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.”

How I Managed to Read Harry Potter and Not Fall Into the Sin of Witchcraft

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Like all real Christians, I, of course, did not read Harry Potter as a kid. I wouldn’t give even the appearance of evil. I wouldn’t tolerate the sin of witchcraft. And please don’t bring up the hypocrisy that I didn’t have a problem with the wizardry and magic of Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, because, um, they’re different, obviously. Somehow.

This led to a mysterious, some would say magical relationship with the Harry Potter series. As a bookworm growing up in the twenty-first century, it was a huge part of my life, and I had absolutely no idea what it was about. My insular fundamentalist community opposed it so vehemently that I was too cowed to even read a synopsis online, but I did stare at the thick spines at the library, and I noticed whenever a new book came out.

A confession: Once, when I was babysitting, I found a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on the shelf. The entire night, I wrestled with the temptation to take it down, crack it open, maybe see what all of this hullabaloo was about. I couldn’t believe my weak will, but I caved. I read the synopsis on the back. I flipped through the pages. I saw the familiar names — Hermione, Harry, Ron.

Oh, gosh. It looked interesting.

I felt sick to my stomach and never gave into the temptation again.

You are the first to receive this confession. Forgive me, for I have sinned.

To assuage both my curiosity and my guilt, I purchased Richard Abanes’ book, Fantasy and Your Family: Exploring The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Modern Magick.

Now, pause — this is big. I purchased this book. I am the world’s biggest miser. I never buy anything. That just shows you how desperate I was to get some information on Harry Potter: I spent money.

We all know that the biggest reason Christians oppose Harry Potter is that it introduces innocent children to witchcraft. And Abanes took great care to make the case that children who read Harry Potter go on to explore witchcraft, practice real spells, and dabble in real magick. After all, J.K. Rowling uses actual, honest-to-goodness spells and magick in her series.

The great irony is that I learned more about actual, honest-to-goodness, real life witchcraft from reading this book refuting Harry Potter than I ever would have learned from reading the series itself.

So listen up, rebels: if you want a crash course in Wicca, read an anti-Potter hit piece.

Honestly, I don’t regret not reading Harry Potter as a kid. I regret making a big deal out of it. I regret judging other people who read it. I regret feeling like an outsider when every reference I didn’t understand came from Harry Potter.

But you know how if you read a good book too young, you might misunderstand it and go about the rest of your life opposed to it simply because of your youthful ignorance? It’s like that. Had I read it in the state of mind I was told to have, I might’ve come away genuinely anti-Potter and permanently missed out on a good thing. (Just like my husband, who couldn’t get past the first few chapters and to this day refuses to read the books with me. Ugh. The nerve, having the freedom to read Harry Potter and just throwing it out the window….)

As it happened, I had a delightful surprise waiting for me as a free-thinking adult. And man oh man, it was even more magical and perfect than little old fundie me ever imagined.

Oh, and I’m still not interested in witchcraft.

Happy twenty years, Harry Potter!

Photo Credit

Thank You for Your Service, Teachers

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Well, that’s that. Kindergarten graduation went out with a bang — that is to say, with one kid refusing to wear a cap and gown, another kid requiring a handheld escort during the processional, and another cracking jokes the entire time he stood on the risers.

These kids know how to read, every single one of them. Their assessment scores are unprecedented in the school, all of them. I could not be prouder of their academic achievements.

Their little characters and budding social skills are, shall we say, somewhat lacking, but I’m too exhausted to go into that.

Exhausted is the word of the day for me lately, especially this last month of school. Exhausted. Teaching was hard. Disciplining some of these kids was harder. Dealing with all of that when all everybody wanted to do was go swimming and play their Xbox was hardest.

When I finally got a chance to lie spreadeagle on my bed, in front of the fan, listening to T-Swift on Spotify for an uninterrupted hour, it occurred to me that teachers deserve more respect than they currently get.

You know how veterans and members of the military (rightly) get instant respect from everybody, regardless of politics, or whether or not they were deployed? Our society is conditioned to honor their sacrifice, to recognize it, make much of it, because we value the work they do for our country.

We say “thank you for your service” whenever we find out somebody served in the military. We honor them at baseball games and at church. We have national holidays and songs and rituals. We are reminded what we owe them — our life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I think a similar societal respect needs to go towards teachers. I think teachers need that sort of recognition. I think our society needs to remember what we owe them.

Teaching is peacemaking. Teaching is making life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness possible. Teaching is bringing hope to places where there’s not much of it. These are more stereotypically “feminine” virtues, but I think our culture needs to honor the peacemakers just as much as the warmakers. What good is the noble sacrifice of our military if there is no good left to sacrifice for?

Teachers are preserving that good. They fight for virtuous, educated citizens, against the odds of poverty, bad behavior, bullying, horrible home situations, and whatever else they face every day in the classroom.

Having experienced this fight, I know what a sacrifice and an emptying this is. It is a slow death, in a lot of ways — not only of the physical body, worn down through trying to keep up with the demands of the administration and the state testing and the homework and the kids, but also of the spirit, worn down from all the discouraging setbacks.

I think we need to start acknowledging this peaceful war waged in our schools as just as urgent as the war waged overseas. I think we need to honor this “feminine” sacrifice, in a similar way we honor the “masculine” sacrifice of those who fight to defend our country — not to challenge the military’s sacrifice, not to denigrate it, but to raise up the importance and the necessity of the sacrifice of those publicly involved in shaping the souls of the next generation.

Teachers’ challenges aren’t just little boys throwing a tantrum at wearing a graduation gown. They’re entering the lives of children who get threatened at gunpoint on the street at eight years old, who solicit sex at age six because their parents didn’t teach them any better, who commit suicide at age seven due to bullying. They’re trying to build a future for children whose moms have more babies just to get more welfare, whose parents’ proudest accomplishment is graduating eighth grade. They’re trying to give hope to the kid with rotted teeth and an ever-present stench, the student who’s embarrassed that his mom can’t buy anything for the end-of-school party, the children who can’t play outside of their two-bedroom apartment because it’s too dangerous.

They’re trying to give kids a decent education even when administration piles on unnecessary busywork and the state requires too much and nobody ever listens to the teachers, who actually know what’s best for their students. They’re trying to give kids a decent childhood, even though recess is mostly nonexistent now and even kindergarten is rigorous and kids have to set in plastic chairs all day.

There are real demons out there in society, and teachers stare them down every day with determination and kindness to spare (sometimes).

Please thank a teacher. Thank them for their service like you would one of the honorable members of our military. They deserve public respect for their public service to our country and community. And they could use a little encouragement right now.

How to Call Your Representatives If You Hate Talking on the Phone

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1. Spend days alternately horrified by X issue and terrified of what everybody else will think of you for feeling horrified.

2. Realize it’s now or never.

3. Work up your courage (minimum 30 minutes).

4. Google (again) to confirm that representatives really only care about calls, not emails. (Seriously?! WHY.)

5. Continue to work up courage. This time, stare at your phone.

6. Google a call script that fits your personality.

7. Edit out verbs like “outrage” and adjectives like “tone-deaf” and sweeping generalizations like “EVERYBODY ELSE AGREES WITH ME!”

8. Pray, pray, pray that staffers don’t stay past 6 PM.

9. Pray some more that if they do, they’re staying late because constituents are flooding the lines and you’ll get sent to voicemail.

10. Hit the dial button/panic (simultaneous).

11. Stumble through. (THANK GOD IT’S VOICEMAIL!)

12. Repeat for X number of representatives.

13. Celebrate democracy, 9-5 work days, and beloved voicemail.

14. Post to Facebook.

Why You Should Watch “13 Reasons Why”

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Have you seen 13 Reasons Why on Netflix?

Hannah Baker committed suicide a few weeks ago, but before that, she recorded thirteen tapes — thirteen reasons why she did it — thirteen people who made life unbearable. Only those thirteen people know what’s on the tapes, and only they can figure out what to do with their darkest secrets and worst mistakes.  

No story has ever made me feel responsible before — responsible to keep watching, responsible to understand, responsible to pay attention, responsible to make this story a priority. But this one did.

I binge-watched it in four days. Four school days, with strict 11 PM curfews that didn’t prevent me from laying awake processing it all. I internalized the story. It kept me up at night. It gave me nightmares. It made me show up to work exhausted and puffy-eyed.

Normally I wouldn’t consider those things signs of a good story. But in this case, it was. I was listening to the tapes for the first time. I was connected to the story. I needed answers just as much as Clay Jensen did.

It’s partly the subject matter — bullying and suicide. I have stayed up until 3 AM on the phone with a friend to make sure she lived through the night. I have driven across states to take someone I love to the ER for suicidal ideation. I have made thousands of little decisions over texts going out to depressed loved ones — what words to use, when to use them, should I pry, should I let it go, should I listen, should I say something, what’s the right tone. I have experienced situations where my advice was a matter of life and death. I have waited through nights wondering if the person I just got to sleep would be alive when I saw them the next morning.

And it’s everywhere. Almost every girl I mentored cut, attempted suicide, and/or wanted to attempt suicide, on top of mental illness of some sort.

Despite it’s prevalence, there are still so many questions surrounding suicide. Who’s to blame? Can we truly save someone? Should we expect a person, stripped of dignity, hope, and friendship, to respond in any other way?

We’re even still debating whether suicidal ideation is serious or a cry for attention.

Then there’s bullying. I’m already living 13 Reasons Why in the kindergarten classroom. Mean girls tearing each other down. Students scared of standing up for the victim lest they get teased too. Six-year-olds coming home in tears everyday and begging not to go to school. My students. Their moms come to me and they all say the same thing: “I didn’t experience this until middle school.”

I’m reeling, because I didn’t experience this at all.

I’ve been feeling like if I do the right thing, I can stop a girl’s suicide years down the road. And if I do the wrong thing — how much am I to blame?

You’d think these would be easy things — or if not easy, at least straightfoward. But this story knows they’re not. It understands the complications of goodness, the bravery it takes to be a decent human being, to be honest, and to take responsibility. The “heroes” are the villains, and even at their best, they don’t do anything above and beyond the Golden Rule. But it’s still a herculean task to love well and do the right thing.

I don’t want to imply that 13 Reasons Why is a propaganda piece for Stomp Out Bullying. I think it’s a truly masterful story — and a complicated one. There is nothing simplistic about its themes, nothing moralizing about it’s open-ended finale, nothing trivial about its characters, nothing stilted about its plot, nothing easy or explainable about it.

And if that’s not praise enough, I’m thinking about going out and buying the book rather than wait for the other 51 library holds to thin out.

In short, watch this series.

Today’s Classroom Model: A Rant

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Can I rant a bit about today’s typical educational model? Please? Thank you.

I HATE IT.

I am talking about the typical set-up with one teacher and 18-30 children for eight hours a day, five days a week. I even have an aide, and it doesn’t help.

Here’s a glimpse into my day:

“This story is called Is This Panama? It’s the story about a bird — A, please sit belly or bottom. It’s the story — what is that in your mouth?”

“It’s gum, teacher!”

“No, it’s not gum, teacher, he’s lying.”

“Spit it out and throw it away, please. All right, now I need everyone paying attention. Look at how nicely Y is sitting. Can you all sit like Y? Oh, I love how M is sitting now. We’re just waiting on E. E. E. E. E! Hello-o. Please stop talking and look up here. So, this is the story about a bird named Sammy — “

“STOP TOUCHING MY HAIR.”

“I’m not touching your hair.”

“F, please stop touching S’s hair.”

“I wasn’t touching her hair.”

“YES YOU WERE YOU LIAR.”

“S, kind words. F, please sit down. Y, please stop touching my knees, for the third time. SO THIS STORY IS ABOUT A BIRD NAMED SAMMY AND HOW HE MIGRATES TO PANAMA. Can you say Panama?”

“Panama!”

“A, what is in your mouth?

Welcome to one of the better-behaved classes academically outperforming the other K5 students.

You might wonder, why so stringent? Why can’t he lay on his back? Why can’t he mess around with the string on the carpet? Why can’t they call out comments and questions as the story progresses rather than requiring them to raise their hand?

Because we are always one wiggle away from all hell breaking loose.

With a handful of kids, it doesn’t really matter if they lay on their back or mess around with something or call out a response. With eighteen kids, it is an unstoppable tide.

It kills me, it really does, to focus so much of my energy on crowd control. This is not the education I want for them. I want an individualized education that works with their quirks and preferences. It’s exhausting and disheartening trying to squeeze little individuals into a predetermined way of learning just to keep the class together enough just so at least some kids will catch on.

I mean, never learned best sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor or sitting upright in a chair. I did history draped across the couch, with little naps here and there. I did math sprawled across my bed, with extra time to doodle scenes from the novel I was working on. And I was done with school for the day in two to three hours. To this day, I never work at a desk.

I can’t imagine spending over eight hours a day in school and on the bus, only to have homework waiting when I get back. And I’m an adult. This is what we require of kids as young as four-years-old.

To be clear, I am not opposed to children going to school. I am opposed to children going to a school with an educational model that fundamentally undermines who they are as kids and as individuals.

***

The problem is two-fold: there are too many kids, and there are kids who don’t work well in classes.

Of course, some kids do work well in classes. The majority of mine are whip-smart. They can focus fairly well, they can work independently, they can read, they catch on quickly, and they would do just fine if the five kids who consistently cause trouble were absent from the class. I can pull out my fun games without worrying that a fight will break out; I can pull out the multisensory activities without worrying about spending fifteen minutes cleaning up; I can read and read and read books to them and even ask a comprehension question or two without the entire class melting down.

Oh, what a glorious day it is when certain children are absent and the class size is down to a manageable fifteen and we all have fun and I go home feeling like maybe what I do is worth it!

Don’t get me wrong — I love each of my children dearly. But there’s only one teacher and eighteen of them, and it’s impossible to give them all the attention they need.

Early into teaching, a parent mentioned to me that I spent more time with her child as the teacher than she did as a parent.

That terrifies me, because filling in as a parent for eighteen young students means everybody loses.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to put one child’s needs on the backburner in order to put out larger fires. Your head hurts, babe? One second — A just stabbed S with a pencil. Your dad’s in jail? Hang on, love to talk, but J is having a meltdown over here. You think I’m the best teacher ever? You’re too kind, sorry for interrupting, but I promised M I’d get her ointment for her sore finger and this is the fifth time she’s bugged me about it.

I feel the limits of my own inadequacy every day. I see the results of my inadequacy every day. Would S still have these behavioral issues if I had the time to talk with him? Would A feel more loved if I had time to kneel down, look in her eyes, and express genuine sorrow that she bumped her knee? Am I perpetuating a cycle of poverty and crime because I don’t have the time to meet each child’s needs?

That’s not as far-fetched as it seems. One of my students, suspended multiple times, has had siblings kicked out of school and a parent in jail. This student exhibits similar deviant behavior — despite being the smartest kid in class. I can’t help but feel that the time I have with this student might make a huge difference as to whether they end up kicked out of school, in jail, or graduating college with honors.

Ironically, it’s the well-behaved kids who suffer too. I hardly know my quiet, obedient students, because they’re not screaming at me, starting conversations about sex over lunch, or refusing to fill out their worksheet. They literally, physically cling to me at recess or beg me to read them stories to compensate — and it’s only a matter of time before somebody busts their lip or busts somebody else’s and oops, sorry, we’ll have to see whether he likes green eggs and ham another day.

Ignoring kids was not what I signed up for as a teacher, but I have to do it every day just to cover all the material and keep the class unit functional.

Suggested solutions: Smaller class sizes. No more than fifteen, please. The smaller, the better. Alternatively, add more teachers and teacher’s aides. One teacher for every five or so kids. Require parental volunteering. Something. If schools are going to be parenting the kids more than the parents, we need to be able to parent more effectively. And maybe make it a bit easier for people to get educated and certified as teachers?

***

The other problem is, of course, that some kids don’t work well in groups of any size. I can rattle off to you all the kids in my class who would need or strongly benefit from one-on-one attention. They mostly suffer from being kids or needing lots of guidance because of their behavior issues.

I like to daydream about how I would approach a one-on-one education for some of my kids. Lots of STEM for one boy who literally never pays attention but loves dinosaurs, planes, and building things. Lots of sensory bins and active learning games for one girl who cannot sit still but loves to sing, dance, and handle animals. This girl is a spazz ordinarily, but put her with an animal, and she is the calmest, most tender, thoughtful child ever. I bet she’d love to do math with a rat in her pocket or read to a dog at the library.

Can’t we create a space for these kids? A tailored public education that gives two or three hours of individualized hands-on instruction (if even that much) and then lets them play and create for the rest of the day?

I know how idealistic all this seems, but it’s so needed. My kids and I myself would be eternally grateful for any improvements in our educational system that acknowledge the inadequacy of one teacher among 18-30 students and the uniqueness of each child whose needs buck the current system.

Rant over.

Hijacking Narratives

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I finally figured out what I dislike most about fundamentalism, what I find most toxic: it cannot and will not accept other people’s experiences, claims, intentions, motives, explanations, or observations as real.

I found this out, ironically, through observing liberal arguments on Facebook. It’s standard fare. Some poor unsuspecting soul will say something like, “I want safe bathrooms for everybody. I am concerned for trans people. I am concerned for sexual assault victims who might feel unsafe with male anatomy in their bathroom too. Can we come up with a bathroom solution that protects all people?”

The response is — I guarantee it — something like this: “YOU HORRIBLE TRANSPHOBIC HATEFUL PERSON. How dare you. HOW DARE YOU. YOU HATE TRANS PEOPLE. YOU THINK THEY’RE PREDATORS. I am SICKENED by you.”

The unsuspecting soul grovels before them: “I am so sorry I offended you. I do care about trans people. I never said they were predators.”

“YES YOU DID, YOU DISGUSTING EXCUSE FOR A HUMAN BEING. You hate trans people. You spew hate.”

“But I just said I don’t hate trans people.”

“YES YOU DO!”

Et cetera. Another big step forward for LGBT+ rights.

***

I walked away from viewing this cage fight considerably shaken. It reminded me exactly of the fundamentalist mindset: the inability to allow someone who disagrees with you to mean what they say.

Since we’re on the topic, that’s why any sort of dialogue between the LGBT+ community and the conservative Christian community crashed and burned a long time ago. Gay people cannot actually mean that their love is real and healthy; their children cannot actually mean that they grew up just fine with two dads or two moms; their sexual orientation cannot actually be as unchangeable as they claim, because the Bible says homosexuality is an abomination and the heart is deceitful above all things and Rosaria Butterfield changed her sexual orientation, so there you have it.

This line of thinking may or may not be expressed in the manner seen above (i.e., you disgusting excuse for a human being), but it’s equally damaging.

This is not a strictly “conservative problem” or “liberal problem” or “internet problem” or “LGBT+ issues” problem.

It is an all-of-us problem.

***

A friend of mine confronted some friends, once. This friend expressed concern, hurt, and discomfort at the language they used and the jokes they told. At first, the friends were angry and offended; they thought my friend expressed herself poorly; they thought she was just stirring up the pot and throwing around devastating words.

Then — as my friend put it — “they realized the problem was different: I had meant exactly what I said.”

I meant exactly what I said. 

That. That is the realization many of us need to come to in our conversations with those who disagree with us.

It’s so easy, isn’t it, to dismiss somebody’s perspective and experience because of their word choice or their emotional state.

You’re overreacting. You’re on your period, aren’t you? You just want attention. You’re a white, cisgender male. You always were dramatic.

That’s why many Christians cannot accept as factual the feelings and experiences of a black person or a feminist or a Christian who walked away from their faith. And many secular people cannot accept as factual the feelings and experiences of white people or complementarians or religious people.

Generally, we don’t want to hear anything that contradicts our narrative of the world, that disrupts our “us vs. them” ideologies, that challenges our beliefs that we want to believe are universal.

***

I use the word “narrative” because I think it’s more important to know why we believe the things we believe than to know what we believe. Why we believe can divide us just as much as what we believe, and what drives us to believe can unite us with others different from us. Even if we don’t share the conclusion, we share the process, we share the motives, we share the goals.

I think the key to understanding people, to loving them, to making peace between them, is understanding their narratives — and by “understanding,” I mean letting them mean what they say they mean, even if it contradicts your worldview.

As a fundamentalist Christian, I thought I knew everybody’s narratives. There were only three: those who knew God, those who didn’t, and those who “tasted the heavenly gift” and walked away.

If you knew God, it was because he predestined you, because the Holy Spirit enlightened you, because all along, he was what you were searching for.

If you didn’t know God, you were miserably unhappy and sinful, lost, desperate for escape, incapable of morality or self-control or love. There was a God-sized hole in your heart that nothing could fill.

If you walked away, it was because you hardened your heart; you were bitter and angry against God and others; you threw out the baby with the bathwater; you were deceived; you let your hurt blind you to the truth.

Those narratives dominate and subsume all alternative narratives.

Because of the narrative of those who know God, it’s difficult to be a Christian with doubt, a Christian with the testimony that God doesn’t show up when you need him and that your spiritual life is a source of struggle, not comfort.

Because of the narrative of those who don’t know God, it’s difficult to believe unbelievers who claim to be happy or good without God. “Do you feel like you’re missing anything by not believing in God?” I asked my nonreligious friend. “No,” she said. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. (I didn’t know what to make of that.)

Because of the narrative of those who walk away from God or Christianity, it’s difficult to take them seriously; it’s difficult to see how droves of Christians are abandoning ship for legitimate reasons; it’s difficult to understand how they could have been unhappy within Christianity and how they could be happier elsewhere.

So we resort to shutdown tactics: “You’re deceived. You’re not seeing the full picture. You’re overreacting. You’re just bitter. You’ll come back to the truth eventually.”

And if your worldview requires that your worldview always be right, you have to resort to shutdown tactics. You have to reimagine somebody else’s narrative. You must, or your whole worldview will crumble around your feet.

***

I did a lot of explaining away as a fundamentalist Christian. Lots of it.

I call that explaining away “hijacking narratives.”

When atheists help the local poor, Christians report how amazing it is that God can work through unbelievers. Hijacked narrative.

When a Christian tries to ask an honest, well-meaning question about homosexuality, secular people report how amazing it is that Christians can be so bigoted and heartless. Hijacked narrative.

When you claim that egalitarianism is a more faithful, Biblical reading than complementarianism, people jump all over you for disrespecting the inerrancy of Scripture. Hijacked narrative.

When you claim to be abused, people roll their eyes at the self-centered victimization going on in today’s youth. Hijacked narrative. 

We’re not going to get anywhere with anybody if we cannot allow people to mean what they say.

***

Of course, this is not a simple path to truth.

People say things all the time that they don’t mean. Not everybody is self-aware. People can be deceived, duped, swayed, and manipulated into believing things that harm themselves and others. And even when people mean something, meaning something doesn’t make it true.

I say this as someone who thought for my whole life the truth was one thing and then realized I was lying to myself. I am hyper-aware of my own ability to deceive myself, my frequent inability to be honest with myself — this, as a someone who prides herself on self-awareness, empathy, and sensitivity.

I hijacked my own narrative. That’s the worst part of fundamentalism, for me — it trains you to doubt your own observations, thoughts, and feelings on the empirical fact that we could all be wrong. And when you’ve hijacked your own narrative to keep it in line with the “truth,” it’s incredibly difficult not to hijack the narrative of somebody who grew up with different experiences or observations. It’s hard not to jump to conclusions or have concerns or questions.

This is why I beg for grace, understanding, and patience for everybody — including fundamentalist, religious, cisgender, straight, white, middle-class people, including secular, atheist, transgender, gay, colored, poor people. I beg everyone to listen. I beg everyone to allow people to mean what they say they mean. I beg everyone to meet people where they are — even if their idea of “love” includes elements of bigotry, even if their idea of “truth” includes elements of narrowmindedness, even if their sincere meaning seems out of touch with reality.

Everybody, on all sides: Give people the dignity to know their own thoughts and motives best, even if there’s evidence they don’t.

No more hijacking narratives.