Jordan Peterson and Powerful Men

Jordan Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 has understandably and deservedly been receiving a lot of attention over the last couple of days. A great many people have expressed their admiration for Peterson’s calm and clarity and, much less edifying, their derision for what they perceive as Newman’s unpreparedness and ideologically-induced dullness.

Many aspects of the interview and the discussion within it are striking. However, I wanted to draw attention to just one specific aspect that caught my attention.

The conversation begins with Peterson talking about the huge need for men to grow up. He expresses this conviction, not as a sort of accusatory finger-wagging, but as a heartfelt expression of concern for the well-being of men. Men need to grow up because the world needs such grown-ups to set it straight and because this is how we find meaning in our lives and in suffering.

Peterson’s message is a remarkable one to the ears of many young men today (and it should be remarkable that it is remarkable—Matthew Hosier is absolutely right that the Church should pay attention). Peterson’s message is that men need to grow up because the world needs powerful men, and because women need powerful men. Men’s power is something that they have to offer the world and also something in which they should find meaning and dignity. And men’s power is good for women too.

Just how counter-cultural this message is merits reflection, not least as an indication of part of what is wrong with our world. Within society today, men are increasingly taught that their power is toxic and problematic, that they need to step back to let women advance. The sort of male spaces in which men develop and play to their strengths are closed down and the sexes integrated. The suggestion that the male sex rather needs to step up and play to its strengths, and not just function as meek, compliant, and deferential allies to women, is one that instinctively appalls many. ‘Powerful man’ is seldom heard as anything but a pejorative expression.

Newman’s response to Peterson’s claims about the need for men to take control of their lives seems to assume a zero-sum game approach to the situation. The prospect of Peterson creating stronger men is perceived to be a threat to women. Male and female strength are in competition and opposition, so that the stronger men are, the weaker women will be.

Yet Peterson’s response challenges this perception, and challenges it from a very important angle. While Newman and others like her tend to perceive gender relations primarily in terms of the frame of competitive and largely zero-sum relations between individuals in a gender-neutralized economy, where male strength will almost unavoidably function as an obstacle and frustration to women and their advancement, Peterson asks the crucial question: ‘What sort of partner do you want?’ Here male strength is presented to women, not in terms of a society that, through the over-integration of the sexes in a gender-neutralized economy, presents them with increased competition and provokes their envy and frustration, but as something that enables them to be supported, challenged, and to grow.

Women, Peterson argues, deeply desire competent and powerful men as partners, because they can contend with and rely upon such men. Such power is not seen in tyrannical control—in the puerile husband who live action role-plays as a micro-managing patriarch—but in competence, confidence, strength, resolve, courage, honour, self-mastery, and other such manly virtues. Many women will settle for weak men, because weak men allow them to dominate them, but such relationships are almost always unhappy and frustrating for both parties in the long run.

Just how threatening the development of powerful men is to our society and how invested our society has become in stifling men and discouraging their strength is illuminating, and the responses to Peterson are often telling here—both the instinctive resistance of many women to the prospect of more powerful men and the immense hunger of young men for a maturity they feel they lack.

As is seen later on in the conversation, male strength seems to be one of the greatest obstacles to women receiving equal outcomes in gender-neutralized societies. The fact that men aren’t just going to stop exerting their strengths to allow women to advance beyond them is a large part of the explanation for the so-called ‘glass ceiling’. The problem should be clear: in a gender-neutralized society such as ours, where the realms of the sexes are increasingly collapsed into each other, men’s greater strength becomes a problem and an injustice that needs to be removed on the one hand, and women need to learn to become increasingly masculine in their behaviour on the other.

In such a society, both sexes are frustrated. Men’s strength is discouraged and pathologized and the system subtly stifles them in various ways, in order to let women achieve better outcomes relative to them. Women, for their part, are frustrated as they cannot receive the same outcomes in realms that almost unavoidably play to masculine strengths and traits and, in order to achieve comparable results, will tend to have to behave more like men.

Beyond this, as Mark Regnerus highlights in his recent book, Cheap Sex, women’s advancement in the economic realm has brought about, as its direct consequence, a serious weakening of their power in the relational and sexual arena. The fact that the contemporary ‘sexual marketplace’ so consistently plays to male preferences and behaviours and women have to learn to live with so much harm and dysfunction in their relationships, while possessing so little power to set the terms of male behaviour in this arena, is a result of the same forces that allowed them to advance economically.

On account of their former power in the ‘sexual marketplace’, women used to be able to exert an immense influence upon men, which they simply cannot now. Men used to have to become marriageable to have a chance at sexual relations (and, as is often pointed out, a man today can see more naked women in five minutes than his great grandfather could see in a lifetime). Yet the woman who has been sexually and economically liberated by the Pill and other features of modern society enjoys little such power to demand maturity, responsibility, and commitment of the men in her life. Such a woman may engage in casual sexual relationships with guys, while wishing for a man who will woo her, commit to her, and sacrifice for her, failing to see the huge counterproductivity of her behaviour. Even if she doesn’t engage in casual sexual relations, the fact that so many of her peers do, coupled with the extreme availability of porn, leaves her with little power.

As Regnerus stresses, the problem here is not that men can’t commit, but that they no longer feel a pronounced need to do so and, on account of the various cultural forces stunting their growth, they are not brought to a position where they could do so. Contemporary feminism is a cause doomed to frustration in key respects because the healthy strength and commitment that women so desire in their partners is something that they are invested in systemically stifling elsewhere and because their natural sexual power over men has been traded off for advantages in the realm of economic participation. There is a strong connection between the weakening of men and the progression of feminism, yet the result isn’t satisfying to either sex.

A society that needs its men to be weak will ultimately prove to be frustrating for both sexes. Here the interpersonal dynamics of the interview are illuminating. Newman seems to be expecting to deal with another man-child who is acting out against the matriarchal forces in society, some puerile provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos, perhaps. Encountering a manly adult male instead, she seems to be wrong-footed. By the end, she appears to be charmed by Peterson, despite herself.

This is something I have observed in practice on many occasions, with many men and women. When non-feminist males calmly and respectfully, yet firmly and decisively, disagree with them and hold their ground, feminist women, despite themselves, actually respect them far more than most of their patently weak and spineless male allies. They may dislike such men, but by their actions they will often reveal that they take them so much more seriously than the milquetoasts with which they often surround themselves. Women instinctively respond to men who act like grown-ups and are prepared to contend with them as grown-ups too, rather than just deferring to them (and much obedient male feminism is—both parties know deep down—driven by obliging males’ sense of certain women’s weakness before expressions of male power). They instinctively know that such men are more likely to elicit their own strengths from them than fawning weaklings will.

And men typically thrive in relating to genuinely strong women too, rather than the sort of women whose ‘strength’ is a desperate push for control on account of their vulnerability or who are feebly compliant. In a healthy society, the strength of the sexes isn’t a zero-sum game. Quite the opposite! We are stronger when the other sex is stronger. Strong women challenge men to grow up, don’t pander to their childishness, and press men to assume the responsibilities that will lead to their maturity. Strong men push back against women and, through not indulging their immature weaknesses, sharpen them and deepen their character.

Both men and women love characters like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy because both are strong characters who are made stronger by contending with the other. Neither sex comes away the loser in such an encounter. A lesser man than Mr Darcy could have easily been dominated by Lizzie’s wit and her own growth would have been stunted, even though Mr Darcy’s strength sparked Lizzie’s intense dislike early on. A lesser woman than Lizzie could not have provoked the personal growth that we see in Mr Darcy over the course of Pride and Prejudice. Sadly, our society is increasingly one in which the strengths of each sex is placed at odds with, rather than at the service of, those of the other.

Returning in conclusion to Jordan Peterson, easily one of my favourite Peterson videos is this one, in which he talks about how he met his wife:

Peterson is a extremely emotional and emotive man, yet I have never seen him quite so animated with joy and delight as he is in this video. Hearing Peterson talk about his wife is truly beautiful, particularly because it is so heartening to see someone speaking up for men who really is not driven by resentment towards the key women in his life, but is so wonderfully transparent in his deep love, appreciation, and respect for them. I have mixed feelings about Peterson on various fronts, but I could not appreciate this more.

And here Peterson’s anecdote about his wife taking his last name is not only delightful but instructive. The conversation between Tammy and her friend that Peterson overheard, in which they declared their feminist convictions not to take the last names of their future husbands, displays a crucial dynamic. Tammy declared that, in order to follow through on her feminist desire, she would have to marry a ‘wimp’: the demonstration of her strength as a woman would require the weakness of her partner. In later resisting this, Peterson demonstrates that he is not such a wimp, but is someone who will lovingly contend with his wife, much as she will lovingly contend with him. And, in his refusal to be the ‘wimp’, Peterson makes possible far greater growth for his wife, as they can truly contend with each other as counterparts. Peterson’s wife has clearly captivated his heart, but without needing to emasculate him. They are both the more powerful for not being able to control the other and can both ‘belong’ to each other in more pronounced ways.

Posted in Culture, Ethics, In the News, Sex and Sexuality | Leave a comment

Podcast: Equality

Mere FidelityOur first podcast of 2018 is on the entirely uncontroversial subject of equality as a Christian value. One of our listeners requested that we devote a show to the topic and, being the reckless fools that we are, we agreed to do so. The result is a conversation in which not a few hostages are thrown to fortune.

You can also follow the podcast on iTunes, or using this RSS feed. Listen to past episodes on Soundcloud and on this page on my blog.

Posted in Controversies, Ethics, Philosophy, Podcasts, Politics, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological | 1 Comment

Questions and Answers on my ‘Strong Female Character’ Trope Article


Someone drew my attention to a bit of a brouhaha that has been going on over on Twitter about an article I wrote a year and a half ago, in which I questioned the trope of the ‘strong female character’. I thought I’d take some time to clear up some of the apparent confusion.

I confess, reading the discussion was a depressing reminder of just how incredibly reactive and careless people’s reading can be on the Internet. On an issue as emotive as gender, people tend to jump to unwarranted conclusions, operating with reactive impressions, rather than attentive readings. Unfortunately, much of the following will have to address basic failures of comprehension.


‘His worldview is problematic because it doesn’t derive from Scripture but from a culturally constructed vision of gender that is supposedly “biological.” The problem is that it’s not biblical enough.’ Is this true?

At the outset, considering how much work I’ve done on the biblical witness and how broadly I’ve thrown my net in exploring what the Scripture has to say on this subject, it is, to be frank, rather strange to receive this accusation from someone who has done considerably less work in the area. My concern has always been to read the Bible on such subjects closely, thoroughly, and comprehensively. By contrast, a highly selective and piecemeal reading is all too often characteristic of critics such as the person in question, a reading that takes modern concerns to the text and seeks to find biblical support, rather than an intensive, extensive, and attentive engagement with the Bible’s own witness on the Bible’s own terms. The result of such readings, as I shall later argue, is a radically distorted sense of the Bible’s actual teaching and priorities.

The accusation that my position is supposedly derived from a mistaken understanding of biology is one I deny on various counts. It is not derived from biology, but, rather, is attentive to biology, alongside many other sources. The term ‘biology’ can also be an unhelpful term in this context: I have tried to attend to nature, which is considerably broader than biology.

As for the accusation of a ‘culturally constructed vision of gender’, I believe that such visions of gender are not merely arbitrary constructions of power upon an inert and plastic nature, but that they must negotiate with the natural reality of our sexed nature, which they construe in various conventions and customs. There are some key things to notice about this.

First, like wearing clothing or speaking language, gender is a human universal: despite the many differences between the ways in which they do so, every human culture socially distinguishes between men and women.

Second, gender difference is almost invariably accentuated in various ways. Few cultures treat gender difference as an unfortunate difference to be eradicated or minimized, but as a beautiful and glorious thing in which our humanity is most elevated. Gender is the key human difference that constitutes the dance of society. When we want to appear most glorious, we tend to dress in ways that foreground our masculinity and femininity.

Because of the typical accentuation of gender difference, nature cannot simply be read off culture. However, culture is natural to us as human beings and the elevation of the biological reality of sexual dimorphism into the cultural reality of gender with it. C.S. Lewis observed that ‘the naked man was the man who had undergone a process of naking, that is, of stripping or peeling.’ The wearing of clothing is natural to mature human beings, much as the speaking of language is. To be naked is to have a layer of our glory as humanity removed, to be reduced to a childlike or ‘peeled’ state. Likewise, gender is part of our glory as human beings, that which ‘dresses up’ our natural bodily differences into something distinctively and gloriously human.

Third, within the great variety of ways in which different cultures dance out or dress up the difference between men and women, great consistencies are to be seen, consistencies that reveal that we are all producing variations on the same underlying themes. Anywhere you go in the world, pronounced cultural differences between men and women exist, differences in which men and women remain quite recognizably men and women. If the sexes were to switch places, the confusion would swiftly be discovered.

Fourth, the cultural differences between men and women are naturally creative construals and presentations of the natural differences between them. They are created differences, yet they are not arbitrary differences, as they negotiate, foreground, and accentuate the natural character of sexual dimorphism.

We can’t simply read nature off culture, but the extensive consistencies and convergences between cultures when it comes to gender are illuminating. And, in addition to this, both culture and the drawing of gender distinctions are natural to human beings. Much as in the case of language, gender difference can take innumerable forms. However, like language, it is both natural to us and must relate effectively to the world.

Scripture highlights this fact by declaring cultural distinctions between genders to be natural (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:14-15). The point is not that specific gender distinctions are unavoidable, but that the drawing of gender distinctions is natural to humanity, and that the ways that our culture draws such distinctions are not to be lightly dismissed, even though they may occasionally need to be replaced by better ways of drawing the distinction.


Do I ‘think that social justice is a modern liberal post-Christian pursuit and not something connected to God’s Word and God’s vision for human flourishing’?

‘Social justice’ is an extremely heavily loaded term. In the sense that this terminology currently functions, I believe that it is a highly compromised and flawed pursuit, even if well-intentioned. As ‘social justice’ usually operates, it is bound up with what René Girard describes as a perverse ‘victimology’ cult. It is also oriented around the demand of ‘equality’, a highly questionable value, which owes a lot to a technique-driven society that treats all persons as commensurable and natural differences as obstacles to the parity of outcomes that should exist.

God’s vision for human flourishing does not orbit around the value of equality, but is about each person flourishing in their own proper ways and in their differences. In this vision, the differences between men and women make a difference and this difference is essentially good, albeit distorted by the Fall. The expectation that men and women should get equal outcomes is based on the futile attempt to erase the created differences between men and women—creation itself fuelling a deep ressentiment—rather than to welcome them in ways that enable both men and women to flourish in their own fashion.


Why is it bad to have more female heroes? Am I unacquainted with ICU nurses?

Far from it being bad to have more heroines, it is something that we desperately need! My point in my article was that the ‘strong female character’ trope fails us on this front because it places so much of the weight of potential female heroism upon women’s conformity to a narrow set of more characteristically male strengths (a vision of heroism constraining for men, yet radically more so for women) and on women’s occupation of roles that play to those strengths. This merely reinforces the assumption that, to be heroic, you need to be like a fighting man.

If you read my article, you will see that it is arguing that, for a true recognition of female heroism, we need to move beyond accumulating token female characters in roles modelled upon a particularly male model of heroism, and to expand our vision of what heroism itself means. Films that explored the heroism of ICU nurses would be wonderful. ICU nurses don’t need to be engaged in combat or to have incredible marital arts skills in order to be heroic. We should learn to attend to and to admire the heroism of such persons without feeling that they cannot truly be heroic if they can’t best a trained male fighter in hand-to-hand combat. Recognizing the reality of their heroism requires an attention that the in-your-face (yet often merely apparent) heroism of the fighter does not. But it badly needs to be cultivated.

The ‘strong female character’ trope is a lazy solution for female empowerment. While it may give many women a cathartic sense of women’s agency being recognized on the screen, it does so by reinforcing the underlying problem. It gives the impression that women’s agency only qualifies for our attention insofar as it conforms itself to certain models of masculine agency.

For a society that increasingly lives vicariously through its consumption of screen entertainment, the catharsis of seeing women’s agency prominently displayed on the screen may seem to be enough, and be regarded as a salutary challenge to the wider realms of life where their agency is often overlooked altogether. However, the terms upon which women’s agency is being recognized must be recognized, as they reinforce the real-world problems that women face. Strip almost any one of the ‘strong female characters’ of their fighting abilities and they would suddenly cease to enjoy a place in the centre of the frame. While many contemporary ‘strong female characters’ exhibit a wide range of different traits and agency that far exceeds fighting, we only get to discover this because they are gifted warriors. However, in the real world the most gifted warriors are, almost to a man … men. Here our media aren’t teaching us to recognize women’s actual heroism, just to chafe against reality.

There is no need to deny the existence of the few exceptions to these patterns to make this point. The point is not that no women are strong, but that very few women are stronger than the average man and that, when we get to the extremes of strength, we are dealing almost exclusively with men. The problem with the ‘strong female character’ is not that such characters exist in popular movies and TV series, but that the representation of women in much popular entertainment is so dependent on characters conforming to that trope.

People tend to be very poor at thinking about group differences (especially gender differences) that involve overlapping distributions. We are often reminded, for instance, that the difference between two particular groups on a specific trait may be much smaller than the variation within either one of the groups. Or we will be reminded of how much overlap there is between them. Furthermore, as people tend to think individualistically, they tend to fixate on the issue of the range of possible values that exist within a group’s distribution and pay little attention to group effects.

Height is a good way to illustrate the issues with such objections. The variation in both male and female height is truly immense, especially for men (both the tallest and the shortest persons ever recorded are men). When the variation in a group is so great that it exceeds the bounds of another group in both directions, isn’t it meaningless to talk about differences between the two groups? Also, the average height difference between men and women is only about 5 inches, dwarfed by the size of the variation and with plenty of women being taller than the average male height. Anyone who says that men are taller than women will often face strong objections from people who think about such things individualistically, with reminders that people like Gwendoline Christie (6’3”) exist. Yet there is no need to deny the existence of exceptionally tall women in order to maintain the significance of height difference between the sexes. When we go above six feet, for instance, only one person in about two thousand will be a woman. If we were looking for the tallest ten percent of society, it would almost exclusively be male.

If the most prominent women in our blockbuster movies and most popular TV shows were overwhelmingly over six feet in height, their presence wouldn’t necessarily be empowering to women. They would soon cease to represent a healthy recognition of the existence of exceptionally tall women and would function as the expectation that women must be exceptionally tall to be recognized. Likewise, the problem is not with the existence of physically strong women or of women with elite fighting abilities, but the huge dependence upon the trope, a dependence that reveals an egalitarian society’s inability to handle natural differences between the sexes.

My point is not that women’s agency and heroism should be removed from our screens (quite the opposite: note that, far from being a principled resistance to the attempt to represent women’s agency and heroism, my article ends with a discussion of how we could do better here), but that they should truly be recognized, rather than forced into an unnatural straitjacket. It is not an injustice that women are naturally weaker than men, but it is an injustice when we suggest that women must be of comparable strength to men for their agency and characters to be recognized. The resistance to natural difference merely imposes an unrealistic standard upon women.


What about the women who financially supported Jesus and his disciples?

What about them? Does the Bible make its recognition of the significance of their actions contingent upon their aptitude for physical combat? No. Indeed, our ability to recognize their actions and those of many other women like them may depend upon attentiveness to the actual form of women’s agency in Scripture, rather than to our narrow cultural expectations of what ‘strong women’ must look like.


I quote statistics about men’s different upper body strength relative to women in about ‘4-5 essays’, but surely this is ‘not a fact upon which to hang a whole worldview about the genders.’

To my knowledge, I have quoted that particular fact in no more than three different pieces and in none of them was it the foundation for my argument. It is most definitely not a fact upon which to hang a whole account of the sexes, which is why I never do anything remotely like that. I use the fact, not to ground a ‘whole worldview about the genders’, but to point out the natural imbalance between the sexes, especially at the extremes of physical performance. Men’s bodies and psychologies are suited for combat in a great many ways that women’s bodies and psychologies are not and, in a society that is increasingly focused upon fighting women in its entertainment, it is important to remind ourselves of this.

This sort of accusation, sadly characteristic of the seemingly reactive reading of the person in question, is such a bad faith engagement with my arguments that I am wary of dignifying it with a response. However, for the sake of those following the conversation, rebuttal may be important.


Realistically how many modern men rely on their upper body strength when caring for, protecting and serving their wives?

This would be quite the devastating challenge were I basing an entire understanding about the genders and their respective roles upon the greater upper body strength of men.

But I’m not, so it isn’t.


Am I denying that women are strong enough to care for others?

Certainly not. Challenging the helpfulness of a dominant trope that foregrounds women engaging in violence is not denying that there are many ways in which women show strength in caring for others.


‘The emphasis on women’s central (only?) roles as wives and child-bearers is an a priori lens of Roberts’s and others that leads them to overlook women’s other forms of strength seen in Scripture. Note how Alastair deals with Jael and Deborah…in passing.’

Scripture repeatedly presents the bearing of children and the faithful managing of a household as the primary form that women’s vocations will take. It is not the only form and there are some women who will have more exceptional forms of calling, but it is consistently represented as the centre of gravity for women’s activity.

From the creation of the woman onwards, her calling is primarily focused upon the raising up of seed. In Genesis 2, the man was created from and for the taming of the land, while the woman was created from the side of the man, with her calling centring upon the formation of human union and communion through marriage, the bearing of children, the forming of homes and communities. The judgment on the man after the Fall focuses upon his subduing of the land, while the judgment on the woman focuses upon her bearing and raising of children.

When Scripture talks about the calling of women, it focuses upon the realm of marriage, childbearing and the managing of the household. In Titus 2:4-5, older women are called to ‘admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed.’ In 1 Timothy 5:14, Paul declares that younger widows should ‘marry, bear children, manage the house.’ In 1 Timothy 2:15 it is childbearing that Paul presents as central to the calling of Eve and her daughters. The work of wise women in Proverbs also focuses upon the managing of their households too (Proverbs 14:1; 31:10ff). They engage in economic activity, but as those building their households and homes, not as independent careerists. This is all very unwelcome to modern ears, but this is what Scripture focuses upon when it comes to women.

Scripture repeatedly presents women’s work in the bearing of children and raising of their households as heroic in character and as a prominent work of social reproduction that is to be foregrounded and honoured in society. Women and their work in the bearing, protecting, and raising of children are front and centre in many of the most pivotal narratives of Scripture. The story of the patriarchs has women struggling to give birth at the heart of it. The story of the Exodus begins with women giving birth. The story of the kingdom begins with the prayer of Hannah. The story of the gospel begins with Elizabeth and Mary.

It must, however, be recognized that this calling of women was not as socially marginalizing in Scripture as it is in the modern world, in which the realm of the household has ceased to be at the heart of society, the primary engine of both production and social reproduction. Rather than a settled reality, which accumulated social capital over generations, the modern home is a private domestic bubble that will exist for a couple of decades, before it dissolves as children leave home and scatter to different parts of the country or world. It is primarily a realm of private consumption with little social power or influence.

We live in a society that has increasingly outsourced the traditional operations of the family onto the state and other economic and productive agencies. Our society is dependent upon the normalization of the suppression of women’s fertility through contraception and abortion so that they can untether themselves from the collapsing domestic sphere. As marriage and the family are enervated and no longer afford the same social influence they once enjoyed. Rather than representing a true realm of interdependence, pooling of resources, and combining of efforts, capable of bearing considerable weight, both men and women place relatively little practical weight on their marriages nowadays when compared to other ages of history. The modern women is (often understandably) careful to maintain her economic independence, so that she never needs her marriage, even if she might want it. Marriage just isn’t that reliable an enterprise any longer and, especially, as her husband has far less resting on the marriage than he would have done in the past, she can’t afford to fall into a relationship of unilateral dependence.

Our broader cultural situation is not something that Scripture presents as healthy. Indeed, it challenges us to recognize the dysfunctional and alienated character of our social order. While it doesn’t support those who want to normalize the independent career-driven woman, it doesn’t support those who simply want to confine women to the modern home either. Rather, it calls for a more careful understanding and wise negotiation of a compromised situation, in which both the limits of the home and the demands of the career generally prove alienating for women. It also requires a deeper reckoning with the alienated character of men’s labour.

Of course, people who come to Scripture with their cultural itches, looking for scriptural resources to scratch them, will fail to appreciate Scripture’s broader indictment upon the form of society that gives rise to such itches in the first place. They will extrapolate extensive visions from isolated characters like Deborah or Jael, without attending closely either to the broader sweep of Scripture or to the stories of Deborah and Jael themselves. They will presume the validity of the terms, categories, and concerns of their own societies and never allow Scripture to hold them in question.

In contrast to such approaches, our duty must be to deal with Scripture more comprehensively and on its own terms. We must be attentive to its categories and concerns and use these both to understand what it says and to assess our own cultures. If your concern is merely arguing for ‘equality’, you will pounce upon texts such as Galatians 3:28 or Genesis 1:27 as statements of the equality of every individual and easily assume everything else that our society rests upon that term. However, as I pointed out recently, this is simply not how such texts function when understood within Scripture’s own conceptual frameworks.


So, what about Jael and Deborah?

I am accused of dealing with Jael and Deborah only in passing. Yet such an accusation could arguably be levelled even more strongly against Scripture itself. Deborah and Jael appear during a period of national oppression in Israel’s early history, their deeds recounted in a single story near the beginning of the book of Judges. After that, they vanish from the scene and no other women quite like them come along. For instance, apart from the murderous usurper, Athaliah, there is no women among the forty-two regents of Israel and Judah and no woman other than Deborah among the almost twenty judges of Israel mentioned at various points in Scripture. This isn’t because brave and influential women are absent from either the subsequent pages of Scripture or Israelite society, but because Jael and Deborah are not representative of the more typical forms of female courage and virtue that Scripture most foregrounds and celebrates.

Scripture wants us to celebrate the actions of such women, but they are not the norm and are not normalized. Both Jael and Deborah are presented by Scripture itself—in the context of its wider representation of women, and within their own narratives—as exceptional cases. Those who are desperate to discover scriptural warrant for breaking of gender stereotypes and norms place considerable weight upon such texts, yet neglect the vast swathes of Scripture that present the norm against which such exceptions appear. They also neglect to observe the way that gender norms are reinforced even in the accounts of exceptions.

Deborah’s calling as a judge is closely related to the fact that she is a prophetess, someone who could deliver the word of the Lord to Barak and others (cf. Judges 4:6-7). While most of the other judges were primarily military men, going out before Israel, leading them against their enemies, the dynamic with Deborah was different and perhaps more akin to figures like Samuel or Moses, other prophetic judges. Deborah sat under her palm tree and delivered judgment upon the cases brought to her by the children of Israel.

Deborah is a Mosaic figure who, like Moses, presides over the new birth of a nation when all had seemed lost. Like Moses, she is the divinely-instructed prophet who directs the battle from behind the scenes, leading to a miraculous victory over a powerful army of chariots through a sudden torrent of water. The chariots of Pharaoh were swept away by the waters of the Red Sea; the chariots of Jabin were swept away by the River Kishon (5:20-21). Like Moses, she sings a song of victory afterwards. These parallels are important and some indication of the significance of Deborah’s work.

The crushing or suppression of the virility of a nation was always one of most important concerns for an oppressing power. Removing the weapons, killing or enslaving the males, and emasculating and subjugating their leaders were ways in which a nation could be brought under the domination of another. Scripture presents us with a number of such moments in history. The Exodus is one example: Pharaoh enslaves Israel and kills their boys. In this situation, deliverance arose from women, as women delivered the infant Moses and protected the Israelite boys from Pharaoh. Women protected the seed that would crush the serpent’s head. Deborah is associated with the other women who lived at such times, with Jochebed, Miriam, and the Hebrew midwives, with Hannah, with Esther, with Elizabeth and Mary.

The highways were deserted,
And the travelers walked along the byways.
Village life ceased, it ceased in Israel,
Until I, Deborah, arose,
Arose a mother in Israel.
They chose new gods;
Then there was war in the gates;
Not a shield or spear was seen among forty thousand in Israel. (Judges 5:6b-8)

Deborah describes herself as ‘a mother in Israel’, someone who arose at a point of crisis in Israel’s history, when men were without strength and it needed to experience something akin to a new birth. One of the problems with people regarding Deborah as a biblical normalization of gender-neutralized leadership is that they fail to take into account this background and the character of Deborah’s work. Deborah’s calling is to act as a mother in Israel, someone who will protect and raise up the seed that will ultimately lead and deliver.

Like Joan of Arc, Deborah is a prophetic woman who leads a movement to restore the rule of her nation at a moment of crisis and the utter breakdown of its power. She is not an ordinary leader in a time of peace. Barak is like the Dauphin, who must be helped to achieve his victory, after which the security and power of the nation can be restored under his rule.

Barak was instructed to go to battle, but suffered a minor judgment when he requested that Deborah accompany him. Unlike the typical male judge, Deborah’s absence from the battle was assumed to be the natural and appropriate situation: she was neither a warrior nor a military commander. She was also a woman. The judgment upon Barak for calling Deborah to accompany him was that the opposing general would be delivered into the hands of a woman, who would do Barak’s job for him. Had Barak courageously followed the word of the Lord and not called for Deborah to accompany him, she would not have gone to the battle and Sisera would have been delivered into Barak’s own hand, galvanizing Barak’s authority in Israel.

Both Deborah’s presence with him in the battle (albeit not in the actual fighting) and Jael’s slaying of Sisera were associated with Barak’s failure to assume his proper role. Crushing the head of the serpent Sisera’s head was the task of the seed, which Barak was supposed to be. However, since the seed was not yet powerful enough to crush the serpent’s head himself, the woman had to do it for him. This was a sign that the woman’s task in raising her seed was not yet done.

Deborah and Jael are commonly appealed to as biblical examples of fighting women, examples that are supposedly evidence that fighting wars shouldn’t be gendered (despite the fact that women are notably absent from the many myriads of fighting people elsewhere in Scripture). Putting to one side the fact that Deborah’s presence at the battle and Jael’s crushing of Sisera’s head wasn’t the original divine intention, it is important to note that neither Deborah nor Jael fight. Deborah directs the battle from the top of Mount Tabor and Jael kills a man in his sleep.

Deborah and Jael’s actions are worthy of praise, but neither Deborah nor Jael are warrior women. They are women who, under exceptional circumstances that represent breaks from the norm, and on account of the failure of men to step forward, play surprising and courageous non-combat parts in a divinely orchestrated military victory. Deborah and Jael are heroines of no small stature in Scripture and we should study and appreciate their story. However, anyone who uses the characters of Deborah and Jael to normalize women’s place in warfare is being either careless or dishonest with the text.

One final point to attend to here is the fact that, even in their break from the norm, the womanhood of both Deborah and Jael is foregrounded in various ways and is significant to the narrative. Jael deceiving the serpent Sisera and crushing his head is a poetic reversal of the serpent’s deception of Eve and a minor fulfilment of the promise of Genesis 3:15. Jael’s slaying of Sisera occurs, not as she goes out to the battle, but as she invites him into her tent, deceives him with the apparent extension of hospitality, then pierces his head with the domestic tool of a tent peg. Jael, not being a fighter, employs the tactic of cunning deception, which is characteristic of women in their struggle against the serpents of history (Sarai against Pharaoh, Rebekah against Pharaoh and Abimelech, Rachel against Laban, Tamar against Judah, the Hebrew midwives against Pharaoh, Rahab against the king of Jericho, Michael against Saul, Esther against Haman, etc.). The Song of Deborah does not class Jael with the warriors, but with ‘women in tents’ (5:24).

Likewise, Deborah doesn’t cast herself as a warrior, but as a mother. What she does is a significant departure from the norm, but it is nonetheless a motherly action. At the end of her Song she focuses on her rival and counterpart in the conflict, the mother of Sisera, waiting in vain for her son to arrive home. She imagines Sisera’s mother’s ladies explaining Sisera’s delay, suggesting that he was gathering plunder and raping and capturing women, not realizing that, in another piece of poetic justice, he had just been ‘penetrated’ by a woman.

These considerations help us better to understand how Deborah and Jael, while both are exceptions to the norm, are nevertheless expressions of it. They don’t destroy or reject the gendered frameworks of society, but reveal some of the surprising forms that they can take on exceptional occasions. They are orderly anomalies.


Is my handling of Proverbs 31 problematic, ‘circumscribing the wife’s role to “domestic craft-work”’ and ignoring the economic and charitable activities she engages in?

This accusation is based upon a quotation from Peter Leithart in which he writes: ‘…the woman’s work is domestic, economic, craft-work, and yet the poem celebrates it in heroic terms.’ Note both the commas and the presence of the term ‘economic’, which Leithart and I are supposedly ‘ignoring’. This is one of several instances that seem to manifest a depressing low level of basic reading comprehension in my critics.

The problem with far too many contemporary Christian readings of passages such as Proverbs 31 is that they are either looking for proof that women should stay at home or looking for proof that women should enjoy careers and lives outside of the home’s confines. Both approaches result from a modern situation where work and the household have become alienated from each other.

The vision of Proverbs 31 is of the woman who manages a productive and fruitful household with wisdom and providence. She is not a detached individual pursuing a career, but the centripetal force of a community that she forms around her. She is the heart of her home, the tree of life in its midst. She is the one who builds up her household with her shrewd economic management and the spring whose waters flow out of her household to give life to all around. She is her husband’s glory and desire; he praises her and builds her up with his own strength.

In this biblical vision, economic, charitable, productive, and other activities are all extensions of the life of the home, not alienated from it as they are in modern society. When the woman buys a field and plants a vineyard, she is not working to extend her boss’s dominion, earning money doing alienated labour in another’s ‘household’, but is extending the dominion of her own. This is the biblical vision of what is good, a vision that should chasten our far more limited ideals. The biblical vision of women’s calling is focused upon their marrying, bearing children, and managing their households. But this vision can only properly be understood against the background of an understanding of the household as the heart of the world, not a marginalized reservation cut off from society. Unfortunately, when people approach the Bible on the terms set by our culture, they miss this.

As I’ve already noted, this vision is decidedly difficult to realize in the current context. It provides a challenging measure against which we can perceive the failure of our society and perhaps means by which things can be changed. If we use such a vision either to condemn women who work outside the home, or women who stay at home, we will be missing the point. Both approaches are typically compromised in the current environment and should not be treated as ideals or as healthy patterns. Our duty is to perceive correctly, speak truthfully, recognize our limitations, and prudently pursue the good to the measure that we can in the situations within which we find ourselves.


Do I have an a priori commitment to the position that ‘biology reveals women’s societal roles’ and that women ‘are the weaker vessel not just physically but societally as well’?

No, I don’t. What I actually believe is that the societal differences between men and women arise in large measure from biological and psychological differences between the sexes. These differences are of various kinds: some are more categorical in character (e.g. women get pregnant while men don’t), while others are about more relative differences (e.g. men are more thing-oriented than women, while women are more person-oriented than men). Such relative differences, unlike the more categorical differences, have plenty of exceptions. However, despite not being categorical differences, they can have a huge impact at the more general societal level, among other things, scuppering attempts to achieve parity.

My beliefs on these fronts can be amply supported by a wealth of cross-cultural empirical research. They help to account for pronounced empirical differences between the sexes that exist across many human (and a number of animal) societies. They also relate closely with the natural teleology of sexual difference. For instance, much as chimps exhibit pronounced sex differences in play behaviours, so we should expect the play behaviours and interests of human males and females to correspond in various ways with their reproductive roles. The existence of significantly different distributions of behavioural tendencies between the sexes isn’t hard to substantiate for those who don’t have their eyes open. The shape of these behavioural differences is also seldom hard to explain for those who take the differences in natural reproductive roles seriously. In an advanced technological and contraceptive society, we may have become unmindful of the existence of natural reproductive roles, but this doesn’t mean that they cease to exist.

This isn’t a belief in strict biological determinism when it comes to men and women’s behaviours, nor is it the belief that we should simply read societal roles off biology. However, it is the belief that nature matters and that we cannot explain society well if we don’t take it seriously. My points here are primarily descriptive, rather than prescriptive. The point is not that biology means that men and women must occupy specific roles but that natural differences mean that every human society will tend to be producing variations on the same underlying themes. God created men and women differently, for different purposes, and the differences between us really make a difference.

It is not difficult to show that men and women aren’t blank slates, but that natural differences between them lead to different behaviours and different social outcomes. People like to point to the effects of socialization as that which establishes the greatest differences between the sexes. However, important though socialization can be, if the differences in question were socialized, it is truly strange that we should encounter the same patterns in so many cultures (and many similar patterns in related species) otherwise independent of each other. It is also worth noticing how socialization can fail. For instance, attempts to socialize girls exposed to high levels of androgens in the womb fail badly, as they typically adopt male-typical behaviours.

I also believe that women are the weaker vessel societally, a position that, while it can be qualified in certain ways, would seem to be amply demonstrated by the cross-cultural evidence. In almost all human societies, women have a far more intimate bond with their children than their husbands. Beyond even the burdens of pregnancy and nursing, and putting psychological differences between the sexes to one side, the duties of child-rearing will fairly unavoidably fall chiefly upon their shoulders. Without contraception, baby formula, a whole raft of domestic appliances, the welfare state and extensive social institutions, and many other such developments, women will operate largely from the home and will rely heavily upon their husbands for provision. My point here is not to idealize such a situation—in our movement beyond many aspects of such a situation, we have a lot to be thankful for—but to point out that God created men and women in a way that made imbalances of societal power almost inevitable.

Male dominance in public rule wasn’t simply established by some compelling theoretical argument that was accepted by societies around the world. It is the sort of thing that arises fairly organically out of our natures. The greater physical strength of men is only one factor among a great many, although it is important (besides, the most powerful people in society are seldom those who are physically the strongest). Male-typical sociality creates broader, larger, less personal, and more outward-oriented groups, bound together by common agency. Such ‘bands’ of men have a much greater creative power, and not just because they are physically stronger. Men’s greater thing-orientation also drives them more towards the development of physical and social structures, systems, institutions, and laws. Male agonism privileges strength and high agency and equips men for operating in untamed realms. The broader structures of social power primarily arise out of the activity of men. The more intimate forms of social influence, by contrast, are more closely related to the activity of women.

The apparent exceptions to the pattern are worth studying. The dominance of women in society tends to appear in situations where, for instance, the society is subjugated by an external power that closes down the agency of men, where the society is relatively undeveloped, where men are largely absent, or where there is limited scope for the development of broader networks of power (e.g. peoples on isolated islands). In other situations, the natural virility of men will tend to produce a situation where men are the most prominent public figures, as they create greater networks and structures of power.

The problem with the consistent and predictable objections to such observations is that they come from people who seemingly make no real effort to reckon with natural differences and often treat the existence of such differences as if they were great injustices. And this is a theological question that we must ask too (one rarely posed, although Gerald Hiestand’s recent treatment of the question in Beauty, Order, and Mystery is a welcome exception). If ‘equality’, in the modern sense of that term, were really God’s great concern, why did he create men so much stronger than women in a world that demanded and rewarded physical strength? Why did he create women to bear such a disproportionate burden of the weight of the task of procreation? If ‘equality’ were God’s purpose, why are sexual differences so pronounced when it comes to the core tasks of the human vocation: being fruitful, multiplying, filling the earth, subduing it, and exercising dominion?

Facile attempts to brush off ‘biological’ groundings of gender roles neglect the fact that the way that God created us is such that the greater prominence of men in societal life doesn’t need to be undergirded by lots of prescriptive arguments: it is simply a descriptive and pretty unavoidable reality.


What about men who are physically weak or ill, or the women who are particularly strong? Or what about situations when women have to act on behalf of men who lack the power to act?

The person asking this question seems to be assuming that my reference to differences in physical strength is designed to ground an entire prescriptive account of gender roles, as if I were arguing that each and every man either is or must be physically stronger than each and every woman (or at least his spouse). However, it is only intended to demonstrate a significant empirical difference between the sexes, a difference that has extensive social consequences. It is not the claim that all men are physically strong or even that all men should be physically strong. It is not the claim that it is unwomanly to be physically strong, or that it is sinful for women to develop or exercise their physical strength.

General norms can have exceptions. The norms aren’t negated by such exceptions and those who defend and express the norms need not be threatened by the exceptions. The norms don’t disappear simply on account of some unusual cases, especially when a number of these cases are recognized to be departures from an ideal in various respects (e.g. situations where a man is ill or disabled).

I don’t intend to get into any discussion in the comments, but have at it.

Posted in Bible, Controversies, Culture, Judges, OT, Questions and Answers, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological | 28 Comments

Rough Thoughts on ‘Wokeness and Myth on Campus’

Alan Jacobs has a thought-provoking piece in The New Atlantis in which he explores some of the underlying dynamics of protests surrounding controversial speech on campus. You should read his piece before you read the rest of this post, which will be some hastily assembled remarks on his argument (I’ve given myself a time limit of two and a half hours in which to write this post).


The Irrationality of Woke Thought

There is a common impression that ‘woke’ progressives are relativists. This impression is understandable, yet mistaken. Jacobs’ emphasis on the distinction between the ‘mythical’ and the ‘technological’ helps to explain why. Progressives are in fact absolutist zealots, yet their position does not find its centre of gravity in the realm of rational theory. However, due to the pull that the mythical exerts upon the realm of the technological and the need to articulate oneself technologically to lay claim to public recognition, they will speak in ways that appear illogical or relativistic.

The sacred duty to support and validate the victim leads to technological discourse being established as a façade over the mythical conviction. Yet, the technological discourse is treated as an extension of the mythical, so that one cannot challenge the theoretical rationalizations advanced for the sake of victims without violating the sacred victims themselves. To seek to protect the designated victim without affirming the truth of the ideology by which they validate and assert their identities would be to become complicit in their oppression. Hence progressives fawn over people like Ta-Nehisi Coates or certain Muslims, without considering just how inconsistent their values are with liberal values in many respects.

This can produce a host of inconsistencies at the level of technological discourse. However, we would be mistaken to think that these inconsistencies are of pressing concern to those who hold them. What appears as technological discourse is chiefly a veiled extrusion of mythical values into a more public realm. The technological discourse is not revelatory of the underlying posture of the ‘woke’ themselves, but rather a means to present their sacred values in the form of the high language of science and theory—the language of rule in our society.

Inconsistencies are often seen surrounding issues of gender and sexuality, where the ‘woke’ will advance positions that are at one point radically constructivist and the next radically biologically determined. If you highlight typical brain differences between the sexes, you will be attacked as a ‘neurosexist’ by Cordelia Fine and other such feminists. [It should be noted here that the differences in view are akin to the differences between male and female faces: not absolute, but cumulative slight differences in distributions that can produce readily distinguishable kinds when regarded in the aggregate, i.e. men and women are distinguishable despite extensive similarities and that the differences between them will be most pronounced at extremes.] To recognize significant brain differences between the sexes is to threaten the idea that behavioural and psychological differences between men and women are merely socially constructed, without any basis in biology.

However, when it comes to trans persons, the concerns are very different, so many of the ‘woke’ will leap on supposed evidence that trans people have the brain of the sex with which they identify. Likewise, many of the same people who are outraged by the idea that biology might be related to behavioural differences between the sexes when it comes to women as victims of the patriarchy will assert that LGBT persons are ‘born that way’ and will point to differences in childhood toy and play preferences as evidence of their atypical sex or sexual identities. There isn’t a coherent theory of sex and sexuality here, even though there are plenty of ways in which the more complicated picture presented by the actual science can be selectively and inconsistently appealed to in support of positions that are in fact contradictory.

The sense of relativism is further strengthened by the fact that the sacredness of the victim, coupled with a sense of the psychological threat presented by contrary viewpoints, means that the woke constantly tether their more distinct personal convictions to the stake of individual choice and self-expression, so that their convictions don’t get loose and run into their neighbours’ yards. While the woke feel the need to push both the ideology of victimhood and the validating ideologies of victims into the public realm, they will carefully withdraw and privatize other convictions.

For instance, the progressive Christian will be wary not to assert the Lordship of Christ in a manner that seems to threaten, invalidate, or challenge the strongly held beliefs of other persons. They will observe a strong ideological non-aggression pact, expressing their own beliefs in a manner that presents them as private expressions of their personal choice, while carefully downplaying the objective force of those beliefs.


A Self Without a Skin

When you look closer at the sacred values of the woke, a lot of them arguably boil down, not to communally held quasi-religious convictions, but to fundamentally existential concerns. Of course, these concerns get expanded into or related to more mythical notions such as ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘whiteness’, but it seems to me that even the concept of the ‘mythical’, with its sense of an essentially metaphysical posture, doesn’t quite go far enough in analysing the situation here. At the root in a great many cases is something much more raw, existential, and emotional. The categories that woke persons routinely reach for, categories of safety and violence, should be considered here.

Equality, non-discrimination, tolerance, inclusion, affirmation, safe spaces, etc. are all values that ultimately seem to relate to the most primal needs of unthreatened existence and secure belonging, to the desire of everyone for a recognized, valued, and protected place in relationship with those around them. The primal force of these values needs to be appreciated, as does the profoundly felt vulnerability of many of the people who express them. The woke often speak as if their existence and the safety of their community (or those of the people for whom they are ‘allies’) were under direct threat or assault: we should take this expressed sense seriously.

The behaviour of many such persons is indicative of a sort of self without a skin, a self that is hyper-sensitive to its environment and neighbours. Having a skin enables us to operate in unsterile environments, because there is a barrier between our flesh and the environment around us, protecting us from most infections. The self needs a sort of skin too, a barrier between it and the environments in which it finds itself, enabling it to function in environments that would harm the self were it not so protected. The self without a skin will either be engaged in constant immune reaction against threats in its environment, will quarantine itself off from the environment, will seek to sterilize its environment, or will be broken down by its environment. Such a ‘pristine self’ must be exposed to nothing but affirmation and support and protected from all threats.

What would it mean for a self to have a ‘skin’? The ‘skin’ for the self is anything that enables the self to differentiate itself from its environment and other persons around it. The self’s skin could be a person’s robust agency, which is closely related to self-differentiation. It could be a secure, stable, and loving home that provides a sense of unthreatened belonging and acceptance at the heart of a person’s life, something immune to the assaults that the self might experience elsewhere. The skin of the self is formed by the many ways in which the self is distinguished from its neighbours. By the maintenance of temporal intervals between action and response. By physical space between people and between their communities. By spaces of solitude and retreat from socially saturated or emotionally charged environments. By a measure of segregation without general separation of the sexes, generations, communities, etc. By the differentiation of realms of life and activity from each other (e.g. work life from home life). Etc., etc.

It is easy to lament or bemoan the existence of highly sensitive selves, and there is a wealth of literature doing just that. Others, like Jacobs, highlight some key aspect of the dynamics of such persons. I think we should press the question further and ponder whether there might be contemporary social, cultural, and technological factors that are ‘fragilizing’ selves, thereby creating a situation in which ideologies of victimhood, extreme vulnerability, and hypo-agency have considerable traction.


The Technological Production of Fragilized Selves

An issue to which Jacobs’ piece didn’t give close enough attention is the close connection between our culture’s prevailing technological posture and the rise of the mythical posture as its obverse. As I’ve argued recently, contemporary society is powerfully formed by the essentially technological values of universalism, de-particularization, commensuration, and abstraction. It seems to me that such a regime fragilizes selves in a host of different ways, eroding, weakening, or destroying the conditions that selves need for self-differentiation, thereby creating a society that struggles to sustain robust and challenging interactions.

Our technological regime collapses distance through advanced communications and cheap mass transport. This both weakens our roots and the boundaries between communities, weakening communities themselves. A world of mass migration within and between countries produces detached individuals without secure belonging or given identities.

The extreme integration, fragmentation, and circulation of people and peoples by the modern economy produces highly pluralistic societies of increasingly atomized individuals, thereby intensifying certain antagonisms as each group feels that their space is threatened or encroached upon. The belonging of many people in such a society is highly tenuous, especially if they are seen as interlopers in others’ patrimony. The influx of other peoples to our nations and communities also fragilizes the peoplehood of those who have deep roots, encouraging the insecure reactivity of nationalist sentiments we are currently experiencing in the West.

When people are in the multicultural and highly pluralistic societies formed by liberalism, they will tend to feel besieged or constrained by the many other differing identities around them. Progressive values are in large measure a regime of politeness, deference, and inclusion designed to negotiate environments where we all have to live alongside people with whom we strongly differ in various ways (which is one of the reasons why progressive values tend to predominate in cosmopolitan cities, or in the less organic contexts of institutions such as universities or larger businesses, which bring people from a great many disparate groups together). By sacralising victimhood and vulnerability and stigmatizing judgment, exclusion, discrimination, intolerance, prejudice, ‘shaming’, etc., we might just be able to make it work.

It shouldn’t be hard to work out why highly pluralistic and ‘diverse’ societies really aren’t conducive to free speech and vigorous debate, and to speculate that, as our societies become even more diverse, free speech will become an ever-weaker value. The sense of a need for some form of non-aggression pact in such societies is considerable.

The universalism of the market de-particularizes persons and places, steadily scouring away those features that make one place different from another and devaluing and privatizing our deepest convictions. Public space is neutralized of particular values, becoming a realm of the universal values of technique. As traditional forms of differentiation weaken, the self becomes an increasingly performative one, needing to secure its own identity through its choices, self-expression, and bespoke identity. Yet such selves are brittle and vulnerable, and easily threatened by those of others.

Social media further fragilizes the self by abstracting it from the concreteness of its natural communities, local contexts, and its bodily condition, placing it into socially-saturated contexts of mutual surveillance, where it must constantly perform its identity and be subject to social judgment, with fewer places to which to retreat. The modern self is increasingly publicized by social media, exposing it and thinning the skin of its natural obscurity. Social media also undermines the differentiation between groups, persons, and their various contexts, while diminishing the mediating function of shared activities and contexts. It places persons on collision courses, by making natural social differentiation and belonging harder to attain. It collapses the distance between people, encouraging the social dynamics of the stampeding herd or the ‘viral’ spread of emotion or sentiment. The differentiation of time, space, and context is much harder to come by online. Differentiation of sex, age, office, and social status are all also undermined by social media.

One especially important result of this loss of differentiation is the collapse of the realm of agonistic interaction and the realm of communal belonging into each other, producing a sense of perpetual anxiety, social judgment, or besiegement. Everyone feels that they are under attack in the current environment.

A technological society also produces fragilized selves by weakening the social, communal, and familial bonds that exist between people. The weakening of the family and the breakdown of family culture produces a great many young people who are psychological vulnerable. They lack the security of an intact and stable home and strong and enduring community, so must seek psychological security elsewhere.


The Problem of Gender

It is important to recognize the significance of gender as part of this whole picture. Men and women typically relate quite differently to these matters. Our culture, like most human cultures, was historically built around a public realm that was essentially male. More domestic and communal realms were predominantly ordered around women and children, while the public realm was largely a realm of male struggle. Within this realm of male struggle, manly virtues were expected of participants: strength, mastery, courage, and honour.

Our public institutions almost invariably arise out of male spaces and interactions. Traditional honour culture was a male phenomenon, which had to be tamed in order to create a more peaceful public square, without duels, riots, and that sort of thing. To avoid the eruption of the male agonism of the public square into violence, a dignity culture had to be forged. Structures had to be provided to resolve disputes without violence and men needed to learn a code of tolerating a certain amount of unreasonable treatment without violent reaction or litigious response. Dignity culture existed to control the unruly excesses of agency within an agonistic male realm.

Over the last century, however, women have entered in large numbers into the realms created and ordered by male agonism. The result has been a steady yet radical transformation of their spaces, a transformation which is by no means complete. The rise of ‘victimhood culture’, described by Jason Manning and Bradley Campbell is difficult truly to understand without considering this huge change. Institutions that formerly existed primarily to keep the excessive agency of men from boiling over into violence have greatly increased in their number and size and increasingly play the more maternal role of nurturing and protecting vulnerable selves. While the paradigmatic individual of classical liberalism was the agentic, independent, and educated white male, the paradigmatic individual of progressive liberalism is the vulnerable woman, who is weak in her agency and dependent upon other agencies to ‘empower’ her.

It is important to recognize, for instance, that the advance of feminism has generally not occurred by means of true political agonism, but by means of petitioning other agencies to act on women’s behalf. A relationship between ‘empowering’ agencies and women cast as dependents upon their action is integral to the dynamics of most feminism, which is why the rise of women in public life and the rise of the managerial state and a sort of maternal capitalism—both of which stifle lesser agencies as they increase their power through taking on the mantle of women’s empowerment—can’t easily be separated.

Unwelcome though this point may be, I do not believe that society has found a sustainable and healthy way of maintaining an open and vigorous public realm in which men and women are participants in an undifferentiated fashion. While a masculine public realm can workably include the many women who can largely conform to its norm, a workable egalitarian ideal has yet to be demonstrated.

There are various problems that must be dealt with, relating to key differences between men and women on average (and, yes, there are exceptions, but the exceptions weigh little relative to the general tendencies). As individuals and as groups, men typically exert more direct power than women. They are more forceful and agonistic in their agency than women. They are less socially and physically vulnerable than women. They are more inclined to rougher interactions. Men are typically cast as combatants, while women are generally seen to be non-combatants and to be protected from the sort of treatment that to which men are exposed. Men are much ‘thing-oriented’ than women, who are much more ‘person-oriented’ than men. The effect of this particular difference can be seen in a host of areas, but it is significant here as those most sensitive to conflict and threat will largely be women, while men will tend to dominate movements concerned with the agonism of free speech.

It is not at all accidental that the ‘woke’ movement is a movement in which women are the leading voices and most committed participants. Nor is it surprising that its routine forms of engagement with opponents are those characteristic of the indirectness of female intrasexual competition: freezing them out, socially stigmatizing them, attacking their reputations, appealing to third parties to act on their behalf, leveraging social consensus against them, etc. Movements such as the New Atheists, by contrast, which valorize combative discourse, violation of stifling sensitivities, pursuit of truth over all else, the hard sciences over other disciplines, etc., are predictably overwhelmingly male, and it was to be expected that their key figures would move into anti-SJWism. The key gender differences at play here are to be seen even in the abstract contexts of the Internet, and lead to larger conflicts that play out in ways that accentuate gender differences.


Forming Complex Spaces

Nothing I’ve said in this post is something I’ve not said several times before. However, it can be helpful to be reminded of the social problem that we face.

Jacobs concludes his essay by highlighting the problem as he sees it. A point I’ve made before is that the possibility of the free exchange of ideas is itself dependent upon the existence of realms of common life and belonging. Vigorous ideological exchange needs to be buffered, lest it be experienced as an existential threat. The traditional realm of public discourse was a heterotopic male realm: a realm of male agonistic interaction set apart from other realms of society. Whether the parliamentary chamber, the law court, the debating chamber, or some other realm, the ‘free’ speech of these realms was generally carefully choreographed. People knew that effective discourse doesn’t merely happen naturally: it must be cultivated, its dynamics understood and regulated, and its participants carefully vetted.

Such past arrangements had important strengths, but also significant weaknesses, not least in the marginalization of women within or exclusion of women from much of the discourse of society. Given the differences between men and women, our institutions, which have been ordered around male discourse, need to change to accommodate increasing numbers of women within them. A pressing problem is that forms of discourse that are more typically male are often more congruent with their institutional ends. For instance, public discourse that does not have an agonistic character can easily produce leaders that cannot be strongly questioned and challenged. Societies built around the protection and empowering of the vulnerable can easily become oppressively conformist and destructive of people’s agency.

Here it is important to recognize that vigorous ideological exchange requires realms of secure belonging as its precondition. People who don’t feel secure or have a well-defined and differentiated self don’t think or discourse well. They lose their heads, act on instinct, or speak reactively, rather than in a responsive and considered fashion. Without well-differentiated contexts, people lack the space for reflection, meditation, and deliberation and are far more vulnerable to crowd dynamics or peer pressure. They cannot attain to a greater degree of objectivity as they cannot differentiate themselves from others and their environments enough to stand back and gain a clearer perspective upon them.

If such a person is stronger in agency and oriented to combat, they become reactively belligerent and antagonistic. The lost and angry boys on the Internet, who go around spoiling for fights, are an example of this problem. If a person has weaker agency, by contrast, they will tend to huddle closer to the herd and stampede when spooked. Whether it is the reactive antagonism of provocateurs or the reactive hypo-agency of the victimhood cults, such approaches reveal an unhealthy self.

How do we solve this problem? I believe it must start by giving people their space, by re-establishing differentiated yet interconnected realms and respecting our differences. It must involve valuing the differences between us. Male agonism, for instance, is hugely important for a healthy society, and must be given spaces to thrive and develop, without being undermined by those who feel vulnerable within it. Sometimes this will involve male-only spaces. Sometimes it will involve masculine spaces in which women who can work well in such contexts can also participate. Mutatis mutandis, the same should hold for women: they must be given room to thrive as women, and the realms created by such sociality must be given their full weight in determining the shape of society at large, without consigning them to a marginalized realm or cutting the sexes off from each other more generally. We must find ways to maintain the differences while improving the engagement between various communities, and exploring and developing commonalities.

A deeper attention to these matters, I believe, holds the potential to improve the health of many of our institutions. In discussing the importance of the agonism of our universities’ ‘free speech’, for instance, the dangers of an overemphasis upon agonism have easily been forgotten. Combative debate is hugely important, yet important as just one part of, and as dependent upon, a much larger practice of communal discourse.

Furthermore, it is easy to forget that the very agonism that is characteristic of a certain type of free speech is of a kind that can stifle the expression of many others, constraining their speech. Where they know that discourse will have a combative character, many people with less forceful or confident agency close down and don’t feel able to participate. The agonism is important, but it is no less important that it is limited to appropriate places and times, rather than treated as the universal norm. Certain crucially important ways of thinking are also prevented in highly agonistic environments, which push participants towards arguments that promise to overturn opposing positions or more deeply entrench one’s own. Yet we often also need to engage in imaginative and exploratory thought and more defeasible reasoning and the suspension or minimization of agonism is often necessary in order for this to occur.

Rather than approaching the organization of institutions such as the university as if they were universal machines to be fine-tuned, within which all individuals were to be included as interchangeable members, abstracted from their particularity, I believe that we need to appreciate ways in which each university is like a specific dance, which has to be carefully choreographed. To make such a dance work, you need to appreciate, value, and maintain both the differences and the commonalities between different people and groups, while also recognizing ways to elicit and explore the remarkable dynamics that can occur when they are brought into effective interactions. While this is complicated, it is far more likely to produce effective societies than approaches that collapse all of the differences between people.

Posted in Culture, Politics, Sex and Sexuality, Society | 12 Comments

Weightless Words on the World Wide Web

Guy Debord, writing in the 1960s, analysed the supplanting of the active and directly lived life of society by the ‘spectacle’, with which members of society passively identify and which they consume. Debord made clear that the spectacle—the mediation of social relations by images—isn’t merely some supplement to society, but that it lies at the heart of our society’s unreality.

I’ve discussed Debord’s work before in various places and have emphasized the ways in which the Internet, and social media in particular, reinforce and extend the dynamics he observed. On social media, the identification with the spectacle is redoubled, not least through the role played by the ‘second screen’. While the ‘first screen’ is the screen upon which we watch a film or TV show, the ‘second screen’ is the screen with which we share our responses and identifications with the images of the first screen on social media.

This ‘second screen’ tightens the spectacle’s control over us and increases our alienation from directly lived reality by further incorporating the self into the spectacle. In the realm of the spectacle, alienated from the solidity and weightiness of reality, the self is highly performative, defined almost entirely by its chosen self-expression and identifications, rather than by any given nature or belonging. The selves that result are fragile, reactive, and unstable.

In this realm, we are defined by appearances, by the images that we project of ourselves within the shared spectacle. You are defined, not by your behaviour over many years in the concrete world, by your family relations, or by your deep belonging within your community, but by the cultural artefacts you like and by the way you align yourself with your words. Whereas the dominance of appearance was necessarily constrained in the past by the sheer weight and immediacy of the concrete world in which we acted, the Internet, as a disembodied and virtual realm cut off from the concrete world, enables appearance to eclipse everything else.

I was brought to think about this again today when reflecting upon the amount of emotional and physical energy expended online in the analysis of, reaction to, and identification with various cultural artefacts, especially by Christians. I have yet to watch the film itself, so haven’t been looking out for them, but I must have seen at least fifty reviews or articles in response to The Last Jedi, a number of them written by Christians. I have encountered countless other reactions on social media and elsewhere.

The glutinous agglomeration of ‘takes’ that social media coughs up after the release of every major cultural product is a telling indication of just how closely we have come to identify with our entertainment consumption. This proliferation of takes reveals a sort of incontinence of speech, probably a result of the sapping of gravity from the realm of discourse and our disconnection from the world of action. When words weigh little they are easy to pronounce. When the online spectacle is our primary reality, what else is there to do but to speak incessantly and incestuously? Like a balloon filled with hot air and untethered from the ground, the solidity of the earth will gradually retreat from our view as we float higher and higher into the thin atmosphere of a realm forgetful of gravity and concreteness.

Where there is little concrete reality that we share in common, the importance of big movies and other such aspects of the spectacle as means of forging community is considerable. A film like The Last Jedi is a global phenomenon and, in the world of social media, it affords us a means of identifying with and against others by means of our shared consummation and various responses to it. Donald Trump is another such spectacle. One of the prominent ends of people’s performative responses on social media to his incompetent governance is the creation of community between people who have little else in common. The hostility to people who are not obsessively absorbed in and vocally preoccupied in this spectacle, illustrated in recent criticisms of Taylor Swift, can be quite revealing of how powerfully this spectacle dominates people’s minds.

If you want to understand the increasingly febrile obsession with global politics and entertainment media in our society, it will be difficult to do so without taking the part played by social media into account. Performative consummation of global politics and big entertainment events are primary means by which we can feel connected to and involved in a larger international community. Without this spectacle in common to obsess over, we wouldn’t have that much that we could all talk about. We would have to focus on more local and concrete issues in the communities we physically inhabit. And that would clearly be terrible.

I’ve been bewildered by the sheer strength of feeling that many ostensibly grown-up human beings can have about franchises such as Star Wars or the various movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both of which are essentially juvenile entertainment of somewhat uneven merit. I like many of these films, but the vehemence of many people’s responses to them suggests that our consummation of pop culture is playing an unhealthily large role in the formation and expression of our identities.

This unhealthy fixation on entertainment media is also seen in the increased politicization of our films, especially among modern progressives. For millennial progressives and members of the generations that succeed them, for instance, representation of women and minorities in entertainment media has become an obsession. Every cultural artefact will be pored over, with the representation of each identity grouping scrutinized closely. This is as true for many of the people reacting against the ways that pop culture is being shaped by ‘political correctness’: many of them just want a different form of politicization, rather than to break our unhealthy cultural obsession with entertainment media that drives such demands. If you are complaining that a film-maker has ruined your childhood, perhaps it is time to grow up.

As a result of these obsessions, contemporary pop culture artefacts are often scrupulously alert to such issues, concerned to squeeze in as many identity groups as possible, to depict them favourably, and to conceive of themselves as emancipatory gestures and forms of resistance to prevailing power structures. As a result, political and social justice subtexts are seldom far beneath the surface of a modern pop cultural artefact. And in so politicizing their cultural output, their producers are only responding to the ways in which their artefacts are being consumed.

The fact that this involves departures from the character of concrete reality that become ludicrous as they assume conspicuousness in the aggregate—such as the ‘strong female character’ trope—is irrelevant. The spectacle isn’t supposed to resonate with concrete reality; the spectacle is people’s reality. This is one of the key reasons why identities behave so weirdly nowadays. Emancipatory gestures on the screen are profoundly significant for people who spend much of their free time in front of screens, so much so that they often eclipse concrete forms of freedom or bondage. To call this escapism would be to miss the fact that this alienated reality largely is our society, not an escape from a concrete, grounded, and weighty society that still exists intact.

All of this brings me to the phenomenon of Christian commentary on and engagement with entertainment media, politics, and the social spectacle more generally. While there are doubtless things to be gained from reflection upon our cultural artefacts, I fear that most of the effort that Christians expend in their ‘takes’ and responses to these things merely serve as expressions and intensifications of our hopeless absorption in the society of the spectacle. In these Christian ‘takes’ and cultural commentary, we seek morally to metabolize a specious entertainment culture to which we have become hopelessly addicted. We spend our days as glued to and preoccupied by the entertainment on our screens as everyone else and watch the same things as everyone else. We just produce Christian takes at the end of it. While film and TV analysis can be illuminating, for instance, much of it is currently enabling our collective failure to grow up.

And entertainment media is merely a more intense manifestation of the more general phenomenon of the dominance of the spectacle. For Christians, this can involve a preoccupation with incessant theological or political discourse and posturing, especially online, in which an excess of fine words supplants the concrete reality of Christian discipleship. This is a real danger for many of us—I speak to myself here before anyone else—yet it is a danger that we seldom register as clearly as we must. As I’ve argued in the past, we are all almost unavoidably virtue-signallers online—our words are only lightly tethered to concrete reality and hence increasingly serve primarily as means of self-identification and alignment.

Posting something like this online, the danger is that it will merely be caught up in the same dynamic. People will like and share it on social media, thereby displaying something about their identities and values, while continuing to participate in the spectacle more or less unquestioningly. Perhaps some will write their own appreciative or critical takes in response, and we will all continue the games of ideological alignment that we play out every other day.

If anything of what I’ve said in this post rings true in your personal experience, I would request that you refrain from the instinctive action of sharing it, a pseudo-action which easily substitutes for making a genuine change. By all means share it, but please don’t do so until you have taken an initial and determined step—just one step, whatever that step might be—to assess, to arrest, and to break the habits that sustain the power of the spectacle in your own life. The alternative is merely adding to the vast multitude of weightless words that fill social media. And what use does Christ have for that?

Posted in Culture, Ethics, On the web, Politics, Society, The Blogosphere | 24 Comments

2017 Retrospective

On holiday on the Isle of Skye

As it is de rigueur for the active blogger and as is my own habit, I am ending the year with a retrospective. 2017 has been an odd year in many respects; looking back over it, it seems rather disjointed, like several parts that don’t quite constitute a whole. No doubt this is largely because much of it was spent on the move. Also, as my family’s Christmas plans have been postponed for a week or so, this Christmas season feels unusual.

St Oswald’s Church, Lumiere Festival

My level of blogging and article-writing this year was diminished from 2016, partly on account of book-writing, but also because much more of my time was spent speaking, teaching, reading, and answering questions on Curious Cat. Despite this, this year my blog had more traffic than it has received in any previous year. Whereas last year I wrote fifty-nine guest posts or articles, this year I only wrote only twenty-five, even though they were generally longer. We only recorded twenty-three episodes of Mere Fidelity this year too, down from thirty-eight in 2016. I did, however, have two books published with articles of mine in them, wrote a chapter for another book yet to be published, and largely finished writing two full-length books. I also appeared in a number of videos for the Davenant Institute, for whom I taught over the summer.

At Lake Coeur D’Alene

The topics I’ve written about have generally been typical of those which I have tackled over the past several years. Biblical interpretation, technology, society and politics, and issues of gender and sexuality have all been prominent.

Lumiere Festival

Biblical theology continues to be my primary passion, even though it may not always seem that way from my online writing. This is because the vast majority of my offline writing is in biblical theology, and my online writing is where I share some of my other thoughts. Much of my writing in biblical theology also relates to themes that I am exploring in forthcoming books, giving you a taste of the sort of interpretation that I do within those.


In January I argued that our ecclesiology should be grounded in the narrative of the New Testament, not merely in the epistles and overly didactic sections of the text, demonstrating the significance of the event of Pentecost in this regard. One of the highlights of my reading from the year was Richard Hays’ scintillating Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. I reviewed that book here and was also privileged to be able to interview Hays this year. Last week, I explored the connections between the birth of Christ and his death and resurrection in this article on his ‘twin nativities’. I also wrote on the meaning of the term ‘gospel’.

Durham Cathedral, Lumiere Festival

I wrote nine posts in the Politics of Scripture series this year, tackling a range of different passages: Genesis 2:15-17 and 3:17 on the Fall of humanity; Genesis 12:1-4a on the blessing of Abraham; 1 Kings 3:5-12 on Solomon’s dream; Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-15, and Matthew 21:33-46 on Israel as God’s vineyard; Ezekiel 33:7-11 on Ezekiel as watchman; Luke 2:1-20 on the sign given to the shepherds; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 on community formed by the communication of truth; 1 Peter 2:2-10 on the stumbling stone; and 2 Peter 3:8-15a on the coming of the Day of the Lord.

In Memphis

On the theology front, the final three parts of my series on the eternal subordination of the Son debate were posted over on Reformation21. I also addressed the subject of creedally-defined orthodoxy.

In the woods in South Carolina

I wrote in several places on issues related to sex, gender, and sexuality and reviewed a couple of books in the area. I addressed the threat of nature to progressive science. I got caught up in the controversy surrounding the Nashville Statement. I also explored ways in which technology transforms our understanding of gender, writing on the subject of artificial wombs and on the challenges that the modern ordering of society poses for motherhood. After the death of Hugh Hefner, I wrote an article studying the dynamics of the sexual culture he championed. Last week, I wrote a post on the viral short story “Cat Person”, presenting it as illustrative of the struggle to navigate the intersubjective realm of desire in contemporary society (I really ought to have titled that post “Schrödinger’s Cat Person”—very poor showing on my part).

Eilean Donan Castle

The technological, social, and institutional structures of our discourse continue to be a matter of concern and interest for me and have often been addressed in my writing over the year. Towards the end of January I précised much of my prior writing on the subject in a retrospective post. Earlier that month a lengthy interview with me was posted, in which I discuss the effect of social media and smartphones in particular upon us. In April I commented on the way that the Internet transforms the functioning of authority in the Church, and changes the way that the sexes function in discourse. In a piece occasioned by controversies surrounding speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, I discussed some of the underlying causes of the stifling of discourse in the university, themes that I also addressed in other pieces such as this one. More recently, I expressed my concern about the ways in which social media undermine or substitute for our agency and that of other more local institutions and persons. Themes of technology’s impact upon our thought and lives were also prominent in my Theopolis Institute post on the subject of the transformation of Scripture as a result of developments in technologies of the text.


The wisdom and ethical principles by which we are to understand, inhabit, and navigate our hyper-connected and anxious society were common issues raised within my posts. I produced a number of posts in which I sought to characterize liberal society and its dynamics. I maintained the contingency of liberal society and its inability to found itself upon its own values. I wrote an exceedingly long post in which I tried to unpick the logics of the modern mind and reveal the ways in which they differ from more traditional ways of perceiving and approaching reality. The matter of value lies behind many of our issues in modern society: I tackled that in a guest post on The Kitchen Table a month ago. Over the year, I addressed the dangerous lurch towards the justification of violence against our opponents, the difficulties for young people seeking to attain maturity, the danger of victimhood culture, discussed the way dysfunctional dynamics shape things such as our arguments over immigration (my blog post from this year that received the most hits), and gave counsel on how to engagement responsibly when people around us are losing their heads.

A sleepy American friend

On Mere Fidelity we tackled a number of stimulating topics over the course of the year, and passed our hundredth episode. We also began a series of episodes in which we are reading through Augustine’s Confessions together. Some of my favourite episodes of the year include our discussion of James K.A. Smith’s Awaiting the King with Davey Henreckson, our Reformation episode with Carl Trueman, our episode with Rod Dreher on The Benedict Option, our episode on ethics and technology with Michael Sacasas, and our episode with Yuval Levin on The Fractured Republic.

On Lake Lanier in South Carolina

In addition to my regular blogging and podcasting, I also answered almost 1,000 questions on Curious Cat, writing almost 155,000 words in responses. I collated sets of questions in a series of posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Within these responses, I addressed a host of issues, from those relating to exegesis, theology, and ecclesiology, to personal questions, science-related questions, questions about society, technology, ethics, sex and gender, and many other matters besides.

In Scotland

Posted in Just for Fun, My Doings | 6 Comments

The Politics of the Shepherd’s Sign

Merry Christmas to you all!

A reflection of mine on the Christmas story has just been published on Political Theology Today.

Luke’s account of the shepherds is the story of a wondrous and remarkable sign, reminiscent of the sign of the burning bush, anticipatory of the sign of the empty tomb, and revelatory of the promised arrival of the Davidic Shepherd. The shepherd Moses’ burning bush anticipated the greater sign of the burning mountain of Sinai, as YHWH’s presence later descended upon it, appearing to the people Moses shepherded out of Egypt. The wrapped child in the manger seen by the Bethlehem shepherds anticipated the greater sign of the unwrapped linen garments in the empty tomb to the apostolic shepherds.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted in Bible, Guest Post, Luke, NT, NT Theology, OT, Politics, Theological | Leave a comment