Men Explain Things to Me: A History
I’ve been interested in the ins and outs of theology since I can remember. When I accepted Christ into my heart for the first time, I was five years old and I’d heard a story at church about the Rapture and I didn’t know if Jesus would come back to the United States because those maps in the Bible of where Jesus lived were all places very far away. When I was in high school youth group, we occasionally did “debates” on philosophical theological issues, as a way of exercising our developing spirituality. People would proclaim that whatever team had me had an unfair advantage, because I was practiced in debate and logic and analysis.
In my theology and philosophy major during undergrad, my nights were filled with ongoing debates about the nuances of Calvinist theology and plain readings of Scripture – as they are for anyone who is attending a Christian college. I developed a recognizably dismissive attitude toward men during this period, though I was never really able to pin down why. I just knew that I didn’t react well to jokes about my theological education and my place in the church, and the men in my life were the type to make these kinds of jokes.
The debate, in my mind, was pretty well settled. While I believed a lot of things about gender roles and dating and purity, I never wavered in my acceptance of women as pastors. I knew I didn’t want to be one, but I knew my friends shouldn’t be turned away from jobs they were called to because of who they were. So I wouldn’t tolerate the debate, no matter how much men tried to engage me on the topic.
In graduate school, I spent most of my two years suffering from imposter syndrome, wondering what I was even doing there when I was had a theology degree and wasn’t really interested in any literature produced before 1920. And yet, even on things I knew and knew well, I found that my male classmates insisted they knew better. During a semester in which I was taking an overload of classes so that I could take my independent study in the summer, I had a class where we were reading a book a week. I began strategically skipping books on weeks where my workload in other classes and in my assistantship was more important (when conference papers were due or when I had conference travel planned).
My male classmates tried to explain to me why this was a bad idea – why taking care of myself would eventually cause the demise of my academic career. “When you take your comprehensives at the end of your Master’s, you’re going to have to review all those books anyway…”
But I wasn’t taking comprehensive tests. I was thesis track. All that matter for my degree was that I passed my classes and that I wrote a solid thesis that could make it through defense. I knew exactly what I was doing, and yet, I got this “explanation” of why my strategy for balancing my workload was a bad idea. It didn’t matter to them that I was smart enough to plan out my academic path and graduate in two years instead of the seemingly traditional two and a half. I wasn’t following the path they knew for themselves, and so I was somehow deserving of condescending explanations of my own decisions to me.
As I’ve grown into a full-fledged writer and theologian, such explanations seem to come at a record pace. My very existence as a woman working within the theological realm seems to be a beacon for churchy men who’ve never actually taken a theology class to explain the ins and outs of my own theology to me. About once a day, I get a man replying to me on a social media channel explaining the very thing I just said. These comments don’t actually add to the conversation – they’re more like a very annoying parrot repeating my own words back to me in a loud squawk.
And yet, this kind of parroting and mimicry seems to convince a lot of men that they’re actually contributing to the conversation. What’s really happening, however, is a conditioned re-asserting of a power over a woman. Men – especially men who consider themselves smart and expert in their field – often feel subtly threatened by women who aren’t afraid to be intelligent. Over the years, I’ve received numerous well-meaning but ultimately mean emails from men who wanted me to slow my roll around discussions and the contributions I bring to them. “Stop being so smart” is the underlying message behind this mansplaining; stop knowing more than me.
Once I realized what was happening, it made the mansplaining far easier to deal with. Such reactions and responses extend from a fundamental insecurity and socially conditioning sexism. Even today, in 2015, a lot of men in the church are conditioned to view women as less knowledgeable, less aware of the intricacies of theology than men are. Gendered theologies like those produced by John Piper and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood reinforce this gendered approach. We’re trained to think women are lesser beings, and even when we’re more “enlightened” through progressive liberation, we still engage in the coded and conditioned behavior.
Such reflexive behavior can only really be curbed by actively and consciously asking yourself, every time you’re about to say something, whether or not it actually contributes to a conversation. “Am I just repeating or rephrasing something? Am I adding something new?” Not all of our thoughts are gems. Not everything we say – especially as men speaking to women – is relevant or even close to original. Put yourself in the shoes of the listener. Ask yourself if your voice is really needed here. If the answer’s no, move your hands from the keyboard and just listen.