Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Hail Caesar Essay in Journal of Religion and Film

My latest piece to be published is an essay that was first delivered as a Plenary address at the Society for the Study of Theology annual conference in 2018. It is titled “Hail, Caesar! A Jesus Film in Search of a Christ Figure," and it appears in volume 24 of the Journal of Religion and Film. It also serves as something of an introduction to Letters and Papers from Prison. Here's the abstract:
key themes in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's
For over a century the moving picture has been a medium ripe for propagation or exploration of the story of Christ. Since the first wave hit screens in the late 1890s and early 1900s, the list of so-called “Jesus films” has come to number in the dozens. Given that Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2016 Hail, Caesar!­ sets itself up as a reprisal of such films, the question is how to interpret it. To explore this, interpretation of the film is framed by consideration of the Coen brothers' attention to religious themes, is set against the backdrop of the second wave of American Jesus films in the 1950s and 60s with which they appear to be interacting, and is informed by central themes from Deitrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison. Given the perennially beguiling nature of Bonhoeffer's posthumously published Letters—especially as it relates to their cultural-theological diagnoses of the modern "world come of age"—this article aims not only to open up a particular way of viewing the Coen brother's film, but also to open up a way of understanding Bonhoeffer's own intriguing suggestions. Given the lack of actual "Jesus scenes" in the Coen's alleged "Tale of the Christ," it will be seen how Bonhoeffer's observations about "secular methodism", "religionless Christianity", and "arcane discipline" offer a way of noticing how the miniature Jesus film within the Coen film actually manages to pervade the whole of it. In the process, Hail, Caesar! is seen to offer a challenge to the typical Christian use of media, even as it offers up three characters for consideration as possible Christ-figures.

Monday, June 03, 2019

Kuyper on Gender: Case Closed?

"Modernism, which denies and absolishes every difference, cannot rest until it has made woman man and man woman, and putting every distinction on a common level, kills life by placing it under the ban of uniformity"  
- Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 26

This quote appeared on twitter last week, just after I had run across it during a deep dive into the works of Abraham Kuyper for an unrelated project, and on both occasions it struck me as a misreading of the trajectory of modernity. To be fair, from where Kuyper stood (namely, behind a Princeton lecture podium in 1898) it would have been difficult to see past the then-modern-spectre of socialism. Prediction will often look foolish from the vantage of hindsight. But there's more going on here than that: after all it is in part due to the influence of Kuyper himself that modern american culture has taken such a decidedly different, individually liberated, course. 

Here on the other side of three or four waves of feminism we know that the stated goal was precisely not to abolish difference but to multiply it, transgressing the constrictive uniformity of binary gender constructs in order to open up a future in which difference could flourish. So here's the question I began asking myself as I read him last week: If Kuyper were alive to see this, would he reverse his position?

It is not an easy question to answer. As Mary Stewart van Leeuwen rightly points out in "Abraham Kuyper and the Cult of True Womanhood", Kuyper was not just resistant to the spectre of totalizing uniformity but also to "individualistic atomism". He opposed both stifling sameness and the splintering diversification wherein each becomes an identity-unto-themselves. He might have argued that the latter inevitably collapses back into the former—"if every one is a gender then no one is a gender" the argument might run—even if that’s not what "modernism" thinks it is doing with gender.

Abraham Kuyper
On the other hand, Kuyper followed the quote at the top of the page by saying he was "opposed to all hierarchy", stating that his brand of Calvinism "condemns not merely all open slavery and systems of caste, but also covert slavery of woman and of the poor" (27). When the industrial revolution changed the relationship between workplaces and homes, Kuyper sought to reserve the domestic sphere for women in order to resist injustice, not to deepen it. Whether or not we agree with his domestication of women, we have to acknowledge that Kuyper thought it was the way to properly honour and protect the liberty of women in the new economy. His goal was to avoid the old patriarchy, and in this it was important not to fall for the lure of communism. The preservation of the home was a form of resistance to the covert enslavement of such egalitarianism.

But the question stuck with me as I read his work: If Kuyper was alive today would he necessarily be a so-called complementarian? Does he belong with the company he keeps in the gender roles debate today? It's not a question of hypothetical speculation or cultural tribalism, it is about working with the grain of Kuyper’s thought, investigating its internal tensions, and asking whether it must necessarily unravel it in one direction or another. (As a broadly Calvin-ist theologian I want to try to work with Kuyper, not because I am beholden to either of them, but because I want our theology to be coherent). So it is a matter of asking whether Kuyper’s view of gender roles are open to contextual re-appropriation or whether one would have to leave his core principles behind in order to say something different.

One way to look at this question is to compare Kuyper's view of gender with his view of race, and to see whether the former is implicated in the latter, and thus open to critical re-thinking. I won't belabour this point but it is at least relevant to note that in his 1898 lectures on Calvinism Kuyper sang from the song-sheet of his culture by supposing that "the coloured races on the coast and in the interior of Africa" inhabited "a far lower form of existence" which required a degree of European influence (32).

Broadly in line with the natural sciences and economic interests of that period, Kuyper was not alone in reading this racial theory into scripture’s Noahic blessing: "the children of Shem and of Japheth have been the sole bearers of the development of the race", with "no impulse for any higher life" coming "from the third group" (namely, Ham, 35). Kuyper would not sit neatly within today’s label of white supremacist: A few paragraphs later he argues for the mixing of races for the sake of human development "taken as a whole" (36). But the narrative which makes sense of this is one of historical progression which has the Euro-American project at its head.

The point is not to make easy slam-dunk against Kuyper. Nor is there an easy way out in saying he was a product of his time on this, but otherwise sound on everything else. The point is to enquire whether his commentary on race exhibits his readiness to let culturally-formed "natural observations" cloud the judgment of his biblical interpretation and his understanding of the so-called created order. If his judgment is so clouded it would not necessarily make the entirety of his theology un-usable, but it would give us a moment's pause before we assumed that his views of gender were not similarly implicated.

A further step, then, is to examine Kuyper’s reasoning and to ask what is fundamental to his theology of gender and what belongs to his contextual concerns. If there is any tension in his theology then we would look for an inner logic that, in some other context, might unravel in another way. In other words, despite the moral judgments he made in his time, is there a trajectory to those judgments which could later have unforeseen ramifications?

This is not an unfair imposition upon Kuyper’s own moral reasoning: he uses it himself in his account of race and slavery. In the very same lecture quoted already, Kuyper says:

“Early stage Christianity did not abolish slavery, but undermined it by a moral judgment.” Similarly, he explains: “Calvinism allowed the provisional continuance of the conditions of hierarchy and aristocracy as traditions belonging to the Middle Ages" while at the same time. "inwardly” it “modified the structure of society ... by a more serious interpretation of life.” As a result, "a holier democratic idea has developed itself, and has continually gained ground. This result has been brought about by nothing so much as by fellowship in suffering" (27-28).

Later Kuyper observed "that this turn in the history of the world could not have been brought about except by the implanting of another principle in the human heart; that only by Calvinism the psalm of liberty found its way from the troubled conscience to the lips" (40).

Could the same moral trajectory be applied with regard to gender roles and restrictions? Never mind that Kuyper argued against some of the gender equalities that modern complementarians now take for granted (like the right to vote): the questions is whether, on the issue of gender roles, Kuyper knowingly and theologically locked himself in and threw away the key.

There is little doubt that Kuyper had no problem arguing for both equality and the delineation of roles; for both universal liberty and variegated responsibilities. Equality does not mean sameness, and for Kuyper this is observably normal (and biblically defensible) not only in the workplace but in all spheres of life. To occupy different roles is a sociological occurence that has been aggravated by the sinfulness of the world, but it is not itself a direct consequence of the fall (122-23).

I doubt many would differ with him on this general point. Who does not balk at the flat uniformity which Kuyper resisted? Equality does not mean sameness for us either. The issue for egalitarians is not the delineation of roles and responsibilities per se; the issue is how they get handed out. How securely should social roles be tied to sex and gender?

For Kuyper, the vehicle and the goal of liberation from oppressive hierarchies was a return to the freedom of domestic life. It was sin that led to kingdoms and empires, it was our created good to arrange ourselves in neighbourhoods of cooperatively functional families. In his lecture on "Calvinism and Politics" Kuyper says that the "combining [of] many families in a higher unity … would have internally been bound up in the Kingship of God,” which is to say that the free interchange of smaller social units would have been God’s way of ruling "harmoniously in the hearts of all.” As it grew, humanity "would externally have incorporated itself in a patriarchal hierarchy (92)." Why? For reasons of both nature and revelation, says Kuyper: "Paternal authority roots itself in the very life-blood and is proclaimed in the fifth Commandment" (96).

To the modern ear this may sound definitively repressive to women, but it has not always necessarily been so. In ancient hunter-gatherer and agrarian contexts, with high child mortality rates and without modern means of birth control, it was to some degree natural that women and men would funnel into particular roles and responsibilities, but it was not strictly necessary that this be abstracted, codified, and absolutized into gendered power structures. That this did happen does not mean it always had to happen. With the books of Genesis and Exodus in hand, perhaps one could reconsider the social arrangements under other circumstances. Indeed, when just such circumstances arose from the modern enlightenment and the industrial revolution, like the culturally-conditioned complementarians after him, Kuyper was not afraid to improvise.

This is where things take their turn. Kuyper felt that the command to "honour thy father and mother" should be abstracted and delineated according to public and private spheres. With modern pressures in front of him and the Bible in hand, Kuyper ordered the men to public life (state and workplace) and the women to domestic life (home and family), each to the flourishing and honouring of the other. This did not make women the so-called heads of the home. Since husbands provided the point of contact with public affairs they were the ostensible leaders of the domestic realm, even if that meant empowering their wives to give shape to domestic affairs.

For further reading on this see Mary Stewart van Leeuwen's aforementioned essay, wherein she traces Kuyper's gendered division of Genesis 1’s co-called cultural mandate:

Mary Stewart van Leeuwen
"Women, he says in effect, are made to be fruitful and multiply, while men are made to subdue the earth. And ideally these tasks should not overlap. I think we may give Kuyper the benefit of the doubt and assume that, like many of his contemporaries, he was convinced that women's status was being elevated by the doctrine of two spheres. Moreover, one cannot expect him (or anyone else) to have predicted all the consequences of such a dichotomy ... [including] the consequences of effectively reducing parenting to mothering.... But what if one gets some of those first principles wrong? What if one carves up the creational spheres in a mistaken way, for example by designating race or gender as a separate sphere that must be kept separate according to principles that are less biblical than they are reflective of a particular, culturally-specific ideology? Then it is clear that great mischief can be done....

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=QrRHmwEACAAJ&dq=on+kuyper+book&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi48qL-vs3iAhVQ-YUKHYEqBIEQ6AEILzABThere is, however, another possible—and more flexible—reading of Kuyper's position. South African church historian P.J. Strauss has shown that although Kuyper supported the informal Apartheid  of his era, he saw it as a time-bound measure, aimed at the upliftment and development of native South Africans, and thus probably would not have supported the theory of closed and permanent Apartheid defended by his Calvinistic descendants. So too, it is possible that Kuyper, in his defence of women's entry into certain quasi-domestic public institutions (education, social work, nursing) may have expressed residual ambivalence about the absolute character of the gendered public-private dichotomy.... Thus, it is possible ... that Kuyper's Calvinistic descendants have read him to be less flexible on the gendering of the public-private dichotomy than he actually would have been, had he survived for several more decades" (see On Kuyper, 441-42).

So one hand it appears fairly obvious that Kuyper thought his particular ordering of gender roles was the way it should be. But on the other hand—especially against the backdrop of his concern for progress, liberty, and diversification—we might detect a trajectory on gender roles which went the same way as the trajectory against slavery. Correcting for the blindspots of nineteenth century science and culture (to borrow Kuyper’s words): might a “holier democratic idea” arise from within the “fellowship of suffering”?

Those who argue that Kuyper was not logically pinned to the white supremacy of later generations are probably right to point out that he did not intend the isolation of races into separate and distinct spheres but argued for their mixing and multiplication. But that does not mean his views on race were not in need of some modification in order to make the most of what might have been otherwise commendable theology. Nor is it wise to resist a similar theological re-visitation of his approach to gender roles. Especially if the various spheres of life are to be respected for their freedom and internal integrity (like Kuyper argued in his 1880 "Sphere Sovereignty" speech), then families, workplaces, and churches should be afforded the space to reconsider how, under the lordship of Christ, they are to be ordered and upheld in each time and place.

In this endeavour, if Kuyper is taken back to the authority of Scripture under which he rightly placed himself, then those Scriptures must be read and re-read over against his culturally-conditioned interpretations as well as our own. Interestingly, on a close reading one finds not only that Kuyper's stance on gender roles is amenable to re-visitation on its own terms, but also that it might bend even further in our time toward the over-arching command to mutually "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:21). Kuyper would almost certainly resist a modern form of secular egalitarianism which collapses equality into a homogeneous blob of sameness, but I’m unconvinced that a twenty-first century Kuyper would continue to insist on the sustenance of ancient household codes at the expense of “holier democratic” arrangements in the church and home.

click to hear an Aeolian harp
In fact when Kuyper came to the last of his lectures, on "Calvinism and the Future", against his objectors he asserted that "the quickening of life comes not from men: it is the prerogative of God, and it is due to His sovereign will alone, whether or not the tide of religious life rise high in one century, and run to a low ebb in the next.” Likening the church’s life to a harp that gets played by the wind, Kuyper was certainly not advocating for uncritical cultural accommodation, but nor was he suggesting that traditional powers-that-be should carry on playing their own tune. “Let Calvinism be nothing but such an Aeolian harp,” he said, “absolutely powerless, as it is, without the quickening spirit of God.” Rather, “we feel it our God-given duty to keep our harp, its strings tuned aright, ready in the window of God's Holy Sion, awaiting the breath of the Spirit" (199).

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Barth on Gender: A Thought Experiment

A few years ago I posted some reflections about Karl Barth on Gender Roles wherein I reflected on a Paul Fiddes essay and an episode from Barth's Safenwil pastorate in order to dig deeper into the nuances of Barth's apparently traditional position on the delineation of gender roles.

I've since had occasion to revisit the relevant passage of Barth's Church Dogmatics (namely volume III/4, §53.1) and have come to the maintain the view expressed there, which is to say that on the whole Barth displays "an openness to women in leadership" and mutual submission even though it "is articulated within an account that places women in an intrinsic place of submission."

What's interesting is that the mutual submission approach seems more consistent with other moves in Barth's theology, not only elsewhere but also within the section on "Man and Woman". The section would arguably make more sense and be more fruitful if the inconsistencies were ironed out.

This month at SST in Warwick I was glad to run into someone who is doing doctoral research on precisely this, and who seems to be untying the knots of that Barthian dilemma in a critically constructive direction. It will be fascinating to see how this works out, not only as it pertains to women in leadership but also to broader questions of masculinity and femininity. These questions are more prescient and pressing in our day than Barth could have fully anticipated in his.

On that note, I was interested to come across an excursus later in that same volume (III/4, §56.2) wherein Barth discusses the social customs and self-understandings of "youth", observes how quickly they fossilize almost into mini-idealogies, and then makes a ponderous comparision to the dynamics of masculinity and femininity. Here is how it begins:
Youth which proclaims itself as such ... already contains within itself the seeds of death and moves on rapidly to speedy old age. "For we are young, how grand it is!" But not in itself! Youth is like masculinity or femininity. If we want such things in and for themselves, we shall be neither young nor masculine nor feminine.
The point is that if you focus on an abstract ideal at the expense of your personal and social particulars, you end up with neither the ideal nor the actuality. This got me wondering what it would look like to take him up on the parallel and to altar the rest of the paragraph to apply instead to gender. In what follows you'll see the result of that thought experiment.

First, here are four quick explanations of what I've done:
  1.  Given that Barth used masculine pronouns for all humanity, simply for the sake of readability I have carried out the thought experiment by replacing youth words with masculinity words.
  2. Where the issue of age or maturity still needs to be retained for it to make sense, I have used words pertaining to boyhood or adulthood. In one place I have a question mark because I was not sure whether I should have left the reference to age.
  3. At one point where there is clearly an idealogical social norm in view, I have used the colloquialism "man's man" to convey the implication. 
  4. All replaced words are surrounded by square brackets, and I've inserted paragraph breaks for the sake of reading on screen.
Without further ado, then, here is the altered excerpt, picking up with the last sentences above.
Youth is like masculinity or femininity. If we want such things in and for themselves, we shall be neither young nor masculine nor feminine.

We can be [masculine] only when we are moved by something which in itself has nothing at all to do with our [gender] or [sex], and in relation to which we are summoned even as young men to advance.

We can be [masculine] only in specific demonstration of our preparedness, attention, zeal and obedience, only in [masculine] objectivity, and not by chasing the phantom of what is supposed to be [masculine] objectivity.

[Masculinity] is the capacity and will to devote oneself to an object without considering or intending that the matter of this devotion should be specifically [masculine], but rather in suppression of any such consideration or intention and with the serious aim of rivaling the objectivity of those who are older [?].

He who wants to be a ["man's man"] is not [a man]; he is merely [man]ish. He who is a [boy] does not want to be a [man]; he takes his play, his study, his first attempts at accomplishment, his first wrestlings with his environment, in bitter earnest, as though he were already [a man].

In so doing he is genuinely [boy]like. This is what it means to accept the command of the particular hour in true loyalty to its specific determination, to be free in its distinctive limitation (CD III/4, p. 609).
If what Barth says here was allowed to ripple through his account of gender roles, I wonder if it would take the trajectory even further away from patriarchal orderings. It also wonder how compatable this is with what Judith Butler argued forty years later. 

But I am going to leave it at that without further comment, not because I'm simply accepting it at face value as an articulation of Barth's view of gender, but because it's just a thought experiment to mull over. The possibilities probably speak for themselves. Let me know if you run across this and have any thoughts or clarifications.