Res Hall Traditions, Gender, and Empathy

The following essay has been stewing for a while. Seattle Pacific has been having a lot of great conversations about gender and identity recently, so this essay is in part a contribution to that discussion. I write with the conviction that good things are worth working on and the knowledge that the topics I explore here are likely relevant to many other institutions. It is also the first (I hope) of several posts reflecting on the wonderful and insane four years I have spent here. It has truly been a blessing.

Added 5/21: As this has been spread around quite a bit, I would like to add that what is discussed below, while certainly concerning and warranting change, is one aspect of events like Decade Skate, which are one aspect of communal life at SPU. It is, frankly, one of the few things that have concerned me during my time here. For people who are new to my blog, it is worth adding that overall, my experience here has been overwhelmingly good, and my blog, I hope, has been a testament to the powerful community SPU is. Thank you for reading.


Dropkicking two baby dolls into the crowd of underclassmen congregated in front of the library was about par for the course. Res hall traditions are always a spectacle of excitement, nonsense, and camaraderie, all of which I definitely felt then, having just crawled out onto the stage with my dads (a name guys on 3rd Hill call each other) in a mass birth train from underneath the legs of other dads, beginning to dance, dressed mainly in makeshift diapers, watching the two dolls soar unceremoniously through the air as the beat of our chosen soundtrack—a dubstep remix of Justin Bieber’s “Baby”—dropped.

When first arriving at college, a student might not know anyone else there; I did not. Even if he or she does, the new location, and all of the changes that come with it, can alter relationships. Some people just feel different in general, making it difficult for them to form friendships. The res hall floor provides, ideally, a new family with its own distinct practices, often called traditions, regardless of how long they have actually been observed. Traditions—floor themes, names, activities, and formal events—distinguish one floor from another, giving a group of hitherto unconnected people a common identity.

But these traditions, especially the activities and events, do change, sometimes frequently. The baby-dropping dance was for Fusion, a fall-quarter tradition instituted by Res Life with the goal of providing a positive, unifying experience for each residence hall. It may have also been an attempt to curb some of the more controversial floor-specific traditions that often involve(d) near or total nudity or possibly harmful behavior, which some defend by saying that they are more effective in forming intimate bonds. At any rate, Fusion is no longer. It was dropped.

Perhaps the most popular of the public traditions are those in which each floor prepares a skit that involves acting and dancing to a hodgepodge of songs, YouTube videos, movie soundtracks, and dialogue. For weeks, sometimes months, a floor will gather to choreograph and rehearse their dances and preen their soundtrack.

In my four years at SPU, I have participated in my hall’s version of this, Decade Skate, in all capacities. Freshman year, my floor did not compete, but we came and supported our sister floor. Sophomore year, we assembled a skit that we were very proud of, and, though we didn’t win, we got laughs, applause, and a sense of mutual accomplishment. Junior year, I was asked to host with a friend. This year, my senior year, hall council kindly asked me to be a judge. Having done all of this, and having attended as many Ashton Cups, I can think of a few things that tend to characterize these traditions.

Every year, at least two or three skits consist of a group of students exploring the SPU campus in some way. Another popular plot involves characters visiting various movies and TV shows.

Every year, the women tend to focus on plot, dance, and sets, while the men tend to focus on plot, dance, sets, and shocking the audience.

Every year, certain floors do certain things. Some are known for tight choreography, others for birthing scenes.

Every year, there are cringe-worthy moments, such as those birthing scenes, occasional insensitive racial caricatures, violence, and—always—over-sexed dancing from the men. Women’s floors exhibit this behavior sometimes, too, but by and large a lot less frequently.

Which leads to another observation: nearly every year, a men’s floor wins first place, even though there are far more women’s floors and even if a women’s floor has a far better skit. Going into judging this year, I had this in mind, but even then, the result was the same.

In addition to the immense creativity possible when so many people work together towards a common goal, our res hall events highlight the strange gender dynamics present at SPU:

It is no secret that college is a time during which many find their future spouse. “Ring by Spring” culture (encompassing Roomies Dates, the constant jokes during Welcome Week along the lines of “Your future husband or wife might be sitting next to you,” and the ridiculous significance given to getting coffee with someone of the opposite sex), even when participated in ironically, often makes the wedding ring, not the bachelor’s degree, seem like the real prize of four years at SPU. Combined with the infamous 68/32 women-to-men ratio, the urgency of “ring by spring” causes many of our students who don’t find their partner, women especially, I think, to feel like something is deeply wrong with them. It also is a source of distress for some LGBTQ people, who, especially at this time of life, may very well be torn about whether or not God (not to mention their university) allows their love in the first place. A final result of ring by spring and the ratio is that the vast majority of eyes on campus fall on the men; not that it makes everything easy for them, but straight guys are in high demand around here.

It is no secret that people—young people in particular, men in particular—try to show off in front of potential mates.

It is no secret that a large number of current SPU students were raised in church traditions that embraced the Purity Movement, which we now know has harmed a generation of Christian women by causing them to view their body as a commodity that can be ruined after one inappropriate use, while the men are more or less rapped across the knuckles and told to man up. Purity culture’s just-cover-it-up approach to the human body and its functions, particularly sex, has also caused a number of us—men and women—to feel ashamed of our naked selves and our desires.

Nor is it a secret that this generation of Christian men is comprised mainly of porn addicts who are much more familiar with the bodies of women than the other way around. Women, too, struggle with this, but not, I believe, in such high proportions.

So, given this stew of sexual confusion and frustration, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that, taken out of their home contexts and dropped en masse onto a stage in front of their peers, young SPU men—without fail—tear their clothing off and grind on each other, almost as if you can demonstrate your masculinity by showing how far you can go with the same sex in front of the opposite sex without enjoying it, while doing it crudely. Should we find it surprising that men’s skits can demonstrate intense violence, sometimes towards women? I wonder, should we find it surprising that the audience roars with laughter and cheers in response? Should we find it surprising that these skits often win?

Perhaps some people reading this—especially underclassmen—think that I’m blowing a little bit of harmless fun way out proportion. But hear me out. I write this because I care about the SPU I am soon leaving. I worry that this pattern, along with the continued changing of individual floor traditions, the (don’t laugh) removal of the circular tables from Gwinn, the closing of Gwinn between lunch and dinner (thus making impossible the Gwinn Challenge), and other seemingly minor changes could harm (or already are harming) the number one thing people say they love about SPU: the community.

The moment that it occurred to me that the sexual and violent content of our performance-based res hall traditions can actually be harmful to SPU’s community was during this year’s Decade Skate. I was underneath a blanket at the time, which I brought in case Royal Brougham was cold. But the main function it served that night was to shield me when a few minimally dressed SPU men came unusually close to the judges’ table and began to hip-thrust violently in our faces. I didn’t think such a thing could be done so angrily, but within the context of the broader skit, which was equally angry, it felt like a thinly veiled “fuck you.” I didn’t realize until afterwards that another judge, a wonderful woman in the year below me, was also trying to get under the blanket. Looking back at this, I find this image to be a particularly revealing one about how such forceful displays of puerile heterosexual masculinity violate women, gay men, and others alike. Like a dog humping your leg.

I understand that parts of this particular skit were meant to protest the decision of Res Life to discontinue a certain tradition of theirs that involves Nerf guns. But, even though I understand the frustration behind such a protest—even though I too would be angry to lose a particularly fun floor tradition—I also know that when the context of an act or symbol changes, the way it is perceived changes as well. When a member of our community is shot to death on our campus, guns on our campus—even obviously fake ones—become symbols of the saddest and scariest moment in our community’s memory and potential triggers for horrifying episodes of PTSD. The shortsightedness or callousness of anyone who fails to see or care about that astonishes me. It is an idolatry of the self and of one’s own favorite practices over the love of neighbor.

The things we do are never neutral; they tell us about who we are, where we are going, and what we desire. And the “we” here is intentional—within the larger circle of SPU, the res halls house multiple levels of community. At every level, leaders and other community members should ask themselves those questions: Who are we? Where are we going? What do we desire?

In her essay “Imagination and Community,” Marilynne Robinson writes, “I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.” She continues, “I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.” What are Decade Skate skits and the like if not fictions, the artistic expressions of res hall floors? Could they be an opportunity to exercise imaginative love, sympathy, and identification?

To end this essay, I don’t really have any answers. I just have hopes—high hopes. And I do have more questions for you to think about—particularly those of you who are future leaders at SPU and, potentially, other Christian colleges with analogous traditions.

What communities are you a part of?

What traditions do you value?

What do your traditions say about you and your community?

Whom do your traditions leave out or alienate?

Are there other ways in which your traditions are harmful?

Do your communities and traditions glorify God?

If you don’t like your answers to any of these questions, what can you change? What specifically can you change? Are there rules that can be rewritten? Grading sheets that can be weighted differently?

Entering our sophomore year, the Hill Hall Council I was a part of was extremely mindful of how we might influence the hall’s culture. We did our best to bolster the idea that Hill is a place of love—a true home for those who live there. Who are we? Family. Where are we going? Into the unsure future. What do we desire? To get there together. As my four years here come to an end, it is my prayer that SPU will continue to be a place redolent of God’s love and a people who listen well, think critically, love generously, and, to do this, are ready to let some things drop.

Advertisements

Humble Love, Good Art

After reading “Where Are All the Good Stories about Marriage?” by W. David O. Taylor, over at Christianity Today, some thoughts have bubbled up. I should be working on my thesis, but…

In the article, Taylor addresses—broadly—the role of Christians as culture-makers in a non-Christian society, and—specifically—the way in which recent movies and television series have portrayed gay relationships and not so many straight Christian marriages:

It is my contention that, while movies and television cannot be blamed exclusively for our society’s rejection of theologically conservative ideas about marriage, they have certainly made it easier for our neighbors to imagine that such a marriage, especially its exclusive status, is impossible or undesirable. I also contend that we have not fully reckoned with the power of the artistic imagination.

And therein lies a task for us.

I share Taylor’s concern that Christians have not done enough to use our “artistic imagination”. It seems to me that this problem is a fairly recent one. For centuries, Christians (of various tongues and tribes) have been the creators of luminous art that has expanded and created new artistic forms, inspired generations of people, and glorified God. From catacomb frescoes by early Roman Christians to the icons of the Eastern churches to the Lindisfarne Gospels to Gregorian chant to Dante’s Divine Comedy to Palestrina’s polyphonic masses to the linguistic style of the King James Bible to Christopher Wren to Bach to Dostoevsky to the spirituals of African American slaves to Henry Owassa Tanner (look him up!). Any such list is doomed from the start because Christians have made so much damn good art and it is worth pointing out that a lot of it was created for the purpose of worship—for the Christian community to rehearse its history and tell its stories in new ways, often within the context of a mass or other liturgy.

It is not necessary that art made by Christians be used in such settings. Nor is it necessary that art made by Christians include Bible stories or obviously recognizable Christian images and themes. I don’t watch TV and I don’t watch enough films to say anything very interesting about them, but I do read books. Borrowing the language of Gregory Wolfe, a lot of Christians who write about faith today do not necessarily do it in shouts (think Flannery O’Connor), but in whispers, like Marilynne Robinson. Marilynne Robinson teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop—one of the best writing programs in the world. Nearly all of her publications, fiction and non-fiction, have won prestigious awards, including a book about a midwestern preacher and his wife (note: it’s a straight Christian marriage). The book is called Gilead and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Her new book, Lila (a prequel to Gilead) is about how the two met and how Lila came to Christ. Tomorrow Robinson is talking about Lila at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, a university comprised by people of many faiths and ideologies, not a majority of whom are Christian.

I’ve visited a lot of cathedrals and abbeys over the course of my two terms abroad at Oxford, representing different time periods (from the 12th century to the 20th), different styles, and different locations. However, they all have one thing in common: they are crammed with tourists. I occasionally find this annoying (I’ve seen people take ducklip selfies whilst irreverently standing astride centuries-old graves of Irish nuns), but it is a good thing that these places of worship are still, in various ways, drawing in crowds of curious onlookers.

When Christians make really good art—even if it does unapologetically pertain to topics of faith—others want to see it, read it, watch it, study it, learn from it, be inspired by it, and potentially changed by it.

– – – – –

For my SPU thesis, as well as the shorter one I’m currently working on for my study abroad, I have been reading a lot literature that pertains to Christianity and homosexuality—fiction and theory. If you follow my blog at all (thanks by the way!) you will know that this is a personal topic for me.

Questions of identity are difficult. I’ve spent my whole life living hours away from extended family. When I was ten my family moved from New Hampshire to Michigan. My heritage is a mix of German, Welsh, Swedish, Slavic, Scottish, Swiss, and English, none of which I am extremely in touch with (stay tuned for a post about Sweden). In her essay “Testimony Against Gertrude Stein,” Jeanette Winterson writes, “We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.” Land, clan, and nationality are all powerful contexts in which we hear stories about ourselves that tell us who we are. They are lenses through which we see the world, and my lenses are all fogged up.

Because I am fairly distant from so many of these things that root a person into a larger narrative of life on earth, my faith has become important to me in a new way: it is a narrative through which I can understand myself as being part of something larger than just myself—something ancient, something true—Christ’s Body, the Church. It roots me in a story that begins with the creation of everything and ends with the restoration of everything. In between those points, there are some difficulties.

After slowly coming to terms with the fact that I am attracted to men, I also began coming to terms with the fact that a large part of Western cultural history does not pertain to me. Listen to the radio, watch television or a movie, or, do what I mainly do, and read a book—scan the canons of great literature, and while doing these things, imagine that you are a Christian attracted to the same sex. There aren’t songs for you—certainly not love songs. You have no literary history. There aren’t shows on television for you. You don’t have movies. Now reread the passage from Dr. Taylor’s article:

It is my contention that, while movies and television cannot be blamed exclusively for our society’s rejection of theologically conservative ideas about marriage, they have certainly made it easier for our neighbors to imagine that such a marriage, especially its exclusive status, is impossible or undesirable. I also contend that we have not fully reckoned with the power of the artistic imagination.

And therein lies a task for us.

I have a practical suggestion for those with theologically conservative views on marriage: making movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage for the sake of making movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage not only sidesteps the question of what gay Christians in your community can do, but in the current political climate in which the dominant voices on both sides are loud and angry, it will be taken and responded to (or, more likely, ignored) as just another political act.

Later in his essay Dr. Taylor writes:

As always, we should seek every opportunity to lay down our lives to serve our neighbors, gay or straight or otherwise, offering them the hospitality of Christ in witness to the fatherly love of God. Nothing good will come of holding onto stereotypes. Our neighbors are not our enemies. They are men and women made in the image of God and beloved by him. To them we owe the same kind of humble love that Christ has shown us.

This should change your art. If you want to make a difference with your artistic imagination as a Christian with theologically conservative views on marriage, make movies about people who have theologically conservative views on marriage learning what it means to love their gay sister, their transexual son, or their intersex neighbor—learning that loving them often has little to do with anyone’s ideas about marriage and has all to do with presence. And if you are trying to rid yourself of stereotypes, try portraying the LGBTQ people as coworkers, faithful Christians, devoted parents, not just condescending portrayals of the prodigal son.

If you want to learn how to seek every opportunity to lay down your life for your gay neighbor, start by making a space for us in your artistic imagination. Most of us know what straight Christian marriages look like. I was so blessed in the parents God gave me, but many LGBT people have been hurt, beaten, and disowned by their straight Christian parents with theologically conservative views on marriage. Try to imagine what you could do to make people with these experiences want to watch your movie, to listen to you. Creating a movie about a wonderful Christian marriage without any LGBT characters in it will tell them something about how you want the world to be.

Someone once said to me about volunteering at my old church’s Vacation Bible School while being gay that “it is clear what will happen to those who cause little ones to stumble,” referencing Matthew 9:42 (“but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea,” ESV). The implication was clear to me. While I disagree with how the verse was used in that instance, it is true that we have great responsibility in how we interact with people, especially about things pertaining to faith. Let it be through humble love, and if there is art involved, good art.

heavy heavy

My first examination of the school year was last week. It covered Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson—both of which I’m fairly sure I’ve mentioned here. The test was two short essays and one long essay. There were several options of what to write on for the long essay. I didn’t write on empathetic suffering in Mariette in Ecstasy, and I partially regret that. Take two.

My personal experience with nuns is minimal. I attended a Catholic elementary school in New Hampshire, but there were only two of them left in the teaching faculty. The sister that taught music retired form teaching during my time there. The other sister was my first grade teacher. The main thing that I remember about her was her love of whoopee pies. I’m not sure if that is how you spell the word for the two chocolate cakelets with cream in the middle, but autocorrect made it that, so I’ll take its word. My Mac is obese.

The lunch table was the central point of middle school life. It was a market of junk food and crude jokes. Cold lunchers like myself eyed the platters of hot lunchers with gut-shriveling envy. On the rare occasion I would slip into the cafeteria area and grab some garlic bread or a plate of pasta after everyone had settled into their place at a table and after my bagged lunch was depleted. I felt a bit foreign approaching the lunch ladies, but they quickly became allies. “Just take it. No one should leave the lunch room hungry.” Continue reading

sincerity

During a class discussion about Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, the question was asked, “How did a slow novel portraying a protestant minister in a good light win the Pulitzer prize?”  Gregory Wolfe, the professor, suggested that the sincerity of the novel left critics shocked.  He then spoke about the New Sincerity, which I had never heard about before.  It is the idea that a new wave of honesty and simplicity is on its way to replace the current irony, self-consciousness, and jadedness of our culture.

He cited Sufjan Stevens, Gilead, Arcade Fire, and folk-nuevo bands like Mumford and Sons that earnestly sing about things they care about.

This idea gave me a lot of hope and excitement for the future and my generation’s role in it.