Jeff Mock: “The God of Simple Vision”

It’s not easy to write a poem critiquing fundamentalism without falling into the same black-and-white thinking as one’s opponents, only with heroes and villains reversed. Outrage, however righteous, can work at cross-purposes to the subtler techniques that give a good poem its depth. Complexity and ambiguity leave room for the reader to inhabit the poem, and give her a reason to reread it. On the other hand, there are times when a loud, clear voice is the only way to do justice to a serious topic.

This poem by Jeff Mock, a creative writing professor at Southern Connecticut State University, skillfully navigates these pitfalls. Rather than presenting a counter-polemic, he redescribes the Christian conservatives’ triumphalism as a tragedy, where repression of the unfamiliar and inexplicable makes them blind to the very thing they seek. It originally appeared in LocusPoint, in a group of his “god/goddess of…” poems that I encourage you to read, and is reprinted with his permission.


Complexity blurs the silhouettes of everything,
Even on a grand scale: you may, from a distance,

Mistake a sassafras leaf for all
Of North America. You may mistake it
For the mashed peas your mother served you

Before you knew right from wrong.
You may mistake it for the guard who all night

Paces the watchtower and scans
The borderlands. One man’s stranger
Is another man’s threat. Some

Unlucky victims, it’s true, are more
Unlucky than others. And while Heaven does not

Belong in the realm of politics, you may mistake
A sunflower for your Lord Jesus Christ
Walking, arms outstretched, toward you through

The Electoral College and perfumed gardens
Of America. It is simple, really: nothing

Outside is inside. You may not be of two
Minds, not when just a modicum
Of grade-school theology will direct

Your every step to the midway where you’ll find
The con artists and carnival tricks

And moral flag-waving, the lurching
Haze. Every stranger is a shadow
On your heart. Subtract charity and you all

Come to your Lord less than equal—
You are separate. Across the gulf of difference,

The grief of other victims is authentic
And utterly strange. Their grief cannot
Touch you, nor their love. So love gives out

And is merely a funeral without a body,
Which you may well mistake for a miracle.

“Julian’s Yearbook” Published in Chapter One Promotions Anthology

Back in 2008, I was excited to learn that my short story “Julian’s Yearbook”, featuring the protagonist of my endless novel, had won the Chapter One Promotions International Short Story Competition. You can read the first page here. Four years later, the long-awaited prizewinners’ anthology is now available for purchase. Titled Infinite, it features an evocative cover photo that complements my tale of a young man’s yearning for freedom and intimate connection.

Order a copy by mail using this form, or online here (more convenient for readers outside the UK).

Winners of the 2012 PEN Prison Writing Program Awards

The PEN American Center, a literary organization with a human rights focus, sponsors writing programs in U.S. prisons and gives annual awards for the best submissions of poetry and prose by incarcerated writers. This year’s winners were posted on their website in July. Here are some highlights of my reading so far.

Christopher Myers’s second-prize poem “Tell Me the Story Again About the Frogs and the Seeds” is a poignant and hopeful message from a father to his young son about the future springtime when he will be released.

In Ezekiel Caliguiri’s gorgeously written first-prize memoir “The Last Visit from the Girl in the Willow Tree”, the girl he loved as a teenager remains in his heart as a radiant image, like Dante’s Beatrice–a bittersweet reminder of the life he could have had, if he hadn’t yielded to fatalism and the desire to appear tough.

Atif Rafay’s first-prize scholarly essay “Bleak Housing & Black Americans” indicts American prison policy as a disguised return to segregation and disenfranchisement of African-Americans, and asks why our prison system is more brutal and ugly than either crime-prevention or fair punishment require. Because racism is irrational and covert, rational appeals for reform have a limited impact. In addition, he argues, “The argument from racial disparity ultimately scants the crucial point: present policies are wrong because they are destructively harsh…An argument that invites human beings to regard themselves as part of a ‘race’ and to think of compassion for the Other rather than to think of justice for all will ineluctably break any promise it might seem to hold out.”

Leonard Scovens’s honorable mention memoir “How I Became My Father” takes us inside the struggles of a fatherless young black man seeking male role models. “You grow up without a dad and you dream his ghost into a god. When Luke [Skywalker]’s phantom god was smashed and broken across Vader’s confession, he lost his grip. If Vader was his father, what did it mean for his fate? The sins of the father, after all, are visited upon the son.”

To Dream the Ecclesial Dream: Making Demands on the Liberal Church

We yearn to have companions
who travel by our side,
strong friends to call and answer
with whom we are allied…

These words from Dosia Carlson’s contemporary hymn “We yearn, O Christ, for wholeness” (sung to the tune of “O Sacred Head”) keep running through my mind as I contemplate my feelings of alienation within the church. We’ve had a good debate on this blog about the shortcomings I perceive in the conservative Christian approach to religious knowledge. But I felt exhausted and alone after this discussion, and so many others like it, whenever I’ve tried to widen the lens beyond the usual proof-text battles over homosexuality. Are Christian progressives and postmodernists failing to step up to the challenge of advancing religious philosophy of knowledge beyond the tired old rationalist/supernaturalist debates of the 19th century? What would make the liberal church a radical church?

Beyond “Inclusion”

The liberal churches’ pastoral response to marginalized groups has been stronger than their theological response. The Episcopal Church, for instance, has shown leadership in appointing women clergy at all levels of authority, and in rolling back discrimination against GLBT clergy and laypeople. But apart from rebutting traditionalists’ interpretation of certain Bible verses to the contrary (“women keep silent in churches” and the like), we haven’t developed a positive Scripture-based ethic to replace conservative sexual mores.

To begin with, the concept of “inclusion” can’t bear all the weight we place on it. Postmodernist gadfly Stanley Fish, a professor of law and literature, has written many books urging progressives to flesh out their substantive values and proclaim them fearlessly, rather than hiding behind procedural values that give the false appearance of neutrality. “Inclusion” is one of his favorite targets. Every community has boundaries, implicit or explicit, to exclude those values and behaviors that the community simply cannot tolerate without jeopardizing its reason for existence. When we dodge conflict by pretending that there are no boundaries, we are also evading the accountability of a communal discussion about where those boundaries should be.

With respect to the status of GLBT Christians, the liberal church would welcome them unconditionally, while the conservative church would say that they have to acknowledge and work on correcting their sinful tendencies in order to be members in good standing. But why do we disagree?

Is it because we can explain why gender nonconformity and same-sex intercourse are not sinful according to Scripture? If so, have we articulated principles of responsible interpretation, so that our departure from the apparent meaning of other Biblical proscriptions does not degenerate into a free-for-all?

Is it because we don’t consider Scripture authoritative, or at least not more authoritative than reason and experience? The same question applies, as well as the question of whether we have made our religion irrelevant.

Or do we take the lazy way out and invoke “inclusion”? Here is where it gets knotty. Because there must be–there should be–some instances where the liberal church would put moral conditions on inclusion. Pedophiles, sexual harassers, “johns” who purchase exploited and trafficked women, perpetrators of domestic violence, maybe even adulterers. Economic exploitation could also come in for criticism if the rights and wrongs of the situation are clear enough (e.g. sweatshop labor, human trafficking).

I don’t mean that these people would always be banned from church or denied communion, though that might also be necessary. But at the very least, the church would publicly deem those behaviors unacceptable, and press sinners to repent and reform. (When was the last time you heard the word “sin” in your liberal church? Just asking.)

As it is, we flip back and forth between the rationales that “Jesus welcomed everybody” and “Jesus didn’t condemn homosexuality” as if they were the same. They aren’t. Jesus didn’t actually welcome everybody. He called some behaviors sinful, and he said that some sins were serious enough to be incompatible with the kingdom of Heaven. Whether we understand that as a statement about the afterlife, or about the kind of society he wants us to create here and now, the point is that our concepts of inclusion and tolerance owe more to Enlightenment philosophy than to the Bible.

Another, theologically more important, pitfall of the inclusion paradigm is that it keeps the church’s power in the hands of the human heterosexual majority rather than conceding it to God. It shouldn’t be about whether we are convinced to let gays into “our” church. It’s about universal access to the Holy Spirit. It’s about humbling ourselves and problematizing our privileges so that we learn to view any type of group-based domination as a historical accident rather than a divine right.

We need this level of spiritual formation in the liberal church. Jesus calls us to rethink the worldly understanding of power. We don’t foreground this issue enough, except in generalized anti-war sermons and charitable appeals. It should be brought into our personal lives as well.

Inclusion is an important concept, but it’s not the whole of our faith, and it doesn’t solve every problem.

Sex After Patriarchy

Monogamous love matches between consenting adults represent our modern ideal of marriage, but this norm doesn’t come from the Bible, and in fact you have to look hard to find examples. In addition, the diverse marriage patterns approved or uncritically represented in the Bible include several that we’d recognize as oppressive today: e.g. a woman forced to marry her rapist, a widow forced to marry her brother-in-law, or a male and female slave paired off by their owners. Reports from survivors of polygamous sects suggest that this arrangement also carries an unacceptable risk of exploitation and neglect of women and children.

Apart from opening up modern marriage to same-sex couples, does the liberal church have anything to say about gospel norms for sexuality? As St. Paul noted in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful.” (See parallel translations here.) The liberal church hasn’t given us any resources for discerning what is helpful. In today’s chaotic and hypersexualized culture, that’s serious neglect of the flock.

For instance, why is monogamy the only Christian option? Would Jesus disapprove of the honestly negotiated open relationships that quite a few married gay male couples enjoy? I really don’t know, and I’ve never been in a church that took the initiative to shape this conversation.

Conservative Christianity focuses on lists of acceptable and forbidden acts, with too little regard for the quality of the relationship within which they occur. Husband’s penis in wife’s vagina is presumptively God-approved. Anything else needs a special permit. Once we reject this legalism, though, how do we assess that relationship? Does sex have to be tender and egalitarian? What about role-playing and BDSM? Married, LTR, or one-night stand?

We are long overdue for a discussion about the qualities of character that Jesus wants us to cultivate, and how our sexual habits can build up or damage that character. The late Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body” uses specificially Christian concepts like Incarnation and Trinity to depict an ideal sexuality that integrates body, mind, and spirit. Despite th
e Catholic Church’s problematic assumptions about gender and sexual orientation, we can learn a lot from this project.

The liberal church is still reacting so hard against sexist and homophobic stigma that we are afraid to suggest any limits on sexual self-expression. This lapse is not cost-free. It imposes collateral damage on the children of casually formed and dissolved sexual pairings, and on adults who need guidance to recognize that they’re reenacting traumatic patterns.

From Liberal to Liberators

“Why don’t they just leave?”

Outsiders often ask this question about victims of intimate partner violence and adult survivors of child abuse who remain in contact with the abuser. These interrogators need to be educated about the brainwashing, learned helplessness, and fear of losing one’s entire social world when the relationship is terminated. Go now and read a complete explanation on the survivor website Pandora’s Project. I’ll wait.

Liberal Christians are prone to the same insensitivity toward our conservative brothers and sisters. We get angry at women and gays in patriarchal churches for apparently colluding in their own oppression, or we dismiss them as stupid. We flatter ourselves that rape culture and abuse-enabling myths are confined to right-wing institutions, whereas the average Baptist wife and mother looks at the sexual brutality and relationship chaos of modern America and decides, not irrationally, that she is safer in a community where at least some men recognize a duty to protect her and her children. The preachers of patriarchy encourage these fear-based compromises by implying that women who are not modest and submissive are asking to be raped, as last month’s dust-up over Douglas Wilson and Fifty Shades of Grey demonstrated.

Feminist bloggers like Rachel Held Evans, linked above, and Grace at Are Women Human? wrote thorough refutations of this abuse-enabling theology. But the liberal church, as a whole, hasn’t devoted nearly enough resources to identifying this heresy wherever it appears, and providing compassionate support to conservative Christian women whose own religious leaders are covering up abuse.

When we say “Why don’t you leave?” we are basically asking hundreds of thousands of Christians to join the Witness Protection Program — to turn their backs on their family and friends, the music they love, the culture they know best, the beliefs that carried them through tough times — and become New England Unitarians. There’s a lot of nourishment that conservative churches provide, which we don’t consistently offer.

For instance, members facing serious illness can be comforted by a robust public affirmation of the power of prayer to work miracles. Spouses struggling with temptation to cheat, and teenagers confused by their overpowering new urges, benefit from collective reinforcement of moral standards and the wider time horizon that their faith suggests. Conservatives say that Jesus is alive and actively caring for us, not just a good moral example from history. He bears us up in our weakness and forgives our sins; he doesn’t only command us to share our abundance. Let me tell you, when I’m drowning in anxiety and grief, I need the Lord of the Storm, not a Nobel Peace Prize winner. People in crisis will be loyal to the religion that brings order out of chaos, even at the cost of some personal freedom.

The liberal church’s avoidance of the topic of personal, relational sins (as opposed to economic and collective political ones) can actually make victims feel less safe. “And such a one was I…” The replacement of “Truth” with “true for you” removes the standard against which we can begin to judge our abuser’s behavior. Didn’t she already try to make us believe that reality was whatever she wanted it to be? We survivors need communally agreed-upon facts and moral values, in order to name our secret trauma, hand back the shame, and dethrone the god-like accuser in our head.

We liberal Christians can’t coast forever on the sins we don’t commit. We should become active allies of Christians who are entrapped by a distorted version of our shared faith.

And let it begin with me.