It’s Crunch Time

In C.S. Lewis’ book That Hideous Strength, a literature professor muses with his wife that both good and evil are becoming clearer, sharper. He refers to a poem in which heaven and hell are eating away at Merry Middle Earth, moving closer and closer to the center. In the novel, the choices of good and evil become clear for ordinary people who had no real ideas on what good and evil were. One of the main characters, Mark, gets swept into a demonic system – not because he himself is evil, but because he craves human approval and insider knowledge, because he would give up his soul to be part of an Inner Ring. Evil was not particular; it was eager to swallow Mark whole if Mark was willing to give up his own identity.

This week has been a difficult one for me, and for anyone who craves peace and approval above all. I hate conflict, and I hate not being able to please everybody in my life. I don’t even like being around fights that don’t involve me; I’m that annoying person who makes a joke on contentious Facebook threads because I can’t stand the tension. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) we do not live in a world that allows for such cowardice. Among other issues, the matter of gay marriage has cloven in two American society, with very little patience for indecision. You’re either with us or against us, on both sides. I’ve been saddened to see friends of mine post that they will be deleting anyone who disagrees with the recent SCOTUS decision. I’ve heard my mom read to me, in significant tones, a statement from a PCA group saying that any church that approves of gay marriage is apostate. Almost everyone on Facebook has something to say about it, sometimes charitable but often not. Those who see themselves as the future, as being on the “right side of history,” can be harsh and (dare I say it) intolerant of those who disagree. If you are on the fence about this, as I am, there is a great deal of pressure to get with the program. I dread anyone asking me what I think, because I fear that “I don’t know” will cause consternation on either side. In spite of how some have derided the notion, I can see how this decision could curtail religious freedom. On the other hand, I don’t personally have an issue with gay marriage; very recently, I would have said I was all for it. So why the hesitation?

There are two issues, two very important issues, that this brings crashing to the fore. On the one hand is civil liberty. Will this increase liberty for those who wish to marry their same sex partner? Yes. Will it decrease liberty for those whose consciences will not let them approve of gay marriage (by not hiring someone in a gay marriage, for instance?) I think it’s likely. Will it make it a thought crime to suggest a different definition for marriage? That is already happening. And as a strong supporter of free speech, that’s what worries me most. The social pressure to think in lock-step is significant at this point.

The other issue is that of sexuality and gender in general. Frankly, I don’t think that this is something that can be handled by the courts. Perhaps I’m a libertarian at heart, but this is the realm of families, churches, communities. The court has made a decision on the civil government level, but how should churches respond? The Catholic Church’s stance is well known. There are a multitude of evangelical stances, but none of them have a long-term chance of success. If you stop seeing sex and procreation as tied together intrinsically, then what reason do you have to see gay sex in particular as abhorrent? Simply saying “the Bible says so” will not do, not when you look into the actual translations of what Paul is talking about in Romans 1, not when you disregard Jesus’ prohibition of divorce and still claim to be “sola Scriptura.” It looks like simple bigotry.

The more liberal churches, like the one to which I belong, do not claim to be Sola Scriptura, but we also do not have a Magisterium. We work within the church’s tradition, with Scripture, with reason, with experience. The Episcopal church in particular allows a lot of lee-way with regards to what individuals believe, which is why the “liberal church” stereotype is flawed. I know many individuals, priests and laypersons, who would describe themselves as conservative or traditional, and not just concerning liturgy. However, it is true that the Episcopal church as a whole is moving towards a more liberal view of human sexuality.

For myself, I don’t want to just go with the flow. Nor do I want to react for the sake of reaction. When discerning what is good, what is true, the approval of others is a terrible motivation, only as good as those surrounding you. When the choices are this stark, when the differences are this clear, indecision ceases to be a valid option. This is good; it is good to know that one must look for truth as a good unto itself, and that just going with the flow cannot suffice. That doesn’t make it less terrifying.

In the meantime, Julia, if you want to post something on the topic at These Walls, I’m sure it will be meaty and thought-provoking (hint hint).

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7 Quick Takes: What You Can Do About Racism

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If you spend any time on the news – or even on Facebook – you’re already sick of hearing about Charleston. Unless, of course, you’re black, in which case it’s too close to home for you to be “sick” of it. In that case, it’s not an item on the news, another tragedy, another shooting. No, it’s another signal that a significant portion of the country sees you as less than human, and some of them will act on it. White people (I speak as one), this is not just another news story. If you think you’re tired, how tired is the community that has to bury the bodies?

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They are tired, and they are angry, and they need us to listen. Our black brothers and sisters in Christ were gunned down in a church, and the least we can do is listen and educated ourselves. If you think that our country is over racism, listen again. Listen until it clicks, until you say “What can I do?” as a genuine question, not as a defense mechanism.

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As with so many things, what an individual can do depends, in part, on your vocation. Since I know that some of my readers are mothers, I’ll start with parents. Y’all are on the front lines. You are shaping the next generation. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to say that Jesus loves everyone regardless of skin color. You have to model it.

I grew up in a racist household. Probably many of you did as well. Maybe your father didn’t say racial slurs, but did you get the impression that black people were unsafe? That “black” or “African American” means poor, illiterate, criminal? It’s very, very hard to overcome that, to recognize the implicit racism in your subconscious. Even those of us who consider ourselves unprejudiced have hidden biases that say otherwise. Part of teaching your children is teaching yourself, knowing that you probably have racial prejudice.

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But how do you teach kids about racism? Isn’t it best to just not mention color at all? That seems to be many parents’ philosophy, but I think it’s flawed, if well-intended. Think of it like sexual ethics. It’s common knowledge that our culture teaches all kinds of harmful messages about sex. As parents, you know this better than anyone, and it’s in the forefront of your mind as you monitor potential movies or have serious discussions with your kids. You would never just let your kids pick up their cues about sex from the culture without your own input. Racism is the same way. It might be politically incorrect to be racist, but that doesn’t mean that the wider culture in America isn’t heavily prejudiced against black people. Even if you homeschool, your kids will bump up against it sooner or later. Don’t let it surprise you; be proactive. Seek ways for your kids to interact with people outside of their own race. Get them used to being with people who are different from them, to see them as real people with their own likes and dislikes and passions. If you see something racist in a movie, don’t just let it pass. Talk to your kids about it, in the same way that you might a commercial that borders on porn.

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Those who teach have an important role as well, from classroom teachers to religious teachers to homeschooling parents. Here’s my suggestion: start at the local level. Unfortunately, most American communities have a history that was marred by racism in one way or another; fortunately, there are often stories of bravery and progress. Was your town part of the Underground Railroad? Were there sit-ins during the 60s? Were slaves sold in your town? (Even in the Northeast, this is a strong possibility). Make it real for your students, not just something that happened “over there.” Be frank about what’s changed and what hasn’t changed (spoiler: a lot hasn’t changed). Be honest about the fact that racial discrimination is still a problem in our country, and what needs to change.

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Pastors and priests, I’m going to be real with you (if by any chance you happen to see this). You need to stop being afraid of offending your white congregations. As frightening as it may be – my husband preaches sermons, I get it – it’s your job. We need your help to be the most loving, truth-serving Christians we can be, and sometimes that’s going to mean some tough love. If you didn’t address it this Sunday, do so the next. You might offend the big donors, but I have a feeling that Jesus did plenty of that in His day.

I have been in church my whole life, usually twice on Sunday. I have only once heard a sermon on racism, and it was from a black preacher.

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And those of us who aren’t teaching anyone? Haha just kidding, we all do. At some point, you or I will be in a room when someone complains about “Canadians” (that’s how people say nigger in public now, FYI). Maybe you’ll witness racial profiling in a store (this has happened to me, and I’m ashamed to admit I kept my head down and did nothing). Maybe you’ll be in a presence of children when that happens. I pray that we will have the cajones to speak up. Like most Southern ladies I was taught to respect my elders and go along quietly with whatever they say or do, even if it’s horribly racist. This is false kindness. Even since reading this article I’ve been chewing on how to live differently. I hope you will too.

Further reading:

Things for White People to do to Fight Racism

Some historical background on Charleston

This explains the difference between simple prejudice (“reverse racism”) and prejudice plus centuries of power.

This writer from Georgia reminds us that racism isn’t just a Southern thing.

This journalist explains the media bias about how black and white criminals are described.

Or just go to the library and pull out Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs and A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas. Learning about what slavery was really like was a huge turning point for me.

Are You Racist? A Handy Quiz.

If you use racial slurs and think that black people are animals, then fine. Whatever. The world is moving on and leaving you behind, and the best we can do is make sure that people like you aren’t given enough power to do damage. Unfortunately, sometimes you get guns or bombs and become a terrorist, and then we have to clean up after you. During the clean up though, we tend to forget that even good white people in America are racists.

I’m talking to good white people. You believe that God loves everyone. You strive to judge by the content of one’s character. You would never dream of using a racist slur. Beyond that, you probably don’t think about race at all, until something like Charleston happens, and then you’re shocked at what an individual would do, so shocked you think that surely he must be mentally ill.

(Most mentally ill people don’t go shooting up churches, but that’s a topic for another day).

Good white person, you have a 99.99999% chance of being deeply but subconsciously racist. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

1. When you see pictures of black teenagers, how old do you think they are? What about white teenagers? What about white men in their 20s? What about black and white children?

2. What do you call a black man when he commits a violent crime? What about a white man who commits a violent crime? Whom do you make excuses for?

3. What is your threshold for “professional looking” on a black person? What about a white person? Are those different thresholds – does the black person need to wear nicer clothes in order to look sufficiently professional?

4. How do you distinguish between a good neighborhood and a bad one? What about a good school verses a bad one?

While you’re thinking, here’s a test developed at Harvard to test implicit racism – i.e. if you have an automatic preference for people of European descent over those of African descent. When I took the test it showed a strong implicit bias towards whites.

Burlap and Incense

My name is Caroline, and I am a liturgical snob.

There’s no support group for it, just as there’s no group for people who overuse semicolons, and probably for the same reason; we’re insufferable. I readily admit this. And yet, try as I might, I can barely contain a shudder when the priest extemporaneously changes He to God, or when the Peace becomes an impromptu family reunion, or when people’s cell phones go off during the service. I’m that guy. When I visit a church, nothing brings me joy like noting the presence of bells at the consecration. If there’s a traditional version, I’d rather have it, whether it’s organ music vs. guitars or a central aisle vs. “in the round.” In general, it seems right for Mass to emphasize the vertical over the horizontal.

That said, I’m completely sympathetic for those who need the horizontal emphasis, even those who whitewashed icons and built suburban concrete monstrosities in the 70s. It doesn’t mean they’re irreverent or godless, but it probably says a lot about where they came from.

My background was as vertical as the staunchest rad-trad could want. Our favorite hymn was Before Jehovah’s Awful Throne, which declared that “He can create and He destroy.” God was “immortal, invisible… in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.”

The children’s Westminster Catechism that I memorized said that God made me and all things “for His own glory,” that “God can do all His holy will.” The answer for everything was “for His own glory:” why did God command Joshua to wipe out the Canaanites? Why did God create Satan if He knew what Satan would do? Why does God only chose some and not others to be His elect, even though some non-elect die as infants without doing anything wrong? Who are you, O Man, to question God?

Not only was God all-powerful, all-glorious, holy and sovereign, not to be questioned, but we the people were dead in our sins. Our moral compass never pointed North because of the fall. We would never chose God on our own, because we couldn’t. We had no free will, no inner goodness. I was taught that nothing I did was actually good, that even my good works were probably done out of pride, or fear of punishment. No action done by man could be described as pure.

As a teenager, I watched R.C. Sproul’s Fear and Trembling video series, in which he called the faithful to reflect upon their wretchedness. The video discussed when God struck down a man for touching the Ark of the Covenant, for trying to catch it before it fell in the mud. Sproul taught that God’s action was only logical: dirt does what dirt is supposed to do. When it gets wet, it becomes mud. It obeys the natural laws, unlike man, who disobeys. Our hands are much worse than dirt, than worms, than the foulest thing you can imagine. The only reason we could stand before God is because of Christ’s righteousness, the snow covering our dung heaps.

If anyone was brought up to have a vertical-oriented faith, it was me. The experience was like pre-Vatican II Catholic guilt, but without the release of Catholic confession. They hammered home to us that faith is not about feelings, not about what’s in it for us. We were never overburdened with self-esteem. We were fed on complex theology from childhood, without sugar-coating. Except for the whole Protestant part, it was a Michael Voris dream come true.

That’s why I’m sympathetic to the tackiness, the feel-goodisms, the watered down theology. I don’t think it’s true, and I think it’s harmful in a different way, but I understand why so many would find it appealing. I can see why hearing Latin triggers painful memories for many who grew up pre-Vatican II, just as hearing an “altar call” triggers pain for me.

Last Sunday, the reading was from Isaiah 6, in which the prophet enters the Holy of Holies, with smoke going up before the throne of God and six-winged cherubim calling to each other “Holy Holy Holy!” And the prophet cries out before God that he has unclean lips, woe is me. His sin is purged with a burning coal.

It’s a beautiful, stunning passage, and I hate what it does to me. I hate that hearing the lector read it made me tremble with terror. I hate that I was suddenly a teenager watching “In Fear and Trembling,” when Sproul talked about that exact passage. I hate that the priest talked about God’s glory, not because he said anything wrong, but because I hear it through the filter of my past. When he says God’s glory, he may see beauty, but I see atrocities committed in God’s name, that are “for His own glory.” The word glory is a cover-up, a word to whitewash all the horrors done by Joshua to Canaan, the genocide, the rape, the executions and stonings that God Himself supposedly sanctioned “for His own glory.” Be ye holy.

Thing is, Beauty kept calling my name, in spite of all. I got lucky, because my particular faith tradition had done its own whitewashing. My ancestors snuffed out candles and tore down altars and destroyed icons and burned monasteries, for the glory of awful Jehovah. We worshiped in a plain building with a central wooden pulpit, our version of the altar, without pictures except for a stained glass cross. I don’t connect incense and candles and chant with my past; I connect it with moving away from my past, with choosing for myself where to worship, for daring to let God love me.

But if we’d been the ones with incense and Latin? I’d be making burlap banners and holding hands in the Our Father.

7 Quick Takes: I Got a Job!

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As I mentioned in another post, life is crazy right now. At least one thing has been settled: I have found a full-time job! The pay isn’t great, but it’s a whole heck of a lot better than nothing. It’s also in a small office, which I greatly prefer to being a cog in the wheel of a conglomerate.

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Unfortunately, our general living situation is still in flux. I don’t talk about my current personal life much here, since it’s quasi-anonymous, but here’s the basic scoop: my husband and I made the difficult decision to have me live in Atlanta with friends to work and save money until he can find a full-time job, preferably very close to mine, and we can find a new apartment. He is still in the nebulous state of being a transitional deacon in the Episcopal church, which means he’s on the process to priestly ordination but it hasn’t happened yet, and everything’s in limbo until the last hurdle is passed. For now he’s stuck in Savannah dealing with our lease, which doesn’t expire until July, working part-time as a chaplain and applying for jobs around Atlanta. I tried to find a full-time job in Savannah, but the job market there is very difficult for someone trying to break in as a newcomer. In Atlanta, by contrast, I had three interviews in my first two weeks after moving up, and one of them offered me the job I have now.

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In case you’ve ever wondered how fun it is to have a long-distance relationship with your spouse, here’s a spoiler: it sucks.

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On a more positive note, I’ve found a church home in record time! If you’re an Atlanta Episcopalian who thinks saying the Angelus at noon sounds spiffy, come on over to Church of Our Savior in Virginia Highlands. And if you’re Catholic (or a low church Protestant) just come to Virginia Highlands. It’s the coolest little neighborhood, with pubs and shops and parks (and a babbling brook in the midst of Atlanta), everything in a walkable area.

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One more shameless endorsement! The William Blake Summer Singers are doing Haydn’s The Creation with the Atlanta orchestra, and I’ll be in the alto section. It will be held at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer August 9th at 1 p.m. I sang in the soprano section of The Creation with a community choir in my hometown in high school, and it’s fascinating to get into a different section. They don’t tell you that women’s voices fall, albeit less dramatically than men’s, but they do. Mine certainly did. I’m also waaaaaaay out of practice, so I jumped at the chance to retrain my voice, since the Summer Singers didn’t require auditions.

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In light of Caitlyn Jenner and the infamous Vanity Fair cover, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about gender and human sexuality and feminism. My knowledge of trans issues is slim to none, though I have a friend who identifies as transgender (i.e. without surgery). My feelings on the subject are best summed up in this New York Times article, which examines what it means for feminism. Like many others, I find the cover a step backwards for women in many ways, in part because I don’t consider myself a hardline conservative on these issues. Does being a woman mean that you are successfully attractive to heterosexual men? Can it really be so limiting?

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My other hesitation about this whole issue is the way that alternate viewpoints have been deemed impermissible with such vehemence. As a college freshman I argued against speech codes; my views have not changed. In the past few years, the number of things that one just can’t say without huge consequences have grown at a fast clip. If we can’t distinguish between expressing opinions and oppressing others, how on earth will we have civil discourse? Or is that already not a valid option?

*I’m publishing this early, because my commute doesn’t allow for staying up late.

How Do We Attract Young People to Church?

You can start by knowing that that’s the wrong question.

Yes, that is the wrong question. It presupposes that the church is “in here,” that young people (whoever they are and whatever that means) are “out there.” Who is the “we” asking the question? Presumably, old people at church. “We” don’t really like young people, other than a few that we’re related to, and even then in small doses, because who can understand them, kids these days, but we’re facing our mortality and all the clergy say that we need young people or the church will die out so (sigh) here we go. Let’s put the word “cool” in the mailed out newsletter and add another guitar at Mass. That’s what kids like, right?

Let me propose a different beginning: consider that you probably already have “young people” in the pews. You may not notice, because that single woman in the back creeps out so quietly after the last hymn, but she’s there. The young couple with the baby that screamed during the consecration until someone shot enough dirty looks in their direction – they got the memo. The college students that get really preoccupied during the offertory because they spent their last cent on textbooks, yes, those are the ones that always leave during holidays. The awkward young man at Christian Ed who wanted to talk theology, not knowing this wasn’t the done thing, just let the leader finish the talk so we can get coffee in the fellowship hall, he was there. They were all there one Sunday, maybe two, maybe they asked a bunch of questions about possible service opportunities and classes, but their faces went blank when we told them about the women’s Bible study that meets every Tuesday at 10 a.m. I wonder why we never saw those nice young people again?

Here are a few questions I’d propose:

1. What do you mean by “young”?

Do you mean anyone below 50? (I’m looking at you, Episcopalians). Do you mean “young white middle-class couple with small children?” Do you mean “college and career” – a nebulous phrase that includes freshmen putting marshmallows in the microwave and 30 year old singles with 401Ks – or did you have high school students in mind?

Since I’m not in an amiable mood, I’d guess that you’re expecting this:

young couple

Not this:

This photo was taken on Broadway, between 61st and 62nd Street. The picture speaks for itself... *************** This set of photos is based on a very simple concept: walk every block of Manhattan with a camera, and see what happens. To avoid missing anything, walk both sides of the street. That's all there is to it … Of course, if you wanted to be more ambitious, you could also walk the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. But that's more than I'm willing to commit to at this point, and I'll leave the remaining boroughs of New York City to other, more adventurous photographers. Oh, actually, there's one more small detail: leave the photos alone for a month -- unedited, untouched, and unviewed. By the time I actually focus on the first of these

2. Why do you want young people to come to church?

Is it simply because otherwise the church will die out? Is it concern for their souls? Is it because you think the church has something good to offer? Is it because young people have something good to offer?

3. All of which culminates in a final question:

What do you mean by “church”? Are you sure that you’re in it, and that young people aren’t? What is the church’s purpose? Why do we even do this crazy thing where we dress up and go to a building on Sunday morning and sing songs and listen to a sermon and take bread and wine? Does it make you feel good because you did it, and your parents did it, and everyone respectable in town use to do it?

Does it scare you that it’s no longer mandatory in polite American society? If so, what do you fear? What would be lost if we lost the church – whatever that is?

The Duggers Were Just Following Orders

My childhood best friend – we call each other sister – grew up in the same cult to which the Dugger family belongs. It is/was called the Advanced Training Institute, run by Bill Gothard. He started out hosting seminars for young couples and singles, and when those couples got married and had kids, perhaps it seemed a natural progression to join his burgeoning homeschool convention. It probably looked innocent enough: sign up to receive packets of Wisdom Booklets for your homeschool curriculum. Oh, and come to our annual conventions in Illinois or Tennessee. Oh, and have your kids come separately to their own conventions where they’ll wear navy blue and white uniforms. Oh, and sign this covenant detailing how and when you will have sex with your spouse….

I remember listening to his tapes with her family in their minivan, on our way to the grocery store. It was the Big Man himself, exhorting families to let their light so shine before men. The problem with evangelism is the danger of exposing oneself, and one’s children, to the dirty world. Instead, one should find ways to show off one’s good works for the general edification. Another family in town had three of their eight kids give violin recitals for the benefit of Target shoppers, next to the checkout lines. They looked so clean cut, so oddly adult with their clean, smiling faces, neat blonde curls, long flowery dresses. They were quiet and polite, a startling contrast to the unwashed heathens pitching fits in the cereal aisle.

Who knew Casting Crowns was a tool of the devil?
Who knew Casting Crowns was a tool of the devil?

My friend showed me Wisdom Booklets and ATI newsletters, hidden together in the laundry room with a flashlight, at midnight, giggling in the dark. There were featured families to emulate, complete with awkward 90s family photos of multiple blond children wearing Peter Pan collars. I saw pictures from conventions of my friend and other “maidens of virtue” wearing the navy uniforms. We snorted over a description of the Perfect Family detailing each member: the Daughter Who Guards Her Heart, the Obedient Children, the Secure Babies (I’m not making this up).

The Duggers had these same materials. They heard the same sermons, read the same newsletters, studied the same Wisdom Booklets, attended the same conferences. The pressure was on to present your perfect, holy family to the world as a City on a Hill. When they got the call from TLC, it must have seemed like a message from God. Here was the perfect opportunity to be a witness without corrupting their own children. Sure, they had to hide things from the cameras, like blanket training and switches. But they had to make it easy for the masses to understand, put a spoonful of sugar into the medicine. The faithful would see the Pearls’ child-training manuals on their recommended list and understand. The worldly could be eased into godliness one episode at a time. All they needed to do was make sure the kids followed their script. That part was easy though; their kids had already learned songs about obeying with a smile at their ATI conventions. Now was the time to put that training into practice.