N.T. Wright on Heaven and Earth, Male and Female

Michelangelo - Creation of Eve (detail)

Michelangelo – Creation of Eve (detail)

N.T. Wright recently made some controversial statements in opposition to same-sex marriage. He begins his argument against same-sex marriage by observing the dangers of the sudden and prescriptive redefinition of key terms, remarking upon examples of extensive attempts to transform society through the changing of its language by groups such as the Nazis and Communists. Wright argues that an attempt to change culture through the changing of its language is occurring in our day with the redefinition of marriage.

Wright clearly wants to alert people to the dangerous company that supporters of same-sex marriage find themselves when they prescriptively redefine key cultural terms and make arguments about being on the ‘right side of history’. He is clearly not suggesting that advocates of same-sex marriage are just like Nazis, that they are driven by the same ideology, or that their ideas have the same sort of destination. However, certain political and rhetorical strategies should set off alarm bells.

This said, when I first heard Wright’s remarks, I thought them quite ill-advised. The point that Wright was trying to make was an important and a sound one and the Nazis and Communists may be the most obvious examples of attempts to change culture through the official change of language, but bringing them forward as examples has a proven tendency to backfire. Even where there is no actual reductio ad Hitlerum taking place, introducing Nazis and Communists into a conversation will almost invariably raise the temperature.

This is especially the case when, as I have argued in the past, people increasingly tend to understand texts in terms of the impression that they leave, rather than in terms of a literate comprehension of and careful engagement with the logic of their arguments. While such reading of texts is profoundly deficient, in its hyper-sensitivity to elements of rhetoric and imagery it does not entirely go astray. These are dimensions of texts too and, while pieces like this rightly observe the failure on the part of some of Wright’s critics fairly to represent his arguments, we should not paper over the problems in the unguarded way that he illustrated them.

However, my purpose here is to respond to Sarah Moon’s criticism of N.T. Wright. Within her post, Moon argues that in opposing same-sex marriage, Wright’s ‘bigotry’ causes him to be inconsistent with his own theology. Moon claims that, in arguing for the importance of the binaries of Genesis—in particular heaven and earth and male and female—Wright is flying in the face of his own argument in his book Surprised By Hope, in which he attacks the ‘heaven/earth dichotomy’. Moon writes:

When I left fundamentalism, N.T. Wright introduced me to the beautiful vision of a world where binary systems are dismantled in favor of a celebration of relationship and diverse creation. His work inspired me to seek out other theology that dismantled the “heaven/earth” dichotomy–a search that eventually led me to the discovery of queer theology.

This claim seems to take a particular appealing thread of Wright’s argument, rip it out from the wider fabric of his position, absolutize it and form a new fabric around it, then use it as a basis to blame Wright for his inconsistency. A ‘dichotomy’ is a rather different sort of thing from a ‘binary’: Wright attacks a dichotomy between heaven and earth, yet clearly retains a binary.

Furthermore, the notion that opposition to one dichotomy or ‘binary system’ must entail opposition to binary systems in general is a great example of lazy thinking. In The New Testament and the People of God (252-256), Wright develops an extensive taxonomy of dualisms/dualities, observing the dangers of conflating all forms of dualism/duality under a general disapprobation. Different dualisms/dualities have to be handled differently, some affirmed, others qualified, and many more resisted. The attempt to characterize Wright as a crypto-deconstructivist in his views on binaries will always founder upon a careful reading of his texts.

Let’s hear what Wright has to say on the matter at hand:

Heaven and earth, it seems, are not after all poles apart, needing to be separated for ever when all the children of heaven have been rescued from this wicked earth. Nor are they simply different ways of looking at the same thing, as would be implied by some kinds of pantheism. No: they are different, radically different; but they are made for each other in the same way (Revelation is suggesting) as male and female. And, when they finally come together, that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is: a creational sign that God’s project is going forwards; that opposite poles within creation are made for union, not competition; that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s will for creation.

That quotation is from page 116 of Surprised By Hope, the book upon which Moon rests her claims about Wright’s inconsistency. There are some key points that should be registered here:

  1. Wright explicitly compares male and female with heaven and earth.
  2. He attacks a heaven and earth dichotomy—they ‘are not … poles apart’—and, by implication, a male and female dichotomy.
  3. He maintains a radical difference between heaven and earth and implies that male and female are also clearly different.
  4. Heaven and earth, like male and female, are nonetheless ‘made for each other’.
  5. The union of heaven and earth is compared to the wedding of a male and female.
  6. This ‘wedding’ is a ‘creational sign that God’s project is going forwards; that opposite poles within creation are made for union, not competition; that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s will for creation.’

Implicit within these points is very robust opposition to same-sex marriage. The male and female binary is clearly affirmed and upheld. This binary stands in opposition to the sexual ‘spectrum’ that Moon and Alan Hooker uphold. This binary finds its meaning in union: the telos of the clear difference between the sexes is most clearly manifested in the bringing together of male and female in marriage, which expresses in nuce the bringing together of the two halves of the human race more generally. Men and women were ‘made for each other’. Men were not made for men, nor women for women. Finally, God’s purpose is seen in fruitfulness, rather than the fruitlessness of same-sex unions. Wright’s allusion to the fact that the blessing upon humanity is one that focuses upon the fruitfulness granted to the union of the male and female binary underlines his point even further.

Within Wright’s approach the marriage of a man and a woman is a ‘creational sign’ of something far greater: the eschatological union of heaven and earth, of Christ and his Church. Marriage is a symbol of the fact that men and women were made for each other in their differences (a point that is revealed in the narrative of Genesis 1-3), of the union that is the telos of Christ and Church and heaven and earth, and of the fruitfulness that is God’s purpose for the creation. The redefinition of marriage attacks a central symbol of the human race and of God’s purposes for humanity and creation. This is one of the reasons why sexual relations between persons of the same sex are treated with such seriousness in Scripture: such relations are seen as an assault upon the image of God as male and female and upon marriage between man and woman as the ‘icon’ of humanity.

When same-sex relations are presented as ‘marriages’ the sin is compounded by a parody and distortion of the symbol of God’s creative purpose and order. As Richard Hays has suggested, homosexual acts are seen as an ‘antisacrament’ of rebellion in Scripture, a celebration of the breaking down of the created order. I believe that Wright would join him in seeing same-sex marriage and Christian marriage as existing in fundamental and inescapable antagonism as opposing visions of human nature and the purpose of creation.

Same-sex marriage eviscerates the Christian vision of God’s creational purpose and of the goodness of the male/female binary, as Wright understands them. For the glorious union in which the two halves of humanity are blessed with fruitfulness, it substitutes a fruitless relationship between two persons of a single sex, achieving neither the union nor its attendant blessing of the outflowing of life. Wright’s points here show exactly what is at stake in the same-sex marriage debates.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Controversies, Creation, Culture, Ethics, Genesis, N.T. Wright, OT, Sex and Sexuality, Society, The Blogosphere, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

81 Responses to N.T. Wright on Heaven and Earth, Male and Female

  1. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    I’ve been mulling over our exchange about Richard Beck in your Open Mike thread.

    What a lot of progressive Christians seem to mean when they reject gnostic views of the body is simply that they reject the idea that the body is evil. But this does not necessarily mean that they affirm the goodness of the body in the way that an orthodox Christian would. The body is ‘good’ only in so far as it serves as an instrument for subjective human purposes, such as, for example, forming relationships between different subjective human consciousnesses. But it does not have any inherent meaning, such as ‘goodness,’ in itself. Such meanings are entirely imposed from without, by human will.

    While in many ways the Gnostic view of the body as evil is itself profoundly wrongheaded and evil, it does at least have this good: it does assign to the body an inherent meaning. It is an genuinely spiritual theology of the body. So, while, in a way, it is good that progressives are abandoning that false judgment of the body as evil, the motivation seems to to drain any inherent spiritual meaning from the cosmos at all.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      The affirmation of same sex relationships in progressive spirituality is an attack on meaning, at least in regard to the external world. And once dissociate meaning from the cosmos, God become a Big Blah hardly different from our own subjective feelings and the external world reduces to either an illusion or a meaningless instrument for fulfilling our subjective desires.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Interestingly, poets, and by this I mean real poets, like Percy Shelley, tend to go the gnostic route, if they want to simultaneously maintain their modernist politics. No poet is going to see the universe as meaningless, so, if it is conflict with the desires of the autonomous self, then it must be evil.

        See the entire critical corpus of Harold Bloom.

    • That is a very perceptive point. Also, any advocacy of a natural ‘meaning’ of the body that might resist the will of such persons is typically presented as evil, so it isn’t far removed from Gnosticism in that respect.

    • DavidA says:

      As a progressive, who is also very concerned with the redefinition of language regarding marriage, I think the “inherent spiritual meaning” of a body-positive ethic is inherent in the Incarnation itself. The Incarnation is God’s forever stamp on the value of the body in His eyes in that He became a human person.

      Even though Walt Whitman was not a Christian, his presentation of body-positive language was couched in justice — in other words, only when we begin to see the body as sacred will we treat it as sacred. For Walt, that included the bodies of other people. It’s very easy to abuse a thing which (consciously or subconsciously) we believe has little sacred within it. It’s a highly positive & even “cosmic” meaning when coupled with the faith (especially Romans 8).

      My point is only that there are a great many progressives with a solid theology of the body.

  2. Wade McKenzie says:

    I think you do a good job here, Alastair, of lending further depth to the rational arguments against homosexuality. And the issue really is homosexuality or sodomy simpliciter, not homosexual “marriage”, which is as you say “a [compounded] parody and distortion of the symbol of God’s creative purpose and order.”

    One of the problems I have, however, with the sort of argument that Mr. Wright is making here is that it seems to me to be a utilitarian argument. In other words, we are taking a risk of destabilizing society by redefining marriage. Ergo, let’s not do that. But whether or not there is any risk at all of destabilizing society is, from a purely theological standpoint, irrelevant. Sodomy is base, ignoble, wrong and perverse–period. Homosexuals are base and ignoble persons, wrongdoers, perverts. No society ought to tolerate homosexual sodomy regardless of whether or not the consequences of so doing would be harmful or helpful to the peace and stability of the social order.

    Ms. Moon makes a reference to some monstrous thing she calls “queer theology” (i.e. pervert theology). This is a perfect example of the devolution of the human mind into the cesspit of animalism and indecency. Speaking just for myself, the imperative of our time is not to find some sort of accommodation with “queer theologians” such as Ms. Moon, it is rather to separate ourselves from these odious people.

    • Phil says:

      Wow. Just wow.

    • I don’t agree that Wright’s argument is just a utilitarian one. His focus is upon meaning and its loss, not just outcomes.

      I also strongly disagree with the way that you speak of gay persons here. I think that attention to Scripture and the phenomena in question will encourage more careful and reserved ways of speaking, while maintaining the seriousness of sexual relations between persons of the same sex and the sinfulness of the attempts to rationalize this in terms of Scripture. If people truly understood the biblical meaning of the acts in question and engaged in them with complete wilfulness and rebellion notwithstanding, perhaps it would be more justified. However, I do not believe that is the case here.

      • Wade McKenzie says:

        Alastair, you can’t possibly maintain that “attention to” the Scripture that mandates death for homosexuals and declares unambiguously that no sodomite will enter heaven “will encourage more careful and reserved ways of speaking.”

        I realize it isn’t quite as simple as denouncing sodomy and leaving it at that–but a book, the Holy Bible, that pronounces a solemn death penalty over sodomy in one part of its length and a grave eternal damnation in another is not a book that is consonant with the (false and pernicious) terms of contemporary discourse.

        The apostle Paul declares at the beginning of Romans that when a people refuses to honor the creator God, He permits them to descend into the morass of sodomy and lesbianism that they might be defiled thereby. The apostle was speaking within a society that, to some extent, tolerated both sodomy and pedophilia. He upheld these phenomena as the desecration of that society. This is no basis on which to have a respectful engagement with homosexuals.

        We shouldn’t be seeking a respectful engagement with pedophiles (or should we? I say no, no, no.) and I contend it should be no different with homosexuals. Absolute opposition to homosexuality is an inalterable principle of our Christian and Biblical heritage. Homosexuality is wrong, wrong, wrong and I couldn’t care less that anybody rebukes me for saying so.

  3. ‘As Richard Hays has suggested, homosexual acts are seen as an ‘antisacrament’ of rebellion in Scripture, a celebration of the breaking down of the created order’

    That’s a very good way of putting it.

  4. whitefrozen says:

    I don’t think I disagree with either Wright or you on this issue, but the form of Wright’s arguments merit attention. I definitely agree with your bit about ‘impressions’, and how people read/unerstand texts through that.

    I was wondering when Wright would speak out on an issue like this in the manner he did. I don’t think he knows how to be in a non-reactive or non-polemic mode – I actually think it’s just ingrained into his thinking at this point. While you’re right that he’s no comparing people who support gay marriage to Nazis, there are probably 5 people in the world who won’t take it that way, and, for all his conflict with more conservative Christians (Piper, etc) he’s likely going to be somewhat marginalized for statements like this as just another conservative. Though I find the discomfort among the liberal/progressives who thought he was one of them rather amusing.

    • Wright’s position on this subject is already very well known. He has tackled the subject in his commentaries, took a very strong disciplinary line as a bishop, has publicly spoken out against the Christian justification of homosexual relations and SSM. If people aren’t really aware of his position, they haven’t been paying attention: Wright’s views on the subject have been publicized in national media, not just in academic books.

      • whitefrozen says:

        I knew his views on marriage were more well-known, but I would guess that people haven’t been paying attention or simply don’t care, at least on this side of the pond. There seems to be some genuine surprise with, if not his views, his forcefulness with which he states them. I do suspect, as I said above, that his comments like these most recent ones may marginalize him.

      • Quite possibly. Wright is more of a known quantity on this side of the pond and doesn’t have quite the same cult following as in the US. In the US he is far more susceptible to misrepresentation by people who abstract him from his context and churchmanship and presume that, in his challenges to traditional evangelicals, he must be on board with everything else that they hold. American evangelicals’ treatment of Bonhoeffer or Lewis is another good example of this.

        I suspect that Wright also benefits—as a number of us do—from an unhealthy American evangelical habit to romanticize theology that is carried out in an English accent. When received in such a manner, figures such as Wright are given an unrealistic profile, and are easily transformed into symbols of people’s ideals. If Wright were a theologian in an American church context, he would be received somewhat more critically and would be less vulnerable to idealization or demonization.

  5. Nathan Barnes says:

    “I firmly believe that to say humans are not the be all and end all of God’s creation, its telos, is queer—defying common tropes found inside and outside of Christianity. In a queer reading of Genesis 1.1-2.4, God in Godself is the telos. God is the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega..”

    With the last bit, he’s exactly correct. He even nails the Christological telos of creation with “Alpha and Omega”. The odd thing, is that he seems to be specifically denying that Christocentric angle, even as he, alluding to Colossians 1:15, says things like “The ‘image of God’, the tselem [LXX εἰκόνα], is bodied.”

    Of course, we need to read LXX “κατακυριεύσατε” in Genesis 1:28 in light of “κατακυριεύουσιν” in Matthew 20:25, and remember that the the lordship in Genesis 1 consists in Adam “giving his life as a ransom for many.”

    The allusions to the Irenean corpus continues when he says:

    “Humanity is an(other) embodiment of deity. The word tselem is also used in Genesis 5 of Adam’s son Seth, who we are told is created in his father’s image (v. 3). The Gods who say, ‘Let us make humankind…’ demonstrate that the heavenly realm is characterized by polybodied divinity.”

    However, although this sort of language can easily be found in Ireneaus, it shows up when Ireneaus is describing the Valentinians.

  6. Nathan Barnes says:

    Also, he’s correct that humans can “swarm”.

    “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and swarmed, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.”

    But I don’t think that’s quite what he wants the word to mean.

    • On the teeming/swarming issue, it is probably worth distinguishing a number of dimensions from which we can view humanity. Humanity is:

      1. A kind. A particular sort of creature, made in God’s image. ‘God created man in his own image…’
      2. A living being. As Adam sums up the race in himself as its singularly created head and source. ‘…in the image of God he created him…’
      3. A race. A population of persons descending from others through procreation. ‘…male and female he created them.’
      4. A host. Finally, humanity is a vast multitude of persons of a single kind, descended from a single head by means of procreation.

      It seems to me that Alan wants to stress the fourth sense and minimize the others, which would each appear to place pressure upon his approach, with their privileging of norms and relations between men and women.

  7. Some might be interested in this comment, which I left beneath Sarah Moon’s post, in response to these thoughts:

    1. Sarah spoke of Wright’s rejection of heaven/earth and male/female ‘dichotomies’. I completely agree with her on this point. However, she presumed that this was equivalent to the rejection of heaven/earth and male/female ‘binaries’ (or dualities). She didn’t adequately distinguish between a dichotomy and a binary: they are rather different sorts of things. Wright rejects the first in the cases of heaven/earth and male/female, but upholds the second.

    2. Wright tackles the issues of dualisms/dualities in detail in The New Testament and the People of God (252-256). There he makes the point that people who challenge ‘dualism’ fail to distinguish between the many different types of dualism (he also suggests the term ‘dualities’) that exist, some of which have merit and others which don’t. The sorts of points that you are making about exclusionary binaries and binary oppositions are more typically made by post-structuralist thinkers. Wright, however, in his limited engagement with post-structuralist thought, distinguishes himself from it. He has no general polemic against binaries.

    3. The concept of binaries brought into union is definitely present in Wright. It is, in fact, Wright’s point. However, for such a union of binaries to exist, we need to recognize the binaries to begin with. We would also have to recognize the existence of a union between the two. I don’t think that Sarah is doing either. For Sarah, binary categories seem to be nullified from the outset, not fulfilled in union. Sarah’s sexual spectrum doesn’t seem to function as a union of male and female so much as its denial, a ‘neither-nor’ rather than an ‘either-or’ or a ‘both-and’. Arguing for things that are ‘neither one nor the other’ is not the same thing as arguing for a union of two in one.

    4. There is also the question of what union actually looks like. As I have already suggested, Sarah doesn’t really seem to teach ‘union’ as such. Rather, her emphasis seems to lie upon the blurring of all boundaries, with no real account of the union of binaries at all. Yet, just as the Christian tradition has given considerable attention to the binaries, so it has given considerable attention to the form of their unions. Male and female are united in the one flesh union of marriage. As male and female are, as it were, two halves of a single ‘reproductive system’, they find union sexually and also in their offspring, in whom they receive the blessing of fruitfulness and a fuller realization of the one flesh union that they share. They also find union in their broader interlocking vocations. For Sarah, however, no such male-female binary exists at the outset and she would probably blanch at the cisheterosexism of the form of the binary and union spoken of in Scripture.

    In her post, Sarah brings forward such things as the incarnation as an example of the negation of binaries. Here I am sure that it does take a ‘both-and’ form in her understanding. However, the union of God and man in Christ isn’t just a blurring or collapsing of difference. The Chalcedonian Definition is crucial here: ‘…acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ.’

    Similar things could be said about the union envisaged between male and female and heaven and earth in Scripture. The binaries aren’t just dissolved or negated. The new creation is a ‘new heavens and a new earth’, not just a confused amalgam of the two, let alone some reality in which the duality of heaven and earth even in principle is negated a priori. The heavens and earth are brought into a fertile marriage, with no ‘dichotomizing’ of the two, but in which the binary still exists in some form.

    5. The sort of blurring of the boundary between day and night that you describe—much as the blurring of the boundary between land and sea on the seashore that Sarah describes—doesn’t do away with the binary. Most of the time we are dealing with things that are fairly obviously one or the other. Nor does a blurring of a boundary really establish a union. A union is much more than this.

    A ‘both-and’ relationship dramatically undersells the sort of union envisaged between male and female in Scripture. Marriage isn’t just an inclusive set or a blurring of male and female into a dipolar spectrum, denying any male-female dimorphism. The union between male and female in marriage is one in which male and female transcend themselves, becoming part of something greater. Male and female—the two halves of humanity—together become the symbol of humanity as a whole and the symbol of Christ and the Church. Male and female together form a sexual union as bodies are united to become a single mating pair, in which two bodies unite as part of a single system (which is something that no two persons of a single sex can do). The sexual union of marriage unites body and person as male and female achieve the natural end of their sexed bodies in a faithful and exclusive union of persons. Male and female also unite as they bear offspring in the image of their union and as a family and community naturally grows out of the private sexual bond between them. One of the reasons why Wright and others so firmly oppose same-sex marriage is precisely because it denigrates this union of immense significance and blessing by relating it to relationships that cannot achieve such union at all. A dramatic forgetfulness or ignorance of the mystery and nature of marriage has to occur for such an equation to be made.

    [6. As a completely tangential quibble, I would interpret Genesis 3:8 very differently. The text describes Adam and Eve hearing ‘the sound/voice/thunder of the Lord God walking up and down in the garden’ (the same form of the verb can be found in reference to God’s theophanic presence in Israel’s midst in Deuteronomy 23:14 and 2 Samuel 7:6) and refers to the ‘ru‘ach of the yom’. ‘Cool of the day’ is a rather unlikely translation of this expression (the ‘wind of the day’ could just as easily be a harsh warm wind in the middle of the day). Before Genesis 3:8, ru‘ach—‘wind’, ‘breath’, ‘Spirit’—has only previously been used in 1:2, where it refers to the Spirit of God. I think that it is more likely that we should read this as God being heard walking about in the garden ‘as the Spirit of the storm’ (yom also carries this meaning). The ru‘ach was probably not a cool and refreshing breeze, but a terrifying commotion caused by God’s storm-chariot of judgment moving about in the garden. Hearing the thunder of God in this mighty storm, Adam and Eve know that they faced a dreadful reckoning. All of this said, however, the point is just a nerdy aside, and of little to no consequence to the issues under discussion.]

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      I was going to suggest God-man as yet another of those pesky binaries. I mean really, isn’t it just a continuum . . .

    • And a further comment in response to this:

      Scripture presents male and female as the norm. It also recognizes the existence of exceptions. For instance, Jesus speaks of ‘eunuchs’ who were ‘born thus from their mother’s womb’ in Matthew 19:12, most likely referring to intersexed persons. Such persons are exceptions but not negations of the male-female binary (much as it is completely appropriate to say that human beings have the power of sight, despite the fact that some are born blind). They may typically be exceptions to the vocation of marriage, but, in accepting their state as a calling, they can devote themselves as celibate persons to the service of the kingdom of God, in which they are welcomed as equals (Matthew 19:10-12). The exceptions are not rejected, but they are recognized as exceptions. The exceptions do not constitute a competing norm of their own, nor do they negate the norm that exists.

      As for the status of the exceptions, this depends upon the exception under discussion. Many exceptions are clearly a result of the fact that we live in an imperfect world and are not seen as a direct product of God’s good creation. When a child is born blind, this is not a good thing. When a child is born with a medical condition that will lead to its early death, this is not a good thing. When a child is born with ambiguous genitalia, this is not a good thing. When a person has a natural inclination towards paedophilia and can’t escape it, no matter how desperately they long to do so, this is not a good thing. The persons themselves are good, of course, persons made in God’s image and loved by him. The traits that render them exceptions can become sites of vocation and blessing. This does not mean, however, that the traits themselves are good things in and of themselves.

      My points about the union between man and woman were not about ‘law’ so much as about reality as God created it. My point wasn’t that two men or two women are not permitted to form a marital union, but that they are constitutionally incapable of forming a marital union in the sense that a man and a woman can, and in the sense that Scripture speaks of it. It doesn’t matter how much they want to do so. Same-sex sexual relations are not a ‘union’ in the sense that relations between a man and a woman are, whether or not we think that they are ‘bad’.

      Where the disobedience comes in is when exceptions refuse to recognize themselves as such and seek to break down the norm, re-establishing it around themselves. So, for instance, returning to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19, the exceptional ‘eunuchs’ are recognized, affirmed, and blessed. However, marriage, which is designed around the male-female norm (verses 4-6), is something from which Jesus presents them as typically excluded, whether by natural condition, human action, or personal vocation. For one reason or another they typically cannot or will not achieve the union of marriage and so abstain from marriage and sexual relations. If they were to insist upon the equal right to marry, much as in the case of same-sex marriage, marriage itself would be compromised and degraded in its significance.

      Marriage is not just about a bond of commitment or love between two persons in nature and Scripture, but is a union that has a symbolic value, a theological significance, a social function, a biological capacity, and procreative consequences that transcend the man and woman within it, making us participants in something far greater than ourselves. For a same-sex relationship to claim the title of ‘marriage’ for itself is a violation of and attack upon this.

      Persons who by reason of the nature of their sexual desires feel psychologically incapable of personally functioning within the male-female ‘pattern’ of marriage are not forced by ‘law’ to do so. However, they are called—like the rest of us—to honour marriage (cf. Hebrews 13:4) and to avoid fornication, reserving sexual relations for the context of the marriage bed. Fornication—chiefly involving sexual relations outside of marriage—is a violation of the pattern, not just an exception to it.

      Consequently, in the case of persons who are not able for some reason to marry a person of the other sex, this will entail celibacy. This calling, whether chosen or unchosen, may be difficult, but God’s pattern is honoured by this form of exception (I suspect that we typically understate how difficult the calling of faithfulness in difficult marriages is, though—the deepest loneliness is often not found among the unmarried).

      • Yet another comment here, in response to this:

        What about those of us who are celibate and unmarried Christians? Are we ‘qualified’ to address this issue?

        How far should we take this principle anyway? Are you unqualified to make a determination on the appropriateness of open marriage in the case of those who have ‘unmatched libidos’? How about adultery in the case of someone who feels deeply unhappy and lonely in their marriage and has a strong attachment with a third party? How about polyamory in the case of those who argue that they aren’t ‘oriented’ to monogamy? Or what should we say to the many people who struggle with paedophile desires? Or to the man who feels an intense sexual attraction to his sister? What about murder in revenge for someone murdering your parents?

        If we follow your approach, there will always be sufficient uniqueness to another person’s situation and subjectivity seemingly to disqualify us from speaking to it. Far better, I believe, to recognize that we do not speak on the qualification of our own experience, but rather stand for principles and norms that stand over and hold to account the experience and actions of all of us. In the case of sexual ethics, as Wright has elsewhere observed, ‘sexual restraint is mandatory for all, difficult for most, extremely challenging for some.’

        For Scripture’s role in this, beyond the texts that seem clearly to forbid same-sex relations, I would be interested to know where such relations may find clear and positive biblical sanction. Yet further, I would be interested to know on what exact biblical basis people believe that such relationships should be celebrated as divinely blessed in the same way as marriage between a man and a woman, which both reflects the male-female order of the original creation, unites the two halves of the human race, fulfils the natural telos of our sexed bodies, is the union that constitutes us as a human race and is the personal bond from which virtually every human being on the planet arose, maintains the unity of genetic, gestational, legal, and social parenthood, forges and upholds the bonds of blood, symbolizes Christ’s relationship with his Church, and bears God’s blessing of fruitfulness.

        Most of my points here and above don’t require exegesis of Scripture, but should be apparent to anyone who carefully and honestly looks at the phenomena. Only after we have significantly blinded ourselves to the reality of marriage can we even begin to entertain the notion that a relationship between two persons of the same sex, no matter how loving or committed, could be its equivalent.

      • A few further comments, on the questions of the place of ‘oppressed persons’ in discourses on issues in which they feel oppressed (following this comment):

        The problem is that this is in many respects an academic argument, about an academic writer and his academic ideas. If someone’s personal investment in the debate makes it impossible for them to approach the debate rationally, then they have no business taking part in it, because rational discourse is what an academic discussion requires of us.

        This is a principle that we recognize in other contexts. If I were being tried for murder, I would be more personally invested than anyone else. I could protest that others were treating my case as if it were ‘just a legal argument’. However, a legal argument is exactly what is required in a court of law. I am probably not the best person to provide such a legal argument in my own trial because my emotions may get the better of me, and because I am not trained in the law. This is why we have representation. While I should be provided with representation for my position, by virtue of my personal investment and feelings involved and lack of acquaintance with the law, someone else should probably do this for me. Mutatis mutandis, the same thing applies here: if our personal investment means that we can’t keep to the expected norms of academic discourse, we shouldn’t be participating in the academic debate. Someone else should do it for us.

        I’ve argued here that Sarah’s case about N.T. Wright failing to be consistent with himself collapses when one actually carefully reads the book she references. She has not represented his position accurately and his opposition to same-sex marriage, explicit in the piece to which Sarah responds, is clearly implicit in his earlier book.


        This is a theological discussion, as the start of your earlier comment made clear. The key question raised in this post concerns what exactly Wright teaches on the subject of the ‘binaries’ in question and whether he is consistent with his own theology as articulated in Surprised by Hope when he opposes same-sex marriage.

        When the subject at hand is theological the primary qualifications to speak to it are theological in character. What qualifies a person to answer the question of what Wright teaches on the issues under discussion, or whether he is consistent with himself, is how deeply and closely acquainted they are with his writings. Frankly, as someone who has read practically everything Wright has written—including the big books and his unpublished PhD thesis—at least once and usually two or three times each (I’ve also interacted with him in conversation on a few occasions), I think that I am far more qualified to speak to this question than most. I’ve argued that Sarah’s treatment suggests that she hasn’t read Wright very carefully or closely and that the very book upon which she bases her case provides clear implicit opposition to same-sex marriage.

        I don’t see why an LGBT person’s sexual orientation or gender identity gives them any privileged perspective on this question at all. I think that similar points can be made when it comes to the question of the teaching of Scripture. The principle qualifications for addressing the teaching of Scripture on the subject of gender and sexuality have to do with theological acumen, knowledge, and expertise, commitment to and acquaintance with the dogmatic, theological, and exegetical tradition of the Church, the depth and extent of one’s acquaintance with the canonical Scriptures, one’s commitment to pursue the question on properly theological terms, etc. Everyone’s contribution has to be tested by such principles. Being LGBT doesn’t somehow give one immunity from one’s contribution being judged according to these criteria.

        If you can’t meet the theological criteria, you shouldn’t be a deciding voice in the theological discussion. Of course, this doesn’t mean that theologians shouldn’t bring forward LGBT voices as witnesses as they consider these issues. However, being LGBT doesn’t mean that you must be included in the theological discussion on special terms.


        There is nothing wrong with being passionate about something. If you can be passionate while avoiding falling into more instinctive reacting—rather than carefully reflecting and then responding—passion can be a good thing. If you can be passionate while keeping a level head, your reason, and your wits about you then your passion can be a benefit. If you can’t keep control over your passion, but it starts to control you, to cloud your ability to reason clearly, to recognize other perspectives, to hear opposing viewpoints out, or to be self-critical, you probably shouldn’t be having the debate. Some debates could definitely benefit from more heat, but not at the expense of light. My point is not that we should be dispassionate, but that people who can’t keep their passions under sufficient control shouldn’t be in the conversation.

        We should definitely listen to LGBT voices. They should be called forward as witnesses and theologians should hear them out. However, the ability to control one’s passions is essential for illuminating theological conversations. One will not be able to address theological questions clearly if you allow your mind to overheat. There are plenty of LGBT persons who fulfil these criteria and they have every right to be in the theological conversation as theologians, not just as witnesses. However, when personal investment in an issue makes it impossible for someone to keep a clear and level head, they should get someone else to speak for them. Virtually every form of public speech operates in terms of advocacy and representation, not in terms of the suitability of each person speaking for themselves.

        Public advocacy and representation is necessarily a position of privilege, and consequently great responsibility. Pretty much by the very nature of the case public political discourse, legal discourse, ecclesiastical discourse, and academic discourse are all limited to people with considerable social, intellectual, moral, educational, and economic privilege. In part, this is because we recognize that a commitment to excellence relative to the ends of the discourses in question typically requires the limitation of the discourses to an elite group of persons who can attain that excellence and who must responsibly exercise those skills on behalf of others.

        Also, when it comes to the interpretation of Scripture, our study should not be dominated by the suggestion that we are ‘deciding people’s lives’. Our task in the first instance is that of being attentive to the meaning of God’s word, which isn’t a task of ‘deciding’ anything, save for our posture of submission to God’s authority exercised through it. Our primary responsibility in interpretation is to the authority of God’s word in his Church. It is not our business to be ‘deciding’ lives in the way that you imply. Rather, our business is to attend to the verdict of God.

        Being reminded of the stakes in these discussions is indeed important. Just as jurors should remember that people’s lives and deep interests are at stake in their deliberations, so theologians should recognize the same thing. This alerts us to our deep responsibility and the scale of our moral culpability should we judge without being scrupulous in our consideration of the issues at hand.

        We should always be concerned to provide justice to the poor, marginalized, and underprivileged, as they are often denied justice. However, errors in judgment creep in as soon as we start to show partially to them (e.g. Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15). When it comes to the interpretation of Scripture, we should be acutely aware of the fact that our interpretations may have a disproportionate impact upon certain less privileged social groups. We should remember the warnings of God against failing to provide justice to the ‘poor’, ignoring their concerns because they have few means to weigh justice in their favour. However, our responsibility to the ‘poor’ does not involve letting pity sway our judgment. Rather, our responsibility is carried out as we judge the issues at hand—in this case the proper interpretation of the sexual and marital ethics of Scripture—in a deeply conscientious and careful manner, not just rushing to judgment because we have nothing personally at stake (actually, many of us within these debates do have things at stake here).

  8. I’m not a theologian but I think your blog is a good rebuttal to the assertions of Sara Mott in her blog and that it is also a fair comment on the spoken and written words of N.T Wright.

    I am posting here specifically in connection with Wright’s focus on Nazi Germany as an example of re-defining standardized language and the implications of this for the re-definition of marriage in the UK today.

    I will give two quotations from my oldest German dictionary (Cassel’s), which is over 50 years old and a summary of something explained to me verbally by a family I stayed with in Germany in the 1960’s as a student.

    I am posting this information as a bit of back ground to Wright’s spoken comments because I believe he was talking about his ‘Weltanschauung’ (global view) and that he is not prejudiced, as asserted by Sara Moon. Maybe sharing his views with a global audience at this stage was not a good idea!

    The first quote from my dictionary is from the section entitled ‘Advice to the user /dialect’:
    ‘It is characteristic of the Germans that an idea, pursued long and earnestly enough, becomes more real than reality. So it was that the idea of a united Germany ought to have an accepted standard language.Prussia, the dominant partner in the political unification, more or less dictated the linguistic criteria.’

    The second quote is from the German-English dictionary section:
    ‘Fuehrer, m. leader; guide; guide-book; conductor; director; manager; chief; driver; pilot (Av.); commander (Nav.); fugue-theme (music). [ Nat.Soc. decree forbade use of the word unless in compounds except for Adolf Hitler.It was the usual way of referring to him and had the same sort of aura as ‘His majesty’.]’

    The family I stayed with in the ‘sixties told me that, before WW2, the words for (vehicle) driver were ‘Fuehrer/Fuehrerin (f.) but that they had been changed to ‘Fahrer/Fahrerin’ under the Nazi regime. These words remain part of modern standardized German.The pre-war word for driving licence (der Fuehreschein) remains unchanged. I have not checked out the modern standard usage of all the meanings of ‘Fuehrer’ listed in the quote above.

    • Thanks for the fascinating comment!

      • 🙂 Thank you for all yours , too.
        I’ve had a ‘revelation’ – and this is it:
        ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’
        In Nazi Germany, a driver was a driver, no matter what (s)he was called.
        A true marriage is a true ‘marriage’, no matter what it’s called.
        A false marriage is a false ‘marriage’, no matter what it’s called.
        So whatever the church authorities decide about the re-definition of Christian marriage,
        God’s truth about the true nature of marriage remains the truth.
        The truth remains the truth, no matter what is said about it.
        And I am at peace with that.

        N.T. Wright is a fallible human being, just like the rest of us, but when I watched that video and listened to him, I ‘got it’, to coin a cliche!

        You have set out the case convincingly.
        Those who love the truth and seek the truth will recognise that.
        I don’t know what else to say other than this:
        ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ John14:6
        and the Lord’s prayer.

      • As the saying goes: ‘How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.’

  9. I got some commas in the wrong place around ‘marriage’. Ah well 🙂

  10. Thrasymachus says:

    There is an idea that pretty much all sexual desire is good, sexual expression to the full extent that desire is felt is necessary for good health, and any kind of sexual restraint or restriction leads to physical and mental illness. This is often associated with Freud, but Freud was quite socially conservative. It comes I think from the nature-worshipping aspect of German romanticism that as Steve Sailer has observed brought us health food and outdoor activity as nature worship, via Germans who came to Hollywood in the 1930’s. It doesn’t have anything at all to with Christianity but is simply something upper class people like. Upper class people decided they didn’t want to be troubled with sexual morality so they simply dismissed it. Progressive Christians are just picking up this line of thought.

    • The Man Who Was . . . says:

      IIRC, it was Herbert Marcuse’s interpretation of Freud that was used to justify sexual liberation. How close it was to the original Freud, I am unfit to say.

    • I think that there is a particular vision of self-transcendence here. For many liberals, the body, especially in the fulfilment of its sexual desires, is the site of self-transcendence. The body must be kept sacred, which is why there is such an extreme focus in many liberal circles upon perfecting the body through exercise regimes, diets, cleanses to purify the body of toxins, the avoidance of certain foods (e.g. it must be organic, free range, vegan, etc., etc.), and the like. The sexual appetites of the body promise transcendence through sexual fulfilment and any attempt to resist these is an attack upon many liberals’ highest values.

      By contrast, Christians have historically recognized self-transcendence as something that occurs as the life of the body is ordered towards the spiritual good of the person (requiring discipline of our bodily appetites). In sexual relations this ethical and spiritual good and the transcendence of the self is maintained in the interpersonal and vocational context of marital faithfulness, exclusivity, and commitment, even in the context of sexual frustration. It is related to the natural telos of our sexed bodies, as it symbolically brings together male and female as the two halves of the human race, as it mysteriously symbolizes Christ’s relationship with his Church, as it overcomes our physical individuality in a greater bodily union, as it leads to the bearing of children in our image, and as it knits us into the intergenerational life of the family, through which our life is passed on through time.

  11. bowmanwalton says:

    May I ask the erudite contributors to this thread why they frame this issue in terms of sexuality rather than procreation? It seems easy to account for the Six Texts as a facet of the Bible’s more central concern, from Genesis 1:28 on, with God’s dynamic intention for sexual differentiation, just as Genesis 2:18 doubtless reflects another. St Paul, especially, seems to be concerned, not with cataloging sexual sin for its own sake, but with urging Gentiles to see Christ as that Word and Wisdom which is reflected in the created order and to fit their lives into that order in Him.

    Apart from fidelity to scripture, there are three practical reasons for preferring the procreation frame for this debate. (1) It emphasizes that God’s creative work continues, which disarms some attitudinal resistance to the truth. (2) It does not make invidious comparisons between some ‘couples’ and other ‘couples,’ which does sound ugly to most ears, but rather recalls a straightforward biblical vocation to be parents. (3) It evokes the created horizon within which the Bible’s concern for sound human development can be heard as more than advice from the ancient world. Many societies, ancient and modern, have dissociated sex from procreation as they became wealthier, and that is the demographic context for the debates in the Global North. The Bible sees procreation as an act of faith, in Leon Kass’s words as “openness to the unbidden.” On many issues beyond ‘sexuality,’ we need to be clear that faith entails such openness.

    • Thanks for the comment and the question.

      I am not sure that I see the basis of your claim that the issue is being framed ‘in terms of sexuality rather than procreation’. Could you perhaps clarify exactly why you believe this to be the case?

      Certainly within my comments, I have frequently related these issues to the end of procreation. The only sort of reference I’ve really made to the ‘six texts’ can be found in a paragraph like this, which clearly emphasizes a broader telos (an integration of several purposes), rather than mere proscriptions:

      For Scripture’s role in this, beyond the texts that seem clearly to forbid same-sex relations, I would be interested to know where such relations may find clear and positive biblical sanction. Yet further, I would be interested to know on what exact biblical basis people believe that such relationships should be celebrated as divinely blessed in the same way as marriage between a man and a woman, which both reflects the male-female order of the original creation, unites the two halves of the human race, fulfils the natural telos of our sexed bodies, is the union that constitutes us as a human race and is the personal bond from which virtually every human being on the planet arose, maintains the unity of genetic, gestational, legal, and social parenthood, forges and upholds the bonds of blood, symbolizes Christ’s relationship with his Church, and bears God’s blessing of fruitfulness.

      A further reason why I don’t zoom in on procreation in particular is hinted at in the paragraph I’ve just quoted. A narrow focus on procreation obscures the fact that the marriage between male and female is about far more than procreation alone. Also, being familiar with the way debates about same-sex marriage tend to play out, I am wary of focusing upon procreation in a manner that gives rise to predictable objections about childless couples and the suggestion that, if they aren’t excluded from marriage, there is no reason that couples of a single sex shouldn’t be.

      Thanks again for the comment.

      • bowmanwalton says:

        A strong original post has inspired an excellent thread.

        Yes, there is at least a procreation thread through most points of the OP. The comments do not altogether continue it, and that aroused curiosity.

        Wade McKenzie argued that the Six Texts leave no basis for respectful engagement with homosexuals. The procreative telos of biological sexual differentiation is the universal, indeed trans-specific, ground for discussion with those who do not recognise gendered subjectivity.

        The childless couples argument, at least as I have encountered it, simply requires more reflection. Marriage rites without the intent to reproduce have traditionally been liable to annulment. Couples who in good faith try to reproduce and fail, do not forfeit marriage because of this, if only because they may someday succeed. Couples who marry simply to pursue materialistic goals without children are defying Genesis 1:28, and are indeed analogous to same sex couples, which is not a problem for the argument but its whole point.

        The speed with which SSM has won over electorates in the low birthrate UK and US– but not so quickly high birthrate France– appears to reflect, not a sudden compassion of the 94% for the 6%, but a broadly-based desire to separate marriage from family using the plight of homosexuals as a convenient banner. Of course, it is not at all unprecedented for persons in a prosperous society to limit or altogether avoid their natural reproductive cost to “enjoy all that life has to offer” unencumbered. Augustus’s marriage reforms were aimed at encouraging women to have at least three children as Roman birthrates similarly fell in a time of relative prosperity. In confusing the banner with the actual cause of the march, the Church not only fails to meet the moral danger to most ordinary Christians, but gives societies an easy ‘civil rights’ excuse to further marginalise the gospel.

  12. whitefrozen says:

    Here’s a thought slightly related to the topic: a lot of the early fathers (and this line of thought actually continued through the middle ages as well) saw sex as a bad thing – Gregory of Nyssa basically said it was a form of punishment because of sin – though interestingly enough, medieval theological literature is full of mystical/erotic writings. Any thoughts?

    • Colin Clout says:

      Nyssa himself wrote a commentary on *Song of Songs* and the *Life of Moses*. The point was, I believe, that the true object of Eros is and should be God Himself rather than matter. Indeed, that we tend toward matter, and cloying pleasures, rather than God Himself, is to be fallen. (Interestingly enough, Buddhists, I believe agree with this notion of pleasure, but deny there is a God.)

      The other issue for Nyssa is that, as for Darwin, sex is a means of the species preserving itself from destruction. But this means (though not exactly wrong as a means) was doomed to failure–and Darwin agrees–and so could find meaning only in a forward looking sense toward one who could establish the species eternally. That is, toward God Himself made man, and His Resurrection. So now, through Christ a new (and true) means of being human has arisen, one oriented toward eternality not through sexual birth, but through the birth of Baptism, and ultimately, through Resurrection.

      • whitefrozen says:

        Good and obviously well-studied perspective – more studied than I am on the subject, at any rate. I read about it in Balthasar’s book on Nyssas religious philosophy.

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  14. Hi Alastair,
    I just want to say that I can’t think of a better starting point for this debate than your photo of Michelangelo’s painting of the Creation of Adam and Eve.

    This has come to my mind again today especially because I have just read Vicky Beeching’s third blog on ‘LGBT theology.’I have not posted on Vicky’s third blog – I posted on her second blog explaining to her why I felt I couldn’t contribute to the debate on her blog. I will make no specific comments on Vicky’s blog here, either, but I just want to say that,
    given that the Christian definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman has been clear and honoured for more than 2000 years, I would be happier if this were the starting point in blogs promoting a deviation from this definition.

    Thank you again, for making the Michelangelo painting your starting point.

  15. I think you have been as fair as fair can be. Standing firm in one’s own convictions is just not ‘backlash’! However, Vicky says she has received abusive emails from some, and I’m sorry about that. There seems to be a lot at stake for her personally and I can’t think of any way I might help with that, other than to pray.

  16. “Marriage rites without the intent to reproduce have traditionally been liable to annulment.” Things look a little different when you are over 50. It was once said that faithful complementarians often become egalitarian in old age. This is discounted as feeblemindedness but what if it is wisdom?

    Also, every commentary I have ever read on Genesis, calls “heaven and earth” a merism. It refers to the totality of the universe, both ends and everything in between.

    • Neither I nor Wright denied that ‘heaven and earth’ was a merism (in fact, I affirmed it was elsewhere). However, ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ aren’t ‘ends’ of the biblical universe: they aren’t like ‘Alpha’ and ‘Omega’. There are, for instance, the waters under the earth, which represent a further extremity. Rather, ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ are spoken of as two distinct realms or dimensions, which between them contain all within the created universe (‘earth’ can frequently function as a synecdoche for both the earth and the waters or realms under the earth, and anything else located under heaven).

      While ‘heavens and earth’ in Genesis 1 is technically a merism, it is also a binary, something that is evident throughout the rest of the Scriptures (a binary, I might add, founded upon the formation of the firmament in Genesis 1). A merism like ‘rich and poor’ can often function in this binary manner too. ‘Heaven/s’ refers to the place of God’s dwelling, while ‘earth’ refers to the place where human beings dwell. The distinction and relation between these two realms is of enduring theological significance.

    • bowmanwalton says:

      Yes, Suzanne, things do look very different over 50, and just how they should look has not been the concern of a rule-set primarily concerned to minimize the damage done by the lust of the young, the compulsive, and the foolish. If you insist then that rules for procreation cannot give direct deontological guidance on all things, I will cheerfully agree with you. This epistemological modesty is the beauty of the ideal. Some Christian societies seem to have acted as though the flower of a rule-bound youth was a virtue-led old age. I think that makes sense.

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  18. RobD says:

    I still feel that Wright leaves the waters a bit muddy here. As @bowmanwalton notes above, marriages without the intent to reproduce have traditionally been subject to annulment, just as sex without the intent to reproduce has been condemned as sin. It strikes me that the separation of marriage from procreative intent is as substantial a redefinition of marriage, if not more so, than same-sex marriage. Concomitant to this earlier redefinition of marriage came the valorizing of heterosexual desire and the redefining of “masculinity” in terms of heterosexual conquest. Sadly, the evangelical church, at least in the US, has been largely complicit in this. Ironically, those who are most comfortable with the earlier redefinition of marriage (e.g., Gospel Coalition) are often those who are most vocal in opposing the inclusion of same-sex couples. Carl Trueman addresses this issue quite eloquently in his piece, “The Yuck Factor”.

    I have no disagreement with anything that Wright is saying. Even so, I think he misses the larger point by failing to address the earlier redefining of marriage, the valorizing of heterosexual desire, and the establishing of the “manly man” as the masculine ideal. The earlier redefinitions also undercut the Creational telos because they obscure the binary order of Creation and begin sorting men (and women) out along a socially constructed scale of masculinity and femininity where some are deemed to be more “naturally” capable of participating in the redefined institution. It’s not hard to see how this earlier redefinition of marriage logically leads to the emergence of gay people, e.g., as men who experience rejection for failing to conform himself to the manly-man ideal. Denied entry into the institution of marriage, the rejected folks adapt by creating a separate social identity that’s simply an absurd inversion of the hyper-masculine culture from which they were rejected. It’s not hard to see that same-sex marriage follows quickly behind.

    It’s no accident, then, that the drive for legal recognition of same-sex marriage is strongest in those cultures (e.g., North America, Australia, and, to a degree, the UK) where the earlier redefinition of marriage took the greatest hold and where masculinity became redefined in terms of one’s capability at heterosexual conquest. By contrast, cultures where the earlier redefinition never quite took hold (e.g., France), the push for same-sex marriage is significantly attenuated by comparison.

    As an American who works for a French-owned company, I see this first-hand. In fact, until I took this job, I generally considered myself to be gay (although, as a Christian, I elected to remain celibate). But in identifying as gay, I don’t mean that I desire sex with other guys. Rather, I mean that I have a generic aesthetic preference for the male form over the female form, and, in addition to that, am thin, short, youngish-looking, well-dressed, and well-coiffed. But now that I get to spend significant time in France and among Frenchmen, I’ve had second thoughts. I find that my affinities aren’t too different from those of many of the straight Frenchmen I’ve met. I even have a much easier time dating French women than American women. Gay people may be hard-wired in certain ways, but the cultural tableau against which that maps varies significantly from country to country and from generation to generation. Perhaps the reason that the US and the UK have such struggles with homosexuality lies in our cultures’ easy acceptance of the earlier redefinition of marriage. By contrast, French men can be confident in their masculinity, even as they stroll along the Cote d’Azur in Armani sunglasses that offer more coverage than the bathing suit they’re wearing.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rob.

      ‘Without the intent to reproduce’ is a slippery phrase. Perhaps it would be more properly termed as intent against procreative intercourse. I believe that the Catholic focus upon individual sexual acts when addressing the issue of the morality of contraception is atomistic and a little myopic. Rather than ‘intent to reproduce’, in entering a marriage, a person commits themselves to consummate the union in non-contraceptive intercourse with their spouse, which isn’t quite the same thing. A sterile person, unless there has been deliberate deceit, does not enter marriage invalidly, even though one could argue that they could not ‘intend’ to reproduce. This intent against procreative intercourse does not mean that all contraception is ruled out. Consensual postponement of non-contraceptive relations can be quite consistent with a marriage where both partners have an intent to reproduce.

      I don’t agree with your claim that the separation of marriage from procreative intent is as substantial a redefinition of marriage, nor that the things that Trueman mentions in his article constitute a comparable redefinition.

      First, unlike same-sex marriage, the separation of marriage from procreative intent is not primarily something that occurs at the level of the definition of marriage. Rather, it typically occurs at a more general cultural level, through the normalizing of a contraceptive posture towards sex, the rise of a divorce culture, and, arguably, in the understanding of marriage implicit in divorce law.

      Second, the existence of a ‘procreative intent’ is difficult to establish and is seldom if ever publicly known prior to the wedding. This is a very different sort of thing from a same-sex union.

      Third, the redefinition of marriage surrounding divorce was far more subtle and implicit, an undermining, rather than a direct and obvious assault.

      Fourth, where divorce occurs, people clearly recognize that something has gone wrong. Divorce presupposes failure and/or sin. Divorce itself isn’t necessarily sinful and is provided for by Scripture. Same-sex marriage, by contrast, elevates a relationship that is directly contrary to the blessed union of husband and wife and presents itself as equal to it. This is an institutionalized violation and dishonouring of the union of marriage. The prudential question of how the state and the courts are to deal with dysfunctional marriages is a rather different question from that of how to understand marriage in general. The conditions for the dissolution of dysfunctional marriages should not necessarily be regarded as revealing what marriage is believed to involve in a functional context.

      Fifth, no-fault divorce wasn’t driven by something like the popular gay-rights movement, with its explicit messages about what sex and marriage should mean and its attempts to revolutionize society’s attitudes to LGBT persons. People weren’t strongly arguing that we need to ‘celebrate’ no-fault divorce as if a blessed sacrament.

      Sixth, much of the impetus was provided by arguments focusing upon such things as the legal charade of previous legislation that threatened the law’s integrity, rates of domestic abuse, and the appropriate scope of the state’s jurisdiction in determining that parties should remain together. There are important considerations here. Such prudential considerations don’t lead to the sharp lines that can be drawn when there is a direction redefinition of marriage.

      Seventh, no-fault divorce law was pioneered by political figures such as Ronald Reagan. I don’t know what the situation was like in the US, but I would be interested to know where the public voice of opposition to no-fault divorce would have been situated in the political arena.

      Eighth, it isn’t clear to me that the introduction of no-fault divorce is as critical a factor as people suggest. The state of marriage is worse in the UK than in the US and we didn’t need no-fault divorce laws to arrive at our current condition.

      Ninth, as the changes that led to the undermining of marriage were primarily cultural, rather than political, legal, or definitional, there was much less that concerned parties could do to arrest the changes.

      Tenth, there is biblical precedent for liberalizing divorce laws in a hard hearted society (Matthew 19:8). Such divorce laws can be established to mitigate worse evils.

      Now, to your other points. The claim that the Gospel Coalition is ‘most comfortable with the earlier redefinition of marriage’ that Trueman and others describe is one with which I very strongly disagree. I would like to see you provide some evidence for it. Trueman doesn’t make this charge in his article, but makes a more general claim about the church.

      Incidentally, I am not sure that I completely agree with Trueman’s arguments. As I have argued above, there are significant differences to be observed between same-sex marriage and divorce. Also, rather than putting things down to the lack of a ‘yuck factor’, I think that the more likely culprit in many churches’ failure to deal with divorce culture has to do with lack of nerve and resulting compromise in situations where divorce is widespread. It is hard to speak out upon divorce when divorced persons and their children are such a visible presence within our congregations. LGBT persons are less visible and so pastors are less likely to suffer a lack of nerve when tackling such a potentially controversial and divisive issue from the pulpit. Greater pastoral sensitivity and wisdom is also required when speaking about something like divorce to congregations where divorced persons are present. Most pastors can be pretty certain that no persons in a same-sex marriage are present in their congregation.

      The degree of cultural focus upon some idealized version of masculinity and femininity is indeed unhealthy and unbiblical. However, the Scriptures aren’t altogether without notions of masculinity and femininity. The excessive focus upon these things in certain Christian quarters is largely a response to an exaggerated cultural emphasis upon gender neutrality and the denial of any difference. It fails to appreciate the more absolute binary of male and female as articulated in the Scripture, as you point out, resting on something more fundamental than gendered behaviour or traits.

      When it comes to models of masculinity, I think that people too easily conflate prevailing models in the wider culture with those that have prevailed in the Church, or with traditional models of masculinity (see Ross Douthat’s recent comments on that front here). Speaking from my context in the UK, I can assure you that the only time I have heard people like Mark Driscoll raised in the context of teaching concerning masculinity among evangelicals here has been as a matter of jest. Hyper-masculinity and hyper-heterosexuality may be the model for some evangelicals, who are seeking to push back against the neutralizing of gender difference. However, for many it isn’t. Even with someone like Driscoll, the hyper-masculinity and hyper-heterosexuality of the cultural models are held in check by a strong emphasis upon such things as marital faithfulness. Also, where marriage culture is strong, masculinity culture is often less pronounced. The proving ground for masculinity is less that of macho behaviour and promiscuous heterosexuality and becomes that of marriage and fatherhood. These contexts are much more ‘masculinized’ than necessary, but are nonetheless, far less exclusive to the hyper-masculine.

      I think that a cultural emphasis upon hyper-masculinity may indeed push some people in the direction of same-sex relations, as you suggest. Many other societies worldwide have no problem with highly affectionate relations between men, for instance. These relations are non-sexual and often rest upon a very strong taboo against homosexual relations, which prevent certain expressions of masculinity as being regarded as inherently homosexual, as they can be in our societies.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comment.

      • RobD says:

        Thanks for the reply.

        I’m certainly not suggesting that the two redefinitions are alike in all respects. My point is simply that the view of marriage espoused by most evangelicals today (familialism) is a far cry from traditional marriage. And until we understand and discuss the ways in which we have departed from the traditional norm, we will fail to understand the ways in which familialism indirectly contributes to the legitimacy of same-sex marriage.

        As you note in your reference to Driscoll, familialists do not reject the culture’s valorization of heterosexual desire. Instead, they join the cultural chorus, demanding only that such desires find their fulfillment in the context of a monogamous opposite-sex relationship. In that sense, the institution of marriage is radically transformed from a community-focused outward-facing institution into an individual-focused inward-facing institution, where success at marriage is implicitly defined in terms of the couple’s ability to satisfy each other in bed. Thus, one could almost view same-sex marriage as an absurdist critique of familialist marriage.

        The linchpin of the familialist transformation lies with its acquiescence to the culture’s valorization of heterosexual desire. If we want to make progress on these issues as Christians, we’re going to have to wean ourselves off of familialism. Too often, evangelical writers suppose that we face a dichotomous choice between familialism and feminism, which is the nature of my critique of the Gospel Coalition. I’d suggest that there’s a better way, i.e., the way that the Church addressed these issues for much of the past two millennia. At some point we have to let go of the faux traditionalism of familialism, and exchange it for the real thing. I’m hopeful that the emergence of same-sex marriage can lead to that.

      • Thanks for the response, Rob.

        I think that you are dramatically overstating your ‘familialism’ case. There are plenty of things that are problematic and confused about evangelicals and their approach to marriage. However, I really don’t believe that your particular criticisms can be sustained. It seems quite seriously to misrepresent evangelicals, setting them up as a convenient whipping boy and also as a caricatured foil in order to accentuate the ‘third way-ness’ of your position. Accurate representation of evangelicals seems to be sacrificed for the sake of creating a useful rhetorical angle for yourself.

        First, people like Driscoll are not as representative as you seem to think. Driscoll and his like get a lot of attention in large part because they stand out among evangelicals, not because they are the norm. The extremes always attract disproportionate attention.

        Second, I really don’t think that evangelicals are just joining the ‘cultural chorus’ here. Evangelicals have positioned themselves against the ‘cultural chorus’ in many ways. While they have definitely assumed some of the problematic baggage of the Sexual Revolution by often constructing their response in terms of the ‘sex positive’ assumptions embedded in the challenge, partially falling into this trap is a very different thing from joining a cultural chorus. In fact, the remaining holdouts against the cultural view of the family that you mention are disproportionately found among evangelicals.

        Third, evangelicals have had a great deal to say about the social importance of marriage, about the problems of marital breakdown as a social phenomenon, about the ordering of marriage to children, etc. While evangelicals have proved susceptible to many of the cultural assumptions and have partly bought into them, their position, though uneven, is very far from a complete capitulation to the individual-focused, inward-facing institution that you suggest. Even if you read someone like Driscoll—the poster boy of Christian macho and its emphasis on sex—you will see that his vision of marriage is far from the individual-focused, inward-facing institution you suggest. For all of his problems, he has quite a bit to say about the outflow of the life of a couple through bearing children and serving a community.

        As for the Gospel Coalition, while I may not be in board with all the sorts of positions and practices on the subject that are articulated within that affiliation, I’ve heard plenty from that quarter attacking exactly the same sorts of things as you are attacking here. The following is a quotation from their vision document:

        Because it points us to a man who died for his enemies, the gospel creates relationships of service rather than of selfishness. Because the gospel calls us to holiness, the people of God live in loving bonds of mutual accountability and discipline. Thus the gospel creates a human community radically different from any society around it. Regarding sex, the church should avoid both the secular society’s idolization of sex and traditional society’s fear of it. It is a community which so loves and cares practically for its members that biblical chastity makes sense. It teaches its members to conform their bodily being to the shape of the gospel—abstinence outside of heterosexual marriage and fidelity and joy within. Regarding the family, the church should affirm the goodness of marriage between a man and a woman, calling them to serve God by reflecting his covenant love in life–long loyalty, and by teaching his ways to their children. But it also affirms the goodness of serving Christ as singles, whether for a time or for a life. The church should surround all persons suffering from the fallenness of our human sexuality with a compassionate community and family.

        The Gospel Coalition seems to agree with many of your points here. 1. It speaks of marriage in the context of ‘relationships of service rather than of selfishness.’ 2. It situates marriage within the larger context of the ‘mutual accountability and discipline’ of the community of the church. 3. It challenges ‘secular society’s idolization of sex.’ 4. It presents our sexuality as subject to community norms and discipline, not just a matter of autonomous self-realization. 5. Marriage is cast as vocation and service, rather than self-fulfilling personal lifestyle choice. 6. Marriage is ordered beyond the immediacy of the partners: they must reflect his covenant love to others and they must teach children (naturally assuming that Christian couples will be open to the bearing and raising of children). 7. They challenge the marginalization of singles to a second class category, by affirming the goodness of that calling too. 8. They present the church as a community that exceeds the immediacy of biological families, in which biological families must serve and minister.

        Now, there may be things that I would want to add to this, and other things that I would want further to accent. However, this is a very far cry from what I believe is your caricature of the Gospel Coalition’s position. I would be interested to see you present evidence for the suggestion that the Gospel Coalition views ‘success at marriage’ in terms ‘of the couple’s ability to satisfy each other in bed.’ There seems to be several implicit measures of ‘success at marriage’ for them that appear to take precedence over this.

      • RobD says:


        I would agree that American evangelicals are even rather inconsistent familialists, although I would argue that familialism comes closer than traditionalism in explaining the sociological contours of the sexual ethic they propound. But that’s probably not the whole story. We’ve arrived at this place largely because we’ve focused more on opposing feminism than in constructing any kind of coherent ethic of marriage and family. We may not have intended to be here, and we may not even be comfortable with the fact that we’ve arrived here. But we’re not sure what to do next. Sure, many of the GC types don’t embrace the obnoxious views of masculinity put forth by guys like Driscoll, Jared Wilson, Tim Bayly, and Denny Burk. In fact, I suspect that most of them would privately agree with most of what I’ve written here. But they wouldn’t dare agree with me in public! That’s because GC’s audience and donor base are far more interested in opposing feminism (by any means available) than in articulating any kind of intellectually and theologically coherent counter-narrative.

        When I was starting out as a litigation associate at a large DC law firm, my mentor taught me one key lesson: “The worst argument is the argument that just opposes what the other side is saying.” But in the populist world of American evangelicalism, ressentiment gets you further than it does in the hallways of elite DC law firms. And too many of the GC men are trying to keep a foot in both worlds: They want to maintain a certain degree of mass appeal, and therefore have to stand clear of anything that would rile up the populist horde; meanwhile, they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of elite professionals whose company they actually prefer. So, these GC men publicly remain silent, while privately reassuring their elite friends that they disagree with Driscoll et al.

        But that’s little comfort to the 15-year-old kid who’s trying to figure out whether he’s gay or not. Truth be told, he’s probably not gay at all: He’s a rather normal guy who has the misfortune of growing up in a screwed-up church culture that fears feminism and therefore unnecessarily shames and marginalizes skinny, sensitive, artsy types who play sports like running and swimming. I know. I was that kid. And I needlessly suffered years of shame and guilt because too many otherwise reasonable church leaders were too gutless to stand up and counter the snake oil that was being sold at that time under the banner of the family values movement. Things have turned out ok in the end. I dealt with my shame and guilt by pouring myself into academic pursuits and fitness. I earned a PhD in theoretical physical chemistry and then a law degree, all the while keeping my body fat below 8-9%. But countless others like me have ended up finding far less innocuous drugs to ease the pain of their needless shame and guilt. Being wrong on these issues has real-life consequences.

      • Thanks for the continued discussion, Rob.

        Beyond pointing the finger at persons, I would like to see you get specific about what particular is ‘obnoxious’ about the views of masculinity put forward by such figures, referring to actual arguments and writings. Otherwise, we are in the realm of unsubstantiated accusations and name-calling. You are also speculatively imputing many motives to people here.

        I am very sorry to hear of your experience in the church growing up. That does indeed sound very dysfunctional. My experience of being raised in a firmly conservative evangelical context was rather different from yours. While strongly opposed to feminism, it was far from masculinist and gave plenty of scope for boys to be artsy (I continue to knit to this day, love to cook, produce crafts, and the like), bookish, non-athletic, etc. It certainly wasn’t highly ‘heterosexual’.

        Whether the blame for all that you mention can be so directly laid at the door of the figures you mention, I am not so sure of. It seems to me that, while many public leaders and authors have a measure of nuance and balance in their positions, their positions can be bastardized in much of their public expression and their teachings can be applied in abusive ways (even Christ isn’t immune to this). I hope that you appreciate that my point here is not altogether to deny the legitimacy of the charges you make, but to argue that they need more careful substantiation, in a manner that believes the best of people when possible.

        Anyway, I had better leave the conversation at this point. Thanks for the thought-provoking interaction!

    • bowmanwalton says:

      Yes, Rob, very perceptive. Probably best in this thread. I can’t respond now to your main point, but on the preliminaries–

      Carl Trueman probably does see that the procreative telos of sexual differentiation is, not a debatable idea, but a discovered creature, and since he understands Romans, he can see the whole truth from there. His Yuck Factor essay faulting malleable gut definitions does flow quite logically from that insight. However those enmeshed in the pleasures of man-made definitions seem to read Yuck Factor as an essay about easy divorce, not about the irreformability of the created basis for the ethic of the Creator God. They really do not get that their opinions, even their ethical opinions, even their biblical ethical opinions, even their… opinions, etc are really not the same thing as just setting the head-noise aside and living with trust within what the Creator has created purely because He has created it. It’s surprisingly hard to do, and in this area it is very clear when one is (not) doing it.

      Tom Wright generally believes in the third use of the law and is so scornful of “touchy feely” that I doubt that he has fallen into that trap. My guess is that, for all his outspoken appreciation for the role of torah in life, he still sees it in a somewhat nominalist way that does not “orient life to the mitzvot.” Genesis 1.28 and related texts are something of a litmus test for how one understands the third use and due obedience to God. I drift into Hebrew at this point because traditional Jews have gotten this right– it’s not just about where the bits go, and not just about having babies; it’s also about acting with an orientation to the life across generations that entails what Leon Kass calls “openness to the unbidden.”

      • Thanks for the comment.

        To whom are you referring in the following statement?

        However those enmeshed in the pleasures of man-made definitions seem to read Yuck Factor as an essay about easy divorce, not about the irreformability of the created basis for the ethic of the Creator God.

        Why can’t it be both? Besides, re-read the article in question: he doesn’t really say much about the ‘irreformability of the created basis for the ethic of the Creator God,’ although that belief provides an implicit theological assumption for his arguments. However, he does have a bit to say about easy divorce, presenting that as the key ‘redefinition’ that has already occurred but wasn’t taken seriously because it didn’t evoke the ‘yuck factor’ (I disagree with this argument of Trueman’s article, for reasons outlined above, even though I share his belief in the problematic character of many ‘yuck factor’ arguments and of allowing this to become the determining factor in our resistance to changes in our culture’s understanding of marriage). The following statements are a few examples that show that the claim that easy divorce represented a redefinition of marriage is key to Trueman’s argument:

        Sex ceased to be the crowning seal on the marriage covenant and became something recreational, an end in itself or, even for many Christians, the purpose of marriage. The establishment of no-fault divorce was the legal recognition of this and redefined marriage in a far more fundamental way than any future applications or revisions of the law are likely to do.

        The church accepted, by and large, the logic of no fault divorce. At least, nobody seemed to think that it was quite the apocalyptic moment presented by gay marriage.

        It would seem to me that easy divorce as the redefinition of marriage is much of the point of Trueman’s article. Nevertheless, Trueman, I, and most of the others discussing this here hold as non-negotiable the primacy of the form of God’s creation (I happen to have written a great deal on this very topic—see the discussion here and here, for instance, where I challenge nominalism among opponents of same-sex marriage very directly). As in your previous comment, I wonder whether you have been listening carefully enough to the vaguely defined people that you purport to criticize.

        Touching on the ‘yuck factor’ discussion, it should be noted that the ‘yuck factor’ is not just about ‘malleable gut definitions’. While a ‘yuck factor’ is an unreliable guide for ethics, it shouldn’t be reduced to a pure affective ‘nominalism’. Scripture itself speaks of homosexual practices and lusts in the language of disgust: ‘abomination’, ‘dishonour their bodies’, ‘vile passions’, ‘committing what is shameful’, ‘debased mind’, ‘against nature’, etc. There is a sort of affective congruity with the order of nature suggested here. The problem with simply dismissing disgust is that disgust can be a dimension of the way in which the order of nature asserts itself within us. We can suppress and distort this sense, but the sense itself should not just be dismissed (as Leon Kass argues in his treatment of the ‘wisdom of repugnance’).

        As for Wright, I disagree with your suggestion of nominalism. Wright strongly emphasizes the integration of creation and covenant and the role of the Torah is an important part of this (don’t forget that the Torah includes the account of creation). He describes the Torah as an ‘extraordinary blueprint of what a genuinely human life is like.’ Of Psalm 19, he writes that it ‘celebrates creation, and within that celebrates Torah as the covenant charter designed to enable each individual Israelite to become a whole, cleansed, integrated human being.’ Such statements could be multiplied.

      • bowmanwalton says:

        On Wright– No, nominalism does not seem harmonious with his grand project or the “better way of being human,” but what I would like to see is his position on whether, and in what sense, Genesis 1.28 is law, and what he then does with it. My impression is that he is intrigued by the question, but has postponed settling it until other things are sorted out. However, if you have found the answer in his vast works– it is certainly possible that I have overlooked it– then do let us know. I would be interested to see it.

      • I can’t recall any direct treatment of that verse. I would be surprised if Wright didn’t hold the more common reading of that verse, as a blessing more than a command. Of course, as a blessing it discloses a truth about our vocation and telos.

    • bowmanwalton says:

      Hi Rob. Have I understood the causal model behind your narrative?

      Very simply, I think I hear you saying that a man who prefers men may partner with a man if he cannot marry a woman. Such a man could be married to a woman happy to have him if, and only if, their relationship were (a) oriented outward to their community, (b) not sexually intensive, and (c) not intentionally polarized by gender. By traditional marriage, you seem to mean marriage that meets those conditions. By familialist marriage, you seem to mean– avoiding definition by name drop– relationships that are (d) inwardly focused, (e) sexually intensive, and (f) organized by highly polarized gender stereotypes. Since (d) preempts (a), and (e) likewise (b), and (f) also (c), it follows that what promotes (d), (e), and (f) preempts the conditions under which a man who prefers men could be married to a woman happy to have him. Which is to say that the promotion of familialist marriage– as just defined– preempts traditional marriage– as just defined– and leave a man like the one described with no alternative form of intimate companionship but to partner with a man. More generally, what increases (d), (e), and (f) in society at large will, ceteris paribus, increase same sex partnerships.

      Sorry about the mechanistic texture of this. I want to be sure that I do not misunderstand your post.

      • RobD says:


        I think that’s a reasonable summary of what I’m saying. Further, I’m suggesting that this shift in terms of how we view marriage, which is probably most pronounced in the US, represents a more devastating departure from traditional marriage than any threat posed by same-sex marriage. In fact, I’d probably go as far to suggest that same-sex marriage is the necessary and inevitable consequence of it.

        I’m also critical of American evangelicals for their pragmatic (and unbiblical) response to the redefinition of marriage that you describe above. Instead of arguing against familialist marriage in favor of traditional marriage, evangelicals overwhelmingly embraced familialist marriage, created a theology to support it (see, e.g., CBMW), and led the charge in constructing a narrowly defined model of masculinity that looks like nothing more than an absurd inversion of feminism. Just go into an evangelical church on a Sunday morning and count the number of men who are overweight, have bad haircuts, wear oversized clothing, have pleated pants, etc. It’s absurd. Since when is it a Christian virtue to neglect your health, exhibit poor grooming habits, and dress poorly? Oh, but it is…in the twisted anti-feminist world of American evangelicalism. I once made this observation to a friend of mine at church. He remarked, “Yeah, I never wear any of my tailored suits to church; instead, I wear an oversized suit I bought at Joseph A Bank for $100 when I was in college.”

        That may be a longer answer than you were looking for. I fear that we’ve focused so much on fighting feminism, that, instead of reflecting on the range of options that fall within the scope of biblical manhood, we’ve constructed some narrow, strained view of manhood that serves as nothing more than a failed attempt at rebutting feminism. Instead of coming up with cogent arguments against feminism, we’ve simply decided not to shave our back hair. Go masculinity!

      • RobD says:


        To give a bit more of the flavor of what I’m saying, below is an excerpt (slightly edited) of something I wrote elsewhere. I think it also gives insight into the true dynamics that lie behind the push for same-sex marriage at elite levels of American society (where, incidentally, even those who may identify as gay still overwhelmingly marry people of the opposite sex).

        I once identified as gay, although I was relatively discreet about it. I worked at an elite DC law firm, where more than half of the male associates identified themselves the same way (although also discreetly). But few of us were involved in same-sex relationships. Many of us dated women; others of us dated no one. And this wasn’t isolated to one law firm in DC. In general, many men in elite white-collar culture-shaping professions self-identify as gay. It doesn’t mean that they desire sex with men. Rather, it’s a political statement against a system that, in their view, unfairly judged them as failures because they didn’t fully embody the characteristics that their churches and surrounding culture deemed as satisfying the narrow contours of acceptable masculinity. Further, because they’re highly intelligent and independent (mostly INTPs), they’re generally unwilling to accept that judgment, and therefore feel the need to fight against (if not destroy) the system that pronounced it against them. So, their support for things like same-sex marriage has little to do with a belief in the merits of same-sex marriage. Rather, it’s part of a larger political effort to undercut and destabilize the narrow view of masculinity that currently prevails in middle-class America, particularly in evangelical middle-class America. Sadly, the evangelical church’s response to this has been to retrench and to define the acceptable boundaries of masculinity even more narrowly than before, which only further exacerbates the problem. If the church truly wants to proffer a viable alternative to the direction of the culture, it could begin by ceasing from its “manly man” fetish and coming to affirm a view of masculinity that reflects the full complexity of true biblical manhood.

    • bowmanwalton says:

      Hi Alastair. Nice blog, excellent OP.

      Given that lived American religion is regional and racial to the bone, yet participates in a profound Red/Blue cultural polarization, Rob’s US social history sounds reasonable. (I assume that he understands my comments about Carl Trueman’s post in relation to his own allusion to it as part of that picture.) Roughly speaking, parts of the US where evangelicals oppose government-subsidized health insurance for the poor as a matter of religious principle are also the ones where his dark picture is accurate.

      • RobD says:

        Thanks for clarifying. I know nothing about evangelicalism in the UK, so it’s difficult for me to compare it to that in the US. But I’m willing to guess that the two are very different beasts.

        Yes, there are huge swaths of American evangelicalism where the movement is defined less by theology than by politics, resentment-fueled social populism, and crass anti-intellectualism. Mark Noll’s books detail this fairly well. DG Hart’s book “From Sarah Palin to Billy Graham” is also helpful. Those books aptly describe the insular, twisted subculture in which I was raised.

        I live near Wheaton College (the evangelical Harvard), and recently attended a public forum where the college was supposed to explain the nature of its current lawsuit regarding the Affordable Care Act. I asked the speaker to identify an activity in which Wheaton would engage but for the government’s enforcement of the ACA. His response: “Well, that’s not really the issue; it’s about religious freedom; they’re taking away our freedoms.” My translation: “We actually have no cognizable legal argument. Our donor base hates the President, and, because we want to raise more money this year, we decided to sue his administration.”

      • bowmanwalton says:

        Rob, opinion at the secular Wheaton is about what you might expect of a place where most evangelicals danced in the Yard when the President was (re)elected. And elsewhere, a man who is too fit, too aware of the culture, and too sartorially intelligent will be read as gay no matter how he himself identifies. What you call familialism seems to have its roots in an attempt to co-opt the coy eroticism of the ’50s for the defense of marriage. Faced with Freudian rationalizations for fashionable male promiscuity, and a fundamentalist fear of sex that the social mainstream rejected, evangelicals in our country rushed to lead the parade they could not stop.

        If you, or someone else, has published the analysis that you have given us, I would be grateful for the citation. If not, what is stopping you? This side of the pond needs to read an evangelical critique of the assumptions about gender and class of our polarized debate.

        Yes, the beasts differ. Some cultural polarization on gender and sexuality can be seen in the UK as elsewhere. For example, debates among evangelicals about the consecration of women to the episcopate of the Church of England and the recent Marriage Act (Same Sex) have been particularly bitter in places. But so far as I know, only in the US have such debates been subsumed into a political Götterdämmerung that mobilizes evangelicals in opposition to teaching of evolution, health insurance for the poor, action on climate change, measures to prevent gun violence in schools, etc. Evangelical Britons live with secularists who think that they are superstitious, but they seem to have a place among their nation’s elite (see the links). Evangelical Americans know that half the nation (and their wealthiest fellow partisans) view them as ill-educated pawns of the ultra-rich organized to promote ignorance, disease, violence, catastrophe, and death. And fat. Even the Apocalypse has only four horsemen.

        Consequently, COBMW ideas do not always resonate in the same way with every evangelical in both countries, nor for that matter in both sexes. Wealthy wives speaking against women bishops in the General Synod were probably not thereby defending man caves and hairy backs.

        All of which is also to thank Alastair, not only for excellent posts, but for maintaining a sensible independence in these matters.




      • RobD says:

        I also offer my thanks to Alastair for allowing us to adversely possess his blog for a few days to have this discussion.

        And, yes, I agree with your description of familialism, and with your description of the pragmatic means by which evangelicals became its most ardent advocates.

        What I’ve written here is largely a collection of my own thoughts. I resigned from my law firm about 14 months ago to take a 9-to-5 job that would give me more time to explore things. So, this is something of a collection of my experiences during my 14 months of coming out of the closet, trying to find a place within the gay Christian community, feeling a rekindled desire to be with women, just being overwhelmed by the complexity of human sexuality, and coming to see the “gay” script as nothing more than an ironic critique of he “straight” script that’s prescribed by bourgeois society in the US.

        Actually, it was a friend’s comment about a trip to London that led me to start thinking about a lot of this. He commented that he was very confused in London because 80% of the men seemed to be gay. By this, he merely meant that they wore tailored clothes, had stylish haircuts, and were well groomed. My work travels generally take me to Zurich or Geneva as opposed to London, but I’d sensed something of the same phenomenon: In Switzerland, I noticed that I generally felt straight. I even had a much easier time attracting the attention of women, despite my limited skill at speaking French and German in social situations. And, in a strange way, I felt attracted to women in Europe in a way that I didn’t in the US.

        I am thinking of writing an article, and have recently connected with a couple of evangelical scholars to help me in putting something together and placing it in a journal where it will get some viewership.

      • RobD says:


        As a follow-up, I would also commend Ross Douthat’s January 29, 2014 editorial “Social Liberalism and Class Warfare” that appeared in the NYT. I think Douthat accurately captures some of the social dynamics that are at play within the same-sex marriage debates in the US.

  19. Pingback: Mere Fidelity: Surprised by NT Wright | Mere Orthodoxy | Christianity, Politics, and Culture

  20. Further comments in response to this and this. Some might be interested:

    The metaphors of giving birth and nursing are not ‘often made regarding God Himself’. I would be interested to see how many references it takes to constitute ‘often’. Fancy listing several? Of the claims I have seen on this front, most are exegetically dubious, such as those in Job. While I have no objection to female metaphors applied to Christ, for instance (and have highlighted a number of these myself in the past), they really don’t ‘prove’ what many presume that they do. Besides, the Apostle Paul is quite happy to speak of himself as nursing, going into labour, and giving birth (Galatians 4:19; 1 Thessalonians 2:7).

    As for male-procreative metaphors, God identifies himself as ‘Father’ throughout the Scriptures. This is more than a mere metaphor. God doesn’t just say that he is ‘like’ a Father, but he identifies himself as Father. While he may use occasional maternal metaphors (although he far more often uses bird and rock metaphors), God never identifies himself as Mother.

    There is no word for womb in the passage, but this is besides the point (besides, the parallel is made with reference to the womb elsewhere). The conceptual parallel remains clear. The woman’s labour in bringing forth children is indeed paralleled with the man’s labour in bringing forth fruit from the earth. But look closer, because this parallel makes my point. From where does the woman bring forth children? From her own body/womb: she herself shall ‘bring forth’.

    Adam doesn’t bring forth from his own body, but from the earth, and from his wife (the multiple meanings of the term ‘seed’ can be played upon in this context). His wife will, in pain, also bring forth thorns and thistles—like wicked Cain—to him (thorns and thistles are elsewhere used as images of wicked persons).

    Our formation in our mothers’ womb is bound up with the formation of humanity from the earth (Psalm 139:15) and our return to the earth is seen as precisely that—a return (Job 1:21). The earth is a womb (cf. Genesis 1:24) and our mother’s womb is in some sense an extension of that womb.

    As for objecting to calling Eve Adam’s ‘helper’, you are making a distinction without any significant difference. God is spoken of both as Israel’s ‘help’ and ‘helper’ in several translations. The word doesn’t mean ‘strong rescuer’, although it may imply that sense in particular contexts. To apply this meaning to the term in Genesis 2 is a considerable overreading. What ‘help’ means is contextually dependent in Hebrew, much as in English. Where the related verb form is used in the OT, for instance, we see it being applied to a considerable range of relationships, from God’s help of Israel to the assistance provided by vassal kings to their master.

    What does it mean for the woman to be the man’s helper in Genesis 2? The answer to that should be discerned from a close reading of the text. A few things to note:

    1. The woman was created as a helper for the man, not the man as a helper for the woman, or even both formed simultaneously as helpers for each other. As Paul points out, there is some sort of priority to the man and the woman is in some manner defined relative to him in a way that he isn’t defined relative to her (1 Corinthians 11:8-9; 1 Timothy 2:13). This doesn’t mean that the woman is lower than the man, but it entails an important difference. The woman is formed by God, brought to the man, and named by the man, much as the man named the lesser helpers, the animals. The woman, however, is different: she is his equal, though not the same as him.

    2. Adam received his priestly commission ‘to guard and to serve’ the Garden and the command concerning the tree before the woman was created. The impression is that the woman is to help him in the task that he has been given. The task is committed to Adam and Eve is created to help Adam fulfil his task. Of course, Eve has a task of her own, which brings to completion what is started in Adam. However, Adam’s task comes first.

    3. The Fall is Adam’s because, unlike Eve, he has been given the commandment concerning the tree first-hand (notice the single form of the pronouns in 3:11 and 17). Eve receives it second-hand, from Adam, which is why she can be deceived by the serpent (if she had received it first-hand, she would have been a high-handed transgressor).

    4. The woman is created as a ‘counterpart’ helper to Adam, not as a lower form of life or as a sidekick. However, she is created as a distinct and different form of human, with a distinct form of vocation (which is why we have gendered judgments in Genesis 3).

    5. Beyond the priestly task of ‘guarding and serving’ (language associated with the task of the priesthood in the tabernacle—see Greg Beale and others for extensive treatments of the temple imagery in Genesis 2), Adam is given the priestly task of upholding (and teaching) the commandment and also the task of naming. As a figure, Adam particularly symbolizes God’s authority in the creation. The vocation of humanity focuses on two key poles in Genesis 1: dominion (‘have dominion’ and ‘subdue’ the earth) and generation (‘be fruitful and multiply’ and ‘fill the earth’). These two poles correspond to the two sets of three creation days. The first three days are days of subduing and dominion, where God subdues the formless creation and establishes the boundaries of the world (between Day and Night, Heaven and under the Heaven, Earth and Seas). These three days are also days of naming. The second three days are days of filling, where God addresses the emptiness of the creation, successively filling each of the realms he has created, causing the earth to bring forth new life from its womb. The same pattern of forming and filling, addressing formlessness and addressing emptiness, dominion and generation, continues in chapter 2, where the man is chiefly associated with the former, while the woman is chiefly associated with the latter.

    6. The woman is created to address a particular problem: the man’s aloneness. The man was created in part as an answer to the problem of the lack of any man to serve the earth (Genesis 2:5—like Eve in her relation to Adam’s task, Adam was created to serve the earth, not to be subservient to it). The creation of the man doesn’t adequately solve the problem, however. One man is hardly capable of serving the whole earth and performing all of the work of the priestly Garden-sanctuary. Exodus 18:17-18, where it was ‘not good’ that Moses had to judge Israel ‘alone’, is an illuminating parallel. Eve addressed Adam’s aloneness, first by assisting him in his particular task, but more importantly as she performed her particular task of giving rise to new life and communion, providing the possibility of humanity being fruitful, multiplying, and filling the earth. Unsurprisingly, it is in the bearing of children that her vocation is most focused (hence the particular character of the judgment upon the woman). Bearing children is a matter of huge importance in Scripture, not just about the private sentimental bonds of the household, as our society can often make it. Note that the great new works of God in such places as the books of Exodus, Ruth, Samuel, and Luke all begin with faithful and courageous women bringing forth children.

    Eve is Adam’s counterpart, not less than him. However, Adam has an important priority (conversely, Eve has an important finality). This priority, like the priority that the Father has in relation to the Son doesn’t mean superiority (or even entail subordination, in the sense that many complementarians speak of it). It means that there is an order to the flow of human life and, just as Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct persons in the unity of the Trinity and are each associated with distinct movements in the divine economy, so male and female are not interchangeable or immediately reversible, but are equal participants in the drama of creation, albeit with differing yet constantly interdependent and interlocking vocations. As distinct in their identities, male and female are equal, but not simply interchangeable, much as the persons of the Trinity.

    The point here is not hierarchy, but difference. Looked at from different perspectives, the work of all of the persons of the Trinity could be seen as ordered towards the Spirit … or towards the Son … or towards the Father. There isn’t a hierarchy moving in a single direction. However, nor is there pure symmetry. The centrality of the Son is a particular sort of centrality (the centrality of Word, formation, authority, image, etc.). The centrality of the Father is a different sort of centrality (the centrality of authorization, priority, origin, etc.). The centrality of the Spirit is yet another different sort of centrality (the centrality of the future, love, communion, glory, etc.). Just as each person of the Trinity operates in terms of the centrality of the others, without usurping it, so men and women are called to do in their own way. Once all of this has been understood, we will have a better handle upon what the Scriptures mean by referring to the woman as the man’s helper.


    No, Greek masculine pronouns, and not in translation.

    Who is saying that female bodies are not sanctified?

    Symbols matter. It matters whether God’s fatherly authority in his Church is symbolized by men or by women. Among other things, that God’s authority is represented as fatherly maintains the symbolic importance of the material hiatus between God and his creation.

    Where did I say that women are symbolized by night and sea? Besides, even if they were, that wouldn’t mean that they are annihilated. Gentiles are symbolized by the sea in Scripture and, last I checked, Gentiles are not annihilated (save perhaps in the sense of no longer being outsiders). Earth is also the place from which the dead are raised in the new birth of the resurrection.

    I don’t think that you have a clear idea of what this symbolism is about at all. It isn’t about assigning higher or lower places to the sexes, but about reading the scriptural text carefully and understanding it on its own terms.

    • One final comment in response to this:

      John 16:13.

      I suggest that you re-read mine and Wright’s comments. Neither of us said that the heaven-earth binary mapped onto the male-female binary. Rather, both of us said that the heaven-earth binary had similar characteristics to the male-female binary. That is a very different sort of claim than what you seem to be presuming that we said. Neither of us made the claim that ‘male’ is associated with heaven. Only I made the claim that there is a particular sort of association between the woman and the earth (while saying that the man also has a strong association with the earth of a different character).

      This symbolism is not something that ‘overrides’ reality. Rather, it draws attention to some of the deeper relational and symbolic structures of reality. Because of the form that procreation takes, men and women have different sorts of relational and symbolic significance. Men do not have a direct bodily connection to their offspring. Fathers stand over against their offspring to a degree that mothers cannot. Mothers have an immediate bodily connection with their offspring, as their offspring are formed in their womb and feed on their breasts. All bonds of flesh and bone are mediated by women, as all these human bonds are forged in their bodies.

      While the bond between mother and child is more natural, immediate, and physical, the bond between father and child is more mediated, covenantal, and legal. The father is bound to his children through his wife, through the covenant bonds of marriage and family, and through the law. ‘Mother’ and ‘father’ carry different relational and symbolic value and aren’t interchangeable. Those who fail to appreciate this are the ones overriding reality. Both reflect dimensions of the work of God. However, in something such as the symbolizing of God’s authority in relation to humanity, it is important to maintain its fatherly character. Creation is not begotten in God’s womb, but is made as an act. There are senses in which we are begotten by God, but these correspond to the father’s role in procreation, not the mother’s. When this authority is symbolized as female, God’s relationship to his creation is misrepresented. None of this means, of course, that women don’t have a unique symbolic significance of their own, in which they reflect God in a distinct manner.

  21. Ryan Smith says:

    Alastair, you need to look at Fred Clark’s post on it… http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2014/06/18/my-interview-with-n-t-wright-on-marriage-equality/#disqus_thread

    I very much question whether or not the critiques are interested in dialogue at this level. They need to be called out because the discussion is disintegrating.


    • Colin Clout says:

      There is a striking lack of awareness that the pro gay position is now the position with power, and that, as Friere said, “The intellectual activity of those without power is always characterized as nonintellectual.”

    • Beyond snark and ridicule—of which we have more than enough already—I’m not sure what that particular post adds to the conversation.

      • Ryan Smith says:

        But it seems that this is increasingly the case. There is a call for dialogue that has already excluded conservative orthodox views on sexuality from the outset.

        The moving of the goal posts creates a real problem particularly with the young people I work with (from non-Christian families).

        The difficulty is that on the one hand lgbt advocates are in power in a lot of areas right now… public moral sphere, the government moral sphere etc. Yet on the other hand are able to portray themselves as a helpless victim of the evil Church people.

        Don’t get me wrong we should repudiate every instance of discrimination against lgbt people but the definition of discrimination is getting awfully wide.

        Ben Moberg (and others) believe that N.T. Wright’s analogy here should be classified as a “hate crime.”

        My question Alastair is are post-evangelicals really desirous of “dialogue” or “domination.”

      • Thanks for the comment, Ryan.

        In my experience, genuine dialogue is seldom what is desired. Whatever ‘conversation’ is envisaged tends to be fairly one-way. Having interacted with a great many of them, I know that very few revisionists truly open themselves up to questioning.

        As soon as a subject is opened up for debate in such a manner, the traditional position has been at least implicitly been re-framed as questionable and debatable. At this point it can no longer claim to be authoritative because Christians differ, it is a matter of interpretation, and the traditional perspective cannot be favoured over new readings. After this re-framing, the traditional position has to respect the revisionist readings as valid Christian interpretations. Of course, this essentially rules out the traditional position, which is no longer permitted to articulate itself as to do so would undermine this respect.

        Revisionists want ‘dialogue’ when they are in the minority and the traditional position holds sway. However, as soon as they have the advantage, dialogue is the first thing to go. The actual occurrence of dialogue is seen to be hostile and insensitive. To include LGBT persons on an equal basis it must be insisted that we show the sensitivity not to open up their status to question and close down any challenging of their position.

        I am sure that some genuinely believe that conversation is all that they want. However, experience should teach us that conversation on revisionists’ terms will almost invariably lead to the exclusion or silencing of the traditional position. Their understanding of the inclusion of LGBT persons on an equal footing essentially excludes genuine dialogue and their opposition to the traditional position is of such a character that they cannot easily allow it to retain its voice.

        So, no, I don’t think that there is really an openness to ‘dialogue’.

  22. That Fred Clark post confirms for me the importance of ‘the bigger picture’. I watched N.T.Wright on ‘that’ video and for me, his message consisted not only of his words, but also his tone of voice, his gestures, his facial expressions – in a nutshell, the heart and spirit of the man. Oh, it’s easy to split hairs over this and that and that and this, but I think Wright is a good ‘un and I speak as one who has had just a taste of his contribution.

  23. bowmanwalton says:

    “Yuck,” Alastair, has been a hot topic in research on moral emotions. One celebrated hypothesis about that– suggestive but unproven– is explored at the link.

    Click to access rozin.lowery.1999.moral-emotion-triad-hypothesis.pub012.pdf

  24. Further comments from the Sarah Moon thread:

    The thing that has interested me in all of this has been the fact that, amidst the motive-guessing, tone-policing, and other drives for discursive justice, the interaction with my argument against Sarah’s reading has been slim, to say the least (see here for a more detailed articulation of my argument against her understanding of Wright).

    I am an appreciative but critical reader of Wright: I don’t have much at stake in defending his reputation. He is more than able to defend himself and I have next to nothing professional at stake here (my academic work doesn’t really engage significantly with Wright at all). I do have somewhat more at stake in defending against careless readings of his work, from whatever quarter they arise, largely because Wright has been a theological interlocutor for me and for others and it is important to me that he is engaged with on his own terms, rather than as someone who underwrites my own or anyone else’s theological preconceptions and interests. I also have a vested interest in a theological conversation where people are represented accurately and charitably and where attentive dialogue takes priority over loud protest. My contention is that Sarah’s is a careless and inattentive reading of Wright.

    Impartiality is not the issue around which this discussion is focused. We all have things at stake, partialities, emotions, etc. I make no pretence to impartiality or pure objectivity here. The question is whether we can keep these things sufficiently in check to conform to the requirements of productive and illuminating academic discourse.


    The expectations of top quality academic discourse are demanding and cannot be met by the overwhelming majority of the population. Theology is no exception here. It is an elite discipline. It always has been and it always will be. Yes, there are privilege and power relations here, just as there are privilege and power relations in the fact that only a small minority can be doctors, philosophers, neuroscientists, politicians, etc.

    If we are looking for excellence in such an academic discipline, it will generally be restricted to people with the natural privilege of intellectual aptitude, with the privilege of supportive families, socio-economic privilege, educational privilege, and the various further privileges that expertise and academic authority and status can bring with them. Anyone who is an academic theologian, no matter how disadvantaged their background, enjoys considerable privilege in many respects. This is just the very nature of the case of virtually any field of human endeavour ordered towards excellence. If we want to do something really well, we usually have to prepare certain people to specialize in that area, thereby constituting them as an elite and limiting the participation of 99% of the population.

    You seem to misrepresent a number of my points here. First, I never claimed that academic discourse has to be ‘dispassionate’ (something of which I am suspicious). Controlling one’s passions and not allowing them to overheat one’s thinking is quite different from being dispassionate. Second, I never said or assumed that the norms of academic discourse shouldn’t be questioned. Having questioned them, however, I believe that there are good reasons for many of them. Third, I never denied the right of non-academics to challenge academics.

    If we want to engage in high quality academic discourse, a number of things are pre-requisites. We need to be careful and attentive readers and listeners. We need a robust acquaintance with the subjects and sources that we are discussing. We need to be able to make sound and logical arguments. We need to have the necessary linguistic, philosophical, textual, comprehension, hermeneutical, theological, historical, etc. skills for the task we’ve set ourselves. We need to have the self-control necessary to be patient, level-headed, alert, attentive, and perceptive, even when our passions might overcome our thinking process. More things could be listed.

    Many people with PhDs lack these pre-requisites and many without PhDs have them. Fulfilling these pre-requisites and attaining these skills isn’t easy and, if we are pursuing a high quality conversation, we will have to exclude most people from it. This doesn’t mean that their voices aren’t heard (academic conversations are in conversation with many non-academic conversations), just that they are not included as theologians. Law and politics are other examples where an elite group take part in a conversation that has, as an integral dimension, constant conversation with other parties outside of that elite and openness to their challenge.

    Moving to the specific conversation at hand, it is one thing for someone to protest that theologians should pay more attention to the lived experience of queer persons. It is something rather different for someone to protest that a theologian like N.T. Wright is being inconsistent with himself in his theology. One does not need to be a theologian to make the first claim. The second claim, however, is one that requires academic theological discourse to sustain it. If one is sufficiently acquainted with Wright’s work and has the necessary pre-requisites to engage in academic debate on this point, it is perfectly legitimate to make the claim, even if one has no formal training whatsoever, However, when someone makes such a claim, they should be expected to be prepared to defend it on academic terms and not be given special allowances because they have a lot vested in the issue and can’t have an appropriate academic debate. If they can’t do that, they should stick to the first sort of claims and call upon others to pursue the academic conversation in their stead, just as we get politicians and lawyers to advocate for us.


    Our stake in a conversation does make us vulnerable to being misguided by prejudice or self-interest. It is harder to engage in a conversation when you feel at risk of being hurt by the viewpoints expressed. It is harder to listen carefully and patiently to an argument or person by whom we feel threatened. It is harder to engage rationally on issues that are emotive for us. So, yes, in all of these ways some people will find conforming to the expectations of academic discourse to be particularly difficult.

    However, these expectations of academic discourse are important. The alternative is the indulging of weak self-serving arguments, the closing down of voices—sometimes even voices declaring the truth—on account of heightened sensitivities, a failure to listen carefully to other voices and arguments and to seek to understand and represent them accurately, and a movement towards heat and anger, rather than light and insight, These expectations make it hard for many to participate in academic discourse but we can’t dispense with them without dispensing with the integrity of the discourse itself.

    Any discourse that depends upon extensive knowledge, a wide skill-set, access to resources, deep acquaintance with primary and secondary sources, recognition by lead interlocutors, publication, access to exclusive institutions, etc. will necessarily be privileged. It will be difficult for the socially marginalized to enter it for a host of reasons and those that do will become privileged persons in many respects themselves, even if we describe their status in a more intersectional manner.

  25. Hi Alastair,
    I just want to say that I have now posted on Sarah Moon’s blog, as a linguist and German specialist.

    • I just checked Sarah’s blog. She has replied to me – courteously – and dismissed what I said. I don’t feel that I can add, fruitfully, to what I have already said on Sarah’s blog.
      I won’t comment, either, on your blog above Alastair – outside my area of expertise 🙂

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