Book Reviews

In which I review “Jesus Feminist”: part II

I couldn’t narrow my thoughts about this book to one blog post, so this is second of a two-part review of “Jesus Feminist” by Sara Bessey.

One of the great things about running a blog is that I get to declare decisions that I would have made, even though I am in no position to be making those decisions. And so, in reading some other reviews of Jesus Feminist I found that there were a lot of people writing about what the book could have been. Even though the writer makes clear that she hadn’t set out to write a highly academic piece, and that she probably isn’t the person to write that kind of book anyway, a number of people still would like to read/critique the more academic treatment.

Now, if I was the editor, and someone came to me with a proposal for a book called Jesus Feminist, I would have something else in mind. Technically I do run a publishing company. Sure it only has one author so far (me), and zero sales, but the concept isn’t entirely absurd. From time to time, I read about some crisis that has the feminist community up in arms, and it strikes me that Christians are one group of people that should agree with them. I don’t just mean one quadrant within the church, I mean everyone from the left-leaning, intolerance-hating, peace advocating Christians to the right-leaning, God and country, literal reading (except for gluttony and loving enemies) believers. I would love it if someone would take the overlapping areas of agreement and flesh them out, or maybe just bring them to public attention.

If it were up to me, I would love it if this was was a book that tackles a number of pressing feminist issues and devotes a chapter to explaining why Christians and feminists already do agree in potentially very constructive ways on each particular issue. Maybe this could be the sequel, we could call it, “Jesus and Feminism: why can’t we be friends?”

At the very least #JesusFeminist could be the hashtag that people use when they tweet about apparent agreement between Christian belief and Feminism. Let me give a few examples of what that might look like.

One issue that feminists often complain about is the double standard in society that men are often lauded for the sexual promiscuity and called studs, while women are derided for the same behaviour and called sluts.  With this general principle, the church should whole-heartedly agree.  Of course feminists would like to advocate a woman’s right to choose her own sexual behaviour without social consequence, and while many in the church would disagree with that interpretation, I think there is still room for us to tweet our agreement.

“There is no double standard in the Kingdom. Formerly promiscuous men and women both welcome. #JesusFeminist”

“The grace of God is so great, even studs can be forgiven. #JesusFeminist”

“For it is by grace that we are saved, through faith, lest no stud may boast. #JesusFeminist”

Another issue that flairs up with the occasional mispoken word from police men and government figures that suggest a woman invites/deserves to be sexually assaulted because of how she dresses. While we shouldn’t expect to see the church defend a woman’s right to dress however she wants, we should expect them to hold the men involved accountable for their actions.

“God will not tempt you beyond what you can bear, and neither will scantily clad women. #JesusFeminist”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘She was asking for it,’ but I say you have already committed adultery in your heart. #JesusFeminist”

“It isn’t unloving to say men are accountable for their own actions, it’s unloving not to say it. #JesusFeminist”

Finally, one issue that won’t go away in both the church and in feminist debates. Studies have shown over and over again that women get paid less than men for doing the same work.  While the gap seems to be closing, many still hold this up as a fundamental justice issue.  The church has largely been percieved to be unsympathetic in this cause, partly because the loudest voices within the church expect women to be content to be unpaid home makers.  Still, there should be room for agreement here.

“Please, pay our women more, so they can tithe more. Sincerely, – The Church. #JesusFeminist”

“There is pay equality in heaven. Equal jewels for equal service. #JesusFeminist”

“Work like Ruth, remmunerate like Boaz. #JesusFeminist”

Sure it’s just a collection of tweets right now, but it wouldn’t be the first time that a twitter account or hashtag resulted in a book contract or sitcom.

I guess neither of these posts constitutes an actual review, but this was my take on what it could have been.

Book Reviews

In which I review “Jesus Feminist” : Part I

I couldn’t narrow my thoughts about this book to one blog post, so this is first of a two-part review of “Jesus Feminist” by Sara Bessey.

Sarah Bessey is someone that I follow with a great deal of interest, for a variety of reasons. First, she embodies a lot of the ways I see myself. She is Canadian, and we need more writers who spell colour with a ‘u’. She’s also a parent to kids the same age as mine. If they ever meet as adults, I’d like to think their conversation would go something like this: “Your parents over-shared about you online as kid? Mine too.” She not only enjoys telling stories, but also seems to write as though she believes that telling the story well is at least as important as staying within the bounds of orthodoxy while you tell it.  So, while she recognizes the pitfalls of the label, there might be some days when she would identify herself as an evangelical Christian.

There are also ways I wish I could be more like her. She tells stories well and approaches complex subjects simplicity, graciousness and humour. She’s a great writer, she’s such a great writer that she has parlayed a blog into a book contract, and that book is what I’m reviewing now.

Not to be entirely outdone, I have managed to parlay a significantly less successful blog into a self-published book. This also means that I am open to learning ideas from other authors about book promotion, and the grass roots promotion of this book was brilliant. She invited her readers to take pictures of themselves, holding up signs that read “I’m a … and I’m a Jesus Feminist.” It demonstrated popularity, it communicated accessibility, and it was fun. I had even envisioned what mine would look like; me holding a piece of paper that read, “I’m a Mennonite pastor and ..” while standing in front of my church sign that read “I’m a Jesus Feminist.”

I had to hesitate though, as I wondered about the accuracy of that statement. Am I a Jesus Feminist?

In many ways, the answer would be yes. Do I agree with the tagline on the cover, “God’s radical notion that women are people too”? Of course. Do I believe that women are equal to men in the eyes of God? Yes. Do I believe that women should be equal to men in the eyes of the law, and therefore be entitled to equal pay for equal work, and full voting, driving and legal protection rights? Do I want my wife and two daughters to live in a world where their merit is evaluated independent of their gender? Yes. In fact, I’m sure that I would meet most of the academic criteria to classify myself as a feminist.

I recognize too that many people will use a different definition for feminism, that include things that I am not comfortable with. I recognize too that there are a variety of things that empowered women feel entitled to do, and I unapologetically don’t think that those things are in their best interests. So, using that rationale, there will be people on both sides of the feminist fence that would argue the label doesn’t fit me.

Now, if I left that message on the sign for any length of time, I might turn some heads, I might help Ms. Bessey sell a few more books, and I might even generate some healthy conversation around God’s view of women etc. I also know a long list of people who would want to offer me a corrective semantic argument by explaining to me the evils of feminism, and in various theological circles I would be branded accordingly. But as inconvenient as they might be, I don’t fear the ghosts of feminist present or future.

Most of all, I fear the ghost of mysogyny past. At various times, many of us will take the path of least resistance, whether or not we are aware of the consequences. For the better part of my youth, the short cut to an easy laugh, social acceptance and evangelical orthodoxy was to oppose feminism, and I recognize now that in the process, I hurt some people. In the process, I propped up systems and institutions that under-valued and devalued some of the exact same people it was supposed to be protecting and upholding.

So, am I a feminist? Don’t ask me. Maybe ask my wife. Maybe ask my daughters in their first year of university.  Better yet, wait until my new, less automatic view of women produces more good than my old view caused harm, but by then, the answer to your question will be obvious.

Resourcing the church

Playmobil Advent – Day Twenty-three

Today’s Santa Claus comes from kit #4889 and can be viewed/ordered here.

Some would argue that Santa Claus doesn’t belong with the Nativity set. I read a valid point this week that if we put Santa and baby Jesus side by side as equally worthwhile symbols of Christmas, then when children grow older and realize that Santa doesn’t exist, they will assume the same is true of Jesus. I would also argue that Santa doesn’t need to be part of our religious rituals, but I felt that with this set, I could put Santa and St. Nicholas side by side and use them to paint a fair picture of where the story of Santa comes from. Santa exists because of Jesus. The original gift-giving that inspired today’s frenzy was initiated by a man motivated by Jesus’ teachings.

Day 23 – Malachi 3: 1-6 (TNIV)
1 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years. 5 “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.
6 “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.


Remembrance, Interrupted

In hindsight, we probably should have been more prepared for it.  Between the four of us pastors, we had probably over sixty years of public speaking experience.  My more charismatic colleague has had more sermons interrupted than he cares to count  by a prophetic voice.  Our local veteran and our newly arrived veteran can also tell stories of various church services, community program and council meetings that were interrupted by a dissenting voice.  A few times I have even found myself surrounded by people who were preparing to further their cause of social justice by being that interrupting voice. I guess, for some reason, we thought that this couldn’t happen at a Remembrance Day service.

It is one of a declining number of community Remembrance Day services that invites Christian pastors to play a lead role, and believe me, we approach it with the respect and humility it deserves.  The program was going along quite well, if not maybe a little behind schedule, but we were doing and saying the right things.  The eleventh hour was approaching and the trumpet player was getting ready for last post. Suddenly, a lone voice at the back of the auditorium spoke up. With the spotlights facing our direction it was difficult to identify the man, but we could see that this was a man in some kind of uniform.

He went on to list of a number of Canadians killed in WWI who were not soldiers. In fact, he was quite sure that the first two official deaths and the last one, were not technically soldiers.  He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t disrespectful.  He simply thought that an important group of victims had not been mentioned. The man at the podium thanked him, and the program continued as planned.

Nobody seemed to mind. Maybe people thought it was planned. Maybe it was because he was senior in a uniform, and if there is any time in Canada when a senior in a uniform is given extra freedom, it’s November 11th. Still, I’ve seen less solemn gatherings turn hostile when a dissenter let their voice be heard, so I was surprised that the response was so peaceful.

Later, I chatted with the other pastors about the incident.  They admitted to being surprised, but also confused. Maybe we hadn’t included WWI merchant marines, but our tributes certainly hadn’t been exclusive to soldiers.  In my opening prayer, I mentioned soldiers returning with PTSD and their families, I mentioned governmental leaders and decision makers, and I asked for time when the rules of engagement would be guided by the love in soldier’s heart (rather than the normal chain of command).  The pastor giving the meditation was careful to use generic words like ‘sailor,’ to include those who were in the navy when their boats went down and those who weren’t, and ‘victim’ to include fighters (allies and enemies) and civilians. His message honoured everyone who put themselves in harm’s way and empowered everyone in the audience.  Finally, the group prayer included such a wide swath of victims that it was hard to imagine that he had left anyone out.  Despite all of our efforts toward inclusion, we were unable to remove the need for this interruption.

We could, in self-defense, write this man off as someone who is impossible to please.  Someone even suggested that he had perhaps made this kind of interruption in the past.  But maybe there is something more going on.  Remembrance Day ceremonies are full of processions and pagaentry, poetry and prayer, but are our carefully chosen words enough?

Is an hour and a half, once a year, enough to honour the soldiers who fought (and died) in what they believed was the pursuit of freedom and justice?  Is it enough to honour the sacrifices of an entire country in the pursuit of victory?  Is there room to include the long list of victims; the soldiers who died, the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, sons and daughters left behind, the soldiers who returned with irreparable physical and emotional wounds, the innocent and loving family members who suffer abuse at the hands of those so emotionally scarred, the soldiers who died on the other side not knowing why they were even fighting, anyone relying on entire economies destroyed in the conflict, children of deceased soldiers who swear vengeance and carry hatred their whole lives, women who raise children without their fathers because of the war, women who are called in unwillingly to “comfort” the soldiers, those who suffer from the bombs and landmines left behind by the war, those whole societies who fear retribution, and the list could go on and on and on.

I now see that this man’s voice wasn’t simply an unnecessary part of an otherwise well orchestrated event, it was a necessary part of a perpetually inadequate gathering.  We will continue to remember, and when there is a part for me to play, I am happy to do so, but remembering cannot simply be an exercise of intellectual recall, it needs to be the first step in our efforts to bring peace into this world.


What is wrong with these people?

A week ago yesterday I got back from a trip to South Korea and Thailand. South Korea is a country I’ve lived in already for a few years, but this was my first trip to Thailand, making it the tenth country I have visited. I can without too much difficulty order food and ask for directions in four different languages, and on a good day I could understand the directions given to me in more than one of those languages. I have never refused foreign food that was offered to me. So, I like to think that I have a fairly high level of cultural sensitivity. My default approach is to say that each culture I visit and every custom I observe has something to teach me. I think travelling is pretty futile without that approach.

Sometimes though, that mindset slips back a bit. On just about every trip I take, there is a moment when I forget my place in the world. When I look down from the pillar I have built for myself and I ask, “What is wrong with these people?”  Now, before you shake your heads too easily at me, walk a mile in my “I bought these at a roadside stand because I only brought shoes from Canada” sandals.

There is something about sitting in an airplane for a long time, eating foreign food and bouncing around less than perfectly paved roads that helps me develop a keen eye for public bathrooms. It’s a scary sight though, when instead of a place to sit I find a porcelain lined hole in the ground. It is at these times that I ask myself, “What is wrong with these people?” Even though much of the world does it this way and it is actually much more efficient for the task, I feel entitled to a comfortable place to sit and tank of ten or more litres of fresh, clean, drinkable water that I can dispose of my leisure.

Maybe I just grew up sheltered from the realities of the world, but I have no idea where I would go in any Canadian or American city I’ve visited to find a prositute.  Granted, it likely wouldn’t be very hard if I started looking, but off the top of my head I don’t know where they are. But in more than one foreign city I have stumbled across these women and been absolutely certain about what profession they were in. One time I was in a car with a pastor and a school teacher who accidentally drove me through one of these areas and then sheepishly explained to me that this practice was illegal in their country. I was a little skeptical that these buildings which were designed and wired for the specific purpose of displaying their wares had somehow alluded the attention of local police. I look at these women and the infrastructure around them, and I ask myself, “What is wrong with these people?” Sure, we have the same industry in Canada, but they hide it, don’t they? Our police work harder to enforce those rules, don’t they? While prositution represents a smaller portion of our tourism industry, a close look at the local news and the classified section of the newspapers in our country’s largest cities will show you that we are in no position to condemn.

I make those comments about a business I’ve never and what I’m about to say within the context of a happy marriage. When I travel to other countries, I am constantly impressed by the women. Everywhere I go I meet incredible men doing incredible work, but as a whole, the women impress me more. They take advantage of new world opportunities, they pursue and gain new world education, and they enjoy and promote new world rights, but they go home to old world husbands, live out old world responsibilities and face old world limitations. Looking at their plight, I often wonder, “What is wrong with these people?” These women look at me and want to hear about Canada, a place where women don’t face the same limitations, where husbands don’t physically intimidate their wives and young women don’t define themselves by how they appear in men’s eyes. I want to hear about that version of Canada too.

When I travel, I like to bring gifts home for my family, but it is increasingly difficult to buy cultural gifts that aren’t just souvenir trinkets. If you can find cultural clothing, it’s irrevelevant because nobody wears it anymore. Main streets are crowded with western businesses selling western products and genuine local cuisine and cultural expressions are pushed farther and farther into the obscure. Sure, I think that people all over the world should be given a choice about what they can eat, what they can wear and what belief systems they can adopt, and sometimes those choices have to be presented to them from other places, but isn’t there still room to honour and uphold old cultural expressions? Whatever pride I had that this wasn’t the case in Canada came crashing down this week.  I returned on Thursday of last week and on Tuesday of this week I sat in on another session of the Truth and Reconcilation Commission in Calgary. Speaker after speaker told stories of how their cultural identity had been made to feel worthless, how their family structure had been depleted, and how they as human beings had been abused, neglected and discarded. This time when I ask “What is wrong with these people?” I need to ask that about myself and about the men who sold land to my ancestors that was not theirs to give.

I don’t know the way forward. The solutions to these culturally engrained problems are not easy, but they will not come from us blindly exporting our answers to them and they will not come from them or anyone closing their eyes and ears to the realities of the world around them. It is not whether their side or ours is correct, it is about how we walking side by side can arrive at the destination together.


New Mennonite Programming

It was recently announced that the DIY network will be airing a new TV show called “Vanilla Ice Goes Amish.” Of course, this comes as a huge disappointment to all those who hoped that reality programming based on the Amish, which is a pretty big segment of the population. It also comes as a huge blow to everyone hoping there wouldn’t be any more Vanilla Ice based programming, which covers pretty much everyone else. I could respond to the mainstream fascination with Amish lifestyle, but that would quickly head in a predictable direction.

I’m trying to be more positive these days, so I’ve come up with a few ideas of Mennonite themed TV shows that we actually do want to see.

Breaking Bread – a Mennonite pastor finds out he has terminal cancer and starts selling unpasteurized milk on the side to raise extra money. Does his new secret life harbour hidden dangers like the bacteria in the milk he sells or is he simply freeing himself from needless religious and governmental restrictions?

Not Dancing with the Stars – a TV crew follows around a group of Mennonite young people who visit high end night clubs and try to demonstrate to their contemporaries that they can have fun without dancing. Episodes usually end with the group putting up non-violent resistance when the bouncers seek to remove them from the club.

The Shame of Thrones – an HBO history style show. The story of Münster, a city of apocalyptic expectation, exclusive political and religious practice, vanity and struggle for superiority, and what late-night TV audience wants, wanton sexuality. (This one isn’t really a joke, this story is made for this genre of TV history. Historical details had to be altered to make the Tudors and the Borgias sexy, but this story is ripe for the picking.)

Mad Mennonites – a travelling deacon/conference minister visits various Mennonite congregants who are demonstrating far too much agression to be in good standing with their spiritual or birth families and are either on the verge of being shunned or are already being viciously gossiped about (or both).

Boardgame Empire – a home-schooling family designed their own boardgame and travel North America trying to find buyers for their game and keeping up their education as they travel.

Downtown Abbotsford – a hidden camera show where residents of British Columbia’s Mennonite Bible belt are presented with moral scruples while their pastors sit in a van and watch the action/inaction unfold on TV screens.

The Voices – a choir director at a Mennonite college is trying to assemble his ensemble for the year. The contestants try to demonstrate the right amount skill, personality and lack of personality that the panel is looking for in a Mennonite college choir member. The panel consists of the choir director, college president, the wife of the school’s biggest donor, and the diva from the previous year’s choir that couldn’t get a job with her music degree and so she has nothing better to do with her time. (Rejected name: The MezzoSupranos)

Any TV networks interested in developing these ideas should indicate so in the comments.


How I Talk to My Little Girls

An article showed up on my Facebook feed a few times a long time ago.  I had a reaction to it at the time, but I figured it would fade away, which it mostly did.  Now I’ve seen the article posted again a few more times and I thought it would be worth spelling out my reponse.

The article in question is here.  In it, author Lisa Bloom explains the value of praising young girls for things other than their appearance.  She says that finding other things to compliment will help them to combat the societal expectation that their appearance is the most important thing.  The article also serves essentially as a promotion for the book she has written on this topic.

As a father to two young girls, I celebrate that these values are being upheld.  I want my girls to grow up knowing that their worth is not exclusively determined by how attractive society deems them to be.  Already I see the creativity and enthusiasm my four year-old is demonstrating and I am glad that I am not the only one who compliments her for that.

To make her point though, Bloom gives an example of a dinner party that she attended where she met her friend’s 5 year-old daughter.  She explains that she is so committed to these ideals that she held back her compliments on the girls appearance.  I applaud her for the way she spoke to the girl at her level (which isn’t always easy or appreciated) and for being able to find common interests.  I refuse, however, to congratulate her for not complimenting the young girl’s appearance.

First, especially in this particular incident, it was a completely natural thing to do.  She admitted to noticing and appreciating how cute the young girl looked.  The girl almost certainly would have appreciated the compliment (I say ‘almost certainly’ because my oldest daughter seems bothered by people telling her she’s ‘cute’ or ‘pretty’).  Any time we give someone a compliment and they are happy to hear, that also makes us feel better too.  Those are all real results.  The long term benefits of not complimenting are entirely theoretical and may very well be cancelled out by other forces down the road, which leads me to my next point.

At various times in my daughters’ lives, they will be convinced that they are not pretty.  That will happen despite what I teach as a pastor, what Bloom and others write in books about how to raise girls and what we as her parents tell her.  I see it then as my responsibility to make sure that no matter what she assumes about what the boys at school think or anyone else she will know that her father sees her as beautiful.  If either of my daughters grows up not knowing that their father think they are beautiful, then I will have failed in that parental responsibility.

Finally, holding back from complimenting a girl about her appearance doesn’t mean you have arrived as a feminist or that you have reached the pinnacle of female understanding, it means you have experienced what men live with every day.  If we are supposed to congratulate Ms. Bloom for holding back a compliment about a girl’s looks, we should go around thanking every man we meet.  My mind conjures up all kinds of compliments about the women I see, and I usually do a pretty good job of filtering out the inappropriate ones.  That doesn’t make me a hero, that’s just what men do.

I agree that we should compliment little girls and little boys on their character, on their achievements, on the skills they’ve developed and all sorts of other things, but I also believe that it would have been quite appropriate for a woman in Ms. Bloom’s position to speak the kind words on her mind and make a little girl, if only superficially and only for a moment, happy.