Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Presenting "faith journey" aka existential crisis

Every Sunday from now until January, I'm meeting with a group of Catholic women for personal formation, community discipleship, and event planning.  We will facilitate a women's spiritual retreat after our last meeting.  The dozen of us went through the same retreat last month, facilitated by women who had met together all of last year.

Event planning is well-rehearsed.  Community discipleship is new to me in terms of spirituality, but otherwise not that different from my experiences in other goal-oriented groups.  Alverno College prepared me well for both of these.

The primary way that personal formation is achieved through these meetings is through a half hour presentation, followed by "affirmations" from the rest of the group.  Most of the retreat consisted of these presentations, edited and refined throughout last year's meetings, and then reflections on them both alone and in small groups.  The two leaders of my group, seasoned facilitators, will give their presentations again and then give some light guidance while we dozen prepare our own.
These presentations will focus on each individual's personal "faith journey," how each person got to where we are now.  Guidelines are loose, though based on the presentations at the retreat most of these women speak almost exclusively about their relationships with their parents, their husbands, and their children.

It's only been a day and a half since the first meeting and I've already turned this into a full-on existential crisis!  Go me!  I'm such an overachiever!  I signed up to be one of the first presenters partly so I won't have to think about it for more than a month, and partly + selfishly so I can give a little lesson about good public speaking skills right away (if one more person clicks her tongue after every sentence, I'm going to scream).  The more I think about my journey the more I delve into gender and feminist theory, liberation theology, and nihilism vs. existentialism.  This sums up my progress thusfar ("ppl" = people):

Here is this unusual opportunity to talk about myself openly before a group for a half hour, and... this is very cheesy... if I talk about theory, then who am I?  If my developing plan to speak about my journey consists mostly of concepts that exist outside of me, then what does that say about me?  The debate and contemplation of these ideas will continue after me, the same can't be said about relationships (I wonder how many people identify through their relationships out of a fear of mortality?).  But if I end up impacting these studies through academia, does that reflect on the quality/value of my life?  If I don't, does that imply failure?
It's not that people, places, and events aren't important to me, I just can't imagine filling up more than 15 minutes with talking about only them as a reference to my self.  But these concepts, I could - and do! - go on and on and on.

At the first meeting the other day, each person summarized their personal goal as an individual in the group for the year.  Mine was "be an agent of change."  That tends to be my goal/role in Catholic communities altogether, and it's what I hope to achieve through grad school (next year???).  The retreat highlighted how alone I feel as a whole human being in these communities and I don't expect that to change as long as I aim to facilitate change.  I'm just not certain what it says about me as a whole human being presenting oneself through theory.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Liberation Theology vs Prosperity Theology

Before I delve into the boundaries between the two, I will first briefly define them:

Liberation theology centralizes around oppressed people freeing themselves.  Scripture passages that highlight liberation of the poor and marginalized bolster this movement, namely the story of Jesus Christ as told in the gospels.  Oscar Romero, James H. Cone, and Diana L. Hayes are among the most prominent names in liberation theology.  South American and Black religious communities are the strongest proponents of liberation theology, interweaving womanism (black women prioritizing the equality of black women among both race and gender lines) and mujeristas (Latinas working to liberate both the poor and oppressed in their culture, as well as their culture overall against colonial influences).

Prosperity theology prioritizes the embracing of God-given gifts, namely material gifts.  The idea is that God has given the faithful these gifts, and it would be ungrateful to give away those gifts - charity, according to prosperity theology, is against God's will.  There are communities, though, who do emphasize giving in order to receive, but the giving is almost exclusively to leaders who are already wealthy.  Joel Osteen is the most famous proponent, and he is in good company with Southern charismatic churches and other televangelists.  Almost all of these are white, with almost no references to any of the gospels.

I am by no means the first person to connect the Trump administration and its supporters to prosperity theology (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9).  "Make America Great Again" has never included greatness for anyone who benefits from liberation theology - the declaration of making Mexico pay for a wall dividing the nation from the United States makes this clear, among many other points.

Although I may prioritize the liberation of oppressed people, especially in the face of the oncoming administration, it is not about me.  After all, it is because of my platform as an able-bodied white person that I can put forward liberation theology with reasonable expectation of being received by other able-boded white people.  It is up to me to use the benefits I systemically receive from prosperity theologians, now that they are coming into their greatest political power yet, to work towards this liberation while also understanding that it is from these systems, including my role in them, that oppressed people must be liberated.  It is up to me to keep in mind these intersections while also understanding that I, no matter how hard I work, am not separate from the ivory tower that is prosperity theology.
Diana L. Hayes described it better than I could.  In her connection between womanism and liberation theology, she said that it would be logically inconsistent for her to work with feminists (see: white) because it is from us (see: white) that she must be liberated.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Millennials leaving religion

I was just listening to the "Keep the Church Weird" lecture by Rachel Held Evans and it was like lightening struck.

Rachel Held Evans says what I've been saying for years: evangelizing to millennials does not work because we have learned to avoid anything that seems to be an advertisement. Advertising is cheap and shallow, the exact opposite of what spirituality and religion should be. And I've not been the only person who's been saying this, Kaya Oakes made similar points in her book "The Nones Are Alright." Those who say they are "spiritual but not religious" leave many parts of mainstream religion behind including the contemporary commercialism, and this departure is largest among millennials.

Think of how mainstream American culture treated millennials in the late 90's, when we were in middle school. The Spice Girls, N SYNC, the Backstreet Boys, Tiger Beat magazine, claire's, etc. Because the young adults at that time had both expendable income and a modicum of autonomy unseen in previous generations, we were targeted in advertising unlike ever before. This was also when "NeoWicca" became popular among young adults, and became increasingly commercial. Perhaps the Spice Girls are the best example of how extremely millennials were marketed to; the idea of a commercial girl group was formed in order to compete in pop music, and then women auditioned to fill those roles (source). Advertising became more obvious as well, with the celebrities most popular among young millennials blatantly flaunting their sponsors' logos. The film Josie & the Pussycats highlighted this in a tongue-in-cheek manner. All of this advertising worked well when we were 10-15. I argue that the trend of wearing things "ironically" in the late 00's was a way of maturing out of that. "I got this Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt out of a dumpster, I'm wearing it ironically." The idea of actually supporting popular brands was so odious that millennial hipsters made it blatantly obvious that wearing those brands was a joke. And if you were not in on the joke, that meant you were a sell-out.
So what does this mean for the religious bodies so desperate to bring the millennials back to their churches? The techniques that worked so well for big name brands in the late 90's worked then, but not now. The techniques that existed ("worked" is an inappropriate term for a social trend that denied efficiency) ten years ago won't work now. Frankly I don't know what will bring millennials back to the churches. But working harder at enticing us back than at sincere service to the poor is certainly not the way to do it.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


A good friend is trying to expand her journaling but doesn’t know where to start.  People keep telling her “do whatever you want” but that isn’t concrete enough.  I’ve been journaling since ‘99 so I put together a little presentation of all the stuff I’ve done.  To begin with, when I say “journal” as a noun what I mean is a blank book that a person fills over time with personal information.  A diary is a journal that’s either mostly or all words, a verbal personal narrative.  A sketchbook is a journal that’s either mostly or all art, a nonverbal personal narrative.  A journal is a blend of these.


My first journal was purely diary.  Lined paper with words written in either pen or pencil.  This was the book that lasted me the longest, 4 years while the rest last 3-9 months.  I was a very angry teenager and while most of the entries are about mundane events, like visiting my dad or something my school bullies said, it’s almost all just emotional ranting.  Intentionally bad spelling, swearing as I was oh-so-rebellious in these pages, violent ideation.

If there was a fire or something and I could save only one journal, it would probably be this one - the one when I started polyamory is a close second though since I so obviously began opening up and being honest with myself.  But when I think about being the adult that Child Me needed, Child Me lives in this diary.


The first few years of journaling, I tried to have several different journals for different purposes.  Part 1 of this series was my diary for writing events and feelings.  There were also a dream diary, a Book of Shadows, and a poetry book - none of which i still have, sadly.  The barely-used dream diary and Book of Shadows became regular journals, I just never got into the habit of writing in those for their original purposes.  In high school I had a sketchbook:

I had this idea that my drawings would someday be framed into gallery-quality art, so I was very stingy with the paper.  This is by far the biggest book out of all my journals, and yet it has the most empty space.  Out of my 35(!!!) completed journals, I have very few regrets and not filling pages is probably my #1.  


 Throughout late high school and college I gradually combined diary + sketchbook + dream diary + Book of Shadows into just one book at a time.  Having several different kinds of journals going concurrently just doesn’t work for me.  

I was still using small novelty notebooks, some lined some not, and they’re very word-centric - my art usually ended up being used for classwork, and I wasn’t about to hand in my personal writing.  Most of what I wrote about was relationships, my poopy high school boyfriend and then my girlfriends.  Part of me wishes that I had written more about other things, but these are evidence of how brainwashed I’d been that longterm monogamous relationships = success.


Finally I got into my journaling stride.  Unlined art notebooks, words mixed with art mixed with collage.  Lots of STUFF and every page is full.  When I think of “journal” this is what comes to mind.

I finally began writing about a great variety of things: relationships, travel, nostalgia, emotions, shadow work, goals, spirituality, books, dreams, frustrations, museums, etc.  These journals are much more whole and they reveal ongoing patterns to do with as I wish.


 Despite finding my journaling comfort zone, right now I’m going off in a different direction.  I’ve had this hardcover book since college and I fucking hate it, it was part of a Sociology project about same-sex marriage and it’s such a horrible homophobic book of bad analysis.  I didn’t want the book anymore and I didn’t want it in the world for other people to read, so I gesso-ed (thick white acrylic paint) the pages and began using it as a journal.

Forgive the syrupy metaphor, but I think it’s a good representation of my journaling experience.  The base is crummy, but I’m using it to grow and heal.  And the fact that I’m starting this unusual journal while looking over my past ones makes me more self-aware as I write/paint/collage.  The entries that stand out most in my memory, without even needing to go back over them, are the ones written with the awareness that Future Me will look back on them.I’ve never had much interest in writing prompts as I was already so comfortable with my journaling habits.  But since this book already has me outside of my comfort zone, I might start doing some?  Whoa I’m kinda blowing my own mind right now

Honorary Mentions:

 Starting last summer, I got into a different kind of book art.  While my journals/diaries/sketchbooks feel like an ongoing process over time, these feel like book books.  They sit on shelves with other books (though my journals might soon move onto shelves just because cardboard boxes aren’t working anymore) and I want other people to look at them.  
First is Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, which I painted and collaged last summer.  This is one of my favorite books and having it on plain paper just didn’t seem right.

And starting this summer has been my prayer/meditation book.  This was another crummy book that I didn’t want but also didn’t want in the world, so I’ve been covering the pages with acrylic paint and collage.  The artwork and quotes are for quiet meditation and there are still about 100 blank pages to fill

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Gendered Marketing in Religion

The rise in both gendered marketing and the outcry against it has largely been secular.  Soap, deodorant, shampoo, yogurt, shaving razors, pens, earplugs - these are just a handful of items that have been needlessly gendered solely to bump up sales.  Men's products are in dark packaging with hard lines and a sense of adventure, whether through sports or references to battle or problem-solving.  Women's products, which tend to be more expensive, are in pink or purple packaging with soft lines and a sense of delicacy.  While women have been purchasing more of the men's products largely because they are cheaper, men very rarely purchase the women's products partly because they're more expensive and partly because they're emasculating.

     Gendered marketing has spilled over into religious products, namely teen Bibles and rosaries.  Faith & Family Reviews posted a brief review of the "faiTHGirLz! Bible" and the "NIV Boys Bible" commending the gendered marketing.  The "faiTHGirLz!" Bible has a "dream girl" section.  Faith & Family Reviews compliments the boy's Bible's "manly" appeal to boys by having a cover resembling metal.  The girl's Bible has sections focusing on difficult emotions, the boy's Bible has sections focusing on strength.
     Other Bibles marketed to teen girls are also pink with flowers, birds, and repeatedly the phrase "faith, hope, and love" (1, 2, 3, 4).  These four, as well as the one reviewed by Faith & Family Reviews, all have profiles of women in the Bible - a topic that usually goes unnoticed outside of Eve and the Virgin Mary. Christianbook.com also offers dozens of similar Bibles for teen girls.
     The same Bibles marketed to teen boys bear darker covers and bold but simple graphics.  Their descriptions are more focused on action in "the real world" rather than on personal development (1, 2, 3, 4).  None of them mention women of the Bible - perhaps the creators of these gendered Bibles assume boys don't need to know about them?  Christianbook.com's Bibles for teen boys resemble footballs and soccer balls, bear army camouflage, and repeatedly declare "man up."
     These Bibles prioritize very differently for boys and girls.  Where's the adventure for girls?  Where's the emotional depth for boys?  Why apply such commercialism to Bibles, especially the sports references?  And how could anyone stand to read Galatians 3:28 in a gendered Bible?

And this gendered marketing in religion extends to Catholic rosaries as well.  Men's rosaries almost always have larger, matte beads - black, blue, brown, dark red - with thick dark wire.  Descriptors often include "strength," "durability," "heroic," and "powerful" (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).  Catholic online shops offer dozens of men's rosaries that all look remarkably the same (1, 2, 3).
     Women's rosaries, on the other hand, come in a wide variety of colors and flourishes (1, 2).  Pearls and svaroski crystals are very common.  Men's single-decade rosary bracelets are shown on the wrists of models with no other part of the body visible (1), while women's rosaries are often pictured with cleavage, shoulders, necks, hair, and lips (1).  Descriptors are almost exclusively focused on the beauty of women's rosaries (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
    While there is certainly nothing wrong with having personalized rosaries, the gendered division goes against the very universality of both the rosary itself and of Catholicism.  Do men and women really pray the rosary so differently that they require such different styles with explicitly different priorities?

Gendered marketing extends beyond Christianity.  Jewelry and apparel for Pagan men and women is similarly divided.  Pagan women's jewelry tends to be smaller, more delicate, more graceful, and more colorful (1, 2) black velvet chokers are very common.  Pagan men's jewelry is thicker, darker, bolder (1, 2).  Additionally, Pagan apparel is very distinctively gendered.  Men's clothing tends to be baggier, covers more, and has large bold designs (1, 2) most of these are black, grey, or white t-shirts.  Pagan women's clothing has a much wider variety that involves more colors, shows more skin, and bears more delicate or "cute" designs (1, 2).  While all of these statements could be made about men and women's apparel/jewelry in general, gendered marketing seems contradictory and perhaps even hypocritical in a community that so often complains of "patriarchy" in Christian practices.

What does gendered marketing say about contemporary religion?  In terms of Matthew 22:21, is the commercialism of these gendered Bibles and rosaries Caesar's or God's?  What does it mean when Pagans critique the complementarianism of Christianity but then duplicate the same themselves?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Catholic community: sexuality vs wealth

Over the past 10 weeks I have been involved in a Catholic parish through attending Mass, talking with parishioners after service, participating in a Pastoral Plan Listening Session, meeting with two spiritual directors, and joining a theology discussion group.  Finding a Catholic community that values hospitality was a long and difficult struggle.  My enjoyment of this one is mingled with hesitation that it may all crumble into more of the same shame-focused elitism I'd found at other parishes over the past 3 years.

A significant portion of this hesitation roots in my sexual activity.  The vast majority of parishioners are married parents, and the few single members I've met seek to join them.  I've been open about my intention to continue "single" and childfree to no response, I think they either don't know how to react to that or just see it as none of their business (hopefully the latter).  What I haven't revealed, though, is that I'm polyamorous.  It hasn't come up in context.  Sex & sexuality, in fact, haven't come up at all.  Which is both a relief and frustrating - I prefer being casually open altogether.  Neither my sexuality, nor my focus on sex ed, nor my polyamory play a large role in my spirituality; which only baffles me further when religious communities use those standards for judgement.

Contingent with my hesitation to be open about my polyamory is the wealth of the parishioners.  Every Sunday the church's parking lot fills with BMW, Lexus, Mercedes, Audi, all new.  I've been to two parishioners' houses and was stunned at the luxury.  Infinity pools!  4 car garages!  Stunning views of suburban Texas hillcountry!  Marble countertops, multiple fireplaces, second story balconies, full wine racks, cathedral windows, oriental rugs.  It's made me reconsider my material wealth.  Although I'm not in a place to give financially, I've begun seeking out ways to give my time.

Sidenote: growing up Catholic in the MidWest, I saw dirt poor parishes and incredibly wealthy parishes and everything in between.  Both blue collar and immigrant parishes were commonplace.  Here in Austin, all Anglo parishes I've found have been white collar upper class - the only others are Latino, and I admit fault for knowing very little about them as I know almost no Spanish.  Anyway, maybe the parishioners' wealth here is so obvious to me because it's so uniform.

The idea that I would be shamed for my sexual activity when I share the pew with those who live with such incredible material wealth is chafing.  I haven't been to Confession in 16 years and this disparity is a new reason to avoid it further.  I'm honest, open, and safe with my lovers: nobody is hurt (and there's nothing anyone can say to convince me that we're "hurting our souls").  But when I see that wealth, I see food withheld from the hungry, shelter withheld from the homeless, medicine withheld from the sick, and justice withheld from the imprisoned.  And yet big names in the Church condemn my actions first.  It remains to be seen whether or not this parish with join them, or if they'll continue to try to meet me where I am.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

God vs. Humankind

I've written before about the abusive parish in which I was raised.  In the years after I left that parish, I was very angry at God.  How could God allow such horrible cruelties, especially upon children?  How could these Christians preach about compassion and divine love out in public, but in private lock children in their basements without food or make children kneel on broken glass?  In my mind, largely because these abusers had told me so for so long and so violently, there was no distinction between God and them.

Although my relationship with the Divine continued, it was very narrowly compartmentalized.  MY God was loving and giving and powerful, THEIR God was malicious and preyed upon the weak.  Great pains were taken to differentiate myself from organized religion altogether.  Anger, obsessive defensiveness, and passive aggressive vengeance dominated this time.

After college, I mended my relationship with a whole God by separating God from humankind altogether.  This was when the healing process went from painful to soothing.  All the boundaries began to fall between God and I.  Could this have been done if I hadn't put up such a large wall between other people and us?  Probably not, as at that time the only people I knew who were interested in spirituality at all were very aggressive anti-theists.  Ultimately, I wasn't going to allow anyone to damage the new, awe-inspiring relationship I had with God.  And the most direct and effective way to do that was to separate God from humankind altogether.

That doesn't seem to be working as well anymore.  The need for spiritual community has arisen regularly for the past few years, only to fade away as I refused to make myself that vulnerable again.  Now that I'm seeking and finding community, though, I'm questioning if that boundary should still remain up.  The last thing I want to do is to let down my barriers only to have someone or a group of someones give me good reason to put them back up again.  As to seeing God present in any human being, that is a long way off yet.