book reviews, comics, faith, history, nature, parenting, politics, science

Selected Book Reviews, October – December 2016

This batch of book reviews round out last year’s reading.  I got behind in writing them for reasons that I can’t even recall, but it nagged at me that I hadn’t finished them.  These will probably be the last set of book reviews I do in this format.  In the future, I may do a deep dive into a particularly insightful or powerful book.  Or I may do a roundup of a few books on one topic.  I’m not entirely sure yet. But I’m not planning on doing monthly reviews anymore.  However, I think I’ll still make a list of the best books I read in a given year to recommend.  Speaking of which, I’ll put up a year in review of the best books I read in 2016 shortly.

  • Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics by Jonathan Dudley is a careful critique of evangelicalism by someone who grew up in that world.  It reads as a succinct summary of some of my own changes in thinking on these topics.  Dudley’s book can be summarized well with two quotes.  First, his thesis: “Evangelicalism has defined itself by weakly supported boundary markers, which are justified by a flawed understanding of biblical interpretation and maintained by suppressing those who disagree” (24).  The four boundary markers dealt with in the book are abortion, homosexuality, environmentalism, and evolution.  Basically the hot button topics in the culture wars.  If one takes the wrong view on any of these issues, one cannot be in the evangelical club anymore.  The second quote concerns the justification from the Bible part of the thesis: “Biases and prior beliefs are not something that get in the way of interpretation, something that must be brushed aside; rather, biases and prior beliefs are behind every interpretation” (108-9).  Everyone approaches the Bible with prior beliefs and biases.  Even the straightforward plain interpretation that we think is objective is certainly a matter of the lens we use when we read.  An easy example from the book is that Christians were not all that concerned when Darwin first published his theory of evolution in 1859.  It wasn’t until decades later that fundamentalists and evangelicals felt that they had to reject evolution and believe in a young earth.  Christians approached the same text with different prior beliefs at different points in time and came to vastly different conclusions.  Besides this major point about interpretation, Dudley also wants to make a point about the Christian use of science.  He notes how Christian pro-lifers claim that science shows that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception (an argument Dudley doesn’t accept).  But when it comes to other matters of science, such as the widespread scientific evidence for evolution or global warming, evangelical Christians often find themselves dismissing science.  Evangelicals only like science when it seemingly agrees with their political beliefs.  Dudley grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, home to several evangelical colleges and publishing houses.  He attended Calvin College, then studied religion at seminary, and then began medical school, while finishing this book.  I don’t have the same educational path, but I can relate to his intellectual and faith journey and some of his conclusions.  I would definitely recommend this book.

squirrel-girl

  • The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 1: Squirrel Power by Ryan North and Erica Henderson is an incredibly fun comic book.  It’s light-hearted and funny.  I find it hard to decide which I like more, the writing or the artwork.  North has fun with Doreen Green and her supporting cast of friends and squirrels, as well as the villains, but he gives them all a lot of heart and personality.  Henderson does a great job balancing cartoony action and characters, but never exploits or sexualizes the characters, a problem all too rampant in comics.  Doreen looks like the college student she is, not an unrealistic supermodel in a swimsuit trying to fight crime.  She’s someone I’d want to be friends with if I had a friend who could talk to squirrels.  She eats nuts and kicks butts.  Even if you think you don’t like superhero comics, you might like this one.  I’m really looking forward to reading more of this series.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson is an essential work of history.  Wilkerson tells the story of the internal migration of millions of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North and West during the 20th century.  Actually, she focuses her attention on three individuals as representatives of those millions.  Through the story of Ida Mae we learn how tenuous was the position of sharecroppers in Mississippi, how hard the work was picking cotton and how little they got paid, if at all.  So much depended on the whims of the white landowners.  After Ida Mae’s husband’s cousin Joe Lee, who lived a few shacks down from them, was falsely accused of stealing turkeys and subsequently half beaten to death, Ida Mae and her family packed up and left for Milwaukee, ending up on the South Side of Chicago before long.  There they face housing discrimination; all the black families moving in are forced into strict geographical boundaries, and any time they try to move into a new neighborhood, the white neighbors first try to fight their arrival, and if that failed then they all moved out.  If you want to know why cities are like they are, this book is illuminating.  Even the world famous gospel singer Mahalia Jackson faced housing discrimination when she bought a house in a nice neighborhood.  She received death threats in the middle of the night before she moved in, and after she did, bullets shattered some of her windows.  Police had to keep guard around her house for nearly a year to prevent violence.  No one was immune from discrimination.  Despite the hardships in the North, Ida Mae experienced some measure of true freedom.  She was able to vote for the first time.  The family was eventually able to buy a house, but soon after they did, the whites in the neighborhood took flight.  The two other individuals the book focuses on, Dr. Robert Foster and George Starling, provide more glimpses into life in the Jim Crow South and how they tried to make a better life in L.A. and New York, respectively.  Dr. Foster left a life in rural Louisiana where the highest he could have risen was to a country doctor making house calls to black families with no admitting privileges at the local hospital.  He wanted fame and fortune and a good life.  George Starling picked fruit in the groves of Florida, chafing at the unfair labor practices, before he headed North.  He worked for the railroad on a line that traveled up and down the east coast, so he got to see the changes from North to South for decades.  Throughout these three stories, Wilkerson weaves in all the appropriate context so that we as readers can see the big picture, too.  It’s really a marvelous narrative history that illuminates so much of the 20th century and today.  I can hardly say enough good about it.  Everyone should read it.
  • Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert is a short and excellent primer on climate change (I read it in a day).  The book is based on a series of articles Kolbert wrote for The New Yorker magazine, where she is a staff writer, in order “to convey, as vividly as possible, the reality of global warming” (2).  By traveling to locations across the globe, Kolbert tells how things are changing: glaciers are shrinking, permafrost is melting, oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, animal migrations are shifting towards the warming poles, and plants are earlier than usual.  A small island community in Alaska has to move because of the rising ocean level.  While telling the stories of various changes worldwide, Kolbert also explains the science to a lay audience without getting too technical.  The only downside to this well written little book is that it is already a bit out of date.  It was published in 2006, but since then we have had still warmer years, and the trend continues upward.  Despite that one drawback, I would highly recommend it. [Note: there is a newer revised and expanded edition, so forget what I said.  Read that one instead.]
  • The Everyday Parenting Toolkit by Alan E. Kazdin with Carlo Rotella is a very helpful book for parents.  Kazdin draws on the available social science on children’s behavior and his experience working at the Yale Parenting Center to give useful guidelines for how to change problematic behavior in kids.  The key is the focus on behavior.  Parents, me included, want our kids to be kind and generous, resilient and motivated, and not selfish jerks.  But how do these qualities get cultivated?  It starts with behavior.  Kazdin explains his ABC method, which is backed up by research and with examples of how it works.  He describes his techniques as tools in the toolbox.  They are adaptable depending on the situation; some will be used more than others.  The first thing to think about when considering children’s behavior is the Antecedent of the behavior.  How can parents set up the situation for the behavior they wish to see?  The goal is to make the choice for the child as likely as possible.  Asking in a calm voice one time helps.  Giving a choice also helps.  Children like to have at least a small measure of autonomy.  The next consideration is the Behavior itself.  Sometimes this is clear like when I want my kids to clear their places by putting their dishes into the sink after a meal or brush their teeth before bed.  But often I want them to stop an irritating or dangerous behavior.  It’s not very effective to merely say don’t do that.  What kids need is positive reinforcement for the behavior I do want to see.  In order to make that happen, I have to think of the positive opposite of undesirable behavior.  This isn’t always easy to do, but it’s crucial.  So for example, my 3 year old throws screaming tantrums sometimes.  I can’t change the fact that he gets upset by things, but I do want him to deal with his upset feelings with a different strategy than by screaming.  So I will praise him for any approximation that gets us closer to the desired behavior.  This is called shaping the behavior.  If he never has done the desired behavior, then we can practice a simulation so he can try to do it when he does actually get upset.  The third part is the area of Consequences, which is where a lot of people want to start.  For Kazdin, consequences are positive reinforcement for the desired behavior.  Mostly this means praise from parents that is immediate, effusive, and specific, with some sort of affection added.  Sometimes other methods can help, too, like a point chart, but praise from parents is the best reinforcer.  Kazdin has a lot more to explain and tons of examples (as well as another book for the tough cases of especially defiant children), but this is the outline.  Some of it is definitely counter-intuitive.  But I can see that barking at my children to stop doing something rarely works and it often escalates.  When I’ve been able to implement the Kazdin ABCs I’ve had much more success in changing unwanted behavior.  I’d really recommend this to any and all parents.
  • My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor is a revealing and instructive memoir from one of our Supreme Court Justices.  She details her life with precision and insight up until her appointment as a District Court judge in 1992; the rest of her life and career will presumably have to wait until her retirement.  I was especially interested in finding out more about her life because my kids attend a Spanish immersion elementary school named after her.  There are many interesting details to her early life growing up poor in a housing project in the Bronx.  Her alcoholic father died when she was young, so she and her brother had to assume a lot of responsibility in their household with only their mother to raise them.  Especially humanizing is her diagnosis of type 1 diabetes at age seven that she has had to manage for the rest of her life.  That diagnosis led her to give up dreams of growing up and becoming a detective and instead focus on training to be a lawyer.  She knew from an early age what she wanted to do in life.  One of the overriding themes of her memoir is that of empathy.  In a pivotal passage, Sotomayor explains how she understood the importance of empathy through two events and by reading Lord of the Flies.  In the classic book, a group of boys have to fend for themselves on an island by themselves.  Their survival is precarious, and they must work together in order to make it through.  Sotomayor notices the same precariousness in her own life.  She notices a police officer extorting a street fruit vendor for two bags of fruit.  She also witnesses her own aunt making prank calls to random women, pretending that she was having affairs with their husbands.  Putting it all together, she declares, “I was fifteen years old when I understood how it is that things break down: people can’t imagine someone else’s point of view” (123).  Her story continues as she details how hard she worked to make it through Princeton and Yale Law School, despite “limits of class and cultural background” (171).  It’s an inspiring book, and she doesn’t refrain from talking about mistakes she has made such as her brief marriage to her high school sweetheart.  This is a memoir I’d recommend reading.
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faith, personal, politics

Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness

I have been called on to repent.

Me and all other progressive and liberal Christians.

The American Association of Evangelicals has written “An Open Letter to Christian pastors, leaders and believers who assist the anti-Christian Progressive political movement in America.”  They call on progressive Christians “to repent of their work that often advances a destructive liberal political agenda.”  They do this in a heart of love, of course.  I know this because the letter tells us, “We write as true friends knowing that most believers mean well. We desire the best for you and for the world God loves.”

Their main target of criticism is Jim Wallis of Sojourners because he has accepted money from George Soros, a liberal philanthropist.  Multiple paragraphs denounce the nefarious Soro, all of them filled with links about the many ways he is undermining their conception of America.  Wallis is presented as a stooge of the supposedly anti-Christian Soros, as are any other progressives who might agree with their political ideas about immigration reform or other social justice issues.

So who is the American Association of Evangelicals?  They describe themselves this way: “Speaking truth to power, more than 100 evangelical and Catholic leaders urge Progressive “faith” groups to turn away from the liberal political funding and agenda that demoralizes and weakens the poor, the family, the Church and the nation.”   I like the way they put “faith” in scare quotes in order to delegitimize progressive Christians.  That’s what true friends do.  I can tell that they’re really sincere when they say that “most believers mean well,” except they can’t accept that the faith of progressive Christians might lead towards a more liberal political agenda.  So they can’t call it faith.  It has to be placed in scare quotes.

I suspect, for a few reasons, that the author of the letter is Kelly Monroe Kullberg, founder of The Veritas Forum at Harvard.  She is first on the list of signees.  She is listed as the contact person for interviews.  Because of those first two clues, I searched for more information about her and came across a guest blog post she had written against immigration reform in 2013.  The writing style of that blog post has some similarities to the Open Letter¹.  Also, just as the Open Letter does, her blog post from 2013 takes aim against Jim Wallis and George Soros for their involvement in organizing evangelicals for immigration reform.  The same two targets for the Open Letter and the blog post from three years ago seems more than coincidental.  She has it in for these two.

Of the signatories to the Open Letter, I recognized a few names: Eric Metaxas (author of a popular biography of Deitrich Bonhoeffer), Wayne Grudem (an evangelical theologian who has written a widely used Systematic Theology textbook, one that I used in some of my Bible classes in college), David Barton (a pseudohistorian), and John Morris (president emeritus of the Institute of Creation Research, a young earth creationist organization).  Metaxas and Grudem have published articles urging their fellow Christians to vote for Donald Trump in November, claiming that it is the Christian thing to do.  (Many other Christians, in turn, have written strongly worded rebuttals to Grudem.) [edited to add: In light of further revelations of ugly things Trump has said about women, Grudem has retracted his earlier statement of support.  In his new statement, he condemns Trump and Clinton.  He states that he refuses to vote for Clinton, but leaves open the possibility of still voting for Trump.  His earlier article called “Why Voting for Donald Trump is a Morally Good Choice” is still available in archived form.][Another edit: Grudem is back to arguing that voting for Trump is necessary because of his policies.]

The letter has attracted an interesting cross section of evangelicalism.  Of the remaining names I didn’t know on sight, I did recognize some of the organizations they were affiliated with: the executive director of Precept Ministries, the president of the American Family Association, the founder and president of Charisma Media, etc.  There are also pastors, educators, elected officials, and other ministry leaders on the extensive list of 100.  As of this writing, more than 800 people have added their signatures to the letter.

The letter claims that “We are not here endorsing or denouncing a political candidate but reminding you of basic Christian morality,” but it’s a little hard to believe (though I understand that they have to say that for legal purposes).  For one thing, this letter was published on September 27, 2016, which is 43 days before the presidential election.  Two prominent signers are vocal Trump supporters.  Soon after this statement about not endorsing or denouncing candidates, the letter has a list of ten “consequences of Progressive political activism over the past eight years.”  Hmm, I wonder who has been in office for the past eight years?  Right after the list of consequences, most of them distortions or falsehoods, they ask “why would any religious leader ask Christians to embrace a Progressive political agenda that is clearly anti-Christian?”  Immediately following this incendiary question, the letter impugns Hillary Clinton, who happens to be a political candidate at the moment.  Here’s what the letter says about Hillary Clinton in its entirety.

“When Hillary Clinton stated during a 2015 speech at the Women in the World Summit that religious beliefs “have to be changed,” she was openly declaring war on Christian believers and the Church. And now Progressives claim that supporting such a view is the Christian thing to do?  This is spiritual abuse of the family, the Church and the nation.”

There is a link to her speech, or rather a link to a short clip from the speech.  I recognized this.  I came across this same edited clip of her speech on Facebook a while back from a linked article that was even more wild-eyed and conspiratorial.  It was written by Theodore Shoebat, who calls himself a “proud fascist,” and supports having the government execute gay people, and says that women who have abortions should be put before a firing squad.  In his article, Shoebat claimed that “Hilary [sic] Clinton just said that Christians must deny their Faith through the enforcement of laws.”  Then he misquotes her: “Notice that she says that the change of Christian beliefs is the ‘unfinished business of the 21st century,’ which means she wants to persecute Christians.”  He caps it all off by calling her a “witch.”

Although the American Association of Evangelicals version is slightly more timid than Shoebat’s, they are both saying essentially the same thing.  And they are completely distorting Hillary Clinton’s words and their meaning in order to make it falsely look like she is against Christian belief.  They are bearing false witness.  Let me show why.

Here is the clip of the speech.

And here’s the transcript provided on the YouTube video:

“Far too many women are denied access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth, and laws don’t count for much if they’re not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice — not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”

The clip was uploaded by a conservative talk radio program called The Joe Walsh Show.  Joe Walsh was a one term U.S. Representative from Illinois who was elected in the 2010 midterm Tea Party wave.  He lost in 2012 to Tammy Duckworth, and soon afterwards started his radio program.

So is Hillary Clinton “openly declaring war on Christian believers and the Church” with these words as the Open Letter and Theodore Shoebat would have you believe?  The answer is no.

The reason I know this is because the clip has been taken out of context.  Anyone who has learned the fundamentals of biblical exegesis knows the importance of considering context rather than trying to interpret a statement in isolation.  (Wayne Grudem, the systematic theologian who signed the Open Letter, points out that “the place of the statement in context” is one of four sources for interpreting biblical passages in a chapter he has written on Bible Interpretation.)

Clinton is not speaking about America or American laws.  In this quote, she is actually talking about the worldwide maternal mortality rate, not that you would know that because the edited clip begins partway through a sentence and omits the first words.  And the edited clip has had a much greater impact, having been viewed more than 600,000 times compared to the full speech, which has only been viewed slightly more than 150,000 times.  (The edited clip, or a brief summary with the key words “religious beliefs have to be changed,” has made the rounds of Christian websites and conservative media sites.  A partial list of Christian sites: LifeNews, CharismaNews, ChristianDaily, and Now the End Begins.  A partial list of conservative media sites: The Blaze, National Review, The Daily Caller, and Fox Nation.  Interestingly, the last two include the video of the entire speech, but only highlight the same portion about “religious beliefs have to be changed” as those who include the edited version.)

Here is the same quote with the fuller context.  I’m going to provide more than the beginning of the sentence that was cut, going back even farther so that there can be no mistake what she is talking about. (Begin the video at 7:40)

“But the data leads to a second conclusion that despite all this progress, we’re just not there yet.

Yes, we’ve nearly closed the global gender gap in primary school, but secondary school remains out of reach for so many girls around the world.

Yes, we’ve increased the number of countries prohibiting domestic violence, but still more than half the nations in the world have no such laws on the books and an estimated one in three women still experience violence.

Yes, we’ve cut the maternal mortality rate in half, but far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth. All the laws we’ve passed don’t count for much if they’re not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice — not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed.”

I’ve provided the larger context so it is clear that when Clinton says, “far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth,” she is talking about the maternal mortality rate in the developing world.  We can know this because of context and because of the facts about maternal mortality.  First, she is giving the keynote address at the Women in the World conference.  Of course her remarks are going to be global in nature. Second, the context of the first two examples in this list of three areas where more progress needs to be made—the gender gap in education and domestic violence—makes clear that she is referring to areas other than America (“global gender gap,” “girls around the world,” “number of countries,” and “half the nations in the world.”).  And third, according to the World Health Organization, “99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.” (All quotes from the World Health Organization come from their fact sheet on maternal mortality published in November 2015.)

So when Clinton says that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed,” in order to further cut the maternal mortality rate, she means in other countries, specifically in the developing world.  So what are the challenges with cutting the maternal mortality rate in these countries?  Though the maternal mortality rate has been nearly cut in half in the past 25 years, as Clinton said, still around 300,000 women die each year for preventable reasons associated with pregnancy or childbirth.  According to the WHO, greater than 50% of the deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and nearly a third in South Asia.

Here are the reasons given by the World Health Organization:

“The major complications that account for nearly 75% of all maternal deaths are:

  • severe bleeding (mostly bleeding after childbirth)
  • infections (usually after childbirth)
  • high blood pressure during pregnancy (pre-eclampsia and eclampsia)
  • complications from delivery
  • unsafe abortion.

The remainder are caused by or associated with diseases such as malaria, and AIDS during pregnancy.”

The first four reasons the WHO lists require what Clinton said in the first part of her statement: “access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth.”  So that leaves the issues of unsafe abortion and the prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS.

According to WHO, “To avoid maternal deaths, it is also vital to prevent unwanted and too-early pregnancies. All women, including adolescents, need access to contraception, safe abortion services to the full extent of the law, and quality post-abortion care.”

There are two components here.  First, there needs to be access to contraception.  One reason is to “prevent unwanted and too-early pregnancies.”  The other reason is to prevent the spread of AIDS.  Consistent and proper condom use helps reduce the spread of STDs, and HIV/AIDS specifically.  So widespread access to contraception would help reduce the maternal mortality rate by decreasing unsafe abortions and by helping curb the spread of AIDS.

One of the barriers to widespread access to contraception, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is the belief that contraception is immoral.  I think it is most likely that Clinton’s comment that “cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed” has to do with the use of contraception.  If people changed their minds about contraceptives, then the maternal mortality rate would go down.  Here is the only place where Clinton could be urging Christians to change their beliefs.  The Catholic church still forbids the use of any contraceptives with the exception of natural family planning.  However, while that is the official position of the church hierarchy, the vast majority of Catholics worldwide (78%) do not find contraceptives morally wrong.  But Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa do agree with their church’s position on contraceptives at a higher percentage.  I find the idea that this is Clinton waging war against Christians and their beliefs hard to take seriously when American Catholics also overwhelmingly do not think that contraceptive use is immoral.

The second component is “safe abortion services to the full extent of the law, and quality post-abortion care.”  To a pro-life audience, which the AAE Open Letter clearly addresses, this is anathema, but please hear out my reasoning.  Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa restrict abortion much more than in the United States.  Only two countries, South Africa and Mozambique, allow abortion for any reason with gestational limits, the same as the U.S.  All of the other countries restrict abortion to save the life of the mother or they ban it outright.  The story is similar in the countries of South Asia.  So between the countries of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, most of them restrict abortion heavily or completely ban it.  The WHO and Hillary Clinton are calling for the laws in these countries that do allow some abortions in some cases to be enforced and for those abortions to be safe.  How could it be the pro-life position to allow a woman who has a legal abortion to die from inadequate medical care during and after the abortion?  These women need good and safe reproductive care—whether they choose an abortion or not—during pregnancy and afterwards.

So while pro-life Christians can certainly disagree with Hillary Clinton’s positions on abortion, Clinton’s comments in this speech are about following existing laws in other countries and saving the lives of women.  She is not calling on Christians to change their beliefs on abortion or any other article of faith, aside from accepting the use of contraception.

So not only did the letter writers take Clinton’s words out of context to distort their meaning, they also charged that she is “openly declaring war on Christian believers and the Church.”  This accusation seems to presume that Clinton herself is not a Christian.  That is not true.  Clinton is a Christian, and though she is fairly private about her faith, it has never been a secret.  They are again bearing false witness.

Back in January of this year, at a campaign stop in Iowa, Clinton, when asked about her faith, proclaimed, “I am a person of faith. I am a Christian. I am a Methodist.”  Later in her answer, she boiled down the essence of her faith: “My study of the Bible, my many conversations with people of faith, has led me to believe the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that is what I think we are commanded by Christ to do.”  Her beliefs have led her to a life of service in which she fought for health care for children during her husband’s administration, for women’s rights around the world, for health care for 9/11 first responders, etc.  At the end of the Democratic National Convention in July, after her speech, Clinton listened to the benediction by a Methodist minister where he ended with the Methodist maxim, “Do all the good we can, by all the means we can, in all the ways we can, in all the places we can, at all the times we can, to all the people we can, as long as we ever can.”  If she isn’t a Christian, she sure is trying to do the work of a Christian.

So here’s my answer to the Open Letter calling me to repent:

I do have reason to repent.  I need to repent of my selfishness and idleness.  For harsh words spoken.  My indifference to suffering.  And my envy of others.

But I will not repent supporting liberal political policies that feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison.

And I will not repent supporting a politician who works towards closing the global gender gap in education, prohibiting domestic violence, and cutting the maternal mortality rate.


Footnote

¹In her blog post, she also used a phrase that stood out to me when she called an evangelical group in favor of immigration reform “an ad hoc group.”  The Open Letter also calls themselves “an ad hoc fellowship of evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox believers.”  In 2013, in response to the evangelicals in favor of immigration reform, Kullberg formed “Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration (EBI) [which] is an ad hoc movement,” and more recently The America Conservancy, whose motto is “For America’s renewal. Because of love.”  The line “because of love” can also be found on the Open Letter just after the author describes them as an ad hoc group, “We stand — because of love.”

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book reviews, faith, history, poetry

Book Reviews, August 2015

The August installment of brief book reviews includes the work of a southern poet, John Hersey’s classic on the devastation of the first atomic bomb, and a meditation on church.

  • Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans is a mix of memoir and a meditation on church.  The book is structured around the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage), which helps hold the fragmentary nature of the chapters together.  In her earlier memoir she talked openly about her doubts with Christian faith that led her to adapt; in this new memoir she details how she left the evangelical church she grew up in, struggled to attend any church for a time, tried and failed to start a church, and then found solace in the Episcopal church.  As I said in my earlier review, I could relate in the broad strokes with her experiences (I, too, have found solace in the Episcopal church).  But I really appreciate that Evans doesn’t repudiate her evangelical upbringing.  For her, it’s the community that introduced her to Jesus and still part of the universal church, so she can’t turn her back on it.  I also appreciated her honesty when talking about her judgmental attitudes about churches she would visit.  She talked about how she would intellectualize everything and remain aloof in her pride.  Her awareness was welcoming and a reminder of my own judgmental attitudes.  Later, when discussing the incident in the gospel of John where Jesus refuses to condemn a woman caught in adultery who the Pharisees bring to him ready to stone, Evans discusses judgmental attitudes within the church.  She had been talking about sin-sorting: the habit of classifying some sins as worse than others in order to feel better about our own sins.  She points out that some use this story of Jesus and the woman and what he tells her at the end (“Go and sin no more”) when they think the church is being too soft on sin.  She counters that kind of thinking: “I think it’s safe to say we’ve missed the point when, of all the people in this account, we decide we’re the most like Jesus.  I think it’s safe to say we’ve missed the point when we use his words to condemn and this story as a stone” (94).  To me this is a strong reminder of the example of the grace Jesus gives that Christians are supposed to emulate.  I thought this book was stronger than her first.  I’d definitely recommend it.
  • Hiroshima by John Hersey is one of those classics that I always knew I should read, but never did until now.  I was prompted to pick it up by seeing articles and blog posts on the 70th anniversary of the devastation.  I can see why it is a classic.  In a plain reportorial style, Hersey tells the stories of six survivors.  It begins a few hours before the bomb hits, and then follows the six individuals through the rest of the day and the ensuing aftermath.  Hersey never interjects his own thoughts, letting the details of the injuries and deaths and wreckage and destruction and sickness and weariness inform the reader.  We see the other burned survivors wandering around the streets (many of whom died later of wounds or radiation sickness); we see the destruction of homes, hospitals, factories, and churches; we see the shadowy outlines of those vaporized in the initial blast.  And though this is a survival story, we see death everywhere.  It’s important to reckon with this, look at the death and destruction square in the face.  As an American, this is my legacy: America is the only country to have used atomic weapons.  Now some argue that it was necessary, that there was no other way to end the war with Japan, that it was a psychological weapon as much as a physical one.  But even if we grant all that, allowing the dropping of two atomic bombs as the least of all evils, we still must look at the evil those bombs wrought.  (And this says nothing about the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities before the final two bombs.)  I did not read the fifth and final chapter called “The Aftermath,” where Hersey revisits Hiroshima forty years afterwards and tells what has happened to the six survivors in the meantime.  My copy appears to be a first edition from 1946, though the story itself was published first in The New Yorker a few months before being rushed out separately as a book because of great demand (the original New Yorker article can be read at the link).  This is a book everyone should read.
  • We Almost Disappear by David Bottoms is the most recent poetry collection from a southern poet I’ve liked for a while now.  Here’s a quick taste: “[O]ther than gratitude / so little survives the world’s chronic revision—a boss line, maybe, / from a poem you’ve forgotten, a penny / you picked up in an alley / for luck, / a voice that blessed you in passing.” (from “Romanticism I”). It’s a collection that is concerned with the passage of time and the themes of aging and family.  Early poems recollect the poet’s early days and memories of his grandfather.  One whole section later in the book concerns the poet’s aging father, with many of the titles describing him as “my old man,” as in “My Old Man Loves Fried Okra.”  That particular poem shows the painful moment when someone loses a defining characteristic to age: the speaker’s father is too tired to thank the church lady for bringing over fried okra, and even too tired to eat it.  Another section takes up the poet’s relationships with his wife and daughter, and it had my favorite poem in the whole book: “My Daughter Works the Heavy Bag.”  In this poem, the speaker observes his fifth grade daughter in karate class as she negotiates the physical movements of the martial art and the social movements of being the only girl in the class.  The images at times are perfect: “Again and again, the bony jewels of her fist / jab out in glistening precision.”  I discovered Bottoms, the former poet laureate of Georgia, from the recommendation of a friend in grad school.  He told me to read Under the Vulture Tree, and after I did I was hooked.  The collection was full of boss lines; see for yourself in the poem “Under the Vulture Tree.”  This latest collection isn’t quite as good, but it’s still worth checking out.
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faith, personal

A Change of Heart and Mind

After the recent Supreme Court decision to allow same sex marriages in all 50 states, the internet has been full of celebrations, cautions, laments, explanations, accusations, and recriminations.  I’m here to add one more essay to the pile, but it’s a little different.  I’d like to explain how I changed my mind on the issue of same sex marriage.  I’m an example of how a change in thinking can take a long time.  For me it took seeing how the issue affected a close friend personally to catalyze reconsidering my beliefs.  Then I searched for a new perspective to make sense of the direction my heart was leading me.

First, the background.  Growing up in the evangelical Christian culture, believing that homosexuality was a sin was merely a given.  I don’t remember ever questioning the belief that homosexuals chose their lifestyle and that they were actively living in sin.  It was a self evident belief that everyone in the cultural community shared as far as I knew.  It said so in the Bible, and I believed it.

At our Christian school, seniors were required to complete a service project during the spring before graduation.  Most of my classmates opted to volunteer at a food bank or a home for people with disabilities.  At the suggestion and prodding of my sister, I decided to try volunteering somewhere different, a place called David’s House, a group home for people with AIDS.  I didn’t want to do it alone, so I asked my friend Andy to join me (this is the same friend I’ve written about here and here).  In order to volunteer at David’s House, we first needed to receive training from the Red Cross about AIDS.  They also wanted us to volunteer for more than the day or two that would fulfill our school requirement.  Normally they required a year’s commitment, but they agreed to let us volunteer for only the summer until we left for college.

The AIDS training at the Red Cross was eye-opening for me because I had never had any comprehensive sex-ed at my Christian school.  I recall having some type of abstinence presentation, where they undoubtedly talked about condom failure rates, but nothing about how to put one on.  So when Andy and I were given cards that had the steps of putting on a condom properly and were told to put them in order, we had to make our best guess.  I felt rather embarrassed, both because of my shyness about sex, but also because I was so obviously ignorant.  My embarrassment increased later when a guy from David’s House who was there at the training pressured me to take a few condoms “just in case.”  I had no intention of using them because I was going to wait to have sex until marriage, but he wouldn’t let me say no.  I sheepishly put two in my pocket so he would stop joking with me, wink wink nudge nudge.  He probably thought I was an alien from another planet.

My actual time at David’s House involved mundane things like watching Cops with the residents or mowing the lawn or cleaning out a room after a resident left unexpectedly or sitting and talking with one guy in particular.  I wanted to witness to him, share the love of Christ with him, change him somehow.  I could imagine how it was going to be an amazing conversion story of a man with AIDS coming to the Lord.  But I never gave him any of the scripted Gospel spiels that I knew.  Mostly I listened to his stories.  The closest I ever got to being Christ-like was when I helped him with a bath one evening.  He was so weak and frail that he couldn’t get out of the tub safely without assistance.  These experiences didn’t have any effect on my belief that his homosexuality was his own sinful choice. Though I had a lot of sympathy for his pain and suffering, I still saw him more as a witnessing opportunity than a person.

During college several of my friends were in the closet about their sexuality, but I didn’t find out until after graduation.  I’m not surprised that they stayed in the closet since they would have been kicked out of our small evangelical college in the south if they revealed they were gay.  I’m also not surprised that they didn’t confide in me their struggles.  It’s not that I wasn’t sympathetic when I found out (because I truly was), but that I still held onto my beliefs that they were living in sin.  I don’t think I ever said anything about loving the sinner, while hating the sin, but it’s essentially the approach I took.  When I talked to one of the guys on the phone (we had both moved back to our respective home towns), I told him that it didn’t affect our friendship.  But in my mind, I still felt like he was lost and adrift.  I wanted to help him, and I didn’t know how.  But it wasn’t my struggle.

In the first composition course I taught while a grad student, one of my students wrote a personal essay about being gay and part of the essay was how his sexual orientation intersected with his Christian beliefs.  I didn’t know what to do with it.  I disagreed with the premise that he could be a practicing homosexual and a Christian in good standing, but I also didn’t want to grade him down because I disagreed with him.  I knew that I was likely to disagree with lots of things that students wrote about, so I would have to judge their papers on how they wrote, not the specific topics and whether I agreed with them or not.  But that attempt at objectivity bothered me in this instance because I wanted to help someone who was claiming to be a Christian.  I wanted to help him see his error.

I decided not to write anything directly telling him what I thought, but I figured I could help guide him to see for himself that he was deluding himself that he could integrate his faith with his sin.  I went to the library and skimmed sources that addressed the issue from multiple angles.  I figured it was okay, and more objective, if I presented him with sources that both affirmed and disconfirmed what he believed.  I thought the truth would win out as long as I presented it as one of the options.  I suggested that he read more on the issue.  It was all rather presumptuous of me that he hadn’t thought it all out for himself.  It was his life after all.  I was the one thinking about the issue for the first time.  He had been living it.  I can hardly blame him for not responding to my comments.

Later, when one of my fellow grad students asked me to sign a petition calling for the university to extend benefits to domestic partners, I declined.  She was surprised, probably figuring everyone in the office could be counted on.  I don’t remember how I explained myself.  I knew that I wanted to be a good witness for my beliefs, but I didn’t know how to explain my position without sounding like a jerk.  The truth is that I didn’t really even know what my position was when I was put on the spot, so I asked for time to think it over.  While the idea of domestic partner benefits sounded benign, I knew it was a cover for condoning and encouraging homosexual couples.  I couldn’t support that in good conscience.  She didn’t press me on my reasoning, thankfully, because it would have been embarrassing for her and me.  I had stood up for my beliefs in a small way, but I didn’t feel all that good about it.  Now, looking back, I feel rather ashamed of my lack of sympathy.  But again, it wasn’t my struggle, so I didn’t see how heartless I was.

The pivotal moment for me in all of this personal history is when David came out to me. He was a close friend I grew up with.  He told me later that first year of grad school, a time when I was figuring out who I was in a lot of ways.  It was after we had seen each other at a mutual friend’s wedding.  He wrote it in an email, and I was dumbfounded.  We had grown up in the same church and the same Christian private school.  We had had Bible studies together, gone on missions trips together, played soccer together, sang together, attended youth group together.  We had been on student council together.  We had gone on a double date (with girls!) to the Jr/Sr banquet our school held in lieu of a prom (no dancing allowed!).  After high school we had gone off to different Christian colleges, but would get together at Christmas or during the summer, if our schedules allowed.  I realized with sadness that I didn’t know my friend as well as I had thought and the struggles he had lived through.

I wrote him back what I consider now an embarrassing reply.  Instead of merely telling him that I loved him and that we were still friends and that I would be there for him, I felt the need to let him know that I thought homosexual acts were a sin.  Then I went on about how sin is sin, no matter what it is, and that I didn’t think homosexuality was worse than any other sin in God’s eyes.  I thought I was being magnanimous and compassionate.   Everyone struggles with temptations, I said.  I lamely offered my own struggles with (heterosexual) lust as an example.  What I couldn’t see at the time was that he had probably heard similar judgments from many other well-meaning friends.  Instead of love and acceptance, he heard condemnation as a first reaction.  It’s a testament to his graciousness that we have remained friends to this day.

I asked myself a lot of questions after his revelation, and I didn’t have any answers.  My understanding at the time was that there might be some biological component to homosexuality, but that there were environmental factors as well, and that there must be some large element of choice (how else could it be a sin?).  But the more I thought about it, it didn’t seem possible that David would have ever chosen to be gay.  He had practically the same background as me, with the same teachings on sin and homosexuality.  But if he had been born gay, then that made me very uncomfortable about a God who would create someone with attractions and urges that he could never act on without damning himself.  Everyone wants love and companionship and affection, but he was essentially denied the chance.  It made me doubt the goodness of God.  I asked God how he could be so cruel to David.  I didn’t understand.

I remember talking to a friend about my dilemma.  I knew enough not to out David, so I talked about an anonymous friend.  Somehow the implications of my beliefs about homosexuality and the goodness of God didn’t hit me until I thought about David’s struggle.  I didn’t stop and reflect on my understandings before when I learned about friends from college.  I think the difference is I could see myself in David.  It was easier to put myself in his shoes and see how devastating and impossible it was to reconcile what we were taught with how he felt.

It still took me a long time to change my mind on the questions of homosexuality as sin and same sex marriage, though.  I couldn’t figure out any other way of understanding the biblical passages that mention homosexuality, and I wasn’t ready to throw out my faith.  So I lived with the cognitive dissonance for a few years.  Though I fumbled my initial reply to David, I was determined to be a good friend to him.  I visited him and kept in contact because I wanted to keep him in my life.

I finally fully came around on the issue after reading some books.  As this blog is a testament, books are vital to me.  The first was Andrew Sullivan’s Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality.  I was familiar with Sullivan from his days at Time magazine, which I started reading regularly when I went to grad school.  I knew he was gay and that he was a Catholic.  I was fascinated that he somehow reconciled those two aspects of his life.  I didn’t see how it could be done.  His book was published in 1996, and it was an early argument for same sex marriage, arguing that opening up the institution to LGBT individuals was both a conservative and liberal move.  His argument was well reasoned, but it was mostly philosophical and political, not biblical, so some of my biggest doubts remained.

Later I read What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage by David G. Myers and Letha Dawson Scanzoni.  The book provided the additional reasons I needed to complete my change of mind.  I think I was looking for those reasons.  Myers is a well-respected psychologist, author of popular textbooks in the field, and a Christian.  He and Scanzoni grounded their arguments in social science and biblical interpretation.  They pointed out all the benefits of marriage for individuals and for society.  They examined the nature of sexual orientation and how difficult it is to go against one’s orientation.  And lastly, while acknowledging that they are not theologians, they showed that many scholars dispute the interpretations of the passages usually used to prove homosexuality is a sin and abomination.  I felt like I could finally let go of my old beliefs.

So that’s how I ended up changing my mind.  It took a long time, years really.  It took seeing how this issue affected a close friend for me to examine what my beliefs really meant.  My heart slowly changed, but I still needed the justifications and reasons to feel okay about my change of heart.  So reading books with answers I found compelling sealed the change in me. I most recently finished Matthew Vines’s God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships which goes into much more detail than What God Has Joined Together did on the interpretation of relevant biblical passages. It’s been a long process of change.

For the longest time I couldn’t see how my beliefs and interpretations of the Bible kept me from truly seeing others and their full humanity.  I thought I was sympathetic to others, but over and over again I wasn’t, not really.  Without intending to, I  had been arrogant and dismissive and uncharitable to students, colleagues, and friends.  I hadn’t lived up to that most difficult of all rules: to love others as I love myself.  But love wins.

I hope to write some follow-up posts that dive deeper into some of the issues that I have merely touched upon in my all-too-brief summaries of the books I’ve mentioned.  Look for those in the near future.

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book reviews, faith, history, humor, literature

Book Reviews, June 2015

The June installment of short book reviews has humor, a look at evangelical Christian purity culture, and two more World War II novels, one of which has an appearance by a certain famous detective.

  • Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters by Mallory Ortberg is an extremely silly book.  Imagine characters like Captain Ahab or Miss Havisham or Hermione Granger or Hamlet with smartphones sending snarky, funny, and/or weird texts to other characters from their respective stories and you have the premise of this book.  The jokes originated on the-toast.net, which Ortberg co-created, though it appears that many are exclusive to the book.  It’s pretty humorous, though I found myself nodding in appreciation to the jokes more than laughing.  I can really only recommend the book to English majors (or other readers of classics), as it is hard to imagine enjoying the book without a familiarity with the characters and plots.  Also, the gag can be a bit repetitive; it’s better one or two at a time, which is why it probably worked so well online.  For a sample, check out texts from Miss HavishamMoby Dick, Edgar Allan Poe, or J. Alfred Prufrock.
  • Dark Star by Alan Furst is an immersive historical novel set in Europe in the run up and first days of the Second World War.  The protagonist is André Szara, a journalist working as a foreign correspondent for Pravda on the European continent.  He gets entangled in the world of espionage, and only near the end of the novel is he able to figure out completely the role he has played in the dealings between Russia and Germany in peace and war.  He is a survivor.  Historical novels can fall into a Forrest Gump trap by having characters happen to be at famous historical events, and this one is no different.  Szara is on hand for Kristallnacht and the blitzkrieg of Poland.  In my experience, spy novels also run into trouble when they try to include a romance, which they often do.  And again, this one is no different.  Szara has two different affairs over the course of the novel that seem unrealistic.  The sad thing is that Furst handles the romance better than most, but it’s harder for me to overlook anymore.  I’d recommend this book to someone who likes spy novels because it’s definitely above average for the genre, but it’s probably not a gateway book into the genre for the common reader.
  • Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity by Dianna E. Anderson is an interesting, if frustrating, book about purity culture within evangelical Christianity.  Purity culture includes things like complete abstinence before marriage and all of the behaviors that go along with it like purity pledges, purity rings, and purity balls (i.e. father-daughter proms essentially).  The book argues against purity culture primarily because it shames women and men for any type of sexual encounters before marriage, instead arguing for everyone to research and develop their own sexual ethics.  The book is essentially an advice book, which I found frustrating because I didn’t know that’s what kind of book it was before I read it, so I had some expectations that weren’t met.  But let me first mention the things I liked about the book.  Foremost, I liked how Anderson emphasized consent regarding sexual relationships.  It is one of her guiding sexual ethics that she came back to again and again throughout the book, as well as devoting an entire chapter to the subject.  The chapter on the history of purity culture was fascinating, but brief for my tastes (one of my hopes had been that there would be even more historical analysis).  The book also had a good description of gender as a performance that we enact based on social cues and pressures, with an accompanying and thorough explanation of what transgender means.  I suspect that many in her intended audience would find this part informative and helpful.  Her intended audience seems to be unmarried Christians who are still part of the purity culture.  In many ways the book functions as the anti-I Kissed Dating Goodbye, an advice book on the other end of the spectrum but still within Christian belief.  Aside from historical analysis, I was also expecting more grappling with Bible passages.  Anderson spends a chapter shooting down and problematizing the way that purity culture interprets key passages.  But I was expecting her to put forward more of her own interpretation and theology of sex (part of my expectation was based on the inside flap of the jacket which describes Anderson as a “theologian”).  Her main biblical advice is “do no harm,” or basically follow the Golden Rule to love our neighbors.  This is all well and good, but it’s not a guide that is particularly or exclusively Christian.  I think this book is a good start to the conversation, but not the last word, nor would Anderson herself want that as she hopes her readers will research and figure things out for themselves.
  • The Final Solution by Michael Chabon is a fun detective story, featuring an old man who has retired to the English countryside as a bee-keeper.  The character is never named, but he is clearly meant to be Sherlock Holmes in his dotage.  He no longer has a Watson to chronicle his adventures, so Chabon does not even try to recreate the style of the earlier stories.  Instead, Chabon writes in his own mellifluous, if sometimes flowery, style a mystery that is worthy of the detective.  It takes place during World War II and concerns a murder and a missing parrot.  I don’t want to say much more than that so that others can enjoy the book.  Though I do have to say that I guessed early on the significance of the numbers that the parrot repeats (perhaps not much of an accomplishment, but I still felt pleased with myself).  In my experience, it’s seeing how Sherlock Holmes (or any detective, really) arrives at his conclusions rather than the conclusions themselves that gives the most pleasure.  But in this case, there are some mysteries that the old man cannot suss out.  I would recommend it to any Sherlock Holmes fan.  It’s a fun little novel.
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book reviews, faith, medicine, personal, science

Book Reviews, February 2015

My second installment of mini book reviews as I endeavor to read more carefully and share recommendations for other readers.

  • Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande is a phenomenal book of medical stories and explorations of the human experience at a most vulnerable time.  The book’s greatest strength is its stories.  As a surgical resident, Gawande has the goods when it comes to interesting cases, and he’s a great teller of those stories.  But it’s not merely stories.  He explores important and compelling ideas like the necessity of doctors practicing on patients and the tangled decision-making in difficult cases.  He owns up to the fact that doctors, even the very best ones, make mistakes.  It’s unavoidable as long as humans are involved.  There are three reasons that medicine is an “imperfect science”: ignorance, ineptitude, and fallibility.  Gawande details advances in surgery (such as gastric bypass) and technology that show how the field is improving in the area of ignorance.  There are some protocols in place to deal with inept doctors, but all too often bad doctors keep practicing until they do lots of harm, and he talks about these current limitations and how to improve.  Lastly, he explores how fallibility is inevitable.  There may be decisions that are never clear because the factors involved are too complex.  Each patient and circumstance is unique.  Almost as a bonus, he also spends time explaining interesting and perplexing phenomena such as pain, nausea, and blushing.  The book was a Finalist for the National Book Award.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone.
  • Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans is a memoir I could relate to.  Though she wrote it while still in her late 20s, she felt compelled to chronicle and share her crisis of faith that led her to doubt much of what she used to believe.  Evolution is the guiding theme of the stories she relates, both because of her changing faith and because she lives in Dayton, TN, home of the infamous Scopes trial (which I’ve written about once or twice, okay at least three times or more).  She even attended Bryan College, named after William Jennings Bryan, the defender of creationism during the trial.  Evans does a nice job summarizing the high points of the trial in one of the chapters.  But the bulk of the book is her telling how she used to be a model evangelical Christian who knew all the right answers for arguing with skeptics until she herself became unsettled by the injustice of what she calls “the cosmic lottery.”  It seemed unfair to her that so many people should be condemned to hell because they had never heard of Jesus, only to die horribly in a typhoon or of AIDS.  She couldn’t accept the answers that she used to.  Her crisis led her to rethink all of her assumptions and to be willing to throw away “false fundamentals,” her term for the beliefs that accrete onto the belief system of much of Christian teaching.  She now believes that faith must adapt and that it is okay to have doubts and to say “I don’t know.”  But she hasn’t lost her faith.  It’s a story that I share in the broad outline, and it was comforting to read how she went through the crisis but retained her trust in Jesus.  I’d recommend this book to anyone who has had similar doubts or a crisis of faith.  [Note that the book, though first published in 2010, has since been rereleased under the title Faith Unraveled.]
  • Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach is the perfect bathroom book, and I mean that in the best way possible.  The book is fascinating and funny, and the subject matter is often fecal.  Roach is an excellent science writer, guiding the reader through the digestive system from before the food enters the mouth to the other end of the line.  It all goes down so easily (please excuse me, nearly every blurb for the book includes puns and wordplays nearly as bad), that it can feel almost fluffy at times.  It’s not that Roach doesn’t include the research (the notes in the back show her thoroughness), it’s that she makes it so palatable (again, sorry) with her humorous stories and engrossing tidbits.  I learned about the 19th century man who had a hole in his stomach and how his doctor used him to learn about digestion, about the importance of bacterial composition of the colon, and about the amazing capacity of the colons of prisoners and other smugglers, among other oddities.  Sometimes the book is a bit gross, but nothing made me sick to my stomach.  Anyone who enjoys science or who wants to know more about the digestive system or who simply wants a smart laugh should check it out.
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faith, personal

How I Became an Episcopalian

I recently finished Robert Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, and it made me think about my own spiritual journey to the Episcopal church away from my evangelical roots.  How did I end up here?

I feel like I stumbled into the Episcopal church.  Growing up, I attended an evangelical church that emphasized missionary work.  Not as charismatic as Assemblies of God, not as strict as some Baptists, but it fit comfortably in the spectrum of evangelical churches in America.  We didn’t follow a liturgy, though the service followed a similar pattern every week: a few hymns, some announcements, a pastoral prayer, a scripture reading, and then a sermon on that reading that took up the majority of the service.  Once a month, on the first Sunday, we added communion to the service after the sermon.  In college I attended a tiny Evangelical Free church led by one of my professors.  He was an English professor, and was into C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and Milton and Spenser and the Reformation in England, so looking back, it makes sense that he incorporated parts of the Book of Common Prayer into the service.  It was the first time I had taken communion every week, and it made sense to me.  I now wondered why other churches didn’t have communion weekly.

But I wouldn’t actually try an Episcopal church until grad school.  And that first time, I was not ready for the Episcopal church.  When I first went to grad school I had imagined myself as a light on a hill, a witness to godless academia.  It fit with my earlier images of myself.  While in elementary school I had listened to a missionary doctor serving in Africa who had amazing stories of providing care to the sick in an exotic locale with animals I had only seen in the zoo.  It sounded like a dream job.  I had no idea what it took to become a doctor, let alone a missionary, but for a few years that’s what I aspired to.  It soon became apparent that I was not going to be a doctor.  When my younger brother fell off the porch into the front bushes and gashed the back of his head, I was next to useless.  I didn’t like all the blood.  I briefly held a wash cloth to the wound at my mother’s direction, but I didn’t apply enough pressure.  She took him to the emergency room by herself.  A few years later I threw up just looking at a picture of open heart surgery in a freshmen health class.  My older sister had to pick me up from school.  So not exactly doctor material.

The first time I tried an Episcopal church I was a new grad student, finding my footing in a college town that I imagined was a liberal enclave (and it sort of was; this was my foreign land).  The church was on campus, and it fit all of my stereotypes of what a church infected by academia would look like.  I don’t remember the liturgy.  What sticks out is that the priest was a woman, though in my terminology of the time, I thought she was the pastor.  I had never been in a church with a woman for the pastor.  It was exotic.  I was aware that there were women pastors, but the church denomination I grew up in didn’t allow it.  I didn’t personally have strong feelings on it, but I knew there was something in Paul’s epistles that gave guidance on the issue (rather forcefully, it turns out: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man”).  But maybe it was a cultural issue in the first century to have a man as the teacher of scripture.  Maybe it said more about Paul and his situation than it did for us today.  I didn’t know.  All I knew was that I had never seen a woman up front as the pastor.  It was jarring, and it didn’t feel right.  I was actually squeamish about the idea.  I certainly wasn’t ready for it.

It didn’t help when she talked about inner peace and centering and the benefits of yoga.  I can’t remember if that was in the sermon or if it was information about a group that met at the church.  Either way, it didn’t sound like the Bible to me.  It was self help alternative spirituality stuff.  The importance of breathing.  There was even a mention of a contemplative maze at some retreat center.  By the time everyone went up for the Eucharist, I didn’t feel comfortable enough to partake.  I wasn’t sure this church was even Christian.  How could I take communion if they didn’t understand it the same way that I did?  I’d be essentially saying that I agreed with all of their views by joining them at the altar.  I was definitely judging the people there based on my limited understanding of what church should be.  I was more than a little self-righteous.

A few years later I drove my little red car stuffed to the brim with my clothes and books to North Dakota in pursuit of another graduate degree.  I didn’t know anyone there and didn’t even have a place to live when I arrived.  I was completely starting from scratch.  That’s probably why I was willing to try the Episcopal church again despite my earlier experience.  I first went to a few different evangelical churches in town, but I wanted something new, something different.  It’s always been a struggle for me to go to new places and meet new people.  I get very nervous about my own perceived social awkwardness.  I avoid talking to people and introducing myself.  It’s a self-defeating cycle.  But church is basically a known quantity, so that makes going to a new one not quite as difficult.

I remember pulling into the parking lot of St. Paul’s with anticipation.  Something made me think that this experience would be different.  I think I was different, less judgmental at this point.  I took my seat in a pew near the back.  During the service I had trouble keeping up in the prayer book and the hymnal.  I listened to the scripture readings and sermon.  I knelt and prayed along with the prayers and confession of sin.  And when it came time to go up front for receiving the bread and wine of the Eucharist, I shuffled up with the rest of the congregation.  I cautiously did what I saw others doing, kneeling and holding out my hands in supplication.  I liked participating in the service, singing the Gloria and the Sanctus.  I liked getting on my knees to confess and receive communion.  I liked the beautiful words of the prayers and the liturgy.  It immediately felt comfortable this time.  It felt like home.

After the service, parishioners gathered for coffee hour.  I ducked out the first few weeks because of my social phobias, but I liked the aspect of community it fostered even if I wasn’t yet a member of the community.  The church I grew up in didn’t have coffee hour, but they did have a giant vestibule where people could chat and connect.  I’ve tried many churches, though, where everyone is sort of ushered out the door after the service.  While that agrees with my anti-social proclivities, it doesn’t seem to be the actual point of church.

To feel more a part of the community, I joined the choir for the remainder of my two years in North Dakota.  When I was leaving, moving out of the state, the organist/choir director gave me a 100 year old prayer book in which she had inscribed, “Stay with us,” by which she meant I should stay in the Episcopal church even though I was moving away.  And I have.

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