Social media can be profoundly revealing. Terribly so, at times. I’ll say the obvious: crowdpounding and virtue signaling and grandstanding play their part at times. But a casual dismissal of social media turns foolish and reckless, on a dime. The recent furor over the excerpt of Josh Butler’s book, Beautiful Union, provides us all an opportunity to take a step back and walk our way into some wisdom. There’s nothing surprising about that book, friends, nothing. That it is not surprising to some of us reveals the very lessons we need to learn.
Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash
I don’t very often enter into the fray of such media intensities, but what I have read leads me to think there are more considerations beyond Josh’s use of metaphors and the insensitivities, not to mention dangers, of such language. These are true to the mark but there are some other considerations, and I will turn to three after a brief prelude.
I agree with the many that the book goes well beyond the line in connecting the (favored expression for some) husband’s penetration of his wife with God, with Christ, with the church, and with the gospel. The Song of Solomon, however much it has been read allegorically, was a collection of erotic-love songs between a man and a woman. The church’s use of this Song in its history has not always been wise. I am of an age to remember that a book by Craig Glickman, at least for many of us, changed the direction of evangelical readings of the Song. Many of us shifted from reading the Song of Solomon from allegory about Christ and the church to a love song between a man and a woman. It’s graphic enough, but it does not go where Josh Butler goes. Nor do I believe an allegorical reading does what that text was designed to do.
Furthermore, ever since I read John Piper’s book on marriage, where he sees it as a “parable,” I found myself in disagreement with his idea that the sex act itself is symbolic. Any man or woman engaging in sexual activities with their minds on the supposed symbolism is, well, disengaged from what is happening. And for a man to see himself as Christ in the sex act and the woman as the church … that’s idolatrous if not blasphemous. Ephesians 5 does not go there. Instead it speaks about sacrifice for the other in a loving relationship. I will leave the critique of the book to what’s already out there, and what will be out there. The best critique can be found at Church Blogmatics.
My considerations, then, are these:
First, this book only makes sense within and is affirmed by a complementarian worldview. Masculinism and muscular Christianity and manly men, as articulated by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, form central elements of the culture of complementarianism in evangelicalism. Beth Barr has weighed in on this debate and complementarianism in general. The complementarian world, instead of listening to these articulate and accurate critics, chose to turn the discussion into the culture war and instead of listening, it chose to write scathing critiques in defense of its worldview. It is no surprise that TGC plaformed both Mark Driscoll and James Macdonald. Josh Butler’s book is that worldview. There is nothing in that excerpt, which I read twice, that actually surprised me about male thinkers in the complementarian world. I’ll put it in terms of our recent book – it’s Babylon, it’s Rome, it’s about authority, it’s about power, and in the end, folks, say it: it’s about domination.
Second, this book’s furor arose because the complementarian world is a silo. The book’s ideas are sequestered into a group of people who find their worldview affirmed in the book and in listening to a designated list of authoritative voices. (Nearly all of whom would approve this book and may talk like this book writes.) TGC, for instance, carefully vets its speakers and then platforms those who fit the Playbill. Aspiring pastors and authors want that platform so they conform top to bottom to the TGC culture. For them, TGC is top form in the evangelical world. For many of us, instead, it is one recent facet of the evangelical world. There are many thinkers on marriage with different worldviews and the TGC does not interact with, actually listen to, or learn from the give and take of such worldviews. Instead, it polemicizes against feminism and egalitarianism. The moment that book exited that siloed worldview it drew fire. The surprise of those in that world precisely reveals the silo itself. The only way that book can create that kind of surprising, shocking response is because Josh and his teachings have occurred inside the walls of a sequestered group.
Third, which makes those inside the complementarian group, TGC though not limited to TGC, complicit in forming and nurturing a culture in which male penetration of a female as an image of Christ’s relationship to the church was acceptable, even orthodox and traditional. Josh’s book is how that silo reads the Bible – front to back. Instead of their taking his excerpt down, I expected TGC to double-down. Josh’s audiences and friends must not have given sufficient pushback to Josh in his many speaking events even to give pause to some lines he wrote or to remove lines that so many today find wounding, retraumatizing, and entirely unacceptable.
Added note: TGC’s president, Julius Kim, offered an apology for posting the piece at the Keller Center here.
Earlier this week, we accepted Josh’s resignation as a Keller Center fellow. He will no longer lead an online cohort with the center nor speak at TGC23. While he will no longer participate in these events, Josh remains a beloved brother and friend whom we respect and care deeply about.
To our fellows and our readers, please forgive us. The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics is a new effort by TGC, and we are still learning how to work with our directors and our fellows to produce content that will serve our readers in a way that is trusted and wise. To ensure greater accountability with our fellows, we will develop better review systems for our work together. We will also review our publication processes more broadly at TGC and develop plans to ensure greater accountability to you, our readers.
Again, thank you for your patience with us. At TGC, we want to provide a venue for healthy dialogue and robust debate on important matters that affect us all. We want to model grace-filled conversations, and we want to learn from one another. In this case, we failed you and hurt many friends. Thank you in advance for your continued prayers.
I’m not sure what they are sorry for with respect to the content of the excerpt they published, or the book’s contents. TGC, at least it appears to me, has apologized for posting the excerpt, not for its contents. Frankly, it reads like image management more than apology.
Where are the critiques of the substance by those inside complementarianism? If we hear crickets, we can move on with a simple reminder: that book is that worldview. They’ve ignored their critics before, and they’ll ignore them again. Will they ignore them now? We’re waiting for a listening session.
Thank you, Scot, for adding your voice to this. It appears TGC has a scapegoat in this, and it does appear to be image management instead of true change of listening to women. I agree with your quote: “For them, TGC is top form in the evangelical world. For many of us, instead, it is one recent facet of the evangelical world. There are many thinkers on marriage with different worldviews and the TGC does not interact with, actually listen to, or learn from the give and take of such worldviews. Instead, it polemicizes against feminism and egalitarianism. The moment that book exited that siloed worldview it drew fire. The surprise of those in that world precisely reveals the silo itself.”
This is a serious discussion that has many consequences for the real lives of women and their agency and their bodies (and the control of such) and this part of the apologetic bon-apology really bothered me: “we want to produce content...” Talking theology on such an influential platform is a heck of a lot more than just cranking out content and getting page views. Just a gross way to describe what they're doing over at TGC. They might as well use AI.