A professor of mine once remarked that the task of a history student was two-fold. First, unlearn the “history” you were taught as a child—the oversimplified, misleading, or plain false stories that paint history as simple and clear. Next, embark on the humbling but rewarding task of relearning a richer history—one of messy motives, nuanced accuracy, and unfiltered humanity.
At a basic level, I think this mirrors the process of growing and maturing. The scripts we learn from childhood collide with real life through relationships, travel, study, and more. We often find we need to set aside the scripts and stories that shaped our ideas and identities in order to embrace richer truths about ourselves, God, and the world.
When it comes to our beliefs and ideas about gender, faith, and relationships, this process can be especially painful but also especially transformative. I’ve grown most in the hard moments when my relationships went off-script, forcing me to reckon with the fact that my understanding of “normal” was based neither on real life nor biblical wisdom as I’d thought. Instead, I’d internalized the stories I heard from the media, popular culture, and shallow religious teachings.
We’re all affected by the stories we watch, hear, and read. A recent study from the University of Michigan found that women exposed to movies that portray stalker-like behavior as romantic and positive were more likely to view such behavior as acceptable.1 We’d be naïve to assume that men aren’t equally shaped by the stories we see on the screen or on the pages of our books. In fact, I believe much of the inappropriate behavior men routinely exhibit toward women is rooted in these stories.
I often hear “What was he thinking?” when I’m told about a man touching a woman despite a clear “no,” cat-calling, or offering unsolicited comments or compliments. Or, taking it to the other extreme, refusing to ride alone in a car with a woman because of presumed sexual tension.
When I hear “What was he thinking?” I’m always a little confused, because the answers are everywhere. Just turn on the TV or radio, watch a movie, or read a Christian relationship book.
What was he thinking? He was thinking that the women who turn him down are just playing hard-to-get, but will ultimately succumb to his charm. He was thinking God made women to be pursued and men to pursue; she wants his attention, but needs his steady pursuit in order to realize it. He was thinking that women and men can’t be friends or colleagues because sex will get in the way. He was thinking that men can’t resist sexual temptation, or that it’s a woman’s responsibility to avoid tempting him. He was thinking that women are irrational and dramatic, so they need his paternal guidance.
In short, he was doing what’s been modeled for him. He was thinking that the stories he’s learned about gender from the church and media are actually true. Because neither life nor role models have yet taught him otherwise, he thinks they represent normal, if not healthy, romantic relationships.
Unfortunately, most of the stories we see on the screen and read on the pages of relationship books are inadequate, if not false. They are detached from reality and from Scripture. Many of the stories we learn about gender show us a world where selfish fantasies are fulfilled or fears are realized, but they teach us very little about actual love. They teach us even less about who God made us to be.
The articles in this issue of Mutuality shed light on the stories about gender and relationships that shape us. In our cover story, Rob Dixon challenges three gender-related myths, providing strategies to redeem these stories. Next, Tania Harris engages with the stories that conversation on women and church leadership often miss—those of the women themselves. I do my best to articulate my disenchantment with the “love and respect” mantra, and Beulah Wood sheds light on Paul’s well-known admonition not to be unequally yoked. Finally, appropriate for March (women’s history month) Lauren Jacobs highlights a little-known but influential queen of Israel. I hope this issue leaves you both challenged and inspired.
Julia R. Lippman, “I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You.” Cited in Ben Child, “Study finds romcoms teach female filmgoes to tolerate ‘stalking myths.” The Guardian, February 3, 2016.