osprey_archer: (books)
I read David Gushee's Still Christian: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism before I went on my road trip, and it has suffered a bit from the time lag before I wrote this review. I enjoyed it as I was reading it, but in retrospect the book's problems loom larger in my mind, although to be fair part of this is simply that it is not the book I was hoping for. I wanted more exploration of wider trends and on-the-ground conflicts within American evangelicalism, but it's really more a memoir about Gushee's life and career and only touches on those conflicts insofar as they affected that.

Also, Gushee is careful not to say anything too inflammatory about anyone. I also would hesitate to write a juicy tell-all memoir about my colleagues - just imagine how awkward that would make staff meetings - so I can't really fault him, but the book would be more interesting with more nitty-gritty detail about the key players and conflicts in the drama.

It's like reading someone vagueblogging a fandom wank. Name some names!
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A few memes ago, [livejournal.com profile] ladyherenya asked me which characters I wanted to save from their narratives, a question that it took me basically forever to answer because I kept getting distracted and writing BASICALLY AN ESSAY about Elsie Dinsmore. So I decided that I should share, because when I read this book for my nineteenth-century girls' literature project it basically exploded my brain.

Martha Finley’s Elsie Dinsmore books are a series about an evangelical Protestant girl, first written in the 1870s. They basically focus on her relationship with her terrible, terrible father, who is simultaneously antagonist and hero, which is screamingly painful.

So Elsie’s mom died soon after Elsie was born, and in his grief Elsie’s father (who incidentally was super young and hot, the book informs us repeatedly) ran away to Europe and didn’t see his daughter till his return when she was eight. Eight-year-old Elsie, as Finley likes to remind us, is “not yet perfect,” because she does terrible things like allowing “her friend to accuse her [Elsie’s] father of cruelty and injustice without offering any remonstrance.”

You know, because he does little things like give her bread and water for lunch, and then, when she’s crying too hard to eat it, force her to choke it down because he thinks she’s refusing to eat out of stubbornness. Not cruel or unjust at all, am I right?

Poor abused Elsie spends the first few books yearning hopelessly for her father’s love, which he keeps withdrawing whenever she disobeys him. In Mr. Dinsmore’s mind, anything less than cheerful and instantaneous submission to his will is disobedience, so even saintly and self-effacing Elsie can’t please him.

And that’s before he asks her to flout her Calvinist convictions. Not, you know, because he doesn’t know about her convictions, but because he thinks that her convictions are ridiclous and wants to break them once and for all. So he gets sick, and he takes the opportunity to be all, "Elsie, I know it's the Sabbath, but you should read me this secular book."

Elsie refuses! Mr. Dinsmore is so vexed by her disobedience that he almost dies. Elsie’s hitherto kindly aunt tells her, “we all know that it is nothing but your misconduct that has caused this relapse.” Go ahead, Aunt Adelaide, twist that knife.

But then! But then! He gets better! NOOOOO. And Mr. Dinsmore is SUPER MAD. His daughter disobeyed him, and clearly the only proper response to this is SHUNNING. He tells her, “Elsie, I expect from my daughter entire, unquestioning obedience, and until you are ready to render it, I shall cease to treat you as my child. I shall banish you from my presence, and my affections.”

Elsie of course feels no anger about that. She tells him, “I know you have a right to do it, papa; I know I belong to you, and you have a right to do as you will with me, and I will try to submit without murmuring, but I cannot help feeling sad.”

(Is this the proper time to comment on the creepy incestuous vibes from their relationship? Lest you think this is my twenty-first century perversity talking, no, the other characters comment on it too: “Really, if a body didn’t know your relationship, he or she might almost imagine you a pair of lovers,” Elsie’s Aunt Enna scoffs.

And in a later book, after Elsie almost got engaged to a vile speculator Elsie’s father is all “DID HE KISS YOU?” Elsie assures her father that he did not, and Elsie’s father reacts thus: “ ‘I am truly thankful for that!’ he exclaimed in a tone of relief; ‘to know that he had – that these sweet lips had been polluted by contact with his – would be worse to me than the loss of half my fortune.’ And lifting her face as he spoke, he pressed his own to them again and again.”

People in the nineteenth century had different standards about physical contact than we do, but I am pretty sure that a father basically making out with his daughter was never okay.)

BUT BACK TO THE SHUNNING. Elsie’s father shuns her for six months. He convinces most of the extended family to shun her too. He takes away her nanny, who is basically her mother figure. Elsie begins to pine away and die. He builds a giant plantation house that they can live in together, if only Elsie will give up on her whole wicked “having a conscience” thing and apologize, and tells her that “all your friends will soon cease to love you, if you continue to show such a willful temper.”

Because apparently Mr. Dinsmore’s main goal in life is to destroy the last ragged shreds of Elsie’s self-esteem. The narrative is forever noting Elsie’s self-loathing with great approval: “I don’t deserve that he should love me or be kind and indulgent, when I am so rebellious,” she tells herself sorrowfully.

(This is, incidentally, the part of the book where Elsie begins to fantasize about dying. “I am afraid it isn’t right, but sometimes I am so sad and weary that I cannot help longing very much to die, and go to be with her [mother] and with Jesus; for they would always love me, and I should never be lonely any more,” she says wistfully.)

But despite her self-hatred, Elsie refuses to apologize! Her father, baffled and infuriated, is all, "If you don't obey me I will send you to a CONVENT SCHOOL." Elsie has been raised on terrible stories about wicked Papists torturing Protestants, and therefore promptly falls into a fatal decline, which so alarms her father that he comes to see her. Elsie, who is delirious, sees him and is like, “IT IS THE INQUISITOR AAAAAAH.”

I cannot disagree with you there, Elsie.

And then Elsie dies! Except not really, because there are going to be twenty-something more books about her. But her father thinks she dies, and is Saved, and then he never asks her to go against her conscience again, and they live together happily ever after despite the fact that he is a terrible, terrible man.

And these books have been recently reprinted. What is this I don’t even WHAT WERE THEY THINKING.
osprey_archer: (books)
I just finished reading Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which is an interesting book if you like that sort of thing, although not so very interesting that you should run out and read it if you don’t (that distinction belongs to Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple, about a Brown student who transfers to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University to get the inside view of evangelicalism.

Unlike Roose, Held Evans actually is an evangelical, so rather than trying to understand the tradition from without, she’s critiquing it from within. In one sense it gives her book more authority, because she knows what she’s talking about; but at the same time, I think her project surprised her less than Roose’s did, because she knew in a sense what she was going to find.

The best example of this - while also being a good example of Held Evans’ strengths as a writing - is her chapter about the ideal of the Proverbs 31. For those of you do not make a hobby of contemporary Christian culture and/or the Bible, Proverbs 31 details the many accomplishments of a “woman of noble character”: she gets up before dawn, she cooks, she sews, she gives to charity, she not only saves money but invests it so it multiplies, she stands foursquare beside her husband, etc. etc.

Contemporary conservative Evangelical Christians tend to use it as a sort of checklist: the Proverbs 31 woman is the sine qua non of what a woman should be. Viewed this way, Held Evans notes, Proverbs 31 is more or less designed to make you feel like a failure as a woman: there is so much to do.

That’s the part where it feels like Held Evans knew what she was going to find before she went into the project. Indeed, her failure at being the perfect Proverbs 31 woman feels slightly self-willed.

But - and this is what makes her book nonetheless interest - she doesn’t stop with this low-hanging fruit: she learns that Proverbs 31 was originally intended not as a checklist for women, but as a praise song for men to recite to their wives on the Sabbath. The point is not whether their wives have literally gotten up before dawn and sewn pillow cases: it’s that they have been, in their individual way, good wives.

Moreover, she notes, Jewish women use the phrase from Proverbs 31, eshet chayil (valorous woman), as a note of congratulations every time someone does something difficult. You aced a tough test? Eshet chayil! Made a pie crust rather than using store bought? Eshet chayil! Finished one of the many fics in progress hanging over your head? Eshet chayil!

Held Evans is so taken with this practice that she starts to say “woman of valor!” to all her friends when they accomplished something, and they in turn are sufficiently taken with it to start using this as well. I approve! The world would clearly be a better place if became a common practice. Possibly I should start leaving this as feedback on posts?
osprey_archer: (books)
Last post I raved for a while about books about Evangelical Christian culture. Those books are excellent and I love them, but they're really just a road map. If you want to get down and dirty with Evangelical books, then you have to read Francine Rivers' A Voice in the Wind and An Echo in the Darkness.

Or, okay, you don't, but I'm going to tell you all about them because I just have to SHARE. They're shlocky, they're historically risible - Rivers never misses a chance to throw in evangelical buzzwords, never mind how un-Roman blathering about alternative lifestyles sounds - they're very Moral Majority; but they're nonetheless strangely page-turning.

You guys, you guys, I have so much to tell you. )

So, yes. Basically these books are irredeemable potboilers with banal prose and warped values. But still…but still…despite all their problems, the unlikely plot contrivances and the hammering of a message I find highly disagreeable, still, there's something here.

The characters may be exasperating, they may be twisted to suit the messages, but I care about them. I want Julia to find an author who doesn't want to make an example of her and Hadassah to realize that Alexander is by far superior to Marcus. They breathe.


Nov. 12th, 2011 01:36 pm
osprey_archer: (Default)
The subtitle of Kevin Roose's The Unlikely Disciple claims that Jerry Falwell's Liberty is "America's Holiest University," but it isn't by a long stretch. Liberty allows wild and crazy activities like hand-holding and those three-second hugs. Places like Pensacola, on the other hand, don't even allow men and women to look at each other for overly long. They call it "making eye babies."

You might think that Pensacola would mark the outer bounds of the far right, but you would be far wrong. In her book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, Kathryn Joyce explores the Quiverfull movement, who would think sending their children to Pensacola a dangerously liberal and corrupting act. Quiverful believers abjure all forms of birth control and instead attempt to have as many children as possible in order to homeschool them up as good Christian soldiers.

The martial imagery here is not inapt: the movement's name comes from a Bible verse comparing children to arrows in a quiver. You need a quiver full of them, the idea goes, if you want to win the culture wars in America and defeat the Muslims abroad.

(Though it seems to me that Quiverfull leaders would find they have a lot in common with Iran's ayatollahs if they all sat down to a glass of tea. Theocracy guiding democracy! No more eye babies! Hair coverings! I think they would come to a fruitful interfaith understanding.)

Joyrce seems to have caught some of the cataclysmic urgency that drives her subjects, although in the opposite direction: "You GUYS, the crazy Christians OUTBREEDING us. We have to do something!"

On the one hand, this seems a little alarmist. On the other hand, if you go out and read some Quiverfull materials - like, say, So Much More or its companion website, written by Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin (who seem, leaving their beliefs aside, quite charming and thoughtful) to instruct young women how to be proper Quiverfull girls - well...

No college, naturally - too much chance for corruption. Not even missionary work is allowed, because it takes a girl's focus outside of her home. Defer to your brothers, even much younger brothers, to teach them how to be properly masterful men.

Read that, and it's hard not to feel a little alarmist about it.
osprey_archer: (books)
Christian wrestling. It sounds peculiar, doesn't it? Insert "Turn the other cheek" joke here. But it's a real thing: Christian wrestling, just like WWE except with more chances to save your immortal soul.

It's this sort of thing that makes American Evangelical culture endlessly fascinating to me. A vast subculture, tens of millions strong and politically active, in my own country - and aside from VeggieTales I knew nothing about it!

(In case you don't know, VeggieTales is a video series that retells Bible stories with anthropomorphized vegetables as the main characters. They are awesome. They're like Bible Muppets.)

This weekend my reading culminated in Kevin Roose's The Unlikely Disciple, which is awesome. (Thanks for the rec, [livejournal.com profile] exuberantself!)

Roose, a secular liberal student at Brown University, transferred to Jerry Falwell's conservative evangelical Liberty University for a semester, as a sort of alternative study abroad, on the grounds that for a secular American liberal, American evangelical culture is much more alarming and foreign than many actual foreign countries.

And he's probably right. Most study abroad programs are not going to net you a class in Creationism, or a three-second rule for hugs (four seconds are verging on the lascivious), or an anti-masturbation club or floor prayer meetings or any of the other hundred things that Roose chronicles with admirable compassion and open-mindedness.

Though he doesn't become an evangelical, he comes to appreciate aspects of evangelical culture that he never thought he would: prayer, the willingness to go the extra mile to help people, even the spirit behind the three-second hug rule. Sure, that specific rule may be absurd and legalistic, but it creates a dating culture that is much more genuine and less self-centered than one where the participants are thinking about nothing but "How far are we going to go tonight?"

This book makes a fascinating companion piece to A. J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically. Jacobs' book is much less focused on evangelicalism; rather than moving into an evangelical enclave, he reads the Bible and tries to follow as many of the rules within it as possible. Don't cut your beard. Don't eat fruit from a tree less than four years old. (This pretty much limits his fruit consumption to cherries.) Don't shake hands with women who are menstruating or men who haven't been ritually purified since their last ejaculation…

As you can imagine, Jacobs' experiment makes for a lot of awkward conversations.

Jacobs is Roose's mentor, which accounts for a similarity of spirit between their books. They wend their way to similar conclusions: that evangelicals (or religious people generally) are often excellent people, some of the kindest and gentlest you will ever meet, who nonetheless often whole-heartedly believe some rather awful things.

Roose and Jacobs both tend to emphasize the nice people over the awful things, although they never lose sight of the latter; the dramatic tension is what gives both books their page-turning appeal. Both books are lively, thoughtful reads; either is a good introduction to Evangelical culture in America.


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