Still There

I was hoping for a rainy Sunday, or a federal Monday

for some quiet hum or a morning in bed

for a reposed window seat or a walk down the sidewalk

where no other feet are feeling their way about.

I was putting stock in a change of pace to decrease my heartrate

running is good for the vessel but bad for the blood.

I was counting on a breath of air to refresh my mental state

A/C is good for the clothing but bad for the skin.

I was wanting to go out, or in.

I was hoping for a change of something,

for a change of something,

for a change

in general.

I was trusting in a change of something.

 

Then I got a day off,

and it rained,

and I stayed in bed all day,

and I was still there.

Advertisements

God Won

it is salty

it tickles the fleshy underside of his foot a little

it is pooling in the hollows above his collarbone

warms him up

 

blood like a woman caressing the tendons in his back

blood behind his ears and in his eyes

and he can’t rub it out

blood won’t leave him alone

 

he has never noticed tiredness in his fingernails before

or in his skin

there is pain in his hair

that is new

 

someone in his skull is banging hard on the door

let me out

these gates are shut from the outside

you’re trapped in there for good

 

he wanted God

God wanted him

and God won

Rich White America

I’m from Rich White America, the human race’s one percent.

I’m from daily dinners with Dad and Mom,

cul-de-sac calm and patio parties

and nothing but failure to fear.

I’m from baby books, photo books

children’s books, classic books –

books that they would read to me so I would ace the SAT.

I’m from big grass yards and imaginary friends;

all the wars I fought were sticks and pirate ships.

I’m from homework help and holidays,

spring break trips and soccer games.

I’m from homemade meals and fresh fruit in the fridge.

I’m from innocence and warmth,

crystallized on Christmas with five presents just for me.

I’m from self-inflicted issues with a satisfied stomach

and a sheltered safe haven from violence;

even sickness was sorry to disturb the peace.

I’m from landlocked tears and

and keeping one’s emotions in one’s room.

 

I’m from everything you didn’t have.

Does it help if shame and loneliness are familiar faces in this fairy tale?

If anxiety and depression are the starlets on this silver screen?

Rich White America is the strangest of normals,

and I’m not saying that it’s fair.

So please tell me instead, where you’re from?

why I’m grateful for my secular university education

In the Christianized subculture where I spent much of my childhood, characterized as it was by social conservatism and a sometimes thoughtful but often reactionary approach to cultural critique, there was frequent discussion of “liberal,” “secular” higher education and its evils. My parents and their friends were understandably apprehensive of college campuses. Whatever your background, you can easily imagine why the idea of thousands of 19-year-olds living together, under the tutelage of hundreds of self-proclaimed Marxists/feminists/atheists/fill-in-the-blank-ists who profess to offer exclusive access to knowledge, enlightenment, and humanism, would be distasteful to conservative evangelical parents.

But, I never fit in very well with the Christianized subculture in which I came of age, familiar as it was. I had no desire to stay within it in adulthood, because of its flaws and my own flaws working in synchrony. Thus, I never considered attending a religious university, and set my sights on UC San Diego (its department in my field of study is well-renowned, and I love my home city). Now, this side of graduation, I’ve identified some specific reasons for why I’m so grateful for that choice.

**My goal here is to articulate gratitude, not to make a comparison or persuasive argument.

My liberal, secular higher education taught me how to speak English the way normal people do. While there is certainly a place for the rich terminology granted to us by our biblical, theological, and ecclesial traditions, there exists in American Christendom a particular social dialect that is often unintelligible to outsiders. A lot of it is shorthand drawn from biblical imagery, as when you hear people say “a seed was planted.” That means that some portion of Christian teaching was shared with a non-Christian, with the hope that said person’s interest in Christ will grow over time. Like jargon everywhere, it serves the functional purpose of allowing people to say what they mean with brevity. But, it also creates the impression that the world of Christians who are fluent in the jargon is a different world from the one where the rest of us live. It can also prevent us from actually thinking through what we mean. Much of the time, phrases and idioms are parroted without understanding. My time at university forced me to avoid the American Christian dialect and taught me how to express my beliefs in everyday English.

Living on campus made me learn how to live with sex, drugs, rock and roll, etc (that is, with young people). It did not change my convictions about the moral status of these behaviors. If anything, it reinforced ad nauseum how damaging promiscuity is and how unattractive substance abuse is in otherwise amiable people. Nonetheless, learning to live with and love people who think of these behaviors as normal or natural saved me from becoming a moralist. Jesus preached against the self-righteousness of religious people much more than the self-indulgence of pagans. Spiritual pride is the deadliest of sins. Thus, living in an environment run by self-indulgent pagans solidified my own moral convictions while at the same time forcing me to learn how to “eat with sinners,” for my good and theirs.

Living on campus gave me the chance to become friends with people who are vastly different from me. One of my roommates during my first year was a sorority girl who seemed to know everyone at our school of 28-thousand. She’s pretty, bubbly, outgoing, a natural romantic. That’s not me at all, yet somehow we became friends. Another girl in my hall taught me how to skateboard, and we challenged each other frequently on politics and God, even though by the end of the year she was tripping on acid almost every day. Another friend of mine struggled with her self-image for the first two years that I knew her, until she decided to start the process of female-to-male transition last year. The point is that I made real, actual friendships with people I would otherwise have little opportunity to know. Living in the dorms was hard for a lot of reasons, but it was worth it for that.

My secular university education taught me how to be fair to my intellectual opponent.  On both sides of every ideological divide there is a pernicious tendency to read and cite the best, most nuanced sources produced by the acceptable side, and then compare that with pop journalism produced by the unacceptable side. This leads to a lot of straw man arguments, which in turn leads to a lot of self-congratulation despite the fact that no real intellectual work has been done. By exposing me to the best, most nuanced ideas produced by my intellectual opponents, my secular education made me a more fair-minded thinker. There is no need to resort to mockery as a form of self-defense when you understand that your opponent is sincere, and probably as thoughtful as you. Rational dialogue can actually happen between people who are in deep ideological opposition! It may be rare, but I learned how to do it at school.

My time at university deeply challenged my beliefs. I arrived at school with the presupposition that the search for truth would be worthwhile, no matter where it led me. That enabled me to take classes and read books without fear that my belief system would be undermined. If it was capable of being undermined, I didn’t want it. Many others have made similar attempts at objectivity and have arrived at different conclusions, so I know that teachability will not overcome confirmation bias always and in all cases. Nonetheless, there are times I have wanted Christianity to be false, because that would make some things in my personal life a lot easier. So my own confirmation bias was lessened, if still present at some level. Some of what I learned at school forced me to seriously reconsider some things I had assumed as true, in light of new evidence–and recognizing flaws in your belief system can be a painful process. Despite all of that, my faith came through the other side, refined and modified in some ways, but still intact, and still orthodox. Looking back now, I think my faith is, though much more humble, more confident than ever. It faced down its ugliest demons and came through victorious. That kind of intellectual and personal harrowing taught me not to fear the truth. If it’s true, and if God is real, then the truth unquestionably belongs to him.

God as father

Why is the biblical God typically (not exclusively) described in masculine terms?

So far I’ve had two friends cite this as one of their main complaints against the Christian God: “he” is too paternal. Too male. In an era when, thankfully, women are finally able to challenge the structures of male domination which have caused inestimable suffering, and when, unfortunately, the subsequent attempt to purge our culture of “patriarchy” has led to a unilateral rejection of masculinity even in its virtuous forms, this is not surprising. I have asked myself the same questions: is there a reason that God wants us to call him father and not mother? Since he is spiritual, not bodily (John 4:24), why does he use gendered terms at all? Why not something more philosophical or mystical such as “pure being” or “the One”? Something less tainted by the kind of emotional baggage that human male authority figures tend to create?

In fact, from the beginning, the biblical God has used a brilliant, non-gendered ontological self-descriptor: “I am,” which is the root of the Hebrew word Yahweh/Jehovah, the most common name for God in the Hebrew Bible. This teaches us that God cannot be fully described by human language and that (his) self-existence far transcends the limited categories of sex and gender.

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you.'” Exodus 3:14

All our ideas about God are limited by our “epistemic humility,” our inability to grasp anything beyond our familiar world of matter, space, and time. Anything we know of the divine is nothing more than a fraction of an infinite whole. That much has always been clear.

Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand? Job 26:14

With that said, here are four ideas as to why the Bible generally presents God as a masculine, paternal figure.

1) The Bible anthropomorphizes God as a gift to us, making him more comprehensible than he would otherwise be.

The question “why use gendered terms at all?” points to a larger question regarding the Bible’s tendency to use anthropomorphizing terms to describe God, and worldly terms to describe otherworldly phenomena. Think also of how often Jesus spoke in parables, or short stories, rather than theological treatises. The Bible is mostly made up of stories and poems which were first composed orally and only later codified in written text. This reflects a fact about our world: most humans in most times and places have been illiterate, oral learners. As a species we tend to absorb information better and faster through storytelling than through argumentation. What’s easier to remember: a two-hour movie or a two-hour powerpoint presentation?

Human languages divide the world into categories which God doesn’t fit into, but which God nonetheless adopts in order to give us a foothold into understanding who he is. Language is limited, but without it we wouldn’t be able to say anything at all about God. One could object to this and say that, therefore, we shouldn’t even try and should be content to be agnostic. But if God has actually given us a set of images and terms and has told us to latch onto them, while recognizing their inherent limitations, then that is an incredible gift. There is a risk that we will take it all too literally and think that heaven is really made out of gold or that God is really male. But at least gold and fathers are things we can imagine, while heaven and divinity are not.

Especially considering that the vast majority of human learning is picture-oriented, the anthropomorphizing terms that the Bible uses to describe God are an expression of grace, proving that our Creator wants us to know him.

2) Many people lack father figures (more so than mother figures).

Elsewhere I’ve mentioned the biological reasons behind this, and for people who have been around long enough, it’s a simple reality. It’s easier for fathers than for mothers to abandon their children, and so more of them do. That means many more people lacking a loving, protecting, paternal voice, which is universally desired – at least, I can think of no exceptions. The Bible has always called out “the fatherless” as a special group for whom God is concerned. Thus, God as father fills this gap when he tells us to call him abba, the term used at home with dad because you’re safe under his domain and you know that he loves you.

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship*. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” Romans 8:15

*The Greek word for adoption to sonship is a term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture (note from the NIV).

3) The fatherhood of God redefines human fatherhood.

Most human societies have placed little emphasis on the father’s role in child-rearing. The phenomenon of the stay-at-home dad is extremely modern, again because of biological reasons and the realities of pre-industrialized life. By calling God “father,” the Bible combines the traditional archetype of the distant authority figure who rules by domestic decree with the idea of an intimately involved parent who loves his children ardently. That is, God is “other” from us in his divinity and moral purity in a way analogous to the traditional concept of the distant patriarch. Yet he is compassionate and loving towards us in a way that challenges that traditional concept.

Thus the Bible subverts our assumptions about patriarchal gender roles by teaching fathers to love their children gently and to care for them intimately, in the same way that God loves and cares for us. Think of the father in the story of the prodigal son, who as an aged man runs to meet his rebellious son and kisses him before he has a chance to say anything. That father, representing God, refuses to be treated as a master or employer. Instead he insists on being affectionate and “prodigally” kind to his undeserving child.

And you saw how the LORD [Yahweh] your God cared for you all along the way as you traveled through the wilderness, just as a father cares for his child. Deuteronomy 1:31

And my personal favorite verse comparing human and divine fatherhood, in that subtle, piercing tone so typical of Jesus:

If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! Matthew 7:11

4) The Bible doesn’t only use masculine, paternal imagery to talk about God.

There’s lots of potential for reflection here, but for now I’ll just list a few examples of the times that the Bible speaks about God as a mother/woman.

[David:] But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. Psalm 131:2

[God:] Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Isaiah 49:15

[God:] As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem. Isaiah 66:13

[Jesus speaking, right before the story of the prodigal son:] Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.” In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents. Luke 15:8-10

God is not a man. We have to remember that. In his mercy he has revealed himself to us in certain ways so that we can start to know him even now. The Christian life is a lifelong journey of working through all of this, emotional baggage and all, and gradually learning what it means when we pray, “our father…”

 

Biting Your Tongue

You don’t indulge me and for that I should be grateful.

I sometimes feel like an overly eager pet, tending to overwhelm newcomers with nearly violent affection and pleading for love, benefiting greatly from the restraint of its owner. I’m still an angst-filled child at heart, so afflicted with imaginary turmoil…

Afflicted with imaginary turmoil,
Abandoned in an un-mandated exile,
Distracted by the products of the epoch,
Distrusting of the motives ‘neath the get-up.

If only I could obscure it all in figurative expression. I find emotional thought mediated by symbolism much more comfortable than the immediacy that happens when I admit to you what it was I wanted to say, before I remembered to catch myself. Well, ‘remembered’ isn’t the right word, because it’s instinct now, not thought: an ancestral fear that my confessions won’t be well-received. For good reason. Have you ever detoured through the shanty towns on the internet’s outskirts, where the bad confessional poets try to console each other with bad rhymes and bad ideas, like the meth-infested small towns of the Rust Belt?

The darkness is my only friend,
And won’t you call me back again?

Get through there quick, it’s not pretty. The ugly part of the highway between sexier cities. Thus I feel right about biting my tongue, and you’re right in your lack of indulgence.

Biting your tongue, got a mouth full of blood
And they ask you what it is you’re thinking of.
Bad jokes, that’s it, move on, get a grip —
Don’t let them know that you’re fading away.
Chances are they’ll let the moment dissipate (instead).

But these are such tired moments. I know you think so too. I’ve got to either say it or get over it. Blood in the mouth has got to be spit out or swallowed; otherwise it stains your teeth and metallicizes everything. Rambunctious pets have got to be loved on or trained out of it, lest they jump on the folks at the door. Either hear me out sympathetically or call me out for acting pathetically…

While my pathos competes with your logos
and your ego competes with my id,
then my pneuma will duel with your psyche
till you meta find out what I did…

Ah, dear. Once again I longed for originality, only to find I was a product of my age.

femininity (en)couraged: part 2

Last time, I wrote about our unfortunate tendency to discourage femininity, in both men and women, and to overvalue stereotypical masculine traits. This time, I want to investigate the ways in which Jesus of Nazareth exemplifies both masculinity and femininity in a striking balance. This balance is one toward which we all, male and female, ought to strive.

Jesus disdained vanity, whether vain displays of masculine “strength” or vain displays of feminine “beauty.” He redefined both strength and beauty in a way that undercuts our tired use of both for self-promotion. He told Peter to put down his sword:

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who take up the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52

And he told us to stop worrying about our clothes:

And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin… Matthew 6:28

His definition of both strength and beauty is summarized in the beatitudes: poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, desire for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and endurance through persecution. Taken together, these are the antidotes to vanity in all its forms.

Jesus was gentle with women and men and abrasive with women and men, basing his responses to people not on their gender or status but on his discernment of their motives. He demanded the same things from women as from men, and from members of all classes without differentiation: repentance and faith. No difference existed between his level of engagement with the important male of high religious standing in John 3 and the uneducated, foreigner female in John 4. In both cases Jesus discusses theological controversy with an equal level of interest, revealing deep spiritual truth to each one. He called both women and men to discipleship, neither patronizing women nor hyper-focusing on men.

And Jesus said [to the woman caught in adultery], “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? …Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” John 8:10-11

Then Jesus answered [the Canaanite woman], “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:28

Jesus was equally “emotional” and “rational.” He wept openly, being “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” at the sight of his friend Mary’s grief (John 11:34-35). Yet he was never carried away by emotion, instead maintaining control even when provoked by unconscionable injustice:

Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death… But Jesus remained silent. Matthew 26:59, 63

He valued “feminine” displays of tenderness above “masculine” competition. When a “sinful woman” barged in on a dinner party at which Jesus was a guest and began to anoint, kiss, and weep over his feet, he praised her as being more exemplary than his prestigious host. Her action had no economic, political, or public value of any kind, and was in that sense purely symbolic, yet Jesus treasured it.

Jesus blows apart our artificial binary between masculine and feminine virtues. For Christians, the only virtues are Christ-like ones. He is humanity at its best, for men and women alike. Thus, he exhibits the best of what we ignorantly consider “masculine” (e.g. strength, directness, courage, rationality) and “feminine” (e.g. gentleness, care, tenderness, emotionality), and he draws no line between them.

We ought to look to Jesus, studying his life and praying to him for help, as we seek to correct the imbalance between masculinity and femininity in our churches and in our lives.

femininity (dis)couraged: part 1

Mary vs. Eve

Much has already been written on the polarized visions of female sexuality typified by Mary the virgin and Eve the temptress. In our efforts to make Mary less stifling and Eve less objectifying, perhaps we have abandoned our positive visions of femininity altogether.

It’s not that we are against female persons per se, culturally. We are against a particular archetype of the feminine. I tentatively offer up four dichotomies as exemplary of how we imagine the feminine-masculine contrast:

  • emotional vs. rational
  • innocent vs. worldly
  • stationary vs. mobile
  • aesthetic vs. economic

What we think of as “masculine” is celebrated in both sexes. In politics and business, a woman must naturally exhibit or learn to mimic the qualities that are thought of as typically masculine in order to gain reception as a productive, important person — square shoulders, a lower voice, short hair, unflowered language, formal forms of address, abrasiveness, crude jokes, physically distant mannerisms. Masculinity is associated with seriousness while femininity is associated with triviality.

This affects not only women but men, and more severely so. Men who display “feminine” qualities, whether physical or personal, are socially punished for being too slender, gentle, sedentary, aesthetically sensitive, emotional, relational, wordy, refined. Their sexual prowess is considered deficient or their sexual orientation is doubted. They are often relegated to the world of women, shut out from male zones and denied male approbation.

A notable development in the history of our social imagination is the move of aesthetic appreciation from association with the masculine to the feminine. Pre-industrialization, the masculine worlds of education and scholarship emphasized appreciation for the arts and poetry. Boys studied the serious business of Homer and Shakespeare while girls studied homemaking. In the pre-capitalist epoch, the arts were considered central to the human endeavor, and therefore as belonging to the realm of masculine expertise, but industrialization overturned our cultural value system. Aesthetic appreciation contributes nothing to capitalist nation-building, which in the 19th century overtook the American imagination as the new most important human project, over and above spiritual or aesthetic pursuits.

This industrialized disregard for the arts as irrelevant and therefore feminine has persisted; for easy evidence, compare the rates of males in STEM majors with the rates of females in “soft” science/literary/artistic majors. It is highly ironic that aesthetic sensitivity (e.g. attention to color, design, figurative language) is now disparagingly associated with the feminine, considering the history of male domination in the arts.

Perhaps in our cultural effort to usher women into the “important,” “masculine” worlds of economics and politics, we have ceded too much ground by agreeing a priori to the proposition that only those worlds are important. Therefore, only masculinity is important. Unfortunately, the goal seems to have become to elevate women by making them more masculine. Furthermore, this infiltration of women into male zones and masculine roles has generated a reactionary response among men which has tended to restrict the definition of what masculinity means, detrimentally affecting men or boys who fail to fit the mold.

A healthier project may be to de-trivialize femininity itself and elevate the feminine worlds of art, interpersonal relationships, emotion, and spirituality back to their rightful place at the center of human life.

The next post will look at how the Bible intersects with these issues.

 

To The Young, Ironic Urbanites

San Diego/Portland

I love you intensely. I’m besieged by concern.
With your smoking guns and your travelogues,
you’ve conquered the world of this city,
empire extending as fast as your chariots run:
four-wheeled, nonstop,
signet-sealed, kings atop.
With your brash self-doubt and your mystic’s eye,
you’ve stared down the old of this city,
the senatorial class with their face-saving moralism.
Visigoths, Turks, Mongols, Moors,
armored, armed philosophers –
you have upheaved us.

I love you so painfully. I sink in your heartache:
your silence, your noise, your aberrant sex,
your visions, your violence, your art, your shit,
rivulets in this city spreading out, flowing down,
till they meet in the delta of accusatory beauty,
fields flooded by an indignant want of grace.
Your confident flowing is still disturbed
by your dependence on the water cycle –
God’s gift of sun, God’s gift of rain.
Will you pray? Will you dance?
Does your genius come unbidden?

Home For The Holidays

I’ve been so proud of myself for growing up

and shedding this suburban scenery for more subtle forms of snobbery.

I the butterfly, you the broken cocoon. I the artist, you the coloring page.

I’ve proudly colored outside your lines.

But wintery tradition brings me back behind that picket fence

and I’ll whisper that I’m humbled by this homeyness.

I the weary traveler, you the cozy inn. I the prodigal, you the open arms.

This town pulls on my compasses.

 

On the way to that one coffee shop and who can think of anything else but that

the corner of 17th and Juniper is nothing if not the time I turned around to hear him out and welcome home another brother in the front of that movie-making robot

and that dirty donut shop is nothing if not the place I realized they were gone forever, interpreting the news of a shrinking world with coconut crumbs ignored

and the sidewalk across from Filippi’s is nothing if not the stage of my debut and the meeting of my first embodied inspiration at my entrance to the underworld

and that drive down the boulevard from Sunset to Grand is nothing if not the highway of my heart and the cornerstone of my conscience in every immanent sense.

The truth is that you made my good deeds good.