I’m in a Weird Place about The Good Place

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Among the list of exciting new premiere’s that the TV execs would like to introduce us to this year is one from NBC: The Good Place, starring the sloth-loving and most wonderful Kristen Bell and the  hilarious, everybody-knows-his-name Ted Danson. This is how NBC describes it:

The show follows Eleanor Shellstrop, an ordinary woman who enters the afterlife and, thanks to some kind of error, is sent to the Good Place instead of the Bad Place, which is definitely where she belongs. While hiding in plain sight from Michael, the wise architect of the Good Place (who doesn’t know he’s made a mistake), she’s determined to shed her old way of living and discover the awesome (or, at least, the pretty good) person within.

It is, at its core, a show exploring what makes a good person. Or a good enough person, at least. And, true to its billing, it is a comedy. For example, The Good Place (naturally) cannot countenance any swearing, and so Eleanor’s outbursts come out as “that’s so forked up!”, and “bullshirt!”, which are just so obviously not rude I couldn’t help but laugh.

did laugh, but I was also very uneasy watching it – and I’m still processing whether I’ll go back and have Episode 3 keep me company while I scale Mt. Laundry in my living room tonight. I’m thinking probably not. I’m thinking this show may land up in the pile of “I started the series, I saw why people liked it, and I chose not to keep watching”. [For me, this virtual heap of discarded shows includes Breaking Bad (couldn’t stomach it… that bathtub!), New Girl (sex deserves more respect and it wasn’t funny any more), 24 (season 3 broke my heart. I need one redeeming character in a story), House of Cards (again, I need at least one person in the show I can root for). I choose books in lieu of any more hours with these shows.]

So what is it that rankles about The Good Place? It’s that both the premise and point of the show deal with two topics that I care very much about: questions of eternity/the afterlife, and questions on the development of character. What happens after we die? And how do our character choices affect that outcome? On both of these questions, The Good Place posits a theory that is diametrically opposed to what Jesus told us is the truth:

What happens in the afterlife?

The Good Place: If you’ve been a really good person; you get to go to the Good Place. Very few people are good enough to get in.

Jesus: There’s lots of space in my Father’s house; and I’ve gone to prepare a place for you. I’m the way, the truth and the life. Believe in me and I’ll take you there. (John 14:1-6, summarized)

How good do you need to be to get to the good afterlife place (wherever that is)?

The Good Place: Really, really, really good. As in, humanitarian-award-winner good. Better-than-average goodness isn’t good enough. 

Jesus: You need to be perfect. And no-one is. But that’s why I came: to live a perfect life and then die the Bad Place’s death; and offer to take your place. I took death so that you could gain entry to the Good Place. So the answer is: no one is good enough for the Good Place. And yet anyone and everyone is welcome through me. (Matthew 5:48, 1 Peter 3:18, John 3:16)

Of course, the plot of the show is about morally-worse-than-average Eleanor, who lands up in the Good Place by accident, and whose eternal soul mate (I’m not even going to comment on this aspect of the plot) is roped into helping her reform her character there. Now the thing is, friends—unlike Firefly or StarWars or The Hunger Games or any other variety of shows where I step into the world of fantasy and suspend disbelief for a while to enjoy the story—this story is just too important, and too close to home for me to ignore the glaring issues and just “escape” mindlessly into it.

Because, despite the show’s claim in Episode 1 that “the Christians only got it about 5% right on the afterlife, as did the Hindus, and the Muslims…”, Jesus was emphatic that he was the only one who had come “from above” and could tell us authoritatively what it was like (John 3:13). And the rest of the Bible is emphatic that Jesus was the only one who experienced death and came back to tell us how to get “through it”. The Christian claim on the afterlife—founded on Jesus’ resurrection—is more than a 5% gamble. It’s what we’ve staked our entire lives on.

Amy Simpson notes*, “many believe God is so impressed with our efforts at the soup kitchen that he could never bear to dish out anything but indulgence and a wink toward “good people” like us.” The Good Place plays headlong into this belief: if you’re good enough, the Powers That Be will be impressed and you will be Eternally Rewarded. The question is: who is good enough? The answer is: only Jesus, a message The Good Place rejects outright.

“But it’s just a show, and a funny one,” – I hear you say. “Why do you have to be all kinds of Christian uptight about it?”

Fair question.

I suppose the answer to this has to do with bananas and tweezers. In particular, the teensy little rubber bananas they sometimes lay out at my son’s preschool, in front of a mini cardboard box with a monkey face on it and a bright yellow pair of plastic tweezers. Next to it is a similar cardboard box with tiny, blue rubber bones and a cardboard box with a doggy’s face and a pair of blue tweezers. These “toys” are laid out as a treat, and the kids can choose which of the animals they’d like to feed today. Of course my son chooses the monkey, and screws up his face in concentration as he feeds the tiny bananas into the hole-that-is-the-monkey’s-mouth and counts the bananas: one. two. three. Afterwards, they sit on the mat and hear a story about llamas and their pajama drama. Hilarious. So fun. So funny.

“Mom! I fed the monkeys!” he says, and from his perspective, he did. But from his teacher’s perspective: he practiced eye-hand coordination, fine motor skills in grasping the tweezers, and worked on numeracy skills. He was also developing social and communicative skills in negotiating with his peers which of the activities they would work on and in which order. And then they listened to stories that weren’t just entertainment about llamas, but share a script on how to handle bedtime without making excuses. How to be patient when your parents can’t respond right away. It’s social scripting, the behavioral therapists tell us. It’s not just entertainment.

He comes home from school thinking he played all day… but his parents and teachers know it wasn’t all mindless fun. He’s been learning-through-play all day. We all do. We absorb lessons through the play we engage in and the stories we expose ourselves to. We learn about life (and the afterlife) and about love and loss and relationships and reality through the play and stories of our lives. None of us are neutral to the stories we surround ourselves with, and so I’m wary of stories like The Good Place which deliver spoonfuls of untruth and mask the taste with comedy. 

But then again, maybe that’s only really dangerous if we’re watching TV mindlessly. Perhaps, for some, The Good Place is exactly the show they need to be watching. Perhaps if it’s more than mindless entertainment, it might cause people to stop and ask themselves how they might fare in the Great Hereafter. If their lives were being assessed, how would they stand? Does that thought make them nervous? If they were Eleanor, and all of a sudden there was a reckoning on their choices – what would they be ashamed of? What would they wish they had oriented their lives around?

Asking those kinds of questions is, I think, a rare and critically important thing. The writer of Ecclesiastes says that one of the excellent reasons people should go to funerals is because it forces them to think about eternity:

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. (Eccl 7:2)

And so maybe there’s an argument to be made that it is better to watch The Good Place than to watch…. So You Think You Can Dance, for example. For death is the destiny of everyone, and there is a real Good Place to come, and we the living, should certainly take this to heart.

The Good Place is not a show I really want to keep watching: I think the answers it gives are wrong. But maybe, just maybe, I should be excited about it because at the very least, it’s asking some of the right questions.


  • Amy Simpson, “Doing Good for All the Right Reasons”, devotional on Isaiah 64:6 in NIV Bible for Women (p 1024.)

 

“How can I cope with my sexual feelings when I’m single and there’s no end to my celibacy in sight?”

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Dear Bronwyn,

I read your article on sexuality when you’re single  and the importance for me as a guy of developing gendered friendships with both men and women; but I’m not sure what that looks like. What do you mean by “embracing sexuality as a man” while remaining sexually pure in friendships with women?

I am 26 year old Christian man, trying to “wait until marriage”, but I’m struggling with feelings and needs, and the older I get, the more worried and sad I get about it. I don’t want to sin, but I feel the need to do some things I shouldn’t, and I just wish I could marry and fulfill these desires in a non-sinful way. I’ve tried eliminating thoughts of sex from my mind, but it isn’t working. I feel so guilty and unclean about these desires, and I’m lonely too because, while I make friends easily, I’m shy with the girls I’m interested in and nobody seems to like me enough to be my girlfriend. The fact that there are no dating prospects in sight (and so, no foreseeable end to this frustration) feels like an unending burden.

Can you help?

Lonely and Longing

Dear LaL,

Here’s the challenging thing about talking about sexuality these days: instead of sexuality referring to our identity as men and women, and what that means for us relationally; we almost always associate sexuality with SEX. This is very much a feature of the age we live in: we’re saturated in a sexualized and sexualizing world – where women are viewed as sexual objects: in obscene and awful way (like porn), but also in a zillion other ways that happen so frequently around us that we think it’s normal. “Getting the girl” is the plot for umpteen stories: a couple landing up in bed is the closing scene—the climax!—of narratives from TV to movies to music. Sexily clad women are in the media all around us: selling cars and web host services and beer and soap to men, and selling beauty products and dream vacations and who knows what else to women. The world we live in puts a CRAZY amount of pressure on men and women to direct their thoughts and goals towards landing up naked together.

I think the church has, in some way, drunk the Kool-Aid. We, too, have focused our conversations regarding sexuality on what you can and cannot do with your genitals. We haven’t left a lot of room for conversation and imagination on what it means to be men and women apart from being sexually active. We have bought into the lie that we are supposed to function as androgynous/asexual Christians in all our friendships and relationships; and then expected people to “flip a switch” and suddenly turn on their sexuality and express their maleness and femaleness safely once they’re married.

This doesn’t work. But of course, you know that. This is exactly what you’re struggling with. We are not asexual beings who suddenly get permission to inhabit our sexuality once we get married. We are, for the entire length of our lives, sexual beings. There is no way of being human without being male or female. It’s part of who we are, and so we need to think about what it means to live as a healthy MAN or a healthy WOMAN in all our relationships, in every season of life. And friend, in a world where the images and stories and sounds around you keep directing your focus towards the erotic, that’s a SERIOUS challenge.

But it’s a challenge you need to face.

You need to learn how to be friends with women without the glaring awareness of them as potential sex partners. You allude to struggling with masturbation, and I’m not really going to comment on that except to say that if porn is part of that struggle, it is making things exponentially worse for you. Porn hardwires the brain to see women and sex in an objectifying way, and with each participation in that body-brain experience, it puts more distance between you and the possibility of a healthy sexual relationship with a woman in the future.

However, even if porn is not part of the issue, it’s still a real challenge to learn to see women as whole, complete, made-in-the-image-of-God partners in life in a world which sees them as sexy bodies. You say you make friends easily but get shy when there’s a girl you’re interested in…  I strongly suspect that’s because all of a sudden you’re hyper aware of her as a potential sexual partner, and that distracts from you getting to know her as a person.

You need to learn how to be a guy who can talk to women, to listen to them and learn from them and work along side them and appreciate them as essential partners in life, and to be your full self in these relationships (not just a guy hoping to get a date). Are there opportunities for you to participate in group efforts where you work alongside women? Maybe serving in some capacity at church, or volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity project, or making sure you’re plugged into a small group that has both men and women talking about the big issues we face disciples of Jesus (and not just an accountability/confession group)? These kinds of scenarios are important: they shift the focus from the “small talk” of social meet-ups where the unspoken-but-desired-for-outcome is often romantic/sexual/dating interest; and instead have you working shoulder to shoulder with women.

If there are opportunities to laugh together, to get your hands dirty together on a project, be an environment where there is healthy hugging and touch. Doing these things might go a long way towards your relaxing around women and expanding your view of them… and in the process, you may well find yourself developing some new intimacy in friendships with the men and women around you… and maybe one day, one of those might lead to marriage and sex.

Your sexual feelings won’t be disappearing any time soon, but I do think there are ways you can pursue rewarding, affirming, healthy touch and intimacy in relationships without those needing to be sexual. Can I recommend Wesley Hill’s book Spiritual Friendship to you? He is a celibate gay Christian, which is not the struggle you’re facing, but his insights on deep, fulfilling relationships and stewarding our sexuality well while we’re celibate are really helpful and healthy. Even as a married, straight woman (and he is none of those things!); I’ve found a lot in his words to encourage me (as a woman, and inherently sexual being) to relate deeply and well to the men and women in the family of believers in a holy and wholly intimate way. Even once people are married, there may be seasons where sexual feelings can’t be expressed (due to illness or extended absences or childbearing or aging…), and so the question of learning to pursue healthy and holy intimacy in the face of pent of sexual tension is one all believers have to grapple with at some stage. You’re not alone in this. God knows us and will help us as we continue to ask Him for help in stewarding—rather than suppressing—our sexuality.

Blessings to you,

Bronwyn

 

 

Let’s Hear It For Hot, Married, Older-People Sex

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Sex. Sex. Sex. It’s everywhere: in song lyrics and on TV and at the forefront of a vast percentage of the adverts and marketing flooding our senses. It’s the bait for selling everything from juice to Jaguars, the goal for dating, the remedy for existential funks, and the climax (forgive me) of most every rom-com storyline. And if a brief survey of the most popular movies and music right now is to be believed, the people Having All The Sex are young, beautiful couples with off-the-charts chemistry.

Except for this: it’s just not true.

And, while I’m not sure exactly how to do this, I think we need to speak up for the hotness and satisfaction of married, older-people sex.

The need for this became clearer to me a few years ago, when we lived in a rental situated between a house of senior sorority girls on one side, and the college men’s water polo team on the other. With adjoining back yards and single-glazed windows, we were unintentionally privy to more than a couple of their late night conversations as they discussed life, the universe and everything with each other.

One night, my husband and I were awake with a baby-who-would-not-sleep, and through our closed bedroom window could still hear three of the girls out on their porch talking about the guys they were involved with. One of them talked about the guy she’d hooked up with over the summer: how she thought he liked him, how the sex seemed good enough, but she just wasn’t sure if she was a booty call or if it was going anywhere. Her friends sympathized: they had been in similar situations themselves. One suggested ways to spice things up. The other suggested she cut him loose: maybe there was someone else who she’d “click with” better? They felt stuck, but were taking a “chin up” attitude. After all, what if this was as good as it gets?

My heart went out to these girls: they’d had dinner with us just a week before, and they’d made polite conversation with us about their majors, their plans for the summer, and the cuteness of our kids. But what we didn’t talk about—couldn’t talk about—were any of the deep and painful things that they were struggling with after they’d said their polite goodbyes and returned home. What we didn’t know they might need to know, and what they didn’t know we could tell them, was some hope and help that there was a possibility out there for so-much-better from sex and relationships than they imagined.

Of course, it wasn’t their fault: who talks about our deep fears of rejection and our needs for relational acceptance and how that has been tied to our ability and willingness to offer sex with the older married couple next door? Not them. And, actually, not us. It came as a shock to me that same year to realize how much I’d been drinking the “sex is for the young, hot hook-ups” Kool-Aid, too. This realization came one afternoon when—five months pregnant and planting vegetables in the garden with my toddler—I found myself hiding behind the bushes when the water polo guys appeared in their back yard. They’d been working out, and were pumped with adrenaline and testosterone. It was a roasting hot afternoon, and with beers in hand, they peeled off their shirts and began to blast one another with the garden hose. I couldn’t cope: all my teenage angst and inadequacy-around-the-beautiful-people came rushing back at the sight of those five bronzed chests, and I took cover under the foliage of the pomegranate tree while they testosteroned (yup, I’m making that a word) in the afternoon sun: splash and beer and a whole lot of smack talk about the girls they were hoping to “hit” later that night.

All of a sudden, I had a moment of perspective. Why was I hiding in the bushes? Why was I embarrassed around their display of virility? “Stand up,” I told myself, “and get a grip of this situation. You have a life these guys WISH they had right now: you have an income and independence and a completed education. You can drink wine without having your buddy-with-ID needing to buy it for you, and your pregnant belly is actually a testimony to having a sex life. These guys may be talking big about how hot the sex is going to be, but the truth is that even the one with the most “conquests” to his name probably doesn’t have anything close to the quality or quantity of sex that we (and most happily married) couples do.”

I crawled out from under the tree and waved at the water polo guys.

Here’s the thing: we don’t have many voices around us speaking up in favor of the merits of long-term, committed, married sex and relationships – and there’s a ROAR of voices elsewhere shouting something different. But there’s a catch – the privacy of a married relationship, with its attendant modesty (in language and behavior) which protects that intimacy, means that those who know about the rich rewards of exclusive long-term marital intimacy, are the least likely to talk about it, or to share the stories about how much, much better sex gets over a lifetime of learning to love, laugh and enjoy each other.

So the challenge is this: how do we uphold and celebrate that sex and sexiness belong firmly–and wonderfully— in marriage, in a way that honors the privacy of our marriages and doesn’t get into the cringe-worthy territory of publicly calling out our spouses as “smoking hot“?

For one, I think there does need to be a little more open conversation in safe settings. My friend Emily Dixon wrote a book called Scandalous: Things Good Christian Girls Don’t Talk About and Probably Should, inviting Christian women to recover healthy, vital sexuality in their identity rather than allowing the topic to be smothered by shame. If there’s a world of unhealthy and damaging conversation about sex out there, we aren’t going to redeem the topic by staying silent – we need to start a new conversation.

Of course: books and book clubs are always my go-to ways to start conversation, so I should mention I recently read the first couple of books in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon: a series I found un-put-downable in its storytelling but which also deserved the caveats I’d heard about scenes with explicit sex and not-a-small-amount-of-violence (like Game of Thrones for women, I joked with a friend). However, I’ll say this for Outlander: the sex is very, very steamy, but all the good sex in the book happens between a married couple. This was one of the author’s intentions in writing the series: she wanted to tell a story of a marriage whose passion stood the test of time. With nine epic novels completed in the Jamie-and-Claire saga, Gabaldon has done that – told a tale of a couple whose intimacy and desire for each other in every aspect grew over a lifetime. I’m not defending that Outlander (or particularly the television miniseries version) is right for everyone – but I respect Gabaldon’s goals. Her novels, while fictional, tell the truth about something our world desperately needs to hear:

Let’s hear it for hot, married, older people sex.

hot married sex

On Anger, Stanford Justice, and Calling a Spade a Spade

I have things to do this week, and other things I wanted to write, but I’m slamming dishes and cutlery so hard in my kitchen right now that the children are looking nervous. Yes, Mommy is angry. Mommy is more than angry. Mommy is FURIOUS.

195629063_2226295908_zI’m angry because in the last two days I have read a handful of articles on what happened when star Stanford swimmer, Brock Allen Turner, was on trial for sexual assault. A woman was at a party with her sister. Like everyone else at the party, they drank too much. But for this one woman, she landed up unconscious behind a dumpster while young Mister Turner shoved his fingers and various other objects (like pine needles. PINE NEEDLES, people!) into her vaginal cavity. The woman’s statement is here (Read it. And make your teens and college age kids read it, too.)

This is why I went to law school, friends. Because when I was sixteen I was already furious about harm done to women and children, and how justice was so inaccessible in so many situations. Women are disbelieved, and abused, and it should not be so. That the law had the ability and the mandate to protect the weakest called to my inner core. I wanted to be on the side of justice. I wanted young women who were pulled behind dumpsters in the dark of night to be able to see their perpetrators punished.

The judge handed down his verdict in the Turner trial: six months for sexual assault, including probation. Sexual assault, even though his offense meets the FBI’s updated definition of rape, and no one has EVER contested that he did in fact do it. The judge didn’t want the perpetrator to have to suffer “too severe” consequences for his actions….

… and this, friends, is where I start to slam dishes in the kitchen. And this is why I quit law: because for all the good that the law can do, in the hands of persuasive lawyers and evidential sleights of hand and spin-in-arguments, justice is so often not done. The victim’s character landed up being on trial. And the perpetrator, after all was said and done, “regretted his night of drinking.”

Not, “regretted his actions in sexually assaulting a woman”.

No, “regretted his night of drinking”.

Just to be clear: drinking is not a crime. Sexual Assault is. Let’s call a spade a spade, folks. But why are we surprised? The perpetrator’s father issued his own statement in which he expresses regret that his son got the harsh sentence he did: “this is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.”

Not, “this is a steep price to pay for sexually assaulting a woman.”

No, “for 20 minutes of action.”

(you need to picture the sound track in my kitchen. slam. crash. slam.)

As if rape were a quick game of tennis. Or a couple minutes of pick-up basketball with a mate. Not STRIPPING AN UNCONSCIOUS WOMAN and dry humping her in the dark while you shove things up her. By that definition, “twenty minutes of action” could be a shooting spree at a high school, or dicing your friend on the highway at 130 miles per hour while you wind down from your evening of draining a keg. No effing way. Nope.

I wonder what that Father would have called it if it had been his daughter who had gone to a party at college, had too much to drink, and been pulled behind a dumpster? Do you think he would have dismissed it as “twenty minutes of action” and told his daughter to just get over it? I’m willing to bet he would have been crying for blood. Because what you CALL a thing says a great deal about what you believe about a thing. And “sexual action” isn’t the same as “sexual assault.” Being drunk is not the same as being a rapist.

Sin is sin. Rape is rape. Assault is assault. Trauma is trauma.

And Justice should be justice.

Maybe there’s a time for euphemisms: like when we tell our little kids that someone is “sick” instead of “terminally ill”, or “people hurting each other” instead of “genocide”. But there comes a time when we need to grow up and call a spade a spade. We need to name assault (or racism! or misogyny!) for what it is, because failure to do so perpetuates rape culture and myriad other injustices.

I’m not usually a fan of people filing civil claims for punitive damages, but as in the case of OJ Simpson, I hope this woman sues the pants off Brock Turner. Or at least, sues the smarmy smile off his face.

Why I won’t paint my son’s toenails (or let him wear a dress in public)

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My kids have always wanted to take part in the things I do. From toddlerhood they wanted to help crack the eggs, apply their own sunscreen, and climb into the narrow space between my body and my cello whenever I took it out to play. “Me too, Mommy,” they have said, “I want to do it also.”

Each of them has also wanted me to paint their toenails. Every time I pull out my selection of miniature rainbowed pots, my kids huddle around to watch. From time to time, I paint my daughter’s nails, but my eldest son was fairly young when my husband asked if we could please not paint the boys’ nails. Even in culturally-masculine blue tones. My then-one-year-old had just poured half the bottle of blue paint all over our bed, which made it all the easier to agree.

So, the first reason I don’t paint my boys’ toes is out of respect for their Dad.

But there’s another reason, which has become increasingly significant as the years have gone by. That second reason is this: we don’t want the unhelpful and unhealthy constant commentary that comes with things like having boys wearing nail polish or other such “counter-stereotyped” choices.

This became incredibly clear to me two years ago, one spring morning when my youngest son and I went out to run errands. In the way of many younger-brothers-of-older-girls, our son spent a lot of time being “dressed up” by his older sister. At home, under the creative direction of his Adored Older Sister, he wore fairy wings, princess dresses, feathered boas and sparkly crowns… and loved it. (And yes, we are okay with that. Just like we are okay with our daughter dressing up as a pirate and a ninja and a bear. And with all our kids playing with LEGO. And with all our kids playing Avengers. Or enacting Frozen. Or wielding swords. I am ALL FOR kids playing with whatever toys they like according to their interest, not their gender.)

On that particular morning our youngest was wearing a princess dress and loving it. It was a Cinderella dress: “a BLUE dress, Mommy, just like my eyes!” he pointed out. Since we generally don’t leave the house in costume on Days-That-Are-Not-Halloween, I asked him to take it off before we went out, but he was having none of it… so my blue-bell prince and I hit the town to run our errands. Friends, this is no exaggeration: I have never had so much attention from people IN MY LIFE as the day I took a boy out wearing a dress. Every single adult we passed that morning—from the fellow Christian parents are pre-school drop-off, to the complete strangers in our very liberal city—commented on his dress. Not one of them said something mean, but everyone said SOMETHING: each one of them variations of “oh, look at your dress!” and “today is a fun day for dress up!”

Each of the comments was benign and banal, but by the twentieth, and thirtieth and fortieth comment, the message to my son was loud and clear: LOOK HOW MUCH ATTENTION YOU WILL GET IF YOU DRESS DIFFERENTLY! EVERYONE WILL SEE YOU. EVERYONE WILL NOTICE! And on that day, I realized that I wouldn’t let my sons go out in “girl” dress-up again: not because I’m afraid of them being shamed or confused about being boys… but because I couldn’t help feeling that there was damage being done by how much attention was focused on something that should have just been child’s play.

I know that there is such a thing as gender dysphoria, and my heart goes out to boys and girls struggling with their sense of sexual identity. I don’t have neat answers for how to parent in those situations. But this I do know: for a kid who might be craving adult attention and affirmation, one sure way to get it is to dress “opposite” at a young age.

I believe that what adults say, and focus on, in talking with children does much to script the way kids view themselves when they are older. I want my daughter to know that her body is more than beautiful: it’s strong, and useful, and hers – and so I work hard to focus my words in that direction. And I want my boys to feel free to show interest in all sorts of things – in sports and LEGO and science and in dress-up – without every single passer-by commenting (and thus reinforcing) the message that dressing-like-a-girl (or painting your nails) is the Most Important Thing To Say About You.

And so, we keep our boys’ nails color-free, and we keep the princess dresses at home. Because I want the people we meet to talk about school, and play, and books, and the smile on their faces… and not what they wear. There are more important things to say to kids than “look at what you’re wearing!” Let’s say those things instead.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment!

Photo credit: Museum of Childhood, London – Lenci Boy and Girl/Suzanne Gerber (Flickr Creative Commons)

Help: Am I Married Or Not?

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Dear Bronwyn,

I have been reading about marriage, sex, vows and covenants in the Bible, and my question is: am I married or not? I can’t find what defines a “biblical marriage”: Genesis says a man should leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife. I am living with my girlfriend (but my registered address is with my parents), and “cleave” seems to mean glued. Does that mean if we live together and have sex we are married?

I also read a lot about vows and covenants: I am committed to her and don’t want to fully have sex unless we are married. She wants to have sex and says “we are married”, but then when I ask her about getting a marriage license she says no. If I have promised to stay with her, is that a vow? And what does it take to make a covenant? Is that what the blood is about when women lose their virginity?

Please help: I am worried about losing my salvation over this,

Confused About the State of the Union 

 

Dear CASOTU,

There are different schools of thought on when God would consider you to be married:

  1. God views you as married if the government you live under views you as married.
  2. God views you as married if you have been through some kind of formal, societally-recognized marriage ceremony.
  3. God views you as married if you have had sex with a person.

I believe that #2 is what counts: you have been through some formal, public exchange of views, declaring your new commitment to one another as one another’s primary family. However, ideally, all three would met: you’d get legally married (in your case, get a license), your community would publicly know about it and BOTH you and your girlfriend would be intentional about the promises you are making each other and what they mean, and that marriage would then be consummated by sex.

(However, there are circumstances where perhaps #1 is not possible: for example, in South Africa under Apartheid laws the government regulated who could and could not marry. There were, however, such things as “african customary marriages” where the local chief could marry a couple. The government didn’t recognize those, but I believe God did. Also, I know of people who, for various reasons, are unable to consummate their marriage and so don’t meet requirement #3: I don’t believe—and nor do they!—this makes them any less married.)

From God’s perspective, I believe marriage (however your culture acknowledges it) makes you a family (I’ve written about this before as this being the crucial difference between “living together” or co-habiting, and being married) . You and your girl friend have not made any private or public commitment to be one another’s family. And sex doesn’t make it so. I think the Genesis statement about “leaving one’s family and being joined to their wife” is not a one time thing like going out on a date and having sex. I think it represents a far more symbolic act of leaving your parents’ household and establishing a new one, so that in answer to the question, “who is your next of kin? and who should we call in case of emergency?” the answer is no longer, “my parents”, but “my wife”.

A covenant is a formal kind of contract, binding two parties together. All contracts involve people agreeing about something or making promises/vows to one another, but covenants seem to be a special type of contract: indicating a high personal commitment to one another, usually regarded as being unbreakable (whereas a rental contract might expire naturally after a year). To establish a valid covenant, you would need a few things: two parties, both willingly in agreement as to the terms of this new relationship, there would be vows made as each party commits themselves to the covenant, and sometimes the swearing of oaths. In ancient lands, the oaths involved calling down curses on yourself if you were to break the covenant. I think that’s what the blood represents in ancient covenants: as in a “I’d rather die than break this covenant” promise, or a “if I break this promise I’m deserving of death” idea: in both cases, death is represented by spilled blood.

In God’s covenants with people, the spilled blood also represents forgiveness of sins (death, represented by blood, is paid for by a substitute. And unless there a way to deal with sin, we couldn’t be in a relationship with a holy God… so the blood of sacrifices in Israel, and now Jesus’ blood, symbolize the covenant of grace with God: our forgiveness and relationship made possible through sacrificial death (for example: see Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:20, Hebrews 9:11-15 )

I have always thought that the ancient marriage practices saw virginal blood as being a “sign” of the marriage covenant, but I don’t know that our modern understanding of covenants acknowledge or require blood in the same way. Certainly, even in my personal faith, I participate in the “blood of the new covenant” symbolically by taking communion. More than once I’ve read through Exodus and Leviticus and just been so ridiculously grateful that we no longer live in an era where a high priest splashes bulls’ blood over our foreheads.

So what are our covenant symbols these days? In faith, we take communion and participate in baptism. When it comes to marriage, it seems to me that public vows and the exchange of rings at a ceremony are often outward symbols of that internal commitment. Since you and your girlfriend haven’t (and by the sounds of it, don’t want to) do that, you are not married.

One final thought: your question got me thinking about how it is we can say that “God joins people together” in marriage (as Jesus said), and yet still believe that marriage is primarily a social institution rather than a religious and sacramental one. Because it is true: the job of marrying people in ancient Israel wasn’t a priestly task, nor was it something we see Jesus, his disciples, or any of the ministers in the early church doing. Jesus attended weddings, but they weren’t “religious business”. I think this gives us a solid ground for saying that we take our cues for what constitutes a marriage from the social norms around us. Maybe that involved the men in the family exchanging sandals at the city gate (as it did in the book of Ruth), or in customary Zulu culture, marriage requires families to agree on a bride price, followed by a ceremony and celebratory feast. For us, we needed someone with a marriage license to officiate over our vows (they could be ordained in a church or a public official… but the law said it had to happen “under a roof”… so there was a local custom we had to observe to make it legal.)

However, saying that marriage is a societal institution doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in and through our cultural norms to join people together. Maybe a helpful parallel is considering that God doesn’t tell us what kind of government we should have: He doesn’t prescribe communism or monarchy or democracy, but he DOES say that all authority is given by God, that all rulers are ultimately accountable to him, and that we all should submit to the authorities we live under (unless they are requiring us to disobey God). I find that a helpful parallel: God doesn’t say “you must have a marriage license”, but he does say sex belongs in marriage… and so depending on when and where you live, the definition of “marriage” is probably fairly clear. In your case, you’d need a marriage license. And your parents would probably need to know. And—this one is critical—both you and your girlfriend would need to be intentionally, willingly, life-long committing to each other.

May God give you grace as you work this out. You are not married, and my heart goes out to you because it sounds like you are trying so hard to figure out how to handle the sexual aspect of your relationship as best you can. We all struggle with our sexuality at one point or another, and I do believe God knows our hearts and he is our Father who has GREAT compassion and wants the best for us. I don’t believe you will lose our salvation over this: God’s invitation to you is to COME to him, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.  If you keep asking him for wisdom on what to do in this situation, James 1:1-5 promises that he will give it to you.

All the best,

Bronwyn

What being a Special Needs Parent teaches me about #BlackLivesMatter

all lives matter. and all kids are special.  and what that means is sometimes we need to pay special attention.

all lives matter. and all kids are special.
and what that means is sometimes we need to pay special attention.

I have three children. They are all special. They each have needs. But I have one child who, according to Official Assessments, classifies as being a kid with “Special Needs”. I am amazed and so very grateful for the slew of resources and assistance that we receive for this kiddo. Both at home and in school, we have helpers and people-with-masters-degrees-and-clipboards, paying special attention to give extra support where it might be needed.

The goal of this all is not to give this child special treatment for the sake of special treatment. The goal of the special treatment is, actually, to smooth the way for all the kids in our family, and all the kids in our class, to be able to relate as healthily and equally as possible. There is an inequality of input (one kid gets extra support) to try and move our little home-and-school community towards equality of output: extra support for one so that the parents and teachers can try to give equal attention and time to all.

I mention this because I sometimes struggle with the label “special needs”, since it seems that by implication it might be suggesting that children without this label are neither special nor have needs. This is obviously not the case. To say I have a child with special needs doesn’t mean my other children—or any other children, for that matter—are any less special or have less important needs. To say I have a child with special needs is merely to identify that we need to pay attention differently to that kid because, without intentional acts of listening, observing, and intervening, they would flounder in the system, and both they and their classmates would suffer as a result.

I’ve been wondering whether the same should not be said about the #BlackLivesMatter conversation. To say that black lives matter is not to say that other lives do not. All lives matter, a truth deeply vested in our being made in the image of God and each person being uniquely imbued with dignity and strength. To say that black lives matter is to identify that we need to pay attention differently because, without intentional acts of listening, observing, and intervening, they flounder in a system which privileges whites, and both people of color and the world at large suffer as a result. 

Of course, there will be an angry reader who will write and accuse me of equating blackness with disability…. so before you send me that hate mail, let me say this clearly: that’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is this: those of us privileged enough to not have to think about privilege (be it because of our whiteness, or being physically or mentally “typical” in the school system), may not appreciate how the system might work against you if you weren’t white, or weren’t able-bodied or neutrotypical.

And so to go the extra mile for “Special needs” kids doesn’t mean other kids aren’t special – it means they need special support so they can flourish alongside other kids, because all kids are special. And to say “black lives matter” doesn’t mean that all lives don’t matter, or that black lives matter more – it means we need to affirm something that has been lacking in people’s awareness and actions, to be active listeners and responders where we hear others’ stories – so that we all can flourish alongside one another, because all people matter.