Like most people, this summer completely overwhelmed me. It felt (and honestly still feels) like the world was tipping sideways, sliding toward a precipice of anger and confusion waiting to swallow us. The news is always bad; people are grieved and shocked and dying and selfish.
In June, my friend RachelAnn told me about a podcast by a woman named Jen Wilkin, which is a recording of a study she led on the biblical books of Joshua and Judges. At the time, I was sold because RachelAnn mentioned that Wilkin spoke on the character of Rahab in a way that was different than any teaching she’d heard before. I, like a lot of women in the church, tend to think of the Old Testament as a bit of a barren wasteland for women--a place where the true heroes are the men, and the stories about women are mostly just those illustrating abuse or suffering.
I couldn’t anticipate, at the time, how deeply this study would affect me. I didn’t know how it would not only completely upend my perspective on the amount of time and attention given to women in the Old Testament, but also transform my anxiety about the world. The one thing--the only thing, I think--that could reach me in a place of true grief over the state of the world and the state of my own heart was a careful study of wickedness, and the God who moved the authors of Joshua and Judges to record it.
I began with Joshua, and true to RachelAnn’s words, I was struck by the story of Rahab and her courage and faith. It’s been years since I read this book, and I felt as if I was reading it with new eyes. This post is partly an encouragement to listen to Jen Wilkin’s study, because it’s extremely thorough in scholarship and timely in its nature, but it’s also just a reminder that all of scripture is precious. I admit that I spend the bulk of my time in the epistles and the gospels, but after living in Joshua for eleven episodes, I am hungry now for the words of the Old Testament. The care God took with the Israelites as he brought them into the promised land, the way the stories are recorded, and the steadfastness of God’s promises are life in a time when we are all feeling uncertain and, to be honest, a little abandoned. Patience is probably my least present virtue, and to read about the many times God had his people wait, and wait, and wait was both crushing and freeing to me.
But really, the book of Joshua felt like a warm up to the book of Judges. It was important in content and context, but when I began the episodes on Judges I felt the true surgery begin. This book is both beautiful and horrible. It tells of a people who are constantly doing “what is right in their own eyes,” with no true leadership and no desire for the good of others. For large chunks of the book God is silent, allowing events to unfold. I felt my heart resonate with the squandered land, the injustices, the exploitation. It all seemed so familiar.
In her lectures, Wilkin kept saying, “If you want to know how the Israelites are doing, look at the women. How are the vulnerable being treated?” She guided us through the beginning of the book, where women have the status to negotiate for what they want (the story of Aksah), places of leadership (Deborah, who also presents qualities of God in such a way that she points to the character of Christ) and the ability to fight for those less capable (Jael). But by the end of the story we are seeing a people who have begun to abuse the vulnerable (as in the truly horrible story of the Levite’s concubine) and care so little about the value or interests of women that they give their blessing to the abduction and rape of hundreds (the wives of Benjamin.)
I knew these stories; I had read them before. But they always seemed disjointed. Now, with the background from the study of Joshua, and Wilkin’s careful contextual analysis, they were transformative. I went to see Rachael Denhollander (the first accuser of convicted sexual offender Larry Nassar) speak last Spring, and her talk was all about how important it was when she came to truly believe that justice and forgiveness are inextricable, and that it was through her study of the Old Testament that she found healing in the fact that God is a God of justice. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I think I can understand a piece of that now, even though I have not gone through what she has gone through. There is a simmering anger I feel, and I think a lot of us feel, at the continual abuse of women, and of people of color, and of the marginalized, and the only way I know to find peace from the anger is by seeing that God cares even more about it than I do.
There were a million personal applications along the way that made the Joshua and Judges study especially helpful for me, but the overarching message is this: God is not overwhelmed by evil, even though we are. And through the many stories about women that are found in Judges (and now I recognize, are found in the entire Old Testament) he is showing us that he sees. When I cry out in my spirit about the endlessness of pain and the triumph of evil, the book of Judges is saying, “He sees.” He does not always help in this world, which is hard for me to understand, but he always sees, and it always matters. And he will always have the last word.
Wilkin ended her study by referencing the book of Ruth, which ironically, although Ruth is my namesake, has always sort of mystified me. It seemed like such an odd little book to be placed right between the chaos of Judges and 1 Samuel. But when I read it with fresh eyes full of context, I just cried. It’s so clear to me now why it’s there--right there, immediately following some of the worst evil found in the scriptures. Because in it, as Wilkin reminds her listeners, we see a picture of sacrificial love from both Ruth and Boaz, a story of courage and tenderness and selflessness, that is so deeply in contrast to the stories we just read. Ruth, like Boaz, points to the character of Christ, and through their descendents God brought about the birth of the savior that is the true triumph over the chaos we still feel.
Most remarkably, Wilkin points out that the story of Ruth runs concurrent to the rest of the book of Judges--not after it, but at the same time. While all this chaos is happening, while women and the vulnerable are being abused, while people are taking what they can and rejoicing in the suffering of their enemies, God is faithfully, quietly at work. That is a true hope to cling to, and one that has radically altered my feelings about the world I live in right now. We do not control the hearts of our fellow people, and most of the time we can’t even do much to fix the horrible things that have been done. But we have the courage to continue to live and to work because God has never abandoned his people, and he never will.
This past weekend I took a class called “Exploring Social Issues Through Drama.” As part of the class, we each chose a social issue to explore. I chose objectification of women, inspired by a female friend who told me about harassment she’d experienced that week. While on a packed train, a man took advantage of the situation and aggressively pressed himself against her. She didn’t say anything, just moved away, frightened she would only escalate the situation. No one on the train did or said anything. With her story heavy on my heart, I used the class time to explore this topic and how it affects all women, whether we realize it or not.
Ironically, this is the week that the photo of Kim Kardashian’s bare butt debuted, displaying quite clearly to the world that controversy is deeply imbedded in this issue. It should come as no surprise that women (and men) everywhere feel the need to address the photo shoot. And while talking about it is of course exactly what Kardashian intended, the issue has to be discussed. We are, as a culture, silent bystanders, watching a metaphorical (and all too real) sexual assault on the subway. It’s time to talk about it.
The facets of the issue are endless. Leaving aside for now the question of photoshop (related to objectification) and the disturbing connections to racism and sexism in photographer Jean-Paul Goode’s work and personal life, the question of objectification of the female body rises up front and center. What should be quite obvious is that Kardashian herself is the one doing the objectifying. Yes, she is part of a culture that puts immense pressure on women to buy into the role of sexual plaything, and yes she is responding to societal demand. But when it comes down to it, she is the one that took off her clothes.
I’ve realized recently that one of the biggest problems with the feminist movement is that it means so many different things to different people. There are many tenets of feminism that I identify with, and simply because I am a woman and care about women’s issues, I recognize that I can and should call myself a feminist. But there are also feminists who bare their butts on the covers of magazines, and pass it off as a step toward less body-shaming or toward sexual freedom. While I’ve never heard Kardashian explicitly call herself a feminist, women like Scout Willis and Chelsea Handler seem to be constantly on Instagram crusades to allow topless photos, and Beyonce has certainly identified quite strongly with the movement. (Though it gets sticky talking about Queen Bey, because that conversation tends to get intermixed with discussions of race and cultural expectations.)
The issue became crystal clear to me while talking with my brother, who I called during a break from my social issues class. I asked him what his response was to the feminist movement, and he replied, “Well, it depends on what you mean by that.” As we talked he expressed confusion about the stances of women; he felt he supported many of the arguments, but was unsure about many of the intentions and affiliations within the idea of feminism. Because there were so many voices with such divergent views, he was hesitant to claim the banner of feminism as something he could completely stand under.
In talking with my roommate, the matter became even more tricky. As a woman who works at a pub in midtown Manhattan, she is constantly being objectified, being told: “Come over here baby so I can grab that ass.” But her words gave me pause when she began to talk about how women treat themselves. She described the outfits girls wear on Halloween, and how they’re clearly expecting men to look at them in a sexual way on that night. “Girls want to be cute and sexy on Halloween, but then they want to walk down the street the next day and not get any comments. It’s like they want to be selectively objectified,” my roommate said.
I want to tread lightly here, because I do not mean to suggest that women should feel obliged to hide their bodies, or that they bear the responsibility of keeping men in line. And I certainly don’t want anyone to think a woman is ever “asking for it,” or any of the other justifications used for objectification, sexism and violence. But both my brother’s and my roommate’s comments have something pertinent to offer this messy business of Kim Kardashian’s butt (and boobs, apparently. If you buy the magazine and flip to the inside.)
How seriously would you take a man who exposed himself on the cover of a magazine?* I think this is an important thing to think about. I believe that bodies are beautiful and we should be proud of them, but there’s a cultural precedent built into society that indicates that it’s okay to display the female body for the delight of men. Kardashian’s photos support this flawed view, to say nothing of the dangers of the photoshopping involved in the photo.
As much as I hate to say it, those who desire change have to—at least somewhat—play by the rules of the dominant culture. There is a balance to be struck between stirring the pot and allowing people time and incentive to change their minds, and that change has to come from the heart. Just as guilt and shame are horrible motivators, rage and defiance don’t work either. If we are to build a culture in which men stop making comments about my “titties” on the street, and in which women feel their voices are heard and respected, women have got to stop playing into the stereotypes.
Kim Kardashian is not desperate—she’s not trying to make a living or a name for herself and being forced to use whatever means she can. She has an incredible amount of money and power, and a platform to say whatever she wants. Until women like her stop objectifying themselves, we are going to keep having these same conversations, over and over.
*Which, by the way, has happened—as is evident from articles such as this one. I need to note here that this isn’t exclusive to women, and men are playing into their stereotypes as well. It’s just far more common for women.
Nicholas Nixon began taking photos of his wife and her three sisters in 1975, and has taken a photo every year since. The result is incredible.
"Throughout this series, we watch these women age, undergoing life’s most humbling experience. While many of us can, when pressed, name things we are grateful to Time for bestowing upon us, the lines bracketing our mouths and the loosening of our skin are not among them. So while a part of the spirit sinks at the slow appearance of these women’s jowls, another part is lifted: They are not undone by it." -Susan Minot, writing for the New York Times
This photography project is one of the simplest and most beautiful I have seen in a long time. As we click through these photos, we see, gently and gradually, what it means to be a woman, a sister, a human. As the lines on these women's faces slowly deepen, it's tempting to read into them--to wonder what experiences have shaped them, how each sister differs from the others, and the story of each photograph. But while the four women have allowed us a glimpse of their faces each year, that is all they have allowed us. Their openness--close bed-fellows with their privacy--makes this project remarkable, poignant, and beautiful.
Check out the photos and New York Times article here.
This is the kind of post that is addressed explicitly to Christians, and will be confusing and strange for many of my friends who are not Christians. So, secular friends, if you keep reading, you are about to get an intimate glimpse into one aspect of Christianity. And Christian friends: grace. Grace all around.
I was having drinks with a friend of mine the other night, and she shared with me that when she was growing up, her mom never once talked about sex with her. The extent of their conversation about the topic came down to her mother saying, “I hope you’ll stay pure until marriage.” My friend, who is a mature, grown woman, laughed. “What does that even mean?” she said.
But I sensed her frustration, and our conversation turned to the topic of the sex-talk--or lack thereof--in Christian families. Most people don’t spend a lot of time discussing sex with their parents, Christian or not. But as we talked I felt my own frustration growing at the lack of guidance and information provided to most Christian children. Girls in particular.
On this site, my sister and I post about issues relating to women, and one very important issue is sexuality, sex, and the body. This huge topic, this intimate topic, is one that many Christians don’t want to talk about. But that does not mean it is not important, and it does not mean it will just go away.
Christian women grow up with a lot of myths. Many of them are not told explicitly to us, but are prevalent nonetheless. I think there is none more insidious than the myth of purity, that is often barely explained but strongly upheld. Girls are taught that they are the boundary-setters, that they are princesses, that they don’t need sexual brokenness counseling. They are taught to automatically associate the word “masturbation” with “male,” because it is assumed that Christian women are never interested in exploring their own bodies. Like Edith Wharton, confused and scared on her wedding night, Christian women don’t often get a clear picture of what sex should be, and are taught not to ask questions.
None of these myths are spoken outright, because it’s tough to speak about sex. Here, I want to extend some grace. I doubt that most Christian parents want their daughters to imbibe these ideas. I am sure that many parents have their own sexual brokenness, and find it difficult to discuss these things with their children. But I know for sure that not talking about these issues will not keep a girl “pure.” It will only cause her to seek out answers elsewhere, to grow confused about the difference between what her body and Christian culture are telling her, and to be deeply ashamed when she realizes she cannot measure up to these standards of purity.
There are many Christian writers who urge parents to talk about sex with their children, but their tone often takes this quality: “If you don’t talk to your kids about sex, someone else will!” Which is essentially saying that parents are responsible for getting inside their children’s heads before they become polluted by the outside culture. But I would flip that on its head. If you don’t talk about sex with your kids, you won’t get to. You’ll miss out on the conversations you could be having. You’ll completely ignore a fundamental part of who your child is, and how she was created. You don’t have to have conversations about sex with your daughter. You get to.
We are, whether we like it or not, sexual beings. We live in a culture that has taken this beautiful part of ourselves and stretched it as far as it can go and reveled in it, and this has led to brokenness and subjugation and pain. But Christians are responsible for walking the middle road--for not running to extremes--and as difficult and uncomfortable as that is, we are charged not to be lazy. We have a responsibility to uphold the blend of spirit and body and not give into the oftentimes very gnostic ideas of sexuality that dominate western Christianity. We are a community of people who are all on different trajectories, but one of the things that unites us is that we have all been created with beautiful bodies.
Refusing to talk about sex with our children means that, yes, they will go find out about it elsewhere--but it also means that we are missing the opportunity to delight in the messiness and the fearfulness of our created beings. Like any truth in the Bible, we can’t just point to a verse and charge each other to obey it. We have the responsibility of tracking it throughout the scriptures and understanding what God is saying in the entirety of his Word. The story of sexuality is an especially beautiful one. God has so much to say about the proper place for sex and the amazing expression our bodies have, and if we don’t take the time to understand this for ourselves and to share it with those we love most, we are denying a fundamentally beautiful truth.
There is no blueprint for how this can be done. Every parent has a history, every child responds differently, every situation is unique. And there is absolutely a proper place for sexual discussion, and an acknowledgment that it is only a part of who we are as humans. But I know too many women who have been sexually broken and had no one to turn to, because Christian women are supposed to be the pure ones. We are none of us pure. We are every bit as gritty and vulnerable as men. Until the church, and Christian families, can lift the taboo off the sex-talk and truly embrace both the beauty and the brokenness, girls and boys will continue to grow into themselves piece-meal, without truly understanding the purpose, danger and beauty of their sexuality.
Open and Unafraid
David O. Taylor