There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Thursday, 28 February 2013

When I cannot say Enough (FemFest Day 3)

Welcome to Day 3 of the Feminisms Fest synchroblog on the topic “What You Learned.” Link up on,, considering these questions: What surprised you this week? What did you take away from the discussion? What blog posts did you find particularly helpful? What questions do you still have?

 I haven't had the time yet to read through all the posts for FemFest, but I'll encourage everyone interested in a Christian conversation to check them out. (And even for those just wanting a definition, here's a great one.) So I'm not focusing in this post on new facts I've learned, but on an ever more important discovery. Often I've felt driven to a far country by Christian naivete and even opposition to the causes of "the least of these" - especially feminism - that I believe make the heart of Jesus bleed. I've sometimes thought I'd eventually leave the church because I couldn't find passionate Christians who understood the issues. But FemFest has gathered not a few, but scores of people whose Christianity suffuses all things, and who credit it with making them feminists. I've found complex understandings of the evils of patriarchy and rape culture - no "Christianized" excuses offered. From the East and the West (from all the binaries of sex, race, culture, theology) they've come and sat down to this conversation. This conversation is titled Feminism, but it's also about equality and justice for men, racial minorities, gender non-conformists, and all those that are bruised. At this table I've found my people.

And yet. Yet there are questions.

If God is so powerful and just, why did He have to work with the oppressive norms in times past?

Where should the line be drawn on (mutually-chosen) control and dominance in consensual sexual relationships? Does the desire in a woman make it a valid form of expression, or is it the biological and cultural response to centuries of rape culture?

I've come to strongly believe that the typical fundamentalist Christian emphasis on modesty feeds a bastardized "Christian" rape culture and also alienates women from their bodies. But after we've brought up our boys to take responsibility for their own lust and to understand the evil of objectification... after we've taught our girls that sexual abuse is NEVER their fault because of what they wore... after we've taught both sexes that their bodies are glorifying to God, not shameful... after we've taught them that modesty begins in the soul, not the body.... after all that, is there a place or time for a few well chosen words on dress as a Christian witness? I know if there is, there will be a constant need to gaurd against the legalism we see so much today.

Am I less of a feminist because I'll never participate in a SlutWalk topless, even though I want to shout in the streets the danger of automatic equasion of breasts with sexuality?

These are a few of my questions, but I'm committed to the sitting at this table, under this tent, having this conversation, each day.

Yes, my complementarian Christian background effects my thoughts about feminism. Yet, ultimately, my feuding feminism and Christianity are actually married; they are one. Theirs is the story of my search for justice, greatness, and unconditional love. Theirs is the story of my questions, and of the contradictory answers that can't fully satisfy me. Theirs is the story told by Christina Rossetti in “The Heart Knoweth Its Own Bittnerness” - a story that that finally has a happily ever after...  but not yet.

I return to this poem frequently when I'm troubled by the unanswered questions, the incomplete journeys, the unhealed wounds of every life in this world. I return to this poem because it doesn't offer glib answers. It picks at the scabs over the infection and makes the blood flow. And the only solution it offers is someday. I can accept that solution because it hurts so much that it must be real.

How can we say "enough" on earth--
"Enough" with such a craving heart?
I have not found it since my birth,
But still have bartered part for part.
I have not held and hugged the whole,
But paid the old to gain the new:
Much have I paid, yet much is due,
Till I am beggared sense and soul. 

* * *           ***

 Not in this world of hope deferred,
This world of perishable stuff:--
Eye hath not seen nor ear hath heard
Nor heart conceived that full "enough":
Here moans the separating sea,
Here harvests fail, here breaks the heart:
There God shall join and no man part,
I full of Christ and Christ of me.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Embracing the Labels (FemFest Day 2)

 Welcome to Day 2 of the Feminisms Fest synchroblog on the topic “Why Feminism Matters.” Link up below on my blog,, considering these questions: What is at stake in this discussion? Why is feminism important to you? Are you thinking about your children or your sisters or the people that have come before you? Or, why do you not like the term? What are you concerned we’re not focusing on or we’re losing sight of when we talk about feminism? Why do you feel passionately about this topic?

Labels are scary. When I'm blogging on tumblr, where many of my followers seem to be feminists, I have been reluctant to talk much about Christianity. I worry they might equate my Christianity with a certain set of politics and decide I'm not the right kind of feminist.

I have a tag on this blog that I've used a couple times: "feminism - maybe". In my "real" off-line life I have sometimes been reluctant to call myself a feminist because many people I know equate feminism with a "secular agenda."

There are more substantial problems with both labels too. No, I don't agree with everything ever advocated in the name of feminism. I can sympathize with those who find the feminist label problematic because they feel the movement has not embraced them as women of color, trans-women, etc. Yes, I'm concerned about racism, poverty, sexual abuse, and rape of both sexes (and all genders). Sometimes I think I should just go with the label humanist.

And yet I'm afraid not to identify as feminist.

 I'm afraid because misogyny, patriarchy and rape culture are insidiously hidden in the way many people speak.
I'm afraid because this isn't just a woman's issue; patriarchy and rape culture hurt men too, so feminism is humanism.

I'm afraid because in a culture of pervading marginalization, if I don't speak my convictions loud and proud, my silence may be seen as endorsing the norms.

As I've said in my previous post, if there's one thing my feminism challenges, it's my Christian faith. Sometimes my faith challenges my feminism. However, I'm also afraid not to declare myself a Christian feminist. 

I'm a Christian feminist because I've sat through sermons where it was declared that if a woman's ankles are showing she is naked.

I'm a Christian feminist because a man whose religion seems to be about preventing the spread of women's ordination has sat in my parents' house and said, "You lie," to his wife. He publicly spoke those hurtful words merely because she disagreed with him on what time she'd been ready for church that morning. 

I'm a Christian feminist because when a prominent youth leader in my denomination raped a young woman, some people considered her the devil's instrument to bring "a man of God" down.

I'm a Christian feminist because I think more women in leadership would mean that situations like the one above would be handled with more compassion and understanding for the survivor, less commiseration for the member of the boy's club.

Yet, somehow, in all this "I'm afraid", my feminism is about seeking perfect love that casts out fear. (1 John 4: 18)

Feminism is about casting out the fear every woman feels walking alone at night. Who are we kidding? It's a fear every woman feels walking alone. Period.

Feminism is about casting out the fear every rape survivor feels in telling her story, because she knows "What were you wearing?" and "Have you had sex with him before?" will be asked.

Feminism is about ending the fear every woman has that an unplanned child will shut her door to education or hang a scarlet letter around her neck. 

Feminism is about casting out the fear of hearing expressions of surprise, disapproval or hatred directed at women in more typically male-dominated careers, disciplines or activities.

Feminism is about how I just reworded the above sentence from "masculine careers" to "male-dominated", because we start telling girls and boys how their minds should work so early in life.

Feminism is about making these fears obsolete because women are treated as full humans.

In closing, let me return to the question of labels. I choose to consider myself a Christian, despite having dozens of questions and being appalled by countless "Christians" who have besmirched the name. I embrace the label because it connects me with a community of people across time, continents, race, and gender, who have loved the same Person. The name connects us in our questions; even if they aren't answerable now, we're committed to seeking answers, seeking love.

The same is true for me as a feminist. Yes, I still have unanswered questions about feminism, some of which I'll talk about in tomorrow's post. However, embracing the label grafts me to the movement, the passion, the search, the conversations. I am invested in this ideal and in its everyday, gritty practicalities. Like my faith, feminism gives me hope while I bleed for a suffering world. Yes, some days it makes me afraid. Ultimately, though, it gives me a vision of love casting out the fear and torment faced by women around the world.

What about you? What gives you vision and hope? What labels do you embrace or reject?

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Feminism and Me

I've long considered writing a post on this subject, because it explains so much of who I am. Lately, spending more time in the Christian blogosphere than the literary one, I came across the opportunity to engage in the subject with other Christians. Enter FeminismsFest - an effort to get people (especially Christians, I gather) discussing what feminism means to them. And while my posts for FeminismsFest don't keep this strictly a book blog, yet, as with so much of my life, books and words gave birth to this part of me too. It's a long and complicated story, bear with me. I've tried to provide some structure by weaving the suggested questions into my story.

  What is your experience with feminism?

Growing up in a conservative Seventh-day Adventist Christian home, I didn't hear a lot about "feminism". (I certainly can't remember when I first encountered the idea or in what light.) My mom was a stay-at-home mom; my dad made the living. Girls were supposed to be ladylike; gender differences were marked. (Of course, I wasn't always ladylike - screaming out the window of the car and being rebuked, playing "the girls chase the boys" while my parents attended spiritual seminars.) Reserve and modesty, I was taught, surrounded a girl with a wall of protection. It wasn't stated, but it was implied, that bad girls brought bad things on themselves.

Yet I also read books about strong women and girls, like Florence Nightingale or Laura Ingalls Wilder. I remember reading about and admiring Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  In fiction I met Jo March and Anne Shirley, girls overflowing with ambition and autonomy.

Around age 13, under the influence of a uber-conservative 19 year-old friend, I eschewed pants in favor of long skirts and dresses. For a little while modesty was my hobbyhorse, and I was drifting in the direction of Christian patriarchy.

Continuing my story with the second question: What’s a story or a memory or a person that you associate with that word?

Though I didn't realize it then, the pivotal moment came at age 14 when I first listened to an unabridged audiobook of Jane Eyre. I was obsessed. I sat on the hardwood of my bedroom floor crying over the beauty of Rochester's words, "My bride is here, because my equal is here, and my likeness."

I don't mean that those words made me a feminist, though they resounded deep in my heart. Rather, it was my new obsession with the story that led me to pick up The Madwoman in the Attic. That book didn't make me a feminist either, but it gave me a new perspective and a new language on patriarchy and women's struggles with oppression through the ages. I had found the unifying story in the classic novels I was reading: the women's story.

 My "wordlly" interest in literature and film led me to become a fan of actress Emma Thompson. In her interviews, she talked about feminism a lot. Her work with the Helen Bamber Foundation opened my eyes to the horror of human trafficking. Her letter to herself at age 16 helped me, at that same age, to stop worrying about how others saw my body.

 Why does it have negative or positive connotations for you?

I was coming to accept the label "feminist" for myself, but my Christian culture still repelled it. A strong "mother in Israel" - a matriarch who wasn't afraid to rebuke men - once cautioned her granddaughter and me with the words, "You don't want to be women's libbers."

Why not? I asked myself. Didn't Jesus come to proclaim "liberty to the captives... [and] them that are bound"? (Isaiah 61:1)

The culture I was raised in would probably be described as complementarian, although the "as unto the Lord" clause of Ephesians 5 was emphasized. Beyond the proof texts offered by complementarians, historic Adventism's problem with the women's movement encompassed the free-love-advocating spiritualists, like Victoria Woodhull, who were prominent in the suffrage movement. 

Usually I don't find the above issue especially problematic. I believe I can consider myself a part of the women's movement without supporting everything done in its name, just as I don't support so much done in the name of Christianity. Yet some days it worries me a little and I want to distance myself from much of feminism, just as I want to distance myself from much of Christianity.

Frequently disturbing for me have been texts like Ephesians 5: 22-24. Sometimes I've been sure that I can't submit to a mortal man so fully, so will have to be perpetually single to maintain my Christian obedience. Lately, I've come to understand verse 22-24 as subordinate to verse 21.

Most days I'm pretty firmly on the side of women's ordination, although mentioning Korah, Dathan and Abiram may bring niggling doubts about questioning God's choices.

I still don't know how to deal with the Old Testament's patriarchal pronouncements on rape, virginity, and impurity. I admit that there's sometimes a conflict between the Old Testament and the feminist sensibilities I've developed. And then I remember that the all scripture testifies of Jesus - He who makes all one in Him. (Galatians 3:28) And, yes, I'm still confused. Some days I'm stronger in my feminist beliefs, some days in my Christian ones. I confess that I question and reexamine the bases for both.

How do you define the term, either academically or personally? What writers have you read whose definitions you want to bring out?

I can't think of a quick definition off the top of my head, other than one that has been attributed to various sources. I believe I first read in Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists: "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people."

My feminism has come a long way from my tentative first steps opening feminist literary criticism. I now understand the way "modesty" and "purity culture" contribute to ubiquitous rape culture. (More on that in another post.) I identify with many feminists as (generally) politically liberal. I recognize the intersectionality between gender, race, and feminism. I don't like abortion, but I get really angry about the way it's opposed by many Christians, Republicans and (let's face it) rich, white dudes.

I haven't actually read a lot of feminist books. More of my influences (especially in the last few months) have been from feminist bloggers, like thefemcritique on tumblr, and HerbsandHangs (especially dealing with rape and rape culture). Love, Joy, Feminism was especially interesting when I was reading, in fascinated horror, about the purity movement last year. I don't agree with everything on these blogs, but I think they give a good sample of secular feminist thought. I also have quite a bit of stuff on feminism on my own Tumblr blog.

Well, I must hie me to bed. I've only scratched the surface of my own relationship with feminism, but there's two more days to try to dig a little deeper. My hope is that, disjointed and shallow as these posts may be, they will help someone understand feminism a little better.

The only question left to be settled now is: Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. Being persons, then, women are citizens; and no state has a right to make any law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities.
-- Susan B. Anthony

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Weekend Quote (2): At Home in the Metaphor

What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere . Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. ...

It is a very living thing. It is as life itself.

 -- Robert Frost, "Education by Poetry"

I came across this quote a few weeks ago while reading a discussion on the historic Adventist suspicion of fiction. It was mentioned because sometimes Christians reject metaphors that seem foreign to us. Fairytales, stories with “magic”, “false theology”, or "rebelliousness" (such as that early reviewers saw in Jane Eyre). This Christian problem with the metaphor is ironic, of course, since the Bible is replete with metaphors. Indeed, those Adventists who condemn all fiction forget that in the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus tells a parable that doesn't get the state of the dead right. I think it's also arguable that it's this lack of being at home in the metaphor that causes Christians to misinterpret the Bible in hateful or even violent ways. Truly, it's not “safe” to be unfamiliar with the metaphor, for you will encounter it everywhere.

I've also recently read George Orwell's essay “Politics and the English Language”. This essay is a Must Read, not only for writers, but also for all who listen to rhetoric - whether from the pulpit or the presidential desk. In it Orwell speaks of how pretentious, unclear speech is so frequently used because it is easier. “By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.” Jargon, Orwell implies, is used to mask underlying deceptions; fresh, concrete metaphors reveal truth. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” Such mind-numbing phrases can “only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them.” We must learn to “choose – not merely accept – the phrases that will best cover the meaning.”

That's what I want to do every day with a new project I've started: writing something every day. I want to feel it's okay to raid the cupboards of Metaphor whenever I feel hungry for words. I want to flop down on a bed of metaphor at night, knowing I'll get up to a substantial breakfast of metaphor in the Bible and the classics. I want to know that later in the day I'll knead, stir, scrub, and send-to-compost a few metaphors of my own.

Beautiful writing, Orwell implies, is concise. Truth does not need to hide. It can come out in all its nakedness, without the shroud of complex idioms and jargon, and therefore concise, beautiful writing is truthful. I've seen this lately in the blogs I've been reading by young Christians exploring their faith, examining the good and the bad in (evangelical) Christian culture. Addie Zeirman, for example, scrapes at the surface jargon of Evangelicalism to restore the beauty of Christianity as it was first painted by one who was the Word Made Flesh, full of grace and truth... and beauty.

This is why I'm going to make an effort each day to become more at home in the metaphor, through reading, writing, and thinking. I know it won't be easy. (Orwell says so.) Already, in planning this post, I've thought of so many more clear thoughts and more creative metaphors. Most of those have disappeared like bubbles, the only traces remaining are little scabs of white, without the translucent shine of the originals. Maybe next year I'll find myself writing something similar, and then it will be a little more self-aware and a little more free from jargon.

This writing project is a journey, toiling on an upward ascent in search of beauty. But loneliness and hard work, after all, are how we come to feel “at home” in a place. My family has moved many times. The first night is always a strange combination of excitement and homesickness for where I was last “at home”. The first time I'm alone in the new home, I may become strangely melancholy. But before I know it, that's the place I'm longing to be when I'm afraid, lonely, or stressed. Because there's no place like home.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Weekend Quote #1

Many months ago now I signed up for the Weekend Quote meme hosted at the Half-Filled Attic blog. I can't promise to post every weekend, but hopefully it will make my updates more frequent. I certainly have more than enough quotes/passages I'd love to discuss.

This week's quote is from Pride and Prejudice, volume II, chapter 12. In many ways I consider the following chapter (13, or 36, depending on the edition) the heart of the novel. In Emma and Northanger Abbey the heroine's moment of self-knowledge comes at nearly the end of the novel, precipitating the romantic denouement. But Lizzy's revelation ("Till this moment I never knew myself") comes almost at the dead center of the novel.

But what I want to focus on here is how Darcy ends his letter:

"This, madam, is a faithful narrative of every event in which we have been concerned together; and if you do not absolutely reject it as false, you will, I hope, acquit me henceforth of cruelty towards Mr. Wickham. I know not in what manner, under what form of falsehood he had imposed on you; but his success is not perhaps to be wondered at. Ignorant as you previously were of everything concerning either, detection could not be in your power, and suspicion certainly not in your inclination.
"You may possibly wonder why all this was not told you last night; but I was not then master enough of myself to know what could or ought to be revealed. For the truth of everything here related, I can appeal more particularly to the testimony of Colonel Fitzwilliam, who, from our near relationship and constant intimacy, and, still more, as one of the executors of my father's will, has been unavoidably acquainted with every particular of these transactions. If your abhorrence of ME should make MY assertions valueless, you cannot be prevented by the same cause from confiding in my cousin; and that there may be the possibility of consulting him, I shall endeavour to find some opportunity of putting this letter in your hands in the course of the morning. I will only add, God bless you.

Darcy's letter starts quite resentfully. His main goal is to clear his character; his former sentiments toward her "cannot be too soon forgotten". But by the end of the letter, he once again demonstrates respect for her, removing any blame from her easy acceptance of Wickham's story. There's a slight thread of resentment in the emphasized me and my, but again there's that tenderness in the "God bless you".

It seems to me that, although he may not realize it himself, writing this letter renews Darcy's love. Reading the letter is Elizabeth's gateway to self-knowledge, writing it is Darcy's.

(Well, that's not much, but I had to start this meme with something.)