Vol 7, Num 18 :: 2008.10.10 — 2008.10.24
In 2001, Sam and Bethany Torode wrote Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception (Eerdmans). In this small, 112-page volume, the Torodes argued that Protestant couples, like their Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, should forgo any type of contraception except Natural Family Planning (NFP). Why? “Every time husband and wife come together, they ought to do so in earnest, in an open embrace, withholding nothing from each other-including their fertility. By participating in marital relations, they should be indicating their willingness to accept whatever naturally follows; during the fertile times of a woman’s cycle, this may include children.”
The book was received with extreme reactions. In a scathing review titled “Open Embarrassment: Protestants against birth control offer super-spiritual nonsense and gummed-up metaphors,” John Trott commented, “We who use artificial birth control are, the authors say, sending a message of non-acceptance, non-surrender, to our mates. There is simply no logic behind this assertion. Two people who may feel completely surrendered to one another could, if swept up in Open Embrace’s rhetorical traps, condemn themselves while having done nothing wrong.”
In contrast, a variety of Catholic blogs endorsed the book and in 2003, a Q&A with the Torodes was published in the National Review Online. For the next several years, the young couple developed a strong platform as they wrote, published and lived an NFP lifestyle. During this time, they also joined the Eastern Orthodox Church and bore three children.
From the first moment I shelved Open Embrace (I was working at Regent College Bookstore when it was published), my interest in the subject-and the couple-was piqued. They were close to my age, had married the same year my husband and I had, and were interested in similar things. Furthermore, reading their criticism of the abortifacient possibilities in hormonal contraception convinced me that, NFP or no, the Pill was not the contraceptive choice for me (although I agreed more with Trott than the Torodes about contraception in general).
However, in May 2006, the Torodes posted an “An Update from Bethany” on the Open Embrace web site. There, she succinctly and thoughtfully described their growth and experience in the past five years and, in essence, recanted their previous stance on most forms of artificial birth control, with the exception of their concern over hormonal options.
Many of us change our minds on a daily basis; few change our minds as publicly as the Torodes have. It’s a step of humility and, often, embarrassment. To get the story behind the story, I contacted Bethany through her personal blog to ask her about this experience of changing her mind and how changing her mind has changed her. We had a delightful conversation over the phone on September 5, 2008.
Joy: Let’s talk about “changing your mind” in general. In high school, one of my friends told me, “You have the right to change your mind.” I thought about that a lot in my life. I think probably there are some things it’s not the best to change your mind about.
Bethany: But it’s good to have that freedom.
Joy: It is good to have that freedom, especially when you’re fifteen.
Bethany: In contemporary Christianity, there’s all this stuff tied to certainty and faith and sometimes I don’t know if that leaves enough room for growing and questioning and doubting.
Joy: In political campaigns, there’s always a big deal made when politicians change their mind. They call it “flip-flopping,” but I think there’s a difference between flip-flopping and responsibly changing one’s mind. How do you see this difference?
Bethany: Well, the Greek word metanoia means a one hundred eighty degree turn. Flip-flopping, to me, is like waffling. Changing my mind on this subject has been a metanoia, and had ramifications for all sorts of things, including friends and vocation. It was change on a deep level, not just something superficial. Though it’s not stagnant-five years from now I could change again.
Joy: In Open Embrace, written in 2001, you argued for a traditionally Roman Catholic perspective of birth control. Two years ago, you recanted this view, stating “It’s a theological attack on women to always require that abstinence during the time of the wife’s peak sexual desire, ovulation, for the entire duration of her fertile life, except for the handful of times when she conceives.” When did you realize that such a position on birth control or contraception was a theological attack on women? And what led to this change of mind?
Bethany: In our experience, as we grew more and more frustrated trying to do “the right thing,” our relationship suffered from the stress and confusion of trying to figure out when we could and couldn’t have sex and I got angry. Once you’ve born a child, your hormones are lower for awhile, so the only time I even wanted to have sex, we had to abstain and I thought, “I don’t think God wants this for me.” My experience wasn’t at all what NFP promises. I don’t want to sound like a victim of their philosophy, but it wasn’t even what we said in the book and what we thought marital intimacy was going to be like. It was false advertising.
Joy: NFP does have a promise of intimacy.
Bethany: Right. And there is that, to some extent; you find it in the fertility tracking practice, which I probably took for granted at times. Also, it did bring me more in touch with my body and it did enhance our communication to know what was going on. But being able to use a condom would have been wonderful. Of course this sounds silly now because I think, “Oh, duh, why didn’t we?” But I was trying to please God and thought that doing so would harm me, so I didn’t. That’s why, now, I think fertility tracking with condoms is actually a great idea and very effective because you get the benefits of both. You get the self-knowledge and intimacy that comes from communicating about bodily fluids and fertility cycles, but you also are able to come together.
Joy: That’s the practice explored by Toni Weschler in Taking Charge of Your Fertility. I first discovered that book on somebody’s night table when I was cleaning houses in the early 2000’s and I thought “This is good!”
Bethany: Yes, yes, it’s a great book.
Joy: How have people-readers, other writers, your friends, responded to your change of mind?
Bethany: Very positively and very negatively. (Laughs) On the Internet, message boards particularly, there were angry, negative people going on and on. Catholics were not happy, which is not a surprise because if one starts questioning that, then their whole worldview falls apart, from my perspective. But a lot of friends, closer friends especially, were encouraging and very excited by the fact that we were willing to change our mind. It was kind of exciting and freeing for many people because it lets all of us know that it’s possible to keep growing. Obviously the people who were excited about it were people who share the position we now have. “Yay, they’re joining our team!” (Laughs) This was particularly encouraging because we were scared since our income was connected to being apart of that Catholic/Orthodox/more conservative Protestant world. It was a scary jump to say, “OK, we’re going to put it all on the line to do this.” But we felt like we had to because we couldn’t lie.
Joy: How long did it take you to change your mind, from when you started seriously thinking about it to actually making a public statement?
Bethany: Probably about two years of gradual consideration and experiences. Our life was crazy because I think by that time we were pregnant with our third. Our life was baby, baby, baby. (Laughs) We were struggling to keep our heads above water.
Joy: When you look back at your book or things you wrote about NFP, what are your emotions toward the stand you took then? Do you have regrets or do you see it as a time of learning and part of your life’s journey?
Bethany: Both. I was really embarrassed for a while and I was hard on myself. I felt guilty for possibly leading other people into the extreme hardships that we faced, just from getting pregnant so close together and, like I said, it was really hard on our marriage. But then I also think that people tend to be attracted to whatever they’re already moving towards, so people who will be attracted to NFP will be attracted to it whether or not they hear about it from us. And I think that considering who I was at that point, whether or not I wrote a book about it, I had to go through that to learn. Because it’s been another couple of years since we publicly changed our minds, I’ve gone through all the emotions and I think I feel fairly at peace, although I’ve gone through a dark night of the soul.
Joy: When you first decided to advocate NFP as the only suitable form of birth control, did you ever imagine that you would change you mind?
Bethany: Probably. I was nineteen when we got married and I wanted to be mature and grown up. I became interested in NFP partly because of Sam and partly because of what I thought sounded right. I think that at that age people are always kind of militant about ideas and ideologies, at least my personality type is! Fundamentalism happens in all sorts of areas; this just happened to be the one I latched onto. But then life mellows you out.
Joy: I see a lot of young adults who are very militant about different things.
Bethany: Seeing that helps me realize it’s okay; it’s just part of the human growth process. When I can give grace to other people, then that retroactively gives grace to the twenty-year-old me.
Joy: Have other couples who have changed their mind about NFP contacted you?
Bethany: Yes, a couple people have posted on my blog, which has been helpful in the healing process. They say things like, “Hey, I read your book way back and I didn’t agree with everything but it really helped me.” Usually they went the Fertility Awareness route and then they say, “Go easy on yourself, because I didn’t feel like I had to obey you just because of what you were saying.” That was really helpful to me. I thought, “I’m not responsible for everyone’s minds. Everyone’s making their own decisions and reading their own things.”
Joy: Did Christian readers ever talk to you about feeling guilty after reading your book?
Bethany: Yes, and that’s probably what I regret the most-our judgmental, bossy, right/wrong tone that communicated, “This is what you have to do if you’re really a Christian or if you really love God.”
Joy: Christian rule-making takes many forms.
Joy: In the New Testament it was circumcision or food sacrificed to idols.
Bethany: Reading the Peter stories was one of the things that helped me change, too. I started seeing myself in the story. Peter heard, “Just let it go; stop freaking out about the meat.” And I thought, “Gosh, Peter had been through all that with Jesus, all the denials and everything, but he was still being a fundie.” It takes a long time for all of us.
Joy: Would you have words of wisdom, based on your experience, for other young adults or people who tend to cling to ideologies as doctrine?
Bethany: Really strive to have a sense of humor. You can cultivate the watcher inside you, be aware of what you’re saying, and how it affects people, and try to partly detach yourself from what you’re feeling (although don’t repress feelings.) Try to stay integrated and whole. Life will just take its course and it’s painful sometimes; you have to be willing to feel the emotions and the embarrassment, but in the end it’s so freeing and so good.
Joy: What sort of church are you going to these days?
Bethany: Now we attend a Presbyterian church in Nashville. But before that, we weren’t attending for a while. Before that, we had become Orthodox and ran into huge legalisms there. I got excommunicated, which I’m very proud of now.
Joy: I didn’t know that. What happened?
Bethany: Well, we had, what I’d call a spiritually-abusive, power-hungry priest and I didn’t like going to him for confession, so I wanted to go to somebody else. He forbade me from going. I went anyway and then he said, “Well, you can’t take communion and you can’t come back.”
Joy: May I publish this?
Joy: Because that’s kind of…it’s kind of awesome. I’ve never known anyone who was excommunicated before. I mean it’s horrible, but…
Bethany: At the time, I wanted to be super-obedient. I had thought, “This is the channel of God.” But then I grew up and determined, “No. These people don’t have power over me-and John Chrysostom got kicked out of church, too!” Lots of Christians throughout history have; realizing I was in good company made me feel better. We were fried by the time we moved to Nashville; I had post-partum depression. We thought, “There are no functional Christians anywhere.”
Joy: Well, I think that’s actually true. No Christians anywhere are fully functional. We’re all works-in-progress.
Bethany: When you get depressed, you can’t believe in God because it’s so dark, and even if you see beauty you can’t feel it. It’s a rebuilding process to come out of that. You ask, “Who is God?” It’s like starting from scratch again and I’m still recovering.