Beyond Nice

Beyond Nice

by Patricia H. Davis

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Making the Difference is the first book ever to examine the category of gender as it has been and is now understood in the social sciences and its pertinence for religion and theology.

One of the most significant phenomena within Western Christianity over the last generation has been the emergence of feminism and feminist theology. They are sparked by such issues as

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Making the Difference is the first book ever to examine the category of gender as it has been and is now understood in the social sciences and its pertinence for religion and theology.

One of the most significant phenomena within Western Christianity over the last generation has been the emergence of feminism and feminist theology. They are sparked by such issues as inclusive language, understandings of God, ordination of women, patriarchal patterns reflected in Christian traditions, and the role of women's experience in religion. Yet, in confronting all these concerns, feminist reflections return inexorably to the debate over the meaning and significant of gender, gender difference, and the social construction of gender.

Increasing sophistication in theology and ministry on gender questions requires disciplined attention to how gender itself has been analyzed in anthropology, biology, psychoanalysis, and philosophy. Graham's bright and clear work is a detailed and critical inquiry into these disciplines and their profound import for our understanding of human culture and identity, as well as for theology, church policy, and Christian practice.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this denuded dissertation, Davis eschews sustained analysis and engagement with relevant scholarship in favor of excerpting interviews she conducted over four years with adolescent girls about church and spirituality. Reading more like an extended journalistic feature than qualitative research, this book targets an audience of church workers seeking a better understanding of adolescent girls. Five topically organized chapters feature quotations from girls about God, their churches, sexuality and violence. In the first chapter, Davis explains that her responsibilities as an interviewer include sharing girls' insights without putting her own spin on them. This may explain why she does little more than quote and rephrase what informants tell her. Unfortunately, this strategy does not erase her influence, but rather allows it subtle power. For example, her chapter about violence highlights a tendency she has noticed among adolescent girls to protect others but not themselves. While Davis does voice some concern about this, her troubling admiration of such self-abnegation is evident as well. She seems to be rewriting an old feminist story, in which women are equal parts noble, innocent, victimized and wise. For a book that transcends these clich s in its exploration of girls coming of age in spiritual communities, see Carol Lakey Hess's Caretakers of Our Common House. Davis's book may serve her fellow church workers adequately, but her shallow valorization of girls does not, despite its title's promise, venture far beyond nice. (Dec.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Augsburg Fortress, Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.32(d)

Read an Excerpt

From the Preface (pre-publication version):
"[N]ice girls" are always calm, controlled, quiet . . . they never cause a ruckus, are never noisy, bossy, or aggressive, are not anxious and do not cause trouble.

Niceness is the opposite of spirituality. Niceness is, in fact, the opposite of what is required to build any genuine relationship-with God or with others. While niceness can smooth superficial human interactions, it is devastating to true intimacy.

Niceness requires putting away genuine feelings, avoiding conflict, swallowing hurts, denying pain, and being untruthful. Niceness requires self-denial and often self-forgetting. The nice person eventually forgets to notice how she really feels, even in extreme circumstances. The truly nice person doesn't even know when she's angry, and wouldn't admit to being angry if questioned. The nice person would never fight on her own behalf. Most often, nice people are not able to feel strong positive emotions either. Nice people are "calm, controlled, and quiet."

Niceness is the opposite of what adults should be teaching adolescents. Yet, it is a prime virtue taught to adolescent girls by mothers, teachers, and other adults who have internalized dominant cultural messages about "good" women: that they are self-sacrificing, nurturing, and never angry-that they are ultimately responsible for maintaining and protecting relationships. Girls, in fact, are taught to understand themselves in terms of the relationships of which they are a part. They "learn" that conflict (not-niceness) is a threat to relationships and selves, rather than that anger and other so-called negative feelings are natural human emotionsthat can be symptoms of relational problems.

Just at the time in their lives when girls are coming to know themselves as adults, just at the time when their awareness of what it means to be women is formed, they are often taught to be "nice" instead of to understand and deal with the complexity of adult emotional life. This usually means putting away their most important and real feelings, in favor of the kind of smiles and congeniality that will more likely win adult (and peer) approval.

True spirituality is about intimacy with God and others. This book is based in the testimony of over one hundred girls about their developing spiritualities within the context of a culture of "niceness." Most of the girls in this study were very "nice" to me, the interviewer, but many also were courageous enough to break through niceness and to speak from their hearts about God, their families, their churches, their friends, and their relationships.

It is encouraging that most of these girls seem to see how expectations of "niceness" can be dangerous for them and for the development of real intimate relationships. But, they also talk about the struggle to act in ways that are congruent with their true feelings when those feelings are negative or even just intense. More importantly for the adults in their lives, they talk about their need for models-especially for women-who will embody a spirituality and style of relating to others that reveals integrity between true emotions and actions. They talk about wanting and needing families and church communities that will expect them to live honestly instead of nicely. They talk about needing to be able to ask questions that are hard and challenging, and to be heard and answered. They talk about the hard areas of their own lives, their experiences (first- or second-hand) of violence and their developing sexualities. They talk about their experiences of financial and material need, and their expectations for the future.

I began this study with the idea that working with girls in a spiritual context would mean, first of all, helping girls to see the value in spirituality. I was surprised to find that most of the girls to whom I listened are already vitally interested in having a real relationship with God. And, they are interested in worship, doctrine, and especially the ethical teaching of the church. But they wonder why adults do not address their issues of vital concern such as violence, financial problems, and sexuality. They wonder why, even when they risk asking the questions, they are ignored or given answers that are too easy. This book can be read as a plea from the girls to the adults in their lives and to the church to drop the "niceness" code-to listen to their sometimes difficult voices-and to move toward real relationships with them. It can also be read as a offering of gratitude for the times they have been heard and appreciated even when they weren't being nice. I am deeply indebted to these girls for their courage and willingness to talk with me. Their thoughtfulness and honesty is an inspiration to me, and I hope they will be so for others as well.

From the Introduction (pre-publication version):

It was the Sunday after Christmas, and I was substitute teaching the junior high's Sunday school class. Expectations were low. When I arrived two boys were sprawled out on the couches, eyes closed, catching a few more moments of sleep before class. As I pulled some chairs into the circle next to the couches, two girls wandered in. The regular group was diminished by about half. The girls lit the gathering candle, and I joined them in saying the opening prayer.

The lesson was Jesus' great commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. The challenge: Jesus seems to be taking for granted that we love ourselves. How do we know that we love ourselves?

One of the boys offered: "I know I love myself when our football team wins a game, and I feel really good." The second boy: "I know I love myself when my grades go up instead of down." The girls shifted uneasily in their chairs. The first, an honor student and soccer player, looked at the floor. "I know I love myself, because after I had a fight with my mother, and she left me alone, I didn't kill myself." The second girl, her best friend, agreed: "Yeah, I had a fight with my parents last week, and I didn't even hurt myself."

This incident captures broader truths about girls' religious lives-truths about relationships, self-image, and their spiritualities. These girls understand the connections between self-love and survival, between disrupted relationships and the threat of self-destruction and annihilation. For them, self-love is not about achievement or public recognition; it is essentially bound up in the ways they are able to stay in relationship with those they love. They recognize their own self-love in Jesus' command to love by their own willingness to stay alive even when important relationships are threatened. These girls' seemingly offhand comments, spoken quietly during a drowsy Sunday school hour, illustrate the necessity of listening carefully to girls, learning about their lives and their visions of themselves and the ways in which their spiritualities function as they mature into young adults. In truth, their spiritualities have been developing since early infancy.

A baby, who knows nothing of God cognitively, nevertheless has experiences of the divine. The way she is cared for by her parents; the ways she is received into her larger family of siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins; the ways the family's faith community introduces her to the traditions and culture of the group-all of these contribute to her developing relationship with God. The years of infancy are, in fact, the foundation of religious experience. This is the time when a child will come to know whether the universe is a good and trustworthy place, whether she is welcome in the world, and whether she will be cared for and protected by "her" people.

As a girl grows into childhood, she experiences God in her family's continuing care, in her beginning prayers and religious lessons, in her connections with nature, in her relationships with friends and community members, and in the wonder and excitement of religious celebrations. Stories of God's love and goodness become important and are both comforting and challenging.

A girl realizes she is becoming a woman-ready or not-when her body and her relationships begin to change. She may begin to see (with horror or relief) that her breasts are noticeable when she wears certain shirts or blouses. She begins her monthly "periods." Adults admire her in new ways, and she starts to be called a "young lady." Boys begin to treat her differently and to expect her to act differently in response to them. Her father may stop hugging her so tightly, and may even look away when she wears her bathing suit.

The main psychological developmental task of an adolescent girl is to solidify a sense of who she is, now that she is no longer a child. In adolescence many girls begin to test themselves as individuals and as emerging adults-in relationships, in social activities, and in new ways of thinking. Relationships above all tell a girl who she is and what her life is about.

If a girl has been fortunate, most of her important relationships remained healthy and stable throughout childhood. Her parents loved each other and remain together. Grandparents stayed healthy and emotionally close and supportive. Cherished pets survived. Friendships matured as she did. Her community of faith welcomed her and felt to her like another kind of safe larger family. In addition, she and her family lived a satisfying life in their larger society, with enough economic resources and possibilities to live comfortably and safely. In the best circumstances, her family and friends are excited about the woman she is becoming. Religion has been a stable, loving, and protective force in her life, and she has established a warm relationship with God.

Healthy spirituality, for an adolescent girl, involves relationships that affirm who she is becoming. A girl's spirituality emanates from her relationship with God-the one she hopes will listen to her, value her, guide her, encourage her, and protect her. In addition, her spirituality reflects all the other important relationships in her life. Each girl's spirituality is complex and unique. It can draw her to truth and freedom, and it can help her to resist evil and oppression.

However, in North American culture girls are often at risk. Very few girls grow up in ideal emotional situations. Much very good research has been conducted on the social location of girls in this culture, showing the oppression inherent in girls' lives in terms of opportunities withheld, harassment condoned, voices silenced, and self-esteem undermined. Girls are at risk for sexual and physical abuse. They are at risk for developing eating disorders; they are at risk for depression and suicide; they are at risk for deadly sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancy; they are at risk for alcohol and drug abuse; and, perhaps most importantly, they are at risk for losing a sense of their own power, value, and importance in the universe.4

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