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Future Men vs. Fathers and Sons: Further Thoughts on Gender Typology

August 19, 2011

In the comments to my last post – “On Niche Churches and Prefab Christian Cultures: Why Driscoll is right but he’s got it all wrong” – we got talking about the Douglas Wilson book that I referenced and I ended up giving an alternate plug for Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s Fathers and Sons: The Search for a New Masculinity. The following was going to be a comment giving a comparative analysis of the first chapters of either book, but I’m now offering it as a supplementary post. I’m keen to keep talking about the other post on ecclesiology, but I’ll direct further discussion about Driscoll’s gender typology here. So I invite you to consider some telling quotes from the beginning of Douglas Wilson’s Future Men:

“At the beginning of his life, a boy does not know what century he was born in, and consequently exhibits to many of his politically correct and aghast elders some of the same traits exhibited by the boyhood chums of Sennacherib and Charlemagne. He doesn’t know any better–yet. But in our day, many of these designed masculine traits are drilled or drugged out of him by the time he is ten. Faith resists this ungodly process and defines sin by the Scriptures and not by pietistic traditions” (9).

Notice here that Wilson is aware of the tensions of nature and nurture, but then he goes forward on the premise that the masculinity of the good old days is somehow closer to nature and to the creation mandate (!) than today’s masculinity. He has stacked the deck from the get go against “politically correct” and “pietistic” and wants us to think that there is a natural in-born masculine tendency which is confirmed by (his reading of) Scripture. Notice the results:

“Men are created to exercise dominion over the earth; they are fitted to be husbandman, tilling the earth; they are equipped to be saviors, delivering from evil; they are expected to grow up into wisdom, becoming sages; and they are designed to reflect the image and glory of God” (11).

These may be a fine list of things to recommend to boys (although what does it mean to say they are “equipped to be saviors”?), but if one wants to say these are particular masculine qualities then one has to deny the fact that all these things could be taught to girls as well. Wilson makes the argument for male dominion (men are “lords”) from Genesis 1:26-28, and yet but does not mention the female in this section at all (12ff).

When Wilson talks about men being the “glory of God” he points out that this just means a different kind and level of glory, but not that men are better (15-16). What does it mean then? Here he doesn’t say. But he does proof-text his point from 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5:23-24 – to my mind missing the point of both texts. 1 Corinthians 11 works its way to a point about male/female interdependence, and Ephesians 5 is built on a point about mutual submission out of reverence for Christ .

In the next chapter Wilson differentiates between “effeminacy” and “macho-like counterfeit masculinity” and calls for men to avoid them both because the supposedly “effeminate” virtues are not “his virtues” and the macho “pseudo-virtues” are not virtues at all (17). Confusingly, however, he then says “[of] course a biblical man is to be kind and gentle, but the model for this is to be (ultimately) the Lord Jesus, and in conjunction with this, the teaching of Scripture …. not our composite cultural picture of what an accommodating male looks like” (17-18). Wilson follows all this with a “defence of stereotyping” (e.g., (“boys should not play with dolls” and if they do “they have a problem”), and by now we get the sense that this is all he intends to do (everything Biblical with a capital B, of course).

Nevermind that later in the chapter Wilson offers the (Buddhist?) principle of “balance” as his answer to the dilemmas he’s posed, let’s just notice that when it comes to gender types Wilson stacks the deck again and asks us to accept his assumption that anyone who wants to say different from him is neither able or willing to defend their point from Scripture, but is merely going along with a watered down application of a Woody Allen film or something. We could go on, but I think I’ve illustrated my point. Hopefully the rest of the chapters are better.

To be clear, I think it is fine to write books for boys — even to write for a certain “kind” of man — and to apply the Bible to their lives in a way unique to their general quirks and leanings. Have a target audience, fine. But to build an ideology of masculine and feminine off these generalities and to do sociology by applying stereotypes and supporting them from Scripture selectively according to one’s own cultural leanings is just irresponsible if not tragically misleading. Ironically, this is the opposite of what Wilson wants us to think he is doing. But let us not be fooled. If egalitarians can read in their own cultural preferences, so can complementarians and patriarchalists. Best we notice them all. But I digress. This was not meant to be a full-on book review, but a comparative glimpse. So let me close with a snippet from the first chapter of Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s Fathers and Sons and hopefully you’ll see and be persuaded that the latter is a far worthier read. She frames her sociological and biblical analysis of gender roles and masculinity with paragraphs like these:

“Decades ago lay theologian Dorothy Sayers wondered why women and men were referred to as ‘opposite sexes’ rather than ‘neighbouring sexes’. The question is still a good one today, especially given the popularity of books such as John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Gray treats the sexes as if they were distinct species raised on different planets who … must now spend vast amounts of energy learning to decode each other’s values, habits and emotional sensibilities. His working assumption is that all behavioural sex differences are biological or metaphysical givens, subject to little individual variation and largely immune to environmental influence.

Gray has done no systematic research to support his claims, but there is a large social science literature that calls his assumptions into question. Over the last thirty years of the twentieth century, modest average differences in spatial and verbal skills became even smaller as educational opportunities were equalized for boys and girls. And even where somewhat larger differences exist–for example, in communication and conflict-management styles between spouses–the amount of variability within each sex still exceeds the small average difference between the sexes….

The truth of the matter is that women and men are both from planet earth…. ‘In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion…”‘ (Gen 1:26-28)….

God does not say to the woman ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ and to the man ‘Subdue the earth’. Both mandates–to exercise accountable dominion and accountable generativity–are given to both members of the primal pair.

The passage need not be taken as a blanket endorsement of androgyny, for reasons that will be explored in later chapters. But it does suggest that any construction of gender relations involving an exaggerated separation of activities by sex–as happened, for example, in Western society after the Industrial Revolution–is eventually going to run into trouble because it is creationally distorted and therefore potentially unjust towards both sexes” (28-30).

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2011 11:35 pm

    @Jon,

    I would register as a complementarian, but Van Leeuwen’s book sounds much better than Wilson’s; at least the way you’ve compared and quoted them here.

    I wonder, Jon, is there room for a complimentarian to agree with Leeuwen’s analysis versus Wilson’s; or must one be egalitarian to sign off on what Leeuwen writes?

    I would say there are probably soft and hard complementarians, I’m the former; and I would say, further, that this distinction is probably one of attitude versus one of material difference.

    Anyway, I look forward to more insights from you on these issues; as well as your ecclesiological ones.

  2. August 20, 2011 12:20 am

    I’m sure you could be a complimentarian and gain from Van Leeuwen’s books. She is pretty fair, I think, even though she is definitely going to try to convince you in one direction (and, I hope, succeed!). It should be noted that she is a sociologist first and a biblical expositor second. That’s not to say I consider her works untheological or unbiblical at all, but if you want intense exegetical treatments of biblical texts you do look elsewhere. That said, I think she gives a pretty good indication of how the Bible and sociology mix and work out on these matters. I realize that Wilson might not be the best representative of his ilk, but he is a popular one anyway, and appears to actually be more flippant about his biblical interpretation than Van Leeuwen, even though he’d claim to be the biblical expositor. I can’t recommend her books enough. They are a fine mix of accessibility and complexity.

    I’ll be really glad to have your interaction when I do further posts on what I will call my “mutual-submission” view of gender roles.

  3. August 20, 2011 12:21 pm

    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed it. Christian Masculinity is a topic of particular interest to me, if only as I am a young man trying to become a godly man. I have to admit I align more with Wilson and his “ilk.” I’ll make a quick observation here before scurrying away to work on my dissertation: Wilson’s views on this subject are grounded in a particular theological framework that involves a heavy emphasis on covenant theology, federal headship, covenant representation, and typology.

    I know you were only referencing the first pages of one of his books here; I only wish to suggest that a deeper analysis of Wilson’s views would do well to take note of this theological backdrop and explore how it influences his views. “Future Men,” if I recall correctly from years back, is a book more about how to raise young men in line with covenant theology, and not so much about providing the types of analysis that you might be desiring here. Having read him over the years, I don’t think Wilson’s biblical interpretation is flippant – I also don’t think he is interested in going deep into the reasoning / exegesis behind his interpretations or the theological framework behind his views in this particular book. Perhaps that is a weakness of the book, but as it is a brief book for laypeople in a series of similarly brief books, and Wilson’s views are explicated to a greater degree elsewhere, I suspect he was just trying to keep the topic of the book limited to particular things.

  4. August 20, 2011 5:54 pm

    Thanks, Jon,

    When I have the chance maybe I’ll have to give Van Leeuwen a read. And I look forward to your posts on “mutual-submission;” you can’t get much more Pauline and biblical than that!

  5. August 20, 2011 10:56 pm

    Shep, glad to hear this issue is of importance to you as well. I’ll be really glad to have comments and push-back from those not of my ilk. I’m with you in wanting to be a godly man. I just don’t think we need to build a character study of masculinity in general in order to do it. Or at least I don’t think such a thing should be anything but selectively illustrative. The trouble is, it seems that these guys (Driscoll and Wilson et al) want to do more than just use this stuff to give truckers entry points into the gospel. Its when these views become normative for all Christianity and fundamental to church life that I just have to object and demand a much better argument than anything I’ve heard so far.

    Perhaps you can help me out a bit. I get that there is a backdrop to Wilson’s use of Scripture which he has not fully explicated (at least in the first two chapters), and so I’ll have to read on if he presents it or defends it better. (However, he did say in the intro that he would go over old ground for the sake of new readers, so I guess I sort of expect it to stand alone, since it says it should. I also get that it is a short book for laypeople. And it certainly isn’t alone in that genre when it comes to shoddy uses of Scripture. I guess as a former and future pastor I am painfully aware that since this is where people are getting their theology and so I can’t help but take these books seriously and demand they stand up to scrutiny.

    Nonetheless, I grant you that the book needs a full hearing before a full review can be given in that regard. All I really mean to show is just how much better an approach to the issue you get from Van Leeuwen. And I’m not choosing Wilson as a fish in a barrel, this is the guy that a Driscoll-sympathizer pointed me to in order to make sense of Driscoll’s comments. So to get Driscoll I have to read Wilson, and to get Wilson I have to buy into federal theology. That’s fine, but a bit frustrating because the way these guys present themselves is as if Christians should just self-evidently agree with them. They set it up like this is biblical, and others are just politically correct wafflers to culture. Nevermind that the gender roles and stereotypes they want to assert are deeply encultured as well. I’m happy to grant a variety of cultural expressions. A farmer and his wife may well live complementarian lives if they like. I just don’t think they have warrant to build a church on this or to make their gender roles universally and biblically prescriptive for all.

    Maybe you can help me here. How does covenant theology or federal headship give license to make universal claims about masculinity as such (like Wilson does with Genesis 1:26-28, for example)? I get that there is a typology at play here and it goes back to Adam’s representative place over all humanity, but that’s my point: I don’t buy the typology. Why extend the maleness of Adam to all boys and then fill it with all sorts of encultured gender stereotypes and roles and made universally binding on marriages and churches? I don’t mean to sound snarky here, I’m sincerely asking if you can clarify the connection, or indicate why it is convincing. Maybe that’s a tall order, so do with it as you please, I don’t want to put you on the spot. I’ll try to read the rest of Wilson’s book online and I’ll post a retraction if I feel I’ve been too harsh. Thanks, sincerely, for chiming in.

  6. August 21, 2011 9:51 pm

    Jon,

    I don’t know how much this will help, but I’ll give some scattered thoughts. It won’t serve as a defense of anything Wilson has said but maybe it can clarify his views as I see them (which might not be wholly accurate either). So in response to your request, I’m offering a brief clarification of the connection, but not an indication of why I think it may be convincing.

    1. I wouldn’t say that to get Driscoll you have to read Wilson. Driscoll and Wilson are very different theologically and ecclesiologically, and I’m not sure its safe to assume that their views on this issue have a lot of overlap. I also wouldn’t say you have to “buy into” federal theology to get what Wilson is saying. You don’t have to buy into his theological presuppositions to see how they influence his thought, you just have to be aware of them.

    Perhaps the book isn’t written well as a stand-alone piece (it has been some time since I read it – I’m skimming it a bit as I write this). That said, as this book isn’t focused primarily on federal theology (and other books are) I can’t imagine that what is given here on FT is much more than summaries of things said elsewhere. I’m sympathetic to the fact that this might be frustrating or bothersome. I feel many of the same frustrations right now reading through Cardinal Newman’s works. I won’t defend everything Wilson does or chooses to do, as I’m not Wilson.

    2. For Wilson the distinction isn’t between cultured and nonencultured but between cultural stereotypes that are biblically consistent and those that aren’t. Since Wilson believes in the possibility of a Christian country / culture [Christendom] I don’t think one can call his rejection of certain aspects of contemporary culture in favor of aspects of past cultures an inconsistency.

    3. Wilson isn’t just reading this from the typology of Adam’s federal headship, but from Christ’s perfect federal headship (which Adam failed to exhibit). Christ is the protector, lord, head, and savior of the Church, etc. The characteristics of Christ and the Church define what marriage should be like. I’m not sure what you mean by “extend the maleness of Adam to all boys.” I think Wilson’s point is that the duties Adam and Christ were tasked with are the duties that young men and husbands are tasked with as well. Likewise, between Eve and the Church and young ladies / wives. Much more could be said but I’m afraid to attempt too much in a blog comment.

    4. Wilson views federal / covenant headship over the family as universal. Marriage is a covenant. Childbearing is a covenant activity with potential covenant blessings curses, etc. It is the way all covenants work or are supposed to work, that is why it is universal. Families are covenant realities, and young boys are to be brought up in preparation for those realities.

    —-

    Those are some very very brief clarifications. I don’t have enough time at the moment to say much more (though I might after I finish editing my MTh dissertation).

    I haven’t really put forward my views yet, so don’t take this or the previous comment as responses per se to what you said in the review. I’m just trying to provide some theological perspective / background info at the moment.

  7. August 22, 2011 4:33 am

    Okay, thanks Shep. That helps. I’ll let you know what’s problematic to me. “Christ is the protector, lord, head, and savior of the Church,” yes, and the Church is made up of men and women who image God and look for all the same fruit of the spirit and have all the same gifts scattered amongst them. I don’t see any reason whatsoever to single out any of Christ’s duties as distinctively male, nor Adam’s (aside from biological considerations). Parenting is gender-differentiated, but is still a shared commission. But even then, not all men and not all women are called to parent, so it can’t be said to be essential to godly manhood or womanhood to be a parent. Covenant doesn’t require us to divy up any of the tasks according to gender, as far as I can tell. There are arguments to be made for some roles in that regard, I know, but I don’t buy them as universal prescriptions, obviously, and I don’t see how federal/covenant theology helps the case that they ought to be.

    My comment on extending the maleness of Adam to all boys was not very clear. What I mean is: I figured this federal representation idea could fuel the notion that Adam’s maleness has a certain importance to it which is preserved by promoting what we think to be biblically prescriptive masculinity. My problem with this is that I think it heaves onto Adam some of our variously encultured ideas for masculinity and then asks us to believe they are biblically universal. So Wilson may not think they are cultural gender norms he’s promoting, and will simply insist they are straight-across “biblical”, but I say they are culturally conditioned norms and are not biblical in the universally prescriptive sense. So I object to the use of Adam’s maleness to impose a certain type of masculinity on the whole. I realize there’s a debate to be had there, but hopefully that clarifies my objection.

    I’m a little thrown by your comment that “Since Wilson believes in the possibility of a Christian country / culture [Christendom] I don’t think one can call his rejection of certain aspects of contemporary culture in favor of aspects of past cultures an inconsistency.” I guess you’re right. It is consistent in the sense that he thinks a certain cultural form is Christian. But I think it inconsistent to leverage that against other cultural forms and accuse them (implicitly) of just being “politically correct” and unconcerned with faithfulness to Scripture. He should say he disagrees with them rather than paint them with the culturally-conditioned brush. Then at least you can talk about your diverse readings of the Bible and your various cultural biases. But time and again “egalitarians” have to not only present their case from Scripture but also defend themselves against the charge of being merely accomodationist, when the onus should be on the “complementarian” as well to show exactly why their own cultural accomodations (to the Industrial Revolution’s “nuclear family” norms) are preferable.

    Anyway, perhaps you’ll track with me when I come back to these issues in the future. I really value the push back. Hope the dissertation writing is going well. I guess I should get writing mine too.

  8. August 22, 2011 1:36 pm

    Jon,

    Looking forward to reading and considering your thoughts on this subject more in the future.

    Peace in Christ,

  9. Brad A. permalink
    August 24, 2011 7:45 pm

    Jon, excellent. I’ve been dealing with Wilson in a different context lately, and I’ve found numerous aspects of his Reformed strain to be problematic at different levels. He has a tendency to pick and choose what he wants to affirm without regarding the relationships between those things and others he denounces (all the while critiquing Enlightenment tendencies, of all things). Thanks for taking him to task here.

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