which book should I review next? your pick!

book stack

I have a small-ish library in my office, with four filled-to-bursting bookcases (English major, what can I say?). One of those bookcases has what my partner refers to as the “caution tape shelf.” It’s the shelf I set aside for all the books I’ve amassed that are anything from mildly irritating to absolutely horrific. I don’t want their bookjackets contaminating all my other lovely books, after all.

I’m sitting here looking at it, and was attempting to decide which book I should choose next for my Monday review series. Eventually I gave up and decided to ask all of you. It’s a a slightly different list than the last time I did this– not all of them are in the “marriage-advice” category this time around. Each of them, however, is a well-read book in evangelical circles and all have some pretty serious problems.

If you’re not familiar with these books, here’s a short break-down:

His Needs, Her Needs is basically Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus or Men are Like Waffles, Women are like Spaghetti– only for Christians! As you can imagine, I’d be stomp-raging all over the gender essentialism.

The Act of Marriage is one I picked up at the last library book sale– one upside to living in a deeply conservative county is that the library book sale is a gold mine for me. I get to pick these things up for 50 cents. (Also, there’s tons of gender studies textbooks, usually, which is amazing. I got to buy Deviance and Medicalization and The Politics of Women’s Bodies for a dollar. Can’t be beat.) Anyway, I’ve never read this one, so I’m deeply curious about what I’d think about it.

How to Win Over Depression is, in my opinion, one of the worst books written. Ever. I’m having a hard time trying to come up with a worse book. It’s one of the books that started the “you can pray away your mental illness!” approach to “biblical counseling” back in the 70s. This book has killed people.

Lies Women Believe I read when I was a student at PCC, and my memories of it are that it was vaguely encouraging. It would be interesting to go through this one an re-experience it now. I imagine it would be a bit like how some of you responded to going through Captivating again. Helpful at the time … but not so helpful now.

Lady in Waiting– another one I read during my undergrad days. The one I have now is the original book plus a journal and study guide! The subtitle is really all you need to know, though: Becoming God’s Best While Waiting for Mr. Right.

Redeeming Love is slightly different because it’s fiction, but it’s equally as horrible as all the rest. Rape? Check. Misogyny? Check. Horrible theology? Check. Thank you, Francine Rivers, for taking Hosea and Gomer and making that story worse.

Anyway, let me know which one you’d like to see me rip to shreds!

thoughts on conservative Christian colleges from a Liberty graduate

[this photo is from the DeMoss courtyard, one of Liberty’s main academic buildings]

There’s a bit of a hubbub happening this week over a certain announcement made during Liberty University’s convocation on Monday. If you don’t travel in the circles who are all abuzz about it, here’s the gist: Ted Cruz is the first Republican to formally announce his candidacy for the 2016 election, and he did it at Liberty, in front of an audience of thousands of college students. That’s not the newsworthy part, though– what has caught everyone’s attention is that this audience was a literally captive one. Liberty students who live in the on-campus dormitories are required to attend convocation (Liberty’s word for “chapel”), or they are fined. And some were not happy about being forced to attend a political rally.

I’ve never hidden the fact that I attended Liberty University for graduate school. In fact, on the whole, I believe my experience was a positive one, although I feel that way with certain caveats. I attended graduate school there, and therefore my experience was vastly different from anyone earning a bachelor’s. The English graduate department is, I believe, filled with highly competent professors and the academic environment is open to discussing anything (although I can only speak for the English department). While, if I had the opportunity to retcon my life I would never attend Pensacola Christian College or Liberty University, I do very much feel that Liberty was an excellent stepping stone in my life. It was good for me for where I was at the time– I was in an environment where my fundamentalist-indoctrinated brain/heart felt safe, but I was encouraged by my professors at every turn to get outside of that box.

However, there are some aspects about being a Liberty graduate that are … difficult. I’ve encountered HR professionals who claim that any resumé with “Liberty University” on it will go straight into the garbage– I’ve been personally turned down for things because of the colleges I have to list on mine. I’ve seriously considered paying for another graduate degree from a more respectable university and just removing PCC or LU from anything professional.

Because that’s the problem. Liberty University just isn’t respectable in most places, and they’re not doing graduates like me any favors when they invite people like Ted Cruz to speak during a mandatory event. It’s still very much Jerry Falwell’s school. I have been yelled at– actually yelled at– for daring to criticize some of Jerry’s more bigoted and hateful statements (like blaming the LGBTQ community for 9/11). I didn’t even say the words “bigoted” and “hateful”– I said they were “ridiculous” and got yelled at. By a professor. Not a professor I ever studied under, but still.

However, this whole situation is not entirely Liberty’s fault. Liberty is a conservative Christian college. It just is, and I don’t have a problem with the existence of conservative Christian higher education. They fill a certain niche desire, and I’m not going to fault conservative Christian parents or students for wanting to find a place that fits their ideology– after all, many people from all walks of life at least partly evaluate colleges and whether or not they want to attend based on questions like “does this institution align with my values?” The prioritization may change depending on the individual, but I know I look at places like the University of Michigan and think I want to go to there because of their reputation for student activism and an anti-military/industrial stance.

What does anger me are people who say things like “if I see a Liberty university graduate’s resumé, I won’t even consider them.” I went to Liberty University, and guess what? I’m a liberal, pro-choice feminist with socialist-considering-Marxism political tendencies. I think the Democratic party isn’t liberal enough. I’m almost of the opinion that capitalism (at least in its current cis-hetero-white-supremacist-patriarchal incarnation) is evil. Most conservative Christians would point at pretty much any thing I think about God, the Bible, and Jesus and start screaming “heretic!” and “burn her!”

I went to Liberty because of the circumstances of my life at the time. I enjoyed my experience there, and I, personally, learned a lot. It’s where I became a feminist, it’s where I started questioning biblical literalism. It’s where I took a class in dystopian literature and realized that books written by non-white dudes are spectacularly awesome. It’s where my Romantic literature professor asked me to read Frankenstein through a post-modern lens. It’s where another professor got so happy he cried when I was the first student he’d ever had to truly get the effect that Derrida had on Christian theology (we can thank fundamentalism for that one. I read Derrida like an Enlightenment-educated person would have in the 60s).

So for every person who mocks and dismisses and belittles anyone who graduates from a conservative Christian college, you can take your ignorance and condescension and shove it.

Dianna Anderson’s “Damaged Goods”

damaged goods

I’ve been looking forward to Dianna Anderson’s Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity for well over a year now, so when it came in the mail a few weeks ago I was thrilled to pieces. I have so much respect for Dianna’s writing (today’s piece on Christianity and Empire is a must-read), and I was happy that someone like her would be tackling evangelical purity culture in a book.

One of the things that I love about Dianna’s voice is that she doesn’t talk down to anyone. She’s taking on some huge concepts in two hundred pages, and all of her explanations are clear and concise without ever once patronizing anybody. That’s a significant accomplishment, especially for this topic; for evangelicals, everything that Dianna is writing about has long since been settled and she’s overturning a lot of those apple carts, only without any well duh in her tone. I admire that, because it’s something I occasionally struggle with. Things that seem so obvious to me … aren’t actually obvious, as illustrated by the thousands and thousands of people who want to tell women that their husband ripping their vagina is a “beautiful moment.”

It was an interesting experience reading this, especially as I’m coming from a point of view where I already agree with her. As I read, I could’ve underlined the passages I knew more conservative Christians would object to– and when I read Christianity Today’s negative review, I laughed out loud because I nailed it. Some readers are going to be made incredibly uncomfortable by what this book argues, especially the places when she diverges from the evangelical interpretations of Scripture. These interpretations are enshrined as more than mere interpretation– according to people like Gina Dalfonzo, “flee fornication” just can’t possibly have any other meaning beside “don’t have pre-marital sex.” Anyone who proposes an alternative meaning — such as the one Dianna does — is going to be condemned for not toeing the party line.

The theme that I appreciated the most through Damaged Goods was the self-reflective honesty she presents about what love — and harm– look like in sexual relationships. It was interesting to see my lingering evangelical perception of “selfishness in bed” challenged; in evangelicalism, people are selfish when they withhold sex … but, to Dianna, selfishness can take on many different forms. The most harmful, to her, seems to be not cherishing the imago dei in our partners and reducing them to sex objects. Sadly, I think that’s something we all could be prone to– I know there have been some moments when I reduced my partner in this fashion.

Dianna argues that we should all begin seeing our sexual relationships through the lens of love, compassion, grace, kindness, and understanding. That seems extremely Christian to me– after all, Jesus said that “they shall know you by how you love one another,” and that is something that probably should be exemplified when we’re in bed with each other, but this component does seem to be missing from evangelical culture. Discussions of (cishet marital) sex don’t frequently emphasize love, instead usually opting to focus on fear (“if you don’t have sex with him enough he’ll leave you”).

It’s not just love for others, either, that drives the argument of the book, but love for yourself, too. That’s something that we should all start shouting about, especially around girls and women. Seeing sexual choices principally through loving yourself seems anathema to us, but Dianna shows us all the ways we can take our own needs and wants into consideration, whatever our ultimate decisions ends up being.

On a personal note, the one thing I wished we got more of was an exegetical breakdown of the passages Dianna works with. She is interpreting some well-known passages in a way completely unlike what most Christian teenagers have seen before (with “flee fornication” being a good example), but she simply offers an alternative explanation and moves on quickly. Including all of the scholarly, academic, linguistic, and theological research I know she’s done would have taken this book off the rails– it’s not an exegetical text, nor should it be– but the academic in my heart was sad. Also, if you’re looking for a thorough exegetical breakdown of the passages used to condemn pre-marital sex, this book isn’t for you.

It was an encouraging book to read, and contained a lot of very useful information (the “A Review of the Christian Purity Movement” chapter was fascinating), and I think this book should be a standby for every youth pastor and parent out there.

the radical notion that children are people

shy child

I was in a conversation a few days ago that has stayed with me, and I think what I noticed is important. A few moms brought up how their children respond to church services, and as a part of that discussion, one mother mentioned that her son said “the music gave him a stomach ache.” Responses were along the lines of “well, no wonder, rock concerts in church aren’t very restful.” It seemed to me that they were chalking up this toddler’s “stomach ache” to a general distaste with evangelical worship services, but when I heard the phrase stomach ache, instant red flags went up for me.

As I shared with you a little while ago, I’ve had problems with anxiety for most of my life, starting from when I was fairly young. I didn’t know the word anxiety described what I felt; what I did know was that “worry” and “anxiety”– anything less than “rejoicing in the Lord always,” really– was a sin. Anyway, when I heard that this child used the word “stomach ache” to try to explain how he felt, I instantly connected with it: my anxiety usually starts with shaky, nervous flutterings before escalating into full-blown clammy skin, heart palpitations, and, lastly, nausea. I didn’t know how to communicate “heart palpitations” to my parents, though, so I almost always settled on “stomach ache” when I’d experienced a trigger for too long and ended up nauseated.

One of the things guaranteed to set off an episode? Live drums and heavy bass. Which are heavily featured in modern church worship services. I have always skipped the music portion for this reason. But, it took me twenty-five years to understand that the reason why I avoid loud rock/pop music like the plague is my anxiety. I knew a lot of different people didn’t enjoy concert-style worship, and I was happy my partner was willing to arrive late every Sunday because of that, but what I didn’t know is that “concert style music makes me feel like my rib cage is about to burst open and my heart explode” isn’t normal. Most people don’t want to lay down on the floor and cradle their head, or fantasize about shoving their head into a bucket of ice.

I suggested to the mom that it might be a good idea to ask her son other questions geared toward figuring out if he was experiencing other anxiety-related symptoms– like “does your chest hurt?” or “do you feel hot or cold?” or “does your neck hurt?”

What has stuck with me about this particular conversation is the reaction I got: it had never occurred to these moms to wonder if their kids might be struggling with anxiety– social anxiety or otherwise. These moms are wonderful, loving people. They adore their kids. They’re responsible parents.

And yet, “maybe he doesn’t like XYZ because he has anxiety” just wasn’t an option they’d considered.

This isn’t their fault. It’s our culture’s fault. A culture with two glaring problems:

1) Mental illness is stigmatized, ignored, reviled– and so are the people who have it.
2) Children are expected to be in the default state of “cheerful” at all times.

A little while ago I was able to meet up with one of my favorite bloggers, Libby Anne from Love Joy Feminism. She brought Sally and Bobby with her, and something that happened that day is seared into my brain. We were in a museum, and it was loud, and crowded, with people bumping into each other all day. Several of the exhibits were filled to the brim with bright colors, flashing lights, and a screen with a different video every few yards. To say that it was a “stimulating environment” would be an understatement.

At one point, Sally (who was five years old at the time) was starting to spin up– anyone could recognize that she was heading toward a meltdown. But, suddenly, the most amazing thing happened. Sally turned to her mother and said “I need to go sit down.” And she did. She found an alcove– one of those darkened rooms that play short documentaries– and sat down on one of the benches and put her head in her lap. I studied her, and she was obviously focusing on breathing slowly, on calming herself down.

I was … amazed. A five year old had figured out something about herself that I still struggle with. She realized that she’d become overstimulated, was getting tired and stressed, and she knew what to do to handle it. She knew it was the noise, the people, the press, the displays, and so she found an environment with the least amount of stimulation possible– somewhere dark and quiet. I stared at her with my mouth open, and turned toward Libby Anne and whispered “how in the world did you teach her that? I don’t know how to do this!”


One of the things I’ve learned from Libby Anne is the radical notion that children are people. I wish that wasn’t such a startling statement, but for our culture, it very much is. Our culture doesn’t recognize the full humanity of our children. In fact, in order to be a good, responsible parent, many people think success comes when children are utterly controlled. Every single second of their lives is managed by us– including their emotional lives. Meltdowns, crankiness, sadness, melancholy, moodiness, anger, frustration, irritability– these things are strictly not allowed in “well-behaved” children. Only spoiled little brats have “negative” emotions.

Except we don’t think the same thing of adults. Granted, none of  us enjoys it when our friends or co-workers are cranky, or irritated, or frustrated, but we make allowances for it because we understand what it’s like to “wake up on the wrong side of the bed.” However, children don’t get to be grumpy because things in their day have just been going wrong– not well-behaved children, at least.

This is exacerbated in Christian culture. While we might think “children are to be seen and not heard” is an archaic phrase, Christians still tend to operate by that, especially when it comes to the emotional spectrum. Children are to be joyful. Children are to be peaceful. Children are to be pleasant. Children are to be polite. When they are anything less than that, it’s a sign of a problem that needs to be corrected through whatever discipline method that parent subscribes to.

A “shy” child– who might actually struggle with social anxiety or are extremely introverted and have used up all their energy already? NOPE. NOT ALLOWED. We coax, we cajole– we might even command our children to ignore their own emotional health because we want to introduce them to someone they’ll never speak to again. A child that hates highly stimulating environments? Too bad. They are going into that Sunday school room with bright primary-color murals on every single wall and the teacher who shout-talks the entire time and they had better not be a “problem.” Could they have anxiety, or be highly sensitive? We’re not even going to ask that question.

We are given tons of education and information about a host of other things– we all know to look for signs of lice, or chicken pox. We know what to do to treat a cold, we understand the difference between the common head cold and what could be the flu.

But how many of us know what the symptoms of anxiety or depression are? The real ones, not the ones we see in movies? I believe that being able to recognize when our children might be struggling with anxiety or depression is just as necessary as knowing when they have the chicken pox. If we don’t see it– if all we see is a “spoiled brat” or a “problem child,” then we’ll never be able to get them treatment. I grew up not knowing how to manage my anxiety, so I’m having to learn all the tools and coping mechanisms now, as an adult. I have trouble recognizing when I’m about to over-stress myself, because that threshold is so invisible to me.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I believe it shouldn’t be this way.

“Zimzum of Love” review: 97-121, “Sacred” and “Epilogue”


This is the last post on the book, and I find myself wondering if I can enthusiastically endorse it. It’s certainly different than every other Christian marriage-advice book I’ve ever read, and I’ve deeply appreciated those differences. It’s straightforward, honest, authentic, all things I appreciate, but at times it got a little boring because they frequently dipped into pretty conservative Christian ideas about the role and purpose of marriage, and I think they skirted more difficult questions or avoided them entirely. They didn’t examine problems like we’re just not happy anymore, or we want completely different things in bed. It’s such a short book that at moments it just feels sort of shallow.

However, that is also it’s strength: it is easy to get through, easy to swallow, easy to digest, and the ideas they do address can be radically different from the typical evangelical lines. For someone who’s coming to this book without having shed their patriarchal understandings of marriage, this is probably as far as they could conceivably go, so it’s a good book for that sort of person. If you’re already a feminist and already believe in marriage as an equal partnership, this book will probably be less helpful.

Someone commented on an earlier post that there’s plenty of secular marriage-advice books that don’t need a biblical dressing-up in order to be considered legitimate, and most likely have better and more nuanced breakdowns of married relationships– and that is probably true. However, a big part of me does want to see an in-depth examination of egalitarian Christian marriages. Healthy relationships are healthy relationships, Christian or not; but I do think that marriage has a sacramental aspect for Christians and that’s not something you’re going to see addressed in a secular book.

Which is why I appreciated the “sacred” chapter here. So often when evangelicals talk about marriage it’s all about how it’s a metaphor for Christ and the church, and that’s why we should all be homophobic bigots. Having that completely cut out of the discussion was … nice. I do believe that my marriage is a sacred bond– since I’ve gotten married, it’s become easier for me to understand why Paul chose the mystery of this particular relationship to illustrate the relationship of Christ to the church.

However, I would stop short of some of their statements, like this one:

Sex is spiritual because you are an integrated being. Your skin and your soul are connected. This is why casual hookups leave people so profoundly empty– there’s nothing behind them. (102)

And … just no. This argument doesn’t hold water with me anymore, because while I agree that we are our bodies as much as we are our souls, what the hell is so special about sex? I am an integrated being, yes, but I do all sorts of thing with this body that are essentially meaningless and don’t leave me feeling “profoundly empty.” I eat cheeseburgers. I dance to pop songs. I clean my apartment. I read Cosmopolitan. I enjoy slapstick comedy. I do all of these things with my body, and they don’t have to have a deep spiritual connection behind them in order for me to think they’re pretty awesome and to avoid feeling “empty” afterwards.

But … moving on. In the epilogue, Kristen shared something that I found to be one of the best things in the book. Her second pregnancy was incredibly difficult, as she struggled with something akin to asthma that the doctors couldn’t identify or treat– she described it as “drowning”. The last three months forced her to rely on Rob for a lot, and she said this about that time:

Kristen: It was the first time in our marriage when I had nothing to give … But it wasn’t just that, it was the vertigo that came from our relationship being so one-sided. Up until that time, there had always been a sense that we were creating a life together. But all of a sudden I found myself giving all of my energies to simply surviving. It was very difficult to accept this.

Rob: Grace.

Kristen: Yes, grace. I had to fully accept that I had nothing to give. All I could do was receive. Sometimes, that’s all you can do.

That made me cry. I haven’t been married very long, and we’ve only been together three years. But in that time I’ve thought of us as a partnership. We help each other, we take care of each other, we look out for each other. Over the last few months, though, it’s been a lot harder. Frequently we run into days like today. Today, I managed to feed myself, do a load of laundry, and write this post. I wanted to organize my desk, run some errands, and finish reading either Dianna Anderson’s Damaged Goods or Rachel Held Evans’ Searching For Sunday, and … just nope. I went to sleep at 6 this morning, woke up at 10, came out to living room and cuddled with Elsa until 2, and … putzed around until 3:30 when I started working on this. And that … that makes me feel like shit. I want to be productive, dammit. I want to contribute. But I am exhausted and depressed an my insomnia is going to drive me insane, and I don’t have a whole lot to give.

But Kristen’s husband said Grace. And Kristen said “Sometimes, that’s all you can do,” and it was a very timely reminder that whatever it takes to survive one day after another is good. I don’t have to beat myself up for making it through another day in one piece.

I don’t think I’ve encountered something this honest in a Christian marriage-advice book that wasn’t slimed all over with sexism. And that makes me happy, and overall, pretty satisfied with what they’ve written.

So– is Zizmzum of Love a perfect book? No, but it’s not really fair to expect any book to be perfect.

but Jesus never mentioned gay people

Bible 1

A few years ago, a friend of mine put up a link on Facebook with the a title something like “Every Verse Where Jesus Talks about Homosexuality.” Puzzled, I clicked through … only to get a completely blank page, with nothing but the title. And some ads, because, y’know, capitalism. I laughed, especially when I saw a number of confused people commenting on the facebook post, wondering why the page wouldn’t load. I think it’s one of the few click-bait articles I’ve ever enjoyed, mostly because I enjoy pointed humor.

But, while I enjoyed the joke, I’ve always been bothered by people who attempt to make this argument seriously, and why as much as I appreciate Matthew Vines‘ work, I’m curious how sustainable an approach like “the Bible doesn’t truly address sexual orientation” actually is. While on a personal level I find the interpretations offered by people like Dr. Brownson encouraging and compelling, I’m wondering if perhaps they’re starting the argument in the wrong place.

I don’t think the problem with the conservative Christian approach to LGBT people is their interpretation of the “clobber passages” like Romans 1. I think the problem is that they are approaching the whole work of Scripture with a heteronormative lens; except, in the case of conservative Christians they don’t see heteronormativity as a social construct but as a holy and inspired part of Scripture.

When I read the Bible and notice that there’s an awful lot of husbands and wives, I attribute that to heteronormativity. Yes it’s “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” but that doesn’t mean anything significant concerning my sexual orientation. Just because biblical writers  included Mary and Joseph, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, Abraham and Sarah, Elizabeth and Zachariah, et al, doesn’t automatically lead to the conclusion that God intended for only straight couples to be blessed and for all gay couples to be condemned as an abomination. It was just “a matter of course” for the writers, just like nearly every single romance novel in Barnes & Noble features straight people.

It was the way the writers saw the world, and now we as a society have progressed. Gay people and their relationships are more visible now, and we’re starting to see this reflected in our media, like in Glee or Modern Family. I am hopeful that one day it will be a completely normal thing for a major epic fantasy series to lead with a queer protagonist, just like I’m hopeful that books with female leads won’t be considered “for girls only” or “chick lit” someday.

However, for the conservative Christian, this view of the relationships and marriages in the Bible puts me solidly into the territory of “not respecting the Bible.” Many Christians hold to positions like inerrancy and infallibility and inspiration, and when you combine all of that in the typical evangelical, what you’re going to get is someone who believes that heterosexual marriage is sacrosanct and the only kind ordained by God … because, in the Bible, that’s certainly true. There are no gay marriages in the Bible, and no one is ever going to convince a conservative Christian that David and Jonathan where gay for each other.

Because, to someone who has a “high view of Scripture,” nothing it includes– or excludes– is an accident. It is perfect, flawless, without error, and unquestionably right. About everything. And if the Bible doesn’t feature a gay couple, it must mean that gay marriage isn’t permitted. I’m pretty convinced that with this attitude, even if the Bible didn’t have a single verse about “a man lying with a man is an abomination,” conservatives would still fight against marriage equality.

I don’t think this attitude is insurmountable– this isn’t the first time that conservative Christians have thought this way about an issue (*coughslaverycough*). I think that the arguments that Vines and Brownson are making can be extremely helpful in starting conversations about LGBT equality, and hopefully some will receive some illumination about the heterosexism they’re carrying around with them as they try to interpret different passages. But, ultimately, I think that’s what should come first, and I think the Christian LGBT-and-ally community should be much more deliberate about confronting this.

Which is why I’m somewhat troubled with the attempt to use a supposedly “high view of Scripture” in these discussions, because I used to be squarely in that camp and personally, if Matthew Vines had told me he had a “high view of Scripture,” I would have laughed in his face. I wouldn’t have known exactly why I would have been so utterly convinced that he didn’t honor the Bible the way I did, but I would have felt that way all the same. Conversations about LGBT equality in Christian environments will necessarily involve — at least on some level– a critique of certain passages in the same way an egalitarian looks at “women be silent in church”or “I do not permit a woman to teach.”

The default of the Bible is sexist and heteronormative. It … just is. I appreciate all the amazing work so many scholars have done over the years to mitigate all of that. I love feminist and queer theologies, egalitarian interpretations, and the work of so many liberationist theologians. There is much beauty and value and richness and depth in this library, so much shared history and tradition. But, when I read the Bible, I do have to set aside its more problematic elements– especially the fact that the people who wrote it were misogynistic and heterosexist.

Until conservative Christians can do that, I’m not certain that the anti-LGBT-equality movement will truly die.

repentance and transformation as a progressive Christian


I read two articles today that helped me crystallize something that I’ve been struggling to articulate to myself. Handsome and I have had a few into-the-wee-hours-of-the-morning conversations about “but what does it mean to be a Christian? What’s the point?” I’ve taken a radical departure from “being a Christian means you get to go to heaven when you die,” and yet I haven’t been able to put into words what I’ve replaced it with, especially since I came to the realization recently that nothing about my life would significantly change if I stopped believing in Jesus as God.

So, what does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean for me to follow the teachings of Jesus?

Well, interestingly enough, my answer peeked out at me from “Here’s How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel” by Chelsen Vicari, in a description of “Cafeteria-Style Christians” (which I’m almost certain I fall into):

This group picks and chooses which Scripture passages to live by, opting for the ones that best seem to jive with culture. Typically they focus solely on the “nice” parts of the gospel while simultaneously and intentionally minimizing sin, hell, repentance and transformation.

I understand where Chelsen is coming from with this. I no longer believe in the doctrines of Original or Inherited Sin, and I do not believe that hell exists. Without those, the evangelical understanding of the Gospel evaporates rather quickly. I no longer “witness” to “the lost,” and I’m am very much unconcerned with whether or not those around me are “saved.” For the evangelical Christian, this is probably the worst form of heresy. According to many evangelicals, I have probably forsaken anything resembling Christianity.

But, the second part of my answer came from another article critiquing progressive Christianity, this time from an insider– “The Purity Culture of Progressive Christianity”:

For progressive Christians moral purity will fixate on complicity in injustice. To be increasingly “pure” in progressive Christian circles is to become less and less complicit in injustice. Thus there is an impulse toward a more and more radical lifestyle where, eventually, you find yourself feeling that “everything is problematic.”  You can’t do anything without contaminating yourself.

That paragraph stood out to me because while I agree with the general truth of this statement– I think “becoming less complicit in injustice” is one of the goals of progressive Christianity– I disagree with Richard’s conclusion: this impulse isn’t a problem. It’s where the repentance and transformation that I believe is absolutely central to the Gospel comes into play for us heathen liberals.

One of the questions Handsome asked me this weekend was if I’d convert to another religion, like Buddhism. I said no, because of all the theologies I’ve studied I still find Christian theology the most fulfilling … however, that doesn’t mean that I particularly enjoy every thing Christianity espouses. Say, for example, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” I hear that and my gut reaction is uh hell no. No way. That teaching right there is hard.

(Note: Some scholars, like Walter Wink, have made convincing arguments about the radical implications of “turn the other cheek” and “give him your coat also” and “go the second mile”– that Jesus meant these to be forms of non-violent resistance to oppression.)

I believe that the story arch of Scripture is one bent toward liberation. I believe that Jesus came to set the captive free, and that I am morally compelled to dedicate my life to that task. If I am participating, furthering, or aiding any system that oppresses and harms, then I am not doing what Jesus has asked us to do.

This is where I disagree with Chelsen: the “new Christian Left” is not minimizing repentance and transformation. In fact, since I’ve become a liberal, I have found that following Jesus’ calling has become even more transformative and demands constant repentance and renewal. Personally, I see the sort of repentance that I tried to live out before as petty. I felt remorse for such small-minded things– trivial, meaningless things. Things like wanting to look fashionable, or saying curse words. Today, when remorse comes, it is because I just realized how my internalized misogyny caused a friend of mine to sink deeper in self-hatred, or how my clueless racism made the office a hostile work environment for a black colleague.

I believe that Jesus asks us to be transformed, to be renewed, because of how deeply entrenched these systems are in our lives. It takes nothing less than sorrowful and soul-achingly-deep repentance to overcome racism and bigotry, and I believe that striving to undo the countless lies we’ve been steeped in is the single most transformational act we can accomplish.

The love, grace, and compassion required of all Christians isn’t easy, as Richard’s article and the article he quotes from highlights. Everything becomes problematic because everything about our world– ourselves, our cultures, our government, our policies, our relationships– urgently calls for a metamorphosis that can only be accomplished when we dedicate ourselves to the daunting task of beating our swords into plowshares. We are all, every moment of our lives, complicit in one form of oppression or another, and changing that reality will happen over generations, not moments.

I understand feeling burnt out, which is something we should all do our best to guard against. But I am hesitant to embrace criticisms of liberal Christianity that accuses us of being “fundamentalist” or those that paint the movement as one of “outrage” or “mobs with torches.” Occasionally I feel the anger we feel can be misdirected– we are a movement composed of flawed human beings, after all– but I disagree with those who look at progressivism and see a “Crusader mentality.” Having people point out the things we all do as oppressive, as harmful? It’s unpleasant. I understand the desire not to have our faces shoved in the brutal ugliness of the bigotry that still lives inside of us. Yes, self-care is needed. Yes, the “everything is problematic” situation is exhausting.

But I think that Jesus’ message is challenging. I don’t think it’s going to be comfortable, or pleasant, or anything less than the most difficult thing we’ve ever done. Taking up our cross and following him is a gruesome picture, not one filled with bunnies and rainbows and unicorns. I die daily and sell everything that you have are radical, mind-bending declarations. We have a commitment to seeing justice run down like the waters, and sometimes that’s going to ask hard things of all of us.