Tina K. Russell

January 30, 2010

Read your Bible

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 8:36 pm

(I wrote this a few months ago and was afraid to post it. Please take it seriously… I’ve tried my best to be brutally honest, and it’s painful to share because of how important being Christian and being Quaker is to my identity.)

I’m having a bit of difficulty with the Bible.

A month or two ago, I bought, from eMusic Audiobooks, a full set (1255 tracks) of “The Message: Remix” (rather, “The Message – REMIX//Complete,” as the über-hip—and trying-too-hard—typesetters at the publisher would like you to call it). It’s really an excellent deal; it’s something like eighty hours of audio for ten bucks total. It makes you wonder if the pricing was set by more than just an invisible hand.

I digress. So far, I’ve listened to the first seven books, so that’s Genesis (seven days, lots of begats, twelve tribes) through Judges (in which Samson’s girlfriend is very, very interested in learning how to tie him down, another lesson in the importance of safe words). And…

You should know that, as a Quaker, I’ve grown up with a God who loves me, and one who abhors violence. I’ve always been taught (with the lesson continuously reinforced) that war in God’s name is absurd, since God does not sponsor war or take sides. And…

I was bracing myself for the Old Testament, knowing it was a bit of a risk to start there. I knew that it’s full of amazingly arbitrary laws (if you have sex with a woman on who is on her period, you are exiled, and if you work on the Sabbath, you are stoned to death), bloody battle sequences, and a thorough and inevitable poking of holes into everything I know about God, love, and forgiveness. It comes with the territory, and necessitated Jesus coming down to Earth to forgive us for our sins and set things right on the Old Testament’s exciting sequel.

I really had no idea, though, what I was in for. I often complain about Quentin Tarantino, despite having seen only one of his movies (Pulp Fiction) and that one for only fifteen minutes. (I justify my judgment by noting that the first fifteen minutes of Pulp Fiction is all anybody ever quotes from.) As far as I’m concerned, he represents an awful idea that violence and depravity are artful and meaningful unto themselves (at least, when you give them a hip, idiosyncratic soundtrack and an incorrigible pretense of irony). I saw Sin City (of which Tarantino wrote all of one scene) and nearly puked my guts out. (And yes, it’s a raw wound that ten minutes of nonsensical dialogue about hamburgers, followed by a ruthless and unprovoked murder, is somehow considered one of America’s great cinematic achievements.)

So, it’s tough for me to get down that the first seven books of the Bible, anyway, collectively put Tarantino to shame. I’m not sure even he could direct a movie this bloody. It seems like the majority of the time—not individual passages, not embarrassing moments of canon that I can safely relegate to my personal, religious Dis-Continuity (TV Tropes link warning! Don’t click if you have anything to do today), but the bulk of the text—is spent on tales of wholesale slaughter, of unprovoked genocide, of invasion and wanton killing in the name of God. The Israelites have no more reason to kill entire communities than the promise that God has bequeathed them this land, a chilling theme today (as cutthroat armies hold firm in religious conviction as a shield for their crimes, take your pick from the Congo to the Middle East) for such a supposedly timeless book.

It gets worse. Sexual minorities like me should be happy that the dinky passage in Leviticus banning gay contact is part of a long list of arbitrary rules which even the most observant Jew will not follow to the letter. While I already knew how readily Leviticus dispenses the death penalty for minor offenses, it’s another thing to hear it read aloud, spelled out, over and over again: Kill them. Bring them before the congregation and stone them. Cast the evil from your community.

Crimes that don’t bring death bring exile, and crimes below that merit only specific instructions on which animal to sacrifice in penance and how. No mention is given to being good, for its own sake; God speaks to the Israelites as children, presuming that all good comes from him, and that he will take care of them if they follow his rules.

Now, of course, I can’t call myself an expert on the Middle East of these old days. I often defend the Quran on similar grounds, that it must be understood in the violent context of Arabian antiquity. It really appalls me, now, to think of the bigots who speak of the atrocities in the Muslims’ holy book as evidence that the religion is fundamentally violent and hateful; Christians who say that have no leg to stand on (and I hope that atheists, by and large, acknowledge that violence and hate can exist without religion as well, as there are plenty more weapons in the hatemonger’s arsenal). I always took a bit of pride, though, that my hero, Jesus, my personal savior, never engaged in war, and would sooner die on a cross than take up arms against the people he came to save. I knew that his message, his Gospel, was meant to wash away some of the bad blood from times past. It’s just difficult to find such brutality buried deeply in my own lineage.

I wrote about this someplace else online, and a friend (please don’t hate me for writing about this, friend) suggested I stop trying to read the Bible all at once, as it’s too “heavy.” I should space it out, have time to discuss and reflect, and in the meantime she recommended reading two books by Philip Yancey.

I had a bit of a cow. All my life, I’ve been told, read the Bible, read the Bible. The Bible has the answers within, the Bible is living food for the soul, the Bible brings comfort and wisdom. Yet, now I read it, and it’s fundamentally disturbing—it’s a long, flowing, poetic Quentin Tarantino movie—and now people tell me, pull back, hold off, don’t read the Bible, or at least read it more slowly, and spinkle in some Philip Yancey to make it go down more easily.

Now, I’m aware of Philip Yancey, and I know that part of what makes him a renowned author on religion is his willingness to take a long, hard look at original sources while casting aside received assumptions and traditions. So, he certainly wouldn’t dumb down the Bible the way my Sunday school teachers did (who would have had me believe that the Bible is a warm and fuzzy book of fables and miracles). I was just offended by this idea… I thought she was telling me to have Yancey explain it away. I don’t want to believe in anything that makes it okay to kill people merely for sitting on “God’s land” and worshipping other gods. That’s never okay, and I don’t care what God says, he gave me a brain and I have to think for myself. I became too terrified to keep writing or thinking about it because I imagined Philip Yancey, starer-into-of-God’s-black-heart extraordinaire, trying to explain why these divinely mandated massacres are really good things, necessary to our societal upbringing then if not today. I doubt he says anything remotely like that, but in that moment I had already felt betrayed, and every Christian in the world, all my brothers and sisters in Christ, had become suspect. My Sunday school never told me of the cruelty in the Bible, but neither did my young-adult pastor, nor my parents, nor my present pastors, nor any of my Christian friends. The whole experience of finding this atrocious killing in the Bible made me feel like I’d been betrayed my whole life, that every Christian in the world had been lying to me, that my image of an all-loving, pacifist God was now shattered. I was a girl with no origin, no past. I didn’t know what or whom to believe.

My concern now is that I need to talk to somebody about it, but I can’t figure out whom I even trust enough. Who will hear me out without trying to explain it away? I just don’t know.

And yes, for now, I’m still a Christian; I’ll make it through the whole Bible before I judge. It’s just that… part of why I didn’t want to read Yancey in-time with the Bible itself is that I didn’t want to force belief upon myself. If the Bible speaks to me, if it lives up to its reputation, if it becomes something I can turn to for advice and solace, that’s wonderful. If it doesn’t speak to me, though, and continues as a lengthy Tarantino slasher flick, I may lose my faith and convert to something else.

We’ll see.

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November 22, 2008

Not That Kind of Christian

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 9:58 pm

You really have to read this article. It is brilliant!

I’m Not One Of Those ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ Christians | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source
I’m here to tell you there are lots of Christians who aren’t anything like the preconceived notions you may have. We’re not all into “turning the other cheek.” We don’t spend our days committing random acts of kindness for no credit. And although we believe that the moral precepts in the Book of Leviticus are the infallible word of God, it doesn’t mean we’re all obsessed with extremist notions like “righteousness” and “justice.”

My faith in the Lord is about the pure, simple values: raising children right, saying grace at the table, strictly forbidding those who are Methodists or Presbyterians from receiving communion because their beliefs are heresies, and curing homosexuals. That’s all. Just the core beliefs. You won’t see me going on some frothy-mouthed tirade about being a comfort to the downtrodden.

November 13, 2008

Discipleship and Proposition 8

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 1:06 pm

This essay really puts a lump in my throat. Christopher Priest on Proposition 8:

The Guy With The Microphone (According To Me)
The notion of gay marriage being a threat to straight marriage is ridiculous. The sanctity of marriage was undermined and trashed by *straight* people. These days, people treat marriage like it is the same as dating, people having “starter” or “trial” marriages—all of which I find offensive, and all of which undermines the sanctity of the institution. People, so committed to one another that simply dating is no longer enough for them, who fight for the right to be married, who risk their livelihoods and, in many cases, their personal safety if not their lives in order to marry—I can’t imagine in what way that kind of dedication undermine the institution of marriage. But, to be blunt—who cares? I mean, seriously, why do I care what other folk do?

Personally, I don’t affirm gay marriage. I don’t believe that’s what marriage is about. But, like navel tangerines [see earlier in the essay —Tina], that’s *my* belief. I don’t feel some compelling need to force people to agree with me or to live their lives the way I do. Moreover, there’s a terrible and slippery slope that begins with the denial of anyone’s civil rights. It’s quicksand: the more we do it, the easier doing it becomes. That people can’t see the connection between Prop 8 and The Patriot Act and FISA and Jim Crowe is utterly stunning to me, demonstrating how poor a job we do at educating our children, ourselves, not only about why America is great but about how easily the freedoms we take for granted can be stripped from us.

He goes on to discuss how denying civil rights to others is rather un-Christ-like. Jesus said that “my kingdom is not of this world,” imploring people to stockpile their treasures in heaven through deed rather than attempt to build a kingdom on Earth. To think we can do so is, as Priest says, blasphemous.

Priest is a minister and a writer. He was the first black writer both at Marvel and DC, and stomached a lot of bigotry for it without ever letting it change him. I cherish his run on Black Panther. Anyway, he’s excellent.

July 30, 2008

Staying the Course

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Tina Russell @ 9:54 pm

Op-Ed Contributor – The Catholic Church and Birth Control, 40 Years Later – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com
FORTY years ago last week, Pope Paul VI provoked the greatest uproar against a papal edict in the long history of the Roman Catholic Church when he reiterated the church’s ban on artificial birth control by issuing the encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” At the time, commentators predicted that not only would the teaching collapse under its own weight, but it might well bring the “monarchical papacy” down with it.

Those forecasts badly underestimated the capacity of the Catholic Church to resist change and to stand its ground.

Such unwillingness to change can be a resolute stand for all that is right and good, but it can also be simple obstinance, blindness to how the world is changing around you. An encyclical, of beautiful poetry on on the innate value of human life, does nothing to comfort me when confronted with the horrors of overpopulation and sexually transmitted disease, nor does it temper my belief that access to birth control could allow women to have more power over their male lovers by allowing them to make sex something other than a contract to form a household and raise children without end. I hope that in time, the Pope will see birth control the way the rest of the world sees it: an imperfect but valuable tool to allow women to take control of their own love and sex lives, so that men and women can reap the benefits of that independence.

I’m not exactly sure what value there is in tying sex, marriage, and procreation together in the same act. Doesn’t that seem like overdoing it? As we say in relationships: take it slow! One thing at a time!

But also, by not accepting the realities of how world culture has changed, the church risks making its own valuable messages irrelevant by making them seem inapplicable to the lives of young people. How can you teach sexual responsibility at the same time as absolute, unyielding fidelity before marriage? How can you teach safe sex if you are teaching no sex? How can you teach to care for your partner, to listen to his or her wants or needs, if sexual desires are rendered illegitimate for all but childbearing? And does it really value children to imply, in a backhanded way, that they are handy excuses to have sex? (What I mean is that the church runs a harsh risk by tying sex exclusively to children: that, instead of making sex more meaningful by tying it to children, they make children less meaningful by tying them to sex. That disturbs me greatly.)

I admire standing on principle, but they have to be timeless, unyielding, and grounded in the ultimate sancticity of life. I don’t think there’s anything in the Bible prohibiting medical implements that would not be invented for thousands of years and have no historical analogue. There’s a legitimate argument (one I do not subscribe to) against abortion, but it distresses me because it comes close–not there, mind you, but close–to an argument that a potential baby is the same as a birthed one. (I’m sorry to bring up abortion here because I know it’s a touchy subject. I promise to address it later in full.) The argument that emergency contraception, desperately needed in times of (as the name implies) emergency, is “effectively” abortion crosses this line, as does the even more insipid argument that any birth control does so by preventing children from ever being concieved. (Emergency contreception, it should be noted, does the same: no baby is concieved, or aborted.) One more step and we’re saying that something else is “effectively” abortion: abstinence. Apparently, if but one of a woman’s eggs goes unfertilized, that’s a potential baby lost for the ages. I would much rather have men and women make responsible choices about whether or not they can really raise a baby than make unrealistic vows never to have sex until they do so.

I’ve never had sex. I am a virgin. Given that I am in my early twenties, this puts me in a minority. However, teen pregnancy has, thank the Lord, gone down in recent years, upticking only recently (and though I know many factors can influence such statistics, I have to be irked at how our youths’ promising tradition of lowering these rates came to an end as students taught under federally supported abstinence-only education started going off to college in large numbers). If the church cannot bear to stress the importance of sexual responsibility–requiring it to jettison its view of sex outside of marriage as innately wrong–it is writing itself out of young people’s lives and out of history, which is tragic because I would wager young people need this message now more than ever. I’d think that increased interconnectedness has given young people more peer influence than ever, and given parents less control over the envrionment that kids grow up in. That would mean kids need the message of sexual responsibility reinforced all around them, by people they respect, in school, in the home, and in the church. That means that church leaders must step up to the plate and be involved in students’ lives, and not surrender them to the seductive terror of unfettered, selfish, irresponsible sexuality.

There’s nothing Godly about making yourself unhappy, and nothing inherently sinful about sexuality. The scourge in question is selfishness, nihilism, the unrestrained quest for self-fulfillment, one that never ends. You are not, realistically, going to make your children uninterested in sex, no matter how many promise rings they wear upon going to college. Far more important is arming them against the forces of temptation to lose themselves in ceaseless self-gratification, and to teach them how to respect themselves and their partners. Such precautions have a multiplier effect for human rights, here and in the entire world. We can stand by our children through harrowing times, or we can abandon them in the name of principle, principle as well-meaning as it is misapplied. It’s that simple.

One argument remains, which is that birth control makes sex easier for people, and will cause them to do it more, resulting (somehow) in sexual irresponsibility. I dislike this argument because I think babies are a harsh disincentive, and I do not want to devalue children by making them a token punishment for sex rather than beautiful human beings in their own right. But also, I do not think it is fair for us to limit people’s choices in this way. We can model good behavior, we can demonstrate good behavior, we can advise good behavior, but we cannot force it, and doing so for a person’s own good is morally reprehensible. If somebody wants to lose him or herself to mindless pursuit of pleasure at the expense of all else, fine. It’s best to make sure that we do not involve children in such mindlessness by forcing the duty of parenthood upon such people ill-suited for the job, and to ensure our children know how best to avoid falling into such traps, traps of forcing themselves to be unhappy or traps of thinking of nothing but making themselves happy (and never reaching it). (People, incidentally, have a way of sharply flipping between these extremes. It’s best not to encourage either.)

Our bodies, our sexualities, are beautiful, they are gifts from God. Why should we not cherish and respect them, and treat our own and those of others with the dignity they deserve? Why should I not allow the church’s teachings into my sex life when I think they may be useful, as the essential rightness of what Jesus says does not somehow end at the bedchamber? Why should I not respect myself and those I love by engaging in sex when taking physical and emotional precautionary measures on behalf of us both, and choosing not to when it would not be a good idea? If the choice to have sex is out of your hands, so is the choice not to have sex, and the choice to have sex on your own terms. When overpopulation, STDs, and the suboordinate status of women are stubborn problems in the developing world linked to all others, it makes the breaking of the taboo of sex, in dorm rooms, dining rooms, and churches, more critical than ever.

July 20, 2008

Islamic PR

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Tina Russell @ 7:32 pm

Pope Calls for Unity to Oppose Violence – NYTimes.com
Pope Benedict XVI, in Australia for World Youth Day, called on religious leaders of all faiths Friday to find common ground and to unite against those who resort to violence to achieve their ends.

“In a world threatened by sinister and indiscriminate forms of violence, the unified voice of religious people urges nations and communities to resolve conflicts through peaceful means and with full regard for human dignity,” he said at a meeting with Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists.

“The universality of human experience, which transcends all geographical boundaries and cultural limitations, makes it possible for followers of religions to engage in dialogue so as to grapple with the mysteries of life’s joys and sufferings,” he said. “At their core, human relations cannot be defined in terms of power, domination and self-interest. Rather, they reflect and perfect man’s natural inclination to live in communion and accord with others.”

The message of reconciliation came from a pope who angered many Muslims when, in a 2006 lecture in Regensburg, Germany, he used a quotation from a 14th-century Byzantine emperor that appeared to vilify Muslims. The pope subsequently said that he did not subscribe to the views expressed in the quotation and, although the furor subsided, some strained feelings have remained.

Sheikh Mohamadu Saleem, of the Australian National Imams Council, told the pope at the meeting that, while Muslims should become more understanding of other religions, “significant segments of the Christian and the other religious communities should overcome their misconceptions and prejudices of Islam and Muslims.”

Mr. Saleem is right, but the key thing is that I think that prejudice stems more from lack of information than anything else. While it’s the onus of the media to present the world as it is, instead of sitting around waiting for ABC to run a feature story on the non-shocking truth about Islam we could be engaging people with the faith and teaching them what what Muhammad actually said, whether or not they are inclined to follow him. (I think his teachings are worthy of great respect, in any case.) That vacuum allows stereotypes and misinformation to slip in and quickly become the basis for even (or perhaps especially) the most enlightened liberal’s view on Islam. When I read Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: Prophet for our Time (again, highly recommended), I was surprised to find out not just that there are many wrong stereotypes about Islam, but that they’re almost universally wrong and not grounded in even the most remote fact. With one billion Muslims in the world, you must look to the Koran for the common threads in a diverse practice, and the themes are overwhelmingly ones of discarding your petty arguments and tribal affiliations and surrendering yourself to God. The word islam means “surrender,” and Muhammad considered contemporary Christians and Jews to be fellow muslims, sincere in their surrender to God. Muhammad was a populist, an altruist, and a feminist, and within the context of the violent practices of tribal Arabia, he was progressive for his time on matters of war. In fact, the one war he waged was on behalf of his people, who had been driven out of their homeland; this put a massive lump in my stomach when I realized that Hamas must have a similar conviction. (Israel, of course, must have similar conviction, which is exactly why an equitable deal must be reached and the violence of neither side should be rationalized or romanticized.)

I’m positive I’m doing violence to Muhammad’s words and life as well simply by going from only one book and using my memories of it to summarize core beliefs of a vast portion of world cultures. It’s just remarkable that but one brief taste, one scratch of the surface, has given me a vastly different impression of Islam, of Muslims, and Muhammad. Knowing the similarities between Muhammad and my personal savior–a man I like to call “Jaysy C.”–really warms my heart when considering the sizable Muslim population of my school, including women I really admire. (You can now add “Muslim friends” to the list.) So, it shouldn’t be hard for a public-relations campaign, long overdue in this day and age, to show the Christian world what I’ve been shown, shine a light in the darkness and drive out the prejudice and misinformation. Our choice is whether we want to replace stereotypes with a vague feeling of “well, I’m sure they’re sincere in their religion” (a convenient and well-meaning mantra), or with the actual poetry of the Koran and the scope and depth of Islamic thought. The question is whether we’re willing to let stock footage of angry men rioting over cartoons have a monopoly on the portrayal of Islam, or if we’re willing to compete with that on the news and in the public mind. The question is whether or not we’re willing to lay the foundation, in people’s minds, of a sound and informed impression of Islam. And, lest I lay responsibility unevenly, remember that it is not your Muslim friends’ responsibility to teach you about their religion, it is your responsibility to learn, and in a globalized world it is all part of being a good citizen. We should take that one step further and, whether or not you are Christian, whether or not you are religious, venture to tell your friends what you learned about Islam, what does and does not appeal to you, and help create a more solid ground for world religious dialogue than vague mistrust and stereotypes.

July 19, 2008

Showboat Christianity

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 10:36 pm

My friend Hannah tells it like it is:

It’s time to watch a show: Wear your religion on your chest
I think that things like saying thanks to God and valuing life and saving sex for marriage are right and good, but there’s so much more that Christians are responsible for. If someone gets some kind of spiritual nourishment out of the church with the mahogany pulpit, God bless ’em, honestly. But if your entire faith is based on rubbing it in someone else’s face that you’re saved and he or she isn’t, then it’s not really following Jesus’ example. That’s what the Pharisees were doing and Jesus made no bones about how pointless it was.

For the record, I don’t see anything wrong with premarital sex, though I think she is saying she feels abstinence ’til being hitched is the healthier choice rather than a moral obligation. To each their own, you know. But, I’m getting off the subject.

What Hannah is saying is something I’ve felt for a long time… the more of a showoff you are about your religion, the less likely you are to be sincere about it, and by sincere I mean in following and practice rather than an unshakable belief in every literal absurdity of the Bible (flaming swords that turn each way, stopping the sun in the sky, etc.). People who beat their chests until they’re sore about being “saved,” aside from being insecure, tend to be missing the entire point of the Bible. They also lend an unfortunate credibility to the “New Atheists'” arguments that the Bible is just a bunch of silly fairy tales. Boasting that your faith in Jesus will make you live forever–with the distressing corollary that life on this world is, by comparison, insignificant–is ignoring what Jesus actually said about how to live your life and treat those around you.

We could put all that energy from showing off what great followers we are into figuring out how we can actually become better followers, you know?

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