Adulteress in Proverbs: agency, invitation & the eros of learning

I preached on Proverbs 1–9 at our Uni Fellowship of Christians Pre-Season Conference last week and it got me thinking about the recurring warnings against the adulteress. It's a major theme in Proverbs and jars against my sensibilities. Why is the woman being blamed for sexual sin? Aren't men to blame? Aren't men more to blame?

A couple of thoughts:

Proverbs is a feminine book... so the adulteress fits this theme

Although the main speaker and listener is a father and son: the teaching of Proverbs frames its vision of wisdom around feminine character. Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly are women. The epilogue presents us with the Wife of Noble Character (who is possibly the image of a home and a life built with Lady Wisdom). In this sense, it fits well to cast other characters as women. 

That's not to say that all the characters are women: we meet the drunkard, the sluggard and the mocker and others who are male characters. But it is to say that there is a certain genre logic to a major female characters throughout.

Adultery becomes a vivid case study of all temptation

Within this frame, adultery is not focussed on as if it is the worst sin. Rather, the adulteress is a vivid case study of the nature of all tempation. Ryan O'Dowd writes:

I readily acknowledge that Proverbs is interested in issues of human sexuality. But I’m concerned is that many readers have never understood the larger role of the feminine motif and the way it imbues the whole book with what we might call the eros of human learning—becoming wise means orientating our deepest human desires to a particular way of loving and learning. The man’s sexual impulse serves as a metaphor for learning as a whole.

I think that's really helpful, don't you? It encourages me, as the preacher, to also apply much of the extended descriptions and warnings about adultery in Proverbs to other "lusts":

  • of romance and intimacy - but with the wrong person
  • the temptation of drunkenness or drugs
  • or the delicious pleasure of gossip and meanness
  • or the lust for power in the in-group, the Dean's List, the HD, the student union politics
  • greed for money, travel, food, clothes, freedom
  • the pride in knowledge, being sophisticated

All of these can be alluring, attractive secretive, seemingly free of consequence... and yet all of them draw us away from godly contentment and into ruin.

Men are responsibly for not accepting the invitation of the adulteress

It is also worth pointing out that the warnings in Proverbs are not written to rebuke would-be adulteresses and prostitutes. Proverbs is a book that often talks about women... but addressing men. Even the Wife of Noble Character is first of all presented to us as one that men should praise and trust in. 

And so here, the warnings are for men to not sin by accepting the tempting invitations of the adulteress. Men are the responsible ones for their own desires and sins. They can't blame their sin on her looks, clothes, scent or wily words. They are responsible. They should avoid her. They should focus their sexual passions in the right place.

And yet at the same time, Proverbs also demonstrates feminine sexual agency... include sinful agency:

Agency, invitation and victimhood

The adulteress has power. The power of sexual desirability and persuasive words. She has the power to harness male sexual desire to her own ends and to their ruin. In this sense is active, full of agency and responsible.

Her agency here is the agency of invitation. And where this invitation is accepted with her consent she is complicit in the sin. Even if there are also larger social structures at work, social structures rarely totally remove our agency and responsibility. They mitigate, but don't erase our moral culpability. So this is not a case of 'victim blaming'.

If a man is the initiator and the sexual advance is unwanted (or the extent of the sexual advance is unwanted) then he is to blame. He deserves not only the rebuke of the one who engages in adultery, but also the rebuke of the 'violent man'. We could go further and recognise that where there is lack of clarity about who is to blame, we must not default to blaming the women — because of her sex, her clothing or anything else.

The risk of unintended invitation (..?!?)

A final issue that Proverbs indirectly rasies for us is a very muddy one... and should not be considered without regular return to the previous paragraph (beginning "If a man...").

But Proverbs portrays the power of sexual invitation and the various things. Consider for example chapter 7:

6 At the window of my house
    I looked down through the lattice.
7 I saw among the simple,
    I noticed among the young men,
    a youth who had no sense.
8 He was going down the street near her corner,
    walking along in the direction of her house
9 at twilight, as the day was fading,
    as the dark of night set in.

10 Then out came a woman to meet him,
    dressed like a prostitute and with crafty intent.
11 (She is unruly and defiant,
    her feet never stay at home;
12 now in the street, now in the squares,
    at every corner she lurks.)
13 She took hold of him and kissed him
    and with a brazen face she said:

14 “Today I fulfilled my vows,
    and I have food from my fellowship offering at home.
15 So I came out to meet you;
    I looked for you and have found you!
16 I have covered my bed
    with colored linens from Egypt.
17 I have perfumed my bed
    with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon.
18 Come, let’s drink deeply of love till morning;
    let’s enjoy ourselves with love!
19 My husband is not at home;
    he has gone on a long journey.
20 He took his purse filled with money
    and will not be home till full moon.”

21 With persuasive words she led him astray;
    she seduced him with her smooth talk.
22 All at once he followed her
    like an ox going to the slaughter,
like a deer[a] stepping into a noose
23     till an arrow pierces his liver,
like a bird darting into a snare,
    little knowing it will cost him his life.

Words, clothes, perfume, food, timing... all of these things are powerful cultural and biological forces which can attract and tempt. They can be deliberately used to draw someone into sin. They can be deliberately used to draw someone in with the promise of sinful pleasure and then to manipulate them in other ways.

And they can be somewhat accidentally used. A woman might foolishly or na├»vely send off cultural and biological signals that could be misinterpreted as an invitation. Because these 'signals' can have an meaning contrary to the intention of the woman. It is good for us all be aware of this for any number of reasons, including:

  • men must be wise and sensitive to the fact that these nonverbal signals can be misunderstood and so not make assumptions,
  • women can be more alert to accidentally sending nonverbal signals and so spare somethemlves some misunderstanding.

But of course it remains true that the path of adultery is wrong anyway: whether a man is right or wrong in reading the signals, he shouldn't go down that path. If a woman is considering deliberately giving an invitation she should not. And of course, if a man wrongly interprets the signals and pursues a perceived invitation against the consent of the woman he is doubly guilt, both for adultery and for violence.

 

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Tricky stuff : keen to hear your thoughts?



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Strategically taming the madness of an impossibly busy season

I'm on the bring of our student leaders day and Pre-O-Week Conference (Pre-Season Conference), following by our huge O Week Mission. Added to this some big family events, a laptop and shower head that needs to get fixed, a staff member who twisted their ankle, the launch of a new not-for-profit association (New Front Door: The Church IT Guild), and a few other major fundraising grant proposals: there's a fair bit on! 

So how do you wrestle the chaos into control in these kinds of intense seasons that make you feel like you are drowning and kind of going mad, even before they've begun?

Firstly, procrastinate by watching the Winter Olympics, and writing a blog post about it.

Secondly, drink a bit less coffee to manage the anxiety, make sure you breath and walk slowly and read the Bible and pray and sleep and exercise.

Thirdly, in terms of the actual logistics, here is something of my process:

1. Start Planning Early

I'm always fully of bewilderment and pity for those who start planning and working in earnest for the new church/Christian Union year in January... or even in November. We really start planning and working towards these busy seasons 6 months out. Anything that can be done mega-early will bless you later.

2. Out Of Office Reply

I set up an Out Of Office reply on my email, telling people I will be probably slower in responding than I'd like to be. This takes a bit of pressure off my mind, feeling like those emails piling up, that I'm not getting to, I don't feel crushed by it. I know that they know that there'll be a delay.

3. Cancel the things that can be cancelled

I can't do everything, so I need to figure out what stuff I can, at least temporarily, not do. This is not the time to major on principled consistency. A few weeks won't hurt. So things like regular staff 1:1 meetings, other regular appointments, committees I'm not really needed on. Also, with family, we do our best to look at our schedules and figure out what can give. Thanks to Nikki and the kids for bearing with me!

4. List out the main projects

In some ways the next few steps are just David Allen's Getting Things Done on overdrive... I kind of pluck out of my more global system, a little emergency system for the short term.

So I scan through my paper inbox, email, TODO software (I use Asana) and try to pull out: what are the projects and TODOs that really must get done in this period of time. I list them out, so I can see all the hats I'm wearing:

  • Family
  • New Front Door
  • Home Church Welcome Team
  • Campus Patrons
  • Sermons
  • Evangelism Team
  • Fundraising
  • O Week Mission
  • Support Raising

There are some small TODOs that also must get done that aren't tied to a project, so I put them in the second list.

5. List out all the TODOs that have to get done

Then I list out all the actions associated to these projects, as well as other floating once-off TODOs that really have to happen between now and the end of the O Week Mission season. Things like

  • Can Xavier's BeIn Sports subscription
  • Announcement email
  • Blurbs for sermon series
  • Reference check for new staff applicant
  • Bookmark Elvanto Forms on iPads
  • Reminder for Welcome Team
  • Alumni Fundraising Drive email
  • Reply to Campus Patrons email
  • Reminder for Welcome Team meeting
  • Plan O Week contact tables for gaps when staff aren't there

And on and on and one.

6. Write down due dates and estimate time they will take

Then I mark each with when they need to be done by and how long they will take. Some things will only take 15 minutes. Some will take 2 hours.... I rarely estimate in less than a 15 minute incremenet, because in this way I make space for procrastination and unexpected stuff that will inevitably come in as well. 

7. Schedule the week

Then I schedule out all the TODOs into my actual week. And God-willing there's enough space for it.  If not, I have to do some last minute delegation, cancelling, culling, simplifying and panicking.

I also work on the basis of where my energy is at its highest, and adopt a schedule, where possible, that can trade off that. In my case, I'm a morning person, so wherever possible I will try to plan for early bed-times and stupidly early wake up times.

In this process, I need to actually figure out where the 'breather' places are. Even in mad crazy seasons you need to plan to stop and breath and reast and walk in the sunlight. Can I carve out an even slightly slower morning? Or a half hour break one afternoon?

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So there you go. Hope that's helpful? What's your system? Anything I've missed out? Help! Please! :-)

By the way, this is also the kind of process you want to go through with staff who might work for you, who are starting to feel overwhelmed and want to drop things. Rather than simply complying with whatever things they say they must drop... instead this process helps work with them in a more systematic way that you can collaborate and guide a bit more.

Now I have to stop delaying that process by blogging about it... and start DOING it.



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Mirrors 9th Februrary 2018

  1. Do we need a video like this for "Am I running a church or parachurch?"
  2. Churches: support fewer missionaries at a higher amount. It builds relationship and accountability, frees up their time from visiting heaps of churches so they can focus on the work  says Mark Dever. Of course this means that the missionary is more vulnerable if you pull your support.
  3. Mark Dever on the reality of privilege, the sins of past Christians and much more
  4. Great warning not to assume the only moral vote is a single issue vote... and how the black community has learned that historically. Starts around 15mins
  5. A good analogy for silly science over-reaching about ethics and religion. If your science says The Beatles are average, maybe you're science if wrong?
  6. Lots of intriguing stuff from @MarkDever on discipling. Pastors explain people need to work around our schedules sometimes and forgive our unavailability. Look for both hungry and teachable people. Curiously: Dever says paid staff shouldn't do 1:1 during work hours. Rathey they should model it as a part of ordinary Christian life. Also curious: Dever invites people he'd like to disciple to come and 'hang out and read a book in my study' why he's working on a message, so that they can chat during mental breaks. 
  7. ""The Christianity Richard Dawkins objects to is the Christianity a smart 13 year old boy objects to." Jordan B Peterson


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Mirrors 2nd Februrary 2018

  1. Abortion doulas: This makes me feel so sad, and sick in my stomach. What a dark strangeness. 
  2. What does the Screwtape Letters have to say about flippant jokes at the expense of rollerblading?
  3. I use Relax Rain (and just discovered Relax Sea) to sleep on planes and other power nap situations. But then @lookupANDY showed me this. Something soothing about knowing your coworker is killing it next to you on their laptop, so you can zone out. 
  4. How fast do you type? Are you a T Rex, a Tortoise or an Octopus? Quick online test.
  5. Carl Trueman on the parachurch
  6. Kevin de Young and Ryan Kelly’s positive case for the parachurch 
  7. Lots of gold in this little workbook on how to lead church leadership teams and committees 


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