Myths and Misunderstandings

Illustration_from_The_Little_Lame_Prince_and_His_Travelling_Cloak_by_Dinah_Maria_Mulock_illustrated_by_Hope_Dunlap_1909_12
{First published in Upper Left Edge, Spring 2015}

A writer friend told me I was passed over for a recent book-signing because the organizer finds my book title “scary.” This wasn’t the first time I learned of such a reaction to Jesus Loves Women: A Memoir of Body and Spirit, and from readers who’d likely enjoy the book if they’d get over the word “Jesus” and venture a read. This conclusion is based on the type of reader who did relish the book—well-read, of spiritual inclination, appreciative of grey areas in matters of ethics and values, and experienced enough to understand moral failure. If only she could get over the title.

Call me naïve, but the reaction to my title surprised me. I didn’t expect the word “Jesus” to be the conversation killer it turns out to be. While I understand some individuals shut down at the word “Jesus” because of stereotypical images of Christians (picture the enthusiastic faithful asking if you’ve “accepted Jesus as your personal lord and savior” or telling you “Jesus died for your sins”), I assumed “Jesus” wouldn’t conjure this reaction in generally thoughtful people. I expected the critically minded to realize that Jesus—the name-sake of a major world religion as varied as it is widely held—holds myriad meanings for different souls. I expected them to approach the name with an appreciation for nuance, perhaps even curiosity. Yet, after conversing with my friend, I was faced with a dilemma: Should I ask my small-press publisher to consider changing the title?

Amid the wide array of people on the spectrum of Christian tradition are those who never utter the words “Jesus died for your sins,” or “Jesus is my personal lord and savior.” In fact, I don’t believe Jesus was killed as a sacrifice for people’s sins. I also don’t consider Jesus a “personal lord and savior,” as much as I respect the prerogative of others to hold such views. Yet I claim my place on the spectrum of Christianity. (Same goes for Buddhism. Both traditions contribute significantly to my spirituality.)

As I considered the prospect of changing my book title, I decided against it. I wondered if altering the title because of reactions to “Jesus” would be catering to prejudice. Besides, as I narrate in the book’s introduction, the phrase “Jesus loves women” came first. An elderly Trappist monk named Brother Martin, one of my closest friends, repeatedly asked me: When will you write that book about how Jesus loved women? The memoir I ended up writing was likely not the book he had in mind. Yet his question precipitated my thinking about divine love, and how—for reasons of childhood misconceptions—I felt alienated from it. The phrase “Jesus loves women” precipitated the narrative. Because of my background in Christianity, Jesus is a symbol to me of embodied divine love, and wrestling with the question of divine love for women, and divine love for me, is central to the story. Even today as I struggle with male/female relationships and with my own marriage, I am inspired by Jesus to honor the fullness of God in me while also practicing selfless love.

Still, another motivation lies behind my inclusion of “Jesus” in my title. I actually like the specificity evoked by the name. I like how it grounds the story in a particular mythology, because myths are monumentally important and increasingly undervalued.

I often hear religion, Christianity included, maligned by the non-religious. Granted, glimpses of Christianity in the popular sphere—Christian bookstores, Christian TV, Christian radio, are so distorting and limited that disparagement of Christianity could be understandable. To many Christians including myself, the displays in mainstream media—the nationalism, the wedding of religion and political conservatism, the anti-intellectualism, the easy belief and simplistic formulations for salvation—are foreign to our experience of the faith. For many inside the vast and varied world of Christianity, it’s easy to see how these images distort. They characterize a small facet of the faith and fail to characterize the rest. But as with all things maligned by prejudice, misunderstanding and prejudice commingle, and the stereotype is assumed to be an accurate representation of the whole.

It is therefore tempting at times to distance myself from the stereotype by distancing myself from the tradition. But as fate would have it, I cannot. I believe too strongly in the value of myth and religious literacy to let the temptation seduce me. Prejudices against Christianity, like those against Islam, Judaism, Modern Paganism, and other faiths, stem from a general proliferation of religious illiteracy: a lack of understanding of major faith traditions, their diversity, and their histories. The most religiously illiterate hear the word “Jesus” and think of young earth creationism and virulent homophobia, or hear the word “Allah” and think of terrorists and burkas. But the mildly religiously illiterate sense discomfort with the unfamiliar and simply turn away.

I am by nature impatient with religious illiteracy. I have a PhD in a field of religious study and if I could, would assign Karen Armstrong as required reading for American adults. I am reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou … for fun. Admittedly, my level of interest in religion is atypical. On the other hand, I can name topics of great interest to others of which I am illiterate. Sports, for example. We’re all specialists in our own ways. We don’t need to be specialists in religion one and all. That said, I am leery of impulses to blend away distinction in religious and spiritual traditions to make people comfortable with the unfamiliar.

I don’t equate distinctiveness with dogmatism. It’s possible to appreciate special elements of a religious tradition without requiring assent to cognitive beliefs that define orthodoxy in particular expressions of that tradition. I stand my ground on the spectrum of Christianity, though much of the Nicene creed stokes doubt in me (I take solace in the “we believe” language of the creed—which expresses the heart of the whole tradition rather than individual beliefs, and in the meaning of the verb “credo,” which does not mean “to believe” in a cognitive sense, but to “embrace with one’s heart” as part of a collective with a long historical lineage). On the other hand, for some people of faith, distinctiveness includes strongly held beliefs, or dogmas. My unfamiliarity with the beliefs of other people, or my disagreement with them, might make me uncomfortable. Yet I want to make space for their distinctiveness. Though dogmatism doesn’t appeal to me personally, it’s part of the diversity of human experience, and honoring diversity does appeal to me.

Most people—myself included—need distinctive sacred stories, which I call “mythologies,” intending the term in the most honoring way. I like Karen Armstrong’s definition of a myth as: “essentially, a guide,” and like Armstrong, do not imply by the word “myth” that a story is a fabrication (as is sometimes implied in modern usage of the word “myth”). On the other hand, facticity in a scientific or historical sense is not the point of a myth. The point is to tell us how to live and who to be. As Armstrong wrote in The Spiral Staircase: “The myths of the hero, for example, are not meant to give us historical information about Prometheus or Achilles—or for that matter, about Jesus or the Buddha. Their purpose is to compel us to act in such a way that we bring out our own heroic potential.”

Many secular people are starved for mythological meaning and sacred stories. For me, the Jesus myth (including Jesus’ teachings and actions) is indispensable. It guides me in how I view power-dynamics, how I view injustice and strive to relate to those less privileged than I, how I stand up to authority. To be less abstract, it compels me to recycle and use less resources, to give money to those helping Central American refugee kids at the US border, to pay my employees well, to tell my daughter “I’m sorry” when my words are harsh and hurtful, to support the farmer down the road, and so on. And the Jesus story shapes and guides how I think about divine presence, compelling me to see divinity as essentially compassionate, generous, and immanent. It challenges me to envision nonviolent responses to trials I’ll face in my lifetime. Time and again, it has compelled me to keep my heart open despite betrayals and disappointments, particularly by men.

Myths provide stable vantage points from which to see and understand the world, and the Jesus story (along with the Buddha story) is my mythological terra firma. Myths demonstrate what it means, within a particular tradition, to be human and to live a purposeful life. Having sacred stories is so important that people without faith traditions often develop their own to fill the vacuum. Dominant non-religious myths in America center on science and technology, popular culture, sports, 12-step programs, or national, state, and family histories and dramas. I’d bet every healthy individual I know has a life-ordering meaning story or myth. In fact, social-scientists acknowledge the importance of personal myths for healthy development. For example, an Emory University study found that children who see themselves in a family story of decline and assent are better poised to overcome life’s adversities because they see how those around them have overcome.

People can develop dangerous, even lethal, myths, and these myths are, needless to say, distressing. But despite the fact religion is often blamed, dangerous mythologies can as easily pivot on non-religious axes. I see examples in the lives of young men perpetrating school-yard massacres, or historically, in Maoist China or Stalinist Russia. The best antidote to a dangerous myth is a healthy myth.

A healthy mythology involves specificity and distinctiveness. It involves special stories we come to know and understand, and is life-affirming. It helps us open our hearts. There was a time, after completely laying down the belief system of my childhood, when I felt uncomfortable with religious specificity. I wanted to float among the unformed and religiously non-distinct, where I wouldn’t be troubled by belief. But I now see this as the other side of the fundamentalist coin. Both the view that clings to belief, and the one that shuns all belief out of discomfort, put far too much emphasis on belief. They miss the point of religion and spirituality, which is practice, and being shaped by practice. What I desire now is the wide-mindedness to experience sacredness in all manner of specific religious contexts—whether synagogue, Zendo, mosque, forest-circle, or church, while simultaneously cherishing a specific mythology of my own.

The thing about honoring myths is that we can’t exclusively honor our own. We need to allow others their own myths. To state the obvious: if our mythologies were all the same, they would no longer be meaningful. Yet twenty-first century people have difficulty with intellectual diversity, and with our 40-character attention spans, with nuance of thought. We define diversity narrowly by race and gender, and falter when a person we’ve included along these lines suddenly challenges our unwritten intellectual orthodoxies (I think of the discomfort white progressives have with the opposition to gay marriage in conservative black churches). But our intolerance of intellectual diversity comes from insecurity, fed in part by the tenuousness of our mythological bearings. Perhaps if we were each consciously grounded in healthy myths we’d more willingly let others have myths that differ from ours, to let go of stereotypes, and to peacefully dialogue about difference. The beautiful thing about a myth is how it’s both stable and reinterpreted again and again. To allow mythology its interpretive potential, we must let our edges touch those with whom we disagree. In titling my book Jesus Loves Women, I hoped those who don’t resonate with “Jesus” would be open to a distinctive story that teases their edges. And I still hold out hope.

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