The Danger of Trinitarian Arguments for Gender Roles

So I am almost done. On Monday I talked about the things I liked in the Kellers’ book The Meaning of Marriage. On Tuesday I introduced how they argued for a complementarian understanding of gender roles, which I felt was a strange turn for the book to take. Yesterday I tried to demonstrate how natural theology is under the surface of that argument. Today I get to the real objection I have with the book, which is how underneath it all, the Kellers draw on a tenuous theology of the Trinity to develop their theories on gender roles. This is an alarming way to address a relatively open question. It is both problematic that they use such treasures to resolve a minor problem but also how dangerous is their use them.

This is a real problem, which I think justifies all these thousands of words expanded on it.

The Real Problem Is The Trinitarian Machinery of the Argument
I hope it is clear that I have huge respect for the Kellers. And the considered reader will realise that this entire complementarian edifice cannot be built simply on the natural categories I discussed yesterday. On page 200, in the succeeding chapter, they come back to the empty-set that is masculine and feminine and they re-assert that they don’t want them to be defined: “it is nearly impossible to come up with a single, detailed, and very specific set of ‘manly’ or ‘womanly’ characteristics.”

So I propose that the natural theology argument that I went over yesterday is just a habit that is slipped into, a common coin in American evangelicalism that can be traded in without ever noticing that you are passing counterfeit currency. The real machinery of the argument is the source of the major problem I have with this book.

The Kellers lock down their complementarian gender roles argument by reference to the Trinity.

I’ll let that settle in.

The entire question of Christianity could be summed up by asking, “Who do we call when we call on the name ‘God’?” The early church was made up of radically monotheistic Jews and confusingly pantheistic pagans who came to the conclusion that when you call on the name Jesus you call on God. Over time, as they grappled with what it meant to worship this God-who-begets-the-son-Jesus-who-comforts-us-in-the-Spirit, Christians derived the language of persons and essence and formulated a concept we call Trinity. God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit. One God. Three persons. A single essence. The attributes of God followed and before long you find Thomas Aquinas sitting in Paris writing with both left hand and right at the same time, expounding on all the things we can know if we know this one thing.

So when we talk about Trinity we are talking about the very core of Christianity.

Chichester Cathedral Trinitarian tapestry by John Piper

I have thought about this for a week, since finishing the book, and I think I can phrase it gently now. It annoyed me no end upon first reading it. So here goes: To resort to Trinitarian argument to resolve a cultural question about marriage roles is the equivalent of firing a Patriot missile to drill a hole in the wall. In terms of arguments, this is as an astonishing over-reaction. It speaks of the heightened way that American evangelicals go about their business. One could speculate that the bad habits of heresy-hunting, bitching and gossipping and the lack of any real ecclesial bonds means that Christians find themselves using the most explosive and potent and subtle (and dangerously complex) tools we have to resolve relatively minor disputes.

There is a tremendous asymmetry between starting a book about marriage and finishing with a theology of Trinity.

Before we even get into the nuts and bolts of the argument, we have to see how poor a step has been made. We jump from a pastoral book full of cultural commentary into a debate about how the about-dance of God implies gender-roles in marriage (that need to be defined in each particular instance depending on context). These components don’t fit together.

But I am afraid to say, it gets worse. The Trinitarian theology that is espoused is a form of subordinationism. This is a variety of Trinitarian thinking that has re-appeared since the late 1970s. Before this generation, the last major figure I know of to espouse it was John Milton. It itself is not a heresy, but it certainly leads in that direction. If you take it to its logical conclusion it arrives at Arianism, which is the foundational Christological error. You can block its way from going down that dark alley, but only at the expense of veering off into tri-theism.

In short, this is a new and dangerous kind of argument.

What subordinationism argues is that there is a hierarchy within the Trinity. God the Father is above God the Son and the Spirit. The Son is “subordinated” to the Father and so, the Kellers argue, the wife should be “subordinated” to the husband. This is saved from being pure power-play by the perfect mutual love of the persons in the Trinity. “The Son defers to his Father, taking the subordinate role. The Father accepts the gift, but then exalts the Son to the highest place.” (176)

Now that movement can be justified on functional grounds. In the Gospel of John especially, Jesus is seen as the Sent-One, on a mission from God the Father. So you could use this to describe an aspect of Jesus’ work. But the Kellers appear to ontologize this functional arrangement. What I mean by that is that they make this arrangement part of the very being of God. They are not saying that the Father and the Son are on the same team, playing different roles, from incarnation to ascension. They are saying that the Father and the Son are in some deep way placed in an order, one above the other, one below. How else can they make the correspondence “we are differently gendered to reflect this life within the Trinity”?

If it is true that man and woman are fundamentally different, and that this reflects the life within the Trinity, then it follows that Father and Son are fundamentally different. If Father and Son are of different essence, we are no longer talking about the same thing Christians talk about when they talk about God. We must realise what is at stake when we build our picture of Trinity up from our level. The conservative Christian who embraces this argument is running the most serious of risks. It is not good evangelical theology. It is insufficient as a reading of Scripture.

And if you still don’t see the danger in this problem, I refer you to the Athanasian Creed, the Nicene Creed, or even the Westminster Confession of Faith. They all articulate a view of the Trinity that shows no trace of hierarchy, subordination or these sorts of internal roles. To speculate on the inner-life of the Trinity to justify some internal arrangement of marriage is dubious. To do it with a view of Trinity that is so fraught with ambiguity is outright dangerous.

You see the irony here? In pursuit of supporting a socially conservative position they cherish, complementarian engage in a very non-conservative interpretation of the Holy Trinity.

Conclusion: So Here’s My Problem
So can I recommend a book that is altogether excellent, apart from 35 pages that are terrible? Is it just that the solid, good stuff at the start of the book goes awry towards the end and we don’t have to stress about it too much? Or is the stuff at the end, built on a theory about the inner workings of God, the source for all the apparently solid stuff, that in fact, in retrospect, looks super-dodgy?

Books about marriage are much needed. We have so few of them that puncture the cultural idolatry of the institution, avoid getting dragged into political positions that wrestle the life out of Christian witness, and actually offer good, gracious, practical advice. I love Tim Keller’s preaching and aspire to embody his winsome and considered approach to things. I really appreciate how this book is so deeply centred on Christ. It just makes it all the more disappointing that the Trinitarian reflections do not begin from that centre either but speculate loftily.

My problem isn’t simply what do I make of this book but what are we to make of a Christian culture that sometimes seems so devoted to certain kinds of cultural institutions that we’re happy to warp the Scriptures and also our doctrine of God to keep getting the outcomes we want?

I want to recommend this. I want to buy many copies so I can give them away to friends who are getting married. Instead, this will go back on the shelf and I’ll keep looking for the book that hasn’t yet been written.

Tomorrow I will draw your attention to a much better book about gender roles that isn’t going to sell nearly as many copies or be nearly as influential. That book is Equal to Rule by Trevor Morrow.

Your Correspondent, Knows there is just one who is unconfused, unchangeable, indivisible, and inseparable

The Natural Theology Behind Complementarianism

Recap Of What Is Going On Here
On Monday I wrote about the good things about the Tim and Kathy Keller book The Meaning of Marriage and yesterday I wrote about the veering off-course that happens towards the end where the Kellers advocate a strong “complementarian” position on the roles between the genders in marriage. What is interesting about this argument is how little is being argued. The complementarianism that they advocate is nuanced to the point of losing its vitality entirely. So even though the book’s argument leads to a sort of functional egalitarianism, this sensibility is won at the drastic cost of embracing a view on the roles between genders that speaks more to our culture than to the pattern of the Scriptures.

But as far as complementarian arguments go, this isn’t that offensive a version. So why am I writing all these words about it? I DON’T KNOW! SOMEBODY PLEASE SEND HELP!

Also, because the argument provides an unusually clear view of two elements of the contemporary complementarian arguments that are usually well hidden. Today we look at the role natural theology plays in the argument. Tomorrow, we get heavy with the Trinitarian theories espoused by the Kellers.

A brief definition of natural theology might be well placed here. Natural theology is the belief that you can look to the created world and build up arguments that lead to knowledge about God. Classically, this is summed up by William Paley’s “Blind Watchmaker” analogy. But my difficulty with it is deeper. Siding with Karl Barth, the desire to build arguments towards God without reference to God is a form of delusion that intends to keep us away from heeding God’s revelation. As the London-based theologian Lincoln Harvey quips, natural theology is plagiarism. It copies what can only be known by revelation, passes itself off as itself and therefore is a totally bogus form of theologising.

The “Natural” Slide Into Natural Theology
So I grant that the complementarianism of the Kellers is of a relatively benign variety, but I am still deeply troubled by it. What is my problem?

Well this is the problem I have with the book. It isn’t simply that it denies the egalitarian message of the New Testament. It is how it does it.

Firstly, this argument always appeals, explicitly or implicitly, to natural theology. Underneath the proof-texting, there is always a “plain” “common sense” reading of the created world that does the heavy lifting in the argument. So Kathy writes “even at the atomic level, all the universe is held together by the attraction of positive and negative forces. The embrace of the Other, as it turns out, really is what makes the world go around.” This is finely crafted and humourous sentence but it is also at base, an appeal to a deeply troubling authority. You can’t just leap from sub-atomic attractions to gender roles in modern western marriage and call it theology.

Everytime I hear arguments like this I think of Dr. Ian Malcolm flirting with Dr. Ellie Slater in Jurassic Park, talking about “strange attractions”.

What natural theologians remind me of

Natural theologians are rarely as cool as Jeff Goldblum however.

One of the best tells of natural theology doing lifting work in theological arguments is when you start noticing terms that haven’t been defined. So the Kellers are insistent that actual, concrete instructions about masculinity and femininity are not provided for in the Scriptures (which is true). But they are still able to deploy the terms masculine and feminine without defining them.

We fill in the definitions from our prevailing cultural mores and don’t even notice.

All that is said towards that is a brief (clear, and accurate) exposition of what it means in Genesis when Eve is created as a suitable ‘ezer. Woman is “like-opposite” to man. Notice though that all we have is a tension. The Scriptures put man and woman into an inter-defining relationship. But that tension can take different forms in different places. But 8 pages on we find discussion of “hyper-masculinity” and “rejection of masculinity”, “hyperfemininity” and “rejection of femininity”. Here, the argument has slid into terms left undefined. How does the chapter still work? It rests on the “natural” categories of masculine and feminine that the reader places into those word-containers.

What better response can there be to this sort of argument than: “Nein!”

Your Correspondent, Nature is a modern invention

Complementarianism as a Confusion

A Recap
Yesterday I began writing about the Kellers’ book, The Meaning of Marriage and some of the aspects of the book that I really appreciate. But my problem upon finishing the book was that the argument veers off in a very strange way towards the end, turning into a narrow discussion of a peculiar trend in American evangelical Christianity that has become prominent in the last generation. Today I try to unpack what that “complementarian” argument entails.

The Complementarian Chapter
Chapter Six is the offending chapter and it is entitled “Embracing the Other”. It advocates for an understanding of gender roles in marriage that is called “complementarian”. American Christians created this term and it has spread. It indicates the belief that men and women complement each other in their roles. They are equal but different. I have a friend in Aberdeen who studies the theology of race and whenever he hears talk like this he quips that it sounds a lot like the talk in the southern states of the US in the middle 20th Century.


Complementarianism revealed

In the Kellers’ instance, such jabs are undeserved, since it is very clear that they are among the best proponents of this position. For example, Kathy writes this chapter alone. But as Wife-unit points out, under the terms of complementarian theology, she can write the chapter in the bestselling book but she can’t preach the same message from a pulpit. That might seem like another jibe, but it actually cracks open the submerged story that evangelicals tell about the sacramental position of preaching in their functional theology. It is somehow special, in ways that probably are never explicated by those who hold this point of view.

I say they are among the best proponents of this position and I mean it. Unlike certain crass preachers [beware, that link is dark and horrible], the Kellers are careful to distinguish their views of gender from the “dominant, swaggering (and sinful) male behaviour” of machismo or the “one of the boys” mentality that women have to often adopt to gain the equality that their society tells them is unproblematically awaiting them now that feminism is finished its work (ahem). I suppose the good in the Kellers’ argument is that they clearly respect feminism and see it as a much needed movement.

How sad is it that simply acknowledging the societal misogyny rampant in our cultures is enough to justify praising prominent Christian teachers?

The Nuance In The Complement
But this positive aspect of their teaching, in contrast to the majority of people who propose complementarianism, also reveals a big hole in the middle of the teaching. I imagine that John Piper and Wayne Grudem and Mark Driscoll and the rest of the angry men in this crowd would be left very unsatisfied by the Kellers in this book because they give the game away. Having advocated for this complementarian position, they then evacuate it of the specifics that allow it to gain such traction in megachurches.

Think about it this way: if a movement springs up in the late 1970s and suddenly gains dominance across the churches of a particular culture while struggling to get a hold in the same sorts of churches in other (similar) cultures (this complementarian stuff is much less prominent in the UK or Ireland, in Sweden or Germany), what would we conclude? Perhaps we would need to investigate whether there is some cultural need in that particular society that requires this response? The late 1970s saw a cultural-political (counter-)revolution in the US with the rise of a peculiar kind of right-wing politics that was very distinct from what had come before. Moralist social positions were bolted on top of a reckless embrace of free market capitalism and the rest is (sad, blood-soaked) history.

Using the methods of reflection that I learned from Tim Keller himself, I would conclude that strong gender roles resonated with the default stories being told by Americans over the last 35 years. The whole point of complementarianism (when looked at from this non-theological genealogy of society lens) is to give religious support to a cultural and political revolution. This is why the Driscolls feel the need to warp the teaching of Paul to teach that women should stay at home and men should be out working or else they are worse than unbelievers! And yet the Kellers admit that their complementarian position simply “means that rigid cultural gender roles have no Biblical warrant. Christians cannot make a scriptural case for masculine and feminine stereotypes.”

All they are left with is a spiritualised account of the different sensibilities man and woman brings to marriage. To their credit, this really is the most defensible form of the position they are advocating. It locates the husband and the wife firmly in relation to Jesus and the end result would probably neither limit the woman, licence the man, or otherwise cause damage. (It damages the church in extensive and unknowable ways of course, by keeping women that the Holy Spirit has gifted to teach and lead out of the pulpit and away from decision-making, but that’s a fight I’ll take up on Friday.) They say “the Bible deliberately does not give answers to you” about what a wife should do and what a husband should do. As far as destructive ideas go, this one seems extensively disarmed.

Conclusion: Why bother?
That’s great. But why keep going with the complementarianism at all? It seems as if the Kellers have been critical and careful enough to tear off all the parts of the structure that are outright destructive or disguised prejudice. What they have left us is a bare skeleton of complentarian argument that is justifiable on its own terms but one is left wondering what it’s purpose is? It cashes out as egalitarian in practice. Why not just call itself what it is?

Tomorrow I will start to examine the risky theological moves in the background that mean even this form of the argument still needs to be resisted.

Your Correspondent, Believes that men are from Earth and also that women are from Earth.

A Week On Marriage, Gender, Trinity and the Confusions of the Church

Introduction: On Learning To Read Beloved Writers Critically
Wife-unit scolds me whenever I find a new writer that I get very excited about. She fears that my enthusiastic nature leads me to too easily embrace whatever the writer espouses. I have gone through phases where Bonhoeffer and Marilynne Robinson, C.S. Lewis and Stephen Jay Gould were all devoured and perhaps uncritically accepted. Latterly, things have been made easier because my two main influences, Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas are never wrong. Especially not when they contradict each other!

Wife-unit is probably right. I would say that however, since my enthusiasm over how brilliant she is makes me liable to agree with whatever it is she proposes! But recently I have worked on developing a more critical reception of ideas. Now I can even tell you some of the ways I suspect Hauerwas goes awry (it’s a short conversation).

Tim Keller is a a Presbyterian minister in New York that I have learned a vast amount from. I listen to his sermons every week and apart from Trevor Morrow, nobody has so directly influenced how I preach. But continuing with my maturation, I have to take major issue with an aspect of what this writer, who has deeply inspired me, has published. The question that drives this essay is: “Can a single very bad mis-step ruin an otherwise fine book?

I wrote this all out and found that I could easily spout 5000 words on reflections inspired by the book. Perhaps that is a really good thing going for it? But I have torn that up into a week of posts in an effort to stop myself from killing you all with boredom.

The Three Main Themes of the Book
The book in question is The Meaning of Marriage, which he co-wrote with his wife Kathy. I deeply enjoyed reading it. Well, most of it. Wife-unit and I listened to the sermons he delivered on marriage before our wedding and we found them very helpful. On one hand, this book is a good example of what I love about Keller’s work. He draws together his sources so sweetly. He riffs on Auden and then moves on to an article in the New York Times and then ties it altogether with some succinct exegesis. Throughout it all is the hunt to expose what grace does to transform us. This is all to be praised.

There are three main aspects to this book.

Firstly, the Kellers want to interrogate the cultural narratives that surround marriage. This is typical of their style. Tim talks often about the importance of finding the submerged stories that people are trying to live out.

The second viewpoint is the pastoral, which again makes total sense. This is not a systematic theology of marriage. This is not a philosophical ethics of matrimony. You read this book and you find yourself in it. The authors are concerned with shepherding people into verdant pastures.

But it is the third emphasis that leaves me so troubled and that is the espousal of a very narrow and limited theology of gender towards the end. The Kellers are notable for how excellent they are at welcoming and respecting different viewpoints, but this book veers off into the darkest and deepest and choppiest waters of American evangelical theology, leaving even supporters like me confused as to why this has happened.

Tomorrow I will write more about the problem with this third emphasis but for now I will draw your attention to the parts of the book I really appreciated.

The book begins with an investigation of the conflicting desires around marriage that our culture exhibits. We are tired with the institution and are suspicious of it. And yet we make such stringent demands on whoever would dare to enter into it with us:

If your desire is for a spouse who will not demand a lot of change from you, then you are also looking for a spouse who is almost completely pulled together, someone very ‘low maintenance’ without much in the way of personal problems. You are looking for someone who will not require or demand significant change. You are searching, therefore, for an ideal person – happy, healthy, interesting, content with life. Never before in history has there been a society filled with people so idealistic in what they are seeking in a spouse.

– Tim (and Kathy) Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, 33.

Even better was his section on how the essence of marriage is covenant. This is a recurring motif in his preaching – the centrality of God’s covenant in any coherent understanding of what the Bible is saying. His claim that “promising is the key to identity” (91) seems to be one of those casual lines that collapses the world from under you. Without being people who bear our word, our identities slip away. We all commit to doing things, and the put-together-ness of our sense of self (and others’ sense of us) is bound to how well we honour those commitments.

Similarly, he is wonderfully clear on the mission of marriage. The entire book is to be read as an exposition of the marriage section in Ephesians 5. The mission is the sanctification of your spouse. “What keeps the marriage going is your commitment to your spouse’s holiness.” (123) If that sounds very abstract and spiritualised, the Kellers bring it down into real life. For example: “If your spouse does not feel that you are putting him or her first, then by definition, you aren’t.” (128)

How rare it is for a pastor to be able to give such practical advice without sinking into legalism. That is avoided by constantly returning to the source of our hope. The wedding day should not be considered the happiest day of a couple’s life:

Not if you and your spouse wield the power of truth and love with grace in each other’s lives. Not if you are committed to the adventure of spiritual companionship, to partner with God in the journey to the new creation. Then, to the eye of God, as the years go by, you are making each other more and more beautiful, like a diamond being cut and polished and set.

– Tim (and Kathy) Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, 169.

So if this book settled on examining the cultural attitudes to marriage and then offering pastoral advice about marriage that is grounded in grace, how great would it be? Very great is the answer. Sadly, that is not all it does. More on that tomorrow. (Has there ever been a less suspenseful blog series??)

Your Corresponent, Thinks marriage is a lot like an orange. First, you have the skin… then the sweet, sweet innards…

Magnus by George Mackay Brown

<Spoiler Alert> This isn’t a review so much as a series of thoughts prompted by a novel. If you want to not know what happens in the book, go read this glorious take-down of a different book notionally connected to Bonhoeffer.  </Spoiler Alert>

Magnus by George Mackay Brown is the strangest book inspired by Dietrich Bonhoeffer I have ever come across. Even weirder than that so-called biography by Eric Metaxas. The legendary Orcadian poet weaves together the story of the ill-fated Magnus Erlendsson, who competed against Haakon Paulsson for rule over Orkney and Shetland in the early 1100s. This story about Viking culture on the islands to the north of Scotland is also about a 20th Century Lutheran pastor.

Embedded within the story of civil conflict in medieval Scotland is the story of the holocaust and the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You remember Bonhoeffer? He was the great German theologian of the 1930s, who opposed the NAZI rule, sought to protect the German church, evacuate Jews and uphold the Gospel. He was also put to death at Flossenbürg, weeks before the end of the war, having been found guilty of conspiring to assassinate Hitler. Earlier, in 1937, he had written in his classic book on discipleship:

When Christ calls a man, he bids him
come and die.

So the story that unfolds in Magnus is a disjointed and complex one. This medieval saga is told in a very modernistic fashion. We see things from the perspective of soldiers and peasants, tinkers and monks, but rarely from the view of Magnus or Haakon. Yet Brown leaves us in no doubt but that in some ways, history is made by powerful men using their power. It’s just they don’t seem to have a choice. Events overtake them. Things spiral out of hand.

This book should be better known among Christians and I encourage you to track it down. But there are three points in it that I specifically want to focus on.

Early in the novel, Magnus is pressed into marriage, before he can discern his vocation and he comes to make peace with it in a very unsatisfactory way. But in discussion with his friend Hold, he cannot express himself in a way that is understood. Things are too fraught with meaning. Hold is left smiling “with simulated understanding, but in truth he was more perplexed than ever” after the Earl had explained his marital difficulties by saying:

This crucifix is the forge, and the threshing-floor, and the shed of the net-makers, where God and man work out together a plan of utter necessity and of unimaginable beauty…

– George Mackay Brown, Magnus, 73.

The cruciform shape of human life that Bonhoeffer bears testimony to is summed up in this “deep sincerity” which Magnus can only express “in falterings and sudden fluencies.” The darkness of human anguish does not exhaust the hope of the Gospel, even if we cannot imagine God bringing beauty out of it. This is part of Bonhoeffer’s witness to us.

Perhaps already you can see the two aspects of this book that are very striking. It is a book suffused by the Christian faith that deeply reflects the Gospel and yet because it is a modernist novel, this is all under the surface. It is the working of the logic of the thing, that only occasionally and in brief reveals itself unambiguously to the reader. It was neither JM Coetzee nor Thomas Pynchon who said after they had told a great story, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”


The theology does poke through. I loved Brown’s reflections on the eco-systems of the islands. The seals and the tides and the birds are ever-present characters. This paragraph lingered with me, because it draws out a very mundane fact that we can easily forget now that the most important ingredient in our agriculture is petroleum. But farming is an act of faith. It always was and always will be:

Now that the seed was uttered upon the land the peasants waited for the sun and the rain to do their bit. What they had performed was an act of faith. They trusted that the seed they had buried would return from the grave, first the shoot, then the ear, then the stalk with a full burden of corn in the ear. But this yearly resurrection of the seed was encompassed with dangers. The rain might fall in black deluges on the hill all the month of June. The sun might shrivel the crop with unwonted ardency while it was still green. More terrible still, the black worm might bore into the root.

The peasants had done what they could.

– George Mackay Brown, Magnus, 93.

Yet the connection that I made at the end of this novel is probably the one that will linger the longest with me. It is no spoiler to say that Magnus is killed, martyred as a sacrifice for the sake of the islands. After years of wasteful civil strife, he is axed in the head to bring peace, to make atonement between the battling factions, to inaugurate one and only one as Lord.

Both within the literal pages of the book and the thematic momentum of the book, here we are at close parallel with Bonhoeffer. He imagined himself as a sacrifice for the sins of Germany, for his middle-class Berliner people, for his comfortable Christian congregations, for the complacency and violence of his civilized nation. Peace came soon after his death.

That Bonhoeffer was wrong about this should be no limit to Brown making art. At the end of the book he artfully places us three years into the peace. While they toil at harvest, the peasants are robbed by some tinkers. One of the peasants wants to make an example of the thieves, bring them to justice, even see them hanged. His wife is more benevolent and wins the day. Having reminded her neighbours of their surplus and how desperate they were for sustenance in the years of war, Hild, says:

– Remember this, man. We’re only as rich as the poorest among us.

– George Mackay Brown, Magnus, 190.

Hild does not know of the violence that erupted at the peace talks which led to Magnus’ death. Hild is unaware of how the peace she now enjoys was won by the murder of a saintly man. Hild is ignorant of the fact that the government for which she is so thankful was only raised to power by an act of cowardice.

The sincere and magnanimous leadership of Hild appears superficial and cynical when we zoom out to take in the entire picture. The poorest among them is the ghost of Magnus, who was slain to make their peace. He does not even have his life anymore. The success of the state always rests on the violence exerted on the people we cannot see.

This too echoes with the legacy of Bonhoeffer. We Europeans live in the recent shadow of the carnage of the World Wars. We praise our liberal governments for securing our peace and facilitating our prosperity. We issue forth the lofty words of social democracy, saying things very similar to Hild. But we can only do so by remembering to forget who are the poorest among us. We use legal and social and cultural devices to make sure that the poor who would challenge our ease are non-persons. Thus we live amongst but ignore the asylum seekers in “reception centres”, the mentally disabled aborted before they are born, the slaves who sew our clothes and assemble our phones and harvest our food.

This is the strangest book I have yet read about Bonhoeffer. But it is marvelous.

Your Correspondent, His usual order is one Kwik-E-Dog, one bubblegum cigar, and the latest issue of “Success” magazine.

Book Review: Everyday Sexism

While I am more than suspicious of #hashtagactivism, seeing it in the large part as the end product of the conversion of politics into identity-expression, my ethical vision of the world in which I live has been aided immensely by subscribing to the EverydaySexism twitter account. Over the last few years my morning feed of jokes, mathematical discussion of soccer tactics, and links to theological articles has been interrupted by accounts of women as they describe in short, terse sentences the daily slog that it can be to simply live with an XY chromosome.

A few months ago the curator of the project, Laura Bates, published a book and I finally got around to reading it a few weeks ago. I found it very hard going. The content in the opening chapters was so distressing that it was relegated from the bedside table. The opening chapters, about the tipping point where women were unable to take harassment anymore, the difficulties that women face in electoral politics and especially the chapter on how pre-pubescent girls are afflicted by the ramifications of patriarchy left me unable to sleep easy.

Which is as it should be.

I joked with Wife-Unit about how I wanted to put the book in the freezer, like Joey did on that one episode of Friends. Of course, Joey is a walking personification of everyday sexism and the book that he was so affected by was Little Women.

It’s funny when men are moved by stories with female protagonists!

Having finished it and reflected upon it, I conclude that the book, for me, was strangely invigorating. I am a preacher and I use my opportunities in the pulpit to unashamedly address a number of issues: the spiritual danger of wealth, the literary merit of Kurt Vonnegut, and the fact that the New Testament and early church history are ignored quite blatantly when it comes to the role of women in many congregations. I have decided to become an even more annoying preacher as a result of this book. I am going to bang that drum until people get up and leave, or get out of the way and let women use the gifts that the Holy Spirit has decided in her ineffable wisdom to bestow on them.

That isn’t to say that the book is without fault. Bates is a superb community organiser and her ethical voice is clear. But there are gaps all over the argumentation and places where her points actually fold-over themselves and cut against sections that are directly prior. The discussion about abortion is ideologically committed to one position, which neither does justice to the feminist spectrum around the issue, nor to the severity of the ethical problem the issue poses. The writing is unpolished in places.

But having said all that, I’d love if the previous paragraph was read in subscript. After all, if I went looking for a book on feminist theory, I wouldn’t have found a book that distressed me in such a healthy way. And if Bates nuanced her arguments and amassed her sources with academic rigour, she simply wouldn’t have 152,000 people following the project. Furthermore, she explicitly states that her methodology and her use of data, while sincere, is not intended to be exhaustive. As such, many of the complaints that I would levy against the book are out of bounds. It is superb at what it is meant to do.

I am unlikely to ever have even 152 people follow a project I curate. But my obscure academic interest was piqued throughout the work. I am sure that dozens of PhD students will, in the future, find inspiration (constructively or not) from this bestselling work. When I read this passage, I was struck by how Bates is describing how our societies are in some senses, vice-forming. Our shared life encourages the worst in us, instead of our best:

These inherently potent messages about gender-biased power and control surely help to shape the way our children see the world around them. We understand how it works: the everyday becomes the accepted norm, accommodated in the way we live; by making this allowance we reinforce the idea of acceptability and compound the sense of entitlement; that assumed prerogative is then exercised to an ever-increasing degree; and naturally we then find ourselves with even more of an everyday problem… To tackle street harassment, we have to break through the pernicious cycle. We have to abandon the mistaken idea that street harassment is nothing more than a minor inconvenience, or a compliment taken the wrong way.

– Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism, 169.

Without getting bogged down in philosophy, this passage made me think of the work of the philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre. For MacIntyre, contemporary liberal society is unable to deal seriously with shared ideas of the human good. Everyone is left to judge for themselves. I am sure that the philosophy of a Marxist Catholic, heavily engaged with Thomas Aquinas would meet much objection in the wider feminist community but surely to some extent what Bates is calling for looks like feminism as a counter-movement within broader society, a community in which certain deep human virtues are cultivated. MacIntyre says:

The best type of human life, that in which the tradition of the virtues is most adequately embodied, is lived by those engaged in constructing and sustaining forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved.

If #hashtagactivism is ever to amount to more than the exhibitionism of the right-on political pronouncements, it must cultivate forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved.

And of course, we cannot consider feminism without considering the role of capitalism. Actually, scratch that. I am sure you can consider feminism without considering capitalism. But it will be desperately thin and won’t account for reality. While Bates doesn’t launch any kind of systematic attack on the relationships implicit between the commodification of the feminine and the commodification of, well, everything else, she does have good leading words to start the conversation:

… the most flagrant example of this came in June 2012, when two editions of Now magazine hit newsstands at the same time. One was a regular issue, featuring a front-page image of model Abbey Clancy beside the melodramatic headline ‘Oh no! scary Skinnies’ and a caption that warned: ‘Girls starving to be like her’. Inside, an article claimed that Clancy had become so dangerously thin she was a role model for damaging pro-anorexia websites. The second issue, which appeared directly alongside it on the shelf at my local newsagent, was the Now Celebrity Diet Special. This too featured Clancy on the front cover, but beside the headline: ‘Bikini body secrets… The stars’ diet and fitness tricks REVEALED’. Yes. In the same week they claimed that emulating her look could make young women dangerously ill and used the promise of helping reader look like her to sell copies.

– Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism, 201.

The internal contradictions of capitalism laid bare as clearly as anything you’ll find in Marx. But the point here isn’t that it is important to be vigilant against the creeping corrosion of Mammon, or even that you should immediately send bundles of money to whatever young theologian you might know of who is studying that topic. The point is that this media massaging of lies is intended to generate profit for the men who own shares in the companies that advertise in these magazines and the companies that publish these magazines and the companies that distribute these magazines and the companies that stock and sell these magazines. Human immiseration for the sake of profit didn’t go away when we stopped sending children down mines. We send them to newsagents instead. Just as much profit gets made and now you don’t even have to spend money on feed for the canaries.

The final chapter is entitled “People Standing Up”. It is a fitting humanist response to the penultimate chapter which details how around the world and in your housing development, office building and church, women are under threat. Sexism is “an eminently solvable problem”. It involves nothing so dramatic or revolutionary as refusing to support those cultures that treat women as less than men. For Bates it will be achieved by objecting at work when maternity leave is conceived as a problem, among friends when gender essentialism is used to explain away injustice “because that’s just what men are like”, or on the street when we refuse to pretend to not notice when women are verbally harassed.

I am not as optimistic as Bates. Theologically, I suspect patriarchy is a symptom of a bigger problem that won’t fully go away until Kingdom come. That is no invitation to resignation however. In the here and now, we are compelled to struggle ceaselessly to make the world we live in more like the world we are called to live in. Christians should follow this movement. Christian preachers should read this book. Every woman I have talked to about this book has told me heartbreaking stories of everyday harassment.

It should end.

Your Correspondent, Subscribes to the idea that men are from Earth and women are from Earth.

The Destruction of Memory

I recently read a fascinating book called The Destruction of Memory by Robert Bevan. It is a scholarly examination of how architecture is used in war; its destruction as a weapon, its construction as a defence. The devastation of buildings during war is often an attempt to break something far more resilient than concrete: the human spirit and the shared cultural memories of peoples.

He reaches back into the past for notable examples of this before the era of modern warfare. The French Revolution was the beginning of Reason’s slow march against superstition. The policies with regards to architecture were typically enlightened. The Place Bellecour mansion in Lyon was sentenced to death as an insult to the Republic’s morality and bell-towers were chopped back to size:

The first blow against the facade was struck with a ceremonial silver hammer by the people’s representative who shouted: ‘I condemn you to be demolished in the name of the law.’ Bell-towers were also threatened with demolition because ‘their height above other buildings seems to contradict the principles of equality.’

Revolutions around the world seem drawn to such vindictive treatment of bricks and mortar.

Figurative statues by their representative nature have similarly been subject to rough treatment, beatings and beheadings right up to the fall of the Eastern Bloc and Saddam Hussein. In a suburb of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, Republicans executed a statue of Jesus by firing squad.

In reality, such statue-demolition is a perfectly understandable (but still deeply regrettable) form of revolutionary performance art. The book is much more alarming when it turns to the description of how the destruction of the built environment is used to devastate the memories and cultural identities of entire people groups. Bevan writes about how the medieval ghettoization of the Jews was re-enacted by the Nazis, how and why the British carpet-bombed the militarily irrelevant medieval cities of Germany and in its most heart-breaking passages, details how the bulldozing of houses is one of the day-to-day straightforward ways that Israel keeps Palestine under its thumb.

To talk of the loss of architecture during a war might seem obscene. In the midst of the torture and rape and murder, who has time to worry about what roofs might collapse? There is a simple sense to that position but it fails to acknowledge the complexity of architecture, humans and war. On a very blunt level, to destroy someone’s house is to leave them homeless. No fraught moral calculus can render that irrelevant. And the way we build our houses is woven into the fabric of who we are. The wooden synagogues of central Europe or the traditional Kosovar fortress houses known as Kullas or the Buddhas of Bamiyan are not just treasures of human creativity but they marked out the identity of the people who built and used them. Their destruction is more than just vandalism, it is an attempt at cultural genocide. Bevan draws out the annihilation of the famous bridge at Mostar as the classic example of this, but it is well accepted that the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon were chosen as targets for just this reason. America without trade and America without its military would no longer be America.

Anais Mitchell is a folk singer who released a great album a few years ago called Hadestown, which is a folk opera retelling of the Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Hades, King of the Underworld sings this beautiful song about why the town is surrounded by a wall:

Why do we build the wall?
My children, my children
Why do we build the wall?

Why do we build the wall?
We build the wall to keep us free
That?s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

How does the wall keep us free?
My children, my children
How does the wall keep us free?

How does the wall keep us free?
The wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That?s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

Towards the end of the book Bevan turns from the destruction of architecture in conflict to its construction. Specifically, Bevan focuses on the building of walls. He tells us about the centuries old tradition of gated and walled micro-communities (pols) in the religiously diverse Indian city of Ahmedabad, the Berlin Wall, the Israeli “Seam” wall and most relevant for me, the “peace walls” that intricately vein through Belfast’s working class districts. The point Bevan makes about the Republican and Unionist communities in Belfast hit me hard:

Their two cultures are, at root, little different – especially architecturally. There is nothing to divide them environmentally, so the differences are literally brushed on to create threatening but superficial architectural war paint. This is not a dispute between minarets and spires. Churches are not especially useful either as symbols or as targets in this environment.

Superficial architectural war paint:

Belfast Murals

It is not a depressing book that leaves one lamenting over the future of humanity. The thing that might linger longest for me after this book is this anecdote from the siege of Sarajevo that reminds me just how much people treasure their libraries. Serb forces were shelling the National Library in Sarajevo. The long besieged Sarajevans were not willing to let this happen without putting up a fight:

Sarajevans dodged snipers to form a human chain to rescue books from the library. One librarian was shot and killed in the process. Water to the city had been cut off by the Serbs earlier that day and the firemen’s attempts to douse the blaze were further hampered by hoses split by machine-gun fire.

Lives were lost, the building destroyed and many valuable books went up in flame. Over 40 incendiaries hit the building after all. But the citizens of Sarajevo saved 300,000 items from the building before it burned to the ground.

Your Correspondent, Agrees that libraries are inherently acts of faith

Two Quote Review: Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

On top of being an Aberdeen graduate, Adam Roberts is one of the most consistently entertaining and thought provoking novelists around. If you only dare to dip your toe into the nerdorama that is sci-fi once (or speculative fiction as some like to call it), New Model Army would be an excellent place to start. It will get you thinking about networked technology, war, and most importantly, the early modern philosophy of Rabelais and the nation state.

In Jack Glass: The Story of a Murderer, Roberts tells three interlinked stories. There is a prison story, a murder mystery and a classic locked-room mystery. They all arc together. The stories are bloody and fascinating.

Here, explaining two of the characters, aristocratic heirs to great power, the narrator muses on what a dream is (Page 119):

As far as dreams were concerned – well dreams are generated by the random processes of neural oscillation during the brain’s rest phases. What dreams do is cycle and recycle images and feelings, rationalisations and fears. There’s nothing special about that. It’s not the dreams that matter (chaff, mental turbulence, the rotating metal bars moving endlessly through the transparent tub of metaphorical slushy). It is what the problem-solving circuits in the mind make of the dreams. Dreams iterate and test mental schemas, discarding the maladaptive to return the adaptive to the slush to be reworked. Dreams are emotional preparations for solving problems – that is why we have evolved them, because problem-solving abilities are highly adaptive and thus strongly evolutionarily selected. Dreams intoxicate the individual out of reliance on common sense and preconception, and tempt her into the orbit of private logic. Dreams have utility.

And then elsewhere there is a conversation about how people once upon a time (remember that the novel is set in the future) people “worshipped economics” (Page 62):

“… Because they believed that economics preserved the special place for humankind at the universe’s heart. We used to think the Earth was the centre of the cosmos, and that meant we were special, until science told us we’re marginal creatures. Then we thought the sun was centre, until science told us not even that was true. We used to think God made us in His image, and that meant we were special, until science told us we just evolved that way because it suited a landscape of trees and savannas. That’s what science does: it says, look again and you’ll see you’re not special. But economics? Economics is also a science. And what does it say? Ask my fathers, and they’d tell you. It says: there is energy, and there are raw materials, and that’s the cosmos. But without us the energy is random and the raw material is inert. It’s only labour that makes the cosmos alive. It’s only us that makes economics happen at all. And that makes us special.

Your Correspondent, Always in favour of the conceptual disorientation of the familiar

Wolf Of Wall Street Review

The cult of capitalism will die this way; first as comedy and then as farce. But it will feel like it takes forever.

It is not even close to the greatest Scorcese has done but that makes this obscene, stylish and finely acted film something that could be damn impressive in the long-term.

Like, even longer than the never-ending running time.

Your Correspondent, You buy until you die.

One Quote Review: The Son

The Son is a novel by Philipp Meyer which charts the generations of a family of Texan cattle barons. It is about the rise and fall of the American empire, the illusion of civilization, the legacy of family and maybe fate. It is a grand epic that gallops along and is worth your time.

A recurring theme in my conversation with my supervisor and my colleagues in Aberdeen has been the meaning of names. Yesterday, my dear office-mate preached a fantastic sermon in his church where he talked about the way that God’s naming of people is an expression of his gracious authority. My supervisor is working on a commentary on Genesis in which I think he might have very interesting things to say about what it means that Moses tells us that God brought the animals before Adam to be named.

And in The Son, we find this musing on the way that the Cherokee named their young and renamed them.

A child was not named by his parents, but by a relative or a famous person in the tribe; maybe for a deed that person had done, maybe for an object that struck their fancy. If a particular name was not serving well, the child might be renamed; for instance, Charges the Enemy had been a small and timid child and it was thought that giving him a braver name might cure these problems, which it had. Some people in the tribe were renamed a second or third time in adult life, if their friends and family found something more interesting to call them. The owner of the German captive Yellow Hair, whose birth name was Six Deer, was renamed Lazy Feet as a teenager, which stuck to him the rest of his life. Toshaway’s son Fat Wolf was so named because his namer had seen a very fat wolf the previous night, and being an interesting sight and not a bad name it had stuck. Toshaway’s name meant Bright Button, which had also stuck with him since birth, but that seemed a strange thing to call him so I thought of him as Toshaway. Spanish-sounding names were also common, though they often had no particular meaning—Pizon, Escuté, Concho—there was a warrior named Hisoo-ancho who had been captured at the age of seven or eight, whose Christian name was Jesus Sanchez, and, as that was all he would answer to, that was what he was called.

Your Correspondent, Has got a cave full of bats in his skull