Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pleasantville And Biblical Womanhood

Morgan Guyton writes an interesting piece on post-modernism and irony at HuffPo:
So Rachel Held Evans is apparently becoming this year's Rob Bell. She's written a book called "A Year of Biblical Womanhood," in which she documents a year of taking absolutely literally a bunch of things that the Bible tells ancient Israelite and first century Palestinian women to do. I haven't yet received my review copy, but from what I hear, it's mischievous in a Tina Fey kind of way, which has predictably rankled the Southern Baptist "bishop" Al Mohler and his crew who made a video about biblical inerrancy in which they called Rachel's book a "mockery" of the Bible, among other things.
I think the reason Al Mohler and people of his mold don't get Christians like Rachel is because they don't speak irony, which is the first language of a large chunk of my generation and younger who inhabit the postmodern world outside the gated communities of suburban megachurchianity. Christians today who want to share the Gospel with any credibility in postmodern culture must learn how to talk like Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, et al. Otherwise our evangelism is about as effective as a black and white "Reefer Madness" video in a junior high health class.
I do think that irony is something post-modern people love but it is not just style. Post-moderns love to poke fun at the sacred. It is a way to make a point but sometimes the method chosen sends another message. That message is that things like the bible don't need to be treated with respect. That they can be spoofed in the same way we spoof politicians. That you don't lose something when you poke fun at the sacred.

I find it interesting that he says irony is the first language of much of his generation. I think he really means profanity is the first language. I don't think that is sustainable long term. Profanity requires people to actually hold something as sacred. Chesterton joked about not being able to profane Thor. Ironically our society can now profane Thor because he is no longer a god of Norse mythology but a movie superhero. Still the point is that profanity as a teaching tool requires people to have the profaned thing on a pedestal. As you profane something it comes down and the profanity stops working.

So when we poke fun at sacred scripture or poke fun at solemn liturgies we lose as we go. Post modern people always point out the crowd loves it. They love it for a while but not for the long term. That is why churches that say shocking things about the bible and do shocking things like have female priests or clown masses will get crowds for a while and then they stop coming. You can't profane something forever.
One of the most important things to understand about the postmodernity through which Christians like Rachel have to navigate is that it's not something that was instigated by the snobby French philosophers who write about it. And it's not "moral relativism." You don't get "infected" by it from majoring in English in college (which is how I learned how to talk about the postmodernity that already exists). 
Actually philosophers do matter. What was the dominant way of thinking among the intellectual elite at one point often becomes dominant in the society a few generations later. Education plays a role in that. The intellectual roots are pretty clear when you look that them. There can be other causes but that one is undeniable one.

Postmodernity does imply moral relativism. They do try and sneak in a few moral absolutes just because the human mind can't avoid doing that but they are being inconsistent.
Postmodernity is the product of an information age that is drowning in layer upon layer of commentary and addicted to scandal and hypocrisy. It is created every time the pundits on TV deconstruct the meticulous calculation behind every word choice that a politician makes, every time a preacher who rages against homosexuals gets sued for molesting little boys, every time a family values newsletter talks about the importance of denouncing the myth of global warming or defending the right to carry concealed weapons. Postmodernity happens every time people my age and younger encounter something that insults our intelligence, and it has nothing to do with elitism, because the kids I taught in high school who have not gone to college are more postmodern than I am.
I don't know that scandal and hypocrisy are new so it isn't that simple. I do think he has a point in that the awareness of different traditions is much stronger. So it is not that some people don't respect their own sense of sacredness. It is that different people call different things sacred. That confuses matters. Some jump to the conclusion that nothing is sacred. That is not logical but it is understandable. It becomes clear that some people must be showing great respect for some things that are not sacred.

For example, Christians respect the bible and Muslims respect the Koran. They can't both be right. The can both be wrong. That does not mean they are both wrong. But if you say Christians are right then you say Muslims give great respect to a book that is filled with errors. Previous generations of Christians didn't think so much about that.
One of the main things that is insulting to the intelligence of people 35-and-under who grew up outside of the Christian homeschool/gated community enclave is the way that "biblical" has come to be used as a code word for issues that are associated with a specific political agenda. That adjective is almost always used in public discourse by evangelical "spokespeople" chosen by the media to talk about homosexuality, abortion or putting wives back in the 1950s kitchen where they belong. 
I have complained about the word "biblical" a lot. It really means "my." That is if someone says, "The Catholics say X and the Lutherans say Y and the bible says Z" what that means is I say Z. As a bible Christian they believe their theology is the biblical theology. Everyone else has the bible wrong. They don't REALLY believe that, not if you challenged them on it, but they talk like that is the case. They will always use the word "biblical" to describe their own ideas. They don't contemplate this but they are really making their own opinion equal to God's opinion. Their don't even have language to describe the difference between the two.
Al Mohler and his buddies can protest that this is all they ever get asked about, but they sure don't seem to mind letting their lips flap. And when June Cleaver is seriously used as a model for women to follow at a "biblical womanhood" conference, it's obvious that a different agenda is at play than a call for Christian women to model their behavior after Sarah, Rebekah, Deborah, Miriam, Hannah, Esther, Mary and the handful of other background female characters that made it into the male-dominated biblical text.
Studying biblical womanhood is interesting. If you don't believe in Sola Scriptura you can say that Christian womanhood has developed since that time. It is interesting how he equates Christianity with 1950. That is not what Mohler or anyone else says. There is the notion that just because you see some good things we have lost since 1950 that you want to role everything back to that time. To me it seems obvious you want to keep the good changes and roll back the bad ones. That is easier said than done but the principle should not be that hard to understand. 
That's why Rachel had to write her book -- because somebody needed to say that there are Christians who take the Bible seriously who don't confuse it with black and white Pleasantville reruns. In order to establish credibility among a generation that has very legitimate reasons to be cynical, a postmodern evangelist like Rachel has to let her audience know that she's not blind to the things that make her audience cynical. The trouble is you can't be taken seriously in the world our generation inhabits if you get your undies in a bunch over sass and sarcasm. I have wrestled with this a lot as a blogger myself. I am often accused of throwing other Christians under the bus, but in my view, Christians my age who aren't oblivious to the real challenges and stumbling blocks of reaching our generation have been thrown under the bus by those who have conflated the gospel with Fifties nostalgia. And I don't think I have to be polite to them if being sassy will help my non-Christian friends know that we aren't all like Ned Flanders.
You have to be careful. You need to progress but you can't disassociate yourself from previous generations of Christians. If you say their spirituality was all wrong and their morals were wrong in some important ways then why should anyone believe you have it right now? To say we can be sure Christianity is right in today's culture means we have to say Christianity was always and everywhere right. Otherwise we are saying Jesus blew it for women in 1950 but we are pretty sure He won't blow it for you today.
When I look at how Jesus interacted with the Pharisees and what Paul had to say about his theological opponents, it sure doesn't look like they were constrained by the pseudo-morality of the privileged that we call politeness. They called a spade a spade often quite rudely out of solidarity with the people who had been damaged by the bad theology of their opponents. Now I do agree that there is mockery that is just mockery, but there is also a legitimate role for teaching that follows Jesus' model of "You have heard it said ... but I tell you..." in order to let the rapidly expanding crowd of the ex-churched and never-churched know that the Pharisaic hypocrisy that made them leave the church or never consider it is not the only Christianity that's out there.
It comes down to authority. When Jesus said, "You have heard it said ... but I tell you..."He was claiming for Himself the authority to rework the Torah. That does not means every blogger has that authority. It means Jesus does. St Paul had a position of authority as well. That is how doctrine develops. Someone with authority has to declare the Christian understanding of this has changed. The trouble is that in the protestant world everyone has authority or nobody does. The truth is guys like Mohler do stand out. Still there is no way to be sure who to listen to.

Catholics are in much better shape. We have a pope and we have bishops. We can follow them. On abortion and homosexuality they have been clear. On he role of women in society there is lots of interesting discussion.
I realize that a subset of our country's population will never be postmodern. They're frightened (legitimately) by the fragmentation of our world and so they flee to a gated community where life is simple and safe and structured. I don't judge them, but I don't think those are the only sheep that Jesus wants. There are so many smart kids growing up today who have gifts that God wants to use in His kingdom even though they would never be able to live in Pleasantville or believe that a guy named Jonah really spent three days without oxygen not being dissolved by the stomach acid of a whale (as if 2 Timothy 3:16 prohibits God from breathing out legends that are useful for teaching and equipping disciples). Rather than ridicule their "sophistication" and name it as spiritual pride, it is worth stepping out on the treacherous tight-rope of speaking the postmodern world's language without getting sucked down into its nihilism. Not everyone has this mission field, but Rachel does.
He is not really doing that good a job of not judging. You can feel his contempt for evangelicals coming through loud and clear. Nevertheless, there are situations where the church must ask people out of obedience to beleive something the culture sees as silly.There are other situations where the church should embrace a new and better understanding of the faith. The key is to know which is which. That is what the gift of binding and loosing is about. Jesus gave it to the apostles and their successors still have it. Without it we can't be sure whether we should bind the faithful to a more literal interpretation of Jonah or anything else.

He is right that too much binding will cause people to reject Christ. The problem on the other side that he seems to be ignoring is real too. Too little binding will let the faith get lost in the thinking of the culture. That is the trouble with liberal and conservative Protestantism. Each chooses to ignore one one danger to avoid the other. It does not work. We need the grace of God. He gives it through the offices of bishop and pope. We just need to cooperate with it.
Furthermore, the Pleasantville to which many evangelicals think we need to return is not the kingdom; it's actually the reason that many Christians today do not live in the kingdom. How are we so sure that Pleasantville is not the worldliness that Jesus calls us to leave behind? The ancient church fathers defined "the world" in terms of wealth and privilege, not exposure to MTV. So if Rachel's satire is helpful to calling out our Pleasantvilles, then it is beneficial not only to the ex and never-churched, but also to Christians whose nostalgia for white picket fences compromises their ability to join the company of the crucified. If Rachel's book is anything like her blog posts, then her mischief is a subversive way of tricking us postmoderns into engaging in serious Bible study without realizing that's what we're doing. I'll be able to say more once I get my copy.
I don't know which evangelicals he is talking about when he says they are all about  Pleasantville. Al Mohler is the only one he mentioned and I would not say that about him or about most other evangelicals. If satire is supposed to work it has to ring true to some extent and not just play on false stereotypes.

I don't know why he thinks the early church fathers would have liked MTV. This is a false choice. They could see dangers in wealth and privilege and also see dangers in lust. In fact, they did.

Now he goes to the book in the last couple of lines. Can Rachel Held Evan's book be a good thing for postmoderns? It can.I am not as optimistic as he is. Tricking people into serious bible study is not really possible. You can trick them into actually considering an invitation to look into the bible deeper. She might do that. Still they have to change gears. They have to stop looking for things that might embarrass evangelicals and start looking for things that will speak to their heart.

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