Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Holier Than Thou

I got home from convention on Sunday night to find a tract from a KJV-only church sitting on my kitchen counter. Apparently they left it in our door jam and Hubster brought the paper in without settling it in the 86 bin forthwith. "Great!" I thought, "the same brand of Christian I dodge at conventions followed me home. These people are relentless!"

I just finished my last convention of the season. And I'm pretty happy that, for a few months anyway, there'll be no more wandering in to an exhibit hall and noticing that my choices brand me as a lesser sister in Christ. I wear pants, my clothing is tailored to flatter my body (which has breasts and hips attached to the uterus which determines my role in their society, FANCY THAT), I wear make-up and I have a short, some might say "androgynous" hair style. It should be noted that "androgynous" is synonymous with "unholy" because nothing that doesn't point out my role as a silent uterus is unwelcome. On a related note, I don't yet have children though I've been married for almost two years. Clearly, I am damned.

It shouldn't bother me - after all, they're making their decisions and I'm making mine. If we disagree, why then we'll just have to peacefully coexist, right? See, I'd like to think that. But then I look at their daughters who are constantly being told that the happiest day of their life will be the day the complete authority of their fathers will be transferred to their husbands who will then be their ultimate authority on earth. No joke, I had to stare at a book across the aisle all weekend whose title was Before You Meet Prince Charming (oh, yes - I DID just link to it, GAH!). Wow, are those girls in for a disappointment when their man needs to be saved occasionally, or when their man's "ultimate authority" makes him think he can manipulate you into having sex though you already have 5 children and you're supposed to be abstaining according to your Natural Family Planning schedule prevent hijo #6. Not that the men don't lose out in their system what with the exhaustion from working to feed those mouths without help from a second family income [Woman's place is in the home!].

But back to the tract. Let's dissect it, shall we? The first thing you notice are the giant letters "K J V" superimposed on a clipart image of an open book. Awesome - if that's not a picture of what they actually think, then what could possibly be? The KJV is more important the Bible itself. Brilliant.

When I open it, I'm expecting an invitation to their church with descriptions of their community and programs. Instead, these words meet my eyes: "If you were to die today, where would you spend eternity?" The question is making me think, but not about what they're saying because suddenly I'm back at the homeschool convention I attended at the tender age of 13? 14? I'm sitting in the "Teen Convention" while they give us evangelism cards and we're about to head out to the streets of Columbus, Ohio for a little Street Assault Preaching. That's not what they called it, but I can't be sure that no Christian group has ever been tactless enough to use that name before. I'm willing to allow that someone, somewhere has had their eyes opened by a stranger's words of hope in the gospel, but I doubt it was ours. Our gospel, like this tract's gospel has the following main points:

1. Everyone has sinned.
2. God judges sin.
3. The payment for sin is eternal death in the lake of fire.
4. Jesus Christ died for our sins.
5. Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
6. Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven.
7. Salvation is a free gift.
8. Receiving the gift of eternal life.
9. Becoming a saint of God.
10. The sinner's prayer.
11. The promise of eternal life.
12. Angels rejoicing.
13. Faithfully serving God in a local Bible-believing church.

I look over the list and there really isn't anything wrong with, per se. I mean, I'd leave off the emphasis on avoiding eternal damnation because then it's more like a Holy Sales Pitch - "repent now, save the charred tush later!" I might also focus on the whole "communion with God severed by our sin" angle, but you know, whatever. I would also MAKE THE TITLES SYMMETRICAL, for the love of our shared Deity would it KILL them to observe some aesthetics? (Ahem, graphic geek got out of control there. Back to your regularly scheduled polemic.)

Anyhow, though there's nothing wrong with their literal words on the page, all the proof-texting under each section gets really old, really fast, and it seems out of place. First, unless you agree that the Bible is your source for truth, then there's no point in obsessively referencing it. Second, they need to note the philosophical and metaphysical assumptions. WHY does God have to judge sin? That's never really clear. You're just supposed to go, "yup!" and move on. Basically, both of those boil down to assuming a religious background that not everyone shares anymore. This isn't the 1840s, you know? I doubt whether a majority of Americans have been raised with a background that would make them immediately responsive to this kind of solicitation. And in the Washington DC suburbs? UM, NO! Shouldn't their tack be a bit more, I don't know, APPROPRIATE TO THEIR AUDIENCE. (Ahem, rhetoric/philosophy geek out of control.)

And it's odd that this is hitting me like a ton of bricks now because I have similar moments of unfocused but undeniable anger regularly during convention season. I read Amalah's manifesto on what drove her out of her mind with her fundamentalist Christian upbringing recently. I never went so far as to repudiate all organized religion, or even all organized Christian religion, but I can understand the desire not to be numbered with brothers and sisters like these. Maybe having that tract dumped in my lap felt like the an invasion. I walk into those conventions because it's my job. I walk into my home because it's mine, a shelter but also a refuge.

Upon reflection, though, it's hypocritical of me not to be able to stand these brothers and sisters when I keep saying they should be able to stand me as a sister in Christ. I'm getting as riled by their doctrinal differences as they would be with mine. Where does it end?

I guess it doesn't in a pluralistic society, but you learn to work around differences. I'm okay with my neighbors having a "Pagan and Proud" bumper sticker. I can talk to atheists and not feel uncomfortable. Maybe it's because I'm supposed to be one with my fellow Christians that the angst is introduced. Remember when I wrote about the racist I met in Mississippi? I vividly remember thinking that she only said what she did because our white skin said we were like her. Isn't it possible for me to be angry with these belligerent Christians if we draw the analogy, or is flawed?

I'm really asking the questions, guys.


GMack said...

First, I say if you have to curves show them off. There is nothing the matter with large perky breasts. Secondly, I know what you are saying about the stupid Bible thumping Christians who make the rest of us look bad. I can totally see why people hate Christians. Thirdly, I pretty much hate any bumper stickers that are trying to make a statement. You don't see millionaires going around with bumper stickers on their Ferarris that say Rich and Proud of it or something of the sort.

CharlesPeirce said...

e, thanks for the honest and insightful post. Keep wrestling!

J. Morgan Caler said...


Having grown up in an independent, revivalist, rapture-awaiting, KJV-only, patristic, literalist, Baptist church, I can completely relate to your struggle. How is that we and they share the same faith? DO we share the same faith or are we erroneously calling different things by the same name? Yeah, it takes its toll to be a faithful Christian wondering how other faithful Christians can be so blind to the obvious.

For most of my life, I have rejected – in part or, more often, in whole – Christianity because I could not understand how obvious truths could be denied or ignored when they became inconvenient to precisely the same people who hammered away with “T”ruth.

It has occurred to me, however, in the last few years, that it is because these things are actually and legitimately not obvious truths apart from a whole set of assumptions about “the way things are” that Christians – and everyone else – can be so vehemently oppositional about some of the most basic things.

Let me give you my early childhood example. I was a dinosaur child. I went to the museums, watch the PBS, read the books, and bought the rubber models. I was all about the dinosaurs. I can remember being very young – 4 or 5 probably – and rejecting Christianity more-or-less in its entirety because, as I understood it, Christian faith necessitated an account of the physical world that precluded the possibility of the actual existence of dinosaurs. And, because there was no room for dinosaurs in Christianity, there was no room in Christianity for me. Cased closed. Now, for most of my life, I thought that these people were absolutely absurd, stupid, and ignorant. I also thought that, deep down, they probably knew that there were dinosaurs and that their account of things was deeply flawed. I couldn’t understand why they held onto it (power, fear, convenience, etc. were all top contenders).

I have since come to realize, however, that it wasn’t anything like that. For fundamentalists (and everyone, but I am sticking with the example), the basic, unquestionable assumptions about the constitutive elements of the world and human existence made claims and arguments for the existence of dinosaurs, to them, completely implausible and almost laughable. They are, at least to some extent, operating with a different lexicon that yield very different translations.

So, in thinking about your examples, it occurs to me that, in all likelihood, for most women who have grown up in this culture and currently exist in a patriarchal, authoritative familial arrangement, none of this is intelligible or experienced as oppressive. “Biology isn’t destiny” is literally unintelligible to these women. Most of them, I suspect, are very proud to be stay-at-home moms with 7 kids and an Econoline van. Even things about their lives that are less-than-desirable – like being coerced into having sex when they don’t want to – don’t necessarily indict this arrangement or the basic assumptions that support it (likewise, it wouldn’t occur to me that, if I got cancer, I would lose faith in the medical establishment).

I can tell you that, for Southerners of a particular generation and background, Christianity and strong racial views are not in any way incompatible. Charles and I have often noted to each other that Christianity is incredibly flexible in terms of the variety of philosophical assumptions to which it can be easily and happily married. To that I would add that, I think, ideally, Christianity would generate or rely on previously-generated philosophical systems internal to itself, but that it isn’t necessarily problematic for it to look elsewhere.

I imagine that the flexibility of Christianity is itself a reflection of the inestimable love of God for His children, in all their variations and forms. The knowledge of Him is literally not confinable; likewise the communion of saints and the unity of the Church is not either. Building the literal presence of Christ in the world with badly damaged pieces is no easy task and, by the very nature of the pieces, the product of even a perfect Craftsman – until He chooses to perfect the pieces themselves - will not be able to hide wounds and scars. It occurs to me that, for God, the pain caused to His Church by the things that you have noted, is a continuation of the pain experienced on the cross. For us, however, an understanding of the reasons for these basic disagreements, I think, can be good for humility, charity, and self-reflection.

Anyway, it is just a rather long thought. Thanks for your post; it was great. As I am sure you can now see, I very strongly relate.


Don Quixote said...

For what it is worth, let’s say ‘exasperated’ rather than ‘angry.’ Given that, I think there are times you SHOULD be exasperated with your fellow Christians. After all, I get exasperated with my little girl from time to time. In fact, I get more exasperated with her specifically because I love her. When her friends do stupid things, I might roll my eyes, but that’s about it. If SHE does stupid things, I get exasperated. Since I love her and want the best for her, I get very upset when I see her doing things that will turn out bad for her in the long run. Thus, since we love our brothers and sisters in Christ, we should get upset with them when they do stupid things.

I think the main thing to worry about is WHAT you get exasperated about. The KJV only thing is a legitimate thing to get upset about. After all, we’re talking about God’s word here. When someone goes around saying that a second-rate translation like the KJV is the ONLY way to read the Bible, that person is basically saying that people are not allowed to understand what was said in the original documents, which are really what make up God’s word.

Even the hellfire and brimstone emphasis is worth getting a bit exasperated about. After all, while eternal damnation is, indeed, waiting for those who are not born again, there are many other reasons to be born again – experiencing God’s love firsthand, having the support of the body of Christ, etc.

However, from my point of view, your exasperation at your fellow Christians for the way in which they raise their children is a bit out of bounds. I know that YOU could never imagine doing the “old fashioned” motherly role, but please understand that most of the women who play that role do so because they WANT to do so and are most fulfilled by doing so. As a result, isn’t it natural for them to want their female children to do the same? After all, they want their children to be as happy as possible, and for THEM, that role made them as happy as possible (at least in their eyes).

Please look at it from their point of view. Suppose you raised your female child to be a go-getter. Suppose you wanted her to succeed in a career. THEY would think that YOU are indoctrinating your child into a life that is not best for her. However, who are they to tell you how to raise your kid? In the same way, who are you to tell them?

Ideally, of course, EVERY child should be raised with the idea that he or she can do ANYTHING with his or her life. If a little girl grows up and wants to be a stay-at-home mom who supports her husband in everything, she should. If she grows up and wants to be the hardest-hitting attorney to ever approach the bar, she should do that as well. Thus, when it comes to what they should do when they grow up, we should present ALL options to our children with equal weight. However, my gut feeling is that if YOU have a little girl, you will not do that. You have your ideas on what will make your little girl happiest, and you will push them. I think the homeschool mothers that you are so upset are doing EXACTLY the same thing.

E.A.P said...

Thanks for the comments, lads.

j morgan - Gone are the days when your obstinate pursuit of the position as All-Time Devil's Advocate in our freshman group made me want to smack you like my little brothers. Oh, there's mischief in your eyes, but your ideas and priorities are a source of inspiration to me. Thanks for sharing your experience; I'll be chewing it over for a while.

don quixote - I know we've had conversations about this before, so I'm surprised that you misread me. I have ABSOLUTELY nothing against the stay-at-home mom. I have a few friends my age who have already stepped into those shoes and love them. You can thank them for breaking me of any assumptions about their life and aims and the happiness that it can bring to them and their children. I would have no problem at all with a daughter who chose that path.

I have a major problem with a perspective that gives the female half of the species no options as either independent women or as a childless married women. I will admit some cultural conditioning has made me choose college, marriage, even my taste in music. Early in their lives they learn, they are made to feel that nothing BUT motherhood is an option for them. Women will be as diverse as men in their choices because we are ultimately human. I was going to point out that it isn't assumed that men will marry and have children, but I guess in their culture it is. I focus on the women's plight out of empathy and exposure - after all, I talk to a good deal more women than men in that community. I also object to their culture boxing men in to few and constrained roles, I just might not have language for it, and I certainly wouldn't understand their position as well.

Your paragraph about the ideal of being raised with options hit the nail on the head. I would hope that if/when any tiny brains are learning the ropes with my husband and me, I would give them the options that God gives them - to glorify him in every way he grants them to do so.

I should also point out that I'm not exactly conquering the world right now. I'm working, partially out of need, partially out of desire to do that right now. Later on, who knows what I'll choose and IT JUST MIGHT BE STAY-AT-HOME MOTHERHOOD. I just find the "biology as destiny" makes me itchier than the no-children-just-work option, and the fact that it's cloaked in Biblical rhetoric makes me itchiest of all.

RedHurt said...

Did Grant just call your breasts large and perky?

Really great post. "Regularly scheduled polemic" - that'll stick with me. I think you're right on in saying that there's nothing wrong with most of it PER SE, but that it's ultimately tactless and useless and probably does more harm than good.

My wife's uterus is inactive but not silent, and it keeps me up all night singing "yankee doodle dandy" or the theme from "I dream of Jeanie." What a pain.

Don Quixote said...

I don't think I misunderstood you. You think it is bad that some mothers teach their girls to strive to become stay-at-home-moms. I say that this is completely natural, since most of those mothers find that this role fulfills them, and they simply want their girls to be fulfilled as well. I am not saying it is right. As you say, all options should be encouraged. However, I am saying it is natural. You tend to encourage your children to pursue those avenues that YOU think will fulfill them the most. If you are fulfilled by being a stay-at-home mom, it is only natural for you to teach your girls to be the same.

J. Morgan Caler said...

EAP, thanks for you kindness about my comment. I agree with much of what you and Don Quixote have said, but there is one point that I think I do disagree with and that, for me at least, makes a big difference.

The Knight of the Sad Face said, “Ideally, of course, EVERY child should be raised with the idea that he or she can do ANYTHING with his or her life” and, again, “As you say, all options should be encouraged.” I don’t think I agree with that in any principled sense. I mean, that is itself one of those “basic, unquestionable assumptions about the constitutive elements of the world and human existence” that I was talking about in my post. There are lots of cultures – many American fundamentalist cultures included – that would reject that premise or for whom it wouldn’t even be on the map. Not to stereotype (too much), but that is a white, middle-to-upper-middle-class assumption about “how things should be” that isn’t necessarily shared by other people, even other people who share the same faith.

And why is that such a bad thing? When the Roman Catholic Church allowed African faithful to incorporate traditional, tribal costume into the Liturgy, everyone cheered that this was a great step forward and an acknowledgement that Christ and His Church have no boundaries. When it is close to home - say, a different culture in the same country (presumably where we think they don’t have any excuses) - or something that we have a vested interest in - say, as married persons or as women – then it is, at best, something unfortunate that we as enlightened Christians should be “exasperated” with.

Why does my objection matter at all? Well, I think it matters because it allows us to see a culture that we deeply disagree with (say American fundamentalism) through lenses that don’t look down on it without giving up one ounce of our deep disagreement. As I said in my original post, “an understanding of the reasons for these basic disagreements, I think, can be good for humility, charity, and self-reflection.” I think that we not only need to understand, as the Man of La Mancha has pointed out, that these are real differences, but also the extent and depth of them (I think they go all the way down). So, I am not advocating some tolerant cultural relativism - I still think I am right and that we are doing it the right way – but I am saying that that doesn’t necessitate viewing other cultures that I deeply disagree with as “exasperating.” They REALLY are different (which is how, in my original comment, I got around to “the inestimable love of God for His children, in all their variations and forms.”

I also wanted to say something about the gender issue. A gender critique doesn’t exactly make sense in these cultures if they are consistent. As EAP has pointed out, both women AND men who start having kids at 18 and keep going until they are 35 are pretty boxed in. Biology is destiny for BOTH genders. Procreation and child rearing / child providing is the extent of life, regardless of gender. The gender critique comes in – and in fact originally came out of – an inconsistent culture in which women continued to be boxed in by being EXCLUSIVELY tied to procreation and child rearing while men were not. When you have a man who goes to college, works in an office, travels for business, and has a poker night while women are “barefoot and in the kitchen,” then a gender critique is more than appropriate. When both genders work their asses off for nothing more than child rearing / child providing, then the critique looses some of its potency.

Don Quixote said...

J. Morgan Caler,

I really have to disagree with you here. I certainly understand that there are some cultures for which raising a girl (or a boy for that matter) to be "anything he or she wants to be" is not even a possibility. However, I think it is pretty clear those cultures are wrong.

We can, at times, say that some cultures (even ours) are wrong about certain things. The culture of a subset of people in Iraq right now, for example, says that it is okay to kill someone because he or she disagrees with you on a religious issue. I think it is pretty clear that such a cultural view is wrong. In the same way, I think that raising children with the idea that there are some things they cannot do is demonstrably wrong.

First, it is wrong from a social benefits perspective. What if Mari Curie’s mother had raised her not to be a scientist? We would not know what we know about radioactivity, which has been used in nuclear medicine to save thousands of lives. What if Heather D. Mayor’s parents had raised her saying that she could not be a scientist? The adeno-associated virus might never have been discovered, and gene therapy would not be at the stage it is today. The list of people in professions for which their gender is “non-traditional” who have changed society for the better can go on for pages and pages. In the end, then, society suffers when parents impose culturally-related restrictions on their children’s futures.

Also, it is wrong from a Christian point of view. God gives us each talents, and He expects us to use those talents. When we put restrictions on what our children can do when they grow up, we are putting restrictions on how they can utilize their God-given talents. That comes very close to blasphemy, as we are saying that we know how to deal with our children’s talents better than God does.

I agree that raising your children to be all they can be “is a white, middle-to-upper-middle-class assumption about ‘how things should be’.” However, I think in this case, the white, middle-to-upper-middle-class people have it right. We have it wrong about a good many things, but in this case, I think both society and God are better served if children are raised to be whatever they want to be.

Jackscolon said...

I'm ignoring the larger issue here, but I'm up for picking some nits.

Don Quixote-

1) On raising children to be ANYTHING- Let's say you lived in Las Vegas (to avoid legal issues) and your daughter wanted to be an escort- would you object? After all, "I think that raising children with the idea that there are some things they cannot do is demonstrably wrong." I'm going to go ahead and assume that you meant to add, "unless those things they want to do are at odds with Judeo-Christianity."

I think the bigger point J. Morgan is making is that for some cultures there are "basic, unquestionable assumptions" that are just as unarguable to them as denying opportunities at "God-given talents" are to you. You can still disagree with it, you just have to be able to admit that you don't have an absolute stranglehold on truth, and that you can't change them (however meritous your argument) any more than they can change you. You can disagree with some crazy Wahibbist who wants your head, but you can't convice him that he is wrong by falling back on Judeo-Christian/American values. You've started with different "basic, unquestionable assumptions."

2) "What if Mari Curie’s mother had raised her not to be a scientist? We would not know what we know about radioactivity, which has been used in nuclear medicine to save thousands of lives." Well, maybe, but then we wouldn't have blown Hiroshima and Nagasaki off the map either. You can't make arguments like this- you have to be extremely selective to make it work. What if Hitler's parents had raised him to marry and support some "silent, barefoot uterus", wouldn't the world be better off?

Don Quixote said...


Thank you for your nit-picking, but I think you need to think more about the nits that you want to pick. By stating that I have the truth on one issue, I by no means imply that I have a “stranglehold” on the truth. Do you believe that God exists? If so, then you believe that atheists are wrong. Does that mean you have a “stranglehold” on the truth? Of course not. It means you know the truth on one issue. The fact is, we can say that some of what we know is demonstrably true without claiming to know ALL of what is true. I am just saying that it is demonstrably true that children should be raised to be all that they want to be.

Regarding the idea of raising a child to become a prostitute, I think you miss my point entirely. I would raise the child to believe that she could be ANYTHING she wants to be (including a prostitute - legal or illegal). In other words, I would raise her so that she knows she has the POTENTIAL to become ANYTHING - good or bad. However, I would at the same time raise her with the moral values that would show her that such a profession is not something she would WANT to be. That’s the difference. To say that she does not have the potential to be a prostitute is wrong. To raise her so that she doesn’t WANT to be a prostitute is a good thing, at least in my moral view.

As I initially posted on this issue, the mothers with whom EAP is so frustrated are simply raising their daughters to WANT to be a stay-at-home mom. I can completely understand that approach. It is what made the mothers happy, so they assume that it will make their daughters happy as well. What turns that into bad parenting is to raise your daughter saying that she does not have the potential to become something else. You should raise your child saying that ALL options are open, and then you can show him or her what options YOU THINK might be best. This is not a subtle distinction. It is the difference between indoctrination and heartfelt advice.

Regarding Curie, you need to read up on the difference between a nuclear bomb and radioactivity. They are not, in any way, related. A nuclear bomb employs neutron-induced fission of a large nucleus. It is not a spontaneous event. It needs initiation. Radioactivity is a spontaneous event that requires no initiation and has no direct relevance to nuclear fission.

Arguments like the ones I used need not be selective. Once again, however, you need to understand my point. There is nothing wrong with being in the military, as Hitler was. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious, as Hitler was. Thus, his parents should NOT have raised him to avoid the military. At the same time, however, they should have raised him with the moral education to understand the proper roles of ambition and the military. Had Hitler’s parents raised him saying that he should marry and support some "silent, barefoot uterus", it is not at all clear that the world would be better off, as supporting that "silent, barefoot uterus" might, indeed, involve him doing EXACTLY what he did. They should have raised him to know that he could do ANYTHING (including lead the German army), but at the same time they should have raised him with the moral guidance to know how to lead the German army so that Germany and the world were better off.

E.A.P said...

Lots of good discussion here. Through reading everyone's thoughts, I think I finally know how to express what I meant to express earlier to Don Quixote.

The mothers in many (though not all) of these circumstances I've described are not merely offering heart-felt advice. They are advising their daughters that NO OTHER OPTION will make them as happy AND as valuable to God's Kingdom. They are justify the smaller Sphere of Woman through the use of the Bible and through (and I know I've mentioned this to you before) statements like "women aren't as good at decision-making," and "women aren't as smart, athletic, good in a crisis, etc." They also reinforce this concept constantly. Any childless woman in the congregation is discussed as though she's made a mistake in choosing this. That same comment arises every time she's discussed. They go beyond encouragement to build a culture in which this is THE option because not only are the other ones not discussed, but anyone who chooses them is pitied, disparaged, or worse.

I know this statement can be a discussion stopper, but it's true: you aren't a woman so those comments don't apply to you and you can ignore them. I notice the many little ways that this is reinforced in casual conversation, devotional books, advice, even sermons. The volume belies any stated exception (and often they don't even bother to state an objection).

We may have to agree to disagree here, and discussion is never over. I just felt like my expression was lacking, and more discussion amongst the commenters illuminated some things. Thanks for your help, guys!

Don Quixote said...

I am certainly not a woman, but at the same time, I think I have a pretty good feel for the homeschooling community, and I would posit that the women you characterize are the EXCEPTION, not the rule. The homeschooling mothers with whom I talk, and as you know, I talk with a LOT of them, specifically tell me that they don't want to limit their daughter's options, which is why they want their daughters taking science. My sense of the "pulse" of the average homeschool mom is that she might WANT her daughter to grow up to be a stay-at-home mom, but she keeps all options open for her daughter.