This Valentine’s Day, two films will battle for the hearts and minds of the American public. One of them is Fifty Shades of Grey, the popular culture juggernaut that has earned millions of dollars worldwide. The other is a Christian-produced independent film, Old Fashioned, which bills itself as the scrubbed-up, evangelical alternative.
Having faith-based responses to secular media (and saying Fifty Shades of Grey is secular is a little like saying the Grand Canyon is big) is more than appropriate. It’s necessary. Otherwise we risk ignoring the vital words of Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Christians and non-believers alike should be regularly exposed to art that causes them to question the world around them.
Sadly, Old Fashioned is not the movie to fit that bill. Both it and Fifty Shades of Grey present dangerously unrealistic portraits of relationships — one just does it without the sex.
Sojourners is offering an important opportunity for Christian churches to examine their attitudes towards women. Following up on an article by Michelle A. Gonzalez entitled “Breaking the Habits of Machismo,” Gonzalez and Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, will conduct a live video discussion on Wednesday, Feb. 12 to “discuss what the Bible really says to encourage, affirm, and empower women and girls in their call to be leaders.”
Judging from Gonzalez’s article, this conversation will focus on what it means to affirm that both men and women are created in God’s image. She begins her article with the Common English Bible translation of Genesis 1:27: “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” Though she points to important changes taking place in Christianity today, Gonzalez traces the legacy of Christian thinking on womanhood that has elevated men and devalued women, instilling “habits of machismo” in our churches and our culture that are difficult to break.
But break them we must, Gonzalez argues, if we want to free both our theology and our practice from “male-oriented power structures.” Amen, sister. Because this is about more than equal employment opportunities for women in church administrative structures, of whether we are allowed to “preach, lead from the altar, celebrate communion, administer rites, pastor congregations, or teach.” What’s at stake in this conversation is whether Christians — and I think this is a call to American Christians in particular — whether American Christians are willing to dismantle a long-held justification for violence against women, not just in our country, but around the world. Gonzalez herself points out that patriarchal “attitudes can lead to greater violence against women, such as we see in the increasing exploitation and attacks on young women and how social media is used to perpetuate and document these horrific acts,” but this is her only nod to the issue of gender-based violence. Let’s add to the picture a look at the violence perpetrated by men against female bodies that has become to typify conflict zones around the world.
Most of us are too familiar with this story: an Upper Midwestern Baptist minister claims that “God made Christianity to have a masculine feel [and] ordained for the church a masculine ministry.” Or a Reformed Christian pastor mocks the appointment of the first female head of the Episcopal Church, comparing her to a “fluffy baby bunny rabbit.” Or a Southern Baptist megachurch pastor in California says physical abuse by one’s spouse is not a reason for divorce. Or numerous young evangelical ministers brag about their hot wives in tight leather pants.
Fewer of us are familiar with this story: Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon. Tamar protests her brother’s advances, citing the social code of Israel, his reputation, and her shame, to no avail. Their brother Absalom commands her to keep quiet, and their father, the great King David, turns a blind eye.
What do these contemporary statements above, delivered into cultural megaphones with conviction and certainty, have to do with the Old Testament rape and silencing of Tamar? The difficult answer is, quite a lot. The narrative dominance of these stories rests on power and control, which — whether intentional or not — speaks volumes about whom the church serves and what the church values.