Category Archives: Gender wars

Better to Burn than to Marry

Over at the Bayly brothers’ blog, a column for Eternity Magazine written by their father Joe Bayly in 1963 has been reprinted. In that column Father Bayly explains he is continually being asked in college dormitories and frat houses (Bayly was on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) “Why is pre-marital intercourse wrong?” The column gives his answer: the loss of any sense that there are moral absolutes.

It is instructive for understanding the moral landscape in America (and among those who name the name of Christ) to compare Joe Bayly’s colume with this report from CNN’s religion blog, which reports survey data revealing that single Christians indulge in fornication only slightly less than non-Christian single adults.

The question Joe Bayly was continually answering makes no sense, unless it’s already understood by the questioners (we assume they were more often non-Christians than otherwise?) that Christianity prohibits premarital intercourse. The CNN religion blog report, if we credit it, shows us that such a conviction is almost completely missing within those whom they survey identified as “unmarried evangelical young adults (18 to 29).”  Joe Bayly put his finger on a denial of moral absolutes. That would apply today, except for noting that the radical moral relativism today is probably a more advanced form of this sort of spiritual rot than what he was confronting on college capuses in 1963.

What’s interesting to me, however, is the CNN blogger’s contention that the retreat of marriage from the social fabirc of young adults is just as much a contributor to fornication as the cause Joe Bayly was speaking to almost 50 years ago. “Today, it’s not unusual to meet a Christian who is single at 30 – or 40 or 50, for that matter. So what do you tell them? Keep waiting?”

My 21-year old daughter recently became engaged. One temptation she now battles comes both from values which she has “picked up” from the world, and from challenges to her early engagement (!) from her Christian friends. And that challenge is this: that she is squandering the fulfillment attending single adulthood by marrying too young.

Joe Bayly’s analysis may be complemented by a different development which was likely embryonic in his day, namely that marriage itself is a threat to one’s personal development if entered into too quickly, by which the culture means before one is 30 years old.

For today’s single evangelical adults, who eschew marriage but not sex Paul’s dictum is turned on its head: today it’s better to burn than to marry. Quenching that fire is ever so much more fulfilling outside of marriage than tying a knot, dontcha know. 

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Earthen Vessels in Evangelicalism

Here goes! An introduction to my engagement of Matthew Lee Anderson’s Earthen Bodies. You may find his own offerings on his own work at his blog Mere Orthodoxy. What appears here my blog is my own engagement with key ideas of Anderson’s book. And, there will be some ideas in his book I spend several blogs on, others which I ignore because they do not contribute to my purpose here in this blog.

With that caveat, I begin with Anderson’s introduction to his book, and I focus on an idea that lept out at me in his admittedly brief overview of evangelicalism, what I term the BEAPERs (Broadly Evangelical American Protestants). Here’s what Anderson wrote that I wish to comment on further. In a section with the heading “The Context for This Book,” Anderson writes:

The story of evangelicalism’s malaise is an easy one to tell, but there are some indications that the movement isn’t quite as unhealthy as we frequently hear. … The problem – and here I implicate myself – is that we writers, pastors, and thinkers often depend upon solving problems for our livelihood, and so we have a vested interest in pointing out what’s wrong and why our solution is right.

And evangelicals have, if nothing else, been very successful at harnessing energy into those solutions. The worldview and apologetics movement, the emerging church, the Gospel Coalition, Catalyst – these developments don’t arise in a vacuum. Their successes stem from a genuine desire to reorient evangelicalism around their respective understandings of the kingdom of God, but also point to a significant number of evangelicals who are open and eager for the message. These could be signs that evangelicalism has a rich store of energy waiting to be directed and not signs that evangelicalism’s day is past.

These two paragraphs are a flash from my past – 21 years in my past (as I write this), when Anderson was about to enter the second grade. I was embarking on a study/writing project that would produce two curricula – Five Aspects of Man and Five Aspects of Woman – designed to give an overview of the Bible’s understanding of the nature of masculinity and femininity. At the beginning of this project, I sought out John Hannah, one of my professors in Church history when I was in seminary, to ask him about who and when and where any fathers of the Church had written on such a topic, where any controversies about the intrinsic nature of manhood and womanhood had arisen. As a Church historian he would perforce know the history of Christian doctrine. I did not expect him to be an expert in this particular area, but I did expect him to point me to someone, hopefully a few, in the past who had turned up the Biblical soil.

After listening to me explain my project and the subject matter I wished to study, he rocked back in his office chair and his eyes began a slow journey around the top shelves of the bookcases in his office (it was wall-to-wall bookcases). Was he looking for a particular tome to recommend? He must have had some trouble finding it, for his eyes soon floated downward to fix themselves on me. He said nothing, but he pursed his lips. Finally, he said this:

Bill, we evangelicals are very skilled at telling people what is good to do. But we almost never tell people what is good to think.”

We stared at one another across his desk for a long moment. “There is no one you can recommend for me to read in this area?” I asked.

Among evangelicals? No. For that you will have to go to our Catholic friends.”

He politely wished me well. His allotment of time for me had run out. I thanked him and went on my way.

Obviously, I have never forgotten Dr. Hannah’s words that afternoon. And, for that reason, when reading Anderson’s two paragraphs above, Hannah’s two sentences flashed in my mind. For Anderson is saying in the introduction to his book what Dr. Hannah said to me 21 years ago, except Dr. Hannah was far more blunt. And Anderson agrees with what Dr. Hannah implied that evangelicals really need to do:

Evangelicals desperately need, then, an ordered account of how Scripture informs our understanding of the human body and its uses. But with few exceptions—like James K. A. Smith and Amos Yong—evangelical theology is still playing catch-up. As Westmont College theologian Telford Work recently pointed out in these pages, the theology of the body is one of evangelicalism’s least developed doctrines.

I fully agree with Anderson here, as did Dr. Hannah 21 years ago before Anderson said this in Christianity Today. I frame the need a tad differently, viz. to set forth an ordered account of what Scripture teaches us about human sexuality (including, obviously, the human body’s relationship to sexuality).

And, Dr. Hannah’s recommendation to me – to look to our Catholic friends – is advice which Anderson himself would follow 20 years later when compiling his own book. In an essay in Christianity Today in September of this year (2011), Anderson observed:

We need to develop an account of the body that avoids treating it as an instrument of personal pleasure bound only by a commandment not to harm others. Otherwise, we end up allowing hedonistic, self-centered attitudes to infiltrate our teaching and ultimately undermine our witness.

To develop such a theology, evangelicals should look deep into our own tradition, using the resources we have at hand. But we should not be afraid to consult other sources of Christian teaching. Probably the work that stands readiest for evangelical dialogue is John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, a compilation of weekly radio addresses the pope gave between 1979 and 1984. It has been influential within Roman Catholicism, but evangelicals have had virtually no engagement with it. Glenn Stanton of Focus on the Family has been something of a prophet crying out in the wilderness. From what I can tell, his 2011 pamphlet from Ascension Press—A Christian Response to the Sexual Revolution: An Evangelical Discovers the Theology of the Body—constitutes nearly the whole of printed evangelical reflection about this unjustly neglected topic.

By all means, let us consult Roman sources of Christian teaching on human sexuality – advice from my evangelical Protestant Church history professor 21 years ago! But, why should not evangelicals – who claim to honor the Bible as an inerrant and sufficient authority for teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness – derive from the Scripture a comprehensive theology of sexuality? Anderson urges us first to look “deep into our own tradition;” but quickly he acknowledges that there seems very little to find there, something Dr. Hannah flatly admitted to me 21 years ago!

Even if one were to grant John Paul’s success in that enterprise (see the comments at Anderson’s essay at Christianity Today on this point), such teaching from a modern Pope, even one so popular as John Paul, is not going to percolate very well into the current BEAPER mind. Where the evangelical mind is not already hostile to any teaching from that quarter, it is never even aware of Roman instruction, looking with far more enthusiasm toward more fashionable instruction from the world.

Anderson at mereorthodoxy.comAnd, so, in Earthen Vessels Anderson sets out to begin a conversation about the human body. For a couple of decades now, I have attempted a conversation about manhood and womanhood, one that mostly attempts to articulate what it is good for us to think about men and women before one considers what is good for men and women to do.

To be sure, sex is something to do (or not, depending on the circumstance). But, sex is also something to be. The Bible says a lot about the latter, but almost no one within evangelicalism’s “writers, pastors, and thinkers” (Anderson’s catalog of evangelicalism’s academy) ever addresses this dimension of Holy Writ.

I commend Anderson for beginning that conversation again. I intend to respond to some (not all) of what he sets forth. God grant that a fruitful conversation will result.

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Jesus and other Heros on the Bathroom Wall

At least they didn’t put photos of Jesus right next to the toilet.

Yikes!  I’ve found another advocate of Christianity in the men’s room! I had thought that the previous example of this was so freaky that readers would think I made it up.  Now, I’m fearful that this may become a trend.  You know — churches getting their knickers in a twist about how feminized they are, so they butch things up by putting hunky pictures of Jesus on the bathroom walls of the men’s room.

 This is exactly what someone at a Methodist church did, and it seems he got run out of town for it. So, what does he do for an encore?  He starts a local Church for Men.  No “wishy, washy, lovey, dovey music.”  No pews or flowers.  There’s nothing about the decor of the men’s room, but since it meets in rented YMCA facilities, we will have to wait until they own their own property to see how they make a men’s room Really Masculine and Religious at the same time when they don’t have anyone objecting at the top.

Now, at the Very Top, things may be different, to judge by what He has said about such environments previously.  “But, hey!  This is the 21st Century, right?  Who cares what that Old Testament God said about His holiness.  Let’s bring Jesus into the toilet where He belongs.”

I need to blog further on this.  The guys griping about feminized church have some legitimate gripes.  But, the solution to this problem is NOT to accept the premise of those who want to keep the church woman-friendly in the way it has become woman-friendly.  Making Christian worship “man-friendly” by littering the sanctuary (and, evidently, the men’s room too!) with counterbalancing man-stuff (Harleys, Pennzoil oil-change signs, trophy deer-heads mounted on the wall) — all this administers as medicine the very toxin that has infected the churches:

It’s all about ME. 

According to these folks, a truly just worship environment would change from Sunday to Sunday, to accurately reflect the gender-demographics of the crowd that has shown up that day. Indeed, if you read the comments here, you’ll see that this is exactly what some are proposing.  Again, it’s all about ME. 

Blech.

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Gender Wars and Worship Wars: a connection

They’re related, right? For some time now I have sensed a living and vital linkage between the “gender wars” and the “worship wars” within Broadly Evangelical American Protestantism (BEAP).  These controversies not only intersect, they seem to reinforce one another.  The problem has been to figure out how and why.  It’s puzzlement.  I suspect many factors are at work.

A one clue may be found in two notices I ran across yesterday about a book by James B. Twitchell entitled Shopping for God.  One notice popped up in a regional newspaper web site in Florida, another  in the editorial pages of the online Wall Street Journal.

Naomi Riley, in the WSJ piece, summarizes Twitchell’s thesis as follows:

Choosing a religion, [Twitchell] argues, is much like choosing any other product–from breakfast food to beer. He sets out to determine why the “spiritual marketplace” in the U.S. seems so hot right now, and, more pointedly, why evangelical megachurches have become, well, so mega. His theme can be summed up in one of the book’s smug chapter titles: “Christian Consumers Are Consumers First.”

So far, Twitchell’s book appears to be the latest, and perhaps most thorough, analysis of a feature of BEAP’s adoption of commercial marketing as the starting point for advancing the Kingdom of God.  Riley (reluctantly?) acknowledges that “… in fact there are churches out there self-consciously engaged in marketing. They hire consultants and public-relations experts to ‘grow’ their flock, and they obey a market discipline.”  From my perspective, those churches that don’t hire consultants are avidly aping those that do.  Why pay for what you can mimic for free? 

But, then, Riley quotes Twitchell to a point that intrigues me:

Mr. Twitchell explains: “Men are the crucial adopters in religion. If they go over the tipping point, women follow, children in tow.” So now megachurches sponsor sports ministries and groups whose members ride motorcycles together. The language of prayers and sermons has moved away from a condescending lecture tone and taken up sports metaphors instead, asking congregants, for instance, to step up to the plate and help the team. In such a way are men induced to buy the megachurch product.

Twitchell, therefore, argues that there is (or, we should expect there to be) a “gender factor” in BEAP’s marketing of Christianity to the masses.  Certainly there are some overt attempts at this as far as marketing Christianity to men are concerned.  There is, for example, The Gospel in the Men’s Room, a deliberate attempt to make a church appealing to men by making a men’s toilet within it redolent of Harleys, Pennzoil, and NASCAR paraphrenalia.  We think, also, of Church for Men  and the virile fellows at God-men.   All these latter are whining, plotting, and campaigning for men in church to get their fair share of the bennies. 

But, consider … except for where individual congregations are big enough and rich enough to do niche-marketing to men (i.e. they’re mega churches already), Twitchell has given us a plausible reason for the female-friendly cache of contemporary Christianity of the BEAP variety, namely that every congregation you can find within BEAPdom is predominately female.  Churches that want to maintain their size, much less grow, cannot afford to displease the majority of their market.

What is the chicken and what is the egg here?  Who knows?  But, if Twitchell is right about BEAP, its female-heavy demographics and its programmatic appeal to feminine tastes obviously reinforce one another.

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