Wednesday, December 31, 2008

W@H: Sister Golden Hair Surprise

I thought I was done with the Golden-Haired Woman. Then I had to go and run across something while looking for a completely different quote.
What else is it we are seeking from the Woman with the Golden Hair? What is that ache we are trying to assuage with her? Mercy, comfort, beauty, ecstasy -- in a word, God. I'm serious. What we are looking for is God. --John Eldredge, Wild at Heart
Eldredge, as I've said, echoes Bly's suggestion that the man who constantly chases the Golden-Haired Woman needs to go see about himself, first. This I will agree with. He goes a step further, though, and says that the man needs to withdraw from the woman. This sounds like it says the same thing, but it doesn't, not really. Having read this in light of Fiat Lex's comment that Eldredge's interpretation of the Biblical creation myth reduces the woman to a spectator in the struggle between Adam and god, it takes on a more, shall we say, insidious appearance. It's why I keep going back to Berger when re-evaluating this book I once so loved, I guess. Before we leave women behind and head in to real man territory I think we need to take a look at three inherent problems of the Christian self-help book genre. Now, Christian publishers would probably take issue with that phrasing. It's a "Christian Living" book, a book about the life of a Christian. Self-help is for those evil regular bookstores. Also, I think self-help would imply that Christians either (a.) need help or (b.) are capable of helping themselves without their good buddy Jesus. I'll leave that to people who care about such distinctions, though. Either way, three problems: 1. Excessive use of the personal story. We hear a lot about John Eldredge in Wild at Heart. We hear a little about men John Eldredge has worked with. This is not scientific. See, if you're writing a book about people and you're a psychologist and you fill it with stories that say, "I am like this. The people I work with are also like this," then you're doing an extremely bad job. Let's say you decide to submit a column to a fashion magazine on the hot trends today and say, "I and everyone I can see is wearing a McDonald's shirt. This is the hot new look for '09." The fashion magazine will laugh at you, even if you think you're right, just because you're a McDonald's employee and you're writing your column during a slow period at work when there are no customers in the store. This leads to the next problem. 2. Overgeneralization. You know how there are those TV show promos that let you know that "everyone's talking about" last week's episode? Have you ever noticed how no one is ever actually talking about last week's episode? This is an attempt to create (a usually unwarranted) buzz. Combine excessive use of the personal story with overgeneralization and you've got a book about how everyone in the world is exactly like you. Now take those two and combine with the third. 3. Authoritarianism. Eldredge has a degree in some sort of psychology. He wrote a book. What else do you need to know about his ability to tell you what's what? Not to overgeneralize, but this is a problem with most, if not all Christian self-help books. It goes back to that one size fits all attitude of what people are and who they should be. Therefore, the reasoning goes, if I search for validation in the Golden-Haired Woman, every other man does, too. If I realized that my search for validation in the Golden-Haired Woman is actually my search for god, so it goes for everyone else. And, by the way, you need to listen to me because I wrote the damn book. There's a chicken and egg problem with every Christian self-help book. I have to draw a line here between Christian self-help and the general Christian Living category, since it's too big and generalized to have any real meaning. Christian Living contains Wild at Heart, Every Man's Battle, and Too Busy Not to Pray, which are self-help. But it also contains books like Phil Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace?, one of the few Christian books I once loved and still respect, and Max Lucado's line of schmaltzy, uplifting crap. Basically, if it's Christian, non-fiction, and isn't a devotional guide, a book about how to run a ministry, or some crap about Christian "science" or "spiritual warfare," it gets lumped in to the Christian Living category. Anyway, chicken and egg in Christian self-help. Right. It's almost impossible to discern where the writer's bias comes from. Wild at Heart is, bascially, a misogynistic text. However, since it's Biblically based self-help, I don't know if Eldredge brought his misogyny to the text or read the Bible, thought, "Hey, this is the way the world is because the Bible says so," and brought a Biblical misogyny to the text. There's also the problem of misogyny as isogesis or exegesis. Does the reader bring it to the Bible or take it from the Bible? Drop back a level and it's a question of the writers and editors of the particular translation used and so on and so forth back to some poor schmuck two thousand years ago who was just trying to write a book. We must, I feel, tread lightly. It's one thing with LaHaye and Jenkins of Left Behind, since they created a fictional universe in to which they poured their ideals and can be rightly excoriated for it. It's one thing for the guys who wrote Every Man's Battle, since they seem to be pretty overt assholes. Eldredge, however, is a more complicated writer to analyze. He seems like a genuinely well meaning but misguided individual. This is complicated greatly by the fact that his advice is generally fairly sound and the structural difficulties are more foundational than anything else, but then peppered with the generally good ideas are some astoundingly horrifying thoughts.
Because so many of us turned to the woman for our sense of masculinity, we must walk away from her as well. I do not mean leave your wife. I mean you stop looking for her to validate you, stop trying to make her come through for you, stop trying to get your answer from her. [Emphasis Eldridge's]
This is good advice. It's fundamentally a different way of approaching the concept of the woman making the man something v. the woman seeing something in the man that he himself has a hard time seeing. I have a problem with the use of the phrase "walk away from her," though. The fact that it requires and emphatic, "Don't leave your wife," should, really, be a warning sign. We need to jump forward a page, past a mishmash of initiation rites and quotes pulled from Bly, to this little gem:
What I am saying is that the masculine journey always takes a man away from the woman, in order that he may come back to her with his question answered. A man does not go to a woman to get his strength, he goes to her to offer it. [Wait. It gets better.] You do not need the woman to be a great man, and as a great man you do not need the woman. As Augustine said, "Let my soul praise you for all these beauties, but let it not attach itself to them by the trap of love," the trap of addiction because we've taken our soul to her for validation. [Italics his, bold mine.]
Following this mind-boggling, bright, multi-colored fuck you moment, Eldredge then puts in the quote I started this entry with about how the search for the Golden-Haired Woman is actually the search for god. So let us sit and reason together. There is a deep misogyny in Christianity built on a simple structural problem. The Jewish patriarchs were, generally, the sorts of guys who had multiple wives. Jesus was single. Paul was single and advised everyone else to be single, too. Guys like Augustine and Origen were, I'm pretty sure, single. Women are, in short, an afterthought in classical Christianity. The Bible and the church histories are filled with stories of the great men who shaped the world. So it should come as no surprise that the default assumption would be that great men don't need women, that men who do need women are, necessarily, weak, and, taking that a step further, that women just get in the way. Not only that, but notice how Augustine equates love of beauty with a trap, then Eldredge equates that same love with addiction. Since we don't have the context of Augustine's quote I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. Love of beauty for its own sake can be a trap. Eldredge gets no such slack. I don't remember why this came up, but I was once talking to a girl -- who I may or may not have been dating at the time -- and in a moment of bombast said that I thought I would never get married. "Yeah you will," she told me, "You're not good enough on your own." I disagreed with her then. I also thought Wild at Heart was a great book back then. She was right. I was wrong. Eldredge is dead wrong. Greatness is not an inherently masculine trait. Strength isn't, either. It's not something that the man finds on his hero's journey, then takes back to the silly, weak woman who has been sitting around in her silly weakness waiting for the man to give her strength. Men and women generally have different kinds of strength, or at least different ways of manifesting strength. It is that combination of strengths working together that makes for greatness. It's why mammals have a tendency to pair bond, to gather together in families, tribes, cities, and nations. Eldredge here deviates from a general understanding of human history and basic mammalian biology to make an unsupported, deeply misogynistic claim. Again, though, the question must be asked. Is that a result of his thinking itself, or is it his thinking as informed by a book that makes god in to the groom and all humanity the bride and makes it clear that in the god/person dynamic god's the one with all the strength and all the person can offer is abject surrender and worship? So in the spirit of this little detour, before I go out in to the wilds of adventure and battle, first we're going to take a walk through a garden with Bly and Eldredge. Then we're going to answer the eternal question: if the Golden-Haired Woman is such a big deal, why did Bly devote the first half of the golden hair chapter of Iron John: A Book About Men to a story about a golden-haired boy?


Fiat Lex said...

It is not surprising that Eldredge interprets desire for the GHW as a disguised desire for God. It is a desire for identity--hence the need for validation. And to a thinker with Eldredge's prejudices God is the only legit source of identity.

His problem is, he tosses the GHW out in favor of God, but never lets the real woman back in.

And it's kind of funny that he says a great man doesn't need a woman. Heck, if that was the case even in Christian mythology, God would never have created the woman in the first place. Didn't God say "It is not good for a man to be alone"? (Huh. And Adam was walking and talking with God all the time in those days--so even being with God isn't the same as not being alone.)

And yeah, Christian self-help is as disgusting a category as Christian rock music or Christian fiction. This is the same cultural niche that accepts and celebrates people who say analytical thought opens a portal for demons to infest your brain. Yet if a person in that cultural niche has a degree in something, they will throw their opinion's weight around because of the degree.

Chicken and egg time. You know how I love piping up with an "and" response to an "or" question. There's plenty of misogyny in the Bible, both in the actions of the characters and in the perspective of the writers. But that's the amazing thing about the Bible. It's an incredibly diverse, complex and subtle story. You can find anything in there if you want to look for it. It's a place where the Law of Fives goes hog wild.

Modern Christians sometimes find a weird kind of equilibrium in their personalities between lazy intellectualism and superstitious ignorance. Going solely by unconsciously absorbed cultural norms, they'll get to the point where "these kinds of thoughts are Godly and permitted, while those kinds of thoughts are Satanic and forbidden." It's easy to compartmentalize the functions of your mind using fear and shame if everybody else is doing it! That's my explanation for how you can end up with writers like Eldredge and LaHaye. Who are intelligent enough in some ways, frighteningly stupid in others, and completely unaware of the fact that any aspects of their worldview are in conflict with one another.

the woeful budgie said...

...that the man needs to withdraw from the woman...
Oh, hell. So THAT'S where it came from...

See, I've got this friend whose marriage had been kinda rocky, and then the church got involved, and magically, everything got about ten times worse. (Um. Pretend you're surprised.) I know they were all just trying to help and whatnot, but not long after the Christ-centered "counseling" began, her husband decided that the way to fix things was to cut off all contact from her, separate all their finances, and basically leave her in the dark about everything---there was actually a couple weeks there where she wasn't sure if she'd even have a place to live at the end of the month---because he needed to learn how to Be The Man and Make The Decisions or some such crap. Any time anyone talked to him about it, he seemed to think that this would magically fix things, if everyone would just trust God enough.

Not surprisingly, his accountability partners have been trying to fix things by taking him through "Wild At Heart".

I've watched my friend go through eight months of hell because of this fucked up theology. I am SO glad to see someone ripping it apart.

Anyway, I'll be sending this along to her. It might be preaching to the converted, as Fiat Lex said earlier, but it'll probably help her feel a little more validated, and that's gotta be worth something.

Geds said...

Um, wow. I'd say I can't believe anyone would be that stupid, but, well, I've spent enough time around pretty witless Christians who I could see doing exactly that...

If you feel it's appropriate, please send my sympathies to your friend, too. No one should have to deal with crap like this. But if it helps her to see that it's not her fault, but the fault of idiotic "theology" being taken too seriously, maybe it's something.

PersonalFailure said...

Men and women generally have different kinds of strength, or at least different ways of manifesting strength. It is that combination of strengths working together that makes for greatness.

I have found that men's strengths tend to be outward-- a sort of fireman's heroism-- whereas a woman's strengths tend to be inward-- the inherent courage of a single mother who slogs through every day on the brink of disaster but keeps going anyway because she has to. Putting the two together leads to true greatness, but only if both partners are equal and respected.

The true deception of the Golden Haired Woman is that she has no unique female strength to share, but only male strength to elicit.

The true shame of the "submit to your husband" movement isn't so much that it encourages misogyny, which it does, but that it ignores the strength a woman brings to her union, a strength that her husband needs.

Besides, as a brunette, why can't I have an archetype?

Francis said...

Guys like Augustine and Origen were, I'm pretty sure, single.

That would be "God grant me chastity, but not yet" Augustine and "Autocastration" Origen?

hapax said...

Greatly enjoying this analysis so far, although I never read WILD AT HEART (nor, to be fair, did I ever feel the need to explore what it meant to be a "masculine" Christian)

You caught my interest with the Augustine quote -- no surprise there -- but I couldn't track it down for you. I suspect it's from a paraphrase or a free translation of DE TRINITATE, in which case Eldredge is completely bollixing up the context (again, no surprise).

Not to bore you very much, but Augustine (who was NOT single, btw, but a father and a husband, who was devastated to separate from his common law wife over the class and economic requirements of his career, and spoke eloquently of the *mutual* comfort and respect that men and women find in relationships) would not have used "beauty" to refer to sexual appreciation. Rather, he was making an aesthetic argument, that "beauty" (in the sense of harmonious arrangement that satisfies both the senses and the mind) in the created world was necessarily contingent, deriving from Beauty itself, that is, God.

As such, beauty can and should be praised, appreciated, indeed striven after; in all things created, the more beautiful they are, the closer to the Creator.

Yet we should not fall into the "trap" of thinking that contingent beauty can lead us to Beauty on its own (as the NeoPlatonist pagans would argue); rather, knowledge of Beauty itself, which is also Truth, Goodness, Being, etc. would make us more fully able to see the beauty in the world that reflects and depends upon it.

I haven't finished with the rest of your series yet, but I suspect that is not too far from the argument that it is necessary for a man to find his own identity / strength / worth first, instead of trying to use the mythical "Her" to instill it into him.

A very interesting series of essays. Much to chew on.

SeaPoppy said...

I just wanted to leave a comment about the interconnectedness of the world.. I highly enjoyed your discourse, though I'd been searching for the song that your post takes its title from, Sister Golden Hair Surprise, as a distraction from the paper I was writing, 'coincidentally' on self-validation. The idea that humans are searching for God in their partners is certainly one that I've mused over before--though without any awareness of this site or really of the fact that others had considered this as well. I agree that there is nothing wrong with seeking to become closer with something that resembles God, as we are made to exist with Him and long for Him. As we recognize Him in others and unite ourselves with them, we experience joy, which can come as no surprise as Heaven will be the ultimate union of only the best parts of us—our clean, post-Purgatory souls—with the rest of His children in God Himself, and we will all, as one, have peace and joy forever.
Honestly, the only thing that makes very little sense in this whole plan—we are made by God, separate from God, experience trials, and then join Him again—is that we ever separate in the first place. That is of course the human element: we are made by our Creator but we are not equal to Him, and in Eden we took our freedom, like the prodigal son, and wasted it on self-indulgence. Eve wasted hers to satisfy her curiosity, the prodigal son to satisfy his earthly desires, and each of us (except Mary and Jesus) individually take our own freedom and sin our first sin in some point of our lives—all this repetition.
What is with this appalling lack of originality? Is everyone off copying each other, all over the world and all over history (history, proverbially, repeats itself)? But how could they do so without knowledge of one another? Why does this occur?
There lies behind all life and all that is not living one Truth, one Love, one God. He is our one desire, and in striving for Him we do at times meet at similar conclusions. As much as my own generation would like to refute this, and claim a lawless universe with no God and no Truth, both exist. The punchline of the greatest joke is the one that rings true, the one we recognize in our own lives. The greatness of a masterpiece is a stunning representation of something we've seen before, or felt. It is God we recognize and appreciate, and in recognizing Him in each other we become closer. The closer we are as people to each other, the more we love God and one and other, the happier we will be, because we will be closer to Him.
And as for self-validation? We must not forget that WE ARE CHILDREN OF THE LIVING GOD. He does not make mistakes. There is no horde of unborn babies that missed a chance to live so that we could come to Earth. God chose each and every one of us to exist—He Himself validated us. We must trust in Him and simply live our lives according to His commandments in order to find the perfect happiness that He desires for us.

Paola Katie Eisner