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Cassie & Caleb (a critical review)


Moody offered me two copies of Cassie and Caleb Discover God’s Wonderful Design to give away on my blog.  You can enter to win one here, where I summarized the book earlier today.  

I have a few reservations about using this book with my family in our context.  Many of its lessons are good - the idea that obedience should be instant and thorough, for example, is a lesson my children and I need to learn again and again. And I love the idea of helping children understand that all of Scripture fits together as a grand story.  I have to admit, though, that some things about this book left me feeling uncomfortable.  While I do believe in gender distinctiveness - that is to say, I believe that God created men and women “equal but different,” as the authors put it - I also believe that there is very little we ought to say about those differences.  

In Karl Barth’s “Man and Woman,” he argued that though God made man and woman different, like the letters A and B, we ought not to subscribe to any particular human definitions of femininity and masculinity.  Rather than trying to systemize gender differences, we are to learn them through relationships with specific men and women.

“It is not for us to write the text [of man and woman] itself with the help of any such system. It is not for us to write the text at all. For the texts which we write, the definitions and descriptions of male and female being which we might derive from others or attempt ourselves, do not attain what is meant by the command when it requires of [human beings] that here, too, [they]should accept [their] being as[human], as male or female, as it is seen by God.” (“Man and Woman,” 151)

This makes beautiful sense to me.  So many of the things I was taught about “men” and “women” have failed to be true in my personal experience.  Harmful gender stereotypes have at times hindered me from seeing men and women as fully human, unique individuals.

In some ways, Cassie & Caleb Discover God’s Wonderful Design is careful not to be overly prescriptive about gender roles.  On the very first page, we are introduced to Cassie’s group of friends - Kate, who “loves frilly clothes,” Abby, who “never wears pink and loves soccer,” Heather, who is “crazy about books and animals,” etc.  They are “all very different, but...they are all girls.”  In another chapter, Caleb and his father do the dishes while they talk about what it means to be a man, concluding that “being a man or a woman is much bigger than a list of things we do.”

However, there are a few things the book does teach about what it means to be a man or a woman.  Men are to be leaders, protectors, and providers who work outside the home, and women are to be helpers (ezer is given its full, gorgeous meaning) and life-givers.  I don’t fully agree with these teachings (particularly the bit about men working outside the home) or the way Scripture is used to support them.

What worries me more, though, are the descriptive depictions throughout the book of what Cassie and Caleb like, think, and do, and the ways that adults respond.  These seem to follow our culturally instated gender stereotypes quite closely.  Girls make cards and decorate cupcakes, and it is “a very girly afternoon.”  Girls talk a lot, and boys don’t.   Before explaining to Caleb that men and women are equal, his father and grandfather joke that women are “loud” and that men are “better.”  Cassie buys a doll, and Caleb goes to a muscle-car show. When Granny Grace’s laundry room floods, Cassie is in tears because “they don’t have a dad to fix all that stuff.” Boys play baseball, go fishing, and see movies.  Girls shop.  Cassie can hardly wait for her dad to walk her down the aisle because she’ll look like a princess and everyone will be watching her.

Maybe most disturbing is the story where Caleb and his friend, bored, surprise their sisters with buckets of mud.  Wise old Granny Grace laughs it off, explaining to Cassie and Caleb’s mom, “I raised three boys and never did understand what makes them tick, but I know God made males and females to be different so I finally decided the best thing to do is laugh at their adventures -- and make them clean up their mess.”   While I’m all in favor of using humor to disarm, and while I don’t think a mud-attack is a horrible offense, I am concerned by the “boys will be boys” defense of behavior which bothers girls. It’s this very kind of defense that can lead to the kind of rape culture we live in today.

All in all, there is a lot of good theology here and some of the lessons in this book are helpful. For some families, this book will be perfect. But for me, the stereotyped descriptions of boys’ and girls’ behavior is not something I’d prefer to expose my children to in family devotions. If you feel - like the authors - that you live in a culture where gender distinctions have been minimized, then you might appreciate this book.  I, however, feel like the gendered stereotypes offered by Cassie and Caleb are already firmly ingrained in our culture through media representations of masculinity and femininity, so I’ll probably choose other ways of teaching theology to my children.

(Go here to enter the giveaway for this book. Giveaway closes at noon on Friday, May 3.)

the active stillness of Advent {guest post}

J.R. Goudeau is a blog-crush turned friend who regularly inspires me with her passion and humor. If this is your first introduction to her, check out Love Is What You Do, where she blogs about literature, motherhood, and her work with Burmese refugees in Austin. I'm grateful for the stories she's sharing here today.


The first time I remember really waiting for something, I found out a few weeks before my best friend that her father was leaving her family. I had to wait for her to find out. It’s a long story and the details are not mine to tell; I was 18. I was devastated. It was the first time I fasted and prayed because I meant it; it was the first time I hiccupped into my pillow late into the night begging God to get up, to move, to do something, dang it.


I went and spent a long day alone in a state park nearby. Armed with my huge study Bible, I sat under a tree and read and prayed all day. I watched an armadillo for more than an hour as it dug in the underbrush a few yards away. I left when it was too dark to see.


Nothing changed. He left their family. She was hysterical. I was bewildered.


***
Jonathan and I waited for four months to get to Brazil. We were 23, just married, armed with our Idealism and our Dreams, ready to change the world. We were supposed to leave on September 20, 2001 to be missionaries. On September 12, 2001, we heard from the Brazilian consulate that someone had stolen our passports.


Because it was the day after September 11, nothing was certain. We had to start over, new passports, new visas, new bureaucracy to hold us up. Every week we called and every week we got the same words: nothing.


For four months, we sat on my parents’ couch watching CNN, reading books, and eating. We had nothing to do. Again, I fasted and prayed. Again, it just took forever.


When we finally, finally, finally got word, got on the plane, got there, I looked around, ready to see the secret reason God had us wait so long.


To this day, there is no coincidental story, no glorious explanation, for the waiting.


The waiting itself was the point; it was not the means to the end in which I got some big surprise with a bow on the top. The discipline of waiting day in and day out was what I needed to learn. The trusting, the holding on, the making just to the end of the day--those habits became familiar, the rudimentary movements I would need to make it through my life.

***

Since then, it seems like every few months we have to wait: to get into graduate schools, to find a job, to get pregnant, to have a baby, to figure out what we are doing with our lives, where we will live, how things will be. In the last couple of years, I’ve waited with a friend to find out whether she had breast cancer. I waited with a dear friend for months as she watched her mother die of cancer. I have waited to hear whether marriages would make it or not. I have waited with friends who desperately wanted a viable pregnancy.



In the last five years, I have waited in the NICU or by my cell phone to hear about 11 different children with severe or extremely rare medical needs.


Some of those babies made it. Some of them did not. In all of those moments, the waiting completely changed me.


It is one thing to wait on something I want, a privilege I would like. It’s another to breathe prayer with every fiber of my being as I beg God for the life of a baby or a marriage or a friend. That is the kind of face-down, in-the-dirt waiting which has left me with scars. My heart has been carved in those periods of not-knowing and desperate hoping.


In my life, that waiting has ceased to be something passive and has become something active I do. It is familiar, even if I don’t always (or ever) like it. Simone Weil talks about the Greek word "hupomene," which she defines as “waiting in eager expectation.”


I hold myself still under the heaviness of the waiting. I try to be patient.


Weil says I should be eager.

***

In March 2009, I sat in front of a computer screen, heavily pregnant with my second baby girl. I had been having contractions every twenty minutes for hours. Past my due date, miserable, blimpish, I drank tea and clicked around the internet. I found a website about China Special Needs adoptions. I read almost all night, blogs and articles and chat rooms and forums.



I waited for a baby who would be born two days later, healthy and purple and squalling with life, but I began to pray again, eagerly, expectantly, for another one.

***

Now we are waiting again, this time for our third daughter who will be coming home from China hopefully sometime next year. The home study was in November. The dossier should be finished and sent off in a month or so.



Our case worker said we could be home with a baby in June at the earliest. And suddenly, six to nine months seems like a lifetime.


We’re researching doctors, preparing for surgeries, thinking through the options for whatever her special need ends up being.


There’s no baby yet—we’ll be matched when our dossier is logged into the system in China—but whoever she is, she already exists. It is likely she has already been born, already abandoned, already placed in the orphanage crib. She is going through a winter somewhere without me and I find myself waking up breathing out to God: please let someone hold her, love her, sing her lullabies, keep her safe, please...just…please.


When we hung up her stocking in our house this year, my little one said, “I sure really miss my new sister.” Our whole family waits and prepares and prays.

And we know, when she gets here, everything will be different and hard and good all at once.


I groan and hold still in the heaviness. With Mary, who waited for a baby and then waited for that baby to die, with the angels who quiver with waiting for the sons of God to be revealed, with all the mothers with empty arms who long with every fiber of their being for babies to come, I wait. I am reminded this week especially that not all waiting is good, that sometimes we wait for a grief that is more horrific than we can prepare for, and I am humbled by the weight of their incomprehensible waiting.


For those who wait in grief and those who wait in hope, I pray this season, as we wait together in all the active stillness of that holy word.



J. R. Goudeau is the Executive Director and co-founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers, as well as a grad student in English literature. When she’s supposed to be working on her dissertation, she can usually be found blogging about books, babies and Burmese refugees at Love Is What You Do.

second languages

Today I have an essay at The Curator about how teaching English as a Second Language changed the way I speak the language of faith.  I hope you'll read it; it means a lot to me.

In the essay, I mostly talk about how my understanding of language and ownership changed while I was overseas.  Living overseas was the catalyst in pushing me toward ecumenicism, the understanding that each expression of faith weaves some unique color, some essential pattern,  in the tapestry of Christianity.  

Because of ecumenicism, I am forced to confess that my faith language is always under construction. I can never assume that I have the final say on what things mean.  

Take the word prayer, for example. Growing up, prayer was ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.  It was individual, personal, disembodied, methodical and conversational.  It was good. 

But I also needed to learn about prayer from the Catholic church, where prayer was something communal and liturgical and sensual.  I needed to learn about prayer from the desert fathers and mothers, where it was constant, a way of life, and bound up with mundane tasks like weaving and gardening.  I needed charismatics to share their new languages with me, to help me become open to emotion and to the power of the Holy Spirit in my life. I needed to learn about meditation from Buddhists, and to learn from Muslims how posture and practice affect prayer.

And so my faith language shrinks and grows, by turns.  But read the essay, and let me know what you think.  

Have a jolly Thanksgiving!

songs like prayer

This morning I woke up with a song in my head. 


That isn't unusual, but lately the songs have been more along the lines of theme-from-backyardigans or jingle-from-daniel-tiger than cool-new-indie tune. 


And actually, since we started attending an Episcopal church which plays mostly hymns we've never heard before, the songs that get stuck in my head have rarely been church songs.


This one was, though.  I found myself putting dishes into the dishwasher this morning, singing, "Hallelujah, death is done," and I was so happy to have old hymn words back in my head.  (These came from a cd recently put out by friends from our old church in Seattle - check it out! You can name your price for the download on bandcamp. My favorite tracks are 3 and 9.)








It got me thinking, though.  As a teenager, I found that music was a primary way I connected with God.  Our youth group used to have "catacombs" nights where we'd sit in the dark and sing for hours, like the early christians did, hiding in burial grounds, and they were my favorite nights of all.


When I tried to think of songs that have been like prayer for me recently, there weren't many.  These are the ones I thought of, from the last two years or so:

Christmas, Don't Be Late - Rosie Thomas.

  Yes, The Chipmunk Song.  Rosie transforms it into a song full of longing for the kingdom and peace.  It's amazing.

I want to be well - Sufjan Stevens

.  I don't know.  For me this song is about the desire for wholeness that is at the root of what it means to be human and that is only fulfilled through sanctification, God making all things new.

God is Love - The Innocence Mission.

  Owen was a few weeks old, and crying all the time.  I was at the gym, on the treadmill, not because I wanted to exercise, but because I wanted to go to a place where I could put on my headphones and not have to take care of anyone.   "God is love, and love will never fail me," were the words that strengthened my weary soul.

Faint were we - Nathan Partain.

  This is another hymn from our church in Seattle.  It randomly came on during ipod shuffle play when I was at a pivotal (faint, I was!) point in labor. It was like a word from God.

We Can't Be Beat - the Walkmen.

This song reminds me that trying to be "perfect" is less important than being whole, fully human.  That nobody loves perfection, but people respond to vulnerability.  And that the best life is one that has room for correction, because it is daring, willing to fail, and willing to change.


What about you?  What songs are like prayer in your heart?  Leave a note in the comments, or go add them to the

playlist

I created.

psalms for children and the heavy hearted


I didn’t really have a problem with God until I hit my 20s. Up to then, he had been — like my human father — good, kind, and sometimes inscrutable, but always loving, always approachable, always there.

It wasn’t that I had never questioned him — to be fair, in my teens I had battled doubts about God, but they had been cerebral, intellectual doubts. I read the existentialists, and I studied world religions, and I wondered if all that I understood from the Bible could possibly be true.

But emotional doubts — those I had never encountered. I had never railed against God for his absence and silence; in my sweet, safe, sheltered life I had never had cause to question his goodness. As far as I knew, no one else had either.

So when my world flipped upside down at the age of 23, when God absconded, I lacked the emotional vocabulary I needed to pray through it.

{Read the rest at The Living Church.}

{I promise, I do write things other than book reviews, sometimes.}

Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood


A few thoughts on Rachel Held Evans’s new book:

First of all, some personal background:

The first time I encountered Rachel Held Evans was when Slate profiled her Year of Biblical Womanhood project over a year ago.  At the time, I skimmed the article, and dismissed the project (and, by extension, Rachel) as derivative, snarky, and irreverent. 

Then Rachel started showing up in my social media life more and more.  Friends linked to her blog posts on twitter and facebook, and I found myself agreeing with her as often as not, though at times I still found her manner a bit abrasive.  

Over the last year, as I’ve started following the online evangelical community more regularly, I’ve started reading Rachel’s blog consistently, and I’ve also read her first book, “Evolving in Monkey Town”.  I’ve  found that she is hardly the most offensive or outspoken among us evangelicals on the web, and in fact I’ve become something of a fan of hers.  She is thoughtful, honest, and compassionate; I appreciate the way she fights for the underdog, wrestles with the Bible, and creates community on the internet.  I think she’s whip-smart  and web-savvy, two things evangelicalism needs.

We have a fair amount in common, too.  Rachel and I actually share a birthday (June 8, 1981).  We both grew up in the Bible Belt of the south, in wonderful Christian families.  Both of us have fathers who were fairly prominent conservative evangelical leaders in our communities, and both of us were… let’s face it…goody-two-shoes.  Her love of football, though, sure does leave me stumped.

Now, onto the book:
In A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evans recounts her experiences over a year of studying everything the Bible has to say about women, and trying to live it all out as literally as possible.  The book is not intended to be a theological treatise or an argument for what “Biblical Womanhood” is. Instead, it’s a record of a kind of performance art project in which Evans wore a head covering, cooked her way through Martha Stewart’s cookbook, slept in a tent during her period, and blew a shofar.  This year-long performance art project is intended to demonstrate a couple of truths: First, that any contemporary American definition of “biblical womanhood”  is necessarily selective in which Biblical references it uses; second, that the cultural context in which people read the Bible influences their interpretation of it.

To this end, rather than trying to create a systematic theology of womanhood, or to argue for egalitarianism and against complementarianism, Evans investigates the ways in which various Christians (and Jews) have interpreted Scriptural texts about women,  and “tries on” their interpretations, experimenting with Catholic ideas about silence and prayer, Amish ideas about modesty, Jewish ideas about purity, Quiverfull ideas about fertility, and complementarian (well, specifically, Debi Pearl' – whom some complementarians disavow) ideas about submission and wifely duty.  

Each month, Evans focused on a different trait – gentleness, domesticity, obedience, etc – and each chapter covers one of those months.  Each chapter also includes a section from her husband Dan’s journal during the project, as well as a brief portrait of a woman from Scripture.  The writing is engaging, eminently readable, and funny.  I laughed out loud more than once, and I agreed with her often, especially appreciating the way she engaged with Proverbs 31, with ideas about justice, and with expectations about beauty.

As for criticisms, I do have a few.  Evans neglects to comment on the distinction that most Christians make between how we interpret the Old Testament laws and how we interpret the New Testament epistles, and I think a word on that would have been instructive.   

Due to the nature of the book, Evans often makes theological observations or arguments that are not fully fleshed out.  For example, when she examines the complementarian position on 1 Timothy 2, she does well to point out the difficulties in practically implementing Paul’s instruction that women are not to “teach or have authority” over men, and the almost ludicrous extremes to which theologians have gone to demarcate what is acceptable for women.  But because she doesn’t deal with the intricacies of the theological argument, her point is less authoritative than it could be. She doesn’t , for example, note what is really the hinge-point for many on this verse, that Paul refers to pre-fall creation order to make his point, and to be convincing to anyone who has studied the passage, she has to address that.  

If she wants to critique complentarianism (as she does in the chapters on “Submission” and “Silence”), she must be sure she’s not setting up a straw woman.  (I can speak to this issue because I am well-versed in complementarian arguments… I can’t speak as much to other interpretations she critiques, such as polygamist Christianity, or Amish traditions.) By choosing Debi Pearl’s book as her source text, she’s drawing from a specific branch of complementarian thought, a conservative rather than a moderate one.  Again, given the nature of this book, I think her approach is acceptable, and makes for good comedy, but it’s worth noting that what she’s offering here should not be taken as a full theological argument (nor is it meant to be, I believe).

My only real quibble with Evans is in the conclusion, where she makes what I think is a very valid and important point, but makes it without some qualifications that I think it needs.    

For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We are all selective… We all go to the text looking for something, and we all have a tendency to find it… If you are looking for Bible verses with which to support slavery, you will find them.  If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them…” (p. 296)

I wholeheartedly agree with Rachel that we ought to examine our motives, our presuppositions, our cultural contexts, and our desires as we read Scripture looking for truth, and I think the point she is making here is extremely important. 

In fact, this is the very point that the literary theory of Deconstructionism makes in arguing that a text has no intrinsic meaning, but only the meaning that the Reader brings to it.  The Reader, deconstructionists argue, is more the author than the author is; all meaning is constructed, not essential.

I believe (and I’d guess Evans does, too, although she doesn’t make it clear here) that the Bible does have meaning apart from what the reader brings to it.  While it’s vital to consider our own biases and blinders as we approach the Bible, as well as the cultural contexts of the Bible’s human authors, it’s also vital to acknowledge the power of the Holy Spirit to speak to us and inform our reading, the power of Christian community to refine and strengthen our understanding, and the essential truth that exists in the text itself. 

Evan’s book is worth reading.  I enjoyed it, and I think both women and men will find it amusing, thought-provoking, and (perhaps especially in regard to valor and beauty) freeing. 


Next Up: Tomorrow I will post a review of Trillia Newbell’s review of the book (which has some serious flaws).


Kathleen Norris and the Rekabites

When I was a sophomore in college, my version of introverted-book-worm-retail-therapy relied heavily upon the local Half-Price Bookstore. One particularly low afternoon, I left there with a copy of Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk topping a short stack of impulse buys.


I had never heard of her, or of the book, but I had a growing fascination with liturgy, the church year, and monastic communities - forms of religious practice far removed from my own non-denominational Bible church background - so the book had been intriguing.


I fell in love with the soul-feeding richness of her prose, depth of her insight, newness of her ideas. Over the last decade I've written papers about her and read every book she's written. On Saturday, she was the keynote speaker at Taylor's Honors Conference on Simplicity and Sustainability, and I got to have dinner with her afterwords.


She's human, believe it or not, and kind of grandmotherly. Over cheese and crackers we talked about netflix ("It's so wonderful! They have all these documentaries and hard-to-find films."), twitter ("I can't believe someone made a twitter account for Wendell Berry quotes. He would be horrified, wouldn't he?"), which books Rosie should read (not Dakota, in case it should cause her to move out west, but The Cloister Walk - "Get thee to a nunnery, girl!"), monks ("I once stayed at a Zen Buddhist monastery where everyone was required to practice silent mediation for 90 minutes, twice a day. They poked you with a rod if you fell asleep - and not too gently."), blogs ("I read only one blog. I kept a diary for many years, and I would be mortified if it were online! I can't understand it.") and of course poetry (try Lynne Powell, she suggests).


At the conference, she spoke about the sustainability of love, and at one point noted that at the center of any major religion, you find the ethic of loving your neighbor.


Not surprisingly, she got some polite pushback from her evangelical audience on that point. Both a student and a faculty member asked her to elaborate upon the relationship of "truth and love in interfaith dialogue".


Not surprisingly, she sidestepped the question of universalism quite neatly.


I usually like to sidestep that question myself. Since Saturday - I have to admit - my little old evangelical self has been kind of worried about Kathleen Norris. Does she, with all her wisdom and study and life experience, think that loving your neighbor is enough? And if it is, how does religion differ from secular humanism?


I'm not writing this today to actually propose an answer to the question of universalism, obviously. But while I was cogitating, Common Prayer this week led me to Jeremiah 35. In that chapter, God uses the faithfulness of the Rekabites to their ancesters' commands to shame the Israelites for their faithlessness to his commands. And then he honors the Rekabites by promising that someone from their family will always be serving Him. (Matthew Henry's commentary notes: "The greatest blessing that can be entailed upon a family is to have the worship of God kept up in it from generation to generation.")


I love that God calls people to himself from every nation, from every family, and I love how these details pop up throughout the Bible, like how Melchizadek, not an Israelite, just shows up, and is refered to as a priest of God Most High. Like how God honors the Rekabites for their faithfulness to the light, to the laws, they'd been given.


I used to think that to appeal to mystery when the Bible is "so clear" (like "He predestined us" or "I am THE way") was an intellectual cop-out; and sometimes, I still think it is. In this case, I clearly need to study more. But I think it's also true that sometimes, to appeal to mystery is simply and rightly to admit that God's ways are higher than the heavens, that his thoughts are not my thoughts.


What's not a mystery is this: that God is good and that he is just and that he is merciful; that he has revealed himself in the world and in the word and in the Word made flesh.


Kathleen Norris has enriched my life, and I pray God blesses her as she has blessed me. Go read her books, y'all!


{PS: She says she's thinking about a new book, one that will be about home in its many forms. I cannot wait to read it.}