Kelly and Kim’s discussion of Indecent…Exposure by Jane O’Reilly

So one day my buddy Kim sent me a text asking me if I’d be interested in reading Indecent…Exposure by Jane O’Reilly, which some readers said reminded them of Charlotte Stein’s writing style. I love me some Stein, so I was all over it. Read on, and Kim and I will tell you all about our thoughts.

Setting up the money shot…

Quiet, sensible Ellie Smithson is a highly respectable photographer by day – but there are only so many wedding photo-shoots you can take without your mind wandering to what happens when the blissfully happy bride is swept off her feet and straight to the honeymoon suite’s sumptuous four-poster bed…

So after dark, Ellie takes pictures of a more…intimate nature – a dirty little secret she’s kept from her accountant Tom. Until now. It seems Tom is the subject of her next racy shoot!

It isn’t just the blurring of work and personal boundaries that’s the problem; secretly Ellie has always had fantasies of a most unprofessional nature about the almost illegally gorgeous Tom. With such temptation on display, how will she ever stay behind the camera?!

The first book in the Indecent… trilogy.

Kim: Kelly had always told me how much I would love reading Charlotte Stein. I love me some dirty, filthy reads from time to time and Stein fills that box. When I heard that Jane O’Reilly could also fill that box I was indeed intrigued.

Ellie, our heroine, is what got me hooked into the story. I loved her double life so much! On one hand we have a photographer who does fantastic portraits, weddings, babies….you know the typical things a professional photographer photographs. (Say that ten times fast!)

And on the other is the Ellie who photographs deeply sexual and erotic images.  She lives vicariously through her clients and their shoots.

Kelly: I enjoyed Ellie’s double life, too. It’s kind of a parallel to the double life any erotica reader has, right? We’re probably not reading this stuff all the time. Our lives are full of standard fare: work, family, friends, weddings, funerals, etc. Sometimes we read nonfiction, mainstream fiction, romance, sci-fi.  And some of us have e-readers or bookshelves full of dirty, filthy stories that we probably don’t talk about at our book club meetings. (Unless we belong to the best kind of book club.) Anyway, I loved Ellie, because she’s totally neurotic and relatable.

Kim: And how about Tom? And his wonderful, deliciously dirty mouth? He seems all prim and proper from Ellie’s descriptions of him, but when he’s allowed to speak for himself, boy can he turn up the heat. The chemistry between the two of them is palpable at times, and I seriously wanted to cut it with a knife. But he isn’t just a dirty mouth. We learn that he needs to sometimes do outrageous things and get tattoos.

Kelly: Sometimes accountants have to, you know? It can be a boring job… unless you’re SUPER into spreadsheets and numbers…

Kim: HA! He does enjoy his spreadsheets and numbers, but also enjoys voyeurism, boxing, and Ellie’s erotic photography.

Kelly: Tom and Ellie serve as interesting foils for the other. Both are somewhat buttoned up, hidden, and repressed in their professional lives, and both fight against that repression (albeit in very different ways). Tom is much more accepting of himself and his needs; Ellie feels shame over hers. In a way, they seem to be a fairly decent example of how modern culture accepts (even assumes) the desires of men but shames those of women.

Kim: I want to delve more into what Kelly said about Tom and Ellie. Their foil-ish qualities help each other realize that what they repress doesn’t need to be considered shameful. There is nothing wrong with Tom enjoying erotic photography or adrenaline pumping activities. Look at all the people in the world who go skydiving or base jumping. His past makes his feelings of shame understandable, but thankfully Ellie helps him bring that side out. Shows him it’s ok to be himself.

Ellie meanwhile (with Tom’s help) undergoes a personal sexual awakening that makes her find beauty in the erotic photographs she takes. And Kelly’s right about society shaming women for their desires. Ellie thinks she should have to keep her business (and her enjoyment of sex) a secret. She’s unable to ask for what she wants sexually due to embarrassment over her desires. I’m glad O’Reilly added this little dig at our social norms and chose to let Ellie discover herself, effectively overcoming this stigma.

Kelly:  So Tom and Ellie are wonderful, and their scenes are interesting (and filthy), but… let’s talk about the setup for a bit. Because the plot and conflict in this story are a little strange. So Ellie’s best friend Amber has discovered that her boyfriend has not only been cheating on her, he’s gone and proposed to the other woman. So she’s like, I’ll show him! So she tells the guy in line behind her at the bank — that’s Tom, Ellie’s accountant — that Ellie takes erotic photos, and would he like a blow job (that Ellie will photograph). And he says yes, of course. (Of course.) Amber asks Ellie for this super special photo of the event, and Ellie doesn’t quite get the shot, because she’s distracted by Tom, how much she likes him, and how jealous she feels in the moment. That super special photo (more accurately the lack of it) ends up being one of the major pieces of conflict driving the story, which makes no sense to me.

Kim: Much is made about the friendship between Ellie and Amber, like how much Ellie owes Amber for keeping her “together.” I’m not really sure what she went through that Amber kept her from breaking apart, but I truly never understand their friendship.

Ellie tells nobody about her side business. Nobody but Amber. And here we have Amber taking advantage of it, telling Ellie’s accountant about it, just so she can get back at a cheating boyfriend. Which, not for nothing honey, but if he chose another woman over you chances are a picture of you blowing some other dude isn’t going to piss him off.

Kelly: Yeah, no kidding. But Amber’s obsessed with showing this money shot image to her Cheaty Mccheater boyfriend, convinced that it’ll make her feel better (how?). And Ellie — the narrator of this piece — pretty much just goes along with it (and you get the idea that that’s how their friendship goes: Amber behaves in incredibly selfish and destructive ways and Ellie just goes with it because she has few friends, anyway, and she feels a debt of gratitude to Amber, because Amber helped Ellie get through her difficult school years. Also, I suspect that Ellie is a bit of an unreliable narrator at times.). The more Amber rages about the cheater, the more Ellie capitulates. And even when Ellie and Tom act on their mutual attraction, Ellie still isn’t able to separate herself from Amber’s will. It’s very strange how Ellie sees herself as Amber’s necessary pawn. Fortunately for us readers, Tom doesn’t, and he spares us what would otherwise be a very awkward scene.

Kim: What really pissed me off was when Amber yelled at Ellie for not being honest with her about her feelings for Tom. As if she could with Amber hollering all the time about “why didn’t you get the money shot?!!?!”

AND THEN Amber’s ending (in this story at least). KGJKLGJ:KSGJLKDJKDFK

I’m so angry I can’t produce words. All that drama was for nothing!!! Amber’s selfishness knows no bounds. She truly cares for herself and her pleasure only.

Kelly: yeah.. It might have been better if the actual conflict of the story had stayed focused on Ellie and Tom and their respective drama. Of course, how would they ever have discovered the other’s inner pervert if they’d remained ever accountant and client? (I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure a lot of folks could come up with plenty of scenarios that didn’t involve revenge BJs. Just saying.) Anyway, so much page time was given to Amber and her stupid drama that the actual conflict of the story — Ellie and her issues and Tom and his and their budding romance (and boinking) — got shifted to the side a bit, and it sort of falls flat, in the end. (I thought.) I also thought they stumbled toward love — in the forever way — a little too quick.

Kim: Agreed! It was a bit magic penis if you will.

Kelly: Yeah, just a bit.

Kim’s final thoughts: Even with Amber and the magic penis bit, I still genuinely enjoyed the novella. I enjoyed seeing two people cast off the shame society made them feel and come into their own. By the end of the book Ellie and Tom know who they are and, as such, are able to bask in the newness of their relationship and (too fast) love for each other.

Kelly’s final thoughts: I liked it, too.  It’s funny, because I’d already read a bunch of Charlotte Stein’s books, and — at first — the similar style and voice threw me off. But I just re-read this novella today, and it seemed a lot more distinct and original (and un-Stein, if that makes sense) than when I first read it several months ago. It’s possible that on my first read, I paid attention to the things that seemed familiar. On the surface it seems just like it’s using a Stein trope, as though neurotic characters + dirty sex = “in the style of Charlotte Stein”.  But on a second read, that similarity seemed incidental. Or maybe I just want all erotica to be written in the style of Charlotte Stein. Whatever. I’ll be keeping an eye out in future for Jane O’Reilly.

Advertisements

Kim and Kelly’s discussion of Salvation by Noelle Adams

Kim and I finally found some time to write together! It’s the most amazing thing ever. Anyway, this book (and maybe the review?) should come with a big ol’ trigger warning. So consider yourself warned.

You get to the point where you can just say it. There was never anything special about me, except my father is rich and important. That’s why it happened.

It was just a normal Tuesday afternoon. I was twenty-three and thinking about my new designer boots. They kidnapped me for ransom. They raped me before I was rescued. My therapist says that talking about it means I’m starting to heal.

I don’t really think I am.

It’s even harder to talk about Gideon. He couldn’t save me when it really mattered, so he keeps trying to save me now. He refuses to give up on me, and I can’t make him understand. There are some things you just can’t be saved from.

Kelly: I have a terrible memory, so Kim had to remind me why I read this book. Not kidding. It went like this: a few months ago, I got into this EPIC Twitter convo with a bunch of awesome ladies about books (and by books, I mean romance novels. You knew that, right?) that deal with taboo subjects: rape between the H/h with eventual HEA, older woman, domestic violence between the H/h with eventual HEA, etc. Our list of taboos was lengthy, but I (predictably) can’t remember all of them. Kim saw part of our convo and was like, hey, there’s this Noelle Adams book that’s about the heroine dealing with surviving a gang rape. And I thought, well. I guess I have to read that book. So I did. Once I finished it, I texted Kim and was like “KIM. KIMMMMMM. KIM. KIM!!! YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK.” So she did. Because that’s how we roll.

Kim: I knew Salvation was going to be a tough read and was hesitant to read it until Kelly gave me the green light. I was hesitant because I wasn’t interested in reading a book about a taboo subject that ended up being a story of fathomless despair. Reading taboo subjects is already hard enough on a reader’s emotions and I really wanted to know that getting through this book (and its rough subject matter) was worthwhile and offered hope. (Hope is my favorite emotion – more on that later)

Kelly: This book does deal with taboo subject matter (not necessarily a formalized taboo within the romance genre, but it’s definitely a cultural taboo), but I want to reassure you that it’s not one of the types I mentioned above. I mean, if you read the blurb, you know that, but I just wanted to make it perfectly clear that we’re not suggesting you read a book that brings an HEA to a gang-raping hero. We have some standards over here. Anyway.

Kim: We definitely have standards. I’ve DNF’d a book for having a heroine fall in love with her kidnapping hero. NOPE. Not ok to drug someone and kidnap them for your own pleasure. ANYWAY – I’m off on a tangent here. I’ll throw it back to Kelly 🙂

Kelly: Salvation opens with the kidnapping and resulting trauma and then follows the incremental, often difficult, recovery for both characters. It’s not quite a day-by-day retelling, however; in fact, it’s possible that there was actually an editor on this book.

Kim: I agree with Kelly 100%. Adams’ books can become way overzealous in the attention to monotonous details. Thankfully the details that were included in Salvation were specifically chosen (IMO) to help us understand Diana’s mindset after the rape. As someone who has never gone through what Diana has, the sparser details made me look for the importance of the details we were given.

Kelly: Well, and honestly… Adams is telling a story in this book. There is character and story development along the way, an actual narrative arc (a plot!!), and an eventual HEA that is satisfying. In some of her earlier stories, it sometimes feels as though she’s just regurgitating carefully taken notes from her research — some of it conducted through interviews, I’d guess — and it pretty much reads like that, too. (Hmm.. I didn’t intend to seem so harsh, but… there it is. I apparently get upset when I read an entire book hoping for a story and don’t end up getting one.) ANYWAY, Adams fixes all that, here, editing out all the nonsense and giving us a clear story about these characters, their recovery from trauma, and the development of their romance.

Kim: I’m thinking that maybe because rape is such a sensitive topic, she spent way more time on this book than her previous ones. I think also, this book is way more about Diana’s journey, than about her journey with Gideon. Also something that differs from her other books – the focus on an individual journey instead of the couple’s. Even though the romance wasn’t front and center it still seemed very organic.

Kelly: I think you’re right that the focus is on her story, and — though I’m a romance reader who wants her romance front and center, damn it! — it didn’t bother me during my first read of this book that the romance storyline was occasionally sidelined. But later, when I read the book a second time, I felt a bit more conflicted about it. One of the (two) hallmarks of genre romance is that the romance storyline be the central focus of the story; and that’s just not the case, here. It’s still a damn interesting book, and one that I don’t hesitate to recommend to readers who can stomach its difficult elements, but dyed-in-the-wool genre romance readers need to know that the focus of the story is on Diana’s recovery — it’s her story — and their relationship’s development (and Gideon’s story) gets much less page time.

Kim: I agree that dyed-in-the-wool genre readers might be bothered by the fact that the romance is not the central storyline, but I think Diana and her recovery journey may win them over.

Kelly: It’s true. I wonder if it’s just because the book is a first-person narration and Diana’s issues are legion. Like, of course everything else is going to take a backseat to all that in Diana’s POV.

Kim: That’s a good point. We only ever get Diana’s perspective and as such of course her journey is the most important focal point.

Kelly:OK, before we talk about anything that bothered either of us about the book (I have a few bones to pick), let’s talk about what we liked.

Kim: I absolutely loved that this book was not afraid to go to dark places. Diana’s recovery process goes through tons of ups and downs. She begins to harm herself by running on her treadmill for hours. Her feet are blistered and bloody, she sprains her ankle and continues running on it, her muscles are way overused, etc etc. Her mindset as she runs is to just run until the pain of the rape and life goes away. She also attempts suicide at one point. When she tries to go back out into society she is petrified of anyone being behind her, or of being in loud and crowded spaces.

I won’t say that I enjoyed reading about how dark of a place Diana’s mind goes, but I like that this book didn’t shy away from the tough. Recovering from being raped….I can’t even imagine how difficult of a process that is.

Kelly: Exactly; if the book hadn’t gotten that dark, it wouldn’t have felt authentic at all. One thing I worried about when I read the blurb (and when it first became clear just what horrors await our heroine) is that the romance between these survivors — the woman whose body was violated and the man who couldn’t prevent it from happening — would seem like it came from nowhere, or — to say it better — as though Gideon’s feelings developed exclusively from his case of survivor’s guilt. Although that’s a huge part of his initial impulse to reach out to Diana, the feelings he ends up developing for her come about because he genuinely enjoys spending time in her company (even though she’s all fucked up).

Kim: Authentic was the exact word I was looking for! I was also worried we’d have a case of “magic penis.”

Kelly: I know, right? Like: Gideon: hey Diana, I get that you’ve been gang raped and that you’re all traumatized about it, but… say hello to my little friend! Diana: Oh, wow! I’m all better now! That’s a beautiful penis!

Kim: Way too often everything is suddenly solved by the “magic penis.” I give Adams a lot of credit for making sex a problem between Diana and Gideon and not the solution to their issues. WAY more realistic than “We had sex, now we’re in love, I was raped, but your penis saved me!” HOORAY HEA!!!!!!

Kelly: Exactly, especially because this book could be triggering to some, and the magic solution via a penis would be… well, problematic. Instead, Diana battles through her issues, goes to therapy, creates problems for herself with all the self-harm (and the self-imposed notion that she should just be OVER it already), gets back on the wagon, and keeps healing. When the friendship with Gideon deepens into a relationship, they take it very slow. It might not sound like the most fun book in the world to read, but I actually found it very interesting as a piece on recovery from trauma and the role that love can play in all that. Honestly, it was just neat that the narrative took the whole healing process very seriously. It is a process, it takes time, and it isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of thing that works for everyone. Diana went into her trauma with her own issues, and her recovery reflects those pre-existing issues.

Kim: I loved the slowness of her recovery and how respectful Gideon was of the time she needed to heal. I LOVED Gideon. LOVEEEEEEEEDDDDDDDDDD

Gideon was just…..wonderful. He knows when to push Diana and when to let her move at her own pace. He is constantly reinforcing that she is a good person, with a good heart. That she has the ability to love and to be ok again. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to make her see that his feelings for her aren’t out of a misplaced sense of guilt, but because of the person he sees inside of her. He gets the tattoos that he had on him (for the undercover part of his job) removed knowing they might trigger bad memories for Diana.

Kelly: I’m with you — Gideon is great, and I genuinely enjoyed Diana too, even though we’re seeing her at rather a low point. These characters are both great, and they’re great once they finally get together. One thing that bothered me about the book was how long it took to get there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that Adams didn’t push Diana’s recovery or make everything pat ‘n’ perfect, but there was a little too much back and forth on how Diana wanted Gideon around but didn’t want him to ruin his life for her because she was never going to recover. Maybe one or two mentions of that would have been enough, but my memories of the first half of the book are pretty much like this:

Diana: Gideon, I love you being around, and I want to spend time with you, but I’m holding you back from living your life.
Gideon: No, you’re not. I’ve got nothing better to be doing.
Diana: Yes, I am.
Gideon: No, you’re not.
Diana: You must date other people! I demand it!
Gideon: *sigh* OK.

— time passes —

Diana, to herself: Gideon’s never around anymore. I guess he’s moved on. *weeping*
Gideon, to himself: I really wish I could go spend time with Diana, but I guess she doesn’t want me around. *manly near-weeping*

— time passes —

Diana: Gideon, I’m glad you’re spending more time with me, and I really do want to spend time with you, but I’m holding you back from living your life.
Gideon: No, you’re not. I want to be here. I don’t want to date anyone else.
Diana: Yes, I am, because I’m never going to get better.
Gideon: No, you’re not (and yes, you are!)
Diana: *weeping*
Gideon: *sigh*

I’d have been happier if the back-and-forth stuff had been edited down some because the angst of all those seemingly unrequited feelings on both sides overshadowed some of the genuine emotion of the actual story.

 Kim: The back-and-forth and back-and-forth did get a little tiresome. But set against how slowly (not judging her here) the rest of her recovery moves I get her “I’m never going to get better” mentality. And considering she withdrew from everybody she knew and nobody but Gideon made an effort to really see her and gauge her healing, I get why she thought she was ruining his life. Nobody else really found time for her struggle. Her friends try to see her, she says no, and they’re like ok! See you later. Gideon is the only one who forces his presence on her.

 Kelly: Oh, I totally get that there were those issues, but I just wish they’d taken up less space in the book. The story was moving forward, I was invested in the characters, in Diana’s journey, and then… it lost momentum for a bit while Diana and Gideon had the same conversation several times over, with no resolution in sight until one day — DING — Diana gets her hope back. I think the story managed to regain its momentum, but, for a while there, I struggled to remain in the story. It’s an example of the thing Adams struggles with in her writing (or seems to), balancing her storytelling with her obvious inclination to tell the whole truth about her characters. Sometimes her writing lacks focus.

 Kim: I think I understand where you’re going. And the only thing I can think to say is that we were both impatient for Diana to have SOME goodness and happiness in her life. The back-and-forth of her emotions was difficult to take at times, especially when it seemed like Diana had finally gotten to a good place only to spiral downward in her feelings again. It does at times feel like a lack of focus on Adams’ part.

 At the same time, I’m not sure what I would have taken out or edited down. For Diana to grow and heal she needed to go through the process she did and part of that was pushing Gideon away the way she did everyone else. I wish we didn’t have to watch it happen so many times, but somewhere in her head she rationalized pushing him away to see if he would come back.

 Kelly: Well, you’ve got a good point there. And the bottom line is that I enjoyed reading the book, and I think it’s the best edited of all the Noelle Adams books I’ve read.

 Kim: Definitely. Props to your editor Ms. Adams! (And you!)

 Kelly’s Final Thoughts: While it’s a difficult book to read in many ways, it’s also powerful and well worth the effort. After I read Salvation, I wanted to read other books that depict characters in recovery, preferably within genre romance. A few days ago, I finished Maya Rodale’s What a Wallflower Wants, the final book in her Wallflower series, and I was impressed by how Rodale handled the subject of recovery while keeping the romance (a swoony one, at that) decidedly front and center.

 Kim’s Final Thoughts: Thank you Ms. Adams for writing a book about a subject not oft discussed and illustrating that while rape is a difficult subject to read about, it doesn’t need to be a taboo one.

 If interested in reading journeys of other rape victims Kelly and Kim suggest:

  • Summer Rain – an anthology featuring Ruthie Knox, Mary Ann Rivers, Cecilia Tan, Molly O’Keefe, and others
  •  What A Wallflower Wants by Maya Rodale
  • The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan
  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • What an Earl Wants by Kasey Michaels
  • One Week as Lovers by Victoria Dahl
  • The Fall of a Saint by Christine Merrill (with a big ol’ caveat: the hero is the rapist. I still liked it and recommend it, but…. be warned. Be very warned.)

 Hey, you at home! Are there any more books you can suggest to add to our list (or recs for me to check out? I’m a sucker for books that deal with sexual assault. 

So… I wrote a sermon…

* waves *

It’s been a while. I seem to have some writer’s block, and I’ve been extra busy at work and home. But I did, in fact, write something, and it (sort of) relates. Ish. Very tangentially. Also, some very kind folks on Twitter expressed an interest in reading this (after, I should note, I asked if anyone would be interested. I’m not pretending to unsolicited interest, here.)

In late August, I gave a sermon at my church. I’m of the Episcopal persuasion, so I was assigned a set a readings on which to write a reflection. I don’t talk about my faith all that often — there never seems to be much point, and the risk of getting into an argument with someone who feels very passionately that I Am Wrong is just too high — but I’m hoping that sharing my homily will help me push past my lame writer’s block, so I can get back to talking about awesome romance novels. Fingers crossed.

Anyway, read on if you’re interested in what I said to a bunch of people at my church. (I managed to do it mostly without cursing… a miracle.)

A few weeks ago, Deacon Ann preached about the power of names and identity. I’d like to share one of the (many) names that identifies me: I am a reader.

I read a lot. While 24% of American adults surveyed by the Pew Resource Center earlier this year reported not having read a book in all of 2013, I read well over 150 books. I don’t just read, either. I write about books online, I talk about books to anyone foolish enough to ask, and I edit. Words, stories, and narratives are a huge part of my life, and I devote a considerable amount of my attention span to thinking about the stories I encounter from a personal and political perspective.

Let’s talk about story for a bit. Stories and humanity go hand in hand. They help us relate to each other and to make sense of our world. You know how it is: The world is huge and full of information, but stories allow us to organize and prioritize all the data in our lives to make quicker, theoretically better, decisions and to feel more in control of our lives. Data points — information — without stories to explain them are bewildering. Stories can be as simple as causal relationships — for example I might witness my daughter Allie attempt to be a bossy pants to her sister, and I might see Sophia pull her hair, and I can safely assume the two events are connected — or stories can be elaborate retellings of past events or fictional ones. The important thing to consider is that no story — even a simple one — is strictly true, in an absolute sense. All are influenced by the storyteller, by what she found important enough to tell or by what he hoped to accomplish with the story.

I am concerned about the messages that lurk in stories, in the truths those stories reveal, whether or not those truths are the intent of the narrative.

Christ with Mary and Martha, oil on wood, 125 x 118 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum

Christ with Mary and Martha, oil on wood, 125 x 118 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum

It’s time for full disclosure: I have a hard time with the Bible. As a woman, I feel like it is full of negative messaging. “Hey women,” it seems to say, “here’s a whole chapter on what it takes to be a perfect, virtuous wife: be quiet, keep a good house, and work on your embroidery.” (There is not, to my knowledge, a corresponding chapter on how to be a perfect, virtuous husband, and that’s unfortunate.) Don’t get me started on Esther, Ruth, and, especially, Bathsheba. And you might not want to know what I think about the ending of Miriam’s story. And that’s all in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, sure, we have all the faithful (but mostly unnamed) women who stuck by Christ to the bitter end; we have Jesus’ at the time radical views toward women — that we’re fun to be around and that maybe uncleanliness isn’t such a big deal — but we also have some of Paul’s more vitriolic writing and lots of fun gems from the gospels like the hypothetical woman who has to marry seven brothers.

I do not think the Bible is actually anti-woman, nor do I think that God is opposed to lady folks — quite the opposite — but I do believe that Biblical scholars throughout the centuries have tended to focus on some of the more troubling narratives (or have obscured and conflated some narratives about women to make them more troubling) and have tended to use the Bible to support their own narrow views toward women. Sometimes I wonder if we’re all caught in an elaborate and rather ironic (in a dramatic sense) game of telephone involving the messages God actually wants us to receive, the way those messages appear in writing, and the way they’ve been interpreted throughout the centuries.

Consider the story we heard this morning from Exodus. It’s a familiar story, right? It’s also a clear example of dramatic irony. The Pharaoh’s adoptive grandson ends up — with some significant woo-woo courtesy of the great I AM — overthrowing the status quo and leading the Israelites to freedom (via 40 years in the desert, but who’s counting?). I see a bit more more dramatic irony when I look at the story from another angle: The Pharaoh’s entire plan for maintaining the status quo — once forced labor proved ineffective — hinged on removing all the young males of Israel from the equation, but his downfall was ultimately orchestrated by a bunch of women. That’s funny.

I watched the Charlton Heston version of The Ten Commandments a lot when I was a kid. So when I think about the story of the Exodus, I think about it from the context of Moses as the main character. After all, in this passage, he is the only — other than the super awesome midwives — the only character who is actually given a name (rather than just a title; and Wikipedia suggested that even the midwives’ names are titles.). You have the Pharaoh, his daughter, the Levite man, the Levite woman, but Moses gets a name, so obviously he’s the main character.

In this passage, Moses is the least interesting character in the story, and not just because he’s a baby. Yet he’s the character that we always think of. He’s the central figure, the one who was raised apart from his family and his people and eventually is sort of like a spy, right? He’s sent to be raised among the very people that he’s going to end up vanquishing. And that is an interesting narrative in a lot of ways… it plays into our concepts of what are compelling characters and stories, the types of narratives that we want to hear about.

Anselm Feuerbach - http://www.bildindex.de

Anselm Feuerbach – http://www.bildindex.de

But I want to hear about Miriam, his sister, who was older than her brother and was already born, maybe, at a time when Hebrew boy babies were to be killed, and she was allowed to live, essentially because she is unimportant. And to grow up with that knowledge, to grow up knowing that the only reason you’re alive is because you’re so far beneath the notice of the ruling elites, because nobody expects you do anything… that… that is interesting to me, and that’s what I want to hear about. And of course that’s not the story that we get, but in the narrative of this passage from Exodus, she’s one of the most important characters. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby, sure, but it’s Miriam who comes forward and is sort of sly and tricksey, saying, “Hey, I see you found a baby… I know a wetnurse,” and then taking Moses back to his own mother to be nursed. And no one knows, right? It’s very sneaky. And that from somebody whom nobody expected to upset the status quo. The narrative does not name her; she’s not considered important; but she’s as crucial as her mother and the Pharaoh’s daughter in enabling the disruption that is to come.

Sometimes we get stuck in the perspectives we bring to bear on a narrative, on whatever we expect that story to tell.  If we are stuck thinking that Moses is the main character, the important one, even as a baby, so fortunate and lucky to be found in those circumstances, or perhaps that God was looking over him and graced him as the central figure of the story; if we get locked up in that, then we are missing another part of the story. God can use unlikely characters to bring about disruption. But I want to add a caution: while it behooves all of us as a society to give some attention to stories about unlikely characters, maybe we should stop thinking of them that way, as “unlikely.” After all, it shouldn’t be in any way shocking or surprising that it’s the women in this story that brought about so much change… the midwives, who defied the Pharaoh’s orders; the Levite woman, who hid her child; the sister who made it so that Moses didn’t starve; the Pharaoh’s daughter, who defied her father by harboring and raising the instrument that would bring about his downfall; all of these women…  it should not be surprising. We should not go, “Oh my God, that’s surprising!” because, well… of course they were able to do it, and I don’t think it was in any way surprising to God… but as long as we continue to be surprised by it, we buy into the casual sexism — that elaborate game of telephone — that exists both in the narrative and in our culture, and it’s time for us to move beyond that.

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, 335 x 550 cm Cappella Sistina, Vatican.

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, 335 x 550 cm Cappella Sistina, Vatican.

Today’s Gospel lesson is also an example of dramatic irony. In that passage, Jesus declares Peter, the same dude that will later deny him thrice, “the rock” on which the church will be built. That’s hilarious, when seen from one view. Modern readers of the scripture can approach that passage the same way we would Romeo and Juliet. You know, the entire time, that these two crazy kids are going to off themselves, but you still get caught up in the action. (That’s dramatic irony for you.) So Peter being called “the rock” can, if you’re cynical enough, be a bit of comedy when you consider what’s to come. (Also when you consider that Peter is “the rock,” but all the faithful women are unnamed and largely ignored by history… Ha.) But that’s if you focus only on Peter’s failure and neglect to remember what he does with failure once he reaches it and repents of it.

I’m cynical, sure, but I also believe to the depths of my soul in the redemptive power of Christ’s love. So here’s how I view that passage: I think Jesus is showing us just how deep his forgiveness goes, and he’s giving Peter the means to get past his eventual failure. I don’t know if Jesus knew the future or just knew human nature — I’m no authority on that kind of musing — but I like to believe that Jesus knew the possibility of Peter’s human frailty and chose to bolster his spirit with a glimpse of some of the better things Peter was capable of. I mean, yes. Peter, like all of us, was capable of acting through fear and littleness of spirit, but he was also — like all of us — capable of great things, of courage and love and resolute action. And maybe Jesus knew that Peter, once he had failed, might — like all of us — despair and worry that he was good for nothing. And maybe his words, that label, “the rock,” are what helped Peter climb out of it, find his courage and hope, and Act.

Maybe.

And maybe that’s the real dramatic irony, that God can take a scene that would set a cynic’s heart aflame with bitter mirth and make it — seen from another view — an example of unending redemption, acceptance, and limitless love.

That’s my perspective, and it definitely impacts my interpretation of various stories. I have to admit that it’s terrifying to put it all out there for you. Thanks to my background, cynicism and general irreverence, I make an odd biblical scholar. (In fact, I’m not one.) But that doesn’t make my perspective less valid or even less interesting. It is good for us to listen to one another, to learn slightly different versions of the well-known stories. And the more we all — even those of you who are like, “Wait… what did she mean by that reference to the end of Miriam’s story?” — the more we all share with each other what we think about the stories collected in the Bible (or the stories omitted from it), the more we’ll learn about each other, ourselves, and our relationships with God, and we’ll break free of that game of telephone. The truth lies in there somewhere.