Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Driving Like Jehu (II Kings 8-13)

Bishop Ulfilas, in the fourth century, undertook the task of translating the Bible into the Gothic language with a curious omission: he left out the book of Kings. The Goths, in his opinion, were already too fond of fighting, and “needed in that matter the bit, rather than the spur.” I can’t say that I blame him.

An unfortunate theme that we encounter again and again in reading the Bible is the pervasive cruelty of the ancient world. I’ve written before that this is perhaps the biggest stumbling block to the modern reader. Though the passages where God’s justice is portrayed in terms of genocidal fury and collective punishment disturbs today’s devout Christians, I get the distinct impression that the ancient reader hardly batted an eyelash. Elisha’s conversation with Hazael, the future king of Syria, is a case in point:
And he fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was ashamed. And the man of God wept. And Hazael said, “Why does my lord weep?” He answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel. You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women.” And Hazael said, “What is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?” Elisha answered, “The Lord has shown me that you are to be king over Syria.”
Catch that? It’s not, “what kind of a monster do you take me for?” but rather, “do you really think I could pull something like that off?”

It is this unstated assumption – that might made right; that the sheer power to conquer settled all question of legitimacy – that hits us full in the face when our form-fitting athletic shoes walk the dusty roads of the ancient near-east. “New Atheists”, like Richard Dawkins, use this disorientation to great rhetorical effect in their hateful crusade against Christianity – stating that “the God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of literature: cruel, capricious, jealous, vindictive and unjust.” But I am more convinced than ever that, on this point, Dawkins is wrong – blinded by his own prejudice.

I will never forget the reaction of a college agnostic upon reading Genesis seriously for the first time in an undergraduate literature class. Having been immersed in all of the tragic brutality and futility of Gilgamesh, Homer and the Greeks, he was moved almost to tears at the passionate love of the God of the Bible. By learning to read with ancient eyes, he was able to see what the Bible was longing to tell him: that the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.

Yet the Old Testament was written first to the ancients, and lest they mistake his love for apathy, they need to know him also as one who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. And so, with Ahab’s son on the throne, Elisha has his servant anoint Jehu the scourge as king of Israel.

Jehu is a general fighting the Syrians when he is spontaneously anointed by the rogue prophet. Wasting no time, he rides quickly to Jezreel and stages a coup. He kills Joram, the son of Ahab, and throws his body into the field of Naboth (whom Ahab had murdered). He has Jezebel thrown down from the palace to her death below, where roving dogs eat her body. He orders the death of all seventy of Ahab’s sons.

Jehu continues:
And when he departed from there, he met Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him…And he said, “Come with me, and see my zeal for the Lord.” So he had him ride in his chariot. And when he came to Samaria, he struck down all who remained to Ahab in Samaria, till he had wiped them out, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke to Elijah.
Then Jehu stages this brilliant bit of treachery:
And Jehu ordered, “Sanctify a solemn assembly for Baal.” So they proclaimed it. And Jehu sent throughout all Israel, and all the worshipers of Baal came, so that there was not a man left who did not come. And they entered the house of Baal, and the house of Baal was filled from one end to the other. …So as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, Jehu said to the guard and to the officers, “Go in and strike them down; let not a man escape.” So when they put them to the sword, the guard and the officers cast them out and went into the inner room of the house of Baal, and they brought out the pillar that was in the house of Baal and burned it. And they demolished the pillar of Baal, and demolished the house of Baal, and made it a latrine to this day.
It is the final ruin of Ahab and Jezebel and the avenging of the blood of the prophets and of Naboth. The land is cleansed of idolatry. Jehu sits victoriously on Israel’s throne. His bloody zeal for the Lord is certainly relentless. A happy ending, then?
And the Lord said to Jehu, “Because you have done well in carrying out what is right in my eyes, and have done to the house of Ahab according to all that was in my heart, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel.” But Jehu was not careful to walk in the law of the Lord, the God of Israel, with all his heart.
Despite Ahab's house being destined for ruin by the justice of God, we are told that this is the beginning of the end for the northern kingdom of Israel. On his deathbed, Elisha laments that Jehu’s descendent Joash will only temporarily delay the Syrians. Though the legacy of David sustains Judah for generation after generation, there is something that Jehu lacks. For all the raging fury of the ancients running through his veins, Jehu knows precious little of the God of Israel. Later on, his taste for blood is specifically condemned by the prophet Hosea, who reflects on behalf of the Lord:
I desire mercy and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Great post, WFO. I appreciate the story about the college student, and what happens when we submit ourselves to the text rather than judging it through a false modern grid.

I don't know if you ever listen to NPR, but an interview with Richard Dawkins was included on 'Fresh Air' last Friday. It was juxtaposed with an interview with Christian scientist Francis Collins. The podcast is at the NPR website. If you haven't heard it, you might find it interesting, especially in light of your book review on 'The Design Matrix.'

I recently read Lewis's 'Problem of Pain' and found it illuminating on the subject of God's alleged "cruelty." He develops a similar idea to yours here -- that the cruelty he's accused of looks different when seen in its right context of his great love.

I think you've done a good job briefly answering the "Bad Old Testament God" accusation. You were spot on about God dealing with ancients differently. They were different from us, especially with regards to their values regarding violence and power.

The Arab world largely continues to hold an understanding similar to the ancients, despite some contemporary veneers scattered about the Gulf.

Present day Westerners who are offended by the "cruelty of God" not only fail to understand the ancient context, they also fail to grasp that their sensitivity is due in large part to the influence of the followers of Jesus and their impact on the wider Western culture.

Hi W2b,

I'll definitely listen to the podcast. I've actually heard a lecture online by Francis Collins before. He's definitely an expert in his field who is walking quite a tightrope - no question about that. I do hope that Collins continues to develop his philosophical thinking. He has a chance to be a really important spokesman for his faith, and I don't see that he's really yet moved beyond a testimony that one can be both a scientist and a Christian. I've been reading a lot of John Polkinghorne lately, and would love to see Collins get to that level of theological sophistication integrated with his science.


I'd be very interested in hearing you talk more openly about your experience of all this when you return home.

How different are we really? Do not mistake our pockets of law and order etc as representative of the modern world. We need not discuss the immense attrocities of the last century - but the extremes of violence perpetrated in for instance the country of my birth is far beyond the zeal of Jehu. What makes this worse is that it is done in the most senseless fashion. Yesterday a family was attacked in their home - the parents were burnt with a clothes iron again and again - the people kicked the children in the face - and their objective was theft. We are no better - we are just incredibly blessed to be insulated here in (parts of) North America, or (most of) Europe.

Hi Scylding,

I think what I am more shocked about than even the brutality itself is the shamelessness of it. It's not that Hazael would rip open his enemy's pregnant women, but that he wouldn't feel like ripping open pregnant women was such a bad thing as long as you had the power to do it. Perhaps you are right in that we are sheltered - such unapologetic brutality seems present in parts of the middle east and Africa today - but it seems like things have changed as far as our ideals. That there is at least nominal support of ideals like "human rights" at the UN is something that really has sunk in.

But, again, you may be right. Want to offer any hints as to the country of your birth?

I was curious and followed you here from Jesus Creed. I have been reading through some of your blogs and I like the way you take on the "difficult" passages in the Bible without trying to make them something that they are not or simply dismiss them. I was particularly interested in your perspective on Job as I've had my own journey in which I have been both railing at God and begging Him for mercy. I don't think we agree on everything theologically, obviously, (I'm a liberal) but I think your blogs on the suffering of innocents and the apparent injustice and cruelty of God in these OT stories are very insightful and give depth to what is sometimes a knee-jerk defense of scripture that refuses to confront the obvious.

Very well, I'll bite.

Ahhhh...violence and religion, strangely one of my favourite topics.

A couple thoughts:

1. Yes!!!! I agree that as modern readers, it is hard to wrap our little minds around the violence of the OT and rationally connect it to the Sermon on the Mount.

However, "ancient" readers had that problem as well, at least as far back as the "ancient" Roman Empire. This precise issue lay the groundwork for one of the "heresies" that the Roman church could not allow. I forget exactly who they were (I could check if you really care), but they rejected the OT as not part of the Christian message at all. Rather, Christianity was a completely separate religion apart from Judaism.

I actually should know more about them as I find myself leaning their way.

2. Violence isn't the only thing modern readers should feel uncomfortable with regarding the OT. I would also add the sexual/marital norms and slavery. They are not easily accommodated into modern Christianity (at least intellectually honestly).

A corrolary to that is sadly, very sadly, modern Christians (typically American) justify warfare and techniques thereof on the basis that it was an accepted practice in the Old Testament. But the same people would reject OTHER common practices of the OT - the slavery, the concubinery, the polygamy - as OLD and obsolete testament. I know, because I've had conversations with people like that. The logic on that is so attrocious that I half expect them to believe that 2 + 2 = 5.

3. In college, I once told the local IV chapter leader that I respected the harmony with Nature that was central to the Native American religions. His response was that the same religious ideas led to massive human sacrifice, so those religions should not be too highly glorified. That is precisely my feelings on the violence. At the very, very least, I think the violence of the OT should remind Christians to be humble about their religion. Too often, Christians approach the violence of other religions with disdain - the Mayan/Aztec bloodthirst or say, the Jihad.

Well, to paraphrase Jesus, look to the plank in your own eye first and see the same violent history that many Christians make their religion superior to Islam et al.

OK, pretend those last two paragraphs made grammatical sense.

Ah, Royale - I guess I asked for it. ;-)

1. You are making some huge assumptions here - wrong ones I believe. That Marcion wanted a full break from the Old Testament is true, but that he did so primarily because he was put off by violence I think false. Rather, he was very influenced by platonic thought, and could not imagine a creator God being a good one. Anything tainted with the physical is evil, and thus he denied the full humanity of Christ.

Unless you are prepared to reject the creation-affirming aspects of Christianity (for instance, the idea that we should care for the environment as the good creation of God) I wouldn't go this route.

2. I do think this accusation is made more often than it is deserved. I rarely encounter Christians who simply point to something happening in the OT and declare it right and good, QED. We all understand aspects of the law no longer applying. There is always a need to look at things through the lens of the gospel of Christ. I have never met a Christian advocating genocide, even though many Christians believe that war can sometimes be justifiable and even necessary.

3. I think you are missing my central point here. The idea is very much NOT to sit atop the ivory tower of modern society and look down our noses at the rock from which we were hewn. That we see things that the ancients did not see is doubtless true, but we also have our peculiar blindnesses. If we judge all the world by ourselves as the standard - including the scriptures - then we will learn nothing new. We will only hear echoes of our own opinions and reflections of our own faces.

Hi Mariam,

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope this is the first of many visits. I'm glad you enjoyed my stuff on Job - I think it the best I've written on this blog. You are right in that we doubtless disagree on many things - I am deeply conservative (though not at all fundamentalist) - but I need to be challenged from all angles to keep me honest.

Thanks for the invite back. I look forward to further discussion. Even though I am "deeply" liberal I hope I am a thoughtful one. Liberals have their own version of fundamentalism, which derives from a fear of conservatism which goes something like this - conservatism = inflexible, irrational thinking + self-righteousness which leads to zealotry which leads to witch trials, suicide bombers and eventually unfettered rule by the evil and powerful, crushing the weak and vulnerable. On the other hand liberalism = an acceptance of relativism which leads to a reluctance to accept authority or commit to a path of ethics which leads to moral chaos which leads to the disintegration of society which leads to unfettered rule by the evil and powerful, crushing the weak and vulnerable.
So while I am liberal I can see the inherent problems of going too far down that road which is why I am interested in other viewpoints. Of course, being an Anglican, I can pretty much choose my theology. If I wanted to become an ultra-conservative Calvinist I could just attend the next closest parish - but I don't because I've been there and basically the slippery conservative slope I described above seemed pretty steep there and I could hear the distant screams of heretics being burned at the stake.

Hi Mariam,

I've had my own experience with Calvinism, and am convinced that there are some people in the reformed camp that truly would be happier, healthier, more laid-back people if every year or so they could host an auto da fe. I should be careful in that some of my formative years were spent learning from some truly godly and Christlike Calvinists, but I very much have seen what you are talking about.

My own dislike of liberalism and embrace of conservativism goes along slightly different lines, I think. I fault liberalism for its radical rejection and vilification of the past - kicking away "the rock from which we were hewn and the quarry from which we were dug". It is the loss of continuity with those giants whose shoulders we stand on that I fear - stepping off proudly and plummeting into the abyss. It is the loss of beauty and glory for the sake of a shallow equality that makes everything special by making nothing special. This isn't to say that our fathers were perfect. But it is to say that their sins must be repented of, and not casually disassociated with.

One of the more beautiful expressions of what being conservative means to me was written by Anthony Esolen in his essay A Geography of Kind. He compares the loss of the beauty of the differences of the sexes with the loss of the distinct beauty of landscapes under the uniformity of suburban development. I tear up when I read it - though I'm sure it reads offensive to some.

Anyway - it is this impulse that leads me to say that I cannot simply disown the horrible parts of the Old Testament. It is my story, for better and worse. It is God's story, for better and worse. And I refuse to take part in the theological equivalent of the French Revolution - wiping the slate clean with the blood of a generation and building a completely different world. No, if a new world is to come, it must be the resurrection of the old. If the old must die, let me crucified with it. If the law meets its end in Christ, I must see how it is raised in him as well.

It's interesting to think about the journey of life that brings people to where they are. I too am an Anglican, though an evangelical parish under Rwanda. I wonder how far apart you and I really are - if we really are as diametrically opposed as the ideological categories we associate with suggest. I wouldn't be surprised if the reasons I am conservative are very different than the reasons you are liberal.

Anyway, welcome!

"I think you are missing my central point here....If we judge all the world by ourselves as the standard - including the scriptures - then we will learn nothing new."

Sorry chief, I still don't understand. Are you trying to say that the Biblical stories (here, II Kings) are written first and foremost for the audience that was contemporary to the author of II Kings?

(note, I didn't say "the audience contemporary to II Kings" because I don't know when it was written)

If that's your point, then I would say "well yeah, of course."

But if it's something else, please clarify.

re: liberalism...."I fault liberalism for its radical rejection and vilification of the past - kicking away "the rock from which we were hewn and the quarry from which we were dug"."

If I may interject into this conversation...Wonders, do you think the Protestant Reformation upset the order of things?

Consider this, the Catholic "Rock" was/is Apostolic Succession. I actually find that logic theoretically a very powerful one. However, once you get to the Papacy's Babylonian Captivity, the Inquisition, the Crusades, etc...it sort of falls apart.

Contrast that with the Protestant's "Rock" of the Bible and hence, rejection of Apostolic Succession. That itself is internally consistent, at least as far back as about 300-400 AD where the Bible was canonized under the authority of Apostolic Succession.

Hence, the dilemma...two very different "Rocks."

That is my central criticism of tradition, there just are too many choices. And if there are choices, then that begs the question if there actually is a rock at all.

WFO, I agree that we are not as far apart as our chosen paths might indicate. I come from a background of non-believers (3rd generation heathen, said my mother proudly at some time although she, too, is now an Anglican). I live with a family of atheists - of rationalists. I have been a secular humanist most of my life. So that is the direction I am coming from. Isn't it wonderful that God shines a light on a path that we are able to follow?

I am not actually that surprised to find you are Anglican - in spite of our disparate theologies there is a certain Anglican style, which, when we don't forget ourselves, involves respectful discussion. Not merely a "live and let live" philosophy, but a genuine desire to find some common ground and examine our own beliefs in the light of what others believe. Let's face it our "church" didn't have that auspicious a start and hopefully, that keeps us somewhat humble.

I happen to agree with you about respecting our traditions and our forefathers/mothers (I did that just for you;) For me part of that respect entails looking at the beliefs and traditions we are building on in their cultural and historical context and trying to uncover the beauty which may be obscured by that context. For example, our greatest theologians from the past may have held racist, sexist and ignorant beliefs some of which we would find silly or appalling today. This doesn't negate everything they have done - rather we have to see the diamonds of truth glittering through the mud of culture, personality and history. Nor do I suggest washing away all the mud, because I don't think that is what God does. God presents Himself to us through our spiritual ancestors, mud and all (which I think is a perhaps one way of looking at what you are saying in some of your blogs). There are several advantages to this approach. We can see that God can speak to us all, regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We can see that politics, cultural traditions and the theology which arises from them are not as important to God as relationship with us. And finally it reminds us that we are covered in our own mud and that our "truths" are similarly obscured but God will still come and find us. This doesn't mean that we have to cover our selves in the mud of a different time and place.

I read the article that you linked and I can understand why it moves you. What he celebrates in this article and what moves you is the beauty of diversity as well the beauty to be found in the integrity of a thing or person – that is respecting a person or thing for what it is, not trying to eradicate mountains and valleys so that we have a smooth paved highway, a parking lot of conformity, so to speak. But isn’t this also the Liberal plea. I celebrate that beauty as well. However I would argue that he celebrates only that diversity which is familiar to him, which he can categorize - not the beauty of unexpected diversity. I do not want to bulldoze the diversity I find among individuals. If I sing tenor, rather than soprano (which I do), if I can whistle Puccini and if Mia Babbino Caro is one of my favourite whistling tunes (which it is) does that somehow make me less of a woman? Should I strain my voice to sing in a “suitable” female range, even and especially when the choir has lots of altos and is short of tenors? Should I pretend I can’t whistle? Is whistling an essential male trait and I’ve somehow crossed over into abomination? Was it unseemly for my daughter to take a stick to a picket fence and is my son less of a man for having played soccer and saxophone rather than hockey? Is it really "ugly" for girls to play hockey? You would have a hard time convincing my mother and aunts who grew up in the long cold northern Canadian winters of that, despite the fact that they are otherwise all very traditional farm wives. I am not going to argue that men and women are the same. Very generally, I think that there are some things that men are better at and would rather do and there are some things that women are better at and would rather do. In general women make better mothers, in general men make better fathers. But not all women are good parents, or even can be. Not all men are destined to be leaders, even in their own household. Should they be ashamed of this? Should they try to be something they are not seemingly designed to be in order to CONFORM to some notion of what is fitting for their gender? In general smart, articulate people make better teachers and big brawny guys make better warriors. But doesn’t God sometimes surprise us? Doesn’t he occasionally, in spite of the hugely patriarchal society of the old testament, choose women to lead and be warriors? Doesn’t he sometimes choose the little guy to be a king and mighty fighter, and the slow-witted and tongue-tied to be a prophet? Is there not a message for us in this as well?

I am reminded of the Daoist Yin-Yang symbol. If we can view male and female that way, that is two complementary but differing characteristics which form a unity and completeness that is the image of God, yet there is in each side a bit of the other – room for the” feminine” attributes on the male side and room for “masculine” attributes on the female. I don’t believe God is constrained by notions of maleness or femaleness, and unless you believe that women are outside the image of God, He incorporates both. Why then should we demand that individuals conform to type? The beauty you see in the integrity of types I see in the integrity of the individual.

Hi Royale,

That is my central criticism of tradition, there just are too many choices. And if there are choices, then that begs the question if there actually is a rock at all.

Oh there's always a "rock from which we were hewn" - human beings don't come from nowhere. We have tradition, and are part of a larger story whether we like it or not.

The value of tradition is not in being a silver bullet that saves us the trouble of having to wrestle with these issues, take fresh looks at things, and even repent of the sins of our fathers. What it DOES do is give us a context and a community for it - it assures us that we don't do it alone.

To sit around and come up with all of your very own customized iOpinions and myViews on every little thing is certainly the rage. Opinions are like a great many "other things" - everybody's got one. But if anything, this enables the great brunt of people in consumer society to have a large amount of opinionated ignorance - the worst kind. People assume themselves broad and open-minded, when really everything they think has been shopped for like commodities from the most readily available options, tailored to their own tastes, and is about as nutritious and sustaining as a Big Mac. The only thing more hopeless than a fool is a man who thinks himself wise - and contemporary western society is one of the most sophomoric I've ever heard of.

Tradition guards against this on many levels. First, it broadens our conversation by bringing us with real contact with some of the wisest and most remarkable people who have ever lived - with the minor inconvenience that they happen to be dead at this particular moment. It lets us see beyond the short-term memory of a single human lifespan, and shows us the larger picture of our longings and accomplishments. And, most of all, it makes us aware of a reality that affects us whether we like it or not. We are not merely animals born into nature - we are humans born into history - we come from somewhere, and are part of a story. We carry wisdom and greatness as well as sins and scars wherever we go. Without knowledge of tradition, we act and react in ways that seem arbitrary, that we ourselves do not understand.

My overarching point is that to see yourself as a lone individual separate from any tradition doesn't really make it so. To not own up to the mistakes of the past on a deep level doesn't protect you from them - it actually makes you more likely to repeat them. To feel superior to your fore bearers because of their mistakes only makes you more blind to your own (and indeed the extent to which you actually cary some of them yourself).

In the context of the Christian faith, we have the opportunity to attach ourselves to the tradition that has been central to God's own saving actions in history. So we not only interact with men, but interact together with them with God himself. Of course we still make mistakes - of course it's not a silver bullet that insures that we'll always be right. Of course not everyone who reads the Bible gets the Bible right. Of course apostolic succession doesn't insure perfect behavior by the Church. But arrogantly dismissing our fathers assures us that we will be far more deluded and short sighted than we ever would be otherwise.

Hi Mariam,

I hate to toot the Anglican horn much - God knows we more to be ashamed of these days then to brag about. But it's a tradition I've grown to love, and a community I treasure - especially giants like of C. S. Lewis, Leslie Newbigin, Vinoth Ramachandra, John Polkinghorne, J. I. Packer, and N. T. Wright. It's also a place that I have been able to connect to the historic Church, without losing continuity with my own Evangelical roots.

There is much that I could say in response to you on sex. I would clarify that diversity in itself without inherent beauty is simply noise. I would want to defend Esolen from just appreciating diversity he is familiar with, or form the charge of not wanting to allow girls to rattle sticks along picket fences. I would insist that an attempt to "find oneself" without reference to the larger story and types that give the "self" a larger context becomes a very shallow thing indeed. I would passionately argue that, though individual specifics are a welcome reality, that you really do destroy something beautiful when you relativise the types (just as the Forbidden City and the Haggai Sophia lose something in becoming variations on a generic "tourist site"). I would agree with you to a point about the yin yang, but quickly point out the Christian picture is a little less dualistic.

But mostly I'm just fascinated by your story. I'd love to hear about your family, about your atheist housemates, and about your journey in the faith. Of course, blog comments may not be the most appropriate place to do it - but I'd love to hear it.

Have you ever read "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson? It's a story where a town's tradition was to stone the person that won the lottery. No one challenged this practice simply because it was tradition.

Rather, our traditions must prove themselves beneficial, if not innocuous.

Well, what do you think of the Protestant Reformation? Martin Luther very much challenged the authority of tradition. Was that good or bad? Or should he have followed along with whatever the Papacy came up with never questioning tradition.

Following tradition for traditions sake breeds is a recipe for a society of mindless lemmings. Clearly a God or gods, who endowed every one of us with critical and analytical skills, would want us to use them.

Royale, one can be a mindless lemming with or without tradition. Most of the mindless lemmings one comes across these days are without it. I obviously don't endorse mindless lemmingdom one way or another, but I do think it better to be only a mindless lemming rather than to be a rootless mindless lemming as well.

Luther of course challenged a great many things. But he would NEVER have thought of what he was doing as thumbing his nose at the fathers of the Church. Rightly or wrongly, he would insist that what he was doing was returning to a purity of the gospel that had been obscured in his own day. If anything, he was appealing to what he saw as the core of his tradition against some ways it had gone awry. And what ended up happening historically - the great split and break which then splintered into a million denominations - he would most certainly have felt unfortunate.

Read my last post - I said it wasn't a silver bullet. I said it wasn't immutable. Where you get the idea that I support people throwing out their brains and becoming mindless zombies I can't fathom. Are you actually reading my comments?

Wow, how often does one get asked to tell one's story? It is a generous request I can hardly refuse.

Well, I'm Canadian. I am a recent Christian and rather than repeat a somewhat sad story (and one which has become a little sadder since I wrote the post) the history of my conversion can be found here: http://www.jesuscreed.org/?p=2884.

My husband is a professor and an atheist, and a fairly fundamentalist one. When I first suggested I wanted to try church, he angrily threatened to divorce me. He has since mellowed and tolerates my church going, as long as I “don’t bring it home with me”. He has seen, I think a positive change in me and now will often ask on a Sunday “Going to church?” and when I answer in the affirmative, he will say “That’s good. Have fun.” He will go so far, now. as to say, that he thinks some aspect of religion are useful and not just for “the stupid people” but he thinks it would be better if we could find something that did the same thing but wasn’t based on such a ridiculous premise. My teenage son thinks the same way as his father although he is more amenable to conversation on the topic. I tackle the topic gently, trying to have him think about possibilities beyond the hard, rational world he can verify with his eyes, ears and hands. My daughter finds it all a bit spooky, but is most amenable to looking at spirituality. I pray every day that she will find her way to God as she is desperately wounded in spirit, mind and body and I think that her spirit must be healed before anything else will be. She won’t come to church with me and frankly, having had no religious experience or familiarity with church, I think she would find the liturgy off-putting. But she does have some church-going friends. OK, they’re evangelicals, but if that path is the one that brings her to Christ, I may just have to become a Baptist.

As to my background, my parents were homesteaders, or as my husband puts it, they "farmed the tundra". Part of the “3rd generation heathen” is a result of this. People often left their churches behind when they left the old countries, or moved west and north. 4 generations back my mother's family were C of E, my father's were Presbyterian. My mother actually stayed in a residential school run by the Anglican church in order to attend high school. I don't know if you're familiar with the tragic and disgraceful legacy of the residential schools in Canada, however, my mother didn't suffer any sort of abuse there, although it wasn't exactly fun and didn't enamor her to the church. She now attends a little Anglican church 2 houses away from her. She is very pleased that they have a female rector because, as she puts it, "I think women are better at that sort of thing." There are a number of things she now thinks women are better at, including being doctors, priests and politicians, that wouldn't have been on her radar 20 years ago. It’s funny to see my mother, who has led a very traditional and conservative life, who has frowned on every liberal, socialist and feminist agenda and who has voted Conservative in every single election in her life, slowly turning and facing the other direction - now, in her 80's. You might argue that if men were behaving more like true men - brave, moral, disciplined, strong and caring - she wouldn't have developed such a low opinion of them, and you might be right.

I also think my background, growing up on a subsistence farm, has something to do with my views of the roles of men and women. As a farm wife, my mother did a lot of heavy chores - she milked cows, drove the tractor, wrung the necks of chickens for supper, chopped wood, shot the occasional moose. She also raised 6 children, cooked, took care of the garden and house, collected and washed eggs, carried water from the well or melted snow for washing. This is not to say that my father didn't work hard as well, and there were certain things that seemed to be his preserve - driving the truck into town to get groceries, felling trees, plowing, seeding crops, butchering animals, fixing vehicles, doing carpentry, although in a pinch my mother could do all these things too and was better at some of them – she was more practically minded than my dad and better at thinking through practical solutions. My dad was more creative and intuitive – he was sociable, he liked to chat, he loved to sing (out loud in front of people) and he taught us to sing as well, he was self taught on a variety of instruments, he was also less self-disciplined – he was impulsive and had a volatile temper.
In “that land so wild and savage”, my mother was not atypical. A “good wife” would have all these skills. Needlework, fancy cooking and the latest hairstyle were not exactly top of the priority list. Yet my mother doggedly believed in some ideal of what women and men should be and do, even though it didn’t reflect her reality at all. When I was 8 they threw in the towel oand moved away from the farm and my mother took on more traditional “city girl” tasks, while my father headed off to a job he disliked. My father definitely ruled the roost and my mother submitted and neither were really happy. My father yelled and ranted. My mother cried downstairs, while doing the laundry. I believe a lot of the tension in their marriage had to do with each feeling as if both weren’t that successful in their allotted gender roles. The strengths they had and what each contributed worked well when they were living close to nature – in the unnaturalness of town life, in the false expectations of society, they were suddenly unhappy with their natural strengths. While they each appreciated the other for what they did well, they each secretly wished that it was something else the other was good at. My mother wished my father was more steady, more responsible, more of a pillar of strength. My father wished my mother was more fun, more spontaneous, more sociable, and took more care with her appearance. And yet he would have been hopeless with someone who lacked my mother’s skills.

So you see, when I read list of things that women and girls, men and boys simply must do or not do to prove that they are men and women as follows :

Some cultures are more open to singing than are others; but can we even imagine a place where women will whistle Mio babbino caro but not be caught singing it, while men lead children in song but never whistle? I can’t imagine it. These would be males and females of a species different from mine.

A child in the yard runs along a fence, rattling a stick against the pickets. Need I mention that it is a boy? Not the most reality-denying feminist would imagine otherwise. And why should it be otherwise? A child is sitting in the living room, decorating party invitations by hand. Need I add that it is a girl? Should it be otherwise? At the party one of the guests is performing, to some merry laughter, an impersonation of one of the other guests. Men, of course, both impersonator and impersonated. A child leads yet another guest by the hand, to show off a new toy or a picture. Whom but a woman would a child so thoughtlessly take by the hand?

Then I think, yes, my species is different and my reality (feminist or otherwise) is also different from his because I don’t need to imagine any of these impossibilities – a girl running exuberantly and mischievously with a stick, a boy sitting quietly and colouring, women whistling, a man singing to his children and encouraging them to sing as they march along, a man asking a guest if she is comfortable or needs food or drink, women discussing politics, a child taking a man’s hand to show him something and that man smiling and praising the child. None of these things, somehow, appear unseemly, unnatural or even the slightest bit unusual to me. I have seen them over and over again, and so did my mother, and my grandfather and my great-grandparents. It doesn’t of course offend me that Esolen hankers after a fantasy world that doesn’t now and never did really exist; I understand his longing and I understand, the beauty in the reality he wishes to see. I see as much beauty, however, in the reality I wish to see and a whole lot more freedom.

I will grant this. Just as I don’t believe men or women should be straight-jacketed into certain roles just because of their gender, neither do I think they should be made to feel ashamed of taking on traditional roles. If a man and wife both agree that he go out and earn the big bucks and she will mind the house and look after the kids, I say hurrah! It is a practical and expedient division of labour for a great many couples (including to some extent my husband and myself). I don’t think women who decide to stay home to be full-time mothers should be penalized in favour of mothers who work outside the home. So, for example, I am opposed to child care subsidies, which are only available to working mothers. I think, the oh-so politically correct “paternity leaves” are a crock. Where I work at the university it just means an extra sabbatical for the men, while the wives still take care of the babies. If a couple decides that things just work better when the man takes the lead, I say go for it. If a girl wants to be a fashion designer and a boy wants to be a fireman I wouldn’t try to talk the girl into being a firewoman and the boy into being a fashion designer, just to prove a point. I don’t think we should create artificial uteri and implant them in men so they can bear children and I don’t think we should force women to be firefighters, soldiers or work on a green chain – unless there are no brawny men available.

So that is where I come from in my understanding of gender roles – not theology or politics, but experience. It’s not that I think people need to go and “find” themselves, just that they should be true to themselves.

Hi Mariam,

I do think Esolen meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive - not defining rigid roles, but rather praising the beautiful picture that emerges when men and women are given the freedom and support to flourish. What that looks like on a family farm will naturally be different than in the city, and will express itself in any number of ways across cultures. Anyway, I don't mean to excuse any brokenness in your own experience - but I also cannot shake the deep feeling that we're losing something more valuable than we know in the steamrolling of the sexes.

The brokenness we find ourselves in our society I blame quite heavily on the loss of manhood in our men, and I can't help but think of C. S. Lewis' verdict that "we castrate the gelding and bid him be fruitful." Turning the hearts of the fathers back to their children will take more than nagging or shaming - it will take the recovery of the dignity of manhood as something to aspire to. It really does take something bigger than "generically good people tend to do this sort of thing if they are so inclined to find such preferences within themselves."

I guess my point is that, granting individual freedom and any number of exceptions, we must not lose the ideals and support that make possible the flourishing of men and women AS men and women. We have something in our heritage and in our bones that is worth preserving, especially in an age where people are so broken and lost and fragile.

Anyway, I was trying, rather feebly, to resist getting too deeply into this debate (it's a hard one for a man to speak frankly in), but then I also seem to have trouble resisting the temptation to have the last word. Male ego, and all that. ;-)

Thanks for your story. I ache at the account of your daughter, and smile at your description of your atheist husband (a fan of the aforementioned Richard Dawkins perhaps?) I'm thankful to have you in the family of God, and in our Anglican Communion - despite the fact that we are on two different sides of a monumental crisis at the moment. May he bring you and yours through the Hell you find yourself in into the joy of his resurrection.

My cousin once asked my aunt, "mom, why do the men always get to be in charge?" and my aunt answered, "well, they can't have babies so we have to give them something to do." While she was making a joke, I think there is a deeper truth there. Anyway, forgive me for not heeding your subtle request to not engage in debate on this topic. It's got quite far from your original post and so we will agree to agree and disagree on some of these issues and I will come back and poke a stick at it sometime again perhaps. Thank you for your graciousness and civility. I hope that Anglican Communion continues to make room for us both. May be the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you and yours.

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