Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Carols #2 - gender

We have a gender issue in the Church.  To hear folk like Mark Driscoll parse it, we've become too feminine.  He wants us to get manly and to restructure the church so it is more masculine (as he defines that).  Let me say this gently... he's wrong... in almost every way.

We'll leave most of the argument for another time, but today I want to look specifically at gender and Christmas carols.  For centuries, Christian theology focused on a God who was pictured as a stern, unapproachable father, just waiting for you and I to do something wrong so we could be punished.  In spite of the fact that "spirit" is feminine in Hebrew and neuter in Greek, the three persons of the trinity were universally portrayed as male.  Leadership was segregated to men to the degree that even translations of the scripture reflected that prejudice.  Any images of God that hinted at the feminine were down-played.   It was no wonder that Mary was elevated almost to become a fourth member of the trinity... people wanted/needed a mother figure who would kiss their hurts away and love them regardless of what they had done.  That brings us to carols.

Christmas is the time in the Christian year when the feminine cannot be denied.  Mary moves to the forefront as she is given veto power over the very plans of God, decides to be part of God's plans,  carries, and then births the baby.  Like it or not, biology puts the woman at the center of the story and keeps her there.  This is especially true in a patriarchal culture where caring for children is a woman's work.  Joseph essentially disappears from the story because he is unimportant.

All of this appears in the carols as we remember the mother and her role in the story of salvation... and all of this elicits a backlash.  The Church with its patriarchal understanding of God and of authority could not allow for any portion of the year to be owned by women...  so the carols often reflect the push back.  "Good Christian men rejoice..."  "God rest ye merry gentlemen..."  "Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, from heaven's all gracious King..."  "As with gladness, men of old..."  And also notice the hyper masculine kingly language that is often used.  We must be reminded that this is not a baby, but a king even as he suckles at his mother's breast lest she have too much power in the scenario.

Yes, yes, I know that common English usage when those songs were written didn't provide an easy way to be inclusive, but I am arguing that the entire content betrays a desire to put the woman in her place, to move the focus away from the mother and baby, and to remove as much humanity as is possible from a baby who is dependent upon a woman.

Guess what?  She is there!  She is central!  Without Mary's "yes," nothing happens at all.  It all depends on a woman... heck, in our culture, she wouldn't even be considered a woman.  It all depends on a girl.

So, Mark Driscoll... I don't think we're too feminine... I think we've pushed too hard for too long to disenfranchise women even in our Christmas carols.


Michael Mahoney said...

I posted this before, but it seems it didn't take...

Anyway, I think there may be other forces at work here. Many of our traditional carols have their lyrical origins in the 18th and 19th century Protestant churches, during an era when mainline Protestants were not very happy with the Catholic church. One of the major objections many Protestants have to Catholicism is the Marian devotions.

So it is possible that it is as much (or more) an attitude of "sticking it to the papists" as it is sexism.

roy said...

I don't think it was conscious, but I think at least part of that issue with the Marian devotions had to do with sexist impulses.
And it does feel to me, although I've never done any serious number crunching, that the masculine imagery is stronger in the Christmas carils than elsewhere in the church's hymnody.