Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review: "When I Was a Child I Read Books" by Marilynne Robinson

Whenever I read a book by Marilynne Robinson, I always think of my visit to Iowa City a number of years ago and having the chance to meet her and attend an afternoon workshop that she presented to around a dozen ministers.  It was striking to me that Robinson talks with and embodies the same measured poise with which she writes.  Robinson, the author of three novels and four works of non-fiction (I’ve read all but two of her books), has a remarkable mind and writes in a controlled, exact, and precise manner.  I was not surprised to learn that there was something like a twenty year gap between her first and second novel.  Her writing was so perfect that I imagined her taking a week to craft a sentence.  According to a favorable review of Robinson’s most recent book in the Wall Street Journal, “The greatest pleasures of this book are its provocations, which are inseparable from its prose.”

When I Was a Child I Read Books contains ten essays, each seemingly better than the one before it.  Robinson writes as a liberal Christian who merges Christian theology with the humanities.  These essays return again and again to a series of themes: the Biblical commandments about generosity, the sinister ideological roots of modern economic theory, the rejection of ideologies that would limit our humanity, and the glory of the human mind.

In her opening essay, Robinson writes, “I realized gradually that my own religion, and religion in general, could and should disrupt these constraints, which amount to a small and narrow definition of what human beings are and how human life is to be understood…  For the educated among us, moldy theories we learned as sophomores, memorized for the test and never consciously thought of again, exert an authority that would embarrass us if we stopped to consider them.”  Immediately, Robinson goes on to critique behaviorist psychology.  Less proximately, she goes on to question the economic ideologies of modern day capitalism, Darwinian attempts to explain human behaviors, and the rejections of religion by the New Atheists.

Her essays are always fascinating, and sometimes go off on puzzling tangents, as when she writes about reclaiming the figure of Moses as an exemplar of liberalism.  She considers four books that seem to hold a negative opinion of Moses and the Old Testament.  Those four books include popular religion treatments by Bishop John Shelby Spong and Jack Miles, along with obscure scholarly titles by Jan Assmann and Regina Schwartz.  I get what she’s doing here.  A lot of the condemnations of Jewish scripture are nothing more than the “moldy theories we learned as sophomores.”  But this essay, unlike the other essays, is so narrow and specialized that it seems inessential when compared to the topics she tackles elsewhere.  How many people are interested in reading a three page refutation of Jan Assmann’s Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism?  (For the record, I read Assmann’s book as part of senior-level college seminar in the history of religions.  It is a wild book.  It freely admits to being a wild book.  And, I think that Robinson could have treated it more generously.)

Robinson is at her best in her essays “Who Was Oberlin?” and “Cosmology.”  In “Cosmology” she thrashes Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and other neo-Darwinians.  It is Robinson’s way of thinking here that I find most liberating and most in line with the theological thinking to which I aspire.  In “Oberlin” she considers the historical importance of nineteenth century evangelical Christians like Johann Friedrich Oberlin and Charles Grandison Finney, who played an important role in the end of slavery, and in forming Midwestern intellectual and cultural institutions, such as Grinnell and Oberlin.  Robinson’s essay provides an alternative history to the history of evangelical religion offered by Jeff Sharlet in his exposé The Family.  Sharlet seems to treat Jonathan Edwards and Finney as the precursors of modern day Christian dominionists.  Robinson shows this not to be the case, but in doing so she inadvertently understates the threat of the right wing.

Part of the joy of Robinson is also part of what makes this amazing book a bit frustrating in retrospect.  She does not suffer fools gladly.   “[A]nother identification I hold passionately is with the academic community, which has its fair share of skeptics and agnostics, some of whom are well enough informed historically to mention Michael Servetus from time to time, to make an occasional offhand remark about the Thirty Years War.”  Robinson holds that the complexity of the human mind and the complexity of the cosmos are deserving of reverence.  Her efforts to praise and defend that larger reverence and wondrous love are sometimes noble and sometimes quixotic.  Not all sins are equal.

Click here to see what other books I've read in 2012.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Sermon: "Liberal Religion, Sex, and Reproductive Justice" (Delivered 4-1-12)

A little over two weeks ago I was honored by the Kansas Choice Alliance with their “Next Generation” award for my service to the causes of reproductive justice, quality sex education, and women’s rights.  The statue I was given is displayed on our candlelighting table this morning.  Some of you may know some of the ways I’ve been involved in these issues, but many of you don’t, so let me describe some of the work I’ve done that led to this award.

From very early on in my ministry here with you I’ve been one of the religious leaders in Kansas most willing to speak up, show up, and advocate for choice and women’s reproductive rights.  That has entailed testifying before legislative committees, county commissioners, and the Kansas Board of Education.  It has meant speaking at rallies and press conferences.  It has meant other forms of involvement as well.

A few years ago, I brokered a meeting between concerned parents and administrators in the Shawnee Mission School District.  The meeting was held in the Saeger House dining room.  The parents were concerned that the school district was using an abstinence only sex-ed curriculum that contained factual errors, intentional omissions, and thinly veiled conservative religious ideology.  The meeting began reasonably with the parents presenting the various problems with the program and asking for the school district to work with them in changing the curriculum.  The administrators hesitated, explaining that they don’t make changes unless they’ve heard from a large group of parents.  I pushed back.  “Tell me, exactly how many parents do you need to hear from before you’ll make changes?  I’d like to know because I spoke with a couple of reporters today and they said they might have an interest in running a story.  I imagine you would hear from more than a few parents.”  The meeting ended with the administrators promising to work with the parents to address concerns with the curriculum.

Or, consider last July.  Last July I spoke at a meeting of the Johnson County Commissioners.  The Johnson County Health Department was asking the county commissioners for permission to accept a grant for more than a half million dollars to do youth sexual health education at no cost to the county.  Anti-abortion activists were trying to get the county commission to turn down the grant.  Fearing the entire grant would be turned down, the health department split the grant.  By a narrow margin the county commissioners accepted funding for a program aimed at middle school students but turned down tens of thousands of dollars for a program targeted at high risk teens, especially teens incarcerated at the juvenile detention center because that program would have included information about contraception.  (That same morning the Johnson County Commission also prohibited the health department from applying for a $300,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control to do capacity building for public health programs for poor populations.  Who needs public health?  Who needs new jobs?  [You can watch me testify at the meeting of the County Commissioners here at minute 53:40.]

I’ve got many more stories like this one.  But, I want to say that while it is work like this that was recognized in Topeka, the award should be thought of as ours.  Yours and mine together.  Whenever I go to testify or speak or pray I’m either the only minister there, or the only minister who isn’t retired.  I can count on my congregation being rightfully proud of my public ministry.  Outside of Unitarian Universalism, too few progressive religious leaders can count on the support of their people when taking on issues of sexual health and reproductive justice.  They are often too afraid to broach this subject with their congregations.  You expect me to preach my conscience, to speak the truth as I know it and not the truth filtered by the calculations of church politics.

If you’ve been paying attention to politics recently at the national level or the state level, you may find yourself shocked and surprised to learn that in 2012 we are having a debate about contraception.  Where did this come from?  What is it all about?  In 1965 the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that the use of contraception is a private medical decision that government cannot deny.  How can we be revisiting this in 2012?  Isn’t this a settled issue?

Sadly, it is not.  And, people who have been paying attention to the political winds have been able to predict for as much as a decade that this issue was going to reappear.  For years now one of my favorite syndicated columnists, a gay man, has had a recurring feature called “Straight Rights Watch.”  The purpose of this feature is to “wake heteros up to the reality that rightwing conservatives […] don’t just want to regulate the private lives of queers… but that they also wish to regulate the private lives of straight people too.”

A few years ago I got to go to dinner with New York Times best-selling author Michelle Goldberg.  She was here on a speaking tour and I lucked into taking her out to dinner.  Over dinner she told me about research she was doing about global women’s health, research that would eventually become her book The Means of Reproduction: Sex Power and the Future of the World.  Her global perspective helps us to better understand what is happening in Topeka or Olathe.
All over the planet, conflicts between tradition and modernity are being fought on the terrain of women’s bodies.  Globalization is challenging traditional social arrangements [and] upsetting economic stability… All this spurs conservative backlashes, as right-wingers promise anxious, disoriented people that the chaos can be contained if only the old sexual order is enforced.  Yet the subjugation of women is just making things worse, creating all manner of demographic, economic, and public health problems.
 Consider the country of Uganda, a country we might do well to consider because the need for the school that we support there was created in large part by our own mixing of conservative religious ideology with international public health policy.  Through the 1990s, Uganda was a leading example of African HIV/AIDS prevention.  Then, under the Bush administration, writes Jeff Sharlet, American politicians like “[Sam] Brownback and Representative Joe Pitts used their [influence] to insert chastity into foreign affairs.” [Sharlet, The Family, p. 327-328]

Under President George W. Bush, Michelle Goldberg writes,
A full two thirds of American aid for the prevention of the sexual spread of HIV went to abstinence and faithfulness programs, often run by religious groups.  American money influenced Uganda to abandon its successful, home-grown approach to curbing HIV in favor of one that fit the preconceptions of the religious right, with deadly results. 
Billboards advertising condoms, for years a common sight throughout the country, were taken down in December 2004…  Radio ads [for condoms] were to be replaced with messages from the cardinal of Uganda and the Anglican archbishop about the importance of abstinence and faithfulness within marriage.
Sharlet adds,
Uganda has been the most tragic victim of this projection of American sexual anxieties…  [The] evangelical revival in Uganda, and a stigmatization of condoms and those who use them [was] so severe that some college campuses held condom bonfires… [and] the Ugandan AIDS rate, once dropping, nearly doubled.
Who are the students at the New Life School in Uganda that we sponsor?  Many of them are the victims of the fundamentalist public health policy our country exported to Africa.  These policies are not just something that we export.  They are policies that are now being proposed domestically. 

Both Missouri and Kansas have so many appalling pieces of legislation in the works right now that it is difficult to keep track of them.  Both legislatures are working on bills that would allow health care professionals to refuse to dispense contraceptives if they have a religious objection to contraception.  This is bad enough in Johnson or Jackson County.  But, it is even worse in rural Kansas where an entire county might have only one doctor or a cluster of counties might share a single pharmacy.

Both the Kansas and Missouri legislatures are working on bills that would allow companies to remove contraceptive coverage from company health plans if the employer is morally opposed to contraception.  I will say more about this later.

This year Kansas is on the verge of passing another enormous piece of legislation that would further restrict access to abortion.  That bill would allow doctors to lie to patients if the lies are intended to prevent the woman from having an abortion.  The bill would also require doctors to make statements to women about the dangers of abortion that are medically and scientifically false.  It requires doctors to lie.  Kansas law forbids private insurers from covering abortion services; women must purchase a separate insurance rider for abortion services.  But the new law would not allow you to deduct the cost of medicalservices related to abortion on your taxes.  This would mean that the state could conceivably pry into women’s private medical records to determine if they’ve properly reported their abortion on their taxes.  All of this is the very definition of unconscionable.  It is sick and disgusting.

Earlier this week, right here in this room, I hosted a breakfast meeting for rabbis and ministers committed to reproductive justice.  At the breakfast we considered a couple of case studies, real life stories, and how those stories would be impacted by Kansas laws.  One true story was told about a family member of one of the attendees.  Her sister and her sister’s husband were expecting a baby.  They were overjoyed.  The whole extended family was overjoyed.  And then the first ultrasound came back irregular.  Genetic testing showed that the fetus had monosomy Turner Syndrome.  Over the next several weeks, additional ultrasounds revealed that the fetal heart rate was slowing down and other complications from Turner Syndrome were taking their toll on the fetus.  Death in utero was a certainty, but whether death would come in days, weeks, or months no one could say.  The woman and her husband decided, after consultation with her doctor and searching their own hearts, to induce labor at twenty weeks thereby terminating the pregnancy.

Not one of us here can tell this woman that she did the wrong thing.  Not one of us here can hold the complexity and the sadness and the pain of this story and tell her that she should have done anything other than what she did.

But, here is how current Kansas law and the laws the legislature is currently working to pass would treat her decision.  Labor induced at twenty weeks would be considered an abortion.  Before she would be allowed to induce she would be forced to have another ultrasound at her own expense, observe a mandatory 24-hour waiting period, and receive state-mandated “counseling.”  A doctor would be forced to lie to her and tell her that her procedure would increase her risk of breast cancer, despite science having proved that it does not.  A doctor would be forced to lie to her and tell her that her procedure would increase her risk of not being able to conceive in the future, despite science having proved that it does not.  If she did not have a rider for abortion on her medical insurance, she would have to pay for this procedure out of pocket, at a cost of $17,000.  And, she might be liable to pay special taxes to the state for these medical procedures.

We can all agree that the state piling restriction upon restriction, condescension upon condescension, insult upon insult upon this woman is gravely immoral and inhumane.

But we know that those who write these laws and vote for this legislation don’t have this woman in mind, this family in mind.  We know that, insofar as any of us can imagine ourselves in a similar circumstance or compelled to make a similar decision, they do not have any of us in mind either.  No, what they have in mind is a stereotype of women that is grossly disfigured and caricatured.

The woman I see:  a hopeful mother faced with heartbreak; a planned pregnancy gone horribly wrong.  The woman they imagine when they propose these laws:  a stereotype; a projection of their own sexual anxieties and fears and issues.

The woman I see:  a bright young lawyer in the making; a student leader at a great law school testifying before congress.  The woman they see:  a slut, to use the term conjured up by Rush Limbaugh’s febrile imagination.

Should employers have the right to deny contraception coverage to women because they have a moral opposition to contraception?  Notice that this is the issue.  An employer may have a moral opposition to alcohol, but no employer is trying to deny coverage for liver transplants.  An employer may have a moral opposition to smoking, but no employer is trying to deny coverage for lung cancer.  An employer may have a moral opposition to red meat, but not a single employer is trying to deny coverage for colon cancer.  Why is this?  It is because those conditions which affect men are seen as a part of health care, but contraception is viewed by the religious right not as health care, but as some threatening voodoo magic that women will do if they are able to control their own bodies.  Jeff Sharlet wrote that, “Uganda… has been the most tragic victim of [the] projection of American sexual anxieties.”  Actually, it is women who have been the most tragic victims of the projection of American sexual anxieties.  Employment law restrains all manner of prejudices and phobias having to do with race, nationality, and ability.  I don’t see why such equality under the law shouldn’t apply here as well.

What we need on this Sunday before Easter is a new understanding of the doctrine of incarnation.  A theology of incarnation involves God taking on a human form.  It tells us that the source of all being is inextricably linked to our physical bodies.  The opposite of such a theology imagines the divine as distant, imagines our bodies as full of some sinfulness that we need to restrain or overcome.  Unitarian Universalist Christian minister Rev. Victoria Weinstein puts it this way,
I believe that the current war on women is a disgrace to God and a dreadful violation of God's law of love... The body knows great pain, and it can know great pleasure.  The giving and receiving of physical pleasure is a spiritual act and experience.  Neither the Church nor the government should be in the business of legislating intimacy or its outcomes, which are a private matter of the body, whose inherent dignity Jesus constantly respected.
The theology of the body, of women’s bodies, of sexuality, of physicality that is put forward by the religious right is hurtful and harmful and ill.  It views sexuality as something to be, to paraphrase a quote on Weinstein’s blog, “degraded, shamed, repressed, sentimentalized, legislated, and played for porny horny giggles.”  It has all the maturity and wisdom of a middle school boys’ locker room, only our middle school boys have taken the Our Whole Lives program and have a more informed, accurate, and nuanced understanding of the subject.

For change to be made, it will take more than me going to testify in Topeka and speak at rallies.  It will take more than writing checks to Planned Parenthood, though those checks are so very important.  It will take a conscious effort to speak out.  We are one of the very few churches in the entire state of Kansas that has its head on straight.  We should be putting the issue before people.  We should have a sign out front, a big bold banner that reads, “We believe in access to contraception.”  We should offer the OWL class to the whole community.  And every time someone puts forward stereotypes and slander about sexuality and the body, we need to share a true story about the reality of women’s lives and the awful consequences of rightwing legislation.

After I went to dinner with Michelle Goldberg, she autographed her book for me.  She wrote, “Thank you for being a beacon of real spirituality in the heart of so much madness.”  It is an affirmation of who we are as a church.  It is a challenge for us to live up to.

O holy source of our being and becoming, known throughout history but still unknowable, called by many names but still unnamable, we see you in the spirit of spring.

We see you in sunlight and tulip, in rosebud and robin.  We see you especially in this living, budding, sprouting, birthing spring.  We see you incarnate in creation, and incarnate in our living bodies.  Holiness is present in flesh and sinew, in blood and bone.

Help us to treasure our creatureliness, the holy wrapped within a layer of skin.  Help us to cast aside all fear of our bodies, all anger, all jealousy, all contempt.  Help us with each breath to give thanks, to be less at war with our being.

May we treat no other body, no other being, with disgust or anger, jealousy or contempt.   May we treat no person of any race, no person of any gender, no person of any sexual orientation, no person of any age, no person of any disability or illness with anger or contempt.  For our lives are sacred – complex, and challenging, and confusing, and difficult, and mysterious (yes, all of these, yes) – but also, and certainly, holy.


A Larger Imagination for Public Education (Memories of Wayland)

I'm interested in your reaction to these thoughts on Kansas school funding.  Please email me at minister[at]smuuch[dot]org and let me know your reaction.  Do I have it right?  Am I misguided?  Thanks for sharing your opinions and thoughts with me.

Ten days ago I attended a forum on public education and school financing hosted by the MainStream Coalition.  More than sixty of us met in the basement of a UCC church and heard from a school superintendent, a Kansas legislator with a pro-education track record, and the lobbyist of the Kansas NEA.  I was just about the youngest person in the room and, unfortunately, there were only a few families with young children represented.

At the forum we learned about more proposed cuts to education coming out of Topeka as well as several awful pieces of legislation that are being considered this session.  I am convinced that the administration in Topeka doesn’t believe that public education should be appropriately funded.  They cut programs so they can turn around and cut taxes on the wealthy.  They propose legislation that would funnel money away from public education and towards private (religious) education.  When they can’t point out shortcomings in public education (shortcomings caused or magnified by a lack of funding) they manufacture data to show that Kansas schools are failing.  They are interested in creating an atmosphere in which public support for education is so low that scuttling the system is not met with resistance.  They are interested in the wealthier districts taking an “every man for himself” approach that is shortsighted and self-destructive.

Over the past couple of years I’ve attended several public forums on public education and school funding.  I leave each of these meetings troubled by the state of politics in the State of Kansas. But, I also leave these meetings mourning what I see as a failure on all sides to imagine what a truly great public education looks like.


I grew up attending public schools in Wayland, Massachusetts, one of the best public school systems in the entire country.  Many of my teachers in high school, middle school, and even elementary school had doctorates.  (My second grade teacher had a doctorate!)  My high school English teacher had a Ph.D. in English literature and an undergraduate degree from Stanford.  My high school biology teacher had a Ph.D. in biology.  My high school American History teacher was a published historian.  One of my friends from college, a brilliant woman, went on to earn an advanced degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is now a teacher at Wayland Middle School.

There were 132 students in my graduating class and 130 of them went to four-year colleges or universities.  And, the list of academic institutions that Wayland High School graduates went to was nothing short of amazing.  Whether true or not, it was widely rumored that Harvard capped the number of students it would accept from Wayland High at four per year.  (If true, this meant that it was easier to get into Harvard than to finish at the top of the class at Wayland High.)  Besides sending four students to Harvard, Wayland High graduates from the class of 1995 also went to Yale, Brown, Dartmouth (4), MIT (2), Stanford (2), Amherst, Swarthmore, Johns Hopkins, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Duke, Vanderbilt, and Georgetown.  That is just the beginning of a list!  As high school students we were even required to attend a set number of individualized college counseling sessions with one of the school’s guidance counselors.

I was one of two students in my graduating class to go to Reed College, a small liberal arts college with a first class reputation in Portland, Oregon.  Even though I was at college 3,000 miles from home, I was around another high-achieving Wayland High student.  One of my high school classmates also majored in religion at Reed.  He was a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship.  Another of my high school classmates is now a speech writer for President Barack Obama.

I don’t mean to imply that gaining admission to elite universities is a prerequisite for a successful education or a successful life.  However, the K-12 public education received by students in Wayland is a launching pad for a life with tremendous opportunities. 

I could go on bragging about such a public education.  Maybe you are reading this and asking how such public education is possible.  The answer is that the residents of the town paid for it.  There is no denying that this education was possible because of the tremendous affluence of the town of Wayland.  However, the town also made a conscious decision to leverage that tax base and invest in education.  The town attracts the best teachers by paying for the best teachers.

In 2009-2010 the average teacher salary in Wayland was $83,872.  That was good for seventh in the state.  Although it is impossible to know how much the salaries of individual teachers increased, we do know that from 2004-2005 until 2009-2010 the average teacher salary in Wayland increased an average of 4.7% per year.)  This article from 2008 details the high end of teacher salaries in Wayland.  The current contract between the Wayland Teacher Association and the town of Wayland includes a provision (section XXII) for annual salary increases for all teachers.


Members of my community send their children to some of the best public schools in the State of Kansas, even in the whole Midwest.  The Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley, and Olathe school districts are well-regarded.  Shawnee Mission leads the state in teacher salaries with Blue Valley second.

I am well aware that measuring school performance is a challenge.  Among the factors that makes it so challenging is that different communities are vastly different in terms of socio-economic standing.  What do standardized tests prove when opportunity is not standardized?  However, I would be willing to bet that there is a high correlation between teacher compensation and student performance. 

Towns like Wayland are far from perfect.  But, there is no denying the basic argument that it is a town that invests in education, though sometimes it gets it wrong.  In thinking about the recent debates about funding for public education in Topeka and in Kansas, the debate so often seems myopic, small-minded, and lacking in imagination.  The conversation would change entirely if the public schools of my childhood were imagined, if public education was widely regarded as a sound investment, and if taxes were increased with the goal of funding excellence.