“Anne with an E” – Breaking the slate clean

“Hey, Carrots…Carrots!”

For any Anne of Green Gables fans, this is one of the most iconic scenes in L.M. Montgomery’s beloved first book. Anne is an orphan who has been mistreated and used for free labor her whole life. Living at the turn of the 20th century, this was no joke. We’ve all seen Newsies. We know that child labor laws weren’t exactly a thing. Not only has Anne been an orphan her whole life, she’s also a red-head. Long before Molly Ringwald and Emma Stone, having red hair was considered a source of shame and inferiority.

So here Anne is, sitting in a new classroom surrounded by new children, in a new home with a dubious level of security, and a popular boy immediately teases her about her hair. In the midst of Anne hoping that her life might be different, she is reminded of all that she can’t leave behind. She responds by doing what most of us have wanted to do at one time or another, breaking her slate over the offender’s head.

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A lot of buzz has surrounded Netflix’s new adaption “Anne with an E.” A grittier and more realistic take on the classic children’s book, Moira Walley-Beckett’s interpretation for the CBC has been drawing mixed reactions. On the positive side, the casting is excellent and the personality of each character is consistent with the source material. The setting of Prince Edward Island during the time period is brought to life in vivid detail. You feel immersed in the difficulty as well as the magic of life on a rural Canadian island. Some of the dialogue, particularly in the opening episode, are word-for-word from the book. What is different about this Anne (and drawing much of the criticism) is highlighting her background of trauma and uncertainty. The first few episodes include flashbacks from Anne’s life before Green Gables and take some creative license in speculating on this theme. At some points I found the backstory embellishing to be a bit excessive, and the last few episodes have a darker tone that departs further from the source material than I would prefer. But in general Walley-Beckett invites us to think about Anne as a human, not just a heroine.

Montgomery implied that Anne’s life before Green Gables was marked by servitude, being shuffled between homes and the asylum, and having experienced cruelty. Anne is continually penalized with suspicion and fear for being an orphan, as though that were somehow her fault. Her entire young life has been a struggle to belong, to feel wanted. She only arrives at Green Gables by mistake, the Cuthberts having sent for a boy but receiving a girl. Her hopes and dreams of having a home and a family are initially dashed when she finds out that she is not what they were expecting. “Anne with an E” explores what a real child would think and feel if that was her reality. A real child would experience flashbacks, would be paranoid about people’s motives, and would need to have found ways to cope.

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This is the greatest strength of “Anne”, blending the character’s famous imagination and optimism with her suffering. While Anne’s carpetbag might have been light, she arrived with some real baggage. Her way of processing her bleak life was to find resiliency in imagining something much better. She was instinctively drawn to books and stories and words in order to draw beauty from barrenness. Rather than detracting from the positivity of the book, I think this approach only enhances the power of Anne as a role model. Anyone can be optimistic who has never suffered, it takes real strength to go through the fire and still find beauty and joy in the world around you.

“Anne” also asks more of its audience than the popular 1980s adaptation. Part of the backlash against the new series is that it shows too much of the harsh reality and not enough of the whimsy and flowering landscapes. But in this response, viewers are sending a dangerous message to Anne and each other. We are functionally saying that you can only be beloved if you leave your baggage at the door and embody what others want you to be. Be upbeat, be charming, be pretty, and people will like you.

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And yet none of us are a blank slate. We all carry around painful experiences and sources of shame that cause us to feel trepidation about our place in the world. As with Anne, many of those things have occurred outside our control. In C.S. Lewis’ book “Til We Have Faces” there is a profound line

“Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are things they can’t help?”

We are at our most vulnerable when confronted with things inside us and around us that are not our choice. Our greatest shame is our powerlessness to make ourselves and our lives exactly how we think they should be. We want to just break the slate of our past and powerlessness and act like we are everything we want to be.

But at the end of the day we don’t actually want to be a blank slate, we want to be fully known and fully loved for all that we are. We want to be able to tell our whole stories and see that who we are is still worthy and lovable. In “Anne with an E,” Anne doesn’t break her slate in half over Gilbert’s head, she only cracks it. Perhaps this is the invitation “Anne” offers. To not try to leave our histories behind and pretend to be blank slates, but to find love and belonging as whole people.

You’re Better Off Alone

I think Eve has gotten a bad rap. When humanity falls and sin enters the world in Genesis 3, it’s Eve who first eats the forbidden fruit and who offers it to Adam to share with her. She’s the one that Adam blames when God confronts them about their disobedience. She’s the one who most often takes the heat for ruining God’s perfect world. Some even go as far as to say she is the cause of everything bad in the world. The explanation I have most often heard is that this happened because she was weak and gullible. (I have a whole blog post about why I think it’s not that.) But when we look at the creation of Eve as a helper suitable for Adam, I think there’s a deeper strategy to why Satan targeted her first.

When Adam is still alone in the garden both he and God recognize that it is not good for him to be the only one of his kind (Gen. 2:18, the first thing in God’s perfect world to be declared “not good.”) God remedies this deficit by creating Eve, to whom Adam responds with deep joy:

23 The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”

We might be tempted to say that Eve is created as an afterthought as God is trouble-shooting this new world, but certainly God deserves more credit than that. What if God was intentionally allowing Adam to feel the void of loneliness in order to set a pattern with humanity, a pattern of understanding that we alone are insufficient? What if we need something outside of ourselves to more fully understand God and to more fully experience the world?

As Eve mirrored God’s image in a way that was unique from Adam, they both understood more about who God is through being in relationship with one another. For those of you who are married or simply have a close friendship with someone of the opposite sex, you know that there are fundamental ways in which they are very different and “other” from you. There are things about them that are inherently mysterious and which you can never fully comprehend because you are just not the same. Yet you are drawn to them and want to keep trying to know them better and to share life together. It is this pursuit of the other that teaches us more about how we pursue God, and, possibly, about how God pursues us.

Male and female

Our Lord is far more mysterious to the human heart than we are to one another and yet God is at the same time near and loving. When we grapple with the challenges of knowing one another, we are being trained to recognize a God who is more vast than we can imagine but Whose image lives inside of us. A God whose “thoughts are not your thoughts” but who knows us better than any other and invites us into close relationship.

This plays out on a cultural level as well. God’s character is far more complex than any one person or people group can encompass. Each culture around the world magnifies an aspect of God, and when we do the hard work of coming together we experience more of who God is through one another. This is obviously not easy to do, it is much easier to be with those who are like us. But just as Adam was experiencing less of God and less of the world in his isolation, we make God smaller when we remain in homogeneity. It becomes far more tempting to believe that God looks and thinks like me, and I begin to reduce God into my own image when that is all I see. The struggle of relating to those who are very different from me forces me to remember that my God is big and limitless.

Not only did Adam need Eve because she would not be the same as him, Adam needed to understand that God’s intervention and God’s help are always very good. Our mysterious God also knows us perfectly and is responsive to our distresses and needs. He is always powerful to see us and provide for us. Eve herself is not salvific, she was entirely human, but there are things about the way God brings her into the world that are a forerunner to Christ, the ultimate answer to our insufficiency. Just as Eve is sent to do what Adam cannot do for himself, so Jesus would come to complete a salvation that we could never achieve. Then Jesus would send the Spirit (another “Helper”) and continue demonstrating God’s very good help.

When Satan goes after Eve and takes her down, he understands that she had influence in Adam’s life. If Satan got her, he could get them both. He wasn’t just instilling distrust in Eve, but he’s trying to instill distrust in God’s help. The creation of Eve was meant to teach Adam and all other people that God sends us exactly what we need to flourish. Satan can’t survive if we always believe that to be true. In attacking Eve, he tries to undermine that truth and convince Adam that he can’t trust anyone and he’s better off alone. Satan wants Adam to believe he should put up walls and keep Eve and others at arm’s length. That they should both believe that no one can care for you like you can care for yourself so from now on you’d better not rely on anyone and just do you. On the other side of the coin Eve walks away thinking that it’s pointless to try to help anyone because they’ll just turn on you, so she’s better off alone as well. In so doing they begin a terrible pattern of distancing themselves from the other, and cutting themselves off from the fullness of God’s image.

9a. Slimy Girls

Don’t we all still struggle with that temptation today? (2016 made our fears and divisions and distrusts abundantly clear.) We all feel the temptation to keep others out and stay safely behind our walls where they can’t hurt us and can’t let us down. But that also means that we distrust God’s help and experience less of God’s character. We may even distrust the free gift of salvation and think there must be some strings attached. Or we let Jesus handle certain things in our lives but the stuff that’s high stakes and risky we want to take the lead on. When we’re trying to control our lives and other people we’re falling into that age-old trap of thinking we’re better off alone. That keeps us slaves to ourselves, slaves to anxiety and fear, slaves to sin and shame that we can’t break free from, slaves to loneliness and isolation. That is exactly what Satan wants. He has more power over us when we’re cut off and alone, and he starts losing power immediately when we reach out to Jesus and to other members of the Body of Christ.

We think we’re safer and stronger when we’re toughing it out on our own and not relying on anyone else, but, actually, we’re at our weakest and most vulnerable. Don’t believe the lies. Don’t give in to the temptation to keep others out. Take the risk of allowing Jesus to demonstrate His trustworthiness. Reach beyond the borders you have created around yourself. You just might find a boundless God who wants to give you everything.

World map

 

If we’re talking bodies

Women have sexual desires, it’s true. We’re not passive disinterested objects that sex happens to; we’re active participants with our own wants and needs. I think this aspect of the sexual revolution (in its various on-going phases) served women well. Affirming women’s experience of their sexuality allowed for greater equality in relationships and for us to be able to communicate our desires and expectations. In many ways women have been freed to live more authentically and richly as we explore our place in the world. This is a good thing. But there are also aspects of the sexual revolution that wear a mask of freedom and progress and yet have continued to keep women enslaved. I’m focusing on two lies that I think have crept into our feminism:

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Your body as a thing

A destructive dichotomy has become increasingly pronounced in pop culture in recent years. This is the idea that our bodies are a tool that we use like any other resource to get the things we want. It’s not a philosophy of seeing our bodies and spirits as being intertwined, but our bodies being for utility and disconnected from our emotional experience. Here’s a couple of song examples.

Lady Gaga and Christian Aguilera put out a song in 2013 called “Do What U Want”

Chorus

You can’t have my heart
And you won’t use my mind but
Do what you want with my body
(Do what you want) with my body
You can’t stop my voice cause
You don’t own my life but
Do what you want with my body
(Do what you want) with my body

[Bridge: Lady Gaga & Christina Aguilera]
Sometimes I’m scared I suppose
If you ever let me go
I would fall apart
If you break my heart
So just take my body
And don’t stop the party

Tove Lo, an artist that I think is putting out particularly unhelpful music, has a current radio hit called “Talking Body.”

Chorus

Now if we’re talking body
You got a perfect one
So put it on me
Swear it won’t take you long
If you love me right
[Clean:] We love for life
On and on and on

Love, give me love
Anything you want I’ll give it up
Lips, lips I kiss
Bite me while I taste your fingertips

Bodies!
Our baby making bodies we just use for fun
Bodies!
Let’s use them up ’til every little piece is gone
(Let’s go)
On and on and on
(Let’s go)
On and on

I HATE these songs and others like them. They masquerade as sexual power and control while actually making women dehumanized objects. To put it bluntly, I think they’re contributing to rape culture. The message to men is that women’s bodies exist for pleasure and that what happens to our bodies doesn’t affect us. Being disembodied is not power, it’s numbness. Feeling nothing may feel like control but it comes at the cost of fully experiencing ourselves and the world around us. It’s also not authentic choice. If we have to shut down part of ourselves in order to feel comfortable, then we’re actually living out of fear of pain and vulnerability. That’s not having control, it’s being controlled.

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Here’s what may be an uncomfortable biblical reality. The popular phrase, “It’s my body, I can do what I want with it” isn’t accurate. 1 Cor. 6:12-20 gives us a thorough treatise on God’s view of sexuality, and 18-20 tell us why:

18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

Nothing in the world belongs to us, everything is God’s creation and belongs to him. “Everything” includes our bodies. Our bodies are not empty shells, we were created to be deeply complex beings. Whatever happens to one part of us happens to our whole selves. The good news is that God made us for flourishing and to experience the fullness of life. God’s ownership of our bodies is not for exploitation and oppression, but for freedom and thriving. Seeing ourselves as God’s may feel like a lack of power and control, but it’s an invitation to live in true fullness and authenticity, without fear and without shame.

Anti-Slut Shaming

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of good things about this movement. It’s helped combat victim blaming in cases of sexual assault, and pointed out unfair double standards in our culture. It’s been very unhelpful when it requires nothing different from men. Many manifestations of this movement have resulted in celebrating female promiscuity. (The podcast “Guys We’ve F%&@ed” for example.) Again, it’s fine to affirm that women are active participants in sexual activity. But first of all, “equality” doesn’t mean being able to do the same harmful thing back to your oppressor. Men indiscriminately sleeping around and using women was never a good thing for the flourishing of society. Why then would it be helpful for women to do so? Employing the same destructive patterns isn’t power, it’s being defined by your oppression. It’s claiming that we should be able to do everything men do without freely examining whether the things they have done are actually good and desirable.

Secondly, if I’m a guy who already objectifies women, then women being promiscuous is great for me. It allows me to continue hooking up with whomever, whenever, and never needing to view them as individuals worthy of my respect. It’s women functionally saying to those men, “You treat us like pieces of meat but it’s ok because we like it now.” I think actual progress would involve men growing and changing in the ways they view and treat women. Equality isn’t just about actions but also perspectives. Both men and women seeing each other as possessing inherent dignity and worth. Both of us acting in ways to build each other up in the world, not to use each other for our own gratification.

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Finally, sometimes we should feel negative emotions about experiences that were unhealthy for us. The somewhat extreme but prevalent message is that women should never feel badly about their consensual sexual experiences. It’s your body and your choices, so don’t regret or feel ashamed about anything. But what about when we made a bad decision and our hearts instinctively know that our behavior resulted in a negative impact on us? Our spirits and bodies are deeply entwined and our mind knows when something happened to our bodies that felt off. Most women already struggle to honestly name and express their emotions. Telling women to never feel badly about anything is another form of numbing and silencing. We would be better served by encouraging each other to listen to our instincts and comfort levels and not be afraid to walk away from a situation or to refuse to repeat a behavior we didn’t like. Freedom isn’t blanketly calling everything we do good, but learning more about ourselves and the way we want to be in the world.

In all of this, my hope is for both men and women to understand their profound God-given value. Let’s not act blindly out of what we’ve always seen around us, but imagine a new and better way of being together. Reflect on the messages you receive about how you’re expected to act. Start dreaming about what else might be possible for you and the people around you. There’s more for you than this.