Capitulating to Our Culture

I was doing a quick shopping run the other day for my wife when I ran into this set of books prominently displayed at our favorite grocery store:

I was immediately leery, as book publishers seem to have certain ideas about what boys need to know versus what girls need to know about the same general topics. The covers are fairly innocuous – sailboat versus horse, diving versus jumping rope – nothing too offensive. Of course, inside the books was a different story:

Full disclosure: That’s the first page I opened to in the boys’ book. I flipped around the girls’ book briefly to find a page that corresponded – fun summer idea on one page and an activity on the other.

So boys are told they can skip stones and solve puzzles, and girls are told they can look good … and lie on the beach. Note also the actual text – “a girl has her image to think of” … “be a beautiful beach babe” – and the unnaturally skinny, bikini-clad preteens in the girls’ book, as well. And I would be remiss as a typographic nerd if I didn’t point out that the boys’ book has a strong, bold headline font compared to the girls’ frilly, cutesy font, which along with giving the boys’ book a better design also reinforces the subtle message that boys are to be strong and adventurous while girls should look pretty.

Nothing turns a person into a feminist faster than raising girls. Those of us fortunate enough to be born male simply do not notice the implicit assumptions our culture makes about our superiority and the need for women to live up to our expectations. But begin focusing on the messages your own daughters will receive about themselves from the advertising, magazine covers, books and movies with which they will be surrounded, and you find the modern American culture, for all the advances we have made in granting equal status to women, is still woefully patriarchal in its assumptions.

Because let’s call our assumptions for what they are. Boys and men are supposed to be tough, strong, active. Girls and women are supposed to be cute, sexy, passive. Boys are the actors, girls are the objects. And, yes, objects have value – but that value is intrinsically tied to the use they provide for the actors.

These are the assumptions underlying our culture, and they are not pretty.

So it’s a little surprising whenever I see people defend the patriarchalism enshrined in many of our churches by using the lens of culture. For example, this sermon from a local church, in which the preacher says, “We cannot allow current culture to dictate scripture.”

This preacher, as well as most others making the argument, looks at the feminist movement, at the significant gains in equality for women on college campuses and in the workforce, at protections passed into law against discrimination and sexual harassment, and sees the push to equalize the genders in our churches as the outgrowth of this progress. I understand why that seems to be the case, and indeed the push to reexamine the church’s assumptions about women can probably be traced to the broader feminist movement.

But they are blind – as most men are – to the ways in which culture remains intrinsically hostile to women, and how that hostility manifests itself in our interpretation of the Bible, whether we realize it or not.

When preachers peddle the notion that Junia could have been a man and was not actually an apostle, or when they downplay or dismiss entirely the roles of Deborah and Phoebe, they are allowing the current male-dominated culture in which they are immersed to dictate how they read the scripture rather than see how egalitarian the apostolic church – and the Jesus they followed – really was. Whether they realize it or not, they are turning the women of their church into objects, no less than the editors of Cosmopolitan or the publishers of the The Girls’ Summer Book.

Just because our culture’s hostility to the notion of strong, independent girls and women has become more subtle does not mean it has abated. Holding fast to patriarchalism in our churches does not protect our congregations from our culture; rather, it infects them with one of our culture’s worst tendencies.

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