Monday, 6 February 2012

Feminine Christianity

Rachel Held Evans is asking for male Christian bloggers to write a post celebrating women in the church in order to resist the claim, recently made by popular evangelical pastor John Piper, that Christianity has a "masculine feel." (If I got that wrong intent wrong, someone please tell me. But let it be clear that I see this as resisting that claim.) I was going to write a different blog post tonight, but here goes.

When I hear someone say that Christianity has a masculine feel, I know that what they say is true in a particular regard: Christianity as it has usually been practiced for most of its history has been produced and shaped, at least in publicly and institutionally, by men, and so Christianity as a sociological phenomenon that we receive today is shaped by mainly male concerns. It has a masculine feel. This seems to be especially true in the evangelic South of the United States, though it pervades all parts of North American society that I have encountered. (The church in which I grew up saw an attendance decrease during the years we had a female pastor. The members who stopped attending were quite explicit that it was in response to the pastor's gender.)

I make a distinction, however, between Christianity-as-we-receive-it-today (or "the sociological phenomenon" of Christianity) and Christianity-as-it-could-and-ought-to-be (or "the ideal" of Christianity). It is only the sociological phenomenon that I would automatically say has a masculine feel to it. This matters to me quite a lot insofar as Christianity-as-we-receive-it-today shapes the religious experiences we have as Christians; it also shapes the ways in which non-Christians view us collectively. But the characteristics of Christianity-as-we-recieve-it-today do not particularly impress me as being authoritative. When it comes to how we should act, I care rather more about Christianity-as-it-could-and-ought-to-be. So I advise that we take a look at that particular entity.

We immediately have a problem in trying to do so, because it doesn't seem to exist as a particular community before us. That's unsurprising. I think a lot of people would automatically turn to the Bible to see what it looks like. I don't suppose this approach is not valuable; I'm not going to do it here because I'm trying to finish this post in twenty minutes and I haven't time. Also, my exegetics aren't as good as I'd like them to be (this guest post might explain why), so I don't think that's what I can be most helpful with. Let me send you here for a start, however.

Instead, I'll start with a completely unscientific idea of the few features that I have much certainty on. From what I can tell, God wants us to do a few particular things. They are as follows:

  1. Tend to others when they are suffering

  2. Lament the misfortunes of ourselves and others

  3. Give thanksgiving for what has been given us

  4. Praise what is good

  5. Forbear from reciprocating violence and aggression

  6. Devote ourselves to a life of service

  7. Live our lives as innocently as we can

  8. Foster group/community harmony

If this list seems to you especially masculine, I cannot think you've spent much time in our culture. Some of it seems gender neutral; some of it seems explicitly feminine; most of it could go either way. The primary characteristics which define these actions seem to be forebearance, compassion, and emotional honesty/expression. In our culture, at any rate, these tend to be defined as feminine virtues, not masculine ones. They are the roles of mourner, nurse, confidante, and go-between.

An obvious objection to what I just said is that I am talking about how our current culture defines masculinity and femininity. When people say that Christianity has a masculine feel, they mean that it has a masculine feel according to the Christian definition of masculinity. My first response would be that I think that's what they mean to say, but that their definition of masculinity is really not Christian (in the ideal, not sociological, sense) at all; they mean it according to their culture. But let's forget that particular case for a moment. Let's instead focus on how masculinity/femininity is not something that the Bible explicitly defines at any point. It's focuses seem rather different. They seem to be the things I've said above. My suggestion is that the Bible does not care at all about gender identity, in which case to say that Christianity has a masculine feel would be that masculinity must be some kind of cultural term.

But even if not, those goals and roles will still seem feminine to most of us, even if we know better. For many men, adopting the required attitudes will take a certain degree of courage (much like wearing pink in public). As a result, there are hosts of women who are already doing that work--nursing, visiting, comforting, forbearing, listening, reconciling, praising, lamenting, mourning. So this post goes to them, those women who are already acheiving what we all ought to be acheiving. This post goes to those women who are being Christian by being what our culture calls feminine. Thank-you. I hope more of us men will someday be strong enough to be feminine Christians alongside you.


Carolyn said...

Thanks for this, Christian ... it is honoring, observant and wise. I thought as I read it how my husband of 32 years has grown in these qualities, how our sons admire him in that ... and also that they have told me that I am their hero. I read many of the responses on RHE's blog ... I appreciated your insights the most. Thanks.

Cait said...

Very interesting post. I liked it alot!

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