Tag Archives: Feminism

Feminist Writing Principles

I will confess that one of the main reasons I have a blog is that like many other writers who have blogs, I am working on longer works that I hope to get published.  Blogging may not make you famous or anything, but I have been to at least one book signing in which the author said his blog got him a publisher. 

One of my works has the working title Cities of Refuge.  It is a novel about atonement.  It is the story of an Alaskan Bush pilot who is going blind, reflecting on the tragedy that led him to give up being a minister and lose his faith in God and move to Alaska.  I lived in Alaska for six years and it’s the sort of place a lot of people move to when they’re running from something and want a fresh start.  There is another portion of the story told from the perspective of his daughter as she finds out about her father’s tragedy from another point of view.  Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead would probably be the best analogy for inspiration in that it’s an older man reflecting on his life and his regrets.  It’s also full of Biblical symbolism.

The other of my works is a coming of age science fiction series about time and space travel…and also atonement.  But then atonement is a popular theme of literature.  The idea for this work began by a question posed at a re-reading Harry Potter book club meeting: What if Harry Potter had been a girl?  Well yes, why can’t the girl be the one who discovers she has superpowers and a destiny and all of that?  And because I relate to science fiction more than fantasy, it’s obvious that my story would be a science fiction story.  The number one challenge I have with characters in that book is that I have two teenage girls and a teenage boy as the clever, smart, play it by the rules Hermione like character.  I also made him African American.  I realize just how much sexism is written into us because, when coming to scenes, it’s just easier to imagine the boy always taking charge, especially since he’s not the dangerous, bad boy type who needs a girl to tame him.  

Both of these works have been on my mind for a couple of years now.  And even though they are different genres, I don’t really see myself as a “genre” writer.  My goal is to produce literature: as in works that address the human condition.  I think literature transcends genre and there are certainly plenty of times when science fiction and fantasy are great means to address the human condition.  And when I say literature, I mean stuff that deals with heavy philosophical and deep existential questions, not simply a light read to be had on the beach.  It is possible that my writing could fail to achieve this because it is a lofty goal.  But nonetheless, that is what I want.  I want to write something that I think could be worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, even if no one else ever thinks so. 

When I write, I try to keep two principles in mind.  The first is the Bechdel test.  If you cannot have a conversation between two women in the book that is not about a man and also significant and plot advancing, then it doesn’t pass this test.  That means that having a conversation in the mall about clothes does not count – not plot advancing, at least not in a story that aims to be about the human condition.  Unless of course, the conversation is about how the clothes were made in a sweat shop and that conversation then leads the protagonist on a transformational journey.  Really, if the book has a female protagonist this should not be hard, but a surprising amount of entertainment fails.  Real women think about ideas and issues that are not centered on men.  Even though most of the recorded thinkers in history have been men, I will leave the caveat that there is a difference in talking about David Hume as a person and in discussing the merits of David Hume’s philosophy and how they apply to our society today. 

The second principle is the Hero’s Journey.  This would be that thing that Luke Skywalker (inspired because George Lucas read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Harry Potter go on.  You know the story where they have a call and have to go on a great journey and encounter a wise guru who guides them into accepting their destiny and then have to face the problem on their own.  They change.  They are not passive receptacles that just let stuff happen to them.  Maybe they start out that way, but then things keep pushing on them to accept their destiny.  Feminism is essentially about girls being the heroes of our own lives rather than passively waiting for someone (who usually happens to be male) to come and rescue us.  I can’t help but think of the heterosexist cliché that women get married to a man hoping that he will change and he doesn’t and men get married to a woman hoping she won’t change and he does.  Literary men change and become what women want; literary women are perfect and ideal and passively wait for the men to change.  

If you’re a writer, change that.  Considering that writers shape culture, our job is not to just regurgitate the same stuff we’ve seen over and over.  Our job is to imagine what life could be and write that story so that through stories, everyone can imagine a better world with us.


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Confronting the book that made me want to quit Christianity

In Let the Nations Be Glad, John Piper said, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”  As a reformed theologian, I couldn’t agree more, though as a reformed feminist theologian, I want to remove the masculine language for God.  His statement is really a co-opting of the answer to the first question on the Westminster Shorter Catechism – “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  Although as a Baptist child, I never said a creed or a confession in church, I had heard that phrase and took it fully to heart when I sang in youth choir and worshipped God.  I imagined that whatever heaven was, it was like one big choir concert with all of creation as the choir and God as the audience.  So as a young woman who felt that God had a calling on my life, I signed up for an Introduction to Missions class when I was at Oklahoma Baptist University (because God only ever calls women to be missionaries).  Piper’s book was our primary textbook.  Instead of making me want to glorify and enjoy God, it made me hate and resent God.  I took to reading Bertrand Russell and decided after a couple of semesters that I was an agnostic.  

John Piper jumps to a conclusion based on inverse logic and then decides to live there: “The chief end of God is to glorify and enjoy God forever.”  He offers several scriptural texts as proof for how much God revels in self glory.  Piper then asserts that because God is God and therefore different than us so the rules don’t apply to God.  We are particular and finite whereas God is infinite.  However, he completely fails to utilize the best philosophical solution orthodox Christian theology has for this quandary: the Trinity.  I’m not saying that John Piper doesn’t believe in the Trinity since he mentions Jesus and the Holy Spirit; I’m saying that he hasn’t through what faith in a Triune God means.  If you’ve ever read The Shack, then you can understand what I’m getting at.  The three mutually indwelling individuals who operate with such love for one another and unity of purpose and character are not a solitary monad sitting up in the sky saying, “I’ve brought my powerful army to destroy your planet to make way for a hyperspace bypass.  You were too busy worrying about the movement of small pieces of paper and thinking yourselves great for making digital watches to actually see that notice and thus make the special evacuation ship that departed five minutes ago?  Well I posted it in a book of archaic poetry I wrote about my awesomeness.  Here, let me read some of it to you before I exterminate you pathetic worms.” 

Except that horrifically, John Piper’s version of God has a worse torture fetish than Adolf Hitler.  Despite the fact that John Calvin only wrote a page on Hell in 1500 pages of the Institutes, the index of Piper’s 255 page book lists 20 pages on the subject but only a paltry 4 about hope.  When Piper does scriptural exegesis or engages with other theologians and writers, he singlehandedly chooses to interpret their words in the most negative and cruel way possible, reducing the beautiful complexity of their fear and trembling before God to a single univocal argument in favor of sadistic tyranny.  The best example of this is a letter in a footnote that he must include in his citations for academic integrity purposes from a conservative evangelical that accuses him of using “proof texts as knock-down arguments when they have alternate interpretations” and being “overly dogmatic.” (Page 120)  One of Piper’s most sickening quotes is that, “the horrors of Hell are intended by God to be an infinite demonstration of the value of the glory of God (page 28 and also page 120).”  My first thought upon picking up the book and reading this quote after 15 years is, “why do you imagine God is an insecure man who needs to prove his manhood by threatening his children with a belt?  The words ‘value of the glory of God’ pour from your open wounds straight onto the pages.”  

God is not the bully standing in some cosmic kitchen yelling, “Make me a sandwich.”  As Jimmy Carter poignantly says, “The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women.  They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.”  The tragedy of John Piper’s philosophical jumping to conclusions about the chief end of God without considering any philosophical implications of God’s triune nature is that in a book on missions, he scarcely mentions the Holy Spirit.  It is after all, basic Calvin and reformed theology that while scripture is the spectacles that help us see God and teach us to worship God correctly, the Holy Spirit is the one who helps us interpret scripture.  

If you want to know how I didn’t completely become an atheist at OBU, it’s because the Holy Spirit convicted me deep down inside that God, Jesus, and the Bible were real and that all of it was true, but that this narrow, destructive way of interpreting them was not.  It’s because somewhere in an “angry God” sermon about suffering on the cross, a still small voice whispered, “but isn’t Jesus God and therefore showing us God’s real character?”  And in my darkest hour, it convicted me that it wasn’t God whose love had conditions. The healing place in the rift between our society’s deep hunger for social justice and the harshest words of scripture is found in a theology of the Holy Spirit.  If we seek illumination from the Spirit, then the “option” to selfishly interpret holy teachings to subjugate anyone will continue its firm and certain trajectory into oblivion. 


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The Voice that Can’t be Silenced

I confess that I have this dream that is probably fairly common for most writers: to have that bestselling work that everyone talks about.  I also confess that I often fantasize that my brilliance will be discovered posthumously.  Two hundred years in the future, a tour group will traipse through the carefully preserved cracker box house with the overgrown lawn in South Austin saying, “This is where Holly Swift wrote her greatest work.  She was far ahead of her time and no one understood her genius back then.  Like Earnest Hemingway’s estate, her house has been turned into a cat preserve.  Of course, it was always a cat preserve when she lived there.”  This is because ever since I was in elementary school I have known that “far ahead of one’s time,” was probably the greatest compliment that anyone could ever have.  It meant that you were brilliant and that you had insights into the human condition that no one else had.  It also meant that you were destined to be misunderstood and either hated or ignored by most of your contemporaries. 

As I get older, I muse upon the philosophical assumptions on which this dream relies.  First of all the fact that I have always believed that “far ahead of her time,” was how I wanted to be remembered means that I have always been a future oriented thinker.  I have always known that the world was less than it should be and had hopes that the future could be much brighter.  I have also always known that I wanted to go down in history as someone who shaped that bright future.  It meant I didn’t believe that progress was inevitable without conscious action and it meant that I didn’t believe we were doomed to die in an apocalypse.  Also crucial to that basic assumption has always been that I should be remembered for my ideas. 

I found a journal I wrote ten years ago.  I said, “I want the whole world talking about what I write.”  I wrote about wanting to walk in a whole of different people’s shoes to see what it was like and concluding that I would come up with even more questions if I knew them better.  Sadly, I was even more cynical at twenty-six than I am at thirty-six because I wrote, “I once defined my ideal job as being one in which I helped people become better people.  But now I don’t think that’s the case, it’s too overly idealistic, even for me.”  I wrote about wanting to question every single foundation in the world, of being arrogant and ambitious, and of not letting popes and presidents off the hook.  I wrote about having no fear of the power of a writer to shake everything with a few well placed words.  I wrote, “I want to speak up for the world.  I want to try everyone’s shoes on.  I want to be the voice that can’t be silenced.” 

But then I came upon this sobering bit in the middle of it all.  “I want to tell you about an unspoken sexism that exists in this world.  I can’t quite place my finger on it, but I think it’s something like this.  If you’re a girl, you’re supposed to settle.  You’re not supposed to want the world and above all, you’re not supposed to expect to go to the top.  And you’re not supposed to believe in yourself.  You’re supposed to make other people happy.  Your self worth is defined in how well you live up to others’ expectations.  You make good grades because it makes your parents happy.  You go school where it makes people happy.  You never tell people they’re wrong.  It’s the unspoken rule – the one no one ever tells you, but you quietly learn.  You ask your questions to someone else, someone insignificant, someone who might just listen, but not the someone who could actually do anything.  I think the unspoken sexism in the world is that no one takes you seriously.  I get the feeling that girls aren’t supposed to have inner voices or deep convictions.  Girls can want to be famous for ice skating, singing, acting, writing romance novels, and even making scientific discoveries.  But girls aren’t supposed to be famous for their ideas or what they think.”  And then I wrote about how women’s dreams were supposed to be just doing what everyone else wants.  

The tragedy in all of this was that I was behind the times.  I thought that my observations on sexism and unspoken rules were deep, insightful, and original.  Perhaps they were deep and insightful, but they were hardly original.  I was merely waking up to the things that the other feminists already know.  The even deeper tragedy is that while I named “it” in that journal, that horrific thing that held me back and kept me from taking risks or actually putting pen to paper, I still continued to listen to it.  The wound is that sometimes I still do. 

Let’s be honest – if my writing is discovered after I die then I can avoid the pain of being called a heretic and told I’m going to hell by people who love me.  I don’t have to read a scathing New York Times book review that shatters my self esteem.  Really, being discovered after I die means that I can remain dysfunctional and safely avoid any situations that remotely resemble conflict.  Except that is not how you change the world.  What is that quote about well behaved women and making history again?  If I could go back in time and say something to myself at twenty-six or younger, I would offer this advice: Risk big and risk everything.  Don’t let people limit your dreams because you’re a girl or because they have been burned by the world and became too cynical.  You may lose everything and you may very well get burned.  But scars from risks not taken hurt far longer than the flames of burning fires.


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Heterosexism is a Sin that must be Renounced

The first woman I heard preach was a lesbian at a UCC church in Cambridge, Massachusetts that then became my church home in my early twenties.  In Hope and Suffering, Desmond Tutu states that if apartheid were shown to be a Biblical teaching that he would burn his Bible and cease to be a Christian.  These two statements that may seem like they have very little to do with each other are both the legacy of reformed theology.  It is the same Calvinist Congregationalists in New England who are remembered for scarlet letters and hysterical witch trials who now wear rainbow pins that declare “open and affirming,” and actually embody that ideal by ordaining and installing GLBTQ clergy.  Meanwhile, it wasn’t until 1994 that apartheid was repealed in South Africa.  Apartheid was an abuse of reformed theology to justify keeping whites better than blacks. 

I stumbled into that church in Harvard Square with belief in God and anger at church.  When I arrived, I found love and hope and my faith again.  We actually read more scripture in worship in that church than any other church I’ve ever attended.  I was also struck by how much we prayed to the Holy Spirit for guidance in our decisions.  But then the reformed understanding of church is “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit. The Bible is the glasses through which we come to knowledge of God and ourselves.  But the Holy Spirit helps us understand how we should use and interpret scripture.  We are always being reformed because more often than not we exchange the glory of God for mere idols of our own invention. 

I had only been attending First Church a few weeks when they announced they were calling Mary as pastor.  Everything I had ever been taught to that point was that homosexuality was a sin but then I had also been told that women couldn’t be pastors.  I had an internal struggle in which I prayed to God to really convict me if this was a sin.  It should have been easy since this was not my personal “sin” and I had yet to invest much emotional energy in these people.  Yet, I felt no such personal conviction and had to admit to myself that every prejudice I could muster belonged to someone else, but not to me.  I know now why; Homophobia is rooted in sexism and I was deeply wounded by sexism. 

When I see articles like this one about “Reformed” Christian marriage, I cannot help but see echoes of the same reasoning used to justify apartheid.  The real reason same sex marriage threatens traditional marriage is because it exposes the rigidity of traditional gender roles.  There are times when I think that we can lay out most of the big issues with which our current generation struggles with the church and link them all to heterosexism based on gender essentialism.  Our emotional struggle with substitutionary atonement (that God demanded Christ’s death to satisfy God’s honor) has to do with beliefs about maleness that our current generation understands less and less.  We struggle with concepts like eternal damnation because most of us do not apply outdated gender essential categories of maleness to God even when we call God “him.”  We do not imagine that this sort of attitude towards sinners and those who disagree with us as normative for femaleness.  And in our current time, most of us cannot see this sort of anger as normative for maleness either.  Today’s good father changes diapers and offers to make his wife or his husband a sandwich.  Maleness as distant, authoritative, arbitrary, and only showing anger as an emotion is becoming a relic of the past that our current generation overwhelmingly rejects. 

In No Future without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu writes about the psychologically dehumanizing effects of growing up in an apartheid culture and being taught inferiority.  The example that struck me most was a gut reaction of fear he felt when there wasn’t a white man in the cockpit on a turbulent flight.  He realized in that terrible moment that he had “accepted a white definition of existence.”  What he described in this experience resonated with the type of doubt and self doubt I know too well as a woman in our heterosexist world.  Accepting a culturally constructed, male dominant definition of existence and marginalizing our own experiences is not trusting God, scripture, or confessions over our feelings; it is trusting culturally constructed, male dominant feelings.  For protestant Christians who emphasize the priesthood of all believers, it is allowing other people’s experiences to mediate between us and God.  

When reformed Christians speak of total depravity, what we mean is that we are so blinded by sin that we cannot perceive the fullness of life that God intends for us.  Any arguments for heterosexism based on looking at common patterns of human behavior cross culturally, past or present are based on an assumption that we can determine good, evil and the fullness of God by looking at ourselves. This flies in the face of reformed theology. If heterosexism is the second oldest sin then it is only because sin itself seems so natural.  

The Belhar Confession was written to renounce the sin of apartheid.  It states, “Therefore we reject any doctrine which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate church formation.”  Heterosexism is at its core an absolutization of natural diversity that is hindering and breaking the visible and active unity of the church.  The crisis of today is that many are letting their Bibles collect dust and ceasing to be Christians rather than accept that heterosexism is a Biblical teaching.  Reformed theology has everything to do with renouncing this sin.

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What is Your Existential Crisis?

I write this post because of a story that a convert to Islam told my World Religions class when we visited his mosque.  Our professor always asked people how they came to pick their religion – whether it was because they grew up in it or converted.  This man had been an Evangelical Sunday school teacher and had read a book by Josh McDowell called Evidence that Demands a Verdict in hopes of being a better teacher.  He then decided that there was not enough evidence for him to accept the same verdict as Mr. McDowell.  Thus, he could no longer be a Christian because he didn’t think the resurrection really happened.  However, when he turned forty, he thought he should find the right religion because he didn’t want to be on the wrong side on judgment day.  I wondered if this man’s occupation might have something to do with computers (and as it turns out he was a senior engineer for IBM) since his thinking seemed to be very much based on evidence and fairly black and white.  However, more than that, I learned that day that the existential crisis that drives one person is not the same as the one that drives someone else.  This probably should not have come as a surprise, but it did. 

My existential crisis of faith when I was a young college student also came about by reading a book.  It was Let the Nations Be Glad by John Piper, which was assigned for an Introduction to Missions class at Oklahoma Baptist University.  It was one of the few non-required religion classes I could take that didn’t feel hostile to women.  But suffice to say that I started a class being enthusiastic about sharing my faith and feeling called by God to do something that left me feeling ashamed of my faith and not sure I wanted to be a Christian.  I had never thought of God as a narcissistic monster who delighted in torture before I read Piper.  I took that class because I loved to worship God and wanted to serve God.  I left that class not really liking God. 

My existential crisis had primarily to do with hope.  I remember scrawling in my notebook of deep thoughts that philosophically, I thought that love and justice might in fact be the same thing rather than opposites – and learned in seminary that Paul Tillich thought so too.  But at the tender age of twenty-one, I thought my only choices were Evangelical Christianity or agnosticism/atheism or some other religion like Buddhism or something.  So it seemed to me that if you were an atheist and a woman, you could be an equal citizen rather than a second class one.  If you were an atheist, you might be dedicated to do something about the real world because you would realize this life was precious.  Maybe in the future, there could be an ideal society where people actually loved each other and cared about each other and we learned not to fight wars and had cured most diseases.  Maybe we could actually solve some of our problems and we wouldn’t have to have poverty and hunger anymore.  Maybe we could even travel to other planets and make contact with extraterrestrials.  And my crisis was that if the only choices out there are Star Trek or John Piper, then there wasn’t even a contest.  

So do we each have our own existential crisis that drives us?  In asking this question, am I making certain assumptions about the nature of reality based on my own experience?  The primary reason that I did not become an atheist was because I could not imagine away what I felt to be the presence of God.  It was simply beyond the limits of my imagination to not conceive that God was up there somewhere and that God was aware of everything including all my thoughts and questions (as well as everyone else’s).  It was personal experience that I have difficulty putting into words or naming with language.  No doubt most atheists would think it was really all in my head.  And maybe I have a psychological need to believe in God because I find the idea of a random, chaotic universe unbearable.  It is possible that could be the case.  Fundamentalists would also say that I’m wrong because if I can’t see things in black and white and in terms of evidence, then I’m just reading what I want to see into reality.  Of course, I don’t expect many of them to have read past a title like, “What is your existential crisis?” 

However, that’s the point.  We all perceive things differently.  Maybe the people who say they’d like to believe in God, but can’t, really don’t have that sense that I couldn’t imagine away.  It’s easy for me to say, “Well you just think that your only choices are Star Trek or John Piper, but let me enlighten you with liberal mainline Protestantism.”  However, I don’t think I would have lost or gained my faith with a book like Evidence that Demands a Verdict.  My questions would have had to do with the nature of justice and the desire for a better world.  I would still ask what the resurrection means and why it matters.  That is not to say that if someone proved beyond a doubt that it didn’t happen, that I wouldn’t have to accept the evidence.  But as long as there is space to believe in the resurrection, I will.  I think if you are inclined to think the resurrection didn’t happen because people who are dead have a habit of staying that way, then that completely misses the point.  The point (at least to me) is that if even death can be overcome, then why not every other injustice and hurt in the world?  Why are we limited to only what we see as being possible?  But then my existential crisis was a crisis of hope. 


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