Thursday, May 17, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Inspired - Slaying Giants, Walking On Water, And Loving The Bible Again

In her June 2018 new release Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking On Water, And Loving The Bible Again, Rachel Held Evans re-discovers the Bible of her childhood, emerging from a season of disillusionment with contemporary American Christianity. Seamlessly incorporating a conversant array of academic and spiritual voices, Evans clears space for her readers to encounter ancient Scripture in new, relevant ways.

I picked up Inspired for three reasons:

1. The Bible has always been a special, sacred book to me, but lately, this holy book has felt distant.

2. Throughout time, the Bible has been weaponized, outside of its historical and literary context, to justify slavery, war, segregation, oppression of women and other minorities, exploitation of indigenous people, socially convenient sins, and political manipulation. This troubles me.

“It’s easy for modern-day readers to forget that the Bible was written by oppressed religious minorities living under the heels of powerful nation-states known for their extravagant wealth and violence… When you belong to the privileged class of the most powerful global military superpower in the world, it can be hard to relate to the oppressed minorities who wrote so much of the Bible… The truth is, the shadow under which most of the world trembles today belongs to America.” - Inspired, p. 129
3. There are passages of scripture that seem to grate against my most core beliefs as a human, namely that every life is sacred and that every person is equal in dignity before God regardless of gender, race, wealth, or any other state of life -- for example, mass genocide by the Israelites (re: VeggieTales’ “Joshua and the Big Wall”) and Moses’ endorsement of eugenics by sex, race, and gender to kill, even, infants.

Until I picked up Rachel Held Evans’ book Inspired, the explanations I’ve repeatedly heard for these passages – one, that it’s more merciful to kill the babies of pagans so they die as innocents in God’s mercy rather than let them grow up as pagans and go to hell; two, that it’s worth killing the innocent young of our enemies out of future self-defense against their vengeance – have not left me satisfied.

I tend to avoid young writers, assuming they lack the seasoning of life necessary to bring perspective to any person outside their own cultural experience. Since Rachel Evans and I had similar childhood faith experiences, I knew her book would have personal relevance -- and hopefully, resolution -- for me. Surprisingly, her inclusion of numerous diverse, authoritative voices culminates in a book that’s as academic as it is relevant, and notably, not limited to the spiritual nourishment of 30-something-year-old women.

Through ancient and contemporary biblical commentary, storytelling, and historical sources, Evans explores Scripture with an honest, concerned, and hopeful approach.

She observes how much of the Bible’s poetry is lament – 40% of all psalms -- yet the top 100 songs used in contemporary worship today includes only four or five on “mourning or frustration.” Evans wonders how this reflects the church’s understanding of suffering. 

For anyone who’s wondered if vengeance is God-ordained from the graphic anger of certain psalms, Evans quotes Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris: “Poetry’s function is not to explain but to offer images and stories that resonate with our lives.” Without this understanding of the psalms, we might come away confused by the hyperbole, violence, and strong emotion of the psalms rather than comforted by our shared human experience of lament with the psalmist.

I once made the mistake of reading a fictionalized story of Queen Esther. It moralized the king’s concubine establishment, justified the banishment of his first wife for her refusal to strip tease before the court (her public disrespect toward her husband being the greater sin), and somehow, the author of this Christian romance/historical fiction mash-up attempted to turn Esther’s desperate, dangerous predicament into a legit love story.

Ever since that culture-washed butchering of Esther’s heroic, tragic, and at times, comedic, ancient story, I have refused to read biblical historical fiction.

Inspired has a story-telling element in every other chapter, and while non-fiction is Evans’ stronger genre, I’m glad I broke my ban against Scripture-based fiction to pick up this book. Through her re-examination of familiar Bible passages using a story format, Evans relies heavily on the Jewish tradition of midrash, rabbinic commentary that relies on early interpretations, additional historical accounts, and tradition as context.

“...there’s a curious but popular notion circulating around the church these days that says God would never stoop to using ancient genre categories to communicate. Speaking to ancient people using their own language, literary structures, and cosmological assumptions would be beneath God. ...In addition to once again prioritizing modern, Western (and often uniquely American) concerns, this notion overlooks one of the most central themes of Scripture itself: God stoops… From slipping into flesh and eating, laughing, suffering, healing, weeping, and dying among us as part of humanity, the God of Scripture stoops and stoops and stoops. It is no more beneath God to speak to us using poetry, proverb, letters, and legend than it is for a mother to read storybooks to her daughter at bedtime.” - Inspired, p. 11
Growing up in a Christian tradition that adhered to strictly literal biblical interpretation – for fear that any looser approach would lead to the complete unraveling of consistency, and ultimately, Truth – I found the use of midrash in pondering sacred Scripture both comforting and revealing.

My own spiritual journey has led me to the history-and-tradition-laden Catholic Church, I believe as a rebound from the isolation I experienced while attempting a Sola Scriptura faith without the buttress of historical tradition or ecclesial authority.

Evans’ spiritual journey brought her to an Episcopal community. An interview with “Religion News” discusses Evans’ search for meaning as she transitioned away from Evangelicalism, addressing the common question of our decade: why are millennials leaving the church?

“If you try to woo us back with skinny jeans and coffee shops, it may actually backfire. Millennials have finely-tuned B.S. meters that can detect when someone’s just trying to sell us something. We’re not looking for a hipper Christianity. We’re looking for a truer Christianity. Like every generation before and after, we’re looking for Jesus—the same Jesus who can be found in the places he’s always been: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these. No fog machines required.” – Rachel Held Evans, Interview with “Religion News,” March 9, 2015
Evans references growing up in “Monkey-Town,” the theme of one of her earlier books, home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial that determined whether creationism or evolution would be taught in public schools.

On Genesis, she writes, “Israel’s origins stories weren’t designed to answer scientific, twenty-first-century questions about the beginning of the universe or the biological evolution of human beings, but rather were meant to answer then-pressing, ancient questions about the nature of God and God’s relationship to creation.”

On seemingly God-ordained genocide, Evans considers, “By the time many of the Bible’s war stories were written down, many generations had passed. ...The writers of Joshua and Judges... rely more on drama and bravado than the straightforward recitation of fact” (p. 74).

Furthermore, archaeologists working in the Middle East are doubtful the epic battles recorded in the Bible actually resulted in the violent obliteration claimed by their early writers. “It was common for warring tribes in ancient Mesopotamia to refer to decisive victories as ‘complete annihilation’ or ‘total destruction,’ even when their enemies lived to find another day” (p. 74). Referencing the famous Battle of Jericho -- the source of many vaguely violent children’s reenactments -- historic research indicates Jericho was only a 6-acre military outpost, most likely without civilians, save the prostitute who betrayed them. (Perhaps they should have treated her more kindly…)

Discussing her Scriptural renewal process in Inspired, Evans shares how reading diverse biblical scholarship led her to a greater embrace of the Bible as sacred, relevant, and inspirational:

“... I encountered writers, activists, pastors, and biblical scholars who masterfully appealed to Scripture to advocate for social justice and reconciliation, and who prioritized in their work and imaginations biblical characters I’d never really noticed before -- characters like the daughters of Zelophehad, who successfully lobbied the leaders of Israel for the right for women to inherit property, and the Ethiopian eunuch from the book of Acts, whose status as an ethnic and sexual minority makes his dramatic baptism especially meaningful to those who have been treated as outsiders. I had never before considered that Joseph, the despised brother with the coat of many colors, was a victim of human trafficking, or that Jesus himself was once, as a child, a refugee.” - Inspired, p. 44
The activism awakened in Evans’ new embrace of Scripture has made her a leading Christian feminist voice for advocacy and intersectionality today. Her op-ed response to John Piper on why patriarchy cannot solve the #metoo crisis unabashedly reveals the inequality and abuse women have suffered, even (and particularly) in Evangelical households, under systems of patriarchy:
“[Piper’s assertion] assumes sexual assault, harassment, and abuse are recent phenomena, products of egalitarian views on gender that grant women equality in the home, church, and culture. But abuses like these have been around for centuries. In fact, Piper can read about some of them in his Bible in the stories of women like Hagar, Tamar, Lot’s daughters, and Bathsheba, all of whom lived in highly patriarchal cultures. The #MeToo movement does not reflect some sudden increase in the abuse of women; rather, it reflects a growing awareness of those abuses, and a mounting, collective fervor to confront them. It’s a movement led by and for women, women who aren’t asking for some sort of paternalistic “protection” because they are fragile females, but rather to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve simply because they are human beings.” – Rachel Held Evans
On household codes, Evans writes, “Many modern readers assume teachings about wives submitting to their husbands appear exclusively in the pages of Scripture and thus reflect uniquely ‘biblical’ views about women’s roles in the home.” As Evans goes on to describe, this male-dominated household structure is more a reflection of historical norms than new religious ideals.

As historical texts confirm, it was nothing new to Greco-Roman society that women, children, and slaves were property, all in submission under a male ruler. The novelty of St. Paul’s words, and the new truth introduced through Christ, is in what follows: husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the Church. St. Paul further instructed everyone, men included, to submit to one another. This was a new standard to believers hearing his letters for the first time.

Evans introduces a new perspective on homosexuality that gives me pause, referencing sins of lust recorded in the New Testament to be sins of excess in the highly-sexualized culture of that time, different from faithful, gay relationships today. In the midrash tradition she describes throughout the book, Evans leaves this polarized, contemporary issue open to discussion for conscientious Christians to discuss and disagree.

I recognize genuine love relationships among my gay friends, in truly desiring the good of another. There is true virtue – not a shadow or imitation – in their love and in their lives. There is generosity, compassion, and commitment that even many sacramental marriages lack.

Notwithstanding, I also believe Catholic Church teaching on marriage (which, for what it’s worth, would exclude many modern-day secular and religious heterosexual marriages that are nonetheless worthy of legal protection, medical advocacy and inheritance rights, and consideration as adoptive parents).

I hesitate to open this can of worms in a book review, especially since I can’t offer anything more than admission that I’m on a journey in seeking solidarity with my LGBTQ friends, desiring their full legal rights to be respected in our country, while also respecting the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage. I’m not sure what that looks like, but I want to keep the conversation open.

My favorite chapter in Evans’ new book deals with the Gospel itself. In flash moments, she tells story after story after story of a unique person’s unique experience of God’s unique intervention in the New Testament. She warns against modern-day attempts to codify God or de-humanize Jesus:

“Jesus didn’t just ‘come to die.’ Jesus came to live- to teach, to heal, to tell stories, to protest, to turn over tables, to touch people who weren’t supposed to be touched and eat with people who weren’t supposed to be eaten with, to break bread, to pour wine, to wash feet, to face temptation, to tick off authorities, to fulfill Scripture, to forgive, to announce the start of a brand new kingdom, to show us what that kingdom is like, to show us what God is like, to love his enemies to the point of death at their hands, and to beat death by rising from the grave. Jesus did not simply die to save us from our sins. Jesus lived to save us from our sins. His life and teachings show us the way to liberation.” - Inspired, p. 162
Every single Christian has their own story, their own encounter with God, grappling with Jesus as both true God and true man, their own unrepeatable experiences sifting and pondering through Scripture, as Christians and Jews have done for centuries with our shared holy texts.

The main takeaway I received from Inspired is the goodness of searching and the freedom to question. I was hoping for a more stark resolution, an answer book to my Bible difficulties. Instead, Evans sets the stage for her reader to wrestle with God, just as Jacob in the wilderness – to wrestle the Almighty until we are blessed.

“So I brought my whole self into the wilderness with God -- no faking, no halfway. And there hwe wrestled.” (Inspired, p. 70)

Rachel Held Evans' book, Inspired, will be released on June 12, 2018. You can pre-order on Amazon.


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

How Becoming A Feminist Affected My Marriage

When first married, I resolved to be the best wife in the history of wifedom.

(I once moved a stranger’s full-size oak desk from their trash pile into my efficiency apartment using my own two arms and a Chevy Malibu, so I know something about the power of resolution.)

My pursuit of marital bliss imitated a model of Christian marriage that I read about in a book.

(Not the Bible.)

This book guaranteed its strategy could turn the worst of any marriage to gold through extreme selflessness.

(Nevermind that the selflessness was mandatory for wives in every circumstance, while an optional, but welcomed, surprise from husbands.)

So I was a newlywed on a mission, armed with the alchemy secret for perfect marriage, perfect family, and perfect salvation.

(And my new husband was the unfortunate victim.)

We tried so hard to fit the mold -- me, biting my tongue and feeling like a failed Christian mother as I worked my full-time office job with family health insurance. And my husband, filling out hundreds of job applications while holding down three part-time jobs on evenings and weekends, and watching our baby during the day.

I couldn’t speak that I was unhappy.

(The book said to always be happy.)

I couldn’t say that I actually liked my job and my coworkers.

(The book said I should be a stay-at-home mom.)

I couldn’t ask my husband why he had been home all day but not started the laundry.

(The book said keeping the house was my responsibility. The book said not to challenge my husband.)

Even as I criticize this book, I recognize I wasn’t just following a fringe book club. Based on my upbringing within American Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic -- a subculture filled with beautiful marriages and families -- I was convinced that the will of God for my family depended on our ability to achieve middle-class financial stability with a working father and a stay-at-home mother.

This model might work for some families, but it sure wasn’t working for ours.

I became silently angry and bitter, blaming myself and postpartum depression as the cause of our family’s unhappiness, instead of a symptom of something bigger than all of us. I kept persevering in what I thought was the solution: more selflessness, more generosity, more prayer that God would make us like all those other families.

Oh, how we struggled to contort our non-traditional work schedules, skills, children’s needs, and finances into what we believed was a proper Christian family model.

I began to wonder if the burden of successful marriage really depended on our ability to fit into the prefab molds of white-collar working father, stay-at-home mom, and all the expectations therein.

In my searching, I found increasing common ground with the values of a movement that to this point, I’d viewed as unnecessarily loud, and frankly, unnecessary altogether. Feminism was for angry women in pointless marches and women who hated babies so much they wanted to legalize killing them.

And yet, I began to find kindred spirits among them, especially with pro-life feminists, who pursue solidarity among any who are marginalized or forgotten -- those who are sick, social minorities, disabled, poor, refugees, immigrants, unborn… In a country that values diversity, in a faith that values the dignity of every person, I saw strong people amplifying the voices of those who are weak in pro-life feminism.

Up to this point, I thought diversions from the American Christian cultural norm meant diversions from the Lord's will for us.

But as we embraced the more complicated reality of life, based on our family’s giftings, personalities, and needs, a peace that had evaded me for some time settled into our home. It confirmed that God is at work in unique ways.

In Salt of the Earth, Pope Benedict is asked by a reporter how many ways there are to God. “As many as there are people,” the pope responds.

As many as there are people.

When I read Pope Benedict's response in light of the new feminism referenced by Pope John Paul II, I heard: my salvation is not dependent on how well I can force myself into the mold of another woman's success story as wife or mother.

I need to pause, to give voice to the idea that this isn’t an exclusively feminist idea. Much of feminist thought is just common sense. Plenty of people who would never identify as “feminist” still experience the freedom and joy of living as their true selves in unique callings within a marriage relationship.

For some, this could look like a working father with banker’s hours and a stay-at-home mom who takes full charge of house and children.

For others, like St. Gianna, a mother might work outside the home.

For others, like Sts. Louis and Zelie, a married couple might run a family business together, balancing home and family into that work.

Some people’s choices might be limited by circumstance, like St. Helen, whose husband divorced her for a younger woman, or St. Gemma’s father, a failed businessman and widower forced to raise his children in poverty, alone, or St. Jochebed, the mother of Moses, who was pressured by the politics of her day to choose between the death of her child, or allowing her child to be raised completely outside the sacred culture of her people by the Pharaoh's daughter.

For most, like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton -- who ran a society for the poor, while raising five kids and adopting six more, ran a boarding house to support her children after her husband died, went bankrupt with a failed school, and eventually joined a religious order, once her children were older -- roles and responsibilities will be as variable as the variable seasons of life.

For me, it took months of eavesdropping online to Catholic feminist conversations to realize family roles are flexible, and furthermore, the Lord has not mandated, through scripture or any official Church teaching, one way for all families.

This realization gave my husband and I peace in making choices that are best for each other and best for our family, no longer living under the pressure to achieve somebody else’s story.

I no longer felt the need to follow a wife formula that worked for a well-intentioned author and her family. I could just be me.

And with that, I stopped expecting my husband to act the part of a formulaic husband following a mold that worked for other husbands. I just saw him for him. And oh, how I loved him.

To his credit, my husband made space for this newfound activism. He held a celebratory lunch date when I was invited to become a regular contributor for FemCatholic.

As I found my voice again, emerging from my attempted role as quiet wife, my husband responded to concerns I was finally willing to speak.

I felt overwhelmed by the needs of children 24/7. We carved out alone time for me each week. It turned out, he felt overwhelmed by family life too. We also carved out alone time for him each week.

My husband has always been present and involved with our kids. But I often tried to shelter him from the astounding load of all of them -- five kids, ages eight and younger -- at once. I was operating from the misconception that a father’s role is to enjoy his children, not experience them in totality at their worst. As I let my husband share more of the load, not only did caring for the kids become easier, it became more enjoyable. I liked my kids more.

I realize I’m blessed in having a husband who is committed as an active, daily presence in his kids’ lives. For some reason, our society -- Christian and other -- has assumed that children are women’s work, and it’s a shame, for our children, for our fathers, for our communities, and even for our mothers, among whom it’s commonly shared that months or years pass by without a break. That will burn out anyone, feminist or not.

Time with dads shouldn’t be “special.” It should be everyday and boring, from doctor’s appointments to meal preparation to wiping butts to helping with homework to taking out the trash together.

Thanks to our family’s non-traditional work schedules, and my husband’s present heart and mind, our kids have a dad who truly knows them and is an integral part of their daily development.

Realizing that “working mother” isn’t an oxymoron, I’ve picked up outside-the-home work again that gives me a mental outlet from diapers and laundry, and also gives our family a little more financial stability. (I recognize it is a privilege, impossible for many, that my work outside the home is optional.)

Our most recent Valentine’s Day was celebrated with a build-your-own-taco dinner, set up at our kitchen table, after the kids went to bed. Talk somehow turned to politics, and I poured myself a second glass of wine. I feared that getting tangled in the hopelessness of our current political stalemate -- and all the voiceless victims affected -- would ruin our romantic evening.

I know that feminism has opened my heart to see more people who are hurting around me. And I know it can be a real downer to be around someone who’s constantly thinking about those who are marginalized, easily overlooked or forgotten, born into less privilege and opportunity, those who never even make it to birth, for fear of the imperceivably difficult life that would follow.

I know I’m not always a fun person to be around since becoming a Catholic feminist.

And yet, this past Valentine’s Day, my husband wrote me the most sincere, meaningful note. He set it on my desk, so it’d be the first thing I read when I set up for work the next morning.

The note referenced how he loved my heart for “what’s best for all people.” And it meant the world to me that he interpreted the sadness, activism, anger, and hope that have grown in my life, since becoming a feminist, as motivated by a desire for the good of all people.

My husband definitely wouldn’t call himself a “feminist.” The truth is, he doesn’t need to. His openness to our family caring, praying, and working toward the good for every person, regardless of gender, health, age, citizenship, religion, desirability, skill level, or income, and his involvement in raising our children to see and care also, means more than any label.

For me, I’m a committed Catholic feminist. It has changed me irreversibly. It has changed my marriage. It has changed our family.

And we’re going to change the world.

Adam Cuerden [Public domain or Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

If The Road To Emmaus Happened On Facebook

Maybe in modern times, the defecting disciples -- leaving Jerusalem three days after Jesus’ crucifixion -- would have paid for in-flight WiFi, created a “Disillusioned Disciples” Facebook group, and commiserated with all the other soul-searchers who just watched their revolutionary leader get executed by the state.

“We tried out that Jesus thing. It wasn’t for us. Some of our friends went kind of nuts with it. They thought they were talking to Jesus after he died.”

Maybe in modern times, Jesus would have anonymously logged in and joined their discussion. And just like on the original Emmaus walk, group members could verbally throw up all over him in their debriefing.

And then -- true to the form of most religious conversation on Facebook -- Jesus would respond to their deeply expressed, personal, painful experiences with insults:

“Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart… “

If the Road to Emmaus had a block or report feature, the conversation may have ended there.

Thankfully, after his initial response -- “WTH, guys, you’ve got this all wrong” -- Jesus cuts straight to the root of all their questioning and starts a good conversation: if God is good, why is there suffering?

If this new religion is any good, why did the leader just get tortured and killed?

“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Jesus asks (still anonymous in the thread).

Necessary? Damn, this religion is even stupider than we thought. Not only is suffering unavoidable, but this guy says it’s necessary?

Maybe the disciples initially rejected Jesus’ comment that his suffering led to his glory. (I would have.)

Jesus doesn’t gloss over the suffering. He doesn’t pretend it isn’t real. He doesn’t say that the truly holy among us will avoid suffering. He doesn’t advocate any of the things we do to avoid suffering –- hiding away, social performance, collecting new time-saving gadgets, hoarding up money at any expense, pursuing every latest health craze, forcing those around us to conform to our comfort levels…

Jesus, on the walk to Emmaus, looks back on the success stories of history -- Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, Bathsheba, Jeremiah, Daniel -- and traces how divine intervention turns suffering into glory over and over and over. Or at least, that’s what I imagine he talked to them about.

For some reason, scripture tells us more about what the disillusioned disciples said than how Jesus responded. Maybe because we can all relate to them?

Who hasn’t wondered if it’s all real? Which saint didn’t look side-to-side at the people around her and wonder if she was doing life right? Who hasn’t wondered if the people we know who most passionately pursue Christ aren’t a little crazy?

As he talks with the men who have decided to walk away, Jesus doesn’t sell his new religion as a way to achieve comfort, recognition, deference, appreciation, worldly success, or even acknowledgment. It's not military conquest. It's not cultural superiority.

On the walk to Emmaus, Jesus tells the history of suffering and shares the scriptural forecasts of future suffering.

And yet, something in Jesus’ words -- the disciples would later recall -- made their hearts burn within them.

They keep talking with him, all the way to their home in Emmaus. And once they get there, they ask him to stay. 

(I imagine this would be the point at which Facebook groupies unilaterally assign Jesus an administrator role in the group, to make sure he sticks around.)

Jesus, then, gets to the heart of what it is to follow him: they break bread together, just as he did four days earlier at the Last Supper.

And in the breaking of the bread together -- this daily, hourly, international act that interrupts every moment in time to experience the eternal breaking of his Body once, for all -- they finally recognize Jesus with them, that He's been with them the whole time.

And they’re so floored that they immediately hike all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the others. 

(This is where all the FB comments just become people tagging their friends to come read the thread.)

Jesus hardly lived a comfortable life. He died a torturous death. He says we'll suffer too. Even those most insulated from physical discomfort by riches and prestige will experience suffering. 

Mother Teresa once said, "The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty -- it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There's a hunger for love..." 

Through Jesus, we see a God who suffers with us, yet also, a God who turns suffering into redemption and resurrection. 

Jesus lived the ultimate story of overcoming that happens within and through suffering, a story that only God can accomplish, a story that he longs to write over and over and over in our humanity.

I don't actually think Jesus is waiting anonymously in a religious-themed Facebook group to start a revolution. If anything, he's waiting with us, even now as we scroll intently through our digital feed, waiting for us to shut off our computers, ask him our questions, and listen.