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.

 

 

Which Generous Spaciousness for Gay Christians?

It’s been five years since Andrew Marin published his widely read Love is an Orientation, and the need which Marin’s book attempted to fill has grown at a rapid pace.  While there has been no shortage of discussion among evangelicals about the moral and political status of homosexuality, few rigorously theological and pastorally sensitive resources have been developed for churches and pastors to learn best how to welcome gay into their communal and individual lives.  Instead, vague exhortations about how Christians need to be more loving and improve their image abound.

generous spaciousnessWendy VanderWal-Gritter’s Generous Spaciousness:  Responding to Gay Christians in the Church is not, alas, the book we have been waiting for.  As the director of New Directions Ministry, a Canadian organization that was a part of Exodus International until it pivoted in 2007 toward building bridges between Christians and the LGBT communities, VanderWal-Gritter has a wealth of practical and personal experience to draw from.  She aims in Generous Spaciousness to “model a posture” for individuals, churches, and organizations that is not “just a wishy-washy, weak compromise” on the questions surrounding homosexuality, but that orients us toward hospitality and faithful discipleship for LGBT people within the church. That is a commendable goal, no doubt, and her book has occasional moments of insight and the occasional bit of wise council for pastors and parishioners. But by repeatedly presenting the progressive position at its best and responding to ‘conservative’ theology at its worst, VanderWal-Gritter creates a caricature of the demands of “unity” that claims the moral high ground for those who wish to push doctrine to the side. Her concept of ‘generous spaciousness’ is no “wishy-wash, weak compromise”: it is an outright abdication on the possibility of moral knowledge and its role within the church.

Her book is pervaded by trendy jargon that obscures as much as it clarifies, and that sometimes borders on the sort of de-Scripturalized, therapeutic discourse that has marked the “ex-gay” community at its worst.  (As she notes, VanderWal-Gritter notes that “many ex-gay ministries espouse a variety of psychoanalytic theories in the development of ministry interventions.”  While she doesn’t endorse such an approach, it’s clear from her own work that she hasn’t quite escaped it.) Terms like honesty, authenticity, openness, vulnerable, acceptance, and the inescapable journey get their power from their vagueness, even if they seem to be for her the central virtues of the spiritual and moral life.

Such terms sometimes also function asymmetrically, so that those who are doubting and questioning their convictions and the traditional teaching of the church on the morality of same-sex sexual practices end up with a privileged insights into key portions of Scripture.  In her defense that Christians should interact with each other on questions of same-sex sexuality as though it were a “disputable matter,” and hence akin to how Paul exhorts the Romans to behave with respect to food ethics in Romans 14, VanderWal-Gritter offers the following jaw-dropping analysis:

“One has to wonder if the process of wrestling with a particular question personally is the foundation from which one can internalize Paul’s teaching in Romans 14 of not getting in the way of someone else’s choices and making life more difficult for them. For when you get on your knees at the side of your bed night after night pleading with God to take away your same-sex attractions, you experience solidarity with others who have had the same experience….And out of this very real and personal place arises the kind of mutuality and preference for the other that Paul speaks of.  The truth is straight people will never be able to fully enter that space—because straight people have never wrestled in those particular personal and deep places.”

Even if we thought that Scripture put same-sex sexual activity on the same moral plane as food sacrificed to idols such that it is a “disputed matter”—and there is lots of reason to doubt that is the case—this sort of argument actually would work against the case.  If Romans 14 did require people to internally wrestle with the particular question, then only those with same-sex attraction could have the “generous spaciousness” that VanderWal-Gritter ostensibly wants.  That would be a bizarre basis for a Biblical exhortation, however.  What’s more, VanderWal-Gritter’s claim that “straight people have never wrestled in those particular personal and deep places” strikes me as false to the point of incoherent.  Many straight people who have taken Jesus’s exhortations about lust in Matthew 5 seriously have spent wakeful nights pleading with God to remove temptations from them, even temptations that if known or acted upon would bring them great shame from their community. To think otherwise would be to single out same-sex desire as uniquely troubling to the individuals who experience it—a claim I suspect many in her audience will be fast to reject.

While VanderWal-Gritter wants to avoid arguing directly about the moral questions surrounding this debate, she ends up simply presupposing a moral outlook that many conservative evangelicals object to.  In her exhortation to help same-sex attracted individuals cultivate a “positive vision for the future,” she suggests that some will begin to dream of a same-sex marriage.  “Where this dream is grounded in the confidence of the unconditional love and embrace of God,” she writes, “such a dream can be a vibrant part of a person’s ongoing spiritual journey, particularly when it is based on careful study, reflection, prayer, waiting, and listening to Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and trusted mentors.”  In perhaps the worst sentences in the book, she encourages us to welcome those who might dream of a same-sex relationship by pointing out that “It is important to remember that love is love. And love is of God.”  Nevermind that the content or shape of “love” within the sphere of human sexuality is precisely what is in question. “Love,” whatever else it might be, is not the amorphous, empty concept that her tautology indicates. While she protests that her view is not a “call for a watered-down discipleship,” her unwillingness to specify the terms under which sexual “love” no longer is from God suggests that is precisely what is on offer.

This kind of slant structures the entire book, so that it is questionable whether VanderWal-Gritter’s understanding of “generous spaciousness” is separable from it.  For instance, in discussing the role that spiritual fruit among Christians has played in her own life, she writes, “A closed system necessarily finds ways to discount such fruit as appearing to be authentic but actually being counterfeit.  But I could not justify such an ultimately subjective, selfish, and spiritually violent evaluation. As far as I knew, the fruit that I was seeing and experiencing was the real deal—and if it wasn’t, that could only be God’s call.”  I leave aside the question of “fruit” within the Christian life only to point out that being “closed” is not necessarily the negative feature of a “system” that VanderWal-Gritter presupposes.  If a system has no way of discerning when someone is self-deceived or when the fruits they are demonstrating have been disconnected from other crucial moral aspects of their lives which may erode them over a long period of time, then so much the worse for the system.

There are all sorts of people in this world who demonstrate qualities that seem to be similar to the fruits of the Spirit.  VanderWal-Gritter privileges our ability to discern when someone’s life demonstrates “fruit.”  As she goes on to say, “It seems incredibly audacious to me that anyone would consider sitting in the seat of judgment regarding the authenticity of faith of those who demonstrate good fruit in their lives.” But rather than accept the “tension” and the “mystery” that some people might have “fruit” while engaging in practices that Scripture is opposed to, she instead wishes us to embrace the tension and mystery at the heart of Scripture’s teachings about human sexuality, where she sees only complexity and disagreement.  It’s not at all clear, though, why we should be more confident in the meaning of our own lives and the quality of our own spiritual fruit and hesitating and uncertain about the meaning of Scripture, especially when the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9) opens the possibility that we are all self-deceived.

My point is not necessarily to drag VanderWal-Gritter into the very moral questions that she thinks have been so harmful for the church’s witness.  Rather, it is simply to point out that it may be the case that how we go about inculcating a view of “generous spaciousness” in the church may itself depend upon the answers we come to with those moral questions.  If the “space” of the church is going to be anything more than an empty void, a black hole where anything (literally) goes in the realm of human sexuality, save those actions which do not result in “fruit,” then we must identify and understand its boundaries, and that invariably means drawing lines.  While it may be the case, as VanderWal-Gritter repeatedly points out, that conservative evangelicals have been overly focused on such boundary-maintainence and have sometimes operated based on fear, without boundaries there can be no “inclusion.”

To make the point sharper, if we can substitute the language of polyamory and polygamy for homosexuality and gay marriage, without a significant alteration to the argument, then something is clearly awry. If there are “polyamorous Christians” who demonstrate the kind of “fruit” that gives us pause and who can similarly problematize Scripture’s teaching (where there is even some positive evidence for polygamy in the Old Testament), then ought we treat the question as a “disputed matter”?  My only point is that the language of morality is more useful for understanding what sort of spaciousness we should have in the church, and what kind of generosity we are called to.

It similarly helps no one if the presupposition is that those who are theologically conservative have not worked through the “hard questions”, and so only hold their view because of tradition or for other reasons.  VanderWal-Gritter repeatedly objects to an emphasis on truth, orthodoxy, and certainty as being driven “more by fear and anxiety than by love.”  The book is written for those for whom “simplistic, black and white answers on these questions will not suffice.”  Doubtlessly such people exist.  But there is nothing simplistic about the answers Christians have traditionally given on these questions, and there is nothing easy about accepting them. Working from such caricatures—VanderWal-Gritter at one point uses an anonymous comment on YouTube!—is simply not helpful, though. It may be that a conservative theological approach to inclusion has not been found wanting, so much as left untried altogether.  Trying to circumvent doctrinal claims and genuine moral knowledge for the sake of unity simply presupposes that the two can be disconnected—which is simply not a proposition that conservative evangelicals can or will get behind.

All this is a missed opportunity, as evangelicals need to articulate how the message of the Gospel can be embedded in our local church communities in a way that is more hospitable to those whose form of lives we disagree with.  We need generous spaciousness.  Of that I have no doubt.  But not this one.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book for review. 

On Disrespectable Christianity

Tish Harrison Warren, whose writing I admire a great deal, has an excellent piece over at Christianity Today on Vanderbilt University’s lamentable decision to prohibit campus groups from setting their own standards for student leadership.  Harrison Warren was part of Intervarsity’s leadership during that season, and so had a seat on the front row.  Thankfully, though, she writes with a reflective calm:

I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space.

The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.

It didn’t matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn’t matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.

Harrison Warren’s reflections are, I think, indicative of the kind of realization that many of the younger-set of evangelicals are going to have to face in the years to come.  Many of the most hopeful and best parts of evangelicalism the past fifteen years have been encompassed by an incipient desire for respectability.  The resurgent apologetics-evangelicals have sought to demonstrate the faith’s intellectual credibility, while the artistic evangelicals have made it quite clear you can still love Jesus and watch House of Cards, thank you very much.  The politically-reformist evangelicals have put a hole in the “not like those Republicans” drum, while the social justice evangelicals have made everyone forget about the Four Spiritual Laws.  And some of us—ahem—have pounded on about how we can read the old stuff, too, which can be its own form of “not like them folks there” attitude.

Those movements for reform and expansion of the evangelical footprint are worthy enough in their own right, maybe.  But Reform has often been laced with the promise of Respectability, and many of us—me included—have swallowed the poison.  I have a vague, half-articulated notion that those King James only communities who have been the butt of so many evangelical jokes will be, when it’s all said and done, some of the only Protestant communities still standing:  they gave up their respectability a long time ago and don’t seem to have missed it since.

Harrison Warren, indeed, mentions the Amish as one plausible path forward for “cultural engagement.”  Few young evangelicals will seriously take that path, though perhaps many more should.  But the vast majority of us will, I suspect, continue to fight and plead for a kind of respectability out of the earnest, good-hearted desire to see our neighbors convinced of our ideas—or if not of our ideas, at the very least of our sanity.  Arguments for ‘civility’ and ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’ and ‘respect’ are coming fast and furious these days, after all, even though they are fifteen years (at least) too late.

I have had another general impression—and the reader will rightly accuse me at this point of having far too many of those in this post—that what evangelicals, young and old, most desperately need is a political manifestation of joy.  Harrison Warren sounds the martyrs note, without overstriking it:  “Throughout history and even now, Christians in many parts of the world face not only rejection but violent brutality. What they face is incomparably worse than anything we experience on U.S. college campuses, yet they tutor us in compassion, courage, and subversive faithfulness.”  Yet if we do not grasp the joy of the martyrs, we do not understand them at all.

I was accused recently, in talking about these sorts of things with students, of being something of a pessimist.  “We ought to keep fighting,” the argument went, “because the world we’re handing down to our children matters.”  Fair enough, and Lord knows that I am not yet perfected in my joy.  But Christians need a flagrant disregard for the coming wave of disrepute, a disregard which quickly turns the pathetic instruments of stigmatization into jewelry and art.  Without that, and without Jove’s presence among us, whatever “argument” we have will come to no effect.  Pessimism and the joy of the martyr may look almost the same, but as Chesterton noted, the one dies for the sake of dying while the other for the sake of living.

Addendum:  While thinking further about this, it occurred to me that “respectability” as a temptation is most likely limited to those pursuing white, upper-middle class lifestyles, for whom ‘respectability’ is a kind of currency that gets things done.  How this plays in to the above I leave to readers to determine.

Mere Fidelity: Made for More, with Hannah Anderson

Hannah Anderson’s Made for More is a book I heartily endorsed.  She joins us in this latest episode of Mere Fidelity to talk about the doctrine of the image of God, women, and their role in the church.

Follow Hannah here, and give her (excellent) blog a visit.

The iTunes feed for Mere Fidelityis 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.

 

Mere Fidelity: And who is a person?

We take up, once again, Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made?  We start from the below and carry on:

“The embryo is of interest to us because it is human; it is ‘ourselves’. On the other hand, it is considered a suitable object of experiment because it is not like us in every important way. It has no ‘personality’. It is us and not us. In those two assertions we see the movement of self-transcendence taking shape. The embryo is humanity in a form that is especially open to our pinning it down as scientific object and distancing ourselves from it in transcendent knowledge…

It is enough to point out that the ambiguity of the status of the embryo research subject is precisely what is intended. It is what the task of self-transcendence needs, that it should be ourselves and yet not ourselves. If we should wish to charge our own generation with crimes against humanity because of the practice of this experimental research, I would suggest that the crime should not be the old-fashioned crime of killing babies, but the new and subtle crime of making babies to be ambiguously human, of presenting to us members of our own species who are doubtfully proper objects of compassion and love.”

The iTunes feed 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.