A recent blog post by Doug Wilson has me musing on the lack of foundation undergirding much of the evangelical culture wars. In many cases, the way the world is is portrayed as though it is natural and obvious, when in fact evangelicals are often encoding ideas or practices specific to the U.S. several generations ago as though they are gospel truth.
This time, Wilson is upset about a ballet number performed during an offertory at a church in Manhattan. Because, you see, men doing ballet is, well, gay.
Every once in a while you run across something that is a few parsecs beyond the utter frozen limit. What do you do then? Tim Bayly recently posted a video of an offertory performance done at Redeemer Downtown in Manhattan, along with his comments, and I have reposted the video below. You can watch the whole thing, or if you have a medical condition, you can watch 30 seconds of it and still get the drift. If confusion were beans, this would be a 9-layer dip, suitable for Super Bowl parties.
So here it is. Brace yourself.
The video Wilson references is here:
The offertory featured three male ballet dancers clad in white, a piano, clarinet, and bassoon, and a choreographed dance sequence. What is Wilson’s objection?
What is the problem with this? Summed up, it is that this performance is gayer than the kiwi queen at the Fire Island Fruit Festival. This performance is gayer than an HR memo at Google headquarters. How gay was it? It was gayer than an NPR tote bag full of rainbows. It was gayer than a unicorn parade through the Castro District. It was gayer than a lavender sparkly pen.
Yes, Wilson is serious. No, he’s not writing parody.
It is no sin to watch this video clip and not know what the particular problem is. Human self-deception can occupy the heart like a rabbit warren under a large meadow. The particular problems can be hard to identify and trace. But the general problem is screamingly obvious. If you can look at this clip and not know that there is a grievous problem somewhere, then the self-deception involved is truly profound.
What is going on here, exactly? It’s no secret that conservative evangelicals believe that gay sex is is a sin. How does that extend to a simple performance by male ballet dancers? The problem, Wilson writes, is confusion. He quotes Leviticus, noting that forbidden sexual relations, such as between women and animals or between a man and his daughter-in-law, are described as “confusion.” He goes on as follows:
In our case, the confusion depends on the fact that, in the Christian world, we have limited the sin to actual genital contact. Stay away from that, and you can be as much of a swish as you want. But this is not what Scripture teaches. Adultery does not begin in the bed; it begins in the heart (Matt. 5:28). Homosex begins, not in the bathhouse, but rather in the kind of cosmos a man imagines himself to live in—provided it is not the cosmos created by the living God. Underneath the passive homosexual act is the sin of wanting to be soft, and underneath that desire to be malakoi (1 Cor. 6:9) is the sin of pride and arrogance.
Conservative evangelical gender roles are not simply about who provides for the family financially and who nurtures the children and keeps the home, or even about male headship and female submission. They are also about being a specific kind of man and a specific kind of woman.
Wilson quotes I Corinthians 6:9 in defense of his claim that being “soft” itself is a sin:
I Corinthians 6:9-10—Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate [malakoi], nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
There is a lot of disagreement about what malakoi means in this context, but it’s true that the word meant “softness” or “weakness” in Greek. For the past several generations at least, American boys who are seen as “soft” or “effeminate” have frequently been treated terribly, shamed and bullied and worse, in part because of an equation between between being “soft” and being gay and in part because masculinity has often been defined so narrowly. And, well, let’s just say that Wilson is absolutely a proponent of narrow masculinity.Wilson goes on as follows:
Incidentally, I am aware that some will say that I obviously don’t understand art, or ballet, or culture, or something important to blue state urbanites. That’s as may be, but I understand men who still have their spiritual gonads. And if you can look at that clip and fail to understand why the church is so deeply unattractive to real men, then there is very little hope for you. And speaking of art, if you can look at that clip and fail to understand why real men are so repulsed by the artistic “community,” then there is even less hope.
Apparently “real men” are repulsed by ballet. That really is the claim Wilson is making here. What do “real men” like, then? For Wilson, the answer is clear.
By the way, for those who think that “style” is morally neutral—shoot, for those who think style is sexually neutral—here is a hypothetical test case. Leave aside all regulative principle considerations (which I do not leave aside, btw), but just leave it aside for the sake of discussion. Why would a trendy Reformed church never perform something like the below for their offertory? I will tell you why. It would trigger half the session, with the other half hiding in a safe space at the nearest community college.
Wilson posts a video of muscular rugby players on a field before a game, performing a foot-stopping dance accompanied by guttural cries as the opposing team looks on. There are two claims being made here. First, that this is the epitome of “real men” being all manly and masculine—the opposite of the “soft” men in the ballet performance above. Second, that a progressive church would never allow such a performance—and indeed, that those who attend progressive churches would be “triggered” by such a display.
Wilson’s comparison is somewhat spoiled by his lack of research—the video he posts is a haka, a traditional Maori war dance, being performed by a New Zealand rugby team (as is their custom). In other words, this particular dance has a specific cultural context—a context the trendy progressives he’s lampooning would likely understand and appreciate. Furthermore, Wilson’s suggestion that this dance would “trigger” the audience displays his complete lack of understanding of what the word actually means.
There is, I think, a deeper problem here. Wilson believes it is completely clear what is “soft” (ballet performances) and what is not (rugby teams performing a haka). However, understandings of masculinity, and its performance, have changed over time. The performance of masculinity can also be restrictive—and not in a good way. That performance of masculinity, after all, contributes to a fraternity culture where men joke about sexual assault and boast about their number of conquests. And that’s in addition to the bullying, etc.
Wilson’s arguments are also solidly extrabiblical—he’s adding them to the Bible rather than deriving them from it. Consider Jesus, as depicted in the New Testament. Was he properly “masculine”? Sure, he recruited fishermen as his disciples, but he was constantly telling them to turn away from violence. Wilson appears to believe that Jesus would have praised the haka and condemned the Redeemer performance. I am not at all sure of that.
In pointing to the Redeemer clip, Wilson demonstrates that he cannot see past the form to the message. The ballet piece, performed during the offertory, was titled “Life Together”; its choreography was meant to demonstrate the importance of Christians supporting and uplifting each other. Yes, it featured three ballet dancers. But haven’t men like Wilson been arguing for years that men can have strong bonds and friendships without being gay (they’ve been arguing with a void, of course, because no one disagrees with this).
It’s almost sad that Wilson’s ideas about masculinity so limit his perception, making him unable to appreciate the positive Christian message of the performance. Or at least, it would be sad if Wilson’s ideas didn’t contribute to bullying and toxic masculinity even today.