Poetry by Donal Mahoney: “Many Years Later When I Meet Her Again”

This week the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review decisions from three federal appeals courts that had overturned state laws banning same-sex marriage in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. By letting these decisions stand, the high court effectively legalized same-sex marriage in these states, and put it on track to be legalized in the other states under the jurisdiction of the 4th, 7th, and 10th Circuit Courts of Appeal. Marriage bans in Colorado, Kansas, North and South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming will probably be invalidated by the Circuit Court rulings. This story from the Pew Research Center lays out the implications.

This news was on our longtime contributor Donal Mahoney’s mind when he shared the following poem with me.

Many Years Later When I Meet Her Again

Many years later when I meet her again
on my way out of the Russian Tea Room
I notice how beautiful she is dining with him,
a man more attentive than I was back then.

But I see chaos dancing in her eyes
and I wonder if she has told him.
I doubt she has since she needed
ten years to tell me.

I accept the offer to join them for dessert,
and when she goes to the powder room,
I have a nice chat with her newest suitor.
He’s as decent as the others have been.

On her return, he leaves to use his cell phone
and that’s when, struggling for words, I say
“If you meet the right one, you can get married
in many states and more are likely to come.”

Christian Blog Roundup: Incarnational Boundaries, Rethinking Outreach, and More

I read Christian blogs and Twitter feeds nearly every day, and periodically email myself the standout articles that give me ideas to write about. Time pressures being what they are, a lot of these ideas hang about in my inbox for months, never quite finding the right occasion for a full post. So here is a links roundup, loosely connected around themes of Christian psychology and the balance between self-care and service.

Maybe We Should Stop ‘Doing Outreach’“: The Rev. Cathie Camaino, an Episcopal priest who blogs as Father Cathie (read her wonderful explanation here), proposes that churches should stop thinking of “service” as organized programs for helping outsiders, and face our fears of sharing our own needs with our fellow members.

“Learning to be vulnerable enough to give and receive is ministry…Engaging with our faith such that it stirs up our compassion, generosity, and courage to be vulnerable is certainly the work of the church. How this happens may not be. It seems that in our congregational life, at least as much energy is put towards the organization and scheduling of ‘outreach’ programs, the recruitment of volunteers, and the promotion of service, than is actually spent doing the work to which we have been called. Maybe the church is not the place to create the programs (which are often duplicated, in much better ways, by other organizations) but the place to ground ourselves in our Christian faith such that we feel the call to serve.”

Incarnational Boundaries“: Progressive evangelical writer Zach J. Hoag contends that our churches would be emotionally healthier if we took Christ’s embodiment more seriously. We become lost in theories and systems, and don’t pay attention to the ways that abusers exploit our simplistic moralism.

“I see Jesus affirming the embodied human experience of that which is emotionally healthy and unhealthy, safe and unsafe. In fact, I see Jesus practicing healthy boundaries in his work with people that reveals the often manipulative, abusive, and harmful ways that people treat each other (which often causes so much emotional and psychological pain and damage). And this Way of Jesus confronts our ideological, neo-gnostic ways as evangelicals.

See, we are very good at creating unsafe environments where harmful and abusive behaviors are explained away using flat theological categories like sin, pride, faith, prayer, love, reconciliation, forgiveness, leadership, headship, submission, etc. Thus,we don’t respond to these behaviors appropriately nor protect those victimized or potentially affected by them. And, these behaviors are often coming from leaders who are protected as those endorsed by God. Further, we often force the value of ‘community’ onto relationships in the church in such a way that puts people in unsafe or even violating situations.

When we interpret Jesus’s words through his Way, however, we see a different picture. Instead of mandated ‘reconciliation’, we see that there can be no grace, and thus no real reconciliation, without the truth. And, though we always pursue and remain passionate about reconciliation, the reality is that the truth just might bring division, not reconnection. (Forgiveness is another matter, as it requires only one party engaging in a process of releasing bitterness toward the offender.) Matthew 18:15-20 describes a process of truth-telling that may result in the offender not hearing – and thereby being deemed unsafe.

If we mandate things simply by looking at the words of Jesus or the Apostles and drawing out ideological categories, then we may very well continue to produce communities of obligation racked with unhealthy dynamics rather than safe, healthy churches. And if the gospel is bringing us to greater wholeness, showing us what it means to be truly human in the Messiah, then an incarnational church will preach and practice the healthy boundaries that Jesus himself embodied.

Kenosis as Pouring Out and Vomiting“: When psychology professor and theologian Richard Beck shared the stage with a trauma expert at a Fuller Theological Seminary lecture series, they explored how the Christian ideal of self-emptying (kenosis) must have a different interpretation for the abused and oppressed, i.e. people whose selves have already been crushed or never allowed to form. Beck proposes:

“…what is being emptied is the hero system–the ways we have internalized social and cultural standards of significance versus insignificance, success versus failure, worthiness versus unworthiness, light versus darkness, pure versus defiled, whole versus damaged. The ‘emptying’ of kenosis is becoming indifferent to, dying to, this hero system…

The only difference is where we find ourselves within the hero system. For many the hero system places us on top. At the top, self-esteem and social respect are easy pickings. But the call of Jesus is to become indifferent to all this.  That is experienced as a ‘descent’ of sorts.

But for others, the hero system places them at the very bottom. And all too often, this is internalized. You feel that you ‘deserve’ to be at the bottom, deserve the abuse. Because you are insignificant, damaged, unworthy, and full of darkness and pollution.

It’s a toxic situation, this internalized self-loathing, but it’s still the hero system. It’s just the opposite pole, the shadow side. The hero system is still the way the self is being evaluated, even if it is full of self-loathing and self-destruction.

So an emptying has to occur. The hero system–that internalized filth and shit–has to be poured out. Vomited out.

Come to think about it now, this is an emptying that, psychologically speaking, looks very much like an exorcism. Demons–destructive psychological/spiritual darkness–are being cast out, emptied out.

White Men, Submission, and the Kingdom of God“: And on a related note, Christian author and blogger Dan J. Brennan expands on a comment by Christian feminist writer Julie Clawson about how the language of “dying to self” can reinforce patriarchy:

“Which man or woman, dealing with self-contempt, dealing with chronic self-contempt, wants a steady diet within their church pulpit and church social media, ‘You must die to self, you must submit your voice to others because we’re all guilty of self-exaltation’?  I myself, deeply wrestled with chronic self-contempt for years and sermonic appeals to trust God, etc. did not help. For years I did not wrestle with Niebuhrian pride. I wrestled with self-contempt, wrestling with shame wondering how God could love me.

Because of my history, I cringe when I see white male leaders so tightly knit death to self with submission in their ecclesiology and spirituality without a healthy understanding that in the 21st century Niebuhrian pride is not all there is to self-understanding. Niebuhrian pride is not a universal experience for all people. It’s probably not even at the heart of most postmoderns. It’s certainly not at the heart of many women and minorities. White male leaders like this can keep good Christian (and nonChristian) therapists with an unending list of clients wrestling with self-contempt.

They can also promote systemic sin as Julie noted.

It’s challenging and heartbreaking when you see good white men with good hearts come to grips with their genuine Niebuhrian pride and then they want to universalize it for everyone else in their sermons, tweets, and social media.

Read Brennan’s follow-up post here.

The Priesthood of All Survivors

I’m having doubts about my place in the church.

As I overcome trauma-induced beliefs that made me fear direct communication with God, I have less need for a giant mediating structure to serve as a lightning rod. As I gain confidence in my own perceptions, and in the availability of forgiveness for my faults, I have less need for sermons saying how everyone “should” feel and act.

I still long for a community centered on Christ. I want to give and receive the support, spiritual insight, and deep friendship that a shared faith journey can offer.

However, as I work towards higher levels of psychological integration and adulthood, I have to be part of a community that’s consciously working the same program. As I choose to break familial patterns of nonconsensual intimacy, I have to be part of a community that’s organized by consent and choice, not guilt-tripping the unchurched.

Such a community doesn’t form spontaneously in every group of people that calls itself a parish. It either has to be steered in that direction by an insightful pastor who is willing to yield power to the laypeople, or assembled outside church walls by the individuals who need it.

C.S. Lewis once wrote that the local parish, precisely because of its randomness, teaches the spiritual discipline of learning to share fellowship with people for whom you feel no natural affinity. This is an important practice, but I think he was wrong that a person’s hand-picked circle of spiritual friends is more likely to be a group of yes-men than the traditional church. Intentional communities can be diverse if they make a commitment to be so. (See, for example, the Freedom Circles at the Becoming Church program that I visited this spring.) Plus, there is a difference between the fruitful discomfort of listening to people outside your own race, social class, etc., and the pain of being a survivor in a church that doesn’t prioritize relational safety.

What about the sacraments? My mystical, physical union with Jesus in the Eucharist is my strongest reason for choosing church attendance over quiet reflection with Morning Prayer on my iPhone. When I see my fellow parishioners approach the altar rail, our relationship becomes solemnized, revealing a dimension of interconnection beyond ordinary acquaintance. I sense the possibility of the Body of Christ. It isn’t something I can access in solitude.

Surely the official church still has a monopoly on this power…or does it?

Feminist Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether wrote the following in her book Sexism and God-Talk (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983).

The residue of clericalism gives even liberal Protestants the impression that the administration of the sacraments is a function that most especially must be exercised by persons set aside in specialized ministry. But, in fact, representation of the community in rites of baptism, forgiveness, or Eucharist depends very little on specialized skills of learning. It is significant that the New Testament contains many words for special charisms and skills, but that they are not identified with special offices responsible for the sacraments of baptism or Eucharist…

…[As] people become empowered to make their contribution to shaping the worship life of the community… leadership does not disappear but assumes its true functionality when it is liberated from clerical monopoly over ministry, word, and sacrament. Leadership is called forth from within the community rather than imposed on it in a way that deprives the community of its own self-articulation. (pgs. 209-10)

This radically Protestant idea had never occurred to me. I set it aside as a memorable curiosity for several years, until now, when I realize I need a healthier reason to stay than “Where else can I go?”

Codependence taints the American church’s strategies for retaining members. A quote popped up in my Twitter feed from a progressive evangelical blogger. On the Internet, I’ve seen it variously attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, Chuck Swindell, and Chuck Colson. “The church is a lot like Noah’s ark. If it weren’t for the storm outside, you couldn’t stand the stink inside.

As a relationship move, this is like telling your wife, “Go ahead and try to leave. You couldn’t make it on your own.” It’s a counsel of despair, casting would-be reformers within the church as whiny children who won’t accept that life isn’t perfect. Actual children, to survive, have to convince themselves that the “stink” of their dysfunctional families is better on balance than the “storm” of an outside world where they’re not yet capable of living independently. But we’re adults now. “The world” is us. A church held together by fear and shame can never help its members recognize toxic interpersonal patterns in their own lives.

When I first became a Christian, I was a young woman fighting for the right to marry and leave my abusive home. I resonated with the church’s self-presentation as a tiny raft of stability adrift in an ocean of danger. When Christianity told me that human beings were helpless and sinful, I was relieved, because that was how I felt all the time. It was validating to be able to admit my imperfections to a supportive community, not like my home where any flaw would be pounced upon. Like my mother, the traditional church faced the fact that the world is full of bullies, sexual predators, and plagues of locusts–which is true, up to a point. The church promised safety without isolation, a huge step up from my life before.

So my disillusionment with church makes me feel very guilty and sad. I feel like I’m abandoning the institution that helped me reach escape velocity from my biological family. But this, too, is part of growing up. In Buddhist teacher Phillip Moffitt’s essay “Healing Your Mother (or Father) Wound“, he speaks of initiation as the fourth and final stage that good parent figures must complete, to release their protégés into adulthood with a blessing.

I’m reminded of Ray Bradbury’s short story “Jack-in-the-Box“, where a paranoid mother creates an elaborate ruse to convince her son that their house is, in fact, the entire world. When a crisis forces him to venture outside, he at first thinks that he must be dead:

Everything before him was new. Odors filled his nostrils, colors, odd shapes, incredible sizes filled his eyes.

If I run beyond the trees I’ll die, he thought, for that’s what Mother said. You’ll die, you’ll die.

But what’s dying? Another room? A blue room, a green room, far larger than all the rooms that ever were! But where’s the key? There, far ahead, a great half-open iron door, a wrought-iron gate. Beyond a room as large as the sky, all colored green with trees and grass! Oh, Mother, Teacher…

The story ends with a policeman bemusedly describing the strange kid who just ran past him.

“…He was laughing and crying, crying and laughing, both. He was jumping up and down and touching things. Things like lampposts, the telephone poles, fire hydrants, dogs, people. Things like sidewalks, fences, gates, cars, plateglass windows, barber poles. Hell, he even grabbed hold and looked at me, and looked at the sky, you should have seen the tears, and all the time he kept yelling and yelling something funny.”

“What did he yell?” asked the pedestrian.

“He kept yelling, ‘I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m glad I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m glad I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, it’s good to be dead!'” The policeman scratched his chin slowly. “One of them new kid games, I guess.”

He who loses his life will find it…

 

New Poems by Conway: “City Elegy VII & VIII”

My prison pen pal “Conway”, who is serving 25-to-life for a nonviolent offense under California’s now-repealed three-strikes law, continues to work on his “City Elegies” series while awaiting a hearing on his early release petition. Like a man on a desert island, he has been knocked down to the bare minimum of possessions following transfer to another holding facility. His survival library includes the collected works of Shakespeare, Raymond Chandler, Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry, Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power, and Dag Hammarskjold’s Markings, which has become his personal bible. These poems find him reflecting on the passage of time and lessons learned in captivity.

City Elegy VII

As I stand here, ready to be judged…
All of me has been searched and prodded, so often–
that no place on this body remains a secret.

Dreaming of a fair future…
In the dark vault of the skull; (beyond prying eyes.)
It is difficult to picture a future without locks, or
a true mattress under my spine.
Yet, even an abused child, no matter how bullied or beaten–
in life, still clings to the dream of justice.
The hours sneak past, without favor, or concern.
With an unreserved acceptance for life, my faith
is a state of mind.

Twisted up in barbed wire, obeying the corridors’ mood…
Where guntowers encircle the perimeter, like hands tangled
in thorns, lifted to the sky in prayer.
Cages lined up, like pews before the pulpit.
If I bow, will it still feel as if my head
has been pushed down, forced?

Where amber lights glare at each other across the yard,
searching cold hard dayrooms.
Topaz eyes with no face, or mouth.
Nowhere to scowl but down,
frown at the graffiti of lost souls left behind.
Who dares to mark their name on walls they have passed?

Where concrete halls wrap around us all…
listening for a door to open, a door way beyond
every other door.
It is not louder, or colored differently.
But, it makes a different sound; a spiritual melody–
you’d recognize, like the transparent depth of wide open skies.
If you don’t anticipate any other muted hush,
your future requires you to hear this sound.
This door is quicker than a six second quarter mile,
heavier than a mortician’s smile. It gathers momentum,
echoing down the tiers, then blindly disappears.
Blindly disappears; like a fragrant smell in your ears.

Silent as a shadow leaning against a a wall…
I huddle in a corner, where the door can be
slammed in your face, enough times–
to convince the most stubborn of people.
I was late to understand.
There may never have even been a door, or
to kick your own exit through the wall.
But, if you’ve made it through.
It is best that you swear, you were never
even there.

Still, I ride on;
Day upon day, and night in my mind…

****
City Elegy VIII

Once again, day has passed away as days always do: murdered, by the slowdragging schedule,
which has been sentenced to my own wreckless past…

The sky has become a ghost. Numbered day after day…
Shackled up, and then put back away, for another lesson in patient discretion.
Years came and went, disappeared with slow eyed surprise.
Rumor, whittled away from the nonsense, laid things at my door.
I restrained the urge to check some chins on a few established figureheads,
content yet careful in their mediocre claims.
Myth, and my own creation, built this unknown obligation.

Born sometime along this line, where odd-old places flutter back and forth…
Wasting time tugging on fate’s vast web, and once again shivering in nearly-naked privateness.
Opposed to this familiar stonewall. Monotonous square-footed center, of times
shouted Quack!

Cheered by the sudden slap of dusk: Because it is what most others dread. (The shadow.)
The Shadow plays fair. None is innocent among the convicted. The raw moments of solitude,
are time’s savage instinct. Time stops for neither instinct, nor episode,
as another calendar drifts past.

As this swirling harvest inhales its latest issue, of rusted ventilation dust…
A new dawn, or illusion of such. Struck suddenly kicking the teeth out of another skyless night.
What passes for air, being captured from somewhere, amongst the fumes of circulation,
(inside this whirling frazzle of souls)
wrenched a stench so foul, that I’ve not been able to shake it loose
from my nose hairs to this very day.

In the pursuit to escape this meaningless existence, without the feeling of shame…
I stay prepared for unexpected company. (you might say)
Bringing along a false hope. So they, can take it, all-back-away.
Until this preparation exposes its last heavy locked door on my horizon.
If I pass through, I will have but one debt left on this
primitive soul. A redemption only God can know.

My time, my prayers, spin the rhythm, while a lost forgotten song
with its on and on, hums along in my head…
I must pay attention to the sound, document what’s goin’ down,
as I swiftly walk away from the possession of this prison.
Into an everywhere and anywhere, that can be salvaged from
a future of, whatever might possibly be.

What a righteous purpose I must learn, to earn…

(The song is called Albatross.)

Why Believe in a Need-less God?

Televangelist Victoria Osteen took some flak in the Christian blogosphere last week for a video clip where she says that we should worship God and do good because it makes us happy, and God wants us to be happy. Osteen and her husband Joel are regular targets of critique from other evangelicals who say their message is too upbeat, sin-free, and self-serving. In response, Eric Reitan, a progressive Christian philosopher whose work I admire, wrote this post suggesting that Osteen (in her simplistic way) was putting forth a legitimate Aristotelian theory of true happiness as being in harmony with virtue, as compared to the Kantian view that we’re only virtuous when we act from pure obedience and ignore our own happiness.

I’m Team Aristotle all the way, but that’s another post. What struck me, this time, was that Reitan, Osteen, and probably most of her conservative critics share the common assumption that God does not need anything from humanity. I often hear it said that prayer is for our benefit, not God’s. On this point, evangelicals who emphasize God’s sovereign perfection find common ground with liberal Christians who have trouble believing that prayer could supernaturally alter the course of events. Here’s Reitan’s characteristically clear restatement of this widespread doctrine (boldface emphasis mine):

Here’s what I think Victoria Osteen gets right: When you worship and obey God, you aren’t doing it for God. Doing it for God’s sake makes no sense, because the infinite creator of the universe doesn’t need anything from us in order to be fulfilled. God doesn’t need to be glorified by us, as if God is somehow diminished by failing to be properly fawned over. If there is a need here, it’s our need. We can’t be fully actualized human beings if our priorities are wrong…

…On Christian metaphysics, Victoria Osteen is exactly right when she says we don’t worship and glorify God for God’s sake. We do it for our own. God needs nothing from us, least of all our worship. But if we think God is worthy of worship, then failing to worship God displays a disorder in our value system that will compromise our ability to love others and find joy in life. And if God is the infinite source of value, then connecting with God in worship becomes a way of communing with the good, of letting it enter into us, in a self-actualizing way.

I believe that the boldfaced statements above seriously overstate the case. It’s a leap from “God doesn’t need Hir ego stroked”* to “God doesn’t need anything from us.” This doctrine, which we take for granted as orthodoxy, has hidden negative political and pastoral consequences. Because of what I’ve learned from feminist and disability theology, I am compelled to question the equating of “need” with weakness, imperfection, or immature egotism.

*(I’m trying out the gender-neutral pronouns “zie” and “hir” to refer to God, rather than locutions like “Godself” which I find awkward. Respectful feedback welcomed.)

My analysis is indebted to the philosopher Sara N. Ahmed, who blogs at Feminist Killjoys. Ahmed’s posts often riff on a word that has been negatively applied to a marginalized group, teasing out its complexities with a poetic technique of free association, and turning it on its head to ask whether the shunned trait is properly attributed to the person who “fails” to fit, or the social environment that fails to be welcoming. See, for instance, her thoughts on fragility, imposition, and how a person becomes classified as a stranger.

Though human psychological categories only capture one aspect of the infinite God, we Christians have been invited to relate to God in human terms through the Incarnation. Any concept of a personal God contains value-judgments about the best kind of person to be. These judgments then affect how we treat people who seem different from that ideal. (For instance, the mainstream depiction of God as white and male reinforces some Christians’ sexism and imperialism.) That’s why I think it’s legitimate to ask whether a God without any needs would be a good Person to love, or be loved by.

Where does it come from, this idea of strength as not-needing? What kind of relationship can one have with a Being whose superiority is defined thus?

The need-less God doctrine is partly a product of classical Greek philosophy, in which an entity that is changeless is considered more perfect than one that changes, and an un-caused entity is more perfect than one that is contingent or dependent. However, the Christian’s “personal relationship with God” was not part of this philosophy. These ancient thinkers were looking for a nobler and more mature alternative to the anthropomorphized Greek gods, who were petty, ego-driven, and lustful.

Centuries later, Enlightenment philosophers levelled the same charge against the Old Testament God. To modern people in a pluralistic society, Yahweh’s smiting of Baal-worshippers doesn’t make sense. We are, or should be, burdened by the memory of genocides that claimed Biblical justification. So we read these stories and only see an insecure tyrant. This is the argument that Reitan references when he says God doesn’t need to be fawned over. Reitan wants to salvage the Biblical God by placing Hir above human foibles.

But narcissistic needs are not the only needs. Not-needing, in fact, can be just as egotistical. Imagine God as a parent–something the Bible encourages us to do. “Here, Daddy, I painted you a picture.” “Thanks, but I didn’t need that.” What a cold response to our heartfelt offerings. God is already perfectly fulfilled without any gift from us. Some of you may know what it’s like to have a parent like that. It doesn’t lead to a life of freedom and grace. It breeds perfectionism and self-doubt. Another variation is the caretaker personality who always has to be the giver, not the receiver, because pleasing others is a way to stay in control.

Equality is not necessary for a healthy relationship (e.g. parent-child, God-human), but mutuality is. If our acts of worship are not fulfilling to God as well as to us, the relational aspect fades and the very presence of God becomes needless, a mental placeholder, a merely theoretical component of our religious practices.

As an activist for trauma-informed care in the church environment, I come up against need-shaming all the time. Like any minority group seeking inclusion, our concerns get dismissed as “special needs”. This formulation assumes there is a normal way to navigate the world and I am demanding an exception. In fact, “the world” is just one possible arrangement that works acceptably for the current majority who have a voice in the system. To not have needs, or not be perceived as having needs, or not have to meet your needs in a way that involves other people–is this really a virtue of self-sufficiency or unselfishness, or is it mainly good luck that you have the kind of needs that are met by your environment?

The church will never truly resist domination by the “special needs” paradigm until we stop need-shaming God. We stigmatize each other’s dependence and vulnerability when we recoil in horror at the idea that God could ever experience these states with respect to us.

And yet, the crucified Christ hangs on our wall.

Jesus was needy and vulnerable from his birth as a human baby to his death on a cross. We often talk about this episode in the life of God as though it was temporary, like a journalist slumming among the homeless to show solidarity and gather information. The wounds of the risen Christ tell a different story. What if everything we fear about “neediness” was really an eternal part of God’s essence?

I think mainstream theology is wrong both about what God would need (if Zie needed anything), and what happens when God’s needs aren’t met.

As for the “what”, the prophet Micah said it succinctly: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. We’re just not used to thinking of these as needs, as well as commands. But a loving God would feel pained, would be diminished, when we don’t act lovingly ourselves. In Matthew 25, Jesus puts himself in the position of the beggar: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” He has to spell it out for the disciples because they can’t imagine seeing the Messiah sick or hungry or in prison.

And what actually happens when God’s needs aren’t met? Does Zie have a narcissistic tantrum and kill lots of innocent bystanders? Well, the Book of Judges might give that impression, but there the real problem is the primitive feudal concept of what God needs, as well as the unskillful means. Or does Zie collapse into a big pile of weepy tissues, leaving no one in charge of the universe? (God is a girl, she’s only a girl…)

These are the two hurtful stereotypes that come up when survivors advocate for our own needs. We are made to appear simultaneously tyrannical and weak. In reality, people who face their own pain and take care of it are the most self-sufficient and safe people to have in your community.

Instead of need-shaming, let’s imagine that God feels pain and lack because of human sin, and still carries on with love, strength, equanimity, and nonviolence–just like a trauma survivor who’s doing her healing work.

Summer Reads: Some Gay Romances

One perk of having a Kindle is the unlimited supply of M/M romance e-books that I can now enjoy, free from concerns about privacy and shelf space. I’ve read a couple of standouts that I’ll discuss below, and meanwhile have been thinking about some peculiarities of the genre.

I was never really a fan of hetero romance novels–I didn’t look anything like the girls on the covers, and more importantly, I wasn’t attracted to the kind of meaty alpha males who conquer these ladies with a blast of pheromones. I don’t relate to the genre’s near-universal construction of female sexual response as surrender, or the notion that falling in love happens on an instinctual level where chemistry overpowers rational free choice.

I’d guess that this critique resonates with the large population of semi-straight women, like me, who read and write stories about two men in love. Besides our simple enjoyment of the male anatomy, maybe we’re looking for alternatives to the genre’s traditional gender hierarchies. We might appreciate some fantasies where we’re just spectators, not worrying how we measure up to the leading lady.

Gay men in love, at least in theory, have the opportunity to meet each other as equals. Because homophobia is often one of the obstacles to their eventual happy ending, the characters are compelled to be more reflective about the nature of desire–how do they know what their “real” feelings are, and how much weight should they give to eros compared to other moral and social values? Not all M/M romances allow political consciousness to intrude, but the best ones, in my opinion, allow it to deepen the story.

The funny thing is, though, that M/M frequently carries over some of the weird patriarchal themes of the old bodice-rippers. Our imaginations are so thoroughly conditioned that we don’t take full advantage of the genre’s potential for gender liberation.

I first noticed this phenomenon in yaoi, the Japanese manga subgenre also known as “boys’ love”. These romance comics featuring male couples are primarily written by and marketed to women. However, the gender hierarchy is alive and well. There are generally clearly delineated “top” (seme) and “bottom” (uke) characters, with the latter being drawn as a more effeminate or androgynous youth. In fact, sometimes the uke is literally a teen boy involved with an adult man, which echoes another problematic theme of traditional romance fiction–the borderline non-consensual sex that the victim winds up enjoying.

Among the yaoi books I’ve read so far, Tetuzoh Okadaya’s The Man of Tango distinguished itself because both partners are depicted as adult men who switch roles, in bed and out, mutually guiding one another to open up new dimensions of themselves. As for the sex, let me just say that this book was sold in a sealed shrink-wrap and totally lived up to it.

Okadaya’s fellows also have a close female friend who is a sympathetic, three-dimensional character. The same cannot be said for a lot of works in this category, such as Youka Nitta’s hot but silly Embracing Love 1 & 2, about male porn stars who go gay for each other. Too often, women in M/M are either absent or mere foils for the men. They’re needy girlfriends, cold ex-wives, or disposable sex-dolls, who only enter the narrative to prove the male character’s virility and the inadequacy of the relationships preceding the male leads’ pairing. Considering that women are in charge of this genre, why are we building “GIRLZ KEEP OUT!” clubhouses for our sexy boys?

This brings me to another odd trope of gay romance, so common that it has its own acronym: GFY, or “gay for you”. (My mom-of-choice, who has become an expert on foreign lesbian soap operas on the Internet, reports that it’s all over the place in girl-girl plots too.) A typical romance pairs an experienced, comfortably out gay person with a partner who has never had a same-sex lover. The more plausible books (relatively speaking) at least set up some backstory that the GFY had previous gay desires but didn’t act on them because of spiritual conflict, social pressure, or trauma.

In Jamie Fessenden’s amazing Billy’s Bones, for example, the man exploring his first adult same-sex relationship is alienated from his own sexuality because of repressed memories of child abuse. Not only doesn’t he know what he wants, he doesn’t remember what he’s already done. His partner, a therapist, has to learn how to support his recovery without caretaking and controlling him. The result is a genuinely egalitarian partnership between adults. I can’t say enough good things about this book’s responsible, well-informed, and compassionate treatment of a topic that is usually sensationalized or shrouded in denial. Check out Jamie’s blog for insightful discussion of love between men, in books and real life.

Another beautiful novel, Tim Bairstow’s The Shadow of Your Wings, explores the mentor-novice theme via a love triangle among three men with a fraught relationship to the Church of England. (The book takes place in England in the 1990s, when gay priests had to be celibate, although straight priests could get married.) Jack is an elderly monk whose life has been warped by repression of his same-sex attractions. He becomes obsessed with Felix, a beautiful, virginal youth who is staying at the monastery to prepare for ordination to the priesthood. Felix has never dared to act on his sexual orientation. The third player is Jonas, the groundskeeper, a savvy young man who loves Felix and helps him see through Jack’s spiritual manipulations. This book is not heavy on the sex; it spends far more time mapping the emotional terrain of love, self-knowledge, and spiritual awakening. A must-read for theology nerds everywhere.

Felix’s loss-of-virginity plotline, the GFY trope, and the plethora of coming-out stories in M/M made me reflect on how a romance novel establishes that the central relationship is “special”. Here, too, I smell the lingering influence of purity-based morality from traditional heterosexual norms.

Romantic convention provides two main tracks for setting up this specialness, both of which I find problematic. The more experienced partner (the male in hetero romance) has had a lot of meaningless flings, but now he’s going to behave better because he’s found The One. (E.g. Jonas in Shadow, Angie in Man of Tango.) The less experienced partner is letting down his defenses for the first time because he’s found The One.

In hetero storylines, I call this the “not like other girls” delusion–an actual quote from high school stud Jake’s pursuit of virginal Marley on the TV show Glee, which consciously referenced John Travolta’s pursuit of “Sandra Dee, lousy with virginity” in the musical Grease. In both cases, he tries a little harder not to be a dick because she is purer than other girls, not because…uh, every girl should be respected? Being a dick is bad? In real life, this is not a man who is ready for a healthy relationship. He hasn’t done any of the inner work to transition from pick-up artist to husband. The clever but frustrating Steve Carell rom-com Crazy Stupid Love makes this point, but then throws it away in the interest of tying up all the plotlines with a happy ending.

“The right person will change you” is apparently very deep-rooted in the romance genre, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. While I enjoy these books, I think it’s disappointing that gay men (and their female fans) aren’t given more role models for relationships between two sexually experienced, mature adults.

Then again, my sample is limited. More research is needed. Gee, is it getting hot in here…?

On Finishing (Sort of) the Endless Novel

Dear readers, join me in the happy dance:

I HAVE FINISHED* THE ENDLESS NOVEL**.

(*a good major revision of)

(**Book One of Two in the series)

 

Paraphrasing French author Paul Valéry, the poet W.H. Auden famously observed that “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” This quote sticks in my mind as I sort through my many feelings and questions about reaching this milestone in the writing process. Questions like: Do I have the right to say it’s “finished” when I know there will be more edits from my critique readers and my (as yet hypothetical) publisher? Can I celebrate publicly even though someone is sure to find imperfections in the manuscript? I keep expecting someone to spring out from behind a tree and taunt “Ha-ha!” like the bully Nelson in “The Simpsons”. How could you ever imagine this was good enough? Who do you think you are?

Rather than “abandoned”, I like the word “released”. This manuscript is ready to be given a little freedom to fend for itself, like my son going off to preschool next month. In both cases, the freedom is carefully bounded. A two-year-old by himself can’t choose trustworthy companions and roam the neighborhood with them. I have to select an environment that looks safe, stay involved, remain grounded in my own authority, and pray for the best. Similarly, I think that a fledgling manuscript needs to meet the world in stages, not all at once. I’m taking the advice that I give to aspiring authors all the time: choose only a few critique readers, selected for their sympathy to your style of work and their ability to give ego-free feedback, and remember that you are the ultimate authority on what feels right.

This is counterintuitive advice in a culture where we’re accustomed to ranking everything on the Internet. Much has already been written about how the Facebook “Like” button flattens and trivializes our responses to the world on our screens. This single option is supposed to be an equally adequate reaction to a funny cat picture and a news story about police brutality. Plus, social media’s built-in expectations of “liking”, re-tweeting, pinning, and voting can give us a false sense of entitlement to judge others.

I got a Kindle Paperwhite for my birthday, which I like very much, but every time I finish a book, it invites me to rate it from one to five stars on Amazon. Online reviews are very useful–sometimes more entertaining reading than the book itself–but the star system, standing alone, has begun to strike me as absurd. What does it even mean to rank The Goldfinch and an upright vacuum cleaner according to the same metric?

The Buddha spoke of the Eight Worldly Winds: pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, and ill-repute and fame. The enlightened person seeks equanimity no matter which wind is blowing, not being tossed about by every change in circumstance. Her self-concept is larger and more flexible than any one instance of praise or blame, for example.

For a quick exercise in equanimity, check out the Amazon or Goodreads reviews of any book that you really loved or really hated. You’ll find equally passionate one-star and five-star reviews, sometimes based on the same exact thing about the book.

So I am going to celebrate, and have faith that my book will reach the right people at the right time. And always support it with a mother’s love, even if it poops its pants on picture day.

An Un-Chosen Person: My Jewish Way of Being Christian

A few weeks ago, I forwarded an article on the New Atheism to a longtime friend with the message, “This seemed like something you would appreciate, as a historian and ex-Christian!” My friend is a scholar of the history of science and its intersection with religion and politics. He grew up in the evangelical heartland but is highly critical of its beliefs and emotional dynamics. He replied:

“How could I claim to be an ex-Christian after I was indoctrinated to be a Protestant fundamentalist and have spent most of my life in Christian circles and societies? Only by defining a Christian abstractly and intellectually as an adherent of certain doctrines would it be possible to say I’m not a Christian, i.e. that I do not or no longer subscribe to a certain creed or screed of metaphysics. Sociologically, ethically and even to some extent intellectually, how could I be other than a Christian? The same can be asked of you, Adam [my now-Buddhist husband] and all my atheist Jewish friends in relation to a different religious heritage—how could y’all not be Jews (whatever else you may also be)?”

This brilliant, unexpected twist on self-definition set me wrestling once again with my complex feelings about my heritage. Even calling Judaism a “heritage” is difficult for me for two reasons. For one, I was not raised Jewishly enough to fit in and follow along when I tried to take up Jewish observance in my early 20s. I didn’t have the shared memories of youth camps, ethnic recipes, rites of passage, or the general sense of unquestioned membership in an extended family. I was like an adoptee who goes back to her birth country, only to find that she’s too Americanized to blend in with the people who look like her.

The second reason for my unease relates to the blending of religion and ancestry. I chafe against the implication that I’m not allowed to discover my own religious worldview, the one that solves the problems of my life. “Heritage” suggests that my parents’ and grandparents’ beliefs are the filter I must see through, or the weight that I’m obligated to carry on my journey. It gives other people the right to intrude on my most private and sacred relationship (with God), simply because I share their genetic material.

And yet, ironically, this objection is so powerful for me because of my psychological heritage as the child of a narcissist. A freethinking narcissist, to boot, who didn’t expose me to synagogue and Hebrew school because she’d found those institutions oppressive and lifeless during her own youth. My bio mother was “spiritual but not religious” before it was cool.

She also got me a passport when I was born, to escape to Israel if America ever turned against the Jews. She told the story of FDR refusing to accept boats of refugees from the Holocaust. She said Jews were outstanding in society because we valued education, debate, and questioning.

I have strong emotions about the endless conflict in Israel but no useful insights, so let’s leave that topic aside. If I have anything like a Jewish identity that I’ve taken into my Christian life, it consists of this outsider consciousness and the spirit of free inquiry that was formative in my upbringing. Because Jesus was Jewish, too, it seems like a legitimate perspective from which to critique the authoritarian and unworldly features of Gentile Christianity that cause me so much distress.

For instance, when I feel the dead hand of the past suffocating me in debates about Biblical inerrancy, I recall the Talmudic story (Baba Metzia 59b) where two factions of rabbis are debating a point of kosher law. One group successfully calls on God to do miracles as a sign that their position is correct. But the other group wins the day by countering that the Torah is on earth, not in heaven. Having given the law to humankind, God has to step aside and let us figure it out! Delightfully, the story ends with God laughing that his children have bested him.

Going back to my scholarly friend’s distinction between identity and beliefs, I also think often of the Jewish emphasis on spiritual practices when I become angry or frightened at the Bible passages in my daily prayer liturgy. Not to put my situation on a par with his, but I take comfort in Elie Wiesel’s anecdote from Auschwitz, where the prisoners put God on trial and found him guilty…then said the regular evening prayer.

The phrases, images, and rituals of the Book of Common Prayer are part of me at a level deeper than agreement or disagreement. Sometimes that makes me feel helpless. I chose to become a Christian, it’s true, but I was also responding to the fact that Christianity was already a part of me, through immersion in Western sacred art and music. Who can explain why my family’s trove of Jewish-American literature and Isaac Singer folktales didn’t speak to me so personally? Was my conversion a response to God’s call, an assimilationist desire to break my family’s isolation, a rebellion against an overbearing parent? Perhaps it only matters because the abused child in me is still desperate for freedom, triggered by the idea that an all-powerful being would initiate a relationship with me. Was I ever free to refuse consent?

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door…” (Rev. 3:20)

At the end of all this reasoning, I don’t genuinely doubt that Christianity was where God wanted me to be when I converted. Do I still belong there? I’m going to pray my way into the next step. My (Jewish) Jesus likes people who keep asking questions.

Two Poems from Ruth Thompson’s “Woman with Crows”

Of the numerous poetry books I’ve read this year, Ruth Thompson’s Woman with Crows (Saddle Road Press, 2013) is the most personally meaningful to me. I just turned 42, undeniably middle-aged, and my son starts preschool this fall. All around me, it seems, are warnings and laments that youth is fleeting, and we must cling to each moment lest it pass us by unnoticed. Woman with Crows is an antidote to fear.

This poetry collection, earthy yet mythical, celebrates the spiritual wisdom of the Crone, the woman with crows (and crows’ feet). Because of her conscious kinship with nature, the speaker of these poems embraces the changes that our artificial culture has taught us to dread. Fatness recurs as a revolutionary symbol of joy: a woman’s body is not her enemy, and scarcity is not the deepest truth. For her, the unraveling of memory and the shedding of possessions are not a story of decline but a fairy tale of transformation. One could say that, like Peter Pan, she expects that death will be a very big adventure!

If this all sounds terribly sentimental and “uplifting”, don’t worry. She’s not a sweet, neutered old granny. There are fireworks here, and snakes, and “ooze shining and blooming and with sex in it.”

Ruth has kindly allowed me to reprint the poems below. “Fat Time” was first published in New Millennium Writings as the winner of their 2007 poetry prize. Visit her website for more great work.

Fat Time

Under purest ultramarine the raised
goblets of trees overrun with gold.
We should be reeling drunk and portly as groundhogs
through these windfalls of russet, citron, bronze, chartreuse.

Everywhere color pools like butter, like oil of ripe nuts,
like piles of oranges under a striped tent.

Oh, let us be greedy of eyeball,
pigs scuffling in this gorgeous swill!
Let us cud this day
and spend the winter ruminant.

Let us write fat poems, and be careless.

Let us go bumbling about in wonder, legs
coated with goldenrod and smelling of acorns.

Let us be unctuous with scarlet and marigold,
larder them here, behind our foreheads
to glow in the brain’s lamps
in the time of need.

Each tree a sun!
Let us throw away caution,
emblazon our retinas
with the flare and flame of it

so that in the unleavened winter
this vermilion spill, this skyfall,
these oils of tangerine, smears of ochre and maroon
will heat a spare poem, dazzle the eye’s window,
feed us like holy deer on the blank canvas of snow.

****

Travel Instructions for Elmwood Avenue

You leave the sepia light of the tea restaurant,
lapsang and peony, earth and green twig,
continuo of quiet human voices.

Outside is rain, fat frying, damp exhaust, sputum,
spit of tires on a wet street, brakes tuned
to the pulse of streetlights: green, amber, red, green.

You blunder, glasses fringed with rainbows,
until your own hands swim out before you—
greeny in the headlights, strange as ectoplasm.

Light laps from shattered planes of reflection,
emerges and re-emerges from sheeting brilliance.
Dimension becomes dimension, a turned fan.

Now darkness hums like a bowed string,
anchored somewhere you cannot see,
one end floating here in the spinning world

and what has always sung from around the corner
is no longer apart from you—
it is here, upon you—that blaze of tenderness!

Religious Rights and the Common Good

I grew up in a high-rise on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The dominant group in our micro-neighborhood were Orthodox Jews, though there were also numerous Hispanic families and some Irish, Asian, and liberal Jewish folks (like my family). Our building had 20 floors with seven or eight apartments each. Many modern Orthodox Jews interpret the prohibition on lighting a fire on Shabbat to forbid activating electrical devices. You may have heard of the tradition of the “Sabbath goy”, the non-Jewish person who helps his Jewish neighbor by turning on her light switch or oven on Friday night. In our building, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, one of our two elevators was set to run continuously, stopping at every floor on the way up and the way down, so that observant Jews wouldn’t have to push the buttons.

This arrangement irritated me, perhaps unreasonably. It’s hard to separate my judgment from my general feeling that the Orthodox in our neighborhood acted superior and unfriendly to those outside their tribe. (See, for instance, the recent New York Times exposé on how Rep. Sheldon Silver and his Orthodox supporters blocked low-income housing for Hispanic families for 40 years.)

The Sabbath goy routine, legal fiction though it be, potentially builds interfaith friendships. It might foster gratitude for the kindness of strangers, and awareness of one’s dependence on the goodwill of others. The Sabbath elevator imposed that role on all of us without asking. The impact on the environment could be considered selfish as well, though maybe they offset their carbon footprint by not driving cars on Shabbat. A longer wait for the elevator on Friday night is a relatively minor imposition, but symbolically, it felt like a statement that some people thought they were more important than their neighbors.

On the other hand, every accommodation of someone’s rights may come at a cost to someone else. My church is undertaking a major capital campaign to make the building handicapped-accessible. We also hire a sign language interpreter for every 10 AM service. A skeptic could say that’s money being taken from “the rest of us” to benefit “a few”. However, we recognize that the space and priorities that we may have considered normal are designed to benefit the majority and ignore others, and that’s not acceptable for a community whose motto is “Given to Hospitality”. The Orthodox in my old building may have felt marginalized and handicapped in the wider society, where they had to work hard every day to maintain their purity boundaries. They wanted one place where they would have the privilege of not thinking about how to get from point A to point B.

The complex power dynamics of the Sabbath elevator are on my mind because of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling on religious exemptions for employers, which I blogged about in my last post. We’ve reached a peculiar juncture in Free Exercise Clause law, where the right to do something religious has morphed into the right to make someone else do something, for religious reasons. That is to say, at what point are you offloading so much of the burden of your religiously motivated behavior that it is no longer “your” free exercise?

The many Sabbath observance rules, adapted for modern times, stem from the central directive to let yourself, your servants, and your animals rest and honor God. But if you’re causing another human being to work on Shabbat, isn’t that worse than making a machine work? Or does he matter less than a machine because he’s a goy?

Classic case law on the free exercise of religion involved personal choices that were at odds with bureaucratic uniformity. No third parties were being burdened by the observance. Even then, religion didn’t always win. In Goldman v. Weinberger (1986), the Court said the Air Force could forbid an Orthodox Jewish officer from wearing his yarmulke while in uniform. In Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Court said the government could ban sacramental peyote use under the generally applicable drug laws, notwithstanding the Free Exercise Clause. While these specific outcomes seem too harsh and rigid to me, they stand for a principle that today’s Court has all but forgotten: Sometimes you have to play by the rules of the wider society and eat the cost of your difference, because civil society would become ungovernable if every law were vulnerable to a thousand individual carve-outs.

In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to restore a more generous standard of review for Free Exercise claims than the court had applied in Smith. RFRA affirms that Free Exercise challenges apply not only to laws deliberately targeting religious practices, but also to neutral laws that incidentally burden a person’s exercise of religion. Hobby Lobby brought its objection to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate as a RFRA claim.

RFRA expanded the class of laws to which Free Exercise objections could be made. Meanwhile, this Court has been stretching the definition of religious practices to encompass virtually any behavior that is religiously motivated. Together, these trends exacerbate social inequality and fragmentation.

How is it “your” freedom of religion to fire disabled workers, or prevent your employees from unionizing, or impede women’s access to healthcare? Why should the state help you shift the cost of your religious preferences onto nonbelievers? This takes Free Exercise too far beyond the personal acts of worship or ritual observance that the Founders likely envisioned. The logic of the Hobby Lobby exemption is the logic of theocracy, where there is no legitimately secular realm of human action. Maybe that’s your sincere religious worldview, but it’s not the worldview behind our system of government. The Constitution is meant to preserve a separation between church and state. It’s bad faith, in every sense of the word, to exploit the Bill of Rights to reach a result hostile to its values.