The Journal of S. Roberts J.

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The problem with my old journals is… well, me.

As I explain over at Legacy Leather Books today, my younger self was on a mission to make my mundane life as interesting as possible. I also read a lot of Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse. The result is this weird mix of rural Southern life and strained British wit. But hey. It’s not boring!

More seriously, not all of the memories I wrote down are pleasant for me to revisit. Those were my “Fellowship” days, when even my private thoughts had to conform to what I thought were God’s standards. I can see it at work in how I wrote spiritual phrases that I didn’t really say naturally; or how I was careful not to mention any “young man” in a way that suggested I thought he was attractive; or how I emphasized the many positives of my life, but didn’t explore the struggles and conflicts that I was going through.

Many of you who read my blog will understand this kind of internally-imposed control, which is why I mention it here. I didn’t get into all that over at Legacy. Over there, you can just laugh at my overly bright and sparkling prose.

Then linger to look at the handmade, family-heirloom-quality leather notebooks

I love these books. My first thought is that nothing I write is actually worthy of a book like this. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that anytime I write down my thoughts and memories, I’m preserving something priceless. Memories that don’t fade — those belong in a book that will last almost forever.

And besides, just look at this book. Or this one. Or this one. 

Oh. Are you still here? Sorry, I was browsing and dreaming.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy a few laughs at my 20-year-old pretentious self, and find a cut-above gift for a loved one… or, you know, for yourself.

Sabbath Restlessness

I occasionally see a meme that thinks it’s solved my church problem for me. It informs me that if I stopped going to church because someone hurt me, then it’s obvious I was focused on people instead of Jesus. In short, if I find church a hard place to be, it’s my own fault.

Do I need to say that I hate that meme? No? Good.

It’s difficult for me to attend church. Even when I don’t fall prey to a panic attack, I find the whole process exhausting. When my choice is to go to a coffee shop and be refreshed, or go to church and be tired… well, the choice kind of makes itself, doesn’t it?

But I try. After all, we’re part of a healthy and safe church now. Nobody reminds me that I have to stay under authority. Nobody is twisting up Scriptures. Nobody watches my kids and judges my parenting. I know it’s a good place.

But it’s hard to feel that.

Recently I attended a service. I even took along colored pens and a journal with faux-reclaimed paper that my daughter got me for my birthday. I listen best when I can doodle, something I no longer apologize for.

Halfway through the sermon, I’d filled up two pages like this:

Untitled design

When I start journalling like that, it means I’m desperately trying to outrun panic. And I didn’t make it this time. I left long before church was done.

When I looked at the pages later, I was struck at how it captures the frenzy of my thoughts in church. Not only am I reliving and grieving past hurts, but I’m also evaluating every word of the sermon to make sure it’s “okay.” My radar, so long suppressed, is on high alert at all times.

No wonder I get tired.

My husband is very understanding, but a lot of people aren’t. A lot of people look at spiritual abuse survivors and criticize them for not getting involved in a church. Well, here you go — handy-dandy photographic evidence of what a service looks like to someone who has been hurt by people in the church. 

I don’t skip church on Sundays because I’m spiritually apathetic. I avoid it because I’m on spiritual hyperdrive. And I long for the day that a church sanctuary is as safe and restful a place for me as a shabby-chic hipster coffee shop.

Fractured for Clarity: “Biblical” Marriage

God’s word clearly lays out, with clear clarity, how he designed marriage to look. Here’s one verse in Proverbs that clearly with clarity illustrates this design:

“My son, keep thy father’s commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother.”

What, you don’t see it clearly? Well, it’s a good thing there are teachers like Bill Gothard and others of his ilk. They know how to “unpack” verses like this.

The chart below — oh my gosh, did teachers of an earlier era love charts — explains how a Godly household operates. This whole idea comes from a long history of male power and female subservience, but especially the Victorian ideal  straight from God via the book of Proverbs. See how the chart uses words straight from the verse? And how it illuminates the hierarchy laid out in the verse? I mean, it’s obviously a hierarchy. Definitely not a parallel. Even though Hebrew poetry was all about parallels. Look, if you’d just read the verse, look at the chart, and compare both to the way men like Gothard wanted the world to operate, then you’ll see that it’s all right there in God’s word.

Command Law Chart

Remember how everything must conform to the principle of authority. Obviously, as the authority of a family, the father is to come up with the “big picture” and the results he wants for his family. (This brand of Christianity is all about getting good results.) The mother, who is more “detail oriented,” accomplishes the will of her husband God well, actually, they’re kind of interchangeable.

Do I have to point out the problems with this model of marriage? Here are a few.

1.In our own marriage (which looks nothing like this chart), DJ once told me that he didn’t know when I was struggling because I got everything done so well. We saw that as a problem. This chart, though, practically prescribes that mindset.

2.Everything in the “Mother’s Law” column is death to my soul. I do a lot of it because I’m the stay-at-home parent, and it has to be done. But organization, scheduling, and management are not my giftings. (You have to make phone calls for some of this stuff!) I’d never apply for a job as an administrative assistant, and I didn’t get married to be one, either.

3.That second column is my husband’s utopia in chart form. He’s done all of these things with our children, including buying a pack of note cards and sitting them down to write thank-you notes. Does that make me a bad wife? Does it — horrors — make him “feminine” because he’s good at details?

4.This chart lays out in easy-reference form an idea that’s very prevalent in homeschooling circles even now. My husband has bucked the system and is as involved in the homeschooling as I am. It’s very hard for him to find other homeschool dads who have more than a passing knowledge or, indeed, interest in their children’s education. Teachings like the one above feed that disconnect.

4.This chart omits a concept that has done wonders for our marriage: If it’s important to you, you are the one who does it. Obviously if it’s important to DJ, then I help out — I’m the one who addressed, stamped, and mailed those thank-you cards. But if something is important enough to you that you want it done, then you take charge of getting it done.

This model is, of course, too artificial to work in real life. No real couple can conform to these columns, because marriage is all about compromise, communication, and shifting responsibilities. But since it’s based on God’s word, then at least a real couple can feel guilty for not living up to the standard.

And by “based on God’s word,” I mean, how teachers like Gothard violently fracture verses so there’s room fit in their own particular philosophy, and then patch it up in a decomposing zombie version of what it originally was.

That sounds a little strong, but I’m not going to apologize. Charts like this (this one being only one of many iterations of God’s Ideal Marriage) made me dread marriage, and did no favors for my early relationship with my husband. Even worse, though, this consistent abuse of Scripture left me with a distaste for the Bible, and especially Proverbs.

And God speaks to misusing his name for your own ends.

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. Exodus 20:7

Clearly, with clarity, no fracturing required.

Picking Over the Bones

Tasty meat bone

Discussing a First 5 devotional by Wendy Pope.

I wouldn’t be so bad at Bible studies if they weren’t so irritating.

Granted, I am irritating too. That’s why I’ve steadfastly declined any invitations to Bible studies for the last several years.

But someone shared this “devotional” in a group I’m part of, and in a moment of weakness, I clicked through.

And what do you know — it’s from Irritating Bible Studies for Women, vol. 3!

It’s actually one of a series of devotions called “First 5,” which feature the writings of Lysa Terkeurst and (according to this one) Wendy Pope. I really know nothing about them except reading short posts like this one.

You can click on the link above to see the entire post. I’ll discuss excerpts. Irritably.

Today’s Bible Reading: Job 15
“The “friendly” dialogue between Job and his companions enters round two. Eliphaz is quick to continue his criticism and his retort is quite intense. … Job is suffering; therefore, he must be wicked.

If this is the warm and fuzzy encouragement that comes from a friend, I would hate to meet an enemy of Job’s. But, there is some wisdom sprinkled in.  If we read closely, we can find some ways to help us stay right with God. [emphasis mine]

Okay! Let’s come to a screeching halt right here!

This method of “Bible study” teaches us that we must pull out some kind of personal application from every passage. It ignores the narrative arc of the story, ignores the themes, and even the soaring poetry. It’s a mechanical process that separates ideas from their context, leaving a spiritual nutritional value about equivalent to a pile of picked-over chicken wings.

“Eat the meat and spit out the bones” is glib advice given to those of us who call out bad teachings. It means to reject the bad but keep the good. And you know what? That’s a good way to starve.

Quick recap: The book of Job tells the story of a very righteous man who was devoted to God. “Oh, sure,” says Satan, “that’s because he’s rich, he has children, he’s in good health. Take all that away and see how devoted he is!” So, the story goes, God allows Satan to rip away everything from Job except his life — and even that was miserable because of the boils that broke out all over his body.

As he lay suffering, three of his friends come to sit with him. They all indulge in long-winded monologues that always come to the conclusion that Job must have done something wicked to deserve these calamities, because God rewards good people. Job maintains his innocence, although he does rail against God for the unfairness of everything. In the end, God rebukes the three “comforters” for their faulty understanding of the God of the Universe, and commends Job. Doing “righteous things” doesn’t always mean you actually know who God is.

What this devotional author, Wendy Pope, does is take a bone-filled speech from one of the “comforters” and pick out the little bits of meat. Now, I’m not really arguing with a lot of her points here. Yes it’s good to be wise, to seek God, to listen to the older generations. But to take this story and turn it into a lesson on how to do the right things so we don’t lose God… 

Seeking wisdom from God builds our relationship with Him.

Fearing God keeps our relationship with Him spiritually healthy.

Prayer and a daily commitment to the study of God’s Word are key components to maintaining a right relationship with God.

In the end, our desire is to become more like God, and wisdom from those older than us can be of great benefit.

Hang on, choking on some bones right now.

Starting from a faulty foundation lends itself to bad advice. After all, this “wisdom” comes from someone who doesn’t, in fact, understand Job or God. So Pope has to conclude,

Lord, I want to be a friend who speaks truth in love but I also want to be a friend who receives truth whether it is spoken brashly, rudely or with refinement. My desire is to become more like You no matter what the cost. I long to be completely devoted and always revere You. In Jesus’ name, amen.”

No.

I reserve the right to reject “wisdom” from someone who lacks compassion, or whose intent is to hurt or control. “He’s says good things, even if his way of saying it is abrasive.” That’s not to say that I dismiss everything a person says; but when it comes to seeking out wisdom for my own life, I will find it from people who are safe and who care about lifting burdens, not adding to the ones already on my heart.

My recommendation is to skip the devotional and read Job. Find a pastor or seminarian… or heck, even a poet… who understands structure and story. If all you get is mechanically-processed Bible verses with no sense of their context, you’re left with the idea that you have to do a lot of things — including allowing people to hurt you — because you want to keep God on your side.

Job’s comforters would be thrilled with this a pile of mostly-meatless bones.

And I find that irritating.

A Bride By the Book

You are married now.

You have just taken the name of the most wonderful man in the world and are happier than you have ever thought possible.

You are sure of many things about your marriage. It isn’t going to turn sour and commonplace. The years will be vibrant and alive, exciting adventures of love. Christ is going to have first place in your home. The spiritual roots will be deep and strong. you are going to keep your home what it ought to be by being a sweet, agreeable, efficient wife and homemaker.

So begins The Bride’s Book of Ideas: A Guide to Christian Homemaking by Marjorie Palmer and Ethel Bowman.

The whole reason I have the book is because of a Facebook photo that makes the rounds occasionally. It purports to be advice to a 1950s housewife, and is incredibly blatant about the fact that the wife’s entire purpose is to make her husband’s life comfortable and stress-free. That was the job of a good wife, definitely; but I wonder if it was ever really stated so baldly. Someone said that the advice was from a Better Homes and Gardens bride’s book, so I went looking for it. Couldn’t find that book, but I did find The Bride’s Book of Ideas and ordered that one instead.

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Then I found out that I’d gotten the 1985 version. I developed a burning need to read the 1970 version — so I got that one, too.

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I was looking forward to comparing the two volumes and soundly mocking all of the advice therein. The updated version has a much-improved layout and design, with a few wording changes here and there; but the substance is the same as the earlier one. The first part contains advice to new brides on such practical matters as choosing insurance, finding a family doctor, first aid, kitchen essentials, how to set a table to entertain guests. The rest of it consists of easy recipes to get a new wife started in the kitchen.

So it’s with some disappointment that I report that, by and large, The Bride’s Book of Ideas is fairly tame and actually kind of useful.

But it is of its time, and I can poke a little fun at that.

(Note: I’ll refer to both volumes as one book unless I’m quoting from a specific edition.)

Marriage Advice
Naturally, the book has some space devoted to motherly wisdom, The Precepts of a Happy Home. Most of the points under this heading are unobjectionable:

Be content with what you have (1970 warns against buying too much on “the installment plan.” 1985 cautions against credit card debt.)

Treat your husband with courtesy and respect and expect the same from him. Despite this even-handed heading, the actual advice is aimed only at the wife, reminding her not to take advantage of her husband’s love by giving way to anger and frustration, and to practice the Golden Rule. Obviously it’s a bride’s book, so it’s talking to her; and I don’t disagree with the advice at all. But this is an example of the kind of wifely advice that persists even today in Christian circles, directed only at the wife with no discussion of her husband’s behavior toward her.

Don’t let disagreements and differences go unresolved. This is probably the area where my husband and I have had to do the most work. We don’t fight, therefore we don’t face conflict, therefore we don’t resolve problems.

(The book concerns itself quite a lot with keeping home like “sweet and harmonious,” which sounds great. But sometimes “harmonious” really means “not facing conflict.” Trust me on this.)

The two points that irked me were ones that I heard as a bride myself, but haven’t found to hold entirely true.

Give the Lord his rightful place in your marriage. “If you want God’s help in making your marriage successful, you must give your lives completely to him.” The authors warn against a new couple being so caught up with each other that they let church attendance become sporadic, and daily Bible reading and prayer turn meaningless and indifferent.

No argument that this can happen to a new couple — but because they’re too in love with each other to let God in? Seriously? What a way to instill insecurity in a new wife, by telling her not to love her husband too much or God won’t bless her marriage.

And, of course — Remember that your husband is the head of the home. The two editions have an interesting little wording change:

1970: Some brides resent a subordinate role and are determined not to allow this antiquated precept to have any place in their lives.

1985: Some brides resent what they view as a subordinate role and are determined not to allow this “antiquated” precept to have any place in their lives.

Note the 1985 version implies that it’s really just the woman’s perception of subordinate role. By the time I was hearing marriage advice as a teen in the 90s, teachers fell all over themselves to explain how it’s not really a subordinate role at all! It’s a blessing! It’s an honor! I kind of prefer the straightforward 1970s version.

Both versions put these upstart brides in their place by adding, “But God charges the husband with the responsibility for making major decisions and being the spiritual leader of the home.” I can see some basis for the “spiritual leader” argument, but where exactly does God state, “And husbands are to make all the major decisions, because I won’t bless a marriage where the wife has an equal say.” Hint: he doesn’t.

So, anyway, if you “practice these precepts,” your marriage “will be happy and will bring honor and glory to God.”

Housecleaning
They cheerfully advise the new wife to do some special cleaning in addition to her regular cleaning — and remind her not to neglect the out-of-the-way areas because she’s building good habits for the rest of her life.

“If you have a job, as so many of today’s brides do…”

Then your husband should pitch in and help? Ha ha! Nope..

“…the [housework] must be condensed into after-work hours.”

My friend Karen pointed out that it’s actually very nice when a couple can split the earning duties and life duties between them. But I thought it was interesting how these authors never stopped to re-evaluate a woman’s responsibilities in the case of an outside job. The house is the woman’s responsibility, the end and amen.

Cooking for Husband
This is a different heading than just “cooking” because the book makes it very clear that a “sweet, agreeable, efficient wife and homemaker” will feed her husband well.

And let me say that in nearly 17 years of marriage, the fact that I feed my husband well has contributed strongly to our happiness.

But this book gives menus not just for suppers… but for breakfast and lunch, too. Like, complete menus that include a beverage and dessert. I laughed out loud when I saw the breakfast menus. DJ and I agree that we don’t think I have ever cooked him breakfast. If he worked close enough to come home for lunch, I’d have something for him — but to be honest, I’m pretty glad I don’t have to worry about it.

The authors acknowledge that in this day and age, the wife might herself work outside the home as well. So they provided the menus so…

… So she and her husband could take turns doing the cooking?

Ha ha! Nope.

… so the good wife can get these meals cooked and on the table. After all, the book admonishes, “You may not be able to prepare a large meal every night, but it is wise to do so as often as possible.”

Wise to do so. They don’t say it, but everybody knows a hungry husband might go astray or something.

Entertaining
I found this section interesting mostly because of the obvious change in social rituals. There’s a discussion of the proper places to seat guests at the table. I’m not sure DJ and I ever worried about where we placed guests. In fact, we’ve always preferred to eat in the living room because it’s more comfortable.

There was also some helpful advice about what to keep on hand “in case of unexpected guests.” I discussed this with DJ, and we agreed that we have no idea why this is a big deal. Did people really just drop in unannounced, stay till suppertime, and expect to be fed? Plus think badly of the housewife who didn’t have enough food on hand to feed them? Judging from the book, this was a real source of anxiety to some women. The authors suggest keeping some staples on hand for quick meals, namely:

Instant mashed potatoes
Small box of dried milk
Tin or two of canned meat, ham, Vienna sausages, or tuna
Can of baked beans
Box or two of fancy crackers
Cake mix
Canned pie filling to top the cake
Can of fruit cocktail (You can leave this in the freezer for weeks; remove both ends of can, slide out fruit, slice thick or thin, put on salad plate, top with a dab of mayonnaise, and NO GUEST WILL EVER WANT TO SHOW UP AT YOUR HOUSE UNEXPECTEDLY AGAIN. Ahem. I added the last part.)

Cooking
Most of the book is devoted to recipes for everyday meals. And it’s very useful in that respect — assuming you crave mid-century Midwestern American food.

Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, grilled cheese, canned tomato soup, fried halibut, buttered frozen peas, orange-cream jello salad, macaroni-tuna salad, hamburgers, ham sandwiches, broiled franks wrapped in bacon, tossed salad, celery and lettuce wedges, baked green bean casserole…

This book is not one of culinary adventuring. The one section devoted to “Foreign Dishes” (1970) or “International Dishes (1985) lists five recipes, one of which is “Italian Spaghetti” and another of which is “Vera’s Chow Mein.”

I can laugh at the food, but this book was written by women who had grown up in the Depression and married sometime around World War II. Good, solid, easy-to-store food was what they prized. My grandmother cooked this way, my mother somewhat, and I still do a little.

Still… a snack of chocolate-covered Wheaties is kind of sad. And I’m not really tempted by “frank boats,” which appear to be hot dogs filled with American cheese and topped with a sauce of pickle relish, “catsup,” Worcestershire sauce, and dry mustard. Is there a more of-its-time recipe than Chicken a la King, a casserole consisting of chopped chicken and cream of mushroom soup?

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that Marjorie and Ethel would get a real kick out of today’s recipes that take nine ingredients to create a dish that isn’t even actually what the title says it is.

The Bride’s Book of Ideas is dated and, in these days of Googling whatever information we need, obsolete. Still, I’m glad I have both volumes. They take me back to the world of a bride whose priorities were a vibrant spiritual life, a happy husband, a clean house, and friends over for good food. And what do you know — that’s really very  much the same life I want.

“Using [this book] should help make you a gracious hostess and a better, more efficient wife.”

So there you go.

Untwisting Scripture: A book for you

Yield your rights.

Don’t become bitter.

Don’t take up an offense on behalf of someone else.

If these phrases kicked you in the gut… do I have a book for you!

If, however, you nodded along, knowing they are true Biblical principles… well, then, I definitely have a book for you.

Untwisting Scriptures by Rebecca Davis takes a few “Christian” teachings that have been used to confuse and silence abuse victims for many years, and shows how they’re not even valid Biblical concepts. The book grew out of blog posts that Davis wrote as she learned more about people — mostly women — held captive by abusive theology.

Her tone is quiet and straightforward; she doesn’t indulge in snark or personal attacks. She doesn’t have to. All she has to do contrast actual Biblical context with actual teachings, such as this quote from the once-vaunted Bill Gothard from his 1984 Basic Seminar:

“Just because you are alive, you probably believe you have the right to be accepted as an individual, to express opinions, to earn and spend a living, to control your personal belongings, and to make decisions. You expect others to respect your rights.”

Spoiler: Gothard and the others quoted in this book don’t think you have a valid argument. Also spoiler: many of the people who teach these things either protect abusers, or are abusers themselves. Not a coincidence.

In this small book, Davis untwists a lot of strands. From the difference between human rights and human desires (looking at you, Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth) to the fact that the Western church doesn’t know how to deal with grief and therefore labels it “sinful,” to the fact that we are supposed to take up the causes of the weak and abused and oppressed—there’s a lot to take in.

(And it’s not her fault that the chart on Page 59 made me want to fling the book away from myself in self-defense. I saw so many charts and graphs in my Bill Gothard days that they just look menacing to me, like the king snake that’s colored like a coral snake.)

Davis made one layout decision, based on early feedback, that vastly improves the reading experience. She set off the false teachings in gray boxes. It’s easy to identify the quotes she’s disproving… or, as she suggests, easy to skip over them entirely if you just don’t want to read the words. Even I, years away from that bondage, still felt the weight as I skimmed those twisty teachings.

I will say that this book targets a specific subculture. Those of us who sat under the teachings of Gothard, Bob Jones University, Nancy (Leigh) DeMoss Wolgemuth, and their ilk will recognize the phrases and terminology. Those outside of this small circle won’t find them as immediately recognizable. But these ideas permeate American evangelicalism. It’s a good bet you’ve encountered the teachings even if you don’t know the names and the terms.

Untwisting Scriptures came out in 2016, not even a year after I released The Fellowship. I mention the timeline because that’s why I didn’t pursue the book when I first encountered it. I was weary after years of struggling through twisted Scriptures. I thought, “So glad somebody is addressing these problems. I’ve already dealt with them. Time to move on.”

When Davis and I connected this summer over our books, I had “moved on” enough to come back to these concepts with renewed passion. So many others are still hurt and grieving. They need to hear a voice that untwists the bonds and gives freedom.

Rebecca Davis’ book is a voice like that. Check it out.

Realistic, Funny, Not Quite Perfect: A Review of “The Fellowship”

Rebecca Davis of Here’s The Joy reviewed The Fellowship. She thought it was engaging from the first page, funny, and realistic. And she found the ending satisfying… “in a way.”

But not entirely.

She definitely has a point. My novel does not explore a renewed relationship with Jesus. I made that a deliberate decision, mostly because I wanted to emphasize the fact that Bekah’s issues with God the Father were not because she wasn’t a “real Christian” who “didn’t know Jesus.” Also, her journey from the end of the last chapter to the beginning of the Epilogue could fill up another novel. I know this — my original Epilogues were longer than some of my chapters.

Still, after reading most of Davis’ blog, I see that missing element more clearly now. If I were writing the book now, I’d still make the same decision; but I’d bring out Bekah’s existing relationship with Jesus much more clearly.

I especially like how, in her review, Davis pairs my novel with a book that Bekah definitely could benefit from. It appeals to my sense of story arc, I guess.

Jump on over and read the whole review. Then stick around and read more of Davis’ excellent blog. She addresses twisted Scripture and how the church tends to protect abusers instead of their victims. My favorite category is “challenging the status quo,” where she takes apart not-actually-Biblical statements like “anger is sinful” and “Christians should yield their rights.”

And she actually wrote exactly the kind of book that Bekah (and the Bekah inside myself) needed when coming out of spiritual bondage: Untwisting Scripture. I’ll be posting my own review soon.

Have you read The Fellowship yet? You really should. It gets you absolutely no extra holiness points with God, but it will help you understand either your own past of spiritual abuse, or why someone you love is struggling. Click the link to get to Amazon, or contact me directly.