On Brokenness: Sin, Human Struggle, and Sacred, Safe Spaces

A few days ago, one of my favorite online people, blogger and Moonshine Jesus Show host Mark Sandlin posted an article titled “Christianity has it wrong – You are not Broken.” Although I don’t I agree with the entirety of the post, I liked it and it set me on a course of thought that led to some interesting reflections.

I agree with Mark that as humans, we aren’t already “broken” or “sinful” right out of the gate as some traditions of belief have claimed. While Mark’s views in the article may cut us a little too much slack, I think they are preferable to doctrines of original sin and total depravity that condemn us from the moment that sperm meets egg (or even before, really), or that claim that without the direct influence of God, humans only have a tendency toward evil and sin.

In addition to doctrines like original sin, I suspect that Mark’s article is also a response to more progressive Christian voices who embrace the existence of “brokenness” in our lives and extol the value of being open and honest about it (Glennon Doyle Melton at Momastery comes to mind). One can debate whether talking about our human struggles in terms of “brokenness” is helpful or not, but essentially, I think this approach is less problematic because it doesn’t necessarily saddle us with automatic evil or spiritual unworthiness, and it potentially creates opportunities for healing and restoration.

I have long thought that human beings have an equal capacity for good and for evil. Mark writes that our flaws and our stumbles are simply part of the process of being human and that they do not make us sinful, unworthy, or broken. I agree that nothing we can do puts us beyond of the reach of God’s love, of regeneration and reconciliation, but I do think that there is a natural human tendency that often leads us to sin, and I think Mark touches on it when he writes that “We are so deeply invested in life that we can, at times, deny the larger good for the experience of the moment.”

Mark says that we are “self-invested” because of “love” . . . but love of what, exactly? I suspect that our capacity for evil stems from our love of self . . . more specifically, from our basic instinct for self-preservation. The need to preserve and protect ourselves (and, secondarily, the people and things that we love or value) is perhaps our prime motivation in life, and it can manifest itself in negative or positive ways.

Self-preservation often leads us to selfishness and to a quest for power, resources, and gratification at the expense of others. I have come to believe that this is at the root of a lot of what we call “sin.” It divides, hurts, and oppresses. It leads us to eye our neighbors with suspicion, to hoard resources when others are in need, and to exchange fairness and justice for the illusion of security and peace (I call them illusions because neither really exist in the absence of justice).

If humans have an innate tendency to evil and injustice, I think this is it. We all have the potential to be selfish and to ignore, exploit, oppress, or marginalize others in an attempt to guarantee our own security and status. We all have the potential to seek comfort and gratification to the point of excess.

And I think that giving in to those tendencies is what often leaves us with a feeling of brokenness and of separation both from God and from others.

Our culture perpetuates selfishness and excess, but God calls us to take a different path and follow our better natures. We all have that instinctual drive toward self-preservation, but God invites us to realize that our needs are best filled in community.

Our best attempts at self-preservation are attempts to guarantee the preservation of others: to promote equality, justice, acceptance, and love. We are all in that “inescapable network of mutuality” that Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about; we do not stand alone as independent and unaffected individuals. We belong to each other, and at our best we realize that and we care for each other as ourselves, beginning with our immediate communities and extending out into our world.

If we take the time and effort to create authentic communities, we can serve and be served, and we can meet needs and have our needs met. We can release the anxiety that comes from trying to fulfill all of our needs on our own. We can tear away the veil of self-sufficient individualism and not be afraid to let others know that we have struggles, wounds, and broken places.

I agree with Mark that we are not inherently “broken,” and that Christian culture should not promote theology that leads people to feel unworthy or damaged, or that uses those ideas to control them through shame, guilt, and fear. However, many of us have circumstances in our lives that cause us to experience profound feelings of being wounded or broken: grief, anger, failure, addiction, abuse, anxiety, depression . . . the list goes on. Feeling broken may not be the same as being broken, but when one experiences it, there isn’t much appreciable difference.

Our individualistic “pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps” and “suck-it-up” culture often encourages us to hide our wounds and cover up our broken spots rather than seeking the support and help that we need. So while some Christian voices may get a little over-zealous in celebrating our “brokenness,” I think that they are still on to something positive. They are encouraging communities where there is less shame and fear of rejection, and where we can be vulnerable and share our weaknesses and struggles with each other. Safe, sacred spaces where we can find affirmation in spite of our imperfections and recover our sense of worth and wholeness . . . where we can remember that we are indeed beloved children of God.


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A Glorified Tramp Stamp and a Seat at the Table, or, Thoughts on Christian Unity

There has been a stir in the progressive Christian community recently about the label “progressive” and what it means, since there are some on both the liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum who try to police the boundaries of what is progressive and what is Christian. Bloggers who are too liberal or agnostic in certain areas are chided or even attacked as not being Christian, while other bloggers are told that they are not progressive enough because they still hold to this or that belief associated with more conservative faith traditions.

As David Henson beautifully articulated last week, the gift of progressive Christianity is that it makes room at the table for people all along the spectrum of faith and doubt. However, policing from either side threatens to turn this diverse and inclusive community into another closed system that draws hard lines about who is in or out, who is Christian or not, and who gets a place at the table and a voice in the conversation.

This is worrisome for those of us who have come to progressive Christianity precisely because we have either been excluded (often painfully) from church communities or because we have naturally evolved away from fundamentalist systems of belief.

My own journey away from conservative evangelicalism began in college, and I consider myself lucky that when I was in grad school, I accidentally stumbled into a church where my spiritual evolution and growth were encouraged and accepted, rather than being kicked out of one because of that same process.

I have met enough recovering fundamentalists and evangelical rejects–folks who carry deep spiritual wounds from being ostracized by their church communities and even their own families–to be extremely grateful for my former church, Broadus Memorial Baptist Church, and my current one, Weatherly Heights Baptist Church (WHBC). I have had  experiences of being marginalized as a woman and of being excluded or even insulted because of my theology (I wrote about one of those experiences here), but I am fortunate to have a community where I belong.

I have been planning to write something about WHBC for the blog in part because in creating “Prone to wander . . . lured by grace,” I have further co-opted WHBC’s beautiful rose window. I am going to digress a moment to talk about that before I come back and tie this thing together.

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I think of the rose window, which symbolizes the presence of God in our sanctuary, as partially mine because back in 2013, I had an interpretation of it tattooed on my lower back, where I already had a dragonfly tattoo from about a dozen years earlier. Back when I decided to get that first tattoo, lower-back designs on women weren’t extremely common (at least not in my corner of the world) and had yet to earn the disparaging nickname “tramp stamp.” If I had anticipated that, I might have made a different choice!

But regardless of that, years later, after spending many contemplative moments of worship staring up at WHBC’s lovely window and finding God’s presence in the multi-colored beams of light pouring through the stained glass, I went under the needle again (with the fabulous Caroline at Blue Rose Tattoo) and emerged with what I joked to a friend was now a “glorified” tramp stamp.

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I love the combination of the tattoos because of the way they join together the parts of who I am. The dragonfly simultaneously represents my origins (envision south Georgia summer evenings with dozens of dragonflies zipping through the dusk in the wide yard of my childhood) and my transformative journey away from those origins and into independence, into the courage that it takes to discard the expectations of others and simply and unapologetically be oneself.

The rose window, just as it does in our sanctuary, symbolizes the presence of God, but more than that, it symbolizes my openness to divine love and light and my hope that that light also shines through me and into our world. It represents the constancy of God’s grace and my aspiration to an ever more illuminated spiritual life. It also reminds me that being a Jesus-follower requires sacrifices of my time, my body, and my resources. It reminds me that this is a beautiful but costly, and sometimes painful, journey.

And that brings me back to my community, my fellow travelers.

In 2007, when I left my beloved Broadus Memorial Baptist Church to follow my career to Alabama, I worried whether I could find another church that would support me and my journey, and where my contributions would be accepted and valued. I knew that after finding a real spiritual home, I would not be able to thrive in a community where I would have to keep my head down and my thoughts to myself for fear of being reprimanded or rejected.

When I browsed churches online, I was immediately drawn in by WHBC’s tagline: “An inclusive, discovering fellowship,” by the highly visible presence of female leadership in the church, and by the language of the vision statement: “heartfelt Biblical faith,” “intellectual integrity,” “social justice,” “genuinely care for one another,” and so on.

Over the last seven years or so, WHBC has more than lived up to that original impression. It has been a place where my evolving and at times even faltering faith has been affirmed, renewed, and expanded. It has been a place where I have found essential mentors and faithful friends. It has been a place, most importantly, where I have found a true sense of belonging.

And the most beautiful thing is that I don’t belong at WHBC simply because everyone else there is as progressive, intellectual, liberal, feminist, and tattooed as I am, because they aren’t. 

I belong because the WHBC community values unity over uniformity.

Because we scoot over our chairs to make room at the table for someone who is perhaps not entirely like ourselves.

Because we respect the faith journeys of others even when they don’t follow the same path as our own.

Because our ministers respect our individuality and recognize that we all come to faith in unique ways and bring valuable perspectives and talents to the table.

Because we genuinely love and care for each other and our larger community.

WHBC is my community, a place where I fit . . . glorified tramp stamp and all.

I thank God for my church, and I pray for those who have been rejected from communities and have subsequently left the faith and for those who can only find the acceptance of fellow Christians via the internet because the churches in their area have not welcomed them (or worse, have actively rejected them) because of any number of factors–from physical appearance to sexual orientation to theological nitpicking.

Here at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, my prayer is twofold. First, I pray that every person seeking an authentic spiritual community will find one where his or her whole person is welcomed and accepted, because when we belong, and when we are able to be true to ourselves and vulnerable to those around us, that is when true community and exists and true transformation is possible.

Second, I pray that both in churches and online, all Christians–most especially those who claim the label progressive–will step up to the task of making room at the table for everyone who desires a place there.

Let us all come to the table to break bread together.

Let us fill each other’s cups.

Let us not only say grace, but give and receive it freely.

There is more than enough to go around. 


*My thanks to our guest minister for today, Rev. Christie Ashton from Hope Presbyterian Church for providing some of the inspiration for this blog post, and my thanks and love to all of my BMBC and WHBC friends who may be reading along!  

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Irreparable Damage: The Problem of Christian Purity Culture

What we call Christian “purity culture” in America has developed in the last few decades as a reaction against loosening sexual morality, and it focuses not only on refraining from sex (and other acts like fantasizing or kissing) before marriage, but also on strict rules of modesty that are mostly directed at girls and women. It spawned the True Love Waits campaign that was a staple at the Baptist youth conferences and camps that I attended as a teenager in the mid-90s.

In conservative religious circles, purity culture has also prompted the popularity of daddy-daughter dances and dating (I’m all for dads spending time with their daughters, but over-romanticizing it as a ‘date’ is somewhat creepy, as in this video).

Purity balls are even creepier, if not downright horrifying from a feminist standpoint: in one variation of this marriage-like ceremony, a young woman stands up with her father, who gives her a purity ring and pledges to exercise his authority over her, specifically over her purity (i.e. modesty and virginity). Meanwhile, the daughter silently commits herself to remain pure. She does not even get to pledge on her own behalf. 

I have two responses to such ceremonies: the first is “Ick!” and the second is, “What about the boys?”

Well, the founders of the same purity ball described above explain on their website how they provide a supposedly similar experience for their sons, who at age twelve have a “manhood ceremony” in which they are given a purity ring that reminds them to honor God (not the authority of their fathers) and an enormous sword to symbolize “the incredible privilege and responsibility we [that is, men] have to stand courageously as mighty warriors of God.”

So, while girls silently give up all authority over themselves and their bodies to their fathers, boys are given a (very large and phallic) symbol of their incipient manly authority at the symbolic age when Jesus began to speak and ask questions. The founders also invite boys to attend the purity ball to see how their fathers treat young women, which is essentially as passive pieces of property over whom they have authority, most particularly in matters of sexuality.


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Image: “How to Handle Your Females” by nakedpastor, in response to purity culture.


This is not surprising, considering that a great deal of sexual morality has always been aimed primarily at controlling women and their bodies. Marriage in the Hebrew Bible is essentially an economic transaction in which the wife and her resulting offspring became property of the husband. Strict sexual standards for women ensured that babies born into a family were legitimate heirs, and marriage practices sought to ensure that men had heirs to continue the family and preserve its property (i.e. levirate marriage, polygyny, divorcing a barren wife, or producing heirs using slave women). Men, especially powerful ones, had much more sexual liberty than women, and most rules regarding sexuality and marriage practices were for the direct benefit of men.

Although Jesus and Paul advocated a more gender-neutral standard for sexual morality and a more precise definition of marriage (bye-bye multiple wives, slaves, and concubines), throughout history men in western cultures have been granted much more leniency to have sexual relationships outside of marriage than women have. Thus, we have no female equivalents of popular philandering archetypes like Don Juan or Casanova because such behavior in a woman simply made her a whore.

While I am all for self-control in sexual behavior and for fathers taking an active role in guiding their daughters, purity culture is pernicious because it continues the promotion of double standards for girls and boys. It takes away any authority that girls have over their own bodies and gives it first to their fathers and then to their husbands. It also gives boys and men the idea that they have a right and a responsibility to control female bodies.

Critics of purity culture have rightly linked it to male entitlement and even to rape culture because of the way it takes away women’s autonomy. In addition to these critiques, purity culture can be extremely harmful to women’s spiritual lives (and probably men’s as well, but I’ll leave that aside for now). Here is my take on the reason why:

Purity culture takes sex and puts it into a category of its own so that it seems like the most egregious act that person can commit. It also places an undue burden on girls and women to avoid sexual desire–both their own and male desires that might be incited by their bodies or clothing. It also sends a message to young women that their self-worth is inextricably tied to their sexual purity.

Generally speaking, men have always been expected to have sexual desires, and to be sexually aggressive, while women have been expected to be pure and passive. Consequently, a young man’s sexual transgression is more likely to be seen as a slip up or a mistake that does not detract his inherent worth. This is because men are not understood to be automatically altered or damaged by a sexual encounter.

On the other hand, a woman’s loss of virginity before marriage has been understood as an irreversible alteration of her body and as a permanent stain on her character, and the social and psychological implications of these ideas are still very much with us (for instance, in gender-biased metaphors used to teach abstinence).

Sins can be forgiven, but virginity cannot be restored, which means that if a young woman makes a wrong decision about sex, the feelings of shame and guilt associated with it can become long-lasting and even permanent. The sin may be forgivable, but being forgiven does us little good if we are unable to accept that forgiveness and grant it to ourselves.

Shame hinders the holy work of grace and forgiveness and separates us from God. It can also isolate us from our faith communities because of our fear of condemnation and rejection.

Purity culture attaches so much gravity and shame to one particular act, especially for girls, that if they transgress sexual boundaries, they can end up feeling like they have done irreparable spiritual damage to themselves. Girls need to know that they are worth more than their virginity before marriage, or their purity afterwards.

Christian culture needs to teach self-control in sexual matters, but not in a way that takes away young women’s autonomy and encourages male entitlement over women’s sexuality. Girls need to be given the guidance and then the authority to make positive decisions about their own bodies without a heavy cloud of unequal expectations and potential shame hanging over their heads.


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God is . . . an angry turtle-torturer? Theology and the Limits of Metaphor

Featured imageI once read an “About” section of a blog in which a pastor described how he ended up in the ministry. He referenced an old political joke about a turtle: basically, if you see a turtle on a fence post, you know that it didn’t get there by itself. Someone picked it up and put it there. The implication, of course, is that God took this guy and put him in a position that he didn’t expect to be in and would not have reached on his own.

And that’s fine, as long as you don’t think very deeply or have a particular affinity for turtles.

I happened to have had a pet turtle for 15+ years, and when I read this probably-intended-to-be-cute metaphor, the first thing I thought was “What kind of jerk puts a turtle on a fence post?” Probably unawares, this writer had dragged a bit of animal cruelty and some other unfortunate  political-joke connotations into his ‘About’ blurb.

If you think for about half a second too long about the post turtle as a metaphor for God’s involvement in a human life, it breaks down and calls into question 1) whether the writer has any more business being a pastor than a turtle has being on a fence post, and 2) whether God meddles in our lives like an adolescent boy who would trap, frighten, and endanger an animal just to see what would happen.

I know what you’re thinking . . . of course I’m over-analyzing it. I know this.

But metaphors require interpretation, and like it or not, they often drag with them a host of meanings and associations, both intended and unintended. Metaphors–and words themselves–have a way of getting away from their writers and evolving meanings of their own. As any good student of literary analysis knows, the author’s original intent has to compete with the experience and knowledge that every reader brings to the text. And this reader wants no part of a God who is a jerk to turtles.

In theology, we use metaphors to explain what is inexplicable and even unknowable, whether it be the character of God or the workings of salvation. God is a father, a king, a refuge; Jesus is a shepherd, a sacrificial lamb, a cornerstone; but in a literal sense, neither of them is any of those things. These statements are all metaphors, and no matter how true they may seem, they all have limitations. We use so many metaphors to describe the divine not because they give us the whole truth, but because each one gives us a glimmer of truth.

If you stretch any metaphor too far, though, the parts that are not true overwhelm the part that is and the meaning becomes distorted, just like the unfortunate vision of God that the poor post turtle inspires for me. Metaphors also become problematic when we take one and give it precedence over all others as if it alone contains the sum of all truth.

For me, one of the most obvious examples of this problem happens with our understanding of salvation when some Christians present penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) theory not as one metaphor for salvation but as salvation itself. If you aren’t up on the terminology, PSA theory is primarily a product of the Protestant Reformation, and it is what many American evangelicals have been taught is the primary (and perhaps the only) meaning of the death of Jesus: that according to God’s divine plan, Jesus was punished on the cross as a substitute for sinners to satisfy the wrath of God against sin and make forgiveness and salvation possible.

The idea that Jesus willingly sacrificed himself for us–as unworthy as we may often be–is a compelling one. Progressive Christians who critique PSA theory sometimes forget that it does speak a powerful and redemptive truth to many people (“Formerly Fundie” blogger Benjamin L. Corey had some interesting comments about this recently, and another progressive blogger puts in a good word for PSA theory here).

Even as a critic of PSA theory, I recognize that like many metaphors, it points us toward some important grains of truth. However, it is a human metaphor based on human ideas of crime and punishment, and if we push the metaphor too far (as hardcore reformed folks like John Piper do), then we end up with a monstrous vision of God. Here are some of the problems that emerge when we carry the PSA metaphor to its logical conclusions:

  1. It means that the predominant quality of God is not love, but wrath, because God is either unable or unwilling to forgive without punishment. (Basically, God has an anger management problem and Jesus has to save us from God.)
  2. It means that there is no forgiveness, because someone always pays. A paid debt is not the same as a forgiven debt. (See Bo Sander’s apt debt analogy here)
  3. It means that God is unjust and unmerciful, because there is no justice or mercy in punishing an innocent victim for the crimes of others (Sanders and McGrath both comment more on this).
  4. It means that God is violent and that violence is redemptive, and thus it encourages the justification of violence. (Find a great starter discussion of nonviolent atonement here)
  5. All of the statements above go against the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. They negate the grace of God and the reconciling work of the incarnation.

One might argue that these conclusions are a result of over-analyzing the metaphor, but if PSA theory is presented as THE one and only gospel of salvation (as it often is in certain circles), then all of its implications must stand up to critical inquiry.

And the truth is that they do not. When PSA is over-emphasized, the partial truth that it contains is terribly distorted by the problematic nature of the human crime and punishment metaphor.

The good thing is that there are multiple atonement theories that can hold meaning for us and many Biblical metaphors for salvation. Other metaphors include transformation (being a “new creation”), liberation from bondage, return from exile, light in the darkness, sight for the blind, life to the dead, food and drink, and liberation and forgiveness from sin (list borrowed from Marcus Borg’s Convictions).

All of these metaphors give us a glimpse of both the human condition–our need for reconciliation, salvation, and transformation–and of the God who offers us the hope that those things are all possible.

We should be wary of leaders or communities who try to impose any single, uninterrogated metaphor to represent the truth of God or of salvation because those truths are bigger and better than any language we can devise.

When it comes to theology, metaphors are perhaps best when mixed.


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