Wednesday, December 08, 2010

if the church were a soccer field

I came across an article today about girls playing sports--and the way in which excelling or simply participating in a sport gives girls a way to think about themselves and their bodies in a context free of sexualization. In playing sports and becoming athletes, girls learn to value their bodies for "what they can do" and not just for how they look, or how other people perceive them as sexually desirable.

This rings anecdotally true for me--I played center fullback on my high school soccer team and I loved it, though, admittedly, I was as anxious a performer on the field as I was anywhere else. Even so, on the field, I was a necessary and competent part of a team. When I subbed out, they missed me. I remember a game where we were five goals up in a shut-out and the coach took me out in the second half for a bit; while I was on the sidelines the opposing team scored two goals. I was told to get back in there. Now that's validation. Someday when I have an office I'll hang my senior MVP award on the wall next to my PhD.

The article on girls & sports links to an APA report on girls' sexualization. Toward the end of the report, the authors name several possible agents and avenues for the construction of alternatives to the overwhelming sexualization of girls present in US culture. One of those possible agents, as you might expect, is parents & family. One is sports and extracurricular activities. One is religion. And it should be; this makes sense. Our churches should absolutely be able to and active in providing a context of validation and self-definition for our girls that is free of the cultural context of sexualization.

And I had to ask myself, do our churches do this?

I'm afraid that if I answer honestly, I might have to answer no.

It is a sad thing to reflect that playing soccer may have done more for me as a girl than sitting in church. And I'm not alone; Naomi Walters writes
In retrospect, maybe part of the reason I was so drawn to soccer is because I was good at it and my skills were utilized there. In my youth group, the females were the most consistent members. When it came to “Youth Sunday” we did all of the planning, and yet, were forced to delegate everything we had planned to male execution. It was clear from an early age that I was born to be a leader, and since I couldn’t do that at church, maybe I played soccer instead? It feels good to be a vital part of a team, a leading force, a fully participating member.
Is the practice of silencing women in our churches an overt form of sexualization akin to the onslaught of sexualized media images, Bratz dolls and pinkified princessing our girls endure as a routine and mostly unremarked aspect of girlhood? No. But is it a covert reinforcement of the hypersexualized message that girls' bodies are objects that define and restrict them?

Yeah. I think so.

Maybe you're disposed to think that there's no obvious connection between our practice of silencing women in the church and the sexualization of women and girls in our surrounding culture. After all, the most common defense of our practice is that it's biblical and therefore counter-cultural in the best possible way. And what does being silent in the assembly have to do with sexuality? How does accepting the God-created differences between men and women and their concomitant different roles have anything to do with sexualization of girls and women in the larger culture?

But these practices are not counter-cultural. These doctrines and practices fall right into step with messages from our culture that female bodies define women and girls differently than male bodies define men, and that these female bodies fall under the authority of others--others who get to define when and where and how these bodies should be used, when and where and how these bodies are valuable. This is the same message that women and girls get in the form of sexualization, in which others define when and where and how their female bodies are valuable--that is, desirable. The only difference is the lack of an overt sexual component--but this does not, IMO, make the underlying message any less disconcerting or anxiety-producing. And it certainly does not provide a basis from which the sexualized message of our culture can be subverted.

And this means we need to take a good hard honest look at the knee-jerk defensive claim that we're being "biblical" and "counter-cultural." We need to take a good, hard, honest look at what our doctrine and our practice really does to the women and the girls in the pews of our churches. It's not that we're getting it all wrong--as I've said before. But the gospel message that could--and does--subvert the dominant cultural sexualization of girls and women, the message that God has created and chosen and gifted and loved and called without qualification, is one that isn't consistent with the church's practice of silencing and restricting of women. And we need to take a good hard honest look at this inconsistency.

If the church were a soccer field, little girls could discover just how much they could really do--and we would cheer for them.


JJT said...

also--I could probably write a blistering post tallying up the overt sexualization in the form of offhand comments I've heard over the years from various pulpits. But that's an afterthought...

Kester Smith... said...

My wife, Rachel, shares similar stories/frustrations about being asked (directly or indirectly) to be the spiritual leader in her youth group; looked to to plan devotionals, lead songs, etc. only to have herself relegated to a pew whenever "Youth Led Sunday" arrived. Just one of the reasons we eventually left the churches of Christ.

Keith Brenton said...

I don't actually think I can make a case for - as you put it - "the church's practice of silencing and restricting of women" being biblical at all. I could make a case for women's silence in first-century Corinth and Ephesus because women hadn't had sufficient exposure to the background story of the gospel - the old covenant as taught in synagogues - whether they were of Jewish or pagan background. Some may not have been, at that time, qualified to be teachers in an assembly (especially pagan women who might have been deep into Diana-worship in Ephesus or women who were interrupting the assembly in Corinth with questions). That ain't the case today. We do things pretty much decently and in order, even if we skip an item on the order of worship occasionally.

And a Ph.D. isn't required then or now "to tell the love of Jesus / say He died for all," so evangelism was never gender-restricted.

"Counter-cultural" is just a laughable adjective for what we do. Culture still largely discriminates against women - opportunity, pay, advancement, stereotyping, etc. If we wanted to truly be "counter-cultural," we would regard women as equal partners with men in the gospel ... an Aquila and Priscilla-type relationship, one might say.

Kaylynn said...

The only hiccup with the church as a soccer field is that most little girls grow up leading and thriving on a team of only little girls. We need girls leading on a co-ed team!

julie said...

i also loved soccer! I played every chance I could get. Funny that so many of us have that in common.

Q said...

Jenn, have you read Equal to the Task?

Also: I would love for you to write the post re: overt sexualization from the pulpits of our churches. It's something that's bothered me for a long time, but you always manage to slice directly to the heart of it in your posts.

JJT said...

Maybe we should outsource that post, along the lines of the "women in philosophy" blog narratives. Ugh, it might get really ouchie.

One example that comes quickly to mind is a Sunday I attended the church of my youth, with my mom, and heard a really ill-chosen sermon illustration. It was about the Holy Spirit and the emotional dimension of faith that we should actively pursue. The example was addressed directly to the men and went something like: guys, remember when you were wooing the love of your life, and how it felt...(etc., etc.)? First, of course, that excluded all the women from the example of how to pursue the Spirit (maybe this is one of those male spiritual headship things women shouldn't do?) And second, and worse, this made women the objects of sexual pursuit as a sermon illustration.

Amanda Pittman said...

I saw a presentation at the CCCU Gender Conference this year by LInda Beail from Point Loma Nazarene University entitled: "Between a Real Houseful and 'Real Housewives': Theorizing Gender at a Christian University." She contrasted the portrayals of religious women in "20 Kids and Counting" and "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," and in the end demonstrated the remarkable similarity in the level of sexualization and the shared centrality of women's bodies to their identity. In one, of course, it was the focus on the bearing of children while in the other the focus was more on desirability. But whether the bodies were meant to the sexually provocative or simply procreating the effect was much the same.

I didn't have soccer, or any sport for that matter (though not for a lack of trying.) I did, however, have competitive speech and theatre, which lacked much of the opportunity for positive views of the body free of sexualization but did provide a sense of confidence, opportunities for performance and occasional success in competition, and a more positive view of self that I probably would have lacked otherwise. The real irony, of course, being that when I changed my major from business to ministry it was as if in the minds of many those skills completely disappeared. I was certainly never allowed to bring them into the church building.

I think the question this post, the presentation I saw, and my own experience leaves me with is: How can we, as women in the Church of Christ, present a compelling narrative to both culture and at times our own tradition?

JJT said...

Kaylynn--that's true! But I do remember one year (I was 4th grade) when the rec league went co-ed because there weren't enough girls to make up enough teams. I was the only girl forward and I have this distinct memory of being wide open smack in front of the goal screaming "Pass!" and being completely ignored. Sigh. 4th grade, and already, the assumption was, don't pass the the girl...she'll screw it up. I was really happy when the next year had its own girls' teams.

JJT said...

Amanda--ugh, trying to present that compelling narrative as a woman in the CofC puts you at odds with every context, doesn't it?--church and cultural. This is why (someday I have got to dig up the citation on this) I love Tillich's description of theologians as aliens within their own theological context. Something like that. It feels very true to me.

One practical suggestion that comes to my mind goes back to Keith's observation--we need to articulate that our current practices are unbiblical--and then, therefore, unhealthy and immoral. We can make the practical and moral arguments first, but it leaves us open to the (unfair!) caricature of unfaithfulness to the text. If we could break through the presumption that somehow this "women's issue" thing is an "issue" only for people who want to willfully ignore or misinterpret the biblical text, that would be major.

Also I think the basic strategy of pointing out inconsistencies in the results of our traditional hermeneutic is a bad one rhetorically--it automatically puts people on the defensive. We need instead to find a way to frame the conversation in which it's clear that everyone is pursuing the same goal: a better understanding of the biblical text for the purpose of spiritual and moral formation. Something like that. Then, at least initially, everyone is on the same "side" rather than starting off at odds...

Mark said...

Let the girls first hear Naomi Walters or Amy Bost Henegar preach from the pulpit. Now Ms. Henegar has video of hers but I think Ms. Walters does not have video. That will give them a role model to listen to. Some of you with daughters might be able to get one of those women to make a video of a children's homily that you could download and show. It would be easier than a trek to NYC or Stamford. Then have them start asking for it in their own churches.