faith, links, medicine, music, personal

Links for July 16, 2017

Here are some links to stories and blog posts that I’ve read recently that I think are worthwhile to pass along.

First up, my friend David Baldwin wrote an eloquent and moving meditation on love and his journey of figuring out his sexuality in an evangelical environment.  It’s beautiful.  Thank you for sharing your story and your thoughts on love, David.

The loving God that I believe in made me just the way I am. He filled me with desires for love and connection, some of which can come from friendship, and some of which can come only from a romantic relationship with a person to whom I’m wildly attracted, and who wants to be with me the way I want to be with him. If I believe that God is truly loving, I have to believe that he did make me exactly as I am, and I need to continue pursuing patience, kindness, humility, and the many other virtues of love in the way that best leads me towards these things. That way is love. So I will pursue love until I no longer can.

Two years ago I wrote about how I changed my mind about same sex relationships, and it was thinking about my friend David that began the change in my heart.  In that post I wrote that I would be following it up with some posts about the Bible passages that are usually used to condemn homosexuality.  I finally have one of those posts nearly finished so that should be up in the near future.  But before I get into abstract theological debates, I wanted to highlight the very real human element.

Next is a piece about a Christian alternative rock band named The Violet Burning.  Michial Farmer, a fellow alum from the same Bible college I attended (though we didn’t actually overlap), has been writing a series of primers on bands and artists in the 90s Christian alternative rock scene.  I was in high school and college during the 90s and these were some of the bands that meant the most to me in those years.  Farmer has been doing a meticulous job in listing, ranking, and commenting on the important albums from these bands; all of the entries are well worth a read if you know these bands or if by some chance would like to know them now.

I want to highlight this entry on The Violet Burning because their music intersects with some of my personal history with how I met my wife.  I met her on an online message board that discussed Christian alternative music, and my very first post on that message board involved TVB’s song “Ilaria.”  Farmer says about the song that “Despite the hermeneutic gymnastics of some of Pritzl’s more pious fans, it’s hard to hear “Ilaria” as about anything other than sex,” and sure enough, that’s what my first post on the message board argued as well: “I myself have had Plastic and Elastic since it came out in late 98 and, to be honest, I’ve always thought the song was about sex.”  She noticed my post.

We got married a little over three years after that initial post, and we ended up including one of The Violet Burning’s more worship-y songs in our wedding ceremony.  My wife’s older brothers played and sang a deeply meaningful version of “I Remember” during communion.  (While I’m mentioning our wedding music, I would be remiss not to share David’s version of The Magnetic Fields’s “It’s Only Time”—it’s so beautiful.)

At some point I’m going to write more about my relationship with Christian alternative music, and with Christian music more generally.  I touched on it in the piece I wrote last year for Rock & Sling about Michael W. Smith and the first cassette I purchased at a Christian bookstore, but there’s so much more to be said about how music, and Christian music especially, has been tied up in my identity over the years.

The last piece I want to share is about home health care workers by Sarah Jaffe.  I’ve written a number of short snapshots I’ve called “Hospital Stories” about the year I worked taking care of difficult patients in a hospital as a constant observer.  This particular piece of journalism follows the career of June Barrett who has worked in Florida as a home care worker since 2003, not long after she immigrated to the United States from Jamaica.  It’s a hard, demanding job, but it doesn’t pay very well.  I remember well that I didn’t make a whole lot more than minimum wage for my hospital job either.  It’s especially relevant now with the current health care bills in Congress and the potential for Medicaid cuts.  As the article points out, under the Affordable Care Act,

The expansion of Medicaid, which took effect in 2014, meant more funding for home care and more jobs for care workers. The bill also expanded healthcare for the workers themselves – Barrett had never had chicken pox as a child, and when she contracted it as an adult from a client with shingles, it aggravated her asthma.

The whole piece is worth reading to think about the value we put on the hard and sometimes menial work of taking care of sick people in their homes.

I might try this link format again if there is remotely any interest in it.

Advertisements
Standard
book reviews, faith, history, literature, parenting, poetry

Book Reviews, July 2015

In July I read a wide variety of books.  Let’s get straight to the reviews!

  • Get in Trouble by Kelly Link is a collection of strange and beguiling stories.  The stories feature pyramids and ghosts and pocket universes and automaton boyfriends and superheroes and my brother.  Yes, I was shocked to find my older brother named in the third story, an epistolary tale about secret identities.  So maybe it wasn’t my brother after all, but someone pretending to be him.  Either way, it was unnerving to find his name there.  It’s not like I have a common last name like Smith or Jones.  The first story “The Summer People” was one of my favorites (and can be read here for free online).  In it, a girl in the country takes care of a mysterious and magical cottage behind her house that is home to playful strangers (sprites? elves?) that no one can quite see. When she comes down sick, she ropes a friend from school into helping her.  It hit the right tone between reality and fantasy that got under my skin so I didn’t know what to believe.  Another favorite came near the end called “Two Houses,” in which a group of astronauts tell ghost stories to each other while they travel to distant stars.  The central story within the story features an art installation of two houses, one a house transported piece by piece from the southwest United States to the English countryside (in a twist from the castles or bridges disassembled and transported to America) and the other an exact replica of the same house.  Terrible murders had taken place in the first house and there were bloodstains on the carpet, and these stains were copied in the second house.  It was impossible to tell which house was the original and which the copy, which was haunted and which had imagined ghosts.  It was a great story.  I’d recommend this book to fans of Neil Gaiman and anyone who likes stories that are a little strange and exciting.  It was another book I found from the Girl Canon list.
  • The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money by Ron Lieber is a useful book for parents.  Lieber’s main argument is that kids need to learn about money from parents before they are on their own and making decisions about student loans and everything else, and he has lots of ideas on how to go about it.  How we handle our money is a reflection of our values, so talking to kids about money is a way to teach them about patience, generosity, and perspective.  One idea I found especially interesting was that he advocates separating allowances from doing chores.  He thinks kids should get an allowance even at an early age (by 1st grade, which seems pretty early to me), and that it is a way for kids to practice with money.  The cover of the book shows three jars with the signs “Give,” “Save,” and “Spend,” which is his idea for what kids should do with the allowance.  This allocation system sounded familiar from my upbringing that involved a set of envelopes.  Lieber likes clear containers so that a child can see the money accumulate as they save money to give away or to spend on a larger item.  The act of waiting is hard for a kid, but a crucial lesson to learn.  He argues that kids should still do chores because they are part of the household and everyone is responsible for its maintenance.  Parents don’t get any money for doing the dishes or cooking or vacuuming, so neither should the children.  He says that if kids have trouble doing their contribution of chores, there are plenty of privileges that can be taken away to help motivate them instead of withholding an allowance.  Another area that he advocates parents involve children is in charitable giving.  He provides lots of ways that kids can be involved in the conversation, including their own giving.  The main drawback to the book is that it is clearly written for people at the median of wage-earners and above.  Many examples are from affluent families, though often the principles could be applied across the spectrum.  I suppose that is the audience for a book about teaching kids about money.  I found out about the book from an article in Slate.  It was worth checking out of the library.
  • God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case for Same-Sex Marriage by Matthew Vines is an important argument for Christians and churches to consider.  My own denomination, the Episcopal Church, recently decided to allow same sex marriages at their General Convention, a move that came soon after the Supreme Court decision that declared all states must recognize same sex marriages.  But many other denominations and churches will continue to wrestle with what to do about LGBT individuals and same sex marriage.  Vines presents a well-organized and detailed argument that the church should affirm LGBT individuals and marriage between same sex partners that is monogamous and committed.  And it fulfills the promise of its subtitle: it is a biblical argument.  He takes the Bible seriously, stating early on that he believes “all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for [his] life” (2).  One thing I especially appreciated about the book is that he never presents strawmen to knock down.  The book is thoroughly researched, and he’s read the books of non-affirming scholars and teachers (especially Robert A. J. Gagnon, among others) and presents their arguments fairly when disagreeing with them.  Here’s a quick summary of his arguments.  He first presents a utilitarian question: does the church’s current stance produce the good fruit that Jesus says a good tree will?  Then he provides a history lesson showing that sexual orientation is a modern concept that the biblical writers were not addressing when they wrote about same sex behavior.  Next comes a look at celibacy in scripture and history where he notes that it has always been a voluntary decision, not forced on an individual.  A large portion of the book is devoted to understanding the six passages in the Bible that concern same sex behavior, focusing especially on the historical context.  After that, he examines marriage and shows that its essential feature is the covenantal bond, not the sex or gender of the partners.  Lastly, he writes about how everyone, including LGBT individuals, are created in the image of God, without dismissing the doctrines of sin and grace.  All in all, it is an impressive and comprehensive argument on same sex marriage.  I would highly recommend this book to all Christians, especially evangelicals.  Even if they read it and still disagree with his conclusions, they will still come away knowing that those who are affirming of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Christians and same sex marriage have good reasons for their beliefs. [see comment below for my discussion of the “refutation” of Vines’s book]
  • Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson is exactly what its title would make a reader expect: a biography of George Washington Carver in poetry.  And it works.  While I would be unlikely to pick up a prose biography of Carver (not because he led an uninteresting life, quite the opposite, but because there are too many biographies of interesting people that I will never pick up), I decided to read this volume because I knew and liked Nelson’s poetry (her much anthologized sonnet “How I Discovered Poetry” is a particular standout).  By telling his life story in brief moments told from many different points of view allows the reader to enter the scenes and the thoughts of Carver and the people in his life.  Though it is marketed for children (my used copy is a Scholastic school market version), there is nothing about it that is only for children.  Carver was a generous man, giving away formulas and secrets that he could have kept to get rich, such as a blue pigment that was deeper and richer than any known for thousands of years (“Egyptian Blue”).  He received “[o]ffers to pay / for answers the Creator gives / him for nothing” (“The Year of the Sky-Smear”).  He is, of course, famous for his work with peanuts and crop rotation, but he was interested in most everything in the natural world.  The poem “Ruellia Noctiflora,” spoken from the point of view of woman who meets Carver unexpectedly in the woods, shows how he could see the world differently than others: “Where he pointed was only a white flower / until I saw him seeing it.”  In many ways, I thought it read better than a traditional biography would have.  It reminds me of Ted Kooser’s The Blizzard Voices, which I enjoyed more than the prose history of David Laskin’s The Children’s Blizzard (both tell the stories of those who lived and died during the horrific blizzard of 1888 on the Great Plains).  I would recommend Nelson’s volume of poems for anyone who is remotely interested in Carver and anyone who likes good poetry.
  • My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier is a good, but not great, gothic romance from the same author as Rebecca.  It shares a similar setting as Rebecca, a large estate in Cornwall, the southwestern peninsula of England, and it also shares a similarly mysterious woman at the center of the story.  In  Rebecca the mysterious woman was the absent title character: she haunts the novel from beginning to end.  In My Cousin Rachel, the title character Rachel is very much present throughout the novel, but her thoughts and motivations are unknown to the narrator, her cousin Philip Ashley.  Rachel is Philip’s cousin by marriage.  Philip is a young man who lives with his older cousin Ambrose Ashley as a ward since his parents died at an early age.  Ambrose, himself a bachelor at the beginning of the novel, raised him as his own son.  But soon after those first pages of the novel, he travels to Italy for his health during the winter and meets and marries Rachel.  Not long afterwards, Ambrose dies under mysterious circumstances.  It is believed that he had a brain tumor, but Ambrose had sent cryptic letters back to Philip that point to Rachel somehow being the cause of his illness.  Philip begins by hating Rachel because she has taken away Ambrose, but when he finally meets her (still quite early in the novel), he finds her very difficult to hate.  As readers, we worry for our naïve narrator Philip until we eventually pity him.  I was worried that I might end up disliking the book, but du Maurier wraps it all up satisfactorily by the end.  She uses the technique of foreshadowing rather explicitly in the first chapter, but it wasn’t clear to me until the end what she had done, so I had to reread the first chapter afterwards to see how she had done it.  It was rather like a Möbius strip, circularly leading back from the end to the beginning.  I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Rebecca or gothic romance in general, with tempered expectations.
Standard
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.

Standard