My dad grew up in Hixson (yes, that's 'hick-son'), Tennessee; descended from mountain-residers and farmers, a mixture of Scandinavian, Irish, Scottish, and possibly Native American blood. A pretty typical southerner's story.
My mom grew up in upstate New York, descended from Ohoians of ambiguous descent on one side, and Welsh-Canadian on the other.
I lived most of my life in Tennessee, in a city with a unique mixture of southern charm and east-coast cosmopolitanism. I learned to open doors for girls, but I rarely listened to country music.
I remember my first cross-cultural experience, a mission trip to the Czech Republic. We were instructed of some of the cultural norms and social graces we might need to know. One stuck out: you don't offer your seat on the subway for a young woman, but you do for an elderly person.
That was my first encounter with the idea that the way my culture 'did things,' is not the way everybody else 'did things.' And respecting and adapting and being different is okay. I began to learn from that experience that I'm actually fairly adept at adapting to different cultures. I even had a sliver of an accent when I got back.
I spent quite a bit of time with family in upstate New York over the years, and eventually went there for college. Now I live in New England. I still say 'ya'll,' but when I come home they accuse me of sounding like a Canadian.
My home culture is, and always will be, the South. But the north is a pretty important part of who I am too. I love both sweet tea, and New England fish fries. I love the warm hospitality of southern homes, and appreciate the blunt honesty of the northeastern disposition. Give me either a Chick-fil-A or a Tim Horton's, and I'm happy.
And seriously - the passive aggressive way southerners drive is ten times more dangerous and nerve-wracking to me than the straightforward aggression of the North. I'd rather be cut-off than tailed for 20 miles.
Attending an undergraduate school with a lot of missionary children we had a name for this: 'third-culture kids.' I may never have experienced the confusion and shock of moving to America after living in southeast Asia with Dutch parents. But I think I know a tiny, tiny, taste of the phenomenon.
Growing up in the South, Rush Limbaugh was on the radio regularly. He warned me often of the evils of feminism, which were to greet me in the north. There were women out there who would try to turn me into an effeminate man-child. Upstart, independent, women wanted to de-masculate me (apparently).
I moved up north and I began to hear a different side of things. Women who really didn't care if you opened doors for them (and were happy to open doors for me). Who felt strongly about having a career, or being in ministry. I certainly see where the concerns of conservatives come from, there are extreme forms of feminism that wreak havoc on both men and women. But I was blessed by knowing 'Christian feminists' who were full of grace and respect. They did not try to de-masculate me. They wanted me to be successful and mature and the best follower of Christ I could be. They also happened to not care if I opened doors for them all the time, or whether I took the initiative in relationships, etc.
I began to become more 'egalitarian' and 'feminist' in some of my disposition and opinions. And I adapted relatively well to this northern context, and its different expectations and norms. I no longer believe that women who don't want their doors open for them are ungracious or stuck-up. It's just different. And I can see how it might be patronizing to people. At the same time, I understand the grace, respect, and tradition it represents for people in the South and would challenge my northern friends to recognize how it might not be always patronizing for those who are used to it.
I have come to realize that it is helpful to think of this contrast in terms of cultural differences. That may not be the only or even the best way of thinking of these differences - there is still plenty of room to pass moral judgment on one set of customs or another (or parts of either). But it has brought me no peace to feel the compelling need to dissect and pass judgment on one or the other. To an extent. I do have my own opinions about these things. But I also realize that these are not hills (always) worth dying on. These are largely matters of culture that need to be held in proper perspective. Lobbying bombs over the mason-dixon line, accusing the other of moral turpitude, really gets us nowhere and is such a frivolous distraction from preaching the Gospel.
The Gospel challenges culture, for sure. But... some things.... just don't matter.
Now, that's not to deny there are a lot of moral issues bound up in all this. It's not to deny that many men have suffered backlash by extreme feminism (a move that does not help women or men - though to be fair, the extreme counterreaction against feminism has, under the guise of 'defending men,' made men more wimpy and more 'demasculated,' in my opinion. The extremes on either end have tended to have results in common, ironically). It's also not to deny that many (more) women have been patronized and abused. And both of these things have happened in the opposite context that you might expect, and vice versa. There is plenty of room for comparison, critique, and judgment. These things do matter. A lot.
And, to put all my cards on the table, I have tended to think more like a northerner on my opinions about gender relations and such. I still have judgments and opinions.
Personally, I think gender-inclusive language in writing, or in translating the Bible (when it comes to humans, not God), is a good idea. But I also support it for practical, cultural, missional reasons: I will not die on a hill that is not central to the Gospel. If translating the greek word adelphoi as 'brothers and sisters' (which is a perfectly fair translation) in the Bible will remove a stumbling block to the Gospel for those who might find exclusively masculine language off-putting because of their cultural background: I'm all for it. We need not change the culture into our image before sharing the Gospel no more than I need to make people learn Latin to worship God or read the Bible.
On the other hand, when I come home to the South, I remember that I will always be a southerner. At least to some degree. I still feel at home with saying 'yes ma'am' and 'yes sir,' and opening doors for women. I need not run from the culture that made me who I am. I need not turn the South into New England.
This is all a bit hard for me to admit. I'm a die-on-molehill kind of guy. It comes from a mixture of sincerity (I'm an idealist who likes to see things change for the better - er, what I think will be better), and arrogance.
Like I've said: I'm not un-opinionated about these things. But if I were a pastor in a traditional, southern, conservative context - what would I do? I struggle with it. Sure, my egalitarian principles would come out. I would be in favor of women pastors, and am part of a denomination that is usually in favor of female ordination anyhow - but would have to carefully balance conviction with culture if my congregation weren't on the same page. I hope I would keep main things the main thing. I don't need every family in my congregation to agree with me, though I would want to encourage people to consider the underlying issues of the heart that led me to my egalitarian principles: in your home, do you respect and uplift one another? Do you feel free and independent and whole, together? How can we prevent the abuse of women and become more proactive about dealing with this overly-ignored issue? Men, can you learn to have the self-confidence and the strength to not be in charge from time to time - because I believe true strength and self-confidence comes in the ability to humbly step aside (without being a doormat). I wish the John Pipers and the Mark Driscolls could join me and realize that, differences aside, we can both work together on these concerns, which are infinitely more important than who makes the decisions at home. Some things are more important than others.
I do get bugged when people accuse folks like me, who have a technically 'egalitarian' reading of the Bible of capitulating to culture. I don't think it's quite that simple. In many ways, complementarians do the same. They read their culture of male leadership and the dichotomy of homemaker vs. breadwinner (categories entirely foreign to the cultural context of the Bible) into the way they read Scripture too. In fact, I would dare suggest that I think my reading of Scripture is actually more counter-cultural than the complementerian.
But anyhow, I digress. I'm not saying all interpretations are culturally relative. Not by a long shot. But it's tricky. Culture impacts the way all of us read Scripture. There aren't any of us who are exempt from that reality. And none of us have a whole handle on the culture of the Bible, or exhaustive comprehension of what Paul is saying about the culture he's writing in. Call me a Pentecostal, but I think interpretation must rely more on the Holy Spirit and less on parsing verbs. It requires humility, and nimbleness, and a lot of God's grace. The relationship between text and culture is not easy, and we will never be able to turn it into a formula. We must rely on something more substantial: God Himself.
I was touched this week to read Mark Driscoll's apology over the way he marketed his books and artificially pushed them to best-seller status. The sincerity and grace he expressed was refreshing to me, and I began to realize that although I vehemently disagree with him on several of his favorite pet issues, he and I aren't all that different. We are both in need of a grace that is bigger than either of our sinful personalities. And we both have a temper. I was also touched to read a similar article by Rachel Held Evans, who stands on the opposite side of Driscoll on many of these gender debates. She too wrote about the strange dynamic of a public face that has a distance from her real, vulnerable, self. And her need for humility and grace.
If these two people can start speaking the same language, maybe there's hope for this rag-tag gang known as the Church.
And so I sit here in my friend's North Carolina home. Sweet tea is in the refrigerator. Later, we'll jump in his parents' car: every station will be pre-set to either Christian radio or country music. We'll pass at least two Cracker Barrels. And I may feel compelled to let a woman step in front of me in line at the burrito place. We'll come home and, over dinner, hear stories about how his mother, an emergency room doctor, limited her career to stay at home with the kids. And while my convictions lead me to hope I can have a family where my wife and I both can balance work/ministry and family, I'll receive with bated breath their treasure trove of marriage advice - because in the few days that I have known this family, this is one of the most loving and Christ-like families I have ever known and I want to learn everything I can from them.
And I think to myself: it's a big, crazy, wild, beautiful, world. And Christ plays in 10,000 places in it. And there's so little that I know.