Sunday, November 27, 2011

Book Review: Sex, Gender, and Christian Ethics by Lisa Sowle Cahill

Lisa Sowle Cahill earned an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School, completing her dissertation under James Gustafson. She holds an endowed Professorship of Christian Ethics at Boston College, where she has taught since 1976, and she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Cahill is a prominent Catholic feminist theologian and ethicist, having published over two hundred articles and worked on fifteen books that cover a variety of topics: just war and pacifism, sex and gender, marriage and family, bioethics, adoption, and even christology. Sex, Gender, & Christian Ethics was published in 1996.

Cahill is known for being a scholar of the middle ground. A January 2011 column about her in Commonweal is titled: “No Labels, Please: Lisa Sowle Cahill’s middle way.” As such, her work lacks polarizing language and dogmatic stances, preferring instead to highlight the ambiguity of social and political judgment, working for understanding and cooperation between opposite poles. This makes her typically moderate work unsatisfactory for those looking for ideological tools with which to beat the opposition into submission. As a bridge builder, Cahill is often shot at from both sides. This stance is clear in Sex, Gender, & Christian Ethics as Cahill both critiques and extends some feminist and postmodern arguments, while criticizing liberalism and retrieving resources from (and remaining within) the Christian tradition.

While Cahill’s methodology in Sex, Gender, & Christian Ethics is critical of modern liberalism and postmodernism, radical deconstructionism especially comes under critique for leading to a cultural relativism that undermines “real moral communication, intercultural critique, and cooperation in defining and building just conditions of life for men and women.” Ultimately, it seems, Cahill is arguing with feminists, whose deconstruction of moral foundations she sees as hindering political critique. Even though she asserts the importance of modern values, such as freedom and autonomy, she believes these values must be reintegrated with “human embodiedness.” She proposes a “critical realist” approach to moral knowledge that draws primarily on the Aristotelian-Thomistic ethical tradition to argue for the possibility of shared moral values. For Cahill, these shared moral values appear at the level of “broad areas of agreement about human needs, goods, and fulfillments which can be reached inductively and dialogically through human experience” (2).

The main claims of the book can be found in “An Interlude and a Proposal,” where Cahill outlines a particular view of sex and Christian sexual ethics. First, she offers that human flourishing as sexually embodied depends on the realization of the equality of the sexes, male and female. In their sexual union, male and female have, at least potentially, three main aspects: reproduction, pleasure, and intimacy. Although she admits that there are forms of sexual life in which one or more of these aspects are missing, Cahill argues that we should not look to those forms to for a full picture of what sex is. Ultimately, she concludes that the “the institutions of gender, marriage, and family should ethically and normatively be responsive to and should enhance these values” (110).

Although focusing primarily on what she calls the “cross-cultural sexual ‘center’: heterosexual, reproductive, and patriarchal marriage,” she is careful to say that she is not thereby condemning or “casting into the shadows” possible “non-conformists” (116). Rather, she emphasizes that the sexual subordination of women to men in marriage and parenthood is unjust and asserts that women’s equality needs a substantive, intercultural defense. Also, she observes that sex has been given a moral meaning in the West that is individualist and narcissist, disassociating sex from parental fulfillment and social responsibility, often allowing sexual privacy and free choice to serve as a front for “continuing oppressions of violence toward women (whose choices are in reality not always so free)” (116-117). In the end, she is not interested in demarcating “specific offenses against sexual virtue” (i.e., condemning homosexual sex as beyond the pale). Cahill says she is, instead, hoping to make a better “apologia for a humane and Christian approach to sex and gender” (117). When she does mark off sexual behavior as unacceptable, she wants to do so within the “center” institutions of Christianity (Catholicism?): marriage and religiously vowed celibacy.

In “Sex, Gender, and Early Christianity,” Cahill considers what bearing the faith and practice of early Christianity had on sex and gender. Here, Cahill keeps front-and-center the thesis that Jesus’ preaching of the reign of God represents a new experience of the divine presence in history, “an experience which transforms human relationships by reordering relations of dominance and violence toward greater compassion, mercy, and peace, expressed in active solidarity with ‘the poor’” (121). She rejects the notion that the New Testament presents a comprehensive “sexual ethic,” as such, and warns against the assumption that the NT patterns of moral relationships can be equated with modern, liberal values.

In summary, she notes that in the NT heterosexual marriage is assumed as the proper context for sexual behavior, but the NT doesn’t particularly value procreation. The NT upholds the equal reciprocity of men and women in marriage; it forbids divorce, except in the interest of keeping Christian “peace”; and, above all, it offers an alternative to marriage: vocational celibacy (163). Cahill shows that NT has a tendency to loosen personal identification with the family, marriage, and parenthood, in order to better resist standard (oppressive) institutions of their day. But, what she sees as the contemporary challenge is to transform marriage and the family as institutions, so that they no longer represent structures of domination (165).

In “Sex, Marriage, and Family in Christian Tradition,” Cahill makes a quick survey of the development in Christian thought about sex, in reference to four topics: celibacy, indissolubility, contraception (including the matter of population control), and family as domestic church. Overall, she emphasizes the significance of Christian virginity, celibacy, and marriage as ways to combat social divisions and entrenched interests. Specifically, she criticizes what she sees as the Catholic Church’s limited focus on abortion and contraception with little regard for the Christian social message of reciprocity and inclusion, which calls for the transformation of the family, along with women’s sexual roles as mothers and wives (214). In other words, Cahill sees any contemporary change in the matters of abortion and contraception as hinging on the intercultural, Christian pursuit of the transformation of the family in ways that promote women’s equality (215).

The final chapter, “Birth Technologies and Moral Public Argument,” is the most forceful and pointed of the book. Here, Cahill takes on dominant notions of individualism and autonomy in modernist liberalism, in reference to donor insemination, in vitro fertilization (with donor gametes), and surrogacy. Her most fundamental critique is that public discourse on these issues is entirely focused on the primacy of choice, with no attention given to the social ramifications of new technologies or attention to the values of kinship and community (218). She presents adoption as a viable (albeit not uncomplicated) alternative to such technologies, with personal testimony from the adoption of three of her five children from Thailand. In the end, Cahill does not seek to condemn or control individual couples “desperate” for a child, but to “open public discussion to values of parenthood which extend beyond freedom to embodiment, and to see use of reproductive technologies in a larger context of technical reason operating toward unexamined ends, of gender hierarchy, and of economic inequality” (254).

In her conclusion, Cahill reasserts her aim to present what she thinks a Christian perspective on sex and gender can contribute to cultural debates about women’s equality and sexual meaning, all the while fortifying the kind of ethical foundations which best allow for moral criticism and consensus-building across moral and cultural traditions. In short, she is offering a Christian approach to sex and gender that can speak publicly and inter-culturally. Although some parts are more persuasive than others, I think Cahill’s work is commendable for its balance, restraint, and thoughtful nuance.

That said, I have two concerns about Sex, Gender, & Christian Ethics. First, Cahill assumes from the beginning that Christianity is “fundamentally egalitarian,” though always liable to perversion. This is something she doesn’t attempt to defend, even though many would quickly disagree with this assumption. If she intends her writing to contribute to public and inter-cultural conversations about sex and gender, I think this is a premise that needs bolstering. Also, Cahill’s treatment of homosexuality is disappointingly thin. I support her choice to focus on the “cross-cultural center” (heterosexual, procreative marriage), but I think that her American context demands a more thorough engagement with what has become a very contentious and challenging issue for most Christians.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Remix: Meditation on the Crucified Messiah

I know it is Advent, but for a variety of reasons, what I wrote in this meditation during last year's Lent is coming back to me today. I thought I would publish it again. Maybe it is meant for someone else besides me.
We follow a crucified Messiah. We follow a crucified Messiah. I know we know this intellectually. I know we know and preach and teach this. Its basic Sunday School stuff, right? "Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died for our sins and rose again on the third day and if you believe in him, you'll have eternal life." But, do we really know this--is it a defining, framing, all-encompassing reality for the way we view life?

A crucified Messiah is well and good when we want our sins forgiven, but not so nice when we want our life to proceed comfortably... predictably... safely. A crucified Messiah is a wonderful thing when we want to escape eternal hellfire, but not so fabulous when our we're called to follow... take up our cross... obey... even when our present life is in shambles. Do you know what I mean?

Over the past couple years I have been gradually awakening to the fact that the crucified Messiah I trust in for salvation is the same one I follow in discipleship. That is to say, I don't simply affirm the reality of the death of Jesus as a fact of my salvation, but I embrace it as both a window into understanding God and a practical way of life--a path to follow after. Here's what I mean.

The reality of our crucified Messiah tells us that God is mysterious, unfathomable, and eternally dense. Who or what is this God who would unite with human flesh, walk the earth, suffer at the hands of sinful men, and experience a tortuous death? Who or what is this God who embraces his enemies and accepts humiliation? Surely not a God that I can understand.

And, this lack of understanding, this confusion about the workings of God, is a major aspect of the real Christian life, is it not? The truth is, things don't always happen for a reason. Not everything works out in the end. And, sometimes horrible things happen and nothing necessarily "good" comes from it. Mothers get pancreatic cancer. Children die. Jobs are lost (along with houses and families and hope). Good pastors suffer at the hands of carnivorous churches. What are we to do with the truth that the Christian life is not a life that's safe and easy and comfortable?

As I have dealt with this issue, I have often felt like Moses standing before Mount Sinai. The ground quakes beneath me as God descends and acrid smoke fills the air. Everyone on the ground below me cowers in terror. This God is fearsome, radically free, and furious with love and justice. What would it feel like to draw near to a God like this? I've also felt like the disciples traveling with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. Slowly, it dawns on me that he really believes what he says about suffering and dying and that he actually intends to go through with it. This God is frightening, unpredictable, and dangerous. What does it mean for me to follow the way of a God like this?

It is contrary to everything in my comfortable, safe, Christian American upbringing to draw near to a God who is so intimidating and hazardous. I like to think that my God, my Jesus, is "safe and fun for the whole family." But, whatever this God is that I imagine--this God who guarantees a job, a house, a complacent way of life--it is not the God of Jesus Christ. It is not the crucified God.

And so, I'm back where I started. We follow a crucified Messiah. And, he requires us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Sometimes, the following leads us to mountaintops; often, the following leads us through valleys. In either case, my response is the same. I must follow. Through the fear, the confusion, the sadness, the struggle, the desperation, the loneliness, the uncertainty, the angst--I must follow. I have sold everything to buy the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in a field. I have nothing left to lose. There's simply no other choice.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Book Review: God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life by Catherine Mowry LaCugna

Here is another book review I wrote for a seminar this semester. The book is rather dated, but it is an important work for contemporary theology, especially theologies of the Trinity.

Catherine Mowry LaCugna (1952-1997) was a Catholic feminist theologian who taught systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame from 1981 until her death in 1997. She earned her Masters and Doctorate degrees at Fordham University. LaCugna’s only book-length works are God for Us (1991) (winner of the Catholic Press Association’s First Place Award for Theology) and Freeing Theology (1993), the latter being an edited collection of essays on feminist approaches to systematic theology. For those familiar with the landscape of contemporary theology, LaCugna’s God for Us will be somewhat dated. A number of the points she makes are taken for granted in today’s theological discourse. Moreover, God for Us is interesting in that it is not an explicitly feminist work (though she engages with feminist theology at points). Perhaps the fact that she is a feminist accounts for LaCugna’s concern for a Trinitarian theology “from below,” her willingness to embrace a theology of God’s passibility, and the apparent ease with which she calls into question much of Trinitarian theology since the Council of Nicaea.

In the Foreword, LaCugna says that her goal for the book is twofold: (1) that people will pause to think about the doctrine of the Trinity again, and (2) that they will think about it in a new way. Ultimately, she wants the reader to see that the doctrine of the Trinity is not simply an esoteric theory about the “internal self-relatedness” of God, but “an effort to articulate the basic faith of Christians.” Moreover, her contention is that the doctrine of the Trinity is infinitely practical for the Christian life. As she will say multiple times and in various ways throughout the book: “the divine life is our life.” The doctrine of the Trinity is “a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other” (1).

Undergirding LaCugna’s entire project is the theological principle (now something of an axiom in contemporary theology) that the “immanent Trinity” cannot be separated from the “economic Trinity.” LaCugna is following in the footsteps of Karl Rahner, who famously asserted that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity (and vice versa). Although LaCugna nuances Rahner’s position and moves beyond it in some respects, this is the fundamental assumption of the book and LaCugna’s “norming norm,” for evaluating the relative strengths and weaknesses of classical Trinitarian theology. God as God (immanent Trinity) is God for us (economic Trinity). Thus, any ontological distinction between God in se and God pro nobis is deemed to be inconsistent with biblical revelation, early Christian creeds, and Christian prayer and worship. In opposition to the countless theologians who have considered the Trinity “from above” (majoring on metaphysical and ontological discussions of divine persons, processions, etc), LaCugna is proposing a Trinitarian theology done “from below,” focused on the economy of salvation as the arena of God’s revelation as Triune.

To this end, God for Us is divided into two parts. Part One is titled, “The Emergence and Defeat of the Doctrine of the Trinity,” and Part Two is titled, “Re-Conceiving the Doctrine of the Trinity in Light of the Mystery of Salvation.” Despite these two parts, in terms of methodology, LaCugna’s project proceeds in three movements. First, she deconstructs a variety of ways the doctrine of the Trinity has been articulated in the past, arguing that all of them (post-Nicaea) sever the theology of God (theologia) from the economy of salvation in Christ (oikonomia). Second, she retrieves aspects of the ancient tradition and considers it in relation to the works of some contemporary theologians. Third, she reconstructs the theology of the Trinity, revealing the implications of the thesis that God’s being is inseparable from God’s action. In this way, Part One is the deconstruction of classical Trinitarian theology and Part Two is LaCugna’s retrieval and reconstruction of the same.

In Part One, LaCugna provides substantial engagement with the Trinitarian theology of a variety of figures and texts including the Cappadocians, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Gregory Palamas. In each discussion, she attempts to show how their theological projects ultimately fail to maintain the relationship between theologia and oikonomia--hence, they unwittingly represent the “defeat” of the doctrine of the Trinity. Central to Part One is the initial claim that when the Council of Nicaea opposed Arianism by theorizing about the being of Christ (as homoousios with the Father’s being) they were unwittingly dividing theology (considerations of God as God) from salvation history (God’s work in time and space). Before the challenge of Arius, the economy of salvation was central to Christian speculation about God; after Arius, speculation on God “in God’s self” was not only deemed possible but also distinct from reflection on God’s revelation in Christ. In her discussion of Nicene christology, LaCugna specifically indicates the question of God’s suffering as the turning point among the anti-Arian theologians. Because they would not allow that Christ’s real experience of suffering also applies to the Logos (and thereby to the being of the Godhead), they separated theologia from oikonomia.

Issues of space prevent me from detailing the specific ways in which LaCugna engages and evalutates the theologians in Part One. Needless to say, however, LaCugna’s narrative is ultimately a declension, digressing to the point that the theology of God has little to do with the economy of Christ and the Spirit, the themes of Incarnation and grace, let alone the daily Christian life. It is this theology gone awry that LaCugna blames for a contemporary situation in which most Christians are practical monotheists (quoting Rahner; 213). In response to this situation, in the first chapter of Part 2, LaCugna recalls the contributions of Karl Rahner to contemporary Trinitarian theology. She considers anew his assertion of the inseparability of the doctrine of Trinity and the doctrine of salvation and reaffirms his work with some qualifications. At this point, Rahner’s work serves as the fulcrum at which her project pivots away from deconstruction and into retrieval and reconstruction.

In Part Two, “Re-Conceiving the Doctrine of the Trinity in Light of the Mystery of Salvation,” LaCugna’s provides a theology of the Trinity that retrieves the union between the theology of God and the economy of salvation, so that soteriology becomes the starting point of theology. She explicitly denies reducing the Trinity to something that only exists in our experience, but instead wants to revise Trinitarian theology such that there is neither an economic nor an immanent Trinity, but only “the oikonomia that is the concrete realization of the mystery of theologia in time, space, history, and personality” (223). For LaCugna, this is not new, but a return to the biblical and pre-Nicene pattern of thought. She sums up her approach in Chapter 7, “The Self-Communication of God,” as follows: "Oikonomia is not the Trinity ad extra but the comprehensive plan of God reaching from creation to consummation, in which God and all creatures are destined to exist together in the mystery of love and communion. Similarly, theologia is not the Trinity in se, but, much more modestly and simply, the mystery of God. As we know from the experience of being redeemed by God through Jesus Christ, the mystery of God is the mystery of God with us (224).

Elaborating upon her own theological proposal, in Chapter 8, “Persons in Communion,” LaCugna then develops a thorough and detailed ontology of relation, explaining what it means to be a person and to exist as persons in communion. To this end, she engages with a host of theologians, philosophers, and ethicists, including the Cappadocians, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, John MacMurray (a personalist philosopher), John Zizioulas, Patricia Wilson-Kastner (a feminist theologian), Leonardo Boff, Margaret Farley (Catholic moral theologian), and Stanley Harakas (Eastern Orthodox ethicist). LaCugna concludes from engagement with these thinkers what she calls five “notes” of personhood (288-292) and then measures the merits of these notes against “the revelation of divine personhood in the face of Christ and the activity of the Holy Spirit” (293).

From this engagement with contemporary reflections on personhood, LaCugna concludes, “When we affirm that the ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and vice versa, or that God’s energies express the divine essence, we are saying that God’s way of being in relationship with us—which is God’s personhood--is a perfect expression of God’s being as God...God for us is who God is as God” (305). She qualifies this by saying that, in the end, the term “person” applied to God is not a description of God’s essence as it is in itself, but using a term that points beyond itself to God’s ineffability. The proper focus of theology is upon God’s personal reality revealed in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. What matters, ultimately, is holding onto the truth that God is personal and, as a result, “the proper subject matter of the doctrine of the Trinity is the encounter between divine and human persons in the economy of redemption” (305).

The final two chapters in Part Two consist of the practical outworking of her proposed reconstruction of the doctrine of the Trinity. (Doubtless, her emphasis upon the infinitely practical nature of the doctrine of the Trinity would mean her dissatisfaction that I am giving these final chapters such short shrift!) Chapter 9, “Trinity, Theology, and Doxology,” argues that the form of language that best serves and illumines God’s economy is “theology in the mode of doxology” (320). Here, she emphasizes the unity of a life of worship with a life of ethical practice, the entire creation as the fruit of divine love and freedom (she juxtaposes creation ex nihilo with creation ex amore or ex condilectione; 355), and the liturgy of the Church as the “originating context of theology” (such that systematic theology is second order reflection on the worship of the Church; 357). Chapter 10, “Living Trinitarian Faith,” expounds on the human life that enters into the life of God by entering into the life of Jesus Christ, the life of the Holy Spirit, and the life of others. She makes suggestions for “Trinitarian politics” (denouncing patriarchy and proposing “communion among equals”), as well as the ways the doctrine of the Trinity can be envisioned applying in ecclesial life, Christian ethics, sexual ethics, and the spiritual life. Above all, the last chapter advocates the union of orthodoxy and orthopraxis: “The doctrine of the Trinity is orthodoxy, right perception of the glory of God, and it calls for orthopraxis, right response to the glory of God” (410).

It seems that this book review is already exceeding reasonable bounds, so I will attempt to bring it to a close. In Part One, LaCugna shows herself a careful and capable interpreter of the classical Trinitarian tradition. Certainly, I imagine specialists will quibble with the ways she interprets this or that point. Still, I find her account of the post-Nicene division between theology and soteriology (theologia and oikonomia) convincing. Furthermore, I find her constructive work in Part Two to be both intelligent and compelling. Perhaps the fact that her ideas resonate in familiar ways suggests the influence of LaCugna’s work: twenty years later, perhaps many theologians are taking her conclusions for granted. As can be seen from the difficulty I have had condensing the material for this review, God for Us is a very dense and deep work. Yet, I think LaCugna shines in it as an exemplar of feminist theology that is deeply rooted in and engaged with the Christian tradition. Her early death robbed feminist theology, in particular, and Christian theology, in general, of a gifted and winsome scholar.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Book Review: To Serve God and Wal-Mart by Bethany Moreton

I have been absent from the blogosphere for quite some time, consumed as I am with reading and writing for my doctoral seminars, preparation and teaching for my undergraduate classes (I'm teaching two section of Intro to Religion: Catholic Option this semester), and the frantic, frazzled life of caring for two toddlers with my ever-loving and long-suffering husband. Still, I thought I would pop in briefly to post this somewhat informal book review of one of my favorite books of the semester, by far: Bethany Moreton's To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. I read it for my American Studies seminar a couple weeks about and lead the class discussion of the work. I highly recommend it to anyone with interests in evangelicalism, particularly evangelicalism and economics, politics, and/or gender.

About the Author
Bethany Moreton is a native of Mississippi and Assistant Professor of History and Women's Studies at the University of Georgia. She received her doctorate in history from Yale University in 2006 and was named the 2009 Emerging Scholar in the Humanities by the University of Michigan. To Serve God and Wal-Mart was her first book and it won the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize for best first book in U.S. history and the John Hope Franklin Award for the best book in American Studies.

Even though Moreton weaves a narrative that spans a variety of topics and issues (from populism to gender to free enterprise to Christian service), Moreton’s work is fairly straightforward as a history. She draws from a dizzying number of sources: numerous libraries and special archives, including those of the colleges and universities she discusses, as well as Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) and Food and Allied Services Trades, along with numerous personal interviews with Wal-Mart employees.

To Serve God and Wal-Mart tells the story of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest company, and the ideological system that it cultivated. Her narrative shows that conservative evangelicalism fueled the ascendancy of neoliberal (free enterprise) economics in the late twentieth century. Far from an historical inevitability, Moreton’s narrative proves that this turn of events came to pass through the efforts of real historical actors and the implementation of significant corporate resources.

To be more specific, I think Moreton is, in a sense, answering the question that has plagued Leftists for some time: “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Or, why do so many middle class Americans prioritize social issues over government policies that are in their economic best interest? Moreton shows that “family values” voters (“Wal-Mart moms” and dads) forgo (and even denounce) economic gains like unionization out of commitment to a very different notion of moral market priorities. Their deep-rooted ideals about the centrality of the (nuclear) family, the virtue of self-sufficiency, and the faith in free enterprise undergird the willingness of “Kansas” to, in the end, submit the well-being of the individual to that of the multi-national corporation.

Chapter Summaries
Chapters 1-3
Moreton’s story begins in the Ozarks, historically one of the whitest regions of the country (95% white as late as 1996), where Wal-Mart’s success can be traced back to nineteenth-century Populism and the Populist critique of the new industrial economy. Populist activists sought the protection of the federal government against the rise of corporations, which threatened the financial independence of the small family farm (and the enduring myth of the yeoman farmer). Though the Populists ultimately lost, in many ways their broad economic and political legacy remained, allowing for the employment of federal intervention so that the yeoman farmer might come to compete with industrial corporations.

Wal-Mart was one of many corporations that benefited greatly from the federal redistribution of funds into the Sun Belt following World War II. Wal-Mart was able to take root in the Ozarks—a region formerly inhospitable to major corporations—because Sam Walton put to work for him a number of Ozark emphases: the value of “old-stock American whites,” the importance of independent proprietorship, and fierce Ozark localism. Moreover, in terms of business model, he blended the independent, small-scale family business with that of the cooperative-style voluntary chain, and issued stock for public sale to his own employees. In this way, “the white periphery could make its peace with joint-stock companies and banks as long as they were local stockholders, hometown financiers” (29).

Along with the Wal-Mart company’s innovations in finance and organization, they also consciously crafted a populist corporate image from the Ozarks and the person of Sam Walton. As Wal-Mart expanded from the 1970s and 80s, the company located stores in smaller cities, which benefited from heavy public support (i.e., universities, military installations, hospitals), anti-labor laws, and landlocked “small town” life. Wal-Mart nurtured an image as corporate protector of the “imagined homogenous yesterday” (40), adopting the old-stock folk heroes of the farmer, cowboy, pioneer, and hillbilly, while joining them to country-western music and a preference for rural people (over urban). Sam Walton’s personal story underwent a makeover, as well, rendering his tale one of meritorious hard work and thrift, making him into a “billionaire everyone can love” (45).

Chapters 4-7
The service industry that grew up in the Sun Belt in the midst of deindustrialization imperiled the masculine vision of the independent yeoman farmer. To grapple with the shift to more “feminized” work, Wal-Mart drew on rural Protestant family ideals to stabilize the masculinity of its (mostly male) management staff, reinscribing the sexual hierarchy of the family onto the work place. Conflating the family and the store helped to prevent the largely female waged labor force from viewing themselves as “workers” with skills meriting just compensation. With “work” conceived of as a family affair at home (women accepting wage labor as a means to contribute to the household and provide access to insurance, SS, and investment) and work imagined in family terms at the store, Wal-Mart ensured the loyalty and humble (non-unionized) service of both management and service staff.

This reconceived vision of work blended easily with the new popularity of “service leadership” in both evangelical and business publications. Within the ethic of servant leadership, formerly humble, feminine “reproductive” labor is elevated in ideological significance, with men called to serve both in the home (i.e., Promise Keepers) and at work (i.e., Lead Like Jesus). Meanwhile, in exchange for the emphasis on the value of their labor and the loyalty of men to the domestic sphere, women acknowledge “male headship,” even if only in a symbolic way. These “soft patriarchs” were a compromise of sorts, so that service leadership made patriarchy safe for the postindustrial service economy.

Chapters 8-11
In the 1970s and 80s, increasing numbers of Americans abandoned Keynesian economics and transferred their loyalty to privatization, deregulation, tax cuts, and proliferating financial speculation. Wal-Mart rode this wave of conversion to “free-market fundamentalism,” actively helping to shape both corporate and public opinion in such a way that it has become, in many parts of the country, simply “common sense.” First, they created symbiotic relationships with Christian colleges to recruit management from new business programs grounded in (faith) commitment to free enterprise. Then, they used independent student organizations (with sizeable corporate sponsors) to promote capitalism, the most important of which was Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE).

SIFE started at a Christian college in the Ozarks and spread to 1,500 campuses in 40 countries. They travelled the country and won converts to free-market capitalism through education, from the oldest to the youngest (including economics lessons for kindergarteners). The following banner sums up their message: “FREE ENTERPRISE WORKS, ALL IT TAKES IS GUTS” (173). Moreton argues that the Christian roots of SIFE allowed for a wedding of self-interest with the “loving” notion of the greatest good for the greatest number. Today, Wal-Mart management and its suppliers are filled with the former students of this major investment in free-market education.

Chapters 12-13
In the Reagan era, the spread of free enterprise went global, powered by Sun Belt Christian organizations like Wal-Mart and pre-existing conditions established by post-WWII Christian missionaries. Central America was of early concern to Reagan and Walton, but Walton met the threat of communism with four-year scholarships for Central American college students to study business and marketing at Christian colleges in Arkansas. The ideological training received in the Ozarks equipped these students with free market, free trade visions for the entire hemisphere. The result was very good for Wal-Mart: grateful graduates of their program working in Christian ministries, multinational corporations, government, and technology industries, providing a grass-roots network for the progress of globalization (one that runs parallel to the work of nation-states in globalization). In the pursuit of U.S.-led free trade worldwide, Wal-Mart capitalized on Christian missionary zeal and faith in free markets: “figuring free trade as service to humble Third World consumers,” with the Mexico City Wal-Mart serving as the most powerful symbol in the ideological fight (251). The biggest victory in Wal-Mart’s expansionist mission was the turnaround in public opinion on NAFTA, allowing for its passage in November of 1993.

Interesting Issues Raised by the Book
“Family Values” and Free Market Capitalism
I find very compelling the way Moreton draws together the rise of “family values,” focused on sexuality and reproduction, and the rise of the service economy, with a shift from production industries to “reproductive” ones. More specifically, I find intuitively valid the connection she makes between family-centered movements within evangelicalism, like Promise Keepers and “soft patriarchy,” and the intentional utilization of the family ethos in Wal-Mart culture. At the same time that Wal-Mart was capitalizing (literally) on the consensus that women’s work (=serving others) isn’t really work and women aren’t really workers, they were also utilizing the Christian service ideology of wives and mothers to cultivate employee loyalty and a family-friendly image.

I can’t help but see an ideological parallel between the “soft patriarchy” family ideals described above and those of free enterprise economics, both of which grow up together in Moreton’s narrative. Both “soft patriarchy” and free market capitalism entail a faith commitment of sorts. In the first, women and men accept on faith that their particular version of submission or service will result in honor and exaltation (whether in the home, the workplace, or even in the afterlife). In the second, women and men accept on faith that self-interested, deregulated business practices will result in prosperity and justice for all (or, at least most). The logic of both ideologies seems to require a “leap of faith” for adherents.

Frugality as a Common Sense Christian Virtue
Moreton’s narrative reveals how frugality became an unquestioned Christian virtue in “Wal-Mart Country” and beyond. Although conspicuous consumption is frowned upon by most evangelicals, penny-pinching consumption for the sake of serving the good of the family is encouraged. Wal-Mart is infinitely appealing, therefore, because their unpretentious, unornamented stores, with an emphasis on “rolled back” prices, welcome shoppers as sites of family-focused frugality. There is even a sense of gratitude to Wal-Mart among customers (featured in a number of their more recent TV commercials), that their low prices allow money to be spent on other things for the family. In this way, Wal-Mart has helped to solidify finding the “best deal” at the cheapest price as a Christian virtue: evidence of wisdom, self-control, and even love. Moreover, Moreton shows that it is no coincidence that the champions of frugality are champions of free enterprise capitalism--both of which put the good of the individual and his/her nuclear family at the center of concern.

It’s Religion, Stupid
Moreton’s book also raises for me a larger point about historical and cultural studies. Many historians and cultural scholars are wont to say of the human situation in any age that, in the end, “It’s the economy, stupid”--it is the ongoing battle between proletariats and capitalists that occupy the central narrative of history. But, in light of Moreton’s book (along with a number of others we have read), it seems that ground needs to be ceded to religion. Perhaps, we can say, “It’s religion, stupid.” This is a good sign for historians and theologians in training, for whom religion is central. There seems a great opportunity in the historical and cultural fields, and in American studies in particular, to highlight, explain, contest, and debate the role of religion in the outworking of history. Moreover, the reverse is also the case. In the work of the theologian, attention must be paid to the ways in which cultural institutions, even one as apparently banal as Wal-Mart, serve to shape and inform theology. Indeed, theology must always be engaged with the "lived" aspect of the Christian religion and it doesn't get more "lived" than the places where Christian families shop.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

What I'm Reading This Semester

I have had a few requests to post the books I will be reading this semester for my two doctoral seminars. Although we'll be reading additional articles as assigned by the professors, these are the primary books we'll be digging into. I'm pretty excited, as a theology geek should be.

The first seminar I'm taking is called American Studies for Theologians, led by Dr. Anthony Smith, author of The Look of Catholics, a study of portrayals of Catholics in popular culture from the Depression era to the Cold War. He's an important scholar in the field of American Studies, particularly as it pertains to religion in 20th Century America. This course is intended to equip theologians with an additional research skill in cultural studies. The following consists of our book list thus far. If you're interested, you can find all of them on Many of the older works (toward the top of the list) are classics in the field of American studies.

- Alan Trachtenburg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age.
- Warren Susman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century.
- Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of Culture in the Twentieth Century.
- Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race.
- Lizbeth Cohen, A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.
- Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945.
- Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise.
- Kathryn Lofton, Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon.
- Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture

The second seminar I'll be taking is called Feminist Theology and Ethics, led by Dr. Jana Bennett. She is the author of Water is Thicker Than Blood: An Augustinian Theology of Marriage and Singleness and she is an important up-and-coming Catholic feminist moral theologian. This course is intended to survey the broad field of feminist theologies to enable future research that takes into account questions of gender. As with the above list, some of these books are considered "classics" in the field. If you have questions about any of them, feel free to ask.

- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
-Jean Bethke Ehlstain, Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought.
- Beth Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise.
- Michele Schumacher, Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism.
- Mary Henold, Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement.
- Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key.
- Lisa Isherwood, The Power of Erotic Celibacy: Queering Heterosexuality
- Serene Jones, Feminist Theory and Christian Theology: Cartographies of Grace.
- Amy Laura Hall, Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction.
- Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatum.
- Lisa Sowell Cahill, Sex, Gender, and Christian Ethics.
- Margaret Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 2

Now that I've provided what I think is a suitable background to the Proverbs 31 woman, considering historical and cultural issues, as well as matters of import within the book of Proverbs, its time to turn from background to interpretation and application.

I revealed at the end of the first post that I do not think this text was originally intended as a "job description" for housewives, as it tends to be used today. Instead, I think it is a picture of wisdom in the domestic sphere (although the use of the phrase "domestic sphere" is anachronistic here). In this way, the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 is an equally appropriate heroine for women as for men, who are seeking to live in the fear of the Lord.

With that said, I do not think it is wrong to apply Proverbs 31 in ways that speak to the lives and choices of Christian women today. Just because I've chosen to given prime place to cultural context, I am not thereby ruling out the passage's applicability to today's women. (Some of my more conservative friends will tend to assume that because I emphasize the culturally embedded nature of the biblical texts that I am going to rule out the application of the text to today's context. But, as a Christian, I accept the biblical canon as God's word for us today, with implications and applications for every generation. Just because I come to conclude different interpretations and applications of biblical texts than my conservative friends, that does not mean I'm not taking Scripture seriously.) Indeed, my hope is that the cultural context will provide needed guidance for the most appropriate ways (one might even say wise ways) to apply Proverbs 31.

The first step, I think, on the road to applying Proverbs 31 is to consider how this passage is situated within the entire biblical canon. That is to say, we should read Scripture in light of Scripture. I can't survey all the possible texts related to the issues raised in Proverbs 31, so I will point out two that I think are often overlooked in discussions, sermons, and lessons taught on this passage.

(The most often referenced passages in connection with Proverbs 31 include Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18-25; and Titus 2:3-5. All of these passage include instruction to wives regarding how to live as Christians within the households of the first century and because of their language of submission, male headship, and working at home, can lend themselves to complementarian interpretations of gender roles. I'm not leaving these out because they aren't relevant. They are. But, I feel these have been treated over and over again. I would like to add a new dimension to the discussion. Both complementarian and egalitarian interpretations [and everything in-between] of these passages can be found easily on the Internet and elsewhere.)

The first relevant passage in reference to Proverbs 31 is found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 11, verses 27-28. (I've written an extended post about this passage here.) In this vignette from the ministry of Jesus, following the healing of a demon-possessed man, a woman cries out from the crowd: "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed!" Or, to put it another way, "Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you!" The reference to the womb and the breasts form a figure of speech called metonymy. In this case, the parts are used to represent the whole (i.e., when someone calls a businessman a "suit," or the Executive branch, "the White House"). Therefore, the meaning of the woman's exclamation is: “Blessed is your mother!”

As many know already, in the Judaism of Jesus' day, the value and honor of a woman were almost entirely wrapped up in childbearing and the accomplishments of her children in adulthood (see also Prov 10:1; 23:25; 29:15). If her children grew up to be lazy slobs, she would be shamed. But, if her children grew up to be successful and righteous, she would be honored. So, the woman in the crowd is pronouncing a blessing upon Mary, for producing a son as wise and powerful as Jesus. (Indirectly, of course, this is also a compliment to Jesus himself.)

Despite the fact that this blessing was culturally acceptable, Jesus corrects the woman's exclamation and offers a blessing of his own. He says in reply, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!" If one surveys the Gospels, one realizes that this response is not an isolated occurrence, for Jesus very often trumps the cultural norms of family in favor of the new "norms" of the Kingdom of God. In effect, he relativizes traditional notions of family in light of discipleship to him. So, Jesus' response to the woman is in the same vein. While the tradition of Judaism for thousands of years had been that motherhood was the highest calling of woman, Jesus subverts this mindset and offers something different: Faithful discipleship, not biological motherhood, is the highest calling of women. And, in the Kingdom of God, the discipleship community of Jesus constitutes a new family, one in which there is only One Father.

I think this passage is particularly helpful in interpreting and applying Proverbs 31, especially the last few verses, which say: "Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband too, and he praises her: 'Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.' Charm is deceitful and beauty is in vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her work praise her in the city gates." Very often, I hear these verses used in a prescriptive way. Because the woman of Proverbs 31 is said to surpass all other women in her excellence, the reasoning goes, then all woman should aspire to her model of life. The thought is that the most excellent thing a woman can do is to bear and raise children, keep her home, and manage her husband's affairs.

While I most certainly do not deny that these things are good and praiseworthy (I'm doing them myself!), I think Luke 11:27-28, puts Proverbs 31 in its proper perspective. Yes, the life of God-fearing motherhood and homemaking is blessed. But, a woman's primary calling is to faithful Kingdom citizenship. Whether married or unmarried, mothering or childless, a woman can be a woman of excellence, virtue, and nobility. In ancient Israel, the way wise woman revealed her wisdom primarily through the life of motherhood and house-management as described in Proverbs 31 (that was essentially her only honorable choice). Today's wise woman has more options. No matter the life chosen by the wise woman, she is blessed if she is a disciple of Christ and citizen of God's Kingdom.

Another helpful text for "balancing" our application of Proverbs 31 is found in 1 Corinthians 7. This chapter contains some very pragmatic instruction from the Apostle Paul regarding marriage--so pragmatic, in fact, that I have never heard a sermon or Bible study lesson preached on it. Why? Because Paul speaks in terms that are not too friendly toward marriage and family. Indeed, his instruction is so surprisingly frank, I think its worth quoting at length.

First he says, "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am" (v. 8). He goes on to say that those who choose to marry certainly do not sin, but "those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that... I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband."

How interesting to read this instruction alongside of Proverbs 31! Certainly, Paul does not denigrate the duties of wife and mother. Elsewhere, he provides teaching on how Christian women may live within these stations in a God-honoring way. But, when given the choice between singleness and married life, Paul says he'd prefer that women remain unmarried so that they can be solely devoted to the Kingdom of God. He calls the affairs of family life "anxious," "world[ly]," and "distress[ing]." And, anyone with children and a household to manage can agree with these descriptors! This is why I think 1 Corinthians 7 is a good counterpoint to Proverbs 31. Read together they provide a balanced picture of the roles of wife and mother for the Christian woman. Moreover, they continue the theme begun in the teaching of Jesus mentioned above, that the calling of wife and motherhood is not the highest calling of woman, but that of being a disciple of Christ.

I think the above-mentioned Scripture passages provide a helpful complement to the picture of woman wisdom found Proverbs 31. They do not trivialize or rule out application of Proverbs 31 to Christian women today. That is not my intention at all. Instead, I think they provide a fuller, more complete picture of what Christian womanhood can be. If anything, it rules out the use of Proverbs 31 as "job description" of sorts for Christian women, the way I think many traditional interpreters tend to do.

So, what further applications would I make from Proverbs 31 to the Christian woman today? First of all, I think its important to hear from the text the simple principle that there are wise and unwise ways to manage your household. If, indeed, you do have a husband and children, then there are ways to approach your daily life that are wise and ways that are unwise. (Actually, this is true for all people in all stations of life. There are wise and unwise ways to live. Period.) It behooves Christian women (alongside of Christian men) to seek out the best way to carry out the tasks of family life. Moreover, it is essential that Christian women (married or unmarried) seek to cultivate the good character that gives rise to wise ways of living. Character traits of the Proverbs 31 woman include wisdom, industriousness, faith, generosity, hope, self-control (particularly of the tongue [v. 26]), and kindness. Women cannot choose to believe against all odds, work when sleep and rest are fleeting, or choose kind words in heated moments, if they have not been practicing these things and allowing God's grace to form them into these kinds of people.

Second, I think today's Christian women can draw from Proverbs 31 the truth that they can be a blessing or a curse to their husband and children. This sounds very traditional, I know. I tread lightly here. But, I think it is a truth for human beings, in general, not to mention women with husbands and children, that our words, manner, and choices can be a blessing or a curse to those around us (particularly those dependent upon us). In this way, Christian women, whether of complementarian or egalitarian persuasions, should learn to live wisely in light of the great impact they will have on their immediate family. This is a big part of the Christian life in the New Testament. As Paul says, "Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil" (Eph. 5:15-16). Among other things, I think this means living with intentionality, especially intentionally living in such a way to lead our children into the Kingdom of God.

Third, I think the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 teaches today's Christian women (not to mention men!) that what is traditionally called "women's work" is valuable and significant. Think about it. God chose the ancient Israelite version of the "housewife" to serve as the ultimate illustration of wise living at the conclusion of the book of Proverbs. As this book was used to train and instruct young men in the wisdom of Israel, the picture of wise living was a housewife. If one thinks of Woman Wisdom in Proverbs 8-9, where the wisdom of God is depicted in feminine terms, then Proverbs 31 further shows that the "domestic" life of home and hearth is suitable for depicting the things of God, as well. The Wisdom (or Word) of God is found in the cosmic realm (Prov 8-9) and in the earthly, domestic realm (Prov 31). The very earthy, messy drudgery of family life is a fitting place to find the wisdom of God.

With these three "lessons" from Proverbs 31 in mind, I'd like to offer a couple warnings about applying the "woman of valor" today. It should clear by now that I am unwilling to take Provers 31 as a prescription for all Christian women to be stay-at-home moms. Certainly, for those with that vocation, this passage praises their work and honors the many things they do for house and home. Still, the tasks described in Proverbs 31 must not be taken as prescriptive for all women at all times. The New Testament scriptures referenced above (among other things), preclude such an interpretation. Moreover, Proverbs 31 simply does not support that premise. It is a description (in idealized terms from an ancient culture and the life of a wealthy woman) of the tasks associated with wise domestic living. Inasmuch as women have families, they will find the description rings true in a general way: life revolves around the home, where children play and the necessary tasks of cooking, cleaning, and laundry take place. But, to belabor the point, there is no prescription here for housewifry as the only God-fearing option for wise women.

Also, for my complementarian brothers and sisters who want to argue for the universal calling of all women to motherhood and the housewife vocation, I would like to caution against using Proverbs 31 as a literally interpreted standard for life. Doing so, I fear, turns this passage into an unattainable ideal, a grace-less standard against which all women will ultimately fail. For example, just thinking practically, a wife and mother rising "while it is still night" (v. 15) and then staying up so late to continue working that "her lamp doesn't go out" (v. 18), is headed for a breakdown. Particularly in the stage of life with young children, sleep is important. And sometimes, simply getting through the day with the children clothed and fed and free of injury is a victory. (Can I get a witness?!) It is significant, in my mind, that the Proverbs 31 woman had servant-girls. This is not the middle class American woman of today, who labors alone at home from dawn until dusk, with only her small children and their pets as company.

(And, don't even try to tell me that dishwashers, stoves, ovens, toasters, washing machines, dryers, irons, and other "labor saving devices" make things easier for women in the home. That's a load of poppycock. The onset of labor saving devices in the modern age has merely shifted the majority of the work needed to keep the homestead running onto the woman, whereas pre-industrial periods would have seen housework more evenly divided between the spouses. You can research and read more about this on your own. My thanks to my friend, Aimee Miller, for pointing this out to me.)

Finally, I could not complete a blog post on this topic without taking a friendly jab at a certain (in)famous hypermasculine evangelical preacher who makes much of women's responsibility to remain physically alluring and sexually "available" to their husbands (while also doing all of the household tasks and raising godly children to boot). If we were to choose to take Proverbs 31 literally, and if we were to understand it as a prescriptive text for today's stay-at-home mom, then we should also heed the words of verse 30: "Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." Another translation of this verse says that "Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting."

As any woman knows, beauty (particularly as defined by modern standards on TV and in magazines) is most certainly fleeting. The passing of youthfulness takes with it the elasticity of our skin, the color of our cheeks, and the firmness of our [fill in the blank with your "problem" body part of choice]. (Do I even have to talk about the changes our bodies go through due to childbearing and childbirth?) If nothing else, Proverbs 31 tells us that physical beauty pales in importance to being a person of wisdom and virtue. It is far more important to be a thoughtful and kind teacher of wisdom to your children than it is to have... a sculpted rear end. If you are blessed to have the time to work on your physical features in such a way that "sculpted" is an adjective even remotely possible to describe your body, then praise God and good for you, my friend. But, if not, tell that macho preacher to buzz off and accept the blessing and security of knowing that your character is far more important than your dress size.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Proverbs 31 Woman: Part 1

A friend of mine has requested that I write something about the so-called Proverbs 31 woman, found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, chapter 31, verses 10-31. She didn't quite say it this way, but I think my friend's basic question about the "woman of valor" is this: What am I supposed to do with her?

As someone who has known American evangelicalism as her cultural "home" for some time, it seems to me, there are (generally speaking) two types of women in evangelical churches today. There are those who find the Proverbs 31 woman an inspiring example of industrious, virtuous womanhood that they admire and seek to emulate daily. And, there are those who find the Proverbs 31 woman an overwhelmingly idealistic and romantic picture of domestic life so far removed from their reality that they cringe every time they hear her invoked. Ok, maybe this dichotomy is a little exaggerated! But, I think it speaks to the "mixed bag" that is the Proverbs 31 woman and the way she is used in evangelical churches today. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the woman of Proverbs 31, let me try to briefly explain the issue at hand, as I understand it.

Most evangelical churches give prime place to the Proverbs 31 woman in their teachings about "biblical womanhood" (or, "true womanhood" or what have you). There are Bible studies, countless books and pamphlets, not to mention plaques, paintings, carvings, embroidered pillows, and even T-shirts with Proverbs 31 as the focus. In the evangelical context, more often than not, the Proverbs 31 woman is used to reinforce a very specific view of gender roles, usually called complementarianism, but also aptly labeled traditional or patriarchal. In this model, male headship in the family is held up as a universal principle, which entails (among other things) that men are designed by God to work in the "public" realm, while women raise children and keep house in the "private" realm. Thus, women like my friend who find Proverbs 31 troubling, are usually having an issue with the way the scripture is being used--the model of gender roles that the passage is used to reinforce.

Since gender roles and biblical studies are common topics on this blog, it seems its long overdue that we talk about this passage. So, I'm going to do my best. I will divide this blog into two posts. In the first half, I'll address issues of historical and biblical context and in the second half, I'll address how I feel it is best to approach the passage as a source for instruction of today's Christian women.

I'd like to begin my little exploration of the Proverbs 31 woman with the reminder that the text is in need of contextualization. That is to say, we need to remember that this is a very old text from another time and culture. Besides the obvious fact that it is in the Hebrew Bible, what are the other indications that context is needed? Well, the text describes the "capable wife" or "woman of valor" as assigning tasks "for her servant-girls" and planting a "vineyard" (vv. 10, 15-16). She uses a "spindle" to make clothes for herself and her family and uses a "lamp" to work at night (vv. 18-19). Her husband is said to be known "in the city gates," taking his seat among "the elders of the land" (v. 23). All of these details indicate that this picture of the virtuous woman is drawn from a different time and place. Last time I checked, cities in the US did not have elders gathering at their fortified gates, nor do most women plant vineyards by hand or keep a staff of servant-girls!

What, then, is important to know about the context of the book of Proverbs? First of all, we should keep in mind that the gender roles of the Israelite people during the time period of the book's composition were different from the way complementarians like to depict them. In a pre-industrial, primarily agrarian culture, where the home (rather than the city or office) was the center of economic life, both men and women worked in the home. To put it another way, ancient Israel did not have the public/private distinction between men's and women's roles that patriarchy today (post-industrial revolution) has imagined. Thus, both the women and men of ancient Israel worked in and around the home, accompanied by their children and servants (or even slaves). Granted, men did more public tasks than the women, but women were by no means relegated to the home by an imagined divine design.

This is the major reason why the work being done by the "woman of valor" is so alien to today's woman and why the Proverbs 31 woman seems more appropriately identified as a household manager rather than simply a "homemaker" (although both terms are appropriate in their way).

Furthermore, it is also important to realize that the description of the Proverbs 31 woman includes elements that strongly suggest she is a woman of wealth and prosperity. That is to say, the "virtuous woman" is depicted in terms that reveal she is not the wife of a simple tanner, carpenter, or subsistence farmer. She is a woman of means. This is why she can dress her household in crimson and herself in fine linen and purple (vv. 21-22). This is why her husband has a prominent place among the city's elders and she is depicted as charitable to the poor and needy (vv. 20, 23)--she is not among their number. This is in keeping with the tendency of the Old Testament to associate wisdom with wealth. The Deuteronomic view of providence was such that those who are wise were thought to be rewarded with wealth and those who are fools were thought to have it taken from them. So, it is appropriate in terms of Israelite culture and the themes of the OT Scripture that the wise woman of Proverbs 31 would be a woman of wealth. Indeed, Proverbs 8:18 portrays Woman Wisdom (to be discussed in more detail below) as saying, "Riches and honor are with me, enduring wealth and prosperity."

Also, it is important to understand that within the book of Proverbs, the woman of chapter 31 is the second symbolic female figure depicting wisdom. The first feminine image for wisdom appears in chapters 8-9, where wisdom is depicted as a woman of cosmic proportions. Woman Wisdom is said to have been created by God "at the beginning of all His work" and she was present "when he established the heavens" (vv. 22, 27). This feminine image of Wisdom is said to have children who are invited to join her in her home, where they can find insight and instruction in righteousness (8:32; 9:1-9). Woman Wisdom is contrasted with the "foolish woman" who is enticing passers-by to turn-in and enjoy stolen goods with her in "Sheol" (9:13-18). In this way, the book of Proverbs uses women as metaphors for wisdom and foolishness (much as the rest of the OT uses women to depict the people of God and other groups in a metaphorical way).

Why does the book of Proverbs do this? Why are women used to portray wisdom and folly? There are many layers to an answer to this question, but I think the simplest explanation comes from what we know about the original composition and use for the book of Proverbs. Most scholars agree that the teachers of Israel finished compiling and editing the book of Proverbs in its present form during the Persian period of Israelite history. In this period of colonization by a pagan nation, the preservation of Israelite culture and religion was vitally important. As a result, the book of Proverbs was used as the primary way to instruct young men in the ways of Israelite wisdom. Indeed, just a cursory read of the book reveals that the original intended audience is definitely young men, referred to as "sons" of the fathers imparting wise instruction. So, if young men are the first audience for the book of Proverbs, then it makes sense culturally to portray wisdom and folly metaphorically as female figures. These young men would be as yet unmarried and the pursuit of a spouse would be of major interest to them. To think of wisdom as a woman to pursue, dine with, and learn from is a very vivid picture for young unmarried men.

So, we have established that women in the book of Proverbs are used to depict wisdom and folly, respectively. And, we have established that the book was originally intended for the instruction of young men. All this leads me to say that within the context of the book of Proverbs, the Proverbs 31 woman is not only a model for women and wives. Indeed, if Woman Wisdom in chapters 8 and 9 is a depiction of wisdom on a cosmic scale, then the virtuous woman of chapter 31 is a depiction of wisdom on a domestic scale. If Proverbs 8-9 is wisdom writ large, then Proverbs 31 is wisdom writ small (so to speak). This means that the wise woman of Proverbs 31 is an example intended for women and men of a God-fearing, industrious, and wise life. Despite the way she is used in evangelical churches today, the woman of valor was not intended to be a "job description" for the aspiring godly homemaker, but a compelling picture of wise living in the domestic sphere. This a is an important distinction, I think.

Moreover, thinking contextually (in light of what I've described above), if the Proverbs 31 woman was intended to be used as a "job description" at all, it was for young men to use in order to know what kind of wise woman they should take as a wife. That is, it was a lens by which to judge the women of their day. This is even more obvious when read in light of the whole chapter, which is said to be from "King Lemuel" and "an oracle that his mother taught him." Along with instruction about avoiding the perils of too much wine (v. 4) and (presumably) loose women (v. 3), King Lemuel's mother exhorted him to speak for the underprivileged and destitute, to judge righteously and defend the poor and needy (vv. 8-9). In light of these exhortations regarding wise ruling, the words regarding wise living in the home make good sense. In order to rule wisely, surely King Lemuel would want a wise women by his side, as well--as would any other young Israelite man receiving instruction from the book of Proverbs.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in the next few days...

Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Review: The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission by David E. Fitch

David E. Fitch is B.R. Lindner Professor of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL and a pastor at Life on the Vine Christian Community in suburban Chicago. In 2005 he published The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies. He has a blog called Reclaiming the Mission. According to his blog, he considers himself an Anabaptist (or, Neo-anabaptist). His most recent book is the subject of this review: The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission.

Up front, I have to be honest. I didn't have any idea who David Fitch was when my friend, Todd Littleton, asked if I would be interested in reviewing his most recent book. I said "yes" mostly because of our friendship, with little to no real expectation for the book I would be reviewing. I was even more skeptical when I saw that the title references the "end of evangelicalism"--an issue that has been talked (almost) to death in the blogosphere.

With that in mind, let me just say that this book was a very pleasant surprise. To put it simply, Fitch's work is deeply insightful, carefully articulated, and charitably expressed. It is probably the most informed consideration of US evangelicalism I've ever read. (What more could you ask for, right?) I'm grateful for the opportunity to read it and provide a review (and endorsement!). I'm going to outline the book below, providing something of an overview of the material, as well as some relevant comments and critique that arise along the way.

In the "Introduction," Fitch presents the foundational problem for US evangelicalism as he sees it. In public perception and political influence, evangelicalism is in the midst of a great decline. He illustrates this decline in a number of ways and then poses the question: "Is our way of life failing to make the gospel compelling amidst the society in which we live?" His answer to this question is a resounding "yes." And, the crux of the issue is that evangelical beliefs and practices are no longer shaping our communal life in such a way that it embodies the Gospel (xiv, xv).

Fitch chooses to approach this crisis in evangelicalism using political theology, for the "politic" of evangelicalism is what is at issue. This is not primarily speaking of our various alliances within US national politics. Instead, this is speaking of "our way of life together unified and formed into an organic whole by our beliefs and practices of those beliefs" (xvi). This is our "politic" in a broad, holistic sense--what kinds of people we are in the world.

He goes on to explain that he is going to use the political theory of Slavoj Zizek to critique the corporate existence of evangelicals in order to show how we have devolved into an "empty politic." This empty politic, Fitch argues, has "shaped us as a people inhospitable to God's mission" (xvi). Then, he will propose what he calls a "politic of fullness," which he defines as one that "participates in the life of the Incarnate Christ as a work of the Father, extended through the Spirit into the world" (xvii). Despite the critical work that will be done (and there is a lot of it!), Fitch's aim is not to dismantle evangelicalism, but to "seek to provide an opening for evangelicalism to be renewed and to flourish into the missional calling that lies before us in the new post-Christendom West" (xvii).

In Chapter 1, Fitch describes what he believes to be the decline of evangelicalism in the US. Over a ten year period, he illustrates this decline by pointing to our diminishing national political influence, the proliferation of negative portrayals of evangelicals, the rise of leaders and movements to criticize evangelicalism (including Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, and others), and the very high numbers of defection from evangelicalism, especially among college students. Fitch goes on to characterize this decline as a "political ideology in crisis." By looking at evangelicalism as an ideology, Fitch intends to explore the ways our belief system, or doctrine, has shaped us into "a certain kind of people with certain ways of life" (8).

The focus of his critique will be three core theological beliefs which, he argues, now function as "ideological objects around which evangelicals rally" (11). He draws these three beliefs from the description of evangelicalism proposed by historians David Bebbington and Mark Noll, and they include: (1) a high view of the authority of the Bible; (2) a strong belief in personal conversion experience; and (3) an activist engagement with culture. It is important to note that when Fitch takes these doctrinal elements under consideration, he does not deny them or suggest that they are wrong. Instead, he approaches them as the "ideological objects" they have become.

One of the important points of this chapter is the frankly stated notion that, "Our social presence (or lack thereof) has impaired our witness for the gospel" (9). This statement resonates with me in a big way. It seems that this is the nagging hunch most of us--my evangelical friends and colleagues and I--have had at the back of our minds for some time, but none of us really wanted to put it into words. Fitch just says it. And, I think he's right. Our body politic, the emptiness that exists where our compelling Christian life should be, is harming our mission in North America.

The next chapter is probably the most dense of the book, in which Fitch outlines the political and cultural theories of Slavoj Zizek. At this point, I won't go into detail about the relevant terms and ideas. To do so would mean replicating large portions of the chapter! Suffice it to say, Fitch provides a careful and clear explanation of the earlier period of Zizek's work for those unfamiliar with his thought (just about everyone!). He will use Zizek's philosophy to critique evangelicalism as a political ideology. He compares the use of Zizek to sitting down with a good therapist. Using Zizek's understanding of the way "empty politics" work, Fitch will provides a "psychoanalysis" of evangelicalism, helping to diagnosis our pathologies and neuroses. Fitch is careful to say, though, that Zizek will only help locate the problems; ultimately, his atheistic, nihilistic philosophy cannot provide the remedy.

In the chapters that follow, Fitch turns his attention to the three central "Master-Signifiers" of evangelicalism: "the Inerrant Bible," "the Decision for Christ," and "the Christian Nation." Again, it is important to realize that Fitch is NOT denying these ideas, theologically or otherwise. Instead, he is critiquing the way these ideas have come to function within evangelicalism--as empty ideological symbols that serve as litmus tests for identity, rather than formative doctrines that make evangelicals into committed, fruit-producing disciples of Jesus. He reveals the emptiness of these ideological objects by examining events in recent evangelical history ("irruptions") that reveal in sometimes bizarre and embarrassing ways, the failure of the evangelical politic in the US context.

Although all three chapters make compelling arguments, I found that the chapter on "the Inerrant Bible" resonated the most from personal experience. Based upon many years within evangelical churches and institutions, I think Fitch's conclusions regarding the way the ideological object of "inerrancy" functions in evangelical life is spot-on. "Damning" is the word that comes to mind. Here's an excerpt of Fitch's argument:

"The assertion of 'inerrancy'...acts as an identifier used to assert the organization's, church's, or one's own personal evangelical orthodoxy. It serves to generate a certain ideological identification that we are conservative Bible-believing Christians who can be trusted. It serves to identify a group as 'not liberal.' The actual belief, however, in 'the Inerrant Bible' means little in terms of what each evangelical organization or church actually believes about biblical interpretation, the manuscripts, and/or internal contradictions as exposed by higher biblical critics. It instead functions purely as a symbol, an 'empty signifier,' that binds evangelicals together for certain political purposes" (56).

After Fitch applies Zizek to evangelicalism, critiquing and exposing the three "Master-Signifiers" that have emptied our politic of fullness, in Chapter 6 he turns his attention to "Recovering the Core of Our Politics for Mission." Here, he outlines what he considers to be the possibility for a redeemed politic ("politic of fullness") that will be "a participation of people together in the gift of God the Father that enters into the world in the incarnate Christ as the Sent One and is extended into the world via the Holy Spirit...Here, at the Incarnation, the gift is full, and we are invited as a people into participating in the fullness of God's love flowing forth within the endless plenitude of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" (126). In pursuit of this goal, Fitch suggests that what is needed is not a rejection of the three evangelical distinctives, previously critiqued, but an overcoming of their detachment from Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son, who is the center of our political existence.

Then, Fitch considers each of the three evangelical doctrinal commitments in conversation with important contemporary Christian theologians, imagining a revised version of these commitments firmly rooted in the Incarnate Christ. Again, space and time limitations mean that I can't address the details of these arguments. Fitch engages with a dizzying plethora of theologians and to consider each of the engagements in turn would take a long series of blog posts. Some of the important thinkers Fitch employs for his project include Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Kevin Vanhoozer, N.T. Wright, John Milbank, Dallas Willard, Henri de Lubac, William Cavanaugh, and John Howard Yoder.

When Fitch concludes Chapter 6, he has set forth a new direction for an evangelical theology and practice that will shape a people for God's mission. Though much more remains to be done (something he readily admits!), I think Fitch has gone a long way toward charting course of theological reflection for evangelicalism. Ultimately, he rightly calls on the work of Stanley Hauerwas to shore up his project, urging us "that if the character of our political existence does not emulate the gospel we preach, we should examine our belief and practice for the ways it has made such a social condition possible." Fitch's book is a call to do just that and a big contribution toward making this enterprise possible.

Finally, in the book's "Epilogue," Fitch considers three movements within evangelicalism over the past ten to fifteen years and critically considers them as "possibilities for new faithfulness." Charitable and careful in his criticism, Fitch suggests places of weakness and strength within the work of representative thinkers Peter Rollins, Brian McLaren, Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost (together). He concludes that "the emerging church movements, the missional church movements, as well as the neo-monastic and house church movements all show enormous promise for nurturing a new faithfulness" (200). Still, in his studied opinion, the outcome of their work for evangelicalism will depend upon their ability to avoid the "ideological traps" that Fitch points out.

Before addressing a few critical comments about Fitch's book, I should begin again by saying that I heartily recommend this volume. Fitch is a careful, deep thinker with an obvious love for Christ and the people of God. With The End of Evangelicalism?, he has made a very important contribution to evangelical theology and the endeavor of re-visioning the evangelical witness in North America.

With that in mind, I have three points of criticism and/or engagement with Fitch's work. The first has to do with his assertion that doctrines form people. This is the operative assumption when he says, "Evangelicals need to understand both how these doctrines have formed us as a people and to question whether indeed the resultant character of that community is congruent with the gospel we evangelicals have been called to proclaim to the nations" (12). I do not debate his overall point here. In fact, I completely agree. But, I think its important to point out that the formation of a people is a much more complicated process. We can't simply point to doctrines, for they are ideas--abstract notions that cannot actually "do" anything. What forms people is liturgy, ritual, behavior, and story (among other things). These things contain, communicate, and enact doctrine, but they aren't simply doctrine. For example, in reference to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, we could point to the AWANA children's program or expository preaching as things that form people based upon a particular doctrine. The doctrine itself didn't necessarily do the forming, but the practices did. I don't think Fitch would contest me on this point, but I think it is one that should be made.

Another question I have about this book relates to the basic categories of "fallen politic" versus "Christian politic" or "politic of fullness." I am very sympathetic with Fitch's conclusion that evangelicalism has, by and large, become a "fallen politic." The reified "ideological objects" he critiques have left us with an unredeeming cultural presence in the US. But, I have to wonder if the dualism of "fallen politic" versus "politic of fullness" ever really pans out. That is to say, isn't the church always-already-everywhere dealing with both? From early on, it seems the church, as a situated body of people struggling with the way Gospel interacts with culture, has always navigated the blurry edges between enculturation and syncretism--faithfulnss and "fallenness," if you will. Furthermore, because the church is the people of God, bearing the marks of Christ, can the church ever be completely fallen? And, because the church is full of sinful, broken human beings, can the church ever be completely "full"?

As careful as Fitch's analysis is, I wonder if it isn't even more complicated than he asserts. Christian compromise and cooperation with evil is nothing new, nor is it something we can completely avoid--especially in light of globalization and the proliferation of new technologies. There are always more and more people available to us to sin against! I am not a Niebuhrian realist, but I am incapable of an all-in dichotomy in the church-world relationship, either. Perfection is not possible for the body of Christ until the Lord's reign is inaugurated in full. In the mean time, I have to think that evangelicals will always deal with a mixture of "fallen" and "full" elements within our body politic. So, the question is, what do we do with that? What do we do with a body politic that is always-already-everywhere fallen and full?

Finally, in light of Fitch's criticism of evangelicalism's three major "ideological obejcts," I have to wonder about the way complementarian gender dualism functions in evangelicalism, too. Although not traditionally a part of the "fundamentals" from which twentieth century evangelicalism was birthed, a rigid sense of gender roles has become another hallmark of US evangelicalism today. (This, despite the work of such egalitarian evangelical organizations like Christians for Biblical Equality.) Ever since the 1920s, strong notions of masculinity and femininity, framed in patriarchal terms, has been a hallmark of fundamentalist evangelicalism from early on. Thanks to the likes of Al Mohler, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Paige Patterson, et al, a hierarchical view of gender relations has become yet another litmus test for orthodoxy in recent decades. And, in my estimation, it could be argued that it too has become a "Master-Signifier"--an empty ideological object that contributes nothing of real practical (read: missional) effect in the lives of evangelical Christians. To put it in Fitch's terms, it could be argued that the complementarian model of gender dualism is not shaping our communal life in such a way that it embodies the Gospel.

I see this when so-called "traditional" wives and mothers speak in exalted language about the importance of submission to their "spiritual heads" (their husbands) and then turn around and giggle in private about the wife being the "neck" that turns the "head" where she pleases. I see this when evangelicals erupted in debate over the 2008 vice presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin--an accomplished politician and mother of five. Despite very clearly established norms of gender relations for "regular" women, evangelical leaders found themselves contorting themselves in theological gymnastics seeking a way to affirm the legitimacy of Palin's very public role, despite her calling as wife and mother. And, I see this in the absurdity of bans on women preachers being interpreted to prohibit women speaking from the pulpit, praying in public, and voicing opinions in church meetings. (These are examples of what Fitch calls examples of "overidentification," which display the emptiness and absurdity of the ideology at its core.) All of these things (and more) suggest to me that, perhaps, the hierarchical gender relations constantly spouted by the evangelical faithful are another "ideological object" worthy of deconstruction within evangelicalism today.

Before concluding this review, I should address a few practical points for potential readers of The End of Evangelicalism?. First, it is important to keep in mind that Fitch's work in this volume is not an easy read, even for educated laypersons. It is in an academic book series and engages with the work of a little known political and cultural theorist. The reader will need to be able to engage with a description of Zizek's political and cultural theory, as well as a number of important 20th Century theological figures. Personally, I think the mental workout one will receive is worth the effort, but this is something potential readers will want to keep in mind before dolling out the required cash.

Speaking of cash, if you look it up on Amazon, you'll see the book priced at a hefty $28, for a paperback (!). But, let me just say that if you are an evangelical seeking to think critically about your context, especially a minister, lay leader, professor, or other vocation within the evangelical milieu, this book is worth the price. And that's coming from a mother of two children with a youth minister husband, living on a graduate student stipend!

After reading David Fitch's The End of Evangelicalism, I have put his previous volume, The Great Giveaway on my Amazon Wish List. I will continue to think deeply about the issues he has raised while I pursue my own vocation as theological teacher in evangelicalism today. And, I look forward to reading more from him in the future.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

What she said!

When I wrote my little rant several days ago about not wanting to talk about women in ministry anymore, I was reacting to feelings that Laura Rector expresses very well in this ABP article: Don't try to "fix" women in ministry. All I can say is: What she said!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Case Against Male Pastors

This is a re-posted and slightly tweaked piece from the past. I found it particularly amusing recently in light of some things Ronnie and I are reading. Perhaps its a bad sign that I amuse myself with it, but hopefully my readers will share in the laughs, too. I find myself unable to write anything original at the moment as I finish up research papers for the semester. Enjoy!

The question of who can and should serve as pastors within Christ's church has been a subject of controversy and struggle for hundreds of years. While most of God's people have resolved this issue and conduct their churches in a manner pleasing to God, many have wandered into iniquity and promoted the idea that men--yes, men--can serve as pastors. I have been alarmed at the number of my fellow evangelicals who continue to insist upon this perspective, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As a result, I provide the following post for my readers: The Case Against Male Pastors.

In the beginning, the first couple faced their first real test by the Serpent of Old. When Eve was offered the forbidden fruit and she succumbed to temptation, the Bible attests that Adam was alongside her: "When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it." In this, the first chance for a man to shepherd another in the direction of righteousness, Adam fails miserably and caused the downfall of the whole human race. Clearly, therefore, God is permanently displeased with male shepherds and they are an abomination in his sight.

Despite the fact that our sinful, perverted culture has promoted the dangerous idea that men should be nurturing, kind, emotionally mature, and sensitive, we must resist the cultural shift and insist that men remain in the role given to them by God. The nurturing, caring responsibilities of a pastor violate the God-given order, to which men must conform, no matter what "enlightened" minds say about it. Men should stick to the tasks that best suit them: shooting things, opening jars, beating people up, and hunting. With such responsibilities to fulfill, pastoring is not an option.

The Old Testament is clear that men belong in the workplace so that they can bring home the bacon. Over and over in the Hebrew history, we see the men going to the fields to work the land or raise animals, while the women stay home, nurture the children, and keep the household in order. Men have no business managing the household of God when it is clear that women are the ones who have been developing, over thousands of years, the gifts and skill-set needed to do so expertly.

Furthermore, the testimony of the New Testament is that the closest disciples of Jesus were all men. Sadly, not only did a man betray Jesus for a sack of money, but all of them abandoned Jesus upon his arrest. It was the women who steadfastly followed Jesus to the cross and then came to prepare his body after his death. And, it was a woman who first saw and spoke to Jesus after his resurrection, and the first one to be sent to inform others (the male disciples) of the Good News. Clearly, women make up the most loyal and faithful disciples of Jesus and they were originally entrusted with the full Gospel message. Therefore, women should be the ones entrusted with the shepherding of other disciples.

Also, men's bodies are an obvious stumbling block for female parishioners. Just as Potiphar's wife was lured by Joseph's good looks, and Delilah by Samson's rippling muscles, so also Christian women are constantly tempted by the good looks of male pastors. Although there is nothing in scripture that denotes the male form to be a problem for their ministry, common sense says that they simply cannot perform the duties of pastor without causing a major problem in the thought lives of impressionable women. In this sense, when men voluntarily submit to the leadership of women in church, they find the best way to protect the minds and hearts of their sisters in Christ.

Moreover, the Bible is clear that men are to be the spiritual leaders of their homes. The hierarchy of the home is clear: God first, husband second, wife third, and children last. Each answers to their superior for matters of spirituality and none have more responsibility than the husband, who must answer to God for the spiritual state of his wife and kids. If a husband is being obedient to the Word and takes this sacred trust seriously, then he will not have the time or energy necessary to shepherd others. With the eternal souls of his family on the line, a godly man would not want to distract himself with the spiritual concerns of others. Therefore, since the wife is not responsible for her own spirituality, she is the one best suited for caring for the lives of fellow Christians as their pastor.

Finally, the advances of psychology and neurology have shown that men and women are very different in their minds and emotions. While women are adept at multi-tasking, managing relationships, and seeing the connectedness of all things, men tend to compartmentalize, blunder through relationships, and disregard the symbiosis of all things. Also, men are generally out of touch with their feelings, struggle to empathize, and do not naturally show mercy. This means that, through no fault of their own, men are ill-equipped to be pastors, for their mind and emotions are not set up that way. Rather than bemoan this limitation, however, we should rejoice in the profound differences between men and women and thank God for the clarity we have received through the sciences in recent years.

All of these arguments do not mean, however, that men are not equal to women. Of course not! Men and women are equal in essence, but different in function. Men and women are equal in their place before God, but different in their place in the church. It is not because of any defect or malformation in men that makes them unsuitable for the pastorate. It is just the way God intends it to be.

Men are still capable of having a vibrant and meaningful place in the ministry of God's church. Among other things, men can mow the church grounds, count the money, pick up heavy furniture, and eat at the potlucks. Men can be recognized on Father's Day, saluted on Memorial Day and Veteran's Day, and acknowledged by the church on their birthday. With so many blessed ways to serve God's people, why would men desire to usurp God's order and pursue anything else?

Being a man is a high calling and it deserves our utmost respect. Let women support men in their endeavor to pursue God's best, honoring their service to the church, even if they cannot serve as the church's pastor.