Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Patron Saint for 2014!

I tend to ridicule the whole "word for the year" scenario. After all, who knows what the year will bring? I think I know where we will be living in May, but that's just an educated guess. And that's assuming that nothing catastrophic happens between now and then.

Some people might get pleasure from looking back over the year and coming up with a word to sum it all up. I've got 2 words for this year:

Never Again.

So no, I won't assume that this year will be "Peace," because God's little joke would be to saddle me with an apartment upstairs full of partying college students. No jinxes for me, thank you. But having a saint is different.

It's different because it's a relationship with a person instead of a magic spell. I mean sure, I still try to guess what the year has in store based on the name, because that's human nature, but the point isn't that he's the patron saint of whatever. It's that centuries ago lived a man with all the flaws and joys of being human, and this year we get to become friends. 

I used Jennifer of Conversion Diary's Saint Generator to select my new acquaintance, and I was glad it was someone I've never heard of: Joseph Calasanz. He lived from September 11, 1557 – August 25, 1648 in Spain, and he founded an order devoted to teaching poor and homeless young boys. In fact, he was the organizer of the first free public school in Europe. Moreover, he was remarkably progressive in his views - believing in gentle discipline, training in vernacular languages, vocational training, and a devotion to math and science. He was also a friend of Galileo's! 

He wasn't perfect though, and his greatest flaw sounds awfully familiar. One of the teachers in the order, named Cherubini, had a long and documented history of sexual abuse of the children in his care. When confronted by Calasanz, Cherubini reminded him of the great power Cherubini held due to his family name and prestige, and threatened to dissolve the Order if his crimes were made public. So instead of publicly denouncing Cherubini, Calasanz simply moved him to another position to get him out of the way. Funny how some things never change. 

It was a cruel irony then that Cherubini was so favored that he was promoted by popular demand to Calasanz's place. Upon his appointment, Calasanz finally revealed his secret, but it made no difference in Cherubini's position. Instead, these facts, together with opposition from the Jesuits and Calasanz's connections to Galileo, contributed to the demise of the Order, and it was disbanded by Pope Innocent X. In spite of all, he remained faithful and was cannonized by Pope Alexander VII, who also cleared the name of the Order and its schools. He is the patron saint of students and schools, especially Christian schools. 

Cool story huh? I look forward to learning more about him as the year progresses. And, I hope that it will inspire me to serve the poor wherever we end up, and to be bold against injustice when needed. 

Saint Joseph Calasanz, pray for us!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Duck Dynasty Eats Jim Crow

OK, so I can't be the only one who noticed this quote from the infamous Phil interview:

"I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field ... They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' — not a word! Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues."
So conservative Christians, please, for the love of all that is good and holy, stop saying that Phil is just defending the Bible! No matter what you think about homosexuality and sin, what Phil said in that quote is textbook historical revisionism. It's pure racism ala Gone with the Wind, My Old Kentucky Home, "where the darkies are gay" (heh). I grew up with this shit, and yes it is shit. Think about what he's saying for a second: 
1. "I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash." Yes, there were a lot of poor whites in the South during Jim Crow. My grandma used to pick up coal on the Atlanta railroad tracks for heat, most of us have moon-shine or lint-head ancestors, etc. But you know what? If Phil wanted to go to the movies, he could sit in the regular seats. He could sit up front on the bus; he could eat at a lunch counter without getting arrested; he could go to a public library and check out a book; he could attend white schools; he could use public restrooms and water fountains. Sorry, that whole "we may have been white but we were poor too" is bull, and it doesn't in any way recognize the fact that black Americans in the South were barely treated as citizens. 

2. "They're singing and happy... they were happy, no one was singing the blues." Yes, blacks were so happy before them liberal damn Yankees stirred them up. Here's a news flash: people can have momentary happiness in spite of oppression, because somehow you've got to deal. That's called the endurance of the human spirit. Smiling/ singing does not equal "I have no problems." People got to cope. And speaking of singing, did you ever wonder why most of those spirituals talk about Moses and Pharoah? Doggonit, there must be some symbolic significance there. 

3. "They were godly." OK boys and girls, let's play a word association game. I say shiftless, you say _______. Have you ever heard of a white person described with that adjective? No, because at every point in American history white propaganda has taught that blacks are immoral savages who need to be controlled for their own good. Sure, you had a handful of Mammies and Uncles - the "good blacks" that we still have around today in different costumes. But those blacks were only good because they knew their place.

In the white person's mind, black males were Coons who dreamed of raping white women, and black females were Jezebel gals who wanted to ensnare upstanding Christian gentlemen. In The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and every other Confederate apologia, the KKK was necessary in order to rescue white women from the clutches from brutal blacks. That's why we "needed" Jim Crow, because those black people just couldn't handle their freedom. It went to their heads like liquor, and so the paternalistic, long-suffering whites had to take them in hand for their own good. So you tell me, what exactly has changed? 

Second of all, it wouldn't matter if every single black person during Jim Crow was a perfect saint and every single contemporary black person were a swinger, not when human rights are concerned. It does not follow that "they were more moral then, ergo we should have kept them in their downtrodden place." So whatever you think of an ethnic group's morals (because they aren't individuals, just a monolith, right?) it doesn't matter. You don't get to oppress people because it's somehow better for their eternal souls. Again, this is straight from slavery days, when Massa told his slaves how much better off they were in America going to church. Y'all, our morals really should not be on the level of a slaverholder's. Can't we do better than that? (This is ignoring the fact that Phil has absolutely no knowledge of another person's soul, let alone those of entire ethnic group. What kind of arrogance does it take to say something like that?) 

What happened when a black teen looked at a white woman
4. "I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' — not a word!" How about that - a black person during Jim Crow didn't complain to a white person about their lack of civil rights. That's so odd, because if I were part of a subjugated race I would make sure to complain to the elevated race at every opportunity. Because "grumbling" never ended badly for anybody in the era of Jim Crow and the KKK. And again with the arrogance: Phil never heard a black person complain to him, so there must not have been a problem. 

5. "Pre-entitlement": Here's what I've learned from growing up in the South. There are certain groups of people who can be entitled and certain groups who can't. If you're an elderly (white) person, you can expect Medicare without being considered entitled. If you're a middle class kid with educated parents, you can expect a college education without being entitled. But you know who's really entitled are those damn black people with their expectations of voting rights, equal wages for equal work, equal housing rights, desegregation of schools and public facilities, being allowed to matriculate at a state university, being able to marry someone of a different ethnic group. It's - what's that word? - uppity.

6. "Pre-welfare": yes, because what this country really needs to do is pull out every social safety net when there simply aren't enough jobs for the demand. That's statistical reality, folks, and that's assuming that everyone is healthy enough in body and mind to even hold down a full time job. You want to know how bad this economy is? It's so bad that when DC opened a Wal-mart the acceptance rate for applications was more stringent than the acceptance rate to Harvard. That's how desperate people are for work, any work. I'm sincerely happy for Phil and his family that they were able to escape grinding poverty. I wouldn't wish a hard life on anyone, no matter how racist they are. But don't turn around and give a good kick to the people who haven't had the same combination of skills/ luck/ support/ mental stability. 

And yet, even in this shit-hole of an economy, I would rather be a black person now than in any other time in American history, no competition. If you're white, take a minute and ask yourself that question: would you willingly prefer to be black now or in the 1950s South? 
In all the buzz about his talk about homosexuality, somehow the racist remarks got lost in the shuffle. Which is too bad, because it spotlights the dark underbelly of the Southern evangelical churches: that many white people, "fine upstanding Christians," in the South secretly think that maybe black people were better off, "happier" and more "godly," when they were living in shacks, working in white women's kitchens, and drinking at a fountain labeled colored. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

7 Quick Takes: Favorite Christmas Memories

Gosh that was really heavy. Let's do something light today.

The Santa in a Car

In my hometown, there was an elderly gentleman who, for 50 years, set up a vintage red convertible with a mechanical waving Santa saying "Ho Ho Ho Merry Christmas!" with music. Generations of children in that town remember driving by it at night as one of our favorite Christmas traditions. Looking back as an adult, it's wonderful to think of that man, year after year, putting up a beautiful and happy display, knowing that children in the area were delighted by it and traveled from neighboring counties to see it. That's the Christmas spirit in action.

Stockings in the Morning, Wrapped Presents in the Afternoon

My mom's family had an odd tradition of doing stockings in the morning and waiting until late afternoon, after Christmas dinner, to unwrap gifts from family. As a child, this was perfect because Christmas wasn't over by noon. It also gave a more magical feel to the Santa myth because it wasn't meshed in with family gifts. 

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

I like this even better than A Charlie Brown Christmas. Like millions of children I always got frustrated by the commercial break right when the Grinch was peering over the mountain in his sledge. Parents, don't curse your children with the "real life" monstrosity; stick with the traditional, complete with the darling cartoon dog and the delightful "you're a foul one, Mr. Grinch."

The Christmas Program at church 

My parents were super congregants - they participated in everything, and if the church doors were open we were there. From the time I was 3 to about 12 my mom was in charge of the children's programming on Sunday nights (Protestants typically go to two services on Sundays). This meant she was also in charge of the Christmas program/ pageant every year. Those of you who escaped this rite of passage need to read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which is right on point. Our church was much smaller than that congregation, so we couldn't have a "angel choir" - all the participants were required to sing regardless of (lack of) ability. Since we were hard-core, it was required that we memorize all the verses to multiple carols, which meant rehearsals started in November. Oh the angst. We had a broken piano we practiced on which had a bad habit of crashing its top on people's hands; we had homemade costumes complete with itchy halos stuck in your hair with pins; we had misbehaving kids. I was not among them - since my mom was in charge, she would have roasted me on a spit if I'd been a problem. There was one infamous year in which all the boys decided they had Tourettes or something and really put on a performance, complete with lying down on the stage and shredding their garments. We always sang Away in a Manger, which, as the author of "Christmas Pageant" puts it, always sounds like a bunch of mice at the beginning because it's been pitched too high. And we liked to do "Go Tell it on the Mountain" because it has pizazz, and because we liked to drag out the end of the verses ("was born on Christmas mo---orn!"). 

Community Christmas Music Programs

My hometown was great about having Christmas parades, and the symphony orchestra always put on a great show. As a kid one of the highlights was sitting in the community center listening to the same soloist male who always did O Holy Night and encouraged harmony amongst the audience. 

Getting the Tree

And decorating etc, but the best part was going to the same place in the city every year, knowing the men who prepped it for us, having the same arguments about height. Children love rituals so much more than novelty - except for - 

That One Year it Snowed

My generation in the South remembers the '93 snowstorm as the one year we got our annual Christmas wish for snow. It was the first time I'd seen snow and the only Christmas I've made a snow-man. We were driving to my grandparents' as it stormed; my parents were worrying about adult trifles like tire chains, but I recognized this for the God-sent magic it was. Southern children spend every winter thinking "maybe this will be the year!" and that time it really was.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Culture of Fear: TULIP

Growing up, I thought that we Calvinists were a persecuted minority among American Christians. The mythology went like this: all Protestants (except Methodists) were originally Calvinist. Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and the like, all believed in predestination, total depravity, and all the rest. However, the American churches in particular had been lead astray by false human doctrines called Armenianism, and now only a minority were faithful to the Word of God. (Catholics and early Christianity didn't really figure into the story; nobody ever talked about pre-Reformation Christianity except how corrupt the Popes were). We were part of that minority: those who were both conservative and Reformed, who hadn't given in to liberalism or Armenianism. If you've been part of a fearful group, you know the drill, except maybe you spoke in tongues amongst a bunch of Baptists or were the only group that knew the TRUTH about Jesus coming back for your congregation. It didn't help that a prominent Southern Baptist church in our town had our denomination listed as a cult. It also didn't help that I grew up in an area crawling with Baptists and Methodists and a bit slim on conservative Presbyterians.

That mythology has been burst. In a couple of decades, Calvinism has become cool again, as evidenced by the gradual take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention and the popularity of dominionist groups. Young people are especially attracted to this theology, perhaps because they've been disenchanted from the altar-call style evangelism of their youth. The image of a Calvinist is no longer Mark Twain's frozen chosen choir boy but a bald-headed hipster seminarian smoking a pipe with his ale. As one who was Calvinist before Calvinism was cool, I'm terrified by this turn of events.

Part of my worry is that young people are diving in head-first without thinking through the repercussions for their children. That may sound strong, but I have been severely wounded by Calvinist theology, and those wounds haven't healed yet. So nothing I say is meant to be against a particular Calvinist, unless he or she is obviously being manipulative or controlling of others. However, I'm not going to mince words when it comes to the theology, if only because many, many people have been wounded by it, some of them losing faith altogether. There are also many misconceptions about the theology, and it's good to know what people actually think outside of the stereotypes.

Here's what I grew up believing:

God is completely holy, pure, incorruptible. He is also unchanging - "immortal, invisible, God only wise." This means that God never changes His mind, or His "will," and that because He is God, His will is both unshakable and perfect.

Furthermore, because God is holy, He cannot look upon sin. This means that He cannot love a sinner whose sin is still visible to Him. Moreover, His perfect justice demands that all sins be punished. To be clear, this punishment is not meant to be a deterent for future sins, or a refining fire for penatants. This punishment is needed because God's holiness demands punishment for sins, full stop. Think of it as a mathematical equation, and in order to solve for X, sins must be punished by suffering.

Now, this holy God made everything, including Satan and mankind. In the beginning, Adam and Eve had free will, meaning that they could chose whether or not to obey God. They chose to disobey God. This act of rebellion spawned "The Fall," and this fall was total and complete. Because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, every human being is born without free will. In other words, no one can chose to worship or serve God, and no one desires to. Not only that, but we are spiritually dead and completely incapable of doing any good. The only reason we haven't all killed each other is because of "common grace," which means that God allots a certain amount of grace to most humans in order for human civilization to continue. I was taught that people like Hitler were not given common grace in order to show us what we are really like, but I don't know that all Calvinists think that. Most Calvinists would compare the unregenerate human heart to Lazarus' dead body, simply incapable of waking himself up or walking without Jesus' miraculous healing. Also, most Calvinists would never say that God pre-ordained evil, so there's a very fine line that one must walk. This is what is known as "total depravity," the T in TULIP.

In response to the Fall, God's holy nature requires punishment of sins (see number 2 above). However, God is also love, and He loved His elect so much that He sacrificed His Son in their place. This is similar to garden-variety evangelicalism but with a distinction. An Armenian would agree that God's holy nature requires punishment of sins; however, they would argue that Christ's death on the Cross was meant for all humanity. The onus is then on individual humans to accept the gift of Christ's death and believe that their sins are therefore forgiven. Calvinism is different: in this paradigm, Christ only died for those already predestined by God "before the foundation of the world." What this means is that Christ's sufferings are mathematical, an exact calculation for an exact number of people. The Calvinist would never say that Christ died for everyone, but only that He died for His elect. I was told that this way none of Christ's sufferings were "wasted" on those who would decide to reject Him (again, I don't know if all Calvinists think this, but it's certainly a common belief). This belief is called "limited atonement" and, for obvious reasons, is the most controversial Calvinist belief. There are so-called "Four Point Calvinists" who believe all the tulip except the L because of a niggling sense of compassion.

The U, for unconditional election, follows from those beliefs. Because of The Fall, man is totally depraved and has no free will. Because God is holy, all sins must be punished. Because God is love, He sacrificed His Son in place of the elect. Because man is totally depraved, i.e. has no free will, he requires direct intervention; ergo, God predestined a certain number of human souls to be saved. His election of these souls is eternal, meaning that it is outside of time altogether. Some Armenians would interpret election to mean that God foreknew - i.e. saw into the future - and knew that Sally Sue would accept Jesus Christ, and therefore Sally Sue is part of the elect. This is not how the Calvinist sees it. In Calvinism, God predestined Sally Sue before the foundation of the world for no discernible reason other than simply because He willed it. It had nothing to do with any choice or good works on her part, and it only had to do with God's (admittedly capricious) choice. This is called "unconditional election" because it is not conditional based on our will or works.

The I, for "irresistible grace," follows logically from unconditional election. If the creator of the universe wills for Sally Sue to be saved, then nothing can stop Sally from being saved. God's saving grace cannot be resisted by her or anyone else, cannot be stopped, cannot be negated by human sins. Those alarm bells ringing in your head are correct - this does sound a lot like rape. When I was a Calvinist though, I was derisive of those who called it divine rape. It goes back to the Lazarus analogy: Christ brought Lazarus back to life, and Lazarus didn't have anything to do with it. Lazarus came forth from the tomb because he had no choice, but no one thought Jesus was guilty of rape!

The P is for "perseverance of the saints," which is kind of controversial. I've heard it called "once saved always saved," but I've also heard Calvinists take great pains to distinguish it from once saved always saved. What I believed growing up is that if Sally is elect, then she will persevere in God until she dies. She may fall away for a time, but she will never be totally separated from God. This is the part where fear and legalism really come into play, because if you're not showing "signs of the elect" then you must not be saved. Jonathan Edwards was mildly obsessed with this problem and wrote a book about it called "Religious Affections." This is why so many atheists get the "No True Scotsman" fallacy thrown at them. After all, the existence of fallen Christians is really frightening if you believe in TULIP. These people thought they were saved, sincerely believed, and now they don't.

John Calvin actually took it a step further and believed that God would trick people into thinking they were chosen when they weren't, a little godly cat and mouse game. Not all Calvinists espouse this though, for obvious reasons. There is also disagreement on whether God foreordains souls for destruction or simply foreordains those whom He saves. In my opinion this is a non-sequiter because if you're not elect, you're headed for Hell, whether God assigned you a seat there or not. There are philosophical reasons to believe or not believe in "double predestination" (or as some would call it double secret predestination), but I'm not going to go into that here.

The other key element is that of "imputation." On the cross, our sins were imputed onto Jesus, and His righteousness is imputed to the elect. This is different from the Catholic idea of infused grace for many reasons. Unlike infused grace, imputed grace doesn't require an act of human will (see: unconditional election); the transaction can't be resisted by human will (see: irresistible grace); it's only offered to those whom God has chosen (see: limited atonement), and it can't be lost through human sin (see: perseverance of the saints). This grace also doesn't mean that we stop sinning or "aren't living in Mortal sin." What it does mean is that we are, in Martin Luther's phrase, a "snow-covered dung heap." We need the covering of Christ's righteousness (i.e. His perfect obedience on earth) so that God can stand to look at us, because a holy God cannot look on sin. I didn't understand this concept as a child, which is interesting because without it the whole building collapses. You want to try something disheartening, try being a Calvinist without understanding imputed grace, with a little Armenian altar-call theology and Last Times obsession stirred in for good luck.

If you're confused, the now-disbanded Caedmon's Call (the band Derek Webb used to write for) explains this quite clearly, in a more positive light than I can manage:

Now, most people would say that the above beliefs make God a monster. However, there's a catch: "who are you, O man, to question God?" You're totally depraved, remember? Your spiritual intellect is decayed, rotten to the core, and your moral compass is shot unless God supernaturally corrects it. So who are you to say that God is being capricious? You're a tiny, sinful human, and God is the pure, holy, sovereign creator. Aren't you being a wee bit presumptuous to judge God?

I'll let you sit with that.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Culture of Fear

When I started reading Catholic blogs about 4 years ago, I came across the idea of the "culture of death." I think they're onto something, because there is a definite trend towards death in America, whether it's the high abortion rate of Downs infants, glorification of violence, constant war, isolation of the sick and dying, and a general cast-off attitude towards those who are no longer "useful" due to sickness or age. So I'd like to crib the term and say that there is a culture of fear in strict American religious groups.

I say "strict" instead of fundamentalist because it's a broader category. Growing up, I was proudly "not a fundamentalist" even though I had nightmares about going to hell. I couldn't be a fundamentalist, because fundamentalists were Armenian! Likewise, one might say that the SSPX are not fundamentalist because fundamentalists are Protestants. So, in order to be as all-inclusive as possible, I'll be using the words fearful and culture of fear to describe the type of culture I came from.

This is important for those of us who are healing. There is a tendency among fearful groups to see themselves as unique, as totally different from those "cults" and crazies. This is why you have Dominionist groups who proudly smoke pipes (the men that is) and drink expensive microbeers. They need to express their "Christian liberty," to show that they are different from those legalists who abstain from alcohol and tobacco. In fact, the more insistent someone becomes on Christian liberty, the more I look around for exit signs. In my experience, this Christian liberty talk is a smokescreen.

The other way in which fearful groups express their uniqueness is through doctrinal statements. Most of us grew up thinking that cults are defined not by their behavior but by their beliefs. This may sound nutty to the general public, but it's true. My initial training on what constitutes a cult was from reading a book published in the 1960s called "What's the Difference?" I thought for sure this book was out of print - my copy was a tattered paper-back edition from my grandmama's house - but damned if it hasn't been "expanded and updated for the 21st century". This book purported to explain the difference between Real Christians and other religions and cults. The first three chapters were devoted to Catholics, because you can't make this shit up. However, the most damaging section was the grand finale, in which the book listed the warning signs of a cult. As my memory serves, the signs were devoted to particular doctrinal statements such as "Jesus is not fully divine and fully human." Anyone who took this book as Gospel (as I did, and as many Amazon reviewers did) would have not the slightest clue that a cult can believe the Nicene Creed and still be a cult. Not to mention that cults are found in every religious group in the world and that the word cult really just means small religious group, but that's another story. The danger is that in our country, the word cult typically means that a religious group is dangerous to its members - that it engages in mind-control, dictatorship by the leader(s), a lack of privacy, and various other damaging behaviors. Books like What's the Difference? obscure this fact by putting the emphasis on doctrinal purity.

Doctrinal purity is not the end all be all. If I could tell my 10 year old self one thing, that would be it. Love is more important than doctrinal purity. Safety is more important than doctrinal purity. Dignity of the human spirit is more important than doctrinal purity. Freedom of conscience is more important than doctrinal purity.

The culture of fear is a tendency within strict religious groups of any flavor or doctrinal persuasion. There is no doctrinal Creed or statement of belief that will render a group safe from this poison. Being doctrinally correct is no guarantee that you or your children are in a nurturing environment. If that's the case then, how do you know? Outsiders would suggest that "when you know, you know," but this is not helpful for those in toxic religious environments. Part of the package is believing that your group has The Truth, that your own personal feelings are less important than the objective standards of The Group, and that all personal desires are to be subjugated. So it is unlikely that you will simply trust your gut instincts and get the hell out, and it is unlikely that anyone stuck in such a group will take your advice to "trust your feelings." They've been deliberately trained not to.

Since feelings are hard to rely on for those trained against them, perhaps a good hard look at the facts would help. Does any of this sound familiar?

1. Any statements implying that "God is love" are often met with derision or are qualified. You may hear someone say "The Bible says God is 'Holy, Holy, Holy,' not 'Love, Love, Love'." (Direct quote from R.C. Sproul in his video series "Fear and Trembling.") If you mention God's love too much, people become suspect, begin to see you as a liberal or "social justice nut." You may also hear a lot of "God is love, but he is also justice," as if these qualities are at war with one another.

2. Speaking of wars, the words "We are at war with _______" are a constant presence.

3. All of your friends are in that one particular religious group. Not only do you not have any non-Christian friends or close acquaintances, but you don't have any friends outside your denomination.

4. You have been pressured to give up friends or even family members due to their doctrinal beliefs. Or, you have been pressured to shun someone in your fellowship who has transgressed. This shunning can be subtle: it's not always a mass email with a name to avoid.

5. All of your media influences are from a particular point of view. You may have become increasingly particular about your blogs, books, music, etc, to the point that reading anything outside your normal reading list induces fury. This is a bigger problem now than it was when I was growing up thanks to the internet, so even those of us not in fearful groups need to watch out for this.

6. There is a fascination with Hell. One sure-fire (pun intended) way to tell is that anyone who ventures that maybe hell isn't highly populated is promptly dismissed as a heretic. "Goodbye Rob Bell" etc.

7. Your group likes to make fun of other religious groups, sometimes in vicious ways. Your pastor may feel OK with making sexist remarks as long as it's towards liberal women (or conservative, depending on the group. I'm not giving liberals a pass here either). If hateful words are not always viewed as sinful, that's a huge warning flag.

8. Your group has a list of proof-texts that it uses as the ultimate zingers. A proof-text doesn't have to be hateful on the surface: many health and wealth groups may use "For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord...". These "nice" verses can become weapons towards someone whose mother died because they "didn't pray hard enough."

9. And, your group likes to make fun of other groups' proof texts. You can't make this shit up. We used to joke that everyone in "secular culture" knew John 3:16, and to tell the truth we weren't that keen on that verse because it said "For God so loved the world." I have been guilty of this too, more times than I can count. As a kid I used to "correct" my Baptist teachers' Armenian proof texts with my Calvinist proof texts, and yep, you could cut the irony with a knife. (Has anyone done a comic strip of this? The Calvinist proof text light saber verses the Armenian proof text light saber? This needs to happen.)

10. Your group has strict rules, but they are different rules than other groups, which means that you value Christian liberty. This may sound crazy to an outsider, but this is a real problem in fearful groups. As I mentioned above, it is trendy for Christian men to drink alcohol and smoke pipes (not cigarettes, those are gauche) in the name of "Christian liberty," while in the background their wives plan a purity ball for their daughters. Fundamentalism doesn't always look like a Jack Chick tract, and it probably doesn't call itself fundamentalist. It may go out of its way to be "not legalistic," which makes it hard to put your finger on the problem. There are fundamentalists who sport visible tattoos, cuss, wear jeans to church, listen to rap, wear long hair or shave their heads, and to all outer appearances look like hipsters. By the time you realize that the group is, in fact, a fearful group, it might be too late. And yes, I am thinking of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, but this could apply to other groups as well. The rules may not be obvious when you're joining, because fearful groups excel at subtlety and manipulation. But once you've crossed the line, you'll know it immediately.

11. And yes, I am going to bring up gender and feminism, but with a caveat.  You may remember the raids on FLDS camps in 2008 and 2010, and the discovery of child marriages to men in their 40s and 50s. Well, it doesn't always look like that. It can also be subtle, and to outer appearances it can look like honoring women rather than subjugating them. That's why I would argue that instead of saying "all fearful groups hate women," it would be more accurate to say "all fearful groups obsess about gender." There are million different ways to do this, and not all of them are obvious. I mean, if your group says that women have no greater value than babies and forbids getting a college education then yep, that's your clue. Unfortunately, it's usually not that simple. Not all fearful groups forbid pants, but many do say things like "ladies, let's be charitable to our brothers in Christ who are suffering from lust." This is code for "if a man lusts it's your fault, and we will shame you for it." Not all fearful groups are like the Westboro Baptists, but many do assume that all homosexuals were abused by their parents or other authority.

12. And the biggest tip-off of all? That you are constantly looking at a group that is stricter than yours and mocking everything about them. You come up with names like "rad trad" or "TR" or hyper-Calvinist. You make a big deal of anyone who believes in "work salvation," and you hold up your doctrinal statement of Sola Fide as proof that you are a grace-filled congregation. You believe in "once saved always saved," so it's OK to shun backsliders because clearly "they were never really saved." You like to think of yourselves as hip because your worship team plays the drums, and you make fun of "Gothardites" who forbid rock music. You think that because your group has "denominational oversight" (i.e. isn't congregationalist) that you are free from the danger of a demagogue.

Groups like this are can be as big as a huge denomination or as small as a single congregation. In the days of the Internet, these groups can also be bigger than any one strictly defined group: it can be a publishing company that sells its goods to millions of families, or a highly-influential speaker who is revered by his or her listeners. What these groups have in common is the need for control. They are primarily concerned with worldly success, no matter how "other-worldly" they might seem. I grew up in the thick of multiple groups, with various degrees of overlap, and I have seen first-hand the devastation that can become of the one attitude that holds their members together:

"It can't happen to us."

**Note: I do not endorse the links that I provided, and perhaps it was a bad idea to list them, but I wanted to give examples. These are extremely influential groups that are not beholden to any one church or denomination, and therefore are more dangerous than groups like the Westboro Baptists, which is really just one family in Kansas.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Recovering from Fundamentalism, Calvinist-style - The Intro

I pondered whether or not to write this. This blog isn't technically anonymous, since it would be easy to figure out who I am given what information I've offered. However, I'm a realist: maybe a handful of people will read this post, and probably that will include no one I know. At the same time, yep, it's the internet, so I will only post things I would be OK with other people seeing. Back and forth, back and forth, etc, etc.

What changed my mind? Simply this: I have read so many bloggers journeys out of various kinds of fundamentalist Christianity, most of them from more "extreme" versions than what I grew up with. However, their stories were similar enough to be profoundly helpful and healing for me. So this is for the one random person that lights on this blog long enough to read this and hope, and pray, and dream, that maybe God isn't a monster.

For that one person, whoever you are, you should know this first and foremost: you have a right to your own thoughts and feelings. You may be so afraid of committing the "unforgivable sin" that you are paralyzed, unable to acknowledge the anger and hurt from your past. You may have been shut down by family and friends whenever you expressed doubts about theology or ideas, and you may have been exhorted not to "throw out the baby with the bathwater" more times than you can count. Even opening a Bible or walking into a church may cause a full-blown panic attack. If so, please do yourself a favor and consider the following: all you have to do today is survive. If staying home from church is what you need to do to survive, then that's what you need to do. If you need to stay away from Christian books and podcasts and blogs and bookstores (gah, those are the worst), then try to understand that survival is good, and any action you take towards survival is good. And anyone who tells you otherwise is full of shit.

Now, where was I?

Oh yes, surviving. Here's what I did to survive:

A. Didn't go to the Calvinist college I'd dreamed of and went to a nominally Christian liberal arts school  that didn't have mandatory chapel, dress codes, etc.

B. Didn't go to church much during the first year of college, partly for practical reasons (I didn't have a car), and partly because church was still a nightmare for me.

C. Decided to leave a small church in my denomination (which I started attending while in college) because I noticed cult-like tendencies amongst the congregation. Thinking back, this was the real turning point, because I decided that emotional safety was more important than denominational/ doctrinal purity. I'll come back to that, because it's huge.

D. Delayed joining the Episcopal Church (which I'm now a member of) because I needed time to figure out who I am, what I think/ believe, where God wanted me to be, and what the safest place for me was.  (I'll talk about the concept of safety later. Safety can be a dirty word in Christian circles, and there's a lot of misunderstanding about safety, boundaries, etc, especially in the more fundamentalist groups).

E. Decided to join the Episcopal Church even though I'm not 100% on board with everything the church does. Again, doctrinal purity is no longer my number one priority.

F. Attended a different church from my husband. My husband is training to be an Episcopal priest, and we go to different churches. We didn't plan it that way - I just happened to find a church that I fell in love with, and he was already working at a different parish that is a lot farther off. I went through a lot of post-patriarchal angst about being at a different church from my husband, but he thought it was a jolly plan, and now I do too. Sure, sometimes scheduling can be tricky, but it has given me the time and space I needed to develop spiritually outside of the "priest wife" role.

G. Explored. My story would be a lot different without the internet, because without it I might never have encountered Catholic spirituality, fundamentalist recovery blogs, the sermons of George MacDonald, and other resources that have been crucial in my development. So cheers to the information age! It's got a lot of flaws, but it's also done a lot of good.

I'll get back to my actual story on another day. It involves Calvinism, Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and some tangental connections to Bill Gothard and sundry, so you know it'll be good. :)

Friday, December 6, 2013

7 Quick Takes: Lies About Winter

"December 21 is the first day of winter"

Where? In Miami?

Windshield Scrapers Work

Not so much. They'll get the snow off, but to dissolve the ice you need fluid. We get the big gallons.

Southern states are pleasant in winter

Actually Southern winter sucks because instead of snow you get freezing rain. And you know how humid heat is hotter than dry heat? Humid cold is colder than dry cold. So yeah, it's not as bad as Minnesota, but it's no picnic either. And your kids will always cry during Christmas specials because they never get snow.

Stay Inside So You Don't Get Sick

Actually it's the opposite. Kids who spent all winter (in Switzerland!) outdoors in a forest kindergarten did not get colds. (Doesn't mean it sounds like a fun time, but it does sound better than spending all winter at the pediatrician's). Colds and flu spread in the winter precisely because we stay indoors and breath on each other. Fresh air actually is a good idea. 

"You'll Get Used to It"

Hahahaha just kidding, I hate being outside in winter. And no, I won't get used to it. My body is fundamentally opposed to being cold. I'm the freak who goes outside when it's 98 degrees to warm up from the air conditioning in the office, and I love that nice "toasty oven" feel when you first walk out. I mean, I don't want to go running in it, but my body handles heat much better than cold.

Cold is Normal

Actually, we humans evolved in African plains.  Check out the fur on animals that evolved to survive cold climes: 

Yeah, we don't look like that. In fact, it doesn't take much for us to die from hypothermia, as evidenced by the statistics of homeless people who die from cold exposure every year. So tell me again how being cold is normal?

Being Cold Builds Character

My dad always said this whenever I complained too. I'm still waiting for the character part.

If being cold builds character, then what happened to Stalin? Guess his mama should have made him go barefoot.