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A Review of The Hobbit (The book, not the movie)

Reviewing literature can be a daunting task—the interplay of author, characters, plot, motifs, and my own thoughts is a complex thing. And when the book under review is The Hobbit, a work both popular and well-studied, the tension is ratcheted up.

Nevertheless, in what follows, I give a brief overview of J. R. R. Tolkien’s first published entry into Middle-Earth and Bilbo Baggins—in case you’ve only just begun to read in anticipation of the cinematic experience later this week or have never ventured into a land flowing with hobbits and dragons. What you’ll encounter is not only the bare plotline of strange whimsy, but the conjunction of this present age and an age long past: the old and the new collide in the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins.

While many have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, a slightly different fantasy appears in The Hobbit. Written with an eye to children, it presents a tale of Bilbo, hobbit ordinaire. Pressed into service with a band of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf, Bilbo embarks on a quest for lost treasure whose twists and turns have enthralled for decades.

I could go on about Smaug the dragon, Beorn, trolls, and wood-elves, but I trust that you will read or see them soon enough. Instead, I’d like to talk about a couple of subtle elements that lurk beneath and behind the scenes of Tolkien’s Hobbit.

First is the element of history. The world of The Hobbit, this Middle-Earth, is not quite the filled-out world with lurid and detailed maps that it will become when Frodo Baggins appears on the scene. Bilbo’s home is called “The Hill”, not Hobbiton; there is a noticeable lack of any description of Gondor or Mordor; the great evil Sauron is merely the “Necromancer”. Tolkien, in other words, is writing here for children, not adults—the rush and flood of names would bog down most young readers.

Despite this comparative lack of detail, there is still the inescapable sense that the history and world of The Hobbit is not simply window-dressing, not merely an artificial stage concocted for a one-off story. Middle-Earth pulses with history—the aura of the ancient is palpable. Tolkien’s world is not like so much of the fantasy literature you and I see nowadays—filled with names compiled by pushing consonants through a random-number generator—it has coherence and substance outside of The Hobbit. The world Bilbo inhabits, so we gather as we read, can exist without him: indeed, Middle-Earth is different from him. He (as the English are wont to do) may enjoy tea-time, butchers, and an efficient post office. Elves, dwarves, and dragons know little of such things.

So just like us readers, Bilbo begins the tale as a modern hobbit living in an ancient world—the second element. He hears noises that sound like the rumble of steam engines—an anachronistic touch in fantasy, but perfectly normal in 20th century England. Whereas the Harry Potter series (for instance) solves the ancient-modern conundrum by positioning its wizarding world upon 21st century “Muggle” England, Tolkien takes a different tack. He places modern tastes, values, and phrases in the character of Bilbo, forcing an interaction and clash between the ‘old world’ of Middle-Earth and the new world of industry and individuality.

Yet as the story advances, the aura and enchantments of Middle-Earth begin to worm and work their ways into Bilbo’s modern soul. By the time he encounters the “small slimy creature Gollum”, Bilbo’s perception has changed:

“…his hand came upon the hilt of his little sword…somehow he was comforted. It was rather splendid to be wearing a blade made in Gondolin for the goblin-wars of which so many songs had sung…”

The young hobbit, originally pictured as a middle-class English type—a love of clocks, precision, and technology uppermost in his mind—is thus slowly transformed into a man with one (hairy) foot in both worlds. Look at, for instance, the “bravest thing” Bilbo does: it is not the clash of weapons or the fire of dragons he must ultimately conquer, but himself. The real battle, according to Tolkien, is braving the warren of dark tunnels close to the snoring dragon Smaug. This internal conflict between bravery and fear is not prominent in ancient literature, but pervades modern, angst-driven literature. Bilbo does not lose his modernity, he rather adds to it the positive qualities of Middle-Earth. Chief among these old-world characteristics are dignity in the face of crisis and loyalty to one’s friends (as seen through the interactions of the dwarves with each other).

Whether this theme of ancient pasture transmuting modern piston is a thinly veiled attempt to critique mid-20th century modernity is not my concern: Bilbo bridges the gap between the age of today and the age of yesterday, yet the seeming contradictions of old and new are not fully resolved in Bilbo’s life.

For you and me, though, does The Hobbit offer a similar experience? Can we read it and be shaped by its world or values, or is this fantasy literature merely a decent bedtime story for children? In a word, yes—Tolkien’s fictional and fantastical elements, though marketed widely today, should not obscure the richness of his characters nor the interplay between the two ages of Middle-Earth and our Earth. The emotional depth present in the short-temper of Gandalf or the animalistic ferocity of Beorn are not for children only, but are reminiscent of the unique peccadillos of your friends, neighbors, and even your very self. Seeing these emotions and these dual ages writ fantastic on the pages of The Hobbit should whet your appetite—not just for the movie or for more Tolkien, but for a quest which, ultimately, resolves.


John Stovall is a M. Div candidate (2013) at Westminster Seminary California and a licentiate in the Presbyterian Church in America.

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Review of A Hole in Our Holiness

The following is by Rev. Andrew Compton, associate pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, CA. Rev. Compton is one of the bloggers at The Reformed Reader


I recently read Kevin DeYoung’s latest book, The Hole in our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness. I had two reasons for doing so. First, I like DeYoung’s writing. His is a popular writing style that embodies a winsome presentation of the Reformed tradition. Second, I have been reading and studying piety and the pursuit of godliness for the past year or so. In addition to various Puritan works and books by Jerry Bridges, DeYoung’s book was a logical addition to my growing shelf of books focusing on Christian piety.

In general, I really enjoyed this book. I share DeYoung’s belief that the gospel as described in the Reformed confessions not only supports training oneself for godliness (1 Tim 4:7) and growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Pet 3:18), it is the only gospel that can lead people to a true and noble pursuit of godliness. Apart from the careful distinction between justification and sanctification, a firm affirmation of the imputation of Christ righteousness, and a confident embracing of sola fide, any so-called pursuit of godliness will be only a pursuit of civil decency (at best) or a pursuit of salvation-by-works (at worst).

DeYoung seems on track in noticing that there is a younger generation of Christians who have been liberated from the shackles of legalism and isolationism when they encounter the Reformation’s recovery of the biblical gospel. They find freedom in the Reformation’s bold assertion that vocation and cultural engagement (e.g., the arts, music, sport, etc.) are things that bring great glory to God. And yet they wind up pursuing any and all cultural endeavors with little to no critical reflection about whether the “lawfulness” of their actions overrides their “helpfulness” (1 Cor 10:23). This new-found liberty slips from its moorings in Christian gratitude and becomes a perceived liberty to neglect worship, prayer, sexual purity, humility and the like.

Positives

In a book that could easily become an overly prescriptive list of do’s and don’ts, DeYoung is modest and careful with what the pursuit of godliness will look like. He reminds us that God is a loving father to his children, delighting in even our most crude and remedial steps of godliness. He draws a nice parallel between the love a father has for the homemade birthday card his daughter makes, and the love our heavenly father has for our far-from-perfect good works (pg. 70). He notes that there are numerous “cheap imitations” of godliness (e.g., rule keeping and generational imitation; pgs. 33-38) which do not begin to plumb the beauty and delights of true godliness.

DeYoung does an exceptional job of expounding the difference between our union with Christ and our communion with him. He shows that our union with him, whereby we receive all the blessings of salvation, is infallible and unbreakable (pgs. 73-74). Our communion or fellowship with him, however, can ebb and flow, sometimes due to misplaced priorities, other times due to outright sinful behavior which is not befitting of God’s children and brings about his fatherly frown (cf. Heb 12:7-11). This distinction provides the categories for Christians to cultivate a closeness with God without seeing their works as gaining or sustaining their right standing before him. His “four practices for oneness with Christ” (pgs. 128-133) avoids the individualism that the spiritual disciplines usually breed and focus on several very corporate activities: prayer, reading/hearing the word, the fellowship of believers, and the Lord’s Supper.

Finally, DeYoung drives a stake in the heart of holiness and perfectionist movements, reminding believers that their growth in the grace of Christ happens over the long haul. He explains, “when it comes to sanctification, it’s more important where you’re going than where you are. Direction matters more than position…. So cheer up: if you aren’t as holy as you want to be now, God may still be pleased with you because you are heading in the right direction” (pg. 138).

Once the book got rolling, it steamed along delightfully. Chapters 5-10 were wonderful. They were pastoral, sensitive and encouraging, even as they exhorted Christians to strive against the world, the flesh, and the Devil in their pursuit of godliness. Their concrete suggestions for the exercise of godliness were reasoned and biblical. And what was most refreshing was the reminder that God intends the pursuit of godliness to be a joyful goal of our Christian life, not
a chore for us to slog through grudgingly. God has not only saved us from something, he has saved us to something and he is in the business of conforming us to the likeness of our glorious savior Jesus Christ even now!

Negatives

Though as a whole I recommend this book, I am not wholly pleased with how DeYoung navigated these shoals. The ship did not run aground, but it did scrape bottom on a couple of occasions.

The first four chapters did not strike me as being as careful and nuanced as they ought to have been for a topic as easily misunderstood as this. Though my copy does have marginal notes reading “yes,” “n.b.,” and “nice!” in these chapters, I found myself writing “hmmm,” “yes & no,” and “needs nuance” more often than I would have liked.

While I do not believe that DeYoung is a biblicist (one who uses explicit language of scripture even though such language can be misunderstood apart from careful distinctions ) the way he articulates several points in chapters 1-4 sound biblicistic. In chapter 2, for example, DeYoung emphasizes that good works are “necessary” for salvation. He does not, however, parse out the different kinds of “necessity” that exist and the different ways in which we can speak of good works as being “necessary” for salvation. (E.g., our good works are a necessary fruit of our salvation, but not necessary as the ground for our salvation.) While he is careful to note that the “necessity” of personal holiness should not undermine our confidence in our justification (pg. 28), he still plays a bit fast and loose with expressions that have a long history of misunderstanding.

A few other topics have a biblicistic ring to them. When DeYoung says that “holiness is a possibility for God’s people” (pg. 65), he relies on the bare biblical assertion that Zechariah, Elizabeth and Job could be called this even though we know they weren’t sinless. And yet scholars in the past have written carefully of these three figures, noting in what sense they can be called “holy.” (Francis Turretin notes four kinds of “perfection” that are predicated of Zechariah, Elizabeth and Job. See his Institutes of Elenctic Theology 17.II.IV.)

Likewise, chapter 4, “The Impetus for the Imperatives” does not, in my opinion, tread carefully enough when using expressions like “there is grace in getting law” (pg. 53). Again, older theologians often used grace both to mean “unmerited favor” and “demerited favor,” but they were careful in doing so not to confuse the “grace” that God shows when giving good things to unfallen man (better described as benevolence) and the grace that God shows to fallen man when he gives them the opposite of what they have merited. And though DeYoung is right that as Christians, we begin to view God’s law as a precious gift to his children, calling the law “gracious” begins to muddy the categorical waters.

Conclusion

In spite of these criticisms, after reading The Hole in our Holiness, I was quite pleased with the book. I believe that DeYoung has written a fine book on the topic of the Christian pursuit of Godliness, though I don’t think that he has written the final word. To be fair, I’m pretty sure he didn’t intend to. And though I would recommend it to people interested in studying the topic, I’d be quicker to recommend Jerry Bridges’ books Growing Your Faith and Respectable Sins for a popular and gospel-centered approach to godliness and piety.

Lest this review sound too tepid, let me conclude by expressing my gratitude to Kevin DeYoung for his efforts on behalf of an oft neglected topic. He’s absolutely right; in many circles, holiness is the new camping: “It’s fine for other people. You sort of respect those who make their lives harder than they have to be. But it’s not really your thing” (pg. 10). What is sad is that a good many Christians enjoy the benefits of their union with Christ, all the while bearing the misery and discomfort of a sickly communion with him. They neglect to strive against besetting sin. They are inconsistent in availing themselves of the means of the grace. They wallow in their desires or frustrations, all the while missing out on the glorious gift of comfort and contentment that God is holding out to them in Christ.

In The Hole in our Holiness, DeYoung reminds us that justification and sanctifications are not two extremes in need of balance, but two equally wonderful truths – two equally exciting parts of our salvation. He is in good company. The Apostle Paul certainly seemed to think this too: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that on one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:8-10).

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Horton Reviews Kingdom Through Covenant

Dr. Horton was asked to review the new book by Gentry and Stephen Wellum titled Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Crossway, 2012) over at The Gospel Coalition. Here is an excerpt of the review:

However, their argument assumes that the mere presence of commands indicates a mixture of unconditional-conditional aspects in the basis of the covenant itself. At this point, Reformed theology has traditionally appealed to a distinction between basis and administration. The mere presence of commands says nothing about the basis of a covenant itself. Circumcision (like baptism) identifies the members of the covenant, so if one is not circumcised, he is “cut off.” Nevertheless, one is not justified because he is circumcised, as Paul indicates in Romans 4:11. That would turn conditions into the basis rather than the administration of the covenant. Commands function in a law-covenant as the basis for blessing or curse: the swearer’s perfect, personal, perpetual obedience is the ground, ratified by a public assumption of the covenant obligations on one’s own head. In the covenant of grace, however, commands function as the “reasonable service” that we offer “in view of God’s mercies.”

Click here to read the rest of the review

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Review of Simonetta Car’s Weight of a Flame

Olympia Morata (1526-1555) was without doubt a woman full of potential, even from her earliest years. As a brilliant young scholar with a passion for knowledge and an immense capacity to learn, she held the opportunity for an illustrious career in the palms of her hands. However, Olympia’s legacy lay not in her contributions to any field of academic study, nor in the power and fame she easily could have attained through her work. Rather, she lived, worked, and endured persecution for a goal that she considered to be far greater than any recognition of men—her faith in her savior. Simonetta Carr’s novel Weight of a Flame: The Passion of Olympia Morata recounts the story of this godly woman and her growth from a young girl brimming with an eagerness for knowledge to a mature adult striving for the sake of the gospel. As part of the Chosen Daughters series, this novel is intended for an audience primarily comprised of young girls, but Olympia’s riveting story and inspiring example is beneficial for any Christian to read.

The novel begins with Olympia’s early teenage years just before she leaves her home to work as a tutor in the court of the Duke of Ferrara. While employed there, Olympia is exposed to a wealth of learning and opportunities, and at this time her highest goal is to attain academic excellence and recognition. The plight of the Protestant faith, both in her native Italy and throughout Europe, is well known to Olympia, as her family and members of the court constantly fear for their safety due to their beliefs. However, the young teenager doesn’t place great importance on the issue at first. She questions her faith and is full of doubts, but she doesn’t seek advice or help with her struggles because her academic pursuits are her first priority.

At this point, Carr masterfully communicates the transition in Olympia’s character that grants this novel its power. After serving the court for many years and growing in academic knowledge, Olympia suffers two losses: the death of her father and the end of her position in the court. The first tragedy brings her faith to the forefront of her mind, as her devout father was always an inspiration to Olympia. However, it is the second event that causes a turning point in the young woman’s life. Without a position in the powerful court and a budding reputation as a brilliant scholar, Olympia is stripped of the earthly power that made her feel secure in the world. She is forced to realize that truly, the accomplishments of men are merely temporal and can be snatched away in a second. It is here that Olympia finally relinquishes her pride, her abilities, and her service, taking them away from focusing on worldly pursuits and instead dedicating her life to the glory of God.

After this turning point, Olympia’s example is even more inspiring. She continues to write and work diligently over academic activities, but now her first priority is using her talents for the benefit of the faith she confesses. The rich history of this time period is explored as Olympia and her husband, Andreas Grunthler, endure persecution, war, and sickness in their struggle to survive the harsh anti-Protestant climate that engulfed most of Europe. Sadly, Olympia died from the lingering results of a fever acquired during wartime; she was not quite twenty-nine at the time of her death.

At first, it may sadden the reader to realize that, due to Olympia’s brief life, she was never able to impact the world around her to a greater extent through her prodigious learning and academic abilities. However, thanks to Carr’s beautiful portrayal of Olympia’s spiritual dedication and maturity, the reader is reminded that Olympia’s true legacy is far greater than any written work or course of study. Her brief but shining example of godliness and devotion to her faith is more inspiring than all the temporal achievements and accolades of a long and prolific life. Carr’s novel is intended to share Olympia’s story with young girls, but the lessons contained in this tale are ones that would benefit a Christian of any age. Olympia Morata is a powerful example of the importance of dedicating one’s ambitions, talents, and life to God, and striving not for glory here on earth, but desiring ultimately “to live in that heavenly home in which it is more pleasant to dwell for one short day than it is to spend a thousand years in the courts of princes” (141).


Madeline Taylor is a member of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA.

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The Parent as Youth Pastor

“Doing youth ministry without parents is like driving a car without the engine.”
– Mark Devries[1]

It’s no secret anymore, youth ministry is in a state of crisis. Polls of recent years report over and over the dire percentages of youth who leave the church after high school. Whatever the exact percentage actually is, what seems clear enough is that more young people are choosing to leave the church than choosing to stay. [2] The million dollar question is, of course, “Why is this happening?” And while there are certainly multiple factors involved in this mass exodus, I believe that a primary contributing factor is the loss of emphasis on the central role of the parent in the spiritual nurture of their children. Much of the youth ministry done in recent decades seems to have forgotten that parents are commanded to be, and by God’s design will necessarily be, the primary youth pastors for their children—for better or for worse. And when the central role of the parents is neglected, a major deviation from God’s design for youth ministry has taken place that can only be harmful for youth in the long term.

In order to start righting the ship, churches must first of all re-embrace the responsibility given to parents by God to be the front line “youth pastor” for their children. In the Old Testament, the priests had the general responsibility to teach all of the people the Word of God, but parents were given a special responsibility to teach their children. Moses commanded the people of Israel “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:6-9). The same principal is in the New Testament. Pastors have the general responsibility to preach and teach God’s word to God’s people (including the youth), but the only command regarding the training and discipling of children is given directly to parents: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). This does not necessarily mean that there is no place for a church to have a “youth ministry” apart from parents, but it does mean that youth ministry must be built on this central foundation. Proverbs 22:6 states “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This proverb is not a universal promise that every child who is trained by his parents will grow up to be a Christian, but it is a general principal that God has given for us to live by. Generally speaking, God uses the means of Godly parents who prayerfully and diligently seek to raise their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” to convert them. God has designed the home, not the youth group, to be the spiritual nursery where the Christian faith is taught and modeled to children from their earliest years.

Secondarily, parents and churches must embrace a more sober estimation of what youth ministry actually accomplishes. Part of what has created the current crisis in youth ministry is that churches have assumed that the youth pastor and youth programs are more important than they really are. Again, this is not to say that there is no place for a youth pastor, youth group, or youth programs. When these things are Biblically grounded they can be a real blessing to youth. The reality is, however, that in most cases the overall influence of a youth pastor and youth group on a child will be insignificant when compared to that of the parents. “It’s time for a reality check,” says Mark Devries, “Youth ministries, in and of themselves, have limited power to produce lasting change in young people’s lives.” [3] As case in point, let me use myself as an example. As a youth pastor, one of my priorities is to spend as much time as I can with the youth. On a good week, a week that I am able to see a specific youth in several different venues, I may be able to spend 6-8 hours with him or her, although most of that time is in a group setting. On other weeks, the only personal interaction I may have with them is at Church on Sunday morning and a text or facebook message during the week. I pray that God will bless the time that I have with them, but I know that it is not enough.

Parents, by contrast, spend every day with their children. For 18 years they live life with them: waking, eating, sleeping, praying, playing, laughing, crying, arguing, and the list goes on. As a result, parents know their children like no other adult will ever know them, and they will have more influence on them for spiritual good or ill than any other adult ever can. Thomas Manton, writing in the 17th century, called on the “Heads of Families” to recognize this special influence:

How much the serious endeavors of godly parents and masters might contribute to an early seasoning the tender years of such as are under their inspection, is abundantly evident, not only from their special influence upon them, in respect of their authority over them, interest in them, continual presence with them, and frequent opportunities of being helpful to them; but also from the sad effects which, by woeful experience, we find to be the fruit of the omission of this duty.” [4]

If a child has a negligent youth pastor, Godly parents will easily counter his influence. But if a child has negligent parents, very rarely will a youth pastor be able to overturn the “sad effects” of which Manton speaks. Jonathan Edwards put it boldly: “…Family education and order are some of the chief means of grace. If these fail, all other means are likely to prove ineffectual. If these are duly maintained, all other means of grace will be likely to prosper and be successful.” [5]

Thus, if we are going to stem the tide of youth leaving the church, I believe a key component is a fresh awareness of the centrality of the parents for youth ministry. Parents are the church’s primary youth pastors, and a central place in youth ministry today must be given to helping parents embrace that privilege and responsibility, and equipping them to do it. Youth ministry has a valid and important supporting role to the parents, but it must never become a substitute. Our youth are too important to allow that to happen.


Scott Korljan is an assistant pastor at North City Presbyterian Church in Poway, CA.


1. Mark Devries, Family Based Youth Ministry, (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1994), 85.[Back]

2. www.christianitytoday.com/le/2009/summer/istheeraofagesegmentationover.html?start=1 This is not an isolated report, the Southern Baptist convention in a 2002 Report on Family Life reported that 88% of children in evangelical homes leave church at the age of eighteen. [Back]

3. Devries, Family Based Youth Ministry, 78. [Back]

4. Document online at www.reformed.org/documents/index.html. [Back]

5. As quoted in Devries, Family Based Youth Ministry, 85. [Back]

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Give Me Grace: review and response

Brittany Norris asks a few questions of Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson’s Give them Grace in her review, “Give Me Grace.” In the spirit of conversational theology, we asked Fitzpatrick and Thompson to write a response, which you can find below.

Give Me Grace

We are not nor can we be the saviors of our children. He is the Savior. When we forget this, our parenting will be pockmarked by fear, severity, and exhaustion. (Give them Grace, p.55)

Does this parenting “style” sound familiar to anyone else but me? Like many mothers, I am prone to think too much of my abilities and too little of God’s. Even when I have a dreadful day with the children, I still wake up the next morning thinking that if I just try harder, I can get my children to act more sanctified. Enter Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson’s Give them Grace, a helpful antidote against the poisonous legalistic bent in parenting.

As this mother-and-daughter-team see it, Christian parents too often make the goal of their parenting Judeo-Christian moral training, which any Mormon or Jewish parent could accomplish as well as we can. What makes parenting truly Christian, the authors suggest, is steeping our training in the message of our children’s inability to keep the law, and their need for a relationship with the Obedient Son who kept the law in their place. Though we know that our own salvation is accomplished this way, somehow we get gospel-amnesia when it comes to raising our kids. After all, “[i]n the same way that iron filings follow a magnet, our hearts chase after rules—not because we ever really obey them but because we think they make life manageable” (p. 81). According to Fitzpatrick and Thompson, our children are often “taught that God wants them to be good, that poor Jesus is sad when they disobey, and that asking Jesus into their heart is the breadth and depth of the gospel message”  (p.18). In this way, Jesus simply becomes the extra boost the kids need to be good enough. But when we teach them obedience while neglecting their need for the righteousness of Christ to cover their (constant!) disobedience, we give them a false confidence in their flesh—a sure path to Hell. Nevertheless, the authors encourage us to teach our children the Law—over and over—not because they can obey, but to help them see that they can’t.

One of the most powerful sections of Give Them Grace is their discussion of the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son (or, as Fitzpatrick calls it, the Story of the Welcoming Father). As the authors demonstrate from the parable, both sons sin, and the Father welcomes both into the abundance of his grace. Yet many of us tend to focus our disciplinary efforts on the “prodigal” child or behavior and overlook the pharisaical, “older brother” ones (read: outward compliance and self-righteousness). The older brother, with his indignant reaction to the younger brother’s restoration, is just as guilty of wandering away from his Father’s love as was the Prodigal. I need this reminder when I encounter both the Prodigal and the Pharisee in my own home (and in myself). It is often tempting to squelch the licentious eruptions from my children because they are showily disobedient. Meanwhile, I may notice the whiney legalism that surfaces (“She took an extra turn, Mom!”), but I mistakenly think that the self-righteous lack of mercy is not equally worth correcting. Fitzpatrick and Thompson rightly point out that the Heavenly Father welcomes both Prodigals and Pharisees with open arms, and suggest that even little pharisees should be lovingly shown their sin as we point them to the true, merciful Law-Keeper.

Also helpful is that co-author Jessica Thompson is herself in the process of raising children according to the gospel principles outlined in the book. With four young children of my own, I need both to steep myself in the theological underpinnings of Christian parenting and to see real-world examples of these same principles in action. In the immediacy of a teachable moment—with spaghetti boiling over on the stove and the baby crying—I may not remember the finer points of Jesus’ passive and active righteousness on my shouting three-year-old’s behalf. I may, however just manage to remember a similar moment that Thompson shared from her own life and be able to apply the Gospel Story to my child’s sinful behavior in like manner. Or not. And when I fail, then I can lead my daughter to the foot of the cross where we can both seek forgiveness: her, for her rebellious tantrum, and me, for my angry knee-jerk reaction.

Nevertheless, my main criticism of the book is one that other Reformed reviewers have noted: Fitzpatrick and Thompson have a decidedly non-covenantal view of the regenerate state of children. Because none of us know whether our children have yet experienced God’s redeeming grace, the authors encourage us to treat our children as unbelievers unless the child has formally announced his own salvation. An otherwise helpful appendix in the back of the book which suggests gospel-based responses to children needing discipline for common offenses (lying, blame shifting, disobeying, etc.) offers different presentations for Christian and non-Christian children. With Fitzpatrick coming from a Reformed Baptist background, this viewpoint is not surprising. And, as they do throughout the book, the authors are right to point out the dangers of breeding hypocrisy in our children, whether through coerced apologies or presumed regeneration. The real pitfall of hypocrisy, however, is not merely in pretending to be something we’re not. Hypocrisy is deadliest when the hypocrite actually thinks the outward show is good enough. We unintentionally teach our children that their sinner’s prayer/formal profession of faith/declaration of Christian identity itself (forms of outward conformity) is enough to please God, since it is apparently enough to please us…else we continue to treat them as little heathens. It would surely be a recalcitrant child who refused to pray the Prayer for Salvation by the age of four or five in such an environment. So making a strong distinction—as the appendix charts do—between how you present the gospel to your children based on some singular point of decision may actually drive them to believe that their faith must reach a certain minimum of sincerity in order to earn righteous standing. To a lesser extent, this may be an inadvertent danger in the authors’ insistence on waiting until the child initiates an apology before forgiveness is articulated. Am I sorry enough? Yes, I think I am. The unspoken message is that the purity of Johnny’s repentance—or faith, when considering his own regenerate state—is the basis for his forgiveness. And here we are, coming in the back door of works-righteousness. For, of course, none of us—children included—are capable of pure repentance or faith. Our most lofty spiritual impulses are always co-mingled with sin. The only standard for “sorry enough,” or “believing enough,” is perfection, and none of us can manage that, which is why we need Christ’s perfection credited to us. Certainly, paedobaptists have their own pitfalls; presumption comes to mind. But it seems better to treat your children like members of the visible Church that they are, while daily lavishing them with their need for the same Gospel that unbelievers need. As the parable has it, wheat and tares really do grow together, and can only be distinguished in the Final Harvest.

Brittany Norris (MA, University of Colorado) lives in San Diego, where she’s the wife of a ruling elder and the homeschooling mother of four energetic and effervescent children.

 

Response to “Give Me Grace” and Brittany Norris
Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson

First of all, we’d like to thank Modern Reformation for this opportunity to respond to the generally insightful and gracious critique by Brittany Norris of our book, Give them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus.

We appreciate the fact that Norris would take the time to read and respond to our book even though she knew going into it that we had significant differences on covenantal theology.  Generally speaking, when people know upfront that there will be as significance a difference of opinion on something as integral to their belief systems as covenant theology is for many, they dismiss the book out-of-hand. We’re very thankful that Norris took the time to read the book and demonstrate godly maturity in being able to cull out segments that she found helpful.  In other words, she refrained from throwing out the baby with the bathwater and with a book on childrearing, that’s a good idea.

We obviously agree that many Christian parents fall into the trap of moralism or as Christian Smith identified, “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” This, coupled with a pervasive insufficiency in communicating the gospel, was our primary goal in writing the book. We are gratified that Norris rightly identified and deduced our objectives.

Now to the areas of disagreement (remembering that this is disagreement between sisters for whom Christ died): We agree that we have a “decidedly non-covenantal view of the regenerate state of children.” Rather than using our response now to try to convince any of our readers of the correctness of our position (as if that would be possible), we will simply clarify the areas where we think Norris has misunderstood or misrepresented what we’ve written in Give them Grace.

To begin with, Norris references our Appendix 2, “Common Problems and the Gospel.” In her remarks she misconstrues our position on regenerate and unregenerate children. She states that we

unintentionally teach our children that their sinner’s prayer/formal profession of faith/declaration of Christian identity itself (forms of outward conformity) is enough to please God since it is apparently enough to please us…else we continue to treat them as little heathens.

This statement grieves us. If our writing was so ambiguous at this point that a parent could think that we would propagate this kind of works righteousness, we are indeed sorry. We do not think this. In fact, the heartbeat of our message is that mere outward conformity to a religious practice such as saying the “sinner’s prayer” would never merit the pleasure of God. It is simply impossible for us to overemphasize how strongly we oppose that statement. Throughout the book we say over and over again, that both parents and children must be hidden in the righteous of Christ alone and never put any trust in any outward conformity at all. Children and parents (both covenantal and non-covenantal) must trust in Christ who makes believing children and their parents righteous by faith alone.

Perhaps Norris is foisting her own presupposition of what non-covenantal people believe (and they may!) onto what we have said. If we were unclear on this point, we would simply ask for a charitable reading of what we’ve said rather than an assumption of what “reformed Baptists” believe. On numerous occasions, we say that the promises are for those who believe—no matter how they may conform to outward religious practices (or not). We assume that the promises being for those who have been given faith by Christ’s grace alone is an area of disagreement among covenantal and non-covenantal people but we never propose to judge the state of any person’s salvation no matter what they have prayed or how “good” they seem to be.

In our own home, we present the Bible’s promises for both believing and unbelieving children to our children, continually assuring our kids that if they have believed (no matter what they’ve said to us) all of God’s good gifts are already theirs. We are very well aware of the fact that they may outwardly conform to our religious practices out of a desire to please us and not out of real faith. When they exhibit what we identified as “religious obedience”(Luther’s category) in the book, we continually tell them that their obedience is not meritorious and that the Lord sees the heart but delights in their simple faith in his promise to declare that they are righteous no matter what. The issue for us is not declaration of faith but rather real faith – something only the Lord can judge.

In sum, we agree that wheat and tares do grow together and that no one aside from our Sovereign God knows those who are really his. We are continually striving to teach and believe that “salvation is of the Lord” alone and to treat each of  our dear children as fellow-sinners as in need of the grace and faith and righteousness as we are.

It is our sincere desire that this response may have cleared up any misconceptions about our book. In any case, we are thankful for this opportunity and pray that the Lord will continue to illumine all of our hearts to the glories of his grace. Again, we’re thankful that Norris took the time to interact with our book and we pray that this brief response will be helpful.

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Half the Truth in ‘Halfway Herbert’

I love children’s books – I never would’ve made it through Moby Dick without the Great Illustrated Classics version.  They’ve proved invaluable when teaching my ESL students, too – Ivanhoe becomes a lot more palatable to new English readers once you’ve removed the polysyllabic words and anti-Semitism, and I’m convinced that even the most apathetic reader will pick up The Count of Monte Cristo if they’re sure they’ll be able to finish it in an hour (which they certainly will, considering that the five sub-plots are condensed into one).

This is the genius of children’s literature – taking wonderful stories and new ideas and making them comprehensible (and hopefully, attractive) to young minds.  Hence the proliferation of children’s Bibles and the VeggieTales series – we take the admonition to train our children up in the way they should go seriously, and we’ll use any and all means to those ends.  It behooves us, then, to be very careful about understanding exactly to which ends we’re orienting them.

In the afterword to his new book, Halfway Herbert, Francis Chan writes that he hopes parents will be able to use the story to “teach them [their children] the commitment to which Christ has called us,” and to exhort them to “raise a generation of children who understand what it means to truly follow Jesus.”  It’s a praiseworthy goal, and one which parents ought to take seriously.

The story is about a little boy named Herbert Hallweg with a viciously short attention-span that leaves him incapable of finishing any task, from hair and teeth-brushing to homework completion and soccer practice.  Eventually, his lackadaisical attitude creeps into his half-developed moral faculties and half-pushes him into the realm of sin, and one day (in true Pharisee-fashion) to tell a half-truth to his father.  The fully-brushed and meal-finishing Mr. Hallweg calls him out on it, admonishing his son that, “living [his] life halfway isn’t okay,” following up with the edifying maxims: “Jesus doesn’t want us to love Him halfway,” and “God doesn’t want us to live out of just half our hearts.”

Herbert may not be our go-to guy on personal hygiene or commitment-keeping, but his theology (as far as personal guilt is concerned) is spot-on.  “But I’ve never been able to do things all the way,” he cries.

Mr. Hallweg responds with a sort of prologue to a sinner’s prayer for help.  “God knows that none of us can love him all the way by ourselves.  So He gave us a friend called the Holy Spirit to help us live out of our whole hearts,” Herbert’s dad said.  “When we decided to follow Jesus all the way, God’s Spirit fills up our hearts and helps us obey God.”

I want to tread carefully here – as someone who isn’t a parent, it’s easy for me to sit on the pristine seat of emotional and physical detachment and wax eloquent on the need for sound theology in godly parenting.  My biggest child-rearing problem is deciding where to take my nieces and nephews hiking.  I sincerely admire the earnest wish to encourage children in their infant piety, and it’s because I believe it’s our (the church as well as the nuclear family’s) duty to nurture it that I think we ought to be careful in laying the proper foundation for it.  My problem with Chan’s book isn’t that it emphasizes our obligation to live righteously; it’s that it doesn’t acknowledge in any way the fact that Christ has already lived righteously for us – the imperative is given without the indicative; there’s law, but no gospel – which is only half the truth revealed in Scripture and half the message children need to hear.

When Herbert acknowledges his failure to keep the law to his father, his father’s response is more law – decide to follow Jesus all the way, and ask the Holy Spirit to help you.  Good advice, to be sure – but it must be prefaced with the blessed preface that Christ has fulfilled the law on his child’s behalf and freed him from his bondage to sloth and laxity, and that because of his obedience and the application of that obedience to Herbert, he’s made willing and able to implore the aid of the Holy Spirit, and make that decision to follow Christ wholeheartedly.  Mr. Hallweg’s response leaves the impression that the Holy Spirit is a reward for obedience; an aid given through the means of a request, rather than a gift that must be and is given.

I’m told that parents suffer no incapacity in reminding their children about the need for active obedience – ‘Clean your room now!’, ‘Stop fighting with your sister!’, and ‘Come back here and finish your homework!’ are frequent injunctions imposed on youthful impulses.  In her book Give Them  Grace, Elyse Fitzpatrick writes that while we may know that we need to trust in Christ for our goodness, something happens when we apply that to our parenting.  “We forget everything we know about the deadliness of relying on our own goodness and we teach them that Christianity is all about their behavior and whether, on any given day, God is pleased or displeased with them.”  Foolishness certainly is bound up in the heart of a child, and the proverb truly says that the rod of correction will drive it far from him, but let the rod be tempered with the mercy of the gospel, lest we drive our children from Christ.  

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Blue Like Jazz

When I was nineteen, my former pastor’s wife gave me a book called Blue Like Jazz. I had heard enough about it to be suspicious, but I went home, closed myself up in my library, and read it. I was completely confused. The Christian faith he was talking about bore enough of a resemblance to what I had grown up with to know that he wasn’t a heretic (not that I knew what a heretic was), but it also sounded suspiciously like the emotional, nebulous platitudes that liberal theologians loved to pass off as poetic insight.

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to the trailer for the Blue Like Jazz movie. I was mildly disgusted, since my last interaction with Miller hadn’t been exactly incandescent, but I’ve learned to read since my university days, so I figured I’d try it again. Something I’d neglected to do when I’d first read it was attend to the subtitle: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. I had approached the book expecting a resounding affirmation of the solid Christian doctrine I didn’t have and didn’t understand, and instead got a story about someone who didn’t know what solid Christian doctrine was and had grown disenchanted with the Christian culture he had been taught was doctrine.

The book isn’t intended as a theological treatise, but as a reflection on the existential journey of a man with a genuine desire to love Christ, and who’s been disillusioned with the brand of Christianity he’s grown up in. He talks about his friends and housemates, his youth, the early days of his career, his life in the woods and in the suburbs of Houston with wit, verve, and charm, articulating the same doubts and fears we all have and illustrating the same foibles, vices and pettiness that characterize us. I was grateful for his humor, because it was still rather frustrating – although it’s true that Miller didn’t write it in order to expound a theological point, he did write it to talk about his understanding of who he is in relation to God, and it’s pretty hard to do that without bringing theology into the discussion.

It’s clear from the outset that Miller’s angst wasn’t with Christ himself, but with the brand of Christianity that so many of us are familiar with – the (here it comes) Christless Christianity that’s manifested by moralistic-therapeutic deism and the health-‘n-wealth gospel. He grew up thinking that God had a political and social agenda, and that if he (Miller) didn’t do his utmost to promote it through his own obedience to the cultural law, he wasn’t a true Christian. The ensuing culture shock following his matriculation at Reed College served as the catalyst for the exploration of what he believed about God and what he knew about himself as a creature made in God’s image.

Some of the things he comes to understand about God sound surprisingly similar to classical articulations of certain elements of Christian doctrine – original sin is a theme consistently woven throughout his interactions with his family and housemates (his resentment of his housemates’ existence intruding on the unfolding drama of his own life); there’s a hint of election when his friends Penny and Laura describe their conversion (they tearfully spoke of God ‘being after’ them); and the need for grace is beautifully illustrated in both his own attempts at keeping the law and in relating to his former girlfriend (he realizes his need for God’s charity in his failed efforts at hard-core piety, and the fact that he can’t accept his girlfriend’s love because he hasn’t accepted God’s). [i] It’s not explicit, but it’s there in an inchoate form.

Some of the conclusions he arrives at are decidedly problematic – his articulation of the gospel made salvation dependent upon man, and had little do with Christ’s propitiatory work on the cross.[ii] Another distressing moment came when he wrote that he realized that “[…] there was something inside me that caused Him to love me.”[iii] The idea of man’s nature being morally repugnant to God and yet possessive of something that compels his love is as popular as it is theologically unsound, so Miller’s adoption of it is perhaps less to be wondered at.

Miller is open in his dislike of institutions and the church, and considering his background, that’s not surprising. However, I got the sense that he couldn’t dissociate the one from the other, as if the church were little more than a Machiavellian machine, rather than a sinful, rebellious bride being redeemed by her bridegroom. This may be why the book garners such harsh criticism from some circles – while he acknowledges the presence of loving ‘conservative’ churches, he appears to dismiss them on personal rather than principled grounds. One doesn’t like to disregard the very real pain that those hurt by the church suffer, but neither is it wise to separate oneself from Christ’s visible body and the stewards of his oracles because of a few offending members.

Miller has since written other books, none of which I’ve read, so it’s entirely possible that his understanding of the gospel and the church have changed – Blue Like Jazz is a chronicle of a chapter in his life; not a profession of faith, and it ought to be interpreted as such. While we may (and ought) to read it thoughtfully and critically, with an eye to the theology inherent in the story, it behooves us to read charitably, being mindful of the fact that it’s still a story about a man’s search for God and his place within the greater drama of redemptive history.


[i] pp. 18, 180, 52, 81 and 231-232

[ii] p. 124

[iii] p. 238

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Jesus + Nothing = Everything

Occasionally, we pull our pastor friends away from their ecclesiastic duties, and through our cunning wiles and irresistible charm manage to wheedle them into writing for us. Today, we have our buddy Brian Thomas, the Vicar of Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, California, reviewing Tullian Tchividjian’s Jesus + Nothing = Everything.  (If this whets your appetite, check out the Rev. Tchividjian’s latest MR article here.)

Math has never been my strong suit, but Tullian Tchividjian’s latest book, Jesus+ Nothing=Everything, presents a liberating equation for troubled sinners. Written in a down-to-earth style, Tchividjian offers a very pastoral confession of how a renewed understanding of the gospel brought him through a time of professional and personal crisis.

Building upon the work of St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and C.S. Lewis, the book begins by painting a picture of the restless heart longing for everything. Rather than to turning to Jesus, who alone can fill the void, we often turn elsewhere because ultimately we have misunderstood the gospel. Trouble arises when Christians think of the gospel as merely an entry ticket to heaven, the thing that gets us in, while the thing that keeps us in (we assume) is our own effort and performance. In other words, Tchividjian notes “we recognize that the gospel ignites the Christian life, but we often fail to see that it’s also the fuel to keep us going and growing as Christians” (37).

The real issue is not that we blatantly seek to replace Jesus with something else, we simply add this something else to him: Jesus plus self-affirmation, personal approval, social justice, success, power, etc. As the Galatians learned from St. Paul, when we add anything to Jesus, even a good thing, we end up with a sum that is no longer the Gospel (Gal 1:6–10). If Jesus plus nothing is not the ultimate equation in the life of a believer, Tchividjian argues that we have become idolaters, which he defines as building our identity on something besides God (40).

The greatest enemy of the Gospel, as the author contends in chapter four, is legalism, or what the he calls “performancism.” Performancism is what happens when we fail to believe the gospel; it happens when what we need to do, not what Jesus has already done, becomes the end game (46). Legalism, as Pastor Tullian confesses, preserves the illusion that we can do this. Unfortunately, as the author laments, so much of what passes for contemporary preaching fuels this legalistic fire by piling law upon law (what we do) without the gospel (what Jesus has done). Tullian writes, “Many sermons today provide nothing more than a ‘to do’ list, strengthening our bondage to a performance-driven approach” (49).

I found the next couple of chapters to be the strongest in the book as they offer a devotional commentary on how Jesus plus nothing equals everything through the lens of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. Tracing Paul’s argument, Tchividjian here presents an exegetical and theological presentation of the person and work of Christ. In one of the most simple and yet profound gospel statements I have ever read, the author concludes:

In his law-fulfilling life, curse-bearing death, and death-defeating resurrection, Jesus has entirely accomplished for sinners what sinners could never in the least do for themselves. The banner under which the Christian lives reads, “It is finished” (84).

I must confess that as much as I enjoyed this book, the latter chapters tended to feel a bit redundant as he retraces the problems with idolatry and finding our identity apart from Jesus. It is not that what he writes isn’t excellent—it is—it is just that he’s already said it; and while repetition is often helpful it felt like listening to a forty minute sermon when the preacher has said everything he is going to say in the first twenty. This is likely due to the fact these chapters were built from a sermon series where a level of repetition is necessary from week to week when preaching lectio continua.

In today’s culture, it is rare to find a popular evangelical pastor admit weakness and confess his sins, not to mention write a book about it. Martin Luther described faith as a beggar’s hand receiving a gift. In this book, Pastor Tullian is a beggar pointing the reader to the Bread of Life who alone can satisfy a hungry soul. Here you will enjoy the freedom of the life-giving gospel equation: “Jesus plus nothing equals everything; everything minus Jesus equals nothing” (206).

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International Women’s Day

I live in a pipe culture.  Many of my male friends will spend hours discussing the relative merits of different bowls and stems with the same passion others reserve for rock climbing and Apple products.  There was one memorable evening when my friends Brian and Nigel tried to convince me to try my hand at it – I declined, on the grounds that I didn’t think it ladylike (and I had no idea how to do it).  “Come on,” said Nigel, taking another sip of port.  “Dorothy Sayers smoked a pipe.”  “Any woman who spent that much time with British academics in the 1930s had to learn to smoke, whether it was considered ladylike or not,” I responded.  Since Sayers had already singled herself out by graduating from Oxford, dabbling in popular theology and spending the majority of her time in the company of men (singularly gifted men, at that), she may not have considered pipe-smoking the most extraordinary thing she’d ever done.  Being ordinary was never really her scene, so it’s always fascinated me that the ‘ordinariness’ of women should have been a particular theme to emerge from her writing.

It’s that very subject that’s the focus of her essays, ‘Are Women Human?’ and ‘The Human Not-Quite-Human’.  As someone who loves Sayers’ wry, acerbic style, I feel free to say that I’m very glad the editor of the Eerdmans edition put the latter address first, rather than former.  Adopting an uncharacteristically caustic tone, she launches into a Swiftian tirade against the prevailing male attitude toward women at that time, inviting the reader to imagine the grace with which he would be bear his every action, habit, and taste being commented upon in terms of his gender:

“Probably no man has ever troubled to imagine how strange his life would appear to himself if it were unrelentingly assessed in terms of his maleness; if everything he wore, said, or did had to be justified by reference to female approval; if he were compelled to regard himself, day in and day out, not as a member of society, but merely (salva reverential) as a virile member of society.  If from school and lectureroom, Press and pulpit, he heard the persistent outpouring of a shrill and scolding voice, bidding him remember his biological function.  If he were vexed by continual advice how to add a rough male touch to his typing, how to be learned without losing his masculine appeal, how to combine chemical research with seduction, how to play bridge without incurring the suspicion of impotence.  If, instead of allowing with a smile that “women prefer cavemen,” he felt the unrelenting pressure of a whole social structure forcing him to order all his goings inconformity with that pronouncement.”[1]

In ‘The Human-Not-Quite-Human’ (an address given in 1938 to an unidentified women’s society), she writes that much of the confusion that has lately arisen regarding the role of women in society would be easily dispelled if people would simply refrain from determining the spectrum of women’s interests by their sex.  Just because a woman is a woman, it doesn’t follow that she may not wear pants, study Aristotle, or become a mechanic – her essential femaleness is not, in itself, an inhibitor for her doing any of these things.  Much had been said about the psychology behind the recent phenomenon of women’s participation in activities that have commonly fallen within the province of men, and Sayers writes that the most popular explanation for their interest is that ‘women are just copying men’.

Her first response is to deny this – certainly, women may be ‘copying’ men in the sense that the men wore pants and went to university first, but (if they are reasonable women) their reason for doing so is that (like men) they find pants more comfortable than skirts, and their particular intellectual interests have compelled them to further study that can only be had in a university.  The fact that they’re pursuing a path generally trod by their brothers hasn’t factored into their decision.  But even supposing that assertion to be true, what else would you have women do?  Sayers asks.  The domestic vocations that have traditionally occupied them (i.e., growing and preparing food, managing their estates, designing and manufacturing clothing) have all been appropriated and industrialized by men.  Their ‘estates’ have gone from self-sufficient farms to two-bedroom flats.  Even if all of them wanted to remain at home and raise their families, the lack of necessity for constant attention to home-maintenance and the inability to comfortably house a large family makes their exclusive confinement to the hearth unreasonable.

Moreover, Sayers writes, there’s nothing very extraordinary about a woman’s wishing to pursue a professional (as opposed to a domestic) vocation.  While it’s true that many of them choose not to study biomedical engineering or a career in the money market, (and indeed, are not suited to doing so) the appearance of a woman in these fields shouldn’t generate controversy.  A common trait is just that – a common trait, not a universal constant.  True, most women prefer to marry and raise children – but it doesn’t follow that a woman can or ought not, by virtue of her femininity, to enter academia and business.  Women are human beings, like men, and have the same needs and desires that expect fulfillment.

It’s this last point that Sayers belabors to an almost fatiguing degree – ‘women are human beings’.  This staggering revelation forms the bedrock principle behind her entire argument and (from the fact that she brings it up every two paragraphs) is the material point that she believes deserves the greatest consideration – the fact that women are human beings.  Since women share common physical, intellectual and emotional needs with men, it shouldn’t surprise them (men) that they want to do the same things that men do. 

This is all very well, and I agree with her – men and woman are both human beings, and certainly share similar desires and interests.  My objections are not with her argument per se, but with the suppositions upon which she builds it – first, that there is such a thing as a non-sexual human being (as though one could contemplate a human that was both not-man and not-woman), and second, that it’s by virtue of the similarity of female humanity to male humanity that women ought to be accorded the same respect and opportunities as men.

While both sexes are human, I think it particularly important to the dignity of both to remember that there are male humans and female humans, and that while there’s much we share, there’s much we don’t.  Sociologists, feminists, and citizens of the Ivory Tower are very fond of harping on the ‘socialization of the sexes’, and how our differences are greatly exaggerated by the ideals propagated therefrom.  This is very true, and has certainly caused trouble in ages past.  However, I don’t think it in our best interest, having hit one end of the spectrum, to spin about and go sprinting down to the other end.  While society does tend to exaggerate our differences, it didn’t create them.  The answer is not to boil each other down to our lowest common denominator and relate from there – it’s to learn how to appreciate one another’s differences and be willing to work within the parameters that they create.  To do otherwise degrades the unique qualities of both and fosters the false belief that if we could just rid ourselves of our disparities, there’d be a significant decrease in the amount of friction in many male-female relationships.  Our problem is not our differences, but rather the sinfulness that insists upon their mortification for the sake of the individual.

Sayers’ exhaustive illustrations of the many ways in which women are similar to men almost led me to believe that her argument was founded not upon her firm belief that women are human beings, but upon her demonstration that women are human beings in the same way that men are.  That is to say, women exemplify their humanity in the same way that men do, therefore, they ought to be afforded the same opportunities and considerations.  This is true, certainly – Sayers demonstrates that effectively – but it’s a poor argument, since it unconsciously affirms the very thing that Sayers would like to deny; namely, the superiority of the humanity of men above the humanity of women.  If I understood her correctly, she appears to hold male humanity as the standard against which the dignity of female humanity is judged.  It would better serve her purpose to argue that the dignity of women does not lie in the fact that they are human in the same way that men are human, but in the fact that like men, they too bear the image of the living, triune God.  While female humanity shares much with her male counterpart, that oughtn’t to be the reason for which she’s granted the right to pursue whatever life she will.  To do so is to impose an essential hierarchy (where we are told that, in Christ, none exists) and to hold women to a standard they can’t attain to.

Sayers’ presence was welcomed in the Inklings’ discussions because she showed herself to be Lewis’ and Tolkien’s intellectual companion, but part of what distinguished it was the fact that hers was a female presence.  Her sex set her apart, not because she was a sensitive woman and Lancelyn Green, Barfield, et. al. were a lot of quasi-anencephalic brutes, but because her person, intellect, and conversation all testified to the glory of her Creator and the equanimity with which he dispenses his gifts.  While her femininity certainly didn’t determine her opinions on Dante or the method with which she analyzed Malory and Beowulf, its influence leant a perspective and nuance to her interactions with texts and authors, which (judging from the fact that they welcomed her repeatedly over the course of several years) they probably appreciated.  She, in turn, likely reaped treasures untold from her fellowship with men who were celebrated for their wisdom and piety as much as their literary accomplishments.  These are the sorts of rich rewards that are to be had when men and women take care to respect and appreciate one another’s humanity, not because our similarities make it reasonable, but because we see Christ in our differences.

 


[1] Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2005), 56-57

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