Bob Jones, Mark Driscoll, and C.J. Mahaney, cont.

Part 1

John Jensen’s post about the criticism he’s gotten from other Christians for swearing got me thinking again about about the skewed moral priorities that often prevail in evangelical churches. Growing up, we were led to believe that all sorts of personal choices disqualified someone from being a “real” Christian – swearing, listening to “ungodly” music, voting a certain way, wearing certain clothes. Before I went to college, I honestly thought it was impossible to be a Christian and a Democrat.

But I was never taught it was impossible to be a good Christian and a racial separatist.

To the contrary, my experience was that fellow conservative Christians, white ones in particular, were extremely reluctant to call BJU’s opposition to interracial marriage what it so obviously was: blatant racism. They had no trouble saying they disagreed with the ban, that they believed in racial unity in Christ. But few people would go so far as to actually call the ban racist, much less make a real issue of it.

Instead people stressed that Bob Jones and others at BJU were our “brothers in Christ” and that they loved Jesus, loved the Gospel, and were working hard for the kingdom. Yes, they said, Bob Jones is wrong to oppose interracial marriage, but no one is perfect; we’re all sinners and we all make mistakes. All of us are wrong about something. Making a public issue out of BJU’s sin would be self-righteous. It would be wrongly attacking a fellow Christian and creating division and conflict in the church, making the church look bad to the secular world.

Besides, Bob Jones wasn’t really racist – he didn’t hate black people, he just honestly believed the Bible required segregation. BJU never went quite so far as to say “We hate blacks,” so the churches I attended not only did and said nothing to oppose their racism, they also supported BJU and affiliated institutions by purchasing their books, and holding BJU up as a good Christian university that good Christian families could send their kids to.

There are days I think BJ III would have had to put on a hood and burn a cross on Jesse Jackson’s front lawn to spark any serious uproar in white conservative Christian circles. Even then I think it might have been dicey.

Evangelical responses justifying Mark Driscoll’s hate speech or C.J. Mahaney’s autocratic leadership of SGM illustrate the exact same kind of thinking that allowed BJU’s ban on interracial relationships to stand for so long. Put simply, there’s a pattern of making excuses for fellow evangelicals, as well as a culture where certain “sins” are arbitrarily and bizarrely prioritized over others.

Saying “shit” gets you flack for being a bad example, not being “holy,” and being a “stumbling block” to others. But engaging in hate speech or abusive behavior that actually traumatizes people is apparently not a sufficiently bad example or “unholy” or “stumbling” enough to warrant public criticism. Anyone who disagrees will be accused of “libel” and “slander.”

I mean really, this is the same crowd that just months ago pitched very public tantrums over a video of Rob Bell asking questions about hell, and over Ann Voskamp’s erotic spiritual imagery. These folks were quick to warn of the spiritual danger of Bell’s and Voskamp’s writings (without having read them) and to paint them as stealth pagans.

Now this same crowd is accusing critics of libel and slander for pointing to a clear, public record of Mark Driscoll’s bigoted, bullying behavior, and for simply discussing countless compelling stories that point to SGM being a ministry that perpetrates and enables all sorts of abuses against its members.

The hypocrisy, the moral relativism, and double standards are quite blatant.

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Bob Jones, Mark Driscoll, and C.J. Mahaney

It occurred to me that Bob Jones University, Mark Driscoll, and C.J. Mahaney have a lot in common. The connection might not be immediately obvious, but bear with me.

Stuff Fundies Like posted a 1995 letter from fundamentalist leader Bob Jones III (BJ III. Yes, really!), defending his university’s now defunct ban on interracial dating. When a student challenged this policy by pointing out that in the Bible, Moses, a Jew, married an Ethiopian, which would seem to be an interracial marriage, BJ III responded:

Text:

Bob Jones III
November 15, 1995

Dear Peter:

As a young man, you would do yourself a favor to back off and listen to your family and others who know a lot more about the road of life than you do because we’ve been there.

No, I can’t see your point of view. I am sorry. I don’t suppose that surprises you.

You don’t have to agree with the school’s position on this matter to stay here, obviously; but you do have to keep your disagreement to yourself, because griping isn’t tolerated.

As I mentioned the other day in Chapel, 40-50 years ago in America, it was understood by believers, North and South, that interracial dating was not proper. There would have been a few radicals, of course, that would not have agreed, but it wasn’t even discussed in churches because it was just understood.

You and others of your generation who have allowed yourselves to be brainwashed by the media have been sold a bill of goods.

Yes, Moses married a non-Jew. That was what he was criticized for, and the issue for which Miriam his sister was judged by Godwas her criticism of the leader God appointed and the divisiveness that it brought. The race of Ethiopians has to do with what part of Ethiopia they come from. Haile Selassie, the former ruler of Ethiopia, and the ruling family are not black. To make a racial issue out of this is to argue a point beyond all reason.

I could spend my time dealing with this issue, but I am not inclined to because I don’t think you really wan tot know but that you want to argue. Forgive me if I have misjudged you, but that is how your note comes across.

Kind regards.

BJIII:kas

Riiiight. It’s not even worth trying to take all that apart. I just love how he basically equated “white racist Christians” with “believers” and everyone else with “radicals.” Also “reading comprehension” and “sharing an opinion” are, apparently, griping and dissent, not to be tolerated at BJU circa 1995.

To be honest, I’m not particularly surprised that BJU’s leaders were, and in all likelihood still are, opposed to interracial dating. Many white conservative Christians still are. Nor am I surprised that it took the pressure of overwhelming negative publicity for BJU to finally drop the ban in 2000. That’s pretty much how it goes when it comes to injustice and oppression. People who know better have to raise a stink for things to change.

What I have always found remarkable about the longevity of BJU’s ban is precisely the fact that other conservative Christians in large part didn’t protest the policy, and instead dealt with it with silence and complicity. Most conservative Christian leaders and churches did and said nothing to challenge an institutionalized, blatantly obvious form of racism at a nationally known conservative Christian university.

Most such Christians would deny having any problem with interracial relationships per se. Most would claim to believe racism is a sin. All of them would claim to believe in the unity of the church and the equal humanity and worth of all people.

Yet the end of the ban at BJU had virtually nothing to do with the Christian church. It came largely thanks to the evil liberal secular media.

The scandal here isn’t that some Christians are prejudiced, or even blatant racists. That’s true of all kinds of people. The scandal is that the media did the job the church should have done in calling out, pressuring, and, yes, publicly shaming BJU for their racist policy.

Here’s the connection Mark Driscoll and C.J. Mahaney: There’s a disturbing pattern of evangelicals tolerating and making excuses for egregious and oppressive behavior when the people engaging in it are their kind of Christians. This is frequently coupled with a tendency to turn on and ostracize anyone who dares to call out prejudiced or harmful behavior for what it is.

We can see this in the backlash against Rachel Held Evans’ posts calling on Christians to denounce Mark Driscoll’s bullying speech and misogynistic teachings. We can see it in the SGM board and SGM defenders accusing Brent Detwiler and ex-SGM bloggers of “slander” when we dare to openly discuss even established and admitted facts about the pastors.

Part 2 of this post here.


Manly Men of Yore

One of the most interesting and insidious aspects of complementarianism is its use of alternative (read: false) historical narratives to legitimize its claims about the timeless and universal nature of “masculinity” and “femininity.” Men everywhere have always been like X, and women everywhere have always been Y, and that’s that.

Of course, these kinds of ahistorical claims are hardly unique to complementarianism – you can see the same phenomenon at work in the counterfactual history promoted by the Tea Party and their ilk (Paul Revere’s Ride was about defending the right to bear arms against the British! The Founding Fathers fought tirelessly to end slavery!), or by anti-Muslim warmongers (Islam is a bloodthirsty religion that’s been hellbent on wiping Christianity off the face of the earth for over a millenium!). These kinds of narratives show how important history is, how powerful historical accounts – accurate or not – can be in lending credibility and influence to particular points of view and undermining others.

Unsurprisingly, the actual historical record completely contradicts complementarian assertions of a monolithic “masculine nature.” Sara Lipton’s recent New York Times article on ancient and medieval concepts of masculinity is a great example of this. Our current cultural view of masculinity holds that “all men” or “real” men are characterized by an insatiable and barely controllable lust for sex – which is why we often ascribe the sexual escapades (and far worse) of powerful men to their gender:

The conventional is that when it comes to sex, a certain kind of man, no matter how intelligent, doesn’t think at all; he just acts. Somehow a need for sexual conquest, female adulation and illicit and risky liaisons seems to go along with drive, ambition and confidence in the “alpha male.” And even if we denounce him and hound him from office, we tend to accept the idea that power accentuates the lusty nature of men.

But as Lipton points out, for much of western history, sexual restraint, not excess, was viewed as the hallmark of mature masculinity.

Late antique and Roman writers, like Plutarch, lauded men for their ability to resist sexual temptation and control bodily desire through force of will and intellect….Rampant sexuality was something men were supposed to grow out of: in medieval political theory, young male bodies were used as symbols of badly run kingdoms. A man who indulged in excessive eating, drinking, sleeping or sex — who failed to “rule himself” — was considered unfit to rule his household, much less a polity.

At the same time, lustfulness and sexual excess were in fact associated with women, not men:

Ancient and medieval writers described women as consumed by lust and sexual desire. In 1433, officials in Florence charged with regulating women’s dress and behavior sought “to restrain the barbarous and irrepressible bestiality of women who, not mindful of the weakness of their nature, forgetting that they are subject to their husbands, and transforming their perverse sense into a reprobate and diabolical nature, force their husbands with their honeyed poison to submit to them.” [Of course, this notion of female sexuality as a weapon used to subdue hapless men is still very much with us.]

Because of this association of sexuality with femaleness, men who failed to control their sexual urges or were susceptible to feminine attractions found their masculinity challenged. Marc Antony was roundly mocked as having been “softened and effeminized” by his desire for Cleopatra. When the king and war hero Pedro II of Aragon spent the night before a battle not in prayer or council but in bed with a woman, he was labeled effeminate.

Of course in a sense this trope is not so different from our current cultural framing of masculine and feminine sexuality. Both the ancient/medieval and our model are essentially misogynistic, blaming women for sexual indiscretions or outright crimes by men, whether because of imagined female sexual aggression on the one hand, or because women supposedly stir up uncontrollable male lusts simply by existing (I’m sorry, being “immodest” or “provocative”) on the other. Still, it’s clear that our modern understanding of gendered sexuality didn’t exist in the West as recently as a few centuries ago. Kind of calls into question claims that our notions of masculinity and femininity reflect some divinely created male or female nature, hmm?


Why is Ann Voskamp’s “mysticism” a problem?

Since I started questioning my religious upbringing, I’ve been increasingly aware of how incredibly narrow and anomalous fundamentalist and reformed evangelical understandings of Christianity are from a historical perspective. The kerfuffle over Ann Voskamp’s book is a perfect example of this; some reformed evangelicals claim it promotes a dangerous, heretical, and irreverent view of God and how God relates with human beings. But the things they claim are blasphemous are actually long established ideas and motifs in numerous Christian traditions, traceable in one form or another as far back as the earliest Church, and well within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy by any reasonable, historically informed standard.

For example, Everyday Mommy, the blogger who sparked the initial controversy over Voskamp’s book, has repeatedly criticized it for “embracing and promoting mysticism and contemplative spirituality” and drawing from traditions she finds heretical:

This extremely dangerous notion has it’s [sic] roots in the heretical, mystical teachings of a 16th century Carmelite nun who wrote of her ‘ecstasy’ with Christ achieved through trances and out-of-body experiences. Mrs. Voskamp is a devotee’ [sic] of this mystic. This metaphorical imagery is not Scriptural and is unsound at best and false teaching at worst. (comment)

Set aside for a moment that this is really bad history; this is an argument that doesn’t make sense even from a reformed evangelical perspective. The Bible is full of examples of people who had trances, visions, and other mystical encounters. Paul claimed to have been “caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know” (2 Corinthians 12, ESV). The entire book of Revelation is one big, trippy, out of this world hallucination. Biblical figures like Abraham, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Cornelius – just for starters – experienced visions. By EM’s definitions none of these experiences count as “mystical.” Nor is it “mysticism” when Christians claim to hear directly from God, to have God “living in their hearts,” or to speak spiritual languages that only God and other Christians (if anyone) can understand. No, we’re supposed to accept these pretty strange accounts as “normal” biblical Christianity, while rejecting Teresa of Ávila’s visions and raptures as obviously beyond the pale of orthodox Christian experience.

“Mysticism” has little meaning here beyond “spiritual experiences we’re uncomfortable with.” It’s a privileging of the reformed version of authentic spirituality over any and all alternatives, and a reading of the Bible and reformed Christianity’s own spirituality that’s blinkered by a priori assumptions. They either can’t or won’t acknowledge that Christianity – a faith which, after all, for most calls for belief that a virgin could conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and that a being can be both fully man and fully God – has always had a deep mystical streak at its heart. Nor are they aware of or willing to admit that there are mystics in virtually every Christian tradition and at all points in church history, not just in Catholicism or other traditions she deems heretical, and her tradition is no exception.


Ann Voskamp and Jesus as lover: Perspective from the Puritans, pt. 2

Part 1

The crux of the controversy over Ann Voskamp’s book revolves around accusations that she wants to have “intercourse” with God. Everyday Mommy, the blogger whose post sparked the debate, argues that the biblical image of the Christian church as the bride of Christ is solely an analogy that illustrates how different persons of the Trinity relate to each other, and how husbands and wives should relate to each other – except for the sex part. “The Biblical imagery of marriage between Christ and His bride has [nothing] whatsoever to do with sex,” and exploring any sensual or sexual aspect of this marital metaphor is “[imposing] our own fallen, fleshly views on scripture.”

Frankly I think this response points to a rather low view of sexuality as something to be ashamed of (“fallen” and “fleshly”), while divinity necessarily means being sexless – but also necessarily means being of male gender. The obsession with a power-hungry, violent and vengeful male God who is completely invulnerable to any kind of human need or desire, perhaps most especially sexual desire, is very revealing of the gender and sexual politics at the heart of complementarianism. It’s the sort of thing Freud would have had a field day with (and did, I think).

But as for the claim that the metaphor of “intercourse with God” is unscriptural and heretic, this would have been news to Puritan Christians. In his study of sexuality in colonial America, Richard Godbeer shows that Puritans found such imagery not only appropriate, but in fact necessary for understanding the proper relationship between God and the Christian soul. They believed that physical, sexual passion was not to be repressed, but rather channelled into heterosexual marriage and celebrated in that context; all sexual expression outside those boundaries was “unclean” and “disorderly.”

At the same time, even legitimate marital love could become a sin if it distracted a Christian from what should be their primary object of affection, namely, Christ. For many Puritans, the imagery of Christ as bridegroom to the Church, and the erotic language in which they rendered that imagery, wasn’t merely an analogy. It was an illustration that pointed to the very real spiritual passion a Christian should feel for Christ – a passion far more important than any human affection, and a passion that, pursued above any other, would lead to far greater and more lasting pleasure than any human relationship could. Puritan literature on the love between Christ and the Christian soul was full of talk of ecstasies, swooning, raptures, and even “seed” and “impregnation.”

We can see an example of this in the writings of Edward Taylor, a seventeenth century Massachusetts pastor. Taylor wrote to his future wife that his intense, “sanctified” love for her would nevertheless always have to be subordinate to the love “betwixt Christ and his church,” and spoke of this spiritual love in sensual and sexual terms. In his poems, Taylor described his soul as a “womb” which would be “impregnated” by “Christ the spermadote” with the “seed” of grace, and eventually give birth to the “babe of grace.”

Taylor’s spiritual poetry portrayed his relationship with Christ as a passionate, sexual encounter. He imagined Christ as a lover who was a “spotless male in prime,” and wrote of preparing “gospel pillows, sheets, and sweet perfumes” to welcome Christ into the “feather-bed” of his heart. Through union with Christ he expected to experience “love raptures” quite clearly orgasmic in nature: “Yea, with thy holy oil make thou it slick till like a flash of lightning it grow quick.”

Whew! Pretty hot and heavy, I’d say. Certainly far more explicit than Voskamp’s vague, generic longings to “make love to” or have “intercourse” with God. And as Godbeer points out, Taylor “was neither unique nor unorthodox” for his time in making use of such erotic language and imagery. Nor did Puritans consider it inappropriate for men to write about Jesus as a masculine, spiritual lover – to the contrary, his masculinity was emphasized in such writing. As I’ll discuss in a future post, the greater fluidity of Puritan understandings of gender (by comparison to 21st century Americans) made what looks to us like a queering of the relationship between Jesus and the church completely acceptable, even in a context where same gender love was roundly condemned.

Which is why I found this comment from a male reader at Everyday Mommy so ironic:

@Karen and the supporters:
Since this stuff is okay I’m going to write about how [Jesus is] *my* lover too. My soul longs for sweet, intimate, gay sex.
And if you protest I can just say it’s spiritual.

Or we could recognize that EverydayMommy is right about this is morally reprehensible.

Not to worry, dude. Edward Taylor was waaaaay ahead of you.

[Note: In this series of posts I’m paraphrasing and drawing on research by Richard Godbeer in Sexual Revolution in Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.]


Ann Voskamp and Jesus as lover: Perspective from the Puritans, pt. 1

I’d never heard of Ann Voskamp until a few weeks ago, when Elizabeth Esther wrote about the controversy some reformed evangelicals are stirring up over Voskamp’s latest book. (Is it just me, or does this seem to happen, oh, ALL THE TIME?) Voskamp has written a spiritual memoir which has some clutching their pearls over the sensual language she uses to describe her longings for God, e.g.: expressing a wish to have “intercourse,” “union,” “intimate communion” with God, and to “make love to” God.

Despite, once again, not having actually read the book, critics have leapt from being (understandably) squicked out by this language to basically calling Voskamp an irreligious pervert, blasting her book as “poison, “evil,” panentheistic, and “mysticism” (which is bad, apparently?), and comparing it to, I kid you not, a book on “how to kill your grandmother.” Right.

Now, to be clear, I haven’t read Voskamp’s book, and this post isn’t about the book. I have no intention of reading it; it’s the sort of spiritual writing I know will leave me cold. I’ve never had more than a fleeting, very occasional sense of personal connection with a spiritual being. It’s a relief to no longer have to pretend to feel any such connection, or try and fail to force myself to. And I completely understand being disturbed and even repulsed by the imagery of intimate union with God (although it does raise the question as to why people who feel this way belong to a tradition that requires them to believe the Holy Spirit impregnated a virgin).

Still, when Christians leap from disagreement or even outright disgust to accusations that different perspectives within their religion are poisonous or dangerous to “real” Christianity, it raises some questions for me. The perennial question being, why are conservative Christians so very threatened by anything even slightly outside their worldview or experience, if their version of God is so correct? Especially reformed evangelicals, with their completely sovereign and omnipotent God? Why are they so threatened by people like Voskamp, or Rob Bell, or William P Young (author of The Shack) who suggest a different view of God? It baffles. On my more cynical days I’m inclined to think the haters are just angry that these authors are so popular, with Bell and Young having sold millions of books in a religious publishing market where selling 100,000 makes an author a “bestseller.” John Piper can only dream of having such an audience for his writing.

The specific response to Voskamp raises further questions about: 1) how well reformed evangelicals know what they claim is their own religious history (hint: not all that well. Shocking, I know.) and 2) how well claims about the timelessness and universality of complementarian teachings on gender and sexuality hold up to the historical record (see above hint). Because the thing is, concepts of gender and sexuality have been far more fluid in historical Christian traditions than they are in modern day reformed Christianity, even in traditions present-day reformed Christians claim as their predecessors. If the ‘truly reformed’ bloggers of the world think Voskamp’s imagery is perverted, what the Puritans – Puritan men – wrote about union with Christ would make their heads spin. As Richard Godbeer writes in his excellent book Sexual Revolution in Early America:

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Puritan sexuality was not its spiritualization of the erotic but its eroticization of the spiritual. Scripture invites believers, male and female, to conceive of Christ as a husband and to envisage union with him in vividly sensual, even sexual terms. The challenge that biblical images of Christ as bridegroom and lover post to what we might term male heterosexuality has been met in various ways by different Christian cultures. Modern westerners have, for the most part, ignored biblical passages that contain this imagery. But previous Christian traditions have chosen options other than the suppression and bowldlerization of biblical text. New England Puritans welcomed and celebrated the sensual possibilities embedded within the scripture from which they drew inspiration. Their ability to do so was due in large part to remarkably fluid conceptions of gender within Puritan culture. As a result, in this world and the next, through both human marriage and espousal to the savior, Puritans could find sensual and sexual fulfillment within the Lord’s garden (55-6).

In upcoming posts I’ll look at some specific examples of the Puritan’s “eroticization of the spiritual” and how it undermines reformed complementarian claims about the fixed, eternal nature of gender roles.