I love this story, which comes from Peter Murtagh at The Irish Times:
[Image via The Irish Times from the Facebook page of comedian Adam Hills.]
The man and woman featured in posters opposing the same sex marriage referendum have denounced the use of their image and say they support “completely” the proposed change to the Constitution.
In a statement published through Amnesty International, the couple said they were “surprised and upset” to see that the photo was being used as part of a campaign with which they do not agree.
“We completely support same-sex marriage, and we believe that same-sex couples’ should of course be able to adopt, as we believe that they are equally able to provide children with much-needed love and care. To suggest otherwise is offensive to us, and to many others,” they said.
Stuff like this has happened to anti-SSM folks before, but this one is especially illustrative.
Well, Mothers and Fathers Matter, the organization behind the ad, is trying hard not to be the bad guy here: it doesn’t want to be negative or come off as hateful. Thus a cheerful shot of a happy heterosexual family over a bright reminder to vote “No.”
Of course, for this ad to work, viewers have to make an implicit negative association: that voting “Yes” for marriage equality means voting against this type of happy, healthy family.
That’s not a logical association, obviously. Healthy gay marriages don’t negatively affect straight marriages at all. But it reflects an (maybe the) unexamined assumption that dominates the religious right’s thinking on this question: that is, that gay marriage is opposed to straight marriage. What else could lead one to believe that a photo of a straight couple is somehow an argument against gay marriage?
The right’s refusal to question that assumption drives me up a wall. I want to shout whenever I read someone describing support for gay marriage as an attack on the family. So it’s refreshing to see that assumption explode so publicly. Because when the family pictured in the anti-SSM ad says, “We’re not opposed to gay marriage,” they’re also making clear that gay marriage is not opposed to us
[S]omething of the sacred lingers about every grape and every glass. There’s the potential for holiness in wine, a hint of something more to come, of some greater possibility, of some future transformation imaginable only through the sheer, gratuitous gift of God. In that sense, wine is a bit like us—made for more, longing to be transformed, waiting for grace to do what grace does.
2. Two of her other recent posts are worth mentioning, as well. This one about buying a table from a family that was selling off their deceased mother’s estate hit me hard, since, as I’ve written, I’ve had to do something like that twice in the past couple of months. I hope the people that get the things that once belonged to my mom and grandmother appreciate the history of those things as well as Stimpson appreciates her table. Then, this post on the virtues of her small kitchen reminded me of Casey Fleming’s “Sermon for Small Houses.” I know Casey, and I’ve read enough of Stimpson to know they stand on opposite ends of a lot of cultural and political debates. But remember that Peter Kreeft essay I linked last week, in which he insisted that something “certainly less important than religion but possibly more important than politics” might undercut our rigid left-right alignments? He said that “something” had to do with architecture, didn’t he?
3. Speaking of Casey, you absolutely have to read her personal and devastatingly beautiful essay on IVF and her (gorgeous) son: “Easter Sermon (A Baptism Story)”
4. I’m in my 7th year of my PhD program. A few years before that, I was here for four years as an undergraduate. After 11 total years at this school, there’s not much left on my UT-Austin bucket list. But one thing I haven’t done, but want to do before they kick me off campus next month, is explore the David Foster Wallace archive in the Harry Ransom Center. Alissa Wilkinson writes about the appeal of Wallace for those of us who struggle with faith and doubt but who, nonetheless, can’t seem to leave religion alone:
I guess you can’t properly call David Foster Wallace a religious writer, at least not with the definitions of religion we usually employ. Then again, when I first read him, I sensed a presence beyond the words on the page, a writer who was desperate to connect with the reader but also said what needed to be said. His questions are what I struggle with, too. Who am I? How do I connect with other people? What or who are we headed for, together? How do we get there? What is the best life?
Last February, Joseph Winkler wrote in the Jewish magazine Tablet about how reading Wallace led him back to the Talmudic study he’d left when he abandoned Orthodoxy. “Wallace … was always a rabbi to me, in a post-postmodern world where old values only meant anything if you so chose,” he wrote. “In a new world in which I couldn’t believe in old dogma, his work still tackled morality, the nature of belief, obligations, responsibility, and the human spirit.” Re-encountering Wallace, Winkler relates, actually led him back to reading and studying the Talmud.
I had a similar experience. In a time of confusion and loss for me, I read a man who wanted desperately to believe even as he was plagued by unbelief and absence. I was adrift in absence, and his questions gave voice to my own. They gave me some CPR when I most needed it, and helped me start to believe it was possible to be “alive and human” in the world. They sent me back to the Word, made flesh.
Wilkinson acknowledges the complicating fact that Wallace’s words failed him, that “those same words didn’t give Wallace himself space to be alive and human.” But she concludes that “it is a special sort of grace that lets someone’s words on the page become flesh, that makes those essays and stories into icons, no matter their deficiencies.”
5. OK, so this one isn’t entirely unrelated to the arguments going on at the Supreme Court this week. I pumped my fist while reading Rachel Held Evans’ “The False Gospel of Gender Binaries.” I’m not sure what my favorite line was, but here are few parts that made me cheer:
“The gospel of Jesus Christ is not so fragile as to be unpinned by the reality that variations in gender and sexuality exist, nor is it so narrow as to only be good news for people who look and live like Ward and June Cleaver.”
“No doubt some will argue that we cannot build our theologies around ‘exceptions’ like Adrian. When I bring up intersex people in conversations about gender and sexuality, I am typically met with blank stares, shrugged shoulders, and dismissive platitudes about how most people fit neatly into male and female categories and generalities, so we shouldn’t worry about the outliers. But if Jesus started with the outliers, why we shouldn’t we?”
“Now, I’m not suggesting we abandon conversations about the Bible and sexual ethics, nor am I interested in promoting a ‘genderless society’ (as some have bizarrely claimed, somehow supposing that acknowledging the existence of gray requires dismissing the existence of black and white). I am suggesting, however, that Jesus didn’t die on the cross to preserve gender complementarity.”
Say it, Rachel!
6. Finally, Michael Boyle has finished his series “Another Theology of the Body.” His last installment is exemplary: great writing, moving personal testimony, and smart argument. It also includes an index, so you can read the whole series. Which, in my opinion, he ought to turn into a book.
[Are they really going to kick me out of this place?]
“But, honestly, in today’s culture what takes more courage, to go on TV and do what Bruce Jenner did, or to go on TV and do what Ryan Anderson does? The question, it seems to me, answers itself.”
That quote boggles my mind. I’m reading it and re-reading it in disbelief.
Again, I’m coming back to the example of William F. Buckley. Remember how he tried to frame his speech at the Cambridge Union as an act of courage? How he talked about the “special protections” Baldwin enjoyed as a black man, and how Baldwin was the toast of the town at every American university? Remember the mockery Buckley lavished on the “unanimous concern” that liberal Americans felt for African Americans in the 1960s? And remember how Buckley egged on the objections of the Cambridge undergrads, how he relished when they got rowdy in response and broke debate protocol?
All because it flattered his image of himself as a lone voice striking against a wall of disagreement?
And he was. He was striking against a wall of disagreement. By 1965, most thinking Americans disagreed with Buckley. He was a brilliant man who nonetheless managed to get virtually all of intelligent society lined up against him. And, yes, with that came some non-intelligent elements of society, who no doubt said some very rude things about him.
Does that count as courage?
Today, Ryan T. Anderson has similarly aligned most of intelligent society against him. Like Buckley, he’s done it by (suavely, good-naturedly) making awful arguments. And, like Buckley, he’s facing some blowback from dumb opponents—blowback that, like Buckley, he and his supporters are trying to leverage to their rhetorical advantage.
Look, I’m sorry that Anderson’s high school decided not to promote his Washington Post profile on its facebook page. I really am. That has to be rough. And I largely agree with the writing from both sides of the aisle that has condemned the decision. And I recognize that, on top of that, Anderson has gotten some really ugly tweets and messages sent his way—messages that ought to make their senders ashamed, and that certainly embarrass those of us making the moral argument for marriage equality.
But let’s get some f-ing perspective.
While voices from the right and left were lining up to support Anderson and denounce his high school’s administration, this was happening in another American high school. A group of students, in response to an anti-bullying campaign by school administrators, decided to organize a campaign against their gay classmates, which involved—because, you know, Christ—Bible verses posted around the school and uploaded to Instagram and tagged with the names of out gay students. One picture from the day shows “anti-gay” written over a cross on a male student’s hand; another shows a group of eight male students posing in flannel shirts (chosen as the anti-gay uniform of the day) over the caption “Flannel anti-gay day only a few of many tomorrow is red day.”
[There are also allegations of explicit physical intimidation and epithets directed at LGBT students but, for the record, the school district emphasizes that those allegations have not been substantiated.]
The example is instructive: the “elites” at the school—the administration, the teachers—were supportive of LGBT students. “Both the superintendent and assistant superintendent shook my hand,” said one LGBT student. “It was very positive. You could tell whose side they were truly on.”
Even with that support, would you want to be an LGBT student at a school like that? Would you come out?
These are the facts on the ground. Yes, lots of good people support LGBT folks, because they believe that’s the decent thing to do. But coming out remains an act of courage, even for someone relatively privileged like Bruce Jenner. American society is a lot like that high school in Pennsylvania: it has way too many people who take pleasure in vehemently opposing any positivity whatsoever towards LGBT persons. The fact that Robert George can’t see that—the fact that he thinks that voicing a (discredited) political position makes him and Anderson more courageous than someone like Jenner—shows the extent of his self-centeredness and moral blindness.
A long time ago I wrote, tongue-in-cheek, that “the world sucks and nothing makes it better.” I was referring to the paradox that so many of the things that we do to try to improve ourselves—yoga, reading books, religion—don’t always (or even usually) produce tangible benefits in terms of our health, our morality, or our overall well-being. And, to make things worse, the fact that we go into these pursuits expecting self-improvement actually leads us to build up a sense of self-righteousness in our performance of them. And so there’s a real risk that these things can make us worse.
I thought that there was a way out of the paradox in Kristen Case’s application of the concept of grace to the English classroom. Case writes about transcendent moments she’s witnessed while teaching, times when her students took steps “away from a complacent knowing into a new world in which, at least at first, everything is cloudy, nothing is quite clear.” But Case doesn’t overstate what these moments mean: “They are difficult to characterize and impossible to quantify. They are not examples of student success, conventionally defined. They are not achievements.”I’ve had these moments as a teacher (and as a student), too, and I’d add that because they can’t be quantified, they can’t really be predicted either. And though they take work, they aren’t earned, really; there’s no clear relation between effort and reward. Lots of times, lots of semesters, you work and work and work and nothing like this happens. So these moments don’t breed pride, because you know they’re a sort of gift— and that’s another reason that Case’s choice of the word “grace” is particularly apt.
I mentioned there was a death in my family. I don’t know why I didn’t say who it was; blogging is weird, I guess, and I’m never sure how much to reveal. But it was my grandmother, my mom’s mom, and I’m her only grandson, so H and I rushed to Atlanta for her funeral and to see to her affairs. One of the things my wife and I found while going through my grandmother’s belongings was a typed version of a journal she kept in the summer of 1976 while she did a 750-mile solo bike ride across Kentucky and Virginia. It’s an amazing document, and I expect to be writing more about it in the coming months. I’ve spent the past week reading and re-reading it, and while I’ve learned a lot about my grandmother’s state of mind before and during the trip, one question the journal doesn’t really answer is why she did it. Why would a normal forty-five year old woman, a kindergarten teacher with no experience in long-distance riding decide to bike, all alone, from Berea, Kentucky to Yorktown, Virginia?
Obviously, it wasn’t for glory. She did it anonymously, though a reporter from a Portsmouth paper (notified by my mom) was waiting to interview her at the end of her ride.
It wasn’t about being healthy—just about the first thing she did every day in pulling into her campsite was to buy a six-pack of beer and hang a collapsible bucket, filled with ice, from a tree to serve as a cooler.
Nor, from what I can tell, was she riding to prove something, either to herself or to society. When I posted something about her journal on Facebook, one of my friends called her a trailblazer and a pioneer. I guess that’s true in a historical sense: look at how strangely Cheryl Strayed was viewed for hiking alone on the Pacific Coast Trail in 1995, and you realize that it was even stranger for an unaccompanied woman to bike alone cross-country in 1976. And because of when she did this, 1976, one might assume it was some kind of political statement, some reflection of the women’s lib movement (in fact, because of her short, dark hair and spectacles, she was mistaken for Billie Jean King on the tour). But that’s not who my grandmother was as a person—she was a soft-spoken, modest woman, a woman who valued tradition more than anyone I know.
Her disposition was so sunny that I was startled to read in her introduction to the journal that my grandmother decided to do the ride in a moment of crisis, a time in which she said she was full of depression and despair. That’s understandable—it’s the reason Strayed sets out on her hike, too—but what’s missing in my grandmother’s account (and in Strayed’s for that matter) is any reckoning of how she thought her journey might fix that. In place of that reasoning, there’s faith: faith that the ride would, somehow, make things better.
It did make things better, and I hope to talk about that more in future posts, but my point is that it’s hard to see how.
One of my favorite lines from Wendell Berry is his dictum to “Every day do something that won’t compute.” My grandmother didn’t need that reminder—that’s just who she was. She would hold up the lunch rush at the Varsity in Atlanta to introduce you to her favorite server; she would slow down to 15 mph on a busy Buckhead street to point out a place where her father had once practiced law. Living her last years on a fixed income of her teacher retirement plus social security, she nonetheless wrote dozens of checks to charities each month, each one for $10 or $15. When my mom was frustrated with her mother, she would refer to my grandmother as “the Crazy Lady.” Her 750-mile bike trip, which my mom initially opposed, was Exhibit A.
Berry’s line, of course, comes from his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” The Mad Farmer, the Crazy Lady: I don’t know whether my grandmother ever read Berry, but I think she would have loved him.
And I think my grandmother’s example adds something to Berry’s poem, too. Because she wasn’t just being crazy. Whenever she refused to compute, when she made things around her go haywire, it was always because she was veering too far in a specific direction: towards kindness and/or wonder.
And wonder, that opening onto a new world that so fascinates Case, is what I see most of all in her journal. So her journal reflects that connection between impracticality, what some might call irrationality, and grace.
David Brooks recently wrote:
The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be. Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquillity. For most of their lives their inner and outer ambitions are strong and in balance. But eventually, at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves. Those are the people we want to be.
My grandmother was that kind of stumbler, and the goodness of her life, like the purpose of her bike trip, is hard to put into words. And maybe, in one sense, it counts for nothing. But it’s real, and it’s certainly something she shared with others, and, to me at least, it radiates right off of the pages she typed.