How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
Chances are, when I write the words “giant metal chicken,” you know exactly what I’m talking about. Seven years ago, Jenny Lawson, a.k.a. The Bloggess, wrote a post on the subject that went viral—so viral that “giant metal chicken” has pretty much become a permanent part of the lexicon. The story of how an argument over bath towels between Jenny and her husband Victor escalated into the purchase of a five-foot-tall oil-drum rooster named Beyoncé left a definite impression, so much so there’s now a Facebook page devoted to the episode.
Might Christian dating and romance be in a healthier place if we accepted from the start that romantic partnerships and the people in them are going to be wild, unpredictable, and messy?I’ve become a fan of Lawson’s blog since then, enticed like so many others by her gift for finding—or creating—the loopy in every situation. Perhaps one should expect no less from the daughter of a taxidermist who once made a hand puppet out of a dead squirrel and throws live bobcats at people for fun. (Remember the bobcat; it’s important later.) Beyond Lawson’s colorful upbringing, though, her writing has also been shaped by battles with mental and physical illness, which have taught her to make life “furiously happy” however and whenever she can. I’ve found her determination to wring joy and hope out of difficult situations to be cathartic, even therapeutic.
Yet the figure in her stories who keeps intriguing me is the most ordinary one: her husband, Victor. While Jenny plants giant metal chickens on the front doorstep, goes zombie-hunting in their new neighborhood, and bops around Australia in a koala suit, Victor trudges through the narrative, alternately grumpy, bewildered, and, every now and then, suddenly sweetly understanding. Jenny’s blog and books are littered with accounts of their fights over whether a cat can be laminated or whether a small taxidermied alligator can be carried on an airplane (no and yes, in that order). The two of them have differences, in background and politics and many other areas, that might torpedo other couples, but somehow their biggest arguments on record always seem to be about dead animals. In such arguments, Victor tends to be an annoyed yet dedicated participant.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they’ve kept this dynamic going for more than twenty years of marriage. Not just through metal chickens, but through much more serious stuff, like the depression, anxiety, and arthritis that have long plagued Jenny.
Marriages like this that survive—and even thrive—through dark times (not to mention goofy times) fascinate me. Honestly, sometimes I wish we had more examples of them, especially in the church. The Lawsons aren’t Christians (and for those who like to know in advance about these things, Jenny frequently uses profanity and bathroom humor), yet they seem to have hit on something that we Christians too often gloss over or tiptoe around. Not that marriage can be hard—we’re willing to admit that—but that marriage can be hard because each partner will repeatedly annoy, exasperate, confuse, and frustrate the other. . . and sometimes even have to be carried by the other.
In my recent book One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church, I wrote about the pressure many of our Christian teachings on marriage place on young adults. The woman must prepare herself to be the perfect uncomplaining supporter, the man the perfect uncomplaining leader. He must always be strong; she must be strong but not too strong, lest he be made to feel weak. (As one of my female interviewees put it, “[I was taught] that men were to be strong in all areas of life and that women were to be strong in some areas of life.”)
Of course, we pay lip service to the idea that no one is truly perfect or should be held to that standard. But do we really believe it? I’m reminded of the time Mark Driscoll slammed pastors’ wives who “really let themselves go,” suggesting that it might drive their husbands to stray. And how many articles have we read about how Christian women need to keep up their appearances, keep down their weight, and always keep a cheerful, unobtrusive facade in order to catch and hold a man? Here’s one that ran just last week; when many readers protested, the author and editor simply doubled down on their stance. If some of these leaders and thinkers truly believe that perfection is unachievable by human standards, they don’t always act like it.
Personally, I’ve been fortunate enough to see plenty of examples of truly strong, healthy marriages around me, including that of my parents and those of many relatives and friends. But at the same time, I’ve been affected by those unattainable standards promoted by so many Christian leaders and writers. It’s hard not to be. My friends and I realize just how much we’ve internalized those standards when we catch ourselves trying to fit the mold of perfection for every date. Don’t show off your intelligence; don’t come on too strong; don’t be easy to get, but never be too high-maintenance.
Never have we found ourselves in the position of, say, watching our fathers throw live bobcats at our dates for fun.
Yes, that was Victor Lawson who was the recipient of the flying bobcat, back when he and Jenny were dating, as Jenny recounts in her first book. And he still stuck it out, even though a woman with a father who owns a bobcat and knows how to use it might be considered the very definition of high-maintenance.
It makes me wonder: Might Christian dating and romance be in a healthier place if we accepted from the start that romantic partnerships and the people in them are going to be wild, unpredictable, and messy? That no one is perfectly strong or perfectly supportive all the time, and shouldn’t have to be? That a relationship has to have some room for grace, for understanding, for kindness, and maybe even for small taxidermied alligators?
The Lawsons’ messy, imperfect, loving marriage is a strong argument for that idea. I was deeply moved by a passage toward the end of Furiously Happy, in which Jenny writes, “Last month, as Victor drove me home so I could rest, I told him that sometimes I felt like his life would be easier without me. He paused a moment in thought and then said, ‘It might be easier. But it wouldn’t be better.’”
A lot of people might go for easier. But if God has a plan for me that includes marriage, I hope it comes with big metal chickens.
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