Tag Archives: feminism

Redeeming masculinity: Peterson, Winton and Jesus

In my last two posts interacting with Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos I’ve suggested there are some areas where his misunderstanding of Jesus — and how the Jesus myth works —  that produce less than optimal results when it comes to charting a path for an appropriate ‘masculinity’, and then that his treatment of both Egyptian and Biblical wisdom requires some careful and significant re-framing, or re-casting, through the cross of Jesus for Christians in particular to adopt his rules as wise axioms for life… but all the while I’ve acknowledged (I hope clearly) that there are things about both the substance of his work and the popularity of his work that should invite us, as Christians, to think carefully about how the Gospel might better scratch the social itch he’s honed in on. If you’re sick of long things about Peterson, I’m hoping that these three posts will be a sort of background for two short things that follow.

Un-re-cast Peterson offers a view of God, the Jesus-story, and humanity that is false and yet he sees it revealing incredible truth about our humanity (and he reads the text of the Bible with an appreciation and sensitivity that gives many people hope that he is on a journey towards a fuller picture of Jesus). Without that altering, and without the completion of that journey, what 12 Rules offers is an idolatry similar to the idolatry of the Athenians (though because he engages so deeply with Jesus and appears to deny central parts of the Bible’s claims about Jesus there’s something more pernicious about his framework if it doesn’t ultimately represent such a journey towards truth). When Paul is in Athens he listens carefully to what the wise people of the culture are saying, he notices how their ‘worship’ and the culture’s narratives are seeking to answer deep questions about the human experience, and he responds by showing the Athenians how the true, fully realised, story of Jesus does offer a more complete picture of humanity. This, for me, is the ultimate example of plundering the gold of Egypt (or Athens) in the Bible — and it represents both an affirmation and a radical subversion of what the Athenians think a good human life looks like, and what part they see religious belief and ‘the gods’ playing in that life. Peterson does the opposite, he’s listened carefully to Christians (and the Bible) and found in them some universal truths apart from the real person and work of Jesus. He’s plundering Jesus to preach Adam.

Peterson does a reasonable job diagnosing some of the bad things in our culture, particularly for men (which is why he’s resonating so deeply with men). There’s something in his diagnosis about the problems of masculinity and a sense of disenfranchisement or disillusionment lots of blokes in the west feel simply because they’re blokes. Now. I’m not denying there are lots of things men also do as individuals and systemically that make life bad for women in the west. Lots of the feminist critique of western life is accurate — terms like ‘the patriarchy’ and ‘rape culture’ describe things that are true about how men abuse power (including the biological reality that men are typically bigger and stronger, and the psychological reality that men are (whether by conditioning or innately) more aggressive and have other psychometric traits identified as ‘masculine’). The problem of toxic masculinity hurts both men and women; but I also think much of the pushback against toxic masculinity from certain branches of the feminist movement is crippling for men. The solution to toxic masculinity is not denying differences between men and women (a sort of radical egalitarianism that tackles gender norms), but instead looks like men and women elevating, celebrating, and making space for difference and for one another.

Peterson is also right to suggest that part of the issue for men in the west is the loss of a ‘metanarrative’ because of some aggressive, over-reaching, forms of post-modernity (and again, I say this as somebody much more enthusiastic about post-modernity than Peterson, or your average Presbyterian minister).

It’s important to listen to the voices of women who have alarm bells set off not just by Peterson’s following amongst the Alt-Right, or the ‘Men’s Rights Movement’, but by the ambiguity or lack of clarity around some things he says, especially when it’s clear that his work is being appropriated to prop up some of the very things he opposes. What seems to be especially concerning, I think, is his use of technical terminology for masculine and feminine and the way these create naturalistic ‘oughts’ from what ‘is’ when it comes to how to be male or female, and the way this is propped up by his use of archetypes that also have ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ elements, and then what he does when applying these to what a good ‘male’ or ‘female’ life ought to look like (his coda where he writes about his desires for his children being an example — he wants his son to be like Jesus and his daughter to be like Mary (a mother) — and I’ll unpack the problems with this gendered archetype thing from a Christian perspective below).

Part of Peterson’s popularity with the harder-right man is analogous to Trump’s popularity with the same demographic; capturing the disillusionment of a collapse of masculinity (arguably because of a collapse of Christianity and its story in the west) and offering something to fill that void. It’s like a reverse Athens in some ways; Peterson has seen the itch created by the known God becoming unknown in our world, and he’s attempted to replace it with something like a synthesised version of Nietzsche, Jung, and Dostoyevsky’s Jesus. A Jesus who shows us what it looks like to save ourselves, to lift our own gaze to godlikeness, and seize the day in order to re-create and transform the world according to our individual vision and power.

When it comes to masculinity in Australia; we’ve got problems.

Tim Winton and Australia’s toxic masculinity problem

There was a stunning interview with Aussie novelist Tim Winton in the Fairfax press recently, outlining his sense that there is a crisis of masculinity; and some sense of where he thinks the solution to a toxic sort of masculinity might be found. He makes a useful conversation partner with Peterson’s 12 Rules. Here’s an extended part of the conversation he had about the crisis of masculinity as he sees it manifest itself in Australia.

It was in the surf, for example, that he first began noticing something “less than lovely” about the local boys: a spiky nihilism, a contempt for gentleness and decency, and, most worryingly, a reflexive misogyny. It was mainly the things they said to one another. About women, and girls. About other races, too, and even about nature. “Some of these guys were the full Dickhead Package,” he says. “They were rednecks. But there was also a script there. It was almost as if they were rehearsing what they thought a real man should be like.”

That “script”, the abiding notion of men as invulnerable, flinty, emotionally distant, is as destructive as it is resilient, a kind of prison where the best parts of boys – the sensitive parts, the nurturing parts – go to die. “It’s so impoverishing,” Winton says, wincing. “It stops men from growing. They become emotional infants, little man-boys who despise women and lean on them in equal measure.”

He pauses. Nods. “Wow,” I say. “So how did we get here?”

“I dunno,” says Winton. He wriggles in his chair, stares out the window. It’s a murky area, this gender and culture stuff, and I get the feeling he’s thinking his way through it as we sit here. “Maybe it was the ’60s, you know? The whole Aquarius thing, everyone being encouraged to ‘follow their own bliss’. They were given this dud message that they were somehow absolved of responsibility.”

All the “self-actualising” was good news for women, since they had for so long been denied any “self”. But the benefits for men were less clear. Sure, all those tired old models, the traditional pathways to manhood, were swept away, but they weren’t replaced with anything, or at least nothing especially solid or coherent. “It’s a little bit like what has happened with the modern economy,” he adds. “Like neo-liberalism. It has reduced us all to players in the market. What is ‘the market’ anyway? Like, what the hell?

“These days nothing is expected of you, and nothing is given to you. But your journey to maturity is wrapped up in a sense of deeper culture, of spirituality even. Without that, all that’s left is sex, money and alcohol.”

Winton identifies our loss of compelling ‘grand narrative’; the reduction of our humanity to being pieces of an economic machine, and a corresponding loss of sense of meaning or direction; that’s what comes from having a ‘myth’ — a story that organises your life and tells you what you are living for. But the modern, or post-modern, Australia has no compelling centralised myth, and if all we’re left to do is write our own little individual stories, they become about small-minded stuff; the ‘things of this world’ — sex, money, and alcohol. And pursuing those things — worshipping those things — as the source of ultimate meaning has a tendency to turn a bloke into what Winton calls ‘the full Dickhead package’… there’s a nice echo of David Foster Wallace’s ‘everybody worships something, the only choice you get is what to worship’ here — in that he specifically talks about what the worship of sex and money will do to you.

Masculinity and the heart

The question is: what resources does Peterson offer to pull people out of ‘full Dickhead’ — out of the worship of sex, money, and alcohol — and into something more constructive. Like Winton, and Wallace, Peterson sees our lives (and so for men, our masculinity) shaped by the question of what we worship — what we hold as ultimate. This observation isn’t terribly new; it’s there in the Old Testament when the Psalms and prophets write about us ‘becoming what we worship’ and the deadly impact of worshipping something other than the living God. We’re ‘very religious’ as Paul put it in Athens. Peterson is the ‘reverse Paul’ at this point — or the Egyptian plundering gold from Israel. He talks about worship in terms of a ‘moral hierarchy’ and our ‘god’ as whatever we place on top.

“Jung observed that the construction of such a moral hierarchy was inevitable — although it could remain poorly arranged and internally self-contradictory. For Jung, whatever was at the top of an individual’s moral hierarchy was, for all intents and purposes, that person’s ultimate value, that person’s god. It was what that person acted out. It was what that person believed most deeply.” — page 198

And the start of the book (and what he does with the idea of the ‘divine logos’ later in the book) reveals that his moral hierarchy places the ‘responsibility bearing’ individual as the ultimate value. We become our own gods. We become the ‘hero’ who might change the world and bring heaven on earth (starting with our own rooms — there’s, I think, a problem with an emphasis on the individual that doesn’t also equally factor in the way that we are utterly dependent on the people around us both in what we think and ‘know’ and in how we live; our habitats (including our communities) shape our habits — our liturgies (the practice of worship) which shape us… surely we have to work on both ‘our patch’ and the broader environments we belong to (and to be fair to Peterson, there’s some of this in Rule 3 ‘Make friends with people who want the best for you’). Anyway. Here’s what’s on top of Peterson’s moral hierarchy:

“I came to a more complete personal realisation of what the great stories of the past continually insist upon: the centre is occupied by the individual. The centre is marked by the cross, as X marks the spot… How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other? The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of being and to take the heroic path. We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society, and the world”… — Page XXXIII

“Thousands of years ago, the aware ‘I’ was the all-seeing Horus… before that it was the creator-God Marduk… during the Christian epoch, the “I” transformed into the Logos, the word that speaks order into being at the beginning of time. It might be said that Descartes merely secularised the Logos, turning it, more explicitly, into “that which is aware and thinks.” That’s the modern self, simply put.” — Page 194

Until he puts Jesus on the cross at the centre of being, rather than the heroic individual archetypally following Jesus, I think it’s fair to say he’s not really understanding the Christian story… but more on that below.

Peterson is great and clear and fantastic when it comes to identifying the heart problem behind toxic masculinity and toxic femininity. Sin. The darkness in our hearts. He sees us playing out a pattern of curse — the dominance hierarchy thing is pretty much Genesis 3:16 — and rather than seeing this as something wrong with the world where the answer is to look at both Genesis 2 and Revelation 21-22 (the start and end of the story), he sees this as something like the natural rules of the game and seeks to help people play that game (whether men or women… I want to be clear that it seems clear to me that Peterson thinks that if success is going to be defined in these terms, if it is ‘a man’s world’ that women are able to adopt masculine traits, and should be encouraged to if that’s what they want). The really important bit isn’t at the start, but at the end of the Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn quote we both love:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Who indeed? (hint: it’s kinda what Jesus did).

Peterson readily acknowledges the darkness in each and every human heart. The question is, does his narrative — particularly his archetypal, G0d-haunted, but almost entirely natural rendering of the Jesus narrative — actually give us enough reason to put that bit to death and to atone for our own sins, and to embrace (for men) a masculinity that isn’t patterned on the dominance world  (like many of the evil regimes Peterson explicitly hates and repudiates) but on something else? Does he equip us with not just the power to change, but enough motivation to sacrifice darkness? He seems to think just knowing our capacity for darkness scares us into positive action.

“When the wakening occurs—when once-naïve people recognise in themselves the seeds of evil and monstrosity, and see themselves as dangerous (at least potentially) their fear decreases. They develop more self-respect. Then, perhaps, they begin to resist oppression. They see that they have the ability to withstand, because they are terrible too. They see they can and must stand up, because they begin to understand how genuinely monstrous they will become, otherwise, feeding on their resentment, transforming it into the most destructive of wishes. To say it again: There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.” — 12 Rules, page 25

Is recognising our capacity for evil enough to stop us being evil? It certainly restrains us. Sometimes. But I’m not sure that this capacity for evil doesn’t also explain toxic masculinity and why it is so hard to reconfigure what a virtuous man looks like; so Peterson couples the pursuit of the ‘good’ side of our heart; the light, not just with altruism (though that’s there), but with the sense that life will be better for us if we stand up straight and grasp power… first because it sucks if we don’t:

“If you slump around, with the same bearing that characterises a defeated lobster, people will assign you a lower status, and the old counter that you share with crustaceans, sitting at the very base of your brain, will assign you a low dominance number. Then your brain will not produce as much serotonin. This will make you less happy, and more anxious and sad, and more likely to back down when you should stand up for yourself. It will also decrease the probability that you will get to live in a good neighbourhood, have access to the highest quality resources, and obtain a healthy, desirable mate.” — 12 Rules, Page 25

And it’s better for us if we do…

“You see the gold the dragon hoards, instead of shrinking in terror from the all-too-real fact of the dragon. You step forward to take your place in the dominance hierarchy, and occupy your territory, manifesting your willingness to defend, expand and transform it. That can all occur practically or symbolically, as a physical or as a conceptual restructuring.” — 12 Rules, Page 27

Peterson wants an altruism; the ‘light’ to triumph, he wants us to participate in bringing heaven on earth by aiming up. He wants us to sacrifice a part of ourselves for the greater good…

“You must discipline yourself carefully. You must keep the promises you make to yourself, and reward yourself, so that you can trust and motivate yourself. You need to determine how to act toward yourself so that you are most likely to become and to stay a good person. It would be good to make the world a better place. Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about, and strengthen ourselves, so that we can withstand the deadly angels and flaming sword of judgment that God used to bar its entrance.” — 12 Rules, page 63

What’s the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful? The successful sacrifice. Things get better, as the successful practise their sacrifices. The questions become increasingly precise and, simultaneously, broader: What is the greatest possible sacrifice? For the greatest possible good? — Page 169

Man up. Basically. Choose to be your best self — and reward and discipline yourself to make that happen…  And the rest of his 12 Rules expand on what that might look like (with, it must be said, some reasonably subversive ideas about responsibility).

Now. There’s a lot there that’s good for broken men, but I wouldn’t say there’s a great corrective for the dark hearted part of broken men, or the ‘toxic masculinity’ thing. It doesn’t deal with sin; though as I mentioned in post one, Peterson’s solution is that we make atonement for ourselves as we ‘take up our cross’ and ‘bear the weight of being’ — but why would I want to do that if I can pass on part of that weight to others by dominating them. Discipline. Self-denial. Sacrifice… and again, there’s lots of David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water echoing here — where he describes freedom as “attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” As an aside, reading Peterson and watching his popularity soar well beyond the strength of his writing makes me shed tears at the loss of Wallace’s voice in our society as we stare into the void left by the collapse of Christianity’s influence and try to figure out how to be people together.

Discipline. Sacrifice.

Why would I do that if it’s such hard work?

I think this advice will be effective for some — because there’s a certain part of us that just wants rules… but if I’m told that the way to get ahead in life, naturally, is to be ‘top lobster’, that this will make me get even more of what I want… that success starts with the individual taking responsibility for themselves and claiming what is ours by right, but I’m then encouraged not to do claim what isn’t mine even if I can… then why would I stop?

If the monster lies within, why not embrace it? Feed it? Relish in it?

What is there to restrain my becoming the chaotic monster Peterson is so keen to keep me from? The spectre of Hitler looms large in Peterson’s work as an example of totalitarian ‘order’ (of the sort that should be hurled back into chaos); but what does he really offer that stops my dark heart going that way given the tools to ‘stand up straight’ and be powerful? Why shouldn’t I harness his insights as some form of ‘self-help’ (the genre the book is categorised in) and simply help myself? What is it that will cause me to pick light over dark? Why not just embrace my desires to be strong enough to claim any woman I desire as my mate.

What if Winton is right about today’s ‘full dickhead package’ masculinity? That because we’ve lost a bigger journey or something spiritual we’re left worshiping, or idolising, sex, money, and alcohol? If our hearts are shot through with evil and we see those things as the ultimate ‘good’, what hope do we have? By some accounts, David Foster Wallace spoke about the danger of worshipping the wrong stuff from personal experience — there are people who’ve claimed that he was both the embodiment of toxic masculinity and a particular prescient critic of the dynamics that got him there… awareness of the destructive potential of these objects of worship isn’t enough if they stay there and we’re just told to pursue them from the ‘light’ part of our hearts not the dark bits.

Here’s where Peterson is right that we actually need a story, not just rules.

But I suspect even that is naive and limited. Self discipline, sacrifice, and a grand narrative might be enough to keep some of the darkness in our hearts at bay… we might even put some of that darkness to death as we restrain it… but not even being God’s chosen king stopped David claiming Bathsheba for himself, with an army (and no opportunity for consent). Give even the best man power, and opportunity, and what stops him giving in to temptation for darkness (it’s worth noting that the Bathsheba scene echoes Eve in the garden — they both ‘see’, ‘desire’ and ‘take’ what they know to be wrong, this dynamic is not just ‘toxic masculinity’ but ‘toxic humanity’ — it does seem that both Genesis 3:16 and our observations of life in the world since — mean that men are typically more able to exert physical power, and society conditions us men to do that cursed ways (which some call ‘the patriarchy’, or Winton calls ‘toxic masculinity’) that are bad for both women and men.  Would these 12 Rules have been enough to limit that form of toxic masculinity? Or might they simply have spoken to the darker bits of his heart and enabled them? David certainly still had a grand narrative he was living in and by…

Embodied masculinity: Peterson, Winton, ‘subtraction stories’, and a ‘Christianity with its sleeves rolled up’

There’s lots in the life of Jesus that is exemplary for humanity, not just for masculinity. Peterson seems to think women should be getting their marching orders from the archetype of Mary, not Jesus, which loses something of the Christian idea that Jesus is the image of the invisible God in a way that fulfils the Genesis 1 dynamic of ‘male and female’ being made in the image of God together (more on Christlikeness as a pattern for Christian femininity here, and here). But if we’re going to talk about antidotes for the sort of toxic masculinity identified by Tim Winton, and how Peterson might or might not be a helpful nod in this direction with his exaltation of the Jesus story and application of it to the self, then let’s talk about how Jesus provides a better guide to masculinity not just humanity (caveat, again, I think Jesus sees himself as an example for everybody when he calls all his followers to take up their cross and follow him (Luke 9:23), and Luke is explicit that Jesus’ followers include women (Luke 8:1-3), I think Paul sees Jesus’ crucifixion as an ethical example for everybody, see Philippians 2, but also that he applies it particularly to how men are to use their strength as they relate to women in the particular context of church (1 Corinthians 11), and marriage (Ephesians 5:21ff). I don’t think it is wrong to address a crisis in masculinity with particular implications for men with the particular (typical) reality that men are physically stronger and biologically predisposed to certain traits we might call masculine (for more on this see my ‘third way on gender’ post from a while back). I’m suggesting that in a world where toxic masculinity exists, where ‘neutral masculinity’ might not actually exist (because of our evil hearts) might actually need redeemed masculinity to exist, and that Peterson’s picture of redemption, his use of the cross, is a useful critique of the church, but half baked. I want to suggest that Tim Winton’s picture of a Jesus-shaped masculinity is also a critique of the church… and that both of them look to Jesus in an exemplary way that we probably should too (but that particularly in the case of Peterson, we need to re-cast the Jesus story substantially back towards its own terms).

Both Peterson and Winton have personal versions of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a ‘subtraction story’ when it comes to their view of Jesus, while simultaneously calling out the ‘secularism’ of the west for having a bigger ‘subtraction story’. In A Secular Age, Taylor describes these subtraction stories as stories of ‘modernity’ and our sense, or narrative, that we don’t need ‘big stories’ to explain the world, and certainly not stories that require something ‘divine’ or ‘supernatural’:

I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process–modernity or secularity–is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside. Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life. — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

This is something Winton recognised in those boys at the beach… whose lives are now seen in terms of an economic story, or personal pursuit of sex, money, or alcohol when instead we should have our masculinity shaped and defined in narrative terms, or a “journey to maturity”  that is “wrapped up in a sense of deeper culture, of spirituality”… but at the same time Winton’s subtraction story is one of leaving the hardline evangelical faith of his parents, because:

“At one point I reached the limits of the educational and cultural experience of the people around me,” he says. “I just wasn’t getting any answers, no real feedback. And sometimes the feedback was negative because they felt threatened.” — Winton interview, Less than Lovely, SMH

In an interview about this ‘subtraction’ with Simon Smart from the Centre for Public Christianity he said:

TIM WINTON: I was part of that tradition, and part of the weakness of our tradition is the obsession with orthodoxy, thinking the right thing. And I was probably only liberated from that in my late 20s, when I just realised that thinking the right thing was just kind of nice if you had the energy for it, but it wasn’t the game; it was allowing yourself the space and the danger to perhaps do the right thing, or at least do something. What you did was essentially an expression of who you were and what you believed.

SIMON SMART: I once interviewed a Salvation Army woman who was a saint, spent her life caring for people, and she talked about her dad getting some help from the Salvos when he was really sick, and he described it as Christianity with its sleeves rolled up, and he said the only kind that’s worth anything. That sort of resonates a little bit with what you’re describing.

TIM WINTON: Yes, totally. I mean if you’re not interested in someone’s body and their health, you’re just not interested in them. The rest of their person somehow is supposed to be…we’ve almost got this idea that people’s bodies or their…or their, their health, their levels of poverty their…

SIMON SMART: Sort of a side issue?

TIM WINTON: Their physical… Yes, we are these disembodied spirits first and foremost and our bodies are just some sort of inconvenience. Yes, if it’s not Christianity with your sleeves rolled up, then what species of faith is it? What is that? And I’m not interested in that.

Subtraction stories often carry with them an air of ‘liberation’ or enlightenment… but in Winton’s case it was more a pursuit of authentic embodiment… it was, perhaps, the evangelical church he departed that was living out a secularised, modernist, ‘subtraction story’… a story that saw us not as embodied spiritual creatures but simply as spiritual creatures. What’s interesting here, I think, if we throw David Foster Wallace into the mix, is that Wallace recognises the culture’s subtraction story (“the gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing”) and seemed to spend his life trying to escape it by trying to add the right thing.

Peterson’s is more dramatically secularised (though still ‘haunted’ in Taylor’s terms), while Winton still seems enchanted. Part of my optimism about Peterson’s journey is that I think he’s really zeroed in on a type of hopefulness caught up in the Jesus story… Both Winton and Peterson zero in on a lack of embodiment of the life of Jesus, in the evangelical church, as part of their dissatisfaction with the church; as part of their ‘subtraction’ story. Peterson had his own ‘subtraction’ story which he saw in parallel terms with the subtraction story of the West — the death of the Christian God (as conceived by an institutional church more interested in doctrine or spiritual salvation than the embodied reality of imitating Jesus. Here’s his account of both his own ‘subtraction story’ and the ‘subtraction story’ of the west:

I was truly plagued with doubt. I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory. After that, I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking…

I was plagued with doubt. I searched for one thing—anything—I could regard as indisputable. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house. It was doubt that led me to it.— Page 196, 197

Carl Jung hypothesized that the European mind found itself motivated to develop the cognitive technologies of science—to investigate the material world—after implicitly concluding that Christianity, with its laser-like emphasis on spiritual salvation, had failed to sufficiently address the problem of suffering in the here-and-now. This realization became unbearably acute in the three or four centuries before the Renaissance. In consequence, a strange, profound, compensatory fantasy began to emerge, deep in the collective Western psyche, manifesting itself first in the strange musings of alchemy, and developing only after many centuries into the fully articulated form of science. It was the alchemists who first seriously began to examine the transformations of matter, hoping to discover the secrets of health, wealth and longevity. These great dreamers (Newton foremost among them) intuited and then imagined that the material world, damned by the Church, held secrets the revelation of which could free humanity from its earthly pain and limitations. It was that vision, driven by doubt, that provided the tremendous collective and individual motivational power necessary for the development of science, with its extreme demands on individual thinkers for concentration and delay of gratification. This is not to say that Christianity, even in its incompletely realized form, was a failure. Quite the contrary: Christianity achieved the well-nigh impossible. The Christian doctrine elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master and commoner and nobleman alike on the same metaphysical footing, rendering them equal before God and the law. Christianity insisted that even the king was only one among many. For something so contrary to all apparent evidence to find its footing, the idea that that worldly power and prominence were indicators of God’s particular favor had to be radically de-emphasized. This was partly accomplished through the strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through effort or worth—through “works”… — Pages 185-186

Here we see Peterson’s appreciation for Christianity, his sense that science or natural accounts of reality made belief implausible, but also how he begins to start over-correcting against the flattening of a paradox by the church. Our own Christian subtraction story. His subtraction story is not simply that science killed God, but that Christianity’s insistence on a spiritual reality instead of a material or embodied reality let that happen. The subtraction story that allowed this is a Christian one — it was the subtraction of the body and what we do with it from being an important part of Christian belief and practice. The theological reality is that we’re both spiritual and embodied creatures who live as part of God’s kingdom in this world when we are saved by Jesus, but saved by the embodied actions of Jesus, not our embodied actions imitating him. Peterson is correcting something wrong with how the church has imagined faithfulness to Jesus too — the same thing that saw Winton leave his particular tradition. ‘The strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through works’ is actually the Christian insistence that only Jesus is able to triumph over sin and Satan — that only Jesus was prepared to put sin to death, to refuse temptation, and to be righteous enough to be saved by works. We rely on that; and the new hearts the Bible promises to those who trust in Jesus; the supernatural reality of the Holy Spirit rewiring our hearts (Romans 7-8). But. These new hearts should produce new lives in the body… they should produce a new masculinity. That they don’t or we haven’t demonstrated this enough is a failing of the church that is part of the subtraction story of the west and the way our culture produces toxic masculinity. A world without the church carving out the kingdom of God is going to be a world where the cursed pattern of male-female relationships, or patterns of life shaped by the worship of sex, money, alcohol, and other idols, are more prevalent. The kingdom of God is the antidote to the curse; even if it will only be fully realised when Jesus returns. Peterson reads the Bible better than Nietzsche, but his understanding of how Christians should read the Bible is shaped by how a particular tradition demolished by Nietzsche did read the Bible… and in doing so he misunderstands the tradition of Paul, Luther, and the Protestant church and offers his own reading (shaped by Jung, Dostoyevsky, and Solzenhitsyn, and an archetypal, secularised, ‘myth-alone’ approach to the Christian story) as a corrective:

The central dogmas of the Western faith were no longer credible, according to Nietzsche, given what the Western mind now considered truth. But it was his second attack—on the removal of the true moral burden of Christianity during the development of the Church—that was most devastating. The hammer-wielding philosopher mounted an assault on an early-established and then highly influential line of Christian thinking: that Christianity meant accepting the proposition that Christ’s sacrifice, and only that sacrifice, had redeemed humanity. This did not mean, absolutely, that a Christian who believed that Christ died on the cross for the salvation of mankind was thereby freed from any and all personal moral obligation. But it did strongly imply that the primary responsibility for redemption had already been borne by the Saviour, and that nothing too important to do remained for all-too-fallen human individuals. Nietzsche believed that Paul, and later the Protestants following Luther, had removed moral responsibility from Christ’s followers. They had watered down the idea of the imitation of Christ. This imitation was the sacred duty of the believer not to adhere (or merely to mouth) a set of statements about abstract belief but instead to actually manifest the spirit of the Saviour in the particular, specific conditions of his or her life—to realize or incarnate the archetype, as Jung had it; to clothe the eternal pattern in flesh.

Nietzsche writes, “The Christians have never practiced the actions Jesus prescribed them; and the impudent garrulous talk about the ‘justification by faith’ and its supreme and sole significance is only the consequence of the Church’s lack of courage and will to profess the works Jesus demanded.” Nietzsche was, indeed, a critic without parallel. Dogmatic belief in the central axioms of Christianity (that Christ’s crucifixion redeemed the world; that salvation was reserved for the hereafter; that salvation could not be achieved through works) had three mutually reinforcing consequences: First, devaluation of the significance of earthly life, as only the hereafter mattered. This also meant that it had become acceptable to overlook and shirk responsibility for the suffering that existed in the here-and-now; Second, passive acceptance of the status quo, because salvation could not be earned in any case through effort in this life (a consequence that Marx also derided, with his proposition that religion was the opiate of the masses); and, finally, third, the right of the believer to reject any real moral burden (outside of the stated belief in salvation through Christ), because the Son of God had already done all the important work.

Peterson left a Christianity that looked a lot like it was practicing these three consequences… he left searching for meaning and plagued with doubt. But he thinks he has found a better story with the recipe for a better life, and better masculinity. This is where Peterson draws his moral conclusions — the ‘rock on which he builds his house’ — this is where he derives his picture of humanity and masculinity from…that we should be imitating Jesus in standing against suffering, but we should ‘build our house’ on the idea of being heroic individuals… This is his critique of the church. This is his object of worship… and his life aims to flesh out these beliefs:

“What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or a gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.” Each human being has an immense capacity for evil.

It was from this that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world.”— page 196-198

For Peterson, the meaning of the Christian story, of Jesus ‘taking the sins upon the world of himself’ is that we’re meant to be Jesus. We’re meant to be ‘the rock’ on which we build our own lives, the ‘cornerstone’ we’re meant to build our lives on is the realisation that we are capable of bringing suffering on others… we’re meant to create heaven on our own steam. To choose light over dark.

The Bible is not optimistic about our ability to do this without re-birth from above. Consider John’s Gospel, which uses light and darkness as interesting themes to talk about how our hearts respond to God as the ‘source of light and life’.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. — John 1:9-11

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3:19-21

The problem is not that ‘God is dead’ metaphorically because of science, or some sort of modern subtraction story where we no longer need superstition or the supernatural… the problem is that God died because our hearts are dark and when we had the opportunity, we humans killed him because our hearts are dark and we like it better that way. This same passage, John 3, where Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark of night, is where Jesus says that in order to live in the light we need to be born from above. We need the new hearts promised in the Old Testament. We need the Spirit to re-birth our bodies… and this isn’t just a metaphor but a spiritual reality (of the sort our western subtraction story struggles to grasp).

Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again [literally ‘born from above’]…
Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” — John 3:3, 6

The claim of the Christian story — the claims of Jesus himself — are that if we’re going to deal with our hearts, and the world and what we inflict on the world — we can’t build our lives on our messed up hearts. We have to build them on him. He is the rock. He is the cornerstone. You can’t just take that language or symbolism and then try to imitate Jesus. You have to build your life in and on Jesus. We can’t build ‘heaven’ on earth without rebirth. We can’t move from hearts of darkness into the light without this.

Both Peterson and the sort of church he rejected (and the one that Winton rejected, and the one Nietzsche rejected, and the Christianity that the west rejected) are wrong about the imitation of Jesus in the Christian life; and the picture of masculinity we get from Jesus. He’s wrong about the theology behind ‘justification by faith’ because he is wrong about what Christians call sanctification. Sanctification is about ‘being transformed into the image of Jesus’ — it’s an embodied reality — it happens not because we decide to kill the dark parts of our heart apart from faith, to save ourselves, but because God gives us the means to kill those parts — to ‘put to death our sinful nature’ by giving us the Spirit. By performing heart surgery on us.

Because the church has its own ‘subtraction story’, where we’ve subtracted embodiment and life in the world from our rendering of the Gospel (our own ‘myth’) we’ve both enabled the subtraction story of the west, and of Peterson (and Winton is a helpful example of diagnosing this problem, and identifying that what has been removed needs to be re-added). Peterson replaces that subtraction story with a mythic take on Christianity which somehow places the individual in the place that should be occupied by Jesus — and in the theology of Paul and Luther — Jesus occupying this place at the centre of existence, as the hero, is part of how we are united with him, and given the Spirit in a way that enables the transformation of our embodied lives. Paul’s guide to Christian living can be summed up as “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), his witness to the Gospel required his taking up his cross and suffering for it so that his body was shaped by it (2 Corinthians 4-5, 10-11, Galatians 6), the Christian life for Paul is one of embodied transformation  as we live the story of Jesus because it is now our story (eg Colossians 3, Romans 6, 8, 12).

Redeemed masculinity of the sort that is going to both overcome our dark hearts and start to provide a better ‘journey’ and spirituality than bad churches or Jordan Peterson is masculinity patterned on Jesus but also relying on Jesus and his death and resurrection being more than just a nice picture of heroism. They have to have a spiritual reality that is capable of re-wiring our hearts so that the choice to not be evil is not just one we make for ourselves as we follow Jesus, but one that God makes possible.

Redeemed masculinity is the masculinity of Paul, who didn’t keep climbing the ‘dominance hierarchy’ of the Pharisees when he met Jesus, but started imitating Jesus, seeing himself as the scum of the earth or a spectacle in the arena (images of someone gladly being dominated for the sake of others). His vision of masculinity, imitating Jesus is:

To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. — 1 Corinthians 4:11-13

And this is because he understands how God’s power works in the world through those imitating Jesus in weakness… in not taking up one’s strength and power for one’s self, but in laying it down or using it for others.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. — 2 Corinthians 10:9-10

This is redeemed masculinity. Before Paul met Jesus he was a murderer — bent on making life on earth hellish for Christians, he was a pharisee caught up in darkness, displaying a pretty toxic masculinity while dominating others… his conversion was literally a case of being ‘blinded by the light,’ he wasn’t just confronted with the darkness of his heart but with the light of the world; Jesus.

Redeemed masculinity is a Christianity with its sleeves rolled up. A Christianity imitating Jesus because God is re-casting us in the image of Jesus; transforming us away from the pattern of this world as we practice and live in the story of Jesus. It requires the sort of life marinated in the Gospel story depicted in Colossians 3… but it has to be embodied, deliberately and counter-culturally.

That ‘sleeves rolled up’ picture is extra powerful when paired with the example of Len Thomas, the guy who taught Tim Winton (and his dad) something about Jesus-shaped masculinity. Winton’s dad had an awful bike accident…

 “When he returned home, he was a physical and emotional wreck. He’d gone from being the family’s sole breadwinner to being bedridden, unable to move or shower himself. It was up to his wife, Bev, to manage the house and cope with the kids: Tim and his three younger siblings, Andrew, Michael and Sharyn.

A week or so after John came home, a stranger showed up on the doorstep. His name was Len Thomas. Thomas said he’d heard about the accident, and that Bev was having a tough time, and that he wanted to help. “It was so weird,” Winton says, when we meet in Fremantle, Perth’s port city. “We had never met this guy before, and here he was, turning up, unannounced and uninvited, offering to give us a hand.”

Almost every day for the next few weeks, Thomas came to the house, where he carried Winton’s father from his bedroom to the bathroom and gently washed him. Tim didn’t know what to make of it: a stranger, in the bathroom, with his father? Now all he could do was sit outside the door, listening to the tap water running, and the two men talking in low, soft voices. As it soon became apparent, Thomas was an evangelical Christian: apart from washing John, he’d been laying hands on him, and anointing him with olive oil.

Thomas’s intercession, what Winton now calls “an act of grace”, changed the family forever. Soon after his father’s recovery, Winton’s parents became devout and lifelong Christians. Every Sunday morning, and in the evening too, the family went to church, where they would listen to sermons on degradation and redemption…

“Len showed me that there is another way of being a man, that you didn’t have to get a double century at the MCG or mow down a machine-gun post and get a Victoria Cross. You could be just decent and gentle and kind. For me, that was incredibly revelatory.”

Len Thomas was, in this story, a Christian with his sleeves rolled up. Maybe Jordan Peterson needs to meet him too. Maybe the guys in the surf and others who are the ‘full dickhead package’ need to meet Len Thomas too… because in doing so they’re seeing something of the face of Jesus. Maybe if more Aussies met more Len Thomas types we wouldn’t have subtraction stories for individuals, or our culture, but addition stories. People might start to get an inkling that the supernatural stuff we Christians claim are true — about salvation and eternal kingdoms and the ‘Spirit’ reshaping us — are more than just inspirational myths that help us ‘worship our way’ to a better world by enabling our sacrifice… but that they’re true and inspirational myths that help us worship our way to a better world now and into the future, enabled by Jesus’ sacrifice.

Crossing the Jordan, finding Jesus: redeeming wisdom and re-casting masculinity in conversation with Jordan Peterson

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction. — Proverbs 1:7

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. — Proverbs 9:10

Jordan Peterson is a wise man. But just how wise he is depends on how much the these claims about wisdom are real. And if they are real; just how much one is prepared to acknowledge that not being as wise as you can be — articulating a wisdom apart from the real ‘fear’ of the Lord — is actually a form of folly. And if it’s folly, then such that if we were to doggedly follow him as a wise man, when some truer wisdom is out there is to adopt an incomplete picture of how to live. And so here, humbly (mostly pointing to the wisdom of others), I’d like to offer some suggestions to those who find the sort of wisdom Peterson offers in his videos, and his books, including his just 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote For Chaos appealing.

Peterson’s 12 Rules are strongly built on a foundation that reality occurs along a spectrum of chaos and order; the ‘ying and yang’ of Taoism; that in fact, these ‘forces’ or orientations, held in balance, are at the heart of the cosmos and the human psyche. He personifies chaos as feminine, which he argues is ‘archetypal’ but has rightly frustrated many women (especially because he has so caught the imagination of young men). The first chapter, on lobsters and dominance hierarchies, almost got its own post such is its suggestion that for men to get women to swoon over them, and date them, they need to capture some sort of ‘will to power’ and stand up straight… there was some stuff in that chapter that I felt had the tendency to leave ‘upstanding’, or ‘dominant’ men feeling entitled to be loved, and thus righteously angry at their advances being rejected.

In many ways his insights are a bit like some of the Proverbs we find in the Bible; axioms we can live by as we pursue an understanding of the ordering of the cosmos and what a ‘good life’ in that cosmos looks like. One thing the book of Proverbs teaches us is that a certain form of wisdom isn’t limited to Christians; but absolute truth about the world; a sort of ‘realer’ wisdom involves connecting truths about creation with the creator. Proverbs is structured as a series of bits of advice from a father to a son about how to be a man; it’s really a set of reflections for the nation of Israel about how to be the ‘son of God’; living well in God’s world; but scholars have long noticed that not only does Proverbs borrow large chunks from ancient wisdom (including not just content, but this form — advice to a son), it engages with a fundamental idea common in the ancient world… that the world is ultimately a balance between order and chaos. There’s an Egyptian goddess — Ma’at — and belief in Ma’at underpinned much Egyptian wisdom, including the Wisdom of Amenemope (that Proverbs quotes extensively). Here’s a bit of detail about Ma’at

“The central concept of Egyptian wisdom literature lies in its understanding of the goddess Ma’at. The daughter of the primordial creator god Amon-Re (although in later times she came to be associated with the Memphite god Ptah), Ma’at symbolizes both cosmic order and social harmony. Thus, Ma’at is not only that force which ensures the regularity of the sun god’s path across the sky each day (surely the most visible sign of an orderly universe!), but she is also order, justice, and truth in the human sphere. These two aspects of Ma’at should not be viewed as mutually exclusive, however: for the ancient Egyptian, cosmic order and moral order were inextricably bound up with one another. This may best be seen in the office of the king—the king ruled by making the concept of Ma’at the fundamental moral basis of his reign, and by doing so, reestablished order on the cosmic plane, as it was during “the first time” of creation.” — Carole Fontaine, ‘A Modern Look At Ancient Wisdom — The Instruction of Ptohhotep Revisited,’ Biblical Archeologist, 1981

More recently Michael Fox wrote ‘World Order and Ma’at: A Crooked Parallel,’ (published in the Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society in 1995), where he said:

“Ma’at, whose etymological sense is straightness, is not order as such. It is, rather, the force that creates and maintains order, namely justice/truth, a concept that we subdivide, perhaps artificially, in English…  Ma’at is order: the just and true working of society maintained or restored by the efforts of God and man. On a cosmic scale, Ma’at does displace or “drive out” evil or “disorder” at creation and thereafter especially at each coronation [of a king], but it does so by divine or royal agency.”

Fox makes an interesting subsequent point when it comes to Ma’at’s intricate relationship with Egyptian mythology; that you can’t generalise principles from one mythic theology and generalise across theologies; which is pretty much Peterson’s schtick.

“The idea of Ma’at did not and could not exist in Israel. Ma’at… was the foundation myth of the Pharaonic state and was inextricable from the Egyptian religion and hierarchy. The most important and frequent statements about Ma’at, such as that Re lives on Ma’at, or that Ma’at is the daughter of Re, or rites such as the daily offering of Ma’at to Re, or images such as Ma’at in the prow of Re’s boat, can have no meaning outside an Egyptian context. Only by stripping Ma’at of its distinctive character can one even claim to find a parallel in Israel.”

I’m not sure I totally buy this, I’m more inclined to be with Lewis in Myth Became Fact (see part one of this series), that all ‘myths’ are in some sense an attempt to articulate an intrinsic ‘mythic’ quality of the human spirit. But what’s interesting is how Ma’at is both the sort of order Peterson speaks about as ‘archetypally’ male, as opposed to the feminine chaotic, that Ma’at is said to be similar to the Hebrew Hokma (wisdom, and a feminine noun), and Greek Sophia (wisdom, and a feminine noun); in Proverbs, wisdom is personified as female (symbolised as a wife to be pursued). All three ancient traditions that have some sort of archetypal ‘order’ personify that order as female. His statements about order and chaos being masculine and feminine almost universally and then his frequent dipping in to Egyptian mythology are a weird and obvious contradiction. In Egypt the personification and deification of Chaos is also a serpent — Apep, and Apep is male. He’s considered the opposite of the female Ma’at.

Ma’at, or wisdom, was the antidote to chaos — a properly ordered life — for the faithful reader of the Old Testament, who might dabble in the wisdom of the world, and find truth in a collection of axiomatic statements about reality from foreign sources, this wisdom must be built on the platform of Israel’s knowledge of the creator of that order. While Fox suggests Ma’at didn’t directly influence Hebrew wisdom — specifically the understanding that ‘ma’at’ was the fundamental order of all things — it’s impossible to deny that Egyptian wisdom influences Proverbs when Proverbs explicitly features Egyptian proverbs from the Wisdom of Amenemope. The bits where Proverbs explicitly borrows from — or quotes — foreign wisdom are bracketed with statements like those quoted from Proverbs above — the fear of Yahweh, Israel’s God, the creator of the cosmos, is the beginning of wisdom. Yahweh trumps Ma’at; both in the wisdom stakes and the mythic stakes. But in this borrowing there’s also a model for us thinking about how we might approach Peterson and his (and Jung and Nietzsche’s) mythological approach to wise living.

To understand this model one has to think about the narrative, or mythic, content the Proverbs are delivered in (in the form of the Bible, and Israel’s unfolding history); and to some extent the relationship between wisdom and gold… and Israel and Egypt. Israel, as a nation, is birthed out of Egypt; they are formed or ‘cast’ as God’s image-bearing son; his people. They are released from Egypt after God steps into history to rescue and claim them. He has Moses confront Pharaoh to say of the Israelites:

Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.’” — Exodus 4:22-23

Israel, corporately, both men and women, are God’s ‘son’. Part of the point of the exodus  — where Israel crossed the Jordan  — was them being declared as God’s children; to be a pattern for, or example of, wise living who were meant to bless their neighbours in part by being wise, so that the nations would see their wise lives and glorify God. In the early chapters of Deuteronomy — another guide to wise living for a ‘son of God’, Israel’s wisdom is to be part of its witness (reading Solomon’s reign, and the Proverbs, against these words is interesting, isn’t it).

Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? — Deuteronomy 4:6-8

This is in the same chapter that Moses talks about Israel crossing the Jordan as them entering their inheritance; entering ‘sonship’ so to speak, and there’s a pretty big warning about making idols or images of God because they are his images; and his nation of priests (Exodus 19); they are meant to represent him in the world.

Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.

The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance. I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan; but you are about to cross over and take possession of that good land. Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. — Deuteronomy 4:15-24

To ‘cross the Jordan’ is to become a son of God; whether you’re male or female (there’s an interesting implication of the command not to represent God as a man or a woman, which fascinates me because of how in Genesis 1 God (plural) makes humanity in his image as ‘male and female’… and yet dynamically personifies all his people as his ‘son’; now, Jordan Peterson would see this as supporting his archetypal view of chaos and order being masculine and feminine, but I’m going to suggest Biblical archetypes work in a different way (and sometimes Peterson seems to get this, he does have a nice ‘narrative’ reading of the whole Bible going for him).

Here’s a little interlude; a short tangent if you will, about why playing genders off against each other (though with an acknowledged mutual need for one another mostly for some biological imperative) is a common worldly idea but something the Bible fundamentally undermines. I like that Jordan Peterson acknowledges some fundamental differences, biologically, physically, and in how those differences might shape different behaviour, but I don’t like how his ‘dominance hierarchy’ stuff essentially justifies a certain sort of ‘noble patriarchy’ rather than a radical co-operation-in-difference. It seems to me that his basic rendering of the biological universe and its application to human behaviour basically doesn’t just leave men as lobsters competing for status so they can claim the best mate (and be attracted to them), but also leaves us men like peacocks in a perpetual game of charming our mate — or making our desires and demands that we believe might be ‘dark’ and so hesitate to raise them, clear and open, with the expectation that our significant other will embrace them (that was perhaps the creepiest bit in the book) rather than operating in partnership with a radical sort of commitment to elevating and celebrating the other. The heart of Peterson’s model for relationships in his order/chaos paradigm is the ‘masculine’ quality of assertiveness; of making one’s will known, standing up straight, and claiming it (or at least living as though you are entitled to your will), this is pictured as a proud and dominant lobster rising as high up a ‘dominance hierarchy’ as you can. It’s a terrible model for relationships between men and women — and it runs counter to the Biblical picture of wisdom as a woman, and the advice both to Israel (as God’s son) and Israelite sons, to pursue (and presumably listen to and value) a wise partner. The problem in Genesis 3 wasn’t that Adam listened to his wife, but that she gave foolish advice (and so the ‘harlot’ or foolish woman in Proverbs is also a woman, so too the nations whose gods and women pull Israel away from Yahweh. Individualism and this sort of ‘will to power’ doesn’t work in marriage if it’s true that ‘the two become one flesh’. I’d say what gets extrapolated from how men and women relate together from Peterson’s biological account against the Biblical account is a fundamentally different ordering of society. One of the best articles I read last year was by Brendon Benz, titled ‘The Ethics of the Fall: Restoring the Divine Image through the Pursuit of Biblical Wisdom’, he makes a fantastic case for us to reconsider how we understand the dynamic of the image of God being ‘male and female’ such that a purely individualistic view of being human doesn’t work theologically. Here’s a long quote because it provides a thoroughly different ‘archetypal lens’ for reading the Bible as an organising ‘myth’ to the Jungian individualism Peterson advocates (a Jungian ‘plurality’ would be extra fun though).

Thus, wisdom demands a partner—one who is willng to speak, and at the same time, one who is willing to give ear. The result of this corporate engagement is the ability to discern between good and evil, and thereby administer justice. This identification comes as a surprise when it is juxtaposed with Genesis 1–3. In chapter 3, God judges the man and the woman unfavourably for seeking the knowledge of good and evil, suggesting that their decision to do so was not motivated by wisdom. This apparent tension is resolved, however, when it is read in light of a relational interpretation of the divine image, and according to the nature of social power advanced by such scholars as Anthony Giddens. The result is an alternative reading of the so-called fall in Genesis 3 that provides a more concrete understanding of the part humanity must play in successfully responding to the injustices that result from it. In Genesis 2:16–17, God warns the man, who is “alone” in the garden (Gen 1:18), of the negative consequences that will befall him if he violates his individual limit. This indicates that the fall narrative does not depict humanity’s transgression of a divine boundary that was intended to curb human understanding. Instead, it illustrates that the attempt to take possession of the knowledge of good and evil—an important social resource—in isolation and on one’s own terms results in the collapse of the divine image, which, according to Genesis 1:27 and Matthew 18:20, is manifest only in the encounter between the I and the Other who listen. When one understands that the events in Genesis 3 undermine the divine image as it is depicted in Genesis 1 and embodied in Genesis 2, a potent statement emerges regarding the urgency of constructing power-sharing relationships in the context of diverse communities whose members listen. As is reflected in the vulnerability of God’s own interactions with humanity in texts like Genesis 18 and John 20, such relationships are necessary if individuals are to image God, and thereby wisely administer justice…”

God’s image necessarily consists of, and therefore requires, a plurality—in this case, male (zāḵār) and female (nĕqēḇâ). This plurality of personhood is echoed at the beginning of the chapter, wherethe masculine “God” (ʾĕlōhîm; v 1) and the feminine “Spirit of God” (rûaḥ ʾĕlōhîm; v 2) are named as two of the entities involved in creation. When it comes to humanity as the image of God, therefore, Buber rightly observes that “In the beginning is the relation—as the category of being … as a model of the soul; the a priori of relation; the innate Thou” (78). In sum, Genesis 1 indicates that God is imaged only when two or more are gathered in the freely self-limiting relational character of God (cf. Murphy: 173–77). This corresponds to the words of Jesus, whom the authors of the New Testament regard as the image of God (John 1:1–3; Heb 1:1–3; Phil 2:5–8). In Matthew 18:20, he states, “where two or three are gathered in my name,” or my character (Wright 1998: 116), “I am there among them.” The implication of this requirement is that an individual neither posses the divine image as a substance of his or her own being, nor images God in isolation. Rather, the imago Dei is manifest only in relation.”

I won’t drag this out but there’s long been a connection drawn between the idea of the image of God (in the Ancient Near East) being a claim to sonship, usually by kings, so in Israel you get this broadened to include men and women (Genesis 1) and then every Israelite (Exodus 4).

When Israel crossed the Jordan on their way into the promised land they plundered Egypt; stealing its literal gold. This gold was then used to create both the golden calf (idolatrous and destructive folly) and the furnishings of the tabernacle (part of Israel’s worship of God as creator and provider of the good and abundantly fruitful life in the land). Crossing the Jordan was Israel’s path into nationhood — sonship even — and what they did with gold ultimately revealed what sort of child they were; at certain points they were wise and they flourished (and the nations flocked in to hear Solomon’s wisdom), but at other points they borrowed not just the gold of Egypt, but their gods as well. They were more likely to jump on board with the idea of Ma’at, than fear Yahweh. Which is exactly what we learn in the figure of Solomon. Solomon has an interesting relationship with Egypt, with Proverbs, and with gold. In the account of his reign in 1 Kings we get the sense that he has a fraught relationship with Egypt; that it’s a significant country in terms of his life.

“Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt and married his daughter. He brought her to the City of David until he finished building his palaceand the temple of the Lord, and the wall around Jerusalem.” — 1 Kings 3:1

“And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. These countries brought tribute and were Solomon’s subjects all his life.” — 1 Kings 4:21

Then…

God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Kalkol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songsnumbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.” — 1 Kings 4:29-34

When Solomon prays to dedicate the temple he specifically remembers that Israel were brought out of Egypt and cast as his people like a statue from a fire, he says

And forgive your people, who have sinned against you; forgive all the offenses they have committed against you, and cause their captors to show them mercy; for they are your people and your inheritance, whom you brought out of Egypt, out of that iron-smelting furnace.” — 1 Kings 8:50-51

In the law for the future king of Israel in Deuteronomy there’s a specific command not to take horses from Egypt; and as things turn for Solomon, the first real sign that things have gone wrong (apart from marrying the daughter of Pharaoh which was also a Deuteronomic no-no) is:

“Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt and from Kue[j]—the royal merchants purchased them from Kue at the current price.” — 1 Kings 10:28

1 Kings wants to make real sure we know Solomon doesn’t end well; he doesn’t pursue the sort of wisdom he started out asking for; and so Proverbs becomes a sort of deeply ironic book attributed to him.

As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been… So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done.  — 1 Kings 11:4, 6

Solomon is a pretty interesting picture of the fully realised ‘man’ or, more broadly, a representative picture of flourishing Israel… a true son of God who asks for, rather than takes hold of, wisdom from God. Here’s how Benz describes his request for wisdom:

“1 Kings 3, Solomon asks for “a listening heart (lēḇ šōmēaʿ) in order to judge your people and to discern between good and evil” (v 9). After expressing pleasure with this request, God identifies Solomon’s “listening heart” as a “wise heart” (lēḇ ḥāḵām; v 12). Read in parallel, these two statements indicate that wisdom is predicated on the capacity to listen.”

It’s interesting that the example given of Solomon’s wise listening is a court case between two women — mothers — prostitutes — one with a dead son, one with a living son; if you want to talk about archetypes there’s a strong sense that choosing the foolish prostitute who killed her son would’ve been a really bad idea for Israel’s king… and yet ultimately he symbolically (when it comes to the symbolism of Proverbs and the Old Testament picture of the nations around Israel being ‘prostitutes’ makes the unwise and morally wrong choice. He doesn’t find a wise conversation partner — a wife, a co-image bearer (or community of them) who will help him make wise decisions as he listens (David and Abigail are an interesting counter-point to this, where David does pursue a wise wife). I want to stress that this isn’t a suggestion that everybody needs marriage to be completed — but we do, in our shared life, need men and women speaking and listening in order to live the fullest vision for humanity — the ‘image bearing’ vision of faithful sonship as men and women. And this pushes back on Jordan Peterson’s archetypal framework pretty strongly…

Solomon is this positive figure for about ten minutes; and then he’s a picture of disorder and folly; and somehow the Proverbs reflect that high point before his fall. Solomon is described as being somebody in command of the natural world such that he is able to understand and document its order — and you get a sense from the narrative he was also engaging with the sages and wise men of the nations… he was also quick to have his head turned by women he should not have been pursuing, and because he was at the top of the ‘dominance hierarchy’ taking what he should not have taken; the picture in Proverbs of the wise advice from the king (Solomon) to his son to pursue a wife of noble character; the personification of wisdom, is deeply ironic against Solomon’s life and approach — but even more so against Israel’s approach to wisdom.

What’s also archetypal here, against Peterson’s system, and as mentioned above is that wisdom or order is feminine, and perhaps the brashness of masculinity needs to be tempered by a listening partnership with wisdom rather than embracing destructive folly; the gendered stuff Peterson does is inverted in the Proverbs… but the warning from Solomon’s life, and Proverbs, in history is that if you’re going to plunder gold from Egypt you better be sure not to use it to build idols, or have it pull you away from the truth about the God you should be fearing. Incidentally, later, and probably without having discovered the strong links between Proverbs and Egyptian wisdom, Augustine took the idea of plundering gold and explicitly applied it to what the Proverbs implicitly practiced — the idea that truths expressed by people in the world about the fundamental order of creation should be taken and used to their proper ‘ordering’ — their telos — which he saw as ‘to preach Christ’ (if all this stuff fascinates you, it is what I wrote my thesis on; the (short version of the) title is Plundering Gold from Egypt to Contextually Communicate the Gospel of Jesus, and it includes a big chunk on Proverbs and wisdom, and how to ‘plunder Gold’ appropriately.

The book of Proverbs, like Jordan Peterson, appears to teach men to be men, but is really a guide for all people to re-order or re-cast their lives against a background of chaos. There’s lots of ‘truth’ in what Peterson writes. But here’s the thing — the ‘mythic frame’ — the ‘story’ that wisdom is delivered in matters. Especially when that wisdom is a sort of axiomatic description of an ‘ordered life’ and where it explicitly speaks as though myth matters. It’s much harder to purely plunder Egypt, without straight up importing idols, if we’re careless about the mythic frame and the vision of masculinity (in this case) being put around those ideas, and that’s where Jordan Peterson is perhaps more dangerous than we think.

Sometimes Peterson is golden, but there are lots of places where we need to be careful that we’re not importing a wrong picture of God from his work, and carelessly popping it in our homes and lives when really it’s a Trojan calf that will pull us away from truths about God… that he seems to be on a journey himself, and taking the Bible pretty seriously as a source of truth, makes him both exciting and dangerous. Because while real wisdom begins with the fear of Yahweh; and while this was framed as an instruction manual for sonship in the book of Proverbs; we get a true picture of what it means for all Christians (men and women) to be both sons of God and brides of Christ (talk about confusing gender categories) in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and what it means to truly follow him

There have been some worthwhile reflections on Peterson’s picture of masculinity offering Jesus as a corrective to his vision; or rather a corrected vision of Jesus (and the cosmos) as a better antidote to chaos. But I’m not sure how possible it is just to tweak his picture around the edges. Plundering Peterson might require an almost total meltdown of his rendering of Jesus and the cross and a total recasting of his vision for humanity.

It’s interesting to consider how ‘crossing the Jordan’ works as a Biblical archetype ultimately found in Jesus, and how this might invite us to cross Jordan Peterson, and understand the Cross as something more than taking responsibility and trying to save both yourself and the world… what if our real humanity is actually found in the mystery of union with Christ; that somehow our sonship is about dynamically being ‘one with him’ though still many.

Matthew takes a line from the prophet Hosea about Israel, God’s son, coming out of Egypt and applies it to Jesus own ‘crossing the Jordan’ moment as an infant — where he fled to Egypt to avoid the toxic, patriarchal, masculinity of Herod (who tried to dominate the threat posed by an infant by wiping out every infant he could find — as one worse than Pharaoh). Matthew says this ‘crossing the Jordan’ moment was so that the Old Testament archetype could be fulfilled; for ‘out of Egypt God calls his son’ — this is both a geographic call, and a spiritual one — a call to leave Egyptian dominance hierarchies and archetypes behind, and to embrace something new built on the fear of the Lord. A new picture of wisdom. Jesus has another ‘Jordan’ sonship moment when he is baptised in the Jordan. John the Baptist is baptising people in the Jordan — a picture of the exodus where Israel was created, birthed, through those waters, and Jesus arrives to be baptised. When this happens:

Jesus was baptised too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened  and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” — Luke 3:21-22

Jesus is recognised as God’s son, our image of humanity, our image of image bearing, is recast in him (a theme picked up throughout the New Testament).

Jesus was ‘one greater than Solomon’ (Luke 11:31); he also drew implications for living from careful observations of the natural world (Luke 12:27 — where he invites us to consider how nature is more gloriously arrayed than Solomon, and asked how much more God might love his children); and yet his picture of the good life was not an expression of the will to power; not a case of ‘standing up straight with your shoulders back’… and when he calls us to take up our cross it is not simply an invitation to bear on our shoulders the reality of suffering; but to carry around in our lives a living breathing picture of living with a sense that death is dead. Instead of being like Solomon and taking, Jesus says those who follow in his pattern of sonship will:

But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. — Luke 12:31-34

In Jesus God becomes our father. We become his sons — whether we’re male or female, but this ‘sonship’ requires a dynamic, image bearing relationship of listening to the other and not simply being individuals with a will to power — because real wisdom is not found in dominance, but submission. Our crossing the Jordan — our exodus — our baptism — is a baptism ‘into Jesus’; a receiving of God’s Spirit to make us one with him (so individualism is tricky to maintain as a sort of exclusive picture for flourishing humanity).

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. — Galatians 3:26-29

Jordan Peterson is a wise man offering a reasonable version of Egyptian wisdom (except he should invert the genders of order and chaos). He offers a reasonable ‘Egyptian’ attempt to plunder the gold of true Israel. But until he understands the world inverting foolishness of the cross, until he fears God, I’m not sure it’s wisdom at all, and I’m pretty skeptical of claims about his usefulness for the church without some serious re-framing and melting down of whatever gold it is he offers so that it can be used in service of the creator.

Real wisdom is not found in power but the fear of the Lord and the subversive wisdom of the Cross. You want to see how the crucified Jesus is archetypal? Look at Paul. His teachings and his life. I’ll flesh this out (in an almost literal sense) in the next post, but here’s what he says about the wisdom of the world and how it is confounded by the cross not just subtly tweaked… this is what really ‘fearing God’ looks like — seeing human strength and dominance as foolishness in the face of God’s power and his operations in the world.

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” — 1 Corinthians 1:20-31 

Why I use loaded words like ‘feminism,’ ‘patriarchy,’ and ‘privilege’: not just words used in the Bible (but I do think they’re Biblical concepts)

My friend Akos just wrote a post on his blog arguing that we Christians should not so readily use loaded/non-value neutral words like privilegepatriarchyfeminism. I think he’s wrong.

He says:

“Christians sometimes (increasingly?) discuss this sensitive topic using jargon like ‘patriarchy’, ‘privilege’, and ‘gender-equality’.”

I definitely do this. Often. Here’s a bunch of posts on Christian feminism from my archives (on just the first page of results I use the word privilege eight times, and the word patriarchy 12 times — by tagging this post as ‘feminism’ it’ll add a few more). Here’s a talk I gave on What The Church Gets Wrong About Feminism where I talk about the patriarchy, and privilege, as it operates outside the church and inside it (I also talk about ‘safe places’ and how the church should be the safest place for women).

Now. There’s an irony that two blokes are banging on about how we should talk about feminism in the church, and there’s plenty of great stuff out there by women (often left voiceless in these convos), and you’d be better off reading them (eg my friend Tamie’s posts on meetjesusatuni or fixinghereyes). But it’s important for blokes to get this right so we’re not treading all over women and/or excluding them from the conversation, and thus ironically making the point that we need words like privilege, patriarchy, and feminism.

Akos has some bolded summary statements to explain why this is a bad idea, and what ‘better’ might be.

  • These Terms Are Ideologically Loaded 
  • They’re not ‘value-neutral’. 
  • Jesus Often Comes off Looking Second Best When He’s Evaluated By Secular Feminism 
  • When We Feel Embarrassed By What The Bible Says, We Can Start Doubting The Bible
  • A Better Way To Engage This Topic: Leave out the buzzwords, and grapple with the Bible. 
  • Let’s discuss the roles of men and women – but on the Bible’s terms.
  • We’ll Always Be Out Of Step With Our Culture: But that’s God’s design.

I have problems with the last one — I think the crucifixion of Jesus will always put us out of step with our culture and provide and create an alternative one; but I also think the framework provided by the Bible is the best and wisest account of life in our world (it might take the Spirit for people to see it); we shouldn’t be afraid to engage with where people in our world are identifying that it seems broken, because there’s a good chance the Gospel will provide a more satisfying and eternal answer.

One of Akos’ paragraphs says:

“If we allow our embarrassment to drive our view of the Bible, then it’s not long before we’re relying on our own experience and insight (influenced in large part by our culture’s views) to interpret – or even supersede – the Bible.”

Now. My problem is, I think all these terms are actually descriptions the Bible would be comfortable with to describe particular aspects of our sinfulness, and the way sin (and specifically the curse) plays out in the world. I think we get these categories — or something very like them — if we do grapple with the Bible, and, for example, observe how men in power behave towards women in the Old Testament and how Jesus is different.

Here’s one reason to use them… I’ll put it in bold.

We Christians are in conversation with the world, and conversations require listening

These aren’t just internal Christian discussions; they’re discussions we’re entering into in a world where feminism, patriarchy and privilege are live issues — and it’d be silly not to listen to people identifying how the curse of sin affects our neighbours and to not ask if it might have infected the church too. This is also an area that is in the top belief blockers for non-Christian Aussies — and if we’re going to be different to the world maybe it’s worth being different in a way that is less cursed, not more — it’s quite probable that the crucified king will leave us with very different answers to the world’s, and that these answers will confound both the solutions offered by conservatives and progressives outside the church.

When Paul steps up to the podium in the Areopagus in Athens he uses a bunch of values-laden words that describe Biblical concepts, but come from Greek poets and philosophers, and Athenian observations about how the world works. He uses these words because he has listened carefully to these poets and philosophers, and he has carefully observed Athens, and has been in dialogue with the people of Athens using their categories. He shows how their categories actually find their best answers in Jesus.

If I want to say that sin and the cursed pattern of relationships between men and women plays out structurally, I think it’s ok to use the word patriarchy to describe how men have systemically used our strength and power to shape the world according to our desires (and in a way consistent with the Genesis 3:16 curse). We see this in the way, for example, Solomon has 1,000 wives, and David treats Bathseba as an object to be claimed, not a co-image bearer (having previously discarded his wife Michal). We see it in modern talks on this passage when male preachers make the issue David betraying Uriah rather than David raping Bathsheba (sending soldiers to ‘get her’ doesn’t particularly imply consent, nor does anything in the narrative). Men and women in the Old Testament, after Genesis 3, don’t seem to operate very often in the way envisaged by Genesis 1-2.

If I want to talk about the advantages I enjoy as a man because of this system I’ll use privilege — stuff like not really ever fearing that I’m going to be raped, ignored (especially in churches), patronised in conversations about science, engineering, math, etc, not employed or paid the same as my peers because of my gender, or in a positive sense, that I’m more likely to hold a leadership position in a company, the church, or politics, and I’m more likely to find protaganists in stories that our culture consumes and is shaped by that are just like me (and talk to other people of the same gender but not about romance). These aren’t small things. And they are privilege.

If I want to say this is a problem because men and women were made equal in value, and equal in ultimate function, as image bearers of God (which is a function), I’ll use the concept of gender-equality. 

The honus is on us Christians, just as it was with Paul in Athens, if we’re going to use these worldly words, or categories, to reframe them according to the Bible’s story, so that the Bible is the best explanation for this status quo, and the curse-reversing work of Jesus the best treatment of is the best solution. But not using the words means not participating in the conversation that the world is having (it’s not just a conversation happening in the church), and this means missing out on opportunities to present the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus. Who is a better feminist than any merely human feminist because he actually does something substantial and eternal about patriarchy, privilege, and gender-equality. Sometimes we non-egalitarian Christians have been so scared of how this verse is used that we make it say almost nothing about gender; but what it is is the reversing of the curse; the promise of what will be in the new creation, and what begins in the church (though we, the church, are still in dialogue with and operating within a cursed and broken world).

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. — Galatians 3:26-29

PS: I don’t see complementarian or egalitarian coming up as terms in the Bible either… and to quote Akos with a minor edit:

“At best, they’re confusing to most people (who aren’t up on feminist evangelical terminology); and at worst, these words prejudge the Bible’s teaching and impose a secular worldview onto it.”

,

The internet, the Reformation, women teaching, and the priesthood of all believers (how a ‘democratised’ platform might keep us reforming)


Image: Behind the scenes of Christian Twitter

There’s a conversation going on in the Christian twittersphere right now about the challenges posed by the internet for a sort of traditional complementarian view that women should not teach or exercise authority over men. There’s a stream of complementarianism that would extend these words from Paul to Timothy far beyond the event of the gathered church (and streams within complementarianism that see this prohibition of ‘teaching and exercising authority’ as a very particular role within that gathering; it’s a broad church).

The firestarter was this piece from Tish Harrison Warren on Christianity Today ‘Who’s In Charge of The Christian Blogosphere’, there’ve been responses (apart from Twitter flame wars) from writers like Jonathan Merritt, Wendy Alsup, Hannah Anderson and Rachel Miller. These are all worth a read and a mull over (and I’m sure there are plenty more to read too). I’ve been sharing a few of these on Facebook, and I suspect some of the people joining in on the discussion have perceived my obtuse quoting and introductory comments like ‘Interesting…’ as endorsements; it’s not necessarily any one piece here that I endorse (though there’s much to appreciate in many of them, and I have learned from them (or been taught by them)), it’s the conversation itself I find fascinating because what is playing out here is a new reformation of sorts; the question will be what scope and size of change this reformation brings… it’s possible that the democratised landscape where there’s already lots more diversity simply means conversations like this are a flash in a pan, where once they might have overhauled the church as we know it…

There’s an irony here that each of these writers writes from the Protestant tradition and what’s at stake is how a new communication medium makes us rethink the role of authority and who is in the ‘priesthood’. In the year where we’re marking 500 years since Luther used the printing press and a stream of fellow pamphleteers to bring down the Catholic establishment; the challenge these writers are responding to, or conversing around, is one brought about by an even more frictionless and democratised communication platform. It might seem odd that it has taken so many years of the Internet for us to get here… except that it’s not odd, because what is happening here is another reformation of sorts; another challenging of the establishment ‘priesthood’ (at least as it operates, if not as it is conceived, within some streams of the ‘complementarian’ church).

There are legitimate criticisms directed at this conversation from those who aren’t stakeholders in it; it seems wrong that the controversy only really kicked off the way it did when a woman, contributing to Christianity Today’s campaign to #amplifywomen, wrote about some of the dangers (to the establishment/’orthodoxy’) presented by this new platform, why single out a blogging woman like American blogger Jen Hatmaker to raise concerns about teaching and authority outside ‘church structures’ when we haven’t kicked up the same stink about controversy-monger/outrage-peddler Matt Walsh (who, for what it’s worth, is Catholic, so there’s a sort of double irony if what he’s doing is acting like a child of the Reformation). It feels like an attack on the ‘theological left’ when we give the ‘theological right’ a free pass; and worse, an attack on a woman, when we give men a free pass.

It’s not a mistake to make this a gender issue though, and an issue prompted by women teaching with some sort of authority; at least if we view the conversation in the schema of the Reformation using its categories; because it really is a question of whose voices are priestly, who can speak as part of, or on behalf of, the church — and what happens when these speakers depart from orthodoxy? What would Luther have done to the next generation of Luthers who out-Luthered him? If you’re a keen enough student of Reformation history you’ll know that the fighting about Orthodoxy 2.0 didn’t stop after the schism from the Catholic Church, and that the seeds of what we’re dealing with now, in terms of a very diverse publishing industry for Christian readers (much more diverse than the duplication of the Vulgate (the Latin Bible) kicked off with the Reformation.

It’s easy to scoff at this conversation (as some are in the habit of doing on social media) especially when people are trying to tease out what exactly a woman’s role could or should be in the church (if you’ve already decided to embrace a more egalitarian framework). But this is a question of the sort of practical order that prompted the Reformation, presented, in part, by a very similar technological advancement. The introduction of a ‘democratising’ piece of technology in the printing press meant lots more people could read lots more stuff lots more quickly… and social media/the blogosphere with its essentially frictionless and costless publishing is the printing press on steroids, and it could (and maybe should) have a similar seismic impact on the church. For good or for ill.

And that’s why this conversation is an important and interesting one.

It’s asking what responsibility in the face of almost unfettered access to a platform should look like (which we should be asking in an age of fake news, and Donald Trump anyway).

It’s asking what role the established institutional church, its traditions and its office bearers should play in determining what teaching is orthodox or Biblical (in content and mode); an irony faced whenever the anti-establishment movement becomes the establishment…

It’s asking in what sense we really believe in the priesthood of all believers, and what accountability in the life of the church looks like beyond those who take ordination vows or vows that submit themselves to church discipline within established structures (cause we’ve seen some pretty heinous forms of people setting up their own platforms apart from accountability (like a church in Seattle)).

It’s asking in what sense the Reformation really happened; do we really have a priesthood of all believers and what does that look like for women, and how do we have a priesthood of all believers with a 1 Corinthians 12 picture of church life and specific roles, and a sense that some of these roles might involve gender…

It’s we’re asking how the internet and the life of the universal church beyond a particular locality is like, or different, to a community that lives and gathers together as a particular expression of the body of Christ; and where authority fits in this picture.

It’s asking all these questions in the face of this new technological age which does inherently favour a particular theology and practice. The Internet is not neutral when it comes to these questions. A democratising platform operates in favour of egalitarian practices. Australian author Jane Caro made a pretty great case for this in an article back in January that is now paywalled; but I managed to quote this paragraph from her on Facebook at the time:

“As education and knowledge spread, Enlightenment followed theReformation, and then all the liberation movements that emerged thereafter, including the abolition of slavery, child labour, and increased rights for women. After all, if every man could have his own relationship with God, why not every woman? Why not every slave?

This democratisation of the word of God led inexorably to democracy itself; predicated on the idea that all men (even, perhaps, women) were created equal. Everyone ended up entitled to not just a relationship with God but with a vote and a say. One followed inevitably, I think, from the other. As those in power understand only too well, once a few difficult questions began to be asked, a great many more would follow.”

Whichever side you land on these questions there are lessons to be learned from the Reformation; even stepping aside from which side of the Reformation had a grasp of the truth there are lessons to learn here. You could be a Catholic complementarian, or a Protestant egalitarian, or anywhere on the spectrum between the two and history would be informative here. This isn’t just a conversation that matters for those facing the reformers with a new media strategy (and as a protestant in a Reformed denomination it shouldn’t surprise you which side I think had the better material to work with). There’s a pretty compelling case to be made that the Reformation ‘won’ where it won precisely because of its media strategy, and particularly because the media practices of the reformers lined up with their theology. You couldn’t really be a Catholic and employ the techniques the reformers employed if part of your theology was a belief that somehow the priesthood was set apart from the rest of the church not just in function, but by language, to play the game of engaging with the masses in the vernacular was to cede quite a bit to the reformers in a way that would’ve started to give some credence to their broader critique; while on the flipside, believing in a ‘priesthood of all believers’ meant there was less centralised control over the messaging of the Reformation, and anybody who had access to a printing press could, and should, use it to proclaim the theology of the Reformation; the Gospel.

The media practices of the Reformation were one of the driving forces behind my thesis (which looked at the media practices of the wisdom literature, Paul, Augustine, and Luther as historic case studies of communicators who had their practice shaped by their theology), I say this to acknowledge that this is an area I think is much more fascinating and fruitful than the average person on the internet… and to acknowledge that I may well be overthinking this present conversation; I’ve done lots of thinking and writing about this stuff… and lots of this thinking was prompted by an excellent Economist article How Luther Went Viral by Tom Standage, who would later write an excellent book on ‘democratised’ communication via Social Media called Writing On The Wall that’s worth a read if any of this interests you at all (here’s a TEDx talk with some of my thoughts, and a review of the book). In the Economist piece, Standage says:

“IT IS a familiar-sounding tale: after decades of simmering discontent a new form of media gives opponents of an authoritarian regime a way to express their views, register their solidarity and co-ordinate their actions. The protesters’ message spreads virally through social networks, making it impossible to suppress and highlighting the extent of public support for revolution. The combination of improved publishing technology and social networks is a catalyst for social change where previous efforts had failed.”

This is, in many ways, a summary of the current discussion (and what has prompted it), but it is Standage describing the Reformation. Here’s his description of the mechanisms of the viral Reformation:

“The media environment that Luther had shown himself so adept at managing had much in common with today’s online ecosystem of blogs, social networks and discussion threads. It was a decentralised system whose participants took care of distribution, deciding collectively which messages to amplify through sharing and recommendation. Modern media theorists refer to participants in such systems as a “networked public”, rather than an “audience”, since they do more than just consume information. Luther would pass the text of a new pamphlet to a friendly printer (no money changed hands) and then wait for it to ripple through the network of printing centres across Germany.

Unlike larger books, which took weeks or months to produce, a pamphlet could be printed in a day or two. Copies of the initial edition, which cost about the same as a chicken, would first spread throughout the town where it was printed. Luther’s sympathisers recommended it to their friends. Booksellers promoted it and itinerant colporteurs hawked it. Travelling merchants, traders and preachers would then carry copies to other towns, and if they sparked sufficient interest, local printers would quickly produce their own editions, in batches of 1,000 or so, in the hope of cashing in on the buzz. A popular pamphlet would thus spread quickly without its author’s involvement.”

And here’s where his opponents, the Catholic establishment, failed:

“Most of the 60 or so clerics who rallied to the pope’s defence did so in academic and impenetrable Latin, the traditional language of theology, rather than in German. Where Luther’s works spread like wildfire, their pamphlets fizzled. Attempts at censorship failed, too. Printers in Leipzig were banned from publishing or selling anything by Luther or his allies, but material printed elsewhere still flowed into the city. The city council complained to the Duke of Saxony that printers faced losing “house, home, and all their livelihood” because “that which one would gladly sell, and for which there is demand, they are not allowed to have or sell.” What they had was lots of Catholic pamphlets, “but what they have in over-abundance is desired by no one and cannot even be given away.”

Another key factor behind the success of the Reformation, according to Andrew Pettegree, a scholar Standage quotes (from a book called “Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion”) was the sheer volume of work published and distributed, even though it was published against the weight of traditional institutional authority:

“It was the superabundance, the cascade of titles, that created the impression of an overwhelming tide, an unstoppable movement of opinion…Pamphlets and their purchasers had together created the impression of irresistible force.”

Standing in the practical tradition of the Reformers should mean looking at new technologies — especially ‘democratising’ technologies that level the playing field by giving all people a voice — as opportunities to share the Gospel. To embrace new technologies to share our theology is part of our DNA… and at some point sharing, writing about, and discussing the Gospel is going to feel a lot like teaching… which presents some real challenges to people whose theology and practice is to see teaching and authority in the church as the domain of men. We might talk about a priesthood of all believers; but in practice in most churches in our tradition, we’ve very much got a priestly model tied to the pulpit, eldership, and the male-dominated (or exclusively male) governance structures of our churches. This isn’t a new question. Complementarians have had to grapple with women who write books for many years, and often do make a distinction between what happens in corporate worship and what happens in the broader life of the church; this is a distinction often not recognised by people outside the big-R Reformed scene; some of us make much of ‘WORSHIP’ in the super-capitalised Lord’s Day sense (others of us are puzzled at where the idea that there’s a major difference in the life and practice of the church between the Sunday gathering and all other communal life as depicted in the New Testament actually comes from).

For the big-R Reformed complementarian types there’s a scary scenario where one might have to put themselves in the shoes of the Reformation era Catholics to figure out how they could’ve kept the farm in the face of a new media strategy and new orthodoxy, because the risk, if this group’s position is correct, is that it will be overwhelmed if the response isn’t nimble and imaginative, but also theologically coherent.

For those of us who stand in the Reformed tradition but are more inclined to be ‘reformational’ (always reforming) than historically reformed, there are some opportunities here to ask ourselves some pretty confronting questions about whether our media practices actually do line up with our professed theology; a priesthood of all believers; both men and women. And this is why I, personally, think this conversation is particularly important and worth following even if some of the articles linked above don’t really nail where I’m coming from or think we should be going…

Luther was sure his words were going to be held to account by God; and in some sense his speaking was an act of attempting to hold others to account to God’s word, but also to traditions he believed the church had walked away from. We can’t simply dismiss the voices of our forbears as though we moderns are more enlightened or our pressing questions more pressing… In purely effective terms, Luther is almost without peer as a communicator and an example of someone who grasped hold of a new technology to great effect. He’s also, for all his faults, a great model of harnessing the power of new mediums to promote theological reforms he believed were necessary, and grappling with the questions of institutional authority that follow… these words from the Diet of Worms (where he may or may not have said ‘here I stand, I can do none else’) are a reasonable starting point, and perhaps ending point, in this conversation for all of us:

“I am bound by the texts of the Bible, my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I neither can nor will recant anything, since it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience.”

What that looks like… well. Let’s keep talking, and listening.

3 other ways the church can counteract abuse by following Jesus

I’m not a huge fan of the e-magazine Relevant, for a lot of reasons but perhaps because I’m not sure self-description via a name like ‘Relevant’ is the best way to achieve the thing you’re describing. Also, I’m not totally sure that ‘relevant’ is what we are necessarily aiming for as Christians, in terms of our relationship with other views of the world (all of which are derived from other forms of worship). If I was going to run an e-mag I’d call it Plausibly Weird. But that’s neither here nor there, except to say that in keeping with the name Relevant the site has published this piece 3 Ways Women’s Equality Can Counteract Abuse, which essentially makes a claim that complementarianism as practiced in evangelical churches is inherently patriarchal and abusive. It seems to be also arguing that the answer to this abuse is egalitarianism.

Now. I want to say that I share many of the concerns of this Relevant article; I’m certain abuse is much more prevalent in the Reformed Evangelical church than it should be (and it’s safe to say that because any cases of abuse in the church are too many). I’m certain that some theological visions which fall within the definition of complementarian theology but are actually misogynistic (so not at all complementary) are used to harm women in our churches. I’m also so uncomfortable with the desire to resolve some paradoxes about the difference and equality of men and women in God’s design for human relationships that I see at work in both complementarian and egalitarian camps as they form around this discussion that I don’t actually want to be identified as either. But I do think complementarians are right to point to the difference between men and women, and to desire that difference be on display in our communities, and I do think egalitarians are right to point to the equality between men and women, and to desire that difference to be on display in our communities. I don’t think many communities nail these desires simultaneously, because we’re bad at living in tension, mystery, or paradox. We want resolution, and often our desire to be relevant shapes how we approach these tensions, but sometimes it’s our desire to be irrelevant (or counter-cultural) that shapes our response too. And the thing about paradoxes is that you can have both. I’ve read quite a few things in the last week or so that are totally uncharitable about complementarianism, equating it with ‘blaspheming against the Holy Spirit,’ and now with abuse. I think it’s fine to suggest complementarianism as it is practiced in our churches can provide cover for abuse, and can be harmful if it isn’t built from the Gospel, and even (as I believe) that it is just as harmful to a paradox at the heart of male-female relationships as egalitarianism (which is also, I think, a well motivated, but often flawed, attempt to articulate how we should live well together as people).

The logic of this Relevant piece is to:

  1. Define abuse as the use of power and control to cause harm.
  2. Define patriarchy as systemically enabled abuse.
  3. Define complementarianism as a form of patriarchy, and so a form of abuse.
  4. Suggests that even if complementarianism is not a form of abuse, it enables it.
  5. Suggests securing equality is the way to prevent abuse.

There are several things I like in the suggestions put forward by the Relevant piece for limiting abuse within the church (especially her second and third points), and it’s worth reading and being challenged by, but I have my own suggestions for how we might fight abuse better. I have grown up around the complementarian scene (though my experience is that healthy complementarianism looks and feels a lot like egalitarianism in most spheres); I do not recognise this scene in the description from the article (though I have seen evidence of this sort of complementarianism, and I’m not going to suggest that just because complementarianism doesn’t look like this, that it’s necessarily the answer, or the right position).

This belief gives men the role of authority over the wife and children, and only allows men to be church leaders. Women are expected to submit unilaterally to men, fathers, husbands, pastors. While many churches who subscribe to this encourage men to sacrificially lead their wives, there is still a power differentiation (emphasis mine). Men are still given the final say, and it still falls on the scale of patriarchy.

Equality alone won’t solve our problems — and the heart of what’s good about complementarianism (what it aims to get right (though it often misses)) is that it realises that equality alone (in an unequal world) isn’t enough; that what is required of men in the church (and for the world) is more than equality; it’s generous service. Equality is about justice; generosity goes beyond justice to love. This is where I think the answer to the problem of abuse in the church is actually found in the bolded sentence above; I want to argue that a properly ‘sacrificial’ relationship (marriage or church) involves a power differentiation; but that differentiation falls in favour of the powerless, not the powerful. The solution is about understanding that sacrifice goes beyond equality; because that’s what we see in the Gospel (it’s also what we don’t see in abuse, or in churches where leadership is about power).

My job as a church leader, and a husband living the Christian story, at least as I see it, is to show my wife and my church that I would lay down my life for them — giving my strength for them — because I actually consider them more valuable than me. This is the burden of Christian leadership. Though they are, in nature, my equals, I’m to give my power for their benefit, to see them flourish. If I don’t want to do that, then my options were a) don’t get married, and b) don’t be appointed as a leader of the church.

If you are a man appointed as a ‘leader’ of the church, I think this is your job too (it’s also the job of anyone who has ‘strength’ or power within the context of the church, so if you’re a woman who leads in any capacity including in churches where women are ordained (ie non-complementarian churches, this is how I think the Bible depicts leadership, and orients us towards power).

1. See Jesus as the model for relating to each other; and the Gospel story as the story our relationships are meant to display

The world teaches us that power is a good thing, and evil or abuse is a twisted application of power; where one party (or group) takes that power and uses it to keep themselves in power. We see this all the time in interpersonal abusive relationships (family violence, etc), but this also happens systemically as people build institutions and processes that serve their own interests.

What we’re told by the world — and what the Relevant piece picks up as wisdom, is that the opposite of power, or abuse, is equality.

Equality is the opposite of power and control, and leaders in the anti-domestic violence movement have long been proponents of equality-based relationships. — Ashley Easter, ‘3 Ways Women’s Equality Can Counteract Abuse,‘ Relevant

Equality is certainly better than abuse. But equality isn’t the opposite of abuse. It’s the absence of abuse. It’s the middle; the ‘mean’ between two extreme approaches to power. It’s certainly better than evil, but it’s not necessarily good. The most loving use of power is not simply to give excessive power that you’ve accumulated to others as an act of creating equality (which is important), but also to use whatever power you have left for the sake of others. That’s, for example, what it appears Zaccheus (a powerful and privileged guy, even if he was short and unpopular because of his abuse of power) does when he follows Jesus; he doesn’t just return what he has unjustly accumulated, but is generous with all that he has:

“But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything,I will pay back four times the amount.” — Luke 19:8

If we take the story of Jesus seriously and apply it to our relationships, and to how we approach worldly power, then there’s a much better good than equality — and I’d argue this is to be the good at the heart of our relationships and systems — it should shape how leadership works in Christian relationships (and all the stuff on how these relationships are to be structured in the New Testament are reflections on what it looks like to be Christlike in these relationships).

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus — Philippians 2:1-5

The assumption of equality in our union with Christ drives Paul’s logic in this passage, but the product of this realisation that we are equal is not to pursue systems that are focused on equality; but for us to ‘in humility’ pursue inequality. I think this is particularly the task of those who have power to give up for the sake of others, not so much for those who are already considered, or experience, being beneath others. The pattern here is where the subjugated are raised up precisely because the powerful lift them up.

The world as it is — the status quo — has distributed power to particular groups of people; typically men, typically those who are highly educated, typically from dominant racial and cultural groups within a place, and we often give positions of authority to people who we perceive to be powerful (really, this means people just like me). This presents a bit of a problem in the church if there’s a sense that to be given authority or power is to be invited to lead just like the world leads; via the application of power. The challenge for people like me is not to pursue equality — but to lower myself so that my experience is not equal at all, but one of servanthood. So that I can speak of myself like Paul does as he reflects on what it means to follow the crucified king:

 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. — 1 Corinthians 4:9-13

2. See Jesus as the model for approaching power and leadership; and so Christianity as a race to the bottom, not a race to the top

The Relevant article argues that doing away with any difference between genders (or rather sex and gender) at the level of roles in church community and in our relationships (egalitarianism) is the way to prevent abuse; it’s certainly a way that might do what it argues, especially in terms of undoing unjust systems (though I think abuse happens when people’s hearts cause them to cling to and wield power). It’s arguably closer to getting the answer right than the alternative it critiques… but I’m not sure it is the only way, given point 1, or the best way to approach power and abuse in relationships where ‘leadership’/headship falls to one gender (and whether that’s the case Biblically is beyond the scope of this piece to demonstrate/unpack).

Inasmuch as I think the Bible asks us to be mindful of the difference in roles (and mindful of equality in personhood)it seems to me that it says in this race to the bottom, Men should aim to get there first on behalf of their wives (so that our marriages reflect something); and so we should lead in sacrificing/serving. And this is true too within the body of Christ — the church — our leaders should be exemplary sacrificers. Servants. Not power-hungry authorities who abuse, or do anything that looks like abuse. We should long for our leaders to be models of the Gospel; examples for all of us. But also, we should all want that of ourselves — the role we’re all called to play in the church is to be imitators of Jesus… and this is what Jesus does with power in the example we’re asked to imitate:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! — Philippians 2:6-8

It seems to me that this self-sacrifice — this race to the bottom, not the top — if it was displayed by men in marriage and church leadership (well, in all our relationships) would not so much be about equality but about service and love. That’s not to say women can’t also follow this example, they should, but the challenge of leadership is to use whatever the world might consider strength to provide a context in which those the world views as weak can live the lives they were (re)created to live.

I think this would be a better antidote than equality than the one the Relevant piece offers… though I share the concerns the piece raises about the current state of play in some outworkings complementarian theology, which seem to equate leadership with being elevated into a position of power and influence, rather than seeing people placed in a vulnerable position of service/sacrifice.

“Since abuse is motivated by power and control, and patriarchy is a system based on power and control, it is not surprising that abuse is prevalent in these [complementarian] circles. Even writer Jason Meyer from The Gospel Coalition (a mainstream Complementarian parachurch organization) states that Complementarianism asks women to “take the most vulnerable position,” and can “quickly become a dangerous position when [these] views get distorted.”

If it feels like those not leading Christian community, but those being led, are in the most vulnerable position — if it feels like, to use a Biblical metaphor, the sheep are more in danger from the wolves than the shepherd — or that they’re in danger from the shepherd — then something has gone very wrong with our theology and our practice.

If this is how complementarianism is described and understood in its most honest and vulnerable moments, then there is something very wrong with it as a theological system.

Christian leadership imitates Jesus, and as such it is not about power being used for one’s own benefit, but about power being given up in sacrifice for others such that it looks like (or is) the laying down of one’s life for their good. That’s what a shepherd does when confronted with a wolf (though power, at that point, is also used to turn wolves away from the vulnerable sheep, and this is why, I believe, the Bible does conceive of a role in the church for people the world might perceive as strong. To stand between the wolves and the sheep, not to lord their strength over the flock). In a world where abuse happens; and a world where feminism is required because equality doesn’t exist except in theory, we need people who give their worldly strength for the sake of the abused and the vulnerable; not to make the abused and vulnerable feel abused and vulnerable in a different pen.

3. Listen to voices that are excluded by applications of power that look more like worldly power (the sword) than like Jesus (the cross); and make sure they get heard

This is a big role for the powerful in the eyes of the world, not just all of us. We operate in a world where privilege does seem to sit with educated, wealthy, white, men. The insights from feminism and elsewhere about patriarchy and how power forms self-perpetuating systems are worth listening to; but if you’re a white, educated, wealthy man who is used to listening to other people just like you, then you’re going to be blind. And if you’re the people occupying positions that look like the positions of worldly power in our world (and so speaking), you’re going to be the blind leading the blind to more blindness. Power often blinds us to the plight of the oppressed (that’s why privilege has become such a big talking point lately, and why it’s natural for white men in leadership to be suspicious when privilege gets raised as a rhetorical device… privilege is fundamentally about bias, and bias is often unconscious and a product of systems and cultures).

If we never listen to those we’re called to serve and sacrifice our power for; and if we never give their concerns the strength of our voices, we’re not doing anything to fight the system, or doing anything to provide a safe pasture in which those we lead can grow and flourish.

I’m uncomfortable with complementarianism as a system in theory because it seems to emphasise different over equal (and it does this at the level of definition where it says ‘equal but different’ when it could conceivably be expressed and practiced as ‘different and equal’). My own discomfort with how complementarianism plays out in practice, in our churches come from a sense that we tend to get power wrong in ways that do fit the definitions of ‘patriarchy’ because leadership often looks like ‘using power’ in a worldly way. It doesn’t feel like the Gospel is very good news for women in some of the ways I’ve seen headship and male leadership and authority play out in churches when, for example:

  • Our practices exclude and silence the voices of women far beyond the sort of limits Paul seems to have in mind in anything he says about the roles of men and women (Paul seems to, for example, have a place for women prophesying in a church context and we have no place sense of what ‘prophecy’ is apart from a sermon in our particular circle, and yet the sermon is ‘teaching’ and the responsibility of an ‘elder’ and our system has both teaching and eldership as offices held by men, Paul also doesn’t seem to say much about the sort of church governance/decision making stuff that our ‘elders’ in my denomination do in rooms where only men speak and vote)… this exclusion also limits the ability for whoever is speaking too and on behalf of the body in preaching is a man who doesn’t listen to women such that he also speaks for them and their concerns (and this plays out in the way men speak about pastoral stuff like sex, lust, modesty, abuse, work/vocation, etc).
  • We’re not prompted, as Christians, to be leading the fight for the good of women not just inside the church and our structures, but outside the church, but instead we’re told that feminism is a dirty word and a threat to Biblical understandings of sex and gender. Especially when we take what are very limited differences between the roles of men and women in marriage and church (structures that are meant to reflect the relationship between Christ and us, and the cross) and apply those differences to, for example, the question of whether women can have careers that involve ‘authority’ (like teaching in schools, politics, the army, or the police).
  • When women aren’t given space to use their God-given gifts to serve and build up the whole body (because we’ve collectively failed to imagine church gatherings as anything more than an opportunity for the leader to speak and teach with authority, leadership as more than preaching (because of the centrality of Bible teaching (logos) in our evangelical church culture at the expense of communal life and the power of Godly example (ethos), and our limited imagination of what the logos bit is (teaching, not prophecy etc), or life as the church as anything much more than the gathering (so leadership is limited to a role, that is largely visibly exercised by a man for half an hour on a Sunday, and then invisibly most of the time while this man is shut off in his office preparing the sermon)
  • When the women we do hear from publicly in complementarian settings speaking of their ministry roles are usually the wives of a minister who are heard from when they speak at conferences or ‘ministry wives events’ about their role supporting their husbands and being mothers, and figuring out the role of the ministry wife… Many of the times I’ve been present for these moments it feels like listening to someone with Stockholm Syndrome; and no matter how benevolent a captor their husband (or church) is, they’re still a captor; and Christian authority — shepherding — isn’t about keeping sheep captive, but about giving them safety and space to flourish.

Being white and male and educated and in a position of some sort of leadership that the world might recognise as having some sort of responsibility or authority means that I, and others like me, have a voice and a platform; and to some extent the Bible seems to suggest that there is a platform that comes from leadership in the church that is expected of certain men within the church. Being a leader like Jesus, who leads by giving up power means not using this power for self-interest, or as an act of power, but using it for the benefit of others, considering them, through humility, more valuable than myself.

It means seeing the pulpit more like Golgotha than Caesar’s rostrum.

It means seeing my job as one of listening and amplifying the Gospel-driven concerns of the bit of the body of Christ I lead, and so speaking (from my ‘strength’) on behalf of this bit of the body. And this means listening to people who don’t have the power or platform to speak for themselves both in the church community, and in the community-at-large.

It means seeing church as much more than just an event I lead on a Sunday where I’m the ‘main act’, but the main act being an act of the whole body, and the life of the body being much more permanent and all encompassing than the hour the body is gathered around the talk give.

For what it’s worth, I’m a big ‘priesthood of all believers’ guy because I’m big on what Paul says about the body of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 12; there’s nothing I do as a Christian that isn’t a product of me being part of the Body of Christ, and an application of the Spirit’s power — the same Spirit that vivifies and invigorates the rest of the body. No man, or woman, in the church is an island. No leadership is exercised as an individual apart from the body, it is something done for the body, with the body, attached to the body. I also don’t think all leadership comes from holding a position or a specific role; I think we’re all called to lead each other to Christlikeness by our example, as we imitate Christ… but there are roles described in the New Testament that seem to either assume a male is doing this thing, or be explicit that a role is a role, within a particular context, for a man (ie men are ‘husbands’, ‘fathers’ and in 1 Timothy, ‘Elders’).

I don’t think the problem the church faces, when it comes to abuse, is difference, so it follows that I don’t think equality will solve the problem (so I’m not an egalitarian).

The problem is sin.

The problem is a worldly approach to power and strength.

The problem is that I, given the opportunity by birth and circumstance to wield power, or to grasp more power, will, by default, take that opportunity and use it for my own interests and the interests of my ‘system’ or tribe (the people who give me more power, or perpetuate my place in the world).

The problem is that we have normalised the cursed pattern of behaviour from Genesis 3 and haven’t figured out how the Gospel challenges that norm.

The problem when it comes to different roles in the church is that often we approach this leadership as an invitation to wield individual power apart from the body of Christ (the church), rather than as a role we play because we are given responsibility and authority by God and the church as part of the shared life of the body.

Whatever this specifically male role in marriages (Ephesians 5) and the church (1 Timothy 2) looks like it can’t look like the application of worldly power out of self interest, or to abuse others.

The answer to the problem is not equality, it’s not better use of worldly power, it’s the Gospel. It’s Jesus. It’s his example. It’s giving up power for the sake of others; not taking it to wield it for your own sense of the good, or for your own good.

It’s leaders and husbands who have the mind of Christ in their relationships; not the mind of Adam.

It’s leaders who follow his example.

This can’t be abusive, or even a non-abusive “benevolent dictatorship” as the Relevant article describes ‘well-intentioned’ complementarianism (unless Jesus is somehow an abusive benevolent dictator)… not all uses of power are inherently abusive; some are loving (when power is given for the sake of others), some are just (when power is used against abusers to end abuse).  Jesus does use power. He does rule, but he rules those who follow him, and he rules by laying down his life, and by taking it up again to judge those who oppress and abuse; including those who claim to be shepherds but turn out to be wolves.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2:9-11

11 propositions on gender stuff in churches (and the wider world)

I’ve been asked to speak at an upcoming event on women’s ministry in our denomination with a couple of women from church, one of whom is my colleague, the other is my wife. They are both smart and pretty well thought out on this stuff, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around all this gender stuff in the church, and the world.

So here’s my attempt to articulate something like my framework for thinking through how men and women relate in the church, and what ‘gender roles’ look like. The TL:DR; version is pretty much that I think men and women are equal and different, and that this comes together, ideally, in a way that allows us to bear the image of God, as we see him in Jesus, through our relating.

1. Any attempt to define things about our humanity, including gender, must start with understanding God.

Before we get to what maleness and femaleness mean for Christians we need to look at who makes humans and why. In philosophical buzzspeak any ‘theological anthropology’ (an account of what it means to be human) rightly begins with God. This is especially true because humans are made in the image of God, and it takes both genders working in harmony for us to even begin being anything like the God of the Bible, who is three persons eternally in perfect, loving, harmony where difference (three) and unity (one) are twin poles of who God is. This isn’t to say we should shatter the creator/creature divide. But the Bible starts with the definitive claim that we are made in God’s image, which means we should look to who God is as we figure out such fundamental questions of who we are.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. — Genesis 1:26-27

One of the other distinctive parts of this claim is that the God who speaks is plural. God is an ‘us’…

2. The Triune God models difference, equality, and voluntary submission without a loss of that equality

The last clause of this heading is one that is contested by theologians. There are plenty of people who think that any submission, voluntary or otherwise, is indicative of inequality. But I, frankly, disagree. I do think the voluntary part of the equation is incredibly, incredibly, important. And our attempts to define gender relationships within the church often don’t feel all that voluntary, and sometimes watching men and women (perhaps especially married couples) relate in churches, especially where the woman is obviously gifted, feels a bit like watching someone with Stockholm Syndrome. I think people exercising their God-given gifts for the sake of the body is pretty essential to human flourishing, but, paradoxically, choosing not to exercise those gifts in a particular way, or context, voluntarily, can also be an act of self-giving love, to wit:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! — Philippians 2:5-8

Some argue that Jesus only submits to the father during the incarnation. And that’s fine. I think if we, the church, are the ‘body of Christ’ now, we should probably be modelling our human relationships on this example, like Philippians 2 suggests, and I also believe there’s an utter eternal consistency between who God is within the Trinity in an eternal sense, and who God is as the persons of God operate in creation and human history. But what’s important is that you can’t undermine the equality of the persons of the Trinity, nor their difference, without straying into fairly major problems, and while the persons of the Trinity have very distinct roles in their interactions with the world, they act according to the same unified purpose, and they’re always present in one another’s actions. The fancy Greek word for this is perichoresis. They are eternally interpenetrating. This is the union/relationship from which all their creative and loving acts flow. And we are one of those creative and loving acts, but we carry the imprint of that within our being and purpose.

There’s a degree of the paradoxical to all this. Which is important to remember…

3. Men and women are different and equal

Because here’s another one that has often, I think, been poorly expressed. Plenty of Christians focus on the ‘different’, plenty on the ‘equal’, many on the relationship whether its ‘equal but different’ or ‘different but equal’… but wherever you put the ‘but’ you’re essentially indicating a preference or priority in a tribal understanding of the relationship between these two paradoxical poles. I’m going with the ‘and’, because like G.K Chesterton, and many others before and after him, I think we run into massive troubles when we kill paradoxes.

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious”

One of my fears on gender stuff is we’ve either decided there is no paradox, or kept one more furiously than the other. I think the richness of the image of God we bear in the world depends on our ability to live together, navigating this paradox together. And this richness, and thus the image bearing, is threatened when we follow broken patterns of human relationships (see below), and part of that brokenness is an attempt to deny difference, equality, or the affirm difference or equality, without holding both furiously.

4. Because bearing the image of God is a vocation not a description, it is tied to a concept of a priesthood of all believers.

God doesn’t look like a man, or a woman. The ‘image’ in Genesis 1, as Dorothy Sayers says, is not physical.

“Only the most simple-minded people of any age or nation have supposed the image to be a physical one. The innumerable pictures which display the Creator as a hirsute old gentleman in flowing robes seated on a bank of cloud are recognised to be purely symbolic. The “image”, whatever the author may have meant by it, is something shared by male and female alike; the aggressive masculinity of the pictorial Jehovah represents power, rationality or what you will: it has no relation to the text I have quoted. Christian doctrine and tradition, indeed, by language and picture, sets its face against all sexual symbolism for the divine fertility.” — Dorothy Sayers, Mind of the Maker

That last bit is interesting I think, especially given this law in Deuteronomy 4:

Therefore watch yourselves very carefully,  so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.” — Deuteronomy 4:15-20

See, this is interesting. God can’t be represented in an image of any shape, specifically man or woman. The problem with idols is that they never truly capture the nature of God. Nothing created does. Except for the idol-like images that God himself makes — first the people in Genesis 1, and now the people he has re-cast for himself, like an idol, through the furnace of Egypt. This ‘people of his inheritance’ is his kingdom of priests…

Although the whole earth is mine,  you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” — Exodus 19:5-6

And later, in 1 Peter 2, this mantle is explicitly passed to the church. We are God’s priestly people.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. — 1 Peter 2:9-10

We are his representatives. His restored, recast, image bearers. The body of Christ… This is not just males, or just females, its males and females together, in relationships that ‘have the same mindset as Christ Jesus’ on display.

To use some fancy philosophical words — our ontology (what it means to ‘be’) isn’t just functional (a job) it’s relational (our ‘being’ only matters if we’re being in connection with others (God and other people). Being truly human, according to God’s design, means males and females sharing in this task of representing God to his world. Specifically for Christians that means bearing the image of Jesus. Our relationships with one another should involve us imitating him.

Unbroken by sin we’d all be ‘priests’ in the sense Israel, then the church, are called to be priests, mediating God’s presence to the world in how we live, what we say, and especially how we live in a way that celebrates equality and difference. We, the body of Christ, bear the image of God together in a much richer way than we bear it alone.

5. Genesis 3 describes a cursed pattern of relationships that leads to enmity between the genders, and the patriarchy is a product of this, it’s not an instruction manual for Christian male/female relationships.

“God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” — Genesis 1:28

We were made to rule over creation together. In cooperation. Male and female. All of us. We were equally tasked with this image bearing vocation…  but then things fall apart.

To the woman he said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
    with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.” — Genesis 3:16

Sometimes the default patterns we adopt in our churches, be they from our culture or from church tradition, look more like Genesis 3 than Jesus. I get a bit worried when we read Genesis 3 like its the inevitable pattern of relationships between men and women in the church. Somehow men have authority because ‘he will rule over you’… what 3:16 describes is a loss, in our natural ‘human’ relationships, of the function we were given to, together, rule over God’s creation. It describes exactly the kind of brokenness that produces the patriarchy, which is, essentially, a system built on this pattern of relating. Men grasping power and using it to rule over women. This also produces certain broken social constructions of gender that are harmful and perpetuate the effects of the fall. That’s what our nature does without divine intervention. We play out this cursed pattern and extend it to the ends of the earth, rather than extending God’s life-giving rule, like we were made to.

It’s not just blokes who are sinful though, this is just a particular manifestation of the power struggle that replaces the power sharing of Genesis 1-2. This is broken, and  Jesus came to fix it. Relationships within the church are meant to be built on the example of Jesus not on the mess made in Genesis 3, the default mess.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God… Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. — Ephesians 5:1-2, 21

6. The men, the ‘patriarchs,’ in the Old Testament are almost universally terrible to women, and that’s evidence that they are not examples for good, upright conduct, but pointers to our universal brokenness and our need for a better model.

Just as Genesis 3:16 is not a pattern for ideal male/female relationships, the characters we meet living out this cursed arrangement are not role models. Name one major authority figure in the Old Testament who does not have a fraught, or abusive, relationship with women. And it’s a downward spiral. We’re not meant to imitate David’s approach to Bathsheba, or Abraham’s treatment of Sarah, or Judah with Tamar, or any of the horrible interactions we see. We’re meant to get the sense that the world isn’t safe any more. The nakedness without fear in the Garden of Eden has been replaced with something much more sinister. Jesus is different. His relationships with women are very different. They’re safe. He doesn’t use his power to abuse, but to protect. He doesn’t view women as ‘less than’ him, but consistently, throughout his ministry, defies social conventions (like, for example, the convention that judged an adulterous woman or a prostitute but not the men in her life, he refuses to buy into that model, and, as another example, his unconventional dependence on women as witnesses to the resurrection).

7. Gender is socially constructed, but the Kingdom of God, as we see it in the church, is a society. A society holding out an alternative construction of life in the world built on the foundation of Jesus. This society has its own construction of gender that must celebrate difference and equality.

Eden had a social construct. No person exists in isolation from society, in fact, we can’t. We will if the picture of being outlined above stacks up with the Biblical data, always ‘be’ caught up in a purpose that requires us to be in relationship with others, and be as a function of those relationships. Our sense of being, our identities, are caught up and defined in a society, or many societies. This is especially true if our created function, as image bearers, includes developing human societies and cultures where people exist in loving, others-centered, self-giving, relationships built on the example of Jesus. It seems odd to think that ‘social construction’ doesn’t extend into the society of God’s people, his kingdom, or that God is ambivalent to the shape our relationships with one another take, given that he made us equal and different in order to reflect something of the divine nature.

We’re not going to get this right, and there’s a sense where we’re always defining ourselves, in God’s kingdom, against the ‘kingdoms of this world’ — worldly conceptions of gender, especially those from our culture, will always have a ring of truthiness to them because they’re part of the air we breathe. We’re also navigating between two poles of the difference/equality paradox and most people, and church structures, seem to be pulled more strongly towards one pole than the other.

It can be hard to extract the social constructions from the ‘divine design’, especially with that cursed fall, or the fall’s curse, playing around with our experience of gender in our relationships.

There are some basic biological building blocks of anatomical sex when it comes to males and females that mean not every ‘gender role’ is entirely constructed by an individual. There are obviously spectrums within maleness and femaleness when it comes to issues like hormonal and reproductive function, but like all males, I’ll never get pregnant, and there’s a certain amount of social freedom (and thus constructed identity) that comes from knowing this. But there are also sweeping social changes that have occurred through different periods of history that have rewritten gender norms over and over again, which means it’s not good enough for the church to just to adopt the unquestioned assumptions or constructions of gender from previous generations — there’s a great piece by Ellen Mandeville on Christ and Pop Culture exploring some of the dangers faced when we do that, which is absolutely worth your time. She demonstrates, I think pretty convincingly, that much of what we think of gender is socially constructed. But she stops well short of suggesting that this truth means we need to eradicate ‘difference’ between male and female. Instead, we’re to keep navigating between those two poles — equality and difference.

I think the way this difference and equality plays out is in a shared function, or telos, for God’s people — a shared sense of belonging to the body of Christ. A shared understanding that all the parts of the body are equally important, while playing different roles. And, as unpopular as this may be in a world where gender is constructed differently, or deconstructed, or where equality trumps difference, I think we need to be open to the possibility that just as different persons of the Trinity play different roles, so too must different persons of the church play different roles, but, just as the persons of the Trinity are ‘perichoretically’ linked so that they never act alone, this is true for the body of Christ as well; we are all united by the same Spirit. Well, that’s how Paul puts it anyway… he’s talking about how men and women — all members of the body — operate together as the church.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good… Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.” — 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-14 

Paul talks about a bunch of specific types of gifting for specific people in the body. Now, as is the case any time I write about this stuff it’s worth acknowledging my ‘privilege’ up front when it comes to roles within the body. I’m not just a male, I’m a member of the body with a fairly prominent role that some might desire because it seems to carry a degree of authority. But Paul says that role as ‘impressive’ as it may be in a worldly sense (in a world that values oratory), is just as God-given as any other role in the body, and no more valuable. While there are these particular roles, some of which Paul seems to suggest are distributed according to gender, Paul seems to play down their value against one particular kind of gifting he wants to see thriving in the body. The greater gifts. The most excellent way. The gift of Christ like love. That’s what 1 Corinthians 13, where he goes next, is about.
“Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.” — 1 Corinthians 12:31. 

I’m pretty sure Paul isn’t departing from the body message he’s just been labouring up until this point in order to flatly contradict everything he’s just said. I’m pretty sure the ‘greater gifts’ aren’t the sort of prominent teaching roles we tend to attach value to in conversations about gender. I think we may, in fact, be importing worldly pictures of authority and value, our own social constructs, into the mix at that point. Paul has just said:

But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.”

So I’m pretty sure he’s not turning around to turn people against one another as they compete for top spot. Whatever that is. If we want to pursue equality in the church, which we absolutely should, I don’t think it comes at the expense of difference, and I certainly don’t think it’s about picking roles that the world holds in high esteem and suggesting that if they’re gendered that we’re necessarily a product of the patriarchy… it might mean that, it has happened before (see the Old Testament)… I think we need to think quite differently about authority, power, and roles within the church — and, so, quite differently about our understanding of gender; particularly what benefits real equality and difference can construct for males and females if we construct our understanding of humanity — and the relationship between males and females on the love of Jesus, and his example, not on broken patterns of humanity. But part of this thinking differently means protecting both equality and difference when these poles are challenged by worldly constructs (or deconstructions) of gender.

But then I’m a man, in a position the world would hold in high esteem, so take my position with a grain of salt and read me according to my potential cultural biases.

The next four points are a little shorter because, hopefully, they build on what has come so far and sit more in the realm of implications than framework.

8. We model a different pattern best when we deliberately bear the image of God, voluntarily submitting autonomy, while navigating that paradox of equality and difference, in particular God-given contexts (church gatherings and marriage).

These two contexts are deliberately designed to reflect something about who God is, especially and specifically geared towards reflecting who Jesus is as he relates to the Father during his earthly ministry, and as he relates to the church (so Genesis 2 sets up marriage as a ‘perichoretic union’ that makes the male/female relationship a specific parallel to the Trinity and a place where fruitful multiplication of the sort envisaged in Genesis 1 happens, but I don’t think it’s the only way people contribute to such fruitfulness, we’re fully human in any human community. Then Paul specifically talks about marriage relationships as a picture of Christ and the church (Ephesians 5).

9. Leadership/authority in a church where every person is a priest/image bearer looks much more like being a model worthy of imitation than standing in a spot and speaking for a while.

The patterns of life brought about by the Gospel are caught, not simply taught. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed James K.A Smith’s insights into how we are formed as people, and how we are formed as image bearers/disciples specifically, and his emphasis on the power of a sense of telos/purpose/direction that pulls us along and orders our habits. He articulates this framework in a number of book and talks you can fond on Youtube. His latest You Are What You Love is a great starting point.

According to Smith, we learn these habits through ‘liturgy’ and I think one of our strongest liturgies is Christian community where the members of the body are using their gifts, throughout the week, to serve Jesus.

10. Our church structures and how we divvy up subsets of our role as the body of Christ should navigate the paradoxical tension between equality and difference.

Paradoxes are a good and necessary thing if you’re made in the image of the God who is both three and one. Both the ‘egalitarian’ and ‘complementarian’ positions as they play out in the modern church run the risk of attempting to resolve a paradox. I have been increasingly frustrated with the camp I most naturally belong to — the ‘equal but different’ complementarian camp, because they seem to constantly define themselves against the egalitarian position, which is a position that, in its extremes, also flattens a paradox. Paradoxes don’t produce certainty, they invite us to apply wisdom and to tread carefully. Rather than picking one equal/different pole to stand on — and appointing individuals within the body according to some pattern, gender, or giftedness — why don’t we aim for a more perichoretic/priesthood-of-all-believers style model of ministry where whoever stands up to speak is meaningfully and actually speaking for the whole body, such that there is no sense of misplaced authority or belief that any body part is greater than another. You could argue that simply letting everyone do everything is an answer, but I don’t think that lines up with the particularity of God’s design as described in 1 Corinthians 12.

Flattening paradoxes robs the Christian community of the richness of multiple voices and perspectives, and so produces an anaemic body, a poor society, and thus terribly constructed understandings of maleness and femaleness that damage all of us. Nobody wins if the men in our churches look and sound like the patriarchy of the Old Testament or the modern world. We win if the men and women in our churches are following the example of Christ as we seek to work together to bear his image, and if our bodies are shaped richly as we let the message of Christ dwell among us richly by hearing that message from as many Spirit-shaped voices as possible.

11. Whatever the church does to construct an alternative ‘cruciform’ picture of relationships between men and women in the church we have a vitally important opportunity to model relationships built on the example of Jesus to those outside the church, and opportunities to speak against the damage our fallen nature does to male-female relationships in the world around us.

Any of these constructions of gender, revolving around mutual, voluntary, submission, are occurring within the context of the church where we are, together, trying to model an alternative social construction — the kingdom of God. It’s ridiculous when we do what some people have done and still do, taking difference that expresses itself in voluntary application of roles within the context of these specific ‘social relationships’ and, in the name of discernment, applying them to secular gender roles where the meaning of this voluntary submission is lost, or interpreted through a fallen, worldly grid. There are popular examples of this like suggesting that women can’t be police officers, politicians, or anything that involves the wielding of worldly authority. This pattern of thinking reinforces the ‘patriarchy’ (in the systemic sense, not the Old Testament sense). It’s dangerous. The world isn’t a fun place for women because it is cursed and fallen, and, at least at the moment, men wield the power — on a systemic level, and often on an individual level. This is especially true because of some of the physical differences between the sexes — like, as I mentioned above, the universal truth that I do not have to live in fear of being impregnated by rape. But it’s not just what’s been called ‘rape culture’ — it’s also a product of building cultures and structures built on unchecked bias. This isn’t always malicious, it can simply be a product of nobody, especially the ‘privileged’ reading or listening to voices and ideas beyond our bias or comfort zone. We too easily assume we’re wisely navigating paradoxes without listening to voices that challenge the status quo. I have found recently that I’m significantly more likely to quote a white male as an authoritative source than any other category of person, and this isn’t because I don’t think women, or people from other cultural/racial backgrounds can write, it’s just a product of my bias. I haven’t really looked. This sort of bias robs women who write of the chance to be heard, but also robs any community I speak into the chance to hear voices from other perspectives. It is a failure to celebrate difference. Challenging these default patterns inside the church, and outside it, is a pretty significant job for God’s image bearers. Together.

We’re citizens of God’s new kingdom, we’re not people who just sit on our hands and take the fallenness of male-female relationships as a given. We have the pattern for their restoration, but we also know that the curse that came with our rejection of God’s design is real.

,

For C (and other women of Brisbane)

Tonight, just before church, I met a woman named C. Her name is not really mine to share – but I’ve tried to set up a targeted Facebook campaign in the hope that she’ll see this.

C wanted to know if our church is progressive or conservative.

I tried to tell her that we were both – I’m not a big fan of sticking to either label. As a church we aim to stick to what the Bible says, and who it says Jesus is, which means we’re conservative – but we also think Jesus is for everybody, and that rather than giving people a rule book about how to live, we want them to meet Jesus, hear the good news about the radical sacrificial love displayed at the cross, and live in response. Which I hope means we’re progressive – and frees us to be genuinely progressive, and radical, on all sorts of social issues, as we choose approaches that open up the opportunity for people to be truly transformed for the better.

C was particularly interested in our position on men and women in leadership, and on homosexuality (especially gay marriage), I’m not sure how interested she was in hearing the rationale for these positions – she decided that our church wasn’t for her when she heard that the Presbyterian Church of Queensland limits eldership and preaching to men.

C had been part of churches in the past – even working for a mega church in Sydney – but left because she has not found a church suitable to her progressive needs. If this sounds like any woman you know – please send her this link. The church needs women like C who are passionate about people and equality, and progress.

The Gospel – the good news of Jesus’ sacrificial love for all people – including his enemies – expressed through his death on the cross in our place, and his resurrection to bring us new life – lives changed and defined by this love is the key to any true progress in our society. It’s the key to fixing the sort of gender issues that plague the church and society at large, where men cling on to power and authority – weaponising leadership, rather than leading like Jesus (the good shepherd who lays down his life for his flock). When we put our trust in Jesus, we’re all called to take up our cross and follow him – this cross-shaped life transcends gender, and it changes how we think of, and use, all aspects of our identity and person to love and serve others.

I told C she was more than welcome to join us even if she disagreed with us on these (or every) issues, and invited her to check us out. But she left.

This made me sad.

I’m still sad.

It breaks my heart that C did not feel welcome to join us tonight. That she came to another church that ultimately disappointed her. It breaks my heart that she didn’t stick around to listen to us, to meet the remarkable women in our church community, and the men.

It breaks my heart that this ‘conservative’ stance on women might get in the way of people meeting Jesus because it stops them even coming through the doors to see how such a stance plays out on the ground, in real lives. Our church – and every church I have been a part of – is home to strong women, thinking women, gifted women, who wrestle with what the Bible says, who Jesus is, and how that should play out in their lives. I’d love C, and others, to meet these women, hear their thinking, and see how even grappling with this question can help us understand more of who God is.

It breaks my heart to think that C, and others like her, think that by being part of the system I am part of I am robbing my wife and daughter of the opportunity to fully be the people God made them to be (a paraphrase of her words about what this sort of church does for women generally, not the woman and girl in my family specifically). C was strong, kind, and polite. She didn’t make this observation to offend me – or belittle the women in our church (or my family). She was motivated by her passion for others. She’s just the sort of woman the church needs.

It breaks my heart that it might be true (and that I think it often is). It breaks my heart that she might be right that ‘conservative’ churches might stop women meeting their full potential. It worries me that our churches – my church – might be places that value being conservative over constantly progressing, always reforming, always growing to become something closer to the church the Bible calls us to be, a church full of people shaped into the image of Jesus.

This progress and reform doesn’t mean throwing tradition under the bus. It doesn’t mean reinterpreting passages that we don’t like because they speak of particular customs in particular times. There are certain things we must conserve – certain things we are called to hand on from generation to generation so that the good news about Jesus continues to be told.

The Gospel calls us to be counter-cultural. To live lives different to the people around us. To be remarkable. And this call – this cross-shaped call – needs to transform the way we approach gender. And leadership. Sometimes this will mean we’re more conservative than the society we live in, other times it will mean being more progressive than the society we live in. The dichotomy is ultimately unhelpful.

Let me be clear – when it comes to gender stuff I think part of being counter-cultural is structuring our churches in a way that communicates something about the God who made us, telling the story of humanity as the Bible tells it. Which is why I think both Jesus and Paul, when speaking of gender and marriage, speak of Genesis as providing the structure for our relationships as Christians. Structuring our relationships according to the story we’re trying to live out – the story of the Bible – is part of telling that story.

Our gatherings, and the way we structure them, communicate something about our beliefs. And, like it or not, the Bible’s story of redemption of people – both male and female – equally – begins with God creating male and female. Both in the image of God, both valuable to God with equal dignity, but in the story Adam is created first, then Eve. This doesn’t make Adam more human than Eve but the Genesis account is comfortable suggesting Adam and Eve are completely equal, and completely able to bear God’s image, while performing different functions.

Again. This is easier for me to say as a man, especially as a man who ‘leads’… but the day I don’t see my ‘leadership’ as being called to lay down my life for others is the day I should be booted out of my job.

Our gatherings should communicate that every human has equal dignity and value in God’s eyes. Regardless of the role they’re playing in the gathering. I think Jesus is serious when he talks about the first being last. I think he models a counter-cultural approach to value and importance when he launches his kingdom by dying on a cross.

What our gatherings don’t currently communicate is that we hold women in such high esteem (and all people) that we would lay down our lives for them in a heartbeat.

Our gatherings don’t really communicate that any Christian submission echoes the submission of the Son to the Father in the Trinity, the Son who says ‘not my will but yours’ and goes to the Cross.

This submission is voluntary – an act of the will of the Son (perfectly united with the will of the Father).

This submission does not make the Son less than the Father. It can not. That would break the Trinity.

It is, therefore, possible to voluntarily submit (and be honoured and celebrated for this submitting), without being lesser in nature.

It is possible in the Trinity, so it is possible in our churches.

I know all this is easy for me to say – as a man, in a position of privilege, from a position of leadership.

But hear me out.
I want the church to do better in this space.
I want the church I lead to do better in this space.
I want this to come at cost to myself.
I want us to be always progressing. Always reforming.
I want a church full of men who love women so well that ‘Christian’ is synonymous with feminist.
I want a church where ‘leadership’ is synonymous with ‘sacrificial love.’
I want, if possible, a church where ‘conservative’ is synonymous with ‘progressive’ – because what we’re really holding on to is the Gospel, and what we’re really living out is the love of God as displayed in Jesus Christ.

That’s a lot of wants. Interestingly, one thing I would like to suggest to C, and others who are disgruntled with the church, and disenfranchised as a result, is that church is ultimately not about us. We’re never going to find the perfect church for us, especially if we’re assuming we’ve got a perfect grasp on truth.

What’s important is what God wants. What’s important is that our churches are made up of people – men, women, and children – being transformed by the Holy Spirit, always progressing to be more like Jesus.

There is no space for inequality in the church (but, again, lest you object that a complementarian approach is inequal, there is a space for those who want to voluntarily be part of a community that wants to voluntarily structure itself in a way that communicates something about the Triune God, the world God made, and the way God redeems the world at the Cross, to voluntarily submit to others, for the sake of others).

Here’s a couple more wants.

I want to be part of a church that celebrates women and their gifts, and gives space for these gifts to flourish, and to be used for the flourishing of others.
I want a church where women feel safe to speak, where they know they’ll be listened to, and know their contributions will be heard and valued.

I want to lead a church like that.

I don’t think leadership comes from a title (or with a title). The title I have is not something that marks me out as different to the people at church, or better than them. There has been no upwards shift in my value. I’m deeply and profoundly committed to the priesthood of all believers – men and women. Christian leadership comes through sacrifice. Voluntary sacrifice. For the sake of others.

We’re all called to do that – every person in our church who wants to follow Jesus is called to lead this way. Regardless of your title, your position, your gender.

Again, I know it’s easy for me to say this, I have a title, I have a position, I am a man.

I know the approach to gender known as ‘complementarianism’ comes at a cost to women.
I know it has been used as a weapon by men in positions of authority.
I know that we (men, or complementarians) have, at times, tried to take this approach to gender beyond the boundaries of church communities so that men believe they are superior to women and should hold on to all positions of power.

I don’t think there’s any good reason for a woman not to be Prime Minister, or hold any position outside the church. How we structure stuff in the church is different because of what we’re trying to do as the church – point people to Jesus, and his sacrifice.

Submission is costly. It always comes at the expense of the one doing the submitting. There’s no escaping the truth that women in the church are being asked to pay this cost. But for this cost to have value it has to be voluntarily paid – as a result of people wanting to imitate Jesus.

Imitating Jesus is the key to real progress – and the key to real, eternal, flourishing (it’s also the key to short term pain and cost).

My wife is incredibly gifted. I have no doubt she could do most of the things I can do, and many things that I can’t, if she were in my position. The fact that she isn’t, and doesn’t seek to be (because she wants to uphold the Bible’s teaching on gender) is a testimony to the Gospel. It teaches me about Jesus. She leads me towards progress in this way. Her approach to life, and her sacrificial use (and non-use) of her gifts, shows me that she wants to imitate Christ.

It teaches me daily.

Every day I am grateful to God that I get to be married to such a gifted woman who is eager to use her gifts, but also eager to forgo using her gifts, for the sake of others.

I pray that both my children – my daughter and my son – will grow up in Jesus, to reach their full potential, to use their gifts to serve others, to submit to others and to lead others.

I want them both to be like their mum. I want them both to be like Jesus. I don’t think my daughter is any less able to do this than my son. I know that in many ways it’s going to be harder for my daughter to live in this world than it is for my son. I want him to grow up wanting that to change.

We’re not going to be truly progressive as a church without conserving the good news of Jesus and building our churches around his story – and being prepared to hang on to that when the world around us wants to move us away from it. We’re not going to progress as a church – to allow the women in our churches to truly thrive – without hearing from women like C who are strong, passionate and prepared to speak. Without them being passionate about Jesus, and passionate about the Church. Which is why it really is a tragedy that C, and others like her, are not joining churches like mine. Which is why I’m still sad. Hours later.

,

On politics and gender and stuff

I’ve tried to move away from talking about politics in a partisan way here – for a few reasons.

Firstly, I’ve moved away from thinking about politics in a particularly partisan way, I’m one of those people who feels largely disenfranchised by our adversarial political system (at least as our media reports it). Secondly, the differences between our major parties are greatly exaggerated – they’ll both do a reasonable job at the majority of policy setting in our country – and both have hugely problematic approaches to big issues that mean neither gets the “Christian vote” automatically. Thirdly, there’s a tired old trope I’m prone to reacting against that says something like “Real Christians should vote conservative, so must therefore eschew the Labor Party (and can’t possibly think the Greens are anything other than extreme).” But what is conservative anymore? And this seems to place some sort of odd moral issues on a pedestal above stuff like looking after the poor, and the marginalised, and the people that our so-called “left” focuses its energy on. I think the suggestion that to be Christian is to vote a particular way is patently ridiculous.

I’m also not all that concerned that our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is an atheist. She’s either up for the job of governing, or she isn’t. Governing a secular democracy with a relatively nominal attachment to a “Judeo-Christian heritage” doesn’t take a theologically orthodox Christian. In fact, in a democracy, Christians might be forced to compromise their views to a degree where standing apart from the political sphere is a better way to contribute to society and love people than being elected to represent a swathe of people they fundamentally disagree with.

I’m especially not concerned that our Prime Minister is a woman. I know there are some from my complementarian camp of Christianity who have problems with women in leadership roles. But I think that any “submission/authority” relationship dynamics happening in the context of Christian relationships (marriage, church, or otherwise) are to be voluntary from both parties, and only really make sense if your thinking is being shaped by the relationship dynamics modelled in the Trinity and some notion that they’re created by God. Women might feel otherwise – but I have grown up without any major awareness of different capabilities of men and women when it comes to the corporate, business, or political sphere (I’d rather watch men’s sport – but that’s because part of the watching sport is the vicarious “I’d like to be out there” thing). I was taught predominantly by women at primary school, and high school, and there was probably a 50-50 split in the classes I bothered going to at uni. My first CEO in my professional job was a woman, as was my line manager (and my managers in my part time jobs while I was at uni were women too). Most of my colleagues were women.

I don’t feel particularly enlightened on the basis of these aspects of my history – I think they’re pretty normal for people my age. I wrote a speech last year for a young professional (about my age) for a women’s function she was speaking at, and she said this was pretty consistent with her experience in the business/corporate world too. I’m not saying it’s universal. It’s probably a generational thing. I hope. I love that my wife has the same opportunities to study that I have, I hope that we’ll continue to make decisions that allow her to use her gifts and abilities to serve others. I hope my daughter grows up in a world where she has the freedom to make choices about her life, where her gender isn’t really a factor. I pray that she’ll grow up as a follower of Jesus, and be prepared to make sacrifices of some of her freedoms for the sake of others – but I want those sacrifices to be voluntary and driven by love, and her convictions about the world God has created and the way he created people – not chosen for her.

Which is why the rhetoric in Julia Gillard’s speech during question time today plays into a world I wish we could just leave behind a bit. Here are the words she said today that are echoing around the media, as I’m sure they were intended to…

“Let me say very clearly to the Leader of the Opposition – it will be a contest, counter intuitive to those believing in gender stereotypes, but a contest between a strong, feisty woman and a policy-weak man and I’ll win it.”

I’m still trying to parse this statement. I’ve been staring at it for quite a while. She has a go at people who believe in gender stereotypes while reinforcing gender stereotypes by making gender an issue (she also called Abbott a misogynist again).  I think there’s a real danger that despite her intentions to the contrary – this sort of frontending of gender is perpetuating a dangerous form of cultural misandry. In rejecting one stereotype, the Prime Minister is creating, or buying into another.

She may as well label Tony Abbott the dumb/incompetent/bumbling man we’re familiar with thanks to so many TV sitcoms and advertisements (more here). Here’s what TV Tropes says about this cultural meme:

Often used as an enabler of several Double Standards. Sometimes, on the rare occasions that a mom does something dumb, she’s cut more slack than she otherwise would be, since the Bumbling Dad is there to make her look better by comparison. On the other hand, if everyone just gets used to tolerating Dad’s incompetence, they might still hold Mom to the standards of a competent adult – in fact, she may end up being held responsible for fixing his screw-ups. After all, somebody’s got to be the grownup in a family, and you can’t hold Dad accountable for not acting like one if he’s just an idiot. The frustrating and stagnant sexual roles enforced by this trope are often pointed to by feminists as a sign of how sexism hurts men as well as women.

This trope is still mostly seen in sitcoms and cartoons, along with many commercials, especially ones aimed at kids. In anime, this type of character is taken more respectfully, since it usually consists of a goofier dad, more involved with his family than the stereotypical Salaryman. This is even more common when his children have no visiblemother.

This is an example of how a Subverted Trope can end up becoming the norm. Back in the day, fathers were assumed to be wise and in charge, and the Bumbling Dad was something fresh and unusual. Today, sitcoms have made Bumbling Dad an Undead Horse Trope, and consistently competent fathers are a comparative rarity.

In the political sphere this guy would be the “policy weak” man. Which makes Gillard and Abbott a pretty odd couple. If politics is a comedy. There’s the related “Man can’t keep house” trope…

“It doesn’t matter if a male character is a globe-trotting super-spy, a hyperintelligent genius, or a Millionaire Playboy — according to this trope, any male who’s responsible for maintaining a home, apartment, or regeneration pod will inevitably fail in the most spectacular way possible.”

You could add “country” to the list of domestic situations a man can’t possibly be responsible for and you’re, I think, tapping into the kind of image Gillard is trying to paint for us.

I have no doubt our Prime Minister is a capable and articulate woman – and I’ve got no doubt she has fought through barriers created by her gender so her feelings on this issue are genuine.

But surely the time has come for gender not to be part of the public conversation like this. It feels like a political trope “pandering to a constituency on the basis of what you are not what you stand for” that is ultimately unfulfilling.

Making the election a contest between a “feisty leader” and a “policy-weak leader” regardless of the gender of the leaders involved is doing a disservice to the electorate. If its an amuse bouche for the election campaign that’s about to be forced down our throats then I’m kind of hoping the media regulation legislation gets amended to provide some politics free zones in our media or I’m going into some sort of self-imposed media blackout.

Gender is a huge issue for us to think through. Not just in the church – where how we think of gender as created by God, and the implications we see that having for how we structure our church community as a testimony to that created order – but in society where there’s a push to do away with gender distinctions altogether. The big question in both cases is whether or not the genders (and gender identity) are “essentially” different, not just constructed differently by different cultural forces (be it our culture, or the culture operating when the relevant bits of the Bible were produced). This is a huge, defining, landmark, watershed, pivotal, and important discussion that flows through to myriad social issues from marriage, to abortion, to education, to defence, to toymaking, to sport, to how we do democracy, and most importantly to how we conceive of what it means to be human…

Gender issues are still big issues – I’m not trying to play down the way women are mistreated by certain people in society – there are all sorts of industries where glass ceilings exist. There are serious policy questions surrounding gender, just as there are serious theological questions about gender for the church to continue answering well. There are serious cultural imbalances to be addressed – we see that as we speak up against violence against women (perpetrated by men), or when we recognise that an Oscars host has been incredibly unhelpful in his objectification of women and identify an ugly sub-culture that underpins that, or when TV reporters talk about a sexual assault in a way that blames the victim or tries to sympathise with the perpetrators (there’s a significant trigger warning on that article)… All of these are issues – big issues – gender issues. But they’re not the sort of gender issues that Julia Gillard is using to whack Tony Abbott with – I don’t think he’s blameless here, I’d say there’s merit to more than half of the criticism she levelled at him in her famous misogyny speech. The “gender issue” at play there is that there seems to be genuine antipathy between Abbott and Gillard, which has unfortunately, at times, involved terms that have been a little loaded when it comes to gender (but seriously – have you heard many men describe themselves as “feisty”?).

It’s great that we have a woman as Prime Minister. It’ll be greater still when we don’t really care what gender our Prime Minister is, when that’s completely unremarkable. It’s a tragedy, I think, that gender is being used to score cheap political points. It saddens me that her legacy, gender wise, will be making an election campaign about gender stereotypes, using her gender in such a cheap way for cheap votes.

That is all.

Biblical life by the books: AJ Jacobs and Rachel Held Evans, and how to pick and choose.

I read The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible last year. I think I meant to review it. But I forgot. Now, Rachel Held Evans, a Christian blogger, has set the blogosphere atwitter with her A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master” The two are essentially related.

A Year of Living Biblically

Here’s the YouTube trailer…

And a TED talk author AJ Jacobs gave on the experience.

Despite a bunch of hermeneutical problems – I really enjoyed his book – it was well written, honest, and good humoured. It wasn’t a great picture of what Christianity is – which is particularly fair enough, given that Jacobs is a secular Jew. You can’t necessarily expect him to have a good grasp of a hermeneutic that incorporates the New Testament.

He had this idea that taking the Bible “literally” and taking it to its logical conclusion meant “taking the Bible literally, without picking and choosing”… he was inspired by his “crazy ex-uncle,” Gil.

He started out by writing down every single law that he could find in a couple of readings of the Bible, then set out to apply them as literally as possible. Though he gave himself some wiggle room right from the start:

“I will try to find the original intent of the Biblical rule or teaching, and follow that to the letter. If the passage is unquestionably figurative – and I’m going to say the eunuch one [Matt 19:12] is – then I won’t obey it literally.”

He gave eight months to the Old Testament, and four to the new – which is generous, because as a Jew he could’ve been consistent and just stuck with the Old.

He says in the TED video that he was amazed by how his behaviour changed his thoughts – rather than his mind changing his behaviour. Which is an interesting insight.

It’s a pretty interesting read, it’s thought provoking, it’s full of great stories that will become good sermon illustrations of his meetings with various people, including a group who are dedicated to breeding unblemished red cows for the purpose of sacrifice once the temple is restored in Jerusalem.

He asked some really honest questions of the Bible, and was honest about how it impacted, and didn’t impact, his life. He ended the year as a “reverent agnostic” who thinks that there’s something important about sacred stuff.

One of his big take home lessons was “though shalt not take the Bible literally,” which is interesting. But very few Christians do what he suggests is the “literal” reading of the Bible. Because the Old Testament is changed by the New Testament. It’s a fun game – but Christians should know better. Shouldn’t they?

Now, I’m not going to suggest that all Christians read the Old Testament well – there are plenty of people who draw weird allegorical interpretations from the Old Testament, or who don’t mind the gap, and take the promises of prosperity that are time and place bound – to Israel, in the land, and apply them to life now. That’s a real problem in many circles that take the Bible seriously. As is reading any Biblical text – from the Old or New Testament – “literally” – taking text at face value without considering context, genre, and what the original meaning might have been.

So there’s a legitimacy to critiquing that approach to reading the Bible – and I think that’s where I’m prepared to cut Rachel Held Evans, author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood some slack that others aren’t.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood

She isn’t doing the hermeneutical work (hermeneutics = principles of interpretation) that she should, as a Christian, be doing – but precisely in not doing it, she’s making a point about some other approaches to the Biblical text. She’s made some people, like Kathy Keller, a little bit upset in doing so. On one level, Keller has missed the point. But on another, she’s right – Held Evans has been on the media circuit promoting this book, using an almost identical rationale to Jacobs, who’s a Jew. Held Evans is a Christian.

We should, I think, expect Christians to have a better grasp of the Bible, and speak from that point of view, most times, lest they undermine the most consistent way to read it – which is as a grand, unfolding, narrative of God’s plan for salvation in Jesus – that’s why we keep the Old Testament, without jettisoning the superseded laws.

This exercise would be problematic if Held Evans is making an in-house point, that is being lost in media coverage of her book. The reception has certainly focused on the controversy and reaction to her book – here are two examples from an American Newspaper I’ve never heard of, and Slate who focus on some controversy surrounding Held Evans using the word vagina in the book – which means some Christian book stores won’t sell it. But most people seem to be getting the joke. Most secular media outlets understand that she’s not applying a hermeneutic she agrees with. The Huffington Post ran these pieces that recognised Held Evan’s point (and this one). It seems most of the in-house furore is from people who don’t get that Held Evans “literal approach” is ironic, or don’t think she should be being ironic. Which is a shame. But there are plenty of readers who won’t get the irony either. This review seems to suggest that because not all evangelicals read the Bible like Held Evans is demonstrating, her being ironic is not enlightened, but adds fuel to the fire.

Evans writes,

The Bible isn’t an answer book. It isn’t a self-help manual. It isn’t a flat, perspicuous list of rules and regulations that we can interpret objectively and apply unilaterally to our lives. (294)

And yet, amazingly, scripture is clear enough to Evans that she can determine it has been misread and misapplied by the evangelicals who advocate for a biblical view of manhood and womanhood.

That review, like Keller’s, provides a pretty stellar overview of a consistent way to read the Bible and create a category of Biblical womanhood, but the fact that pages like this one, about Proverbs 31 “Christian mom/entrepreneurs,” and that some of the books featured in this post, exist is a testimony to part of the problem Held Evans seems to be engaging with.

Keller calls Held Evans out for “picking and choosing” – an echo of one of Jacobs’ conclusions to his experiment – that one needs to “pick and choose” if they’re going to live Biblically in modern life.

Here’s what Keller says:

Yet you, who surely know this as well as anyone, proclaimed at the start of your book: “From the Old Testament to the New Testament, from Genesis to Revelation, from the Levitical code to the letters of Paul, there [will be] no picking and choosing” (xvii, emphasis mine). To insist that it would be “picking and choosing” to preclude the Levitical code from your practice of biblical womanhood is disingenuous, if not outright deceptive.

In making the decision to ignore the tectonic shift that occurred when Jesus came, you have led your readers not into a better understanding of biblical interpretation, but into a worse one. Christians don’t arbitrarily ignore the Levitical code—they see it as wonderfully fulfilled in Jesus. In him, we are now clean before God. I doubt if you had given birth during this year you would have made a sin offering after your period of uncleanness (Lev. 12:6-7). I doubt this because you know that in Jesus the sacrifices, as well as the clean laws, are fulfilled and therefore obsolete.

She’s right. Christians shouldn’t “pick and choose” – we should read the Bible through the lens of Jesus – but that doesn’t always happen. And I suspect that’s the point Held Evans, if not Jacobs, is making. Jacobs isn’t ignorant of other hermeneutics either – he spends time with Christians of different denominational ilks in his experiment. He hangs out with snake handlers – and acknowledges that most Christians are able to distinguish a disputed verse in Mark as being descriptive, rather than prescriptive, so that we don’t go picking up poisonous snakes every Sunday morning…

Keller makes the point in her review that there are times that Held Evans isn’t as generous to the writers of the Bible as Jacobs was – there are a couple of points where she misattributes views that Paul is quoting to Paul himself, or applies something in a humourous and literal way when it’s clearly figurative. But again, I’m willing to cut Held Evans some slack, because if, at the heart of her premise, is the idea that other people pick and choose how they read the Bible, then she’s right – and her point is well made. Bad readings of the Bible that are inconsistent, and bring bizarre modern hermeneutical gymnastics to the table, produce bad results.

I’m with Keller though – I think the best results, and the best hermeneutical method, involves thinking about how a passage relates to the Lordship of Jesus, and passages should be interpreted as products of their time, place, purpose, and genre – before making any jumps to the present.

Here’s how Keller rounds out her review…

“Rachel, I can and do agree with much of what you say in your book regarding the ways in which either poor biblical interpretation or patriarchal customs have sinfully oppressed women. I would join you in exposing churches, books, teachers, and leaders who have imposed a human agenda on the Bible. However, you have become what you claim to despise; you have imposed your own agenda on Scripture in order to advance your own goals. In doing so, you have further muddied the waters of biblical interpretation instead of bringing any clarity to the task.”

The question is, is this judgment warranted. Does A Year of Biblical Womanhood muddy the waters?

Most Christian readers I know won’t find her titular definition of “Biblical Womanhood” particularly resonates with their experience. Robyn just told me if I told her to call me master she’d laugh, and if I was serious she doesn’t know what she’d do. We’ve been married five years, and the issue has never come up before. But it’s not really written for me. It’s written for people across a much broader spectrum of Christianity than Held Evan’s fellow evangelicals, perhaps even feminist non-Christians.

Much like Jacobs’ work, A Year of Biblical Womanhood is an enjoyable read – it’s funny. It’s occasionally poignant. Whether Held Evans is sitting on a roof, in contrition, trying to cook like Martha Stewart, or calling her husband “master” – there’s something to savour, and get annoyed by, and be challenged by, in every chapter. It’s frustrating. It’ll no doubt mislead some people. But it makes a serious point about wrong ways to read the Bible. And for all the frustations I felt at Held Evans misrepresenting the “evangelical” line that I’m familiar with – she grounded her accusations in reality, she talks about a group dedicated to the Biblical concept of patriarchy, and some “biblical polygamists.” Her criticisms might be of extreme groups, taking extreme positions – but they’re not so absurd that they don’t exist.

Like Jacobs, Held Evans doesn’t give a great answer for how to read the Bible, running the we have to “pick and choose” line – but it goes closer. Here’s what she says:

“Philosopher Peter Rollins has said, “By acknowledging that all our readings [of Scripture] are located in a cultural context and have certain prejudices, we understand that engaging with the Bible can never mean that we simply extract meaning from it, but also that we read meaning into it. In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naïve attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God. Here the ideal of scripture reading as a type of scientific objectivity is replaced by an approach that creatively interprets with love.

For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We are all selective. We all wrestle with how to interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. We all go to the text looking for something, and we all have a tendency to find it.”

Like Keller, I think this is fairly weak. I think we can approach scripture with an essentially “scientific objectivity” through historio-critical hermeneutics that have been demonstrably popular, at the very least, since Calvin, Luther, and Erasmus (basically since humanism), and with various figures throughout church history before that, with varying degrees of consistency. The criticism that we each bring an agenda to the text doesn’t warrant coming up with a blanket interpretive rule that we have to shoe-horn every text into, it means being careful to treat every text on merit, using a consistent method. But more than that – I think “love” is objective too – not a subjective thing that requires creativity. The Bible reveals God’s love to us in Jesus, from start to finish. We interpret a passage with justice when we realise that the Old Testament laws, and prophets, are fulfilled in Jesus – even if it’s true that the Old Testament laws should originally have been interpreted through the lens of “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and “love your neighbour as yourself” – and a Christian ethic should do the same – if Biblical interpretation isn’t dealing with the question of how Jesus changes things – it’s not truly “Biblical” – that’s the criteria by which most readings fail.

The real strength of her critique is in the power of the negative:

“Now, we evangelicals have a nasty habit of throwing the word biblical around like it’s Martin Luther’s middle name. We especially like to stick it in front of other loaded words, like economics, sexuality, politics, and marriage to create the impression that God has definitive opinions about such things, opinions that just so happen to correspond with our own. Despite insistent claims that we don’t “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible we take seriously, using the word biblical prescriptively like this almost always involves selectivity.”

She’s right. Most of us selectively read the Bible. Most of the time. We all have a tendency to want God on our side – supporting our football team, cause, or institution – and I’d argue that there’s an objectively right answer in most of these cases, but a lack of wisdom, ability to make complex decisions with omnipotent clarity, and the effect of sin means we’re all equally unlikely to land on it.

Her methodology is very similar to Jacobs’, only less charitable.

“This quest of mine required that I study every passage of Scripture that relates to women and learn how women around the world interpret and apply these passages to their lives. In addition, I would attempt to follow as many of the Bible’s teachings regarding women as possible in my day-to-day life, sometimes taking them to their literal extreme.”

For me, one of the interesting parts of the book is the way the online conversation on her blog, about the process of writing the book, becomes part of the book itself. There’s something meta about that that I appreciate, the commentary becomes the content. The conversation is about the conversation.

By this point I’d been reminded about a million times that the Bible didn’t explicitly command contentious women to sit on their roofs, and that rooftops in the ancient Near East would have been flat and habitable anyway, but I was determined to engage in some kind of public display of contrition for my verbal misdeeds… I spent an hour and twenty-nine minutes on the safest corner of our roof, reading over my list of transgressions, practicing a bit of centering prayer, and watching a small herd of cats mill about the neighborhood.

My biggest frustration with Held Evans’ exegesis of narrative came in her discussion of polygamy – where she makes the blanket claim that the Bible assumes, rather than condemning, polygamy. I don’t think that’s a particularly sensitive reading of any of the New Testament passages about marriage that either assume a marriage is between a man and a woman (so Jesus in Matthew, Paul in Corinthians), and the qualifications of an elder state that the leaders of churches are to be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy, Titus). But the biggest grievance here is that it’s a poor reading of the Old Testament narrative – especially as she holds Solomon up as a Biblical hero – when his propensity for marriage was what caused the end of Israel and the spiralling into exile…

I’m as complementarian as they come – I’m ok with gender forming a different flavour of identity for men and women, and want to affirm, lovingly, and with equal value when it comes to personhood, the distinction between genders. My reading of the Bible resonates with Keller’s, and Flashing (who wrote the second review I linked to), rather than Held Evan’s slightly more post-modern approach to the text, and I’m pretty convinced we’ve got it right – but that’s not a reason not to criticise readings that we all think are wrong – readings that don’t pay attention to the context – which we’re all trying to do, just with different results, and thus, different conclusions. So I’d recommend the book – it’s funny, it’s interesting, it makes some strong points against those it critiques – but I’d not recommend the conclusion – which replaces Jesus as the hermeneutical key with “love,” when surely it’s the love of Jesus that gives all people the most hope, and a life lived following King Jesus is surely the most biblical type of life.

Why Australia didn’t have women as trade commissioners in the 1960s

This appears genuine. It is from the National Archives, which I’d say is as close to an unimpeachable source that you’ll find on the Internet…

We’ve come a long way since. Here’s one of the reasons an official minute on the question of appointing women as trade commissioners.

“A man normally has his household run efficiently by his wife, who also looks after much of the entertaining. A woman trade commissioner would have this on top of her normal work.”

I’m blown away that an official minute was able to include this (beyond the pale) phrase:

“A spinster lady can, and very often does, turn into a battle axe with the passing years. A man normally mellows.”

Interestingly – my first real boss in the professional world was a single woman who had previously worked for Austrade as a senior trade commissioner – and she wasn’t a battle axe. She was fantastic.

The final line suggests that these arguments were convincing at the time…

On Twilight, feminism, and ethics

Back in July Amy gave quite a reasonable point of view on the damage Twilight might do to young girls.

Here’s what she said…

“I am really worried about the worldview this presents to teenage girls (say 13 and 14 year olds). A lot of people in (US) Christian circles are jumping on Twilight as being okay for their kids to read (unlike Harry Potter – but you don’t want to get me started on how shortsighted that is) because they think it supports abstinence (which honestly, it really doesn’t – not having sex because you might kill someone is a lot different to choosing to for moral reasons).”

“Almost as soon as Bella meets Edward, she decides to give up college or any idea of a normal life (including seeing her family), so she can become undead like him. That’s right girls – find the right guy and just get him to look after you. You won’t ever have to think about looking after yourself.”

An opinion writer from the Herald has essentially regurgitated the same point of view.

She celebrates characters from chick literature of the past – like the girls from Little Women and Anne of Green Gables…

For more than a century, Jo March and Anne Shirley have been teaching little girls that there is more to life than hooking up with a rich, handsome bloke. Now, in 2009, we have a heroine who tells them that it’s worth their family, their education and their soul.

But in the same piece presents an interesting ethical dilemma as though it’s a fait accompli…

“They conceive a half-vampire, half-human child. Baby vampires are particularly dangerous, apparently, as they have as little restraint as any baby and have been known to slaughter entire cities when they’re hungry. But with customary thoughtlessness and confused morality, Bella refuses to have an abortion. Her decision puts a lot of people to a lot of trouble.”

Assuming, for a moment, that vampires are real… why is this refusal to have an abortion framed in such black and white terms? It would seem to be more complex than that…