So I imagine you’ve been caught by surprise at the popularity/notoriety of that little audio clip released last week. I mean, it wasn’t as though you weren’t expressing something you haven’t said, in one form or another, for decades now.
More people than I can count have already taken to Twitter and the blogosphere to call you out for disrespecting Beth Moore, and rightly so. But Moore said she’s ready to move on, and besides, I’m guessing the whole “women preaching is biblical” argument is something you’ve closed yourself off to long ago. That’s a shame, but more on that later.
Instead, I thought we should focus on something else you said in this clip. You know, that thing about culture: “We can’t let the culture exegete the Bible.” You added a “footnote” of sorts, to clarify. It went something like this:
“When the Southern Baptists met in June, they passed resolution 9, and they said intersectionality and critical theory are useful tools in interpreting the Bible, that was a watershed moment for that entire movement, because if culture has the right to interpret the Bible they will interpret the bible and liberalism will take over.”
Your great fear, it seems, is people who are “allowing the culture to interpret the Scripture.”
Here is the thing, John. There is no such thing as “culture.” There are cultures. And we’ve all got them. Or we’re all enmeshed in them. We’re all enculturated, if you will.
The tricky thing about cultures, though—cultural systems, cultural values, however you want to put it—is that they’re largely invisible to us when we’re inside those cultures. When you’re comfortably ensconced within a culture, it’s really hard to see your culture for what it is—instead, it tends to take the appearance of generic, standard, normal, common-sense reality. Of Truth.
I can understand how you might not have the eyes to see this. After all, you’re celebrating 50 years of ministry—50 years of being at the center of the culture you helped create—a culture in which you have more than comfortably ensconced yourself. An empire, really. So allow me to sketch the contours of that culture for you.
Let’s call it white (Christian) patriarchy. The parenthetical is optional, but as a Christian myself, I’m making a bit of a normative claim here, suggesting that when Christianity becomes enmeshed in white patriarchy, it becomes something else entirely. But let’s not let that distract us for the moment.
What does white (Christian) patriarchy look like? Well, for Paige Patterson it involves cowboy hats and an office filled with big-game hunting trophies. And, of course, a ruthless display of power. For Mark Driscoll it looked a bit more hip, in a 1990s sort of way, more crude perhaps, but the ruthless power was the same. For the likes of Doug Wilson or Doug Phillips, it’s always been a bit more quirky—more of a caricature, really. Then there’s the kinder, gentler version, at least on the surface—the James Dobson and John Piper varieties. But there, too, the power dynamics are largely the same. Power over women, children, church members, and the community. A chain of command, with (white Christian) men at the top.
While specific manifestations may vary (clean-shaven vs. neatly-trimmed beards, hunting vs. rock climbing, fine Scotch vs. craft brews), some things remain consistent. White (Christian) patriarchy always entails men patting each other’s backs, sharing stages, endorsing each other’s teachings, blurbing each other’s books, and calling one another “brother in Christ.” (I imagine it feels good to call someone a “brother in Christ.” It probably feels even better to be called “brother in Christ.” But this language, too, conveys power. For good and ill.)
What does white (Christian) patriarchy feel like? For those at the top, I imagine it’s a pretty heady experience, but I don’t actually know for sure. But for those caught beneath, it can be a harrowing existence. I do know, because I’ve run up against it myself from time to time. More importantly, I’ve listened to other people’s stories. You know—stories like those that cause a university and seminary to lose accreditation because of “a pervasive climate of fear, intimidation, bullying, and uncertainty.”
I’ve listened to stories, too, first only whispered—stories of violence against women, stories long swept under the rug. When you run an educational institution, though, accreditors care about these things, too, it turns out.
I’ve also listened to the voices of Christians who are not white. For these Christians, the whiteness of white (Christian) patriarchy is unmistakable.
With all this in mind, let’s take another look at this now infamous clip. Here we have you and two brothers, dressed in suits and ties, sitting authoritatively in dignified leather chairs, on a stage, between three ferns, before an audience of (predominantly) other white men. To an outside observer, you seem secure in the knowledge that you command the stage. That you are entitled to command.
To my mind, the most striking feature in all of this is the chuckling. No, the guffawing really. It expresses such comfort, such a high level of confidence that all those in the room share your views on the subject. On all subjects. That’s power.
It’s also a sign that there’s a coherent culture at work here. When this audio was leaked to those outside of this culture, most people didn’t find it funny. Most people found it disturbing. Shocking, even. Again, another sign of the often unspoken yet highly distinctive cultural values at play in white (Christian) patriarchy.
And then we get to Beth Moore.
It’s a memorable line, to be sure, and yes, it is condescending and degrading to Beth Moore, and by extension to all women. To be honest, it’s also degrading to the home. So much for focusing on the family and all that. The smug tone here makes it clear that the home is for losers. Or for second-class citizens, at the very least.
And then there’s the supreme certainty: “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period, paragraph, end of discussion.”
You know, you could have stopped there. It seems an appropriate place to stop, end of discussion and all. But you were all having too much fun. So we have the benefit of learning more about this culture of yours.
At this point, Phil chimes in. The problem with Beth Moore is that she’s “narcissistic.” She likes to “preach herself” rather than preach Christ, apparently. Which is funny, because Beth Moore may be many things, but a narcissist doesn’t really seem to be one of them. At this point I’m starting to sense that there may be a bit of projection going on here. Also more on that later.
But first, an interlude. Turns out Voddie Baucham was supposed to be there. In some ways it’s too bad he wasn’t, since I would have had to spend more time explaining that yes, this is still primarily about white Christian patriarchy. But he wasn’t there. Why? Because, well, “he’s weak…he wanted to rest.” Again, the smug laughter reveals shared cultural values. Men are strong. The men on the stage (who in this case happen to be white) are the strongest. Bullying keeps lesser men in their lesser places. Or at least threatens as much. All in good fun, of course. So much fun.
And then, back to back-slapping: “And by the way, dude, you killed it…That sermon…” [More applause.] Ok, I’ve really been wanting to say this to you white evangelical men for a while. What is with this “dude” thing? I mean, we even have The Dude’s Guide to Manhood. Granted, I don’t hang out with surfers or spend time at our local skate park, but as far as I know white evangelical men (of all ages) are the only ones still using this term in public discourse. To use your own terminology, I’d call this a “cultural cue.”
But let’s keep our focus on matters of substance. Next up we have another dig at Beth Moore that plays up all the stereotypes: “Just because you have the skill to sell jewelry on the TV sales channel doesn’t mean…there are people that have certain hawking skills…that doesn’t’ qualify you to preach.”
Let’s unpack this just a bit, shall we? In your world, it seems quite clear that anything associated with femininity is fair game for ridicule. The home, jewelry, consumerism. But really, hasn’t evangelicalism itself become little more than a sanctified consumer culture? In the end, doesn’t it all come down to selling things? More on that later, too.
Back to projection. And here we really come to the heart of things:
“The primary effort for feminism is not equality. They don’t want equality. That’s why 99% of plumbers are men. They don’t want equal power to be a plumber. They want to be senators, preachers, congressmen, president, the power structure of a university, they want power and not equality. And this is the highest location they can ascend to that power in the evangelical church and overturn what is clearly scripture. I think this is feminism going to church.”
Ah, it’s all becoming clear now. For you, it is all about power. Because it’s your power you’re thinking about. When you’ve enjoyed that power for so long, it must be a frightful prospect to imagine what it would be like to be stripped of it. Just ask some of the women in your own community.
And all this brings you to your point about “culture,” and how absolutely absurd you find the notion proposed by certain Southern Baptist leaders, the idea that biblical translation committees should include more than just white men, that maybe it would be a good idea for “a Latino, African American, and a woman” to serve on translation committees. Here, your incredulity is unmistaken: “Translation of the Bible? How about someone who knows Greek and Hebrew?” [More chuckles, more applause; both are easy to come by with this audience]. But no, this is a serious matter: “This is not a minor issue. When you literally overturn the clear teaching of scripture to empower people who want power, you have given up biblical authority. This is not a small issue.”
OK, let’s be serious then.
First off, let’s examine this not small, not minor assumption that you make here. Did you know that there are African Americans and Latinxs and, yes, women, who know Greek and Hebrew? White men did not invent Hebrew or Greek, it turns out. Nor are they the only ones who’ve mastered it. Who knew?
Actually, a lot of people know that. Because this isn’t a new thing, really. I can understand, though, how you might have missed this fact, because you’ve worked so hard to maintain exclusive (masculine) religious authority. As have your brothers who have come before you. And then you’ve written the histories to make it seem like men have always held exclusive religious authority. But they haven’t.
I’m a historian by training, and I spent ten years researching the history of female biblical interpreters. My favorite was Kate Bushnell, and I wrote a book about her. In some ways, she’s a lot like you. When the fundamentalist/modernist controversy came around, she identified as a staunch fundamentalist. She believed every word of the Scriptures was sacred, inspired, and inviolable. Oh, and she taught herself Hebrew and Greek. But with this expertise, she began to notice gendered patterns of mistranslations. That is to say, English translations of the Scriptures (first the KJV, then the Revised Version) routinely translated the same Greek or Hebrew word one way when it applied to a man (“strength” or “courage,” for example), and another way entirely when it applied to a woman (in this case, “virtuous.”) Dedicating decades of her life to a close examination of the Scriptures, Bushnell eventually published an extensive critique of traditional translations and interpretations. It was a solid piece of scholarship—even the reviewer at Moody agreed.
Bushnell had a few theories about why so many examples of male bias had worked their way into translations of the Scriptures over the centuries. Sometimes she allowed for a more innocuous explanation—every person, no matter how admirable their intentions, has the tendency to pull ever-so-slightly in their own favor when it comes to interpreting texts. The problem, then, comes when a certain group of people defend their right to be the exclusive interpreters of the Scriptures. Other times, however, she entertained a more conspiratorial notion. In pursuing and maintaining their own power, men were allied with the devil. Either way.
Did I mention, by the way, that it was white Christian men who drove Bushnell to embark on her theological project? You see Bushnell, like so many other enterprising white Christian women of the late 19th century, was a social reformer. She worked primarily with prostitutes, and with victims of sexual violence more generally. You might think of her as a precursor to modern-day antitrafficking activists. But, time and again, she ran into men—eminently “respectable,” white Christian men, pastors and preachers—men very much like yourself—who showed no sympathy towards “fallen women.” Men who believed such women were beyond redemption. Men who tacitly condoned—or even perpetrated—acts of horrific violence against women. Against white women, and especially against women of color. Ultimately, she concluded that “the crime” must be “the fruit of the theology.” And so it was.
What was foundational to Bushnell’s entire project was her understanding of power. After a careful study of the Scriptures, she concluded that the bulk of evidence establishing men as authorities in the household, and in the church, could be traced not to the Greek Testament, but rather to English translations. Moreover, it became clear to her that no Christian man would ever seek such exaltation. Jesus himself emptied himself, became human, suffered, and died. Why, then, would men who claimed to follow Jesus seek to assert power over others? Such men who sought power over others did so in exact proportion to the sinfulness of their own hearts, she surmised.
I wonder if you’ve heard of Bushnell before. A number of women (and some men) have worked to keep her teachings alive. But for the most part she’s been lost to history, as have so many other female biblical interpreters, before and since. This, too, was no accident. Bushnell recognized that men had claimed for themselves the right to teach theology. It was men who assumed for themselves “unusual and unique spiritual enlightenment,” who granted themselves “a thousand-and-one privileges and prerogatives” over women, effectively giving free reign to their own egotism under cover of “headship.” It was men who, through the outworkings of “masculine egotism,” had left us with “a whole fossilized system of theology,” a system that made one half of the human family “some resplendent glory,” and gave that half the power “to teach theology and the love of God to the other half”—not because of a man’s moral or spiritual character, but because of his physical body—“solely because he is a male!” The only way to keep women from “repudiating utterly such theology,” Bushnell understood, was by reserving to men the right to study, translate, and interpret the Scriptures.
I don’t know about you, but to me this doesn’t sound like a very “legitimate hermeneutic.”
You can learn more about Bushnell by reading my book. Come to think of it, I have another book that you might find interesting. It’s called Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. I think it really will help you understand this whole culture of white (Christian) patriarchy. In fact, you’re in the book. So are a lot of your friends. It’s not out quite yet, but it is available for preorder. (I know you don’t like women hawking jewelry, but I know white Christian men love to hawk each other’s books, so I’m going to assume book-hawking is ok.)
Kristin Du Mez