From the Mailbag: Can we teach our children modesty without guilt?

Last week, I received this message from Sharon via my Facebook page

I read with interest some your prior blog posts on modesty and the modesty/purity movement. [See “Elizabeth Smart and Purity Culture” and “Modesty: I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means.”] As a reproductive biologist, and mother to a daughter, I thoroughly agreed that much of what we do or have said about these issues can harm girls and women and destroy healthy sexual relationships. At the same time, I want to empower my daughter not to engage in reckless sexual activity and to dress modestly, not because she's bad or ruined if she chooses otherwise, but because I want her to value herself, rather than making the appearance of her body the core of her value. How would you say that we, as Christians and parents can go about teaching modesty without it becoming about hem lines, guilt and worthlessness?

Sharon’s question reminded me of a conversation I had with another mom at a women’s retreat not long ago. She asked me a very similar question about how to teach her daughter about modesty, sex, and self-respect when, as she put it, “I can’t just tell her ‘the Bible says so’ anymore; there's more to it than that.” We ended up talking for a while, trying to work out the answer together, because the truth is, we’ve been immersed in these narratives for so long that it’s hard to know how to change them. 

I’m not a mom, so I’ve yet to have to work all this out in the context of parenthood, and I confess I do feel like some folks, in their reaction to purity/modesty culture, perhaps swing in the opposite direction and defy common sense by suggesting it’s wrong for a parent to have misgivings when their daughter picks the “Sexy Alice-in-Wonderland” costume for Halloween. 

So since I feel a little out of my depth tackling this one by myself, I’m going to leave my response in a comment and then open Sharon’s question up for discussion. If you have thoughts or experience with this, please leave a comment, and I’ll pick some of the best, most helpful ones to feature in a separate post. 

Can’t wait to read your thoughts. Thank you! 

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Homosexuality, Evangelicalism, and The Danger of a Single Story

My favorite TED talk of all time was delivered by the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s entitled “The Danger of a Single Story,” and Adichie, a Nigerian writer, thoughtfully and humorously describes the human tendency to project a single, simplistic story onto groups of people who we perceive to be different than ourselves. 

She uses several examples—the story that all Africans are helpless and in need of white saviors, the story that all Mexicans are sneaking across the American border to steal jobs, the story that all writers must have difficult childhoods to write well, the story that people in poverty are to be only pitied, etc. One of the funniest examples is when Adichie’s American roommate asked to listen to some of her “tribal music” and was disappointed when Adichie produced her favorite Mariah Carey album! 

 “I recently spoke at a university where a student told me it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel,” says Adichie with a wry smile, “I told him that I had just read a novel called ‘American Psycho’ and that it was such a shame that young Americans were murderers.” 

“The problem with stereotypes,” Adichie concludes, “is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” 

You really must watch the whole video. It’s the best 18 minutes you will spend today. Trust me. 

It occurred to me recently that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are often subjected to this single-story treatment, both from myself and from other people. 

I bumped up against this recently when a local pastor invited me to attend a lecture by Rosaria Butterfield. Ever since her story was featured in Christianity Today nearly a year ago, Butterfield has become something of a celebrity within the conservative evangelical world, and every time I’m in conversation with someone about the potential dangers of “conversion therapy” (which seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation through counseling and prayer), her name invariably comes up. 

“Rosaria is proof that gay people can change!” they say. “If she can change, anyone can!” 

In her testimony, Butterfield describes leaving behind her partner, her feminism, and her liberalism to become a Christian, married to a man. “As a leftist, lesbian professor, I despised Christians,” she said. “Then I somehow become one!” 

Her story left me feeling unsettled the moment I read it, not because I didn’t believe Butterfield, but because I didn’t like that she drew a dichotomy between liberalism and Christianity, feminism and Christianity, and lesbianism and Christianity…as if converting to Christianity requires leaving all those other things behind too.  

But the story appeared over and over again in my Facebook feed, as Christians used it as an example of what it means to convert to Christianity and as definitive proof that all gay people can change their sexual orientation if they just want to badly enough. My friends had taken this single story and projected it onto all gay and lesbian people, and it was unfair. 

Because there are other stories too—like the story of the gay teenager who begged God to make him straight and when his prayers went unanswered killed himself in despair, or the story of the parents who were taught that it was their “fault” their child was gay and were ostracized by their church because of it, or the story of a popular Christian ministry that shut its doors when it became clear that changes in orientation are in fact rare and that “reparative therapy” has no scientific basis, or the stories of gay and lesbian couples who have formed faithful partnerships with one another and remain committed Christians. 

One doesn’t have to doubt the truth of Butterfield’s story to see the danger in projecting it onto all gay people. 

Justin Lee expresses the danger of the single story in his book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate. Justin grew up Southern Baptist and certainly didn’t choose to be gay…and yet, he was (and is) attracted to other guys. Upon first facing this reality, he wrote: 

“I already had an image of what gay people were like. They were sinners  who had turned from God and had an ‘agenda’ to mainstream their perverse lifestyle. I didn’t actually know any gay people, but I had seen them in video footage of Pride parades, where they were dressed in outrageous outfits or wearing next to nothing at all, and I knew that they engaged in all kinds of deviant sexual practices. I had nothing in common with people like that, so how could I be gay?” 

Justin’s own story didn’t fit the narrative with which he had been presented. And this single story proved truly dangerous in his life, as it does in the lives of many other LGBT people who are told by their pastors and parents that their sexuality represents deliberate rebellion against God and that if they would just try hard enough, they can be delivered from this "deviant" lifestyle."  

Justin expresses frustration with many of the testimonies with which he was exposed, where men spoke of being “delivered” from homosexuality—which they tended to define not as same sex attraction, but as engaging in gay sex with multiple partners outside of marriage—only to learn that many of these men were in fact still attracted to other men. But their pictures were splattered across brochures and Web sites as examples of how gay people can change. 

Indeed, my alma mater, a conservative Christian college that has shied away from bold conversations around homosexuality, will be hosting Christopher Yuan as a chapel speaker next semester. Yuan’s testimony is about how he indulged in a promiscuous, drug-fueled lifestyle with multiple same-sex partners and contracted HIV until encountering Christ and turning his life around. 

Now, I don’t want to cast doubt on Yuan’s story; it’s an important one to hear. But I fear that if his remains the only story presented about what it means to be gay…or what it means to have HIV, for that matter….then it will continue to perpetuate the sort of stereotypes that prove seriously unhelpful in this conversation. 

I love it when my friend Kimberly, a lesbian and fantastic writer, posts her “gay agenda” on Facebook. Here’s what she wrote yesterday: “As for the whole gay agenda thing, here's mine for tomorrow: tomorrow my agenda is to get up early enough for a walk with the dogs (plus make breakfast and pack lunches), get to work a little early, eat a healthy lunch (NO FRIES DAMNIT), pick up kids from school, make a nominally healthy dinner, help my wife get ready for travel, watch the day-after episode of The Walking Dead, read a little Nadia, write, pray, kiss my family good night and sleep to be ready to start all over again tackling the big fat gay agenda the next day.

Kimberly's point is that not all "gay lifestyles" look the same.  

Can you imagine if people spoke of the “heterosexual lifestyle” and pointed to footage of women flashing their breasts at men to receive beads at Mardi Gras as the single example? Or if they spoke of the “heterosexual agenda” and used Miley Cyrus as the single spokesperson? 

If it bothers us when atheists use Pat Robertson as evangelicalism’s “single story” or abusive churches as Christianity’s “single story,” then it should bother us when Butterfield’s story is used as the single story of what it means to be gay…particularly when, statistically, changes in orientation appear to be rare. 

Of course, there is always a tendency to highlight and endorse the stories that fit most comfortably into our worldview. I am as guilty of this as anyone else. Whereas conservatives tend to ignore stories that suggest sexual orientation is not usually a choice, progressives tend to dismiss stories that suggest sexuality may be more fluid in some cases. 

But anytime we take a single story and use it to make a statement about an entire group of people, we have to ask ourselves—who really has the agenda here? 

 

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Roundtable Discussion: Best Books on Gender & Sexuality

So our sexuality series has been something of a victim of my busy fall travel schedule this year, but we pick things up again today with a roundtable discussion meant to help you explore the topic further on your own time. I asked some of my favorite people—from a wide range of perspectives and areas of interest— about their go-to books on gender and sexuality, and here’s how they responded: 

Leigh Kramer

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Leigh blogs at Hopeful Leigh about her faith, the church, singleness and relationships, grief and joy and everything in between.  (@hopefulleigh

I wish everyone would read Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today's Church (Christine A. Colon & Bonnie E. Field) regardless of marital status and sexual history. We often fail to recognize that sexuality is about more than the physical act of sex. We are all sexual beings. The authors shift the discussion from "how do we remain pure until marriage?" to "what does it mean to be a single Christian apart from the possibility of marriage?". 

Celibacy is not simply the absence of sex but a spiritual discipline, by which we learn to place God, sex, and Christian community in the right perspective and understand the value of controlling sexual desires. By properly defining celibacy and chastity, the authors present a healthy and freeing framework for the Christian single and married alike. I'm grateful for their solidarity and insights.

Tara Owens 

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Tara is a spiritual director with Anam Cara Ministries and the senior editor of Conversations Journal. Her book on spirituality and the body will be published by IVP in 2014. (@t_owens) 

Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing Intimacy in a Broken World by Lisa Graham McMinn: There aren’t a lot of good books out there that address the totality of sexuality—what it means to be a sexual person, married or single and how our sexuality affects our relationships with each other and God. One of the things that I love about McMinn’s book is that it takes on everything from menstruation to masturbation while holding a non-judgmental, open space about how God speaks through every part of our sexuality.

Christianity and Eros by Philip Sherrard: This is a slim book of theologically dense essays by an Orthodox theologian. It’s not for someone looking for a casual read, but I’ve found it to be one of the most enlightening and convincing takes on how marriage becomes sacramental through the expression of erotic love over time. You also don’t have to be Orthodox to appreciate and learn from his scholarship.

Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality by Rob Bell: People have strong opinions about Rob Bell, and I get it. His writing style isn’t for everyone, and for some people his theological trajectory isn’t worth following. I get it. That said, don’t let those things keep you from reading Sex God. It’s an accessible look at how our sexuality is a powerful force in our spirituality—every. single. day.

Matthew Vines

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This is Matthew's first "visit" to the blog, and I do hope to have him back! Matthew is the founder and president of The Reformation Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to changing church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity. In March 2012, Matthew delivered a speech at a church in his Kansas hometown, calling for acceptance of gay Christians and their marriage relationships. Since then, the video of the speech has been seen more than 500,000 times on YouTube and has been featured in The New York Times.  His book on the topic will be published by Random House. (@vinesmatthew

1. Bible, Gender, Sexuality by Jim Brownson. Brownson is a New Testament professor at Western Theological Seminary (affiliated with the Reformed Church in America), and he makes the strongest biblical case in favor of same-sex relationships I have yet encountered. He gently but forcefully rebuts the arguments of Robert Gagnon, whose book The Bible and Homosexual Practice is regarded by many non-affirming Christians as the gold standard on this issue. Brownson's conservative approach to Scripture will win over many skeptical readers, and his book should be required reading for anyone who wants to make an informed judgment about the Bible and homosexuality. 

2. Roman Homosexuality by Craig Williams. This book does not address Scripture, but it sheds important light on the cultural norms and practices that would have shaped early Christians' understandings of same-sex sexuality. Williams convincingly argues that the modern concept of sexual orientation did not exist for the Romans. Given that the most important passage in Scripture concerning same-sex behavior appears in Romans 1:26-27, this historical study will help readers develop a clearer picture of the world in which Paul wrote his letters.

3. Homoeroticism in the Biblical World by Martti Nissinen. Nissinen's study of ancient Near Eastern attitudes toward same-sex relations offers a necessary backdrop for understanding the Old Testament's references to same-sex behavior. He argues that same-sex relations were condemned primarily because they undermined patriarchal gender roles, meaning that Christians should acknowledge a significant cultural component to biblical passages about same-sex behavior.

Grace Biskie

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Grace blogs at Gabbing with Grace about faith, race, surviving sexual abuse, depression, justice, hope, and more.  (@gracebiskie

1. The Wounded Heart book & workbook (Dan Allendar) - this one has more of a focus on being an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, so it's specific but very helpful if in it's specificity.

2.  Breaking Free: Understanding Sexual Addiction & the Healing Power of Jesus by Russell Willingham (again, it's specific about particular sexual addictions but it's good, solid theology & a very good read).  

3. Real Sex by Lauren Winner.  I'm guessing you all ready know about this because it's so good.  She's just incredible.  It's such an interesting take on chastity, purity & all that jazz.

Matthew Lee Anderson

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Matthew is the author of The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith and Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith. He blogs at Mere Orthodoxy. (@mattleeanderson)

What two books do I find myself returning to and learning from?  On the contentious question of what good news the church has for gay Christians, few books are more sober, plodding, or poignant than Oliver O'Donovan's Church in Crisis.  He manages somehow to disappoint nearly every camp, yet proceeds with a patience that is rare.  Few works I have read have more clearly stated what's at stake in the debate. 

The other that I continue to return to is Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body.  Yes, I'm a happy evangelical and so find myself occasionally disagreeing with the author.  But those disagreements are always fertile, and I walk away understanding more than I did in advance.  It's a big book, yes, but when read slowly it has an astonishing formative effect:  it shapes how I see the world without me always realizing how (which is why you should skip the various popularizations of it and just dive in). 

Dianna Anderson 

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Dianna blogs at diannaanderson.net. Her first book, Damaged Goods, examines evangelical purity culture from a Christian feminist lens and is due out in 2015. (@diannaeanderson)

Hmmmm, I don't know if I could choose a favorite...but some that are helping me (as I'm reading my way through) are: 

What You Really Really Want: the Smart Girl's Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety by Jaclyn Friedman. I believe knowing yourself is the most important part of making sexual decisions, and Friedman offers a rubric/approach that is useful and helpful for beginning that journey, especially if you come from a culture where you've received negative messages about sex.

All About Love, by bell hooks. I'm offering this with a precaution that I've only read a couple chapters, but what I've read, I like. hooks examines and discusses the social mores and conditioning around the concept of love in a way that inspires people to be better within the basic concept of being human.

 ***

Now it's time for you to join in. What are your favorite books on gender and sexuality…and why? Which have made the biggest impact on you personally? 

 

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Does the Bible really condemn committed gay relationships?

For a lot of Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? 

Most of us who grew up in a conservative church environment are familiar with the texts typically associated with this question—found in Genesis 19, Leviticus 18 & 20, Romans 1, I Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1—and their interpretation from the traditional perspective. 

So how do Christians who believe in the authority of Scripture and who also support committed gay/lesbian relationships interpret these passages? 

I’ve read several books and articles exploring both the traditional and affirming perspectives, but perhaps no one else so succinctly, persuasively, and carefully presents the affirming view than Matthew Vines in his now-famous no-frills, one-hour lecture on the topic, delivered at a church in his Kansas hometown. Upon confronting the reality that he was gay, Matthew, a committed Christian, left college to devote two years to studying the topic. Now he has launched The Reformation Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to changing church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity. He is currently writing a book for publication by Random House in early 2014.

While Matthew is essentially just presenting the same arguments various biblical scholars have been making for decades, he summarized the position so well, it’s worth sharing for discussion. So I’ve embedded the video and linked to the transcript below.

I know it’s a bit long, but if we’re going to discuss this issue, it’s only fair to familiarize ourselves with both “sides” in the discussion and, unfortunately, what I hear most often from evangelicals is that the Bible is absolutely unambiguous on the topic and that those who would deny that are simply denying the authority of Scripture. I think this shows that there are thoughtful Christians who are both committed to Scripture and unconvinced that all gay relationships are sinful. You don’t have to agree with them to take them and their perspectives seriously and respond to them charitably. 

Here’s the video (with captioning): 

Here’s the transcript: 

The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality

You can read a conservative critique of Matthew Vines’ presentation here and here. 

A few questions for discussion: 

  1. What most resonated with you from Matthew’s presentation? Which points were the strongest, and which would you say were the weakest? 
  2. Which traditionalist response offered the best crituqe? Did the responses adequately address the challenges to the traditionalist viewpoint raised by Matthew? How so? 
  3. How do you interpret these passages and how did you arrive at that posture? What would you say is the strongest point made by those with whom you disagree? What is the weakest? What are you most unsure about? 

[I'll share some of my thoughts in a comment below.] 

Let’s keep the conversation civil and constructive, and please take the time to read/watch before weighing in. (I realize this requires some time commitment, but given the intensity of this debate and the profoundly personal nature of it, I think it’s worth taking the time to seriously consider the various viewpoints—whether through these resources or others; don’t you? I’ll make sure to check the comments throughout the week so you have plenty of time to read/watch before weighing in.) 

 

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From the Wife of a Queer Man...

Today's post comes to us from a friend and fellow writer who wishes to remain anonymous. The author attends graduate school and works for a non-profit. She has been a member of the RHE community for a number of years now.

I'm so grateful for her openness and wisdom in sharing her story with us. She will be available for interaction in the comments, but asks for patience as she may not be able to respond to all of them. 

 ***

American Christians are in the midst of a conversation about sexuality. This conversation is important (yet heart-wrenching) to gay Christians for obvious reasons. Among straight Christians (with whom I identify), some of us have the conversation for ministerial reasons. Others have it so that we can know how to better love our friends and family members (which in my opinion, is ministerial!). And then there is a small contingent of us who approach this conversation from a unique vantage point--we are in a heterosexual marriage with someone who does not entirely identify as heterosexual. 

Today, I speak into this conversation as the wife of a queer man.

I don't know how to tell our story. If you know us personally, you probably know it already. We're fairly open about it. (We were conflicted about whether or not this should be anonymous. We finally decided that it would be most loving and protective of certain family members who are ashamed of this part of our story to remain anonymous at this point. We hope you understand.) 

My husband and I were friends long before we dated, and I've nearly always known about his attraction to men. It was part of who he was, but never the defining thing. He was always kind, smart, fun-loving, generous, and more. When we were friends, he was wrestling with his sexuality, and we talked about it fairly openly among our close group of friends. He was a Christian and did not feel at peace with his attraction to men. He felt even less at peace when he was in relationships with men. They were hard, hard years for him. 

It's hard to explain briefly, but here's my best attempt: Our friendship led to a tentative romance. And then our romance led to sexual attraction. (This applied on both counts. I was not aching for him when we were friends.) There were bumps and bruises along the way, but eventually we decided that we wanted to swear off all other romantic and sexual interests for life and commit completely to each other. We were married and have enjoyed an amazing marriage since.

(Now, I want to pause to say this loud and clear: My husband is not all queer men. His story, our story, is unique, and we do *not* want it to be used to guilt, shame, or condemn anyone. If you want to share it with a gay friend/son/brother to motivate him to find a wife, you are not loving him well. This story is intended to explain my perspective as the wife of a queer man, not provide any sort of template for healthy sexuality. Far be it from me.

Today, my husband has come to peace with the reality that he is a queer man. He is attracted to men and me, so he doesn't consider himself gay, nor do I. Our "heterosexual" marriage has provided him a safe space from which he can advocate for LGBTQ individuals who are both inside and outside the Church. He advocates for them because he identifies as one, even though it doesn't appear that way to many outsiders. I am so proud of him for this, yet I also know how hard it is for him at times.

There's a lot I could say about my experiences, but as his wife, I would like to make a few points for everyone to consider as we continue discussing sexuality in the Church:

1) In any conversation, you should not assume that everyone who "passes" as heterosexual is in fact heterosexual.

I cannot tell you the number of conversations we have sat in on that left us clutching each other's hands in frustration. Those judgmental things you say about LGBTQ people, they hurt us both. Those judgmental things you say about people "trapped in false marriages," they hurt us as well.

2) My marriage is real and healthy and blessed by God.

Please do not mock me or it. My husband and I are not in denial, nor are we "just roommates." I hate that I feel the need to tell you this, but, for what it's worth, we have great sex. Just like most of our married friends, we have periods when we have sex every day, and periods when we have "snack" sex between less frequent "banquet" sex. And then there are the times when sex doesn't come so easily--when we're both too busy, I'm struggling through pregnancy sickness, or following a birth. In short, we are more sexually normal than you think. 

3) I am convinced that there are millions of spouses like me, but most live in secret.

I think all of our stories are different. Some of us are Christians, many are not. Some of us found out about our spouse's sexuality before marriage, some after. Some of our spouses are at peace about their sexuality, many are not. Some of us have been lied to or cheated on, many have not. Some of us have happy marriages, some do not. All of these differences create a world of varied experiences. But we are here, even though we don't often speak up. I personally know many wives in a situation similar to mine, but I only know one other couple who lives openly amongst friends as my husband and I do. I wish more of us could. 

4) The "Side A" and "Side B" dichotomy that is often talked about is not exhaustive of the experiences of gay Christians.

These sides can even encourage a false dichotomy in our conversations. I don't want to imply that everyone has other options, because that would be false. But the story I've lived and the stories I know don't fit into "Side A" or "Side B," and it is somewhat frustrating to feel as if our stories not real, recognized, or legitimate. 

5) My husband and I are both convinced, largely because of our experience, that sexuality is more flexible than many people are admitting right now.

We completely understand why there is such vehement rhetoric that people can't change. We do not believe in or support gay conversion therapy. But we have lived a story of flexible sexuality. He was sure he was a 6 on the Kinsey scale before he fell in love with me. But fall in love he did, and it changed him. This observation feels like a betrayal to many people we love, so I don't know what to do with it. But it's the reality of our stories. 

But those observations aside, when you click away from this post, what I want you to hear loudest from me is this: My husband and I are both blessed by our marriage; it is not a burden. I have in no way married a second-rate man, and he has in no way settled for second-rate sex. Christian marriage should be a closing off of oneself to all sexual options save one, and in embracing that reality we have experienced shalom. 

 ***

I'm so grateful for this story. I'm starting to wonder if, because sexuality has become so politicized and such an unfortunate theological line-in-the-sand, we tend to brush aside stories that don't fit our preferred paradigm for fear they will provide "ammunition" to the other side. In so doing, I wonder if we've veered too far from the reality that human sexuality is indeed very complex. It's so tempting to take one person's story and use it to make a point while simultaneously dismissing another person's story because it doesn't line up with my assumptions. This happens on both "sides" (or, perhaps more accurately ALL sides), and I'm not sure how to stop it. What do you think? How do you respond to this story and how can we make more space for people whose sexuality doesn't fit in a box?

[See also: "On Mixed Orientation Marriages: Four Stories"

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