That's how the light gets in

That's how the light gets in September 1, 2011

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.

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