Four women with books that heal

Four women with books that heal December 28, 2015


Over the past month and a half, I’ve read four books by four very different women that have offered healing in different ways. Each book has a completely different style and purpose, and I think each of them deserves your attention.

1) Pamela Lightsey: Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology

Dr. Lightsey has been an important leader within the United Methodist Reconciling Ministries Network which seeks full inclusivity for queer people in the church. She is an associate dean and professor at Boston University School of Theology. Her book is an important introduction to queer womanist theology, which provides an antidote for the normative white cis-straight reading of scripture. One of the most refreshing things about it is that she doesn’t engage in the same tired arguments over anti-gay clobber passages as though the Bible has nothing else to say to queer people.

Lightsey writes, “Queer black Christian women believe there is a word from the Lord, indeed a liberating word from the Lord, and that that word can often be found in the Bible” (39). She finds this word in the Genesis account of creation, which was somewhat surprising since the anti-gay Christians built their doctrine off of the gendering within the creation story (“Male and female he created them”).

But Lightsey points out that the most essential aspect of creation is that God is the one who did it: “A hubristic understanding of the world as the work of human hands rather than God’s good Creation is the origination of the first level of oppression, the foundation to all the interlocking oppressions” (59). Cis-straight white people are blind to the way that we position ourselves as intermediaries of God in the “creation” of queer black identity. When cis-straight white people police otherness, we are the ones who are usurping the fruit of the tree of knowledge that signifies insubordination against God, not the people we play God against.

It’s brilliant and completely legitimate the way that Lightsey turns the Eden story on its head despite the way it  has been used so often as a sledgehammer against queer people. She points out:

The Creation story, what God has done and what God is doing for and in the world, never posits a singular way of being human or insists that only one type of human is acceptable. What is most important in the early stories and what holds our interest is how we inhabit this world… More than our bodily parts, more than our offered gifts to God, we are required to love and care for one another. [73]

No matter how many people say “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” that’s simply not what the earliest stories of Genesis are about. Nothing about the mention of “male and female” in Genesis 1 is presented as prescriptive. What Genesis does clearly condemn is leveraging the knowledge of good and evil for our own power, which is precisely what the normative white heteropatriarchal gaze does.

Lightsey has a number of other surprises. Though her book draws upon queer theory, which has a reputation for being opaque and obscure, she makes everything accessible and concise. Though her book centers the queer womanist perspective, that doesn’t mean that it has nothing to say to a white cis-straight guy like me. For Lightsey, “queer womanist theology is a commitment to whole people existing in the wholeness of their given bodies; free bodies, sensual and spiritual in nature” (88).

2) Diana Butler Bass: Grounded: Finding God in the World

One of the ancient heresies of Christianity is Gnosticism, which made the claim among other things that matter is bad and spirit is good. The combination of living in a virtual world where our words are our only identity and inheriting a reductively rationalistic theology make contemporary Christianity tremendously susceptible to Gnosticism. We come up with brilliant arguments about abstract theological concepts but utterly lack genuine encounters with God in the physical world around us.

Diana Butler Bass’s book Grounded is an antidote for today’s Christian Gnosticism. She starts off by looking at simple natural elements like dirt, water, and sky to provide language for talking about our spiritual relationship with the physical world. Bass sums up our era’s Gnostic malaise in terms of humanity’s relationship to the soil:

Soil is not the problem. Rather, the infertility of the soil is the problem. The sin is not that human beings are unclean. The sin is that we have failed the soil; we have not attended to it, or we have abused it. We humans willfully disregarded our vocation to protect and keep the earth, choosing instead to do violence upon it… We are not soil-y enough! Spiritually, we would be better off more soiled rather than less. Being soiled is actually the point. [58]

Being “earthy” is not some kind of New Age nonsense. Jesus’ parables are filled with references to the land, the parable of the sower being an important example that Bass highlights. Our era’s disconnection with the land makes us unable to relate to a Bible that was written by and for a highly agricultural people.

In addition to the natural elements of dirt, water, and sky, Butler Bass looks at the elements of human community like roots, home, neighborhood, and commons. She bemoans the way that our society has so fragmented itself that we no longer know our neighbors or have any sense of common good. She points out the way that religion has been complicit in the cultivation of the selfishness of our society:

Sometimes critics decry spirituality as individualism, but they miss the point. Spirituality is personal, yes… The real problem is that, in the last two centuries, religion has actually allowed itself to become privatized. In the same way that our political and economic concerns contracted from “we” to “me,” so has our sense of God and faith. In many quarters, religion abandoned a prophetic and creative vision for humanity’s common life in favor of an individual quest to get one’s sorry ass to heaven. [237]

I love the way she turns the critique of “spiritual but not religious” people on its head, and I agree that people ought to be alienated by a shallow, consumeristic “religion” of afterlife insurance. If there’s one thing that people in our disembodied era need, it’s to be grounded, reconnected with the beautiful, physical world around us that we too easily shut out. The theological term for this is recognizing the sacramentality of all of God’s creation. I can’t remember whether Butler Bass actually used the word “sacrament” in her book, but if she didn’t, that’s all the better. Her book is a breath of fresh air not only for Christians but for all sorts of spiritually alienated people who are starving for divinity they can touch.

3) Teresa Pasquale: Sacred Wounds: A Path to Healing from Spiritual Trauma

We live in an age of spiritual trauma. Over the past decade, the blogosphere has exploded with the fallout from culture war Christianity’s many victims. Spiritual trauma is rarely recognized as a legitimate form of trauma despite the fact that it’s the content of so many psychotherapy sessions. Teresa Pasquale provides the unique perspective of a trained therapist who has had to process and heal from personal spiritual wounds.

Pasquales’s book includes lots of personal testimony from people who have been spiritually wounded, helpful terminology for understanding reactions to spiritual trauma, and practical contemplative healing practices for people to try. I really appreciated the healing practices in particular. They include visualization techniques for imagining safe spaces and writing projects for identifying where you are in the healing process.

The sources of spiritual wounds in the book vary. Several people shared the trauma of going unwittingly as children to fundamentalist Christian summer camps where they were pressured and shamed into making a “decision” for Christ. Other times the trauma was an indirect product of a religious upbringing, such as a woman who stayed in an abusive relationship for 15 years because of her conservative views about marriage and divorce. Another example was from a man who was actually traumatized in a emerging church community of wounded Christians that became toxic because they refused to adopt any form of structure or accountability.

One of the most troubling things that happens to people who are in recovery or healing from trauma is that they can often be exploited by false gurus who enter into helping professions as predators. Pasquale describes her encounters with false gurus in the yoga community. She offers a point-by-point comparison between false gurus and wisdom teachers that seems like an excellent checklist to go over whenever considering whether to join a new faith community built around a charismatic personality. The main point of contrast is the certitude of the false gurus and the humble unknowing of the wisdom teacher.

One of my favorite things about Pasquale’s book is the way that its content is modular. You don’t have to read it straight through from start to finish. You can flip open to any page to find a combination of stories, terminology, and practices that will provide healing. While this book’s first audience might be spiritually traumatized people, I also think that pastors and church leaders would gain tremendous insight by reading it. It’s so easy for us to denigrate people who have stopped going to church out of our own anxiety and sense of failure. But many of the ex-churched are not bored or entitled or overly worldly; they have legitimate wounds that need to be tended.

4) Deborah Jian Lee: Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, & Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism

I desperately want the title of this book to be true. I don’t know whether or not it is true statistically because this book is much more about stories than statistics. But this book is filled with rich stories that really lifted my heart about Christians who are refusing to be pushed out of their evangelical community because they’re black, female, or queer.

Lee interweaves the story of her own journey through evangelicalism with the stories of three primary fellow sojourners: a black woman Lisa wrestling with the whiteness of evangelical culture in her journey to becoming an evangelical social justice activist, a white woman Jennifer grappling with the patriarchy of her upbringing as she explored her call to pastoral ministry, and a group of queer students who organized a support group at one of the most conservative evangelical universities in the country. As she walks through each of these stories, she describes the historical context of the evangelical culture surrounding them and the grassroots movements that each protagonist represents.

The book focuses on the resilience and courage of these three main protagonists. Lisa Sharon Harper spent her youth as a black girl assimilating into predominantly white evangelical culture. When she went to college, she joined the conservative evangelical group Campus Crusade for Christ where she was drawn into anti-abortion activism and other culture war politics. Harper experienced an awakening and reconnection to her racial identity through a mission project in inner-city New York and her exposure to the writing of Christian social justice activist John Perkins. After college, her work with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in California continued to awaken her racial consciousness. This culminated in Harper’s role founding a group called Evangelicals for Justice and joining the staff of Sojourners.

Jennifer Crumpton’s journey began in the purity culture and beauty pageant world of Alabama. One of the more disturbing aspects of the story was to learn how connected Alabama churches were to the pageant world. Lee reports that “churches hosted competitions, turning altars into catwalks where girls learned to weave faith sound bytes into interview answers and stride around in high heels” (113). Jennifer’s patriarchal world came crashing down through experiences with sexual assault and a domineering husband in a marriage that ultimately failed. Upon leaving that marriage, she ultimately found her way to Union Theological Seminary and a pastoral vocation.

Will Haggerty and Tasha Magness were students at ultra-conservative Biola University who happened to be queer. Both Will and Tasha were strongly committed to conservative theology and wanted to experience college in an evangelical community, but in order to do so, they had to hide their identity. Ultimately when they found each other and other queer students on campus, they established a small group called the Biola Queer Underground. When Will reached his senior year, he made the fateful decision to come out to the Biola community just a few weeks before graduation.

Embedded into each of these protagonists’ stories are the stories of the movements they represent. Evangelicalism may have been a reliably monolithic fortress in the eighties and nineties, but the fortress is crumbling as more beautiful expressions of the Christian gospel are pushing their way through the cracks. Reading these stories that Lee has shared makes me hopeful about a future evangelicalism that is not any less committed to Jesus or the Bible, but refuses to define itself through exclusion and hierarchy.

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