Recapping the Mars Hill Documentary: Love of money

Trigger warning: classist and racist language, misogyny, cissexism, spiritual abuse/cults.

Part 1 // Storify of my live-tweets // Mars Hill Documentary

I’ve noticed for some time that Mark Driscoll is at least as obsessed with money as he is with sex and gender roles – and further, his obsession with money is directly connected to his preoccupations with sex and proper gender roles. So it was interesting to see the considerable degree to which money is a major theme, if not the single dominant theme, in the Mars Hill documentary. Driscoll talks about money literally from the first minute of the film right through to the very last minute.

The douchey beginning: It takes less than a minute for Driscoll to make a nasty remark about “men in dresses.” Not one minute. The full comment reflects how how class and wealth are integral aspects of what Driscoll believes separates “manly” men from “girly” ones:

The last thing I ever thought I would be was a pastor, ’cause growing up Catholic, the pastor is a guy who lives at the church, is flat broke, is committed to never having sex, and walks around in a dress. So pretty much that was [the] last career choice of all possible career choices. – Driscoll, ~ 00:50-1:05 in the film.

Driscoll, of course, is not this kind of pastor. He owns a home. He’s not broke. He has lots of sex. He dresses in an appropriately virile fashion. And apparently, part of his job as a pastor is to make sure that everyone is informed of these facts. Repeatedly.

The vast middle: Driscoll repeatedly regales viewers, accompanied by sad womp-womp music in the background, with tales of the days when Mars Hill was “broke” and “homeless.” Homeless,” apparently, means “renting out someone else’s building for services rather than owning our own property” and “broke” means “not having as much money as other churches.”

Bonus: the use of “ghetto” (though not by Driscoll) to describe the temporary housing of the Mars Hill offices and three male church staff in the Driscoll home. Staff who, by the way, despite being grown and capable adults, left Driscoll’s wife Grace to do their dishes and clean up after them. Real manliness, y’all!

Driscoll talks about Mars Hill like it’s a business (to be fair, like most megachurches, it is one). In fact, he seems to see churches in general in business terms. He describes established denominations starting new churches as equivalent to a big business opening a new branch – denominations simply “write a fat check” as seed money and they’re good to go.

So it’s not surprising that Driscoll also casts Mars Hill as a brash and cutting-edge startup that “innovates” and bucks church traditions out of necessity (read: being “broke”). Traditional churches simply use their oodles of money to try to “buy cool” instead of innovating themselves.

The “absolute gamechanger” in Mars Hill’s history: receiving gigantic sums of money from wealthy donors. The first large donors to Mars Hill – a couple who single-handedly donated $200,000 – are described as “the first ones to believe in the possibility of what we were doing.” Because, as my husband says, you can tell who’s the first to believe in you by who gives you a large amount of cash.

The real kicker, though, is that Driscoll immediately follows this rhapsodizing about rich benefactors whose generosity saved Mars Hill from imminent demise with the sage conclusion that these donations came in because “God showed up….There’s another Trinity behind Larry, Curly, and Moe [Driscoll and his fellow pastors] actually putting this thing together.” In case that’s not clear, he equates people donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to Mars Hill so that they could renovate a run down church building with divine intervention and favor.

Why doesn’t God “show up” and help actual poor people? This remains a mystery we don’t really need to question. But we can rest assured that God takes time out of the divine plan to make sure people like Mark Driscoll have awesome renovated church buildings so their churches can grow. And we can tell who God really favors by who has big churches with lots of money, obviously.

The shocking conclusion: Let’s start with some context.

    • In fiscal year 2010, Mars Hill received about $13 million dollars in general giving, and is on track for $14-15 million dollars in giving for FY 2011.
    • Mars Hill owns over $16 million in total net assets
    • Between FY 2008 and 2010, their “excess revenue over expenses” – ahem, that is to say, their annual profit – has ballooned from $15,000 to $2.1 million dollars.
      [all numbers from the Mars Hill annual report, thanks WeenatcheetheHatchet for pointing me to this]

Keep these numbers in mind as I tell you how this shining record of Mars Hill’s history, this testament of “God’s work” and Mars Hill’s witness, ends. Given these numbers and what’s come before, you might think Driscoll would conclude by talking some more about how God has showed Mars Hill with money favor. Or perhaps with one more nostalgic anecdote about how “poor” the church used to be, but no longer. You might think that, but you’d be so very wrong.

Long story short? The documentary ends with Driscoll complaining at some length that Mars Hill “has often, quite frankly, really stunk at giving,” then trying to guilt people into giving more money to the church.

No, really. In Driscoll’s mind, “most of the people in the church need to be giving a whole lot more.”

[Partial transcript] Mars Hill has often really just, quite frankly, stunk at giving, and I think the last thing to be saved is a person’s wallet. And so I’m just going to tell you that most of the people in the church need to be giving a whole lot more.

Some of you are being generous. I’m not talking to you. For those people, we’ll have a separate conference for you in a phone booth.

For everybody else, the sad, cold, hard truth is about 24 percent of people at Mars Hill this year have given nothing. In addition, another 41 percent have given $500 or less. So that’s 65-ish percent of Mars Hill, two-thirds of Mars Hill’s twelve thousand people who are giving nothing or nearly nothing….

And I want you to ask this question of yourself. At the end of the year, how much do you anticipate that God wants you to give? We’re at that place now where it is going to take everyone being very generous to open up an opportunity to welcome nine thousand more people, all the new churches, seats, opportunities.

So is it about the money? Yes, it’s about spending the money to reach people for Jesus. Everything costs something. And we think that if you love Jesus and you believe people are going to hell, you should give at least as much money to that as toilet paper, and many of you aren’t.

Bottom line: you can do better. We love you and we trust in the grace of God. You will be more generous.

People are getting saved more than ever. Churches are getting planted more than ever. Leaders are rising up more than ever. Opportunities are surfacing more than ever. And this is the best possible time to get onboard, to pray, give, serve, because I promise you, what comes next is the kind of thing that you’re going to tell your grandkids about.

As I said while live-tweeting, you could land yourself into a coma if you had to drink every time Driscoll mentions money. But it wasn’t until these final minutes that I realized that money isn’t simply a recurring motif in the film, but rather what it’s about. The final note of a film like this is the take-away message – not necessarily the consciously intended message, but a moment that sticks in the viewer’s memory, precisely because of its finality, because it’s the last message you hear.

And this is the message Driscoll chooses to leave viewers with: God wants you do give us more money. You can show you love Jesus by how much of your money you give to me (note: not to charity, not even to Christian causes, but to Driscoll’s church specifically). If you don’t give us money, Jesus is going to send people to hell. Please ignore the fact that we believe in predestination, and no amount of money or time you spend on church will change supposedly preordained divine decisions about who ends up in heaven and hell. Don’t sweat the details! Just do better with the whole giving us money thing.

I mean – you can’t even call this an ‘appeal’ for more money. It’s blatant money grubbing, privileged and entitled grumbling from the pastor of what’s undoubtedly one of the wealthiest independent churches in the country, if not the world, and unashamed emotional and spiritual manipulation.

Comments are closed. Please comment at the new AWH site.


Recapping the Mars Hill Documentary: gender, race, sex, and cults of personality

Trigger warning: racism, misogyny, cissexism, spiritual abuse/cults. 

So Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church made a documentary… about themselves. Specifically, about the history of the church and how it came to be where it is today. The full documentary is online: God’s Work, Our Witness. Quite the title.

I watched the documentary over the weekend and tweeted my reactions while watching it. You can read the round-up of my live-tweeting on Storify. I can’t embed or post the full text of my reactions to the documentary here; it’s pretty long. But I can sum up a few things that struck me after watching it.

Predictably, much of it consists either of Mark Driscoll talking about himself, or other leaders from Mars Hill talking about Mark Driscoll. Also predictably, there’s a lot of talk about manliness, sex, and money, from the typically boorish and self-obsessed “Pastor Mark” perspective. Let’s break it down.

Gender: The documentary is slightly over an hour long. In that time, only two women appear on screen without their husbands, one of whom is Grace Driscoll. The other women who are featured barely speak in comparison to their husbands. They seem to mostly be there to look supportive, smile, and hold their husbands’ hands. So it doesn’t really come as a surprise when one of the pastors’ wives, recalling the challenges the church staff faced during a period of sudden growth, says the following (emphasis mine):

It was just really intense, really busy…it was trying to [pauses, looks at her husband], the guys were just trying to keep up with what God was doing. And so I think all of us wives were just holding on for the ride. With our kids in tow. [looks at her husband, smiles].

Well. Sigh. The church belongs to the men, you see. The women and children are just along for the ride.

Then there are the lovely bits where he talks about how he decided to start doing a church-wide men’s meeting because he simply didn’t have the time to yell at all the men individually, poor thing, so he just had to gather all the men in one place so he could yell at them at the same time!

This is real innovative leadership, y’all. You should take notes.

Naturally what one does when one has a captive audience of men is to tell them to “sit down and shut up until I’m ready to yell at you,” and then in fact proceed to yell at them for 2-3 hours about about “all of [their] perversion… laziness…lack of drive and ambition…ungodly living.” Oooh, also, hand them stones with Bible verses written on them, with instructions that the men hang on to them “until they get [their] own stones.”

Like I said: real cutting edge stuff. What a memorable and classy way to “lead” men!

Not only is Driscoll communicating to the men he leads that they are “inadequate” men (they have no stones), he’s communicating to them that he is in a different, higher position than they are. Not only does he have “stones,” he’s in a position to judge their lack of “stones.” This is all part of Driscoll’s whole shtick, which is not only about putting women in their place, but actually about putting everyone, including and perhaps especially other men in their place – namely, beneath him. Eeeeveryone is inferior to him. No man is as manly as he.

And this manipulative, toxic behavior is part of a long-established pattern. From the discussion of the documentary the Stuff Christian Culture Likes FB page, we learn that in the earlier days of Mars Hill, the church had a message board on which Driscoll had two accounts: one that was known to other church members as be his account, and another, “anonymous” sock puppet named “William Wallace II” (oh, the evangelical male obsession with Braveheart. A post topic of its own). Driscoll used this fake account to rant about how the U.S. is a “pussified nation” and to angrily challenge other men in the church to “man up.”

Let’s be real about what Driscoll is passing off as “leading men” here. Questioning someone’s gender is an attack on their identity and very personhood – I’m not talking about intent, but content and effect. Driscoll goes way beyond that. He deliberately tries to undermine people’s security and confidence in their gender identity. He deliberately tries to induce a feeling in men – and people of all genders – that their gender is actually or potentially not “real.” That? Is abuse. Period. It’s a deliberate attempt to degrade people and make them *feel* the degradation, make them feel ashamed, and it’s not leadership. It’s abuse.

It’s also cissexist as hell – i.e., treating people whose bodies, appearance, or behavior don’t conform to arbitrary norms of the gender they are, or are assumed to be, as lesser than people who do conform to gender expectations. It’s bigoted behavior that literally kills people. That is the “bold” leadership Mark Driscoll is selling.

Race: There are also precisely ZERO visible people of color in the entire documentary (I say visible because some of the people in the documentary may have nonwhite ancestry that’s not immediately obvious). This is a documentary about a twelve thousand member church, in a huge city, with one of the biggest Asian-American populations in the country. And there appear to be no black people in it. Nor any Asians or Asian Americans. Nor any Latin@s. Zero.

A quick browse through Mars Hill’s various staff pages on line shows that this stark absence of people of color in the documentary is in fact reflective of the leadership of Mars Hill as a whole. Just taking men who are explicitly labeled as pastors, there’s only one visible man of color (Asian or Asian American) among the various Mars Hill’s total staff of 31 pastors.

Put it differently: Mars Hill’s pastorate is 97% white in a city that’s 14% Asian/Asian American and has a 30% minority population.

Add in the nasty “joke” about a worship pastor whose poor singing, according to Driscoll, “sounded like he got captured by Al Qaeda,” Driscoll’s complaints about a church building Mars Hill wanted being given to a Chinese church, and appropriating other people’s culture by using a digeridoo in worship, and the lack of people of color in the documentary becomes a glaring problem.

Narcissistic leadership/Cult of personality: I’d say the people in the documentary, Driscoll included, talk at least as much about “Pastor Mark” as they do about Jesus. Probably more. Which is kind of telling in a documentary that’s supposedly about their witness to “God’s work.”

There’s also quite a bit of approving/enabling commentary about Driscoll’s long-established penchant for yelling and screaming at his congregation. This vitriolic sermon style (if it can be called that) is at turns portrayed by people in the documentary as “awesome” or hilarious. Emotionally abusing and manipulating a congregation that looks to you for guidance is so cute!

I had to laugh at the moment where Driscoll introduces the documentary as “one big roadtrip” through the history of Mars Hill, “with Jesus as the driver”…while he was sitting in the driver’s seat of a car. I mean. I know the man has a Jesus complex, but that’s a bit much. On top of that, a good portion of the documentary is narrated while Driscoll is driving, or, bizarrely, parked in such a way that his hands are on the steering wheel in every shot. Which…again, is just a somewhat telling bit of visual and verbal rhetoric. He’s in charge. He’s in the driver’s seat.

More narcissism on display: Driscoll talks about trying “make [people] into Christians,” and also disparages some musicians who left Mars Hill in the early days “over theological issues,” which he sums up as “basically, they decided not to be Christian.” Because disagreeing with Mark Driscoll on theology is exactly the same as not being a Christian. This would make sense if, y’know, Mark Driscoll were Christ. Which he’s not.

Sex: Of course, it wouldn’t be a Driscoll production if he didn’t manage to throw in some kind of gratuitous or vulgar reference to sex. The winner in this regard is clearly Driscoll’s random mention of a member of Mars Hill who, as a new Christian, didn’t want to get rid of his “enormous p@rn collection”  because it was “vintage p@rn [that] cost a lot of money.” Some of it, as Driscoll helpfully and totally necessarily adds, was Nazi p@rn.*

I’m still struggling to understand what would lead someone to think this is an appropriate or enlightening anecdote to include in a film documenting the history of a church. Really?

Not one minute into the documentary, Driscoll states that he never considered his Catholic upbringing meant that he never considered becoming a pastor as a kid, in part because  Catholic pastors are “committed to never having sex.” Let’s just say I have a bit of trouble imagining that a young boy would really be thinking about priestly celibacy in quite those terms.

There’s a lot of talk about how various members of the church used to be goth fetishists, or strippers, and so on – all done in a way that makes it clear that they think this is some sort of badge of honor or bragging right. It confuses me that a church claiming to follow a man openly reviled in his day for consorting publicly with sex workers and people who had committed adultery would pat themselves on the back so vigorously just for being so “radical” as to, gasp, not completely shun social interaction with people outside our society’s sexual norms.

It’s particularly strange to see Driscoll congratulating himself for having former strippers and fetishists in his church. Like…given how sinful he clearly thinks such things are, isn’t it preferable for them to be going to church rather than not? Wouldn’t he rather they be coming to his church rather than not? So why should he get an award for “taking in” the very people who most need church, at least in his conception of it? I am baffled.

But even after having written all the above, the biggest story to me in the Mars Hill documentary was not about gender, race, cult of personality, or sex. No, in fact, the most significant recurring theme in the documentary is money. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s really what the documentary is about. More on that in the next post.

*[redacted to avoid spammers, not out of prudery!]


Gender, race, and the cult of true womanhood, cont

Part 1 // Part 2 // Part 3

It’s really telling to me that, while laziness and hypersexuality are stereotypes are applied to black people in general, so many of the evangelicals Emerson interviewed for Divided by Faith singled out black mothers  as specifically embodying and being the root cause of what they saw as black individual, family, and cultural dysfunction. This circles back to the gendered double standard discussed in the previous post: under the complementarian view of gender and sexuality, the responsibility for sexual and reproductive gatekeeping outside marriage is placed almost entirely on women. So again, though “promiscuity” and having “too many kids” are behaviors that require at least one man in normative heterosexual pairings, these labels stick to black women in different ways than they do to black men: the women sit home and have babies while collecting welfare checks, the mothers send the fathers away, etc.

I think this is worth noting because criticisms of racist narratives about black laziness or the failure or demise of the black family often overlook the fact that these stereotypes are fundamentally and profoundly gendered.  They’re implicit statements of what gender roles “should” be, based on white, heteronormative, classist measures, and statements that black women and men as a group fail to live up to these measures in gender-specific ways. There’s a reason the prevailing stereotype of black people on certain forms of government assistance is that of the “welfare queen.

It’s a critique of black femininity as a failed or less-than. The welfare queen is not only wanton in her sexuality and reproduction, she is also negligent in her attentions to her children – in effect pawns conceived for purely mercenary purposes (to get money from the government). The welfare queen is not bound to one man, doesn’t have her reproduction limited or controlled by one man, uses and neglects her children rather than nurturing them, and is therefore a bad mother. She stands as the foil to the “angel in the home” – the romanticized, infantilized image of the “true woman” and “keeper in the home” (a carry over of Victorian and other Western european notions of idealized, non-threatening, non-sexual femininity), whose only concern is for husband, children, home.

One of Emerson’s interviewees argued that the government perpetuates black inequality by “[making] it easier for somebody [read: black women] to sit home and collect welfare and have baby after baby.” There’s quite a bit of irony in that statement when you juxtapose it with the fact that for many evangelicals, the highest display of femininity is precisely to “stay home and have baby after baby” after marriage and be a “keeper of the home,” while the husband acts as unquestioned leader and sole income earner (“provider” – as though homemaking and child-rearing aren’t “providing” for one’s family).

So in effect, when the welfare queen stereotype is leveled at black women by white evangelicals who believe that women shouldn’t work outside the home and should reproduce frequently, the criticism is really of black women for supposedly being “dependent” on the government instead of being properly dependent on and submissive to a patriarchal husband. Again, recall another one of Emerson’s interview subjects claiming that “we have paid their [black children’s] mothers to have their fathers stay away from home.”

And by extension this is a critique of “the black family” as failed or in crisis, in implicit contrast to white families. And it’s specifically a criticism that black parents are not living up to their proper gender roles in the presumed heterosexual partnerships and heteronormative families. White evangelical attachment to the caricature of the absent black father who due to custom or culture doesn’t “provide for” or “lead” his family is an implicit statement about the superiority of white fatherhood and white family culture. So too is the attachment to the caricature of the negligent, unattached black mother, often also depicted as loud, violent, and contentious, an implicit statement of the superiority of white womanhood and motherhood – by the standards of white evangelical conservative culture – characterized by a “gentle and quiet spirit” and a self-negating submission to the sexual and emotional ownership of one man and a likewise self-denying level of devotion to children and the home.


Interlude: Class and true womanhood

NaBloPoMo Day 7: Success at posting every day for a week! It feels good even if the last two posts have been written before I go to bed ;)

In other news, AWH now has a page at Google+. Check it out.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about the ways “true womanhood” specifically excludes black women. But as I’ve noted a few times before, this is a model of femininity that erases and maligns so many identities and experiences that it ultimately denies the “realness” of the vast majority of women.

Class is a huge axis along which women are allowed or denied the label of true women, though not in a simplistic way that pits the rich or the middle class against the poor. Rather, socioeconomic status intersects with race, and geography (among other factors) in terms of which kinds of women are seen as exemplifying natural or godly femininity.

As I see it there are at least two fairly distinct, though not without overlapping ideas and influences, cultures in the white true womanhood movement. There’s the rural, almost homesteading culture, which seems to emphasize the role of wives in labor and production in the home (reproductive and otherwise). It’s a culture that preaches a particular kind of self-reliance and adherence to old-fashioned, “traditional” ways that to a degree deliberately isolates them from the rest of society, physically and culturally.

And then there’s the kind that centers on the trappings off white suburban life: owning a nice home, keeping that home looking nice and respectable, in the name of “hospitality” and “fellowship,” and keeping oneself looking nice and respectable (both stylish and modest!). It’s a model of true womanhood that requires being able to afford a certain level of consumption.

This is the culture I grew up in. Most of the families at church were financially comfortable. I’d say the majority of the church was upper middle class, and a not insignificant minority of the church was squarely upper class (new suburban rich persuasion). There were families who struggled financially, but the vast majority of the church was comfortably middle class or wealthier, and most people were from families that had been in middle class for some time.

Both official teachings and church events as well as the church culture reflected assumptions that everyone was fairly well-off. For example, it didn’t occur to me until I went to college and met people from different socioeconomic backgrounds that being a “good” member of my home church required expenditures that many people simply could not afford. Being fully “invested” in the church as a family with children meant sending or accompanying kids on myriad youth retreats, excursions, and missions, attending at least one out-of-town conference a year (often more), joining the evangelical versions of Boy or Girl Scouts, buying several books a year for discussion at bible studies, and numerous other literal investments of money – speak less of all the time away from home and work that had to be set aside for such things.

True womanhood as understood in this context makes similarly significant demands on families’ time and money. Women are expected to stay at home once they became mothers, and to homeschool their kids. Home ownership is also expected. I can’t tell you how many women from my former church have blogged ad nauseam about how they’re learning to “trust God” through the “trial” of not yet being homeowners. The cluelessness and privilege, it is rather epic.

Homes are to be tastefully and fashionably decorated. Women are expected to be frequent and accomplished cooks of healthy meals. And they’re expected to have larger families than average for suburban communities – 4 or 5, sometimes as many as 7 or 8 or 9 kids. To successfully do all this on one income in an area where cost of living and house prices are high (or even average) often requires a considerable income on the part of the husband and considerable labor at home as teacher, child-care provider, home decorator, chef, etc., on the part of the wife.

More thoughts on this coming.


Gender, race, and the cult of true womanhood, cont

Part 1
Part 2

Sexualized stereotypes about black women are not isolated to my former church or denomination, but rather representative of beliefs about black sexuality and family life that remain common among white evangelicals. Michael Emerson, a white sociologist of religion, writes of encountering these same attitudes in his (highly recommended!) book Divided by Faith, an examination of racial segregation in American evangelicalism and of factors in the white evangelical church that contribute to and perpetuate such segregation. [The following quotes and paraphrases from Divided by Faith can be found on pp. 100-104; emphases are mine]

For example, Emerson notes that white evangelicals often see “bad choices” on the part of black people as being primarily to blame for racial disparities between U.S. blacks and whites; among these choices are “having too many children.” He writes:

In their use of these cultural reasons [for racial inequality], white conservative Protestants do not mean patterns of behavior rooted in values (e.g., blacks have many children because they highly value large families), but rather that blacks are making poor choices (e.g., black individuals do not exercise responsibility in child-bearing, faith, or speech).

White evangelicals interviewed by Emerson repeatedly linked welfare to “bad choices” with respect to sex and family life that produce racial inequality. One woman saw unrestrained black reproduction as the problem:

So many black people have beaucoup [large numbers of] kids. I only had two because I feel as though that’s what I can afford. And, I mean, sometimes I think they just don’t use the brains God gave them.

Similarly, a Baptist woman argued that black women have children to collect welfare payments:

[She]…linked welfare to family dissolution: ‘I think ultimately it goes back to the fact that they have a lot of single parent homes. [When asked by authors why this is] Well, in a lot of instances there was no family to start with…I mean the AFDC payments. A woman gets money for each child she has and there is never a husband involved. In this area it is very common for a black girl in her late teens to be having her third or fourth baby, unmarried. My daughter works in OB (obstetrics), that is how I know. Very common, because they get their AFDC payments.

Other views offered in these interviews:

  • One woman described government programs to address [black] poverty are “no different from slavery.”
  • Another “was not shy in implicating the government, even while making welfare recipients seem less than admirable: It has to be blamed on the government. The government makes it easier for somebody to sit home and collect welfare and have baby after baby.
  • Still another woman claimed that under welfare, “we have paid their [black people’s] mothers to have their fathers stay away from home.
Interestingly, all of the comments on black motherhood that Emerson includes came from women. This is probably just an accident of selection, since he says that these views were expressed by a many people he interviewed, not just the five women he quotes. Still, it’s striking that so many white evangelical women, speaking out of a cultural context where performing “traditional” gender roles is so important, would choose to comment on the ways in which black women fail to live up to their [white evangelical] standards of proper femininity.

Emerson also found that some white evangelicals saw a feedback loop relationship between black poverty and welfare. On the one hand, “it is blacks who, perhaps because they are seen as having less initiative or moral fortitude, are more likely to receive welfare” (despite the fact that the majority of Americans on welfare are in fact white). But at the same time “it was common to link welfare directly to the demise of individual initiative and responsibility among African Americans.” In other words, there’s circular reasoning at work here: black people are more likely to be on welfare because of lack of initiative, and welfare creates lack of initiative in black people.

As the quotes above show, most white evangelicals Emerson interviewed cited “choice” rather than natural lack of ability as the reason for racial disparities between blacks and whites. Yet these quotes also show that “choice” is framed in such a way as to be almost indistinguishable from “natural” racial inferiority. When you see an entire race as habitually “not using the brains God gave them” or habitually choosing “the easy way out” of “taking” government support (which, again, is really not so easy as some imagine), and habitually choosing not to provide for their families, make “moral” decisions about family life, or exercise sexual or reproductive self-control – when you see an entire race as suffering because of habitual “bad choices”  you’ve framed “choice” as something that so completely characterizes a group of people that it’s not much different from a natural trait.

Bringing this back to the notion of “true womanhood,” then, the implication of the attitudes Emerson describes is that black women flout the norms of “real” femininity so regularly and to such a degree that we are basically not real women. Or at the very least, the “realness” of our femininity is always in question in the cultural context of predominantly white evangelicalism. We have to prove, in a different way and to a different extent than white women in the same contexts, our sexual “purity,” our competence and maturity as mothers and wives in a patriarchal (and white privileging) system, and our ability to show a submissive, “gentle and quiet” spirit in a context where black women are stereotyped as loud, unruly, and uncouth. The bar for showing ourselves to be “real women” is higher (and as other commenters have pointed out, similar stereotypes and double standards apply to Latina women in the white church).

More thoughts on the interviews in Emerson’s Divided by Faith in the next post on this topic.


Gender, race, and the cult of true womanhood, cont.

Part 1

Growing up, I had to make sense of two divergent messages I heard about female sexuality. On the one hand, there was the constant refrain about “Women” as a monolithic, universal category, utterly separate and distinct from “Men.” This idea was pounded into our heads through every possible means: in sermons and books, at conferences and bible studies, in magazines and constant exhortations to the “ladies” about the importance of modesty and to “the men” about fighting lust.

And of course it pervaded church culture and family life in less official but also powerful ways: the joking-but-not-really comments from boys and men about whom they would “allow” to court their female relatives, and the dire consequences awaiting any man who dared to touch their sister or daughters without prior approval. The warnings to girls and women that we must withhold sex from men in order to lure them into marriage. The pervasive refusal to even consider the possibility that women might want to have sex – even, horrors, outside of marriage – and the complementary assumption that men were always and only really interested in straight sex.

The message was pretty clear: the bedroom for men, the altar for women. End of story.

Except the story wasn’t so simple for me. At the same time that I was being taught to equate “true” femininity with chastity and sexual reticence, I was also learning that many people I went to church with saw black women as having a habitually unchaste and voracious sexuality. A similar disconnect existed between the notion that “women” are nurturing, warm, oriented towards family and the home, and on the other hand, pernicious stereotypes of black mothers as neglectful, irresponsible, unfit parents who either lacked or rejected “normal” maternal sentiment and behavior.

Offhand comments from pastors and church members alike, snide asides, jokes in which black female sexuality was a frequent punchline, and widespread willingness to pontificate about the moral and cultural failings of black communities made it unmistakably clear that the prevailing assumptions about black women stood in sharp contrast to everything I was told came naturally to “Women.”

These are some of the messages I heard about black female sexuality (hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: this is a description, not a statement of agreement on my part with any of the moral judgments that follow!):

– Black girls and women are sexually active early, often, and with multiple partners.
– Corollary: black girls and women can usually be assumed to be sexually active, or soon to become sexually active, with no information or evidence for this apart from their blackness.
– Black girls and women are unrestrained and irresponsible with both sexuality and reproduction, e.g.: black women become parents at a very young age, are usually single or unmarried parents, have large numbers of children, fathered by different men who are seldom involved in parenting their kids.
– Corollary: black girls and women in public with children can be assumed to be single parents of those children, with no information or evidence for this apart from their blackness.
– Black mothers do not adequately provide for their children, are often unemployed by choice and on public assistance.
– Corollary: older black girls or women with children in public can be assumed to be unwed parents of those children supported by the hard-earned money that the government steals from hardworking, white, married people pay in taxes. In other words, black women suspected of being unwed parents are also lazy mooches (never mind that the majority of people on welfare are white Americans, never mind that being on welfare is hardly the primrose path conservatives seem to imagine).
– Black mothers are neglectful, lazy, and abusive in their parenting.

In short, I was left to reconcile the following contradictory messages:
woman” = “natural” and “God-given” sexual reticence, “natural” desire for marriage and “the home” as boundaries that contain sexuality and reproduction, and “natural” desire to submit to male “leadership.”
black woman” = hypersexuality, reproductive excess, parental neglect, and the absence of husband/father figures (in other words, the absence of patriarchal covering and authority).

On top of all that, these negative stereotypes were so strongly associated with blackness as to make them seem almost like an innate racial trait. People widely assumed that these behaviors could be taken for granted as characterizing random black women they saw in public, or on TV. Unsurprisingly, these assumptions also affected how black girls and women who weren’t strangers, but part of the church community, were perceived and treated by the white majority of the congregation and even by other black members. These stereotypes so strongly shaped how the church viewed black women inside and outside the community that they rose to the level of “just how black people are.”

As I’ll discuss in the next post, these stereotypes were not isolated to my church or my denomination (or to Christians in general, to be fair); rather, they were representative of beliefs about black people and especially black women that are still quite common among white religious conservatives.


Mark Driscoll Apologism Bingo

Since Mark Driscoll’s last round of public queer and trans baiting, I’ve wanted to make a bingo card of some of the ridiculous excuses some Christians make for why Driscoll’s behavior is either acceptable or just not a problem they should have to deal with. Alas, I couldn’t find a bingo card generator, and I didn’t have the HTML skills to make one myself. But now! I have mediocre n00b HTML knowledge to inflict on share with my readers :-D

And the timing couldn’t be better, since Driscoll appears to have gone and stuck another homophobic foot in his mouth yet again, like clockwork [eta: Molly points out in the comments that Driscoll wrote this in 2008, but it’s just getting attention now]:

First, masturbation can be a form of homosexuality because it is a sexual act that does not involve a woman. If a man were to masturbate while engaged in other forms of sexual intimacy with his wife then he would not be doing so in a homosexual way. However, any man who does so without his wife in the room is bordering on homosexuality [sic] activity, particularly if he’s watching himself in a mirror and being turned on by his own male body. (Dangerous Minds)

There’s really nothing that needs to be said about that, right? The man clearly has some personal issues to work through.

So, here it is: a handy guide to the absurd defenses of Driscoll fanboys and people who just find his public comments too inconvenient and embarrassing to handle honestly. What did I miss? Share your favorite example of ridiculous Driscoll apologism in the comments!

Mark Driscoll Apologism Bingo:

No one respects women more than Mark. He hates violence against women. Mark is just a provocateur. People hate/persecute Mark because he preaches harsh bible truth. You’re giving non-Christians excuses to slander and hate us! People have come to Christ through Mark. Don’t lose sight of the big picture.
“Jesus wasn’t just a gentle peacemaker.” This is sinful gossip and slander. You’re turning Christians against each other and destroying our unity. Mark is just rough around the edges. He’s refreshingly blunt. Mark loves his wife and celebrates femininity, just not in men.
Mark really loves Jesus. Mark isn’t in my/your church; he’s not my/your problem. FREE
SPACE
You’re supporting worldly criticisms of Mark by unbelievers. Why are you so emotional/angry/bitter?
Mars Hill is growing. God is really using Mark. You haven’t listened to every sermon Mark Driscoll has ever preached. You should share your concerns with Mark privately. Matthew 18! Just pray for Mark and pay more attention to your own sin. Mark just wants men to feel comfortable in church.
If we ignore him he’ll just go away. You should be working towards love and reconciliation with Driscoll. People who call Mark out are the real bullies. You’re just as much of a sinner as Mark. Mark is doing God’s work in godless, unchurched Seattle.