Tag Archives: alisa harris

Raised Right Special Edition: Complementarianism

Note from Jarred:  When I began reading chapter eight of Raised Right:  How I Untangled my Faith from Politics, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much space Ms. Harris devoted to sharing her own experiences with sexism in the Church and how it affected the way she saw others who had a differing view on various subjects.  I felt it would be good to spend a bit of extra time looking at this topic.  I also felt that there was someone (several someones, actually) who was better suited to speak to the topic.  So I asked an old blogging buddy, Pam Hogeweide, if she’d be willing to write something on the topic.  After all, Pam has not only done a good deal of research on sexism in the church and women in theology, but as a woman, she has first-hand experience.  I was delighted when Pam accepted the invitation.

On an editorial note, beyond making a few visual formatting changes (such as fixing up the quotes for my blog) and bolding the word “complementarianism” where Pam gives a brief definition of the word, I have strived to duplicate Pam’s words exactly as she sent them to me.

Jarred and I are blog buddies and Twitter pals. Though we’ve never met, we have crossed paths many times in the digital world for several years. I am honored that he has invited me to share some thoughts for his series on the book, Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics, by Alisa Harris.

In chapter eight of the book, Alisa gives us glimpses of the sexism she experienced from her church  that has left her a bit scraped up. Female prejudice is an unfortunate reality in our culture, though Alisa sheds light on how the Christianized version of sexism tried to box her in. Like after her graduation from college. Alisa had travelled home only to find that the spiritual leaders from her childhood were there to stage an intervention:

“. . . I sat between my parents and listened while our pastor and a church elder explained how my own sin required them to stage an intervention. The pastor and elder, part of a loose affiliation of fundamentalist churches, had grave reservations about women attending college when God ordained marriage and babies instead. College had changed me, they said. I talked more about careers and academics than about being a wife and a mother. . . I was no longer the kind of person they wanted their daughters to emulate.”

These are harsh words hurled by men of the cloth who are attempting to keep Alisa on the straight and narrow of being a good Christian woman.  It is all too common for women from conservative Christian churches (as well as not-so-conservative) to experience this tearing at personhood for the heresy of being Her.

I am well acquainted with the complementarian position Alisa’s childhood pastors asserted. I used to live under it myself and also defend it. Complementarianism is a fancy theological term that shrouds the idea that women are equal, BUT separate. It’s the idea that God in his divine order of creation has uniquely created men to lead and women to assist. It’s why men are the the pastor and women the secretary.

This view is based on a handful of scripture verses that at first glance seem to support the complementarian position. For instance, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 says, “The women are to keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.”

Sounds pretty dire for women, doesn’t it? But the same author who is given credit for penning these words–the apostle Paul–also wrote in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  So which is it Paul? Are women free to be anything or is there a hierarchal constraint designed by God?

It was these kinds of inconsistent Bible verses that got me into debates with other Christians when I was younger. I saw the world in black and white evangelical hues. I was the girl who had the bumper sticker that read, God said it, I believe it that settles it.   But I have always been a blessed woman who has possessed strong minded female friends. And it was one of those friends who first wrangled with me that God does indeed esteem women as fully as men. Just look at how Jesus treated women. He was scandalous. Rabbis of his time were not to look let alone speak to women publicly or touch them. Yet Jesus related freely with women, breaking all social and cultural and religious protocol.

So the issue of female equality in the typical protestant church is reduced to the interpretation of a few Bible verses. The problem here is that rigid beliefism locks many people into an immovable perspective that leaves no room for a spirit of inquiry or respect for differing opinions.  Like this commenter who left this challenging remark at my blog in response to my post about women’s equality in the church:

You need to be reminded that this world isn’t about you and what goes on in your mind. This about God and what he wants, and if he were to demand that there be a separate, lower section of seats in the church for women to sit in, then as a believer in God you better sit there! Now obviously I’m using a more extreme case of “sexism” or whatever you would call it to illustrate my point, but at least you understand it.? If you disagree with that argument then you are disagreeing with God, because whatever God asks of you, you need to do.? It’s a simple fact that Eve took the fruit and ate it before giving it to Adam and convincing him to eat it as well. So you tell me, why do you think God doesn’t want women to lead the church?   (from How God Messed Up My Religion)

I wish I were making this up, but nope, sexism is alive and well in the 21st century and it’s dressed up in pretty church language in Christendom.

A woman’s identity is overrun with messages from her church that she is to be the sidekick to man’s leading role in the narrative of life. These forces shape and inform a woman’s perception of herself. Alisa reveals this when she writes,

“I sat through sermons where the pastor said we should train our children–but especially our sons–to be spiritual warriors, as if women’s warfare was battling a grimy kitchen instead of the forces of darkness. I sat heavy in my seat while the pastor invited the men and boys, but not the women, to pray for a teenager going on a mission trip. Women probably shouldn’t be missionaries, said the pastor’s kid.”

A thousand instances like this one will affect the image of God a woman will internalize.
I remember one women’s Bible study I attended years ago. One of the participants said out loud to us in a moment of vulnerability, “I wonder if God just thinks women are meant to be doormats.” She began crying with that admission, her feminine wound bleeding out  on the clean church carpet. The room sat quietly, and then, the moment passed, and we resumed our discussion of why biblical submission is a Christian woman’s duty.

I’ve blogged about these things many times. There is always pushback like from the commenter above. It is controversial, and this I find absurd, an absolute absurdity that the issue of women and equality in church is an issue at all.

Hear me on this: in the 19th century American church, slavery was a controversial issue!

I’m glad Alisa is telling it like it is. Women need to do this. We need to tell our stories, to say out loud what’s happened to us and to make sure we don’t minimize Christianized oppression as a mere theological hiccup that’s irritating but has to be accepted. No. I don’t think so, and it sounds like Alisa doesn’t think so either. The church might not have raised her right in helping empower her in all her womanly glory, but she’s managed to find her voice despite her conditioning to be a domesticated female. That makes her a warrior woman  in my mind, no matter her faith or politics.

Pam Hogeweide is a blogger and writer. Her first book, Unladylike: Resisting the Injustice of Inequality in the Church, confronts and dismantles Christianized sexism. It will be released by on Amazon January 23. Pam lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Jerry and their two teenagers.

Raised Right: Empathy and Judgment

With today’s post, I want to take a look at chapter 8 of Alisa Harris’s book, “Raised Right:  How I Untangled my Faith from Politics.”  Ms. Harris selected “Judge Not” for the chapter’s title, almost certainly to bring up Jesus’s own injunction against judging as retold in Matthew 7.  I think that the entirety of Matthew 7:1-5[1] is relevant to both the theme of chapter 7 of Ms. Harris’s book and her approach to it, so I’d like to quote it here:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.  And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye?  Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

This passage does not end with simply saying, “Don’t judge.”  It goes on to explain that whatever standard you choose to pick up and judge others with is likely to be the same standard that others turn around and judge you on.  If you nit-pick others’ every actions, pointing out every thing you consider to be wrong, people are likely to scour your own behavior for things to criticize.  If you tend to be be more lax and easy-going, others are more likely to cut you some slack too.

Ms. Harris appears to apply this as she goes from telling her story about discovering with disbelief that some of her Christians friends are Democrats to recalling her own experiences promoting feminism and being criticized and even attacked by other Christians[3].  She describes how her promotion of feminist thought[4] and the slack both she and her employer at the time — a Christian publication — took a great deal of flak, and how it caused her to soften her own views on how other evangelicals might approach certain political ideas differently than she did.  Her empathy enabled her to realize things are not always as stark and simplistic as one might first believe, and that a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of reality may lead rational people to complex positions that differ greatly.

I found myself more willing to believe thatpeople can hold blends of belief that seem incongruous to someone else.  I could be a Christian and a feminist; someone else could be a Christian and a Democrat.

Is it any wonder that to those who want to continue seeing the world in simple terms of black and white, this kind of empathy is dangerous enough to be decried as heresy?

  As an aside, while looking up this passage, I noted that it comes immediately after the “don’t worry about what tomorrow will bring” passage and is immediately followed by  the whole “ask and you shall receive” passage and a variant on Golden Rule.[2]     It seems to me that Jesus really could’ve titled the whole sermon something like “Silly thing that everyone does that creates more stress and problems for themselves and others.”

[2]  In reality, I think Jesus’s “judge not” passage is actually a specialized application of/corollary to the Golden Rule anyway, which I hope comes out in the rest of this blog post.

[3]  Not surprisingly, many of the fellow Christians who attacked her were men.

  I want to wait until next week to delve more deeply into Ms. Harris’s feminism, the response she received from her fellow evangelicals, and possibly even how it might have affected her.  I feel it deserves attention in its own right.  Plus, I’d like to offer a blogging buddy an invitation to share her insights on the topic.

Raised Right: Missing Childhood

Today’s look at Alisa Harris’s book, “Raised Right:  How I Untangle My Faith from Politics” continues to look at chapter seven.  The underlying theme of this chapter — which I did not adequately explain in last week’s post, leaving my criticisms somewhat without the necessary context — is about how Ms. Harris’s conservative upbringing focused so much on politics that it consumed her whole identity and her relationships with other people.  I touched upon a similar phenomenon when I wrote about fundamentalist identity over at Confessions of a Former Conservative[1].  As such, I can identify with a lot of what Ms. Harris talks about in this chapter, though under slightly different conversations.

Harris speaks in the first paragraph of how her political leanings set her apart from many of her peers:

And while they were e-mailing one another about boys and fingernail polish, I was assuming the mantle of e-champion, which required two things of me:  an e-mail address to receive daily Bush campaign emails and the indefatigable conviction that I must forward to everyone I knew.

While I talked about how fundamentalist identity can consume one’s entire identity, I had not considered discussing how it echoes Ms. Harris’s own experience as described above.  Not only does such an identity consume a person, but it often becomes something that completely separates them from others.  In many ways, I imagine this is intentional, as fundamentalist and other conservative Christians find it important to identify themselves as separate from other people who are still “of the world.”  As such, this obsession with in-group activities to the detriment to other interests that one might have in common with their peers becomes an important sacrificial act demonstrating one’s “insider” status.

This is particularly troubling when one is young, as Ms. Harris notes that young conservative Christians — and I’d add fundamentalist Christians regardless of political involvement — tend to act like adults and associate more with adults.  There’s a certain sense where “fighting the good fight” becomes so important that simple things like expressing an interest in boys or girls, popular culture, and other things, which ultimately can rob such youth of their childhood.

I’ve often looked back at my own youth — and even my college years — and wished I had them to live them over.  I find that because I was so focused on being the perfect Christian, I put a lot of my personal development — especially emotional development — on hold.

When I finally addressed these areas of my life, I found myself trying to work through things in an adult world.  I found myself learning social skills and emotional coping techniques while holding down a job and acting like a responsible adult, as opposed to having the luxury of working through these things while still being able to rely more on my parents and having far less responsibilities.

This is one of the “holes” or distortions that Ms. Harris alludes to in this chapter of those whose politics become the whole of their identity.  It’s one that I felt she should have explored more.
[1]  As an aside, let me said that I’m quite pleased that Former Conservative has managed to rejoin the ranks of bloggers everywhere.  We missed you while you were silent, guy.

Raised Right: Slogans vs. Reality

In chapter six of “Raised Right:  How I Untangled My Faith From Politics,” Alisa Harris describes her initial support of the Iraq War and how she came to question her faith in that war and her stance on war in general.  She describes one experience that served as a catalyst for the re-evaluation process:

But one day I popped in my grandmother’s big-band cassette tape and heard a song that pricked me with uneasiness.  A gunner fell and the sky pilot set aside his Bible and took up the gunner’s gun, singing, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, and we’ll all stay free.”

I hit Fast Forward, scrambling the buoyant trumpets and brassy tune. it was all right to portray the long-suffering nobility of soldiers writing letters to their sweethearts and thinking of home or even the soldiers fretting about their girls sitting under the apple trees with other men.  But with this song I could see the gunner lying in pieces and the sky pilot using the phrase we all toss so casually — “Well, praise the Lord” — before he used the ammunition to rip a hole in a human being.

Prior to the above passage, Harris had described romantic notions of war and acknowledged in hindsight that they had been truly romantic.  However, this song struck her with a more bloody reality.  What seems to strike her however, is not only this bloody reality, but the casual way in which it is talked about and almost taken lightly by the flippant — at least as used in this context — phrase “Praise the Lord.”  She repeats her astonishment about such flippancy of a line uttered by Gary Cooper’s character in Sergeant York compares killing German soldiers in World War II to “shootin’ turkeys.”

As Harris faced the realities of war and the thought that war involves killing people — something generally condemned by the Christian god — she finds such casual talk about it to be troubling.  This forces her to consult with other people, both people in her lives and the great minds of people she respects as she grapples with this tough decision.

It’s this grappling with tough questions and the openness to being discomforted by such easy comments that interests me most in this chapter, because it’s something I think is too often lacking in conservative evangelical circles.[1]  Flippant phrases intended to simplify complex topics and therefore discourage uncomfortable thoughts over them are far too common.  They allow those who hear and repeat them to pass over a topic quite quickly and state a position without thinking abut the full implications of that position — especially for other people.

It’s only when those simplified phrases are shown in contrast to the much messier reality they seek to gloss over that such phrase’s flippancy becomes uncomfortably obvious.  Granted, not everyone responds to that discomfort as well as Harris did.  Rather than digging for deeper answers, some will simply dig their heels in harder and even become hostile to anyone who attempts to show them the deeper complexity of the topic and the horrible insensitivity of such simple catch-phrases.

In time, they might be able to cover up the discomfort again and stop thinking about the reality.  But one might hope that more such moments of discomfort might crop up, continuing to afflict the comfortable until they seek to comfort the afflicted.

[1]  In fairness to the conservative evangelical Christians, it’s lacking in plenty of other circles as well, including some of the circles I belong to.

Raised Right: Patriotism and Idolatry

Rather than moving on to chapter six of Alisa Harris’s book, “Raised Right:  How I Untangled my Faith from Politics,” I’ve decided to remain in chapter five.  In last Monday’s post, I mainly focused on Harris’s attention on repentance (for others) and the need for Divine wrath to bring it about.  This week, I want to look at the underlying motivation for this desire for nation-wide repentance, which Harris also covers.

Ultimately, when 9/11 struck, the conservative Christians like Harris were hoping for a return to God by the whole nation.  The idea here is that they want to reclaim America’s place as the great Christian nation it was intended to be.[1]  To them, they want to create the great Christian America, which they assume will be the apple of God’s eye, much like Israel was the apple of God’s eye throughout the New Testament.[2]  So pulling down the separation of Church and State and pushing the supremacy of their version of Christianity is essential to establishing their version of God’s kingdom.

Years ago, I wrote on another (now defunct) blog that I felt that American evangelical’s desires to remake America into a Christian Nation struck me as a modern day golden calf.  In their efforts to bring this about, they have ignored the teachings of Christ and the methods for Kingdom-building that he and his apostles promoted throughout the New Testament.  It seems that in this regard, I have found a kindred spirit in Alisa Harris.  Harris even notes that this particular idolatry isn’t new:

Before American democracy became the form of government Christians favored, medieval Christians believed God favored the right of a king to rule over his people, protecting them in return for their allegiance and service.  The Puritan founder of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, didn’t believe we were all equals but that “God Almighty” had made “some … rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity, other mean and in subjection.  He and his fellow leaders thought a truly godly commonwealth should drive out Quakers, Catholics, Baptists, dissenters, questioners. … Christians today say the Bible endorses capitalism; Christians two hundred years ago said it endorsed the divine right of kings.  Both missed the point, which is that the Bible is neither an eighteenth- nor a twenty-first-century policy textbook.  It endorses neither the fiefdom nor the global superpower.  America is not a “uniquely Christian” nation, and it never was.

That last statement touches upon the biggest condemnation of the Religious Right’s idolization of America:  They forget that there are other Christians and Christian majorities in the world.  They forget that the Christians in India or Egypt trying to live godly lives deserve as much dignity and respect as their American counterparts.  In focusing on the Great Christian Nation, it seems to me that many American evangelicals have put themselves above their brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.

[1]  Of course, this whole idea is based on the faulty claims of people like David Barton, who seek to prove that America was founded with the intention of making it a Christian nation at all, and particularly the brand of Christianity the Religious Right endorses.

[2]  This is one of the bizarre thing about the relationship between American evangelicals and Israel.  On the one hand, American evangelicals talk about Israel’s status as “God’s chosen people.”  Yet, on the other hand, they see themselves as Israel’s replacement in that official capacity.

Raised Right: Repentance and Patriotism

In chapter five of “Raised Right:  How I Untangled my Faith from Politics,” Alisa Harris shares her memories and thoughts from 9/11.  She speaks of it as a time of revived patriotism as well as a time when she hoped for a nation-wide revival and repentance.  Her link between patriotism and repentance struck me in this chapter.

While Harris might not have directly blamed 9/11 or any other disaster on QUILTBAG people, feminists, liberals, or any other perceived “enemies of God,” you can see the same mentality here.  While not (explicitly) pinpointing a particular group, she still thought of the national tragedy as god’s divine wrath and a warning call to repentance.

Harris explains that during the time immediately after 9/11, her mind began to compare America’s tragedy to the Old Testament description of the Israelites:

The world had shifted in a way I’d only read abut in the oldest of the Bible’s sacred books.  Although ancient Israel backslid, worshipped false gods, sacrificed its children, and neglected the tabernacle where God resided, God never abandoned His beloved.  Judgment came, the Israelites in their misery repented, and God always welcomed them back with a heart that forgave again and again.  I believed America, the new Israel, was stuck in the same relentless cycle: we backslid, sacrificed to the false gods of Hollywood and big government, murdered our children, and forsook the sacrifice of obedience;; but surely repentance and redemption and revival would come before it was too late.

What’s interesting to me — and something that she alludes to in other places — is that her list of America’s sins (or Israel’s for that matter) does not mention the neglect of the widow or orphan, taking advantage of those already impoverished and downtrodden.

At the time, Harris’s dream was of this leading to a revival.  She describes how she envisioned it:

I pictured revival beginning with a twenty-first century Jonathan Edwards in a small church in a tiny town waking up one day and being moved by God to preach an unusual message.  He would approach his pulpit that Sunday, look out at the soft sinners sitting in the pews, and then launch into a modern version of “Sinners of an Angry God” – a tale of woe, of damnation, of sinners being dangle over the mouth of hell by an outraged deity.  That same hand would clutch the hearts of the people who sat rapt in the pews.

I remember reading (or at least skimming) “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in high school.   It’s the model “fire and brimstone” sermon, and for good reason.  The fact that Harris and her former colleagues and co-religionists consider this sermon as the model for renewal and revival tells us a great deal about fundamentalist thought and the god they worship.

Understand that Harris is making it clear that in her early life, she soundly believed (and I suspect this is common amongst fundamentalists and other staunchly conservative Christians) is that revival and a return to God must be sparked by a fear of that same god and his almighty wrath.  Not can.  Not might.  Must.

This strikes me as an admission that the god of such people has nothing sufficiently positive or attractive with which to woo the wayward nonbeliever.[1]  Blessing will not woo the nonbeliever.[2]  Instead, they must be frightened into the grace of God by his wrathful judgment and doom.

Is it any wonder most of their evangelistic efforts fail?  There are reasons you don’t see more commercials that amount to “buy our product or we’ll beat you senseless.”

Of course, it’s important to note that Harris and those she worshipped with did not see 9/11 as a call for them to repent.  In their minds, that call was directed at others, which left those who were sending out that call on God’s behalf quite comfortable.

And that was her picture of patriotism at the time:  Telling others to shape up and get back in line.  I suspect that she might use a different term to describe that mentality now.  I certainly do.

[1]  Remind me some day to do a post on why I despise the word nonbeliever.

[2]  Not surprising, since Jesus himself admits that God causes the sun to shine and the rain to shine on the righteous and the wicked alike.  Of course, I doubt most fundamentalists read that verse, and certainly not in context.  It’s a continuation of verse 44, which is the start of Jesus’s exhortation to love one’s enemies.  In context, verse 45 suggests that even God loves His enemies, which might conflict with all that wrath some of His followers is waiting for him to pour out.

Raised Right: Idolizing mortals

In chapter four of Raised Right:  How I Untangle my Faith from Politics, Alisa Harris talks about her childhood obsession with and idolization of Ronald Reagan.  Of course, Harris’s obsession with Reagan was not limited to herself.  She describes the phenomenon among conservative evangelicals as follows:

Some children revere saints.  In the conservative circles of my childhood, we had heroes — not suffering martyrs who sacrificed for their faith but conquerors who crushed the enemies of God with truth and justice.  These conquerors had to be Christians, preferably of humble roots and always of stainless character, who overcame their enemies to accomplish deeds that changed the world.  We read glowing heroic accounts that omitted Thomas Jefferson’s deism, Louisa May Alcott’s transcendentalism, and Christopher Columbus’s avarice.

Harris’s comparison between the martyrs idolized by other Christians and the “conquerors” of some conservatives is well worth noting, as both the Bible and Jesus[1] seem pretty obvious supporters of the former model rather than the latter.  Without explicitly doing so, Harris seems to at least imply that this conqueror-veneration represents a deviation from more traditional Christian philosophy.  This is further strengthened when she describes her rather curious re-interpretation of Jesus’s words in Luke 4:18 at that time in her life:

When I heard “freedom,” I thought “deregulation of onerous government rules”; when I heard “bind,” I thought “bind to the virtue of limited government”; when I heard “oppressed,” I thought of children who were not allowed to pray in school and successful rich people whose money was seized by the government.  I would whisper, “It is for freedom that Christ set us free,” and would think, Freedom to display the Ten Commandments in a public place!

It’s also noteworthy that Harris’s heroes — and the heroes of those around her — had to be whitewashed to appear blameless and perfect in order to be accept.  Conservative heroes could not and cannot be “sinners bought by grace,” but at least had to be practically sinless.[2]  She gives the example of Irving Berlin, who made her uncomfortable with his “coarse jesting” about having sex on his honeymoon.[3]

I suppose this explains why conservative Christians are so slow to acknowledge when their great leaders “fall” in scandals.  They’ve allowed themselves to build up this idea that they are heroes and so perfect — something necessary to consider them great leaders — that acknowledging those instances where their leaders reveal their “feet of clay” and falter means admitting that they invested in the wrong person.  In a sense, their leaders’ failings are echoed in their own failings in “backing the wrong person.”

Harris closes out the chapter in describing her time at a Decemberists concert after Obama’s election victory.  She describes the crowd cheering on Obama’s success and his promises of change, being encouraged and whipped up by the musicians on stage.  Harris compares this Obamamania to her childhood idolization of Reagan.  I’m inclined to disagree with Harris’s comparison here, or at least as universal as she seems to paint it.  While I have no doubt that some liberals got caught up in a blind belief in Obama — and are possibly still caught up in it — most of my fellow liberals were and are well aware that Obama is just another human being, as mistake-prone and imperfect as any of us.  In my experience, liberals are able to be both supportive of our leaders and critical of them at the same time.

[1]  The post-millennial dispensationalist version of “Turbo-Jesus” notwithstanding.

[2]  Of course, I suspect this was only true for certain values of “sin.”  For example, it doesn’t seem that conservatives were or are that concerned with whether their heroes show any signs of that great abomination, pride.

[3]  The conservative Christian treatment of sex, even when it’s in the “sacred confines of marriage,” deserves its own blog post.  Perhaps several.  I will note, however, that Harris lists Berlin’s jokes about sex with his new bride was mentioned even before the fact that he was Jewish rather than Christian, suggesting that the former was a more troubling matter than the latter.

Raised Right: Argument Without Engagement

In chapter three of Raised Right, Alisa Harris explores the confrontational approach  to both politics and evangelism she was taught in her youth:

Like Socrates I was a gadfly – always provoking, stinging citizens out of complacency, and melodramatically drinking the hemlock they forced on me in punishment.

I remember this mentality growing up.  The idea of remaining silent on any issue deemed important by certain Christian leaders was unthinkable.  The evil of the day — abortion, homosexuality, moral relativism, and the New Age movement all had to be soundly and unequivocally renounced at every opportunity.  (And sometimes, like Harris’s description of the county fair, it was up to us to create such an opportunity.)

And like Harris, I remember how those people who took issue with the heavy-handed tactics I learned were to be considered proof that I was doing the right thing.  After all, the BIble said that those of us who followed Jesus were sure to offend people.  So I had the perfect excuse to see reasonable criticism of my aggressive posture as mere rejection of the Truth I was proclaiming.[1]  In effect, I was set up to be obnoxious and see myself as a martyr.

Harris goes on to talk about the Four Killer questions that one of her evangelism mentors taught her and her peers to use:

  • What do you mean by that?
  • How do you know what you are saying is true?
  • What difference does it make in your life?
  • What if you are wrong and you die?

These were not questions I was taught to use.  I was taught standard arguments to use on different topics and techniques to force the conversation along a certain path.  Both approaches are based on the idea that what the evangelistic or political target actually thinks or believes isn’t important as in forcing the conversation int he direction you want it to go.

Harris describes the superbly beautiful way in which the Four Killer Questions not only accomplish their goal, but make themselves the ultimate universal approach to winning any argument:

This approach didn’t require you to refute, or even know, the tenets of Marxism or socialism or secular humanism because you strictly limited your conversation to asking these four simple questions again and again. If the Marxist responded with the same questions, you shot back, “What kind of evidence would you accept as proof?”  Since wed learned that his objections weren’t serious or even intellectually honest, that they were grounded in nothing but a stubborn blindness to truth, the Marxist could give just one honest answer:  “None.”

Of course, anyone who has been on the receiving end of the Four Killer Questions[2] or similar debate tactics could tell you, the most likely reaction to being thus heckled[3] is frustration, anger, and returned hostility rather than conversion.  In addition to the promise of “martyrdom for truth,” Harris’s mentors offered the perfect way to assuage any concerns about the ineffectiveness of the approach:

The Four Killer Questions brought the godless to Christ – later.  Those Four Killer Questions would gnaw away at the girl from Planned Parenthood or the guy with the dreads, eroding their faith in their worldview until someone else dropped along with the gospel message…

This is a convenient out, as it allows the person to imagine the “effectiveness” of their obnoxious behavior appearing out of their own sight, beyond their ability to objectively – or even subjectively – measure them.  In a way, it creates a fantasy where one’s “evangelistic efforts” are completely detached from not only the people being evangelized, but from any sort of results.

I’ve occasionally commented on the Former Conservative’s posts criticizing some evangelists’ approaches pointing out that “saving souls” is not nearly as important as “preaching the message” and that to such people, “evangelism” is an act of piety rather than an honest attempt at persuasion.  I think that in this chapter, Harris demonstrates not only the truth of that statement, but the ways in which such evangelicals rationalize the transition from the latter intuit the former, or at least the conflation of the two.

[1]  In fairness, some evangelicals do try to combat this notion.  For example, in college, the volunteer staffworker that InterVarsity Christian Fellowship assigned to my campus’s chapter often said, “The Bible may offend some, but that’s no excuse for presenting its message offensively.”  This isn’t to say her presentation of Biblical truth was always the best it could be, but at least she tried to make it clear that “being as harsh as possible as long as you’re convinced you’re right” was not an acceptable approach.

[2]  Harris provides a perfect anecdote that shows what I imagine would be a fairly typical reaction.

[3]  I think this is a far proper term to describe the intent and effects of this approach rather than “challenged” or “debated.”  Both of those terms suggest actual engagement with the substance of one’s positions.

Raised Right: Spiritual Warfare Goes Political


Cover of Carman

Harris begins chapter two of Raised Right with a description of a music video made by Christian pop artist Carman.  As I read her description, I found them eerily familiar, but could not place them until she mentioned the artist’s name.  I spent my teen years listening to and idolizing[1] Carman and I’m sure I saw the video in question.

Harris uses the video to introduce the importance of “spiritual warfare” that was ingrained into her when she was a youth.  She speaks of singing a familiar Sunday school song (“I’m in the Lord’s army”) and learning the importance of fighting Satan.  She describes one event she witnessed:

While Pastor John was speaking, one of my parents’ friends, Greg, came forward and lifted his hands to ask for prayer.  Pastor John reached out his hand and shouted, “I bind you, Satan, in the name of Jesus Christ!”  The moment he said “Jesus Christ,” Greg staggered as if shot through the heart and then fell flat on his back, lying spread-eagled on the floor with a smile on his face.”

While I got involved in a Full Gospel[2] congregation while in college, I was raised in an American Baptist.  My church — and as I understand it, Baptist in general — don’t really believe that “miraculous gifts” such as speaking in tongues, prophecies, or instantaneous healing.  They also tend not to believe in or expect to encounter demons in a direct manner as might be described in This Present Darkness or as recounted by pentecostal/charismatic believers.  So while I too sang “I’m in the Lord’s army,” learned to recite all the parts of the “armor of God,” and was inundated in the same spiritual warfare terminology, I suspect that I took these things things far more metaphorically than Harris and her Sunday school classmates.

Of course, this left myself and my classmates trying to understand the metaphor.  We had an enemy we could not confront directly.  We had no demons to cast out.  So we were left wondering what “I’m in the Lord’s army” really meant beyond being a silly song.  We wondered what it really meant to put on the full armor of God.  Sure, knew we were supposed to invite friends to Sunday school and church.  We knew we were supposed to read the Bible, pray, and be good.  But for what?  Surely these things were never meant to be an ends in themselves[3].

So in many ways, I think I was more primed for the transition that Harris describes as she continues telling her story:

Though I wouldn’t have put it in these words at the time, I came to believe that our battle was not against invisible demons but against evil people who brought the fight into the real world.  They were the spiritual enemy clothed in flesh:  abortionists, feminists, secularists, humanists, the people conspiring to destroy God’s witness by corrupting America.  Finally I had an enemy I could see and point out to others, one that didn’t require a mysterious intuition or the spiritual gift of discernment to identify.

I can understand that, wholeheartedly.  While Harris had an unseen enemy, I had no enemy.  So latching onto a concrete enemy was a gift from God Himself.  Furthermore, this new, tangible enemy offered a tangible strategy for fighting back:  politics.

Suddenly, “fighting the enemy” meant speaking out against abortion, homosexuality, and premarital sex.  It meant voting for the “holy” candidates so that they could defeat the “evil” ones and stop their “evil” plans[4].  Suddenly, there was a way to become a righteous crusader with a clear path.

Ironically, while this gave me a tangible “enemy,” what it did to my perceptions of the “enemy” was almost the exact opposite.  Adulterers, fornicators, homosexuals, and all those other people ceased to become people and became caricatures in my mind.  My “tangible enemy” turned into smoke and mirrors again.  I find myself wondering if Harris intended this chapter to explain the need to reconnect with “flesh and blood” people discussed in the previous one.

Related Posts

I have created a separate page to track all the blog posts I’ve made regarding this book.  If this post interests you, I would encourage you to go check out the other posts as well.


[1]  Well, insofar as a good little Baptist is allowed to idolize anyone or anything.

[2]  “Full Gospel” is the preferred term used certain charismatic/pentecostal churches.

[3]  I strongly believe that even “being good” for the sake of “being good” is meaningless and pointless.  “Being good” is about doing something for others because it has a positive impact on their lives.  It’s about building a better world.  This is not something that I feel is always properly communicated to young Christians, nor do I feel it is emphasized enough.

As a former Sunday school teacher, I’d also like to suggest that this is in part that the much of the teaching materials for chidren and teen Sunday school classes are abysmal.  They do not treat the students like intelligent people who need to learn what it truly means to live a life that expresses the fruit of the Spirit and are ready to do exactly that.  If you are a Sunday school teacher, I would encourage you to re-evaluate your curriculum and honestly ask yourself if it insults, patronizes, and holds back your students.

[4]  I’m engaging in a certain amount of hyperbole here.  However, don’t overestimate just how much.

Raised Right: Chapter 1

humanity. love. respect.

Image by B.S. Wise via Flickr

Chapter 1 of Harris’s book, Raised Right:  How I Untangled My Faith From Politics, bears the title “Flesh and Blood.”  I assume it was chosen for the chapters attempt to show the need to see not issues, but people.  Harris starts the chapter by describing a scene where she, her parents, and her younger siblings picketed an abortion clinic together.  After describing that scene, she speaks of her past, offering the following insight:

I had been picketing since before I could walk.
Understanding that statement and its significance reveals a great deal about those of us who were raised as conservative Christians.  In a sense, I think it makes it easier to understand us — whether speaking of those of us whose politics and/or faith have changed or those who remain a part of the movement — as flesh and blood people.  Our understanding of the religio-political views we were meant to adhere to was formed very early in our lives.
As I mentioned when I announced I’d be reviewing this book, I was not raised with the direct activism as Harris.  I never picketed before I could walk, or even after.  However, the messages about what I was supposed to believe started when I was young.  Perhaps nothing about the political topics that seem to make up most of the Religious Right’s platform, but there were still those subtle messages that set the stage for me to understand what “good people” believed and did versus what “bad people” said and did.
Subtle is a key-word here.  While Harris’s own childhood experiences were direct and explicit, my own (and I suspect others’) was more subtle.  Things got implied more than said.  Or certain things were said and I inferred.  To be honest, I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon about the evils of homosexuality.  I’m not even sure where I first learned that homosexuality was supposed to be wrong, or even that there was such a thing as homosexuality.[1]  But I certainly picked that message up from somewhere.
When we read Old Testament passages like the story of Rahab and I asked my mom what a prostitute was, she said, “Women that men paid to act like their wives,” which conjured confusing pictures of paid cooks and housekeepers.  When I asked how the single mom in our church had a baby without a husband, she said the mom “acted like she was married.”  Apparently, I was too young to know how people made babies, but not too young to know how they killed them.
Harris’s statement above is something I can totally appreciate.  Sex was something that simply was not discussed.  I remember spending the night with one (male) cousin and sharing a bed and wondering if it was okay, because that’s something only a husband and wife do.  I did not understand there was more to being a husband and wife (or lovers) than merely sharing a bed for actual sleep.
I don’t think my own parents meant to keep me naive about sex.  Looking back, I think that if I had asked about it, either of them would have answered me honestly.  They simply weren’t going to volunteer the information.
However “sinful sex” or the consequences of it did tend to get a bit more attention, from other sources if not directly from my parents.  And that strikes me as quite common in conservative circles.  In many ways, the discussion of sexual sin[2] seems to be the only discussion of sex that goes on in many such environments.  This tends to lead to a rather grim view of sex in general.  I know I tended to think of it as a mostly dirty thing, despite my eighth grade science teacher’s occasional declaration to the contrary — a declaration he made the few times the subject came up in his classroom at all.
Harris goes on to describe a protest held in front of New York Governor Paterson’s Manhattan office which she covered as a journalist.  This protest took place when the state’s same sex marriage legislation was waiting to be approved by the State Senate.  Harris describes the shouting, the anger, the jeering, and the rebukes offered up during the protest.
As the crowd yelled, I would at times forget that these were supposed to be prayers until I would catch an “Almighty God!” or “Lord we pray!”
I have seen these kinds of public “prayers” before.  In fact, I recall participating in a few of them during my college years.  The ones I was involved in were not as heated, aggressive, or condemning as the ones that Harris describes in her book, but they were surely sham prayers meant for public piety and acts of showing others our (my) own superiority.  They were the same in spirit, even if not the same in degree or volume.  I think Harris remarks upon this practice when she writes:
I couldn’t help but think of the kind of ostentatious prayers Jesus chided:  “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.”  He must have meant, Pray to Me and not to the cameras.  When you pray, talk to Me.
Harris describes talking about the importance of love and her own struggle with the idea that these protestors would insist that they “loved” the homosexuals and that they merely wanted to help them “out of their sin.”  She thought of how they would compare themselves to a parent correcting a child.  Harris then goes on to share her own revelation in response to that claim:
Then I realized why these efforts at love sounded hollow — because this love was not the way I experienced love every day.  Even setting aside the arrogance suggested by viewing all other sinners as children and saved sinners as the world’s in loco parentis, I know my parents love me because they sacrificed to feed and clothe me every day.  In the end that burden of labor and sacrifice is what gives them any right to be heard or believed when they say “I love you” after they say “you’re wrong.”
I don’t believe I’ve heard anyone express this as eloquently as Harris did here:  If you want to correct people out of “love,” then you first need to show those same people love in other, tangible and edifying ways.  That may mean meeting other needs they might have — which might actually mean learning what those needs are in the first place.  That’s something that many conservative Christians are not good at.  I know I wasn’t.
Unfortunately, my former self and many conservative Christians come to “sinners” with pre-conceived notions about what they are like and what their needs are.  And they act on those pre-conceived notions, never questioning their accuracy or relevance.  This often leads to offering help that is unneeded, unhelpful, and even insulting.  And then the “helpful” person wonders why they get such a negative response.  Their premise for action is completely wrong.
The problem is, learning people’s real needs and responding to them can get messy.  There are rarely prepackaged slogans, ready-made signs, or “witnessing tools” that covers those needs.  And that can be scary.  But I think that’s exactly what Harris is calling for in this chapter:
Unless you are smuggling soup to the Jews in your attic, I think a political act can’t be an act of love.  It can be a good act, even noble and heroic, but love is not something that takes place behind a barricade;  it happens in the breaking of bread and the passing of cups.  Political love is theoretical, directed at some vague “humanity,” and Jesus didn’t say to love humanity, but to love your neighbor.
May God bless her for it.
[1] I do, however, remember when I first learned what it meant for two guys to “screw.”  It was during my ninth grade English class, and a classmate explained it to me in a tone of complete and obvious disgust.
[2] Let’s face it, too:  The two biggest issues in conservative Christian politics are still homosexuality and abortion, meaning it’s mostly — or even all — about sex.
Other posts in the Raised Right series: