Thursday, 27 February 2014

It’s the Wrong Trousers!

... thoughts on modesty and patriarchy

It was all over bar the shouting. I'd finished my year of church visiting and didn't think many more people were going to notice my little blog. And then Mr Anonymous discovered my post about the Free Presbyterian Church in Inverness, almost exactly a year after it first appeared online, and it all started kicking off.

To describe this commentator as intemperate would be putting it mildly. So great is his rage that he struggles to express himself clearly at times, making some of what he's written unintentionally comical, as you'll see if you can be bothered to trawl through all the stuff he's felt duty bound to tell me about what true Christians would and would not do, wear or drink. Don't feel obliged, dear readers.

Thankfully, not all my readers are like Mr Anonymous. And indeed, there are other anonymous commentators who have written considered and thoughtful things and have behaved like perfect blog guests. Thank you, lovely people. 

Two interesting things arise from the whole coffee/trouser/haircut rant:

a)    the importance to Mr Anonymous (and perhaps to others in his denomination, although I will not extrapolate so far as to assume that they all share his views) of the outward appearance of a god-fearing woman, and the fact that what is on her legs or head is more significant than what is in her heart or mind; and

b)    the surprise expressed by some of my readers, secular and religious alike, that there should be such a dress code in any Scottish church in the 21st century (I'd assumed it was common knowledge), and that a woman's otherwise uncontentious fashion choices or hairstyles should draw any comment whatever in church circles or should be deemed to reflect on her character, morality, piety or fitness for salvation.

But if we're talking religiously sanctioned clothing options, we're getting into the realms of the veiling debate ... active choice or symbol of oppression? ... and that isn't somewhere I ever planned to go with my blog. Perhaps non-Christian religions are best kept out of it, since I don't have enough knowledge to comment wisely on the politics of the hijab or of tzniut compliance. However, the comments about trousers remind us that even here in Scotland there are some Christian groups that take a very strict view of what women should be allowed to wear, and of their conduct and their obedience to what a male-run church dictates.

Now, I'm all for modesty. It's been many a long year since any part of my body above the knee or below the collarbone was exposed to public view ... okay, maybe a hint of cleavage in the only dress I own (and can still fit into) that could pass for evening wear, but most of the time you'll find me fully buttoned up. If there was a shop called Frum Gear for Fat Girls, I'd probably buy my whole wardrobe there. But if I did have the figure to flaunt and I felt like flaunting it, I really don't see that that's any business of the adherents or leaders of a church to which I have never belonged, and I have to wonder how FP women and girls manage to do the gardening, play sport or climb trees while wearing a skirt, or how they feel when they don't want to get their knees frozen or their knickers revealed to the world on a particularly windy day but haven't the freedom to dress for the weather. 

I'm assuming here that that they're allowed to garden, play sport, climb trees and leave the house without a chaperone, but who knows? Now that I've started thinking about it, I'm thinking the worst.

If a man restricts what his wife and daughters can wear, what else is he stopping them doing? The FPs may have been following these rules for more than a hundred years, and may believe that they are honouring a tradition that is millennia older than that, but anyone who thinks that they're just a few oddballs and they don't matter needs to take a look across the Atlantic to the burgeoning Christian patriarchy movement in America, where quite staggeringly regressive movements such as Quiverfull and the Above Rubies ministry are raising up new generations of obedient Christian girls who will pledge to their fathers complete authority over their "purity" and every other aspect of their lives (until they marry, when their husbands will take over), who will receive no sex education and only the restricted curriculum in other subjects that is approved by their churches' home-schooling regimes, and who will remain in ignorance of their rights and of their capacity to do anything other than breed, pray and obey until the day the Lord returns to rapture up the faithful.

And their brothers are being brought up in the same households, expecting to lead and dominate and to get an obedient and unquestioning wife.

It's scary stuff and we should take it seriously. All of us, including the nice liberal churches who don’t like to rock the boat, should take it seriously.

A politician once said that we should understand less and condemn more. Mr Anonymous lives by this injunction, as we have seen, but perhaps more of the "mainstream" churches could take a leaf out of his book. I know that sounds as if I'm contradicting everything I’ve just written, but bear with me. What I mean is that, rather than just not being as extreme as the actively patriarchal, woman-hating, contraception-forbidding, education-suppressing churches on the right wing of the Christian spectrum, they could try exploding the myths that these sects and movements perpetrate.

And it's not all happening overseas. Only last week, news stories emerged about the misleading information offered to women visiting some pregnancy advice centres in the UK, and the issue isn't so much about their pro-life stance as about the tactics they employ, the lack of transparency about their funding sources and their unregulated access to vulnerable women who are being led to believe that they will receive professional and impartial medical advice. These aren't women who are members of the churches involved, but their bodies are still seen as a suitable site on which to stage a moral battle. The religious organisations backing these centres may believe they have God on their side, but since when did God require his servants to be insidious and underhand while they are about his work?

Churches who want to retain any credibility should publicly distance themselves from such groups and movements. They're giving Christianity a bad name, and "Sorry, not my department," just doesn't cut it as an excuse for inaction. But if churches, and individual Christians, keep silence and allow their fellow Christians to carry on unchecked, who can blame the secularists for tarring them all with the same brush?

Of course, some of the extremists are not devious or dangerous single-issue campaigners. Some of them are just outspoken trouser-fetishists with nothing better to do than inundate other people's blogs with their shouty comments. Those in the latter group are pretty harmless. Nobody needs to condemn them; they condemn themselves.

There may be FP folk reading this who are horrified to find themselves mentioned in the same blog post as some of these other groups, but if it hadn’t been for an FP adherent’s extreme reaction to my blog I would probably never have lumped them all in together or found myself associating what could be dismissed as an antiquated and mildly misogynistic attitude to clothing with a broader agenda to suppress women's freedoms in the name of religion. 

Until now, I’d always thought of the FPs simply as a slightly less fun version of the Free Church – a bit odd and cheerless, perhaps, and to judge by my visit last year not very friendly either, but nothing to worry about too much. Now, thanks to the comments from one of their worshippers, I see them as the thin end of a wedge whose fat end can look very sinister indeed. 

Let us take comfort where we can, though. The prospects for FP girls aren't so very bleak. Some of them grow up to become members of Parliament and hold their own opinions ... or at least those of their party, rather than those of their parents. 

But hey, maybe I've got it wrong. A single, childless woman with a mind of her own and several pairs of trousers to choose from ... in the eyes of certain people who call themselves Christians, I'm past saving and nothing I say should be given too much credence. Meanwhile, the justified trouser-haters of cyberspace can be assured of their place in heaven.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Summing up … second attempt

So a month has gone by and my Soul Search mission seems a long way behind me already. Maybe I’ve actually got this out of my system. Maybe I don’t need to sum up neatly. Maybe I can just say, “Been there, done that, no longer interested.”

I started 2013 with the tentative label “post-Christian monotheist”, and I reached the end of it without having to change that label. Am I a monotheist? I am prepared to be a theist, in the sense that I cannot say (as the fool doth in his heart) that there is no god with enough certainty to call myself an atheist, and yet I’m not particularly comfortable with the idea of being an agnostic, which is the category you might expect the unconvinced to fall into.

But one thing’s for sure. Christianity is a thing of my past. There will be no more churches. I can’t see myself ever again being lured towards such a belief system. It might look attractive and simple at the outset, but scratch the surface and you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to reconcile its myriad inconsistencies. Of course, you could just adopt a blind-faith attitude that stonewalls all argument and criticism, but that’s not a very mature or persuasive stance to take.

Oh yes, you have to be persuasive, because once you’re in, you’re supposed to evangelise and recruit and spread the word, like a lowly latecomer in a pyramid sales scheme. But at some point – and it may take years to reach that point – you’ll realise you’ve been sold a pup. I realised that a long time ago, if I’m honest about it, but I wanted to be really, really sure. And after fifty-odd churches, I'm about as sure as I can be … where Christianity is concerned, at least. I’m not ruling out other faiths; I am in no position to do so at this stage.

And before you ask, no, I don't think Christianity has value because it instils a sense of morality. Atheists/agnostics/secularists aren’t running around killing and robbing each other, or if they are it’s not because they're godless. If anything, it’s the religious folk who seem to do most damage, because their belief that their atrocities are in a righteous cause allows them to be so much more extreme and intolerant.

Religiously inspired codes of morality may reinforce the rules that civilised people would come up with anyway in the absence of religion, but that doesn’t mean that religion, or god, is the source of all morality. Anyone who says that if he/she wasn’t a Christian he/she’d be completely amoral and would be committing crimes left, right and centre is a person to be avoided. Being a dangerous person whose criminal and/or immoral instincts are suppressed by Christianity is nothing to be proud of. Being a civilised person who acts morally without needing to be told to is more to be desired.

Nevertheless, there are some areas in which a deity could be acknowledged – as a notional creator, for example, and I have no problem with that concept. The literal six-day creationists are barking, of course, but I can make room in my world view for a first cause, however that is to be understood.

I can also make room – indeed, I could hardly deny it room, if it’s omnipresent – for an overarching almighty entity that is too great and mysterious to be fully understood, however rational we try to be. But the physical paraphernalia attending the Christian version of this entity – all thorns and nails and tail feathers – is not the substance or manifestation of any god I can believe in.

So that’s where I am so far. Still pondering, but not beating myself up about it. Still doubting, but open to persuasion. And still blogging, occasionally, and trying not to get too riled by the intemperate commentators who insist on USING CAPITAL LETTERS ALL THE TIME!

Tee-hee, giggles the Soul Searcher. At least people are reading my blog -- it's been visited by people in 57 different countries. That's one for every week I've been writing it. Who'd have thought people as far afield as Benin, Chile, Qatar and Hong Kong would want to read about Edinburgh churches?