Tuesday, June 26, 2012

booknotes: thirteen books to read instead of "religious right"

A few weeks ago, I got an advance review copy of A. F. Alexander's Religious Right: The Greatest Threat to Democracy (Blazing Sword Publishing, 2012) through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer giveaway program. Alexander, a refugee from fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity, is on a mission to expose the agenda and tactics of the politicized Christian right and convince her readers that the movement is "ominous, and requires immediate attention."

I agree with Alexander that the religious right is not a force to be underestimated, and also agree with her that their vision of America as a nation does not jibe with mine, most of the time (frankly, I enjoy going about my homosexual ways without fear of arrest, like my bodily autonomy, and wouldn't give a shit if our president were Muslim and foreign-born). However, if you're interested in reading about the rise of conservative Christian political clout since the 1960s, there are other books I would recommend you read instead of this one -- if for no other reason than that they are well-written and copy-edited. Alexander is clearly passionate about her subject, but I can't help feeling that her energy might have been better spent on a memoir (a la Deborah Feldman's Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots), a work of fiction (e.g. Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness) or perhaps curating a website or blog that might serve as a gathering space for ex-fundies (see, for example, No Longer Quivering) or contributing pieces to a news blog that covers religion and politics (see Religion Dispatches). While her research might come from an authentic and personal space, it's unclear what her polemic does that other texts have not done before, and better.

I definitely wish Alexander well in her life and in her growth away from the fundamentalist Christianity she found personally (and politically) toxic. Prospective readers interested in religious fundamentalism of the modern era, however, would do better to check out one of the following baker's dozen worth of titles that tell the story of modern American evangelical Christianity in much more readable prose, along with substantive evidence and analysis:

Thirteen Books to Read Instead of Religious Right:

Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000). Ex-nun, historian or religion, and public intellectual Karen Armstrong offers a sweeping historical and theological analysis of the rise of fundamentalism in the modern era in the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Part history, part psychology, part political theory, this is a tour de force.

Balmer, Randall. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America (4th ed. Oxford U.P., 2006). Originally published in 1993 and turned into a PBS series by the same name, this memoir-cum-ethnographic study explores various sites of evangelical Christianity in the U.S. circa the mid-1980s. Full disclosure: Randy is an Oregon Extension alum and participated in my oral history project.

Erzen, Tanya. Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement (University of California Press, 2006). Sociologist Erzen delves deep into the culture of the ex-gay movement, conducting ethnographic research on-site at New Hope, the oldest ex-gay ministry in the United States. Her empathetic analysis humanizes her subjects, persistently allowing them to make meaning of their own lives, even as she raises concerns about the ex-gay movement's notions of gender and sexuality.

Fallon, D'Arcy. So Late, So Soon (Hawthorne Books, 2004). Fallon's memoir is a beautiful meditation on her reasons for joining a Christian commune in Northern California as a footloose adolescent, her love affair with fundamentalist Christianity, and her later escape from the community's demanding clutches. Fallon doesn't gloss over the controlling, abusive aspects of her experience she helps us into an understanding of what it was her younger self found compelling about Lighthouse Ranch.

Frank, Doug. A Gentler God (Albatross Books, 2011). Part memoir, part theological exegesis, part history of twentieth-century evangelical culture, historian of ideas Doug Frank explores the abusive nature of fundamentalist, evangelical Christian theology and suggests a more loving way forward. Full disclosure: Doug is a former professor of mine, and participated in my Oregon Extension oral history project.

Frykholm, Amy. Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford U. P., 2007). Herself a child of evangelical culture, Frykholm uses social science research methods to explore the popular culture of the Left Behind novels, interviewing readers about how this fictional depiction of the end times informs their faith and everyday lives.

Frykholm, Amy. See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity (Beacon Press, 2011). Frykholm's second work is a series of essay-length case studies built from length interviews she conducted with Christians who struggle (or have struggled) with embodiment and sexuality in relation to their religious faith.

Goldberg, Michelle. Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (W. W. Norton, 2006). Journalist Goldberg explores the thinkers and activists behind Christian nationalism, or Dominionism -- the segment of the religious right that believes that America was founded as, and should be returned to,

Jordan, Mark D. Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk About Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press, 2011). Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, with a joint appointment Women, Gender, and Sexuality, Jordan offers a series of case studies in Christian rhetoric about homosexuality across the twentieth century.

Lamott, Anne. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (Pantheon Books, 1999). If you're interested in why a dreadlock-sporting, pro-choice leftist would be drawn to evangelical Christianity, this is the book for you.

Ostling, Richard and Joan. Mormon America: The Power and the Promise (Harper, 1999). A thoroughly-researched, historically- and theologically- informed account of the Latter-Day Saints and their place in American culture. Following the involvement of the LDS church in the anti-marriage equality activism, and Romney's bid for the U.S. Presidency, Mormons are in the spotlight more than ever, and it's useful to have some historical perspective on this peculiarly American institution.

Rosin, Hanna. God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America (Harcourt, 2007). Recently-founded Patrick Henry College sent more interns to the Bush White House than any other institution of higher education. Journalist Rosin sets out to discover why, delivering a troubling, though not entirely unsympathetic, portrait of Patrick Henry's mission and student body. See also: Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League.

Radosh, Daniel. Rapture Ready: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture (Scribner, 2008). This rolicking tour of Christian rock, Silver Ring Thing purity events, Christian publishing, and more also offers on-the-ground insight into how political and theological worldviews are marketed via kitsch and community in American consumer culture.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

booknotes: big sex, little death

About a year after its debut, I finally got around to obtaining a copy of Susie Bright's Big Sex, Little Death: A Memoir (Seal Press, 2011) from our local library network.  Bright, for those of you unfamiliar with the name, is a sexuality educator, poet, and activist. She is perhaps most famous (or infamous) in feminist circles as one of the founding editors of On Our Backs, a magazine for lesbian erotica that first appeared in 1984 and became a major player in the lesbian/feminist "sex wars" of the 80s. Bright, along with Carol Queen, Gayle Rubin, Pat Califia, and a handful of other queer folks of varying stripes, were instrumental in articulating a vision of human sexuality and erotic imagination that ran counter to the anti-pornography stance of feminist activists such as Gail Dines, Katherine Mackinnon, and Andrea Dworkin.* As proponents of what eventually became identified as "sex-positive feminism," Bright and company were banned from college campuses, received death threats, and -- in a classic example of Godwin's Law -- were accused of being sexist Nazis, promoting female genocide. Toward the end of Big Sex, Bright writes about visiting the University of Minnesota to speak about "lesbian eroticism in cinema," only to find herself rushed by a young woman in the restroom "carrying something sharp in her hand." The would-be attacker stuttered to a halt when she took in Bright's advanced state of pregnancy, which somehow hadn't registered during the lecture. "In my protestors' minds, I was killing women with my wicked ways, not creating new life" (221).

Unlike Carol Queen's Real Live Nude Girl or Gayle Rubin's recently-released anthologyBig Sex, Little Death actually has relatively little to say about sex.  Or, at least, its primary purpose is not to articulate a politics of sex, or even focus on Bright's personal experience with sexuality. When sex enters the narrative it does so episodically, with Bright talking about her adolescent sexual fumblings (and, many would argue, the sexual abuse -- or at least exploitation -- she suffered at the hands of older male leftist organizers), or her on-the-ground frustration with the sexual policing within lesbian feminist circles of the Seventies and Eighties.

These are glances only, rather than a narrative through-line, and at times I found myself frustrated by the lack of reflection from now-Susie on then-Susie's sexual experiences and what meaning she has made out of them. She describes for example, how at age fifteen she and her friend-cum-lover Danielle (also fifteen) "seduced" older men, sometimes for fun, sometimes for cash. She describes the sexual availability she was expected to sustain within the socialist groups she was active in as a teenager and into her early twenties, and in contrast to Jeanne Cordova (in When We Were Outlaws) doesn't spend much ink considering how those sexual dynamics contributed to the way she was used and abused as a youthful activist. While I appreciate the philosophy of being gentle with one's younger self, at times it feels like Susie-Bright-the-adult has abdicated the role of narrator to such an extent that injuries done to her are overlooked in the memoir as they were unacknowledged at the time.

The most difficult to read -- and also most deftly-handled -- passages of Big Sex are those dealing with Bright's relationship with her parents, and to a lesser extent the way in which those deeply troubled interactions shaped her own choices as a parent. Her mother struggled with an undiagnosed mental illness that, together with her own neglected, poverty-ridden childhood, seems to have left her with very little in the way of emotional and material resources. She repeatedly tried to commit suicide and once attempted murder-suicide with adolescent Susie in the car, only to crash the car before they reach the river, and abandon injured Susie to make her own way home. Explanations for the behavior (e.g. untreated mental illness and lack of social support) don't lessen the reality that Susie grew up with incredibly shitty, near-fatal, parenting from her mother and more benign neglect from her father. And despite my own lack of personal triggers regarding family abuse, there were a couple of times when I almost had to put the book down out of anger and sadness that anyone has to live through that sort of experience -- particularly as a child dependent on their abuser.

When, at thirty-two, Bright faces an unplanned pregnancy, she's surprised by the depth of her desire to carry to term:
The real reason I couldn't imagine having a baby was that I was afraid of my temper, afraid of doing those things for which you can't ever fully apologize. I knew that my mom had been "sorry" that she had hit me (after all, it wasn't as badly as she'd been hit). She didn't remember threatening me (after all, we did survive). Maybe it was my fault sometimes; isn't that what kids think? Mommy, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. It changed nothing for her. But then, her actions had very little to do with me (287-288).
The desire to give birth, coupled with the fear she would replicate her own mother's abusive behavior, leads Bright on a very intentional path toward parenting differently from the way her mother parented. While obviously we only have her perspective on her daughter's childhood, it sounds from Big Sex like Bright created a family realm that helped her manage her temper in a way that would not spread the damage to yet another generation. And that's always a beautiful, courageous thing to see happen.

Overall, I highly recommend this memoir for anyone interested in another eyewitness account of the turbulent era of imploding social change activism during 70s and 80s, when internal dissent combined with a resurgent conservatism and mainstream hostility to turn leftists against each other in unhelpful ways. Yet in the midst of this strife, creative things happened and people came of age to become a new generation of movers and shakers in ways that, hopefully -- as in Susie Bright's own familial life -- will not spread the damage of generations before. One of the things that gives me heart, as a thirtysomething feminist, is the way in which forty- and fiftysomething activists are refusing to eat their young, working hard to break the pattern of generational strife and ideological antagonism of their own coming-of-age.

*When Andrea Dworkin passed away in 2005, Susie Bright wrote a beautiful remembrance of her that both paid homage to the important theoretical and political work Dworkin had done, and acknowledged the lingering scars of that period.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

booknotes: fair game

Welcome to June, and the season of leisure reading! Actually, I try to enjoy leisure reading all year 'round. But publishers often time their releases for "beach reading" season -- so here we are. Last week, I happily secured a copy of Patricia Briggs' fourth installment in her Alpha and Omega series, Fair Game (Ace, 2012).

I've written before about my reservations regarding this series and particular how Briggs handles the central character, Anna, and her history of victimization. Now that we're into the third novel (all building on a novella originally published in the anthology On the Prowl), Anna's history as an abuse survivor has mercifully fallen away into the background and with her marriage on fairly stable footing we're free to focus on a plot that isn't romantic relationship development -- at least not exclusively so. She and Charles are still working through the particular dynamics of their partnership as humans and as wolves, but it is clearly a partnership in which both people are stubborn as hell. So mostly I'm willing to roll. (As an aside, I'm waiting for the day when Briggs decides to write a back-story about Charles' father Bran, who I think is intriguing as hell and kinda adorable to boot).

Like Hunting Ground, Fair Game takes up the question of human-nonhuman political relations. A serial killer has surfaced in Boston and taken several werewolves as victims. The FBI requests preternatural assistance and Anna is deputized by Bran, her father-in-law and head werewolf of North America, to fly across the country, with Charles as her "bodyguard"/shadow, to lend a hand. When the daughter of a local fae leader is abducted and the disappearance fits the serial killer pattern, Charles and Anna end up in a more direct role tracking down the killer. Like a lot of Briggs' novels, Fair Game is one part urban fantasy and one part mystery; it's no surprise that at the end the killer is brought to justice and the good guys prevail -- though perhaps not as tidily as they might have hoped.

I'm growing to like this spin-off series, and am looking forward to the day when Mercy and Anna meet in person. I think they might work (and play) well together!