Easter Course and Summer Programmes

I’m excited to share with you some of the courses and programmes that I will be teaching in the next few months.

Theopolis Institute Easter Course

The first is a course with the Theopolis Institute on the theology of the sexes, between March 12-16 in Birmingham, Alabama. Here is the description of what the course will involve:

There are few issues that confront us on as many fronts in contemporary culture and theology as those relating to sex and gender. Yet Christian responses to these pressing challenges are often uncertain, reactive, piecemeal, and lacking in wisdom.

This course presents an alternative approach. Within it students will learn how to coordinate the resources and insights of different theological and other disciplines into a unified, robust, and compelling positive Christian vision. Students will explore how such a vision can inform wise action.

The course will extend students’ attention beyond the controverted texts of the gender debates to develop an expansive biblical theology of the sexes, demonstrating the theological potential and importance of a careful literary and typological reading of Scripture in the process. Bringing scriptural insight and the Christian tradition into conversation with research in the natural and social sciences and work in the humanities, students will also learn how Christian thought can be enriched by such engagement and how we are able to speak with confidence into debates in contemporary culture.

Over a week of lectures and seminar sessions, this Christian vision of the sexes will be brought to bear on a variety of specific theological, practical, cultural, and theoretical questions, demonstrating the capacity of such an integrated vision to enhance the force and clarity of our Christian witness. Questions relating to issues such as the gendering of God, ministry in the Church, same-sex marriage, men and women at home and work, along with several others, will all be addressed during the week.

In addition to equipping students to respond wisely to specific challenges of our contemporary Christian and social contexts, this course will train students to hold biblical insight, theological doctrine, philosophical reflection, scientific research, and cultural reality into fruitful relation. It will demonstrate how principled and prudent ethics arise from the establishment and maintenance of such a relation.

For anyone interested in my forthcoming book on the subject, prior to its release this is perhaps the nearest thing there will be to a broad presentation of its thesis. There will, of course, be lots of time devoted to interaction and questions over the period too, along with a series of lectures by Peter Leithart. The registration deadline is March 5, but, if you are interested in attending, I’d recommend registering as soon as you can.

Davenant House Summer Programmes

Last year, I led a couple of summer programmes in which we explored a series of texts contributing to a vision of Christian wisdom. The feedback from the courses was very positive, and a couple of courses have been scheduled for June. The first is a five-day course from June 11-16 and the second a ten-day course from June 18-30. I highly recommend these courses to anyone who would like to explore Christian thought and its contemporary relevance more deeply, while enjoying fellowship with other students in incredible natural surroundings in South Carolina. You can read some of the feedback from last year’s courses here. I am really looking forward to being involved in this study programme again, having had such a wonderful time last year.

There is a discount for people who register early, so don’t miss your opportunity!

Posted in What I'm Doing | 3 Comments

Where to Find My Stuff

A commenter recently requested that I restart my links posts. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen: writing links posts was a lot of fun, but I did not feel that it was the best use of my time (open mic threads are unlikely to be revived either, for similar reasons). What the commenter didn’t realize, however, was that I have a Twitter account devoted to links. It occurred to me that some of my readers, especially newer ones, may not be aware of the existence or of how to access some of my material. With that in mind, here is a quick list of where to find things:

Alastair’s Links: My links account on Twitter.

@Zugzwanged: My personal Twitter account, where I am currently inactive, but from which my posts here are all linked.

Postcards from the Oubliette: My personal Tumblr account, intermittently active. I have an inactive Tumblr devoted to crafting, especially knitting, but I am not sharing the details of that. Nor am I sharing the details of my old website devoted to general wordgaming nerdery.

Curious Cat: Where I answer questions. Again, this is currently inactive, but may be revived in the future.

40 Bikes: A backup of my really old blog. I no longer agree with certain of my positions there. Caveat lector. The blog that I ran during my time in St Andrews was backed up onto my current blog when I first started it.

Passing the Salt Shaker: A dormant group blog I once participated in around gender issues.

The main places that you need to know about on this blog are generally found in the pages bar at the top.

Mere Fidelity: Links to every episode we have ever recorded. We also have a page on Soundcloud and a Patreon account for anyone interested in supporting us.

Writings Elsewhere: Links to pretty much all of my posts on other sites.

Books: Links to books I have written or to which I have contributed, along with a number of free ebooks.

Larger Projects: Hover over this title in the bar at the top to see links to a number of larger blogging projects I have started (and a few I have finished) over the years. Particularly noteworthy are my 40 Days of Exodus series, which may whet your appetite for my forthcoming book on the subject with Andrew Wilson, my notes on Luke and John, and my post of questions and answers on same-sex marriage (my most popular blog post ever).

Photos and Travel: Photos of various special occasions and holidays. See my three part series on my America trip, for instance.

Audio and Video: Various videos and talks I have given.

About: A very brief (and old) bio and the page where people generally contact me.

I think that is pretty much it, save for the donate button, which is in the sidebar. I generally avoid asking for money and my blog has always operated at a loss, but donations to defray some of the costs of hosting are always most welcome!

Posted in Public Service Announcement | 2 Comments

As One Having Authority

I’ve just posted over on Political Theology Today, discussing the authority with which Jesus spoke and arguing that we need to communicate this authority today:

The authoritative word still retains considerable power in our day and age, even though we often find ourselves recoiling from its immodesty. It is far better, we may believe, always to hedge our statements with affirmations of individual choice, the right of each person to determine their own good, and deflationary qualifications reducing our words to the level of private opinion. Even though obligation is not the same as compulsion, we would not want to trespass upon the right of people to determine their own course of action. However, on those shocking occasions when someone dares to speak authoritatively—firmly, yet without hectoring, acquainting others with their obligation to act in a specific manner—many may still experience it as a form of weighty liberation.

One of the dangerous yet important characteristics of the Church’s ministry is its authoritative speech: authorized by Christ himself, the Church is to communicate Christ’s own authority, obliging and releasing people to act in line with it. The Church does not just dispense advice, but declares the word of Christ which obliges us to follow and by which one day we will be judged. The authoritative word of Christ furnishes lost and disoriented people with truthful ways of life.

Read the whole thing here.

Posted in Bible, Christian Experience, Ethics, Guest Post, Mark, NT, Politics, Scripture, Society, Theological | 1 Comment

What Socialization and Social Construction Can’t Explain

In a discussion such as that surrounding Jordan Peterson’s recent interview, one can predict with some certainty that several responses will appear countering claims about psychological and behavioural differences between the sexes with appeals to the forces of socialization and social construction. These, it will be insisted, are the principal reason for the differences between the sexes that we observe. Any appeal to natural differences between the sexes will be dismissed as founded upon sexist science and unwarranted assumptions. Contrasts in outcomes between the sexes, it will be claimed, can easily be accounted for without needing to assume such significant biological differences. The real cause of the great majority of the differences can be found in the system of patriarchy and its attendant forms of socialization.

This challenge, unfortunately, often functions as a purely negative move. Its purpose is to dismiss claims concerning differences, not to advance any alternative testable hypothesis. In practice, this denial of differing innate traits or tendencies—or ‘blank slatism’—tends to function as an anti-empirical appeal to faith, rather than as a position presented for critical consideration. It doesn’t subject itself to the same rigorous cross-examination as the positions it criticizes. Rather, it offers a way to escape a deeply unwelcome position that threatens the sacred principles of egalitarianism; much like an octopus might squirt ink to evade a predator, social construction and socialization are appealed to in order to explain away, rather than explain the evidence. Sadly, the purpose seldom seems to be that of serving the constructive task of illuminating and advancing understanding.

Our particular expressions of gender are certainly social constructs, rather than inevitable results of nature. However, so are things like personhood, consent (and the age of consent), rights, rape, the individual, money, etc. The claim that something is a social construct does not have anything quite like the deflationary force that many laypeople presume (scholars generally know better): to be a social construct is not to be unimportant, nor is it to be exceedingly malleable. It certainly doesn’t mean that the social construct isn’t independent of any constraining or ordering reality beyond itself, or that social constructs can take whichever forms we prefer.

Nor, for that matter, is it something we can simply do without. For instance, masculine and feminine gender norms differ from culture to culture, but having masculine and feminine gender norms is pretty much a cultural universal. Besides, most cultures choose to accentuate the difference between male and female in various ways, because it is a beautiful and a meaningful difference, worthy of being gloriously ‘dressed up’.

It can be important to recognize the relative contingency, plasticity, and performativity of many aspects of gender and the many seemingly arbitrary features of our gender norms. For instance, pink for girls and blue for boys is often referenced as an example of this, many claiming that the colours used to be reversed in their assignment (although there is more recent research questioning the accuracy of these historical claims, which also draws attention to cross-cultural patterns in sex differences in colour preference along the more familiar stereotypical lines). The association of pink with girls is most likely a form of socialization that, even if it were to play to some underlying natural tendencies, can encourage pronounced gendering effects that are not themselves straightforwardly attributable to nature. Many of us are justifiably wary of the way that the ‘pink is for girls’ assumption may drive both girls and boys away from some things and towards others, preventing them from exploring certain interests and possibilities, trapping them within certain restrictive expectations.

Socialization and social construction are clearly important factors that we should attend to. However, rather than just gesturing vaguely in their direction as the factors that explain everything, it is important to give an intelligent and careful account of how exactly they function and what and how much of the differences between the sexes they can actually explain.

Many feminists seem to think that, since it isn’t hard to locate bad science and research supporting the existence of sex differences, all claims that such differences exist can be rejected. We can merely reel off some of the more ridiculous claims of evolutionary psychology and be done with the whole thing. Of course, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and feminism would almost doubtless fare far worse if judged by the standard of the poorest research that it produces!

Writers like Cordelia Fine have made a cottage industry of challenging poor research on sex differences and are unsurprisingly darlings of the feminist left. However, it is important to notice that the appeal of Fine and others like her rests in part upon the fact that they are only drawing attention to part of the picture, to the most questionable research on sex differences. They are pushing back against various extreme arguments and claims that have been pressed too far, but they are certainly not demolishing the main body of the sex differences case. Nor are they highlighting the many weaknesses of some of the most popular research on their own side of the questions. For example, see this criticism of a piece that received considerable attention among feminists a few years back, or the fairly devastating criticisms of Daphna Joel’s work denying empirical brain differences between the sexes. The problem is that feminists generally aren’t sticking around with the conversation long enough to see that, despite the fact that they are landing (or sometimes just appearing to land) a few widely-publicized blows, they are increasingly on the losing side of the scientific debate.

Here it is also interesting to pay attention to the admissions that people like Fine will make, which reveal that their arguments really don’t undermine the growing scientific consensus as much as their feminist supporters might think. Scott Alexander observes in a post about the successful functioning of the scientific consensus:

Yes, Cordelia Fine is still around and is still writing books arguing against gender differences. But she’s starting to sound really defensive, basically the literary equivalent of “I know I’m going to be downvoted to hell for this, but…”. Meanwhile, other scientists are doing a good job pointing out the flaws in her books and conducting studies like this biggest-ever look at male vs. female brain differences, this magisterial look at personality differences, et cetera – not to mention great and widely-accepted work on how intersex people take on more characteristics of their hormonal than their social gender (honestly, we should probably thank transgender people for making this field socially acceptable again). People talk a lot about how Larry Summers was fired from Harvard for talking about male vs. female differences, but Steven Pinker did a whole debate on this and remains a Harvard professor.

It is also telling to see the way that Fine responded to the firing of James Damore, the author of the controversial Google memo about sex differences potentially explaining the greater number of men in STEM fields. Although Fine clearly doesn’t want to go as far as Damore, she can’t simply dismiss his approach as bad science either:

Despite authoring two acclaimed books on gender, Fine, a leading feminist science writer, feels “torn in many different directions” by Damore. She believes his memo made many dubious assumptions and ignored vast swaths of research that show pervasive discrimination against women. But his summary of the differences between the sexes, she says, was “more accurate and nuanced than what you sometimes find in the popular literature”.

Some of Damore’s ideas, she adds, are “very familiar to me as part of my day-to-day research, and are not seen as especially controversial. So there was something quite extraordinary about someone losing their job for putting forward a view that is part of the scientific debate. And then to be so publicly shamed as well. I felt pretty sorry for him.”

Fine knows that Damore’s position is probably closer to the developing scientific consensus of the field of sex difference research than hers is, so she can’t simply discredit him, even though she wants to push back against some of directions that the field seems to be moving in. That can be entirely good and healthy—science thrives in environments where ideas are rigorously stress-tested—provided that such critical work is not, as is far too commonly the case, taken as the definitive word on the matters in question, entirely discrediting the positions it criticizes. We can all become stronger when our ideas are subject to careful challenge from intelligent and informed critics. People who are identifying weaknesses in advancing sex differences positions and pushing back against them to some degree, honestly and intelligently engaging in the scientific debate, are to be praised. However, those who simply discredit those positions on account of some of their weaker research, fail to subject their own positions to close critical scrutiny, and fall back upon some dogmatic natural egalitarianism are just being dishonest or wilfully blind.

When people approach an area of research primarily as a source of challenges to their deeply held prior convictions to be warded off (or also merely as a source of validation for those convictions, for that matter), rather than as a field of inquiry rigorously to be engaged in in the pursuit of understanding, all sorts of mischief can occur. Creationist science has long had problems on this front. It too easily focuses upon criticizing extreme cases in order to discredit threatening positions, rather than presenting a constructive, coherent, testable, and contestable vision of its own that accounts for reality. It more readily explains away evidence than it explains it. While it may genuinely identify problems with certain evolutionary explanations, it doesn’t present strong alternatives that could sustain critical examination.

People who snipe at science from the safety of their ideological or religious encampments should be drawn out into the field, where the mettle of their own positions will really be tested. Highly selective criticism of opponents for the purpose of discrediting them is neither proof of nor evidence for one’s own orthodoxies, especially when you do not subject your own position to the same sort of criticism. Those denying that significant natural sex differences exist and attributing observed differences largely to socialization and social construction are advancing extremely partisan and controversial positions. As their form of egalitarianism demands the minimization of natural differences between the sexes as a tenet of its orthodoxy, they cannot usually countenance placing that conviction in jeopardy in the arena of scientific questioning. As I’ve already noted, it functions as a sacred dogma, rather than as a contestable hypothesis.

However, as I believe that conversation and testing of ideas in these areas is important, I’ve decided to list some of the questions and issues that I would like to see such blank slatists tackle or account for. If they can do so, they will demonstrate that their position merits more serious consideration and respect. If they can’t, it is probably best largely ignored as unscientific and obscurantist.


1. If gender differences are largely a social construct and a matter of socialization, why do we see such pronounced similarities between gender roles for cultures around the world and throughout history? Why is it that men and women are fairly instantly recognizable as such between relatively unrelated cultures? Why has research tended to reveal that gender stereotypes are largely consistent across otherwise different cultures? For instance, after comparing thirty societies, Deborah Best and John Williams observed that the pancultural similarities regarding gender were considerably greater than the differences, comparing the relations between such cultures as like variations on a single ball game. Across societies, the same sets of traits tended to be associated with men (active, adventurous, aggressive, arrogant, coarse, conceited, enterprising, hardheaded, loud, opinionated, opportunistic, quick, reckless, tough, etc.) and with women (affected, affectionate, cautious, changeable, charming, dependent, emotional, fearful, modest, nervous, pleasant, sensitive, soft-hearted, warm, etc.).

2. Why is it that in egalitarian societies, the greater freedom that men and women enjoy leads to many of the differences between them becoming more, rather than less, pronounced? The social scientists who argued that gendered socialization explained most differences predicted that gender equality would lead to the disappearance of many sex differences, yet in a great many areas they have become more pronounced. Paradoxically, this raises the possibility that socialization is a factor, but that it often serves to dampen the tendency of the sexes to differ, rather than to amplify it. When we have less pressures pushing us in specific directions, we will tend to express our more fundamental inclinations.

3. When talking about the way that we (especially as children) are shaped by cultural ‘messages’, it is really important to ask why certain messages resonate and others do not. Children are impressionable, but practically every parent knows that they latch onto certain things with a fierce intensity, while being entirely indifferent or resistant to many other things that they are strongly encouraged to take an interest in. If the messages given to us in the course of our socialization were so powerful, perhaps fewer kids would refuse to eat their greens! From the very earliest age, kids can develop obsessions that are not readily explained primarily by socialization. How is it that the toddler son of two professionals develops his craze for trucks and diggers? Yes, it is a gendered obsession, but where did it come from? Why that gendered obsession, when there may have been so many other options nearer at hand, which never took root? Why is it that, despite all of the effort progressive parents go to in order to prevent their children falling into gendered stereotypes, so many of their boys end up playing with guns and their girls get obsessed with princess movies? Why is it that two siblings exposed to largely the same socialization can grow up to be so different, especially if they are not genetically related? These are questions that aren’t pondered enough. What they do is highlight that the messages may be less important than the inclinations of the person receiving them.

4. Why is it that children exposed to high levels of androgens in the womb, yet raised as girls, develop more typically masculine interests and activities? Why is it that girls with classical congenital adrenal hyperplasia are more interested in boys’ toys and tend to go into masculine professions far more than their female peers? Why is it that a child like David Reimer, raised as a girl, but actually a boy so strongly rejected the socialization he received? Why is it that receptivity of girls to feminine socialization is so related to the degree of their exposure to androgens in the womb and that girls with particularly high levels of exposure strongly react against feminine socialization? J. Richard Udry expresses the situation well:

A biosocial macro theory is simple: Humans form their social structures around gender because males and females have different and biologically influenced behavioural predispositions. Gendered social structure is a universal accommodation to this biological fact. Societies demonstrate wide latitude in this accommodation-they can accentuate gender, minimize it, or leave it alone. If they ignore it, it doesn’t go away. If they depart too far from the underlying sex-dimorphism of biological predispositions, they will generate social malaise and social pressures to drift back toward closer alignment with biology. A social engineering program to degender society would require a Maoist approach: continuous renewal of revolutionary resolve and a tolerance for conflict.

5. Why is it that we have increasing evidence for differences between male and female brains? These sex differences, according to this piece of research published just a fortnight ago, can be seen even in the brains of one-month-old infants.

6. Social construction and socialization don’t just drop down from heaven. Indeed, there are differences between the sexes to attend to here too. Why is it that men have been so much more powerful in ‘social construction’ across human societies, forming most of the institutions, making most of the laws, etc.? If the sexes really aren’t that different, why has one sex supposedly dominated for so long and so consistently, across a great many different types of society (agriculture isn’t a sufficient explanation)? Why is it that women, as Udry observes, seem to be more susceptible to gendered socialization than men? Why is it that typical male and female socialities differ so much from very early ages, with male socialities being more combative and female socialities more communal?

7. Why is it that we see similar gender differences in those primate species that are closest to our own? Why is it that rhesus monkeys’ gendered toy preferences parallel those of children? Why do sex differences in chimpanzee behaviour emerge during infancy? Why do wild female primates use sticks as play objects in rudimentary doll play (see this video of Richard Wrangham discussing this)?

8. Why is it that the observed differences between the sexes in tendencies seem so closely to correspond to their reproductive roles in an anisogamous species—tendencies we witness in other such species—if they are merely socially constructed? Why is it that women seem to have physical and behavioural traits that are more appropriate to the primary caregiver for young children? Why is it that men seem to have physical and behavioural traits that are more appropriate for the primary provider and protector? Explaining these traits as related to natural telos, whether achieved through divine design or evolution adaptation, has a prima facie logic to it. What is the compelling reason why we should reject it?

9. On what empirical basis are such bold claims being made for the power of nurture to determine character anyway? Considering the relative weakness of the effects of nurture in adoption studies, for instance, where is the evidence that socialization is a powerful enough force to explain the sorts of differences that we see?

10. We should consider the fact that much socialization and social construction is the adaptation of a society to the constraints and the possibilities of our nature and environments. The socialization thesis as it functions in sex difference research often recognized that gender roles tended to be like water, largely following the channels laid down by reproductive roles in specific contexts: we weren’t fixed in these channels by our internal nature, yet in most situations these channels would be the most natural ones to follow due to the constraints upon us. So, for instance, in a less developed society it makes sense for women largely to function in a domestic sphere, where they can work while caring for their children. Men’s greater strength and expendability means that society would depend upon them to bring in most of the calories, to defend it from attack, to perform the primary work of construction, and to be its leaders. The assumption was that, when we were more freed from nature (with contraception, childcare, the welfare state, domestic appliances, etc.) the natural channels moving men and women into particular behaviours and traits would be removed and the sexes would be seen to be fairly similar.

However, it is important to pay attention to the importance of nature here, as it is something often ignored by those appealing to social construction and socialization from outside this discourse. The gender socialization thesis in this form does not hold that gender norms are simply arbitrary, but that traditional gender roles were largely adaptive to situations that, through advanced technology and society, we have developed beyond. In a technologically advanced modern capitalist state, the differences between male and female bodies and roles in reproduction don’t count for so much anymore. We have freed ourselves from much of the gravity of nature in these regards, but traditional gender roles are related to this nature: they just develop from adapting to nature’s pressures upon us from without our psychology rather than from within. Christians appealing to socialization in order to explain away gender difference should consider that God created men and women in ways that made some such divergence of social role almost inevitable for almost the entirety of human history.

11. It is interesting that many of the same people who appeal strongly to the power of socialization in the case of gender will argue that LGBT persons are ‘born that way’ or that things such as abstinence-only education are completely unrealistic. They seem to have an extreme faith in socialization and education on the one hand, and a dramatic lack of it on the other. Such tensions and contradictions should be challenged when they appear. As many have observed, the sexual behaviour of gay and lesbian people also illustrates what happens when gendered tendencies are dampened or constrained by the preferences and tendencies of the other sex. Gay men tend to have a lot more partners and lesbians tend to have less sex.

12. Trans persons are an interesting case study when it comes to sex differences, for various reasons. For instance, they unsettle claims about socialization: if socialization were such a powerful force, why does it fail so badly in their cases? Their experience of and the effects of sex hormones upon them as they transition also exposes some of the problems with the socialization thesis. Here are a few representative accounts. A transman:

When I started testosterone a dozen years ago, I expected my sex drive to increase. The “horror” stories are a part of trans man lore, passed down from generation to generation as we all gear up for male adolescence, no matter how old we are, and take out a line of credit at the adult toy store.

And it did increase, within about four days of my first shot, and I basically squirmed a lot for two years before I got used to it. But I was planning for that. Here are the things that took me by surprise:

> It became very focused on one thing – the goal, the prize, the end. That doesn’t mean that I was not able to “make love.” What it does mean is that there was a madness to my method, because it was goal-oriented. There was a light at the end of the tunnel. There was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There was an unguarded hoop just waiting for a slam dunk – score!

> It became very visual. I saw it, I wanted it – whatever it was. This was a new experience for me, because, in the past, I had not been aroused so much by pictures and body parts (or pictures of body parts) as I had been by words – erotic descriptions, stories, and things said to me.

> It became very visceral – instinctual – with a need to take care of it. It had very little to do with romance or even an attraction that made sense intellectually. You’re hungry, you eat. There was a matter-of-factness about it, especially when I was by myself. Hmm … peanut butter sandwich sounds good. Okay, done. Let’s move on.

Another transman:

The most overwhelming feeling is the incredible increase in libido and change in the way that I perceived women and the way I thought about sex.

Before testosterone, I would be riding the subway, which is the traditional hotbed of lust in the city. And I would see a woman on the subway and I would think, she’s attractive. I’d like to meet her. What’s that book she’s reading? I could talk to her. This is what I would say. There would be a narrative. There would be this stream of language. It would be very verbal.

After testosterone, there was no narrative. There was no language whatsoever. It was just, I would see a woman who was attractive—or not attractive. She might have an attractive quality—nice ankles or something—and the rest of her would be fairly unappealing to me.

But that was enough to basically just flood my mind with aggressive pornographic images, just one after another. It was like being in a pornographic movie house in my mind. And I couldn’t turn it off. I could not turn it off. Everything I looked at, everything I touched turned to sex.

Yet another transman:

My sex drive skyrocketed—I wanted to do it all the time. It wasn’t psychological; it was just that as each bit of T was slowly absorbed into my bloodstream, it affected the spinal ganglia attached to my dick, and made it get hard. It was terribly random, and had no connection to what I was doing at the time—taking out the garbage, riding the bus. Having fairly constant context-irrelevant sexual stimuli going on all the time is not something that women can generally understand or relate to, and I had to find ways to cope with it.

I started with jerking off. I’d never had any shame about masturbation (luckily), but before T it had been something I did once in a while in order to make myself feel good. Now it was something I did two, three, or four times a day to relieve an itch, so to speak. I had to learn to treat it like urinating; when you need to relieve yourself, you don’t wait around and hope it’ll go away; you go off and deal with it as quickly and efficiently as possible, and go back to what you were doing. I had to learn that having a hard-on was not an excuse for having sex, because there were just too darn many of them. I had to learn ways to think through them and ignore them if jerking off wasn’t appropriate; I learned that violent physical activity can relieve them.

I also learned something chilling about my new sexuality—it was far, far more programmable than it used to be. Before T, my sexual interests were fairly static and increased slowly, one new thing at a time. If I didn’t like something, I just didn’t like it. After T, I discovered that if I could think about something heretofore not sexually interesting during approximately six masturbation-to-orgasm sessions, that item would become a turn-on in and of itself….no matter what it was. I could literally program myself in a Pavlovian manner to be aroused by whatever I wanted. I found this out by accident, after I inadvertently added a few new dishes to my arousal buffet without meaning to. When I realized this, I sort of sat in shock for a while, and then I said to myself, “Boy, you’re going to have to be very, very careful from now on.”

Now some transwomen:

Lana is a transgender artist in her 30s. “Prior to transition, my sex drive didn’t have an off switch,” she said in an interview with Broadly. “I would call it a juggernaut of sorts, something that was in control of me rather than me of it.” Like many trans people, she doesn’t use traditional language to refer to her genitalia. “My bits were stimulated in a very straightforward fashion,” she explained. “I had to climax, or I was consumed with sexual desire.”…

In addition to an increased control over her sexuality and the functional changes she’s experienced, Lana said that she became less stimulated by visual depictions of sex; after she began HRT, pornography lost the allure it once had. “Simply going to bed and touching myself in the dark became much more satisfying.”

Zoey also became less visually stimulated after HRT. “I noticed that my sexuality became a lot more sensually focused,” she said. “I became more simulated emotionally than visually and found that ideas and imagination turned me on far more than anything visual.”

There is also suggestive research pointing towards the influence of sex hormones on the cognitive functioning of trans people along typical sex difference lines.

13. When talking about social construction and socialization, it is important to consider the purposes that these serve and the positive goods that they can achieve. For instance, gender norms serve the purpose of forming gendered community, allowing us to enjoy a sense of connection with other people of our sex. Socialization generally involves moderating our eccentricity and individuality so that we get the benefits that accrue to those who have learned to play well with others. Socialization will often tend to play either to the average, or to the distinguishing extremes, of a group’s tendencies. Those who reject gender norms often detach themselves from their sex in ways that can be unhealthy or limiting. Socialization pulls us in, whether through our desire to enjoy community with a particular set of people or through our desire to engage in a particular activity or indulge a specific interest that they share.

Resistance to gender norms often leaves people poorer off, as there are no longer the same social forces enabling us to form meaningful gendered communities. Everyone simply becomes a detached self-expressive individual and their enjoyment of natural commonality with others of their own sex is impaired. It is one thing to criticize certain unhealthy gender norms. However, the argument that we are better off without such norms altogether (arbitrary though they may often be), with gender reduced to a form of individual expression, is an argument that needs to be defended, not merely assumed.

Gender roles weren’t imposed by some great World Headquarters of the Patriarchy. Rather it is far more sensible to believe that they organically arose as forms of sociality around natural differences in reproductive roles and differences in behavioural and psychological tendencies and interests. Some of these roles were merely damaging and restrictive, but many gave great rewards for those who submitted to their limits. In an individualistic society, the worthwhile character of trading off absolute individual self-expression for the joys of group belonging are easily forgotten; the deep fellowship we once could enjoy with others of our sex is abandoned for the sake of maximal individual authenticity.

14. It is worth noticing that, despite fiercely opposing gender norms and the existence of gender differences, feminists can follow extremely pronounced patterns of gendered behaviour themselves. For instance, as I’ve noted in the past, feminist discourse all too commonly follows the typical pattern of female intrasexual competition. Rather than engaging directly, as men tend to do, feminists are far more likely to pathologize, attack the reputations of, sabotage, or freeze out their opponents. They are more likely to play the part of the victim and appeal to third parties to intervene on their behalf or create protective structures to keep them safe from opposing perspectives. If you look at the current battles in our public life, much of what you will see is an underlying conflict between male and female forms of sociality. We really don’t escape our natural tendencies that easily.

15. Finally, Christians may argue against appeals to natural differences by assigning certain supposedly natural traits (typically male ones) to the sinful nature, or perhaps suggesting that the Spirit somehow installs a new gender-neutral nature in us. However, this doesn’t work either. Redeemed men and women in Scripture are still obviously men and women. Sanctification channels male and female traits, but it doesn’t remove them. Paul can still call the Corinthians to courage by telling them to ‘act like men’, recognizing that this trait bears a particular relationship to masculinity. Traits such as tenderness can still be associated primarily with women and motherhood.

It is also important to challenge certain assumptions that many people have about Christian virtue, which implicitly feminize it. However, throughout Scripture, for instance, among other things we see God selecting leaders with decidedly male traits, leaders who are very tough and quite formidable, leaders who are gifted in decisive conflict, or leaders who have the nerve to take ruthless action out of zeal for God’s name when the situation demands. It is the modern Church that tends to have restricted the range of behavioural traits that are ‘sanctifiable’.


I could make many other such points, but I need to turn off my computer and do some reading before bed. Why does any of this matter? For a number of reasons. Not least because when we fail to recognize the reality of natural differences between the sexes in psychological and behavioural traits and tendencies we will tend to try to force people into behaviours that stunt them. We will tend to blame men and women for tendencies that are natural to them and merely need to be better channeled. We will breed resentment as different outcomes are presumed to be the result of oppression, when differences of interests, aptitudes, and traits provide far more ready explanations. We will waste effort and resources trying to force society into an unhealthy form. We will fail to enjoy the benefits of robust gendered community. And we will become oblivious to much of the reality of our own natures.

Posted in Controversies, Sex and Sexuality, Society | 6 Comments

Jordan Peterson and Powerful Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Culture, Ethics, In the News, Sex and Sexuality | 20 Comments

Podcast: Equality

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

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

Posted in Controversies, Ethics, Philosophy, Podcasts, Politics, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological | 10 Comments

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

But I’m not, so it isn’t.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

So, what about Jael and Deborah?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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


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

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