Word-watch: lessons from a naïve blogger

A few days ago I wrote a short article in which I used the word ‘submission.’ I’ve just now realized that by using this word, I was being a bit naïve. The realization of my own naivety came when I read Kara Martin’s helpful review of the book Fifty Shades of Grey on the Sydney Anglicans website. Kara’s review made me realize that what we Christians mean when we use the word ‘submission’ is often entirely different to what our non-Christian world thinks when it hears the word ‘submission.’ That’s because Christians and non-Christians are spending their time reading two very different books. As a result, Christians and non-Christians are having their passions and desires shaped by two very different worldviews.

As Christians, we have—or at least, we should have—our lives, our passions, our desires and our thoughts shaped by constant engagement with the Bible. The Bible speaks, again and again, about an infinitely loving God, whose Son Jesus Christ willingly sacrificed himself for our sake, to bring forgiveness of sins and to include us in his own intimate relationship with a loving heavenly Father. The Bible calls us to give our lives to this loving God, to rejoice in our status as God’s beloved children, and to respond in thankfulness and love to Jesus’ unfathomably great sacrifice. This is what the Bible calls ‘submission.’ This sacrifice-submission dynamic between Christ and his people is at the core of our lives, and it is also meant to inform the relationship between husband and wife.

But according to book-sale statistics, a huge proportion of our non-Christian friends are having their lives, their passions, their desires and their thoughts shaped by devouring a book whose view of human relationships is as far from the biblical vision as it could possibly be. This is a book which revels in sado-masochistic sexual deviance and abuse, and tens of millions are craving and consuming it as a form of entertainment. The popularity of this book means that our world is frequently hearing the term ‘submission’ in the context of the passive acceptance of sexual victimization. This, of course, means that when many of our friends hear us using the word ‘submission,’ their thoughts will automatically run to the degrading and damaging things they have filled their minds with.

I’m not making any apologies for my naivety. I’m glad I was naïve, and wish to remain so as much as I possibly can. I am, of course, aware that Fifty Shades of Grey is an exceedingly popular book; yet I am deliberately avoiding having anything to do with it. My own heart is subject to sin; I suspect that even considering the themes of the book will damage my (all too faltering) attempts to love, cherish and protect my wife, my daughters and my son. I’m very grateful that Kara read (most of) the book, so that I don’t have to.

Nevertheless, now that I’ve realized the existence of my naivety, I have a couple of brief suggestions for others.

  1. If you’re a Christian, be aware that when you use the term ‘submission’ in any public discussion, the chances are high that you’ll be heard saying something quite different to what you mean. That’s not a reason to fill your mind with the abuse-as-entertainment that is so prevalent in the world. Just be aware that if you want to use the word ‘submission,’ you’ll have quite a bit of explaining to do.
  2. And if you’re not a Christian but are reading this, I have a suggestion: please give Christians the benefit of the doubt when you hear them using the word ‘submission’ in a public discussion. They’re not necessarily thinking what you’re thinking. Wait for their explanation of what they mean before jumping to conclusions. It’s almost certain that if you stop and listen, you’ll hear something far more beautiful and upbuilding than anything you’ll find in Fifty Shades of Grey.

17 thoughts on “Word-watch: lessons from a naïve blogger

  1. You are right, of course, mate.

    It’s also incredibly hypocritical if some of the people who have criticised us for demeaning women by using the word ‘submission’ in our wedding vows, in a biblically shaped context, are the same people who lap up the disgusting treatment of women described by that word in an aggressive and cruel context of abuse in the book you mention.

    Abuse, wherever it occurs, is wrong. Christian men have no excuse, ever for abusive behaviour towards women, whether verbal, or physical, let alone sexual. We should not direct it ourselves to our wives, if married. We should not tolerate it directed to other women.

    The Bible clearly teaches this. Colossians 3:19. 1 Peter 3:7.

  2. Lionel,
    You’re apparently seeking to give your readers the impression that non-Christians who object to the SydAng view of wifely “submission” do so because they’re quite likely confused about what SydAngs really mean. And you’re attributing this supposed confusion to an endemic (“huge proportion”) infection of the non-Christian mindset by Fifty Shades pop-porn. In other words, if only the thoughts of the non-godly didn’t “automatically run to the degrading and damaging things they have filled their minds with”, they’d be far more likely to appreciate the sweet vision splendid of wifely “submission” espoused by SydAngs.
    It seems to me rather self-serving and disrespectful that you characterise objectors broadly in these terms. Plenty of them understand exactly what you mean by “submission”, and prefer to strive for an egalitarian ideal in their marriages/partnerships (without any influence from Fifty Shades of Grey!). And it’s a bit rich of you to assume a porn-fed degradation of non-Christian minds when such a significant proportion of ostensibly “godly” men “struggle” with porn.
    Would it be fair of me to attribute the enthusiasm for wifely “submission” in SydAng circles to widespread porn-addiction among SydAng men?
    If you want “the benefit of the doubt” from the non-godly, perhaps you should refrain from blanket assumptions about what they have “filled their minds with”. Or does your doctrine of depravity not allow for that?

    • Hi Grant. I’m sorry if I’ve given you the impression that confessing my own naivety was really just a clever ploy to characterise every single objector as being naïve themselves! It’s not what I meant.

      I’m not here trying to make a blanket statement about all objectors to Sydney Anglican views. I certainly agree that are a articulate, educated objectors to these views, who to various extents do understand the issues involved, and who are carefully defining themselves as “egalitarian” over against the nuanced view of “submission” that they have engaged with. Many of these people have of course had insightful and engaging things to say.

      But I’m sure you’ll agree that in any debate, the informed and articulate protagonists tend to be in a minority (on both sides). Here, I’m not addressing these articulate people. I’m addressing how Christians sound to the average bloke / woman on the street. I have been genuinely taken aback by hearing so many “gut reactions” to this debate all over the place (just look at the newspaper online comments sections) which assume that “submission” (an active, voluntary thing) means something like “forced subjection.” I was wondering where this assumption had come from, and when I read the review on the SydAng website, I thought I’d found one of the reasons. According to the statistics, your average person is devouring 50 shades, and of course very few people understand the nuances of biblical language.

      By the way, I think you may have misunderstood another Christian s-word, “struggle.” By putting the word “struggle” in quotes, you seem to be implying it’s disingenuous on the part of those who use it, because they’re supposed to be “godly.” Sure, lots of Sydney Anglican men struggle with porn. But that’s the point. They struggle. Why do they struggle? Because they have been convicted by the biblical vision for human relationships, they know there’s a better way, and they want to do something about the problem.

    • I’ve just read an article from last weekend’s Spectrum which I think helps enormously to illustrate what I mean. It was a fun satirical piece by Richard Glover, peppered with his characteristically enjoyable humour and self-deprecating wit. What caught my eye was his opening paragraph:

      Sydney’s Anglicans have changed the marriage ceremony so the wife agrees to “submit” to her husband. People criticise the Sydney Anglicans for being out of touch, so how wonderful to see the success of Fifty Shades of Grey being so rapidly reflected in the service. The only question: will fluffy handcuffs now be a mandatory part of bridalwear?

      From all I’ve heard of him, Richard is a highly intelligent interviewer who is very much in touch with a broad range of issues. And I’ve got no reason to think he hasn’t followed the debates on the issue. Although his first sentence is technically inaccurate, I can forgive him for this generalisation, because the genre requires a punchy summary in its opening. What interested me most, however, was the assumption behind the second sentence. He knows that the vast majority of his readers will be so familiar with sado-masochistic terminology, on account of the popularity of Fifty Shades, that they will instantly recognize the allusion, and laugh at it.

      The point of my article is not to make a jibe at people like Richard. It’s to point out that Richard’s audience is so saturated with Fifty Shades that their thoughts will run quickly to its ideas.

  3. Hello Grant, I would agree that we should strive for equality. Instead of assuming I know what you mean by that, could I ask you, what does it mean for people to be equal? What does it mean to treat people equally? I’m interested to know what vision of equality you have when you say they (I assume non-chrsitians here) ‘strive for an egalitarian ideal’.

  4. Hello, Adam. My comments were directed at the connection Lionel made initially between the popularity of porn and conscientious objection to notions of wifely “submission”. I was highlighting how this conflation undermines Lionel’s plea to non-Christians to give Christians “the benefit of the doubt” when discussing such “submission”. Lionel has since qualified his statements somewhat, exempting “informed and articulate protagonists” from his pornifying blanket, and modifying its coverage to “the average bloke/woman on the street”. I don’t deny the prevalence of porn, by the way, nor its negative consequences for a healthy eros.

    I think it’s pretty obvious that there are significant numbers of non-Christian couples who value and seek to practice mutual respect, consultation, and shared authority in their marriages/partnerships. Plenty of them commented on Peter Jensen’s article in the SMH. They find the notion of a necessary “submission” of one party either irrelevant or detrimental to the process of negotiation within their relationship. And it doesn’t really turn off their alarm bells when SydAngs seek to balance the equation by raising the husband’s duty to be “Christlike”. This can seem to imply that a couple’s union is somehow invalid or diminished because the husband does not consciously cast himself in the role of Christ. Some also perceive a major power imbalance: the husband shares the status of the perfect individual God-Man, always worshipful; the wife is associated with the imperfect collective Church, always in need of mending. I don’t think such reservations about wifely “submission” have much to do with pornified imaginations among the lumpenmasse, any more than widespread porn-addiction among Christian men makes them more keen on wifely “submission”.

    I’m not going to be drawn into a debate about what it means for “people” actually to “be equal”. I’m aware that you’re a biblicising complementarian, and that you’re inviting me into a crossfire of presuppositional critique. On that score, I’ll concede defeat right now – no doubt you’ll be able to expose me as a wilful rebel against God’s patent truth and proof-text me into a predestined corner. Why contend? You win :^)

  5. Lionel, thanks for taking the time to respond to my initial comment. I appreciate your qualifications and clarifications. On the Fifty Shades phenomenon – I grant that it’s selling well, and I don’t deny that the BDSM language complicates clear communication for SydAngs. Perhaps “submission” should be rephrased somehow to avoid confusion, ditto “bondage”.

    IRT: “By putting the word “struggle” in quotes, you seem to be implying it’s disingenuous on the part of those who use it, because they’re supposed to be “godly.” Sure, lots of Sydney Anglican men struggle with porn”

    I find that prevalence disappointing and disturbing, given the high claims made for the Spirit’s transforming power. I suspect that “struggle” is often deployed to valourise (and so perpetuate) what is actually a cherished indulgence.

  6. Hi Grant; no worries, thanks for the pushback and the chance to clarify.

    You do seem to be applying an unwarranted hermeneutic of suspicion to SydAng men. When you say that you “suspect” that the word “struggle” is being used to valourise and perpetuate a cherished indulgence, do you have any evidence for your suspicion, or is it just your own assumption? The reason I ask is that on face value, your suspicion just sounds a bit ridiculous. A porn addiction, like any addiction, is a shameful thing to admit for most men, not a glorious one. And as AA will tell you, admitting an addiction is usually the first, key step towards dealing with it, rather than perpetuating it.

    When I hear men admitting to struggling with porn, then I take that as quite strong evidence of the Spirit’s transforming power in and of itself. The difference between those who have the Spirit working in their lives and those who don’t is not that the Spirit-people live perfectly happy, calm, sin-free and trouble-free lives. The difference is those who have the Spirit of God have a good word from God which gives them a vision for a better way of living and the forgiveness that enables them to make a fresh start. The journey can be faltering and difficult, and won’t necessarily result in victory straight away. But I’d prefer to say “good on you” to anyone who admits to struggling with porn, rather than trying to psychoanalyse their motives.

  7. Grant, you wrote

    such a significant proportion of ostensibly “godly” men “struggle” with porn.

    You go on the raise the possibility of attributing motives this way.

    Would it be fair of me to attribute the enthusiasm for wifely “submission” in SydAng circles to widespread porn-addiction among SydAng men?

    I am not sure whether you are only questioning the fairness of such attribution, or also the reality of the widespread porn-addiction.

    I certainly hear the comment made anecdotally that a lot of Christian men struggle with porn. From my pastoral experience I think it is a serious problem for some, but over-stated. I think there are many other challenges to relational faithfulness as well. Men fall into sin without ever doing anything with porn.

    But that’s not my point. I noticed you did not cite anything to support your contention about the prevalence. And in your last comment, you seem to take it for granted.

    May I ask what evidence you have for your contention. What studies are you referencing? Since you want to express disappointment about the power of the Spirit, on the basis of this claim, I think you need something more than mere anecdote or assertion.

    More boradly, I was reminded that such “headline” claims of Christians or evangelicals doing as badly as everyone else on matters like pre-marital sex or divorce rates do not always stand up under scrutiny. For example, see Kevin DeYoung’s reflections late last year.

  8. Sandy,

    IRT: “Men fall into sin without ever doing anything with porn.”
    True enough.

    IRT: “I noticed you did not cite anything to support your contention about the prevalence. And in your last comment, you seem to take it for granted. May I ask what evidence you have for your contention. What studies are you referencing?”

    Of course I don’t have the sorts of statistical studies you require, so I guess you can dismiss my remarks without further ado (though I note that doctrinal assertions of ubiquitous human depravity are also not backed by rigorous statistical analysis; they are, shall we say, impressionistic).

    Actually, I’m not insisting that porn-addiction is necessarily widespread among “godly” men; this was a rhetorical device intended to help Lionel appreciate the unfairness of his initial blanket characterisations of non-Christians. It’s a meme that is just as slippery as many Christian claims about the various alleged perversities and inconsistencies of the ungodly, eg, the following from Peter Jensen in SMH 28 August:

    “Secular views of marriage are driven by a destructive individualism and libertarianism. This philosophy is inconsistent with the reality of long-term relationships such as marriage and family life.” http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/men-and-women-are-different-and-so-should-be-their-marriage-vows-20120828-24yo6.html#ixzz255oKR78X

    I presume you think it’s OK for your archbishop to deploy such impressionistic generalities without a litany of references?

    I drew the terms “struggle” and “godly” from the lexicon of SydAng discourse, and I drew the observation about Christian/SydAng men and porn from the general miasma of what I’d read and heard from Christians. As it turns out, Lionel generally concurs with the meme. Perhaps you could ask him whence he derives his impressions of porn-addiction among those being conformed to Christ’s likeness. It was that acknowledged “prevalence” with which I was disappointed. Call me picky, but I would expect something more emphatic from the Lord of the Universe than the vague gradualism Lionel describes.

    • Look Grant, I think I am half ready to say fair cop on this.

      The half is that many of us use rhetorical flourishes like hyperbole or overstatement or just strong generalisations. And sometimes it’s appropriate, sometimes it results in unfairness to others caught up in the generalisation.

      The half I am not persuaded about is how closely your analogy holds between your generalisation about lots of ‘godly’ men struggling with porn – which you did first make as an assertion of fact, and built on as a rhetorical device – and the Archbishop’s generalisation about the damage of certain worldviews.

      The former is a definite claim about concrete behaviours of a certain group. The latter is a claim about effects of a philosophy and as such cannot be measured without more specific claims that allegedly flow from the philosophy being tested. Both are generalisations. The former is closer to sounding like a statement of fact, the latter is closer to a statement of opinion.

      But look, I take your point about the danger of rhetorical flourishes. It was the fact you ‘flourished’ a second time that made me just want to remind people that we should feel free to challenge rhetorical assertions rather than assume they are true if stated with enough confidence.

      Just as you did with Lionel, and now the Archbishop. Touche.

  9. Lionel,

    IRT: “You do seem to be applying an unwarranted hermeneutic of suspicion to SydAng men. When you say that you “suspect” that the word “struggle” is being used to valourise and perpetuate a cherished indulgence, do you have any evidence for your suspicion, or is it just your own assumption?”

    Yes, Lionel, I do get suspicious when the dignity implicit in the terms “struggle” and “battle” is appropriated by those who habitually indulge their taste for pornography, while claiming to put a holy God first in their lives. It’s my own paranoid assumption, based on just being alive and observing the ways people fool themselves. It could well be “unwarranted”.

    • Grant, I guess I’m just asking if you’ve got a good reason to think that the indulgences are indeed habitual and repeated, or whether the “struggle” is actually producing results and breaking the habit. In my own experience (admittedly more than three years old, see above!), those who admit to “struggling” are usually the ones actually making good progress, albeit imperfect.

    • Hi Grant, I’ve noticed that you’ve commented on a few other articles on this site but aren’t commenting here any more; so I’m currently assuming from your silence here that you don’t have a good reason for your assumption that when men say they ‘struggle’, they are actually indulging in habitual and repeated activity.

  10. Just a couple of clarifications.

    Yep, I concur that my rhetoric has had the effect of catching up and condemning more people than I intended. I do thank you again for pushing back, and for giving me the chance to clarify.

    I also need to say that my comment “Sure, lots of Sydney Anglican men struggle with porn” wasn’t intended as a blanket endorsement of your own assertion that “such a significant proportion of ostensibly ‘godly’ men ‘struggle’ with porn,” even though I do admit it could be seen as an endorsement (so I apologise). In that context, I was making a point about the dignity of the “struggle,” not seeking to concur with the significance of the proportion or acknowledging any particular level of “prevalence”. I’ve been away from Sydney for almost 3 years. The “lots” I had in mind were a bunch of men I encountered before I left Sydney, mostly young men and many new converts. I was impressed with their desire to escape porn, and their progress in doing so, especially when compared with the vast majority of their non-Christian mates who consumed porn and didn’t even see it as something to be resisted at all. Given my current situation (just returned to Sydney, living with parents-in-law on the outskirts of Sydney), I’m unqualified to make any statements about the prevalence of the problem amongst Sydney Anglicans.

  11. Hello Grant, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to put you into a corner. I was interested in understanding your position.

  12. I read that review today and although I’m convincedby my sinful heart that the temptation to sexual sin (at least in the mind)stays with us into old age, I can’t imagine being tempted to read the sick rubbish which apparently resides in the book referred to. It would take some sickness of mind to want to read it (except as a reviewer!) and I don’t think Christians have to feel they are on the back foot when people use words such as “discipline” and “submission” in such a perverted way. No doubt we have to try to explain what we mean, but we also need to make it clear that those who have perverted ideas when these words are used are the ones who need to brush up on the English language.

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