Last week we took note of the January/February issue of Touchstone magazine, which features an important special section, "Return to the Father's House: God the Father and Human Fatherhood." There is much to be grateful for in this issue, and I urge you to pick up a copy of the magazine. But there is also cause for puzzlement and regret, in the prominence assigned to the views of Leon J. Podles, who—with the imprimatur of his fellow senior editors—introduces the special section, framing the entire discussion, and contributes an essay, "Missing Fathers of the Church: The Feminization of the Church and the Need for Christian Fatherhood."
Podles's essay summarizes and builds on his book, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Western Christianity (1999). Both the essay and the book are exercises in conspiracy theory. The conspiracy is something called "feminization." What this means, precisely, is not easy to determine. Podles cites statistics and anecdotal evidence about church attendance (about which more below) as evidence of feminization. He writes that
Psychological studies have detected a connection between femininity in men and interest in religion. There may even be a physical difference. Among men, football players and movie actors have the highest testosterone level, ministers, the lowest.
What about magazine editors? Perhaps Podles should suggest a test to see if he and his fellows have the right stuff.
He adduces the contemporary crisis in fatherhood as further evidence of the effects of the feminization of the Western Christianity, a centuries-long rot the beginnings of which
can be dated rather exactly. Suddenly, in the thirteenth century, during the lifetimes of St. Dominic and St. Francis, women began to get involved in the Church to such an extent that both Francis and Dominic warned their followers not to spend all their time preaching to women and ignoring men.
What to make of all this? It takes only a minute to splash a can of paint all over a room; cleaning up the mess takes a lot longer. So it is with arguments that are confused, even contradictory, based on selective evidence, and otherwise lacking clarity and cogency. To clear up all the confusions in Podles's argument would require many pages indeed. But here is a start.
It is a commonplace among historians of the early church that women were particularly attracted to Christianity. For a concise summary, see for example chapter 5 of Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity. Citing the work of Henry Chadwick and Peter Brown, among others, Stark notes that "ancient sources and modern historians agree that primary conversion to Christianity was far more prevalent among females than among males." So to begin with, there are good reasons to doubt Podles's sweeping historical narrative: the very foundation of his argument crumbles.
But Podles's treatment of the contemporary situation is equally unreliable. He mixes statistics, pseudostatistics, and unsupported assertions into an indescribable mishmash. No one doubts, for example, that in the mainline denominations and, more dramatically, in the church throughout Western Europe, women significantly outnumber men, but this in itself hardly substantiates Podles's "thesis" any more than does the prevalence of women in Russian Orthodoxy today. After all, Podles himself says that fundamentalists are "almost evenly divided" between men and women, and he concedes in his book that among evangelicals there is greater balance than one finds in the mainline. (And what about social class? How does that factor in?)
"Wherever Western Christianity has spread, the Church has become feminized," Podles writes, and the "statistics" he gives in support are taken from Rosemary Reuther! Podles should take a look at David Martin's work on Latin American Pentecostal fundamentalism, for instance, where women predominate among primary converts but where men are then integrated into the church in life-changing ways—which is one of the reasons for the spectacular growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America.
At times Podles's handling of "data" becomes truly ludicrous. The "differences" between men and women in religious commitment "seem to be increasing rapidly," he writes. "In 1992, 43 percent of men attended church; in 1996, only 28 percent." A footnote cites an article by George Barna in New Man magazine. Now that would be a dramatic drop—amazing, in fact, over a period of only four years. Have Barna's findings been replicated? Did Podles make any effort to check?
And did he make any attempt to see the evidence he presents in a different light? Consider, for example, his statement that "church attendance in the United States is about 60 percent female and 40 percent male." Assuming that is true, and given the unbalanced sex ratios he cites for some segments of the church, doesn't the overall figure suggest that in many parts of the church there is no terrible imbalance between men and women? In fact, there must be something close to parity, as there has been in the evangelical churches I know best.
At Faith Evangelical Covenant Church in Wheaton, my wife is one of several women among the deacons. In the churches I attended as a boy, deacons were exclusively male. Is this change to be deplored as an example of feminization? Is this an instance of the sort of thing that is "driving men away from the church … undermin[ing] Christian fatherhood"?
What really drives Podles's account, it's clear, is not the numbers—which he manipulates to suit his purposes—but rather a certain understanding of masculinity and femininity. "Remember that the purpose of the Church is not to be a clinging mother." Heaven forbid! "Pastors should not aim at bringing men in and getting them involved in all sorts of committees and devotions"—such unmanly occupations. (Memo to self: Resign from the Adult Ministries Board.) And so on. I hope it is not the intention of the editors of Touchstone to suggest that this set of attitudes comes in a package deal with the biblical understanding of God as Father.
John Wilson is Editor of Books & Culture and Editor-at-Large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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Touchstone magazine's Web site has several sample articles from the issue available, including Podles' "Missing Fathers of the Church: The Feminization of the Church and the Need for Christian Fatherhood."
Excerpts from The Church Impotent are available from Spence Publishing and Current Thoughts and Trends.
The book has been noted in Christianity Today's "New & Noteworthy" books section, and by columnist Frederica Mathewes-Green. First Things has a review.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Return to the Father's House | Touchstone magazine examines God the Father and human fatherhood. (Feb. 12, 2001)
What's the University For? | In James Davison Hunter's The Hedgehog Review, academics nibble on the hands that feed them. (Feb. 5, 2001)
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary? | Experiencing Marian devotion as a Protestant (Jan. 29, 2001)
Opening the Mind of Science | Science Goes Postmodern, Part 2 (Jan. 22, 2001)
Science Goes Postmodern | David Foster Wallace creates math melodrama with his essay-review. (Jan. 15, 2001)
On Being Human, Part 3 | Did Natural History swallow an unscientific argument because it explained human experience in evolutionary terms? (Jan. 8, 2001)
On Being Human, Part 2 | Learning from information rather than instinct is often harder than it looks. (Dec. 18, 2000)
On Being Human | Natural History magazine celebrates a milestone. (Dec. 11, 2000)
Are You Re:Generated? | Inside one of the best religious publications on the planet (that's not Christianity Today). (Dec. 4, 2000)
The Promise of Particularity Amid Pluralism | A dispatch from the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. (Nov. 22, 2000)
The Horror! | Joan Didion encounters evangelical Christianity. (Nov. 13, 2000)
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