Gender online

Those who keep up with theological debates have probably heard about John Piper’s recent claim that reading commentaries written by women is okay because, basically, she isn’t standing in front of you. For those unfamiliar with the context in which he is making this statement, allow me to fill you in a bit . . .

Though there are people all over the continuum on the role of women in the church, they tend to sort into two primary categories: those who think women are permitted to teach in the church, and those who believe it is “unbiblical.” Like I said, there are people all over the continuum on this, so I don’t mean to create a false binary; however, the “culture wars” within Christianity tend to set up those two options as the sides from which to choose.

John Piper – a well known pastor and author – falls into the camp of those who believe women should not teach in the church. In a recent podcast, however, he states that it is permissible to read women’s commentaries on the Bible as long as the man doesn’t “feel” that he is under the authority of the woman who wrote the commentary. The woman “teaching” in this context is okay because she is not directly in front of the reader (“she’s not looking at me…”). This “phenomenon” of writing, he claims, “takes away the dimension of her female personhood.”

This is a rather problematic view.

Several bloggers/writers/commentators have already chimed in on this, so I won’t rehash a lot of those issues. Rachel Pietka – a graduate student I would very much like to get to know – discusses these ideas in light of the history of the woman’s body, referring to Lindal Buchanan’s book Regendering Delivery, which discusses how women’s thoughts were historically more acceptable long before their bodies were. For more discussion about that, I recommend reading her article. In this post, want to talk about the implications of this idea for online writing.

I am actually wondering if the internet is, in some way, a gender equalizer. Though you can often detect someone’s gender by her user name, avatar, or profile picture, the fact remains that her body is not in front of you. A portion or picture of her body, perhaps…but that bodily presence is still removed. Is it possible that some people with gender biases (because, I can admit, it might go the other way as well) might suspend some of those biases if the body is not present?

I have had a few interactions with men where the in-person interaction was quite contentious, but interactions via email were perfectly polite. I hadn’t really thought about those interactions as different in those two realms until I read Pietka’s post. This could be coincidence, of course, but the vast difference between these two types of interactions makes me wonder: is it this “removal of female personhood” that makes the difference?

What do you think? Have you noticed anything along these lines with your own online interactions?