Watching Preachers’ Daughters Right After the Boston Bombings While Teaching a Class on Augustine’s Confessions

My oldest son is eight years old. It’s a fun age. He’s starting to have a set of interests and a breadth of knowledge and experiences that are clearly his own, not a function of parental initiative. He developed an interest in submarines and Minecraft. I never enrolled him in submarine lessons. He got excited about them. He learned—probably by watching Nova—what the driest spot on Earth is, and quizzed me on that bit of trivia at dinner. He’s making his own friends, liking some subjects in school and not liking others, and beginning to think about what he’d like to be when he grows up. (A naval engineer who makes clocks in his spare time, since you asked.)     

Obviously it wasn’t just parents of eight-year-olds who felt sick last week when they learned that one of the Boston marathon victims was a child. I don’t mean to suggest that parents have any kind of special experience of horror at the news that a child has died. But when I heard about Martin Richard, the eight-year-old bombing victim, my mind did what human brains do—tried to explain the incomprehensible in terms of the familiar—and discovered to its horror that there was a lot that seemed familiar. From Martin Richard’s gap-toothed grin, to the way his “No More Hurting People” sign was clearly carefully printed yet switched between upper and lower case, to the long eyelashes that his head had yet to really grow into… these are things I’ve seen in my own house, that I associate with one of the people I love most in the world. And, yes, God help me, the fact that Martin Richard is white, lives in the U.S., and speaks English makes it seem like “he could be my own child,” in a way that doesn’t hold for children further removed from the contexts I know. I dearly wish that weren’t true. It shouldn’t be true.   

Those are the things I was thinking about when I should have been writing last week’s Preachers’ Daughters recap. I didn’t manage to write it, and anyway it seemed too soon. 

But here, listen to me, starting what’s meant to be a lighthearted episode recap with a reflection on tragedy! Sorry. The thing is, I just can’t bring the snark this week, because I’ve spent the week thinking different versions of, “My God, the things we do to one other.” 

This week’s episode of Preachers’ Daughters featured, once again, parents who really want to protect their children, and children who sometimes bristle under parental protection. The three families—the Colemans, the Perrys, and the Koloffs—have really grown on me since the show started. In last night’s episode, Taylor Coleman’s parents have her renew her sexual purity pledge, which they interpret to involve no kissing before marriage. Olivia Perry’s parents watch her infant daughter while she takes a brief trip to visit to her sister Emily’s modeling shoot—which she and her older sister Audrey end up being part of. Tawni Koloff, as part of a slumber party with her sisters, gets a tattoo while their mother Victoria is out of town. Victoria is not a fan of tattoos; she sees them as being at odds with treating one’s body as a temple.

So here’s the thing: I wish that Christian reflection on moral behavior did not have such a lazy habit of turning potentially important conversations into reductive taxonomies—good bodies and bad bodies, dirty acts and pure acts, flesh and spirit, those in authority and those under authority. I think that tendency has hurt people, and I think it’s implicated in rape culture. And that matters: this is not an interesting little theological problem for specialists to rub their chins over and try to work out in the abstract. 

But. You know what? I just can’t, right now, mock the parents on Preachers’ Daughters for wanting to protect their children, not even if they do so using language and concepts that I disagree with. And I don’t really want to counter the reductive “purity” rhetoric with something reductive of my own, like a cheap criticism that Christianity is anti-sex and anti-body.

Which brings me to Augustine’s Confessions, and specifically, reading Augustine’s Confessions with my Intro Theology class this week. Internet, I love Augustine Confessions. I love, love, love, love Augustine’s Confessions. I love it even when I want to throw it across the room and curse. It’s a complicated love, and I’m not entirely sure where it comes from. But one reason I love Augustine is because he’s thoroughly haunted by the stupidity, callousness, and intractability of human cruelty. 

“You will sometimes hear,” I told my intro students this week, “that Augustine is anti-sex. There’s a sense in which that’s a fair criticism, but you have to have the whole story.” And then I read to them this bit from Book I. (I’m using Maria Boulding’s translation.): 

Woe, woe to you, you flood of human custom! Who can keep his footing against you? Will you never run dry? How long will you toss the children of Eve into a vast, terrifying sea, which even those afloat on the saving wood can scarcely cross?… O hellish river, human children clutching their fees are still pitched into you…

Human cruelty is like a deadly flood that people pay admission to chuck their own children into. Why children? Because they are the ones still being taught how to be “one of us.” Infancy seems to have something of a theological cipher for Augustine. He can’t remember his own infancy, of course, and so he must has to rely on stories from others to learn who he is, where he comes from, and how to know God. This is part of human sociality, and it would be a fine arrangement if human societies only ever sought the good.

But that’s not the case. Instead, children get told appalling, harmful stories about who they are. They are told it’s for their own good, by people who actually believe the stories to be true. Having been told appalling, harmful stories, those children go on to behave in appalling and harmful ways—like when, in Book II, Augustine steals some pears. Some readers accuse Augustine of overreacting here, making a youthful indiscretion into a grand and lurid sin. But Augustine’s point is exactly that it wasn’t grand or interesting. It was small and stupid. He didn’t need the pears. They weren’t even good. He wasn’t hungry. He didn’t have anything against the owner of the orchard, and he stole the pears only to throw them away. And that’s human cruelty in a nutshell: small, spiteful, irrational, and pointless.  

Yet we like it, somehow. Attend again to the metaphor: People aren’t just tossing their children into a deadly flood. They’re paying admission to do so. Even the best parts of human nature get turned to these bad ends. The desire for knowledge becomes selfish gratification at being thought clever. The desire for companionship becomes a kind of titillated excitement at the realization that I can manipulate people into being how I enjoy, or hurt them for not being how I enjoy. The desire to protect one’s children: that, too, can so easily become corrupted.  Is sexuality caught up in this inescapable flood of cultural sewage, for Augustine? Sure, but so is education, government, and heck, representational thought itself. Because, my God! the things we do to one another.

[deep sigh] Well, anyway. It’s been a sad week. I’m not sure what it says that I have to get to compassion by way of Augustine, but compassion was where I intended to wind up (for those three readers still with me). Koloff, Perry, and Coleman parents: I don’t always agree with the things you tell your kids. At the same time, I know you didn’t personally invent problematic notions of purity. Also, I can empathize with wanting to protect your children from harm. Meanwhile, my own theological book-learnin’ can so easily slide into precisely what Augustine warned against: a game of Cleverest Person in the Room. I expect we all think we have good motives, and we’re probably all right sometimes and wrong other times. And your kids seem nice. I hope they—and all kids—enjoy love and safety in a world that seems, sometimes, to revel in its own stupid cruelty. 

Well, internet, how’s that for lighthearted? Next week: whimsical puns and breezy exclamation points. Promise. Meanwhile, let’s be good to each other. 

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