C. S. Lewis on love and grief

The love sonnets in the previous post were written by the American Joy Davidman to C. S. Lewis.

A series of 45 Sonnets were only discovered in 2010 by Douglas Gresham (the younger of Davidman’s two sons) and have been published in 2015. Don W. King, The Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and other Poems by Joy Davidman.

davidman-lewisDavidman and Lewis’s relationship has been well told of course – not least by the 1993 film Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

They started corresponding in 1950, she first met him in 1952. She was divorced in 1954 from a long troubled marriage to William Gresham. Davidman and Lewis were  married in a civil ceremony in 1956, apparently on his side more to help her stay in the UK when her visa ran out. It was only really when she fell fatally ill with cancer that Lewis finally realised he had fallen in love for the first time in his life.

His subsequent and deeply moving book  A Grief Observed, (in which he called her H) recounts his own honest cries of the heart following her death in 1960 (Lewis himself would only live until 1963).  While that work has been in the public domain since 1961, Joy Davidman’s poems remained hidden away, undiscovered, in an attic.

What’s fascinating is the question of just how much his wife’s passionate honesty and uninhibited love changed Lewis. The sonnets show how infuriatingly passionless she found the confirmed bachelor academic!

In utter contrast to the platonic friend that she wished would shoot her dead rather than kill her with his kindness is his own description of marriage in A Grief Observed. How Joy Davidman’s love eventually broke through his English reserve!

For those few years H. and I feasted on love; every mode of it — solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied.

And this on the physical embodiment of love:

There is one place where her absence comes locally home to me, and it is a place I can’t avoid. I mean my own body. It had such a different importance while it was the body of H’s lover. Now it’s like an empty house.

And this desperately sad passage revealing how she had shaken him out of his old life and opened him up to a life that perhaps he had not even suspected existed :

The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant — in a word, real. Is all that work to be undone? Is what I shall still call H. to sink back horribly into being not much more than one of my old bachelor pipe-dreams? Oh my dear, my dear, come back for one moment and drive that miserable phantom away. Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell if it is now doomed to crawl back — to be sucked back — into it?

I guess King and many other Lewis scholars will be reassessing how his wife’s many previously unknown poems, which he almost certainly read, may have shaped his own writing in A Grief Observed and elsewhere.

One thing is sure, her love profoundly changed his understanding of love – for love cannot be understood in theory, but only in the experience of loving others and being loved.

Yet all love has an end. Lewis wrote about the end of his unexpected, dazzling and yet all too brief love affair in typically compelling prose:

And then one or other dies. And we think of this as love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid career or a flower with its head unluckily snapped off — something truncated and therefore, lacking its due shape. I wonder. If, as I can’t help suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of separation (and this may be one of their purgatorial sufferings), then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.

And this to close.

Does H. now see exactly how much froth or tinsel there was in what she called, and I call, my love? So be it. Look your hardest, dear. I wouldn’t hide if I could. We didn’t idealize each other. We tried to keep no secrets. You knew most of the rotten places in me already. If you now see anything worse, I can take it. So can you. Rebuke, explain, mock, forgive. For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives — to both, but perhaps especially to the woman — a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.

To see, in some measure, like God. His love and His knowledge are not distinct from one another, nor from Him. We could almost say He sees because He loves, and therefore loves although He sees.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

You are what you love 5 : ‘Guard your Heart’ (how Christian baptism and marriage are subversive)

9781587433801In chapter 5 ‘Guard your heart’ of his provocative book You Are What You Love, Jamie Smith moves the focus to how to build in ‘habits of love’ into our home lives (‘liturgies of home’)

To recap: God is love; we are made in his image; we are only able to love because God first loved us; we are lovers before we are thinkers; our loves are much more the core of our being – they order and orientate our lives; but our love needs training and directing, especially in a culture of ever demanding competition for our loves.

I wondered earlier if Smith was putting too much weight on Christian liturgy reforming our loves … in this chapter he deals head on with that sort of criticism by proposing that household liturgies are vital in recalibrating our hearts.  And, he proposes, as they work well ‘household liturgies’ will “propel us back into the Liturgy of the body of Christ.”

What’s he mean by ‘household liturgies’? In brief, Christian practices that can give shape to how we order our home. He discusses two practices – baptism and marriage.

Baptism: a sign and seal of God’s loving initiative and grace; bringing us into the household (people) of God. A people where all boundaries are broken of social class, money, bloodlines etc. It signals a new social reality.

Baptism and families – Smith is Reformed and works at Calvin College. Here he takes the paedobaptist approach of how the congregation promise to love, pray, instruct and encourage the baby being baptised. The church has a solemn responsibility to be a family community.

So the ‘Christian  family’ is drastically relativised – it ‘belongs’ within – and exists for – the wider community of the church. The real sin of family life today, says Smith, is

“the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God.” (116)

Does this sound a bit weird to you? Perhaps it does, but I am with him 100%. The modern family is the ideal, the marketer’s target, the route to happiness and fulfilment, the self-sufficient unit of consumption, the core of the American dream of independence. It is to be alone, the means by which to inculcate values and produce good citizens ….

But a Christian view of the family releases a lot of that unrealistic burden – it takes a loving community to raise a child. So, says Smith, one of the biggest decisions Christian parents can take around faith formation is being part of a Church that lives by the gospel narrative.

A personal note here from a parent who has just become an empty nester … we have a profound sense of gratitude to the community of our local church which has been, and is, a wonderful community in which our children were raised.

Similarly with Christian marriage: it needs to speak of a radically subversive story to that of our consumer culture. The rising stats of marriage are not somehow a sign that marriage is being more deeply valued. Quite the opposite. The modern wedding industry speaks of narcissistic self-obsession. In the USA it generates c $50 billion annually. [Here in Ireland I read recently that the average cost of a wedding is   €25,000, including the honeymoon].

I’d better avoid starting a sentence here with “In my day ..” .. Smith himself has a nice ability to pen withering prose .. the boom in the marriage industry is matched by the boom in the divorce industry.

Our interest is in the spectacle of the wedding – the event in which we get to be center stage, display our love, and invite others into our romance in a way they’ll never forget … weddings are caught up in the dynamics of “mutual display”: what’s important is being seen. It’s why we spend more time fixate on the spectacular flash of the wedding event than on the long slog of sustaining a marriage.

But the implicit mythology of Wedding Inc. also reflects how we approach marriage. Indeed, the myths we load into weddings almost doom marriages to fail. Weddings are centered on the romantic ‘coupling’ of two star-crossed lovers, as if marriage were an extended exercise of staring deep into one another’s eyes – with benefits. But even then, a spouse is one who sees me, will meet my needs, will fulfil my wants, will “complete me”. Even our romantic coupling becomes a form of self-love. (120)

He refers to Banksy’s image of the modern married couple

banksyIn contrast, a properly theological view of marriage is as locating human love within God’s love; existing for him and for others – marriage as mission, marriage as witness together to God’s kingdom; marriage as a calling and vocation that involves self-giving and sacrifice.

And therefore, Christian marriages need to be recalibrated and redirected back to their calling and purpose – and this happens within the community of believers of which they are a part, and withi which the couple serve – sharing their love with others.

I like to think of  a healthy Christian marriage as ‘porous’ … allowing and welcoming others in. Not impermeable, shutting others out in a selfish hermetic community.

In the last few pages of this chapter Smith then sketches his ideas and experiences of inculcating these values within family life. He asks

What does it look like to parent lovers? What does it look like to curate a household as a formative space to direct our desires? How can a home be a place to (re)calibrat our hearts? (127)

  • Love
  • worship
  • music
  • imagination
  • Christian calendar: family rituals linked to the cycle of the Christian year
  • Fasting
  • Serving others together
  • Enacted symbolism
  • Prayer
  • Eating together
  • Thankfulness
  • Creativity – a Sabbath slow down from hyper-consumerism and technology

Obviously all of this is contextual to each family. But the point is that ‘heart formation’ is far deeper than a surface bit of religion now and then ….

All of this is to build connections to the ‘liturgy of the home’ with the liturgy of the church in which the home belongs. Without this sort of integration there will be a lack of authenticity … and ‘doing a bit of church’ on a Sunday is mere nominalism unless it is embedded in daily life liturgies that flow from the gospel story that we claim to believe ….

Comments, as ever, welcome

Who Owns Marriage? (5) An LGBT perspective

Who_Owns_MarriageKirsty Park tells a bit of her story in her commentary on her father’s book.

She grew up gay within evangelical churches and is absolutely convinced that

“the church is complete denial about the extent of the damage it has caused LGBT people worldwide.”

She recounts how she experienced years of people sharing their opinions with her before someone took the time to actually ask her about her experience and how she felt.

She talks of how LGBT experience of rejection by parents means they are eight times more likely to attempt suicide and have higher risks of depression, illegal drug use, and HIV/AIDS infection. And she argues that evangelical attitudes towards gay people are informed by prejudice.

She contrasts Christian attitudes towards homosexuality (a level of disgust, ignorance and sometimes fear) over against attitudes to sex outside marriage or divorce (which she says are Iargely accepted realities by evangelicals with no campaign to change the law to reflect Christian morality on these issues.).

Her heartfelt appeal is similar to Richard Carson’s – take time to really listen and understand.

On the political issue of the referendum, Kirsty is candid in why she wants to marry her partner.

Her reasons for wanting to be married are honest: ‘marriage’ is a powerful word associated with social approval and acceptance. Change in the law is sought as a means of LGBT people having equal access to the social capital that comes with marriage.

She sees marriage not primarily about legal rights but as a quasi-religious ceremony that gives a context for celebration; a rite of passage that publicly affirms the couple. Without the word ‘marriage’ “there is no custom or expectation and no social capital behind the word.” She wouldn’t exactly be excited to hang a banner on the car saying ‘Just Civil Partnershiped’.

She locates marriage as primarily personal and romantic rather than legal and institutional.

Her argument is that Christians are absolutely free to believe that homosexual relationships are sinful and to encourage same-sex attracted believers to pursue a life of celibacy. This is in effect is church business.

But, she argues, Christians can’t have it both ways: the state and Christian views of marriage are drifting further and further apart. Already heterosexual marriage is a long way from Christian ideals as living together, divorce and breakdown stats show.

Christians can still believe in and practice Christian marriage.

“Christians own Christian marriage, and may happily continue to do so. However, Christians can never own the marriages of those who don’t choose to have a Christian marriage, so why attempt to do so in some situations and not in others? Why care when it involves LGBT people but not when it involves heterosexuals?” (65)

Kirsty’s story is moving and real. I don’t know but I guess telling it in a book edited by her father, a pastor and the Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, was a tricky and courageous path to negotiate.

Both her contribution and Richard Carson’s do invite a further conversation between the LGBT community and evangelical Christians. As I tried to say in my own contribution, love must at the very least mean learning to listen well and there is much listening to be done.

However, I’d want to disentangle the personal experience of exclusion from the argument for same-sex marriage. In a final post on this subject I’ll try to explain why I don’ think that same-sex marriage is the right solution to LGBT marginalisation and exclusion.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Own’s Marriage? (2) the issue of religious liberty

Nick Park, Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director, has written a short book which was published this week called Who Own’s Marriage? as part of a dialogue leading up to the Same-Sex Referendum on May 22

Who_Owns_MarriageAlongside his four chapters are contributions from a pretty wide range of other people including Atheist Ireland, LGBT activists, Christians of various perspectives (including me).

Here are my comments on chapter 1 of the book in which Nick sets the context for the debate: I’m picking up on his personal experience of how hostile and polarised the debate has become.

Nick develops some reasons why it is important for Christians to speak into this debate rather than stay out of the fray. I find myself in agreement with most of his arguments. I think it is an overstatement to say that how evangelical Christians speak into this Referendum “may well determine the long term future of the Evangelical movement in Ireland” but he is surely right to say that the real challenge is to engage in a way that manifests “the presence and influence of Jesus Christ.” Redefining marriage is an important issue and Christians need to be making a positive contribution rather than staying silent, both in what they say and how they say it.

As citizens of this state, Christians have exactly the same opportunity and right as anyone else to articulate their vision of what sort of society will best lead to human flourishing. Part of this task will include opposing harmful and destructive policies and ideas as well as developing positive practical proposals for a way forward (Nick develops the latter in chapter 4). Of course, the ‘rubber hits the road’ in articulating what sort of society should evangelical Christians be arguing for and what should they be arguing against? Let me focus on one theme that I think is very significant that Nick alludes to – that of religious liberty.

Nick comments that increasingly where one stands on same-sex marriage is indeed being “viewed as a litmus test for being a decent human being”. There is a rising level of hostility to, and impatience with, people who do not jump to ‘get with the programme’ of same-sex legislation (to quote David Cameron lecturing the Church of England in Parliament a couple of years ago). The same-sex marriage campaign has developed enormous political and social capital, such that it would be a shock (to me anyway) if the Referendum is not passed in May. It resonates deeply with themes embedded in our Western culture: individualism, the pursuit of happiness, equality, freedom, liberation from oppressive institutional structures and tolerance. This is a narrative of progress, inclusion and justice as compared to the old repressive ‘Catholic Ireland’ of the past. To be perceived to ‘belong’ to the anti same-sex marriage camp is to be labelled as someone who has an regressive agenda to control the individual, promote unhappiness, endorse inequality, restrict freedom, reinforce oppression and maintain intolerance. Now that is a hard place from which to gain a hearing! Such labelling acts to exclude those who dissent from the majority position as voices not worth listening to. Potentially I can imagine such exclusion leading eventually to legislation to withdraw state support (funding, charity status etc) from organisations that do not ‘get with the programme’.

Nick talks about the fragmentation of postmodernism. One of the biggest political and social questions in Ireland in the years to come will be “How do we live with our deepest differences” when those differences appear to be getting deeper and deeper? If, in the past, tolerance in a free society was tolerating views you disagreed with or even found distasteful, today tolerance seems to be in the process of being reformed to mean only tolerating views with which you agree. Os Guinness has written about how the liberal pursuit of equality can become an illiberal imposition by the state of its values at the expense of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. In this context, and especially coming from our experience as a small minority, I think it is the role of evangelicals in Ireland to be actively contending for religious liberty.

Now, too often Christians in the West only get all hot and bothered when it is our rights that are being mildly threatened (like not being able to wear a crucifix to work or being sued for not baking a cake for a gay wedding). The real challenge, I believe, for evangelicals is to look beyond themselves to argue for religious liberty for all citizens, whether religious or secular. In other words, whatever rights we wish for ourselves, we should be willing to defend for others. For it is this sort of society that will be most free – where believers and atheists, Muslims and agnostics can live together within a civil public square. By that I mean where the state gets on with its job and citizens have some sort of shared vision of the common good while having the freedom of conscience to be themselves. Some may say this is a naive pipedream, but what is the alternative? Are we going to replace a dominant Catholic Christendom that had little room for minority voices with a dominant secularism that has little room for minority voices? Are evangelical Christians just going to shake their heads at the big bad world and withdraw from it? Or are we going to love that world by seeking the best for our fellow citizens by trying to help to build a civil society that promotes maximal freedom: a freedom to be human; a freedom to worship; a freedom to share our faith; a freedom to practise Christian marriage; a freedom to disagree without silencing each other.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Same-sex marriage in Ireland and the purpose of the law

wedding ringsIn the latest edition of Studies, Patrick O’Riordan SJ, who teaches political philosophy at Heythrop College in London, writes about impending (inevitable?) same-sex marriage legislation in Ireland and the purpose of the law.

The narrative for same-sex marriage goes something like this:

– Same-sex relationships used not to have society’s approval; now, increasingly, they do. This represents significant social progress.

– The law should be changed to reflect society’s approval and to affirm the right and legitimacy of such relationships

– This should include the right of same-sex couples to marry

– Change in the law will bring equality of treatment to same-sex couples. Current law discriminates unfairly against them.

Marriage in this sense is located in the realm of individual rights. Change in the law will bring into being a new social institution of same-sex marriage, declared to be legally equivalent to heterosexual marriage. To do this in Ireland will require a change to the 1937 Constitution which has a major place for marriage as a union between a man and woman.

O’Riordan notes how this narrative raises some significant questions around the purpose of the law and the institution of marriage:

‘What interest does a liberal democratic state have in the private relations of its citizens?’ ‘Is the legal concept of marriage necessary?’

He traces the arguments that some have made (he names Baroness Hale of Richmond, a judge in London’s new Supreme Court) that marriage as a legal institution has no real unique value. In England, there are no distinct legal consequences of marriage that are not already covered elsewhere. Children are equally protected under the law whether of married or non-married parents. Marital status is effectively irrelevant with regard to taxation and welfare provision – it could just as easily be co-habitation or civil-partnership. With the drive to equality, the distinctiveness of marriage as a legal category is undermined.

This means, in effect, that the state has no special investment in marriage. These developments reflect a minimalist view of the functions of a liberal democratic state.

Ireland’s Constitution is most definitely not minimalist. Our debates are going to be around those who see it as the role of the state to invest in and promote marriage by law for the good of society (current Constitution) and those arguing for a minimalist role of the state in redefining marriage around equality and personal liberty.

The Church’s Response

Where O’Riordan gets really interesting is in his advice to the Catholic Bishops. The self-understanding of the Irish RC Church has been forged in a profoundly Christendom context (my comment) – and this has led to the Church understanding itself as a guardian of political and social values. Such assumptions are no longer credible in post-Christendom Ireland.

But why, he asks, should the Church take a position on two competing views of the function of the law? Both have strengths and weaknesses. Both have ‘unobjectionable social values as a basis for legislation’ . Yes, the debate will be a lively one, but he urges the Bishops not to campaign beyond highlighting the values at stake.

Another reason not to campaign is that they will almost certainly lose. Arguing for the abstract notion of the social value of marriage over against a narrative of equality, overcoming discrimination, the right to marry for those in love of whatever gender, a better more inclusive Ireland … well you get the picture.  It’s a no win.

O’Riordan argues that once understood that the debate is effectively about the appropriate role of the law in a liberal democracy, rather than the nature of marriage or moral truth, then the Church is best to keep its powder dry for other occasions and higher priorities. Fighting a whole series of losing battles in the public forum over the last few decades has had a deeply demoralising impact.

If the bishops were to take on a losing fight, they would compromise their capacity to perform their essential mission – to preach the Gospel …. No-one is encouraged in faith, hope and love by preachers and teachers who are anxious, demoralised or depressed. In another sense, the core message of the faith has been drowned out by a predominance of moralising in the Church’s communication. There has been too little of the joyful proclamation of the presence of the Risen Lord and of his Spirit in the midst of our messy and broken world.

What the Catholic Church needs to recognise, is the new context in which it exists. Christian marriage will not cease to exist – the sky will not fall in if (when) same-sex marriage happens in Ireland. But rather than rely on the state or law to uphold it, the challenge is for the Church ‘to engage in more direct and deliberate preparation of couples for their giving and receiving of the sacrament [of marriage].’

What words would you use to describe this article? Here are some that come to my mind:

Refreshing – focused on the essential mission of the church to preach the gospel

Realistic – discerning the (post-Christendom) times and an appropriate strategy. Not trying to live in the past.  What he says sounds positively anabaptist in his call for the church to be the church whatever wider society is doing to marriage.

Wise – informed, engaged, and most impressively of all, self-critically reflective (all too rare)

Constructive – not fearful or scare-mongering. Able to isolate the underlying issue of changing attitudes around the purpose of the law. Not demonising opponents. Showing how different Christian responses to same-sex marriage legislation does not necessarily equate to diluting or compromising a traditional orthodox Christian view of marriage.

Incomplete – a key issue down the line will be that of religious liberty. If marriage is redefined under law, how will that legislation protect the right of Christians (and other religious faiths) who will resist the practice of same-sex marriage within their faith traditions? At the moment there is clear blue water between marriage and secular civil partnerships performed by a state registrar. A change in the law will need to be carefully crafted if equality legislation does not end up trumping religious liberty. Christians will rightly resist the state over-reaching its power to force the church by law to act against conscience and established teaching.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

EAI, Same-Sex Marriage and Ireland

A timely recent post related to the EAI statement on Same Sex Marriage.

Ben Witherington talks about what marriage is and isn’t. Like EAI, he supports civil unions but opposes the redefinition of marriage.

The EAI statement focused primarily on the threats posed by an illiberal secularism to human rights and a civil society. While important, this emphasis meant that while same-sex marriage was talked about as being a ‘retrograde step’ for the common good, a weakness in the argument was it didn’t really give reasons why.

Witherington gets into the ‘why’ a bit more.  He refers to an article from CNN written by three lawyers. This is Witherington’s summary of the lawyers’ argument.

First, the redefinition of marriage will undermine the marriage itself and will inevitably lead to more and more forms of ‘marriage’.

If marriage is just the emotional bond “that matters most” to you — in the revealing words of the circuit judge who struck down California Proposition 8 — then personal tastes or a couple’s subjective preferences aside, there is no reason of principle for marriage to be pledged to permanence. Or sexually exclusive rather than “open.” Or limited to two spouses. Or oriented to family life and shaped by its demands.

In that case, every argument for recognizing two men’s bond as marital –equality, destigmatization, extending economic benefits — would also apply to recognizing romantic triads (“throuples,” as they are now known). Refusing such recognition would be unfair — a violation of equality — if commitment based on emotional companionship is what makes a marriage.”

Second, marriage is NOT just a ‘bond of affection’.  “The attractive civil rights rhetoric of “marriage equality” masks a profound error about what marriage is.”

“All human beings are equal in dignity and should be equal before the law. But equality only forbids arbitrary distinctions. And there is nothing arbitrary about maximizing the chances that children will know the love of their biological parents in a committed and exclusive bond. A strong marriage culture serves children, families and society by encouraging the ideal of giving kids both a mom and a dad.

Witherington adds other more theological reasons of his own that have general implications for marriage in general beyond the church.  If both male and female are made in the image of God and it is together that they are complete, then gender difference matters in the marriage relationship. A father and a mother give children something that two men or  two women can’t. There is a purposeful duality to human nature.

Within the church for believers, for both Jesus and Paul, “heterosexual monogamy and celibacy in singleness were the only legitimate options for Jesus’ disciples.” Witherington argues that no Christian minister should be “advocating or solemnizing non-marriages as if they were God-blessed marriages.”

See here for Steve Chalke’s very different view on this in his own words.  He has blessed monogamous gay-unions and says

I leave it to others to debate whether a Civil Partnership plus a dedication and blessing should equal a marriage or not. But I do believe that the Church has a God given responsibility to include those who have for so long found themselves excluded.

A few musings and, as ever, feel welcome to add your own:

Witherington does stress that far more than just a man and woman together is needed for a marriage to be a good one – marriage needs love for one another and for children if it is to work (and is not just all about children). Neither is he saying homosexual couples don’t love one another etc. He is saying, like EAI, that civil unions provide the context for same-sex relationships to be recognised by the state with various legal implications. But marriage by definition is a relationship between a man and woman.

I think the argument made by EAI and Witherington needs to be articulated by Christians (with grace and charity). They have as much democratic right as anyone else to make their case. They don’t of course have any automatic right for their views to be privileged.

Especially given Ireland’s recent past, getting a hearing for that case is hard work and likely to fall on stony ground. Religious views are increasingly seen as threats to tolerance, equality and diversity in an increasingly secularist society. The ‘civil right’ narrative around marriage is hugely persuasive, popular and politically potent.

Therefore, one of the greatest contemporary challenges for Christians (in Ireland / the West) is to be thinking through how to relate to a culture that is detaching itself from its Christendom past. In terms of mission, ethics, witness, citizenship and so on.

Another is how to relate with love, grace, respect and Christ-likeness to a gay community which has all too often not experienced any of those attitudes when it comes to church?

And in terms of critical self-reflection – why do Christians all but idolise marriage, the middle-class nuclear home, 2.2 kids and all that jazz? Why is it held up as the ultimate expression of the ‘good life’ ? (and I speak as someone only missing the .2 children from that description, still looking).

Book Review: The Message of Women

Derek and Dianne Tidball. The Message of Women: Creation, Grace and Gender. IVP, 2012

A defining characteristic of evangelicalism is a conscious attempt to have both theology and praxis based on the Bible above all other sources of authority.This immediately means several things:

1. At heart evangelicals will always want to know what the Bible says. They study it, discuss it, try to understand it, interpret it and apply it. They are ‘Bible people’.

2. Interpretations over what is ‘the biblical’ view on any particular text or theme have enormous significance for conferring legitimacy.

3. And this means in turn that ‘biblical’ tends to be one of the most over-used words in the evangelical Christian dictionary.

So when it comes to an issue like women in leadership, what is ‘the’ biblical view assumes deciding weight. The slight problem for this is that it’s rather obvious that agreeing on what ‘the’ biblical view on a host of issues is not the straightforward process that many evangelicals seem to assume it is otherwise there would not be thousands of Protestant denominations (for example).

So to this book just published in the Bible Speaks Today (BST) Bible Themes series.

As with all the BST books the approach is primarily exegetical, with chapters on selected texts structured within four sections. It begins with ‘Foundations’ (Genesis 1-3 and Galatians 3:26-28). Section 2 is on ‘Women in the Old Covenant’ (including family women like Rebekkah; victimised women cut into pieces in Judges; leading women like Deborah; resolute women like Ruth; prophetic women like Huldah; the passionate woman of the Song of Songs; and the capable woman of Proverbs 31). Section three is ‘Women in the kingdom’ (including women in the life of Jesus; in the encounters of Jesus; in the teaching of Jesus; and women as disciples of Jesus). Part 4 is ‘Women in the new community’ (including women in action, in prayer, in worship, in marriage, in leadership and in widowhood).

The big picture that emerges is the Bible’s highly diverse ‘message’ of women. In other words, the authors consistently question the idea of ‘the biblical’ view of women in ministry and in work and family life. For example, they warn against drawing straight lines from women within the patriarchal OT context to women as modern ‘homemakers’. Rather, they propose, “What the many stories of wives and mothers in Scripture teach us is that God’s will does triumph through the different patterns that men and women may adopt for family life and in all the less-than-perfect rough and tumble of the ordinary, not textbook, lives.” (79)

This means that attempts to fit the role of women within family and church life into a preordained mould are doomed to fail. In the OT, the prophetic ministry of Miriam, Huldah and Deborah show that God spoke through women as well as men and that “never is the right of a woman to be a vehicle for a message from God questioned.” (123). The capable woman of Proverbs 31 ‘supports the view that to restrict women to narrow a narrow domestic role is not biblically justified.’ Rather, she offers ‘the balance of serving and responsibility; or leadership and compassion; of enterprise and trust; and of freedom and commitment.’ (146)

More varied portraits of women continue to be drawn in the NT. There is a sketch of women’s courage and deep affection for their Lord at the cross and as the first witnesses of the resurrection. The inclusion of women within the kingdom as disciples and as witnesses points to an alternative community to the male dominated culture of the time. There is a new order of relationships; of respect and dignity for women and full equality within the new creation which flows from Jesus’ own revolutionary attitude to, and teaching about, women which was without precedent in Judaism. He values, respects, befriends, disciples, encourages, inspires and accepts love from women. He never denigrates or makes any negative remarks about women. (184). They are entrusted with the message of the gospel, serve alongside men, become travelling messengers of the gospel, teachers, evangelists (196), witnesses, patronesses, missionaries and even apostle(s). There is no hint of any restriction of ministry under authority of men. It is a remarkably expansive role, but at the same time there is no idealisation of women 209. ‘Gender is not the primary issue, only commitment to Christ and the formation of a Christ-like character.’ (209).

When it comes to the familiar texts concerning women in leadership (1 Cor. 11:2-16; 1 Cor 14:26-40 and 1 Tim 2:11-15) the authors unpack the texts fully (and convincingly! 🙂 )  arriving at egalitarian conclusions that I won’t go into detail here lest you think I’ve got nothing else to write about on this blog. How they do this is a model of careful exegesis and gracious engagement with complementarian thinking without lapsing into stereotyping. If only this debate in general was characterised by such graciousness and respect. The big picture?

‘Today, Paul is likely to argue that a refusal to exercise leadership in the church is what brings the gospel into disrepute … we suspect he would be rejoicing at the many women who exercise their wonderful teaching and leadership gifts in the church, for the sake of the gospel and the glory of Christ.’ (267).

In regard to marriage, this couple discuss 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, Ephesians 5:21-33 and 1 Peter 3:1-7. The thrust of the argument here is that the NT contains twin tributaries of thought: one emphasises equality of women and men in marriage; the other a sense of respect for social order that is inherent in creation and new creation and which was imperfectly reflected in the Greco-Roman world of the 1st century. If Paul accepts the social structures concerning marriage of his day, he ‘invests that skeleton with an entirely new and counter-cultural body’. This creates a current of thought that has, over time, broken through the banks of patriarchialism. In other words, NT teaching on marriage emerged out of a particular context but is not tied to that context. What remains is an order ‘formed in the community of the new creation by mutual love, mutual submission, mutual deference and by giving up the will to power.’ (248)

So rather than ‘the biblical’ blueprint being taken from the text and applied woodenly to contemporary life what we have instead is a theological task of reading the issue through the storyline of the Bible.

‘We cannot find what would be recognised as a contemporary equality agenda ready-made in the Bible. The Bible must be read in its own context before we use it to address ours. But, our review of Scripture leads us to believe that very significant progress was made towards egalitarianism in the course of the unfolding story of redemption and that the signposts point us unmistakeably in that direction.’ (283).

PS. The 10 page bibliography is a super resource for anyone studying or reading around the issue of women in leadership – every major work I could think of is there in one place and a lot more besides. It is also right up to date.