This week Dan and I celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary!
Of the many good things in my life, I must say my happy marriage is probably the best. But like every couple, we've had to learn as we go. So here are a 10 myths and 10 reality checks we've encountered along the way:
Myth #1: The best way to prepare for marriage, and to thrive in it, is to learn the differences between men and women so you will know what men/women want.
Reality Check: The best way to prepare for marriage, and to thrive in it, is to learn about your partner so you know what your partner wants.
You don’t marry a gender; you marry a person. And yet the majority of Christian marriage books dole out advice based on gender stereotypes: “men need adventure,” “women need security,” “men like quiet time,” “women process verbally,” “men crave respect and control,” “women crave love and emotional intimacy,” “men are like microwaves,” “women are like ovens.” But even before we got married, Dan and I realized that just as often as we fit these generalities, we don’t. Dan knows I’d prefer tickets to a football game over a nice piece of jewelry and that too much security and not enough adventure leaves me feeling bored. I know that Dan is better at nurturing friendships than I am and thrives creatively when he has the chance to collaborate with other people.
So for all of this talk of men being “wired” one way and women being “wired” another, we have found, as Micah Murray puts it, that “wires are for robots.” We are human beings, and we relate to one another better when we stop expecting the other person to behave in a prescribed, programmed way but instead talk openly with one another about our actual desires, preferences, hopes, and expectations.
This is why I would sooner recommend The 5 Love Languages to prospective couples than one of the myriad of Christian books that attempt to prepare people for marriage by basing advice on gender stereotypes. Or better yet, compare your results from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis, or the Enneagram. Or best of all, simply pay attention to one another to observe what makes the other person laugh, rest, rejuvenate, connect, grow, and thrive and try to communicate with one another about what makes each of you laugh, rest, rejuvenate, connect, grow and thrive. You don’t marry a gender; you marry a person. And you get to spend the rest of your marriage figuring out what makes your partner tick.
Myth#2: Never go to bed angry.
Reality Check: 3 a.m. is not the best time to sort out your feelings.
I suspect this oft-repeated piece of advice is meant to encourage couples not to repress or hang on to their anger, but to sort out their differences in a timely manner before the years of inattention turn them into deeper wounds than they need to be…in which case I totally agree.
But, in my experience, sometimes the best way to keep communication healthy and open is to go to bed angry and then talk about it the next morning when you’ve had enough sleep to know that leaving the milk out in the car probably wasn’t a veiled act of aggression meant to symbolize every problem in the relationship, but rather just the sort of mistake anyone would make while distracted by a fascinating story on NPR.
Sometimes lack of sleep is actually the cause of friction, so taking that out of the equation and waiting to talk when everyone’s a bit more rested might actually be a better strategy for nipping the conflict in the bud.
Myth #3: If you wait until marriage to have sex, your first time will be FLAWLESS and AWESOME and there will be FIREWORKS and ANGELS SINGING OVER YOUR FAITHFULNESS!
Reality Check: The bad news is this is total bull; the good new is it gets much, much better.
Myth #4: Women must learn to be indirect about their opinions and desires so as not to upset a man’s sense of “leadership” in the home.
Reality Check: It is healthier to communicate honestly and openly with one another to avoid manipulation and repression.
I can’t tell you how many wedding showers I’ve attended in which women joke with the bride about how to get her way by making her husband think something was his idea when it was really hers. Ironically, I hear this most often from folks who promote hierarchal gender roles in the home. Since women are seen as their husband’s subordinates, they have to think of creative ways to share their ideas and desires rather than just stating them directly, for fear of taking too much initiative in the relationship.
But let me tell you, Dan would much rather I take the initiative and communicate to him directly about my thoughts, ideas, and opinions because 1) he’s from Jersey and that’s how people from Jersey talk to each other, 2) it’s way more efficient, saving time and emotional energy, and 3) I’ve got some damn good ideas and Dan’s not threatened by that. Dan and I are a team and we function so much better when we make decisions together, without a pecking order and without subtle, manipulative games.
Myth #5: All you need are shared values and shared faith to get along.
Reality Check: This may be true…but I’m pretty convinced that a shared sense of humor is just as important.
Myth #6: Women need men to be their spiritual leaders.
Reality Check: You’re going to need one another on the journey of faith.
The teaching that men are to be the “spiritual leaders” of their homes is found nowhere in Scripture, and yet I—along with far too many young evangelical women—spent hours upon hours fretting over this in college, worrying I’d never find a guy who was more knowledgeable about the Bible than I, who was always more emotionally connected to God than I, who was better at leading in the church than I, and who consistently exhibited more faithfulness and wisdom than I. (In fact, under this paradigm, I came to see many of my gifts as liabilities, impediments to settling down with a good “spiritual leader”!)
Well guess what. I never found such a person. I never found a spiritual “leader.” Instead, I found a spiritual companion to travel with me on the journey of faith, for better or worse, in good times and bad, in times of spiritual wealth and in times of spiritual poverty. Dan isn’t expected to always be the strong one while I am always the weak one. Instead, we cheer each other on, help each other up, and challenge each other to do better. Sometimes we walk side by side, moving along at a quick pace. Sometimes we help each other over boulders and fallen trees. Sometimes I’m leading the way; sometimes Dan is. Sometimes I carry him and sometimes he carries me. The journey of faith is far too treacherous and exciting and beautiful to spend it looking at the back of another person’s head. Jesus leads us down the path, and we tackle it together, one step at a time.
The Bible never teaches that one partner must be more spiritually mature than the other. But it does teach that “two are better than one, because they have a good return on their labor: if either of them falls down, one can help the other up.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10). When Dan doesn’t feel pressure to always be the leader, he can relax and lean on me when he needs to. And when I don’t feel the pressure to always be the follower, I can relax and be myself and let my gifts flourish. We’re in this together, side by side.
(I'm being told some people think Ephesians 5 teaches that men are to be spiritual leaders. I deal with that a bit here.)
Myth #7: “We don’t need a marriage counselor/financial planner/psychological evaluation/sex therapist/ recovery group/doctor, we have a pastor!”
Reality Check: You may very well need a marriage counselor/financial planner/psychological evaluation/sex therapist/recovery group/doctor.
Unfortunately, too many churches these days think of their pastors as either gurus or czars, and some even discourage church members from seeking guidance or help for their marriages outside the church. This is profoundly unhealthy, as many pastors are not qualified to be financial planners or to diagnose mental illness or to counsel couples through their conflicts in an unbiased and educated way. Furthermore, such models place far too much pressure on pastors and create unrealistic expectations around them. If you are part of a church that discourages outside counseling, get out; it’s not healthy. A good pastor will be eager and able to recommend you to an expert when he or she senses an issue may be out of his/her depth.
Myth #8: One spouse is called to make the money and the other spouse is called to make dinner. One spouse is called to make the decisions and the other spouse is called to make the home.
Reality Check: You are called to make a life together.
I can see where sticking to agreed-upon roles can be helpful in some cases, but I think it’s unwise to base these roles on gender or ideology (as opposed to practicality), and I think it’s destructive to impose them legalistically, without regard to changing life circumstances. One of the first lessons you learn in a marriage is that you can plan and dream all you want, but you have to live in reality. So if your notion of “roles” can’t survive a layoff or a pregnancy or an illness or one partner’s success or another partner’s disappointment, you’re asking for trouble.
The point is to make a life together, based on your unique circumstances and gifts, not to force yourselves into prescribed roles regardless of how they fit. Dan and I tried the gender-based roles thing at first, and while some of those roles stuck, others didn’t. These days, we don’t assign the task of breadwinning to one partner and the task of homemaking to the other; we work as a team, shifting responsibilities and tasks to accomplish a common shared goal: to be self-employed while making enough money to the pay for internet. (Okay, so we've got other goals too, but that’s the main one right now!)
Our life isn’t divided into two spheres. Our goals, joys, disappointments, successes, failings, financial earnings, investments, ideas, dreams, and plans are shared. Always.
(Note: I do think that when roles are more fluid, there may be more occasions for conflict as it’s not always clear who is responsible for what in the home. This has been the source of some disagreement within the Evans household, and I suspect many others. A big turning point in my own attitude and posture in this regard happened when I heard a report…on NPR, of course!...about a study that revealed that in a workplace setting, when two people have been assigned a task, both consistently report believing they did more work than the other person to accomplish it. The conclusion from the study was that even when responsibilities are evenly shared, we humans have a habit of believing we have done more and our partners have done less. So when I find myself resenting Dan for presumably not doing as much as I’m doing, I remind myself of all the things he HAS been doing—like keeping track of our crazy TAXES for example!—while I wasn’t paying attention. It’s a little thing, but it’s really helped.)
Myth #9: If you go into marriage assuming divorce isn’t an option, then it will never happen.
Reality Check: Divorce happens and you don’t avoid it by pretending it doesn’t.
This is something that Dan really impressed upon me as we began our marriage. Having come from a (wonderful & loving) home where his parents got divorced, Dan knows from experience that simply being “against” divorce doesn’t prevent it from happening. So from the beginning, Dan has been a big advocate for not taking our marriage for granted, but rather working on it every day.
(This is not to say that all marriage fail because of lack of hard work. They fail for a myriad of reasons and I’m not interested in judging or condemning anyone who has experienced that painful process.)
Myth #10: A Christian home should be centered around a certain household model.
Reality Check: A Christian home should be centered around the person of Jesus Christ.
Growing up in the church, I always heard that a Christian home would only flourish if there was a clear patriarchal pecking order in which the husband leads the wife and the wife submits to her husband. This was supposedly based on the teachings of Scripture, and yet I saw plenty of marriages based on that model fall apart!
Obviously, I’m a big advocate for mutual submission in marriage, as that is what I believe those biblical passages ultimately teach and this is what works best in our marriage, but more important than adopting a single household model—either patriarchal or egalitarian—is adopting the posture of Jesus Christ, who emptied himself of power and took the role of servant. If I’m honest, I’ve seen this sort of humility and service reflected in egalitarian marriages, and I’ve seen this sort of humility and service reflected in more complementarian/patriarchal marriages. So I don’t think it’s as much about finding the perfect model in terms of a structure as it is about finding the perfect model in terms of the person of Jesus. If I’ve learned anything in the past 10 years of marriage it’s that you can’t go wrong imitating Jesus’ humility, forgiveness, patience, compassion, and love.
Myth #10.5: You should follow all of my marriage advice to the letter because I’ve totally got this marriage thing figured out.
Reality Check: I don’t. Take all of this with a grain of salt and sense of humor, keeping in mind that I wrote most of it this afternoon while still wearing my pajamas.
So, what are some marriage myths and reality checks you’ve learned long the way?
I’d love to hear from singles too about more general relationship myths and reality checks.
Note: It should be taken for granted that I count my complementarian friends as dear brothers and sisters in Christ and would break the bread of communion with any fellow Christian in a heartbeat. My disagreements here are over the interpretation and application of certain biblical texts that have been discussed and debated for many years, texts that should never be used to jeopardize that most important common bond. It's nice to know that in the Family of God we can have unity without uniformity and that even in our most passionate disagreements we can take a moment to look around at all the mismatched members of Christ's Church and chuckle at the miracle of it.
If you’ve read A Year of Biblical Womanhood, you will remember that in addition to following all of the Bible’s instructions as literally as possible for a year (sometimes taking them to their most literal, hyperbolic extreme!), a big part of the project involved exploring how a variety of people interpret and apply the concept of “biblical womanhood.”
For example, throughout the year, I corresponded regularly with an Orthodox Jewish woman from Israel who shared with me her perspective on what it means to live “biblically,” particularly as someone who continues to observe Old Testament law. I also interviewed Amish women, a polygamist family, the daughter of a Quiverfull family, and a woman who is a pastor. I attended a “biblical womanhood’ conference, read from cover to cover John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, investigated the Vision Forum and other modern patriarchy movements, read commentaries from Jewish, Catholic, feminist, conservative and liberal sources, and managed to get through Created to Be His Helpemeet by Debi Pearl without destroying it after multiple dramatic tosses across the living room. I quote everyone from Elizabeth Elliot to John Piper to Phyllis Trible to Carolyn Custis James to Dorothy Sayers to Teresa of Avila.
All of these people have different perspectives on life and faith and the Bible, but what they all have in common is a commitment to some idea of “biblical womanhood.” (It should be noted here that I connected with the polygamist family through an organization called “Biblical Families”!) My goal was to listen, learn, explore, and show that “biblical womanhood” might not be as straightforward as we’d like to think, that there does not exist in the Bible a single definition, or list of rules, for something as complex as womanhood.
Now, some in the evangelical complementarian movement—a broad group of evangelicals who often employ the terms “biblical manhood” and “biblical womanhood” in their literature—have said that I failed to represent what true complementarians really believe about “biblical womanhood.” One recently wrote that I took “cheap shots” at the movement and designed my entire project around taking it down.
This is a common enough criticism that I thought I’d address it specifically here.
The problem with accurately portraying what complmentarians believe about “biblical womanhood” is that complementarians do not agree on what they believe about “biblical womanhood.”
This is why I never use the word “complementarian” in the book. It appears only once, and in the context of another person’s quote. I did this on purpose because 1) complementarianism is not a word, 2) I recognize that the movement is too diverse to summarize, and 3) I suspect a more general audience will be unfamiliar with the term anyway.
Instead, I identify and cite what specific people (some of whom identify as complementarian) say about “biblical womanhood.”
In the introduction, for example, I quote from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s pivotal Danver’s Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to try and capture the ethos of the movement. On page 22, I quote Dorothy Patterson’s statement in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that “keeping the home is God’s assignment to the wife—even down to changing the sheets, doing the laundry, and scrubbing the floors.” On page 100, I quote Mark Driscoll as saying that “a wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband….is not responsible for her husband’s sin, but she may not be helping either.” On page 178, I quote Walter Chantry who said, “Woman’s hope, the church’s hope, the world’s hope is joined to childbearing…Women, here is a lifelong calling! It’s the highest any woman can enter,” and Dorothy Patterson again who said , “We need mothers who are not only family-oriented, but family-obsessed.” On page 203-204 I examine John Piper’s views on women’s submission from Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and on pages 207-214, I examine Debi Pearl’s. (Note: I never identify Debi Pearl as a complementarian.) On page 254, I quote again from Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to share what John Piper and Wayne Grudem say there about women teaching and leading in the church.
If most of these people and organizations identify as complementarian, and if I represent their views by quoting directly from their books or sermons, and their fellow complementarians disagree with those views….that seems like something complementarians need to discuss amongst themselves rather than with me.
It’s ironic that some complementarains have criticized A Year of Biblical Womanhood for employing an inconsistent hermeneutic without seeming to realize that this was exactly what I intended to do with the project. My goal was to shine a light on this notion that the Bible offers a single perspicuous blueprint for womanhood that renders femininity down to a list of rules and acceptable roles. And all this disagreement within complementarian ranks only serves to prove my point.
Owen Strachan is the president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He believes biblical manhood and womanhood requires sticking to traditional gender roles in the home, and has said that stay-at-home fathers and men who take on domestic duties are “man fails.” Strachan identifies as complementarian. Is this what all complementarians believe? Is this the complementarian view of “biblical manhood and womanhood”?
Similarly, Pastor Mark Driscoll has called stay-at-home fathers “worse than unbelievers” and has recently released a book claiming that men who fail to be the exclusive providers for their families are a disgrace. Driscoll identifies as a complementarian. Is this what complementarians believe? Is this the complementarian view of “biblical manhood and womanhood”?
According to Wayne Grudem, the Bible teaches that a woman can be a choir director, but not preside over a baptism or communion service. She can write about book about theology that is read at Christian colleges and seminaries, but she cannot teach theology at Christian colleges or seminaries herself. She can teach Sunday school to children, but she cannot lead a Bible study with adults. Grudem identifies as a complementarian. Is this what complementarians believe? Is this the complementarian view of “biblical manhood and womanhood”?
Some complementarians believe it is biblical for women to wear head coverings. Others do not. Some complementarians believe it is unbiblical for mothers to work outside of the home. Others allow it. Some complementarians believe it is unbiblical for a woman to even read Scripture aloud in church. Others disagree. Some complementarians happily identify as patriarchalists. Others are uncomfortable with the term.
So my question for complementarians is this: What is biblical womanhood and who gets to define it?.
My point here is not to discredit a movement for having a diversity of perspectives within it. (I’m a feminist, for heaven’s sake; I get it!) My point is that, despite insistent claims that they simply follow the “clear teachings of the Bible,” complementarians themselves are not in total agreement on what those teachings are. And despite all these references to a patently obvious and consistent hermeneutic regarding biblical manhood and womanhood, complementarians have failed to produce it. This should call into question the premise that Bible presents us with a single, straightforward blueprint for womanhood and that women who deviate from this blueprint are outside the will of God.
One thing that frustrates me about complementarianism, as it is often expressed, is that it teaches men and women that God has specific expectations regarding gender roles but then fails to consistently or clearly explain exactly what those expectations are. My hope is that readers will come to the end of the book reminded the Bible—this ancient, diverse, powerful, God-breathed text—is far too complex to be reduced to an adjective, and that womanhood was never meant to be reduced to a list of rules and roles.
But even more frustrating has been a general refusal among complementarian leaders to engage in conversation about what the Bible actually says. For the past three years, on the blog and in the book, I’ve been asking questions about common complementarian positions on biblical womanhood. For example:
- If the Hebrew word ezer is used most often in Scripture to refer to God as a strong helper, why is it said to mean a subordinate when used in Genesis 2 to describe Eve?
- If man’s rule over woman is introduced in the context of a curse, why would Christians still enforce patriarchy when Christ’s death and resurrection have inaugurated a new creation in which the hierarchal barriers between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female are broken down and redeemed?
- Is Proverbs 31 really meant to be interpreted prescriptively, or does its poetic format suggest it should be interpreted as a celebration of women rather than a to-do list for them?
- If it is “unbiblical” for women to teach or assume leadership over men why are women like Deborah, Huldah, Miriam, Priscilla, Phoebe, and Junia praised in Scripture for doing just that?
- Why is “wives submit to your husbands” taken more seriously than “submit one to another.” And if every biblical instance of these instructions for husbands and wives is either preceded or followed by instructions for slaves to obey their masters, (verses that have historically been used to support slavery), might it be prudent to consider the spirit of these instructions in their Greco-Roman context rather than literally applying the letter? (I asked several complementarians to engage in our "One To Another" series and none agreed.)
- Why are Paul’s instructions regarding Corinthian women wearing head coverings dismissed as cultural and specific to a unique audience, while his instructions regarding Ephesian women teaching the Ephesian church considered universally and timelessly prescriptive?
- How can 1 Timothy 5 be used to characterize stay-at-home dads as “failures” when the context of those instructions is care for widows?
- Is a single-income household with a father who goes to work and a mother who stays home really the only way to honor God? Is this really a “biblical” concept or does it impose modern Western cultural assumptions onto the text? Can Christians support such teachings when such a lifestyle is out-of-reach for many of the world’s poor, to whom Jesus first brought the gospel? And what about singles and non-parents?
- How does the teaching that women are to be subordinate to their husbands in sex square with 1 Corinthians 7, which says the opposite? And if this sort of mutuality and equality is celebrated in such an intimate context, why not extend it into every area of life?
- If, as John Piper has suggested, the primary measure of the appropriateness of a woman in leadership is the degree to which a man feels threatened by that leadership, what about men like my husband, or my pastor, or Scot McKnight, who are not threatened by the intelligent, thoughtful contributions of women in leadership? What about men who enjoy and appreciate partnerships with women and whose sense of calling and security is not dependent upon women's subjugation? Why enforce these roles onto them?
- John Piper cites the first half of 1 Timothy 2:12 (“a woman should not have authority”) as universally applicable, but disregards the second half (“she must be quiet”) by encouraging women like Beth Moore to continue speaking. If the first half of 1 Timothy 2 is so crucial to the complementarian hierarchal construct, why is the second half, (along with the silence command in 1 Corinthians 14:34) essentially ignored? Why is that complementarian women are forbidden from assuming leadership in churches, and yet permitted to speak?
- And where on earth in Scripture does it teach that "real men" are “heterosexual, win-a-fight, punch-you-in-the-nose dudes” who don't do the laundry or allow their boys to play with dolls? If all men are "hardwired" one way and all women are "hardwired" another way, why don't we all fit into these stereotypes? Does the Bible really perpetuate these stereotypes?
The response by complementarians to these questions as posed on the blog has been mostly silence, even when I’ve specifically asked for engagement.
And the response by complementarians to these questions as posed in A Year of Biblical Womanhood, with a few exceptions (Mary Kassian has been very kind to engage), has essentially been: “Look at this silly woman who thinks you have to make a sign and literally praise your husband at the city gate! She doesn’t understand basic hermeneutics. What an idiot!”
I realize I am not entitled to serious engagement. I’m not a biblical scholar or member of the clergy…just a writer with a love for the Bible and an insatiable interest in how it is read and interpreted. There indeed may be some hubris at work here. Still, though the book has been generally well-received, it’s been disheartening to see this particular group of evangelicals gloss over my questions, and those of many of my readers, in favor of casting the more hyperbolic elements of the project as representative of the whole.
It's frustrating because, for evangelical women in particular, th
is dismissal of good questions is an all-too-common experience.
For folks who claim to have the corner of the market on “biblical womanhood,” complementarians have been surprisingly unwilling to engage in conversation with me on what the Bible actually says. Instead, I’ve been dismissed as a silly girl out to “confuse” other silly women with a silly blog and book.
Owen Strachan is right. I’d probably flunk his course on biblical manhood and womanhood. But it wouldn’t be because I’m too stupid to understand hermeneutical principles. It would be because I ask far too many questions about them.
So what do you think? Is it worth even engaging anymore or should I give up?
Last week, after a hurried, 700-word article of mine generated exactly 2.5 gazillion responses on the internet, I found myself lying face-down on top of the covers on our bed in the middle of the day.
Like, for an hour.
Dan finally walked in to make sure I wasn’t dead…or worse, watching a Netflix series without him.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I’m just so sick of RHE,” I said, my voice muffled by our comforter. “I really need a break from her.”
It’s funny how, as bizarre as that sounded, Dan knew exactly what I meant. There’s the Rachel whose strengths, weaknesses, dreams, quirks, passions, failings, and pet peeves he knows so intimately, the one still in her pajamas at 4 in the afternoon and pouting on his side of the bed, and then there’s the Rachel Held Evans who smiles from the corner of a Web site, cheerfully drumming up blog posts, pageviews, books, lectures, and the occasional controversy to be digested by the public each day.
They aren’t complete opposites of one another, of course, but they aren’t exactly the same either.
One uses a lot more profanity.
In the publishing industry, we talk a lot about a writer’s “brand”—the general impression an author leaves with readers based on her personality, writing style, favorite topics, marketing, packaging, and audience. But these days, you don’t have to have a book deal or a literary agent to cultivate a “brand.” You just need a little online real estate on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, or some sort of blogging platform.
Over time, as your life gets distilled into these little pixels, it’s easy for the people who see them—be they friends, acquaintances, or perfect strangers—to assume they represent you in your totality. Even more frightening, as you gather feedback and gain friends/followers/subscribers, you can start to believe it too.
But we are not our messages, no matter how much we believe in them. We are not our filtered photos, or our tweets, or our political and religious ideologies. We are not even the stories we tell, no matter how carefully and truthfully we tell them.
We are not our brands.
We are human beings—little bundles of cells and relationships and hopes and fears that can never be crammed into images or words.
I have to remind myself of this now and then, when I see people discussing me on the internet in terms that dehumanize and reduce. They are caricatures, really, the sort of portraits you can pay a street artist in New Orleans to draw for you. The features are exaggerated, but they are based on just enough reality to look familiar, to make me a little more mindful of those warts and moles and wrinkles. Other artists accentuate the positives, of course, but those are glamor shots and no matter how many I hang in my locker, we all know they’re not entirely true; it’s all about the lighting.
It would be easier to ask for grace if I’d done a better job of extending it. But I too objectify other people. I’ve assumed that Mark Driscoll is his bullying, macho-man brand, John Piper the sum of his views on women. While these brands certainly don’t spontaneously generate, and while these ideas should be discussed, debated, and sometimes denounced, I find myself reluctant to retweet the fake twitter accounts or join in any online jeering. Because it’s a heck of a lot easier to dish it out than it is to eat it up, let me tell you, and I think sometimes we inadvertently perpetuate celebrity culture by railing so loudly against it, by feeding into the caricatures with our derision.
As much as I find Mark Driscoll’s “brand” highly distasteful and seriously problematic, I don’t know the man, so I have no business hating him. And as much as you may love or hate the RHE brand, most of you don’t really know the girl behind it, no matter how candid I am with you, no matter how hard I try to be real.
The truth is, that dude whose blog posts totally rub you the wrong way may be the best person in the world with which to watch a football game or talk theology over beer. That acquaintance on Facebook whose pictures make her life seem perfect may struggle with self-doubt, depression, and fear. That stuffy Calvinist you love to hate may melt into a goofy, delightful playmate when he’s tickling his kids on the living room floor. The feminist you always imagine shouting other people down may have an unbelievably tender heart. The pastor you think is always wrong probably gets a few things right. And the pastor you think is always right definitely gets some stuff wrong.
Perhaps the most radical thing we followers of Jesus can do in the information age is treat each other like humans—not heroes, not villains, not avatars, not statuses, not Republicans, not Democrats, not Calvinists, not Emergents—just humans. This wouldn't mean we would stop disagreeing, but I think it would mean we would disagree well.
It’s hard acknowledging the limits of a medium through which my own writing career has flourished, but I want you to know: The conversations we have here—as encouraging, informative, and life-changing as they can often be—are meant to be brought to dinner tables, coffee shops, AA meetings, parks, church fellowship halls, long car rides, dorm rooms, and diners, among people who (whether they agree or disagree) can look you in the eye and take you in, not as a brand but as a human being. It’s riskier, I know, but it’s truer. It’s better. And I think it’s what good writing is intended to accomplish—to connect us to the truth in one another, our world, and the divine...in real life, not just our heads.
As if this post wasn’t self-indulgent enough, I should confess I’ve been experiencing some growing pains. I love that the blog is growing and that more people are reading my articles and books, but I’m in that awkward teenage stage when your arms and legs are suddenly longer so you’re knocking stuff over and running into doors. I’m upsetting apple carts I didn’t even mean to upset, apparently making theological statements about views I didn’t even know existed. I feel a little in over my head, to be honest.
[Let’s get real. When all you’ve got is an English Literature degree and they’re asking you to comment on substitutionary atonement at Christian colleges and church trends on CNN, something’s gone amiss.]
So I’m recalibrating a bit, figuring out what it means to steward whatever influence I have in ways that are both creative and sustainable, and that perhaps give some other folks the chance to step up to the mic. I’m also pouring the best of myself into a new book, which means posts may be a bit spottier… and weirder, as they will likely have been written after 1 a.m.
Thanks for your patience, wisdom, support, and willingness to call me on my crap. You’ve helped me grow my brand, yes, but you’ve also made me a better person. I hope we get the chance to really know one another someday.
So, have you ever felt you’ve been treated like a brand— a simplified rendering of your actual hopes, dreams, and ideas? Where does this happen – on the internet, in church, at your work? Who in your life actually knows you? And what can we do to avoid making caricatures of one another?
…Or divorce, or gossip, or slavery, or head coverings, or Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence, or the “abomination” of eating shellfish and the hell-worthy sin of calling other people idiots.
Then we need a little context.
Then we need a little grace.
Then we need a little room to disagree.
I got to thinking about this after I was criticized last week for my post about loving gay kids unconditionally. Some folks were very upset that I had the audacity write an entire blog post about putting a stop to LGBT bullying without including a Bible-based condemnation of LGBT people, or at least a theological discussion around the issue of homosexuality and Scripture.
Bible verses were quoted. Open letters were written. End Times predictions were made. Pillows in my home were thrown record distances.
It’s funny. Yesterday, in Sunday Superlatives, I included a quote from Mark Twain in which he referred to a snake oil salesman as an “idiot,” but no one left an angry comment warning me of hell based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:22 that “if you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court; and if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell.”
Nor did anyone raise any biblical objections regarding gluttony a few weeks ago when I casually mentioned overdosing on Sweet Frog frozen yogurt (strawberry, with a pile of chocolate chips, Oreo crumbs, and chocolate animal crackers on top, if you must know), or about materialism when I shared pictures of our new car. (Hey, for some people, a brand new Honda Civic is pretty flashy.)
And in spite of the flood of emails I get each week condemning my support of women in ministry, I’ve never received so much as an open letter criticizing my refusal to wear a head covering, even though my Web site is full of photographic evidence of what the apostle Paul calls a “disgrace” in 1 Corinthians 11:6.
We may laugh at these examples or dismiss them silly, but the biblical language employed in these contexts is actually pretty strong: eating shellfish is an abomination, a bare head is a disgrace, gossips will not inherit the kingdom of God, careless words are punishable by hell, guys who leer at women should gouge out their eyes.
Heck, you could make a pretty good biblical case for gluttony being a “lifestyle sin” that has been normalized by our culture of "Supersized" portions and overflowing buffet lines, starting with passages like Philippians 3:19 (“their god is their belly”), Psalm 78: 18 (“they tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved”), Proverbs 23:20 (“be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat”), Proverbs 23:2 (“put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite”), or better yet, Ezekiel 16:49 ("Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.")
Yet you don’t see weigh-ins preceding baptisms or people holding “God Hates Gluttons” signs outside the den of iniquity that is Ryan’s Steakhouse.
And we haven’t even touched on materialism, or the fact that on the day I stuffed my face with froyo, 30,000 kids died from preventable diseases and many more went hungry.
It seems the more ubiquitous the biblical violation, the more invisible it becomes.
So why do so many Christians focus on the so-called “clobber verses” related to homosexuality while ignoring “clobber verses” related to gluttony or greed, head coverings or divorce? Why is homosexuality the great biblical debate of this decade and not slavery, (as it once was) or the increasing problem of materialism and inequity? Why do so many advocate making gay marriage illegal but not divorce, when Jesus never referenced the former but spoke quite negatively about the latter?
While there are certainly important hermeneutical and cultural issues at play, I can’t help but wonder if something more nefarious is also at work. I can’t help but wonder if biblical condemnation is often a numbers game.
Though it affects more of us than we tend to realize, statistically, homosexuality affects far fewer of us than gluttony, materialism, or divorce. And as Jesus pointed out so often in his ministry, we like to focus on the biblical violations (real or perceived) of the minority rather than our own.
In short, we like to gang up. We like to fashion weapons out of the verses that affect us the least and then “clobber” the minority with them. Or better yet, conjure up some saccharine language about speaking the truth in love before breaking out our spec-removing tweezers to help get our minds off of these uncomfortable logs in our own eyes.
We see this in the story of the religious leaders who ganged up on the woman caught in adultery. She was such an easy target: a woman, probably poor, disempowered, and charged with the go-to favorite of the self-righteous—sexual sin. When they brought her to Jesus, they were using her as an example to test him, to see how “biblical” his response to her would be. (See Deuteronomy 22:23-14.) Jesus knelt down and scribbled in the sand before saying, “He who is without sin can cast the first stone.” They dropped their stones.
While self-righteousness avoidance certainly affects our selective literalism , we also have good reasons for not condemning one another for the more ubiquitous biblical violations (again, real or perceived) in our culture.
It’s hard for me to flatly condemn divorce, for example, when I know of several women whose lives, and the lives of their children, may have been saved by it, or when I hear from people who tell me they would have rather come from a broken home than grown up in one. We have a natural revulsion to the idea of checking people’s BMI before accepting them into the Church, especially when obesity is not necessarily reflective of gluttony (often, in this country, it is a result of poverty), and when we know from our own experiences or the experiences of those we love that an unhealthy weight can result from a variety of factors—from genetics to psychological components—and when some of our favorite people in the world (or when we ourselves) wrestle with a complicated relationship with food, whether it’s through overeating or under-eating.
Again, it’s a numbers game. It’s hard to “other” the people we know and love the most. It’s become a cliché, but everything changes when it’s your brother or sister who gets divorced, when it’s your son or daughter who is gay, when it’s your best friend who struggles with addiction, when it’s your husband or wife asking some good questions about Christianity you never thought about before. Our relationships have a tendency to destroy our categories, to melt black and white into gray, and I don’t think God is disappointed or threatened by this. I think God expects it. It happened to Peter when he encountered Corneilus and Philip when he encountered the Ehtiopian eunuch. Suddenly it became a lot harder to label your friends "unclean" or "unworthy."
After all, when God became flesh and lived among us, the religious accused him of hanging out with “sinners" (even gluttons!) never realizing that this was the whole point, that there were only “sinners” to hang out with.
Of course, all of this raises questions about when it’s right or wrong to “call out” sin, and I confess I’m no good at sorting that out. I’m as hypocritical as the next person, judgmental of those I deem judgmental, self-righteous, indulgent, a gossip, too careless with my words, too quick to get angry at certain people with certain theological views, too easily seduced by money and notoriety and…my favorite things in the whole entire world…AWARDSI LISTS! ACCOLADES!
I too need reminding that, for all my big talk about a “Christocentric hermeneutic,” more often than not, I’m following a “Rachelcentric hermeneutic” when I read the Bible, complete with my own biases, preferences, insecurities, and opinions guiding how I “pick and choose.” (Oh I can wield every Bible verse that challenges Calvinism like a knife, but I’d rather not talk about how I’m actually applying the Sermon on the Mount to my life or what I really think about enemy-love.)
Should we stop discussing which biblical instructions apply today and how we ought to apply them? Certainly not. Should we remain silent when the vulnerable are oppressed and exploited or when injustice and immorality pervades our culture? No. Do we abandon our convictions about what the Bible says is sin? No, not even when we disagree on that. Are rhetorical questions overused in blog posts? Yes.
But it’s good to remind ourselves now and then that just as Southern slaveholders had a vested interest in interpreting Colossians 3:22 literally, so we tend to “pick and choose” to our own advantage.
And when we make separate categories for the “real sinners,” when we reduce our fellow human beings to theological issues up for constant debate who cannot even be told they are loved without qualifiers, when our hermeneutic conveniently renders others the problem and us the heroes, maybe it’s time to sit across a table and get to know one another a little better, to break up some categories and make some new friends. Maybe it’s time to drop our stones for a while and pass the bread.
…healthy, whole grain, organic bread, of course.
For more on selective literalism, but with a fun twist, check out my book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.
*Updated: I closed the thread because there were just too many comments to keep up with! Thank you so much for reading and for keeping it (mostly) civil. :-)