The Most Beautiful Man: On Being Sad and Finding Hope

On Being Sad

I recently wrapped up my thesis on domestic and sexual violence in the church. I’m not going to lie, it was really disheartening to read the things I read and have to grapple with the way things are going in the church and Christian families. Here are just a few of the statistics I found:

*Trigger Warning*

Church

  • Did you know that women, who have historically been the backbone of the Church, are leaving church at higher rates than men? (Wise, 2016)

Family

  • Did you know that according to studies conducted by Barna Research Group (an evangelical Christian organization), rates of divorce are far lower among atheists than among conservative Christians (Cline, 2018)
    • These studies further found that the highest divorce rates occur in the Bible Belt and that conservative Protestants get divorced at higher rates than mainline Protestants (Cline, 2018)
      • I must say, kudos to Barna for actually being honest about and engaging with the research. George Barna has stated that his data “‘raises questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families’” and challenges “‘the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriage’” (Cline, 2018)
  • Did you know that among those who claim faith in Jesus, the vast majority of divorces are initiated by wives in their 40s and 50s? (Hoffman, 2018)
  • Did you know that the top three reasons these women give for initiating divorce are 1) spousal adultery 2) spousal addiction and 3) spousal abuse? (Hoffman, 2018)
  • Did you know that of the men who initiate divorce in Christian marriages, the number one reason is infidelity- their own? (Hoffman, 2018)

Porn

  • Did you know that 57 percent of pastors and 64 percent of youth pastors have struggled with pornography at some point in their lives? (CAS Research and Education, n.d.)
  • Did you know that 64 percent of Christian men view porn at least once a month while 79 percent of Christian men between the ages of 18 and 30 view porn at least once a month? (CBN News, 2016)
  • Did you know that 55% of married Christian men looked at porn at least monthly and 35% have had an extramarital affair while they were married.
  • Did you know that among practicing Christians who seek out pornography, 40 percent feel comfortable with how much they use, 25 percent say that pornography has positively affected their sex life and only 33 percent say that they feel a sense of guilt when they use pornography? (Martin, 2014)
  • Did you know that rates of pay per view pornography at hotels are often higher when they host Christian conferences? (Wilson, 2015)  

These statistics paint a very dire picture of the Church and the way that men view women. As one author put it, porn looks less like sex and more like sexual assault:


“Unlike yesterday’s softcore porn industry, mainstream porn today is definitively hardcore—exploitative videos saturated with physical violence, bondage, verbal abuse, sadism, brutality, humiliation, and degradation. Women’s pain is the cornerstone of porn, and the industry derives both pleasure and profit from it. Porn delivers an endless assortment of cruelty, divided into categories based on the (mostly male) viewer’s fetish. Regardless of its diversity, porn has a common theme: women are objects. In one genre of porn, these objects ask nothing, say nothing, and offer nothing but exist to meet the demands of men. They always smile, always obey, and always eagerly embrace their subordinate status. The other popular genre of porn eroticizes women’s agony and makes no attempt to conceal its fascination with female suffering. Instead, the pornographer zooms in. Some sites even boast about their original content of ‘real sexual abuse scenes.’” (Kotz, 2016)

*End Trigger Warning*

While porn use has a devastating effect on viewers and their spouses/significant others, there is the double devastation of knowing that the majority of women and girls portrayed in pornographic images and videos have been trafficked. For my thesis, I interviewed two leaders of faith based organizations working with victims, survivors and perpetrators of sex trafficking. I asked them to talk about some of the challenges they face in getting the church and Christians to engage with issues of sex trafficking and they both said that it is so difficult to get Christians to engage with this issue because of their complicity in this sin. The Director of Communications and Care for one organization (a woman) said that Christian men use porn at such high rates that they have been desensitized and/or just can’t take ownership of a sin in which they are participating. It is much easier to care about “children in Africa” than to acknowledge and address the ways in which they as Christian men contribute to the objectification, degradation, brutalization and rape of women. The Men’s Outreach Coordinator for the other ministry (a man) made the same point about Christian men and porn use, and added that there are a lot more Christian men engaged in solicitation than we would like to admit.

Though statistics are not readily available regarding rates of solicitation among Christian men, I trust his judgment because he has spent years working with men in this field and, in my work with victims and survivors of sex trafficking, I heard the same thing from them over and over again. The majority of women whom I interviewed in Uganda told me that some of their most frequent “clients” were prominent pastors and preachers. In L.A., one woman who was trying to leave a life of exotic dancing told me that most of the patrons at the club where she worked were good Christian men who attended church weekly and had beautiful wives and children waiting for them at home.

When I reflect on what I have learned through my thesis as well as my own experience in evangelical settings, and when I think about our current political climate (Trump: three marriages, multiple affairs with porn stars, brags about sexually assaulting women; Brett Kavanaugh: accused of sexual assault and facilitating gang rapes; Roy Moore: preyed on underage girls; Rob Porter: verbally and physically abusive toward both his ex wives; and all these men were/are overwhelmingly supported by white evangelicals, men in particular), I can’t help but ask, Lord what have we become?

I can understand why all these things are driving women away from the church at astronomical rates, and I don’t blame them at all for leaving. Still, sitting in the pain with women from all walks of life- from the young newlywed suffering from vaginismus due to the teachings of purity culture, to the woman in the process of divorcing her husband, a leader in the church, because of his sex addiction and infidelity, to the women who have been trafficked and exploited in unimaginable ways- this has all made me cling much more tightly to Jesus and the Word because I see so much beauty, joy and freedom in Jesus and his Truth.

On Having Hope

Recovering what’s been lost  

The first two chapters of the Bible will never cease to take my breath away. They depict the world as it should be, and display God’s intent for all our relationships. If studied closely, they also display a striking level of mutuality and counterculturalism, especially when you take into account the fact that these chapters (and the entire Bible itself) were written by patriarchs living in an incredibly patriarchal society.

The first paragraph of Genesis 1, speaks of the Spirit of God hovering over the surface of the earth and being intimately involved in creation. This Spirit, referred to as Ruach in the original Hebrew language is feminine. I think this is a beautiful depiction of balance and mutuality. Contrary to our overwhelmingly male notions of God, the very first paragraph of Genesis depicts the divine in feminine terms. Again, because people get very heated regarding “the gender” of God, I feel that I need to be clear. Just because the Bible depicts God in masculine or feminine terms, does not mean that God is a man or a woman. God is three persons in one and our minds are too feeble to even begin to comprehend the personhood of God. I am grateful for and utterly awed by the mystery and mutuality inherent in the Trinity. Any “god” that I can figure out or explain completely is not worth worshiping.

The creation of the first humans is also a story that often gets lost in translation. Genesis 1:27 states that God created ha’adam, in his own image, male and female he created them. The word ha’adam refers to humankind, not Adam, the man. The proper noun Adam, referring to the first man, does not appear until Genesis 3:17. The second chapter of Genesis offers a more in depth account of creation. Genesis 2:18 portrays God saying “It is not good for ha’adam (the human) to be alone, I will make an ezer kenegdo (corresponding, equal and adequate partner).” Genesis 2:21-22 depicts God performing an “operation” on ha’adam. Although, in English, this passage is often translated as God fashioning a woman out of a rib, the word used is zela, which means “side.” Zela was often used when referring to the side of the tabernacle. It is only after this “operation” that the text references a specifically male creation, ish, and a specifically female creation, ishah. This occurs when the woman is brought to the man and he declares, “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ishah (woman) because she was taken out of ish (man).”

Many scholars believe that the entire female essence was removed from the human and fashioned into a woman. What this means is that they view the first human referred to in Genesis 1 as an undifferentiated or androgynous human anticipating the separation of the sexes in Genesis 2. Quite honestly, that is a lot for me to wrap my head around and I definitely understand why we don’t go “in depth” into the creation story in Sunday School! The narrative flow of Genesis depicts ha’adam being separated into ish and ishah and then taking on the proper nouns Adam and Eve after The Fall.

Regardless of whether you believe that the first human referenced in Genesis was androgynous or just radically different after “the operation”, I think the text does an excellent job of acknowledging that man and woman come from the same source. In his poetic utterance referring to the woman as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” the man recognizes the woman’s sameness and identifies her as being “of himself.” In a culture and time where women were viewed as property and inherently inferior beings, where men woke up everyday and recited a prayer saying, “Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me a gentile, a slave or a woman,” this text is radical and I think those of us who have grown up in the West, fail to grasp the gravity of it.

For me, the most breathtaking part of the creation narrative is the conclusion of Genesis 2 which states, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” The man is depicted as leaving father and mother to cling to his wife in order for them to become one flesh. In this depiction, the woman is at the center, the fixed point of reference while the man breaks away from his family in order to create oneness together. This is striking because, in the time that it was written, the practice was exactly the opposite, with the bride moving away from her home and attaching herself to her husband under his father’s patriarchal rule. Also, in every culture, it is the lesser person who displaces himself or herself to go to the more important person, but in this text the man is in motion while the woman remains stable at the center. This is incredibly countercultural for that time and society, and even for us today. While it would be easy to draw matriarchal implications from this text, I think God is showing us something much, much better than sinful structures of matriarchy or patriarchy. I was reading an article on Kingdom Community and, in the context of these verses, the theologian wrote:

Obvious matriarchal implications could be drawn from this text. However, in a community of servants, no one plays power games. The lesson is that the relative positions could have been reversed and it would not have made a whit of difference because, among servants, the only appropriate relationship is one of mutual submission.

This lesson is addressed even more emphatically in the next verse as the climactic conclusion of the accounts of Creation. The man and the woman were both naked, and yet, not ashamed of it. Nakedness was a reason for shame. Yet, they were impervious to it (2:25). Throughout the cultures of the Bible, nakedness was viewed as a demeaning condition because it denoted low status. The indigent, beggars, prisoners, and captives went naked, and certainly, servants and slaves. The higher on the social ladder one was positioned, the more refined and abundant the clothes became. Clothes served as a status symbol.

Jesus, as servant, took off his garment and washed the disciples’ feet with a towel tied around him. The next day, as he achieved his ultimate task of servanthood on the cross, he was stripped of his clothes. Likewise, the relationship between the couple in the garden was one of mutual servanthood as indicated by the fact that they were both naked. They were not ashamed, because to relate to one another as servant was Godlike. Such behavior was consistent with the Creator’s purpose for them to image the servant relations that prevailed within the Godhead.

Significantly, it was when sin entered their relationship and the eyes of both were opened to the awareness that their status had changed vis-à-vis God and, therefore, each other, that they felt compelled to cover themselves (3:7). Sin annihilates relationships of servanthood. However, in the restoration of all things, the redeemed will be symbolically clothed with garments of royalty, naked no more, since they shall reign with Christ forever, still servants, but enthroned with him (Rev. 3:5, 21).

What a beautiful, powerful and revelatory message. May it be, in Jesus’ name.

The Most Beautiful Man

I think Jesus is the kindest, most tender, most beautiful man.

There is a reason the Bible depicts women flocking to Jesus. There is a reason why women were first at his cradle, last at his cross and first to see their resurrected King. They had never known a man like him- a man who defied cultural norms of propriety, and went out of his way to include, value and even depend upon women. In Jesus’ time, it was considered improper for women to travel outside of the home, unless they were accompanied by a male guardian, so the fact that Jesus had women as disciples and women who traveled with him and provided for him from their own resources (Luke 8:1-3) is mindblowing. The way that Jesus drew women into his inner circle stands in stark contrast to prevailing religious notions of the time, where women were restricted to the outer court of the temple and barred from learning Scripture or studying theology. A prevalent saying during this time in history was that “it is better for the words of the Torah [the Holy Scripture] to be burned than entrusted to a woman.” Despite this (and I’m sure much to the agitation of civic and religious leaders), Jesus intentionally drew women in, taught them, depended on them, dignified them and empowered them.

The Bible portrays so many different accounts of Jesus’ interactions with women. Unfortunately, these stories are often only studied superficially and we miss the richness, the depth and the tenderness of Jesus’ interactions with women.    

Luke 7:36-50 depicts a woman entering the house of Simon the Pharisee when Jesus was having dinner there and anointing his feet with an expensive jar of alabaster ointment. She bathes his feet with her tears, and dries them with her hair, all the while kissing the feet of her saviour. At the time, a woman loosening her hair had all sorts of sexual connotations (something like a woman going topless in public) and people would have been scandalized and outraged. Simon the Pharisee seems to react exactly this way, saying to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him- that she is a sinner” (v. 39). Yet, Jesus confronts Simon, refusing to let society and religious leaders objectify, sexualize or demean this woman, and acknowledges her act as one of pure devotion and complete adoration from a woman who knows the depth of the pit from which she has been rescued. The tenderness that Jesus displays toward this woman, whom everyone else has chosen to believe the worst about, is truly remarkable.

The part of this story that sticks out the most to me is when Jesus turns to Simon the Pharisee and asks, “‘Do you see this woman?’” (v. 44). I think Jesus is rhetorically questioning whether Simon has truly seen this woman as she is- an image bearer of God created to reflect and reveal the beauty and glory of God- or whether he is viewing her through a lens of prejudice and preconceived notions. I have known too many women who have entered the church and have had others believe the worst about them, or have been viewed with suspicion simply because they are women. I pray that, as Christians, we learn to recognize the voice of Jesus asking, “Do you see this woman?” and choose to believe the best about our sisters.  

Luke 10:38-42 is the well known story of Mary taking up space and listening at Jesus’ feet while Martha appeals to Jesus to intervene and send Mary to do her share of the work. Jesus responds saying, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (v. 41-42). While many interpret this text as preaching against “busy work” or urging readers to develop the practice of maintaining a quiet time, the meaning is actually much deeper. The text is not about “good” and “bad” but about “good” and “better.” It specifically states that Mary has chosen the better part, which begs the question- the better part of what?

The choice that Mary has made is very radical. To sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to him is to take on the posture of a disciple, a role reserved for men in a society which believed that it was better for the words of scripture to be burned than entrusted to a woman. In addition to Martha, there is no doubt that the men in the house would have been anywhere from irritated to outraged at Mary. Yet, Jesus legitimates Mary’s capacity to choose, as opposed to accepting the culture’s and religious leaders’ assigned choice and role for her. Jesus supports Mary in her choice to subvert her role. I pray that, for those of us who are women, we would be as bold as Mary and reclaim the rightful identity that God has given us, rather than accepting the identity that secular or Christian culture assigns to us. And I pray that our brothers would not stand in our way.

John 4:4-42 is another well known story of Jesus and his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. What often gets missed though is the way that Jesus approaches the woman. In asking her for a drink (v. 7), Jesus recognizes that she has something to offer him. In Christian settings, I think we get so caught up in “ministering” to (those whom we perceive to be) the lost, that we don’t recognize the things they have to offer us, and the lessons they have to teach us. Similarly, in Christian settings, it’s highly uncommon for men to recognize the gifts of women, seek out their wisdom or be intentional about learning from them. I pray that we get better at this and that we can recover some of the balance and mutuality that is so evident in the first two chapters of Genesis so that the Church can flourish for the glory of God.

There are several other things worth noting in this passage. It is significant that Jesus is even talking to her. As a Rabbi in the Jewish tradition, he should have completely ignored her and acted like she wasn’t even there to avoid any association with impurity, gossip or immoral activity. Second, the Jews absolutely despised Samaritans and the two groups did not mix. The scandalous way in which Jesus violated these norms of gender and ethnicity is reflected in the Samaritan woman’s question to him, “How is it that you, a Jew ask a drink of water from me, a woman of Samaria?” (v. 10) and the way the text notes that, when they entered the scene, the disciples “were astonished that Jesus was speaking with a woman” (v. 27). Finally, it’s important to note that, during this time women usually fetched water in the morning and evening. The fact that this woman was fetching water at noon (v. 6) indicates that she is an outcast in her village, trying to avoid others who would inevitably ridicule or heap shame and condemnation upon her.

After Jesus talks with the Samaritan woman about the living water, the text reveals the reason for her isolation. She has had five husbands and the man she is living with is not her husband (v. 18). While having five husbands and living with a man to whom she was not married (possibly as a concubine) would be enough to keep the village talking and render the woman an outcast, it’s important to keep in mind that this was not her fault at all, but an effect of structural injustice. Even in sermons today, this woman is portrayed as promiscuous and sinful, but one has to remember that during that time, women could not initiate a divorce. It is highly likely that her previous husbands divorced her or died. This would have spelled disaster for her since women relied on the patriarchal household to survive and most likely forced her to settle for any man that was able to provide for her. It’s important to note too that Jesus does not condemn her either. Rather, he honours her with the knowledge that he is the Messiah (v. 26), thereby extending an invitation to receive the living water. The woman accepts his invitation, and even runs back to the city (v. 28), to the very people who made her an outcast, and calls them to come see Jesus (v. 29-30). The text notes that many people believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony (v. 39), making her the first evangelist.

It is just like our Lord to have the longest recorded conversation with a broken, outcast woman, considered the lowest of the low. Where society heaped condemnation and shame upon her, Jesus empowers her to tell her story in spirit and truth (v. 23-24), going forth to evangelize her city, giving the greatest gift to those who had sinned against her. What a beautiful story of not only dignifying those who have been cast away by society but redeeming relationships marred by racism, sexism and prejudice.

Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 and John 20, all four of the gospels, record Jesus appearing first to women after his resurrection and telling them to spread the good news that he has risen. It’s so easy to be casual about and just gloss over this aspect of Jesus’ life. However, Jesus’ choice to appear to women and entrust them with the vital message of his resurrection is extraordinary. In that culture and time, a woman’s testimony was worthless. This is why Mark 16:11 and Luke 24:11 depict the women telling male disciples that Jesus has risen, only to be disbelieved. One of the strongest scholarly arguments for Christ’s resurrection being historically (not just theologically) true and verifiable is the fact that women were the first to witness and tell about Christ’s resurrection. Had Christianity been made up, there is no way that the people creating this religion would have made women the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. In order to create a strong or plausible fake religion, founders of the religion would have centred men and used men as witnesses to such a pivotal moment. In other words, because women’s testimonies counted for nothing at the time, Jesus’ resurrection has to be historically true. Over the centuries, the way that these women’s witness, testimony and preaching is centred in the gospel narratives has led many atheists to believe.

When I contrast the way that Jesus interacted with, dignified, depended on and empowered women with the way that I have seen women treated in the church and Christian families I sometimes feel disheartened. One woman recently spoke out about how she wanted to attend one of Francis Chan’s ministry events, but was told that because she is a woman, she would be required to get a written letter of recommendation from a male pastor and would also be required to have a male pastor accompany her to the event. She decided not to go. While there are many things I appreciate about Francis Chan’s ministry (his clear passion for the holiness of God, his heart for the poor, and his choice to embrace downward mobility), I wonder why he holds to a view which resists and restricts women in ministry, women serving their Lord. What Francis Chan is doing sounds more like the Sharia law I would expect to find in a very hard line, fundamentalist Muslim country. I certainly don’t recognize Jesus in his policies. But unfortunately, this is all too common a story for women.

Sometimes, I can’t help but ask God “How long?” How long will it be before women in society, but especially in the church, are valued and treated equally and have the restrictions and limitations placed upon them by secular and Christian culture removed? After speaking with so many women who have been hurt by and suffered injustice in the church, and after working with victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence and human trafficking, it is easy to languish and lose hope. But then, I am reminded of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), a song the mother of God sang while Jesus was still in her womb:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

I love the way that Mary takes on the role of a prophetess in her Magnificat. Although she is still nurturing and growing Jesus inside her own body, she talks about all the things he has done in the past tense- as though he has already scattered the powerful and lifted the lowly (v. 52), filled the hungry (v. 53), and fulfilled the promises he has made (v. 55). What a woman of faith. My prayer is that all the women who have been hurt and abused by the church would be able to have faith like Mary and find the dignity, hope, love, power and freedom that Jesus, the most kind, tender and beautiful man extends to us so willingly.  

 

 

 

Bilezikian, G. (2002). Biblical Community versus Gender-Based Hierarchy: Understanding God’s definition of the church as the community of oneness. Priscilla Papers, 16(3), 3-10.

Cline, A. (2018, August 24). Divorce Rates for Atheists Lower Than Christians. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/divorce-rates-for-atheists-248494

Hoffman, N. (2018, April 30). Message to a Baptist Church: You Preached Death to the Hearts of One Hundred Women Today -. Retrieved from https://flyingfreenow.com/message-baptist-church-preached-death-women/

Kotz, R. (2016, August 10). A Church in Crisis: Pornography and Patriarchy. Retrieved from https://www.cbeinternational.org/blogs/church-crisis-pornography-and-patriarchy

Wilson, J. C. (2015, April 10). They Will Know You Are Conference Christians By Your Porn? Retrieved from https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/jared-c-wilson/they-will-know-you-are-conference-christians-by-your-porn/

Wise, T. (2016, June 06). You’ll Never Guess Who’s Leaving the Church the Fastest. Retrieved from https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2016/june/youll-never-guess-whos-leaving-the-church-the-fastest

 

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