Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Older Son’s Burden

To recap:

11Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.

13"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' 20So he got up and went to his father.
      "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.[a]'

22"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.

25"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'

28"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'

31" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' " [Emphases added.]

This parable has two parts.  In the first, it tells the story of the younger son’s fall and redemption; in the second, of the older son’s unforgiving attitude.  Regarding the second aspect, there are several real-world parallels to the brothers’ relationship.  We find here the attitude of the Pharisees towards the “sinners and tax collectors”.  We see the attitude of the Jews towards the pagan Gentiles that would soon flock to God’s worship.  And we are warned against an ever-present danger to the church in our own time.

The Meme

Obviously, although the parable cogently states the older brother’s grievance, there is much to criticize.  First, his sense of entitlement – “‘All these years I’ve slaved for you’” – ignores the need we all have for God’s grace.  Second, his hardness of heart – “refused to go in” – leaves no room for restoration.

But there is a meme about this parable that has crept its way into a couple of sermons I have heard over the years that I believe to be not just erroneous, but dangerously misleading.  The meme calls attention to the highlighted passages above contrasting Jesus’ narrative description of the younger son’s life of sin with the older son’s characterization of it.  This is alleged to say something bad about the older brother:  he makes an unwarranted assumption, and/or he betrays an envious attitude of his brother’s erstwhile un-chastity.

I dissent. 

The Problem

Regarding the first point, the assumption looks unwarranted only by ignoring the implausibility of the contrary assumption – that the younger brother went off to the big city for “wild living” that didn’t involve women of easy virtue.  Um . . . where’s the fun in that?  Speaking for myself, I don’t think I have to actually aspire to a life of dissipation in order to admit that, were I to lead such a life, I would certainly hope that it involved the attention of, if not professionals exactly, then dedicated amateurs.  What would be the point otherwise?

This brings us to the second allegation:  the charge of envy.  This is trickier; to wax Clintonian, it depends on the definition. Nothing in the narrative prevents the older brother from following the younger to the big city, but he doesn’t; instead, he chooses to remain loyal to his father.  Allowing that human motivation is complex, this is the choice we all make when we resist temptation.  We could give in to temptation, and certainly when the sin is un-chastity,  there are few external impediments preventing us.  But to the extent we are moral agents, when we instead choose the way of righteousness, it becomes difficult to lay against us the charge of really wanting to do otherwise.

To the extent that the narrative contrast in the parable has a point, it may be this:  that the older son was fully aware of the trade-off he had made.  The older son is saying, “hey, junior there had a grand ole’ time up there in the big city, while I’ve loyally slaved away.”  That this doesn’t imply what the older son thinks it does, doesn’t make it false; on the contrary, it is factually true:  the older son did choose  what in the near run was the harder path.  Yes, in the long run this worked out well – “‘everything I have is yours’” -- but that he, and we, give up treasures on earth in favor of treasures in heaven doesn’t mean that the earthly treasures don’t really exist.  Let’s face it:  if sin wasn’t fun, this conversation wouldn’t be necessary.

We are often assured that the wages of sin are paid in this life, that the way of immorality ends in earthly misery.  Often this is true.  The book of Proverbs certainly encourages us to think so, as does Jesus’ parable:  the younger son, after all, returns home broke and starved.  Likewise, it is easy to draw a straight line between sexual immorality and various unpleasantness like STDs and unwanted pregnancy.  But two quick points.  First, as morally satisfying as this aspect of the story is, it’s not especially reliable.  Many people don’t so much repent of their sin as simply outgrow it, with no noticeable ill effects.  Second, the benefits of righteousness are usually realized collectively.  The reason God told the Israelites that murder, theft, and adultery were crimes was because they undermine the social trust so necessary to a collective project such as conquering Canaan and building a nation.  It would be impossible for the soldiers on the front lines to fight bravely if they had to worry about what the rear guard was doing with their wives and property.  But the Israelites didn’t need a story about how the apparent ability of one person to lie, steal, or adulterate his way to advantage was somehow a product of false-consciousness.

It can be argued that God’s grace make all earthly pleasures pale by comparison.  I would agree that the closer we draw to God, the less the emotional salience of the trade-offs we make to get there.  But stated categorically, the argument reminds me of the Tiger Woods episode on South Park:  everybody (the men anyway) pretending to be shocked, shocked, that Tiger had sex with a string of beautiful women.  Come off it!  It doesn’t compromise the moral judgment to say there’s no mystery to what motivated him.  It’s not envy to say that, yeah, we get it.

The Danger

This is no mere theological arcanum.  I am convinced that the meme described blinds us to the way this parable often plays out in real life.  To illustrate, let’s . . . tweak it a bit.

In Jesus’ version, the younger son comes home destitute.  I suppose one can analogize the “money” that his father gave him that he no longer has, but let’s suppose that money is just money.  Now let’s suppose the younger son comes home not destitute.  Let’s suppose that, in spite (or because) of his “wild living”, he now has a fortune that rivals or exceeds his brother’s.

Or, even more on point, let suppose the younger son comes home, maybe with money, maybe without it, but after reintegrating himself in the family he . . . steals his older brother’s girlfriend.  It’s not hard to see why.  Even if we accept his repentance at face value, the younger brother carries with him an aura of worldliness.  While admitting that the causality runs both ways, we can see that the younger brother is now experienced in, as Roissy would put it, the “dark arts”.  Maybe his intentions are now strictly honorable, maybe they aren’t, but the point is that the younger brother has directly parlayed his misadventures into attractiveness to women.  And suddenly, all the nose-to-the-grindstone young men who were regarded as perfectly adequate now seem hopelessly provincial.

I’m not making this up.  It is precisely the attendant social confidence that leads an otherwise decent man like Trumwill to abandon the ethic of chastity and eagerly anticipate the conquests of his own (future) sons.  I even had a female youth director at church (a relatively liberal, PCUSA church) say without shame that she hoped her future husband was sexually experienced.

Alas, this preference is not limited to liberals.  Granted, no conservative woman would state it that baldly, but . . . ye shall know them by their fruits.  A few years ago, I read a feminist blogger who, commenting on a young female chastity advocate, said something along the lines of:  “well, just make sure you marry a virgin.”  She intended this as a taunt, of course, but the remark succeeded in highlighting, if not hypocrisy exactly, then at least an incongruity between what female chastity advocates claim for themselves and the mate choices they make.  I challenged Spearhead blogger Hestia on this point last year and discovered that even conservative Christianity confers on its adherents little immunity to the rationalization hamster.

Likewise, the response to this from the Christian community at large is disappointing.  I have blogged before about my experience  at a large, urban, relatively conservative church, hearing twenty-something women complain about how the men in our circle were so . . . uninteresting, and then listening to church leaders say, basically, “yeah!”

Which brings us back to the meme.  It bodes ill for the church’s ability to apprehend the perverse incentives it is perpetuating.  It says, alternately, “shame on you for noticing!” and “none of this should matter.”  But that’s too pat.  Men have wanted women since Adam noticed he didn’t have one.  Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” i.e. a competent portion of the good things of this life, including the opportunity to find a mate.  I don’t want to exaggerate the extent of the church’s responsibility here, but young men aren’t (generally) stupid.  If they notice that the path to getting married routinely take them through promiscuous behavior, I promise you that we will get more promiscuous behavior.  This is injurious not only to social morality but also to the church’s ability to retain the loyalty of its young people.

No Easy Answers

Solving this problem will be hard.  On the one hand, the church has turned the doctrine of forgiveness into an inability to enforce social disability, let alone social ostracism, in any kind of sustained way.  On the other, it has no language with which to hold women accountable for their preference for social confidence and charm.  In isolation, each of these appears defensible.  But the church does itself no favors by refusing to acknowledge that their combination is poisonous. 

UPDATE: Lest I seem out-of-touch, I want to say that Ferdinand already posted at length on this topic.


Anonymous said...

To take the parable in a different direction, it seems that lots of social-policy debates can be broken down into prodigal vs. industrious factions. The former seeks to subsidize (or at least not bear the costs of) high-risk, status-raising actions; the latter seeks to impose the full penalty for such actions. Such conflicts arise over issues such as high-risk mortgages, drug use, art degrees, and of course early sex.

An even more pernicious reading of the parable might be advanced by the prodigal camp. The father's generosity, rather than reflecting the grace of God, can be said to be an example of moral behavior. Throw in a few misunderstood verses about judging not lest ye be judged, you can make a pretty persuasive case for subsidizing bad behavior.

Anonymous said...

Second, the benefits of righteousness are usually realized collectively.

Scholars of biblical anthropology (see the Context Group, for example) have argued that one of the primary reasons for the Western church's anemia is that we are an individualistic culture rather than a collectivist one. They point out that one really cannot properly interpret the bible without understanding that the people of the Ancient Near East thought in terms of groups, not individuals. All this to agree that, yeah, the writers of the bible mostly would have thought "What's in it for us", rather than "What's in it for me."

That notwithstanding, I think there definitely are individual benefits to moral living. I'm not kidding when I say that my wife and I enjoy a much closer relationship than most in our society, and one reason is because neither of us ever really had any other romantic relationships. Encouraging one's sons to go forth and "conquer" in the hopes that this will ultimately secure a better marriage is a fool's paradise.

Elusive Wapiti said...

"an incongruity between what female chastity advocates claim for themselves and the mate choices they make."

I have had Christian women confide the same to me as well...that they would rather marry a man with sexual experience than one who has not.

Reason? Experience.

But I also think that the higher status that comes from having proven oneself by successfully convincing another woman to have sex with you impresses women on a fundamental, biological level.

I don't think this is all that hypocritical, either. The Bible (specifically) and the Abrahamic religions (in general) clearly value virginity in brides; not quite so in husbands. It does not surprise me that women, Christian or worldly, reflect this preference.

Dr. Φ said...

Cephalic: I think things worked better when different aspects of society worked different angles of the judgement / forgiveness dicotomy. Now, everybody wants to do forgiveness, nobody wants to do judgement.

Samson: you are probably correct. OTOH, try convincing (to pick someone at random) Roissy that it's not really in his interest to be a babehound, and that appearances to the contrary are some kind of false consciousness!

EW: I tried to avoid the hypocrisy charge in this case. I agree that women are intrinsically drawn to "experienced" men, much as men are drawn to become experienced. The church should bless both, or condemn both.

On this issue of virginity, I think the apparent double-standard is driven more by concern for the woman's status: does she belong to someone else or not? If she does, then it's adultery, a capital crime for both. If she doesn't, then the expectation is that a patched up marriage will be in order. Polygyny made this double standard possible back then; not so today.

Anonymous said...

First off, I really liked the post. There's not a whole lot that I disagree with here. Of course, I do have to clarify and/or nitpick.

leads an otherwise decent man like Trumwill to abandon the ethic of chastity

I think it's more than fair to say that I have abandoned the ethic of chastity, but I would want to add that if I found out that my son bedded 100 women, I would be horrified and wondering what I did wrong and not because of STDs or the practical implications. I haven't thought about it enough to know what the target would be, but if I thought about it long enough there would probably be a range (both in terms of total count and timeline). A different range for a daughter, but that difference would be due as much to quasi-practical implications (conforming to the preferences of a society that I cannot change).

I read a feminist blogger who, commenting on a young female chastity advocate, said something along the lines of: “well, just make sure you marry a virgin.”

I'm a little confused as to the incongruity of this. She seems to be taunting a woman for advocating chastity and also suggesting that she yoke herself with a man that is the same. If the advocate herself said something like this, I would understand it... so I'm confused.

I have blogged before about my experience at a large, urban, relatively conservative church, hearing twenty-something women complain about how the men in our circle were so . . . uninteresting, and then listening to church leaders say, basically, “yeah!”

This one I get where you're going. But I would add that "interesting" really can mean a lot of things apart from licentiousness. If I had foregone college and had gone instead to a Buddhist monastery in Japan, that would have carried a lot of currency with a number of women. Moreso than joining a frat and bedding a bunch of sorority chicks.

Promiscuity should not be conflated with interesting. And I can understand the argument that the guy that is dull and uninteresting and got good grades like he was supposed to and went to college like he was supposed to and majored in something that would help him support a family like he was supposed to should have more currency than it does, but... people want to be with people that they find interesting. This applies to men and women. I would concede that it probably does apply more to women, but I think a part of that would be that men worry more about being upstaged and their enthusiasm for someone interesting might be diminished by losing the spotlight to her.

Hestia said...

One factor I don't think you are taking into account is the role of fathers in the marriage of their daughters. In a truly conservative church such as the one I was raised in, a woman is under the authority of her father until she is married and he is instrumental in choosing her potential mate. This would be a basic tenet of a patriarchal society as well.

In the model of courtship used by most in my church, sexual matters that pertained to marriage would be discussed between the prospective husband and a woman's father. The potential spouses did not discuss sexual matters as this was impure. Myself and quite a few other women I knew wouldn't have necessarily known all of the dirty details before the engagement was made and the wedding in the works. In other words, the sexual experience factor is not always a fact utilized in a woman's decision to go with her parents wishes for her marriage or not.

I sincerely doubt there exist many fathers who overlook a suitor's past sexual sin in order to please their daughters if you know what I mean. Instead what's typically weighed is ability to provide for a family, how he will discipline potential children,views on birth control, schooling, and women working outside the home, compatibility in beliefs, doctrine & theology, and interests between the daughter and the suitor and that sort of thing. Sexual sin and experience is likely factored in by most fathers, but may not be the end all, be all in making a choice for his daughter.

I know for a fact my dad turned down two men who were interested in me before my husband came along. One was a virgin. My father said no for many reasons including the man's poor work ethic and major disagreements in life philosophy between this man and myself. The other man had struggled with porn addiction in the past and had slept with his high school girlfriend. This was never factored into my dad's decisions as this potential suitor drank alcohol, had drastically different thoughts about raising children than did I, and had a reputation for not settling his debts and practice fiscal responsibility. In both instances my father believed there were big red flags that would set me up for failure or terrible circumstances in a potential marriage.

There was also one more man my father turned down as he was fifteen years older than me and my dad did not believe this to be ideal or appropriate seeing as I was just barely eighteen at the time.

In a good conservative church, the appeal for sexual purity in suitors may best be made to the fathers by other men. An argument could be made with biblical principles and perhaps even statistics to support the premise. Such information may be heard by ultra conservative girls and women but no such women are in a position to do so. The Bible does admonish women to be submissive in the case of wives and honor thy parents in the case of children. To do otherwise is rebelling against the Word of God and is also not something that can be rationalized away.

Dr. Φ said...

Trumwill: regarding your second point, my criticism was not of the feminist blogger; on the contrary, I thought she highlighted the (potential) incongruity in the values of female chastity advocates.

Regarding your third point: to be fair, the exact word wasn't "uninteresting". One particularly hostile woman used the term "low quality", but generally the criticism was some variant of "immature." Weasel words! It was all about experience and "game". And I get that women desire these qualities, but Christian women should think a lot more critically about how they're generally come by.

Hestia: thank you for candidly describing your experience. My criticism above notwithstanding, you and I are basically on the same side of this thing. Your advice to men with daughters is well-taken.

Anonymous said...

I thought she highlighted the (potential) incongruity in the values of female chastity advocates.

Hmmm... I've been thinking about this over the day and the the two or three chastity advocates I've known over the years have been relatively consistent on the matter and had taste in men I generally wish more women had. I wasn't in their target demographic (obviously), but their boyfriends seemed like pretty good guys. In one case I was actually taken aback that she (a drill team captain) was dating an attractive, but pretty unassuming fellow. Another (not drill team, but attractive) dated attractive guys with more status, but FCA-status.

There is one major exception. But she was... weird. You wouldn't have liked her anyway.

I suppose this sort of thing might be different in different environments, though. My surroundings were conservative, but in a Country Club sort of way. Those that self-selected virginity made a conscious decision to do so. I would imagine that if the local culture pressured girls to make such pledges, you would see more incongruity.

This was all back in high school, though. By the time college came around, I unsurprisingly spent less time around people that would do things like take public positions in favor of chastity. Did befriend one in college, though I don't know how much she actually dated.

"Immature" can mean a number of things, though maybe you heard something in the tone and context that I am not in a position to. If one is in church complaining about the "low quality" of church-going guys... I agree, they need to be re-evaluating how they measure quality.

Anonymous said...

Regarding your third point: to be fair, the exact word wasn't "uninteresting". One particularly hostile woman used the term "low quality", but generally the criticism was some variant of "immature." Weasel words! It was all about experience and "game". And I get that women desire these qualities, but Christian women should think a lot more critically about how they're generally come by.

What do you expect? Churches are filled with hypocrites, women who get away with everything and priests/ministers that cater to their narcissism.

Churches refuse to criticize premarital sex (except in teens and that's because they don't want teen pregnancy) because women are doing it while many of the men don't have the option. Instead churches come down on men who look at porn just because they have normal sexual desires because of biology and no marital way of dealing with their desires because the women are too busy fucking around with alphas. These men face an avalanche of condemnation for a situation they have no control over. Instead these men are supposed to stop using porn, live like a monk in a deranged form of monasticism, and listen to sermons on how we can't criticize women fucking around.