Maundy Thursday – Dominus Jesus postquam cenavit

Dominus Jesus, postquam cenavit cum discipulis,
suis lavit pedes eorum, et ait illis:
Scitis quid fecerim vobis, ego Dominus et Magister?
Exemplum dedi vobis, ut et vos ita faciatis.

Jesus the Lord, after He had supped with His disciples,
washed their feet, and said to them:
“Know you what I, your Lord and Master, have done to you?
I gave you an example, that you also may do likewise.”

Palm Sunday – Pueri Hebraeorum

Pueri Hebraeorum, vestimenta prosternebat in via,
et clamabant dicentes: Hosanna Filio David:
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.

The Hebrew children spread their garments in the way,
And cried out, saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Domini est terra, et plenitudo eius,
Orbis terrarum et universi qui habitant in eo.
Quia ipsa super maria fundavit eum,
Et super flumina praeparavit eum.

The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness,
The world and all those who dwell therein.
For He has founded it upon the seas,
And established it upon the waters.

Attollite portas, principes vestras,
Et elevamini, portae aternales:
Et introibit rex gloriae.
Quis est iste rex gloriae?
Dominus fortis et potens:
Dominus potens in praelio.

Lift up your gates, you princes,
And be lifted up, you everlasting doors:
And the King of glory shall enter in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.

Attollite portas, principes vestras,
Et elevamini, portae aeternales:
Et introibit rex gloriae.
Quis est iste rex gloriae?
Dominus virtutum ipse est rex gloriae.

Lift up your gates, you princes,
And be lifted up, you everlasting doors:
And the King of glory shall enter in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts; He is the King of glory.

Scripted Christian Storytelling, or, a Meditation on God’s Not Dead

WARNING: Post contains spoilers. Continue reading at your own risk!

When I was 13, I was assigned a simplistic and annoying little book by D. James Kennedy (What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?) for a homeschool religion class. I finished it, but it still made me totally hopping mad. You see, classically trained obsessive music nerd that I was (and still am), I knew an abnormally large amount of music history for my age, and thus could see right through all the outright lies about music in Kennedy’s book. At the time, however, I thought Kennedy was alone when he spouted ridiculous claims like there being no surviving record of ancient Greek music (reality: you can buy a whole album of it here, played on reconstructed instruments), and certainly he had to be the only person shortsighted and arrogant enough to actually believe that just because he hated Bela Bartok’s music, God did too.

Alas, I didn’t have to get much older before I discovered that conservative American Christendom in general has a hate-hate relationship with post-Romantic Western concert music, founded mostly on ignorance, misinformation and the confusion of personal taste with divine decree. Unfortunately this ignorance about, and general discomfort with, the arts is not limited to music. From homeschool moms who Sharpie out the genitals on the nudes in their teenage son’s art history book (true story), IFB preachers who rant against dancing, and people who think illusionists are actually practicing sorcery (also a true story), it leaks out of the community at the pores, and it would take a book (or two) to explore all the depressing details. So today, I’ll focus only on one aspect of the problem, by using this as the backdrop for and preamble to my review of the latest evangelical in-house film sensation, God’s Not Dead (hereafter referred to as GND).

In general, GND reminded me very much of Simon Morden’s excellent essay Sex, Death and Christian Fiction. (Read it in full here. Seriously, go read it. Now.) This is because it closely matches his description of “Christian fiction”:

But for most [Christian publishers] there are a set of criteria involving content, plot and characters that include:

• A protagonist who is either Christian, or comes to faith as a result of their experiences in the book.

• A strand of spiritual development that has greater or equal weight to the other plot developments.

• The primary conflict in the book is resolved by spiritual, not earthly power.

• There is a bar on bad language, out-of-marriage sexual situations, the consumption of alcohol and other recreational drugs.

• Violence must be treated very carefully – they would rather it happens off-page than on.

GND is actually slightly more “liberal” than this standard, as it shows a collision between a car and a pedestrian, as well a dinner party where wine is being consumed. Other than that, however, it fits Morden’s description to a tee (especially the first three points).

To be honest, due to my previous knowledge of Morden’s list and bad experiences in the past with explicitly “Christian” art, I was able to hazard a pretty good guess that GND was a piece of “Christian fiction” just from the brief descriptions I read online and heard from others. In the interest of fairness, however, I decided to see it for myself – though I must confess that when I went to theater, I was expecting little more than a propaganda film. Fortunately, what I got turned out to be slightly better than that…though not much.

But instead of simply dismissing GND as cheesy, predictable and overdone, I think it would be helpful to slow down and ask why so many have reacted this way to the film. Certainly it’s not because GND is explicitly religious. There are plenty of explicitly religious films that are masterpieces of filmmaking (think The Ten Commandments), and plenty of explicitly religious books that are classics of literature (think The Pilgrim’s Progress or The Screwtape Letters). So what went wrong?

To answer that question, we will turn again to Morden’s essay:

I want to spend a little time talking about messages. Art being used to explore a particular set of ideas or put forward a particular view is commonplace. It’s not peculiar to the Christian faith, or to any faith at all. Whether the idea is courtly love, or killing God, or the need to maintain a strong military against bug-eyed aliens who want to steal our air and/or women, writers can, if they are skilful enough, weave a story of such power and imagination that their point slides through our ribs and pierces our hearts.

When it’s done badly, it hits us over the head. Over and over again. It’s not far from the truth that message-driven fiction makes for bad fiction. As I hope to show, there are very great pressures on us as Christians to, at the very least, include a message, and better still, make the message the reason for writing…

It’s obivous that GND is “message-driven,” because the message is displayed proudly and unambiguously right in the film’s title. It was, essentially, designed to set forth theism as a valid intellectual alternative to atheism. As Morden points out, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, when well executed. Unfortunately, it was not well executed in GND, and more closely resembles Morden’s second paragraph above in which the message is about as easy to miss as a kick in the pants. And because all other elements of the story are secondary to that message, the results are underdeveloped and/or extreme characters; a predictable “check-box” plot; and flat, undifferentiated dialogue.

Let’s start with the character development. After the quote above, Morden continues with a description of his character creation process, which ends with the following:

Because my characters live independently in my imagination, it becomes foolish, if not futile, to deliberately cram in a message. I would find myself frustrated at every turn.

In other words, a story must be first and foremost about the characters and their development. If we surbordinate our characters to our personal agenda, we will either weaken otherwise strong characters, or be unable to create strong characters in the first place because their development is strangled by the 800-pound message gorilla.

GND has the second problem (message stifling character development). To support the film’s message, the characters are either crammed into pre-existing roles, developed so little that it’s sometimes difficult to even care about their existence, or made so extreme that they become comical. Professor Radisson, the atheist who challenges the protagonist Josh to prove the existence of God, is not only obviously designed to resemble the favorite “New Atheist” opponents of conservative Christians, but also plays into many common Christian beliefs about atheists (all or most atheists became atheists because of emotional pain related to religion, all atheists are angry at God, atheists really do believe in God deep down, etc.). A visiting African missionary is added for seemingly no reason except comic relief. One of the worst offenders was Josh’s girlfriend, who, even though she and Josh have dated for six years, suddenly decides to dump him over his opposition to Professor Radisson.

Other characters, who deserved more development, were badly shortchanged. For instance, Mina, Professor Radisson’s Christian wife and/or live-in girlfriend (which was left unclear), is connected to most of the characters in some way and thus serves as a sort of nexus linking the various subplots. She also leaves Professor Radisson after he verbally abuses her at a dinner party. (And yes, thumbs up to the writers for showing a woman leaving her abuser, despite the movie’s many other flaws!) However, despite all this fertile soil for character development, Mina gets little screen time – and in what might be one of the film’s biggest missed opportunities, we do not get to see her reaction after Professor Radisson is hit and killed by a car only a day or so after she leaves him. Instead, we are treated to an extended Newsboys concert, and a cheap gimmick in which the audience is asked to text “God’s not dead” to everyone in their contacts list.

The only thing I can think of that was truly positive in GND’s characterization, was Josh’s attitude toward Professor Radisson. I was raised in Christian homeschool circles, so I’ve seen more than my fair share of debate children ready to go out and pick a fight with their professors, whether they needed to or not. Some of these same people later seemed disappointed when their professor did not have a problem with Christians and they did not “get to” defend Jesus in the classroom. Thus, I was afraid that Josh would be characterized as belligerent and obnoxious. Thankfully the filmmakers largely avoided this (with the possible exception of one of the debate sessions), and even more importantly, avoided showing Josh behaving smugly after every other student in the class came out on the side of theism.

The next problem, a predictable plot, Morden hints at first in his list but also in the quote below:

Fantasy Christianity exists within the pages of Christian fiction and describes a Christian faith that doesn’t exist. Demons are slain, sinners saved, prayers instantly answered, the righteous though tempted never fall, the unrighteous either come to faith or are smited by God’s power. It is a faith that we will only have in heaven.

Fantasy reality is the other side of the coin. If the Christian faith that is being written about doesn’t exist, neither does the reality where, the wicked never prosper, bad things happen to good people only for a reason, no one swears or drinks or takes drugs, or has sex, the Gospel is met with acceptance or rejection, never indifference.

Anyone familiar with “Christian fiction” can tell you that there are certain things that simply must occur in one of these books. The biggest rule is probably that the selected “evangelism target” of the story, must not be allowed to leave the story unconverted, or failing that, must at least have moved in the direction of conversion in some kind of visible manner. It was this rule that led me to predict, upon first hearing the scenario of GND, that Professor Radisson would become a Christian by the end of the film. I was right, though it didn’t happen quite the way I expected – and the way it did happen, bears examination in its own right.

In brief, after his series of debates with Josh ends, Professor Radisson is walking down the street and steps out into a crosswalk, where he is hit full force by a car running a red light. Conveniently, the visiting African missionary and his pastor friend are in the next car over, and they run to Professor Radisson as he lies dying in the street. As they present the Gospel to him one last time, he finally decides to “take a chance on Jesus” (due in part to a years-old letter from his dying devout mother he read in the previous scene) and accepts Christ moments before death.

Now that might make for a dramatic death scene, but in the end it really amounts to little more than a deus ex machina to fulfill one of the main “check boxes” of Christian fiction (convert the evangelism target). Real-life conversions are rarely this dramatic or sudden, especially not when the would-be convert has been a committed atheist for decades. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the convenient conversion from being a mainstay of Christian fiction for centuries. It appears in The Coral Island (1857), a favorite of Vision Forum, in which three boys adventure with missionaries in the south Pacific and are conveniently saved when the tribe of cannibals that is preparing to eat them, suddenly converts en masse and sets them free to return to England. So GND has done nothing new here – though that doesn’t make it any less artificial and uncreative.

GND also featured many of the popular “check box” topics that American Christian audiences like. Underground churches in China? Check. A Muslim girl who converts to Christianity? Check. Elitist liberal academics who hate Christians? Check. Christian music industry marketing tie-in? Check. It did manage to steer clear of the really hot-button issues (gay marriage, abortion, creationism, etc.), which I thought was a positive as it would not only have made the plot even more predictable than it already was, but also would have distracted from the main point of the intellectual validity of theism.

And now at last I come to the topic of the film’s dialogue. Probably the most succinct way to state my complaint, is that I’d never been to a film with Scripture references before. What I mean by this, is that aside from the dialogue being flat (more on that later), the writers seemed to be addicted to quotes, both from the Bible and from other books. The Bible was quoted both in whole verse chunks and book-and-chapter references, and as we should expect from an apologetics movie, C. S. Lewis and Richard Dawkins both made their obligatory appearances (one of them in the lunch line). In fact some parts of the film (mostly the debates) seemed to be little more than unremarkable dialogue stuck in the gaps between quotes.

The problem above is, of course, self-evident: if all you can do is string together a bunch of quotes, you need to improve your writing skills, a lot. The problem with the dialogue itself is more subtle, and might not be noticed by someone who has never taken a writing class or tried writing fictional characters themselves. I earlier described the dialogue as “undifferentiated,” by which I mean it had, with the possible exception of Josh and Professor Radisson, no unique character voice. In other words, much of it could be put in the mouth of just about any character in the film, and still sound right. Aside from the reflecting the general sorry state of GND’s character development, we all know from our real world lives that we don’t talk the same way as our friends, and they don’t talk like us or even each other. Thus, each character’s dialogue having a unique voice, is extremely important to establish the believability and interest of the story we are trying to tell.

A wonderful illustration of what unique character voice should look like comes from the second chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (and yes, you may now all stone me with stones for reading a book about sorcery!):

At once, Hermione Granger’s voice seemed to fill his head, shrill and panicky.

“Your scar hurt? Harry, that’s really serious… Write to Professor Dumbledore! And I’ll go check Common Magical Ailments and Afflictions… Maybe there’s something in there about curse scars…” …

And so he tried to imagine his other best friend, Ron Weasley’s, reaction, and in a moment, Ron’s red hair and long-nosed, freckled face seemed to swim before Harry, wearing a bemused expression.

“Your scar hurt? But…but You-Know-Who can’t be near you now, can he? I mean…you’d know, wouldn’t you? He’d be trying to do you in again, wouldn’t he? I dunno, Harry, maybe curse scars always twinge a bit…I’ll ask Dad…”[1]

Personal experience tells me that readers would know, likely without being told, which of the quoted statements above came from Hermione Granger, and which came from Ron Weasley. That’s because Ron and Hermione are different people with different personalities, differents habits of speech and different mannerisms, all of which is reflected in the dialogue Rowling writes for them. Personal experience also tells me that voice in dialogue only comes from familiarity and comfort with the characters in question. In other words, it becomes easier to write a character’s dialogue, the better you know them – and the moment you discover that you can tell who is speaking in your own writing, based only on a sentence or two of dialogue, is a very exciting one. Thus why I stated above that the poor state of GND’s dialogue, is really just a reflection of the poor state of its characters.

But perhaps all that doesn’t matter to you. After all, as long as the Gospel is preached, none of that is important, right? And if GND helps even one person come to faith, then it’s all good!

I’ll first say that I’m a bit gunshy of this argument from a doctrinal perspective. Aside from smacking of the ends justifying the means, it’s also been used to permit all sorts of false and dangerous ideas to run rampant within the church (see my Big Box series on Vision Forum-style patriarchy), by convincing Christians not to “sweat the small stuff” and overlook error. More to the point of this post, however, I simply do not believe that artistic integrity is not important. God can, of course, use pablum and twaddle to bring someone to Christ, but that doesn’t mean that pablum and twaddle should be promoted or held up as good. Surely Christian artists, standing on the shoulders of giants like Lewis and Tolkien, can and should do better. Why should we expect the world to take us seriously when we consistently turn out substandard product that’s easily outstripped by secular fiction and makes us the laughingstock of multiple disciplines? – especially when that the church was one of the main patrons of Western art for thousands of years, and in large part made much of its development possible.

So in light of the above, God’s Not Dead gets a D+ from this reviewer. Compared only to other “Christian fiction” media, I would have given it a C+. But it’s time we held ourselves to higher standards than that. If we don’t, we shouldn’t complain when no one listens to us.

[1]Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 21-22.

Hospitality: The Biblical Commands (TBB)

The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what the Big Box is all about.

Okay, so I said here that I would review Hospitality: The Biblical Commands around Halloween of last year. It’s now March, so obviously my posting schedule got a little thrown off. But hey, better late than never, right? So let’s get going and take a good, long, belated look the topic of hospitality, as explained by Alexander Strauch.

Before we start, however, we must ask, who exactly is Alexander Strauch? Since his name didn’t sound familiar to me, I did a little Googling and came up with more questions than I did answers. In fact the only solid information came from his own website:

Alexander Strauch was raised in New Jersey and converted to Christ at a Bible camp in New York State. He received his undergraduate degree from Colorado Christian University and went on to earn his Master’s in Divinity degree from Denver Seminary.

For over forty years he has served as an elder at Littleton Bible Chapel near Denver, Colorado. He has taught philosophy and New Testament literature at Colorado Christian University and is a keynote speaker each year at Emmaus Bible College’s Iron Sharpens Iron conference. A gifted Bible teacher and speaker, Mr. Strauch has taught in more than 25 countries and has helped thousands of churches worldwide through his expository writing ministry.

With more than 200,000 copies print, Alexander is best known as the author of Biblical Eldership, which has been translated into more than 20 languages. His books are available through Lewis and Roth Publishers.

Mr. Strauch and his wife, Marilyn, reside in Littleton, Colorado, near their four adult daughters and eight grandchildren.[1]

Well, that doesn’t tell us much. The website of Littleton Bible Chapel gives us a little more: the congregation is obviously Baptist and complementarian, and Strauch’s biography above appears to be out of date, as he’s no longer listed on LBC’s leadership page. Most interesting, however, is the fact that LBC has standard age-segregated ministries, including an AWANA program, and thus is clearly not Family-Integrated. How Strauch’s lectures (and there’s more than one) ever came to be sold by Vision Forum, therefore remains a mystery to me.

Good things come to those who wait

Strauch’s nebulous background aside, however, I am pleased to report that, 31 lectures into the Big Box, Hospitality is the only talk so far which I would give an overall positive rating (with a few qualifications; see below). Strauch was not only funny and upbeat, but also managed to go an entire hour without once mentioning headship and submission or other gender roles (!!!). The core teaching on hospitality seemed to be sound and relatively basic, and the verses cited were actually related to the subject matter (Romans 12:9-13, Hebrews 13:2, 1 Peter 4:9). I was especially pleased to hear Strauch talk about Christians inviting non-Christians and those from less-than-perfect families into their homes, as I was afraid that Vision Forum’s tendency toward extreme levels of separation from those who do not meet their legalistically high standards, would rear its ugly head again.

Here is a sampling of the many good things Strauch said:

In fact, one of the complaints you hear and I hear, over and over again, that churches profess one thing but they’re cold and unfriendly. They have what I called churchy love. You know what churchy love is? That’s the love that ends at the back door or the parking lot. When you’re in the four walls of the church building, people are very loving and caring, but it stops there and it doesn’t want to see you the rest of the week. And don’t think people don’t pick up on that.

Through the ministry of hospitality, we share our most prized possessions. We share our family, our home, our finances, our food, our privacy, and our time… Indeed, we share our very lives. Hospitality is always costly. Through the ministry of hospitality, we provide friendship, acceptance, fellowship, refreshment, comfort and love in the richest and deepest way possible.

You know, the Lord talks about a banquet someday, with Him. Going to eat with us, dine with us. Even in that Revelation passage, however you take it or apply it, He wants to have communion, wants to be invited so He can be intimate with us. He loves intimacy, closeness, relationship. He doesn’t want to be held outside. Hospitality is opening your privacy and your time and your money and the things that you most prize to other people, and you share it.

656px-Adriaen_Brouwer_003I will admit that this topic may have resonated with me for a couple reasons. I love big group meals, especially on holidays, and I enjoy having people over and cooking for them. This was also one of the things I liked about my former (PCA) church. On the second Sunday of every month they had a large potluck fellowship meal after church, and since the congregation was so small, on Thanksgiving everyone got together at one particular family’s house to eat and play games. So despite the congregation’s failure on other points – unfortunately including the “churchy love” one above, to a degree – I really did enjoy the “hospitality” element.

All that being said, because I couldn’t find enough information about Strauch’s background to ascertain the nature of his connection to Vision Forum, I have to stop short of an outright recommendation of Hospitality. There were also a few things in the lecture I would like clarified first, which I’ll explore in the next section.

Potential problems

One of the main risks I see in Hospitality is that Strauch, while sounding good on the surface, could create legalistic rules around his many positive points. As an example, he told a story about an elderly woman who visited his church on Easter Sunday. After church, the woman was about to leave to go to a restaurant, but Strauch stopped her and invited her to his house for dinner instead, so she did not have to eat alone. Now that’s a great story and I applaud Strauch’s action. A legalist, however, could easily spin this into a law that says Christians should never take people out to eat, because that would be shirking God’s command to be hospitable. Another possible construction is that Christians should never stay at hotels but should instead find local families to take them in, or else they are enabling other Christians to not practice hospitality. Strauch didn’t take the story in this direction, at least not in this lecture. He may have elsewhere, but I have no way of knowing that. If he did take it in a legalistic direction, then Hospitality becomes much less helpful and much more problematic.

I think it far more likely that Strauch could fall into the trap of focusing only on a single issue:

So when we say let love be be without hypocrisy, or let love be genuine, depending on your translation, we mean actively pursuing hospitality. That’s how love is fleshed out.

Strauch was commenting here on Romans 12:9-13:

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.

Now certainly we can conclude from this passage that hospitality is one way to express “love without hypocrisy.” However, since it’s just one item on a long list, which also includes things prayer, charity and patience, it’s most definitely not the only way. Strauch may in fact recognize this, but in the quote above he comes dangerously close to claiming that hospitality is THE one true way to show love to your neighbor. And sad to say, if that is what he meant, then he is wrong.

Strauch also showed some potentially harmful unawareness of social anxiety issues:

It’s the Lord’s command, it’s the Lord’s word. And again, I acknowledge, I do realize for some people this is very frightening, and they’re afraid of failing, they’re afraid of possibly people thinking little of them because of their home, or maybe the way they cook food, or maybe you have some certain traditions in your home that you might be frightened of [sic] and people wouldn’t understand. In faith, step forward and start performing the Lord’s work. Just do it, and put the rest in the Lord’s hands. Don’t try to be in competition with Sister So-and-So, who can do a twelve-course meal and has the best-looking plates in town, and has a beautiful mansion home. Do not look around and do that. It’s not entertainment in that sense and competition. God has given you your home, He’s given you your plates, He’s given you what you have. Use it. The Lord doesn’t look down from heaven and say, you don’t have nice plates.

Obviously Strauch is correct to say that competition should not be a factor in hospitality, and that sometimes there are certain insecurities we should perhaps work at overcoming. However, like the story about the elderly woman above, if this observation is made into a club with which to beat Christians with genuine psychological disorders that hinder (or maybe even prevent) normal social interaction, then we have a problem. I’d also like to make sure that Strauch is aware of and sensitive to food allergies and other diet issues.

The only thing in the lecture that sent up a true red flag for me was the following:

When we have people to our table, we have a couple traditions. After we get the food going, I tell everyone, we go around the table and we get to meet one another, and I tell them, we ask them questions. … And there’s two fundamental questions asked. You ask them, how did you become a believer in Jesus Christ, and that will open a whole new world. And then I ask them, how did you meet in marriage, and just asking those very, very basic simple questions, all of a sudden a believer’s life is unfolded in front of you, who you may have fellowshipped with for years and you don’t know.

First of all, I’m certain Strauch means well here. I’m also not sure how much of my reaction to this quote was actual concern, and how much was my personal issues. I will be honest, however, and say that the notion of asking a house guest to “spill” their testimony on demand, not just to the host but to an entire table full of people, was offensive to me and sounded potentially dangerous. I, for one, would not necessarily feel comfortable sharing that information with just anybody (and Strauch did not qualify whether the guest was previously known to him to a complete stranger), because I’ve known too many people who would judge my salvation based on their opinion of whether my testimony was “good” or “dramatic” enough. In fact, the main determiner here, for me, would be Strauch’s reaction to a guest who did not want to share their testimony for whatever reason. If he were to let it go without comment and move on, great. If, however, he dwelt on it and began to question their motives for not sharing, then I would consider my suspicions confirmed, and not in a good way.

794px-Bomb_WeteyeMore importantly, however, Strauch’s advice on this point reminded me of “love bombing,” which Cindy Kunsman has discussed here:

“Love bombing” refers to the show of (genuine or feigned) love and affection that a motivated individual or group bestows upon their “mark” in order to endear themselves. The “mark” (the person that a manipulator “marks” or targets as an object to be exploited) in a very subjective response to the overwhelming, pleasant experience of the great show of affection, becomes highly unlikely to recognize or even consider any negative information about the manipulator. The “mark” does not realize the subtle and powerful influence that the manipulator has initiated because their experience has been so pleasant. The “mark” does not realize that their reasoning shifts from an objective perspective into a very subjective, emotional and experiential one. The situation exploits deeply personal, very human needs, wants and desires so that the “mark” will likely not notice any hint of manipulation until they are deeply invested, entrenched or dependent upon the manipulator in some way so as to make leaving the relationship very difficult.[2]

Now it doesn’t qualify as “love bombing” merely to ask someone to share their testimony. It could, however, easily be made into a manipulation tactic to get someone to reveal personal information that could be used against them later, especially if others at the table had already told their stories first. In fact the social pressure to conform and “spill” could be enormous, depending on the atmosphere of the room. And if “love bombing” had already been used – and actually most of Hospitality, while fine on its own, could be a tactics goldmine for a group wishing to “love bomb” new members – then it would likely be much easier to get the guest in question to “spill,” since they would already be inclined to trust the “love bomber” and awash in positive feelings about their experience thus far.

As a final reminder before we close, let’s review some previous statements made about hospitality in the Big Box. We learned in A Home School Vision of Victory that Doug Phillips sees hospitality as a private alternative to government welfare programs, and in The Wise Woman’s Guide to Blessing Her Husband’s Vision (also by Phillips), we encountered this:

Do you open up your home, and when people come in and they say, “Thank you, thank you,” do you immediately defer to your husband and say, “Oh, this is the generosity of my husband. He’s the lord of the home. He’s opened it up to you. I’m doing this to serve my husband, and representing my husband, I welcome you into this home.”

Phillips, then, sees hospitality as a means to an end – specifically, that of dismantling social safety nets and reinforcing patriarchy within the home. To be fair, Strauch didn’t mention either of these things. But without solid information about his involvement with Vision Forum (or lack thereof), I can’t assess whether he agrees with Phillips or not.

Now, perhaps, you can see why I passed on a recommendation. Hospitality is wonderful, but not if it enables patriarchy and love bombing. I did not necessarily hear either of those things in Strauch’s message, and without my extensive background knowledge of patriarchy, I probably wouldn’t have thought of them at all. Nevertheless, both could be used, without much effort at all, to take the many good things Strauch said and turn them into instruments of control, legalism and abuse – and that would be a crying shame. I can only hope that Strauch himself would be appalled at the idea.

Christian Modesty (TBB)

The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what the Big Box is all about.

There are a few topics on which any anti-patriocentric blogger will eventually be obligated to comment, because they are such a prominent part of patriarchal culture. Courtship, militant fecundity, submission – you probably know the lineup if you’ve been reading in this corner of the blogosphere for any significant amount of time. Modesty is one of those topics.

To be honest, Jeff Pollard’s Christian Modesty was not nearly as bad as I expected it to be. The first half of the lecture actually contained some decent advice – for instance, the idea that you can focus so much on purely external matters that you develop a holier-than-thou attitude. Not just patriarchal culture, but also many megachurches and their smaller spinoffs and wannabes would do well to reduce their focus on externals (are you cool enough?). That being said, however, we do encounter a familiar and predictable set of contradictions and tensions, which I’ll explore in the rest of this post.

The tank top made me do it

I was pleasantly surprised to hear Pollard say this near the end of the lecture:

Men, we need to grow up and learn by God’s Word how to guard our hearts. Most of the material that I have read regarding modesty very often becomes very shrill, and the men are standing there writing it, pointing at the women, pointing at the women going, them, them! What they’re wearing, what they’re wearing! And it should be saying, what you are thinking and you need to guide and guard your heart first, because this world isn’t gonna go away in the fashion that it’s in.

What Pollard is, of course, talking about here is the almost universal attitude in modesty-inclined circles that male lust is entirely (or almost entirely) women’s responsibility. We witnessed this attitude in action only a few short months ago, when the victim of Doug Phillips’ clergy sexual abuse was predictably painted as a seductress. Probably the best portrayal of this attitude that I know of, however, comes not from patriarchy but, of all places, Disney:

Now in fairness to Frollo, at least the woman he’s obsessing over in this song was actually pole dancing when he first saw her (though that still doesn’t excuse or justify his attitude). Most patriarchal men, however, are not so lucky. Moreover, Jesus Himself seems to place the blame for lust not in the person being looked at, but in the observer:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to cast into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30)

Pollard, however, would retort – and did in the lecture – that women who dress immodestly are still indirectly responsible for men’s lust, because they essentially “provoked” them with their clothing and thus caused their brother to stumble. So while he appears to condemn men shifting all the blame onto women, he still preaches a sort of “nicer” version of this idea, and seems to see men and women sharing the blame equally.

Truth be told, I’m a little uncertain what to make of this. On the one hand, causing another to stumble is not a good thing (1 Cor. 8:9-13), we should be considerate of others, and there are probably some forms of clothing that are too suggestive. But on the other hand, no matter how hard we try, we can never completely prevent lust with our clothing. Even if a woman wore a burqah or a potato sack, there are some men who would still leer and stare for the very simple reason Jesus outlined two millennia ago: lust springs ultimately from the heart of the observer, not in the person being lusted after.

Pollard’s reasoning also reminds me a little too much of the excuses often made in the face of domestic violence and rape. When a woman confesses that her husband has been beating her, it seems many people ask, not how they can help or get her out of the situation, but whether she nagged him, whether she’s been giving him enough sex, or whether she somehow “provoked” the attack. With a rape victim, they want to know whether she “asked for it” by wearing the wrong kind of clothing – and thus we find ourselves right back where we started. If a woman can “ask for” men to lust after her, it’s only a small step to her being able to “ask for” men to rape her. And I’m absolutely certain what to make of that! (Read: throwing my computer across the room in rage.)

Kruitramp_Wesel_1642Also, whether Pollard realizes it or not, much of the language used in these discussions is subtly degrading to men. For example, at one point he quoted well-known Puritan Richard Baxter (though unfortunately I can’t give you the exact quote because I stupidly forgot to write it down), who compared a woman wearing “sensual” clothing to a person playing with a candle in a room full of gunpowder. Now if we don’t think about this very hard, it may sound sensible, but let’s go deeper. Gunpowder has no brain, no will and no conscience. It doesn’t choose to explode when touched by a flame, it just does due to the laws of chemistry and physics. And surely Baxter did not intend to claim that men cannot help but lust when confronted with women! That’s certainly not what Jesus taught. And so with all due respect to Richard Baxter, I have to say that his comparison falls flat.

Immodesty in blue (and lust in pink)

Another chronic problem that haunts Pollard and other modesty proponents is their ability to see only in pink and blue. What I mean by that is, they not only rely heavily on inaccurate gender stereotypes, but they consistently define immodesty as only a female problem, and lust as only a male problem. For instance, early in the lecture Pollard quoted Noah Webster on modesty as “the sweetest charm of female excellence,” and of course his jumping-off point for the whole talk was 1 Timothy 2:9-10:

…in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works.

506px-Joseph_and_Potiphar's_WifeNever once in the entire lecture did Pollard even hint at the question of whether a man can dress immodestly (in either the sexual or ostentatious sense), nor at the corollary question of whether a woman can lust. But if they’re so eager to condemn women wearing low-cut jeans and V-necks, where are the denunciations of men wearing tight pants and muscle shirts (which can show just as much or more)? And do they seriously think women never lust after men? Even a glance at the Twilight phenomenon (or Potiphar’s wife for that matter!) should tell them this is a complete fantasy. In fact I suspect most women, if they were perfectly honest, would have to confess at least one lust-related misstep. We are, after all, sexual beings just like men (except of course the asexuals among us).

That’s not to say Pollard never mentioned men, of course. In fact he devoted the whole last part of the lecture to them, when he instructed husbands and fathers to make sure they “guide” their wives and children, and pastors their congregations, in the area of modesty. Thus, in the end, modesty is really just another weapon in the control arsenal of patriocentric fathers and pastors.

Who says?

On the back of Christian Modesty’s jewel case, it was claimed that Pollard “avoids both license and legalism.” In a way this is true, but only because Pollard largely avoided specifics altogether (as I’ll explain below), aside from one brief statement at the very beginning of the lecture:

Many churches now loudly defend sensual clothing or males and females taking off most of their clothing at the pool or the beach as an inviolable part of Christian liberty. Many professing churches once protected children from various forms of media that exposed them to shameful nakedness. Many of us now desperately try to protect our children from various church gatherings that expose them to shameful nakedness. We have descended into an age of Christian immodesty and the public undressing of the church.

The quote above raises two questions: whose modesty standard are we going to enforce, and how do we determine whose standards are most in accord with the Bible?

It’s obvious even to casual observers that there are many differing views on modesty in Christianity. Most mainstream American Christians allow their daughters to wear pants and buy clothes from “normal” stores, while conservative homeschoolers are often stereotyped as wearing only calico prairie dresses and denim jumpers (though this homeschool graduate is sad to say that this isn’t always a stereotype). So in light of all these different opinions, how do we determine who’s right? The description in 1 Timothy 2:9-10 above is hardly specific, and it’s not as if our Bibles come with an appendix listing “good” and “bad” clothing choices (at least mine didn’t – maybe the Book of Habiliments was left out of my edition). Pollard appears to imply that modesty (or at least swimwear) is emphatically not a matter of Christian liberty, so he must believe some eternal and absolute standard exists somewhere. Exactly where, however, he never points out.

What makes this even more difficult is that, as I mentioned above, Pollard traffics in a number of ambiguities throughout the lecture. Take, for example, the idea of nakedness. Pollard has a lot to say about it, and states flatly that it is pagan:

In ancient Egypt, Crete and Greece, the naked body was not considered immodest. Slaves, athletes habitually went without clothing, while people of high rank wore garments that were cut and draped so as to show a good deal of the body in motion. So while a naked body is not uncommon in paganism, being without one’s outer garment was considered immodest and even shameful among God’s people. God’s people cover their body in public, while pagans uncover theirs.

394px-La_Cigale_-_la_chantronOkay, I won’t argue with him that public nudity was not considered immodest in ancient Greece. But last time I checked, most Christians weren’t walking around in the buff in public, even though Pollard claims that children must be “protected” from the “shameful nakedness” at church gatherings. So whatever he means by nakedness, it’s clearly something other than the usual dictionary definition.

Then there are those pesky words “provocative” and “revealing.” What does Pollard have in mind when he talks about “revealing” clothing? He jokes a few times that the women in his audience don’t have to go out and buy “gunny sacks,” and we can guess easily from his quote earlier that he probably doesn’t like bikinis, but where do we go from there? Are V-necks “revealing”? Short skirts? Leggings? Pants of any kind on a woman? Do headcoverings come into this at all? And while we can all agree that pole dancing and stripteases are sexually “provocative,” what other behaviors might qualify in Pollard’s mind?

Without these definitions (or access to Pollard’s full-length Christian Modesty book), it becomes very difficult to proceed or even to nail Pollard down. Complicating matters further is the fact that modesty is often profoundly affected by its cultural context. This is probably best illustrated by the fact that, in a single lecture, Pollard cites both Paul and Richard Baxter (1615-1691), apparently without awareness of what they had in mind. Clothing in the 1st-century Roman Empire, and clothing in 17th-century England, were vastly different, and that’s putting it mildly! This leads us to the all-important point that what is considered immodest or vulgar in one period, might be seen as ordinary or maybe even conservative in another. How would Pollard resolve this? Can he resolve it? What does this do to his apparent absolute and eternal Biblical standard for modesty?

I’d also like to raise a related question after hearing Pollard’s rant about nakedness. If he thinks all forms of public nudity are unacceptable, no matter what, how far are we supposed to go with this? Is he aware that it’s common and often required for art students to practice working with the human form by sketching live nude models, usually of both sexes? Should we remove all nude statues and paintings from art museums? What about anatomy textbooks? Cadaver dissections at medical schools? Gynecological exams? I hope Pollard wouldn’t go this far – but I also know better than to trust anyone associated with Vision Forum further than I can spit.

Your V-neck is pointing to hell

And while we’re on the topic of not trusting Vision Forum, I’d like to point out some less than pleasant implications in some of Pollard’s statements:

This is the truth according to the Word of God: when we are alive internally by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, we will express ourselves externally in conformity to the Word of God. … If you have been born of God’s Spirit, if you are alive in God’s Spirit, it’s going to work its way out, and it will be seen in the life. And that’s why if we take one or the other, we ultimately run into error. Another way of putting this is that holiness in the Christian is lived inside out. It’s never outside in. It is inside out. And this is exactly Paul’s point in 1 Timothy 2:9.

Without a new heart, husbands and fathers will neither have the love for Christ, the love for their families, nor the backbone to guide their homes according to the Word of God. Because of our sinful nature, most of us modern men are utterly spineless, feminized cowards, who are ruled by our wives, our children, our lusts, and Hollywood. But when we are born of God’s Spirit and set free from bondage, we will desire to do what honors the Lord Jesus Christ.

In ancient Egypt, Crete and Greece, the naked body was not considered immodest. Slaves, athletes habitually went without clothing, while people of high rank wore garments that were cut and draped so as to show a good deal of the body in motion. So while a naked body is not uncommon in paganism, being without one’s outer garment was considered immodest and even shameful among God’s people. God’s people cover their body in public, while pagans uncover theirs.

The first quote is not necessarily alarming on its own, but in context of Pollard’s other statements, I have to ask what happens if another Christian disagrees with Pollard’s modesty standards and consistently dresses in a way he thinks is unbiblical. Would he say that they’re not regenerate, since their public behavior is “clearly” not reflecting the work of the Spirit (which would obviously lead them to agree with him)? Now would also be a good time to remember that he does not think all questions of modesty are matters of Christian liberty. The third quote has a similar theme, since Pollard is contrasting the “people of God” with “pagans” and claiming that pagans uncover their bodies in public. So if you consistently don’t cover up enough – and remember that Pollard claims there are mountains of “shameful nakedness” at most church gatherings – would Pollard call you a “pagan” and tell you that you aren’t really a Christian?

The second quote is on a different topic, but a frequent one for Vision Forum. I’ve actually addressed it before here, though Pollard is a little more direct about it. He seems to say quite clearly that if a man is truly regenerate, he will implement not only Pollard’s modesty standards, but also a broader patriarchal (or at least complementarian) version of gender roles in his home. Thus, I can only conclude that in Pollard’s view, egalitarian men must be unregenerate – as well as, to use Pollard’s phrase, “spineless, feminized cowards.”

But you already knew that, didn’t you, my dear male readers? Doug Phillips already called you “emasculated,” so what’s a little spinelessness and unregeneracy to top it all off? Move along, folks – nothing to see here. At least not anything new.

Happy Birthday, Scarlet Letters!

As you’ve probably guessed by now, today is what you might call a “red-letter” day. That’s because exactly one year ago, I posted the introduction to the Big Box series and thus, Scarlet Letters was born. The rest, of course, is history.

I’m not going to write today about the events of the past year (though there were certainly some doozies!). Instead I’m going to write about you – my readers, commenters and followers. Without you, Scarlet Letters would not be where it is today. The first month of its existence, Scarlet Letters received an average of 37 views a day; last month it received 99, and at the height of the Doug Phillips scandal in November, it received 187. In fact it’s been viewed nearly 26,000 times by people in 93 different countries! I know that’s not much in internet terms – but it’s much more than I ever expected. So, thank you, one and all, for your dedication and patience, and visiting Hester’s corner of the internet not just once, but thousands of times.

I’d especially like to thank Dee and Deb at The Wartburg Watch, as well as many of their regular commenters, for inspiring me to give this little blog wings (as well as letting me write a guest post); the staff at A Cry for Justice for crossposting the Big Box; and Jeff S., who was my very first follower and has been Scarlet Letters’ all-round best friend on the internet. (Visit his blog here or in the sidebar at Steady On.)

And finally, for your reading pleasure, here are Scarlet Letters’ top ten most viewed posts of 2013-2014:

1. Patriarchy Never Sleeps
2. The Big Box
3. The Wise Woman’s Guide to Blessing Her Husband’s Vision – The Pink Half
4. The Proof Is in the…Chalice?
5. Women and Children First!
6. Seven Bible Truths Violated by Christian Dating
7. A Home School Vision of Victory
8. Sleeping Beauty and the Five Questions, Part 1: Blurring the Lines
9. What to Expect from a Twelve-Year-Old
10. How to Think Like a Christian

So…who wants some cake? ;-)