Of Empathy and Monsters

There Can Be No Covenants Between Men and Lions

My article from last week, Empathy, Feminism, and the Church, has provoked an array of reactions, questions, and criticisms. The variety provides an excellent opportunity to illustrate and further explore empathy and feminism in the church. The responses can be roughly sorted into Appreciation, Reasonable Questions, and Proving My Point.  

Response 1: Appreciation

A number of people found the article helpful. This included a not insignificant number of Christian women, who found in it the language to describe an uneasiness they’ve felt about certain women Bible teachers who leverage their femininity in subtle, but manipulative ways. More than that, the article offered relief for what one friend called “empathy overload,” the pressure that women feel (especially in the social media age) to care about everything (and to build a platform to do something about it). A sober-minded and steady husband (or pastor) can give them permission to not care about everything, but instead to simply settle into their calling. 

Response 2: Reasonable Questions

Some people asked the reasonable question, “Joe, you describe the negative form of feminine influence, the agitated and manipulative kind that exploits male virtues. So do you want to get rid of all feminine influence? Isn’t there a good kind?” Absolutely, says I. In fact, as Providence would have it, I have a book releasing in March called Leadership and Emotional Sabotage: Resisting the Anxiety That Will Wreck Your Family, Destroy Your Church, and Ruin the World. In the second chapter, I give a brief account of the relationship between a head (in this case a husband) and the body (his wife). 

Like headship, the body’s role can be summarized in terms of internal and external dimensions.

First, the body receives the initiating presence, words, and actions of the head and refines them by providing feedback, input, and counsel to the head.

Second, the body glorifies the head’s efforts and makes them fruitful by keeping in step with the head, carrying out the head’s will, and extending and amplifying the whole body’s influence in the world.

Consider first the body’s influence on the head through feedback and counsel. This is an inescapable truth; the body will do this, for good or for ill. Adam listened to the voice of his wife, and they fell into grave evil. Nabal did not listen to the voice of his wife (Abigail), and he fell into grave evil (1 Sam. 25). A husband is the head, and he can lead his family into ruin (like Adam) or into glory (like Jesus). In a similar way, a wife is the body, and she can influence the head for misery (like Eve) or for good (like the woman in Proverbs 31).

The book of Proverbs helps us to see the crucial role of influence and counsel. The book itself is counsel from a father to a son, a king to a prince. The prince has two quests: seek wisdom, and seek an excellent wife. And so throughout the book, a double choice is before him. Listen to Lady Wisdom or to Lady Folly. Pursue the Excellent Wife or the Adulterous Woman.

The prince is a head-in-training; he will order and structure and guide and direct his kingdom. But he is not autonomous or self-sufficient; he will be influenced, one way or another. And so he must choose his influences wisely. Thus, after he hearkens to the voice of Lady Wisdom for thirty chapters, the Excellent Wife walks down the aisle in Proverbs 31. (pp. 29-30).

Wise leaders, whether in households, churches, or other institutions, will welcome the input of godly women and heed their wisdom as appropriate. 

A second reasonable question was this: “When you say that ‘faithful men struggle to resist unfaithful women,’ aren’t you blaming women for the failures of men?” I say this is a reasonable question, even though it was often overlaid with layers of mockery (“Oh, women are kryptonite to the big strong supermen? Poor babies…”). But in a blame-shifting age, questions about responsibility are generally reasonable ones. And the answer is simple: identifying a temptation in no way blames the temptation (or the tempter). Highlighting the struggle doesn’t excuse failure.

That’s why the exhortations in my article were addressed almost exclusively to men—pastors, church leaders, husbands, and fathers. The temptation to blame women for male abdication and idolatry is as old as Adam. And we must reject it, root and branch. Again, here is how I put it in the forthcoming book.

Faithful headship therefore means that you must reject all blame-shifting and excuse-making. Your wife’s sin is never an excuse for your failures. Your kids’ sin is never an excuse for your sin. You cannot say, “The woman you gave me.” You cannot say, “You know the children, how their hearts are set on evil.” You cannot say, “I feared my family, and listened to their voice.” Instead, step up to the plate and take responsibility, first for yourself and then for your family. (p. 57)

In this context, while I hope that Christian women learn to resist the temptation to manipulate and steer the men in their lives, faithful men should obey God regardless (which of course applies to women as well; the sin of men doesn’t absolve women from their culpability). 

First, take responsibility for yourself, your emotions, and your actions. Don’t shift the blame. That’s what maturity fundamentally is—taking responsibility for oneself. The immature are tossed about by winds of doctrine and storms of passion, and they always have an excuse. But mature leaders are steady, stable, and take responsibility for themselves.

This means getting clear on the nature of responsibility. The world operates according to a zero-sum notion of responsibility. If one person is 100% responsible, then everyone else must have zero responsibility. If one person’s responsibility increases, then everyone else’s must necessarily decrease by the same amount. Such a mentality fuels blame-shifting, since we believe that the sin of other people excuses our own. But this is false. We are not guilty for the sins of other people. But neither do their sins excuse ours. While other people may influence us, ultimately, we are responsible for ourselves and what God has entrusted to us. (p. 46)

Response 3: Proving My Point

Some reactions proved my point. The most noticeable thing about criticism of the article is how little of it had to do with the substance. I wrote 3,000 words—making observations, advancing claims, and issuing exhortations. Meanwhile, an editor at American Reformer threw a picture of Perseus and Medusa in the header, and all hell broke loose. 

But, as one friend said to me, the reactions to #Medusagate were apocalyptic—that is, revealing. To be honest, when I wrote the article, I did not expect professing Christians to shout it down with cries of “Great is Medusa of the Feminists,” but here we are. Even Christian literature professors scratched their chins thoughtfully as they considered adopting Medusa as a #MeToo icon.

Now I confess that I am no Medusa expert. Many have noted that the older Greek versions of the Medusa myth, as told by Hesiod and Pindar, simply describe Medusa as a Gorgon, a female monster who turns men to stone and who is killed by Perseus. It’s the later Roman version of the story, as told by Ovid, that crafts a backstory for Medusa as a beautiful woman, violated by Neptune in Minerva’s temple, and given snakes for hair as punishment by the goddess. The ancients treated their gods, heroes, and monsters the way that we treat Spiderman, Superman, and Batman—they were constantly telling and re-telling the same stories with various twists and turns to keep things interesting. Appropriation, I think, is the modern term.

I leave all of that to be sorted by the classicists. For the present purposes, we can keep it simple. My article attacked the ideology of feminism as a cancer and Trojan horse (following Fr. Robinson), and the editors at American Reformer rightly regarded Medusa as a useful icon for that ideology. But a number of critics insisted that the true meaning of the image was “Behead All Women,” and they proceeded to light their snakes on fire. And they did this, despite their awareness of how such imagery works, as evidenced by the statue of Medusa holding Perseus’s severed head that graces the New York Criminal Court. Or the critic who insisted that the image of Perseus was a threat of violence against women while her Twitter header contained an image of a shark devouring a man identified as the “Patriarchy.” This is simply feminist Calvinball, designed to derail discussion of the dynamics underlying the pressure for female ordination by presenting oneself as under threat of male violence.

This tactic, of course, activated the white knights, who proceeded to gallop around in my mentions for the last few days. Alastair Roberts, in an excellent 2016 article on the Crisis of Discourse in the modern world, ably expounds on this phenomenon:

The opening up of the field of front line discourse to people with a non-combatant or non-manly status causes severe problems for men too. Men are naturally inclined to protect women and generally seek to please them. While men bond with their male peers through rough interactions, they do not generally do the same with women. Men spend their whole lives learning to hold themselves back in female company, learning how to pull their punches, how not to speak their full mind, how to avoid giving offence. This second nature can’t simply be put on hold, but must actively be resisted, if women are to be treated as full peers in such settings.

So many men who proclaim the equality of women instinctively resort to ‘white knighting’—rushing to women’s aid—when they see a woman being firmly challenged by a man. As C.S. Lewis once observed, ‘battles are ugly when women fight.’ Unless we are mindful in our handling of them and the men and women who are admitted to them, arguments can become ugly in such conditions too. Honour may be abandoned and matters can become bitter and personal. The eye is taken off the ball of truth and argument and men turn on other men, rather than allow another man to beat a woman. While men are expected to put themselves on the line in debate and risk significant loss, many have a visceral resistance to seeing women experience the same thing.

Roberts’s article also describes the difference between male and female competition, and in doing so, illuminates an additional aspect of the critical reaction. 

Women do have a very great deal of competition among themselves, but it is generally indirect and occurs beneath the radar. The combative form of male competition is overt and on the surface: men are rough with each other and engage in forms of ritual combat, often as a form of bonding. Women’s competition, by contrast, is largely carried out by such means as pressure to conform under the threat of social ostracization, leveraging male power to their advantage, recruiting males to attack people they dislike or rally to their aid, forming friendships or relationships with people of power or influence, gossip, cattiness, sassiness, sabotaging other people’s reputations, veiled antagonisms in friendships, etc. 

In response to the article, a number of critics adopted what might be called a containment strategy, choosing as their targets Christian leaders at mainstream institutions who commended the article (such as Denny Burk, a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and president of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). The form of the criticism was not the substance of the article, but the associations implied by the recommendation. “Denny, do you really want to be associated with Moscow and Doug Wilson? Do you really condone the violence against women suggested by the Perseus image?” The aim of such tactics is to quarantine the offending ideas in Moscow and American Reformer, to, as it were, imprison Perseus in yellow wallpaper. Again, Roberts is illuminating.

It is important that we recognize how certain prevailing forms of feminism have exploited male (protection and concern for women’s opinion) and female codes of behaviour (care, equality, empathy, etc.) to establish a context of discourse that is resistant to the operations of challenging truth. Threatening claims can be dealt with by denying the speaker a platform, by appealing to third parties for assistance in removing them, by attacking reputations and poisoning the well, by demonizing or encouraging extreme suspicion of people outside of the group, by attacking a person’s presumed tone, by characterizing all rhetorical actions as veiled and illegitimate power ploys, by getting patron parties to police the discourse so that threatening positions can’t be voiced, by using the threat of social ostracization to get people to self-censor, etc. All of these are classic feminine modes of handling social conflict.

The threat of ostracism from respectable society and the attempt to steer people by their associations are typical forms of conflict in female groups.
What’s more, they even have their place in Christian ethics. Both Paul and Jesus commanded ostracism of unrepentant sinners, and the psalmist warns us about our associations: don’t stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers (Psalm 1:1). The difference is that biblical ostracism occurs after a fair trial (not a Twitter frenzy), and the standard to be used is the word of God. Likewise, our associations ought to be guided by God’s law, and not by worldly ideologies as laundered through compromised Christians.

The result of all of these reactions is that everyone leaves feeling vindicated. I believe that the reactions to the article proved my point, while my critics are solidified in their belief that I am a misogynistic, narcissistic, abuse enabler. While this state of affairs is at one level regrettable, at another level the entire episode was clarifying.

Empathy and Critical Theory

More than that, the controversy over Medusa affords me the opportunity to extend my observations on the destructiveness of untethered empathy into a few other arenas. To start, let me make a point that perhaps even my critics will grant: Predators thrive on communities of untethered empathy. As I’ve written before, abusers are very adept at manipulating the empathy of soft-hearted people. C. S. Lewis noted that the passion of pity (his term for what we today call empathy) had maneuvered many a young woman into the backseat of a cad’s car. Abusers then manipulate them afterward into covering it up. They then count on the misguided empathy of the community to continue to cover it up. Empathy-riddled communities are ripe for abuse and cover-up. 

To take one egregious example, a recent episode of Law & Order: SVU contained a scene in which a white woman tells the cops that she won’t be pressing charges against her black rapist, because “I can afford therapy; I have that luxury.…I’ll be okay. But if that teenager goes to prison, he may not be.” As I said in the original article, untethered, pathological empathy runs beneath the various forms of critical theory, whether feminist, racial, or queer. Anne Hathaway in a recent speech at the Human Rights Campaign, made this connection explicit. After expressing her deep appreciation for the alphabet community (and not just the LGBTQ, but significantly, the P as well: “no letter left behind”), she said, 

It is important to acknowledge that, with the exception of being a cisgender male, everything about the way I was born has put me at the center of a damaging and widely accepted myth. That myth is that gayness orbits around straightness, transgender orbits around cisgender, and that all races orbit around whiteness… I appreciate this community so much because it’s where I learned to reject this myth. I appreciate this community because together we are not only going to question this myth, we’re going to destroy it.

Again, Alastair Roberts ably connects the dots between feminine social virtues, social justice and critical theories, feminist politics, and a culture of victimhood.

The social virtues that are elevated in women’s groups tend to be things like inclusion, supportiveness, empathy, care, and equality. Through his and his students’ research on the subject of ‘social justice warriors’, Jordan Peterson has identified that it refers to a real phenomenon in the world, but also suggests that it is specifically related to a maternal instinct: ‘the political landscape is being viewed through the lens of a hyper-concerned mother for her infant.’

This instinct causes all sorts of problems when expressed in an academic or political context. It infantilizes perceived victim, minority, or vulnerable groups (women, persons of colour, LGBT persons, disabled persons, etc.), perceiving them as lacking in agency and desperately in need of care and protection. When persons from such groups enter into the realm of political or academic discourse, they must be protected at all costs. Unsurprisingly, this completely undermines the manly code that formerly held, whereby anyone entering onto the field of discourse did so at their own risk, as a combatant and thereby as a legitimate target for challenge and honourable attack. The manly code calls us all to play to strength, whereas the maternal instinct calls us all radically to accommodate to weakness…

Feminist politics takes a more typically feminine form, majoring on the use of social leverage for feminist ends. If you think about it, the typical feminist political victory takes the form of persuading some other agency to do something or intervene on their behalf. It is a politics of empowerment and empowerment almost invariably rests upon the existence of some more fundamental power that acts as one’s patron and comes to your aid against other parties…

A politics of empowerment and a culture of victimhood go hand in hand. Just as the kid that bursts into tears and runs to their mother at the slightest provocation can use parental sanctions to empower them against others, so the feminist elevation of the rhetoric and ideology of victimhood serves to increase their social leverage… Exaggerated vulnerability can be exploited as a means to gain power. The term ‘crybully’ has been coined to describe such weaponized victimhood and vulnerability.

It also creates a context that radically stifles strong and independent agency. The more that we privilege dependency and reliance upon third parties to intervene, the more we will start to resemble infants and the more those parties will adopt a smothering hyper-maternalism. Unsurprisingly, in those places where feminist theories and practices are most influential—on college campuses—we encounter the most stifling and neurotically protective institutions of all. The feminist rhetoric of strength is almost invariably allied to a rhetoric of vulnerability and victimhood. 

Empathy feeds the competitive victimhood mentality that is rampant in our society. In an empathetic society, victimhood confers invulnerability. Victims (both real and imagined) must be affirmed and validated, and must not be questioned, challenged, or made to feel uncomfortable in any way, lest they be retraumatized. Moreover, they are absolved of all responsibility for their actions, and they can count on others to excuse all manner of behavior out of a misguided sense of compassion. Just think of the rationalizations offered after riots done in the name of oppressed groups. The endgame of this mentality was well expressed by a spokesman for Hamas after their brutal attack on Israeli citizens on October 7, 2023. “We are victims. Therefore nobody should blame us for the things we do…Everything we do is justified” (including, it seems, the rape and butchery of civilians).

But perhaps we can bring it closer to home and think about a different sort of monster. How did Frankenstein end up on the podium accepting the gold medal for women’s swimming (and cycling, and track, and weightlifting)? How did Frankenstein become prom queen? I’ll tell you: the boys voted for him because they thought it was hilarious. The girls did so out of empathy. How did Frankenstein end up in the girls’ locker room, showering with your thirteen-year-old daughter? Because Medusa let him in. The same people shrieking about the beheading of Medusa will insist that “trans women are women.”

Now I know that some will protest and remind me of feminist hero J. K. Rowling and other TERFs. But they are ineffective at resisting the trans-insanity because they are afflicted with the same disease. If untethered empathy rules, then deranged men and unstable women must be accommodated. Otherwise, you’re simply buying into the heteronormative, patriarchal, white myth.

The Battle We’re In

Before concluding, let me say a word to normal pastors, church leaders, husbands, and fathers. I know that this isn’t the fight that you want. You wish we lived in a day when the theological and cultural battles centered on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. And in a way they do. Beneath our battles over manhood, womanhood, the family, and sexuality is the fundamental question: who is God? Are our feelings and passions and desires God? Or is Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, the Lord of heaven and earth? So plant your flag on the Lordship of Christ.

But the presenting issues are anthropological. And the fight is with Medusa and Frankenstein (and Lilith and the Harpies and Goliath and the Cyclops and any number of other monsters spawned from the Dragon who stands behind them all). You can’t avoid it. And the enemies of God won’t fight fair. If you successfully and effectively resist the cancer of feminism, you will be called an abuser and enabler. They will do this because these are the steering labels that continue to have substantial leverage (“racist” and “misogynist” are all tuckered out). Your words will be twisted, and they will attack you based on partial knowledge of situations they haven’t a clue about. Hearsay will be enough to hang you, and the strawmen they construct will all have your face on them. They will insist that you can’t fight feminism and protect the vulnerable. 

But here’s the thing: you can. Not only that, you must. Resist Medusa (and the toxic empathy she rode in on), and protect the weak from actual predators. When horrific things happen, as they will in a fallen world and a demented culture, you can, by the grace of God, act to decisively deal with it. Call the cops. Purge the evil. Heal the wounded. Preach the gospel of free grace to all, and call them to a costly obedience.

In the meantime, teach your church and family how to cheerfully endure false accusations and slander. Rejoice when they utter falsehoods against you (while making sure the falsehoods are false). Teach your sons to honor women as the weaker vessel. Teach your daughters to resist the manipulations of flatterers, whether the men who try to bed them or the women who try to absolve them of all moral agency. Work the principles of biblical justice deep into your bones so that you don’t get swept away by the passions of the mob. Trust Christ. Grow in sober-mindedness. Act like men. Be strong. 

Retelling Myths

And finally a word to everyone. I noted earlier that humans love to tell and retell the old stories. But there are two different ways to retell the myths. One is represented by the recent Amazon Prime cartoon that presents Lucifer as a dreamer and Lilith (Adam’s first wife and the female night demon from Jewish mythology) as the real hero of the creation story. After all, she resisted the Patriarchy. In the feminist retelling, the demons, monsters, and the Princess of Hell are the real good guys. The feminist rehabilitation of Medusa is clearly in this vein.

But C. S. Lewis also retold a myth. Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. In the original, Psyche’s sisters are jealous of her marriage to Cupid and so conspire to destroy her, encouraging her to violate her husband’s command.

Lewis retells the myth from the perspective of Psyche’s older sister Orual, and eighty percent of the book is Orual’s complaint against the gods for their injustice and cruelty. For hundreds of pages, Lewis builds sympathy for Orual, the abused daughter of a cruel king, the ugly sister of a beautiful princess, the virgin Queen who veiled her ugliness and never found love. And running beneath all of Orual’s hardships lies the gods—the jealous Ungit (the barbarian Aphrodite), and her son, the god of the mountain. So far, so good, and reminiscent of Medusa’s violation by Neptune and punishment by Minerva. The empathy is real and palpable.

But then, Lewis takes a turn. The final four chapters unravel Orual’s story and reveal more than Orual (and the reader) bargained for. Yes, Orual’s father was a wicked and abusive tyrant, and she suffered much in her life. But the evil done to her doesn’t excuse her own evil—her jealousy of Psyche, her manipulation of the Fox, her covetous and possessive love of Bardia. Most importantly, it doesn’t excuse her rejection of the God of Love. She is guilty, and in the end, Orual must reckon with the fact that she is the monster; she is Ungit, swollen with self-love and self-pity, ugly, greedy, devouring, and demanding. And Ungit must be killed. As the god says to Orual, “Die before you die; there is no chance after.”

So also in the present moment. Monsters are real, and they are us. Medusa, Cerberus, Cyclops, Frankenstein—all of them must be beheaded. And Someone greater than Perseus is here. 

Image Credit: Ulysses and the Sirens. John William Waterhouse, 1891 Oil on Canvas. National Gallery, Melbourne Australia (2023, June 19). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_(Waterhouse)

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Joseph Rigney

Joseph Rigney serves as Fellow of Theology at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author of numerous books, including Courage: How the Gospel Creates Christian Fortitude (Crossway, 2023).

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