The Gospel According to Alice Miller: The Truth Will Set You Free

Alice Miller (1923-2010) was a groundbreaking psychoanalyst and author of many books on childhood trauma as the root of personal and societal problems. Some of her work crosses over into theology, as she critiques how certain religious texts reflect and perpetuate toxic family dynamics through the generations. Concepts of original sin, forbidden knowledge, and child sacrifice take on new interpretations when we decide to stand on the side of the child, against parental violence. This hermeneutic has led me to part ways with Biblical Christianity as I once understood it. It was a surprise and consolation to find that Miller rescues the person of Jesus from this deconstruction, giving me a way to keep relating to him without going back into denial.

Miller’s The Truth Will Set You Free (Basic Books, 2001) is a popularization of her theories for a general audience, focusing on the case against corporal punishment of children, rather than the taboo topic of sexual abuse in the family. Even the title is a quote from Jesus (John 8:32), though this may be the choice of the English translator. (The original German title was Evas Erwachen, which I think means “Eve Awaken” and refers to Eve eating the forbidden fruit.) This passage from the last chapter describes a Jesus I can believe in:

The figure of Jesus confounds all those principles of poisonous pedagogy still upheld by the christian churches, notably the use of punishment to make children obedient and the emotional blindness such treatment inevitably brings. Long before his birth Jesus received the greatest reverence, love, and protection from his parents, and it was in this initial and all-important experience that his rich emotional life, his thinking, and his ethics were rooted. His earthly parents saw themselves as his servants, and it would never have occurred to them to lay a finger on him. Did that make him selfish, arrogant, covetous, high-handed, or conceited? Quite the contrary.

Jesus grew into a strong, aware, empathic, and wise person able to experience and sustain strong emotions without being engulfed by them. He could see through insincerity and mendacity and he had the courage to expose them for what they were. Yet to my knowledge no representative of the church has ever admitted the patent connection between the character of Jesus and the way he was brought up. Would it not make eminent sense to encourage believers to follow the example of Mary and Joseph and regard their children as the children of God (which in a sense they are) rather than treating them as their own personal property? The image of God entertained by children who have received love is a mirror of their very first experiences. Their God will understand, encourage, explain, pass on knowledge, and be tolerant of mistakes. He will never punish them for their curiosity, suffocate their creativity, seduce them, give them incomprehensible commands, or strike fear into their hearts. Jesus, who in Joseph had just such a father, preached precisely those virtues. (pgs.190-91)

Working Title/Artist: The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of AlexandriaDepartment: European PaintingsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 09Working Date: 1648
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Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 1/2/2014

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Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2016

They said it couldn’t be done. They said it shouldn’t be done. They said “hold on, I got my Kindle all sticky…”

The no-longer-endless novel was published this year by Saddle Road Press and won Best Gay Contemporary General Fiction in the 2016 Rainbow Awards. If you bought it, thank you! Please write an Amazon review. If you haven’t yet, what are you waiting for? The nights are getting colder…


(Book launch party at Bistro Les Gras, Northampton, with the family of choice: Adam, Roberta, Sovereign, & Ellen. I drank a Cosmo on Julian’s behalf.)

In other news, the Young Master is proud to announce that he is nearly 5 and not a baby anymore. He is an expert at identifying construction trucks and different species of trees. In fashion, he enjoys combining homemade paper earrings and Mardi Gras beads with his large collection of robot, truck, and dinosaur shirts. His favorite songs are Major Lazer’s “Bubble Butt” and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. He now has the attention span for full-length movies, and likes to role-play scenes from Charlotte’s Web, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. (I wonder when he will realize how Wilbur the Pig is connected to the pound of salami he eats every week. Ah, lost innocence.) Because of these films, his imaginative play lately includes a lot of baby animals who are sad because they lost their mommies. Is he trying to express something about being adopted? I wish Disney/Pixar didn’t rely on this trope so much. I welcome suggestions of good cartoon films without dead or absent mothers.

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After a long and difficult passage, I feel I’m finally settling into a place of peace with my nonbinary spirituality. It’s time to start trusting that Jesus is who I want him to be. Faith means choosing to imagine a divine Friend who lets my attachment and independence ebb and flow, contrary to the template from my childhood and the jealous God that other wounded souls have created in their parents’ image. In my pagan practice, I’ve noticed myself shifting away from “magick” in the sense of trying to make things happen through ritual, and towards using ritual to create a space where I can commune with benevolent spirits. This is not to say that I disbelieve in magick, only that I’m not ready for it. I need a clearer adult perspective to ensure that I’m not returning to childhood strategies of escaping abuse through supernatural fantasy. Or, to put it another way, I need to sit longer with the fear of not getting what I want (hint: book sales) and examine whether I am using this goal to fulfill the wrong needs, before I light candles and bury pins in the ground to feel like I’m achieving something. The Tarot is great for this discernment exercise.

Without further ado, here are the high-and-low-lights of 2016:

Best Poetry Books:

Some amazing books by queer poets of color have been published this year. Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s i’m alive / it hurts / i love it (Boost House Press) writes with honesty and wit about her life as a transgender woman who manages anxiety and depression. She makes the daily choice to feel everything, though pain coexists with joy. Taxidermy is the organizing metaphor for Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books): a stripped and reconstituted skin as shapeshifting for survival, as forbidden gay intimacy that always carries the hint of violence, and as inescapable and often misread ethnic identities in a dominant white Christian culture. Mohabir descends from Indian indentured laborers who were transported to British Guyana’s sugar plantations, and grew up in Florida. Another standout debut collection, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary (Graywolf Press), depicts healing from incest as a series of metamorphoses into real and mythical creatures. I’ve currently just started Phillip B. Williams’ Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books), a formally innovative, visceral and intense collection of poems through which the American tradition of violence against black male bodies runs like a blood-red thread.

Best Fiction Books:

Through brilliant use of flashbacks and alternating perspectives, Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel (Grove Press) tells the story of Michael and Kelly Hays, a Southern professional couple who are divorcing after two decades of marriage, though it becomes apparent that they are both still painfully in love with each other. As soon as the reader starts to side with one character, a new twist reveals the other character’s vulnerability and the dysfunctional family pattern that he or she is struggling to break. The novel winds toward a suspenseful climax as we wait to discover whether they will tell each other the truth before it’s too late.

It wouldn’t be a Reiter’s Block Year in Review without Cthulhu! Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (Harper) is a suspenseful and satirical novel-in-stories about an African-American family in 1950s Chicago who tangle with a cabal of upper-class white occultists. Each chapter cleverly inverts the xenophobic tropes of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror stories, with the implication that the heartless and greedy cosmic forces of the Cthulhu Mythos are more a self-portrait of Jim Crow’s America than an enemy from beyond the stars.

Best Nonfiction Books:

New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow’s gorgeously written and introspective memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones (Mariner Books), is a case study in overcoming patriarchy and healing from abuse. Brought up in rural Louisiana by a devoted but stern and overworked single mother and their extended family, young Charles yearned for more tenderness and attention than a boy was supposed to need. An older male cousin preyed on his isolation, giving him a new secret to add to his fears of being not-quite-straight in a culture where this was taboo. Channeling his need for connection into school achievement and community leadership, Blow found himself on both the giving and the receiving end of violent hyper-masculinity as a fraternity brother. In the end, he recognized that self-acceptance, not repression, was the best way to become an honorable man. Blow writes like a poet, in witty, image-rich, sensitive lines that flow like a mighty river.

Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman’s Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity (Beacon Press) proposes that Christianity and queerness have a common interest in rupturing false binaries that create injustice and estrangement. Read my review on this blog.

Queering Sexual Violence (Riverdale Avenue Books), edited by Jennifer Patterson, is a must-read for social service providers, activists, policymakers, and anyone who studies child abuse and intimate partner violence. The book fills a gap in the common understanding of abuse as something that men do to women and children, and as a social problem best solved through legislation and policing. This familiar picture excludes survivors for whom the carceral state does not routinely offer justice: people of color, the disabled and neurodiverse, and of course the many LGBTQ people who hesitate to out themselves to the police and the courts, fearing that their victimization will only be compounded. Read my review on this blog.

Favorite Posts on the Block:

Trusting Tootle

Tootle and his classmates at the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives are cuddly, expressive precursors of the colder computer-generated animation of Thomas the Tank Engine. Scuffy conveys a world of emotion with just eyes, eyebrows, and the tilt of his smokestack. These books are selling nostalgia for an era when America was an industrial powerhouse and no one had heard of global warming or acid rain. However, both tales hammer home a repressive message about staying in your assigned social role and doing what you’re told.

Nonbinary Femme Thoughts

I like the word “bigender” even though my eyes keep reading it as “big gender”. Or maybe that’s why. I have BIG gender. Too much to pick only one.

Today My Dreams Come True

Who has watched over me during this arduous journey of self-discovery and activism? Where did I get my faith to persevere in the face of spiritual abuse and mental health struggles? I know that I have been protected, by someone I still call “the Holy Spirit” even though most Christian language doesn’t fit me anymore. Someone up there implanted compassion, hope, truth-seeking, and determination in my heart. Someone strengthened me to be true to myself when people I loved couldn’t accept who I’d become. So… thank you, Holy Spirit.

What Country Is This?

This morning in the bluest of blue states, I took courage from the survival of queer, Jewish, and African-American people through hundreds of years of oppression. I remembered growing up in the 1980s with the constant fear that President Reagan would push the red button and destroy the planet in a nuclear war. I was inspired by the memoirs I am reading this winter for the Winning Writers self-published book contest, about Jews who escaped Nazi Germany and African-Americans who migrated north in the Jim Crow era to seek equal opportunity. And I re-committed myself to upholding the humanity of all people through my work as a writer and publisher.

Book Notes: Gay Theology Without Apology

Comstock argues that any theology based on appeals to authority–even the authority of Jesus–still has more of Caesar in it than Christ. As Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. The Jesus way is more radical. He called his disciples friends, not servants who obey without knowing why (John 15:15).

Rest in peace, Prince. May we all purify ourselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.

 

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“Taking Down the Pear Tree” Wins New Letters Prize for Fiction

It’s been a great week for my fiction career! I’m honored to report that the prestigious literary journal New Letters, a publication of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, awarded me their 2016 Fiction Prize for my short story “Taking Down the Pear Tree”. See the winners’ list here. Thank you to final judge Hilma Wolitzer and the editors for making a home for this story and providing my novel marketing budget for the rest of the year!

In this story, a suburban executive’s efforts to adopt a child bring her up against her ambivalence about female social roles and the limited scripts for intimacy with other women. At a moment of crisis, she finds unexpected consolation in the breakdown of all the narratives she’s used to avoid grief and fear.

At least, that’s what I think it’s about. Buy the Winter 2017 issue and let me know what you think! Here’s the beginning of the story.

 

          Taking Down the Pear Tree

 

You agree to her naming the baby Maurice. It’s after a character in a novel you’ve never read, a book that (Wikipedia tells you) has a tragic but miraculous ending. You found such stories embarrassing in high school, twenty years ago, probably the last time you tried to read a novel by someone dead. The guilty rash on the minister’s chest, the Christmas ghosts. Your imitations got the B-minuses they deserved. But you can’t bite your lips through another winter of songs about angels bringing babies to pure girls. Your arms ache. This is a real thing. You try to work your mouth around the name — soft, loud, in your childhood’s Brooklyn accent, in your Connecticut suburb’s lack of one — till it sounds like something a boy would be willing to answer to, when you called him home.

Your husband goes through nicknames to reassure himself. Not Maury, an old uncle who tells bad jokes. Not Moe, cartoon bartender, stooge. But Reese is a fine name for a first-round draft pick or patent attorney. He could co-sign a mortgage, tie his own shoes.

Your husband’s name is Thomas. Everyone calls him Thomas.

****

It is January. The specialist’s rubber finger widens your crack, probes the hollow she sees between stirrups. She has short pale hair and rimless glasses and a Polish name that your husband jokes sounds like “paycheck”. He is not in the room. The numbers on her screen look good to her. On the walls are the usual red cross-sections of female muscle and Impressionist sailboats. The paper sheet crackles like a fire under you, heat sweeping over your skin, crushing you breathless. She doesn’t understand why you’re not pregnant. Your heart rate is high. Does anything hurt? You feel the walls of your womb contracting, shrinking from the speculum, gathering the wishful strength to expel it so they can join forever like scar tissue, a marriage that excludes a third. Nothing hurts, you say.

After you’re dressed, the specialist brings Thomas back and shows the two of you her hopeful charts. Your age plus number of embryos implanted equals probability. And what of the others? You use the A-word to show how tough-minded you are. No euphemistic reductions for you. Thomas half-closes his eyes wisely, the face that looks like listening but only you know means patient disagreement. Eye contact would throw off his game, so you devote your attention to his lion-fur eyebrows, the wide furrows of his forehead, which you truly cherish, though there are limits on what you will do to make a next-generation copy. The fresh panties you brought for after the procedure feel damp and used. You’re afraid you smell. Thomas stands so you stand. He shakes her hand and tucks the handout under his arm. Your husband was raised Catholic. You hope he remembers that.

You drive too fast to the Cracker Barrel. Both of you order chicken pot pie and syrupy iced tea. Thomas sits with his back to the fireplace because you’re still sweaty, despite the whip of snow in the air outdoors. He says this might be the year he runs for City Council. Someone has to take a strong stand on stormwater management. He’s a financial planner, but the market is slow. You relax into the familiar topics. The year stretches ahead like the interstate, straight and bare under white winter sun.

All the next week you dream thick, dark dreams, itching under a knit blanket you almost recognize — an aunt’s house, a friend’s? Washing breakfast dishes, you say aloud the name of a discontinued lipstick: Berry Chic, a Kool-Aid color in a mashed tube you shared with your ninth-grade best friend Mira, swapping tastes of wax and spit. You say her name, relieved to be certain of something. You’re glad the house is empty.

****

There is a room that is blue and green.

There is a room whose door is always closed.

****

You and your friend Pauline and the new guy, Glenn, run an executive staffing firm downtown. You match resumes to positions at insurance agencies, law offices, nursing homes, and the occasional quirky client like the holistic spa or the boarding school for deaf kids. It’s the same pleasure as filling in a crossword puzzle. Pauline’s mother never worked and yours, of course, had to stop early. You’re satisfied by the sight of yourself in the washroom mirror, pearl studs or gold knots in your ears, champagne-beige dress or black pants suit, some blouse that doesn’t show sweat. Though it’s been awhile since you talked about it, you know Pauline, adjusting her headband beside you, feels the same.

****

It is March. The social worker asks why you want to have a baby. Thomas is sitting in the chair next to yours, but she is only looking at you. You think, not for the first time, that no one asks men this question. The mere willingness to become a father on purpose, and to expend some effort to do so, automatically puts Thomas on the good-conduct list. He is responsible, respectable, unselfish. Unfortunately, this is all true, so you can’t take out your frustrations on him. Besides, from now on, you’ll have to present a united front.

You could tell her that Thomas talked you into reactivating your adoption application when he caught you crying in front of the Easter egg dye kits at the supermarket. The problem with our life, he’d said, is that we have no liturgical calendar. You don’t talk this way, and you can’t take the chance that this new social worker will think you’re being pretentious or flippant. But you’d instantly understood what he meant: the feeling that none of it applies to you, as your neighbors and the people on TV cycle through back-to-school sales, letters to Santa, Mother’s Day bouquets.

You could tell her you want someone to love. You could tell her you want immortality. Someone who needs you. Not only do these sound like the terrible song lyrics you and Mira wrote when you were both crushing on that sophomore with the electric guitar, they are unbelievably self-centered, as is anything you might say about someone who doesn’t exist yet.

You tell her the truth you have both rehearsed: that your marriage produces a creative energy that you want to share. That it’s not in the cards for you to create with your bodies, but a family is really made by love. The social worker gives you a binder of printouts from other couples’ websites. She instructs you to start collecting photos of your life. Pictures for a story that a birthmother would want her child to be part of, other than her own.

****

 

July Links Roundup: Mommy T-Rex

In the years leading up to Shane’s adoption, I used to say, “I want to be a parent, not a mother.” I had hoped that non-reproductive parenting would free me from predetermined expectations about the balance of caregiving labor and the self-negating emotional enmeshment that I didn’t want to replicate from my own childhood. I wasn’t reckoning on the internalized sexism of social workers, but thankfully that period is over, and my husband and I can try to raise our son to appreciate all gender roles without feeling bound by any.

I resonated with this post from last year by feminist blogger Melissa McEwan (Shakesville), “Childfree 101: The ‘Women Are Designed to Love’ Narrative”, where she challenges the common argument that childfree women (but never men!) are denying themselves some supreme opportunity to give love. Even in a perfectly egalitarian socioeconomic system, emotional labor is a finite resource, and being female shouldn’t mean that people are entitled to infinite amounts from us:

In this definition of womanhood, our value is determined largely or exclusively by what we give—primarily to children and spouses. If leniency is granted so that what we give to our work may be included, it is not the actual work product we generate that has attached value, but what we give to our employers, to our coworkers, to our clients or patients.

When women are viewed as designed to love and care, childfree women are hardly women at all. Only if our work can define us as an ersatz mother, e.g. Mother Theresa, might we be given reprieve from the harshest of judgments.

Women are held to a standard in which we have value only if we demonstrate a constant outpouring of love and care for other people, which is harmful in a number of ways, not least of which is that, if it is true (as I believe) that empathy and concern for other people is part of the human condition, it is only one part, not the whole.

And sometimes the way we find to express empathy and concern for other people is incompatible with parenting. Because we only have so much. Because women are not, in fact, built to be naught but endless fonts of care.

I think a lot about gender because I’m raising a boy in a sexist world. Now that Shane is verbal enough to engage me in imaginative play, I’m fascinated and pleased by his non-attachment to the categories that adults so anxiously defend. “I’m Mommy T-Rex, you’re Baby T-Rex,” he’ll tell me, and then he’ll switch us. Eddie the Teddy might be another bear’s daddy one day, his mommy the next. Shane’s self-chosen interests are what society typically calls masculine: robots, dinosaurs, building blocks, big trucks, loud machines, and rolling in the dirt. At the same time, he loves to try on my costume jewelry and make his own in art class, and his stuffed toys are more likely to kiss each other than to fight.

In hopes of delaying his fall from genderfluid innocence, last year we removed the YouTube and PBS Kids apps from his iPad. (Yes, he has his own, and it’s better than mine. Don’t judge, read the link below.) On his own, he picks sweet, sometimes educational games that cut across stereotypical lines: DinoTrux and the Big Button Box of fart sounds and ambulance sirens, but also pony hair salon, dollhouse, and baby animal care. We highly recommend Toca Boca, Fox & Sheep, and Sago Mini. Toca Boca proclaims on their home page: “Gender Neutral: No pink or blue aisles. Digital toys for all kids.” My PlayHome is a series of apps where you put a multiracial cast of characters through everyday activities in a school, a suburban home, and a quaint shopping district, though Shane was disappointed that he couldn’t put the girls’ clothes on the boys and vice versa. In Toca Life, on the other hand, hairstyles and clothes can be swapped freely by male, female, and gender-ambiguous characters.

By contrast, many picture books, especially the classic ones that he receives as gifts, are retrograde in their gender roles. Books about trains, trucks, robots, and other “boy” subjects, which happen to be Shane’s main interests right now, have few if any female characters. I’ve resorted to switching the pronouns in Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site so that some trucks can be “she” or “they”. My headcanon on the modern Little Golden Book I’m a Monster Truck! is that the narrator is a butch lesbian who is dancing with her femme girlfriend. As other parenting bloggers have complained, the Lego mini-figures that come with the City (garbage trucks, ambulances, etc.) and Dino World sets are predominantly male. So the argument for meatspace versus virtual playthings is more complicated than you’d think.

Over at Medium, social media expert Alexandra Samuel makes the case “Why Kids’ Screen Time Is a Feminist Issue” in this blog post from May. One of her commenters also makes a good point that the attack on screen time is ableist: autistic and other easily overstimulated kids need an activity that’s a respite from intense face-to-face interaction. I’ve observed that Shane does seem to benefit from the cool-down time with his apps after a very active day at his Montessori school, which is a technology-free zone. Samuel writes:

When we fret about excess screen time as bad parenting, what we’re really talking about is bad mothering. After all, mothers still do more than three times as much routine child care as fathers do, and almost four times as much solo care, according to a 2011 study by Lyn Craig and Killian Mullan. When we worry that parents are shirking their duties by relying on an electronic babysitter, we’re really worrying that mothers are putting their own needs alongside, or even ahead of, their kids’ needs.

It’s a worry that rears its head any time someone comes up with a technology that makes mothers’ lives easier. As mothers, we’re supposed to embrace — or at least nobly suffer through — all the challenges that parenting throws at us. We’re supposed to accept having little people at our heels while we’re trying to buy the groceries, make dinner, or go to the bathroom. We’re supposed to accept the exhaustion that comes from working a full day at the office and a second shift at home before falling into bed for an inevitably interrupted sleep. We’re supposed to accept the isolation that comes from raising children in a world that regards a crying child as a crime against restaurant patrons or airplane travellers.

The mother who hands her child a smartphone is taking the easy way out of these challenges. But since so much of parenting consists of situations in which there is no easy way out, I’m deeply grateful when somebody offers me a cheat…

Just look at the prevailing attitude towards another innovation that gave mothers more autonomy: baby formula. We know that there are significant health benefits to breastfeeding, but that doesn’t begin to explain the horrified looks you attract when bottle-feeding in public. (The glares I got for bottle feeding my baby were good preparation for the glares I now get when I hand over my iPad.) As Cindy Sterns writes, “by deciding to formula feed, the woman exposes herself to the charge that she is a ‘poor mother’ who places her own needs, preferences or convenience over her baby’s welfare. By contrast, the ‘good mother’ is deemed to be one who prioritizes her child’s needs even (or perhaps especially) where this entails personal inconvenience or distress.”

When we shame women for adopting labor or sanity-saving innovations, we don’t limit ourselves to guilting them over the damage they’re doing to their kids: we also guilt them for what they’re doing to the earth itself. If disposable diapers emerged as one of the great symbols of environmental waste, that’s in keeping with the idea that women should be prepared to sacrifice themselves not only to the demands of motherhood, but of the greater good. The focus on “what you can do at home to save the earth,”Stacy Alaimo notes, “shifts the focus from patriarchal capitalism to the home and places the blame and responsibility, not on corporate polluters, scandalous lack of government controls, or waste-oriented capitalism but ultimately on homemakers, who had better use cloth diapers and keep those pots fully covered.”

Even before the advent of the contemporary environmental movement, saving women time took a backseat to saving men time, or to saving the earth. “Investment in labor-saving equipment for the farm took priority, partly because men made these decisions on their own,” writes Joy Parr, in her fascinating study of the differences between Canadian and American adoption of washing machines.

What’s really going on is an age-old problem: we don’t like innovations that make mothers’ lives easier.

This diaper-using, non-breastfeeding adoptive mother says, Amen.

In case you missed it, this May 31 New Yorker profile of the late Arnold Lobel made me feel even better about one of Shane’s favorite books. In “‘Frog and Toad’: An Amphibious Celebration of Same-Sex Love”, Colin Stokes discusses the enduring appeal of these gentle stories about the bond between two friends. Their situations are certainly not sexual or even romantic, since the youngest readers don’t usually care about such things, but instead center on the small crises and relationship glitches that make real drama for the pre-K set: wanting to play when your friend wants to be alone, or worrying that you look funny in your bathing suit. We don’t need sentimental conversations or tacked-on moral endings to know that Frog and Toad will stay together through it all.

[Lobel’s daughter] Adrianne suspects that there’s another dimension to the series’s sustained popularity. Frog and Toad are “of the same sex, and they love each other,” she told me.It was quite ahead of its time in that respect.” In 1974, four years after the first book in the series was published, Lobel came out to his family as gay. “I think ‘Frog and Toad’ really was the beginning of him coming out,” Adrianne told me…

…Lobel died in 1987, an early victim of the AIDS crisis. “He was only fifty-four,” Adrianne told me. “Think of all the stories we missed.”

When reading children’s books as children, we get to experience an author’s fictional world removed from the very real one he or she inhabits. But knowing the strains of sadness in Lobel’s life story gives his simple and elegant stories new poignancies. On the final page of “Alone,” Frog and Toad, having cleared up their misunderstanding, sit contently on the island looking into the distance, each with his arm around the other. Beneath the drawing, Lobel writes, “They were two close friends, sitting alone together.”

April Links Roundup: Noli Me Tangere

Happy Easter! No, I’m not late. Episcopalians celebrate the liturgical season of Easter for 50 days. That’s a lot of Cadbury Creme Eggs.

Image result for baby bunny photo

No one out-femmes me.

The post-resurrection wounds of Jesus have long been precious to me as a symbol of new life after trauma–a kind of healing that doesn’t mean forgetting. One of the most beautiful examples is this Easter meditation, “The Scars”, from the post-evangelical feminist blog Tell Me Why the World is Weird. What an original and poignant interpretation of Christ’s words to Mary Magdalene, “Touch me not.”

There was so much to do! Forty more days on earth- he would need to talk with all of his followers. And he suspected the first one would be Mary Magdalene.

And there she was. The first to visit the tomb. She stood with her head down, crying. With one hand she held the bag of spices she had prepared for his body.

He walked closer to her and said “hello.”

She didn’t look up. “Please sir. They’ve taken my Lord away… sir could you tell me… tell me where they’ve put him and I’ll go get him.”

“Mary.”

“Rabboni!” she cried, and ran at him with outstretched arms.

OH NO NO NO, he thought. Oh geez no touching. He froze. He couldn’t think. He tried to make words, to say something that would stop her. No touching. “Do not hold on to me!” he blurted out, and Mary backed away. Oh, thank goodness. Okay, try to play it off cool, say something profound. He looked at her and took a deep breath. “… for I have not yet returned to my father. Go to my disciples and tell them.”

She wiped tears from her eyes. “Yes, Lord,” she said.

“I have to go. You go tell them, okay?”

Before I figured out where the story was headed, this Jesus reminded me of someone with autism or sensory processing disorder, who might be distressed by all the hugging that Christians are supposed to do in church. I believe the Incarnation gives us permission to imagine the Jesus we need, a divine being who fully participates in human experience–not some supposedly universal experience, but the distinct reality of each person, including neurodiversity.

Do you know why it took me 8 years to write the Endless Novel? Not just because I was simultaneously leaving my abusive parent, changing my belief system, adopting a child, and writing poetry books. Without Julian (the novel’s hero), I couldn’t have done any of those things. In fact, I was stuck because I was afraid God was angry at me for how much I loved Julian. Every time I hit a rough patch in the writing, I thought God was withdrawing the mandate of heaven from me, like King Saul. Libby Anne, an atheist raised in a fundamentalist homeschooled family, explains why in this post at her blog Love, Joy, Feminism: “Do You Love God More than You Love Your Children?”

[T]his is actually fairly standard evangelical teaching. The idea is that we all have things in our life that we risk loving or valuing more than we love and value God, and that that’s a problem. Our pastors, youth group leaders, parents, and Bible study material used the story of Isaac to teach us that we needed to be willing to sacrifice—or give up—whatever we valued more than God.

The reference, of course, is a Bible story in which God commanded Abraham to kill his beloved son, Isaac, as a human sacrifice, and Abraham obeyed God but was stopped by an Angel at the last moment…

…No parent should have to worry that their love for their children might get in the way of their love for God. No spouse should have to worry that, no child, no friend. Love should not be a thing to be afraid of, and we should not have to fear valuing others.

As a parent, I love seeing my children work together and value each other. I love seeing them show love for each other. When they fight, it makes me sad, because I love them both and I want them to love each other too. Why would I, as a parent, be jealous of my children’s love for each other? Why would I worry that their love for each other would in some way compromise their love for me? If I told them that they had to love me more than they loved each other, or that they had to be willing to sacrifice their feelings for each other if those feelings got in the way of their feelings for me, I would be abusive and manipulative to the extreme.

And yet, that is what I was taught God does.

Imagine a boyfriend telling his girlfriend that she has to love him more than her parents, or her friends. Imagine him jealously watching her actions for any signs that she might value those others more than she values him. Imagine him shaming her if she spends what he considers too much time with her friends. We would term this abuse without qualm or reservation. Love for family or friends does not have to have any negative impact on love for a partner, and in a healthy relationship love is given and accepted freely, not under terms of guilt and coercion.

Please “Like” Julian on Facebook and follow his fashion picks on Pinterest. It’s not a sin!

At the Little Red Tarot blog, my favorite source for queer and alternative Tarot interpretations, co-editor Andi Grace interviews Tarot reader and zine writer Maranda Elizabeth about trauma, disability justice, “madness”, and poverty as themes of her spiritual practice.

Because trauma, madness, chronic illness, and disability are core pieces of who I am, it would be completely impossible for my Tarot practice not to be influenced by them. When I draw cards, I don’t get to escape my traumas or illnesses; I don’t get to set my diagnoses aside each time I shuffle a deck. Nor would I wish to! Trauma recovery dares me to learn new methods of being, and so does Tarot.

I think about how one effect of trauma can be to damage one’s imagination and creativity – the fight-flight-freeze responses can become so ingrained – not to mention the realities of coping with pain and poverty – that it’s hard to imagine being able to live a more fulfilling, magical, and dreamy life. And while trauma is real, and oppression is real, and poverty is real, Tarot is one way to (re-)develop the imagination and creativity that may have been injured due to traumatic upbringings and experiences.

Madness, illness, creativity, and spirituality are continually invalidated parts of my life, and yet they are the most crucial – they are my entire being. While I’m often quiet about my spiritual practices (I’m a solitary, and I think about, “to know / to will / to dare / to keep silent” a whole lot), I also feel the need to connect magic and trauma, and to talk about healing as a non-linear, unending process – I will always be healing, not healed, recovering, not recovered. Sometimes I get sick of talking about trauma, but it continues to permeate everything, so I have little choice.

Tarot helps me cope. It helps me access internal resources, acts as a healing tool and writing prompt, and shows me where I have agency in my life. Tarot works against existential despair and hopelessness, and connects me to something else. It helps me find magic in the mundane. Tarot helps me resist meaninglessness, worthlessness, and hopelessness. Also, I feel like it gives me permission to be a weirdo, to be kind of a fuck-up, and to find meaning that way.

Read an extended discussion of these subjects on Maranda’s blog and put some money in her tip jar.

Reading “The Lorax” in Lent

To my relief, this month the Young Master has moved on from conformist 1940s Little Golden Books to another genre of indoctrination more congenial to his Gen-X progressive parents. I’m talking about Dr. Seuss. Shane’s current favorite is The Lorax, a still-timely 1971 environmentalist cautionary tale about a greedy manufacturer, the Once-ler, who destroys a pastoral paradise. (I hope our boy remembers this when he finds out that we spent his college fund on litigation to save our neighborhood’s wetlands…)

dr-seuss-lorax-thneeds_510On about the tenth re-read, Shane asked me why the Once-ler is only ever shown as a pair of green hands. This is actually pretty unusual for Dr. Seuss, who never seemed to run out of ideas for depicting unique creatures. Shane thought maybe the Once-ler had no head, but some of the other pictures show his eyes peeking out through the slats of his abandoned workshop. So I brainstormed other possibilities. A 4-year-old’s “Why?” will lead you somewhere deep if you let it!

I said maybe the Once-ler did not feel connected to anything around him. He just made things without listening to his head or his heart, or paying attention to his environment. He didn’t take responsibility for what his hands were doing. He let himself become part of the machine of consuming, producing, and selling.

But I sensed that the alienation of the worker under capitalism was still too abstract a concept for the Young Master. So I tried again. “Maybe he doesn’t show the Once-ler’s face because the Once-ler could be all of us. We all have to be careful not to do what he does, not to be greedy and chop down too many trees and make the animals sick.”

As I spoke, I heard the echoes of a troubling concept we’d discussed in our church small group. We’ve started a video series by an evangelical pastor on the last words of Christ from the cross. That first week, we talked about “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Explaining the traditional doctrine of the atonement, the pastor said that “We are the ‘them'”. Past, present, and future are all one to God. Each of us, because of our sinful nature, crucified Christ and is forgiven by him from the cross.

That formulation no longer sits well with me, for two reasons. One is that I don’t think guilt feelings are the most skillful motivator for turning our lives around. Hopefully we feel bad enough about our actual sins without adding a cosmic crime on top of them–and if we don’t, there’s a good chance that the extra load of guilt for Christ’s death will only harden our ego-defenses. The second reason is that I’m looking to move away from theologies that romanticize scapegoating, because on some level they validate an abuser’s belief that splitting off her shadow side onto a victim is effective. During the time when I most fervently defended this atonement theory, I couldn’t have conceived that the universe could operate any other way; I was just grateful for Christ to take the hit on my behalf, like Winston in Orwell’s 1984 begging the torturer to hurt his girlfriend instead of him. I don’t believe in a totalitarian cosmos anymore, because I have a different kind of family now.

Nonetheless, these two myths, the gospel and Seuss, converge in reminding us of our universal temptation to sin and our interdependent responsibility for the kind of world we make. When we see a tree cut down, or an innocent man hung on one, none of us can stand apart and say “That’s not my problem.”

Mixed Feelings About Postpartum Depression Screening

One of our local advocacy groups for parents just posted this NPR story on Facebook: “Depression Screening Recommended for All Pregnant Women, New Mothers”:

Pregnant women and new mothers need more attention when it comes to screening for depression, according to recommendations issued Tuesday by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

That came as part of the panel’s recommendation that all adults should be screened, in a situation where they can be provided treatment or get a referral if they are clinically depressed.

The announcement follows similar recommendations in 2002 and 2009. What’s new this time is the special shout-out for pregnant women and new moms. They need special recognition, the task force says, because of evidence showing that they can be accurately diagnosed and successfully treated, and because untreated depression harms not only the mother, but her child as well….

This is all true but incomplete. I get anxious when screening is recommended without discussion of the stigma surrounding the diagnosis. It reminds me of the controversy over mandatory HIV testing for pregnant women. The Task Force’s proposal should have been accompanied by recommendations to educate health care providers so they won’t view depressed moms as an automatic danger to their kids, or as too irrational to make the informed choice to refuse certain treatments.

I learned the hard way to keep my struggles to myself during our adoption process. Our first application, to adopt internationally, was denied because the South Korean government decided that anyone who had been in psychoanalysis must be crazy. Then we hooked up with an unethical domestic adoption agency that labeled me with a “personality disorder” based on my stress responses to growing up with domestic violence and emotional incest. Our home study was denied when I refused to continue with the agency’s preferred therapy method because it was causing me to dissociate. By the time we had our 3-month post-placement interview (with a different agency), in the middle of a massive PTSD flare-up, I knew enough to smile sweetly and say I was fine when the caseworker handed me the info sheet on support for postpartum depression. Then I got on the phone to my best survivor gal pal (I think I called her from the bathroom floor where I was sobbing and holding a cow-shaped plush rattle) and got a referral to the trauma therapist who turned my life around. You can bet I didn’t come out as a survivor on this blog till our adoption was finalized in court.

And I’m white, straight-ish, and middle class. Moms who contend with racial prejudice or economic dependence on the government have even more to lose if a negative mental health diagnosis goes in their files. Stereotypes about black families lead Social Services to snatch kids for trivial offenses, like the mom who let her child play at the park unsupervised.

New mothers’ depression isn’t just a medical issue, it’s a political one. I hope that future studies recommend training health care providers to overcome sexism and ableism, so they can empower all moms to do our best.

For further reading, check out the website of feminist literary publisher Kore Press for this conversation among five women writers of color about postpartum depression, race, and culture.

Trusting Tootle

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The Young Master, at age 3.75, is wild about robots and trains. Three times a day, he demands that I read him Robots, Robots Everywhere, a Little Golden Book about our transhumanist future. He has also discovered the Little Golden Books Classics set that someone gave us at his baby shower. Not a day goes by without us re-reading at least some pages of Tootle and Scuffy the Tugboat, both written in the 1940s by Gertrude Crampton and illustrated by Tibor Gergely.

It’s curious how some books acquire classic status, re-purchased by generations of parents and well-wishers, perhaps without much thought about the meaning of the story. Gergely’s charming artwork epitomizes mid-20th-century picture book design: the optimistic fascination with industrial machinery, somehow peacefully coexisting with lush pastoral scenes, the made and the built environments equally full of wonder and personal detail. Tootle and his classmates at the Lower Trainswitch School for Locomotives are cuddly, expressive precursors of the colder computer-generated animation of Thomas the Tank Engine. Scuffy conveys a world of emotion with just eyes, eyebrows, and the tilt of his smokestack. These books are selling nostalgia for an era when America was an industrial powerhouse and no one had heard of global warming or acid rain.

However, both tales hammer home a repressive message about staying in your assigned social role and doing what you’re told. They remind me of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, like “The Fir-Tree” and “The Little Mermaid”, where a young dreamer is violently punished for aspiring to a different life. Scuffy, a toy boat, thinks he was “made for better things” than sailing in a child’s bathtub, so he floats away on the brook, down a large river, and is almost lost at sea before his owner coincidentally rescues him. His adventures, though sometimes scary, look thrilling, so it’s very disappointing to me that the story ends with him saying that the bathtub is where a tugboat belongs. He’s also as insufferable at the end as the beginning, bragging that he knows his place, with exactly the same tone and words that he used to describe his destiny as an explorer. Self-awareness is apparently not as important in this vision of child-rearing. Resist the hegemonic narrative, Scuffy!

Tootle fares even worse. He’s like the anti-Ferdinand the Bull. His story is, for me, an example of what’s wrong with traditional education and discipline practices, as well as a metaphor for how trauma hampers the inner child’s creativity. That’s a lot for one little engine to carry, I know, but bear with me.

Bill, the engineer-teacher at the Lower Trainswitch School, gives the baby locomotives a long list of rules to obey, without explanation, if they want to grow up to be big important trains. Obviously, we readers can understand why “Stopping for a Red Flag Waving” and “Staying on the Rails No Matter What” are safety measures for trains. The point is that the students aren’t given reasons, so they don’t learn how to interpret the rules when they conflict.

Tootle is kind of…special. Not to read these words too anachronistically, but his sound is described as “a gay little tootle” and the engineers call his behavior “queer”! He loves to go fast, but obeying the rules, not so much. He keeps breaking the most important one, by secretly running off the rails to race with a beautiful black horse, frolic in the buttercups, and make echoes in a rain barrel. When the engineers figure it out, they conspire with everyone in the town to hide in Tootle’s favorite meadow and wave red flags whenever he makes a move. Tootle is provoked to tears:

“Whenever I start, I have to stop. Why did I think this meadow was such a fine place? Why don’t I ever see a green flag?”

Just as the tears were ready to slide out of his boiler, Tootle happened to look back over his coal car. On the tracks stood Bill, and in his hand was a big green flag. “Oh!” said Tootle.

He puffed up to Bill and stopped.

“This is the place for me,” said Tootle. “There is nothing but red flags for locomotives that get off their tracks.”

Indoctrination complete.

I admit, when I’m wrestling the Young Master into his four layers of outdoor clothing for a 5-minute trip to school, and he hops away with his pants around his ankles because he saw a squirrel through the glass door, I sympathize with the impulse to train a child to stay on the rails. But good parenting requires more complex discernment than following a single rule without give-and-take or context. Focus and curiosity are both valuable traits that are sometimes at odds. Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy, as radical 100 years ago as it is today, was based on trusting the child to educate himself in a structured environment. The traditional method depicted in Tootle assumes that children’s undirected impulses are either irrelevant or rebellious.

The line in Tootle that makes tears slide out of my boiler is “Why did I think this meadow was such a fine place?” They have frightened and shamed him into turning against his own joy. As an abuse survivor, I know what that’s like. I know the disgust I feel at my own writing when some negative comment (“you can’t be a Christian and write about gay sex!”) sends me into a shame spiral. I know the burning embarrassment that I might have loved my characters too much, talked about that love too much, exposed myself as a weird and boring 12-year-old fangirl. Like Tootle’s teachers, my mother controlled me by training me to see danger where there was none. The red flags in my meadow are very old habits of staying safe by hiding what really mattered to me. Once they were essential defenses, now they’re just triggers that keep me from expressing my creative powers.

How do I handle re-reading these stories to Shane? I tell him, “Mommy doesn’t like the message of this story, so Mommy is going to make up her own ending. When you’re old enough to read, you can read the real thing and decide whether you agree with it.” And I wait for Mallory Ortberg to take them down in her Children’s Stories Made Horrific satire column. (Her version of The Runaway Bunny tells you all you need to know about my childhood.)

So run with the horses, kids. But look both ways before you cross the tracks.

Mommy says, “And then Tootle ran off to San Francisco where he could be himself! The end.”

January Links Roundup: Disobedient Woman Facts

This blog usually tackles (or is tackled by) serious subjects, so let’s start the year with a little humor. Over at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Sandra Newman’s list of “Woman Facts” satirizes gender roles and those clickbait lists of dubious scientific trivia. For instance:

A woman is born with all the exclamation points she will use in her lifetime.

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When cornered by a predator, a woman can swell to three times her normal size, but won’t because it is unladylike.

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The “period” is a myth devised by the 1810 Ladies’ Secret Conclave. Tampons actually serve to prevent the genie from escaping.

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Large numbers of women can be caught by baiting a trap with a crying infant. Though only one woman may fall into the trap, hundreds of others will gather to criticize everything she does with the child.

On that note, I recognized so much of myself in this May 2015 post from British evangelical feminist Hannah Mudge’s blog, “Searching for Sunday: Motherhood, Guilt and Disillusionment”. Our sons are about the same age. I thought I was the only one who suddenly felt overburdened by the demands of church membership once I had a baby:

In 2012 I became a mother. It hardly seems possible that Sebastian is three this week, a hilarious, much-loved little ball of energy. Motherhood hit me like it hits most other women; I mulled over the shift in my identity incessantly, felt incredibly lonely, struggled with anxiety and felt as if I’d left my brain somewhere else for months on end as I cared for a child that Did Not Sleep. Unsurprisingly, I totally disengaged from church. With one eye on the baby and my weary mind struggling to cope with the noise and the crowds and the intrusion, I zoned out. When I wasn’t zoned out, all I could feel was guilt.

The modern church can be incredibly effective at making you feel guilty because you’re insufficiently involved, insufficiently on board, insufficiently motivated to do more, give more, be more. There are always more programmes, more opportunities to serve, another reminder to get better at quiet time or outreach or prayer. When you have a baby your priorities change. This doesn’t mean that you have no desire to give more, to learn more; in my case, motherhood coincided with the beginning of a deep desire to know more about theology, to delve deeply into scripture, and a growing sense of revelation in the everyday, in conversations with friends and rigorous self-analysis. But what it does mean is that you almost certainly have no time to actually do it.

In 2012 I became a mother. My mental health has had its ups and downs. I returned to work full time when my son was nine months old and I love my job. I’ve had a thirst for deep friendships, but my introvert’s brain doesn’t do well with small talk and crowds and distractions. I’ve longed for peace and quiet and a sense of the sacred and to simply be left alone. And for a good few years, I’ve been sold the idea that showing up on a Sunday, getting enthusiastic about joining in and getting something out of it is paramount. But by and large I’ve felt nothing, learnt nothing, wished for more free time and more focus, wished I’d stayed at home or gone for a walk or read a book instead.

Deep down I know that looking to find everything in 90 minutes on a Sunday isn’t the right thing to do. But I’ve still expected something – and when I’ve failed to gain anything from those 90 minutes on a Sunday, I’ve felt disillusioned and angry. Excluded because I’m not ‘on board’ and don’t even want to be, apprehensive because I’ve been desperate to talk to someone about it but worried that doing so would make me a troublemaker, get me labelled as bitter, problematic, a contentious woman…

…What if you’re reading this and thinking “This is me”? Bring it all back to God and your place in the Kingdom and where you’re at, right now. Not what you feel you should be involved in and saying yes to and not how you think you should be continually striving to do better and give more of yourself. Invest time in your family and your friends. Listen to God when you feel prompted to explore ways of worship or study or churches you might feel at home in. Remember the fact that Christianity doesn’t mean being assimilated and being just like everyone else at church, or all your Christian friends on Facebook, or having to like everything you hear on a Sunday. When that headspace starts to come back, use it wisely. And know that you are not alone.

For me personally, since I stopped saying the Daily Office this past November (with some guilt about breaking my 8-year tradition), I don’t feel as burned-out on Bible verses by the time Sunday comes around. Keeping up the connection with my church friends a couple of times a month feels right. I know that I need a new private devotional practice, Christian or otherwise, but I have to start by choosing to do less. My number-one New Year’s resolution is to spend more time in the bathtub watching Netflix.

The Binding of Isaac, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son in response to God’s command, is one of those Bible stories that make me doubt whether Christianity can be made survivor-friendly. Characters in my new novel-in-progress grapple with this text as they try to make sense of family trauma and religious belief. Fred Clark at the progressive Christian blog Slacktivist persuasively argues that “divine command” doesn’t exempt us from moral discernment, in this 2014 post, “Obedience is Always About Epistemology”:

I’m hearing voices. I’m hearing a voice in my head that’s telling me to kill a child.

The possibility that this is the voice of God testing my faith isn’t even going to be among the first thousand possibilities worth considering. The thousand other possibilities are all Very Bad, of course, but that one’s even worse — including and encompassing all the Very Bad possibilities that go before it.

Initially, though, I’d do what anyone would likely do if a voice in my head commanded me to kill and burn a child. I’d ignore it, desperately hoping it would go away, fearful of telling anyone that I’d ever even thought of such a thing lest they think — rightly — that I am a monster.

And if it didn’t go away? Well then I’d have myself committed. I’d remove myself from the presence of chlidren, driving to the nearest inpatient facility to inform the nice people in admissions, as calmly as possible, that I believed I was becoming a danger to myself and others. I’m hearing voices. The voices want me to do Bad Things.

No, no, no, the “pastors and apologists” say — that violates the spirit of the story. It’s about obedience, not epistemology. For the sake of the story, you must accept that you receive this command from God as an unambiguous revelation: You know with certainty it is a command from God.

But that just restates the problem, it doesn’t solve it. Obedience is always about epistemology. I cannot respond to this “divine command” as such until I know that it is, in fact, a divine command. It is not humanly possible to engage this story unless the story can explain just what it would mean to be able to know with certainty that this was an unambiguous bit of divine revelation, a clear command clearly from God.

And I cannot imagine any form of direct revelation that could convince me of that. I cannot imagine any way in which I, as a human bound by my finite human reason and my fallible human senses, could ever have access to such inhuman, infallible certainty.

The “voice of God”? Auditory hallucinations. Hearing voices in your head is a textbook symptom of many well-documented forms of mental illness. We’ve already covered what hearing such a voice giving such a command would mean and what it would require me to do.

And, no, it doesn’t make any difference to try to distinguish between a “voice in your head” and a voice outside your head. All voices are in your head — the “real” ones just as much as the delusional ones. That’s what’s so terrifying about actual auditory hallucinations. They do not sound like hallucinations — like something that’s “only in your head.” They sound exactly like any other voice you’ve ever heard.

How about giant flaming letters carved in the sky? No good. Everything we’ve just said about auditory hallucinations is also true for visual ones.

Well, what if other people hear God’s voice as well? What if everyone else hears it?

That’s to be expected, isn’t it? All of this is just confirming the likeliest possibility: I’m a very, very sick man. Paranoid and delusional, and now imagining that everyone else is saying the same horrible thing as the voice in my head.

There simply exists no form this divine revelation could possibly take that would exempt it from the fact that I, as a finite and fallible human, would be required to perceive it. And so it would always be possible that I was perceiving it wrong — that I was misperceiving it.

And one doesn’t want to kill and burn a child based on a misperception.

One doesn’t generally want to kill and burn a child at all — which brings us to the second problem here. It’s not just the form of this divine command that is a problem, it’s also the substance. The repugnant substance of this alleged divine command reinforces all of the formal reasons stated above for doubting it. The substance of the command presents a whole Wesleyan quadrilateral of reasons to conclude that it cannot be divine. Scripture, tradition, reason and experience all scream that it cannot be so.

Imagine again that scenario in which a unanimous horde of witnesses confirms that I have, in fact, been given a divine command that I cannot ignore or deny. Just what would these witnesses attesting to this divine revelation say? “God is speaking to you, Fred. God wants you to kill and burn this child. You need to do what God tells you to do.”

Whatever part of me wanted to cling to my own sanity wouldn’t reasonably conclude that this means God wants me to kill a child. A more reasonable conclusion would be to realize, in horror, that I’d stumbled into some terrifying Wicker Man scenario. These “witnesses” must be speaking of some other God. And the voice I was hearing and the fiery letters in the sky would force me to realize that their God was real.

C.S. Lewis toyed with the idea that something like this might be true. So did H.P. Lovecraft. So did whoever wrote Psalm 82. And now Molech or dread Chthulhu or raging Talos or three-crowned Cyric or whichever child-eating deity it was is after me.

So at that point, I’d be praying like I’d never prayed before, asking God — the God I worship, the God of Abraham, the God of the Gospels and the creeds – to deliver me from this evil lesser god who was attempting to claim me for his own. Monotheism would no longer be an option, but I’d still be monolatrous — faithful only to the God of gods and Lord of lords, the God revealed in Jesus, the God described in 1 John as “God is love” and the God mocked by Jonah for being “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Or perhaps there could be a less radical theological explanation. I don’t believe in a “literal” Satan — mainly because I don’t see such a character literally present in the biblical literature — but this overwhelming experience of voices and witnesses and flaming letters would likely cause me to re-evaluate that conclusion. If the voices and signs and wonders and attestations weren’t all just delusion, then here would be apparent evidence of the reality of some supernatural, evil being very much like the Satan figure we find in Dante and Milton and Stephen Vincent Benét and all the other canonical sources of this doctrine.

This is the most reasonable, defensible and biblical second possibility. If the voices and signs and wonders telling me to kill a child are not a form of delusional madness, then this must be Satan speaking to me.

No, no, no, say the pastors and apologists — it’s not Satan, it’s God. This is, they stress, the whole point of the story — that it’s God — and undeniably God — telling me to kill and burn a child.

I’ve got it backwards, they say. The story isn’t about Satan pretending to be God. It’s a story about God pretending to be Satan.

I’m don’t think that helps.

The bottom line here is that for all of these self-proclaimed defenders of God’s sovereignty, this story is not at all about obedience to God. It’s about obedience to them.

Because obedience, remember, is always about epistemology — about the possibility of knowing, with certainty, what it is we are commanded to do, and the possibility of knowing, with certainty, the source of that command.

They like to talk about God’s sovereignty, but the real substance of their claim has to do with their own certainty. Their own ability to access certainty and to proclaim it to and for others. We know what God has commanded, they say. We know. And therefore you must obey [what God has commanded as articulated by] us.

I appreciate this post for highlighting the connection between theology, sanity, and social control. When you persuade people to suspend their common-sense moral intuitions and empathy, this not only makes them vulnerable to authoritarian religious leaders, but also prevents them from recognizing and healing from other abuses of power in their personal lives. Because if you can’t be sure that child sacrifice is wrong, you can’t be sure of anything. To quote King Lear, “That way madness lies.” And he would know.

Poetry by Perry Brass: “The Child”

Perry Brass is the author of several novels and nonfiction books on gay spirituality and sacred eros. As a Christmas gift to his newsletter list, he shared some of his recent poems, one of which he has kindly permitted me to reprint below. The boy in this poem could be the Christ Child or my own high-spirited 3-year-old, both calling me to enter their demanding, miraculous presence.

The Child

What do you do? Your insides are constantly
shifted toward him. He consumes you with
his needs, his perfection,
his amazing complexion and beauty.
And curiosity! A sponge. His eyes
are a sponge and you want him to just
hold you in their gaze for a few minutes
before he runs off. Or a year, or a decade.
But no,
they won’t. They’ll discover the world,
and you will discover it with him.
If you’re lucky. If you don’t die,
or die of disappointment because you’ve
just invested everything in him—you
put it in his childish grasp that casts off
each instance and reinvents
the warm earth

and the cold night. It seeks terror
in fairy tales; and you seek safety
in each morsel of love he returns.