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Gendered Christianity?

1 November 2010

From time to time I’ve read articles by Western feminist theologians on the need for Christianity, or theology, or something to be “gendered”, and it’s always made me feel a bit uncomfortable because I’ve never been quite sure what it meant. Then I came across this, and had the same uncomfortable feeling. Why Orthodox Men Love Church : Journey To Orthodoxy:

In a time when churches of every description are faced with Vanishing Male Syndrome, men are showing up at Eastern Orthodox churches in numbers that, if not numerically impressive, are proportionately intriguing. This may be the only church which attracts and holds men in numbers equal to women.

It’s an interesting article, though I’m not quite sure whether it’s “gendered” or not. It goes on to speak of the “feminization” of Christianity, which does sound gendered, but the article seems to be saying that Orthodoxy neutralises this “feminization” and, unlike other varieties of Christianity, attracts both sexes equally. But I still have this strange feeling that the “feminization” that the article speaks of is not quite what the feminist theologians have in mind when they say “gendered”.

The article says why Orthodoxy appeals to males, but it seems that it appeals to females for the very same reasons

“In Orthodoxy, the theme of spiritual warfare is ubiquitous; saints, including female saints, are warriors. Warfare requires courage, fortitude, and heroism. We are called to be ‘strugglers’ against sin, to be ‘athletes’ as St. Paul says. And the prize is given to the victor. The fact that you must ‘struggle’ during worship by standing up throughout long services is itself a challenge men are willing to take up.”

In those long services, however, it is the babushkas who put the males in their place — upbraiding teenage boys who saunter up to communion with their hands in their pockets, and who, in the Bolskevik era in Russia, could always tell the KGB men by the way they stood in church, and would make remarks about the way they couldn’t stand still, “Perhaps the devil put nuts under your feet.”

I’m not sure which varieties of Christianity are feminized, though.

If  you look at the “Christian” shelves in secular book shops most ofn the books on offer are written by megapastors of megachurches out to make megabucks, and nearly all of them are male. The few books written by women seem to be written specifically for women, and their vision of femininity seems to resemble nothing so much as The Stepford wives. It would be inaccurate to say thay they resemble androids; gynoids is probably closer to the mark. But I also supect that some feminist writers really do think the world is like that.

It wasn’t so in the old days. I think Aimee Semple McPherson would have given any of today’s megapastors a run for their money. And then there was Ma Nku, the founder of the St John Apostolic Faith Mission.

The very word “gender” seems to be confusing nowadays, and often seems to be used as a longer and more pretentious substitute for “sex”. In the past it was simple: the sexes were male and female, and the genders were masculine, feminine and neuter. Sociologists began to use “gender” for the social construction of sex, meaning that sex was biological, whereas gender was more cultural. And that’s were it gets rather complicated. If gender is cultural, then it varies from one culture to another, and that is precisely the point at which I mistrust Americans writing about the “feminization” of Christianity.

Some years ago some British online friends went to work for a Christian NGO in Colorado in the USA, and they went to a local Protestant church in Colorado Springs. They were hit by culture shock when the minister of the church preached a sermon on the need for macho males. He said that parents should discourage their sons from playing “girls’ games” like soccer, and rather encourage them to play more macho games, like basketball. But in other cultures the gender of the games is quite different. Soccer is seen as a primarily male game, while netball (the equivalent of basketball), is seen as a “girly game”, as Arnold Schwarzenegger might say. Gender certainly differs from culture to culture, so what do you fill in on those forms that ask for your “gender”? Think about how you feel about soccer today, and think about whether you are in the USA or in the rest of the world?

The article I quoted goes on to say Why Orthodox Men Love Church : Journey To Orthodoxy:

In “The Church Impotent,” cited above (and recommended by several of these men), Leon Podles offers a theory about how Western Christian piety became feminized. In the 12th-13th centuries a particularly tender, even erotic, strain of devotion arose, one which invited the individual believer to picture himself or herself (rather than the Church as a whole) as the Bride of Christ. “Bridal Mysticism” was enthusiastically adopted by devout women, and left an enduring stamp on Western Christianity. It understandably had less appeal for guys. For centuries in the West, men who chose the ministry have been stereotyped as effeminate.

And worship can have its own cultural assumptions. An Orthodox woman I know was quite shocked when seeing Pentecostal worship on TV, “all those people with closed eyes and bared teeth.”

I read the article, and think yes, most of what is says about Orthodoxy is true, but there is such a thing as being too self-consciously gendered. Perhaps it’s American gender angst. The point about Orthodoxy isn’t that it’s macho, it’s rather that it’s true.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 November 2010 8:08 pm

    I really try and avoid things like this as they only arouse my passions. As you say, “The point about Orthodoxy isn’t that it’s macho, it’s rather that it’s true” and it is that fact that reminds me that I became Orthodox in spite of this sort of American convert hype rather than because of it. As if spiritual warfare, asceticism etc are somehow less applicable to women! And the implication that St Ireaeus statement that “The glory of God is a man fully alive” somehow refers to male humanity seems to me to not only serve to justify feminist points about the use of “man” to translate “anthropos” but also to be verging on heresy.

    Okay, enough ranting! But, half serious and half tongue in cheek, to suggest that fasting and prostrations are somehow a “macho” activity seems to be at best culturally relative and at worst nonesense. In South African culture macho men are defined by eating lots of meat, preferably red meat and vegetarianism (which is after all an Orthodox monastic ideal) is definitely not macho. Likewise, I suspect that the act of prostrating implies far too much submission for a “real man”.

    More seriously, the presentation that is given of the development of “bridal mysticism” and its impact on western Christianity seems to me to be far too simplistic. Yes, there were unfortunate developments in late medieval western Christianity, but my own reading of this is that it introduced gender stereotypes into the life of faith. Whereas bridal imagery had previously been used – largely by men, such as Origen, St Gregory of Nyssa and others – in a way that enabled one to transcend gender, it now became seen as something to be applied specifically to women resulting in their spiritual path coming to be defined in a different way from that of men. (One sees this in the different symbolism for monastic profession that persists even to this day in the Catholic Church). But that was something that was applied specifically to women – after all, the imagery used by someone like Ignatius of Loyola is every bit as macho and “militarist” as that advocated in this post.

    • 3 November 2010 4:43 am

      While it doesn’t arouse the passions in me, it seems to me the wrong sort of thing to get excited about. In the two congregations we have most to do with, St Nicholas in Brixton and Mamelodi, the former has roughly equal numbers of male and female, while the latter is overwhelmingly female. I do prefer it when the sexes are balanced, but I’m not convinced by the reasons given in the article. They may have some significance in American culture, but not in ours.

  2. 2 November 2010 1:20 am

    I prefer to consider not gender or sex but the female experience or, more exactly, female life experience. And I almost never hear of it within the Christian church. Please note I got over those evangelical/pentecostal woman-to-woman books long ago.

    I am going through a period when, through a mixture of ill health and fed-up-ness with the church, I am seldom there on a Sunday. There are two reasons for this: firstly, I never – or almost never – hear anything which resonates with my life experience, not even from female priests. Secondly, I am heavily involved in social justice issues, particularly with regard to the environment and issues affecting the First Nations of Australia. These topics don’t get a guernsey. Not that I think I really need the sermons. The internet has been a wonderful substitute for that, including you Steve. But I find it peculiar how few Christians I find at the pointy end of some of the massive issues facing our society.

    My big gripe as someone educated in the social sciences (sociology, community studies, government, economics, and religious studies with some theological studies thrown in), I think theological training, by and large is grossly inadequate.

    I see every student having to study exegesis when a few well informed exegists are all we really need. No training for theological students in how society is structured, how it works, and the influence and working of its institutions. Not only then do we see male-less churches but churches practising age apartheid. My local Anglican parish seems to be a haven for a certain sociological strata within the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. When younger ones, mainly women, come to church they stand out and I breathe out. Clearly, the church has become the creature of culture – and, in one sense, that is how it should be if it is to be relevant in all nations, in all tongues. However, the church has laid theological burdens on itself which are far from simple gospel message of He who didn’t write a book, set up a theological or rabbinical school, travelled little outside His own country, and certainly didn’t spend His time in exegesis. Yet this same person was highly relevant to so many of his own culture and has remained relevant across cultures for two millenia.

    While his teachings could have their complexities, by and large the teachings have two distinctive features – the KISS principles (Keep It Simple Stupid) and resonance of the teachings with the everyday human condition. Sure, there are preachers like this around – but they are few and far between and most tend to be males and in the minority.

    And what is different between the male and female experience and between the power of the pulpit and everyday life of most people?

    For females, the first thing that comes to mind is the birthing experience (although not all females have this), nurturing (not all have this tendency), and the ability to communicate readily with other women. Most men do not have these traits, but some do. Males do not give birth, some are nurturing, and most do not communicate readily with other men in the way that women do with women.

    I have used the term power of the pulpit deliberately – because for most of the last two milennia the church has been about power, male power. It comes from a stratosphere of its own and, for most Christians, the connecting point is Sunday worship and the voice from the pulpit. Life is too short to instance how this power has and does manifest itself but let us just say I have never heard a sermon in which the church examines its own power and admits its own need for humility and repentance before its people. It is happy to preach at others on these topics but not lay itself open to the same examination.

    Lastly, I’d like to throw into the mix the subject of communications in the 21st century. Across the church, I think – as a generality with only rare exceptions – the church whether at macro or micro levels does not do the job well. Back to its poor understanding of the functioning of society and community, back to a separation from those who innovate in society (and, if you remember, we do tend to think of Jesus as an innovator).

    Steve, you have been a front runner, in my view, among Christian leaders willing to use electronic communications to their fullest – and you have been at it for a long time now. Coming up for 15 years or so perhaps? And how many of your colleagues can say this?

    • 3 November 2010 5:06 am

      Perhaps that is one area where there is a difference — sermons play a much smaller part in Orthodox services, and so “pulpit power” means less. Our bishop was very interested in environmentalism, and when we have had teams of short-term missionaries from the USA he has asked them to prepare papers “on the environment” to read in parishes. I think his concern is genuine, but I sometimes wonder whether he has thought through the implications — when he has guests to meals there is always bottled water on the table, which strikes me as pretentious and unnecessary, and he should be setting an example by using tap water, which would make more sense than getting people to read papers. He also calls people to meetings for no particular purpose, and the unnecessary car travel surely doesn’t help the environment. He was one of the vice presidents of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environmental Institute (SAFCEI), and got me involved with them, but they seem to me to make remarkably little effort to make the best use of electronic communications. I offered to set up a blog and a mailing list for them, but the Director (an Anglican bishop) was unenthusiastic because he “already gets too much e-mail”. I suppose that’s a power trip of sorts — they quite happily send out e-mail, giving directives from on high, but are reluctant to have a mailing list, where members could talk back! I did start a blog for them, but I doubt that the director has ever read it. So my enthusiasm for the cause is somewhat diminished. I see this use of “e-mail power” for top-down communication as an extension of the “pulpit power” you mention.

  3. 2 November 2010 10:15 pm

    This completely ignores the severe lack of men in the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe. While this might represent the growing Protestant-conversion-to-Orthodoxy movement in America, it’s completely the opposite of what I’ve heard about in Russia. Orthodoxy doesn’t appeal to the Slavic man, and that’s worth noting.

  4. 3 November 2010 5:16 am

    Not just in Slavic countries. I once visited Mount Athos, where only male visitors are allowed. Most of the pilgrims had to stay overnight in the village of Ouranoupolis, and I heard the church bells ringing. It was a Monday evening and I thought I’d join the priest, and perhaps a deacon and one or two other people for Vespers. I was quite surprised to find about 70 people in the church, 20 of them belting out the Paraklesis with great gusto, and the rest following along as they could. And 90% of the congregation were women, and all the enthusiastic singers were women too. Of the other pilgrims there was not a sign.

  5. Dana Ames permalink
    4 November 2010 6:14 am

    Frederica’s article irritated and frustrated me when I read it as an inquirer. I had heard enough nonsense like it, though of a different flavor and with different reasoning behind it, as a non-liturgical Protestant. I was far enough along to know that Orthodox theology is the sanest there is with regard to gender, so the article didn’t put me off from converting. As a catechumen I read Yannaras’ “Freedom of Morality”, recommended to me by John Burnett, and many things became clearer, the gender issue among them.

    We Americans have a real problem around this issue. I think there’s no one source for it – several things feed it – but articles like this scratch a really persistent itch in our culture.


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