Prairie Muffins and Asceticism

Fred Clark’s Slactivist (one of my favourite blogs) has something of a thing about Prairie Muffins
(see e.g. http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2006/06/you_aint_seen_n.html, http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2007/08/cossacks-and-pr.html)
These are a group of Christian women who have put together a manifesto
arguing for a life dedicated to homemaking and families (http://buriedtreasurebooks.com/PrairieMuffinManifesto.php).Fred admits his disdain for the group, which I suspect to him symbolises all that’s worst about right-wing Christianity. When I looked at the manifesto, many of its ideals seemed very familiar to me. It is in many ways the kind of life that my mother (a minister’s wife in rural Sussex, thousands of miles away from the prairies) would have subscribed to. It is not however, a document that she would ever have written.

To try and understand why these women are writing such a manifesto, and why some of the more peculiar demands get in to it, I go back once again to one of my current favourite books: Kate Cooper, The Virgin and the Bride. In the competition between ascetics and those Christians in traditional household living, Christian married women were particularly vulnerable. As Cooper puts it (p 126):

When obstacles barred a woman from altering the broad outline of her circumstances or actions, a greater importance was correspondingly placed in strategies of interpretation through which available experience and agency could be mined for significance and affirmation. The need for compensatory strategies of self-interpretation must have been felt especially keenly by married women, whose status and duties afforded far less opportunity to accommodate a chosen religious identity than did those of the consecrated virgin.

Wives, whose domestic responsibilities and social position meant they did not have the time or resources to take up heroic Christian roles, needed a way to feel they were not second-class Christians. As a result, a pastoral literature grew up stressing the significance that such humdrum lives could have. Such a literature, as this shows, has venerable roots and has attracted some great writers. Think of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or George Herbert’s The Elixir:

All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture–“for Thy sake”–
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.

Much of the Prairie Muffin Manifesto is a way of making sense of a life that is constrained by circumstances and may well be seen as second-best to others, even other Christians. Their family responsibilities mean that Prairie Muffins cannot go out and be missionaries, their denominations (I presume) exclude them from ordained ministry. They cannot even spend vast proportions of time in church-going, Bible study or incessant prayer without risking being accused of neglecting their husbands and families. They must find a way of holiness that is compatible with the social conventions of their world.

That seems unobjectionable enough, but there is also another side to the Prairie Muffins, which worries more liberal Christians, as well as turning the stomachs of many non-Christians. One is the emphasis on submission of wives to husbands. Another is the rejection of such authors as Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott as dangerous subversives. There is also the fact that some Prairie Muffins seemingly think that only men should have the vote. The response I’ve seen in many of the commentators on Slactivist is to conclude that these women are secretly masochists or authoritarian personalities. They wanted to be bossed around by somebody else. After reading Cooper, however, I think something more complex is going on. I think what is happening is some rather odd competitive asceticism.

One of the useful things about Cooper’s books is she doesn’t assume that Christians or women or Christian women are immune from competition and undermining each other. In theory fourth and fifth century spiritual warfare may all be about fighting the devil; in practice, there’s a lot of doing down your rivals as well, literally being holier-than-thou. In that sense, the Manifesto itself can be seen as staking out a competitive ascetic position, even as it tries to suggest it’s not doing that, by explicitly rejecting Phariseeism. (That is the big difference between what these women are doing and what previous generations did – they are proclaiming their own intentions). But modern day asceticism has to take rather different forms from the patristic period. It’s now harder to find an ascetic practice that finds at least some social admiration and is distinctively Christian. For a start, food asceticism is now the province of dieters and female celebrities. Similarly, competitive care for one’s family (I do so much for my husband/children) is not culturally distinct. (Goodness Gracious Me, the Asian TV comedy, used to have a sketch with two competitive Indian mothers, boasting about their (married) sons, which at least one time focused on how helpless their sons were and how dependent on them, culminating in one claiming something to the effect about her son being still in nappies and her changing them. You could probably do a similar sketch about Jewish mothers, Italian mothers etc.) Similarly, classic forms of sexual asceticism are effectively unavailable to modern married people. The gulf separating Western culture from its patristic roots is seen when you consider the response today if a Christian wife attempted to convert her husband to a sexless marriage or even unilaterally refused him sexual relations. (Such behaviour is admired, by contrast, in e.g. the Apocryphal Acts of Andrew).

As a result, it seems to me that a lot of modern Christian asceticism (at least in the US) focuses on visual/verbal asceticism: preventing yourself and your family from seeing or hearing something ‘ungodly’. (This avoiding of entertainments isn’t in itself new, but what is new is creating a whole new parallel world of acceptable Christian pleasures, rather than just rejecting pleasure). In this world, refusing to read Laura Ingalls Wider or something equally innocuous is an ascetic move and a competitive one. The speaker implicitly proclaims that they can see deeper and are not fooled by seeming pleasures that are in fact traps of the devil. Obedience to one’s husband, meanwhile, is a symbolic form of one of the most difficult forms of asceticism: renouncing one’s own self-will and desire to get one’s own way.

But it’s important to see that such women don’t necessarily intend submission to a husband to be masochistic. A lot of these concepts of spiritual warfare work by a kind of ju-jitsu; you use your opponent’s strengths against him. The ascetic woman who is submissive to her husband doesn’t normally want him to be cruel to her (though if he is and she submits to this patiently, she also wins). Instead, she wants to inspire him to do what she wants. So that, as the sixth century Liber ad Gregoriam (Cooper p 131) has it, addressing a Roman matron:

Show…how fastidious you are in the service of charity, how decorous in compliance to a command, so that – bound by consideration of this – [your husband] may cease to keep his own counsel and will receive your whole will as a divine pattern and will shiver at your displeasure as at sacrilege.

You will be blessed if, standing in front of the tribunal of Christ on that day [of judgement], you are able to say, “Here, Lord, is the man who you ordained should be my husband: I guided him by so great a compliance of manner that he never held out against my will…”

With this ideal of private womanly influence, even being willing to give up the vote has a perverse kind of logic. After all, the Victorian reason for not giving women the vote was precisely their role as ‘domestic tyrants’: they already decided how their husbands would vote. There is no denying that voting and political involvement generally is often spiritually disappointing: the candidates you want don’t get in, or if they do, don’t do what you’ve hoped for. If however, you remove women’s votes and you can then redefine voting success as getting your husband to vote the way you want, for some women this might be more satisfying. (It’s a stupid idea for very many reasons, but it does have that merit for such women).

Finally, there’s the question of how one might counter such women. In some ways, the most Christian thing to do may be to ignore them, or at least smile sweetly at them and then take your own spiritual path. If they think that domestic virtue is the only true path to holiness, one effective retort is to show through your own example that a holy life ‘in the world’ is possible. For those who think a more aggressive response is needed, there are always the late antique techniques for undermining one’s spiritual rivals. You could, for example, start suggesting that such women are trying to publicise their own virtue by the very act of having a manifesto. As John Cassian puts in the Conferences (Cooper p 128):

Take care not to follow the example of those, who have acquired the habit of holding forth…and because they know how to speak elegantly and with abundance on whatever subject pleases them, pass for having spiritual science to the eyes of those who have not learned how to assess their true character.

Throw in a bit from St Paul about being stumbling blocks for the weaker brethren and you’re almost there in a plausibly ‘spiritual’ counter-attack. What you don’t do, however, is simply try derision or ridicule. That is far more likely simply to convince the Prairie Muffins (or similar groups) that they are on the right track. After all, if Jesus was mocked and spurned and they are mocked and spurned, by a false syllogism, that makes them more like Jesus.

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