books Feminism writers

Reading Sex

Reading in Bedphoto credit: Artotem

Some of my favorite female writers were chatting it up on twitter, asking some good questions about sex and writing. Lisa was looking for women who write specifically about leadership, and noticed a paucity of female inclusion on male-owned blogs. Andi wanted to know why often, male bloggers don’t include many, if any, women in their blog rolls.

I told them I have a certain set of standards when I’m selecting a book to read. Truly and honestly the first criteria is that I go both ways. If I have just finished a novel by a woman, the next book I choose will be written by a man. Here’s why.

I want to make sure to read a variety of work. I don’t want to get stuck in a rut of loyalty that is both misguided and ridiculous. I make a serious effort to include diverse ideas and voices in my reading material.

I want to be the kind of reader that I want as a writer: thoughtful, careful, intentional. I want the author’s sex to fall away as I climb into the story, as I crawl through the words. And largely, I’d say this is possible when reading quality fiction. (There’s an awful lot of crap out there. But there are too many good choices to read bad stuff.)

I want to be the kind of reader who can acknowledge the sex of an author, as well as other social, religious, or ethnicity markers and then overlook them as the story unfolds.

There is a school of thought that says that the author’s life experiences must come into play in a novel. That some portion of a writer’s life leaks into fiction. I might buy this, but I don’t think it means a reader can identify if a book is written by a man or woman. I think it’s much more broad; that a scene may bear a strong resemblance to an actual event, that the way an emotion is described is exactly how the author experiences it, that the next door neighbor might just be that guy in the Witness Protection Program.

I don’t think it necessarily means that chick books are all touch feeling, and dude books simmer with testosterone. In fact, to suggest so is to reduce both men and women. And also just kind of dumb.

I’ve heard some guys say that they avoid books written by women because they’re feminine. Poppycock. They say the won’t read books with a feminine cover, and all I can think of is the feminine hygiene aisle at Wal-Mart; I wouldn’t want to read that either. They say that women write for women, and I point them to S.E. Hinton, who writes gruff, grim and tough males in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. I would point them to JK Rowling, who made up Harry Potter and the fantastic Hermione. There’s nothing “feminine” about them, as writers.

But the biggest reason I alternate between men and women authors is that words are not the property of any gender, and life experience, and story cannot be located in the male world or the female world (whatever those are). Words transcend gender in a way that we humans are not always capable of doing. Story takes us past our small world and allows us to crawl into the skin of a man, or an obese person, or a circus clown or an astronaut.

I like to think I’m not reading sex but humanity.

How about you? Is there such a thing as feminine writing? How do you choose your books?

28 Comment

  1. Around here you can walk into any book store and the Amish romance prevails. I would say this is geared very much to women, but only appeals to some of them. Quite a loyal following, and I wonder what it would take for men to open those books…a new title and a less dreamy cover design? To keep reading, that’s another thing. Some styles will be appealing and other not.

    One of my greatest frustrations is that sometimes who will be reading you gets decided when they read you name, not your writing. And that’s a bummer.

    I think a shift is happening & I’ll bet it’s no doubt in part to the internet leveling who gets to be heard.

    (thanks for the great discussion on twitter and all your humor. It’s lovely. 😉

  2. Speaking as a man with remarkably few women on my blog roll (I just checked – more than 95% of my blog roll is male), I think that there are several reasons why men don’t read so much by women. While I follow a dozen or more women on Google Reader, for the most part there is an extremely marked difference in the sort of things that men and women typically write about in Christian blogs.

    Theology-blogging is really dominated by men. One really doesn’t find many women blogging widely on more abstract theological or philosophical questions. I can immediately think of a dozen or more men who will have blogged at extreme length on current debates in Pauline theology, for instance, but only a few women. A blog roll is a representation of one’s primary interlocutors. If one is interested in a conversation about these wide-ranging theological questions, you just won’t find a great number of women. It is not a matter of not paying attention to women: they just don’t seem to be participating in the sorts of conversations that interest many men in the first place.

    The female-run blogs that I follow don’t avoid theology altogether. However, they tend only to tackle a very narrow range of topics, specifically those theological issues that fall within the narrow window of more direct relevance to the individual’s experience. So one is highly likely to encounter a lot of posts on the subject of the gender debates or on questions of personal piety, but highly unlikely to read a piece on something such as Karl Barth’s theology of election or the ascension offering in the book of Leviticus. The topics studied will be addressed from the perspective of personal experience and identification with the issue, while relatively few male blogs adopt the same approach. There are noteworthy exceptions, of course, but we are talking about general rules here.

    The writer’s subjective vantage point is given immensely more significance on female Christian blogs than on their male counterparts. While many of us have thoughts on masculinity, we don’t typically see the fact that we are writing as men to be that significant, because our subjective relationship to the issues under discussion plays such a limited role within our discourse (what bearing does the fact that I am a man have on, say, the theology of 1 Samuel?). This difference alone tends to ghettoize female Christian bloggers, I suspect. The more that they emphasize their subjective vantage point, the more that they exclude themselves from a conversation in which that vantage point is typically downplayed and the objectivity of the matters under discussion are given priority. Although men write, they do not self-consciously write as men anywhere near as much as women seem to write self-consciously as women. In my experience, men are not typically as interested in subjective vantage points, whether their own or others, over objective matters of debate so it doesn’t surprise me that they are less drawn to writings that highlight this.

    This emphasis of the subjective vantage point is not merely characteristic of much women’s writing, but is also characteristic of much women’s reading. Approximately 50% of fiction sold is romantic fiction, written fairly explicitly for a female readership, to be enjoyed from the women’s subjective position. Unsurprisingly, well over 90% of the readership of such fiction is female. Male fiction just isn’t as overwhelming defined by the gender of the writer or the reader, but is more likely to be written for more general audiences, even where the subject matter is more naturally appealing to men. As a result of this, men are more likely to dismiss women’s writing in general. If women want to be more widely read, a breaking of this unfair but commonly perceived intense connection between women’s writing and women’s subjective vantage point would seem to be necessary.

    Male and female writing also seems to involve different sorts of webs of sociality. For instance, 90% of the editors of Wikipedia are male and they are significantly more active than their female counterparts. Men socialize over the sharing of ideas and through talking about things detached from a fixed subjective vantage point far more than women. Men are more likely to relish and find identity in nerdy competitions, debates, and discussions of arcane or less personal knowledge. This form of sociality allows for rougher and more combative interaction and debate.

    By contrast, as the subjective vantage point is prominent in female writing and reading, women’s blogs typically have far more personally loaded interactions. They are more likely to engage their audience on a far more personal level. However, as the personal vantage point is typically so prominent, it is very difficult to have challenging discussions and disagreements, as everything is more sensitive. A lot of the comments will involve personal affirmation, excruciating attempts to disagree with someone nicely without hurting their feelings, and the like. For many of us, this feels like an atmosphere of volatile and stifling intimacy and we don’t feel at home in it.

    1. You do realize that what you just did is set up the male writing viewpoint as “neutral” and the female as “other” right? No wonder you don’t read women-helmed blogs if this is the type of approach you’re taking. That approach itself is flawed because it automatically views each blog-writing in a specific, slanted manner. Tony Jones is just as emotional, if not more so, as Rachel Held Evans, and RHE’s analysis of theology rivals that of Roger Olson.

      Signed,

      A woman author who is currently working on a post that ties together the Incarnational theology of Karl Barth with the community theology of Stanley Grenz and who has written several posts on Trinitarian theology, theology of the body, and feminist approaches to theology and Incarnation.

      1. Dianna, he’s British. it’s a totally different world over there in male / female relations. (Remember the show the Office originated there…all the sexist and racist themes taken from real life. 🙂 I lived there for a bit, it was wildly politically incorrect (frequent off color jokes, sexist and racist comments, etc)

        Ex. One of my profs said “a wife is a maid you are allowed to have sex with.” Seriously some of the stuff you hear is “Stone Ages”. Alastair is practically enlightened by comparison to stuff I’ve heard, so let’s not be too hard on him 🙂

        1. I actually work with a lot of British people and have lived there myself. I think excusing this as “British” lets him off the hook far too easily, because I’ve not seen this type of behavior exhibited in any of the British folk I know (many of them DPhils or Master’s students at Oxbridge).

        2. As someone educated in the American system, living in the UK and having found church and faith in the UK, this is an awful, wildly inaccurate stereotype of British people. What you’ve said isn’t funny, if that was your intention.

      2. Thanks for the response, Dianna. A few points of clarification:

        1. I never spoke in terms of ‘the male writing viewpoint’ or the ‘female writing viewpoint’. Rather, my point was that a certain style of writing is far more typical among female bloggers. I implied that men occasionally employ such a style too and that many women don’t employ such a style. However, there is a general pattern to be observed here.

        2. I never denied that women’s voices are important. My point is merely that they don’t feature much in the sorts of conversations that I am engaged in, simply because the two forms of discourse don’t intersect much. The distinction here isn’t one between male and female voices so much as one between blogs that are more dominated by a subjective vantage point and relationship with the subject matter and those which are not.

        I assure you that I don’t give much time to reading guys who blog from a highly subjective vantage point either. American males explicitly writing theology from the perspective and for the context of their North American masculinity make me change the channel no less rapidly.

        3. By ‘subjective’ I don’t mean ‘emotional’. Rather, by ‘subjective’ I am referring to styles of writing that rest heavily upon the particularity of the writer or reader’s identity. My interest in how Christian teaching looks through the eyes of a man, a woman, a straight or gay person, an African or Asian, etc. is really fairly limited. This is not to say that they are unimportant to me, and I will happily acknowledge that they can have great importance and value to those who share those identities and be helpful for others trying to understand them. Contextual theologies or theologies of identity have their contribution to make, but the more dominating that pole becomes, the less interested those of us outside of the context or who do not share the identity will become. How many blogs that are focused on the subject of Christian masculinity in a British context do you read? Is there any reason why you should really be that bothered?

        4. Our writing and reading will always be coloured by our subjective vantage point. I make no pretence to be ‘neutral’. My point is rather that discourses that particularly emphasize the objective pole of theology, those dimensions of theology that exceed, transcend, pull us beyond our contexts and don’t directly relate to our identities, tend to be under-populated by women. The difference isn’t between ‘neutral’ and ‘other’, but between forms of writing that are more context- and identity-bound and those forms that speak beyond or traverse contexts and identities.

        5. Furthermore, I stress that this is not an emotional/rational opposition. People like Rachel Held Evans (whose blog I have followed for years) may have plenty of theology, but are still a perfect example of the dynamic that I’m talking about (I’ve followed your blog for a while too, along with your When in Comments tumblr – I’m hoping that I’ll be featured!). The theologizing is heavily dominated by and constantly related to particular contexts and sets of identities, rather than being an attempt to engage in theology as it might appear beyond them.

        It is one thing to write about Barth’s theology as it has bearing on women’s identities and place in the church, it is quite another to write on his theology in a more abstract and general fashion. My point is that the active women bloggers I encounter tend to do relatively little of the latter and what theologizing they do tends to fall into the former category.

        The question that my comment was designed to answer was why many men have so few women writers on their blog rolls. My point in response was that women just don’t participate as much in the sort of conversations that dominate male blogs, conversations that aren’t so firmly rooted in a particular context or identity. We don’t purposefully exclude women from our blog rolls at all: they just aren’t participating in the general conversation to the same degree. By not including them, we aren’t denying that they have value in their own place, just that they aren’t speaking into the conversations with which we are engaged.

        1. But you are placing the male perspective as prime by assuming that identity politics are somehow inapplicable to the straight white male and that the straight white male’s contributions to the theological realm are the “neutral” or “objective” viewpoint. I don’t buy the idea that there is such a thing as an objective viewpoint because we are always speaking within the context of our identities and within our lived experience – we cannot possibly separate ourselves from such experience and float above it in the abstract, the very thing you are proposing male writers do.

          By placing the white male viewpoint into the abstract, neutral category and women into the subjective, biased category, you are creating a hierarchy between the two, creating the idea that men are somehow more capable of rational, abstract thought, as opposed to women who will always ever be speaking from a place of subjectivity unless they learn how to posture as a “neutral’ (read: male) writer. This, in itself, is the problem. You set up the male as neutral and then woman as Other, and then discount women’s contributions to the theological realms by ghettoizing it as biased identity politics. I should not have to give up my womanlines in order to write in a way that is considered a contribution to the conversation within the church, which is exactly what is asked of me when the straight, white, male is posited as “neutral.”

          Theological conversations are useless if they are not grounded within the identity of the church, and if you notice that most of your “abstract” supposedly” neutral conversations are dominated by straight white men, then the straight white male viewpoint is the one that you’re going to get because, like women, straight, white men are bound by their particular context and by their lived experience.

          The argument you are making is nothing new – “women don’t want to participate in [insert traditionally male-dominated field here] because they simply aren’t interested in that kind of discussion,” followed quickly by an explanation of how women are incapable of being neutral. This is a benevolent sexism that posits the male as the neutral and everyone else as other. And it is wrong.

          1. Thanks for the response, Dianna. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that you have read my comments carefully, because whatever position you are responding to, it isn’t mine.

            Let me repeat myself: I am not claiming to be ‘neutral’. Nor am I claiming to be completely objective. There is no such thing as a view from nowhere and I never claimed that there was. However, there are views that aren’t dominated by the concerns of a particular context or identity, but which are rather dominated by an object of study beyond themselves. This is what I am speaking of when speaking of an emphasis upon an objective pole.

            My comment was a response to a question about generalities: why do so many men have only a few women on their blog rolls? My point was that there are deeper reasons for this. Men and women often seem to gravitate to different forms and subjects of conversation in the current context. It isn’t a matter of ability or competence, so much as one of motivation and interest.

            My response was not designed to make a statement about the timeless being of Man and Woman, but just to observe some broad differences in tendencies when it comes to patterns of online discourse between the sexes in the area of Christian blogging in the year 2013. The primary distinction is between the forms of conversation, which aren’t gendered in and of themselves. The secondary distinction is between the tendencies of male and female bloggers relative to these. The distinction wasn’t between ‘mantalk’ and ‘womantalk’, but you seem to read it as if it was. There is nothing intrinsically male or female about the different forms of conversation. Women and men are both able to participate in both forms of conversation. My point was merely that preferences are (currently) highly gendered in this area and so conversations pass like ships in the night.

            Unfortunately, you don’t really seem to be reading and interacting what my comments actually say, but rather with some stereotyped bête noire of feminism. The fact that, at first blush, some of my statements could be construed in such a manner seems to justify you in your mistaken impression that that is my actual position. I assure you that it is not and that a little more careful reading would save you considerable effort in response.

            For instance, where did I say anything about women being ‘incapable of being neutral’ (or imply that men could be)? For one, you are the person who introduced the word ‘neutral’ into the conversation: I explicitly denied that we could be ‘neutral’ in such a fashion. Women are perfectly capable of participating in discourses focused on a more objective pole – I interact with women doing just this every day. However, the significant thing is that, when given free time and a blog to express themselves on, guys choose to engage in such discourses at a considerably higher rate than women do.

            Take Wikipedia as an example again. Why do men represent the overwhelming majority of editors there? It isn’t because women lack the capability or competence, but probably has to do with the fact that men are far more motivated to invest a lot of personal time and energy into the study of issues that are completely unrelated to their identity or context and to engage in protracted and competitive debates in defence of their positions, merely for the intrinsic pleasure of the activity apart from any payment or reward, than women are. It is not that women are unmotivated, just that men are much more motivated by such conversations.

            You might ask yourself why we should bother about ‘abstract’ theological questions or theological issues that don’t directly speak to our context or identities in the first place. Part of the point is to draw us beyond our contexts, by relating us to realms outside of them, teaching us to view our contexts from without, and to escape the tyranny of our immediate concerns. A study of theology that emphasizes the objective pole relativizes our contexts and gradually brings us into relation with a symbolic and theological world that eclipses them. It brings us into relationship with other times and places and transforms identities and contexts, rendering them more ‘catholic’, no longer so preoccupied with our immediate identities and the concerns of our cultures. Rather than allowing our cultural and personal questions to dominate our study of theology, we study theology in a way that constantly holds us in question.

            Discussing, for instance, the meaning of the aspects of the ritual of the sin offering of Leviticus or the Spirit’s role in the Eucharistic theology of Martin Luther will always be abstract theological questions in the first instance, much as discussions of the atonement can be at first. However, as we tarry with such questions we can find that they exert a transformative effect upon our own contexts. Precisely by pursuing them despite our immediate questions, we find that our own position as subjects becomes less determinative of our thinking as something beyond our identities and contexts is permitted to have priority over them.

            The danger that lies on the other hand is of so privileging our personal and cultural questions and concerns that we never permit them to be called into question themselves or to be reframed or eclipsed. Once again, this is not to deny the immense importance of addressing ourselves to our immediate contexts and identities, but rather to emphasize the value and necessity of conversations that address themselves to a reality beyond them.

    2. This may be the longest reply I have ever read. Thanks for proposing your ideas. Cheers!

      We must define “subjective” very differently. . . er….even subjectively.

      Maybe it’s a British thing. You seem to live in a man’s world.

      It’s really fascinating to note the cultural difference.

    3. In close relation to Dianna’s comment below, I would like to
      highlight how you are setting men up not only to be the “neutral”
      arbitrator and the woman the “not neutral” arbitrator, you are also
      creating a hierarchy between objectivity and subjectivity. Since you
      align men with neutrality and objectivity and women with non-neutrality
      and subjectivity (defined more or less as emotional and experiential),
      and since you associate more positive or at least influential
      characteristics to neutrality and objectivity, you are essentially
      communicating that to be taken seriously and read by men, women should
      engage more with the “neutral” and the “objective.”

      As an INTJ, I am wired more for objectivity and rationality than
      subjectivity and my “own vantage point.” Even so, I don’t discount or
      devalue what you have “othered” here simply because it is the opposite
      of what men are (men being normative, of course). I simply view them as
      two halves of the same pie of sifting through ideas, experiences, truth,
      and life.

    4. My first thought in reading this comment was, “Woah, I can’t believe he’s tackling this subject.” I always appreciate folks who leave long, thoughtful comments. It shows you’ve really taken an author’s post seriously. However, you did just leap into a huge complex topic that I can’t think many people (are there any?) can speak to definitively. There are a lot of true points in your comment, but I kept thinking the very thing Diana stated. You didn’t say “The male point of view is the neutral objective starting point.” It’s implied, whether you wanted to imply it or not. I think that may be what has bugged some commenters.

      Diana is one of the smartest people I know, so I’m pretty sure the disconnect here is not with her reading comprehension. I think there are some assumptions behind your comment, assumptions that I’ve made myself at times. In fact, I’m pretty sure I made the same exact argument while in seminary, reading blogs by dudes. I’ve since learned that this is a big, huge mess caused by anything from gender roles, writing styles, societal expectations, and who knows what else. We all come to this with assumptions and expectations about what a man writes or what a woman writes, and that’s why it’s sometimes hard to even get these conversations started. We’re just trying to clear the obstructions that keep us from seeing each other.

      1. Thanks for interacting, Ed.

        I confess to finding it a little difficult to understand why I am still being accused of implying something that I have both explicitly denied and don’t believe.

        Perhaps it would help if I explained exactly where I take issue with the statement ‘The male point of view is the neutral objective starting point’ and what an alternative summary of my position could be. First of all, there is no such thing as ‘the male point of view’: there are many and various male points of view.

        Second, I have explicitly denied the possibility of a neutral viewpoint at every stage. Dianna introduced the term into the conversation and it is a very inaccurate representation of my actual position.

        Third, it is not the viewpoint that I am arguing is ‘objective’. My point is rather that discourses can be weighted to different poles. We all have situated starting points when discussing issues. A discourse weighted to the subjective pole will give our starting point much more weight in our discourses, producing discourses that are much more rooted in particular identities and contexts. A discourse weighted to the objective pole, while still having a situated starting point, will be considerably less controlled by that starting point, but will seek to go beyond itself to engage with a reality that cannot be contained within the window of our own immediate experience. The viewpoint itself is not ‘objective’, but rather the objectivity of a reality beyond our immediate context and experience is privileged over the concerns and questions arising from our existential reality.

        Fourth, there is nothing intrinsically male or female about either form of discourse.

        Perhaps you could direct me to the statements that I have made that you believe contradict any of these points.

        In essence, my claim is that Christian men and women bloggers display very different general patterns of preferences in relation to these differing forms of discourse, with Christian women bloggers not being very active in forms of discourse that are focused on subject matters that are less immediate to our existential realities. This, I suggested, is why many the conversations of Christian women bloggers pass by the conversations that many of us men are engaged in like ships in the night, and why many of us have very few women in our blog rolls. We aren’t excluding women: we just aren’t taking part in the same conversations.

        I maintain that Dianna hasn’t read my comments carefully, nor my clarifications. Hearing statements that might seem to arise from stereotyped misogynist positions, she has jumped to unwarranted conclusions about my position and is seriously misrepresenting me. The fact that some of my statements might resemble such positions at first glance is apparently enough justification to dismiss my clarifications and qualifications as BS that is obviously covering up an ugly underlying misogyny. However, what if my clarifications and qualifications are not BS to be cut through, but a genuine distinction of my position from the monster in her mind? Her whole approach to reading me is characterized by distrust and suspicion and I submit that it has led to her gross misunderstanding and misrepresentation of my actual claims. I don’t dispute that she is a smart woman: my point is that a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion will naturally tend to produce a certain unchecked paranoid and uncharitable reaction when faced with statements that might permit unfavourable interpretation.

        Of course, it is easy to predict the reaction to this. It will be suggested that I have said that women are emotional and paranoid and that I am engaging in the stereotypical male activity of gaslighting. Nothing of the sort. Rather, I am pointing out some of the glaring flaws of a hermeneutic of suspicion (which feminism has tended to adopt) in situations where we are trying to communicate with each other. A hermeneutic of suspicion will naturally see my clarifying and qualifying statements as a rationalizing veneer over ugly underlying sentiments – as BS to be cut through. The problem is that such a hermeneutic of suspicion is incredibly poor at patiently hearing critics out, fairly representing them, understanding the dynamics of their position, and correcting its mistaken first impressions. For a hermeneutic of suspicion an initial intuition about a critic’s starting point can all too easily be sufficient to damn him. Even a smart woman like Dianna can be intellectually hamstrung by poor hermeneutical tools.

        What seems to be forgotten in all of this is that my underlying point was an empirical one and that I didn’t actually go to much effort to explain the underlying causes. My empirical observation was that there are relatively few women participating in the sorts of conversations that many of us are engaged in, conversations that aren’t focused upon our particular identities or contexts, but upon theology as something that concerns questions and realities beyond our contexts and identities.

        Perhaps a good way to tackle this would be to highlight the sort of people that are engaging in the conversations of which I am speaking. If few women seem to be engaging in our conversations why should it surprise anyone that we don’t show so much interest in their conversations? If you want people to be interested in your conversation, a good place to start is by showing more of an interest and having more involvement in theirs.

        I am hardly alone in finding that, whenever you say anything remotely critical or questioning of underlying assumptions in some contexts such as this, the full force of the feminist hermeneutic of suspicion comes into operation, you are attacked and misrepresented, you are engulfed in waves of outrage and passive aggression, and forces are rallied as rumours of the offence are spread on Twitter and elsewhere. I am seeking honestly to engage here. You want to know why many guys just aren’t interested in the self-affirming conversations that many feminist women are having on their blogs? Comment threads like this are why. There is no place for questioning, dissent, disagreement, or a contrarian viewpoint and little charity shown in interpretation, just a stifling intimacy and rapid demonization of dissenters. Ratchet the temperature down a little and we might have a meaningful conversation.

        So, how might my empirical claim be answered? Easily. I will provide a selection of blogs that I follow that are representative of the conversations that I am most interested and engaged in. I will give some indication of the range of their conversations and why I appreciate reading them. My honest question is whether you can identify a selection of regularly posting female run blogs who are consistently contributing to these broad conversations. I would love to know of them and would gladly follow them. Here goes.

        Peter Leithart blogs with great regularity on everything from literature, to political theology, to philosophy, to sociology, but most particularly biblical theology. The Calvinist International is a wide-ranging blog on politics, philosophy, society, the arts, religion, and theology. Mere Orthodoxy is a blog that posts guest posts on a wide-range of different cultural, political, and theological matters. While there are occasional women writers, the overwhelming majority are male. Eclectic Orthodoxy is a blog written by an Orthodox blogger, with an unusual and tragic personal journey, who blogs on patristic theology, contemporary Orthodox theologians. Curlew River, written by an English Lutheran on theology, society, and liturgy. Colvinism is a blog by a missionary in the Philippines, which frequently posts illuminating insights on biblical texts in light of advanced knowledge of rabbinical and classical sources and close analysis of biblical languages. Faith and Theology is an erudite blog by an Australian theologian discussing culture, literature, and theology. The Sword and the Ploughshare is a blog by a PhD student and friend of mine in Edinburgh University, mostly discussing political and Reformation theology. The Thirsty Gargoyle is a blog by an Irish Roman Catholic and historian, providing thoughtful Christian commentary on current social debates. Experimental Theology is a consistently stimulating blog by a progressive evangelical professor, exploring the intersection between Christianity and psychology. Boar’s Head Tavern is a group blog discussing theological issues. Over 90% of the participants are male. Daniel Silliman teaches religion and culture at Heidelberg University and blogs insightful commentary on current events, stories, and trends relative to that field.

        There is a very significant range of theological positions represented here (Reformed, Baptist, Lutheran, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Methodist, liberal, conservative, progressive), by people blogging from several different countries. I disagree strongly with many of them. It is definitely not an echo chamber. The subject matter is incredibly wide-ranging too. I suggest that you take a look at some of the blogs to get a feel for the sort of conversation that I am looking for.

        You could also get an idea of my own theological interests by taking a look at my blog, with series such as this and this being representative of my primary concerns. My question is: where are the women bloggers who are participating in these conversations? Where are the women bloggers who blog extensively, widely, and frequently on liturgical theology, on patristics, on academic political theology, on Christian use of continental philosophy, on Pauline theology, on the field of OT theology, on denominational history, on the Eucharistic debates of the Reformers, on analysis of Mosaic case law, on the typology of the book of 1 Kings, etc., beyond the relevance of these subjects to Christian womanhood and feminism? I am aware that some such women exist, and I follow them when I find them, but they are relatively few and far between.

        I am quite happy to be proved wrong, but my suspicion is that you would be hard pressed to find female counterparts to bloggers like Peter Leithart, for instance. And, if this is indeed the case, why should anyone be surprised that women don’t appear much on our blog rolls?

        1. “my point is that a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion will naturally tend to produce a certain unchecked paranoid and uncharitable reaction when faced with statements that might permit unfavourable interpretation.”

          Or that feminists are much more aware of when patriarchy and discrimination is slipped into seemingly benign statements, intentionally or unintentionally. Because patriarchy is still the dominant viewpoint, feminists are often characterized as shrill, meanspirited and paranoid in order to be more easily dismissed.

          1. The problem is that this can and frequently does function as a self-reinforcing conspiracy theory. If we don’t operate with the Christian approach of believing the best unless clearly proved otherwise, we will end up with conversations that are cut off from others by paranoia and distrust. Genuine conversation operates on a foundation of mutual trust, belief, and a willingness carefully to hear others out and engage with them, even when we end up disagreeing with them. Where this is lost, instead of conversation we will have paranoid and distrustful Bulverism, narcissistic cliques of intellectual mutual affirmation, passive aggression, and arrogant dismissal and disqualification of (rather than engagement with) opposing viewpoints. I submit that this is all too often characteristic of feminism as a movement.

            The problem is that, in saying this, the predictable response from most feminists will be that I am only saying this to reinforce my male privilege and to dismiss the voice of feminists. However, what if a hermeneutic of suspicion is naturally ordered in a way that will produce over-sensitized and paranoid individuals who cut ties with wider conversations and may just end up in huddles of fearful and aggressive mutual affirmation? The hermeneutic of suspicion is the modus operandi of the conspiracy theorist, leading to a position where you are entirely closed off to anything that might challenge or unsettle your existing opinions, all contrary evidence being explained away and all opposing voices being disqualified or distrusted. I would ask you examine the dynamics of feminism carefully to see whether it does not all too often share many of the same characteristics.

    5. “Although men write, they do not self-consciously write as men anywhere near as much as women seem to write self-consciously as women. In my experience, men are not typically as interested in subjective vantage points, whether their own or others, over objective matters of debate so it doesn’t surprise me that they are less drawn to writings that highlight this.”

      I suppose Micha J Murray. Ed Cyzewski, Seth Haines, Adam Walker Cleaveland, Guy Delcambre, Matthew Paul Turner, John Blase, Winn Collier, and Tim Willard, myself, and others are just big exceptions then. I think this is a striking case of subjective experience in so far as the men you have decided to read.

    6. Alastair, to echo what Ed said below, your comment seems to speak with a few assumptions that make me bristle. You set up some dichotomies with which I am not comfortable. 1. Rational vs. Emotional 2. Objective vs. Subjective 3. Male vs female. Since you say quite directly that you prefer rational, objective perspectives and equate those with a “male: point of view, you – perhaps unintentionally – make the emotional, subjective and (according to your definition) female perspective less valuable.

      There are many stereotypes behind your statement here. . . I encourage you to challenge those, as we have been trying to help you do. Not to degrade you but to help you understand women as equally valid and not so easily categorized as your comment might imply.

      1. Andrea, thanks for your response.

        With all due respect, whether or not what I said makes you ‘bristle’ or is something with which you don’t feel ‘comfortable’ is surely of limited relevance to the discussion here. The primary issue is whether what I said has been accurately represented and is true, not how you feel about it.

        You say that I set up some dichotomies. Would you be willing to point out exactly where I did so? In particular, where did I set up a rational vs. emotional dichotomy? There is nothing about a discourse in which the subjective pole is the dominant one that prevents it from being highly rational. Although it will frequently involve more sensitivities and hence emotions, there is nothing about such a discourse that demands this to be the case. I wonder whether you aren’t projecting feminist bugbears onto me, without actually listening closely to what I am and am not saying.

        As regards the supposed male-female dichotomy, I would like you to point out where exactly I presented things in such bold terms. I am not dealing with men and women in the abstract, as timeless and essentialized identities. Rather, I am observing gendered patterns of behaviour as they can be seen in the world of blogging in 2013. These are loose patterns, not hard and fast rules, with plenty of exceptions, and seem to me to be related to broader gendered tendencies in our culture. However, the result of pronounced gendered tendencies is that we end up with conversations and forms of discourse that can pass like ships in the night. While there is clear overlap and interaction in places, much of the time interests seem to diverge.

        Which leads to the point: perhaps if more women want to be included on men’s blog rolls they should try to be more engaged in the sorts of conversations that those men are having, rather than just assuming entitlement to be represented. If you want someone to be interested in your conversations, a good place to start is by taking an active interest and involvement in their conversations.

        Like a number of the other commenters here, you seem to be reading a lot of value judgments into my statements. I have never denied the value of many women bloggers’ conversations in their own place, nor have I attacked their legitimacy. What I have done is to point out their limitations and their limited engagement with the issues that interest and are of value to many male bloggers. In many respects, the lack of interest that many male bloggers have with many women bloggers and their conversations needs to be understood in terms of a widespread mutual lack of interest. Much as many men can seem uninterested in Christian women’s blogs, so many women seem, for the most part, to be uninterested in the sorts of conversations that are taking place over on the those male blogs (and I recognize that there are many male blogs and female readers that don’t follow the general pattern). Two different conversations, with different sets of topics, concerns, and modes of discourse, exist in parallel and often neither is especially interested in engaging with the other.

        I think that the sort of conversation that I have described – one dominated by the objective pole – is of great importance in the life of the Church and it is deeply regrettable that more women aren’t participating in it, not least because these conversations can powerfully inform our conversations about our subjective experience, contexts, and identities. On the other hand, I think that the conversations that women are having about feminism and the like are also very important. I firmly disagree with most of the forms of feminism and egalitarianism being articulated and have carefully considered and principled reasons for doing so. This does not mean that I dismiss the huge importance of the close examination of the reality and parameters of women’s lived existence with the end of securing the full realization of their dignity and agency alongside and no less than that enjoyed by men. I strongly support that as a worthy aim, but believe that actually existing feminism is generally misguided in the ways that it seeks to secure this.

        I have engaged in these debates extensively and have interacted especially closely with the representative voices that have been recommended to me, people such as Rachel Held Evans, for instance. Anyone who listens to what I have to say should realize that my intention is not to dismiss concerns, but to engage closely, receptively, but critically with them.

        However, what I have experienced is consistent misrepresentation of my positions, a failure to listen, lots of hostility, personal attacks, and projection of bad motives onto me. Anyone who wishes to engage with these conversations without strictly toeing a feminist party line is all too typically demonized, falsely represented, and pushed out. When a conversation is so closed to challenging interaction with well-meaning proponents of differing viewpoints, should we be surprised when a degree of ghettoization results?

        1. You have a responsibility as a writer to clearly communicate what you intended to say to your readers. If your intention was not to communicate any sweeping stereotype about male and female voices, or to set up a hierarchy between them, then you’ve failed, judging just by the amount of pushback against your original comment. It’s patronizing then for you to tell people doing their best to engage with your comment that they must have either misread you or that their emotional responses are not relevant. It’s also patronizing for you to dismiss the concerns that you’re participating in gender stereotyping as ‘feminist bugbears’ and ‘some stereotyped bête noire of feminism.’

          Now, on to your original comment. You start off by using your blogroll as an example of how women are not participating as much in theological conversations as men do, because apparently your blogroll is a representative example of the blogosphere as a whole and apparently your experience is the standard experience for many bloggers.

          Then you go on to say that even when a woman blogs about theology, it tends to ‘fall within the narrow window of more direct relevance to the individual’s experience’, implying that all these male bloggers somehow occupy an objective viewpoint which is more encompassing and more desirable in theological conversation than this subjective female view. That is where you stereotype male and female voices and also implicitly create a hierarchy between them. I’m not going to address the latter part of your original comment because Aaron Smith has said what I wanted to say.

          There is no ‘objective’ viewpoint. Each person brings their own bias into the conversation. We will be more open to one set of arguments in part because of our subjective experiences – your belief that there is an ideal objective viewpoint is itself influenced by living in an academic environment.

          And according to your reply to Andrea, apparently as a general rule, men aren’t interested in conversations that women are having and women aren’t interested in participating in these conversations. Might I suggest that one way to counteract that would be for some commentators to stop saying that they’ve been misrepresented when they have been legitimately pointed out that they are wrong?

          1. Thanks for the response, Cassie.

            I appreciate that I have a responsibility to communicate clearly as a writer and take this responsibility very seriously. In fact, before posting every one of the comments here I have run them by at least one person first as a trial reader. My principal trial reader is a woman doing doctoral studies at Cambridge (with degrees from Harvard and Cambridge), who is acquainted with feminist thought, which she has read out of personal interest and as part of her studies. She has read every one of my comments and picked up their meaning without any trouble. Reading other people’s comments in the light of our interactions, we have both been wryly amused by some of the remarks made about Britain and America, about my character and failure to take women’s intelligence seriously, and with just how predictable people’s misrepresentations and reactions are.

            The great test of people’s understanding is whether they can articulate your position in their own words in a manner that you recognize and approve before proceeding to criticize it. On this test the commenters here have failed most miserably. Every single one of the attempts to express my position has been far shy of the mark and a few of them have quite explicitly contradicted my claims.

            The problem as I see it here is that feminist hermeneutics tend to produce careless, impatient, hostile, and paranoid readers, readers who all too typically operate according to initial impressions, rather than engaging in close, sustained, and careful interaction before making up their minds. A hermeneutic of suspicion directly runs against our Christian duty to seek to believe the best of people when we can. When dealing with someone who operates using a hermeneutic of suspicion, the slightest remark you make that could be heard the wrong way will lead to wailing sirens of outrage: once those have been set off, communication is almost impossible. In such a context people read reactively and don’t question enough before jumping to conclusions.

            Of course, once one has made a statement that can be heard the wrong way, everything else that one says that might weigh against or contradict the unfavourable interpretation becomes BS that must be cut through. Any attempt that one makes to defend oneself will be dismissed and attacked, without really being engaged. It will all be seen as specious rationalization, unworthy of interaction. Cycles of reaction, outrage, and mutual affirmation will spill over onto Twitter and other social networking sites. People will constantly attack their impressions of what one was saying, or focus upon how it made them feel: hardly anyone will critically, patiently, calmly, and closely engage with the substance of your remarks. Can’t you see how this might go wrong?

            And, no, emotional responses really aren’t that relevant when they are merely reactions to overhasty misinterpretations of what is being said. Of course, I find it deeply regrettable that people feel hurt, but to the extent that we are responsible and self-controlled rather than just emotionally reactive persons, we will see ourselves as the parties primarily accountable for the way that we respond to other people’s words. We will see ourselves as the party primarily responsible for keeping a head cool enough to engage carefully and patiently with what people say, rather than just being emotional triggered by it in a rather behaviourist fashion.

            This is not to deny that I have a duty as a communicator to tailor my speech to its audience. I wanted to believe that people would be cool-headed enough to engage and respond to what I was saying, rather than merely reacting. The woman I sent my comments to is exceedingly intelligent, independent minded, and able to criticize with the very best of them. Not only is she one of the smartest people I know, she also has many other intellectual virtues, such as the ability to remain calm and hear people out, rather than just reacting to them. The lack of such a virtue has caused many otherwise gifted minds to run aground in the choppy seas and narrow straits of debate.

            In retrospect, perhaps it was unfair or unrealistic of me to expect this of a more general group on issues that are understandably sensitive. I will readily acknowledge that the conversations that I am typically engaged in are characterized by fairly high tolerance levels for sharp disagreement among friends and are less like a minefield of sensitivities. As a result, I am not especially gifted in handling such contexts, much as I would suggest that such contexts are not especially gifted at handling disagreement in discourse. If anyone has been genuinely hurt by my remarks, while I cannot deny that they represent my convictions, I apologize for the insensitivity of expression in this context. To any who are just opportunistically taking offence, I make no apology whatsoever.

            I never used my blog roll as an example of how women aren’t participating as much in theological conversations. Read my comment again. Rather, I was pointing out that I was one of the men that fit the description of the male bloggers in the first paragraph of the post, so I was well-positioned to explain why men in my position don’t include many women.

            I made some observations about general patterns in blogging styles that are typically weighted according to gender. It should be noted that my point was never to say that the conversation that I am engaged in is the only conversation worth having, or that the conversations engaged in by many female bloggers aren’t valuable and important. In fact, I have emphasized on a few occasions already that they are both important and valuable.

            My point was merely that the conversation occurring on most Christian women’s blogs (although I don’t follow that many, I have visited dozens, possibly hundreds, over the years, so I am not speaking from mere ignorance) is narrowly focused on exploring the identity, contexts, and experience of a particular demographic, a demographic to which I don’t belong. It is a conversation that has its own style, where sensitivity is far more essential, as people are more reactive and easily triggered, and where rigorous debate and disagreement is harder to air.

            I have found very few women who participate in the sort of wider conversation that one finds in the blogs that I listed in response to Ed’s comment. As this is the conversation that most interests me, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I include few women on my blog roll. I am pretty sure that I engage far more with the sorts of conversations that women here are most interested in than they engage with the sorts of conversations that I am most interested in. Given this mutual lack of high interest and involvement in the other’s conversations, why should the fact that many of us include few women on our blog rolls surprise anyone?

            I would once again stress that the most productive way to respond to my points would be to direct me to blogs that meet the challenge I set for Ed. There are definitely some women’s blogs out there that meet the criteria, but my point is that they are relatively few and far between. And this wider conversation is an incredibly important one. Much of theology does not have explicit relevance to women’s identity and experience as women, so a conversation narrowly focused on that will be rather limited in scope.

            I have written an extensive response to Aaron, which I sent to him by e-mail. It will be easier to have a conversation with him in private than in the charged atmosphere of this forum. If you want me to post it here, though, I would be happy to do so.

            And, yes, I never said that there was an objective viewpoint. In fact, I have explicitly denied that on a number of occasions. If you read my comments carefully before reacting this would all be really clear. Unfortunately, Dianna jumped to a conclusion based upon a surface impression and everyone has just run with it. In fact, practically everyone has repeated the careless and hasty misreading, without paying attention to my frequent clarifications (which are obviously just rationalizing BS, right?). Here are just a few sample statements from my earlier comments:

            “Our writing and reading will always be coloured by our subjective vantage point. I make no pretence to be ‘neutral’.”

            “I am not claiming to be ‘neutral’. Nor am I claiming to be completely objective. There is no such thing as a view from nowhere and I never claimed that there was.”

            “For instance, where did I say anything about women being ‘incapable of being neutral’ (or imply that men could be)? For one, you [referring to Dianna] are the person who introduced the word ‘neutral’ into the conversation: I explicitly denied that we could be ‘neutral’ in such a fashion. Women are perfectly capable of participating in discourses focused on a more objective pole – I interact with women doing just this every day.”

            “[I]t is not the viewpoint that I am arguing is ‘objective’…. The viewpoint itself is not ‘objective’, but rather the objectivity of a reality beyond our immediate context and experience is privileged over the concerns and questions arising from our existential reality.”

            I can repeat such points until I am blue in the face, but no one seems to pay any attention, because they have all reacted on the basis of an initial impression. Dianna’s recent post is just another exercise in missing the point. It is easy to knock down straw men: it is much harder to engage with the more nuanced position of a critic.

            I continue to maintain that I have been seriously misrepresented. The fact that a few women and men who I admire as cool-headed, careful, and thoughtful interpreters have independently contacted me to say that they also believe that I have been seriously misrepresented here is something that I find telling as well.

          2. You do realize that you’ve just done the gender equivalent of “I have a black friend who likes me therefore I can’t be a racist” argument, right?

        2. I’m late to this party. It seems to me that the critiques are coming
          because the differences you point out, if decontextualized, can seem
          innate, when they might be innate but might also be the result of
          broader factors in need of change. Frankly, in my own ad hoc and
          anecdotal
          survey of the not-very-many blogs I read regularly, your distinction
          in writing styles holds up for the most part (RHE, Sarah Bessey; Richard
          Beck, Roger
          Olson,
          etc., though RHE write about the theological and Richard Beck about the
          personal quite a lot).

          I’m sure these people have varied reasons for
          writing the way they do. On the other hand, I’m very aware of the cultural and
          educational issues that shape the way women tend to frame their
          writing:
          that in an evangelical and/or complementarian culture, women may be
          discouraged from seeking
          extensive education, will almost certainly be discouraged from teaching
          or attending seminary; will be told that their greatest merits are
          domestic and relational (having children, etc), not abstract or
          theological; will be told (or experience it to be the case) that men
          find them less
          attractive when they engage in extensive theological or intellectual
          arguments,
          especially if they do so aggressively; may have no one willing to debate
          these issues with them; etc. And then, when women write from personal
          experience because that is the area in which they are accepted/affirmed,
          the division becomes self-reinforcing (women are clearly only
          interested in x!). It is also true that a woman from such a background
          is often required to prove why she has the right to teach or debate,
          before she is allowed to teach or debate; she’s therefore more likely to
          be interested in the ways she can prove this. Even if such proof isn’t
          really required for a blog, she may be so used to having to engage in
          such arguments that she feels compelled to discuss gender roles on her
          blog anyway.

          So, if the difference in blogging styles/topics is real,
          the automatic conclusion is
          perhaps less: “women are only interested in x type of issue” but “why is
          this dynamic in place? should we try to change it? does it matter? how
          could
          it be changed?” One possibility for change is to attempt to expose
          abstraction as
          illusion and all discourse as situationally embedded and dependent on
          cultural oppositions (i.e. Derrida), another to give
          subjective groups more claim to abstraction, or encourage them to take
          it in various ways (by not telling them they can’t teach or preach, for
          one thing).
          You would seem to support the latter, but you don’t support
          egalitarianism; would you see no connection between non-egalitarian
          upbringings and the shaping of a woman’s interests and tone? Or even
          her ability to gain an audience? (That is– is it a given that men
          raised this way would be interested in reading a female blogger’s
          abstract discussions of theology? Would other women, also raised in
          this way? Would her blog ever gain a readership? I don’t know.) This
          is going beyond your initial point of course. Finally, for the record, I
          would be enormously interested in reading more discussions of the
          experience of Christian masculinity. Shame they aren’t there.

    7. Hi Alaster. If I may, I would like to chime in here.

      For the record (and so everyone knows the context of what I am saying), you and I have had many good discussions about gender, differences in the sexes (perceive and genuine), and I know that you respect the voice of women highly.

      I do have some push back for you here.

      You and I are friends. We have a history, a context, and an understanding of each others words. Other people that you interact with (in this thread for example) do not have the same context for your words that I do. This is not their fault at all; rather it is simply the lack of interaction, the lack of history, that is leading to their context of ignorance, (just as my history and interaction with your leads to a context of friendship).

      I bring this up to (hopefully) highlight this point: the voice you use may be more academic, but it is no less subjective. It is subjective to your assumptions (as a man) and your limited perceptions of female bloggers. (Please note, I am not suggesting you don’t have experience with them, I am merely stating that you do not have an all encompassing experience with all of them). When you speak out of your subjective experience and suggest a *universal* truth (intentionally or not) about male and female writers, you are saying that you’re experience is factual and other’s is incorrect.

      Doing this as a male blogger who writes with (what I would assume) the type of voice you like to read (which you label as “non-subjective” and more abstract and conceptual than the standard woman’s fair) is giving us the underlying message that the “male” writers are somehow more capable than the “female” writers.

      Allow me to highlight a few statements in your comment that give me this message.

      “The writer’s subjective vantage point is given immensely more significance on female Christian blogs than on their male counterparts.”

      “Men socialize over the sharing of ideas and through talking about things detached from a fixed subjective vantage point far more than women. Men are more likely to relish and find identity in nerdy competitions, debates, and discussions of arcane or less personal knowledge. This form of sociality allows for rougher and more combative interaction and debate.”

      “By contrast, as the subjective vantage point is prominent in female writing and reading, women’s blogs typically have far more personally loaded interactions. They are more likely to engage their audience on a far more personal level. However, as the personal vantage point is typically so prominent, it is very difficult to have challenging discussions and disagreements, as everything is more sensitive”

      I am not saying there is absolutely never any truth in what you are saying, but to set it up as the “standard” (which you have done) conveys the message that men write for everyone and women write for the “subjective audience.

      1- That is simply not true across the board. While I can appreciate your limited experience, you cannot group all female writers — or even all Christian female writers — into your “Christian female blogger” stereotype.

      2- I think you are confusing writing voice with writing topic. A non-academic voice (which I my self write with) does not equate with subjective writing, even if that is the visible reader response in the comments sections. Be careful that you do not assume that a female voice will equate with subjective (and as you implied) lesser writing. While you may not enjoy engaging with a type of writing voice, you should be wary of labeling it according to sex.

      Perhaps the best takeaway from all this is simply the request to look for female writers that you can interact with, whose voice you find stimulating. If you truly cannot find any, challenge the female writers. I believe you will find many that are up to the task. Perhaps seeing that there are some assumptions you are stating (I believe unintentionally) about the male voice being neutral or for all people can help you reassess the assumptions you have about writers based on their sex. We all have these assumptions. They are the filter we approach the text of humanity with. Being honest about the filters can go along way in altering the filters themselves.

  3. )Alright, me dears. I’m finally ready to say a few words. Thank you for the fantastic dialogue and discussion. I am always blessed when I am exposed to a variety of world views, ideologies and language customs.

    What is clear to me from the comments is that there are still (for real?) some disconnects in how men and women approach “gender roles,” for lack of a better term. Moreover, it seems we each have our own filters through we we see sex, gender and how that plays out personally and communally.

    This is not a theological blog, and I am not an academic ( though I think I have a fairly large enough vocabulary to portray one on tv). I want to circle back briefly to the basic point, which is that theology, discussion, dialogue and faith are beyond sex. That every person attempting to sort through these ideas has a value and a valid voice. (every person who isn’t sorting through them also has a valid voice.

    So, we can talk all day about how women and men produce, create and engage with theological matter. But it does little to bring us together at a common table, and if we’re not talking to find common ground, then what’s the point? Just more vitriol, diatribe and misunderstanding. Second, I’d still be curious to hear anyone weigh in on the idea of how we select what we read. While we danced around it, the issue was largely ignored in lieu of semantics. That was my real intent. Do we read men because that’s what there is or do we read men because we’ve been taught to seek it, or do we read men because women are dum dum heads. (See how I can be both a shining light and a twelve year old. It’s a gift.) And not to put too fine a point on it, but the original post explained that I don’t read a ton of theology, but when I do I alternate. That when I read novels I alternate. That when I read anything, I select from a wide variety of backgrounds. Because I think if you can write, I don’t care what’s in your pants.

    Anyway. This is a common place. This is a safe place. This is where we can disagree and still be friends. I hope you’ll all come back again. And bring your big words, and your disagreements and your selves, because I think you all gave me something this week, and for that I thank you.

    happy friday,

    Jen

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