coThis past week, my students and I began working our way through Merchant of Venice. In order to give my students a grid for reading the play, we spent a couple of class periods working our way through Louise Cowan’s conception of the genre of Comedy. In order to get to Comedy, however, I needed to explain the basics of her genre theory (which, incidentally, is the theory that sits behind most of the way we teach literature at my school). Cowan argues, very persuasively, that the four genres (lyric, tragic, comic, and epic) form a wheel. In Christian terms, Lyric is the Garden of Eden; it is Being and Innocence. Tragedy is the Fall, the Doom that we all face; the collapse of a great dynastic house. Comedy is Hope and love and life in a fallen world; it is waiting for the dawn. Epic is the building of the Kingdom; it arrives at the New Jerusalem.
After explaining the genre wheel, I walked my students through several of the tropes in Comedy. One of them is what Cowan calls the “pretty girl.” The pretty girl is a character who exhibits the archetypal virtues of femininity and, through her actions, helps the action progress toward the eucatastrophe. If conflict is usually driven by archetypal masculine characteristics (competition, quest for justice, individualism, pride, etc), then conflict is frequently eased, or at times resolved, by the archetypal feminine (nurture, grace, hospitality, cooperation, etc).
One beautiful aspect of Cowan’s genre theory is that is has universal applicability. Whether authors think about it or not, most literary works fit very well into her conventions. In this way, I told my students, her theory functions at the level of a natural law rather than at the level of a rubric.
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When I asked my students to brainstorm about what characteristics we would typically assign to the masculine and which ones we would typically assign to the feminine, I was met with some resistance. “But,” my students would say, “my dad is the one who is more cooperative!” or “My mom IS NOT very hospitable.” I reassured my students that we weren’t talking in absolute terms about individual men and women, but about the archetypes as they are imprinted on the universe (this video helps with making this point).
When God made humanity, he did so in his image. Male and female he created us. Women and men equally bear the image of God and equally picture God. God is nursing mother just as much as he is a conquering king. In fact, if we attempt to understand God in purely masculine terms, we will fail. Both genders are necessary and mutually edifying pictures of God.
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Marriage changes people. And it is supposed to. Marriage is one of the two options (and by far the most popular) for Christians to go through life together. Marriage, as a sacrament, has a large and important role in sanctification; through marriage, one often learns humility, self-sacrifice, loving attention, and all of the rest of the virtues.
A friend of mine and I were talking the other day and he narrated an experience he recently had in which he was in a vulnerable small group setting with mostly women. As the women shared and were vulnerable, he became acutely aware of his maleness. His masculinity. Marriage has done the same thing for me.
If the image of God equally sits on both men and women, and if the differences between men and women are more than just biological (a point on which I think science generally backs me up), then to fully picture God we need to learn from one another. Men have to learn things about living in God’s image that they can only learn from women, and women have to learn things about living in God’s image that they can only learn from men.
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When we say, archetypally, that nurture is a feminine trait, we are not saying that men aren’t nurturing. Rather, we are saying that there is something inherent in the feminine, some essential feminine role or activity, that is the source of our metaphors about and understanding of nurture (I would go with the female body as evidence for this; the female body which is clearly designed for childbirth and care of children). Men who are nurturing, especially as their ability to nurture is pulled out of them in the context of raising kids, beautifully exhibit a feminine aspect of God.
Similarly when we say, archetypally, that competition is a masculine trait, we aren’t saying that women are not competitive. Rather, we are saying that there is something inherent in the masculine, some essential masculine role or activity, that is the source of our metaphors about and understanding of competition (I would go with the male body as evidence for this; the male body which is stronger than the female body). Women who are strong and competitive, especially as their strength is made manifest over the course of laboring well in the world, beautifully exhibit a masculine aspect of God
That is, we say that there is a reason that the vast majority of societies, over the course of time, have tended to divide up the masculine and the feminine in the same way. That reason is that gender is written into the cosmos.
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When Adam and Eve fell in Genesis 3, one aspect of the curse that they were stuck with was that men would rule over their wives. This ruling over, this hierarchal claim to essential authority, is based on the differences between men and women (men in general are stronger than women in general) and is our first example of the philosophical claim that Might makes Right. It is the woman’s dependency on protection while she is vulnerable (giving birth, nurturing children) that allows the man to take advantage of her and rule over her. All of human history has seen this cursed patriarchal system play out.
But, in Jesus Christ, the curse is reversed. In Ephesians 5, husbands and wives are enjoined to submit to one another. No longer will men rule over their wives, but they will sacrifice themselves for them. No longer will women cling to their husbands out of necessity, but now they will respect them. Paul’s teachings on marriage make it clear that in the Kingdom of God, the curse is reversed. There is nothing in the order of creation that requires a hierarchal marriage. In fact, such a hierarchical marriage is a product of sin.
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There are beautiful, God-given differences between men and women. The difference is not absolute (many men are more nurturing than many women; many women are more competitive than many men, for example (there are other differences, of course, but those are the two I have written about here)), but they are, in general, there. But rather than these differences being fodder for a patriarchal society or marriage (as if it were possible to hierarchically order the different characteristics of the God-head), they are the basis for a beautiful complementarity and mutuality. And they, according to God’s design, have their fullest fruit in the mutual submission required of a Christian marriage.