Whose (Who’s) Country?

My girlfriend digs pop country. It’s not usually my thing, but she’s turned me on to a handful of good songs. That’s what I get for writing off a genre completely, right? I end up missing out on good music. Thing is, I also miss out on a lot of utter crap, and that I’m good with.

Listening to songs about being country leaves me with the impression that to be country means to willfully narrow one’s experiences, to be anti-intellectual and to be convinced that these things make you superior to… everyone.

The one on my mind lately is “Bait a Hook” by Justin Moore. This little celebration of xenophobia sees the narrator criticizing someone’s new beau for such egregious offenses as caring about the environment, drinking fruity drinks and, god forbid, eating sushi. Mustering all his eloquence, the narrator says such a life “sounds like it sucks.” The chorus of this ditty?

He can’t even bait a hook
He can’t even skin a buck
He don’t know who Jack Daniels is
He ain’t ever drove a truck
Knows how to throw out a line, but not the kind in a field and stream book
No darlin’ I ain’t even worried, you’ll come runnin’ back
He can’t even bait a hook.

Now, setting aside the fact that the name of the man who gave us the ubiquitous Tennessee Whiskey was Jack Daniel, not Jack Daniels, this whole thing is the narrator saying “STOP LIKING WHAT I DON’T LIKE!”

This limited view of what is and isn’t country isn’t new. Hank Jr.’s “If Heaven Ain’t A Lot Like Dixie” and “Country Boy Can Survive” are two songs that I grew up on that have the same attitude. “If it’s not what I’m used to, then it’s crap!”

Things like this made me so very thankful for Johnny Cash’s words in his autobiography, Cash:

I was talking with a friend of mine about this the other day: that country life as I knew it might really be a thing of the past and when music people today, performers and fans alike, talk about being “country,” they don’t mean they know or even care about the land and the life it sustains and regulates. They’re talking more about choices — a way to look, a group to belong to, a kind of music to call their own. Which begs a question: Is there anything behind the symbols of modern “country,” or are the symbols themselves the whole story? Are the hats, the boots, the pickup trucks, and the honky-tonking poses all that’s left of a disintegrating culture? Back in Arkansas, a way of life produced a certain kind of music. Does a certain kind of music now produce a way of life? Maybe that’s okay. I don’t know.

Perhaps I’m just alienated, feeling the cold wind of exclusion blowing my way. The “country” music establishment, including “country” radio and the “Country” Music Association, does after all seem to have decided that whatever “country” is, some of us aren’t.

Cash by Johnny Cash, pp 12-13.

I grew up in the country. Country life made me who I am today. It influenced the way I think, the things I enjoy, the ideals I carry. My favorite snacks when I was a kid came out of mamaw’s garden. I’d walk next door and grab turnips, green onions and cucumbers out of the garden, wash them off with the water hose and eat them. I know that nothing storebought can beat the taste of yard eggs, and that snap beans taste best when you snap ’em yourself. I know how to milk a goat, and that you grab her by the ear and pop her on the nose if she tries to butt you.

I also hate hunting and fishing. Hell, I don’t even eat meat. I’d rather have good gas mileage than a giant pickup. I think Bud Light is shit and sushi is the shit. I’ll jump off the rope swing into the river with you, but you’re going to have to go gigging frogs on your own.

As I often do, I’ll defer to Don Williams’ classic “Good Old Boys Like Me.”

Good Ole Boys Like Me by Don Williams on Grooveshark

So what do you do with us? What about folks who were shaped by and love the country, but who find its trappings these days to be abhorrent? What do you do with those of us who like to read and write, who’d enjoy a glass of wine on the front porch, who’d fire up the grill and throw on some tofu or mushroom caps, but who also know what shade of yellow-green means to watch out for a tornado and that when all the cows are huddled in one corner of the field there’s rain coming? What do you do with those of us who can’t think of anything more beautiful than a star-filled silent night sky, and who wish that damn whippoorwill would shut up long enough for us to hear it, but who recite poetry when we see it?

If I were a lesser person, and I may well be, I’d turn Mr. Moore’s words back on him.

He’s never even read a book.
Hides his insecurities in a truck.
He has no clue who Walker Percy is,
and probably doesn’t give a fuck.

I’m wearing boots and a Wrangler shirt while I type this. I just got an email about the garden we’ll be planting soon. I’m in the middle of a book on the lives of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and, yes, Walker Percy. I cried when I saw Kris Kristofferson sing and on the day Johnny Cash died. With all due respect, Mr. Moore, if that ain’t country I’ll kiss your ass.

Things I’ve been reading, early November edition

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, so this is going to be long. There’s lots of good stuff here, though, on a number of topics.

An Outlaw’s Theology

I lose my voice! I lose it because my witness and story are not heard. All my life, it is my voice that conveys my story. Deep from within me, it is my distinct, personal, intimate power of expression. Upon it ride the images and imaginations of my spiritual beliefs, all my hopes and dreams, all facts and truths as I know them and as they live through me. I am baffled, because now I have no voice.

This is not hyperbole. I am not speaking allegorically. I intend no metaphor. One moment I turn to you, my juror, and weave my life story into and throughout yours. About the atrocities of the Vietnam War and the crimes of our government, I speak clearly. My voice is passionate. I expose the sufferings of innocents: skin burning alive with napalm. My voice is truthful: classmates, friends, cousin, and kin, my whole generation, lied to and betrayed by elected officials. My voice is hopeful: “Pacem in Terris,” Peace on earth declares my spiritual leader, Pope John XXIII, and so I declare “Peace!” My voice is confessional: I am just one guy–reaching out in despair, frustration, anger, almost hopeless, but then not–with gritty hope I act as best I can. When the leaders no longer listen, then words are not enough. The draft raid is my way of speaking, “Peace!”

Ears of Stone

It was quite acceptable to talk “politics.” There was at least a nascent sense that the war was intolerable, granted the American system and its “normal” workings. One gained this small leverage. But the fact that the war might be inconsistent with the words and example of Christ, that killing others was repugnant to the letter and spirit of the Sermon on the Mount–this was too much: it turned living ears to stone.

Breaking of the Bridesmaids: a parable for patience, justice and Occupy protests

I begin this way only because our understanding of this text has become so ingrained that it is difficult to think of the story in any way other than a cautionary, apocalyptic tale about the return of Jesus.

Can I worship to this song? Poetics and Process

Being a theologian who loves music can be tricky in the current worship culture. I find myself thinking “can I sing this song with integrity?”

I take worship pretty seriously so I just don’t have the luxury to ‘turn my brain off’ or ‘turn a blind eye’ to the content of the songs that we sing as a congregation. I can’t do what some of my peers do and say with a shrug “these are simply the songs that we sing and that is just the way it is – don’t get too worked up about it or put too much thought into it.” It’s just not possible with my personality and passions.

Women’s boxing split as governing body suggests skirts

During last year’s World Championships, the Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA) presented competitors with skirts, rather than the usual shorts, which it wanted to “phase in for international competitions”.

AIBA asked boxers to trial the skirts, which they said would allow spectators to distinguish them from men, but at last week’s European Championships in Rotterdam only two nations – Poland and Romania – had taken on the alternative outfits.

Poland Boxing actually took it a step further and made it compulsory for their boxers to wear skirts, saying they are more “elegant”.

“By wearing skirts, in my opinion, it gives a good impression, a womanly impression,” Poland coach Leszek Piotrowski told BBC Sport. “Wearing shorts is not a good way for women boxers to dress.

Lost Boys: New child-sex-trafficking research demolishes the stereotype of the underage sex worker

Most astonishing to the researchers was the demographic profile teased out by the study. Published by the U.S. Department of Justice in September 2008, Curtis and Dank’s findings thoroughly obliterated the long-held core assumptions about underage prostitution:

  • Nearly half the kids — about 45 percent — were boys.
  • Only 10 percent were involved with a “market facilitator” (e.g., a pimp).
  • About 45 percent got into the “business” through friends.
  • More than 90 percent were U.S.- born (56 percent were New York City natives).
  • On average, they started hooking at age 15.
  • Most of them serviced men — preferably white and wealthy.
  • Most deals were struck on the street.
  • Almost 70 percent of the kids said they’d sought assistance at a youth-service agency at least once.
  • Nearly all of the youths — 95 percent — said they exchanged sex for money because it was the surest way to support themselves.

In other words, the typical kid who is commercially exploited for sex in New York City is not a tween girl, has not been sold into sexual slavery, and is not held captive by a pimp.

Nearly all the boys and girls involved in the city’s sex trade are going it alone.

In which some guys do not want to kill stuff at mens’ ministry

I’ve always avoided men’s ministry. I find it almost impossible to believe I share common ancestry with the guys who are into mixed martial arts and anything else that involves beating the hell out of another human being. Tying MMA into a sermon is as incompatible with Christianity as comparing following Jesus with soldiers attacking an enemy combatant.

Men’s ministry lacks metaphors and activities for guys like me. I was the last guy picked for anything involving sports. I opted for the tiny barbells at the gym. It took me years to forgive my college roommate for tackling me “just for the fun of it.” I’m not an aggressive guy. If you’re the kind of guy wondering, “Could I take this guy?” The answer most certainly is: yes.

When we moved to a new home in Columbus, OH this month, one of my first purchases was a bunch of pansies for the front porch. I also spend my evenings hanging in the living room with my wife and our house rabbits. I feel like that says quite enough about me.

My penchant for pansies aside, I generally find that I exist in a separate universe from the “men’s ministry” dudes who use fighting, military, wrestling, and weight-lifting metaphors for the Christian walk or plan events around aggressive activities.

Do not resent, do not react, keep inner stillness

When I was in seminary I had the great blessing of becoming the spiritual son of a Greek bishop, Bishop Kallistos of Xelon. He ended his life as the bishop of Denver of the Greek Archdiocese. It was he who taught me the Jesus Prayer. The whole spiritual vision of Bishop Kallistos had three very simple points.

  • Do not resent.
  • Do not react.
  • Keep inner stillness.

These three spiritual principles, or disciplines, are really a summation of the Philokalia, the collection of Orthodox Christian spiritual wisdom. And they are disciplines every single one of us can practice, no matter where we are in life – whether we’re in the monastery or in school; whether we’re housewives or retired; whether we’ve got a job or we’ve got little kids to run after. If we can hold on to and exercise these three principles, we will be able to go deeper and deeper in our spiritual life.

A Sense of Owingness

I can think of myself as an empty container of freedom, as a sovereign who exists prior to my entanglements with others, but this is a paltry and ghost-like self. The person who matters is the one who is son, father, husband, cousin, son-in-law, friend, and each of those roles limits my ability to do just whatever I want, whenever. As son, I owe piety; as husband, I owe fidelity; as father, I owe gentle instruction; as friend, I owe loyalty. Consequently, I am what I am in virtue of the responsibilities I bear. Insofar as I matter as a person, I am constituted not by sovereignty, but by what I owe. And only by knowing what I owe to others do I know who I am and what I’m for; ignorance of owing is to be devoid of a self.

If this is true, then the ability to cultivate a sense of owingness is to become a real human being, a free human being. But almost every bit of our cultural life is stacked against our developing this sense, and so we are deaf and dumb about what matters most.

Writing for “that chick blog” on Gender and the Gospel

And so it was to a community wrestling with what it looked like to enact the Great Commission and bring the Gospel message to both Jew and Gentile that Paul wrote these revolutionary words.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

This is not of course to suggest some sort of Gnostic erasing of gender or ethnicity. But for Paul it was central to the very message of the Gospel that the people of God now includes Jew and Gentile, and male and female, on equal footing.

So then part of faithfully proclaiming that Gospel is proclaiming to the people of God that gender, social class, and ethnicity do not define who God can use and how he can use them.

“What Is Process Theology” by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki (pdf)

Well, some nuts are hard to crack, but try this: Process theologies are relational ways of thinking about the dynamism of life and faith. Process-relational theologians integrate implications of a thoroughly interdependent universe into how we live and express our faith. We are convinced that everything is dynamically interconnected; that everything matters; that everything has an effect. Such insights can be adapted to many faith traditions, but this particular booklet applies them to Christian faith.

#1 King Jesus Gospel Question

Our responsibility is not to persuade, or to convince, or to defend. Our responsibility is to be a “witness.”

Why Men Should Not Be Pastors

8. Their physical build indicates that men are more suited to tasks such as chopping down trees and wrestling mountain lions. It would be “unnatural” for them to do other forms of work.

6. Men are too emotional to be priests or pastors. This is easily demonstrated by their conduct at football games and watching basketball tournaments.

This is the face of obesity

This is the face of obesity.

I am 5’7” and I weigh 235 pounds. This puts me well into the obese category. I’d need to lose another 40 pounds to be classified as “overweight” by standard BMI calculations.

This picture was taken after I had just spent five hours hiking a rugged 8 miles around Lake Vesuvius in southeastern Ohio.

I’m Religious, Not Spiritual
While I’m not Orthodox enough to hold to everything the author writes, his understanding of the holiness of the body is amazing.

Thus, if we will be like Jesus, we must fully inhabit our bodies and not descend to some Gnostic pretense that we are above our bodies, fallen though they are. Our bodies are not–as is too often and too regrettably preached at Christian funerals–mere containers housing our spirits, which are “set free” at our death to be with God. No, we are our bodies, our bodies house the Holy Spirit and are therefore themselves holy.

Gents – Re-/de-gendering “Gentleman”

The word “gentleman” has always held positive associations for me. It is associated, in my mind, with having a strong sense of self tempered by humility and with treating people respectfully. At its best, it represents a set of ideals that I strive for. Yet there are problematic aspects of the word that make it not the best fit for what I’d hope to communicate with its use. The biggest of those is its gendered nature. The ideals I think of as gentlemanly are most certainly not gender specific. I know female-bodied and woman-identified people who embody them wonderfully. The constant pairing of “gentleman” with “lady” leads to more complications. The rules of gentlemanly behavior often treat women as fragile and helpless or as objects to be obtained or molded. If I could discard the gendering I could find more comfort with the concept, and so I began to look for non-gendered words that are analogous to “gentleman.”

When I asked my friends and acquaintances for words that carried the same connotations as “gentleman” but were gender-neutral or gender-inclusive, I received a lot of suggestions, including gentlefolk, gentlebeing, mensch, comrade, dandy, sophisticate. I found them either clumsy, or not carrying the same associations for me. Finally I thought of something so simple that I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t seen it before. There already exists a wonderful abbreviation of the word “gentleman” that removes the unnecessary and exclusionary gendering. “Gent” can be applied to people of all genders.

In this series of writings I hope to look at what it was of the ideal of “gentleman” that spoke to me and from that build an analogous concept around the “gent” that is inclusive of all genders, informed by feminism and queered from the original. I only ask that you forgive my exclusion of the phrase “for me” from the rest of my writing on the topic. I speak only of the ways that I attempt to embody and modify the gentleman archetype, and do not wish to prescribe the behavior of others, nor to define for them what being a gent would be in their particular circumstances.

Please indulge me as I look backward to find the traditions to adapt and carry forward. If being a gent is an inclusive retelling of gentlemanly ideals, then from what do we draw gently1 ideals?

I’m aware that for many, the word “gentleman” is associated with social class, the gentlemen being those whose wealth can separate them from the vulgar masses. Indeed, it entered the English lexicon in the late thirteenth century as a term for a man of noble birth. I do sympathize with such a reading of the word, but it has not been my experience.

Within a hundred years of the word’s appearance, Chaucer’s characters were describing the word in a subversive way, contrary to it’s earlier definition. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” includes:

But, for ye speken of swich gentillesse
As is descended out of old richesse,
That therfore sholden ye be gentil men,
Swich arrogance is nat worth an hen.
Looke who that is moost vertuous alway,
Pryvee and apert, and moost entendeth ay
To do the gentil dedes that he kan;
Taak hym for the grettest gentil man.
Crist wole we clayme of hym oure gentillesse,
Nat of oure eldres for hire old richesse.

That is, “You say you should be called gentlemen because of your ancestry, but such arrogance is worth nothing. Look to who is always virtuous, who intends in all circumstances to do what noble deeds he can. That person is the greatest gentleman. Christ would have us claim our gentility from Him, not from the riches of our elders.” It’s this understanding of the word that carried into my youth. Growing up poor in a rural area, being a gentleman was about one’s behavior toward others, not about money, land or belongings. It was not laden with a sense of superiority, but a sense of offering oneself. Indeed, there were more gentlemen, as I understood it, amongst the lower classes around me than I ever experienced among the middle and upper classes. It was not a marker of inequality, but a marker of equality. All had the ability to be a gentleman, or not, dependent on how they acted toward those around them.

Perhaps my roots in the southern U.S. have added to that idea of a gentleman being defined by what one does, not one’s station in life. Whatever one’s opinion of Robert E. Lee, his Definition of a Gentleman also speaks to this understanding of the concept.

The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.

The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly–the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light.

The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.

I propose that these passages2 are the starting place of moving from “gentleman” to “gent.” The very core of being a gent is having a respect for others as individuals of equal worth, and treating them in a way that shows that respect.

Treating people with gently1 respect can be a feminist act that cuts away at the gentleman/lady duality that made me uncomfortable with the gentleman concept. Opening a door for someone is a kind gesture, regardless of their gender. Opening a door for someone because of their gender gives the impression that they are in a different class, are less capable, or are something to be attained by means of preferential treatment. Giving such an impression (indeed, holding such opinions) is disrespectful in that it casts the other person as less than an equal. Gently behavior is holding a door open for someone because you wish to be kind. Any other motivation is an insult, even if the person receiving the action is unaware.

I feel that the requirements of a gent go a step further, however. Holding a door open isn’t enough. In the etiquette of opening doors, as with all actions, a gent not only acts from a desire to be kind to others, but makes room to accept the kindnesses of others. Often, when walking through two sets of doors, my partner will open one for me, and I will open the next for her. When traveling by car, the person driving will unlock the passenger side door, and the passenger will reach across to unlock the driver side door. Being a gent means making room for others to behave as gents as well. This means not only happily giving, but graciously receiving the kindnesses and signs of respect offered by others. It also means doing these things without expectation or attachment to desired results. Some will not return respect in kind. To a gent, this is inconsequential.

How else can acting as a gent be feminist act? Let us adopt Lee’s definition as an inspiration, and see how it may translate into contemporary understandings.

The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly–the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light.

We can read the “power” of which Lee wrote as related, if not identical, to privilege. Should a gent be in a situation of having privilege that others do not have, be it through the actions of the gent, a matter of circumstance, or from the structure and expectations of society, the gent will behave in such a way that the privilege and any potential power differential is acted upon minimally. Ideally it would not be acted upon at all. In our current world it’s easy for us to add to Lee’s list “the privilege that white people have over people of color, men over women, cisgender over transgender.” This is nothing if not the best approach I’ve ever read to beginning to manage one’s privilege.

A gent will be aware of privilege, and do what they can to refrain from acting on it. Furthermore, as none of us are perfect, when we do act on our privilege, our response is to be humbled, recognizing that using our station is a failure in respecting others as individuals and as people of equal worth. And from that humility a gent will hopefully come away with a greater understanding of privilege and strive to hold more to their ideals next time.

It is my hope that I have communicated here some of the ways in which I am trying to adapt the old ideals of the gentleman, as I understand them, into a modified set of ideals open to all. In my introduction I spoke of the two ideas that are forming the basis of this exploration. In this writing I covered one of them, that of treating people respectfully. Next I hope to unpack more of what I mean by “having a strong sense of self tempered by humility.” I shall relish any comments readers may have on what I’ve written here, or any thoughts that may be related to the topic at hand.

Care for some further reading before the next installment? Here are a few other pages on gentlemen that may have material to inspire gents. What of what they present applies to you? What doesn’t?

Are gentlemen a dying breed?
Today’s Gentleman

1: I use “gently” here not meaning “in a gentle fashion,” but as the corollary of “gentlemanly.” Should anyone have suggestions for a less clumsy adjective, please do share them.

2: Thanks go to the editors at Wikipedia for giving me these passages as a starting point.

“That’s so gay.”

I admit it, I don’t know how to respond to people using the phrase, “That’s so gay.” For years now it seems that people have been using this to mean “That’s stupid” or “That’s ridiculous,” and to me it’s so freakin’ obvious that such a use came from seeing gay people as stupid or ridiculous that I can’t even see how people can say it without being aware that they’re being insulting. It’s just so glaringly mean!

My feeling offended by the phrase has been met with “Well, language evolves,” and “I don’t mean homosexual, I mean stupid.” I can’t argue with those. They’re true statements. They simply don’t get to the root of why that phrase is so very fucked up.

The fact that language evolves doesn’t excuse us from looking at the forces pushing the evolution. Most slang develops to provide a signifier that the people using it belong to the same class. Often it’s a way that non-dominant groups create power, by molding the language to their culture. It’s a way of defining against, of building a shorthand that says “This person is like me.” One of the most obvious examples is among teenagers, for whom defining themselves against their parents and their parents’ culture is of supreme importance. Building slang, changing the meanings of words, these are ways that they say “I’m not you. I’m me.” As part of a person’s development, this stage is necessary.

Another part of the evolution of language is seen in reclaiming words that were once slurs, taking the power-over away from the words and using them as power-with the group that they slurred. Gay men referring to themselves as “fags” can be an example of this (though such usage can also be derisive). Claiming the words “dyke” and “butch” as part of a self-defined identity is another example. Words that were used to hurt can be appropriated by the people attacked with them and redefined.

“That’s so gay,” isn’t a reclamation. It’s use doesn’t come from a group whose oppression was evidenced in it’s previous usage. “That’s so gay” comes from the oppression itself. Being gay or appearing gay is so derided that it becomes a synonym for stupid or ridiculous. The driving force behind this evolution in language is homophobia. By participating in this evolution of meaning, we take part in furthering institutionalized homophobia. That’s not to say people using the phrase are homophobic, but they are participating in cultural homophobia, equating “gay” with “stupid.” The meaning the individual puts into the phrase doesn’t take away from that homophobia. The intended meaning being “That’s stupid” doesn’t remove the link made between “stupid” and “homosexual.” “I didn’t mean it like that,” doesn’t remove the force behind the words used.

But I’m left wondering how to confront the usage of such a hurtful phrase. Pointing out the roots of homophobia in the words seems to result in defensiveness and walls being throw up so that communication stops. Saying “I find that phrase hurtful, please don’t use it around me,” just means that at best I’m not going to hear it, not that I’ve actually been able to communicate what’s so hurtful about the phrase. So how do I say, “I’m not calling you a homophobe, but your language is homophobic and hurtful regardless of your intent,” in a way that people will hear it and understand and not feel defensive or insulted themselves. How do I set aside my own incredulity at people not seeing the insult in their words long enough for me to lovingly explain the insult?

That’s where I’m left stumbling. I just don’t know how to do that, or if it’s worth trying when people just don’t want to hear it.

Discussing racism

There was a bit of an explosion recently on the mailing list for a swingers club I have frequented in the past. Someone was complaining about people breaking a rule that single men are expected to follow, but the description offered described the offender as “this black guy.” Several people made the comment that it sounded like the problem then was less that the rule was broken by a single guy, but that it was broken by a black guy.

The ensuing shitstorm reminded me of this amazing video by Jay Smooth

While I tried to stick to the guidelines Jay put forth here, it still devolved into “I’m not a racist!” then worse into people saying that their desire to play only with white couples wasn’t racist at all. It was just a preference.

I had to just unsubscribe from the list before I devolved into this.