Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Dating, dressing up, and the Church meat market

This post begins with a true story. I was sitting at Church last Sunday, alone, and a little dolled up in response to the What Not to Wear marathon my mom and I indulged in over winter break. I was pumped to spend some time with God, get my focus back, all that jazz. To make a long story short, a man thought it would be a good idea to pass me a note in the middle of the sermon asking me out on a date. I was caught off guard, and more than a little annoyed, but I did consider (for a moment) saying yes. He was awkward and not all that bright (from what I could gather of our pre-service chit chat), but I've been told by more than a few friends and family that I have to work on being more approachable and less judgmental, about dating that is. And then I remembered, the man passed me a note in the middle of the sermon. Even minus the creepy vibe and lame comments before church began, passing a note in the middle of my time with God earns you a big no. A quick question after the service might have earned a must-be-open-minded yes. When picking up a girl at church it's important to remember that she might be there for God and might find such a note more than a little inappropriate, and certainly not the mark of the sort of man she'd actually like to date...

The real question was, do I say no (and interrupt everyone else's focus), do I condone the note passing with one of my own, or do I shift in my seat awkwardly until the the service comes to a close? Pen please! To my dismay, he didn't have one. Wait, how did he write the note to begin with? Was this planned? Was he a church crasher? Well I found a pen and wrote back, sorry, I'm dating someone already (lies, during church, oh my). He managed to persevere, however, and wrote back a few minutes later (holding it up for all around me to see): do you have any sisters? Seriously?? Any guilt I had vanished then and there. Ridiculous. After my second no it wasn't much longer before he just got up and walked out with the sermon still in full gear. And I'm left wondering, what just happened? Am I at a bar? Or back in 5th grade? I'm bewildered.

I tell that story to make a few points. The first is this: it's not at all flattering, to me at least, to be asked out based purely on physical appearance. That's not my strong suit, to be sure, and it hasn't been a big problem. But even so, I've had my fair share of awkward moments like this. It's enough to start singing Knock Em Out. And it makes me doubt the advice of Stacey and Clinton. Come to think of it, it's awfully unfair that the pressure seems to always be on women to dress nicely and look our best. And I'll be honest, as awkward and unattractive as the culprit was last Sunday, if he had been someone who had gotten to know me, or if we were already somewhat friends, it would have been worth a shot. After all, at least then I would have known that he was interested for the right sort of reason. I'm not saying nothing can ever come out of a random number exchange, I'm just saying that it can be a real turn off. Though I suppose that if this had happened at a bar I would have been less weirded out, and I probably wouldn't have thought much of it at all. Anyway, there's no way this would happen to a man, certainly not at church. So my main complaint is that women, despite our mighty feminist gains, are still subject to creepy approaches, to being objectified, even in church. That annoys the crap out of me. Not new, I realize, but still. Ugh.

Now, I think my "even in church" clause is misleading. This brings me to my next complaint: the church is a meat market, especially youth and young adult groups. There is serious pressure in Christian circles to pair off and marry. What better place to shop for a mate than church? I was briefly involved in a Christian organization during college, and many of my cohort there are now either engaged or married. Some, I'd say they did the right thing. Others, well... I worry. The joke is that if you're dating, and if it's senior year, then the gal better get a ring sometime between Christmas and Valentine's Day, or the relationship has been a waste of precious time. The pressure to marry early is insane, and it makes it hard to be a genuine participant in a young adult gathering. If I go, will anyone really believe that I'm there just to make friends and have fellowship? Will the guys be measuring me up for my wife potential? Hint: my potential is low. That is, I have low "good Christian wife" potential, where my independence, sarcasm, and career ambitions (okay, this is a stretch, but I love my job/school, and won't easily give it up) are seen as threatening. Do I mind? Kind of. I mean, I mind in that the standards by which I'm measured (or that it feels like I'm measured) are outdated and not in line with what I really believe God has in store for many women. But I don't mind in the sense that I don't regret not having a ring on my finger from any of those guys, because any guy threatened by my independence is not the guy for me. But yeah, in the Church frustrations mount as the pressure rises and the standards just don't fit.

So what's a girl to do? Well, for starters I've made my feelings known to friends, family, and fellow church goers (well, at my old church). I think it's important that the new generation of Christian women rise up and speak up against traditional gender roles, and against the supposition that they must be in want of a husband and 2.5 children before the age of 30 (or at all). Believe it or not, there is a large number of deeply religious young women that are embracing the change I think we need. Sure, older generations frown and fuss, but we can be the start. Yes, yes the church is historically/currently patriarchal, and some say that's enough reason to ditch the religion all together. But I think it's better that women work within the church for change, if they still believe, because they need to be the ones to make the church a better place for their sisters, daughters and friends. It is possible to be true to your faith and maintain your equal worth in God's eyes and in the world. I think Jesus would be all for it. Remember Mary and Martha? Mary chose what was better by stopping the "woman's work" to spend time with the son of God. At church, women should feel like they are equals, like they aren't be objectified or being measured up. It only takes a few.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


I've recently seen the new movie Doubt at the theater, and it raised some interesting issues that I've already been thinking about. If you haven't yet seen the movie, my thoughts here might well spoil it, though the movie is less about plot (which is as much as given away by the trailer) as it is about the way in which the plot unfolds. I'm no movie buff on any account, but I thought Streep and Hoffman were brilliant. But what interests me is not the acting so much as the story itself, and the ensuing web of religion, authority, and a battle between doubt and certainty.

The storyline is straightforward. Streep, who plays a nun that is the principal of a Catholic school, suspects the priest (Hoffman) of abusing one of the students. One of his sermons puts her on guard, and various events raise her level of suspicion. What's brilliant about the story is not the sad tale of abuse (or suspected abuse), but rather Streep's reaction to it. She is a woman in a male dominated world (both within and outside of the Church). She has a fixed role in the Church hierarchy, and allusions are made to the incompetency of those above her. Streep's frustration at her position, and at her (seeming) powerlessness comes through strongly. How must it feel to be the protector of a group of children, to suspect they are in harm's way, and to have little means of recourse? Add to her frustration her faith. Within the Church, her role as a woman is limited. It's bad enough to be limited by societal norms, but it's even worse to worry that God has forbade you to act. Streep's character hints several times that the in the pursuit of wrong doing one takes a step away from God. And as the tension between Streep and Hoffman mounts, Streep sides with that pursuit over God saying: "I will step outside the church if that's what needs to be done, till the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I'm damned to Hell!"

The tension here is between her faith in a perceived religious role or duty and the (almost intuitionist) sense of what must be done, of what's right. For Streep, she would follow that moral sentiment even at the cost of her salvation. What's most striking here is that the problem is which side to choose and not why there are two sides at all. What is the role of a religion that comes apart from moral convictions? The agony that Streep portrays is her struggle over this, over what side she will choose, and at what cost. Of course, a larger question hovers in the background: oughtn't the two sides coincide? If they don't, shouldn't that suggest that we've gotten one or the other wrong? It's this question that has been on my mind a great deal, but as usual, only as a question with little progress towards an answer.

My favorite part of the movie, apart from Streep's seething confrontation with Hoffman towards the end, is the very last dialogue between Streep and a younger nun. Throughout the film the question of the priest's guilt was left open, and though it felt natural to side with Streep's character, there was no real resolution of the matter. What was most moving was that throughout the film Streep's character is unwavering in her certainty (or alleged certainty) of the priest's guilt. She seems to believe it as strongly as she believes in God Himself. Yet at the very end, after everyone else has in vain struggled with their own doubts, Streep cries out: "I have doubts. I have such doubts." If I cried in movies, I would have cried then. What does she doubt? My first thought was the most obvious, she doubts whether she did the right thing, for a number reasons. The priest might have been innocent. Or does she doubt whether more good came in the end. As a result of her actions, the priest was transferred (which I've been told, was the routine solution in such cases, a thought that makes me shiver) to a more prestigious post at a larger parish. Now not only is he climbing the latter, but he has no one watching over his shoulder, no one protecting the children as she did.

Her heartfelt confession to Sister James seemed to almost signal something greater, something more troubling. She doubts the Church, her role in it, its teachings. With the marginalization of women and the ignorant eye turned towards men's misdeeds, how could she revere it? Or does she doubt her faith, God, his existence or his goodness, or maybe his justice? In the pursuit of wrong doing, one takes a step away from God, she said. Isn't there truth in that? Either because that pursuit feels like you've stopped trusting God's provision, his goodness or his protection. You've taken matters into your own hands because no one else will, not even God. More troubling, you've come closer to evil, to sin. It's hard to commune with God when you are thrust into the middle of another's fallenness. She doubts. She, the unwavering, steady, bulwark of her school, of her parish. Even she doubts.

I should add here, since I neglected to mention it above, that the whole matter is further complicated by the tension between Streep and Hoffman's characters over political change within the church. The boy in question was the first African-American student, which marked the beginning of a crusade for change by the priest. He was charismatic and modern, and his friendship with the boy seemed to be goodwilled. He wanted the school to be more inviting, the Church looser. But Streep's world was black and white, and the grey middle ground he proposed both frightened her and aroused her suspcion. She may have struggled with her inferior role, but in the end, was it her rigidity and not the guilt of the priest that threatened to tear their world apart? All of it, great stuff.