I sometimes feel like Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. (No, I’m not a cross-dressing nanny.) There’s a scene in that movie when he scheduled a job interview as himself at the same time as lunch with the family as Mrs. Doubtfire. He runs back and forth to the bathroom, changing clothes, face, and personality, until finally it all starts to fall apart. His face mask askew, he can’t keep it up any more.
My grad school world and church world have conflicting cultural expectations of me and, honestly, it stresses me out sometimes. Everyone has different conversations depending on your surroundings. But for me and so many women like me, the cultural differences are stark between our professional lives and our church settings.
I’m a card-carrying member of both a liberal academic world and a conservative Christian one. I feel like a secret spy. I have to nod and smile at things “we all” agree with that are totally different from one group to another. I’ve been thinking about making a t-shirt: “I’m the liberal-leaning, conservative-church-attending, social-justice-loving, feminist-egalitarian-who-still-respects-the-slow-thoughtful-process-of-the-church, Democrat-but-sometimes-Republican-who-thinks-abortion-is-more-complicated-than-the-media-portrays Christian that your mama warned you about.”
(It’s a work in progress.)
I teach an essay by Stephen Greenblatt in my college English class titled “Culture.” He gives four terms that you can use to see what a culture values and how it defines itself: constraint (things that are taboo or just not done), mobility (things that are permissible and easy to do), praise (when a group reacts positively to something you’re doing) and blame (when a group reacts negavitely). The constraints and mobility, praise and blame are markers of cultural boundaries.
I know when I do something that is valued in graduate school because people sit forward, lean in, talk more, listen up. I’m most often praised for articulate teaching, thoughtful solutions to difficult problems, or being appropriately and professionally assertive. I know how to be both funny and authoritative as a teacher; it’s taken me a long time to learn how to walk this line. The praise I receive shows the values in that culture: smart, articulate people are praised and their gender has NOTHING to do with it. It would be deeply offensive to think it might.
These same qualities are not praised generally in my church setting. I have several people who know me well and might compliment me on occasion for something I’ve said in class (just like I’d compliment them for an insightful comment), but our church as a culture doesn’t value the same attributes I’m cultivating in grad school. I’ve learned to qualify my remarks, to speak softly so I don’t come across as assertive, to talk about my children more than anything else, because being a supportive wife and mother is what I’m taught by broad church culture is valued. Sometimes it’s implicit—a raised eyebrow or pause after a comment shows blame, a leaning-in or effusive response shows praise. We all know the signs, we can tell when we’ve made a faux pas or said something wrong. And I can tell when I’m in church and I say something that is a bit taboo, a bit too much.
It’s hard to keep my mask on some days.
I live in a place of cultural tension. As a Christian woman who attends a church which is not egalitarian, I face the gendered constraint of not being allowed to do the things my husband can do. I sometimes face the underlying blame of not being a stay-at-home mom. I am most often praised for my domestic pursuits. (I love that my husband usually cooks food for potlucks and I get the praise. That one is awesome.)
At the same time, I face the blame from my grad school friends of attending a church that doesn’t allow what they (and I) consider basic civil rights to women, or I would if I talked about it with most of them. It’s not a subject I bring up very much. I’ve spent hours explaining to one of my best friends why I choose to attend a church that doesn’t share our feminist values. Why, she wonders, would I subject myself to a constraint I don’t need to? The truth is nuanced and difficult to explain: how I love this church and I understand the complexity of this issue, how I’m committed to being a part of a cultural shift through prayer and thoughtful engagement. Unless you’re in the system, it’s so hard to grasp why in the world you’d stay.
I want to have one face. I want to be the same thoughtful, articulate, professional woman who adores her children in both of my worlds. It’s easier in grad school than church, which bothers me. To change our broader culture will require a major shift on the part of many churches, mine included.
We have to consciously praise women, young and old, who speak out or speak up or use their voices.
We have to praise women who are single for their faithfulness to the Lord rather than just asking them when they’re going to get married.
We have to praise women who wait to have babies for a time while they work on their careers because they earnestly desire to serve God with their talents as much as men do.
We have to praise women who choose not to have babies at all or cannot have them rather than quietly shutting them out of our social circles.
We have to praise men who work hard to support their wives, like my fabulous husband, rather than worrying about whether they’re “man enough” (one man in another church told Jonathan once he couldn’t follow me to graduate school because he was the MAN. Seriously.)
We have to praise women who want to be missionaries or ministers or teachers and open the same doors for them, just as easily and just as widely, as we would for their male counterparts. Whether they’re married or not, God has plenty of room for anyone willing to use their gifts to further the kingdom.
We have to talk to little girls about career paths that include vocations both within and without the church that serve God well. That way, when the time comes, they can make an informed choice–to stay home with their own children for a season, to work outside the home, to get married or not, just as they and the Lord see fit. For my own daughters, I hope they will have the freedom to do a little bit of everything, just like I do.
But I hope the transitions between their worlds is a bit smoother by then. I hope our cultural boundaries of what is OK and what is not have broadened for women. Perhaps they will have the chance to face their church without a mask, as mothers or not, as teachers or not, as speakers or not, but always as themselves, as the lovely gifted woman God has made them to be.
I pray it is so.
Rachel Held Evans’s #mutuality2012 week has kind of wrecked my blogging plans. I’m so glad. I’ve discovered so many thoughtful writers this week–it’s good to feel like we’re in this together.