Thursday, August 29, 2013

'Protecting 'finer feelings'.

Here's a really interesting interview with 4th year theological student Tess. I'm fascinated by this paragraph towards the end:

"Admitting that it is hard to specifically identify what is in many ways just a “vibe” she gets, she modestly and carefully explains that sometimes, as an intelligent women, she feels she has hold back to protect the finer feelings of the men in her classes, so as not to offend them. She admits that feeling is a bit ridiculous, and explains that clearly, scriptures don’t bar her from holding or expressing her own ideas."

Of course, we sometimes hold back our ideas and opinions out of consideration for others. This is just a normal part of life. I'm not going to contradict a person with 20 or 30 more years of life experience from me - or I'm not going to do it in the same way I would to someone my own age or younger. But it is curious, if as women, we feel we can't debate energetically with our male peers, exchanging ideas and opinions with them as we would with our female peers. In the theological college environment, a female student would not be overstepping and having teaching authority over her male classmate if she did this. If she felt she needed to hold back (more than she would with female peers), it would be either:

1. Because she was imagining some impropriety that didn't exist.
2. Because she knows from experience that (some of) the guys in her class feel quite insecure in their masculinity and will be threatened by her.
3. Because she knows from experience that expressing opinions in this group context isn't considered womanly and engaging in robust debate would lower her in the eyes of others in the group.

If #2 is the reason, then holding back might seem a kindness but probably won't help the guys in question be better husbands to their wives or ministers to women in the future.


Monday, August 26, 2013

I have a tupperware dish...

...full of little pieces of paper. Each one has a scale written on it.

There are 23 scales/arpeggios in total.

Two or three times a day I play through the scales in a random order.

I'm getting better at them.

My exam is on Saturday.

three thoughts/questions.

1. I hate the word 'excommunicated'. Can we never use it again?

2. I read an article on the weekend which said the family is the primary place for theological education. I'd put the church ahead of the family. Thoughts?

3. I had a chat with a friend yesterday who was concerned she was freeloading at church - getting all the time rather than giving. She's not. I think that she is giving lots and lots by being a massive encouragement to us all. But it made me think about freeloading. I think a freeloader is someone who has been coming once or twice a month for a couple of years and doesn't help out and then complains that the creche isn't run very well. What do you think?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Article vs Sermon vs Song

An article I've written (on Song of Songs and Erotic Romances) is getting published in the Briefing later this year. I've not had an essay type thing published in the Briefing before and I'm kind of chuffed.

But it took ages to write. Ages. A really long, long time.

And who reads 3000 word essays anyway? In the era of facebook and twitter ADD, is anyone going to read it from beginning to end. (Actually, yes they will. It is about sex.)

Songs take ages to write too, but then you get one published and it gets sung thousands of times (hopefully).*

Sermons take quite a bit of effort to write, and then you preach them once (or maybe five or six times if you're lucky) then they are done.

Length - 300 words
Effort - lots
Times used - thousands

Length - 3000 words
Effort - lots
Times used - 1-5

Length - 3000 words
Effort - lots and lots
Times used - Published once (probably), read ???

Songwriting is looking pretty efficient by this comparison.

*But for every song I have published, I've written another 10 that haven't made it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Christian Romances - part five

Continuing on with the problems. So far we've had:

1. Christian romances explicitly teach that God has a special someone lined up for each of us.

2. Christian Romances feature Mr. Perfect.

3. Christian Romances are too ambitious in what they set out to do.

One more for now...

4.  Christian Romances are set in an imaginary world. 

Of all the Christian romances that you've read, how many of them are set in a modern day city? I can think of 3 out of the 20ish I've read. One doesn't count because it was set in an Amish community that doesn't use electricity, cars etc. Another doesn't really count because it was more a piece of pro-life propaganda than a novel. The third was a YA novel called 'Bonnie' (I think I read it when I was 15) and I remember it being quite good - about a girl's struggle to accept her new stepmother, to not sleep with her boyfriend and to surrender to Jesus.  Writers seem to prefer historical settings. Prairies are popular. 

I think the far away settings are used to cover flaws in the writing. Implausibilites in the plot are less obvious when the setting is unfamiliar. Unbelievable characters become easier to cope with when they are wearing prayer kapps or suspenders, and unlikely dialogue is hidden behind words in Pennsylvania Dutch.

More seriously, I think that the distant settings are used to cover inadequacies in the authors' theology. Working out our faith in our day to day lives is just tricky. C.R. authors see the complexities of our modern world as we do, but they have nothing to offer us. They retreat into an imaginary past to avoid the difficulties of the present. This stops them fulfilling their edification aims. While they try to inspire us to live for Jesus, what they really end up telling us is that faith is something that sits best in another era.
That's enough for now. I think I have one more problem to put forward and then, maybe, some ideas about where we should go from here.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Christian Romances - part four

I'm continuing with my list of problems with Christian Romances.

So far I've said that 

1. Christian romances explicitly teach that God has a special someone lined up for each of us.

2. Christian Romances feature Mr. Perfect.

Now for my third point.

3. Christian Romances are too ambitious in what they set out to do.

Ordinary romances aim to tell us a love story. We meet the heroine. We meet the hero. There’s a couple of bumps along the way and then they get together. 

Christian romances try to do a lot more than this. They not only set out to entertain us, they also try to inspire us to lead more godly lives. Like ordinary romances, Christian romances features bumps along the road to happily-ever-after. But the bumps in Christian Romances are much more significant than they are in other romances and they don’t stop after the wedding ceremony. There can be poverty, illness, disaster, disability and death (though not of the hero or heroine!). Christian Romances include tragedies and obstacles because they aim to show us that God is sovereign over all things and to teach us to trust and obey him in difficult situations. They try to teach us that we can trust God with the death of our firstborn, with our sister who is straying, with a drought. They show how we can stand firm to our godly principles when bandits are raiding our township and when an evil government insists that our children go to school. They teach us that we should trust God to find us Mr Right and not settle for a nonbeliever.  Christian Romance authors aim to teach us how to integrate our faith into our lives, seeing God’s hand in all circumstances and obeying his word. This is an ambitious aim.

There are a couple of problems created by having such lofty aims. First, authors have to fight against the inherent flimsiness of the genre to achieve their ambitious purposes. The genre necessitates that unpleasantness be passed through quickly to get the story heading back towards the happily ever after. So a book that aims to teach about faith during severe trial can have a young widow losing her four year old son suddenly in one chapter (a horse and buggy accident!) and then be back functioning normally in the next chapter. Two weeks (and 2 pages) is enough for her to get through the bulk of the grieving (she prayed about it). After that the boy is mentioned every couple of chapters and we are told that she never completely forgets him. But life seems to go on for his mother as usual. In fact, having the kid gone frees her up to pursue her new man. Fairly likely she’ll get a replacement kid soon.  

Now I’ve never lost a child myself, but I know women who have. From my observation the grief is nothing like this. The pain the mother feels in the first couple of weeks is nothing compared to the agony that will follow. Life doesn’t just go on. Christian Romances aim to prepare women for trials and suffering by including tragic events in their stories, but I think that often they do more harm than good. What is the reader to do when she loses a child and finds herself still desperately sad after 7 months? Because of the necessity of getting things happy again quickly, we are taught to expect that difficulties will be overcome quickly - rather than expecting faith to be a long journey of patience.

Second, believable characters who experience ongoing, long term complexity, dysfunction or sin (as we all do), is, I think, required if a novel is going to move us and really help us be more godly. To achieve this, a very skilled hand is needed. An author will need to have a good understanding of people, a solid understanding of God, and an excellent ability as a writer. It is a really big ask and I honestly just don’t think that many people are up to it (though some are - Francine Rivers is said to be very good). If an author is aiming to be entertaining, then relatively little is lost if she fails. If she is aiming to edify as well as entertain, then the consequences can be more serious. She could make people feel like they know God when they actually don’t. Come trial, this can be devastating.

The inadequacy of the genre and writing ability to achieve the lofty aims of Christian romance is a problem. But again, I don’t think we should black list them. More soon.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Christian Romance Novels - part three

I'm continuing with the problematic features of Christian romances...

2. Christian Romances feature Mr. Perfect.

A feature of romance literature from Mills and Boon to Jane Austen, is the superhuman hero. Mr Darcy. Mr Knightly (Man, even his name makes me sweat!), Edward Cullen, Jacob Black, Gilbert Blythe... these guys are pretty near perfect. It’s not just that they are amazingly good looking. They are also remarkably competent, strong and athletic, confident in themselves, and deeply, deeply in love with me the heroine. If the hero has a fault - perhaps shyness or pride - it’s one that can be fixed by love. I The heroine can cure him and make him complete.

Christian romances, being a subset of general romances, follow the formula of the superhuman hero. In addition to being good looking, strong, confident, competent and so very, very in love, the heroes of Christian romances are also wise beyond their years, prayerful, and very, very godly. The exception is when the heroine (or the sister of the heroine) falls in love with a super guy who isn’t a believer. That then, becomes the one ‘flaw’ that she cures him of and he very quickly moves from 0 to 100 on the godliness scale and they get married.

The heroes of romance novels (and especially Christian romance novels) are guys women imagine it would be a dream to be married to. Submitting to them would be a pleasure since they are so alpha and competent and wise and spend all their time thinking dreamy thoughts about you. You know they would step in front of a bus for you or take a bullet for you, because they pretty much have (that was in chapter 15). Sleeping with them would be... idyllic. They have such a knack of making you feel good about yourself. They are so good at telling you how beautiful they find you and how ridiculously obsessedthey are with you. All your insecurities just melt away when they are around. Married to the hero you have no money worries because his supreme competency has been rewarded with wealth - or in Christian romances, his wisdom and hard work has provided him with all you need. If, through some unforeseen and unavoidable event (say, a drought for a farmer in an historical romance), money is tight for a bit, his trust in God’s soverignty keeps your anxiety at bay (in fact, you feel serene!) You pray and in the next chapter God sends rain.

The superhuman hero is one of the things that make romance novels the delight that they are. Women read them to escape. Who would want to read about Joe-Average, his ordinary life, his petty sins and his solid but mostly unpassionate relationship with his wife? 

For the Christian woman reading romance novels, the superhuman hero does pose a problem. The way they work is to tap into our discontent and make us revel in the thought of being married to the hero. When a married woman stops reading her book, she looks at the good, but very human man that she married, and she sighs. She knows that she hasn’t married the hero. When the single woman puts down her book, she too sighs. Then dreams... 

Out there somewhere, is someone... But he doesn't exist. For single women, Christian romances will either make her unable to find any guy good enough, or she will construct a idealised, pretend view of the guy she is currently crushing on. She won't see him as he really is and if they get together, it will all fall down at some point. 

Christian romances preach wifely submission but in a way that makes respecting your husband harder. How it usually works is that the heroine agrees to submission in principle, but then post-marriage has a moment when she doesn’t want to submit to her Jesus-like husband. She wrestles with it for a page or two, then reluctantly submits. In the next chapter she realises that he was right all along and she decides she’ll never doubt him again. He is wise and godly and always thinking of her. She can trust him. 

Of course this is not what wifely respect is really like. Our husbands will be wrong a lot of the time. They will be weak (like us) and prone to sin. Christian romances teach that submission works because the alpha hero is so trustworthy. My husband isn't right 100% of the time so I blame him for my struggles to submit. Reading Christian romances and dreaming about Mr. Whoever makes me think like this. But the main thing stopping me respecting my husband is not his faults at all but my own fallen heart. I want to control things. I want what I want. Even if I was married to Jesus I would find submission hard. The problem isn’t my husband, it is me. 

Christian romances make me discontent with my husband. They stop me from seeing my own faults and make me think that the reason why our marriage isn’t perfect is because he is not a hero.

Now, of course we are not silly. As we read we give ourselves the talk that it’s all make believe. We tell ourselves that Mr Knightly doesn't exist. We laugh about it. But deep down we still want him. The man in front of us becomes less that our ideal.

Now, I do think that this is a real problem, but I don’t necessarily think we should avoid all romances altogether for this reason. More on this in a few posts time.

And more later.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Christian Romance Novels - part two

In this series of posts I'm looking at the Christian Romance genre, based on my reading of maybe 20 books over the years and in particular five in the last couple of weeks. It's not a huge sample but it's enough, I think, to give a pretty good idea of the features of the genre. Please correct me if you think I've missed something important.

So far I've asked whether Christian romances are good, bad or indifferent. In asking this question, I'm not concerned with the books' literary merit so much as I'm concerned with how they affect us. Primarily I'm asking whether or not these books are edifying. 

In my last post I listed five good things about Christian romances.  I said that:

1. Christian romances can be a pleasant pastime. 

2. Christian romances legitimise many of the things that women do every day. 

3. Christian romances are romances!

4. Christian romances attempt to teach us how God is at work in our lives every day. 

5. Christian romances espouse the value of many good and godly things. 

These are all good things!

In a lot of ways, it is a really obvious list. But I made the effort to write it because I think there's an unnecessary amount of scoffing over women's reading of genre fiction. (And yes, I think this is a gender thing.) Christian romances are not Dickens novels, but neither are Alistair Maclean adventures. They are what they are. Yes, the characters can be two dimensional (or one dimensional). Yes, the plots are at once predictable and unlikely. Yes, the settings are unrealistic. That's genre fiction for you. If we play the part of the literary snob, we'll fail to see good where there is good and our critique will be ill-informed and unhelpful.

Having said this, though, sometimes a book's literary limitations will affect its ability speak deeply to us and change us. It will be unhelpful because the writing is not good enough to achieve what the writer wants to achieve through it. In some of my points of critique this will be apparent.

Anyway. Here what you are waiting for.

Problematic features of Christian Romances

1. Christian romances explicitly teach that God has a special someone lined up for each of us.

Each book does this. The heroine starts out by wondering who it is that God has picked for her. (Sometimes she's known who it is since age ten when the two of them made a secret pact.) When she is with her one true love, she comforts her still-single sister by saying that God has the perfect man lined up for her too. And sure enough, by the end of the book we meet him! The truth of the God ordained guy is attested to time and time again through the books. As Deb says, even Jenny, the blacksmith's daughter that we met in passing in chapter 5, is paired off by the end of the book with the guy who owns the woodshop in the next village... It wouldn't do to leave anyone single, would it? The game to play in reading these books is to guess ahead of time which secondary and minor characters will end up with each other. Because that's the crux of God's work in the world. Pairing us off.

The God ordained partner such a theme of Christian romances that if you read a lot of them uncritically, you will end up thinking it's true. Years ago, I heard a minister's wife say this to a group of teenage girls. "Trust God. He has the perfect man picked out for you. Just wait. God will send him to you and you'll be oh so happy..." I questioned her afterwards (probably in a painful way - I was 21 at the time) and she said, "It's what I truly believe."

Hang on! There can't be a Christian guy for every woman, let alone a perfectly suited Christian guy. Simple maths tells us that! There are more Christian women in the world than Christian men, so some Christian women will miss out. Sorry.

I think this is a problem for a few reasons. First, it sets up unrealistic expectations for girls. They may not marry and that's okay. Second, and more seriously, it moves the focus of God's work in the world from the salvation of fallen humanity to my romantic fulfilment. Before the foundation of the world, God was not planning my love life. He was sorting out the more important things.

God makes heaps of promises to us in the bible, but never does he promise us a husband. To say he does is to misrepresent him.

more later.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Christian Romance Novels - part one

Though many scoff, Christian romance novels are big business. Evangelicals just consume the stuff. Together with Rick Warren, they are keeping Christian bookshops in business. Jeanette Oke boasts 23 million in sales and Beverly Lewis has sold seventeen million books. In my experience, most Christian women have at least a couple of Christian romances on their shelves and many have had to buy bigger bookshelves to hold their collections.

So what are we to make of Christian Romance as a genre? Is it good, bad or indifferent? Is it edifying, neutral or corrupting? Do these books espouse godliness or do they just dress worldliness in spiritual attire?

Like most Chrsitian women, I’ve read a decent (or indecent) number of Christian romances in my time. I can recall a dozen titles that I’ve read in my 24 years in the faith. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve read a further 5 in quick succession. All of them are by acclaimed authors. Two of the titles came highly recommended by the girl who works in my local Christian bookstore and three of them have sold very well as e-books. 

I don’t want to come down with a hard line on whether or not you should be reading this kind of thing. (My gut feeling is that if you’re reading a couple of chapters of the bible a day, you will probably intuitively know whether or not something is good for you.) What follows is a brief list of good things about Christian romance novels. In the next few days I’ll follow it up with a list of problematic things about the genre and then you can form your own opinion. 

Good things

1. Christian romances can be a pleasant pastime. We all need to rest. Some people rest by playing squash. Some people play bridge, some paint, some bake, some watch dvds, some scrapbook and some read. Christian romances are a legitimate way to take a break from the pressures of life. Like a formula murder mystery or western they are not too taxing. Many find them engaging and even moving. They are certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t see the appeal of motor sports but motor sports shouldn’t be rejected on that basis.

2. Christian romances legitimises many of the things that women do every day. House keeping, daughterhood, sisterhood, wifedom, mothering and serving others are central to their settings and plots and as such they legitimise the tasks that many women carry out everyday. The shift from reading a novel to cooking a meal for the family is smooth, since the characters spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Christian romances infuse the mundane with meaning and romantic possibilites. 

3. Christian romances are romances! Who doesn’t enjoy a good love story and a happy ending? 

4. Christian romances attempt to teach us how God is at work in our lives every day. His sovereign hand is shown to be holding the strings, bringing good from bad and joy from hopelessness. Many Christians report them to be a great help to their spiritual lives.

5. Christian romances espouse the value of many good and godly things. In a world that screams at us that chastity is unhealthy, repressive and impossible, Christian romances provide a refreshing escape, promoting sexual purity. They uphold the biblical idea that sex is for marriage. As opposed to regular romances which can be quite explicit, Christian romances are appropriately reluctant to take us into the bedroom. Further, things like marrying in the faith, respecting your parents, forgiving others, praying and working hard are promoted in these books. The strong values present in these books cause many readers to overlook weaknesses in writing or plot.

More soon...

Friday, August 9, 2013


Amish romances.

3 down, 2 to go.

Want to knock 150 pages over tonight.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Case study: Extraversion vs Introversion

Exhibit A
13 year old plays trombone. He is okay at it. He joined the school concert band. Then he joined the school orchestra. Then he joined the school stage band. Now he asks if he can also join a community brass band. "Football season has finished. My Tuesday nights are free now."

Exhibit B
12 year old plays clarinet. He is okay at it. He enjoys concert band but hates that it means he has to be around people for another hour each week. Could it happen in class time so his precious alone time isn't cut into?

Monday, August 5, 2013

A question on the Song of Songs

I've been working on an essay on the Song of Songs. I'm pondering the purpose of S of S. Two question.

1. Do you think there's any way that a chapter which:

"first represents the woman's body as a mountainous landscape teeming with animal life, then evokes the actual mountains of northern Israel and Lebanon from which the lover asks his beloved to come down with him, and finally once again represents the woman's body as a landscape: this time, an enclosed bower ripe with fruit, moistened by a fresh-running spring that has its source in Lebanon, the water thus flowing underground  from the literal landscape just mentioned to the figurative garden."
Robert Alter in Bloch and Bloch The Song of Songs: A New Translation talking about Song of Songs chapter 4.

was not meant as a turn on?*

2. If you think it was meant as a turn on in some sense, do you find this problematic?

Most people are okay with the Song being an endorsement of sexual love within the biblical boundaries of marriage. But are you okay with it not being just a theoretical endorsement of (married) sex, but also... more than that. Poetry that makes us feel nothing is bad poetry. The language is meant to work on us and in us to do something... Are you okay with that? For married and unmarried readers?

* Of course, readers who have dulled their senses will find a 3000 year old unillustrated text not worth the effort.

Prayer for Sydney's Archbishop election this week.

Sovereign Lord,

As the Sydney Synod votes this week, please make our greatest desire not that 'our man' will be elected, but that you will be glorified in us and in our world. Thank you for providing Sydney with two nominees who are passionate for the cause of the gospel and who love you. Please guide the Synod so that they select the man who is best skilled to lead the diocese in proclaiming your word to the world, compelling the lost to seek you, and your people to love and serve you whole heartedly. As people speak for one candidate or another, guard their lips from lies, half truths and slander. Give them insight into their own hearts so that they will see their own biases. Let them so trust in your Lordship that they won't think it necessary to exaggerate their claims. Let those who vote see the strengths and weaknesses of both candidates clearly. Help them cast their votes, not on party lines, but on thoughtful and prayerful consideration. Please equip whichever candidate is elected, so that your church is strengthened and more people come to honour the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,