Tasteless, but Excusable?: Dehumanization, Women, and the Church

The first of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church.

“Because I’ve been catcalled and leered at twice just while walking to work this week, #MeToo. The worst part is that the safest option in those moments—on foot, on the street—is passivity as people consume me and treat me as property. And the past year…shows that far too many people—even in the church—think [sexual abuse & harassment] is tasteless, but excusable sin.”

Seeing these words last fall in a series of Tweets from a good friend called my attention to what the #MeToo moment was dredging up—a breadth of pain, fear, filth, violence, and injustice endured by women on a daily basis. Many had been reluctant to speak out, cowed by threats or simply exhausted from responses of disbelief, but the growing groundswell of shared stories has helped them bring all manner of individual and institutional offenses to light. More troubling, such attitudes show up and seem to hold sway in far too many corners of the #ChurchToo.

As multitudes of women have broken the silence of shame, the rest of us (i.e. men) have been given an opportunity to reflect on all the implications of a side of life and culture that far too many of us had previously had the privilege and position to ignore. Their stories have shaken the foundations of companies and institutions that covered up such things and protected the powerful men who perpetrated them.

I want to respond to the courage of my friend and so many others both by digging into the higher-level cultural phenomena they’ve uncovered and in trying to help plot a path for a different future.

Dignity vs. Consumption
Blatant evils like sexual harassment and assault can only become, as my friend said, “Tasteless, but excusable,” when we deem victims as somehow less than human. Her choice of words there is telling: dehumanizing people always leads to their consumption or disposal, replacing inherent dignity and worth with cold value-assessment or “taste”.

As was often the case, novelist and essayist Walker Percy sniffed out this tendency well in advance of the cultural mainstream. In his 1966 novel The Last Gentleman, Percy crafts a revealing exchange between his protagonist, Will Barrett, and Kitty, the suburban Southern girl he thinks he loves, who he thinks might finally help him find a “normal” life. Will is concerned with the on-again-off-again nature of their relationship and can’t seem to figure out how to relate to her as person. He nervously recounts a story of how his grandfather took his father to a brothel on his 16th birthday to avoid having him “worrying about certain things.” Kitty responds to that grotesque thought by trying on different personae to get Will’s attention and affection. She first offers, “I’ll be your whore,” which he ruefully accepts (to her dismay), leading her to say instead, “Very well. I’ll be a lady.”

Later, Will is lost in thoughts of existential angst, musing: “But what am I, he wondered: neither Christian nor pagan nor proper lusty gentleman, for I’ve never really got the straight of this lady-and-whore business. And that is all I want and it does not seem too much to ask: for once and all to get the straight of it.”

Percy’s jarring either/or reveals more than we may be comfortable with about our culture’s understanding female personhood. What Will couldn’t “get the straight of” while lying awake that night, it seems, is that we (in the rich, comfortable, “liberated” echelons of the Western world) still don’t know how to appreciate women as humans qua humans. We perpetually want to classify them in relation to men. In this telling, women exist for men as a sort of “consumer product”—either in marriage and polite society (as “ladies”) or in sin and secrecy (as “whores”), and various shades between the two extremes—rather than as fully formed persons and citizens of God’s kingdom in their own right. Both categories demean, measuring every woman’s worth not by the content of her character, but by the man that chooses her, or doesn’t.

As a result, we don’t know how to understand men as humans either. We can never dehumanize others without also losing a proportional part of our own humanity. This is also a part of Will’s question above. Is there a path to fully formed manhood aside from becoming the “proper, lusty gentleman” his family and culture expected him to be?

Church: Part of the Solution, or Part of the Problem?
That this pattern of dehumanization shows up in the wider culture seems like a given. And if we are struggling, in the midst of an open, liberal culture, to welcome women as full participants in humanity, how much more in other parts of the world. Under Islam? Under Hinduism? In poverty? In slavery?

When it shows up just as vividly in the church, we’re left with two ways to interpret this tendency (and I should emphasize that it is a tendency, a general bent from which many, many men faithfully dissent and diverge). Is it a holdover from a fallen, unconverted world? A brokenness and sorrow from which we should flee, repent, and repair? Or is it, like in so many other religions, just the logical outworking of an understanding of the world shaped by its ancient text (with a simple caveat that the lustful side of the consumer coin should be avoided)?

I’m tipping my hand in the way this question is phrased, for I do believe repentance is called for as the only biblical response—even from those whose ministries and churches have not willfully engaged in these patterns. If #MeToo, #ChurchToo (and #YesAllWomen before that) have shown nothing else, they’ve shown that half the image-bearers in the world have routinely been given a lesser status than the other half. This is a systemic sin, often as invisible to its perpetrators as it is pervasive. Time does not heal sin. Injustice may fade in its visibility, but when the Spirit brings conviction, we have no choice but to see, grieve, repent, and restore, and then call others’ attention to the sin so that they may do likewise.

Lastly, lest we think that the church—the embodied family of Christ on earth—has better things to worry about than what gets hashed out on the Internet, my friend adds: “There is a reason the corporate lament and community of [this moment] happened on social media, even for your sisters in Christ. It’s because, as a general trend, that corporate lament isn’t happening in our churches.” With that in mind, what follows in these next few pieces is, to be sure, a theological and social reflection, but with a firmly pastoral focus. How we think through these things should inform how we weep with those who weep.

Part 2: Men, Women, Image-Bearing and Scripture
Part 3: Cultivation v. Coercion
Part 4: A True and Better Way to Be

Image: Madonna di Campagna, 15th-Century Italian painting

Into the Woods: Ritchie Hollow

Just downstream from Chattanooga, the Tennessee river takes a sharp westward turn, leaving its meandering (though now tightly TVA-controlled) path through the Great Appalachian Valley to squeeze through a narrow cut in the Cumberland Plateau like so much toothpaste.

In earlier times, the Tennessee River Gorge was one of the most feared stretches of waterway to navigate. This immense volume of water in a tight space between rocky banks created a fast current with numerous shoals and eddies, before the construction of the (now-demolished) Hales Bar Dam in 1913 regulated the water level. Even today, by virtue of the terrain, the gorge is one of the least developed and least accessible areas of the Chattanooga metro area.

The same features that keep this area inhospitable to development have helped keep it wild. The steep, rocky slopes rising directly from the river harbor impressive biodiversity, and much of this natural wealth is protected and managed by the Tennessee River Gorge Trust and Prentice Cooper State Forest.

Until recently the only easy ways to explore this area was from above (via the Cumberland Trail and other trails in Prentice Cooper or at the TVA’s Raccoon Mountain facility on the south rim of the gorge) or below (via a long drive down Mullen’s Cove Rd.). The only folks able to enjoy the slopes themselves have been the rock climbers who flock to the “T-wall“.

A new TRGT-managed trail opens up a beautiful cleft of the gorge for day-hikers. The Ritchie Hollow Trail opened in January 2018, connecting the top and bottom of the gorge. For about a mile, the trail weaves side-slope from Pot Point through a lush cove forest and across several small streams, before turning to chart a steep, strenuous course to the top of the plateau where it meets the Cumberland Trail at mile 2.2.

I finally made it out to try this one on April 14 (a hot, muggy day in the midst of an otherwise chilly spring), and it seems tailor-made to take advantage of the spring wildflower season. Mayapple, fernleaf phacelia, crested dwarf iris, bellwort, solomon’s seal, woodland phlox, trilliums, blue cohosh, rue anemone, ferns, maple-leaved viburnum, red buckeye, and many others were in full display along the lower section of the trail. Higher up, it looked more like winter than spring, with minimal foliage, but the first of the Pinxterbloom azaleas were starting to pop up there. Moreover, the whole route was generally devoid of the invasive shrubs and vines so prevalent around here, save the odd bush honeysuckle or paulownia.

The steep climb of mile 2 caught me a bit by surprise after the gentle rise of the first mile, but it’s nothing more intense than most routes in the region that make the ascent up to the plateau. Because the trail begins right next to the river, the full climb to the rim rises nearly 1,300 ft. At about the 1.6 mile mark, mid-climb, there is a nice 30+’ waterfall just off the main path. After the last pull, I took a short (.5 mile) breather stretch along the relative flat CT, and even scrambled off-trail to a rock outcropping at the actual summit. The woods were very quiet, so much so that I even scared up a large turkey trailside, who then proceeded to fly downslope a few hundred yards. Quite a sight.

Even at that, it only took a leisurely hour to get to the top. The descent was much faster, though I’ll chalk that up to keeping a near-running pace as I tried to beat a thunderstorm back to my car.

In all, this is a fine addition to the great trails of our area, and one I’m sure I’ll be back to visit again.

 

Classics Revisited: Literary Limericks

East of Eden
When your father has dubious means,
And you’re not too sure of your own genes,
Your mom is a witch,
And you’re a snitch,
You can’t buy anyone’s love with beans.

Pride and Prejudice
Hearing the truth quite often hurts one,
But ignorance is even less fun.
Darcy and Bennett
Might take a minute
To figure out just who they should shun.

The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor Pavlovich was some kind of a jerk.
His three (or four?) sons each a unique piece of work.
Grushenka lived loud.
Katya was proud.
Priests rot, but in the loud dark, both death and hope lurk.

The Power and the Glory
Everyone’s sin is a nonstarter.
Church on the lam; wine on barter.
You shouldn’t get drunk
When you’re the lone monk,
For conscience will make you a martyr.

Les Misérables
Said Hugo, “No one can write bluer,
But ev’ry injustice I’ll skewer.
Valjean’s the hero;
All others zero.
Wait! I forgot about the sewer.”

Ebcosette

Image credit: Émile Bayard engraving for 1886 edition of Les Misérables. Public Domain.

Into the Woods: Smith Springs Loop

Every hike has a story. Usually it’s fairly short: “I needed some rest and exercise, so I went for a hike.” Simple.

This is not one of those stories.

It started last fall, right after we found out that that we were expecting our fourth child (arriving in June). Taking a “babymoon” is harder when one has three older kids to arrange care for, so we came up with a wild idea. A crazy idea. What if we took a trip out west, all five of us?

After some research, we pieced it together. We’d go in February, before Rachel’s pregnancy was so far along she couldn’t sleep well. We’d stay south to avoid winter weather as much as possible. We’d keep driving days under 6-7 hours for the sake of everyone’s endurance. We’d camp some, and cash in hotel points from a credit card for other nights. It seemed within reach. Possible. Delightful even.

When the big day came to leave, we packed our minivan within an inch of its life and pulled toward the setting sun. Each of these stops entailed a lot of activities, and could be given a fine travelogue post in its own right, but for the purposes of this story, you’ll get the flyover view. Day 1: Memphis. Day 2: Oklahoma City. Day 3: Palo Duro Canyon. Day 4: Santa Fe.

All well and good, until one of the kids got sick on the way to Palo Duro. Spending 30 minutes cleaning mint-chocolate-chip ice cream vomit from the back of the car on the side of a dark Texas highway is fun. Realizing that the bathroom next to your camping cabin is out of order while your child continues to vomit is more so. Having raccoons pilfer the vomit-covered paper towels from a double-bagged, sealed trashcan and scatter them around the park is positively thrilling.

This still isn’t really a story about that, though. Because this was no ordinary stomach bug, our daughter continued throwing up for nearly a week. Our time in Santa Fe involved a visit to a very nice urgent care clinic and a joyful spell of throwing up on a hotel elevator (not to mention one of the other kids coming down with strep throat), but also some fine artarchitecture, and scenery. After a while, we realized it would be foolish to take the planned next leg of the trip to Big Bend (which is, to put it mildly, a good long drive from civilization and medical attention), so we stayed an extra day in Santa Fe and began to rework the rest of the trip.

Day 7: Brantley Lake State Park. Chosen because of the ridiculous price of hotels in Carlsbad; remembered because of the way our tent was ripped out of the ground by whimsical high-plains winds forcing us to fold it up and sleep in the van at 3 a.m.

Day 8: Breakfast at a McDonalds in Carlsbad, including the joy of being the only out-of-towners at the mayor’s campaign rally. Carlsbad Caverns is truly mind-blowing, a national treasure. Everyone should visit.

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Seriously. Go here.

At last we come to the hike in the subject of this post. Having been forced to scrap Big Bend, we veered southwestward from Carlsbad to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in far West Texas to try to catch a glimpse of a similar ecosystem.

You see Guadalupe coming for a while, as soon as you walk out of the visitor’s center at Carlsbad, for that matter. For someone used to the tangled woodlands of East Tennessee, having a line of sight to your destination from 50+ miles out is terrific anticipation (trees are a non-entity in the high Chihuahuan Desert). The limestone ridge of the Guadalupes shoots up, a wall in the desert, marking the space and creating its own weather.

GMNP has several entrances, short roads leading to a small parking areas with trailheads to explore the park on foot. It’s one of the least visited parks in the NPS system, and the great balance of its land is wilderness. We chose to enter at Frijole Ranch on the eastern side of the Park and take what little time we had to try the Smith Spring loop trail. After a quick picnic lunch (in the van again, because wind), the older two girls and I set out, letting the others rest.

Going around the loop clockwise from the ranch house, the trail starts by traversing the grasslands in the shadow of the ridge. The day we went, the scouring south wind was only broken by the trail’s periodic dips into gravelly arroyos waiting to catch and funnel away whatever rain might fall. As you drift closer to the mountains themselves, the trail winds to keep the ascent gentle, slowly gaining about 400 feet.

Rounding the last bend, a swath of green leaps to meet you in striking contrast to the yucca, agave, cacti, and scrub juniper. Even the wind stops, blocked by an arm of the ridge. Here are pines, maples, oaks, and madrones, and underbrush practically shouting, “water!”

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In the center of this micro-environment is the spring itself, a burbling hope in a forlorn land. Again, for someone so used to the thick forests and abundant rainfall of the East, it’s hard to fathom the volume of life one little trickle of water can call forth.

The downhill return side of the loop hugs the runoff from the spring to stay in the shade for a while. It seemed a bit better traveled; my hunch is that most people go to the spring this way and then retrace their steps. We spotted a couple of mule deer and several birds along this stretch before passing another water source (Manzanita Spring) and making it back to the ranch.

For a short hike in the middle of nowhere that I’ll likely never revisit (and that most readers will never see) it’s captured my imagination as the focal point of our whole family trip (Days 9-13 of which, for the record, included more sickness, but also many activities on the way back east through San Antonio, Galveston, and New Orleans).

This trip tested my patience in many ways, and reminded me multiple times of my selfishness, pride, and inability to control things. More than one outburst of anger at the comedy-of-errors series of disappointments shocked me with its intensity. I hope that in time, the kids will remember the good, and that the bad will fade to gut-busting bits of family lore. For me, it will always be tempered by a twinge of regret at the ways I held my family’s joy hostage to my own vision of a good vacation.

Smith Spring was a turning point, though; a moment to refresh my soul and attitude and relax my grip on the rest of our itinerary. It was a slice of the trip where things went more or less according to plan—where we richly enjoyed the scenery and activities we crossed rivers and plains for—and gave the turn back east an air of accomplishment instead of defeat. You never know how much can flow from springs in a desert place.

“When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the LORD will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the fir tree, and the pine, and the box tree together. That they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the LORD hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it” (Isa. 41:17-20).