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Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category


It’s been awhile. Lest you think I haven’t been blogging before yesterday, when my post about discernment went up—I have. I’ve been blogging in my head. And I’ve been blogging verbally to The Boy. The Boy is now about 6 and a half feet tall, has a beard, and is closing in on college graduation; I really need to find another name for him. When I’m blogging verbally he sometimes gets called “Bubba,” or “Boobala,” or “Sonny Jim,” or any of a myriad of other names, but never mind. I need to find something other than “The Boy” to call him online, but that’s a worry for another day.

Anyhoo, The Boy and I were talking about some family stuff, and how increasingly hard it is, in the days of Trump, to navigate the minefields we used to fondly call “conversations.” Because here’s the thing: many of my Nearest and Dearest and I see Trump, what Republicanism has become, and social issues from radically different perspectives.

This has been really, really hard on all of us.

Things recently reached a snapping point—the actual cause of the break was something irrelevant to this conversation, but after the echoes of the hard words had faded and I’d had a little time to reflect, The Boy and I were sorting through the schism that, since Sarah Palin was a candidate, really, has become what I fear is a continental split. As he often does, he mentioned something he’d been reading about in his Ed Psych class: Piaget’s theory on how one reconciles one’s view of reality with one’s daily experience. According to Piaget, we tend to do this in one of two ways: We might interpret our experience so it conforms with our view of reality—assimilation—or we might modify our view of reality based on our experiences—accommodation.

So why does this matter? Well, because it turns out that how we process new information has a lot to do with the world in which we live. Because I’m a picture-maker, I’ve made a couple illustrations to help make the difference between the two ways of processing information:

assimilationAssimilators start out with a fixed core belief (that’s the big white box in the middle of the yellow box), and a solid framework into which they fit new information (that’s the light yellow box). Information (all the other colored geometric shapes falling into the box) must fit into the the space between a rigid framework, and around the non-negotiable fixed core beliefs. If the information fits, it gets slotted in. If it doesn’t fit, it’s either pruned to fit within the framework, or simply discarded.

For example, take the age of the earth. An assimilator might start out with the core belief that the Bible is literally historically true in every aspect. This is non-negotiable. Therefore, all information provided by carbon dating, the geologic record, and everything else is discarded (“You can’t trust that carbon dating”) or mutilated (“Dinosaurs co-existed with Adam, Eve, and their descendants”).

For assimilators, core beliefs and the fixed frame work never change in any real way. At the end of life, an assimilators beliefs are pretty much indistinguishable from her beliefs at the time she adopted them. Unshakable core beliefs and a rigid framework characterize the assimilator’s world. This is seen as being faithful to the “faith of one’s fathers.” Of course, assimilation plays into other systems as well–note the insistence from the GOP that a real investigation was not necessary in the Kavanaugh hearings, and is not necessary in the current impeachment hearings. For assimilators that central belief shapes everything, for good or ill.

accommodation copy
Accommodators, on the other hand, start out with no unshakable beliefs (see? no big white box here), and no rigid framework (note the dotted lines around the yellow area). They may have provisional beliefs and a rough outline, but for them, reality evolves as they gain new information and accommodate themselves to integrate it into their worldview. That yellow area is completely mutable; as information comes in it’s examined and, if found credible, added to the box–and the box shifts, changes shape,  and grows. Accommodators are energized by an evolving view of reality.

To go back to our examples, accommodators might start out with a “young earth” view of earth’s history, but as carbon dating and geologic information and archeological information comes in they evaluate it, absorb what they find credible, and say, “You know, biblical authors and interpreters maintain the earth is only 6000 years old, but they also maintain that the sky is a hard shell over a flat earth. Modern science indicates that the earth is much older than that, and the sky is anything but a hard bowl and we know the earth is round. Can we reconcile those two things? If so, how?” And then they figure out some kind of accommodation that allows them to understand their previous belief within the new context.

Accommodators likewise pushed for fuller investigations, more data, and better evaluation in the Kavanaugh hearings–and are doing the same in the current impeachment trial. Rather than starting from the non-negotiable core belief in Kavanaugh’s suitability for the Supreme Court or Trump’s innocence, they started with a number of disparate facts. From them, they constructed a thesis that fit those facts. But, because they are accommodators, they did–and do–not stop there. They continue to push for more facts, for better understanding, and ultimately, for a reality that accommodates all the verifiable facts.

In short, assimilation is about safety, about sticking with the known. Accommodation is about risk-taking, exploring frontiers, and pushing them back.

Which is better? It depends. This isn’t a matter of right or wrong; it’s about the way we understand our world. Where understanding this becomes crucial is when we start looking at how the two ways of understanding reality shape things like economic, environmental and health policy, Supreme Court Justice confirmations, and impeachment votes.

In each case, the GOP has declared themselves unabashed Assimilators–they begin with an unshakable conviction–if you work hard enough you can get rich; the environment is tough; it can take whatever we throw at it; if you live right you won’t get too sick; Brett Kavanaugh should be confirmed; Donald Trump should be acquitted in the Senate. In each, facts have been deemed either irrelevant or part of a liberal conspiracy.

Does this matter? Yes, I think it matters a lot. I find the idea of declaring truth in the absence of reliable evidence repugnant. Why? Because declaring reality in the absence of evidence does not work. Reality is discovered by exploration, not declared by fiat.
And yet we are dealing with a a President, a Senate, and a substantial number of fellow citizens who seem perfectly fine with declaring reality in all sorts of areas. We’ve seen the CDC muzzled both financially and linguistically–there are certain words the CDC has been forbidden to use, words like “fetus,” “abortion,” and so on. We have seen environmental regulations gutted in favor of industry, and the gutting defended by a simple, unsuupported denial. We have seen the science wing of the government decimated. We have seen social and economic policy become ever more punitive for those at the bottom.

The nation is being run by assimilators, and assimilators’ rigid worldview and fixed core beliefs mean that there’s an awful lot of information simply being discarded. But here’s the thing: Discarding, suppressing, or massaging facts to fit comfortably into one’s rigid world view does not affect the laws of cause and effect. Our financial structures are increasingly forcing many of us down, rather than up the financial ladder. Pollutants still sicken and kill too many people. Sometimes even really good people get terribly, terribly sick. The world continues to warm. No amount of denial will change Trump’s past actions. No amount of shouting made Brett Kavanaugh a more palatable nominee.

So why aren’t we all accommodators? Well, accommodation may be exciting, and it might create a “sky’s the limit’ world, but it can also be scary. The assimilators’ box might be restrictive, but it’s also pretty supportive. It can be nice to have “filled your box.” You can stop exploring, evaluating, learning, and adjusting to meet a reality in flux. You can snuggle down on your box and look smugly out at all of the accommodators, still struggling to sort out what they find worthy of belief, let alone build it into any kind of edifice. You have control. Or at least you think you do.

The reality seems to be that we live in an expanding universe. Knowledge is never complete. There is always another horizon, another challenge to meet. In the end, assimilation fails because it rejects new information. By clinging to discredited theories and outdated beliefs, assimilators end up living in tiny black boxes, set into the midst of an amazing, vibrant, ever-expanding world. And they don’t even know what they’re missing.

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This last week we’ve seen two examples of parents facing something that no good parent can even dream of facing. I read about the child falling into the gorilla enclosure, and the toddler being taken by the alligator, and something in me recoils. I’m a fixer–“plan for the ‘what-if’s,” I’ve taught my son. I believe that. I believe in being careful, in planning ahead, and yes, even in padding the corners of the world for our children, at least until they’re steady on their feet and have a decent sense of self-preservation. I believe in that so deeply that many considered me over-careful–and yet never for one second have I regretted the pains I took. Even with all that, though, accidents happened. I felt awful, and worked all the harder to prevent the next one–and that there would be a next one I had little doubt.

The thing about accidents is that they come at us from random directions. By their very nature, they are accidental–things that happen that we never dreamed might. I believe in being careful. I also understand that accidents happen to even the best of us. And that’s why what I’ve seen unfolding in the comments sections of the stories covering these two tragedies has sickened me. Here are these parents who have just experienced something for which even I, with my passion for fixing things, can’t find a next step. What would I have done if my child had slipped away for a moment–only a moment–and devastation occurred? I don’t know. I can’t even imagine my next step. When I contemplate losing my child I realize that when his life stops, mine does, too. There is no next meal, next act, next step. There is only life with him in it, and then nothing.

Two sets of parents are struggling to find their way through something so terrifying in one case, awful in the other, that my mind shuts down at the very idea–and yet what I see in the comments section is all too often not supportive, empathetic comments, or even comments seeking to understand how such events might serve as teachable moments for the rest of us–hold on tighter, stay out of all water except in swimming pools while in alligator habitat–but blaming and shaming.

Why would we do this? Why would we figuratively “hit these parents while they’re down?” I think that some of the virulence can be attributed to  the form of religion many of the “perfect parents” who seem to be most vocal practice.

While there are many wonderful Christians, it’s hard to deny that Christianity has an ugly secret at its heart–it’s a religion custom-made for those who can’t stand the vagaries of life. It offers something it can’t deliver–the guarantee that God will watch over those whose worship habits are up to snuff, that good people will be rewarded with blessings, that tithe-payers will be rewarded with the treasures of heaven to such a degree their bank accounts can’t hold it all. This promise is called the “Wisdom Theory,”because it’s a formula found all through the Psalms and the “Wisdom” books–“the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” for example. That Bible writers expected this to be the case is abundantly clear–story after story recounts instances of good people being rewarded and bad people punished. David often expresses anguish at the fact that even though he is a “righteous” man, his life all too often is in danger. “Why do the evil prosper?” he asks. Why indeed. And yet the Wisdom Theory still shapes the beliefs of millions. It’s often brought out at times like this to “explain” that the fact that this awful thing happened is “proof” that the parents failed God in some way.

The Wisdom Theory promises something it has never delivered–assurance that we can, by our own actions, keep ourselves and those we love safe. You hear it all the time: She was raped because she dressed provocatively, or she was in the wrong place at the wrong time; his kids went to jail because he left his wife; single mothers bring their hardships on themselves; poor people lost their homes in the financial crash because they lived beyond their means; the abused wife suffers because she has pushed her husband too far, spoken out of turn, burned the dinner. For those who believe in the Wisdom Theory, there can be no accidents. Every awful experience is earned by some failure in those going through it. They deserved it. Such a thing could never happen to us. We’re good people.

Alternatively, the “comforters” will assure each other (and the parents) that this devastation must be some part of God’s plan–that their child might have turned out to be a monster, so “God took him early.” The Wisdom Theory provides an illusion of control, the false assurance that we actually have control over not just our own behavior but the behavior of every one and every thing around us–that if we just love God well enough, and follow the rules slavishly enough, we can be guaranteed protection against all misfortune.

The thing that makes it so seductive is that to some degree we do shape our fates. We do need to be responsible for our own safety. But no matter how responsible we may be, we are all at the mercy of forces much greater than ourselves. None of us are all-knowing or all-seeing. Accidents happen. Accidents happen because we don’t have total control. They happen because we live in a world of intersecting chains of causes and effects, and sometimes those intersections can be dangerous, terrifying, and terrible places.

Here is the truth. The Wisdom Theory isn’t about life. It’s about power–about using emotional blackmail to coerce people into sometimes self-destructive or other-destructive behavior. It’s about coercing poor people to give money to religious institutions bloated with wealth–institutions who give lip service to “helping the poor” even while they exploit them. It’s about keeping slaves, wives, children, and the poor in their places, supporting the status quo, following the rules, not rocking the boat. The Wisdom Theory keeps the king safe on his throne, and the beggar on the street starving.

It’s time we relegated the Wisdom Theory to the dustbin of history, where it belongs, and follow instead another teaching found in Christianity–“Bear one another’s burdens.” It’s time to recognize that no matter our best efforts, we are all subject to the whims of fortune far more often that we would like to be. It means that rather than seeking to ferret out the grievous sin that made the loss of a child a suitable punishment, and then adding our own punishment to that, we instead recognize our common humanity, accept that those of us who have not faced such a loss are perhaps not so much better parents as just luckier, and then doing whatever we can to not ease the pain we see–perhaps no one can do that–but to not make it worse: to sit with the sufferers, hold them up, bring them food, love them and their children, do their laundry, vacuum and dust their houses, and perhaps, just perhaps, help them survive long enough to find their own way out of a very dark place.

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“Some Dreams Take Work”–because America might be beautiful, but it isn’t always easy. Available at my CafePress Store: http://www.cafepress.com/magicdogpress

I’ve been thinking a lot about patriotism lately. In the 2008 elections Sarah Palin talked a lot about “Ril Amuricans”-who they are, where they live, where they go to church, to whom they pray. She praised the screaming, rage-fulled crowds at her rallies for their american-ness. She spent a lot of time insinuating that then-Candidate Obama wasn’t  a “Ril Amurican,” that “he doesn’t see America like you and I see America.”

Many on the right side of the political spectrum have followed her lead. Patriotism has come to be associated with tight-jawed people in three-cornered hats, carrying guns to political and presidential events, with a set of values that disenfranchises millions, that seeks to impose a narrow set of religious beliefs in the name of “American values.”

I realized the other day that I had conceded patriotism to a political and social group that quite frankly frightens me–that seems to be trying to strip away the very parts of America that I find most important.

It’s the Fourth of July. I went out and sat on my lawn and watched The Boy and his buddy set off our legal fireworks. In between our beautiful, jewel-like little fire fountains I listened to the huge cannons, and oohed and ahhed at the gigantic golden chrysanthemums, the umbrellas of flickering fire, and the shooting stars the scofflaws on both sides of me were setting off. I don’t know where they get the fireworks, but it happens every July Fourth–the skies light up, and I sit out on my thoroughly-watered lawn, swat mosquitoes, and enjoy the show.

Tonight I thought about our town. I don’t know how much truth there is to it, but local legend holds that our skies full of fireworks happen because of our large migrant population–they bring their enormous fireworks, and come Fourth of July it’s like the battle of Fort Sumpter all over again, but with fewer blown-up buildings and burning boats.

The irony of this, of course, is that our most American of holidays is made more American because of the non-citizens in our midst. We have our problems–yesterday I noticed that somebody’s tagging around town, and that makes me sad. We are not perfect. But citizens or not, and despite our differences, we are all real Americans, and we all inhabit real America.

That means that I have to understand that America is big enough to hold the Tea Party and the Progressives, the GOP and the Democrats, ethnic and racial groups of all descriptions, lovers of all or no genders. America isn’t an apple pie–it’s a fruit salad, and some of us are fruitier than others.

And so today, I am a patriot. I love the symbolism of the flag. I choke up at the “National Anthem.” I believe Katherine Lee Bates had my part of America in mind when she wrote the lines,

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

I believe that everyone deserves the tools from which to build success–what you do with them is up to you. I believe that no child should go to bed hungry. I believe that we all deserve healthcare, housing, and education at a fair price. I believe that while success is American, success achieved by harming others isn’t. I believe in good neighbors, vegetable gardens, and keeping religion out of politics. I believe kids need to learn how to think clearly, to play fair, and to put themselves in others’ shoes.

I believe that we don’t have to have the same values, cultures, or traditions to like and respect each other. I believe we all make potato salad and fried chicken a little differently, and it’s okay. I believe we don’t all have to agree, but we do have to listen to each other, and differ respectfully.

And I believe I’ll go outside and watch a few more fireworks, and maybe sing “America the Beautiful,” until my throat tightens. Because America is beautiful, and I am lucky to be here.

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The books we respond to most powerfully are those that arouse an echo in our own experience, a “Hey, I know about that!” moment. Holy Ghost Girl does that for me. Like Ms. Johnson’s mother Carolyn, I, too, found myself caught up in a relationship with a married “Man of God” at one point in my life.

It’s easy to condemn that relationship–and it should be condemned. Man of God or not, no man or woman has the emotional bandwidth to sustain two mutually exclusive committed relationships at the same time and lead a congregation. The simple, short answer is that Carolyn should have left the tent evangelism circuit, just as I should have left my job and filed sex abuse charges. It sounds simple, clean, and neat.

It’s not. The forces that shape women in fundamentalist denominations can make it incredibly difficult if not impossible to “just say ‘no.'” As a woman who has been there, let me give you a few of them, and explain how they work.

Soul-winning is a core value. When David Terrell taps Carolyn to join up with his crusade as his organist, in fundamentalist terms he plucks her from a shameful, failed obscurity (she has “wandered from the fold,” failed at her “life of sin,” and is now back home with no marketable skills) and offered her not only absolution but a prominent, visible position at the very heart of his ministry. As part of a team that has as its sole stated motive the winning of souls, Carolyn has become a fundamentalist star, a woman who has dedicated her life and talent to what everyone in her social network would see as the service of God, and the winning of souls.

To “leave the ministry” is more than just a career change for women in that position. It is seen as an apostasy, a forsaking of the “narrow, hard path” about which we fundamentalist children hear so much for the “broad, easy path” that leads to perdition. When someone does that, people want to know why. It would have been difficult for Carolyn to leave without having her relationship with Terrell exposed. And then, like now, that exposure might embarrass him, but it would destroy her.

Fundamentalist ministers stand in the place of God to church members. We speak of men (and there’s a reason for that term) being “called” to the ministry. The belief is not that men choose theology for reasons that may or may not bear examination, but that God Himself reaches down and taps them on their shoulders and says, “You’re my boy.” All anecdotal and historical evidence to the contrary, fundamentalist congregations still have a very difficult time believing that their pastors might abuse the power their positions confer upon them.

For one thing, acknowledging an abusive minister calls the entire “called by God” meme into question. This, in turn, calls the whole “sacredness of doctrine” meme into question as well. Instead of sitting peacefully in their seats, nodding and murmuring (or shouting) the occasional “amen,” congregations find themselves in the difficult and embarrassing position of  having to chastise the man they have chosen to lead them.

Many–I believe nearly all–churches prefer to take the less embarrassing path. Here’s how it goes:

First, the woman or child involved is discredited. She “misunderstood.” She “took something out of context.” She “led him on.” She’s “bitter.” She’s a “troublemaker.” She “needs help.” In cases like mine, where the minister in question was also my immediate superior, there was no room for euphemism. When I timidly asked a dear friend and fellow employee about what might happen if one filed a case for sexual harrassment she was blunt: “The secretary gets fired. The minister gets transferred if there’s an affair,” she said. “If you file a sexual harassment suit you might win the lawsuit, but you’ll lose your job, and you’ll be disfellowshipped. The brethren just won’t stand for that.”

Though it’s the consequence with the least legal ramifications, the last result of bringing a suit was emotionally and socially the worst. In our particular church it was believed that once one had been been given the “good news” of our particular brand of christianity, one could not leave the church and still reach heaven. It was called “living up to the light we knew.” What this meant was that, in that time, place, and denomination, filing a suit for sexual harassment would have meant giving up my chance of heaven, if I was so unfortunate as to die before enough time had lapsed to make repentence credible and rebaptism possible. In earthly terms, I would never work for the church again. In my case I ultimately found another job and moved on. For women like Carolyn, whose whole identity is tied up in her ministry, moving on is more difficult.

And there is also the paradoxical fact that because fundamentalist ministers “stand in the place of God,” refusing them a request is equivalent to refusing God’s request.  It doesn’t matter if the request is inappropriate–after all, didn’t Abraham get kudos because he was willing to go so far as to kill his own child? And didn’t God tell one of the minor prophets that he was supposed to marry a whore? God works in mysterious ways; in the scheme of a request–or demand–for sexual favors can seem pretty minor in the beginning–particularly when “no” isn’t a realistic option.

If the woman cannot be discredited, she must be silenced. Women are silenced in many ways. The threat of disfellowshipping did it for me until I got strong enough to leave, and wise enough to understand what had happened. Others are ostracized.Friends simply no longer call. If they meet by chance they engage in only the most superficial conversations. The minister is simultaneously showered with affection and support. Add to that the simple fact that ministers have a lot to say about what is printed in church periodicals and circulars, and everything to say about what message the Lord chooses them to deliver from the pulpit, and the woman often falls silent under the sheer weight of public opinion. What makes all this so deadly is that no matter what the minister may have done, and no matter how justified the woman’s suit may be, she is at a critical disadvantage. And no matter how deeply the rejection of those who have formed her social and support system corrodes her soul, a woman who is also a true believer cannot leave.

If the woman cannot be silenced, and if the minister’s behavior has become egregious, the solution is to shift or spread the blame. The woman herself is accused of “leading him on.” She is accused of being an “accuser of the brethren”–which is code for Satan. If it’s hard for some to swallow that explanation, blame is simply spread around–to the devil first (“The devil’s working hard”) then to all of us (“all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”), then to the fact that we are “living in the last days” (The Lord says that even some of the brightest lights will go out) and ultimately the guilt can become global (“We live in a wicked world. It’s all part of the fallen condition of the world.”) Once it’s spread that far, it’s easy to forget that Pastor X believed that he had a right to sleep with Ms. Y even though she wasn’t crazy about the idea because…well, because he wanted to, and because his wife didn’t understand him, and because the rules about pastors and divorce and adultery are too strict anyway, and because she had a great butt.

And then what happens? Some of us leave. We find other jobs. We find other churches. We find other faces for Divinity. Some of us stay, and if we stay we will either shut up about what happened or, if we are very brave, and believe deeply men who profess to speak for God can and should be held to a higher standard than the rest of us, we pursue our case, not because we’re going to get anything out of it (by that time most of us have realized that the financial, emotional, social and spiritual costs of this path are going to beggar us), but because we hope that in raising our voices we will remind other ministers that with great power comes great responsibility.

And if we do, we learn that we are “angry,” “vindictive,” “shrill,” “carrying things too far,” “insisting on our pound of flesh,” “being unchristian,” “giving the Lord’s Work a black eye.” We are reminded that we are to forgive those who sin against us, that no one held a gun to our heads while we were in those seedy hotel rooms, those back seats,those back rooms among the cleaning supplies, plungers, and discarded Morning Watch books, or god help us, on those desks. We know that. Most of us spend a lot of time wondering if we do share responsibility for the destruction of our own lives. We wonder if we did dress inappropriately. We wonder if we inadvertently sent a “come-hither” message. We wonder how it happened that we started out serving God, and ended up servicing a minister.

We don’t know, because abusive ministers are smart. They don’t pick the strong, happy, emotionally healthy women as their victims. They pick those of us who have failed. who know shame, who have bad reputations, who believe we are damned, who have grown up being victimized by other men of God. They pick those of us who believe we are nothing, and are so pathetically grateful to discover that we are something after all that it takes us far, far too long to discover that we were never nothing, and that what we have become is killing our souls. They pick those of us like that, and then they use the power of their “God-given” positions to use us. And because we have grown up in a system that has taught us that we are nothing, that we have no right to determine what happens to our own bodies, that we bear all of the responsibility and none of the power in sexual matters, we let them. And we wonder if it’s our fault.

Why does it take Carolyn so long to realize that David Terrell is not going to “do right by her?” The mystery is that she is able to know it at all. I hope she’s doing well.

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