Emergence Christianity, Women, and the Fall of Christendom
Last week I was able to attend the Emergence Christianity Gathering in Memphis, TN. In truth, I went mostly to see old friends and to get the fix that comes from surrounding myself (for a few days at least) with people who ask the same sorts of questions I ask. Not that we all think the same, but sometimes I just need that freedom to be myself for a few days. So on that level, the Gathering was amazing. I had some great conversations, heard some good Blues bands, and ate enough barbeque to last a lifetime.
And for the most part, I enjoyed the content of the conference. Yes, there was a serious lack of diversity on stage and amidst attendees. Yes, meeting in a cathedral makes for a very uncomfortable venue. But for what this event was (a celebration of Phyllis Tickle’s life and work), I was prepared to deal with those.
And then came the final session.
There’s no denying that the final session was just weird. Even those who weren’t offended by what was said there thought it was a very odd way to end a conference. I’ve had both people who were there and who were following along on Twitter asking me what the hell happened. I can’t really explain why it happened, but I want to spend some time responding.
A big part of the problem was that people coming to an emergence Christianity event, especially to hear such an intelligent woman as Phyllis, were not expecting to disagree with her much less hear her say such confusing and hurful things about women, people with disabilities (more on this one another day), and African-Americans. From what I gathered, people came there hopeful for what is emerging in the church and left feeing bewildered. They expected to perhaps disagree with some speakers, but Phyllis is beloved and so the disconnect was far more jarring. I’ve heard Phyllis give versions of these lectures before, but never draw the conclusions she did at this event, so even to me, it was unsettling.
The main content of the gathering was Phyllis doing her whole overview of church history to explain where the church is today and how we got here. It’s a fantastic, albeit cursory, survey of church history which far too few Christians have any knowledge whatsoever about. In her talks, she is always one to make snarky comments or sex jokes that no one but a woman pushing 80 can get away with, but the unsettling pattern in her storytelling this time was to blame women for the demise of Christendom. In the final session Phyllis described the rise and fall of Constantinian Christianity and pointed to the emancipation of women in the 20th century as a catalyst for that decline. While most of us there would agree that the fall of Christendom is a very good thing and that women’s liberation significantly changed our culture, it was where Phyllis went with from there that caused the discomfort.
Phyllis described the freedoms working outside the home in WW2 and the ability to control our cycles the Pill brought women and argued that such things led to the destruction of the nuclear family and therefore the foundation of the civil religion of Christendom. While it is a narrow assessment of causality, I can agree with the descriptive observation that such things changed our culture. But then she jumped from these changes as that which brought an end to Christendom to describing how such changes led to the destruction of the ways the faith is passed on to new generations which thereby resulted in a biblically illiterate society. As she described it, when mom is not at home weaving the stories of scripture and the church calendar into her day to day activities in front of her children, they do not receive the basics of the faith. One cannot apparently have a sacred family meal over Papa John’s pizza picked up on the way home from work the same way that one can if one is baking bread, doing family crafts, and eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Phyllis ended the session by encouraging us to discover ways to be back in the kitchen with our children and finding crafty ways to import the rhythms of the church year to them. Essentially to focus on the family and all that. That is the great emergence. The end.
You can see why people left bewildered.
The story as she told it made sense – constructed narratives work that way – women are to blame for the post-Christian era and if we just got back in the home the faith could thrive again. But it is important to note that in her narrative instead of focusing on what has emerged that brings hope in this world, she was telling the story of why things have changed – which are two vastly different perspectives. At some point in telling the story of change it is hard not to get nostalgic about one point or another and hold a sugar-coated vision of that time up as the period we must all try to harken back towards. The problem with such an approach is that it ignores the underside of said period and it imposes guilt upon those who find hope outside that period’s restrictions.
In making the argument that religion was far stronger when the nuclear family (as defined by a working father and stay at home mother) reigned one not only limits the definition of who gets to represent proper religion but also romanticizes a system that was far more broken than is often realized. The truth is, not all Christian families had the luxury of living such a white middle-class, middle-America lifestyle. Even ignoring the patterns of faith outside the Western world, it is only a small demographic of people who ever had a mother at home teaching the children the church year as she cooked their supper. To hold such up as a goal for contemporary Christians to return to privileges white, middle-class, liturgical faith as the only true or acceptable way to be a faithful Christian. While there is nothing wrong with living in such ways, it is not nor never has been the only way to live one’s faith or impart it to one’s children.
To lament that our culture ever changed from such a family structure (even though only a few ever lived it to begin with) also ignores the ills of that very structure. The shift in the Reformation period that empowered women by making them the spiritual leader in the home has over time not only ostracized men from spiritual practices (because such things are “just” for women) but also restricted women’s service to God to just within the household. This way of thinking does a disservice to men, women, and the Kingdom of God. Perpetuating the notion that it is the role of women to care for the spiritual development of their family in their home ignores the fact that it was causing problems for the faith long before the practice began to decline.
Similarly, upholding this family structure ignores that the development of the modern nuclear family wasn’t exactly a healthy historical development. Prior to the Victorian era’s turn to individualized nuclear family dwellings, people lived far more communally. Multiple generations lived together and villages functioned as extended family. There was no such thing as a woman keeping house herself. No one ever had to cook, clean, manage the house, watch the kids, and educate the kids on her own. Younger teens helped around the house. Kids could wander the village knowing that most people there would take care of them and that they too were expected to help others as needed. Crying babies were watched by the tween girls or elderly women while the women devoted themselves to other tasks. The development of the nuclear family took all of those support structures away from women. Those who were not rich enough to afford servants to help them were expected for the first time in history to bear the burden of all the household tasks alone. A few enlightened men in recent decades have begun to lend a hand, but it is rare that extended families much less the community (including the church) feel any need to help women with these tasks – expecting her instead to be some sort of supermom who can do it all. At the same time the turn toward isolated nuclear families took away the safety that being in community provides. When generations live together and everyone in the village knows each other’s business it is a lot harder for abuse of women and children to be hidden. Not that it didn’t happen or that women weren’t treated as property during those periods, but the façade of the nuclear family hid many ills that a nostalgic romanticized view ignores. It was not a sustainable system, and it is no surprise that by the mid-twentieth century women were both “running for the shelter of mother’s little helper” and seeking freedom from such unrealistic expectations.
But just because the story can be told in such a way that explains why things have changed in a regretful fashion doesn’t mean that is the only way the story must be told. Allowing women to lead family devotions was a huge hopeful step forward in empowering women once upon a time. The freedom that working outside the home and the Pill brought women gave them hope of being fully themselves and the ability to stand on their own two feet apart from abusive and controlling husbands and fathers. I think many of us at the Emergence Christianity Gathering were shocked that such stories of hope were ignored in favor of one that piled on the same stale guilt that we have come to expect from traditional religion. I’m not saying that Phyllis Tickle can’t believe whatever she wants about the role and place of women or tell the story of history through her own particular biases, but what dawned on many of us during this final session was that she was no longer telling a story of emergence. The end of the story as she told it was not one of hope and promise, but one of restrictions and guilt that we are already well acquainted with. It hurt to hear that from her, and many couldn’t bring themselves to admit that they had problems with how she told the story – just that it felt like a really weird ending to the conference. It is like we were waiting for permission to disagree, to state that was not the only way to tell the story.
So here I go – as much as I am grateful for Phyllis and admire much of her work, she does not possess the only truth regarding what is emerging. It is okay to tell the story of where we have been as a story of hope and liberation instead of merely one of regrettable change. We are still figuring out how to live within this emerging world and what were once whispered ideas and conversations are now unquestioned facts about the evolution of our culture. Not knowing where we came from is dangerous, but so is staking our claim in a misunderstood past. We are constantly negotiating what it means to witness with hope within this present moment without simply re-iterating the past. How we tell our story determines the shape of that witness.
So my question for Emergence Christians is – how can we use this awkward moment to push us to start telling this story of hope?