Reading is a Sacred Act: A Follow-up

A semi-companion to this post about writing and a direct sequel to this one about reading spiritual books by women. 

I promised, a while ago, to follow up my post about women’s writing (and why we should be reading more of it) with a list of some of my personal “must-reads” — the books by women that have most deeply impacted my heart and mind.

At the time, I didn’t quite realize what an impossible task I’d set myself.

How does one curate such a list? Even if the only criteria is “personal impact,” how is one to measure and define such impact? Especially across genres and years? How do I compare Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s Moccasin Trail, for instance, one of my favorite Newberry Honor books from grade school (which spoke to my heart deeply on the topics of exile and displacement — the losses and gains of straddling worlds) with Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or (on an even more different playing field) Jeannette Winterson’s Art Objects? For that matter, should Moccasin Trail even be a candidate, given that its protagonist is male? And what about Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, loved so dearly for its lyricism and strangeness, which I would claim as one of my all-time favorite classics … but which boils down, in the end, to a masterfully told tale?

I can hear the hecklers already, It’s your list, do what you want. Yet it’s such a knotty business, choosing favorites. Publicly declaring, This matters more to me than all those others I left off the list. And whether one wants to admit it or not, the public aspect also gets messy. By posting this on a public blog, I’m not really saying, simply, Here are some books that moved me, challenged me, changed me. I’m saying, Here are some books I think you, too, should read. Yet, as a teacher, I recognize that my personal favorites are not always the best books for my classroom. Personal impact is not the same as “objective” worth (or general value). Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, is an important read, and, dealing with gender and religion as it does, leaving it off the list seems almost irresponsible. It would certainly belong on a list of “books you should read.” Yet, while it was certainly thought-provoking, engaging, and worth my time, its personal impact was limited.

And if you’re thinking, Wait, I thought the whole point (as stated in the aforementioned article) was that these were meant to be spiritual books by women … well, that isn’t as simple as it might sound either. You see, there’s a reason I majored in literature in college. A reason I cared enough about what and how students were reading to become an English teacher upon graduating. Literature has been inextricably tied up with my faith journey since I read my first Newberry Honor book when I was eight. Earlier, actually, since I was already listening to stories (read aloud, played on tape, told orally) long before I could read them. I’ve read, and been deeply impacted by, my fair share of nonfiction over the years, but it is in the pages of fiction that I most consistently come face to face with the deep truths, beauty, and goodness that have drawn my heart, over and over, back to God.

If I hadn’t known Aslan as a child,1 or had my heart pierced by Justin’s sacrifice,2 or longed for the glory of Arthur,3 or tasted Hassan’s goodness4 — if I hadn’t had my imagination sanctified, over and over again, with glimpses of meaning, of sacrifice, of hope — if I hadn’t tasted life so often and so young — would I have recognized, in Christ, the fulfillment of my heart’s yearning? Or even known what I was yearning for?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that I came to God by way of story. By way of literature. By way of books. And for me there is no clear demarcation between the spiritual and the secular in this realm. Rather, there are books that send me back to the world alive and awake (to wonder, to beauty, to pain, to the search for truth, to the need for healing, to the yearning for joy) — and books that do not.

As a Christ-follower, I also believe that part of our calling, as readers, writers, artists, people, is to search for that goodness, coherence, meaning, and beauty in the world around us5 (to create cosmos out of chaos, as Madeleine L’Engle might put it6). Are some texts drivel that do little more than de-sensitize us to the sorrows and joys of our fragile, beautiful world? Of what it means to live, to love, to die — to be human? Undoubtedly. Pornography’s a real thing (the dangers of which go far beyond the boundaries of trivializing sexual encounter — for treating sex casually is nothing compared to treating people casually, treating life casually, treating meaning casually). Yet I’d rather be on the lookout for the sacred than spend my time decrying the profane. Which is why I’d happily declare Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and James Goldman’s Lion in Winter two of the most moral, spiritual, and powerful texts I know.

So, yes, I’m still working on those lists (which will probably appear as a series of several shorter lists — divided by genre, topic, etc. — to make the act of choosing less traumatic). It’s quite possible that many (most) of the selected books won’t explicitly deal with faith — or be written by those who identify as people of faith. Even so, I see them connected, inextricably, with the purpose laid out in that original blog post: to cast our nets wider and encounter the image of God in places we have long ignored (namely, the words spoken by women).

As you wait for my lists with bated breath, what are some of your favorite texts by women? Or some of the unexpected places where you have encountered God? What stories remind you that there is hope and goodness in the world? Something to fight for, something to gain, something to lose? Something to this business of living that matters and matters mightily? 

Footnotes:

  1. C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia
  2. Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
  3. Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy
  4. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner
  5. Philippians 4:8 — “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
  6. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

 

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Expanding the Spiritual Canon: Women’s Voices, Inclusivity, and the Imago Dei

Originally published 6 Dec. 2018 on Christians for Biblical Equality’s blog Arise. Altered slightly. 

While I was recently “home” in Jordan, I happened to notice 25 Books Every Christian Should Read lying on the coffee table. While there’s something humorous, it seems to me, in writing a book about the books one should be reading, I was intrigued to see what — with 2000 years and the vast world to pick from — the editors might have chosen. Flipping to the table of contents, I was frustrated and saddened (though not particularly surprised) to see that only two of the works listed were written by women (and none were pulled from outside the Western canon).

Why this matters — why it might be a problem — should, I would hope, be fairly obvious.

As Sarah Thebarge wrote, in “(Half) the Sky is Falling,”

The creation story in Genesis says that in order to reflect God’s image in the world, God created men and women.  So, just like Mao Zedong’s insistence that “Women hold up half the sky,”  there should be a similar statement in the Christian tradition that says, “Women hold half the voice of God.” There should be a similar insistence that we not only hear about God from women, but that we in fact hear God’s voice through women.

If we believe, as we claim, that women (not to mention people of color) are created equally in the image of an ineffable God — and if we long to know that God, whose image they embody — shouldn’t we be actively pursuing their voices and perspectives? In some ways, the more different we believe our experiences of the world to be, the more important it becomes to hear the truths only the Other — the one who is not me — can speak.

If we want more than our own voices echoing in our ears, we need to cast our nets wider.

And yes, I know the answer to this general line of questioning: these simply are the classics of Christian history.1 “That they are what they are, do not blame me.”2

And I get it; I really do. Many of these authors have been deeply significant in my own faith journey and in the faith journeys of many of the people I know. But isn’t there also a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here? If we keep handing our children the same handful of books, written by the same handful of men, those books will continue to be the ones that most powerfully shape their journeys and their lives. The “must reads” they, too, will pass on as an inheritance for the next generation.

Whatever important, beautiful, and challenging works have been written by women or composed in other quadrants of the globe, how will our sons and daughters value work to which they’ve never been exposed?

When we omit the spiritual commentaries of women from our lists,  we perpetuate the myth that texts written by men are the only ones that matter, the only ones with any authority. We retain the lie of the universality of the white male voice — somehow uniquely situated to speak into all lives, at all times, in all places — and the equal and opposing lie that all other voices are situational and specific (with nothing to say to anyone beyond the borders of their own culture, experience, or gender).

But the point of this post isn’t actually to rant. Or to disparage books that really are worth reading (regardless of who wrote them). Or to imply that this is somehow a uniquely Christian quandary (the entire literary canon is rife with the same challenges — the same implications and assumptions). Rather, it’s to point out a problem, and suggest (request?) an alternative. How do we stretch the boundaries of the books we value and pass on? How do we create a more inclusive reality? How do we embody what we believe (about diversity and the image of God) in the space we make for other voices?

How do we intentionally break this cycle?

In the midst of a conversation sparked by these questions, my father made me an offer: write up a list of my favorite texts by women and he’d do his best to read one for every book he read by a male author.

This suggestion struck me as both simple and extreme. How do we bring equality to the canon? Well, we make sure we’re reading as many books by women as by men. Yet this is so divergent from the norm that it feels like a profound and costly concession (esp. when you have as long a reading list as my father). And one, I’m embarrassed to admit, I’ve never attempted myself.

I am, you see, part of the problem, not detached from it. Ask me to list my favorite authors, and I can easily give you five men for every woman. Most would be from Britain. A handful would be from the US. And almost none would be non-white.

And this from someone who did her master’s in women’s studies, grew up outside the US, and taught Global Literature for four years. So, yes, I think it fair to say the problem is pretty widespread.

My challenge to you, therefore, is my challenge to myself: it’s not to stop reading books by men, Westerners, or white people (let’s face it: I’m never going to give up Chesterton, MacDonald, or Lewis). It’s not even to commit to a 50/50 split (though I’d consider it a worthy goal to work towards). Rather, I’d suggest we strive to be a bit more aware of what we’re reading and why. Whose stories and voices we’re privileging and how that impacts our implicit narratives of value — of what is and is not applicable, worth listening to, worth knowing, worth learning from.

And yes, I’d challenge us to cast our nets a little wider. To broaden our reading, hear voices we haven’t heard before, learn from the Other. (If you have yet to listen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” stop reading this and go watch it — I promise you won’t regret it.)

Here, as with every other aspect of our lives, we need to be intentional, aware, and awake — so maybe next time we set out to create a collection of the 25 Books Every Christian Should Read, things will look a little bit different.

There will hopefully be a follow-up to this post with some of my personal recommendations for must-read female authors (both in the realms of fiction and non-fiction). In the meantime, what books have most impacted your own spiritual and personal journey? Whatever the race or sex of the author, share away! I love to have my reading list expanded, and finding new favorites is always a joy. 

Footnotes

1. And by this universal phrase we usually mean the history of the Western church.
2. I stole this phrase from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Writing Class Conversions

I wrote this post four years ago — while teaching WRIT 110 at George Fox — for a writing prompt about conversion (a prompt I eventually responded to here). I did not post it then, because I think it felt too personal, too vulnerable somehow. I was a new adjunct, teaching college students for the first time, many of whom came from particularly conservative Christian homes, and I guess I wasn’t quite sure I was ready for this conversation. The ending also felt too abrupt — unfinished — and it seemed that I said less (about a particularly complex topic) than I left unsaid. 

Regardless, I’m posting it now, in honor of International Women’s Day and the women in my life who’ve reflected the face of God to me — especially those professors who spent four years challenging my thinking and shaping my life.

It was the spring of my freshman year of college, and, as a newly declared English major, I was taking my first writing class from the ever-incredible Melanie Springer Mock.

I suppose it was a semester of conversions for me, for that class, an introduction to biographical and autobiographical writing, would forever change the way I viewed narrative (and thus my world).  It taught me to apply the paradigms of meaning I found so powerful in fiction to the living, breathing world around me — to look for the story being woven from the threads of my own life, to create (as Madeleine L’Engle would put it) cosmos from the chaos.

But if that wasn’t conversion enough, it also set me on a path of self-discovery that would ultimately lead to pursuing graduate work in Women’s Studies at the University of Oxford.

I certainly did not consider myself naive when I entered Melanie’s class.  I had grown up in third world countries my whole life, and had experienced first hand what being a woman tended to mean in the world.  I had worn my middle name, Amel (the Arabic term for hope), like a sacred seal, for it meant my father, the firstborn of sons, had wanted me, a daughter — had longed for me as the patriarch of old had once longed for Isaac.

I was not naive, and yet I believed I had escaped unscathed from the prying eyes of strangers, from the social conventions that demanded I cover every inch of skin and look no man in the eye, yet still left me open to unwanted touches and the constant hissing of boys in the street.  It never crossed my mind to wonder why I filled my head with books about kings and adventures, or why all my heroes seemed to wear my brothers’ and my father’s faces — never my mother’s, never mine.

I thought I knew who I was — my father’s daughter, God’s child, cherished — even if I was a girl.

It was Anne Lamott who unapologetically shattered my illusions with the use of a single pronoun.  We were reading her book Traveling Mercies as an example of memoir writing, and I had been enjoying her humor, her honesty, and her faith.  That is, until she had the audacity to refer to the Divine as feminine.  The three letters of that pronoun offended me more than any four-letter word she could have used, and I found myself suddenly convinced that, no matter what she claimed, Lamott could not be a Christian.

And it was that thought that brought me up short.  Why did I find Lamott’s comment so irreverent, so demeaning?  Surely I didn’t believe that God actually was a man, or that language could ever come close to encompassing the essence of the Divine, so why should it matter (and matter so much) if she used an unfamiliar metaphor?  For wasn’t that all language could be in regard to the I AM — shadows and metaphors and glimpses of the unknown?

What did it mean about my views of femininity and womanhood if I found it so blasphemous to insinuate that God might share my gender?

I had believed sexism to be something that existed out there, manifesting itself in unjust laws and occasional bursts of violence.  I had not realized it had the power to creep into my mind without permission, or warp my perspective without my awareness.  I had thought it blatant and ugly, not insidious and deceptive.

I realize that, for many, feminism has taken on negative connotations, meaning things I can’t quite comprehend.  For me, however, it has been a path opening onto healing, wholeness, and restored vision — a tool God has used to help me encounter his mother’s heart anew, and recognize that I, a woman, bear the image of One who made me and named me “good.”

Young and Female and Single

A little over a year ago, I visited a Christian university in Tennessee.  My parents were with me, as was my youngest brother — a not-yet-eighteen-year-old about to start college a world away from the continent he’d grown up on.

College send-offs have always been a big deal in my family, and it seemed unfair that my brother, the youngest of four, should be denied the experience the rest of us had had — traipsing onto campus with the siblings and parental units in tow.  And so, since I was the only sibling with a flexible schedule that summer, I happily tagged along for the college ride.

I got to tour the campus and meet the roommates, unpack the room and hear the orientation speeches.  There was good food, great worship, and times of prayer that moved me (and my parents) to tears, and all-in-all, it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

Of course, there was one portion of the weekend I could have done without.

My youngest brother, who towers somewhere just beyond six feet, is also the shortest of my brothers.  I, on the other hand, barely scrape 5’6″.  I also tend to avoid makeup, am comfortable in t-shirts, and often wear my hair in braids.  And, most convicting of all, I was  attending events designed for freshmen and their “families” — a term reserved, apparently, for parents and younger siblings.

So believe me when I tell you that I understand the mistake was an easy one to make.  I should perhaps take the fact that I look young for my age as a compliment.  At least, people keep telling me so.

The thing is, this wasn’t an isolated occurrence.

A few years prior, attending a church service with both my younger brothers — one about to start his stint at the Coast Guard Academy, the other going in to his junior year of high school — I was the only one asked (repeatedly) about my grade in school.  This, despite the fact that I had just finished a year teaching at my younger brothers’ high school and was about to embark on graduate studies at one of the UK’s most prestigious universities.

And barely two weeks ago, a man at church inquired about my father’s job, indicating my twenty-eight-year-old brother with a nod of his head.

But none of this is as frustrating as when someone who knows my age — usually a man, but often enough a woman — will still choose to direct their questions and comments toward the “adults” in the room.

Conversations with other women (both young and not-so-young), whose experiences mirror my own, have convinced me that it isn’t our age that is actually at issue.  Rather, it is our status.

You see, despite the “Ring by Spring” promises made by the Christian university I attended as an undergraduate, I am still unmarried.  And though my friends and I used to laugh about the absurd expectation that we needed to leave college with an MRS degree (we were, after all, too busy using the library or studying in coffee shops to have time to pursue serious relationships), what we didn’t realize was that we weren’t going to leave the “Ring by Spring” sensation behind with graduation.

In fact, I’d venture to argue that the reason “Ring by Spring” exists as a phenomenon at all, has very little to do with the Christian College Bubble, and almost everything to do with the wider evangelical environment the universities inevitably reflect.  Whether explicitly or implicitly, students (especially female students) are responding to the messages they’re receiving — that their status as adults won’t be recognized until there is, indeed, a ring on their finger.

I attended a Quaker university, and one of the central tenets of Quakerism is that every person, no matter their age, gender, or relational status, has something valuable to contribute to the world, and to the family of God.  I believe this concept wholeheartedly, and yet, it’s a difficult precept to hold onto in the face of constant pressure to conform.

Who doesn’t want to be taken seriously?  To be viewed as fully adult, fully human?  While it’s easy enough to laugh at the absurdity of needing to be married before one’s twenty-two and passes out of that magical land of collegiate hormones, it’s harder to laugh when one is no longer twenty-five.  And the problem is not, as some seem to think, that we begin to feel our age unnecessarily, but rather that it is tiring to be forever so very, very young.

One day, looking back from a secure foundation as wife and mother, I may have words of wisdom to offer young women in a similar plight.  I may tell them not to worry.  To laugh more, and enjoy being young, and free, while they have the chance.  Their turn, too, will come.

But maybe not.

After all, God never promised me a husband.  Nor did God make my personhood reliant on such a provision.

Maybe all I will have to offer is the conviction — grown strong in the face of adversity — that every person, Jew or Greek, free or slave, man or woman, adult or child, married or single, exists as a unique image of God, with truth and beauty to offer the world.

Maybe I will learn to grow bold, and to challenge those who assume that because I am unattached, and in the company of a married couple, I must be a child.  Maybe I will ask the uncomfortable questions about young adult groups geared to newly married couples, or what, exactly, I’m meant to learn from women’s Bible studies solely focused on how to be a good wife and mother.  And maybe I will grow sensitive to others, whose situation is not my own, yet who are nonetheless marginalized and forgotten, talked over and ignored.  Maybe I will grow a little more like Christ.

And maybe, really, I will find that I have not lost anything at all.