Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Cultural Backdrop of the #MeToo Movement

It is never right for people to take advantage of young people who are clueless about sexual impulses of those around them or who are in some way dependent on them for care, coaching, teaching, mentoring. And it is terrible for people -- I guess usually men but not necessarily or .always men -- to use their status or power to prey on people to satisfy their sexual impulses. But I also am bothered by the ease with which some accusers have accused and upended people's careers or reputations without any kind of "due process" - and the consequences can be a lot more devastating for those accused than if they had been charged and convicted of a crime. There should be an avenue to let higher-ups know if anyone in your work environment is acting inappropriately, but sometimes there is no "higher up" and that's the problem.

However, there is a level of this very pervasive problem that I have really heard no discussion of and it bothers me. And it is a level that has to have an impact on everything related to the status and place of women in our culture. We have done a lot to break down barriers that impede women to achieving all they can achieve intellectually and just generally in their lives. But while there has been progress in a lot of ways, there is a backdrop that never seems to get any attention, and that is the culture of objectification or commodification that is prevalent in American culture when it comes to women - I am tempted to call it a "female commodification industry" - similar in some ways to the "military industrialization complex" President Eisenhower warned us about in the 50s.

I have been conscious of this for a long time now, and I have been too reluctant to speak out about it because it isn't something people want to hear. I don't think it is possible to achieve equal respect and treatment for women without resistance to this highly profitable and influential industry. I can find a few sites that complain about it, but it took time for me to find an article that provided some research information about the negative impact of this culture. But I found one - on the website "Frontiers in Psychology"[] - an article by Bhuvanesh Awasthi called "From Attire to Assault: Clothing, Objectification, and De-humanization --  A Possible Prelude to Sexual Violence?"

In the article, he writes that "new findings demonstrate cognitive processing of sexualized female bodies as object-like, a crucial aspect of dehumanized percept devoid of agency and personhood. Sexual violence is a consequence of a dehumanized perception of female bodies that aggressors acquire through their exposure and interpretation of objectified body images" (1).

Clothing and other methods of body decorative attire - make-up, jewelry and perfumes - all these things convey to those around us who and what we see as identity factors - almost everyone with any kind of special role in the social fabric communicate that functional identity through clothing - "doctors, nurses, soldiers, police and military men, postmen . . . advocates and judges, priests. . . the pope, politicians, comedians, actors (and other entertainers) are all identified . . . by their attire" (2).

He points out that according "to objectification theory (Frederickson and Roberts, 1997), female bodies are scrutinized and evaluated to a greater degree than male bodies, leading to sexual objectification of women" (4). Psychologists have found that when "women sexualize their appearance, they are at a far greater risk than men" (4).

I'm not trying to excuse men who molest, harass or take advantage of young girls or women of any age really, but the backdrop of cultural commodification of women plays a role in de-sensitizing men to the full humanity of their victims. And it is hard for me to see how women will ever be seen fully as equals until there is a very significant change in female beauty culture. I don't want us to over-react and suggest the kind of body covers that Muslim countries have. But if we want to be seen as truly worthy of respect, we need to de-commodify our bodies.

Here are some figures regarding the economics of the female commodification industry. Forbes magazine says that  the beauty industry - skin care, hair, cosmetics, etc - is a $445 billion dollar industry. And that doesn't include the fashion industry, the Hollywood movie industry, the music industry. Just turn on the Grammy's or the Oscars or American Idol and you will be deluged with female stars that are wearing provocative and revealing clothing.

I don't want women to hide their beauty. But I would love to see some push back against the commodification industry that makes a fortune by creatively turning women and girls into "objects".

Thursday, June 7, 2018

My #MeToo Story

Among the issues that most draws my attention is the #MeToo movement, which has pretty much dominated the world of issues we discuss and debate and worry about. But there are so many levels in me that are touched by the issue, it is really hard to get involved in the conversation. On a very simple level, I could just say, "Add me to the list!!" I experienced inappropriate sexual approaches by men several times in my life: once when I was just about 12 years old and the next time when I was in high school. The earlier experience involved an older man who owned a small riding stable where he offered lessons and opportunities for people who knew how to ride to go for a ride on the tiny dirt circle he had or to take off and ride the NY aqueduct trail that ran nearby. Somehow I found this stable and learned that if I went there early on Saturday morning, I could clean stalls and groom horses and ride for free pretty much whenever I wanted to. This was back in the mid to late 50s in Westchester County, NY - back when it wasn't unheard of for kids around age 10 or 11 to ride their bikes three or four miles from where they lived to do things. I lived in a beautiful location in Irvington, NY and rode through Dobbs Ferry and Ardsley to get to the stable. The memories I have of this place are mostly positive, but there was a negative, unpleasant part that always has been part of the memory. From time to time, the owner of the stable would inappropriately approach me and kiss me unlike anyone one else kissed. He'd put his tongue into my mouth and I'm pretty sure I knew this was inappropriate. But I guess I also didn't think it appropriate for me to complain about it or to tell anyone else about it either. I survived it, and when I started to think back on the times I spent there, I realized in retrospect that it could have been a lot worse. There were not many people going to this tiny stable and there was I know at least one time when he invited me to the little shack he lived in and offered me some snack to eat and perhaps some tea. The bed he slept in was right next next to the table we sat at, and when I think of what might have happened there, it gives me pause. 

Then there was the other experience, when I was in high school, going from my sophomore to junior year, I think. The high school English teacher I was to have in that junior year to study American literature decided to form a gymnastics team for girls at the school. It was one of the first girls gymnastic teams that wasn't on Long Island and I was interested, so  joined. Now this English teacher was important to me in a number of ways. First of all, he was one of the best English teachers I ever had, and taught me a passion for literature that would lead me to major in it in college and later in graduate school. It led to my love of writing and my eventual career as a teacher - not only of English but of history as well. And I loved the gymnastics; it absolutely transformed my sense of self and was the one sport I was really good at. And I loved this teacher. Growing up in a broken family, living with a grandfather, uncle, aunt and cousin, he became an ersatz father for me in certain ways. I really cared about him. Did it bother me that he petted me inappropriately when we were alone in his car, driving to some facility where we did gymnastics when we were not at school?? Yes it did. Could it have been worse? Absolutely. In fact it was worse for a girl in the grade ahead of me. I didn't learn of this until many years later, but he did have sex with this girl when she was in college and it resulted in the birth of a child and total transformation of that girl's life. I consider myself fortunate, and I am in no way saying that the behavior of this man towards us and who knows how many others should be justified or excused. 

Should these things happen to girls? No, of course not. But I am glad that none of this ever came to light in those tender times in my life. I survived them, and the lack of intervention and condemnation and publicity permitted me to put these times behind me, and move on with my life in a way I don't think would have been the same had it all been publicly known. And neither of these men was a monster. Has any girl ever grown up without experiencing things like this?? Maybe, but when my mind starts getting into all this, I find a few paths always turn up that don't seem to turn up when other people get into this landscape.

One is the thought that men and women - the human race - is, after all, part of the animal kingdom. I think that is just another, secular, way of saying that we live in the shadow of a "fall" from the idealized version of what we sometimes think we are as human beings. I never hear this come up when people talk about the sexual behavior of men. And I realize this is a little weird coming from someone who is deeply into religion. I didn't grow up with it though. The talk I heard growing up was that people were just a more advanced form of animal, but we were still impelled by animal instincts and reactions that had mostly to do with survival skills. If what Darwin taught was correct - big picture - then it shouldn't be a huge surprise that sometimes, in fact many times, our behaviors were rooted in some of these animal instincts or passions. So that men who pushed against traditional restraints on their instincts should not be a big shock or surprise, and maybe females too and their efforts to attract male attention and passion were part of the "problem." I'll get deeply into that another time.  While I grew up in an environment that was largely negative about religion, I found the path of faith later in my life, a path that would become an essential one in my life, but even so it doesn't negate the truth that we are not just some meta-physical beings. We are rooted in animal instincts that underlie the higher attributes we have as children of God. We have constantly to strive to rein in instincts and passions that are part of that animal nature. We need guidance to see that and discipline to do it and patience to achieve it. And our culture does very little to assist us in these things. In fact, the dialogue that has surged around the #MeToo Movement seems to completely avoid the issue of how the "female-ing" process is saturated with culture of commodification and de-humanization of girls - cosmetics, body-revealing fashion, glamor generally. But more on that next time.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Feeling the "Call" to Write More About What's Going On in the World

Oh, the beauty of waking up to writing a brief commentary on the Scripture reading of the day! How simple and uncontroversial that was. It was hard work in a way; it required the discipline of getting up every day and posting my thoughts on the day's reading, but I'd taken notes on Scripture for years before I started putting them on my blog, and they were simple paraphrasings of the story line and thoughts I'd had for years. Now I have pretty much concluded that routine. When I wake up now and read and ponder spiritual and worldly matters, I still do have thoughts on the many issues of the times we are living through, but the commitment to putting my own thoughts out there for all to see and respond to, that fills me with a dread I have seldom felt. Why?? I'm scared that no one will understand why I think so differently from everyone else. I don't seem to fall into any political or intellectual "box" that would give me the comfort of seeing that I had some agreement and support from some group somewhere. I feel unconnected completely from an intellectual or spiritual community that shares my views. Still, after years of avoiding the matter and pushing it out of my day, I feel a sense of "calling" regarding the perspective I fall into, and the need to get it out of my head.

I am in my 70s now and know that I do not have all that much time left. So I will try to articulate what I am seeing and thinking about the events and ideas that we are living amongst in this 21st century. But before I start, I think it's important to say a few things about where the ideas I travel with are rooted - what the past is socially, politically and familialy (new word!) - for me.  What are the roots of the tree that I am in the world that cause the fruits in my mind to be so different? 

I come from a broken but interesting family. I never actually lived with either of my parents but had a pretty close relationship with them and other offspring over the years. I either visited them or they visited me while I was living with my maternal grandparents.

My mother had mental health issues that would lead eventually - when I was eight (1953) and she was 38 - to her being hospitalized for schizophrenia for basically the rest of her life. She was in a huge psychiatric facility in upstate NY - Wingdale Psychiatric Hospital - until she was in her 60s, when she was moved to a group care home.

My father was a psychiatric social worker with a practice in NYC where he lived with his second family. He and perhaps his second wife as well (I don't really know about her) were both card carrying members of the Communist Party - maybe my mother was too back in the 30s and 40s but that never came to the fore when I knew her. Everyone was drawn to my dad's way of looking at things; he was very intellectually gifted and a great conversationalist. We talked about the world and about ideas every time we were together. That probably why I'm typing these words right now.

My grandfather, the one who was my chief care-taker and parent, was a very archetypal American man in the 20th century. Born in NYC into a family with little money, he never went to college, and had a "Horatio Alger" type of success story - starting out working for a company that imported cocoa - then starting his own company and achieving great success, permitting him to buy amazing property on Long Island and to live among the rich and famous until he lost everything in 1929. He was an ardent supporter of FDR and a proud American. He amazingly combined the wonderful attributes of both father and mother for me; he was the main cook and housekeeper in our family, the main care-taker for me, and glue that held everything together for me.

My grandmother was quiet and reserved. I knew she loved me, but I have literally no memories of doing anything with her except brushing my hair, and she died when I was eight. She did go to church, and taught me to say prayers before I went to bed, but I was not baptized as a child - Communist parents!! and did not go regularly to church. I found my own way to God and to both the Catholic Church and to Quakerism - my dad was the one who introduced me to Quakerism when he bought John Woolman's Journal for me in high school. But that is not going to be the main focus of these pieces I hope to write.

So where does all that context lead - I have been all over the spectrum politically from patriotic Democrat in love with JFK to aspiring revolutionary from 1965 to when I had children in the 70s when I reverted into being a very traditional mom but still hoping to be an attorney helping the working class in some way. Then religion took hold and I wanted nothing more than to let everyone know what happiness - you might call it salvation - I found there. Family became very central to me when my faith and my second marriage came together and resulted in a move from NC to NY in the 80s and the adoption of a child in the mid-80s would also bring important issues and experiences into my life. So that's it for today. Tomorrow I will try to get out the complicated and perhaps controversial thoughts I have concerning the #MeToo Movement that has taken the country by storm.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Different Kinds of "Narrative"

I mentioned in my last post that I was drawn back into Christianity by re-reading the Scriptures through the lens of early Friends (Quakers) and their way of seeing the Scripture story as a spiritual "narrative" that all who seek God pass through in some way. Their approach was never called "narrative theology" - that term apparently arose in the late 20th century as a kind of reaction to the theological liberalism that arose in the 19th century among Christian thinkers who sought to integrate their theological approach with the scientific thinking of that era. A thinker and theologian who was very influential in my own journey was Stanley Hauerwas. It is from him that I actually learned the term narrative theology. And I understood his approach to be that the scriptures set forth a story that people, over history, incorporated themselves into in some way. How you did that was personal, but it played a large role in shaping the lives of those who "bought into it" - who decided how they would live their lives by buying in to the story and modeling their lives after those who were part of that story.

This is certainly one way to approach the Scriptures narratively. But as I've studied the Scriptures more over the years, I've come to see things a little differently. I think it is a little off to ascribe the idea of a narrative approach to the Christian message to modern times. When I read the Scriptures, I am constantly reminded that all of the writers who contributed to the creation of the Scriptures were "narrative" theologians at some level. All of them were adding on to the contributions of earlier writers or editors, and they "added on" in ways that brilliantly interwove their ideas with the ideas and images of earlier writers. That is what is so miraculous about the text of the Bible - Old and New Testaments. This "book" - this compilation of oral traditions, myths, poetry, hymnology, history, critique - is not the work of one creative mind or pen. It is the creation of probably hundreds or thousands if we add in the editors, compilers and translators. They (It) is not the Word of God, but the words of those in close communion with God [and with each other] since the beginning. So how can it possibly be that the themes and images and metaphors and story lines weave together as if they came from one creative genius? I DON'T KNOW, but I am in awe before it as I am before the glories of nature when I open my eyes to them.

So, when I talk about "narrative theology," I am not really speaking of 20th century theologians, I am speaking of all those believers who brought the writings together and those who wrote them, like the writers of the gospels, the disciples and especially the writer of John's gospel - and, of course, the letters of Paul. They filled the gospels with allusions and direct references to the narrative they saw Jesus fulfilling. I am not sure - there is no way anyone can really know - if some of the story they told was historically true or just inserted to assert a theological truth they saw. Did Mary and Joseph really go to Egypt to escape a slaughter of infants they believed Herod was going to carry out? Or were they simply trying to link Jesus and Moses together in the narrative web. In Hosea 11 it is made clear that God's people -- and his "son" - would be called out of Egypt, and Deuteronomy 18:15 also contained words of prophecy: "Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself [Moses], from among yourselves, from your own brothers; to him you must listen." The context of Jesus being threatened with death at the hands of a tyrant like Moses in his youth; and the bringing of the anticipated prophet out of Egypt, these are details that interweave Jesus' story with Moses' in a way that cannot be just happenstance. Did they happen historically? This I doubt. The two more "historically based" gospels - Matthew and Luke - do not agree on these details; but clearly the addition of these details helped readers to see who it was the gospel writer believed he was writing about.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A "Narrative" Approach to Scripture

Everyone is connected to multiple "narratives" in our lives: the family narrative - who our parents are or were, where they came from, what they did and what kind of personalities they had; the connected national narrative - how the family narrative weaves into the historic narrative of our country; and then multiple narratives having to do with religion, ethnicity, race. These narratives shape our identities in very profound ways.

I don't think I realized when I started reading the Bible how important it would be in connecting me with yet another larger narrative, a narrative of people seeking to connect themselves to God, to see their lives as part of an overarching and deeply meaningful plan. I started reading it when I was about 9 years old after deciding that it probably was the most important piece of literature ever written or rather assembled. I always knew it was not the work of one author. It was a hodgepodge of pieces transmitted orally for centuries, then written down and preserved and added to. After starting out on the King James version my grandfather got for me as a child, I soon put it down for years. Then, when I was 23 and very much an atheist and political activist, returning to college to get a Master's degree in English at UNC, Chapel Hill, I bought a beautiful Jerusalem Bible. It was in fact the first thing I bought when I went to Chapel Hill. Again, I started reading it from page one and read it through as if it were a novel. It didn't bring me back into the Church I had briefly joined and then left in 1964. But I loved it as literature, mythology, poetry and history.

Some thirteen years later, after I'd gotten my Masters, been married, had children and then divorced, I started reading it again; but this time I was in a different, more open state of mind. And I was reading it along with the writing of early Friends' (Quakers') accounts of their conversion experiences and realized that they saw in the Scripture narrative an array of "types" or "figures" that not only led through the Old Covenant to the New Covenant in Christ, but also reflected an interior spiritual experience that was archetypal in many ways.  It told of the whole journey of "man" (all of us) from creation through sin, to a spiritual exodus through a massive desert, guided by rules or law, through more shallowness, unfaithfulness and conflict to a place of rest and peace. Virtually every early Quaker wrote of the journey through the various "ministrations" of God to a resting place "in Christ," in his resurrection. These early Friends were not called "narrative theologians" - that term was not yet in the landscape of religious discussion - but they were.  Indeed the writers of Scripture and the apostles of Jesus were "narrative" theologians, seeing this story play out in the life, death and resurrection of their Lord.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

From Inner Core to Looking Out and Back

That undeniable level of experience, which we often tag with the word "emotional" - depriving it at some other level of seriousness - is, I think, the level on which our faith is truly constructed. Typically the emotions that propel us toward's that deepest reality - God - are the following:

Awe: being overwhelmed by the beauty and order of nature - the stars at night, the rising and setting sun, the landscapes we see every day, the stunning variety of life forms, and our capacity to ponder it all.

Cries for help: trying to cope with the heart-wrenching tragedies that life brings, the neediness we have for help in finding a way forward, the need for a touch of love much deeper and more constant that the love anyone simply human can show us.

Thankfulness: the sense of happiness and peace we feel when critical needs are met, when love and assistance seems to flow from the well of blessings that also seem to come our way.

While these are the main experiences that open us to the "divine," there are others that had played a major role in my life: guilt was one, the guilt I had as a child for creating a world of lies when I was about 8 years old that made it impossible for me to invite friends into my life. I did not "confess" these lies to those who had heard them from my lips, but when given a new opportunity to start things over in a new place, I made a promise to an inner presence I called God, what I would now call a "covenant," to live life differently, to live it based on telling the truth.

But while these deep impulses, "motions," or "commitments" are foundational for all of us, we tend to minimize their centrality in how we shape our lives and turn either to an established set of explanations that the people around us use to articulate "truths" - usually the religious or ideological "landscape" we happen to grow up in, or, if we're not rooted in any particular tradition, to more intellectual, word-based, idea-based grounds for discussing who we are, what we believe and what Truth is, the philosophical notions we become introduced to as we go through school.

As a person who was not really born into a religious family and did not spend early childhood going to church or synagogue or mosque, I still knew even when I was ten, that a lot of people built their beliefs on a book called the Bible. I remember at that age having a conversation with a friend about what book we'd take with us onto an island if we could only have one thing to read for the rest of our lives.  I chose the Bible, and I explained why - because it probably had been important to more people throughout history than any other book. I think it was shortly after this that my grandfather took me to a Macy's store at the Cross-County Shopping Center and got me a beautiful King James Version of the Bible. And because my grandmother had died a little while before this - an event that caused an aunt of mine to step in, have me baptized into the Episcopal Church so I could go with her and my cousins to church and feel part of it - I started reading that book. I read it from the beginning up to somewhere around the psalms and then put it down. It wasn't a "sacred" book to me; it was just a book. I didn't realize at the time how important it would become to me.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Doubt Hurdle in Modern Times

Doubt is part of the faith-net. We are all Thomas-like, at some level yearning to be able to put our mental fingers on Christ's wounds to "know" that he is really in our lives. For us "moderns" - post scientific revolution - the challenge of doubt is even greater since all things spiritual have to do battle with the mindset that what we can "know" is all that really matters. We cannot "know" anything about God or about Jesus - or Moses or Muhammad - or anyone. We live in a world where we do know experientially that we cannot completely rely on any human account of events in the past, even things just a few days ago. And the advances of science, the amazing achievements that have flowed from human efforts to understand and find the laws that govern the physical world are awe inspiring.

My faith in God is not based on what I can know. It is based in all honesty on internal commitments or "leaps of faith" that my mind, heart and soul have made to experiences in my life that seem somehow more real to me than anything I have ever learned: a sense that there was some "being" with "eyes on my soul" that I swore an oath of integrity to when I was still a child, that there was a power that surrounded me that felt like encouraging love, a pillar of faithfulness to me that I could never really doubt in any deep sense of that word. I doubted intellectually, because I could not ever find arguments that could serve as "proof" that Jesus even existed historically in exactly to detail set forth in the gospels. But he was there in me, in some place deeper than my mind, when I was suffering great stress and went through a hypnotism session with a doctor that led me straight to Jesus' face and this was during a period of some fifteen years when I would have told you I was an atheist. And I remember also thinking during that time that God - if there was a God - would rather have me be honest about my inability to believe than pretend that I was a believer. Such irony!

Modernists need to consider that there might be a level of "reality" that is beyond the scope of our scientific inquiry. It is a level in us on which we build our lives, construct our values and make commitments that give what we call meaning or purpose to our lives.