Purity for the Sake of Purity

“Perfect Number” over at Tell Me Why the World is Weird adds her voice to the discussion about Purity, and she crystallizes a rarely-expressed concept—that proponents of purity tend to measure it in strictly physical terms:

That bit about skin cells and saliva—that’s not what a kiss is. Maybe it’s a physical description of a kiss, but that’s not what a kiss is. A kiss has so much meaning behind it, so much emotion, a connection between two people. That connection is what’s important, not the physical act itself.

To say “we’re not going to kiss before the wedding day because purity”, to say that hugging and holding hands should be avoided “because purity”, is to measure purity in terms of muscle movements and skin cells and nerve endings.

This is all wrong. Purity itself has no value. Virginity itself has no value. When justifying your decision to not do this or that with your boyfriend, “for purity” is NOT an acceptable answer.

Emphasis original.

Toward the end of the post the author addresses my second favorite argument against the emphasis on “purity”. I won’t spoil it.

Only Two Authorities

On inauguration day, Mark Driscoll published this tweet:

Praying for our president, who today will place his hand on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know.

My mental response when I read this was unprintable, but the Rev. Emily C. Heath, blogging at The Huffington Post, is, fortunately, much more gracious:

If Barack Obama says he is a Christian, if he confesses his faith in Christ, that’s where the conversation ends. The same is true for George W. Bush, or Franklin D. Roosevelt, or even Mark Driscoll.

There is a difference between saying to someone “my understanding of Christian faith is different from yours on this issue” and saying “we don’t believe the same thing, so you must not be a Christian.” I often disagreed with George W. Bush’s actions, and struggled to reconcile them with my understanding of Christian faith, but I refused to speculate on the sincerity of his faith. That’s not my place. And I’ve had it done far too often in my life to turn around and do it to others.

"Night after night, I cried myself to sleep"

Rachel Held Evans opens her series on sexuality by reviewing Chapters 1–5 of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, a memoir by Justin Lee, a gay Christian man.

“It was, I thought, the worst secret in the world,” writes Justin. “It was the deepest, darkest secret I could ever imagine having, one that I could never tell anyone, not even my parents or best friends. It was the secret I would take with me to my grave.”

I used to think, along with nearly every Christian I knew, that being gay was a choice. But the second you engage your imagination on that subject, you realize this idea is absolutely ridiculous, and most of all for people who claim to be Christians. Who would choose crippling guilt and anxiety? Who would choose to risk rejection by everyone they love? Who would choose what amounts, in conservative Christian circles, to a disability?

Even if you think gay sex is against God’s will, let’s have no more of this “it’s a choice” business. Being sexually active with someone of your own sex is a choice; being gay is not.

♀ The State of the Weblog


This is my last long post of the year. Next Thursday is January 3, 2013, so next time you hear from me (probably talking about Chapter 6 of The Feminine Mystique), we’ll be starting a new year.

I’ve been writing Jesus & Venus for over four months, which doesn’t seem like a very significant marker, but it’s the end of the year, so I feel like doing a wrap-up/state of the union post.

I’m burned out.

I know that sounds like a dumb thing to say after only four months of activity, but I read so much terrible news on a near-daily basis that it really gets me down sometimes. Even worse, such a staggering amount of blind drivel or outright misogyny comes through my RSS reader every day in the form of anti-feminist op-ed pieces, rape culture apologia, and even friendly fire, that I’ve found myself more and more frequently getting so angry that sitting down to process the news for all of you has taken every bit of determination and stamina I can muster. Good news or unadulterated awesomeness shows up far less regularly, and the victories are often small.

Anyway, as whiny as this may sound, here are by far the four greatest contributers to my burnout.

Ease of Burnout

I burn out quickly on nearly anything that isn’t going perfectly, and frequently even on the things that work out well. I’m a generalist; I have a wide array of interests, and this is only one of them. It’s all too easy for me to abandon things that don’t charge my batteries at the moment and move on to another project I’m more excited about. I also get easily bored with ongoing projects once I’ve gotten into a regular rhythm, particularly if they don’t have a foreseeable end date. 10 years post-college, I’ve come to terms with this character flaw, and I think it’s healthy to acknowledge it from time to time.

Abuse of the Bible

Many or most of my Christian friends are not feminists or egalitarians, and I read several Christian websites that are indifferent, or passively or actively hostile, toward the goals of feminism. I try to be open-minded, so I recognize that some parts of the Bible could, fairly legitimately, be interpreted in opposition to egalitarian views. 1 Timothy 2:9–15 comes to mind first, of course, and the dearth of women holding positions of spiritual or political authority—exceptions notwithstanding—could easily trouble me absent my views on progressive revelation.

But people rarely employ the strongest arguments when opposing feminism from a biblical platform, and when they do, they almost never seem interested in an actual dialogue on the subject. Instead, they tend to stick with the same three tactics: Interpreting The Curse as prescriptive for women (but not for men), universalizing and canonizing the mythologized version of the 1950s sold to them through film and television of the day, and selectively applying Old Testament law. When I (or others) disagree with these practices or try to engage them on a hermeneutical level, they nearly always respond by questioning our commitment to the authority of the Bible, conveniently ignoring the many components of the Christian feminist platform actually based on the Christian scriptures. When other theological disputes can be politely handled without these sorts of accusations, I begin to wonder just how scared of sexual equality these people must be to behave so reactively.[1]

Rape. Rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, rape, rape.

I quite literally cannot read a single day’s worth of news without seeing a horrific account of a rape or a story about miscarriage of justice in a rape case or perpetuation of rape culture through legislation. Women everywhere are having their sexual autonomy taken away from them, and hardly anyone seems to actually care; the most common responses seem to be some form of victim-blaming or decrying human nature, or both. The occasional meting out of justice or positive institutional or political change brings hope for a future culture of consent, but our present reality bears little resemblance to the ideal.

Evangelicals—my people—are among the worst. We struggle to not conflate behavior we consider “sinful” with behavior that mitigates the injustice of rape; the former is and will probably always be up for debate, but the latter is a flying unicorn, and we need to stop believing in those. As much as we may not like it when young people get drunk and rub up against each other, a woman who does this is in no way at fault if she gets raped—the end, full stop.

But Evangelicals—and nearly everyone else—think that we can keep talking this way about women and still effect change. We can’t. We can’t perpetuate modesty culture without contributing to the perpetuation of rape culture. We can’t keep teaching our youth that sex is shameful and dirty without putting girls (and boys) at risk for un-reported sexual abuse. We can’t train women in rape-avoidance techniques without subtly communicating that rape, when it happens, is a little bit their fault.[2]

Believe me when I tell you that I struggle with empathy. I’m a cold-blooded, callous bastard when it come to anyone but my own kith and kin, but this issue still makes me—again, quite literally—scream out loud at my desk on some days.

Ideological Snobbery Among Feminists

This one is probably going to anger people, but I’m putting it in anyway. While many feminists I read and interact with online are lovely people, most are mean-spirited, flippant, or dismissive at best when encountering ideas that conflict with feminist dogma.[3] While I understand that nearly everyone tires of saying the same things over and over, as a relative newcomer I have repeatedly observed that feminists are largely preaching to the choir because the congregation is tired of being harangued.

Now, some websites or individual bloggers have no interest in reaching non-feminists. Some do not even intend to persuade. I think of Sarah Moon, who has made it quite clear that her blog is an emotional outlet, not a news source or platform for debate. I also continue to derive a semi-guilty pleasure from the steady stream of snark flowing out of the Jezebel writers, who fall loosely into the category of “pundit”. On the more journalistic end of the scale, Feministing and The Feminist Majority Foundation Blog, while newsy, seem to be aimed entirely at existing converts.

I’ll cite a specific event as an example: The Good Men Project’s recent series of posts on rape culture, which many (rightly, I believe) categorized as rape apologism. You’ll notice that the link above leads not the Good Men Project website but to an article for The Guardian by Jill Filipovic, and that is because Filipovic was the only feminist writer I heard of who responded to the event with a reasoned, balanced commentary befitting a journalist.

The near-universal reaction from the rest of the femisphere boiled down to: “Screw GMP. No one should ever read them again; they’re terrible people.” An entirely legitimate reaction for writers who just want to blog about personal experience or vent their emotions, this is not at all tenable for anyone who wants to consider themselves a journalist or news source. Ignoring the opposition, even when they write something so wrong that you have to spend half an hour cooling down before you can respond, is not an option for a journalist. If, as they say, most of the feminists I follow really no longer read The Good Men Project, they are abdicating any claim to the title.

And that is fine, but where are the feminist journalists? Where are the serious, well-reasoned op-ed pieces defending our positions? Seriously: where are they? I feel like they must exist; I just haven’t found them yet. Someone point me in the right direction. Drop me a line in the comments, using the contact page, or on Twitter. For now, though, the feminist corner of the internet seems very closed off to dialogue. This alienates people who are open to feminist ideas but put off by our unbending dogmatism.[4] I know, because I have conversations with these people. As a perpetual evangelist, this troubles me.

Why I’m Not Giving Up

Firstly, I don’t want to be a quitter. I’ve quit a lot of things in my life; I don’t want this website to be another one. In any case, it has more inherent value than most other things I’ve attempted.

Secondly, people. As much as I may occasionally (or frequently) disagree with some of them, I’ve met several wonderful people since I started collecting the feminist news. Despite never meeting any of them in person, I feel like some of my new friends could turn into lifelong friends. Their various individual brands of feminism—and Christianity—make me feel happy, and more importantly, they expand my thinking and push me to be a better feminist and a better Christian.

Finally, the goal. The Goal. Slightly expanded from the About page, The Goal of Jesus & Venus is, through a steady stream of news carefully peppered with opinion, to persuade Christians who aren’t quite sure they are feminists or egalitarians that they really are, or should be. No one else that I know about is doing what I’m trying to do, and I feel like I’m doing it well. I could do it even better, and if my readership continues to expand, I think I can achieve that goal.

I’m going to push through this period of burnout. Four months is a very short time, considered with proper perspective. 2013 is going to bring plenty of raw material, and I’ll be here to digest it into a form you can consume in just a few minutes a day. This may sound kind of hollow after all of the above complaining, but I’ll say it anyway: Thanks for reading.

  1. I should clarify that many of my complementarian friends are wonderful people who do not engage in any of these tactics.  ↩

  2. At least, not using the type of language and logic we’ve been employing up until now.  ↩

  3. I use “dogma” here in the non-judgmental sense of “doctrine considered central to the movement”, not in the pejorative sense of “beliefs held irrationally in despite of evidence to the contrary”.  ↩

  4. This time, I am being pejorative.  ↩

"He's Just Not a Spiritual Leader"

Marlena Graves at Her.meneutics critiques this common complaint from women about the men they’ve just dumped:

I started wondering about all the godly men who may have other spiritual gifts—just not the ones traditionally considered “male” spiritual gifts. For example, what about men who have the gift of mercy or hospitality or service or encouragement, and who are full of the fruits of the Spirit? Do we devalue them simply because they’re not at the helm or out in front but rather operating alongside their partner? Is initiating devotional activities within a relationship really what it means to lead?

The Christian Appropriation of Judaism

Krista Dalton, a Christian graduate student of Jewish studies, only wants you to study Judaism as long as you give it the respect it deserves:

Does that mean one can understand early Christianity without understanding early Judaism? No! The same as early Jewish studies is enhanced by an understanding of Christianity. But when we begin the dialogue, it should not be from a position of “reclaiming.” Frankly, the time for that ended a little under 2,000 years ago. Since then “jewishness” and “christianness” has evolved into two large and separate religious traditions.

Thus understanding Israelite and Judean religious practice is not the equivalent of understanding modern Jewish practice.

This attempt to reclaim Judaism is foreign to my experience, but Krista knows what she’s talking about.

Confessions of a Harlot

And that’s when he says it, just kind of casually, talking about a young lady with whom we were all well acquainted:

“Yeah, her brother-in-law doesn’t trust her with men. Says she has the ‘spirit of a harlot.’”

The words hit me like a sucker punch.

♀ Rachel Held Evans v. Scholasticism

Image courtesy of the Biblical Womanhood Launch Team.

Image courtesy of the Biblical Womanhood Launch Team.

During my one year of seminary I had to do a group project on a theological system; my group ended up with Covenant Theology. The project required us to teach an entire class session on Covenant Theology at some point during the semester, so we had to know what we were talking about. When we split up the work, I took the history section, because I like history.

Covenant Theology, for those unfamiliar, explains God’s interactions with humanity by referring to three covenants he has made with his people: the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, and the covenant of redemption. While too multi-faceted and nuanced to discuss here, the important thing to understand is that Covenant Theology is a framework for interpreting the Bible. One of the expressions of that framework, Calvinism, claims over 75 million adherents worldwide.

Most people boil down Calvinism to its Five Points, known among Calvinists as “the doctrines of grace”. While somewhat reductive, they are not inaccurate and do provide a simple shorthand for the ideology. The Five Points are:

  1. Total Depravity: All people are inherently sinful and unable on their own to choose God.
  2. Unconditional Election: God has, from eternity past, chosen those to whom he planned to give salvation (“the elect”).
  3. Limited Atonement: The atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death applies only to the elect.
  4. Irresistable Grace: God’s calls the elect to himself through the Holy Spirit regardless of their own resistance to his call.
  5. Perseverance of the Saints: The elect cannot thwart God’s calling by falling from grace.

If some of that sounds a little extreme, that’s partly because I left out all the nuance for lack of space. Unfortunately, it’s also because Calvinism is a little extreme, due mostly to the hermeneutic of its era of origin.

Calvinism (and Covenant Theology) developed during the Reformation, beginning as an argument over double predestination, the belief that God has pre-determined the eternal destiny not only of the elect but also of the non-elect. In other words, God has already decided (quite some time ago) whom he is going to save and whom he is going to condemn to hell. This belief derived from parts of the Bible such as Romans 9:14–18:

Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,

“I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”

So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.

For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.

On the other hand, the Bible also contains repeated calls for people to repent and accept God’s offer of salvation:

Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. (Acts 3:19)

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” (Acts 16:31)

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let anyone who hears this say, “Come.” Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life. (Revelation 22:17)

If we are so fatally flawed that we are incapable of choosing God, why does God ask us to choose him? And if God has already determined who he will save and damn, why does he urge us to repent and be saved?

John Calvin responded to this dilemma with a theology that his followers eventually distilled into the above Five Points. (Calvin’s actual theological writings are much longer, more thorough, and more nuanced.) That theology ushered in modern Covenant Theology.

At this point you might be asking why all of this overly-analytical academic discussion was even necessary, since the important thing is that God does call people to himself, and they do come. The answer: scholasticism, the then-prevalent approach to interpreting the Bible, which focused on resolving apparent paradoxes in order to construct a watertight system of theology.

The idea that God might say two contradictory things could not be allowed to persist in under scholasticism, which therefore developed the habit of approaching the Bible itself as a systematic theology whose components needed to be analyzed and rationalized in order to attain cohesion. Unfortunately for all of us, this kind of hermeneutic has persisted into the present, eroded slightly along with our general capability for academic rigor of any kind.[1]

I just finished A Year of Biblical Womanhood, a new book by Rachel Held Evans chronicling the 12 months she spent studying the Bible’s statements to and about women, interpreting them all as literally applicable to our time, and attempting to follow them all according to this understanding. Along the way she interviews a sister wife in a polygamist family, attends a Quaker service, corresponds with an Orthodox Israeli Jewish woman, spends the first three days of her period living in a tent, prepares and hosts a Passover meal, calls her husband “Master” and praises him at the entrance to their town, and cultivates a gentle and quiet spirit by refraining from yelling at the TV during football games. I highly recommend the book, which is both instructive and entertaining.

While Evans was primarily searching for a biblical description of what it means to be a woman, this quest involved significant Bible study, and the question of competing hermeneutics is resultingly a strong secondary theme of the book. Not content with simply reading the Bible, Evans consulted every resource she could find to inform her interpretation:

I took my research way too seriously, combing through feminist, conservative, and liberal commentaries, and seeking out Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant perspectives on each issue. I spoke with modern-day women practicing ancient biblical mandates in their own lives—a polygamist, a pastor, a Quiverfull daughter, an Orthodox Jew, an Amish grandmother. I scoured the Bible, cover to cover, isolating and examining every verse I could find about mothers, daughters, widows, wives, concubines, queens, prophetesses, and prostitutes.

This research proved the most fascinating part of the book to me, information-driven Christian that I am. I discovered early in my adulthood that acquiring new facts about the Bible significantly alters my perception of its message and meaning and, correspondingly, the expression of my faith.

For example, early in Biblical Womanhood, Evans learns from an Orthodox Jewish woman named Ahava that the Hebrew expression in Genesis 2 translated in the King James Version as “help meet” is Ezer k’gnedo. Modern Jews translate these words as “the help that opposes”. Evans further discovers that Ezer (the “help” part of the phrase) most frequently occurs in the Old Testament with reference to “God as the helper of Israel”, more than suggesting that the complementarian concept of the woman’s role as subordinate helper to her husband must look outside Genesis 2 for its foundation.

Later, Evans tells the story of Huldah, the prophetess who validated the discovery of the Book of the Law during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. I’ve always been bad at keeping biblical timelines straight in my head, so I had never realized before that Huldah lived concurrently with the prophets Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk—all men. Far from being a last resort, Huldah was approached instead of four other male prophets so important they each authored books of the Bible. Yet I’ve never seen or heard her name mentioned by a pastor, professor, or writer except when reading aloud from 2 Kings 22. Although Evans does not say it explicitly, it’s hard not to feel that conservative Christians have unofficially erased Huldah from the Bible, along with the other nine female prophets it mentions.

While I probably could have figured out Huldah’s chronology with a short perusal of an Old Testament timeline on the internet, learning the background of 1 Timothy 2, in which Paul informs Timothy that he does not let women teach or have authority over men, requires more scholarship than most Christians have time for:

Of particular concern to Paul was a group of young widows who had infiltrated the church and developed a reputation for dressing promiscuously, sleeping around, gossiping, spreading unorthodox ideas, interrupting church services with questions, mooching off the church’s widow fund, and generally making common floozies of themselves (1 Timothy 5). Scholars believe these women may have been influenced by the popular Roman fertility cults of Artemis that encouraged women to flaunt their sexuality and freedom to a degree that scandalized even the Roman establishment, hardly known for its prudish morals.

Knowing this bit of historical information helps us understand Paul’s instruction that women should remain silent: concern for maintaining the Church’s reputation to outsiders and preventing paganism from contaminating the true Gospel:

“We are thus led to the conclusion that when Paul asks women to be silent… he is not talking about ordinary Christian women; rather, he has a specific group of women in mind,” wrote theologian Scot McKnight. “His concern is with some untrained, morally loose, young widows, who, because they are theologically unformed, are teaching unorthodox ideas.”

Oddly enough, as Evans points out, no one ever preaches on another verse in 1 Timothy 2: verse 8, in which Paul says, “In every place of worship, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy.” In addition to ignoring the exhortation to avoid anger and controversy among believers who worship together—probably the real point of this verse—nearly every Christian man disregards the instruction to lift up his hands when praying. Literal interpretation apparently does not extend quite that far.

Nor do you ever hear, at least in most evangelical or mainline churches, a biblical apology for polygamy, requiring women to cover their heads during church services (or possibly all the time), forcing virgins to marry their rapists, or fathers selling their daughters into slavery to escape poverty. As Evans says in her introduction:

Despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively like this almost always involves selectivity.

Taking everything in the Bible at face value, as Western conservative Christians—still living in the shadow of scholasticism—claim to do, would result in the kind of bizarre lifestyle that Rachel Held Evans imposed upon herself for a year. No one actually interprets every part of the Bible as literally applicable to our culture and time, though; we tend to find in it the things we expect or want to find, conveniently validating the habits and values we already have.

But even to be totally consistent about interpreting the Bible “literally” would only camouflage the true flaw in our whole hermeneutic: that scholasticism, with its systematic, analytical, paradox-allergic approach to interpretation, has no business anywhere near the Bible. Our scriptures are a big, messy collection of many authors writing to varying audiences in diverse cultures at disparate points in history and in multiple genres. They are not a book of facts or list of rules written down in an orderly fashion by God so we would know exactly what he wanted us to do in every situation at every time. Jesus came (and will eventually return) for the very opposite purpose—to free us from the sort of relationship with God that survives through rigid structures and fear-based commandments. God is not interested in telling us what to do; he is interested in us, and by extension, what kind of people we are.

And fortunately, the Bible is much better at telling us what kind of people to be than it is at telling us what to do, being a story of stories about God and his interactions with us and those who preceded us. By telling us about himself, God is indirectly describing who he wants us to become. Sometimes he does this by sharing poetry; other times he tells us fantastical or shocking tales.

In both the Old and New Testaments, God often described to our spiritual ancestors exactly what he wanted them to do in their specific situations. When we interpret these parts of the Bible, slavish adherence to the exact instructions issued may well lead us in the wrong direction. Instead we ought to recognize that some, possibly many, parts of our scriptures contain more fundamental but less specific truths, and we must identify for ourselves how to best express those truths in our own lives.

I’ll finish with Evans’ quotation of philosopher Peter Rollins:

“By acknowledging that all our readings [of Scripture] are located in a cultural context and have certain prejudices, we understand that engaging with the Bible can never mean that we simply extract meaning from it, but also that we read meaning into it. In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naïve attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God. Here the ideal of scripture reading as a type of scientific objectivity is replaced by an approach that creatively interprets with love.”

  1. In thus reducing the history of both scholasticism and Covenant Theology, I have most certainly done something of a disservice, if not to those ideologies, at the very least to history. I encourage anyone curious about Church history to investigate further for themselves. Further, since my scholarship is a little rusty, I invite correction about any facts I may have mixed up.  ↩