Teaching Spirituality to Kids

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What was your experience with Christian spirituality as a child? When I was a kid, I thought having a relationship with Jesus meant sharing the gospel with my friends and never sinning. Once, I decided to not sin the entire day. I was nice and good and didn’t get into trouble once…and then decided it was too much work and never tried it again.

When I got older, I thought having a relationship with Jesus meant learning, using, and sharing the “Christian worldview” (i.e., all the opinions a certain group of Christians have about contemporary issues).

Of course, I knew that’s not what a relationship with Jesus was, and everybody knew that’s not what a relationship was, and we all acted like it was, anyway. I spent my whole life frustrated with the lack of actual spiritual formation in much of Protestantism. “Read your Bible and pray” was the clearest directive, but unhelpful, because nobody clarified what that meant or how that affected your spirituality. Protestant spirituality was a constant battle between head knowledge and emotionalism.

As I’m about to teach a class of kindergartners in a few weeks, I’m thinking hard about how I want to present spirituality to them.

It started with a mediocre Bible curriculum. My biggest complaint with it was that it seemed just like a Sunday school curriculum — the highest of insults. Sunday school curriculum relies on flannel boards and puppets, things I don’t like. They use boring worksheets and stilted storytelling language. You never know whether to read directly out of the curriculum, make it up as you go along, or read it straight out of the King James Bible. What do you want from me, curriculum?

Worst of all, they retell the same stories, with the same lessons, over and over and over again. As a children’s church worker, I always felt compelled to come up with the craziest illustrations and skits to convince the kids Bible lessons weren’t as boring as we all knew them to be — and I wasn’t doing that five days a week for two semesters.

I figured out why these Bible lessons were boring: they all follow the same recipe for disaster. First, interrupt the story at every other sentence to hammer home that the Bible is true and God is good and was Jonah obeying God? Nooo. Second, interrupt the sentence to explain what “Ebenezer” or “saith” means. Third, moralize the story and emphasize obedience.

Voila! You’ve killed the Bible.

Old Testament literature in particular fascinates me, and I felt it intellectually dishonest and spiritually shallow to teach the Bible as if it was one long repetition of, “Obey God, obey your parents, disobedience is sin, so obey.”

The Bible is fabulous literature. It tells an amazing story about God’s faithfulness. For part of the year, I’m ditching the Bible curriculum for Sally Lloyd-Jones’s The Jesus Storybook Bible. We’re going to talk about it like it’s one of our read alouds, not a book of morals or systematic theology.

Basically, I want to introduce students to God and his scheme of redemption, and that grand narrative sweep them up into a relationship with him, rather than an altar call.

But I’m most excited about our Mondays. We’ll learn about a foreign country and the children who live in it, and then we’ll pray all week for a particular child in poverty.

When I taught preschool to my youngest siblings, they loved praying for our Compassion International child, Manda.

“Dear God,” they would pray, eyes squeezed shut, “please help Manda to get a roof and milk.”

It melted my heart to see kids, only two- and four-years-old, excited about praying for someone in need. (We prayed for Grandpa’s bad back and Caroline’s sore thumb and Mr. So and So’s friends friend who needed a job, too. We prayed about everything.) That’s the love of Jesus, right there. That’s loving the least of these. That, more than any Bible knowledge, will keep them on the straight and narrow.

Love, radical love, is the nature of God, and Christian spirituality is about becoming like God. I will encourage love, through prayer and human interaction, as the central tenet in our kindergarten spiritual formation.

How did you learn about Christian spirituality? How would you go about communicating that with kids, your own or the Sunday school crowd?

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Maybe Men’s Problem with Christianity Is Masculinity

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The Art of Manliness is publishing a series on Christianity and masculinity (here and here). I wrote my senior thesis on the question of gender and spirituality, particularly as it relates to the so-called “feminization” of the church, and then I wrote a long Facebook comment about it, so, obviously, I’m qualified to share my opinion.

To get you up to speed, there is a crisis (again) of men failing to come to church because the church is too “feminine.” Men aren’t interested in touchy-feely small groups and ooey-gooey worship songs. Women (apparently) are. Therefore, men don’t come to church because it’s too feminine, and that’s a problem.

Of course, I sympathize. Singing “heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss” might make anybody squirm on a Sunday morning.

But might I point out, manly men, that a man penned those lyrics? That, in fact, many men write the most notorious of sappy worship songs? And that many male worship leaders choose to sing these songs? And that, also, many women cringe and walk out on emotion-driven sap (been there, done that)?

Despite anatomical differences that lead to hard lines between “masculine” and “feminine,” men and women share overlapping personalities, convictions, and preferences.

As an intelligent, educated, strong woman who likes her Christianity meaty, I take issue with the Art of Manliness and any other book, ministry, or blog even asking questions like, “Is Christianity Inherently Feminine?” — and then equating “feminine” with everything weak and cheesy.

Don’t blame my girlfriends and me for the ooshy-gushiness of some churches. We hate it just as much as any man.

The ultimate problem is not “feminization,” and the ultimate solution (sorry, John Piper) is not “masculinization” — especially if your idea of “masculinization” means playing more Skillet songs at the men’s conference.

The problem with sappy churches is that they’re just that — sappy, trivial, dorky, and irrelevant. And that has nothing to do with women. Women are not the problem. Sappiness is. So stop being sappy.

But there’s still a gender gap, even in churches that aren’t sappy. How do we explain that gender gap?

I hypothesize that so-called masculinity might be the problem, not femininity or Christianity itself.

When Christ walked this earth, he targeted the opposite of the culture’s masculinity — women, children, the poor, the weak, the uneducated. He did not glorify the Roman culture of masculine brutality; he said to turn the other cheek. He did not show any interest in elevating the rich and the privileged; he lifted up the downtrodden. The rich, both materially and spiritually, and the powerful were told to be as little children.

Yes, Jesus flipped tables, and one table he flipped was patriarchal and hypermasculine. No wonder women, children, and the poor — the oppressed and subservient — flocked to him, while the rich, powerful, and spiritually literate wanted him dead.

All that to say, the social constructs of gender can play a role in who goes to church when that social construct stands antithetical to Christianity and when an individual internalizes that social construct. In other words, maybe men don’t want to go to church not just because of sappy worship songs and kumbayah circles, but because core tenets of Christianity and its spirituality fly in the face of what’s considered “masculine.”

Real men don’t cry, remember? Real men are tough, proud, independent, and dominant, so maybe they don’t want to lay down their lives, turn the other cheek, or stand strong for embarrassing virtues like chastity.

The fact is, many good churches preach the gospel, hold to sound tradition and practices, and offer meaningful human interaction — and still some men won’t come. Still some men will interpret virtue as girliness.

The solution isn’t making the church into their hypermasculine image with whatever passes as “manly” today — Skillet and ripped jeans or whatever. The solution, insofar as the church has any control over this, is breaking Christianity out of these silly gender games and remaining true to the God who created both male and female in His image.

True spirituality targets humanity, not masculinity or femininity.

And you know what? I know for a fact many women dislike the sappy status quo in churches too — the women’s ministries and the dorky romance worship. Women as a whole might stay in a sappy church because they’re raising their children as single moms and need support, or they’re the primary caregivers and want to give their kids an opportunity to learn about Jesus.

Women as a whole might feel uncomfortable in a touchy-feely group situation, but more comfortable than men, because our society allows women to hug, cry, and emote in public.

Women as a whole might be more attracted to church because certain gregarious personalities tend to be associated in larger numbers of females.

Women as a whole might associate sappiness with Christianity because they’ve never seen Christianity without sap. For instance, I, as a woman, closed my eyes and raised my hands and tried to cry during worship, because I thought all spiritual people did that. I quickly abandoned that after I knew better.

But churches, as a whole, might be marketing a “hyperfeminine” spirituality to women because they think that’s what women want — even when we’re all gathered in the back after service wishing for better sermons and fewer scrapbooking retreats.

So women, as a whole, might be more inclined to attend church. But women as individuals? We attend and we leave church for a variety of reasons, many identical to men’s — we’re sinful, Christianity’s challenging, people are awkward, and we hate the worship music too.

Your thoughts?

Church Hunting

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Let me tell you about our church hunting so far.

Sunday 1. We got up for an 8 AM English service at a Serbian Orthodox cathedral. Stunning sanctuary. Literally the most gorgeous church choir. I could go on for hours in wordless rapture over how gorgeous this choir was.

But nobody was there, except maybe six people. And nobody sang anything, which is problematic, since the entire Orthodox liturgy is sung. When I turned around toward the end of the service, plenty of people had filled up the back pews — but out of the original six nobodies and the plenty of people, only four people received communion. Four.

For that, and the mumbled, long, preachy sermon, we said adios. I mean, збогом.

Sunday 2. We found ourselves at my parents’ house, several hours away from the church we wanted to visit. I set an alarm for 5:30 AM. We woke up at 7:30 AM.

The alarm never went off.

So, obviously, we just went back to sleep.

Sunday 3. We attended wedding number 4 of 6 out of state, mistakenly considered a Saturday wedding mass as a counts-for-Sunday mass, and again slept in on Sunday morning.

Sunday 4. I stripped the sheets off Erich’s face. “Let’s go, babe. You have twenty minutes.”

Accustomed to his lesiurely life of churchless Sunday mornings, Erich mumbles, “Do we have to go to church?”

I say yes, of course. What are we, heathens?

He said, “I’m going to follow the example of our Lord and rest,” then pulled the sheets over his head and went back to sleep.

Regardless, we made it to a Greek Orthodox church on time. The website advertised itself as English-speaking, and that was…somewhat true. There was most definitely Greek, Greek everywhere. And sometimes English. But mostly unintelligible speech that could be either Greek or English.

A greeter whispered instructions to me over my shoulder as I kept flipping between pages, trying to locate which of the hundreds of Kyrie eleisons we were all stumbling through.

And then the priest preached on the icon of St. John the Baptist in Chicago and how recently it began dripping healing myrrh with two chemicals a scientist couldn’t identify. Aren’t God’s miracles amazing? Erich, a chemist, was not impressed. Lord shoot me down for my unbelieving heart, but I wasn’t, either.

Since we’d visited a whopping two churches, I felt it appropriate to dissolve into an existential meltdown. How hard was it, I wanted to know, to make me okay with any of the millions of denominations that speak in the English language and don’t have dripping icons?

I texted my friend an anguished confession: I feared I would be forced to join the Catholic Church, after all. She said, “Keep visiting churches.” Meltdown over.

Sunday 5. We pulled through a maze of one-way streets to a little church smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood. We walked past a rummage estate sale.

“What’s a rummage estate sale?” Erich asked.

“Like a rummage sale,” I said, “but the creepy guy out front tricks you into going into his house.” (I made that up.)

We were late, but few people were there, anyway. A ten-year-old boy showed up later than we, made a hurried bow to the altar, and got into his altar boy robes before parading in the second procession with a candle. A third altar boy, even later, showed up out of nowhere with the cross.

In front of me, a baby clutched and unclutched his fist at me, staring. Then he broke off his mother’s beaded necklace. Beads bouncing everywhere on the hardwood, parishioners and Erich hunted them down, and the best part was, the young mother didn’t look embarrassed. The choir of young women and a tall bass kept singing.

The reader, a short, nervous woman who kept tabs on everybody who walked through the church doors, whispered the reading. Then a short African man read the same passage aloud in a language I’d never heard before — Ethiopian, maybe, if the music was any indication.

A nervous deacon gave the homily in a fast monotone, pausing to shuffle each handwritten page. It was the worst sermon delivery I’d ever heard, but Orthodox sermons are short and not the point of liturgy. Plus, I learned a thing or two about the Transfiguration.

People kept coming in — black people, white, Hispanic, Asian, head-scarfed and bare-headed, homeschool-dressed, professorial. No young men Erich’s age, I noted.

By the time we got to the Lord’s Prayer, there were enough representatives of each culture for four different people groups to recite the prayer in their own language, after we all sang it in English. I didn’t recognize any of the languages, but I almost cried, anyway.

During the Eucharist, people kept coming up to us and giving us fellowship bread, a sign of goodwill to those who cannot receive communion. They gave us smiles and kind words too. And they invited us to coffee hour (i.e., an Orthodox combination of the two things I dislike most: black coffee and socializing).

Being introverts, we declined and escaped back out to the sidewalk with the rummage estate sale sign. But I think we’ll go back next week, and we might even stay for coffee hour.

What are your funny and inspiring church hunting stories?

Staying Hydrated

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In my pursuit of being a human, I’ve started drinking the daily water requirement.

Normally I don’t drink anything. Anything. (I don’t know how I managed to stay alive this long.) But that changed after months of chronic exhaustion and a Google search that found dehydration to be a cause of fatigue, moodiness, headaches, and confusion.

So I downloaded an app called Plant Nanny (yes, I regulate my life through apps), which tracks your water intake through the growth and wilting of an adorable plant.

Meet Wibble Wobble, a dandelion (?). I planted him a few days ago. The app sends me reminders every few hours or so to give me and my plant a drink. The depressing sad face of a wilted Wibble Wobble has guilted me into drinking 62 ounces of water per day.

That’s ten times more bathroom trips than I’m used to taking, but I think this hydration thing works. I feel more energetic and focused in these past couple days than I have in the past few months.

Do you drink the proper amount of water? Does it boost your energy levels and mood? And if you’re nannying a plant too, give me a ring. Wibble Wobble needs a playmate.

How to Be a Good Wife

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For my birthday, mother-in-law gave me this snippet allegedly from the May 1955 edition of Housekeeping Monthly.* I read it out loud over homemade Neapolitan ice cream cake, and we all got a good laugh out of it — except Erich, who made sure to remind me when I wasn’t speaking in a “low, soothing, and pleasant voice” and is now taking advantage of his right to disappear from home whenever he wants to. (I’m kidding, in case it wasn’t obvious. I would never marry a man with 1955 expectations.)

Notes: Bold phrases = me ROTFLOL, and I am not responsible for the lack of Oxford commas.

The good wife’s guide

  • Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready, on time for his return. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs. Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospect of a good meal (especially his favourite dish) is part of the warm welcome needed.
  • Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you’ll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people.
  • Clear away the clutter. Make one last trip through the main part of the house just before your husband arrives.
  • Gather up schoolbooks, toys, paper, etc. and then run a dustcloth over the tables.
  • Over the cooler months of the year you should prepare and light a fire for him to unwind by. Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order, and it will give you a lift too. After all, catering for his comfort will provide you with immense personal satisfaction.
  • Prepare the children. Take a few minutes to wash the children’s hands and faces (if they are small), comb their hair and, if necessary, change their clothes. They are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part. [<<< Favorite line.] Minimise all noise. At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of the washer, dryer or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet.
  • Be happy to see him.
  • Greet him with a warm smile and show sincerity in your desire to please him.
  • Listen to him. You may have a dozen important things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first — remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours.
  • Make the evening his. Never complain if he comes home late or goes out to dinner, or other places of entertainment without you. Instead, try to understand his world of strain and pressure and his very real need to be at home and relax.
  • Your goal: Try to make sure your home is a place of peace, order and tranquility where your husband can renew himself in body and spirit.
  • Don’t greet him with complaints and problems.
  • Don’t complain if he’s late home for dinner or even if he stays out all night. Count this as minor compared to what he might have gone through that day.

  • Make him comfortable. Have him lean back in a comfortable chair or have him lie down in the bedroom. Have a cool or warm drink ready for him.
  • Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soothing and pleasant voice.
  • Don’t ask him questions about his actions or question his judgment or integrity. Remember, he is the master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him.

  • A good wife always knows her place.

Well, that escalated quickly.

Tell me your favorite “good wife” advice!

*Snopes claims the Housekeeping Weekly reference was fabricated, but the bullet points still accurately reflect the worst of the 1950’s. Read more on the Cult of Domesticity here.

How to Vote During the Worst Presidential Election Ever

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Let me lay out all my cards on the table: I’m a moderate, small government, pro-life voter, and I find a Trump presidency scarier than I do a Clinton presidency.

I know, I know — the SCOTUS nominations. The email scandal. Benghazi. The pro-choice platform. Hillary Clinton herself. But at the end of the day, after hearing everybody’s reasons for why Clinton’s scary, evil, and destined to wreck our country, I am unpersuaded that she, a crooked politician, is worse than an ignorant, bigoted, sexist bully who resorts to Twitter and insults. What is this, middle school?

This election blows my mind. Fifty-four percent of voters dislike Clinton. Fifty-eight percent dislike Trump. The Republican party doesn’t like Trump. Many Democrats don’t like Clinton. How is it possible, with all the disgust and horror thrown at these two candidates, we nominated them as the major candidates for president? This is not a rhetorical question: where are these people who voted for Trump and Clinton, and why didn’t the 54% and 58% stop them? 

This is all a great mystery. In my mind, you can’t go wrong and you can’t go right in this election, however you vote. You know that ethical dilemma where you’re at the helm of a train hurtling down a track, and you can chose to either hit the one person or sacrifice all the people in the train?

That’s this election. Morally impossible.

All that to say, I started a constructive dialogue on my personal Facebook page about voting in general and for whom to vote, specifically. Though all my friends fall into different categories (bite the bullet and vote for Trump, vote Johnson and shake up the system, vote Clinton because Trump’s worse, vote the third party of your conscience), the conversation essentially boiled down to this:

Is voting ultimately a representation of your personal convictions, or is voting ultimately a pragmatic move? 

With such truly awful candidates, many Christians argue that it’s unconscionable to vote for any of them. Matthew J. Franck makes a powerful case for just that: “It is wrong to think of a vote not cast for Leading Contender A as a de facto vote cast for Leading Contender B.”

Vote as if your ballot determines nothing whatsoever—except the shape of your own character. Vote as if the public consequences of your action weigh nothing next to the private consequences. The country will go whither it will go, when all the votes are counted. What should matter the most to you is whither you will go, on and after this November’s election day.

This sounds tempting to me, and I leant toward it for a while. It’s far easier to vote for a third party candidate who won’t win than to step into the larger two-party mess. I couldn’t confidently say I voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, couldn’t proudly say I voted for an increasingly pro-abortion platform or a self-destructive, anti-everybody reality star.

Then one of my former professors challenged me on that view: that’s a romantic idea, but is that the purpose of voting?

Is it? Is the purpose to express myself and my views? Or is the purpose to make the best decision possible in this worst case scenario? Is personally expressing myself in this election, of all elections, throwing up my hands at the helm of the train and doing nothing?

Or is the purpose of voting pragmatic — sticking with the reality of the two-party system and playing the political game to protect those with the most to lose? Is expressing myself via my vote constructive and democratic? Is it benefiting those around me, my fellow citizens, especially those more effected by whoever rises to power?

That is the dilemma for many of us. We need to figure out what exactly our vote means before we figure out which of the evils we vote into the office. That’s given me some clarity in this election. (Some.)

Personally, I’m leaning toward pragmatic voting, which means I need to figure out the worst that can happen and then the “best way” to prevent it from happening. I’m convinced Trump is the worst thing that could happen to this country. Of course, he could be gridlocked by a Congress and Senate who despise him. If I that seemed likely, I would vote for him — but I’m not granted that assurance, not with his penchant for lashing out at people he dislikes and cozying up to our enemies.

That leaves me with two options: voting for Clinton, which makes me die inside, and voting for Johnson, in hopes that the Libertarian party collapses the two-party system.

But that’s just me. I am not certain voting pragmatically is the right way to go, much less the specific vote I cast. But the train’s hurtling toward a lot of people, and we’ve got to make a decision — pragmatism or personal expression?

Two Twitter Accounts

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I don’t often get on Twitter, but when I do, I scroll through these Twitter feeds and laugh until I cry.

Exploding Unicorn chronicles the hilarious exchanges between a dad and his young daughters. His girls have the driest wit, and this family reminds me so much of my conversations with Erich — nerdy, random, and laugh-out-loud hysterical. #familygoals

Equally hilarious is manwhohasitall. My favorite feminist commentary is comedic — what better way to see inconsistencies and prejudices than by rolling on the floor laughing out loud? Manwhohasitall posts advice given to women who want to “have it all” — but for a male audience.

I can’t even handle this.

I’m crying.

Go check these guys out and spend an hour of your summer doing the only ab workout worth doing — laugh.

P.S. Follow me on Twitter too! (But I’m not funny. Sorry.)

Middle Names

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I’m thinking about baby names lately. I’ve kept an ever-increasing, ever-changing list of baby names on my phone for the past year, despite no plans of conceiving any time soon. I’m particularly in love with my current baby name trend — English surnames as first names and British schoolboy names. Also, tangent: I recently heard of a couple who named their beautiful son Aeneas.

Be still, my beating heart.

But I’m afraid Erich and I could never produce a child who fits such a name, so I’m not adding it to the list just yet.

First names come easily for me, but middle names, I’m lost. What are middle names for? Mine is Elizabeth, and while I like my middle name, I don’t use it or attach any significance to it. But a first name without a middle name seems sad and economical to a fault.

I’ve been thinking of alternative reasons for middle names besides just adding a second pretty name. Right now, I like the idea of First Name / Baptismal Name / My Maiden Name / Last Name — Aeneas Michael Bergmann Steger, for instance. It’s such a mouthful, but I particularly love the practice of giving my maiden name as my children’s middle names.

I never seriously considered hyphenating our last names, because if my daughter wanted to hyphenate her last name with her husband’s, it’d end up Bergmann-Steger-Smith, etc. — and that’s ridiculous. But as I’ve expressed elsewhere, I’m deeply connected to my maiden name. Maybe I’m still unused to married life, but I still see myself as a “Bergmann girl.” Bergmann is my last name, Steger is Erich’s, despite what my legal identification says. I’m hoping to at least come to see Steger as “ours” if not “mine.”

In any case, giving my children my maiden name connects them with my side of the family, the people I’ve loved the longest and deepest. It unites them to an important part of my identity.

It’s a common practice in the American south, in Spanish-influenced countries, and even Scandinavia, I hear. Many of our presidents have their mother’s maiden name as their middle name. I’m attending the wedding of a friend whose middle name is hyphenated between a “normal” middle name and what appears to be her mother’s maiden name. Her invitation gave me this idea in the first place. It would be a bold move in my corner of the world, but the idea’s growing on me.

What do you think? Would you give your child your maiden name? What’s your philosophy on middle names, either your own or your children’s?

Marriage Vows

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I didn’t become opinionated about marriage vows until after I got married and attended weddings where the vows weren’t done to my liking.

Take, for example, my biggest pet peeve about marriage vows — when ministers rehearse the vows during the rehearsal. After sitting through a rehearsal where the couple literally said “I do,” Erich got up and said, “Well, we don’t need to come back tomorrow.”

But seriously.

Another pet peeve is when the minister feeds the vow to the couple: “I, So and So.” Pause. “Take you, So and So.” Pause. It irritates me when the minister, who has talked too long and made too many lame jokes already, cheerfully and loudly says these sacred vows as if people ought to pay attention to him instead of the soft-spoken couple, who are, of course, never miced.

My friend says it makes her feel like the minister is getting married to the couple. I don’t feel quite the same way, but yes, it’s awkward. One minister got around the problem by whispering the vows to the couple. I loved that. All ears were on the beautiful couple, and the pauses emphasized the sincerity and commitment in each line of the vow. Well-done, minister.

Since I didn’t know about this whisper method, Erich and I read our vows. (Erich knew that if he tried memorizing his, he’d forget it right as he opened his mouth.) We chose to read traditional marriage vows for our wedding. Erich, the traditionalist who never considered an outdoor wedding as an option, wasn’t interested in writing personalized vows.

And me? Frankly, I was afraid of writing our wedding vows. Three reasons:

(1) I didn’t want to look back on my wedding vows and cringe at the writing style.

(2) I didn’t want to make promises I couldn’t keep. Promising to laugh at all his jokes, treat him with kindness, and greet him with a smile each day — well, I don’t laugh at all his jokes; I’m not always kind; and I definitely won’t be smiling all the time.

(3) I once attended a wedding where the couple declared their love for each other rather than promised their love to each other. I’m not sure that counts as marriage. Does that count as marriage? It might not count as marriage. I didn’t want to risk it.

So I ended up reading off a folded piece of paper, glancing into his eyes and back down, the words I had longed to say: “I, Bailey Elizabeth Bergmann, take you, Erich Michael Steger, to be my husband. I promise to be true to you in plenty and in want, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”

Chills.

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But that vow to my beloved came after a vow we made to God — a prayer we read together, compiled from Scripture. It made the point that our vows weren’t just to each other before God; our vows were to God before each other. Plus, it got rid of that long pause where the reader comes up, figures out how to turn on the microphone, and fumbles through 1 Corinthians 13.

We prayed,

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,

We invoke your name and your presence over us as we make our marriage vows.

May we cleave to each other, transforming dust and bone into one flesh.

May we be faithful to one another, always intoxicated by the other’s love.

May we submit to one another out of reverence to Christ, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind; doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility counting the other more significant than ourselves; looking not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of the other; having this mind among ourselves, which is ours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

If you bless us with children, may we not exasperate them but bring them up in the joy of the Lord.

May we govern our household with wisdom. Bless our work; feed us with the food that is needful for us, lest we be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest we be poor and steal and profane the name of our God.

Whatever comes in our marriage and our future life, let our hearts say, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.” Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, yet we will rejoice in the Lord; we will take joy in the God of our salvation.

For this reason, we bow our knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of your glory you may grant us to be strengthened with power through your Spirit in our inner being, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith—that we, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

“That’s too long,” Erich told me.

What can I say? I’m a writer. I’m wordy. Hence, I didn’t write my own marriage vows.

Bergmann-StegerWedding-220

What did or will you do for your marriage vows? I’d love to know!

Christianity and the Cult of Domesticity

nineteenth century woman

I’m reading Rebecca Traister’s book, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, and stumbled upon a historical movement called the cult of domesticity, or the cult of true womanhood (“cult” meaning “culture”).

I was hooked.

Barbara Welter’s well-known essay, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” defines “true womanhood” like this:

The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors and society could be divided into four cardinal virtues — piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. Put them all together and they spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife — woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame achievement or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power.

This sounds precisely like the patriarchal and complementarian rhetoric of my teenage years, but it comes not from today’s “back to the Bible, back to the family” movement but from the American cult of domesticity. In “Notes on The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood,” Prof. Catherine Lavender explains:

When husbands went off to work, they helped create the view that men alone should support the family. This belief held that the world of work, the public sphere, was a rough world, where a man did what he had to in order to succeed, that it was full of temptations, violence, and trouble. A woman who ventured out into such a world could easily fall prey to it, for women were weak and delicate creatures. A womanʹs place was therefore in the private sphere, in the home, where she took charge of all that went on.

Sounds familiar? This is the grandmammy of patriarchy and complementarianism — the separation of the “masculine” sphere and the “feminine” sphere. The woman dare not work outside the home because that placed upon her the burden of Adam’s curse. Her sphere was creating a home, a haven from the world for a work-weary husband and guests, made more beautiful and refreshing by her homemaking talents like bread-baking and crocheting.

I ought to know. I wrote for a site called Raising Homemakers as a stay-at-home daughter.

Speaking of which, do you remember patriarchy’s odd emphasis on feminine handicrafts? As a teenager, I went through a program called Keepers at Home, which was like a patriarchal version of Girl Scouts complete with sash and badges. We learned skills like baking (from scratch), quilting, and basketweaving. Other badges included macrame, crewel embroidery, and paper piercing — obscure handcrafts in need of Googling.

There’s nothing wrong with obscure handcrafts, of course, but it seems fishy to me that such obscure handcrafts are part of a young ladies’ homemaking program subsumed under a larger organization called Keepers of the Faith. For the longest time, I wondered why anybody would link homemade bread (homemade bread, mind) with ultimate feminine virtue.

Answer? The cult of domesticity. Women taught other women more elaborate feminine arts to occupy the free time afforded by modern appliances and conveniences:

Everyday tasks were made more time-consuming and taxing, so as to better fill the days of women who might otherwise grow restive and attempt to leave the house. As Godey’s Lady’s Book helpfully informed readers, “There is more to be learned about pouring out tea and coffee than most young ladies are willing to believe” (Traister, 45).

I felt that restiveness myself. Homemaking bored me to tears. I was far more interested in working with the abstract concept of stay-at-home daughters, the theology behind it and the apologetics of it, than with actually making a quilt or baking cookies. I never wanted to live in Jane Austen’s world like the majority of my stay-at-home acquaintances, because her life of chatting, walking, pouring tea, dancing, repeat, repeat, repeat seemed so meaningless.

I wasn’t alone. The second-wave feminists felt the exact same thing. Laura Turner, in “The Good Wife: How the Cult of Domesticity Still Reigns in the 21st Century,” quotes Betty Friedan on this kind of homemaking devoid of options for intellectual growth, work, or hobbies outside of the feminine arts: “What kind of a woman was she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfillment waxing the kitchen floor? She was so ashamed to admit her dissatisfaction that she never knew how many other women shared it.”

(I remember puzzling over one woman’s comment of how she identified herself as the “Queen of the Home” — which is equivalent to the cult of domesticity’s “Angel of the Home” — and felt the height of success whenever she gets her home in order. Now, I resonate with the sense of satisfaction that comes from crossing off a to-do list and making a stinky bathroom smell like citrus, but I wouldn’t publicly, proudly identify that as one of my personal successes. But then again, I see housework only as a necessary evil, not as part of my womanhood.)

Ironically, only wealthier women achieved this “true womanhood” of leisurely homemaking. As Jeanne Boydston points out in “Cult of True Womanhood,” the majority of women, even middle-class women who bought into the cult of domesticity, did just as much back-breaking dirty work as their husbands:

…wives cooked, cleaned, laundered, sewed, nursed sick family members, took care of their children, and performed a host of other labors. … But nineteenth-century Americans were eager to represent the “home” as distinct from the increasingly exploitative “work place.” With economic value calculated more and more exclusively in terms of cash and men increasingly basing their claims to “manhood” on their role as “breadwinners,” women’s unpaid household labor went largely unacknowledged.

There’s some truth to patriarchal homemakers’ claims: running a home is no small feat. Even in my own little apartment, I find myself constantly picking up, washing dishes, prepping meals, figuring out finances, and doing a host of mind-numbing necessities — and I do wonder how Erich and I will get it all done once both of us start working full-time. So yes, homemaking is hard work deserving of praise.

But the lie in patriarchal homemaking is that this work is, for women, somehow easier than Adam’s curse of labor outside the home — hard enough that nobody can replace a homemaker, of course, but leisurely enough that women find time to put on a fresh face of makeup, tidy up the house, and have supper and a happy countenance on once hubby walks through the doors.

Fact or fiction aside, the cult of domesticity found this sort of leisurely homemaking suitable for the fragile female sex: “It certainly cannot be affirmed, as a historical fact, that [the right to choose one’s profession] has ever been established as one of the fundamental privileges and immunities of the sex,” Justice Joseph Bradley argued against a married woman seeking to practice law apart from her husband on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment (Traister, 53). “The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother.”

His rule, no doubt, followed the practice of English common law called coverture, where “a woman’s legal, economic, and social identity was ‘covered’ by the legal, economic, and social identity of the man she married,” Traister explains (41). She quotes William Blackstone’s chilling interpretation of coverture here:

…the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing. … A man cannot grant any thing to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself” (41).

It’s just too coincidental that complementarianism and patriarchalism emphasize the headship of husbands over their wives and the necessity of “covering” women, married and single, with male protection and guidance throughout their everyday life and spirituality. Some patriarchal voices (I’ve forgotten who, but the Botkin girls are suspect) took this so far that they encouraged single women without a husband or father to take cover under their own brother’s protection. Yikes.

I give them props for following their beliefs to their logical conclusion, at least. Many patriarchalists and complementarians get stumped while figuring out how to apply a middle-class, married, white women’s paradigm onto single women.

The cult of domesticity had a familiar answer for that too — the cult of single blessedness: “The ‘singly blessed’ were presumed to be pious vessels whose commitment to service, undiluted by the needs of husbands or children, made them perfect servants of god, family, and community” (45).

Of course, their services were limited to the “feminine” tasks of teaching, nursing, and the like — which is ironic, considering in 1800, men made up 90% of teachers, even for young children (47). Even as unmarried, women’s destinies and occupations were wrapped around benefiting the family and aligning with a pre-determined definition of “feminine nature.”

As part of that “feminine nature,” the cult of domesticity encouraged a fixation on female purity uncannily similar to today’s purity culture. Welter notes that “the marriage night was the single great event of a woman’s life, when she bestowed her greatest treasure upon her husband.”

To protect this treasure, the cult of domesticity catastrophized the consequences of extramarital sex; in literature, loose women were shamed, punished, and portrayed as less-than-women. Anyone who has witnessed a youth pastor describing foregone purity as “chewed-up gum,” a “crumpled paper heart,” or a “defiled rose” knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Of course, women then, as they do now,

assured young ladies that although they were separate, they were equal. This difference of the sexes did not imply inferiority, for it was part of that same order of Nature established by Him “who bides the oak brave the fury of the tempest, and the alpine flower lean its cheek on the bosom of eternal snows” (Welter).

In no way, then, are today’s complementarianism and patriarchalism returns to culturally unbiased Biblical principles. They’re a defense of a white, middle-class, American concept of femininity, masculinity, and family. Much of Christianity’s complementarianism and patriarchalism seems almost identical to this cult of domesticity, from marriage advice to flower arranging. (Read Welter’s full article if you don’t believe me.)

As Lavender summarizes,

The middle‐class family came to look at itself, and at the nuclear family in general, as the backbone of society. Kin and community remained important, but not nearly so much as they had once been. A new ideal of womanhood and a new ideology about the home arose out of the new attitudes about work and family.

Focus on the Family, the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the Family Integrated Church movement — all zero in on the importance of the nuclear family and the roles men and women must fulfill in order to maintain it.

This explains the hysteria often surrounding the egalitarian and complementarian debates. To many complementarians and patriarchalists, egalitarianism breaks down the roles underpinning the nuclear family, thus destroying society and the church.

As Rev. Mr. Stearns put it back then, “Yours is to determine whether the beautiful order of society…shall continue as it has been” or whether “society shall break up and become a chaos of disjointed and unsightly elements.” Today, John MacArthur argues in “On the Subordination and Equality of Women,” “I think Satan is feverishly involved in upsetting the divine order any way he possibly can.”

That’s why Christianity resists egalitarianism, and that’s why women themselves, though their desires and skills may lend themselves to something other than being a wife, mother, and 24/7 homemaker, cling to even the most abusive forms of patriarchalism.

Welter concludes,

“Who Can Find a Valiant Woman?” was asked frequently from the pulpit and the editorial pages. There was only one place to look for her — at home. Clearly and confidently these authorities proclaimed the True Woman of the nineteenth century to be the Valiant Woman of the Bible, in whom the heart of her husband rejoiced and whose price was above rubies.

With this historical perspective, we get the opportunity of taking a good hard look at American Christianity’s teachings on gender and home life. Did they really come straight from the Bible — or were they ripped right out of a nineteenth century women’s magazine?