Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Without Purity Culture, What is our Sexual Ethic?

In a discussion that resulted from Joshua Harris apologizing for his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye and then his subsequent departure from Christianity, someone asked what our sexual ethic is post-purity culture. I remember back in college when one of my counseling professors had us write about how we would discuss sexuality with youth in a youth group. There was consensus in the class and from the professor that there was much that was unhealthy in the "purity culture", and I still agree. I think it has frequently resulted in shame over simply being sexual beings. I think it has emphasized rules and created fear and shame. There has been a lot of legalism. I think it has emphasized shame and responsibility for women. The trick is, much of this is widely agreed on now. But, if one maintains a traditional Christian view of sexuality, how do we teach it better? 

I think we put too much emphasis on sex and not enough on covenant. In a marriage covenant there is a joining of bodies and lives in an act that joins God in his creation, as we take part in the potential to create new life. It's bound up in love, unity, a deep ethical commitment of lives to each other. The vows before a community imitates the great scriptural covenants. 

I think when sex is removed from a covenant relationship, it becomes a commodity. In purity culture sex is a commodity that is idolized as the goal of life and marriage and often accompanied with shame and fear. It undermines the centrality of covenant, ignores grace, and focuses on sexuality. Outside of a Christian ethic, sex is still a commodity, but one to be drunk deeply and freely with no inhibition except consent, so essentially it's contractual. I think a truly Christian view says that marriage is a covenant and sex is an ongoing sealing and renewing of the covenant. 

So real sex is never just a physical act, it is a covenental giving of one to another in a sacred, whole-life manner. And if that's true, there is no place for sex outside of covenant. I think. I am still trying to work out how to teach about sexuality without the unhealthy elements of the purity culture.

I also think the emphasis in scripture is not on following all the rules but rather holiness and love. When we reject legalism and take a pendulum swing entirely in the other direction, we can lose the value of being people, as individuals, as families, as an entire Church, that are a holy people devoted to God in all areas of life. That includes in our relationships and sexuality. 

Saturday, August 10, 2019

On Joshua Harris and the Responsibility of Engaging Hard Questions

Evangelical and Post-Evangelical circles have been abuzz at the announcements from Joshua Harris over the past years. He's the author of a super popular book from my teenage years, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I was pretty rooted in that "purity culture" that the book was popular in, though I never went to one of their conferences and my own mom cautioned me that it was not necessary to follow the courtship principles laid out by Harris in his book. Anyways, he's not the point, really, he was just one part of an overall culture.

What I found fascinating about him was that a few of years ago he left his pastoral role in a pretty fundy church and announced that he was aware of his own limited education. I read up on his history and turns out he'd been snapped up from the homeschool and purity culture circuit and discipled into what was ultimately a head pastor position, only to deal with a huge sexual abuse scandal in the denomination, all of which had happened before his arrival. He, however, had never even been to college, because theological education was downplayed by the pastor who had mentored him.

I thought Harris' recognition of the limitations of that mentality and his humility in recognizing his own need for learning church history and theology was fantastic and I watched with interest as he went to seminary and went on to apologize for his books and the unhealthy approach to sexuality that they helped to spawn. It seemed most people were skeptical of him and angry with him, but I was fascinated. His wife, too, seemed to be wrestling with reformulating her perspective of what it means to be a woman who follows God, and was blossoming creatively.

Then last month Joshua Harris and his wife announced they were divorcing, followed quickly by his own admission that he is not at all sure what he believes anymore. There have been a host of reactions and discussions about this. Some of those things I agree with, like that that it is sad how often moving out of extreme fundamentalism and the homeschooling community results in completely leaving the church. Too often it is trading one type of fundamentalism for another type of fundamentalism, there is no presence of middle ground. I see it all the time. I loved Gina's take on that front, Deconstructing Legalism Without Rejecting Jesus.

But really I got frustrated with Harris, not because of his separation or his current beliefs, but because he seems to have abandoned the questions, the search for truth that he has been on in recent years. The recent interviews show him saying, "I just don't have the energy right now. Like, I do not want to read your book. I do not want to. I do not want to engage in a massive, you know, theological expedition to think about all those things. So it just sounds really exhausting to me, honestly."

I have every sympathy for it being exhausting. I feel like that sometimes. Really searching for what is true is exhausting and complex at times. Rethinking gender and the role of women is something I avoided for years because it was too hard. It's taking me time and energy. I really get it. But also, Joshua Harris was a marketer of ideas to...millions of people? Eventually he became a pastor, responsible for teaching and guiding many, directly. And so I think saying he's just too tired to really engage the questions seems lazy and selfish given his audience and the impact of his ideas. He could even choose silence for years as he got past the exhaustion. That's not what he's done, he's announced it all publicly. If he truly was sorry for the impact of his book on others, he would engage the questions and come up with better answers. Instead it sounds like he's saying, "Meh, I just can't even be bothered because it's too hard." It's too hard for HIM. But he's responsible for others too.

So yeah.

8 Years Ago

On most mornings I check Timehop, an app which shows me what I've posted and photographed on this date in past years. It turns out that 8 years I posted on facebook, "Hmmm. How would be like to live in Manokwari?"

It's surreal to read that now, having lived here for four years and being firmly in a completely different stage of life than when I posted it. That day, eight years ago, was the first open door to the path we would ultimately walk to our lives and work here. We'd contacted TEAM, an organization we generally knew about and liked, and asked if they had places around the world that needed theological educators. Isaac was close to graduation. We were turning our eyes forward. They provided us with an initial list of locations and put us immediately in contact with the person here in Manokwari that would ultimately, of everyone on the list, be most responsive and clear so that months later, it was this option that we would pick to pursue. 

It's funny to read the comments on that facebook post now. People said it was a cute little town that showed the old Dutch influence more than other quickly developing and rather hodge podge Indonesian cities. Well, their own visits were out of date and it's been 8 years since then, and our city is a decidedly hodgepodge and rapidly developing town that looks just like most other similar Indonesian towns.  Someone told us it was cooler than Sentani, where I grew up. Well, if it's cooler, it's just barely cooler. Mostly it's still plenty hot! Someone said there is great diving WW2 wrecks here, which I hear is true but also who has time to get certified to go diving when you have little kids who are just learning to swim?

They were right on a few things. It's very much outside of the expatriate bubbles. We have two expat families in our town over the last six months. Sometimes there are more, but my experience so far is that the isolation contributes to the fast turn-over. It's pretty culturally stretching for people from America to settle here long-term. You really absolutely must get decent language and soldier through a lot of hard things.

And that, perhaps, is the biggest difference between my early excitement at the first hint that I might actually return to the country I grew up in, and the reality of my life right now. I am now living the challenges. At the time I knew that adults found life in Papua more challenging than us kids did. I knew life overseas would be challenging. But I hadn't yet lived it myself. 

Now I have. I think that the fact that I arrived here already loving this place has made me place the cause of the struggles in a different place than others instinctively might. If I had arrived here fresh from America and navigated years of difficult adjustment, I would certainly say that this place is hard, and I would contrast this hard place with back home in America where life was stable and relatively easy. Perhaps partly in defense of the place and people I love, I blamed the weight of my struggles on stay at home motherhood and unexpected roles and limitations in life and ministry. 

As I have transitioned into having a role in member care for our team, I've been pondering why this so hard for expats here. The levels of turnover and burnout and trauma and discouragement I've seen in my few years here is really high. Is it because most of us were in our first term and people from wealthy cultures have to go through a significant amount of hard adjustment to settle into life here? Is it particularly the weight on young mothers in this type of life, where already high levels of stress and isolation and mundane work are made exponentially higher? Is it because of the particular type of isolation here, where there is so little presence from western culture and you have to literally fly on an airplane for a day to get to a place where you can "blend in" even as a tourist and access Western comforts? Is it spiritual warfare, where we encountering the attacks of evil meant to discourage and stop the kind of work and change that we are moving towards? 

It's probably some combination of these, and I hope I'll see more over time and understand better how to live and serve here in a healthy way. But for now, I can look at us 8 years ago, trying to gather a mental picture of what this life would look like. I can look at my journal from a year ago at the beginning of furlough and see me fighting out of a place where everything felt dark and hopeless. And I can look out my window now and see the brilliant sunny tropical skies and hear the hum of the generator. I see the homeschool books stacked in front of me and the smooshed magic sand on the couch. I see the flag across the street waving in preparation for 17 Agustus's Independence Day celebrations. I know Isaac has been busting his butt to start classes next week, his 8th semester of classes here. 

I know now the reality of our particular team and its dynamics, both the expat team and the local church and college team. I have the language. I know what it means to be a mother of young kids here. I know now the good and the bad. It's my world now. We've been here for years. It's our community, though always still as foreigners. I know how hard it can be, but we're still here, and it's still beautiful to me. I also see myself changed in these years, by 8 years of motherhood and walking through stages of deep discouragement where I grasped to answer the question of where my hope really lay, if all the shallow distractions and pleasures were washed away. 

Answering those questions has been crucial. I wouldn't take it back. I wouldn't make another decision. I'm glad we came. I'm glad we're still here. It's been really hard. It's been a privilege. I have no idea what the future holds, but this journey has been good. 

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Bits of culture

There are so many things to write about and so little time. I cannot ever stop, as I am today, without feeling that the dishes are piling up and there are toys in corners and laundry to put away and something that has fallen off of a wall that needs to be rehung. 

I am trying to find the discipline to sit and gather thoughts, because it is life-giving and helps me process the world and life that I am experiencing. 

Today, bits of culture. That's what I want to ponder. As I grow older, I look back and see my experiences in a broader context than I had for them at the time. For instance, when I was in college Isaac and I finished watching a movie on his laptop at the Loyola University library, and we stopped at McDonalds for dinner on the way back to campus. While we were there we saw a cop try to push a panhandler in a wheelchair out of the restaurant, and the man resisted, pulling the metal footrest off of his wheelchair and brandishing it at the cop. The cop lost his temper and grabbed the footrest, beating the man and his leg, which was in a cast, as the man struggled to get away. Blood flew through the air as they wrestled their way out of the restaurant and down the street. A woman screamed, "Someone call the cops!" But how can you call the cops when the cop is the problem? The cop was white, the man was black. Now I know it is part of a long history of Chicago cops, racism, and abuse of power. I wish I had understood then, and been brave enough to report the incident. 

When I was in middle school I went to a public school in middle America, in a middle and upper-class neighborhood. The school had many different ethnicities, but as I reported to my grandmother when she asked, most of them hang out with each other. I was silent, the entire world around me new and foreign compared to Indonesia. I had no context for the African American culture I was seeing, for the second generation children of Vietnamese immigrants. I had a black teacher for Civics class who scared the life out of me with his fierce and strict presence in the first couple of days, but he saw that the methods he very effectively used to tame disorderly middle schoolers were terrifying to me, and he was gentle. The students adored him because he understood them. I remember he saying that it was foolish to think the KKK was gone, and that it was present in our very neighborhoods. 

When I returned to the USA for high school, we settled in a very different neighborhood, and though I was just as silent and it felt just as foreign, being in a neighborhood that was 60% Hispanic was much more comfortable for me. I found over time that people from surrounding upper-class white neighborhood like Wheaton wouldn't even drive through our area, but I thought it was so much more at east than that middle school I had been at. Perhaps the values were familiar to me? The families and hard work and easy relationships, instead of the measuring everyone up? We had a combined literature and history class that was brilliant and had us discussing American culture and history in unflinching ways. I remember a black and white basketball player sitting next to each other on a table talking about their cultural histories and how they could be friends. That place left me with every hope for the best of what America could be, and I loved it. My friends there were white, yes, but also an immigrant from the Middle East, international students from Germany and Norway, a girl from the Caribbean who was a Jehovah's Witness and wanted to talk faith with me. And the Christians there were excited about Jesus, rather than existing in a religious country club. 

I didn't know what a gift it was to have chosen a college in the city, filled with immigrants, refugees, this mix of cultures I would encounter around every corner. My first job, at a Korean photo shop, who fired me after a month for having crossed some invisible cultural lines I did not know were there. My second job, at Johnny Rockets, with illegal immigrants from Mexico and single mothers from Romania and a black boss who oversaw it all. Catering for wealthy Jewish house parties, Orthodox and Indian weddings, seeing half the company walk out to join the massive immigration march. 

I knew back then that my upbringing was unusual, growing up as a child of evangelical missionaries on some remote island. Now, being back here, some of it is blessedly normalized. But now I also understand the evangelical culture more in context, to my own chagrin. And I see how lucky I was to see what I saw. I flew into multiple villages on family vacations and school trips and to spend summer weeks with friends. I saw those cultures existing with access to some modern medicine and learning to read and write. But they did not have regular access to the outside world aside from those tiny missions planes. I took part in those in-ground pig roasts. I got to dance and chant in a dance house, surrounded by bodies. I slept in a honai hut. I heard their languages, their chanting songs. Now, though, some of those very villages that I flew into have roads leading right to them, shops run by immigrants from Western Indonesia line the road, mosques are built along the way. It is changing. I realize now that I got to see cultures that will be utterly changed by the end of my life. That is always true, but it is incredibly true now, here. I saw them in the middle of massive change. Now they carry cell phones and can read world news. 

I do not think it is fair for anyone to tell people groups to stay in the state they are, or were. They will change, and usually they choose change. The past is not idyllic. But it was beautiful in its own way, and unique, what I saw, and what still exists in some areas of this island. The sago making, the pig hunts we pretended to join, the women with their fingers cut at the joints from when relatives died, the facial tattoos, the holes in the septum from piercings to hold bones. It is just what was when I visited, and played among them and went on long walks to marvel at the Papuan mountains covered in misty clouds. Once I accompanied my Dad as we flew to one village and then took a canoe for hours on a mud-colored river to spend the night in a house built by a young translator, now passed away from cancer. When we went to leave, the people asked the translator if they could touch my hair, and I said yes. The women and children surrounded me, and for that last ten minutes stroked my strange, straight hair. Their skin was covered in a skin disease that swirled like a tattoo, I had been told it had spread because they had started wearing clothes but were afraid of water so did not bathe. 

Those things are so unique. Now, I have lived here for four years and have not yet been to one of the villages, because those flights are not open to the public. It was an incredible privilege to see the beauty that I saw, and now I realize it was rare even in that day, facilitated partly because my dad was the director of our organization and flying to see different areas. Even now, with roads, the roads are so dangerous that my husband is loathe to take his family on them, and so my world is with the vast majority of people here: the developing cities. 

I can't finish these thoughts, my children need me. I can only say that what I have seen has formed me, and what I continue to learn puts my past experiences in a broader context that is complex, and I continue to wonder how I can play a part in all of it that honors the beauty of the people I have known and know.