Humility and the “Maturity Assumption”

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A thought: I really hate it when people who are older than I am or more experienced in a certain area tell me that I’ll come around to their point of view when I’m their age, or have a couple of kids, or have been in the “real world” longer. It seems that there is a common, insidious, and almost irresistible urge to discredit someone else’s opinion (at least to ourselves, and often to others) by saying “when so-and-so finally experiences X, she’ll understand (and agree with me).”

Frankly, I think that assuming that your opinion is the direct result of just having enough experience (or experience of a certain kind) is a very arrogant and condescending attitude to have. It results in you viewing everyone who disagrees with you as if they are on a lower plane of maturity. I call this the “maturity assumption,” i.e., “I am right because I am more mature, and I am more mature because I am right.” It’s a very prideful, dismissive, and (obviously) circular argument.

For example, it would be very arrogant of me to assume that some of my more fundamentalist friends will “come around to my point of view” about relationships, or marriage, or parenting, as soon as they actually experience that side of “real life.” Likewise, I think it is very arrogant of certain other people to assume that when I have kids I will suddenly understand and agree with them about their parenting choices. Or that if I just get to know more homosexuals that I will begin to think like them about homosexuality and gay rights.

I’m sorry, but my opinions (and yours as well) are much more complicated than that. We have to allow others to disagree with us without being condescending and assuming that they “just haven’t thought enough about the issues” or “they just haven’t experienced X yet.”

Let’s face it: no matter who we are, how old we are, or what stage of life we happen to be at, we are always going to believe we are basically right about the stuff that matters to us. And that’s perfectly fine. Some of our views may change as we move forward and experience different things, and that’s okay, too. But we have to realize that no matter how right we think we are, we are probably wrong about a lot of things. Doesn’t matter if you’re in college, have a few kids, or are in your nineties. None of us are never going to have the whole truth about everything.

And that, too, is okay.

Humility, I think, comes with recognizing this fact and actually being able to live as if it’s true. It means resisting the urge to dismiss another person’s opinion by telling yourself that they will think like you in a few years. Don’t kid yourself.  And please don’t assume that just because someone holds a different opinion than you, that they haven’t “thought about it enough.” If someone holds an opinion strongly, chances are they have thought about it. Really. And if their opinions do change, please resist the urge to say “I told you so.” You are not more mature because you have reached a certain conclusion sooner than someone else.

Comment time! Feel free to discuss, but I do reserve the right to delete off-topic comments. In other words, this isn’t the place to debate about some of the controversial issues I’ve mentioned in passing. This is a place to dialogue about what it means to be humble, and how we can hold a belief or opinion strongly (and even believe someone else’s opinion is wrong), while still treating others and their beliefs with respect. 

Deceived, Part 2

(In which I re-examine my past in light of my present, and re-evaluate courtship doctrine from a personal perspective. Part 1 can be found here.)

Girl staring out windowDeceived. The realization sinks in, numbing my brain and my heart. This is the section that breaks me, the words that suddenly personalize all the theoretical turmoil I have struggled through for the last several years:

“A favorite strategy of Gothard’s is to cite all the references in the Old Testament where parents arranged their children’s marriages, together with unrelated passages that he somehow manages to turn into mandates for courtship, and then overwhelm his listeners with the sheer volume of apparent support for his view. The manner in which he delivers his teaching allows no time to consider the hermeneutic and cultural issues necessary to understand the matter or place it in its proper context.

In the Jewish culture, the father or representative of the family often selected partners, so of course Gothard can find examples of this happening in the Bible. This custom wasn’t unique to the Jews, however, but was practiced by the surrounding cultures at large and is still practiced in parts of the east today. . . In that culture, marriage was often treated more like a contract or property sale than a relationship.

. . . The point is this: Gothard picks and chooses the elements that fit his point of view. He conveniently ignores others. Then he audaciously says he has discovered God’s plan for courtship.” (A Matter of Basic Principles, pgs. 263-265.)

And in the moment I read those words, I realize that even though my family never took part in Gothard’s IBLP or ATI groups, even though my knowledge of him and what he believed was very vague and fuzzy when I was growing up, still I had reaped the poisoned fruit of this twisted teaching. Everything that Gothard taught, I had absorbed, somehow, and the roots of his teaching, passed along to me through so many channels, had settled deep in my very impressionable young heart.* I, too, had picked and chosen the elements of courtship that matched up with history and the teachings of the Bible, and conveniently ignored the elements of courtship that didn’t make sense, things that didn’t line up with what I knew of the gospel and the heart of God. Somehow, through friends, through family, through books, movies, and all the Christian subcultural influences that held sway over my young life, I had come to believe that courtship was “God’s way of handling relationships.” I had believed that dating was mere hedonism, with no grasp of the seriousness of commitment to marriage. I had believed in the concept of emotional purity–that emotions were to be avoided in relationships with the opposite sex, since they only clouded one’s judgment about potential partners. I had believed that strong parental involvement was helpful, even necessary, to guide a courtship and keep the young people on track in their relationship.

Most of all, though, I believed that courtship would keep me safe. That it would protect me from a broken heart. That if I “courted” instead of dated, I would arrive at my wedding day with a beautiful story, a story that I would be proud and happy to tell to my children and grandchildren.

Instead, I have a story I struggle to tell anyone. A story I couldn’t put on our beautiful wedding website. A story only my best friends know.

The caustic, confusing anger continues to burn, and I reach up to smear away the tears smudging my cheeks. “Jesus, I’m angry,” I pray aloud. “I’m angry and sad and hurting…” More tears. I pick up the phone and text my friend Elizabeth.

“Hey…are you available?”

“Yeah…want me to call?” That’s Elizabeth. She has an uncanny sense of when things are going wrong.

The phone rings, and I can hear her voice. I’m crying. I tell her about last night, how I couldn’t sleep, how my sadness over our courtship just kept growing and growing, and how this morning, reading and analyzing the “Biblical arguments for courtship,” I realized that I, like so many others, was duped. And how I’m so, so angry.

Through my sobs, I try to explain what I’m feeling, “I just feel like, I did everything right. I tried so hard–and I should have had a better story. And it shouldn’t matter, because we’re married now and happy, but Elizabeth…it does matter…”

“Yes,” she says, “yes…I know. It does matter.”

Elizabeth asks if she can pray with me, and I say yes. She prays for comfort, and strength, and healing for the anger and the hurt and the bitter regret. She doesn’t shame me for my feelings. She stays with me in them, holds my heart, and prays for peace.

The pain subsides as we talk, and a sense of quiet comes over me. It’s my story, and I have to live with it now. I have to live with knowing it could have been different, had I not tried to follow the rigid model of “traditional courtship.” I realize that in the past year or two, I have been able to tell myself that the things courtship advocates say are not grounded in either a historical or Biblical context. I have been able to debunk their logical fallacies and their unreasonable demands, but I have done so with a heart divorced from my emotions about the topic. I have not allowed myself to personalize my discoveries until now…

I was deceived. That one sentence alone turns my world upside down. No longer is the courtship debate academic for me. It is very, very personal.

And I let go, and allow myself to say the one thing I have never quite said, even to myself.

Courtship is not “biblical.” It is not “God’s way of handling relationships.” To say that it is either of these things requires a twisting of Scripture out of context and out of character with God’s Holy Spirit. Courtship is a man-made fabrication, a formula that may or may not work, depending on the personality temperaments and personal convictions of the parties involved. In my case, it did not work very well.

Courtship did not keep my heart from being broken–it was the instrument for doing so. I am scarred, and I am still hurting. And even though my husband and I are married, and happy, and thankful to God for that fact, we are still processing the emotional trauma of everything that happened during that year of courtship. We may never be able to tell our story, but we can give a warning to those who will listen.

If you are reading this, don’t be deceived. Courtship is a lot messier than many people make it out to be. It won’t protect you from emotional harm and long-term damage. It has unique challenges and hardships of its own.

Also (this is very important), you can have a heart to follow God and be led by the Holy Spirit and you can date. You can seek counsel from wise people and you can be committed to seeking marriage and you can date. It’s okay. It’s not wrong. There is nothing inherently sinful about dating. Like many things, it can be done in good ways and bad ways. Some dating can be frivolous and selfish and has no intention of seeking the good of the other person. Other dating can be serious and intentional and focused on learning to love the other person as a human being you respect and enjoy.

Most of all, whether you end up in a courtship or a dating relationship or some strange hybrid of the two, remember that this is your story. It’s no one else’s.

Make sure it’s one you will want to remember and tell, over and over again.

<3

*I am under no illusion that Gothard was the only one to advocate for courtship in the 1980s and 1990s, but the authors of A Matter of Basic Principles point to Gothard as the first major proponent of courtship in its present form, and state that the popularity of IBLP caused “courtship doctrine” to spread to many other people and organizations in the Christian conservative world (page 251).

Deceived

(I fully intended to publish Part 3 of my “Pearls and Parenting” mini-series today, but this came up and I felt it was important to write it out. Look for the conclusion to my article on Monday!)

01 January Candle1:00 AM. I’m still awake. Staring at the candle I lit half an hour ago, just to have some light, something to look at, for comfort.

It burns bright–bright enough to light up the room–and so steadily, never flickering. That’s why it’s my favorite candle. I can read by it without straining my eyes. But I don’t feel like reading now.

I’ve been lying here for hours. For a while, I try listening to music to help me fall asleep. I pull up the playlist my husband and I created the summer that we were starting our relationship. It’s more than a playlist; it’s a music journal, really. Each song holds a memory of days when we felt that song defined us, defined this relationship thing into which we were growing, changing, maturing.

Most of the songs are happy, hopeful.  But tonight, as I listen to them, I feel…sad. And the longer I listen to them, the sadder I get.

This confuses me.  Why am I feeling this way? Nothing’s wrong, Willie and I have a great relationship, we just celebrated eight months of marriage, dammit, we’re happy!..I should be happy.

But I’m not happy. And the longer I lay there, wide-eyed, looking at the candle, the more uneasy and restless and unhappy I become. I feel as though somewhere deep inside me, there’s a pool of sadness that’s just out of reach, like the way you can lean over the edge of a dark well and just catch a glimpse of your reflection far below, but you can’t touch the water.

What the heck is all that about?

I feel vaguely as though I should cry, but I don’t want to let myself do that, afraid it would be a little like tumbling down the well shaft, never sure when you’re going to reach the bottom. If there is a bottom.

2:00 AM. Sigh. This sleep thing isn’t working, and I’m only feeling worse. I shift positions for what must be the hundredth time and pick up my phone. I read the first chapter of The Last Battle, hearing the voices of my favorite radio drama version replaying in my head. I wish I had those radio dramas on my phone. I could probably fall asleep to that.

Earlier that day, a friend of mine had commented on Facebook that Shift the Ape was his first introduction to theocracy as a kid. It occurs to me, as I read the familiar exchanges between the wily Shift and the poor bewildered donkey Puzzle, that their relationship was probably my first introduction to emotional manipulation and abusive mind control. Funny how all those things often go together...

2:30 AM. I’ve been shifting through the Spotify library, listening to a song here and a song there, trying to find an album I can listen to until I fall asleep. I finally settle on my Andrew Peterson playlist, because I know them all by heart and they’re soothing, comforting. And it’s a long playlist, so I have plenty of time to doze off. I blow out the candle and start the playlist with one of my favorites, “After the Last Tear Falls.” Somehow it speaks to me and the weird, confusing ache of my feelings tonight.

***

7:30 AM. I wake up groggy and over-tired. As Willie gets ready for work, I lay in bed, trying to sort through my memories of last night. God, what was that all about? Even my prayers sound tired and bewildered. And I’m still aware of that deep, sad feeling down inside.

Being practical, I start running through all the reasons why I might be feelings this way, chief among them being hormones and lack of sleep. None of my reasons seem adequate to account for this deep, sad ache.

I wake up enough to tell Willie goodbye properly. We exchange some friendly banter as he walks out the door. After he leaves, I hesitate, trying to decide if I should start work right away or take a nap. I end up lying down for a half an hour, but can’t fall back asleep.

8:30 AM. I decide to do some “light reading” to get my mind working before I dive into the heavier research, so I pick up a book I’ve been reading on Bill Gothard’s Institute for Biblical Life Principles (IBLP). I had been reading a bit of the courtship chapter yesterday, so I pick up where I left off.

Within minutes, my pen is flying over the page, underlining and scribbling caustic comments in the margins. And suddenly, I realize I am angry. Really angry. A simmering acidic boiling feeling that rages, eating away at my insides. I find myself bewildered by this rising tide of anger and sadness all mixed together, and it’s too overwhelming, so I start to cry, hot tears seeping out under my lids and down my cheekbones. Why am I so angry?

Then it hits me. The answer is right in my hands, in this book.

I am angry because I was deceived.

Michael Pearl and Responding to Attention Seekers

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In yesterday’s article, I began a discussion of a very problematic piece by Michael Pearl, published on the “No Greater Joy” website. While Michael Pearl wrote this particular article nearly twenty years ago, the general tone of the Pearls’ parenting advice has not changed since that time, as publications as recent as last month’s magazine show (more on that tomorrow). While yesterday I focused mainly on the Pearls’ problematic attitudes towards children and their skewed perceptions of “childish behavior,” today I want to focus on the second part of the article, where Michael Pearl offers his solution to the “problematic behavior.”

One of the key problems with Michael Pearl’s solution is that he manufactures a problem where there isn’t one. Listen to what he says: “Though it was not outwardly visible, I knew that the mother was irritated at her child. She didn’t really feel sympathetic.” Later on, he states, “The mother, in this situation, actually doesn’t like her child.” He continues to make wild assumptions about the mother’s feelings toward her child, stating repeatedly that she is confused, irritated, disgusted, and that she feels guilty for it — so she buries her negative feelings for her little girl and “pretends to be sympathetic.” Where is Michael Pearl’s evidence that this is what was really going on? Oh, wait. He doesn’t give any.

ScoldedAfter Pearl indulges in an overwhelming amount of mind-reading, he moves on to dire predictions for the future. The mother, he says, won’t be able to contain her angry feelings toward her child for very long. They will explode later, in private, and cause damage to the mother’s relationship with her daughter. (While it is true that this can happen, there is, again, no evidence that this is actually what’s going on in this particular case.) This is also typical of the Pearls’ style of giving advice. Both in their parenting and marriage material, there is a pattern of making a host of assumptions about the unknown motives or feelings of people whose stories they exploit, in order to provide “evidence” in favor of their beliefs. A harsh critique of the parents or spouses involved almost always follows this amplified version of the story, along with predictions of the disaster that the people in the story are doomed to endure if they don’t shape up and follow the Pearls’ methods of “training” (or discipline, or submission, or whatever).

seethehurt2Michael Pearl’s verdict on the whole affair? “By the responses of the mother, this little girl has been trained to be an emotional manipulator. When she can not get her way, she will pretend to be hurt — or take a small hurt and make it into a big one.”

Forget the fact that we have no reason to suppose the child is pretending or crying out of a desire to get her way. Forget the fact that Pearl’s whole article is all a mountain of negative assumptions about a very minor situation. Let’s assume for the moment that it’s obvious that the child is practicing emotional manipulation — right there in that garden at the ripe old age of four.

The solution Michael Pearl offers is staggering.

“When the child begins to scream her defiance or hurt, the mother should just ignore her. Don’t be moved by it. Don’t pick her up. Tell her that there is no reason to cry, so go away and play. If she demands treatment, ask her if it hurts. If she says yes, then reach in your purse, pull out a terrible tasting herbal potion and give her a spoon full. After she gets through gagging on her vitamin and mineral supplement, tell her that she is now completely healed and invite her to come back for another dose if she again gets hurt. If you don’t have an herbal remedy, use something that is very unpleasant, yet good for the child — like apple cidar (sic) vinegar with garlic.”

What?

seethehurt3So when a child falls down and runs to you crying, wanting or needing your comfort, you’re supposed to give them something that will make them gag?? and tell her that if she gets hurt again, you will give her more of the same??

And then this final paragraph:

“Don’t laugh while she is looking. Remember, you are doctoring a serious attitude problem. Three doses is guaranteed to forever cure emotional manipulators and also prevent the development of future hypochondriacs. If crying and running to mom does not advance her own agenda over others, she will learn to make her own way and accept the normal unfairness and hardships of life. Everyone will like her better, including her own brothers, sisters and parents. Furthermore, she will be happier.”

People, this is disgusting. The idea that anyone would think that this is actually funny appalls me. There are so many issues with this “solution” that it’s hard to know where to start. To say that it’s a short-sighted technique with a ridiculous guarantee of long-term success only scratches the surface. There are deep, deep problems here.

Tomorrow I will be addressing one of the most serious issues with Michael Pearl’s recommended “solution,” and with the general Pearl approach to attention-seeking children. Look for it!

Parenting and the Power of Perspective

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This past week I have been reading quite a few articles on parenting, including the April 5th article in The Wall Street Journal about modern-day Machiavellian parenting, which only just came to my attention. While that article deserves a response post all its own, I wanted to draw attention to a Christian version of Machiavellian parenting — the model advocated by Michael and Debi Pearl, both in their well-known book “To Train Up a Child,” and elsewhere in their various media outlets (blogs, newsletters, and magazines).

I have read a lot of the Pearls’ teachings on marriage, parenting, and general theology, and one of the things that disturbs me the most about their parental advice is the attitude they take towards children. I want to highlight that here, because I think it illustrates in bold colors some theological mine fields that a lot of Christian parents can fall into without quite realizing it.

In the June 1995 issue of the No Greater Joy magazine, Michael Pearl published an article titled “Emotional Manipulators,” which has since been published on the NGJ website. In it, he tells a very typical story (typical for the Pearls, that is.) In this story, a young couple with several children visits the Pearls. While the children are playing in the yard, one of them falls down and starts crying. The mother runs to her little girl and comforts her, providing the Pearls with an opportunity to bash her for permissive parenting, guilt-ridden dishonesty, and teaching her daughter emotional manipulation…wait…what??

Yes. You read that right. Let’s take a closer look at Michael Pearl’s account of the events.

Child2Just this week, a family was visiting us in the herb garden while their children played in the yard. The four-year-old girl seemed to be pouty and moody. For a while, she just watched the other children having fun, but didn’t participate. She was the smallest and often couldn’t keep up. After a time, making an attempt to chase after the others, she fell on the thick carpet of grass. She immediately began to scream as if the goat were eating her favorite hat. At the same time, she was doing a stumbling, “pitiful” run to her mother. “Poor child.” The mother, drawn by the desperate, defiant screams, did what all mothers are expected to do, she sympathetically rushed to her “wounded” child. The four-year-old psychologist was well aware that, with others looking on, the mother’s reputation was at stake.

Okay. Stop right there. “The four-year-old psychologist was well aware that, with others looking on, the mother’s reputation was at stake.” Huh? Since when do four-year-old little girls  think like this? They’re hardly more than babies — when they fall down, or get hurt in some way, they run to their mother’s arms for comfort, for closeness. They don’t care who’s watching. And they don’t typically think in terms of forcing their mother to respond by threatening her reputation, for crying out loud. They just expect that she will respond, because, well, because she’s their mother.

We are beginning to see here the ugly attitude Michael Pearl has towards children, especially children who do not behave as he thinks children ought to behave. Notice the language in this first paragraph. The little girl seemed to be “pouty” and “moody.” She didn’t “participate” in the other children’s fun. When she fell down, she faked a “pitiful” run to her mother, screaming “desperate, defiant screams” all the while.

Definitely not a little girl who deserves our sympathy. Right? That seems to be what Michael Pearl wants us to think, anyway. He goes on:

Though it was not outwardly visible, I knew that the mother was irritated at her child. She didn’t really feel sympathetic. She was probably thinking something like this: “What’s wrong with the little brat now? She’s such a crybaby. I know she is not really hurt. Why does she pretend to be?” And then the guilt feelings hit the mother and she lies to herself: “Oh well, she is just a little thing and even though there is no scratch or bruise, and the ground is not hard, maybe she is hurt.”

child3There are a LOT of assumptions made in this paragraph, but I will leave them for a minute and focus just on Michael Pearl’s attitude to the child in the garden. He calls her a crybaby, a pretender, and a “little brat.” He says that he thinks the mother was thinking these irritable thoughts, but in saying so, he reveals that in fact, he himself is the one with the ugly attitude. Michael Pearl was irritated at the child’s behavior. Michael Pearl thought she was a little brat for crying for her mother’s attention and comfort when she wasn’t really hurt. And Michael Pearl feels that since he knows everything both mother and child were thinking, that he can be an authoritative judge on the matter.

But wait…maybe we can look at this from an alternative perspective. What if the child’s “moodiness” was due to the fact that she was coming down with a cold? What if she was hungry?  Or sleep-deprived because she missed her afternoon nap? What if she possesses a naturally introverted personality and is discovering that she does not care to play games with all the other children, but would rather be with her mother? Any one of these factors might cause her to be quiet and even “moody.” And what if she didn’t want to play with the others because they were bigger and faster and had trouble including her in their games?  What if her seemingly overly-sensitive reaction to tripping was the result of feeling too little? What if the hurt wasn’t a scraped knee, but a bruised and bewildered heart? What if she just wanted her mother, even if she couldn’t explain why? Is that wrong?

I offer these up as possibilities to illustrate that there are multiple ways of looking at this scenario, and all of mine are far more charitable than Michael Pearls’ perspective. But honestly, who is the best judge of the child’s physical and emotional state prior to the visit in the garden? Who would be the one making the best-informed decision regarding an appropriate response to the child’s tearful outburst? Michael Pearl or the child’s mother–oh wait. Isn’t that rather obvious?

Yet, Michael Pearl goes on to judge (rather harshly) not only the child’s behavior, but the mother’s response. Michael Pearl feels that he is in an appropriate place to judge, but he is not taking into account the possibility of numerous mitigating factors for the better assessment of the big picture. He is, in fact, only looking at the child through the lens of his own personal opinion on what appropriate child behavior is, and making a lot of assumptions about the emotional and spiritual state of both the child and mother in the process. In Michael Pearl’s perfect parenting world, no good child would “bother” its mother while she was talking to other adults. According to the Pearls, a child’s asking for attention is a selfish, sinful tendency that wears the parent out unnecessarily, and leads the child to become an emotional manipulator if the parent doesn’t nip this annoying habit in the bud. (If you don’t believe me, read a few chapters of To Train Up a Child. This kind of story is repeated over and over in Pearl literature to show that kids are annoying, sinful brats who need to be taught that it is not acceptable to cry, be clingy, ask “annoying” questions, or in any way intrude on the adult world.)

Does Michael Pearl’s article illustrate a position of grace and love towards children? Does anyone else think this is a warped perspective on normal childhood behavior?

(Look for my response to Part 2 of the article tomorrow!)

I have big news!!

I am so incredibly thrilled. In fact, I am almost speechless.

Estelle_ssESTELLE HAS A FAMILY.

Estelle, my Guardian Angel kid, the orphan child I’ve advocated for since last October, has a family.

AND IT’S MINE.

Yes, the Deutsch family has decided to adopt Estelle, and I WILL HAVE ANOTHER SISTER.

I can’t even tell you how over-the-moon I am about this.

And I’m humbled and a little awestruck, because maybe, if I hadn’t decided to advocate for Estelle, maybe she wouldn’t be coming home to become a part of our family.

It’s been a long roundabout journey to come to this point. For many months, my in-laws, Bill and Val, were working hard to bring home two special-needs children from Russia, Tim (12) and Ana (10). They raised over $10,000, only to have the door slammed in their faces by the Russian adoption ban, which was signed into law by Vladamir Putin in late December. For several more months, we all hung on, thinking maybe there might be an exception for special-needs kids, but the door to Russian adoption remained shut. It was heartbreaking to realize that Tim and Ana were never going to be part of our family, and that they might never know the love of a real family.

After much prayer and many tears, my in-laws decided they needed to move on. They still wanted to adopt a kid with the same special need as Tim and Ana, and they still wanted to rescue a kid who was in danger of aging out of the system. Estelle, who turns fifteen this year, was on the top of that list.

I’m so proud of my in-laws for having such a heart for these kids, and I am so excited to be with them on this journey. Look for more posts about this in the future! :D

UPDATE: The family sponsor page is back up at Reece’s Rainbow! Please head over there and read their story, and PLEASE consider donating to their adoption fund. Let’s bring this kid home!

Also, please check out Bill and Val’s blog, and this wonderful write-up of their story from Micah Six Eight.

Stories of Christian “Sex Miseducation”

ChurchtextI’ve been reading a lot this week, and ran across this article by Libby Anne on “Sex Miseducation.” Reading her story, as well as several conversations I’ve been having with friends, inspired me to tackle this subject, too. I think it is an important one, because I think that Christians need to be way more proactive about teaching their kids about sex, especially if their kids are homeschooled and not getting even basic instruction from anyone else.

Libby Anne, who was formerly homeschooled, writes: “My parents never told me about sex, never had “the talk” with me, nothing. My parents taught me that sex within marriage was the most wonderful thing ever but that sex before marriage was the most sinful thing ever, but they never actually explained what sex was. They just told us that it was a “special way of loving.” Weird? Yes. In an ideal world children will learn both about sex and to hold a healthy view of sexuality from their parents. Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world.”

In the world that we live in, we need to think through the consequences of our actions. Libby Anne goes on to describe the ways in which she gradually pieced together an understanding of sex that burdened her with guilt and shame for years. The more I dialogue with other sons and daughters of the homeschooling world, the more I hear stories like this. I’ve asked for permission to share some of those stories here, condensed and edited to protect the privacy of those involved. I think the stories speak for themselves.

{Warning: some of the language here might be graphic, depending on your definition of “graphic.”}

Kierstyn’s Story

file0001946946654Knowledge is power and lack of knowledge is just bad. I distrusted lots of people because I didn’t want to get raped, but I didn’t even really know what that meant. When my mom gave me the talk, she basically told me, “You know that hole that babies come out of? A man sticks his penis in there, and he likes it, but you don’t really feel anything, and that’s having sex.” For my mom, sex was a pointless, boring thing that men like and women don’t feel, except when they feel pain and bleed all over the sheets on their wedding night. After our “talk,” I felt violated for weeks. Add that to the fact that our “talk” was the first time I’d heard the word penis (I was sixteen!), and you can imagine why I felt pretty scarred. I wanted nothing to do with sex. I also still didn’t know anything about sex, because it’s hard to know where your “hole that babies come out of” is when you haven’t had a baby yet.

So, I had no idea what the actual terms were until I was sixteen, and even then I didn’t know what they meant. I had always avoided the parts of my science/body books that talked about the uterus/period/reproduction cycle because I was told sex was bad, and I thought that learning about that part of my body was bad, too. I had no concept of my own anatomy, and no clue where my vagina was. My first period was terrifying, as I was completely clueless about what was happening to me, and then when my younger sisters were getting to the age where they were going to have their period, my mom made me explain it to them because she didn’t want to. I was like “how am I supposed to tell them that they are going to start bleeding at random and make it sound not scary?” I didn’t even know why periods happened, and it WAS scary, so how was I supposed to make it sound not scary? I had to tell my sisters all about puberty while still not understanding it myself.

The first time I heard about foreplay and stuff was, again, when I was maybe sixteen and my boyfriend and my brother and I were in the back seat of a fifteen passenger van on a long road trip with my family, and we fell asleep. When we stopped for dinner at a restaurant, my dad took me and my boyfriend to task and warned us against foreplay and sex…in the middle of the restaurant, in front of all my siblings. Being the sheltered homeschoolers that we were, foreplay was a foreign concept. We were both completely bewildered and had no idea what my dad was talking about, but he didn’t believe us when we tried to tell him that. Since neither of us understood anatomy, both me and my boyfriend (now my husband) had to figure the whole sex thing out via Wikipedia, not that it was that helpful. I think like maybe a week before our wedding my husband got the talk from his pastor, and that was traumatic, too.

Angela’s story:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy parents never talked to me about sex; I knew absolutely nothing about what it was and how it worked. It’s like, you are working so hard to ‘save yourself’ and make sure you don’t wear tight jeans or show your boobs, yet you have no idea why, except this lust concept, which is never fully explained. When I did have sex for the first time, at age eighteen, I literally didn’t know what was going to happen. I wasn’t being taken advantage of, I just had no idea what to expect or what was supposed to happen or how it worked. When I found out, I was like… ‘This is the big deal? This is what all the fuss is over? This is supposed to be beautiful and it’s not really that crazy.’ By the time I have kids, I would love to figure out a way to help them understand how sacred purity is, and how important it is to refrain from dressing in a sexual way, without making it so mysterious. Now I understand why sex is special, and I would be able to explain to my child why they should wait. But I won’t be able to do that unless I tell them what sex is.”

Micah’s story:

You know that “birds and bees” talk that parents supposedly have with their kids? Well, mine never did. I remember my dad taking me and my younger brother out for a walk when I was maybe fourteen, and he asked us if we remembered the story of Joseph in the Bible resisting temptation when the wife of Joseph’s master tries to seduce him. Then he asked us if we knew what it was that the woman wanted Joseph to do with her. I was thinking, “This is a catch-22, whatever I say, I’m screwed,” so I let my brother kind of give an answer, and then my dad let the subject drop. That was the extent of my parental sex education. I found out what sex was through absorbing bits of information or looking up stuff on the web.

My dad’s refusal to talk about sex, and then his associating it with a temptation to adultery, made it very difficult for me to view sex as something beautiful or sacred. It was hard for me to readjust my thinking that sex was dirty, and it was hard for me to stop feeling guilty about wanting to know more about sex, and wanting to have sex. When I finally started talking about sex with the girl who is now my wife, she talked about it like it was beautiful and intimate and holy, with all its physical and spiritual facets. I had never heard anyone talk about sex like that before.

These are not uncommon stories at all. They don’t surprise me, but they do sadden me. Because if we as Christians don’t teach our children that sex is from God, and that it is good, in all its design and detail, then who is going to tell them? Hear me, if you are a home educator, you absolutely have the responsibility to educate your children about sexual anatomy and physiology. And if you are a Christian, whether you homeschool or not, you absolutely have the responsibility to teach your kids about sex from the point of view of God’s design for marriage and intimacy and love. To be honest, I feel that when we’ve reached the point where the Christian church has to be told that sex is “intended for pleasure”…that is a pretty sad state of affairs.

file5411245785843When I read the stories above, I am reminded of Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreutzer Sonata. For those of you who haven’t read it, the story centers around the confession of a murderer, Posdnicheff, convicted for killing his own wife. In the story, Posdnicheff explains how he grew up and how he developed his ideas about sex, marriage, and morality.  In Chapter V, he describes his first sexual experience, dragged to a brothel by a friend of his elder brother.

“…I, a mere lad of sixteen, polluted myself and helped to pollute a sister-woman, without understanding what I did. Never had I heard from my elders that what I thus did was bad. It is true that there are the ten commandments of the Bible; but the commandments are made only to be recited before the priests at examinations, and even then are not as exacting as the commandments in regard to the use of ut in conditional propositions.”

Because, basically, a commandment not to commit adultery is useless to you if you have absolutely no idea what adultery is.

Later on, in Chapter XI, Posdnicheff tells another story which has stuck with me ever since I read it six or seven years ago. In it, he describes the honeymoon of his sister, who was kept, like many Russian girls of that time, in complete ignorance of what happens in the marriage bed.

“My sister married, when very young, a man twice her own age, and who was utterly corrupt. I remember how astonished we were the night of her wedding, when, pale and covered with tears, she fled from her husband, her whole body trembling, saying that for nothing in the world would she tell what he wanted of her.”

I am afraid that a lot of sweet, beautiful Christian girls are in danger of being in exactly the same ignorant position as Posdnicheff’s sister. Christian parents need to be able to give their kids an open, honest, down-to-earth explanation for what’s going on with their own bodies. If we don’t, we run the risk of damaging our kids, both emotionally and physically.

I am thankful that this was not my story. My mom is a physician, so absolutely nothing about the human body fazes her (except perhaps the idea of being a geriatric dentist.) While it is probably always a little awkward to have to figure out how to explain sex to a child of eleven or twelve, I think she did a pretty good job, and since she was a doctor, I got a pretty thorough education in anatomy. To my mom’s credit, she always told me that sex was beautiful, created by God not just for procreation, but also for pleasure and intimacy.  As I grew older, I understood that sex was a very sacred, beautiful thing, but that it was also very physical and that you couldn’t relegate it to some ethereal dream-boat in the sky. I looked forward to sex, and I was not disappointed. Now that I’m married, I know from experience that sex is fun, that it is enjoyable, that it builds our relationship and strengthens our intimacy.

Someday, I hope to be able to tell our kids what I’ve learned.

Vision Forum and “Biblical Femininity”: An Introduction

saicff-headerI was eighteen years old when, in October 2007, I attended the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival (SAICFF) for the second time. Hosted by Doug Phillip’s Vision Forum in the downtown Gonzales convention center, this event draws hundreds of aspiring filmmakers and their families to San Antonio’s beautiful Riverwalk area. This year I enthusiastically enrolled in the Filmmaker’s Academy, a three-day intensive boot camp for young people aspiring to learn more about the art of filmmaking.

film rollThe days were chock-full of lectures and demonstrations on philosophy, screenwriting, directing, producing, animation, music scores, cameras and equipment. Geoff Botkin gave a lecture on art and finished by sharing some of his own paintings with us. Mr. Botkin’s son Isaac led a tutorial of cutting-edge animation techniques, creating an animated short right in front of our eyes. All the Botkins teamed up to try to break the world record for fastest time creating a television commercial (they didn’t quite make it, but it was entertaining!) In every session, I sat, absorbed, and soaked in every word. I took extensive notes, mingled with the other students to discuss ideas and aspirations, and came away every day with the feeling I had learned something new and valuable.

At the end of the final day of the Academy, we were told we were going to see something really special, the premiere showing of a “controversial documentary” Vision Forum would soon begin to market. The documentary was produced by the Western Conservatory of the Arts and Sciences, aka the Botkin family, and starred Anna Sophia and Elizabeth Botkin, daughters of Geoff and Victoria Botkin. The documentary’s title? The Return of the Daughters

As I sat there in the conference room with about 150 other students and watched the film, I slowly became conscious of a divide between myself and the other attendees. I had noticed before that I was a little bit of a misfit. My pants definitely made me stand out in a sea of long navy and khaki skirts, but it was more than that. I was the only young female to participate in the Academy unattended by a parental figure. “So are you here with your dad?” parents of other students would ask me. When I would reply that no, it was just me, they gave me funny looks. I would hasten to explain that my dad couldn’t come (he was working) and my mother wasn’t really interested in film. However, I could sense that they still thought my independence odd. Now, as I watched my fellow students absorb the ideas presented in the Botkin’s documentary, I found myself alone in a deeper way. My mind and heart struggled with the film’s philosophy, yet I found myself unable to speak of my doubts to anyone in that room. Am I the only person here who is questioning this? I wondered. Deep inside, another part of me stirred uneasily. Should I really be questioning this?

SAICFF AcademyThe confusion and doubt I experienced in that moment created a dilemma for me. I liked these people. I had learned much from them. I appreciated their insight and experience in film and art. I had had friendly chats with Anna Sophia and Geoff Botkin, and hoped I might be able to keep in touch with them as I worked through whether or not I should pursue film as a career. In some place deep inside me, I craved the acceptance of the Vision Forum people, their esteem, their friendship. Part of me wanted to agree with them just to claim membership in their camp.

I also wondered if maybe Anna Sophia and Elizabeth were right. I had just graduated high school, and was in the middle of preparing to attend college. Now, I questioned whether I should go–if it was right to go. Maybe my family had it all wrong. Maybe I had it all wrong.

It’s been more than five years since then. I’ve done a lot of thinking, and a bit of living. I have my B.A., I’m married, and I’m working towards pursuing a career as a professional counselor. (How’s that for a dramatic change in life directions?)Return of the Daughters

In the intervening years, I didn’t pay that much attention to Vision Forum’s evolving philosophy of family relationships, but recently I have felt the need to revisit some of their teachings, particularly those addressed to women, to daughters, and to wives. This is important to me for a couple of reasons. I know there are quite a few people out there who are blogging about these ideas, and a number of them are coming from a position of deep hurt and anger brought about by the implementation of certain ideas that Vision Forum promotes. That gets my attention. A philosophy that causes offense or even anger is not necessarily wrong, but when a large number of people choose to stand up and say “I think this philosophy is harmful, and this is why” — I think that merits attention and  examination. Also, while I grew up in a Christian subculture and believed many of the things that Vision Forum also endorses, I’m not angry or bitter towards Vision Forum. Perhaps simply because of that, my voice might be given more weight in some circles than someone who could be written off (however unjustly) as a hater, an atheist, or (god forbid!) a feminist.

So, for my friends who grew up with Vision Forum, I’ll just put my cards on the table. I don’t hate Vision Forum, and I don’t hate the Botkins.  However, I have experienced growing up in a Christian subculture infiltrated with Vision Forum doctrine, and I think there is room for a thoughtful critique of some of their theology and philosophy. I think that some of their teaching to and about women has some serious flaws.  I am going to focus on this teaching (and its flaws) in a series of articles, which I will post on this blog. If you’d like to participate in the discussion, feel free to comment!

Commonplace Links

common-place-bbokIn college, my fellow literature students and I wrote “Commonplaces,” personal reflections on ideas or people in the books we were reading. My professor resurrected this idea from the old “Commonplace books,” in which people used to journal scraps of things they found stimulating or important — collections of sayings, quotes from a thought-provoking read, recipes for tonics, lines of that poem you half-composed while walking by the old mill, a scribbled note that there are 8 ounces in a cup, and a reminder not to forget the rosemary at the market.

These days, I use a journal to write my Commonplaces — a hodge-podge collection of all the things I run across in my daily life, things I want to remember to share with someone, things that make me think deeply, make me laugh, or stimulate my creative instinct.  Now that I’m blogging, I want to compile the links to things I find into a more easily accessible journal entry, so I’m posting these “Commonplace links” as my way to share the more interesting things I encounter in the course of a week.

To quote my friend Hännah who blogs at Wine and Marble:  “The theme is this: I think they’re all worth reading, to expand one’s understanding of the world and compassion for others. They intrigued or tickled my fancy, or perhaps they sobered me and challenged me to step outside myself. I may not agree with all the ideas presented therein, but I will pretty much always think the concepts contained are worth weighing out without bringing my own presuppositions and baggage to the table. If you read them too, I ask that you give them the courtesy of a fair read, even if you instinctively disagree or it’s not terribly well-written.”

So…here we go! Here’s some links I’ve mulled over in the past week or so. I’d appreciate comments on any and all of them.

Why Pastors Struggle with Confronting Domestic Violence — A few days ago, my husband and I had a very frustrating conversation on Facebook with a young man about what recourse victims of domestic abuse have, “Biblically.” Sparked by John Piper’s comments on abuse and submission, the conversation quickly turned to the general response of the church in cases of abuse, and someone shared this article, which sheds light on why pastors might have difficulty recognizing or dealing with complaints of domestic violence.

A Biblical Response to the Abused Wiferelated to the above, this article was posted in response to the opinion that a Christian woman should never divorce her husband unless he has committed adultery. This article offers a thoughtful alternative perspective. Worth a sober read.

The Phony “Consequences” of Rock Music – lately I have been reading and researching into the philosophy and theology of Bill Gothard’s Institute for Biblical Life Principles (IBLP), and also his Advanced Training Institute (ATI). This article intrigued me because when I was in my early teens, I believed most of the lies in here, even though my family was not a part of ATI. As a musician, I appreciated this music professor’s approach to the subject.

Speaking the Truth in Love: Rules of Engagement for the Polemically-Inclined — Driving back home from visiting my family this past weekend, I read this aloud to my husband and brother. Thoughtful, witty, and refreshing. I feel the need to print this out and return to it often as I blog…highly recommended to my fellow writers and communicators.

Roberts: Russian adoption ban turns Children into Pawns — In the wake of Russia’s tragic choice to ban Americans from adopting orphans, there has been a flurry of varied responses in the media and blogging world. Many adoption advocates decry the loss of opportunity for Russian orphans and blame Putin for harming his own country’s children in an attempt to “stick it to the U.S.” Many others shrug their shoulders and point to the children waiting to be adopted in our own country, often asking, “Why should we take responsibility for Russia’s children?” Andrea Roberts is the founder of an international adoption ministry (Reece’s Rainbow) that raises grants for children with special needs such as Downs Syndrome or HIV. In this Washington Times article, she points out that out of all the countries in the world, only America and Canada allow for the adoption of orphans with known special needs, and even Canada has restrictions. Thus, for the thousands of Russian orphans with disabilities, Putin’s decision was really a death-knell. For more info on Reece’s Rainbow, see Robert’s interview with Live Action News.

Les Misérables and Realism in Art: Don’t Turn Away

Les-Miserables-girl-lscp
The day after Christmas, my husband and I went to see the film Les Misérables, the musical masterpiece based on Victor Hugo’s nineteenth-century French novel of law and grace, love, chaos, courage, and hope. Eight years ago, my heart was utterly captivated by the stirring Broadway performance, and I had looked forward to this moment ever since—the moment when the story I loved and the music I knew by heart would make its way onto the silver screen together. les_mis_hugh_jackman_thumbnail_648_x_365_0

It was everything I hoped for and more. The pathos of the score met the power of the story in a crashing wave, sweeping into full view the enduring tale of Jean Valjean, Cosette, Marius, Javert, and Fantine. I laughed, wept, ached, and loved the characters in a way I never had before. I came away with a deep sense of awe, my heart too full for words.

We had made arrangements to dine with a friend, so after the movie, we met up in a lovely little restaurant near the university. As we greeted each other and sat down, our friend mentioned that he had also seen Les Misérables the day before. We asked him what he thought of the movie. Sitting back in his chair and squaring his shoulders, he replied, “I have a…very mixed opinion.”

“Oh?” said my husband, “why’s that?”

Our friend hesitated and then said, “There were some…woefully inappropriate scenes in that film. There were some parts where…I just didn’t want to see that. I’m telling all my friends to buy the DVD and watch the movie when they have their remote in hand and can fast-forward through those parts.”

Those parts.

fantine seamstress 2I knew which parts he meant—it wasn’t hard to guess. The story of Fantine (played by Anne Hathaway) isn’t a pretty one. A poor seamstress struggling to support a child she conceived out of wedlock, Fantine finds herself out of work and is forced to sell first her hair, then her teeth, and finally her body in order to provide for her little girl. At the mercy of hardened customers and ruthless pimps, Fantine descends into a hell on earth, forgotten and utterly in despair. She screams, “Don’t they know they’re making love to one already dead!?”

Meanwhile, Fantine’s child, Cosette, is living in another kind of hell, neglected and abused by the Thenardier family. Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier run an inn for the riff-raff of society, and are themselves the worst sorts of thieves and swindlers. Their theme song, “Master of the House,” gives us a glimpse of their drink-sodden, despicable lives, as they take advantage of everyone around them in their “dog-eat-dog” world. This is not a pretty picture either. cosette-thenardiers

And yet, I felt a part of me shrinking inside as this young man’s words sunk into me…woefully inappropriate? Was it woefully inappropriate to portray scenes like these—lives like these? I heard his words—I just didn’t want to see that—and they troubled me.

The conversation turned to the historical context of Victor Hugo’s book, and I tried to explain Hugo’s passion for social justice, hoping that would shed light on his realistic approach. Victor Hugo lived at a time when France was very much a place of injustice and oppression, still reeling from the effects of half a century of war and upheaval following the French Revolution. He saw the people in the streets, the gutter-folk, the riff-raff, the prostitutes, the thieves, the beggars. He saw also the indifference to their plight, practiced by the wealthy and the privileged, who never had to wonder where their next bite of bread would come from—who never had to watch their children starve, their daughters sell themselves, or their sons jailed for petty theft.

Valjean-fantine-winter

Victor Hugo sees these people, and he tells their story, and he says, don’t—turn—away!

Pay attention to this. Don’t close your eyes. You have to see this. You have to see them.

Our friend stirred—a bit uncomfortably?—and said softly, “It’s just very different…than reading it in a book.”

I have heard this so many times. That filming depravity like this is too graphic, that it’s better not to see, not to fill one’s mind with…those things. And I understand people who think this way. Our culture is inundated with portrayals of human sexuality that glorify the unholy, the treacherous, the obscene. All too many movies display scenes of seduction and adultery in ways that feed evil fantasies in our own minds, and treat the human body as if it were a dish for us to feast our lusting eyes upon. Christians are typically averse to watching these films—and rightly so.

Yet Les Misérables is not holding up a twisted picture of human sexuality to be glorified and imitated. Instead, the film displays the depravity of prostitution in a way that brings home to our hearts the terrible anguish of the women involved.

Reading about “these things” in a book is different—it’s less scary, less “defiling”…less moving…less impacting. Books are safer, quieter…the human anguish and shame gets locked up in little black letters, with only the imagination to set them free. And if your imagination is too vivid, you can simply…close the book.

But on the screen, you can’t ignore the reality of human sin. You can’t escape the tragedy that engulfs Fantine, that threatens Cosette, that nearly destroys Valjean. Humanity’s lack of compassion becomes the engine driving the destruction of so many in Les Misérables, and if you look, if you don’t turn away, perhaps you will see yourself.fantine first night

My brother-in-law had this to say about the mindset that keeps some Christians from viewing parts of Les Misérables:

“Yesterday, I read one Christian review, of Les Misérables, telling people to ‘get their popcorn’ during the ‘Lovely Ladies’ song. I would disagree with that. I cried during the end of that song rather than the next. You cannot understand Fantine in ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ without ‘Lovely Ladies.’” My brother-in-law, who serves in the Navy, also said that what caused him to break down emotionally during the Lovely Ladies scene was when a naval officer is brought forward to be Fantine’s first customer. “As a member of the navy, it is sad to think that in many ways we keep the sexual slave trade alive internationally. I work with many people who believe that those actions are allowed, since it is overseas.”

Victor Hugo also knew that the issue of human trafficking would be the modern world’s new slavery problem.

“We say that slavery has vanished from European civilization, but this is not true. Slavery still exists, but now it applies only to women and its name is prostitution.” -Victor Hugo

hathaway-dreamed-a-dreamAnd this is why we must look. No matter how bad, how “inappropriate” the scenes of debauchery seemed to my friend, I know prostitution in real life is worse. I know that hundreds of thousands of women and girls today live the horror that Fantine lived…in the dark, all alone. Refusing to look away forces us to see their agony.

For Anne Hathway, playing the role of Fantine evoked a deep sense of compassion and empathy for those trapped in prostitution. “I did a lot of research into the lives of sex workers and particularly sex slaves to learn what the trauma is, because majority of them are traumatized, brutalized and are forced to stay in that life against their will,” she says in an interview with the Phillipine Daily Inquirer. “Normally, when you finish a role, you’re able to go home and leave it behind,” she continues. “There is no leaving this one behind as long as this is a reality in our world. Fantine lives among us and we should all be very ashamed of that.”

This is what I take away from Victor Hugo’s story today: that the poor, the down-trodden, the despised—even the prostitutes and thieves—are worthy of our attention, of our love, of our action. We can choose to turn away, but we must not.

And so I urge you to go see this film. Bear witness to the story of the convict Valjean, the prostitute Fantine, and the orphan Cosette. Let them touch you. Let them move you. Let them open your eyes to the needs of those around you. There are women today like Fantine—trapped, forsaken, despairing. There are children like Cosette—neglected, abused, helpless. There are men like Jean Valjean—bitter, broken, but redeemable.

And there are men like the bishop, who are instruments of the Redeemer.

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