In A Severe Mercy Sheldon Vanauken tells the story of his conversion from the High Paganism of his youth, a paganism defined by fidelity to beauty, honour (which he always spelled in the British fashion), and one’s people to orthodox Christianity. Instrumental to that conversion was his relationship with CS Lewis. Though (because?) he was a child of the old south, Vanauken struggled against what he saw as the smallness of Christianity as he had seen it practiced and taught.
For him the world was shining with glory and beauty and Christianity simply wasn’t big enough to speak about it all. Vanauken writes movingly of how bare branches against the night sky remained for his entire life a symbol of beauty and how he and his wife Davy resolved from early in their relationship to give themselves wholly to the goodness of the world.
Set next to the grandiosity of the world as they saw it, the teachings of Christianity seemed thin and tawdry. It was only through Lewis that they began to think otherwise, to believe that Christianity could speak to all of life in a way that not only honors the beauty they saw and experienced, but might even amplify it.
Significantly, Vanauken began his reading of Lewis with the Oxford don’s science fiction trilogy, a series that is regrettably neglected by today’s evangelicals. Vanauken saw two things in the books that made him begin to open up to the Gospel.
First, after finishing the trilogy he saw that, whatever else he might say of Christianity, the God of the Christians clearly was big enough to encompass and account for all of the cosmos, for all of the majesty that could go straight to his heart at a moment’s notice. He could still reject Christianity, of course, but he couldn’t say that the Christian God was too small to account for the beauty of nature.
Second, he saw that Lewis the Christian hated the same things he hated as a High Pagan. Vanauken hated a modernity that would trample creation in the name of efficiency, that would dispense with beautiful natural places for the sake of economic growth, that would treat human beings as something less than majestic creatures with the capacity to see and know beauty. And in those first books he saw that Lewis shared those same hatreds.
If we are going to have helpful, productive conversations about gender, they need to happen in something closer to Vanauken’s context, within a context in which we are trying to reckon with the realities of creation and our place in it as embodied human beings. Rather than placing the discussion within the comparatively constrained context of church and home life, these teachings, like everything else in Christianity, must actually be put into contact with creation itself.
When we are talking about gender and Christianity and (awful word) complementarianism, we are therefore not simply talking about prescriptive questions such as whether or not women should be ordained, whether men can be stay-at-home dads, or whether women can serve in the military. Those admittedly important questions are actually less pressing when set next to the greater question of the significance of our existing in male and female bodies in God’s spoken world.
The fact that these sorts of concerns are often the first place we turn in discussing gender is, in fact, the most devastating indictment I can imagine of evangelical complementarianism. Where we ought to be dealing with creation and the fact of our bodies, evangelicals have far too often contented themselves with bickering over hypotheticals.
To borrow from Derek Webb, evangelicals are generally better at finding new laws (and arguing about them incessantly) than they are at discerning principles and attempting to live within the framework those principles create.
To see this problem in action, look no further than the ongoing dispute between Prs. Doug Wilson and John Piper and Aimee Byrd, Dr Carl Trueman, and Todd Pruitt at Mortification of Spin over Christianity and gender norms. The dispute began when Aimee Byrd wrote a response to a recent Ask Pastor John podcast in which a woman listener asked Piper if women could be police officers.
Piper, to his credit, actually gave a fairly careful, qualified answer that attempted to speak to creational norms rather than simply scratching together a new law. Certainly one can still criticize parts of the response as being a bit clumsy, as one can a number of Piper’s other writings on gender. But Piper is at least attempting to attend to creation itself in his thinking about this difficult issue.
Byrd, unfortunately, went straight to criticizing Piper’s answer to a particular hypothetical question, rather than wrestling with the underlying principles Piper was attempting to articulate. What’s more, in her framing of the issue she basically claimed that our existence as male or female has no import in considering vocational questions, but only our abilities as isolated, autonomous individuals. Such an approach to vocation is well at home in our contemporary economy which has so brutalized the family, of course, but it is far too simplistic and individualistic to be at home in Christianity.
Dr. Trueman jumped in the next day by essentially agreeing with Byrd and actually getting to the heart of the discussion in a way that still hasn’t been resolved despite the many posts that have been written about the debate: “I rarely read complementarian literature these days. I felt it lost its way when it became an all-embracing view of the world and not simply a matter for church and household.”
If Trueman, Byrd, and Pruitt had then provided some sort of explanation for how Christian teachings on gender do map onto creation apart from the admittedly clumsy attempts made by Prs Wilson and Piper, then we would be having a useful conversation. With luck we might not even being talking about that interminable word “complementarianism” and would instead be attending to more profitable questions about nature and the body.
In fact, if Byrd, Trueman, or Pruitt were to provide such a statement, even a fairly basic one, I suspect many who are unhappy with Piper and especially Wilson’s approach would read it with great interest.
Unfortunately, that is not what they have done. Rather, they have depicted a sort of moral law in which Christian beliefs on gender do not seem to flow out of a created order but are instead suspended over the (Christian) home and church. They have thus far remained wholly silent, even when specifically pressed on this point, as to how the reality of our bodies as being male and female affects our broader existence in God’s created world.1
What is striking about this silence from Byrd, Trueman, and Pruitt, of course, is how it fails to make sense of the testimony of Scripture. Much is made in the creation account of the complementarity of the sexes, even if it doesn’t explicitly speak of headship and submission.2
Likewise when Paul speaks of gender in the New Testament he does not ground his arguments in any sort of narrowly prudential concern with the organization of church- and home-life. Rather, he grounds all that he says in creation order, which certainly sounds like an appeal to a natural created reality to which we are bound as human creatures.
And this brings us back to Vanauken: Forget the particular prescriptive questions for now. Stop asking about stay-at-home dads or women police officers. Those questions can only be answered if we understand first principles. What is at stake is the meaning of our bodies and specifically of the existence of male and female bodies in the given created order.
In The Abolition of Man Lewis says that the chief conflict of our day is a difference over what the chief problem facing humanity actually is. For the wise men of old, Lewis says, the problem was how to conform the individual and society to reality. And the solution was virtue, discipline, and reason. For the magicians and scientists of today, the problem is rather how to conform reality to the wishes of man. And in their quest to do so these men will, as Lewis predicted nearly 70 years ago, prove willing to do things that previous generations would consider monstrous and cruel.
This is the point Lewis is illustrating in horrifying detail in That Hideous Strength. When man is untethered from nature, the result can only be brutality for all that is left if we dispense with nature is power. If the chief problem facing us today is how to submit creation to “our” wishes then what we are really saying is that the chief problem facing us today is which group will have power enough to actually do that.
By refusing to even consider questions of maleness and femaleness in broader society, Byrd, Trueman, and Pruitt are making themselves accessories to this broader cultural movement away from the ancient tradition of what Lewis called the Tao. And just so we’re clear—the Tao is not exclusive to Christianity. Indeed, prior to the last 100-150 years in the west most societies on earth would affirm Lewis’s Tao. Indeed, you don’t find pre-Christian societies trading in the sort of individualistic nonsense so pervasive in the contemporary west.3
To be sure, Trueman, Byrd, and Pruitt have a legitimate concern with tyrannical overreach in evangelical churches regarding gender norms. Most evangelical women have stories of chauvinistic men saying absurd things and trying to justify them by making dubious appeals to Paul. I grew up in just such a church. When they say that we would do well to exercise caution in making blanket statements about what men or women can or cannot do they are perfectly right.
Yet the solution offered thus far by Byrd, Trueman, and Pruitt merely resolves the problem by replacing it with a far larger one. By repeatedly insisting that Christian teachings on gender somehow apply only to the home and church they are participating in the same sort of privatization of religious belief that has so crippled the church’s witness in the contemporary west. Ecclesial overreach is a major concern, yet it pales in significance when set next to the cultural shift toward a privatized faith. (On that point I am still struggling to reconcile the Dr. Trueman writing at Mortification of Spin with the Dr. Trueman who has written so forcefully and effectively on sex ethics issues for First Things.)
If Byrd, Trueman, and Pruitt continue to insist on a kind of divine positive law in which certain biblical norms simply do not have any relevance to the world outside home or church then they are, in fact, stepping aside as the technocrats and the politicians and the corporations continue to roll their tanks over creation as it is stamped both on the land and on our bodies.
Piper and Wilson’s words might be inelegant in Piper’s case or unhelpfully (but not surprisingly) incendiary in Wilson’s case, but you have to give them this: They’re the ones standing in front of the tank shouting “stop!” Would that they had more standing with them.
1. To be sure, Wilson has not helped matters with his jarring post that essentially amounted to lobbing a slow-moving curve over home plate. Trueman, quite understandably, was only too happy to swing. But while Wilson’s approach has not helped matters, we are kidding ourselves if we think the most pressing problem this debate has raised is Wilson’s language or rhetorical style which, at this point, shouldn’t catch anyone off guard anyway.↩
2. It is worth noting also that Dr Piper’s initial comments that sparked this entire controversy actually focus less on submission per se and more on initiation and direction. Those might be similar things, but I suspect that there are differences there which may turn out to be significant. At the very least, this framing would complicate things for those people who might argue that headship, for example, is purely a post-fall norm.↩
3. It is interesting that Vanauken’s conversion was not from a kind of post-Christian faith, but rather a pre-Christian one. What Lewis called “that hideous strength” is in fact a post-Christian phenomenon and the fact of the west’s post-Christian status is lurking everywhere behind this debate.↩