Taylor Swift and the struggles of white repentance

“My entire moral code has been based on the need to be perceived as good.”

So says Taylor Swift in the recent Netflix documentary about her career and the recording process of her latest album, Lover. The doc weaves in footage of her early career, but focuses primarily on her reflections of what shaped her as a young artist, and how she has been driven ever since. Swift has a remarkable and unparalleled career. Starting out as a 14-year-old in Nashville, she has always been in the public eye and grew up with her entire personhood on display. She has always written her own songs, and has logged 7 chart-topping studio albums, an unusual sustained success for any artist. Swift was coming of age along with her fans and leveraged social media in a way that was ground-breaking at the time, giving fans glimpses into her personal life and making them feel like they were her friends. A major part of her persona has been her accessibility and transparency, bringing herself into her songwriting and into her connections with fans. But that has come at a cost.

Swift is exceptionally successful but largely because she is a perfectionist who struggles with anxiety, disordered eating, loneliness, and the belief that to be good one must be flawless. To be in the public eye means to be criticized, and Swift internalized negative feedback into believing that if she tried harder and became better, she would find the acceptance and approval she longed for. She talks candidly about the performance treadmill she was perpetually on, trying to conform to what others wanted her to be so that she could finally feel that she was enough.

In the past two years she has tried to confront the constraints she was allowing to be placed upon her. That has included becoming more politically active around causes she cares about and speaking out about sexual harassment and assault. In the doc we watch her share a public Instagram post about the 2018 mid-term Senate race in Tennessee (her home state), which was a major risk for her. The moment when she hits “share” on her Instagram account is one of deep anxiety and dread, knowing what would come next. She received intense backlash as well as death threats and the potential for physical harm.

These themes are where Miss Americana turns from being about Taylor Swift specifically to being about what it means to be a young woman in society. Speaking for young white women at least, we are socialized to be agreeable and approval-seeking. To accommodate the needs and comfort of others regardless of what we are experiencing. To conform to the expectations of others, particularly men, and not be contentious or opinionated. We are taught that we should strive for perfection. Perfection in attaining impossible body and beauty ideals, and perfection in our studies and careers. We should not attempt something unless we know we can complete it with excellence and are wracked with shame and embarrassment over every perceived failure. If the ideal is to be “good”, then anything that makes us feel “bad” is to be avoided at all costs.

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I believe these dynamics have contributed significantly to white feminism’s failure to partner authentically with women of color. It should be named first that in various stages of the women’s movement, women of color have intentionally been excluded for no other reason than prejudice and selfishness. That needs to be named and contended with, along with multiple other factors. For now, and in this area, I think the way white women are socialized is blocking our current ability to move forward in a healthier and more equitable way. Because to join with women of color has to start with admitting failure and flaws. It has to involve pressing into the ways that we have lived in blindness and being willing to make mistakes as we move towards understanding. We have to admit that we are not perfect, and from there we have to take risks that will make some angry and offended.

I had to wrestle with this firsthand when I moved to Memphis, TN three years ago from the Northeast. Before moving I would have described myself as concerned about racial reconciliation and issues of justice. I had a strong Biblical conviction that God is concerned with the poor and marginalized, and that as Christians we are called to enter into those same concerns. But it wasn’t until I came to the Deep South that all my blindness and selfishness and disbelief were exposed. I had no idea the extent to which racism has corrupted our society, and my unintentional role in perpetuating it. And as a result, I spent the first year in this new city in a perpetual state of anxiety. Every day I was realizing new things about the on-going impact of systemic racism, and every day I felt like a failure and a “bad” person. As a white woman, that triggered all my defensiveness and instinctive need to preserve my identity as a “good” person and to downplay and dismiss and withdraw. There was an intense war waging within me, one that could have easily derailed me and prompted me to give up.

That is a war we will all have to face if we are serious about addressing the failures and exclusions of white feminism. Because the truth is, we have failed, and we have been doing it wrong. We have been staying in what is comfortable and known. We have taken some genuine risks to address toxic patterns in society but have stopped short of acknowledging where we have contributed to patterns of systemic inequality. We have kept others at a distance in order to prevent confronting things that could make us feel inadequate. And that has kept us prisoners to fear, anxiety, and lies. We are more concerned with being perceived as good than we are about doing what is right.

If we are to move forward, we need to cling to Jesus who promises that the truth sets us free. Who promises that He is not surprised by our sin and failure, but offers us mercy and forgiveness. Who gives us the Holy Spirit to rewire and change us from the inside out. In my journey of contending with racism, the Lord was able to work out more than my prejudice and biases. I was finally giving God room to deal with my idols of approval and perfection, and finding freedom in embracing my weakness in order to step into humility and equity. I have been profoundly blessed and changed by Memphis, and Jesus has used this place to disciple me and transform me. That would never have happened if I had not made my peace with being imperfect. It is time for us to seek the Spirit’s help in releasing our need to be perfect and repent at the foot of the cross, knowing that renewal and hope are waiting for us.

 

Resources for next steps: If racial equity is something that you want to pursue more, here are two simple places to start.

  • Bryan Stevenson – This podcast interview with the lawyer and author of Just Mercy is a beautiful exposition on why it is important to still be talking about the history of race in America. Stevenson is a Christian and his faith is a clear motivator in the way he talks about racial healing with hope and purpose
  • White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White by Daniel Hill. From IVP, this is a faith-based discussion of white culture and seven stages to expect on your own path to cultural awakening.

 

Heather’s Top Ten Movies of 2019

This year I was drawn to movies that tried new things or told stories I hadn’t seen before. There ended up being multiple autobiographical films in the bunch, reflecting writers/directors going to places of vulnerability and authenticity. I have always loved the way movies can help us make sense of our stories or enter into the experience of others. All of these do just that.

10. Endgame

I had my issues with Endgame, which I wrote about. But I also think Marvel accomplished something really difficult, which was to create a (mostly) satisfying finale to an intricate and beloved franchise. The expectations were incredibly high, and they delivered. I’ll write more about the Marvel saga in my top ten of the decade, but for now Endgame deserves some recognition.

9. Frozen 2

The music is still pretty good, the cast receives some welcome additions, sisterhood remains strong, but Frozen 2 is about much more than that. At its heart, this installment is about the treatment of indigenous peoples and confronting our past. It’s about interrogating the narratives we’ve been given about who is in power and why. About reexamining relational dynamics and shared history. About willingness to make sacrificial changes in order to resolve deep wrongs. And about not being able to move forward until we tell the truth about history. Frozen 2 was much edgier than I expected, and much more impactful as a result. Disney still fell short in some of the voice casting, not matching the ethnicity of the characters with that of their voice actors. But they also took some better steps to incorporate and honor the input of Scandinavian indigenous artists and historians. All in all, putting forward some important lessons for the next generation.

8. Waves

What is it like to be young and reckless? How does it feel to be at once invincible and also deeply fragile? How do we process the impact our actions have on others? How do we move towards forgiveness? Waves is a family drama that beautifully explores these questions. Helmed by a stunning cast, the family navigates the volatility of their teenaged son’s dating relationship, multiple forms of loss, anger and rebuilding. The first half is frenetic and chaotic, embodying recklessness, anger and fear. The second half is quiet, withdrawn, cautious. It’s a look at what can break a family and what can hold them together.

7. Queen and Slim

On the surface this movie is about police violence against unarmed black people, but it quickly becomes an exploration of the breadth of the black community. From the emerging creative powerhouse of Lena Waithe, this first screenplay takes the catalyst of a police shooting and uses it to launch a complex story about survival, community, vulnerability, protest, and nuance. As the title characters (played deftly by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith) go on the run, they must learn to trust each other and observe the complexity of the black community’s response to their situation. It has generated mixed reactions from audiences, but it is undoubtedly unique and poignant.

(Content warning: the film contains an explicit sex scene. The encounter is tender and is used in the story to convey healthy vulnerability and trust. However it will not be appropriate for all viewers.)

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6. Honey Boy

I have seen a willingness and I believe a level of courage in Millennials to confront our past traumas and work towards emotional/mental health. That often includes processing the trauma of one’s parents, both theirs and the ones they have inflicted. Honey Boy does this is an unprecedentedly vulnerable way, with writer and star Shia LaBoef playing his own father. In a semi-autobiographical take on his own experiences, the story is set during what very much resembles the Even Stevens era, overlaid with his young adult stay in rehab. Young LaBoef is playing heartrendingly by Noah Jupe and the young adult version by Lucas Hedges (who, can we just acknowledge somehow ends up in all indie darlings?!) LaBoef literally steps into his father’s shoes and his perspective, embodying all his toxicity and abusive behavior, all his volatility and unrealized dreams. It is an emotional and disturbing story. It is also a brave exploration of the humanity of our parents. LaBoef demonstrates unflinching honesty combined with generosity towards his emotionally broken father and his isolated childhood self. That is the journey of healing, honesty and generosity. Honesty to name that which was deeply damaging, and generosity to also name the ways we all do the best we can with what we’re given at the time. We get to be witnesses to LaBoef’s process of healing, and we might be inspired to keep engaging our own healing along the way.

5. Little Women

First of all, there’s very little I can say that hasn’t already been said by Be Kind Rewind in her excellent video comparing the 4 primary iterations of this beloved classic (contains spoilers). But I loved Greta Gerwig’s adaptation! The book is split into two parts, following the March sisters as children/teens and then as young women. Gerwig splits the timeline in the film to place events side by side rather than strictly chronologically. This will be startling for some who are used to the previous adaptations, but it lends more depth and insight into why their lives and decisions develop as they do. The scenes of childhood are shot with a golden glow, while the more challenging and somber adulthood scenes have a colder and flintier feel. Gerwig taps into the angst so many young people feel about becoming adults and leaving behind the carefree ways of youth. We get to watch Jo experience that same transition and navigate her process of owning her life and her future and her art and her place in the world. It is a much-needed window into the difficulties of young adulthood and also the rewards of taking risks and pursuing meaningful relationships as an adult.

Gerwig clearly has a deep respect for the source material and the life and work of Louisa May Alcott. She blends more elements of Alcott’s real story into Jo’s arc, which was already semi-autobiographical. Alcott was an abolitionist (her family participated in the Underground Railroad and she even met Frederick Douglass), and she remained unmarried. Those themes are subtly worked into the film, giving it a more robust reflection of the original author and allowing Alcott to express what she was unable to during her own cultural/societal time. Gerwig also totally reimagines Amy, retaining her childishness in early life but allowing her character to demonstrate more complexity and purpose. Florence Pugh plays her perfectly, and nearly steals the whole movie which is quite a feat considering the already all-star cast. The relationships between the sisters take on new warmth and vibrancy in this version, their interactions are bursting with life and love. It is a lovely coming-of-age story that will inspire both men and women to take hold of the things that matter most and engage life with courage and hope.

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4. Parasite

Let’s take a minute to talk about how South Korean filmmakers are creating some dynamite movies! From the twisty and insightful Burning last year (available on Netflix, check the content guide for viewer discretion) to this year’s stunning festival favorite, Parasite, South Korea is asking big questions about class, income inequality and the role of Millennials in society. Parasite works best if you don’t know much about it, so I’ll let the film speak for itself. Suffice it to say that it’s a drama/heist/thriller genre-bender about a poor family and a wealthy family, how their lives intersect, and how social class impacts the ways we live and treat one another. Ivan wrote about its unexpected parallels to Downton Abbey, check out his review and don’t miss this wild work of storytelling.

3. The Last Black Man in San Fransisco

I wrote extensively about why this film is so powerful in my review earlier in the summer. This is a semi-autobiographical story about a young black man in San Fransisco who is wrestling with themes of ownership, belonging, home, gentrification, and what it means to be part of a place. It is beautifully filmed and acted, and stuck with me long after the credits rolled. It had a relatively short theatrical release so check it out streaming on Amazon Prime.

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2. The Farewell

What started as a This American Life episode became a powerful film about family and culture. Written and directed by LuLu Wang, (also semi-autobiographical) The Farewell follows a young first generation Chinese-American woman (played wonderfully in a dramatic turn by Awkwafina) who travels back to China with her parents to visit her grandmother who has just been diagnosed with cancer. The thing is, her grandmother doesn’t know about her diagnosis and it is Chinese tradition not to tell her. The family all knows and invent a reason to all gather and, unbeknownst to her, give her their last goodbyes. The film is an exploration of the experience of being bicultural, trying to find out where you fit and what you want to embrace and what you want to reject. It’s about the loneliness and potential isolation of being separated from your family in a new culture. It’s about family and the ways we carry one another’s burdens. It’s about seeing the value in what initially feels foreign but is driven by a deep commitment to connection and selflessness. Now available to rent or buy, make sure to check this one out.

1. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I was reluctant to see this one. I LOVED the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor and had a hard time believing anything could top it. But director Marielle Heller proved me wrong. Rather than broadly being about Mr. Rogers, Beautiful Day draws from Fred’s real life friendship with journalist Tom Junod which began when Junod interviewed him for an Esquire profile in 1998. You MUST read this incredible piece which moved me to tears multiple times, and the follow-up that he wrote this summer in advance of the release of the movie. Junod was a man struggling with anger and bitterness, and Mr. Rogers changed him forever. The film follows their meeting and the ways that Fred chose Tom to be his friend (renamed Lloyd Vogel for the movie) and entered his life. The film is loosely formatted like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and Tom Hanks does a wonderful job of capturing Fred’s personality and aura. Heller has said in interviews that one of her hardest jobs as director was to get the actors to slow down to Fred’s pace of life. His conversation and relating were so slow and deliberate, making whoever was in front of him feel important. Hanks translates the look of delight that would come to Fred’s face so easily anytime a person did something that was significant to them and that they wanted to share. But the movie is not just about Mr. Rogers, but about the impact of who he was and the way he lived. To learn to process our anger and hurt so that we can move towards forgiveness and healing. (As he said, “If it’s mentionable then it’s manageable.”) To live with intentionality and compassion is to effect the people around you for the better. And I think Mr. Rogers would be the first to say that’s something all of us can do.

 

Joker: Should We Sympathize with Evil?

It’s been out for two weeks, and Joker has already sparked a season’s worth of controversy. It won the highest prize at the Venice Film Festival, Joaquin Phoenix is getting widespread praise for his leading performance, and it has an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. All great accolades which should indicate this film is a must-see.

Joker is a stand-alone story loosely set in the DC Comics universe, an anomaly these days as seemingly every new action movie hopes to launch a franchise. It is an origin story of sorts for Batman’s most popular nemesis, The Joker. This is already a bold departure from comic book canon as The Joker notoriously lacks a personal history. A characteristic played upon so well by Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, who asks others throughout the movie, “Do you want to know how I got these scars?”, always telling a different story to each person. He is a shadow, unknown, unpredictable, unscrupulous.

But director Todd Phillips takes his Joker in an altogether different direction. We follow Arthur Fleck, a middle-aged down-and-out clown with a history of mental illness. He works thankless jobs and gets beat up by street kids. His social worker is apathetic and ineffective. He has to care for his invalid mother. He has a chronic, uncontrollable laugh that makes social situations painfully awkward. And then the city budget for social services gets cut and he can no longer get his much-needed prescriptions. He is a person who has been beaten down by life and forgotten by the system. As a result, he turns to increasingly erratic and brutal acts of violence.

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This is what I found so problematic about Joker. It gives evil a sympathetic back-story. Arthur kills multiple people throughout the film, with additional situations alluding to possible violence that occurs off-screen. But all of his victims to some extent “had it coming.” None of them are innocent bystanders, his killings all have some form of reason behind them. Perhaps they did not deserve to die, but the audience can understand why Arthur acts as he does. And in many ways this takes Arthur off the hook. He is a product of the system. He is a product of chronic mistreatment. He is a product of isolation. He is a product of the true villain: Society.

But if we give evil a sympathetic back-story, it is no longer evil. It is no longer purely malicious and destructive, it is simply a reaction to forces outside one’s control. This may be one reason why the Bible is conspicuously silent on the origin of evil. We have plenty of lore about Satan, everyone has a different story about his downfall, very little of which is actually rooted in scripture. He is the true Joker, a force of decay seeking to tear down the structures of society with no aim other than to cause chaos. As Alfred so sagely puts it in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” As God’s true opposite, Satan embodies everything that God is not: deceit, selfishness, isolation, hatred, shame, bitterness, injustice, destruction, etc. And that is what Satan seeks to propagate in God’s world. How evil came to be is irrelevant because it does not change the nature of what it is. It is inherently and purposefully negative in every way. It is not a product of other forces, it is the force.

So it is a dangerous game to justify the unjustifiable. To humanize the inhumane. To make evil a victim rather than expose him for a victimizer. There is a reason that Satan is called the Deceiver. Jesus says his native language is lies (John 8). Joker is just one more product of a Deceiver who would convince us that he is not so bad after all. One who would fabricate a sympathetic origin-story to make his villainy less villainous in an effort to convince our culture that there is no absolute evil, just a lot of misunderstandings and bad breaks. That our biggest problem is Society and not the presence of sin in the world and in our hearts.

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It’s not a surprise that Joker is theologically flawed, but it’s also thematically flawed. While Phoenix’s lead performance is indeed mesmerizing, it is for little good purpose. The way the story is told perpetuates the flagrantly toxic narrative that white men only resort to violence as a result of mental health issues, thereby exonerating them of personal responsibility or plain malfeasance. The film also portrays a narrative that mental health treatment is useless and mental health professionals have nothing helpful to offer. What a bleak, hopeless picture it could also potentially paint for those who struggle with their mental health. No one will help you, you are all alone, and you may as well give in to the negative thoughts.

If that wasn’t enough, Phillips treats his female characters poorly, making them weak and incompetent victims of Arthur’s outbreaks. His strong female cast are wasted in roles that do nothing with their talent. In its most extreme interpretation, Joker also glorifies acts of violence and glamorizes them as “starting a movement.” By the end of the film, Arthur feels a sense of power and belonging through receiving a positive public response to his actions. All of these messages have the potential to impact individuals and audiences in a dangerous and harmful way.

Perhaps Phillips wanted to draw attention to a broken economic system. Perhaps he wanted to confront America with our neglect of the poor and unwell. But what he produced is a shoddy and cynical story. One that runs the risk of perpetuating the things it claims to indict, and one that allows evil to wear a mask of decency. We do not move forward as a society by continuing cycles of violence. We do not move forward by creating so many anti-heroes that we never unmask our true villains. That can only be done by naming evil for what it is, and turning away from it. Change doesn’t happen by disguising evil in the garb of artistic cinematography and art-house performance. That is not true to the character, and is just another clumsily cloaked lie passing for insight.

Is Self-Care Just Self-Absorption?

If you are ever on Instagram, you know what I’m talking about. There are guides for self-care activities. Pictures being posted of ways people are pursuing self-care. Encouragements to others to make time for self-care. There are many ways in which these are good and healthy trends. God created a day of rest for all of us to take a break from working and to allow God to be sovereign in all things. Jesus periodically retreated into solitude to pray and rest. Space to rest and rejuvenate is a Godly thing.

As with anything, there are ways it can become selfish. It is very possible for self-care to turn into a lack of responsibility or engagement. To be more focused on our comfort than on working through hard things with others. To be an excuse to avoid commitments that we do not want to deal with. But behind many expressions of self-care is a deeper question of whether others can be trusted to care for us. A latent despair can underlie it where we feel the only one we can depend on is us. That requires much more than a face mask to remedy, it requires empathy and Christ-centered connection.

Who is most often seeking self-care?

In my observation, those who post about it the most on social media are women and/or people of color. We could resort to snap judgements and say these groups are “snowflakes” and lacking resilience. Or we could take a moment to look at the times when their posts are going up and what that may reveal about their/our experience of society. As a white woman my purview has limitations, but I will start with what I know. I most often see women talking about the need for self-care when topics of discrimination and sexual abuse have been prominent in public conversation. It ranges from accusations against public figures, a new television show or movie being released that features themes of gender-based issues, new legislation being passed that ignites debate, etc. These topics hit close to home for a lot of women and strike nerves that may be very raw. This can result in feeling emotionally drained, experiencing increased anxiety and depression, and having hard conversations with others. In these instances, self-care is often sought because we feel uncared for by our environment. The space we occupy feels threatening and so it is up to us to care for ourselves.

Similarly, these same types of struggles can emerge along racial lines (often intersecting for women of color). When there is a police shooting of an unarmed black man, or racist comments made by a public figure, or when church leaders exhibit a lack of support for justice issues, when co-workers are thoughtless and prejudicial, these events can have a very hurtful impact.  An understandable reaction is again to retreat into self-care practices. This can simply be to recharge after a draining day, and can also be a symptom of feeling alone in society. At times self-care can be an expression of isolation if it feels like you are the only one you can count on.

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From Self-Care to Communal-Care

The Church of all places must be an environment where everyone can feel known and loved. That does not mean we all think exactly alike, or that there are not guidelines and boundaries for healthy relating, but it does mean that when one of us is grieved, we are all grieved.

So bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Gal. 6:2

Humans are inherently selfish, and Christians are no exception. Even in the Church we struggle to care about situations that may not directly affect us. Sometimes we doubt whether the situation is real, or we are so removed from it that we forget it exists. Either way, that contributes to our brothers and sisters often feeling as though they are in it alone. But if we start with a posture of loving curiosity, we will be much better positioned to join with one another in our joys and sufferings. How might this cultural moment be impacting someone who is different from me? How would I be feeling if this was happening to me and to people who looked like me? What are some questions I can ask to better understand the ways others are reacting that may feel strange to me? How can I share my time and resources to meet the needs of the Body of Christ? If we all started with these questions, then very few of us would be alone for long.

Communal-Care driven by Christ-Care

The only way we can sustainably join with each other is if we are animated by the love of Christ. In our own power we will very quickly become frustrated or impatient, we will very quickly feel attacked or misunderstood. But through the unifying presence of the Holy Spirit, we can care for each other in ways we did not think possible.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. – Eph. 2:13-17 

It requires the power of Christ to show generosity to one another, and it requires the power of Christ to let others know our struggles and support us in them. It is a humbling experience to share our stories, to share our wounds and vulnerabilities. And it is a humbling thing to be an instrument of Christ’s healing and assurance. Both are part of the Christian life because Christ first demonstrated both. Jesus was wounded for our sins, and was raised to life again to bring us eternal healing. We follow His example in acknowledging our pain and in seeking wholeness together. May we paint a picture for the world of what it means to be a people that are honest about our suffering and fatigue, and who never allow anyone to recover alone.

 

The women of Marvel ask, “What is a girl worth?”

I first heard this question posed by real life superhero Rachel Denhollander at the trial of Larry Nassar. Denhollander is a lawyer and a survivor of the decades of systematic abuse of girls perpetuated by the USA Gymnastics/Michigan State doctor. She presented this question to the court at his sentencing: “How much is a girl worth?” She and hundreds of others like her had been told by Nassar and the systems that protected him that they were worth less than him. They were worth less than Olympic gold medals, less than athletic achievement, less than the comfort of the adults in power. That day in the courtroom, more than 150 women told their stories and asserted their equal worth to the world.

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*CONTAINS ENDGAME AND CAPTAIN MARVEL SPOILERS*

As our country wrestles with the way our society views and treats women, these questions are being reflected on the big screen of Marvel blockbusters. There are ways that Marvel is ahead of the curve and elevating women in important ways. Black Panther is a shining example of offering women extended screen time and complex and interconnected roles. I have written about that here. It is also a very good thing that the number of women in the MCU is vast and diverse and continues to grow. But it is not enough to simply be on screen.

Black Widow and Gamora are in the wrong stories

One more warning, I am about to discuss Endgame and Infinity War spoilers!

I hate the soul stone. This piece of junk has claimed the lives of two strong female characters, the only initial women in two teams of men (the Avengers and the Guardians). I understand that the movies needed to have real stakes. I understand that you can make compelling storyline arguments for why it needed to be them and why it made the story pack a deeper punch. And that is the problem. These two complex and wonderfully acted characters are in stories that see them as expendable. That use them to make the audience feel something. The story was written such that it did not make sense for any other character to be the one lying dead at the bottom of the cliff. Either because the other characters on their teams are too strong and powerful to die, or because the men were not written in a way where their death makes sense in the story.

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This reveals a systemic problem in the writing approach at Marvel. Having female characters who can fight effectively but who are clearly less crucial than their male counterparts is not a win. If you cannot have a good movie without Thor, without Captain American, without Star-Lord, but the movie can survive without Black Widow and Gamora, then you are not writing a good movie. Do not give us a strong and intriguing Gamora only to watch her die in a domestic abuse scenario where her abuser kills her because he “loves” her. Do not give us the option that she and Nebula are “the only ones” who can stop him and then lose them in the crowd. Do not give us a non-traditional Black Widow who is finding meaning and purpose outside of having biological children, just to have her sacrifice her life so the man with kids can live. Do not give us yet another woman who loses her life so others can flourish at her expense. That is already our every day. Give us something better. Write a better story.

Give us more Mar-vells and Marvels

The negative reaction to Captain Marvel is case-in-point why the movie was so needed. This story is about what it is like to be a woman in society. To be held back and to have your power diminished by others and then told by those same systems to be grateful for the small opportunities we are given. To be told that to be emotional and intuitive is a liability and should be suppressed if we want to succeed. To be told that we need to prove ourselves before we can be taken seriously. To be gaslighted into thinking that our instincts are wrong and we are misinterpreting and misremembering our own stories. Captain Marvel both names destructive social realities and paints a better way forward.

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Ask any woman who watched the movie how she felt when Carol simply blasts Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) as he yells for her to prove herself. Or why it was important to make Mar-vell’s character be female and a professional inspiration for Carol. This was not just being “politically correct.” There is a reason why Carol sees Mar-vell when she visits the Supreme Intelligence, even when she does not know who she’s seeing. Most women do not have female role models in our fields and careers. We often do not have accomplished women who look like us (this can be especially true for women of color) who inspire us to think we can succeed. It was so meaningful to watch a female professional mentoring relationship. It was empowering to watch a woman refuse to prove herself within a false system but to instead shatter the expectations that were preventing her from taking ownership of her story. This is good writing. This is what we want to see.

Another woman, Kyle Stephens, in the circle of survivors in the courtroom with Denhollander and the others that day said:

“Little girls don’t stay little forever. We grow into strong women who return to destroy your world.”

This is your audience, Marvel. We have some marvelous heroines in our universe who are changing the game. We are not content with old systems and old stories. We will support writing that reflects who we are and who we are becoming. And we will destroy that which tells us we are less. Because we are worth more than that.

Why Are Millennials So Self-Absorbed?

I’ve heard it countless times. The endless criticism of the millennial generation for being “entitled”, “ self-absorbed”, “spoiled”, the list goes on. My generation almost exclusively hears negative things about us from the generations above us. I was recently listening to public radio and heard yet another negative report on the podcast Hidden Brain about the rise of narcissism among young people. The host discussed social research findings and the impact of having to feel like we are “special” all the time. I listened to this and I felt deeply hurt. I felt so hurt because I felt terribly alone. It is easy to talk about the symptoms of self-absorption in millennials, I have yet to hear anyone ask “why is this happening?” I believe the majority of millennials feel alone, and if we are self-absorbed it might be because all we have is ourselves.

We have no heroes

Give me a list of 20 public figures who do not have some kind of scandal attached to them. I’ll wait. So many of the people we looked up to as children have become mired in allegations of destructive behavior. From coaches convicted of systematic abuse of children, athletes who sexually exploited others, political figures who were not the people they claimed to be, actors and comedians and TV show hosts who turned out to be abusive and selfish. There are very few people left that model integrity and selflessness. Part of the reason Won’t You Be My Neighbor struck such a cord is because it is borderline shocking when someone we grew up with is actually a kind person. Was actually trustworthy and cared about us. We have become distressingly accustomed to our role models being hypocrites and secretly toxic. Why would we look outward when all we see is disappointment and abused trust? Is it not much safer to trust only ourselves?

We have no heroes…including our parents

I was recently sitting around a table with five 18-23 year-olds and I was the only one in the group who grew up in a loving, stable home. In my eleven years of working with college students, it is the exception when a young person comes from a family where the parents are together and have a healthy relationship and lifestyle. Most of the time today’s young people are carrying a great deal of pain and alienation that started in their homes. Hurts not only from divorce but from emotional neglect, parental unreliability, patterns of sin and addiction in the home, death and tragedy, and a lack of feeling known and loved by their parents. The people who were created to offer us unconditional love and support have very often let us down in deeply wounding ways. Is it any wonder that we turn to our devices and social networks for validation and connection?

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Pornography is everywhere

I have yet to hear anyone include the prevalence of pornography in discussions about narcissism and mental health among millennials. We are constantly told that we are bad at relating to others and lack resilience, and none of those same critics ask how the availability of pornography in the digital age has shaped an entire generation to be emotionally and physically isolated. Pornography is the ultimate example of self-absorption. It is designed in such a way that it allows a person to be alone while receiving the illusion of connection. It removes the need for others while creating a false sense of shared reality. And it is a very bitter master. It keeps its users trapped in isolation by appearing to meet needs and then paralyzing them from being able to experience true connection and intimacy. It distorts one’s ability to empathize with others and accurately interpret social situations. The Atlantic began a conversation about pornography’s impact in an article on the sexual recession that is occurring among young people. An entire generation does not have the tools to form meaningful and lasting intimate relationships. So we are alone. We stay home, falling deeper into unhealthy patterns, lacking the tools or support to find a better way. Lonely and scared of one another.

We don’t have the church

Countless reports will tell you that millennials and younger are the least churched generation. The reasons for this are many. Church sexual scandals are an obvious and legitimate one. From the Catholic church to multiple other denominations and congregations hiding abusive leaders and systemic sin. This has caused a generation of “little ones” to stumble (Luke 17:2). Add to this generations of racism (The Color of Compromise) and sexism, and young people who care very much about issues of justice and inequality are going to view the church with profound cynicism. The church in America has also struggled to adapt to social changes. Leaving many young people walking out the doors on a Sunday morning feeling that it was not for them and their presence is of little consequence to the other worshippers. This is indeed a great social tragedy. The Family of God has the potential to add so much meaning and support and can be a major protective factor in the lives of young people. Without it, we have neither an extended support system nor a transforming relationship with Christ to sustain and pull us outwards and into the broader community. Whenever I see research data revealing that young people are more lonely, depressed and anxious than ever, I know it is connected to not having faith and truth in their lives. If we do not have faith communities to care for us and invite us into a bigger story, with what are we left?

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So what do we do? I can start by saying that we would benefit from less criticism and more compassion. No one becomes who they are in a vacuum, please take time to empathize with us and why we have resorted to the coping patterns we have. This is not to let millennials off the hook for the unhealthy trends in our midst. We need to own our lives and develop better coping methods. But yelling and demeaning has never helped anyone grow and change and has certainly never helped someone feel less alone. We are your children and grandchildren, we are not aliens from another planet. Please get to know us and give us a little credit. Questions I have rarely heard from a baby-boomer are, “Why do you think that is? What do you think about that?” Spend more time building bridges and inviting us into a shared way forward and less time writing us off. The majority of millennials I know are passionate, intelligent, curious, and hopeful. We all need one another. Please join with us and allow us to speak into your lives as well. We cannot do this alone.

Heather’s Top Ten 2018

Last month we had friends visiting from Australia. They know we love movies and as we were talking about what we had seen recently, one of them asked “What story do you think movies were telling this year?” That’s a terrific question. Several recurring themes emerged from the cinematic landscape of 2018. It was certainly a year of representation. Stories with strong female characters abounded, as did a wide array of cultural narratives (nearly always intersecting). It was a year that explored the ways we relate to each other. In our current social/political landscape America is still wrestling with what it means to understand one another, to make space for one another. The movies that made my top ten all help us take steps towards each other as we attempt to tell a unified story.

10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG)

I do not like kids’ movies. I am rarely motivated to see an animated film. But the new animated Spider-Man is one for which I’ll make an exception. Following a young teen named Miles Morales (voiced wonderfully by Shameik Moore) who is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops super powers, the movie draws on classic comic book tropes while giving a fresh spin to Spider-Man. Miles witnesses a villain open an inter-dimensional portal which inadvertently draws in Spider-People from several different dimensions. They must work together to stop the villain and return each of them home. The movie boasts stunning animation, creative use of comic source material, a great voice cast, wonderful themes of representation (see Ivan’s review), and one of the best post-credit scenes ever. This will be a favorite for huge fans and moderate fans alike.

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

9. If Beale Street Could Talk (R)

It isn’t often that you can leave a movie about depressing social realities and feel exhilarated. Only director Barry Jenkins can accomplish such a feat. As I unpack in my full review, Jenkins has a dizzying ability to film painful topics with warmth and beauty. His unique directing style imbues the characters with dignity and tenderness even as we watch them experience terrible injustice. Beale Street helps us see the intricacy of life, that beauty and love can co-exist with powerlessness and inequality. Life is complex, and so is this film.

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Director Barry Jenkins filming If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).

8. A Quiet Place (PG-13)

Thanks to last year’s fantastic Get Out, we are seeing a surge in thoughtful horror films. This year’s A Quiet Place is a heart wrenching view of parenting and family. Set in a world of invading creatures where “If they hear you, They hunt you”, a young family must maintain absolute silence to survive. It quite literally begs the question, “How can you bring a child into this world?” Featuring real-life spouses/parents John Krasinski and Emily Blunt (with a particularly powerful performance), the film explores the fears parents feel around keeping their children safe in a hostile world. Check out my full review here.

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John Krasinski in A Quiet Place (2018).

7. The Hate U Give (PG-13)

Lead actress Amandla Stenberg had an impossible task. She had to carry a film adapted from a beloved YA novel that spanned the entire emotional spectrum, contained multiple dramatic monologues, and she had to not make it cheesy. And she knocked it out of the park. The story follows a black high school girl who lives in a black neighborhood and attends a predominantly white prep school, and is present when a black male friend is shot by a police officer. She must navigate codeswitching and the racial dynamics at her school, process her own trauma, manage the reactions of her surrounding community, and decide how to participate in the national conversation around police violence. Buoyed by a wonderful cast, The Hate U Give depicts so many important topics that young people of color have to deal with every day and gives voice to their experience of the world. See Ivan’s review.

6. Bad Times at the El Royale (R)

Sometimes the best movies are the ones you just walked into knowing nothing about. Bad Times falls into that category for me. Set in the late 1960s in a hotel that straddles the California/Nevada line, the story follows a cast of seemingly unrelated characters who are brought to the El Royale by a variety of interests. Written and directed by Drew Goddard, creator of Daredevil, the film unpacks deep themes of guilt, intervention, faith, and redemption. Featuring an incredible film debut from Broadway actress Cynthia Erivo, (Tony Award winner for her lead in The Color Purple) and the best performance to date from Jeff Bridges, Bad Times sails into my top ten. For other spiritual themes of the film, check out Alissa Wilkinson’s great review.

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Jon Hamm in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018).

5. Vox Lux (R)

I’m guessing the popularity of A Star Is Born this fall overshadowed the more poignant new release Vox Lux, but you do not want to miss this one. Starring Natalie Portman with original music from Sia, this is a story about a pop star that tells a much bigger story. Propelled to early fame as a result of living through a school shooting, Celeste (Portman) wrestles with fame, trauma, addiction, and terrorism. Maybe it’s because I clearly remember the Columbine shooting, 9/11, and VH1’s old series Behind the Music, but Vox Lux spoke to my experience of coming of age in America. The film is an exploration and an indictment of our cultural tendency towards distraction and avoidance through entertainment and substances. It is a snapshot of the first wave of millennials, the things that shaped us, and the the ways we attempt to cope.

4. Roma (R)

My pick for Best Director this year, Alfonso Cuarón pays homage to his childhood housekeeper/nanny in his latest film. Raised in affluence in Mexico City in the 1970s, Cuarón was at the time unaware of the classism and racism in which he was unknowingly participating. Roma is dedicated to this woman who was part of his family and yet was never equal due to her different race/class. Roma is the name of the neighborhood where Cuarón grew up and the film follows the experience of an upper-middle class family and their indigenous maid. It beautifully details the sometimes obvious sometimes subtle classism the young housekeeper endures and the way her experience of the world differs from that of her employers. With stunning cinematography and a striking performance from first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, Roma tells an important story that will captivate you.

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Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (2018).

3. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (PG-13)

I dare you to see this movie and not be moved to tears. In a time where nearly all of our heroes have fallen to scandal and hidden toxicity, we were in desperate need of a hero who genuinely was good and kind. Look no further than Fred Rogers. This documentary brings to life Fred’s deep conviction that all people are endowed with dignity and value and we should all know that to be true. Driven by his Christian faith and a belief that everyone is made in the image of God, Fred wanted children to know they have an important role to play in the world. Helping us cope with deep emotions and tragic current events (from the JFK assassination to the Challenger explosion), Fred and Daniel Tiger were there to guide us. If you need to renew your hope in what our society can be, go spend some time in the Neighborhood.

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Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018).

2. Eighth Grade (R)

“Hey guys! Today I’m going to be talking about…” In a shocking turn of unlikely creative sourcing, a 28 year old male comedian (Bo Burnham) made a beautiful movie about the experience of being a young girl. Having himself come of age as a teen YouTube sensation, he was able to empathize with the anxieties, insecurities, pressures and veneers that make up what it’s like to be an 8th grade girl in our modern times. Led remarkably by newcomer Elsie Fisher, the movie is sympathetic and awkward and insightful. It brings to life the vulnerability of being young, the ways it is difficult to connect with both friends and parents. It is not just about being an 8th grade girl, it helps all of us understand what it means to be young in an age of technology and connectivity.

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Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade (2018).

1. Black Panther (PG-13)

I saw this movie four times in theaters. I’ll say it one more time for the people in the back, director Ryan Coogler changed the game with Black Panther. It redefines what a superhero movie can be. Who would have thought that a comic book movie could explore the experience of the African diaspora? So far beyond simply blowing things up and high speed chases, Coogler used the platform of Marvel to ask deep questions about identity, belonging, and the future of a global society. A master at taking source material and adapting it in a way that honors the original content while giving it countless new layers of meaning (Creed is another prime example of his abilities in this area) Black Panther stays true to the comics while helping all of us process our place in the world. With terrific performances, a stunning variety of female characters (see my full review here), this is the most enjoyable and most important film of 2018.

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Letitia Wright and Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (2018).

Check out Ivan’s Top Ten here!

If Beale Street Could Talk: The Difference Good Lighting Can Make

“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

A friend recently asked me for a book recommendation, and without hesitating I replied, “The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. It is one of the most important books of the 20th century.” I would strongly urge any American to read it, or anyone who is interested in understanding the history of race in America. James Baldwin brought a crucial voice to American society in the middle of the 20th century, one that is being carried on by many black American artists today. One of these rising artists is filmmaker Barry Jenkins. He hasn’t even turned 40 and already directed the 2016’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Moonlight. His next film, If Beale Street Could Talk, is an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel by the same name.

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Set in Harlem in the early 1970s, it is the story of a young black couple who are hoping to marry and start a life together when the young man is falsely accused of a crime and imprisoned. The creativity and insight of both storytellers results in a powerful combined narrative of love, injustice, powerlessness and resilience. The character’s lives are fraught as they try to pursue hope for a bright future while hitting constant roadblocks of inequality. From housing discrimination to racial profiling, the cards feel continually stacked against them. It is a story of families striving to protect their children to build a better life for them in the face of social degradation. It is a story of resourcefulness in the absence of access to resources, a story of beauty and hope intermixed with fear and disappointment. Beale Street progresses with a slow burn, but the gradual saga it weaves is finely tuned.

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Jenkins has a distinct and moving style of filmmaking. He has a unique ability as a storyteller to depict harsh realities with an aura of warmth and beauty. Rather than bleak lighting for bleak themes, Jenkins’ subjects exude vibrant colors. Both Beale Street and Moonlight are visually stunning, mesmerizing in the beauty of their cinematography. He uses long straight-on shots of the characters, endowing them with dignity and a sense of wonder. As you watch them move through their worlds you feel that it is an honor to see them in their fullness, that you are catching a glimpse of something rare and profound. Even when they are suffering or treated with cruelty by others, Jenkins’ camera imputes a constant tenderness that cannot be taken away. I recently heard a comment from someone in the film industry that you need people of color making films because actors with different skin tones have different lighting needs. On a technical level, it can be challenging to make all actors look equally good on screen. Jenkins’ skill in this area is unsurpassed. The actors in his films all look radiant, a testament to what can happen when structural changes are made to bring out the best everyone has to offer.

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What Jenkins accomplishes on screen speaks to a bigger call to our American society. A major theme of Beale Street is the creativity that the black community has been forced to cultivate in the absence of opportunity. Deprived of social equality, parents and individuals have to find alternate ways to put food on the table and to try to protect the next generation from harm. This is an exhausting and limiting way to live. Baldwin raises an important question in The Fire Next Time:

“The Negro can precipitate this abdication because white Americans have never, in all their long history, been able to look on him as a man like themselves. This point need not be labored; it is proved over and over again by the Negro’s continuing position here, and his indescribable struggle to defeat the stratagems that white Americans have used, and use, to deny him his humanity. America could have used in other ways the energy that both groups have expended in this conflict. America, of all the Western nations, has been best placed to prove the uselessness and the obsolescence of the concept of color. But it has not.”

What would America look like if racial inequality had not been consuming our energy and creativity for centuries? What could we have achieved by now if we allowed all our citizens to contribute the best of what they have to offer? What else could we have innovated by working together rather than keeping many groups silent and powerless? Segregation and inequality not only damages marginalized groups, it robs all of society. The characters in Beale Street wanted to create and contribute to the flourishing of society. Their contributions were dramatically limited by systemic inequality. Jenkins grew up with incredible environmental challenges and yet has managed to offer art that is lovely and compelling. The call for equality is so much more than a social crusade. It is a call to unlock the God-given potential that lies within our whole country. To seek the flourishing of the marginalized is to seek the flourishing of us all. If we have come this far with a very broken system, imagine how much farther we could go with a system that works for everyone.

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Content advisory: Beale Street contains some language and two scenes of sexuality, one including nudity. The scenes are filmed with tenderness and care and compliment the story, but viewer discretion is advised.

 

 

Tree of Life Synagogue and the Need for Weariness

Some families take vacations to Disney World. My family would vacation in Pittsburgh. This was partly because my grandparents lived there, partly because Pittsburgh is a wonderful city. I spent 12 years post-college living in the Pittsburgh region and in many ways regard it as my home city. It is a city known for its many distinct neighborhoods, my favorite of which is Squirrel Hill. I have spent countless hours there with family and friends. A predominantly Jewish community, it also houses restaurants and shops from a wide range of cultures and nationalities. It has the best movie theater in the city, and is a welcoming neighborhood full of vibrant culture and life. Despite the terrible violence there on October 27th, nothing will change that.

When I first starting seeing breaking news that a Pittsburgh synagogue was being attacked, I knew it was likely in that lovely community. Watching the story unfold, my primary response was weariness. After a week that was already marked by hatred and violence with the mail bombs, this was overwhelming. I felt sadness and anger, but mostly I felt numb. This has to stop. Things have to change.

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When we look at God’s history with the community of faith, He has used weariness in the past to move us forward. Buried in the middle of the Old Testament book of Numbers is a remarkable passage about some unexpected fruit of growing weary. Numbers in general is an often overlooked book that packs a punch. It follows the time of the Israelites leaving their enslavement in Egypt and their forty years wandering in the wilderness. God led them out of Egypt through signs and wonders and guided them straight to the Promised Land. But the people were not ready. They were so accustomed to slavery that they could not imagine freedom. All they could do was look back at their bondage and believe that it was normal and as good as it gets. They could not imagine that the unknown could be better than the comfortable past, so they believed it must be worse. They froze because all they could see were giants, not milk and honey (Num. 13:31-33).

So God consigned them to 40 years in the wilderness, one year for every day that the spies were in the promised land (Num. 14). Enough time for the generation that was born in Egypt to pass away. An entire generation is born in the wilderness, a generation that is listed in the middle of Numbers (chapter 26). The genealogies in this book is typically where readers get bogged down, but they are there to show us when a change begins. Something significant happens with this generation born in the wilderness. They no longer look back, they start to dream about what is ahead.

The daughters of Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, belonged to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah. They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.”

So Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them. Num. 27:1-7 (NIV)

The daughters of Zelophehad begin to imagine possibilities of things that have never been before. What if women could own land? Not only that, they are envisioning life in the Promised Land. They are thinking about what it will entail and they do not want to miss it. No longer are the people looking back to slavery as their frame of reference. They are looking ahead and dreaming about things that have not yet been.

These young women represent what God was trying to do in the people through their wandering. To bring change in their desires. To wear them out on life that is sub-par so they start dreaming about abundance. So that when they are led back to the edge of the Promised Land, they want to go in and never look back. They want to take hold of God’s rest, provision, equity, and goodness. They were meant to hate the wilderness and former bondage so they would love the fulfillment of God’s promises.

This story offers a similar application to our weary hearts today. It is normal and good to feel sadness and anger. It is fitting and right for us to hate the works of evil. And our Godly response can be to dream rather than freeze. Many giants of evil are dominating our cultural landscape, but we serve a God with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deut. 7:19). Take your weariness to your community’s inter-faith gatherings and support your Jewish neighbors. Use your platform to remind yourself, and others, that acts of hatred and violence are not normal or as good as it gets. Research the candidates running for office in your region and go vote for people who will pursue righteousness and peace. Pray for the Lord to move all of our hearts away from selfish complacency and towards new possibilities for Kingdom flourishing. May we be a people who are shaped by the promises and power of God and who dream of things greater than we have yet seen.

 

Does Sexual Purity Do More Harm Than Good?

If you were a Christian kid in the 90’s and into the early 2000’s, you probably encountered some form of the “Purity Movement.” There were books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Passion and Purity that touted the benefits of courtship over dating. Celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and the Jonas Brothers wore purity rings. The Silver Ring Thing and other organizations held gatherings and were present at music festivals to encourage young people to commit to remaining sexually pure until marriage. It was a major topic in youth groups and Christian youth-based curriculum.

A recent book by Linda Kay Klein has drawn the spotlight back to this era in the evangelical church. Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free details her experiences along with interviews of many others. In a recent NPR interview, Klein tells her story of legalism and shame and the trauma it caused for her and others. She recounts stories of being told she needed to dress differently to prevent the boys from “stumbling” (a biblical term meaning to fall into sin), and that she ought to exhibit less knowledge and enthusiasm for learning so as not to undermine the leadership role of the boys. Along with countless others, she internalized shame and anxiety about her body and her thoughts. She was constantly worried that she would do something that would compromise her purity, a standard that was inconsistently communicated and therefore even more anxiety-provoking. During college and beyond she began to move away from the teachings she received about sexual purity, but struggled for years to have a sexual expression that was not also marked by visceral reactions of shame and anxiety. Through her own story and those she interviewed, she posits that the purity movement left a generation of young women traumatized.

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I am only a few years younger than Klein and remember all too well much of what she described. I also read Joshua Harris’s book in high school and also heard the narrative that sex before marriage will make you damaged goods that no good Christian man will want. I also absorbed a transactional faith that if you are a pure and modest woman, then God will reward you with a husband and a wonderful marriage. Although not as extreme as the teaching Klein received, I too internalized a largely sexist standard that women needed to help guard men from sexual sin (men bearing little to no responsibility for their sexual purity) and that men were to be the leaders in all relationships. I listened to her interview and felt deep sadness and sympathy for the pain she experienced. I know that it is real and valid, and worthy of affirmation and grief. In no way do I wish to diminish the very real hurt she received from destructive teaching. At the same time, I took a different path from Klein which is also worthy of telling.

My story is entirely a testament to the grace of God transcending toxic and unhelpful distortions of what is meant to be good and beautiful truth. Through the work of the Holy Spirit and faithful community around me, here is what I received instead. 

Purity is the wrong word

The very language that is used to describe a call for young people to abstain from sex until marriage sets up a false expectation. In a spiritual sense, to be pure is to be without sin. As Christians we believe that Jesus is the only human who has ever lived a sin-free life. Therefore to talk with young people about a very sensitive and intense topic using language that implies perfection is a sure recipe for guilt and shame. It is impossible to always remain 100% pure because even a stray lustful thought will mean you are no longer pure.

The way the movement was constructed led to an emphasis on personal behavior, which led to legalism, which leads to inevitable failure, which leads to despair and isolation. If our driving motivation is to be perfect for God, we are doomed from the start. Rather, we are made perfect BY God through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In this life we will always struggle with sin and our hope is in the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, not our personal willpower. I had to reorient my perspective away from being focused on my own ability to be perfect, and towards a perfect God who loves me unconditionally and accomplishes what I cannot do for myself.

Celibacy is not a vending machine

I very much wanted to be married and yet was perpetually single. I was always highly involved with my church and in my mid-20s even entered vocational ministry. By all accounts I was doing everything right and was deserving of God blessing me with a great husband. Yet no husband presented himself. Over the course of multiple years I had to wrestle with what my celibacy was for. A particular parable from Luke was deeply convicting:

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” – Luke 17:7-10

On the surface this parable may seem harsh, but it essentially means that we cannot put God in our debt. I will never be able to work hard enough or be good enough for me to become better than God and for God to then owe me something. If that is the case, then everything I have is a gift from God. Nothing is earned by me but is freely bestowed by a generous God. The Lord did not owe me anything for my celibacy, I was only doing my duty.

This was one of the most important lessons for me to learn. I have seen a great deal of pain and despair among men and women who “did everything right” but remained unmarried or had marriages fall apart. This has led to disillusionment and in some cases rejection of their faith. If we have been taught and believed that making all the right choices will earn us the things we want, we will have little to which to cling when life disappoints us. I had to make peace with the idea that marriage is not a biblical guarantee and God does not owe me a life-long happy marriage. God promises me that He will always be with me, and says that is enough. I came to a specific turning point where I believed that God is worthy of my obedience because of who He is, not because of what I want from Him.

God asks hard things for good reasons

Celibacy is hard. I spent much of my 20s feeling lonely and wondering where to find affirmation if not from a boyfriend/husband. I was not single by choice, I was single by default. It can be draining to take care of yourself by yourself, it requires a great deal of emotional energy. I wrestled with discontentment and wanting my life to look different than it did at various points. And yet I would not trade those tumultuous years. The Lord showed me what it meant to depend on Him and to rest in being fully known and fully loved by God.

There were many evenings where I would sit on my patio and have a stream of consciousness prayer conversation with God about my day and about my thoughts and feelings. I would not have done that if a husband was there. God used what could have been a purely lonely time to show me what intimacy with my Creator can be. It was time of learning that God cares about the things that happen in my day that only I care about and is closely involved in my life. God is a comforter who sees my emotions, sees my confusion, and draws near to speak the assurance of truth. Jesus is trustworthy even when nothing else is going to plan. Those years were hard but also a precious gift.

Friendship and marriage are equally important

Not everyone can or should be married and marriage is not the only way to experience love and intimacy. The purity movement focused almost exclusively on marriage as the ultimate prize and gave us no idea for how to cultivate meaningful and lasting friendships. When churches focus the majority of their ministry on marriage and family, many others are alienated, and all of our lives are poorer for it. Intergenerational friendship has been a tremendous joy in my life that has added a great richness. No matter your stage in life, friendship is essential for knowing each other and knowing more of who God is.

Sexuality is highly spiritual

When it comes to teaching young people about biblical sexuality, we’re bad at it. The purity movement largely lost the beauty of why God calls us to sexual fidelity. It is so much bigger than, “sex before marriage is bad so just don’t do it.” God presents a much more lovely picture of what sex is for and why it is important. Frequently in scripture God will equate marriage with His relationship with the community of faith across both the Old and New Testament (Hosea, Eph. 5, Rev. 21 just to name a few). The sexual and emotional intimacy between a husband and wife is one of the clearest pictures of the spiritual intimacy we all share with God. The way we experience our sexuality is designed to be intertwined with the way we understand our connection to God.

In marriage a husband and wife commit their whole selves to one another. They commit to sharing everything about themselves and make a vow to love the other person unconditionally. Tim Keller frames it well in describing sex as an act of “covenant renewal.” The act of sex is giving yourself in the most intimate way to another person. It is meant to occur in a context of deep trust and vulnerability, an expression of not holding anything back from the other. This is the way that God loves us and commits Himself fully to us. To love us unconditionally and to never leave or forsake us. When we trivialize and dull our experience of sex we inadvertently diminish the way we experience God’s love and fidelity to us.

Waiting until marriage is a blessing

It is true that if you have remained celibate through training yourself to see sex as bad, a switch does not automatically flip on your wedding night to make you enjoy sex forever. But because sex is profoundly significant, it is still worth waiting for. Something unique happens when there is only one person that is the source of your sexual pleasure. When we also abstain from pornography and masturbation within marriage we are solely dependent on the other for sexual expression. We cannot find sexual pleasure apart from the person we have pledged ourselves to, and that creates a bond that is lovely and designed to last. Sex is also far more than only pleasure, it is a vulnerable offering of yourself in the assurance of emotional and physical trust and safety. Sharing your whole life with someone is not easy, and our American culture is increasingly skeptical of the benefits of marriage and monogamy. Yet God designed it this way because we need a deep and unique bond to help sustain us through the trials of life. Sex is a very good gift that is a powerful sustainer of love and unity.

This is by no means a comprehensive exposition of everything that the purity movement got right and everything that it missed. There is also much more to say about the ways that God heals our sexuality when it has been abused or misused, and the way we experience the connection of sexuality and spirituality in celibacy. My intention is to share from my journey, which is my own and therefore has limits. I welcome questions and on-going conversation about what has shaped your journey and your hopes for the Church moving forward.