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Oral Sex, Yoga, and God's Eternal Wrath: Inside the New Hipster Megachurch That Tells Modern Women to Submit

Mars Hill tries to pull a young hipster crowd to Christianity. One of their biggest draws is separate spheres for women and men.

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Also like Jess, Irene approached sex with a mentality she attributes to societal pressure from a culture of female empowerment. She talks about feeling somewhat alienated by the feminist sex-positive cultural attitude that boiled down to, as she puts it, “I’m more sex-positive than you.” For Irene and Jess, the failure of this approach in their own lives became, in their minds, the failure of postmodern feminist philosophy as a whole.

“I think a lot about how feminism has failed Christian women, or [hasn’t] reached out to Christian women,” says Marietta. “That makes a place like Mars Hill appealing, because the message of their strict gender roles is a way to rebel against the values of the women of the previous generation.”

Both Irene and Jess describe unhappiness as being evidence of a failure of their initially “feminist” way of thinking. “What starts out looking like a good plan, if it’s not God’s idea, we deceive ourselves in thinking there is going to be any salvation,” says Irene. “Life is not going to get any better because of our ideas. Women aren’t happier now.” This is submission in a nutshell—choosing to accept God’s plan rather than your own. And while those at Mars Hill might call it brave or humble or beautiful or trusting, it’s hard to see it as anything else but giving up. Because feminism has never really been about happiness, it’s been about choice. And with choice inevitably comes judgment and self-doubt: Am I doing it right? Could I be doing it better? Can I do it at all?

Jess, Irene, and Kailea are hardly the only ones looking for answers to these questions. When Sandler met Mark Driscoll in 1999, she recalls that he took one look at her band t-shirt and Doc Martens and said, “You’re one of us.”

“He was recognizing my style, but he was also recognizing my emotional searching,” says Sandler. “We’re all looking for meaning, we’re all looking for purpose, we’re all looking for lives that feel fulfilling and challenging and engaged. There are women who have tried that in other secular places and that works for them, but it doesn’t work for a lot of them,” says Sandler. “And so they look for something else.”

That’s the thing that secular, liberal Americans don’t want to recognize about Mars Hill, and other emerging churches: The line between us and them is incredibly blurry. “We have this understanding of women who make these choices as somehow just being dumb or inferior,” says Sandler. “But the reality is way more complicated and way more systemic. There is a reason this [mass-scale religious movement] does not happen in Europe.” Sandler points to the network of supportive services offered in many European countries—most notably childcare, a service the Mars Hill community offers to its members along with book clubs, communal dinners, support in decision making, and spiritual counseling. American women, by contrast, live in a cultural and political climate that is asking everything of them—successful careers, families, social lives—and giving them nothing.

 “[Mars Hill] seemed to play right into my fear of becoming an adult woman,” wrote Kaelee Bates, a founder of the blog Mars Hill Refuge, in an e-mail. “It appeared to me as an easy way out. I didn’t have to finish school or try to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I could stay home, clean, have babies, and ignore all of [the] things I was struggling with.”

Given that ambivalence like Bates’s often leads women to join Mars Hill, it’s worth questioning to what extent women ultimately integrate the church’s doctrine into their lives. When Irene’s religious beliefs changed, for instance, she lost almost all of her friends in the gay community. Her inability to reconcile her old liberal identity with her biblical beliefs has also proved challenging in the voting booth. In 2008, unwilling to vote for either Obama or McCain, Irene selected a random candidate who aligned with her religious ideals, but she knew it was a throwaway vote: “These women fought so hard to earn me this right, and here I am not voting. It [feels] wrong.”

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