My Spiritual Formation this week is from What Matters Most: Ten Lessons in Living Passionately from the Song of Solomon by Renita Weems. She takes takes the “ten lessons” from the Shulammite woman’s fearless living and loving in the Song. Interestingly, I’ve heard the Song of Solomon called “The Porn Book of the Bible,” which reinforces masculine patriarchal dominance of Scripture. Weems allows the Shulammite woman to claim her identity through characteristics of liberation. Three quotations from this week’s reading on Choice stood out to me. Here they are with my reflections:
The Shulammite risked ridicule, criticism, challenge, failure, and embarrassment for the possibility of living a bigger life than the one society assigned to her as a woman (Kindle, p. 80).
Societal rules are powerful, so powerful that we internalize them and regulate ourselves. Growing up, I wanted to be a CIA agent or a lawyer. It was inconceivable to me, my parents, my friends—everyone who knew me—that I would not go to college on a scholarship straight out of high school. But gender role norms are deeply embedded in how we think and act and move about in the world. By my junior year I was “engaged,” in a relationship just like the other girls. I was married at age 18 and had a baby when I was 19. I look at those numbers and shudder—so young! I gave up my own bigger life.
Being passionate means living your life fearlessly. What if I make a mistake? What if something goes horribly wrong? What if I lose more than I gain? What if I make a fool of myself? (p. 83).
Before age 35, I had never lived outside of Alabama. That year, I got divorced, came out to myself, got a job at the Louisiana Department of Education, enrolled in a doctoral program at LSU, and moved to Louisiana. After escaping with my identity—which I had fought for 16 years to hold onto—I did not once ask myself these questions. Like the Shulammite, I was living fearlessly. However, and this is important, my communing with God was a one-way conversation. Although God was ever-present with me, I continued to press through under the delusion that I was accomplishing these things by myself. I give thanks now in retrospect.
But what if the path you’re about to take leads you off the beaten path and falls outside the norm of what others deem acceptable? (p. 87).
On the day I moved to Louisiana, my mother was seeing me off. It was a poignant moment. Two women whose love for one another most often went unspoken, said goodbye. “Mother,” I said, “I’m sorry. It’s hard. I just…” trailing off, not knowing how to speak the things that were in my heart about my life, about her, about all the years I felt I had lost. She thought for a minute, trying hard to blink back tears so that I would not see them—something I learned years later she had often done. “You go ahead. I know you need to. We always knew you’d leave one day.” The beaten path, my parents knew, was not for me, no matter how hard they had tried—through church, modeling, instructing, shaping—to guide me along it. That day, when the strongest women I have ever known blinked back tears and let me leave, was the day I began to live without a net, yes, but in vivid color.
My paper at the 2017 South Eastern Women’s Studies (SEWSA) Conference is Intentional Monogamy in the Age of Tinder: Queer Theology and Re-thinking Christian Sexual Ethics. That one title contains at least four ideas for an academic paper~~and here in one place I’m going to try to pull them together to look again at a concept that we take so much for granted we do it without thinking. Monogamy.
I’ve begun framing my academic research over the last four years with theology; I even did a stint at the Candler School of Theology at Emory. For example, I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of ethics and existentialist theologian Paul Tillich’s conceptualization of God and “the” Christ are not just relevant our world today, they are essential. They are my starting point; from them I move to Feminist Theology and Queer Theology, which are topics for another day. Just know that theology~as I define it the search for the nature of God~in its various perspectives has allowed me to get here. Where is here? Queering Christian Sexual Ethics. And to do delve into that field, I will start small, with the most common state of being in a relationship in Western practice~monogamy~and look at it through a lens of queer feminist theology.
Queer theology is not, for the uninitiated, the same as LGBTQ Religious Studies, although it can, I suppose, be included within that broad field. It does not, concern itself with What The Bible Says About Homosexuality, about which Rev. Dr. Daniel Helminiak has written so concisely. Queer theology is radically different. For example, the late Professor Marcella Althaus-Reid named God queer and proposed an Indecent Theology in which sexuality, theology, and politics are intertwined. In such discussions, one can consider the trans nature of God. Paul Tillich describes a postmodern god and helps us think of God not as an old white guy with a beard who looks after us as his children, or better, as no image at all~just James Earl Jones’s commanding voice. Neither is God our “mother,” in a gendered turn of the conventional. And, it isn’t that God transcends gender, that is, to go beyond its range or limits. God is transgender, for God flows across genders in ways that defy categories. Godself is fluid and trans, and in this, God is transgressive. This is Althaus-Reid’s notion of a Queer God, where queer is transgressive and political, gender and sexuality-bending~~and also playful. This is not a god that man has worked for 3,000 years to craft in his own image. This is God that can hold being the Ground of Being. I want this God on my side.
And, just as over the last centuries we have constructed a God who suits dominant White Western cultures, we have also constructed normal, normative sexual ethics~~and we have strategically bound them to the search for God, to theology. The god we crafted has a preference, which we codified into morality, for what humans do when we get naked with one another. To queer Christian Sexual Ethics, then, is to associate it with Queer Theology, to transgress what humankind sanctions in the name of God.
To make the discussion less abstract, I look at the singularly sanctioned form of marriage relationship for mainstream Christians: monogamy, the practice of having one partner at one time. In case you’ve forgotten the official sanction of monogamy, here it is again. It’s called the Wedding Vow:
“I, ___, take thee, ___, to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge thee my faith [or] pledge myself to you” (https://www.theknot.com/content/traditional-wedding-vows-from-various-religions).
In Mimi Schippers Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Poly Queer Sexualities (2016), she extends Adrienne Rich’s idea of compulsory heterosexuality to include compulsory monogamy as a “regime of sexual normalcy” (Kindle loc 183) and offers a critique of mononormativity. She points out, There have been very few theoretical interrogations of how monogamy is implicated in and productive of gender, race, and sexual hierarchies or the role of monogamy as an organizing rationale for regimes of normalcy and social structures of inequality (loc 254). She conducts this interrogation of monogamy to explore the possibilities of polyqueer sexualities~relationship forms and practices that include more than two people in them~for shattering inequalities. She positions monogamy, rightly I believe, as an institutionalized social structure that bolsters power relations; this is mononormativity. I suppose because I identify as monogamous I felt as I read that Schippers was throwing out the baby with the bath water. She didn’t leave much space for conceptualizing a postmodern, queer monogamy. Intentional monogamy is queer monogamy–even if the participants are heterosexual, cis-gender participants. It holds similar queer possibilities for disruption. How? Because of its intentional nature. Hence, intentionality is transgressive.
Intentional monogamy confronts monogamy by default, which renders monogamy invisible, unconsidered. Also by default is the assumed and legitimized feature of monogamous couples to reproduce the heterosexual, heteronormative family. There is a whole other discussion here~for another time~on how the re-production of “the family” also reproduces the hierarchies and inequities~personal, political, institutionalized, time-honored. There is a lot hinging on monogamy.
So, in this space, I want to look finally at the intentional part of Intentional Monogamy. For this, I need a story. In Beyond Monogamy, Schippers makes a very interesting point that I will admit I had not thought about, but of course should have: that cheating narratives are important to maintaining mononormativity and leaving monogamy invisible as the hegemonic norm (loc 742). Cheating is the threat that keeps couples within monogamous bounds. Cheating holds monogamy together. It is to relationships what sin is to Christianity. Like sin, cheating is a transgression of the vow to be in right relation. But again, what if we flip this thought so that intentionality is the transgressive turn?
About a year and a half into our relationship, Sarah and I began discussing the terms for our future together. Those of you who know Sarah know that this in fact is romantic. One evening we were talking about the nature and dynamics of our relationship when she entered the room, stopped in the middle of it, and said, “I’m monogamous.” I half-looked up from emails or the tv, or whatever I was doing during our casual discussion and said, “Yes, so am I.” And that, as they say, is when it started getting real. She got my complete attention by telling me that to her, I wasn’t at a place to make that assertion. It’s true: I had been living under a few assumptions, stretching all the way back to adolescence and dating. Yet I thought our own commitment had been understood when we had made a commitment. Exclusivity, to me, had implied monogamy, and that was her point. Implied monogamy was not sufficient grounds for a long term relationship. I argued, cajoled, reasoned~~used all my skills to persuade her~~and myself~~that I was a confirmed monogamist. And then she said something so shocking and profound that I knew it to be true: You say you are monogamous when what you really want is someone who won’t cheat on you.
Sarah’s declaration of monogamy, her intentionality, was a disruption of heteronormative compulsory institutional default relationship form. for me, it troubled the cheating narrative, which played right into reinforcing hetero- and mononormativity. From Beyond Monogamy: Monogamy needs cheating in a fundamental way. In addition to serving as the demonized opposite of monogamy, the mark of the cheater is used to push individuals to conform to monogamous behavior and monogamous appearances (loc 748). Wow. You have to confront your monogamous privilege just like you do your white privilege. You have to know that there are other ways of being in relationships–ways that involve more than two partners, she said, and then you can come back to monogamy. Of course, my first question for her was, Good lord, do I have to try them? Not necessarily, she said, just as long as you know enough to make an informed decision.
In my undergraduate classes, students will often ask whether anyone can be queer; that is, can you be a straight cis-person and be queer. Sometimes I give them a simple answer. Queer has a political requirement to it; it is purposefully disruptive of normative structures (yes, that’s part of the simple answer). It is intentional. So, I tell them, to be queer, you have to believe yourself to be. And that is part of how monogamy can be a queer act~~in its intentionality. Monogamy is not a condition to be bound to, a “till death” sentence of imbalanced power. It is a state of free, into which we might freely enter. After about a month of my coming to learn that, Sarah was satisfied.
What’s next? I aim to situate this discussion~~with more theorizing for my day job~~into a deep look into Christian Sexual Ethics, a field that looks how we can humanely and kindly treat each other in our sexuality. Untheorized, monogamy brings its heteronormative baggage into sexual ethics, thereby invalidating its very underpinnings. There’s a famous line from Our Town: People are meant to go through life two by two. ‘Taint natural to be lonesome. Along my journey toward monogamy, I have learned that ‘taint necessarily natural to go two by two, but if we want to, it’s queerer than we might think.
Somebody I used to know once told me she thought happiness was overrated. I’ve thought about that statement for going on a dozen years now, and I think she was wrong. Well, I think she was talking about pleasure, about following one’s desire, about gratification–and all of these are different from happiness. Not only is happiness not overrated, I don’t believe it is rated nearly highly enough on our collective list of priorities.
I was recently on a long, 9-hour drive from Atlanta to South Florida when I began running through my usual thoughts: money, work, goals, writing, weight. I was even running scripts through my mind of events that I envisioned happening so that I would have a ready response. For example, I pictured a scenario in which my boss asks me to assume additional duties at work. I was amazing myself at my sardonic, pointed remarks to her. Then I thought to myself, “I have a 9-hour drive and I am going to sit here and make myself miserable the whole time? This is my vacation, what if I only thought happy thoughts the whole drive, heck, the whole trip?” So I practiced. I made myself happy, or so I thought at the time. Looking back, I think it’s more accurate to say, I rejected negative thoughts for positive ones. Happiness, a deceptively simple notion, is more complicated than it seems.
I’m reading a book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Bright-sided: How positive thinking is undermining America. Ehrenreich has nothing against positive thinking per se, but she argues it has become a tool to lull Americans into compliance with a neo-liberal, consumerist culture. It is, according to her, in the best interest of institutions to keep the population thinking positively because it deflects attention off inequities of capitalist society by focusing on ourselves. Be positive, work harder, pick yourself up, you can do it (!), you deserve it, and my own personal favorite, “everything is going to be just fine/work out….” Ehrenreich goes on to present some amazing survey results: even though we Americans have embraced the power of positive thinking, we don’t report that we are very happy. There are plenty of other, frankly, negative countries whose people are happier than we are. Being happy is not the same as thinking positively. Positive thinking is something you can choose to do; and while I’ve heard it suggested that we “choose happiness,” I think it is more of a state of being. I”m sure the two are connected somehow, and maybe I’ll think about that later.
I can be negative. I am often cynical and suspicious (of politics and banks, for example). I get the blues and feel lonesome. I come from a long line of worriers–it would have been a piece of cake to have found something to worry about the whole drive down to Florida. But, I am a happy person. I am not jolly, and I don’t feel euphoric all that often. So am I sure about this happiness thing? Yeah, I’m sure. I haven’t figured out yet whether happiness is situational, contextual, or even genetically influenced. In fact, I have just begun to think about it at all–apart from that comment about it being overrated all those years ago. Lots of thing “make me happy”: music, Taco Bell, marathons on TNT, watching the ocean, people in my life. But really, I think these things bring me some joy; they bring me feelings of happiness. Happiness, it seems to me, is what you are left with if feelings were stripped away. I think it would and should be articulated differently by different people. For me, it is serenity of the soul. But that’s just a way of saying it. Can one “get happy”? What is happiness? How does happiness fit in with the violence all around us? That is, can our own happiness intersect with that of others? What does that look like? What good does being happy do us? That’s a lot of questions for something so taken for granted.
More on this later.
Since I decided that my next project would be a place study on my Country South by storying my great-grandmother Jeffreys’ life, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Alabama, my state. One book, Dixie’s Forgotten People, by Alabama native and Auburn professor (I can forgive him for that) Wayne Flint, is what I would call an objective account of Alabama’s poor whites. He talks about both their rich culture and the racist thoughts and acts. I learned a lot from Flint’s book–like my people were most likely southern Appalachian–a particular kind of “Southerner,” having a whole unique heritage. I had always thought of Appalachian people as being from the mountains of West Virginia or East Tennessee, but these are my people. I am theirs.
Another book I picked up was Alabama Getaway by Allen Tullos. He is an American Studies scholar who exhorts Alabama to distance itself from its “Heart of Dixie” brand name. For him, this monicker is code for nostalgia for a plantation mentality, that includes Jim Crow, George Wallace, and Confederama. I won’t disagree with him; “Dixie” is like the Biblical offending eye–holding onto it does a lot more harm than good. Still, Getaway, Alabama (as it could also be called) is hard to read if you are a white Alabamian looking for a reason to publicly love your state.
Part of the problem is that Alabama has never done enough to stand out. And not being Mississippi is not enough. Even my pal and fellow Alabamian feminist Mab Segrest claims to prefer Georgia because there’s just not that much “to” Alabama. While I can see her point, I think we need to dig a little deeper.
I think a place to start is to think of a really good replacement for “Heart of Dixie.” Our official state motto is: We dare defend our rights. This is almost as bad, as it practically conjures George Wallace in the school house door. The current slogan on auto tags is “Sweet Home Alabama,” which I really like as a white Alabamian. The Leonard Skynard Southern rock song is like the state anthem, especially since the band is like Alabama’s Buddy Holley, lead singer perishing in a plane crash at the height of their popularity. But, it may not be sweet and homey to everybody. I think we will probably do better to just stick to the land itself.
Minnesota has already taken the 10,000 lakes slogan–even though Alabama has an awful lot of lakes, rivers, and streams. But if we put anything about water, Minnesota would cry foul. And, hunting and fishing are major activities because of the forests and wooded areas. Louisiana already claims that it is a Sportsman’s Paradise, so that one’s out. I always liked the tags and signs at the state lines that said “Alabama the Beautiful.” I never understood why they would change that, probably paying a consulting firm a quarter million dollars to say there is some benefit of replacing it with “Stars fell on Alabama”–on the tags, anyway. I don’t much understand what that means. I know it was a love song. But, my daddy is already concerned that a meteor is headed directly for earth, and NASA confirms about a million pounds of space trash is out there. I don’t think we ought to draw attention to falling objects.
So, until somebody more creative than I am can think of the perfectly appropriate slogan, I am sticking with Alabama the Beautiful. From the highland rim of my Appalachian ancestors to the Coastal Plains where my daughter lives now–and everywhere in between, there is great natural beauty to be found in my state. And, I have eternal hope that the people who inhabit this place can shape up and behave ourselves and maybe make Alabama a state that has to narrow down its choice of slogan instead of stretch to come up with one.
More on this later.