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.

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.

 

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.

Dear ____, Love Sara.

Dear Blog,

I’m so sorry. Between homeschooling, writing a new novel, and — you know — living, I haven’t had much time for blogging.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Other Novelists,

I don’t understand how you can say, “I’m working on a new novel, and here’s my first chapter!” Everything I write is in a state of flux until its final edit. I mean, I just changed the main character’s name and her bike’s name. Just not ready to share anything yet.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear AOL Instant Messenger,

I read recently that you have officially passed away. My friends and I don’t use you anymore, but we mourned your passing. You were the social savior for all of us cult kids in the 90s. I’m not even sure I would have gotten married without AIM access to keep in touch with DJ.

I will wave a sad farewell as that little door-closing sound makes it final slam.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Other Novelists,

It’s going to be an excellent story when I’m done. A friendly white girl learns how racial injustice in the not-too-distant past still affects our lives today. So far I have two love interests, a narcissistic grandmother, and at least three Jane Austen references. Ha, I see you baring your teeth in jealousy. That’s right. It’s going to be good.

The bike’s new name is Imogene, by the way.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Enya,

I found out that you released an album as recently as 2015. You were my guilty indulgence in the 90s, along with AIM. I was supposed to be listening to “godly” music, defined by our Revered Leader as any music that emphasized beats 2 and 4 in the rhythm line. (I didn’t make that up.) But you usually didn’t have a driving rhythm line, so I could justify listening to you — despite fears that you were spewing New Age spiritism all over my fragile Christian soul. Thank you for giving me some relief from choral hymns and harp music.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Misguided Readers,

What do you mean, does my  main character run a cute little shop and interact with colorful characters? Do you really expect me to write cute little bumbling romantic scenes? Do you even need a final piece of folksy feminine wisdom to wrap everything up? Oh horrors, I’m not the women’s fiction you’re looking for.

Love, Sara.

*

Dear Grammar Nerd,

Okay, yes, I know. The second sentence of this post should begin with “among,” not “between,” because I listed more than two reasons. Thank you for your contribution. Nerd.

Love, Sara.

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.

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.