Objectification and Theology: Part 1

“I hate my body.”
“I’m so ugly.”
“If only I had a gap between my thighs.”
“I’ll go dancing again—but not until I lose some weight.”
“Do I need a boob job?”  “A nose job?”  “Liposuction?”  “Skin lightening?”  “Botox?”

Across North America, as women are looking into mirrors or other reflective surfaces, they are thinking things like this.  According to sociologists like Marika Tiggemann, body dissatisfaction is so common among women in North America that it is now considered normal.  I think that experience bears this out.  I’m willing to bet that if you are a woman, you have had at least one negative thought about your body this week.  There is something about your body that you wish you could change.

This is hardly news, of course.  By now we have also been exposed to great coverage of how the media is affecting our body image.  We know, at least on some level, that the images we see around us are affecting the way we feel about ourselves.

It’s just hard to access that knowledge in a dressing room under harsh lights, or first thing in the morning when we’re still half asleep, or in the bathroom at an office party when our makeup starts to smudge.

Feminists, of course, have plenty to say about why women hate our bodies.  They blame the patriarchy—that political and cultural tradition that says that men are large and in charge—and they point to our philosophical heritage of mind-body dualism.  Together, they say, patriarchy and dualism create a potent cocktail in which women are routinely objectified, treated as property in heterosexual relationships or as consumable sexual objects in the media.

Objectification messes us up.  On the one hand, it makes us feel like we are only bodies, or that our bodies are the only important thing about us.  On the other hand, we feel alienated from those bodies.  That is, we start to feel like our bodies aren’t really us.  They’re just clay that we have to mold to a specific shape.  And because of the influence of a misogynistic patriarchy, we also come to feel that our bodies are dirty, never-good-enough, worth nothing until a man decides they are worth something.

Christianity gets blamed for this attitude, and not without reason.  There is an ugly tradition of woman-hating in our history: men who considered women to be temptresses out to seduce them and destroy their virtue.  There is also some confusion in Christian theology about the body.  Some Christians have come to believe that our bodies are nothing more than meat-suits that we wander around in until we die and then our spirits go to heaven.

These Christians are mistaken.

They’ve (mostly) accidentally inherited some dualism from good old Plato…this idea that mind/spirit/soul is better, higher, purer than bodies/matter.  Sadly, when this dualism comes into play, women get stuck on the body/matter side of things, and men get to live on the mind/soul side.

Because women are considered impure matter under this system, we are treated like objects.  We are treated as if we have no souls, no minds, no spirits.

Is it any wonder that we end up treating our bodies like trash, and at the same time thinking that they are most important thing about us?

The World Online: Real or Not?

My hand typing on my keyboard alongside the other things on my desk

Why is what I put online less real than this?

Is your online life “real”?

It’s an important question.  For many people, the “life” they experience online is detached somehow from the life they have in the “real” world.  Some people eschew the use of social media because they believe that it prevents them from connecting with people in the “real” world.

I hate that phrase: “the real world.”

When we interact with others online–whether in the context of social media, online gaming, email, voice-chat, or IRC–we are interacting with real people.  We are using our real bodies to interact.  What we do online is as real as anything else we do in our lives.

Yes, it is possible to construct an online persona that is different in some quantifiable or qualitative way from the persona that you project to people you meet away from your computer screen.  I think we are all guilty of using personae to protect ourselves both in our online interactions and offline.  We do that to protect ourselves.  Being completely honest about who you are is a very vulnerable place to be.  And, really, how many of us ever know who we truly are?  I think most of us spend our lifetimes constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing our identities.  Our online interactions are just one part of that.  Although aspects of the personality you present online might be different than the personality you use offline, I believe that, except in the case of deliberate dishonesty, we are experimenting with identity in both cases.

Some people will suggest that too much screen time leads to disengaging from social interaction in the “real world.”  For some people, like myself, interacting with people online provides more social interaction than we are likely to get offline.  If I was to cut myself off from the internet, would it drive me to socialize more with people offline?  Maybe, but it might also drive me deeper into social isolation and make me a lonelier and more depressed person.

Are friendships made with people we may never meet offline less real than those we make offline?  I don’t think so.  I am often more honest, open, and vulnerable with people online than offline.  Offline, I am constrained by social rules and shyness, which inhibits me from sharing openly or seeking out interaction with others.  Online, I share more freely, uninhibited by my attempts to read other people’s facial expressions or to provoke certain positive responses from them in conversation.  Offline, my fear of conflict and rejection can prevent me from being all of who I am.

Interaction online still requires the use of my physical body.  No one has yet invented a port that connects our minds directly with the internet, and even if they had, we would still need our physical brains to form the thoughts that are in our minds. (At least until they figure out if it is possible to “upload” our minds, and even then, we would simply be trading a body of flesh for a body of electrical…*ahem* I read a lot of sci-fi.)

So, I believe that our online life is just as real as our offline life.  In fact, I think if we integrate them both, it will help us to find a fuller understanding of “who we are” and, instead of being a barrier to relationship and communication, it can be a path to greater and deeper connection.

Why I Get Excited about the Incarnation

What’s so exciting about the Incarnation of Jesus?

It comes across at first as a dry theological topic.  It has a Latin-y name with more than two syllables.  It sounds kind of vague and abstract and ivory-tower.

In fact, the exciting thing about the Incarnation of Jesus is that it is none of these things.

When we find Jesus in His human body, we find something not vague, but specific.  Not abstract, but concrete.  Not ivory-tower, but down-in-the-dirt with the least of us.

Jesus has a human body.  A specific human body.  With specific features.  Unfortunately for us, none of the disciples cared to describe Jesus’ appearance in writing for us, which might be because he doesn’t look like anything special. (In fact, in Isaiah 53:2b, Isaiah foretells that there would be nothing about him that would cause us to take a second look.)  But he has features: he has a nose of a certain shape, eyes of a specific colour, a mouth that curves upward in just a certain way when He sees His friends.  I don’t want to speculate on what He looks like because we simply don’t know…yet.  But someday we will.

Jesus has a human body.  A concrete human body.  It isn’t a ghost’s “body,” somehow looking physical but actually made of energy or something.  He has a solid, touchable, human body.  Granted, His human body is now transformed, so it has…properties…that our bodies don’t yet have, but it is still a concrete body.  It is a concrete body that no doubt tore at the flesh of His virgin mother when she gave birth to Him.  It is a concrete body that felt the warmth and wetness of the tears of the woman who came to wash His feet.  It is a concrete body that cried tears when He felt–with His real, human, poignant feelings–the grief of His friends over the death of their brother, Lazarus, when He felt His own grief.  It is a concrete body that still bears the concrete scars of His crucifixion: holes in His hands (wrists?) and His feet, a gap in His side where the spear pierced His concrete flesh, His forehead torn by the thorns of the crown they gave Him.

Jesus has a human body.  A comes-from-the-dirt human body.  This isn’t an ivory-tower, academic, castle-in-the-clouds concept.  This is a truth that is as real as the ground beneath our feet, the sweat on our skin, the blood pounding in our ears.  Jesus is alive in this body right now in the presence of God, in the dimension we call Heaven.  Jesus, the Son of God, the Word that was in the beginning, the One in whom all things hold together, has a real human body that we will someday see with our real human eyes.  Jesus knows what it means to be hungry, to feel physical pain, to experience temptation, to hug a friend or family member, to touch a person suffering from disease, to craft something with his hands, to mix spit with dirt to create mud.  Academics (and I am one of them, most of the time) can make almost anything so difficult to understand that it seems like they’re just making things up as they go along, or so aloof from reality that we can’t ever figure out why certain concepts matter.

But the body of Jesus matters.  The body of Jesus is matter.

I get excited about the Incarnation of Jesus because it’s the part of the story where everything changes.  God, who crafted human beings out of the primordial stuff, the basics that make up even the dirt that we walk on, that God chose to become one of us.  He chose to cast His lot in with us, to take the death that we deserved, and then to pave the way for us to become like Him.  Because His real human body is present with God, our real human bodies can be present with God…someday.  Because His flesh was transformed, our flesh will be transformed…someday.  Because the dirt from which His body was formed, that basic stuff…tissues, cells, DNA, atoms, electrons, the Higgs boson…all of that basic stuff will be transformed…someday.

So, how can I not get excited about the Incarnation of Jesus?  Because Jesus is matter, matter matters.  Because Jesus has a body, we can trust that our individual bodies, and the whole of the universe, will someday be transformed in a collision between the eternal heaven and the currently-finite universe.

Your mileage may vary, but to me this is Very Good News.

That’s why I get excited about the Incarnation of Jesus.

Such a Geek

I’m a geek.  It’s why I get loud when I need to defend Hayao Miyazaki films or how, if you mention Lord of the Rings, you’ll have to talk to me about it for the next hour.  It’s why I spend most of my spare time playing video games (one of which is set in Middle Earth—go figure) or consuming sci-fi/fantasy books, movies, and TV shows.  I used to worry so much about letting my geekiness show, but after I learned not to hide who I am out of fear of the stigma attached, I became a happier person.  I figure that if you want to know who I am, you’ll have to be introduced to the geek.  You can take her or leave her, but she isn’t likely to change.  I am blessed to be married to a geek guy, someone who doesn’t worry that his wife takes it as a point of pride that she can identify the planetary origin of a specific spacecraft from Star Trek just based on its appearance.  And I am happy that my parents raised me on Star Wars and Star Trek, let me play on the Commodore (and learn to code a few lines of Basic), and gave me my first box set of The Chronicles of Narnia when I was six or seven, and—possibly unwittingly—my first set of Dungeons & Dragons novels when I was nine.

One of my geeky girl-crushes is Felicia Day, creator of the online show “The Guild” and the Youtube channel “Geek & Sundry”.  In this following video, Day (hyping the new season on Geek & Sundry) explores the meaning of the word geek.  I’ll just get you started when she brings up the question, “What is a geek?”

As Felicia Day suggests, being a geek is more than just belonging to a specific fandom (i.e. comic books, sci-fi, video games, etc.).  A geek is a person who “dares to love something that isn’t conventional.”  My weird interests will probably always make me a bit of an outsider, but there’s something more important than all of this that leaves me on the margins of a society like ours.

I’m a geek for Jesus.

Brown t-shirt  with white text that reads

Look, I even found a Jesus Geek t-shirt on zazzle.com!

Yeah, yeah, that sounds kind of like a trite, t-shirt slogany thing to say, but it’s true.  Getting as excited about Jesus as I do about Star Trek makes me an outsider, just as Day suggests.  To a certain extent, all Christians are outsiders, all Christians are Jesus Geeks.  But sometimes I feel like that geek-as-outsider even within the Church, and not just because I treat imaginary worlds as if they were real, sometimes.

I get really, really excited about things like the Incarnation.  I mean, really excited…bouncing in my seat kind of excited.  That’s strange for someone as introverted and shy as I am.  But when our pastor starts talking about Jesus being alive, right now, in his physical, ascended body, this shy, introverted, self-conscious, white Canadian wants to jump up and shout, “AMEN! PREACH IT, BROTHER!”  Which I don’t, because I go to a church largely made up of formerly Presbyterian second-generation Korean-Canadians and I don’t want to give anyone a heart attack.  I do it inside my head, though, and then go home and give my husband, bless his patient heart, the sermon/testimony that I wanted to give at church.

This blog might end up being another outlet for those excited, half-baked, emotive geek-outs that I need to share.  In fact, I think I need to geek-out about the Incarnation for you, so expect that later this week.

Game On

I feel like everything I’ve been writing/posting lately has been Very Serious.  I do have a tendency to be a pretty serious person much of the time, probably because I feel there are a lot of serious issues in the world today.  My heart tends to break over those things and I have a hard time ignoring that.  But no one can sustain being serious all the time (except maybe Sam the Eagle, amiright?), so here’s a little post about something happier.

Specifically, something that makes me happy: computer games.

I know that the stereotype of a gamer is a 15-21 boy/man that plays games like Call of Duty 18 hours a day.  But gaming statistics are showing that almost half of all gamers are women, and that the average age of a gamer is 35.

I said “computer games” instead of “video games” because when most people think of video games, they think of consoles (Wii, Xbox, PlayStation).  I prefer to play on the PC because it gives me a greater range of controls (mouse and game pad) than a console game.  We do own a Wii and an original Xbox, and I do enjoy me some Mariokart, Smash Brothers, or Lego Star Wars from time to time, but I prefer computer games generally, and MMORPGs specifically.  MMORPG stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game.  Most people refer to them simply as MMOs.  You’ve probably heard of World of Warcraft, arguably the most popular MMO.  I don’t play that one (mostly because I’m contrary).  I play Lord of the Rings Online, Everquest 2, and a very small amount of Vanguard: Saga of Heroes.  Historically, I have also played Dungeons and Dragons Online and Asheron’s Call.  (Yes, those who are fans of MMOs now know I am a Turbine game junkie.)

So, why MMOs?

Three characters from the computer game Asheron's Call jumping up in the air.

My husband, my sister, and I experiencing quite the feeling while playing Asheron’s Call.

I was first introduced to them after I got married.  I had been an avid computer gamer all my life, but had never tried MMOs.  I think I did try an early persistent world game back in the 90s, but running those things on dial-up was…not fun.  My husband is also a gamer and we learned not long after we got married that we both liked to game in our spare time.  But it isn’t very much fun to be sitting in the same room at separate computers playing different games, so my husband suggested that we try an MMO because it was a game that we could play together but not against one another.  That appealed to me very much and it wasn’t long before playing MMOs became our favourite hobby as a couple.

MMOs are persistent worlds.  Basically that means that the game world is stored remotely and shared by the massive number of players who have access to it.  You can interact with other players around the world and join together with them to complete quests/missions.  It’s a very social form of gaming, though I have to admit that mostly we just use the social aspect to play together (and with my sister, who lives in another province).  Most MMOs have regular content updates, meaning that the stories they tell are ongoing and changing.  It’s a very interactive and immersive form of story-telling and story-experiencing.  I find it much more rewarding than watching TV, and it’s been a real source of pleasure for my husband and I as we adventure in these fantasy worlds together.

I love gaming enough that this will not be my only post about it, so if you’re a gamer, watch this space.

Do you game?  If so, what attracts you to gaming?

Marriage saved by grace

A while ago, I read a blog post about “how not to destroy your marriage,” written by a man with two failed marriages.  It had a lot of good advice, some of it common sense stuff, some of it obviously learned the hard way.  But it also had some advice that didn’t resonate with me and got me thinking about why I deemed it to be bad advice.

And then it struck me: it was marriage by works.

Okay, I’ll back up a bit.  I’m going to borrow rudely from Protestant theology here.  Oversimplified, Protestant theology accuses Catholic theology of being based on a model of salvation by works.  That is, “I can get into heaven so long as I am very, very good and do very, very good things.”  Protestants, on the other hand, believe in salvation by grace: the idea that God is very, very good and we are very, very bad and there’s nothing we can do about it, so God sent Jesus Christ to save us from our sins.  Okay, I told you that was oversimplified.

So, my theory is that some marriages are based on works.  Some couples believe that if only they take good enough care of their bodies (“don’t let yourself go”) or avoid farting in front of their spouse, or any other thing that they can think of to do to show their spouse that they love him/her, then their marriage will be saved.

I disagree.  I believe that marriage is saved by grace.  It’s saved by two people who pledged before God and their communities that they will love their spouse through the good times and the bad, through sickness and health…etc.  But it’s important to understand that our pledge to love our spouses means that we love them even though they fart in front of us, or even though they gain weight, or even though they stop manscaping, or even though they stop wearing makeup every day, or even though they sometimes get grumpy, or even though…have you got the picture yet?

Does that mean you shouldn’t wear makeup, manscape, fart in the bathroom, hold your tongue, etc.?  Of course not!  I told you I oversimplified Protestant theology!  Salvation by grace also includes the desire to show God how much we love Him by doing good things, not because of anything we will get from the experience, but simply because we want to do good things.  Same goes for marriage.  If you want to get dressed up for your spouse or do other nice things to show that you love him/her, do those things.  But don’t expect that you will get love—or other reciprocal actions—from your spouse.  You are doing these things because you love him/her, not because s/he is a vending machine that you can plunk a good deed into and get a candy bar out of in return (same goes for God, by the way).

And your duty is to love your spouse with grace, not expecting him/her to do anything to earn your love.  You love that person because they are your spouse.  Love is a posture your heart takes, and, yes, it is a posture his or her heart needs to take as well.  That’s the difference between marriage and our relationship with God: marriage is two-sided, but God’s grace is one-sided (and here is the inevitable place where my analogy falls apart).

So, my secret to a strong and lasting marriage (and mine is in its tenth year, so take that as you will)?  Grace, grace, grace, grace, and more grace.

Love with grace, love actively, love gently, love without expecting love back, love kindly, love patiently, love broadly, love focusedly (okay, I made that word up: it means love just this one person in just this particular way. To be more obvious…no adultery, real or imagined!), love passionately, love with laughter, and above all, love with grace.

Nachos with a side of legs?

Several months ago, I went out for food with friends from church.  We went to a local pub renowned for its tasty nibblies.  It is also a sports bar.  I mentioned that I’d never been there before, and one of my friends said that some of the guys from church liked to go there after services on a Sunday afternoon.

“It’s a good place to come watch the games, I suppose,” I said, trying to deduce what would bring the men from our Baptist church to a bar after service.

“Yeah,” she said, her voice laced with irony, “and I’m sure it has nothing to do with the length of their skirts.”  Just then, I caught sight of one of the waitresses.  My mouth curled sardonically.  The woman (girl?) was wearing a skirt too short to sit down in and a baby-doll t-shirt with the restaurant’s name emblazoned on the front.

“Ah, yes,” I said, letting my disappointment and frustration fall silent on my lips.

I know it’s considered normal behaviour for men to come to a bar to ogle the waitresses.  I know that Christian men don’t (can’t?) always exempt themselves from normal.

But they should.

Perhaps it’s unfair of me to expect them to live up to better behaviour.  I mean, these waitresses know what they’re getting into, right?  They’re laying it on a plate, so why shouldn’t someone order the dessert cart?

But Christian men should be expected to show better behaviour.  When a man looks at a woman as a sex object—even if she is complicit in behaving as a sex object—he has taken away her humanity.  Objectification creates objects.  It takes a living, breathing human being with hopes, dreams, family, friends, ambitions, and so on, and turns her into a thing.  Everything that makes her a unique person with a unique personality is stripped away and she becomes a set of legs, a pair of breasts, or a perfectly shaped bottom.

Anyone who follows Jesus Christ should be ashamed to treat any human being as a thing.  Every person is made in the image of God, and it is our responsibility as those who are following Jesus to treat them as image-bearers.  Treating them instead as objects that titillate our desires is reprehensible.  It doesn’t matter if it’s something that culture treats as normal.  It doesn’t matter that the women involved may have chosen to dress that way, act that way.  Your responsibility as a follower of Jesus is to treat them the way that Jesus would treat them: as children of a loving Father who wants them to grow in faithfulness and to live an abundant life filled with obedience to the Spirit.

We are called to treat them as people, not as things.

It bothers me to think that brothers with whom I worship on a Sunday morning treat any women as objects, because it makes me question how they treat me and my sisters.  Do they respect us?  Do they see us as sisters, made in the image of God, following side-by-side with them as we try to be more like Jesus?

All people deserve the humanity which God gave to them.  I urge my brothers to treat all women, Christians and non-Christians, wives and daughters, sisters and mothers, as human beings, made in God’s image, as deserving of respect and honour as any man.  To my brothers who are going to the bar to watch women as much as watch the game (if not more), I would strongly suggest that they search their hearts, lay them before God, and ask God to shape those hearts according to His will.  Then find another place to watch the game.  You are not showing those waitresses the love of God by treating them as objects.  You are dehumanizing them, and in the process you are dehumanizing yourselves.

*Note, please consider this post gender-reversible, too.  I would suggest to women who are learning the bad habit of objectifying men from movies like Magic Mike or the Twilight series, to search their own hearts.  Two wrongs don’t make a right.  You too can treat a man as an object, and it’s exactly as destructive as it is when they treat us like objects.