That's how the light gets in

It’s not the years, it’s the mileage. Alisa Harris may seem a bit young to be publishing a memoir, but while she can’t look back on a long life, she can reflect on a long journey.

Harris proves a lively and insightful guide to that journey, which begins with her childhood in the activist infantry of the religious right during which she was picketing abortion providers as a home-schooled soldier in the army of the Lord.

Harris’ memoir, Raised Right, doesn’t offer a straight chronology, but skips between past and present, constantly providing a contrast between the person she was taught and trained to become and the person she has become instead. That’s the right choice here because her life has not been a simple linear journey from Point A to Point B. Harris still isn’t sure where Point B is, where exactly she’s headed or where she’ll arrive.

Instead, with a keenly incisive eye for telling details, she recounts key moments along the way — the many instances of grace or epiphany or revelation when the story of the world she had learned wasn’t able to account for the reality of the world she encountered. As more and more of those cracks appear in the facade of the Christian conservative “worldview” she was taught, more and more light begins to shine through.

Harris is generous and gracious to almost everyone, reserving her harshest assessments for herself. She was and is fond of the fervent crusaders against abortion and the Republican operatives for local and national office who infused their politics with a millennial zeal. She’s not one of them anymore, but she understands them — understands the fears and longings that drive them — and to understand is to forgive.

Her story, punctuated throughout with those luminous little cracks, took her from religious homeschooling, in which she learned to venerate God and to worship Ronald Reagan, to Hillsdale College — a “citadel of American conservatism” — and then to Marvin Olasky’s World magazine. World aims for journalism with a “God’s-eye view,” considering itself a righteous antidote to the left-wing bias of, say, Christianity Today.

By the time she began working for World, the cracks were becoming too big to ignore. The magazine sent Harris to cover the U.N. debate over the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women:

My assignment was to report on the treaty’s treatment of the unborn, not its treatment of women, although the treaty contained not a single mention of a right to abortion. It only mentioned babies to say that both women and men have a responsibility for bringing them up and that a pregnant woman should not experience discrimination. But abortion? Not a word. The treaty’s text didn’t matter, my conservative Christian sources told me. …

But that text began to matter to Harris.

Later on I read of the United Nations Population Fund’s giving to gang-raped Kosovar refugee women some reproductive health kits that contained equipment to deliver babies, suture women’s torn vaginas, and give blood transfusions. But the kits also contained condoms, birth control, and a piece of equipment that could be used either to perform an early abortion or to help evacuate the uterus of a woman who had miscarried — which was enough for pro-life groups to decry them.

“It seems ethnic cleansing will continue,” one activist wrote, “this time masquerading under the name of ‘reproductive health.’” The Kosovar women were not oppressed, he scoffed: he knew because they interrupted men and had firm handshakes. I look at these examples and the facts seem stark and clear and deeply distressing: In a situation where they could help women — raped and bleeding women, pregnant women about to bring new life into a situation filled with pain, women who had miscarried their babies on days filled with suffering — these pro-lifers … deemed the health and lives of women expendable, acceptable sacrifices in achieving the goal of preventing even one abortion.

This was more than a crack. A whole section of the wall, a whole wing of the structure was crumbling away, demolished by the “stark and clear” facts her former ideology had demanded that she ignore or dismiss. More such facts confront her in other moments throughout this book — gay people turn out not to be monsters, poor people turn out not to be lazy leeches, wealth turns out not to be a sign of virtue — taking out the rest of that edifice, which Harris at some point was forced to abandon as unfit for human habitation.

When precisely it was she moved out isn’t clear, not even to her it seems. She used to live there. She doesn’t anymore.

The subtitle of Harris’ book is “How I Untangled My Faith From Politics.” That’s a bit misleading, suggesting that political engagement and advocacy is something that she left behind in pursuit of a purer, “untangled” faith. But at the end of Harris’ journey — or of her journey thus far — she hasn’t abandoned either faith or politics. What’s changed is that her faith is no longer shaped and conformed to the conservative political agenda of her childhood. Untangling herself from that has allowed her to seek another form of faith that can, in turn, inform the shape of her new politics.

The publisher is marketing Raised Right as a “glimpse … of how the new generation of Christians approaches the intersection of faith and politics.” That’s probably a shrewd angle, a good way to catch the interest of an older generation of evangelical readers who are horrified and mystified by, for example, their children’s strange lack of fear and animus toward The Big Gay Menace.

This book can provide them such a glimpse. Alisa Harris’ story is Alisa Harris’ story — grounded in very specific, particular, individual details and experience. But as in all good writing, those particularities are recognizably universal. Raised Right is a deeply personal story, but other persons will recognize their humanity in it as well.

Therein lies the danger. As Harris’ journey demonstrates, once you start recognizing the humanity in other persons it can be hard to stop. Cracks begin to appear and light shines through.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Very nice writeup! :-) *feels hopeful*

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    It sounds like she managed to take the “Good Jackie” path when confronted with reality that did not subscribe to what she had been told.  

  • Lizzy Blueshadow

    Sounds like an interesting book. I hope my local library system purchases it.

  • loiseauchante

    Her story sounds like my story.  I can’t wait to read it.  <3

  • Anonymous

    Hey people I while ago I asked the christians at this blog what they learned from slacktivist and if it changed their lives, I got answers from atheist/agnostic people but not from you.

    So would you people mind to tell your stories?

    sincerely yours

    Flat

  • Anonymous

    I’ll definitely be reading this one too. And great titles, I’m not a Cohen fan but I love that lyric so much. It’s the perfect way to describe what happened to me growing up a Jehovah’s Witness and how every book or movie, or every “Worldly” person I met was a crick-crack-crack on the brittle and unsustainable shell of JW theology. It ended up for me becoming a humanist, I can’t believe in any kind of God really and that’s alright. I wrote about some of my experiences here, http://juliaritchey.com/2010/09/24/speaking-out/

  • Mr. Heartland

    The excerpt I just read does give insight into how members of the Christian Right are able to hate government and feel passionate about politics at the same time.  A sense that their faith is proven right because it makes them brave, gives them the courage to fight a fallen world.  You get a glimpse of just how completely their self-identities are wrapped up in the idea of being the only creatures on earth who are not monsters.  I do believe I’ll be checking this book out. 

  • Anonymous

    well it shows how dangerous absolute certainty can be.

    I grew up in a VERY secularized place and it taught me how difficult it is to have faith in a world where most people say that they believe there is something, but are to lazy to look what something actually is.

    This the other side of the coin so to speak.

  • http://dcmoosings.blogspot.com LouC

    I can relate to her. will definitely read.

  • Lori

     I grew up in a VERY secularized place and it taught me how difficult it is to have faith in a world where most people say that they believe there is something, but are to lazy to look what something actually is. 

    Could you be any more patronizing toward people who don’t believe what you believe? Plenty of people don’t know what the “something” is, not because they’re lazy, but because they’ve thought about it and decided it’s unknowable or we don’t have enough evidence. Not everyone considers the Bible or some other set of scriptures to be obviously true and many of those people have indeed read those books. There’s even a name for it–agnostic. This is not a new concept. 

  • Lori

     I grew up in a VERY secularized place and it taught me how difficult it is to have faith in a world where most people say that they believe there is something, but are to lazy to look what something actually is. 

    Could you be any more patronizing toward people who don’t believe what you believe? Plenty of people don’t know what the “something” is, not because they’re lazy, but because they’ve thought about it and decided it’s unknowable or we don’t have enough evidence. Not everyone considers the Bible or some other set of scriptures to be obviously true and many of those people have indeed read those books. There’s even a name for it–agnostic. This is not a new concept. 

  • Anonymous

    You are right.

    I used the wrong words but in the place were I live I heard to many times people say: I don’t believe in God but I believe there is something.

    And when I asked them more about it they always don’t know what to say.
    The thing that annoys me and the reason why I used such strong language is because they aren’t looking for answers or thinking about it.

    I am sorry if I have made you upset,

  • Anonymous

    You are right.

    I used the wrong words but in the place were I live I heard to many times people say: I don’t believe in God but I believe there is something.

    And when I asked them more about it they always don’t know what to say.
    The thing that annoys me and the reason why I used such strong language is because they aren’t looking for answers or thinking about it.

    I am sorry if I have made you upset,

  • Anonymous

    flat,

    I know you’re not a native speaker of English, so quite probably the likely effect of what you wrote may not be what you intended. I hope you will find my comments helpful.

    First, there’s rather a long history of men (and other women) giving themselves (and everyone else) permission to ignore a woman’s argument by saying she’s “upset.” It’s a word I avoid using of anyone but myself, since it connotes a slight, petty sort of anger over things that aren’t serious. I wouldn’t use it on anyone else, I think, unless I intended to be a little insulting. But I’d certainly avoid using it on a woman because of that history.

    Having said that, I think Lori has a point. Your comment ascribes a motivation to people as though they agree with you that a main focus of one’s energies should be figuring out the exact nature of the deity. But it is quite possible that they do not. Agnostics hold that the existence of a deity is unknowable, so it doesn’t do you any good to keep trying to figure it out. And even among people who are sure there is a deity, not everyone thinks the deity wants you to spend a lot of time figuring it out or that it will penalize you for misunderstanding its nature.

    I haven’t met the people you describe, so I don’t know exactly what their motivation is. But are you sure you do?

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    It seems appropriate to link to Louis Marinelli’s switch from NOM organizer to supporter of gay marriage. (google cache, as the site appears down) Like Harris, he started out with a conservative religious position, but once he started recognizing the humanity if those he thought were “sinners” and “wrong”, he found his position harder and harder to dfend.

  • Anonymous

    As if you could possibly know what answers they’re looking for or thinking about. As if it matters in the slightest how comfortable they are with not knowing, or not trying to know. As if you have any right to look down on people for having different priorities than you! You try to clarify your position, as if it’s a miscommunication that’s caused the offence, but you don’t even understand why your statement was offensive.

    And you’re calling other people “patronising”? I think there’s something in your eye, you might want to get it checked out.

  • Anonymous

    As if you could possibly know what answers they’re looking for or thinking about. As if it matters in the slightest how comfortable they are with not knowing, or not trying to know. As if you have any right to look down on people for having different priorities than you! You try to clarify your position, as if it’s a miscommunication that’s caused the offence, but you don’t even understand why your statement was offensive.

    And you’re calling other people “patronising”? I think there’s something in your eye, you might want to get it checked out.

  • Lori

     I used the wrong words but in the place were I live I heard to many times people say: I don’t believe in God but I believe there is something.

    And when I asked them more about it they always don’t know what to say.
    The thing that annoys me and the reason why I used such strong language is because they aren’t looking for answers or thinking about it. 

    Fair enough. 

    There is one thing you should probably keep in mind though. There’s a difference between not actually knowing what to say and not wanting to be rude by saying, “I don’t know what’s out there, but I feel sure it’s not the thing you believe in and have dedicated your life to.”

  • cjmr

    Is Alisa Harris Joshua Harris’ sister, or is the last name just a coincidence?  (I’m sure there are lots of very conservative religious homeschooling families named Harris.)

  • Jenora Feuer

    Ahh, this title reminded me of a song, probably deliberately by our host:

    Ring the bells that still can ring,
    Forget your perfect offering;
    There is a crack, a crack in everything.
    That’s how the light gets in.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_e39UmEnqY8

    Of course, some of the more appropriate lines from that song are a bit later:

    I can’t run no more
    With that lawless crowd,
    While the killers in high places
    Say their prayers out loud.
    But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up a thundercloud,
    And they’re going to hear from me.

  • hapax

    @flat:disqus
     – I’m going to answer your first question, because I think it is a response to your later comments as well.

    As a Christian, what I’ve learned from Fred Clark is that a willingness to examine — HARD — everything that I take for granted, everything that appears to me as self-evidently good and natural and righteous, is essential to keep me from locking myself out of the Kingdom of Heaven.

    That openness to other points of view and readiness to laugh at myself is the best way to create a community of thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate, readers who can prove that the Spirit cannot be constrained, but bloweth where It will, even among (especially among?) those who do not believe in, see any need for, or are opposed to any relationship with said Person.

    And while I can not say with any certitude that “there is not any righteous, no not one”, if there is such a one, it is certainly not I.  Yet with humility and humor and a hella lot of luck, it is possible to start building a little corner of the Kingdom of Heaven any time and any place, so why not right here and right now?

     

  • Anonymous

    Thank you people for your criticism. 

    sometimes you can rush in something not thinking about the consequences about what you might say or do.
    So thank you for your saying that.

    And if I say something stupid, rude etc let me know about it.

  • ohiolibrarian

    Where I grew up, there were Orthodox Christians and Catholics, so all the Protestants on this site, especially the evangelicals, seem … exotic.  I am frequently bemused and fascinated by all the folklore and odd customs of the natives (yes, ;-)

    One of my aunts used to take us to any handy church when I traveled with her. She was always interested in the service and how it differed from what she was used to. Does anyone here do that sort of thing?  I have the impression that among some people, it would be considered a bad idea. You might get Catholic or Baptist cooties or something.

  • Reverend Ref

    One of my aunts used to take us to any handy church when I traveled with
    her. She was always interested in the service and how it differed from
    what she was used to. Does anyone here do that sort of thing?

    Many, MANY moons ago when my (new) wife and I were in charge of the youth group at church, we did a series on different churches.  We took them to a very conservative Baptist church, a Greek Orthodox church and one or two other places that I can’t remember.  I wanted them to know that not everybody did church like us Episcopalians, as well as be able to articulate why what we do is different and where it has meaning.  It helped.

    I think it’s good to see how others “do church.”  And I don’t think that by exposing people to different styles will necessarily result in our parishioners running off to another church because “It’s much more cool than ours.”  I would rather give them the information and let them decide than try to keep them cooped up in ours.

  • Anonymous

    One of my aunts used to take us to any handy church when I traveled with
    her. She was always interested in the service and how it differed from
    what she was used to. Does anyone here do that sort of thing?

    I once helped transcribe to computer a Civil War era diary of a reverend in Iowa.  One of the more interesting parts of the diary were his descriptions of other denomination’s church services that he attended out of curiosity.  Sometimes, he was almost snarky (he said the only good part of the Mormon service he attended was the music), other times, he was clearly moved.  I ended up rather wishing I had a time machine so I could go back and meet the guy.  He was decidedly not what one might expect, at least from his diary.  (He was also oddly tolerant of atheists, and just plain tolerant and thoughtful in general.  Perhaps he was a former incarnation of Fred.)

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    One of my aunts used to take us to any handy church when I traveled with her. She was always interested in the service and how it differed from what she was used to. Does anyone here do that sort of thing? I have the impression that among some people, it would be considered a bad idea. You might get Catholic or Baptist cooties or something.

    Actually, my father’s family did that.  Every Sunday they would wake up early, get into their nice cloths, pile in the car, and drive to church.  The thing was, every day they would drive to a different church. 

    I felt that was a pretty neat thing to do.  It adds a lot of perspective.  A world view based on only one point of observation is likely to fall over in a bad crosswind.  A world view built upon many pillars is much more stable. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/LoneWolf343 Derek Laughlin

    Replace the UN treaty with the Marriage Amendment, and that’s almost a perfect mirror of my life.

  • http://willbikeforchange.wordpress.com/ storiteller

    I did that when I was traveling around Europe, both to have the experience and see the beautiful churches!

  • Anonymous

    There’s a charming bit in the McCullough bio of John Adams, where Adams and Washington and a few others go to see a Catholic mass in Philadelphia.

    Adams wrote to Abigail, clearly shocked by the fanciness of the church, but having liked the homily a great deal. I assume the point was to do outreach to the Catholic community, or perhaps simple curiousity. I wish they’d included the scene in the miniseries.

  • Cathy W

    Given: Religious leaders from some groups refused to participate in a large-scale ecumenical event, for reasons that boiled down to “it would put us on an equal footing with those icky Lutherans and Catholics and maybe even a Muslim”.

    Logical conclusion: These folks would be opposed to investigating other worship traditions – why would you go somewhere they believe the wrong things in order to watch them worship in the wrong way, since you already know what the right things to believe and the right way to worship are?

  • Siberian_lizard

    I went to college with Alisa.  It’s definitely a coincidence!!


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X