holy

Telling the Forbidden Truth

THE WOMEN IN Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith aren’t just frank. They are courageous, clever, and wildly passionate.

This anthology, edited by Erin S. Lane and Enuma C. Okoro, asks 40 women under 40 to respond to the question, “What taboos remain in the church at the intersection of faith and gender?” The result is a collection of stories by women of faith (Baptist, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Catholic, Unitarian Universalist, and more) in a variety of roles (pastor, mother, writer, teacher, student, and more).

The women share times they have felt shamed, alienated, discouraged, or alone as women seeking a home in the church. From addressing domestic violence to lust to pregnancy to the role of a woman pastor’s body, the stories are raw in the way first-person narrative calls upon honesty and vulnerability to trump perfect prose or style.

Anthologies often stick to one structural extreme: Either they are rigid and theme-driven, or loose and nomadic. Talking Taboo follows the latter. Lane’s introduction promises no arc of narrative, no solid take-away message. The stories are here, she writes, because women are agreeing to “speak for ourselves.”

The prompt “taboo” itself calls for a loose interpretation, for what is defined as taboo ultimately depends on both the writer’s and the reader’s cultural references and relation to faith. One reader may find Amy Julia Becker’s struggle to understand headship within marriage familiar, but Patience Perry’s call for faith-based menstruation rites shocking. Another reader may affirm Kate Ott’s understanding of sexual pleasure as divine, yet wonder why Amy Frykholm feels more empowered when she conceals her body behind a monk’s cloak.

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God Loves Our Bikini Bodies

MY MOTHER-IN-LAW wears a bikini. She is 70 years old and decades of gravity have done their work. But she wears a bikini nonetheless, with a devil-may-care nonchalance to what others her age are more inclined to cover in sarongs, ruffles, and cruise-wear.

She’s my hero.

Her okay-ness with her body has a twofold source. First, she’s Finnish. Do you know any Finns? Untouched by the Puritan prudishness that is historically English and North American, they share a continental European lack of modesty concerning the body, but to the extreme. While other Europeans are going topless on the warm and sunny beaches of the French Riviera, the Finns are flinging themselves buck naked from their saunas into the snow. There’s a reason to take off your shirt in the south of France—it’s hot! But why subject your private parts to the crunch and scrape of ice in the dead of winter? I don’t have an answer, even though I live with a Finn who regularly goes in for the naked sauna/snow frolicking thing. But, the point is, Finns are profoundly okay with their bodies.

How does this relate to Christian theology? My mother-in-law is also a devout Christian, and I think her embrace of the bikini as her swimwear of choice goes beyond her Finnish heritage to her biblical understanding of creation. She understands that when it says in the Bible that Adam was formed out of the dirt (adama in Hebrew), that she too is a human formed out of humus and that humus is good. She actually believes that when it says, “God saw all that he had made and it was good,” that means her body as well. It also means mountains and trees and iguanas, but one’s body is a great place to start.

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A River Runs Through It

"HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?" pondered the middle-aged woman as she panted up the road to her village of Sychar, water jar forgotten. “How did we get into this heavy theological conversation from a simple request for a drink of water? Sometimes conversations take sharp turns, but this is just too bizarre. I’ve known a number of men in my life, but only the crazy ones told me they were the messiah! Better check this out with the town elders.”

In contrast to the approximately 800 references to water in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament is relatively spare. A friend explained the difference. The ancient Hebrews emerged from the eastern desert cultures of Egypt and Babylonia (now Iraq), which built their empires around rivers and where water was scarce and precious. But the New Testament writers were oriented toward the wetter West, where seafaring Greeks and Romans had appropriated the Mediterranean Sea as their major mode of transportation and conquest. For example, even though the book of Acts only mentions the word “water” in reference to baptism, the early missionary movement depended on travel by ship to spread the gospel message.

Water in the synoptic gospels
All four gospels introduce us to John the Baptist down by the Jordan River, who dunks in its flowing water those who repent from sin as a symbol of their cleansing. After John moves offstage, the synoptic gospels center much of Jesus’ activity in the towns around the Sea of Galilee. Here he not only teaches from a boat (Matthew 13:2; Luke 5:3), but he and his disciples travel in it from one side of the lake to the other, which includes a miraculous walk on and rebuking of the stormy waves (Matthew 14:22-27; Mark 6:47-52; Luke 8:22-25). Other references to water are few and sometimes incidental.

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New Mumford & Sons: 'I Will Wait'

Babel — the forthcoming album from Mumford & Sons.
Babel — the forthcoming album from Mumford & Sons.

Rarely — frankly never before, if my memory is correct — have I literally burst into tears upon hearing a song for the first time. But that is exactly what happened when I listened to Mumford & Sons' new single, "I Will Wait," this morning.

This summer has been a difficult season for my family of origin. My parents are getting older and facing physical challenges that are testing all of our resolve and the core of our spirits. I've been away from my own family in California for a month — the longest I've ever been apart from my son. And it has been ... the word "hard" doesn't quite capture the feeling. Soul wrenching is closer.

In the midst of a roiling sea of emotions, I'm clinging to faith like a life raft, while at the same time wondering desperately what God's up to in all of this tsouris, as my rabbi friend might say.

Perhaps that's why "I Will Wait" put a lump in my throat and filled my weary eyes with hot tears. The author Frederick Buechner says that we should pay careful attention to the things that bring about such reactions, because they are signs that the holy is drawing nigh.

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