The Propriety Advantage

A case for Christian propriety in a “handsy” culture.

A few years ago I endured one of my more embarrassing moments in adult life. My wife and I had just arrived at our church small group leader’s home for the Monday evening gathering. There was another married couple in our group with whom we were becoming good friends; the four of us were close in age and they had been married just a few months after us. Shortly after arriving my wife walked ahead into the kitchen while I attended to something  in the living room. A few minutes later I joined the group in the kitchen and saw my wife standing with her back turned toward me. I walked up behind her and gently started rubbing her shoulders. About 3 seconds into this spontaneous massage, I looked to my left and saw—my wife. With deep horror I realized I had mistaken our friend for Emily (I have insisted to this day that they had very similar haircuts). The room roared in laughter, including her and her husband, and we got good mileage out of that story the next few months.

I was very grateful that everyone in the room, especially the couple, was so good humored about it. Sometimes people describe conservative evangelical Christians as the type of folk who are scandalized by even the most innocuous impropriety. I actually think that in that kind of situation, the propriety—the sensitivity of a gathering like that to shared norms about sex, marriage, and gender—empowered the humor. My crimson blush, my wife’s awkward moment of realization, and my poor friend’s utter confusion betrayed a shared value of modesty that made the faux pas innocent and funny. What would the husband’s reaction been if, say, I had had a reputation for being handsy? How would the situation have changed if I hadn’t stopped? I think one thing is for certain: It wouldn’t have been funny.

The take du jour is that rules are bad. Everybody hates rules, especially rules between the sexes. “The man pays for the date” is sexist and archaic. The Billy Graham Rule is patriarchal and anti-friendship. Ironically, in mainstream political culture, the more intimate and explicitly sexual the interaction, the more rules—and more shaming— can apply. Try to lay down some standards for a first date or working lunch and you come off as prudish at best, pervy at worst. But if the clothes are coming off, passion must be paused for the acquisition of “informed consent.” It’s as if the rejection of public propriety has created a need for private legislation.

I don’t think many people genuinely believe that Joe Biden is a predator. For all most of us know, he could indeed be, but that’s not a conclusive inference to make from the accusations that have thus far been levied against him. It seems more correct (again, with the information available now) to say that senator Biden is a physically affectionate person who, like many, is a Thoroughly Modern Man who lives and works far above the regressive and puritanical constraints of propriety. He is “handsy” because he has no reason (until now) to not be. That’s just “who he is.”

Biden’s habits have hardly been a secret.  But they have not threatened his political viability until now because the only objections to impropriety that count in our contemporary public square are individual narratives that speak from experience and describe it in predator-victim language. Prior to the #MeToo era, a criticism of Biden’s handsy-ness that focused on its inherent impropriety—e.g., it’s always inappropriate for any man to pull his non-wife in close and smell her hair and breathe on her neck—would have been labeled regressive and sex-negative. Everyone believes Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose hosted “meetings” with female employees in their hotel rooms for sinister ulterior purposes, but hardly anyone other than oppressive religious folks have been willing to say that hotel room meetings are inherently improper. We are swimming in an ocean of spotlight investigations and civil suits, while the evasive virtue of propriety remains by far the cheapest option.

Our cultural elites are clearly struggling with how to articulate sexual morality without using any morally transcendent vocabulary. They are trying and failing to fit the round peg of a stigma-less sexual marketplace into the square hole of health, equality, and respect.

Even some conservatives seem unable to put two and two together. I like Mona Charen’s reminder of the emotional and psychological benefits of human touch, and the connection she makes to some really fascinating research showing declining sex and happiness is intriguing. But even a social conservative like Charen stops short of saying that the bridge between the humane balm of physical touch and respect for sexual boundaries and consent is propriety, habits of restraint and prudence that can be deployed indiscriminately. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the androgyny demanded by the modern market economy is just a foregone conclusion for Left and Right by this point. Perhaps we are facing a severe dearth of virtue ethics. Perhaps both.

In any case, the loss of propriety in contemporary life is an example of how sexual revolution liberates the body from constraints by severing its limbs. We need not wax foolishly nostalgic about the 1940s to see that something has been lost in the post-Woodstock age. It’s true that social propriety has often reflected a double standard for men and women, especially as regards modesty and faithfulness. A Christian propriety doesn’t wink at womanizers while branding scarlet letters on their victims. Rather, it takes seriously the physical and spiritual differences between men and women, honors marriage above market economics, and models chivalry on the perfect self-sacrifice of Christ, the church’s bridegroom. It doesn’t see every male-female interaction as an opportunity for lust, but neither does it ignore the inherently gendered character of our nature. Christian propriety expects men to behave toward women a certain way not to avoid a lawsuit or curry political favor but because they are men and women.

Sound regressive? But what has the escape from propriety and modesty achieved but a porn-shaped public soul, bad faith between the sexes, a banquet for predators, and a ruthlessly opportunistic shaming system? I shudder to think of what would have happened to a naive soul in the Democratic Party that stood up 5 years ago and told Joe Biden that men ought not make intimate gestures to women who are not their wives.

At least they would have been on the right side of history.

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Bright, Dark Lights

Bryan Singer, like Harvey Weinstein, used his movies to sexually abuse others.

The Atlantic has published the results of a 12 month investigation into director/producer Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns, Bohemian Rhapsody). Of all the #MeToo bombshell articles I’ve read, and I’ve read many, this one was the hardest to read. Singer and his collaborators named in the article appear to be intensely depraved predators. The piece, which is graphic in detail, documents nothing less than an unofficial sex trafficking operation that targeted dozens, and probably hundreds, of adolescent boys. Assuming even the barest portions of this reporting are correct, Singer is a sexual menace who has continually used his work and connections to facilitate abuse.

It’s that last part I can’t stop thinking about. As I described it to a friend this morning, you can’t read this article and discern where the entertainment industry began and the sexual predation ended. Like Harvey Weinstein, Singer made his work as a filmmaker an integral part of how he abused teens. He funded “production” companies whose sole purpose was apparently to create a pretense for getting boys to parties. He abused boys on-set. In one instance, according to the piece, a group of teenage extras in one of his movies was directed to disrobe in front of camera after being misled to believe nudity wasn’t required. The portrait this investigation paints of Bryan Singer and his co-conspirators (of whom there appear to be many) is not one of work during the day, sexual abuse during the night. The work was part of the abuse. The abuse was facilitated through the work.

This should sound very familiar to you. Recall that Harvey Weinstein told actress Salma Hayek that he would pull funding for her movie unless she did a sex scene. A major theme in Hollywood’s #MeToo nightmare is how the films and studios themselves become not only complicit but instruments of the abuse. In Hayek’s case, her accommodation of Weinstein’s predatory demands is forever captured onscreen. In the case of some of those “Bryan boys,” theirs is, too.  Can you separate the naked “just acting” that you see in the film from the threats and manipulation that put it there? At what point are we actually watching the abuse we read about?

Of course, it’s impossible to know why every sexually explicit scene on TV or in film is put there. I’m sure there are many that exist solely because a writer or director thinks it makes for good entertainment. But ask yourself this: How likely is it that Harvey Weinstein and Bryan Singer are the only Hollywood storytellers that have used their stories as pretenses to sexually exploiting somebody on that screen? So much sexual content in film is extraneous, especially in big budget films. Almost invariably onscreen nudity seems to exist wholly apart from the narrative of the film; it’s just there, and then it’s just gone. Knowing what we know now about people like Weinstein and Singer, it seems almost impossible to notice an unnecessarily explicit scene without wondering if literally the only reason it exists is to satisfy a fantasy of someone behind the camera.

In fairness, I’ve never really admired the argument that Christians sometimes make against pornography that appeals to the exploitation of actresses as a reason not to watch. It’s not that I think such exploitation doesn’t exist (it most certainly does), nor that I think it’s fine for people to enjoy watching father-estranged girls being exploited (it’s not). My problem with using this as a reason to not watch porn is that I honestly cannot imagine such a reason ever working. Wanting to watch porn is not a desire that can be undermined by appealing to the injustice of the industry, anymore than an overwhelming desire for a Snickers bar can be blunted by an economics lesson on child labor in overseas candy factories. Lack of empathy is a real problem, but it can’t be the main focus of every ethical choice. Sometimes your heart has to turn away from something evil on the basis of what it is rather than what it does to others.

But what I find interesting is the way sensitive Christians who abstain from watching Hollywood sex scenes look a little ahead of the curve nowadays. For most of my life refusing to watch an explicit film made you a stodgy fundamentalist, on the basis that “It’s just a movie” and “Sex is a part of life, get over it.” Unless I’m very wrong, the tide is turning. As secular culture turns it attention toward sexual injustice, it catches pop culture red-handed in just the way that those stodgy Christians have suggested. Can you read these bombshell reports, watch the films named in them, and tell me where the sexual abuse ends and the “acting” begins? If not, don’t those dour fundies at least have a point?

photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr.

Loving Truth in a Narrative Age

No hashtag—and no Supreme Court seat—is worth ignoring the truth

Have you ever heard the old chestnut about the difference between truth and wisdom? It goes roughly like this: Truth is the right path, or the correct knowledge, or the good choice. It is real, but it is, in a sense, just lying there. That something is true does not mean you will automatically believe it or act on it. Wisdom, then, is the bridge between seeing the truth and making decisions that accord with it. Truth stands, and wisdom walks.

So then, we could also say something like this: Truth is the objective reality, and narrative is the idea that is weaved from the assembling of various truths. When truths collide with each other, they behave like molecules. They build something bigger than their individual selves. A narrative is a perception of reality that transcends the individual statements that prop it up. If you discover that two of your favorite businesses are closing, you may tell a friend something like, “Businesses don’t survive in this town.” The closings are reality, but the fact that your hometown is hard on businesses is a narrative.

Narratives are helpful. Without them we wouldn’t be able to put truths together into a coherent whole. And often, major positive change is brought about by someone who courageously forms a narrative out of many truths and helps other people see what they’ve been missing. But here’s an important point: Narratives are not always the same as the truths themselves. A narrative is, in fact, downstream from a worldview, a consequence of interpretation. Narratives are often shaped by someone’s experience, or presuppositions, or fears. This means that one of the most important things that thinking people, especially Christians, must do is to learn how to separate truths from narratives…not for the sake of throwing out any and all narratives, but for the sake of training ourselves to love truth regardless of the narratives that can be formed around it.

In a mass media culture like ours, truth-lovers are not nearly as popular as narrative-creators. We refer to our society as polarized—polarized by politics, religion, gender, race, class, etc. This polarization is in large part due to narratives that we construct for ourselves about the world. Polarization is what happens when our narratives about others, particularly those who are different than us, dictate our behavior. We are polarized politically when we de-friend someone because of their views, choosing to construct a narrative that says that people with these kinds of views are dishonest or dangerous. We are polarized racially when we avoid uncomfortable videos of American citizens being harassed or shot by law enforcement, due to our preexisting narrative that says that the police will only bother someone if they’re really breaking the law. And we are polarized by gender when men and women turn on one another, building narratives that either justify sexual mistreatment or presuppose its existence regardless of evidence.

Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, and the investigation into allegations of sexual abuse when he was 17, have exposed some deeply depressing hostility between our political sides, and also between men and women. Whether Kavanaugh is guilty of what Christine Blasey Ford accuses him of is unknowable for 99% of us. But un-knowability does not preclude building a narrative; in fact, narratives often thrive on the impossibility of confident knowledge. What I’ve seen in the past several weeks is a deep, emotional, and possibly destructive contrast in narratives between those who believe that Ford’s story is a watershed moment in a #MeToo reckoning, and those who believe that truth is being deliberately obscured for the sake of political advantage. The two narratives are incompatible and enemies of one another, even as the best evidence points toward the truth’s being far more complex than that.

What is happening is not that two groups on opposite sides of a cultural divide are wielding contrasting facts and arguments, and coming through reason and contemplation to two different verdicts. No. What’s happening is that two groups are unloading both of their narratives onto the other, and clinging desperately to notions about what must have happened, or what politicians always do, or how much this sounds like other cases. One narrative sees the world through a highly gendered lens in which men, especially privileged men, are instinctively predatory. The other narrative sees the world as controlled by gnawing politicians, who orchestrate far-reaching conspiracies to hold onto power and inflict their ideology onto the helpless masses.

Both narratives are informed by truth: Men can and do prey on women, and politicians can and do lie. Both narratives are buffered by experiences, the experiences of victimized women and slandered men. Most importantly, both narratives land squarely on two of the tenderest wounds in our national conscience. The Sexual Revolution has been ruthlessly cruel to women and the conservative Christian response has frequently failed to come to their aid. On the flip side, our national politics have arguably never been more cynical, more myopic, or more hostile to reason and good faith. Despair beckons, and its call is attractive.

But good news people—”evangelicals”—cannot give into despair, because despair does not accord with truth. Loving the truth in a narrative age requires cultivating habits that resist the “speak now, think later” spirit of the day. There are good books on how to do just this. But before we come to the skills, we have to remember why it is that Christians have to gravitate to truth before narrative. Narratives are formed by fallen humans trying to interpret life from a limited angle. Even narratives shaped by deep, real trauma are nonetheless liable to go wrong, because it is human nature to take something real and try to make it do something it cannot do. We cannot be known as narrative-first people, who traffic in mantras and slogans and hashtags and conspiracy theories at the expense of truth.

Whether Brett Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Ford I do not know. Here’s what I do know: Men are sinners, and they sin against women, and they sin against women sexually. I also know that not every man has sexually abused a woman, and that not every accusation of sexual assault is true simply because it was made. I also know that drunkenness is a sin and that drunken people do indefensible things. I also know that “innocent until proven guilty” is a standard rooted in God’s law, and that an instinct to protect from allegations until evidence is presented is a good instinct that can protect poor and vulnerable people just as much as it can protect the privileged.

These are the truths I know. They do not build a tidy narrative. But I’m a gospel person, and thus I am a truth-seeking person first and foremost. No hashtag and no Supreme Court seat is worth ignoring the truth, because neither of those things can finally set us free.

Is #MeToo an Indictment of Complementarianism?

Should we now disown “masculine Christianity”?

Dale Coulter’s argument that evangelicals should repudiate “masculine Christianity” begins with an important omission. His opening paragraph recounts the turmoil swirling in the Southern Baptist Convention over indefensible comments and behavior from (former) Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson. He submits both Patterson and “the authoritarian leadership structure” that supported him as exhibits A and A1 as to why evangelicalism must throw off the noxious, fundamentalist idea that only men should be teaching pastors in the church. At surface glance, this feels like a logical move. Wouldn’t opening the pulpit to women graft them more fully into the fabric of the church, thereby cutting off sinful attitudes like the one Patterson expressed?

But has professor Coulter already forgotten about Bill Hybels? Hybels was, until recently, the founding pastor of Willow Creek church in Chicago, one of the biggest and most influential evangelical churches in the entire world. Hybels resigned from his pastorate amidst a growing chorus of accusations of sexual harassment, including accusations from women whom Hybels had empowered in roles of leadership in his ministry (he has denied most of the allegations, though he did confess to being in “situations that would have been far wiser to avoid”). Hybels is an outspoken gender egalitarian, and Willow Creek quickly named Heather Larson as their new senior pastor.

I understand why professor Coulter would not incorporate Hybels’ scandal into his analysis. For one thing, the coverage of and conversation about the Willow Creek accusations has paled in comparison to the ink that’s been spilled about Paige Patterson. For another, the evangelical response to the two situations has been notably different. Even before evidence emerged that Patterson had tried to conceal a rape at Southeastern Seminary from police, Southern Baptists and other evangelicals used controversy over his pastoral counsel to a victim of domestic abuse as an opportunity for soul-searching. Patterson’s troubling comments warranted some hard self-examination among conservative evangelicals about gender dynamics and whether our churches and institutions were more concerned about waging a culture war than protecting and cherishing women. Because Patterson is a traditionalist on gender, many evangelicals—rightly—took his seemingly cavalier attitude toward abuse as an indication that something was deeply broken in their wider traditionalist culture.

Interestingly, the allegations around Bill Hybels didn’t seem to provoke an analogous self-examination for those on the other side of the theological fence. In fact, it almost did the opposite. In the wake of the Hybels story, both Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren and evangelical writer Aimee Byrd published pieces, at Christianity Today and First Things, respectively, rebuking not Hybels but conservative evangelicals who were practicing “the Billy Graham rule” of not being alone with a member of the opposite sex. On May 23, before Patterson was ultimately fired by the seminary’s trustee board, the evangelical magazine Relevant published an essay by Tyler Hucakbee titled “Paige Patterson’s Non-Punishment Shows the Church Is Not Prepared for True Repentance.” A search on their archives for “Bill Hybels” shows several news items reporting on the allegations, but not a single piece of analysis similar to the Patterson one.

My point is not that a pinch of hypocrisy proves anything. It doesn’t. Nor is my point that the Patterson and Hybels situations are totally equivalent. They aren’t. My point is rather that the straight line that many seem to want to draw from Patterson’s Southern Baptist convictions on gender to his apparent low regard for vulnerable women is a far more complicated matter than they assume. If our national #MeToo moment has proved anything, it’s that no one ideological camp has a monopoly on destructiveness. Whether it’s the self-described feminist and progressive Harvey Weinstein, the elder conservative culture critic Bill Cosby, or two ministers on opposite ends of the theological spectrum, sin, selfishness, and abuse are equal opportunity forces. Healthy change in any of these represented subcultures must begin with a penitent acknowledgment that no one is inherently better than their opposing tribe. All have sinned and fallen short.

With this acknowledgment in hand, evangelicals would do well to heed some of professor Coulter’s admonishment. He’s right that many evangelicals have little to no coherent vision for the role women should play in the life of the church. Coulter’s counsel is to fix this by heading straightway to church history and appropriating the perspectives especially of the Pentecostal movement. But while church history and tradition are certainly vital for evangelicalism, Scripture matters more. Grounding our doctrine of gender and polity in the Bible should take priority over picking and choosing from a smorgasbord of theological movements to assuage our #MeToo guilt.

Of course, this brings us back to very old debates about the meaning of passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man”) and wider theological questions such as the parallelism between the church and family, among many others. These are arguments worth having, and worth having well. But evangelicals cannot assume that their institutions will be magically reformed when it comes to hearing and protecting women simply by yelling “Fundamentalist!” and running as fast as possible the other direction. Without grounding our theology of gender firmly in Scripture, we are not merely being unfaithful; we are setting the stage for future exposures.

While urging evangelicals to throw off “masculine Christianity” may feel reasonable in the cultural moment, this kind of mantra does more harm than good. It conflates masculinity with misogyny (something that’s difficult if we take 1 Corinthians 16:13 as inspired Scripture). It obscures the beautifully gendered worldview of Scripture, which, far from flattening sexual distinctiveness, exults in it. And it inadvertently relieves men of their moral responsibility toward others and puts it on depersonalized systems and populism.

For theological conservatives, holding a dogmatic line on female pastors while equivocating on domestic abuse and sexual harassment has proven to be a catastrophic formula. Coulter is absolutely right to call us to sincere repentance. But he’s wrong to frame the choice as one between complementarian practice and Christian compassion. Coulter strangely suggests that recovering a tradition of female preachers and teachers would not “require complementarians to violate their consciences with respect to the Word of God.” Well, yes, it would. But complementarian consciences are not in the end that important. What’s far more important is the church of Jesus Christ, built upon the foundation of the life-changing, culture-transforming Scriptures.

We don’t have to ignore the hard, counter-cultural sayings of the Bible in order to hold the line against any and all forms of sexual abuse. The same apostle who wrote that he didn’t permit women to be pastors also commanded Timothy to see the women of the church as mothers and sisters, and to treat them “in all purity:” not as objects to be used, or temptresses to be fled, or strangers to be ignored, but as family.

Lord, make it so.

Love Isn’t a Liberal Word

Conservative evangelicalism’s #MeToo moment is about a failure to love.

As I awoke this morning to news that Southwestern Seminary had reversed course and fired president Paige Patterson (canceling the benefits of his original transition to Emeritus), I felt no outrage, or schadenfreude, or even joy. I was glad for the future of that seminary and the future of the SBC that the right decision was finally made. But I thought a lot about Dr. Patterson, his family, and what I’m sure is his utter bewilderment at the past three weeks. Perhaps there are some who believe that Paige Patterson hates women or wants to protect predatory men. I do not, partially because I identify with Patterson’s failure to love his sisters in Christ the way he ought. His failure is my failure, too. And that’s what it is: A failure of love.

Growing up in conservative, Baptist evangelicalism, I frequently saw two ways to live the Christian life contrasted against each other. In the churches and denominational culture, I saw an emphasis on love and acceptance that often precluded believing or saying hard things. Church members who were living in open sexual sin were encouraged to participate in all aspects of church life because to confront them would be unkind and judgmental and possibly drive them from the church. On the other hand, there was the Baptist seminary and institutional culture. The dynamics of this culture were diametrically opposite of the attitudes I saw in local church life: Truth was what mattered more than people. To be serious about Scripture was more important than to be serious about sinners.

Propositionally, I never heard anyone in the seminary or institutional culture say that love was for liberals, just like I never heard anyone in the local church culture say that the Bible was for cold-hearted fundamentalists. But the emphases, the formative practices, the meta-intellectual liturgies that emanated from both worlds was crystal clear. My experience of seeing such a stark contrast drawn between mercy and morality left a deep imprint. My instincts were shaped to hear words like “compassion” and immediately call to mind Scriptures on truth. Again, none of this was articulated. It was beyond articulation. It was formation.

One thing I’ve learned in the past few months: You can’t live like this and escape your own #MeToo movement.

In our evangelical #MeToo moment, I see contours of a stark divide we’ve drawn between truth and love. Because we complementarians are not afraid to define ourselves by a theology of gender that clashes with the outside culture, our inner life is geared (in my experience) toward seeing women as issues that need to be addressed rather than people who need to be heard. Our eagerness to love the women in our churches and institutions is constantly outpaced by our eagerness to not be egalitarians, not least because our formative liturgies continually feed the latter desire but not the former.  For much of our subculture, taking seriously the concerns of those who are more sexually and socially vulnerable than men is not quite as important as maintaining a battle line opposite Democrats and social progressives. This dynamic exists not because we tell ourselves that it should exist, but because we tell ourselves other stories—stories sometimes beyond words—that make its existence inevitable.

Why does fear of turning into our theological opposites control our hearts and shape our spaces like this? Why is it so hard to find joyfully complementarian advocates of sexual abuse victims streaming out of our churches and seminaries? Why does the idea of a “listening to women” immediately awaken defensive strictures about PC culture and the hypocrisy of liberals? We could go further. #MeToo is about women, but for the evangelicalism I know and love it could just as well be about black people, or immigrants, or Democrats. The evangelicalism I know and love has so, so often walked around love because it was afraid of its germs.

I’m sure that Paige Patterson thought he was doing the right thing by encouraging the rape victim in his office to not tell the police. I’m sure he thought that by protecting the seminary from the attention of civil authorities, he was doing a service to the advance of the gospel and the formation of pastors and church leaders. I’m sure he thought that by counseling an abused woman to stay in the home with her husband he was striking a godly blow for marriage against the divorce culture. I’m sure he was out to win the war.

Evangelicalism doesn’t need a new Bible, edited by the spirit of the age. It doesn’t need a new Savior, proclaiming the good news of moralistic therapeutic deism. What evangelicalism needs is a new metaphor. It needs a way to feel toward the people of this earth that isn’t instinctively sword-drawn and battle-ready. It needs willingness to err on the side of gospel love rather than gospel swagger.

We are deathly afraid of being put in a corner next to those who are wrong, and so dutifully stay as far away from them as possible. In the meantime, we punt on abuse, we punt on racism, we punt on compassion for the poor. Let the Left handle that. Don’t contaminate our institutions with cultural Marxism. If you want to talk about those things, go to the Christ-less mainline, or go to politics. If you want to know about Christ, come to our churches.

Our seminaries and institutions are imperiled right now precisely because this does not work. Our arrangement of spirituality along American political lines has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. The change that has to come must come in the form of a willingness not to pit love and truth against each other. We’re not rethinking our biblical faith. We have to rethink our identity.

And that’s much, much harder.