Kristin Du Mez and Beth Allison Barr both published important books, recently. They’re both well-credentialed historians. They’re both conservative Christians. They’ve both drawn the negative attention of a particular group of conservative, male, Christian theologians. They call Du Mez and Barr (along with some other folks) “wolves.” They say these women are a threat. They say they’re paving the slippery slope to ruin. They’re undermining scripture–putting lived experiences, feelings, and sociology in the driver’s seat. The bible is denigrated! To arms!
What’s the problem? I’ll briefly introduce the two books, look at some examples of culture driving bible interpretation, take a look at the alarmist response to Barr and Du Mez from some quarters, then offer some brief analysis.
The women who wrote the books that started this great war
Kristin Du Mez’ Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation argues that “evangelicalism” is less a set of doctrinal commitments (like, say, the Bebbington quadrilateral) than a sociological or cultural phenomenon with its own values, mores, and gatekeepers. And, this sub-culture sometimes has little to do with scripture itself. Her focus is a particular framework for masculinity, with John Wayne as the archetype. She writes:
Although foundational to white evangelical identity, race rarely acts as an independent variable. For conservative white evangelicals, the “good news” of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to a staunch commitment to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity. Many Americans who now identify as evangelicals are identifying with this operational theology—one that is Republican in its politics and traditionalist in its values. This God-and-country faith is championed by those who regularly attend evangelical churches, and by those who do not. It creates affinities across denominational, regional, and socioeconomic differences, even as it divides Americans—and American Christians—into those who embrace these values, and those who do not. In this way, conservative white evangelicalism has become a polarizing force in American politics and society.
White evangelicalism has such an expansive reach in large part because of the culture it has created, the culture that it sells. Over the past half century or so, evangelicals have produced and consumed a vast quantity of religious products: Christian books and magazines, CCM (“Christian contemporary music”), Christian radio and television, feature films, ministry conferences, blogs, T-shirts, and home decor. Many evangelicals who would be hard pressed to articulate even the most basic tenets of evangelical theology have nonetheless been immersed in this evangelical popular culture. They’ve raised children with the help of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio programs or grown up watching VeggieTales cartoons. They rocked out to Amy Grant or the Newsboys or DC Talk. They learned about purity before they learned about sex, and they have a silver ring to prove it. They watched The Passion of the Christ, Soul Surfer, or the latest Kirk Cameron film with their youth group. They attended Promise Keepers with guys from church and read Wild at Heart in small groups. They’ve learned more from Pat Robertson, John Piper, Joyce Meyer, and The Gospel Coalition than they have from their pastor’s Sunday sermons.Jesus and John Wayne, pp. 6-7
She continues, in her introduction:
Contemporary white evangelicalism in America, then, is not the inevitable outworking of “biblical literalism,” nor is it the only possible interpretation of the historic Christian faith; the history of American Christianity itself is filled with voices of resistance and signs of paths not taken. It is, rather, a historical and a cultural movement, forged over time by individuals and organizations with varied motivations—the desire to discern God’s will, to bring order to uncertain times, and, for many, to extend their own power.Ibid, p. 14.
It’s fair to say that these are fightin’ words, to some Christians.
Beth Allison Barr, in her volume The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, takes aim at a complementarian understanding of gender roles. I reviewed her book, earlier this year. She is a medieval historian, and mines history to suggest culture is driving a particular interpretation of gender roles that marginalizes women:
This was my understanding of biblical womanhood: God designed women primarily to be submissive wives, virtuous mothers, and joyful homemakers. God designed men to lead in the home as husbands and fathers, as well as in church as pastors, elders, and deacons. I believed that this gender hierarchy was divinely ordained. Elisabeth Elliot famously wrote that femininity receives. Women surrender, help, and respond while husbands provide, protect, and initiate. A biblical woman is a submissive woman.
This was my world for more than forty years.
Until, one day, it wasn’t.Making of Biblical Womanhood, p. 2.
You see, I knew that complementarian theology—biblical womanhood—was wrong. I knew that it was based on a handful of verses read apart from their historical context and used as a lens to interpret the rest of the Bible. The tail wags the dog, as Ben Witherington once commented—meaning that cultural assumptions and practices regarding womanhood are read into the biblical text, rather than the biblical text being read within its own historical and cultural context. So much textual and historical evidence counters the complementarian model of biblical womanhood and the theology behind it. Sometimes I am dumbfounded that this is a battle we are still fighting.
As a historian, I also knew that women have been fighting against oppression from the beginning of civilization. I knew that biblical womanhood, rather than looking like the freedom offered by Jesus and proclaimed by Paul, looks much more like the non-Christian systems of female oppression that I teach my students about when we discuss the ancient worlds of Mesopotamia and Greece. As Christians we are called to be different from the world. Yet in our treatment of women, we often look just like everyone else. Ironically, complementarian theology claims it is defending a plain and natural interpretation of the Bible while really defending an interpretation that has been corrupted by our sinful human drive to dominate others and build hierarchies of power and oppression. I can’t think of anything less Christlike than hierarchies like these.Ibid, pp. 6-7
Culture does drive interpretation, at some level
Both Du Mez and Barr are using history, in complementary ways (pun intended), to say something like, “don’t you see that cultural forces you don’t even acknowledge are shaping what you believe ‘the bible says,’ even right now?”
This is not a revolutionary concept. It’s a good insight. We learn from history, so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Here are a few examples:
Peter and Cornelius
In Acts 10:28-29, the Apostle Peter visits a Roman soldier’s home, in Caeserea. The man’s name is Cornelius. Peter is there because God, in a vision, told him to go. Cornelius and his assembled guests (Gentiles, all) are waiting. After an embarrassing greeting from Cornelius they’re both eager to put behind them, they walk into the house … and Peter stops dead.
He sees “many persons gathered.” He’s horrified, nervous, on edge. He then blurts out one of the rudest, most cruel things we see in the New Covenant scriptures. He tells them “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.” That is a lie. You will search the Old Covenant in vain for this command, or even its implication. Peter then tepidly declares he now understands that vision from God wasn’t about animals at all―it was about Gentiles. Nevertheless, he isn’t a happy camper. Tersely, he states, “so when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” He basically asks, “what do you want?”
Shocking! It’s hard to imagine a missionary so reluctant to evangelize. He wants to leave. He wants to run. He’s uncomfortable. Why? Because Peter is the product of a culture that regards Gentiles as contaminated, impure, ceremonially dirty. The Mishnah is full of detailed laws about how to disinfect your spoon, your plate, your home, yourself … if a Gentile so much as came near any of it. Gentiles were like COVID-19. You didn’t like them. You didn’t want them around. You wanted to disinfect anything they came near. They soiled you. The air they breathed polluted you and your home. You wanted them OUT.
And so Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ and a genuine product of his time, said what he said to this eager audience. He’s supposed to preach the Gospel (and he eventually does; cf. Acts 10:34-35), but what a bizarre and cruel way to start a conversation!
Why did Peter act this way, when Jesus so clearly did not (cf. Mt 8:5-12; cp. Isa 42:1-9)? Simple. His culture was driving his interpretation.
Augustine and Ambrose
The other day, as I studied to teach through Psalm 114, I saw that both Ambrose and his spiritual son, Augustine, interpreted that lovely passage to be about Christian baptism (see especially vv. 3-4). I hate to break it to you … but that passage has nothing to do with baptism. It’s about God’s power. His authority. He’s the one who indwells His people, who are His kingdom, rule and dominion. He’s so powerful that the Red Sea flees, the Jordan pulls a U-turn, and the mountains and hills quake!
Why would Ambrose and Augustine butcher this text into … an apology for Christian baptism? Simple. They believed in baptismal regeneration, like most Christians did in the ante and post-nicene period. Their culture warped their interpretation.
Rev. A. T. Holmes
In 1851, an Alabama minister named Rev. A.T. Holmes wrote an essay on the topic of the duties of Christian masters towards slaves (“The Duties of Christian Masters,” ca. 1851, in Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South―A Brief History with Documents, ed. Paul Finkelman (Boston: St. Martins, 2003), pp. 96-107). He wrote it for a contest sponsored by the Alabama Baptist Convention. This was in the antebellum South, of course, where slavery reigned. His tone was condescending and paternalistic–blacks are ignorant, inferior, simple. Masters have a “Christian duty” to “show them the way,” as it were. Slaves were property in “our” care. God will judge us if we fail to do our duty, Holmes declared!
The good Reverend painted a whitewashed, fictional portrait–a tissue of lies:
A kind word, a pleasant look, a little arrangement for his comfort, assures him that there is one who cares for him; and, notwithstanding he goes forth to his daily labor, and toils at his daily task, his heart is light, his song is cheerful, and he seeks his humble couch at night, in the happy consciousness that his master is his friend.”Duties of Christian Masters, in Defending Slavery, p. 103.
This is a Gone With the Wind-level, air-brushed plantation fantasy! Slaves must be taught the master is the protector, so they’d be less likely to run away. Masters must set the Christian example―souls are at stake! Indeed, slavery is the vehicle for evangelism: “Christian master, entered the dark cabin of thy servant, and with the lamp of truth in thy hand, light up his yet darker soul with the knowledge of him, whom to know is life eternal …” (Ibid, p. 103).
One is very tempted to see a parallel between the slave with the “dark cabin” and the “darker soul” with his dark skin, and the white master who wields the “lamp of truth.” Are these allusions an accident? I doubt it.
Rev. Holmes won $200 from the Alabama Baptist Convention for this essay. How could a Christian man actually believe this? Simple. His culture.
For more on the slavery issue and biblical interpretation, see especially Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), and James P. Byrd, A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible & the American Civil War (New York: OUP, 2021).
Capitalism or bust?
Deuteronomy is an oft-neglected book. That’s too bad, because there’s some important stuff there. God tells us that debt must be reset and wiped out every seven years, and that this magic date is fixed and repetitive. If a covenant brother or sister is in need, you must loan to him. Is the “reset date” only 14 months away? Too bad. Is it true that you’ll never collect the money back from the guy in 14 months, if you loan to him? Yes, but too bad (Deut 15:1-6).
That’s not fair, you say! Well, God says fair ain’t got nothing to do with it. He knows you’re tempted to refuse the loan for those very reasons (Deut 15:9), and he says “[y]ou shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging …” (Deut 15:10).
What does this reveal about God’s heart for his future kingdom society? A few things come to mind:
- God does not like vast economic disparity.
- He takes the side of the poor. He doesn’t penalize the rich, per se, but puts a floor in place to stop the poor from falling and falling, and falling some more.
- This suggests an economic system which encourages vast wealth disparity, either by design or by default, does not reflect kingdom values.
These observations should raise the eyebrows of a conservative Christian steeped in the doctrines of the Moral Majority, Reagan-era GOP. If that’s you, then you’ve been conditioned to be suspicious of the government. They’re up to no good. They need to get outta the way. After all, the most terrifying thing in the world is to be told, “Hi! I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” You’ve seen the Reagan quotes on Facebook, usually shared by people 50 or older. George Packer, writing about this particular version of America, notes:
The majority of Americans who elected Reagan president did not vote for the destruction of the blue-collar workforce, or the rise of a new plutocracy, or legislation rigged in favor of organized money. They weren’t told that Free America would break their unions and starve their social programs, or that it would change antitrust policy to bring a new age of monopoly, concentrating financial power and strangling competition, making Walmart, Citigroup, Google, and Amazon the J. P. Morgan and Standard Oil of a second Gilded Age. They had never heard of Charles and David Koch—heirs to a family oil business, libertarian billionaires, who would pour money into the lobbies and propaganda machines and political campaigns of Free America on behalf of corporate power and fossil fuels. Freedom sealed a deal between elected officials and business executives: campaign contributions in exchange for tax cuts and corporate welfare.Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), pp. 65-66.
Over a century ago, Walter Rausenbusch described the plight of the average factory workers who comprised his flock, in the heyday of the industrial revolution:
The fear of losing his job is the workman’s chief incentive to work. Our entire industrial life, for employer and employee, is a reign of fear. The average workingman’s family is only a few weeks removed from destitution. The dread of want is always over them, and that is worse than brief times of actual want. It is often said in defence of the wages system that while the workman does not share in the hope of profit, neither is he troubled by the danger of loss; he gets his wage even if the shop is running at a loss. Not for any length of time. His form of risk is the danger of being out of work when work grows slack, and when his job is gone, all his resources are gone. Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: MacMillan & Co, 1907; reprint), p. 61.
He railed, not so much against individual cases of social and economic misery, but at the system that produced it:
The officers of the hospitals and the officers of the street railway company were not bad men. Their point of view and their habits of mind are entirely comprehensible. I feel no certainty that I should not act in the same way if I had been in their place long enough. But the impression remained that our social machinery is almost as blindly cruel as its steel machinery, and that it runs over the life of a poor man with scarcely a quiver.Ibid, pp. 63-64
Why does this matter? Think Amazon. They know their workers are too often badly-educated and have little power. Amazon can force them to accept low wages because they have fewer options. Think Wal-Mart. Think the gig economy. This is all still true. Should Christians champion an economic system that abets a system that makes rich people very rich, and some people very poor?
You may be tempted to respond with a GOP talking point. Fair enough. Read Deuteronomy 15:1-12, and consider what God’s values are, regarding economics. Then look to Reagan, then back at Moses. Is there a disparity? What does that mean?
Regeneration includes that a man must pass under the domination of the spirit of Christ, so that he will judge of life as Christ would judge of it. That means a revaluation of social values. Things that are now “exalted among men” must become “an abomination” to him because they are built on wrong and misery. Unless a man finds his judgment at least on some fundamental questions in opposition to the current ideas of the age, he is still a child of this world and has not “tasted the powers of the coming age.” He will have to repent and believe if he wants to be a Christian in the full sense of the world.Ibid, p. 88.
Why is this short discussion likely to irritate some people? Simple. Your culture has conditioned you to default to Reaganomics. You can read Deuteronomy 15:1-12, but you don’t see it. You don’t hear it. It’s mute, to you. You might even invent reasons why it can’t really mean that, or say it doesn’t apply to the New Covenant, etc. You might also turn to Wayne Grudem, who wrote a long book titled Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) that somehow manages to dovetail quite well with the GOP platform (“[t]he Bible’s teaching on the role of government gives support to the idea of a free market rather than socialism or communism,” p. 275).
But … does the bible really advocate a free-market economy, a la Reagan? Or, is that your culture talking? As you consider the cattle-like operations of the Wal-Mart and Amazon worker, I offer one more salvo from Rauschenbusch, then I’ll leave it: “The preventible decimation of the people is social murder,” (Ibid, p. 62).
When evangelicals attack
I say all that to say that the history Du Mez and Barr are doing need not be a threat. Culture does impact interpretation! If you know it, acknowledge it, you can correct for it. You can adjust. Yet, some conservative male theologians think these women are a threat.
In the Fall 2021 edition of Eikon, the journal of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, one author declared these two women (among others) “all share a dangerous approach to theology via the disciplines of sociology and history.” If culture really does impact interpretation, our author fears the end result is that we won’t be able to be sure we know anything at all! The author fears Du Mez and Barr are the road to the fast train to apostasy–“their methodological approach makes such an outcome inevitable.”
In the latest issue of 9Marks Journal, its editor, Jonathan Leeman, sounds a similar alarm:
Postmodernism’s heavy emphasis on the role of interpretation is, quite simply, too heavy. It tempts Christians to believe that the Bible cannot be objectively understood, or that we cannot articulate objectively true doctrines, or that everything we might say about the Bible warrants suspicions because it only reveals our cultural context and sinful self-interest.
Cultural forces do exist, Leeman allows, but “the Bible alone is the norming norm.” He worries Christians will read Barr and Du Mez and unwittingly forsake the Bible as the structural foundation for reality, in favor of lived experiences and feelings:
Denny Burk, a Southern Baptist theologian and President of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, echoed Leeman in an exchange with Du Mez:
Burk then queried Du Mez repeatedly on her views on LGBTQ issues, which he sees as a corollary to her (to his eyes, at least) compromised view of scripture regarding gender roles. Du Mez replied with a short article in which she acknowledged she is re-thinking her stand on these issues. Burk then declared his suspicions were confirmed! According to one account, Burk, Leeman, Kevin DeYoung (who has also written a critique of Barr’s book), and Andy Naselli (who wrote a critical review of another book questioning certain gender role presuppositions) regularly text one another, wondering how they can “handle” these women. They see themselves as righteous gatekeepers, protecting a naive and vulnerable flock from danger with their terrible, swift theological swords. His truth is marching on!
Du Mez is wrong to re-consider the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics. Indeed, it’s interesting that the saints whom God protects from the tribulation during the last days have two distinguishing characteristics: (1) they’re not sexually immoral (whatever Revelation 14:4 means, this interpretation is surely a top contender), and (2) they follow Jesus wherever He goes. But, the LGBTQ issue has nothing to do with Du Mez’s scholarship on the evangelical theory of masculinity! Consider this–I enjoy Rick Atkinson’s history books. I’ve no idea what he thinks of sexual ethics. If he approved of LGBTQ, must I now throw his books away? Should we all burn our copies of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s history of the Reformation? Absurd! Why, then, is Du Mez so uniquely “dangerous”?
This is the odd part. We learn from people with whom we disagree all the time. If I only read books authored by my particular flavor of Christian, on any subject, then I wouldn’t be reading much. Why are gender roles and masculinity such a unique threat?
- Why is it ok to quote John Calvin, who would have had Burk and Leeman trundled out of Geneva for believing in believer’s baptism, but “dangerous” to learn from Du Mez and Barr?
- Why is it fine to admire Huldrych Zwingli for his reforms in Zurich, during the Swiss Reformation, when he had Felix Manz murdered (by drowning) for holding to believer’s baptism? Does not my endorsement of Zwingli lead Christians to murder their theological opponents?
- Why should we quote from Augustine’s Confessions or City of God, when the man held to baptismal regeneration? Is this not “dangerous?” Shall I burn the copy of Confessions in the church library, lest someone be led astray by this wolf? The Gospel is at stake!
Critics may reply that these doctrinal differences were textual, not sociological. That would miss the point. Every convictional Christian looks to the text. The issue is whether we’re willing to account for our own biases and context, so we can interpret it correctly. Calvin, Zwingli, and Augustine held to the particular positions I just mentioned, in part, because of their peculiar context–their culture. Church historians recognize that. Consider the state-church context in which Zwingli and Calvin operated, then consider poor Felix Manz! And yet … I doubt the Bible Presbyterians across the street from the Baptist church where I pastor are hatching plans to bind me in chains and toss me into the Puget Sound! Why not? Because that ain’t how we do things, today.
So, I ask again, why are Du Mez and Barr so uniquely “dangerous” to a confab of conservative, American, male theologians? I’m not sure. But, I suspect their culture has something to do with it.
 On this tradition, which has no basis in the Hebrew scriptures, see especially Gary Gilbert, “Gentiles, Jewish Attitudes Towards,” at § Gentiles and Ritual Purity, in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, ed(s). John Collins and Daniel Harlow (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 672. See also the relevant tractates in the Mishnah. See especially Emil Shurer and Alfred Edersheim.