How Can We Bridge the Culture Wars Divide?

A guest blogger at Feministe named Eve has written a wonderful post about the culture wars divide. She makes an argument for empathy, beginning by explaining how the bubble that is conservative evangelicalism can envelop a person’s life and frame how they see the world around them. She finishes by raising big questions, questions about how we should go about bridging this divide and about whether it’s even possible to do so.

“I lived in that bubble my entire childhood. It glittered with the poetry of Psalms, with prayer candles, sweet incense, with shiny shoes on Sundays. During the week, there was home-church with casserole buffets, and there were softball games against other churches on Saturdays, and in the summertime there were “house blessing barbecues” with holy water on the door frames. Christmas was the best because that’s when there were nativity displays with the little baby Jesuses, and an Epiphany play; one year my mother tied a fluffy lamb skin onto my back and I “baaaa’d” loudly when the Angel appeared to the shepherds.

On Halloween there was a big festival; the cake walk was my favorite event because you always won if you stayed in long enough. But we actually participated in Halloween without actually…participating. Most accepted facets of October 31st were seen as representations, if not literal manifestations, of The Devil. Ghosts, witches, those glittery red horns—anything which indicated a sin (including prostitutes, dead people, and aliens)—were forbidden. Instead, every member in my family chose a saint or Biblical character to emulate. One year I was Sarah, Abraham’s wife, based on my own illustrated Children’s Bible. I thought she was so beautiful. Another year I was Corrie ten Boom, a Christian who helped Jews hide and escape from Holland during WWII. She was captured by the Nazi’s in 1944 and sent to a concentration camp. I was 9 years old that time, dressed in black and white striped pajamas.

Inside the crystal bubble I listened to Amy Grant, and learned about a world created in 7 days. I believed that Noah’s Ark carried all the animals to safety, and imagined it would have been fun with the elephants, giraffes, anteaters, horses. I also believed in the Devil and I knew if I saw or felt the presence of him or his demons, I should say “In the name of Jesus Christ, be gone!” I knew– I knew– that if you didn’t invite Jesus into your heart, you would go to Hell, the burning fire place, for all eternity. In junior high I also believed in a physical, paradisiacal place called Heaven, and in the Garden of Eden, and in the huge importance of virginity. I loved summer camp in the Sierra Foothills, which included “Speaking in Tongues” as an activity (after archery, before rock climbing). Youth group was my favorite night of the week, where we played tag football and ate pizza with a hip pastor who taught us how to be good disciples of the Lord. I dreamed of becoming a missionary.”

Can I say right now how much I identify with this? It wasn’t all bad! In fact, lots of it was great! The bubble can be wonderful. The bubble can be beautiful. The bubble can be comforting. But it’s still a bubble. And outside of the bubble is real life.

“But before I could become a missionary, or a Republican, everything fell apart. There was trauma, and my sister could not recover. God did not save her, despite phone trees, holy water, hymns, and even sessions with a Christian therapist who suggested prayer circle exorcisms to eliminate the demons that were haunting her. Today, she still suffers from emotional, developmental, and psychological disabilities, some of which may have even been deepened by the methods intended to cure them. Soon after, my older sister became ill, and we were abandoned again; she died in 1997. The entire framework around which I had been raised dissolved away in a few short years. Reality flooded our existence. Betrayed and heartbroken, my mother walked away from the church, and she cannot sleep anymore. She struggles with guilt and confusion, especially about my surviving sister, and even a little about the way my own life has developed; as a good Christian woman, she loved her neighbors (John 4:7), but by doing so, inadvertently put her children in danger.

My adolescence was riddled with the chaos of grief, confusion and transition. I ran away into the arms of a 17-year-old boy who taught me about skateboarding, and Sublime, and keg parties, and how our parents just don’t understand. College offered further escape; I loved my classes at UC Santa Cruz and University of San Francisco, drinking up History of Consciousness, Psychology, Women’s Studies, Theater, Philosophy. Yes, I even turned my hair into dreadlocks, desperate for something– anything– that would differentiate me from who I had been for the first 16 years of my life. But it wasn’t enough; finally, cocaine and ecstasy and all-night dancing filled the confused space where I felt a different, more dynamic personality should have gone. I’d been cheated out of experience and information during my childhood, and I was determined to overindulge as recklessly as possible.

And then, right before the self-destruction overwhelmed me, I was pregnant.

It is hard to articulate tragedy as awakenings, and difficult to re-examine a life within the framework of “what if,” but for the sake of argument, I’m proposing we do so (my pregnancy turned out not to be one of these tragedies… but at the time, it certainly felt like it might be). If those things had not happened in my family and in my life, would I still have Jesus in my heart, espouse Pro-Life rhetoric, and teach my daughter about Noah’s Ark and God’s rainbow promise? I think it’s fair and honest of me to admit that, although I am an intelligent woman, the answer could easily be “yes.””

The point Eve is making here is that while she was ripped from the bubble as a teen, others aren’t. Others continue to live in the bubble undisturbed, and start raising their children in that same bubble. Once again, I so identify. My journey out of the bubble was very different from hers, but it was similar in that everything from before was suddenly shattered.

And I agree wholeheartedly with Eve in her conclusion:

“So, for better or for worse, I feel like I can almost understand a person like Todd Akin, and my heart certainly lurches out to those children in Louisiana [who will be attending Christian schools that teach creationism on vouchers]. I can understand how much these beliefs mean to all of them, and I am so sad and frustrated when I see these no-doubt misguided, misinformed but nevertheless deeply entrenched beliefs manipulated by politicians for the benefit of the upper class. (Cool speech, Paul Ryan.) Contemplating my role, and my unique position as someone who straddles both worlds as part of her identity, I am left wondering how to bridge the gap between “us” and “them.”

So, a few big questions.

How do we talk to the people who were educated incorrectly– who have Religion or Religious-based textbooks to support the wrong facts, who vote and behave accordingly– without putting them on the immediate defense? How do we encourage curiosity and welcome questions that may hurt/annoy/enrage us? How much intolerance are we willing to tolerate while we attempt to progress the conversation? How do we differentiate between hateful intolerance and ignorant intolerance, or does that differentiation matter? Is the element of religion too large to combat with information, exposure and conversation? Will this gap in our society eventually close on its own, as we are on the “right side of history,” or is it up to us to actively bring the conversation to the rest of the world’s population?”

Eve’s questions are important, and I don’t think I can phrase them any better than she does in that last paragraph, so I won’t bother repeating them. While I plan to think about this more and maybe write a series in response, for the moment let me just leave you with two thoughts I left in my comment on Eve’s article:

First, you have to remember that all this is linked into community. For people in the bubble, questioning some aspect of the bubble means getting kicked out of it. If you become, say, pro-choice, your salvation will be questioned, your friends may reject you, and your church – which may be your main source of community – will view you as a heretic and baby killer. The whole system is set up to keep you within a given system of beliefs and to resist questions or critical thinking. Asking questions can be dangerous to your well-being, and the consequences of asking questions are huge. I…have no idea how to fix this.

Second, what allowed me to first take a look outside the bubble was a friend who challenged my beliefs in a quiet, persistent, and non-judgmental way. He didn’t tell me I was crazy when I argued for something crazy, he just asked questions and pointed out contradictions. And he did it so nicely that it never felt like a threat. I was an introspective person willing to consider his questions and play around with ideas, and, well, the rest is history. But his demeanor and the way he went about this was crucial. Change isn’t impossible, but it does take time, openness to considering new ideas, and a huge amount of patience.

What are your thoughts? What would you add?

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