“Why the Faithful Need Feminism” #FaithFeminisms

This summer my family vacationed in the New England area, and we spent a few days in Salem. I’ve always wanted to go there as I’m interested in crazy historical cases (yeah, I write books about Jack the Ripper). Also, my husband, Shawn, has ancestors who lived in Salem Village at the time of the witch trials.

Visiting the Salem Witch Museum with our eight-year-old son, Atticus, and six-year-old daughter, Amelia, we discovered that a large part of the tour involved standing in a huge round room surrounded by mannequin stage displays of the historic figures—one of a looming winged, horned Lucifer hovering ominously above our heads. A voice narrated the chronology of events in each of the stage display cases. The presentation was both cheesy (lots of thunderstorm sound effects, a glowing pentacle on the floor) and informative, but my kids loved it. As we left the room to see the rest of the museum, Atticus, slurping Sprite loudly through his straw, looked up at Shawn and exclaimed about the Puritans: “Wow! They would have killed Mama and Amelia.” Shawn replied, “Well…they would have killed your Mama for sure.”

I chuckled because it’s true. I’m pretty certain I would have been hung as a “witch.” Shawn knows that when he gives me advice there’s a 90% chance that I’ll weigh it, obsess a bit, and then do what I want. I drink bourbon on the rocks, and I’ve been known to speak up in religious settings when I hear thorny teachings about wives submitting to their husbands or how birth control contributes to immorality. 

Although men were also hung during the Salem Witch Trials, the overwhelming majority of “witches” killed in New England and in Europe during the Middle Ages and subsequent years were women. Specifically, women who were different—widows, midwives, the mentally ill, women who just couldn’t keep their mouths shut. In fact, the first of the accused to be executed was Bridget Bishop—a mother known for her outspoken views and her proclivities for *gasp* playing shuffleboard and sassing her husband. Bottom line: there were certain “right” and “wrong” ways to act, behave, and dress in these early religious communities. If you pissed off the wrong person or seemed like a misfit in the community, particularly if you were a woman—well, you’d better watch your back. 

Human rights have advanced since the seventeenth-century, so fortunately (at least in the United States) it’s illegal to burn women as witches. But within earlier religious patriarchal communities, there was very little legal protection for women and, as in the Salem trials, your very life could depend on “spectral evidence”—like someone says they saw you riding around on a broomstick just before their dog bit the dust. I’m a Christian (specifically, liberal Episcopalian), but I was raised as a conservative evangelical. My background has made me fascinated by both religious extremism and the continuing push by many (but by no means all) evangelical and fundamentalist leaders to keep women in their “proper” roles.

I’ve learned, through my experiences in conservative religious settings that those prescribing “biblical” (aka Victorian) gender roles have a greater sense of fear than others. Christianity has always been split by the fearless, the ones willing to break away from nonsensical or immoral traditions to advance justice and human rights and the fearful—those claiming that certain rigid rules or traditions are very backbone of faith. One of my priests recently said that the root of most sin lies in fear. Along these lines, an essential Gospel message, I believe, is fearlessness—where Jesus heedlessly broke apart traditional rules; specifically, he included women, even mentally ill women, adulteresses, Samaritan women, where others would exclude or execute them based on fear of breaking from tradition.

One reason I’m a Christian feminist is because I believe religious communities should live beyond fear. Fear is powerful and dangerous. While walking around in the cool air-conditioned Salem Witch Museum, I kept staring at the horned Lucifer figure dangling from the ceiling—a symbolic representation of fear. Elaine Pagels in her book, The Origin of Satan, claims that the Satan figure isn’t a looming outsider, but rather someone close, even a friend or neighbor, someone within the community who becomes a threat to it.  Anyone who doesn’t conform to “biblical” gender roles, to specific religious beliefs, anyone who is set apart by race or by sexual preference transforms from fellow human being to monster. Lines are drawn in the sand. Within such communities, fear gives birth to discrimination, to abuse, and sometimes to violence. Regarding gender roles, I believe that feminism, because it asserts that women are equal to men, is an essential moral component to faith communities because it rights gender discriminations; feminism must be a part of any church as it bucks against fearful men who manipulate religion and play the God card to their own benefit—those craving “submission” of their wives, demanding purity of their daughters, who would want women uneducated or uninformed. Such a system not only discriminates, but also opens the door to the sexual abuse that has been plaguing so many patriarchal denominations. 

The Salem Witch Trials are just one of many, many historical examples—a mere tip of the iceberg—showing that we need feminism not just in society, but in faith communities as well. Fear and discrimination break apart communities that should instead demonstrate Jesus’s radical inclusion.


My Easter Reflections on an Off-Kilter World

As always on Easter, this past Sunday our family arrived early to church. Unsteady on my super-duper high-heels, I ushered my two grumpy sleep-deprived children (diving into Easter baskets at 5:30 AM is so darn fun!) into a pew near the front of the church. Because we were so early, my husband and I let them bring books to read before the service.

Sitting between my eight-year-old son, Atticus, and six-year-old daughter, Amelia, so they wouldn’t fight, my husband, Shawn, and I talked quietly to people around us and admired the beautiful flower arrangements around the altar and balconies of our Episcopal cathedral. The drizzling cool morning was supposed to give way to a brighter warmer afternoon. I had a spiral cut ham seasoned and ready to pop in the oven when we got home. I had a coconut cake ready to slice. And miraculously, I had cleaned my house. (Well…at least the living and dining rooms.)

By the time the organ music started and we stood to sing the first hymn, Amelia was already whining that she was hungry. I looked down to see Atticus hunched over, fast asleep over his Where’s Waldo book in the pew beside me. He was particularly cute in his brown tweed jacket, red bow tie, and his untamable blonde curly hair. Chuckling, Shawn and I just let him sleep. Then, just as the choir processional began down the Cathedral aisle, Atticus, slumped further into the pew, I turned to pull him back up but he went rigid and fell hard onto the wooden floor—hitting his head on the pew wall and drooling excessively, he began convulsing in a grand mal seizure.

“He’s having a seizure,” I hissed as Shawn and I struggled to get him off the floor in the narrow pew aisle. Quickly, Shawn whisked him outside through a side door. Telling Amelia to stay where she was, I slipped outside the church to make certain that the seizure had stopped. I found Shawn outside holding him—Atticus was still, his pupils dilated. We’d been through this before and we knew what would happen. Soon he would fall asleep, so Shawn took him to the church library, where he waited with Atticus as he slept through the rest of the service.

Returning to my seat, I wiped Atticus's drool off my open hymnal and whispered to the concerned and kind parishioners around us that our son has epilepsy and he is alright. But I was distracted—throughout the hymns, throughout the Eucharist, throughout getting sprinkled with Holy Water, I kept seeing Atticus falling hard into the pew aisle.

At this point, we’re used to dealing with these seizures. He has a childhood form of epilepsy where sometimes he has seizures when he falls asleep. Usually he’s in bed when he has one. This was the first time he had one during a nap and in public.

For me, the Easter service suddenly became difficult. My mind was on Atticus and how managing this epilepsy has become part of our lives. I thought of how we’ve been told that Atticus will likely outgrow these seizures, but they’ll likely peak when he’s eight and nine years old. So we’re at the beginning of about a two year span where they’ll be more frequent.

I think the season of Lent has helped me to accept things that I don’t want to accept—like Atticus’s epilepsy. Since leaving evangelicalism and becoming Episcopalian, practicing Lent before Easter forces me to face truths that I don’t want to about suffering. A Buddhist friend of mine said once that the only thing we can know for certain about everyone around us, strangers or friends, is that they suffer. It’s universal. Inescapable. We cannot live unscathed.

A few years ago, I posted a wonderful NPR interview with Anne Lamott about Easter on my Facebook wall. She describes Easter and the season of Lent. She talks about how we’re living in a Good Friday world and Lent is that time where we face this reality and instead of soothing ourselves with divergences such as IKEA runs, we use it as a time for reflection and spiritual growth. I posted the interview on my Facebook wall, hoping to inspire and comfort friends, but within a few minutes, some evangelical friends and family members started criticizing the post, claiming that she never mentioned the “resurrection”—that she never affirmed the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Too weary for a Facebook fight, I sighed, pushed myself away from my laptop, thinking that’s what you get from the interview? Really?

Growing up evangelical, we didn’t celebrate Lent. Easter was the day when my siblings and I got baskets loaded with candy. It was the one day of the year when we wore hats to church and at the service there was a bit more extra fanfare—a few more songs, lots of lilies around the altar. My sisters and I, high on chocolate bunnies, squabbled and pinched each other in the pew. Our preacher described the resurrection and, depending on what denomination of church we were in at the time, sometimes there was an altar call. Not always, but often the sermon was defensive, in the same way that our Christmas sermons sought to prove that the virgin birth was authentic—a real deal event—on Easters, I heard countless arguments about why Jesus was really, literally resurrected. Maybe this is comforting to some and I respect that. But by the time I was fifteen, I wearied of such sermons. In my own spiritual experience, these sermons never motivated me.

I recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday. Truth be told, I often struggle to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, an afterlife, or that people will one day be resurrected Lazarus-like in the Gospel stories. It isn’t that I don’t believe these things, but like I said, it’s a bit of a fight for this natural-born skeptic. Truth be told, I’ve become OK with my doubt. I’ve begun to feel less guilty about it. For me, this uncertainty, this not knowing, has become an essential part of my faith. In my view, it’s the most marvelous truths about the world that would defy our comprehensive understanding.

What I do know, what I do see clearly with my own eyes, is that something is fundamentally off-kilter with the world around me. It’s why we miscarry babies, why so many of the mentally ill are homeless. It’s why we have drones, famines, drunk drivers, school shootings, and yes—why little boys get epilepsy. Lent forces me to reflect upon these afflictions. I can never ever make sense of them, but I can step back and face them—acknowledge this world often does indeed seem more Good Friday than Easter.

After the Easter service, shaken, and honestly—feeling sorry for myself as a parent that I have to deal with this—I found Shawn and Atticus in the church courtyard. Atticus, his bowtie crooked, sat on a stone bench, slumped and pale as he tried to eat an iced cinnamon roll. The sun had broken through the clouds and several of our friends stood nearby comforting us and sharing some stories of friends or relatives who also had epilepsy—many of them worse forms than the type we’re dealing with.

In that courtyard and throughout the afternoon, I kept reminding myself that after Lent comes Easter. Even though on Maundy Thursday, our Cathedral altar is stripped, the communion wafers and wine taken away, the crosses all covered in black material, there is always Easter. And in spite of my doubts, my skepticism, my sarcasm, and my general limitations as a human being, I do believe that the Gospel story of sacrifice and resurrection is true in a much greater sense than a literal one. The Gospel story of Jesus is the story of how we’ve been offered undeserved grace in spite of ourselves and our world. Because of this, I choose to embrace hope amid the shitty cards dealt to us by our genes or the world. It’s not a rose-colored glasses view, but a fundamental belief that compassion, honesty, and our sloppy attempts to be unselfish have genuine and radical implications in an off-kilter world.

R2-D2 Wants to Take Communion—So Why Can’t I?: Some Thoughts on Gluten-Free Religious Living

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One of the “perks” of easing into my thirties was developing a terrible gluten sensitivity. Like supersensitive. Like if you hate me, just sprinkle some breadcrumbs into my coffee, and I’ll be sick for a couple of days.

Unfortunately, my devotion to a gluten free diet has caused some other devotional drama. (And no, I didn’t cheat on my husband with a bread baker. Though Peeta would be pretty tempting.) This drama involves not eating the wafer during Eucharist at my Episcopal church. The last time I tried taking a bit of bread at Communion was during Lent two years ago, and I was felt awful. I somehow thought that “blessed” wheat—unlike other wheat—wouldn’t poison me.

I felt strange just outright refusing the wafer at the altar rail so my husband, Shawn, and I decided that after taking the wafer in my hand, I would sip the wine from the celebrant’s cup and then slip Shawn my wafer. So now Shawn takes not only his wafer, but my own. (One of my priests describes our solution as very “one-flesh.”)

At first I obsessed about this. By only taking one-half of the communion offerings would I then only benefit from one-half of this Christian ritual? Would one-half of myself become a little bit more corrupt each day so that (and yes, I’m an British lit professor) in one-half of my days, I would be like Thomas Hardy’s Alec d’Urberville—harboring bad thoughts about seducing dairy maids—and for the other one-half of my days, I’d be morally strong like Jane Eyre. (And yes, I know that there is an avalanche of poor theology in this line of thinking, but I’m a neurotic—not a priest.)

The thoughts about seducing dairy maids stayed at bay. (Mostly.) But I started worrying about the behavior of my children at the communion rail. Was my unorthodoxy spilling out upon them? First case: Easter service, I kneel at the communion rail next to my seven-year-old at the front of the Cathedral. Amid the swelling organ music, he looks up at me, grinning as he holds two of his Star Wars Lego men on the rail. “R2-D2 wants to take communion,” he whispers. “Put those away!” I yelp, keeping my hands folded piously. The next week, he comes out of his bedroom dressed as Darth Vader, insisting that he was going to take communion as the evil character. After a long argument, Shawn and I told him that our priests don’t give communion to Darth Vader. (Although a friend made a good point that if anyone needs Jesus, it’s Darth Vader.)

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Soon my adorable strong-willed daughter got some ideas. One week, she decided that she didn’t “like the taste of the wafer” so she started sticking her nose up at it and refusing to put it in her mouth. Our male priests thought her behavior endearing, patting her head and smiling as Shawn took her wafer from her and ate it himself, before she tossed in on the floor. (For those of you good at math, he was now averaging three wafers per week.) No matter what we did, her behavior continued until one of our female priests, who doesn’t put up with such nonsense, stopped the communion line and leaned across the rail with authority: “Sweetie, you put that in your mouth.” My daughter ignored her. “Put that in your mouth!” the priest insisted. Trembling as I hid my own wafer in my palm, I prodded my five-year-old. “Eat the wafer!” I whispered as she looked from me to the priest glaring. She held her ground and a holy crisis averted as Shawn picked her up and whisked her away from the rail eating her wafer himself. Yet again.

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I obsessed about this bad behavior, wondering if my gluten-free communion practice was a corrupting influence. A bit of research showed me that when it comes to communion, some think that the devil is in the details. (Heh. Heh.) Apparently, Catholic communion only “counts” if the wafer has wheat in it. Ugh. The line of thinking being that since Jesus ate gluten-infused bread, our wafers must, by all that is holy, contain gluten also. My acupuncturist, a Catholic, smugly tells me that for him it’s not actually an issue because of transubstantiation—the wafer becomes the literal body of Christ so it’s always gluten free after the blessing. Double ugh. So this is a lingering curse of the Reformation. Thank you Martin Luther.

And then my line of thinking plummeted and I started asking my husband questions like: “Perhaps I should become Catholic. I mean if I didn’t love my contraceptives so much I could be Catholic, right?” “Am I a corrupting influence on our children?” “Why can’t my digestion take one tiny bit of gluten?” “Is gluten intolerance a result of original sin?” “Do you think my thoughts have been less pure since I’ve stopped taking the wafer?” “I’m not fit to be a mother.”  (Usually this is the point where he rolls his eyes and tells me to get a drink.)

Because yoga is healthier than drinking, I try it first. (Although when I come home, still aching from my lizard pose, I’m not opposed to pouring a glass of wine.)

In my yoga class, when I’m twisted like a pretzel and (let’s be honest) cursing quietly under my breath because I can’t stop shaking and bobbling, my instructor reminds us that yoga is not about being perfect, but it is a lovely mix of striving and self-acceptance. During my more enlightening yoga practices, I have thought about how I demand perfection from every area of my life whether it’s my digestion or my faith—and because of this, I miss out on the whole point of grace—that possibility of embracing undeserved clemency for myself, my stomach, and my semi-feral children.

Lent starts today on Ash Wednesday. I’ll confess, that recently when I started ticking off to Shawn all of the things I could give up: chocolate, alcohol, Facebook, The Vampire Diaries—he quipped, “Hey, I have a better idea: why don’t you stop trying to be perfect and give up anxiety?” At first I froze, chuckled. “You know me—I can’t possibly do that...oh wait…”

So here it goes: this Lent I’m officially going to (try) to take on my husband’s challenge. Wish me luck, pray for me, chant, or just laugh your ass off, because I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of bobbling.

Just for Fun:

The Reeves Family’s Annual Gluten-Free Shrove Tuesday Pancake Dinner


My favorite recipe is for these gluten-free vegan pancakes. I love these because they’re easy to make, hearty, and slightly sweetened with honey and apple sauce so you don’t need much syrup. I make them according to the recipe except I use almond milk for the milk and I substitute almond flavoring for vanilla.

My Bakers (and Batter Tasters!)


The batter:

Time to Eat!