‘Biblical Womanhood’: Christian patriarchs trying to blow out a bonfire

Rachel Held Evans “champions women, freedom and forgiveness in a way that transcends religion.”

That’s from the glowing review of A Year of Biblical Womanhood in People magazine, which praises Evans as “insightful” and “often-hilarious,” and lauds her “gentle but impassioned critique of the Biblical Womanhood movement, which requires women to submit to their husbands’ authority.” This review in such a ubiquitous magazine will not please the husbands and patriarchs of that movement. They can keep Evans’ book out of LifeWay stores, but they can’t keep People out of the checkout lanes at the supermarket.

The Powers That Be of Christian patriarchy — The Gospel Coalition, the Southern Baptist bishops, etc. — see Evans as the most prominent example of something that terrifies them. Their male authority depends, largely, on the consent of the governed. And that consent, in turn, depends largely on their maintaining a monopoly on information and permission.

TPTB are losing that monopoly on information and permission. Women are writing things. They are talking to one another outside of officially sanctioned church channels. They are spreading and absorbing information not approved by the patriarchy. They are granting one another permission to ask questions and to demand satisfactory answers. The Christian women bloggers of that Bonfire list represent an existential threat for Christian patriarchy. TPTB wants to extinguish that fire.

And so TPTB of Christian patriarchy have latched onto Evans as a symbol of all those uppity women thinking, talking, writing and asking questions without official permission from their husbands and pastors and bishops. If she can be silenced or denounced or discredited, maybe all those others will learn their lesson too.

The result of this coordinated attack on Evans-as-symbol has been exactly what anyone who is not a power-drunk authoritarian would expect. It has prompted others to rally around and alongside her in solidarity. And that solidarity, in turn, has empowered and encouraged others to raise their voices as well — further threatening the monopoly of information and permission on which Christian patriarchy depends.

To paraphrase Peter Gabriel, you can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a bonfire.

Dianna E. Anderson:A Year of Biblical Womanhood: Understanding and Openness in One Woman’s Journey

This book is not for those who have already made up their minds. This book is not for the ones who think they have all the answers. This book is not even a point-by-point breakdown of complementarianism and why it is a broken system. This book is for the questioning, for the women in between, for the ones feeling more judged by God and scripture than buoyed and loved. This book – and Evans’ journey – do not provide exact, pat answers to the numerous theological questions that a literal complementarianism raises. Instead, it tells us that questions are okay. Wrestling is okay. The Scripture can take it. God can take it. Being everything to everyone is not a burden you have to carry.

Idelette McVicker:Eshet Chayil, Rachel Held Evans

This is a time for clear speech.

I am thankful that Rachel is such a woman, who speaks clearly. She researches, ponders, asks questions, collaborates and speaks out. She’s not intimidated. And for that I am deeply grateful.

I am thankful that Rachel is forging a path. She’s leading, she’s going first and she’s giving me courage to speak about the things that matter dearly.

Piercing patriarchy isn’t easy. It’s gutsy and it requires wisdom and clarity of thinking. It’s not something we can shout down or yell down or beat our fists at. I know, because I’ve tried that.

Richard Beck:A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Agreed, no one is following all the commandments literally. People pick and choose. But here’s the deal: They don’t realize they are picking and choosing. And even if you argue with these people, pointing out how they are picking and choosing, they still can’t see it. And in the face of that (I think willful) denial Rachel does something pretty remarkable. Rachel engages in a hermeneutical performance, one that, in refusing to pick and choose, reveals to anyone reading her book just how much picking and choosing is actually going on. She helps you see it. And laugh at the same time.

And that’s what is pretty badass about the book, intellectually speaking. The book is hermeneutical performance art.

Rachel Marie Stone:Rachel Held Evans and the Hermeneutics of Love

I realize that this does not sit well with everyone, especially with those for whom summing up Scripture as essentially and most importantly about loving God and neighbor is a little too open ended. (Wait? Who said that? Oh, yes. Jesus did.) Many of Rachel’s critics assert that if one does not interpret St. Paul to mean that all women everywhere are, by their very nature, unfit for leadership in the church, one is on a slippery slope that ends with tossing out the Bible completely. It’s highly inconvenient, then, that there are a good many people who neither interpret Paul that way nor abandon orthodoxy altogether.

… Maybe love is controversial after all.

Amy Mitchell:A Year of What?!

Rather than complaining about how hard it was to live out a literal interpretation of the Bible, she pokes gentle fun at herself. From her Jar of Contention to her ruined apple pie to her misadventures in sewing, she doesn’t ever take herself too seriously.

At the same time, Rachel clearly takes the Bible seriously.  She makes every effort to understand the original context of the Scriptures while not ignoring the modern-day applications. In each chapter, she discovers a way in which she can honor God and the Bible without resorting to strict, legalistic readings of the text.

Brian LePort:Book Review: Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Rachel has done her homework and she shares with her readers the worldview of some writers – men and women – who advocate “biblical womanhood” as a woman staying home, having a half dozen children, never going to college, never having a career, and living for her husband as a servant. While there may be women who find this to be fulfilling there are other women who have a sense that this is not the aim of their life. These authors attempt to guilt women into a model of womanhood that has nothing to do with ancient Israel or first century Galilee as much as it does everything to do with 1950′s America. Rachel exposes this and she does it without being hostile. I must commend her on this because while I was reading excerpts from this or that author my face would turn red with anger. I cussed to myself on many occasions. What Rachel has done through this experiment is outdo the legalist in their legalism!

Rachel’s book does not mock Scripture; her book exposes our inconsistencies as readers of Scripture, our false objectivity (a mythological epistemology that needs to die), and our foundationless and often hypocritical piety. Rachel proves to be a better and more honest reader of Scripture than many people whom I have met with doctorates in biblical studies. She lets Scripture bother her. She lets it challenge her. I found her honesty about Scripture to be refreshing and she has become a fellow pilgrim in my own journey to understand this complex, concerning, beautiful book known as the Bible.

Danielle @ From Two to One:A Toast to Rachel Held Evans in the Midst of Roasts

We congratulate you on your book launch day of a tremendous job well done. Those of us who’ve walked alongside you, maybe limped here and there, know and feel in our very bones that the tide is turning. We know that your book will touch lives, will help heal and restore, and will bring reconciliation to all of us who’ve been stunted in our spiritual growth from the wrist-slapping measuring stick of “true” or “biblical” womanhood and manhood.

J.R. Daniel Kirk:Living Biblically

Her project exposes the most basic reality of biblical interpretation and application: we do not, cannot, and indeed must not, simply pick up the Bible, see what it says, and go do it.

All of us approach the Bible with some sort of interpretive grid that helps us to know when we do or do not need to take to heart the commandment issued. Rachel has grown weary of “biblical” as a trump-card adjective, thrown out in an effort to baptize whatever (conservative) social, religious, or theological position a person wants to endorse.

So, the story of the year is a story of challenging the notion that “biblical womanhood” is to be had by opening up the Bible and applying “God’s word to women.”

Elizabeth Esther:For Rachel Held Evans, my friend and a Woman of Valor

What I want you to know is how much I admire you. Your courage, determination and Berean commitment to search out the truth make you a true woman of valor. You never shirk the hard work of questioning assumptions and stereotypes – even when it places you in the crosshairs of previously unquestioned authority.

  • Tricksterson

    A subthee of the last book is Harry’s growing disillusionment with Dumbledore and his realization wthat while a good man he was a long way from being a perfect man.

  • Tricksterson

    Slughorn is the Slytherin’s Token Good (more or less) Teammate and in the final book the Malfoys turn, if not good, neutral.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Catholics generally include the Apocrypha, at least as I understand it

    You mean the deuterocanon. Deuterocanonical books are included in the Bible for the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, but they’re not the same as the Apocrypha.

  • http://www.catesings.org/ Catherine

    To be fair, the author of II Timothy probably didn’t view himself as writing scripture when he wrote that letter, either.  In fact, while II Timothy is thought to have been one of the later-written books of what we now call the New Testament, he was still writing only a short time after the gospels were written, and probably wasn’t referring to the New Testament canon at all when he spoke of scripture – the Jewish canon was probably what he had in mind.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Wow did this thread veer into sidetracks quickly :)

    I’m adding a couple of things to the list of stuff everyone should know how to do: change a washer and assemble flat-pack furniture.

    Not at school, though. I have a whole bunch of friends who are teachers and they tear their hair out every time someone says “why don’t they teach X at school?”

  • EllieMurasaki

    Fair enough, though I have a sneaking suspicion that if there were more teachers and if the existing curricula were more evenly distributed through the year, there’d be enough people and person-hours available to teach life skills. And for bonus points there’d be no need to spend the first month or two of each school year in review because everybody forgot everything over the two or three months of summer break, because more total school days means not nearly as long a summer break.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    We don’t have nearly as long a summer break as you guys, and don’t start the year reviewing what we learned last year. The curriculum is still jammed. The volume of academic content alone is huge, not to mention teachers’ assigned roles as counsellors, personal development coaches, relationship tutors, ethical guides, behaviour managers, vocational advisors etc etc. It’s a shocker of a job, and they’re continually harrassed for not doing the entire raising of a generation without any assistance from the kids’ actual parents.

    I’d like to see a bunch of educational opportunities made universally available outside schools, at the community level. Various local communities that I know of do this in patches, but I’d love for it to be more widespread–and not limited to those of school age. E.g. Saturdays at 11 there’s going to be a cooking class at the community centre, open to all. Sunday afternoons we’ll be doing basic car maintenance. Tuesday evenings we’ll discuss how to plan a household budget. And so on.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’d like to see a bunch of educational opportunities made universally available outside schools, at the community level. Various local communities that I know of do this in patches, but I’d love for it to be more widespread–and not limited to those of school age. E.g. Saturdays at 11 there’s going to be a cooking class at the community centre, open to all. Sunday afternoons we’ll be doing basic car maintenance. Tuesday evenings we’ll discuss how to plan a household budget. And so on.

    I can work with that. I’m not sure how to ensure everyone has at least a passing familiarity with life skills if they’re not requirements for the high school diploma, but I like your thoughts a lot.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The bonus, apart from not killing teachers, is that community-based education would be available to adults as well as teenagers, so all the people who fell through the cracks (or were already adults when the counterfactual school-based system was introduced) have the opportunity to pick up those skills, too.

    A real-life example is computer skills–basic computer usage is almost universal among young people and middle class adults, but some groups (like the elderly, migrants, and the poor) didn’t get the oppotunity to pick them up, putting them at a huge disadvantage in the job market and in general society. Local TAFEs run basic computer courses for adults that are very popular, but with the right wing sucking the funding out of TAFE these sorts of courses are becoming less available just as they are most needed.

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    As a non-driver, I’d like to propose that all the “things everyone should know” re: cars should be reserved for Driver’s Ed classes.

    Some years ago, when I was out of high school and having trouble finding employment, I attended some free courses at the Youth Employment Resource Centre which included things like how to act during a job interview and how to discuss a problem with your boss.  To me, a lot of it was, “Well, duh,” but I made mental notes anyway.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     

    As a non-driver, I’d like to propose that all the “things everyone
    should know” re: cars should be reserved for Driver’s Ed classes.

    When I took Driver’s Ed, they seemed genuinely flummoxed as to how to teach someone how to drive who’d never driven a car before. The entire class was based on the assumption that you already knew more-or-less how to drive from having driven illegally with your friends or parents, and just needed a bit of formal instruction to get you compliant.

  • vsm

    Dumbledore is a political figure who led the only effective resistance movement to Voldemort, so it’s not terribly surprising he’s rather popular among those who didn’t much feel like being ruled by V, and unpopular among those who did. That said, several good-aligned characters are highly critical of his actions, including Hermione, Snape and Aberforth.

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    No argument there.

    But it is now used as justification for belief that the “women must be silent in churches” and that sort of thing is What God Says.  And I cannot help thinking that that was the point of including it.

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    Despite the fact that I had several months when it was actually legal for them to have taken me out to drive (I got the classroom portion during the school year, which ended with getting my learner’s permit but the behind-the-wheel portion was during the summer), my folks refused.  They wanted me to be taught by a professional.

    The professional in question was actually angry at me for “pretending” not to know how to drive (it took me  a while, for example, to figure out that I would get to the speed I wanted to get to regardless of how hard I stepped on the gas — I honestly thought that if you want to go 20 you step lightly, if you want to go 30, you step harder, etc.).  I put off going for my driver’s license test until the day before my blue slip expired.

  • Lori

     

    US drivers pretty much all pump our own gas. I think it’s only New Jersey that isn’t entirely self-serve gas stations. But yeah.   

    As of 5 years ago there’s at least one city in California where there are no self-service gas pumps. There’s some sort of city ordinance against them. I think there are only 2 or 3 gas stations within the city limits, but they’re full service only. (It’s in the part of LA county where one city literally flows into the next, so you can get cheaper gas by pumping it yourself if you just drive a couple blocks down the road.) That might have changed since I moved away, but I doubt it. I think G would have mentioned it to me if it had because it would be a sign of the Apocalypse or something.

  • Lori

     

    she was afraid that someone would stage a driveby shooting at her nail salon.   

    This is not a totally unreasonable fear, but it sounds like her reason for fearing it was wrong. It’s highly unlikely that gang members are just going to shoot up the place at ransom. It’s statistically unlikely, but far from unheard of that the abusive husband or boyfriend of one of her employees or customers could shoot up the place in an attempt to kill said employee/customer. Nail salons being an almost exclusively female domain tend to attract more than their fair share of trouble from abusive men.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     Sure, but the “good” characters who are heavily critical of Dumbledore consist of a girl who is repeatedly depicted as being a judgmental busybody who repeatedly fails to appreciate the complexities of moral situations in favor of a holier-than-thou attitude, and is constantly mocked for it; Snape; and a guy who has sex with goats.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Uh, strictly speaking I think Aberforth’s problem was inappropriate charms on goats, the nature of which is never specified.

  • Carstonio

    Arguing against “what God says” when it comes to patriarchy is far more difficult, I suspect, than arguing against patriarchy itself on secular moral grounds. With the former, if you’re not taking the Evans approach of challenging the interpretation, you’re challenging the entire concept of scripture being authoritative. Your argument ends up being “Can you prove that the Christian god wants everyone to live in a gender hierarchy? Can you prove that the words in scripture come from that god? Even if they did, why should we assume that someone else knows what’s best for us?” That would probably devolve into two people talking past each other.

  • vsm

    Ross:
    Their criticisms were presented as reasonable, however. Hermione points out that telling three teenagers to save the world while giving no instructions how was not a smart thing to do, Snape objects to how Dumbledore treats Harry as a tool, and Aberforth is upset about how Dumbledore’s flirtation with evil overlordism resulted in their sister’s death. Besides, Hermione had largely gotten over her holier-than-thou tendencies by this point and inappropriate charms aside, Aberforth was a heroic person who saved Harry kept the resistance at Hogwarts supplied. As for Snape, when he of all people thinks you’re treating someone badly, there just might be something to it.

    PepperjackCandy:
    I honestly thought that if you want to go 20 you step lightly, if you want to go 30, you step harder
    …It doesn’t work like that?

  • Carstonio

    I thought at first that the “girl” you were describing was Rita Skeeter and her hatchet job biography of Dumbledore.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The way JKR phrased it – she asked the asker’s age and then came up with an answer that was so obviously tailored to be read on multiple levels that it’s pretty blatantly obvious that Aberforth was doing a little more than just trying to make goats have colored fur or something.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I think what PepperJackCandy was saying was that PepperJackCandy thought you only needed to push the pedal once, not hold it down to keep the throttle open so the car would move at a steady speed.

  • Stan L

    When I was in high school in the 90s, that was part of our curriculum. There was also a sort of “life skills” test that covered the basics on paper. Basically it was to prove that you weren’t a complete idiot and the school felt safe enough to let you graduate.

  • Mark Z.

    And ultimately, it’s not all that different from the entire rest of the genre of “British Boarding School Boys’ Adventure”. I’m pretty sure I’ve read scads of other children’s books which just take for granted that one’s school days are full of physical and mental abuse from students and teachers alike with no possibility of recourse

    It’s interesting that as a British author Rowling would default to that, though it’s not really surprising. The story-function of the abuse in those books is to toughen up the hero and bond him with his schoolmates. He can’t escape or stop the abuse, so he has to survive by developing the Approved Manly Virtues of tenacity, cunning, and leadership.

    But in American culture, the Approved Manly Virtues include retribution, and abuse is there to be resisted, not patiently endured. So when an American writes “Boarding School Boys’ Adventure”, we get Ender’s Game: the hero suffers physical and mental abuse from students and teachers alike, until one day he loses his shit and beats his tormentor to death in the shower. And that’s the end of the abuse.

  • Ursula L

    A big part of Dumbledore’s problems as headmaster is that he’s running the school, not as a school, but as his own political power base.  He won’t accept the job of Minister of Magic, where he could work directly to prepare for the return of Voldemort that he anticipates.  Instead, he uses the school.  

    So Snape stays a teacher, despite being horrible at it.  Because Dumbledore needs him, and wants to keep an eye on him.  Trelawny is kept around, as well, because she made the prophecy against Voldemort, and not necessarily because she’s generally effective at teaching Divination.  

    Right at the beginning, Dumbledore uses the school as a place to hide the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone, knowing that the Stone will draw the attention of ruthless people who want it, and putting the students between any would-be thieves and the stone.  

    If Dumbledore, as he claimed at the end, knew that he couldn’t trust himself with political power, he should have actually stayed out of politics.  Or if he knew he needed to act politically, because of the grave danger of Voldemort’s return, then he should have done what was needed without getting the school and students involved.  

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    I knew you had to hold the pedal down, but I didn’t realize that the heaviness with which you press determines, not your speed, but how fast you get to that speed.  So, if you want to get to, say 35 miles an hour (which I did the first time I pulled out of a parking lot ever in my life) I thought that you would have to press down fairly hard.   I thought that pressing lightly would only get me to 15 or 20 and then I would stay at that speed until I pressed harder.

    And I’m a “she.”

  • vsm

    Looking at all that, it’s surprising people didn’t realize Dumbledore was a stone cold utilitarian before the last book.

  • P J Evans

    As I said, it’s a city with a larger-than-usual percentage of the population in law enforcement. I’ve never heard of a drive-by shooting there, and a drive-by on a nail salon would be very unusual. (Husbands/boyfriends seem to prefer to walk in and start shooting.)

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    You didn’t see all the Post-OotP manipulative!Dumbledore cliche fics that spammed the fandom, did you? :-P

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Ah, thank you. Sorry for putting words in your mouth.

  • Ursula L

    In “Order of the Phoenix” the Ministry had it right to increase oversight of the school, for the sake of the safety and quality of education of pretty much all of the magical children in Britain.  Because Dumbledore believed that Voldemort was back, and in believing that, would focus on that rather than on the quality of education the school was providing.

    The problem was, they chose Umbridge for that job.  And she was quite unsuited for the job, with no experience in education, and with no interest in promoting the quality of education.

    And they chose Umbridge because they saw Dumbledore’s failures at being an effective headmaster not, primarily, as educational failure, but as political threat.  It was both, of course.  But focusing on the educational failures would have given them a legitimate reason to remove Dumbledore as headmaster, while focusing on the political threat served to distract from the real educational problems at Hogworts.  

    What would have happened if the Ministry had approached, say,  Lupin  to do the job of auditing the quality of education at Hogworts?  Someone with at least some experience in education, and someone who was quite successful as an educator, but needing a certain amount of supervision to ensure that he could be a safe part of society?  Make Umbridge his assistant, with her obsessive orderliness put to the work of making sure he drinks his potion every month.  

  • EllieMurasaki

    What would have happened if the Ministry had approached, say, Lupin to do the job of auditing the quality of education at Hogworts? Someone with at least some experience in education, and someone who was quite successful as an educator, but needing a certain amount of supervision to ensure that he could be a safe part of society? Make Umbridge his assistant, with her obsessive orderliness put to the work of making sure he drinks his potion every month.

    Put a werewolf in charge of children, when he stopped being a teacher precisely because he got outed as a werewolf, and then put a known and quite vocal werewolf hater in charge of making sure his transformations are safe…I would pay money to see how someone could write that plausibly and without killing anybody.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     That’s one reading of it. My reading of it is that Rowling put the arguments that she couldn’t adequately counter in the mouths of people we would have other reasons to dismiss in order to handwave them away — a sort of preemptive ‘Well maybe you’re technically correct, but you’re still ugly so shut up”

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    You did recall that Umbridge was known for holding racist and exclusivist viewpoints regarding “half-breeds”, right?

  • BaseDeltaZero

    I see what you did there…

  • Madhabmatics

    i don’t understand these wizard-words that are not about raistlin

  • Beroli

     …Putting an argument in Hermione’s mouth was a way of handwaving it away?

    We didn’t read the same books. And I find myself wondering who–other than Albus Dumbledore himself!–could have made criticisms of Dumbledore that you wouldn’t be treating as “handwaved away.”

  • Beroli

    You did recall that Umbridge was known for holding racist and exclusivist viewpoints regarding “half-breeds”, right?

    Also, perfectly willing to break the law, sending dementors as a hit squad and using the Cruciatus Curse, in pursuit of her ends. If she was in charge of making sure Lupin drank his potion every month, it would be accidentally poisoned the first or second month.

  • Amaryllis

     So when an American writes “Boarding School Boys’ Adventure”, we get Ender’s Game:
    the hero suffers physical and mental abuse from students and teachers
    alike, until one day he loses his shit and beats his tormentor to death
    in the shower. And that’s the end of the abuse.

    Yes, when (many) Americans write fantasy adventure, they somehow manage to write it so that the hero has just no choice about resorting to  total-annihilation violence.

    I’m not sure that that’s either morally or aesthetically preferable.

    (It’s a long time since I read that book; did Ender actually “lose his shit”? I seem to recall that that beating, although it may not to have been intended to result in death, was at least partially planned in advance?)

  • vsm

    It’s not like Rowling had to write Dumbledore in a way that made it very easy to question his ethics. The subplot about his youth, for instance, was only introduced in the last book and could have easily been left out if Rowling wanted to depict him as the best guy ever.

  • Carstonio

    That may be a holdover from the frontier mythology.

  • EllieMurasaki

    It’s a long time since I read that book; did Ender actually “lose his shit”? I seem to recall that that beating, although it may not to have been intended to result in death, was at least partially planned in advance?
    I can’t remember about the one that killed Bonzo, but the one that killed whatshisface the kid before Ender hit sky school, that was not planned. Ender’d just run out of patience and hadn’t any idea that the other kid would die; he wanted to hit the kid hard enough to stop not just that bullying session but all the next ones, but that’s it. I don’t think he did find out the kid died until years and years later.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     > that beating, although it may not to have been intended to result in death, was at least partially planned in advance?

    It’s been a long time for me as well, but IIRC it was somewhere in between: Ender is presented as having allowed his supposedly superior tactical skills to lapse for just long enough to allow the situation to develop, which totally was therefore not-his-fault-really-honest so we can keep using the relaxed ethical standards we use when judging likable-underdog protagonists, and then he decided he had to actually seriously beat the crap out of his assailant so as to teach everyone a lesson, which is best in the long run.

    More generally, Ender’s Game devotes a lot of narrative effort to framing Ender as ethically acceptable. E.g., to prevent the reader from
    asking “Wait, if he’s such a tactical genius/natural commander/yadda
    yadda, why is he so easily manipulated into allowing so many of the other students to be his enemies?”

    It mostly is successful at this, which requires some skill; it’s actually possible to read the whole book and still think of Ender as basically a decent kid rather than a monster.

    No doubt tvtropes has a lot to say about this.

  • Lori

     

    “Wait, if he’s such a tactical genius/natural commander/yadda
    yadda, why is he so easily manipulated into allowing so many of the other students to be his enemies?”  

    It’s been a long,long time since I read the book, but isn’t the answer to that tactical genius or not Ender is a kid, with a kid’s lack of experience and perspective, in a situation where his knowledge is controlled by the adults around him?

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     (nods) Right, exactly.  He’s set up as in tension with a powerful opponent (at first the adults, as you say, and the Buggers later on), and the currents of that opposition are narratively manipulated in such a way as to conveniently allow key events (e.g., the shower fight, the kamikaze attacks on Bugger fleets, the ultimate use of the DR device) to occur without Ender having to demonstrate agency regarding them, and therefore without seeming to accept moral culpability for them. 

    “Protagonist mercilessly annihilates opponent without incurring moral culpability” is a popular narrative. I imagine tvtropes has a catchy name for it somewhere.

    The thing is: in real life, if I’m powerful enough to mercilessly annihilate an opponent (whether it’s hospitalizing a schoolyard bully or genociding an entire race), I’m usually powerful enough to avoid having to. 

    But “protagonist cooperates with more powerful opponent” isn’t as popular a narrative. (More’s the pity.) Schindler’s List manages to pull this off, for example, but it has to invoke the nuclear option of immoral antagonists to do it. And “protagonist willingly annihilates opponent despite having other options” is also unpopular in Card’s target audience (thank heaven for small favors), though there are genres where it’s pretty popular. So the narrative has to construct a scenario that straddles the line… the protagonist has to be powerful enough to make annihilating the opponent plausible, but powerless enough to lack agency about doing so.

    It’s a tricky narrative construction to get right, precisely because it’s almost
    completely implausible. But it’s indispensible for this kind of story.
    We’ve explored some of the ways to get it wrong as part of the Left
    Behind deconstruction here, which causes the protagonists there to frequently come off as monsters unless we fully embrace the book’s narrative frame.

    Card mostly gets it right in Ender’s
    Game, though; we have to really fight the narrative frame to see Ender as a monster, even though if we were outside his head looking in we’d likely judge him that way. (As, indeed, do most of his fictional contemporaries.)

    I have developed a strong aversion to “Protagonist mercilessly annihilates opponent without incurring moral culpability” as a narrative convention, along with its easier-to-write cousin “Protagonist’s opponent is conveniently annihilated by an accidental event, or as a natural result of their own action.”

  • Lori

     

    The thing is: in real life, if I’m powerful enough to mercilessly
    annihilate an opponent (whether it’s hospitalizing a schoolyard bully or
    genociding an entire race), I’m usually powerful enough to avoid having to.  

    There’s a difference between having power and knowing one’s on power, even IRL. Unless I’m remembering it totally wrong Ender didn’t know that he was committing actual genocide. His was clearly a kid with some really serious issues or things would have gone quite differently than they did, but those issues weren’t all of his own making. Yes Card did that on purpose, and did it well, but that doesn’t mean that the situation is totally unrelated to the real world. I did social work with teens, some of whom were headed into or out of juvenile detention because they committed serious crimes. The issue of whether those kids were monsters isn’t fictional or hypothetical.

    If a bullied kid IRL fights back and seriously injures the bully then yes, clearly that kid had some power in the situation. That’s not actually proof that the kid had the power to get the bully to back off some other way or to get adults to help. In Ender’s situation he had no reason to believe that he could make either of those things happen.

     

    we have to really fight the narrative frame to see Ender as a
    monster, even though if we were outside his head looking in we’d likely
    judge him that way.   

    I think calling Ender a monster is perhaps fighting the frame a bit too hard. Again, it’s been a long time since I read the book and details are fuzzy but my recollection is that Ender is less a monster than a seriously f’ed up kid manipulated by adults who are arguably monsters.

  • Mark Z.

    That’s not actually proof that the kid had the power to get the bully to back off some other way or to get adults to help. In Ender’s situation he had no reason to believe that he could make either of those things happen. … Again, it’s been a long time since I read the book and details are fuzzy but my recollection is that Ender is less a monster than a seriously f’ed up kid manipulated by adults who are arguably monsters.

    IIRC this was more explicit in Ender’s Shadow, but the reason Ender couldn’t get the adults to help, or get the bully to back off some other way, was that the adults had engineered the fight in the first place.

    In the little snippets of conversation between the teachers that we see, they keep talking, approvingly, about how vicious Ender is. He’s killed one kid in a fight already,* by accident, and then his solution to the Giant’s Drink puzzle (in the video game) is to rip out the giant’s eye, and then the fight with Bonzo. Every time, they praise his “killer instinct”, and after the last one they rush him off to command training. Hmm, it’s almost like they were waiting to see him kill someone so they knew he was right for the job.

    Which is odd, because the plan is to tell him that the whole war is just a simulation right up until he wins. So why does “killer instinct” matter? Couldn’t they just find the world’s greatest Starcraft player and put him in command of the fleet?

    …No, because that’s not his entire function. They’ve armed the fleet with weapons that will blow up a planet. It’s obvious that the I.F. intends to end this war by annihilating the Buggers. So the reason they need someone else to give the order is to relieve their guilt over committing genocide. It wasn’t us! He pushed the button! And they need him to be a child so that he’ll implicitly trust them enough to push the button without second thoughts.

    Of course they still carry the guilt over conning him into it. But if you believe that “killer instinct” is a thing, and you’ve satisfied yourself that this particular child has it (by manipulating him into killing someone), then you can absolve yourself of that crime under the theory that if Ender had known what he was doing, he would have wiped out the Buggers anyway, because the kid’s a killer, y’know.

    * And so has Bean. For all we know, everyone in Battle School has killed someone already.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Ender didn’t know that he was committing actual genocide.

    Yes, that’s true. As I say, the narrative is set up so he lacks agency.

    If a bullied kid IRL fights back and seriously injures the bully then yes, clearly that kid had some power in the situation. That’s not actually proof that the kid had the power to get the bully to back off some other way or to get adults to help.

    Yes, that’s true as well.

    In Ender’s situation he had no reason to believe that he could make either of those things happen.

    I’m not as certain of that as you sound, though I certainly agree that Card spins the story to make that seem true.

  • Lori

    This is my recollection too. The adults had a big picture plan (genocide) and they needed someone to figure out the details and implement it for them. They took smart, but very troubled kids and manipulate dthem in order to discover or create someone for the job. What they ended up with Ender and his agency really was limited.  He’s neither a monster nor a hero, because he can’t be.


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