Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I'm Just a Girl

ESR student Jodi Jones offers a reflection on Peter Rollins’ new book, The Idolatry of God. Rollins will be on campus at ESR as the keynote speaker for our annual Willson Lectures on April 8.

Take this pink ribbon off my eyes
I'm exposed
And it's no big surprise
Don't you think I know
Exactly where I stand
This world is forcing me
To hold your hand
'Cause I'm just a girl, little 'ol me
Don't let me out of your sight
I'm just a girl, all pretty and petite
So don't let me have any rights
No Doubt, I’m Just a Girl

In the US, women have earned the right to die on the battlefield. They have not only proven themselves as competent, but also as having a unique perspective and having something distinctive to add to the conversation. As theologians they have shown themselves to be intelligent, witty, and pioneers in new ways of thinking. Yet, the world still tries to force us to hold the hand of the people in power. While the American woman has overcome much of the hard power oppression, the soft power still creeps forward in insidious ways. One of those ways came to my attention last week as I prepared for our Willson lecturer, Peter Rollins.

I recently began to read Peter Rollins’ book The Idolatry of God in preparation for his upcoming visit. My interest in his work was centered on his assertion that faith is in “embrac[ing] our brokenness” and in “accept[ing] the difficulties of existence” (Rollins, back cover), which I felt I could apply to my chaplaincy. I was only a few pages into his book when I was overcome with feelings that I can only describe as rage and humiliation. The emergence of these feelings centered on a story Rollins’ uses to explain creatio ex nihilo.  The story is one in which a man tricks his friend’s wife into reluctantly exposing her naked body to him for four hundred dollars (Rollins, 10-11).

The sting of these feelings continued when Rollins used two more misogynistic examples without apology. In a milder instance, Rollins uses Immanuel Kant’s example of a man’s desire to sleep with a woman to be heightened by an obstacle (Rollins, 29). This is followed by an example where a woman remains in a destructive relationship with “someone who is highly respected” so that she can “get a form of pleasure from other people…wishing they were in her position” (Rollins, 40). While the last two cases of sexism are less impactful, in light of the first story they build upon a negative view of women in general.   It is a view in which women are sexual objects to be manipulated and in which they are manipulative. Thus far, forty pages into the book, I have not read a positive view of women in Rollins’ book that offsets the growing negative view. Disturbingly, it seems as if Rollins is unaware of his sexist views.

Let me tell you very briefly about the women I know. None of them have a pink ribbon over their eyes, and very few of them have had anyone who holds their hands. They have made it in a world as single moms, as deeply caring pastors or chaplains, as teachers and students, as people who will scratch and climb and stumble toward success not just for themselves, but for others. They are women who, even after months or years of demeaning abuse, will find the strength to get out of destructive relationships even if it means being homeless for a while. They are, in brief, women who would eat rice and beans month after month before they would reluctantly expose themselves to a power hungry neighbor.

Now, let me tell you briefly about some of the men I know. They care deeply for myriad causes, their heads rear back in disgust when I read them the sexist drivel I have alluded to above, they are people who love and want to be loved. They have sacrificed greatly in service to their beliefs and to others. And, as far as I know, they would eat rice and beans month after month so they could give their desperate neighbor much needed money.

And, there is the crux of sexism. It creates a world where women and men are belittled. It creates caricatures of people who love, who make mistakes, and who imperfectly stumble toward God. It has not, though, brought about the Kin-dom of God. It has not honored all as the beloved children of God that we know ourselves to be.

I will change the lyrics of No Doubt’s song just slightly: I know exactly where I stand/this world [cannot force me to hold your hand]. That change represents the joy and transformation of living in the Light of God. As an American woman, I have freedoms other women in the world do not have. I am able to choose a counter-culture stance where I value all of God’s good creation to the best of my ability. But, I do not stop there. I continue to love even as I am hurt. I continue to make myself vulnerable even as it deeply scares me. I continue to believe that God’s Kin-dom is in the here and now and that together we can make a change.

This reflection is meant to only be the beginning of a conversation. I wonder, for example, to what extent a person’s message is tainted by the messenger. After all, none of us claims perfection, and we all write and speak from our own context. How do we live out the testimonies of peace, integrity, and equality in situations where someone is a little racist, sexist, homophobic, and/or elitist? What about when they are blatantly racist, sexist, etc.? In a recent email, [ESR Dean] Jay Marshall expressed the desire to have a community-wide discussion about how Rollins ties what Christians believe and what they say and do with themes such as social justice and realized eschatology. For those who have read his books, how do you perceive his message in connection to the reflections above?

As I said, I am intending this to be the beginning of a conversation. What are your thoughts? What are your questions?


  1. There are certainly other times when Rollins mentions women. See also between pg 29 and pg 40 where Rollins brings up examples of women from the Bridges of Madison County and pg 35-37 and 1 Kings 3:16-28 on pg 38-39. Rollins description of Francesca in the Bridges of Madison County seems sympathetic and despite having moral failings along the way, in the end, Francesca makes the moral decision. The story of the two mothers and the baby before King Solomon contains two women one who seems more worthy than the other, but Rollins can hardly be blamed for this particular story.

    Throughout The Idolatry of God, Rollins makes a point to try to reach beyond his own culturally limited, male perspective by doing things like making a point of using inclusive language and including female as well as male examples. If his greatest failing in this book is one lousy joke about a man deceiving a woman and being revealed as a cad, then it seems that feminism really is having an impact on society.

    Rollins is clearly making an effort to reach out to women even if he's failing at being fair to women. Moreover, what Rollins needs from us for him to have a chance to grow is not shunning and shutting down the conversation. Instead, let us offer critique that responds to his work as a whole both calling him to account where he is lacking and crediting him where he succeeds.

    Perhaps Ms. Jones would find Insurrection more to her liking where Rollins points toward believers who choose "a life of faith that transcends mere dogmatic affirmations and...involves an ongoing transformation by love, in love, toward love" (42). Further, "we learn that God is present in the very act of love itself...we discover the divine in our very act of loving the world. God is loved through the work of love itself (Matthew 18:20, 1 John 4:20). It is in love that we find new meaning, joy, and fulfillment" (118).

    In Insurrection Rollins also calls us to move beyond the foolishness of Batman, that is, to change systems (Bruce Wayne could invest in his community) and not merely fight against symptoms (beating up criminals). This is would be serious change.

    Perhaps a good place to end is to point out that Rollins believes that all of us should be called to account for every one of our actions. For him it's not that we don't live up to our values, but that our actions show that we have beliefs and desires that we do not like to admit. Calling Rollins out on where he falls short will take away his "gap between perception and reality" just as Rollins calls each of us to do for ourselves. Teach him by staying in conversation.

  2. As I don't have a copy of this book, is there a way to post an excerpt of what you take issue with? I'd like to read it for myself and within context. I'd also be interested in a follow-up to this piece once you've had a chance to have a discussion with Rollins.

    1. Here is the story which Jodi cites from pages 10-11 of Peter Rollins' The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction:

      "There was once a young woman who, late one evening, was taking a shower when the doorbell rang. Knowing that her husband was dozing in the upstairs bedroom she quickly wrapped herself in a towel and ran to the door. When she opened it she was greeted by her next-door neighbor Joe.

      Upon seeing her wearing nothing but a towel Joe pulled four hundred dollars from his back pocket, looked her in the eye, and said, 'I have always been attracted to you. What do you say to the following indecent proposal? If I were to offer you this four hundred dollars right now, would you drop the towel for me?'

      After a moment's reflection, she reluctantly agreed, dropped the towel, and let him look at her naked body. True to his worrd, Joe gave her the money and left.

      Picking up the towel she hd the money and then went up to the bedroom. As she entered the room, her husband woke up and asked, "Did the doorbell ring a few minutes ago?"

      'Oh, yes,' replied the woman. 'It was just Joe from next door.'

      'Great! Did he give you the four hundred dollars he owes me?'

      Here we witness a type of "creatio ex nihilo at work, for the neighbor Joe has nothing to offer except the illusion of something (four hundred dollars that is not his), but this illusion generates the desired effect -- the woman exposing her body. Nothing was made to look like something and created a result.

      So how can this idea of nothing creating something help us understand the dissatisfaction that seems so much a part of human life?"

  3. "In the US, women have earned the right to die on the battlefield...."

    This is something to be lauded?

  4. I have been finding it very interesting and useful to read Peter Rollins' work, and am encouraging students and others to take part in the April 8-9 lectures and discussions of it at ESR. But I am also disappointed in the sexism of some of the examples in his most recent book, The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction, which are cited in Jodi Jones' post. I have been thinking more about that infuriating story which he used to illustrate "creatio ex nihilo", and decided to give it a new ending.

    ". . . The woman, realizing that Joe was even a greater weasel than she had been aware, thought quickly and said to her husband, 'No, you weren't available. Joe didn't give me your $400; you'll have to get that from him later.' "

    Joe made a contract with the woman (by his slimy offer), so he then owed her the $400 in payment for revealing her body to him. Thus the money ceased to be the repayment of the debt Joe owed the husband. Joe still owed $400 to the husband, because the money he brought over now belongs to the wife, since Joe used it for a different purpose (satisfaction of his prurient desire to see her unclothed) rather than for repayment of the debt. If he took a detour on the way to the house and bought a fancy $400 ski jacket, the money would no longer available to repay his debt to the husband, but in this case right there in the house Joe obligated the money elsewhere.

    This ending puts the power back in the woman's hands. She ceases to be a victim of Joe (and perhaps also of her husband, by whom she was inadvertently made vulnerable to Joe by his keeping his loan to Joe a secret from her.) She has also "made something from nothing" (Rollins' point of the story) by quickly turning Joe's deception of her into a further cost to him. She holds Joe accountable for the fact that he made two different deals with two different people.

  5. I like this ending, Stephanie!

    OK- earlier this morning I posted a long reply back to Josie. Looks like I forgot to select the "publish" button below. :-(

    May try again later.