I have a confession to make. This week, I watched Mad Men
for the first time.
For some this may sound like a confession of moral laxity; for others it’s a confession of being horribly out of touch and having lived the last five years in a cave. Still, apart from the rampant licentiousness, unchecked greed, and ubiquitous alcoholism, I have to admit that it’s a pretty engaging show, especially as it captures the glamour of mid-20th century Manhattan--the perfect pencil skirts, the tailored three-piece suits, the sleek cars, and the poolside lunches at the Astoria. In its attempt to be historically accurate, Mad Men
is also quick to make (and overstate) the point that this was a world dominated men, a world where housewives were vacuous ninnies, and the only women with any sense of power were the “hens” at the office who knew how to get a man to do what they wanted.
Of course Mad Men
is interesting in itself, but it’s been particularly interesting as my exposure to it coincides with the ramped up conversation surrounding traditional gender roles. With this week’s release of Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womahood,
everybody and her cousin seems to be parsing conservative interpretations of gender via the late 1950s and early 60s. Evans explains how she understands conservative mores here
"The term 'Biblical womanhood' is basically a reaction to feminism. It means a woman who stays home and submits to her husband. It's a remembrance of June Cleaver—not what we see when we actually read scripture."
Now I can’t speak to Evans’ experience, but this correlation is funny to me. It’s funny because, despite being a woman who identifies as a conservative, I’ve never once thought of myself as June Cleaver. And the main reason isn’t because there’s anything wrong with June or even with women who care for their families fulltime. (I’m a SAHM myself.) The main reason my conservative understanding of gender has never led me to recreate the 1950s is because of what was happening below the surface. In a word, June was June, not because of conservative gender roles or because she stayed at home; June was June because of what broader society was pursuing at the time—stability and comfort. June Cleaver vs. Kingdom Values
During the 1950s, the United States experienced relative peace and prosperity for the first time in over two decades. In this context, Ward and June became icons of stability, comfort, and ease; they represented a generation who had known deprivation their entire lives, who as children had endured the Great Depression, and who came of age through the atrocities of WWII. By the time the 1950s rolled along, they were also a generation desperate for “the good life.” In this context, a woman’s role was naturally reduced to being a comforter, a nurturer, a source of emotional stability the same way that a man’s role was reduced to being a source of financial stability. (Think how important it was for a man who had grown up in the leanness of the Depression and watched his mother and sisters work in the factories during WWII to be able to make enough money to enable
his wife to stay at home. And think too how important it would have been for women--who only a decade before had welcomed broken men home from war--to provide them with some sense of domestic normalcy and peace.) In this sense, gender roles weren’t simply about men oppressing women as so many Millennials think—although as Mad Men
is quick to point out it was very easy for selfish men to do so--no, gender roles of the 1950s were a way to work toward the societal values of rest and stability.
So here’s my question: Is June Cleaver really synonymous with a conservative Christian understanding of gender?
I grew up in a very traditional home. I was taught to respect my father as head of the family and my mother spent years at home caring for us. But despite being traditional in their understanding of gender, my parents were very non-traditional in their view of the world. Instead of teaching their children to pursue stability and comfort, they taught us to love God, to sacrifice for his kingdom, to seek heaven’s riches over those of this earth, and to never forget where we were heading. The effect was that these kingdom dynamics created a different paradigm in which I applied conservative gender norms. Instead of thinking that the greatest good for me was to marry, have children, and rear them in a comfortable suburban environment, I grew up believing that the greatest good for me was to follow Christ, to devote myself to His service. That might very well mean marriage and children, but it could have as easily meant working overseas, pursuing post-grad degrees, or relieving the sick and oppressed. June Cleaver never once entered the conversation.
So I don’t think the problem is as simple as conservative gender roles. The problem comes when we use conservative gender roles to further our own comfort, our own sense of stability, or our own sense of ease.
And my guess is that this
is what many of my peers are confusing when they associate a conservative reading of gender with the 1950s. Ironically, conservatives fall prey to the same mistake when they insist on shaping applications of gender after a Cleaver-esque domesticity. No Stepford Wives
Because let’s be clear on one thing: the kingdom dynamics of love and sacrifice call us to apply gender roles very differently than we would if we were pursuing lives of ease and stability.
When you believe that you’re pioneering a new country, when you believe that you’re pushing back the boundaries of brokenness, when you believe that you are fighting to see the kingdom of God reign in the hearts of men, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be content as June Cleaver.
Instead your role models for womanhood will be women like Katharina von Bora
, who singlehandedly managed her family estates thus enabling her husband (Martin Luther) to do nothing less than turn the known church on its ear. Your role model for womanhood will be Abigail Adams,
great-granddaughter of Puritans, whose minister father insisted on her education and who by her intelligence and grace helped her husband (and son) establish the very foundations of our fledgling government. You’re more likely to look to a woman like Caroline Ingalls
who sweated alongside her husband, built her home with her bare hands, plowed fields, and tamed the frontier all for the sake of a dream. And you’re more likely to model your understanding of Christian womanhood after someone like Elisabeth Elliot
who rejected the opportunity to be June Cleaver and went instead with her husband to live and die in the jungles of Ecuador--all to tell those who had never heard that Jesus lives.
These were no Stepford wives
And yet, neither were they feminists in a political sense. (As a former nun, Katharina von Bora’s most revolutionary act was marrying and having children.) No, they were simply strong women who embodied all that it means to be human—they embraced their femininity, their capacity to bear and nurture life, their minds, their husbands, and their individual callings all in pursuit of goals and glories greater than their own private issues. Deeper Issues
Today, the easiest way to undermine a conservative understanding of gender is to align it with 1950s domesticity—something that that both liberals and conservatives are prone to do. But we must acknowledge that applications of gender are simply an expression of deeper values; poor June Cleaver was really only ever a presenting issue. The deeper question is what is driving us: Are we being motivated by our own needs or our own fears? Are we looking for lives of ease and comfort? Are we willing to use others to achieve that for ourselves?
Or are we pioneers, pilgrims on a journey from this world to the next? Are we men and women working together in pursuit of the kingdom of God? Are we captured by a greater vision and a greater dream of what God is doing in the world? When our churches are motivated by finding comfort in this life, it’s very possible that we would end up recreating a 1950s context; but as we concern ourselves with service and love, as we valiantly pursue the kingdom, June Cleaver with all her niceties and comfortable stability will have little place in the conversation. Until then, let’s put a moratorium on associating her with a conservative understanding of gender; and as a first step to that end, maybe we should all watch a little less Mad Men
from now on.
Over the last couple of weeks, my husband and I have been remodeling our basement. When we bought the house, it was “finished” in that classic combination of wood-grained paneling and burnt orange carpet. And while we really do appreciate vintage, we also accept the reality that we’re simply not cool enough to pull it off. On a hipster scale of 1-10, we’re an ironic 3.1415…. So a bit of rewiring, several gallons of paint, and twenty-eight boxes of laminate later, we’re close to having a space that’s hopefully more Pottery Barn and less Brady Bunch. Part of it will be a den and the other half will be devoted to, what I like to call, the creative urge.
In the past when we dreamed of our ideal (then non-existent) house, we always envisioned a room devoted to creating--whether it be crafting, sewing, drawing, writing, or simply playing with play-dough--we wanted a room that invites you to find your inner creative muse and let lose. Instead of fussing at my daughter for yet again cluttering up her room with odd bits of construction paper and glue, I want to be able to point her to cupboard of paints and glitter and chalk and say, “Go for it.”
I don’t know if other people dream of rooms like this, but I have noticed a trend among my generation. More and more of us are devoting our time and energy to things like crafting, cooking, and frugal living. You only have to hop on etsy, pintrest, or any number of DIY blogs to know that this phenomena is larger than any one subset and isn’t contained to the SAHMs among us. Women everywhere—from university-educated vegans to crunchy conservative homeschooling moms—are embracing the domestic.
In this Washington Post piece
, Julia Rothman worries that this “new domesticity” will lead to obligation and foster a whole batch of June Cleavers trying to one up each other, not necessarily with our meatloaves and kitten heels, but with knit scarves and cheese making. And while this is definitely a possibility, I think the new domesticity can actually teach us something deeper about ourselves, if we let it.
Because whether it’s being motivated by a case of burn-out in the boardroom, a commitment to staying home with young children, or simply trying to make ends meet in these difficult economic times, this renewed interest in the creative process is really about reclaiming something very fundamental to our humanity. Whether you realize it or not, it’s about reclaiming the image of God in us.
In the case of my peers, generally young Christian women, the return to crafting and baking and decorating has accompanied a renewed emphasis on the importance of family life. We see marriages crumbling around us, children struggling through cookie-cutter schools, and so for many, the solution comes by devoting themselves full-time to their families. They’re educated women with more than a heaping of gifts, but they choose to become SAHMs because they really believe that, at least in the early years, they can best care for their families there.
But the truth that many are learning the hard way is that staying at home isn’t without sacrifice. In the eight years that I’ve been at home, I’ve discovered that little ones don’t often want to discuss French existentialism or world events, and major life accomplishments have been reduced to having everyone clean and fed at the same time. It doesn’t take very long to realize that staying at home can be less than stimulating.
In her breathtaking essay “Are Women Human?,” Dorothy L. Sayers argues that this is one reason why so many women pursue professional careers in the first place (a novelty in 1938 when she first gave the speech that would eventually be published as an essay). She says: It is all very well to say that woman’s place is the home—but modern civilization has taken all the pleasant and profitable activities out of the home, where the women looked after them, and handed them over to big industry, to be directed and organized by men at the head of large factories…
It is a formidable list of jobs: the whole of the spinning industry, the whole of the dyeing industry, the whole of the weaving industry. The whole catering industry…the whole of the nation’s brewing and distilling. All the preserving, pickling and bottling industry, all the bacon-curing. And (since in those days a man was often absent from home for months together on war or business) a very large share in the management of landed estates…
Now it is very likely that men in big industries do these jobs better than women did them at home. The fact remains that the home contains much less interesting activity than it used to contain… It is perfectly idiotic to take away woman’s traditional occupations and then complain because she looks for new ones. Every woman is a human being—one cannot repeat too often—and a human being must have occupation, if he or she is not to become a nuisance to the world.
Sayers concern was not really to define what constitutes a “woman’s” job or a “man’s” job but to emphasize that every human being—of which half the species are women--MUST be engaged in creative, productive work because they are made in the image of a creative, productive God.
So I’m wondering, especially in the case of my peers, how much of the return to domestic creativity has less to do with our need to care for our families and more to do with caring for our own souls? How many of us craft and sew not primarily because we can do it better or cheaper, but because we simply love to do it? And for women who don’t stay at home, how much of your drive toward the new domesticity comes from the fact that the modern workplace has forced us to become mechanistic, unimaginative robots, spending most of our days processing bureaucracy and paperwork, without ever seeing tangible progress for our labor?
This is why we’re seeing the resurgence of creativity, especially in the home. Ultimately, we create because He did. We love beauty because He does. And when those things are less and less present in our lives, we are driven to find a way to recover them—whether we realize that’s what we’re doing or not.
This is not a problem. Domestic arts do often allow us to better care for our families. And creative pursuits do fill a need and enable you to return refreshed to the humdrum of work on Monday. It’s also not a problem if your creativity doesn’t take the form of traditional domesticity—feel free to go rebuild the engine of that ’57 Chevy this weekend—because ultimately what’s at stake isn’t that we all become June Cleavers; it’s that we all become like our God.
In the end, we must recognize that we pin and we plant and we bake and we knit, not simply because we are women or mothers, but because we are human beings
made in His image. And all the mechanization, all the industrialization, all the assembly lines in the world can’t remove that part of us that needs first to create, and then to step back with satisfaction and declare, “That’s good.” Just like He once did so very long ago, just like He continues to do every day.
Okay, so it’s my turn.
Now that the dust is settling a bit, I’ve been reflecting about what’s happened over the last few weeks surrounding Dan Cathy’s statements about biblical marriage and what ultimately culminated in Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day
this past Wednesday. And while I’m not the first or last to make these observations, please take them for what they are: simply observations
about what has become perhaps the most polarizing social/religious issue of the year. They are not meant to critique anyone who chose to participate or anyone who chose not to. There have been thoughtful opinions on both sides (here
for example) and I think it’s safe to say that choosing to eat or not eat a chicken sandwich is truly (in a divine twist of humor) something that we can file under Romans 14.
(For the record, we did not eat at Chick-Fil-A on Wednesday primarily because we ate there last week and as much as we believe in freedom of speech, we also believe strongly in supporting a balanced family budget and lower cholesterol.)
So first things first…
- Chick-Fil-A makes a really good chicken sandwich. And waffle fries. And coleslaw. And lemonade. I wish we could settle this whole thing right there on the merits of what a company produces, but in this day and age…
- Companies are no longer just companies. Matthew Lee Anderson has an interesting explanation on why this is the case. Because we have become primarily a consumption-based society, the things we choose to consume are intrinsically linked to our identities. And because we are a society driven by the marketplace, we will naturally articulate our values in the marketplace. Unfortunately, this makes us easy prey for companies that choose to leverage social issues in the marketing of their products, and so for my part….
- I respect Chick-Fil-A for choosing to distance itself from social policy as much as I respect their decision to remain closed on Sundays. Unlike some companies (JC Penney, for example), Chick-Fil-A has decided to let their business rise and fall on the merits of their product. JC Penney, on the other hand, currently in the midst of a last-ditch effort to re-invent themselves (unofficial slogan: “This is not your Grandma’s JC Penney.”), has actively embraced controversial social issues in an effort to drum up business. Part of their make-over included featuring same-sex couples for BOTH their Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day ad campaigns; so that instead of re-inventing their products to appeal to a younger generation, it seems like they simply looked at statistics, saw that the Millenials and Xers tend to support same-sex marriage, and made an advertising decision based on a targeted demographic. To me—a member of that very demographic--it came off as patronizing and cheap. Still…
- Homosexuality is THE defining issue of this generation. As such, Christians are going to have to learn to navigate it with charity and boldness, grace and truth. We are going to have to be both wise and harmless, and that means coming to accept that…
- Public statements are likely to be misunderstood. What we mean to say (“I’m standing up for civil liberty.”) and what others hear (“I hate gay people.”) will rarely be the same thing; and while we can’t control someone’s interpretation of our actions, we better make certain that we’re not erecting extra barriers that might lead him to think that his conclusion is justified. And to do that, we must be willing to take the beam out of our own eye first, and…
- We must be honest about our own lack of God-honoring marriages and families. Every time we accept divorce as normal; every time we deny a man and woman the sacrament of marriage based simply on skin color; every time we entertain ourselves with movies that highlight heterosexual couples living together but shudder when the same movies portray gay couples; or let’s get even more personal--every time we complain about how inconvenient our children are, we are overlooking our own sin in favor of judging another’s. Because in the end, if we don’t hold biblical family values privately, we have very little ground to be promoting them publicly. And speaking of being honest with ourselves….
- We must not confuse the privilege of freely practicing our faith with the power to practice our faith. Many have rightly understood the current debacle as a threat to the basic freedoms of speech and religion. (Public officials simply have no right denying permits based on their own personal values.) But if we’re completely honest with ourselves, I wonder how many of us are standing up for civil liberties, not because we understand that they are essential to a just society, but because we have so long intertwined them with our faith that we can’t imagine how we could be Christians without them. We have confused the freedom that comes from Jesus Christ with the freedom that comes from the United States' Constitution. The first empowers us to follow Him, while the second simply makes it socially acceptable. Please don’t misunderstand. We must certainly fight to protect constitutional rights (for Christians and Jews and Hindis and Muslims), but we must not fight for them simply because we can’t envision our faith surviving without them. Because in the end…
- We need to remember what we’re really about. As of August 1, the conservative church proved that we can marshal a movement. We proved that when given a call to be part of something bigger, we will show up. So now, I’m issuing a call. Let’s have the same show of support for the Gospel. Let’s muster the same enthusiasm for the grace and power of Jesus Christ to change lives. And let’s put our energies and time and money into proclaiming that the love of Christ is by far the best solution for what ails us as a society.
________________________________________________________________________________________________________ *When my husband and I lived in NZ a couple years ago, we quickly learned that what we Americans refer to as restaurant “take out” is termed “takeaway” by our English speaking cousins. I simply couldn’t resist the pun.
Earlier this week, the NCAA rendered judgment against Penn State for their part in the cover-up surrounding Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of young boys over the last two decades. Among other things, they levied a $60 million dollar fine, stripped the school of scholarships, and basically ensured that Penn State will not field a team worth watching for several years.
There’s been a lot of discussion about whether the punishment fits the crime--with folks arguing that it is both too little and too much—but what has been more interesting to me is the NCAA’s supposed motivation in pursuing this route. Citing a “football first” culture that led to the cover-up, the league sees these punishments as a necessary step in reform.
Being a Pennsylvania girl, I know something about this culture. In PA, football is god, whether it’s Steeler or Nitany Lion. Combine that with a culture that hates confrontation and avoids conflict at all cost, even if that means that the weakest among us get trampled, and you’ve got the perfect environment for precisely what happened over the last fifteen years.
But also being a girl that has traveled a bit and seen a bit more, I have to be honest. The problem is bigger than Penn State football. If we’re painfully honest with ourselves, the culture that reigned there was simply the purest form of both the NCAA and society at large.
And while most of us are rightly outraged by the scandal, apparently is takes something that devastating to make us face the reality about ourselves. Because without consumers willing to dedicate inordinate amounts of their time and finances, Penn State football would not exist. Without a collegiate league like the NCAA that elevates success above all else,
Penn State football would not exist. But sadly what should have been an opportunity for self-evaluation—both for the NCAA and us—has instead become an opportunity to distance ourselves and assure ourselves of our moral superiority.
Because this is my question: exactly which culture is the NCAA trying to change?
The culture that sees people as objects, as means to an end?
The culture that dresses seven-year-old girls in bikinis and shorts with the word “sexy” across the rear?
The culture that says look but don’t touch?
The culture that cuts art and music programs from schools but deluges sports teams with money and support?
The culture that readily accepts that debauchery and the high life go hand in hand with competitive sports?
The culture where the ultimate sporting event is interrupted at half-time by a sexually-charged performance most families can’t even watch together?
Or is it the culture that self-righteously silences our inner conscience by rendering judgment on others?
Because like I said, the problem is bigger than Penn State football. In so many ways, Penn State’s football culture is simply a product of ours. And that isn’t a culture that is going to be changed by one $60 million fine. We may successfully decimate Penn State football as an organization, but the greater issues still remain and we will face them again.
The last few months have highlighted a supposedly growing trend among young Christians who are fed up with Christianity as they know it— apparently they don’t want cultural battles
; they want peace. They don’t want religion
; they want Jesus. They don’t want Church
, they want community. And while there is still the reasonable debate
as to whether this new-found angst actually signals something distinct or is simply the result of ours being the first generation wired for sound without having to work within the confines of the establishment, this much is obvious: young people don’t want the Christianity of their parents.
So when I ran across the following in the preface of John Stott’s Basic Christianity
, it sounded eerily familiar. “‘Hostile to the church, friendly to Jesus Christ.’ These words describe large numbers of people, especially young people, today. They are opposed to anything which savors of institutionalism. They detest the establishment and its entrenched privileges. And they reject the church—not without some justification—because they regard it as impossibly corrupted by such evils. Yet what they have rejected is the contemporary church, not Jesus Christ himself. It is precisely because they see a contradiction between the founder of Christianity and the current state of the church he founded that they are so critical and aloof. The person and teaching of Jesus have not lost their appeal, however. For one thing, he was himself an anti-establishment figure, and some of his words had revolutionary overtones. His ideals appear to have been incorruptible. He breathed love and peace wherever he went. And for another thing, he invariably practiced what he preached. But was he true? An appreciable number of people throughout the world are still brought up in Christian homes in which the truth of Christ and of Christianity is assumed. But when their critical faculties develop and they begin to think for themselves, they find it easier to discard the religion of their childhood than make the effort to investigate its credentials. [emphasis added]
As true (and timeless) as Stott’s observations are about the relationship between young people and the church, what struck me more was the fact that he wrote them first in 1958
--the generation of our grandparents
—and then reissued them in 1971
--the generation of our parents.
Trust me, I’m not dismissing the concerns of millennials, just trying to offer
a bit of historical perspective and the caution that maybe we’re not as special as we think we are. Maybe we’re not the first generation to have metaphysical angst and maybe, just maybe, the very people we are fighting against have a bit more perspective than we think they do.
One year ago this month, I began entertaining the idea of blogging. My first post didn’t see the light of day until July, but the months leading up to that nerve-wracking moment were full of stops and starts, doubt mixed with dreams. I set up an account. I checked books out of the library (yes, even Blogging for Dummies) and I researched all the possible ways that I could fall flat on my face. I wrote and re-wrote content while whining to my husband about my insecurities. And until I actually clicked “publish live,” I took a great deal of comfort in knowing that I could always turn back.
I don’t like to think of myself as having a fear of commitment; let’s just say that I like to keep my options open. I like to play it safe. I like to act with… discernment. Still, being the complicated creature that I am, even I know that my “wisdom” often masks private fears and allows me to avoid things that make me uncomfortable.
One way this has expressed itself at SAL is that I have purposefully chosen a tone that is uplifting, reflective, and non-controversial. In a world where a lot of blogs (even Christian ones) are driven by debate and real-time responses, I wanted to hollow out a different kind of space. A place of thoughtful reflection, a place of quiet, a place where light could gently filter through the shadows.
And yet, if I am honest with myself, there was another reason that I took this approach as well.
Those of you who have known me for any length of time know that I can quickly become opinionated, obnoxious, and aggressive with my views. (Meaning, mine should be yours.) It has taken me a long time to understand this about myself and a much longer time to learn how to let the Spirit control my responses. So when I began to think about blogging, one of my first concerns was whether it would unleash the beast in me and lead straight back to that tenser, angrier version of myself.
Another thing that I was worried about (and something that took me equally long to figure out in my life) is that people don’t generally like it when you're opinionated. So if you do have strong views and vocalize them as strongly, you are essentially taking a red marker to your shirt and drawing a bulls-eye on it. These fears—both of my own tendencies and whether people would accept my opinions—have led me to want to avoid controversy altogether. In life and on the blog. And so, except for a few notable exceptions, that’s what I’ve done.
But I’ve realized something about this last year; I’ve realized that I’ve been practicing abstinence instead of temperance--I’ve been walking in fear instead of maturity. And as a result, by restricting myself to certain topics, I have also lost the opportunity to speak to many things that I observe and feel passionately about. Many things that you feel passionately about as well. Because in the end that’s what makes something controversial--not the issue itself, but how it touches our lives.
I also forgot that our greatest weaknesses are often our greatest strengths. So that while my personality can tend toward outspokenness, it is this same outspokenness that enables me to speak with conviction and passion about the very things that so many of us are struggling through.
So I’ve decided to stop being afraid. And so you shouldn't be surprised if you periodically see more postings on controversial subjects. But because I know that many of you don’t come here for that kind writing, I'll be sure to flag them under the heading "My Take." Feel free to skip those posts with my blessing. But if you do care to engage them, also know that I have no plans to change my fundamental approach here at SAL. Wisdom still dictates that this be a place of warmth and welcome, only now with perhaps a bit more depth and nuance.
Because I’m also learning something else: in the end, avoiding certain topics doesn’t make for mature friendship--wrestling through them together does. And so that’s what I hope we can do—with large doses of grace, sufficient love, and the confidence that He is able to guide us through even the most difficult conversations.