Monday, May 21, 2007

I finished up Barbara Eherenreich's and Deirdre English's For Her Own Good: A 150 Years of the Experts Advice to Women today. An interesting work of deconstruction, Ehrenreich and English sketch the rise of the "scientific" expert in American society and trace the history of the advice these experts have given women on how to be women. The authors find the problem is the unwilligness people to question the structure of society and relying on a false binary between the choices of assimilating to the norms of the culture or adjusting to life in the margins. Of course, being a theology geek, I immediately thought: well, here's a place a hearty dose of the Jesus Movement (and I'm thinking of holy vagrants, not the pseudo-Paul) could be useful.

I feel that the authors passed over the role religion and the religious "experts" have played in doling out advice to women that has trapped them in a false dichotomy between sacrificing themselves to create an oasis or giving up on morals and ethics to assimilate to the outside world. In the epilogue they touched briefly on how the neo-romantics (Phyllis Schafly, Focus on the Family, and company) have relied upon religion rather than science to justify a binary division of the genders into private women and public men. This is different from the romanticism of the previous eras which used science to add legitimacy to demand that women stay barefoot and pregnant in their kitchens. They also touch briefly on the model for God adopted by the neo-romantics, "a God who has made his peace with the consumer society" (320). Religion is a powerful force in any society, either for good or ill. Unfortunately, in America at the moment, it appears that Christianity's public image has been hijacked by people who are using it for ill.

Reconstruction is where this book, as do many in the area, falls short. Ehrenreich and English fail to offer up much in the way of a plan of action. The authors offer little in the way of suggestions as to exactly how society should begin to address the problems created by a marketplace mentality in which human beings are reduced to cogs in an assembly line. There's a clear and convincing argument that humans much change the system, but not a plan of how to change the system or even a particularly detailed vision of what the institutional structures should look like. (There's a newer edition out as of 2005, they may have added something to this effect.)

While I hardly think that Christianity or even religion is necessary for ethical action, I do think that Christian theologies that offer up a vision of what human society should be have a lot to offer in the way of reconstruction. Christian theologies from Liberation Theology to Silver Age Russian Religious philosophy are quite clear that humans aren't called to simply assimilate or "adjust" to a injust society but are called upon to improve it. And more importantly, progressive Christian theologies have something of a vision of what the world should and could become whether its called a Sophianic vision or a preferential option for the poor. Or, heck, just reading the hard sayings of Jesus seriously rather than listening to the self-proclaimed prophets of the religious right.

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