Confused Monk Seeking Unknown (Time for a New Lay Order?)

Once again I feel the calling. The force inside that must spill out, that must be given voice. I know that force intimately, even as it remains unfathomable. Living with a force of nature all your life lends an odd familiarity with ever-changing wildness. I know that the malaise, the sense of aimlessness I have lately felt is a reflection of this force not being given what it needs to grow, to thrive, to thrum at its preferred frequency. And so I search.

I look again at lay orders: communities of people out in the world who have dedicated themselves to a relationship with monastic orders. It is a way to live a life of deep faith, of structured daily commitment to contemplation and compassion, with a family and worldly commitments too. It has always been alluring to me. And yet… again I read and again I know none of these communities are for me.

I search this resistance to established lay orders and I wonder, is it an obstacle I should push past? Is it a hindrance, or a gift? Is it disobedience? Is the problem that I need to commit more? I seek this connection in part because I know I don’t have all the answers, even to the questions of what my path should be. I’m looking for guidance. And so, to move forward, do I need to humble myself, in the sense that I should let go of some of these answers I’ve been clinging to? It’s so hard to know what human groups to trust with my faith journey, and past betrayals don’t ease the difficulty.

Deep down I know, that this isn’t just a matter of disobedience. Yes, I crave a commitment to something larger than me, to something that will give more structure to my spiritual life and something that will give shape to what I can give back. But each of these communities I look at – lay orders of Benedictines, Franciscans, etc. – are all firmly rooted in classical theology. They are born of a theological worldview that feels incomplete to me personally. They have profound wisdom to offer, but they are missing critical pieces that I know in my heart are a part of my path.

I know that my life is missing some structure to support my devotion to God. I know that I crave a deeper commitment to contemplation, to prayer, for its own sake. I know that I want that contemplation to guide my action in the world, and that I don’t just want to insert a habit of contemplation underneath activism that I have chosen without appropriate discernment.

I know that I want to cultivate a deep relationship with many traditional Christian virtues: compassion, faithfulness, honesty, kindness, gentleness, purity of heart, courage, conversion, service, respect for personal conscience/agency, conscientiousness, mutuality, peace… and yes, even appropriate obedience, humility, penance, and anger. All have strong Christian roots. I also know that I want my relationship to virtue to include an understanding of structures of oppression, and God’s answer to those structures. So, to that list of Christian virtues add resistance, anti-racism, anti-capitalism, dismantling colonialism and appropriately supporting healing from it, full affirmation and blessing of gender diversity, body positivity, undoing privilege and practicing resurrection. These also have long Christian roots. I want integration, but not in the style of a systematic theology. What I want is structure to support a thriving way of living… the trellis that supports the climbing rose.

Just like when contemplation undergirds and drives service, I think this deeper integrated foundation of lifestyle is what reaches beyond us to others. I know I’ve written a handful of small, personal Rules of Life before, often incredibly specific to encourage living out the goals (like naming a number of hours of reading each week). I kept them to myself, and they would serve me for small spans of time. But I am craving something deeper and broader, to connect me to others.

I know my seminary training, my ordination, and my ministry in chaplaincy was because of this underlying drive, and I know they ultimately did not fit my calling. I don’t regret any of it. But I know I was seeking some very different religious calling in pursuing them than what my career came to be. This awareness of my own experience makes me wonder if there is a dearth of possibilities for the devoted religious life that others have felt too. How many more monks and oblates would there be if there were more ways to embody this deep commitment? What if acknowledged charisms – or gifts of the Spirit – were a much longer list? What if, besides Dominican preaching and Ignatian prayer, there were also devoted Christian communities providing service in sexuality education or lived embodiments of genderqueerness? What gifts those would be to the world.

I have recently joined the Abbey of the Arts community, and I expect to find some comfort, wisdom and kinship there. I hope it to be a shelter as I prepare and plan, a kind of training up in further virtuous practices. But I also suspect that I will find it incomplete, and that I am looking for something more.

I don’t know what form this will all take. But I know I want to pursue this. I know I want to build not just another few habits for myself, but something larger. While freedom of conscience is critical to me, so is accountability. This accountability can be hard to find for atomized monks making their way in online community. But I can’t help but think that there are new ways we can be accountable to each other. Perhaps in following my own conscience, and linking what is particular to me to what makes for solidarity with others, I can find this calling of mine.

Perhaps it resonates with something in you too. If it does, let us keep in touch.

Published in: on August 24, 2014 at 5:13 pm  Leave a Comment  


(Trigger warnings: this post includes explicit talk about sexual activity, genitals, and a brief mention of a threat of violence.)

This post is part of Queer Theology’s Queer Synchroblog 2013.

The Initiation

The initiation was supposed to happen May of 2014. It is then that I’ll turn forty.

There’s many more positive messages available these days about women over forty than there used to be. But when I was coming up, forty was the most hotly contested age for a woman. When I was a very young kid, a woman’s life was supposed to be over at 40. At 10 I watched my mother find her fortieth birthday humiliating. That elusive “real womanhood” was revoked from anyone who had it once they turned forty. I have an imprint of that information somewhere deep in me, along with a ghost of a counter-image: some commercials for hair dye and the like with that capitalist co-opting of “empowerment”: your life doesn’t have to be over/don’t grow old gracefully/buy our shit and maybe you’ll still be a woman. During my teenage years and my twenties, though, I began exploring feminism, and I began finding communities of non-heteronormative sexualities. And there I found a flip side with substance to it: women that had begun embracing themselves at forty and older. They were fortysomething when they came out. They were fortysomething when they started the career they really wanted. The other side of the big 4-0 coin I saw was a lot of women coming into their own at forty, and that I found far more alluring as a milestone. As hard as I’ve worked to find myself and build myself, I expected that finally being forty would mean I’d made it — I’d survived intact, and I’d learned. I imagined I could look back and see that I had been created – and had then created my self – in wonderful ways. And I’d be that much more me, that much more comfortable, that much happier in my own skin.

So as my fortieth birthday came over the far horizon – about a year and a half before its arrival – I began planning. I knew I wanted a meaningful celebration. For me, that means no huge party. Instead, I wanted a new tattoo. I wanted a trip with my chosen family. And I wanted… to do something terrifying. To face a fear on my terms. The first real candidate I found for the leap of terror was jumping out of an airplane for the first time. I dreamt, and I waited.

That was the plan. The initiation was supposed to happen next year.

What I didn’t plan was the pain. The pain started in the first couple of days of May in 2013.


I’m very grateful now for every scrap of radical thought that has passed across my psychic desk. I’m grateful for the current self of mine that each of those moments – these brushes with grace – has created and is creating.

I’m grateful for the anti-capitalism that has seeped into me. For so many years, productivity and work were driven into me as vital values — ‘value’ in the monetary sense, not in the moral sense. Much of my Christian walk has reinforced that valuing of action and activism, doing and getting done, productivity for and usefulness to an employer who was now God. But there was a voice long ago that began with small questions and got louder and louder. And now I have, more than once in my life, valued my precious self separate and apart from my paycheck and my job performance.

I am grateful for every moment I’ve spent soaking up a deeply-rooted body positivity. I’m grateful for a valuing of flesh that goes beyond valuing pleasure (though pleasure is important), and that avoids the pitfall of universalizing some “common” human experience of embodiment. I am thankful for all the lessons I’ve received in a body positivity that values difference, values specificity, values real individuals with real uniqueness. I’m grateful for every time I’ve practiced a mindful approach to physical activity, for every moment that I’ve spent over the years valuing where I am specifically, right now, and what I can do today as something sacred… every one of those moments is saving my life right now.

I’m grateful for body theology, for every time I’ve considered the fact that this body is me, for every moment I’ve known that life as this flesh is my primary text for knowing God, my living document of divine love. Every experience I have of this world is from this body, as this body. Every relationship I have is rooted in this body. I’m not sure I would have the audacity to insist on valuing this pained flesh, insist on valuing my changing needs were it not for every moment spent practicing this knowledge.

unfinished self portrait

A Summer of Swelling

One of the first teasing explanations we made for the growing ache was that my cock was having growing pains.

I was designated female at birth, and I never questioned that identity directly, until the last couple of years. This summer I’ve explored aspects of my genderqueerness – of my transgender self – in ways I never have before. I’ve opened up to my partner and myself simultaneously, and I have been amazed by what I’ve found. So, even though I haven’t explored any ways to change my physical self, a strange new passing genital pain seemed oddly reasonable at first.

After a few days I was back to “normal”, back to my well-known-to-me queer body. (If we use ‘queer’ as a verb, how well can we know a queer body? Is queer flesh so constantly defying definition that we are unknowable even to our queer selves… are we the Ultimate Mystery? I wonder sometimes.)

But the pattern continued. The pain came, and went, and came again, for longer and longer periods. The pain is primarily in my clitoris, and I am learning new levels of continuous pain I didn’t know existed. Our best guess through the weeks of May… and then one by one through the weeks of June… is a strangely behaving, recurring yeast infection.

July comes, and this queer body has been in bed a lot. A lot of work has been missed. Sometimes it seems my genitals may still bud a new penis — maybe I get to have one? I’ve always wondered what a penis feels like from the inside — for the tremendous swelling and redness going on between my legs. I often couldn’t walk without pain, or lay on my side. I am kinky, and I have experience with consensual pain. I can’t decide whether this makes the nonconsensual pain easier or more difficult. No pain is easy, but I feel layers of societal shit in this specific, sharp, clitoral pain: fears of rape, threats of rape, threats of losing bodily and sexual autonomy, the realities of me losing bodily and sexual autonomy. I do not consent to this pain.

I meet with a specialist and get a biopsy done of my labia. Recovering from having a chunk cut out of my vulva doesn’t feel much different than the last few weeks have.

July 12 I get a diagnosis. The term is lichen sclerosis, and it’s a rare autoimmune disorder. Pain and itching are common. The skin of the genitals gets inflamed, white and patchy, thin and easily cracked and torn. Scar tissue can develop. Scar tissue can close my vagina or cover over my clitoris. Some of this is worst case. Some of this happens when it’s not treated. We don’t know how mine will develop. Stories online include terrible years of problems, or few problems at all. Doctors say many folks respond well to treatment. Many folks use the internet to vent. It’s frightening. I don’t know what happens next.

Spoons get so elusive

Faith and Spoons*

Can I still follow Jesus flat on my back, unable to move much?

Am I still a theologian when pain prevents me from thinking clearly?

Does being a good Christian mean always striving to follow well? What if I don’t have the spoons to strive?

What does living my faith look like when my biggest need is rest?

Years of Christian fellowship – and a Master of Divinity degree – leave me wholly unprepared for these questions.

Time and Pain

I’m writing this on September 12, the two month anniversary of my diagnosis. I stayed home from work today and likely will tomorrow. I’m becoming certain that I’m disappointing my coworker and boss, but my partner has made it clear that taking care of me is my first priority. There has been terrible pain pretty constantly for two weeks; I powered through a lot of it, still going to work, and it’s eased up some now. But I’m more exhausted than I knew I could be.

Faith and Healing

Much of my years spent as a hospital chaplain were spent exploring questions about God and healing — about God’s power and suffering, and how those two things interact. I never did figure out why someone would worship an omnipotent God. It’s never appealed to me. If a God could stop suffering, but doesn’t… I just don’t want to know them, much less worship them. That’s just me. I mostly kept that to myself.

Queer Flesh

I’ve long resonated with multiple definitions of the word “queer”: as an umbrella term that encompassed both my bisexuality and the long-unnamed elements of my gender identity; as synonymous with being anti-assimilationist in a heteronormative society; and as a verb that means turning things on their head. Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have a fair amount of upside-down-edness, from the underdogs that the God of the Hebrew texts often champions, to the bizarre new kind of upside-down lordship and kingdom Jesus describes. I see all my scriptures as attempts to upend the status quo, uproot settled power structures, and to center those of our community members with the least power as full human beings and sacred human bodies with voices and power and beauty. I understand from my scriptures that justice and peace stem from valuing human bodies as sacred. In the Christian stories, God so loved human flesh that God couldn’t stop Godself from becoming some flesh.

The Disabled God

Nancy Eiesland changed my life when I read her book, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Her response to the deeply-embedded ableism of Christianity is to make us all aware that a resurrected Christ is a disabled Christ, with impaired hands, feet, and side. His is not the perfect vision that we often define as “health”. His divine body is not an unblemished body. Christ the resurrected and disabled God responds directly to many of our stereotypes of people with disabilities. He is not to be pitied. He is not a picture of noble suffering. He is not romanticized as a stoic, heroic overcomer of obstacles. Jesus Christ the disabled God bears dignity, survivorhood and interdependence into the Godhead. This sacred interdependence blesses each of us when we need help from others. The disabled God is a God who “celebrates joy and experiences pain not separate in time and space, but simultaneously.”** This blesses a critical part of my own current existence, my own current body. God Godself finds wholeness and hope with disability. To paraphrase and embrace an insight from Eiesland, the existence of a disabled God makes it possible for me and for others to bear nonconventional bodies. This insight echoes into creating queer lives as well.

Holy Bed, Holy Comforter, Holy Pillow -- sacred trilogy, hear my prayer

Privilege and Intersectionality

I’ve had privilege. I’ve had cis privilege. My gender nonconformity has not yet exposed me to physical violence. While it has shaped job choices, it has not generally closed doors I was interested in opening. I didn’t feel entirely dead inside whenever I’ve been named female. I feel partly seen… though I still mourn and have always mourned all the ways my father never saw me as a boy.

I’ve got privilege to still assume I won’t always have this trouble getting to work, getting around a store, getting out of bed. It’s possible I won’t have mobility issues for the rest of my life. When the pain hits, I do often forget this privilege. But assumptions that come with being able-bodied still float to the surface every few days: the pain should be gone by now. I shouldn’t have to make these accommodations anymore. How much longer will this phase last? I float between various self-definitions of being disabled, being chronically ill, being temporarily out of commission, getting a health issue “under control”. I wonder if it’s okay or not to call myself disabled. I look up definitions of chronic pain. I don’t want to appropriate. What’s appropriation and what’s denial? I don’t have a way of knowing what my LS will look like. So what role does the possible course of my illness play in defining me now? How does my (lack of) knowledge of my own future shape my identity now?

I have privilege. I don’t have health insurance, but I have the money to have seen a third doctor, someone who knew enough to diagnosis a rare condition. I have a diagnosis that we think is helping. I still have my flexible job in a forgiving, caring setting, which helps, and I’m not sure someone non-white would have been hired there.

I have white privilege. I’ll never know how hard it is for all my other identities to intersect with non-whiteness. I won’t ever know the types of ableism and sexism and heterosexism that people of color endure. I try to understand, and even in that, I have the choice whether to try.

What does it mean for me to embrace the identities of chronically ill and bigender in the same month? I wonder just that even as I’m certain it will take years for the answer to unfold. I can still remember the moment a few months ago where I realized I would still be fat as a boy too. It was a surprise. Embodiment is a complex thing. I am incredibly grateful that my sex life with my partner doesn’t center on the penis-in-vagina sex that I can’t currently have and which may get more difficult over time even on my vulva’s best days. I am thankful for the practice I already have including “prostheses” as important parts of my own body that can bring sexual pleasure. It makes for amazing, deeply satisfying sex when my partner sucks my cock, with that cock carefully placed wherever is most comfortable for me. It is one way among many that we find accessible sexual activity, suited specifically to our bodies.

Facing a Fear on My Terms

I did not choose this pain. I did not choose this fear. I did not choose this initiation. This was not part of the plan, any plan. Coming to terms with chronic genital pain has been terrifying. Hopelessness and despair have never been far away in my inner landscape anyway, and I have sometimes greatly feared getting lost in waves of one or both. But I am not as hopeless as I feared. I am not as despairing as I worried I would be. I’m not sure I could name those realities as being by choice… at least not entirely. But hope is surviving and I’m thankful for that. I know that my life is meaningful and worth having with the pain. And I know I’m not alone, even inside this flesh, even inside pain. I am co-creating this queer life with a loving God.

So far, I cry and I hope and I manage and I’m greatly blessed. I laugh too. I did choose to unfold more and more of myself and my gender as I get older. Though I did not know its exact form beforehand, I did choose that initiation as one that brings me more peace, and more self love. My current capacity for love and hope and peace owes a large debt to many theologians who have named what is Empire and what is not — body theologians and queer theologians and liberation theologians of disability. I have blessings that include a complex and God-given gender. I have blessings that include a beautiful queer body created and re-created, and re-created again, in multiple images of God.

I believe I will still celebrate 40 by getting a tattoo. There may be a family trip as well. Mobility issues might change my bodyweight in a way that will preclude parachuting out of an airplane; rather than worry about that, I’m considering a plan to shave my head for the first time, and confront a lifetime of baggage around hair, beauty and gender. I do still want to confront a fear I can choose and control. But it now feels much more symbolic as an act than it did. It feels sacramental, in a way: an outward and visible experience of an inward, tangible, lived grace. It is a remembrance and reflection of life with intersecting fear, joy, love and pain within queerness and resistance. I still find comfort in being myself… though my relationship to and definition of physical comfort is transforming. I continue to be – and continue to become – happier in my own skin than anywhere else.

*Spoon Theory was created by Christine Miserandino
**Quotation from The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Eiesland, 1994) appears on p. 103 of the book. The paraphrase is from information on p.105.

Drawings by the author.


This post is a part of the 2013 Queer Theology Synchroblog. The theme this year is queer creation. The master post is here, and here are the entries!

Queering Our Reading of the Bible by Dwight Welch

Queer Creation in art: Who says God didn’t create Adam and Steve? by Kittrdge Cherry

Of The Creation of Identity (Also the Creation of Religion) by Colin & Terri

God, the Garden, & Gays: Homosexuality in Genesis by Brian G. Murphy, for Queer Theology

Created Queerly–Living My Truth by Casey O’Leary

Creating Theology by Fr. Shannon Kearns

Initiation by Blessed Harlot

B’reishit: The Divine Act of Self-Creation by Emily Aviva Kapor

Queer Creation: Queering the Image of God by Alan Hooker

Queer Creation by Ric Stott

Eunuch-Inclusive Esther–Queer Theology 101 by Peterson Toscano

Valley of Dry Bones by Jane Brazelle

Queer Creation: Queer Angel by Tony Street

The Great Welcoming by Anna Spencer

Queer Creation by Billy Flood

The Mystery of an Outlandishly Queer Creation by Susan Cottrell

We’ve Been Here All Along by Brian Gerald Murphy

God Hirself: A Theology by T. Thorn Coyle

The Objectification of God by Marg Herder

Coming Out As Embodiments of God Herself by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott

An Interview by Katy

On Creation and Belonging by Andrew Watson

Creation by Liam Haakon Smith

Practically Creating Practical Queer Theology by Talia Johnson

Inspired Possibility: Opening the Gift of the Queer Soul by Keisha McKenzie

Oh What A Difference A Pope Makes! by Hilary Howes

I’m Really Angry by John Smid

Focus on the (Chosen) Family by Brian Cubbage

The Goddex by Thorin Sorensen

Coming Out As She Was Created by Liz Dyer

Published in: on September 30, 2013 at 9:00 pm  Comments (8)  

The Mustard Seeds and the Empire

Queer like a freedom too strange to be conquered. – Brandon Wint (found on tumblr)

From youth, people have constantly attacked me—
let Israel now repeat!—
from youth people have constantly attacked me—
but they haven’t beaten me!
They plowed my back like farmers;
they made their furrows deep.
But the Lord is righteous—
God cut me free from the ropes of the wicked!
— Psalms 129:1-4 CEB

Anti-oppression work is really important to me. And it’s important to me to keep doing it, whether or not I get any results or get any good at it. It’s the hoping and doing that’s important. It keeps me alive by actively respecting the ways that we are all connected as human beings.

And anti-oppression work right now is centered around seeing certain structures in place in our world. These structures involve systemic racism, sexism, cissexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, and all the other ways that human lives are compared to one another in order to find someone lacking and less valuable and someone else as more valuable or “whole”. I will call this deeply embedded system Empire. It’s vital to me to keep trying to understand Empire.

Specifically being able to locate Empire has led to having more freedom in my life. It’s led to more connection as I understand how Empire affects each of us uniquely, and as I yearn for all of us together to be free of it.

When Christ saw suffering, he felt it deep in his guts. It overwhelmed him. I’m nowhere near that skilled at compassion, but I still got overwhelmed by others’ suffering at an early age. I was never taught how to manage that – as no one around me really valued those feelings in the first place – and a fair portion of decisions in my life have probably been decided from a place of trying to manage that empathy. And I think this level of empathy is common in a lot of us who do anti-oppression work. Sometimes we do whatever we do to fight Empire for ourselves or our friends and neighbors. Sometimes we do what we do because seeing others’ pain reminds us of moments of pain in our lives, or reminds us of our own luck, or frailty. Sometimes we do it because suffering isn’t ever that far away from us in our own heads, and being of some use to another or easing someone else’s pain can help us all stay alive.

As I said before, it’s vital to me to keep trying to understand Empire. But it can be easy to forget that there’s no life force in Empire. Plants grow toward the sun that feeds them, but there’s nothing in Empire that feeds. I need to make sure and get fed elsewhere. I need to remember to find structures that *nourish*, that don’t destroy. I need to remember to stay very near those things that make life worth living.

To borrow phrasing from Kate Bornstein: the key is to find where Empire *is*, and then go *someplace else.* (She uses this idea to leave gender, not Empire. But I think there’s truth in my sentence too.) I need to keep in mind that I’m learning about Empire not to get closer to it, but specifically to know exactly where it is, so that I can go exist someplace else.

Now, when I say “someplace else”, I’m not talking geographically. There’s no nation somewhere devoid of Empire… at least not for long. But there’s mental spaces and emotional spaces and spiritual spaces and fleshy spaces where Empire *can’t* go. And I must remember this, and not forget. Empire loves to condense the universe down to only the places it can reach. But there are planes of existence that Empire cannot comprehend and cannot enter. Some are broad expanses in the opposite direction from Empire. And some are whole universes hidden just adjacent to Empire, in the cracks Empire leaves.

That time you have felt the freest you’ve ever felt? That’s still somewhere in you… in some bones or some squishy parts somewhere. You will always carry that knowledge in your body, and Empire will never understand how to be inside that freedom. It’s a freedom too strange to be conquered. The times we’ve connected with others in ways that made us feel bigger and truer… those realities are inside us and a part of us too. Empire has no idea how to be in those places. The times when you and I have loved and been loved… every single ounce of love and care and nourishment poured into or out of us, whether we realized it or not… all of that is still in us. Whether the person stayed in our lives a long time or a short time. Whether the person was us or someone else. Every moment of true care given to us or by us shines in us. It multiplies the substance of our self and feeds us and holds us up. It makes us real and strong. Empire is left lost and impotent at the thinnest presence of love.

This is what the kingdom of God is like, to me. It’s paradoxical. It’s not subject to the laws of physics. It’s the realm of the Creator of the entire universe, and it’s tiny, like a mustard seed. It cannot sweep in like a military general and force itself into this world; it’s hidden. And yet, it is as prevalent as water, as yeast and bread, and as the earth we travel upon. It is poetic and truthful, and defies description. It is the force of new life bringing itself forth. It is craving and passion and creativity within us. It is our own desire for freedom, for self-expression and self-determination.

I think my faith asks me to be two different bodies at once, in the same flesh — my compassionate body and my kingdom body. Christ suffered and felt the suffering of others. And I believe as a Christian I’m called to be present to my own suffering and others’ as much as I am able to — and honestly, sometimes I can’t do one, or the other, or both. That’s okay. I’m never going to hold it all. I’ve tried. Sometimes I still try. And Empire is built to make me feel like a failure, and make itself feel inevitable. Inevitable because I’m human and limited, and we’re all human and limited. And we won’t ever make Empire go away.

I’m never going to be able to hold all of humanity or all of suffering or all of Empire in this body, not entirely. I’m not meant to. There’s something else far more important to hold in this flesh too: the kingdom. The reality of all the times I’ve been loved, or been free, or been truthful about who I am. All the times I’ve been happy or joyous or ecstatic. All the times people I love have been near me. All the times I feel God. Those are all, always present in me. With each one of these experiences the kingdom grows, in this body and in this world. The more time I spend in this space, the more I exist and the fuller I grow. The more time I spend exploring and creating this mental, spiritual and/or physical space, the more it is available to all of us, regardless of common physical constrictions.

The point of understanding Empire is to know right where it is, so that we can go someplace else — above or underneath or around back of Empire. Between or through or behind Empire.

There’s plenty of things that the kingdom is like. The kingdom of God is like a zine. The kingdom of God is like a tumblr account. The kingdom of God is like the kitchen dance of people cooking something together. The kingdom of God is like the way you identify your gender today.

Do these two bodies, these two fleshy existences coexist? Absolutely. Are they opposites? Not at all. For where there is suffering, there is God also.

But I have to remind myself that my human mind cannot simultaneously focus on Empire and on the kingdom. I must lead myself to one or the other. I study the former not as an end unto itself, but only to better understand the latter. And that perhaps for each hour I spend studying Empire, I need to spend some amount of time seeking the kingdom. For it is there where we are all truly valued, and replenished, and loved.

Published in: on July 10, 2013 at 6:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Book Review: Lia Scholl’s “I <3 Sex Workers: A Christian Response to People in the Sex Trade"

I Heart Sex Workers: A Christian Response to People in the Sex TradeI Heart Sex Workers: A Christian Response to People in the Sex Trade by Lia Claire Scholl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First, I will tell you what I know. This book gives a wonderful, accessible introduction to systemic oppression and anti-oppression work in general. These ideas are both critically important and really tough concepts… and this book is a great place to start, with straightforward definitions and examples to explain. Scholl also has some wonderful instruction to give on basic pastoral care: active listening, being truly present to someone, and helping to empower people simply by acknowledging their agency and treating them as children of God.

Now, what I don’t know. I do not have the expertise to say that the book accurately portrays sex work, or that it addresses the needs and desires that sex workers have for their allies. Only those folks who work in the sex trades can do that. I can tell you that a lot of what I read here is congruent with what I hear from sex workers. I can tell you that Scholl clearly loves the people she has worked with, whose lives she attempts to give a glimpse of here. I get a strong impression that their humanity and the complexity of their lived experience is being respected.

Scholl articulates her main point as this: Christians can be allies to sex workers by doing three things: fighting the isolation sex workers face, fighting the stigma sex workers face and being more accepting, open and affirming, and striving for economic justice in our society and world. At another point, she boils her thesis down even further: the only solution that works for every person in sex work is “acceptance and advocacy for increasing personal choice.” Because of this agenda, Scholl is able to invite to the table – with a fair amount of success, in my opinion – readers with a variety of opinions on the inherent moral rightness or wrongness of sex work. She does focus part of the book on those who want to leave sex work… partly because the social stigma that touches each person in the sex trade makes it difficult to leave if they wish to. But “rescuing” sex workers, especially from sex work, is not a goal of this book. Scholl centers her work around us all supporting one another’s agency and personal choice. She mentions those who like doing sex work. She contextualizes sex work as being like any other work, with a range of enjoyment, resentment and ambivalence among the workers in any field. She discusses at length the dangers inherent in sex work that come not from the work itself, but from societal treatment of it, like police misconduct toward sex workers, various legal models of sex work and how sex workers feel these models affect their lives, and the deep harm of and multiple layers of victim blaming. Scholl wants to improve the lives of those who engage in sex work by offering relationship, respect, and solidarity in fighting against unjust systems. Her focus is not on ending sex work, but on fighting systemic oppression that disproportionately affects both those who trade sex and the populations most likely to be in sex work.

Her focus, ultimately, is on embracing those in the sex trade as people who deserve “all the rights and privileges that come with being a child of God and created in the image of God.” (p.150) I believe she does real work here to unpack what it means to honor someone’s agency, resourcefulness and dignity… work clearly rooted in Christ’s admonition to love one another. I am so very excited to have this resource.

View all my reviews

Published in: on April 13, 2013 at 5:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

Notes after reading Fellowship of the Ring

Well, I had determined that I wouldn’t write about this until I was done with the series. But then, I kept falling into rants about it with friends and family. So here’s some quickly jotted opinions from one person who:

a) saw the Jackson movies first, and knew nothing of Tolkien’s universe beyond those films, until a month ago,
b) doesn’t have the best memory for details (especially for content that isn’t emotionally significant), and so may blur together or forget elements of the films, but
c) saw each of the movies several times… not because I liked them, but because I didn’t mind them, and many people around me wanted to see them frequently. So I tend to believe that a Venn diagram of what the filmmakers prioritized and focused on and what I came away with will overlap a great deal.

You should also know that I hold storytelling in very high regard, and I treasure filmmaking as an art… though I loathe the Hollywoodification of stories, and that last will play a huge part of my growing dislike for the films. For me, Hollywoodification centers around the erosion of unique styles of storytelling and creative perspectives, in order to fit a rigid template of storytelling considering the most sellable. It often includes flattening rich characters into stereotypes or “one-word characters” (the innocent one, the brooding one, etc.), not just because of time constraints but to dumb down characters so Hollywood audiences know how to relate to them. Hollywoodification also frequently includes shoehorning cookiecutter romance into any story.

I greatly enjoyed the book “Fellowship of the Ring”, and plan to have a relationship with it that isn’t all about the films! But this post will be a compilation of my thoughts on approaching the books after the films, and on comparing the two (and finding the films lacking).

The first thing I noticed is that the book does not open with a feeling of EPICness. The films – from first to last – were EPIC with EPIC hobbits and EPIC New Zealand. Everything was dazzling and bigger than life from the first moments, as the Shire sprawled out in front of us. This is very different than the quiet, homey beginnings of the book. The hobbits’ world is circumscribed. Most of them haven’t traveled outside the Shire, and their knowledge of the outside world is patchy and scarce. The non-Shire world is an exotic and dangerous place, and those who frequent it are by turns romantic and suspect. I felt the Shire as a familiar place by the time they left it. The emotional space Tolkien gives at the beginning of the book is a pleasant, manageable place to start a journey, and I feel after reading Fellowship of the Ring that I have actually been on part of a journey that is changing me. The movie was more of a travelogue of exotic places to visit, the Shire being the first.

I have intentionally been putting effort into giving the characters different faces than they had in the movies, just to allow the book as much room as possible to exist outside my experience of the films. This can be challenging because, while Tolkien easily spends a quarter of his word count describing the weather, the entirety of his physical descriptions of characters might just possibly fit on a single page!

To understate profoundly, Tolkien has a way with words. So it’s not surprising that a significant portion of the dialogue came directly from the book, in pivotal and in small scenes.

“It has been called that before, but not by you.”
“I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.”
“It is hardly possible to separate you from him, even when he is summoned to a secret council and you are not.”
“There are older and fouler things than Orcs in the deep parts of the world.”
“That spear thrust would have skewered a wild boar.”
“Fly, you fools!” 1
“Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing!”

I’m not sure that the looksism of the movie will be mirrored quite so strongly in the book, as far as good being beautiful and evil being ugly. Tolkien’s already played with that a bit. This is something I’ll reserve judgment (and comment) on for now.

I want to talk for a second about what I’ll call “shoutouts.” In adapting a book to a movie, you generally have a story that is far too long for the medium you are adapting it to, and you must cut or condense. The perennial question is, do you include a larger number of events from the book, and give them far less attention? Or do you reduce the number of events and characters – removing many entirely – in order to focus better on what’s left? With such a series as LOTR, Jackson did have to cut some things out completely. The journey that takes the hobbits to Tom Bombadil is one sad example (but, okay, if you have to). But it’s clear that a great number of writing decisions were made not to tell the story itself, but to reference the story Tolkien wrote, to give a wink to already-established fans without explaining enough to actually tell the story to those that haven’t heard it. My frustrations are with these shoutouts: at what was left in, but glossed over… Lothlorien being my biggest frustration. As far as I knew – from seeing FOTR multiple times, mind you – Galadriel was random Elven royalty, and Lothlorien was a place for the Fellowship to restock their supplies. There’s several different reasons this aggravates me, one of them I’ll return to in a moment. And another reason is a thematic issue that I will have to reserve judgment on until I’m done reading. But I will share my suspicions that an Eden-like land with a woman that quotes Jesus of Nazareth2 might be more important to Tolkien and Tolkien’s story than Jackson suggests in his film.

Additionally, the more shout-outs you have, the larger the ‘just because’ movie-logic looms over the story. The shoutouts increase the number of actions that appear to me in my first visit to Middle Earth as simply the way things are done. Nearly every decision made as to how the Fellowship would travel, for example, was made in the film just because. We’ll go this way or that because it’s the best. People in the know have decided. Throughout the book, decision-making is a more harrowing, more realistic experience. Various people with various incomplete knowledge and skill sets do the best they can to reason out the best decisions on partial information, and we see their angst and struggle. This is a constant vulnerability in the book that speaks deeply to me, that I felt not a whit of in the film.

And I want to talk about the women. On a very personal note, I actually had a loathsome experience watching the first movie in the theatres. I was with my father, and while I found Arwen’s depiction problematic in a number of ways, he fell in love with her. He was visibly moved by this character, and obviously considered her a kind of ideal woman. His feelings, combined with my problems with her portrayal, highlighted a LOT that was wrong about our relationship as I grew up, all rooted in stereotypes of what is feminine, and what is valued in women’s behavior and appearance. To quickly summarize my problems with her portrayal:

A) While she is portrayed as powerful, her so-called power is entirely dependent on her father’s power, and this fact is pretty explicitly involved in the run-in Jackson fabricates between her and the ringwraiths;
B) in said run-in with all nine ringwraiths, she walks away with one, inch-long thin red mark daintily placed upon her cheek, and is otherwise composed and glamorous;
C) She is the far larger part of two named female characters in the movie, and both are Elven. As movie elves, they are beautiful, thin, dainty, never dirty, always composed, ethereal, billowy and distant. Since this is already a problematic female stereotype for me, having two separate characters as the entirety of the female cast BOTH represent this actually made me pretty nauseous.

Despite all this, my impression was that this was one of those old stories written by men that didn’t have any decent female roles, so we’d just have to make our own. I got the impression the script writers were doing us a favor making Arwen a larger part and a stronger woman, and so I let it slide that it was “Hollywood” female strength and not actual female strength.

Then, I met Galadriel in the book.

Mother fuckers. Seriously? As I said before, to my mind the movie Galadriel was random elven royalty (and I don’t have much use for royalty). I know I don’t fully understand yet what Tolkien’s doing thematically with Celeborn, Galadriel and Lothlorien. But Galadriel is a powerful figure in her own right, just completely wiped out of having any significant role in the movie. Which makes it clear to me that having substantial women’s roles really wasn’t a priority for the writers.

I can’t quite put words to it yet, but the characterizations of Frodo in particular and the hobbits in general are so much richer and more satisfying in the book. There’s more than one action or behavior of Frodo’s in the book that enriched his character, that wasn’t present or was only faintly present in the movie. The largest example I’m thinking of was him actually slowly becoming aware of Gollum’s presence, slowly discerning the meaning of the clues he had heard and seen. In the movie, Gandalf hands him (and us) this answer. He is streamlined to the point of feeling like a rather blank character in the films in general. The strongest content of his film character is just generally being the least silly of the hobbits. Hobbits as a whole in the film are only one small step away from being comic relief, which I don’t feel is at all fair to their representation in the book.

In one last comparison, I will say that I was really entirely unaware of any history of animosity between Elves and Dwarves. This is a regretful elimination, as the various exchanges on the subject, and the layers of relationship built between Legolas and Gimli, are all very satisfying in the book.

Now, for a couple of observations of the book unrelated to the movie. My friend Lexi, who inspired me to read the books, mentioned Tolkien’s love of trees, and that shines through in a lovely way in the text. Though I don’t have words now, I know I’ll have something to say about Tolkien’s profound way of relating to the physical landscape of Middle Earth.

It will certainly be best to wait to say much on matters of theology until I’ve seen where Tolkien takes his narrative. But I am thankful that in the books so far, he is not as pedantic as other Christian writers I’ve seen (I’m looking at you, Clive). For this reason, I think I can embrace parts of his story that mean something very different to him than they do to me.

I can see glimpses of what he has famously called his view of “the long defeat” — a concept he describes as quintessentially Roman Catholic, and a concept I am unfamiliar with (and can’t find much on, actually, other than references to Tolkien himself). On one hand, I think the idea of humanity progressing linearly into greater and greater moral and scientific quality is a dangerous narrative. “Progress” as an idea leads easily to ranking societies by who’s more advanced/moral, to a feeling of invincibility in Western culture that we will only keep going and becoming “greater” and to general historical blindness, and attitudes that things have never been better than they are right now. Clearly, an idea called “the long defeat” doesn’t sound progressive. 🙂 It may be the reverse, however: the idea that we once had perfection, and have slowly been falling further and further away from it. It’s my impression that he has built Lothlorien as Eden-like, as perfect at least in how it used to be. The Elves in the first book describe how the world will change, even if Sauron’s evil is defeated. It is clear that things will never be the same. I don’t find value in the idea of anything being or having been perfect. Life just is. Yes, there is better and worse, there is more just and less just, or more loving and less loving. But perfection again requires a ranking of diverse ways of being that I do not desire. It requires layers upon layers of value judgments to define what is and isn’t perfect. It requires an unchangingness that to me is antithetical to life itself. Now, my dislike of perfection certainly stems from my own experience of twelve step work (itself based in certain Christian theologies); admitting that perfection is not possible in this broken world is a survival mechanism for me. But I still find nothing valuable in envisioning a perfect paradise, either at the beginning or at the end of all things. Will this be a hindrance to enjoying the ultimate shape of the book narrative? I don’t know yet. I don’t think so. The sense of mourning in the Elven culture resonates with me. Grief is grief. And one major element of all this that Tolkien weaves together resonates oh so deeply with me: that awareness that defeating evil will not make us who were were when we started our journey. The Elves say that Middle Earth will never be the same. I know certainly that Frodo will never be the same as he was on page one. That single aspect of his journey is what has drawn me into the story more than anything else — that journey of one individual, living with pain and evil moment by moment, every day, and striving not to be overcome by it. That’s what’s really appealing to me, and I want to see Tolkien’s version of that tale.

1. Though, remarkably, the phrasing of Ian McKellen’s now meme-ish line “You shall not pass”, has changed from what it is in the book, “You cannot pass”.
2. Galadriel quotes from the canonical gospels when she says “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” from the passage supposedly of Jesus’ words: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” I remember noticing a second quote, but I don’t immediately find it again.

Published in: on July 30, 2012 at 1:19 am  Comments (5)  

Thoughts On The Messy Incarnation

This column is from a mother who relates her own experiences of giving birth to her understanding of God as wild, untidy, uncontrollable, and about glorious love. It is a very moving piece.

I am frequently drawn to these stories of childbirth as stories that shed light on God and the sacred… stories that talk about the holiness of mothers and infants. I am drawn to them, even though my own mother is disturbed and unkind. I am drawn to them even though I never intend to have children. I am drawn to them even after spending years working at a job that focused on dead infants.

Advent and Christmas are my favorite times of the liturgical year because they are so specifically and overwhelmingly about the goodness of bodies, of flesh. They are about a pregnancy and a birth. Even though I don’t intend to have one myself, I know enough about them to know how they are connected to my own body’s glorious, messy beauty, and that of my lovers’ bodies. Flesh is uncontrollable, creative, and sacred.

Fear of flesh has led to many, many years of trying to control it, sanitize it, curtail its capacities for pleasure and connection. The typical images of Christmas (and the suffocating overlay of commercialism) try to keep this messy embodiment of the Holy under wraps, behind tidy virgins and perfect beds of hay for infants to sleep on, untouched. But Life is always about to break through the tidy veneer. Stories like the one in the link above remind me just how close under the surface the chaotic loving truth really is.

“God, Incarnate, Word made flesh, born of a woman. We can tell the true, messy stories of the Incarnation. Emmanuel, God with us. May we recognise the miracle of the Incarnation, not in spite of the mess, but because of the very humanness of it.

Published in: on December 24, 2011 at 5:53 pm  Leave a Comment  


Hello and welcome!

Overall, this site will function as my primary presence online.  But the impetus to finally begin this centralized blog has come from a project I’ll be working on over the next few months.

Outside any particular academic context, I have some exploration I want to do on the topic of sexuality and ethics in a Christian context.  I have a pile of books I’ve selected as a survey of the literature: some I read long ago and others I haven’t yet read.  The books are:

Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology by James Nelson
The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality and The Bible by David Carr
Feast of Our Lives: Re-Imaging Communion by June Goudey
Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality by Marvin Ellison
Word’s Body: An Incarnational Aesthetic of Interpretation by Alla Bozarth
Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God by Carter Heyward
Exquisite Desire: Religion, The Erotic, and the Song of Songs by Carey Ellen Walsh
Sex Texts from the Bible by Teresa Hornsby

I will be posting reflections here as I go.  If anyone is interested in more direct interaction on any particular title, let me know and we can arrange something.

At the end of this reading and writing, I’ll create… something. It may be an academic paper, it may be a personal statement of sexual ethics. Hell, it may be a performance piece. I’m not sure yet which direction the creativity will flow, and I’m working on combining an academic focus with space to do some playful exploration. (This may also be some foundation-building to do further work in the area of BDSM and nonviolent ethics.)

I will keep you updated!

Published in: on February 1, 2011 at 3:52 am  Leave a Comment