Search This Blog

Friday, February 16, 2018

Myth as Dream and Nightmare

“When they told him this, Ransom at last understood why mythology was what it was -- gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility.”                         - C.S. Lewis  Perelandra

I have been thinking about myth again recently. It is a particularly special kind of story, myth, neither history nor fiction, nor—quite—a mere combination of the two. Myths are not properly understood to be lies about history, nor are they fictional histories. Despite some of the rather bigoted and paternalist theories of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it looks more and more as though the great tellers and recorders of myth never believed their stories to be historically true. But they did believe them to be true nonetheless. If you will excuse the circularity I think the answer to the question "what could be more true than facts" is "myth'.

It is, after all, the case that story is the instrument we use to access reality. Without story our experience of the world would be nothing more that incoherent data. It is story which turns the collection of shapes, colors, sounds, smells, and sensations into a child. Every thing with which we interact is its own story a story we write and are told. To spend much time thinking about this will open you to the twin shocks that the story of this life which you think you are writing is really one which you are being told and that the story you think you are being told is really a story that you are always writing—existence is a collaborative piece of art.

These are stories which are neither fact nor lie but are often deeply true. Because myth is the exploration of meaning, it can neither ential perfect correspondence to facts, or utter independence from them. The hard bitten empiricist reduces myth to lie (though that conclusion will never be found in their accumulated data) while others attempt to harden myth into brittle fact  thereby exposing it once more to the attacks of the empiricists. But myth will not submit to any enforced metamorphosis and, to my knowledge, only one myth has ever become fact, and that was of its own volition. This is all a rather round-about way of saying that our myths are our attempts to find the meaning behind our existence. Without them we would be beyond lost, we would be without meaning.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God's mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker's art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.

Selection from Mythopoeia  by J.R.R. Tolkien

There are two myths which I have been particularly thinking about recently and I hope that by thinking about them together I might be able to shine a little light on a few of the healthy and dangerous uses of the art. Specifically I have been thinking about the recent musical The Greatest Showman and also the myth of America.

The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman is one of those wonderful movies which was panned by the critics and embraced by audiences. The movie does not represent the facts of the history on which it is based instead the movie is a myth about community, humanity, acceptance, diginity, ambition, and right relationship. It is a hero’s journey (actually it is several overlapping hero’s journeys) and it pierces right to the heart of the tension between and unjust society built for the comfort of the rich and powerful and a just and joyful society built by and for those marginalized by the rich and powerful. In Christians terms, it is a myth all about the difference between the Kingdom of God as described in the Beatitudes and the Kingdom of this world. The loud secret of The Greatest Showman is that the life of joy and dignity is to be found only when we celebrate the humanity and worth of not being safe, secure, and privileged. It is a well told, and beautiful version of the story all of our hearts desperately long to live and most of our hearts are too afraid to ever try. The quote, often attributed to Thoreau that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them” represents a dark magic which The Greatest Showman works to unravel—story and myth are, after all, the good magic which sets us free from the dark lies we tell ourselves about this world, and The Greatest Showman is a story of singing the song in the face of the dark.

But the history is not the same as the myth. In real, factual history P.T. Barnum simply was not the man we see as the protagonist of the myth. In real, factual history his circus was not the full celebration of humanity in all of its glorious diversity that we see in the myth—actually there was some serious exploitation and racism going on there; Barnum was pretty terrible with his animals as well.

The man on whom the myth-story is based was a broken, messed up, guy. He was wildly imperfect and sometimes evil. That isn’t a problem for The Greatest Showman unless we make the myth for the facts, unless we try to replace history with myth. Because the history is also important. The real history of racism, bigotry, animal abuse, exploitation, and the other wretched sins Barnum committed matters. The facts matter. When we pretend that the myth is the history we turn good magic into bad magic. We have a term for doing that: “whitewashing”. The spell which could work to liberate us, becomes a curse binding us more tightly to the sins of our past. Because the facts of history will remain regardless of whether we remember them. And history always has its effects.

The world is the way it is because of its history. When we whitewash our history it is like trying to tell a good story but changing all of the unpleasant parts at the beginning—it won’t work. The prince cannot search the kingdom for the girl whose foot fits the glass slipper if Cinderella is never kept from the ball in the first place; there would be no fairy godmother and the story would end with her having a pleasant time at the ball. Once the darkness is erased from the story, the happy ending (what Tolkien called the “eucatastrophe”) becomes impossible. So to with the real story in which we live. If we do not know our own history any real improvement on our current situation will be impossible.

As C.S. Lewis is want to remind us, it is the highest angels who make the most terrible demons. Myth known as myth highlights meaning and draws us towards progress and joy; myth mistaken for history blinds us to the ability to ever improve.

The Myth of America

The myth of the United States of America is a beautiful thing as well. The myth of America is one of freedom for and the equality of all people. The myth of America is a story of a wild, empty land slowly tamed for the good of all people by the rugged determination, the blood sweat and tears of fiercely determined regular people. It is the story of tough people who struggled to overcome oppression and tyranny and succeeded by strength of their grit, faith, and families. The American myth is the myth of a people enriched by and ever enriching their land. It is the story of the downtrodden of many lands who find sanctuary, overcome, and rise up to protect the downtrodden of the world. The American myth is hard work, hard living, and the simply joy of well earned safety in a healthy home with a loving family. The American myth is not a perfect vision of human flourishing but it is an honest and joyful representation of that ineffable spirit which is the United States.

But the Myth of America is not the history of America.

The land was not empty

The history of the United States is much more complicated and far, far darker. The history of the United States is the history of slavery and oppression of the poor and those who were not “granted whiteness”. The history of America is the history of a land cleared of its inhabitants by disease and violent genocide for the sake of those who believed that land is a thing to be owned and exploited. The “wild empty land” of the myth was, in fact, the land of the Susquehannok, the Cherokee, the Lakota, the Iroquois, the Creek, the Seminole, the Comanche, the Chinook, and so many, many more. Some little of it they have kept, their blood stains the rest. The history of America is a history of liberty won and liberty denied. There has been progress, yes, but that progress has been always too slow. The history of America is a history of stolen wealth, of robber barons and a civil war fought to retain a “right” to keep others enslaved. There have been plenty of tough and hardworking people in America’s history and they have accomplished great and unprecedented things. But the system they used to build those things, the institutions which enabled them to do what they did, can not be separated from the genocide and slavery out of which they were born. There is no America without those sins.

Dred Scott

The history of America is a history of poisoning our land for money. The history of America  is the history ripping apart the atom in order to slaughter our enemies. The history of America is ending slavery with one amendment and recreating it as mass incarceration with the same amendment. The history of America the strong prey on weak and throw their bones to their brothers to buy their complicity. The history of America is one hand stretched out to immigrants while the other pens “Chinese exclusion acts, the US vs Baghat Singh Thind, executive order 9066, and a million other words of exclusion. The History of America is Wounded Knee and Jim Crow. The history of America is the history of “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” and then treating one million flavors of “Christian” as the only religion that counts. The history of America is the history of not worrying about an epidemic which “only affects gays and Haitians.” The history of America is 200+ years of marriage and identity denied to those unlike “us”.

The United States has accomplished great things, but each great accomplishment has grown, in some degree, out of the corpses of those who were walled out of the myth.

Take a moment and stare the tragedy of America right in the eye. Don’t blink.

It is only in recognizing the nation’s darkness, in seeing it for what it is, that the US has any hope of moving towards what it might be. The great danger—the great temptation—is to substitute the myth for the history and thus to turn the angel into a demon. As I have said elsewhere, I have never encountered a more powerful vision of both the history and myth of America than in Langston Hughes’ Let America be America Again. This is the eyes-open view (it should not surprise us that it is a poet who is able to see both truth and fact with such clarity) which hears myth and fact in sterio and never confuses the one for the other. May we learn to do the same.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Forty Days Into Death

We started the season of lent yesterday. I am a Mennonite so we don't have a particularly robust or well established tradition for lent but our church did have an Ash Wednesday service to start the season for us. We did the prayer-and-contemplation-stations thing and it went really well. The service gave me a chance to spend some concentrated time in reflection and prayer thinking about Jesus, and death, and life, living.

Displaying PicsAs a generally optimistic and pain-averse person, lent is a perennially difficult season for me. I just don't really like to think about death, I don't really like to fast from good things, and I don't really like to do the sort of self-examination that is involved in repentance. I like to avoid unpleasant things. But then I don't like what I would become if I did actually avoid unpleasant things. So I do lent.

As I was reflecting on lent yesterday I had the strong impression that I should spend particular effort this year on contemplating death. Death is (among many other things) the process that Jesus went through in bringing life to all persons. The basic Christian project of sanctification involves the death of the old self in order to facilitate the birth/resurrection of the new self. We die in order to be made new. I don't like that but I want to try and embrace it this season. I want to spend some time looking at what, in me, needs to die and I am going to try hard to trust that that death is only a precursor to greater life. What must die, so that what will be reborn?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Debunking a long list of "anti-trans" verses.

I got into a conversation about the identities of trans people yesterday and continuing into today. It started as a conversation about whether or not the Bible has definitions for "male" and "female" but it inevitably got into the identities of trans people today. It got me musing and poking around at some of my old writing and I found the following exchange in the comments section of Part 4 of  my Christian Defense of the Identities of Trans Persons series. So far as I can tell it is the most comprehensive response I have ever written to verses which are used to deny the identities of trans folks, so I thought the back and forth might merit its own post. This is not edited and you can find all of the original context in the com-box for that post. 

Update: For the two most commonly cited passages check out my extended response in the aforementioned post. One final passage which I frequently see referenced in this conversation is Romans 1. While I have written on Romans 1 in my Christian defense of LGB relationships series, I elected not to include it here because it has no bearing on gender identity, and is not really even argued to by non-affirming theologians. Instead it is brought up by people who are unclear on the distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity.


Wow Kris, thanks for the thorough and Biblically founded response. While I still disagree with you I hope you realize that with your list and attendant brief interpretation of each of the passages you cited, this blog post may now contain one of the most thoroughly defended (in terms of quantity of Scriptural references and attendant interpretation) defenses of your position in publication. Denny Burke may be close with the brief paper he submitted to the SBC when he got them to pass a position denouncing SRS, but I haven't been able to locate many others.
All of that said, I think my reaction to your list and exegesis can be distilled to a few points so I will group my responses where appropriate while responding to individual passages/interpretation where you are making distinct points. Before we get to a point-by-point response though, let me address your first objection, that “I have presented to you clearly from the Bible that God has given an objective method to determine Wanda's gender. It is quite simply that you have rejected this method.” It is not specifically your understanding of the Bible I am rejecting here - though I suspect we do have different methodological ideas about how it ought to be interpreted - rather I certainly do reject your conclusion that the Bible provides “an objective method to determine Wanda’s gender” that has been a large and unhidden part of my thesis from the get go. I believe that the Bible does not give warrant for a Christian to conclude that Wanda is wrong about her gender, nor do I believe that the Bible provides Christians with an objective method even for determining a particular person’s sex, much less the person’s gender. Let me remind you that this does not constitute a disagreement about the authority of the Bible but about your interpretation of what the Bible is and isn’t saying. The most obvious piece of evidence on this issue is the existence of those intersex persons who do not have unambiguously male or female genitalia. As the Bible does not give a rubric for determining the sex or gender of intersex persons, it cannot be true that the Bible provides some sort of universalizable method for the determination of particular genders. If you were to restrict yourself to the issue of Wanda, then the rubric “those born with typically male genitalia are, ipso facto, male in sex and gender and vice versa for female genitalia” might be able to apply but, as I will demonstrate below, I don’t think that rubric can be legitimately found in the Bible.
Kris: Genesis 1:27-28 "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth'... " In order to be fruitful and multiply, one must have the proper equipment. God does not separate sex gender in the beginning.

Genesis 7:3 "male and female, to keep their offspring alive on the face of all the earth." ... same.
My Response: The command to be fruitful and multiply is one given to humanity but not to individual persons. If it were given to individual persons then Jesus would have to be classified as a sinner since He did not procreate. Thus, and more directly to your point, humanity does contain plenty of the “proper equipment” but that does not require that any one person have said “equipment” so the passage cannot be taken to indicate more (on this subject) than that God treats the male-female dichotomy as the means by which humanity is able to carry out this commission but does not imply that each and every human must be categorized according to this taxonomy, participate directly in the commission (indeed the mutual interdependence of the Church is fairly basic in Paul), or identify their genitals with their gender. The fact that God does not explicitly separate sex and gender in the beginning is fundamentally irrelevant, there are all sorts of things God doesn’t do in the beginning which are perfectly fine things. The distinction between sex and gender would not have been relevant to the “be fruitful and multiply” commission so there is no reason to expect that God would have addressed in in this context.
Kris: Genesis 17:12 "He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations" No separation of sex / gender. It would be illogical in light of this scripture.

Exodus 1:17 "But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live." It does not say "those who identify as male." No separation of sex / gender. It would be illogical in light of this scripture.

Leviticus 6:18 "Every male among the children of Aaron may eat of it, as decreed forever throughout your generations, from the LORD's food offerings." Not, "Every child of Aaron who identifies as a male." No separation of sex / gender. It would be illogical in light of this scripture.

Numbers 1:2-3 "Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. 3 From twenty years old and upward" It does not say, "Count the ones who identify as male and identify as older than 20." No separation of sex / gender. It would be illogical in light of this scripture.

Numbers 26:62 "And those listed were 23,000, every male from a month old and upward." Same
My Response: Sure, sex and gender are not clearly distinguished in these passages, which makes sense given that the formal distinction is a fairly recent development, but I see no reason that they should be. What I think you are identifying here is the fact that there are commands and events in the Bible which are clearly sexed, gendered, or both. I cheerfully grant that (though I would point out in your Exodus example that the gendered command of which babies are to be killed is initiated by Pharaoh who is not representative of God’s view of things, particularly in this account). Then, if I am tracking your argument correctly, you want to suggest that such gendered and/or sexed language and commands in the Bible make no sense if we do not have access to a perfect, objective, and absolute method for determining a person’s gender or sex or both. It is this second point (which I must point out is an inference from the Biblical data not a direct data point itself) where I think you are wrong. In fact (and DeFranza has an excellent treatment of this so I recommend checking her book or some of her blog posts out for a scholarly, exegetical and historical treatment of this) OT Hebrews were actually critically aware of the fact that some passages contain gendered and/or sexed commands and were also aware that it is actually not always easy or possible to tell whether a those laws and commands do or don’t apply to a particular person. First it is clear that the commands work on the level of generalization (as nearly all laws do) so while the existence of unusual or non-typical cases does not invalidate generalized commands (as you seem to suggest they would) they do problematize attempts to demand a universalizable application of those generalized commands. Second, according to DeFranza, there is significant ancillary second temple Jewish evidence that ancient Hebrews worked to develop their own extra-biblical methods for determining which laws ought to apply to which people and in which ways.
So I would agree that folks with male-typical bodies were most likely treated as male in both sex and gender while folks with female-typical bodies were most likely treated as female in both sex and gender. That does not erase the possibility of a perfectly viable distinction between sex and gender, it only suggests that people were likely misgendered periodically due to a lack of awareness on the part of those applying the law. This might be problematic if it weren’t that humanity has a long history of misunderstanding ourselves and the universe and, for that reason, applying God’s law incorrectly. That God allows this is evident, why God allows this is profoundly difficult, touches on the problem of evil, and well beyond my scope. I think the Psalmnists, the author of Ecclesiastes, and Job are probably the place to start.
Kris: Deuteronomy 4:16 "beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female..." Makes no sense in your world.
My Response: This makes perfect sense to me. I am not clear what you think would baffle me. The passages says not to make carved images in the forms of any figure, male or female. While this is fairly clearly a command not to make idols and it provides an emphasis with reference to “male or female” which would have been the most common sort of idols of the day, the ancient near east also had a number of idols depicting intersex or hermpahroditic (including the eponymous Hermaphroditus). If you think the meaning of Deuteronomy 4:16 includes the prohibition of making such idols then it would be inconsistent to imply that the text reduces all gender and sex categories to the dimorphous pair.
Kris: Deuteronomy 22:5 "A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God." Even those women who ignore cultural norms are "an abomination." If Wanda dresses like a woman and is an abomination to God, how much more so if she changes her physical nature! No separation of sex / gender. It would be illogical in light of this scripture.
My Response: I have already dealt with this in Part 3. Ignoring questions about the application of OT law in the present, the relevance of this passage to Wanda’s situation depends on the answer to the larger question of Wanda’s gender. To use it as an evidence against the possibility that Wanda is a woman would be circular as Wanda would only be violating this verse if she is, in fact, a man. And since that conclusion is what is being contested, the applicability of the verse must be bracketed till the conclusion is settled.
Kris: !!!!!!!!!!!!! Deuteronomy 23:1 "No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD.!!!!!!!!!!!!! MALE ORGAN... if you are male, you will have this organ. This says exactly the opposite of what you are arguing. Even when the organ is cut off, they are still male. No mate [sic] what Wanda does, he is still male. No separation of sex / gender. It would be illogical in light of this scripture.
My Response: I find your conclusions here somewhat odd. The passage doesn’t (unless I am missing some nuance of Hebrew) even imply that “if you are male you will have this organ”. In fact, since even XY foetal humans don’t have male genitals until around the second trimester, you would seem to be requiring (in a way this passage certainly doesn’t) the conclusion that XY babies are not actually male until they acquire a penis and testicles. And you seem to contradict yourself here first saying that having a penis makes you male, then saying that someone whose penis has been cut off is still male. If you, perhaps see an equivalence between calling the penis or testicles a “male organ” and calling all penis-having people “male” that equivalence is false. Again you would be missing the way language actually works. The penis is called the male organs because having that organ is typical of male bodies, though there are men who do not have penises for a number of reasons. Language makes these associations based on general convergence (penis are strongly correlated with maleness) but does not establish a causal or necessary condition. Think about how a person might have a southerner’s taste for tea, without actually being a southerner.
Now I supposed I could see this passage being used to support the conclusion that a male to female transsexual individual who had been through sex reassignment surgery is thereby “cut off from the presence of the Lord” but that would be to ignore Isaiah 63:3-5 which promises a glorification of Eunuchs without making them procreation-capable male or female persons (they get a reward “better than sons or daughters”) and Act 8:36-39 where we see the Isaiah promise completed as, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Phillip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch thereby establishing in the Biblical witness that the eunuch is a part of the church.
Kris: Judges 21:11 "This is what you shall do: every male and every woman that has lain with a male you shall devote to destruction." No separation of sex / gender. It would be illogical in light of this scripture.

Old Testament Etc. Etc. The OT simply does not have the category you speak of.
My Response: My response to these last OT passages from you can probably also be read back onto my thoughts about several of the other passages you have listed. You seem to want to treat the phrase “male and female” as though it were put in the text to indicate that God has limited human sex expression to the two categories, or that a given person cannot transition from one category to the other. But neither of these conclusions hold, as I have said above, that simply isn’t how language works and in bringing that conclusion into your interpretation you are shifting from exegesis of what is necessarily in the text to an eisegetical “discovery” of anthropological theory hidden in mundane phrases. Even today we use the phrase “men and women” as a stand in for, or emphasis of, “everybody”. In the specific passage above the lack of a sex/gender separation is entirely unsurprising. What function would it serve? Frankly none.
Speaking more specifically to the claim that the OT doesn’t appear to make a distinction between sex and gender, as I have said above, I think that is likely (though I am not a Hebrew scholar). But it is also irrelevant. The absence of a thing in scripture is not a denial of the validity of that thing and all of the verses you have quoted retain meaning without having to make the distinction (though their application might have varied if the distinction had been realized at the time).
Kris: 1 Kings 16:11 "When he began to reign, as soon as he had seated himself on his throne, he struck down all the house of Baasha. He did not leave him a single male of his relatives or his friends." I don't believe he asked each person with male genitalia if they identified as a female or not. No separation of sex / gender. It would be illogical in light of this scripture.
My Response: I don’t imagine that they did ask. But the bible here is simply recording what did happen not commenting on gender/sex differentiation or the viability of transitioning. I would read this passage as saying that he killed everyone he took to be male, and that he succeeded in killing all of the male bodied persons. Again that doesn’t actually prove anything vis. sex/gender distinctions or transgender people.
Kris: Mark 10:6-8 "But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 7 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and they shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh." It is impossible for Wanda to function in any way as a female in the way Jesus is defining male and female above. Jesus is clearly defining male and female in relation to physical orientation. He does not separate the two.
My Response: No, Jesus is talking about how marriage works (as is evident from the context - a question about divorce and the permanence of marriage) and citing the fact that God created the diversity of the original marriage as evidence that in marriage, God brings two distinct and separate beings into an indissoluble one-flesh bond. Wanda is (in principle) just as able to become one flesh with another person as a sterile cisgender woman is. “Becoming one flesh” is (to the extent it is rooted in physical interaction at all - a dubious assumption given the fact that severely handicapped people who are incapable of sex will marry on occasion without the church calling the legitimacy of their marriage into question) rooted in intimacy not procreation. I’m not really sure what you mean by “physical orientation” so maybe you could clarify that if I am missing your point.
Kris: 1 Corinthians 7:13-14 "If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy." Wanda simply does not fit the definition of woman here in scripture.
My Response: What part of the definition of “woman” does Wanda not fit? Unless you see marriage and procreation as necessary for a person to be fully a woman (and Paul would probably take issue with that since he thinks it’s better for virgins not to marry). Wanda is just as much able to follow this passage as any other unmarried and sterile Christian woman.
Kris:Galatians 4:4 "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law," Could God have chosen a man who identified as a woman to bare the Christ? This seems like a nonsensical question, but so does the idea that Wanda claims he is a woman. I'm not saying Wanda has to bare children to be a woman. I'm saying the Bible doesn't speak of womanhood apart from physical nature.

1 Thessalonians 5:3 "While people are saying, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape." Same point. The Bible does not speak of womanhood apart from physical nature.
My Response: Your use of these two passages to suggest that “The Bible does not speak of womanhood apart from physical nature” strikes me as deeply problematic. Would you then argue that women who have died prior to the resurrection are no longer women? Also the Bible speaks of Mary and Martha, of Deborah and Jael, of Rahab and Ruth, of Priscilla and Junia, all without any apparent reference to their “physical nature”. The Bible refers to each of them as women but gives us little no information about their “physical nature”. At most we know that Rahab and Ruth had children (though in both cases we find that out well after we are first introduced to them), in the cases of Mary, Martha, Deborah, Jael, Priscilla, and Junia all we know is that they were women, we know nothing of their physicality beyond that. In terms of womanhood as a category, we certainly have less teaching but what we have is not at all always physical. Certainly the fact that women are physical (in the sense that they have bodies) is true but so are all persons, that does not seem to be relevant to Wanda who is also (in our hypothetical) possessed of a physical body.
Kris: 1 Peter 3:7 "Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered." She is a woman, which is determined by the "vessel" she is in. This is in direct contrast to what you are saying. You are saying Wanda is a woman based on her thinking. This verse says the opposite.
My Response: I actually haven’t rendered an opinion as to whether it is an immaterial soul, or a particular brain morphology (or both or neither) which makes Wanda a woman. Any of these is possible, but I don’t think that it is just “based on her thinking” that Wanda is a woman. Remember that Wanda does not (at the time of the hypothetical meeting with the hypothetical pastor) think that she has a typically female body, she knows that her bodily shape and chemistry is typically male. So it is important to remember that Wanda is not delusional (thinking her body has an appearance contrary to what it actually has) you can go back and check on the links in Part 2 for evidence of this. I am not saying that Wanda is a woman based on her thinking, I am saying that based on Wanda’s experience of herself (remember the trilemma from Part 2) we have reason to believe that Wanda’s account of herself as a woman is accurate since it is reasonable to believe that our maleness and femaleness is more than mere physicality (again per the arguments I laid out in Part 2) and God and then Wanda are the only persons with privileged information about the state of those parts of Wanda. I am neither a gnostic (believing the body is irrelevant) or a materialist (believing that we have no immaterial part). Wanda’s core femininity may rest in her brain structures or in her soul but in either case we have warrant to believe that it is real.
Kris: All this to say, you have yet to prove from scripture that Wanda's disillusioned mindset is in line with the way the Bible speaks of gender and sex. If you really are claiming that the Bible is your ultimate authority, you have to speak of gender and sex in light of that authority. Your argument, as it stands, rejects the Bible's authority by rejecting its clearly defined categories.
My Response: As I have stated a number of times, I am not trying to prove the positive validity of transgender identities from scripture, I don’t think scripture speaks to that directly. But I also don’t have to to conclude that transgender identities may well be valid and ought to be treated as such unless such a treatment can be demonstrated to contradict God’s revelation. You are forcing a false dichotomy between A: Scripture positively says that transgender identities are valid; and B: Scripture positively condemns the possibility of transgender identities. And have been treating my (fully admitted) inability to demonstrate A and an implicit validation of B where, in fact, I am claiming C: Scripture neither positively affirms transgender identities, nor positively condemns transgender identities, because the Bible never speaks directly to transgender identities but instead provides us with principles (love of neighbor being first among all principles when it comes to human interaction, but also principles indicating a diversity of physical/sexual types within the kingdom just to name a few) by which we can and ought to conclude that God does indeed affirm transgender identities.
What you are calling “[the Bible’s] clearly defined categories” I see as “the categories Kris has wrongly derived from a misinterpretation of Scripture." You are conflating the meaning of Scripture with your understanding of the meaning of Scripture. I am not questioning the authority of the Bible, but I am very much questioning the authority of your interpretation of the Bible.
If you want to really check out DeFranza's exegesis, she has a four part series on Transgender folk which starts with the link below:

Friday, January 12, 2018

Let America Be...

Image result for two face
If I had to recommend a mascot for the USA...
In the wake of President Trump's "shithole" comment, I have noticed one well intentioned but not quite accurate theme in the responses. It essentially boils down to "this is not who we really are". This is usually offered by good people who are trying to tell others (other nations, other people) that the President's racism does not have the support of the whole country—that there is real opposition to him. And I think that is a good thing to want to communicate, as far as it goes, but I don't think that framing—this is not who we are—is the right one because... well... this is exactly who we are. The United States is the nation which made Trump possible. Yes our #resistance is real, but our bigotry, our racism, our xenophobia — that is real too. Trump wasn't an accident. Trump was encouraged, and tolerated by enough of us that he became our executive, our leader.

Trump does not represent my values, my interests, or my desires, but the plain fact is that he does represent the nation of which I am a part. He does represent me; to me that is one more reason to resist him.

I worry a little, that the desire to say "this isn't us" comes from a desire to pretend that a mythology has more historicity than it does. There is a real United States and then there is also a dream of the United States. The real, historical United States is a country born in the blood of genocide and built on the back of chattel slavery. The real historical United States has, truly, built and accomplished great things; but far too often it has accomplished those great deeds over the corpses of others. The real, historical United States really is a purveyor of beauty, grandeur, holocaust, theft, and oppression. The real, historical, United States has nailed the body of Jesus to the front of our Roman Imperial temple. That, horrific and grand nation is the real and historical United States.

But there is also a mythology. And as mythologies go, the myth of the Unites States is a good one. It is a myth of all persons, free and equal in dignity. The myth is a myth of liberty and liberation. Of siblings, children, and parents; of hard work and good play; of education and simplicity. As an aspiration it is able to move us closer to the good—as many of the great myths are able to. The danger is in confusing our history with our myth. The history is who we are, the myth is who we want to be. I have never found this more perfectly represented than by Langston Hughes:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be.

"The land that never has been yet—and yet must be." We are, still, the land of Donald Trump. We will, now, forever be the land that once elected Donald Trump. That is who we are; it is not who must be.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Early Pebbles: A Dinner Which Led Me Away From Politically Conservative US Christianity

"Why do our Christian brothers and sisters in the United States hate us?"

I was only just old enough to overhear this question when it changed my life. I suppose that people change for a lot of reasons and in a lot of different ways—certainly I have. Sometimes we encounter someone or learn something that changes us in a flash. One moment we were convinced of one thing and were living our lives by it and then—bam—we learn a missing fact or meet someone new and are convinced almost instantly that we had been wrong, that a different proposition is actually true, and our lives change. But most of the time I don't think it works like that. I think most of the time we have these experiences and they settle in and start to work on us slowly. If our significant changes in the way we are oriented towards our world can be compared to landslides, then most landslides start with pebbles bouncing down the hill; they bring a few other pebbles with them and those pebbles loosen bigger rocks. Now the hillside is less stable and then there is a rainstorm and then, in what seems like an instant, the whole vista gives way and changes irrevocably.

I have experienced a number of these shifts in my life; I consider it a sign of health. After all, I know more now than I did when I was younger, and I have picked up habits of reasoning which (I hope) have improved my capacity to analyze what I know. Additionally my character has been formed through relationships and through my reading; the weight things have with me has shifted and—I  hope—grown into a more accurate reflection of the real value of the world.

The question I opened with—Why do our Christian brothers and sisters in the United States hate us?—is one of the pebbles, possibly the first pebble, in the what became the landslide which marked my ultimate rejection of politically conservative US Christianity. Of course, few quotes are meaningful without context and the context for this one is critical. I was in (I think) seventh grade at the time, and the question was on the lips of a Palestinian Christian. He asked the question to my Dad after dinner.

In fact it took a lot for me to hear that question. My family moved to Turkey when I was seven years old—my dad was offered and accepted a position at a joint venture company in Ankara—and I lived there till college. While I was there my parents helped to found the International Protestant Church of Ankara and have been involved in its leadership ever since. When I was around twelve my parents planned a family vacation to tour Israel and Palestine. In the course of planning the trip, they spoke with some fellow church members of ours who were Palestinian Christians studying at one of the universities in Ankara. One of those students was from Bethlehem and was determined for us to go and visit his family while we were in the area. At that point in the mid-90's the Israel/Palestine conflict was in one of its hotter periods so American visitors had been warned against going to Bethlehem. Our friend the college student gave my dad some instructions about how to ensure that our car would be protected by Palestinians and insisted that we visit. You can imagine that for a twelve year old, this was the very height of international adventure. We were going to act on privileged information, put the right symbol in the dashboard of our car and be granted special access to visit Bethlehem at a time when most Americans were afraid to go.
Image result for church of the nativity
The Church of the Nativity
And all of it worked. We drove into Bethlehem, visited the Church of the Nativity, and had a lovely ham dinner with a charming and hospitable Palestinian family. The delight of the ham particularly stuck with me because, as an American Christian living in Turkey, I didn't get to enjoy pork products all that often and, since we were vacationing in Israel for most of the trip, I hadn't been able to get any on vacation either. After dinner my two younger siblings wandered away from the table to play with some of the children of the family but, as there weren't any children my age, I stayed at the table and listened to the adults talking. That is when one man asked my Dad the question—Why to our Christian brothers and sisters in the United States hate us? I don't remember what my Dad's answer was—I don't think he was a fan of Christian Zionism even back then, so I imagine he did his best to regretfully explain a culture of largely uniformed religious ethnocentrism—and I don't remember the rest of the conversation. I think I asked my parents about it in the car on our way back to Jerusalem later because I was never able to be politically pro-Israel after that trip, and I have a vague memory of thinking that American Christians were "sort of confused" about the Middle East (a belief which was only reinforced when I began to attend bible college in South Carolina and found that telling people I had grown up in Turkey inevitably conjured up images from the film Casablanca in their minds).

Image result for Palestinian Christians
You aren't going to convince me to hate Palestinians
That was one family, one conversation. But it made its impression. It was a pebble rolling down the mountain and, once down, it could not roll back up the hill and regain its place. It was only a few years later that I became an Evangelical teenager in the late 90's (for those of you who shared that cultural moment with me, you will already know the weight of it, for those who did not, I will only say that it was both the heyday and swan song of American White Evangelical culture). I bought in almost to the hilt. I built a mental, religious, political, and philosophical structure out of the materials of late 90's White American Evangelical culture. Francis Schaeffer, DC Talk, the OC Supertones, True Love Waits, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Quiet Times, Passion, Republicanism, Apologetics, the lot. My first vote was for George W. Bush and I worked my first job out of college to the sound of conservative talk radio.

But that structure had been built on an undermined foundation. That pebble (and others—they will have to wait for other blog posts) was missing. And I should say that it was consciously missing. I thought it gave me nuance. Knowing the kind of person I was in college, I probably thought it made me a little bit better than most of my peers. I understood that things were really more complex. But here is where that pebble really starts to make itself known. You see, the thing about having a pebble missing from under your foundation is that it is really difficult to just "let the empty space be" you need to fill it with something—I may be stretching this analogy too far, but work with me here—so you start to excavate the little hole. You study it, you dig around it, you try to figure our why the pebble that fell out of the hole didn't "work" there. This displaces more pebbles as you find that they don't really work either. Then you displace more pebbles.

Back in the real world (and away from pebble-analogy land) this excavation process really sped up after 9/11. I remember going online that night and somehow getting involved in a chat room (remember chat rooms?) where someone wanted "us" to "just go bomb the crap out of them" without any clear awareness of who "them" was beyond "middle eastern Muslims". I was somewhat horrified (remember that I have family and friends in a predominantly Muslim middle eastern country, and then that family in Bethlehem came to mind) and when I tried to push back I encountered the full, unveiled face of Christian American Nationalism. It was ugly, and more pebbles rolled down the mountain. See, it is hard to hate people you know. It is even harder to want the destruction of people who have been kind to you. It is harder than that to categorize as a "good" the mistreatment of people with whom you have identified—our Christian brothers and sisters—and who have been kind to you. It is hard to support a structure which keeps telling you to be against them.

This is not the space for a full story of the deconstruction of my politically conservative Christianity; I hope to write my way through that in time. But from here I hope the outlines of the process have become clear. If religious political Conservatism was wrong about Israel then what else might it have been wrong about? And the "space" around the pebble grows... The questioning process, once properly begun, will not stop until it is frightened into remission, or has scoured the hillside down to the bedrock. In the end my trust in Jesus survived (HERE is a series about what my relationship with Jesus looks like these days), my Christian Nationalism and religious political conservatism did not.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Book Review: According to Folly

35055333Imagine that Socrates, Peter Kreeft, and Jostein Gaarder sat down to write a book together. They might come up with something a little like Daniel Heck's According to Folly—at least, there are elements of this book which one can imagine each of them contributing. This book is in the form of an imagined series of conversations which a self-identified Fool has with a Conservative, a Liberal, and a Skeptic. On it's surface that premise is engaging enough in a straightforward "up the Moderates, and boo to polarization" sort of way; it is a premise which could be fairly compelling in the right hands or would, more likely, descend into nearly suffocating insufferability if executed poorly. Fortunately the book moves well beyond that surface premise by drilling down into the particularity of the author.

In According to Folly, the respective Fool, Conservative, Liberal, and Skeptic are not the generic stereotypes of those ideologies as found in the contemporary Unites States—a move which would have doomed the project in the hands of any but the wisest and most well informed social critics. Instead Heck has written the characters as his Conservative, his Liberal, and his Skeptic (I will have more to say about the Fool below). The characters do not, therefore, employ the sort of straw man arguments one might expect. Instead they embody (one suspects) both the strongest and weakest of the arguments Heck has experienced in his own life. This is a critical move. The job of presenting the actual total arguments made by each of these camps would have been well beyond the abilities of any (almost any?) single author. What we get in this book instead is both much narrower and far more enlightening. Heck uses the person of the fool to socratically interrogate his own essential experience of these types.

Image result for socrates
It is the person of the Fool who brings the most value to the book and sets the whole project in line. The character is not—quite—a stand-in for the author himself. In fact Heck does write himself into the narrative in several Gaarderian moments in the book. Instead, the Fool identifies himself as, sequentially, the Conservative's Fool, the Liberal's Fool, and the Skeptic's Fool. My understanding of him was as a sort of Socrates character with a little of the edge taken off and a little of Jesus added in. Like Socrates, the Fool is dedicated to determining the "logic" of his successive interlocutors, and like Socrates his method is to first work out the "rules of their game" and then to rigorously apply those rules to their thinking. Heck's Conservative is therefore confronted with the her own hermeneutic principles used in a way which lead to very different conclusions than those she is comfortable accepting. The same process is then employed with and against the Liberal and the Skeptic. The fool departs from direct Socratic interrogation though in two critical ways. First, Heck's Fool comes across as genuinely desiring to learn from each of his interlocutors. He really wants to get at the best of what they have to offer, is often thrilled when he finds insights of value, and is discouraged when the process fails. Second, the Fool treats his interlocutors like real friends rather than as opponents. Whatever you ultimately think of the book, you are almost guaranteed to like the Fool.

It would be cliche'd to say that Conservatives, Liberals, and (Modernist) Skeptics will each love 2/3s of this book and hate the third which focuses on them; and while it  may be true in some cases, I suspect that it is least true of the best of them. In fact I suspect that it is the wisest of our Conservatives, Liberals, and Skeptics who will enjoy this book the most. The temperament I believe least likely to appreciate this work is the person so committed to the rightness of his conclusions that he cannot bear to examine his own reasoning. It is the weak, rather than the strong and committed ideologue who will chafe, as this is a book which burns down straw men only so that the stronger ideas they hid can be revealed. C.S. Lewis wrote in his preface to Mere Christianity that
It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the centre of each there is something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.
According to Folly adds further evidence to support his thesis.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Best Books I Read in 2017

I am a fan of the Goodreads reading challenge. For two years now it has done a good job of helping me to keep reading a priority without (as I was afraid it would at first) making reading into a chore for me. One of the side benefits has been that at the end of the year I have a nice list of books I read that year. So I thought it would be fun to go ahead an throw together a list of recommendations from my 2017 reading list. According to my 2017 challenge, I read 62 books in 2017, which I feel is pretty good. However I should note that I did include audio books and that just under half of the books I read were science fiction or fantasy novels. I am not apologizing for that—I am an unabashed fan for genre fiction—but mentioning it probably important in painting any sort of accurate picture of my reading habits.
One last note before I get into my top book recommendations for each of four categories (plus a "best overall") is that I try to do at least a short one or two sentence review of each of these on Goodreads when I read them as I know how helpful book reviews (particularly Goodreads and Amazon book reviews) are for new and indie authors hint hint. You can find the piece I wrote up about that HERE.

Science Fiction - Fantasy

So just under half of the book I read in 2017 were either Science Fiction or Fantasy. And I was only able to keep that under 50% by including Young Adult books as a separate category so if I include the YA sci-fi novels I read I think I end up at exactly 50%. Of those, my favorite read was The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk. I had actually never heard of the book before I started discussing resistance dystopias with some friends online and one of them recommended it. The Fifth Sacred Thing is unabashedly pagan to the extent that the author would probably be at least a little upset that I filed her book under sci-fi and fantasy. That said it is excellently written; the characters are well developed, fully fleshed out, and entirely compelling. Additionally the book has the benefit of actually managing an pacifist apologetic and still being suspenseful and full of action.

Note: If I had read more I would have separated these sci-fi and fantasy as categories so let be add that my favorite sci-fi book (actually series) I read was Craig Alanson's Expeditionary Force series which starts with Columbus Day. It is not "great lit" by any stretch of the imagination but it is an unremittingly fun series and the AI character in it is one of my favorite AIs I have ever read. I did these on audiobook and I have to say that R.C. Bray does an amazing job narrating the books.

YA (Young Adult)

As a high school teacher (and let's be honest, just because I enjoy them) I try to read a number of YA novels each year. I read some really good ones this year including the Nemesis series by April Daniels and John Green's return to publication Turtles All the Way Down. However, the best YA book of the year for me has to go to Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give. I know this thing has won awards all over the place and it frankly deserves them. This book is really engaging, entirely immersive, and constituted one of those moments where a message finds its perfect genre. The book dives straight into a narrative of police violence, racial divides, code switching, cultural whiplash, as well as structural and individual racism and builds all of it in a complex and powerful protagonist's social bildungsroman. The book will break you and heal you and make you fall downs and jump for joy. I can't recommend it enough.


2017 was a good year for me in these genres as well. I started the year with the specific goal of improving my Inklings studies by taking a dive into the works of Inkling, poet, and philosopher Owen Barfield. In the end my "dive" turned out to consist only of reading his Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearances as well as starting his fairy tale The Silver Trumpet which I finished yesterday so it didn't end up making the 2017 list. Of the two I was more excited to read Saving the Appearances but ended up appreciating Poetic Diction far more. In fact Poetic Diction ended up being my runner-up in this category and I have every intention of re-reading it in 2018. Beyond my Barfield reads, I spent time in 2017 boning up on my Anabaptist, Anabaptist-adjacent, and "progressive Christain" theology. I  started Greg Boyd's The Crucifixion of the Warrior God which I am still working on, and did finish his popular treatment of the subject Crossvision. I read some Wes Howard Brook and started a series on Blue Ocean Faith.

So I really appreciated my theological reading this last year and want to add a little more direct philosophy back into the mix in 2018. With all that in place, the book which, I think, has had the greatest impact on my this year is Matthew Croasmun's The Emergence of Sin. To give fair warning the book is a pretty darned scholarly piece of work and takes some serious wrestling and work to get through (at least it did for me). But the work is 100% worth it. Corasmun brings to Christian theology a model which has the potential to unlock a whole lot of our (or at least my) understanding of both philosophy and the spiritual. In the book he takes emergence theory as it has been developed variously by philsophers, sociologists, and "hard" scientists and uses it as a lens for approaching the concept of S/sin in Romans. While I think his applications in Romans are pretty much on the mark, the far more exciting aspect of this book for me, is the potential this lens has for thinking about further spiritual reality. This book will certainly have me pondering and reflecting for the next several years.
Note: A friend of mine wrote the other book which had a good shot at winning this category (According to Folly by Daniel Heck) and I certainly recommend it.

Other non-fiction

Yeah this is a terrible category but the fact of the matter is that it covers fourteen of the sixty two books I read last year. Without it I would have ended up with far too many one and two book categories. So poetry has to compete with memoir, politics, and theory books (or maybe it would be better to say that they have to compete with poetry). In fact, scanning through the books in this category gives a pretty good picture of my interests over 2018. There is some poetry and biography, then the list leans towards sociology, psychology, gender, and race theory with a definite background of political theory haunting many of the books in the list. A further reflection I had here was that I very much still appreciate all of the books I read in this category (which stands in contrast to—for instance—sci-fi and fantasy. That isn't' to say that I agreed with everything I read—I make an effort to read things that will challenge me and which represent views I don't necessarily agree with—but they all turned out to be helpful and substantive this year.

For all of that, the number one slot has to go to one of them and my favorite of all of these books was Whipping Girl by Julia Serano. I know, I am quite a few years late to the party on this one, but I am glad to have made it there eventually. Whipping Girl (I got the tenth anniversary edition) is, in addition to it's manifest intellectual virtues, an incredibly compelling and incisive account of the transgender experience from "the inside". The book was good enough that I read another of her more recent books a little later in the year (Outspokenit was also terrific but is a little more "in the weeds" than Whipping Girl). Serano is, among other things, a spoken word poet and a professional biologist and the qualities associated with both of these vocations are evident in the book: passion and eloquence blended with careful and critical observation and reflection. Certainly this is a book which is more than worth the read for anyone who wants to engage publicly in the "conversation" around gender and sex. It certainly caused me to go back, re-read, and re-think some of what I have written.

The Best Book I read in 2017

Of course when we are talking about books 'best' is an inadequate descriptor. I think that what I mean by it here is that this book had a more profound effect on me than any other book I read this year. Put another way, if I had to choose to lose the experience of reading all but one of my 2017 books, this is the one I would save. Reading In the Shelter by Pádraig Ó Tuama is a book which breaks you apart only to put you together again far more whole than you were to begin with. I tried to get at this a bit in my Goodreads review of the book:
This is probably the most powerful book I have read all year. It is, to borrow C.S. Lewis' summation of "Lord of the Rings", good beyond hope. The author's blending of poetry, theology, biography,and story is an artifact too rich to be summarized—it must be experienced. Reading this book will wound, heal, and grow your heart. The author approaches the painful, glorious fact of being one's self in the world and the inscrutable love of god in a way that will have me coming back and back to this book.

The book itself is memoir so laden with philosophical and theological reflection that it could just as easily be classified as a piece of narrative theology or philosophy. Pádraig Ó Tuama has also included poems between chapters in a tacit acknowledgement of the final inability of prose to communicate all that needs to be said. If I were to find that he writes music as well I would pay much to hear him communicate through that medium as well. More than nearly any author I have read Pádraig Ó Tuama brings together a deep wisdom and the beauty of medium. This book is worth reading for so many reasons but here is one reason that would be enough all on it's own. In In the Shelter the three transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty dance together and are as one. After reading it, one does not, quite, feel that any discussion of the relation between those three will be adequately understood by those who have not read it. 

Reviews of Other Books I Read This Year