White Horse Inn is a multimedia catalyst for reformation. We believe that each generation must rediscover and apply the gospel to their own time.Our mission is to help Christians “know what they believe and why they believe it” through conversational theology.
That’s the take from a recent article by Andrée Seu Peterson, where she responds to the recent outpouring of antagonism towards men in positions of power and more broadly throughout America, by enumerating all the things she appreciates about men.
From one angle, Peterson is correct: the gender atmosphere of our day exudes poisonous bromides, virtually neutering male energy and power. But what’s the right response to this quandary? Netflix and Disney tell us that the right response is a carefully curated film where female might makes right. Only special people—strong female characters—are allowed to one-up men, who invariably demonstrate cupidity, stupidity, and ineptitude. Thus, the abuse of power by men necessitates dismantling through outstanding female prowess in the same fields. Laud the woman who becomes the first to play quarterback.
The alternate path (as Peterson’s article describes) sees men as burly, brawny, simple creatures, women as delicate flowers trapped in dreary environments, were it not for the genius of men. Not content to reclassify men as blunt objects, Peterson also labels us “simple.” We enjoy lifting heavy objects and never complain.
Speaking of heavy burdens, I’m starting to feel one now; specifically, the burden of stoic masculine confidence. Bogart never had it so good. Is this pressure a clue to the current epidemic of middle-aged mental illness? Certainly any pressure to tamp down male emotion is sub-biblical, as King David demonstrates with his melding of poetic affect and undaunted courage. Yet the ‘traditional’ gender role of strong, silent men damages male-female relations as much as any effeminacy. The exaltation of a performative masculinity in which stoic brawn or whiz-kid technology are the only masculine ideal is as harmful to men as the June Cleaver / Pamela Anderson archetypes are to women. Woe betide the man who cannot invent “neat stuff” for his wife’s comfort. Even more disheartening is the claim that men are owed gratitude because they’ve invented most of the cool whiz-bang technology in the world. Apart from the tendency to idolize Top Men, a bug in Palo Alto’s penthouses would be shocked by the abuses of male power. Where is robust forgiveness found in the glitz and glamor of Silicon Valley? Sordid sagas like this one should make us reticent to exalt brains or brawn, wealth or status.
Furthermore, this picture of manhood is antithetical to the ethics of the cross. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). Consider our Savior, who melded diamond-sharp courage with heart-rending compassion, who rules with justice and is acquainted with our deepest griefs.
We need weak men and weak women. God has not chosen many who are strong, or wise, or powerful in this age. As much as it may wound Christians used to exercising the ways and means of polite society (with its attendant political mésalliances), we need to refuse the false dichotomy. There is no need to disparage men or exalt them; no need to vilify women or destroy the patriarchy.
It’s the false dichotomy that fills me with greater trepidation than the false ideals. Such a view leads ultimately to men (and women) who don’t image Jesus Christ, but Greek idols—when we champion men who fit the mold of heroes, we slide inexorably down the mountain towards Apollonian ideals. (One side note: for women, look at the diversity of femininity found in Scripture. Better to use the strong female characters found in the Gospels. Consider the Gentile women, who served Christ out of their substance (Luke 8:2-3). Consider Dorcas, the disciple (Acts 9:32). Consider the strength of the teenage virgin who showed courage (that pesky masculine virtue) when the angel announced that she would bear the Christ-child (Luke 1:38)).
For a more beneficial approach to gender, Christians have no need to look farther afield than the opening chapter of Scripture. When you look closely at the patterns of Genesis 1, you see that the Lord has created dancing partners—earthly couples—who display a greater wholeness through the integration of their differentiation. Light and dark form a single day; the sun (“greater light”) and the moon (“lesser light”) together display the rotation of the spheres; the land and the sea together form the stuff of earth—and to cap it all off, the creation of humanity as male and female signals the start of a glorious vice-regency. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The covenantal alliance between men and women is a grand part of God’s design for marriage, both riffing off Jesus for the other’s sanctification.
But what exactly are the valuable qualities men bring to the table? A scan of the qualifications for office in the body of Christ illuminates what Jesus Christ calls men to be in 1 Timothy 3: sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable…gentle, not quarrelsome; not prone to violence (literally, “not giving blows”). Nowhere here do we find that men are valued in terms of their physical labor, nowhere is creative nous exalted, nowhere is tire-inflating or tool-working mentioned. And why would the apostle mention the threat of pugnacity and quick-tempered discord if men were not given to anger or complaint?
The sad reality is that men do complain. Men don’t always fix the tire (I call Triple A). Raw physicality is not a high priority for health in the church, nor is technical expertise the extent of wisdom. And it is true, 12 out of 12 disciples were men, but if we use simple math as our metric, we shouldn’t forget that the foes of Jesus were also men—not weak, effete metrosexuals, but the movers and shakers; the kings and prefects of the age.
For Christians—especially for those who aspire to leadership roles—the cruciform call of the apostle remains eternally relevant. Wasn’t Paul the Doogie Howser of the Pharisees, the precocious intellectual prodigy under Gamaliel’s tutelage? (He didn’t invent the Internet, just revolutionized religion.) Yet that same intrepid apostle can speak these words: God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor 1:27-29).
I sympathize with the security provided by an easy dichotomy of male and female: blue/pink, physical/emotional, technical/creative—it’s an achievable and safe way to live. Christians cannot, however, settle for laws we can achieve. We are called to a greater walk, a higher ethic—to set our minds on things above, to deny ourselves. That’s why the greatest concern I have is Peterson’s hidden assumption that we are delivered through our obedience: “Isn’t it just like God to make His command to be thankful simultaneously His means of deliverance?”
Here is where human prowess leads—whether male or female, Olympian or Chthonic, Silicon Valley or Hollywood. Freedom is found not in exalting men or women, but in loving allegiance to the King who has laid down his life for his bride. We should be grateful for men. We should be grateful for women. But we should be grateful ultimately that Jesus Christ has called us to be part of his new humanity, made not in the image of strong man or of porcelain women, but after the image of Christ. Not because we’re strong or creative, but when we were weak, when we were lying cold and lifeless—when you were ungrateful to him, the Word became flesh.
Only the freedom found in this Incarnate One, in the God-man made like his brothers and sisters, will give us the ability to spend ourselves for one another, to be truly men and women secure in our bodies and our souls. As Calvin once remarked, “Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not contemplate him outside ourselves from afar…but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him.” So then you can fix the flat tire, gentlemen. You can cook the Christmas ham, ladies. Not to live up to a stereotype or to score points for or against the church’s cultured despisers, but out of the largesse of the Gospel. Jesus the strong is not Jesus the simple, for in his taking on weakness he demonstrates his love for those confused by their bodies, bewildered by rapid social change, and searching for a rock to cling to. Come to Him, and you will find the only Husband who can lift your burdens—and call you to die to yourself. Love for Christ will constrain all our obedience—male and female.
John Stovall currently serves as Pastor of the Rock Presbyterian Church in Stockbridge, Georgia and is a doctoral candidate in history at the State University of New York, Albany.
 For more intrepid readers, see the work of Belgian bête noire philosopher Luce Irigaray on the interplay of the sexes, particularly in her Je, Tu, Nous. Roland De Vries
 Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), III.xi.10.
The hosts are continuing their series on The Suffering Servant, and in this program they’ll begin to explore the first few verses of Isaiah 53. In this amazing prophecy, we have a clear example of what theologians from across the centuries have referred to as “the great exchange.” This coming servant suffers the punishment which all of us deserve, and we receive his peace and blessing. And this peace is not some kind of feeling that we need to conjure up inside, but instead it is an objective reality that we need to embrace through faith alone.
“The good news is a lot better than God has a wonderful plan for your life and wants to make it happy, healthy and wealthy, or that he wants to come in and give you a method for self-improvement. But rather that the eternal beloved Son of God came into this world to rescue us from wrath by being stricken, smitten and afflicted; wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities so that we can be reconciled to God and no longer be his enemies.”
Term to Learn
“Of the Means of Redemption Through the Declaration of Justice and Mercy of God in Christ”
We believe that God, who is perfectly merciful and just, sent His Son to assume that nature in which the disobedience was committed, to make satisfaction in the same, and to bear the punishment of sin by His most bitter passion and death. God therefore manifested His justice against His Son when He laid our iniquities upon Him, and poured forth His mercy and goodness on us, who were guilty and worthy of damnation, out of mere and perfect love, giving His Son unto death for us, and raising Him for our justification, that through Him we might obtain immortality and life eternal.
Humans have an innate desire to be respected and treated in a dignified manner. When we perceive that we have been slighted or ignored, our response is to become incensed or defiant. We search for ways to regain our dignity and rally together with our fellow sufferers when the forces we face are too considerable for us to overcome by ourselves.
In his newest book, political philosopher Francis Fukuyama offers an explanation for the heat and fury that has come to characterize this time in US and world politics. He argues that we need to view our motives and reactions from a deeper vantage point than the behavioural economists would have us view ourselves. We are motivated by forces deeper than economic self-interest—we are motivated by an inner quest for dignity. Socrates said that our battles emerge from “the part of the soul that craves recognition of dignity” (xiii), and Fukuyama draws out the implications of this craving on the canvas of our contemporary debates over identity politics and the persistent howls of outrage that characterize our civic debates.
We live in a society which operates under the belief that “feelings of alienation and anxiety … can only be relieved when one accepts that inner self and receives public recognition for it” (26). With help from the philosopher Charles Taylor, Fukuyama argues that this construction was sparked by Martin Luther’s unleashing of a new focus on the “private relationship of man to God and not on any form of public approval” (26) when it comes to faith and justification. The responsibility which Luther and his Protestant heirs placed on the inner self to be aligned with God has morphed into the responsibility expressed by Polonius in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Our anxiety becomes a potent force when our identity is unrecognized or treated dismissively by those who are in power. Fukuyama is especially insightful is in his comment that “many people are not satisfied with simple equal recognition as generic human beings. The rights one enjoys as a citizen of a democracy are highly valued when one lives under a dictatorship, but come to be taken for granted over time once democracy has been established…This allows them to focus on other things: the hidden potentialities that are not being permitted to flourish and the way that they are being held back by the social norms and institutions around them” (164). Thus Fukuyama explains that the quest for the recognition of our shared humanity through the pursuit of human rights is always in tension with our efforts to recognize the dignity of particular people groups who can relate through similar ‘lived experiences’. The project of meaningfully welcoming the participation of oppressed people groups clashes with the quest by other advantaged groups to retain their status and place of dignity in society.
In the final chapter, “What is to be done?” Fukuyama confronts the prospect of state breakdown and failure which faces modern liberal democracies grappling with the politics of resentment and backlash. He calls for two responses in particular. First, “we can start by trying to counter the specific abuses that have driven assertions of identity, such as unwarranted police violence against minorities or sexual assault and sexual harassment in workplaces, schools, and other institutions. No critique of identity politics should imply that these are not real and urgent problems that need concrete solutions.” Second, we need to integrate smaller groups into larger wholes through a focus on “creedal national identities built upon the foundational ideas of modern liberal democracy, and use public policies to deliberately assimilate newcomers to those identities” (166).
Reading this book, I was sorry not to see more specific recommendations to counter the politics of resentment in the final chapter. While short on prescriptions for improvement, he gives us an insightful diagnosis. Judging by the number of prominent reviews of this book in Canadian and American media, Fukuyama’s work has resonated with a wide audience. You’d be well served if you take a few hours to read this account of the human striving that undergirds the loud and sustained cries for dignity and recognition in the world today. Of course, a Socratic anthropology is not identical to the understanding of human motivation that we find in James 4:1-4—similarly, the warning which follows for the advantaged classes in James 5:1-4 is one that penetrates the heart in a far more profound way than the rebuke of a Twitter chorus or protest rally: “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” It is God’s truth that informs our witness even as the harvesters’ voices of resentment and the strangers’ demands for dignity reshape our world.
The light which the Christian church must unveil with greater clarity and compassion in our tumultuous age is expressed well by R.C. Sproul: “I don’t have anything in me that would demand that God treat me with eternal significance. I have eternal significance and eternal worth because God gives it to me. And not only does He give it to me but He gives it to every human being.”
Norman Van Eeden Petersman (M.Div.) is the pastor of Vancouver ARP. He lives in Richmond, BC with his wife and son.
In verse 15 of Isaiah 52, we’re told that the suffering servant “will sprinkle many nations.” What’s interesting is that this word “sprinkle” is the same one we find in Leviticus 16:14 which speaks of sacrificial blood being “sprinkled” on the mercy seat. In other words, Isaiah is saying that the coming Messiah will be for his people both priest and victim. But this coming sacrifice won’t be for Israel alone, since we’re told that his blood will sprinkle many nations. Join us as the hosts continue their exploration of Isaiah’s prophecy of The Suffering Servant.
“You get to Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 3 and he’s recapitulating Israel. There, the 40 days and 40 nights, recapitulating Israel’s 40 years of wandering and Israel was wandering, never entering the Promised Land because they demanded the food they craved. Well here, the true Israel, faithful Israel is saying men shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. I mean it’s such an amazing point that is clear in Isaiah. The servant is Yahweh.”
Term to Learn
“Active Obedience of Christ”
Christ as Mediator entered the federal relation in which Adam stood in the state of integrity, in order to merit eternal life for the sinner. This constitutes the active obedience of Christ, consisting in all that Christ did to observe the law in its federal aspect, as the condition for obtaining eternal life…. Christ merits more for sinners than the forgiveness of sins. According to Gal. 4:4, 5 they are through Christ set free from the law as the condition of life, are adopted to be sons of God, and as sons are also heirs of eternal life, Gal. 4:7. All this is conditioned primarily on the active obedience of Christ. Through Christ the righteousness of faith is substituted for the righteousness of the law (Rom. 10:3, 4).
[I]f Christ suffered only the penalty imposed on man, those who shared in the fruits of His work would have been left exactly where Adam was before he fell… still confronted with the task of obtaining eternal life in the way of obedience.
(Adapted from Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pp. 380–81)
Let’s face it, most of us have few deep and meaningful friendships, and we end up spending much more time “alone together” via electronic media. Whether we find ourselves scanning our social media feed, or watching our favorite cable news program, we’re being fed a “high-fructose corn syrup” version of reality that keeps us always signed on, always tuned in, and always away from true meaningful human interaction. On this special bonus edition of the White Horse Inn, Michael Horton discusses these issues with Senator Ben Sasse, author of Them: Why We Hate Each Other And How to Heal.
“We are constantly being told that there is some breaking news that you need to know about every two hours, and it’s just not true. Usually what’s called “news” is just some flashy light that distracts us from actually engaging with our own communities.”
Two particular events have shaped my approach to writing: the first was a lecture I attended as a schoolboy in the early 1980s, given by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. The topic was not dead parrots or the unexpected nature of the Spanish Inquisition but Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” on which he had just published a scholarly book. The second was discovering the essays of Camille Paglia, especially those collected in the volume Sex, Art, and American Culture. My encounters with Jones and Paglia taught me vital lessons: the distinction between high and low culture, while not arbitrary, is porous and more complicated than many acknowledge (and taking the former seriously should therefore not exclude doing the same with the latter), humor could be profoundly didactic, self-parody was vital to the avoidance of self-importance (something lethal to truly good writing), and being a specialist in one discipline need not preclude one from being knowledgeable and able to comment intelligently in other areas. In fact, informed, intelligent generalists are much to be desired.
All of those elements are on splendid display in the latest volume of Camille Paglia’s work, Provocations, which contains her major writings from the last twenty-five years of her career, from extended essays to short web interviews. The pieces are thematically arranged, with major sections entitled ‘Popular Culture,’ ‘Film,’ ‘Sex, Gender, Women,’ ‘Literature,’ ‘Art,’ ‘Education,’ ‘Politics,’ and ‘Religion.’
For Paglia aficionados, the volume is simply a delight—there is commentary on the fashions paraded at the Oscars, a sterling defense of Alfred Hitchcock’s artistry, a homage to Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (surely the greatest American play ever written), and significant essays on the problem of bringing Homer to the screen, the joys of teaching Shakespeare to actors, and the cultural significance of David Bowie. The ease with which Professor Paglia glides between elite and pop culture is as remarkable as ever, and while she will never persuade me that Prince is of great cultural significance, her ability to take seriously artists of all descriptions without patronizing either her subjects or her readers is a rare gift.
For Christian readers, three sections are of particular interest: those devoted to sex/gender/women, education, and religion. To understand why, it is useful to know that key to her thinking is the trenchant rejection of post-structuralism, a form of critical thinking developed most notably by Michel Foucault which, as anyone who has studied humanities in the last thirty years, has been imported into the Anglophone world with a disastrous impact upon education and thence to the kind of political correctness which is spreading like a malignant bacillus throughout our public discourse. Essentially, post-structuralism channeled a tendentious reading of one aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy (the will to power) mediated via Heidegger and from thence developed an approach to understanding the world that is as simplistic in its basic outlook as it is opaque in its Gnostic prose. In short, everything is reduced to power: who has it and who does not. Once assumed, this allows the legacies of the past—literary canons, philosophies of life, hallowed institutions—to be unmasked as exploitative and hence dismissed.
Professor Paglia took a merciless hammer to such nonsense in the early nineties, with her idol-shattering essay, ‘Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf.’ The essays in Provocations are the fruit of that early iconoclasm. Thus, in an interview with The Weekly Standard in 2017, she is merciless with the current trendy transgenderism which she argues both repudiates biology and plays into the hands of the pharmaceutical industry. Though she herself identifies as transgender, having donned ‘flamboyant male costumes from early childhood on,’ it is clear that she has little time for the notion that identity is simply a function of psychology, with gender being nothing more than a cultural construct imposed by heteronormative society upon the powerless individual. ‘The cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible. Every single cell of the human body (except for blood) remains coded with one’s birth gender for life.’ (197-98). Indeed, that ‘most men and women on the planet experience and process sexuality differently, in both mind and body, is blatantly obvious to any sensible person.’ (201). The post-structuralist myth, that ‘nature’ is just a mask for power and manipulation, is just that—a myth—and not even a particularly inspiring or persuasive one.
On education, Professor Paglia offers fine defenses of free speech on campus, of canons and of appropriate multiculturalism. In the post-structuralist universe, free speech is a problem; just another white male construct designed to maintain the power structures of the status quo and therefore needs to be overthrown. Not so, says Professor Paglia. In a carefully argued essay, she traces various sources of the contemporary problems of freedom of speech on campus, starting with the balkanization of departments through the fractious influence of new ‘identities’ on traditional disciplines. Where once there were English Departments, now literary studies have been parceled out into African American Studies, Queer Studies, Native American Studies etc. None of these approaches is necessarily illegitimate; but the problem is that the disciplines no longer talk to each other as the old departmental structure would have made necessary. This is reinforced by the tendency in today’s politicized academic institutions to confuse teaching with social work, along with the Gnostic jargon that now dominates literary studies. The answer, Professor Paglia declares, is a return to broad survey courses in world history and culture, structured by chronology not ideology. I was gratified to read this, for it is the philosophy that drives the general education core at my own institution, Grove City College. Though it left me wondering if the balkanization and jargon of which she writes is a scourge only on secular campuses: my experience of the seminary world was that it too has become increasingly jargon-oriented, dismissive of history, internally balkanized and externally isolationist. The cultural context and mindset of political correctness is no monopoly of post-structuralists.
On religion, Professor Paglia is at her most remarkable. An avowed atheist, she understands that human beings are more complicated than the pieties of post-structuralism would suggest. She knows that we have a desire to find meaning; she understands the irrational and often ambiguous power of erotic love; she knows that the human heart has dark corner and sinister recesses. Most importantly, she sees that religion speaks to all of these things in a way that Foucault and his disciples do not. Life is not simply about power; it is also about beauty and ugliness, love and hate, fall and redemption. For her, redemption comes through art; but she acknowledges that Christianity is addressing the same fundamental issues.
This lies behind her comment from 1995: until gay activism ‘gets over its adolescent scorn for religion, gays will continue to lose ground in the culture wars.’ (499) History has proved her wrong on that point—at least thus far. Childish contempt for religion has proved a fundamental part of a remarkably successful decade or two of gay activism. But I wonder if her mistake was not to underestimate gay activism so much as to overestimate the Christian religion. Might it be that many Christians and many churches also have an adolescent attitude to religion? If the church is basically there to meet their needs and give them a platform for public performance, not to provide a place where they can (as Philip Rieff once memorably put it) have the pain and misery of life explained to them, then gay activism has little to fear.
Last year I found myself in serious trouble for publicly declaring my undying love for Professor Paglia online. I had made the mistake of assuming that all readers would have learned from the Warrior Queen what she had taught me so many years ago: the importance of a sense of humor and the ability to understand irony. Alas, I discovered that Professor Paglia is to the Christian world of today what Debbie Harry was to those of us who came of age in the eighties: the woman I really wanted to date but of whom I was certain my mother would never approve. That is sad: Christians can learn much from her work about some of the most fundamental aspects of human existence as well as the deep flaws in dominant schools of secular thought. And, of course, they can also learn how to think and to write with brio, insight and humor. And as I read this volume, I have to confess that I fell in love once more.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, Grove City College.
On this program, the hosts will begin a new series that seeks to explore the Bible’s amazing prophecy from Isaiah 52 and 53. In this text, written over half a millennium before the time of Christ, Israel’s Messiah is not described as a life coach, or social transformer, but as a sacrificial lamb whose role it is to bear our sins and to credit us with his righteousness. In this new four-part series, the hosts will take a deep-dive into this remarkable prophecy and point to its fulfillment in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“So he’s not talking about circumcision and uncircumcision in the way that Israel had normally thought about that. They should have thought about it this way all along because even in Deuteronomy 30, God says you’re going to blow it. You’re not going to be able to circumcise your own hearts but in that day, I will circumcise your hearts. They should have known that already that it’s not just a physical circumcision. It’s regeneration. It’s a new heart. But they didn’t. But that’s what he’s talking about here then when he says no uncircumcised will enter. This is a kingdom where all who are in it will no longer pollute. They will be cleansed.”
Term to Learn
There are three key points to define Biblical covenants:
The covenants we are concerned with in Scripture are God’s covenants with his people or mankind in general.
God is the author and initiator of them.
They are divine commitments bound by oath—God’s promises or oaths to humans with seals and/or signs.
…It is worth mentioning the role that divine covenants play in Scripture. God’s purpose in history is to govern his kingdom of creation and bring forth his holy kingdom. His covenants, therefore, are the way that God administers his kingdom. …God’s covenants embody that relationship: what God has done for us, as well as our obligations to him. Hence, covenant is not a means to an end, but it is the end itself—the communion between God and his people.
(Adapted from Keele and Brown, Sacred Bond, pp. 17-18)
Debates about the distinctions between male and female lie at the heart of much political discussion in the USA today, so it is not surprising to find that John Piper was recently asked whether gender roles apply outside of marriage. Many pastors will have faced the same; and it was disappointing to read his answer, which relegated the matter of gender difference to terms of authority and submission. It is a move as predictable among a certain (dominant) strand of complementarianism as the move to categories of domination and victimhood is in poststructuralism, because it partakes of the same simplistic error: human life reduced to categories of power.
The problem with this approach is that it is neither true to human reality nor to the Bible’s own teaching. My own views have in the past been described as ‘thin complementarianism’ because I believe in male-only ordination, but am wary of claiming that the Bible sanctions 1950s American norms for other male-female relations. I do not dispute the admonition for wives to submit to their husbands, or Paul’s reminder that the husband is the head of the wife, but to effectively translate this as ‘she has to do what he says,’ and ‘he needs to tell her what to do’ is reductionistic as best and a tacit license for abuse at worst. A complementarianism which functionally sees everything through this grid of power and seeks to make it the foundation of gender difference is not just thin but dangerously emaciated. It reminds me of the rather simplistic approach of post-structuralism, where everything in life can ultimately be reduced to a matter of power. John Piper and Michel Foucault may make odd bedfellows, but neither offers a view of human relationships that reflects the complexity of reality.
For example, in seeing all male-female relationships in terms of a foundational model of authority and submission, we miss entirely the role of erotic love and the mystery of sexual attraction in matters of gender difference. But erotic love is fundamental to human existence and has been from the very start. As Gerald McDermott puts it beautifully in his new book, Everyday Glory:
Adam was thrilled [when he saw eve] not only, it seems, because the woman was beautiful and so similar to him. But now, unlike the animals he searched and named, she could share his joys because she seemed so much like him. In other words, he was excitedly grateful that God had given him a great gift. In answer to his loneliness and frustration from not finding a counterpart, God had again created from nothing – while using Adam’s own bones and flesh – a similar-but-different person with whom he could work and enjoy the garden.
And, as McDermott continues, enjoy sexual relations. In short, God did not create woman primarily because Adam lacked someone to lead and protect. He created woman for Adam because the man was lonely; because he lacked someone same-but-different who could complement him and keep him company, whom he could love and be loved by, with whom he could enjoy the life that God had given to him—no, given to them both.
Human culture testifies everywhere to the importance and the power of the erotic. Indeed, one might argue that there would be little or no culture without it. No Iliad, no Odyssey, no Oresteia, no Le Morte D’Arthur. No Miller’s Tale, no Shakespeare, no Passion of St. Teresa, no Tristan und Isolde. And pop culture is no different—without erotic love we would have one of the great songs so memorably recorded by Frank Sinatra or (so my editor tells me) someone called Taylor Swift. Seriously—from high culture to low culture, it is clear that the dynamic between men and women is not simply one of a power relationship and a power struggle. It is always far richer and more complicated than that.
Of course, erotic love has been perverted by the Fall, but that does not mean it is in itself a product of the fall—even after that event, it retains a positive function that cannot be reduced to, or comprehended under, the simple structure of authority and submission. Take the Song of Songs, for example, so often ignored in mainstream complementarian thinking, but surely of vital importance to what it means to be a man and to be a woman as they relate to each other. There is a joy, a playfulness about the interaction between the lover and the beloved which is lost in the prosaic accounts of marriage, of manhood and of womanhood which dominate contemporary complementarianism. Erotic love is one of the most powerful creative—and destructive—forces known to humanity, so it is not surprising that the Bible has something to say about it. What is amazing is how little importance complementarians seem to ascribe to the mysteries of human existence of which these passages speak. Sure, they are concerned about the power of sexual lust (hence all the hullaballoo about the Pence Rule, the latest piece of prudential advice now being used to separate the sheep from the goats). But the joyful playfulness of erotic love, the positive power it exerts in our lives, and the complementarity of male and female of which it is a foundational element, are conspicuous only by their absence from the discussion. I doubt very much that the only reason the present Mrs. Trueman gave me the honor of her hand was because she thought she would be happy and safe being bossed around by me. I may not be Steve McQueen and she may not be Faye Dunaway and our life may not be The Thomas Crown Affair, but there is far more to our relationship than can be explained in the simple categories of headship and submission, and far more to us falling—and staying—in love than the correct establishment and willing acceptance of a power structure.
So when Piper decides to address the matter of dating it is odd that his answer contains no sense of the mystery of male-female interaction, of the major manifestation of the importance of difference and complementarity—erotic attraction—in the dating game. Love is mentioned twice, but only in a quotation from Eph. 5. Is sexual attraction not a key element in seeking for a life partner? That the world has twisted such into the be-all-and-end-all does not mean it is not deeply significant (see Song of Songs passim). And does love in all of its richness, erotic and otherwise, not shape how we should understand authority and submission? Perhaps love is at the heart of a relationship where a husband is not rendered insecure by a woman’s business acumen or intelligence (Prov. 31) and a woman not feeling threatened by every suggestion her husband makes to her. Maybe it involves a mutual respect and delight in each other which reflects the fearlessness of the perfect love of God described in 1 John 4:18. Of course, not everything can be covered in a brief answer. But Dr. Piper himself chooses to raise the issue of dating, and the emphasis on Eph. 5 merely in terms of headship/submission, along with complete silence on Song of Songs is sadly typical of the imbalanced nature of so much complementarian writing. Gone is the idea of mutual erotic attraction as central to the question of man, woman, and marriage in any positive sense, leaving one wondering why Paul would ever have had to write what he did in 1 Cor. 7:9. (Taking a cold shower to address that particular problem would seem more applicable in the world where power is the only topic of relevance in deciding whether and whom to marry.) The focus on headship and submission catches an important part of Scripture’s teaching, but it’s a principle for those who are married, not general social organization. And a marriage that practices headship and submission detached from love in all its richness—from the erotic to the self-giving—is both prosaically reductionist and (in the hands of scoundrels) an excuse for spousal neglect and even abuse.
To be clear—I am not persuaded that Piper’s form of complementarianism leads to more domestic violence than other creeds as some have claimed. Violence against women is no monopoly of left or right, politically or theologically. My point is that this brand of complementarianism appears to take its cue not from the whole counsel of God, but selected parts of it, which results in imbuing 1950s-middle-America societal norms with an ethical and biblical weight they shouldn’t have. The trite and selective appropriation of Eph. 5 appears to be little more than a Christian spin on the obsessions and categories of post-structuralism, where everything is reduced to a binary struggle for power. It’s both tired and tiresome.
How then does a more comprehensively biblical understanding of man and woman in terms of their relationship in marriage apply to male-female relationships outside of marriage—to potential spouse, to neighbors, co-workers, friends? That was the original question which Piper was asked and on which he hardly touches. Maybe the Pence Rule is on to something important here. In highlighting the fact that erotic love is to be expressed only within the bounds of marriage, it reminds us that complementarity finds its primary locus there. And as I am not to engage a woman sexually to whom I am not married, perhaps I should not assert my headship over her either based merely on my chromosomes. That my editor at Modern Reformation and that the associate dean of my school are both women and both therefore in positions of authority over me is not a problem. And while I believe the Bible clearly precludes either of them from holding ordained office in the church, I see no biblical basis why they cannot hold the positions they do. Only a lack of professional competence, not the absence of a Y chromosome, should disqualify them.
Sadly, I suspect this application of the Pence Rule will not persuade those who see the world of male-female relations simply through the grid of power, where all women want to use sex to dominate men and all men are spineless dupes constantly in danger of falling for their sexual stratagems. But as I noted at the start, to reduce male-female relationships to matters of power is to end up oddly close to the two-dimensional world of the post-structuralists. And what’s worse is that in doing so you have trivialized the matter of the difference between men and women, reduced gender difference to matters of power structures, and ironically played right into the hands of those who claim that—guess what?—the matter of gender is simply a question of the ideology of power.
The elimination of male-female difference is one of the big political questions at the moment. I therefore sympathize with the intention of the kind of complementarianism John Piper represents. But bowdlerizing Scripture and truncating what it means to be human in the service of making normative certain cultural conceptions of masculinity is wrong. The answer to the simplistic world of Michel Foucault is not the simplistic world of Henry Higgins.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, Grove City College