Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar
Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar writes about faith, family, disability, and ethics for Patheos and elsewhere. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction. 

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This Is My Body

What do our bodies—dreadlocks, muscles, thighs, and all—teach us about God?

ON DEC. 10, 2015, shortly after then-candidate Donald Trump suggested a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration, Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins wrapped a hijab around her head, snapped a selfie, and posted the photo on Facebook. “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” wrote Hawkins in the post. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

It was a costly act for Hawkins: Three months later, following a controversy about whether she had violated the evangelical school’s statement of faith, she was no longer a tenured professor at Wheaton. But Hawkins doesn’t regret what she did. As she sees it, true solidarity—she calls it “embodied solidarity”—always comes with a cost.

When it comes to bodies and the church, Christians often start with St. Augustine. Though the esteemed fourth century bishop of Hippo spent a full decade debunking the dualistic heresy that material bodies were evil, he remained famously skittish about fleshy influence on the soul. By Augustine’s reading of scripture, bodies weren’t inherently wicked, but they sure were weak—especially female bodies—and you had to watch ’em or God-only-knows what kind of sinful depravity might creep in. He often quoted the Book of Wisdom: “the corruptible body weighs down the soul and the earthly tabernacle presses down the mind that muses upon many things.” And you don’t have to be a church-history expert to trace the devastating legitimacy Augustine’s ideas gave to misogyny and other forms of body-based oppression in Christianity.

Yet as Christians in every generation have countered, we can’t write bodies off so easily. After all, smack dab in the middle of our confession of faith is a savior who suffered bodily, was crucified, and rose again. What’s more, this same savior was known for saying that love is laying down your life, and how we treat others is ultimately how we treat God. “‘Suffering with’ requires our entire bodies,” Hawkins later explained. “Suffering from a distance is not solidarity. Theoretical solidarity is not solidarity at all.”

Sojourners asked six Christian writers and theologians: What does your body tell you about God? Not bodies in the abstract, but your body: pimples, dreadlocks, muscles, belly buttons, wrinkles, thighs, and all. And though it might sound like an exercise in navel- gazing sure to make Augustine roll over in his grave, the responses we received say a lot about the carne part of incarnation: the radical solidarity of a God who took on flesh. - The Editors

Stealing Home

by Ellen Painter Dollar 03-01-2016
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. Crown.

OF THE HALF-DOZEN homes that Arleen and her two boys lived in during 2008 and 2009, her favorite was a four-bedroom house on Milwaukee’s North Side. Its exterior was only half painted, and the house was ultimately condemned as unfit for human habitation, forcing Arleen and her sons to move to a shabby apartment in a drug-infested neighborhood. Despite its flaws, as Arleen bounced from one apartment to another, applying nearly her entire monthly income to renting from landlords slow to make repairs but quick to evict, she would long remember that house for its space and relative quiet.

Arleen and her sons are one of the families profiled by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond in his masterful, heartbreaking book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. For his research, Desmond first moved into a trailer park on Milwaukee’s predominately white South Side, and then into a shared apartment on the predominately black North Side. He observed and interviewed people such as Scott, a nurse whose drug habit led him to lose his license and end up sharing a low-rent trailer with a disabled veteran; Lamar, an amputee and father of teenage boys who lived in a dilapidated duplex until a fire destroyed it; and Vanetta, a mother of three who dreamed of an apartment with a bathtub for her kids and a good job, for whom a judgment lapse in a desperate time instead landed her a 15-month prison sentence.

Redefining 'Fruitful'

by Ellen Painter Dollar 12-07-2015
Is procreation a divine mandate?
Still Life With Fruit, Caravaggio / Wikimedia Commons

Still Life With Fruit, Caravaggio / Wikimedia Commons

IN MY 20s, I came to the unsettling conclusion that God was calling me to have a baby. Familiar with Frederick Buechner’s declaration that vocation “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” I believed that my visceral yearning for children pointed toward my deep gladness. How my desire for children would meet the world’s great need, however, was far from clear, particularly in my small urban church where people routinely made great sacrifices in response to poverty and injustice.

In my progressive circles, childbearing can also be cast as ethically questionable, contributing to overpopulation and environmental degradation. In 2006, Katharine Jefferts Schori, then the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, summed up this view when she told an interviewer that “Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. ... We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.” More crudely, proponents of a growing “childfree” movement dismissed parents as self-absorbed “breeders.”

I was also leery of claiming a call to motherhood because within some strains of Christianity, a woman’s vocation to motherhood is assumed, regardless of her circumstances or predilections. Many evangelical and Catholic Christians uphold the traditional nuclear family of husband, wife,

and children as the God-ordained bedrock of society and the church. Writing for the Family Research Council, Dr. Andreas J. Kostenberger of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary writes, “The Bible defines ‘family’ in a narrow sense as the union of one man and one woman in matrimony which is normally blessed with one or several natural or adopted children” (emphasis in original). I feared that by claiming motherhood as my vocation, I might inadvertently support a limited vision that idolizes traditional families and sees childbearing as every woman’s primary calling.

Even Pope Francis has harsh words for those who choose not to procreate. As reported by the Catholic News Service in June 2014, Pope Francis stated that among “things Jesus doesn’t like” are married couples “who don’t want children, who want to be without fruitfulness.” Such couples are convinced, he argued, that by remaining childless they “can see the world, be on vacation...have a fancy home in the country...be carefree.” He warned that such couples are doomed to a bitter, lonely old age. The stereotype of childless adults as embittered hedonists is so widespread that writer Meghan Daum titled her recent anthology of essays by childless writers Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed.

The Problem with Exercise Plans and Miracle Cures

by Ellen Painter Dollar 02-25-2014
Diet and fitness bundle, Mariusz Szczygiel / Shutterstock.com

Diet and fitness bundle, Mariusz Szczygiel / Shutterstock.com

A post making the Facebook rounds claims that “a mix of honey and cinnamon cures most diseases.” Mix honey and cinnamon together and your arthritis pain will vanish, your lost hearing will be restored, the flu virus ravaging your body will be killed, and your eczema and ringworm will disappear!

I know I should ignore this stuff. But I can’t. Every outrageous health claim I come across online (and there are many) cuts me to the quick, because of what they say about me as a person with a disability, and about us as God’s beloved creatures.

The Internet fosters a populist environment in which regular folks’ life wisdom, assumed to be more valuable than professional or conventional wisdom, is rarely questioned, despite obvious logical fallacies. For example, while many foods, including honey and cinnamon, indeed have therapeutic potential for reducing inflammation and boosting immunity, that’s a far cry from curing arthritis or hearing loss. Yet people click and share, apparently without pausing to consider how outlandish it is to claim that two common foods can cure — not ameliorate, but cure — a long list of health problems that have affected people for all of human history.

What Shane Claiborne (and Mother Teresa) Got Wrong About the Body of Christ

by Ellen Painter Dollar 09-26-2012

Last spring, I heard a terrific talk from Shane Claiborne at the Festival of Faith & Writing. Claiborne, a prominent voice in progressive Christian circles, lives in Philadelphia’s inner city, where he and the other inhabitants of the Simple Way community practice a “new monasticism.”

They value hospitality and communal living, seek to build relationships with those living in their neighborhood, and are concerned with issues around poverty and wealth, power and violence. From the descriptions I’ve read, the Simple Way practices similar values to the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., where I worshiped for most of my 20s. The Church of the Saviour had the unusual distinction of taking both Jesus and social justice seriously. It was a community in which I was comfortable speaking like an evangelical, while voting and approaching social issues like an Episcopalian.

Listening to Claiborne speak back in April about justice and love and how our stories illuminate God’s kingdom, I felt at home. Here was the kind of guy I used to worship with in my earnest urban-dwelling days. His message, his words, and his stories felt intimate, familiar, and inspiring.

That is, except for this one story...

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