Women and organized religion

Last summer, Barna Research Group released a report in which they examined trends in 14 different religious variables for the period 1991-2011. One of their more interesting findings was that women, long the majority in many congregations, have been dropping out of organized religion:

Church attendance among women sank by 11 percentage points since 1991, declining to 44%. A majority of women no longer attend church services during a typical week. [Link to report.]

A year earlier, Jim Henderson, an evangelical Christian author and minister, had contracted with Barna Group to conduct a survey of how self-described “Christian” women who attended church regularly felt about their experience of church. The vast majority of those women felt satisfied with their church, with their church’s leadership, and with their church’s views of women.

It sure looks like the self-described Christian women who go to church regularly like their churches. But Henderson asked himself why so many other women were leaving church. According to a Washington Post report on his new book, The Resignation of Eve, Henderson came to a logical conclusion: women in Christian churches are getting increasingly disillusioned by the sexism that’s all too common in those churches:

In [The Resignation of Eve], the author, an evangelical minister named Jim Henderson, argues that unless the male leaders of conservative Christian churches do some serious soul-searching — pronto — the women who have always sustained those churches with their time, sweat and cash will leave. In droves. And they won’t come back. Their children, traditionally brought to church by their mothers, will thus join the growing numbers of Americans who call themselves “un-churched.”

Never mind that the Bible talks about women submitting to men and sitting silently in church, Henderson declaims. That’s ancient history. “Until those with power (men) decide to give it away to those who lack it (women), I believe we will continue to misrepresent Jesus’ heart and mar the beauty of his Kingdom,” Henderson writes.

Henderson bolsters his argument with data from the Barna Research Group…. And although the Barna data have been disputed by other researchers, Henderson goes further. Even those women who go to church regularly, he says, are really only half there: Their discontent keeps them from engaging fully with the project of being Christian. He calls this malaise among women “a spiritual brain drain.”

I wouldn’t expect many of those Christian women to transfer to their local Unitarian Universalist congregation. Instead, I would expect them to join the growing ranks of Americans who are “spiritual but not religious” — i.e., those who have religious leanings but who stay away from organized religion.

However, all this does lead me to believe that we need to continue the feminist revolution that has stalled within Unitarian Universalism. While most of our ministers are now women, men still get the majority of the prestigious, well-paid jobs in the biggest congregations; and while I can’t find any hard data to back this up, I’m inclined to believe the average female minister makes less than the average male minister. Furthermore, the vast majority of professional religious educators are women, who are most often part-time and poorly paid. I think it would be wise for us to correct the existing gender inequities within Unitarian Universalism before we start alienating Unitarian Universalist women and men.

Raised from being dead

Recently, I read a feminist interpretation of one of those stories in which Jesus goes and heals someone; alas, I can’t remember where I read it, so I’m going to have to reconstruct it on my own.

These healing stories tend to annoy me. I’m not friendly to supernatural explanations; I’m a religious naturalist; so I tend to dismiss those stories where a prophet brings someone back from the dead, because I know it’s just not possible. Obviously, however, I don’t have to think of these healing stories as literal truth; they can be considered as metaphorical.

So here’s the story: A man named Jairus, a ruler of the local synagogue, come up to Jesus, and says, “My twelve year old daughter lies at the point of death. Won’t you please come and lay hands on her that she may be healed?” Jesus goes to the man’s house, but when they get there, someone tells Jairus that his daughter is dead, so he should stop bugging Jesus. Jesus tells him not to be afraid, and goes into the house. He takes the girl’s hand, and says, “Talitha, cumi,” which means, “Girl, I tell you, arise.” And the girl gets up and walks around, and everyone is astonished.

Who knows what the original storytellers meant by this story? There are plenty of Christians today who will tell you that they are quite sure they know what the story means, and they will tell you that the story means that Jesus Christ can perform miracles and raise people from the dead. Well, this story comes from the book of Mark (5.25 ff.), and nowhere in the story is Jesus called “Jesus Christ,” and nowhere does the story say that the story has to be interpreted so literally as that.

Here’s another interpretation. Anyone who has hung out with twelve year old girls these days knows that it is a vulnerable age. Sometimes the alive, interesting, assertive girl of childhood seems to die at around age twelve. It’s like the girl that used to be so alive has died, or at least become this passive being that (metaphorically speaking) just seems to lie there; Mary Pipher wrote about this phenomenon in her book Reviving Ophelia.

Perhaps what those girls need is some adult who believes in them. That adult might say to the other adults in that girl’s life, “Be not afraid, only believe. The girl is not dead, only sleeping.” That adult might then say to the girl, “Girl, I say to thee, arise.” And perhaps it’s not a bad idea to have a respected male figure say this to the girl, someone who’s not her father, at least once in the girl’s life.

That interpretation makes this a story that’s not about physical healing, but instead about adults recognizing girl power when they see it.

Poly Styrene: an appreciation

Various media sources are reporting that singer Marianne Elliot-Said has died of complications of breast cancer at age 53. Elliot-Said was better known under the stage name Poly Styrene, a name she used while singing with X-Ray Spex.

X-Ray Spex had a short career. In 1976, Elliot-Said was taking voice lessons, learning how to sing opera, and recording derivative reggae songs on the side, when she saw the Sex Pistols perform. This exposure to punk rock galvanized her, and she decided to form her own punk band, X-Ray Spex. The band performed together for about three years, recorded a handful of singles and one album, then disbanded in 1979.

Following the demise of X-Ray Spex, Elliot-Said joined the Hare Krishnas — more properly, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a branch of Hinduism that worships Vishnu, and is devoted to bhakti yoga, or expressions of devotion to God. I had not known that Elliot-Said had joined the Hare Kishnas, but I was not entirely surprised. When she was singing with X-Ray Spex, her voice had a transcendent, joyful quality to it — even when she was singing about the horrors of genetic engineering, or screaming (in late 1970s punk vocal style) “Oh bondage! up yours!” Although the punk rock idiom of the late 1970s was fairly limited, as practiced by someone like Poly Styrene the vocal style could approach a raucous and ecstatic transcendence. There was often a hint of rapture in her voice, even a hint of a connection to something larger than herself.

Elliot-Said has been interpreted as an early exponent of what came to be called third-wave feminism; she had a clear influence on later feminist bands like The Slits, and it’s hard to imagine the riot-grrrl movement without her example. She allied herself with the anti-racist forces within punk rock and was bi-racial — a Somali father and an English mother — and perhaps she will be claimed as an early adopter of multiracial identity. She also had a preference for day-glo colors and wore braces on her teeth, though it’s harder to know what to make of those attributes.

But I prefer to remember her simply for her full-throated, no-holds-barred singing, a kind of punk bhakti devotion that invited us all to transform and transcend. The hell with the anemic pablum of praise bands — if you’re gonna make me have amplified music in a worship service, I won’t settle for anything less the raw full-throated raucous singing of someone like Poly Styrene.