Saturday, February 22, 2014

Black History Month: Women's Voices of the Civil Rights Movement

The theme of this year's Black History Month is "Civil Rights in America."  Today I want to celebrate by showcasing some of the voices of Black women who spoke during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.  Women civil rights leaders did not receive the recognition that men did in the movement, so it's important to me to do what I can to be sure they are remembered.  

I also want to acknowledge that women of color don't need me to speak for them.  That's why today's post is not about what I have to say, but simply about giving room in this small space for their voices to be heard by my mostly white readership.  These voices from decades past should never be forgotten.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer was a Civil Rights organizer and spokeswoman from 1962 to 1972.  Jailed and beaten in prison for breaking a restaurant's "whites only policy," she went on (though permanently disabled from the beating) to found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and to spearhead a lawsuit against Sunflower County for school segregation.  She also founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative and helped found the National Women's Political Caucus, and authored two books. She is known for leading her fellow activists in Christian hymns such as "This Little Light of Mine."

Here is her story in her own words (from About.Com Women's History):
• One night I went to the church. They had a mass meeting. And I went to the church, and they talked about how it was our right, that we could register and vote. They were talking about we could vote out people that we didn't want in office, we thought that wasn't right, that we could vote them out. That sounded interesting enough to me that I wanted to try it. I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote. 
• When they asked for those to raise their hands who'd go down to the courthouse the next day, I raised mine. Had it high up as I could get it. I guess if I'd had any sense I'd've been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they'd been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember. 
• The landowner said I would have to go back to withdraw or I would have to leave and so I told him I didn't go down there to register for him, I was down there to register for myself. 
• I am determined to get every Negro in the state of Mississippi registered. 
• They just kept beating me and telling me, "You nigger bitch, we're gonna make you wish you were dead." ... Every day of my life I pay with the misery of that beating.
And here is a portion of her "We're on Our Way" speech given in 1964 at the Negro Baptist School in Indianola, Mississippi:
We want people, we want people over us that’s concerned about the people because we are human beings. Regardless of how they have abused us for all these years, we always cared what was going on. We have prayed and we have hoped for God to bring about a change. And now the time have come for people to stand up. And there’s something real, real peculiar but still it’s great: there used to be a time when you would hit a Negro—a white man would hit a Negro—the others would go and hide. But there’s a new day now, when you hit a Negro, you likely to see a thousand there. Because God care. God care and we care. And we can no longer ignore the fact that we can’t sit down and wait for things to change because as long as they can keep their feet on our neck, they will always do it. But it’s time for us to stand up and be women and men. Because actually, I’m tired of being called “Aunty.” I wondered in life what actually time would they allow for me to be a woman? Because until I was thirty-six I was a girl: “Girl this.” And now I’m forty-six and it’s “Aunty.” But I want you to know tonight: I don’t have one white niece or nephew. And if you don’t want to call me Mrs. Hamer, just call me plain “Fannie” because I’m not your aunt.

Daisy Bates

Daisy Bates and her husband operated the Arkansas State Press, a weekly African-American newspaper in Little Rock, Arkansas.  In 1957 she became the advocate and champion of the "Little Rock Nine," nine students who became the first to attend the all-white Central High School.   President of the Arkansas Chapter of the NAACP, she was the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington.   Here is the gist of her short speech:

[T]o Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins and all of you fighting for civil liberties—that we will join hands with you as women of this country. Rosa Gregg, Vice President; Dorothy Height, the National Council of Negro Women; and the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority; the Methodist Church Women, all the women pledge that we will join hands with you. We will kneel-in; we will sit-in until we can eat in any corner in the United States. We will walk until we are free, until we can walk to any school and take our children to any school in the United States. And we will sit-on and we will kneel-in and we will lie-in if necessary until every Negro in America can vote. This we pledge to the women of America.

Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height was president of the National Council of Negro Women and one of the organizers of the March on Washington. She directed the integration of the YWCA in 1946 and founded and ran its Center for Racial Justice from 1965 to 1977.  She was a gifted orator and held a bachelor's degree in education and a master's in psychology.  She helped found the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971.  President Obama called her the "godmother of the civil rights movement" before she died in 2010.

Here are some of her words from a speech she gave at the first Scholarly Conference on Black Women in 1979

I had to say what it meant to black women that we were a part of the whole civil rights movement, that we were a civil rights organization, really, under the leadership of women. And that we had had a major hand in that whole beginning with the significant male leadership. . . Because as women, we could not see our children and our youth struggling and have them on the outside of our effort. . .
But when you ask me the question about race and sex, I want to add something else that I saw recently in a poster. And that poster was a woman who had two chains; she was chained down with two very heavy pieces of stone, with chains on her legs. And the heading underneath was "Double Trouble." And the idea that it reflected was, take one away – one said "racism" and the other said "sexism" – take one away and she is still tied down. Take the other away and leave that one, she's still tied down. The only way she will make it: they both have to be eliminated.

Ella Baker 

Ella Baker helped Martin Luther King, Jr., organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, and became its executive director. She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship. She was the catalyst behind the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which assisted student activism in civil rights throughout the South.   She was involved in the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 and was one of the little-noticed women leaders of the March on Washington. 

Ms. Baker's speech to a conference of student protest groups in Raleigh, North Carolina-- the conference that led to the formation of the SNCC-- was entitled "More than a Hamburger"  and focused on how sit-ins at lunch counters were only the beginning of what would become a sustained movement.  Though the speech was not recorded, here is a portion of how she reconstructed the event in her personal notes:
The Student Leadership Conference made it crystal clear that current sit-ins
and other demonstrations are concerned with something much bigger that a hamburger or even a giant-sized COKE.
Whatever may be the difference in approach to their goal, the Negro and white students, North and South, are seeking to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination - not only at lunch counters, but in every aspect of life. In reports, casual conversations, discussion groups, and speeches, the sense and the spirit of the following statement that appeared in the initial newsletter of the students at Barber-Scotia College, Concord, NC were echoed time and again: 
“We want the world to know that we no longer accept the inferior position of second-class citizenship. We are willing to go to jail, be ridiculed, spat upon and even suffer physical violence to obtain First Class Citizenship. By and large, this feeling that they have a destined date with freedom, was not limited to a drive for personal freedom, or even freedom for the Negro in the South. Repeatedly it was emphasized that the moment was concerned with the moral implications of racial discrimination for the "whole world" and the "Human Race." This universality of approach was linked with a perspective and recognition that "it is important to keep the movement democratic and to avoid struggles for personal leadership."
These are by no means all of the women who should be remembered.  Evelyn Lowry (who just died last September at the age of 88), Patricia Stephens Due and her sister Priscilla Stephens Kruize, and Myrlie Evers are among the other heroines who should be commemorated for their dedicated sacrifice and leadership of the Civil Rights Movement at its inception.

And the best thing we can do to honor all of them is to recognize that the issue of civil rights for African Americans is far from resolved.

Please check out this article on the By Their Strange Fruit blog to see how systems of racism are still ingrained in American society. and this article to see how basic civil rights are still being abridged in our culture.   Pastor Jonathan Brooks also has an article this week on Red Letter Christians called Ok, White Folks, here's how you can really help!

Black History month is about seeing the perspectives and hearing the voices of those who have been marginalized in American history because of race.  Let it be a catalyst to also hear the voices of those who are marginalized because of race today.  I firmly believe this is part of what the kingdom of God is all about.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Illustrative of Complementarianism? Yes... But Not the Way He Thinks

This week John Ensor posted at the Desiring God blog a piece called "An Olympic Lesson for Husbands and Wives."  Here are a few reasons he thinks pairs ice skating is the perfect metaphor and illustration of Christian complementarian (male-headship) marriage:
He leads her onto the ice and initiates each part of their routine. She receives that leadership and trusts in his strength. His raw physical strength is more on display than hers; he does all the lifting, twirling and catching. She complements his strength with her own; a more diminutive and more attractive strength of beauty, grace, speed and balance. His focus as the head or leader is to magnifying her skills. Her focus is on following his lead and signaling her readiness to receive his next move. He takes responsibility for the two of them and she trusts his leadership and delights in it. . .

They do not fight for equality on the ice; they possess it as a given. They are not jostling about fairness. They are focused on doing their part well. No one yells, “Oppressor!” as he leads her around the arena, lifting her up and catapulting her into a triple spin. No one thinks she is belittled as she takes her lead from him, skating backwards to his forward. No one calls for them to be egalitarian. “She should get to throw him into a triple Lutz half the time!” They complement each other in their complementarian approach to becoming one majestic whole. No one, least of all him, minds that the roses and teddy bears, thrown onto the ice when they have collapsed into each other’s arms at the end, are for her. It is his joy.
This is a visible model of what male leadership and female support are all about. It’s an art form, not a mandate. It’s a disposition, not a set of rules. When it’s done well, it’s a welcome sight in which both partners are fulfilled in themselves and delighted in the other.
Many other bloggers have posted responses to this; I'll be quoting a few of them.  But what I personally saw was an illustration of something entirely different from what Ensor was trying to convey.   As far as I can see, Ensor's post didn't show how perfectly pairs skating illustrates complementarianism.  Ensor's post was the perfect illustration of the most common problems with complementarianism itself.

Here are six ways that "An Olympic Lesson for Husbands and Wives" is actually a lesson in what's wrong with complementarian argumentation:

It gives lip service to "equality" while simultaneously denying it.

To give Ensor credit, he does point to ways in which the male "head" is supposed to use his leadership to "magnify" his wife. But while stating unequivocably that "They do not fight for equality on the ice; they possess it as a given," everything else he says makes it clear that the man is the leader because he is male, while the woman is the follower-- always and without exception-- because she is female. This is what I have referred to elsewhere as "divine right":
Most modern Christians have rejected the notion of divine right in all areas but this one. We no longer agree with, “Because I was born royal, I have divine right to rule this country,” or “Because I was born an aristocrat, I have divine right to govern the peasants on my land.” We certainly don’t agree any more with “Because I am white, I have divine right to be served by those of other races. . . " 
Most Christians now would agree that there is no such thing as “divine right” – that God has established earthly authorities, but no one can say, “Because of my birth, it’s my divine right to be one of those authorities.” Except in this area. Christians say, “Because I was born male, I have a right to be in authority over my wife in the home. . . .”
The whole reason Ensor is writing this post is to show that female submission to male authority is built into the very nature of what it is to be a man and a woman.  But this is not-- cannot be-- equality.  It only claims it is.

It sees the surface and doesn't look deeper.

What Ensor sees when he watches pairs skating is oddly similar to what male-headship proponents see when they read the Bible: a surface meaning based on what it looks like to someone far removed from the original action.  Here are some comments from people who are much closer to the world of pairs skating, because they are very familiar with its non-ice equivalent: performance dancing.

From Naomi Hanvey at A Happy Hanvey Home:

[P]airs figure skating, partnered dancing or gymnastics, contact improvisation, and other similar movement forms, all operate on the same basic principles: physics, timing, and a combination of independence and interdependence. The stunts and shapes are different in each discipline, but the science and preparation behind them are essentially the same for everyone. So while I don’t know the names of all the skating moves and I’ve never studied that particular style of partnered dancing, I think my experience does give me somewhat more of an insider’s point of view than John Ensor has. . .
Throughout the article, Ensor repeatedly uses the word “lead” to describe the male role and “receive” or “support” to describe the female role, but I get the impression that he thinks the couples are improvising. That’s not how a skating routine (or a dance routine, or a gymnastics routine) works. In reality, neither party is actually the “leader” – they have a choreographer or a coach (sometimes both) designing the routine, down to the timing and spacing. Additionally, there is usually music or at least a rhythm that dictates when each movement should occur. On professional stages, that music is controlled by a conductor. It’s not up to the man – or the woman - to decide when the next stunt happens. The couple doesn’t have a leader and a follower; they have to move together as one.
And from Rebecca Erwin at Frog in Paris:
Under the beautiful costumes and graceful movements is a well guarded secret. Women dancers have to be physically strong, capable and know their own center of gravity. Along with their strength, men have be in tune with their partner. In order for him to lift her with a look of ease, she must bend her knees and jump: plie. Her core muscles engage and hold her center of balance. Her arms and shoulders control her direction. 
In twirling and catching, her whole body engages as she plies. He lifts. They read each other’s center of gravity and shift to match-equally. The illusion of unity. She jumps into his arms and he adds his strength to her motion. He directs that motion to a mutually agreed spot for her to land. The combination creates incredible lift that defies gravity. The partners work in tandem for a common goal. [Emphasis added.]
Ensor's focus, then, on male leadership in pairs skating simply isn't what is actually going on from the perspective of actual participants in such sports.  I have frequently made a similar argument that what complementarians see when they read certain passages of scripture is far removed from how the original audiences, with different historical-cultural assumptions that we don't share today, would have understood these passages.  Ensor's article illustrates perfectly how a surface view misses what is really going on, either in a skating routine or in a Bible passage.

It makes one particular type of male-female interaction into the model for all. 

Ensor opens his piece by saying, "Sochi is helping me be a better husband. And the Olympics are freshly making my wife to delight in her role as well."  From there he paints a picture of marriage looking like a pairs skate.  Not just his marriage-- every marriage.  The message to Christians is clear. Unless your marriage looks like this, it's out of God's will and thus not a truly Christian marriage.

But pairs skating is just one of hundreds of Olympic events.  Some married people are individual skaters, with a husband or wife working in the background to support the skater's Olympic bid.  Some are bobsledders.  Some are skiers or snowboarders.  Because no two people are alike, no two marriages can be alike.

I'm sure Ensor would allow for different peoples'  marriages to look different-- but within limits.  In his mind every man is to lead and every woman is to follow, at all times and in every circumstance. Those couples where the man is a natural leader and the woman enjoys following will have no trouble fitting the pattern and will probably find themselves content in their roles.  And even though what makes it work for them is simply their innate personalities, they will also find their particular way of relating held up as an example of godly marriage to everyone else.  Couples where the individuals simply weren't made this way, however, will struggle.  In my own marriage we spent many years trying to be what we were not.

It upholds a vision of reality colored with the traditional patriarchal perspective.

The traditional view of how women are supposed to be one way and men another, in line with western European constructs of masculinity and femininity-- as Ensor puts it, "raw physical strength" and "diminutive and attractive strength"-- makes no room for men or women who don't fit the paradigm.  Diana Anderson of Faith and Feminism notes how in pairs skating, traditional gender constructs contribute to what audience members like Ensor are accustomed to seeing:
Image matters in figure skating – femininity in particular. . . [T]he subjective readings of femininity still remain. Female figure skaters, like many female athletes in subjectively judged sports, often must rely on the presentation of a demurely feminine presence to boost the judgment of their art. . . 
What Ensor reads as complementarianism is actually strict gendered roles that frequently confine and box in female athletes who take to this sport – it is not necessarily an example of complementing strengths in the vein of theological gender roles. Rather, pairs figure skating acts as an example of the tired preservation the double burden that women face – the need to be unbelievably feminine while also having enough strength to perform at the same level as men. Ensor's shallow reading fails to contextualize what we are actually seeing, and therefore missing larger points about the ways in which gender is performed and how these pairs work in mutuality, not complementarity. 
The illusion created by the pairs skaters is that he is effortlessly strong and she is effortlessly graceful. But the fact is that a huge amount of effort, strength and grace is required of both partners.  Pairs do exist that challenge the traditional constructs, such as the brother-sister team of Sinead and John Kerr, whose "inverse lift," where she lifts him, has been very popular with audiences.  But the complementarian viewpoint, while celebrating the differences between the sexes, often does so at the expense of differences within each sex.  Those who don't fit very well into the boxes are frequently either shamed or simply ignored.

It caricatures other viewpoints.

No egalitarian or feminist that I know-- Christian or secular-- would say that a man lifting a woman during pairs skating is "oppressing" her.  Egalitarianism is about each partner (whether in skating or in marriage) contributing his or her strengths and deferring to the giftings of the other.  As Retha Faurie at Biblical Personhood puts it:
As if egalitarianism is about insisting that each should do half of every task! (If there was an Olympic event for misrepresenting egalitarianism, John Ensor may have qualified with that statement.)
Complementarianism often caricatures egalitarianism as claiming that there are no differences between the sexes.  Or they will say egalitarian marriage is about each partner insisting on his or her own rights and refusing to give more than 50%.  Complementarianism also tends to mischaracterize feminism as being about female domination of males.  Ensor's gratuitious mockery-- a picture of an extremist yelling "Oppressor!" at a male pairs skater-- highlights this tendency within the complementarian camp.

It turns marriage into a performance. 

I haven't been able to figure out how to make Blogger embed Tweets, but Rachel Held Evans tweeted this shortly after Ensor's post went up:
This was so absurd I actually laughed: "An Olympic Lesson for Husbands and Wives" / My marriage is not a performance!
Although Ensor is using pairs skating performances as a metaphor for marriage and not specifically stating that marriage is to be viewed as a performance, the fact is that complementarianism does frequently depict marriage as a performance played to the world to display the truths of the gospel.

As I have explored in depth in a three-part series starting here, complementarian Christianity teaches that human marriage is a picture or illustration of Christ's relationship with the church.  As the Gospel Coalition declares:
[Marriage is] a picture of the gospel. Your marriage reflects Christ and His church. It was created by God to be a visible picture for everyone to see the love between Christ and His Bride. [Emphasis in original]
What it comes down to is that if God created marriage as a display of the gospel for the world, then marriage is indeed a performance.  And as I stated above, those husbands and wives whose personalities fit naturally into a male-leader/female-follower mold will naturally perform well and be praised for it, while everyone else will either put on an act, or simply fail to meet the performance standard and be shamed for not properly showcasing the gospel.

If your marriage doesn't fit very well into the box, then, you have two choices-- pretense or failure. My husband and I chose pretense and tried to hide from ourselves our sneaking feelings that we were secret failures and outward hypocrites.  Needless to say, this wasn't exactly a help to us and it didn't strengthen or build up our marriage.  The fact that we still managed to have a pretty good marriage anyway was in spite of, not because of, this teaching.


Pairs skaters do actually do some of the same things couples do in healthy Christian marriages: they work together, they listen to their Coach, they adjust to one another, and they each pour all of their individual strengths into making unity work.  What they don't actually do, however, is function within a male-headship paradigm.  This is something that the article reads into the performance, not something that is intrinsically there.

When examined closely, Ensor's use of pairs skating as an illustration of Christian male-headship marriage is actually a better illustration of the problems with complementarian thinking.  It would have been better for him to have taken off his blue-tinted glasses and seen that men being in charge of women really isn't what it's all about.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Creation-Evolution Debate and the Genres of Genesis 1 & 2-3

A lot of people have been talking this week about the Bill Nye/Ken Ham Debate on Creationism vs. Evolution.  So I decided to weigh in with where I stand on this issue.

When I converted to Christianity at the age of 15, I was taught that one of the things I had to embrace if I was going to follow Jesus was young-earth creationism.  The Bible "clearly" taught that God had made the earth in six 24-hour days and that the earth is 6000 to 10,000 years old. So I read several books that supported creationism, and as far as I could tell with my not-particularly-scientific mind, it made sense.  I left what my parents and my teachers had taught me and became a creationist.

Something happened when I was nearly through my college years, though, that shook me up a little.

A public debate was scheduled on my college campus between a local biology professor and Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research, who had flown in specially for the event.  Since most of my fellow church members were attending, I went along.  As I listened, I couldn't help but think Dr. Gish was winning the debate.  After all, he was a gifted debater and public speaker, while the biology professor was-- well, a scientist who taught classes now and then.  And the audience was clearly on Gish's side.  Whenever Gish spoke, he was applauded.  When the local professor spoke, he was booed and hissed at.  And most of my friends were gleefully joining in.  This clearly bothered and rattled the poor guy-- and that was where my cognitive dissonance started.  My sympathies have always lain with the underdog, and I simply couldn't understand why good Christian people who were supposed to be following Jesus' teachings on loving your neighbor, would treat this poor man with this abysmal rudeness.

I left the debate wondering how, if we were in fact so very right, we could be so totally wrong about it.  I knew that what really mattered, what Christ really cared about, wasn't whether we believed single-celled organisms could slowly become human beings.  It was how we treated actual human beings.

I walked away from that debate feeling ashamed. I couldn't bring myself to join in with my fellow church members as they rejoiced in how thoroughly the biology professor had been humiliated.  As far as I could see, the main thing he was going to take away from that debate was not the reasonableness of creationism.  It was how little Christians actually practiced what they preached.

Years later, when I began the process I've mentioned before of laying all my beliefs on the table and finding what held true for me, creationism was one of the things that I took another look at.  I bought a book called A New Look at an Old Earth by Don Stoner.  He discussed how early Christians had considered God to have "written" another "book" in addition to the Bible-- the "book of nature," and how the created universe itself was meant to testify alongside the Bible, just as Psalm 19:1 and Romans 10:18 said.

He also talked about how very un-Christian it was to mock and ridicule evolutionists in public debates.

I thought he made a lot of sense.

So for a while I became an old-earth creationist and stopped believing that the "days" in Genesis 1 referred to actual 24-hour periods.  But I had learned in the process of re-examining my faith to hold my view lightly.  What I believed about human origins wasn't essential to my faith in Christ, and I knew I wasn't a science expert.

I kept on reading, and I kept on examining.  And some of the books and articles I read actually made even more sense than Don Stoner's book.  One of them was The Language of God by Francis Collins. Dr. Collins is the founder of the Biologos Foundation, and his view is called "evolutionary creation" or "theistic evolution."  Collins believes in the same foundational Christian doctrines that I do: in the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of Christ as the Son of God, in the authority of Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit.  And the genetic evidence for theistic evolution presented in his book is hard to deny.

So the one obvious thing I have come to see is that it's quite possible for sincere Christians to believe any one of these positions.  So who is right?

I think the most compelling scientific view definitely lies with theistic evolution.  But I am an English graduate from the University of Oregon, and the best way for me to approach the topic is to look at it in terms of one thing I do really feel I have learned well-- how to read and understand a text.

So here's the thing.  Both young-earth and old-earth creationism approach the first two chapters of Genesis as if they are historical/scientific prose about the origins of the universe and of humanity. Young-earth creationism says that each detail should be read according to its most obvious, plain-sense reading, including the "days" as literal 24-hour periods.  Old-earth creationism says that the "days" actually represent periods of time lasting thousands and thousands of years. It says that the passage that says that God made the sun, moon and stars on the fourth day should be understood as God revealing the functions of the sun, moon and stars as they would exist for humankind.  It says the current Cenozoic period is the extended "seventh day" of the creation.  But it still approaches the text as a scientific, historical narrative.

And that is exactly what I can't, as an English graduate, view as the actual genre of these first chapters of Genesis.

I find, in fact, that I agree with Old Testament Theologian Bruce K. Waltke in his article The Literary Genre of Genesis Chapter 1, when in response to the identification of Genesis 1 as a "straightforward historical narrative"  he says, "The text, however, is begging us not to read it that way."

When I look at other portions of Genesis, this is the type of thing I read:
After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram's wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife. (Genesis 16:3)
That's it.  Straightforward prose, recounting events more or less in chronological order.

When I read Chapter 1 of Genesis, however, here's what I see:
Then God said, "Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit after their kind, with seed in them, on the earth; and it was so.  And the earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit, with seed in them, after their kind, and God saw that it was good.  And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.
The italicized parts mark phrases that repeat themselves over and over throughout the text. The two phrases picked out in green mark text that repeats itself within the same section.  The entire chapter works this way.  Each section has a "Then God said," a statement what He is making, then a phrase "and it was so" noting what God has made, followed by a repetitive detail of what was made. Then, each time, God sees that what He has made is good, and we get a repetition of "there was evening and there was morning," denoting a day.

This is not quite poetry, but it is, as Dr. Waltke says, highly stylized, didactic prose, intended not to give a straightforward recounting of events so much as to show the power of God and the order and beauty of His work:
[W]e argue that [this text] cannot give a satisfying scientific account of origins, for it is not scientific literature. . . The Bible is concerned with Ultimate origins ("Where did it all come from?") not scientific questions of proximate origins ("How did A arise out of B, if it did?").  [Also] its language is non-scientific. The account reports the origins of the cosmos phenomenologically, not mathematically or theoretically. . . We come back to [this] genre identification: it is a literary-artistic representation of the creation. To this we add the purpose, namely, to ground the covenant people's worship and life in the Creator, who transformed chaos into cosmos, and their ethics in His created order. [Emphasis added.]  
I also note that as far as the specific things being made, there are three pairings, occurring in two groups.  On the first and fourth days God creates light and the orbs that convey the light. On the second and fifth days God sets apart the "expanses" of the sea and the air, and then makes creatures (birds and fish) that will live in them.  On the third and sixth days God makes the dry land and its vegetation, and then the animals (and finally humans) that will live there.  The whole pattern up to the seventh day goes as follows:
Creation of an element (light)
Creation of an element (air, separated from water)
Creation of an element (land) 
Creation of things for the light (sun, moon, stars)
Creation of things for the air and water
Creation of things for the land
I find this reminds me of the kind of stylized, didactic order shown in parts of the Proverbs, such as in Chapter 2, where the pattern is:
My son, receive my wisdom
Here are the results of my wisdom 
For the Lord gives wisdom
Here are the results of the Lord's wisdom 
They will keep you from the ways of evil
Here are the results of the ways of evil 
So you will walk in the way of the good
Here are the results of doing good
And here are the result of doing evil.
In short, I think the first chapter of Genesis is a kind of didactic prose, similar to but not identical to the opening chapters of Proverbs.  I think it was written for the purpose of revealing the nature of God as Creator, not for the purpose of detailing scientific facts about the processes of our origins.  Dr. Waltke says that "Genre identification depends on a text's contents and function."  By the context and function of Genesis 1, it simply is not in the genre of historical/scientific prose.

Similarly, when I read the second and third chapters of Genesis, here is what I see:
A garden at the source of four great rivers
Two highly symbolic trees: the "tree of life" and the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil"
A serpent that talks
God walking in the garden
A prophetic speech of God (the curse) spoken in the prose style of the Books of the Prophets
I don't actually know of any Christian group that takes all of this literally-- particularly not the talking snake. Based on other biblical texts such as Revelation 20:2, Christians identify the serpent with Satan-- that Satan appeared in the form of a serpent, not that Satan actually is a literal serpent. Similarly, when the text says God "walked" in the garden, most Christians don't take this to mean that God literally has legs like a man.  Christians believe, on the basis of texts like John 4:24, that God is a Spirit, not a big manlike being like the Greek god Zeus.  The walking of God in the cool of the day may mean that God appeared in the form of a man, or it simply may be a metaphor for the Presence and Voice of God moving through the garden.

Since no one knows what kind of fruit a "life" fruit is, or a "knowledge of good and evil" fruit is (it's only tradition that calls it an apple), these trees are meant to be symbols.  Were they also literal trees, somehow bearing these abstract concepts as actual fruit?  I'm not at all sure that we're meant to understand the text that way.

In fact, Genesis 2 and 3 are no more straightforward historical prose than Genesis 1 is.  This second part of the creation text is not stylized didactic prose, but bears more in common with the symbolism of the Book of Revelation, or with the metaphorical language of some of Jesus' teachings ("the tree is known by its fruit" in Matt. 12:33 is not a reference to actual trees) than it does with the straight prose of the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob narratives.

Does this mean there was no actual, real Adam and Eve?  I don't know.  Since both Paul and Jesus speak of Adam and Eve, they may actually have been real people.  They may have been the first humanoid creatures that God chose to bear His image.  Or this may be a true story of the universal human condition, told metaphorically/symbolically (that from the beginning, when free to choose to believe God or believe the serpent, humanity, as one, has ended up choosing the serpent).  In this case Paul and Jesus, understanding that their audiences also understood it symbolically, may have felt free to speak of Adam and Eve according to the truths their story conveyed without needing to mention a shared understanding of the story as non-literal-- in the same way we might speak of Dorothy and the lure of "over the rainbow" today.

You may have a strong conviction one way or the other.  But this is not a primary, foundational doctrine of the faith, so I'm simply going to allow it to remain a mystery in my mind.  Either way, there is certainly a heavy metaphorical/symbolic emphasis in the Adam-and-Eve story. And the intent of the story is manifestly not to give a scientific account of how humanity came to exist on the earth.

I don't think the original audiences, either of the oral or written traditions, thought according to our post-Enlightenment emphasis on fact and procedure.  I think God accommodated His revelation to their mindset, not to ours.  In fact, to insist on reading these stories as scientific explanations of origins is, in a way, enslaving our minds to Enlightenment ways of thought.  Rather than examining the biblical texts according to what they themselves seem to be saying they are, we impose upon them what we believe they ought to be-- and what we think they ought to be is directly determined by the Enlightenment's emphasis on fact and historicity.

According to Dr. Waltke in the article above, "Natural theology and exegetical theology are both hindered by a continued adherence to the epistemic principle that valid scientific theories must be consistent with a woodenly literal reading of Genesis."  In other words, whether our theology focuses on understanding God through the "book of nature" or the "book of scripture," when we make it a rule that the only way we can know either book is according to a strict literal reading of these texts, we keep our thinking inside a very small box and try to drag the limitless God to fit in there with us. And it doesn't really work.

What it all comes down to is that I have come to embrace evolutionary creation, also known as theistic evolution, on the basis of the biblical texts themselves. I think young-earth creationism and old-earth creationism both show too much dependence on Enlightenment mentality to be true to the pre-Enlightenment revelation of God to the pre-Enlightenment original audiences.  The point of these texts is that God created, not how God created-- and this is also the main point of theistic evolution.

Since I also find the evidence for evolution more compelling than the evidence for either young-earth or old-earth creationism, the cognitive dissonance of my college years is resolved.  But my position is based more on how I understand the Bible than on how I understand science.

So to Ken Ham and Bill Nye, I would say this.  This science-faith schism is unfortunate and completely unnecessary.  I hope that in the future we can find the openness-- and the humility-- to move past it.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Fitting In (Or Not)

It seems like I've spent most of my life until recently trying to fit in, and worrying about not fitting in. When I was young, like most kids who aren't into sports, fashion or other aspects of mainstream culture, I looked for alternate groups to belong to-- and found them in high school through band and the speech team, and eventually, in the church.

I remember making fun of the jocks and cheerleaders and student leaders, though never to their faces, of course.  But it made us feel better, as members of the less cool groups, to believe that it was actually the popular kids who were inferior in some way to us.  Human nature, really.

I learned, like many of us did, to adapt myself to the groups I was in, to try to fit in better.  I think that's why, when I joined Maranatha Campus Ministries in college, I ended up going right along with the most of the pressures to conform, even as far as participating in ostracizing former members.  In some ways the real me got lost.  Yet I never could bring myself to be actively unkind or cruel to anyone.  Judgmental, yes.  Passive-aggressive, yes.  But not cruel.

Eventually Maranatha Campus Ministries dissolved, and our church (I was married by this time) became Grace Christian Fellowship.  And Grace Christian really did try to improve in the area of extending grace to all people.  But gradually the expectation reasserted itself that everyone in the group was to have the same vision and be working towards the same overarching purpose, which was to start new churches all over the globe.  And somehow, even though we'd been part of the church for so long, my husband and I just never felt part of that calling.  So we talked to the pastor and moved on, amicably enough.

We had made it through the hard times of authoritarian coercion and spiritual abuse, only to leave when the church finally grew willing to let people leave without hurting them for doing it.  We didn't fit in.  No matter how we'd tried, no matter how much we pretended, we never really had.  Probably that's part of why we married one another!

During the next few years, as my second child grew past toddlerhood and I began to have more time to think and figure out who I was now, I worked on redefining my faith.  We found a new church, an Independent Church of Christ which, while it was involved in missions, focused more on the community we actually lived in.  It attracted us chiefly because the pastors were very up-front about allowing disagreement on all sorts of things, as long as you believed that Jesus was the Christ and had died for your sins and risen from the dead.  Since those were the things we knew we still believed, we were happy to become part of this new group.

Somewhere around 2002 I got really interested in the Internet and online communities.  And though this may seem off-topic (it really isn't), I started reading a graphic novel series called Elfquest, written and drawn by Wendy and Richard Pini.  Elfquest is about a group of woodland elves who manifestly don't fit in to the primitive world of humans where they live.  Though they have found ways to adapt to life as they know it, it becomes gradually clear that they aren't from this place-- and they begin to seek out other lost tribes of elves scattered over the planet, and eventually find the interplanetary vessel they originally arrived in and begin to redefine themselves and their lives in light of that knowledge.

This series somehow got right under my skin and resonated with me like few things ever had.  I joined an Elfquest discussion forum (feeling very odd about doing something so fannish and so outside my Christian comfort zone) and began to interact with people all over the world who, except for their love of this series, simply didn't think the way I did!  I wanted to "do unto them as I would have them do unto me," so I opened my mind and heart to listen and truly hear where they were coming from, to connect with them.  But though I became an integral part of the Elfquest online forum, I never really quite fit in there, either. My monogamous sexual ethics and dislike of erotica were usually looked on as "hang-ups," even though I didn't try to impose them on anyone else.

I think now, looking back on it, that this was my first real foray into doing what Christ said and being "in the world, though not of the world."  Ever since I had become a Christian, I had lived in one insular community or another, rarely (outside of work) ever talking to anyone who wasn't an evangelical Christian.  Now I found there was a lot to learn, a lot of good to be gained, from treating non-Christians as real people and not just targets for evangelizing.

Needless to say, this shoved the redefinition of my faith into high gear as I had to confront issues I'd never really looked at before, talking to people who had strong reasons for being pagan or shamanist or atheist.  Interestingly, as I accepted them for who they were, they accepted me for who I was. They even let me "witness" to them sometimes when I did it respectfully, honoring their right to believe differently than I did.  When their challenges to my beliefs got beyond what I could handle and my faith went into a sort of crisis mode, one of them (an agnostic) kindly directed me to a place that could help me:  the Doxa website and forum.

Doxa helped me find my own way to understand Christianity through the new, more open mindset I had learned to embrace.  I started to look at the Bible differently, as more of a narrative and less of a rule book, as I've already shared extensively on this blog.  However, in many important ways I was, and still am, a child of the evangelical Christianity I first knew.  I'm still an evangelical in the way defined by Jim Wallis over at Sojourner's Online Magazine:
I believe in one God, the centrality and Lordship of God's son Jesus Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, the authority of the scriptures, the saving death of the crucified Christ and his bodily resurrection -- not as a metaphor but a historical event. Yep, the whole nine yards.
And yet because I've gradually become more politically liberal and less in line with certain hot-button evangelical ideas like young-earth creation and complementarianism, I don't fit in very well any more with evangelicalism, and I've come to identify myself as a "post-evangelical." Also, because of Maranatha (as I've discussed before), I still tend to shrink back from full involvement in every aspect of my church.  But I have visited more mainstream churches like Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopal, and have found that my lack of enjoyment of liturgy and ritual, and my foundational evangelical mindset, really kept me from fitting in very well in those churches, either.

What it comes down to is that I've had to reconcile myself to the idea that there's pretty much always going to be some way that I don't fit in.  But another thing I've come to understand is that fitting in isn't really what life is all about.

The New Testament talks about Christians being fitted together as "living stones. . . being built into a spiritual house" (1 Peter 2:5).  It says the church is "the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it." 1 Corinthians 12:27.  But at least some of these passages emphasize, not fitting in, not conformity and sameness, but the differences between the individual parts.
Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 1 Corinthians 12:15-20.
For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly. . .
Romans 12:4-6
 If anything, what I've come to seek in my life isn't to fit in, but simply to be accepted, and to accept others.  As Jenny Lind Schmidt said in Psychology Today, it's quite possible to belong even though you don't fit in-- if your community will accept you as having a valid place among them despite your differences.

I'm grateful for my current church for accepting me, for giving me a place to belong even if I don't fit in.  Though I could look for a place where people tend to think more like I do, I place a huge premium on being in a place where people don't have to think alike.

This is why I identify with Samantha at Defeating the Dragons when she talks about why she stays in a church where she doesn't agree with every policy:
In the church I attend, though, even though I’m a heretic by most Protestant standards (between the universalism-ish and the Pelagianism . . .), and even though I’m a pro-choice Democrat, I can talk about that with the people I go to church with, in my small group and in my theology program, and not face any condemnation or judgment for that. And it’s because, right along with racial diversity, the motto “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” is taken pretty doggone seriously. There are Quiverful families in this church, and there are single working mothers, and there are politics of all stripes, and we all go to church together– and we’re led by people who have no patience for self-righteousness and judgment.
A body with many parts, all different, each valuing the others.  That's what the 12th chapters of Romans and 1 Corinthians are both talking about.  Using 1 Peter 2:5's metaphor, it turns out Jesus can somehow miraculously build a house where the bricks can be fitted together even though they don't fit in the way identical bricks do.

So I don't worry so much about not fitting in any more.  It's enough just to enjoy the journey with my fellow travelers.

Of all kinds, in all combinations.  That's what this beautiful and varied thing called humanity is all about.