but this is a God I could get on board with. 

2) In a similar vein, I appreciate how Cleveland writes about the Sacred Black Feminine in a way that centers Black women but is not exclusive to them. 

Cleveland writes, 

“She is the God who is with and for Black women because She is a Black woman. She is the God who definitively declares that Black women—who exist below Black men and white women at the bottom of the white male God’s social pecking order—not only matter but are sacred. And, in doing so, She declares that all living beings are sacred. She is the God who smashes the white patriarchy and empowers us all to join in Her liberating work” (p. 17). 

Yup, all for that. It makes sense to me that we might have to imagine God as Black and female to really get it into our heads and hearts and souls that, as Cleveland puts it, “all living beings are sacred.” 

The whitemalegod of the colonizers—and of those who do things today like incarcerate way too many Black men and deny women access to reproductive health care—doesn’t really affirm, or help his followers affirm, the sacredness of all humanity. But perhaps the Sacred Black Feminine can, and does.

It reminds me of what many activists have pointed out—that we should all be able to get behind the project of Black female liberation, not only because Black women matter, but also because it turns out that what is good for Black women is good for everybody. It isn’t a competition or a zero-sum game; it’s a matter of implementing systems, policies, and practices that promote the liberation of the most oppressed and the flourishing of the most marginalized—and that therefore promote liberation and flourishing for us all.

3) I appreciate Cleveland’s reflections on need and neediness. I’m reminded of an evangelical idea that resonated with me for a while back in the day, but which I now consider a load of baloney. The idea is that we as Christians have everything we need in Christ, so we come into relationships with other people not needing anything from them. The implication is that we can just give, and give, and give—and this is how Christians ought to be.

I’ve really moved away from this mindset over the last ten years or so. And I’ve moved toward the reality that I am a needy human, and my relationships are at their best and most beautiful when I’m both giving and receiving. Anything else is some combination of arrogance and denial of my own humanity—as well as denial of the other person’s humanity, to the extent that I’m tempted to think that “I don’t need anything from them” means “they have nothing to offer.”

Related to this, Cleveland writes, “in whitemalegod’s society…patriarchy and white supremacy partner to proclaim that to be human is to express no need. In whitemalegod’s society, toxic masculinity screeches ‘boys don’t cry,’ young girls struggle to get dates after being labeled ‘high maintenance,’ and women are demoted for being ‘too emotional.’ Further, our infinitely vast gender diversity is squeezed into two suffocating male/female boxes in which men are more valued when they express no need, women are devalued precisely because they are often unable to adequately hide their need, and all other genders are completely erased unless they cram themselves into one of the two ‘official’ gender boxes” (p. 85).

This strikes me as true, and important. To be human is to express no need is a lie that’s closely connected to a toxic form of masculinity. I’m all for building a world where people of all genders are free to feel what we feel and need what we need, without being shamed for it.

4) Relatedly, I resonated with this from my evangelical days:

“The only time people in whitemalegod’s world are allowed to talk openly about their need is when they are regaling themselves with tales of how they triumphed over it. We love to exchange stories about how we used to be homeless but now own a home with no mortgage on it, were once illiterate but now are a New York Times best-selling author, once struggled to manage our anger but now are a celebrated mindfulness teacher, previously had marital problems but now it’s all good. In other words, it’s okay to struggle, as long as you triumph in the long run. Just please don’t tell us about your need in real time. Need is only acceptable in the past tense” (p. 86).

I’m reminded of the way testimonies are often framed and shared in evangelical churches. In one of the more extreme versions, I knew of a college campus ministry that gave its students a particular outline for their testimonies to follow (and, in this case, to be filmed and posted on Facebook). Students were to talk about what their life was like before they met Christ, and how much better their life is now.

These students were to share about their needs in the past, not their needs in the present. But they were human. Surely they had present needs, too.

Why is it so hard to be honest about the fact that we are needy? Can we talk about how we’ve experienced God as real and good in some ways, while also being honest about the things that are still difficult and painful, and the ways we want to see God but haven’t yet? 

I want to be part of faith communities that can voice present lament, as so many writers of the Bible did—not just victory over past difficulties.

5) I don’t know if I’d really thought about matriarchal cultures in this way:

“As scholar Heide Gottner-Abendroth is quick to point out, matriarchal societies aren’t simply the reversal of patriarchal societies, with women ruling over men. Rather, they are need-based societies that are centered around the values of caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community. In matriarchal cultures, everyone—regardless of your gender or whether you have any biological kids—is taught to practice the societal values of caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community. In such cultures, these values are the basis of what it means to be human” (pp. 113-4).

That’s cool. And very much in line with what I see as the goals of feminism. Feminism isn’t a scary and threatening thing where women are trying to grab and hold power over men in the same way men have often grabbed and held power over women. 

Rather, we’re trying to build a different kind of world—one based on mutuality, equality, and healthy interdependence, where no one is trying to grab and hold power over anyone. A world where values for things like authority, hierarchy, individual success, and personal accumulation of wealth are replaced by values for things like “caretaking, nurturing, and responding to the collective needs of the community.” Matriarchy for the win.

6) I appreciate the clarity and honesty of Cleveland’s reflections on her work for racial justice in white-dominated spaces:

“Somewhere along the line, I had been taught that in order to accomplish justice, I needed to convince white people that I am worthy of justice…Somewhere along the line, I had been taught that it was my work to convince white people to affirm my humanity…Though I had been heralded as a ‘trailblazer’ in the mostly white, male-dominated Christian world, my justice work had extracted me from the safe spaces that nurture and protect me as a Black woman and catapulted me into the unsafe and oppressive spaces of the powerful where I was exposed to the soul-crushing forces of its institutional racism, sexism, and poisonous theology. In those spaces, I gave much yet received little more than lip service and a steady stream of macroaggressions” (p. 149).

I hear and feel Cleveland’s (totally valid) anger about all this, and I stand with her in it. None of this was right. And I think that her testimony (you know, the honest kind, not the kind with only victories) is a crucial one for church folks to hear.

7) Cleveland writes:

“That’s how whitemalegod controls us, by convincing all of us…that we’re not enough. We must constantly strive for whitemalegod’s version of excellence and conquer our imperfections in order to prove to whitemalegod that we are worthy to sit at his table. But since we’re all desperately scrambling to get a seat at a table in whitemalegod’s exclusive club, we never stop to ask ourselves: Do I even want a spot in whitemalegod’s tiny circle of acceptability? No, we’re too busy scrambling and trampling others as we chase the acceptance we will never receive” (p. 169).

I’ve totally felt this vibe and this struggle. For me, it was a feeling of tension between wanting to be accepted—and, in my case, as someone who worked in Christian ministry, wanting to be accepted as a leader—in evangelical spaces, but knowing, or at least fearing, that if I expressed (or just existed as) my authentic self, I would not be. It’s a feeling of having to hide something to belong. Which means, of course, that you—the real you—does not actually belong. 

I’ve felt this, for example, as an introvert, feeling like I needed to act like an extrovert to be accepted as a leader—or even just as a valuable and respected human. And I’ve felt it as someone who came around to LGBTQ+ affirmation, feeling like I didn’t know what would happen if I talked about these views openly.

Like Cleveland, at some point I started to think, Wait a minute, do I even want a spot here? Do I really want to chase the affirmation of people who fundamentally don’t accept me for who I actually am, or to chase power in their circles that are actually quite toxic? 

That would be a “nope.” Hard pass. But, like Cleveland, it took me a minute to get there. The pull of acceptability is powerful—especially when it can seem like acceptance in a particular evangelical circle equals acceptance by God. Fortunately, in truth, these things couldn’t be farther apart. But that isn’t always easy to see when you’re in the midst of it.

__

I hope this gave some worthwhile food for thought! I’d love to know what you think about any or all of it.

Super chill book review part 2: Jesus and John Wayne (Kristin Kobes Du Mez)

Back with part 2 of a super chill book review for Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. (Part 1 is chillin over here.) A few more thoughts and quotes:

5. I appreciated Du Mez’s reflections on the blurring between the evangelical mainstream and (extra-conservative extra-patriarchal) margins.

This quote made sense to me, and helped me make sense of things:

“United in their concern about gender and authority, conservative evangelical men knit together an expanding network of institutions, organizations, and alliances that amplified their voices and enhanced their power. [Doug] Wilson invited [Mark] Driscoll to speak at his church; [John] Piper invited Wilson to address his pastor’s conference; leaders shared stages, blurbed each other’s books, spoke at each other’s conferences, and endorsed each other as men of God with a heart for gospel teaching. Within this network, differences—significant doctrinal disagreements, disagreements over the relative merits of slavery and the Civil War—could be smoothed over in the interest of promoting ‘watershed issues’ like complementarianism, the prohibition of homosexuality, the existence of hell, and substitutionary atonement. Most foundationally, they were united in a mutual commitment to patriarchal power.

“Through this expanding network, ‘respectable’ evangelical leaders and organizations gave cover to their ‘brothers in the gospel’ who were promoting more extreme expressions of patriarchy, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish margins from mainstream. Over time, a common commitment to patriarchal power began to define the boundaries of the evangelical movement itself, as those who ran afoul of these orthodoxies quickly discovered” (p. 204).

Back when I was a little more connected to the circles Du Mez writes about here, I remember being vaguely aware that people with some very different views on some very important things (like racial justice and whether spiritual gifts are still a thing) seemed to be friends with each other a little more than one might expect. (You know, the kind of friends who promote each other’s work and speak together at conferences and generally express agreement with one another’s theology; not the kind of friends who know they’re really different but decide to be friends anyway.)

Du Mez helped me connect the dots: the common thread was a shared commitment to patriarchy. That makes so much sense. (And is so gross.) Definitely something to chew on for anyone who’s been to conferences or heard sermons or read books by the likes of Wilson, Driscoll, or Piper—or others in the same sphere, like James Dobson, Doug Phillips, and John Eldredge (Du Mez names these other dudes elsewhere).

Incidentally, it also confirms that I have no regrets whatsoever about the time in my early twenties when I didn’t end up dating a guy I had a brief crush on who was super into Wild at Heart by John Eldredge. So there’s that.

6. It was fascinating to find myself (more or less) in these numbers:

“Support for the president [George W. Bush] dropped most precipitously among younger white evangelicals. In 2002, 87 percent of white evangelicals ages eighteen to twenty-nine approved of the president’s job performance; by August 2007, his approval rating among this group had dropped by 42 percentage points, with most of the decline (25 points) occurring since 2005. Younger evangelicals weren’t just unhappy with the president; since 2005, Republican Party affiliation among this demographic had dropped by 15 percentage points” (p. 232).

First, these numbers are bonkers. From 87 percent support to 45 percent support in five years—and from 70 percent support to 45 percent support in just two years? Yikes. 

I was 14 in 2002 and 19 in 2007, so I’m a little younger than the folks surveyed. But not too far off. And I definitely was happy that Bush was president in 2002 and unhappy that Bush was president in 2007. 

I appreciate Du Mez offering a broader context for these things. I tend to think of my journey away from Republican party affiliation as a very personal one. And it was that. But it was also taking place in the context of broader shifting currents in U.S. society as a whole and particularly among young white evangelicals. 

Similarly, there are these numbers:

“Seventy-four percent of white evangelicals voted for the McCain/Palin ticket. But 24 percent of white evangelicals—up 4 percent from 2004—broke ranks and voted for Obama. The Obama campaign had targeted moderate white evangelicals, the sort who had been voting Republican for twenty years but who wanted to expand the list of ‘moral values’ to include things like poverty, climate change, human rights, and the environment. Obama doubled his support among white evangelicals ages eighteen to twenty-nine compared to Kerry’s in 2004, and nearly doubled his support among those ages thirty to forty-four” (p. 237).

As someone who would have voted Republican if I were old enough to vote in 2004, and who then voted excitedly for Obama in 2008, I feel like I found myself in these numbers too. I was definitely one of those “moderate white evangelicals” who wanted our government to care about “poverty, climate change, human rights, and the environment.” I don’t know if I would have described it in exactly those words at that time, but as I look back, the description pretty much hits the nail on the head. I guess the Obama campaign targeted me and it worked? I think I’m okay with that.

7. Sometimes I think John Piper has a special talent of making my blood boil. (Maybe it’s a spiritual gift.) So, feel free to read this next quote if you want your blood to boil too, or feel free to skip it if that’s just not something you need in your life right now…

“Palin’s candidacy, however, raised the issue of gender. For evangelicals who believed in male headship, was it appropriate for a woman to be in such a position of power? If the alternative was Barack Obama, then the answer they gave was yes. Days before the 2008 election, John Piper wrote a blog post with the title, ‘Why a Woman Shouldn’t Run for Vice President, but Wise People May Still Vote for Her.’ Piper made clear that he still believed that ‘the Bible summons men to bear the burden of primary leadership, provision, and protection,’ and that ‘the Bible does not encourage us to think of nations as blessed when women hold the reins of national authority.’ But a woman could hold the highest office if her male opponent would do far more harm by ‘exalting a flawed pattern of womanhood’” (p. 236).

Seriously? Why a Woman Shouldn’t Run for Vice President, but Wise People May Still Vote for Her. First, the arrogance. Second, the logic: both utterly terrifying and exactly what one might expect. 

Basically, the thought process is this: we don’t want women to have any power—but better one woman in power if she helps keep women in general down, as opposed to a man in power who might try to empower women. Or, said differently, we don’t mind if a handful of particular women have power and influence—as long as that power and influence is used to uphold patriarchy. Charming. And relevant to all sorts of contexts, including the current Supreme Court. 

8. I feel like the news cycles have moved on already from the Southern Baptist Convention’s abuse issues, but sexual abuse in (all sorts of) churches is still a thing. (Would recommend Emily Joy Allison’s #ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing and Ruth Everhart’s The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct as two excellent books on the subject.) I’ll leave you with some of Du Mez’s thoughts on it:

“The evangelical cult of masculinity links patriarchal power to masculine aggression and sexual desire; its counterpoint is a submissive femininity…The responsibility of married women in this arrangement is clear, but implications for women extend beyond the marriage relationship. Women outside of the bonds of marriage must avoid tempting men through immodesty, or simply by being available to them, or perceived as such. Within this framework, men assign themselves the role of protector, but the protection of women and girls is contingent on their presumed purity and proper submission to masculine authority. This puts female victims in impossible situations. Caught up in authoritarian settings where a premium is placed on obeying men, women and children find themselves in situations ripe for abuse of power. Yet victims are often held culpable for acts perpetrated against them; in many cases, female victims, even young girls, are accused of ‘seducing’ their abusers or inviting abuse by failing to exhibit proper femininity. While men (and women) invested in defending patriarchal authority frequently come to the defense of perpetrators, victims are often pressured to forgive abusers and avoid involving law enforcement. Immersed in these teachings about sex and power, evangelicals are often unable or unwilling to name abuse, to believe women, to hold perpetrators accountable, and to protect and empower survivors” (pp. 277-8).

I appreciate Du Mez making these connections explicit. That feels important to me. It reminds us what is at stake when churches insist on maintaining patriarchal theology. Not that all the other things that come with church-y patriarchy are remotely okay—but sexual abuse seems especially obviously not okay. 

The other implication here is that if churches and denominations are serious about addressing their abuse issues, they have to address the patriarchal theology that enables this abuse. I don’t really see many churches where patriarchy is deeply woven into theology and church culture being willing to seriously look at these connections or admit that they’re there. But it’s something to chew on.

There’s so much in this amazing book, and it might be a lot to process. If you’ve read or are reading it, please feel very free to reach out (comment, message, email, whatever you like)—I’d love to talk about some of this stuff together.

Super chill book review part 1: Jesus and John Wayne (Kristin Kobes Du Mez)

Well, this is looking to be another two-part super chill book review… 

(Some might ask, does it still count as “super chill” once it gets to be this long? To which I would say, the chill factor isn’t about length so much as style—these aren’t really book reviews so much as just collections of quotes that stood out to me and things the book made me think about. But if you want to call these “zero chill book reviews,” that’s cool too.)

Anyhow. Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2021) is an extensively-researched deep dive into the intersections of patriarchy, militarism, toxic masculinity, violence, Christianity, many decades of US politics, and basically all the things. 

It’s one of those books people kept recommending to me for a while before I actually got around to reading it. I’m not totally sure why it took me a minute. I definitely believed everyone that the book was awesome (which it totally is). But maybe part of me also felt a little jaded on the topics involved. 

Part of me felt like, didn’t I go to seminary to try to figure out what the hell is wrong with (white) U.S. evangelicalism—and how it became what it is? What more could there be that I didn’t already learn in my American Church History class, biblical studies and theology classes, ethics classes, or the whole frickin’ class I took on Dr. King? What more could there be—and what more could there be that I would actually be excited to read about and not just totally depressed by?

Joke’s on me—turns out there really was (and I’m sure still is) much more to learn. So, so much more. I was blown away by Jesus and John Wayne. Here are a few thoughts and quotes:

1) One of the oddities of my own spiritual journey is the fact that, as a teenager, I held some surprisingly Religious Right-leaning views for someone who grew up in a liberal part of the country, in a moderate-to-liberal family, and in a moderate-to-liberal church. 

This is mostly explained by the fact that, unfortunately, I read the Christian Internet. The Christian Internet told me that if I loved Jesus (which I did), then I would vote Republican (which I would have, if I were old enough to vote), because opposing gay marriage and opposing abortion rights outweighed every other political concern. 

I thought about this when I read these words from Du Mez:

“At any given time, numerous creeds have coexisted and competed for influence within evangelicalism. Even today, the evangelical tent includes Calvinists and Pentecostals, ‘social justice warriors’ and prosperity gospel gurus. However, over the past several decades conservatives have consolidated their power within the broader movement. Offering certainty in times of social change, promising security in the face of global threats, and, perhaps most critically, affirming the righteousness of a white Christian America and, by extension, of white Christian Americans, conservative evangelicals succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of large numbers of American Christians. They achieved this dominance not only by crafting a compelling ideology but also by advancing their agenda through strategic organizations and political alliances, on occasion by way of ruthless displays of power, and, critically, by dominating the production and distribution of Christian consumer culture” (p. 9).

Strategic organizations, political alliances, ruthless displays of power, and dominating Christian consumer culture. That sounds about right. There are and have always been many different kinds of Christians, many different Christian ideologies, many different approaches to life and the world and the political realm.

The Religious Right not only aggressively markets their own ideas but also aggressively markets the lie that their ideas are the only ones out there—that is, the only truly Christian ones out there. I used to believe that lie.

Personally, these days, I would say that the values of a certain strain of Christianity (like opposing gun control, supporting the death penalty, opposing immigration reform and refugee resettlement, and generally trying to keep the US as white as possible—all realities Du Mez mentions on p. 4) are completely opposed to what I understand as faithfulness to the religion of Jesus. Others might disagree, and that’s okay. (Not okay in the sense that I think they’re right or that their views aren’t terrifying and deeply harmful, but okay in the sense that different people have different perspectives and that is their right.)

What we should all be able to agree on, though, at a bare minimum, is the clear fact that there are many streams of Christianity, many ways the Bible has been interpreted, many different approaches to politics by those who sincerely want to be guided by the Christian faith. While I tend to think I’m right about things (or at least some things—some important things) and want others to agree with me because I think our world would be better if they did, I also have no interest in pretending that my views are the only ones. I find myself enraged by the ways a certain conservative stream of Christianity has tried to control Christians’ thinking (and voting—mostly, voting) by doing exactly that.

2. Du Mez reflects on the Obama years and on conservative evangelicals’ response to his presidency:

“In 2008, the election of Barack Obama ratcheted up evangelical fears. Initially, the culture wars appeared to be lost and the power of the Christian Right seemed to have reached an ignoble end. But conservative evangelicals had always thrived on a sense of embattlement, real or imagined, and this time would be no different. Donald Trump appeared at a moment when evangelicals felt increasingly beleaguered, even persecuted. From the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate to transgender bathroom laws and the cultural sea change on gay marriage, gender was at the heart of this perceived vulnerability. On the foreign policy front, the threat of terrorism loomed large, American power wasn’t what it used to be, and nearly two-thirds of white evangelicals harbored fears that a once-powerful nation had become ‘too soft and feminine.’

“Evangelical fears were real. Yet these fears were not simply a natural response to changing times. For decades, evangelical leaders had worked to stoke them. Their own power depended on it. Men like James Dobson, Bill Gothard, Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Mark Driscoll, Franklin Graham, and countless lesser lights invoked a sense of peril in order to offer fearful followers their own brand of truth and protection” (p. 13).

Looking back on my eleven years at a conservative evangelical church, including a couple years working full-time there in college ministry, I feel like I was very much immersed in the evangelical world but also very much not immersed in that world. It was an independent church, not connected to a broader denominational network. And while the church’s (elder board) leadership turned out to be more conservative than I first realized, the community as a whole really was composed of a broad range of people with all sorts of different views. So, in some ways I was pretty unaware and kind of naive about the kinds of things that were happening in the broader conservative evangelical world. 

One time, though, a college student I worked with forwarded me a chain email about how then-President Obama was a Muslim and the anti-Christ, or something like that. I thought, Surely no one in their right mind believes these things. I knew this college student. I liked her. She was an entirely reasonable person. So I replied to her email asking if perhaps her message was a joke, or did she maybe have her email hacked? 

I was shocked when she responded quickly and told me that no, it wasn’t a joke, and yes, she did intend to send me that email. She felt it was important for people to be aware of the truth about our president. 

I didn’t know what to do. Turns out that the evangelical fears, the persecution complex, the embattlement, all the things Du Mez writes about—these things reached into my own community more deeply than I knew. At the time, I brushed off the student’s email as a bit of an anomaly, but really, it wasn’t that at all. It was likely what a lot of people at my church believed but didn’t necessarily say out loud.

3. As someone who has thought a fair amount about LGBTQ affirmation—because I had to, once it became clear that I had no future at my church if I embraced affirming theology—I resonate with these words from Du Mez:

“Within evangelicalism itself, this [antigay] activism is often depicted as an expression of long-standing opposition to same-sex relationships triggered by the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, but the virulence with which conservative Christians opposed gay rights was rooted in the cultural and political significance they placed on the reassertion of distinct gender roles during those decades. Same-sex relationships challenged the most basic assumptions of the evangelical worldview” (p. 63).

That feels about right. Opposing gay rights wouldn’t necessarily have been that big a deal for evangelicals if it hadn’t directly challenged everything they believed about rigid gender roles for women and men. 

You can be egalitarian (when it comes to equality between men and women) but non-gay-affirming, and I know plenty of people in that camp. At the same time—as I slowly realized when I started to dig deeper into the beliefs of my own church leaders when it came to gender and sexuality—the logic of non-affirming theology directly stems from patriarchal (complementarian) theology.

I’m not saying every non-LGBTQ-affirming person came to this conclusion in the same way or for the same reasons. But historically speaking, as Du Mez points out, that was kind of how it happened, and it seems good to be aware of this.

4. Given the current state of the U.S. and the mess we’re in when it comes to reproductive rights, I felt like this paragraph offers some helpful historical context:

“In 1968, Christianity Today considered the question of therapeutic abortion—was it a blessing, or murder? They gave no definitive answer. As late as 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution urging states to expand access to abortion. But with the liberalization of abortion laws, and as abortion proponents began to frame the issue in terms of women controlling their reproduction, evangelicals started to reconsider their position. In 1973, Roe v. Wade—and the rising popularity of abortion in its wake—helped force the issue, but even then, evangelical mobilization was not immediate. Only in time, as abortion became more closely linked to feminism and the sexual revolution, did evangelicals begin to frame it not as a difficult moral choice, but rather as an assault on women’s God-given role, on the family, and on Christian America itself” (pp. 68-9).

Ah, yes. Roe v. Wade? Not sure what to think about it. Mostly a Catholic issue, I think. No definitive answer here. Oh wait, the feminists are advocating for abortion rights? Well then it must be a problem. It must be contrary to what we believe as Christiansbecause clearly anything feminist must be contrary to what we believe as Christians. Sounds about right.

I don’t think this was the only thing going on. There was also the way conservative evangelicals had opposed racial desegregation, and when it became clear that that was becoming an unpopular position and a losing battle, they needed another heated issue to rally people around in a partisan way. 

But I think abortion was a ready choice for this issue because of its connection to changing ideas about gender roles and women’s empowerment—ideas that Christians whose faith was tied closely to their patriarchy found incredibly threatening. 

As with opposition to LGBTQ+ inclusion and affirmation, individual Christians who oppose abortion rights today didn’t necessarily take the path Du Mez outlines to get here. But this is the reasoning that was involved historically.

That’s what I’ve got for part 1! Please feel free to comment, email, or otherwise holler with your thoughts on these nice little noncontroversial issues. And don’t worry, I’ll be back next week with part 2!

Super chill book review part 2: All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep (Andre Henry)

As promised—and eagerly awaited, I’m sure!—this is the second part of a super chill book review of Andre Henry’s All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep. (The first part is chillin over here if you didn’t catch it before.) 

Here are a few more quotes and thoughts.

4) On the language of “can’t”:

“That was the second time [seminary friend] Kevin used the word ‘can’t’ in regard to condemning slavery…He echoed his predecessors, who often wrote about how they couldn’t abolish slavery, because the world they were building depended on it too much. A straight line can be traced between the colonizers who claimed they couldn’t abolish slavery to white people today who ‘can’t’ condemn it in the present, nor imagine a world without its descendants: the police and prisons. Perhaps they do this because they know they can’t categorically condemn the violence that structures their world without implicating themselves” (pp. 87-8).

I hear and honor the specific context of race and racial violence that Andre’s writing about here. And, at the same time, when I read this, my mind also wanders to all the other things I’ve heard Christians say they can’t do.

For example, “I want to support women in ministry, but I can’t—it isn’t the way our church/denomination does things, and there isn’t enough will to change.” Or, “I want to affirm LGBTQ+ people and relationships, but I can’t—I just don’t see how the Bible could be understood in any way other than condemning.” 

What is this “can’t”? 

In a sense, it’s a sort of appeal to a higher authority. I want to do something, but some thing/person/rule/structure/system/theology/authority won’t allow me. At some point, though, in my view, we don’t get to absolve ourselves so easily of responsibility for our own choices and the impact they have. 

Sometimes, in order to be whole and healthy humans who want wholeness and health for others as well, we have to go against the way things have always been done. Sometimes we have to disagree with church/denominational higher-ups. Sometimes we have to read the Bible differently from what we’re used to or what everyone around us is doing. These things are not easy. But we can do them. 

We get to make choices, and we are responsible for these choices. Those who felt they couldn’t abolish slavery are still responsible for the suffering it caused; those who feel they can’t challenge the status quo today are still responsible for the suffering in our current world, whether by way of racial violence, institutionalized misogyny, homophobia, or any other forms it might take.

I don’t find it easy to imagine, as Andre writes, a world without…police and prisons. But, in solidarity with people who are most impacted by the injustice and violence of these systems, I can try.

5) On God and racism:

“I don’t think they always realize this, but when a Christian says God isn’t concerned about racism, they’re saying God doesn’t care about Black people. Those statements are inseparable. We fight for people we care about, period. If you saw a friend in danger, love would compel you to try to save them. So to say God won’t intervene against anti-Black violence, because it’s not important, could only mean God doesn’t love us” (pp. 120-1).

I read this, and I think about how sometimes Christians get some weird ideas about redemptive suffering. And it gets especially gnarly when people try to apply these ideas to other people’s lives rather than their own. 

If someone went through something difficult and felt that it was redeemed in some way, whether through character growth or something else good that came out of it, that’s great. I’m all for it. But I don’t think I get to tell someone who is not me that their suffering is redemptive.

Yet that is often what white people do to Black people. And it’s violent. It’s the opposite of loving. For those of us who are not Black, if we love our Black sisters and brothers and siblings, as Andre writes, we won’t try to tell them that God isn’t concerned about racism. We’ll believe with them in a God who fights for them—and we’ll join them in the fight.

6) On what comes next:

 “The question I have today is whether or not all those millions of people who filled the streets in 2020 for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have realized that their next task is to use nonviolent direct action to cripple the operations of a repressive society. We’re not just fighting for white Americans to be nicer; we’re fighting against a corrupt empire. We must connect the struggle for Black lives today to previous movements against imperialism, authoritarianism, and fascism around the world and at home. We must learn from those movements and apply their lessons to our situation today, with the understanding that tinkering with the current system isn’t enough. The current system was built to oppress, which means it must be replaced. We must go from being a fundamentally unequal society sustained by violence to a truly egalitarian society sustained by mutual care. A revolution is necessary to make Black lives matter, and we have to plan it” (pp. 144-5).

I don’t really have anything to add to this—just wanted to include it here, because I feel like it captures the heart of a lot of what this book is about. 

Where do we go from the summer of 2020? What more is needed? What does continued and genuine antiracist engagement look like? We’re not just fighting for white Americans to be nicer. We’re fighting to become a truly egalitarian society sustained by mutual care. Amen to that.

7) On white folks who want to get involved:

“If white people are serious about fighting white supremacy and anti-Blackness, they need to start within themselves. This kind of work is essential because without it, white people will enter movement spaces and cause the same kinds of harm Black people are trying to get away from. They need to confront the ways they’ve been shaped by anti-Black ideas and been complicit in defending the racial hierarchy. They need to dedicate themselves to the work of fighting against racism in their own communities, instead of rushing straight into spaces where Black people are trying to heal and organize for our own freedom.

“White people should consider how they can organize for racial justice in ways that give Black people space: space where we’re free from the pressure to educate them, perform for them, or coddle them. One option is for white people to join non-Black ally movement groups that work in parallel with Black-led organizations and are accountable to trusted Black leaders: White People for Black Lives (WP4BL) or Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), for instance. White people who really get it understand that such space is necessary” (p. 163).

As a white person hoping to be useful to the cause of racial justice—and who knows a lot of fellow white people in a similar boat (hi, Lake B)—I appreciate this warning and encouragement. Not every justice movement space is a space for us—and that’s okay. Not every space needs to be for us, and not every space should cater to us. 

This doesn’t mean we can’t be useful. It just means that anti-Blackness is so deeply ingrained in us that we need to be thoughtful, careful, and humble about where and how we show up, so that we don’t do more harm than good.

8) On hope:

 “Frankly, I thought hope was bullshit. Mostly because all of the hopeful people I knew had a tendency to minimize problems in order to stay positive. It seemed that the only people I knew who had hope weren’t paying close attention to what’s going on in the world. [Activist Rebecca Solnit’s book] Hope in the Dark was the beginning of a journey that would permanently shift my perspective.

“The idea that struck me most in Solnit’s book was that there’s a difference between hope and certainty. To be hopeful doesn’t mean we’re sure about the future. ‘Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists,’ she explains. ‘Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.’ My mouth dropped open when I first read those words. They gave me a concept of hope that looked ugly truths in the face and left room for human agency. It felt like good news” (p. 169).

I feel this tension between holding onto hope and trying to pay attention to what’s actually going on in the world. I also really enjoyed Hope in the Dark. I have not been engaged in activist scholarship and struggle nearly as deeply as Andre has, but in the ways I have tried to engage, Solnit’s book felt like good news to me, too.

As far as good news goes, I feel like many of us who’ve been involved in the evangelical world have been awakening to a realization that the white American evangelical gospel doesn’t actually feel like good news. (As Andre articulates in his song Playing Hookey.) So I think it’s worth asking, and paying attention to our answers: What does feel like good news?

What’s actual, legit good news for you? For your community? For those “with their backs against the wall,” as Howard Thurman writes in Jesus and the Disinherited? I don’t know if the answers that come to you will line up very well with a conservative evangelical version of Christianity. But I suspect God might be in them. 

Well, this really just scratches the surface of a few parts of Andre’s book. There’s a lot there. I hope you get a chance to read it, and I’d love to chat about it if so (here, FB, email, real life, whatever you prefer)!

Super chill book review part 1: All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep (Andre Henry)

I was fortunate to cross paths with Andre Henry while studying at Fuller, and I have a great deal of respect for him as a musician, writer, and human. So my expectations for his first book, All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep: Hope–and Hard Pills to Swallow–About Fighting for Black Lives (Convergent 2022), were pretty high.

All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep did not disappoint. I knew Andre was brilliant, but it’s a whole other thing to see that brilliance laid out so eloquently, bravely, and compellingly on the pages of a whole book. I’m thankful for the labor of love this book must have been.

There are a few quotes and thoughts I’d like to share. It got kind of long, though, so we’re going to take it in two parts. Here’s the first! 

1) “Contrary to what people love to say about racial violence—that it springs from ignorance or blind hatred—the Maafa wasn’t, and isn’t, senseless. The crime was undertaken for a reason: profit. Over and over again, in their writings about the slave trade, white men spoke of how they must use the sweat and suffering of enslaved Africans to build their banks and textile industries, their ships and plantation homes, and to produce whatever else they ‘needed’ to buy or sell: their coffee, tea, sugar, rum, cotton, indigo. It was just business” (p. 20).

As Andre writes, racism doesn’t just exist in a vacuum. It doesn’t just exist because white people are randomly ignorant or hateful in random ways and for no particular reason.

Rather, it’s closely connected with a brutal, unchecked sort of capitalism, where profit is all that matters, and the people making ruthless decisions to pursue the greatest possible profit at any cost (to human life, the earth, etc.) keep themselves at many arms’ length from the consequences of these decisions.

I think about how greed and love of money are sins that Jesus has so much to say about but churches often don’t. In many churches the wealthiest people are the most respected, assumed to be the best leaders and the best influences on young people. But that wealth has often come at a cost. And the cost is often inflicted most brutally on people of color and materially poor people whose lives are considered expendable, an unfortunately necessary sacrifice. 

More and more churches and other organizations are opening up to conversations about race and racism, at least in some form. But we can’t have these conversations fully and honestly without also talking about capitalism, greed, money, and the (human) sacrifices powerful people are willing to make to increase their profits and amass grain in their storehouses.

2) As an enneagram type 1 and a (self-designated) Angry Woman, I appreciated Andre’s chapter on anger. These next few quotes are from that chapter.

“I spent a lot of time in the spring of 2015 trying to appear respectable to the white friends I couldn’t keep. I wanted to avoid the appearance of being angry, thinking it would be more persuasive. Because once white people sense you’re angry, you lose them. Just as I had with Sherry, I always responded to their racist comments with ‘I can see why you’d think that, but . . .,’ always giving them the benefit of the doubt. I thought I had to approach my white friends like that in those days—to educate them without offending them” (pp. 45-6).

I hear this. Maybe one of my goals as a white person trying to be antiracist should be to become unoffendable.

I know that may not be totally realistic, and it’s probably an odd way to put things. But what I really want is to become the kind of white friend (or white human in general) who can hear the truth of someone else’s experience, whatever it might be, and honor that truth. 

This truth can be different from my experience, and someone’s reflections on it might lead that person to different conclusions about the world than the ones I’ve come to. Even if that’s the case, though, hearing from that person is still a gift, not to be taken lightly—not to be undermined or violated by my defensiveness, but to be received with gratitude.

I don’t have to see everything the same way. I can still listen, try to be open, choose not to be offended but to learn.

3) A couple more quotes from Andre on anger:

“I’d been angry for as long as I could remember, from the day I came to recognize what it meant to be Black in this country, but I’d been trained to feel like rage was off-limits…

Angry is a loaded term for us because we know how rare it is for white people to respect it. When white people say you’re angry, they’re not saying, ‘I recognize how you feel, and that’s valid.’ More often, they’re appraising your character, naming an innate quality, a defect. You’re angry in the way that bacon is salty or mangoes are sweet, ‘one of those perpetually angry Blacks.’ It’s a statement of disapproval, meant to make us loosen our lips, fix our faces, and take the bass out of our voices. We’re expected to speak about the injustices that threaten our bodies the way someone would read the dosage instructions on a bottle of pills. Do anything else, and you risk a range of punishments: from a white friend shutting down the conversation to an officer pinning you to the ground” (pp. 48-9).

We’re expected to speak about the injustices that threaten our bodies the way someone would read the dosage instructions on a bottle of pills. I feel that. It’s so clearly not right. I think this is a metaphor that will stick with me. 

“Rank-and-file white people also try to stamp out Black rage wherever it emerges. They tell us Black anger is destructive and can’t be trusted. The truth is just the opposite.

“Black rage is trustworthy because it carries an analysis of present injustices. On a physiological level, anger is the body’s way of telling us that a boundary has been violated. It’s the natural emotional response humans have to being wronged, especially if that wrong is recurring and denied by the harmdoers. Therefore, Black rage is a healthy sign that we as a people recognize the crimes that have been, and continue to be, committed against us. Our anger is based in our personal experiences of anti-Black hostility in the white world and backed by our knowledge of our history.

“Black rage can be constructive because anger can be the starting point of hope. If anger is something like an alarm system, telling us things ought not to be a certain way, then it’s likely that we already hold some idea for how things ought to be. That vision of how things ought to be is the most important building block for a revolution; after all, it’s hard to build a world we haven’t envisioned” (p. 53).

Anger can be the starting point of hope, because it signals that we already hold some idea for how things ought to be. In this light, we can see that attempts to quell or placate anger are often really attacks on hope—they’re conservative maneuvers that uphold the status quo. 

Let’s learn to be comfortable with anger—our own, and others,’ and especially that of people on the underside of the power structures of our world. Let’s pay attention to what this anger is telling us about what ought to be.

More to come later this week!

Super chill book review: Red Lip Theology (Candice Marie Benbow)

Candice Marie Benbow’s new book Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough (Convergent 2022) strikes me as a combination of memoir, Black feminist manifesto, ode to Benbow’s mother, and work of theological deconstruction and reconstruction. Or something like that. I’m here for it. It’s a sort of coming-of-theology story, if you will. 

Benbow works with womanist (academic) theology, both what she loves about it and where she thinks it could go further. She’s looking to develop spiritual belief and practice that works for a new generation of Black women. And she has a ton of important stuff to say.

She isn’t looking to write something “prescriptive for all women,” because, as she puts it, “there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to life and the people who say, ‘yes, there is—it’s Jesus’ are being lazy and willfully obtuse” (p. xxx). Amen to that. At the same time, I’m grateful for the chance to be one of the “other women”—that is, non-Black women—who are “eavesdropping and looking for freedom, too” (p. xxx).

A few quotes and thoughts I especially liked:

1) “Even as I desired to navigate it, womanist theology didn’t feel like it was created for women like me: sisters who didn’t tuck in their ratchetness in favor of righteousness to occupy certain spaces or get in certain rooms. I needed something to speak to the totality of who I am” (p. xxv).

I like the part about not tucking in ratchetness in favor of righteousness. Not that I’m particularly ratchet. But for those who are, who the hell am I to tell them—who the hell is anyone to tell them—that they can’t bring the fullness of who they are to church, or theology, or anywhere else they like? 

I need the perspectives and gifts and brilliance of my ratchet-est of sisters. The church needs all these things, as does the world.

2) I appreciated Benbow going hard against Calvinist theology—or at least the sketchier, ickier parts of it. She effectively communicates, in many different ways throughout the book, that humans are inherently worthy, valuable, and good. That the biblical story doesn’t start with sin; it starts with good creation. That we are not slimy worthless worms (my words, not hers—I’ve heard others call this “worm theology”) before we invite Jesus into our lives, or whatever you want to call Christian conversion. 

For anyone for whom this sort of dominant evangelical theology isn’t really working—I’d recommend this book. Benbow does a great job of articulating what exactly isn’t working and suggesting what we might believe instead. She invites us into a more humanity-affirming, goodness-affirming, worth-affirming kind of spirituality.

“Where did Christians get the idea we are these wretched creatures who need so desperately to be thrown the bone of salvation for our lives to have any value or meaning?” Benbow asks. “The way I read it, the work of creation was an act of love. This omniscient, omnipresent, sustaining force took the time to make one of the most significant things it ever would. The Holy Maker called every single aspect of the design ‘good.’. . . yes, the biblical narrative is replete with examples of humanity fumbling the ball and God extending grace and mercy. We can look to our own lives and see where God has done the same thing. Yet, that doesn’t change the fact that God has seen us as only one thing since the beginning: good” (pp. 18-9).

God has seen us as only one thing since the beginning. I like that. Whatever else we are, we are also good. We are loved. 

I appreciate this message in general, and I also feel like it’s especially powerful and healing and necessary for those who constantly get the message in our society that they are not good, that they are not worth anything, that they are less than. People on the underside of oppressive power structures especially need to know that they are good, they are loved, their lives are sacred. From the beginning, and all the time.

3) I appreciate Benbow’s perspectives on God and gender, and more specifically, God’s gender. 

I got to teach a three-week class at my church back in January on “feminine God-talk”—that is, biblical, historical, and contemporary feminine imagery and metaphors for God, including the use of feminine pronouns. I think if I do the class again, I’ll include some of Benbow’s reflections.

For example, this:

“In my mind, God was a man, and men stuck together. God would look out for my dad and cosign his foolishness because that’s what men do. After all, God was only referred to as ‘He’ and ‘Him’ in church and in the scriptures. Add to that the trifling things I’d heard men—pastors included—had done and gotten away with. God was on the side of his homeboys.

To this day, I’ve seen men lie for each other, gaslight the hell out of women to make us second-guess ourselves and our own common sense—all to protect their boy. I saw it when the men would assist each other in the creation and perpetuation of false alibis. And it was up close and personal for me when I got my heart broken and men I deeply respected said, ‘Well . . . maybe you misconstrued some things’” (p. 30).

I don’t know if I’d really thought about God’s perceived masculinity in these terms—that speaking of God as if God is male makes God seem like one of the boys. But that totally makes sense to me. 

It’s not just an issue of, say, whether women and nonbinary folks can see ourselves as being made in God’s image fully—fully human. It’s also a question of: Whom does God side with? Whom does God stick up for? Whom does God betray? Does God participate in male church leaders’ gaslighting? Does God lie to cover up for men?

It’s important for people and communities to know that God is not one of the boys. God does not lie to women or gaslight them. God does not protect abusive men from the consequences of their actions. God does not hide or cover for them. 

I appreciate how Benbow connects the dots here. The ways we gender God are deeply tied to the ways gendered power dynamics play out in religious spaces.

4) More on (particularly masculine) gendered language for God:

“God stood before language or identity and is not defined by them. God is compassionate and empathetic enough to make room for us to come to know God as we need to come to know God. While I think it gave us an initial point of reference, the push to understand God through gendered language does not come from the Divine. It comes from our need to control, to lay claim, to create proximity to those whose authority we believe shouldn’t be questioned. But domination is not God’s will for us” (p. 39).

This strikes me as a helpful addition to the stuff I was thinking and writing about God and “they/them” pronouns a couple months ago. God can make Godself known through various pronouns—for those in the Christian tradition, often masculine ones—but that doesn’t mean that those pronouns limit God or encapsulate the entirety of who God is. 

We don’t need to try to control the language people use to speak about God. We can embrace the beauty of different ways of speaking about God, whether or not we understand all of them. 

5) Back to Calvinism and such:

“I don’t need a God who knows what I will do before I do it. I am not a robot. I was created with emotions and feelings that can shift in the moment. Plus, I don’t think we realize how much our thoughts of predestination and God’s omniscience take us off the hook. They make God responsible for our decisions so we don’t have to accept any responsibility . . . And because God trusts me with free will, it comes with great responsibility. I owe it to God and myself to live a life of authenticity. That requires I make decisions true to the core of who I am and that honor me” (pp. 57-8).

I don’t have much to add to that except an amen. Just wanted to share.

6) One small part of the awesomeness of Benbow’s mother, who plays a major role in this book:

“I had a mother who believed in my gifts and talents, believed they were called to shake things up, and believed I could be kind while doing it. She didn’t believe in calling someone out. Mama favored the notion of ‘bringing someone to’ something. By being direct, clear, kind, and compassionate, she believed you could provoke someone’s awareness and change their hearts” (pp. 103-4).

Something to aspire to, I think. Direct, clear, kind, and compassionate. Provoking awareness. Not necessarily being nice or playing into whatever notions of respectability people might have, but being kind and clear. 

7) One last quote:

“There is power in saying no. Women don’t say it enough and Black women say it even less. Saying yes to everything becomes our ‘reasonable service.’ American culture teaches men to say no almost without thinking, without a care about who it may harm or hurt. Women consider entirely too many people’s feelings to the point of self-sacrifice and self-sabotage. ‘No’ is a holy word. Our agency is sacred. God honors our agency through free will. We must honor it ourselves. When we say no, we are affirming that our capacities and intentions could be useful elsewhere . . . ‘No’ is a complete sentence and offers no explanation. Because we care about the people we say no to, we choose to explain ourselves. But it’s okay to say no and leave it there” (p. 168).

As someone who finds it awkward and a little stressful sometimes to say no—in more than one recent instance I’ve found myself muttering “errmm…mayybe…” when I wanted to say no but didn’t want to offend—I need all of this. ‘No’ is a holy word. Amen. Our capacities and intentions could be useful elsewhere

If someone is offended by us exercising our agency to say no, the problem is generally with the person who is offended—with their own unreasonable expectations or entitlement, not with the person who says no. I want people to feel very free to say no when I ask them for something; why wouldn’t I offer them the same authenticity I want to receive?

I also like the idea that we can choose to explain our “no” because we care about people, but we don’t have to. It’s okay to say no and leave it there. Saying yes, no, or maybe is the free choice of the person who is asked something — and so is whether or not to give an explanation.

None of this is one bit at odds with Christian faith. As Benbow writes, it’s God honoring our agency.

Hope you enjoyed these thoughts and quotes! Lots of good stuff in this book. Holler if you read it!

Super chill book review: Becoming Rooted (Randy Woodley)

I recently read Randy Woodley’s Becoming Rooted: One Hundred Days of Reconnecting with Sacred Earth (Broadleaf Books, 2022). (First super chill book review for a book that was published in 2022—woohoo!)

I’ll confess I did not take the full one hundred days to read it. But I still like how the book is broken up: one hundred very short chapters (like, very short—1-2 pages each), each with an intriguing quote at the beginning and a suggested action item at the end. Even though I sometimes read several short chapters in one sitting, I still liked being able to digest the book in such small chunks. 

I found this book very much worth reading; as always, here are a few random thoughts and quotes!

1) It must have taken Woodley some time to find one hundred different interesting and relevant quotations to begin each chapter with. But I’m glad he did.

I found myself appreciating the variety of people quoted—many indigenous thinkers, some Buddhists, some Christian theologians, some Bible quotes. From Gandhi to Sitting Bull to Mother Teresa to Alice Walker to James Baldwin, as well as lots of indigenous people I hadn’t heard of before but enjoyed learning from, it’s quite the diverse and brilliant cast of thinkers. 

2) In particular, I found this quote very striking: 

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.”

-Cree Indian Proverb (p. 141)

Reminds me of what Jesus said about not hoarding treasure where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal (Matt 6:19). We either learn to share resources, giving and receiving generously, building just communities where everyone can flourish—or, eventually, we are all destroyed. 

Money might protect many wealthy people from feeling the effects of climate change, pollution, unsustainable agriculture practices, etc. as quickly as others, but it will catch up with all of us in the end. We can’t eat money. I hadn’t quite thought about it in that way, but it feels right.

3) I also liked this quote: 

“In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” 

-Eric Hoffer (p. 241)

Reminds me of what Jesus said about the meek inheriting the earth (Matt 5:5). To be learners, we have to admit that there’s so much we don’t know. (And often also that much we’ve learned isn’t actually true or helpful.) We have to become humble enough to want to learn, and to know that we need to learn.

Also, the idea of being “equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists” is something one of my seminary professors used to talk about a lot without attributing it to anyone in particular (other than, by implication, himself). So it’s nice to know where that comes from.

4) Woodley has such great stories. So many of them. I appreciated his willingness to share his life and spiritual experiences so openly. 

I especially appreciated his emphasis on God speaking through nonhuman beings, since this is often overlooked and undervalued in Western churches. 

I’m Western enough in worldview that it sometimes seems silly, to me, to feel like I sense God speaking through wild animals or plants. Or maybe it’s not even so much that I think it’s silly—I actually think it’s very common, and very sacred and beautiful—but maybe more that I’m sometimes a little embarrassed about it. That is, I worry others will find it silly. 

I appreciate Woodley’s leadership in being willing to put himself out there and say, yes, that eagle is totally a sign. It’s totally God speaking. And it’s real. You might find it silly—but if you do, you’re missing out on so many amazing ways God might be speaking to you.

5) Woodley writes, “Humanity has yet to realize the fact that nature is wiser and more powerful than we are. Nature will, without a doubt, outlive us. She knows her mind, and she understands what keeps life in balance” (p. 17).

This was another thing I hadn’t quite thought about in this way, but when I hear it, it feels true. From Woodley’s perspective, climate change isn’t exactly a threat to the earth—as we might tend to talk about it—so much as it’s a threat to humanity. The earth will be okay, with or without humans. 

It’s almost an image of Earth having to spit humanity out because we aren’t playing well with others—with, as Woodley often calls it, the whole “community of creation.” Earth will be okay—she doesn’t need us. 

So when we fight climate change, we’re fighting for our own survival—for our own place in the interconnected web of creation. And that’s worth fighting for. I would very much like to get to stick around. 

6) I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but this is how Woodley sums up the values he’s hoping to teach and reflect on throughout the book: 

“A harmonious worldview. Mutual respect. Generosity. Hospitality. Inclusion. Relatedness to all creation. Cooperation. Wisdom. Humor” (p. 116).

Then again, at the very end of the book, he describes these values a little more:

  • Respect: Respect everyone. Everyone and everything is sacred.
  • Harmony: Seek harmony and cooperation with people and nature.
  • Friendship: Increase the number and depth of your close friends and family.
  • Humor: Laugh at yourself; we are merely human.
  • Equality: Everyone expresses their voice in decisions.
  • Authenticity: Speak from your heart.
  • History: Learn from the past. Live presently by looking back.
  • Balance work and rest: Work hard, but rest well.
  • Generosity: Share what you have with others.
  • Accountability: We are all interconnected. We are all related” (242).

I appreciate this articulation of indigenous values that we can all seek to live by, whether Indigenous or settler. 

These values also strike me as very Jesus-y. By mentioning Jesus so many times, by the way, I don’t mean to say that indigenous values are only valuable if Jesus also taught and lived them. I don’t mean to say that something is only valuable if Christianity affirms and endorses it, or that Christians don’t have things to learn from indigenous worldviews that we might not learn from the Bible alone.

I do mean to say that I think Jesus would be down with this book. Respect, harmony, friendship, humor, equality, authenticity, generosity—these are exactly the things that characterized Jesus’ life. The fact that indigenous thinkers and theologians often have to push back on aspects of the dominant Western Christian worldview says less about how Jesus and indigenous views relate to one another and more about how far removed a lot of the dominant Western Christian worldview is from who Jesus was.

Here’s to moving toward, as Woodley puts it, “heal[ing] ourselves, the Earth, and the whole community of creation” (116). 

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Super chill book review: Found in Transition (Paria Hassouri, MD)

It’s been a minute (like, six months) since I’ve done a “super chill book review.” But I feel a few of them coming. So watch out! Here’s the first.

This one feels especially relevant in this time of states trying to pass bonkers (and deeply damaging) legislation against supportive and healthy care for trans kids and their families. The book is Found in Transition: A Mother’s Evolution During Her Child’s Gender Change by Paria Hassouri, MD (New World Library, 2020). 

A few random thoughts:

1). I found this book very accessible and illuminating on a topic I don’t know a ton about. I loved Hassouri’s blunt honesty about all of her thoughts and feelings during the first year or so after her thirteen year old kid revealed that she was a girl. 

Talking about LGBTQ realities—and maybe especially trans realities—as someone who doesn’t speak from personal experience can feel difficult and dicey sometimes. I try to tread somewhat carefully; mostly, I try pretty hard not to cause any more harm than has already been (and is still being) caused.

So, I appreciate that Hassouri is a fierce advocate for the trans community and trans families while also super honest about the journey it took her to get there—super honest about the reality that she was not immediately that way.

2). Super cool that Hassouri is both a mom and pediatrician. It was interesting to hear how she was supportive of trans kids and families as part of her work, but it was still so difficult for her when her own daughter came out. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t support trans people in theory, but that she didn’t believe her own child when she came out to her.

It felt different when it was her own kid. Plus, as Hassouri reflects, there was very little relevant training in her medical school and residency programs. So she was still uninformed about a lot of things, even though she’s also a (highly competent and caring, I’m sure) pediatrician.

3). Confession time: Before the last few months, I think the only book I read that focused on transgender experiences was Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture by evangelical clinical psychologist Mark Yarhouse. Would not recommend.

(Well actually, there’s a trans character in Brit Bennett’s novel The Vanishing Half, which I would absolutely recommend—but he isn’t one of the super main characters, so it took me a minute to think of that.)

I hadn’t read much, and what I did read often wasn’t all that great. I felt like parts of Understanding Gender Dysphoria were helpful in terms of understanding how evangelical Christians tend to think about transgender realities, but I would say the book as a whole is more sympathetic to some icky forms of evangelical belief than it is to trans people’s experiences. It also seemed to buy into some understandings of gender roles and gender differences in general that I’m not here for. 

I didn’t like any of this, but I also hadn’t really taken the time and effort to find anything better. So in the last few months it’s been really good for me to read Paula Stone Williams’ memoir As a Woman: What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy After I Transitioned (Atria Books, 2021), Laurie Frankel’s novel This Is How It Always Is (Flatiron Books, 2017), and now Found in Transition.

I didn’t plan it this way, but between these three books, I’ve gotten to learn about three very different kinds of trans experiences. In This is How It Always Is, Poppy knows she’s trans from young childhood; in Found in Transition, Ava realizes she’s trans around puberty; and in As a Woman, Paula transitions in her 60s.

I realize that Hassouri and Frankel are both parents of trans kids (that’s true of Frankel in real life and also true of the main character in her novel)—they aren’t trans people themselves. So I probably have some more work to do. (Recommendations are welcome.)

Still, I’m grateful for the range of different stories. I’m grateful for intimate and honest and nuanced family stories, and for a diversity of perspectives that all feel much more trans-affirming than Understanding Gender Dysphoria.

4). I appreciated how Hassouri connected her own story and her own past to her reactions to her daughter coming out as trans. Hassouri worried SO MUCH about her daughter being bullied if she came out at school—but she also realized that this was because she herself experienced bullying as a young Iranian-American teen at a mostly white school. 

It turned out that Hassouri’s daughter received mostly positive, supportive reactions from her peers—and when people didn’t react positively, she could handle it. It was fully worth it to her, since she got to be who she really was, and there was so much relief and joy in that.

Hassouri’s daughter’s experience had some similarities with Hassouri’s own teenage years, but also so many differences. I appreciate Hassouri’s vulnerability in sharing her own journey to figure that out.

5). Relatedly, I appreciated how Hassouri wrote so openly about her own emotions in general. She writes without shame about the (many) times she cried during that year after her daughter came out, and how some of these tears were shed in public. I like that. I want to join her in destigmatizing freedom of emotional expression. 

Humans are emotional beings. It doesn’t do anyone any good when we try to hide or downplay that, or when we shame others for it. Kudos to Hassouri for leading the way.

6). I was fascinated by Hassouri’s journey from being very suspicious of “the trans agenda” to describing herself now as an advocate for trans people, all within about a year. She was suspicious enough initially that she wasn’t comfortable with her daughter’s first therapist, even though this therapist was wonderful, just because the therapist was transgender.

It took some time, but Hassouri eventually realized that what she once considered the “trans agenda”—not totally unlike, say, the “women’s agenda” at an explicitly patriarchal church…just to use a purely hypothetical example that has nothing to do with my own experiences…—is simply to love and affirm trans people in the fullness of who they are, and to want them to have access to care that will be helpful and not harmful to them.

That’s all I’ve got for now—for me, this was a memoir worth reading! Holler with your thoughts and/or suggestions for further learning.

English is limited, God is not: Reflections on “they/them” pronouns for God

I was interested to see Chloe Specht’s article “Actually, ‘They’ is a Beautiful Pronoun for God” published in Sojourners on the same day that I finished teaching a three-week class on “feminine God-talk” at my church. In this class, in the course of talking about feminine imagery, metaphors, pronouns, and other ways of thinking about God, we also touched on the possibilities of “they/them” as pronouns for God. 

Specht does a great job of reflecting on the possibilities for God as “they.” I’d recommend her article, and I also have a few thoughts to add.

Specht mentions that “some have recently argued” that “‘He’ and ‘him’ are the only acceptable pronouns for God”—for example, in this bummer of a Christianity Today article. I agree with Specht that the fact that we get mostly masculine pronouns for God in most English Bible translations is “insufficient evidence for such a definitive conclusion.”

I’d also take this a step further to say that, really, any time we start talking about the “only acceptable” anything for God, I think we’re on the wrong track. I’m not against using masculine pronouns to refer to God. I am against the dogmatically exclusive use of masculine pronouns. I’m against the general claim that God is only what we already understand God to be, and not something else also. 

Do we really know what God does and doesn’t consider acceptable when it comes to God’s identity? Often, when we think we do know these things—and especially when we’re totally sure of them—we’re really just putting God in a box. We’re acting like we know everything about God—like God can never surprise us, like God can never do anything unexpected or turn out to be anyone unexpected.

To me, that sounds like a sure sign that we’re worshiping an idol, not the actual God who created us. The “idol” language might sound harsh. But isn’t that what we’re doing when we define God’s only acceptable pronouns, or God’s only acceptable anything? We’re creating boundaries for God rather than letting God be God in all the surprising forms this may take.

I know my vision of God has expanded dramatically over time. God has blown through a lot of the boxes I used to put God in. I’m sure, or at least I hope, that God will continue to do so. And this is a good thing. 

Jesus was always expanding people’s categories of who God is, whom God loves, whom God centers, what God will and will not do. Jesus was always doing unexpected things that lifted up the marginalized, promoted justice, and drove religious people bonkers because of all the things they thought they knew. Why would God be any different today?

I also appreciate Specht’s note about ruach, a feminine word in Hebrew that’s used in the Bible to refer to God’s Spirit. I would also add that the Greek word used for God’s Spirit in the New Testament is πνευμα, which is neuter. To the extent that grammatical gender has something to do with actual gender—which I don’t think is always a good assumption, but it seems to come up a lot in conversations about the Bible and pronouns and God and such, so let’s talk about it—God’s Spirit is a “she” in Hebrew, and God’s Spirit is a sort of an “it” in Greek. But a very personal kind of “it.” One might say, perhaps, a singular “they.”

It feels important to talk about what’s at stake here. We can argue about what the Bible does and doesn’t say about God and gender, and that’s part of the equation. But the fact that these debates are still happening implies that this is an area where biblical interpretation could go in a number of different directions. This invites us into deeper thought, beyond the assumptions we might make or the doctrines we have been taught. 

When what the Bible says and what to make of it are ambiguous, we are more clearly able to see that the way we read the Bible is informed by all sorts of things outside the Bible itself. We come to scripture bringing all of who we are. We bring our family backgrounds, our theological backgrounds, our cultures and ethnicities and gender identities and personalities and languages and the norms of our faith communities. And we have choices. 

Ultimately, we bring our people with us. And if these people include non-male people—that is, women and non-binary people—which I very much hope they do, we can choose to make room for all of these people. We can choose to read scripture in ways that help people of all gender identities see themselves in it. We can choose to read scripture in ways that honor all people, that help all people know they’re valuable and loved. 

Incorporating “they/them” pronouns into our language about God may help. I can attest that, as a woman, hearing “she/her” pronouns for God helps me feel seen and valued. I don’t need this all the time. I’m very happy with a balanced mix of “he,” “she,” “they,” and whatever other beautiful ways people come up with to speak of God. But when God comes across through people’s language as solely masculine, I feel othered. I feel like I’m considered less of an image bearer. 

I want all people to know—to really, deeply know—that they are created in God’s image. And I love that “they/them” pronouns for God just might help non-binary people know that—and help whole communities better embrace the gender diversity in their midst.

Ultimately, any and all human language for God—especially when we limit ourselves to just one language, as we do when we talk about what is and isn’t possible in English—falls short. It’s totally inadequate in the face of our triune Creator, whom we see only in part and know only in part (1 Cor 13:9-12). We are like Ezekiel trying to describe his vision of angels, and the best he can do is talk about wheels and eyes, so many eyes (e.g. Ezekiel 1:1-21). 

No English pronoun does justice to all of who God is. Why limit ourselves to just one? If “she” pronouns or “they” pronouns or other pronouns in other languages help us express something about the different aspects of who God is, why not use them?

Change can be difficult. But it can also be good. It can also be necessary. The Christian tradition has always needed to continually reform itself. After all, every generation gets some things wrong, and every generation has things that seem to work for them but then make zero sense to the generation who comes after them. I don’t think God feels threatened by these changes. 

I want to worship a God who resists all the boxes I try to put God in. I want to worship a God who is always centering people on the margins, always moving—and moving us—toward more expansive visions of justice and true inclusion. I want to worship a God who is bigger than anything I could imagine, anything I could place boundaries around.

If expanding our sense of what God’s pronouns might be helps us move beyond the boxes and toward this unbounded God, I’m all for it.