W. Jackson Watts
(Editor’s note: This post is the fifth in a five-part series of talks given by the members of the Commission for Theological Integrity at this past National Association in Birmingham. Prior talks/posts can be found here, here, here, and here. Please note that this material wasn’t originally planned for print publication, which will account for the relative informality.)
“What is a woman?” Senator Marsha Blackburn-TN posed this question to Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson this past March. Judge Jackson was under consideration for a seat on the court to which she has since been sworn in to fill. Blackburn’s question elicited a range of reactions. Given how judicial hearings have become more like theatre in recent years than legal hearings, both political parties have had less-than-admirable moments. But the levels of outrage toward Blackburn perhaps missed the larger point: we’ve come to a moment in American history and Western civilization where defining womanhood is controversial. Would any contemporary observer of any ideological stripe deny that just 10 or 15 years ago such a question might have been unusual, but certainly not outrageous?
Contrast the outrage in that context with the outrage following the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Pro-choice advocates protested, marched, and publicly lamented the decision. Elected officials and business leaders joined in, decrying the way these Justices had taken away a woman’s fundamental right, failing to see the irony in talking about a distinctly woman’s right in a moment when many secularists refuse to discuss definitions of womanhood.
This is just one of the glaring, contemporary contradictions in American society. It’s frustrating, illogical, and difficult. However, this situation illustrates both the urgency and relevance of the church’s voice on manhood and womanhood. To paraphrase the late Richard John Neuhaus, the public square will not remain naked when it comes to metaphysical and moral claims about sexuality, gender, gender relations, marriage, and family. Someone’s ideas will fill the void.
In the time I’ve been allotted, I want to assert that nature and logic, as expressions of reality itself, are a way God and His people can speak to unbelievers. As David French says, “Reality gets a vote, and reality always wins.” People who suppress the truth in unrighteousness collide with the shape of God’s world as it really is. When they do, it provides the church an opening to provoke and persuade. Amid society’s confusion, we issue a call that’s part confrontation, part invitation. We confront the world by heralding the Gospel (kerusso) and we invite the world to a different perspective through our defense (apologia), our reasons for the hope within. We might call this, “cultural apologetics.” Let me offer my argument, then illustrate with some contemporary tensions that substantiate that claim.
Nature Gets Its Say
We always should be careful when using words like “nature.” It’s one of the two or three most ambiguous words in the English language. You can easily hear yourself using it in two different ways in the same conversation. Nevertheless, our English Bibles use the term as roughly synonymous with God’s created realm. It’s appropriate to speak about its goodness, plentitude, order, and design, provided we recognize that nature as we experience it is by no means free from the curse of sin.
The body is, of course, part of nature. It’s a manifestation of God’s handiwork. It won’t do to speak of personhood abstracted from bodily concerns. You’ve never met a person who didn’t have a body.
But such a claim immediately presses against the claims of modern gender theorists who will assert, explicitly or implicitly, that nature gets things wrong. However, they don’t mean this in the same way that Christians do. Certainly, they won’t respond to problems inherent in bodily experience the way most Christians do. Yet pay close attention to what secularists and believers have in common: they both must face the lived experience of bodies—their possibilities, pain, pleasure, and limitations. We enter a sphere of life where gendered experience is impossible to ignore, particularly in the arena of sexual attraction, sexual activity, procreation, and work. Each of these in their own way underscore the basic notion that our bodies are, to some degree, under our control. Yet in other ways they’re beyond our control. This is especially true when we become ill and die.
So far what I’m pointing out seems elementary, yet it becomes highly significant when basic claims about nature like these unfold in a public context. Consider how these four basic claims about nature land in today’s public context: (1) female bodies are more vulnerable than male bodies; (2) female bodies have the capacity to bear offspring; (3) males are influenced profoundly by testosterone while females are influenced profoundly by estrogen, and (4) men and women find activities, objects, and relationships enjoyable and fulfilling to varying degrees. Each of these claims, except perhaps the third, are increasingly controversial for political, social, and cultural reasons, yet they’re mostly undisputed in the biological and social sciences.
Christians aren’t surprised to find that careful investigations into general revelation confirm biblical truths and biblical patterns. But what kinds of tensions does this create in the secular worldview? Consider these three.
“We Need to Get Women Back into the Workplace!”
Consider the economic data since the pandemic about workforce participation. There has been much handwringing over the fact that many women haven’t reentered the workplace at as high a rate as before. Cabinet officials and industry leaders are deeply concerned. Notice how they operate with an implied view of equality (not difference), as well as of the economics and emotional tradeoffs associated with family life. I say this because many of the women who left the workforce have chosen to remain at home with their children, often educating them there as opposed to the public school system.
Now we need not claim that a complementarian view of gender relations requires this as a matter of biblical fidelity, though I think that’s a defensible view. Rather, the New Testament emphasis on fathers and mothers being present in their homes—starting with their children—clues us into something. It’s as if the Bible is calling out to believers and unbelievers and saying, “There’s something special, powerful, and rewarding going on in your home. Don’t miss it.” Many women, including unbelieving feminists, have chosen not to miss it. The world doesn’t understand, but we do. Nature is having its say, if only through a glass dimly. This should engender conversations between us and open-minded neighbors about why something as demanding as parenthood could also be so rewarding, even if it means reduced household income.
“Porn is Destroying Our Young Men!”
Recently more than one book or journal article has expressed concerns about the well-being of boys and young men. Some of these have focused on the violent behavior of troubled young men, especially considering the last several mass shootings—almost always perpetrated by unemployed, younger men. But many secular voices are concerned with the deleterious effect that pornography is having on men’s ability to enjoy satisfying relationships. Christine Emba’s book, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, reflects on how judging healthy and satisfying sexual experience merely on the basis of consent has been detrimental to men and women, though especially women. She makes the connection between porn-addicted men and the sexual relationships this produces: “The ubiquity of pornography means that more and more women have had to deal with porn-addled men who disregard their desires or simply don’t understand how to have real sex with a human being, rather than respond to an avatar on a screen.”
A generation of women have had to experience some of the most detestable sexual encounters to discover that (1) consent itself isn’t the highest moral good; and (2) pornography’s supposed moral neutrality ends where the behavior of those in its clutches begins. Nature will have its say.
“Instagram isn’t great for girls.”
A final example concerns social media giant Facebook, and its popular app, Instagram. In 2021, internal company documents unveiled a staggering revelation that had been concealed: Instagram is toxic for young girls. The company’s internal research on the way that social media impacts adolescents showed highly problematic outcomes. While rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide have skyrocketed in the age of social media, not all technologies impact users in the same way or to the same degree. However, Instagram as a photo-sharing app, uniquely heightens the tendency toward social comparison, “which is when people assess their own value in relation to the attractiveness, wealth and success of others.” The app’s features most harmful to teens, in other words, are at the core of the platform itself.
To be more concrete, “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” No surprise here. If the experiences of comparing oneself to peers in middle and high school were hard enough, try avoiding it in a sea of images for hours on end. This isn’t a polemic against social media. It’s simply facing up to what happens when the developers of a technology study how its operators utilize and respond to it on the deepest levels. Again, this should foster a conversation that goes beyond self-image to the image of God, beyond conventional notions of beauty to deeper ones, and beyond superficial relationships to more traditional, embodied ones.
Indeed, Christians aren’t surprised to find that a culture built upon expressive individualism turns out to be detrimental to human beings’ self-concept.
Logic Gets Its Say
By “logic” I don’t mean the same thing as “nature.” Logic refers more to propositions than people or places. But those propositions describe created reality. And in God’s common grace, even unbelievers can often spot gaps in logic and feel the intellectual tension this creates.
One such development concerns those known as “TERFs,” which stands for “Trans-Exclusionary-Radical-Feminists.” It’s more a term of insult than technical precision. It refers to those feminists who resist the LBGTQ movement’s efforts to avoid distinguishing between transgender women and biological women, especially when it concerns women’s rights. Popular figures as diverse as J.K. Rowling and Bette Midler more recently have been associated with this amorphous movement.
While some feminists may have genuine reservations about the moral and physiological implications of transgenderism, many of them see a more obvious contradiction or threat: the erasure of women. Just consider Lia Thomas, a transgender female who made headlines in March for success in women’s collegiate swimming. Many feminists who fought hard to secure the protections and privileges of Title IX recognize the tensions in treating biological males as females. Whether the concern be over athletics, public accommodations, or protecting a woman’s right to choose, many feminists have pushed back against the LBGTQ community. Many who otherwise are sympathetic to this movement’s aims have paid a price.
It’s certainly possible that some of these so-called TERFs are motivated by self-interest and not deep intellectual commitments to logic. Still, when women feel an instinctual disgust at contrived phrases like “birthing persons,” one can’t help but ask (and one should ask), “Where did that disgust come from?” “And can we speak of feminism and women’s rights without some minimal, biological definition or commitments?”
People Want to Have Their Own Say: Autonomy to the Rescue?
Nature and logic can sometimes be great starting points for Christian appeals to the Creator, but it’s important to remember that general revelation can never bring people all the way home to God. Even as we dive deeper with people honest about the contradictions in their views of masculinity and femininity, it doesn’t mean they’ll automatically embrace our basic account of manhood and womanhood. Even if they did, that doesn’t mean they’ll trust in Jesus. We have to take them further.
This is crucial because people will, by default, resort to human wisdom to find a more plausible set of answers to society’s questions. They may move past “birthing persons,” but still not concede that life in the womb is a person. That’s especially relevant in our post-Roe ministry environment. They may want to move past toxic masculinity, but may persist in calling all forms of masculinity that speak of strength and providing for women and children as toxic. They may see that consent isn’t enough in sexual relationships, but that’s insufficient to slow polyamory’s march to social acceptance. Preparing to push back requires more than appeals to nature and logic, even if these are useful to discuss with some people at some phases of the conversation.
Preparing to Push Back
We should be somewhat encouraged. For example, there are signs around us that the tired, Third-Wave Feminism is collapsing, giving rise a to new feminism that may have learned from its predecessors’ errors. In fact, it might be better to talk of new feminisms, whether it be that of Erika Bachiochi, Andrea Mrozek, Caitlin Flanagan, Elizabeth Bruenig, Mary Harrington, or any number of other women who are more consistently conservative and evangelical.
Likewise, books like Jesus and John Wayne have a way of touching a nerve. Their errors and overgeneralizations about annoy us, but one or two arguments force us to ask questions about how we’re understanding the faith, the church, power, and what it means to be a man. We cannot assume that our children will figure it out. Modeling is essential, but so is explaining.
Finally, the questions surrounding manhood and womanhood will require us to take each of these presentations seriously. They’ll require us to go deeper in other areas. They’ll require better practices that model respectful dialogue, boundaries, and shared responsibilities. They’ll require us to show that complementarian churches don’t foster abuse nor protect abusers, that Christian teens don’t need social media to have a meaningful social life, and that our young men find their delight in their duty, not in fleeting images. We have work to do! So it begins.
 David French, “Culture Wars End with Consequences.” The Dispatch. Accessed 20 July 2022.
 See Terry Eagleton, Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 1. Eagleton cites Raymond Williams’ insight here.
 David French, “Finding the Lost Boys of American Life.” The Dispatch. Accessed 13 July 2022.
 Christine Emba, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation (New York: Sentinel, 2022), 150—152.
 Emba, 150.
 French, “Culture Wars End with Consequences.”
 Emba is joined by other journalists like Michelle Goldberg, Emma Camp, and Helen Lewis in calling attention to these trends.
 Wells, Horwitz, Seetharaman, “Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show.” Wall Street Journal. Accessed 13 July 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-knows-instagram-is-toxic-for-teen-girls-company-documents-show-11631620739
 For one sympathetic perspective, see Katelyn Burns, “The Rise of anti-trans radical feminists, explained.” Vox. Accessed 14 July 2022. https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/9/5/20840101/terfs-radical-feminists-gender-critical
 Bruce Ashford provides a helpful primer on feminism in modern America. See Ashford, “The FAQs: Feminism, Gender Studies, and American Politics.” Accessed 14 July 2022. https://bruceashford.net/2022/the-faqs-feminism-gender-studies-and-american-politics/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-faqs-feminism-gender-studies-and-american-politics