Cultural Analysis: Horror as Ethical Violence

Dragon and Woman, painted by William Blake, circa 1805

Dragon and Woman by William Blake, circa 1805

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the violent imagination and ethical ways to approach violence in fiction.  Too much of American culture glorifies violence.  The way that good overcomes evil in TV, movies, many books, and even toy lines, is by kicking its butt.  Good beats evil because good shoots straighter, hits harder, has better toys, and keeps on fighting.  And in small doses, violence can teach the virtue of courage.  But we don’t get small doses.  We are, to quote the Palmolive commercial, “soaking in it.”

So that leads me to wonder, is there an ethical way to portray violence in fiction?  I’ll look at some other possibilities later, but here I’ll consider horror.  On the one hand, horror seems ethical because it explicitly presents the violence as horrific.  We are supposed to be repulsed by the violence we see.  There is no celebration of violence as glorious or righteous.  And even though much of the time the survivors use violence to overcome the killer or monster that is stalking them, they always pay a great cost.

This cost comes both in blood (horror stories typically have a high body count) and in the characters’ peace of mind. They will never again be as innocent, as naive, as carefree as they were.  They have met a great evil, passed through the darkness, and are no longer the same.  Often, they have killed for the first time, and it does not leave them untouched.

At its best, horror echoes the ancient legends: Orpheus descending into Hades to rescue his wife; a red-cloaked girl facing a great wolf who’d devoured her grandmother; Dante’s passage through inferno, purgatory, and paradise.  Horror, at its best, is the primal fairy tale: the innocent encountering the unnatural, and emerging changed.  Hidden amidst its armies and castles, The Lord of the Rings includes a fairy tale (or perhaps a horror novel), the story of four young friends who brave the lair of hell itself to destroy a profound and threatening evil.

But at its worst, horror mutilates young, usually sexually attractive, bodies for our thrills and titillation.  At its worst, slasher horror slut-shames women quite literally to death.  First, the young woman has sex (showing the gratuitous T&A shot), and then, she is slaughtered in gory Technicolor.  Meanwhile, the virgin survives to the end, to escape or kill the slasher.

When I speak of horror’s ethical approach to violence, I speak of Stephen King’s Desperation, not Friday the Thirteenth Part 27.   I speak of normal people caught up in a desperate situation, one that involves a terrible encounter with evil, one that tests their wills, their faith, their wits, their endurance.  The evil is overcome, often at great sacrifice, in a cathartic climax.  The universal story of good overcoming evil is retold, with the important reminder that such victories are never won without cost.  Without blood, there is no remission of sins.

So what do you think?  Is there an ethical way to portray violence in fiction?  If so, is horror one of those ways?

The Farmer’s Wife (Complementarianism, Again)

Farmer and Wife, Irving Rusinow, 1941

Farmer and Wife. Photo by Irving Rusinow, 1941

A farmer’s wife is a farmer, not a housewife.  I know that because my maternal grandparents were farmers.  There was a division of labor, of course, but it wasn’t some philosophical self-conscious complementarian structure, but a legitimate division of labor.  Pa Clarence didn’t know how to sew, and Nanny Jet couldn’t fix or maintain a tractor, for example.  But the men and the women all picked crops (as did the boys and the girls, once they were old enough).  Both cooked, at least some: Pa Clarence made the best biscuits I ever ate (and he took the recipe to his grave).  Nanny Jet was the cornbread champion, and their chicken and dressing was a kind of joint effort, using his biscuits and her cornbread, though she prepared the dressing itself (a recipe that has been passed down to her daughters, and, through Mom, to me … but Katherine makes it better than I do).

Yes, men and women were different.  Men and women are still different, though changing times have revealed some of those differences to be cultural constructions, rather than biological conditions.  Perhaps in the future, even more of the differences between men and women will be revealed as nothing more than socio-cultural artifacts.  The gospel will endure, even as it endured blue stockings, suffrage, and industrialization, as it survived the birth of pantsuits, career women, and birth control.

The difference between a farmer and his wife and a 21st century complementarian is this: the farmer and his wife did what they did because it worked.  They were raising crops and livestock and children, and their life was in the land.  Every year, they planted their livelihood in the ground in an earthy leap of faith that most of us have never had to take.  They didn’t have time to theorize from their wealthy, government safety-net supported, megachurch attending, paid by a seminary or church, privileged position.  This wass as true of first century farmers and shepherds as early twentieth century farmers.

The complementarian movement isn’t returning us to some pre-industrial idyll.  At best, it’s sanctifying the white-upper-class privileged gender roles of an idealized 1950’s.  At worst, it’s dragging us back to old Greco-Roman house codes.  Some complementarians, like Douglas Wilson, Steve Wilkins, and George Grant, have even ventured into slavery apologetics.

As bizarre as that seems in this day and time (paleo-confederate?  Really?), it really is the natural, logical conclusion of God-ordained male dominance.  After all, the passages that teach women to submit are always located near passages giving slaves the same instruction.  The Greco-Roman households Paul wrote to were ruled by men, with wives having more status, but no more freedom or authority, than slaves.  Paul’s admonitions to mutual submission upended the heart of this one-sided power-structure, but in the interest of civil peace, he urged Christians not to flout the laws and customs of his day.  Twenty centuries later, we can do better.

They quote Paul, but they recreate themselves in the image of Ward Cleaver and seek to forge women into the image of June Cleaver, using the Bible as a hammer and tradition as an anvil.  They claim tradition, but in truth, lack all authenticity.  Past social arrangements were based on physical and economic necessities.  Past social arrangements made survival possible.  They may not have been just, but they were necessary.  This?  This is the retrograde fantasy, a dangerous escape from modernity.

Toxic Legalism (Jeremiad #1: Sexism, Lies, and Ecclesiastical Bling)

Lazarus and Dives by Fedor Bronnikov, 1886

Lazarus and Dives by Fedor Bronnikov, 1886

A new, toxic legalism, based on a shallow, piecemeal, combative reading of the scriptures, is choking the Evangelical faith like a clinging vine.  Our churches are shrinking, and our reputation is mud with the wider world – they think we are immoral in our vitriol and our intolerance.  They see us as less moral than non-Christians, as moralistic and manipulative and controlling.

And they’re right.  Our churches are segregated, even today.  Our divorce rate is no better than the non-religious.  Spousal abuse still lingers, and in some cases is even tolerated.  And our advice to abused women is often dangerously, even fatally wrongheaded.

You can proof-text me all you want, but homosexuals are not the ones degrading our nation’s culture.  We are, with our arrogance, our lingering racism, our commercialism and consumerism.

We build multi-million dollar churches, yet leave the poorest of the world (who often need things like $18 mosquito nets and $25 vaccinations) and the poor and homeless in our own cities to fend for themselves.

We keep spending money to prop up dying churches that exist only because a few elderly people don’t want to find a new church, but which are doing nothing for the community, spiritually or materially. We spend ungodly sums on “faith-based extravaganzas” on Easter, Christmas, and Halloween (“scare them to salvation with Hell House!”).  And all the while, like Dives, we watch the poor man starving at our gate.

We degrade our name, and our nation, when we let our political leanings dictate our theology.  Case in point: it’s no secret that the Southern Baptists are going whole-hog for Mitt Romney.

But when I was growing up, Southern Baptists considered Mormonism a “cult.”  Some still do.  Oops, never mind.  He’s backing Romney now.   So, which is it?  The answer no one will give you is this:  “it doesn’t matter, as long as he dislodges that black pro-death, pro-gay, liberal socialist we’ve got now.”

We bring shame on our name and Christ’s through our sexism and incredible insensitivity to the realities of women’s lives.  You can proof-text me all you want, but the truth remains:  when you pre-determine a woman’s role in life based on her gender, you take away her right to follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance, you take away her Imago Dei, and you make her less than human.

Who should we obey, God or Men?  The reality of complementarianism, as it is often preached, is this: Only men get to obey God.  Women obey men, and access God through the male spiritual heads – first their fathers, and then their husbands.  But I think we all know the right answer to the question, both for men and for women I think the answer is clear [Acts 5:29].  We obey God, not men.

Man Up … Men, Women, Modesty and Lust Part Two

Roasted Brussels Sprouts by Mcmlxl, Creative Commons

Roasted Brussels Sprouts by Mcmlxl, Creative Commons

This is my second response to In my Emily Maynard’s Prodigal.net article, “Modesty, Lust, and My Responsibility.”   In my first article, I talked about modesty and women.  Now I want to talk about modesty, lust, and men.

Just as women get dehumanized and have their agency stripped away in this debate, becoming dress-up-dolls for our lusts or our self-righteous desires to control the way they dress, so too do men get dehumanized.  Sometimes literally: how many times have you heard someone say that “Men are dogs” or “Men are pigs” or “Men can’t control themselves?”  Even “Men are visual creatures, and are more affected by appearance than women are,” while gentler sounding, and not strictly speaking dehumanizing, still steals agency from men.

Women are not responsible for men’s sexual fantasies.  Men are.  Women are not responsible for men mentally objectifying them, thinking of them only in terms of sexual performance and fantasy.  Men are.  Men are not dogs or pigs.  We are human beings, made in God’s image, just like women are.  And if we are, on average, more visual than women, so be it.  If it causes a problem, it’s our problem.

I think all the men here can think back (maybe not that far) to a time when you either entertained or resisted the temptation to entertain a sexual fantasy about someone who dressed modestly, wearing clothes that were neither revealing nor highly sexualized.  How “modestly” do women need to dress to protect us from our own moral responsibility?  Maybe a burqa would do it, but I don’t think even the strictest anti-feminist wants to go there.

So what’s the take-away from this, not for women, but for men?  We have the power (with God’s help) to control what your mind does.  When we see an unusually attractive woman, especially if she’s dressed in a revealing manner, we usually get a rush of attraction.  But we have the power to decide what we’re going to do with that reaction.

Will we remember that she is a person, made in God’s image, just like we are, or will we reduce her to a sexual object in our imagination?  Will we keep her humanity in mind, or will we put the blame on her for how she looks or how she’s dressed?

That’s the question.  What will we choose to do.  Because this is a choice.  We always have the choice to remember her humanity.

  • How does she feel about Brussels sprouts? (EVERYONE has an opinion about Brussels Sprouts)
  • What’s her favorite band, her favorite sport, her favorite movie?
  • What about the last good book she read?  Does she prefer paper books or e-readers?
  • Does she like Farmville, or would she rather take you on in Call of Duty or Super Smash Brothers?

Sexual-fantasy-girl won’t be able to answer these questions, of course, because she isn’t real.  But the actual woman, the one who looked so hot on TV, on campus, or at the mall, can answer those questions.

Humanity.  That’s what it’s about.  Not wardrobe.

One Night with the Mayor…Retelling the Esther Story

Esther in King Xerxes's Harem, by Edwin Long 1878

Esther in King Xerxes’s Harem, by Edwin Long 1878

“Your daughter sure is pretty,” the sheriff said.  Then he spat.  A line of tobacco flew from his mouth, splattering like a twisted branch on the dry ground.  He reeked of stale sweat and old chew, and his pale eyes gleamed from within the fleshy folds of his face. “All willow-thin and fresh-faced. Oh, my.”

Essie looked up at her uncle, then back at the hulking lawman, her dark eyes wide.

The big man with the big leather belt and the big black gun just grinned and tipped his hat.  “Even her nose is perfect.  Not a big beak like most o’ you Jews.”  He ran his thumb across the side of his nose, then continued, not even looking at Mordecai.  “Course, I know she’s not really your daughter.  Her parents are dead, aren’t they?”

“Please,” Mordecai said, “she’s only thirteen.”

Even in the heat of August, Essie shuddered.  Her Bat Mitzvah – and her first flow – had come only two month ago.

“That’s okay.  The Mayor likes ’em young.”  The sheriff tugged at the strap of his Sam Browne belt while his gaze crept over every inch of Esther’s body.  “Maybe not this young.  I think we’ll keep her around the mansion for a while, till she ripens up a little.”  He cupped his hands at chest level and mimed squeezing.  “I think a year will do it.”

“Sheriff -”  Mordecai’s face grew red.  He knew not to appeal any further to this pig’s sense of decency.  Obviously, he had none.

The sheriff laughed so hard his belly shook.  “I told you the Mayor likes ’em young.  Don’t worry, little Essie, you’ll have plenty of company.  He’s got every pretty little thing in the county livin’ up there.  I think you’ll be the only Jew-girl, but that don’t matter much. I’m sure you’ll pretty up just as well as the rest of them, if they can get your hair to behave.  I declare, girl, it’s wild as a badger’s backside.”

“Damn you -”

“What are you upset about?” The Sheriff said, turning on Mordecai, “The Mayor’s gon’ choose a new wife when all this is over.  Your little Essie here could be the new first lady, live in that mansion forever, maybe even do some good for your scrawny little tribe.”  He snorted. “If she pleases him.”  He leaned in close to Esther, his breath thick and dank, his eyes hard as diamonds.  “You know anything about pleasing a man, little girl?”

“That’s enough!” Mordecai snarled, pulling Esther back and raising his fist.

The sheriff stepped back, surprisingly nimble for all his bulk.   “Watch your step, boy.  We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”  He tapped the butt of his revolver, as if to remind them both what ‘the hard way’ meant.  “Either way, the girl goes with me.”

Mordecai swallowed hard.  “Go with him,” he whispered, “I’ll find a way to be there for you.  Just keep yourself alive.  And remember who you are.  Remember where you come from.”

Esther swallowed hard, tensing her jaw and raising her head.  She would not let him see her tears.  She walked, head held high,  to the sheriff’s car, sliding into the back seat like a prisoner, and like a queen.

The preceding, despite being time-shifted 2,500 years, and despite the liberties I took with Mordecai’s social status and the secrecy surrounding Esther’s religion and ethnicity, was still a far more accurate and truthful retelling of how Esther came to be in King Xerxes’ Harem than the rape-apologist, misogynist “exegesis” Mark Driscoll posted and preached Sunday.  An “exegesis” so wrong, so dangerous, that refutations have sprung up like white blood cells at the site of infection.  Rachel Held Evans has a good one (and kudos to her for bringing this to my attention).  So does Sarah Over the Moon.  So does Can’t Catch My Breath.

Honestly, I think (and hope) there can be some value to seeing an old story in a different setting.  Maybe we can see Esther’s humanity and stop slut-shaming one of God’s heroes, a true woman of valor.

…On the Other Hand, America Isn’t Righteous Now (part 1)

I always heard it was okay to talk to yourself, that you should only really get worried when you start arguing with yourself.  Well, here goes…

Over the last three days, I’ve taken my shots at the idea that America was once a righteous nation, and that we’re now in a deep moral decline.  You can read the details here, here, and here.  And I still believe that’s true: we have the lowest violent crime rate in 40 years and the lowest abortion rate in 20 years.  Our violent crime rate’s been decreasing almost every single year for the last 20 years, even through the Great Recession.  Hatred and discrimination are fading like cancer markers after a round of chemotherapy.

That said, I would be a liar and a hypocrite if I didn’t point out the counterarguments.  Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely no time period in American history where “righteous” even comes close to fitting.  To be “righteous,” a man or nation cannot be blemished by hatred or greed or arrogance or corruption.  Tell me there was one minute since America’s founding where these did not apply.  Righteousness requires nothing less than perfection, otherwise it’s just filthy rags.

But it is also true that twenty-first century America has some real issues and problems that twentieth-century America didn’t.  I already mentioned easy access to pornography.  This danger can’t be overstated.

Filmed pornography is a powerful social evil not only because of its corrosive effect on its viewers, but because of the sometimes awful conditions its performers work under, as Chris Hedges highlights here.  Too many (though of course not all) porn performers have suffered sexual abuse in childhood or adolescence.  Many struggle with addiction to painkillers, which often have to be taken because of the … difficult and uncomfortable … feats they are called on to perform.  Some of the shiftier, “amateur” productions even use trafficked women as “performers.”

The commoditization of sexuality has seeped into our culture, almost subconsciously.  Just as women are achieving professional equality, and even exceeding men in college enrollment, objectification takes an ugly turn.  The motive may be profit, but the effect of making films of violent, rough group sex is to put women back in their place, not as equals, but as “sluts” and “whores.”

And I don’t think it’s just visual pornography that’s damaging.  Fifty Shades of Gray may be famous, but it’s just one example of a massively profitable written erotica business, aimed mostly at women.  While it’s true that no actors were harmed in the making of this novel, that doesn’t mean it isn’t spiritually dangerous to the readers.  Sadomasochistic elements aside, can there be any benefit from turning our sexual imaginations away from intimacy and toward spectacle, performance, and anatomical dimensions?

I wandered into this genre thanks to Laurel K. Hamilton.  Her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series began as paranormal noir, featuring a strong female character who was actually celibate.  Anita had been burned by her ex-fiance, and had decided to wait to have sex until she was really married.  That, combined with an interesting love triangle, provided an unusual and fascinating emotional backdrop for the supernatural crimes she investigated.

There were no sex scenes in the first five books.  The sixth had one relatively short scene, which was unremarkable for the noir genre.  Then, things changed.  Each book became more and more explicit, adding in elements of bondage, sadomasochism, group sex, etc. until the genre had utterly switched to erotica.  Not even paranormal romance, but erotica.

And more than a few of her long-term readers were left shaking our heads, wondering if anyone got the number of the bus that hit us.

I’m not saying this to condemn Ms. Hamilton: she can write what she wants.  Clearly, the market agrees.  Her sales numbers have not fallen off.  But I’ve read this stuff, and I know that for me, at least, it’s not healthy.  It’s not okay.  I’d wager that St. Paul would not call it  profitable or beneficial.

It’s also an example of how, as Pamela Paul wrote, “it is easier to get pornography than avoid it.”  I started reading a series with no sex scenes, no indication that there would even be explicit sex scenes, and after I’d gotten attached to the characters, things changed.

Not that I needed a book to swerve me.  After all, my Spam Folder is full of things I wouldn’t dare repeat here.  The hardest of the hardcore is just a Google Search away.  And, as the pornification of America progresses, “mainstream” movies and tv shows begin to push – not pornography itself, but a sex-as-commodity mindset that is the most damaging part of porn.

And how do we shelter our kids from this?  I have no idea.  I have a feeling our  computers will grow passwords and monitoring software before our (as yet unborn) child figures out how to turn them on.  That’s not a 100% solution, not even close.  Kids can get access at other peoples’ houses.  But I’m not sure there’s any way to prepare children for something like this.

I don’t actually have a solution.

One thing I can definitely try to do is be a part of whatever solution does exist, rather than part of the problem.  I will do my best to avoid even semi-pornographic material and to purge every vestige of sex-as-commodity thinking that has seeped into my brain.  That’s the first step.

A Clarification about Complementarianism

In writing about complementarianism yesterday, I did something that I’m all too often guilty of doing: I talked about the more radical edge of it as if it were the whole.

In other words, I talked about complementarianism in a way that makes all those who identify as complementarian sound utterly sexist.  That was not my intent, clearly.

Complementarianism as it exists in America, is a broad and difficult to define concept … so slippery, that the From Two to One marriage blog spent four posts just defining terms!

At the most minimal core, complementarianism is the belief that men and women are different in some way, and have some kind of difference in their God-given roles.  I think most of us believe that to some degree.

But that definition is too broad to be useful.  It’s like a man who was taking a hot-air balloon ride, and, looking down, didn’t recognize the landscape.  “Engineer,” he asked, panicked that they might be lost, “where are we?”  The engineer looked over the edge, looked back at the man, and said, “We’re in a balloon.”

Well, thanks.

An actual useful definition of complementarianism would need to be narrow enough that it actually excludes more than a handful of people.  So what I’m talking about is the idea of God-ordained different roles, to the extent of:

  1. Male headship in the home (wifely submission, as opposed to egalitarianism’s mutual submission and equal leadership)
  2. Male headship in the church (women may be excluded from all leadership roles, or possibly just the priestly/preaching role)
  3. The preparation of the next generation of girls to be good wives, first and foremost.

#3 is the one that troubles me the most.  I have no problem with women choosing to live in complementarian marriages, choosing to subordinate themselves to their husbands.  But I do have a problem with girls being told that that’s their role, and that’s where their worth and righteousness comes from.  I have a problem with girls being pushed to not get an education, to marry young, and to stay married even if the husband abuses them.

And while not everyone who calls themselves complementarian takes this approach, it is not a rare or unique thing.  Heaven Ministries, Buried Treasure,  and Ladies Against Feminism have all published articles questioning the need for higher education or outright advising against it for women.  A simple Google Search turns up even more.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that there is a significant group within the wide tent of complementarianism that I have a serious problem with.  While I don’t want to paint everyone who takes that title with the same brush, I feel like I have to stand up and speak out.  Because this affects our daughters, our sisters, our female friends, and that means it affects us all.

Why I Have to Talk About Complementarianism

Solomon's Judgment by Peter Paul Rubens

Solomon’s Judgment by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1615

Edit : I realized that in this post, I’m guilty of doing something I all too often do; letting an extreme group stand in for the whole group.  I’ll post more on this, above, but suffice it to say that I’m talking about the far end of complementarianism, not the centrist end.

You know, there was a time when I thought the complementarian/patriarchy issue didn’t affect me. I wasn’t raised that way, I had (and continue to have) an egalitarian marriage, and, frankly, this “gender roles preset by God, regardless of the individuals’ specific gifts” business sounded like nonsense to me.  This was never something I personally had to grapple with, and so I never really thought it was important for me to turn my attention to it.

But now I see how much it impacts people raised within it.  I see how much it colors discussions on Christianity.  Just because I’ve been sheltered from it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  And maybe I haven’t been sheltered from it as much as I thought.  Maybe, being male, I heard it and forgot it.

So it is possible that I encountered complementarianism and just didn’t realize it.  I do seem to remember a couple of sermons on Ephesians 5:22, and thinking those sermons might have been different if he’d read the rest of the chapter instead of just that verse.  This was, of course, pre-Danvers Statement, before there was an organized movement to sanctify soft patriarchy and return the church to 1950’s American gender roles.

Maybe I wasn’t hit by it because I wasn’t the target.  Complementarianism in practice is all too often about telling women how to be “biblical” – that is, how to be submissive and dedicate their lives to the support and edification of their husbands. The husband’s role, to love her and guide her as Christ loves and guides the church, may get equal attention, but it may not.  And it’s also harder to define, harder for a church community to agree on what it will look like, and, clearly, harder to enforce.

That never really occurred to me, perhaps because Dad and I studied the Bible together from before I was old enough to remember it up until I was in high school.  We used commentaries and chain references to see how the scriptures interacted, to explore their context, to get clarification for terms that were unclear or might have multiple possible translations.  I asked questions, and if Dad couldn’t answer them, he’d ask around until he found someone who could (our preacher had to call one of his seminary professors to find out what a “Tishbite” was, as in “Elisha the Tishbite.”  I was a little disappointed that it just meant he was from Tishbe).

So I knew about Deborah, Ester, Aquila and Priscilla, Lois and Eunice, and other Biblical women.  I knew that Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus, and was chosen to tell the Twelve that He had risen, to be the Apostle to the Apostles.  As far as additional reading went, I grew up on C. S. Lewis, not John Piper.

From my perspective, separate roles for men and women, based on gender and not on individual gifts or callings, seems legalistic, proscriptive and authoritarian, and maddeningly tied to an idealized version of 1950’s American conformity.  It seems so unlike the great freedom granted by Jesus Christ, even deaf to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  I’ve read the verses on wifely submission, but knowing what I know about first century Greco-Roman house codes, I see those verses (in context) as radically upending the existing sexual hierarchy.

Yes, women were to continue in their first-century gender roles [Eph 5:22 ], but wives and husbands were to remember that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Gal 3:28]  And the idea of mutual submission, of laying down one’s life for one’s wife, loving her like Christ loved the church?  Radical at a time when (as they were for most of human history) women were, legally speaking, property.

It’s important to remember that one of the big “wives, obey your husbands” verses is Colossians 3:18.  The next seven verses talk about husbands’ responsibility to love their wives, children’s responsibility to obey their parents (along with an admonition to fathers not to “exasperate” their children), and finally, how Christians who are slaves should relate to their masters.  If we really think first century Greco-Roman house codes are some kind of Godly ideal, doesn’t that mean we need to bring back slavery?  And if we’re not willing to hold our fellow man in bondage, why do we want to hold our fellow women in bondage?

I don’t want to write this as if I have all the answers.  I created this blog to live in the questions, to grapple with scripture, God’s will, and my own thoughts, not to preach a certain viewpoint.  Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time doing that here.  Okay, I’m failing utterly to maintain any questions, any objectivity here.  Which of course makes me question whether I should even post this.  But I think I have to, because of this next paragraph:

But now I realize it affects me.  If I have a daughter, it will affect her.  It affects everyone around us.  If my unborn child is a daughter, she will inherit a Christianity very different from the one I grew up in.  She will inherit a Christianity that tells her that her purpose comes not from what God can do through her, but what she can do to support whatever God is doing through her husband.

I don’t want my (possible) daughter to hate her own independence, to abhor her ambitions, to denigrate her dreams.  And I certainly don’t want her to base her sense of self on a man, other than the Son of Man Himself.

Those of us who are male can sit in our safe places and pretend it isn’t happening, just like those of us who are white can ignore racism, and those of us who are heterosexual can ignore homophobia, and those of us who are wealthy and live in post-industrial nations can ignore the suffering of the world’s poor.

But it doesn’t make it right.

A Clarification About College

College Graduate Knit Doll by Carey Bass

Image by Carey Bass, Creative Commons

Something I posted in my last post on modesty may have come off as derogatory to those without college educations: “Soon they’re protecting [women] from going to college and learning difficult, even un-godly things.”  I don’t mean for it to be read as putting down those without academic degrees.  I have nothing but respect for people who have gone directly to work and have made a good life for themselves and their families (and I won’t be so arrogant as to judge from outside what a “good life” necessarily looks like).

I know that college isn’t for everyone. Right now, borrowing money to go to an expensive four-year university is a poor return on investment for almost everybody.  Tuition is up, scholarships are down (the one that carried me through my undergraduate education no longer exists), and jobs are scarce, even for college graduates.

The echoing propaganda that everyone “has” to go to college to be worthwhile, or to have a good life, has led to the near-bankrupting of an entire generation and the watering-down of academic rigor at American universities.  The only people it’s helped are the bankers holding the student loans (which are not, I might add, dischargeable through bankruptcy) and their friends on Capitol Hill.

So, no, I don’t think everybody automatically needs to go to college, but … For today’s teens, there are vanishingly few living-wage jobs available for someone with only a high school diploma.  There was a time when this wasn’t true, but things have (unfortunately) changed.  Some people will get the skills they need through apprenticeships, vocational certificate programs, the military, or other experience.  Some will get these skills through college.  Both paths should be respected and honored.

But the choice as to which path to take must be based on the person’s gifts, aptitudes, and interests, sought through prayer and careful consideration, not based on the person’s chromosomes and genitalia.

Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dotted Burqa (Modesty Part 1)

In my Weekend Wows post,  I mentioned Emily Maynard’s post “Modesty, Lust, and My Responsibility”  I urge you to follow the link and read what she has to say for yourselves.

For those of you who didn’t, she’s saying three basic things: 1) being sexually attracted to someone isn’t a sin, but fantasizing, lusting, dwelling in that is; 2) lust is about control (in the sexual fantasy, the object of lust does whatever the lust-er wants), and 3) men aren’t filthy animals who have no control over their own moral agency.  They can resist lustful fantasies just like women can.

A lot of people have replied saying that it is so important that women dress modestly so as to not tempt men to the sin of lust.  As a man who’s struggled with “the lust of the eye” (though I have thankfully been spared from participating in promiscuity, infidelity, etc.), I have a few thoughts about this myself.

First, the idea that women’s dress and physical self-image should effectively exist for the benefit of men is a profoundly worldly idea.  It’s the Kodachrome negative of the frat boy “she’d be okay if she lost a little weight” and “I’d do her.”  Worse, it veers into blaming the object of the unwanted sexual attention for the actions of the other.  “She was askin’ for it, dressed like that.”  Seriously.  Think about it.  If women are to blame for men’s lustful thoughts, aren’t they to blame for men’s lustful actions?  Do we really want to go back to that age?

Do we really want to dehumanize both men and women, taking away both of their moral agency?  I know men are visual creatures.  I AM ONE.  I know men have a tendency to think lustful thoughts.  ME TOO.  I also know that men are responsible for their own sins, including lust.  It doesn’t matter if I just saw the hottest, sexiest woman I ever saw walking by in a low-cut top and barely-there skirt, looking like something that just stepped out of a Prince song, I am responsible for what I do in my mind just as I am responsible for what I do in my body.

Am I saying that Christian women should wear thigh-high platform boots, micro-skirts, and corset tops to the mall?  Of course not.  Christian women should take responsibility for their mode of dress based upon their own relationships with God.  They have souls and minds, too, and we don’t have the right to play God, telling them what God does and doesn’t want them to wear.  A woman’s salvation and sanctification come from God, through Christ, not through any other person.

Besides, there will always be plenty of non-Christian women who dress provocatively.  We men better learn to control ourselves, or we’ll be sunk in a pit of lustful thoughts all day long.  And let me tell you, as a man who remembers what it was like to be in the grip of hormones, constantly battling a lustful eye, it is absolutely possible to lustfully deconstruct somebody who is modestly dressed. Long sleeves, long pants or dress, not too tight?  It doesn’t matter.  Lust will find a way, unless it is controlled by the person doing the lusting.

There’s another problem with this scenario.   “Dressing modestly” is a moving target, culturally constructed and not even consistent within a single culture.  When asked what “modest dress” was, nobody in the comments section (myself included) could come up with a solid, widely-agreeable definition.  In fact, The Rebelution Modesty Survey spent months, created an interactive website, and surveyed thousands of teens and young adults, to get … a series of questions with answers based on the percentages of their respondents who agreed or disagreed.  In other words, they got a fascinating, and maybe even useful, cultural snapshot of early 21st century, predominantly Christian, youth.  And they started a good conversation.  But they ddn’t get a definitive answer.

So what does it mean to dress modestly?  What does it mean to you?  Tank top?  Jogging shorts?  Cap sleeves?  Skirt to your knees?  Long sleeves?  Skirt to your ankles?  Head covered?  Face veiled?  Burqa?

You think that “Burqa” comment was a smartaleck remark?  Sarcasm?  A joke?  It’s not.  When powerful men decide that women must be controlled, they usually start with modesty.  They start by “protecting” women from the lustful nature of men.  Soon they’re protecting them from going to college and learning difficult, even un-godly things.  They say it’s better for women to stay home and learn to be good homemakers for their husbands.

The woman exists for the man’s benefit, whether to gratify his lusts or support him and his children, depending upon whether you ask a libertine or a hyper-conservative.

The Burqa is where this ends: the symbol of total male domination of women, shrouded from view, her sex, even her humanity, hidden behind thick layers of cloth.  Her life is no longer her own, to give in service to God if she is willing and faithful, but belongs to a man.

If we let men start determining how women dress, women become effectively dress-up dolls, to be remade in either a sexualized or a conservative modesty model.  In other words, we take away their agency and dehumanize them … just like we do when we entertain sexual fantasies about them.