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.A_SEVERE_MERCY

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.

that-hideous-strengthDr. 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.

abolition_of_manIn 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.

Footnotes

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.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy, and son Wendell. Jake’s writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • this is a great essay. I have to push back, though, and assert that while I do think there are some pretty clear distinctions that we can gather from natural law, it’s virtually impossible to discern how and why they relate to various divine positive commands in the Bible. (Matt A and I once wasted a whole morning arguing about this in regards to homosexuality.) I think our understanding of gender differences are always so heavily mediated by culture and our cultural lenses are always so tinted that we must qualify whatever we say on this matter heavily enough such that the only things that really come out with any real force are the divine positive commands. I don’t know if this is where the Mortification of Spin crowd has landed and I certainly can’t speak for them. I think that you can discern general patterns about male and female distinctives from Scripture and I think our laws (e.g. rape/consent, maternity leave, etc.) ought to reflect what we discern from natural law. But as Trueman points out, anytime you try to draw definitive connections between the commands and the physical nature you end up sounding like a fool or super creepy and I think his point in that regard still stands despite the masterful examination of the counterclaim you’ve done here.

    • Hermonta Godwin

      “Sounding like a fool or super creepy” are heavily mediate by culture and our cultural lenses, right?

  • hannah anderson

    So… yes to pointing out the disconnect between home/church and society. My guess is that there is some error underlying Piper’s rhetoric that only becomes apparent when transferred to society. Truemen et al are really pushing back against that. They can see the error in Piper’s answer to “what jobs should women do?” but the real problem isn’t about extending complementarianism to society but that extending it to society reveals an intrinsic weakness that isn’t visible until then. When you stretch it too thin, the fabric rips and reveals the weakness of the weave. The problem isn’t that we stretched the fabric but that the fabric was weak to begin with.

    For my part, the problem is that Piper tends to reduce people to gender. It’s one thing to say that gender is essential to personhood. It’s another thing entirely to elevate gender as the main way we understand personhood. So by saying that a woman shouldn’t be a police officer, Piper reveals that he thinks in very tight categories. He very narrowly defines what a police officer does at the same time that he very narrowly defines what a woman does. In this sense, his thinking is very mechanistic, reducing people to categories and roles. The question of maleness=initiation and femaleness=submission is also highly problematic.

    The solution, I believe, lies in a more robust understanding of all that women are and all that men are. But this requires a strong anthropology that marries biology and metaphysics, not elevating one over the other. A woman’s physicality may limit her from being on the SWAT team, but her experience as a woman may make her invaluable when police have to investigate cases of rape and domestic violence.

  • Hermonta Godwin

    The relevant Wilson piece on the present controversy can be found here – https://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/carve-outs-and-ghettos.html

    Next, his piece on Christian women being prettier was sorely misunderstood. Here was the unfortunately necessary explanation – https://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/in-which-i-toss-another-cinder-block-into-the-goldfish-bowl.html

  • Murther

    If you are going to follow this particular line of reasoning, then I would be wary of using Wilson as a source. Given where he ends up on other issues – I’m not sure I’d trust myself to his view of the created order.

  • Kyle Smith

    You seem to suggest that we need stop arguing about the specifics of complementarianism and began looking at the larger issue of gender within creation. Specifically noting that individuals who are currently unwilling to engage in this conversation would be drawn in to a discussion that addresses this topic from a universal principle perspective.

    The problem I think you run into is that this is how secular society and egalitarians have been addressing this issue. They haven’t been looking at the particulars of women in the police force, etc. But rather the overarching themes that they deem morally appropriate. The general conclusion has been that women should not be barred from employment opportunities on the basis of their gender as there seems to be little to no metaphysical or biological rational for doing so.

    If barring women from certain positions or having gender divided roles in the family can be defended from a “flow out of created order” position then it should be possible for us to do it with referencing scripture. The fact of the matter is this is extremely difficult to do, which is why secular society largely stopped trying.

    I thought your note about C.S. Lewis divide between trying to change man to fit nature (via discipline and virtue) as opposed to changing nature to fit man extremely interesting. However, personally I think it was/is a massive step forward for humanity in determining that we could change nature to suite our needs. A quick example would be the redirecting of a river, or the construction of a dam to harvest energy. Both of these actions usually lead towards benefits for humanity. As humanity has continued to progress technologically we’ve gotten better and better at this. (Although obviously developing more and more morally grey issues.)

    It’s now the 21st Century, if we can redirect society in such a way to allow women to participate in society in new ways, shouldn’t we do that? Society has answered yes and has begun to redirect the river, and quite frankly I don’t see any reason we shouldn’t join them.

  • Nathanael