Language isn’t static. There is no returning to the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ of the King James Bible, at least in popular discourse. But the evolving nature of language does not mean that all changes are created equal, or that all changes happen naturally. As Paul Mankowski adeptly argues, some language changes are driven by agendas that may be at odds with the traditional (i.e. patriarchal) Christian worldview.

The question, of course, is how to respond to such innovations in language. Cate elegantly voiced the increasingly popular approach among many evangelical Christians–relax and don’t let it prevent you from fighting more significant issues.

We should attempt to never become reactionary or unsoundly extreme when defending what we believe. It is easy when trying to protect biblical patriarchy (for lack of a better term) to observe the cultural distaste for it and respond with renewed and expanded vigor against American feminism and what can be viewed as postmodern language usage (Ah, postmodernism and feminism, can any other two things get us so riled up?). This would be a mistake. Making a small change like using “she” or “they” when possible is a culturally relevant and sensitive way to increase our communication with the secular world (and this is of no small significance). To include women in referencing humankind doesn’t—on its own—contradict even a traditional view of the created difference between man and woman, and it keeps us from dying in a battle of limited importance when we are waging a great and significant cultural war.

I have sympathies for this position. But I think it fails to understand exactly what is at stake in popular discourse.

While in Washington D.C., I got to hear Jon Henke (an extraordinarily bright fellow) wax eloquent on “the Overton window.” Created (discovered?) by Joe Overton, the Overton Window is the range of acceptable political ideas (and language). On either side of the window are the two extremes.rt-overton.jpg

But the window isn’t stable. As Henke pointed out, when organizations like MoveOn place malicious advertisements that seem extreme, they are intentionally trying to move the center of the window more to the left, making such discourse and ideas more politically acceptable to the American public. Organizations on the right do the same thing with their respective ideas. Whichever side is more effective in this moves the middle of the window closer to their ideas, making them more likely to be adopted by the general public.

The concept is useful in understanding what’s at stake with the gender-inclusive pronouns, and provides support for evangelical patriarchalists to avoid using “she” as the inclusive pronoun. If the shift toward “she” is driven by an ideology, then to the extent that Christians reject they ideology, they would do well to resist the shift in language.

What’s more, if patriarchalists want their ideas to gain traction with the world, the paradox is that they should simply continue speaking as though the window had never shifted, as that is the only way to move it back. As Milton Friedman put it, “That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” Such a strategy is applicable not only to conservative economic policies, but Christian social engagement.

Cate is right: the question of pronouns is a question of cultural engagement. She is wrong, however, in the insistence that Christians should ignore pronouns to fight the larger battles. For those who think the Gospel sanctions and redeems patriarchy, the question of pronouns is the larger battle. A culture that who regards “he” when used to stand for humanity as distasteful will bristle at a God who came as a man. This is the lesson of mainline theological liberalism and its rejection of the manhood of Jesus in favor of the Deity–but not Sonship–of Christ.

When the window shifts to the left, ideas on the right will inevitably sound reactionary and extreme (and vice versa). It may be undesirable, but it can hardly be avoided. But expressions of such ideas need not lack the grace that is fitting for expressions of the truth–the grace that endows us with humility, respect, and the quiet confidence that it is the world that is on its head and we who are lucky enough to be standing on our own two feet.

(Picture credit to RedTory)

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

10 Comments

  1. I look forward to your analysis of the Christian view of women’s suffrage, working outside the home, and access to education, other lost battles in the Patriarchy Wars.

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  2. Matthew Lee Anderson November 2, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    Jim,

    Briefly, it’s not at all clear that movements like women’s suffrage, women working outside the home, women going to school, etc. are incompatible with Biblical patriarchy. In fact, I would probably argue that they are not. So not much to look forward to, I’m afraid.

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  3. Those are all the fruits of feminism, and all have come into existence via a feminist agenda, and all have undermined patriarchy more than any linguistic shift ever could. Education, in particular, is what has allowed the feminist movement to gain traction–and irreversibly so–in American culture.

    Since you and I love and study language, I think sometimes we overestimate its power. Stay-at-home-dads speak louder than pronouns.

    Reply

  4. […] This is the tension of cultural engagement.  We must smuggle the Gospel into the world and shape the hearts and minds of those around us, so that when confronted by the King they are able to recognize Him as King. 207b […]

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  5. Matthew Lee Anderson November 5, 2007 at 12:04 am

    Jim,

    I’m not at all comfortable equating the feminism of the late 1800s-early 1900s with the feminism of the 60s. I don’t know a ton about either, but they strike me as having very different ideals, temperments, proponents, etc.

    I’m not even opposed to stay-at-home dads. After all, I’ve been the second income in my own house for 10 months! :)

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  6. I am intrigued, then, as to what you think has undermined patriarchy over the last 200 years. As I see it, regardless of the motives or temperaments of the early feminists, the fruit of their labor–the movement toward equal legal and societal status for women–is what undermined patriarchy, not this late feminist attack on gendered pronouns. If I’m wrong on this, I’d love to know why.

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  7. Matthew Lee Anderson November 5, 2007 at 9:54 am

    Jim,

    You presume that patriarchy is incompatible with equal legal and societal status for women, which I don’t think is the case. Remember, in these posts I’m talking about a theological idea, rather than any one historical application.

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  8. You’re mistaking my argument. I’m trying to show that…

    “Thick” patriarchy has been undermined by the last century’s worth of feminism, whether in two or three waves. I don’t see how this is disputable.

    Thus, “thin” patriarchy (your theological-only version) is a rearguard action, equivalent to arguing over who gets to play trumpet to sound retreat.

    There’s always the option that your “thin” patriarchy isn’t very Biblical–but that’s the topic of another post.

    When do we get a “preview” button?

    Reply

  9. Interesting thread!

    As another thought strain to add to this mix, Steven Pinker has some great stuff on the workings of language… contra what seem to be both mainstream conservative AND mainstream liberal beliefs about the determinative effect of available semantic inflection, he sites some really good research showing that people have pretty much the same basic concepts now matter what modes of language are available for articulation – in other words, that people without a word for freedom still think about freedom, even if they have to come up with elaborate ways of talking about it, and also that Eskimos don’t think “more” or even necessarily better about snow just because they have more words to parse out the different ways it happens to be falling at the time (though it may be more efficient for them to communicate their thoughts on this matter).

    So all that to say… while the pronoun shift can certainly be thought about in terms of a social agenda aiming to hamper articulation of patriarchal sensibilities… I’m not entirely sure that such an agenda could have any real force apart from the changing attitudes about patriarchy that underly such a shift.

    As for what kind of patriarchy (if any) is “biblical”, I think that definitely deserves a thread!

    Reply

  10. What’s more, if patriarchalists want their ideas to gain traction with the world, the paradox is that they should simply continue speaking as though the window had never shifted, as that is the only way to move it back.

    Hear, hear!! A committed Biblicist, patriarchalist, or whatsoever thou listeth should always use the inclusive masculine pronoun.In so doing, he accomplishes one or more ov the following:

    1. Re-enforcing the latent but still active understanding of the inclusive masculine pronoun in English;

    2. Sets off an alarm in the mind of those indoctrinated in the use of those horrid PC locutions such as “he and she” or “him and her” and so forth; and,

    3. Generates a protest from such indoctrinated souls which then provides an occasion for delivering a polemic against the PC agenda that seeks to advance its tenets by warping the mother tongue.

    Reply

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