Oh, Hobby Lobby. What have you done?

Having lived in Seattle for much of the past dozen or so years, I was oblivious to the corporate entity until the 2014 healthcare case. At the time I assumed it was, quite literally, a conservative lobby group that was fighting the ACA and claiming exemption from their responsibility to female employees. So, it was a bit surprising to hear that it was actually a retail chain. Now, here they are again in the news. This recent development for the company is both shocking and yet not surprising at all.

One may be excused for thinking that a business purporting Evangelical Christian values–that has gained legal ground on such a basis–would employ staunch ethics. However, given the moral universe inhabited by many corporate families, the fact that they can both withhold birth control from their employees and import stolen artifacts from the Bible lands is actually very consistent. It has to do with their theological anthropology, among other things.

Theological anthropology is a fancy way of talking about a biblical view of the person. It usually begins with Genesis 1:

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1.26-27)

This rendition of the creation narrative usually takes precedence over the second (yes, there are two) creation story, Genesis 2.4-25, in which God uses dirt to make the first human: adam (human) from adamah (soil). In the first creation narrative both human parties are there from the beginning, male and female. It is designed to be hierarchical with humanity atop the rest of creation. As Lynn White identified in his 1967 article (as in, fifty years ago), “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” it is this hierarchical view of humans over creation that fundamentally shifted and shaped human ecology, the relationship between us and nature. He traces it in particular to the emergence of Frankish (religious) culture and calendars that narrate man’s dominance while providing a linear trajectory from creation to apocalypse. This is the time in history when Christianity percolates throughout Europe, gaining power in various ways. According to White’s analysis, when humanity no longer sees themselves bound to the soil along with the rest of nature, but breaks out of the cycle of seasons because God has other plans, then nature merely exists for the benefit of humankind. In other words, when we read dominion with too heavy an accent, it forms an ‘arrogant eye’ (Sally McFague, Super, Natural Christians, 1997).

What does dominion over the earth have to do with denying women contraception? Well, after a while the arrogant eye takes a rather liberal interpretation of ‘dominion’. Going back to the creation narratives, the first sets up a hierarchy, while the second introduces “Adam” before “Eve” and thereby furthers the hierarchy. As White summarizes, “Finally, God had created Adam and, as an afterthought, Eve to keep man from being lonely. Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them.” (1205) So, here we have an interpretation of total superiority over the rest of creation, starting with women, that informs relationships between men and women in conservative Christian anthropologies.

The turn to Iraqi artifacts may seem a little less obvious, but do not underestimate the powerful gaze of the arrogant eye. It reaches into jungles and deserts, mountains and wadis. 

In terms of theological anthropology, a sociocultural element intersects gender hierarchy such that anyone deemed Other is relegated to a lesser level. (This is the realm of Orientalism, and postcolonial theory.) The rhetorical focus on the Bible allows for the objects of interest to be placed in a kind of metaphorical time capsule, uprooted from contemporary persons and places. Such an obsession with material things of the Bible is endemic to evangelical Christianity, and therefore unsurprising in the Hobby Lobby owners. Objects deemed “historical” are dislocated from their place of origin, the people who created it, and anyone since then who has interacted with it. In this way a bizarre duality emerges that permits fetishizing ancient cultures while simultaneously denying connectivity between cultures, peoples, and religious beliefs. The Bible Lands are valued, but not the people inhabiting them. Material evidence of Bible texts are necessary for ‘proving’ superiority over others, but the message of scripture to be humble and love one’s enemies is never heeded. Jesus himself becomes wiped of any Jewish Palestinian provenance, just as the objects themselves cannot be faithfully traced.

In a worldview that normalizes the secondary place of other persons, and treasures clay shards over the ground from which they came, it is no wonder that the company’s acquisition of material objects is unethical. They have made it clear that the Bible is their number one priority but not the Spirit and the message it communicates.

 

A theological reflection on saving a Christian college campus.

I am home now. As in, abandoned prairie dreams to come back to the Pacific Northwest with its layers of mountains and hills, moody shifts in grey hues, waterlogged air, and the smell of low tide. It is fortunate that I can complete my research away from school at this point, and even tailor it to this region. The thought of learning Chicago watersheds for my studies in baptism felt daunting.

Coming home has its share of mixed feelings, particularly when my memory is taxed with recalling what ‘used to be’ on that corner instead of the shiny tall thing that looms overhead. So, when I saw the article in the local news about an old Bible school coming due for demolition, I started reading closely. Sure enough, I remembered the place–vaguely, but well enough.

I can’t remember if it was a vacation Bible school, or simply a weekend retreat that took me to the Lutheran Bible Institute in Issaquah, but I remember her. Her name was similar to mine, Kirstin, she had straight, blonde hair, and she sang in the a cappella music group at the Bible school. I remember feeling so enamored with her, like she could be my big sister. We may have even exchanged a few letters as pen pals. I remember, too, the buildings that felt a little old, but in that vertical NW, mod quirky kind of way. At that time, about the only difference I knew existed between the Lutherans and Presbyterians (such as I was), had to do with the color robes their clergy wore on Sundays. Yet I would have signed up to go to LBI in a heartbeat; especially if it meant singing alongside my new friend such lyric hits as, “It’s about as useful as a screen door on a submarine. / Faith without works…”

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the local megachurches owns the property now, and that they have an interest in selling it. But in a region with few religious landmarks, the thought of losing a 1960s chapel and school with a unique history (the Lutherans bought it from the Catholics) is dispiriting. Surely another religious organization would think so, too? Or is a generic evangelical church focused on being young and relevant simply deaf to any cries of history or tradition? I wonder, then, if this isn’t a case of good old North American pragmatism. The church is not a building, it is wherever two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus Christ–so goes the logic.

Shouldn’t a place where the broken, risen body of Christ has been shared, given and communed across time and denominations mean something?

For nearly ten years I worshiped in a space that was built by the Methodists, then occupied by a brewery, a disco, the Baptists, and some other commercial interests during its 100+ year history (not to mention squirrels and other critters in the attic). Houses of worship that have been around for a while feel different. There is a kind of spatial patina that can rub off on unsuspecting visitors, enriching the music, the prayers, the communion of saints. At times in church, I could sense the hopes and desires of past parishioners. My great-grandparents never worshiped there, but someone’s did.

The Providence Heights space is unique as a theological school, first for nuns, then for Lutheran women and men. Let me repeat that: the school was built to educate women first. It may be tempting to be dismissive of a training school for Catholic nuns, but considering how difficult it still is–globally speaking–for women to receive any kind of dedicated theological education, let’s just say this is significant. While the chapel was not a community church per se, it served as a basin for the missio Dei, and a nest from which hopeful young Christians followed the call of the Spirit to the world.

Surely, a fellow religious organization such as City Church, with its focus on developing relevant leaders for the world, would understand such a history?

At a time when property values are soaring out of reach, churches are shrinking, and decisions for survival must be made on a purely economic basis, does City Church (or any church) have a responsibility to history or tradition? What does it look like to honor the people who have gone before in particular places; who have celebrated the Lord’s supper, and proclaimed his death and resurrection in these walls? This week of Pentecost, I pray for a creative solution for the people of Issaquah, for City Church, and the Providence Heights campus. Come, Holy Spirit, and breathe new life.

Today was my day to present in our seminar on Augustine’s Confessions; somewhat nerve-wracking, since everyone else had already taken their turn. Presentations this late in the semester are always problematic. On the one hand, you’ve had all this time to work on the material. On the other hand, you’ve had all this time filled with myriad other assignments and responsibilities. It isn’t like I would have been able to do this earlier, though, seeing as I presented on Book XI, Augustine’s musings and theorizations on time and eternity. Fitting.

I chose the topic of time because, as a procrastinator, it is not my friend. In recent years I have become more wary (and weary) of passing days, weeks, months. Studying time is a little like engaging in the art of war with a much larger and dispassionate foe. I know I won’t win, but I sure as hell won’t go down without fighting.

What I found refreshing in studying time with Augustine is that he asks me to get out of my own contemporaneity. It is impossible to understand him through the digital clock. Instead, I have to put the phone down, close the computer, and simply watch the sun pass overhead, the shadows change on the building, note the difference in air temperature as the day progresses. For him, too, music becomes a teacher of time and measuring time.

Long before treble clefs and 4/4 time signatures, Augustine reflected on measuring time by recounting hymns and songs of the church. Here he had Ambrose’s liturgical renovations in mind with imported tunes and chanted psalms. By inhabiting the song to God, Creator of all things (Deus Creator omnium), Augustine notes, we can know that one syllable is shorter than the next, we can perceive that this phrase is half the length of the one that follows. In this way, we measure time. The breath in our lungs as it pours over the larynx and resonates through the cords is running in time.

Our class discussion picked up on the challenges of defining time over and against its effects. Time is not defined through its measurements because it exists ever only in the present outside of measurement. Once a song slips through our teeth, it becomes past. We can repeat the verse, the line, the song–but to repeat is not to delete and redo.

This got us thinking about the periodization of time. Scores of music are broken into bars of time. Syllables denote length and frequency, forming patterns and periods. Waves of sound have cycles. None of this is purely linear, even when we graph along a straight line. Of course, this prompted our professor (also my advisor) to recount the experience of pregnancy and labor, when pain comes in waves.

I wish that I had thought then of infertility’s counterpart, where pain comes in monthly tides as, yet again, the blood flows. But I am in the habit of letting references to pregnancy wash past me.

The experience of time changes with waiting and non-expectancy.

I learned yesterday (Thursday) that this is National Infertility Awareness Week. I had seen penguins for World Penguin Day, and (daily, multiple) invitations to protest at the People’s Climate March, but infertility is one of those things that is simply difficult, if not impossible, to celebrate. I myself feel conflicted about speaking up. What are we inviting people into with Infertility Awareness? What would come if I were to say in class, ‘Well, actually, I will never know what it’s like to be pregnant. And I am in this class at this time because I could not get pregnant.’ Personally, I am not interested in pity. However, I recognize that the experience of barrenness, the fact that I cannot conform to normalized womanly identity, does in fact drive certain lines of theological inquiry for me. But, how do I insert such snippets into conversation so that others might understand, when I myself am still wandering in the wilderness of non-expectancy?

There was a time when I cried, How long, O Lord? That time is gone.

Near the end of Book XI, Augustine states, “without the creation no time can exist.” I know that time and creation are interlocking concepts, yet my bodily response is ‘yes, but, How?’ Apart from any signs of life within my organs, my follicles are sputtering toward death. So, what is the creation that will bring music to my soul, and help me measure the seasons with joy? For now I must lean on my old friend, Augustine, and pray with him:

You are unchangeably eternal, that is the truly eternal Creator of minds. Just as you knew heaven and earth in the beginning without that bringing any variation into your knowing, so you made heaven and earth in the beginning without that meaning a tension between past and future in your activity. Let the person who understands this make confession to you. Let the person who fails to understand it make confession to you. How exalted you are, and the humble in heart are your house. You lift up those who are cast down, and those whom you raise to that summit which is yourself do not fall. (Confessions, 11.31.41)