The Good Books: #ChurchToo
“It’s not just bad men. It’s not just abuse. It’s the theology.”
Introducing a new series about books I’m reading called The Good Books. Read on!
The book begins with a retelling of its author sharing her story of abuse on Twitter on November, 21 2017. #MeToo had begun to take off after a decade of activism by Tarana Burke, and stories of abuse and harassment in the news and entertainment industries were coming to light left and right.
Emily Joy Allison first sent a text to her group chat, and then wrote a thread outing her abuser on Twitter. She added the hashtag #ChurchToo.
It was a spark. And it caught on. It spread. Reader, I was “there” on Twitter, watching it unfold, seeing the thread cascade across my timeline and be picked up in all sorts of places. (Watching something like #ChurchToo go viral on Twitter is one of the hardest things to try and describe to someone who doesn’t use the platform. The speed with which an idea can travel, and the way it migrates to other platforms, is something to behold.)
Soon, more survivors of church abuse were speaking out using the #ChurchToo hashtag. Media began paying attention. #ChurchToo began a reckoning within multiple denominations, and provided language and context for survivors of this particular type of abuse.
Since that time #ChurchToo has taken on a life of its own (as hashtags do), and Emily Joy Allison has helped steward the movement. Today her book #ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing is available, and it continues that work.
#ChurchToo is a movement that addresses purity culture writ-large, which is no small feat. Each chapter is structured to address particular theological concepts that contribute to purity culture and the problems #ChurchToo confronts and repudiates. These theologies will be familiar to readers of this newsletter: (feminine) modesty, complementarianism, abstinence-only “sex education,” institutionalized homophobia/non-affirming theology.
These are theologies that those of us of a certain age carry in our bodies and remain as persistent mental patterns that need to be retrained. Chapter by chapter, Allison helps the reader do just that. By isolating each theological column that upholds purity culture and discussing them one-by-one, we are able to see the myriad ways purity culture inflicts harm on its adherents. And we are able to more easily see their faults, and how they have failed us: failed to inform us of our bodies and their needs and desires, failed to teach consent, failed to protect from abuse, failed to cultivate health and wholeness, failed to exemplify a god we were told is love.
Throughout the book, Allison does not lose sight of survivors. Each chapter is mindful of the stories of survivors and honors them throughout. Even as she tackles issues beyond abuse, she shows how these theologies create and enable environments where abuse can happen. When I spoke to Emily for an upcoming interview on Exvangelical, she framed it this way:
“I feel like a broken record so much of the time but that is a thing that I have been hammering on since the beginning of #ChurchToo: It’s not just bad men. It’s not just abuse. It’s the theology, it’s the ideology, it’s the purity culture behind all this. And most of the time I feel like a lot of people don’t want to hear that. A lot of people don’t want to have to adjust or change their theology—particularly their sexual theology, because we have so much pathology about the body in Western Christianity.” - Emily Joy Allison, in conversation on Exvangelical (to be published March 2021).
Whether you are reading this book primarily as a purity culture survivor, an abuse survivor, or are approaching it as a leader in a religious context, or you’re hoping for a theological rebuke of evangelical sexual theology - you will find something to glom onto as your starting point. Thankfully for you, the book reaches beyond a single audience to multiple and is stronger for it. It is not preoccupied with clobber verses, nor is it concerned with the persistence of today’s institutions. Allison’s concern is people.
Earlier in this essay I described that first #ChurchToo thread as a spark. A spark emits light—and light has many properties and meanings ascribed to it, in metaphor, in religion, in cliche. One small light, lit by someone, may call to others to light their own. Light shines bright, and illuminates dark spaces. And light is a powerful disinfectant.
That is what #ChurchToo does with abuse and purity culture. That is why you should read this Good Book.
#ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing is available today.
Check out this event with Emily Joy Allison today on Instagram:
Hear Emily on past episodes of Exvangelical:
Other Good Books I’m Reading:
White Evangelical Racism by Anthea Butler.
Wayward by Alice Greczyn.
Decolonizing Christianity: Becoming Badass Believers by Miguel A. de la Torre.
The Resisters by Gish Jen.
A New History of the Future in 100 Objects: A Fiction by Adrian Hon.
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