Thursday, March 14, 2013

"Doing Less Well", expectations for women in evangelicalism, and my breezy consideration of the Prov 31 woman being isolated from Prov 31 as a whole

... I attended a small Christian college with a fairly rigid social structure. All the cool kids volunteered in off-campus ministry, sung in an on-campus performing choir, participated in intramural sports, and performed in various plays on campus. I tried to keep up with these star students who seemed admired by both teachers and other students. My second semester, I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I was in debate (actually won the intramural debate championship that semester because, well, I like to argue) and participated in a play that presented the gospel in sign language. I was keeping my grades up and participating in off-campus ministry too. I was sleep deprived and stressed trying to juggle all the things I thought I needed to juggle. And I just broke. It was horrible (and embarrassing). But it was the best thing that could have happened to me – breaking down and learning a hard but necessary lesson before I had a family depending on me keeping it together.
Since what is called "biblical womanhood" has been a point for discussion and debate for years now it's interesting that Wendy describes a struggle to be all things to all people as something she had to get over.  I don't know if Christian women deal with this all the time but it can seem as though the ideal to shoot for is to be lovely to all possible people at all possible points. 

Guys seem to get a different set of cultural instructions in explicit and implicit terms.  Roy Baumeister has written that men are considered men when they produce more than they consume.  He has also written that respect in male social systems tends to be a zero-sum game.  You have to prove you deserve to be in the club before you get in the club and then once in the club you have to establish that you're indispensible in order to keep your place in it. 

If women are admonished to be as lovely as possible to all possible people men are admonished to "know your role" and to be useful.  Even if you're useful in some capacity that is ultimately expendable (like the common foot soldier) you still need to be a specialist to have long-term viability in a social or economic system.  Guys tend to be urged to specialize in something. 

I'm not any different in this, I've got a local specialization.  As a guitarist once told me over dinner, I'm the guitarist where you can come up with some crazy, obscure combination of instruments that involve classical guitar and the odds are pretty good I know at least one piece composed for that combination.  That's one of my hobbies.  I've had the pleasure of reading two dissertations on bassoon and guitar literature because this one of those things I do.  I'm not an official scholar at any academic place but my love of chamber music is such that if you want to know what music has been written for bassoon and guitar I at least know of a handful of pieces. 

One of the things about the proverbial Proverbs 31 woman is she's presented as, in some sense, all things to all.  That there's a literary frame in which this woman is presented as a wife suitable for a king seems to get cast off quickly by a lot of commentaries and teaching I've heard.  There's more emphasis on women needing to shoot for this ideal without much corresponding consideration of whose wife she's described as being good for.  Let's remember Lemuel was getting advice from his mother.  Even if we propose the entire segment is an idealized fiction it's still a mother giving advice to her son.  One of her bits of advice is that it's not for kings to chase after women. 

The famous poem in Proverbs 31 may be taken as a caveat that if a king is going to get married that there are concerns about what kind of woman to marry and what the wife of a king should look like.  Or at least that's been my lasting impression about the gap between what evangelicals see in the Proverbs 31 woman as an isolated text and what I see in that text as part of the larger literary unit that Proverbs 31 is.  I have met guys who were looking for the Proverbs 31 woman and I have wondered if they considered whether they were Proverbs 31 men enough for that woman to accept their marriage proposal.  Not that I'm ever going to say who those guys are in some blog post, that would be uncalled for.  I do think that many a guy has to delude himself into thinking he's a better catch than he is in order to have any shot at being married at all, though.  That may explain why guys feel men and women can't be friends, because somewhere in the back of their minds the men think something might happen even when there's no chance of it.  :)

Just throwing that out for some consideration, in case anyone might be interested.

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