|Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham||
|Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham||
title: "Things you can do in Academia that would get you fired in the Real World" - originally published 5/29/2015
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It was only after I met my risen Lord that I ever felt shame in my sin, with my sexual attractions, and with my sexual history.
Conversion brought with it a train wreck of contradictory feelings, ranging from liberty to shame. Conversion also left me confused. While it was clear that God forbade sex outside of biblical marriage, it was not clear to me what I should do with the complex matrix of desires and attractions, sensibilities and senses of self that churned within and still defined me.
What is the sin of sexual transgression? The sex? The identity? How deep was repentance to go?
In these newfound struggles, a friend recommended that I read an old, seventeenth century theologian named John Owen, in a trio of his books (now brought together under the title Overcoming Sin and Temptation).
At first, I was offended to realize that what I called “who I am,” John Owen called “indwelling sin.” But I hung in there with him. Owen taught me that sin in the life of a believer manifests itself in three ways: distortion by original sin, distractionof actual day-to-day sin, and discouragement by the daily residence of indwelling sin.
Eventually, the concept of indwelling sin gave a window to see through how God intended to replace my shame with hope. Indeed, John Owen’s understanding of indwelling sin is the missing link in our current culture’s confusion about what sexual sin is — and what to do about it.
As believers, we lament with the Apostle Paul, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (Romans 7:19-20). But after we lament, what ought we to do? How ought we to think about sin that has become a daily part of our identity?
Rosaria goes to show that Owen explained his answer—the biblical answer—in four responses:
You can read the whole thing here.
For more information on our edition of Owen’s classic trilogy on battling sin—in an unabridged version with outlines and notes and glossary—go here.
It seems that Rob Bell and Oprah Winfrey are pretty good friends these days. Bell has appeared on Oprah’s show numerous times, and just recently appeared, along with his wife Kristen, on her “Super Soul Sunday” episode over Valentine’s Day weekend. Their appearance was designed to promote their new book, The ZimZum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage (HarperOne: 2014).
Now, I have to confess that I have no idea what the main title means. But, the subtitle is pretty bold. Given that marriage dates back to the very creation of mankind in Genesis, do we really need a new version of it? Is something wrong with the original version? Apparently Bell thinks so. At least as it pertains to the issue of gay marriage, which he endorses in this new book.
The issue of gay marriage even comes up in the interview with Oprah. Since Oprah is unlikely to challenge the coherence of Bell’s rationale (she wholeheartedly agrees with him), I thought I would fill in the gap by offering an analysis of his statements here. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
1. During the interview, Kristen Bell reads a line from the book: “Marriage, gay and straight, is a gift to the world because the world needs more not less love, fidelity, commitment, devotion and sacrifice,”
This is one of the statements that resonates with our modern world. After all, who is opposed to “love”? Who doesn’t want more “love” in the world? This sort of rhetoric is very effective at making anyone opposed to gay marriage look like they are against love. It makes them looks like they are hateful.
But, never do such statements define what “love” really is. For our culture, “love” means whatever you want it to mean. There are no rules, no restrictions, no boundaries. But, let’s imagine some different scenarios and see whether Bell’s logic makes sense. Let’s imagine an adult son and his mother wanted to get married. Is Bell ready to say this incestuous marriage “is a gift to the world because the world needs more not less love“? Doubtful. Or, perhaps a man wants three wives. Is Bell ready to say this polygamous marriage is “a gift to the world because the world needs more not less love?” If he is consistent, he would have to say yes.
On Bell’s 1960’s “All you need is Love” view of marriage, it could never be a definable institution that people participate in. Rather, marriage simply becomes whatever each person wants it to be. Thus, on Bell’s view there can be no such thing as marriage. Because “marriage” is defined by the whims and preferences of each individual, it just evaporates into subjectivism.
2. After Oprah asked him why he included gay marriage in his book, Bell said, “One of the oldest aches in the bones of humanity is loneliness…Loneliness is not good for the world. Whoever you are, gay or straight, it is totally normal, natural and healthy to want someone to go through life with. It’s central to our humanity. We want someone to go on the journey with.”
I’ve got to say, this is masterful work from Bell. Framing the debate over homosexual marriage around the issue of loneliness is brilliant. After all, if anyone objects it looks like they are a cruel, unfeeling person who doesn’t care about the suffering of the homosexual community.
But, once again, when you dig into Bell’s statements more deeply, you realized they are flawed at a fundamental level. Bell says loneliness “is not good for the world.” Maybe so. But, sexual immorality is also not good for the world. Casting off God’s guidance on what counts as legitimate healthy sexual activity is also not good for the world. Despite popular beliefs, immoral sexual activity is not harmless. It can have serious emotional, spiritual, and even physical ramifications.
Even more, the “loneliness argument” Bell espouses could be used to justify virtually any sexual activity. Returning to the example above, what if an adult son and his mother wanted to get married and cited their “loneliness” as the reason? Does that make it Ok? Is polygamy also Ok on the grounds of loneliness?
But, there is an even bigger problem here for Bell. If loneliness is the issue, one does not need marriage to solve it. People live together and sleep together all the time as a cure for their loneliness. On what possible grounds could Bell object to two people living together outside of marriage? They could throw Bell’s loneliness argument right back in his face, “Come on Rob, ‘it is totally normal, natural and healthy to want someone to go through life with. It’s central to our humanity. We want someone to go on the journey with.'”
3. When Oprah asks why the church does not yet “get it” regarding gay marriage, Bell says: “I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life.”
From someone who at least pretends to be a pastor, this is a stunning statement. Notice that Bell doesn’t refer to the “Bible” or to “Scripture” or to “God’s Word” but instead refers to “letters from 2,000 years ago.” This is a pejorative (and deceptive) way of speaking designed to undermine the credibility of the Bible regarding sexual issues. These are just old letters, says Bell, pay no attention. They have nothing to say about these things. Don’t bother listening to them.
By kicking the Bible to the curb, Bell may please Oprah, but he stands in direct contrast to thousands of years of church history (not to mention the history of Israel). God’s people have always looked to the Bible as the ultimate guide for life, especially when it comes to issues of sexual ethics. Indeed, as I pointed out in a prior post, the earliest Christians stood out from the Greco-Roman world precisely in the area of their sexual behavior.
Even Jesus himself looked to the Bible as the ultimate guide for sexual ethics. He appealed to numerous biblical texts to defend the idea that marriage is between one man and one woman (e.g., Matt 19:1-9).
So, what does Bell think is a better guide for sexual ethics than the Bible? Personal experience. Why would you choose the Bible, says Bell, “when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who…love each other and just want to go through life.’ In other words, what should guide our decisions is the personal sexual experiences of people. We should follow what they feel is right. If this is how they find “love” then great. Thus, on Bell’s view, there are no sexual ethics. There are just people’s personal sexual preferences. Welcome to a brave new world.
Of course, as noted above. This logic puts Bell in a predicament. If everyone gets to just pick their own sexual practices, then he must acknowledge that incestuous love, polygamous love, and many other kinds of deviant sexual behavior are all legitimate.
With the help of Rob Bell, I am sure that our culture is headed precisely in this direction. The logic used to justify homosexual marriage is like an acid that will eventually eat its way through every remaining sexual boundary in our culture. And pretty soon, there will be no boundaries.
And this will not create a culture of love, peace, and fulfillment as Bell and Oprah predict. It will create a culture of sexual, emotional, spiritual, and even physical brokenness. Ironically, therefore, it will create a culture of loneliness. The very thing Bell said that homosexual marriage is designed to cure.
When the culture eventually hits rock bottom, the hope is people will begin to see that a society without any sexual boundaries is self-destructive. The hope is that they will be like the young cowboy Billy in the 1993 movie Tombstone. After running with the lawless crowd for a while, Billy begins to see how destructive that life really is. Then he comes to his senses and declares to the gang leader, “I’m sorry sir, but we’ve got to have some law.”
Yes, even in the world of sex and marriage, “We’ve got to have some law.” And when a culture begins to realize it, usually that is when revival takes place.
This morning I received an alert that my review of Chris Keith’s recent volume, Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014) had been published in the most recent fascicle of Theology. Regrettably, I had a rather tight word limit so I could not say as much about this book as I would have liked. You will obviously get the impression, however, that I liked this volume very much. It combines scholarly creativity with academic substance and pedagogical sensitivity. I have mentioned this elsewhere, but Chris is one of the few really gifted academics I know who can write about complex topics in a very engaging way. He does more of that here. I do have some concerns (which I express in the review) that some of the material in the middle of book will be a bit too advanced for some non-specialist readers. Such is the challenge of taking the complexities of discussions in our field and presenting them to non-specialists without too much oversimplification. Still, I think the payoff will prove to be greater than any difficulties readers might face. And for the record, I intend to use this book as a supplemental text in my Jesus and Gospels course next Spring.
When I was in San Diego last month for the annual meeting of the SBL, I picked up a handful of really interesting books. The first one I decided to read was Justin Marc Smith’s monograph, Why Bios? On the Relationship Between Gospel Genre and Implied Audience (LNTS 518; London: Bloomsbury / T & T Clark, 2015). This volume is a revised version of Smith’s dissertation from St. Andrews. The book was of immediate interest to me for several reasons. First, in my SBL paper, one of my major points was that we need to take seriously the gospels as Greco-Rmoan biographies in order to make arguments about narrative techniques and characterization. I was therefore very interested to see what Smith had to say. Second, in a future project I intend to develop a via media between the Brown/Martyn hypothesis about the Johannine community and the Bauckham/Klink “gospels-for-all-Christians” model. At the heart of that debate are deliberations about the nature and scope of the gospels. Smith’s treatment is insightful and conversant with a great deal of material both within and outside of the discipline of gospels research. I am sure this work will become a dialogue partner for me in my future research on this topic. I have already identified some areas in which Smith and I disagree, but I’ll save those for a future time. For now, I recommend this resource to those interested in this important discussion. This monograph definitely contributes to advancing the current state of the discussion.
I am a new faculty member at George Fox, but this is actually my sixth year of full-time teaching. I feel pretty comfortable being new and navigating carefully higher-ed politics, but I was directed recently to THIS EXCELLENT LITTLE ARTICLE FROM INSIDE HIGHER ED (“Advice for New Hires”). Read the whole article, but here are highlights that stuck out to me and served as very helpful reminders.
1. Don’t take anything personally, especially not at first. People will often treat you as insignificant. This is not because they don’t like you, but because they are socially inept. Most of us are comfortable with the people we already know, and are not good at being friendly to new people. The old-timers ought to go out of their way to be friendly and inclusive to someone new (you) but they probably will not, and you should just chalk it up to poor social skills.
3. Your best friends are likely to be the other assistant professors, but do not avoid the senior people. Treat them with friendly respect. If they treat you as an equal, treat them back as an equal. Some older people prefer mild deference, even if they do not acknowledge that they do; others hate to admit that they are older or established, and want you to treat them as buddies. Try to respond to their cues in this. The safest stance is one where you think well of yourself, but give mild respect to someone senior on the grounds that they have more experience.
4. Do NOT attempt to reform ANYTHING for at least a year, preferably two or three. No matter how stupid the curriculum or other things seem, leave them alone until you have been there long enough to know why they are there and whose interests are at stake. Similarly, try to avoid being drawn into factional disputes. Do your best to be friendly to everyone and to establish good working relationships with everyone you can. Most people will respect a stance of, “You really sound reasonable, but I’m new here and I need to get oriented before I go out on a limb about something like that.” Also, avoid challenging anybody for at least a year, again until you learn who is who and what the real issues are. Some people have abrasive personalities or are so shy that they will seem “out of it” who actually are quite reasonable people when you get to know them. Conversely, some sociopaths are friendly at first.
8. Many people have culture shock or hate their jobs in the first year or two. This is normal. [...]
12. Keep your job in perspective. Work hard, but don’t let it ruin the rest of your life. Take care of yourself and your relationships. In some department cultures, you’ll be aware of other people’s families, relationships, hobbies, and politics. In others, the public department culture makes it appear that everyone is always working and people hide their personal lives. So you have to learn the culture before you decide how much to disclose. But regardless of how much you let others see it, seek to develop a sustainable lifestyle that involves enough sleep and exercise, human interaction, meaningful activities, and fun.
Robert P. George, in his Advice to Young Scholars:
Although it is natural and, in itself, good to desire and even seek affirmation, do not fall in love with applause. It is a drug. When you get some of it, you crave more. It can easily deflect you from your mission and vocation. In the end, what matters is not winning approval or gaining celebrity. Your mission and vocation is to seek the truth and to speak the truth as God gives you to grasp it.
There is a particular danger for those who dissent from the reigning orthodoxies of a prevailing intellectual culture. You may be tempted to suppose that your willingness to defy the career-making (and potential career-breaking) mandarins of elite opinion immunizes you from addiction to affirmation and applause and guarantees your personal authenticity and intellectual integrity. It doesn’t. We are all vulnerable to the drug. The vulnerability never completely disappears. And the drug is toxic to the activity of thinking (and thus to the cause of truth-seeking).
Similarly, D. A. Carson warns that Christian conservatives are not immune to the drug of approval and applause:
[S]eductive applause may come [from] the conservative constituency of your friends, a narrower peer group but one that, for some people, is equally ensnaring. Scholarship is then for sale: you constantly work on things to bolster the self-identity of your group, to show they are right, to answer all who disagree with them. Some scholars who are very indignant with colleagues who, in their estimation, are far too attracted by the applause of unbelieving academic peers, remain blissfully unaware of how much they have become addicted to the applause of conservative bastions that egg them on.
We arrived safely to our quiet spot in South Carolina, after a very long and scenic drive that took us through ON → NY → PA → WV → VA → TN → NC → SC. And here we are. Again, it will be light blogging for the next week as I focus on unwinding. (But I can’t not write at least a bit since it is the most relaxing part of my life.)
A shout-out goes to the folk at Bristol Caverns in Bristol, TN. We dropped by to take a tour of the caverns and met our tour guide Doug who turned out to be a reader of this site. The caverns are well worth the hour-long tour.
This Is Mindy - This is a hard-to-read article from former porn producer Donny. He describes how he recruited a girl named Mindy and then destroyed her life. The point of the article: there is a terrible hidden cost to pornography.
The Vanishing Screwball - Baseball lovers may enjoy this longform article from the New York Times on the screwball and why almost nobody throws it anymore.
The Unexpected Answers of God - Jon Bloom explains that we are often unprepared for the kind of answers we receive from God. And I think he’s absolutely right.
Foods that Taste Bad - Ever wondered why that glass or orange juice tastes unbearable after brushing your teeth? This article explains.
Theology, the Last Resort - Here is some thought-provoking stuff from J.D. Payne.
The Vatican’s Bank - Did you know the Vatican has a bank? Neither did it. Foreign Policy says that its history “reads more like Dan Brown than the financial pages.”
When you go through a trial, the sovereignty of God is the pillow upon which you lay your head. —C.H. Spurgeon\
Defining Inerrancy: Affirming a Defensible Faith for a New Generation, by J. P. Holding and Nick Peters, published by Tekton E-Bricks on 22 May 2014, is intended to be a response to Norm Geisler and Bill Roach’s Defending Inerrancy—and so much more. Both have a similar cover and similar title. Defining Inerrancy, however, is a gloves-off defense and affirmation of a version of inerrancy that many are not acquainted with. That is, many except those who are Old and New Testament scholars.
Defining Inerrancy also interacts heavily with Norm Geisler and David Farnell’s The Jesus Quest, a book published just last March. The info on Amazon says that the eBook is the equivalent of 98 pages long, based on the number of “page turns” on a Kindle. A preliminary Word draft of Defining Inerrancy, sent to me by the authors, weighs in at just 74 pages. It’s a one-evening read, but it will be an evening very well spent.
Even though only an eBook so far, this little volume addresses some of the most pressing issues within American evangelical circles that have been brewing for more than four decades. And it comes with a Foreword by world-renown Gospels scholar, Craig Blomberg, giving the book instant credibility.
The booklet has fifteen short chapters and no footnotes or endnotes (but some, though not entirely adequate, in-text notes).
Blomberg’s Foreword, in the opening paragraph, lets the readers know that Norm Geisler has recently been attacking his evangelical orthodoxy. As one reads through this book, they will discover that it is in many ways a response to Geisler’s campaign to rid the church of what he perceives to be bibliological heretics. Inter alia, Blomberg gives a laundry list of evangelical scholars who have been the victims of Geisler’s acidic pen: Robert Gundry, Murray Harris, Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, Darrell Bock, Michael Licona, Craig Blomberg—and even the entire Evangelical Theological Society (a group which, according to Blomberg, Geisler referred to as ‘liberal’ and the “Former Evangelical Theological Society”)! And Blomberg does not mince words. Penultimately, Blomberg commends this book as follows: “…if Geisler has already misled you on any of these topics, read these chapters carefully so that the record may be set straight.”
Indeed, that is an apt summary of the book. The authors set the record straight on Geisler’s increasingly marginalized approach to inerrancy. Many would regard Geisler as the spiritual heir of Harold Lindsell, a man whose books The Battle for the Bible and The Bible in the Balance bitterly divided evangelicals nearly four decades ago. But I digress.
The major issue that Holding and Peters put forth is that within the inerrantist camp are ‘traditionalists’ and ‘contextualizers.’ Traditionalists claim that the Bible should be read essentially literally and that unless there are clear in-text clues that something is to be taken otherwise, the reader is to regard the text as literally true. Contextualizers see things differently. They would argue that genre, comparative literature, and other extra-textual features are often important keys to understanding the meaning of the text. The book focuses on the Gospels and narrative. Here, it is claimed, traditionalists view the narrative in the Gospels as historical, while contextualizers view it as imbibing, at times, in more than one genre. And even then, this does not necessarily mean that such is not historical. Even though many traditionalists would claim that, for example, dominical sayings are always exact quotations of the Lord (known as ipsissima verba), contextualizers claim that this is not only not in keeping with ancient historiographical reporting but also involves exegetical gymnastics that defy logic.
The authors put forth their thesis rather boldly:
“inerrancy requires a contextualization of the Bible as both the superlative literature that it is and as a document; and that the ‘as it stands’ readings frequently (not always) decontextualize the Bible, reading it as a text out of time, and therefore without respect to critical defining contexts during the time of its writing.”
“… the perception of ‘inerrancy’ offered by the old guard is dangerous, misleading, and obscurantist in that it will result in a view of the Bible that is not defensible or respectable, leading us down a path of endless epicycles of explanation, artificialities, and illogic. The end result will be to bring down scorn on the Christian faith and contributing [sic] to its demise in the Western world.”
This should be enough to pique the interest of any reader! As astounding as their statements are, I think they are spot on. But one will have to read the book to see whether they make out their case.
I will simply note two refrains that the authors make. First, though the Bible may be inerrant, our interpretation of it is not. This would seem to be obvious, yet repeatedly they show that Geisler sets himself up as the arbiter of truth—including true, inerrant interpretations. And this is one of the great divides among evangelicals today. Ironically, though there are many near-consensus interpretations of a number of passages among evangelicals, to hold up a particular interpretation as the true interpretation is to place tradition above the text. And this cuts directly into sola scriptura—the sufficiency of scripture as our final authority. Geisler and other traditionalists tend to claim that any view that does not see the Gospel narratives as utterly historical is not compatible with inerrancy. Yet—again ironically—many traditionalists claim that the Church has from its beginning embraced inerrancy. But if so, it is certainly not the same inerrancy that is embraced by traditionalists.
A case in point (not mentioned in the book): several church fathers, whose bibliological credentials on the New Testament at least were unimpeachable, claim that Jesus’ healing of the blind man in Mark 8.22–26 was not historical. This is one of two miracles of Jesus recorded in Mark that are not found in either Matthew or Luke. Both of them involved Jesus using spittle (the other is the healing of the deaf-mute in Mark 7). Jerome says that the story is “not historical, but symbolic.” And Ambrose, the bishop of Milan in the fourth century, saw the spittle as a symbol for the washing away of sins in baptism.
Nevertheless, these hoary authorities of old were probably wrong. It is instructive that through the route of historical criticism these two pericopes have become seen as among the most likely historical events in the Gospels—and for the same reasons that Matthew and Luke probably excluded them and the church fathers spiritualized them. Why was that? Embarrassment. Most Gospels scholars today, both evangelical and liberal and everything in between, regard a saying or act preserved in the Gospels that would be potentially embarrassing to the church, as having the marks of authenticity for this very reason, for no evangelist would create such out of whole cloth.
Second, the authors make the case that elevating inerrancy to the level of, say, the resurrection of Jesus, puts one’s whole belief system in jeopardy. Toward the end of the book, they make this case as follows:
“Blomberg also offers us, Geisler says, the hideous (!) statement that if there were a few genuine contradictions in the Bible, the rest of the text would not be jeopardized and the entire case for belief would not be called into question. Yes, this is one of those dangerous views of Scripture that says that if the Bible is not inerrant, then Jesus did not rise. How far would it go? Would we say Jesus did not even exist if we find there are mistakes in the Bible? Actually, there are some professed former Christians who hold to this position, and their questioning of the Bible started with them having been in a position like Geisler’s as confessing Christians.”
This view—making inerrancy as important as the resurrection of Christ—is part of a mindset that does not differentiate among doctrines. I call it the domino view of doctrine. When one falls down, they all fall down. I have taught for years that it is one of the main reasons why some conservatives become “liberal.” I put “liberal” in quotes because often such people are not really liberal; they are still fundamentalists, just on the left side of the theological aisle. They still see things in black and white, but now are skeptical about the supernatural and anything that smacks of biblical authority. Darrell Bock speaks of such a mentality as “brittle fundamentalism.” And he sees it as shattering when it comes in contact with the sophisticated polemics of the left.
In Defining Inerrancy, the authors note that they have known many evangelicals who have abandoned the faith precisely because they started out with such a hardening of the categories. This rings true: I get countless emails from people who have either jettisoned their beliefs (or have friends or family members who have) because their starting presupposition was that it’s inerrancy or nothing. Such people would throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater! And it is this very problem that one of the architects of modern evangelicalism, Carl Henry (who could hardly be condemned as being soft on inerrancy!), addressed in his book, Evangelicals in Search of Identity. It seems that many evangelicals are still not listening. And yet Henry saw, forty years ago, that the evangelical church was making inerrancy the litmus test of orthodoxy to its discredit. Yet again, I digress. Holding and Peters are not in the least denying inerrancy; they are simply rejecting a rigid form of it that they see as dangerous to the health of the evangelical church.
In sum, Defining Inerrancy is a book far more important than its size would indicate. It defines not only inerrancy but a yawning divide within evangelicalism. My hope is that traditionalists will not dismiss it out of hand (as they have so many treatments coming from contextualizing inerrantists), but will indeed wrestle seriously with its contents. Sadly, I’m not holding my breath.
Speakers and writers often say something like this: “My sermon has three points” or “I’d like to share four things.”
This book taught me not to do that:
I took my first homiletics courses in college in the 1999–2000 school year, and the first edition of this book was one of my main textbooks.
That book has served me well over the last fifteen years. It taught me to use language precisely.
Below is one example that has stuck with me. McDill is giving advice about how to craft sermon divisions, but his advice applies to far more than just preaching. It applies to writing and to communication in general:
There are almost an unlimited number of terms you can use as key words [in sermon division statements]. Note that Appendix D provides a comprehensive list of possible key words. But some words should not be used.
Remember, the key word is simply a device to identify the nature of your sermon divisions as they emerge from the writer’s treatment of his subject. (pp. 111–12, numbering and formatting added)
So instead of saying that the apostle Paul “makes three points,” say, “gives three reasons” or “shows three ways” or whatever. The craft of communicating with speech and writing requires words, so if that’s your craft, you’ll want to develop your ability to use words well.
McDill lists 265 words that communicate more clearly that the ambiguous words “points” and “things” (“Appendix D: Sample Key Words,” pp. 295–96, numbering added):
In my last post I wrote about how worries regarding the potential for sexual abuse can keep people from providing foster care. I provided some background information it’s good to know before providing foster care for a child who may have been sexually abused. I think having a healthy perspective about this issue is very important. I also think it’s vitally important to create a safe environment in your home with the potential for sexual abuse in mind. For us, that has been striking the right balance between openness, honesty, and privacy. Here’s how we do it.
Specific to foster families:
Respect birth order when taking foster kids. I know not everybody is going to agree with me about this and I’m okay with that. God has blessed the ministry of many families who have chosen to take kids out of birth order. I’m not arguing against that if you feel called to that and you have the skills and resources to ensure the safety of all kids in your home. But for our family, respecting birth order has been a big part of how we prevent sexual abuse from happening in our home. We always want our kids to be big enough and old enough to know what is appropriate and be able to say “no” to things they know are wrong. This is a decision we make for the protection of our kids and we don’t let pressure from an agency that wants to place older kids in our home push us into something we aren’t comfortable with. If you feel called to take kids older than your kids, do it with much prayer and with honest conversations about how you’ll protect your kids. If you don’t feel called to take kids older than your kids, don’t be pressured into it and work to recruit foster families who are in a position to take those kids you can’t.
Ask about a foster chid’s history. When you are called about a child who may be placed in your home, you need to ask very specific questions. Don’t feel bad about being nosey. If a caseworker can’t give you that information for whatever reason, they will tell you that. You also need to assume that nobody has the whole story on this child yet. Even if nobody knows about a history of sexual abuse, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been one. It’s good to have a plan for how to help that child with healthy boundaries and be sure they’re getting the counseling help they require. Because you may not always know the full story, it’s important to have good boundaries in place for your family in general.
Have a safety plan. If you become aware that a child in your home had been abused and sexually acting out, how would you handle it? You need to think through your resources and how you’re going to keep everybody safe. Do other children in the home know what is appropriate and inappropriate? Do you have counseling help available? Do you have a respite provider that can handle children with those issues when you need a break? Are you able to adequately supervise interactions between children? Does every child have privacy in the bathroom and when they get dressed? You need to have answers for these kinds of questions before you take a placement if there’s any potential for issues (which you may or may not know ahead of time).
For every family:
Talk honestly with your kids about their bodies. Bodies are not shameful. The words we use to identify our body parts are not shameful. Use the correct words with your kids from as early a time as possible. Tell them those parts are special and private. There is never too young an age to start having that conversation. There shouldn’t be one special day where you have the birds and bees talk and expect that to cover it. This is an ongoing conversation you have with a child about the beauty and functionality of their body from their infancy through their young adulthood.
Be a person your kids can talk to. Create times for your kids to ask questions that may be on their minds. Let them know that you aren’t embarrassed to talk about sex. Tell them that if they saw something, heard something or had something done to them that they felt uncomfortable about, they need to talk to you about it. Create a climate in your home where a child would feel safe coming to you without fear.
Identify other safe people your kids can talk to. If something happened at school, they can talk to a trusted teacher. Talk about what relatives or family friends or leaders at church would be okay to talk to if they had a question or didn’t feel comfortable coming to Mom and Dad. Ultimately we want them to talk to us, but there may be a reason why that doesn’t feel safe to them or they are in an environment where we aren’t present, so it’s good for them to know there are other people that we trust who could listen to them and help them know how to talk to us.
Tell them what response would be okay if they were inappropriately touched. Have you ever had a fire drill at your home? Have you talked to your kids about the escape routes from your house if there were a fire or about your safety plan if there were a tornado or earthquake? In the same way, you need to talk to your kids about what they should do if somebody tries to touch them inappropriately or asks to see parts of their body that should be kept private. My kids know that they should say “no” and run to Mom or the nearest trusted adult. I’ve also given them my okay to push or kick to get away. That has helped underscore to them how serious this is since we usually emphasize peaceful responses. Even my four year-old knows what parts of her body are private and what to do if someone wanted to see or touch them. I can’t ensure they would do the right thing in that situation, but I have no doubt that they would know what I would expect them to do.
Talk about who can see their body. My kids know that I am allowed to see their body. The doctor is allowed to see their body if I am present (I love that my pediatrician always tells the kids, “This is only okay for me to do because your mom is here.” We may tell our kids that it’s okay for the doctor to see them naked, but fail to think about a person who could claim to be a doctor and prey on that level of trust.). If Grandma is watching them while I’m away or the trusted babysitter is there, there may be a reason they need to see them naked depending on their age (to help them change clothes or bathe them) but outside of those reasons they don’t need to just be naked around those people. Other children do not need to see you naked. Other grown-ups do not need to see you naked. If someone asks, you come tell Mom.
Respect privacy and teach your kids to respect privacy. In our home we draw those privacy lines pretty early. Once a child is about two, I do not allow them in the bathroom with me. We do not allow kids to be in the bathroom together if one of them is bathing or using the toilet, especially kids of different genders. Once kids are out of the toddler years and able to dress themselves, we ask them to get dressed in their own room. I do not have kids in the room with me when I get dressed. (Of course there are exceptions, but these are the guidelines we try to stick to.) In all of these things, we emphasize that those body parts are special and it’s important to keep them private. It isn’t about shame or making them embarrassed, but about saying we don’t show those parts to just anybody. This is also why I do my best to limit who can change my children’s diapers, especially as they get older. I don’t want them to be in the habit of just letting anybody see them naked or touch those parts of their body. I am particularly persnickety about this with our foster kids, which is why I prefer to be called out to change diapers even when my kids are in the church nursery. It is also why I’m a big fan of early potty training.
Be observant. Do your kids seem guilty? Are they sneaking around? Do you feel like they’re hiding something? Is there a friend you don’t trust. You need to listen to your parenting gut. Know what is going on the lives of your kids. Talk to them honestly about the dangers and temptations out there. Not talking about porn won’t keep porn from being on your computer, on your tv, or at the neighbor’s house. We need to equip our kids in age appropriate ways to know how to deal with their own curiosity and help them understand that sexual desire isn’t shameful, although there are wrongs ways to try and get that desire fulfilled. It’s okay to be a little suspicious of your kids and their friends and to be observant about any changing behaviors.
Don’t overreact. Your kids are likely going to come across something you wish they hadn’t seen or heard or experienced. They need to know that isn’t a deal breaker as far as them being people of worth. They likely feel guilty and you need to help channel that guilt into repentance and forgiveness or righteous anger depending on the situation. Don’t jump to conclusions about what kind of people they are because they made a mistake. Don’t let them jump to conclusions either. Remember that if they’re coming to you to confess, you don’t want to discourage that courageous act. If you caught them doing something dumb, remember that they may feel some relief at being caught and need to know you still love them.
In this day and age, choosing not to be a foster family doesn’t protect you from the possibility that sexual abuse can impact the life of your child. We can’t prevent every negative influence or experience. But we can do our best to give our kids the tools to know how to handle these kinds of situations. By talking openly and honestly with our kids we help prepare them and create a safer environment for our children and for children who may enter our home.