Sunday Superlatives 11/23/14

Around the Blogosphere…

Funniest: 
Mallory Ortberg at The Toast with “Bible Verses Where The Word ‘Philistines’ Has Been Replaced With ‘Haters’”

“He had so many flocks and herds and servants that the haters envied him…”

Wisest: 
Mihee Kim-Kort with “Blessed are the peacemakers” 

“Being a peacemaker means more than hasty promises and temporary truces. It means seeing conflict as opportunity for deeper connection.”

Bravest: 
Micha Boyett with “Ghostly Grief: On Miscarriage and Loss” 

“Miscarriage is the strangest grief, ghostly but intensely embodied.” 

Cleverest:
Janet Potter at The Millions with “Book Titles Rewritten to Get More Clicks” 

Coolest: 
Ivan Kislov’s fox photography 

Most Thought-Provoking: 
Richard Beck with “When God Became the Devil” and “Christus Victor and Progressive Christianity”

“…With Anselm a change happened, a theological twist still alive today. Worried as he was about the role of the Devil in Christus Victor schemes Anselm shifted the problem away from the Devil and toward the character of God. The drama of salvation was no longer an external conflict between God and the Devil but an internal conflict within God's own heart, a conflict between God's wrath and God's love.”

Most Powerful (READ THIS!): 
Naomi Shihab Nye with “Gate A4”

“She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies— little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts— from her bag and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single traveler declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo— we were all covered with the same powdered sugar…Then the airline broke out free apple juice and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend— by now we were holding hands— had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere. And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.” 

Most Relatable:
Alece Ronzino at Deeper Story with “When None of It Mattered”

“I quit church, stopped reading my Bible, gave up on any real semblance of a prayer life — and you know what? He was big enough to take it. His feelings weren’t hurt when I spoke words of doubt instead of faith. He didn’t mind when I cried rather than worshipped. He is God enough to handle this human heart of mine. He didn’t scold me; He didn’t heap 'shoulds' or shame on me; He didn’t tell me to let go and let Him. He just sat in The Great Sadness with me.”


Most Eye-Opening: 
Mona Eltahawy at The New York Times with “Fighting Female Genital Mutilation”

“I am a 47-year-old Egyptian woman. And I am among the fortunate few of my countrywomen whose genitals have not been cut in the name of ‘purity’ and the control of our sexuality…”

Most Practical: 
Shauna Niequist with “Ten Thoughts on Hosting Thanksgiving”

“Remember: it’s about the gathering, not about the food. This is the most important thing to keep in mind. I know Thanksgiving might be the most food-driven of all holidays, but the people are always more important than the food. The gathering is what’s significant…that’s what you remind yourself when the turkey’s taking forever or the stuffing’s dry.”


Best Reminder:
Michelle DeRusha at Grace Table with “What a Monk and Two Delivery Men Taught Me About Hospitality” 

“When we define hospitality as what happens around our own dining room table and with our own family and friends, we limit its scope and potential. We stop far short of the kind of hospitality Christ had in mind. In Jesus’ eyes, hospitality includes how we welcome and receive everyone – not just the guests we invite to cross our thresholds, but those who cross our paths in ordinary, everyday ways as well.”

Best Analysis: 
Boz Tchividjian at RNS on Matthew 18

“This well-known biblical passage has all too often been a justification for 1) not reporting abuse disclosures to the authorities and 2) convincing sexual abuse victims to privately confront their perpetrators.  Needless to say, this misreading and misapplication of Jesus’ words is incredibly harmful on a number of fronts.  More importantly, it’s simply not consistent with the person and character of Jesus.”

Best Conversation: 
Tyler Tully, Drew Hart, and Scot McKnight discuss (and debate) Kingdom Conspiracy here, here, here, and here

Best Analogy: 
Ty Grigg at Missio Alliance with “Candy Land Christianity” 

“We expect Christians to do good, but we also expect that it will happen automatically and with little to no effort on our part. We are game pieces being moved down the path of Candy Land Christianity.”

Best Question: 
Lisa Sharon Harper at Sojourners in “The Grand Jury and the Rorschach Test” with

“What if the church today upon baptism called believers to examine all the ways we have soaked in the unconscious biases of the American empire? What if we reexamined our relationships with and assumptions of who should have power in our nation, in our cities, and in the church?”
 


From Twitter…

On my nightstand…

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone 

On Instagram…

Well, I finally decided to join Instagram. So far I’ve posted a picture of a sink full of dirty dishes (with a filter, of course). We’ll see how this goes…

Bucking the system by making my first Instagram photo a picture of actual life. I did, however, add a filter.

A photo posted by Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) on

 

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So what caught your eye online this week? What’s happening on your blog? 

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The False Gospel of Gender Binaries

Not long ago I had the pleasure of working with Adrian,* a visual artist with a quick wit, easygoing spirit, and creative eye. After an afternoon of laugher and collaboration, Adrian opened up about what it’s been like working with other religious people, particularly evangelicals. 

“I’m intersex,” Adrian said, with a shrug of the shoulders. “Evangelicals don’t have a category for me, so there’s no real place for me in their church.” 

(Intersex is a term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. Learn more here.) 

Adrian’s words hurt my heart, but I knew they were true. Over the past two years, I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed by transgender Christians (people whose gender identities differ from what is associated with the sex they were assigned at birth), and of course by gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians.  Often I hear of childhoods plagued by bullying, exclusion, depression, and fear, all made worse when the churches that were supposed to love and care for them rejected them because they did not fit into rigid gender binaries. 

“God made male and female,” culture warriors like to thunder. “Any deviation from traditional gender and sexuality norms represents a serious sin and threat to the gospel.”** 

This claim is often punctuated by advocacy for rigid, hierarchal gender roles based on stereotypes in which all men are described as being “wired” one way (as providers, leaders, and fighters), and all women are described as being “wired” another way (as followers, nurturers, and homemakers).   

Even the Vatican reinforced this message this week in an international forum on marriage where “complementarity between man and woman in marriage” was described by Pope Francis as “the root of marriage and family.” 

While most people indeed have a heterosexual orientation and identify with a single gender that was assigned to them at birth, it has become increasingly clear that this is not the case for everyone, that gender and sexuality might better be understood as manifesting themselves along continuums, with male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual existing at the poles but with a variety of identities, orientations, and expressions in between.  Science and psychology continue to confirm this as a reality, with the American Psychological Association no longer characterizing variations in sexual orientation and gender identity as disorders, only warning that stigmatization based on them can negatively affect mental health.  

People do not typically choose their sexual orientations or gender identities the way one might choose to wear a watch or to take cream in their coffee. Most of my gay and lesbian friends recall feeling different from a young age, frightened at the prospect of being disowned from their families and cast out of their churches because of something they simply could not change. Efforts intended to reverse sexual orientation through prayer and counseling, once popular within evangelicalism, have proven not only ineffective, but destructive, leading to multiple apologies from former leaders of those movements. Sadly, for many LGBT Christians, those apologies came too late, and the messages they received through "conversion therapy" led them into marriages based on secrets, or, tragically, to suicide. 

Nearly all of us would fail to conform to the generalizations made by the most strident complementarians, but intersex people like Adrian, and LGBT people like those you might meet at The Gay Christian Network, are truly in the minority. And unfortunately, they are consistently subjected to stigmatization and marginalization by religious people who refuse to share bathrooms with them, who disassociate with churches that welcome them, who mock and ridicule them and compare them to pedophiles and idolaters, and who withhold money from charities that employ them. Christians are told that sharing civil liberties with LGBT people constitutes religious persecution, that sexual minorities should induce a “gag reflex,” and that defending gender binaries is as essential as defending the gospel itself. 

But what sort of gospel is only good news for the majority? What sort of gospel leaves people behind just because they are different? 

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not so fragile as to be unpinned by the reality that variations in gender and sexuality exist, nor is it so narrow as to only be good news for people who look and live like Ward and June Cleaver. This glorification of gender binaries has become a dangerous idol in the Christian community, for it conflates cultural norms with Christian morality and elevates an ideal over actual people.  

No doubt some will argue that we cannot build our theologies around “exceptions” like Adrian. When I bring up intersex people in conversations about gender and sexuality, I am typically met with blank stares, shrugged shoulders, and dismissive platitudes about how most people fit neatly into male and female categories and generalities, so we shouldn’t worry about the outliers. 

But if Jesus started with the outliers, why we shouldn’t we? If Jesus started with the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and the minorities then why would we dismiss them as irrelevant to our theology of gender and sexuality? 

I can’t help but think of the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8. He was a sexual and ethnic minority, and it was considered “unbiblical” for him to even enter the assembly of God, much less be baptized (Leviticus 21:20; Deuteronomy 23:1).  But when the eunuch learned about the gospel through his reading of Isaiah and the witness of Philip, his response is profound: “Look! There is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Philip could easily have responded by quoting Bible verses and appealing to tradition.  He could have dismissed the eunuch as an anomaly, not worth the time and effort to fight for his inclusion in this new family of God. But instead, Philip baptized the eunuch in the first body of water the two could find. He remembered that what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in….starting with you and me. 

Now, I’m not suggesting we abandon conversations about the Bible and sexual ethics, nor am I interested in promoting a “genderless society” (as some have bizarrely claimed, somehow supposing that acknowledging the existence of gray requires dismissing the existence of black and white). I am suggesting, however, that Jesus didn’t die on the cross to preserve gender complementarity. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to ensure that little girls wear pink and little boys wear blue. Jesus lived, taught, died, and rose again to start a new family in which Jew and gentile, slave and free, male and female are all part of one holy Body. Certainly there will be those who reject the gospel because of the cost of discipleship, but let it be because of the cost of discipleship, not the cost of false fundamentals, not because they've been required to change something they cannot change. 

There is this tendency within certain sectors of Christianity to assume that if our theology “works” for relatively privileged (often for straight, upper-middle-class, Western men), then it should work well enough for everyone else, and the rest of the world should conform to it. But if our theology doesn’t “work” for the least of these to whom Jesus first brought the gospel and through whom Jesus still presents himself today, then it doesn’t work at all. 

If the gospel’s not good news for Adrian, then it’s not good news.

***

*Name changed to protect privacy.

**And because someone is bound to bring it up, here is Matthew 19:4 in context. As you see, Jesus is responding to a question about divorce, not about gender binaries. 

Finally, be sure to check out Dr. David Gushee's recent lecture at the Reformation Project entitled, "Ending the Teaching of Contempt Against Sexual Minorities."



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“You’re Not Crazy, and You’re Not Alone”

So begins Chapter 1 of Kathy Escobar’s fantastic new book, Faith Shift:  Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Falling Apart.  From those first few pages to the very last, I found myself nodding along, scribbling in the margins, breathing 'amens', and thinking to myself, now THIS is the book I wish I’d had ten years ago, THIS is the book I’ll be recommending to family, friends, and readers experiencing crises of faith. 

It’s been a magnificent fall for book releases, and I know I’ve been recommending a lot these days (sorry!), but for those of you who resonated with Faith Unraveled (formerly titled Evolving in Monkey Town), Faith Shift is a must-read.   While there are plenty of spiritual memoirs that describe what it’s like for a person of faith to enter a time of deep questioning, and plenty of theological books designed to address those questions, Faith Shift is unique in that it offers practical, pastoral advice for managing the emotional, relational, and spiritual fallout from those questions. 

Nearly every time I do a Q&A time after a presentation, someone in the audience asks how my changing faith has affected my relationships with my family and friends. Often, there are tears in the person’s eyes, and I know I’ve found a fellow traveller, a sister sojourner traversing the dark and difficult road of doubt.  The fact is, when your community, identity, and sense of purpose and security are all tightly intertwined with your faith, challenges and changes to that faith can wreak havoc on your relationships and spiritual and emotional health. And unfortunately, for many, the people they most want to turn to for support and guidance—pastors, friends, even spouses and family—at best simply don’t understand their experiences and at worst condemn them as sinful. 

This is why Kathy Escobar is the perfect person to write this book. Not only has she gone through a faith shift of her own, she has years of experience counseling people who find themselves in some sort of spiritual wilderness. So in addition to including Kathy’s own story, Faith Shift is packed with resources, prayers, ideas, conversation-starters, questions for personal reflection, and exercises. The appendix includes an incredibly helpful guide for talking about faith shifts with friends and family and even provides suggestions for “how to be a good friend to someone in a faith shift” that you may want to photocopy and mail to that aunt who has been sending you Christian apologetics books every week since she found out you were questioning young earth creationism. 

For these reasons and more, I highly recommend this book not only for people experiencing a crisis of faith but for people who love and care for someone experiencing a crisis of faith and don’t know how to respond. Pastors too would benefit immensely from a quick read-through. 

Now, this is not a book for skeptics looking for answers, or for those interested in seriously exploring atheism. From the get-go, Kathy assumes that her readers are interested in holding on to some remnant of their faith even as their beliefs dramatically change. If you do not share that presupposition, the book could be frustrating at times. 

But for all the people who come up to me at book signings with tears streaming down their faces because they feel so isolated in their journey through questions and doubt, I am thrilled that I can say with more confidence, “you’re not crazy, and you’re not alone, and you’re going to love this book…”

***

Note: While I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher, I am not paid for reviews. 

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Work of the People Video: The risk of following Jesus

I had such a good time working with Travis Reed from Work of the People on a series of videos about faith, doubt, the sacraments, and church. The video above is the first of many in the series. Be sure to follow Work of the People for more and for other interviews with Barbara Brown Taylor, Richard Rohr, Brene Brown, etc. 

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