Christian Sexuality, Purity and … Porn.

In the 1966 anthropological masterpiece Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas examines the role of “dirt” in various cultures. A Western housewife vacuuming the floor finds a cockroach and screams loudly. She runs for a chemical spray to rid the household of this danger.

However, this fear is irrational, science says, because the insect grooms constantly and transmits no disease, as compared to a mosquito. The danger is to her self-perception that her house is “clean”. Compare this with an African family happily crouching in the dust. Western culture designates one family “civilized” and the other “primitive”.

Nowadays we simply don’t think in these kinds of binaries. Or at least, I hope not. But, Douglas proclaims, “dirt offends against order”. Interestingly, this is its creative power. Because, at its most basic, dirt is soil, a generative life force. It is dangerous. And in a chaotic world, we need to believe we can control such power, because we are unable to cope with endless change.

Just as we separate gardens from living rooms so nothing unexpectedly breaks into our lives, we separate from those who are given to “disorder”. We move away from a homeless man on the subway, because he is “dirty”; erratic and unpredictable. So “dirt” is best in boundaries.

Of course, an object can move from “dirty” to “clean”. It requires a ritual to purge it. And so corporations conveniently assure us, their product guarantees it.

But removing “dirt” from people is harder…  in many cultures, this is a religious problem.

Such is a matter for the shaman, priest or medicine man – to diagnose it as demons or gremlins, imps, or Lucifer himself. In rural Nigerian Pentecostalism the “problem” is, no word of a lie, zombies.

That’s not to suggest religion is fake. Douglas failed to do more than consider its structures. But the words we place around existential problems and the ways we experience real phenomena, depend on our religious frame.

Strangely enough, in evangelical Christianity, the demarcation is seen clearly in sexuality. The raw generative power of sex is kept in strict lines. We practice enjoyment of an “other” completely unlike us, in heterosexual, monogamous marriage.

But we have a serious problem. Sex is so powerful for us culturally, that it breaks over the lines. And in our frame, these encounters cannot always be undone. We have no way to cleanse our soul in times when the lines blur.

Christians dare not believe our own message, that the cross was the once-for-all ritual, that purifies us, again.

It is not enough, because we believe uncontrolled sex is a very “dirty” sin.

It was not always seen this way. Christianity developed in the Greco-Roman world. Each local area had strict rules for sexuality in the household. But, the Roman Patriarch had ultimate and absolute power via “the rule of the fathers” over his wives, children, nieces and nephews, slaves, and freedmen. This was right of life and death. The Patriarch was sexually active, but all else were passive. They were able to receive his advances only.

Sex never occurred between two Patriarchs, as it would reduce the status of one and diminish his power. But a Patriarch could, in addition to a wife, take a boy whose beard had not yet grown, for pleasure. Senators realized this relationship was asymmetrical in power, and economic benefits should accrue to the boy. But as well, a Patriarch must court the child to prove “the boy was not to submit too easily. If pursued by more than one man, was to show discretion and pick the more noble”. In contrast, marriage was a commercial and political transaction. She managed the household. He was its public face. So he reclined with books and wine and, sometimes, an adolescent boy.

Christianity completely overturned this cultural context.

Or, at least the Bible did. Paul’s ideal of non-coercive, egalitarian sexuality was a beautiful construction of hope; and the church tried and failed occasionally, and tried again. But they were building something worth it. Each time they had sex counter-culturally, it was their liberation.

Recently, Tim wrote up a reflection of a day in California I could never forget.

In my second year of study  he took a role as a youth pastor. We lived in an apartment behind a sweet Californian craftsman home, and my lemon-coloured tiled kitchen with walnut floorboards looked out upon our neighbour’s garden, where Hummingbirds buzzed their glorious wings beating like hearts, and Mariachi or Gwen Stefani occasionally blared unexpectedly out of the laneway.

One of the-most-incredible-things-ever was Netflix, which hadn’t yet arrived in Australia. And so one Saturday afternoon in a state of procrastination I clicked my way to a documentary about porn.


It turned out, the porn industry was not run in some warehouse back-block in Detroit. It was based out of houses in Orange County. This video showed how beautiful girls came from all over the world to become stars. They were not practicing star-jumps in the mirror, as Marilyn Munroe had done in Hollywood decades before. They came with a sense of pride that they could perform sex on cue. They had studied at length, and they knew the right time to arch their back. The right moment to smile at the camera.

The tears began to fall down from my face and crash on the table, and wouldn’t stop. I was watching eighteen year olds interview after their first job. Counting money. Deciding to get boob jobs. Choosing stage names.

And who were their fans? Many of them were evangelical men.

Not exclusively of course. But this was happening in the state’s Bible belt. The girls were performing sex for fathers and business leaders. College jocks and geeks brought together in common consumption of the naked female form.

The documentary followed these products and narratives into the third world’s red light districts, where they showed power differentials of Western currency. I watched women prepare for a big weekend, curling their hair one last time hoping to seem seductive enough, like a game. The camera zoomed in on their hopeful faces, as “Johns” viewed them through one-way glass. I watched them smile as their friends were selected, and gasp as rivals’ numbers were called. As the room emptied, those who were not selected sank back into the carpet steps, and into realization of hunger for yet another week.

The film stopped and it was night. I hadn’t realized, but darkness had crept up, in more ways than one. It was not “out there” somewhere anymore.

And yet, I could still feel the lingering traces of the warm breath of God.

So I prayed.

I had no words to give, so sitting in the dark, I willed afternoon sunshine and orange blossoms into every house in the neighbourhood, and for men that kept deep secrets. And then I let their projected images of perfectly happy families break. And I mourned the death in horror.

But in this moment, something generative happened. I can’t explain it, exactly. Out of the dirtiness, something started to grow.

The next morning, I could still feel that rupture, and I was scared. Not scared that I would meet people who used porn, that was given. I wasn’t scared of  one YouTube clip, or image.

I was scared at this collective, globalizing power of secret acts. I suspected that, over the years, we had created new Patriarchs, who brokered deals for gain and required bodies on demand through their phones, and sometimes, in real life.

I was scared that we, the Christian church, had forgotten. We had desire to control one another in secret. We needed these images and videos like anyone else. We vilified them from the pulpit. We rescued people from them. But we provided no real alternative. And I was petrified to see evidence of scars – of power and abuse and of control and lying and manipulation – all the things that lay on our collective soul.

I was scared we lied to ourselves about sexuality, because we knew its generative power. We had let sex become a “dirty” act.

I thought California was perfect – it wasn’t. Nowhere is. This is global.

And so, I wanted to explain to my husband, and best friend. It came out in jerky sentences, and jagged words. He stared at me with wide eyes, pulled into the Starbucks drive through, ordered me a non-fat latte, patted me on the leg and said “Tanya, try not to talk to anyone today in the foyer”.

Thankfully, it was a service the same as any other. The words of the songs screened and people still sang and clapped along to the band. The announcements came, and the sermon was simple and strong. No-one displayed rampant or repressed libidinal power. I saw no female bodies shivering as a shadow crossed them. I was relieved.

I slunk out in the closing notes of the final song, and went to the youth hall. I thought they would be playing games and I could hug our amazing leaders.

But I found a scene unlike any other.

The guest preacher had spoken on sex. And instead of doing an altar call for those who wanted to commit to purity, Tim did an altar call for those who felt they were “dirty”, that God would bring something generative from these feelings.

And he, their youth pastor, announced that with all the power invested him by the Spirit of God and church, they were clean. That the blood of Jesus covered their sins. And his beautiful leaders followed up to ensure that all were safe.

I’d say that, church that day was the closest I’ve ever been to the biblical year of Jubilee. And I will remember that forever.


A Non-Headship Marriage Part II: Four Theologies of Christian Marriage

My previous blogpost was a beginning of open conversation about my “non-headship” or “egalitarian” marriage. Australian Pentecostal Christians don’t often discuss theologies of marriage, they just live them. But there are now serious reasons to speak out. Notice I said THEOLOGIES plural. There are currently at least four Christian (Patriarchal, Complementarianism, Egalitarian, Deconstructionist) views on heterosexual marriage. I outline them here.

This post is long, so feel free to scroll. Truth is, I don’t find it easy to write. It opens me to critique from others who believe differently. Some men are infuriated when I present current research. Heaven forbid I would use my PhD education. Admittedly, I’ve watched other female colleagues in churches and seminaries silenced by all kinds of power techniques.

Perhaps you’re a guy and have no idea what I’m talking about. Dr Jeremiah Gibbes wrote an excellent post on Christian male privilege you can read here if you need to.

There have always been some men who exercise religious authority over women regardless of age, education, or gifting. It’s no secret academia draws sycophants to play “global expert”. Scholarship was the domain of men, and rational argument. Dealing with sexism is just one small, annoying aspect of female scholarly life I address here reposted by The Big Smoke.

But such experiences have become open windows for me to see things better. There are some crucial conversations we must have in our porn-saturated, sex-obsessed world.

I regularly hear from evangelical female colleagues that the greatest threat to women’s voices is no longer men in university upper administration. Instead it is the push back from younger Christian men. This is affecting young Christian women very seriously.

The Junia Project recently published Dr Cheryl Bridges-John’s poignant “Letter to a Young Christian Feminist”. In it, Cheryl explains things from her vantage point as a globally respected Pentecostal theologian. I highly recommend it, here. She states,

Because we believed things would only get better for women, we were not as diligent as we should have been. I think Bill Hybels speaks for all of us when he said, “Somewhere in the middle 90’s I think I said, ‘I don’t have to carry that flag anymore. Because the whole church gets it, we are done with that. We’ve crossed over.’ But in the last ten years, I am embarrassed to say, it’s gone the other way.”

It isn’t just Hybels who is shocked at the turn of events. All of us, women and men alike, never imagined how much “the other way” would be so cleverly nuanced.  My generation could not imagine there would be organizations such as The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. We failed to anticipate The Gospel Coalition, John Piper, and the genteel Tim Keller... Now, a newer generation has taken patriarchy and wrapped it in more palatable language…

Now, I actually like Keller, and much of Piper. But she refers to the very real progression of sexist ideas infiltrating theologies of Christian marriage. You can catch up here, via Dr Shane Clifton.

We need to distinguish between good contributions of these leaders, and hidden ideologies. In the interests of making this discussion clearer, I propose we refer to four theologies of marriage. I will briefly outline their differences.

  1. The “Patriarchal” View

You may not believe it, but a whole section of the Christian church is militantly returning to Patriarchal social structures that limits the role a woman plays in her marriage, and also within the church, outlined brilliantly by Cheryl in her post.

The Patriarch was the authorized male leader of a household, responsible for well-being of all those under his care. All social life revolved around him – financially, politically, and sexually. This role of Patriarch was conferred upon male heirs only. One concern for Christians in the early church (including Paul!) was patriarchy as a controlling force over the rights of women. This did not represent Jesus, the Lord of the church, as shown in his encounter with the woman at the well. Nor was patriarchy upheld in the Spirit-empowered church within Acts 2.

Christianity initially worked directly against the Patriarchs. The church distributed food to widows and orphans which allowed them to exist outside the household unit, and women played a large part in the early church, in defiance of patriarchal arrangements.

For Pentecostals who read the Bible literally, it probably seems natural that a husband would be the ‘head’ of his wife. But many Christians are unaware of ways this theology is now co-opted to reflect sexist views that degrade women.

In a random example, I’ll take Paul Ferguson’s entry in Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Just a neutral dictionary published by, right? So, let’s look up the topic “headship”. In a long entry, among other things, it states “Woman reflects the glory of God in man so that both bear the image of God” citing Gen 1:26-27.  Wait, but let’s read Genesis again:

Gen 1:26-27 – Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness“… So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them

Uh, no. Even if you read “mankind” literally rather than “humankind” (which is silly) there is still no suggestion in this passage that women “reflect the glory of God in man“. This passage is a proclamation that men and women are both created in God’s image.

There are serious problems with sexist, patriarchal readings of the Bible that appear in many parts of the Christian church today.

2. “Headship theology” and “Complementarianism”


Why are we talking about “headship”? … Well, the Hebrew Old Testament uses a word ‘rosh’ or ‘head’ in reference to a Patriarch of a household. The New Testament, however, is written in Greek, in which ‘head’ becomes ‘kephalē’ – the body part, but also sometimes translated as ‘source’.

In the New Testament a new order emerges which defies patriarchal norms. The tricky thing is that Headship theology actually breaks with a patriarchal view on many counts.

What we call Christian “Headship theology” is based essentially around three New Testament passages: 1 Corinthians 11, Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3.

What it moves towards is “Complementarianism”, the idea the sexes are equal but “complementary” (hence the name). This can definitely serve to liberate women, but in many cases it reflects socially appropriate roles that retain patriarchy’s sexism and power. Newer roles are often borrowed, strangely, from the Western nuclear family of the 1950s.


Ironically, Aboriginal Australian Christians often place here too, as Dreaming culture had distinct roles for men and women. And yet, the economic and political functioning of Aboriginal marriage is unlike this American advertising image. Kinship provides an intricate network of responsibility, with care-giving and support for elders and even outsiders. This is probably closer to the Biblical context; perhaps a voice you should amplify, dear complementarian friends!

Anyways, I don’t want to get deep into specifics, but 1 Cor 11 is largely a discussion regarding the Middle Eastern tradition of covering one’s head. The Bible determines that while a woman should cover her head in this context, a man should not. This is reinforced by ideas on head coverings and submission in 1 Peter 3.

At its heart, a Complementarian position simply states that the Bible never directly asks wives to “sacrifice” (Eph 5:25) or husbands to “submit” (Eph 5:22). This is the basis of differentiation of male and female roles in marriage.

Here I want to make an important plea. There are many good Christians who hold to headship theologies of marriage who also practice deep equality. If you are reading this, can I encourage you?! This position needs to be made distinct from a “Patriarchal” one. If you’re arguing FOR the right to retain socially ascribed gender roles, then please do articulate contextualization in a post-modern world. There are one billion women suffering domestic violence globally. So if I can be so blunt, for GOD’S SAKE, stop digging into Biblical translations and begin to make it clear what you mean for Christians today, because your position is being co-opted by Patriarchs. Ahem. Let’s keep going.

3. “Egalitarian” equals “Everyone Submits”.

In contrast, an Egalitarian view also draws upon many other Scriptures to conclude that both partners in a marriage are fundamentally equal, and that that equality does not necessarily need to be inscribed within particular gender roles.

Egalitarianism is based upon mutual submission as stated in Ephesians 5:21Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (KJV).

Thus, equal submission and sacrifice is required by both. But individuals are free to work out arrangements; such as who takes care of children, who does the finances, who cleans the house, and who works outside of the home. Rather than turning to society to decide these roles, it allows freedom to draw upon each partner’s strengths.

I’ll give a personal example. In my Christian denomination, a male pastor is often responsible for vision-casting, to which his wife submits. This is often taken as a ‘norm’.

Clearly my female body didn’t get this memo, because I rate highly as “Futuristic” in Gallup’s Strength Finders 2.0. In contrast, my husband is “Context”, meaning he’s likely to emphasize how we did things last week. He’s also “Activation”, meaning he gets the job done. While Tim decided he was Egalitarian early on, I had a slower journey to that position. I attempted for years to submit to Tim’s vision for our marriage. But I would find myself seeding him the ideas, to which I would then attempt to submit. The theological position of Egalitarianism says there’s nothing inherently un-biblical or wrong about me creating a picture of our future, and him making it happen.

In other words, we don’t have to apply our senior pastors’ examples for our marriage to still be “Christian”. What is Christian about our marriage is demonstrated love for one another, intentional support and our faith commitment.

Dr Mimi Haddad makes a great point about Egalitarians when she says,

“Just as all squares are also rectangles, egalitarians are also feminists in that they seek justice and dignity for women. But, not every feminist is a Christian or an egalitarian. Egalitarians and Christian feminists both share a common denominator—that justice and equality for females is a biblical ideal that can and should be part of the moral teachings and practices of Christians.

As we can see above, fundamentally the word “feminism” simply means promoting equality between men and women. This is the definition we should assume when someone identifies as “feminist” or says they promote “feminist” marriage.

But this is becoming more complex as Gender Studies Departments in universities around the world seek to redefine gender completely. Sometimes, Complementarians characterize Egalitarians as radical progressives, which is just not true. They tend to believe this theological position facilitates a “slippery slope” destruction of gender. The position Complementarians reject is something else entirely, which I will now outline.

4. A Deconstructionist or “Genderless” Marriage (?)

There are various types of feminists. Radical first wavers saw marriage as a symbol of repression that needed to be dismantled. This is not as true for the third wave, who mix marriage and feminism with more ease. Those who are not egalitarian may believe sexuality and gender need serious deconstruction.

Some feminists radically oppose the idea that gender is located in physical distinctions, particularly those related to child bearing. Most don’t.

The truth is, we don’t even have a name for theologies about marriage that carry these ideas. I’m not sure they have hit the broader church yet. I’ve called them “Deconstructionist”.

Contrary to the opinion of many Christians, you don’t have to agree with something to know about it. But many conservative denominations have placed an embargo upon their theologians dialoguing with gender theory (and the liberal side of the church). Without this, there’s a huge lack of resources helping evangelical Christians articulate what we believe about gender, or marriage.

It’s easier to shut conversation down. But our millennials need more from the church than blank denial.

I guess the best we can do for now is to differentiate theologies of marriage that respect gender difference inscribed within human bodies versus those that do not. As I’ve attempted to show, all of the theologies above use more than just the biblical text. And they are all attempting to apply Scripture to real life.

Deconstructionist theologies include some “Feminist” or “Womanist” positions, mixed with voices of Christians who identify as “Queer” or LGBTI, to create a fourth, outlying position that argues gender is entirely irrelevant to Christian marriage. I’ll stop here, as both conservatives and progressives probably want to burn my house down. But it’s no secret I’m conservative on this and most other issues. Let’s be honest with one another, these are the theologies now debated in the public square due to same sex marriage. But the church is fifty years behind in its thinking. Unless Christian leaders want to promote genocide of all LGBTI people (ugghhh!!!), we need to find better ways to talk about this.

In conclusion…

There are points of agreement and disagreement between Christians and the wider feminist movement. Nuance in this debate is incredibly important, as often we argue against a perception of the other side, rather than the reality.

The fact is, no Egalitarian I know is arguing towards genderlessness. An Egalitarian position attempts to recognize the realities of womanhood. It is based in a biological understanding of a woman’s body, particularly the challenges of child bearing, and its impact economically, socially and sexually. It seeks equality between partners.

Given immediate challenges to women from a Patriarchal view of marriage, there may be some Complementarians willing to consider the costs of reviewing their position to stand as partners alongside women in the church. Many more who believe in equality are quiet on their views. If you are thinking of speaking up,  the time is now, my Christian brothers and sisters. The time is most definitely now.

And I hope this has at least helped you to see the breadth of the THEOLOGIES of marriage within the Christian church. And what is at stake, and why we can’t all just get along. If we got better at talking about our diversity, I’m sure we’d be much happier.

A Non-Headship Marriage Part I: A Threefold Cord

I rarely talk about marriage. As far as I’m concerned, mine is sacred, and I don’t keep it out in the public space. I’d fight anyone for it. Of course, Tim would be highly amused if you’d like to test me on that.

In Ecclesiastes 4, there is a passage often related to marriage.

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Hint: it’s largely the “lie down together” bit that makes it so applicable to marriage. But even at its widest usefulness it is kinda limited to guerrilla warfare, sexuality (taking into account Paul’s suggestions for Christian marriage) and of course, getting out of holes. But I’ll assume you don’t fall over and get stuck often.

There are other passages I find less helpful but are far more quoted. These are ones that characterize the relationship between husband and wife hierarchically, called “Headship Theology” (the subject of my next post). As a doctrine, in its best form, it may be highly useful for some contexts. But it is under scrutiny for its links to domestic violence. and this really needs further research. It’s important to know, then, that there are Christian THEOLOGIES of marriage, just as there are Christian theologies of most things.

This Ecclesiastes biblical passage presents a simple metaphor, of a three-fold cord, or a rope. And it’s a fitting one that I have seen so clearly in my own life.


It’s now March, but we’ve already had a shocker of a year, for a number of reasons. The smallest one is that my stupid PhD (aka worst-best-decision-of-my-life) is taking longer than it should for practical and also earth-shatteringly annoying reasons. I’m grumpy. Anyways, despite the challenges and largely because Tim is a lovely person, he’s still here, and we’re still together.

Anything I’ve accomplished or done well in the last ten years is because I have a husband and best friend that has, until this moment, been solid like a rock. This wasn’t my expectation of my future husband or anything. He just displays the characteristics of a large rock. If he refuses to do something, it’s not going to happen… if he wants to, he will. He’s a force of nature.

But, in the last two months has Tim experienced what we’re calling “a personal growth” in his mouth that eventually needed day surgery. Non-cancerous. Phew. Last week, he was hit by a drunk driver while sitting at a stoplight. And his desire to reverse youth homelessness in Sydney’s suburbs has been diminished by what I can only describe as bone-wearying intentional pettiness. I hear only portions of his stories, but they make me crumple up tired.

As any partner will know, the challenges of one often feel compounded for the other. So this has left me feeling altogether more up-ended and un-moored.

We’re both Christians, and so our marriage and faith intertwines, as represented in the “three-strand cord” verses above. Thankfully. Because in the last few months, we have both been raw, and there have been moments where I’ve stopped and thought “I can’t really say much else today, but gee I have a good church and a good God”. It might be a lot easier for me to throw a dice, re-position myself and start again with less responsibility. But I’m married and I want to stay that way. So, community is invaluable to me right now.

It is actually my belief that all successful marriages, whether secular or sacred, interweave with a community — and ours happens to be centered by our regular connection with people of faith, who remind us that God Himself is holding us even when we can’t hold back. I think this is what the Jewish writer of Ecclesiastes meant in this passage.

Similar metaphors are used for community in the bible, including a crucial one, the “perichoresis”, or the Trinitarian relationship (the Trinity is the three persons of God) that is often conceived as a dance. In other words, the Christian God dances as a three-in-one community.

The point of our marriage is not to figure out who’s in charge, and when. The point is that our togetherness bear mutually life-giving results, representative of transformed character. The Christian marriage intentionally reflects God’s deep spiritual union.

And yes, we still believe in the goodness of the Christian church. Radical I know. I do read newspapers. Even in a “happy clappy” church with screens that project our song lyrics, and people raising their arms and dancing (this is sarcasm, people), we’ve experienced the healing power of a sacred, Spirit-infused place and people.

That’s not to say our beliefs aren’t challenged. Lately, a string of Christian leaders we trusted have really disappointed us. We should be used to it now, I guess. But occasionally I get shocked, and it *gets me* really, really deeply. Like a few weeks ago when we realized the extent of the manipulation and deception of a former Christian leader…

Now, I can distinguish between someone who is using the church, and the church. Many Christians can’t. But when a preacher stands up to the pulpit, rightly or wrongly they are claiming to embody the things they preach. And when they don’t, it can be devastating.

I’ll admit it, I lost it. I started crying. I felt like an out of control Koala.

Tim looked at me with tears in his eyes too and said, “Yeah. I don’t get it. But there’s one thing I’m not disappointed by. You. After ten years, you’ve never disappointed me. I’ve never regretted you. Ever.”

And so I had another moment of gratitude. All else right now might be blowing up around me, but gee I have a great marriage. 

There’s no way you could brave all the storms of life and keep your marriage and heart intact without back up lines. The only way to do so (and stay married) in my opinion is to have all three strands, woven together by God.

There’s nothing in this image that denotes hierarchy. Obviously, God is all-powerful, if we had to state the obvious. But it’s not the metaphor that’s used. The image here points to an interwoven becoming.

I know that in my own ability I cannot make my marriage work. It relies upon both parties constantly contributing. But our faith community and commitment to God make it a three-strand cord. If I have any strength in my life, it’s this.

Lessons from “PhD versus uterus”

Wow! What an interesting week! I posted on Tuesday morning to say that an article of mine had been published with a secular, online media site The Big Smoke. Thanks SO much to those who read the article, and to those who commented online there. It all helps! There are already 276 shares on facebook. This is amazing for two days. Wowsers! Thank you!!!!!

A couple of months ago The Big Smoke editors asked me to write something about babies, or in my case, the lack thereof. I wanted to grapple seriously with this issue, but it also scared me. The sad truth is, I realized later, I didn’t want to be seen as a woman, just a person. I like moving in and out of traditionally ‘female’ and ‘male’ spaces. I’m as comfortable hanging out in a studio with musicians as I am in a vintage dress shop. But it’s been coming to my attention this year that women need women to speak about their experience(s) (including the #YesAllWomen and #NotAllMen campaigns). Who am I fooling? You all know I’m a girl, I suspect. It’s just a battle in my own mind.

What I wasn’t really expecting was some very personal stories that I received back about women. This really helps, because now I don’t feel like I’ve been caught out over-sharing. I’ve heard from women who were doing PhDs, and women who chose not to do one for varied reasons. Women who happily chose motherhood. Women who chose *not* to be mothers (or wives) but  traveled the world instead. And women who struggled with motherhood suddenly becoming their identity, and who wanted to choose to talk about other things. And I heard them express these choices. It was awesome!!!

This isn’t to avoid the reality that sometimes life is imposed upon us. In the last few days I’ve read the book The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss, and now have a lot of information floating around in my brain, about ways society both voices and silences women’s visual images, skills and stories. A particular riddle grabbed me:

There is a terrible car accident in which a father is killed and his son is injured, and taken to hospital. When the boy is brought into surgery, the doctor looks at him and says ‘I can’t operate on this patient. This is my son’. The riddle then asks “How is that possible?” (p256)

Put the answer down in the comments section, if you know it. I couldn’t work it out. Ha!

Well, here are some observations from this week and my “PhD versus uterus” saga, as one woman called the article in a private message:

1) Once you’re in your thirties, you really have to engage with the issue of children seriously. This is true for single women and also married ones. However, doing an international PhD can be a lot more difficult for a woman with children than doing a government-funded award in their home city, which may also allow you studies to be suspended for a maternity season. It was encouraging to hear a lot of women say that they are juggling all these commitments, albeit with various joys and drawbacks.

2) Therefore, the word “versus” is not really true when it comes to PhDs and uteruses. Truth is, I don’t think I created this title, I had something else far less interesting. But women both do PhDs and have children – I know this is a fact because my mother was a PhD student from the time I was aged seven through to eleven — and I lived. It wasn’t particularly fun, we ate a lot of casseroles, and she lost half her hearing. But that’s another blog story. The point is, it can be done.

3) I and my friend with her newborn were, and still are, friends. A number of women were incredibly sorry for me that I had no support for my decision-making, and even made little catty remarks that they are glad that they (as opposed to me) have some friends. I was kind of surprised – this couldn’t be further from the truth! I had a *lot* of support, and most notably from my husband. In response to one comment, he quipped, “Tanya, tell them I ordered you to enroll”. Whether that’s true or not – I’m not going on record either way – he believes it.  And, most of the friends who initially objected act now like it was their idea for me to do this. It was just a life transition, and we’ve passed over the other side. I’m a nerd, and a researcher. So what? I can’t really justify ordering pizza to have a pity party.

4) Not a church or doctrine thing!!!! My friend with the bouncing new baby is an atheist, so just to be clear, this isn’t a church thing. I’m not in some weird cult. Many of my friends are Christians, sure, and theology informs their views, but this is just a female reality thing! I have a uterus, and my fertility decreases with each year into my thirties! I know that…

5) Not all women become mothers. Please don’t warn me that I might regret my decision one day. It suggests I haven’t thought the issue through properly, or that you know better than I do about it. Sure, you might. Because your friend/cousin/niece felt differently. But I continue to come back to the same answer. I signed on for this project – I believe in amplifying the stories of urban indigenous leaders and religious communities. I want to see whether participating in a community with self-determination contributes towards well-being. And if that costs me my right to bear children, well I honestly believe God will carry me through that space of grief, and well beyond it too.

6) Not all women get baby brain, but it’s a real thing. Noted. Thank you.

7) Tim doesn’t need sympathy. Of course, Tim has the capacity to happily absorb any attention you give him (!!!) but the truth is, he’s said many, many times that he doubts I could say anything publicly that shocked him. After reading the article I was worried about his reaction, but he instantly messaged me “oh wow. that’s cool”. The thought that my husband would be *outside* of my decision-making processes (about children, work projects I take, articles I publish) rattled me more than the idea of people assuming I didn’t have a decision-making process.

8) Are we writing men out of the story? I was left with an overwhelming sadness for women who have to justify decisions with the comment “I have a supportive husband”. Maybe this comment isn’t that helpful to normalizing a world in which men take care of their own children. It’s not an astounding feat of human sacrifice to babysit your own child is it? Maybe I’m just out of touch.

9) The basic Christian message is that regardless of what you do, you are loved. I affirm that message. There is nothing you could do to make God love you more. But I think we can agree that we lead a more interesting life when we participate with God in the Missio Dei, meaning his mission in the world. I therefore think the notion of ‘contribution’ resounds for both Christians, but also for non-Christians. My hope is not to cause any women *more* pain!

10) Thanks so much for your incredible support. I couldn’t do this without you


The Proverbs 31 Man: Lemuel and a two-fold approach to wine?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Proverbs 31 recently, and thought I’d share my unfinished thoughts. I don’t usually do that – I have reservations making this exception, but think I may gain from some wider input into this topic. We’ll see.

The Proverbs 31 biblical chapter is most cited in relation to women. Women’s ministry leaders everywhere breathe a sigh of relief at having a fall-back text while their children are feverishly teething. It forms a manual of sorts for Christian women wanting to be great wives. An important question to ask here I think is, great from whose perspective? I’ve always hated hearing this passage preached by women to other women. I’m married, but my husband has yet shown no desire for me to dress him in scarlet. Luckily, though, most use this text to bounce into talks on interesting and useful modern-day feminine realities. Although the verses remain a Christian wifely measurement of sorts, I’m yet to attend any women’s meeting that provides information on how to do the things featured in Proverbs 31; trade property, plant a vineyard or use a spindle.

As the preceding passage is addressed to King Lemuel, it suggests the instructions weren’t actually written for women to pore over, measuring each other’s capabilities – but were intended for men. Importantly, a king – i.e. a man with a significant amount of capital. (Just quietly, if you give me a lump sum, I’ll see what I can get out of a merchant ship). And it does seem the text is best-suited for this original use – to inform men seeking wives. Given that most married male preachers in Los Angeles are incapable of refraining from sex jokes, perhaps it’s now counter-cultural and better than the advice men currently offer men. Turn to the Word, fellas. I guarantee no man has read this passage and googled “flax”, or tried to assess a lady’s true potential to “rise while it is yet night”. However, if we are going to continue to go there, as King Lemuel’s mother was specific in advice to Lemuel about the traits to look for, I’m sure she was similarly clear with her daughters on how to make bed coverings. Unfortunately, as that information was lost, I think we should cut women a little more slack.

Most interesting  to me is the preceding section addressed to Lemuel, the center of which concerns the use of wine. Here’s the text in context:

Proverbs 31: 1 – 9 The sayings of King Lemuel—an inspired utterance his mother taught him.

Listen, my son! Listen, son of my womb!
Listen, my son, the answer to my prayers!
Do not spend your strength on women,
your vigor on those who ruin kings.

It is not for kings, Lemuel—
    it is not for kings to drink wine,
    not for rulers to crave beer,
lest they drink and forget what has been decreed,
    and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.

Let beer be for those who are perishing,
    wine for those who are in anguish!
Let them drink and forget their poverty
    and remember their misery no more.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy.

There is a two-fold response to alcohol offered by the King’s mother in this passage. It advocates a “double standard” of sorts, one for Kings (as power holders), and another for oppressed peoples. This is interesting, as I am reviewing the role of religion in development, through outside eyes – for example, in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This classic text argues for different categories of churches – ones that maintain an oppressive status quo, and ‘prophetic churches’ which encourage people to transform. I’ve also researched the “Pentecostal uplift” within Pentecostal churches in the majority or developing world. Robert Brenneman in Homies + Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America is one text that relates the economic uplift so many Pentecostals experience directly to church social norms that reduce, if not end alcohol consumption.

I’m struggling to know what to say as a researcher. I grew up in pretty conservative Pentecostal churches, where drinking was not OK under our denominational charter, so pastors and members drank secretly if they did at all. Then, our rules changed to allow for drinking in moderation. When I was twenty-three, I tried red wine. Mainly because I was in Italy, and it was culturally very normal. Plenty of verses include drinking wine, and indicate that in fact Jesus Himself drank (John 2; Matt 11:18-19; Matt 26:29; Mark 14:23; Luke 7:33-34). Wine “makes the heart glad” (Prov 104:15) but it’s drunkenness the Bible warns about (Rom 13:13; Gal 5:21; Peter 4:3). When I’m with people who don’t drink, I don’t. But I’m not a teetotaler.

This verse is different from most of the teaching I’ve received, however, because it acknowledges there is a social use for alcohol, in particular for those who are oppressed. Lemuel’s mother suggests wine is okay in the second instance, but isn’t great for Kings. She doesn’t say “Lemuel, as the King you have to get those peasants to stop downing the mead so their lives improve”. She sets a rule for how he is to think about himself, and how he is to think about others. There’s both restriction and permissiveness regarding alcohol in this chapter.

I know Pentecostals teach people to “think like kings”. But let’s be honest, most of them do not actually become kings. They become the middle class. Which is King-like, maybe, given our comparative wealth in this era of history. Statistically, in the end, we are talking kingly metaphors. It’s positive because there is measurable economic uplift, but I’m confused as to whether the approach we are using is maybe… anti-biblical. Either way, it works. And I’m all for ending poverty. I’m just confused.

Speak the Unspeakable: Building Great Christian “Followship”

I recently heard a quote from Martin Luther that made me pause:

“Anyone that is to find Christ must first find the church. How could anyone know where Christ is, and what faith is in Him unless he knew where His believers are?”

This echoes a poem best sung loudly around a campfire… “and they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love”. I’ve always believed Christianity is greatest when practiced in a community that honors its historical tradition, sticks closely to the biblical text, allows for intellectual reasoning and uses discernment regarding experience of the Spirit (thanks Wesley!) Christians are the adverts of the faith they profess… when you find a church, you should, as Luther suggests, be finding Christ. Someone needs to talk about Christians and pornography. So, I guess, I will. *insert weak smile*

Vignette 1: Saturday two weeks ago was the 10th Anniversary of Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women & Justice. I drove out in an SUV with my amazing Orange County girlfriends, ate Watermelon soup, was impressed by upmarket Balboa Bay Resort, and listened to a presentation by Ernie Allen, CEO and President of The International Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Well, it turns out not everyone in Orange County feels the sunshine as freely. Some things women and children face are simply unspeakable. Over 213 rescues occurred this year in Orange County with 60 of these minors – the work being done at Vanguard is very, very important. You can subscribe to their podcasts and find out more information here.

Vignette 2: then, on Sunday I attended a fantastic service at a prominent church in downtown Los Angeles, where I heard a great message on Matthew 23. In this passage Jesus talks about leadership (you can read it here). During the service, leaders from various industries were prayed for. Leaders in the church; education industry; and film industry. I found it a moving service, very similar to my home church in Australia. I worshiped with my arms raised high and even danced a little, meeting up with friends at the end. Perfect. Loved it.

As far as this PhD student goes, that’s a big week. The content I received was inspirational, to say the least. But there’s something about the “negative space” between these two events (to use an art term), a growing disconnect in my heart. I suspect Christian discipleship has been so heavily focused upon the formation of leadership that we’ve left followship unadressed. You see, everything expounded in that sermon was true, and should be said. I’m particularly grateful for my home church, which taught me to think of myself as a leader. But this passage does not *just* promote great leadership. It promotes a subversive type of following, that could be summarized as, “follow what these leaders teach, not what they do”. Why? well, their teaching was good, their doing was not. It’s the acts that Matthew (and God) condemned. The passage encourages Christians not to do as much as it asks Christians to do. This indicates Christians are not only leading, but following. And it also suggests that when we follow, we attribute power.

Ernie Allen in his address told stories that made me shiver. He mentioned an entrepreneurial couple in Texas who found themselves short of cash, and opened a website that became a portal for a child pornography ring. By the time authorities caught up with the couple, there were 70,000 monthly subscribers viewing the website’s content and paying $29.99 a month for explicit images of children, 10-15% of which were under 5. The customers weren’t obvious deranged psychopaths; they presented as lawyers, doctors, football coaches, teachers. The ensuing court cases required absolute proof that these victims were minors, and this led to Ernie’s conviction that a central database of images was needed, connecting victims to crimes. Last year, this organization reviewed 18 million images, seeking to find victims and ascertain their safety.

If that doesn’t make your head spin, here are more figures from The International Center for Missing and Exploited Children:

  • 27 million people around the world are currently held as slaves.
  • the victims of child porn are becoming younger: 19% of identified offenders had in their possession images of children younger than 3; 39% had images of children younger than 6; and 82% had images of children younger than 12.

In case you’re suspicious, this isn’t the only organization reporting starting figures of increasing usage. According to the Internet Watch Foundation in the UK:

  • there has been a 1500% increase in the number of child pornography images since 1997.

And, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the USA reports:

  • most child pornography consumers and child victims are from the West; however, the financial transactions are moving offshore.

This suggests users are smarter about how they pay for images they require in increasing numbers. Brigham Young University estimates:

  • US porn revenue exceeds the combined revenues of ABC, CBS, and NBC (6.2 billion)
  • Pornographic websites number 4.2 million (12% of total websites)
  • child pornography generates $3 billion annually

It all gets much, much worse if the following information from Brigham Young University webpage is true:

  • 53% of Promise Keepers (American evangelical men’s ministry) viewed pornography in the last week.
  • 47% of Christians said pornography is a major problem in the home.

And, I find it hard to cite this statistic, from which claims:

  • 54% of pastors said they viewed porn in the last week.

The negative space, that of which we fail to speak is who and what we’re following, but it is becoming louder and louder. The thing is, every single time you click a site with an explicit image of a child, you’re following the people creating this $3 billion industry. You’re feeding the beast, so to speak. You may be the most amazing leader, but it’s who you’re following that sets and forms your integrity.

Not only is this industry causing an entire generation of people who now have misshapen ideas about sexual intimacy, it is stealing the innocence of many, many, many children. If sexual intimacy is a gift, it is being taken by people performing for  the thousands of computer screens. Christianity does not seek to repress desire, intimacy or sex, but it does channel it away from  two dimensional images towards real, human encounters. This is not about censoring ecstasy. It is about saying that one real moment of intimacy in a lifetime is worth the loss of (an averaged) forty images viewed over the course of a day.

Our generation needs people who are willing to admit that the links they follow when nobody is watching, actually matter.

Marriage: the glamour and the responsibility

Sunday’s message at North Hills Church in Orange County (our new lovely church) was inspiring. As Pentecost Sunday, Brenton’s message was very relevant. (I’m looking forward to Hebrews again next week). Anyways, he shared that two of his close friends are ending their marriage. They think. At this moment they just feel their marriage dying an agonizing death and are asking a lot of questions. He wondered aloud at the power and meaning of Pentecost for the Christian faith today – within a broken created world grappling with real issues like these.

It struck a chord – I’ve been through similar conversations four times in the last months with close friends standing on the precipice of divorce –  two couples separated recently. I’m not going to use their names, and I’d never betray the confidences or honest messages. My heart aches for them and I think this issue is worth talking about. Shrouded in a silent fog they struggle to navigate expectations of those around them and learn to breathe again. The Christian marriage dying is embarrassing – I mean, faith inoculates you for divorce, right? A three-fold strand and all that? And some loud Christians consider it the irreversible sin. I guess this is why most divorcees click ‘close tab’ – happily marrieds rant easily about choices, keeping families together, the destruction of society, and post-modernism. But I’m not talking about abstract concepts, I’m talking about people I love and respect. This year I’ve received agonizing emails like “T – kill me now. I can’t believe I’m here”. And my return emails are my feeble tries; “Can’t kill you, I’m a Pacifist. But can you let me know where you are so I can help?”

The reality is, Christian divorce happens. I saw facebook pictures today of a Christian singer kissing his third wife holding white flowers by a white cake – still in church ministry. I guess that shocked me somewhat. I’m from the Amy-Grant-did-what-wow-how-scandalous era, but things have changed. One positive is more realistic expectations as people see differences between the skill of singing and the skill of negotiating relationships while on the road touring. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in integrity, covenant, and holiness. I don’t want to undervalue these things. I want to uphold them in a world gone crazily awry. I don’t know this singer’s personal story – what I’m saying is that the public no longer boycott music products from divorced singers, judging by the stream of congratulations I just read. So I wonder, is divorce now considered a life stage? Something you grow through to find ‘the One’?

I’ve noticed my friends’ desperation to end the pain they find inside their marriage, an insidious creeping destruction within. They’ve considered every possible response from me before calling. In each conversation the person articulated that they feel their only answer is to start again, and hope the demon they are fighting doesn’t return, that it is within the fabric of the relationship itself. Sometimes, they feel the evil is inside of them, but none of them blame their partner entirely. They argue that it is not naïve unconsidered selfishness. There is nothing that could help except a concrete reassurance of radical change. They cannot deal again and again with the same issues (for some cases, decades). Their armour is pierced, and leaving is the only survival mechanism they feel they have left. They flail around trying to end continuing assaults upon their self-worth and dignity – to find their humanity. I would fix it if I could. I would take the blue pill on their behalf. But I can’t, so I pray, listen, and wait for God’s redeeming life to emerge.

I can’t help ask how the church can be present in this time. We have to accept we have been terrible at preparing married people for real life scenarios. I wonder if married couples actually bear mutual responsibility to those who are still single to talk about the restraints of marriage. To actually hang out with them instead of forming cliques of doubles (there I said it). To articulate a lived experience once the wedding photos are a little too old to reshare on facebook. Maybe we need marriage magazines that show the beautiful, crazy mess of what marriage really is. That outline that each conversation with your partner is either a brick in a wall of separation between you, or a decision to take another brick down from that very wall. That in some seasons, you’d rather put another brick up, because it somehow makes us feel better, in the same way thumping your little brother helps a bit, somehow.

But, when people are in a state of clutching for exits from a brick prison they’ve constructed, the loudest voice in our generation becomes The Psychologist. Psychology sets our agenda of relational how-tos, articulating battle lines through boundary-setting. Psychologists hold the broken pieces of our childhood dreams. I’d like magazines to tell us that the attributes that make a great date are important for a date. But they are not all that useful in marriage. Beyond the exposure to music you’d never heard of (Vex Red or Tower of Power anyone?) there is the beautiful unglamorous territory of the ‘new normal’. And the ‘new normal’ of marriage is sorting through endless piles of ‘to do’ trying to get to the ‘I want to do’, and ‘I want to be’. And sometimes your partner is the one sitting on top of the paper pile, and they look like the enemy. Sometimes, they are the enemy. People are broken. They are marred by sin. This is no Ken doll who happily speaks the words Barbie wants to hear – Thank goodness.

There has to be better way of showing the beauty of living within the restraints of covenant. Look, I don’t have the answers to a perfect marriage. I don’t even think perfection is the right aim for marriage, six years in – I think it is actually a quest to remain human with all that entails, and refuse a robotic existence of slavery to the institutional materialism of Western society. One day I’ll share how Tim and I ended up in the Sheer-Riches reality. It’s a heap of fun and in no way what I’d advocate people look for. Which is exactly the point. If you’re single and looking, you’re looking for something never before lived. You’re in a never before seen movie in which you are the leading character. Other marriages are often useless in navigating the amazing, beautiful, painful reality of your own life. BUT if you make it through the dating maze and choose to marry a human being, one thing is certain – there will be moments where you can’t breathe because your spouse has figured out how you tick and has spoken your worst fears into existence. Even worse, they may become your worst fears. Things sometimes break beyond repair. Sometimes even while we hold onto faith. But we can’t make beyond repair the ‘new new normal’. It’s an exception to the rule, and there is a way to turn the conversations around. There is hope, and there is redemption.

Most people don’t want to say such things for fear of being their own lives being jinxed. Well, whatever. This is the power of Pentecost. For me, marriage has been learning I can still breathe once my worst fears have been spoken out loud. It’s a place of realizing that living within restraints provided by the ‘other’ is the only possible way to live fully alive. It’s about realising that with every decision I make, I also restrain another  – it’s dealing with the guilt of bringing a man to the other side of the world for me to read endless books and put off the nappy season and newborn cries that he would so love to hear right now. It’s about acknowledging his sacrifice, and that he thinks my PhD degree is absolutely, completely worth it, even when I don’t. It’s about finding healing in community. Whether it be the hands of a doctor or the comforting words of a best friend, healing rarely occurs without others. We are created for it. Community is made up of many people who sit face to face and wrestle through their issues with one another. I feel we have to let go of some of the cliches, and live the real moment in front of us.

Rather than seeking the performed realities of a perfect, primped 1950s marriage, I’d like people to know that the quest is to be alive. To be real. And if you’re facing a broken marriage, my prayers are with you. I can recommend the words of the great researcher and desperately terrible husband, Solomon. Here are some of his lingeringly real thoughts (after a string of failed hopes):

Ecclesiastes 9: 4-6 “Anyone who is among the living has hope – even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward and even their name is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.”