Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Politics and the Church of Christ

Since the most recent presidential election, I've read a lot of pundits who are mystified as to why evangelicals broke so hard for Trump, given that the thrice-married adulterer and admitted sexual assaulter doesn't live up to their much-vaunted family values. I wasn't a bit surprised because, in my experience, people in these conservative churches tend to be deeply sexist and authoritarian, and they will ALWAYS vote for a man, especially one who tries to bully and intimidate his opponents.

There is no doubt that the culture of the Church of Christ is sexist. They openly teach (and quote scripture trying to prove) that men are in charge and women are to be subservient to them. I've heard COC preachers say that, if a woman ever becomes president, they're moving to Canada because they believe it is sinful for a woman to have any sort of authority over a man, let alone millions of men. Satan himself could have run for president against Hillary Clinton, and COC voters would have voted for him because he's not a woman (I assume).

Here's another example: I was a child in the 1970s when the Equal Rights Amendment came close to being passed. Despite the fact that, in order to maintain their tax-free status, churches aren't supposed to get involved in politics, I heard more than one preacher tell us from the pulpit that it was our Christian duty to pray against passage of the ERA because it was the work of the devil. They tried to scare us by telling us that the amendment would mean that all our bathrooms would be unisex, leading to women and girls being raped in restrooms (much like the scare-mongering today over which bathroom transgender people are allowed to use), and that women would be forced to sign up for the military draft like men. There were also dire warnings that this would mean that women would be forced to get jobs, rather than staying at home with their kids as God ordained. They fought tooth and nail against any legislation that would put men and women on equal footing in this country because they believe that women are inferior to men.

The authoritarian streak in the COC goes hand-in-hand with its sexism. The only authority figures they ever see in church or at home are men. They are indoctrinated from birth to believe that there is a big, powerful daddy figure in the sky who will give them whatever they want and smite their enemies, so when a fraud like Trump comes along promising to magically make their lives better, they are primed to believe that and follow him. They are also taught that obedience is the highest virtue a Christian can attain. If a male authority figure tells you to do something, then unquestioning obedience is the only proper response. But what if that figure tells you to do something wrong? Well, God wouldn't have put that man in charge if he didn't know what's best for us. Even if that man is flawed, he is an instrument of God. So who are we to question him and, by extension, God?

To be fair, I did know some people in the COC who were more contrarian and didn't fall in lockstep with the rest of them with regard to politics, but they were rare. And most of them ended up leaving the church, either voluntarily or by being disfellowshipped, because they asked too many questions. The COC is neither welcoming nor forgiving of those who question authority and don't submit to the hive mind.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Bach's St. Matthew Passion: Lent Study Group

Every year my church organizes some small study groups that meet once a week during Lent. This year I signed up for a group led by my choir director that is doing an in-depth study of Bach's magnificent St. Matthew Passion. I wasn't familiar with this work at all (I did attend a performance of its twin, Bach's St. John Passion, last year), so I was really intrigued to see what we would learn.

So far, we've talked about the history of the work, both in Bach's lifetime and after his death. I was surprised to learn that I already knew the tunes to several of the chorale sections in the work. It turns out that Bach took some older Lutheran hymns and reharmonized them for the passion. The work is extremely dramatic and theatrical and straddles the line between opera (which was forbidden in Protestant Germany) and church hymns.

I'm really enjoying the study group so far. The work is 3 hours long, so just listening to it is a big time commitment, but it's also a joy because the music is sublime. If you get a chance, I highly recommend listening to it and following along with this translation of the text. I think you'll be just as moved by it as I am.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Episcopal Women's Retreat

A couple of weekends ago I went with 25 other women from my church to a retreat at a Loyola University center in the northwest suburbs. The campus was beautiful, peaceful, and quiet. If nothing else, I figured it would be a nice getaway from the bustle of the city.

I had never done a church retreat before. The Church of Christ doesn't do retreats, per se. I do remember a women's day at our congregation once where no men were allowed and all the speakers were women. Of course, the only subjects discussed were how to be a better wife and mother because those are the only roles women are supposed to have in the COC. I knew the Episcopal retreat wouldn't be like that, but I still wasn't sure what to expect.

The topic was women's faith development through alienation, awakening, and relationships. Much of the material was taken from a book by Nicola Slee on women's faith development. We also read a lot of the prayers from her book about women's prayers.

I can't say that I had a spiritual breakthrough, but I did have sort of a personal epiphany. During one of the small group discussions, we talked about Slee's prayer for single women, and in the course of the discussion, I realized that I am proud of myself for being tough enough to forge a life on my own. It was never my intention to end up single, but I did turn down some opportunities to marry guys in the COC, and I don't regret it one bit. If I had married in that church, I would be stuck in it and completely miserable. I'm proud of myself for being wise enough to know that I couldn't marry someone I didn't love and respect just because other people were pushing me to do so. I'm still not happy with being single because I want to have someone to love, just like everyone else, but I do feel more at peace with the way things have worked out. Sometimes your only choices are bad ones and you have to work extra hard to make the best of circumstances you didn't choose for yourself.

In addition to my little epiphany, I really enjoyed getting to know some of the women in the congregation better. We have three different services each Sunday, so I don't know most of the people who go to the services other than the one I attend. Another thing I realized over the course of the weekend is that probably 2/3 of the women in this congregation are either refugees from fundamentalist/evangelical churches like I am or they're former Catholics. Only about 1/3 are cradle Episcopalians. I suppose it's because a more liberal church like that, where questioning is allowed and women are given positions of leadership, is a safe space for those of us who have suffered religious abuse. In any case, I really enjoyed the weekend and hope I can go back next year.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Once in a While, My COC Training Comes in Handy

As I've mentioned before, I now sing in an Episcopal church choir. This week our church organist is on vacation. Before he leaves, he always lines up a substitute organist or pianist to play with us and help direct our summer pick-up choir (we don't have midweek rehearsals in the summer, we just show up 45 minutes before the service and rehearse something really simple for the anthem). Today, the guest organist called in sick, and there was no one to play with us, so we were prepared to do all the songs acapella. At the last minute, a parishioner jumped up and played the piano for the songs she knew, so we didn't have to do all of them without an accompanist, but I'm still very glad that I'm comfortable singing without a musical instrument. Most of these lifelong Episcopalians aren't, and they visibly freak out when we sing acapella. Who would have ever guessed that the COC was good for something?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review--Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology by Leah Remini

I downloaded Leah Remini's tell-all book, Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology, onto my Kindle the day it was published. I made short work of it, reading it in just a couple of days. It's a fascinating inside look into an insular religion that is closely linked to Hollywood.

Remini actually grew up in the church. Her mother joined when Leah was just 8, and she and her sister were soon spending all their time after school at the church. She and her sister both eventually joined the Sea Organization, which is Scientology's version of the clergy. To join, they both had to sign billion-year contracts. The church believes in reincarnation, and they expect members to rejoin the Sea Org in every lifetime.

From the time she joined Sea Org and her mother moved the family to the church's compound in Clearwater, FL, Remini's formal schooling was done. She and her sister worked on the compound all day doing manual labor, and all night they had to study the precepts of Scientology. How this "church" doesn't get busted for violating federal child labor laws is beyond me. Anyway, Remini was a true believer, studying constantly and working at outside jobs when she was older (and after she had left the Sea Org) to earn money to pay for all the courses and training. Unlike most religious institutions, which offer classes and their holy texts to study for free (I mean seriously--every church will give you a Bible, every synagogue will give you a copy of the Torah, every mosque will give you a Qur'an, and the Mormons can't give away enough copies of the Book of Mormon for free), Scientology charges its members to be indoctrinated in the church. Remini estimates that she spent and donated over $3 million during her 30 years in the church.

Despite her zeal, she held back a little. She always maintained friends outside the church and never dated guys in the church. She says she was embarrassed by the way some Scientology guys would use their insider jargon when talking to outsiders because she thought it made them all look weird. She even hid her religion from her cast members and crew on her show King of Queens for 9 years because she was secretly embarrassed by it. I can totally relate to this. I always made sure to keep friends outside the COC, because I needed at least one venue in my life where I could be my authentic self. I did date a couple of guys in the COC, but I think I also knew deep down that I would never marry any of them. I wanted a marriage of equals, not one where I was expected to act like an obedient slave and not have any agency or opinions of my own.

The turning point for Remini came at the wedding of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. which her fellow Scientologists referred to as The Wedding of the Century. That's when she realized that the current leadership of the church, especially the Chairman of the Board David Miscaviage, isn't really about upholding the principles espoused by L. Ron Hubbard (which I got the impression she still believes in to some degree) and more about acquiring property and money and catering to Tom Cruise...for whatever reason. (My personal opinion is that Miscaviage is in love with Tom Cruise but that's purely speculation on my part; I have no proof.) Remini got written up by fellow Scientologists at the wedding for two things: asking where Shelly Miscaviage is (she's the wife of David Miscaviage and hasn't been seen in public for almost a decade now), and asking to be reseated at the wedding reception so that she and Jennifer Lopez could sit together. She admits that the latter request was perhaps a bit tacky, but JLo and her husband at the time, Marc Anthony, didn't know anyone else at the wedding and really wanted to sit with Remini and her husband. So Remini took a hit for a friend and paid dearly for it.

Once the wool had been pulled off her eyes regarding the true mission and intention of the church's leadership, Remini started questioning other aspects of it, including doctrine. She stuck it out for a while longer, enduring countless "auditing" sessions and paying for remedial classes to atone for the "sins" she committed at the wedding of the century, but eventually, she had enough and left the church for good in 2013. She did lose a few friends, but she was very lucky in that her family stuck by her and didn't "disconnect" (the Scientology's version of "shunning") from her. In fact, her whole family left with her because they were also disgusted by the direction the church was headed and the way it treated Remini.

As you might guess, I related to much of her story because of my own experiences in a controlling church that demands absolute obedience and has no room for healthy questioning. I think all such churches are destructive and toxic and the sooner they die out, the better. For more details on my thought about Scientology and the COC, see this previous blog post.

When I was done with the book, I found myself feeling very sorry for Remini. She gave up her entire childhood and much of her adult life to Scientology, forfeiting money, a meaningful education, and authentic relationships for the sake of maintaining her good standing in a fraudulent organization. But I also feel hopeful for her and her future, now that she's free to create the kind of life she really wants, and I applaud her courage for standing up to the bullies and speaking out against them..

Monday, September 28, 2015

We Didn't Sing Music Like This at the COC

The choir season at my church kicked off just a couple of weeks ago. We are rehearsing Maurice Durufle's requiem to sing at the All Saints service on November 1. Durufle was inspired by Gabriel Faure's requiem, which we sang last year, and it's equally beautiful and inspiring. If you have the time, I highly recommend that you listen to the Durufle requiem. There are some parts that send chills up my spine. The soprano part is challenging, but I'm very excited to sing it.

I certainly never felt this way about the songs we sang at the Church of Christ. Some of the songs were pretty and I enjoyed them, but most of them were not terribly interesting or inspiring. We used the Sacred Selections songbook (only denominations call them "hymnals") and I don't think there were any songs in there written after the 1960s. Most of them were frontier-era songs with simple harmonies and repetitive lyrics, written with shape notes, and intended for people who had no musical training or education. What really made things boring is that we sang the same 30 or so songs over and over and over, with very little deviation. I don't mean to be too critical because I know that it's hard to introduce new songs when almost no one in the congregation has musical training, but it was very tedious for me at the time.

It's funny--we do sing a few of the same songs at my current church, but sometimes with different lyrics. I strongly suspect that the editor of Sacred Selections changed the lyrics to reflect COC doctrine. For example, we never sang, "When we all get to Heaven...," we sang, "When the saved get to Heaven..." because not everyone in the congregation will be saved and to sing otherwise would be a lie. Isn't that tedious? Even in our songs, we were judging and condemning one another. Such overflowing Christian love!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Book Review: Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber

A friend of mine who is a Disciples of Christ minister recommended that I read "Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint" by Nadia Bolz-Weber because Bolz-Weber also grew up in the church of Christ. She is now a Lutheran pastor in Denver at a congregation she founded, the House for All Sinners and Saints.

Bolz-Weber was baptized at age 12 but left the church of Christ at age 17 and was a Wiccan for a while, a period she refers to as "hanging out with God's Aunt." She said it was helpful for getting past the toxic, patriarchal image of God that she had been taught in the CoC.

She was a stand-up comedian for a while and struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. Eventually, she got sober, met her husband, who was a Lutheran seminary student, and converted to the Lutheran church herself. About 4 years into her sobriety, a good friend killed himself. Some mutual friends asked Bolz-Weber to conduct the memorial service because she was the only religious one in the bunch, and that's when she felt the call to minister to her fellow outcasts. So then she went to Lutheran seminary and became a pastor and founded House for All Sinners and Saints.

Bolz-Weber's experiences growing up in the CoC were very similar to mine. Her comment, "I was a strong, smart and smart-mouthed girl, and the church I was raised in had no place for that kind of thing," pretty much sums up my childhood there. And she writes one of the best descriptions of the church I've ever read: "Belonging to the Church of Christ...mostly meant being really good at not doing things. Not drinking, obviously, not being snarky and sarcastic, not having sex outside of marriage, not smoking, not dancing, not swearing, not dating people outside the church and, of course, perhaps most important of all, no mixed bathing. The better you were at not doing these things, the better a Christian you were. It did not seem to me, even back then, that God's grace or the radical love of Jesus was what united people in the Church of Christ; it was their ability to be good. Or at least their ability to appear to be good." Seriously, that's exactly how the church is. Christianity is defined solely in negative terms, by what you refrain from doing, not by what you actively do to promote good in the world.

Bolz-Weber also has an excellent description of the spiritual violence in the CoC that I mentioned in my last post: "The Bible had been the weapon of choice in the spiritual gladiatorial arena of my youth. I knew how, wielded with intent and precision, the Bible can cut deeply, while the one holding it can claim with impunity that 'this is from God.' Apparently if God wrote the Bible (a preposterous idea), then any verse used to exclude, shame, harm, or injure another person is not only done in the name of God, but also out of love and concern for the other person. I had been that person on several occasions, lying spiritually bleeding on the round, while the nice, well-meaning, and concerned Christians stood above me and smiled in condescension, so pleased with themselves that they had 'spoken the truth in love.'" She is not exaggerating. This is exactly how people in the CoC wound and even kill each other through spiritual violence, wielding the Bible as a deadly weapon.

Not all of her experiences were negative. She did feel a sense of community in the CoC, and she  learned about hospitality from her parents, who were very generous and always invited others, even strangers, to share meals with them. I appreciate that I had the same example from my parents. Her parents were also supportive when she told them she was going to seminary. Amazingly, as most CoC parents would do, they did not try to talk her out of it because she's female. She got lucky on that score, I have to say. She points to Mary Magdalene, the first preacher of the gospel, as her justification for being a female pastor and even has a tattoo of Mary on her arm.

Another aspect of her journey to which I can relate is her discovery of the beauty of the liturgy, which is starkly different from the CoC services. She had no idea what the liturgy was when she started attending Lutheran services with her husband, but she quickly fell in love with it and its ancient traditions. Bolz-Weber writes of the liturgy, "It felt like a gift that had been caretaken by generatiosn of the faithful and handed to us to live out and caretake and hand off." 

I enjoyed this book very much, partly because I can relate to her experiences of growing up in and eventually leaving the CoC, but also because she is a very funny, engaging writer who doesn't hesitate to put all her own faults and problems on display. My impression is that this book is very honest because, frankly, she doesn't always show herself in the best light. I found that refreshing because I think too many spiritual memoirs end up sounding sugar coated. I'm glad I read this book and highly recommend it.