Losing Our Confidence in Love

The Washington Post today printed a revealing excerpt from Laura Sessions Stepp’s forthcoming book, Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both. Her research suggests that though many young women are sexually active and empowered, they’ve given up on the idea of true love. Women are separating sex from intimacy for many reasons: fear of rejection, career ambitions that leave no time to work on a relationship, or a concept of feminism as incompatible with emotional vulnerability and dependence on a partner.

A national survey of 18-to-29-year-olds by the Pew Research Center reported that almost 60 percent were not in committed relationships and the majority of those were not interested in being committed. Young women even have phrases for couples, frequently spoken with a touch of derision: They’re “joined at the hip,” or “married.”

Absent old-fashioned dating, which has virtually disappeared, the alternative for these young women is hooking up, which can happen in any semi-private place and includes anything from kissing to intercourse. The beauty of hooking up is that it carries no commitment, and this is huge, for being emotionally dependent on a lover is what scares these young women the most.

To tell a man “I need you” is like saying “I’m incomplete without you.” A young man might say that and sound affectionate. But to an ambitious young woman, who has been taught to define power on her terms and defend it against all comers, need signals weakness.

Stepp contends that the decline of traditional dating will have unintended consequences for women’s ability to find and maintain lasting relationships.

“In traditional boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, you begin to understand how someone else thinks about things,” says Robert Blum, who chairs the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at Johns Hopkins University. “You learn to compromise, and not to say the first thing on your mind. You learn how to say you’re sorry and accept other people’s apologies.”

These things are essential to being happily married and raising children, both of which young women say they want someday. They are best learned within a romantic relationship, in Blum’s view, because the young person is motivated by the romance to learn them.

Lloyd Kolbe, a health education professor at Indiana University-Bloomington, agrees. He still remembers his first love in high school, how he worked at being honest, decent and caring — in short, worthy of her.

“Hooking up is purposely uncaring,” he says. “If they turn off the emotional spigot when they’re young, what will happen to them as older adults?”

Women’s reluctance to invest in romantic partnerships, says Stepp, also has to do with a lack of role models, both in their own lives and in the media. They’re not being shown how intimacy builds and personal growth occurs during a long-term relationship, nor how successful couples learn to interact in a healthy way.

Some have lived through the divorce of their parents. Or they witness disputes between Mom and Dad yet are not privy to the negotiations their parents undertake to resolve these differences. Although Mom and Dad may say they love each other, young women report that they rarely see their parents hug, hold hands, act playfully or do other things that sustain love.

They have the same complaints about the way love is portrayed in the movies or on television. A college junior says, “We never see anything positive about Hollywood relationships. It’s beginning to seem normal to get married on flings and then get divorced and have random babies.” Evie Lalangas wonders, “Have you ever noticed how romantic comedies are all about falling in love or breaking up? I want to say, ‘Show me the rest of your life!’ “

What if, after hesitating, young women enter into a relationship? What does that look like? How do they make it last? Since they haven’t dated much, if at all, it’s difficult for them to know.

Order the book here.    

Prison Poet “Conway” Speaks

Since last fall, I’ve been corresponding with an incarcerated writer at a supermax prison in central California who discovered our Winning Writers website. “Conway” (he’s asked that I not use his real name) is serving a sentence of 25 years to life for receiving stolen property, under California’s three-strikes law that imposes life sentences for a nonviolent crime if the defendant has two or more prior felony convictions. The Supreme Court (wrongly, in my view) ruled in the 2003 case Lockyer v. Andrade that such mandatory sentences do not violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

From what I can tell from Conway’s rap sheet, his priors were burglary and grand theft auto. Without access to his case history, it’s not for me to judge whether he ought to be at liberty. Nonetheless, as I read his letters, I was struck by his descriptions of unnecessarily brutal prison conditions and his drive to better himself through literature and art, despite the constant interference of guards confiscating his books and writing supplies.

I’ll be posting his poems and excerpts from his letters on this blog from time to time. I’m not in a position to vouch for the accuracy of everything he writes. Read them for yourself and see what rings true. My goal is simply to provoke further inquiry about how we ignore the humanity of the incarcerated.

Cell Widow
by “Conway”

Black spiders build traps on my window,
Their intricate veins with morning dew glow,
gray butterfly caught in deadly net,
a victim devoured by my bloodthirsty pet;

On lines creeping it approaches and overtakes,
the gift of life so simply forsakes,
captured before destiny can finish its flight,
dread spider consumes with sweet delight;

Bonded to be drained drop by drop alone,
abandoned heart bled dry to the bone,
as I watched the tiny wings crumble away,
I felt life’s loss, as I do every day…



steel teeth, cell doors
concrete tongue tasting
my soul wasting
inside locked corridors
concrete wasting
my soul tongue tasting
cell teeth, steel doors
locked inside corridors
wasting my soul
out of control…


Life Seeks Relief

This wise old owl must not
be so wise I fear,
for it has chosen to build
a nest in the most absurd
of spots precarious,
the tall menacing tower
where gunners seek targets
human, on barbed perimeter.
A lair of predators on hunt
perpetual, a death stalk
from above, in chain link
spiderweb’ belligerent
boundary of nettle surrounds;
“The no man’s land”
Yet unperturbed/unbiased
this odd creature, then bizarre
occurs to me, as I stare
out my cell window, I realize
how safe the chosen roost,
for the gun towers that menace
my mind, are no threat to
this nocturnal interloper:
Those large eyes stare back
accusingly, every time
I check to assure myself,
unwise owl is safely rested,
realizing it is I who is
unwisely nested…

Fun With Sloganizer

A few years back, I was disappointed when the Episcopal Church USA changed its slogan from “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” to “The Episcopal Church: We’re Here for You”. It just sounded too much like McDonald’s “Have It Your Way”. (Apparently, someone must have agreed with me, since their website has now reverted to the old tagline.) Next time the modernizing spirit grabs them, though, Sloganizer.net is ready. Just type in a word or phrase (nouns work best) and this free computer program will generate a slogan that at times is disturbingly apt. Be warned, it can be addictive. My favorites so far:

“Naughty little Episcopal Church”
“Episcopal Church will be for you whatever you want it to be”
“Episcopal Churchtastic!”
“Episcopal Church. Impossible is nothing.” (and now, a word from Bishop Yoda)
“When you say Episcopal Church you’ve said it all”
“Episcopal Church never lies”
“Ooh la la, Episcopal Church”

The I-Monk’s Ten Questions About the Bible

Reverend Sam at Elizaphanian has posted his responses to the Internet Monk’s Ten Questions on the Bible. I would perpetuate this meme with my own answers except that Rev. Sam has already said exactly what I would say. (OMG, I’m agreeing with someone – I must be losing my edge.) My favorite is #5: “Q: Is the Bible a human book? A: All books are human. There is a docetic suspicion lurking behind this question – an assumption that because something is human it cannot also bear the stamp of divinity.” (Docetism was the heresy that Jesus was solely divine, and his humanity only an appearance.)

FYI, the ten questions are:

1. State briefly what you believe about the Bible.
2. How is the Bible inspired?
3. So is the book of Judges inspired, or only the Gospels?
4. How is the Bible authoritative?
5. Is the Bible a human book?
6. Are there aspects of the Bible that are not divine?
7. Why do you call the Bible a conversation?
8. What do you believe about canonization?
9. Do you reject the inspiration of some books?
10. Anything else you want to say?

I’d especially love to hear Shawna, Hugo, and Eve Tushnet answer these questions, as well as anyone who wants to leave a comment below — please identify the tradition you come from, and the one you belong to now, which may not be the same thing, of course!

Saving Jesus (Episode 5): Like a Virgin

This week’s installment of Saving Jesus at my church applied its revisionist sledgehammer to the doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation. It would be too easy to make fun of the worksheet, which appears to have been written by unemployed former Soviet re-education camp counselors. So-called discussion questions included “Name some of the reasons why the virgin birth is not to be taken literally” and “What are some of the words that were confused by the early translators and writers [of the Bible]?”

On the DVD, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong averred with equal certainty that we should “stop thinking of God as a great big parent figure up in the sky — a supernatural being who is external to life” and instead imagine God as a life force that is present in all of us. The difference between Jesus and ourselves is one of degree, not of kind. As a logical matter, said Spong, Jesus could not be fully human and also different in kind from us, as the church has mistakenly considered him to be.

I’ve got to give Spong credit for understanding why the Incarnation is such a radical concept, although his anti-supernatural bias makes him reject it. Precisely because there is a separation between humans and God, such that the divine light within us is clouded, Jesus can’t be fully divine and also fully human if we understand human as meaning “just like us”, i.e. no more than us. Spong closes the gap by eliminating God, insofar as God is distinct from His creation. But at least he sees the central problem, which is that the difference between the holy God of the Bible and us mere mortals is so great that our brains freeze when we try to picture them coexisting in the same person.

I’ll confess right now that I believe in the Incarnation — as history, not just metaphor — because it makes me happy. Not because I can prove it through archaeological, textual or scientific evidence. For Spong & co., this makes me an idiot. On the DVD, Marcus Borg said the best we can hope for is “post-critical naivete”– though our critical intellect says these miracles couldn’t possibly have happened, our mature faith returns to find value in the stories as metaphor, bracketing the question of historical truth.

I suddenly felt more sympathy for the Saving Jesus project after hearing this, because it reminded me of where I was around the time of my conversion. I was totally convinced that the gospel of grace presented in St. Paul’s letters was the truest picture of human nature and our relationship to God that I could find. But was it intellectually honest to infer a historical truth from a psychological one? Ultimately I threw up my hands and said, “Well, if it didn’t exactly happen the way it said in the Bible, I still believe with all my heart that God is the kind of God who would love us enough to die for us, and that gets me most of the way there.”

Somehow since then I’ve become furiously certain that it actually happened more or less the way the Gospels said. I can’t rely confidently on God’s forgiveness unless I believe, first of all, that there is a real, personal, loving God, and when I start to doubt that, I’m forced to cling to the idea that He actually died to close the cosmic rift created by human sin. I wasn’t able to save myself, so I can’t rely on a Jesus who’s only the product of my imagination (even if I do ask the characters in my novel for advice on my love life).

Here’s a paradox for liberals to chew on: If religious truth is “what works for me,” what if the only thing that works for me is to believe my religion is objectively true?

Victory Lee Schouten: “Wild Seeds”

I follow deer trails across morning fields.
Cheat grass seeds cover my socks,
determined to travel.

Strangers touch, minds go blank,
dark promise comes alive.

Cold nests, starving fledglings.
Desperate mother brings home tainted food.

Nearby feral dogs wake, circle closer.

Blame their wicked ghost paws,
rabid spirits, howling and magnetic.

Blame our own stories grown thin and untold,
leaving us to dry and crumble.

We¹ve been good and lost, but we¹re found now.
And we lay claim to this life we fought for.

To the good men who love us,
the close friends who hold us steady.

To the bold children who are our hearts,
the vast earth which is our soul.

Peace, so unfamiliar we hardly knew its name,
is often with us now.

Grace drifts by and throws a kiss.

I wore a red hat to your wedding,
danced on the muddy grass.

Wild seeds need only a rumor of rain
to send out pale reaching roots.

Clouds of geese shift direction,
vanish in the mist.

(Victory is a board member of the Washington Poets Association. Read about the chapbooks she’s published here.)


Embracing Biblical Paradox

I’ve just discovered a post from September on the Christian blog Wonders for Oyarsa that offers a promising way to engage with the Bible’s apparent contradictions. Theological “liberals” tend to address this problem by excising the uncomfortable parts or questioning the authority of the whole book, while “conservatives” are more tempted to force everything into a neat scheme even if this means defending some Biblical characters’ morally troubling actions. Both approaches, however, wrongly reduce our relationship with God through the Bible to something we can wholly control and explain:

I am not in the business of arguing for the “errancy” of the Bible, as if the Bible should be a different book than it is. On the contrary, I believe it to be the work of God (albeit through free human agents) and that it is precisely the Bible he wants us to have. So I’m not at all in the interest of doing a Jeffersonian “pick-and-choose” scheme – discarding parts I find troubling or incredible, and keeping the parts I like.

But I do take issue with any hermeneutic that defends the inerrancy of scripture by disengaging it. I have problems when, come across with an obvious tension or contradiction, people reconcile it by making the Bible out to be saying something its not. I think it far better to then ask the question, “What is God trying to say to us through this contradiction?”, and a slavish loyalty to inerrancy as a doctrine makes that question unaskable.

Take, for instance, the notion that God “will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” My argument is that we need not suppress the idea that punishing someone for something his parents did is unjust. And lo and behold, the Bible agrees! “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.” My contention is that we shouldn’t blunt either passage by trying to make it say something less than it is, but rather be asking what God wants to teach us through this tension.

Basically, I am arguing that, though the Bible is the inspired word of God, we cannot always assume we know what God is doing with any particular passage.

Now, I like this approach the best of any I’ve seen, but I still don’t know where all this wrestling will end up. When does wrestling with contradictions become a dead end? If there’s no rule of thumb to resolve them, how do I know I will get anywhere? It’s hard enough to follow the Bible when I know what I should be doing. When I seem to have the option of both A and not-A, the potential for self-deception seems immense.

On the other hand, this morning I actually tried reading the Bible (instead of just thinking about it) to resolve my struggle over whether to leave my church, and it worked. (More about that later.) Another item for the “Jendi discovers the obvious” files.

The Liberal Myth of Christian Origins

Because “Saving Jesus” comes but once a week, I thought I’d post this article by N.T. Wright (yes, I’m a Bishop of Durham groupie) in case anyone else is going through heresy withdrawal. Musing on the appeal of The Da Vinci Code, Wright identifies and critiques the worldview that underlies both this book and the theological movement from which “Saving Jesus” arises. (BTW, have you ever wondered why the logo for the DVD series looks like a ransom note? Is it that he gave his life as a ransom for many, and now he needs us to return the favor?) And now, here’s Tommy:

The New Myth of Christian Origins
The myth that I am about to describe and critique is well known and widespread. I have met it at Harvard; I have met it in Baptist churches in the South; I have seen bits of it all over the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, which is the more ironic since those societies used to be devoted, in theory at least, to the supposedly scientific historical study of religions and ancient texts, and this myth is anything but scientific or historical. There are five elements in the myth, and The Da Vinci Code offers a sketchy but clear enough account of all of them.

This is the myth: First, there were dozens if not hundreds of other documents about Jesus. Some of these have now come to light, not least in the books discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt 60 years ago. These focus on Jesus more as a human being, a great religious teacher, than as a divine being. And it is these books which give us the real truth about Jesus.

Second, the four Gospels in the New Testament were later products aimed at divinizing Jesus and claiming power and prestige for the church. They were selected, for these reasons, at the time of Constantine in the fourth century, and the multiple alternative voices were ruthlessly suppressed.

Third, therefore, Jesus himself wasn’t at all like the four canonical Gospels describe him. He didn’t think he was God’s son, or that we would die for the sins of the world; he didn’t come to found a new religion. He was a human being pure and simple, who gave some wonderful moral and spiritual teaching, that’s all. Oh, and he may well have been married, perhaps even with a child on the way, when his career was cut short by death.

Fourth, therefore: Christianity as we know it is based on a mistake. Mainstream Christianity is sexist, especially anti-women and anti-sex itself. It has aimed at, and in some places achieved, considerable social power and prestige, enabling it to be politically quietist and conformist. This, I find, goes down especially well with those who are escaping from either fundamentalism or certain types of Roman Catholicism.

Fifth, the real pay-off: It is time to give up, as historically unwarranted, theologically unjustified, and spiritually and socially damaging, the picture of Jesus and Christian origins which the church has put about for so long, and to return to the supposedly original vision of Jesus himself, not least in terms of getting in touch with a different form of spirituality based on metaphor rather than literal truth, of feeling rather than structure, of discovering whatever faith you find you can believe in. This will revive the truth for which Jesus lived, and perhaps for which he died….

Wright goes on to discuss the historical background and accuracy of the non-canonical “gospels” and reasons for their exclusion. The political payoff of the article, though, is here:

Early Christianity was not primarily a movement which showed, or taught, how one might live a better life; that came as the corollary of the main emphasis, which was that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had fulfilled his age-old purposes, had dealt with the powers of evil, and had launched his project of new creation upon the world. The early Christian gospel, which was then written up in the four canonical Gospels, was the good news, not that a new teaching about hidden wisdom had appeared, enabling those who tapped into it to improve the quality of their lives here or even hereafter, but that something had happened through which the evil which had infected the world had been overthrown and a new creation launched, and that all human beings were invited to become part of that project by becoming renewed themselves.

In particular, this included from the start a strong political critique. Not the tired old left-wing harangue in Christian dress, of course, but a more subtle, more Jewish, more devastating critique: Jesus is Lord, therefore Caesar isn’t. That is there in Paul. It is there in Matthew, in John, in Revelation. If the canon was written, or read, to curry political favor, it was dramatically unsuccessful. Those who were thrown to the lions were not reading “Thomas” or Q or the “Gospel of Mary.” They were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the rest, and being sustained thereby in a subversive mode of faith and life which, growing out of apocalyptic Judaism, posed a far greater threat to Roman empire and pagan worldviews than Cynic philosophy or Gnostic spirituality ever could. Why would Caesar worry about people rearranging their private spiritualities? And when Constantine, faced with half his empire turning Christian, decided to go with the tide, what was the church supposed to do? Protest that it would be more authentic to remain a beleaguered and persecuted minority? Let comfortable Western Christians think about what the church had suffered under Diocletian in the years immediately before Constantine — and what the church is suffering in many parts of the world today — and ask themselves who has compromised, and with what.

In fact, the contemporary myth gets things exactly the wrong way round. It isn’t the case that the canonical New Testament is politically and socially quiescent, colluding with empire, while the Jesus whom we meet in the Nag Hammadi texts and similar documents is politically and socially subversive, so dangerous that he had to be suppressed. It’s the other way round, and this may be among the most telling points we have to recognize for today. You may salve your own conscience by embracing Gnosticism, by telling yourself how very wicked the world is and how you are going to escape it once and for all by following the path of spiritual self-discovery and enlightenment. But if Caesar takes any notice at all, all he will do is sneer at you and go on his way to yet more triumphs of sheer power. And if that happened in the second century, we can be sure it’s precisely what’s happening today. Heidegger and Bultmann couldn’t prevent Hitler; Derrida and Foucault and their numerous disciples can’t do anything to stop the new empires of today. Certainly those who are advocating a new kind of do-it-yourself spirituality, and claiming that Jesus is somehow in or behind it all, cut no ice on the political front….

One of the basic fault lines in the contemporary Western world is the line between neo-Gnosticism on the one hand and the challenge of Jesus on the other. Please note that, despite strenuous attempts to make this line coincide with the current sharp left-right polarization of American culture and politics, it simply doesn’t. Nor, for that matter, does it coincide with the polarizations of British or European culture either. So what is this real, deep polarization which runs through our world?

Neo-Gnosticism is the philosophy that invites you to search deep inside yourself and discover some exciting things by which you must then live. It is the philosophy which declares that the only real moral imperative is that you should then be true to what you find when you engage in that deep inward search. But this is not a religion of redemption. It is not at all a Jewish vision of the covenant God who sets free the helpless slaves. It appeals, on the contrary, to the pride that says “I’m really quite an exciting person, deep down, whatever I may look like outwardly” — the theme of half the cheap movies and novels in today’s world. It appeals to the stimulus of that ever-deeper navel-gazing (“finding out who I really am”) which is the subject of a million self-help books, and the home-made validation of a thousand ethical confusions. It corresponds, in other words, to what a great many people in our world want to believe and want to do, rather than to the hard and bracing challenge of the very Jewish gospel of Jesus. It appears to legitimate precisely that sort of religion which a large swathe of America and a fair chunk of Europe yearns for: a free-for-all, do-it-yourself spirituality, with a strong though ineffective agenda of social protest against the powers that be, and an I’m-OK-you’re-OK attitude on all matters religious and ethical. At least, with one exception: You can have any sort of spirituality you like (Zen, labyrinths, Tai Chi) as long as it isn’t orthodox Christianity.

By contrast, the challenge of Jesus, in the 21st century as in the first, is that we should look away from ourselves and get on board with the project the one true God launched at creation and re-launched with Jesus himself. The authentic Christian gospel, which is good news about something that has happened as a result of which the world is a different place — this gospel demands that we submit to Jesus as Lord and allow all other allegiances, loves and self-discoveries to be realigned in that light. God’s project, and God’s gospel, are rooted in solid history as opposed to Gnostic fantasy and its modern equivalents. Genuine Christianity is to be expressed in self-giving love and radical holiness, not self-cosseting self-discovery. And it lives by, and looks for the completion of, the new world in which God will put all things to rights and wipe away all tears from all eyes; in which all knees will bow at the name of Jesus, not because he had a secret love-child, not because he was a teacher of recondite wisdom, not because he showed us how we could get in touch with the hidden feminine, but because he died as the fulfillment of the Scriptural story of God’s people and rose as the fulfillment of the world-redeeming purposes of the same creator God; and because, in that death and resurrection, we discover him to be the one at whose name every knee shall indeed bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, confessing Jesus Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Signs of the Apocalypse: Terrorist French Fries

My local paper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette (subscription required), ran this front-page story on Thursday:

Several illuminated electronic devices planted at bridges and other spots in Boston threw a scare into the city Wednesday in what turned out to be a publicity campaign for a late-night cable cartoon. Most of the devices depict a character giving the finger….

Highways, bridges and a section of the Charles River were shut down and bomb squads were sent in before authorities declared the devices were harmless.

Turner Broadcasting, a division of Time Warner Inc. and parent of Cartoon Network, later said the devices were part of a promotion for the TV show “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” a surreal series about a talking milkshake, a box of fries and a meatball….

“The packages in question are magnetic lights that pose no danger,” Turner said in a statement.

It said the devices have been in place for two to three weeks in 10 cities: Boston; New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; Atlanta; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Austin, Texas; San Francisco; and Philadelphia….

Authorities said some of the objects looked like circuit boards or had wires hanging from them.

The first device was found at a subway and bus station underneath Interstate 93, forcing the shutdown of the station and the highway.

Later, police said four calls, all around 1 p.m., reported devices at the Boston University Bridge and the Longfellow Bridge, both of which span the Charles River, at a Boston street corner and at the Tufts-New England Medical center.

The package near the Boston University bridge was found attached to a structure beneath the span, authorities said.

Subway service across the Longfellow Bridge between Boston and Cambridge was briefly suspended, and Storrow Drive was closed as well. A similar device was found Wednesday evening just north of Fenway Park, police spokesman Eddy Chrispin said.

If there was ever a sign that we’ve slipped back into pre-9/11 complacency, this is it. Two cheers for the people of Boston for eventually noticing the devices and alerting the police, but how did the company’s hired go-fers manage to plant them in such sensitive locations in the first place? Why no reaction from the other cities? We’ve just revealed a huge hole in our national security to any terrorists who read the AP wire, and for what? A box of french fries flipping the bird. Well, they do say fast food can kill you.