What REALLY Went Wrong with Desiring God’s Critique of CAPTAIN MARVEL

The proverbial hornet’s nest got a solid whack with a stick when Desiring God published an article by Greg Morse entitled Behold Your Queen: The Real Conflict in Captain Marvel. When the piece was initially published, I was concerned. After further reflection, I became more concerned. And after seeing the angry, hurt, and incredulous responses from many women I know, I became deeply concerned.

That concern turned into a lengthy written response, divided into two separate blog posts (here and here). I laid out what I believed were four problematic components of the article.

Because of the great respect I have for those at Desiring God, I personally reached out to Mr. Morse and shared my concerns. He thanked me for contacting him directly, and even offered to schedule a video chat for further discussion.

We were finally able to participate in that video chat just over a week ago. During our conversation (which he opened and closed with earnest prayer), Morse displayed a depth of humility that challenged my own lack thereof. He never actively sought to defend his rhetoric. On the contrary, he had printed out both my articles, read through them carefully, and prepared several questions to better understand where I was coming from. He expressed a genuine desire to better discern how the arrow of his message might have missed its intended target.

In the end, our conversation confirmed what I had written earlier: “If Greg Morse and I were to sit down and have an in-depth talk about our worldviews, my guess is that we would agree far more often than we disagree.”

That is exactly what ended up happening, and it created a need for me to write a follow-up piece. Hence, this blog post. I wish both to modify my critiques and help clarify Morse’s initial intentions.

THE FEMINIST “WARTIME MENTALITY”

Morse had a narrow and specific subject in mind when critiquing Captain Marvel: women fighting in the military. That was his one and only target. Not all superhero movies starring women. Not an imaginary need for Marvel movies to follow a Disney princess template. Just the issue of women on the front lines of combat.

While women and men are equal in dignity and worth, there are very realand sometimes pronounceddifferences between the sexes that we ignore to our individual and collective detriment. Ignoring those differences as it pertains to the battlefield was the concern Morse specifically had in his article.

About halfway through his Captain Marvel piece, Morse wrote this:

Unquestionably, men ought support women’s desires to be affirmed, respected, and honored. But indeed, few actions display our resolve to honor our women more than excluding them from the carnage of the battlefield. Where can we more clearly display our ultimate resolve to love our women as queens than to step into hell on earth as sacrificial pawns in their defense? Generation after generation has mobilized its men to be devoured — that its women might not be.

Later, he added, “Protecting our women with our very lives is not about their competency, but their value.”

One might disagree with Morse’s conclusions about women in combat, and how we as a society can best honor women who desire to serve in the military. One might even profess Scriptural grounds for disagreeing with Morse. In any case, Morse’s intention was to address one narrow topic of feminist thought. Because this intention wasn’t made more clearly, the article came across more like a rhetorical shotgun shell (with a lot of collateral damage) rather than a bullet shell (with a single and specific focus).

OF KNIGHTS AND FAIR DISNEY MAIDENS

In support of his thesis, Morse invoked the example of Disney princesses from decades passed. He mourned how our society has abandoned the “traditional princess vibe.” He wrote, “How far we’ve come since the days when we sought to protect and cherish our women.”

This comparison led many readers—myself included—to assume that Morse was wistfully longing for the “good old days” when things were ostensibly better. It seemed to me like a kind of chronological snobbery (i.e., thinking the past is inherently better and more virtuous than the present).

Morse emphatically denied this interpretation in a follow-up article:

[Is] the ideal of biblical women to be found in 1950s classic Disney movies?

My response to these dear saints [asking the question]: Unequivocally no.

I appreciated this follow-up article (even if it was only tangentially related to the Captain Marvel piece). It extolled the value and virtue of femininity, and it gave a better picture of just how much Morse loves and cherishes the women in his life—and how much he respects women in general. At the same time, the piece almost seemed to be written by a different person. The tension between the apparently contradictory points of his two articles was still palpable.

In my conversation with Morse about his original article, I learned that his lament about “the days when we sought to protect and cherish our women” was, once again, designed for specific application: the realm of the military. It was not designed as a blanket statement about the 1950s in general. Unfortunately, this wasn’t completely clear, and the ambiguity insinuated many negative implications that Morse did not intend.

If anything, the Disney princess references served only to muddle Morse’s message. I think a large amount of the confusion would have been cleared up if such references had been completely eliminated.

STICKS, STONES, AND WORDS

This whole situation has been a sobering reminder to me of the power of words. And I’m not even primarily thinking about the words of others. I’m thinking about my own use of words.

In fact, I’m thinking about my original critique of Greg Morse’s piece. One phrase I harped on was “How far we’ve come since the days of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White”—a phrase Morse edited out because he realized it was hurting, and not helping, his point. And yet, because it proved an easier target, I resurrected it just so I could chop its zombie head off and kill it again.

There have been times when I have slightly altered the wording of one of my blog posts in order to eliminate needlessly controversial rhetoric. Would I like it if someone came along and critiqued one of those articles, based primarily on the language I had excised? No, I would not. Such an approach would be uncharitable.

Providing truly constructive, and truly Christlike, criticism necessitates the most charitable stance toward the one being criticized. By going for the easier kill, I strayed from that goal. As a professing follower of Christ, I must design my words, not to serve as a shortcut to my desired rhetorical destination, but to serve as a means of grace for my readers—both those who may agree with me and those who may not.

I will leave my original critiques as they are (with the exception of a note on each entry directing them to this blog post) because I believe Morse’s article, as it stands, deserves pushback. As a secondary reason, the articles stand as a reminder that I need to be more careful and gracious in structuring my own words while evaluating the structure of someone else’s words.

Yes, our words matter. They have the power to impart grace to others, and to impart confusion and carelessness. With this power comes great responsibility.

My prayer for myself, and for Greg Morse, and for anyone else with a public platform, large or small, is that we can write clearly and compassionately, for the good of our neighbor and the glory of God.

photo credit: DAVID HOLT via flickr, CC

Comments

Christina Jones said…
I know that many people read Mr. Morse's article and were deeply offended, and I'm willing to believe that he could have been clearer and avoided much of that outrage. But for the record, I am at least one woman who read the article and was not offended, hurt, or insulted. Nor was I very impressed with his article (I felt like he could have fleshed his ideas out better. Perhaps a single blog post was the wrong format?). But I can't help wondering if at least some of the drama surrounding this article didn't have anything to do with his rhetoric at all. Perhaps it is because even the [American] church has begun to deny differences between gender and assume that anyone who reinforces them is a terrible sexist? For example, these days, if you promote complementarian marriage over egalitarian, you have already angered half (or more) of your audience. If you raise your daughters differently than your sons, you are reinforcing terrible gender stereotypes. So, if you try to 'keep women out' of a sphere historically given to men, even for the sake of -saving their lives-, people are going to be insulted and angry.

At any rate, I appreciate that you took the time to talk to him in person and also to admit your own room for growth. Everyone wants to be the victim on the internet, so as Christians we have to be -very- careful about who we defend and why. Sometimes the loudest protesters are not actually the real victims; the victim might be the person who dared to stand up against the cultural wave and ask hard questions, while assuming that this country still values free speech and debate in the public sphere. But I'll get off my soap box now...
Cap Stewart said…
Indeed, complementarianism is inherently controversial in our current cultural climate. If Morse had been more clear about his intended target, and if he had eliminated the Disney princess references and avoided the unintentional implications, people would have still taken issue with it. My main problem with the article as it now stands isn't that it's controversial, but that it's needlessly controversial.