As you know, I’ve just returned to school, after spending a summer working in the Pacific Northwest. It feels good to be back at the academic tasks. I love the possibilities of the month of September—ever since I was a young girl, I have delighted in this season of new beginnings and fresh notebooks.
The Stories We Tell
Letha, there was so much in your last letter that I could comment on, but I would like to focus my post by reflecting some on your section about Elisabeth Elliot. As you know, I did an extensive research project on her work last fall. I believe that she is such an important figure in 20th century American religious history, and yet there is almost no scholarship on her. For evangelicals of my generation, she had enormous influence on our ideas of gender and sexuality. Her book, Passion and Purity, was next to the Bible in importance for many of us. For those who have not read that book, it tells the story of her courtship with Jim Elliot; it was published many years after their marriage and his death in Ecuador while doing missionary work.
For my research paper I chose to re-read Passion and Purity, along with several other of her texts and radio programs. I was specifically examining her representation of feminism. In Elliot’s world, God arranged laws according to a hierarchical binary of men and women. If feminists had their way, according to Elliot, the whole cosmos would come unraveled—for feminism led to homosexuality, which led to incest and bestiality (in that order). She created an entire drama in her representation of feminism and gay and lesbian people.
No wonder sociologists find that many fundamentalist and evangelical women are so outspokenly anti-feminist in their language, even while seeming to adopt so many feminist values under the surface! The story that is told about feminists by people like Elisabeth Elliot bears such false witness against feminism (not to mention gay and lesbian brothers and sisters), that who would want to self-identity with a group that supposedly leads to bestiality and the fall of the universe?
Just like the Bayly Blog that accused you of promoting “sexual immorality,” Elisabeth Elliot was often so quick to effectively “other” those who disagreed with her. (And I must say, I was deeply grieved to read the Bayly Blog and its words toward you. I was left asking why Christians can be so unkind.)
A Space for Compassion and Psychological Reflection
I have to say, though, that the more I read Elliot’s writing this past spring, the more I saw her own pain and felt a growing compassion for her. When I re-read Passion and Purity I was actually appalled at how her boyfriend/husband Jim had treated her. Here was a relationship I had idealized in my teenage years, and yet when I read the story now (especially having a psychology background), I am deeply disturbed at all the ways he led her on, criticized her, refused to commit to her, and yet spiritualized all his actions. The story somehow seemed so romantic when I was sixteen; now it seems to verge on emotional abuse and manipulation. But Elisabeth had a way of narrating the story that made one want to live the story. The story is written in such a tantalizing and dramatic way: one feels that if you do everything as she and Jim did, that you will be swept into a passionate, adventurous life. Assuming, of course, you can put up with five years of ambivalent courtship in which you never quite measure up to the expectations of the person you love! (I never noticed when I first read the book the moments of criticism that Elisabeth endures from Jim.) And since the book stops at the wedding night, it is left to the imagination to consider what the substance of true commitment and relationship actually is.
A generation of young evangelicals imbibed this bestselling book. Dozens of other books were inspired by Elliot’s genre of Christian dating manual, including the popular I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. We are left to reflect on what is the psychological, spiritual, and emotional impact of internalizing such stories? Stories that seem to cover up as much as they reveal; stories that are shaped to sell within a very particular evangelical culture and publishing industry.
I have to be honest, Letha: when I re-read Passion and Purity or study certain aspects of what is taught in the name of evangelicalism, I feel a toxicity run through my body. There is so much dysfunction within religion that passes for spirituality. There is so much pain that gets buried under polished narratives.
Dwelling on Goodness
As I sit down to write, I’ve just come from an evening church service. We are a tiny congregation of about 40 people, and service is held in a beautiful stone chapel on the “old campus” at Yale. I am taking a class in meditation this term, and I already feel an increasing ability to center, pause, and worship when I am in service. The time tonight felt so restful, and I just said a prayer of thanks to be able to participate in such warm community.
As I have meditated and prayed this past week, I keep getting an image of the root system of a tree. I want my “root system” to be deeply planted in all that is nourishing and good. Cultivating that kind of root system requires a space of prayer, play, rest, and reflection that is difficult to find in a graduate program. This semester will be awfully intense (PhD applications are due!), but I feel as though if I don’t learn how to be “rooted” now, then I never will. And reflection and meditation are beginning to feel more and more important for me; all the theory, scholarship, and knowledge in the world doesn’t matter a bit, if we don’t actually know how to be nourished by goodness.
Your words about Martin Ginsburg and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were so nourishing to read because I spend so much of my time looking at what is not right with relationships. Reading about partnerships that are actively committed to mutuality and partnership is such a gift to me. I am realizing that I need to spend more time envisioning and reflecting on such goodness.
Letha, our readers might be noticing that this is a much shorter post than usual. (I confess, part of that is due to the 300 pages of reading I have yet to do for tomorrow. 🙂 But, mostly it’s due to your and my decision to write shorter, web-friendlier letters. In writing shorter letters, we hope to post more consistently (at least once a month). So, while we’ve had some long spaces between posts this summer, we hope to get back into our regular monthly schedule. Thanks to our readers for their patience!