The morning after

Last night I wrote and wrote because I was angry.

This morning I woke up, and I packed the kids off to school and got a shower and drank some coffee, and I am still angry.

Listen. My relationship with both evangelicalism and my old church is like a relationship with an ex who shares custody of your kids and who also massively influences U.S. public policy. I don’t know how angry I should allow myself to be with someone I broke up with, and how much I should shake my head and say, Yes, this is why I left, and move on.

It has been eight months since I left my church. I left because it hurt like this nearly all the time. I left because I was angry more often than I wasn’t, and because I had to work so hard at being not-angry. I left because I couldn’t separate the things that frustrate me about white American evangelicalism from the specific culture that existed at that one single white American evangelical church, and because I didn’t see that one church making any effort to distinguish itself from the most toxic parts of the culture anyway. Walking away hurt, but staying there hurt more.

(In the eight months since I left, no one there has noticed that I’m gone or reached out to me in any way. That hurts, too, but it certainly reinforces my decision.)

But.

It has been five months since I went on my own to a service at the tiny Episcopal church that I first attended once last summer with a friend. Five months since I sat in the priest’s office after the service and cried, because I was lonely and lost and I didn’t know how to do church anymore or if I even could, and because for the first time I had hope that someplace new could feel like home. And five months since Mother Debra — an unmarried woman of color: exactly the sort of person who never would have been allowed authority where I came from — told me that I was welcome there, could call it home if I wished.

“But,” she added. “You should know that we have quite a few gay people in our congregation. I hope that won’t be a problem for you?”

And I laughed. Which was probably not the best response. But I laughed, because here was this priest, telling me that I was welcome at their church but that making me comfortable as a straight person wasn’t a priority. That their church was a place where accepting LGBT people is the norm, and it is up to me to adapt to that, not the other way around.

And this is why that’s my church now. The church where I bring my children on Sunday morning, where my boys and I take the Eucharist alongside gay people and straight people and families and single people and people of different colors and ethnicities and people with autism and just people, and where it is expected that this is their church, and we are welcome to worship alongside them. A church where my whiteness and straightness and able-bodiedness isn’t privileged.

This is what unity in the body of Christ feels like. And it gives me hope. It makes me remember that white American evangelical Christianity isn’t the only Christianity. It makes me want everyone else to remember that too.

—–

If I could add to the canon of scripture, besides Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, I would include Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.” It’s about Mrs. Ruby Turpin, a southern woman who is very confident in her place in the hierarchy of God’s children, and how she has an epiphany about what it means for the first to be last. Here is the ending:

Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to the hogs as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the hog pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black n***rs in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.

At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.

Hellelujah. Lord, have mercy on us sinners. Hallelujah.

Mostly I am yelling.

This is the blog post you write because you’re angry.

This is the blog post you write because you’re angry at men. And you’re angry at evangelicalism. And especially you’re angry at white, American, evangelical men.

You’re angry because today, two days after they announced plans to begin hiring gay, lesbian, and bisexual people (I have no illusions about including the T of LGBT here – that would be a bridge waaay too far) who are in same-sex marriages that are sanctioned by their home churches, in addition to the celibate LGB people they were willing to hire before — two days later, in response to enormous pressure from pearl-clutching conservative evangelicals, World Vision announced that they’re dreadfully sorry for taking such a controversial stance (hiring gay people who aren’t even sorry for being gay! the horror!) and they’re not going to hire same-sex-married people after all.

You’re angry because scores of evangelicals pulled their support — their promised, life-giving support — from needy families and communities because doctrinal purity is more important than helping the least of these. Because making sure LGBT people know that they’re in no way welcome in the body of Christ is more important than helping the least of these.

Because feeding the hungry and clothing the poor and helping the sick — those are all well and good, but when it comes down to it, those children are really just pawns in the culture wars. 

And so you write because people you care about are hurt and angry and surprised (but not really surprised — this is not nearly as surprising as it should be) at World Vision’s reversal, and because when your friends express their hurt and anger on twitter and on their blogs, white evangelical men show up and tell them that they are responding too hastily. That their anger needs to be tempered by time before they are allowed to express it. That it’s okay to question this decision, but do it carefully, because unity. 

Because showing unity with people who are willing to further alienate LGBT people is more important than being angry at them for the injustice they are perpetuating. 

Because what’s really important — no one is saying it but it comes through loud and clear — is doctrinal purity. (Where doctrinal purity equals rigid gender roles and policing people’s sexuality.) Because God desires mercy, not sacrifice, unless there are gay people involved and then it turns out what God really desires is the sacrifice of hungry children on the altar of Law. Because mercy only triumphs over judgment insofar as we’re not judging (gasp!) sexual sin.

You’re writing angry because once again, you’re confronted with the inescapable reality that evangelicalism is a gendered religion. In evangelicalism, you’re subject to a specific set of rules and roles that change depending on your gender and your sexuality. Men are to behave like this, and women like this. Marriage is encouraged, idolized even (God help the single 30-something member of an evangelical church), but only if you’re straight; if not, suddenly celibacy is a high and holy calling, and all of those verses we trot out at weddings about love and marriage and cords of three not being easily broken don’t apply to you the way they do to everyone else. Searching the scriptures and studying the Bible are important, but if you are a woman it doesn’t matter how spiritually strong you are; you must have a husband to be your spiritual leader, and you must not ever, ever teach a man, nor — heaven forfend — presume that God is calling you to be a pastor.

This is the blog post you write because tonight your son went to midweek programming at your old church (get it, programming as in what you do to a robot) and you came around the corner where his class was playing just in time to hear him yelling NO and crying, because one of the leaders had tried to pick him up without his permission and he said YOU’RE HURTING ME and the leader said, Whatever, you’re fine, you’re not hurt. Get up. Because it’s not enough to get in his personal space without his consent, but then when he tells the leader that he is hurt, when he tells the leader NO, the leader argues with him about what he’s feeling, doubles down on his own right to pick up a child without their permission.

Because what midweek programming is for is to teach boys how to twist themselves until they fit into narrow gendered boxes, and the box marked “male” includes nothing about bodily autonomy and consent and emotional vulnerability, and everything about wrestling and unwanted physicality and denying one’s feelings. The box marked “male” is the one where they tell boys to “shake it off” and “be a man.” Boys play dodgeball and go to wood shop, while the girls are off in their programming making crafts and planning their father-daughter dance.

And you are angry because when you confront the leader, instead of backing down, instead of apologizing, he ignores you and condescendingly tries to explain to your son what he meant. You are saying “consent” and “bodily autonomy” and “boundaries,” and the leader is talking past you to your crying boy about “I was just” and “all I meant was.”

And so you are sick to death of white, evangelical, cisgender heterosexual American men. Sick of patriarchy and condescension and those narrow gendered boxes. Sick, utterly sick of the evangelical idolatry of gender roles that is carried on the backs of hungry children and hurting children and children caught in the crossfire while the adult world of the culture war rages on around them. 

Because hell yes, you are angry. 

O Holy Flesh

There’s a collision that happens in my heart at Advent, this year more than ever. There’s the never-ending semester cycle when the busyness of the cerebral world of my classes crescendos hard into sforzando, there’s navigating the push-pull of family holidays, there’s food upon food — the pendulum-swing from ordering pizza too often because there isn’t enough time to cook, to flouring the kitchen with Christmas-cookie baking, to the too much food and not enough wine of extended-family meals. This year, too, as I’m wading into Episcopalianism, there’s the added sense of family-ness as I articulate the same beliefs and pray the same prayers week after week alongside the community of saints near and far, forward and backward through time; and the physicality of the Eucharist, gathering around the table of an embodied Christ, flesh and blood.

This Advent more than ever I am thinking about this God who became embodied: what it really means to believe in God with us and the Word became flesh and this is my body, broken for you. A God whose wounds you can touch, whose mother nursed him as a baby and comforted him when he was sick, whose tears fell salty in the dust and whose laughter rang loud and holy in the desert air. An infant God wrapped in cloths because his tiny body was cold, swaddled tight to soothe his startle reflex.

This Advent I am thinking about how if my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, then this flesh itself is sacred — this same substance worn by the God of the universe, and shaped into God’s image. If I really believe in the words I recite every week, the resurrection of the body, then this is not some temporary meat-costume I will abandon so my soul can flit off to an immaterial heaven, but the too too solid flesh that will dance in the hereafter.

And I am thinking about Advent in a physical, tangible world, a world where the days grow shorter and colder, a world of gray sky and gray naked tree branches and gray muddy snow. An Advent season that piggybacked onto the old ways, waiting for the solstice and lighting fires against the dark. I am thinking about a star that burst into the holy darkness, showing the way out of the night.

This Advent I am thinking about darkness and earth and skin, scratchy blankets and prickly straw, hot breath and cold night air, sacred incarnation, holy flesh.

A Benediction.

For my friend Aaron.

Blessed are the losers.

Blessed are those who can’t catch a break. Blessed are those who fight and fight and never get ahead, who feel the riptide pulling them backward no matter how hard they swim. Blessed are the Sisyphean.

Blessed are those who are too tired to fight, who feel the waters closing over their heads. Blessed are the drowning.

Blessed are the lonely, the forgotten, the invisible.

Blessed are the empty.

Blessed are those denied a seat at the table. Blessed are those who long to be seen, admitted, accepted, welcomed.

Blessed are those who know that if a table is closed to the marginalized it is not a table of communion but of the money changers. Blessed are those who overturn the tables.

Blessed are the wounded. The beaten-down. The jaded and the cynical. The anxious and the hurt and the angry. Blessed are the bitter.

For theirs will be peace. Theirs will be rest and quiet. Theirs will be family and welcome and, at last, joy. For they will be known, and they will be accepted. They will be filled.

Blessed are the losers, for they will be loved.

Telling God’s Story ch. 2: What the Bible Isn’t

So sorry this post is so much later than intended — it’s been a massive week, with a couple of late nights writing papers. The problem with going to school to become a better writer is that it doesn’t leave me with a lot of time for, well, writing.

Anyway. On to Chapter Two, “What the Bible Actually Is (And Isn’t).”

Enns’s argument in this chapter is a familiar one to me, as it’s one he covers in the first handful of chapters of Inspiration and Incarnation — albeit in much friendlier, less academic language, which is a relief. His point is this:

Christianity teaches that Jesus is, mysteriously, both God and human. He is not half one, half the other. He does not appear to be one while “really” being the other. He is both: all God and all human all the time.

Now think of the Bible by drawing a parallel: In the same way that Jesus is both completely divine and human, the Bible also has divine and human dimensions. (19, emphasis mine)

Don’t expect Jesus to be something he isn’t: a king dressed in fine robes, with servants and armies. He was lowly. He came to serve. Likewise, don’t expect something from the Bible it can’t deliver. Don’t expect it to be high and lofty, detached from the ancient world in which it was written. (21)

I like this analogy (and he stresses that it is only an analogy, and so it’s incomplete in some ways) a lot. For me it helps to bridge the gap between the idea I got growing up that the Bible was somehow dictated by God word-for-word and therefore contains only timeless, transcendent wisdom direct from the Divine, and the fact that the Bible is clearly a product of the very human times and cultures it came from. 

Enns writes about what we should, therefore, do with the Bible:

The first thing to keep in mind when we read the Bible is the hardest: Don’t go straight to the question “What does this mean to me?” . . . [We must learn] to ask questions that the text is raising. Our first struggle in reading the Bible is to move from the “What about me?” perspective to the “What does this tell us about God in that context?” question. . . . Before we can ask the hard questions — for example, “Is Genesis 1 in harmony with scientific thought? Or does Genesis 1 trump scientific thought?” — we must ask a more foundational question: What do we have the right to expect from God’s word as a book written in an ancient world? (18-19, emphasis Enns’s)

There’s a lot in this chapter about what not to expect from the Bible. And it’s important stuff. He knows that in some ways what we as Christians, and as Christian parents, want a Bible that will tell us what to do. Give me a road map, tell me what rules I need to teach my children to live by, give me a concordance that tells me everything I need to know about my finances and my marriage and my garden if I can just flip to the right chapter and verse.

Sarah Bessey writes about this expectation as well, in her new book Jesus Feminist:

People want black and white answers, but Scripture is a rainbow arch across a stormy sky. Our sacred book is not an indexed answer book or life manual; it is also a grand story, mystery, invitation, truth and wisdom, and a passionate love letter. . . . I’ve often heard the bumper-sticker phrase, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” But that’s not really true, is it? Whether we admit it or not, as people of faith, we sift our theology through [the pillars of] Scripture, Church history and tradition, our reason, and our own experience. . . . [And] we are relying on our own imperfect and subjective interpretation of those pillars, too. (56-57)

Okay. So. I’ve made — or am making — peace with what the Bible isn’t. (This isn’t an easy first step, since, as Enns writes, “There are many things about [the Bible] that we would not expect from a book called ‘God’s Word’ [21]. I’ve been wrestling with this aspect of the Bible for quite some time, and if this is a new perspective for you, I’d urge you to spend some time processing — and even grieving! — this shift.) What what do I do with what it is?

Bessey writes:

Since, admit it or not, we interpret Scripture through our own lens of context and history and culture, we must learn more about culture and context for the Bible. We need to read it in the way that the writers meant it and the way their immediate recipients would have read it. (59)

In order to do this, we have to educate ourselves about what the historical context is, and Enns recommends getting “a good, thorough study Bible” to help with this, as well as the books Old Testament Today by Walton and Hill; Encountering the Old Testament by Arnold and Beyer; The New Testament in Antiquity by Burge, Cohick, and Green; and Encountering the New Testament by Elwell and Yarbrough (18).

But more than that, we must use “the single most important biblical  concept for living a Christian life, not only today but during any era: wisdom.” He explains: 

. . . [M]any of the decisions we are called upon to make every day we make, not because of a verse here or there, but because of the wisdom we have accumulated over the years. That wisdom is acquired through the study of Scripture, prayer, life in a Christian community (not just “going to church”), and plain old life experiences (otherwise known as learning from your mistakes). (24-25)

This part is tough for me. Because even though I know that the Bible, in itself, isn’t a rule book or a road map, what I really want is a road map rule book that will tell me how to read and apply the Bible. “Wisdom” is subjective and vulnerable to my own self-doubt (and believe me, as a person — a woman, no less — who did time in the “teach your children that they are deeply broken” branch of the church, I’ve had years of being conditioned to think that my own wisdom is untrustworthy). So I read this chapter thinking, Yes, okay, I agree, now tell me what to do.

Maybe he’ll get to that. After all, Telling God’s Story is supposed to be telling us how to teach the Bible to our kids, and we’re only on chapter 2, so I’m hopeful that the rest of the book will answer some of these questions that it’s raised for me. I feel like I’m understanding how the Bible doesn’t work; now I need him to tell me how it does. 

Telling God’s Story: Sunday Night Open Thread

I was planning to write a post tonight over chapter 2 of Telling God’s Story, but the day got away from me and now I’m crashing. I’ll hopefully have time to write about it in the morning, but this is a big chapter and I want to give it enough time to really do it justice. (And honestly, some of what Enns talks about in chapter 2 is sitting a bit uneasily with me; I think I need this evening to process.)

In the meantime, I’m putting this up as a Telling God’s Story open thread: What did you think of the first few chapters? Is this new information for you, or is Enns covering familiar ground? What have you been writing or reading lately?

How are you? How are your kids/pets/in-laws/dust bunnies? Do leave a comment – it helps my self-esteem.

***

Here are some Telling God’s Story-related links:

Kate Green – Telling God’s Story [ ch 1 ]

I’ve come to the idea that my goal in parenting my kids in regards to God and faith, is that I want to provide the tools with which and the environment in which they can develop and explore their relationship with God. This, of course, leaves me with more questions than answers….

TC Larson –  Teaching my kids the Truth about Heaven

I want to be truthful, but I want to give him security. How can I do both when I feel like there is such a broad cannon of interpretation within Christendom? How can I tell him the questions in my own heart about the strict interpretation I was trained to accept? How do I tell him what is true?

Kate also posted this link to the Telling God’s Story Facebook page: Donald Miller’s post, My Problem with the Word “Biblical”

Lately I’ve realized my conservative southern upbringing, while filled with the teaching of Scripture, nearly ruined the Bible for me. It was used as a comprehensive description of God, a voting pamphlet informing who I should vote for, a science book explaining why modern biologists were wrongly interpreting their findings and the ace card for anybody presenting their ideas. It wouldn’t be for years until I sat under a professor who I believed got it right.

What do you think? Talk amongst yourselves.

Marriage Isn’t Either/Or; It’s Both/And

The nearer Kim and I approached the decision to marry, the more I was filled with a paralyzing fear. Was I ready? Was I making the right choice? Was Kim the right person to marry? Would she make me happy?

Then, one fateful night, I shared these thoughts and concerns with my dad.

With a knowing smile he said, “Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. I’ll tell you,” said he, in the same hurried passionate whisper, “what real love it. It is blind devotion, unquestioning self-humiliation, utter submission, trust and belief against yourself and against the whole world, giving up your whole heart and soul to the smiter–as I did!”*

This is the money quote from this post, “Marriage Isn’t for You,” which is going viral on Facebook right now. The post is about a guy who learns from his dad that marriage is about giving yourself up for another person’s happiness, and — Wait, how did Miss Havisham sneak in there?

So listen. I think I understand what he’s trying to say with this post, and I appreciate it. There’s some useful advice about marriage here: Don’t throw in the towel at the first sign of discomfort in your marriage. Your marriage won’t always be actively making you happy, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad or can’t be improved. Don’t be self-serving or self-centered; be considerate of your spouse’s needs and how you can serve them.

This is good marriage advice, but it is not universal marriage advice; like most advice, stating it as something for strong universal application instead of a nuanced individual one turns it into something awful. 

Here’s where the nuance needs to come in: Depending on the power dynamic in the marriage, a marriage that’s all about what a person can give for their spouse’s happiness can feed condescension, codependence, or other unhealthy enmeshment. This attitude in a marriage says, “Look how happy I make my partner! They could never be this happy without me; I’m going to keep working and working to make them happy, regardless of what they think they need or their own self-actualization.”

And this attitude can feed abuse. Telling people that marriage isn’t supposed to make them happy can lead to people rationalizing away their spouse’s mistreatment of them because making their spouse happy is more important than their own suffering; and it feeds the narrative that’s especially prevalent in Christian culture that an abused spouse (specifically, an abused wife, although gender doesn’t come up in this particular post) has a responsibility to stay in the marriage and keep submitting. Telling someone that “a true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love—their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, ‘What’s in it for me?’, while Love asks, ‘What can I give?’” is a form of gaslighting; it reinforces the idea that even if they’re suffering, well, happiness isn’t the point of being married, is it, and you don’t want to succumb to the “Walmart philosophy,” do you?

As for the author’s comment about the disposable-marriage mentality we supposedly have nowadays — “My father’s advice . . . went against the grain of today’s ‘Walmart philosophy’, which is if it doesn’t make you happy, you can take it back and get a new one” — well, the statistics don’t really bear this out. In fact, the divorce rate has been declining since the 1990s, and data indicate that 21st century marriages are lasting longer than they did a few decades ago. Anecdotally, I know a number of couples my age who have divorced, and not a one of them has made the decision lightly or because their marriage wasn’t sufficiently “all about them.” Rather, in every case, the choice to divorce has been a difficult decision that they made only after exhaustively trying to fix the marriage and ultimately concluding that remaining married was impossible. So I take issue with Seth’s insinuation that the world is full of selfish entitled people who flippantly give up on their marriages.

The truth is, even in a healthy, mutually respectful marriage, putting your partner’s needs above your own is an ideal that’s harder to live up to than you’d think.

I certainly try to sacrifice for Aaron and consider his needs and happiness as important; and I know he does the same for me. We do our best to submit to each other and urge each other to pursue the things that make us feel happy and whole. But I can’t do this for him, and he can’t do this for me, unless we are also considering our own needs.

We submit to each other, and we're Jesus Feminists.

We submit to each other, and we’re Jesus Feminists.

You know the advice — “Put on your own oxygen mask first.” If I’m not setting healthy boundaries and looking after my own self-care and well being, I don’t have the resources to meet his needs. And sometimes meeting his needs means that I have to say, This part of our marriage isn’t working; we need to find a compromise. I have to acknowledge that it’s not in Aaron’s power to meet all of my needs, just as it isn’t in my power to make him fully happy, either. Sometimes making him happy means urging him to invest in other relationships with people who share some of his interests in things that bore me, just like his making me happy has meant empowering me to spend time apart doing the things that I love that he has no interest in, like deconstructing Victorian literature. And sometimes doing what’s best for our marriage means saying and doing things that make your partner distinctly unhappy — like, Hey, I need you to find a therapist to work on this issue that’s coming between us. Or, No, I can’t work with this. Things have to change.

So no, Seth, you’re only partly right. Marriage isn’t just for you. But it’s not just for your spouse, either. Marriage is for both of you, and ideally, marriage means both partners working together to ensure their own needs are being met, while also doing everything they can to meet their partner’s needs in a healthy way. (And for heaven’s sakes, don’t marry someone that you don’t see yourself having this kind of partnership with. Telling “almost married, single, or even the sworn bachelor or bachelorette” not to base their decision to get married on whether their spouse makes them happy is utterly unhelpful, Seth.) It isn’t either/or; it’s both/and.

*****

*Edited to add: Just to clarify, the second half of the quote here isn’t from the original post, but from Great Expectations. I elided the blog quote into Miss Havisham’s speech because it seemed to more fully express the same unhealthy assumptions about what love and marriage are about; but people have pointed out that it was unclear that I did this, and they’re right. The original quote from the blog post says:

“Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.”

“Telling God’s Story,” Ch. 1: Don’t Panic

This is a very comforting book.

Beginning straight off in Chapter 1 (“Laws About Mildew and Dragons With Crowns: Why the Bible is such a difficult book to teach”), Peter Enns takes it as a given that for a parent to be able to teach their children about the Bible*, they will first have to make peace with it. And he’s right: I, for one, have a lot of peace that needs to be made with the Bible. And so that’s where Enns will go first in this book — to help parents understand what the Bible does, how it works.

He begins with the illustration of helping his teenager organize their bedroom, then continues:

For many parents, the Bible looks a little bit like my child’s room. It’s a mess. . . .  And if your aim is to teach the Bible to your children, the mess isn’t just confusing. It’s stressful.

This book is for parents who want to do a good job with the important but daunting task of teaching the Bible. And just like the airplane oxygen mask that you’re supposed to put on yourself first before you put it on your children, this book is first and foremost about you. (10)

Then he asks the reader to consider their history of reading Scripture, and describes one very familiar scenario: trying to read through the Bible in a year. Enns’s imaginary Bible reader makes more progress than I ever did; on those half-dozen New Years Resolution-fueled Januaries that I tried this, I don’t think I ever got past Genesis. There are books of the Old Testament that I don’t think I’ve ever even seen. (Habakkuk, anyone? Malachi?)

Enns writes from a place of calm understanding; there is no judgment in his tone — he knows that this is what it’s like to grow up Evangelical, or perhaps to grow up Christian. He doesn’t, at this point, examine into the culture that feeds all of these failed, frustrated relationships with the Bible — the same culture that on one hand says it’s vital to have a Daily Devotion and Bible-reading time, and on the other leaves us with a very confusing sense of biblical literacy, so that the time we do spend reading the Bible on our own is often unfocused and frustrating; but he gets the Bible anxiety that so many of us have.

Yes, the Bible is a detailed, sometimes difficult to follow and understand book, especially the Old Testament. No reason to deny it or be embarrassed for saying it. The prospect of teaching the Bible to one’s own children, when one feels so untrained and even lost, is intimidating.

This book is an attempt to do for you what the closet organizer in my child’s room did for me: give some sense of order and meaning to the chaos. Rather than avoiding the Bible, you will find Scripture becoming a welcome place. (12, bolding mine)

Don’t panic. 

*****

“So what is the Bible, and what are we supposed to be doing with it?”

Don't panic, Arthur.

Arthur Dent is panicking.

Over the next few pages, Enns introduces the questions that he will help us answer for ourselves before we can begin teaching our kids. The fact that these are some giant, existential questions is oddly comforting; finding the answers will take some serious wrestling, but there’s hope that the answers, when we finally find them, won’t be hollow or simplistic.

These may strike some as two odd questions. After all, the Bible is the Word of God and we are supposed to read it and obey it. Fair enough, but that does not even begin to address the question of what the Bible is doing. Why does the Word of God say the things it says? Why does it look the way it looks? And is obedience really the essence of what we are supposed to get out of it?

Of course, the answer is yes – in part. But the Bible aims much higher; it teaches us to see ourselves and the world around us in fresh, exciting, and challenging ways. The Bible is not a Christian owner’s manual. It bears witness to who God is, what he has done, and who we, as his people, are. (13, bolding mine) 

He finishes this chapter with encouragement for parents. What if I make a mistake and ruin my child spiritually? his reader asks. “Remember that your children are God’s children,” he says. “It is your calling and responsibility to raise them in a godly way, but don’t think for one minute that their success rests on your skills and abilities. . . . Remember God’s grace is bigger than the best of your intentions. He really loves your children. Look on this not as a worrisome task but as a few precious, golden years of opportunity” (14).

Don’t panic. This is going to be exciting. Don’t panic.

*In the preface he expands the wording a bit in a way that I deeply appreciate, saying that the book is to help parents teach kids “the Christian faith to which our Scripture bears witness” (8). And he’s exactly right: My goal isn’t to raise Bible-literate kids, but kids who understand the God Whom the Bible points to — and to differentiate between this collection of literature we call “God’s word” and the Word made flesh.

*****

Since we’re starting off by working through our own relationships with the Bible, I’d like to know: What is your relationship with the Bible like? Do you have a system for Bible reading, or have you used one in the past? How has that worked for you?

Please join in the discussion in comments, using the Twitter hashtag #TellingGodsStory, or on our shiny brand-new Facebook page. If you write a post on your own blog, please feel free to link to it here; I’ll post a link round-up at some point. If you’d like to write a guest post — perhaps about what you do with the Bible personally, or as a parent, or things that have worked for you, or things that haven’t, or anything else related to this topic — I’d love to host it; contact me and we’ll work out the details.

Coming Up: I’m planning to post about Chapter 2 next Monday, 11/11, and about Chapters 3-5 on the following Monday, 11/18.

Plans

Trail marker photo by Eric Schmuttenmaer on Flickr Creative Commons

Trail marker photo by Eric Schmuttenmaer on Flickr Creative Commons

I knew it was God’s Plan for us to be married. At 14, I’d had a bona fide Sign From God — the details of which are too excruciatingly embarrassing for me to recount even now, nearly 20 years later; picture a latter-day Gideon’s fleece reimagined through the earnestness of adolescence — that J., my 9th-grade boyfriend, was The One. I’d talked it over with J. and he’d agreed: our happily-ever-after was clearly God’s Plan.

My religious upbringing to that point had been a confused Christianesque mishmash, from a childhood as a socially conservative Presbyterian that took a hard right into traditionalist Evangelicalism in my early teens and landed in the small, deeply fundamentalist Christian school where I met J. One of the major lessons I’d picked up somewhere along the way was the idea that God Had a Plan for My Life; and that my job, as a Christian, was to suss out what this plan was and stick to it as closely as possible. Perhaps this was supposed to be an empowering sort of teaching, that God was so intrinsically involved in the lives of each of us as individuals that They had great things in store for each of us in unique ways; but in practice it wasn’t empowering, but paralyzing.

The problem was, you see, that if we didn’t identify God’s Plan for Our Lives and stick to it as closely as possible, then we were living Outside the Will of God. All it took was one false step, just one instance of misinterpreting God’s intention for my life, to deviate from the path; and just like that I could end up on an alternate timeline, unable to make it back into God’s Will from the parallel universe I’d wandered onto. God’s Will was like a tricky Choose Your Own Adventure book in which every storyline but one ends with you being eaten by alligators or run over by a lawn tractor, and if you turn to page 46 instead of page 23 you’re doomed to a lifetime outside of God’s favor.

But at 14, I knew the Plan. I was working from the teacher’s copy of the textbook, with all the answers supplied in advance and helpful extra notes in the margins. The plan was to stay at Faith until I graduated from high school; get a job in town for a year while J., who was a grade behind me, finished school; and then get married and enroll together at Bob Jones University. After we finished our degrees, we would follow God’s call to preach the Gospel to all nations by becoming missionaries to some jungly faraway country, and we’d have a whole hutful of missionary babies.

And then, halfway through the school year, my parents announced that my dad had accepted a promotion that meant we’d be moving 500 miles away. Everything I thought I knew about God’s Plan for My Life shattered. I was angry at my parents, certain that their decision must be outside of God’s will — how else to explain the way this move would pull me off the path God had laid out for me? — but in the weeks leading up to moving day, I began to make peace with it. After all, I reasoned, no one said following God’s plan would be easy; J. and I would just have to work harder to keep our relationship going until I could move back and we could pick up with the whole marriage-BJU-missionary-babies part of the plan.

So on my last day at Faith, I led morning devotions in my homeroom. I shared with my classmates the verse that I was clinging to amidst my fear of moving to a new place, of not knowing how God would work things out for me and J., of straying from God’s will for me:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” -Jeremiah 29:11

—–

Six weeks and 500 miles later, I received a letter from J. saying he was through with our relationship. I cried a while, and then I stopped. I dated other guys. I married Aaron and had babies. I didn’t move back down south or go to BJU or become a missionary.

And somewhere along the way I slowly let go of my certainty that God had one specific plan for my life and that it was my duty to figure it out and follow it. I began to sink into the notion that “free will” means God is really, truly trusting us to make our own choices, and not waiting to yell Gotcha! if we make the wrong one. 

—–

More educated people than me can take apart Jeremiah 29:11, about how it’s not some prosperity-gospel promise for all individual Christians ever but rather a prophecy to give the exiled children of Israel hope during a period of captivity in which the promises they clung to seemed to have gone off the rails; and about not only the restored Israel, but also the hope of the someday God-With-Us, of a God Whose advent among humankind was not to harm us (Don’t be afraid!) but to give us hope. I don’t have the theological chops to dig into all of that. I only know what that verse is not: a command for us to make ourselves fearful or useless from trying to not make any wrong moves.

But some days that much freedom is a harder place to live than even the paralysis of the which-plan-is-the-right-Plan? place. Even if I believe God is waiting at the end of every one of my multiverse timelines to cry “That was totally awesome! I still have to make a choice — to take a step without the safety of God somehow telegraphing the one and only correct path into my brain; and what that means is, No matter which way I go, it might hurt.

“Right” is so much harder to sort out when there might not be some objective, cosmic Right Way beyond loving my neighbor as myself. Times like now, when the end of my undergrad years is finally in sight (at last!) and I have to decide: what comes next? — I would like there to be One True Plan that I can figure out if I just spend enough time praying hard enough. And believe me, I am praying like mad, constantly:

God, what happens now? What do You want me to do? 

but the answer I get back isn’t Go this way next, but

Well, what do you want to do? What makes you feel alive? 

and it’s almost as if God does want me to figure out what I was made for — not because it’s a test I could fail, but because God delights in my fearful, wonderful me-ness. And God wants me to delight in it too, not to live in the paralysis that I might make a wrong move.

If God has a plan for me, it is hope — hope that comes from knowing I am God’s child, knowing that who I am in God (and who I am in my own skin) is enough. This is the hope that lets me lean into the hard decisions, make decisions that might hurt, do my best to choose wisely, but know that no matter where I go there will be neighbors that I will try to love, and no matter what I choose God will be there to catch me at the end. 

Announcing a Book Club! “Telling God’s Story” by Peter Enns, because I don’t know how to teach my kids about God without messing them up

We had on-again off-again thunderstorms this afternoon, and at sunset this evening a rainbow arched across our neighborhood, glowing in the sideways sunlight. I was chatting with one of the boys about it while I played with a panorama app on my phone, trying to get a picture of the whole thing. “The rainbow is making me really nervous,” my son confided.

He struggles with anxiety, but I was still surprised to hear that he was becoming anxious about something as benign as a rainbow. “Why is that, sweetie?” I asked him.

“Because we learned in Sunday school that God made the rainbow as a promise never to flood the earth again.”

“That’s right. Why does that make you nervous?”

“Because if there’s a rainbow then someone might accidentally walk through it and break it. And if you break a rainbow, then God might break his promise to never flood the earth. My Sunday school teacher said so.”

I realize my kids’ Sunday school teachers might not be experts at physics, but at the very least I expected that they weren’t teaching my kids such awful theology. I hugged my son. “Oh, sweetie, your Sunday school teacher was very wrong about that,” I told him. “God will never, ever, ever, ever break a promise. No matter what we do, we can never do something to make God break one of His promises. That’s why in the story God gave Noah a rainbow — to show that we can trust God.”

He nodded and busied himself showing the rainbow to the cat, and I got on Twitter and fumed. What on earth was she thinking, telling kids God might change Their mind? Was this a joke? Did he just misunderstand? Obviously I need to step up my timeline for moving us to a different church where my kids won’t be learning such untruths. What other holes are being left in my kids’ understanding of Who God is? 

What kind of holes have *I* left in teaching him about God that would allow him to believe something like this? 

How am I even supposed to teach my kids how to handle their questions about God and the Bible if I can’t figure out some of this stuff myself? How do I teach them that God is like Jesus, and that the stories in the Old Testament aren’t all meant to be interpreted literally, and that God is trustworthy even if the Bible stories don’t mesh with our modern scientific definition of factuality, if I don’t even really understand it? 

—–

telling-gods-story-parents-guide-teaching-bible-peter-enns-paperback-cover-artAnd then I remembered that last winter I ordered Peter Enns’s book Telling God’s Story, and it’s still sitting in one of the many, many stacks of books I like to surround myself with, still waiting to be read.

Peter Enns is the Old Testament theologian who wrote Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (you may have read Rachel Held Evans’s blog-through of the book last year) and The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, and if anyone is qualified to address the complexities and nuances of God’s story as portrayed in the Old Testament, it’s him. Telling God’s Story: A Parents’ Guide to Teaching the Bible is, from what I understand, a standalone book that explains Enns’s approach to teaching children the Bible, which can also be used as the introduction to his Bible curriculum of the same name.

As I was writing about this on Twitter last night, many other people expressed their own frustration with not knowing how to give their kids an understanding of the Bible that didn’t develop into the same crises of faith that many of us experienced as we grew up. And so, I’m inviting people to work through Telling God’s Story with me, beginning November 1. (I’m hoping to also go through Inspiration and Incarnation along with Telling God’s Story, since I started I&I over the summer and didn’t have time to get all the way through it, but I LOVED what of it I read. Join me for that, too, if you’d like!)

Writing about parenting and childrearing is not an area I’m very comfortable with, since most of the time my own parenting skills amount to a lot of flailing around; so I’m a bit nervous about diving into something like this. I’m hoping this can be a community-participation project, and I’m open to suggestions on how best to do that: host guest posts here? blog link-up? scheduled twitter chats? Please let me know in comments if you’re interested in participating in this discussion (or if you’d rather just listen – that’s great too!), and if you have a preference for opening up the conversation about this. I have so much to learn, and I certainly don’t want to dominate this conversation with just my voice. (Plus, November tends to be a pretty intense month for people, school-wise and family schedule-wise, so I doubt I’ll be able to stay on top of this by myself!)

What do you think? Are you in? 

—–

P.S. – I tried and failed to find this book in my fairly extensive local library, so I’m guessing that if you want to follow along with the book, you’ll need to purchase a copy. If this is something you’re interested in but book-buying isn’t in your budget right now, would you mind emailing me or sending me a direct message on twitter so we can work something out? I’d hate for finances to be the thing that stops you from participating in this conversation.