Listen to Your Heart

13439003_10154254739377464_2789232032944517788_n

I hate this graphic.

But it’s a Bible verse! What’s the problem?

One thing that a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that a spiritually abusive Christian system is always based on Bible verses. I remember when a friend read an early draft of my novel, and came back saying, “I’m surprised that the church in your story uses these verses about grace. I thought they’d just ignore those.”

No, they don’t ignore the verses. They isolate them and redefine them to fit their own ideas (just like they do to the people involved). Then they pile their own teachings on top. That way, when someone notices something wrong, the teachers can always dig up that tattered, smashed, and almost unrecognizable verse and say, “See? It’s based on God’s Word. Your problem isn’t with me, it’s with God.”

The verse in this graphic is the source of a lot of grief to those of us who came through an abusive system. It was used to make us suppress our instincts, give up our passions, and conform to whatever our “authorities” wanted us to be.

It’s actually part of a longer passage in Jeremiah where God is alternately rebuking and lamenting Judah’s idolatry, interspersed with hope that He will heal and redeem them. I can’t give an informed interpretation of the passage in its larger context. Most of us can’t.

All we ever knew was this one snippet: “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked.”

We all know that’s true to an extent. History amply demonstrates how wicked human beings can be. Our own friends and family show us greed, manipulation, and anger. In fact, we ourselves know our own selfishness, covetousness, and fear. The problem isn’t that the verse is false, it’s that it’s used as an all-encompassing truth.

Abusive teachers point to this verse and tell us, “See, you can’t trust your heart. God says so. So if you want to do something that I don’t like—you have to give it up. If you feel that something is wrong—you need to ignore your instincts and obey what I say.”

Obviously it’s never presented that baldly. But it permeates the system.

A story:

One of my children exhibited symptoms of Sensory Integration Disorder. From the time she was a baby, loud noises (applause or sirens, for instance) would send her into a meltdown. She didn’t interact easily with other people; they insisted on touching her, looking her in the eyes, and invading her space. Sudden changes in schedule, such as a substitute teacher instead of the one she was used to, sent her into a tailspin. Although it was exhausting, my husband and I did our best to give her an environment where she could be comfortable.

I instinctively knew that she wasn’t being defiant when she couldn’t manage to follow orders. But others in our church at the time didn’t understand that. One woman in particular, who set herself up as a mentor to me, frequently engaged in power struggles with my daughter and was determined to win. The fact that my daughter was so reactive was a judgment on my own parenting—which I felt every single time.

Obviously I should have pushed back. I should have said that as her mother, I understood her needs, and I wasn’t going to stand back and watch this woman cause her grief. Instead, I let it go on for years, hardly ever protesting. Why?

Because my heart, the one that understood my daughter, was deceitful. I couldn’t trust it. It was clearly communicated to me that I was afraid to discipline her properly, so I instead had to bow to the ideas of my “authority” who saw a child’s rebellion where my (deceitful) heart saw confusion.

Eventually, my half-suppressed instincts clawed their way to the surface, and I drew some boundary lines. That was the end of my friendship with my “mentor.” For years I was bewildered and guilty, wondering I’d done so wrong.

Years later, I have a much better view of everything. My instincts were right. My daughter now has learned to cope with the overstimulation and is sociable and happy. She’s very much her own person, but not defiant. And all I did “wrong” in my relationship with the other woman was to listen to my heart, which she didn’t agree with.

*
As wicked as our hearts can be, the other half of the truth is that the heart isn’t always wrong. It’s not wrong to explore what you love and pursue the desires of your heart. Obviously that has to be balanced by reason, understanding, and a heavy reliance on God’s grace. But then, doesn’t reason need to be balanced by compassion and creativity? (The answer is yes.)

Another story:

A few years ago, my friend Amy (not actually her name) came to me in tears. Her childhood best friend was getting married, but didn’t ask Amy to be a bridesmaid. However, the bride had asked two other newer “best friends” to be in the wedding. Either the bride didn’t value her friendship with Amy, or simply forgot about her. Both options cut her deeply.

Her head told her that she had a right to be hurt, and she ought to talk to her friend about it. But her heart, bathed in the grace of the Holy Spirit, said something different. It told her not to spoil her friend’s wedding day with any suggestion that she was upset. So Amy listened to her heart. She talked to me and others about how hurt she was, but when the wedding day came, Amy was there with a smile. Afterward, she made a point to see her friend pretty often, and never mentioned anything except good about the wedding. As far as I know, the bride never knew what her forgetfulness cost Amy; and Amy herself forgave and (mostly) forgot.

*
For the meme above, I would react less to it if “Jesus” was saying, “You let it serve itself instead of remembering others?” The problem isn’t that we listen to our hearts or even follow them. It’s when we set our own desires above the good of others that things go wrong.

Also—just to mention it—the fangs on the heart really are kind of an overkill.

Marriage Mind Games

ball-1418250-1279x850A godly wife is submissive. A godly husband is a leader. This is the ideal model of marriage, as laid down by a God who likes making his children play mind games.

It’s not news that I’m no fan of the patriarchal/complementarian view of marriage. I sat through hours of the instruction as a teen. I even tried it when I first got married, with pretty terrible results. It causes more harm than good most of the time. But don’t take my word for it—here’s an article from one of the bastions of submissive womanhood, Above Rubies, with a rundown of how the game goes.

I found the article when someone shared it on my newsfeed, after Above Rubies posted it on their Facebook page. Considering that the working title of my novel was Somewhere Below Rubies, I’m obviously not the target audience. But it’s exactly the kind of stuff I was taught, and obviously still going strong.

You can read the whole thing here. Here on the blog, I’ll provide excerpts. With commentary, naturally.*

The author leaps into motion with the starting gun:

… God spoke to me and said, “Val, you cannot teach this message… Because you don’t understand submission!” Now I don’t mind admitting that I was shocked.

“Lord, do you realize that I’m Val Stares from Above Rubies? I’ve always encouraged submission.” “Yes,” was the reply, “but you still don’t know how to submit.” By now I was on the defensive. “But. Lord, you know that every time I want something, or desire to go somewhere, I always ask my husband first.”

“And what is his reply?”

“He says for me to please myself. Oh yes, he always adds, ‘You usually do.’ I don’t know why he says that because he’s already given me permission to do what I think best.”

Her husband’s reply is an interesting detail. Does he mean it casually, as a lighthearted way to say, “Yes!” or as an unstated resentful way to remind her that she doesn’t really care about his opinion? I’d think that God, who surely has as much basic education as a first-year marriage counselor, would suggest that she ask her husband what he’s really thinking.

But no. The patriarchal God rarely goes in for direct, heart-to-heart talks. That spoils the game.

“If you are serious about learning submission, Val, I want you to go to your husband and tell him that from now on he needs to answer you, “Yes” or “No.” If he says that you can please yourself, then you will take that as his disapproval and will stay home or go without. There is to be no pouting, no banging doors, no attitude of annoyance or hurt when this happens.”

So “God” has laid down the ground rules. Val runs out to the shed where her husband spends a lot of his time, and tells him her new revelation. He laughed—“You’ll never be able to do it!”

About three weeks later, a visiting speaker came to town.
Note the passage of time. Three weeks later.

Finally it was time to ask my husband if I could go. Out to the shed I went, told him what was happening and asked if I could go. As usual, I left everything until the last minute!
That little drop of self-blame is essential to the truly submissive woman’s worldview.

“Please yourself, you usually do.”
That’s how he answered. He didn’t say the magic words. Remember what he was supposed to say? “Yes” or “No.” Anything else meant he didn’t actually approve and she had to stay home. Because God said so.

I raced into the bedroom and pleaded with God, “He’s forgotten he has to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Can’t I just remind him?” “No” came the answer to my heart…
Because if you did that, it would totally ruin God’s fun.

Around the time I should have left for the meeting, my husband walked in to find me cleaning. “I thought you were going out to a meeting,” he said.
This is a major play right here. She explained how he had really forbidden her from going because he didn’t use the right words. And her husband got mad. He yelled at her that if she wanted to be so stupid and stay home, then fine, stay home!

It was then that the full revelation of what God was teaching me became clear.
I don’t know about you, but I’m revelating all over the place here.

I’m getting the impression that Val is an energetic, take-charge kind of person. Women who run ministries usually are. And she married a low-key, easygoing man. This is a perfectly normal and acceptable personality pairing—except in patriarchal/complementarian circles. In those circles, a take-charge woman has to force herself to be indecisive and subservient, but in order to do so, she’s got to compel her easygoing husband to order her around. However, according to God’s fun little game, she can’t say that.

So Val decided for some reason that her husband’s dismissive “Please yourself, you usually do” wasn’t up to par. She made up a code that he had to follow to show he was really leading her. Meanwhile, her husband thought he’d given her permission to do something she wanted to do, only to discover that she’d denied herself and blamed him. No wonder he was mad.

Oh, hang on. That’s not at all what Val concludes. Instead, she chalks up a major score in the mind game.

I had overridden my husband’s decision so many times that he was now robbed of any desire to lead. He must have felt so cheated. Now, by God’s hand, he was responsible for me staying home, but what hurt me most was the realization that it was me, the Christian wife, who had robbed him!
It’s a homerun, folks!

 My husband is a cautious man and rather slow at making decisions. My impatience at waiting for an answer caused me to make more and more decisions myself and he would go along with me for the sake of peace.
Or maybe he figured out a long time ago that you manipulate the situation to get what you really want, so his actual opinion didn’t really matter.

 I stayed home for several weeks after that, while we both learned our respective roles.
While he learned your official change in the rules, you mean.

So that’s the story part. Now she’s got to get into the doctrine part to justify why they dodge and block instead of talking things out like responsible adults. She quotes some usual verses on submission (Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18) and adds all the usual explanations:

God is not telling husbands to make us obey or make us come under their authority. We do it because we love God and our husbands, and because He has asked us to. It is our choice.
Even though in her own story, she had no choice once “God” told her to do it.

In my mind I saw my broom raised to a horizontal position above my head. The handle was labeled, “My husband’s Authority.” I could see that if he were in his rightful position, I would be able to walk beneath it in an upright position. This upright position was one of honor, security, love–and a surprise I didn’t expect or notice until much later–power!

This is one of their favorite plays. They insist that a woman who doesn’t make any decisions on her own, but lets her husband dictate everything, is in fact very powerful. They point to Esther, who had enormous influence over the king. That’s the kind of influence a truly submissive wife has! All she has to do is go into every situation thinking, as Esther did, “I’ll ask him about this. If I die, I die.” What’s so hard about that?

Just because the things I wanted to do were good things, didn’t necessarily mean they were what my husband wanted to do. He could have other plans.
Not that she asked if he had other plans. Not that he told her he had other plans. They are very careful not to mess up God’s favorite sport.

But God wanted me to measure myself by the attitude of Jesus.

We read about Jesus’ example in 1 Peter 2:18-23, “For what glory is it, if when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps…Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judges righteously….Likewise, (with the same spirit of Jesus) ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the Word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation (the manner of life) of the wives.”

This is actually what 1 Peter 2:18-23 says. It’s written to servants (slaves, as translated in the New International Version).

“18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.

19 For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.

20 For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.

21 For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:

22 Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:

23 Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:”

It looks a whole lot like she tacked on 1 Peter 3:1, the verse about wives, without saying so. Not only is she quoting Scripture out of context, she just created her very own Frankensteinian context! Slam dunk!

What happened to that feared and dreaded “door mat,” the so-called intimidated mousy wife who gets no say? It was a lie. It had no substance or power. I can now stand up straight, and walk upright, secure and loved under his protection. On this side of submission, I have more say because my opinion is of greater value than before.
In a spectacular leap of logic, she concludes that by not expressing her opinion on anything, it has greater value. Touchdown, baby! GOOOAAALLL!

One word of warning– submission is a daily practice, not a one-time act. I have to daily check my attitude and the humility of my heart.
But it’s even harder to work every day at communicating with each other, balancing each other’s desires with your own needs, taking care of misunderstandings as they happen. No guarantees, no formula to fall back on—just love, effort, and God’s grace.

But in the long run, your marriage grows stronger when you don’t depend on formulas, but take the risk to meet as equals and face issues together.

We serve a God of grace.

Not a God of mind games.

Game, set, match.

 

*Should I apologize for the unholy mixing of sports references? That would suggest that I’m sorry for it.

Deborah: When Men are Weak

king-and-queen-1179013-639x462Apparently in some of the back streets of the internet, there’s a fight about whether movies should star “strong female characters.” The whole question makes me nearly sprain something rolling my eyes, so I don’t actually know much about it.

I did read a post on the subject, though. The author, a woman, wrote it in response to a man who objected to “strong females” in stories. He claimed that they usurped a man’s rightful, God-given place as the protector of the weak.

Among other points in her post, the author of the rebuttal mentioned the Biblical example of Deborah. And I thought, “You think you won a point. But you really lost it.”

The thing about Christian patriarchalists is that they know their Bible. They know it like Westley and Inigo knew their fencing forms. It’s kind of like a game, sparring with them. First they lay down the rules—you must argue from the Bible. Nothing else is authoritative. Then they show up with all their Bible knowledge and interpretation and demolish you. They know what you’ll say, and they’ve developed a reflexive response for it. Maybe, if you’re really good at holding your own, they might acknowledge—as Westley did to Inigo—that you’re an artist of stained glass window caliber.

But how is bringing up Deborah in a debate about female leadership an automatic loss?

Yes, we’re talking about the same Deborah, the Old Testament judge, whose story is found in Judges 4-5. She lived during the time before Israel had kings. The people listened to her for God’s words and judgements, especially during this time when a nearby king oppressed them.

Deborah sent for Barak, obviously a warrior of renown. She informed him that God wanted him to gather troops and go against the enemy general, Sisera, in battle. Barak kind of blanched at the thought and said, “I’ll go if you go with me.”

“Fine, I’ll go,” Deborah said. “But just so you know—you’re not going to get any glory from this. Sisera will die by a woman.”

So they went up together and Barak mustered his troops. They met Sisera in battle; it didn’t go well for Sisera. God routed his army, and he himself escaped on foot. He found the tent of an ally, whose wife—Jael—invited him in to rest.

(Jael is the stuff of nightmares to patriarchal men. She pretended to be friendly, waited till Sisera collapsed from exhaustion, and then drove a tent peg through his head.)

Israel won a definitive victory, and the entire next chapter is “the Song of Deborah and Barak.”

If you read the account straight through, you might not see where Deborah went wrong. That’s because you’re probably forgetting the most important principle for interpreting a Bible story about a woman: authority.

Who was in authority? It’s hard to get around the fact that it’s Deborah. She was even married but still looked to as the judge. But women aren’t ever supposed to be in authority over men, therefore Deborah’s judgeship was somehow not God’s best. Even though God doesn’t seem to have realized that.

The teachers I sat under pointed to the fact that Barak was so reluctant. If this warrior was too uncertain to go into battle without Deborah, what did that say about the men of the time? Exactly. They were all weak. That’s why there was a woman in charge—because there weren’t any good men to step up and do it.

So the story isn’t about Deborah’s strength, but Barak’s weakness. It’s not Deborah’s honor, but Barak’s shame. It’s not about a woman, it’s about a man.

And there’s obviously an element of that, since it’s such a point that the victory went to “a woman.” But without the Authority filter over it, the story in general kind of shrugs at the fact that Deborah’s in charge. The point is not woman or man, but God.

But if you find yourself locked in combat with a patriachalist over female empowerment, and the twisty logic, leaps to conclusions, and sheer vigor of his arguments have forced you to the wall—don’t bring up Deborah. He’s already got her properly boxed up and out of the way. All you will do is reinforce his point (to himself) that a strong woman is merely compensating for a weak man. A woman who is trying to be “strong” is therefore trying to “weaken” a man.

It’s right there in the Bible. Remember Deborah?

 

Hymns Revisited

Part of me loves the hymns I grew up with. Part of me tries to escape them, scrambling backwards and knocking stuff over.

I’ve got reasons for my reaction, which possibly isn’t as measured and reasonable as it could be.

For one thing, some of the words of these “hymns” are incredibly insipid. For instance, the bouncy little song  “At the Cross,” which took a weighty Isaac Watts poem:

Alas, and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

And stuck a catchy gospel chorus to it:
At the cross!
At the cross!
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart was rolled away!
It was there by faith I received my sight
And now I am happy all the day!

Yeah, so, you know — the ultimate sacrifice of a sinless God to save wretched sinners… it sure does make me happy all the day!

For another thing, I can’t stand some of the tunes. A Mighty Fortress Is Our God has fantastic words. But good heavens, who wrote that tune and thought, “Yeah! This is IT! Congregational singing, HERE WE COME!”? You start off at a full run and don’t even get to pause for breath between the first and second phrases:

“AmightyfortressisourGodabulkwarneverfailing!”

It’s like an entire hymn in hashtag form.

Other tunes are so locked in their nineteenth- and twentieth-century sound that they’re almost painful to twenty-first century ears. Sweet Hour of Prayer, Blessed Be the Tie, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Softly and Tenderly. They drag. They whine. I cannot stand those tunes.

But so what? Big deal. Everybody who ever attended church likes some songs and not others. Why does that qualify me to run in the other direction?

Well, because for years I was taught by a now-discredited teacher that these hymns were the only acceptable music to listen to. He did allow some classical music (except for Stravinksy, and Debussy was suspect too, and if he’d ever heard of Gershwin then that would have been off-limits as well). Some Celtic and bluegrass slipped under the line, too. (I practically overdosed on Ungar&Mason’s album, The Lover’s Waltz.) But mostly my available music consisted of hymns arranged in an approved style.

So my life was filled with these hymns. The beautiful (Praise to the Lord the Almighty; Holy, Holy, Holy); the fluffy (Victory in Jesus; Lily of the Valley); and the insipid or annoying (see above).

I couldn’t pick and choose to like them because my options were so limited.Besides, there’s no room in a Godly life to say that you don’t like Godly music.

Once I realized that I could step beyond those artificial boundaries, I walked away from hymns. I liked listening to DJ play and sing at the piano, but I was angry that they had been forced on me as “the only good” music when some of it was patently not good.

Yet part of me still loves many of those songs.

A few months ago, I discovered Chris Rice’s song “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)”. It’s written in the style of an old mountain hymn, very simple words* and tune; but all the verses together trace a thread through the life of a Christian, from “sing to Jesus” to “fall on Jesus” to “dance for Jesus,” and finally death — “fly to Jesus.” It’s surprisingly touching, especially since Rice doesn’t try to make it fancy. He just sings.

When I found a 2007 album by Rice called “The Hymns Project,” I thought maybe he could salvage some of those old songs I really want to love. He didn’t disappoint me.

He liberates a couple of hymns from their swingy-slidey rhythm (“Rock of Ages” and “The Old Rugged Cross”). He takes one song that drags like a toddler going to bed, and gives it energy (“O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”). And he included one hymn that I love almost no matter how it’s arranged, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be
Let thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to thee

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it
Seal it for thy courts above.

I used to dislike this verse — that whole thing about the “fetter.” But now I deeply appreciate the idea that I can’t wander away from God. He lets me walk away, but never so far that I can’t find him again.

The best thing about this album is that Rice just sings. He doesn’t try to make the hymns more than they are. That’s when I realized there’s actually a lot to them.

I didn’t like every song (even Rice couldn’t mellow out A Mighty Fortress). That made me happy, too, since it reminded me that I’m free to pick and choose.

So if you’re like me and wary of hymns, give this one a try.

Source: Amazon.com: Peace Like A River: The Hymns Project: Chris Rice: MP3 Downloads

*The lyrics “Like a newborn baby/Don’t be afraid to crawl” is a slight jar, I admit. Newborn babies don’t crawl, and the only thing they’re afraid of is starving to death immediately right now even while a nipple is being inserted into their screaming mouths. But it’s minor. Just go with it.

 

 

 

The Good Patriarchy

paper-family-ii-1176053-1599x987

Patriarchists aren’t all bad.

Statements like that sound charitable, but they’re usually not. For one thing, as soon as I start thinking of people as a generic group– “Fundamentalists” “Liberals” “Right-Wingers” “The Gays” “Rednecks” — I stop seeing them as real people. They (plural) become a faceless figure (singular) imbued with everything I dislike about their particular set of ideas.

So to say that Patriarchists aren’t all bad, I’m basically conceding that they might have some actual human qualities.

My point here is much more generous, I hope.

People embrace a Christian patriarchal worldview for real reasons. The world has problems, and everyone is looking for solutions. As I once heard it said, “I like the questions they ask. I just don’t like all their answers.”

Here are some good reasons why people are “Patriarchists”:

Men need respect. (Yes, and also love.)  This is especially true for that almost invisible population of men who aren’t particularly handsome or flashy, nor are they violent and oppressive. They’re devoted to those they love. They work hard, worry a lot, do the best they can to provide and protect. You will find these men all through the ranks of the patriarchy camp. They’re sincere and faithful. They deserve respect. In a patriarchal system, they get it.

Women should plan their futures with motherhood in mind. Obviously I’ve got strong opinions about women’s education and future. But if a woman has any desire at all to have children, she needs to factor that into her plans. She has no idea beforehand how pregnancy will affect her. She could be on bedrest for six months, throwing up for nine, or simply too sleepy to function after 5pm. And it’s simple fact that mothers usually take on most of the work during the baby and toddler years.It’s smart to learn time management, childcare, and cooking. It’s also smart to look for a man who will be able to provide for the family if motherhood knocks her off her feet for a while. Patriarchy has this foresight built into its system.

Structure provides security. Life is scary and unpredictable. If you’ve already got a framework for handling decisions and expectations, it gives you something to fall back on. My dad died when I was three, leaving my mother with five children. But in that small Southern society thirty years ago, it was understood that the men of the family would do all they could to take care of the women. My grandfather and uncle stepped in and filled up a huge, gaping hole in our lives until my mom got back on her feet. In patriarchy, the men are accustomed to stepping up.

Men and Women (in general) are different and need one another for balance. I know, I know, not all women are highly emotional, and some men stop and ask for directions. Male/female stereotypes cease to be helpful very quickly. Still, there are obvious biological differences, and as a group, women and men approach life differently. A world with both masculine and feminine influence is a rich one. Patriarchy recognizes these differences in a positive light.

God pervades everything. In Christian patriarchy, there is no real distinction between secular and sacred. Everything you do is in service to God. You eventually go through everyday life in a constant awareness and communion with God.

I sincerely believe these things are good. So why don’t we want to return to the world of patriarchy?

Because it is not a self-correcting system.

As long as you get good people who are willing to compromise, be flexible, and understand other points of view — patriarchy can function very well for the people involved.

But if things go bad, the people under authority have no way to check or challenge the people in control. And it’s not really an “if”– when humans are involved, things will go wrong.

So Patriarchists aren’t all bad. I fight against the error of villainizing those who don’t see things my way. But I can look at a system that allows bad people to stay in control, and I can say: That is not good.

 

A Review: “Gave Me a Deeper Understanding”

Gretchen Louise at Kindred Grace has posted a review of The Fellowship. 

Different people notice different aspects of the story. Some have remarked on how easy it was to get to know the characters. Some recognize specific teachings or experiences. Some love the often-irreverent humor, and a lot of people held out hope that it wasn’t really lost. (What wasn’t? Hm, looks like you should read the story.)

What Gretchen highlights is the fact that “the familiar” is a very strong force. It’s often easier to stay in a bad but familiar situation than risk a new, possibly better, one.

But I think what stood out to me most in The Fellowship is how comfortable the familiar could become. As much as Bekah loved the taste of freedom, the rules that had bound her for so long were so very compelling… At the same time, I was given a much deeper understanding into the mindset of those who are unwilling to leave unhealthy and even dangerous situations.

Read the entire review here, and linger to browse her beautiful site.

Abigail, A Dangerous Woman

The Bible doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to exposing dangerous women. The first one who comes to your mind, just like mine, is Abigail.

Lest you think we’re talking about two different Old Testament characters, I’ll give a rundown of her story. It’s found in 1 Samuel 25.

In the years before David became king of Israel, he was on the run from Saul–the current king–and building up his own following. They happened upon the fields of Nabal during shearing time. David sent ten men to Nabal saying, “Hey, we didn’t mess with your shepherds or steal any of your sheep or goats. So could you give me food for my men?”

It was a big request. But Nabal was a rich man. More to the point, he was still rich thanks to David’s honorable treatment of his property. Also, David’s men had weapons. Like any reasonable man, Nabal saw that it was to his advantage to pay up his part of the bargain.

Oh, wait. Nabal’s name means “fool.” He did not pay up. He insulted David and told him to get lost.

David got mad and began mobilizing his men for wholesale slaughter of every male in Nabal’s household.

(See, class? We sure do need for men to be in charge all the time because it always goes so much better that way.)

Abigail was Nabal’s wife. When a servant came to her in a panic, telling her what was going on, she swung into action. She gathered up food, freshened up, saddled a donkey, and went out to meet David herself. She apologized for her husband’s foolishness and begged him to spare the household.

David, hotheaded though he was, was actually a reasonable man, especially by ancient warlord standards. He agreed to call off the attack. In fact, he was relieved that Abigail had kept him from unnecessary bloodshed.

Abigail went back and told Nabal what she’d done. Nabal was furious. So absolutely, intensely furious that he had a stroke and then died.

So the household was saved, Nabal disposed of, and David took Abigail to be his wife. Which really was the best a woman could hope for in that time.

Okay, so I admit that at first glance, it actually looks like Abigail is the hero of this story. But one of the tricks of a patriarchal worldview is that it can use one or two details to twist the whole perspective into the proper shape.

To start with, you’ve got to keep the most important principle in mind at all time. That principle is: Authority. Every situation, even a story told for centuries around campfires, must be filtered through the grid of Authority.

Who was in authority in this story? Well, David, because he’d been anointed the next king of Israel. Who else had authority here? Nabal, the husband and owner of the property.

Who did not have the authority to make any decisions or take any action? Abigail. Because she was married, she was bound to obey her husband no matter what.

There are two telling details in the passage of Scripture. One, the servant came to Abigail behind Nabal’s back, and even said he was wicked and foolish. Abigail did not rebuke the servant for speaking against their authority. Two, Abigail made her plans and headed out to see David, but as the story notes, She did not tell her husband.

But… but… she spared every  male in the household! Including Nabal’s worthless hindquarters!

Yet you see what her rebellion–yes, she was rebellious–led to. Her husband died. David might feel like God had vindicated him, but Abigail had to live with the knowledge that her actions killed her own husband.

But… but… Abigail became David’s wife…

Pfft. She became one of his wives. Who wants that? (What woman had a choice back then? Hush, you’re cluttering up the narrative.) And she did have at least one son who should have become king after David, but we never hear anything about him. That’s the third devastating detail in this story: God punished Abigail by not letting her son become the next king.

I’m not exaggerating this interpretation. This is what I was taught as a student of Bill Gothard. He embroidered a lot of the details*, but there’s a long tradition among hardcore patriarchalists to demonize Abigail. She usurped her husband’s place and was the cause of his death.

Girls, do not grow up to be like Abigail!

You should instead hope to be like… well… how about you just don’t read ahead in your Bibles until we have time to explain how Ruth, Esther, Deborah, Jael, etc. are also cautionary tales. Here, instead we’ve rewritten history and also these stories with passive obedient heroines. We’ll get back to God’s Word when you’re ready to understand the truths hidden within it.

Good thing you’ve got men to illuminate it for you.

*Gothard claimed that if Abigail hadn’t intervened, then David would have had the guilt of unnecessary bloodshed on his conscience; years later, when he got Bathsheba pregnant, he wouldn’t have sent Uriah into battle to be killed because he’d already know how wrong that was. I didn’t make that up.

** I hope it’s clear that I’m not claiming all Christian men believe this way. But there’s a slice of Christianity that does. If you’ve never encountered teachings like this, you might not realize the enormous effort it takes to re-read the Bible in its own words, not the twisted interpretation we were given.

Orderly Umbrellas

3050_10201307520445888_2703518072495550916_n

“So pastors are under God’s authority,” Bekah explained. “Families are under the pastors.” She held her hand in the air and moved it down levels as she spoke. “Husbands are in authority over wives. Wives are in authority over children.”

When Ty didn’t respond, Bekah added, “It’s all very orderly, anyway.” But of course Ty didn’t give “orderly” as much weight as she did. In the Fellowship, orderliness was nearly one of the Ten Commandments.

The FellowshipChapter 5.

The “umbrella of authority” is a concept that’s been around for many years. I was taught this very “order” as a teenager, although the charts I saw weren’t illustrated with patio umbrellas. It gives it kind of  an easy-living vibe.

It’s a clean, logical graphic that makes its point with a single glance: The Umbrella of Authority concept effectively protects Jesus from getting cooties from women!

Haha, not really. We all know that in Christ, men and women can approach God as equals. So this chart isn’t saying that a woman can’t get to Jesus except through her husband.

Of course, if you look at the husband’s share of life responsibilities, you’ll see that he’s supposed to be the spiritual leader. And underneath the woman’s cute little umbrella, you see “Submit to husband’s authority.” So a woman could approach God on her own, but to be honest, that really does mess up the Natural Order of the Family, doesn’t it? And God is a God of order, so he actually prefers you to go through the proper channels.

So… just go through your husband, okay?

There’s certainly nothing here that a man could object to. Shouldn’t a man lead his family spiritually? Shouldn’t he provide for his family? Shouldn’t he love his wife?  Well, then, what’s the problem?

What do you mean, these responsibilities don’t have to be limited only to husbands?

Oh. Hold on. We need to get something clear here.

You can’t shift these categories around. The umbrellas are impermeable when it comes to proper roles and responsibilities. You let a woman provide for the family or exert spiritual leadership, and the next thing you know, the husband will submit to her authority on some issues, and that’s it. The umbrellas disintegrate in a fiery, bloody, toxic meltdown.

This catastrophe completely incapacitates men. They won’t read their Bibles, won’t hold a job, won’t take out the garbage, nothing.* But they probably will look at porn and run away with another woman (probably some woman who usurped her husband’s authority, destroyed her home, and is now going to destroy yours). Why would you even want to mess with that?

No, this is the Natural Order of the Family. It looks great and worked really well in Victorian times, assuming you happened to be white and middle- to upper-class.

Just go with it.

Just hush.

Just obey.

It’s the Natural Order of the Family.

*Very recently, I read an admonition written by a man to younger women, advising them on how to find good answers to their questions. He explained that they were, first of all, to read their Bibles. Then they were to ask their husbands any questions they had. Don’t worry if you, the wife, knew more about the Bible than your husband did; your questions would motivate him to study! But the flipside is that he won’t read his Bible at all if you bypass his authority and seek out answers on your own.

I heard this same idea very often growing up. Men in patriarchal circles are badly prone to wind down to complete nothingness if their wives aren’t there to motivate, bolster, and reassure them that they are big strong leaders.

**By the way, why doesn’t Jesus have to do anything in this umbrella system?

***Seriously, it’s like its all dependent on our own works or something.

 

The Patriarchy Shop

The smiling man, dressed in a tailored dark suit, leaned over the polished oak and marble counter. “Welcome to the Christian Patriarchy Market! How can I help you?”

His new customer, a young woman, smiled tentatively back. “Hi. I’m looking for a new one of these, and I was told I had to get it here.”

She laid a large purse on the counter top. It was dark leather with “life” stamped on it in faded yellow letters. “I just turned twenty-two. I feel like I’m ready for a bigger one.”

His smile broadened. “I’ve got exactly what you need!” He opened a cabinet and withdrew another bag. It was much larger, and engraved into its smooth leather surface in flowing silver letters was Life.

“This is ideal for a woman in your situation,” he explained. “See how much bigger it is. You’ve got a lot more space to serve others. There’s a special pocket here to store your heart — I assume you’ve got it locked away in a box and you’ve given the key to your father?”

“Well…” she said hesitantly.

“Because you’re ready for a lot more responsibility, you’ll see that this one has lots of different sections. Here’s where you put your church ministry, here’s where you add your advanced homemaking skills, and don’t forget to fill up this baby pocket with lots and lots of longing! You’d be surprised at how many women in your stage of life don’t give any thought to wanting babies, but you can’t start too soon.”

She examined the bag with interest. “It’s really lovely, but I’m not sure it’s everything I need. I really, really love working in the yard…”

“You can put that with homemaking skills!”

“… and I’m really good at organizing events…”

“Church ministry! But you’ll need to tuck it way down so it doesn’t spill over into all the rest of the bag.”

“And… to be honest, I really want to learn to fly a plane. I’ve kind of looked into being a private pilot.”

The man paused. Then he cleared his throat. “I don’t think there’s really room for something like that. You could get your father to authorize an add-on for missions, but I’ll be honest with you, it’s bulky and doesn’t really fit.”

“But my brother’s accommodates all of that!”

“The men’s line is designed a little differently, of course.”

She fingered the soft leather. “I’d noticed that. Well, anyway, this won’t really work for me, because I’m getting married this summer.”

The clerk’s face lit up with excitement. “Really? Oh, you should have told me that to start with! You don’t need this old thing.” He swept the bag off the counter. Opening another cabinet door, he withdrew a leather bag so large that it took two arms to lift it onto the counter top.

It was made of leather, dyed deep red and purple, and fastened with brass. Surrounded by intricate scrollwork were real gold letters spelling out LIFE.

“This is everything you need!” the clerk exclaimed. “Look at this capacity–you’ll never run out of space for your desires! Lots of room for serving, huge section here for children, just look at your household work space! And right here–almost the entire middle section–is dedicated to your husband. You’ll have a lifetime job just filling this up!”

He looked at her expectantly, but she didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm. “There’s no room here for piloting a plane. Or organizing events. What about knowing God? I was hoping that my new bag would have a lot of space for that.”

“That’s the great thing about the patriarchy design,” the salesman said. “Watch this.”

He walked around to the front of the counter and opened two large double doors on the front. Using both hands, he extracted a rolling leather bag, reinforced with steel and decorated with images of swords. “This is the married man’s bag. It’s extra-double capacity because once a man is married, he’s basically responsible for everything relating to his wife and family. Pretty hefty weight to carry. Aren’t you glad you don’t have to worry about all this?”

“Well, I could help carry it.”

“Oh, no! This isn’t designed for a woman! But let me show you the best feature here.” He opened the man’s bag. Then he picked up the woman’s bag and tucked it inside. “See? It fits right there in the section for ‘spiritual maturity.’ As long as you keep all your things there, you’ll know everything you need to about God.”

She pointed to a small zip pocket on the side of the woman’s leather bag. “What’s that for?”

The salesman’s smile was bright. “You just stuff all your bad feelings in there and zip it up. That’s the feature that makes our design workable.”

The woman stood silently, taking it all in. Then she burst out, “But I don’t want to put all my stuff in there! And that’s way too heavy for my fiance! What happens if I have too much to fit? Or if his bag tears open?”

The clerk was no longer smiling. “I thought you were a serious customer.”

“I am! There’s just some serious flaws in your design.”

“Excuse me. It’s not my design. It’s God’s design. This is the way it works. You can go shopping at some other bag shop, but I warn you, those are badly-made and will rip open at a moment when you’re least expecting it. You’ll lose everything.”

She cleared her throat. “Just curious… have you ever used the woman’s bag to see how it really works?”

The salesman gave a short, derisive laugh. “Well, no. I don’t think God even uses it. He’s male too, you know. So, can I ring you up?”

“I… think I need to think about it.”

“I warn you, if you walk out of here, you walk away from this exclusively-designed line and away from the God who designed it!”

The woman shouldered her small bag again. “I think I saw God in some other places. He really seems too big to fit in here, actually. And so am I.” She turned and walked out of the shop.

Speaking of College

Allison from Presentmindedly just read The Fellowship and commented with the perspective of an “outsider.” I asked if I could turn her comment into a post.

For a little background, Allison and I grew up in the same hometown–attended the same church, in fact–but our paths didn’t cross too much. Public schooled while I was homeschooled, she was a few years ahead of me: always determined, ambitious, and very kind to the younger girls. Recently I was thrilled when she said she was reading the novel, and as usual I find her perspective very valuable.

Her words are in bold, and I’ve added my own observations in plain text. I’m not commenting to disagree, but to discuss two sides of the question. It’s a sort of call-and-response post, I guess.

Allison:
I understand how young people told that they can’t attend college and having that option for their future totally removed from them would want to explore the option of going to college, and how women might see a need for college so that they have a way to support their families should their husbands pass away (or leave).

Sara:
In the Fellowship, Bekah knows that college is not an option if she wants to remain in good standing with the church. This aspect of the Fellowship reflects my own experience with IBLP, which discouraged both young women and young men from seeking higher education. (But it was especially forbidden for women.) A lot of heavily-controlled religious systems push the line of thought that college introduces young people to worldly ideas, which shipwrecks their faith. When it comes to questions about their future, these groups insist that God will provide whatever training is necessary to make a living as an adult.

Most of us spend our 30s scrambling to catch up, or living with the insecurity that one twist of fate could leave us unable to support ourselves and our families (again, especially women).

And we think, if only we’d been allowed to go to college…

Allison:
In my experience and observation, though, college is not necessarily an avenue for job training or even job preparation. I write this as a summa cum laude graduate of the Honors College at University of Southern Mississippi, with a degree in Environmental Biology and a minor in Chemistry.

All those A’s, all that studying, all those classes and labs, and all it really prepared me for was–wait for it–more school. I had no desire to go to grad school and wanted to be a missionary at that point, anyway. At Awards Day at the end of my senior year, my father asked (with slight disappointment), “You’ve never wanted to go to med school, have you?” Nope, never had. Got accepted to grad school but declined it because I went to Romania to serve for a year.

Many people I know graduated with degrees that, while perhaps fulfilling on personal levels, didn’t necessarily prepare them for a job. I had a delightful professor who once quoted somebody else (no idea who now) in one of our classes… “College is the babysitter for tomorrow’s workforce.” I took offense at the time, but I kind of get it now.

Sara:
Although it doesn’t come through strongly in my novel, I’m very disenchanted with the college system. I love the idea of alternative training and seeking knowledge outside the approved channels of learning. But that’s a harder road to walk, and most of us weren’t actually given the choice. We were forced to walk it… often by men who were actually interested in keeping their empires going.

It’s also easier to have the degree and say, “I didn’t need it,” than feel trapped by a life where you can’t seem move ahead without that degree.

Allison:
College did give me opportunities to grow personally and spiritually and to grow up. To discover more about myself, to learn more about how to think critically and to engage in the world. But it wasn’t particularly fun, and although I met great people, I don’t have lifelong close friends from college (and I had counted on that). It was honestly often lonely and lots of hard, hard work. So it provided opportunities for personal challenge and development.

Sara:
This right here is part of what many of us feel we missed out on–some much more extremely than I did.

My parents didn’t forbid college; we sure didn’t have a lot of extra money and I wasn’t gung-ho to go. They believed that the program we were in was a viable alternative (It looked very good on paper, as the saying goes.) So we all bought into the idea that traditional college wasn’t worth considering.

So all that growing, figuring out who we are, what we believe, thinking critically, and engaging in the world — that’s part of the “college experience” that we feel we were denied.

The truth is, of course, that you don’t need college for any of that. But in our subculture, the reason that college was discouraged or even denied to us was to keep us from developing, exploring, and engaging. So that’s how we think of it: if I had been allowed to choose higher education, I might have been allowed to grow.

Allison:
But what college did not give me was what I expected going in–-training, credentials, and an open door to a career of helping protect God’s green earth in some way. God used college in my life, certainly; but I don’t think of my degree as something to fall back on. And I’m not alone in that.

I suppose I’m just bringing this up because I sensed several times that there was a thought in the story [of The Fellowship] of college giving women (and men, too) abilities to provide for and support their families that they couldn’t get without a degree.

Sara:
This was my personal insecurity shining through. I’m entirely dependent on my husband’s ability to bring in income. I consider myself very well-educated; but I don’t have the degree and work experience for a decent job. We do have life insurance (again, possible because of DJ’s money, not mine); but still, if something happened to DJ, I’d be trying to find a minimum-wage job to support myself and my four children.

My dad died when I was three, and my stepdad died when I was twenty. I have no illusions that God keeps men alive just to support their families. For those who have read the novel, this situation is spelled out pretty clearly in the story.

Allison:
Certainly some degrees are necessary for certain jobs–social work, teaching school, physical therapy. But most degrees don’t carry with them an accompanying certification.

Because I’ve been to college, I think “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” But if I hadn’t been to college, I’d probably think, “I wonder what I missed.”

Sara:
I didn’t have enough room in the novel to explore college vs. alternative education. My point wasn’t that Everyone Should Go To College, but that the Fellowship limited and controlled the lives of its people by refusing to let them make their own way in life.

I posted Allison’s comment here as encouragement to those of us who have come out of a controlling system. College wouldn’t have eliminated our struggles, just given us a different set of problems. It’s tough living with the consequences of a choice we didn’t really get to make. But once we’re free from whatever “Fellowship” once controlled us, we really do have the freedom to make our own choices, learn from our own mistakes, and build our own lives.