The Inverted Reflection (Feb 2013)

By Matt Dabbs

By Jeanine Thweatt-Battes

I swore the one thing I’d never do in a church was teach Sunday School. Never, I said. Never. Just like my dad swore he’d never become a preacher. Guess what he’s doing nowadays.

Guess what I’m doing, nowadays.

Last Sunday I taught the 3rd, 4th and 5th graders a lesson on the Ten Commandments. We read them in their entirety from Exodus 17, and they read smoothly (mostly) all the way through the last one, the one that commands us not to covet our neighbor’s donkey, slave, or wife. It’s not that that’s the only difficult commandment to explain to 3rd-5th graders (age-appropriately defining “adultery” on the spot was an unexpected challenge). But what was so difficult about this last verse was the smooth way it equates all these categories of property that Thou Shalt Not Covet. Your neighbor’s stuff: donkey, slave, wife. This time, the difficulty wasn’t that the kids demanded an explanation, like they did when I had to explain adultery wasn’t some ancient form of kidnapping. It was worse: my kids didn’t notice anything wonky about talking about a wife as a form of property.

The problem wasn’t the text. The problem was the text wasn’t a problem.

One of the things perceived as “dangerous” about feminist theologies is the way that they generally insist on reading the biblical text critically. Rather than taking for granted that this last commandment suggests, first, that God’s okay with treating wives as property, and second, therefore we should too, feminist theologies suggest that biblical texts at times contain genuinely problematic elements that we ought to identify as problems, in order to be faithful readers of the text and faithful followers of Jesus. And while this strikes many in the Churches of Christ as dangerous in some slippery-slope way, it’s not at all new. We do this pretty much automatically when confronted with those vengeful bloodthirsty imprecatory psalms. We’re not about to go dash babies against rocks because God apparently seems okay with that in a biblical text—because it’s obviously problematic. To read that text faithfully, we have to identify that as a problem. So why is that so hard to do when it comes to women—women’s status, women’s roles, women’s callings, women’s gifts, women’s voices?

Here’s my thesis. It’s hard because the attitude that women are basically the property of men (fathers, husbands) so explicitly stated in the tenth commandment is still more or less the prominent attitude in our culture today. It’s hard to call it a problem in the text, in the church, because it’s hard to see the problem, at all. Fish in water.

–But wait. We’ve got the vote, we go to school, we work outside the home, we can almost be President. It’s a post-feminist world, right? We got what we wanted and we can do whatever we want, right?

Sure, it’s a woman’s world out there, y’all. As long as we ignore the reality of the “second shift” at home after our full-time paid job, at which we get paid 70 cents on the dollar, and the multiple ways that we’re more economically, politically and socially vulnerable than men generally speaking. As long as we ignore the way that women’s voices are still largely missing in our public discourse and decision making bodies, even on matters that directly and dramatically impact us. As long as we ignore the fact that our bodies are visual marketing props for everything from antacids to cars, and you’ll never see a TV commercial where a man uses a paper towel to clean up a spill. As long as we ignore the fact that our daughters have been inundated with Disneyfied princess narratives to model themselves after—passive prizes of men in narratives from a time when women were still, literally, property. Oh yes. We’ve got all the equality we need.

The most common objection I hear in Churches of Christ is that budging on this “issue of women’s role” is capitulating to “the world” or “cultural values” or worst of all, of course, “feminism.” The assumption is, of course, that we do live in some kind of secular feminist’s dream utopia, and that those godless women are looking to invade the church, probably allied with “the gays” close behind. The duty of the church is to be countercultural, and hold on to notions of “biblical womanhood” ever more strongly in the face of the cultural onslaught of feminism.

The problem is that this isn’t real.

The world is not a secular feminist utopia, and the church is not countercultural.

Rather, the church’s attitude toward “women’s role” is a reflection of the wider societal sexism, even if, at times, an inverted one.

We could talk about the refusal to recognize women’s giftedness as a parallel to the discrimination against women, especially mothers, in the workforce. We could talk about the complete lack of women’s voices in worship in our sanctuaries as a parallel to the relative lack of them in public discourse and decision making. We could talk about a lot of things, familiar things, but I am weary of the same old stalemates.

I’d rather highlight something that bothers me even more than the silencing of women in our assemblies. That is, the way in which our churches participate in the wider culture’s sexualization of women and girls—the way in which our churches participate in teaching that the ultimate value of women lies in being a desirable object.

As a mother of two girls (6 and almost 2), the issue of early childhood sexualization has been a concern of mine for a few years now. There is excellent work being done on this, on both scholarly and popular levels; Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter, ACU professor Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker’s work at Operation: Transformation, and Melissa Atkins Wardy’s work at Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies and her forthcoming Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween, for example. Bringing attention to the ways in which toys, clothing, and media construct a seamless transition from “little princess” to “little diva” to “sex object,” starting with pink onesies and ending in thong underwear, these authors aim to educate parents and others about the ways children are being sexualized in our culture. <br><br>What do we teach them, these little princesses, in our Sunday Schools? Are we giving them the tools to resist the powerful messages that they are supposed to be cute, quiet, sweet, cooperative, helpless…sexy but virginal, desirable but out of reach, flirty but untouchable?

No. We’re not. Instead, we’re teaching them an inverted version of the world’s message of sexualization. Recently Rachel Held Evans asked, “Do Christians idolize virginity?” In short, yes. Instead of available objects of sexual desire, we teach girls to be unavailable objects of sexual desire. Symbolized by promise rings and pledges and whatnot—that pink God’s Princess Bible is the innocent beginning of a very dangerous lesson. What we don’t do is teach our girls—and boys!—that there is any possibility for women to be something other than an object of sexual desire. Available (for shame!) or unavailable (praise the wise virgins!), they remain objects of desire.

The problem goes further, however, than the emotional abuse wreaked on girls like me who, as Sarah Bessey puts it, are seen as damaged goods. Objects of desire are vulnerable to abuse. We are long overdue for a frank examination of our church culture and repentance for the ways it is complicit with domestic and sexual abuse. This is my driving concern; this is not about petty feminist pissiness over princess narratives and passivity. It’s about lives being battered out of all recognition because we teach that women are objects—valuable objects, to be desired, to be cherished, to be owned, to be dominated, to be silenced.

That’s not countercultural.

What would be truly countercultural would be teaching our children that they are all, every single one of them, created in the image of God, and that no one created in the image of God can be reduced to an object of someone else’s desires. What would be truly countercultural would be a community demonstrating the reality of the equality of male and female in Christ.

God calls us—our sisters, our daughters, our mothers, our women—to more than being the pure objects of the male gaze. God calls women to embody the divine image. This means we must teach the children in our churches to see girls, and women, as more than objects of desire, but as agents of God’s will and work in the world. And when the church finds the courage to affirm and value women’s agency in the church and in the world—that, finally, will be truly countercultural.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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