The new edition of Fathom Magazine just came out, and it’s all in on all things imago dei. There is a great piece on clothing as cultural language, a beautiful poem about peanut butter and motherhood, and also a piece by me on raising Boaz-es in a hypermasculine world. It’s one of the best new magazines for thinking Christians out there. Give them a read and spread the word!
“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”
If popular media trends are any indication, people have been asking that question for a very long while, but we’re not satisfied with the answers. For the last fifty years, Hollywood has been doing a brisk trade in TV franchises like Doctor Who and Star Trek, and comic book movie universes featuring the Avengers, the Justice League, and the X-Men, selling stories that stoke our imaginations, and haunt our dreams, as they explore the boundaries of what it means to be human.
The surge in interest in science fiction and superheroes stories has happened concurrently with the rise of the Digital Age. Both “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek” rose to popularity in the 1960s, during the first wave of mainframe computing. “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the spinoff that launched so many others, soared to popular and critical acclaim in the early 1990s, during the building of what Al Gore famously named the “Information Superhighway”. The DC and Marvel comic movie empires grew in the midst of the first Silicon Valley dot-com boom, bust, and recovery, as companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook grew from successful start-ups into the technology monoliths they are today.
This trend can be partially explained by the way technology has infiltrated the way movies and television are made. The more technologically advanced the story telling is, the more convincingly real the stories become.
But that’s not the only reason, nor the most important one.
From the invention of the first super computer to the launch of the latest mobile app, the central goal of the technological revolution has been the transcendence of human limits – ones like time, location, and knowledge. Thanks to the wonder of FaceTime and WiFi, we can talk to someone on the other side of the planet in seconds instead of days. Laptops, tablets, and video conferencing systems let us work anywhere, anytime. The (potential) answer to any question is as close as the click of a mouse. And if bad weather and crazed children have you cursing the limits of time, space and knowledge, collectively, just ask Alexa. She’ll have 45 minutes of peace and quiet delivered to your door in a matter of hours.
But not all of our limitations are so easily surmounted.
The most enduring limits of our human state involve our bodily capabilities and the raw materials with which we exercise them. Our physical, mental, and emotional capacities are all subjected to the vagaries of our environment, circumstances, genetics, disease, and disaster. No matter how fully we ever realize our potential, it eventually diminishes and dies, gradually, or in a single, terrible instant.
There isn’t an app for fixing that, at least not yet.
It’s the combined intractability and universality of these limits that produces cheers, and tears of wonder, each time technology helps us get one step closer to conquering one of them. Whether it’s an artificial heart or pancreas or womb, a brain implant that restores hearing or stills seizures, or an exoskeleton that helps a paraplegic walk – nothing is more thrilling than seeing the limits of our bodily brokenness overcome.
This is the place where worldviews collide, and divide.
According to secular humanism (the dominant ideology of technology industry leaders and workers), humans are uniquely evolved organic matter, possessing an intricate blend of features and flaws. The boundaries of our bodies are fluid. We are eminently malleable, and infinitely upgradeable. The meaning of our humanity is as variable a construct as its substance.
The Bible says differently.
The Bible says that humans are wondrously made in the image and likeness of God (Psalm 139:13-16),(Genesis 1:26). Because of this, all of the boundaries of our humanity have meaning, and none of them are neutral. Many of those boundaries are “as designed”. They display God’s character (Genesis 1:31). They enable us to serve each other as we fulfill God’s creation mandate (1 Corinthians 12:14-27). They demonstrably display the differences between the Maker and the made (Psalm 121:4).
Many others are the consequence of our fallenness (Romans 3:9-19), or the fallenness of the world in which we live. (Proverbs 13:23) The common grace of our God-reflecting desire to rescue and heal, and our capacity to create, and the particular grace of the work of the Holy Spirit, help us retrace the boundaries of our humanity more closely over God’s design in some ways. But we are utterly incapable of doing it completely, nor were we ever made to.
That work can only be done by Jesus.
Jesus was with God at the beginning (John 1:2), forming living being from dust, and life-bearer from living being (Genesis 2:7, 21-22). In his incarnation, the limitless one took on human limits (Philippians 2:6-8), living perfectly within them on our behalf. Then he submitted himself to humanity’s greatest limit in death, shattering its hold on us through his resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).
Sin is what causes us to see the different boundaries of our humanity – our ethnicity, our socioeconomic status, our gender, – as tools to divide and oppress.
Jesus is the one who covers that sin, not by erasing our boundaries, but by redeeming them, and uniting all of us, as human beings, in him.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
This is the statement the world needs the most. The one it keeps asking for. The one the church still hasn’t written.
For all of its good intentions, the Nashville statement answers questions the world thinks it already has answers for, without sufficiently addressing the ones the world knows that it doesn’t. They are questions the world has been asking for years, ones the church has largely overlooked.
And while the world continues its quest for answers, Silicon Valley has been steadily, effectively reframing the question.
“What is a human being, and what does it mean to be one?”
We’re living in an era of unprecedented human transformation. Does the question really matter that much?
This morning on The Briefing, Al Mohler proposed that people’s responses to the Nashville Statement would fall into one of at least four categories:
- Those certain of its rightness, who would be committed to outspokenly supporting it.
- Those reticent about its rightness, who would be uncomfortable saying it.
- Those uncertain about its rightness, without yet knowing why, who would be uncomfortable saying it.
- Those certain of its wrongness, who would be determined to repudiate it.
I’d like to humbly propose adding a 5th, one that might change the way we consider the other 4:
- Those concerned that its rightness in some aspects, is so overshadowed by its wrongness in others, that it’s impossible to support, in its current form.
This is the group in which I find myself.
It’s important to note the variety of points of disagreement people in this group have raised, as well as the their number:
- The perception of cognitive dissonance with an organization and some of its signers who are comfortable drawing dotted lines around the doctrine of the Trinity in pencil, now drawing bold ones around matters of anthropology in permanent marker
- The perception of cognitive dissonance in a statement affirming biblical orthodoxy in sexuality, coming from the same leaders whose endorsement of a serial adulterer and abuser of women swept him into the Presidency
- The narrowness of the statement’s focus
- The rigidity of its approach
- And its timing, in a season of so much immediate and intense physical suffering, nationally and internationally, not to mention protracted civil unrest.
It’s also important to note how many of the people in the group offering up some, or all, of these points of concern, agree with the statement’s basic assertions about sexuality and marriage,and most essentially, with the affirmation and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ with which the statement ends. (No one that I know of in this group is offering up anything about Article 14 other than “Amen and Maranatha”.)
In other word, this group is not comprised of the usual suspects who drag their soapboxes out anytime the letters LGBTQ start trending on Twitter (although, yes, they’ve shown up this time as well).
These are faithful brothers and sisters of the household of God, whose collective public work, and personal testimonies, make their concerns worthy of consideration.
The preamble of the Nashville Statement asserts that Western culture is in a season of “massive revision of what it means to be a human being.” On this point, almost everyone, from the statement’s ardent supporters, to its angriest critics, are potentially agreed.
A statement that began there, then proceeded from it, could do much clarifying good.
But in its current form, the Nashville Statement seems to be the equivalent of a brick path that’s been unevenly laid down. When so many committed, thoughtful Christians are stumbling over it, it would be judicious to examine the way the bricks were placed, not just assume the only problem is that people aren’t looking where they’re going.
I was sitting in an air-conditioned hotel room in Little Rock, Arkansas, as Philando Castile sat bleeding to death in his car. I was getting ready for an important day of meetings, and I’d put myself on strict social-media lockdown to stay focussed. So it wasn’t until the following afternoon, when my meetings were over and I was in the back of an Uber car, driving through the thick Arkansas humidity back to the cool comfort of my hotel, that I finally read the news.
Being away from home meant I was free to read longer, and more in depth than I otherwise would have that night. I had spent part of my travel time out to Little Rock reading about the death of Alton Sterling, which had happened just one day earlier. The customary cycle of commentating and social media back and forthing about Sterling’s death between my longtime white community of friends, and my growing community of African American friends, had barely abated. Now a new cycle was starting before the previous one had even slowed down. It was almost too much for my mind to process, or my soul to bear.
The next day, I had three hours before I needed to be at Clinton Airport for my flight back to San Jose. I noticed that my route to the airport would take me past a high school that was designated as a National Historic Landmark. My curiosity was piqued – could anything historically significant come out of Arkansas? A couple of clicks laid my ignorance bare. With all the questions swirling in my mind in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s death, it seemed providential that I just happened to be four miles away from one place that might offer some answers. I decided I should visit.
Little Rock Central High School was the school of the “Little Rock Nine” – the three African American boys and six African American girls who were the first black students to attend one of the largest and most highly regarded all-white schools in America, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. That ruling declared that “separate but equal” segregated education was a violation of the 14th amendment of the Constitution. But Arkansas civic leaders were determined to ignore the ruling, and maintain the racially segregated status quo.
When the NAACP helped register the nine students before the beginning of the 1957 school year, Arkansas Governor Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to forcibly prevent the students from entering the school on the first day of class. President Eisenhower then sent in the 101st Airborne Division to force the Arkansas National Guard to stand down, and ensure that the nine students would be escorted in safely.
For nine months, the Little Rock Nine attended classes under the presumably protective watch of the 101st Airborne Division. But the reality of what they experienced was almost unimaginable. They suffered relentless psychological torture and physical abuse by students. Teachers and administrators ignored their pleas for help. The soldiers and other law enforcement agencies who were their security detail did little beyond what they had been forcibly ordered by the Federal government to keep them physically protected.
Several of them finished high school elsewhere, but the majority endured, and eventually graduated. Little Rock Central High School was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1982. In 1999, the Little Rock Nine were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor, the highest offer given to civilian American citizens, in recognition of how their courage and determination, in spite of their youth, catalyzed a nation toward greater awareness and action in the fight for civil rights for African Americans.
I walked into the Visitors’ Center having never heard one word of this chapter in America’s civil rights story. I had spent my high school years overseas, and my college years at a conservative Christian liberal arts school. Over the past several years, I had grown increasingly uncertain about the scope, and especially the slant, of my understanding of American history, let alone the church’s role in it all. But I didn’t know yet how much I didn’t know.
The LRCHS Visitors’ Center sits diagonally across from the still-operating school. A collection of exhibits are positioned strategically near large windows, so you can see the school and its sidewalks in the near distance, and envision the dramatic events unfolding as you learn about them.
The entire center is riveting, but it was the moments I spent standing in front of this picture of Elizabeth Eckford that I’ll never forget.
She is walking away from her new school after being turned away from the entrance by the Arkansas National Guard. The picture stands in the exact middle of the center. On a wall to its left are quotes from judges and politicians, referencing landmark rulings and arguments in the years leading up to that day, some of them referencing God or the Bible. To its right, only slightly further away, is another enlarged photograph, this one of Emmett Till’s mother gazing at the mutilated face of her son as he lays in an open coffin. Also close by is an exhibit dedicated to the role of the new media of television in bringing this event directly into the living rooms of ordinary Americans.
The tapestry of thoughts that ran through my mind as I took in that scene were woven from the innumerable threads of providence that brought me to stand in front of it. My oldest daughter was the same age that Elizabeth Eckford was then. My middle daughter was the same age as Emmett Till was when he was lynched. The white woman with the face contorted in rage resembled any number of the women at my youngest daughter’s private Christian school (including me). I gazed at the passive faces of the military officers in the background, and at the adjacent pictures of television newscasters delivering live commentary from nearby sidewalk corners. With the morning media coverage of Diamond Reynold’s horrifying commentary recorded on her iPhone and posted on Facebook so fresh on my mind, it suddenly became crystal clear how the same confluence of factors at work in America in 1957, were working themselves out in identical ways in America in (then) 2016.
Before I headed to the airport, I stopped at the gift shop and bought books for each of my daughters, and one for myself titled “Warriors Don’t Cry”. An autobiography of another of the Little Rock Nine named Melba Beals, it reads like the memoir of a survivor of a POW camp. Tears streamed down my face, unchecked, as I read it from cover to cover on the flight home.
All of the same themes I had observed in the Visitors’ Center as I stood in front of Elizabeth Eckford’s picture, repeated themselves in Melba Beals’ story:
- The institutional entrenchment of unjust laws and abusive authority structures, buttressed by Biblical language and ideological blackmail
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the battle for the segregated South shifted to America’s institutions – law courts, schools, police forces, and churches.
- The prophetic power of visual media
Mamie Mobley insistence that her son’s casket be left open so that as many people as possible would be confronted by the horror of his death lead to the picture that was the visual spark that ignited the Civil Rights movement in earnest.
Two years later, ordinary citizens watched history unfold via the televisions in their living rooms, as the Little Rock Nine made their way home through an epithet- spewing mob via the new media of live television.
- The unfathomable courage and resolve of black women (many of them Christians)
From the mothers and grandmothers of the Little Rock Nine and their advocates like NAACP chapter president Daisy Bates, to women like Mamie Till, Rosa Parks, JoAnn Robinson and others, black women both endured and resisted immense political and personal pressure to push forward the work of racial equality and justice for African Americans
- The passive (and active) complicity of white Christians
Judges, politicians and pastors deployed Biblical language and theological arguments as offensive weapons against integration. Professing Christians absorbed them, and embraced entrenched racism and segregation as “biblical”. Christian dissenters and desegregation advocates were marginalized, labelled as liberals or heretics, so that many ordinary Christians capitulated to pressure to remain silent in the name of keeping peace.
Those themes have emerged yet again this past week in the aftermath of Officer Jeronimo Yanez’s acquittal in Philando Castile’s death, as new video and still images of the incident and its aftermath, and commentary on it, are rolling through social media.*
Whatever thinking, reading, writing, and social media interacting I’ve done on topic of the gospel and racial reconciliation since then was birthed from what God did in my mind and heart over those two days in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The term some groups use to describe my experience is being “woke”: the scales of ignorance have permanently fallen from my eyes so that I now see what African Americans have been testifying to for so long. It’s not a term I’m comfortable using. Wobbly grammar aside, I don’t know that it’s the most appropriate term culturally for a forty-something white lady from Silicon Valley to adopt for herself. But beyond that, it’s the way many people treat “wokeness” as a binary state – one in which you live completely, or not at all – that prevents me from embracing it, at least for myself.
My evolving understanding, and awkward, imperfect attempts to speak and act consistently with the gospel in all this feels more akin to how Neo felt in the famous red pill/blue pill scene in The Matrix.
I’m barely beyond the disorientation of waking up, covered in the slime of my ignorance, surrounded by a legion of others still unconscious. Gracious new friends are helping me build muscles atrophied from lack of use. My eyes hurt, because I’ve never used them before. And that’s about as far as it feels like I’ve come.
As I’ve lurched and stumbled through dialog about race and the gospel in the digital world of social media, and the personal world of my local church contexts (both the one I’m in now and well as ones from previous seasons of life), I’ve found myself in the same place as other white Christians in times past. I’ve experienced the subtle, and unsubtle, criticism and distancing by other white Christians, and heard the suggestions that I’ve “gone liberal” and fallen in with the so-called gospel-diluting “SJW”s. I’ve felt the tiny stings of social media unfollowing and mutings, when I’ve shared stories in the hopes others might finally be persuaded in the same way that stories persuaded me. Remembering the immeasurably worse my black sisters have endured, and continue to endure, convicts me when I’m tempted to silence, and simply spurs me to ask God to increase my faith and give me courage like theirs.
A different hurt comes from a place my reading hadn’t lead me to expect. When white Christians like me take a step forward in advocating for racial reconciliation or restitution, whether a small one on social media, or a slightly bigger one involving collective action, our attempts are sometimes met by some black Christians with cynicism, judgement, or a barrage of “so what are you going to do right now”s and “not enough”s. When you’ve discovered that some of the pillars of your understanding of the gospel are rotten, and you’re doing your uneducated best to replace them, the extra burden of law and guilt we’re given to wear weighs us down, and tempts us to quit. Remembering the far worse burdens my black brothers and sisters have borne for centuries without quitting, and the gospel of grace which gives all of our burdens to Jesus, spurs me to keep going anyway.
The lament over the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer was the biggest and loudest by Christians I’ve yet observed. It gives me hope that we may be living in what future generations of Christians might look back on as the real Great Awakening of the American church.
But it will require many more Christians to embrace the gospel in asking for God to reveal our blindness, to take the sins He reveals of our collective indifference, willful ignorance, and complicitness to the foot of the cross and leave them there,
and then ask Him to give us the grace to speak, and to act, precisely because so many generations of our forefathers and mothers would not.
*I’ve declined to include the video or still images of Philando Castile’s death, to respect both the African American community who are so constantly traumatized by these images, and the LEO community struggling to work under the dark shadow the unrighteous acts by some cast over the honorable and sacrificial service of the rest.
For the last sixteen years, San Jose, California – otherwise known as Silicon Valley, the technology capital of the world – has been my home. I moved here after an introduction via mutual coworker friends at the computer hardware company where I worked turned into marriage. My husband is a third generation Bay Area native who likes to regale me with memories of what San Jose used to look like when he was young. In those distant days, the sun shone through of rows of fruit trees growing in the orchards and farms that were so plentiful the area was known as “The Valley of Heart’s Delight”. Today, the orchards have been largely replaced by high tech office buildings, lined up alongside gridlocked thoroughfares and freeways, the morning sun glinting on recognizable logos like Ebay, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and a thousand startups that aspire to be them. These companies are where my neighbors, my kids’ school friends’ parents, and both my husband and I, all work, designing the hardware, software and Internet infrastructure on which much of the world now runs.
The dominant value that drives Silicon Valley culture is living life without limits. From laptops, mobile phones and apps, to the infrastructure that keeps everything “always on”, Silicon Valley technology companies create and sell the ability to be anywhere, do anything, buy anything, and know everything, all the time. Got a problem? There’s an app for that. Got a question? Just Google it. Need something right away? Amazon can get it to your doorstep by tomorrow (and after their drone service launches, they’ll have delivery time down to 30 minutes).
The more the world buys in to the “anything anytime” way of life technology offers, the more pressure the companies who profit from selling it place on their people to deliver it. Can’t be in meetings at two places at once? Log in to a robot and be there virtually . Are meal breaks cutting into your productivity? Try Soylent. Need to optimize your efficiency? Hack your brain with fasting and “nootropic supplements.” Workforce demands for costly benefits like time off and overtime dragging down profits and production rates? Just replace your people with robots. For all Silicon Valley talks about work/life balance, the reality is that many people in my city teeter continually on the edge of burnout from the relentless pressure.
Christians like me who work in the high tech industry are only just beginning to wrestle with what it looks like to live as faithful followers of Christ in the digital world we are helping to build; all Christians are wrestling with how to live in it. Several years ago, Hannah Anderson offered one answer in a book called “Made For More”. In it, she argued that we will struggle with the various roles and vocations to which God calls us unless they are grounded in our most fundamental identity as human beings made in the image of God. While primarily written for Christian women struggling to separate cultural expectations about womanhood from genuinely biblical ones, “Made For More’s” argument about the centrality of the doctrine of the imago dei to our identity and purpose, directly counters contemporary Silicon Valley dogma that human beings are simply sophisticated iPhone apps to be deployed, consumed, enhanced, then deleted when no longer of use.
In her latest book, “Humble Roots – How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Our Souls”, Anderson extends the conversation about the centrality of “imago dei” by examining one of its most important and transformative implications for everyday life. In her introduction she states, “…looking like God does not mean that we are God. We are made in God’s image, but we are made nonetheless.” (p. 11) Anderson’s assertion is that the key to productive and peaceful Christian living is found, not in fighting our limitations, as the modern titans of technology would insist, but in embracing them, and entrusting ourselves to the One who truly is limitless, not just in power, but in love. Ostensibly a book of lessons in humility gleaned from life in rural Appalachia, the central theme of “Humble Roots” offers a compelling, and profoundly countercultural, vision for what it truly looks like to live as imago dei, in an increasingly imago apparatus world.
The unifying Scripture passage for the book is Matthew 6:25-34, in which Jesus encourages His followers to “consider the lilies” – to look at the natural world and see how it testifies to God’s provision for His children who are made in His image. In “Humble Roots”, Anderson writes a series of meditations on lessons learned living amongst the fields and flowers of rural Appalachia, as the wife of a fulltime pastor who is also a gifted gardener and hobby farmer. Through stories of plowing in winter and sun-ripened tomato harvesting in summer, herbs and local honey, Anderson takes Jesus’ words to heart to look at the natural world and see what God is saying to her, and to us, about the sources of our everyday worries and anxieties, and how to put them to rest.
In the first section of the book, Anderson works to uncovers the root, as it were, of the stress and overwork that plagues so many of us. She locates it in our efforts to pursue productivity and peace on our own terms, and in our own strength. While a “bright red anemone can dance beside a gun’s turret” without a care, we run around in endless circles of business and stress, behaving as though each day’s outcomes is entirely dependent on us, but stymied by the evidence of how little is actually in our control. Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 challenge us to acknowledge this reality, instead of fighting it, and to look to Him for the rest all of our work is failing to accomplish. “In chapter 2, “Breaking Ground”, Anderson shows how the weight of the burdens of expectations and effort that we place on ourselves can be compared to the heavy yokes oxen would wear in the agrarian culture of Jesus’ day. When Jesus exhorts his listeners to “take My yoke upon you…for My yoke is easy and my burden is light”, He is not calling us to take on yet one more burden, but to exchange the heavy ones of our own work for the lightness of submission to him. When we set aside the heavy yoke of our confidence in our to live life under our own strength and on our own terms, and submit to the yoke of Jesus, He gives us rest.
As Anderson notes, many Christians approach the pursuit of this needed humble submission the way they approach other aspects of sanctification – as a matter of sheer will. In chapter 3, “Returning to Our Roots”, Anderson shows that the best our self-derived efforts at humility will produce is the nefarious “humblebrag” (pg. 49). In big ways and small, our self-derived efforts to achieve humility through more control, continual self-denial, or a “let it go” mentality, just becomes yet one more burdensome yoke to bear. Just as the vintners tending Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello vineyard only succeeded in growing wine when they grafted vine cuttings from a foreign country onto their rootstock, we need a source of humility that isn’t derived from us, or our efforts. We need Jesus’ humility, the humility that caused Him to set aside His limitless glory and live as a dependent, limited human man on our behalf. “Through His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus shows us our true identity as people dependent on God for life. And through His life, death, and resurrection, He imparts this humble life to us once again.” (pg. 57) True humility begins when we acknowledge that even our ability to be humble is limited, and we look to Jesus to lay down our efforts, and rest in His.
With this foundation laid, the rest of the book considers how this kind of humility, grounded in equal measures of honest acknowledgement of our limits, and confident faith in God’s provision for them through Christ, “grounds and nourishes our souls”, as the subtitle states. In the second section of the book, Anderson considers the effects this kind of humility can have on ourselves as individuals – on our perception of our bodies, our handling of our emotions, and the relative trust (or distrust) we should have in our own intellect and abilities. In the final section of the book, she looks at how humility can transform the way we move through the world – how we use our gifts and pursue our desires, how we think about suffering (our own as well as what we observe in the world), and how to look at the ultimate symbols of our finitude – sleep and death.
Anderson doesn’t try to cover every possible aspect of life humility can transform, but the areas on which she does focus are ones to which every reader will relate. Indeed, there is an entire cottage industry of books dedicated to helping women overcome their body image issues, or find contentment or so forth. I’ve certainly read my share of them. “Humble Roots” exposes why so many of them failed to have the intended effect. Too often, they encourage us to simply pull at the stems and leaves of an issue, while leaving its roots behind, permitting the toxic growth to begin all again. “Humble Roots” shows how to wield humility like a trowel, to dig under the pride that is at the root of so many of the issues that rob us of joy and cause anxiety, and cast those sins aside for good.
For example, on body image she says this:
“Simply learning to ‘love your body’ will not free you from shame because, at times, your body will feel very unlovable. What will free you from shame is…accepting that you are not and were never meant to be divine.”(pg.89)
On pursuing goals and plans she writes,
“It is precisely through the process of learning to plan that we learn to depend on the God who makes our plans happen. Pride, on the other hand, demands to know God’s will before it will act.” (pg.159)
“Part of humility means trusting God with our plans and submitting to the possibility that they will not be fulfilled. But part of humility also means trusting God with our plans and submitting to the possibiility that they will be fulfilled in ways we cannot imagine…the humble also understand that the possibility of failure is no reason not to work.” (pg. 167)
And on pursuing a godly perspective on our differing gifts and privilege, she notes (with a gentle dig at the premise of a famous best selling book for women on gratitude)
“When we consider our resources, it is not simply enough to count our one thousand gifts. Our one thousand gifts are actually one thousand opportunities: the very means by which God intends to seed His world.”(pg. 149)
With the beautiful prose and thoughtful turns of phrases that are her trademark, “Humble Roots” establishes Anderson as a writer and thinker who communicates theologically deep and culturally subversive ideas in a deceptively simple and beautiful way. As with “Made For More”, supporting quotes and anecdotes from popular works of literature like “Pride and Prejudice” and ”The Fellowship of the Ring”, as well as more scholarly works by Anne Marie Slaughter, Isaac Watts, and others, are sprinkled throughout the book. The stories she tells about her failed efforts to grow pole beans, or her struggles to understand her husband’s expensive enthusiasm for heirloom apples, are refreshingly self-deprecating (as perhaps is appropriate for a book on humility!). And you shouldn’t read the final chapter until you have some Kleenex and a quiet spot to compose yourself after you ugly-cry.
Many examples in the book reference church ministry as a context where the battle of pride vs. humility is constantly waged and frequently lost, which is understandable, given Anderson’s role as pastor’s wife. Consequently, I couldn’t help contemplating the benefits to the church if this book were to makes its way onto the required reading list for people preparing to enter full time ministry. I say “people”, because although Anderson writes to and for women, the insights in this book, as well as her previous one, have universal application. There is a long unchallenged adage that women will gladly read books written by men, but men are reluctant to do the same. Because of the way “Humble Roots” frames humility as a posture of acknowledgement of our boundaries and limits as human beings, I’ve never a read a book with more potential to help men, as well as women, contemplate the ways gender itself is a form of human limitation. A humble willingness to look to, and learn from, the uniqueness of the imago dei through our differences as male and female, would be a beautiful expression of God’s original design in the very first garden He gave His creatures to tend.
A few readers may find some of Anderson’s stories from nature overly lengthy, relative to the spiritual applications she draws from them. And her frequent use of couplets and triplets to emphasize her points may read as somewhat repetitive, at least to pragmatic readers like me, who are most often helped best when an author makes a point once, then moves on. But chapter 7 challenged me to question my impatience. In “Vine Ripened” Anderson compares our preference for fast answers, and neat and tidy solutions to the problems of the Christian life, to a tomato that has been artificially ripened in a greenhouse – red, plump and shiny on the outside, but inside, a “mealy, flavorless mouthful of regret.” The best tomatoes are the ones who have been tended and nourished by months of cycles of sunlight and darkness, and continual pruning and tending. “Humility predisposes us to believe that we always have something to learn.”(pg. 121) In the weeks since I first read “Humble Roots” hardly a day has gone by that I haven’t been brought up short by a new awareness of the pride behind a casual thought or an impatient word, and I’ve been compelled to rehearse what I thought didn’t need repeating.
Therein is the profundity of “Humble Roots”. It calls us to acknowledge our weaknesses, and in heeding its words offers a path to true strength and real rest. A book by a country pastor’s wife from Appalachian hill country offers a better and truer vision for life than a thousand Steve Jobs or Bill Gates ever can. A book that hearkens to Silicon Valley’s own rural past, serves as an invitation to a more beautiful, lasting future, and offers the tools that could build it, if we would but have the humility to accept them, and lay our own useless ones down.
I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Of all the subjects I struggled with in high school, physics was the worst. My inability to comprehend even the basics of the subject crushed my pride, and drove me towards the humanities and English (where you could make words mean anything if you tried hard enough). Only years later did I discover the difference between theoretical and applied physics, and how each discipline helps you understand the other. My high school taught applied physics in a theoretical vacuum, believing that focusing on the so-called “practical” parts of physics would keep us engaged. A lot of my friends flourished with that approach (which no doubt accounts for my bruised ego). In my case, the opposite occurred. Unmoored from the “why” of theoretical physics, the “what” of applied physics was frustratingly difficult to understand.
Theological debates can function in much the same way. Some people – primarily theologians with lots of letters after their names, or those who aspire to be them – often default to the theoretical. Theologia in abstracto, as it were. Latin, Greek, and church history are totally their jam. Other, mostly the laity, prefer to default to so-called “practical” theology. They’re interested in how an argument is going to change their marriage, their parenting, or some other aspect of daily life (and if they don’t think it will, they quickly move on). Then there’s the lonely few in the middle, looking at both sides and wondering why we, er, I mean people, have to choose between the two.
For the last six weeks or so, the Reformed Internet has been abuzz with what, to some, might read like a theologia in abstracto debate on the relationship between the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Several of the participants have tried to keep the debate tethered to its practical implications for inter-gender relationships. But for the most part, the controversy has centered on contemporary arguments over ancient creeds, and ancient and modern interpretations of the words and phrases therein.
This is not a bad thing.
In fact, I think it’s been a great thing. A lot of people are sort of shaking their heads like you do after an involuntary nap, looking around and saying, “What’s a Nicene Creed?” If that’s you, get thee to the Internet for a few minutes and read something about it, and how it came to be. It will help with the “why” and “what” of the current debate.
It might, though, still leave you scratching your head about the “so what” – the practical implications of what still might seem to be a pretty heady topic.
The now widely distributed and helpful Books At A Glance bibliography frames the debate timeline, and its participants, around three posts in June of last year, which review or comment on Bruce Ware and John Starke’s (no relation) book “ One God in Three Persons”, and Liam Goligher’s post at Mortification of Spin, published almost exactly one year to the day later, with back and forth responses flying multiple times per day thereafter. The approach and content of the posts, places them pretty squarely on the “theoretical” side of the conversation. A lot of Latin phrases, names and dates are deployed, and the focus of the argument is primarily on Trinitarian relations, albeit with a healthy sprinkling of allusions to the “practical” implications for complementarianism (as it is increasingly murkily defined).
But the years prior to the Ware and Starke’s book, and especially during and after the twelve months between those two sets of posts, have been far from silent on the “so what”.
Going back several years, there has been a separate (but not entirely so) stream of conversation going on at the (mostly) “practical” level, about increasingly troubling trends in the way practical applications of complementarianism have found their way into different types of Bible teaching, both in print, and on social media. About a year ago, an increased attempt was made to trace the origins of these teachings back to their theological source. As the study and conversation progressed, the root cause of the problematic teaching was found in a questionable perspective on the Trinity. Once identified, the logical next step was to try and raise the issue as a whole – the questionable doctrine, and its serious practical consequences – to invite more intentional thought and conversations amongst its proponents, and to offer an opportunity for reconsideration and correction.
After the debate ignited last month, many of those same writers continued their conversations, connecting higher level arguments to their ground level implications, not just in speculative scenarios, but in examples of living print, in places of ongoing influence in ordinary Christian pastors’, and pew sitters, every day lives.
These posts are absent from the current bibliography, so that the debate might seem to have emerged from nowhere, now currently hovering over the Reformed Internet inside a bit of a scholastic theological bubble. I offer them up below, embedded into a subset of the ones referenced at Books at a Glance, in the hopes that they’ll provide some helpful context, and practical grounding, in how this debate came to be, and why some of us with only a few letters after our name are invested in it.
The more observant of my readers may note a chromosomal commonality shared by the authors of these posts, and be tempted to commence conspiracy theory-ing as to the reason for their exclusion. In the spirit of 1 Corinthians 13 forbearance, can I encourage you not to do that right now? Instead, in the spirit of this post (which, yes, I wrote, so that’s a little tacky, but to be honest I wrote it with women like Rachel Miller and Aimee and Wendy in mind), can I invite you just to read and consider what’s been written and argued, and how God wants you, personally, to respond?
March 10, 2009
March 13, 2013
May 8, 2015
May 22 2015
May 28, 2015
August 17, 2015
August 25, 2015
8 MAY 2015
Fred Sanders, “Things Eternal: Sonship, Generation, Generatedness” (8 MAY 2015), on The Scriptorium Daily at http://scriptoriumdaily.com/things-eternal-sonship-generation-generatedness/ [accessed 23 JUN 2016].
22 MAY 2015
Stephen Holmes, “Reflections on a new defence of ‘complementariainism’” (22 MAY 2016), on Shored Fragments at http://steverholmes.org.uk/blog/?p=7507 [accessed 23 JUN 2016].
1 JUN 2015
Fred Sanders, “Generations Eternal and Current” (1 JUN 2015), on The Scriptorium Daily at http://scriptoriumdaily.com/generations-eternal-and-current/ [accessed 23 JUN 2016].
September 2, 2015
Dr. Valerie Hobbs
October 7, 2015
April 21, 2016
April 22, 2016
April 24 , 2016
April 26, 2016
3 JUN 2016
Liam Goligher, “Is it Okay to Teach a Complementarianism Based on Eternal Subordination?”
(3 JUN 2016), posted by Aimee Byrd on Housewife Theologian at
June 6, 2016
June 13, 2016
Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson
June 20, 2016
June 22, 2016
June 23, 2016
June 30, 2016
July 7, 2016
July 8, 2016
July 11, 2016
If you ask my fifteen-year-old daughter about her career goals, she’ll instantly tell you they involve “being invisible.” This isn’t just because she’s an introvert. It’s because she has a passion for technical theater and stage managing, which is, as simply as I can describe it, the art and science of doing the parts of theater that orchestrate what happens on stage, without requiring you to ever be on it. It involves a lot of pushing buttons, and plugging and unplugging cables, and wearing black from head to toe. But the biggest part of the job involves her broadcasting a constant, quiet stream of instructions to a team of light, sound and stage technicians via a headset. And so now I have a problem with her summer job.
Traditional complementarian teaching would consider my daughter’s aspirations to a vocation that involves being a quiet helper of others as commendable, even womanly. What could be more feminine than not wanting to be up front and center, but preferring to work quietly in the background, literally shining the lights on other people on stage? But the complementarianism attached to the latest iteration of the Trinity debate, while affirming my daughter’s natural reserve, would take issue with the requirement that she be giving orders to big burly stagehands about when they should be raising and lowering backdrops. Unless the burly stagehands are women. (But then, they’d take issue with the burly women stagehands.)
This is why challenging distorted theology about the Trinity and its attachment to gender definitions matters.
This is where it matters
Right here, today, as my eldest daughter is getting ready to start her first paid summer job as a stage manager for a local children’s’ theater.
According to the arguments for the stream of complementarianism outlined by the authors of “The Grand Design” (and the increasingly vocal leaders of an aspirationally and aggressively influential organization dedicated to it),
my daughter’s exercise of her emerging abilities to flawlessly orchestrate the actions of a team of men (and women) to bring Frozen to life on a community theater stage, will distort her femininity, the masculinity of every man she instructs, and the gospel.
According to CBMW, my fifteen-year-old girl needs to get a different summer job.
I’ll gladly take suggestions in the comments. But remember that lifeguarding is out, too. (Too much potential for more distortion of her womanhood because of all that yelling at men to get out of the water if she spots a shark).