Battle of the Sexes

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The story of Creation engages our minds. When we dispute or question its message, it is in our minds that the battle is fought. Those who really care about the perceived difference between Genesis and Science are often scientists, engineers or other residents of geekland. As the Big Bang Theory makes clear, we view the world a bit differently than normal folks. Normal folks really don’t care that much about Genesis and Science. Those who disbelieve in the God of the Bible are offered an easy pass because they now feel justified in their unbelief. Those who believe simply put it down to the mysteries in the Bible that they don’t understand, just one among many.

But where the story of Creation ends, the Garden of Eden story begins. Creation may be an intellectual puzzle, but the Garden is a cage match. Our emotions are fully engaged in this part of Genesis because the story of the Garden is about us. It is about me. Each and every one of us is in the story. There is no audience for this play, because we all have starring roles in the play itself. Indeed, it is not just a neat turn of phrase but a literal fact to say that the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden rushes in where angels fear to tread. What more viscous and hurtful topic has our culture dealt with over the past decades than that of sex and gender relationships?

Somewhere in the collective memory of our culture is the image of the Cleaver family. June Cleaver is a happy homemaker, a stay at home mom, completely engaged in her family and domestic life, cheerfully and respectfully subservient to her husband Ward. Ward is the benevolent master of the Cleaver home, somewhat befuddled by June’s domesticity and the foibles of the children, but wise in all the matters that count. Wally and his mischievous brother, the Beaver, round out the family, getting into laughable scrapes but always protective of each other and properly respectful of their parents.

Even to those generations that were as yet unborn when Leave it to Beaver was on television, it has potent symbolism. The show captured an ideal of time and place so perfectly that 60 years later it still evokes powerful memories and feelings. To some, it is a vision of a nation dedicated to Christianity; how it was in America before we took the Bible out of our schools. To others it represents the hated patriarchy, the base nature of men and their need to subjugate women into permanent servitude. Leave it to Beaver is a paradigm of that which we either see as the just and right relationships of men and women, or that which we rebel against to create a more just and fair world.

In the West’s cultural understanding, Genesis is where God has given his plan for how he has ordained men and women to live together. While different viewpoints within that understanding might dispute the choice of words used, conceptually Western culture sees God in the Garden of Eden as sanctioning male dominion in family and gender matters. Because the male is dominant over female in family, that dominion must naturally extend to all other human institutions and interactions as well.

Even further, the story clearly points a finger at the reason for that dominion. Our cultural understanding of the story justifies millennia of male mistreatment and domination of women because women are gullible. Women can’t be trusted to handle the weighty affairs of the world because they are so easily fooled. After all, it was Eve, not Adam, who believed the snake’s story and brought evil into the world. The state of affairs in the world where women are subject to men exists because that is the way that God wants it and has ordained it to be so. Almost as an afterthought, the Bible makes it clear that it is desirable for men to treat women well and to love them, but there is no debating the fact that women are to be subordinate.

Our culture has been premised on that basic cultural understanding as far back in time as we can go. Even those streams of our culture that didn’t originate within the biblical perspective, i.e. Rome and Greece, have a similar understanding of relations between the sexes. It is indeed interesting that in a Greek myth somewhat parallel to the Garden story, Pandora opens a box allowing evil into the world. Pandora, as Eve, is a woman unable to resist temptation.

Yet change is in the air.  Women in our society today find that roles once closed to them are now open. Society’s expectations of women today are in a state of flux. Her future possibilities are open in a way that was not true in the decades past. We have a common understanding and assumption that our Western culture has finally emerged from a dark past, where women were subjugated, to a bright future of female empowerment in work and politics. Our daughters now expect that husbands will do the laundry, even using bleach and softener correctly. As ever Hollywood is a mirror into what we think. Just watch a Doris Day movie sometime.

The explanation makers in our society present the argument that relationships between the genders have changed permanently. They make much of the fact that women are no longer prisoners of their biology. They can choose when and whether they will bear children. We are past those times where muscle equaled power and women had no choice but to submit to the greater power of man’s body. We are now in an age where information, rather than muscle, equals power. In such a world, it is now said that women are actually more suited to power than men themselves.

It is the opportunity of our generation to see the dawning of an age in which we will see a permanent equality of the sexes. Some even hope for a reversal in the traditional patterns. Many think that a world run by women to be a more peaceful and cooperative place. It is true that the standard set by men is quite low. But I wonder about those who think women more peaceful and cooperative. That was certainly not what I remember about junior high.

My snide comment about teen-age girls aside, the explanation makers may well be right. But with our feet solidly planted in today, we do not know what tomorrow will bring. That is a trite statement, but worth remembering.  As always, the explanation makers have logic on their side. That is their special talent. However it is wise to remember that human nature is cantankerous. Our nature may be more difficult to change than circumstances are.  Looking back in time, there appears to be cycles and patterns in human affairs and the societies in which they live. As Mark Twain put it so eloquently, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.”

The roles that society finds suitable for women are not so static as our chattering classes find convenient for their endless opinionating. As a few examples among many, we can look back at the late Republic in Rome, at Elizabethan England or the France of Louis XV and see similar ferment then in the roles and status of women. During those times, the established orders of society were being shaken, including those of gender roles and relationships. The opening of possibility in gender roles is often found during times of rapid change in society.  This has certainly been true of Western culture over the past decades.

But in past history, periods of rapid change and upheaval in societies have been followed by reactionary rigidity. The rapidly changing society of the late Republic in Rome became the stuffy Principate of the early Empire. Elizabethan England became the England of Oliver Cromwell. The Puritans that we celebrate at Thanksgiving were refugees from that new rigor in society then enveloping England. The France of Louis XV became the France of the Terror and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Which brings us back to Genesis and the story of the Garden of Eden. I admit that I am a man of my time and place. I find it distasteful that God would permanently relegate women to second-class citizenship, either in this world or the next. How can a God who professes his love for us and who sacrificed his only son for us be so mean and unfair? How can He be so contrary to my sensibilities of what the world should be like?

I find myself returning to Scripture to struggle with this question. It is often true that I let my perception of what the Bible says blind me to what the Bible actually says. Because Genesis is so foundational to our culture, the stories contained in Genesis become cultural myths. As with stereotypes on the screen and in books, myths are ways to portray complex realities quickly and simply. As they are used over time, they become disconnected from their reality and assume cultural identities. In the same way as stereotypes, myths become distorted caricature, no longer true to their beginnings. The truths of Genesis have become such myths and we must be careful of what we think they say.

What does Genesis say? What is God telling me? His Word is true and powerful, sharper than a two edged sword. But to hear Him I must listen, prayerfully and free of my own prejudice and bias. This is not easy for me. It is not easy for any of us because we are swimming in our water. But God will speak to me as clearly as He spoke to those who loved him in times past if I am open and sincere in my desire to hear him.

The issue of gender relationship starts with God bringing Eve into the world. It does take two to have a relationship. Two people provide companionship and help to one another. Life is easier and better with someone to share it with. These are the very reasons that God gives in the Bible for creating Eve. This certainly fits our understanding of God as a loving God as well. He created male and female because He knew that it was good for us. It was the loving thing for him to do. He and we both know that we do not thrive as solitary creatures.

Life is easier with someone to share it with, but it is also harder and more complicated. Different people have different ideas and viewpoints. That difference is what makes for the companionship and the help, but it also complicates our lives. While we can agree to disagree without consequence as we sip our Chardonnay watching the sunset from our Adirondack chairs, decisions must sometimes be made. Sometimes in this world, we can’t simply exist, but must act.

It is apparent to me in Genesis that God’s plan for us is to take action in this world. We were not created to simply sit and enjoy the wine. After all, God created the grapes and the microorganisms that do the fermentation, but it is up to us to make the wine. God speaks to us with these words:

“God blessed them and said to them. “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over . . . “  Genesis 1:28a   NIV

I take it from this verse, as well as others in a similar vein, that we are to take action in our life. Action requires decision and singleness of purpose. It has been my fate to be an engineer, by both inclination and training. I have spent 40 years in a career of building things, of taking action in this world. Engineers take the injunction above about subduing and ruling the earth literally. For better or for worse, we in the engineering profession are instrumental in the subduing and ruling spoken of. As an engineer who has done and seen a lot of subduing that was very painful for those doing the subduing, the idea of hierarchy in human affairs is basic with me. We strive for consensus but time and money constrain us. Somebody has to make a decision as well as to be accountable, otherwise we run out of time and money. Those of us who have served on committees know the reason for selecting someone to be in charge when decisions must be made.

With two people involved in the task of subduing and ruling given them by God, one of the two must be clearly charged with providing the direction and making the decisions necessary to carry out that task. In the heat of the moment is not the time for a discussion of who is best suited for leadership of the group.

Well, we have established that someone must lead, at least to my mind, and that God has directed the man be the leader. Wait a minute! Where did God say that the man was in charge? Maybe I forgot about my water for a moment. (A vision of air bubbles rising to the surface of my goldfish bowl intrude into my mind.) Upon rereading the passages, I don’t read in the Bible of God appointing the man be in charge. He did say that Adam needed a helper. He then created Eve. The implication may be there, but a hierarchical relationship between man and woman is not explicitly spoken of. Is that important or is that a distinction without a difference?

Where precise language would be helpful, God’s comment on the matter is ambiguous. He calls forth Eve out of Adam to be a helper. The word implies that Eve, or woman, is to be under the direction of Adam, or the man. But implication is not definition. God, in his position of omniscience through time, surely knows the coming controversies in future time over this distinction. But here in this place, He chooses to be ambiguous.

It would seem reasonable to me that if God wished woman to be the servant of man, or if He wished any other definite power relationship to be true, He would have said so. In very clear language He tells us to subdue and rule over the earth in the adjoining verses. God is not so much in the habit of euphemism as we are. He is very direct when He deals with us in the matter of absolutes.

God’s revelation to us in Genesis, in the Bible, is very clear about some things. We are not to worship false gods. We are to love each other as we love ourselves. Murder, adultery, theft, fornication and dishonesty are pretty much out of bounds to us. But a lot of what God tells us seems to be more in the way of advice rather than prohibition or requirement.

I think, and I emphasize the word think rather than believe, that God is giving us some advice here. He is telling us that our relationships will work out for the best, most of the time, if women act as helpers for men. He is not saying that women must be in subjugation to men nor that men must always, without exception, lead. Men and women come in all sorts of sizes, shapes and capabilities. But generalizations can also be made about those sizes, shapes and capabilities. For instance, men are usually stronger than women. This is not always true, but if you are going to wager money, it is the smart way to bet.

I think most of us understand this to be true. It is part of our daily life and experience, the water we swim in. But we now live in a world where this simple advice to us from God, given for our benefit, was hardened and twisted into doctrines that justified one group of human beings exploitation of another. The wheel has turned, as it always does, and now we have a world of public life in which recognition of any distinction between the genders is cause for legal action. And so we have coined a term, “political correctness” for the things we say in public that we know to be wrong, but which are necessary to say in public. George Orwell would be most amused if he were alive today.

George Orwell might be amused because he wrote of the coming of “political correctness” over sixty years ago, but I don’t think that God is, or was, amused. I think that God was sad. If it is possible for God to cry, I imagine that it happens when he sees a husband hit his wife, or when he sees a wife emasculate her husband with her words. It is painful to watch those you love fight. It is surely true that God loves us. And it is surely true that we are fighting. We even have a name for it, The Battle of the Sexes.

It was in the Garden that we refused the role that God had designed for us. It is a distinction that we easily pass over in our eagerness to find support in Genesis for our political and religious positions, but I think it was a very important distinction to God. It was in the Garden of Eden story that sin entered into the world. It was there that all creation changed.

Prior to the entrance of sin into our world and into our relationships, the definitions of the female relationship to man was supportive. The definition of the male relationship to the woman was “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”. This certainly describes the relationship that I would like to have with my wife. Sometimes we come close, but sometimes . . .

But after sin has entered into the world, God uses different words to describe the relationship of men and women. The definition of the female relationship to the man is then “your desire shall be for your husband”. The definition of the male relationship to the woman is then “And he shall rule over you.” This is a pretty good definition of the Battle of the Sexes. God did not intend it that way. He did not create it that way. But it is the truth of our world and the natural consequence of our sin.

So perhaps there is some room for reflection on our witness to the world about our faith. When we involve ourselves, publicly or privately, into debates about gender roles, what is our witness about? When we think in our minds and feel in our hearts about these issues, what ground are we standing on? Do we want to strive to act in the manner that God designed, or do we want to grovel in the mud to which we have fallen?


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