Saturday, January 19, 2008

Musings on Anthropology and Identity

I've been reading a lot lately about how girls and women ought to be identified, and it got me to thinking about names and identities and what our Christian faith says about these things. I can promise you one thing: this will NOT be a scholarly treatise. Rather, it will by my attempt to work out my own understanding of a complex issue that I believe is causing major problems for our Christian witness in the world.

This crystallized for me with what I assume is a misreading of a comment at the CBE Scroll, in which one commenter took another commenter to be saying that a wife ought to respect her husband as HER father. (I had read the comment in question, and I think rightly read it to say that a wife ought to respect her husband as the father of their children.)

The second commenter talked about how creepy it is for there to be any sexual overtones in a father-daughter relationship, and I completely agree. (I merely disagree that the other commenter intended to describe any such creepiness.) I think that's why most of us rightly question the "purity balls" and "daughter as daddy's helpmeet" practices that are popular events and teachings in a few highly patriarchal, self-described Christian circles. Then there are the mothers (and fathers) out there who are describing their daughters not as girls, but as "maidens" or further as "maidens of virtue." They pride themselves on sequestering their daughters so that they will remain virgins until their wedding nights. Now, I uphold virginity as a virtue, but I question the practice of sequestration to enforce it. I think it is a virtue worthy of the word when a child--girl OR boy--is taught chastity and supported in refraining from sexual activity until marriage. Avoiding temptation does not strengthen one's resolve to resist it.

Then there's the whole issue of names. A boy or a man is rightly known as Firstname Lastname, at least in majority practice in North America and most of Europe; that's my culture, so it's the one I can think and write about with some degree of accuracy. The problem comes with insistence by some Christians that women must still comply with the largely-outdated practice of being known as Mrs. Husbandfirstname Husbandlastname, or at a minimum as Wifefirstname Husbandlastname, but certainly as Mrs. Husbandlastname for short.

"Maiden" vs. girl. "Wife" vs. woman. What's the deal? It's the old practice of identifying a female human being not by her actual identity as the unique human being she is, but primarily by her sexual status. Is she a virgin? Is she sexually active as a wife? "Miss" vs. "Ms." Ooooh...that horrible "feminist" notion that a woman's sexual status is no more pertinent a matter of public identity than a man's is!

Dig into the matter some more, and it gets downright disturbing. If there's no ring on the finger or she doesn't go by "Mrs.", she's fair game for trolling (for men to try to "pick her up"). If she DOES go by "Mrs.", then you deal with her husband, not with her, if you're going to deal socially or in business with her. Parents who proudly call their daughters "maidens" are telling the world that their daughters are "untouched" and are potentially in the market for a husband, as long as he meets some pretty stringent (and perhaps impossible) standards. Deal with her father to try to win her hand and the right to take her name from her and give her your own. Wooing/courtship/marriage negotiations are viewed as a matter of warfare, of "conquering" and mastering a woman and excising her from her family. (Don't laugh; I've read that model for obtaining a bride from a couple of well-known advocates of patriarchy and female subordination who identify themselves not only as Christians, but as pastors.)

We human beings are members of the animal kingdom. (If that's offensive, consider that the other options are plant and mineral.) There are certain aspects of being animals with sexual (as opposed to asexual) reproductive capacity that are not all that comfortable to talk about, but are nevertheless true. If our species is physically to survive, we must reproduce. As civilized beings, we have overlaid this need to reproduce with relatively civilized practices and rituals. But from time out of mind, the issue of sexual access to the female has been of critical importance.

Other higher mammals tend to leave this largely to the female, though for many species the male of highest status may combat with lower or outsider males for access to the females of his group. The female, however, ultimately mates or refuses to mate with the male (or males) of her choice.

Not so the human animal, at least not in Western history. As a social group that organized according to the rule of the strongest, the male emerged as ruler: of nuclear families, of clans, of tribes, of nations. This rule extended to the right of sexual access to females. The great Western religions accepted this practice and at least tacitly approved of fathers/clan and tribe leaders/regional rulers controlling marriage (that set of practices that control sexual access). Despite the monotheistic religions' teachings that marriage is about more than sexual access, that remained (and in many circles, still remains) the most important aspect of marriage practices.

Fast-forward to the present. There are still pockets of Christians who assert that fathers should select husbands for their daughters and protect their daughters' virginity for the sake of those future husbands. Even if their wives married THEM for love (or whatever other reason women make when they choose a husband), they will arrange marriages for their daughters, who are expected to support their fathers as an extention of their mothers' role as "helpmeet" to those fathers. Thus, the daughters are encouraged to obtain an education only toward the end of being homemakers and supporters of their future husbands and mothers of those husbands' future children. They subscribe to the ancient practice of making the patriarch the center of life and are taught to perpetuate that practice.

So who ARE these women? Will anyone know them? Will anyone even get a glimpse of the true woman God created them to be? Or will their identity, from birth to grave, be as a man's future wife/wife/widow, with perhaps "mother of (how many children)" added to boost her status?

Let me pause here to explain that I think marriage and motherhood are wonderful things and I believe God blesses these aspects of women's lives--those women who marry and who bear/adopt children. But I believe also that just as men are not totally and exclusively defined by who they marry and by the children they father, women should also not be totally and exclusively defined by their marriage partners and their children. First and foremost, any person, male or female, is a beloved child of God, redeemed at the highest possible cost. Thus, any human being's highest calling is to live out that redeemed life in service to God and to humanity. I believe God calls each of us in specific ways, many of which have little to do with whether we're male or female. I believe God calls us BY NAME, and I really do not think God says "Mrs. Husbandname, I call you" in that calling. "Firstname, my beloved child," is generally the way it works.

And if it works for God to use our names, why are our names not sufficient for identity? Why the focus, for us women, on whether or not we're virgins, or married, or mothers? Why the obsession with sexuality?

I think the short answer is, we are still members of that animal kingdom. When we operate out of our animal-ness (the flesh), we show the truth of God's observation that, once sin entered our world, the man would dominate the woman and the woman would nevertheless desire the man above all else (including God). Though the Second Adam has redeemed us and called us to newness of life, we settle for life in the fallen state. And for some, we idolize that fallen state and codify it and teach one another and our children that we are commanded to live in that state. Our fallenness controls us; there's no room for God the Holy Spirit to guide us in life as the new creation we're called to be in Christ.

I am called by God, by my name. I am not my marital status, I am not my sexuality, I am not my father...I am me, God's beloved child. I believe that status is the only one that matters and that it's every child's birthright (whatever the age or other status of that child). I stand for the freedom of every boy and girl, man and woman, to live out that identity in Christ.


Singing Owl said...

YES!!! Well written. But..I hesitate to ask...what is a "purity ball."

Daddy's helpmeet?


P.S. an after-thought said...

Well written and explained. I've never been Mrs. Husband's first name Husband's Last Name.

I decided against the HFN when I once saw a plaque commemorating a large monetary donation: Given by Mr. Johnny Jones in honor of Mrs. Johnny Jones. I was about 20 and I said to myself: What if Johnny Jones had three wives, which one is being honored???

I decided to "take" my husband's last name because I like the family having the same last name. We discussed options because my husband to be said that I didn't have to take his last name because it is unusual sounding. So I said, well, you could take my last name. He didn't like that idea because my last name was extremely common and he thought it better to have a rarer name. So I decided to have his last name.

However, unlike the other women in my family, I chose not to use my maiden name as my new middle name. I liked my real middle name and I wanted to keep it.

So my names have been chosen by my choice even though they are somewhat conventional.

As to the sexual overtones you allude to, gakkkkk. Isn't it odd that the girls are being "protected" from being sexual, but being sexualized with these terminologies?

OTOH, I think many parents could do a much better job of instilling self-worth in their daughters and teaching them to speak up for themselves and to not look for acceptance through a man. But how much "control" does a parent have over this? My daughters are strong minded girls, but maybe that is just their innate character. My son is strong minded too. Two of the three are adopted, so this is not genetic.

Psalmist said...

Singing Owl, "purity balls" are events including a banquet, a dance, where daddies and their daughters(age about 10 to 16 or so) go together, the girls in fancy gowns. Fathers make pledges to their daughters to be their "covering" and protect their "purity." Google "purity ball" and you'll get a ton of results. I can't bring myself to link to any of them.

Psalmist said...

As for "daddy's helpmeet," check out the Botkin sisters' book, "So Much More," where VERY young women presume to tell all the rest of us that daughters are required to stay home and be "helpmeets" to their fathers until they marry. IKYN.

Psalmist said...

P.S., I like that you and your husband discussed your options. I think there's a real issue that does need to be dealt with: Will there be a single family name, and what will it be? It sounds to me as though you made a very wise decision, together. My objection is those religious "authorities" (and the busybodies) who try to tell us all that the "way it's always been done" is the only way that Christians are allowed to do it, and tacking on a bunch of biblical proof-texted hooey as though that proves they're right about it. Nonsense!

Thanks, both of you, for reading and commenting.

P.S. an after-thought said...

Christians, and I suppose people in general, have always confused cultural norms with what they think is prescribed by the Bible. Did you ever read that really thick book called Hawaii by Mitchner?

Anyway, if someone "condemns" a practice, such as not taking the husband's name, then that person is also condemning other cultures/countries that don't do likewise, such Korea. Korea has had Christians for over 250 years and is 50% Christian. What about Scandinavia or other European countries?

I think it is a parallel to those people who claim that only the King James Bible is legitimate. So what about people with German Bibles, or French Bibles, etc?

It is all too easy to do this unless a person tries really hard to look wider and deeper at issues, and travels and reads widely. Know any presidents who could do more of that?

Psalmist said...

LOL...good point, P.S.

I think of the issue of Bibliolatry and it even goes beyond language. What of those languages WITHOUT a Bible translation? The majority of the world's spoken languages don't have one. (That's why I so appreciate work of organizations such as Wycliffe, ABS, and so forth.) But we make "the Bible says" more important sometimes than who God is, and that's essentially excluding Bible-less people a relationship with God. Inexcusable!

Psalmist said...

One other thing. The standard "covenant" that the father makes with his daughter (sometimes there's a response the daughter makes, but in many cases, it's unilateral) calls the father the "authority" of his daughter (note, ONLY the father, not the mother, and not God). It also calls the father the totally unbiblical "high priest of the home." Note: not only "priest of the home," but "high priest" at that.

That, and all the tiaras and spaghetti strap gowns and low necklines in the pictures at several of the sites, make this look for all the world like a prom, with only girls' fathers as the dates. One picture sticks out in my mind: a beaming father surrounded by three bejewelled, bare-shouldered girls. The girls, FWIW, were skin and bones--very much the "model" look. I found it chilling on several levels.

Anonymous said...

Good post and discussion. It all seems so vulgar doesn't it??

I'm with you, we are who God made us to be...we need to be fully that identity. Messing with that and "covering it up" in any way shape or form is filtering...the very thing that Jesus decried in his time here on earth. IMHO.

zorra said...

Very well said. There are a number of sites on the internet railing against the heathen practice of dating, and setting forth the father's "right" and responsibility to choose his daughter's spouse. This stuff gives me the willies.

Judith said...

Rant on, Psalmist! Well written!

The "purity ball" concept just cracks me up! What will the fundies come up with next? Oh no, don't answer that!

"Purity" is a bit overrated. I've always preferred more realistic standards. My daughter complains that I never gave her much of anything to rebel against, because all my rules were so reasonable. There were only three:

1. Remember to use latex condoms because of AIDS.
2. Don't get pregnant; if you do get pregnant, don't bring me any babies to raise; I've raised two, and now I'm done.
3. No drinking and driving, and no riding in a car with anyone who has been drinking.

And somehow she survived, grew up, and became a responsible member of society, just as my son has. And without my worrying too much about purity.