Mere Pronoun

Would changing a mere pronoun change the abortion debate?

With the Supreme Court’s recent decision, abortion is back in the news. As a pro-life Christian, I pray, protest (peacefully), and promote laws to abolish this trade. But after reading C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, maybe there’s more we can do.

That Hideous Strength is a fictional work about control. The National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) seeks to control society. Mark and Jane Studdock, an unhappily married couple, have control issues. Mark seeks to control how people perceive him and his career. Jane seeks to control her life, mainly her independence.

But the book’s also about conversion. It traces out the contrasting conversion narratives of Mark and Jane. The N.I.C.E. seeks to convert Mark to its side. More interesting is Jane’s conversion, a step-by-step unraveling of her independence. It begins as she experiences clairvoyant dreams, sharing them with older Christians who live at St. Anne’s.

These Christians embody what Lewis saw embodied in J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien embodied a faith tradition rooted in ancient foundations (in his case, Roman Catholicism). This unraveled Lewis’ atheism, just as these Christians slowly unravel Jane’s fierce independence.

This process accelerates when Jane meets the Director (Ransom in the Space Trilogy). Lewis narrates, “instantly her world was unmade.” Ransom tells her, “You are offended by the masculine itself. But the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it.”

This is not gender bending. It’s the marital gospel, where all are feminine in relation to God who is neither male nor female but most often described as masculine. Humanity is all feminine in relation to him. Jane begins to perceive this. Before long, she submits to God.

“What Lewis pictures in Jane’s submission is a model, not just for female Christians, but for all Christians.”[1] And all humanity. Real life is not about being affirmed or authentic about your self-chosen identity. It’s about submission to reality, to God, for we are all feminine.

OK, you say, but what does this have to do with abortion? And the church?

Like Jane, the issue in abortion is control. Does a woman control her body? In the marital gospel, the answer is no. The wife’s body belongs to the husband; the husband’s body to the wife (I Cor.7). Our bodies belong to God. Jane discovers this in Christians who embody the marital gospel. She learns that her great problem is not a lack of submission to Mark, but a lack of submission to anything, anyone, including God. This “unmakes” her.

Which brings us to the church. If Jane is “unmade” by Christians embodying the marital gospel, then how many Christians today embody this gospel? Not explain it. Embody it, where it’s second nature, just rolls off the tongue (the mouth speaks that which fills the heart). I have a hunch about the answer, but here’s how you can find out for yourself. Ask any Christian to describe their church. Most will say, It’s great, or It’s OK. Note—it, it.

But “it” is not a feminine pronoun (can you imagine me calling my wife Kathy an “It?”). Objects are referred to as “it.” People are referred to as “he” or “she.” Those who embody the marital gospel describe their church as, She’s great, or She’s OK. This is how churches with ancient foundations talk. The church is her, or she (as in the old hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord; she is His new creation… to be His holy bride”).

I close with two thoughts.

Some might say I’m making too much of a mere pronoun. Many of these same people admire C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, which gets at the essence of the faith. Couldn’t we say a mere pronoun gets at the essence of the church—she?

Second, I expect some to say, I still don’t see what you (or Lewis) are getting at. Lewis anticipated this. Four years before writing That Hideous Strength, he gave a sermon where he said we have been under a blinding spell for a century. It requires the strongest spell to break it.

I’ll try to break that spell next week.

 

[1] Jennifer L. Woodruff Tait, “‘You Will Have No More Dreams; Have Children Instead:’ Or, What‘s a Nice Egalitarian Girl Like You Doing in a Book Like This?” Inklings Forever 6 (2008), 10.

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11 Comments

  1. Dear Scotty:

    Your comments, unless I misunderstand you, are far off course from what Lewis (and I) was saying. I’m not replying to try to persuade you otherwise, but it is worth considering the most profound you, the deepest you, will not be revealed until Christ is revealed (Colossians 4). His full revealing is the Bridegroom coming for his Bride, who is described in feminine terms. If you, Scotty, are a believer in Jesus, you are an integral part of His Bride who is described in feminine terms.

  2. My wife Kathy encouraged me to clarify, or summarize, this column. Here goes: I’ll start with the end. In my experience as a Christian (almost 50 years now), few western Christians embody the marital gospel. Key word: embody. We talk about it, explain it, etc. But few embody it. Lewis came to faith mainly by what Tolkien and others embodied. It “unmade” him.

    In “The Hideous Strength,” Jane Studdock encounters people living at St. Anne’s (she doesn’t know they’re Christians) who embody the marital gospel. They see there is more going on than meets the eye. They see what is happening in town is part of a cosmic conflict. They see what churches in older traditions call “the enchanted background.” They recognize how issues like control are ludicrous. We are either slaves of righteousness or slaves to sin. But both righteousness and sin are not “concepts.” They are embodied in real Beings. This “unmakes” Jane.

    My point, and I do have a point or two in this morning’s column, is that if we who claim to follow Christ actually embodied the marital gospel, we’d be radically different people than most of us are today. The differences are far too many to enumerate here, but it would start with referring to the church as “her” or “she.” A mere pronoun might change the game… perhaps even “unmaking” those who believe they’re nothing more than biology, meaning it’s my life, my body, my choice. Christians who embody the marital gospel have a far wider imagination as to what’s going on here… but they also recognize we’re complicit as we’ve long taught consumerism and individualism: I choose the church that gives me what I most want.

  3. Thanks, Mike. This is an encouragement to me in my own marriage vocation. It has given me fresh language to express what my wife and I are seeking to embody. For I am neither heterosexual nor homosexual, but a man made in God’s image, married to a woman made in God’s image; remembering my body belongs to her, my wife; seeking more femininity in my own identity while living within the Church and her embrace, so as to learn more fully how to love my wife (and others); as together we both long to live more loyally to Jesus our real husband and master, who is the one true king of the world.

  4. Amen, Jerry.

    We’re all in need of some fresh language, or, as Lewis put it (in rather fresh language), you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.

    Next week…

  5. The description of the church as feminine (submissive) riles many people who don’t want to see women as weak. However, words fail to describe the mystical connection of the Creator to his creation. Far from seeing ourselves as being weak, we need to see ourselves as cherished and cared for and finally, obedient. Thinking of the church as she is a mind blowing concept. Thanks for challenging all of us!

    1. But humanity is weak…Jesus said “the flesh is weak, but the Spirit is willing” (Mark 14.38) And Paul wrote that God’s grace is perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12.9). That is why we cry out “Lord Jesus, have mercy!” (mercy as in healing and making whole). I don’t write this to undermine your point, yes we are cherished and cared for…but I don’t want to miss our neediness either. Knowing that God pursues us in our weakness is important. And that is the hope of the Gospel, the Groom making us ‘holy and blameless without any spot or wrinkle’ (Eph 5.25-27).

  6. Thanks for the summary. Now that I more clearly understand, i think you lost me at the 2nd sentence of the original column and drowned out anything meaningful I might hear beyond it. It was from you that I learned that politics is downstream of culture by a fair distance so this notion of an increased control structure doesn’t sit well. We are pretty confident that increased control structures (more laws written largely by white males) isn’t going to stop abortions (okay, some, but at what cost?), but perhaps more critically, it further cements the narrative and conflict instead of shift it. Embodying the marital gospel seems counter cultural and worth pursuing as it might create a world where abortion is legal but isn’t sought, but it feels undone by support of the Christian culture’s last bastion of being “right”.

    1. Troy, you wrote: “We are pretty confident that increased control structures (more laws written largely by white males) isn’t going to stop abortions (okay, some, but at what cost?), but perhaps more critically, it further cements the narrative and conflict instead of shift it. Embodying the marital gospel seems counter cultural and worth pursuing as it might create a world where abortion is legal but isn’t sought, but it feels undone by support of the Christian culture’s last bastion of being ‘right’.”
      I think you’ve got a good point as an example of where the rubber meets the road – by citing/asking “What happens to the abortion battle?” I have a feeling that it can be described as the battle that isn’t fought but is effected downstream – but I am interested in what Mike can do to expand on the question. For better or worse I think “American Christianity” still runs the political show – even tho Mike claims Christians are in exile. I don’t think so – it’s just that when you’re in charge all of what you do is on the stage for everyone to see – and a lot is run poorly. Hey, we’re sinners too.

  7. Mike, really enjoyed your column. It’s funny, I really thought you were going to say “They” not It! And then you said “She.” I thought you’d say “they” because the church is people. (And isn’t “they” interesting since it’s the new pronoun for he-shes…) I was with a prof friend of mine being greeted as we entered a door and a young lady said to the prof, “Welcome to church!” The prof said, with a grin, “Huh? I am the church!” Most often pastors I hear from the pulpit say “We…” referring to “us” the church, the Body of Christ. Funny then when we say We are the Body of Christ – His Body. But maybe you’d say that we are His body in the same way that your body belongs to Kathy?

    Still – referring to “the church” as she is “mind-expanding” and spell-breaking – or spell-binding as we really do submit to the vision and the vision sinks in and we are won to a new way of seeing. I read the book in my late twenties and was spell-bound by Merlin. At the time I thought it was Lewis’s best book I’d ever read. Sometimes I have a quote in my signature that I’ve witnessed a black med-school prof use in his signature and I read the book so long ago I can’t remember if it’s from the book or it just sounds like it belongs in the book:

    THE GREATEST EVIL is not done in those sordid dens that Dickens loved to paint, but is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. ~ C.S. Lewis ~

    Last thought: You quote Ransom: “But the masculine none of us can escape. What is above and beyond all things is so masculine that we are all feminine in relation to it.” I wonder if some time you can trace the masculine and feminine for us to understand this better.

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