On Being Created and Constructed, Part 1

This semester I am teaching my international cinema class, which I enjoy because it gives me a chance to delve more deeply into topics that interest me but that don’t exactly fit into most of my Spanish courses. The course is focused around the themes of gender roles and identity  (both masculine and feminine), gender disparity, and sexual orientation. We talk about gender stereotypes, the oppression of women, the treatment of LGBTQ folks, and the way that standards of masculinity harm men as well as women. It’s a fun class, but it has the potential to become a minefield of sensitive topics.

Early in the semester, we read an essay on the social construction theory of gender. For those of you who aren’t up on feminist thinking, social constructivism opposes the idea of biological essentialism: that our identities as men and women are biologically determined by little more than our anatomical sex. Or, to put it another way, biological essentialism means that if you know which type genitals a person has, you can also assume a great deal of other things about them: their dominant personality traits, their potential skills, their suitability for certain careers, their role in a family unit, their rights and responsibilities, etc.

Social constructivism (not a new idea) claims the opposite: that biology doesn’t have much to do with our gender identities. Instead, this theory claims that from the time we are born, we are socialized into certain behaviors and beliefs according to what our society deems is appropriate or ideal for a man or a woman. This starts with our obsession with gendering infants (just do a Google image search for “baby girl clothes” and “baby boy clothes” and see the predominance of pink vs. blue, flowers vs. baseballs, etc) and then progresses to the differing behavioral standards and expectations that we often set for boys and girls (again, you can see some confirmation of this with a quick image search; this time, try “toys for boys” and then “toys for girls” and think about how nearly all of the items fall into clear categories of active/violent vs. passive, mobile vs. stationary, outdoor vs. indoor, beauty/appearance based vs. skill based, domestic/maternal vs. career-oriented, etc). Thinking of this always reminds me of a day when I picked up my then four-year-old son from day care and the new teacher apologized to me because when I walked in, my son was playing with the baby dolls. Clearly, she felt uncomfortable being caught allowing this subversive behavior that was so ill-suited to my man-child!

This semester, I’ve had one student who has repeatedly challenged me on the “truth” of social constructivism, which is fine by me. I have seen enough evidence of it operating historically (especially in my area of expertise/favorite pigeon hole, which is 19th century Spanish gender ideology) and in my own life to be quite convinced that much of our gender identity is shaped by our socialization. I have seen how women in different times and places were expected to be and how that formed their identities. Why, if I had lived 150 years ago, instead of writing this, I might be writing in a women’s magazine about how a woman shouldn’t go to university because 1) women aren’t capable of abstract thought, and 2) all that intellectual rigor might affect her delicate nerves, irritate her uterus, and make her less fertile, and 3) everyone knows that women are divinely ordained to be wives and mothers! Fortunately for me, my uterus survived my PhD, and I came out of it buying into the social-constructionist view of how we become manly men, feminine women, or (thank God), sometimes another category entirely.

However, I have also carried, birthed, and nursed two babies and I know from those experiences and others that our biology and our hormones certainly can influence us as well. I remember that during the hormonal onslaught of my first pregnancy, something seemed to change in the way my brain worked, and I felt like I couldn’t process and speak my second language as well (fortunately my students did not seem to notice!). As a result, I think that the source of our identities lies somewhere in the middle of biology and construction. I suspect that there are biological/genetic/neurological factors that tell us from deep inside whether we are men or women (or neither), and whether that perception matches our physical body or not, as may be the case with transgender or intersex individuals.

But, once we are labeled with a gender (by society or by ourselves) there are a host of socially-constructed expectations revolving around that gender that we either accept or rebel against–from who gets to wear fingernail polish to who gets to speak up first at the meeting. Some of these rules are stricter than others, and transgressing them has a variety of consequences: the girl who doesn’t cave to feminine standards might be labeled a tomboy, or a bossy bitch, or a butch dyke, or the girl who just needs a good f—, or the wife who needs to be ‘put into her place’ with her husband’s fists or a gun. The boy who doesn’t measure up to masculine standards might just be the sensitive guy, might a sissy, might be a fag, might be the kid who gets beat up in the locker room or left to die on a fence post. Because no matter how we arrive at it, this shit is real.

I joke sometimes about being the liberal college professor out to corrupt the youth, but the truth is that I have little interest in turning any of my students into clones of myself by pushing a particular ‘truth’ or agenda on them. I’m still getting to the ‘truth’ of things myself, and I find that there are very few things in this life that don’t deserve some critical scrutiny or that should not be subject to revision now and then.

If there is anything that I do want to model for my students, it is the ability to hear other people’s stories with openness and compassion and to revise our own understanding of ourselves and others when needed. We can debate academic theories or religious beliefs all day long, but in the end it comes down to how we react to the people who challenge our expectations for what is ideal, normal, acceptable, or even comprehensible.

It’s okay to not ‘get it.’ If you are straight, if you are comfortable in your body and with your assigned gender roles, and perhaps especially if you have been taught that certain ways of being male or female are wrong, it’s okay to not understand why that girl wants to look edgily androgynous, why that guy is attracted to other guys, or why that other guy at the office now wants to be called “she.”

There are things that I don’t understand about identity and about the choices that some people make to live into their identities. There are topics that once made me uncomfortable, and a few that still do, but I have learned the value of listening to the experiences of others through forming relationships with people who are different from me and through resources like TranspeopleSpeak.org. I have yet to regret engaging with someone else’s story; in fact, the stories of others–in person, on screen, online–have been sources of growth, surprise, wonder, and beauty in my life.

It’s okay to not understand, but it’s not okay to try to force someone else to fit into your understanding of the world, whether that means chiding a little boy for playing with a doll, telling a little girl that she isn’t being ‘ladylike,’ or something much more drastic like yelling profanities and threats at a transperson on public transit (as happened to an acquaintance of mine recently). We need to realize that our expectations of people are just that–our expectations–and that they are neither absolute nor universal truths.

People face unkindness, ostracism, discrimination, and even death because of the ways that we as a society understand and enforce expectations of gender. It would do us all a great deal of good to realize that these expectations are not only constructed, but that they may need to be deconstructed and reconstructed in a ways that let all of us be our most authentic selves–the people we were created to be–without shame and without fear.

So, for any of my students who may stumble across this–as well as anyone else who may be reading–here is the best lesson I can give about when questions of gender identity or sexual orientation get confusing or uncomfortable:

Listen, try to understand, and if even if you can’t, remember to be kind. 

 

Learning to Sit in a Broken Chair

 

Reflections on Faith, and Why You Should (Not) Be Afraid of That Liberal College Professor 

If you know me, or have knocked around this blog a bit, you know that I’m a liberal, feminist college professor. You’ll also know that I’m a person of faith, because, unlike some folks would have us believe, the two are not incompatible. Despite the claims of badly conceived Christian screenplays, the average college professor isn’t out there forcing students to recant or prove their faith in order to pass a class (that’s um, illegal and we would be disciplined or fired for it).

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Not standard academic procedure (in case you were wondering).

Well, perhaps I should say that being an intellectual, free-thinking professor and a Christian are not necessarily incompatible. Because if I’m honest, the way I originally learned to have faith and to believe doesn’t really float my theological or ideological boat these days.

The reason I’m a Christian and a person of faith is not because I’ve clung desperately to the things I was taught in my youth. I haven’t. If I had tried to hold on to that version of faith, I would have failed years ago. It obviously works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

I’m still a Christian precisely because I have let go of some of those ideas and have re-envisioned others-because I have thought and wrestled and evolved. [And there’s plenty more on where I came from and where I’m at these days in my Spiritual Autobiography.]

But let’s take a step back and think about this thing that I’m calling “faith.”

When I was a teenager in a Southern Baptist youth group (which was in many ways an excellent experience with great people), one of the popular metaphors for faith had to do with sitting in a chair. I remember being told repeatedly, in various devotionals and Bible studies, that the act of having faith is like the act of sitting in a chair. When you sit in a chair, you have faith that the chair will support you. Back then, I suppose that I took it on faith that this metaphor actually made sense.

Back then, it seemed to, because faith seemed that simplistic. Chairs are made to support our weight. We know this. We are certain of this. Unless they are obviously defective, we expect them to do that without even thinking about it.

I also remember-as I’m sure some others do-being yelled at from the pulpit, with a fiery fist thumping into a palm with every repetition: “You got to know that you know that you know [that you are saved, washed in the blood, forgiven, going to heaven, etc.]!”

Back then, I knew that I knew that I knew. Then I left my conservative Christian bubble, went to college, and learned that my point of view reflected only one little corner of human knowledge and experience. I didn’t let go of my faith, but I learned to allow it to evolve into something more expansive and mature [more on that in another post].

Today, I freely admit that when it comes to God, and to understanding the mystery of Christ and incarnation and resurrection and a whole other heaping pile of things, I know very little. I am certain of very little. 

The thing is-that’s okay. Why?

Because faith and certainty are not the same thing. In fact, they are opposed to one another. Faith requires a leap. Expecting a perfectly good chair to hold you up when you sit in it is not faith. It’s common sense. There is no leap, no challenge in that.

Christianity, on the other hand, is not common sense. If you think it is, then you really have not been paying attention.

Well, this is your friendly liberal feminist (Christian) college professor standing at the front of the class calling “¡Atención!” (Did I mention that I teach Spanish?)

Today’s lesson: Christianity is a little freakin’ loco.

I mean, it turns the world as we know it upside down. It asks us to love our enemies, to pray for those who hurt us. It tells us that the least, the last, and the lost are sites of value: the least require our care, the last will be first, and the lost should be sought at the expense of everything else. It tells us that by losing our life, we gain it.

And to top it off, Christianity claims that (to borrow some language from Tripp Fuller) we can see the image of the invisible God in a homeless, first-century Jew. What??

If you grew up in church, that sounds reasonable. If you didn’t, or if you take a step backand look at it rationally, it sounds pretty absurd. It’s embarrassing. It’s offensive to the intellect, to common sense.

This isn’t a chair we can just plop down into and get all comfy in. If you take about five minutes to think about these claims rationally and (perhaps more importantly) honestly, then you must, on at least some level, doubt them.

And that’s okay too. Because doubt is not the opposite of faith; it’s what makes true faith possible.

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard understood doubt as essential for faith. As Tripp writes, “For Kierkegaard, faith is not merely explaining the idea that Jesus is God so that it becomes reasonable or palatable; faith is facing the offense and choosing to believe rather than to be offended. . . . The act of faith is the decision of the individual alone-no professor, preacher, or Sunday School teacher can make it for you.”

broken chairFaith is not an unconscious certainty. It’s a decision that you make in the face of doubt, uncertainty, and even absurdity. Faith is sitting in a chair with three legs, and against rationality, expecting it to hold you up anyway. This is not because God, the ultimate object of faith, is faulty or broken, but because our understanding of God can never be complete. It is always a chair with a few missing parts.

Faith is understanding that and taking a seat anyway.

And because of that, no matter how liberal or atheist or even hostile-to-religion they might be (because let’s face it, there are a few jerks out there in any given profession), no professor or teacher can unmake your decision of faith. You can only do that for yourself. It’s your choice.

Sure, some college professor or some other speaker or writer or friend may introduce you to an idea that will make you question everything you ever believed was true, but that’s a good thing. It’s a process that allows us to reconsider and refine who we are, what we believe, and why-usually for the better.

We have to challenge ourselves and question our own ideology in order to grow, and as most of us learn eventually, intellectual or spiritual growth, just like physical growth, can be an unsettling and painful process. That doesn’t mean that we have to let go of what is most important about what we believe. What it does mean is that we should hold it up to the light, examine it, and perhaps reshape it or whittle away at the bits that no longer seem true.

I know as well as anyone that if you open your mind to new and different ideas, it can radically alter your understanding of the world and of your place in it. In many ways, I have shifted from one end of the spectrum to the other in my journey from Southern Baptist holy-rolling teenage missionary girl to who I am today.

These days I am that liberal, free-thinking college professor that I was told to be wary of many years ago (well, 19 years ago – I’m not that old). And you know what?

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I’m really not that scary.

But I do make it a habit to loosen the screws on all of my students’ chairs. 


 

 

Reference: Tripp Fuller, The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, or Awesome

 

On the Excuses that Some Christians Use to Discredit the Faith of other Christians

Note: This is a two-part post. “Me and My DCFs,” recounts how I was mocked and insulted during an online conversation with a pastor and his friends. If you want to skip the set up and get right to the conclusions, scroll down to the title “Excuses for Discrediting the Faith of Others (And Why You Should Not Accept Them).”

Me and my DCFs (Dear Christian Friends)

Recently I dove into a debate with fellow Christians because I shared a blog post from David Henson that offers a view of salvation based on the incarnation of Christ rather than one based solely on the crucifixion. I liked the post because I have become much more of an incarnational Christian, with my faith focused on the miracle of incarnation that allows us to know and be reconciled to God and to participate in God’s vision for the world by following Jesus in faith and action.

A pastor friend of mine commented on the post by blasting Henson, who is an Episcopal priest and an earnest Jesus follower, as ignorant and a “false teacher,” and then he reposted the link so that his friends could second his opinion. I will try to recount parts of the resulting conversation without insulting the people who were participating, but in case I am not quite successful, I want to state up front that I consider them fellow Christians who are worthy of respect. I grew up and first came to faith in a tradition like the one that they represent, and although I have come a long way since then, I still value and even love many aspects of that foundation. This conversation left me disappointed that the same kind of good, loving folks that I grew up with could be not only be so rude and disrespectful toward a fellow Christian, but that in the end, they could also pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

I joined the conversation, commenting that there are different ways of understanding salvation that are as valid as the view of my pastor friend (basically, penal substitutionary atonement). Another pastor who has never met me (I’ll call him my DCF – dear Christian friend) showed up to dismiss Henson’s post as part of a “satanic effort,” adding that his response would probably not sit well with “Ms. Leslie.” Nothing like a nice touch of faux formality to make the degree of condescension crystal clear from the start.

Though I let the snark bleed through by suggesting that he could call me Dr. Kaiura (my actual title), I did not attack my DCF’s response by attacking his theology or his faith. However, I did maintain that there are alternate understandings that should be respected when the theology bears good fruit (which is the criteria Jesus gave us for judging the teachings of others in Matthew 7). For my trouble, I was told, “You seem to have a ‘Holy Chip’ on your shoulder that has possibly been placed there by intellectual pride.”

Later on, after I had very seriously (and in a totally snark-free manner) explained how I understand my salvation in Christ, my DCF openly mocked me, writing, “What a blessing it is to sit at your feet of intellectual wisdom! Gods infinite capacity is truly revealed in your propensity to exult in the monotonous intellectual humility you reveal per post.”

Throughout the conversation I was repeatedly accused of being prideful simply because 1) I am intelligent and articulate and 2) I would not agree to every belief held by my DCF and his friends. Furthermore, I got this reaction when I was intentionally refraining from attacking their beliefs because, as I was attempting to explain, I think that Christians should have more respect for the beliefs of others who profess faith in Christ.

I don’t claim to be 100% pride (or snark) free, but another Christian who observed this exchange (and whom I have never met) messaged me to apologize for the way I was treated and to comment: “I didn’t think you were in any way prideful. I actually thought you were the most humble in that conversation. Thank you for being a breath of fresh air and Jesus in that stifling Pharisee-like comment section.”

Nevertheless, I was accused of being prideful while my DCF and his friends felt perfectly within their rights not only in “rebuking” me, but also in questioning my faith and being openly insulting. The coup d’etat was this anti-intellectual and assumption-filled statement: “I have met many like you, ever learning but never able to come to conclusive truth. Maybe this is why Paul stated that ‘not many wise…are called.’ Don’t you know that even your intellect has to be processed through redemption and sanctification as well? Your mind may be sharp but has it been renewed? [. . . ] your unredeemed intellect is not a friend but should be brought under submission to the Spirit of God.”

So let me lay this out. I repeatedly affirmed that I have faith in Jesus Christ and that I believe in the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. And yet because I refused to agree that penal substitutionary atonement theory is the only way of believing or that the Bible is inerrant, I was mocked and relegated to the category of “apostate” (i.e. one who abandons belief and no longer belongs to the group). I had mentioned that I lead book studies at my church, and to this my DCF insultingly replied, as if from one Facebook thread he knew me and all of my beliefs: “No wonder many churches are in the apostate condition they are in…. I personally wouldn’t allow you to teach in the nursery.”

Ouch. Good thing I am confident enough in my faith not to be dissuaded from it by such rudeness and judgmentalism. I worry for those who are not.

Excuses for Discrediting the Faith of Others (and Why You Should Not Accept Them)

I hope that my Dear Christian Friend (who is a lead pastor, remember) is kinder and more respectful to seekers and inquisitive, thinking folks at his church than he was to me. If he isn’t, then I am fairly sure that he has driven some away from the gospel instead of leading them toward it.

Sometimes I am astonished at how unloving and judgmental some Christians can be in their attempts to discredit other faithful Christians. In fact, most of the hate mail and vitriolic commentary received by progressive Christian bloggers comes from other Christians, and that is ridiculous. It is also in direct contradiction to how Jesus commands us to love, adding in John 13.35 that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Some Christians would do well to learn that objections can always be expressed in a firm but polite way, without compromising one’s own beliefs or insulting or demonizing another Christian (or anyone else, for that matter). (And since I sometimes have a tendency to let my frustration with black & white thinking turn to snark, I admit that I am still perfecting this approach myself.)

One of the final posts in the conversation described above lamented “I just hope an atheist doesn’t come upon this thread.” My DCF’s response reveals a total lack of self-awareness: “I think it is good that an Atheist or an Agnostic would see passionate believers passionately defending scripture.”

I’m sorry, my DCF, but all that a typical atheist would see on that thread is a group of Christians ganging up to discredit and ridicule another Christian who is simply expressing an alternate understanding of the exact same faith that they hold themselves. Not exactly inspirational or admirable. I am a dedicated Christian, and the only thing it inspired in me was a firm desire to never, ever walk into a church pastored by someone like my DCF.

However, the conversation did prompt me to reflect on the excuses that some Christians use to discredit other Christians. I critique some of them here in hopes of helping other earnest seekers and spiritual misfits and encouraging them to not let “well meaning” Christians belittle them or discredit their faith (or their attempts at understanding faith and making it meaningful) with these excuses.

1) The Attribution of Pridefulness: An accusation of pride is often code for “You dare to have a different opinion and refuse to submit to mine” by people who are prideful enough to believe that they are 100% correct about everything. I think that this accusation is probably applied more to women and young people than to others, but we all deserve more respect than that. It is true that we should not be unduly prideful and that we should be open to learning, but simply stating your beliefs and sticking to them (particularly when they are informed and thoughtful) does not equate to having sinful pride.

2) Criticism of Intellectualism: Christians who critique intellectualism or resort to quoting 1 Corinthians 1:27 (“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise”) at you when you are engaging intellectually with faith are trying to force you to abandon your own ability to read, pray, think, and come to conclusions in favor of their conclusions. If a person or community will not honor your own earnest efforts to study (2 Timothy 2.15) and work out your own salvation (Philippians 2.12), then find one who will.

3) Insistence on Biblical Inerrancy and the Impossibility of Interpretation: People like my DCF will not only insist on the inerrancy of the Bible (a relatively recent and problematic belief), but 1) they will also reject the very idea that the Bible can be interpreted (all the while vociferously preaching the interpretations like penal substitution, which is also problematic), and 2) they will make believing in Biblical inerrancy a prerequisite for salvation. My DCF claimed in our conversation that “There is only one thing that produces faith…. The Word!,” and by this he referred to the Bible, not to the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. In my humble opinion, that is idolatry of the Bible and a deformation of the gospel.

Featured image(Image borrowed from nakedpastor)

Jesus called us to have faith in himself and in God. Don’t let anyone tell you that your faith has to be placed elsewhere to be valid, and don’t let anyone convince you that the Bible cannot be interpreted as a way of shoving their own interpretation down your throat. It is the nature of language that every spoken utterance and written word is subject to interpretation, but that does not mean all interpretations are equal. We can and should seek out faithful and intellectually honest interpretations that shore up and enliven our faith.

4) Claiming that because you interpret the Bible differently, you have “dumbed it down” or made it “easier” to follow for your own benefit. People who claim this are willfully ignorant of the fact that any genuine attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus is hard and requires sacrifice. That being said, if your understanding of Christianity requires no sacrifice or transformation, you should perhaps take a second look at it what it means to follow Jesus.

5) Excusing their own rudeness and lack of love and grace by pointing out that Jesus and Paul rebuked other believers. There is no excuse for insulting a fellow believer (or any one else), particularly when you do not know the person. Assuming that you have a free license to rebuke others in any situation is a mark of pride, not humility or spiritual maturity. When we form loving and supportive relationships with other believers, there is a place for instruction, correction, and at times, even rebuke. In the absence of loving and meaningful relationships, those things are fruitless and often based on incorrect assumptions. Make sure that when you give a pastor, a mentor, or a community spiritual authority in your life that they know how to exercise that authority in a loving and respectful manner that allows you the freedom of thought and conscience to follow your faith.

Final Thoughts

To fellow seekers, I say this: Do not let anyone insult or belittle you out of their concern for your salvation (which usually masks a concern for being right and a desire for you to submit to their often questionable rightness). If you are looking for a vibrant and meaningful faith, there are reputable Christian leaders and mentors out there who will love you and respect you and your journey to faith. Don’t settle for leaders who use excuses to badger you into submission to their authority rather than to the authority of Jesus. Never let anyone shame or guilt you into giving up your quest for an authentic and intellectually engaged faith.

As for me, I have a lot to learn. I have beliefs and ideas that need to be fleshed out, tweaked, and perhaps even reconsidered completely. But I also have the capability to read and interpret scripture and to choose wisely which authorities (theologians, Biblical scholars, pastors, mentors, friends) I look to in order to shape my understanding and my faith. And not only do I have that capability, I have that responsibility.

And so does everyone else. 


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