Monthly Archives: February 2013

On heavy and hairy virgins

White_ribbonIn an amazing confluence of Lenten disciplines, my reading of Elaine Pagels (Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity) and Michel Foucault (The History of Sexuality: An Introduction) and my participation in Lent Madness (though this is not really a discipline, it is just good fun) have led me to reflect on sexuality. Yay for Lent! A brief summary of what led me here:

A few weeks back, St. Lucy, a virgin martyr, was matched up against John the Baptist (in a stunning upset, in spite of a smidgen of voter fraud and a good deal of umbrage, she tackled the man who prepared the way). The most delightful (yet truly horrific) part of Lucy’s myth (I leave you to learn more about her story) is that as the guards came to take her away to be defiled in a brothel, the Holy Spirit so filled her that she was too heavy to be moved. So heavy, in fact, that even a team of oxen could not make her budge. Somehow she was finally moved but in the meantime her prosecutors decided not to have her raped first but to simply execute her.

Last week, I learned about Agnes of Rome who also was a virgin who was a victim of the Diocletian persecution. Also, like Lucy, prior to her martyrdom, she was to be defiled in a brothel. On the way to the brothel, as she prayed, hair grew all over her body thus clothing her. Upon arriving at the brothel, anyone who tried to rape her was struck blind, thus protecting her virtue. Again, the assailants tire of the effort and finally decide to lead her straightway to her execution.

Both of these stories (with all their brutality) raised important questions to me about gender and sexuality. I outline here some (yet to be fully developed) thoughts. I appreciate any insight that you may have to offer.

  1. What are we communicating by venerating victims of sexual assault and gender based violence? How do we share our story in such a way that it does not valorize subjecting oneself to abuse. This is a vital issue–the host of the Oscars and The Onion reminded us that violent sexism is alive and rampant.  The  vote to renew and update the Violence Against Women Act passed the Senate with moderate resistance and the GOP in the House is working to eliminate provisions that protect certain groups of women (so those women deserve to be abused?). How can we ensure that the church is not part of the problem (which sadly, too often, it is)?
  2. How exactly does it work that a woman loses her virtue when she is victimized? The logic here seems incredibly backward. The myths implicitly accept this framing in their explicit demonstration that God miraculously protected the women’s virtue. The stories in all their strangeness led me to question the logic yet I know that even still today this is commonly how the issue is framed (hello honor killings and massive wartime rape).
  3. Why are female virgins lifted up as examples? How many male saints are notable because of their sexual purity? What is the message we are sending here? Some earlier female martyrs, Perpetua and Felicitas, are both sexually active and have families. Their story is still frightfully horrific. How did other types of Christianity in the 2nd-4th century deal with sexuality?
  4. Finally, the issue of body image in these texts is noteworthy. As I was tweeting I playfully (and perhaps too irreverently?) referred to Lucy as “the heavy” and Agnes as the “hairy preteen virgin martyr.” As I tweeted I realized that these epithets tapped into two current struggles that women may have when it comes to body image (Did that stop me? No. Should it have? Maybe.). Do the stories today reinforce unhealthy conceptions about the ideal woman’s body? Is this an older problem than I had previously realized?

So there you have it, my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours!

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Atheism for Lent

GODISNOWHEREIn my last post I confessed that I found the whole “Ashes to Go” movement to be incredibly unsatisfying. I appreciated many of the comments that shared how imposing ashes outside of the context of a worship service was a meaningful and evangelistic gesture of hospitality. I understand that the ritual act of marking one’s forehead with ashes is a multivalent symbol and in this new context the symbol takes on new meaning. This leads to a couple more questions for me. First (and I won’t offer an opinion because the answer seems to me to be based simply on preference), do we lose something significant by imposing ashes in this new context? Are the gains worth the losses? Second, and I will try to answer this, what does this new practice suggest about our beliefs?

To get at the question I turn to my old friends Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche read through the lens of Merold Westphal. In his fabulous book Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, Westphal argues that the hermeneutics of suspicion (of which Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche were masters) are essential for people of faith, particularly during Lent. He advocates for “the deliberate attempt to expose the self-deceptions involved in hiding our actual operative motives from ourselves, individually and collectively, in order not to notice how and how much our behavior and our beliefs are shaped by values we profess to disown.” This is not an evidentiary atheism that militantly argues that there is not enough evidence to believe in God but a healthy suspicion of religious practices that is grounded in critical self-reflection. It is an honest evaluation of the correspondence between what we say we believe and how we actually live our lives.

In the last ten years the Episcopal Church (and many other mainline denominations) has experienced a precipitous decline (the reasons for the decline were the subject of an interesting debate last summer between Ross Douthat and Diana Butler Bass). The much discussed recent Pew survey revealed that as many as one in five now identify as “nones,” that is to say, they do not have a religious affiliation. This trend does not look like it will be reversed any time soon as nearly 1/3 of those who are 18-29 identify in this way. There is a growing consensus that what happens in religious communities is largely irrelevant. Even the Dalai Lama appears to agree.

It is in this context that bishops and clergy and theologians are insisting that what happens in a church community does in fact matter. Yet (and here I will bring my critique) the very act of ashes on the go appears to affirm that what happens in church IS irrelevant. There is no need for pause, there is no  need for community, you can get your absolution or religious identity marker or whatever the symbol may mean to you on your way to work or wherever it may be that you are rushing. It can be profoundly significant to both the priest and the participant. But is reveals a sense that church is not necessary for that profound moment. And maybe it is not.

The act also undercuts another assertion that is trendy in Episcopal circles, namely, that in the baptismal covenant all equipped to do the work of God (the so-called “total ministry” movement). Priests have an additional function (presiding over Eucharist and forgiveness of sins) but they and the laity share the same call. The act of ashes on the go raises the public profile of the priest or bishop in a way that undercuts the evangelistic call of all the baptized. Yes, it may be hospitable, but it reinforces the idea that the heavy lifting of the work of the church is under the purview of the clergy. (Perhaps priests are just longing for affirmation of their ministry as numbers dwindle and certain church folk continue to be annoying know-it-alls.) Again, the practice reveals what is truly believed.

Finally, as I noted previously, it seems to me that many of those who are most excited about this phenomenon are also those who are most perfectionistic when it comes to the liturgy. Perhaps the two are related. Perhaps for these priests who find joy in a perfect liturgy, God is in fact dead and the communal act of worship is somehow meaningless apart from a perfect performance. Impeccable liturgy is God. The communal aspect is only beneficial insofar as others are there to witness the perfection (and certainly not to screw it up!).

I have mentioned much here that may be objectionable (or just plain and simple misinformed!), please offer your insights in the comments!

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Ashes on the go. I don’t get it. At all.

ash-wednesdayToday Christians begin the Lenten journey, the long season of reflection and introspection. To mark the beginning of the season, many Christians from more liturgical traditions will participate in a worship service wherein they will be encouraged to contemplate both their sinfulness and their mortality (let the self-flagellating begin!). At one point in the service, the priest or pastor will mark their forehead with ashes in the shape of a cross and declare something along the lines of “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The imposition of the ashes is followed by a litany of repentance that is both individual and communal.

It has become trendy in my denomination (The Episcopal Church) to go out and meet people on the street, at train stations, and in other public places and to impose ashes on any who want them. Ashes “on the go” is the church’s way of engaging the world. I think it is bullshit. As a caveat, I am new to liturgical traditions, having begun my journey with the Episcopal church 12 years ago while I was in seminary. Also, and related, I am not a sacramental or liturgical theologian. I am sure that those more ensconced in this way of doing Christianity may have some helpful responses to my critiques. And I welcome them.

First, as noted above, the Ash Wednesday liturgy provides a space for people to reflect on both their sins and to contemplate their mortality. The service guides the participants through reflection and confession. The imposition of the ashes is given a context in which they act is interpreted and given meaning. Questions: If people who are grabbing ashes on the go do not have 45 minutes to slow down and reflect on their humanity what then is the function of the ashes? Is the 3 second line “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” a sufficient reminder?

Second, also in the service, participants hear the important words from the Gospel of Matthew, “But when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces [and put dirt on their foreheads] so as to show you that they are fasting. Truly, I tell you, they have received their award.” Again it is the liturgy that provides a context for understanding the significance of this very public display of one’s piety. Do not these ashes on the go do the very thing that Jesus warned against?

Third, the act of receiving ashes on the street is incredibly individual. The service is clear about the individual and the corporate nature of our sin. We participate in larger systems of injustice, and our church is one of those larger systems. We need to be reminded that when we wear the cross on our forehead we are wearing a symbol of violence and oppression. Our corporate confession encourages us to think hard about how we need to be transformed, both as individuals and as a community. The lack of deep reflection that accompanies ashes on the go encourages us to maintain the status quo.

I have heard that priests are drawn to this practice because it represents the church going out into the world to meet people where they are at. Again, I think this is bullshit. It reinforces the idea that what happens in worship is irrelevant and unnecessary (I am surprised that many of those who are the most rigid about doing the liturgy perfectly are also those who are flocking to the streets to impose ashes… what is up with that?). The vital importance of community is undermined. Moreover, if this is the best that the church can offer in terms of engaging the world then the church truly is useless. What about the real issues facing people daily–hunger, poverty, violence, oppression? Where is the church’s public engagement in these genuinely horrible crises? In this feeble attempt to be the church in the world what the church is actually proclaiming is that we cannot meet real daily challenges but we can give you a public display of your completely effortless and empty piety.

So there they are. My fighting words. My line in the sand. Let’s dance!

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When the realities of the 21st century confront the church

Immaculate-Conception-Mitre-02I was surprised this morning to see Twitter abuzz (follow me @DyingSparrows if you like) with news of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI (or as I affectionately call him, B-16). While I knew it was a big deal (I can only remember two popes, JP 2 was elected when I was 2 years old),  I was not fully aware of the historic significance of this event. From what I gather, the last time a pope resigned (abdicated?) was in 1415 when Pope Gregory XII stepped down in the midst of a controversy over who had a rightful claim to Peter’s See. To my educated readers, perhaps you know of others? (I am too lazy to poke around…) This makes Pope Benedict’s decision even more historic. There is no scandal, there are no rival claimants. Benedict simply realized that he was getting too old for the job. Perhaps he did not want to repeat the slow public decline (and commensurate hand wringing by the faithful) of his predecessor.

I wonder if his rare (if not unprecedented) move does not mark the beginning of a new era in the papacy. Advances in health care are leading to longer lives, globalization and the shift of the Church southward is requiring more travel, media and the internet chronicle every move. Benedict, as an 85 year old man, simply could not endure the rigors that the position required. The situation will be no different, and perhaps even more demanding, for future popes. My suggestion: the 21st century has created an environment that has led to a historic change in papal reigns and ecclesial governance. (Tenuous proposition 1. Feel free to let me know if you think this idea is misguided. Just do so nicely.)

There are other 21st century realities that the Church might want to consider adapting to. Probably lots. I mention here two:

  1. Women in leadership. Women occupy positions of leadership in every sector of life. It is true that they do not receive the pay that they ought to and they are woefully underrepresented in the highest echelons of power (can we start to fix that in 2016, Hillary?). Yet, women have fought hard and gained vital ground. If is frightfully disconcerting that the Roman Catholic Church (and many other Christian denominations) refuse to follow this trend. Unfortunately for women, the Bible and the Tradition reflect the culture of their time, maybe the Church today should better reflect the culture of its time?
  2. Weapons and militarization. The Church historically played a key role in the state. As such, “Just War” theories and God-given rights to bear arms made some sense. The state’s job is to protect its interests, and church, as a function of the state (or is it vice-versa?) had some obligation to think about self-defense, or in other cases, blatant offense. I read online the other day a defense of drone strikes as moral from a Christian perspective. I got in trouble on Facebook for criticizing a new law in Arkansas that allows people to carry concealed weapons IN CHURCH. Could it be that because religion is (rightfully) no longer intertwined in state affairs that Christianity can now acknowledge that there really is no theological ground for violence against one another? Can we leave the messy work of social order to the state (and assume a prophetic role of critiquing unjust violence)?

There are other social issues that could be brought in — sexuality and women’s reproductive health come to mind immediately. The fact is we live in a new age. Pope Benedict’s decision to step down is perhaps evidence of a changing landscape for religion. I am sure that there are ways that this (still germinating) idea could be nuanced or corrected. Please share your wisdom!

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The spirit of the Lord is upon me, maybe. Probably not.

St. Darth

St. Darth

Either way, let’s consider together the dark side of God and faith. I’d love to have you join me in conversations about the Bible, religion, culture, politics, justice, and whatever else makes me uncomfortable. Hopefully once a week.

In seminary we used to solve the world’s problems over martinis. In grad school it was through 30 page academic articles. A blog seems like a happy medium.

It will be fun. Promise!

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