What If Impossible Physical Standards of Beauty Aren’t The Only Problem?

“There is nothing more rare, nor more beautiful, than a woman being unapologetically herself; comfortable in her perfect imperfection. To me, that is the true essence of beauty.” Steve Maraboli

I stumble across this quote on the internet pretty frequently. It’s impossible not to be taken with this definition of beautiful. While it sounds so empowering, I think it is an unhealthy standard to strive for.

Yesterday, I read the post “Are you beautiful? I asked 100 men what ‘physical beauty’ is and the results shocked me” on Rozanne Leigh’s blog Life is Rozie. What she discovered through her conversations and surveys is that women are far more critical of our physical appearance than men are. My favorite quote was, “Most [men] could hardly tell the difference between girls who were a size 10 and a size 4 – except to say whether they looked healthy or not.” That same statement cannot be made of most women. I can’t say that I was as surprised by her results as she was. I’ve noticed this in my conversations with the men in my life. It is easy for me to look around and see men who are deeply in love with women who don’t fit into our culture’s narrow definition of beauty. While I enjoyed her post, I was unsatisfied by her conclusion that what makes us beautiful is our confidence in our own unique desirability. And especially her conviction that we can love ourselves without the validation of others. As nice as it all sounds, it is still an idealistic notion of beauty.

Objectively speaking, I believe I am beautiful. Even while my confidence in myself in other areas has wavered, I’ve grown rather sure that I am desirability. But does that mean I feel beautiful every day? Of course not. No one does. There are days when I feel unstoppably seductive and there are days when I feel like I need a serious makeover to be even slightly presentable. Though I’ve grown to see the beauty in my body at many sizes, I would be lying if I said that I don’t still regret that I can’t offer a lover a more perfect body without the war wounds from my battle with obesity.

Ugly days (okay, sometimes even ugly seasons) are a part of life. We all have to learn to love our bodies through sweat and tears (quite literally in many cases). This is a process that can take a life time. Do you know what is incredible? People love us anyway. They desire us even when we can’t possibly see any reason why they would. And on our ugly days, their kind words are what can help us get out of our heads and see ourselves more clearly and kindly.

The biggest lie we believe in our culture is not that we have to meet impossible physical standards of beauty to be lovable; it is that we have to achieve any standard of perfection at all to be loved. Even “perfect imperfection.” Just as men fall in love with women of all shapes and sizes, men fall in love with women who are deeply insecure as frequently as they fall in love with women who project perfect confidence. Men fall in love with women who don’t have their lives even close to “together” just as they fall in love with women at the height of their success. While confidence and health are undeniably sexy, there is also something attractive about the need to see ourselves graciously reflected in the eyes of others. It is this very need that drives us toward each other.

No matter how unpopular it is to say, we need the honest feedback of others to gain confidence in our attractiveness. Of course, feel free to ignore the haters but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everyone else. Even Leigh’s blog post illustrates that we can all benefit from viewing ourselves through the eyes of men who are looking for connection and love not perfection. Letting ourselves believe the compliments that we are given and trusting in the evidence that we are desirable is the surest way to gain greater confidence in our own unique beauty. We have to realize that even then it will never be an unfailing confidence and that’s okay.

A couple of years ago I shared a quote from Emanuel Ungaro, “I like women who are not sure of themselves. I like the moment when a woman thinks she is not good enough, pretty enough. It’s wonderful. It’s like I’ve scratched the surface and discovered something…” I wish we could see the beauty in our own moments of self-doubt and, instead of turning against ourselves, unashamedly let it drive us to reach out for the comfort of those who see our beauty when we can’t.

Beauty_Quote_Steve_Maraboli

Feature image from Flaunter.com.

Dismantling Bullshit: A Challenge to the Men’s Rights Movement

Last week, I came across Kate Harding’s article in Jezebel “Fuck You, Men’s Rights Activists”. I’ve been waiting for a chance to discuss it with you. She articulates, even if in exaggerated form, what I’ve been alluding to when I mention the destructiveness of the men’s rights movement. Her undeniably emotional tirade made me realize that it’s about time I directly approach this subject myself with a little less rancor and hopefully more balance. My problem with these groups runs much deeper than even Harding’s justified opposition to their obvious and active contempt for women. Though that is an unavoidable piece of my own position, there are much greater problems with the men’s rights movement that affect both men and women.

For those of you unfamiliar with men’s rights, beyond the little you may have gleaned from me so far, this is a brief overview from Wikipedia:

“The men’s rights movement (MRM), a subset of the larger men’s movement, is focused on addressing discrimination against men in areas such as reproductive rights, divorce settlements, domestic violence laws, and sexual harassment laws. It branched off from the men’s liberation movement in the early 1970s, differing from that movement in its focus and rejection of pro-feminist principles.”

In other words, men’s rights activists believe that our culture and courts have become biased against men. Their biggest issues are advocating for men who claim to have been falsely accused of rape or domestic violence, seeking more fair rulings in divorce cases, and advocating for the rights and protection of men who are the victims of domestic violence.

I sympathize with the goal of men’s rights activists (MRAs) to eradicate these injustices. I have just as much compassion for men in abusive relationships who are dealing with the challenge of skeptical cops and judgmental family members and communities as I do for women in similar circumstances. There are, undeniably, more resources available for women who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault than there are for men. I do believe more resources should be made available to them. There is certainly some bias in our divorce courts that needs to be corrected (just this evening my dad was telling me of two men in his department with unfaithful wives who they haven’t divorced because they wouldn’t be able to live on the paltry amount of money they’d have left after child support). False rape and false domestic abuse charges can have a hugely detrimental effect on men’s lives. When committed intentionally and maliciously, they are gross crimes that need to be more adequately addressed. 

Even Harding shares this sympathy. I think that many women would agree with her statement, “We would be the natural allies of MRAs, if MRAs were sincerely committed to the causes with which they claim to be chiefly concerned.” Their chief concern seems to be to turn the tables and characterize women asThe Oppressor instead of men. MRAs tend to portray women as a whole as manipulative, violent liars. They detrimentally misrepresent the prevalence of these issues they are fighting against: suggesting that women violently attack men as frequently as they are attacked by men or provoke this violence, claiming that the majority of women who make accusations of rape or domestic violence are lying in order to make men look bad or get the upper hand in a custody case, etc. (If you’d like to see the scientific data disputing MRAs claims about these issues, check out Mark Potok and Evelyn Schlatter’s excellent article “Men’s Rights Movement Spreads False Claims about Women” from The Intelligence Report). Harsh as it may be, MRAs have earned for themselves the title of unapologetic misogynists.

The problem with misogyny is that it truly kills, or can, both directly and indirectly. Cops and courts are more skeptical of charges of both rape and domestic violence than MRAs portray. Their loud advocacy makes it that much more likely that a victim of rape will be too scared to come forward and potentially prevent her assailant from repeating the crime. Their desire to quickly believe a man has been falsely accused of domestic violence and their support of his case could put children and wives back into homes where they may be killed. While it is important to root out false charges, it is more important to prevent future violence and victims.

The problem with MRAs advocacy goes further than this. It has the same short fall as feminisms when it paints men as The Oppressor. It ignores the problem of inter-gender violence. Two thirds of men who are raped are raped by men. Where is the advocacy for them? The police departments, guilty of dismissing legitimate cases of men being abused by female partners, are still heavily male dominated. Where is the challenge to men’s stereotyping of their own gender being made so that these men can be heard, respected and aided? By too quickly painting women as the problem, they are not able to adequately help each other.

At the base of this movement is an ugly and demeaning understanding of what it means to be both a man and a woman. Women are vile oppressors. And men the pathetic oppressed. Neither has any inherit dignity besides what it robs from the other. In the MRA narrative, the dignity women now possess was stolen from men. MRAs’ job is to reclaim it. Of course, this is rarely made so explicit but they do a good enough job of making it evident. With this foundation, it is no surprise that they are doing more damage than good and provoking a greater battle between the sexes.

As someone who desires for men and women to work together for a more meaningful understanding of what it means to be human, to move past feminist to a new humanism, I cannot help but take a strong stand against this movement. I won’t say fuck you to all men’s rights activists because there are some out there with good intentions who are doing good work. But I will join my voice with Harding against those who are guilty of her charges. If they would listen to reason, I would urge them to be more equitable advocates whose concern and commitment to justice extends outside of their own gender and is sensitive to the complexity of these issues.

Can We Quit Trying to Make Sense of the Senseless?!

Generally I don’t like to comment on current affairs, but I can’t seem to escape seeing posts related to the recent tragedy in Connecticut. Most of what I’ve been hearing and coming across has been driving me a little crazy. From a link to an article titled “James Dobson blames gays, abortion for shootings” to the poster below that’s circulating on facebook to the well-meant but ridiculous comments a little old lady said to me on the subject at work Sunday (which I neither invited nor commented on). These pseudo-rational attempts to make sense of these shootings all strike me as deeply inappropriate and ignorant.

Image

All of these mass shootings are always lumped together as if there is a singular cause that we can point to. As if all of these shooters were the same men, in the same state of mind, with the same motives. As if all of these different instances, the recent shooting at the elementary school in Connecticut, the shooting in a mall in Oregon and so on, are all the same. They are not. They are all singular instances. Like any murder. All of these killers, like all other killers, were uniquely motivated. Different environmental, emotional and personal factors influenced them. There may be some crossovers and similarities but they are not the same.

What’s on everyone’s mind, or at least all over the media, is the question: How do we stop this? But the truth is that there can’t possibly be a simple, universal answer to this question because there is no simple, universal cause. The only appropriate question is how do you stop a particular person from committing a singular tragic act. For each person, for each circumstance, the only adequate answer will be different and there are people for whom nothing might stop them. A frightening reality, that most of us like to blatantly ignore whenever we talk about people who commit acts of violence, is that many murderers are sociopaths. Their sense of moral responsibility and ethics is broken. We don’t ever want to deal with the fact that some people delight in acts of violence.

Most of what I’m hearing, seeing and coming across is at its core selfishly motivated. The reason, it seems to me, that people want there to be a societal cause, an addressable source to blame for these tragedies, is because they are afraid it will happen to them. They want to believe this is a problem that can simply be fixed, through stricter laws, through improved societal morals, etc, so that they can evade their fear it might happen to them.

We see these mass shootings as an epidemic because the loss of multiple lives simultaneously is more shocking and more terrifying than the loss of a singular life. We are filled with more fear because they happen in public places instead of private homes, back alleys or woodlands. But our feeling that this is a pattern that is increasing is an illusion. Or so say both criminologists Grant Duwe, with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, and James Allen Fox, at Boston’s Northeastern University, who have been studying mass killings (Yahoo News). You’re more likely to be murdered on your own, by an assailant you recognize, than in a mass shooting spree. Comforting thought, right? Not really but I think this is needed to help us gain a healthier perspective.

Death, whether from violence, disease or natural causes, is a reality of human existence. A sad reality. Christians would call it a fallen reality. But it still is what it is. We, Americans in particular, like to believe that science or reason or compassion can save us. While on one hand this optimism is beautiful, on the other hand it’s naïve, selfish and evasive. Sad as it is, we always live with the risk of tragedy and death. We move on, we continue to live despite the risk because that is what it means to live in this world.

While there may be societal factors that are influencing those people who commit acts of violence (along with personal and environmental factors), we should be cautious in our evaluations. Moments like this are not the time to determine these factors because all of these talking heads around us aren’t thinking reasonably, they’re reacting emotionally.

These fearful conversations and articles are profoundly disrespectful to those families and friends who are grieving personal losses and to those suffering from the trauma of living through these experiences. I can’t help but cringe with how we’ve co-opted their grief, and misappropriated their tragedy. I refuse to browse the different albums online of victims and their families. These photos are, to me, a gross invasion of their grief. It is an extremely intimate thing to see someone’s sadness. Most of us, do not have a right to claim that intimacy. While we can send our thoughts and prayers towards them. While we can deeply empathize. We shouldn’t insult them by feigning that we share in their personal loss.

The most appropriate post that I’ve seen about the tragedy in Connecticut is Richard Beck’s that he published the day of.

The Slaughter of the Innocents

I am mindful today that this is a part of the Advent story:

“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,

weeping and great mourning,

weeping for her children

and refusing to be comforted,

because they are no more.”  

Matthew 2.16-18

What is Philosophy? Why Does it Matter?

“Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits. It works in the minutest crannies and it opens out the widest vistas. It ’bakes no bread,’ as has been said, but it can inspire our souls with courage[…] no one of us can get along without the far-flashing beams of light it sends over the world’s perspectives.”

-William James, “Lecture I – The Present Dilemma in Philosophy”

In my quest to be inspired, I’ve been re-reading David E. Cooper’s Existentialism. His discussion about the central concern of philosophy has sparked thoughts for me about the nature of this discipline and why it matters.

If you want a definition of philosophy all you need to do is a Google search. Wikipedia has a nice one: “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.” While this is an accurate description of philosophy, it conveys nothing about the actual meaning of this discipline. Nor does it hint at what drives us to philosophize.

Cooper points out that many people have been led to believe that the discipline of philosophy is primarily concerned with the problem of knowledge. In particular, “How do we know that the material world exists?” Like Cooper, and many philosophers, I find that question “idle, at best.” He makes the case that the alienation which Marx, Hegel and the existentialists were all overtly concerned with is the sources of all areas of philosophy. He even re-frames Descartes philosophy in these terms. In his words, all of philosophy is motivated by the “perpetual threat posed by the sense that men are hopelessly alienated from the world.” 

While he makes a well reasoned case, it is equally limited. What is driving philosophy is a very simple but profound question, What does it mean to be human? This question can be said to be the well spring of all the humanities. While art explores it creatively and religion deals with it relationally/spiritually, philosophy answers it systematically. Philosophy’s concern with alienation, how we know, etc, are ways into that question.

Meaning is a loaded term. Dictionary definitions don’t capturing the breadth, depth and richness of it. It implies what things are, where they are going and their importance. It is wrapped up in embodied and interconnected realities and immaterial significance. To put it in another way, when I say that a storyteller, like Joss Whedon, has a gift for meaning you know that I’m referring to something more profound than a talent for adequately describing things–especially since Joss’s films and tv shows are populated by superheroes and monsters. You know, without needing it to be explained, that I’m implying a gift for conveying the rich significance of being human and living in this world.

Being that meaning itself is expansive, the question of what it means to be human can hardly be as simple as it may seem. This is what allows for such a great variety of answers and explorations.

The reason this question drives the humanities is because it drives us. Even if we refuse to ask it, we quest for meaning in our lives. To have relationships that feel significant. To acquire what we deem to be of value. To work that we think has importance. Whether we do it unconsciously or consciously, we live out our response to the question of what it means to be human.

Philosophers are people who have a driving need to intentionally and rationally answer that question. They study “general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language” in response to it. Usually, they are driven by a sense that the answers they have been given are not adequate. Their answers, as they become popularized and spread throughout culture (even if in radically bastardized forms) end up being picked up by others and ultimately shaping how others understand themselves and live out their lives. Their answers get picked up by businesses who incorporate them into their practices. They inspire politicians who create policies based off of them. Etc.

The interesting thing about being human is how our answers to that question shape our reality. We can see in art and history how there are ways in which humans have not changed, but there is much that has and does change. We have a profound influence on our world. Philosophy plays a big role in that. Philosophers both notice trends and create them. In a similar way to fashion designers. This is why philosophy matters. It has currency in our culture. In it all around us in overt and subtle guises.

An Open and Closed Case: Women in Christian Leadership

Now that I’ve put it out there that I think N.T. Wright’s Women Bishops: It’s About the Bible Not Fake Ideas of Progress is the best articulation and soundest argument for women in church leadership, I feel a need to qualify that statement. If you followed the link, you noticed that the article is relatively short. He actually spends the majority of it arguing against the notion that the Church should “get with the program” or accept how culture has changed and allow women into leadership along with the rest of the western world. How can I possibly think this is the best argument? There are two primary reasons.

The first is that his driving point of the essay, that changing cultural norms shouldn’t be what determines church policy or Christian belief, is a profoundly important one. As he states, “The Church that forgets to say ‘we must obey God rather than human authorities’ has forgotten what it means to be the Church.” Arguments for women in church leadership that belittle Biblical authority, belittle our Christian faith as well. If the Church is to change its stance on this, it should be because we’ve come to see that barring women from leadership is actually incongruous with our faith.

The second is that he does all the work that needs to be done to illustrate that the case for women to be barred from Christian leadership is not Biblically sound:

“Yes, I Timothy ii is usually taken as refusing to allow women to teach men. But serious scholars disagree on the actual meaning, as the key Greek words occur nowhere else. That, in any case, is not where to start.

All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual (think of Pentecost), and from male-only leadership to male and female together.

Within a few decades, Paul was sending greetings to friends including an “apostle” called Junia (Romans xvi, 7). He entrusted that letter to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.

The resurrection of Jesus is the only Christian guide to the question of where history is going. Unlike the ambiguous “progress” of the Enlightenment, it is full of promise — especially the promise of transformed gender roles.”

Does every instance of women leadership in the Bible (including instances in the Old Testament) and every passage that illustrates God has made men and women equally in imago Dei need to be exhausted before Christians in the West realize that too much has been made of Paul’s words in first Timothy? I don’t think it should be necessary. Wright has stated all that truly needs to be said. Whether you prefer hearing the good news preached by a woman or man is a matter of personal preference. God has clearly called both men and women his children and included us equally in his work. It is not ours to determine whom he gifts with what gifts, instead each of us should use the gifts that we have been given to fulfill our calling. As the apostle Peter said:

“God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. Do you have the gift of speaking? Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies. Then everything you do will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ. All glory and power to him forever and ever! Amen.” (1 Peter 4:10-11).

Why Naturally Thin People Shouldn’t Give Weight Loss Advice

Earlier this year, BCC did a documentary called “Why Are Thin People Not Fat?” In it, ten naturally thin people participated in a study to see how much weight they could gain within a month eating twice their normal calories. Watching it recently, I noticed all of the differences between fat people and naturally thin people’s relationship with food and with their bodies. It proved my point that naturally thin people can’t give well informed advice to those of us who are naturally inclined to be heavier.

As a formerly fat girl, I have to say that I found the participants in this study pretty annoying to watch. First of all, they complain about things like getting to eat a whole pie of pizza or a whole deliciously rich chocolate cake. While I’m watching thinking “Are you kidding me?! I’d love to eat that cake and that entire pizza.” On top of this, putting on weight is a challenge for them. Of course, all of them did gain some extra weight. They felt like they had gotten fat because some of them were say about 10-15 pounds heavier by the end of the study. To those of us who are actually fat, that’s nothing. The most one person gained in a week was about 7 pounds. I didn’t come close to eating as much as them the last time I was at Jon and Christa’s and I gained 10 pounds in 5 days. Were I to eat like they did for a whole month you can be sure I’d have gained 30-40 pounds. All of this illustrated just how different we all are.

The conclusion of the study was that naturally thin people’s bodies actually find it challenging to put on weight. Their bodies have different physiological mechanisms in place that help them to maintain a slimmer physique and stop them from becoming large quickly or easily. This is the first reason why thin people can’t quite understand what it’s like for those of us who gain weight easily, for whom gaining five pounds in a week is nothing.

This information wasn’t exactly a surprise to me. Growing up with Christa as my sister, who was constantly getting crap for being underweight while I was overweight, I knew that our bodies were very different. She couldn’t seem to put on weight and I couldn’t seem to stop (until I peeked around 240). Even now that she’s filled out, with a normal BMI, she maintains that weight very easily, whereas I have to be conscious of everything I eat, when I eat it and how much to not only keep losing weight but to maintain the weight I’m at. While we can discuss these differences, we’ve never been able to give the other real advice in this area.

This is not the only difference between thin and fat people that comes out in the documentary. What actually interested me the most was noticing the different relationship we have with food. For the participants, eating so much and such high calorie foods was a chore. They didn’t find it easy and hardly found it enjoyable. They didn’t understand how anyone could possibly have the time to eat so much. My friend Heather and I were both like, “Umm…we don’t know what your problem is. Eating like that is easy!”

The majority of the heavy people/formerly heavy people I talk to about food all have a deep and abiding love for it. Eating is rarely a chore for us. It isn’t something we must do; it is something we delight to do. Our bodies don’t bulk at high calories, they crave them. Just the other day I was talking to a runner who used to be 50 pounds overweight (which would be a lot on her 5’ 2” frame). She said that she is always amazed by her husband and daughter’s relationship with food. Both are naturally thin. Both can just contentedly eat a spoonful of icecream and be happy. She can’t. She wants to eat the whole pint.

The scene I enjoyed the most from the Documentary is a secondary study they show with children. A researcher interested in exploring why some people eat more than they need, she did an experiment to see how responsive people are to food when they aren’t even hungry. After lunch, children who all claimed to be full were allowed to color. Then a plate of snacks was sat down next to them. They were told they could continue coloring or eat the food. All of the children had very different reactions. Some pushed the plate aside and continued to color. Some devotedly set about eating the snacks. Some continued coloring while picking at the snacks. None of them seemed to be influenced by the other’s choices. It illustrates very well how some of us are simply more interested in food and have a much harder time turning it down when it is in front of us.

To me, that scene illustrates a relational dynamic between people and food that is more than emotional. It reveals how some of us are simply more attracted to food. It has an inexplicable draw on us that is precognitive. For those who aren’t like this, that is hard to understand. Unless a thin person adequately understands this, I don’t think they can give someone advice on how to control this impulse. Particularly because they won’t understand that it requires more than will power for us. They won’t understand how much we have to control our environment. It’s similar to how I don’t understand how Christa and Jon can have sweets and other snacks in their home that go stale. My kitchen is only stocked with low calorie snacks because if there are high calorie snacks in my home, I’ll eat them. (Part of the reason I always gain at Christa and Jon’s is because I always end up taking care of the snacks they’re letting go to waste).

Naturally thin people shouldn’t give weight loss advice not because you all aren’t well intentioned, but because our bodies are not like your bodies and our relationship with food is not like your relationship. Gaining weight is different for us and losing weight is different for us. Whenever I give weight loss advice to heavy people, I like to stress that you have to learn your body (how to best get it to drop those pounds it will be very reluctant to give up) and work with your love of food. Trying to have Christa’s relationship with food would have made losing this weight so much more of a chore, it would never have been maintainable or sustainable. Instead I’ve embraced my love of food and realized that it has an inexplicable draw on me. Therefore, I’ve learned how to eat less food and lower calorie meals that still satisfy my taste buds. Sometimes I still start my day off with a donut, and I’m often still able to lose weight when I do, because I’ve learned the art of balancing high calories and low calories (and stopping at one instead of eating two).

 

How to Not be One of “Those” Christians

The movie “Saved!,” a very amusing spoof of evangelical Christian culture, came out when I was in high school. My friends raved about it to me. “Lindsey, you’ve got to see it! I know you’re a Christian but…you’re not one of those Christians.” I took that as a high complement and certainly enjoyed the movie (just as I really enjoy “Dogma”-so sacrilegious, but so hilarious).

I knew what they meant by one of “those” Christians. The ones who are heavily steeped in evangelical American Christian culture, who seem to sort of live in an alternate reality. Who make everyone in a room just a little uncomfortable by how they talk about God, in part because they seem to assume that everyone is an evangelical Christian who absolutely believes all of the same things that they do and has the same relationship with God. When they don’t come off as bigots, they often just seem awkward.

Honestly, I’m not quite comfortable with “those” Christians either. Nor with the culture they’re immersed in. Stopping by the few Christian blogs that I periodically visit today had me thinking about this. While I visit them because I can find their writing refreshing or amusing or enlightening sometimes, I also quickly find myself thinking “Your world is so not my world.” Today that’s almost all I could think.

That led me to ask myself how it is that, even though I grew up in an evangelical Christian home, have an active relationship with the Christian God and went to a Christian University, I still feel like an outsider when I encounter evangelical Christian culture. Besides maybe a natural disposition to march to the beat of my own drum, I came up with this little list of reasons why maybe I’m usually not considered one of “those” Christians. If you’re wondering how to not be one of “those” Christians, maybe my list will help you:

  1. Keep a wide berth from Christian bookstores. I by no means want to dis on Christian literature because there are some very valuable books out there. I’d even highly recommended anything by G.K. Chesterton or Timothy Keller, most of C.S. Lewis’ works (especially The Great Divorce and Til We Have Faces), Rob Bell’s first book and Donald Miller’s books. But you should be able to get these books at your local nonreligious bookstore or off amazon. Barnes & Nobel also usually has a reasonably sized religious section. Why venture into the wildly strange/backwards world of the Christian bookstore?
  2. Read books, watch films and listen to bands because they interest you and are good, not simply because they are Christian. Enough said?
  3. Don’t cloister yourself in completely Christian company. It’s very valuable to have a network of people who share your beliefs and have a common worldview, but it is also enriching to have relationships with people whose perspectives and beliefs differ from your own. Similar to that last point, I would recommend that you befriend people because you click with them and enjoy them, not just because you believe the “same things.”
  4. Participate in the broader culture and engage with it thoughtfully and respectfully. I could write a whole post on this but for now I’ll just say that you should keep in mind that you are a part of a broader culture (that you are more than just a Christian) and should engage with others in a way that is respectful of difference (which means recognizing that you cannot force your values on someone, especially not by using a religious text they do not believe in as the authority for your argument).
  5. Put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity (Colossians 3:14). There is something about that phrasing of putting on love that I think is very powerful. Sadly, when most people see Christians they see them as judgmental, condescending, self-righteous or small minded. When people look at you, what they should see is that you are loving.

Is there anything you would add to this list?

Forgive Us Our Skins & Scars: Thoughts on Race, Gender and Identity

“In the Punch and Judy show of our century…there are no more guilty and also, no responsible men. It is always, ‘We couldn’t help it’ and ‘We didn’t really want that to happen.’ And indeed, things happen without anyone in particular being responsible for them. Everything is dragged along and everyone gets caught somewhere in the sweep of events. We are all collectively guilty, collectively bogged down in the sins of our fathers and our forefathers…That is our misfortune, but not our guilt.” –  Friedrich Dürrenmatt,”The Visit”

In the years since I read Robert Graves autobiography Good-Bye to All That, what has stuck with me more than his story has been this quote. Paul Lassell concludes his introduction to my edition with these words meant to sum up the essence of Graves’ story. Though we are living in another century and a very different time, these words (especially those I have bolded) still aptly reflect our reality. They may be true of all human history.

My white skin, in particular, is stained with a collective guilt that ranges from persecuting Native Americans to enslaving Africans. My German heritage ties me to the genocide of Jews and my American lineage links me to the devastation of the atom bomb on the Japanese. My mother’s father draws me into the crimes of the Korean War. The privilege of my skin carries with it all the guilt of Wall Street’s greed and white economic and governmental imperialism over the last few centuries.

This is my misfortune, but is it my guilt? That is a question that I’ve been wrestling with for years.

In college, I imagined a painting of a girl sitting on the floor with the shattered mirror of a vanity behind her. Lying open on the floor around her are history books and newspapers emblazoned with stories of the white man’s violence and oppression. She sits cross-legged amidst them painting her skin brown. I never had the opportunity to make this painting a visual reality but it is still present in my mind.

As this image reflects, ultimately the question I’m wrestling with is one of identity.

Maybe as a woman I should feel more distance from the guilt of white men. But I’m as entangled and invested in the white man’s world as I am in the margins where so many women find themselves. Studying philosophy during my undergrad and in grad school my intellectual peers and mentors were primarily been men. I’m as at home among them as I am women. Both academically and relationally, I tend to straddle the gap between our male and female worlds.

Hunting for Dürrenmatt’s quote this morning, I rediscovered an unfinished reflection paper from grad school on the film “La Haine” (or Hate) and some essays by British cultural theorist and sociologist Stuart Hall. Opening the paper is a quote from Hall, who grew up in Jamaica in a family of Indian and British decent. He states, “If there is to be a serious attempt to understand present-day Britain with its mix of races and colors, its hysteria and despair, then writing about it has to be complex. It can’t apologize or idealize. It can’t be sentimental. It can’t attempt to represent any one group as having the total exclusive monopoly on virtue” (“Old and New Identities”, 60). Within a French context, Mathieu Kassovitz accomplishes this in “La Haine.”

Rich with complexity, containing both hysteria and despair, neither sentimental nor apologetic, “La Haine” is a story of guilt and identity told from the margins that gives us a sense of the complexity of our reality. The film follows three friends, Hubert (French African), Said (Arab) and Vinz (Jewish), living in the projects outside of Paris. It is the last day for two of them. Their story begins the night after a riot.

One of their friends is in the hospital as a result of police brutality and the ghetto is buzzing with the news that a cop lost his gun during the night. Hubert’s gym, which they tell us he has worked so hard to get, has been ruined by the riot. It would be easy to place all the guilt on the shoulders of the police and the privileged but the film does not allow you to.

In one memorable scene, the three young men go to visit their friend WalMart. Said asks WalMart for the money he owes him.  He responds, “I don’t have it. Don’t you know what happened?” He points out the window to his charcoaled car. It was not destroyed by police; it was torched by a guy from their neighborhood. While Hubert, Vinz and Said all make light of it, WalMart keeps repeating, “It’s all I had.” They remain unmoved when he asks, more to himself then them, “How will I get to work now?”

A few scenes later a cop is the one who steps in to defend Vinz and Hubert. He bails Said out of jail after he’d caused a scene in the hospital. He also offers to help Hubert get a City Grant for a new gym, around the same time that we learn Vinz may have helped destroy.

At the end of the film, Vinz picks a fight with a young cop as foolish and cocky as himself. The cop ends up accidentally killing him. The cop’s immediate loss of bravado and slumping body language give away his shame and regret. The scene ends with him quivering as he and Hubert hold guns to each other’s heads.

Echoing in the background could be Dürrenmatt’s words:  “It is always, ‘We couldn’t help it’ and ‘We didn’t really want that to happen.’ And indeed, things happen without anyone in particular being responsible for them. Everything is dragged along and everyone gets caught somewhere in the sweep of events. We are all collectively guilty…”

We are all collectively guilty. This is what I often think when drawn into our gender wars. I have been able to balance friendships with outspoken feminists and men who have become men’s rights activities because I see the oppression and violence on both sides and am aware of the less acknowledged oppression and violence that goes on within genders. We all are apart of systems which degrade the other’s dignity and objectify the other. The same is true about the complexity of oppression and violence within and between races and social classes.

What “La Haine” illustrates is that we are all in need of forgiveness for our skin and for the scars that we’re collectively and individually responsible for giving the Other. It illustrates that we are all equally human. This also means that we are equally wrapped up in the possibility for each other’s thriving. This is so much more important than these stains on our skins.

The film began with Hubert narrating, “Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? He keeps saying to himself: ‘So far so good. So far so good. So far so good.’” At the end he continues this narration and finishes the story: “It’s about society falling. On the way down it keeps telling itself, ‘So far so good. So far so good. So far so good.’ How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land.”

I always think about how the guy falling is deluding himself. That he’d be better served by facing the facts and figuring out how to respond. By taking responsibility for his situation and actually reacting to it. The same applies to us, to society. That is the only possibility for us to determine how we land. To determine who we are.

While I cannot wash these stains off my skin, I have chosen not to let the guilt of my father and forefathers (nor mother and grandmothers) become my own. Even as this collective burden humbles me and informs my choices and thinking, it does not entirely determine my identity. I need not have to paint my skin brown to be able to take pride in who I am. Just as Frantz Fanon, in his beautiful book Black Skin, White Mask, concluded that the black man need not wear a white mask to take pride in himself.

Feminism & Sex: A Gift That Comes with a Price

I think I’ve shared with you that I’m really into interviews. Not your standard, straight forward interviews but the ones that feel more like a genuine conversation that you’re getting the chance to be privy to. Like Garance’s interview with Amanda de Cadenet that came out today or Cameron Crowe’s interview with Emma Stone in the current issue of Interview. Surely my love of these has a lot to do with the joy I take in conversation.

Not all too long ago, a friend of mine suggested that I participate in a book project about Christian women and sexuality. She said that the writer was looking for women to interview. I volunteered readily, imagining that I’d get a chance to have this type of experience. Instead, I just got a list of standardized questions to answer in my own time.

I don’t know about anyone else but the mechanics of my mind refuse to respond to that style of questioning. Every time I read through her questionnaire the gears in my brain grind to a halt. Nearly a month later, I’ve yet to compose a response.

The idea has stuck in my mind though.

Listening to the chorus of Florence + the Machine’s “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” ended up sparking an imagined interview on this subject. At the risk of making you think I’m a little crazy, or have a split personality, I’ve decided to share this imagined dialogue between Dianne and myself with you. Considering that I don’t personally know Dianne, her side of this interview is a little flat but I’m hoping that all of you can add to this dialogue.

Dianne: You talk a lot about missing New York City. Are there things that you don’t miss?

Lindsey: Sure. There a lots of little things. I didn’t miss the oppressive heat this summer, that’s for sure. I don’t miss how easily you can breeze through money just due to expenses (though I must admit that I consider eating out with friends an “expense”) or the discomforted of being creeped on by men on a regular basis. But these are all petty things. There are also certain aspects of the culture that I don’t miss, like the city’s attitude towards sex.

Dianne: What do you mean by that?

Lindsey: When I’m in Christian company, I like to make this joke that the difference between Christians in the midwest and Christians on the east coast is that Christians in the midwest at least feel bad about having sex before marriage. Out on the east coast, sex is a right. Even when Christian men tell a woman they start dating that they’re saving sex until marriage, it’s often a deal breaker. It seems like most relationships in NYC are initiated by sex and it still isn’t a guarantee you’ll actually get a second date. Even to non-Christians out here that’s kind of mystifying.

I found it pretty disconcerting.

Not only as a Christian but, as a woman…okay, as a feminist (though I like to refuse that title), I find this casual view of sex problematic and troublesome.

Dianne: It seems counterintuitive to me for you to say that you have an objection to this as a feminist. Isn’t feminism about respecting our right to take ownership of our bodies? To free ourselves from the prescribed notion that we must be pure, angelic…?

Lindsey: That’s one definition of feminism. Or one way of framing this, and it’s never struck me as the best way. I find it both problematic and self-defeating.

I take feminism to be about asserting our full humanity (something women have very much been deigned in white, western culture), and participating in the conversation about what that means to be fully human. As well, as freeing ourselves from stereotypes so that we can better define what it means to be a human woman.

The problem with that other framing is that, instead of creating a positive (as in creative and constructive) definition of what it means to be a human woman, we are defining ourselves simply in opposition to how we’ve been defined: “We don’t like that you think we’re pure so we’ll prove you wrong by being dirty.” Beyond how juvenile this response comes off as, reactive definitions are always faulty because ultimately the other person is still determining the definition.

Along with this, feminism in this vein is assuming the white men in the West have already properly defined what it means to be human. We, women, simply need to weasel our way into that definition. As a student of people and of philosophy, I think that the West still has a lot of work to do on its definition of what it means to be human and I think we have a valuable role to play in that work.

How our culture treats sex is one area I definitely think women should have a big role in shaping.

Dianne: How so?

There is a strand of feminism, that feels popular in NYC, that tells women they should have sex like men or however we “like,” that’s absent of the assertion the validity and value of our unique experience of sex. Here I’m thinking about some of Camille Paglia’s work in Sexual Personae. She touches on how our physical experience of sex, the fact that something is coming into us, affects us. She postulates that this is why women struggle to have sex as casually as men because, physically, it’s a more intimate act for us. We also are the ones who bear the physical consequence, because we are the ones who create new life. So, sex by result has more gravity for us. Her purpose for these points is different than my own but her perspective is very perceptive.

To me, the truly feminist act would be to argue that our experience of sex (how attached we get to those we have sex with, how seriously we take it, our ability to create life) is not weak or old fashioned but essentially valuable. I’d love for more feminists to loudly make the case that men have as much to learn about the true nature of sex from us as we do from them. Our “choice” should not be that we have to pretend that we are men, that we can “have sex like men” and that we must cut ourselves off from the consequence of our act so that we can feel and be empowered.

Dianne: That is an interesting perspective. I think that I am going to need to digest it more before I make a response. I’d like to go back to your experience of sex in the city.

Lindsey: More accurately, it would be my experience of being chaste in the city.

Dianne: If you weren’t having sex in the city, why did their casual view of sex bother you?

Lindsey: These ideals that we hold play themselves out in culture and create a certain environment. Since that’s a city that sings of casual sex, it creates a dating scene that feels very much like a high school-ish competition. If you are the most beautiful, driven woman who also happens to be an excellent lover who doesn’t fall in love too easily maybe you’ll win. I couldn’t buy into that. I won’t compete in a contest that I don’t believe in.

Even if you aren’t buying into it, that wears on you. I had some friends imply that being a virgin was a problem, that needed fixing. Getting that “fixed” in the city would have be easy but at what cost?

Lately I’ve been really into Florence + the Machine’s line “This is a gift, it comes with a price.” I think that this is true of all forms of intimacy from emotional intimacy to physical intimacy. I was very turned off by being in a culture that told me that intimacy is a right someone should expect from me, instead of a gift that they should work to be worthy of.

Dianne: Throughout all of this you have been very careful not to bring your faith into your stance on sex. Doesn’t your professed faith as a Christian play a big role on your opinions on sex and dating?

Lindsey: The quick answer for you would be yes and no.

I’ve been very careful about not bringing my faith into this conversation because I feel like whenever Christians talk about the broader culture they have this tendency to impose all of their ethics on everyone else. I don’t expect people who aren’t Christians to practice or believe in the same things as me. But, I think it is easy to make a case that we should respect sex (and as a result ourselves) more, without having to rely on Biblical passages or any religious narrative. As a person and not just a Christian, I think it’s an important case to be made. I have non-Christian friends who share many of the views that I’ve articulated today (minus my commitment to chastity).

When it comes to my personal commitment to be chaste (until marriage), that is directly influenced by my faith. I think that would lead us into a very different, more personal conversation than the one we have had. Most of what I’ve shared with you has grown out of my understanding and observations of people and culture.

Dianne: I would be interested in hearing more about what chastity means to you but, for tonight, we should wrap up. Thank you for being willing and open to share these thoughts with us.

Lindsey: Thank you for allowing me to be a voice in this conversation about women and sex.

A Treatise on Realism: Waiting for a Renaissance of Vision

 

Today, while doing my routine facebook stalking, I discovered a new literary magazine through a friend’s profile. Being utterly snoopy and ever interested in discovering new literary adventures, I couldn’t help but head over to their website. I was a little disappointed by what I found.

When it comes to sites like this, my first stop is always the About section. I see these sections as minor manifestos and I love manifestos. Though I’ll grant that I can have a high standard for these pages, I was willing to let them off for lack of polish by compensating with vision. The editors’ highest aim and desire, despite claiming to be something out of the ordinary, is simply compelling realism.

Realism? Really? I’ll admit that a good realist fiction can be a gem. I’m still referencing Gilead, still convincing others to read it. But I don’t know why this genre has become the standard for fiction. It’s hard not to find it laughable for a magazine to think their unique by making it their purpose when it has become the definition of “literary” (with only a few exceptions) and is the snootiest of all literary genres, and most overrated, in my view.

One of the staff member’s, in describing what he’s looking for, articulated what seems, to me, to be the standard for fiction in all but “genre” literary magazines:

“I’m a huge fan of the common man (or woman) in literature. Authors looking to impress me should submit stories that deal with the trials and tribulations of everyday people. Prose should be polished and sharp. I do not enjoy excessive adjectives or dialogue tags, or too much wasted time mulling about in description.”

When someone says they want to read stories of the “common man” I can’t help but think “the boring man.” The man who, as Thoreau says, lives his days in quiet desperation. Let’s be honest, there are lots of realist pieces about this man, and that woman. Indie films are also saturated with these people, who are usually given quirks and eccentricities in an attempt to make their utter averageness bearable and “artistic.”

Am I alone in being beyond tired of average and common and the normality of dysfunction (no matter how dressed up it is in eccentricity or striped down into vulgarity) being touted as art? Who thinks we have enough stories of the trials and tribulations of ‘everyday people ’? Is there no one else like me who is more interested in stories of great men and remarkable women? (Or do we only look for those now when reading the memoires of old giants?) Aren’t there more people interested in writers that are able to meld a sense of the grand and heroic into our lives? Or who want to be shocked out of the ordinary with the extraordinary?

This obsession with the “real” has shrunk creativity and produced self-conscious writers so obsessed with writing something “profound” and “unique” with the substance of their lives that they lose sight of the beautiful and the true. They’re so consumed with being “meaningful,” they fixate on the meaningless. They produce pieces that are stale and contrived and utterly self-conscious. That completely fail to entertain even in the best sense of the word.

I want to prescribe for all of these writers and their advocates Michael Chabon’s essay “Tricksters in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story.” I want them to re-read these words until they sink in:

“I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other more impressive motivations and explanations…I could adduce Kafka’s formula: ‘A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.’… But in the end—here’s my point—it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. Because when the axe bites the ice, you feel an answering throb of delight all the way from your hands to your shoulders, and the blade tolls like a bell for miles.”

All good art is pleasurable. The pieta may be painful to look on but it’s also pleasing. All great stories and good pieces of literature should entertain us, in the highest sense. This is where so much of realism fails. It is dull and lifeless. While it repulses me that fan fiction is being published and “Teen Paranormal Romance” has become a “genre,” I hold these writers and advocates of pathetic and depressing realism responsible for the degeneration. When what is classified as “art” has become so junky, what is classified as junk can only become much junkier.

I included the editor’s comments on the style he is looking for because it’s another fault of realism that creativity and style are so constricted and prescribed. While I’ll admit that I like polished, sharp prose, there’s also beauty in the meandering. While my personal style when writing and telling stories is to skip over a lot of visual descriptions (thus why a friend of mine imagined that Nichelle was a short, stocky but voluptuous African American instead of the Amazonia Caucasian she is and that Logan was over 6 foot instead of 5’5”), there are writers who can use visuals as powerfully and purposefully as dialogue. The only time that descriptions are wasted is when they are poor or pointless, and it shouldn’t be your assumption that they would be. To stipulate that your writers shouldn’t use dialogue tags and excessive adjectives is a complete imposition of one’s personal preferences that may or may not fit a writer’s work.

Far be it for me to completely condemn an artistic endeavor, but I’m as impatiently waiting a renaissance as Ferlinghetti, but what I’m waiting for is a renaissance of vision. I’m waiting for a literary magazine with true vision, that will make genius and the genuine their standard, no matter what genre or style it comes in.