Back to Hackney’s: The Sequel

I really did write a sequel to Hackey’s Novel Shop. There was more that had to be said. You can’t stop Art and Thinking and all that sort of thing, you know.

Back to Hackney’s

Clouds loomed and the wind lashed against the glass front doors of the Novel Shop (B. Hackney, proprietor). Someone scurried in from the wet and cold, jangling the bell above the door. It was the recently-celebrated author Faith Tritely, whose book A Heart’s Cry had made a big hit in the Christian fiction market. “And I owe it all to Hackney!” Faith would say fondly.

Today, as she shook the water from her coat and umbrella, she looked around the shop inquiringly. It wasn’t like Hackney to leave her waiting.

“He’ll be here shortly,” a clerk assured her. In a hushed voice she added, “It’s been a trying day.”

In a few moments, Hackney himself appeared. He looked dapper and, as always, delighted to see her. But there was a tightness about his mouth that concerned Faith.

“Is everything right?” she asked.

“Yes, yes, quite all right.” He paused, and drew an elegant hand across his brow. “I had a difficult customer with the most unsettling requests. Gave me a turn. How refreshing to see you, my dear Ms. Tritely!” His smile returned. “Am I to hope you’re here to announce…” He paused significantly.

Faith beamed. “Yes! I’m going to do a sequel!”

“Marvelous news! Congratulations!” Hackney cried. “Let’s waste no time! What can I do for you?”

Faith hesitated. “The story has been coming to me almost unbidden. I can see if unfolding in my mind’s eye. I hope it isn’t… I hope you have…”

For a fleeting moment, Hackney’s smile slipped. His face took on a white-lipped look of ferocity. But almost as soon as it came, the look vanished, replaced by his usual good-humored expression. Faith told herself that she must have imagined it. “Tell me, Ms. Tritely. I’m confident I can help.”

She began diffidently, but soon warmed to her subject. “Well, the story concerns the daughter of my first heroine. I think I’m going to call her Angeline – you understand the reference, of course?”

“Of course!”

“Well, her father has died in a tragic accident, and Angeline feels compelled to discover his roots. Her quest takes her to the South — the war-torn, ravaged South, still on its knees after the fire and blood of the Civil War.” She paused for breath. “She’s inherited a derelict old mansion, you see. Along the way, she meets a nice young minister. But their carriage is held up by a irreverent young highwayman who heeds to pleas not to steal her money, but demands her amethyst necklace and a kiss from her.”

Hackney’s smile was genuinely sunny now. “And that highwayman is really a courageous fighter for the poor – ”

“ – against the false minister and his band of thieves and thugs, yes!” Faith exclaimed.

“And the Christian message is – ”

Together, they sang out, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart!”

Faith gazed at him in amazement. “Mr. Hackney, you are truly astonishing!”

Hackney bowed and beamed. “I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to do business with you. Now, let me show you our war-torn South settings!”

They headed for the green door with the gold lettering. But before they reached it, the sound of a muffled bell stopped Hackney abruptly in his tracks. He whipped around, and Faith saw it again — that expression of white ferocity. He glared over her shoulder, and she turned quickly to see who could warrant such a passionate dislike from the affable Mr. Hackney.

It was a middle-aged man, dripping from the rain, still with his hand on the bell to keep it from ringing out. He saw the look that Mr. Hackney gave him, and didn’t seem surprised. He let go of the bell and gently closed the door behind him. Every line in his body begged an apology before he even spoke.

“I’m sorry to disturb you. Just one more question…”

“Leave my store!” Mr. Hackney warned.

“Just one thing, I won’t take much time, just one question -– ”

Mr. Hackney was breathing hard through his nose. “I do not sell settings of small towns without dark horrible secrets.”

“I know, it’s not that -– ”

“And I do not sell good-hearted heroes who are nevertheless thirty-five pounds overweight.”

“Yes, you told me that -– ”

“I do not sell short, plump heroines with bad teeth!”

“That isn’t -– ” But the man interrupted his own protest. “But why not? I mean, I live in the twenty-first century, and my teeth are terrible. You know teeth in earlier eras had to be hideous. They probably didn’t see it as the stigma we would…” He saw Hackney’s expression and quickly added, “But I didn’t come back to discuss that. What I want to know…”

Suddenly remembering Faith, Hackney blushed a deep red and turned to her. “I apologize, Ms. Tritely. I should not have subjected you to my own temper like this. I apologize profusely.”

But Faith understood now. Imagine coming into this store and asking for bilge like that! “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” she snapped. “This is a highly-respected fiction store. It doesn’t carry imperfect and… ugly merchandise!” She turned to Hackney. “I completely sympathize with you. My audience wouldn’t want to read about a plump heroine with bad teeth, honestly!”

The man looked frustrated. “All I want to know is if I can buy one of your heroines.”

Hackney and Faith looked at him suspiciously. “Which one?” Hackney asked. “You didn’t like any of my stock.”

“The brown-haired one, with blue eyes.”

Still suspicious, Hackney replied, “She is flawless and beautiful, with perfect teeth.”

“Yes. All I’m going to do is give her a prominent nose.”

His ire flared again, and Hackney waved at a clerk. “Show this man out! Get out of my shop, sir!”

“But we aren’t all beautiful,” the man protested, backing away from an advance of clerks. “Wouldn’t it be inspiring for readers to identify with a… a pleasant face who can attract… no, wait, listen… attract love anyway… you write Christian romances –- doesn’t God use even the ugly and defiled to show His beauty?” he finished desperately.

The effect was electric. The clerks stopped in mid-stride. Hackney and Faith stared at him, then at each other, in wonder. The man looked from one awe-struck face to another, and suddenly seemed to realize a great horror. He sagged against the doorframe and groaned. “What have I done?”

Hackney called to his head clerk. “Sam! Get the warehouse on the phone! We need to discuss a design for a new heroine. What was it, brown hair, blue eyes, and a prominent nose?”

“But good teeth,” Faith added quickly. “No need to make her repulsive. Just plain.”

“Until love brings out her beauty,” Hackney added. “Why have I overlooked this aspect all this time? Ms. Tritely, I would be honored for you to be the first to use this new line of heroines.”

Blushing faintly, Faith stumbled, “Oh, Mr. Hackney! I –- The possibilities are thrilling! I’d imagined Angeline with raven-dark hair and flashing blue eyes, but she could be plain instead. Until the highwayman sees her inner beauty, and that’s how she finally realizes that God sees it, too!”

They fell into eager conversation, until suddenly Hackney looked up. “And we must thank you,” he said graciously, turning to the man.

But the man was gone, the bell jangling harshly after him. “What have I done?” he was heard to groan as he staggered into the driving rain.

Faith looked at Mr. Hackney, who gazed out the rain-spattered door after the man. “A strange man,” he murmured. “But even the strange ones can come up with a good idea every now and then.”

***

My soul now rests in peace.

Hackney’s Novel Shop

About ten years ago, I read a book that made quite a big splash in the world of Christian romance. It still comes up in conversation occasionally; it deeply resonated with some women.

I guess you could say that it resonated with me, but not exactly in the same way. I mean, those other women felt validated and even healed of past wounds. I, um… well, I wrote a parody of it.

Hackney’s Novel Shop

The bell tinkled as an author pushed open the front door and walked into the shop. The proprietor looked up and smiled. “May I help you?”

The author didn’t answer immediately. First-timers were always a little overwhelmed by the shop. Finally, her eyes stopped on the large, friendly-looking sign above the check-out station:

Your One-Stop Shop for People, Plots, and Places
B. Hackney, proprietor

“Can I help you find something?” B. Hackney prompted gently.

As if shaking off a daze, the author said, “Um, yes. I’m writing a novel.”

Hackney nodded, still patient.

“And I need… well, pretty much everything. A friend recommended me, said you could set me up.”

“My pleasure!” Hackney exclaimed. “May I ask who I have the honor of serving today?”

She blushed slightly. “I write under my pen name, Faith Tritely. You’ve never heard of me.” With a lift of her chin, she added, “Yet.”

“Delighted to meet an up-and-comer, Ms. Tritely. If you’ll follow me, let’s start with the setting. That dictates the rest of your choices, you understand. Can’t have a Southern belle in an ancient Persian palace, for instance.”

Faith’s eyes lit up. Hackney shook his head firmly. “No, no, I don’t at all encourage mixing-and-matching. Very rarely works. Best to stick with the package. Trust me, all our settings have been great successes.” He moved quickly across the floor to a large, ornate door. It was painted green, with gold lettering that said, Settings and Backdrops. Opening it, he ushered Faith inside.

It was an expansive room, with floor-to-ceiling rolls of tapestries. Faith looked at the nearest tapestry: it was a green-and-gold forest scene, with a large castle just visible through the trees. A crowd of colorfully-dressed people made their way down a winding road to a village market in the distance, past a row of thatch-roof cottages.

“That’s our Medieval setting,” Hackney said. “Very, very popular.” Indeed, there were a few threadbare places visible here and there, especially around the castle, the tourney, and the romantic moonlit bower. “Is your novel a medieval one?”

“No,” she said, regretfully turning her eyes away. “No, it’s a California mining town, circa. 1850.”

“Ah! A popular choice as well.” Hackney pulled down a roll and gave it a firm jerk. The tapestry spun off and settled on the floor, where Faith studied it with a pleased smile. It was all there: the dusty air, the muddy streets, the ramshackle houses. Horses plodded along with fully-outfitted cowboys on their backs (most of the cowboys wearing red bandanas and brown hats). Along the bare dirt Main Street were four wooden buildings: the Bank, the General Store, the Jail, and the Saloon and Brothel.

“I’m going to need a church in mine.”

“Certainly! That’s an add-in for only $1.49.” He fished in a plastic bucket and pulled out a white clapboard church with a steeple. “And a school too?” he added, holding up a red schoolhouse.

“No, just the church. Thanks. This is exactly what I need.”

“Great!” said Hackney. “I’ll have them wrap this up for you. Let’s move on… Characters, would you say?”

They stepped through the green door, and Hackney led the way to another door, this one painted yellow and marked, Characters, Main and Supporting.

This room was smaller, but brightly lit. Several round racks were hung with full-size cardboard people. Faith read the signs posted above each rack: Heroines. Heroes. Best Friends. Master Villains. Minor Villains and Thugs. Assorted. One rack proclaimed, Clearance! The rack was full of soft, plump, lacy Victorian heroines and hard-edged misogynistic action heroes.

She looked through the Heroine rack, taking her time with the decision. She finally narrowed it down to the tall, slender, red-haired one with flashing green eyes, or the tall, slender, golden-haired one with the alabaster complexion. “Just so hard to decide!” she said. “But I think I’ll go with this one.” She lifted off the blond heroine. Hackney smiled and set it aside.

“Now to heroes,” he said.

This choice was easier: “I’d know him if I saw him on the street!” she exclaimed, thumbing through the choices. “And here he is, exactly.”

“Ah, the tall, broad-shouldered, hard-bodied working man, with blue eyes and dark hair,” Hackney noted, and propped the hero next to the heroine.

“Now for the villain,” Faith said.

“We have several popular Master Villains in stock,” said Hackney. “Here’s the rude and shrewd one… No? Here’s the violently angry one… Not that one? How about this one, the polished and polite, sinister one? Yes, definitely a good choice. You’ll see that he comes with three free phrases: ‘My dear, you look lovely; Oh, my, what a temper you have!’ and ‘I do hate to have to make things messy!’”

“Perfect!”

“And today we have a special. Buy one Master Villian and get a Minor Villain half-price.”

The offer was too good to resist. She chose the dumb, dirty, and violent Minor Villain.

For the next hour, Faith browsed the other racks. She finished with an impressive collection of supporting characters, including a Villain-Who-Reforms, an entire set of The Benevolent Family (“they take in my heroine when no one else will,”) a Loyal Friend, a Wise Friend, and a “Uses Heroine For Greedy Schemes” Villain.

“Excellent, excellent!” said Hackney. “I’ll have these wrapped up for you. Before we move on, please look through this bin of Motivations. Our customers often find helpful tidbits there.”

She ordered the Deeply Hurt and Iron Will cards for the Heroine, and the Sensitivity and Understanding cards for the Hero. Hackney smiled, “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Do you have any pre-packaged scenes for my particular setting?”

“Oh, do we!” Hackney replied happily, and led the way to a large shelf along the back of the main room. “Let’s see, 1850s mining town… Here you go. This entire section contains applicable scenes. You’ll see that your Motivation cards have a colored dot on them. The scenes are color-coded to reinforce the Motivations.”

It was a happy half-hour as she sifted through scenes to include in her novel. She chose a Childbirth scene, complete with flustered husband, serene wife, and pots of hot water. For the Hero and Heroine, she chose a Playful Run Through the Field (useful for breaking down the Iron Will, according to the scene’s specifications). She found several brothel scenes, and chose one with world-weary harlots exchanging hard-edged dialogue during their off-hours.

“Just one more thing for now,” said the author. “My novel is a romance…”

“Say no more!” Hackney led the way to a pink-painted door marked Romance and Erotica. This room looked much like the Settings room, but was quite stuffy. The far back of the store was obscured by an opaque fug. “Light romance or…”

“Light,” Faith said quickly.

Hackney walked up to a roll marked “Western” and pulled off a length of bright red. It steamed slightly in his hands.

“Um, it’s a Christian romance…”

“Right. We’ve got those.” Hackney re-wound the red and turned to another roll. He pulled off a shorter length of pink, which was merely warm to the touch. “How many do you need?”

“Well, none of them too long, but a lot of them throughout.”

“Great! I’ll have those wrapped up for you. Now, if this is a Christian romance, you’ll want to look through our Morals box and see if there’s anything that will help you. Self-Sacrificing Love is a very popular, as is Knowing God By Falling In Love.”

At last, laden down with packages, Faith watched a clerk ring up her purchases. The price pleased her. “This is so much more economical. I heard that J.K. Rowling had a lot of her stuff customized, and it was over the top expensive.”

“Yes. I always recommend going with the pre-fab, at least when you’re starting out,” Hackney agreed.

As he escorted her to the door, he said, “If you need anything else, please come back! We’ve got a new shipment of Crisis and Catharsis Scenes coming in next week. Great for resolving relationship problems quickly.”

“Yes, thank you!”

“And remember,” Hackney added, “we have a special buyers’ program for sequels.”

Faith Tritely’s eyes glowed. “I’ll be back,” she promised.

**

And then I wrote a sequel!

Fifty Shades of Fiction

pexels-photo

Am I coming out as a secret fan of Fifty Shades of Grey?

Well, the books began as a fan-fiction retelling of Twilight. I will say that I don’t like Fifty Shades as much as I liked Twilight. 

And I utterly despise Twilight.

No, I’m not a fan. I did try to read the first book. The writing was abysmal, the characters were intolerable, and having been fed toxic patriarchy in my younger years, the forced-submission stuff made me want to cry. A good sex story shouldn’t make you cry.

So why have I linked to the video below? Well, sorry, it’s actually not as salacious as secret sex dungeons and thinly-veiled abuse. I’m linking to one section of it where he talks about fiction vs. reality, because I think this is an area where people haven’t really thought through things.

I’ve heard many times, “How can a woman support the #metoo movement against sexual harassment when she reads things like Fifty Shades of Grey?” Or any erotic fantasy, really, because the genre so often blurs the line between consent and compulsion. This argument frustrates me. What people enjoy in fiction is often exactly the opposite of what they want in reality. In fiction you want conflict, drama, danger, and uncertainty. In real life, you want trust, reliability, peace, and security. Granted, I look askance at the fact that Fifty Shades was ever so popular because, really, it’s a very terrible series on many levels. But I don’t think that enjoying erotic fiction means a woman has no say in whether her boss can pat her butt or require sexual attention for her to keep her job.

The video explains it better, though. Why do we look for situations and stories in fiction that we don’t want in real life?

If you’ve got time, I recommend watching the whole thing, because he goes on to take apart 50 Shades (book and movie) and explain why it doesn’t work even in the context of fiction.

(Note: I have friends who like Twilight and Fifty Shades. Especially for Twilight, it really seemed to hit people on some deep level while they were dealing with difficult issues in their lives. I have no idea why, mostly because they can’t tell me either. They like it, I don’t, we’ve agreed to disagree.)

The Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention

“Your an example of why women should stay silent.”

The putdown was posted by some brilliant wit on Twitter. I said it better, and more grammatically, in The Fellowship:

“I don’t think God wants me to stay silent if I see something out of line.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. God hasn’t appointed you to a position of authority. He doesn’t expect you to do anything except obey.”

In both scenarios — one real, one fictional — a young woman was questioning a pastor about his teachings. And in both settings — one real, one fictional — the challenger was shut down.

The Fellowship takes place in a small Southern cult, where the women must wear long dresses and can’t work outside the home. Not very many people have lived in that specific setting.

But I guarantee you’re familiar with the story as it unfolds.

My newsfeed has been full of the scandal of Paige Patterson, misogynist ex-president of Southwestern Theological Seminary. If you aren’t caught up, here’s the statement by the Board of Trustees of Southwestern as to why they fired Patterson. And well they should have. But what about all the years leading up to this? Surely someone thought he was going too far when he counseled wives to return to abusive husbands? Or any number of other questionable teachings?

On a related note, I’m not Catholic, so didn’t follow the fallout of their abuse coverup very closely. I never was part of Sovereign Grace Ministries, so that didn’t register on my radar much either. But I almost could have lifted my novel material from those scandals.

Meanwhile, the #metoo movement, highlighting the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and sexism, proved the downfall of several prominent men in the entertainment and political realm.

It’s all the same story as my little Southern Bible cult. No one could challenge these men. They silenced their accusers and protected their power.

Your details might not be the same as my fictional Bekah and her struggle to be a woman under an oppressive patriarchal system. But the structure is the same. Authority without accountability, used to protect the powerful.

This structure enables abuse, encourages misogyny or misandry, and its ultimate goal is to protect the institution over the victim. Every time.

The insult I quoted at the beginning was part of a long Twitter battle in which women tried to engage a pastor (again, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which is in serious need of repentance and reevaluation — and maybe a good disinfectant). You can read the synopsis here.

That particular aspersion was cast by a supporter of the pastor, but don’t worry, the good Brother gets in quite a few jabs himself. The sexism aside, it’s obvious that the pastor’s goal isn’t to empathize, or even engage opponents in a debate — but to silence the challenges to his power.

When I wrote The Fellowship, I was drawing from my own experience with Bill Gothard (Institute in Basic Life Principles/Advanced Training Institute) and Doug Phillips (Vision Forum), and my husband’s experience with an older New England cult. I kept saying, “My little novel is for a niche audience. Not many people will ‘get’ it.”

Three years later, as the voice of the oppressed grows louder and people are less willing to tolerate injustice from those in “authority,” I now realize that my book joins many others in telling and retelling a familiar story. It’s the story of our time.

 

Men Sin Better than Women Do

The recent “Nashville Statement” by the Coalition for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (catchy name!) has a lot of people in my online neighborhood talking. I discuss a little of it below.

What I’m writing about here, though, isn’t the Nashville Statement, but the 1987 Danvers Statement by the same people. It’s just as much fun.

This statement by the then newly-formed CBMW outlines their views of male and female roles according to “God.” By this time in my life, I can shrug off the Danvers Statement. I don’t ascribe to their inflexible view that women are specifically created to be subordinate to men. Nor do I credit their assertion that God built in “masculine” and “feminine” traits as part of the created order. (Male and female refers to biology; masculine and feminine refers to behaviors. One is mostly concrete; the other changes from culture to culture — or, indeed, from person to person.)

But, one part made me laugh. They’re explaining how men and woman are different (but equal! Except when women want to do things that only men should do). They explain that, as far as the church is concerned:

  • Sin “inclines men to abdicate spiritual responsibility and grasp for power.
  • Sin “inclines women to resist limitations on their roles or to neglect the use of their gifts in appropriate ministries.”

In other words:

Sinful man: I SHALL BE AS GOD AND RULE ALL! Bwahahaha!

Sinful woman: THE OFFICE OF ASSISTANT PASTOR WILL BE MINE! Hahaha!

Seriously, of all the horrible things a sinful woman can do in a church body, this is the worst you can come up with? What about spiritually abusing other women? What about spreading dissension and gossip to get rid of a leader she doesn’t like? What about ruling her family and/or her Bible study group with anger and twisted Scripture? What about, I don’t know, abdicating spiritual responsibility and grasping for power?

Nope. Just resisting limitations and not using her gifts in “appropriate ministries.”

This is why I don’t credit much of what the CBMW has to say about my identity as a woman. Their vision for me is so very small. I can’t even sin as good as a man does.

 


A thought or two on the Nashville Statement.

If you managed to get me into a conversation about this issue, you’d find me a lot more flexible about it than my evangelical pedigree and faithful-to-the-historical-faith husband would indicate. The conflict between overarching theology and the impact it has on individual human lives is a tension I continually wrestle with.

I understand the theological underpinnings of this statement. But I found a few phrases that I disagree with, and knowing the culture in which these words are drafted and disseminated, I find the small differences alarming.

For instance, I can see the justification for Article 10 if it said:

Article 10

We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes a departure from historically-accepted Christian faithfulness and witness.

We deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is an issue about which otherwise faithful Christians may agree to disagree.

What it actually says is:

Article 10

We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

We deny that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christrians should agree to disagree.

What this article says is that if I even approve of a homosexual or transgender relationship, it’s the same as denying essential doctrines such as the deity of Christ or his resurrection. It invalidates my “true Christian” qualifications.

(Also, for the record, I don’t consider it “a matter of moral indifference” so stop assigning motives, okey-dokey?)

This statement was signed by some “big names” in Christian circles. They evidently agree that the church must make its people choose between “gays” and “God,” but last year many of them scrambled down from their moral high ground and endorsed Donald Trump as president. They were willing to approve of a man who doesn’t even pretend to adhere to traditional Christian sexual mores, just to preserve their political power. I find that blatantly immoral.

Back to the point — isn’t it seriously overstating the case to place one’s view of sexuality as an “essential” element of Christian faithfulness and witness?

Not to the CBMW. These people do consider a view of sexuality as central to Christianity. They have a driving need to know who is male and who is female, because their entire theological hierarchy depends upon knowing who is in authority and who cannot, according to God, be in authority.

Otherwise, everything gets all muddled up. You don’t know who is grasping for power and abdicating spiritual responsibility, and who is just sinfully discontent with the imposed limitations of their role. And the world just can’t take chaos like that.

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.

Good Wives Are Happy

One of my favorite ranting topics is bad marriage advice.

Here, for instance, I discuss in a testy way the idea that “men need respect and women need love” as if you can separate the two in a marriage.

I also devoted an impressive wordcount to illustrating how God wants us to play mind games with each other. (Bonus: Blatant misuse of Scripture by an author who teaches women what “the Bible says” about marriage.)

A friend sent me a post she found (it’s from three years ago) that fits right in with the themes above. The major feature of this type of bad marriage advice–mostly to women–is this:

You don’t need to communicate with your husband. You just need to stay in your God-given role and follow the rules (whatever you perceive the rules to be). If you are unhappy, then make yourself happy.

Let’s roll out this blog post and I’ll show you what I mean.

My Husband Is Not My Helpmeet… I Am His. The title really takes care of the whole issue, but the author does unpack it a little.

She begins by remarking: “Often as a wife I’ve found myself sucked into a downward spiral of ugly thoughts. With all of the laundry, cooking, cleaning, dishes, and childcare, I at times make myself out to be a martyr.”

Note that this line of thought assumes that negative emotions are bad and must be gotten rid of. Tiredness and frustration aren’t signals to stop and ask “Why am I feeling like this? What needs to change?” They’re automatic indicators that you’re sinful and you need to stop that.

Her husband, the blogger says, is helpful with the house and the kids when he’s home. “But sometimes my selfish, greedy heart piles demands onto him that go far beyond the realms of his reasonable duty.”

She goes on to explain,

I’m angry when he doesn’t read my mind and vacuum the floor while I’m doing the dishes. I become disgruntled during final dinner preparations if he’s reading to our daughter but ignoring the baby’s screams. And if by chance he is sitting on the sofa watching t.v. while I’m still slaving away in the kitchen, you can bet a storm is brewing in my heart.

“Why doesn’t he help me more???” I stewed on one particularly grumpy evening. All I wanted to do was crash on the couch with him. I was tired and worn out, and it all seemed so unfair.

The thought dawned on me in that moment. A gentle, Holy Spirit guided hush-

Okay, so this is the turning point right here. The buildup is a situation that most of us have experienced in one form or another. We’re tired, we want help, we’re stewing and unhappy. Something has to change.

Here are a couple of good options of what the turning point could be.

Option 1: “I realized that I was piling greedy demands upon myself as well as my husband. Somewhere I made up a list of what a properly kept house should be like, and I’m killing myself to keep it up to that standard. The truth is, a lot of the work is unnecessary. I can let it go and have time to crash on the couch with my husband.”

Option 2: “I waited until I was not actively stewing and grumpy. Then I asked my husband if he could help out in specific ways. To my surprise, he said that some of these essential jobs really didn’t matter to him. So I told him which ones were most important to me, and we figured out a way to get them done together.”

As a matter of fact, I myself just wrote a blog post  with a different approach to the same problem. Adam and Eve and the Parable of the Balance

But in the Husband Isn’t My Helpmeet post… I hate to disappoint my readers, but the actual turning point is neither of the above options. This is what the Holy Spirit whispered to her in her moment of need:

–my husband wasn’t made to be my helpmeet. I was made to be his. 

These dishes, and the day-in, day-out, draining tasks that come with a house full of kids- they’re my opportunity to serve him well and fulfill my God given role of being “a helper suitable to him”.

The marriage that God is most interested in, according to this thinking, has nothing to do with mature, adult-to-adult interaction. It’s all about staying in your place and playing mind games to feel better about it.

She adds a general observation that’s hard to argue with:

But when my eyes are on my lofty expectations for what my husband ought to be doing for me, my perspective is way skewed.

True. That’s the problem you need to take care of. Your frustration, tiredness, and resentment toward your husband are merely symptoms. But thanks to the timely whisper of the Holy Spirit, reminding you to stuff all those bad emotions, you never actually get to addressing this issue with a real solution.

Instead, the blogger closes with this sentiment:

Peace and freedom come in embracing the work God has given with joy and a thankful heart. 

Peace (as long as you make yourself be happy) and freedom (but not to talk to your husband about your struggle) come in embracing the work God has given (assuming that everything you feel that you ought to do is straight from God) with joy and a thankful heart (make it so).

Whew. The Holy Spirit has a full-time job just keeping couples from talking to each other. Fortunately he’s got this kind of advice to help him out.

 

White Oblivion

stocksnap_q621it4pyjThis past Monday night, we listened to an excerpt of Martin Luther King Jr.’s profound and poetic “I Have a Dream” speech, read in a raspy Batman-like rumble. (DJ has a cold.)

Most of it went right over the kids’ heads (although Bookgirl probably caught a lot of it this time around). I’m glad that DJ makes a point to read it every year anyway. He and I need to hear it and understand where we’ve come from.

As I’ve said before, I grew up in South Mississippi. We were a lower middle-class white family, somewhere between belle and redneck. The “desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression” that King references in his speech wasn’t the Mississippi I knew. I was vaguely aware that things had been bad “back then,” but it wasn’t anything I recognized in my world. The white community didn’t teach its next generation hate and anger.

It taught us oblivion.

We — my white friends and I — didn’t understand how recently segregation had been the order of the day. It simply wasn’t discussed. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dismissed with a slight shrug of distaste. I didn’t know anything about Rosa Parks until my sixth grade English teacher, a black woman, dedicated a day of class to her. Thanks to Norman Rockwell’s painting, I knew about Ruby Bridges and integration, but not the seething hate that surrounded her. I was married before I learned about the Detroit race riots (thank you, Dreamgirls). It was last year while researching for a story that I looked up “race relations 1972” and discovered that things were still really nasty in Boston and Washington, D.C.

Of course, as a child, I didn’t understand a lot of things. And as I got older, none of these facts were concealed from me. The white community simply didn’t bring them up.

Later in the evening of MLK Day, I got myself some ice cream and sat down with what I consider leisure reading — a 1963 issue of Better Homes and Gardens. At first the significance of the publication year didn’t occur to me. But I began reading an article about how families could make the most of their money, and King’s words came back to me.

I read, “It’s sad but true that a great many homes in America today are below the standard of what their owners should have and can afford.” And a thought crept in, You don’t mean the “the negro’s basic mobility from a smaller ghetto to a larger one,” do you?

I read, “A packaged weekend ski trip that includes bus transportation, four meals and two night’s lodging, rental of ski equipment and tow charges, costs only $37 per person…” Assuming you aren’t denied those meals and lodging.

I read, “Traveling by car offers the advantage of convenience and savings on transportation costs for a large family… Motels and hotels charge about $9.50 a night for two…” Two WHITE PEOPLE. The words were a roar in my head.

This magazine, a “family magazine” for “Americans today,” was written only for white people. And I’d never really thought much about it, because I’m part of the club, so it’s easy to assume that everybody gets the same benefit.

Outright black oppression at the hands of white supremacy isn’t really history. It’s still living memory. It’s a charred field barely covered over with new growth. More and more I realize that we can’t expect our nation to “move on” from a catastrophe that’s still hot to the touch.

I want healing. I want to see things change. And I’m trying to start with myself. I never singled out other races for hate and disgust. I’ve worked hard to shed some toxic ingrained attitudes of white supremacy.

But I can honestly say that what I’m mostly guilty of is something that’s harder to see in the first place. I’m guilty of oblivion.

So this year especially, I’m grateful for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I’m glad that we still have his words that make us stop and acknowledge the truth we’d been taught to ignore. May oblivion not blind us to the plight of our neighbors and fellow humans.

The Bible Bait-and-Switch

lures-537661_1280There’s a certain class of Bible teaching that is mostly about verbs.

Pray this prayer so God will bless you.

Follow these steps so God will protect you.

Hear and obey so God will listen to you.

The teachers in this camp claim to know the hidden ways of God, and they want to teach you to access these exclusive treasures. They usually have some kind of gimmick—a certain prayer, certain steps, a certain way to read your Bible. Then they bait-and-switch ideas to make you think that they’re teaching what God says when it’s really just what they’re selling.

I recently came across someone who sounds a whole lot like a “verbing” teacher. Now, I don’t know anything about Bob Sorge except his titles on Amazon and the Kindle sample of his book Secrets of the Secret Place. So I have no axe to grind or hatchet to bury in his head. I’m bringing him up because all it took was two chapters for me to recognize:

  1. The verb
  2. The gimmick
  3. The bait-and-switch

His verb is to Pray. (He also adds “hear” and “obey” later.) By “pray” he means to sit in quietness and solitude, reading Scripture, and listening for God to speak. Is that bad? No! I think it’s a very good practice to learn to sit in silence—one I’m not good at myself. The Verb is usually a good thing to do, and pray definitely qualifies.

However, he’s got to have a gimmick to sell his special knowledge of God’s hidden ways. Like any good Verbing teacher, he frames it with a Bible verse. I’ve parsed it out below:

Sorge (from his book Secrets of the Secret Place):
“But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:6).

…When Jesus taught on prayer, He gave primary emphasis to the secret place. In fact, the first thing He taught concerning prayer was the primacy of the secret place. In the verses following, He would teach us how to pray, but first He teaches where to pray.

My comment:
This verse, in context, is actually emphasizing the right attitude of prayer. Jesus is saying that we shouldn’t make a big public display of our prayers to show how holy we are, but to pray privately to God alone, without seeking the admiration of others.

Sorge:
Jesus affirmed this truth twice in the same chapter. He says it the second time in Matthew 6:18, “‘So that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.’” Jesus says it twice for emphasis, so we know this word is absolutely certain.

My comment:
The key word here is fasting. Same point as the verse about praying. Don’t make a big holy display of yourself. Carry out your devotion to God quietly, seeking to please only him.

These verses have nothing to do with where your body is, but where your heart is.

Sorge:
Our Father is in the secret place! Furthermore, Jesus gives us the key to finding this secret place. If you’re wondering what you must do to place yourself in the secret place, Jesus made it clear. To get there, all you have to do is shut your door! When you enter your room, and shut your door, you are in the presence of your Father. Instantaneously!

My comment:
Hard to argue with that, but I’m also in his presence in the kitchen, at the mall, or stuck on I-81 in road construction. Finding God by going into a room and shutting a door… that, folks, is Sorge’s Gimmick.

Sorge:
It matters not how you feel. Regardless of your soul’s climate at that moment, you know with absolute confidence you have stepped into the chamber of your Father in heaven. The secret place is your portal to the throne, the place where you taste of heaven itself. Receive this word and you have gained one of the greatest secrets to intimacy with God.

My commentary:
And there you go! If you Verb, by way of his Gimmick, you gain a secret way to God.

They always have Scripture to back up their points, of course. Here’s the Bait-and-Switch where he leads you in with Scripture, and leads you right on out on his own hobbyhorse:

Sorge:
Cornelius was a devout Gentile who committed himself to the secret place of prayer.

My commentary:
The “secret place of prayer” wording is the author’s assertion, not actually taken from the Bible.

Sorge:
[Cornelius’] piety is described in the Book of Acts as fourfold: he gave regularly to the poor; he lived a holy lifestyle; he practiced fasting; and he adhered to the secret place of prayer.

My commentary:
I looked up this verse, Acts 10:2, and this is what it says: “He was a godly man, deeply reverent, as was his entire household. He gave generously to charity and was a man of prayer.”

It doesn’t say a “secret place of prayer.” Although I’m all for paraphrasing to keep things moving, this particular paraphrase is a seemingly innocuous, but very important, addition.

Sorge:
It was because of those four pursuits that God filled Cornelius and his household with the Holy Spirit and made them the firstfruits of all Gentile believers.

My commentary:
That’s the bait…

Sorge:
It’s as though God said, “Cornelius, because of your passionate conviction for the secret place, your life is the kind of example that I can reproduce in the nations.”

My commentary:
… and switch. He’s shifted from Cornelius and his four pursuits to a “passionate conviction for the secret life.”

Sorge:
…By making Cornelius the catalyst for the redemption of the nations, God was giving a powerful endorsement to Cornelius’s priority of cultivating a hidden life with God. The eruption of fruitfulness from his life must have caught even him off guard!

My commentary:
I feel like applauding. “Yay! That was so clever!” He so easily slipped in the idea that Cornelius was blessed by something that the author made up. Not only that, but God endorses it.

And he goes on to base the rest of his book (presumably, from the title) not on anything in the Bible, but on this idea of his about a “secret life with God.” Ideally, his audience doesn’t catch the shift, so they follow along thinking it’s all right there in the Bible. Even if they take the time to look it up, Sorge has taught them to equate “a man of prayer” with “a passionate conviction for the secret place.”

If this is how he justifies the very core of his teaching, then I’m extremely skeptical of what else he has to say. Anything he says about “hearing God’s word” now makes me suspicious, because what he claims is God’s word is actually his own. Anything he says about “obedience to God’s word” is a blazing red flag now, because if he can mold Scripture to fit his own ideas like that, then what does he think we ought to be “obeying”?

Following a teacher like this leads at best to disappointment, and at worst to bondage.

Pay attention to people who promise you a new way to access God. Watch for the Verb, the Gimmick, and the Bait-and-Switch. If you see it, then get up and leave the room. And shut the door behind you.

What To Do About That Rapey Song

This is a post about Christmas songs. And Shel Silverstein. And sex. And good wholesome naughtiness. All, I hope, without the side effect of sermonizing too much. Guess we’ll just have to see how this goes.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside was written in 1944 by Frank Loesser, who performed it with his wife at parties, according to Wikipedia. In 1949, it was featured in the movie Neptune’s Daughter starring Esther Williams and Red Skelton. You know this song, of course. It’s a duet, a clever weaving of two monologues: a woman who says she has to leave, and a man who is seducing her to stay.

Lately it’s gained a bit of notoriety. Not because it’s about sex, because that’s actually a recurring theme in winter songs. Let It Snow celebrates the fact that the weather outside is frightful, so good thing we’re inside and together and hey, how about it? Walking in a Winter Wonderland is a little tamer, but even then they’re looking forward to a little necking in front of the fire. Evidently the human response to cold weather is to have sex (which makes sense; at least it’s warm).

But Baby It’s Cold Outside, while pretty much the same theme as Let It Snow, is quite a bit edgier. It’s known as “the date-rape song” thanks to lines such as:

The neighbors might think (baby, it’s bad out there)
Say what’s in this drink? (no cabs to be had out there)

I simply must go (but baby, it’s cold outside)
The answer is no (but baby, it’s cold outside)

I’ve disliked the song for years for that exact reason. It makes me anxious, not cozy.

I’m not alone in this feeling. Seems like we could just let it die a quick death, but it’s hard to kill Christmas songs. Last Christmas by Wham!, anyone? Instead, several people are scrambling around doing damage control.

This article from the Washington Post is an example of one perspective. It maintains that at the time the song was written, it was all about women’s empowerment because a woman staying overnight with her lover could expect to come under fire from society. And that is a point. The woman in the song is obviously reluctant to leave, and keeps pointing out all the people who are going to be scandalized if she doesn’t go.

The problem with this patch-up is twofold:

  1. He never offers to protect her from any of the vicious fallout she’ll receive for staying the night with him.
  2. Lady, please. If you don’t want to go, grow a vagina (as the egalitarian saying goes) and say Yes. Stop saying No if you don’t mean it. That confuses good men. (Men unlike your lover who—if you ask me—will ditch you as soon as the family pressure comes bearing down for him to make you an honest woman.)

Others, finding that explanation insufficient, have decided that the song is a total loss as-is. They’ve rewritten it to illustrate proper sexual consent. One version features lyrics like this:

I really can’t stay (Baby I’m fine with that)
I’ve got to go away (Baby I’m cool with that)

My mother will start to worry (Call her so she knows you’re fine)

I ought to say no no no (You reserve the right to say no)

 

Okay, so I admire the effort… but it’s like drinking flat root beer. Instead of a predatory lover, now you’ve got somebody who:

  1. Doesn’t want her to stay at all but is too nice to say it outright
  2. Is missing all of her flirty hints by earnestly supporting her rights

Either way, the song gets increasingly awkward as it goes. At least in the original song, you’ve got some sizzle and fun.

That’s the problem with sanctifying things. They’re unobjectionable and a good example, but boring. Like characters in kids’ shows, who always make the right choices. Sometimes you’ve just got to be a little naughty for interest.

Shel Silverstein, for example, was a master at writing funny, somewhat macabre, poetry. Kids like them because, well, they’re so wrong.

For instance, Abigail who loved the beautiful pony, but her parents wouldn’t buy it for her. She said she’d die if they didn’t, and they said that nobody ever died from not getting a pony, but guess what? She did die. And her parents were very sorry. The author’s note at the end said, “Show this to your parents if they won’t buy you something you want.”

Or Clarence, who bought new parents. And if your parents nag you or get tired or yell at you, it’s because they’re wearing out and you need to buy new ones too.

Obviously these poems teach a terrible moral. But the kids know it’s wrong and enjoy it.

One reason why the original Baby It’s Cold Outside is (was?) fun is because of the tension of “I must go” and “I want to stay.” It’s naughty.

But that brings us back to why it’s a toxic song for our culture. Even today, sexual consent is widely misunderstood. Several times after Trump’s infamous description of sexual assault, I saw people (men and women both) defend it by saying that women bought Fifty Shades of Grey (the extremely horribly written trilogy about a dominant/submissive sexual relationship), so how can they complain about what Trump said? It’s like people don’t get the difference between consenting sex and sexual assault.

It’s not sex that’s the problem. It’s sex that’s forced on someone who doesn’t want it.

Baby It’s Cold Outside is about someone who wants capitulation, not consent. I don’t trust the man and his dismissive answers to her concerns, his smooth compliments, and his pleas for her not to disappoint him. I’m not convinced he’s going to let her leave if she insists.

Since this song is played over and over every single year to a society that can’t keep sex separated from sexual assault—well, I think it’s a problem. Explaining it away just justifies to all its listeners that its okay for a man to “wear a girl down” (another lyric in the song). Merely rewriting it to “clean it up” kills the thrill.

I see two options:

  1. Rewrite it creatively, so that there’s still tension but not that of a predatory male and a wavering female. Good luck with that.
  2. Just stop playing the dang song already.

And the second option is, really, the best option. Glad we had this discussion.

Now, since it’s cold outside, I think I’ll turn the lights down low and see if my man and I can warm things up. I’m pretty sure he’ll consent.