Instead of Speaking the Truth in Love, Try This

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We Christians are in quite a pickle with this speaking-truth-in-love business.

We care deeply about the truth, and we care deeply about love, and since God’s truth leads to life, we thus conclude that the most loving thing we can do is to share it. Everybody else, even our fellow Christians, has reported that they don’t find our truth-telling loving. People track their insecurity, anger, depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts back to the truth we so lovingly shared.

We think they’re just angry and bitter, lost in their sins, until someone lovingly drops a “truth” bomb on us — and then we see the shattering effects of speaking the truth in love.

How do we move on from there with the knowledge that no matter our intentions, our word choice, or our tone, our truth-telling offends more than it reconciles? We’re stuck: Silence seems like tacit agreement, which compromises truth. We can’t do that; we’re supposed to be holy and set apart. Speaking up rarely comes across as loving, which, obviously, compromises our call to love. We can’t do that; we’re supposed to be known by our love.

What’s an others-loving, righteousness-pursuing Christian to do?

I’m finding that the problem isn’t necessarily with believing in absolute truths or making judgment calls according to a God-given standard. We all have our beliefs. (Of course, some beliefs are antithetical to love, and many more beliefs make it difficult to love fully.) And the solution isn’t changing our minds, because, again, some beliefs aren’t truthful or good or beneficial and they need to be called out. Nor is the solution merely changing our motives to a more tactful tone. Poison with a spoonful of sugar is still poison.

I think we need to abandon the legalistic idea that (nicely) presenting people with the law is an effective, life-giving thing.

I grew up hearing people talk about God’s Word as life-giving and powerful in and of itself. That’s why people post combative Bible verses on billboards or leave Bibles in hotel drawers or shout about hell on the sidewalk. God’s Word is magical and always applicable in whatever form a person encounters.

This isn’t true. In fact, Jesus mentioned that the Pharisees’ strict adherence to the law set a stumblingblock to them and others. Paul talks about how the law brings death. Even though it’s perfect, even though it’s good, even though it’s right and true, the law brings death.

Why? Because nobody is perfect. The Pharisees, the people waving signs, the church paying for the confrontational billboard, and all the people they want to toe the line — nobody is perfect. It’s not motivational to see how badly we fall short. It’s devastating. It makes us want to rebel or give up. The law cannot bring life, no matter how nicely it’s phrased.

The only reason many Christians see the law as life-giving is because (1) many Christians don’t realize how badly they transgress the law, not with the planks blinding their eyes; and (2), more charitably, the law comes to them at a time of receptiveness and growth.

If someone were to scream at you on the street that you’re going to hell, you’d be offended. If you already believe you’re worthy of hellfire and that’s why you’re in a Southern Baptist Church this morning, the spittle-flecked rant against sin is meeting you where you’re at.

The thing is, Christianity isn’t about keeping the law. It’s about development and life. It’s about bearing with the weaker Christians and holding back condemnation from stronger ones. It’s about judging rightly. It’s about wisdom. Because Christianity understands that nobody can keep the law. That’s why there’s Jesus and grace and forgiveness.

It’s exactly like childhood development.

When a baby is born, he is utterly incapable of walking. It doesn’t matter how nicely or persuasively you explain how mature people must walk. He can’t do it. There’s a whole process of development before he can walk. And for some infants, disability prevents them from walking at all, ever. Reasonable parents support their infant in his development, knowing that working on holding up his head and rolling over all develop into the skills that allow him to walk later on. They don’t even mention walking. It’s pointless, and if their unrealistic expectations start coming out in anger or disappointment, children can even regress in development. Holding up walking as the standard a child must meet even when he’s unable to do so is shaming and damaging.

But there is still a standard. While reasonable parents aren’t even discussing that standard with their crawling baby, it’s important that they know there’s a general developmental milestone children should be meeting within a certain time frame. Without knowing those benchmarks, they could miss warning signs that set their child up for struggles later on. It’d be insane for a parent to ignore the fact that their three-year-old child isn’t walking yet, insisting that it’s fine, that there’s nothing wrong, that it’s just the way she is.

Those developmental milestones are in place not to shame kids unable to reach them but to alert parents to something else that’s wrong.

That’s what the law does for us. It alerts us to what’s wrong. And grace allows us to be wrong, weak, and imperfect, trusting that God will complete the good work he started in us. Grace acknowledges that we start from a place of helplessness and sickness, even death. It allows for a process of salvation. It allows for the celebration of who we are in Christ — competent, wonderful, beloved creations — knowing that we’re going through the natural bumps and setbacks and limitations of immature people growing up.

Just as I delight in my son’s crawling, unfazed that he’s not walking (even though I of course want him to be walking eventually), God delights in who we are now, even if we fall short of the perfect and the mature. (And we do.)

We ought to take God’s perspective — the loving parental perspective — when approaching the weaknesses and imperfections in ourselves and others. This is the way of love: viewing everybody not in terms of how badly they fall short of the law but in terms of which stage of development they’re in. This is the way of grace: celebrating the progress, meeting the needs, and strengthening the capabilities people currently have as a way of paving the way to more growth.

I absolutely do not believe that salvation is a one and done deal that unlocks instant, attainable perfection. That is, I don’t think that making an initial profession of faith enables you to perfectly keep the law just like that.

No, faith rescues us from a legal, accusatory way of perfectionism that holds weak, hurting, broken people accountable to an impossible standard. Faith changes the dynamic between us and God — now we understand that he is not our accuser, but our defender, our lover, our parent, the one who knows us best, celebrates us as we are, and loves us no matter what.

Faith also changes the dynamic between us and the law. Under Christ, it is a beneficial schoolteacher rather than the revelation of our doom. We look to it like a child glancing up to the alphabet chart to remember which way lowercase b goes. We strive toward the goal, we might get frustrated that our handwriting still isn’t where we want, but our eternal salvation isn’t bound up on getting it right then or tomorrow or even several grades later. We’re still learning and growing. We’re still immature. Maturity comes after a long process of development involving lots of failure and imperfection.

How does all of this apply to speaking the truth in love?

Now that the law is more like an elementary spelling book or a developmental guideline than federal law, we need to approach our application of it with wisdom.

My precocious teenage self once theorized that knowledge is knowing things, understanding is knowing how to apply things, and wisdom is knowing when to apply things. I still stand by those distinctions.

We need to speak the truth with wisdom as well as love. Wisdom involves three steps: knowing what’s right and wrong; knowing how to communicate that knowledge of right and wrong in a helpful, loving way; and knowing whether that particular moment is the time to share that knowledge.

Whether it’s beneficial or not to the other person depends not only on the truthful content of your beliefs or your kindhearted motives; it depends on whether it’s what the person needs to hear at that time. Are you, metaphorically, suggesting that they walk when they’re just learning to crawl? Are you asking a pig to fly? Are you throwing pearls before swine or answering a fool according to his folly?

We can all look back on a time when someone said something that stuck with us and changed us for the better. It hurt like heck at the time, but it was true, and it was needed — not only in the sense that we were wrong, but in the sense that we were ready to hear it even if we didn’t want to hear it. We were capable of understanding and processing what was said in a way that was helpful, just like a parent encouraging her one-year-old to take her first steps. It was fifth-grade material given to a fifth-grade student, not a death sentence. It was frustrating and hard, but we could handle it.

That’s why Paul emphasizes showing patience with the weaker brothers and understanding with the stronger. That’s why there’s no condemnation in Christ: we can struggle and flail at our own pace. We can go through the grieving process and recover from trauma and be ignorant and mess up all the time. We can rejoice with those who rejoice instead of reminding them that kids in Africa are starving. We can weep with those who weep without cautioning them to give thanks always. We can meet people where they’re at without worrying that our love will enable them to live sinful lives. 

If that all seems complicated, it is. If it seems like we all need to take classes on human psychology, it’s true. If you feel like maybe you’ve said a lot more than you should, you’re probably right.

Tellingly, when we approach truth-telling with wisdom, we likely won’t speak much at all: “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).

After all, most of us are still learning to walk.

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What Kind of Books Do You Love?

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I recently discovered the only podcast I ever get excited about: “What Should I Read Next?” with Anne Bogel. It’s a literary matchmaking show with lots of fun bookish conversation on the side. Anne asks her guests about three books they love, one book they don’t love, and what they’re currently reading, then makes suggestions on what they should pick up next.

It makes for fascinating literary discussions, and it’s such a great conversation starter in real life. My husband and I have discussed this about our adult reading lives and our childhood reading lives (our picks were somewhat different at different ages and stages). These have been some of my favorite conversations in our relationship to date.

I learned so much about what my husband looks for in a good read. He loves the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb, Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and a nonfiction work entitled, The Troubador’s Song: The Capture and Ransom of Richard the Lionheart. For him, he likes involved narratives that develop over the years between familiar characters within a richly-imagined culture.

Why on earth he listed Harry Potter as his book he didn’t love, I have no idea, as that series falls perfectly within those parameters. I’m still going after him to read Harry Potter. He stopped at the first book, a few chapters in, after scoffing at chocolate frogs and Bertie’s Every Flavor Beans — an absolutely ridiculous reason to quit a book, if you ask me.

But I’m biased, because the Harry Potter series definitely makes it into the “books I love” category. (I’m re-reading them this summer. They’re even better the second time around!) I adore The Help, by Kathryn Stockett — another perennial re-read. And the latest book that got me excited (and my husband teary) is The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole, by Miranda Cuevas. A book I absolutely hated: Dietland, by Sarai Walker.

The common threads between all of these?

(1) They involve character development within a community — and by that, I don’t just mean that the characters are multi-faceted and grow as the story progresses. They learn about themselves and others through relationship — their biases, their strengths, their passions, their purpose — and we, the reader, learn about both the characters and the world by seeing different perspectives about the same events.

Though I’ve enjoyed plenty well-written novels in the first person tense, I generally don’t fall over myself to read books told in that way, especially if they focus too much on the interior life. The self is just too isolated of a viewpoint to truly understand the world. I’m too much of an interior person myself; exclusively reading another person’s interior thoughts gives me anxiety about human beings. But the self and the individual’s perspective make up part of the world, which is why I love books that combine different first person accounts (like The Help) or have a more omniscient narrator (as in Harry Potter).

(2) The authors slip in crucial plot points without fanfare. It drives me nuts when authors dramatize, over-describe, or frantically signal to pay attention to key moments. Books that do that often have underdeveloped villains and protagonists, as the villains are clearly marked as villains and the protagonists clearly aren’t villains, in a black-and-white sort of way.

I’m outgrowing the mystery genre itself, but I still appreciate plots that have you thinking you’ve figured it out and then dash your confidence in your judgment. J. K. Rowling does this exceptionally well. Re-reading her series, I find more and more information that seems like random fun facts at the moment but turn out to be critical points of information or key turning points in the series.

(3) These books are self-aware, even if their characters are not. I don’t mind reading about experiences and perspectives different from my own, or encountering dark or immoral elements, but I won’t get excited about any book lacking a strong moral core. The book needs to show awareness that the character’s perspective or actions are at least questionable or nuanced, if not downright destructive. Dietland failed on this account for me: it praised a violent feminist revolution and the protagonist’s hardening toward others, things I cannot get behind, things that weren’t exposed as destructive and wrong.

This is another reason why I dislike many first person accounts: I really have to like the narrator to stick with them for a whole book, and in order for me to like the narrator, she needs to be self-aware of her faults. If one of her flaws is that she isn’t self-aware, I won’t enjoy the narrative, no matter how accurate a reflection on the interior life it is. Books that drop hints that it’s okay to laugh at, dislike, be mad at, and get frustrated with even the main characters are my jam.

(4) There’s a foreign piece to the stories that initially peaks my interest — whether that’s a fantastical element, a well-described historical time period (like 1960’s Mississippi), another culture, or a character with a life experience completely different from my own.

(5) These books are wholistic. I was going to say realistic, but that often signals to people “dark, gritty, and hopeless.” While many perspectives fall within that depressing category, I think a wholistic view of life involves the dark, the gritty, the hopeless, and the humorous, the hopeful, and the quirky. Humans are weird and lovable and aggravating all at the same time. I love how Harry Potter, The Help, and The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole all deal with deep, difficult subjects but still make me laugh and inspire me to keep living.

But these aren’t cheap laughs — they have heart and substance, which is why I have a difficult time getting through books by Roald Dahl or Lemony Snickett or the Eddie Dickens trilogy — dark humor and ridiculousness alone give me a literal headache. I need to cry and rejoice and believe as well as laugh.

To clarify, these are the kinds of books that I most often get excited about — that I re-read — that I rip through and then beg all my friends to read them. There are many, many other books that are exciting, well-written, and worth reading — that have changed my life, even — that don’t meet all these criteria. (The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas is an example.) But when I’m looking for a book that I know I’ll enjoy, these are the kinds of books I turn to.

I no longer think in terms of “good” or “bad” books. (Okay, I do think some books are objectively awful.) That’s one thing Anne Bogel talks about often: just because a book isn’t for you doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. This changes throughout life, too. There are books I adored as a kid (and still do for nostalgia’s sake) that wouldn’t exactly fit every criterion above.

And it’s fascinating how two people can love the same book for different reasons. Many people love Harry Potter, for instance, but wouldn’t be remotely interested in reading the other two books I love. Myself, I don’t love Harry Potter for the fantasy genre, per se; there are many fantasy books that aren’t for me because they fail to meet the criteria I listed above.

If you enjoy the same kinds of books I do, check out some of my other recent favorites:

Hello, Universe, by Erin Entrada Kelly

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Wizards of Once, by Cressida Cowell

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Emma, by Jane Austen

What are three books you love and one you don’t? Have you identified the common threads between them? Do you have any suggestions for what I should read next?

P.S. Two of my favorite WSIRN episodes: an interview with Jen Hatmaker on “When your reading life is nothing like people expect” and a chat with Patience Randle about “The quest for the perfect coffeeshop read.”

A Pragmatic Defense of Civility

nina-strehl-140734-unsplashCivility is a dirty word in social justice circles right now.

I understand why. It’s ridiculous to care more about being polite than about babies being torn away from their mothers. It’s backwards to worry about niceties when human lives and human dignity are at stake. And often “they” interpret passion as incivility, anyway. “They” don’t like how it makes them feel, so “they” call it incivility to no longer feel responsible for their uncomfortable feelings. To “them,” no form of protest, no matter how respectful, peaceful, or carefully thought out, will ever be seen as civil simply because the act of protesting, resisting, and making “them” uncomfortable is uncivil.

But let’s be honest: sometimes, many times, people in social justice circles are uncivil, out of control, and just plain rude. They attack people outside of their circles; they attack people within their circles. Say the wrong word, the wrong opinion, and you’ve unleashed your doom.

I understand that too. I want to scream when I see dismissive memes. I want to shoot back sarcastic and mean-spirited zingers when I hear callous and ill-informed opinions. I want to spew obscenities at the people doing disgusting and dehumanizing things. I often feel that rude people deserve rude responses, that jerks get what’s coming to them, that people who don’t care about others don’t require my care, either. An eye for an eye. Anger with anger. Hate with hate.

I could ramble a lot about my conflicting feelings regarding justice and mercy within the Christian tradition. Regardless of my philosophical and theological beliefs, when it comes to altercations with stupid, rude, and/or callous people, when it comes to trying to change people’s minds, I still cherish civility as a virtue.

People may deserve a good chewing out when they fail to live up to basic human decency. Maybe a good, loud, simplistic, angry rant fulfills some sort of cosmic justice. Maybe I shouldn’t have to police my tone due to all the unfair things I’ve put up with; maybe I should get to be as angry as I want and speak out of that anger as much as I want.

I mean this sincerely: maybe that truly is justice. It doesn’t seem fair to me that people who have already put up with so much hatred and discrimination, sometimes against their very personhood, should even have to think about their tone in voicing legitimate complaints. I support understanding where people are coming from and letting them speak unfiltered, hearing what they say even if the way they say it is offensive.

But my defense of civility is almost purely pragmatic. Basic human biology prevents anger, hate, rudeness, and anything of that nature from being an effective tool of persuasion. That’s not to say that love, kindness, and civility will change any minds either (see the second paragraph), but hate, rudeness, and incivility definitely won’t — or they’ll at least make it more difficult.

When we say whatever we want to say however we want to say it, we trigger fight or flight responses. It is nearly impossible for someone in a fight or flight state to meaningfully absorb information, much less change their mind and make necessary changes. Some particularly gracious, patient, or obtuse people can struggle against the fight or flight state to engage with and process what you’re yelling at them. But that’s a difficult thing to do.

It’s inevitable that saying uncomfortable things will make people feel uncomfortable. Showing emotion of any kind, even if not directed toward another person, may trigger offense or anxiety. Even saying uncomfortable things civilly may trigger fight or flight responses, especially if that person has had those uncomfortable things screamed at them before.

That’s not on you. That’s on them.

And honestly, you might need a space or a moment to just speak your unfiltered mind, civility be damned. You might need catharsis. That’s fine too.

But if you want the best shot at having the other person hear you, understand you, and change her mind, then it is on you to speak the truth in a way that circumvents that fight or flight response as much as possible. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. For this purpose, I defend civility as a virtue.

 

Some Pro-Life Considerations on Hormonal Birth Control, For and Against

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There is so much misinformation and so many half-truths circulating about hormonal birth control. Many pro-life women I know refuse to use hormonal birth control because of its alleged abortifacient effects. I’m pro-life too, but natural family planning and barrier methods weren’t working for me for various personal reasons. I took a good hard look into the science and ethics of using hormonal birth control. Here are some facts and thoughts that shaped my final decision.

Note: My research primarily involved oral contraceptives. I have not extensively researched the exact mechanisms of other contraceptives like implants, patches, or IUDs. Further, much of the secondary literature I’m seeing conflates the effects of emergency contraceptives with the effects of daily birth control, even though they may differ. Please keep these limitations in mind as you read.

The main pro-life argument against hormonal birth control is that it affects (or could affect) the implantation of an embryo in its blastocyst stage. All forms of hormonal birth control thin the endometrium, the lining of the uterus in which the blastocyst must implant. According to many who believe life begins at conception, birth control prevents implantation by depriving the blastocyst of a thick, receptive endometrium, and is thus an abortifacient.

This is actually a big if. Despite pro-life arguments and even current pill literature, there is no conclusive evidence that hormonal birth control affects the endometrium in a way that prevents implantation. It could, but it’s unlikely to. That’s where current research stands, but that’s not the final word on whether pro-life women should use hormonal birth control.

How Hormonal Birth Control Works

At the beginning of the menstrual cycle, the endometrium starts out quite thin. During the follicular phase, follicles begin putting out increasing levels of estrogen that thicken and enrich the uterine lining (or endometrium). High levels of estrogen trigger luteinizing hormones (LH) to release an egg from the follicle — the process known as ovulation. The follicle then continues to produce the hormone progesterone, which also thickens and enriches the endometrium. This is the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. If implantation fails, the lining is shed, and menstruation begins.

Birth control’s primary contraceptive mechanism is preventing ovulation in the first place, not preventing implantation. When a woman is on hormonal birth control, the amount of artificial progestin and estrogen mimic the elevated hormonal levels during pregnancy, tricking the pituitary gland into preventing ovulation.

How does this potentially affect implantation? Because ovulation is suppressed, the endometrium does not thicken very much, which is why women on birth control have lighter or nonexistent periods.

Occasionally, breakthrough ovulation will occur in women taking contraceptives (particularly if they fail to take them regularly). If ovulation occurs, the endometrium will begin thickening again. This is why it’s possible for women to get pregnant on contraceptives if breakthrough ovulation occurs.

The question is whether the endometrium can thicken enough to give the blastocyst a fighting chance at implantation. Many pro-lifers say absolutely not, pointing out the obvious that the endometrium affected by birth control is observably thinner. This is the “hostile endometrium” theory. Studies show that a thicker, more nutrient-rich endometrium increases the likelihood of blastocysts implanting during in vitro fertilization, bolstering the argument that thinning the endometrium would undoubtedly have a negative effect on implantation.

That makes sense, but here’s where it gets tricky. Naturally, many embryos (even up to two-thirds, some experts surmise) will not implant in even a receptive lining, or will spontaneously abort. And naturally, some blastocysts will implant in what we might think of as a “hostile” endometrium. Were a blastocyst to fail to implant, it would be impossible to name birth control as the culprit — or even claim the nature of the endometrium as a major factor, as new studies show that the quality of the embryo itself plays a role in its implantation.

Even pro-life voices are questioning the very idea of a “hostile endometrium.” According to a 1998 statement by pro-life OBGYNs, blastocysts are by nature invasive. They will implant even in areas more unfriendly than a thin endometrium, like the fallopian tube. They reiterate that current research does not show that birth control affects implantation.

Again, others point out that just because a blastocyst can implant in a thin endometrium or even a fallopian tube does not mean that the quality of the endometrium has no effect on implantation.

So it’s absolutely true that birth control affects the thickness of the endometrium. Many pro-life women are under the impression that only some kinds of birth control affect the endometrium, but this is incorrect. All birth control that hormonally suppresses ovulation affect the thickness of the endometrium (including breastfeeding). The contraceptive mechanism — preventing ovulation — is the same in all hormonal birth control, even in the morning after pills like Ella and Plan B.

(It’s important to note that the morning after pills employ a different contraceptive mechanism than the abortion pill known as RU-486 or mifepristone. The abortion pill blocks the hormones needed to sustain a pregnancy and is not approved for use as emergency contraception to prevent ovulation. The morning after pills do not interfere with an established pregnancy; the abortion pill obviously does. Further, emergency conception may be even less likely to affect implantation than everyday birth control, as there may not be enough time for an emergency dose to alter the endometrium.)

The true debate, then, is not “which kinds” of hormonal contraceptives are abortifacient. The debate is whether hormonal contraceptives prevent implantation, thus causing an abortion.

According to the most recent research, there is no evidence that hormonal contraceptives prevent implantation.

Confusingly, much of pill literature today still lists preventing implantation as a contraceptive mechanism in hormonal birth control. When birth control first came onto the scene, its contraceptive mechanisms were unknown. Many in the medical community thought that preventing implantation was a primary contraceptive mechanism, but as already stated, later research is debunking that theory. (Note: While secondary resources cite this as relevant to daily hormonal birth control, I’m only finding primary sources about the FDA mislabeling emergency contraceptives.)

Even with this research, however, it’s impossible at this time to conduct an ethical experiment to determine the exact effects of birth control on implantation. It is unlikely and unproven that birth control affects implantation, but it’s impossible to prove a negative. For many pro-lifers, this isn’t strong enough research to support hormonal contraceptives.

In light of this research and counter-research, it seems fair to both sides to say that there is at least a risk of hormonal birth control preventing implantation.

Our Ethical Responsibility

How ethically responsible is a woman for making her endometrium as hospitable as possible?

In other words, is it ever justifiable to put a life at risk?

It’s a kind of question we face every day as mothers in a world full of risk, from deciding to drive our child to the library at the risk of a car crash to eating deli meat while pregnant at the risk of contracting listeriosis. Just as driving and eating deli meat don’t cause a child’s death, taking hormonal birth control is not demonstrated to cause failed implantation, but just like driving and deli meat during pregnancy, it at least opens the possibility of that risk.

For many women, it’s quite simple: they refuse to take the risk of impairing implantation, and use natural family planning, barrier methods, or no prevention at all. They feel it is unethical to do anything that would potentially impair implantation or would at the very least not aid in implantation. Why would a mother do anything to risk her child’s life?

But for many women, the issue isn’t so straightforward. In life, we are often forced to take avoidable risks in order to fulfill another or a greater moral obligation or good. Why do we take risks? Because there are numerous good things that are harder or impossible to get without taking a risk. These goods outweigh the small chance of risk to our children.

To many, birth control obtains a good which outweighs the small risk of affecting implantation. The “good” of birth control varies from woman to woman: some take it for medical reasons; some for sexual enhancement in marriage; some for an even stronger protection against pregnancy; some as part of responsible sexuality; most for a combination of reasons. Each circumstance and each need varies so greatly from woman to woman, which is why it is important to have accurate contraceptive information so that couples can weigh the risks and benefits according to their unique circumstances.

Regardless of our particular stance on birth control, we women make decisions all the time that potentially affect new life. How far does our ethical responsibility go? A tongue-in-cheek article proposes that we campaign against breastfeeding, refuse to give caffeine to women of child-bearing age, and discourage women from exercising due to the increased risk of early miscarriage that breastfeeding, caffeine, and exercise pose.

“Well, that’s silly!” some would argue. “Unlike birth control, breastfeeding, coffee, and exercise aren’t intended to prevent implantation.”

Neither is birth control. Besides, the risk of breastfeeding, coffee, and exercise still exist regardless of our intentions.

How much do our intentions matter in taking this risk, anyway? Birth control is designed to prevent ovulation and fertilization. If a woman takes birth control for those reasons alone, not to cause an abortion, do her good intentions justify taking the risk birth control might pose to an embryo? Is breastfeeding okay, despite its risk of negatively altering the endometrium, as long as a woman isn’t consciously using it as a birth control method? If we’re ultimately responsible for ensuring the very best endometrium for an embryo, should we not abstain from sex until our baby is weaned? Surely the life of an embryo outweighs our newborn’s need for breastmilk, much less our desire for coffee and exercise!

This might seem like splitting hairs, but my point is that when it comes to taking risks in an area as personal and opaque as this, there are numerous moral factors at play, and many inconsistencies and contingencies in our beliefs.

When it comes to birth control, many pro-life Christians want to pretend that this is an area entirely separate from the complexities of life, that it is a black-and-white issue unaffected by any other ethical considerations. On the other hand, many pro-life women are not factoring in all of the risks birth control can have on an embryo.

This is why I support the dissemination of nuanced, factual information regarding birth control from medical, philosophical, and theological perspectives, and agree with the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists that we are free and obligated to follow our consciences in this area.

If You Want to Pursue the Truth, You’ll Never Fit In

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You know the proverbial pendulum swing — the tendency for people to go from one extreme to the next? Or the slippery slope, where if you believe or disbelieve one thing, you’ll inevitably end up believing or disbelieving a whole host of other things? They’re often used as scare tactics to keep the faithful walking in lockstep intellectual agreement. Dabble in feminism and you’ll end up a pro-baby killing atheist with an STD and a PhD in evolutionary biology. (So don’t dabble in feminism.)

There is, of course, some truth to these metaphors. Certain trains of thought, once abandoned or taken up, do connect well to certain other trains of thought. This is why, for instance, most of the egalitarians I know are more sympathetic toward social justice, and most of the complementarians I know gravitate more toward conservatism’s emphasis on order and authority. A strong emphasis on equality for women fits well with advocacy for racial and LGBTQ+ minorities. A strong belief that order and hierarchy does not undermine equality suits a conservative outlook that highly values respect for authority (e.g., the police, or the sitting Republican president). It makes sense that our beliefs about the structure of home life would spill into the structure of political life, and vice versa.

Hence it’s true that if you change your mind on complementarianism or egalitarianism, you’re liable to change your mind on an avalanche of other things, as we’ve all noted in people who switch ideological affiliations.

But I’ve made a recent breakthrough. I’ve found that even with the obvious fact that certain beliefs complement others well, the biggest reason people tend to jump on the pendulum or slide down a slippery slope is not intellectual consistency. It’s regular old peer pressure. 

When I left fundamentalism for unfundamentalism (whatever that meant), I vowed not to repeat the same mistakes I made in my past. I would not buy into a group, a person, or an ideology hook, line, and sinker — at least not so much that it prohibited me from examining them with an impartial and critical eye. I would not shut up that gut feeling that asked me to question. I would not parrot party lines before researching them myself. I would not demonize those who disagreed with me. I would not be a bigot. I would not get caught up in promoting my group’s agenda over the truth. 

In fact, I wouldn’t even join a group or adopt a label without thinking it over for a very, very long time.

So I was shocked when I found myself repeating some of my past fundamentalist mistakes — even though no one was threatening me with hellfire, and even though I technically didn’t even have a group to pressure me.

I would tweetstorm about what my Twitter tribe hated. I struggled to listen to that inner voice that warned me when I was giving up a deeply held belief just because that deeply held belief would cause conflict with my new friends. I found it was extremely hard to hold to any belief strongly without falling into somebody’s category of a bigot, no matter how tolerant and nuanced I strove to be. Even thoughtful, respectful groups had a point of no return — they wouldn’t damn me to hell, but they certainly wouldn’t like my comment on Facebook, and I would definitely get kicked out if I spoke up for my taboo beliefs.

My courage, my feeling of freedom to question and seek the truth, my desire to speak out, waned when I knew that the majority of my group would disagree with me. Oh, I didn’t always mind ticking off fundamentalists with my bold tweets and courageous blog posts. But I was honest enough to know that that wasn’t really bravery at all. There was always a safety net of people there to listen to me complain about the backlash and rev me up to fight the good fight again.

Bravery, I knew from experience, was speaking the truth even when you have everything to lose. I’d just risked losing my faith, my family, and my friends when I let go of fundamentalism. It was devastating, and I wasn’t eager to do anything like it so soon after finding a community that understood me.

What was wrong with me? Where was this fear, cowardice, and groupie-ism coming from? I had sworn off the echo chamber! I knew better!

According to Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, I was suffering from a condition called being human. In his research, he discovered that the human mind is designed not for impartially seeking the truth but for selectively filtering reality in order to bolster our social group. We naturally take an us vs. them posture, and we naturally feel our group is better, even if our group is nothing more consequential than being a Packers fan.

I was unconsciously participating in the kind of “truth-seeking” for which my brain was designed: the kind that knits me together with a group to parry outside blows, the kind that makes life certain and easy, that makes me feel accepted and stable.

It would be social suicide to rewire my brain to seek the pure, unadulterated truth apart from what my social group felt. That sort of truth-seeking — the actual kind, where fitting in doesn’t matter — is incredibly unnatural to human brains. The ability to be impartial, nuanced, and thorough — there’s a reason it’s so rare, and a reason people who possess it come across as “highly functioning sociopaths,” as Sherlock Holmes would say.

While I wouldn’t say I’ve got that gift, I am cursed with the two least compatible traits: the intense desire to know the truth at all costs and the intense desire to be approved, understood, and included. 

I didn’t find my journey after fundamentalism to be a slippery slope at all. It was a tug of war between these two desires — truth and social approval. Just when I wanted to settle in for a long slide, the desire for truth would start rapping at my conscience. There’s hypocrisy here. Why are you afraid to call it out? This doesn’t make sense no matter how long you’ve researched it. Why are you still trying to believe it? You don’t actually agree with this. Why are you pretending to celebrate it?

The answer was always fear — fear of losing my place in a group.

For the first time, I understood what Jesus meant when he said that the world would hate you, but pick up your cross. Being true to what I believed was good and right was a series of little deaths, little devastations, little ostracizations every single day. The whole truth didn’t lie in any one organization, person, book, movement, or ideology, so I could never check my brain and silence my conscience.

I can’t be a feminist, I’m told, because I have a  pro-life ethic from conception to death, and I can’t be truly pro-life because I’m a feminist. I’m not sex-positive, they say, because I take a negative stance on pornography, polyamory, and sex outside of committed relationships, but I’m still immoral for being sex-positive. The Pew Research Center categorizes me as a the right-leaning “Young Outsider” on politics, even though I’m regularly called a liberal. My gentle parenting group refuses to even entertain my belief that there’s a way to do gentle, child-led sleep coaching, but I’d get kicked out of regular parenting forums for my strident opposition to spanking.

And I didn’t enjoy Wonder Woman as much as I was supposed to. Where am I to go if we can’t even agree on Wonder Woman?!

I would ask you to pity me, except that I have always found someone to agree with me on a particular topic (even Wonder Woman). But the problem with having opinions is that it’s hard, if not impossible, to find someone who agrees with me on every topic, much less a whole group of people.

Instead of fighting this social reality, I’m working toward accepting it. As long as I care deeply about the beliefs I hold, I will never fully fit in, I won’t always be popular, and I won’t go through life without trodding on some toes, no matter how gracious and nuanced I try to be. (And I refuse to use the fact that I might get namecalled and misunderstood to purposefully offend and misunderstand others.) That makes being a social creature hard, if not impossible. But that’s the nature of truth-seeking with a human brain designed for social acceptance.

We Can’t Even Agree on Science!

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I had the great (mis)fortune of deconstructing during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Not only was my spiritual epistemology falling apart, but the whole country’s ability to discern basic fact from fiction was too. Politics was just one giant gaslight — I couldn’t trust my eyeballs and subitizing skills when it came to crowd sizes; I couldn’t trust my basic instincts to identify a bully and a narcissist and an affront to morality; I couldn’t trust anyone in the media, even the people saying I couldn’t trust anyone in the media.

And on top of the spiritual and the political fake news, anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, and Plexus advocates kept popping up around me like epistemological whack-a-moles.

There is no truth and nothing makes sense and if we can’t even agree on if the earth is round, how can we know anything?!

It was quite the dramatic time.

But dramatics aside, I really did and do feel frustration about how hard it is to figure out allegedly objective, empirical things such as science, medicine, and crowd sizes — much less more complex ideas like politics, theology, and sociology.

How do you even begin to navigate the complex when the obvious is just as confusing?

As I dug into issues in more detail, I began to see some helpful patterns for untangling science, medicine, statistics, and, well, truth in general.

1. People have different senses of reality. Well, obviously. But my young earth creationist upbringing was right: we all interpret reality according to who or what we trust — or perhaps more accurately, who or what we fear.

For example: there are Christians who see the Bible as so authoritative on every area of life, that they deny the earth’s old age or its roundness, and even that the sun is a star — because, as the Bible says, God created the sun, moon, and stars.

It makes more sense to them that all of the governments and scientific institutions of the world are perpetrating a huge conspiracy about basic scientific facts than that the Bible is, perhaps, not interested in discussing details in accordance with the modern scientific method foreign to ancient Hebrew writers.

Which came first — a devotion to Scripture, or a fear of government and the elite? Who knows, but both their trust in the Bible and their conspiratorial fears make these people impossible to engage. When they’ve got even Ken Ham pegged as a brainwashed liberal, you know they’re too far gone.

Along these same lines, there is an incredible paranoia of the establishment or the elite. Alternative medicine and alternative facts alike, people feel duped and distrustful of organizations and triple PhDs.

As I deconstructed, I realized I had internalized a deepset fear of experts. The more educated and researched a person was on a certain topic, the more I doubted their claims to be true or unbiased. Instead, I sought the refuge of the internet, where the uneducated and the less educated can sound just as convincing as the Top Professor at Pompous-Sounding Institution (especially if they’re validating what I want to believe).

And of course, the picture is never as simple as “trust the elites.” The medical community at large mocked Ignaz Semmelweis for washing his hands before operating. Galileo was a lone voice advocating for a heliocentric universe. Sociology of the day deemed women’s brains unfit for any work other than housekeeping. Popular theology and science argued that black people were inherently subservient to whites.

Where would our society be without the mavericks who dared stand up to the elite, the frustrated prophets speaking out against the immoral majority?

There’s sometimes a whopping grain of truth in listening to the outsiders over the insiders.

All that to say, “facts” get circulated and believed based on people’s fears and trusts. I’ve got a good nose for sniffing out fake news because I’ve learned a healthy skepticism of clickbait titles, obscure websites, and sensational headlines THAT THE MEDIA WILL NEVER TELL YOU ABOUT. That’s because I don’t inherently distrust mainstream organizations or experts. Others find the mainstream so deceitful that the Sandy Hook shooting becomes a government conspiracy and Donald Trump transforms into a godly man.

Amidst this insanity, it’s enlightening to ask, “Who or what do they trust, and who or what do they fear?”

2. The truth is often in what’s left unsaid. Mystery and crime aficionados know this well. All of the evidence points to this obvious conclusion, and then one, solitary bit of information pops up and radically changes everything. Even the smallest new fact can alter one’s perspective.

This is why we look for the whole story. Individual facts can be true but situated or arranged in a certain way that obscures the bigger picture.

As a fiscal conservative, I was surprised to find out that many of the government bailouts during the 2008 recession were not only repaid but repaid with interest. The government made money off the bailouts. By the time the government got its returns, however, the news cycle had turned its eye on something else, and fiscal conservatives grumble against Obama to this day.

It’s a fact that bailing out banks and the Mexican economy put us into massive debt. It’s a fact that it was a huge risk. But the whole story involves a fiscally happily ever after. (And as I’m no economic expert, there’s probably more to the whole story than this brief bit of information my husband shared with me when he looked up from his book.)

It’s not only pieces of information that get left out — unclear definitions can either obscure or clarify the facts. What does “sexual assault” mean in any particular study, for instance, and is it the same for every study on sexual violence? Perhaps it might make a difference to pro-life anti-vaxxers that regarding the cell cultures gathered from an aborted infant, the infant was aborted or miscarried in the 1970’s for purposes unrelated to vaccine development.

3. Even statistics have contexts. My husband and I recently looked into the circumcision debate. It was fascinating how many websites — good, neutral, factual websites — failed to put statistics into context. For instance, many of the websites framed statistics like, “Circumcised infants are less at risk for a rare penile cancer,” “Circumcised men are at a lower risk for HIV infection,” and “Uncircumcised infants are at a higher risk for UTIs.”

Convincing, no?

The full context is that this penile cancer is too incredibly rare among both circumcised and uncircumcised males to warrant circumcision; the study on HIV was conducted with African men with unclear conclusions for American males; and the risk of UTIs for all male infants is only 0.5%-1% to begin with.

Not very convincing evidence, after all.

I encountered this same thing when a loved one sent out a group message warning against the cancerous properties of red dye. Being married to a chemist who once spent a whole afternoon opining on the LD50 table (lethal dose, for all you humanities people not married to chemists), I pointed out that red dye in Skittles is only poisonous if you consume an impossible amount of them in one sitting.

I don’t normally try to sound like a know-it-all, but forgive me — Skittles were on the line.

The popular documentary What the Health? that’s turning all my friends into vegans also makes these statistical mistakes. It claims that eating processed meats will increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. That’s technically true — but only if you eat processed meats every single day. And even then, your risk of colorectal cancer is only 5% to begin with. Eating processed meats every day for your entire life boosts your 5% chance of that cancer by 1%, which means a 6% risk, which is 18% of the original 5% risk.

I’ll take a chance and eat my occasional Subway sandwich, thank you very much.

4. Not everybody knows what they’re talking about. We all receive a massive influx of information every day about all kinds of issues. And we all have the opportunity to send out a massive amount of information every day about all kinds of issues. Our social media platforms can become echo chambers, with the only people policing our facts being that one grumpy conservative posting memes or that flaming liberal you befriended at drama camp sharing Huffington Post articles.

It’s like a giant game of Telephone — except there’s nobody to clarify what exactly was said.

And our go-to method of fact-checking is finding whatever website we trust the most and seeing what they have to say about it.

It is so easy for uneducated or undereducated people (whether in general or in a particular subject) to grab onto these rumors and misreported statistics and pass them on to others with their own wrong understanding or failure to catch errors. When people or sites we love, trust, and respect start circulating this misinformation as confident fact — especially when it appeals to who or what we trust or fear — we buy it uncritically. We absorb it into our system of beliefs and values. We then become immune to rethinking facts and opinions, because those things shape our sense of reality.

We’ve got a crap ton of information coming in, we’re not even equipped in the 101 of that field, and we all feel like we or our belief system must have an opinion on everything.

No wonder we can’t agree on anything.

5. If you’re stumped, read books, take classes, and talk to people in the field to get the lay of the land. These are more surefire ways of understanding what’s left unsaid and the context for tricky statistics. And let me clarify — I’m not talking about your favorite blogger giving a summary of the scientific evidence from your pet perspective. I’m talking about reading firsthand accounts, watching serious debates between multiple different professionals, and talking to somebody who actually studied the issue in a peer-reviewed setting with an open mind.

Then again, I just showed who I really trust, didn’t I?

This post was inspired by all the medical decisions I have to make as a parent and Pete Enns’ excellent article, “11 Recurring Mistakes Evangelicals Make in the Evolution Debate”

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Why Boys Don’t Read Girl Books, and Other Horrible Things

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When I was a precocious preteen, I heard that boys struggled to enjoy reading. I found that hard to believe, because I found it hard to believe any actual human could dislike reading, but I accepted it. Boys seemed rowdy and sporty and unable to sit still, so it was conceivable they weren’t the best readers.

Around the time I learned this information about the sad state of boys’ reading abilities, I ran into a poster at the library encouraging boys to read. It listed around fifty titles to tempt the reluctant male reader. I stood there for a few minutes to read the whole list.

I didn’t find a single “girl book” on the list. Girl books, you ask? You know — girl books. The books with a girl as a main character. Ick. (Well, maybe I misspoke — The Hunger Games might have been listed, but precocious preteen Bailey didn’t know The Hunger Games featured a main female character because she was too busy reading through all the Newbery medal books. Girl books, mostly.)

Even with my patriarchal upbringing, I remember the distinct feeling of disgust: first, that R. L. Stine wrote a disproportionate number of the books on that list; second, that there was this unspoken assumption that a book about a girl would definitely not encourage my illiterate male peers to read.

Now, of course, the librarians who put together this list weren’t altogether off. What typical boy wanted to read a first-person account of a female coming-of-age story that involved first crushes and a period scare? What ten-year-old male wouldn’t stop an adventure series in disgust when the later books got too…girly? (“Girly,” this no-longer-ten-year-old male defined for me, meant “mushy.” To my chagrin I married him, anyway.)

Boys typically like adventure stories, pirates, war, and, apparently, R. L. Stine. Nothing wrong with that. And kids love to see themselves represented. American Girl started a “Just Like Me” line of dolls that look vaguely just like the girls who moon over them in the catalogs, so, of course, in the pre-pubescent era of cooties, a guy would relate more to a guy who does guy things. It makes sense that a boy would prefer Jedis over Judy Moody.

Again, nothing wrong with celebrating representation. After all, that’s why we feminists are all pumped about Rey, Wonder Woman, and Jodi Whittaker’s The Doctor.

What I found interesting, and slightly offensive, was that boys were not expected to have the same broad range of interests that girls did. As one girl wrote to American Girl magazine, “I love being a girl because I can do girl things and guy things!”

It’s true. Nobody makes a comment on a girl’s preferences if she loves Star Wars or Harry Potter. They’re just great, period. Girls read Lord of the Rings because it’s a fantastic series and relate to Frodo and Sam because they’re fantastic characters, even though it’s a book of primarily male characters doing traditionally male things. Tris and Katniss star in dystopian action novels without a hullabaloo. There’s always a token female sidekick in almost every “male-oriented” movie — but really, ladies, do we watch Supernatural for the female sidekicks, or do we watch Supernatural because Dean and Sam are objectively the best?

Women consume guy media all the time — action, adventure, plot-oriented movies, male-dominated stories. Women do guy things all the time — sports, video games, business. Women wear guy things all the time — pants, flannel shirts, fedoras. And apart from an occasional op-ed about how women these days want to be like men, it’s cool with almost everyone. Nobody except Mr. Op-Ed questions your womanhood.

It’s like masculinity is both distinctly masculine and the gender neutral expression of humanity.

Can you imagine men watching a chick flick just because it’s “such a good story”? Have you met swarms of men obsessed with Jane Austen to the level everybody is about the Lord of the Rings? Can you picture a straight, cisgender boy wearing pink sparkles or a dress? Do you know any male preschool teachers or stay-at-home dads? Have you ever been in mixed company and decided neutral territory was a rom-com over a Marvel movie?

While women are quite capable of enjoying “guy things,” men are not seen as capable of partaking in anything distinctly female. Femininity, it seems, degrades masculinity in a way masculinity does not degrade femininity. Femininity has way too much of women in it to qualify as a general expression of humanity.

Women don’t have a woman card to lose. And even if they do, they don’t lose it standing in line for the premier of Spider-Man: Homecoming.

I love this flexibility that living under patriarchy has required of any woman interested in interacting with culture. As a woman, I don’t balk at male priests or presidents, I read whatever genre of book I find interesting, I cry at tender depictions of motherhood, laugh at Bridget Jones, and cheer on the men as they save Private Ryan. I love the worst of rom-coms, the best of Marvel, and the classics. I am capable of learning from and emulating male role models. I enjoy the best of fiction and nonfiction, regardless of who wrote it or who features in it.

And I am not one iota less of a woman because of it.

I have to consume male media, because men have dominated, well, everything in the Western world for the majority of its run. I don’t find the literature, entertainment, or ideas of the men of the Western world something to snub my nose at merely because they’re thought up by men and not covering periods, babies, or what to wear to your friend’s wedding next weekend. (But seriously. What?)

This is, I think, the most crucial area feminism must focus on — not merely encouraging women to express their full humanity, whether in traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine ways, but encouraging men to express their full humanity, including their feminine side. We need to raise men who see femininity as equal an expression of humanity as masculinity. We need to teach men that their masculinity is not threatened or compromised by femininity — that girl things are just as good for men as guy things are good for girls.

We ought to encourage men to cultivate the broad range of experiences, tastes, and preferences women have had to even when there were no lead females in Star Wars.

HUGE DISCLAIMER THAT PROVES I AM NOT A MAN-HATING FEMINIST WHO WANTS TO ERASE NATURAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN: None of this is to exclude or diminish male role models or representation for boys. They are vital. None of this is to force guys to prefer the traditionally feminine over the traditionally masculine. Generalizations happen for a reason. None of this is even to suggest that it’s necessarily wrong to lure reluctant male readers with Harry Potter instead of The Fault in Our Stars. Harry Potter is objectively better — objectively. And he’s not an angsty teenage girl in the first couple of books.

It’s just to say that after a boy has learned to enjoy reading with this reasonable ploy, he should grow to find a role model in Annabelle from Wolf Hollow; he should learn to appreciate a well-written romance, maybe even enjoy the occasional chick flick, definitely to quote Mean Girls obsessively; he should empathize with the angsty first-person narratives of both Harry and Hazel; and he should obsess over a range of good books — from My Side of the Mountain to Ella Enchanted.

Just like we girls do.

Photo by Robyn Budlender on Unsplash

Girl on Girl Crime

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As I personally support natural, non-chemical, and non-hormonal family planning methods, I expected to like this article on women sharing their choices: “We Asked 24 Women Why They Don’t Use Birth Control And These Are Their Answers.”

I had to take a long shower to process why I felt offended, judged, and shamed even when I technically agree with many of their reasons.

This isn’t the first time I walked away from an article on women’s personal choices that left me feeling like a total failure as a woman.

The article is a list of twenty-four women holding up signs like, “I don’t want to put something artificial in my body to stop something natural from happening” or “Because I want a healthy, natural, organic body” or “Because no one is ever really ready for kids — and they are the best, most exciting and fulfilling things to ever happen to me!”

That’s fine, that’s interesting, that’s women sharing their personal reasons and experiences. Let’s hear some more.

“Because I can control myself.”

“Because I don’t have to give up my womanhood to be a feminist.”

“Because I am responsible and make mindful decisions accepting the consequences of my actions.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa, what now? You can control yourself — as if women on birth control can’t? And how does birth control amount to giving up one’s womanhood? And staying off birth control is the only way to be responsible?

Even if these women meant their reasons as merely personal, they come across as antagonistic and holier-than-thou towards other women’s choices. This is the only way to be a woman. This is the best way to be a woman. This is the moral choice.

We women have all experienced this — another woman putting us down to elevate herself, another woman supporting her own choices by trashing everybody else’s.

As Tina Fey’s character from Mean Girls puts it, it’s girl on girl crime.

I don’t think we even mean to do this to each other. For the most part, we all want freedom to make the best decisions for our bodies, lifestyles, and families. We all want accurate information disseminated to us and our fellow females about the choices we could make. We might disagree (and disagree strongly) with other women’s decisions, but we don’t mean to knock down other women with our statistics and opinions. We, in theory, want the best for other women too.

But women are in a unique situation. We’re women, for one thing, and we deal with all kinds of complicated physical factors like periods, PMS, pregnancy, and breastfeeding and complicated sociological factors like balancing work and family life. There is more to think about, decide on, and juggle as women — at least compared to men.

Do men hold up signs defending their reasons for why they don’t use Viagra? Are there support groups for those wounded in the “daddy wars”? Do men get scrutinized on their beauty routines and clothing choices in the public eye? Thank heavens, no.

There’s not as much antagonism towards men’s personal decisions as there is towards women’s, and as a result, there’s not as much defensiveness.

Women feel defensive about their personal choices, because women feel attacked, because women feel guilty, because women feel like their womanhood and their morality are at stake with every personal decision they make. 

It gets to the point where we women shame ourselves even if a woman is simply stating her own choice, based on her own research, with no intent to shame anyone else — or even worse, we shame ourselves even if no one else is around. The very fact that we drink coffee while breastfeeding or don’t want kids or want kids or favor feminine clothes or masculine clothes or wear makeup or don’t wear makeup or take birth control or have more than 1.5 kids makes us feel guilty.

On top of this, there’s a huge push for women to feel liberated, empowered, unashamed, and vocal about who they are and the choices they make. Plus there’s the internet. So women hear not only subtle messages that they’re female failures, they get to see smiling, confident women openly telling them they are. 

“I don’t use birth control because I’m a real woman.”

“You can’t be pro-life and pro-feminist.”

“I don’t wear a bikini because want to glorify God.”

“I wear a bikini because I’m not a prude who’s ashamed of her body.”

“I stay at home because I’m not selfish enough to sacrifice my kids for my career.”

“I’m not a stay-at-home mom because I want a real job.”

Girl on girl crime — all because we want to prove that our choices are moral, meaningful, and completely in line with being a woman.

I think it’s fabulous that women are combating this guilt, shame, and pressure in public, online forums. It’s awesome that we feel empowered to speak our minds and share our opinions and who gives a damn. But in a female world of guilt and shame, where many personal situations and beliefs give rise to many different choices, we need to be wise communicators — especially when our communication is pithy little posters and punchy one-liners.

I found myself asking what on earth this Buzzfeed article meant to accomplish. Obviously it hoped to bring awareness to the myriad different reasons why women opt out of birth control — but to what end? To encourage respect of other women’s choices? To change people’s minds? To spark a productive conversation?

Because I assure you, I didn’t feel any inclination to respect the women implying women on birth control abandoned kids, their bodies, their womanhood, and responsibility. My mind wouldn’t have been changed about birth control reading most of those signs. And the first thing I wanted to say in response to this article wasn’t at all productive.

I don’t feel this way about all social media campaigns about women’s issues. People of all different sorts posted photos of themselves saying, “This is what a feminist looks like.” When the face of feminism becomes stay-at-home moms, male CEOs, and your quiet Republican friend who never posts on Twitter — that’s powerful. That gets you thinking.

Such a campaign is not necessarily making any arguments for feminism. It’s merely combating a false narrative that often shuts down the conversation — that all feminists are whiny female SJWs who hate children and men. It humanizes an otherwise volatile conversation.

Conversely, this is what made the Buzzfeed article so offensive: the women tried to advance a defense of their choices through poorly nuanced zingers. Instead of humanizing the conversation in a positive way, their smiling faces made their comments seem like a personal attack: I think you’re a slutty, irresponsible, child-hating, lesser-than woman because you don’t practice NFP like me.

It’s not that women shouldn’t advance defenses for their beliefs and choices, or even advocate against something. I’m all for a well-written article entitled “Why I Hate Condoms,” or “The Medical Arguments Against Hormonal Birth Control,” or a sign that says, “I’m not Catholic, middle class, crunchy, or Michelle Duggar, but I still practice NFP.”

What a conversation starter! I want to hear more.

Sure, we all could take things a little less personally sometimes, but let’s face it — we do get ridiculous amounts of scrutiny as women. We all feel defensive, and if we’re honest, we’ve all been on the offensive, too.

Come on, ladies. We’re all in the same boat here, so let’s hold respectful, thoughtful, nuanced, passionate conversations about our choices in a way that doesn’t shame other women for theirs.

No more girl on girl crime.

Photo from Buzzfeed

My Deepest Insecurity as an Educated, Talented Woman

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I graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Christian studies. I worked hard for that degree. Both the working and the courses forever changed how I approached life and Christianity. Not for one second do I regret those four years I spent writing papers on the Incarnation and reading the early church fathers.

But I’m not ignorant. I’ll be the first to tell you that there is, basically, nothing I can do with that degree. Part of it is because you will never find “Christian studies” listed as a prerequisite degree to apply for a job. And most of it is that if that major is listed as an acceptable prerequisite, the job is probably off-limits to me — because I’m a woman.

I wasn’t fully egalitarian when I started my coursework, so I knew from the beginning that this degree was for kicks, giggles, and personal transformation.

Did I want to be a minister, people asked me. No, churches don’t hire female ministers.

Did I want to be a teacher, people asked me. No, churches and Christian schools don’t hire female Bible or theology teachers.

Did I want to do anything with the degree, they asked me. Well, yes, but how could I when I’ve got a vagina?

The truth was, I really did like the idea of teaching and preaching to an audience over the age of seven about academic, gender-neutral things that mattered. But I wasn’t going to set myself up for failure and heartache chasing an elusive career in a Christian culture that opposed my existence as a female leader and teacher.

And truth be told, I do love the opportunities I’ve had. I adore working with children. I will happily talk about marriage, childrearing, and relationships. Mentoring women about women’s issues, teaching children — those are not at all lesser things to me.

I don’t resent those opportunities.

But I do resent that those are the only opportunities I’ve had.

When I am at home, not blogging, not earning a paycheck, not calculating how my interests and gifts will pan out in the “real world,” I read books on theology and sociology. I sit cross-legged on my unmade bed and talk through my theological and spiritual thoughts. I listen to podcasts on culture and Christianity while washing dishes.

I am and have always been an academic nerd who lives for the intersection of culture, faith, and everyday life.

There’s a part of me that jumps at the idea of going back to school, becoming a pastor, becoming a chaplain, becoming a tenured professor who writes books and gets called up on the Liturgists because I might know something.

Then that part of me sits right back down with a thud and moves on happily with life in the opportunities that have always been given, approved, and supported.

Because I’m terrified.

I’m terrified of being responsible for knowing things, saying things, teaching things, and guiding souls.

Which sounds very wise and humble of me to say, and I am glad I am properly terrified of such huge responsibility, but I don’t have that fear in my “okayed” roles. I say things all the time on my blog without terror. I was happy to share my knowledge of the Old Testament exile during adult Sunday school hour when the pastor asked for questions or comments. I taught my heart out even when I didn’t quite know what I was doing. I enjoyed counseling, mentoring, and offering advice to the women, teenagers, pre-teens, and the occasional man who came into my life asking for it.

I’ve always imagined my adult successful self as an English high school teacher, a speaker, a writer, a counselor.

So what’s the difference, fearful heart? What’s the terror of transitioning from “speaker” to “preacher,” from “counselor” to “pastor,” from “teacher” to “professor”?

I think the difference is that I have support in the okayed roles, and opposition in the “men only” positions. Not that I mind the opposition, per se — but I’ve internalized the paranoia that a woman shouldn’t do X, regardless of her gifting.

I’ve internalized it so much that it feels presumptuous of me to even think of presenting myself as a teacher, pastor, or spiritual guide. Who would take me seriously? Who would honestly come hear a woman speak, who would sign up for a female professor’s class, who would attend a church with a woman on the pastoral staff?

Women are too emotional. Women are too biased. Women leaders have no truth to speak because they’re all liberals pushing a liberal agenda. Women can’t command presence. Women can’t earn respect. Women are easily deceived. Women are lacking something that makes them fundamentally unqualified for leadership — like, being a man.

These are all things I know aren’t true, but that I believe deeply enough that they limit me from considering any sort of career outside of the prescribed female roles.

I try to explain this to my husband, who grew up with women leaders and teachers in his Catholic parish, who is not a woman, who never heard that women can’t because they’re women. I try to explain how brokenhearted I am that the patriarchy lives inside me and limits me. I try to explain what it’s like to feel automatically disrespected and dismissed simply because of my gender.

I don’t know how to explain it.

I don’t even know if I fully understand how damaging those beliefs are to me, how debilitating it was to be the best at something and passed over because I was a girl.

My home church made this worse, in retrospect, because they genuinely recognized my gifts and provided ample opportunities for young people to practice leadership in the church. Well, for young men.

The male Bible college students, regardless of degree, all got a chance to preach a sermon in evening service.

The high school boys all got a chance to read the sermon passage during the morning service.

The young men got to teach the youth group lessons.

Honestly, not all of them were qualified or even good at what they did. That didn’t matter to the church. They supported them, they encouraged them, they gave them opportunities. And I think it’s absolutely beautiful that our church recognized how empowering it was to believe in them and what they could do. I am happy they had those opportunities.

I would have loved those opportunities, too. I would have loved being encouraged and supported in such a public, challenging way.

That’s all I’m saying.

Many people, including the pastors, went out of their way to thank me for the comments and questions I gave during Sunday school hour. Why didn’t that ever translate into a chance to lead youth group?

Everybody praised me up and down for my speaking skills. Why didn’t that lead to an opportunity to preach an evening sermon or at least read the Bible aloud?

Why didn’t it matter that I was equally or more gifted in certain areas than my male peers and that everybody knew it? Why were my comments during Sunday school a blessing but the idea of me reading the Bible aloud an abomination of the created order? Why were my leadership skills praised when I co-organized VBS but a cause for visceral anger when I asked to lead worship? Why was my singing able to minister when it was during special music but all of the sudden a disaster waiting to happen when the congregation was singing along with a woman directing the tune?

Why do I feel capable as a kindergarten teacher with no formal educational training but incapable of teaching a class on something for which I earned a degree? Why do I feel little fear at training as a counselor but terror at training for a pastoral ministry? Why am I okay writing a blog post about a spiritual issue but uncomfortable with “preaching” it on Sunday morning? Why do I feel somewhat qualified to raise impressionable children’s souls as a mother but disqualified to guide thinking adults in the faith as a Sunday school teacher?

I know the answer to this.

I’m a woman.

And that’s the terror I have of stepping into a teaching or pastoral position over adults — heck, over even teenage boys — not that I don’t have something to say, not that I wouldn’t be good at it, not that I would not be gifted and equipped and called, but, simply, that I am a woman.

I am terrified of my womanness and the havoc it could cause. I want to spare myself from that destruction. I want to spare others from that destruction.

I’ve been taught that regardless of how gifted you are, being a woman ruins it somehow.

As an educated, talented woman, that is my deepest insecurity.

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

Consent, Context, and Clothes: In Which I Refute the Idea That Just Because I Expect Men to Control Themselves Whatever a Woman Is Wearing, I Think Women Should Wear Whatever They Want

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Well, this week has been fun. I remembered why I hate talking about modesty. So I’m going to talk about it some more.

I’m going to talk about it in terms of consent and context, which totally revolutionized this whole conversation for me.

One of the biggest problems with the typical modesty wars is the assumption that women’s bodies are inherently sexual, should be seen as inherently sexual, and must be seen as inherently sexual. There’s an assumption that any time a woman wants to look attractive, she’s somehow seeking male attention, sexual attention, or wrong attention. There’s an assumption that “looking good” is prideful.

There is no concept of the beauty, power, and goodness of the female body apart from sexuality.

I completely reject this idea. It’s a byproduct of a culture uncomfortable with the female body (looking at you, Christian West) and exploitative of the female body (looking at you, current culture).

Most of the women fed up with being told they’re a stumblingblock to men aren’t, as people often assume, wanting to do away with concepts of decency and appropriateness. They want to do away with the idea that their bodies are inherently sexual, all day, every day, no matter what they’re wearing, doing, or saying. 

Many articles talk about how clothing “speaks” — and I agree, it does. Clothing conveys meaning. Clothing informs a social conversation, a social dynamic. The problem is that some people, having it drilled into their heads that women’s bodies are sexy, sexy, sexy, have become deaf to the other facets of the social conversation.

Here are some of the women sick of the stumblingblock argument:

The woman who had a change of heart about dressing modestly, layering her low-cut shirts with a tank top to hide all cleavage, and was still told on two separate occasions to wear a higher top.

The girl who was asked to change her tank top to a t-shirt lest she cause her biological brothers to stumble.

The woman who was catcalled while wearing an ankle-length skirt and long sleeves.

The girl wearing a cute vintage one-piece that prompted a guy to tell her he had to avert his eyes because of her bared thighs.

The woman who was sexually assaulted while dressed in her conservative best.

The young teenager who “caused” adult males at church to sin by wearing a shirt with a normal neckline.

The big-busted lady whose breasts and butt are prominent in whatever outfit she chooses.

What’s the common theme in all of these instances of violation and lust? I’ll give you a hint: not skimpy clothes.

In all of these situations, none of the women were signalling sexual attention. None of them were engaging in a context that invited sexual attention. Not even their clothes were asking for sexual attention. Sexuality was imposed over and against every other cultural cue in these interactions, simply because they had female bodies. 

That’s the problem here — when the sexualization of female bodies gets superimposed onto nonsexual situations.

***

Do women actually seek sexual attention? Of course. Do women use clothing to seek sexual attention? Of course. Should you assume a woman is seeking sexual attention based solely on how much skin is showing or what article of clothing she is wearing? No.

I say no with such vehemence because clothing by itself, divorced from context and consent, is not as clear a message as people make it out to be.

Our society doesn’t agree on what counts as “modest” or “immodest” clothes. (Check out the comments on my last post if you need any proof of that.) This guarantees a confused conversation. This guarantees distress on both sides, men insisting that women are trying to be sexy when they wear X and women insisting that they’re just trying to live their lives.

The elixir of clarity in this mess is not, as some posit, women adhering to a dress code. The solution is factoring in other social cues into the conversation — namely, context and consent.

But before we go there, we need to get rid of the toxic assumption that women’s bodies are inherently sexual.

Christine Woolgar cuts through the modesty kerfuffle with the most reasonable and rarely heard suggestion: modesty is not about the body; it’s about knowing when to display your “glory” and how to display it without excluding others.

This eliminates the underlying assumption that women’s bodies are inherently sexual, and by extension, inherently inappropriate for view.

For many women, attractive bodies are their glory. There is absolutely nothing wrong for a woman to draw attention to her figure or dress — for the right reasons, in the right context. There is nothing absolutely sexual about a woman drawing attention to her figure or dress. An attractive dress or an exposure of skin does not automatically make her prideful, sexual, or inappropriate.

And, incidentally, if a woman is displaying her glory appropriately, in the right context, she should be prepared for people noticing her glory.

***

Let’s talk about complimenting women.

If a man stops a woman on the sidewalk to say, “You look nice in that dress!” she will probably feel threatened and degraded and walk away thinking he’s a creep. “But she was displaying herself!” the poor man might protest. “She was wearing an attractive dress! Shouldn’t I have the right to comment on something she chose to wear in public?”

No, because clothing alone does not get the last word.

The context of a sidewalk and a strange guy does not invite attention. In fact, that’s the classic scenario for a scary, uncomfortable situation.

But change the context to a night out dancing, and you’ve got a totally different situation. People dress up to go dancing. They go dancing to interact with people. There’s an understanding that flirting and small talk — including niceties such as “You look good in that dress!” — are accepted. There’s common ground between the guy and the girl, a mutual understanding of why they’re here and what their interaction might be.

This context gives extra meaning to people’s dress, words, actions, and intentions. When somebody dresses up for dancing, she’s probably okay with getting attention on her appearance. When somebody gives a compliment, he comes across more as a gentleman than a creep.

That’s the power of context.

Context is more than just a place. It extends to who the individual is and what your relationship with that person is. We automatically know not to feel attraction for our relatives or minors. We automatically know that a stripper at work wants a sexual response. And if we know the individual, we’re aware of how he or she perceives things — or how they perceive us. Our relationship gives us insight into how we should perceive or interact with another.

But there’s another crucial element in this social conversation — consent.

Consent operates on all three levels — clothing, context, and signalling.

If a woman is standing in the back of the dance floor, arms crossed, her signals outweigh whatever she’s wearing or whatever context she is in — she is not interested in attention. She is clearly not consenting to whatever is happening in this context or whatever associations people are making with her clothes. She wants to be left alone.

It’s consent that makes up context. If a workplace establishes a dress code that forbids cleavage for ladies and bare chests for guys, they’re not consenting to a woman coming in with her boobs spilling out over her push up bra or a guy walking in shirtless to purchase his gas. A nudist colony consents to viewing and displaying nudity in a nonsexual way. Our society has not consented to public displays of nudity.

This makes it inappropriate to wear certain clothes to work, to walk around naked on Main Street, or to claim nudists are trying to tempt you sexually.

Consent applies to what you’re willing to wear and potentially convey, too, especially as your context and signalling changes.

If you’re going to display cleavage, you’re going to have to be okay with people noticing your cleavage. If you’re going to wear that plunging neckline to a nightclub, you’re going to have to be okay with people assuming you’re drawing attention to your well-endowed figure. If you’re going to wear that plunging neckline to a nightclub and make eyes at the dashing man across the room, you’re going to have to be okay with him interpreting your signals as a flirtatious advancement — maybe even a sexual one.

Does all of this automatically mean a woman wants sexual attention? Nope. After all, language still gets garbled — maybe she was unaware of how sexy her dress looks, or maybe she meant to be friendly rather than flirty.

But it does mean that it’s unrealistic to speak the language of sexual attraction loud and clear and get horribly offended if someone interprets it that way.

You’ve got to be aware of what your clothes, context, and signals convey in combination with each other. That’s knowing how to speak the social conversation.

That’s the essence of decency.

 

***

How is this different than arguing that women shouldn’t wear X article of clothing because it conveys sexiness or that men shouldn’t be expected not to interpret her clothing choices as a cry for sexual attention?

I’m arguing for a whole personbig picture approach — one that takes into consideration more than just a female body and/or a particular article of clothing.

Instead of trotting out the much-used bikini, I’m going to turn the gender tables and talk about shirtless men.

Is a shirtless man signalling sexual attention in and of itself? Depending on your experience or inclination, yes or no. Does he give consent for certain parts of the body to be noticed (not ogled, noticed)? Yes. If you’re ogling a guy simply for being shirtless, you’re potentially misreading the situation. If you notice his toned abs, you’re being a normal human with eyeballs.

Move on to the context. Is the context signalling sexual attention in and of itself? If it’s a beach, probably not. If it’s a sorority beach party where all the hot young singles come to hook up, potentially. If it’s the Bachelorette at the poolside with all her boyfriends and he’s one of those boyfriends, yes, he’s definitely presenting himself sexually.

And then finally, consensual signals. Is he swimming with his family? Probably not interested. Leave him alone. Is he reading a book on his beach towel? Probably not interested. Is he flirting with a group of girls? He might be. Did he laugh nervously and turn away when you made a comment about his abs? Not. Interested. (But don’t beat yourself up for making an honest mistake.)

 

***

Bodies are not (or should not be) the problem. An article of clothing is not (or should not be) the problem. The problem is when men equate “female body part shown” with “sex,” even when her signals and her context are screaming loudly that she has no interest in sexual attention.

The problem is when women ignore how they’re coming across in a particular context with their particular signals.

The problem is that many people won’t allow a context for nudity or physical beauty apart from sexuality.

And the problem is that not everybody interprets clothes, context, and signals in the same way.

The solution is paying attention to the cultural conversation that clothes, context, and signalling speak. Hopefully we can come to a clearer language that leaves everybody less frustrated, misunderstood, and objectified.

P.S. Want more modesty talk? Here’s my favorite momsplanation on decent dress. And seriously, read Christine’s piece, “Modesty 101: Modesty Is Not About Clothes, Rather Glory and Context.”