No more boys and girls: they’re not good enough apparently.

symbol-male-and-female-mdOn the BBC recently there was a two-part programme entitled “No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?” (Still available on the iPlayer at the time of writing). I watched both parts, and the programme was both intriguing and annoying in about equal measure.

The basic premise of the programme is not a new one: we have long debated the most important factor in children’s development – nature or nurture. It’s not clear what is nature (i.e. inbuilt, genetic) and what is nurture (i.e. down to the way that you were brought up, environment etc.) Everyone agrees that both are factors, but there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on exactly how important they are.

This programme took a fairly strong line on ‘nurture’: basically it took the view that men and women were essentially the same, except for a few basic biological differences. In particular, it claimed that male and female brains were the same. The only difference which exists between boys and girls is because they are socialised that way – i.e. they are brought up in different ways. For example, boys don’t have superior spatial skills because of genetics (nature) – they are just given Lego to play with (nurture) and it develops those skills.

The programme tested the hypothesis by trying to make a ‘gender neutral’ classroom, where boys and girls were treated in exactly the same way.

I don’t know where to start with all of this, to be honest.

The biggest question to my mind was simply this: what rationale was given for the whole experiment?

The surface reason was, of course, equality: boys and girls, men and women, should have equality. But no justification of this was given, except for a brief discussion with neuroscientist Gina Rippon about the difference (or lack thereof) between male and female brains. It just seemed to be assumed that girls doing stereotypically ‘girly’ things and boys doing stereotypical ‘boyish’ things was not good enough. If you believed the programme, both boys and girls should be doing the same things – biological sex should simply not count for anything. There was no discussion about equality and how that might work out in this situation.

We are now living in an age where ‘equality’ is paramount. Everything has to be equal – so much so that when same-sex marriage was described as ‘equal marriage’ I suspect it won many supporters. Who wants to be anti-equality, after all? But when the drive for equality overrides even the ability to process fairly common sense observations, it’s all got a bit silly.

A few weeks ago, at the beginning of August, James Damore – senior software engineer at Google – was fired for writing an “anti-equality” memo (you can read it online here). James Damore is a smart guy – he has a PhD in biology – and although the memo was not perfect, the science was basically right (see the response of four scientists here, and a comprehensive review of the science here).

One of the best articles I read in response to the firing was by Ross Douthat. Douthat is a commentator who is often insightful and well worth reading, and this is no exception. He says this:

This growing difference seems to be a striking aspect of modern Western life. In societies where both sexes have greater freedom — and women have more educational and professional opportunities relative to men than in the past — the sexes’ academic interests tend to diverge relative to more traditional societies. And not only their interests but their personalities as well: The more officially egalitarian a society, a credible body of research suggests, the stronger the differences in stereotypically male and female personality traits.

Take a second to think about that: the more officially egalitarian a society, the stronger the differences between male and female interests and personality traits. The harder a society tries to be egalitarian, the less egalitarian it becomes. I find this fascinating, because it goes against pretty much everything that we instinctively believe about equality. I wonder if the problem is that the more ‘gender-neutral’ a society becomes, the more confused men and women are going to be and the more men and women are going to go to the extremes in order to feel secure (or, perhaps, the more people are going to identify as transgender. But that’s another story). When you eliminate traditional male and female roles, how are men and women going to express their identity as men and women?

Douthat goes on:

But since the usual way to reintegrate the sexes is to have them marry one another and raise kids, what Silicon Valley probably needs right now more than either workplace anti-microaggression training or an alt-right underground is a basic friendliness to family, pregnancy and child rearing.

I think he’s hit the nail on the head here. The elephant in the room when it comes to the difference between the sexes is reproduction – and it’s notable how often it is left out of these discussions. Many of those young boys and girls in the BBC show will go on to become fathers and mothers at some point in their lives. Is that of no significance? Is the traditional role of a mother – caring for and nurturing children – valueless now?

During one of our recent general elections (we’ve had so many…) my wife – currently a stay-at-home mum – said that she didn’t feel valued: there was so much  focus on everyone who is able going out to work, where was the commendation for mums (or dads, for that matter) who stay at home to look after the children? Where did any of the political parties come out and say “we value those who raise the next generation”?

One of the privileges of my job is being able to talk to a lot of different people about their lives. As it turns out I’ve spent quite a bit of time chatting to young mums – either through our toddler group or baptism preparation. What I find interesting is that there is a common theme: the mums, by and large, although they may have to work, generally do not want to – most of those I’ve spoken to say they would prefer to be with the children. I have yet to meet a dad who has told me that they would love to be with the kids all day except they have to be out at work.

Equality is a good thing, for sure. I think everyone should have the opportunity to do what they want to do. But, for that same reason, isn’t it wrong to basically be telling children that traditional male and female roles are not just unequal but wrong? Should we be telling them that the only value that society sets on them is as a worker, and the only achievements to be celebrated are academic ones?

I wonder whether creating a ‘gender-neutral’ classroom is actually going to hinder rather than help things. Personally I have found it very helpful in my own life to actually acknowledge differences between the sexes and to recognise the ways that men and women complement and relate to each other. It feels like I am now working with the grain of the universe, rather than against it.

As a Christian, I don’t think this is surprising: being created male and female is there at the beginning, it’s one of the most fundamental things you can say about us as embodied creatures. If you make a classroom ‘gender neutral’, you will not eliminate gender; and, in fact, I believe it will create far more problems as children struggle to work out their identity. This doesn’t mean that equality is not a laudable goal to have, rather that equality of opportunity needs to recognise that boys and girls, men and women might want slightly different things and that is OK. It’s not just OK, it’s good.

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The Night Manager…

p03g1npqI’ve really been enjoying watching the BBC’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John Le Carré. Now it’s finished I will feel bereft on a Sunday night! I thought it was a brilliant, compelling piece of TV and I loved watching it.

That said, I do have a couple of questions – to do with the TV series, I haven’t read the book (although I probably should). Readers should note this will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it read on at your own risk.

1. Jonathan Pine is far too … nice. It just didn’t feel right to me. Hugh Laurie plays Richard Roper very well, I think – you feel that beneath the velvet glove there is an iron first. Roper is a dangerous man and I think that comes across perfectly. Tom Hiddleston just made Pine too much of a likeable, nice guy – the way he smiled and laughed, it just seemed such a contrast to the person he was supposed to be. I hope I wasn’t the only person to be thinking this!

2. Pine killed two people while he was on Roper’s team. He didn’t seem to have any compunction about killing. He also didn’t seem too bothered about dying – as he told Angela, “I was living a half life”. So – why didn’t he just kill Roper? Yes, it would have been likely suicidal – but I’m sure there would have been an opportunity to shoot him and run. Why chance it? Why put all that effort into a complicated plan which may or may not work when you could have just killed the guy?

I guess there is always the danger that the organisation would continue with someone else, but I think it would be pretty unlikely if the main guy was taken out. If you’re prepared to kill anyway, and you’re not too worried about dying, this just seems the most logical option to me.

Either way, this whole thing raised the issue of morality and at what point it’s right to do the wrong thing to prevent another wrong thing from happening – but that’s far too big an issue to deal with now!

3. I enjoyed the resolution in the last episode, but as I’ve thought about it the ending is less satisfactory. Halo wasn’t brought to justice, he got away with it, and the corruption in the government wasn’t dealt with. We don’t know exactly what happened to Roper but it looked to me like he was going to be killed by the shady types who were buying his weapons.

I just feel that the conclusion was a little less comfortable than I would have liked – not that this is a criticism as such, but it’s thought provoking.

All in all, a really good series and perhaps the book will shed light on some of these questions…

Brief Thoughts on Sherlock series 3

The latest series of Sherlock aired its last episode on Sunday night. I really enjoyed the first two series (i.e. I think it’s one of the best things the BBC have done in the past few years, perfect cast and tone), so this was something I was eagerly anticipating. However… after a few days I’m still not sure what to make of it. I mean, let’s be clear, the series had some genius moments (loved meeting Sherlock’s parents in the first episode, or the game Mycroft and Sherlock are playing, for example). And it was all tremendously clever. But I feel that something fundamental had changed and just wasn’t there.

This article on the Huffington Post goes some way to explaining the problems I have with the third series. I don’t agree with all of it, but I think Kate Rose pretty much hits the nail on the head when she talks about some of the fundamental changes which seem to have happened between series two and three.

  • One of the things people noted about S3 was it felt a bit like fan fiction. (Sherlock, if you didn’t know, has a massive fan fiction community). To me, I thought there were just a few too many nods to fan fiction – especially including a group of characters in the first episode who came up with theories about how Sherlock survived (I mean, is that meta or what?)
  • S3 seemed to focus more on Sherlock’s character and its development. In some ways this was a good thing, but in others I felt like they overplayed it to the detriment of Sherlock’s raison d’etre: Sherlock as the aloof, high-functioning sociopath who … detects things. I mean, what did Sherlock really do in this entire series which only he could do? The first episode, he was virtually irrelevant to the bomb plot. The second episode he did deduce more, but I still felt like it wasn’t the same as the previous two (although the episode itself was probably my favourite of the three, despite moving at a snail’s pace sometimes). The third episode… well, again, not much deducing going on.
  • This is the thing: the previous episodes have had some mystery which only Sherlock could solve as the primary driver behind the events in each episode – S3 seemed to go some way away from this. Each episode felt more fragmented and fractured, trying to tie all the pieces together.
  • There was no real overarching plot (well, villain), unless you count the very end of the first episode. That’s what I loved about the first two series – both of them built up to a finale. In S3, the finale seemed to be more of a whimper.

It was still good TV, and I do appreciate that with the expectations riding on the series it was almost doomed not to live up to expectations. Still, these are just my feelings at the moment. I should probably go watch it again, just to make sure…

Merlin vs God

Have you been watching the BBC Series ‘Merlin’? Mrs Phil and I have been watching it virtually since the beginning, and very much enjoy it. It’s silly, it’s a bit of fun, but it has some great moments in it.

Obviously the programme has its flaws… as someone pointed out the other day, for a show which is supposed to be about Merlin – at the end of five series he’s still in the same position, whereas all the other characters have grown and developed. It’s also frustratingly contradictory at times, and this is something I want to pick up on today: what does Merlin (the show, not the character) say about God?

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Rev: The Rev-iew

Rev-iew. Rev review. Did you see what I did there? Hahahaha!

*ahem* Sorry.

The BBC series ‘Rev’ finished its second series on Tuesday with a Christmas special (although, as the character Nigel pointed out in the show, technically it’s not Christmas until Christmas day: it’s ‘Advent’ until then…) The series as a whole was well written, witty, and very moving in places. It also had some real moments of warmth between the characters – they were believable and I felt myself rooting for them. Essentially, the show was everything I think a sitcom ought to be.

But… but… there was something about the series which annoyed me. It irked me. It got under my skin and made me feel somewhat uncomfortable watching it. That element was there in the last series (see my review of series one on Crossring), but seems to have developed in this series. I’m not entirely sure why that is – possibly because I now am actually training to basically do Adam Smallbone’s [the vicar in Rev] job, it puts what Adam does into sharper focus. I’ve been thinking a lot about what my ministry would look like in the future, and comparing it with Adam’s it seems there are things missing from his ministry which I would like there to be in mine.

Last week, I attended an ordinand’s evening put on by Chelmsford Diocese (an ordinand is someone who is training to be ordained but isn’t yet). I got into a discussion with the Archdeacon of Southend about Rev – I said that I thought it was clear that the show was written by someone who didn’t really believe, because I didn’t feel like God was really working. The Archdeacon very much disagreed. His view was that Adam being there at the end, still pressing on as a vicar, meant that God was working: I think the Archdeacon saw a lot of churches like those in Rev, and basically Rev was much more of a documentary than a comedy! I’ve been reflecting on this over the past week, and I think my thoughts are now a little bit more clear.

I’m not entirely sure I can put into words exactly what I feel, but I think it boils down to the fact that neither Adam’s life or his ministry are characterised by the gospel. Let me try to explain what I mean by that.

Firstly, Adam’s life: I think the writer took so much trouble to paint a picture of Adam as an ordinary person that he just comes across as someone who is no different at all from ‘the world’, in Biblical language. The Bible often makes a distinction between those who follow Christ and ‘the world’ – see, for example, John 17 (e.g. v14 ‘I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.’)

Adam, on the other hand, smokes, drinks, and has outbursts like the one he has at church in the Christmas episode. I just feel a bit uncomfortable with that – although vicars are Christians like everyone else, sinners like everyone else, I would have just liked to see his life a bit more characterised by the gospel. As Paul puts it ‘… I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received’ (Ephesians 4:1). I’m not entirely sure I saw the holiness in Adam which I would like to see in any Christian, and particularly a minister of religion.

I do recognise, by the way, that vicars are people and have flaws, a characteristic of being human. I suppose the problem is at no point does he really seem to acknowledge that and confess that it is only by God’s grace that he can continue.

Any kind of Christian ministry is hard, and being a vicar especially can be tough, but his life just doesn’t seem to be characterised by the joy that comes of knowing God’s grace.

Which brings me to the second point – the fact that his ministry is not characterised by the gospel. He seems to have very little idea of what he is actually there for – what his role is all about. He says in Episode 5 “What is charity? … that’s giving alms, but I feel like I’m called upon to do more.” The thing is, I believe the ‘more’ he is called upon to do is to bring people into contact with the living God.

He just seems to have a very vague, generalised picture of his ministry as doing things which are basically Christian – such as visiting the sick, conducting church services, helping people practically – without anything which would give those things some weight. For example, in Episode 3 his friend Joan – an elderly lady – asks him if God will forgive her for some of the bad things she’s done. All he says is, “I think God will forgive you.” Sure, but on what basis? Why does God forgive? Is there anything that Joan needs to do?! I want him to answer those questions too!

In Episode 4 he is asked the question by one of the school children, “Do Muslims go to heaven?” And he says, “Yes, if they follow the five pillars of Islam.” Now I don’t want to get into the question of what happens to people who are from other religions, but I don’t know whether that would be an acceptable answer. If he honestly believes that people from other religions all go to their heaven, what is he doing there as a vicar? What is his role? It just seems that being a vicar in a Christian church demands we take the claims of Christ’s uniqueness seriously (e.g. John 14:6, “no one comes to the Father except through me”). If anyone goes to heaven it is because of God’s grace displayed in Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Essentially Adam’s work becomes reduced to going around trying to be a helpful person and offering a few platitudes here and there to do with God when people are feeling down. But they’re OK really – everyone will be saved in the end, except for perhaps a few really nasty people who don’t deserve it. I wouldn’t say that Adam was a universalist (i.e. believes that everyone will be saved) but practically speaking he seems to have no real motivation for evangelism.

Now the problem with all this is that I do realise there are different ways of looking at ‘Rev’ (see, for example, Grace and Truth in Rev – thanks @simonlucas). And, of course, it is ‘only a sitcom’… but it is apparently more based on real life than I imagined – viz my conversation with the Archdeacon.

The key thing is that when I look round the world and see people like those portrayed in Rev – ordinary people, ordinary lives – it seems to me (from my reading of Scripture) that their greatest needs are not physical but spiritual: they need to be brought into the Kingdom of God, and have their lives touched by the gospel. This is what I will strive for in any future ministry I will be involved with. And I just don’t see that happening in Rev: Adam Smallbone doesn’t have any good news.