Tag: feminism

Shipping Shyan as a subversive act of self-definition; some thoughts

I don’t usually do writing prompts, but I’m in the mood to write and have no idea what to write about. WordPress’ prompt for today is “Interest”.

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I think the above picture sums up my approach to “interest” pretty well. Generally, I either like something or it’s nary a blip on the radar. It really is like a switch being flicked in my brain, and my Pinterest boards – most notably the “Fandom” one – bear testament to this switch being flicked on and off on various interests: knitting, crochet, Harry Potter, Christian Bale, Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, Tom Hardy, BBC Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch, drawing, photography, dolls, bullet journaling, Bible journaling, Pokemon Go, Dungeons & Dragons, Stranger Things, Jane Austen, historic fashion, 1900s New York and so on. Pinterest is like a beach littered with the junk of past interests.

My current interest (read: obsession) is the web series Buzzfeed Unsolved. A friend put me onto Unsolved: True Crime, where two guys dredge up unsolved cold cases and discuss the cases with likely (and sometimes wildly unlikely) theories as to what could’ve happened. There’s also a paranormal version which sees the hosts become the world’s unlikeliest (and unluckiest) ghost hunters. It’s fun and funny and the hosts have great chemistry; great enough that I googled whether they’re dating. The results were: they’re not, but a whole lot of people on Tumblr think they are, could or should be, and there are gifs to back up all positions.

Tumblr is sort of Obsession Ground Zero, at least for literature, movies and series. It’s ubiquitous enough that “Tumblr fangirl” has become a sort of slur among the kind of bros who generally don’t recognise their intense and obsessive interest in for example sports as being on par or even exceeding the dreaded “can’t even” of “Tumblr fangirls”. It’s interesting to contrast these double standards among the sexes’ stereotypical interests. Men’s interests are normalised: “Guys like sports.” There’s no stigma. But women’s interests don’t get the same acceptance. It’s “weird” when a woman obsesses over something. But this is an old ballgame. Men’s interests are seen as inherently reasonable (although reason is usually far from the mind of someone on the edge of their seat during some game involving a ball and several men), but women’s must tiptoe around the ever-present accusation of being “hysterical”.

I wonder why society, in general, seems to be so leery of women liking things or having interests. It is because it’s a fairly new concept, insofar as a hundred and fifty years ago, women’s interests tended to be restricted to certain fields? Is it because historically there’s been a lack of space for the female expression of interest, notably female sexual interest (which is often a big component in “fandom”)? Or is there something inherently threatening about how active an interest makes you – it’s an involved thing, one that requires initiative and pursuit, traits that are usually masculinised?

A great example of this was the fight for the Democratic nomination between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and later the election that pitted Democrat Clinton against Republican Trump. Clinton’s campaign engaged a large sector of society, most notably the female African-American vote. Her supporters received a lot of flack, not just from Republicans but especially from so-called “Bernie bros” – white, male Democrats who wanted Sanders (an independent) for the Democrat primary. Most of their criticism and engagement was gendered in nature. “You’re only voting for Hillary ’cause she’s a woman,” they argued, totally oblivious to (or in denial over) the fact that their interest in Sanders for the nomination was spurred on by his “white guyness”.

The fact remains that, at its core, their criticism of Hillary supporters often boiled down not to disputes about politics, but rather irateness that women of all colours had an intense interest and vocal investment in the elections. It seems that the world just doesn’t like women taking an interest because inevitably this interest is different than men’s, and demands the same platform, a platform they are not willing to part with. In his book The Ironic Christian’s Companion, Patrick Henry writes that people tend to dislike a roundtable approach for this very reason: with a roundtable, it’s not always obvious who is in charge. Taking an interest challenges the status quo.

Is all interest equal, though? No, probably not. But it doesn’t have to be in order to achieve a – I want to say higher purpose? Taking an interest is a fundamental act of self-definition: you like something or you don’t, and that says something about you saying something about yourself. It’s the “saying something about yourself” that’s important. In that way, women having interests can be a subversive act, because it’s a way for us to say something about ourselves in a world where we have more often been talked about than spoken with.

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Book review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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There’s nothing like a TV adaptation to spur you on to read the classics you’ve been delaying in favour of novels that don’t want to make you kill yourself. With Hulu’s recent adaptation of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought I’d better get off my laurels and add Atwood’s flagship novel to my feminist credentials. We’ll pretend it didn’t take me a decade to get here.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian near/ever-present future where parts of the US have been taken over by a theocratic far-right. Under their regime, women are steadily and stealthily stripped of their rights and freedoms, leaving the protagonist Offred to navigate life as one of a number of “handmaids”, women attached to rich men for breeding purposes. The handmaids’ behaviour, appearance and movements are all strictly monitored and controlled. They have no personal agency and are simultaneously the desire and scorn of other parts of Gileadan society.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantastic book of course; presumably this is why they gave it a Booker prize! The prose is beautiful and hypnotic, capturing Offred’s dreamlike disassociation from the horror around her even as it suffocates her. I think it’s this contrast that makes the book so unsettling: it makes you question the appearance vs substance of everything, especially dearly-held notions of safety and order.

It’s no accident that Hulu should adapt The Handmaid’s Tale now when under Trump’s GOP the world’s most powerful nation leads a fresh assault on women’s rights. The Handmaid’s Tale is a timely reminder – and has been, since it was first published in the eighties – that civil liberties are hard won and far from guaranteed. While Atwood’s story may seem fantastical, its reality is never far-off.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Vintage Books
My rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.05/5)
The book’s best feature: The writing itself; its prophetic message.
The worst feature: The oppressing patriarchy.
Trigger warnings: Rape and misogyny in general.
You’ll like this if… Liking this isn’t the point, I think.

Weeding the garden: Gretha Wiid under fire

 

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Gretha Wiid. Facebook.

 

Popular Afrikaans lay speaker and self-appointed “relationship expert” Gretha Wiid has been in the news a lot lately. She’s come under fire for the controversial anti-LGBTI views she espouses in books aimed at ten- to thirteen-year-olds. In her Lyfslim (“Body Smart”)  books she writes that same-sex attraction is a choice and typically the result of, among other things, sexual abuse at a young age.

Wiid is in the same camp as Angus Buchan – a position she set up with his approval, hosting “Worthy Women” conferences to complement his “Mighty Men” ones – and espouses the same supposedly theologically indisputable “men are the heads of their households” and anti-gay nonsense that he does. That she’s so popular with women baffles me; as Lilly Nortje-Meyer points out in this illuminating article, Wiid and her staunchest followers are formeninists; essentially believing that a Christian woman’s core value revolves around her relationship to men. This – and the whole belief that men are the “prophets, priests and kings” of their homes – is unbiblical. I’d even go so far as to call it idolatry. But I digress.

I wanted to write about Wiid’s response to her criticism, which has been telling in the extreme. It’s not uncommon for people like Wiid to defend their actions by claiming sovereignty from criticism, which they usually do by saying that any opposition they experience is Satanic in origin. Wiid has done that; a few days after the debacle started, she posted to Facebook that no plans formed against her family would prosper. She skirted around the issue – her bizarre, and might I say entirely unscientific views on same-sex attraction – by saying that she loved gay people because her brother is gay*. Anyway, the non-apology didn’t work, and the South African Human Right’s Commission has confirmed that it’s investigating complaints of hate speech against her.

This even more that her weak-as-tea theology is what bugs me the most: her arrogance. She claims her Scripture-derived inspiration supersedes the inherent value of other people (nonbiblical. Seriously, has she met Jesus?), and she acts as though her interpretation of the Bible is supreme, despite the fact that it is hermeneutically unsound. To Wiid, any opposition must be the work of Satan. If she’s so eager to find Satan’s hand in her circumstances, she need look no farther than her pride and her ego.

I doubt any of what’s happening to Wiid will work to soften her heart; Christians of her persuasion are usually only a step away from a persecution complex, and I suspect that’s what we’ll see unfold in the next few weeks: how South Africa, and the “liberal gay agenda” is causing Bible-believing Christians to renounce their convictions or face punishment. I strongly suspect that she’ll fail to see that freedom of speech and belief does not cover the freedom to espouse absolute bullcrap that devalues the full personhood of others, and to impressionable children no less.

The bigger issue, of course, is how these books of her – published back in 2009 – were seen fit to publish in the first place. Wiid is published by Carpe Diem Media, who also have “perennial shelvers” like Isak Burger and Andries Enslin in their stable. Unsurprisingly Carpe Diem Media are responsible for the women’s magazine Finesse, a publication that centres its content around “modern Christian women” of the soft complementarian persuasion, mixing fashion with diet tips to “keep him interested” with soft-lit covers of local celebrities.

Yet for Wiid to be as popular as she is – more than 120 000 people like her Facebook page, after all – she has to be selling well. Her market is a niche one: white, Afrikaans-speaking conservative Christian women. Proportionately she probably has a big share of this market, so clearly she’s appealing to some people. And that’s most worrisome of all: that in 2017 Wiid easily drums up support for damaging, ludicrous and unscientific claims, all under the flag of “Christianity”, with the consent and even approval of so many people.


*Her brother has spoken out in support of her; interestingly, and probably in no way related to anything, he is also her manager. 

Authority in the Christian blogosphere

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Christian women find their voice and live out their callings online

Two weeks ago Tish Harrison Warren wrote a piece for Christianity Today titled “Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere?” In it, she wonders whether the kind of platforms people – especially women – gain through blogging should be accountable to some kind of ecclesial structure, much like pastors are theoretically accountable to their denominations.

Warren posed the piece as a rumination on responsibility: how can we make sure these bloggers – many of them laypersons, their “only” virtue being their popularity – “do” theology responsibly? She cited Jen Hatmaker as an example. Hatmaker – who has been in ministry for two decades and is a published author and popular speaker – recently announced that she is supportive of the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the church, a decision that proved unpopular in the evangelical world. (Read her response to the immediate flare-up of criticism here.)

Warren’s article wasn’t well-received, at least by my Twitter timeline’s standards. Warren was criticised for singling out Jen Hatmaker in a way that came across as chastising: how dare Hatmaker, “only” a blogger, deviate from the evangelical bottom line? The article read and felt like a gendered attack, Hatmaker acting as the negative example of what happens when those outside formal structures don’t toe the line.

Warren has since issued an apology to Hatmaker, but the article is still up on Christianity Today – the first part of a series called #AmplifyWomen. It’s ironic and telling that the first article in this series wasn’t about amplification at all, but about control.

Warren wouldn’t be the first woman delegated to keep her fellow women in check. One comes across it often; if you need an example, just skim any article relating to women on The Gospel Coalition blogs (alas, a favourite teacher of mine, Jen Wilkin, has participated in something similar). Warren has come across as sincere in her Twitter replies to criticism and praise, but I doubt she realises that a lot of her article’s backbone is internalised misogyny.

Make no mistake, the issue at play in Warren’s piece isn’t responsibility or accountability. As quite a few influential bloggers have pointed out, they are accountable: to their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, to the church or spiritual communities they form a part of, and to their friends, families, and peers. In fact, one could argue that the response to Warren’s piece is an indication of how much accountability there is in the popular Christian blogosphere: her article didn’t remain unchallenged, and the criticism was mostly fair and well thought out.

No, the issue Warren’s article skirts around is control. Unfortunately, there are still many church traditions where women aren’t allowed to preach, speak or teach (or if they are, it’s only to other women or to children). In these denominations, women aren’t allowed to have authority. So when these women, who are forced into silence by their churches, turn to the Internet to share their voice and listen to the voices of others like themselves, this presents a conundrum to the men and women in church denominations who delineate the function and authority of women. How do you control women speaking outside the traditional sphere of the church?

Well, you can’t, not without making it exceedingly obvious that the issue is really control rather than authority. If you’ve followed any of these popular female bloggers, authors, speakers and preachers (Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey to name the bare minimum), you realise that their passion and gifts are Spirit-derived, unlike the man-made ecclesial structures that would insist they aren’t allowed to write Spirit-filled words or share Spirit-filled truth or preach prophetic, Spirit-filled prophecies. If it becomes clear that so many women have the gift of teaching, preaching, and disciple-making outside official church structures, you have to ask yourself: are these women and their ministries the problem, or the fact that so many churches continue to deny them?

It’s interesting to me that, around the same time this piece was published, an editor over at The Gospel Coalition went on a Twitter and comment rant against what he calls “discernment bloggers”. He had had a run-in with the women who run Spiritual Sounding Board and The Wartburg Watch, both websites dedicated to blogging about spiritual abuse in the American church. This editor, Joe Carter, called blogs like these divisive and the women who run them “broken wolves in sheep’s clothing”.

Call me crazy, but I spot a pattern here: women who won’t adhere to the “it’s all fine, it’s alright” party line of patriarchal, male-dominated church and spiritual traditions are called out by the benefactors of those traditions when their unsanctioned, Spirit-filled commentary hits too close to home. These churches, like Warren’s article, claim it’s about God-ordained authority; but it’s really about male-centric control. If God gives women authority to witness outside the church, then their authority isn’t in question.

As someone who had once lost her voice to an oppressive, male-dominated church situation and rediscovered it through blogging, I cannot overstress how important the voice of female Christian bloggers are. Even when those voices are more conservative than I am or have a theology that differs from mine, I’ve been enriched by the writing and teaching of Christian women who blog, both those with large followings and those with a smaller audience. Sometimes simply the reminder that there are powerful, Spirit-led women using their gifts is more of a comfort than I can say.

Christianity is a much bigger place than any one church, any one denomination, or any one pastor would have you believe. Faith, discipleship and following Jesus don’t heed the lines humanity draws around them. More often than not, the Holy Spirit uses those lines as starting places rather than as borders. These lines are porous, made to break through, much like sheep pens are meant to be left if the flock are to find places to graze, explore, grow and mature.

When an article like Warren’s appears, I see it as an indication that things are right rather than that things are wrong. It means that somewhere, someone is toddling from their sheep pen, following their Shepherd out into the world. It means that someone has chosen to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than the strictures of men.

Looking Lectionary: Lent 3A

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Reading: John 4:5-42 (NIV)

5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

31 Meanwhile, his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers.

42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

It’s ironic that this encounter – transgressive from the get-go – is generally interpreted in a cliched way. As David Lose points out (and please, if you haven’t already, read his article), absolutely nothing in Lent 3A’s reading suggests that this is a loose woman we’re dealing with other than years of casually misogynistic assumptions from (mostly) male preachers and theologians.

But here’s the thing: if we want to encounter Jesus, we must transgress assumption.

The Merriam-Webster defines “transgress” as “to violate a command or law ” and “to go beyond a boundary or limit”. When Jesus initiated a conversation with the Samaritan woman he violated several boundaries: between the Samaritans and the Jews, the Jew and Gentile in general, between unwed women and men, between genders generally, between the sacred and the profane, life and death, the haves and the have-nots, and finally, between insider and outsider.

And we harp on about her five husbands, but I digress!

This isn’t transgression for its own sake. These binaries are the lines along which the abuse of power typically falls. Think colonialism, gendered violence, the material divide, patriarchy, empire-centred religion, racism, xenophobia. In striking up a conversation with an unnamed Samaritan woman, Jesus laid to waste “power over” attitudes and practices. He stepped into the very messy centre of these practices in action and neutralised them.

In Lose’s article, he talks about the fact that the Samaritan woman might very well have been living with a male relative because her widowhood left her in destitution; a common enough occurrence at the time. She was someone attached to the household but not in any privileged capacity. This would have left her entirely at the mercy of her benefactor. Certainly, hers wasn’t an enviable position.

In more mainline interpretations, the hour (noon) of her visit to the well is taken as evidence that the other women from Sychar shunned her for her promiscious ways – the habit being to gather water at dawn when it was coolest, and to prepare for the day’s work. But who’s the say that this was the first time that day that she’d visited the well? It’s just as easy to imagine her being tasked with the further collection of water over, say, the “lady of the house”: the higher-ups in the social structure where she was an outcast. Or perhaps, considering her position (a scornful one by societal standards) she avoided the well out of shame. Either interpretation is viable.

It’s into this situation that Jesus speaks when he engages her in conversation.

Read this way, it’s not difficult to see that Jesus is reaching out in a spirit of deep compassion and not correction, as commonly assumed. He speaks life – living water, a blessing in those days – into this woman’s life, acknowledging her pain and present circumstances and promising her the existence and availability of God’s love, care, and justice. It’s not strange then that in John’s gospel the Samaritan woman is the first to hear that Jesus is the promised Messiah. And fittingly, she of low estate proclaims Jesus as Christ to others.

In the same way that Jesus transgressed the oppressive boundaries of the Samaritan woman’s life, he transgresses the oppressive boundaries of sin and death in our lives. But it doesn’t stop there: he expects us to transgress oppressive boundaries, to help make ways for the living water to flow, so to speak. It would be a shame if we – who have benefitted from Jesus’ transgressiveness – abided by the status quo of the injust boundaries in proliferation all around us.

Blessings for your sermons,

Lee