Tikkun Olam Tuesday: The Purity Myth

I have already mentioned my love for Rachel Held Evans’ blog, but I have specifically been enthralled by her year-long series about Sexuality and The Church. Many of the books on the reading list for this series didn’t seem like a good fit for me – I would get too frustrated reading them, too focused on hermeneutics, or I feared that they would make me cry. However, Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth seemed right up my alley. Just the kind of thing that this one-time Cultural Studies major would love.

Having finished The Purity Myth, I am beyond frustrated and not sure what I think exactly. I am particularly confused because I expected to fully support her argument/writing from beginning to end. I was cheering Jessica on through all of Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, but hit a wall in Chapter 3.

I love where Jessica began. What I kept thinking as I read the beginning of her argument was that she makes such a good point – counter-culture is just the other side of the same coin that is mainstream culture. You can’t shift paradigms with a counter-culture; large shifts can only be made when one thinks out of the box. If there is mainstream culture and counter-culture, what is most compelling is to think about the 3rd option. This is where I thought she was heading.

But then Jessica got really bogged down in telling the reader not only what Conservative Christianity is doing to set women back a century, but also what their “true intentions” are. It is her value judgments about what Conservative Christian writers/churches/etc “really believe” that I found difficult to wade through.

There were glimmers of what I was hoping she would say and the arguments I was hoping she would make. In Chapter 3 “Forever Young,” p.62-63, Jessica writes

“Bratz dolls, provocative Halloween costumes, and panty-less pop singers dominate public discourse and outrage, while even more obvious (and, arguably, more dangerous) sexualization of girls – like trafficking, rape, and child pornography – isn’t given nearly the same amount of attention. It’s no coincidence that these more serious issues are ones that overwhelmingly affect low-income girls, girls of color, and young women who don’t match the American virginal ideal.”

I was really hoping that she would discuss human trafficking, rape, and the plight of women outside of the United States in more detail. It’s like the story Rachel Held Evans wrote about Zarmina; her experience impacted how Rachel felt about your own experience as a Christian and a woman. What do the stories of women elsewhere in the world tell us (women of any faith or religion) about how we should treat women in the United States? And is the way we treat women in the United States complicit somehow in the way women are treated around the world? If we, in “developed nations,” reduce women to their sexuality, do we and can we have any authority to protect women in the rest of the word from being reduced to their sexuality and suffering because of it? Which is to say nothing about violence against women in these “developed nations.” I kept waiting for her to go in that direction, but instead she spent the bulk of Chapter 3 telling me what was “really going on” at Purity Dances.

Jessica actually echoed the frustration that I was feeling in a footnote in Chapter 3, on page 67,

“When I first came across purity balls, I wondered if my feminism had jaded me too much. Maybe they were just daddy/daughter dances that I was imbuing with sexual meaning. So I showed my father some video footage of a purity ball and asked what he thought. The color drained from his face and he said, ‘Jessica, that’s truly fucking weird.'”

Sigh… perhaps her father wasn’t the best audience for that question? I don’t know.

I can’t speak about Purity Dances with any authority, so while I may think they are ‘weird,’ I can’t speak to what is “really going on” within that particular area of Purity Culture. And, problematically, I just didn’t feel like I could trust that Jessica had any more authority to evaluate Purity Dances than I did. I am so frustrated by my lack of reliable primary sources on this topic. The only place I could think to come from was to compare a Purity Dance to a Bat Mitzvah. While the Bat Mitzvah as an institution is fraught with its own complicated pitfalls – particularly as it relates to the potential cost of the event – as a rite of passage I think it’s focus is good. The process of becoming Bat Mitzvah focuses not only on Biblical education, but also on ownership of one’s own Judaism. There is actually a prayer that the parents say during a Bat Mitzvah, abdicating all responsibility for the child’s ritual life from that day forth. This, when done correctly, is empowering and seems like a much better model for our daughter’s stepping into religious life as young women. However, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to write off any Father-Daughter dance as all-bad. In fact, while I was reading this chapter, Sarah Bessey wrote beautifully about her father taking her daughter to a dance. It would seem that from Jessica Valenti’s writing in this chapter, that she would see no value in any (Grand)Father-Daughter dances. It seems to me that Jessica’s focus, while not entirely wrong, is at least slightly off.

I kept reading the book, rushing through it in fact, hoping that she would revisit the groundwork that she laid down in the first two chapters. And she did at the very end of the book, but only in a footnote! Here is what I was hoping she would say the whole time, but she hid it in a footnote! In Chapter 10, “Post-Virgin World,” on p. 213, Jessica says

“For the record: I think virginity is fine, just as I think having sex is fine. I don’t really care what women do sexually, and neither should you. In fact, that’s the point. I believe that young woman’s decision to have sex, or not, shouldn’t impact how she’s seen as a moral actor.”

YES! YES! YES!

(In all fairness to Jessica, this message echoes throughout the book, but I felt like she consistently buried it, devoting only a sentence here or there to this idea. Like in Chapter 4, “The Porn Connection,” on p. 96, when she said “the thing is, naked women aren’t the problem – a woman believing her only value is sexual is what’s dangerous.” Yes, Jessica, Yes! I so wanted her to say more about this. And I just felt like she didn’t.)

I truly felt like this was the message of the book, but it got so lost in her condemnation of Conservative Christian women writers. And yet, I didn’t feel like Jessica offered a flushed out model to replace the specific Conservative Christian model that she spent so much time condemning In Chapter 5, “Classroom Chastity,” on p. 120,

“I believe it’s time to take a stance on sex education that isn’t so passive – young people deserve accurate and comprehensive sex education not just because they’re going to have sex, but because there’s nothing wrong with having sex. Allowing educators to equate sexuality with shame and disease is not the way to go; we are doing our children a great disservice. Not only are we lying to them, we’re also robbing them of the joy that a healthy sex life (as a teenager or in adulthood) can provide.”

So I’m left wanting more from Jessica. In Chapter 10, Jessica discusses ways for women to get involved in pro-women causes and conversations, but I wanted more. How do we teach young women that they are so much more than their sexuality, while also answering the question of what they should “do with” their sexuality? Can a teenager even have a healthy sex life? She puts that claim out there, but where is the evidence to back that up? Just because I don’t believe that teenage or pre-marital sex condemns a woman to a life of poverty/shame/disease, does that mean that necessarily it follows that teenage or pre-marital sex is necessarily healthy and joyful?

I also wish that Jessica had handled with more care the Conservative Christian women writers with whom she disagrees. How do we find a way to support women whose view of sexuality and gender roles is so radically different from our own? Are we really pro-women if we can’t find a way to respect those women who disagree with us? As I have been reading recent news stories about the Women of the Wall and I pray that they will be safe, I can’t stop thinking about how hard it is to be a woman. It should always be safe to be a woman when you are with other women, right? Can’t we at least start there?

My top 10 favorite blog posts from Rachel Held Evans

Just some light reading for you this Sunday. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how much I adore Christian blogger Sarah Bessey. In that post, I briefly mentioned the amazing Rachel Held Evans. A brief introduction to Ms. Evans through my 10 favorite blog posts:

1. When our interpretations differ

I was struck by how much this post resembled our Rabbi’s Dvar Torah about Bereishit.

2. Ask an Orthodox Jew

This was very eye-opening for me as I was only ever familiar with the Jewish meaning of Eshet Chayil and not other contexts for Proverbs 31.

“Joy beckons at every stage, at every high and low, at every juncture, and in every failure.”

Just fantastic.

4. Esther Actually: A Jewish Perspective, by Rabbi Rachel
I have really enjoyed her entire Esther Actually series.

5. Some Words for Christians on both sides of the Chick-fil-A War
I often send RHE’s blog posts to my husband, so when his co-workers started talking about this blog post, Jay rushed home to tell me about how this blog post had blown up on social media. It’s so great to see someone you admire have wide-spread success. It’s inspiring to see her gain traction with her reasonable approach.

6. The Gospel Coalition, sex, and subordination
“Favorite” is the wrong word for this post.

7. When grace is just a doctrine

The ultimate denial of grace, then, is not to misunderstand it theologically, but to withhold it. The minute we withhold grace because of some prejudice or fear on our part, it becomes nothing more than a doctrine.

 

Grace is just a doctrine when we withhold it from ourselves. 

 

Grace is just a doctrine when we withhold it from one another.

 

Grace is just a doctrine when we withhold it from the world.

8. Rachel, the Very Worst Pacifist

Because any conversation about a blog post including both RHE and Shane Claiborne is one that could go on endlessly, which is why I also love: Ask Shane Claiborne…

This one’s a two-fer:

9. 15 Reasons I Left Church

10. 15 Reasons I Returned to The Church

I hope you check out Rachel Held Evan’s blog and enjoy her writing as much as I do! She is an inspiration to all people of faith. One day, I will write a series of blog posts about her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Until then, I hope you check out her book as well!

In which I adore Sarah Bessey

If you were to take a look at my (soon-to-be defunct, sob!) Google Reader, you would see that I am an avid follower of Kveller, The Sisterhood,  and the Velveteen Rabbi. However, I also closely follow the blogs of Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, and Glennon Doyle Melton. A quick scan of their blogs would tell you that these three women are Christians. They write about faith and spirituality. And while I may not see my own faith reflected in every single blog post, I adore them all. They are wonderful writers, women, and Christians. And I have been reading their blogs longer than I have been reading the women of Kveller. In fact, it was through Rachel Held Evan’s blog that I first found the Velveteen Rabbi.

It might initially seem strange or even problematic for a Jewish woman to find so much comfort in the writings of Christians. I tend to keep my love of these women and their excellent writing to myself. However, when I read this post by Sarah Bessey, I thought it was time to share my love of Sarah Bessey with you all.

Sarah writes about the evolution of her writing and says,

“The very nature of arguments require simplification. When we are arguing, we go to our base lines. We turn people into props, interactions to proving grounds, theology into theories, because we have a point to prove … These are my neighbours. These are my co-workers. I loved them. And when I loved them, I didn’t want to use them as props anymore.”

As a Jew in the South, I have been evangelized to more times than I can count. And if there is one thing that I could say to the (mostly) well-meaning evangelists, it would be this: I am not a prop, please don’t talk to me as if I am. Many of my dearest friends are Christians. We have had discussions – and even arguments – about faith (more discussions than arguments). I can discuss Judaism and faith until I am blue in the face. I have nothing against a discussion. I don’t even have anything against an argument about religion, faith, G-d, you name it! What bothers me is when I am a prop in the conversation.

And it was a Christian writer who gave me the words to make that distinction. And that is – among other reasons – why I am a thankful and loyal reader of Sarah Bessey’s blog.

Tikkun Olam Tuesday: Interfaith Cooperation

Let me preface this by saying that I have nothing against Interfaith gatherings, in theory. I am a little shy of these events, in practice, because I am so used to being the “token-Jew” at what is actual an Ecumenical event.

So that is why I might have rolled my eyes when I read the title of this article. But give me some credit, I read the article despite my hesitation. And I actually cheered at my desk when I got to the end of this article from the HuffPo, 3 Reasons Interfaith Efforts Matter More Than Ever. Again, I have no problem with the idea of an Interfaith memorial service. However, I do not see the desired long-term gains being accomplished by making a perfunctory gesture toward the inclusion of members of minority groups.

Eboo Patel hits the nail on the head when he writes:

“An interfaith prayer service is only one place to see multiple traditions coming together to heal a community. Imagine how much interfaith cooperation there was in the operating rooms of Boston hospitals last week, where medical professionals of all faiths were working together to save lives and limbs.

 

These times require all of us to be interfaith leaders, to signal clearly that the worst elements of every tradition represent nobody. The murderers of all communities belong only to one community: the community of murderers. We have to expand our knowledge base of the various contributions diverse communities make to our nation and world, to bring into mutually enriching discussion not just people from different backgrounds but diverse identities within individuals.”

That is not to say that, despite my cynicism, we can’t gain some ground by coming together for an Interfaith memorial service. However, I think that Interfaith cooperation that happens unintentionally, outside of a religious service and out of the context of a national tragedy, can do more to foster harmony and fight discrimination than we credit.