So... What DO you believe, then?

"It's a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. It makes you wonder what else you can do that you've forgotten about.- Lester Burnham, American Beauty (Written by Alan Ball)

Most of us spend an enormous amount of time obeying rules we don't really think about. The less we examine them, the stronger they seem to become, and it could be argued that this is how cultures evolve.

More and more often, people ask me about my faith in ways that give me little to no time to give them an accurate idea of what I believe. They'll ask me, in uncomfortable tones, "Well if you don't believe that Jesus is the only way to God, and you're not going to be a priest or a nun... if you're here at the bar/ club/ party but you'll go home and read the Bible... what do you believe?" It's a getting-to-know you question, a version of the, "So what do you do?" part of the discussion.

Now, they mean well when they ask me this question, but what they don't realize is that just because I'm in seminary doesn't mean that I have The Answer. Yes, I am aware that the church has done terrible things, in many cases very very recently. (It's a shame that I share a label--"Christian"-- with these people.) No, I do not hate Muslims or Jews, and I agree that gendered language has no place in discussions of faith. I do not hate my body, nor do I believe that sex is shameful. In fact, I believe it is sacred, holy, part of our joy as human beings. (Why would God NOT want us to enjoy something so enjoyable? Makes no sense! I rest my case, somebody call Sweden and tell them I'd like my award in cash, NOT check.)

Yes, I agree that the word "Christian" has come to mean something that is the opposite of what Christ might have wanted. No, I am not closed-minded, celibate, gay-bashing or a teetotaler, nor did I love W. simply because he said he was a Christian. In fact, I disliked him all the more because of how he furthered the general public's dislike of us.

Most importantly, I am not the only one who is tired of surprising people.

If there was one thing that we can all agree on, it's that Jesus was telling people to think outside the box. To question the assumptions that we don't even realize we labor under. To resist the urge to sell our souls (I think this is what the story about Judas was really about: he sold something he believed in because he was desperate for money, something we're asked to do in one way or another almost daily), to question, to risk, to point out the bullshi*t when we see it and have the courage to live differently.

What is the nature of God to me? I believe God is unending growth. A constant challenge, the opposite of complacency. That's all. There are aspects of the Jewish tradition which equate God with creativity, and I sure wish I could find the paper I wrote about that because I could sound so cool but I can't, so you'll have to take my word for it that greater minds than mine have defined the Divine as the force that makes new things.

I believe that God is made manifest in the urge to push the boundaries and challenge our fears, and so in this sense TME is evidence of God's hand in my life without my ever thinking of it that way. I've surprised myself, and I did it by paying attention to what scares me and then pushing myself to cross the lines that formed much of the structure of who I believed myself to be.

I've surprised myself, and it is indeed a great thing. It's made me wonder what else I can do that I've forgotten about. It's given me faith in myself, something that's been a long time coming. It's made me finally, after years of trying, find the discipline to start working out regularly; it's made me manage my finances more responsibly because I'm no longer coming from a place of fear that I can't keep up somehow. I borrowed my roommate's mandolin and finally, after years of training in music so that others might notice me, I'm finally just making sounds that I want to hear.

A new friend said something to me on Wednesday that stuck with me. He peered at me over the soy sauce and said, "Lauren, do you know what the difference between conceit and confidence is? Conceit comes from a place of not believing you can do a lot; confidence comes from a place of knowing you can."

In my life, I've been guilty of a lot of conceit without knowing how to turn it into confidence-- but TME has surprised me. It's been a manifestation of God in my life that has nothing to do with saving souls, or equating my OK-ness with the blood of an impossibly holy person, or restricting myself based on cultural ideas of how a "religious" person conducts herself. It's given me self-respect, something that is taken away from us all too often, especially as women in a beauty-obsessed culture.

It is my statement of faith.

Unfortunately, there usually isn't time to say all that when someone asks me, "So, what do you believe?"... so I give them this blog address, and just have to hope that they read it.


Oh, the Places I Can't Go!

While I haven't been actively kept out of any physical place since I started dressing modestly, I've noticed that it's prohibitive in several ways, most of which have to do with... well... partying. Or having fun. Or meeting boys. Let me explain.

This past Friday was "Candler Prom," an end-of-the-year student banquet. Everyone dressed up a la the red carpet. I couldn't wait to go, both because I love to get dressed up and I LOVE LOVE LOVE to dance... until I looked at all my formal wear and realized that none of it, not a single piece, was modest.

The long dresses all had spaghetti straps, and the dresses with covered shoulders were all too short. They were all fitted, and all very sexy. There seems to be a sort of mandatory connection between looking "formal" and looking "sexy." I could have worn one of my dresses with something on top, but I looked like an old lady. That's ok, I thought. I'll just go shopping.

But I couldn't do that either. I would have had to buy an entirely new formal outfit (maybe something from the Indian boutique, I thought) and a new headwrap (preferably from this site). These two things together would have cost me over $100, and I sure as hell don't have that just lying around, especially not right now.

So I couldn't go to prom. Sigh.

Instead, I went to the after-prom party at a bar, and that's when things got really weird. This is the same bar I went to when I was first starting the Experiment (see In Da Club, Wit Da Peeps) where I wouldn't look at the waiter. I noticed, perhaps because of a recent draught of Boy, that there sure were a loooot of hot guys at this place. Awesome, I thought. I'll work it.

Now, I've never had a problem meeting guys (mostly because I'm a woman with a pulse who can carry on an intelligent conversation. It don't take much, ladies and gentlemen). But this evening, I watched them look right through me again and again. I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt with lacy stuff at the collar, a knee-length skirt, heels, and my cute grey hat. I looked put-together and pretty, but not conventionally "sexy," and it made a huge difference.

I met some cool people, though, and they invited me out to an underground dance party the next night. SWEET! I thought. I get to get mah dance on! I wore a skirt with a long slit up the side (ok, I cheated), a fitted but elbow-length shirt, and a really cute hat with a brim.

I had a much easier time here. The crowd were mostly in their thirties and the DJs were world-renowned. The venue, an enormous warehouse with a wicked sound system and lots of crazy lights, reminded me of some of the parties in NYC. It was awesome, and I danced solo (which I can't do at most clubs. People look at you funny.) All in all, the crowd was unconventional, really into the music, and mostly black. Some women were hanging out of their dresses, but come to think of it those women were all white girls with not much going on other than their flesh. Really.

I think this calls for a comparison in the service of coming up with a thesis. 

1) Bar: Lots of white, somewhat middle of the road-looking people. The girls were on display, and I was the only girl there in a hat. The boys had much, much less interest in me than I'm used to, and I'm pretty sure I haven't acquired some deformity that makes me hideous in the last four months. No dancing, nothing to do but play bar games and talk to people. No cover.

2) Dance Club/ Party: Very few white people; mostly very polished, professional-looking black people and a few hispanic women thrown in. Thinking about it now, I did not see one head of long blond hair. People were expressing themselves on the dance floor (as opposed to trying to put themselves on display) and the people I met were from all over the world; I was looked at by guys. Maybe it was because I was one of about three white women, but I don't think so because they only stared when I danced. Cover: $20.

Now let's look at the messages implicit in the scenes.

1) Bar: If you want to be considered attractive in this world, you have to show skin. Even if you're pretty (as I believe I am), if you're not on display the men won't see you at all. Meat-market feel. Not much fun for me.

2) Dance Club/ Party: If you want to be considered attractive in this world, be an individual. Dance like no one is watching. Get into the music, and don't get sloppy drunk. All about ME having fun, not looking like I was having fun so people would talk to me.

The thing is, demographically I align with the first place; but being outside the "mainstream," as in the second place, buys one more latitude in what is considered attractive. Ideologically, I am way more at home in the second place.

So what does all this mean? Well, whether it "should" be the case or not, most males in my demographic want to see skin first, and then they'll take a chance on getting to know me. If I want to reap the benefits of having access to these men, then I have to play the game.

I can choose not to as a way to take a stand against the beauty myth or consumer culture or whatever, but the bottom line is, I pay the price. I can't look "conservative" and expect people to still see me as "normal"; to people who look like me, from a distance I seem a little scary. (Please don't ask me how I know this. Suffice it to say, someone was so freaked out by my liberal views coupled with my conservative dress that I thought his head would explode, and the whole thing turned out so weirdly it was almost comical.)

I have a choice to make. What am I willing to live with: talking a big game about how consumerist culture makes women into slaves but then dressing like one -- paying with my sense of integrity -- or walking the talk but narrowing my appeal?

I am ashamed to say, I have trouble choosing.

There are rewards and sacrifices to "playing the beauty game," and there are rewards and sacrifices for standing up against it. I think that most women, because laziness and apathy have become virtues in American culture, just accept the messages forced down our collective throats about what gives us worth and give up our sense of value as whole human beings, not just beings whose worth is determined by who finds us "suitably f*ckable" (see Will I Be Pretty?). We do this without realizing what we're really giving away. This works out fabulously for the consumerism that defines us, because it keeps us spending billions each year.

So my thesis is this:

There is always a price to pay, however I choose to present myself. What am I willing to sacrifice?

What are you willing to sacrifice?


This is an OUTRAGE. Seriously.

I was getting ready for school this morning and heard this on Morning Edition. As I have said before, I am not in favor of enforced covering. If a woman chooses -- truly chooses -- to cover, that is her right.

Shouldn't it also be her right to decide whether to uncover?

France's Anti-Burqa Law

The two women interviewed covered voluntarily and will now be forced to conform to what Sarkozy and those who support this law are more comfortable seeing. They'll be legally obligated to expose parts of their bodies that they have chosen, for spiritual reasons and of their own human volition, to cover.

One woman, speaking of her niqab, said, "You are sheltered from all onlookers and completely cut off from society."Again, these are women who have chosen to cover, have opted to protect themselves from the eyes of others. Who, among women, has never gotten sick of being stared at and appraised all the damn time? What is so wrong with wanting to be "sheltered from all onlookers?" 

The second part of her statement is a little less comfortable for us to relate to, but is a desire to be "cut off from society" so different from those days when you say to yourself, "I wish I just didn't have to deal with... the world"? I realize that this is not a perfect comparison, but even so, shouldn't an individual be able to choose whether or not she wants to participate in the goals and ideals of the society she lives in?

In my opinion, this is a human rights violation equivalent to mandatoryenforced hijabThe government (with a male at the helm) is telling women what they can and cannot wear, and if a government official asks a covered woman to show her face and I.D., she must do so or face a fine and take "a civics class," as though women who were educated would never choose to cover. How is that different from telling a woman that she must wear hijab, or be penalized?

"Sarkozy says the niqab and burqa isolate women and take away their humanity. The French immigration minister called the burqa a 'walking coffin,'" says NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, but I don't think this is really about liberating women. These women's preferences for how they choose to expose or cover themselves have not been taken into account. This is about what those who look at covered women want to be able to see. These women's modest choices are being forcibly ripped from them like a woman's t-shirt at an out-of-control frat party, and it's just as violative.