Grasping Thorns

“But he who dares not grasp the thorn Should never crave the rose." ― A. Brontë

Category: Progressive Christianity

Oops. Sorry, all.

So . . . I forgot to update my blog when I moved to writing for Bustle and then Daily Kos (a Dissident Voice is thrown in here, too). I imagined that everyone who read me here would read me there by following my Facebook links (like H&G’s breadcrumbs). But, some of my readers here aren’t as Facebook crazed as I am. 🙂

I’m still writing, though! Here’s a list of things I’ve penned, along with where to find me now.

April 28th: The Baltimore Riots Should Remind White People To Listen And Act — Not Judge Protestors

May 5th: Why Responding To Bigotry In Facebook Comments Matters

May 7th: On Mother’s Day, Remembering My Daughter’s Birth Mom

June 17th: God is Disappointed in You is a Book Every Evangelical Christian Should Read

June 18th: That Moment When Your Friend Finds a Bullet Hole over Her Son’s Room

June 19th: The Charleston Church Massacre and “Making It Right”

June 20th: Disturbing Conservative Commentary: A Compilation

June 21st: An Open Letter to Governor Haley

June 23rd: Dear Governor Haley, Part 2

June 24th: This is What “Discussion” Looks Like in America Today — And Why It Must Change

June 26th: Senator Pinckney, President Obama, and New Eyes for Seeing

July 14th: The Importance of Remembering “It’s Not About [Your Name Here]”

July 16th: A Mass Shooting Hits Home — Again.

July 19th: A New Southern Wedding Tradition: Yes, I Wish I Were Kidding

July 24th: It’s Our Fault People Are Dying: American Gun Culture and the Myth of Personal Responsibility

July 29th: Dr. Walter Palmer, Lion Killer: Meet Lawrence Anthony, Elephant Whisperer

July 31st: Last Night, I Watched Two Videos: Planned Parenthood’s and Sam DuBose’s

August 6th: Release Time Bible Programs Are Invading Public Schools. God Help Us.

August 15th: God Got A Dog: Another Book That Evangelical Christians Should Read

August 19th: Sacrificing Our Children’s Lives: America and Her Guns

September 4th: American Exceptionalism as Exceptionally Bad … Also: How to Make It Better

September 5th: Dear America: Stop. Painting. Bullets. Holes. On. Our Kids’. Heads.

In short, it’s been a bloody, busy summer.

If you want more fire for your rage-machine, start following my Daily Kos page.

love to all my readers. xoxo




Dear Christian Evangelicals: Please Get Over Yourselves. Thanks.

Based on my Facebook Newsfeed the latest thing driving many Christian evangelicals to distraction is . . . the Grammys. Apparently, Natalie Grant, who was nominated for two gospel Grammy awards, walked out, because — surprise! — not all of the songs/performances were of the gospel/conservative variety. This isn’t what she said, of course. What she said was that she had “many thoughts” about the awards show, “most of which are probably better left inside [her] head,” and that she’s “never been more honored to sing about and for Jesus” — the implication, of course, is that singing about and for Jesus is becoming rare despite the fact that (1) there are hundreds of thousands of choirs in churches that sing about and for Jesus every Sunday and (2) doing so (i.e. “singing about and for Jesus”) has made Grant a very wealthy woman (i.e. not destitute b/c an unpopular career choice).

Natalie Grant walking out of the Grammys = Christian evangelicals claiming her as their bff. And so begins the speculation about which “shockingly unChristian” performances deserve the loudest protest. Some go straight for the opening number: the “shockingly unChristian” Beyoncé/Jay-Z performance, in which the two performers — a married couple — are very . . . ahem . . . into each other.

In response, Alyssa Rosenberg took to thinkprogress to argue: “if conservatives want to sell Americans on marriage, maybe they have to talk more about the bliss half of wedded bliss, to think about the desire part of making marriage desirable . . . the smartest thing they could do right now is to hire Beyoncé and Jay-Z as a product spokescouple.”

As the always-brilliant Natalie Leppard points out, the argument is null and void, in a way, since Beyoncé and Jay-Z are first and foremost performers. The song doesn’t purport to be about Christian marriage nor does the fact that they’re singing it mean that it’s about their marriage, any more than Robert Browning penning “My Last Duchess” means that he wanted to murder Elizabeth Barrett Browning (I had to explain this to a student once).

Still, I’m simultaneously horrified and thankful that such debates are happening, since they expose slut-shaming and victim-blaming rhetoric (the horrified-part), thereby giving us the opportunity to challenge it (the thankful-part).

Complaint #1: “I’m angry, because my children wanted to watch the Grammys, and I had to turn the channel.”

Response #1: The Grammys aren’t marketed to children. If children are old enough to be up at 8:00pm and beyond to watch the Grammys, they should be old enough to handle the conversations the songs and performances provoke.

Complaint #2: “I’m angry, because Beyoncé and Jay-Z are making people lust and therefore hurting them.”

Response #2: Don’t watch the Grammys if it makes you lust, and you think lust is bad — but don’t argue that because the Grammys makes you lust, it shouldn’t exist in the world.

Complaint #3: “I’m angry, because it’s Beyoncé’s responsibility, as a woman, to be modest and therefore prevent men from lusting.” (Dear Reader: I. kid. you. not.)

Response #3: Note the move to dangerous “blame the victim” territory here, just a step away from: “if a woman dresses ‘provocatively,’ she’s making a man ‘lust after’ her and is partly to blame for her rape.”

Also note: the Taliban makes ^this^ argument for burqas.

Fact: Women in burqas get raped too. You *never* blame the victim.

Even playing by their own rules (e.g. quoting Matthew 5:28), Christian evangelicals are wrong, and their argument (perhaps more than any other I’ve come across) evinces a misunderstanding of both Jesus the man and Jesus’s teachings.

As Matthew Skinner, Associate Professor of the New Testament at Luther Seminary, argues in “The Parables: Understanding Jesus’s Strange Good News,”

“Most of Jesus’ parables include a preposterous element or two. Someone apparently unaware of cost-benefit analysis leaves 99 sheep alone and vulnerable in the wilderness to look for one that got away. The reign of God grows from a tiny seed not into a magnificent cedar but into a mustard shrub, an invasive plant — certain to stick around but a serious nuisance to our carefully planned landscaping priorities. A father whose son has utterly disgraced him not only welcomes the loser home but spots him from a distance and runs to embrace him. (Dignified men did not run in antiquity. At least, not unless they were in athletic contests. Or something was chasing them.)

That is, there’s always something a little off in these parables. The parables are not mere moralisms, exhorting people to tidy up their lives. They are ways for Jesus to announce realities about life with God that are at once familiar (his listeners knew well how it goes with losing sheep) and radically different (absurd, from the perspective offered by conventional wisdom). Those are the places for our imaginations to linger and consider what kinds of comparisons the parables encourage us to draw between our status quo and the desires of God.

A shepherd who walks away from 99 sheep in the wilderness to locate one is irresponsible, a fool. Could it be that God’s commitment to humanity is so all-encompassing that it appears recklessly obsessive, utterly frustrating to our typical methods of moral and religious calculation?

A parent eager to forgive a wayward child is a welcome sight if you’re the one who’s returning home, but the neighbors will grumble about the dangerous consequences stemming from authority figures who behave so indulgently. Could it be that God’s willingness to forgive and restore is so overwhelming that God will risk the chance of being made to look like a chump?

Jesus’ parables are supposed to be weird. Their atypical elements are supposed to rattle us — not simply because strangeness possesses motivational shock-value, but because what Jesus announces is genuinely unsettling.

The parables, like a poem wielding a poignant metaphor, rouse our creativity from the patterns imposed by normal expectations, especially religious ones. Jesus’ parables make us consider life and our place in it differently. They make us dream of outcasts getting seats at lavish banquets, and the trouble this can cause.

Their point isn’t to summon us to the heights of a single, otherworldly meaning. In lively and even uncontrollable ways, Jesus’ parables prompt us to imagine how God, in the here and now, surprises and even subverts our regular perspectives and convictions about what’s possible.

And all this usually strikes people as rather absurd.”

In this particular Facebook debate, Christian evangelicals use Matthew 5:28 to argue that “anyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So . . . we as women shouldn’t make it so easy for men to lust after us.”


Here, Jesus is doing what he does best. According to the context, the religious leaders of the day were wanting to stone women for adultery and allow men to divorce their wives on a whim (thereby leaving them destitute). Jesus turns their judgment on its head by saying that if you so much as *think* lustfully, you’ve committed adultery.

This would have struck his audience then and should strike us now as absurd. To be condemned not for action but thought? It’s Minority Report:

Sexual desire is essentially human, and Jesus knew that. He was making everyone “guilty,” thereby exonerating accused women. In creating a situation where no one could throw stones, he was defending women, protecting them, saving their lives — NOT condemning them.

Fast forward to 2014 and his acts of compassion and mercy are being used for condemnation and judgment of women and their sexual choices — the very thing that he, in a brilliant rhetorical move, defended publicly.

In the sermon “Getting in Line Behind the Prostitutes and the Traitors,” Dr. Roger Ray admits: “I realized many years ago that the Jesus of the gospels was tolerant of everything except intolerance. He was a friend to tax collectors and sinners. He hung out with prostitutes and the rejects of society but the only people he ever insulted, yelled at or condemned were religious leaders who passed judgment on others and that is a consistent element of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

So, dear Christian evangelicals: if you want to be offended, fine. Be offended that people go to bed hungry, that children in countries devoid of child labor laws make your clothes, that an obsession with cheap meat has made animal cruelty the norm.

Otherwise, get over yourselves. After all, as my Natalie (Leppard, not Grant) says: “unlike [you], the Grammys are being gracious and not coming into [your] churches and saying, hey, you look sexually repressed, so here’s some overtly sexy stuff for you to wear now or you’re going to burn in hell. It’s all Puritanical bs.”


Dear Christian Evangelicals: Jesus and Santa are not white; holiday is not a curse word; and Phil Robertson’s right to free speech was not violated.

It’s been an especially angry Christmas season this year.

Example #1: Every year Fox has its “War on Christmas” segments, and every year Jon Stewart has his always hilariously funny “War on Christmas” response — and, in our family at least, we look as forward to that as we do to putting up the Christmas tree. It’s cherished tradition. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Jon Stewart telling Gretchen Carlson to chill.

But, this year, the debate went further than whether or not we should be mad at Tulsa for calling its parade the holiday rather than Christmas parade. This year’s defining moment was not Gretchen Carlson, but Megyn Kelly insisting to her 10:00pm Fox News kid viewers (all zero of them) that both Santa and Jesus are white men.

To be fair, even the most conservative Christian evangelicals seem to recognize that neither the historical Jesus (from Palestine) nor the historical Saint Nicholas (from what is modern day Turkey) would be “white” according to either Carlson’s or Kelly’s definition and would probably instead, as Jon Stewart jokes, “be on the no fly list.”

Still, as my friend, Alec McLeod points out, “Facebook never disappoints,” and at least two people insisted to me that Jesus and Santa are white, and each pulled quotes from articles that *seemed* to support their points . . . until you, um, read them and discovered something else entirely.

From The Washington Post, “Reza Aslan on Jesus’s skin color: ‘Megyn Kelly is right. Her Christ is white.” In this recap of an interview between Max Fisher and religious scholar Reza Aslan, the latter differentiates between the historical Jesus (Palestinian man) and the figurative Christ (“The Christ of faith can be anything, anything that you want him to be, and has been whatever you want him to be throughout the last 2,000 years of Christian history”).

He continues: “The foundational metaphor for God in Christianity is man. What is God? Christianity tells you God is man, and so man is the metaphor for what God is in Christianity, because God became a man in the form of Jesus. How do you know, how do you define God? Think of the perfect man. God is infinitely good, infinitely caring, infinitely compassionate. God is all the greatest human attributes that you can imagine. That’s what God is. It’s a sort of a central metaphor . . . This is precisely why Christianity is the largest religion in the world. Because that central metaphor allows you to then thoroughly absorb this conception of Jesus as God into whatever your own particular understanding of humanity is.”

From The World Mysteries blog, “How many major races are there in the world?” The person who quoted this article only quoted the part that, as you discover by its conclusion, “is rooted in the European imagination of the Middle Ages, which encompassed only Europe, Africa, and the Near East.” The article, as a whole, seeks not only to undermine racial categories but also to suggest that those, like Megyn Kelly, who insist on the “whiteness” of Jesus and St. Nicholas, are evil:

“By 1871, some leading intellectuals had recognized that even using the word ‘race’ ‘was virtually a confession of ignorance or evil intent.'”

Moral: I won’t go so far as to call Megyn Kelly evil, but I do think that this particular “War on Christmas” edition is more insidious than past ones, which (1) makes talking about it important; and (2) offers an opportunity to develop/practice empathy for “the other” — b/c what both articles imply is this:

*if* the race of either Jesus or Saint Nicholas *matters* to you at all, then you should actively start imagining him as different from yourself — until it doesn’t.

Example #2: A following status popped up on my Facebook Newsfeed: “If you are tired of hearing ‘happy holidays,’ go visit Chick-fil-A! The employees are encouraged to say ‘Merry Christmas.’ Praise God, finally someone who knows why we celebrate Christmas — Christ!”

Why would anyone get “tired” of receiving well wishes for happiness, despite its form? I said as much, while pointing out that even holiday has religious connotations (happy holiday = happy holy day) as does Happy/Merry Xmas, incidentally (see Greek letters/Roman alphabet/X as a symbol for the cross/etc.)

Response? Either people shouted “Merry CHRISTmas” in a nah-nah-nuh-boo-boo way, or said this: “Happy holidays? Well what holiday is it? Hanukkah is over, chances are not too many people have ever even heard of Kwanzaa, and New Year’s is not a holiday (holy day), so that only leaves Christmas.”

Moral: ^Therein^ lies the problematic philosophy of the conservative religious right — if you’re one of the few, the “not too many people” so casually dismissed above — you and your holiday and your wishes for peace on earth and goodwill towards men may as well not exist. period.

The irony is that this went down while I was at a Catholic church, enjoying a performance of Handel’s Messiah, with a Jewish friend, who got tickets for me and my husband. And I came home to a “Merry Christmas” card from my atheist friend.

Because: there is something magical about the golden rule. When you treat those who think differently from you with love and respect — when you think about what’s most appropriate for your audience and say “Happy Hanukkah!” or “Happy Kwanzaa!” or “Happy Winter Solstice!” or “Happy Holidays!” [which is the best if you don’t know, since it includes Thanksgiving to Epiphany] or “Merry Christmas!” accordingly, you’ll be treated with respect and sincere well-wishes too.

Your holiday greeting shouldn’t be about *you,* the person making the wish, but about the one who receives it. Honestly, though . . . the most common response to any of the above is: thanks! . . . because most people understand that how well wishes are “wrapped” is of as little import as the choice of paper below.

Seriously, evangelical Christians: Get a grip.

Example #3: I think everyone’s Facebook Newsfeed has been blowing up over Phil Robertson’s suspension from Duck Dynasty, after he asserted that homosexuality is the sin from whence all evil comes, after he compared gay sex to sex with animals, and after he waxed nostalgic over the good ole’ days of segregation.

His most ardent and spirited defenders are sharing a more palatable Robertson quote, in which he claims to “love all of humanity,” one that directly contradicts the way Phil just treated the GLBT and African-American communities.

Next, follows a discussion of how his free speech has been violated, because his employers decided that they want to dissociate from his comments.

Dear Phil Robertson defenders: if you’re so proud of him, why not post his image with the comments for which he was actually suspended? Why not make a t-shirt with them and wear it to church, to work, etc. — or might it be problematic to wear the following?


You may, of course, say or wear the above to your workplace. It’s within your right. But: freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequence (i.e. there are repercussions to being an ass). Also, even those who take the Bible literally, who wear WWJD bracelets, recognize that Jesus had *this* to say about homosexuality, and, for the most part, only quoted Scripture to challenge it (e.g. “You have heard it said, BUT [no]”).

Moral: I think my friend, Dr. Roger Ray, says it best in his most recent Sunday sermon:

“Most of what the Sarah Palins, Rush Limbaughs, and Bill O’Reillys are really bemoaning is the loss of an almost entirely unchallenged very white and very Christian dominant culture. They are grieving the loss of a past in which they indulge themselves in that same fantasy recently articulated by Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, when black people were happy about being sharecroppers and tenant farmers, and gay people either didn’t exist or we didn’t have to pretend to be nice to them . . .

The dominant class in any country or any century can make themselves blissfully ignorant of those who are oppressed . . .

Christmas stories introduce Jesus as being someone who is going to turn the established order of the world upside down . . . in very different ways, both Matthew and Luke interpret the birth of Jesus in images that are defiant of the dominant culture . . . The angels sang to us, and even the stars line up to affirm that the weak and the powerless, the homeless, the ones who can’t afford to go to a university or a hospital: Jesus was born for us.”

In that beautiful, inclusive spirit: a very merry Christmas, happy holidays, and season’s greetings to all.

I Am No Bird, Not Even a Wild Goose.

In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, one of the many memorial moments occurs when Jane asserts to the too-often-exasperating Rochester: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”

The quote plays in my mind whenever I’m criticized for thinking differently from those in the rural conservative town in which I grew up. But I started to think that if I had to be a bird, I’d choose to be a wild goose, because a couple of years ago, I was super-excited to discover the annual Wild Goose Festival. Wild Goose, to be held this year in Hot Springs, NC, calls itself  “a community gathered at the intersection of justice, spirituality, music and art.”

I attended the 2012 Wild Goose Festival, but I won’t be attending this year. There were things I liked about it: (1) As a rule, I enjoy festivals focused on social justice and activism for many reasons, not the least of which is the fun of imagining Glenn Beck’s (and his ilk’s) reaction to them in the form of exploding heads; (2) I can say that I’ve heard and — in some cases — met, religious leaders like John Dear (one of Desmond Tutu’s bffs), Frank Schaeffer (who took a particular liking to Arina) and Jim Wallis (a recurring Daily Show guest), all of whom are deemed important enough to have their own Wikipedia pages; and (3) I met dear friend Dr. Roger Ray (who should have his own Wikipedia page) in person for the first time at the Festival! Roger was no doubt the only person there as progressive in his theology as Scott and I are, so we were able to sit on the proverbial back pew together and roll our eyes at the evangelical undercurrent that the organizers of the Festival seemed unable or even unwilling to avoid.

Example: Scott, who was raised Southern Baptist, started visibly twitching at the last performance, because of its similarity to the alter calls he experienced every Sunday growing up. The only difference? Rather than asking the congregants to come forward and pledge or rededicate their lives to Jesus, the Wild Goose speaker asked his audience members to come forward with a slip of paper pledging to make the world better in some tangible way. We’re all for making the world better, of course. I certainly prefer the revised version. But Scott couldn’t take the conspicuous (even showy) nature of a ritual steeped in evangelical conservatism, so Roger and I found ourselves following him to the beer tent instead.

In response to his experience at Wild Goose, Roger is hosting his own conference in Springfield, Missouri, featuring Bishop John Shelby Spong as keynote speaker. We’ll be attending the Spong conference, which will be academic in nature, instead of the Festival. Out of curiosity, though, I perused the lineup of speakers for Wild Goose 2013, and I think I’m beginning to understand what irks me about many of the self-proclaimed progressive voices in popular Christian culture:

334725_4175562431219_735312861_oVoice #1: Frank Schaeffer, Wild Goose speaker 2012: Schaeffer is a brilliant, dynamic speaker, and his personal history, particularly his move from evangelical fundamentalism of the . . . well . . . Francis Shaeffer variety to liberal Christianity, is fascinating.

Roger and I were very much on board with Schaeffer after his first presentation (Scott arrived late), but we had abandoned ship by the end of the second. The offense? In Schaeffer’s second presentation, he attempted to justify his support of the Eastern Orthodox Church despite the fact that it, as a denomination, discriminates against gays and women. He admitted that he would be proud if, one day, his granddaughter Lucy effects much needed change in the church regarding gender equality, but he asserted that it’s not his battle and that he accepts this imperfection in the denomination.

Roger was furiously scribbling in his notebook and muttering expletives, and he spent the rest of the conference trying to position himself and us so that Schaeffer could read the back of our matching t-shirts, which read: “If your church says that you have to be male to preach, that church has a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of genitalia in the writing and delivery of sermons” — a Roger Ray original quote.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King says that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Not your battle? That’s not good enough, Schaeffer.

Voice #2: Glennon Melton, Wild Goose Speaker 2013: I like Glennon Melton’s style. She’s like a younger, hipper Anne Lamott. (Note: I take great comfort in the fact that this is a relatively unknown blog, but in case that changes I reserve the right to delete the previous sentence and deny ever suggesting that Anne Lamott is not, in fact, young and hip.)

Here’s how Glennon describes herself: “I love Jesus, gay people, adoption, and rearranging furniture. In the interest of combining all my loves, I have asked Jesus to help me adopt Nate Berkus.” See? A younger, hipper Anne Lamott.

I liked the first post I read by her, “A Mountain I’m Willing To Die On” (a letter to her son), so much that I linked to it on my Facebook page, even though this part really annoyed me: “Recently there was some talk in my Bible study about homosexuality being sinful. I quoted Mother Teresa and said, ‘When we judge people we have no time to love them.’ I was immediately reprimanded for my blasphemy by a woman who reminded me of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10. But I was confused because this woman was speaking. In church. And she was also wearing a necklace. And I could see her hair, baby. She had no head covering. All of which are sooooo totally against the New Testament Bible Rules. And so I assumed that she had decided not to follow the parts of the Bible that limited her particular freedoms, but to hold fast to the parts that limit the freedoms of others. I didn’t point this out at the time, because she wasn’t a bad person. People are doing the best they can, mostly. It’s best not to embarrass anyone.”

Everything is awesome and funny and refreshing . . . but the last three sentences. I’m of the Elie Wiesel mindset — that we do *not* stand idly by, especially when someone is being mean to someone else.

And, yes: the person who Melton was hesitant to embarrass *was* being mean to the LGBTQ community. Perhaps there was a member of that community in the audience, and the very fact that there could have been requires us to call out hypocrisy and insist on justice everywhere.

You’re afraid of embarrassing someone who is being hurtful to others? That’s not good enough, Melton.

I agree with Roger, who, in response to anti-gay remarks, says: “I am no longer willing to pretend that there is anyone who needs more information or a chance to process all of this. Any remaining prejudice is, in my eyes, just that, prejudice . . . It is not respectable, it is not understandable, it is not a matter of opinion any more than we would, in the 21st century, afford such issues as slavery and child labor the luxury of being just a matter of personal opinion. There may have been a time when we needed to be patient with those who needed some time to catch up with reality but that time is surely past. You can choose to remain in ignorant prejudice, that is your individual right, but we don’t have to pretend that ignorant prejudice is not ignorant prejudice.”

And then — SIGH — Melton does it AGAIN. Currently, Huff Po Religion is featuring Melton’s “I Love Gay People and I Love Christians. I Choose All,” in which she insists that everyone, both gay people and anti-gay Christians, are invited to her table — because she’s a peacemaker.

Two things: (1) anti-gay Christians aren’t necessarily going to want to be at your table, across from the LGBTQ section; and what if one of the anti-gay Christians at your table is that woman from your Bible Study, and she starts insulting your LGBTQ guests?

(2) you can’t “make peace” by trying to find common ground when one group’s argument is built upon asserting the inequality of another group. Rather than taking the “I’ll just invite everyone over for dinner, and it’ll be fun” approach, a true peacemaker is willing to take a stand and say “no” to injustice, and the person promoting it, in the hope of ushering in a more just and equitable society.

Or, as Roger says: “Lord deliver us from shallow religion . . . From using the language of friendship and love too easily . . . Save us from a self-protecting and facile society that acquiesces to silence in the face of prejudice and violence.”

Dear Christian Evangelicals: Please Stop Calling Me a False Prophet and/or Satan

Seriously. I know you’re angry, because I identify as a progressive Christian. See how I always shout *progressive* first? It’s because I’m as loathe to be identified as an evangelical as you are to be identified as a progressive. So, I understand that part of your anger has to do with the fact that I dare call myself Christian at all, since  progressives (in case you didn’t know) subscribe to the following . . .

(1) about faith: “Faith is not about concrete answers, religious absolutes, creeds, or dogma. Faith is about the search for understanding, the raising of important questions, the open honesty of having doubt, and the realization that no one has it all completely right nor does any human hold all the answers.”

(2) about Scripture: “The words of Jesus found in the gospels – specifically, what he states are the greatest commandments: ‘Love God with all of your essence and love your neighbor as you should love yourself’ – are to be the focus for any disciple of him. We submit the rest of Scripture to the position of ‘sacred commentary.'”

(3) about other religions, and no religion: “Recognition and affirmation of the differing belief systems of others . . . is crucial.”

(4) about science: “God created humans with a brain capable of discovery and reason. God does not require us to ‘check our brains at the door,’ along with our coat and hat in order to be a part of the faith.”

Believe me, I get it. You feel like my version of Christianity is seriously cramping your style. I get it, because I feel like your version of Christianity is seriously cramping mine. In that way, at least, we’re more alike than you’d care to admit.

What concerns me is the implication that this difference in philosophy makes me evil, or at least an instrument of evil. Such talk got people burned at the stake back in the day. Scott says I *totally* would have been accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake, and I think he’s probably right. sigh.

As someone who comes from an evangelical background, I feel compelled to say: I don’t think you’re evil, even though I think you’re wrong about *a lot* of things. But, for the most part, I think you’re trying to stay true to a tradition you associate with the people you know and love (whether grandparents, parents, siblings or all of the above); you feel loyalty to a church community that has no doubt been generous to you in many ways; you get tremendous comfort from reading Scripture selectively (b/c you *do* read it selectively), and from praying and then feeling like all the blessings in your life are signs of God’s favor (it’s always fun to feel like you’re a favorite — says me, an only child).

I. get. it.

For me to have abandoned that tradition for one that I see as truer and better is no doubt unsettling. But I’m not trying to convert you (see #3, above). I’m just trying to convince you that I’m not dangerous in the form of being a false prophet and/or Satan. So, to that end:

Criticism #1, paraphrased: “You are a false prophet and/or Satan because you don’t take the Bible seriously.”


I watched the documentary Hellbound last week, and I want Jaime Clark-Soles (Associate Professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology) to be one of my new bffs, because she explains why criticism #1 makes her feel as though her head is going to explode:

“I always get on guard whenever someone uses the phrase ‘seriously’ — ‘taking [the Bible] seriously’ — because by ‘seriously’ they don’t mean: ‘Have you learned all the Biblical languages, and all the languages around it that were being spoken, and [the languages] in the centuries after it, including Coptic?’ They don’t mean that.  I sat through ‘Eastern Roman Provinces’ in graduate school. I don’t care about eastern Roman provinces, but I care about the Bible; therefore, I had to care about eastern Roman provinces, because guess what? That’s the context within which the Bible was written. When I say ‘take the Bible seriously,’ I mean you better go study and you better care enough to do the hard, really boring stuff.”

In short, the reason I read books (both primary and secondary); and watch documentaries; and listen to all kinds of people from my religious tradition, other religious traditions, and no religious tradition is that I take God/ethics/religious texts very seriously indeed. I haven’t learned Coptic (I’m a disaster with languages in general), but that’s why I seek out people, like Jaime Clark-Soles, who have.

This does not make me a false prophet and/or Satan.

Criticism #2, paraphrased: “You’re a false prophet and/or Satan, because the Bible warns us about people like you, and the Bible is inerrant.”


People who say the Bible is inerrant haven’t read the Bible very well — not the “hard, really boring stuff” anyway. I remember reading the God-sends-bears-to-kill-the-42-kids-teasing-Elisha story when I was, like, 8 years old. I remember thinking that I was reading the *grimmest* of a Grimm’s fairy tale, not the true account of a God-ordained kid massacre.

The Bible isn’t inerrant, because the human beings who wrote it weren’t. They didn’t understand the Earth revolves around the sun (obvious when you read Joshua 10), let alone the science behind, say, natural disasters and human sexuality.

And, despite what you say, you don’t treat the Bible as inerrant either. If you did, you wouldn’t eat shellfish, or wear polyester, or permit divorce, or charge and pay interest, or cut your hair certain ways . . . the list goes on, and on, and on.

We build our theology based on the Bible, but we do so thoughtfully.

Criticism #3, paraphrased: “You are a false prophet and/or Satan, because you trust humans rather than God.”

I trust love, and if God is love . . . well, yeah. You see: 1 John 4.8 just happens to be one of those verses in my “canon within the canon.” And I trust humans who are loving to others — in the most generous and reckless and ridiculous ways — because there is something out-of-this-world intangibly beautiful about them.

This does not make me a false prophet and/or Satan.

Brian McLaren (author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Muhammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World — super fun title!) claims: “in a pluralistic world, a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers.” If he’s right, evangelical Christianity is in serious trouble. But that doesn’t mean it can’t . . . well . . . evolve into something better.

The first step? Start empathizing with, rather than demonizing, nonmembers — or, in other words, stop calling people false prophets and/or Satan.

Dear Christian Evangelicals: Please Stop Telling My Agnostic and Atheist BFFs that They’re Going to Hell.

Seriously. I try to be patient, but it’s really starting to make me crazy.

I have a very diverse Facebook audience, including: (1) politically and theologically conservative Christians, most of whom are from the rural SC town in which I grew up; (2) politically and theologically liberal Christians, most of whom I’ve met during my graduate school career/time in academia; and (3) politically liberal people who are of other religions (e.g. Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist) or no religion (agnostic and atheist), some of whom I count as my best friends in the world.

For the most part, I like such a diverse audience, because I think that people are good, mostly, and that we should try to recognize and appreciate the good — even in those with whom we vehemently disagree. Comparative religion scholar, Karen Armstrong, argues that we should practice compassion — making our impulse toward compassion stronger in the same way that any athlete trains to improve muscle tone and strength.

So, I *try* to practice compassion, but every few months or so, the evangelical Christians with access to my page feel the need to respond to this-or-that article I post by telling my friends of other or no faith that they’re going to hell, that they’ll burn eternally because they don’t have a “personal relationship” with Jesus.

Consequently, every few months, I attempt to undo the damage from this virulent strain of “Christianity” by sharing more progressive Christian voices, like Bishop John Shelby Spong, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Jesus seminar” scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, etc. I quote most frequently from an Oklahoma City philosophy professor, Robin Meyers, whose books are incredibly readable and conveniently annotated. It’s probably the best job I’ve ever done annotating texts while reading them, putting anything I need in the form of progressive Christian ideology literally at my fingertips.

FYI: Super cute Andrew Rannells also helps, because I watch his “I Believe” from The Book of Mormon whenever I get Facebook bombed with Bible verses. It reminds me that people can still do good and affect positive change despite beliefs that others see as batshit insane. So kudos to Trey Parker and Matt Stone. I’ve been watching a lot of Andrew Rannells lately:

But I’m writing this blog post, because I’ve repeated myself *so* many times at this point that it’s become useful to have something I can just link . . .

So, dear Christian evangelicals, please stop telling my agnostic and atheist bffs (and friends of other faiths) that they’re going to hell.

Point 1. It’s both unnecessary and rude. You may *think* that you’re the Christians following the “narrow” way, but: you’re status quo, mega church, etc. You’re on a wide, wide road with lots of others who have been saying the same thing for a really long time now. So, we all know that you favor the gospel of John over Mark, and that you think anyone who doesn’t “ask Jesus” into his/her “heart” will then be doomed by Jesus/God to hell for eternity. We all know that you think it’s your commission to tell anyone who doesn’t agree that they’re doomed, but we’ve already been told. You’ve been there/done that; we’re glad to have obliged; and at this point, to keep telling us is rude.

Point 2. I know you just took issue with the fact that I said “you favor the gospel of John over Mark,” because you’ve been told and therefore think the Bible is inerrant and that John and Mark are not contradictory. The gospels are, in fact, different when you put them in conversation with one another. The gospel of Mark was written first, so the other gospel writers both drew from and added to the original, offering different portraits of Jesus and interpretations of his life and significance. Robin Meyers explains this, neatly and concisely, in the following paragraph from The Underground Church:

“[Jesus’s] voice changes with each representation. Do we follow Mark’s Jesus (the first portrait), who is reported to have said with self-effacing humility, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’ (10:18)? Or do we follow the self-proclaimed exclusive messiah of John’s Jesus (the last portrait), where Jesus seems to be a kind of self-illuminated figure in a world where nobody seemed to notice that he glows in the dark. Now instead of a man who is humble and nervous about too much adoration, he has become a self-identifying messiah: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (14:6). How could the same man have said both these things?” (19-20).

Meyers argues that liberals prefer “the more human Jesus” presented in Mark, whereas conservatives “choose a text from John far more often than from the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke)” (20).

I don’t care that others build their theology around John whereas I build mine around Mark, that they value salvation theology whereas I value wisdom theology, that they’re fans of eternal torment whereas I’m a fan of universal salvation, etc. Because, according to my system, everyone is “in,” so I’m stuck with you, regardless of what I think about your personal philosophy. Heck: I can even like you, when I think of you as Andrew Rannells.

Point 3. But here’s the thing: I can be tolerant of everything but intolerance. After a brief discussion of the historical Jesus, temple history and church doctrine, one of my Facebook critics accused me of making things “too complicated.” But following Jesus’s example rather than worshipping him is quite simple, since he prioritizes the Golden Rule (which involves loving your neighbor and refraining from judgement) above everything else. Fun fact: versions of the Golden Rule appear in many (if not all) world religions; click here for the slideshow.

In my experience, salvation theology grooms its adherents to practice not compassion but judgement. Because salvation theology is concerned with who is “in” and who is “out” of the circle of God’s grace, its adherents seem to carry that type of mentality with them . . . well, everywhere.

My husband, Scott, has little time for Facebook and rarely comments, but even he feels compelled to comment when the judgement starts raining down. His theory is that most comments should be answered one of two ways. Here’s a couple of actual comments (paraphrased) we’ve seen, from adherents of salvation theology, and Scott’s response.

Comment 1: “Ugh. In line at the grocery store and the woman behind me is complaining that she can’t buy organic milk with her food stamps. I don’t buy organic milk because IT’S MORE EXPENSIVE AND I WOULD BE PAYING FOR IT!”

Wouldn’t it be preferable to practice compassion rather than judgement? Maybe — just maybe — the woman is navigating the difficulty between being both poor and wanting the best for herself and her family. Maybe she needs better milk, because she has a kid with food allergies and intolerances. And I’m pretty sure this guy, who is an accountant, could buy organic milk if he wanted it, and that he would be pretty damn irritated if anyone presumed to judge his shopping cart the same way.

Scott’s response?


 Comment 2: “Caster Semenya has both male and female body parts, so she should be celibate to avoid offending God.”

That one was difficult to type, but yeah: rather than practicing compassion and coming to a more nuanced understanding of gender (which should translate to a more nuanced understanding of sexuality), this guy manages both to hold onto his homophobia and to condemn Semenya, a teenager at the time, to celibacy.

Scott’s response?


 In The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, Karen Armstrong gives us a litmus test, through which we can determine “good” vs. “bad” religion:

“If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God’s name, it was bad theology.”

You can’t get much simpler than that.

What I Want My Daughter to Learn from Les Miserables: A Top Three List

Over the weekend, my husband and I took our 8-year old daughter to see the musical Les Miserables. I debated whether she was too young, with songs like “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House,” not to mention [spoiler alert] . . .

. . . Gavroche’s death — which was one of many, of course, but I wondered what she’d think about witnessing the imaginary violent death of a boy her age.

Then, I remembered that I was listening to the music at 8 years old and didn’t think about it again. (My parents went to see The Phantom of the Opera when I was in 3rd grade and brought back cassette tapes of the music; an avid lover of books, I remember being entranced by the idea of story in song and started collecting the soundtracks from every musical on Broadway and piecing together the stories).

I decided that 8-years old is the perfect age for Les Mis. At eight, Arina still values our opinion. Mom and Dad are still cool. Arina was actually impressed to hear the two of us sing the soundtrack back and forth to each other the week before the show, while making dinner. So, she took the opportunity to go very seriously. She nodded solemnly when Scott told her that the experience would be magical, that afterward she’d feel more deeply [“right here,” he had said, pointing to her heart]. And, happily, she sat transfixed, mouth agape, for the entire 2 1/2 hours.

Saturday was my fifth time seeing Les Mis, but this time was special, because I thought, throughout, about what I hoped Arina was learning. Without further ado, and in no particular order, my top three list is as follows:

1) Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert represent the best and worst of religion, respectively. Sometimes, my mother bemoans the fact that we have yet to find a church we feel comfortable attending, now that we’ve moved to such a small town. Our church is currently in Springfield, Missouri, since we tune in each Sunday to CCCSpringfield’s youtube channel and have struck up a friendship with the minister there, Dr. Roger Ray. We’ve decided to attend when we can, at least twice a year; we joke with Roger that we’re like those families who only come to church at Easter and Christmas, but since we’re of the progressive Christian variety we visit instead (1) after a tragedy, in order to be part of a sympathetic community and plan acts of social justice (we decided on our first visit after the Sandy Hook massacre); and (2) whenever the academics are in town (a conference is currently in the works for August, and hopes are to bring in John Shelby Spong as keynote speaker).

Until then, I reminded Mom that taking Arina to see Les Mis is worth a month, and more, of Sundays — since Valjean represents the best religion has to offer.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that some version of “love your neighbor as yourself” appears in so many religious and philosophical traditions; see the lovely slideshow: “The Golden Rule in World Religions.”

The musical/film/story opens with Valjean. Cliff notes version: V. steals bread, is imprisoned for 19 years, is unable to obtain work b/c he was imprisoned, is apprehended by the police for stealing something worse than bread (i.e. silver) from an aging, hospitable bishop.

The Bishop covers for Valjean, telling the police that he not only gave him the silver in his possession, but silver candlesticks as well that Valjean “forgot” — a literal example of “if someone takes your coat, give him your shirt as well.” Touched, Valjean becomes ridiculously good afterward: rescuing a prostitute; adopting her child; waltzing into the middle of a battle to save his daughter’s boyfriend, etc. He is, in effect, the embodiment of the Golden Rule, and is symbolic of a Christianity that is compassionate and generous, self-sacrificing and brave.

If Valjean is the embodiment of the Golden Rule, Inspector Javert is the embodiment of the Ten Commandments, all “Thou Shalt Not,” and if you do . . . well, you’ll get jail or hell, whichever comes first. And, yet, as Nathan Newman explains in “The Enduring Radicalism of Les Miserables,” Javert isn’t bad

“It is not just because the hero Jean Valjean is a good man that he saves Javert’s life, but because Javert on his own terms is a good man as well — just dedicated to protecting a very bad system.  Instead of personalizing politics in a bad guy the hero can kill, this is a movie where a Javert defending the system is instead confronted with the system’s own failings — and can’t live with having dedicated his life to defending a lie.”

Javert is, in effect, the embodiment of the Law, and is symbolic of a Christianity that is judgmental and unyielding, literal (with no room for interpretation) and sure (with no room for doubt).

I was thrilled to discover that Jean Valjean is Arina’s favorite character, even above the ones I expected her to pick (e.g. the little girl Cosette, with whom I assumed she’d most identify). When I asked her why, she said: “because he makes things right.”

2) We must both recognize and speak the fact that “she needs a doctor not a jail.”

Valjean’s empathetic imagination not only gives him insight about the plight of those around him but also inspires him to speak up for those too weak to speak up for themselves — despite the fact that, by doing so, he puts himself in jeopardy, because the Law (i.e. Javert) is always trying to capture him. This is nowhere more dramatic than when he steps out of the darkness and argues with Javert, who is in the process of carting off the prostitute Fantine to jail; Valjean uses his position as mayor to insist on mercy, saying “she needs a doctor, not a jail.”

When looking at Fantine, Javert sees someone breaking the law; when looking at Fantine, Valjean sees someone in pain. To Javert, she is worthless; to Valjean, she has value beyond measure, despite the broken state in which he finds her. I hope that Arina will see through Valjean’s eyes rather than Javert’s. I think she must, since her story has its own Fantine, a birthmother who was addicted and homeless and died young and alone.

I came across a cringe-worthy status update on Facebook this week: “A homeless man outside the grocery store asked me for a dollar. UGH! Get a JOB like the rest of us!” I thought of Fantine and Oksana and wondered what Arina will think when she’s an adult and hears such comments. I thought of Victor Hugo, who penned the novel Les Miserables in the mid 1800s and who, despite being a national hero, asked to be buried in a poor man’s hearse, to be given a pauper’s funeral — because he understood something in the mid 1800s that many fail to understand in 2012: that everything worth knowing is found among “the least of these.”

3) Families have little to nothing to do with biology, and everything to do with the loving connections we make to others.

At its core, Les Mis is one of the best portrayals of the bond between adoptive parent and adopted child that’s out there, because the little known fact it brings to light is that the bond could not be stronger if biology were involved. Valjean meets Cosette, a child in need, and provides for her; they become a family immediately, because they choose to do so and because it’s the right, the natural thing to do. The child becomes, as Valjean explains, “the best of my life.” Cosette is Valjean’s and Valjean is Cosette’s — and more. At the end of the musical, Fantine’s spirit ushers Valjean’s to the next life, because Cosette and Valjean and Fantine all belong to each other, inextricably and wonderfully bound not by biology but by love. Just like Arina and Oksana and I belong and are bound to each other.

I’ve realized, in this fifth viewing of Les Miserables, that it is a nearly perfect production. The only criticism I have, the only way it falls short of what I believe was Victor Hugo’s vision, is in its limiting view of heaven. Hugo believed in love and grace and redemption for all. So, in the last scene, when Fantine takes Valjean to join the heavenly song, and we see Gavroche and Eponine and all the young revolutionaries holding hands and singing together, we notice that Javert is missing. He shouldn’t be. I think that Valjean would expect, and even look forward, to seeing him.