“A&E” refers to Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin, authors of So Much More. I chose the abbreviation to save space and time.
In the last post, I outlined how A&E finally got around to (partially) defining the word “femininity.” Femininity, however, is only one of the terms A&E set out to define at the beginning of the chapter. The other is “strength,” which fares significantly worse than femininity in terms of specificity. However, if we read between the lines, I think we can still make an educated guess at what A&E have in mind when they talk about strength.
A&E begin, as usual, with telling us what they don’t mean:
The world has given us a warped idea of strength, a view confined to physical strength, vocal volume, assertiveness, toughness, size, commanding leadership, and other masculine traits. It excludes any of the more subtle definitions extolled in Scripture, which we will talk more about in a minute.
The above is not actually completely wrong. There are groups that focus exclusively on the version of strength A&E describe, and I agree that this is narrow-minded and detrimental to all involved. I disagree that only non-Christians perpetuate this stereotype (Mark Driscoll, anybody?), but overall I can agree with A&E about this particular paragraph.
That being said, once again A&E stop short of giving us a real definition of the word “strength.” What you are not, is not the sum total of what you are. So can we flesh out A&E’s idea of strength from the rest of the chapter? Not to the same degree as femininity, but to some extent, yes:
The agency of a man’s strength is not better, but it is different than the agency of a woman’s strength. Both men and woman are called to be soldiers for Christ, but we are commanded to be so in different realms. Man is fitted, qualified, and created for taking dominion in the storms of public life; we as women are ordained by God to occupy and keep the domain of the home. As women we are not to rival man by seeking to be a replica or copy of him, nor are we to compete with him, but we should seek instead to complement him and be his counterpart as God created us to be (Genesis 2:18). By exhibiting such virtues as meekness, gentleness, kindness, forbearance, obedience, reverence, modesty, and purity in a responsive, submissive manner, we bring a balance and completeness to man’s assertive qualities as an initiator, warrior, provider, leader, and protector (see 1 Peter 3). These and other such godly traits are the God-ordained elements of a girl’s influence in her father’s life and someday in the life of her husband.
Here A&E (again through Rebekah) tie strength to the idea of “separate spheres” for men and women; in fact they come close to saying outright that “strength” for women lies in “occupy[ing] and keep[ing] the domain of the home.” Men and women inhabiting separate spheres is hardly an original idea, not only because it was widely propounded in Victorian England (see here and here), but also because A&E’s version appears to be basically the same as Doug Phillips’, as outlined in points 12 and 13 of The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy (file recovered from Vision Forum before the site went down):
12. While men are called to public spheres of dominion beyond the home, their dominion begins within the home, and a man’s qualification to lead and ability to lead well in the public square in based upon his prior success in ruling his household. (Mal 4:6; Eph. 6:4; 1 Tim. 3:5)
13. Since the woman was created as a helper to her husband, as the bearer of children, and as a “keeper at home,” the God-ordained and proper sphere of dominion for a wife is the household and that which is connected with the home, although her domestic calling, as a representative of and helper to her husband, may well involve activity in the marketplace and larger community. (Gen. 2:18ff.; Prov. 31:10-31; Tit. 2:4-5)
As it turns out, Rebekah restates this notion of “strength” even more bluntly in another place in the chapter:
I am not saying that being feminine will make one strong, but that strength is developed through, manifested in, and drawn from being obedient to fulfill God’s calling as a woman.
In light of this, I feel safe stating the following:
Strength, according to A&E, is conforming to your prescribed gender role within your prescribed sphere of dominion. For men, this includes both the home and the public square; for women, it includes the home only.
Another thing we know from previous chapters is that A&E bolster gender roles and separate spheres of dominions with what I might as well christen Sex-Based Gift Distribution (SBGD) – the idea that God gave men and women different abilities, which conform to the requirements of their role and/or sphere. I’ve talked about SBGD before, and pointed out that all it takes to destroy the system is one person whose gifts don’t align with their role. But that’s old news by now, so let’s move on to something more interesting. For instance, the following question:
Do A&E, though they portray the “worldly” view of strength outlined above as negative and in fact refer to it as “warped,” actually reject it?
As far as I can tell, no. Remember Rebekah’s brief definition of femininity from the last post – “gentle in speech, voice and manner, [and] full of love for home”? If we contrast it with the “worldly” view of strength above – “physical strength, vocal volume, assertiveness, toughness, size, commanding leadership, and other masculine traits” – we see that it is basically its exact opposite. Thus, A&E appear to consider this view of strength “warped,” not because they think true strength always lies in something other than being the biggest, toughest, loudest one in the room, but because they think that this view of strength can only be rightly applied to men – thus why they refer to the things listed as “masculine traits” – and they see the general culture applying it to both sexes. (This is a vast difference from my view, in which defining strength as purely physical is reductionistic for both men and women.)
Needless to say, this creates problems for both sexes. First and most obviously, there are some women who simply are physically strong, loud, tough and large. A woman built like a stereotypical sturdy German peasant cannot repent of her broad shoulders and large bone structure and transform herself into Elsa from Frozen. And on the other side of the coin, there are soft-spoken, thin, short, non-athletic men, who are just as unacceptable by A&E’s standards because they are not “masculine” enough. If A&E want to argue with genetics, the only thing they’ll accomplish is giving themselves a headache by repeatedly smashing their heads against a brick.
More importantly, however, A&E seem to have missed that this vision of “masculine strength” is no less flawed just because they’ve Christianized it. In the secular version, boys who are smaller, weaker, gentler and non-athletic will be bullied for being “wimps” or “girls” or “gay.” In the Christian version, they will be punished for being “effeminate.” The Christian version may use fancier language, but the insult is the same. Thus, boys who do not fit the mold will suffer no matter what.
We can actually see this process at work in, ironically, Rebekah. Listen to her description of her thought processes surrounding her efforts to become a tomboy:
I found my life as a girl to be rather dull and unexciting while growing up. It seemed to me that a boy’s life was more desirable than a girl’s. To solve this erroneously-perceived problem, I made it my mission in life to be a tomboy. I set about undertaking the task of fulfilling my goal by accepting every opportunity I had to prove my strength and refusing to show any sign of weakness or cowardice (both of which I loathed). I never allowed myself to cry because crying was for sissies. Even though I am the middle sister of three sisters, I was more like the brother my sisters never had. I have always been physically stronger than my sisters – a fact that I took great pride in. In order to avoid compromising my “tough” persona, I shunned all things that I deemed “girlie” or “weak” – what I thought was feminine.
Rebekah thinks that to be “masculine,” she has to be “tough.” She must show off her physical strength at every possible opportunity. She must never show any signs of weakness and never cry, and hate people who do. And all this is done in an effort to be “masculine” as opposed to “feminine.” In other words, this is what Rebekah thinks it means to be a man. And A&E, by labeling the “warped” view of strength in the beginning of the chapter as “masculine,” are agreeing with her.
So what happens to a boy who doesn’t match Rebekah’s picture of masculinity? If his father subscribes to A&E’s definition of “masculine,” what do you think he’s going to tell his son? I don’t know about you, but the image in my mind includes things like forcing his son to play sports and/or be competitive; banning him from all activities perceived as “girly”; and telling him things like “real men and boys don’t cry.”
Oh, wait – that’s exactly what Rebekah did to herself. In fact, even A&E indulge a bit when talking about early American women near the end of the chapter:
They were sympathetic, compassionate and considerate of the feelings of others without being driven by their emotions or obsessed with their feelings.
Leaving aside for a moment whether this picture of early American women’s emotional states is accurate or universal (that’s for a later post), what A&E are clearly communicating here is contempt for modern women, who they have decided are emotionally weak compared to their pioneer foremothers. This is ironic, not only because it follows right on the heels of A&E praising sympathy and compassion, but because they are doing exactly what they and Rebekah condemned earlier: looking down on perceived weakness in other women. How very “masculine” of them.
Another major pitfall in A&E’s version of “masculine strength,” A&E actually pointed out themselves:
It excludes any of the more subtle definitions extolled in Scripture…
What A&E cannot see is that they actually perpetuate this problem throughout the rest of the chapter, by seemingly limiting the “more subtle definitions” of strength only to women. In other words, they spend most of the chapter indirectly erasing and devaluing all forms of non-physical strength in men. Which leads me to my final question: does “the world” – i.e., the general culture which A&E present themselves as opposing – actually view strength in this reductionistic way?
I would say, no – at least, not completely. As I said before, there are certain subcultures that reduce strength to only being physically tough, but it doesn’t take long to find multiple examples of non-Christians expressing admiration for physically weak, small, or unimposing people, or even fictional characters, who nevertheless had inner or spiritual strength.
Take, for instance, concentration camp survivors. Using A&E’s interpretation, we would expect to see the culture expressing nothing but contempt for these people, as they certainly don’t fit the definition of physically fit, loud, aggressive “strength.” In reality, of course, anyone who called a concentration camp survivor “weak” or a “sissy” would find themselves facing…well, let’s just call it forceful opposition. That’s because any halfway sensible prson, Christian or not, recognizes that concentration camp survivors have a different kind of strength which has nothing to do with brawn, and are certainly far stronger than a brash, shallow guy who happens to be able to benchpress 400 pounds.
In fiction, of course, unlikely heroes who are smaller and weaker than the antagonist and have the odds stacked against them, are everywhere. Frodo and Sam cross Middle Earth to get to Mordor and destroy the Ring of Power. Marlin the clownfish risks being eaten by sharks and killed by jellyfish to find his son. Harry Potter is outmatched by Voldemort, yet goes up against him anyway to protect his friends. Granted, some of these stories were written by Christians (though I doubt A&E would accept J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling as Christian, because they’re both from liturgical church traditions), but their stories have nevertheless become wildly popular the world over – something we would not expect if non-Christians don’t recognize non-physical forms of strength.
And then there are characters that show the limitations of pushy, loud, physical strength. In fact, many of them don’t just point out its limits, they actually make the point that physical strength without underlying character is a recipe for a tyrant. Fiction is full of aggressive bullies who get their comeuppance. One particularly good example, doubly appropriate here since we’re talking about gender roles, is Miss Trunchbull:
(Note to A&E: this is not footage from the latest Christians for Biblical Equality conference.)
So is Miss Trunchbull’s problem the fact that she’s not behaving “femininely” and is too focused on her physical strength? Or is her problem that she’s simply a domineering, abusive person with no character?
And in the end, that’s really the rub here, isn’t it? Conforming to your prescribed gender role within your prescribed sphere, doesn’t tell us jack squat about your character. You can be the most confident, athletic, masculine “man’s man,” or the most demure, soft-spoken, feminine homemaker, on the planet, and still be a terrible person who hurts and abuses others. That’s because, as I’ve pointed out multiple times, virtue cannot be gendered – no matter how hard patriocentrists try.