Life Among the Dutch…

It was in late 2008 or early 2009, I can’t remember which, that I first found myself staring with some confusion at a church directory containing a truly ridiculous number of entries under V and Z. Also, there were no Toews. Nor Thiessens. Nor Klassens, Peters, nor Enns (not even Ens!). For a guy who grew up surrounded by Mennonites in an evangelical church in Saskatoon, the utter lack of Enns was frankly disturbing. But what the directory lacked in Enns and Thiessens it more than made up for with Van Xs and De Ys. I was attending a new church, a Presbyterian church filled with the Dutch.*

When attending in person it was not simply the names that were astounding, it was the dizzying tallness that truly set one reeling. I’m not tall, I know that, but I’ve always felt about average until I came into contact with the Dutch. It’s an odd sensation to stand, as a grown man, at shoulder height to another person. It is truly humbling to stand at shoulder height to an entire room of other people.

But then we worshiped together, and talked, and ate together, and I loved them.

It was there that I encountered Christians who have been deeply shaped by a stream of Protestant theology that I did not know well; Kuyperian Calvinism. Now, I was no true Calvinist, nor am I now. But these infinitely tall Kuyper fans taught me gently about a kind of cultural engagement that I had, until then, denigrated. They taught me about a love for culture. They taught me about a grace-filled engagement with art, and politics, and food. They spoke a language that struck deeply resonant notes in the depths of my heart. The tension between life as a Christian and life in the culture to which I have been born and in which I was raised has always been difficult for me. I had reached, by the time we moved to Hamilton, a kind of uneasy truce with my culture, but nothing more. It was the Dutch who taught me better.

I saw people who truly believed that their work, whatever that happened to be, had a redemptive purpose grounded in the work of Christ. It brought a great dignity to all work, from teaching to framing to lawyering to sculpting. It all, somehow, became art. It wasn’t just the pastors or missionaries who talked about vocation, it was everybody.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think postmillenial theology is kind of a wild pipe-dream, and I don’t think anybody will ever talk me into being a real Calvinist (though they came surprisingly close on child baptism a couple of times). But life among the Dutch was a powerful and beautiful thing. It altered Jinny and I in subtle but powerful ways, and I’m deeply thankful for that short sojourn.


*Okay, they weren’t all actually Dutch, but there were a lot of Dutch people man! Like, a lot!


Language, sex, and submission…

[Trigger Warning: rape, sexual abuse]

[Update: Please note that Jared Wilson has publicly apologized for the initial post and, to a degree, his response. I applaud him for doing so, as public apologies can be very difficult to swallow. I still disagree with his views on human sexuality, and think that there are significant and meaningful dangers involved in the ethos of his initial views (which he does not seem to disavow), but I am happy to see that he understands how his words may have been deeply hurtful to some. I said in the original post below that acknowledging our errors is the mark of an honourable person, and I stand by that statement.]

So there’s a big stink going on out there in the blogosphere, and apparently I care enough about it to revive my poor old blog, at least for a little bit. Recently a Christian minister named Jared Wilson posted on the Gospel Coalition website a blog post related to the recent publishing phenomenon 50 Shades of Grey. Wilson, in his criticism of the novel (which is apparently kind of trashy erotic fiction that explores the world of BDSM), points out that the type of sex that the novel describes is a perversion of a biblical and Christian way of thinking about sex. He then quotes at length from author Douglas Wilson’s Fidelity, which appears to suggest that the natural way for human sexual relationships to be is best described in terms of a man’s authority and a woman’s submission to that authority. The quote proposes, what is more, that the existence of rape in human society is a perversion of this godly norm, and at a societal level is brought on by rebellion against it. Within the extended quote we find this set of phrases, which have (not surprisingly I think) drawn the ire of, well, lots and lots and lots of people (the conversation is huge, and I have read only a small portion of it…starts to get a bit repetitive after awhile). Here’s that portion:

“In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.” – Douglas Wilson, Fidelity, as quoted by Jared Wilson.

As Mr. Wilson, both in the comments section of the original post and in another response post, seems mystified by the reaction to this language, perhaps we should explore for a moment why it is so upsetting to some of his readers. Because linguistics is one of my schtics, that’s the route I’m going to use here.

Let’s try to get at the problem by examining the use of the word “penetrate” in the quote. The issue here, at the risk of being a little too linguistically heady, is one of connotation and transitivity. Let me explain what I mean. The term “penetrate” here is being used, I can only assume, to describe the process by which (if you’ll pardon the odd phrasing and slight crassness) a man’s penis ends up, as it were, inside a woman’s vagina. Now, there are two basic components to how meaning works in language. These are denotation and connotation. I’m oversimplifying a bit here, but denotation is basically that element of meaning that refers to what is happening. It is the bare bones description, I guess you could say. And, speaking denotatively, the term “penetrate” is an acceptable option in English to describe how a penis ends up in a vagina. At a search for “penetrate” gives me results like “to pierce or pass into or through” and “to enter the interior of”, which both work well for our purposes here. In terms of strict denotative meaning, you can’t argue with Wilson (or the Wilson he quotes) that “penetrate” can accurately describe sexual intercourse. Now, here’s the problem.

While “penetrate” is an available, and denotatively accurate way of describing sexual intercourse, it must be said that it is not the only denotatively accurate way of describing, in English, how a penis ends up inside a vagina. There are lots of other ways you could describe this state of affairs, and so it is reasonable to ask whether or not this is a good way of describing it. It seems to me that it is an acceptable way to describe an aspect of sexuality, but it is by no means the only, or necessarily the best, way. Here’s why…and I’m sorry but we’re going to get linguistics-ish again. The verb “penetrate” is a transitive verb. That means that the action being described is transferred from one party (the Actor) to another (usually called the Goal or Recipient). Now, in some cases transitive verbs are flexible in terms of these role assignments. In the clause “Jim threw the ball to Bill”, we are describing an action that Jim took, which affected Bill. But, it’s just as reasonable to say that “Bill threw the ball to Jim.” Either of the parties named can be Actor, and either can be Goal/Recipient. But, and this is the important bit, that interchangeability is not always available. In the clause (and again, pardon my crassness) “Bill penetrated Gloria” it is impossible (barring certain sexual practices that Wilson is speaking in specific opposition to) for the roles to be reversed. Given our constraints “Gloria penetrated Bill” is not grammatical, it doesn’t make sense.

So what? Well, that’s the transitivity bit…here’s the connotation bit. In an instance like this in which only one participant is able to perform the verbal action, it is implied that primary agency lies with that participant. In other words, if “penetrate” is used to describe the sexual act it implies that the man has primary agency in the sexual act. That doesn’t mean the woman has no agency. She has limited agency in that she may refuse or request the act, which certainly gives a degree of agency. But, that agency is limited in that the man may force or refuse the act, respectively. Primary agency, no matter how you cut it, lies with the man if we use the word “penetrate.” In other words, if we think about the sexual act in terms of a power relationship, defining the sexual act as “penetration” implies that the man is in a position of greater power.

Here’s the thing…I think that’s actually what Doug Wilson was trying to say. I think that he thinks that, yes, the man is (and should be) in a position of greater power. The man should have greater agency to which the woman submits. This need not imply rape, as many of his detractors suggest, but it does imply an imbalanced sexual relationship. Also, it’s very important to emphasize that “penetrate” is not the only accurate way to describe what we’re talking about (the penis into the vagina thing…you know, sex and whatnot). What if, for the sake of the argument, we used the term “enclose” instead? Let’s try our sample sentences: “Bill enclosed Gloria into himself” (hmmmm, nope that doesn’t work); “Goria enclosed Bill into herself” (ah! That does work!). Here we’ve shifted primary agency from the man to the woman, and thus shifted the power relationships, all while maintaining the same basic denotative description of the event.

The question at hand, in my opinion, is whether or not this alternative description is preferable or not to “penetrate.” Now, I’m not convinced that one is intrinsically better than the other. Both are a little lopsided in terms of agency I guess. What I think is problematic is suggesting that one description is somehow truer than the other, that agency really does lie with the man (or woman!). To suggest such a thing automatically implies a relationship of domination and submission, which I think is a pretty poor way to think about human sexuality, particularly in Christian terms.

I don’t want to go through this entire exercise with the entirety of the objectionable quotation, but let me just point out a couple of things. First, not only is “penetrate” one sided in terms of transitivity, but so are all of the words Wilson used to describe sex. The conquered cannot conquer, the colonized cannot colonize, and the ground cannot plant. So, this reinforces the imbalanced power relationship implied by “penetrate.” Second, both “conquer” and “colonize” imply the use of force as part of their basic meaning (their semantic field). I’m not saying you can’t use these words without connotations of violence or force, but it is counter-intuitive and even if such a use were made explicit (and Wilson does try to say he doesn’t mean to imply force or violence) it’s difficult to exclude those implications. I mean, name for me please a moment in history in which one nation “conquered” another without the use of force (whether economic, political, or military). Certainly if you didn’t want to imply force or violence you could find much better words, and save yourself a lot of misunderstanding.

If Jared Wilson or Douglas Wilson do, indeed, want to imply that the sexual relationship in a Christian marriage is, and should be, imbalanced, with the man holding more power and the woman less, then the words used in the original quote are relatively consistent with that goal. If they mean to imply otherwise, then I am mystified. I can see no other way of reading the sub-quote I have analyzed, nor the larger quote of which it is a part.

If they do not mean to imply that force and violence are acceptable within a sexual relationship (and I really believe this is the intention of neither man), then it seems to me that an apology is appropriate, as implications of violence and force are so intrinsically connected to the words “colonize” and “conquer”. We must all apologize from time to time for poor phrasing, and it is the mark of an honest and forthright person to do so. But, it is also important to remember that our words often reveal things about our own innermost thoughts and feelings, and a careful and humble examination of those thoughts and feelings is, I think, warranted when language of violence is ever, in any way, connected to human sexuality.

Finally, a tangent. The basic implication of Douglas Wilson’s quote in its extended version, is that at a societal level rape (or at least rape fantasies) exists because properly submissive sexual relationships do not. I am flabbergasted by this claim. Rape (and for that matter, rape fantasies) has existed since the dawn of history, in every place and society, including many societies in which the submission of a woman, in every aspect of life, including the sexual relationship, was the norm. It seems to me that rape, like all kinds of violence, is an intrinsic evil in the human race, and not traceable to some specific moral or social failure on the part of a person or group. To imply otherwise is, I think, both untenable and uncharitable.

Top Five…

One of the joys of being home in Saskatchewan right now is that I get to spend time with my sister Terry and her husband Tim.  Of all of our family we’ve probably seen the least of them since we moved out to Ontario a few years ago, and so it was great to spend some time catching up this past weekend.  Last night was my mother’s retirement party, and while my parents and their friends were upstairs chatting away, Terry, Tim, and I were hanging out in the basement, and drinking very good wine.  The topic of conversation?  Television.

There are a lot of people in the world who are hard on TV, but I’m not one of them.  I love television, and I tend to think that in the past 10 years or so the medium has been used to present art to rival feature length motion pictures.  I also think that television is an excellent and intriguing barometer for a given culture.  Plus it’s lots of fun :).

Anyways, all of this to say that we had a long conversation about great TV shows that culminated in our attempts to pick our All Time, Desert Island, Top Five Television Programs.  Here’s my list, with justifications, and a few honorable mentions.

1.  The Wire.  This is the best television program ever made.  It is powerful, demanding, perfectly executed, and totally engrossing.  Each of its five seasons progresses like a well-crafted novel, with each episode serving as a chapter.  There are no freebies for the viewer here.  If you can’t follow, the producers aren’t going to help you keep up.  The Wire also has some of the best characters I’ve ever seen on the small screen.  McNulty, the darkly flawed homicide detective whom you love, but very often want to punch in the face.  Bubbles, who’s story arc exemplifies redemption as it really is (in this world at least)…difficult, painful, incomplete, and heart-breakingly beautiful.  Marlo, the coldest, cruelest, and perhaps the most starkly real of all The Wire’s cast.  Finally, The Wire deals with many of the themes you find in other programs (drugs, crime, justice/injustice, politics, morality, race, etc), but the difference is, this is probably the only show where these themes are presented as systemic issues.  Crime is related to poverty, which is related to politics, which is related to economics, which is related to race, which is related to justice, which is related to morality, which is related to…and so forth.

2.  The West Wing.  Before watching The Wire, The West Wing would have easily been #1.  Now I see it as a kind of naive idealism to offset The Wire’s stark realism.  The West Wing is about the world as it should be.  It is hopeful, heartwarming, and very funny.  Of course it is also, in a way, entirely false.  Or perhaps “fabricated” is better.  Nobody talks the way the WW characters talk…hell, nobody acts the way they act.  But the world would probably be a better place if they did.

3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Buffy is pure gold.  It’s funny, action packed, cheesy, ridiculous, and (most importantly) entirely self-conscious.  Usually “self-conscious” is something I’d say to disparage a film or TV show, as a way of suggesting that the writers and director were sitting in the room with you while you watched their show, constantly elbowing you in the ribs saying “get it?  get it?  wasn’t that great?”  But that’s not how I feel when I watch Buffy.  When I watch Buffy I feel like Joss Whedon (the creative mind behind the show) is sitting in the room with me, wearing an ironic smirk, and laughing at all the parts I laugh at.  Buffy is also on the list because of the way that it combines unadulterated, b-level, vampire-camp with serious themes and great artistry.  The following episodes are exemplars: Hush, The Body, Once More With Feeling.  Also, it’s funny as hell.

4. Doctor Who.  When I was a kid, round about eight years old, every Saturday night my dad and I would make popcorn with butter and salt, and then sit down and watch Doctor Who on the CBC.  This was re-runs of the old series mind you.  The doctor I knew best was the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, with his long scarf and love for jelly babies.  But dad and I had this ritual for years, so I also knew the fifth and sixth Doctors, and we even got the occasional re-run from the time of the first and second Doctors, which were shot in B&W.  I suppose that I could go on about how foundational Doctor Who is as both a British cultural icon and one of the great forerunners to modern science-fiction.  I could say something about how the late, great Douglas Adams was a writer for the show for a little while.  But I don’t really need to do I?  I used to stay up late on Saturdays, and watch Doctor Who while eating popcorn with my dad out of our red Tupperware bowl.  That’s why it’s on the list.

5. Modern Family.  This was a tough spot, and several of the honorable mentions almost made the cut, but I decided in the end that Modern Family deserves a spot.  Why?  Because it’s funny.  Actually it’s not just funny, it’s funnier.  Think of something funny.  Modern Family is funnier than that.

Honorable mentions: Lost, Rome, Arrested Development, Big Love, Battlestar Gallactica (the new series).

Polar Tension…

Last week was a very good week, especially for my CV.*  First, on Wednesday I heard back from the editors of a collection of essays to which I’ve contributed a paper with the news that they were accepting my 4th revision for publication.  Yay!  Second, on Friday I heard back from a peer-reviewed journal saying that after the review process they are accepting my submission to the journal for publication, with some relatively minor revisions.  Double yay!

As much as this is all very happy and exciting news, the acceptance of these two particular papers in the same week has caused me to reflect on a rather odd tension in my academic work.  The first paper, the one that’s being published in a book of essays, is an analysis of the historiography of the Animal Apocalypse of 1 Enoch (title: “(Re)Visionary History: Historiography and Religious Identity in the Animal Apocalypse“).**  It’s a pretty standard biblical studies paper.  It’s methodologically eclectic, but mostly focuses on literary, historical, and sociological concerns.  The second paper is being published in the Journal of Theological Interpretation and is about the hermeneutics of allegorical interpretation…it’s kind of an apologetic for interpreting according to the spiritual sense, though in a weirdish way.  It’s a really hard paper to describe in a couple of sentences (title: “Scripture as Semiotic: Theological Interpretation and the Multiple Senses of Scripture”).***

These two papers are almost polar opposite in approach and intent, and this is pretty representative of a lot of my academic writing thus far.  I do work that’s focused on literary and sociological (especially sociolinguistic) analyses of ancient literature (especially HB/OT, but also broader 2nd Temple era stuff), and I do work that tries to engage the Bible as Christian Scripture, including questions about canon and theological hermeneutics.  Here’s the thing…I’m not really all that sure how these things fit together.  I have a deep suspicion that they do.  I think about it mostly in terms of different levels of abstraction.  But, I also know that at least some (maybe lots? or even most?) of the biblical studies guild sees these as two opposed and incompatible kinds of work.  Some people argue that biblical studies is meant to be a secular endeavor focused on history, literature, and sociology (and related concerns), and other people argue that biblical studies is meant to be a theological activity performed for the community of faith.  These get presented as polar opposites.  Maybe they are polar opposites.

If they are polar opposites then I think I’m going to have to get used to the tension between these two poles, because I’m not really willing to stop doing either kind of writing.

*The CV thing is important because I’m in the process of applying to a couple of biblical studies positions, so getting to add two lines to the “Accepted for Publication” line is happy news.

**The book began as last year’s Canadian Society of Biblical Studies session on ancient Israelite historiography.  The final product will include the essays from the session, and several invited papers.  The title is Prophets and Prophecy in Ancient Israelite Historiography.  Should be out in the next year, and I think will be well worth a look.

**Ironically both the collection of essays and the journal are published by a single publishing house: Eisenbrauns.  Maybe I’m not the only one feeling the tension here.

Need a Little Help from the Linguistics Nerds…

Okay all of you Hebrew linguistics nerds out there, I need a little help.  I’m putting together my reading lists for my comprehensive exams, and one of them will be on modern linguistics and biblical Hebrew.  So hit me, your best monograph recommendations, either with regard to general linguistic theory, or to the application of modern linguistic theories to biblical Hebrew especially.  I have a lot of ideas already (more than I probably need), but I thought somebody out there might be able to point me in the direction of something I would never have come across otherwise.  Thanks in advance.

The Nonsense of Taylorization…

The year after I graduated from high school I worked as a laborer at a company called Nu-Fab.  Nu-Fab builds pre-fabricated housing products, including things like pre-made walls, laminated beams, gable ends and gable ladders, and (most of all) roof trusses.  I spent almost all of my time at Nu-Fab building roof trusses.  It was not a good job.  I still get a Pavlovian shiver down my spine whenever I’m home in Saskatoon and happen to drive by that building on 45th St.West.  I worked there for a little under a year, building roof trusses day in and day out.

A few years later I was working at a small church in rural Manitoba, and we were planning a trip down to an orphanage in Mexico.  We were going for about a week, and we would be spending a significant portion of that time building two new houses for the people there.  While I was talking to my senior pastor it came out that I used to work at a place that built pre-fabricated houses, and that I spent almost a year building roof trusses.  He asked me if I would be able to help out designing or building the roof system for the houses we were going to be building.  The answer, as anybody who has ever worked on a factory floor could guess, was “no.”  I could swing a hammer, I could run the pneumatic press, and I could read the set of directions provided by the drafters and engineers.  Given a bunch of wood and a saw I was lost.

I’ve recently started reading an awful lot of Roland Boer’s work, and tonight I began reading his Political Grace.  In the Introduction he discusses the question of what he refers to as “Taylorization,” which is basically the assembly-line process for manufacturing that Henry Ford perfected and popularized (Boer xviii).  Boer challenges the notion that stark lines can be drawn between things like theology and economics and philosophy and whatnot, as well as the idea that one or another of these can be used to explain all of the rest (economics as an explanation for religion, or religion as an explanation for politics, etc).  With regard to Calvin he writes, “[my] study of Calvin leads me to suggest that we need to drop this harmful approach and realize that such a Taylorization is a fiction” (xviii).

He is, of course, utterly correct.  We do not need more line laborers in the great factory of academia.  We don’t need more thinkers with skills and mindsets analagous to my truss-building expertise.  We need something else.  We need synthetic, integrative thinkers.  We need people who’s thinking is more analagous to my father’s truss-building skills.  You see, my dad is a carpenter of the first order.  When he wanted to build an extension onto the back of his garage so that he’d have a dedicated workshop, he didn’t go to Nu-Fab to buy pre-fabricated trusses.  Instead he taught himself to use AutoCAD, then taught himself to design some simple 5/12 pitch trusses, then he built from scratch the jigs and set-ups required, and then he made his own trusses.  And you know what?  They were better than the trusses I made.

My dad is a synthetic builder.  I want to be a synthetic thinker and writer.  So screw Taylorization…let’s start exploring how our thoughts about God and reality and government and social relationships and capital and everything else overlap and inform each other, and then move on from there.