Archive for the ‘Red Tent’ Category

Calling All Virgins

Monday, January 14th, 2008

I’ve been to meetings where speakers have gotten up praising God that their teenage daughters were still virgins. The only thing that kept me from going completely through the floor was the fact that the pronouncements were made at Christian women’s conferences where stuff like purity, chastity, godliness, self-discipline are highly touted. (Before you ask the question, the answer is no. Noone’s ever gotten up and boasted that their teenage son was still a virgin.) But still it’s unsettling to me to hear someone boast about a daughter’s virginity in a public meeting. For one, modesty is as much a virtue as virginity. Two, some things are private and the intactness (or not) of a daughter’s private parts is one of them. And three, well, gulp, what teenage girl tells her mother the whole truth? I didn’t.

 Glamour magazine reported last year about the growing popularity among some evangelical   Christians of “purity balls.” “Also known as “Abstinence Balls” and “Viriginity Balls,” these elaborate parties that young women and girls attend, gowns and all, with their fathers are evolving into the cutting edge of the teen abstinence movement. The theme is the girls’ sexual purity. The girls pledge to stay “pure” until marriage. The idea of confining sex to marriage is hardly new, of course. But at some of these balls a father presents his adolescent daughter with a tiny lock. The key will be given by the father to her husband on her wedding day. Creepy right?

I expect many of my readers to take issue, like I do, with the notion of male patriarchal control over a girl’s sexuality. Except that I have a daughter and have looked into the eyes of her beau when he’s come over to visit and seen that while I strike respect in the young boy, her father strikes fear and dread.

Five years ago, in a little-known provision of the Welfare Reform Bill, conservatives in Congress set aside almost half a billion dollars in state and federal funding for programs that attempt to steer young people away from sex—and away from any positive mention of birth control for that matter. With one year left for Bush’s pro-abstinence administration there’s a rush to safeguard the loins of America youth. I share the disdain of many toward Conservatives and their campaign to control female sexuality. But what if it’s true that the average young person has had dozens of sexual partners by the time they reach adulthood? Is anyone else frightened by the HIV/AIDS epidemic afflicting our African American youth? What does reproductive rights mean when we’re talking about a sexually promisicuous fifteen year old who doesn’t know crap from crapola (another one of my Aunt Dora’s expressions)?

You and I both know that “just say no” never worked. It didn’t work in biblical days. It didn’t work in my parent’s day and neither in mine. It doesn’t work now.

I’m a big fan of youth Rites-of-Passage ceremonies, but the notion of purity and abstinence balls strikes me as laughable. Especially since there isn’t any parallel ceremony where sons pledge their virginity to their mothers and mothers hand vials of saltpeter to their sons to help them keep their vows. Perhaps I shouldn’t be such a cynic. After all, I am a minister. Hey, I’m a minister who’s actually involved in the day to day life of a local church. I’ve had the privilege (and also the heartbreak) of watching a whole group of girls in my church grow up before my eyes. I’ve watched them grow from the eager face, ashy leg, snag-tooth six year olds they once were with cornrows in their hair and multi-color bubbles at the end of their nappy braids who brought their report cards for me, the pastor’s wife, to make a big deal over to now young, giggly, leggy, weave-down-to-their-backs, nubile, adolescent girls wearing skin tight jeans with thongs that peep up over their low riders.

If I had my way I’d round up all the teenage girls in my church, my daughter included, drive them out to a remote place on the outskirts of the city and stick them in a Red Tent, safe from the predatory stares and clutches of boys and men, safe from the predatory impulses of their own budding bodies. I’d keep them under guard there until, until, until… I don’t know how long. That’s the problem. (Girls were married off by the time they were twelve in biblical days. It’s possible today to reach your late 30s and have never married.)  How long would I hold the teenage girls from my church in my imaginary Red Tent? Until husbands could be found for them? I know better. Until they learn how to use a condom or birth control pills? That’s only part of the problem. Until they know the difference between crap and crapola? Now there’s a thought.

Mother-Father God

Monday, October 29th, 2007

After speaking in Washington, DC this weekend at a religious ceremony where folks talked a lot about “Spirit” and there was constant reference to “Mother-Father God,” on the plane back home a biblical passage came to mind as I sat processing the experience:

“We will not listen to what you say in the name of the LORD. Rather will we continue doing what we had proposed; we will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and pour out libations to her, as we and our fathers, our kings and princes have done in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem. Then we had enough food to eat and we were well off; we suffered no misfortune. But since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out libations to her, we are in need of everything and are being destroyed by the sword and by hunger” (Jeremiah 44:18-19).

Evidently the women of Jerusalem had minds of their own. They disagreed with Jeremiah and other prophets and had their own explanations for why Jerusalem, the city of David, the dwelling place of the Most High, had been invaded by the Babylonians and was now in ruins. Enough with belief in this one, male god, YHWH. The world was out of balance. The goddess will not be ignored. There are times when a female god, a goddess, is what’s needed.

I never gave much thought to goddesses until a few years ago. Correction: I gave lots of thought to goddesses when I was working on a doctorate and had to study and write about them in order to understand the history of ancient Near Eastern religions in general, and the history of biblical religion in particular. I studied the literature on goddesses, but I didn’t think about them, if that makes sense. Did the ancient Hebrews once include one or more goddesses in official or unofficial worship? Probably. Did the move toward a monotheistic religion by the Hebrews around the 8th century b.c.e, with its belief in one, supreme, male deity lead to a rejection of the feminine divine? Most likely.

And then one summer I picked up Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and read it. The scales fell off. I understood what the fuss was all about. Mists is a retelling of the King Arthur legend(s) from the point of view of the women characters, most notably Morgaine who has to defend her indigenous matriarchal religious heritage against impossible odds. Bradley’s novel managed to do what volumes of scholarly tomes could not. I understood what was missing in my faith and what had been lost in centuries of attempts by Judeo-Christian tradition to stamp out all vestiges of any belief in the feminine divine. I understood why in lots of societies, then and now, goddesses are often connected with agricultural societies – where the earth, Mother Earth, is a very strong focus.

After Mists came Anita Diamant’s fictional retelling of Genesis 34, the story of Dinah the daughter of Jacob in her book The Red Tent. Diamant breathed life into the religious traditions of the women back in the biblical past, showing how and why a pantheon of goddesses like Gula, goddess of healing, Taweret, goddess of maternity and childbirth, and Innana, the Great Mother and the Queen of Heaven brought comfort and strength to everyday women. Who else but a goddess could understand and empathize with the prayer of a woman in hard labor when she prays to make it through alive and with a healthy baby?

Even those of us who consider ourselves enlightened and deep, and do not believe in a literally masculine God, who are quick to say that God is Spirit and is neither male nor female, there can still be lots of internal fears and struggles around celebrating the female side of the divine. Somehow even for those of us who are quick to speak up for the equality of men and women, there’s inner turmoil over fully accepting goddess images, because our culture is so steeped in the concept of the one male God.

We say that our god is neither male nor female, but then we proceed to speak of God as male. What we mean when we say that God is neither male nor female is that God is definitely not female.

Yeah, yeah, yeah…Jeremiah and the other prophets made a big fuss about goddess and polytheistic worship. But the women of Jeremiah’s day had a point. The pain of childbirth, the mystery of sexuality, the ambiguity of gender roles – there’s just some things you wanna talk over with your mother and trust her to understand.