The Spirituality of Wonder Woman in the age of Trump

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drawing by demsey satya nagara

I was obviously not the only person anxiously awaiting the new Wonder Woman movie this past weekend. The long anticipated movie has been record breaking in numerous ways, but as I sat in the darkened theater with my teenage daughter, I could only think that the current state of political and societal affairs led to an even greater positive response to this female centered movie.

Diana is an Amazon, shielded from the world until a WWI soldier appears, and she decides to leave her home forever so she can protect the millions of innocents losing their lives. Her mother, Queen Hippolyta, gives these parting words, “Those men don’t deserve you.” Diana quickly finds herself in London, a city representative of a world where women are constrained by politics, society, and even fashion. She is thrown out of a room where the white men in power make decisions that impact the world, a woman who is only seen as distractingly pretty with a limited mental capacity for the big decisions of the world. The visual of Diana circling a room of men in power is far too similar 100 years later to the real images which have emerged from Trump’s White House of white men making decisions which directly impact countless people not represented in that space.

Diana’s strength and power are amazing and awe-inspiring. Yet, what truly makes this movie so good is her heart. We see it breaking when she witnesses women and children living in terrible conditions, being enslaved, and dying due to the war raging around them. Again, modern images burst through my internal vision as I placed the fictional faces side by side the real children from Syria and Mosul. The climactic scene of the movie is a battle with Ares, the God of War. As he tries to convince Diana that humans have chosen the atrocities, he echoes the words of her mother about what people deserve for the decisions. She responds, “It’s not about what you deserve, it’s about what you believe, and I believe in love.”

The age of Trump is about believing that those in power deserve that power. They deserve the money, the finer things of life, the best health care, the autonomy to believe that no circumstances of birth or assistance from countless people along the way led them to their place in life. It is the false ideology of the Christian prosperity gospel – that we get the rewards in life we truly deserve.

Diana, as Wonder Woman, is a hero we need today. She knows people do not always get what they deserve, and innocents suffer daily for the hubris and narcissism of the men (and I intentionally use this word) in power. The movie concludes with her in the current day, declaring that she stays and fights for love. She loves humanity and works towards a better day.

In a society where women are gravely underrepresented politically, where women and people of color and children suffer disproportionately, where the President sows seeds of fear and lies – we need a beacon of hope and love. Wonder Woman is fictional, but director Patty Jenkins is not. And sometimes our greatest truths can be inspired by mythical stories. Women and men, and people of all colors, can partner together to create a world where everyone has a seat at the table. We can rid ourselves of the language of who might deserve this or who might deserve that, and know that love means everyone deserves a better life. This is the spirituality we need in today’s world.

Don’t put me on a pedestal…

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“I just love women. I put them on a pedestal.” A well-known author spoke those words to me the other night. We were at a social gathering, and I found myself the only woman in a circle of men. The author is someone who has presented insightful information about egalitarianism and the prominent role women have in creation, theology, and mythology. His writings and teachings are ones I appreciate. Yet, given the current status of women in this country, those words rankled.

“Women don’t want to be placed on a pedestal! They want to be equal partners!” Our discussion continued until it took a different direction, but the image of a pedestal remained with me. While we have a President who only wants women under him (literally and figuratively), we have a Vice-President who wants to place women on a pedestal. I am not surprised by the recent news highlighting Mike Pence’s refusal to dine or work with a woman without a man present, including business functions. (As a woman in the male dominated field of ministry, I would be essentially isolated if I followed such a rule in regards to my male colleagues.) Anyone who followed the election process should well comprehend his view of a “Christian theocracy,” a place presided over by very conservative men who have a narrow understanding of the Bible and Christian faith, and wish to impose this legally on the rest of the nation. It is this view that propagates placing women on a pedestal – supposedly raising them up to a place where they are honored, adored, and treasured.  People who follow this viewpoint use specific passages from the Bible to support their ideas, namely Proverbs 31. They claim it’s the greatest way to respect a woman.

Yet, when one is placed on a pedestal, it’s too easy to be knocked off. A woman is either the saint, residing just out of reach of ordinary mortals – or she is the whore, the fallen woman who tempts good men and leads them to destruction.

This idea of placing a woman on a pedestal took root in the early 1800s in the American South. It coincided with the view that a “real man” was a tough guy, aggressive, competitive, and master of all he surveyed. This included not just his land, wife, and children, but also his slaves. Placing women on a pedestal was a way to keep them caged so that a man could maintain control and power.

I don’t want to be on a pedestal. I want to be an equal with men, whether it is in personal or business relationships. Neither of the two men who are representing us in Washington have any concept what that means. While it’s more obvious in the President’s case, it is perhaps more dangerous in the case of the Vice-President. Claiming to honor and protect women (and supposedly his own virtue) is code for saying he doesn’t really trust them, and he certainly can’t trust himself. People who are not on the same level can never truly be equals. A pedestal is simply a jail.

Giving Up Giving Things Up for Lent

lent-imageI’m giving up giving things up for Lent. After having spent close to 30 years seriously contemplating my Lenten practice of fasting, I think it’s time for a change. I first discovered this ancient practice of giving something up for Lent while I was in college. One of my friends, another religion major, was a devout Episcopalian. I recall seeing her in a Wednesday morning class during my freshman year, wondering how she could have dirt on her forehead. I kindly let her know, because what kind of friend who let someone go around with dirt on her forehead all day? She grinned, and then patiently explained Ash Wednesday and Lent to me.

I felt like an idiot. How could the minister at my own United Methodist Church not have told us about something that Christians all over the world had done for centuries? I vowed I would join Christians around the globe in observing Lent, so that I could best be prepared to celebrate Easter. During those first few years, I always gave up something to eat. I have attempted chocolate six different times – but between my birthday falling during Lent and the arrival of Girl Scout cookies – I never succeeded. I have given up Diet Coke a couple times, and have focused on red meat until I finally gave up red meat completely. (Turns out eating red meat has a very bad impact environmentally, and I could certainly get protein in other ways.) After a while, I turned to things like not gossiping (a Lenten promise to which I was driven by a particular coworker), and not thinking negatively. I also experimented with taking on something – like a special volunteer project or fundraising for hunger.

These have all been well and good, and I am glad I observed Lent in those ways, but those days are in the past. I have spent close to 25 years in the ministry, much of it working with women and especially young adult women. So many women have already given up so much in their lives. Sacrifices made for children, parents, husbands. Time spent trying to prop up a broken public school system. The thankless job of managing the details of dying churches, while many lay men still held the power and were oftentimes not acknowledged by male clergy. Volunteering to help those in need, while they themselves found it difficult to make ends meet.

In the midst of this patriarchal society – where women do not earn what men earn, are graded on their looks, are abused and killed at alarming rates by male partners, and are the backbone of a broken economy – I encourage the women of the world to give up giving things up for Lent. Instead of giving up yet one more thing, find some way to treat yourself during this season. Get that long overdue haircut. Buy a special chocolate bar. Take time to read a book for fun. Tell your husband he is on duty one evening or day while you go and just goof off. Join a women’s group. Take a retreat, even if for just a few hours.

I am well aware that I am fortunate woman. I have not had to make the sacrifices that many of my sisters make each day. But that is the point, isn’t it? We are all sisters. And Jesus is our brother. He required sacrifices of those who had much, and knew that Mary deserved to sit at his feet and learn with the men. He didn’t require her to spend one more minute in the kitchen, sacrificing her time and energy so that others could be with him.

So I invite my sisters to observe a Holy Lent, knowing that the women of our world are not required to be the sacrificial martyr.

Country Music, Women & God

I’m proud of my roots. I am a native of the North Carolina mountains and have many fond memories of my childhood. I particularly loved the only radio station we could always get – no matter what cove or valley we drove through – an AM station that played a lot of country, some rock n’roll, and even the occasional disco item. Country music in particular was the background noise of my childhood. Some of the songs were hysterical and cheesy – think “Convoy” – but many were always filled with a variety of life situations and a range of characters. There was also the standard fare – tough lives, drinking, rural living, and God.

In recent years, country music seems to be dominated by boys (and I use the word intentionally) who write about trucks, hot young women in tiny outfits, and drinking. “Bro- country” is the term that has been coined by music critics, and I am certainly not alone in my disdain for the one note that is filling the country airwaves. Young country phenom Kacey Musgraves famously spoke about this last summer when she said singing about trucks should be outlawed. The interesting thing about country music, and particularly bro-country, is that it still pays homage to the Christian faith, which is inconsistent with the themes of the preponderance of these songs.

My favorite country music song of late is “Girl in a Country Song” by Maddie & Tae. These two young newcomers provide great insight into the way women have by and large been relegated to sex objects in the world of country music today. Women in these songs are passive observers, simply there to be desired by the male protagonist. There are exceptions to this overbearing dominance in country music today – Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, The Band Perry, Zach Brown Band, and a smattering of others. I’m by no means the first one to be irritated (to say the least) by this disturbing trend the past decade. However, one of the things I find most troubling is country music’s belief that it is intricately connected to Christianity. At the heart of Christianity is the belief that each and every person – no matter what gender, race, culture or orientation – is a child of God and should be treated with respect, honor and love. And how is that possible when women are seen only as objects, relegated to the lower status of “girls,” and celebrated for wearing skimpy outfits while putting up with bad-boys? Would any Christian parent (or any decent parent of whatever faith tradition) truly want their daughters to aspire to such things?

I certainly understand that a certain number of songs (in any genre) will be written about a physical attraction and desire, but when this is the overwhelming theme played on today’s country stations, there is a problem. Someone who truly purports to be of the Christian faith will recognize that each person (male and female) is created in God’s image, and is thus worthy of respect. Let’s hope Kacey Musgraves, Maddie & Tae, and others will continue to speak and be heard in their quest for better quality country music that truly reflects an egalitarian and respectful society, for people of whatever faith background.

Woman: A Child of God

The recent news of another mass shooting – this time at the University of California at Santa Barbara over the weekend – has filled the thoughts and hearts of many in recent days. Yet, the reasoning behind this event is a bit different than others in recent years. While it seems to be the norm for someone who resorts to such violence to feel bullied, isolated, and rejected by others, this individual focused his anger towards women. In various ways, he maintained that women wronged him because they refused to date him.

The vast majority of people in our society certainly realize this is an extreme situation. However, far too often, girls are told they are “lucky” if a boy likes them. They are told they should be grateful to be asked out on a date. If a girl refuses a date, she is labeled stuck-up or a bitch. A recent article by celebrity Rabbi Shmuley Boteach states that what women want more than anything to be is desired.

Seriously? Desired? He and I read the same scriptures, and apart from the Song of Solomon, that doesn’t seem to be a major defining characteristic of a woman being important in God’s kingdom. Miriam wanted to save her little brother Moses, and then help lead her people to freedom. Deborah wanted justice in the land, and used her brains to make it happen. In the New Testament (which as a Christian, I add to the Hebrew Scriptures for my tradition’s sacred writings), Mary wanted to praise God and rear and love her son Jesus. Mary Magdalene wanted to share Jesus’ message. Lydia wanted to build a strong church.

Former President Jimmy Carter published a new book this spring, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power. Though not a religious scholar, he does a solid job of exploring how religion has been used to perpetuate violence against women. The idea that women simply exist as a help-meet to the superior male, and that women only want to be desired by men, has led to untold actions of violence and oppression against women throughout the centuries. No matter our faith tradition, religion has been used to perpetuate these ideas.

It is time for both women and men in our society to proclaim that women are not simply objects revolving around the male sun of the universe. Both are made in the image of God, and God has great plans for each person – no matter their gender. I would hate to think my son expected that any girl he liked should be honored to date him. I would also hate to think my daughter felt her highest goal in life was to be desired by a man. Both of my wonderful children are so much more than their gender – they are so much more than who they might become with a good life partner one day. I pray that our society will expand its concepts of how men and women interact, and help create a culture where patriarchal ideology and violence are not tolerated.

My prayers go out to everyone connected with the shooting at UCSB. My prayers continue for women everywhere.

#YESALLWOMEN

Divergent: A Mirror to the Soul

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My teenage daughter and I have read several books together in recent years. A while back, I handed her a copy of Divergent by Veronica Roth. We both enjoy books with a fantastical element, dystopian world views, and strong young women. My child believes that women are naturally strong, insightful, and independent. I am always thrilled to find books, movies, and television shows that encourage this belief.

A great deal has been written about this trilogy (the last book was published in recent weeks), and the first movie made a big splash over the weekend, starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James. Ava and I were part of the throngs who filled the theater seats Friday night. The basic story concerns a futuristic Chicago where society is divided into 5 factions – Abnegation (focused on serving others), Candor (valuing honesty above all else), Amity (where peace and happiness prevail), Erudite (the scholars who believe knowledge is most important), and Dauntless (the fearless, who are the soldiers of the society). At age 16, each member must choose a faction in which to live. Protagonist Tris Prior comes from Abnegation, but learns that she is actually Divergent – a hidden group who belong in more than one faction. The Divergent are a threat to society, and must cover who they are in order to survive. Tris chooses Dauntless, one of the factions for which she is most suited. As with many dystopian stories, there are people in power who abuse that responsibility, and seek to harm society. Tris is the young woman who fights for justice.

Ava and I had a good discussion about the changes from page to screen. They always necessarily exist, and sometimes those alterations are effective, and sometimes not. For the most part, I felt like the movie did a good job in this area. The differences maintained the essential story and the focus Roth created in her writing. One change in the movie actually struck me as far more effective than in the book.

Both the book and the movie begin with Tris and her mother, who is cutting her daughter’s dishwater hair in preparation for the choosing ceremony. Abnegation members keep mirrors hidden, only using them for special occasions, and then only briefly. They believe vanity is a trait which inhibits helping others. That, in and of itself, makes a vast statement in the age of the selfie.

Yet, the movie beautifully incorporates Tris’ reflection as an important symbol. Throughout the film, when Tris sees her own face (in a mirror, water, the back of a spoon), that is when she sees inside herself. She comes to know herself more fully, understands her capabilities, strengths, potential and power. She sees a mirror to her soul. This self-realization enables her to stand up against the powers that be, and to fight for the victims of this society.

God’s light shines in each one of us. Too many young women doubt their own intuition, what their soul is telling them. Instead of looking at themselves, they look to others (society, the media, boyfriends, fathers, the world of entertainment) to tell them who they are and how they can or should function in society. Tris is an example of trusting that light of God in the soul of each young woman, and knowing that great things will happen when they do.

Read the books. Go see the movie. Take a girl with you, and then have a good conversation.

Women In Hollywood – Thinking Theologically

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            With the airing of the Golden Globes Awards ceremony last night, much has been written and discussed in recent days about the presence (or lack thereof) of women and minorities in Hollywood. When one looks at the population statistics of our country, women and minorities are greatly underrepresented in movies and television. One of the reasons The Hunger Games trilogy has been so well received is because the protagonist, Katniss, is a teenage girl from the backwoods of Appalachia. Yes, there are boys and men interested in her, but that is not her raison de vivre. She is a full and rich character – imperfect, flawed – but real. And that is such a rare thing in Hollywood. When women are present, they tend to be the girlfriends or some passive agent in the action. We can name the exceptions on a couple hands, because they are so rare. (The Hunger Games movies themselves certainly have been helped by the presence of the incredible Jennifer Lawrence, an authentic and down to earth talent.)

            The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is trying to change this in regards to children’s entertainment through research, education and advocacy. Women and girls are less than 20% of the characters represented in children’s media, and these images tend to be stereotypical. As children are inundated with these ideas, they are less likely to broaden and expand as they age. Movies and television for adults continues to perpetuate this lack of the presence of women, as well as relegating them to passive roles. And if a film has a preponderance of women, it usually falls into the derogatory category of “chick-flick.”

            This is truly a theological issue. Before serving a women’s college, I worked on a state campus for a number of years. For several years, our ministry hosted a panel discussion – “Was Jesus a Feminist?” Yes, I realize this is an improper question. It’s taking a fairly recent construct and applying it to a Jewish man from the backwoods of the Ancient Near East. Yet, in these discussions we looked at how Jesus treated women. And the fact was, he treated them in a manner that was revolutionary. In a patriarchal world that left women at the mercy of men and denied them opportunities for growth and enrichment, Jesus included women as some of his closest followers. He continually affirmed the presence and participation of women in his movement, both in words and in actions.

            I love movies. I love entertainment. (And I especially love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.) And I would love even more to see images of women in Hollywood that are real, empowering, active, and transformative. If a preacher from the wilds of Palestine changed the subject 2000 years ago, we can too.