Theologizing and Cultural Transformation

Why would I name a whole blog, “Storied Theology,” as if the most important thing I had to say deals with some new-fangled theological method?

Why would I care if someone starts with natural law or the story of Jesus when they begin speaking of God?

How could it be anything other than, mostly, a waste of time to invest a life trying to get people to read scripture in more faithful continuity with the biblical story?

One answer to this cluster of questions is shown, in the negative, by the work of Douglas Wilson that was quoted on the Gospel Coalition website this past week. (My thoughts about it here.)

That such a moment could surface depends on myriad pieces being in place. One of them is this: the Gospel Coalition promotes a reading strategy of scripture that demands of modern people that we accept and attempt to emulate the patriarchal cultures from which the biblical texts arise.

Without a narrative hermeneutic of the cross, they have no recourse for retreating from readings that reinforce use and abuse of power. Indeed, their readings quite often demand that we all submit to such.

Patriarchy isn’t a culture moment of separate but equal… although, come to think of it, “separate but equal” is helpful inasmuch as it conjures up America’s attempt to run a “separate but equal” system which demonstrated itself to be an enshrinement of inequality.

Patriarchy is a web of cultural expressions tied to the common assumption that men are better than women: smarter, more competent, stronger, morally superior, inherently more valuable.

Patriarchy is a web of cultural expressions designed to maintain people “in their place” by the exercise of power or passive submission appropriate to their inherent value.

The problem with appealing to “nature” in theological argumentation is that patriarchy arises from a world within which physical power is the means by which leadership is acquired and exercised. Patriarchy is the fruit of a world where being able to hunt, kill, subdue, colonize, conquer leads to prominence.

Patriarchy is the fruit of the reign of the world by Egypt and Babylon, by Assyria and Media, by Greece and by Rome.

I get it. Power and conquest lead to rule.

And that’s why it’s absolutely crucial that Christians learn, again and again, the story of the cross. Here we learn that there is true power, yes, but that it is had and gained by denying the power structures of the world. Paradoxically, it is gained by losing its power to theirs.

You cannot fill the role of the patriarch in a cruciform manner, because the patriarch is the crucifier, not the Crucified.

This is but one instance of how far we are, as evangelical Christians, from having our minds transformed by the gospel story.

The Gospel Coalition’s headline description on its blog reads as follows:

Equipping the next generation for gospel-faithful ministry and promote church reform and culture transformation. Led by Tim Keller and Don Carson.

I like the goal. But it calls into question what “culture” we’re hoping to transform from and what we’re trying to transform to.

If the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be poured into the wineskins of God-given Jewish practice and belief without blowing them up, how much less can we anticipate that pouring the gospel into anti-Kingdom power structures will “transform” those structures to be more like Jesus–rather than blowing them up?

Propping up an account of sex as conquest is an understanding that maleness, physical strength, even possession of a penis per se, reflects the cosmic reality that God desires men to rule through the power of their might.

This is the theology of the world’s kings.

But it is not the theology of the King over those kings.

The story of the cross upends the story of power that props up too many of the power structures that enable us to have a voice among the people who would follow Jesus.

The heart-searching that should follow in the wake of the “sex as male conquest” debacle is much farther reaching than what J. Wilson has admirably led in. It should call us all to reexamine the ways in which we think that God’s desire is to reaffirm the power that we happen to have, the power meted out to us by the rulers of this age–who crucified the Lord of glory.

22 thoughts on “Theologizing and Cultural Transformation”

  1. I’m struck by the truthfulness of your post and by it’s powerful clarity. I guess that could be because I agree with you. Then I wonder why the strong disagreement such as in the article by Leslie Leyland Fields in the current issue of CT, “The Gospel Is More Than a Story.”

    Perhaps you can give some feedback on the parts of Scripture that are not directly story. I agree that the story arc is the key message bearer. But, how are we to see wisdom and apocalyptic literature as being of the story?

    1. Good questions, Ron. That would probably take more than a comment, and perhaps take this thread off topic? How about if I take that up on Mon or Tue?

      There’s a general answer that I think is important here; namely, even the non-narratival texts presume the story and need to be read as expressions within it.

      1. Daniel,

        Spot on in my opinion. But then again, I will readily confess my love for all things narrative. Its a narrative approach that finally helped me make some sense of the Pauline texts on marriage, submission, women, etc (I don’t think Paul is as much the systematic theologian many want to make him).

        As for the CT article … I read it over and while it makes one or two good points, overall it struck as missing the point about what narrative theology is about. I agree that all texts presume story and need to be read as expressions within a storied framework. This is why I would go so far as to say that there are really no ‘non-narratival’ texts (even Pauline ‘didactic’ texts on sex, marriage, etc). The various literary genres become the means through which the Story is communicated and through which we develop a Story shaped, cruciform imagination.

    1. The guys who took the bullet for their girlfriends in Aurora were probably part of the patriarchy. Did they do it in a cruciform manner?

  2. Great post in light of this issue. I agree with Ron. Great clarity. Thanks for posting.

    BTW – just finished your book. Loved it.

  3. Let me get this straight: You’re saying that we are supposed to understand our basic humanity, our response to history and culture, our relationship to God, and our essential being in terms of Jesus? Is that Christian? Where could you get such an idea? [What's the tongue-in-cheek emoticon?]

  4. It is true that the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture, but that doesn’t explain them away. The gospels were, too, and Jesus was clear that he leaned his own chops from those same scriptures concerning which he said that not one stroke or dot would pass away until all was fulfilled. We’re still a long way from that complete fulfillment.

    However, we read in Genesis 3 that sin came into the world through Adam, and that the woman became the mother of all living, clearly because when asked she told the truth, instgead of prevaricating and blame-shifting like Adam.

    The foundations of patriarchy are undermined even in rules that make concessions to mens’ hardness of heart, as is done with slavery in Deuteronomy 23:15-16. For instance, if a woman has sex out in the field it is presumed that she cried out and was raped. The guy can’t litigate the issue. Again, if a guy suspects his wife of adultery, he brings her to the temple and has her drink some water with dust from the floor of the temple. If God doesn’t actively testify against her by making her belly swell, she’s not guilty. Again, a rapist is required to marry the young woman, but she isn’t required to marry him, and a man is required to take his brother’s wife when he dies childless, but she isn’t required to agree.

  5. my husband and i both read this post separately, loved it, and emailed it on to the same friends. :) we desperately need our understanding and definition of ‘power’ to be uprooted and replaced by the power under/lamb-power of Jesus. any other kind of power, even in ‘good hands’ seems to subtly corrupt. thanks for this post.

  6. I have often wondered if God’s very choice of the act of circumcision as the entry point into the covenant (coupled of course with the NT exhortations to circumcise the heart) isn’t in itself a deliberate undercutting of human systems of power, and specifically the patriarchal basis of the institutions of the time (and most times). Of course, approaching it as a woman, I’m hesitant to say a symbolic representation of castration, because I have no idea how it reads to men, but I do wonder ..

  7. ” I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you.

    We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored. This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.

    So what is Paul’s concession that he might have to use authority “harshly”? How could he possibly even contemplate that, under Daniel’s view that it’s always unchristian to be ‘strong’.

    Also, note that Christ died weakly, but lives by power. To leave the narrative in crucifiction is only part of the narrative.

    Not saying Daniel doesn’t have an important corrective when Christians are tempted to ‘lord it over’ one another. But the corrective has a corrective too.

    1. Notice how Paul’s words make it clear that the power is God’s. Not Paul’s. There are times when it’s necessary to speak the truth powerfully– but Paul wasn’t asserting any God-given right to human power. He was asserting that God had called him in this instance to use God’s power to set things right.

      It’s not about gradations of human power. All the power in the new creation is God’s.

  8. Don’t agree with you on this one, Daniel. Mainly because you set up,a straw man and proceed to knock him over.

    “Patriarchy is a web of cultural expressions tied to the common assumption that men are better than women: smarter, more competent, stronger, morally superior, inherently more valuable.”

    This would be truly terrible…if anyone actually believed it. Doug Wilson does not believe the above, neither does anyone else in The Gospel Coalition.

    Would you like it if they mischaracterized your position so badly?

    I think not.

    1. I under stand the concern, John. But in this case, the portion you quote is quite true, historically. I’m not sure you can continue to embrace the expression of patriarchy while somehow leaving behind the assumptions about inherent superiority and inferiority that gave rise to it.

      1. Doesn’t your read of how Jesus turns it all on it head still maintain assumptions about superiority and inferiority?

        Ok, so Jesus is pierced. Now the inferior is shown to truly be superior. Its not egalitarianism; an inverted hierarchy is still a hierarchy.

        1. I disagree. It’s not an inverted hierarchy– it’s a subversion of hierarchy. Jesus, as the Incarnate of God, showed us by example– if anyone had a right to assume power, it was He. But instead He did the opposite, as the Human example for us all.

          He showed us a new creation of equal brothers and sisters, under one Father.

          I’ve written on the same theme on my blog this week, if anyone’s interested:

      2. If it is quite true, please furnish some evidence that anyone at TGC believes that men are smarter, more competent or morally superior to women. You are making generalizations based on your assumptions without any evidence to back up your assumptions.

        And complementarianism does not equal patriarchy, except to those who would make a caricature of the position.

        1. ‘And complementarianism does not equal patriarchy, except to those who would make a caricature of the position.’

          Then some very prominent ‘complementarians’ are making a caricature of their own position – even at the TGC.

          I point you to a TGC article by Joe Carter in which he says, “the patriarchy of marriage models the patriarchy of the Godhead.”

          He in turn links to Denny Burk who says that complementarianism is the same as “biblical patriarchy” and to Russell Moore who favors the use of recovery of ‘biblical patriarchy’ against what he sees as those who are complementarian in name only. Yes, even prominent complementarianism are arguing for a recovery of patriarchy.



  9. Thanks so much for this. Especially this is resonating to me:

    “Without a narrative hermeneutic of the cross, they have no recourse for retreating from readings that reinforce use and abuse power. Indeed, their readings quite often demand that we all submit to such.”

    I’ve been thinking for some long time HOW we read scripture is very suspect and the idea of a “narrative hermeneutic of the cross” is deeply powerful to me. Want to think a great deal more about this.

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