The Scary Charismatic Movement

Let me start off by saying, as obnoxious as it sounds, that some of my best friends are Charismatics. I know it’s dumb. When White people tell me some of their best friends are Black, I can only roll my eyes. But, I mean it. I don’t doubt Charismatics’ sincerity of faith in God. I don’t doubt their good intentions. I’m not theoretically opposed to anyone speaking in tongues ever, but there is a problem with how the Charismatic movement has appeared to me through many people (mostly friends).

My only encounters with the Charismatic movement have all been scary, and they usually involve some person or people praying in “tongues” (translation: gibberish). One time, I even went on a retreat where, while someone was playing guitar continuously in the background, everyone else was rocking back and forth (sometimes on all fours), making animal noises, moaning, and just generally being scary. For a while, I stayed, hoping it would go away. Maybe I was too shocked to move. Eventually, though, I had to hide in my little bunk to get away from the insanity, but the noise still penetrated the walls. I thought to myself, “How could this be godly? What non-Christian would ever want to become a Christian after going to a retreat like this?”

Even though I’ve heard friends and acquaintances of mine pray “in tongues” on many occasions, I’ve never once heard anyone interpret tongues. I’ve also heard some people insinuate or say straight-out that having the gift of tongues is indicative of having a closer relationship with God. This is dangerous territory, folks. That would be like a situation in which a teacher tells another teacher, “I’m a better teacher because my students give me better Christmas gifts.”

What bothers me more is that there seem to be no bounds to what can be considered a “spiritual gift.” Tongues is clearly a spiritual gift outlined numerous times in the New Testament, but people will go to holy laughter, holy feeling each other up, holy whatever-I-feel-like-doing-but-am-usually-too-inhibited-to-do. Worship services dominated by a Charismatic ideology have an anything-goes and anything-is-valid feel to them, in which if someone says, “X is from God because I feel it,” there’s little room for any kind of validation or challenge.

What’s worse is that oftentimes participants in and proponents of the Charismatic movement do not even follow scriptural guidelines for gifts. The most appropriate scripture (which Charismatics conveniently ignore in sermons, Bible studies, and general conversations) is I Corinthians 14, where Paul urges people to conduct an orderly worship (no animal noises and such, I’m assuming) in order to bear good witness. Paul also encourages those who speak in tongues to do so in private or to ask God for the gift of the interpretation of tongues. I’ve never seen any Charismatic be at all concerned with how Charismatic manifestations, however “godly” or “spiritual,” may turn off seekers, nor have I seen Charismatics express to me any sentiment similar to “I know I’ve been blessed a lot in my times alone with God to be able to pray in tongues, but I have asked God to give me the gift of the interpretation of tongues so that others, too, can be edified when I pray in tongues.”

I have, however, seen a lot of Charismatics flaunt, in direct opposition to Paul’s admonishments, their “spiritual gifts” in extremely unedifying and haughty ways.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with gifts, healing, or “feeling” God, but when an Evangelical Christian movement becomes too experienced-centered and not scripturally centered, it must be called into question. It must be made accountable.

What I Remember from High School

The school I used to teach in had some wonderful academic programs. It also had a couple of fluffy ones. Every week, there were these “electives” teachers had to teach that had no homework and usually a low energy level (many of these were electives involving ten to fifteen students watching popular movies). One time, I “taught” an elective on music for the masses, wherein students could share their musical collections with each other. One student brought in Paul Simon, and we all chuckled at the well-known first line of the song: “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” Even at that young age, even when they’re still in high school, the students know they won’t remember much, that academic learning isn’t the important learning from school. It probably won’t surprise you that I don’t remember historical dates, math equations, or the conjugation of the subjunctive in Spanish. What can a high school teacher, then, hope to impart to her students? Well, these are actual memories I have from the high school classroom:

In ninth grade history class, the teacher tried to convince the entire class that there is no such thing as trying (think Yoda—”Do. Or do not. There is no try.”) and that it’s more sanitary to take baths than to shower. He managed to convince almost the whole class that these things were true. I adamantly (I believe most people called it “stubbornly”) refused to accept these logical flaws. One time he almost kicked me out of class. Another time, he asked the class to bring in mirrors the next day and to aim them at me the next time I talked because I, supposedly, was talking to only myself. That year, in history class, I learned how immature teachers can be, even if they’re extremely old. I also learned that when people realize later on that you were right to stick to your beliefs, they call you persistent or resilient. At the time, though, everyone calls you stubborn.

In ninth grade biology class, the teacher always badgered students who arrived late… unless said students came late from cooking class and happened to bring her a baked treat. Bloody favoritism… or bribery, at least. I also remember being too sissy to dissect anything, so I let my lab partner, Amy, do all the cutting, gripping, and burrowing out. She’s in medical school now.

In ninth grade English class, the teacher decided in the first week of class whom he would like for the rest of the year and also whom he would pick on and make fun of for the rest of the year. I got in an argument with him once because he insisted there was no such thing as freezing rain. He wrote on my short story that if it was freezing it should be ice, then, or at least hail (never mind that this is just not true—there is such a thing as freezing rain). After our argument, he said he never wanted to “conference” a paper with me again.

Tenth grade English brought me to a teacher who “got” my quirkiness. I wrote an essay on time, and I wrote it with the sentences in reverse order. Any other teacher would have asked me to rewrite it or would have at least given me a bad grade on it, but he appreciated it and thought it clever (presumably not just because of the gimmick but also because of what I wrote). I did get in an argument with him later, though, because he insisted the God of the New Testament (loving) was not the same one as the one from the Old Testament (angry). Surely, I’d have been fired if I preached to my students, but since he was anti-Christianity, I guess he couldn’t have gotten in trouble.

In physics, we had a long-term substitute teacher who supposedly had been a genius when he attended the school four years earlier. One of his extra credit questions had a stick-figure-drawing holding a vertical stick attached to a box. The question read: “Can you design a more efficient lawn mower?” I answered, “Yes.” He didn’t give me any credit for that answer, despite my protests. I’ve been grateful ever since. Later, when I became a teacher, I was thankful that a colleague introduced me to the following phrase to be put in vocabulary and grammar quiz directions: “Let common sense and the most likely intended meaning of the sentence guide your choices.” I also learned as a teacher, when giving multiple choice tests and quizzes, to ask students to pick the “best” choice rather than the “right” one.

I took AP Spanish as a junior. My friends and I (there were about four of us) were the only juniors in a class full of seniors. The teacher also happened to be one of the senior class advisors, and she was in love with the senior class. She was one of those teachers who always wanted to be hip with the kids, even though she was middle-aged. So, instead of teaching us Spanish, she’d spend the first fifteen minutes of class gossiping and joking (speaking entirely in English) with the seniors. Then, my friend Kitty (one of the sweetest people there is) would ask a simple (usually relevant to the curriculum) question, and the teacher would snap back at her, “¡En Español, por favor!”

I spent a lot of time in the art room. Even though I was never good enough to get the “real” art awards, every year the art teacher found a way to make up a special award for me, in appreciation of all the extra time I spent in the art room. (I practically lived there.) He was great, too. He’d always chastise the pot smokers who hung around the art room, getting high, but when they were drawing and doing art, he was very encouraging to them.

My tenth and eleventh grade history teacher was a white woman who was the first person to teach me about institutional racism. She was also an ardent feminist and gave me the opportunity to read I Never Called It Rape, which, along with The Feminine Mystique, was instrumental in turning me into a die-hard feminist.

Senior year, in BC Calculus, some student made a remark that, in some slight way, put down the teacher (it was a light-hearted remark, but I forget what it was). She put her hands to her chest, laughed, then said, “Oh! Cut to the quick!” All of my classmates and I looked at each other in bewilderment. She was aghast. “You don’t know what that means?” I was later to experience this whenever I, as a teacher and child of the 80s, mentioned anything before 1990. My students, most of them, had never even heard of David Bowie.

There are probably other teacher-related memories I have, but those are the ones that stand out the most for me. And, of course, I learned much from interaction with my peers, but everyone does. It’s when teachers wonder, “What will my students take away with them… to college and for life?” that it makes sense to think about, “What did I take away from my teachers?” I paid most attention to hypocrisy, passion, sensitivity, inconsistency, flexibility, compassion, justice, and enthusiasm. Teachers may ostensibly teach academic subjects; students, though, will always remember the teachers not as knowledge-bins but as role models (cheesy as that sounds). I hope I was a good one.

Are we all oppressed?

I just quit my job as an English teacher, and this has given me a lot of mental room for reflection on my experiences implementing curriculum. You’d think it’d have been easy for me as an Asian-American male to teach my students about both male privilege and white privilege, considering the fact that I belong to one privileged group and not to the other. The truth is it’s hard to talk about male and white privilege no matter who you are.

In discussing issues of both gender and race, students (and adults, too) are usually resistant to the idea that we’re not all “in the same boat.” If I began talking about white privilege, it was very easy for students to see me as some radical, angry minority with a chip on his shoulder. Once, after a class about Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, one of my students stayed to ask a brief question after class: “Is Mr. Williams’ [my white colleague and co-planner for the course] class doing this, too?” The meta-message of her question was clearly, “Are you bringing your own agenda to this class, or is this part of the ‘real’ curriculum?” I’ve found both white and non-white students to be resistant to teachings about racial inequities. For some reason, Asian students in particular seem to raise the strongest objections to any implications that whites might have some kind of special status that other races do not. In a similar fashion, when I tried to bring up the idea of male privilege as a sociological (rather than individual) phenomenon, the girls in my class were the first to talk about how they themselves had certain “benefits” that boys did not.

These words, in discussion of race, gender, sexual preference, class, etc. seem to be the most problematic and conducive to misunderstanding and outrage: oppression, privilege, institutional. Certainly oppression is rightly troublesome. The word lends itself to a type of victim status, a complaining mentality. Many people who actually are oppressed refuse to identify themselves as oppressed people because they do not want to be viewed as ungrateful, disruptive, rebellious, or radical. Unfortunately, while many feminists are able to embrace the term survivor instead of victim as an identifier for a woman who has been raped, there is no empowering way yet to label one who is institutionally oppressed. Privilege, though theoretically less troublesome in its accuracy of description, is actually more inflammatory when used. As McIntosh says (I’m paraphrasing), it’s easier to acknowledge the sufferings of others but harder to acknowledge the ways in which one benefits from the sufferings of others. Finally, I’ve yet to understand why whites and non-whites alike usually refuse to embrace the idea of institutional racism—that there is a system that discriminates. If it isn’t a system, it’s individuals. Individual racism places blame. It says, “You, you, you, and you are responsible for racism.” Insititutional racism has a “we’re all in it together” feel to it. It says, “It’s not your fault, my fault, her fault, or his fault. It’s just the system, and we need to dismantle the system.” Yet, students (and American people in general) do not want to acknowledge a system of racism, sexism, or heteronormativity.

One example I used in class to introduce institutional racism had most of the class convinced, but (ironically) one of my smartest students simply refused to admit it was evidence of institutional racism. I asked my students when there would be a non-white president of the United States. They said there wouldn’t be for a while, and people had various year projections (2040, 2100, etc.). I asked them why it wouldn’t happen. Clearly, most people in America do not say, “Let’s discriminate against Black people.” There had to be a system. It was after the class had finally decided an institution had made the president white year after year that one of my brightest students said something along the lines of, “No, it makes sense that the president is white because white people are the majority, and the president needs to represent the majority of people.” By this point, the class was in such a flurry of a discussion that when the bell finally rang soon afterwards, nobody (including myself) realized how illogical this (usually intelligent) student’s statement was. First of all, this student was acknowledging that the president is white—not accidentally, not through the workings of an unseen institution—because individuals wanted him to be white. This student was actively and consciously discriminating against non-white presidential candidates. Secondly, this student was oblivious to the fact that the president in other sociological ways was not representative of the majority in America—the majority of Americans are not male, rich, or college-educated.

A final example of the ridiculous lengths people will go to defend the status quo from questioning comes from my short stint as a long-term substitute English teacher (translation: low pay, no benefits, high responsibility, little respect), I tried to introduce a radical race curriculum to my 11th graders, and they were very resistant, almost all of them. Perhaps two of my 120 students were sympathetic or open-minded—at least they wanted to understand what I was teaching before disagreeing with it. Finally, when I had the students fill out a course evaluation, I got many negative responses, including one that said (I’m paraphrasing), “You need to start teaching the real English curriculum. You shouldn’t have us read all this radical stuff like Thoreau.” I kid you not. Here was a student who was so outraged by my introduction of “radical” curriculum that she objected to even Thoreau, one of the staples of traditional high school English curriculum, thinking that I had somehow snuck his theories of civil disobedience in as part of my personal agenda.

The real problem, though, is the polarization of thinking about oppression, privilege, benefits—whatever you want to call it. Sure, most people in America think about race, gender, etc. the way my students did (and probably still do), but I’d say almost everyone I’ve talked to about these issues holds one of two positions: 1. We’re all the same. Sure, there are problems in the world, but everybody has problems. No one race, gender, etc. is oppressed more than others. 2. We’re not all the same. White people, males, straights, the rich, Americans, the educated, the physically abled, the non-mentally challenged, etc. all benefit from systems of oppression, and everyone who does not fall into those categories is oppressed. We are not equal.

Now, I tend to lean more toward #2 than #1, as you can probably tell from my student anecdotes, but I’d say the problem is that there rarely exists a #1.5 or #1.75. What would most accurately describe racism, sexism, and all the other -isms of America would be the acknowledgement that systems of oppression and privilege exist, but that, as Beverly Daniel Tatum points out, the system is so messed up (these are not her words—I fail to capture her eloquence, so I’m paraphrasing once again) that even those in positions of privilege suffer from privilege itself. Benefits are not just benefits. Benefits come with a cost. All of these “double standards” that whites and males are so quick to point out (affirmative action, for example) are part of the cost of an unequal system. I think I’m borrowing this illustration from Tatum (it may be Susan Brownmiller, or I may have even made it up myself—I’m not sure), but this benefits system is like a marriage. If a marriage is an equal one, both partners benefit, and both are happy. If it is unequal—if one partner “benefits” at
the other partner’s expense, he may enjoy some of his “privileges,” but he will lose out on the ultimate fulfillment an equal marriage would offer. Perhaps his wife spoils him with massages. Perhaps she does all the housework and cannot say anything her husband might take as a disparaging remark. Perhaps her husband can say anything he wants, and she won’t object. These would seem to be privileges he has—he can do whatever he wants, and she’s supportive and servile. They’re both, though, missing out on the intimacy, trust, and fellowship that comes from a marriage of equals. Another way to look at it is as a prisoner’s dilemma. If both criminals work together to not ‘fess up, both criminals will benefit the most. If one ‘fesses up, and the other doesn’t, both will receive sentences, but one will get a lighter one than the other.

Yes, there are ways, as a male, that I recognize there are things that seem “unfair” to me—these “double standards.” For example, while my wife has the “freedom” to lack career ambition, I do not. Nobody wants a husband without ambition, one who says, “Yeah, I don’t know what I want to do with my life. Maybe I’ll just quit my job.” A wife can safely quit her job and lack ambition. However, if you examine this “double standard” closely, you’ll see it stems from the historically male oppression of females in America. What I could call a “freedom” of my wife to lack ambition is actually, in some ways, the oppression of my wife by society, as the male-dominated society is only too happy to see another woman exercise her “right to choose” by staying at home and not threatening males’ lead in the workplace. It’s the rigidity of the system of privilege itself that makes many “privileged” parties (males, whites, straights, etc.) feel “oppressed” themselves. In some ways, it’s like the mythic prince or princess who has no privacy, is not able to leave the castle or palace, and has no choice in whom to marry, but who also lives a life of luxury, pampering, and fame. It would not be right for this princess or prince to go up to a beggar on the street and say, “Yeah, so you’re hungry and poor—we’re all oppressed.” It is the princess’ or prince’s very “oppression” that is making this street beggar also oppressed. At the same time, though, the princess’ or prince’s “privilege” is not without cost.

Where will progress come from? Well, first of all, the princes and princesses of America need to recognize that they are, in fact, princes and princesses—that they do benefit from a system of privilege designed specifically for them. Secondly, the street beggars need to recognize that even though we’re not all “in the same boat,” privileged people suffer from the very system that benefits them. Thirdly, we all need to recognize that the dismantling of said system benefits everybody, not just the street beggars.

The Pledge Under God

Okay. I’m confused. Why is there all of a sudden a “new” controversy over the phrase under God being in the Pledge? Wasn’t this a news story about a year or two ago? Then, it just disappeared. Now, it’s resurfaced again for no apparent reason. Anyone know? Well, I just think the whole thing’s stupid. I can see both sides of the issue. First of all, from the standpoint of someone against taking it out, who cares? Does it matter if we say “under God”? Most of the people saying it don’t believe it, really. A lot people don’t believe any part of the pledge, let alone the “under God” part. In elementary school, we’re forced to say a lot of things we don’t believe. What’s the big hub-bub about “under God”? Is it really worth all the trouble? On the other hand, I don’t see any reason to oppose taking it out. Is it worth the trouble opposing it? What does the phrase “under God” being in the Pledge really do for us Christians? It doesn’t make the people who say it become Christians, appreciate Jesus more, or become more open to accepting Christ into their lives. If anything, it makes them more bitter and less receptive to the Gospel.

I am a devout Christian, and I’ll say it: I believe in the separation of church and state. Yes, I know the phrase “the separation of church and state” isn’t in the Constitution. I still believe in the idea. Let’s take the “In God We Trust” away from the coin. Let’s take out from the courts “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” If I’m ever on a witness stand, I’ll grab the Bible out of the bailiff’s hand, flip open to Matthew 5:33-37, and highlight the part that says, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Why do they have you swear on a document that condemns swearing? And this is the type of swearing Jesus was talking about—he wasn’t talking about cussing. Bottom line: God should not be in the governmental system (godly individuals might be, but God shouldn’t be there institutionally… only nominally), but if he stays in, it’s not worth raising a big fuss over. Geez.

Why Teach English?

Even though I’m now getting out of the teaching profession for not-so-idealistic reasons (I hate grading papers, and I like being able to call in sick without huge repercussions), I really do believe teaching literature to high school students has value. Now, here I’m writing specifically about teaching literature. Few people doubt the need for schools to teach students how to read sentences or write grammatically. A lot of people, including many students, do wonder occasionally just what about reading literature makes you think critically.

Now, I’ve read a bunch of bullshit books about the reading of literature that hail the study of literature as the appreciation of greatness. Some of my former English colleagues reinforce this notion as well—that the value of literature study lies not so much in the study of the material as in the material itself. One of my department heads once rejected my request to teach Lady Chatterly’s Lover not on the grounds (as I feared would be the case) that it is too sexually explicit but on the grounds that it “just isn’t that great a book.”

I find this line of reasoning, though prevalent, a bit disturbing. What are we teaching these students to do, after all? I didn’t ever want my students to simply read, in awe, and absorb a “great work of literature.” How does the mere reading of great literature cause one to think critically? And, then, if it does, about what does that reading teach you to think critically? There are several problems with this approach.

First of all, I’d like to make a distinction originally made by Sau-Ling Wong between what she calls literary interest versus what most people call literary merit. If we select books based solely on their literary merit, we encounter first the problem of what constitutes “good” literature. My department head thought D.H. Lawrence not “good enough” to teach, but Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly is a classic, and many would disagree with my department head. The second problem stems from the first: why teach only “good” literature? One could make the case that it is for exposure’s sake that we teach only “good” literature, to follow E.D. Hirsch’s model of “cultural literacy.” While this is a worthy goal, it’s not a terribly lofty one. Instead of teaching students, we could simply give them a reading list: “Please familiarize yourself with all of the canonical books on this list. Familiarity with these works will help you understand references to them later in life.”

I’ve found that teaching books that teachers and students understand must have literary merit has at least three damaging effects:

1. It does not foster in students any practical critical thinking skills, as they believe, since they study and analyze only “good” literature, that only “good” literature is worth analyzing—this is an implicit message we teachers send to students. Thus, when critical thinking is most important (when students are going about their everyday media consumption—advertisements, movies, tv shows, popular fiction, comic books, etc.), students will be less likely to think critically, to question those works that they deem to have less or no literary merit.

2. It forces teachers to exclude works from their curriculum that may have what Wong calls literary interest, works that may bring about the best dialogues, the best analysis, the best discussion, simply because those works are not “great works of literature” (whatever that phrase means).

3. What usually makes a work of literature “great,” apart from simply (by circular logic) being revered for so long, is that it maintains an illusion. Literature is really magic. That’s why writing fiction is a difficult art. That’s why fiction-writing teachers always have to hammer into their students the mantra “show—don’t tell.” Telling is the most efficient way to get across information to a reader (it is what I am doing right now). Showing is the most powerful way to get across ideas to a reader—it forces the reader to experience rather than hear about an experience. “Good” literature creates an elaborate illusion, an anti-Brechtian “Method” kind of reading experience. I’ve found that teaching truly great literature often numbs students’ thinking. They get sucked into believing that what the author has presented as truth is truth—not the author’s own truth or worldview but real, universal, undeniable truth.

A truly well-equipped student of literature will be able to think critically about, analyze, and question not only William Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, David Henry Hwang, Edith Wharton, and Jane Austen, but also Agatha Christie, Helen Fielding, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele, Alan Moore, and Stephen King. I’m not implying that the latter set of authors is inferior in quality to the former set. Some authors are considered more “popular” and less “literary,” though, and therefore do not “merit” much scholarship. All the better for Christie, Fielding, Clancy, Steele, Moore, King, et al. They won’t have to worry about anyone seeing through their illusions, questioning their assumptions, or thinking critically about the values they put forth.

Fighting Gender Role Boundaries

While there is a difference between sexism and the reaffirmation of gender roles, the two are certainly linked. I realize, as most feminists have to concede, that there are inherent differences in trends between males and females. The question, though, is whether we should exacerbate and exaggerate such differences or just allow the “natural” ones and allow people to be who they are. In other words, if the majority of men (let’s say 80% or so) fit into a male stereotype (overly preoccupied with sex, weight-lifting, making money, using their “masculine” voices, etc.) and the minority of men do not fit into that stereotype (say 20%), why should we force that 20% minority to adopt the majority behavior? Can’t we just live with a general trend existing? Does it have to be a unilateral trend—polarizing femininity and masculinity? As a male in the minority, unafraid of both feminism and femininity, I’ve always resented ways in which both men and women, consciously or unconsciously, reinforce gender roles and stereotypes. Here are practical ways not to do so:

1. Don’t ask men to lift and carry things. Yes, yes, yes, I’ve heard it before—men on the whole have more upper-body strength than women on the whole. Two things to consider, here, though. First of all, some men aren’t “on the whole.” Some men are quite weak (uh, me, for instance), and some women are quite strong. So, rather than saying, “Can I get a few strong men to help me move x, y, and z?” you can say, “Can I get a few strong people to help me move x, y, and z?” That way, a strong woman won’t feel left out, and a weak man won’t feel obligated to help out. If you happen to get a bunch of guys seeking to be macho, then it’s not your fault. The other consideration is that most of the time things that need to be lifted, carried, or moved are not that heavy. We’re talking chairs, small bags, books, etc. most of the time. Anyone of any gender, no matter how “weak,” can carry a book or two. I’ve seen this scenario happen in a number of different “enlightened” environments, not just conservative Christian churches.

2. Never assume someone shares the same values as you just because she or he shares your gender. I can’t tell you how many men have made inappropriate remarks to me in the assumption that I, too, revelled in their inappropriateness. How many husbands or men have said, “Ah, women!” to me about their wives, as if I would commiserate. How many nudge, nudge, winks, winks have I gotten from sexist men who just want to “tap some ass”? I’m talking Christian and non-Christian men, here. In fact, many Christian men are more sex-obsessed and sexist than their non-Christian counterparts. Just because I’m a man doesn’t mean I share the values, desires, and experiences of other men. This is something for both men and women to remember. I’m sure analagous situations apply for women assuming other women share the same values.

3. Don’t assume gender is the reason for action or opinion. Let’s say I like computers. Let’s say I enjoy a good action flick. Let’s say I don’t wear dark clothing. Let’s say I listen to hard rock. If any of these statements are true, it’s not “Oh, that’s ’cause you’re a guy.” Now, I don’t operate under the illusion that every choice one makes is an individual choice, regardless of societal values and messages. Just read my other article about individual choice. Still, it’s not up to someone who doesn’t know you well to attribute actions or thoughts to sociological forces. That requires a great deal of self-examination.

I’m sure there are other ways you can avoid unnecessarily reinforcing gender roles and stereotypes, but the above three are a good start. Go, and sin no more.

Missionary Dating

Oddly enough, even though I have many friends who have either considered or actually have gone “missionary dating,” I never felt an inclination to do so. I’m married now, of course, so it’s personally a non-issue, but I still have a number of Christian friends who struggle a lot with whether or not to date a non-Christian. When I say “Christian,” I mean devout, usually Evangelical Christians, not nominal Easter-and-Christmas-I’m-a-Christian-because-my-ancestors-were Christians. If you’re a nominal Christian dating/marrying an atheist, I don’t really consider that an interfaith relationship.

Naturally, the issue of interfaith dating or marriage is going to keep coming up. Without even considering faith, people are desperate enough to find someone to connect with, to feel themselves with. Now, just think if you cut the “eligible” dating population down by 90%. As far as feelings, money values, extra-curricular interests, curricular interests, sexual peculiarities, career aspirations, etc. are concerned, it would seem you’re far more likely to find someone compatible using 100% of the “eligible” population than to do so using only 10% of the “eligible” population.

Now, there are plenty of Christians who will tell others not to date non-Christians. I’m one of them, but the usual reasons given (see links below) are 1. Biblical mandate 2. The possibility the non-Christian in the relationship will somehow cause the Christian to backslide. 3. The inevitability of values disagreements later on. Now, there’s some validity to all of these arguments, but there’s something else seriously wrong with Christians dating non-Christians, particularly when it includes a “conversion effort.”

Now, I’ve seen a lot of these conversion efforts in missionary dating become successful (usually when a Christian woman dates a non-Christian man but not as much vice versa). What worries me most about “effective” missionary dating is the conflict of interest built into the relationship from the very beginning. Granted, most missionary daters do not say to their boyfriends something like the following: “Oh, you want to date me? If you want to date me, you have to become a Christian.” Usually the devout Christian meets someone who’s newly interested in but not committed to Christianity. Perhaps the non-Christian is starting to consider God may exist but doesn’t know that Christianity is the thing yet. The non-Christian is beginning to find Christianity itself fascinating at the same time he is finding the Christian herself fascinating. The Christian then becomes both the religious guide and the love interest.

If I “successfully” missionary dated, I would always wonder… I would always wonder, “Did she do it just for me? How genuinely interested in Christianity was she? Would she have found God without our relationship?” I’m not suggesting the non-Christian has somehow tricked the Christian into believing the newfound faith is genuine. There’s no “Ha ha ha! Little does she know I’m really still a non-Christian… my act is working!” The new Christian may have even convinced himself his faith is genuine, but how will either one really know?

It’s akin to, but obviously not the same as, a student-teacher relationship. If the student earns an A, he will never know whether he earned that A or if the teacher he’s having sex with gave the A as a pity grade. It works the other way around, too. The teacher herself may not even know “Did he really deserve that A? What will other people think?”

The real problem, which undermines the relationship, is not that the Christian will backslide, that “the Bible says so,” or that a difference in values will lead to disagreements and conflict. It’s the doubt that will follow the relationship wherever it goes. Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that component of the “unequally yoked” relationship is in denial.

Further reading I don’t necessarily agree with:
Date to Save
“What if he or she is a non-Christian?”
“What does God think of ‘missionary dating’?”

Why I’m a Pro-Choice Christian

My first exposure to talks about abortion came from the conservative Chinese church I attended growing up. The youth minister, the head pastor, almost all of the adults, and almost all of the children espoused the same approach: no tolerance—abortion is wrong; it's murder; it should be illegal; and the only possible excuse for it is rape. The propaganda they fed me was the following:
  1. Pictures of how disgusting and brutal abortions were
  2. Stories of mothers who had regretted their abortions
  3. Psalm 139:13
  4. Statistics of how many babies were left unadopted each year versus how many abortions occurred

There may have been more, but that was the gist of it. There were several things that troubled me about the pro-life propaganda at our church (and, I do not believe it was at just our church—but, for now, I will concern myself with the model, not the scope).

In light of the popular evangelical campaign of the 1990s, WWJD, harping on how abortion is murder and should be illegal did not seem like something Jesus would have done. In fact, I'm sure abortions or infanticide occurred during Jesus' time. He may not have approved of it, but he spent most of his time preaching, performing miracles, and loving people. The emphasis seems out of place, in other words. We, as loving Christians, should be spending most of our energy somewhere else.

The strong association my church made between being Christian and being pro-life was also disturbing. There were, of course, pro-choice members of the congregation, but they were constantly subjected to pro-life rhetoric from the pulpit, in the Sunday School classrooms, and even in everyday conversation. What seemed odd to me about it was the idea implicit in equating Christianity with the pro-life movement that Christians somehow valued life more than non-Christians, that telling a Christian that abortion was taking a life would somehow mean more to that person than telling a "heathen" the same thing. Do not even "heathens" hold life sacred?

The quoting of Psalm 139 I found simply amusing. To our detriment as Christians, historically the church has misquoted scripture to support anything from torture and animal cruelty to slavery and misogyny. Psalm 139 speaks of God making David: "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb" (NIV). God's "knitting" supposedly means that David was "alive" or "human" even as a fetus and that killing him then must have been just the same as killing him at the time he wrote the psalm. But how could seminary-trained religious scholars even imagine David was singing anti-abortion rhetoric or even establishing a theological basis for a scientific view on when babies are "alive" or "human"? Didn't the church learn that what Biblical figures viewed as science is not meant to be theological truth? Isn't that why Galileo got in trouble with the church? Now, of course, all Christians believe the earth revolves around the sun. The context of the psalm (which, interestingly enough, most of the preachers I've heard quoting the psalm leave out) is speaking about how well God knows David: "Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely" (139:4, NIV), "When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be" (139:15-16, NIV).

I'm not a Biblical scholar, but it seems to me that David is saying God knew him even before he existed, knew him so well that David did not even have to be in order for God to know him. You could even use the passage as a pro-choice argument—that David's emphasis on being in his mother's womb shows just how non-existent he was at the time. He does speak about God's knowledge of him before he experienced life; he does speak about God knowing the words he speaks before he speaks them. The point of the psalm is really that God knows people even before their lives begin.

The tragedy for me about the misinterpretation of scripture is not so much that Christians do so to suit their own politics and agendas so much as that it makes Christianity meaningless to non-Christians. Many jaded non-Christians think you can use the Bible to support anything. Even the devil uses it for his own purposes (Matthew 4). But there is truth in the Bible. The Bible does say something (or a number of things), and twisting is twisting, distorting is distorting, and taking passages out of context is ignoring context. What amazes me is that jaded non-Christian English teachers can actually believe the Bible is more meaningless and subject to interpretation than any other text. Shouldn't English teachers know that context is important to understanding content? I could very well say that anyone could use a Hemingway book to support anything. But there are standard interpretations of Hemingway and there is plenty of context to consider when writing about Hemingway—his life, his worldview, the actual surrounding text, the word choices, etc.

My mom was a social worker. She would indoctrinate me against the church she brought me to. She would, in fact, de-program me from youth group activity and propaganda. As a devoted Christian and Chinese immigrant, she recognized the value of going to church and worshiping with other Chinese people. However, as a social worker, she also believed that many of the things I was learning at church were wrong. I was already aware that the pictures of disgusting abortions were merely a shock tactic. My mom made me recognize, though, herself having worked around adoption, that adoption is not so easy. It's a complicated and expensive process, and the babies who are being aborted are not always the babies couples want (there is a racial angle to adoption). Also, some babies don't get adopted right away, and most couples wanting to adopt do not want a toddler or young child—they want a newborn baby.

I remember there being a debate at my high school once. It was part of the 10th grade English curriculum—a speech class. Part of the speech class was the presentation to the class of a debate on a controversial subject, and someone brought up a pro-choice stance on abortion. Some of the arguments I heard from my classmates were not too intelligent (I'll write it off as 15-year-old parental brainwashing—I was lucky enough to be brainwashed by both my mom and my youth group, so I had a unique perspective). Many of them actually thought "life" did not begin until the fifth month. What does that mean—that someone injects life into a bunch of cells all of a sudden? Could you then take the fetus out of the mother at the fourth month and then put it back in before the fifth month and have it still turn out fine because life has not yet begun? Any argument that says life does not begin until such-and-such a time does not make logical sense. The baby is alive from the moment it is conceived. It is living tissue. It is not necessarily human, though. I remember one particularly volatile Sunday School teacher I had who proclaimed that he did not have two children—he had four. He counted the miscarriages. I almost laughed when I heard him say that. First of all, I knew that's not what he really thought. If someone at a dinner party asked him, "Oh, how many kids do you have?" He wouldn't have answered he had four and that two were dead. He didn't name those unborn babies. Life does not equal humanity. I stand by it. My biology is a little shaky (I was an English major, okay?) but as I understand it, a baby's life begins when a sperm and egg come together and form a one-cell organism that then splits into a two-celled organism and a four-celled organism, etc. That four-celled organism is alive, as much as bacteria or mold is alive. It isn't human, though. It will become a human, though.

It's tricky. At what point does it become a human? I don't know that we can rightly say that, anymore than we can say at what point a girl becomes a teenager or a teenager becomes a woman. I'm a vegetarian. I eat eggs, though. I love eggs. What would those eggs have become, had I not eaten them? My guess is that they would have become chickens. I don't eat chicken, though. There is a difference between a chicken and an egg, whichever one "came first."

I value the sanctity of human life not because I am a Christian but because I am a human. I do not think that contraceptives (even emergency contraceptives) and male masturbation ("spilling the seed") are the same as abortion, and I think even though you are stifling a potential human life when you have an abortion, I do not know that you're committing murder. I think it's wrong, I don't approve of abortion, I take abortion very seriously, and I'm repulsed by the idea of people using abortion as birth control. I do not equate abortion with murder, though. And, I do not necessarily think that just because I think abortion is wrong that it should be illegal.

I honestly do not know where I stand when it comes to abortion. All I know is where I do not stand. I cannot rightly say, "Have an abortion if you want! It's your choice," nor can I say, "It's wrong, and it should be illegal at all times."

Then, there is always the issue of the act of making it illegal encouraging women determined to have abortions to do so dangerously. It is not the same logic as saying that if the government makes pot illegal (which it is now) that people will smoke it anyway. If people smoke pot illegally, it is just as dangerous to their health as if they smoke it legally. If women have coat-hanger or dirty-scalpel abortions, the women could die in addition to the fetus.

Finally, there is the issue of choice: women's choice. You cannot separate the personal from politics. There is not necessarily just a right or a wrong when it comes to abortion. I have my own views, but I think whatever is decided should be decided by women. Women, of course, will disagree with each other, but a woman's body is a woman's body. I do not think men should have the right to legislate women's bodies. Every time I hear men (Christian or non-Christian) make a big hoopla about how abortion is murder and blah blah blah, I wonder if they can hear themselves. I wonder if they can hear how stupid they sound. I wouldn't mind hearing an Asian-American say, "Let's get it together. Let's be more political. Let's not be invisible. Let's not be the model minority anymore," but I'd hate to hear a white person tell me, "You. You Asians. Get it together. Be more political. What's wrong with you?" It's not the same message because it's not from the same messenger. The first says, "We have to do something. Let's change together." The second says, "What's the matter with you? I've done it. Why can't you?" I would imagine it's a similar experience to any woman (pro-life or pro-choice) hearing a man spew off about abortion. He doesn't have a right to talk.

That said, if any woman reading this thinks, "What right does he have to talk, then?" I will be the first to concede that I don't have a right to talk. If you're a woman reading this and you want to write me off and say, "he has no clue what he's talking about," it is your prerogative.

Secular Music Edifies Me

Almost every devout Christian knows at least one person who doesn’t listen to secular music. This is a very popular course of action for those who have attended a lot of youth retreats or who go to Christian colleges. I’ve heard about record burnings and commitments to throw away old CDs. The thinking behind this is obvious: “I won’t be corrupted. I’ll listen to only music that is ‘edifying.’ I must think about what is good and praiseworthy. Everything I do should be for the glory of God.”

Ironically, it’s when these individuals make this commitment… that they’re at their least holy in terms of attitudes and behavior. Oftentimes, they become judgmental, ignorant, hypocritical, and pushing of pre-marital sexual boundaries. They become self-flagellating, guilt-ridden Arthur Dimmesdales. I don’t see their spiritual lives improve. I don’t see non-Christians observing, “It’s so great that you just turned off my favorite radio station. You’re such a testament to Christ’s love.”

Whether or not the Bible supports a ban on secular music-listening is up to interpretation, of course. There is a seriously misplaced assumption underlying the screening of unedifying music—that not listening means not doing or thinking about. For example, a ton of secular songs deal with love, heartbreak, and longing. Are these unedifying things to think about? Well, if they are, it doesn’t show in the Christian community. Every Christian I know who’s made a commitment to abandon secular music still has crushes, heartaches, loves, losses, misunderstandings, etc. If you’re thinking about such things already, why not have a song to commiserate with? Why not know that you’re not alone?

More importantly, why don’t more Christian artists deal with in their music the everyday issues and thoughts even “holy” Christians face? The average Christian CD has eight songs praising God, one song lambasting some mysterious listener for not accepting Christ right now, and one song deprecating the self (“I don’t deserve you, Lord,” etc.). One of my favorite Christian bands, PFR, tends to have the usual selection of songs but also chooses to have one of their songs about the death of a dog named Goldie (“Goldie’s Last Day”). Is dealing with the death of one’s dog unholy, unedifying? Why can’t one do that in music? Music that ignores human woe, suffering, joys, concerns, and living is not “holy.” Look at David’s Psalms. Sure, he acknowledges God’s greatness and spends a great deal of time praising the Creator, but also cries, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Bottom line, unless a song says, “God doesn’t exist. He sucks!” who’s to say it’s unedifying?

There’s a more fundamental issue at stake, though. While Joseph’s failed seduction by Potiphar’s wife is held up as an example of running (rather than resisting) in the face of temptation, is listening to unedifying music (or words, really) temptation? Does it cause you to sin? I haven’t found it causes me to sin. Counterintuitive though it may seem, it’s good witness, actually. In fact, non-Christians have been more impressed by how eclectic my tastes in music are than they have been with how limited the tastes of my “edifying-music-only” friends. Remember, Jesus said it’s what comes out of a man’s mouth, not what goes in, that indicates his cleanliness.

Jesus didn’t avoid spending time with the tax collectors and prostitutes because he worried they’d be unedifying. How much less harmful is a piece of music? In fact, some Christian music is downright unedifying, and that’s what’s so insidious. For example, Caedmon’s Call’s “All I Know” encourages Christians to disengage from intellectual defenses of Christianity (not the same as pointless debate, a real danger) and polarizes religion into experienced-based Christianity and scientific-based secularism. Even though I love Caedmon’s Call’s music, I find their lyrics both banal and unedifying. Sometimes, supposedly Christian music has even debatable heresies in it. David Ruis’ “Let Your Glory Fall” has a line in it that makes me cringe every time I’m supposed to sing it (“…the world has yet to see/ The full release of your promise/ The church in victory”). I guess it depends on how you define “church.” To me, the church seems corrupt. I don’t think God ever promised the corrupt church would be in victory. God will be in victory. He will bring his people to victory through his own work. I also find it unedifying to see people singing, “I feel like dancing for joy” (or something similar) when they are not, in fact, dancing and don’t look the least bit joyful.

A last point about Christian music v. secular music. In order for Christians to really be good witnesses, they should be innovators, not copycats. A lot of conservatives complain that Christian rock now sounds too much like secular rock. The problem is not that they shouldn’t sound like secular rock but that they should sound better than secular rock. The one possible exception to this trend is the incorporation of Gospel music stylings into pop and R&B.

Christian musicians need to give up the idea that they are primarily (edifying?) lyricists who simply adopt pre-existing musical styles. Musicians should be song-writers first and foremost, then lyricists. Nobody wants to listen to mediocre music with incredible lyrics, let alone mediocre music with mediocre lyrics. Let’s raise the bar for Christian music (varied subject matter, innovative music); then, the issue of whether or not to listen to secular music will be moot.

Further readings I don’t necessarily agree with:

“Don’t Listen to Secular Music”
“Growth in Faith Leads to Rejection of Secular Rock”
“Is Listening to Secular Music a Sin”

“Subversive” Saved!?

I’m not one of those Christians without a sense of humor. In fact, I was excited to see Saved! I know some Christians will judge a movie before it’s even been released (The Last Temptation of Christ, for example, which turned out to be offensive to me more in how boring it is than in any of the content of the film–I actually thought a lot of the film had theological value, particularly Satan as an attractive girl “angel” and Christ’s last temptation feeling so real). I thought Saved! would be a good laugh, and it was. I wasn’t offended by the many (many, many, many) puns and ironic jabs at Christian culture.

I am, however, offended by people’s reactions to the film. This MTV interview with Jena Malone (star of the film), uses the word subversive three times. If you do a Google search for “saved subversive” (obviously, the results will change depending on when you read this essay), a good fifteen of the first twenty results have to do with the movie Saved! In fact, the movie’s (official?) description seems to be the following: “In this sweetly subversive comedy, a group of outsiders band together to navigate the treacherous halls of high school and make it to graduation, ultimately learning more about themselves, finding faith in unexpected places, and realizing what it truly means to be saved!” The other words that get thrown around in discussions of Saved! are irreverent and satire. The movie is certainly irreverent. Irreverence is where 99% of its humor derives from. It is also satirical in the strictest sense of the word; though, satire generally pokes fun at universally recognized human folly, as opposed to unfamiliar, “straw man” human folly. Does the church have hypocrisy, intolerance, judgmentalism, and scary cult-like features to it? Yes, of course.

The movie doesn’t seem to get at the heart of the real manifestations of church problems, though. There are few Christians like Hilary Faye, who will do almost anything (even deface their own school) to get someone expelled from school. There are few kidnappings of friends to perform exorcisms. Yes, yes, yes, I know. The movie is supposed to be campy and exaggerated. It’s not meant to be taken literally, but just what is it supposed to be exaggerating? What comes even close to kidnapping your best friend in order to exorcise demons from her just because she hasn’t been spending as much time with you recently? The truth is the movie reaffirms the prejudices and misunderstandings of the Christian community that the secular communities in the United States already have, and it ridicules practices and faults that the church doesn’t have.

According to dictionary.com, subversive means, “Intended or serving to subvert, especially intended to overthrow or undermine an established government: ‘Sex and creativity are often seen by dictators as subversive activities’ (Erica Jong).” A movie that reaffirms prejudices against a not-too-well-understood outsider group is not subversive. It is not undermining anything. It is reinforcing barriers that already exist. It is further polarizing the non-Christian and Christian camps in America. Just look at the Yahoo! movies user reviews section for the film. Most people aren’t able to judge the film objectively. People who want to ridicule Christianity love it (lots of A’s and A+’s), and people who view the film as anti-Christian hate it (lots of D’s and F’s). The truth of the matter is the film is in the B or C range–it’s mediocre; funny but formulaic, flat, and (ironically) preachy.

The effect of a work of art is what matters most, not the intent of its creator. I’ve tried to tell my English students this over and over again. The running (and erroneous) joke being, of course, that English teachers read too much into literature, that such-and-such an object is a symbol that is the secret to unraveling the meaning of a book. The author later comments that the object was incidental. Last laugh on the English teachers, right? No. The author doesn’t have the last say. The author’s intentions aren’t the last say; the author’s work is. Works of art, particularly cinema and literature, are forms of communication. If the audience or critics misunderstand your intention, it’s not because they are defective or unable to appreciate the genius of your craft—it’s because your craft needs reworking.

Many members of the cast and crew have been quite defensive about the movie, writer/director Dannelly himself claiming “[u]ltimately, it affirms faith.” I’d like to know just what about the film affirms faith, and faith in what? It is one thing to say, “Look at those morons who don’t truly understand the beauty of Jesus and the Christian message; they’re so caught up in Christian culture and feeling superior,” but if you don’t have any characters who do appreciate and understand Christianity, how is your movie faith-affirming?

A truly subversive film wouldn’t, as this film does, leave non-Christians thinking, “Ah, those Christian weirdos—they just need to lighten up and get with the times.” Non-Christians already think that. At the same time, a truly subversive film, as many Christians wish this film would do, wouldn’t make Christians feel comfortable, either (“Yes, that’s how we truly are; that’s a fair portrayal of modern Christians”). I’d love to be able to laugh at Christians, and I did while I watched Saved!, but I’d love even more to see a truly subversive film, that undermined conventional wisdom on both sides of the Christian/non-Christian barrier. I’d love to see a film that made non-Christians think, “Wait, maybe Christianity isn’t so bad” but that also made Christians think, “Wait, what the hell are we doing? We need to shape up.” If one film could elicit both of those responses… that film would be truly subversive.