[WARNING: This post contains language and discussion that rape or sexual abuse survivors may find upsetting.]
A few days Jared Wilson unwittingly started a firestorm. He posted on the subject of the recent erotic fiction bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey, arguing that the book represented a sinful distortion of the God-honouring form of authority/submission in marriage. The bulk of the post consisted of a quotation from Fidelity, written by Pastor Douglas Wilson (no relation to Jared) back in 1999. I haven’t read the book in question, but it is available for full view on Google Books. The offending quotation reads as follows:
A final aspect of rape that should be briefly mentioned is perhaps closer to home. Because we have forgotten the biblical concepts of true authority and submission, or more accurately, have rebelled against them, we have created a climate in which caricatures of authority and submission intrude upon our lives with violence.
When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed.
But we cannot make gravity disappear just because we dislike it, and in the same way we find that our banished authority and submission comes back to us in pathological forms. This is what lies behind sexual “bondage and submission games,” along with very common rape fantasies. Men dream of being rapists, and women find themselves wistfully reading novels in which someone ravishes the “soon to be made willing” heroine. Those who deny they have any need for water at all will soon find themselves lusting after polluted water, but water nonetheless.
True authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity. When authority is honored according to the word of God it serves and protects — and gives enormous pleasure. When it is denied, the result is not “no authority,” but an authority which devours.
– Douglas Wilson, Fidelity: What it Means to be a One-Woman Man (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1999), 86-87.
Originally posted last Friday, it swiftly sparked a negative reaction. However, the full force of the storm didn’t begin to hit until Tuesday evening, when Rachel Held Evans posted the following tweet:
WTF, Gospel Coalition? “A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts” buff.ly/Pfu8CQ
— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) July 18, 2012
Yesterday Rachel posted on the subject, and since then the furore has blown up to extreme proportions. Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere have been thrown into a screaming tumult. I think that even Google+ registered a tremor.
There is so much about this passage that I, as a woman, find inaccurate, degrading, and harmful that it’s hard to know where to begin. That Wilson blames egaliatarianism for the presence of rape and sexual violence in the world is ludicrous and unsubstantiated. His characterization of sex as an act of conquering and colonization is disturbing, and his notion that women are little more than the passive recipients of this colonization, who simply “accept” penetration, is as ignorant as it is degrading. What is perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that even after multiple women expressed their concerns in the comment section, both Jared Wilson and Doug Wilson repeatedly dismissed these concerns with exasperation and condescension, ridiculing the commenters’ lack of “reading comprehension.”
When your sister in Christ tells you that your words trigger upsetting images of rape and sexual violence, you should listen to her, not dismiss her.
Today is the day after. I hope that we have all taken a few deep breaths and a cold shower, prayed for ourselves and for each other, and thought about something completely different and positive for at least a couple of hours. The Dirty Projectors have a great new album out.
The following are some of my thoughts on the whole situation.
The Offending Statements
The statements that appear to have provoked the strongest reaction are the following:
In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.
A number of things immediately strike one about these statements. First, Pastor Wilson is bringing complementarianism firmly into the bedroom. There are many in complementarian circles who view their marriages as ‘functionally egalitarian’, their complementarianism only kicking in on the rare occasions where an irresolvable difference of opinion necessitates a deciding vote. Pastor Wilson, at least in this quotation, does not appear to belong to such a camp. Second, in the context of his wider quotation, Wilson’s relating of ‘authority’ and ‘submission’ to the marriage bed raises a host of concerns and questions. Third, he uses exceedingly strong words to describe the man’s actions. Fourth, he uses words that suggest passivity – a ‘lie back and think of England!’ approach – to describe the woman’s part.
I commented as follows on the original post, just before the comments were closed:
Rev Wilson, while agreeing with you that much of the sort of imagery that you refer to is quite clearly alluded to in Scripture, especially in such places as the Song of Solomon, I still wonder a couple of things.
First, while these images are poetically allusive, and many of their referents should be quite apparent to the person familiar with biblical imagery, I would be interested to know why you didn’t feel the need to qualify and clarify their sense to guard against less charitable interpretations that you might feel that they have been exposed to, or simply to set the minds of people for whom such words have very different connotations at ease. While you might read the concept of ‘penetration’ in terms of the biblical comparisons of the bride to a city with walls and a guarded door, or an enclosed garden that the bridegroom enters, for many of your readers it will be nothing more than a crude and reductive fixation on one dimension of the physical act of intercourse. While you might see the notion of ‘conquest’ in terms of one party’s breaking down of the other’s defences through loving action, much as Christ’s overwhelming grace broke down our resistance to him, many of your readers will process such language in terms of common cultural expressions such as ‘sexual conquest’, expressions that denote something objectifying and uncaring. While you might see the concept of ‘colonization’ in terms of the woman’s walled garden being given up to the man and being spoken of as his to enjoy and to cultivate (Song 4:12—5:1), the notion of colonization rings far less pleasantly on the ears of those for whom its primary relation is the callous ‘rape’ of other cultures by Western nations in previous centuries. While you probably understand the term ‘planting’ within the rich, expansive and allusive web of biblical imagery, symbolically relating men and women to sowing seed and answering earth, I suspect that many of your readers are unfamiliar with this background. My concern is that, by failing carefully to qualify and clarify such language in a cultural context where such images may land uncomfortably on our ears, you expose yourself to alienating misunderstandings or confusion, which compromise the reception of your message, and you give your message a potentially objectionable cast which provokes dismay and hurt, or easily hands others the cause they desire to take wilful offence. Have you given thought to the way that such language will be heard by a rape survivor, for instance? I suspect that greater sensitivity to such concerns would mollify many who have been offended to an excessive degree and make uncharitable readings less understandable.
Second, the way that you frame the woman’s role seems to me to represent a failure to explore the rich poetic biblical imagery that seems to underlie your description of the man’s role. The woman seems to be reduced to the mere passive object of the male’s action. Now, I am pretty sure that this is not what you mean, but to many this is how your statements will read, and to the extent that you seem to make little attempt to explore the woman’s action, I am inclined to share their concerns to a great extent. For instance, the agency of the Shulamite is throughout the Song of Songs, and the beloved says rather a lot about what the Shulamite does to him, things that represent a sort of counterbalance to the action of the man. The Shulamite is an image of great strength, an image that leaves viewers awestruck. She is like a great army with banners (6:4, 10), like a glorious tower of strength, or the beauty of Jerusalem. If Solomon penetrates the Shulamite’s walls, the Shulamite totally overwhelms him: ‘you have ravished my heart with one look of your eyes!’ (4:9), ‘turn your eyes away from me, for they have overcome me’ (6:5), ‘the king is held captive by its tresses’ (7:5). Solomon may gently conquer the Shulamite with his love, but the Shulamite has already completely overwhelmed him. His ‘conquest’ is not the victory of superior and secure force, but something that occurs to one who has himself been utterly defeated. In this sense, one could argue that the action is less his ‘conquest’ and more her free ‘surrender’: while he is the one awestruck and overwhelmed by her mighty beauty, his victor still surrenders to him (the surprise of this should be marvellous to us). Likewise she is the one who invites the one she has conquered to ‘colonize’ her garden. The freedom of her invitation is no pallid ‘acceptance’, ‘reception’, or ‘surrender’, but a completely free action, neither determined nor reduced in the fullness of its agency by the action of the man.
There is definitely asymmetry within the biblical depiction of the sexual relationship of marriage and of male and female in general. However, this asymmetry is not of a purely unilaterial authority/submission or active/passive character. I believe that a more sensitive and careful reading of the biblical texts will bear this claim of mine out (I am pretty sure that I could match you verse for verse on claims of the man being overcome by the woman next to claims of the man conquering the woman, for instance). The seemingly (I stress, seemingly – I want to attempt to read you charitably here) unilateral character of your vision of free and clear agency in marriage produces a troubling muting of the biblical teaching of women’s agency and even authority relative to men (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:4).
While I disagree with the egalitarians – quite strongly, in fact – I find your views, and those of many other complementarians, no less concerning and sub-biblical on this front, and perhaps even more so given the character of the abuses that it might unwittingly and unintentionally be opening itself up to, especially as they leave themselves exposed to dangerous misunderstandings. Knowing your respect for the Scripture’s authority and guidance on this and all other matters, and admiring your commitment to follow it wholeheartedly in a manner that denies all supposed claims of party, cultural sensitivities, or political correctness, I would ask you to explore more carefully what the Scripture has to teach on the subject of female agency, and not merely absolutize one side of the picture. As you well know, such relationships are not a zero-sum game but a spring of life, freedom, and agency for both parties: I believe that it would serve as an encouragement, reassurance, and blessing to many of your hearers were you to sound with a far less uncertain trumpet the implications of this for women. It might also set the minds and keyboards of a number of your strongest critics at greater rest.
While I disagree with him on this and several other issues, I do not believe that Pastor Wilson is a misogynist, and definitely do not regard him as a supporter or defender of rape culture. Nevertheless, I am concerned that such unguarded and one-sided statements may leave themselves open to the abuse of those who are (and more particularly to the abuse of offence-mongers), especially when abstracted from a clarifying context. My primary concern is to see such unguarded statements replaced with more carefully worded ones. My secondary concern is to see Pastor Wilson publicly, personally, and strongly dissociate himself from the impression that a prima facie reading of his statements might give: that the man’s part in marital relations is oppressively forceful and dominating and the woman’s essentially passive. Why did he choose the words ‘conquer’ and ‘colonize’ over words such as ‘win over’ or ‘build up’? While he has laid a number of these concerns to rest, I would still like to see more clarity on this front. I would also appreciate an acknowledgment that his position was worded poorly and that the same point can be expressed in more appropriate terms.
On top of these concerns, I would like to see Pastor Wilson demonstrate more extensive engagement with the scriptural text on this matter. While one cannot expect a person to say everything at the same time, I believe that we are justified in asking to see counterbalancing and contextualizing statements from writers who make such bold and controversial claims. I would also appreciate Pastor Wilson explaining more closely how he sees the categories of ‘authority’ and ‘submission’ relating to the marriage bed. While I share his conviction that conjugal relations have an inescapable and God-given asymmetry in mutuality, I regard ‘authority’ and ‘submission’ to be, at the very least, unhelpful terms in such a context.
I also believe that the dominance of the categories of ‘authority’ and ‘submission’ in complementarian theology leads with considerable frequency to a theoretical diminishment of the agency of women relative to men. I believe that ‘authority’ and ‘submission’ should have a place in our understanding of the asymmetrical mutuality of marriage, but also believe that the mutuality of marriage is far broader and more multifaceted than this, and that it is quite mistaken to give authority/submission the currency that it possesses in most complementarian discourse. Within the relationship between men and women there is also an asymmetrical reversibility, whereby men must submit to their wives in certain respects. The dominance of a unilateral authority/submission causes us to miss this.
Now, I am persuaded that Pastor Wilson is probably considerably better in practice than he appears to be in theory here. One of the most impressive things that I have witnessed in this entire debate has been the strength, spirit, humour, confidence, independence, and agency of Pastor Wilson’s daughters, especially when witnessed against the embarrassing foil of the (frequently calculated) wilting weakness, passive aggression, and overwrought emotion that is widely on display from Rachel Held Evans and her cohorts (about which more later). The proof of this pudding may well be in the eating: I for one know which characteristics and virtues I would most value and admire in a wife or daughter. All I would ask is for Pastor Wilson to tell us more about how he values such virtues, and how strong male fathers and leaders can empower, cultivate, and support their expression, rather than stifling or undermining them. I believe that this is a message that many complementarians could benefit from hearing. However, as the theory and terminology that Pastor Wilson employs have a lot of influence, I don’t want to let them off the hook.
A Little Context
Pastor Wilson’s original comments were made in the context of a book addressed directly and pointedly to males. The opening paragraph of the first chapter reads thus:
This book was written for men and their sons. I suggest that wives read this only when their husbands give it to them, and not the other way around. The introduction mentioned the issue of “straight talk”—and this means, in part, a rejection of euphemism. Some of what is said here may be offensive to some Christian women, but the point is certainly not to give offence. The point is to provide biblically specific and pointed help to Christian males.
I think that there are occasions when it is completely appropriate to ask women to leave the room – or to stay in at their own risk – and to speak directly and without mincing words to men. There are certain forms of speech that are possible between men that are difficult to engage in when women are allowed to participate in the debate on their own terms, a truth that has frequently impressed itself upon me over the years through my experience in various contexts, and which witnessing the events of the last few days has only reinforced. Speech and debate are fraught with gender issues and within this post I want to speak directly to some of the ignored or repressed gender issues that cause problems in such online and offline engagements on all sides. More about this anon.
The fact that Pastor Wilson’s original comments occur within a work directed to men only is important to take into account when we interpret his words. Read in their original context, I suspect that many of us would take strong issue with his statements, but few if any men would genuinely have been personally hurt or offended by them.
Jared Wilson took Pastor Wilson’s words and put them in a new context. Jared’s concern was to speak against the false vision of authority and submission that emerges in such popular works as Fifty Shades of Grey. As I read Jared’s post, it seems apparent to me that the accent of the quotation from Pastor Wilson as employed within it falls squarely upon the claim that domination and submission paradigms, such as those in Fifty Shades of Grey (and for that matter in less explicit books such as Twilight), represent a reassertion of creational patterns of marital relations in highly distorted, abusive, and sinful forms. While much of the Internet’s ire has been directed against the statements concerning the supposedly ‘conquering’ and ‘colonizing’ character of men’s sexual relationship relative to women, I see little evidence that this was anywhere near the heart of Jared’s point, which was to condemn a form of abuse that people can so easily fall into on account of created predispositions.
All of the above said, I believe that Pastor Wilson’s words were poorly chosen in the context of his book. I also believe that Jared’s use of Pastor Wilson’s statement in the context of his blog post was ill-advised.
I believe that context and emphasis must be taken into account when determining proportionality in response. People will often say rash or intemperate things in the heat of the moment, or careless things on occasions where they speak too hastily or without proper consideration, things that they would probably like to take back if they were given the gift of space and time in which to reflect, and greater insight into the way that their words would be taken. Sometimes people flail out in anger and say things as a kneejerk and unconsidered reaction, expressing hurtful sentiments that they do not truly and deeply hold, simply because in their anger they wish to cause the other person pain.
We should resist giving such statements weight. In giving them weight, we immediately respond by attacking, and in so doing force the other party onto the defensive, forcing them to give weight and to stand by statements that are at best an ugly caricature of their deepest thoughts and sentiments. If we are generous enough to believe the best of each other, query statements before giving weight to them, and to allow overheated conversations time to cool down, we might be surprised at how readily such statements are withdrawn. By refusing to give much weight to statements uttered carelessly or in anger, we also protect ourselves from hurt and offence, and preserve relationships that might otherwise have broken down. People seldom truly mean the most hurtful things that they say to us. I am persuaded that the way that this debate has been handled has put both Jared and Pastor Wilson in a position where they are pressurized to put more weight on careless and ill-advised expressions than they originally intended to, or would have done had people responded carefully, rather than just reacting.
There is a flipside to all of this, of course. People who frequently speak carelessly, unguardedly, overreact, shoot their mouths off, become shrill, or lose their tempers will find that thinking and cool-headed persons accord ever less weight to their words as time goes on.
In order to give people the space and atmosphere in which they feel able to retract comments, we need to cultivate charity, patience, and good will towards each other. We need to master our own instinctive urges, learning to respond thoughtfully, rather than merely reacting in kind. Crucial to this picture is good humour. The reactive person always treats everything with extreme seriousness. The good humoured person is able to take things lightly when they need to be taken lightly, without losing the ability to take things seriously when necessary. This sort of good humour can defuse such conflicts with surprising ease. Sadly, I fear that such Internet debates would make humourless reactives of us all.
Look, here’s a Pomeranian puppy:
Our words are like sons. They bear our image, but can become prodigals. Pastor Wilson’s words wandered far from their original home and – dare I say it – have engaged in a little of the semantic version of riotous living. In such situations, though, I believe that we should beware of visiting all of the sins of the son too readily upon the father.
The meaning of our words exceeds authorial intent. Authorial intent and, more particularly, authorial care in expression can set certain limits upon meaning, but they can never completely determine this meaning. Like children who grow up and fly the nest, our words having left our tongues can work all sorts of unwitting good or mischief.
Pastor Wilson has all sorts of fun with his words. When I encounter his words I am often impressed by their brimming confidence, spirit, and forthrightness, a sure sign that their father is a boisterous and playful rhetorician. They make a refreshing change from the pusillanimous, disingenuous, manipulative, nervous, passive aggressive, and mean-spirited words that I so often encounter from other writers online. This said, sometimes they do so love to throw their weight around in a careless manner and can hurt some people who should be protected, or clumsily bump into carefully arranged furniture. On such occasions, I wish that their good-spirited and playful father had exercised a little more careful discipline on them while they were still at home.
Still on the issue of authorial intent, there appears to be a failure to distinguish between the meaning of the statement, and the intention of the author. I believe that there are occasions when the objective meaning of statements should be pressed against their author’s avowed intentions. I believe that this is one such occasion (even employing the most generous senses of ‘colonize’ or ‘conquer’, I believe that the choice of these terms over others remains a curious misstep from a wordsmith who generally exhibits such detailed knowledge of his tools). However, although we can argue that the statement does not actually mean what its author intended it to mean, we should not impute to the author a belief that he denies, even though we may hold him responsible for not exercising careful discipline over his words.
On the basis of such statements, people are calling Pastor Wilson a ‘horrible trainwreck of a human being’ and speaking of ‘advocacy of rape’. In response to such people, I must ask where they see Pastor Wilson, or anyone else for that matter, supporting their interpretation of the statements in question. Does anyone really recognize themselves or their beliefs in such characterizations of the import of the statements? If they don’t, would it be possible to turn the temperature down in here just a little, and to try patiently to work with each other, discovering what each party really does mean, and how we might go about couching our convictions in language more propitious to the charitable reception of our arguments?
If we have the duty to exercise discipline over our words, to ensure that they represent us honestly and clearly, especially in our absence, we also have a duty to seek, in the reception of other’s words, that we are taking those words in a sense that represents them most fairly and accurately. If our opponents cannot recognize themselves in our interpretation of their words, something has probably gone wrong along the way.
A Few Remarks on Persons
One of the things that has saddened me in this debate have been some of the extremely defamatory statements that have been so readily hurled in Pastor Wilson’s direction, by persons who have obviously made little effort to acquaint themselves with the details of the situation, or who have gone on little more than Rachel’s word. We have a playbook for dealing with such situations. Here is one important principle from it:
Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, the younger as sisters, with all purity. – 1 Timothy 5:1
Biblical speech is conditioned by considerations of age, office, and gender. Certain forms of speech are appropriate in some settings and between certain persons, but not appropriate in contexts or between different persons. This is an issue that I will return to at a later point.
Pastor Wilson is almost 60, and an ordained minister of the gospel. He has been instrumental in the founding of a church, school, university, ministerial training programme, and denomination. There is a biblically-enjoined way that we should speak to such a man, even when we disagree sharply with him. We should accord him respect and speak to him in a manner that shows the particular honour due to those who are our elders and also ordained servants of Christ’s Church.
The Internet exacerbates our modern egalitarian atmosphere of debate, where age and office are no longer accorded their rightful honour, and where office holders and our elders are routinely subject to disrespect. I have certainly failed in this regard in the past, but I believe that this is a principle that is especially important on such occasions. In order further to underline this point, I have referred to Pastor Wilson with his title throughout this post. There are other persons who are in a position to rebuke Pastor Wilson were it necessary, but young and unordained bloggers like Rachel Held Evans and me are not in such a position. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we must agree with him, nor that we can’t speak in opposition to his expressed positions.
Rachel Held Evans is a young blogger, who originally made her name from a book chronicling her movement away from her fundamentalist upbringing to one with greater room for a questioning faith. She has since gathered a large audience for her blog and has a new book coming out at the end of this year on her experiments in different forms of biblical womanhood. Her theological training is limited. To my knowledge she is not an ordained minister, isn’t subject to the authority of any Christian institution, nor, by her own account, is she attending any church at the moment.
Why is any of this relevant? Because one’s qualifications and credentials to speak matter, especially when one makes such bold statements. Because one’s accountability for one’s words matters. Because the degree to which your words have been invested into actions that show fruit matters. Now, I don’t deny that Rachel is free to express her opinion. However, I believe that we should be more careful in the weight that we give to such voices in these debates. Not all persons are worthy of the same hearing.
Lest I be seen to be holding Rachel to an inconsistently applied standard here, let me make clear that my voice should be treated in much the same way. I do not speak from any position of authority or honour, but trust that some of those who occupy such positions will see some merit in my words. We all need to recognize the place from which we are speaking.
Read Part 2 here.