Saturday, May 25, 2013

Sovereign Grace Ministries and Abuse: Time to Speak Out

For some time I've been watching with a heavy heart the progress of the lawsuit initially filed against Sovereign Grace Ministries in October 2012.  The original news articles have long since been archived, but the evangelical watchdog blog site The Wartburg Watch still has quotes from those early news reports.  In January of this year an amended lawsuit was filed.  The basic allegations were that various pastoral leaders of SGM covered up members' allegations of child abuse and sexual molestation from the 1980s on.

The current news is that due to statute of limitations issues, it has been ruled that most of the victims have brought their lawsuit too late, and the case has been dismissed.  What saddens me is that while this is not because any of the allegations have even been addressed (and some of the defendants will undoubtedly bring a new suit), supporters of SGM's leader Charles Mahaney have chosen this time to voice their support in a way that belittles the stories of the accusers and vilifies the victims. While ostensibly acknowledging that "There is no excuse, at any time or in any place or for any reason, for the use of children for sexual pleasure," the article states "we are friends with C.J [Mahaney]," and goes on to say:

He has also been the object of libel and even a Javert-like obsession by some. One of the so-called discernment blogs—often trafficking more in speculation and gossip than edifying discernment—reprinted a comment from a woman who issued this ominous wish, "I hope [this lawsuit] ruins the entire organization [of SGM] and every single perpetrator and co-conspirator financially, mentally and physically."

The problem with this quote is that it is not from some outside voice passing judgment on a "discernment blog" (which apparently means a blog set up to exercise "spiritual discernment" as to the orthodoxy of other ministries; this term is frequently used as a pejorative).  The Wartburg Watch has located the source of the original quote, and it is from a woman who was raped during an SGM home-group meeting at the age of 13.  It does not come from a discernment blog at all, but from a survivors' blog, meant to be a safe place for former SGM members to tell their stories.  For Mahaney's friends on the Gospel Coalition blog to quote this in the manner they quote it, conveys the message that they consider speaking against their friends' ministry, even if it comes out of pain, to be a more important issue than a victim's response to her rape.

However you slice it, this is outrageous.  If they didn't know where the quote came from, they shouldn't have quoted it.  If they did know-- then they have just treated a woman like garbage in order to make their powerful friend's ministry look good.

So I have to speak out too.

To the writers of the Gospel Coalition's message: look.  I recognize how hard it is to navigate the waters when someone you consider a friend has been accused of something like this.  But the fact remains that by coming out strongly on the side of the one with pastoral power at this point in the proceedings, you are contributing (whatever your protests to the contrary) to the re-victimization of the victims and the upholding of the power structures that made SGM ripe for these sorts of criminal abuses in the first place.

There are simply too many allegations by too many disparate people, for this to be merely a vindictive false attack.  And C. J. Mahaney, as the founder and leader of SGM, simply cannot hold himself aloof and claim ignorance.  The authoritarian structures that were set up and/or maintained by him directly caused an environment where abuse was aided and abetted-- and he had the power to prevent it, or at the very least stop it in its tracks.  He is the one who created the environment where leaders were given blanket endorsement and protection, while the people at the bottom were silenced.  Whether he likes it or not, by setting authority up as unassailable and himself up as the top authority, he made himself responsible for the behavior of his sub-leaders and well-being of his lowliest followers.  And you, as his friends, ought to have told him so.

As I have shared elsewhere on my blog, Sovereign Grace Ministries is one of the successors to the Shepherding Movement in which I spent my college years as part of Maranatha Campus Ministries.  I know very well the structures that uphold those in power while viewing with suspicion and disapproval anyone who dares speak against or even question them.

Virginia Knowles at Watch the Shepherd a former member of SGM, concurs.  She writes:

Unfortunately, this is not just a problem in SGM, but in a host of other religious organizations. It is the culture of shame and silence -- and women, especially young ones, are the most vulnerable to both sexual abuse and domestic violence. . . In both this lawsuit and my extensive research on abuse of authority (especially gender-based) these are some of the pastoral sentiments I've heard about...

"We're all sinners. Yes, he might have hurt you, but think of how you have sinned. You have no right to complain." (I call this phenomena "psychological socialism" and some day I will write more extensively about it.)
"He said he was sorry. You need to meet with him face to face so he can apologize. Be reconciled with your brother in Christ!"
"He has apologized to you! He's really sincere! Now you can forgive and forget! You must not gossip or slander him by telling anyone else about it. If you tarnish his reputation, he'll never be able to get on with his life, keep a job, continue his ministry, and provide for his wife and children."
"Counseling? Sure, come right into my office. Oh, you mean from professional counselors? Don't bother. They'll only give you ungodly psychobabble and lead you astray."
"Call the police? No way! Are you crazy? We don't need to bring another believer before the law. This is something the church should handle, not the worldly and godless secular government system. He just needs to see the light and repent. Jesus is enough."
"Oh, you don't want to tell anyone that anything has happened at this church! What sort of reputation will that give to our ministry -- and to God? We must protect our gospel witness!"
"You are a woman. A woman is not supposed to teach or have authority over men, but to quietly support and follow them. How dare you usurp my authority and question how I run my church [or this family]?"
[edited for brevity, but you get the point.]

Hannah at Wine and Marble lived the SGM life for 10 years.  She explains how this climate is created in this kind of organization:

You stop thinking critically, because questioning things is ever-so-subtly frowned upon. It’s welcomed, objectively, but you feel slight displeasure or get sidelined because of suddenly busy schedules (because. . . they have slowly, subtly made you dependent on their approval for your confidence in your discernment and spiritual maturity). . .

You have the perfect storm for socially quick, manipulative personalities to rise quickly in the ranks of the church leadership, for the depressed and hurting to beat themselves up for their sins and keep accepting any critiques of their attitudes or actions, and the insecure to always, always second-guess their own instincts and instead choose to follow the advice and corrective teachings of those in authority over them.

It’s not brainwashing, but it’s a social immersion into a culture where you lose your sense of self, your boundaries, your privacy, and your ability to reason independently in a slow fade to submissive SGM church member, fiercely loyal to the great people and genuine culture of faith there.

It’s insane.

And so, in that world, your child tells you that so-and-so at care group touched their private parts. You are furious. You confront this person, you tell your care group leader. Your care group leader tells you that he’s going to bring this up with your pastor and get back to you (because no one thinks to call the cops yet), and the pastor wants to meet with you (maybe you’ve never had any one-on-one time with your pastor before, so you feel affirmed and like he’s taking it seriously)…and then you’re angry in the meeting toward your child’s molester, and you get confronted about your anger, and, and, and…

Suddenly, the SGM sin-confrontation system has kicked into high gear, and the child abuse has take a back seat (because, it’s only on the child’s word, and children are so sinful and need to be trained to love Jesus and not walk in their flesh)…

And it never gets reported. And your child is made to hug his/her abuser. And the abuser is seen as repentant and restored, and you think, well, maybe it’ll be okay. That process of rooting out sin is really thorough. And they have so much accountability–from their accountability partner and their care group leader and from the pastor.

And nothing is done about it.

So what should have been done about it?

Ministry leaders that really cared about their congregations should have been the first to investigate the first rumor of the sexual or physical abuse of children.  SGM's leaders did not.  If a reason was found to suspect a church leader of such a crime, the police ought to have been immediately brought in.  If a church leader was found to have committed such an offense, he ought to have been permanently removed from ministry and encouraged to show repentance by serving his time as a model prisoner.  SGM did none of these things.

When a lawsuit was brought against SGM, they should have responded in open shame and horror, with the top leaders offering to step down until the investigation was complete and the perpetrators properly dealt with in the courts.   Instead, SGM instructed its lawers to assert a First Amendment "clergy-congregant confidentiality" defense.  But this was not about a minister's right to keep secrets of private sins confessed privately.  This is about the cover-up by ministers of accusations brought by victims of heinous crimes.  

And the last thing that should ever have happened was for these victims-- some as young as two and three years old-- to be forced to verbally forgive their abusers face-to-face.

Zach L. Hoag's Blog calls it "A False Gospel of Reconcilation": 

The most grotesque allegations to come out of this lawsuit have to do with the culture of “gospel-centered reconciliation” in this movement, where victims of abuse – often, children – were simply told to “forgive” and “reconcile” with their adult church member/leader abusers. I mean, it’s better than you deserve, right? So get over it. And smack dab in the center of this demonic-gospel culture were leaders who rise to levels of immense influence over their cruelly “humbled” people, all the while claiming to be humble themselves. . . 

And this false gospel of reconciliation doesn’t stop here. It is not only reserved for churches fraught with sex abuse scandals. It rears its ugly head in all kinds of conservative evangelical circles, taking the similar shape of pain-denying theologies that counsel victims to get over it and get back together with those who harmed them. [Emphasis in original.]

Hoag compares this with the true reconciliation that Jesus preached:

The goal toward which the resurrected Jesus is working in the world right now is not some imaginary peace where people “reconcile” in name only while the abuse is never stopped and the wrong never righted. No, this is instead a total bending of the violent and unjust world back toward God’s shalom, until it is completely put to rights on the final day. . . And reconciliation, rightly lived as part of God’s cosmic work to restore all things, always subverts the empire of unjust power and control. It messes with thrones and powers and rulers and authorities. It takes them to task. [Emphasis in original.]

Now, unlike Zach Hoag, I don't think this is really about whether the group is Calvinist or not.  As I have said elsewhere on my blog, I think Calvinism can sometimes lead to too great a focus on authority in the church, but not always-- nor is it always Calvinism that falls into this mentality.  Maranatha Campus Ministries was basically Arminian, and yet they created an environment where abuse (not, as far as I know, physical or sexual abuse, but definitely spiritual abuse) was nurtured and grew.  On the other hand, Pastor Wade Burleson of Istoria Ministries is Calvinist, and yet I am certain nothing like this could ever happen in his church.  Here, in Burleson's own words, is why:

Jesus said that real leaders are servants, not masters. . . Let me be clear. Those kind of pastors - pastors that advocate an authoritarianism inherent in the pulpit, that stifle any and all dissent from the members of their congregations, that humiliate and denigrate the members who for the sake of conscience ask questions - could very well be considered great expositors of the Word of God and doctrinally orthodox. Yet those pastors display a character that is the antithesis of the character of Christ, an ironhandedness that is the opposite of genuine grace, and a disposition that should cause their congregations to realize that their pastors are but one step away from falling over the precipice of moral failure in terms of their church ministries or personal lives.

I think Burleson's diagnosis is absolutely correct.  It is authoritarianism that creates distance between a church leader and a congregation, so that members who bring complaints are viewed with suspicion while those with power are held to be above reproach.  It is this that creates a climate where power can corrupt, and absolute power can corrupt absolutely.

But the Bible actually teaches this:

Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care. . . not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:2-3, emphasis added.)

And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.  (Ephesians 5:11.)

So what is the right thing to do when you are a pastoral leader in a position of power and authority, and a friend who is also in a position of power and authority becomes the subject of multiple allegations of abuse by his ministry and cover-up by himself?  

Ultimately, it isn't being a good friend to close your eyes to his wrongdoings.  And no matter how close of friends two or more powerful Christian leaders are, their first responsibility as leaders must be to care for the most vulnerable members of their flocks.  The leaders of the Gospel Coalition simply cannot refuse to listen to what biblical shorthand calls "the widow and orphan" when they come pleading for justice. (Isaiah 1:17, James 1:27.)

There's still time to do the right thing.  I hope these Christian leaders decide to do it. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Sanctified Sexism

When asked whether reading a Bible commentary written by a woman would be placing a man under the teaching authority of a woman, the well-known evangelical preacher John Piper responded as follows:

It might be. Uh. He may feel it that way. And if he does, he probably’s not gonna read it. He shouldn’t read it. . . [But] It doesn’t have to be experienced that way I don’t think. And here, here’s my reasoning. 

The point of Paul in I Timothy 2:12 where he says. . . I don’t permit a woman to teach or have authority over men. That’s a key text. I Timothy 2:12. I don’t permit her to teach or have authority. And those two things together, I think, constitute the eldership office. Teaching and authority. . .

What is the dynamic between how men flourish and women flourish as God designed them to flourish when an act of authority is being exerted on a man from a woman.

And so I distinguish between personal, direct exercises of authority that involve manhood and womanhood.

Because it’s personal. She’s right there. She’s woman. I’m man. And I’m being directly, uh, pressed on by this woman in an authoritative way. Should she be doing that? Should I be experiencing that? And my answer’s, No; I think that’s contrary to the way God made us.  So that the, the personal directness of it is removed. And the man doesn’t feel himself, and she wouldn’t feel herself, in any way compromised by his reading that book and learning from that book. Because I’m not having a direct, authoritative confrontation. She’s not lookin’ at me, and, and confronting me, and authoritatively directing me, as woman. There’s this, there’s this interposition of this phenomenon called “book” and “writing” that puts her out of my sight, and, in a sense, takes away the dimension of her female personhood.

Whereas if she were standing right in front of me, and teaching me, as my shepherd, week in and week out, I couldn’t make that separation. She’s woman. And I am man. (
Transcript of portion of John Piper podcast provided by Bible Literature Translation.)
Notice that though John Piper uses the text of 1 Timothy 2:12 to support his view that a man can learn from a woman through a book, his actual point is that he would "feel" himself "compromised" if she came into his office and spoke to him in person-- presumably even if she quoted exactly, in person, the same words he just read in the commentary.  The fact is that as far as I can see, the text of 1 Timothy 2:12 really doesn't distinguish between a woman being physically present, or just reading what she wrote in a book.  The traditional reading is more about (as he himself admits above) whether she's an  "elder."  But that really doesn't seem to be what Rev. Piper is talking about.

As long as he doesn't have to notice she's a woman, Piper says, he has no problem receiving teaching from a woman who would be considered enough of an authority on the Bible to have her commentary published.  Apparently it isn't authoritative teaching by a woman that's the problem.  It's authoritative teaching by a woman in front of him, in the same room.  And this is a problem even, it seems, if she holds no "eldership office" anywhere in any church, but is instead a doctor of theology. 

So is this really about Dr. Piper's interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12?  Or is it more about Dr. Piper's feelings about how women should act towards men? 

John Piper considers himself a "complementarian." gives us this definition of "complementarianism":

Complementarianism is the theological view that although men and women are created equal in their being and personhood, they are created to complement each other via different roles and responsibilities as manifested in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere. . .Complementarianism holds that God has created men and women equal in their essential dignity and human personhood, but different and complementary in function with male headship in the home and in the Church.  

Complementarianism, holding that women are equal to men in their ontological being, thus sets itself apart from the more traditional view held both by Christians and the whole of society from the beginning of recorded history until at least the beginning of the 20th century-- the view that women were simply inferior to men.  As the Encyclopedia of Women and Gender, Vol. 1 states: 

"Early philosophical speculation emphasized the inequality of the sexes on all dimensions of social importance. . . [I]n later centuries female inferiority was viewed as a function of divine fiat, physiological instability, or defects in the brain.  Though the rationale for this belief changed over time, its substance remained the same: females in every respect, were viewed as lesser beings."

This belief was certainly not confined to the church, as Charles Darwin and his fellow evolutionists unabashedly declared that women were evolutionarily inferior to men.  But it is this traditional attitude that women are inferior that forms the basis of what is called "sexism," just as the belief that certain races are inferior is the basis of "racism."  

Here is one of's definitions of sexism:

"discrimination or devaluation based on a person's sex, as in restricted job opportunities; especially, such discrimination directed against women." [Emphasis added]

Beliefs which hold one sex superior to the other thereby justifying sexual inequalities. [Emphasis added]

A complementarian, therefore, should eschew sexism by principle.  Since complementarianism purports to base itself on Scripture alone for its view of the essential equality but functional differences between men and women, it seems reasonable to expect that those church leaders who publicly define and defend complementarianism in and for the church in general, would reject sexism, insisting that nothing but Scripture should define how men think of and act towards women.

Unfortunately, it's not always that simple.  

Human nature being what it is, most of us hold attitudes and ways of thinking which we have imbibed since we were children: attitudes that come from existing in our bodies in the societies and among the cultural mores in which we live.  Complementarians sometimes say that egalitarians, in rejecting "biblical" male-female roles and "male headship," are capitulating to "modern, feminist culture."  But the roots of sexism in American life lie far deeper and more entrenched than we may realize, and feminism (which has only existed for about 100 years) is really still the new kid on the block.  And complementarianism, of course, is itself informed by feminism when it re-examines the traditional Christian view and disagrees that the Bible supports the notion that women were created inferior.

So when the most public faces of complementarian Christianity in America today speak of men, women and male-female relations, Christians (complementarian and egalitarian alike) should be willing to confront them when the things they say, and the attitudes they reveal, show not so much a complementarian viewpoint as a sort of sanctified sexism-- a reflection of a deeply entrenched societal devaluation of women, a culturally imbibed societal expectation of favoritism towards men as the superior sex.

To do him justice, John Piper says this in the same podcast:

So, I think the point of that text is not to say that you can never learn anything from a woman. That’s just not true. It’s not true biblically, and it’s not true experientially, because the reason for saying that I don’t permit a woman to teach or have authority over men here is not because she’s incompetent. It’s not because she can’t have thoughts. In fact, the women in your church, and the woman in, the woman you are married to, have many thoughts that you would do well to know. [laughs] And to know, and learn, and to learn from. And so the issue there is not that she doesn’t have thoughts that you wouldn’t benefit from. Or that she can’t, uh, teach you anything.

The, the issue is one of how does manhood and womanhood work. 

Piper obviously believes that he believes men and women are equal.  He doesn't think he can't learn from a woman, or that women are incompetent to teach men.  But he can't seem to get past his discomfort in having a certain kind of experience of women-- an experience that gives him a feeling of being "directly pressed upon by a woman in an authoritative way."  Remembering that according to the complementarian injunction that a woman is excluded only from being a church elder, and not from being a theologian who comments on the Bible-- this is not about what she's teaching or where she's teaching or how she's teaching.  It's whether he has to directly experience a woman being an authority on a subject in his presence

It looks like sexism to me.  Sexism that's sanctified by its ostensible complementarianism, so that it slips under the radar as just part of complementarian doctrine.  But what Piper's words are really communicating, whether he intends it or not, is that he doesn't want women to get uppity in his face.  He doesn't want to feel, in the presence of a woman, that she might have more knowledge than him on a particular Bible text.  It makes him feel uncomfortable about his manhood.  

Is this, at its heart, about what Scripture says?  Or is it about how a man (raised in the 1950s and 60s when men expected to be deferred to by women) feels when a woman is not deferring to him? 

The same sort of thing happens in the most recent Pat Robertson controversy being picked up in the media:  the one where Pat Robinson (who became a married adult during the Father-Knows-Best 1950s) counsels a woman whose husband has been cheating on her that "men will be men":

"Here's the secret," the famous evangelical said. "Stop talking the cheating. He cheated on you, well, he's a man."

The wife needs to focus on the reasons she married her spouse, he continued.

"Does he provide a home for you to live in," Robertson said. 'Does he provide food for you to eat? Does he provide clothes for you to wear? Is he nice to the children... Is he handsome?". . .

"Recognize also, like it or not, males have a tendency to wander a little bit," Robertson said. "What you want to do is make a home so wonderful that he doesn't want to wander. . . ."

In another appearance back in January of this year, Robertson told a woman,

We need to cultivate romance, darling! ... You always have to keep that spark of love alive. It just isn't something to just lie there, 'Well, I'm married to him so he's got to take me slatternly looking.' You've got to fix yourself up, look pretty.

This certainly has a lot in common with traditional social attitudes towards male adultery, as illustrated in a Los Angeles Times article from 1987:

In a Parliamentary debate in 1857, the Lord Chancellor said that "A wife might without any loss of caste condone an act of adultery . . . but a husband could not condone a similar act on the part of the wife . . . as the adultery might be the means of palming spurious offspring on her husband." Englishmen could get a divorce for any evidence of adultery, while Englishwomen had to prove that the adultery was incestuous or otherwise unnatural.

Unflattering as it is towards men to say they shouldn't be required (or expected) to control their sexual urges, this mindset is part of traditional permissiveness towards male sexual behavior, while female behavior has traditionally been tightly controlled.  Though it may seem on its face to treat men as the inferior sex, what this attitude is actually rooted in is a devaluing of the woman to her sexual/reproductive functions as primary to her nature, while men are treated more as whole persons.  Not being expected to control himself is part of historically male autonomy, while being kept under rigid social control is part of historically female subordination.  So also is being told, in essence, to just be grateful for a roof over your head (which frankly, in this era when women usually contribute almost equally to the household rent, mortgage, grocery bills and clothing purchases, simply sounds ludicrous).

But what does this have to do with the Bible?  Where does the Bible say a man shouldn't be expected to control himself, or that it's a wife's job to stay pretty so that her husband won't stray?  On the contrary-- throughout the Book of Proverbs it's the man who is warned to not to be enticed by adulterous women, not the wife told to keep him from getting enticed! In fact, Proverbs tells men to choose to see the woman they married as beautiful, no matter how old the couple has become: 

May your fountain be blessed,
and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.
A loving doe, a graceful deer—
may her breasts satisfy you always,
may you ever be intoxicated with her love.
Why, my son, be intoxicated with another man’s wife?
Why embrace the bosom of a wayward woman?
Prov. 5:18-20, emphasis added.

There is no onus laid upon women anywhere in the Bible to stay forever youthful in appearance, or to take responsibility for keeping their husbands from adultery.  Women are instead told not to focus on beauty, but on "the hidden person of the heart."  (1 Peter 3:4).  And far from being expected to just be grateful for being provided for by a man, Proverbs 31 shows that Old Testament women (wealthy ones, at least) had their own incomes, businesses and land ownership!

So-- are Robertson's words complementarian (focused on Scripture as teaching male-female equality along with difference in role)?  Or are they just sanctified sexism? 

It looks like the latter to me. 

So here's my respectful request and challenge to complementarians:  Please, no more sanctifying of sexism.  If an attitude that one of your public spokesmen (however well-intentioned) is perpetuating about women has nothing to do with what you believe the Bible teaches, then please, speak up about it!  Egalitarians and complementarians might be able to find some common ground here-- an area where we can work together for the uplifting and honoring of all our sisters in Christ. 

Just because a preacher is well-known doesn't mean he can't make mistakes, or that his mistakes shouldn't be addressed-- or that he shouldn't be encouraged to retract them just as publicly as the mistake itself was public.

Perpetuating the notion that the heart of Christianity is sexist-- devaluing to women and treating them as inferior-- isn't doing any of us any good.  

Are you with me? 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book Recommendation: Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley

But myth, to some extent, is where you find it; and you know when you’ve found it by the way it goes right through you — like the first heavenly, shocking mouthful of ice cream on a hot day, or falling in love. Robin McKinley

"She threw the door open and stood there, facing not the palace but all the worst-omened creatures of the inner and outer worlds, and she . . . shook her fists over her head and shouted 'Go away! Can you not see that you have already lost? There is nothing for you here!'

There was another clap of thunder as if all the thunder in the ether between the worlds had clapped itself at once, and Beauty had a dazzling glimpse of what had been the sorcerous army rolling about on the ground in confusion. . . She heard the laughter of the old woman behind her and heard her voice for the last time. . . 'Bless you, my dear, and your Beast, and bless Rose Cottage, for it is yours now.'"

In the book recommendations I have written so far on my blog (see my Topic Index for the others), I have focused on non-fiction.  But in my lifelong addiction to books, my first and best love has always been fantasy and fairy tale.  So not long after I wrote my defense of Beauty and the Beast, I decided to reread Rose Daughter* by one of my favorite authors, Robin McKinley.

Robin McKinley says this about her own work, and this work in particular:

Myths—and folk and fairy tales—tell the big stories, the stories about what it really means to be human, and never mind the tedious restrictions of science and rationality. . . 

Beauty and the Beast. . . [is]my story. Everyone has a story. If you’re lucky you know what it is. It may be easier if you’re a writer, I suppose; then—if you’re lucky—it may hijack you. Possibly more than once. (Ahem.) Although some writers I imagine write in search of their story; such a writer might feel sorry for me, I suppose, for having the journey over. For me it’s like having a garden I can always go to, where the roses are always blooming and it’s always sunny and warm but not too warm—this is a garden I can sit down in, as opposed to the real-life ones which always need weeding and deadheading and feeding and tying in and fluffing up or strapping down . . . 

Rose Daughter contains most of the elements of the original fairy tale:  A merchant, forced into bankruptcy, has three daughters, the youngest named Beauty.  He discovers that a ship he had thought lost at sea has returned after all.  Beauty asks him if he can bring back for her just one rose.  He is unable to do so, but when he becomes lost in a storm on the way home and finds his way into a magic castle with invisible servants, he attempts to take a rose from there-- only to be confronted with a terrifying Beast who insists that his daughter Beauty shall be ransom for the rose.  Beauty goes to the Beast's castle and is treated kindly by the Beast.  Every night he asks her to marry him, and though she pities him, she cannot bring herself to say yes.  At last he finds her weeping, and she asks if she might return home.  "I can forbid you nothing," says the Beast, "but take this rose with you.  As long as it is fresh, I am well, but when the last petal falls, I will be dead for love of you."  Beauty uses the last falling petal to return to the Beast, and as he lies dying, her promise to marry him revives him.

It is at this point that the book departs from the tradition, for Robin McKinley's Beauty is not just a a stock female heroine, interchangeable with any woman who could say "I'll marry you" to break the spell.  No-- Beauty is a heroic hero, and after she has revived the Beast, she must break the spell and complete the rescue of the Beast on her own.  This she does in the climactic scene I have quoted above.

Largely because of Beauty's heroic role, the beautiful and poetic prose of this 300-page-long version adds an additional theme to the theme of overcoming prejudice which is the main point of the original fairy tale.  More than anything else, Rose Daughter is a celebration of the small and ordinary triumphing over the great and powerful.  This theme is embodied in the roses that pervade every part of the story, from the scent of five-year-old Beauty's mother's perfume, to the plants around Rose Cottage (which the family escapes to after the father's financial ruin), to the carpets and wallpaper in the Beast's castle, festooned with beautiful but non-living blooms, and finally to the greenhouse which the Beast tells Beauty "is the heart of this place.  And it is dying."

Beauty sets herself to revive and restore the Beast's dying roses.**  As she does so, she comes into her own power-- the power of cottages over castles, of simple kitchens and quiet conversation over imposing drawing rooms and cruel witticisms, of the small magic of living things over great feats of sorcery.   In dreams she sees her sisters (who had been hard and shallow in the wealth of the city, but learn compassion and the strength of gentleness in their new country lives) find new, honest bridegrooms in place of the lords and dukes who once had sought their hands-- and who had deserted them when their father lost the money that would have been their dowries.  Even Beauty's merchant father is transformed by their new country life, finding a gift for ballad-writing that he had never guessed he had, and becoming happy in his new role as village poet.

In addition to the roses, Beauty welcomes back to the Beast's castle (a fascinating place of magically changing rooms) many small living creatures, such as butterflies, bees and bats, turning it from an austere and barren place into a place of renewed life.  Another theme of Robin McKinley's that flows through many of her books-- two entities naturally hostile to one another being brought together without either one needing to change their essential selves-- also comes to beautiful fruition in this novel, though exactly how, I will leave to be discovered. Just-- read the book.

I believe that tales of the fantastic are important and valuable because of the ability of symbolic images like roses and castles and beasts, to communicate the essence of certain kinds of spiritual truth that are the most difficult to express in mere words.   Rose Daughter is one of the best such tales I have ever read, that I expect to reread again several more times in my life, as I have already read it at least three times already.  Book-lovers know how some books can get under your skin and become part of you.  This is one of those books for me.  So I'll leave you with this thought of J.R.R. Tolkien's, from his essay On Fairy Stories:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.  


*Interestingly, the words on the front cover of the paperback version of this book betray the publisher's mistaken buying-in to the common misunderstanding of the nature of this story (as I complained about in my defense): "Beauty can transform anything-- even the heart of a Beast."  The Beast's heart is pretty much the only thing Beauty does not transform in this book, nor does she need to.  She needs only look past the Beast's outer form and find the pure, gentle heart of an artist, a philosopher, and a gentleman in every best sense of that word.

**There is an amazing amount of gardening in this book.  But even though I don't have an especially green thumb, I enjoyed this aspect of it-- particularly since the idea of digging into the depths of things to restore what is being lost, was an especially appropriate image for this story.  Beauty spends most of her time in mud-spattered boots, with thorn scratches on her arms: a refreshing image of a woman for whom "beauty" is supposed to be her most important feature (which it decidedly is not). 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

"In God We Trust," Prayer in Schools & Manger Scenes: Why We Shouldn't Fight for Them

According to many Christians in the United States today, such as Benjamin Hart, president of the Christian Defense Fund, there is "a relentless assault on America's religious institutions and traditions by our educational system, the courts and throughout our popular culture."  The authors of One Nation Under God: America's Christian Heritage state in their introduction:

"[O]ur schools have been wiped clean of Christian influence, [and] efforts are underway by anti-Christian legal groups to completely "sanitize" our nation of any Christian references by,
  • Removing "In God We Trust" from our currency.
  • Ending opening each session of Congress with prayer.
  • Ending Christmas as a national holiday.
  • And eliminating the rank of military chaplain from our armed services."
It is interesting that according to Charisma News, this perception among Christians is largely limited to evangelicals, with other groups tending to believe that Christianity is simply being asked to share the public square:

"The findings of a poll published Wednesday, reveal a 'double standard' among a significant portion of evangelicals on the question of religious liberty, said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, a California think tank that studies American religion and culture.

While these Christians are particularly concerned that religious freedoms are being eroded in this country, 'they also want Judeo-Christians to dominate the culture,' said Kinnamon.

'They cannot have it both ways,' he said. 'This does not mean putting Judeo-Christian values aside, but it will require a renegotiation of those values in the public square as America increasingly becomes a multi-faith nation.'"

But there is another issue which neither of these positions really takes into account.  Are such things as public prayers, public display of nativity scenes, the posting of the Ten Commandments in our courthouses, and putting "In God We Trust" on our coins-- all these outward symbols of Christian religious faith-- really things that Christians should spend their time crusading for in the public arena?  Do they even represent the Christianity which is demonstrated and embodied by Jesus and taught by Paul, James and Peter?

Or are they part of something else?  Something called America's Civil Religion?

Here is a definition of the concept of "civil religion" from the above-linked article:

"[T]his concept made its major impact on the social scientific study of religion with the publication of an essay titled "Civil Religion in America," written by Robert Bellah in Daedalus in 1967. . . Bellah's article claimed that most Americans share common religious characteristics expressed through civil religious beliefs, symbols, and rituals that provide a religious dimension to the entirety of American life. . . . Bellah's definition of American civil religion is that it is "an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation," which he sees symbolically expressed in America's founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses.  It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called "God," an idea that the American nation is subject to God's laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States. Bellah sees these beliefs in the values of liberty, justice, charity, and personal virtue and concretized in, for example, the words In God We Trust on both national emblems and on the currency used in daily economic transactions. Although American civil religion shares much with the religion of Judeo-Christian denominations, Bellah claims that it is distinct from denominational religion. . . [T]he civil religion thesis claims that civil religion exists symbolically in American culture. . . civil religion is a distinct cultural component within American society that is not captured either by American politics or by denominational religiosity."

The article also points out that "the case [has been] made that civil religion constitutes a set of platitudes that substitute for either serious religious or serious political action."

It seems to me that "In God We Trust" on our coins is just such a platitude.  And most of these other things that we think are so important, are really just outward symbols and practices traditionally associated with white Protestant Christianity, which comprise a civil religion--and civil religion is by nature and definition an outward, social thing.  America's civil religion is about the hold of these traditions on the public expression of faith in our nation.  What it isn't about is heart change within human beings-- or, as far as I can see, about following Jesus or seeking the kingdom of God at all.

This, of course, leads to the questions: What does it mean to follow Jesus? And what is the kingdom of God?  I would agree with those who would protest that the Christian religion is meant to be a thing lived in public, not just about personal piety, and not just about going to heaven when we die.  The kingdom of God is about how we live on earth.  But-- and this is a big "but" -- It's not a human kingdom.  When Jesus preached the kingdom, He was making a radical political statement in His day that God is king and not Caesar.  But He also made it clear (by refusing to let them crown Him king, among other things) that He had not come to simply replace one earthly kingdom with another.

N.T. Wright's book Simply Jesus puts it this way:

"Now there is a completely different way to live, a way of love and reconciliation and healing and hope.  It's a way nobody's ever tried before, a way that is as unthinkable to most human beings and societies as-- well, as resurrection itself.  Precisely.  That's the point.  Welcome to Jesus's new world. . . .

The resurrection of Jesus doesn't mean, 'It's all right.  We're going to heaven now.'  No, the life of heaven has been born on this earth. . .  God is now in charge, on earth as in heaven.  And God's 'being-in-charge' is focused on Jesus himself being king and Lord."

The kingdom of God is about God reigning on earth, in and through the Person of Jesus Christ.  But Christ doesn't reign the way human kings reign, or even the way democratically elected political leaders reign-- through making and enforcing laws.  Laws exist to control outward behavior.  But Jesus primarily taught about His kingdom in parables, so as to reach the hearts and not just the behavior of His hearers. The kingdom of God, Jesus said, was like "yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough." (Matt. 13:33).  It is like finding a pearl of great price hidden in a field, and selling everything you have to buy that field (Matt. 13:45).  The kingdom of God is a seemingly insignificant thing, like a mustard seed (Matt. 13:31), that grows up to become the source of strength and life and peace.  The kingdom is something that happens on the inside of human beings when they come into contact with God, which then begins to make a difference in the world outside.

Following Jesus, He told His followers, is about being servants, not rulers (Matt. 23:11).  It's about taking up a cross (Luke 9:23), about laying down your life-- not about acquiring power to make other people do things-- no matter how much we believe the things we would make them do would be good for them.

However, America's civil religion is not about crosses-- except to put on display on the tops of hills and bluffs, so that people end up arguing about whether they should be displayed there.  America's civil religion is about putting "In God We Trust" on our coins-- not about giving away our coins to others.  America's civil religion is about putting nativity scenes in our parks-- not about contemplating the Incarnation and letting it astonish us afresh every Christmas morning.  Ultimately, America's civil religion is an outward thing, not an inward thing.

Gregory A. Boyd, in his book The Myth of a Christian Nation, says:

"We end up wasting precious time and resources defending and tweaking the civil religion-- as though doing so had some kingdom value.  We strive to keep prayer in the schools, fight for the right to have public prayer before football games, lobby to preserve the phrases 'under God' in our Pledge of Allegiance and 'in God we trust' on our coins, battle to hold the traditional civil meaning of marriage, and things of the sort-- as though winning these fights somehow brings America closer to the kingdom of God. . .  Now, you may or may not agree that preserving the civil religion in this way is good for the culture. . . But can we really believe that tweaking civil religion in these ways actually brings people closer to the kingdom of God, that it helps them become more like Jesus?" 

Now, it may be as Boyd says, that preserving the civil religion does have some value to the culture.  But is it really under so much threat as the Christian Defense League and other such organizations believe?  Have our schools indeed been "wiped clean of Christian influence"?  Does America really forbid prayer in its public schools?

In fact, no.  Actually, the United States' federal laws are fairly nuanced and balanced, and are not designed to restrict the freedom of children -- or even teachers-- to pray while at school.  As points out, the only thing United States' law restricts is the power of school boards, administrators and teachers to lead prayers, to write prayers for children to recite, or to compel them towards religious feelings through a moment of silence.  It is not prayer which is restricted; what is restricted is any sort of external compulsion to pray.   But external compulsion has never been what Christianity is about in the first place-- it is only part of the civil religion.  And to the best of my knowledge, civil policies that compel students to pray for a minute or so at the beginning of class, or at the opening of a sporting event or a graduation, may make us feel good about ourselves as a supposedly "Christian nation," but they do nothing to change hearts or advance the kingdom of God.

Greg Boyd again:

"For example, does anyone really think that allowing for a prayer before social functions is going to help students become kingdom people? . . . Might not such prayer-- and the political efforts to defend such prayer-- actually be harmful to the kingdom inasmuch as it reinforces the shallow civil religious mindset that sees prayer primarily as a perfunctory religious activity? Might it not be better to teach our kids that true kingdom prayer has nothing to do with perfunctory social functions, that true kingdom prayer cannot be demanded or retracted by social laws and that their job as kingdom warriors is to 'pray without ceasing' (1 Thess. 5:17) whether the law allows for it to be publicly expressed or not?

In other words, rather than spending time and energy defending and tweaking the civil religion, might it not be in the best interests of the kingdom of of God to distance ourselves from the civil religion?" [Ibid., emphasis in original.]

So if we as Christians want our children to be free to pray Christian prayers in school, is it such a high price to pay to agree that they should pray on their own time, before classes or at lunch or recess, so that kids of other religions aren't forced to pray our prayers-- just as we don't want our kids to be forced to pray Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim prayers?  Is a public prayer by a teacher really so essential to our kids' faith?  Or could it actually be detrimental, as Boyd says?  Isn't private, heartfelt prayer on the playground better than external, get-it-over-with prayer in the classroom?

It seems to me that the Christian-like trappings of America's civil religion are really only symbols of the privileged place that has traditionally been held by white Protestants in our culture.  Changes in the hold that these traditions have on our culture are not signs that America is falling away from God, but only that it is becoming more inclusive of all expressions of religion and non-religion, in an increasingly diverse society.  And if we're going to promote real religious liberty, we're going to continue to attract more and more diverse sorts of people to come to our nation to live, work and worship.  Is religious freedom worth it?  I think it is.

So.  My fellow Christians, how do we best follow Jesus?  Should we defend human traditions as if they were the commands of God (Matt. 15:9)?

Holding onto privilege is sort of the opposite of laying down our lives or taking up our crosses, isn't it?  So why are we so anxious to keep and defend outward symbols and practices that ultimately have no eternal value?

I say let's seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, as Christ taught (Matt. 6:33).  I say it's better to allow diversity free expression within American culture, and to work for God's kingdom than to fight to keep our own.

No matter how "Christian" our civil-religious kingdom looks on the outside.