Mere Fidelity: The ‘Ask Us Anything’ Edition

We’ve had a great time recording Mere Fidelity, and we’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness of your response and support for it.

Mere FidelityNow we want to hear from you.  We don’t have a show for you this week, so instead we thought we’d solicit questions from you all that we can take up in our next edition.  We’ve wanted to do this for a while, but the timing hasn’t quite been right.  Now it is.

So, ask us anything.  And then vote below in the comments on which questions you like best.  We’ll discuss as manyh of the most popular questions as we can in the time allotted, and all the rest will be thrown into the abyss.  Or we’ll take them up in a future episode. The world is mysterious that way.

Fire away, then.  And if you’re on Twitter and want to pass the word around, feel free to use the #merefi hashtag.  Questions asked there will be unofficially considered, but if you want official recognition you need to come to these here comments and do your thing.

This whole voting thing will go on until next Monday at midnight. Thanks again for your kindness and support.  We’re very, very grateful.

 

The Fatal Tensions of the Fight Churches

“It’s physics, basically.  You bend the guy the other direction than God intended.”

Or so says Paul Burress, pastor of Victory Church and central character in Fight Church, the new documentary co-directed by Brian Storkel.  Like Holy Rollers, Storkel’s previous effort, Fight Church is a sympathetic-but-not-uncritical account of an unconventional religious practice—that is, an entirely conventional practice which some Christians have dressed up with a patina of theological justifications and clichés. Burress’s church is one of some alleged 700 churches in the United States that have taken to the increasingly popular sport of mixed-martial arts as a form of Christian witness.  Fight Church doesn’t pull its punches: “Can you love your neighbor as yourself, while at the same time kneeing him in the face…as hard as you can?  is the question that the trailer poses and which the film carefully considers.Fight Church

The filmmakers chart a few pastors closely, and put their justifications in a nice dialogue with a movement to keep MMA illegal in New York.  The close-up on the lives of these pastors is undoubtedly helpful:  it’s not easy, after all, to understand the texture of the beliefs and commitments of those engaging in practices we find idiosyncratic (at best) from a distance.  And with one or two exceptions, most of the pastors featured seemed like nice guys, with supportive families and an intense sincerity about their convictions.  At least as much as the film showed us, anyway.  A cynic might allege that some pastors master the art of faking the authenticity required for the job, and cynics aren’t always wrong. But part of the conflict the film induces, in fact, for some Christian viewers may be to wonder how nice guys could go so far wrong.

But the filmmakers may also make their study too close to engender a proper understanding of why MMA has moved nearer the center of American religious communities. There are the occasional and expected bits about how the church has ‘feminized’ men, but almost no exploration of what this means. I was surprised, and mildly impressed, to realize at the end of the film that Tyler Durden hadn’t been mentioned at all.  The narrow focus of the filmmakers leaves so many questions about MMA itself unexplored: the film almost makes it feel like MMA has always been there, rather than being itself a recent phenomenon with its own intrinsic meaning and questions. Whatever else we make about it, Fight Club found its way to a sympathetic male audience somehow.  Without more broadly contextualizing the kind of life which fight clubs are a reaction against, it’s harder to properly understand the tacit and embedded reasons within the practice that those Christians who undertake it must assume.  MMA itself may be innocuous, or only superficially so, but it’s easier to tell when we understand the conditions of its emergence.

That complaint aside, though, the film succeeds at doing what Storkel and company do so well: provoking interesting questions and presenting a range of opinions on them, which makes excellent fodder for thought. I said, though, that the filmmakers are not entirely uncritical: they are in a corner, and that corner is sparring with the fight church guys. The film tacitly raises the question of how children are being formed in these communities, but does not (alas) deal extensively with it.  Which is too bad, because it’s one of the most troubling aspects that shows up on screen, and by leaving it tacit in the images it seems as though Storkel and company are making the critique more effective than if they dealt with it explicitly.  The camera stays on one young fellow who takes a turn in the ring and sits crying afterward. While that’s an unhappy image, it’s also not so nearly as disturbing as the image of an eight-year old or so boy out shooting guns with his father (who is so amped up that he couldn’t even imagine critiques of fight churches, unlike the others in the film). Yes, he’s supervised, but it’s still jarring to see. Why are they out shooting?  There is no reason given, and the viewer is left to assume that there’s a short line between the kind of hyper-masculinity that partakes in fight clubs and the violence that guns at least signify.

Of course, nothing I’ve said actually addresses the substantive question of whether Christianity and MMA inherently conflict with each other. For that, I would encourage readers to consider the most astute theological analysis of the question I’ve read, which was written by a one-time participant in the sport and which endeavors—rightly—to take its Christian advocates and practitioners seriously as dialogue partners:

During the fight, I had to ignore not only my body but my opponent’s body as well—which is to say I had to ignore him. After taking an opponent down to the ground, I would hit him until he decided it wasn’t worth it anymore and gave up by tapping out. Some opponents were more stubborn than others and thus needed more convincing than others, but I always vowed to never hit them any more than I needed to in order to get them to tap out—witness the triumph of rational morality, or to use the language of Jus In Bello, “proportionality”!…

In all these ways—in my training, in the moments leading up to the fight, in the fight itself, and especially in the days following the fight—the way to excel as a fighter was not by living as an integrated human body, but rather by (somehow!) detaching my “self” from my body. So I agree with the MMA Christians in their insistence that any account of masculinity must also offer an account of embodiment. And yet, I simply observe that the successful mixed martial artist must subscribe to a false account—one in which pain is not real and in which human beings are somehow outside of or apart from the body.

I have no way of telling whether this recounting of MMA’s effects is accurate, nor have I any reason to doubt it. But I’d note that this kind of ‘disintegration’ from the sport seems like an exaggerated form of the kind of distancing from our bodies that we experience in any sort of pain. Physical suffering has that kind of effect: we say “my arm hurts” when our pain sensors intrude on our conscious experience, rather than “I hurt.”  Nor is such momentary fragmentation necessarily vicious:  a person who is ‘out of shape’ may not feel like getting out of bed the day after an intensely difficult workout, after all, even though overcoming that kind of pain and the distancing from our bodies it entails may be what they need to achieve a more healthy integration. (If you ask me whether I have experience of this, I will say that I am well acquainted with being ‘out of shape’ but not so much the latter phenomenon.  Draw your own conclusions.)

Still, MMA is not a workout, and whether it is licit for Christians to undertake has to involve considering how we treat our neighbor within the practice.  Not every contest of strength is wrong, it seems to me:  wrestling as an activity aims at throwing one’s opponent to the ground and immobilizing them. Arm wrestling is a contest of strength of an even more benign sort. Such demonstrations of strength and weakness are enjoyable to some men and women (and highly dubious to others), and while I’m strongly averse to infusing them with testosterone so that they become litmus tests of manhood, it’s hard to think of a serious objection to them, either.

Whether MMA falls along this spectrum or is of a different kind of thing is a difficult question. The fusion of martial arts, boxing, and wrestling and the aesthetics of the cage and the ring give it a gritty atmosphere (which was unquestionably pronounced in its early years, but I understand has been sanitized somewhat to reach a more mainstream audience) that seems to want to incorporate the no-holds-barred mentality of a street fight and its taboo connotations into the living room. I’m an outsider both as a viewer and a participant, but from a distance the sport seems to thrive on a kind of bloodthirstiness that aims at harming one’s opponent (like boxing) and winning submission not necessarily through immobilizing or overpowering one’s opponent but incapacitating them such that, if the defeat is serious enough, their body temporarily loses the ability to function altogether. And therein, it seems to me, lies a moral world of difference.

I’m an MMA skeptic, then, and this film doesn’t help persuade me not to be from a theological standpoint.  But then, I came into it having written a book on a closely related subject, and so am in danger of confirmation bias.  Take that as you will.  But the kinds of justifications offered by pastors were most frequently just the sort of pragmatic, anti-theological ‘reasons’ that come up in related discussions like tattoos, which leave no room for any kind of limits on our “Christian witness” besides those which are unquestionably explicit in Scripture itself.  Yes, tough guys need Jesus: but surely starting a fight club in the church basement is not the only way (or even the best) to reach them, is it?  Perhaps we should think about that for a while sometime.  After all, in my experience the pragmatic justification for these kinds of programs is always the least creative and least innovative. Such justifications somehow manage to presuppose the worst of the very people they’re trying to reach—namely, that they are interested in and would only be fully satisfied by a church which can slake their thirst for just this kind of practice. And they infantilize the churches that undertake them, for they cheapen the very mysteries and sanctity of holiness which they have been entrusted to bear witness to.

I come now to the end (really): the Fight Church phenomenon is really nothing more than a passing fad and will be forgotten in a decade by everyone except those laborious historians of religion on their never-ending quests to dissect the nature of American evangelicalism. So let me write the obituary now, if only for posterity:  at the heart of the fight churches were both the strengths and weaknesses of the evangelical world. Its best and most reasonable proponents (which are featured in this film) were motivated by an interested seriousness to reach their neighbor with a message that has captivated them, yet were simultaneously unrestrained by any form of moral reasoning other than that which lies on the surface of the Bible and so unable to untangle their own praiseworthy motivations from the problematic and troubling practices which they took shape within.  The Christianity of the fight churches deluded itself into thinking it was strong, while it was actually weak, and into believing that in its battle for the world it had managed to overcome its brittle frailties. And when the struggle with this contradiction wore the fight churches out, they fell to the ground exhausted where they yet lie, exhausted, beaten, and alive only in the knowledge of the God who forgets nothing and those researchers who strive to imitate him.

Fight Church is a film that you should watch.  It’s available both digitally and on DVD.  I received access to a copy for free:  whether my review is worth the money I was paid is a question I leave entirely up to you. 

Mere Fidelity: Should we hope to die at 75?


Should we hope to die at 75?  That’s the premise of a long and provocative article at The Atlantic.  As Ezekiel Emanuel, its author, writes:

Seventy-five years is all I want to live. I want to celebrate my life while I am still in my prime. My daughters and dear friends will continue to try to convince me that I am wrong and can live a valuable life much longer. And I retain the right to change my mind and offer a vigorous and reasoned defense of living as long as possible. That, after all, would mean still being creative after 75.

What should we make of this?  That’s what Derek, Alastair and I discuss on this week’s episode.  Give it a listen and let us know in the comments what you think.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

Finally, as always, follow Derek and Alastair for more tweet-sized brilliance.

 

Mere Fidelity: On Friendship

Wesley Hill is one of the brightest and best young writers evangelical Christianity has. His recent cover story at Christianity Today on friendship raised some interesting questions, which we consider in this episode.  Listen in as we discuss friendship’s proper shape, its limits, and its role in our late-modern world.

My own previous essay responding to Wesley came up.  Read it here if you haven’t yet.

The iTunes feed for Mere Fidelity is here if you’d like to subscribe (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly), and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

Finally, as always, follow Derek and Andrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.

 

The Death of Adulthood

We’ve reached the end of adulthood in America according to AO Scott. Or at least of the patriarchal version of it, anyway, which Scott sees in three paradigmatic dramas of our era—Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, whose protagonists and their downfalls allow us to “marvel at the mask of masculine incompetence even as we watched it slip or turn ugly.”  On Scott’s reading, “in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grownups.”  It’s a provocative, sweeping hypothesis of the sort that are useful for engendering conversations, even if it doesn’t stand up under analysis.

And it may not:  David Marcus intemperately lambastes the essay, describing Scott’s style as “equal parts snobbery and self-effacement,” and his thesis a “crisis of the elites” rather than of “common folks.” Marcus presses the details of Scott’s historical case, and at some points makes appropriate corrections:  Scott’s description of the ‘Founding Fathers’, for instance, as “late adolescents” conflates rebellion against a paternalism of political authority with a dismissal of paternal authority per se, a move that at best seems highly tendentious without any further justification for it.

But on other points, Marcus (weirdly) buttresses Scott’s case even while attempting to dismiss it. As Marcus writes, “The last sitcom dad to get any kind of vaunted respect was Hugh Beaumont in ‘Leave it to Beaver.’” Technically, I suppose this contradicts Scott’s thesis that the past decade of television signals the “end of an era.”  But that the symptoms were present in previous generations isn’t exactly encouraging news, and makes me disposed to think that even if Mad Men is more the fruit of a long degeneration rather than an epochal revolution, Scott’s main point that we have a crisis of adulthood has some merit to it.

Yes, it is tempting to speak as though nothing in our culture has changed.  Every age has its antecedents, after all. We can speak of contemporary movie violence as though it is a Brand New Thing, but have you seen Titus Andronicus? Everyone dies, and in the most horrific of ways. Was that an outlier, or was the range of ‘acceptable’ simply that broad? If we take the movies as indicative of anything about a culture—and I’ll need some persuading that we shouldn’t—it’s hard for me to imagine Billy Madison or Borat finding a meaningful audience within the same culture that made and enjoyed Leave it to Beaver. The “Overton Window” for acceptable behaviors on screen has shifted, and certainly that means something. 

Ignoring that shift, and so leaving it unexplained, is the weakest part of Marcus’s response. He may consider the crisis of adulthood to be an “elite” phenomenon, a symptom of a liberal progressivism which wants its liberation and equality while having its dignity too.  Yes, NCIS is popular:  but so is Castle, and is there a show that better highlights the kind of adolescent-adulthood that is, for many young men, aspirational?  And “bro comedies” exist, which Scott deploys but Marcus does not mention. The aforementioned television dramas may have relatively small audiences: but a culture is made of its comedies as well, and on Scott’s hypothesis the emasculation of men in our highbrow dramas and the crass, juvenile antics of our cheap comedies are but two sides of the same adolescent coin.

Scott himself is aggravatingly ambivalent about these changes (contra Marcus’s description of him as “rooting for it”), even to the point of incoherent. “Just as men passed through the stage of sincere rebellion to arrive to a stage of infantile refusal,” he writes, “so, too, have the women progressed by means of regression.” I think that’s supposed to be an artful phrase, but what on earth does it mean?  Have there been benefits to the new culture?  Unquestionably.  But for whom, and at what cost?  If Scott’s own thesis is right, we can have our liberation from the patriarchy and all the benefits that accrue to women, but apparently only at the expense of everyone’s adulthood.  (Or that has been the cost, anyway:  we may be able to conceive of a different path to where we’ve come, now that we are looking back upon it.) Still, is there a point where the cost for such “progress” becomes simply too high to pay?  It’s not fashionable for Scott to shout “get off my lawn”, but progressives are not immune to the possibility of “buyer’s remorse.” Scott’s piece reads like someone who has woken up to what the progressive cultural temperament has wrought, and is somewhat unsettled by it.

My initial disposition, unlike Marcus’ slash-and-burn approach, is to welcome Scott as a potential cultural ally:  “Come on in, sir, the conservative water is fine.”  Or something like that. It ought to be a welcome sign that an admittedly progressive writer at the New York Times has been reduced to sounding crankier than many conservatives manage to. In this world, we cannot have too many allies.

But more interesting, and difficult, questions emerged once my smug schaudenfreude passed:  I mean, it’s great and all to point to the costs of our current culture, but we clearly aren’t going back. Manhood will inevitably take its form now in a “post-patriachal” age, and that has to mean something for how conservatives think of and conceive of adulthood.  Even if we think that the forces that undermined adulthood in America are rotten to the core, we’re all living in the environment they created. And neither Marcus’ optimistic account that the death of adulthood has been “greatly exaggerated” or my gut “we told you so” meaningfully solve the more pressing question of what shape adulthood should take in a world of creeping adolescence, and where the pressures on men and women are different than any they’ve known before.**

*Yes, Castle has the luxury to play with his toys and hard-working ‘Muricans don’t have time to worry about the death of adulthood. But toys and fun are what we want these days, even if we have to spend our days working to get them.

** This is a generalized claim, which may or may not be true about any particular person or even specific sub-communities.

The Lavishness of Friendship and a World Beyond Vows

Wesley Hill’s Christianity Today cover story on friendship is now available, and it deserves consideration. The title they gave the online version is terribly misleading, but I’m told (by the author) that the title inside is much more reflective of the piece: “’Til Death Do Us Part: Why Now More Than Ever, We Need to Recover a Rich Vision of Lifelong Friendship.”

Wesley argues—rightly—that evangelicals need to build stronger and more enduring ties of friendship, and that one path toward this would be to recover the “historic Christian practice of vowed friendships.” While he floats the idea of public ceremonies, he recognizes that it is unlikely such rites will take hold anytime soon.

I want to stress how strongly I agree with Wesley’s premise: many of us have very thin understandings of friendship and its importance, and evangelicals absolutely need to disestablish marriage as the only legitimate form of ‘serious’ relationship available to congregants. I’ve written about that before. But while I’m intrigued by Wesley’s suggestion of adoption liturgical rites for non-marital vows, I remain mildly unconvinced by his case. Indeed, I worry that in promoting vows of friendship he actually obscures the marvelous form of love which friendship in its purest form embodies.

Perhaps the way in to my worries is through his deployment of Lewis. Lewis doesn’t come off well in the essay for his claim that friendship is “disembodied,” such that it is an “affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds.” Against that, Wesley suggests that we do not need “disinterested, disembodied camaraderie, in which we keep distance from one anothers’ hearts and stories.” But Lewis grants that our ‘hearts and stories’ are present within a friendship: they are simply not friendship’s substance. As he writes in the bit preceding what Wesley quotes:

In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for an anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts.

Being freed from our contexts is not the same as keeping distance from our “hearts and stories.” Rather, it means recognizing that our contexts, our histories, our biographies are not finally determinative for who we might be. Our narrative is not our destiny, in other words, nor is our union because of the details of our stories. Exploring such histories may be a proximate cause for our gathering together, to be sure, but in its paradigmatic form friendship is not finally determined by them. If that which originally drew us were to somehow fade away, on Lewis’ view the friendship could and should endure. Such friendship is—and I note this with some argument given the thrust of Wesley’s piece—more permanent and universal than the contingencies which make up our respective lives.

Even so, there is no question that for Lewis the friend must “prove himself an ally when an alliance becomes necessary.” When the need arises, friends do what friends do. But for Lewis, friendship is oriented away from such dependencies: as he so elegantly puts it, “The mark of perfect Friendship is not that help will be given when the pinch comes (of course it will) but that, having been given, it makes no difference at all.” It has a free and lavish quality, which not every bond among us does. Yes, it’s easiest to conceive of Lewis “with J.R.R. Tolkien or Owen Barfield, discussing some scrap of Old English literature over a pint at the pub.” But his closest friend was his brother Warnie, from whom he was nearly inseparable, and their relationship transversed a variety of forms and settings.

My point here is not simply an attempt to rescue a bit of Lewis that sounds strange to our ears. (Okay, yes, yes that is my point. Are you happy?) Instead, I think that Lewis’ account actually illuminates the heart of friendship in a way that Wesley’s essay obscures. On Lewis’ view, friendship is a form of life free of obligations. But that is not to say that it is a form of life free of entanglements in the lives of others, or a life free of being bothered by the intrusions of living, or a life free to spurn each other at will. Rather, on Lewis’ view, the fulfillment of such needs are transposed into another key: it is not need and duty which governs a friendship, but the supererogatory grace of charity which transcends the responsibilities we have toward one another because of our shared humanity.

To put the point differently: it’s possible to think that friendships do not have or need vows because they are a lesser form of union, and that the lack of public recognition is tied to their weakness. It is also possible, though, that explicit vows and promises create obligations, and that friendship moves us into a realm beyond these. The high point of the Gospels, in my opinion, is the moment when Jesus tells his disciples that they are no longer disciples, but that they are now friends. I’m not prepared to speak of the obligations on God which exist because of the covenant established with man in creation: but it is clear that even if there were obligations, they could not possibly include that. Nor does it seem right to me that such a moment could generate obligations the ways that vows unquestionably do: what duty could bind Jesus’ friendship with us? What obligation might provide the shape to the unmerited gift of his grace? To be friends with God is to participate in a form of charity which is not incompatible with vows per se—lest we deny marriages any form of participation in it as well—but the vow-less, obligation-free character of friendship illuminates the unrestrained nature of charity in a way that a life mediated by vows and promises might not.

While Wesley wants (again, rightly) more forms of relationship to be honored and recognized within the church, he seems to blur the distinctions between marriage and friendship in striving for that. While friendship aims at permanence, because it aims at the permanent things, marital vows inaugurate obligations to permanence. To collapse those together leaves the church with fewer forms of life which witness to the manifold glory of the charity of God, not more, and may in fact inhibit the kind of restoration of friendship to its proper place that both he and I are eager to see.

Mere Fidelity: The Benedict Option

“Is there a lesson here for Christians? Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?”

That’s how Rod Dreher has defined the “Benedict Option,” which he has been discussing over the past few years. In this episode, we take up the question of how Christians should respond to modernity:  should we withdraw or not, and in what way?

We’re joined by special guests Jake Meador (of Mere-O Notes fame!) and Matthew Loftus, both of whom have contributed regularly here at Mere-O.  Give it a listen.

The iTunes feed for Mere Fidelity is here if you’d like to subscribe (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly), and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

Finally, as always, follow Derek, Jake, and Matthew for more tweet-sized brilliance.

 

The Questions of Gay Marriage: Covenant or Biology in Genesis 2?

I began a series almost a year ago of looking at the arguments around gay marriage.  I took a long hiatus from that, due to finishing my master’s degree and moving my life across an ocean.  However, I return to it here.  See the previous installments here

And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

Of the passages relating to sexuality in the Bible, few are as evocative or as central as this one from Genesis.  While it has functioned as something of a trump card for theological opponents of gay marriage, in recent years advocates of gay marriage have begun to contest the importance of bodily differences for the meaning of the passage. To put the question forthrightly, is the meaning of this passage about “biology” or about a covenant, which would locate the meaning of marriage in the faithfulness of the partners regardless of their sex?

There are two observations about the passage that I wish to make straightaway: first, it is interesting that while the command to procreate is given to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28, it is missing here.  I say it’s interesting, not that it means that this passage has nothing to do with procreation:  it is tempting to pit the two creation accounts against each other, but they are complementary accounts of the same realities.  What is commanded in the first account has some bearing, it seems to me, on how we should read the second. I may return to this later on.

Second, Adam is male and Eve is female.  Is that too obvious?  Does anyone dispute this? It’s tempting when reading a text like this to overlook very basic facts, or to treat them as irrelevant for the meaning of the passage:  but if we are to understand what happens in the drama, we have to at least know who it is happening to.  There are some readings of Genesis 2 that treat Adam as androgynous up to the point where Eve shows up, as the gendered terms for ‘male’ and ‘female’ are only used from that point on. I don’t think such readings are right, but they also don’t matter much for our purposes here. At the very least, Adam’s maleness and Eve’s femaleness are the presupposition for everything else that happens after she appears.

I wondered whether that might be too obvious. But not all that is obvious is easy to understand, and may even be harder to defend:  stones would fall from buildings long before Newton discovered gravity.  The bodyliness of Adam and Eve may not be on the surface of the text, but it must unquestionably be at the surface of their experience of each other:  of what encounter between two persons is the dialogue the only, or even the most important part?  In the naked meeting of a man and woman, it is what is left unsaid that is perhaps the most interesting part. They doubtlessly meet each other as more than bodies:  they meet as man and woman, as subjects of their own actions. But they are not less than bodies, either: appealing to a category of ‘otherness’ and ignoring their somatic structure introduces a division between the subject of the person and our visibility in the world, between the soul of the person and the body which he indwells, between our personal presence and the place which radiates it.  We can speak abstractly about “difference,” but does not the term apply within the encounter between male and female bodies?  Is not the recognition that the body before me is unlike my own in certain respects a necessary part of my response to it? Not only that the body before me is not my own, as important as that is, but that it is not like my own?

I say all this only to set up a response to James Brownson’s argument that Adam emphasizes Eve’s similarity to him, not her bodily difference. As he puts it, “The focus is not so much on complementarity but on shared identity, nature, and experience between the man and woman against the rest of the creation…The primary movement in the text is not from unity to differentiation, but from the isolation of an individual to the deep blessing of shared kinship and community.”  Somewhat paradoxically, while Brownson wants to dig down to the “moral logic” of the text, he prefers to stay “on the surface” of it here in Genesis, where he sees the “discovery of sameness, not difference.”  But surfaces presuppose depths, and if Adam encounters sameness he seems to do so only as a delightful surprise, as a joyful recognition that despite the bodily differences Eve is like him.

Even if we concede to Brownson the emphasis on sameness, then, it still doesn’t deliver the results he wants. But that may be granting too much:  I made this argument in my review at Themelios, and Wesley Hill pointed out Ian Paul’s helpful reading of this passage.  Paul writes:

[Genesis 2] turns around the surprising declaration that it is not good for the adam to be alone, and the subsequent quest for a ‘suitable helper’ (2.18, 20). The term ‘helper’ (ezer) has no particular sense of superiority or inferiority; God is at times described as the ‘helper’ of Israel. The term ‘suitable for him’ (kenegdo) is unusual, and has the sense of ‘equal but opposite’; it is the kind of phrase you might use to describe the opposite bank of a river, combining both the sense of equality but difference and distinctness.

The explicit sense of the narrative is that the animals are not ‘suitable’ since they are not the adam’s equal. But the equally powerful, implicit sense of the narrative is that it would not be sufficient simply to form another adam from the ground.[4] This ‘helper’ needed to be equal but opposite. There is clearly a task to be completed (subduing the earth), but there is also a deep existential recognition in the (now) man’s cry ‘Here is flesh of my flesh!’ The twin themes of similarity and difference wind their way through the story like a double helix.

To be fair, Brownson notes in a footnote that the kenegdo “certainly allows for the notion of difference as well,” but contends that “this aspect of difference remains undeveloped in the remainder of the passage.”  Be that as it may, it is not clear that it needs textual development; if the differences between male and female are the presupposition for discovering our identity and our sameness, as I have argued above, then there is no reason for such differences to be further developed…and every reason for sameness to come to the fore.

While we are on the subject of Brownson, allow me to take up one of his other arguments against the traditionalist reading of this passage.  (He offers four, but only two are interesting.)  Against those who suggest that the “one flesh” union in Genesis 2:24 connotes physical complementarity, Brownson proposes that it suggests instead a “kinship bond.” The argument is curious, as while it might fit against some forms of the traditional view it actually seems to support the traditional reading. Brownson sets it off against those accounts which “suggest that the marital union fulfills some sort of incompleteness in the flesh of either gender.”  But one need not affirm that to be a traditionalist.  Brownson also differentiates his view from von Rad’s claim that Genesis 2:24 explains the origin of “the extremely powerful drive of the sexes to each other,” but…well, a traditionalist need not affirm that either.

Instead, a traditionalist might cheerfully say with Brownson that the “one flesh” union is the establishment of new “kinship ties,” and then ask what the fundamental basis of such ties are, and how far they extend?  Kinship networks presuppose procreativity and blood connections. Brownson notes (rightly) that the son’s “leaving” the parents is unique:  in many ancient cultures, the “marriage of a son simply means the addition of another room onto the house of the extended family.”  He goes on: “Despite the fact that sons are still to honor their parents, when they marry, the location of primary kinship moves from the family of origin to the new family constituted by marriage.”  The depth and seriousness of the new family ties are punctuated by the son’s separation required from his birth parents. But that is not a diminution of procreation’s importance for kinship, but an affirmation of the astonishing nature of the marital covenant:  the marital commitment is so formative that is meant to be just as permanent as one’s biological ties. The nature and logic of the marital union is unintelligible, even in Genesis 2, without locating it within the broader context of procreation and the kinship ties that it inaugurates.

To speak of procreativity, however, is to recall the first command which Adam and Eve are given in Genesis 1:28 and its absence here in Genesis 2. I suggested in the opening that the two are complementary accounts, and we can start to see a little how they work together.  The covenant of marriage and the bodyliness of Adam and Eve are not separated from each other, but are two aspects of the same unified reality—just as the promise of God to Abraham and the overcoming of the crisis of his and Sarah’s barrenness are two aspects of the same reality, and just as God’s fulfillment of his covenant and the birth of the man Jesus Christ are not two realities, but one.  To attempt to remove the nature of the covenant from the possibility of procreation distorts not simply the meaning of this passage, but creates a division between the word of promise and the physical reality that at every point Scripture overcomes.  If this is right, then I would suggest there is more at stake in the gay marriage debates than simply “who gets in” to this particular union.  Of that we will perhaps have to speak more at a future date.

But what of the covenant in Genesis two?  I will consider that question in the next installment.

Mere Fidelity: Cultural Presuppositions and the Practices that Embody Them

In this discussion, Alastair, Derek and I take up the interaction between cultural presuppositions and particular actions which might embed them.  While it starts from in-vitro fertilization, the conversation moves outward from there.

This is the bit from O’Donovan that started us off:

“It may, of course, be wondered whether such subtleties are beyond the understanding of most couples who participate in the IVF programme, and whether such a practice can only have the effect of enforcing the widespread view of procreation as a project of the will.

It may even be thought that the cultural influence of the practice is likely to be so bad that IVF should be discouraged for that reason alone. To such a suggestion perhaps we are in no position to put up a strong resistance. After all, the experience with contraception makes it highly plausible.  It is possible that a wise society would understand IVF as a temptation; it is possible that a strong-willed society would resolve to put such a temptation aside.

But this takes us beyond the scope of our fairy-tale, in which no cultural consequences need be feared. These cultural questions are different from the question of whether there is something intrinsically disorded about IVF. And to that question we have not found reason (speaking simply, of course, of IVF as practised by fairy-godmothers in fairy-tales) to return a negative answer.”

Jake Meador’s post on podcasting sermons also got a mention.

Note:  Sorry for the audio on Derek’s mic.  We’re diagnosing this problem and hoping to have it fixed up for next time.

The iTunes feed for Mere Fidelity is here if you’d like to subscribe (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly), and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

Finally, as always, follow Derek and Alastair for more tweet-sized thoughts.

On Social Media and the Erosion of Conversation

Pew’s research on social media’s effect on people’s willingness to undertake conversations is worth pausing to reflect about for a moment.  Active social media use actually decreases people’s willingness to share their opinions not simply online, but in other contexts as well.  This is particularly true of people who think their opinions are in the minority, though it happens more generally than that.

A number of people pointed out after I posted it on, erm, the social media channels that they used Snowdon and the NSA as their test case, and wondered whether this might have been particularly to blame for people’s unwillingness to share their opinions online about the subject.  That’s a fair point, but not persuasive:  after all, people were less likely to share their opinions in person, too.  Unless people were possessed then by total paranoia–and not living in America at the time, I am skeptical that they did but cannot properly assess it–then it seems like the muting effect has to do with the threat of perceived disagreements than the subject matter itself.

Somewhat relatedly, Freddie De Boer recently lamented the nasty state of online liberalism.  As he puts it:

It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. 

It’s a bit narrow, though, to say that this is simply a liberal problem.  Spend a few minutes browsing the comments on Erick Erickson’s recent post on the conflict between his faith and his politics…or rather, don’t.  You already know what’s in there, and it is not pretty.  Conservatives (theological or otherwise) have their own “acceptable stances” and terms, too, and moving outside of them–as I have sometimes done–raises eyebrows and elicits emails.  Those exchanges have been, thankfully, generally more civil than what many folks get online.  But still, that kind of boundary-policing is exhausting to have to deal with.

I’ve been ruminating on all this recently, along with my friend David Sessions’ excellent post on why the internet is awful and Frank Chimero’s analysis of Twitter, which suggests that the nature of the conversation there has moved from the “front porch” mode to the “street” mode.  I don’t have grand thoughts about how it all connects–smarter minds than I, like David, will have to take up that task.

But by way of hypothesis, I do wonder whether the shift in conversations away from blogs or other internet “third places” toward the more intimate and personal “social media” platforms is partly responsible for the increasing difficulty people seem to have disagreeing with others online and elsewhere. This is particularly the case with Facebook, I think, moreso than Twitter–and might explain why Facebook users experience the ‘spiral of silence’ more.  In my Facebook use, for instance, I might go from pictures of my life around town one moment (when I lived in Oxford, anyway) to discussing the politics of Hobby Lobby the next.  I see pictures of my friends’ children, and then get comments from them disagreeing with me.

The intellectual environment such juxtapositions create blurs any distinction between personal and public, which makes it more difficult to disentangle the disagreements I have with my friends about (say) social policies regarding marriage from my friendships themselves.   This is particularly true with people that I have not seen much, like friends from undergrad.  I’m not generally one to shy away from conflict.  But with what feels like so many minor conflicts and disagreements going all the time, attrition simply takes over and I lose my appetite for the conversation.  Those are people I’m supposed to be friends with, or at least friendly with, after all, but perpetual, pervasive disagreement at even a cheerful level is corrosive to that.

To borrow Frank Chimero’s categories, if Twitter has moved from the ‘front porch’ to the ‘street,’ Facebook has brought the street up on to the front porch.  People treat their Facebook walls like their own, personal space, a habit that Facebook has encouraged since the beginning.  But that raises the stakes for everything that happens there.  While it has always been difficult to distinguish between the personal and the public, Facebook is a business built on obliterating that distinction.  Everything is both, simultaneously, and that means the conversation has a different ethos than it does in a coffee shop.  Next time someone invites you over for dinner, try critiquing their views of fracking without any other social interaction. Let me know how that goes for you.

But as I said, I don’t have grand thoughts about this.  It’s an interesting conglomeration of essays, though, and I hope people ill take them up in the comments.