In the hyper-WEIRD culture of a girls’ grammar school any notion of submission is not readily received. I gave the example of Christ submitting to Mary & Joseph (Luke 2:51) as evidence that ‘submit’ does not mean ‘inferior’ and tried to begin exploring how our western assumptions create cultural issues for us to navigate when picking a way through subjects like these. I didn’t make much progress. I didn’t have much time.
A few days later some friends from Istanbul came to visit. Ruth is an artist, learning the Turkish craft of decorating ceramic tiles. She described attending a ceramics conference at which a celebrated artist began her presentation with a dedication to the master craftsman who had instructed her. It was her submission to her teacher that gave this artist her credibility – just as it had been her teachers submission to his master that had given him credibility, and so on back through the generations.
The contrast between the world of Turkish ceramic art and my daughters’ school was illuminating. In one context submission is seen as wholly negative: it is experienced as restricting, patronising, and oppressive. In another it is positive: experienced as freeing, empowering and validating.
It should be possible to see the truth in both these positions – that submitting to someone can mean being placed in an abusive situation; and that submitting to someone can mean receiving prestige. It could also be observed that one response is much more focussed on the individual while the other is more concerned with the integrity of a wider community; in turn, each of those responses carry strengths and weaknesses.
But what I found most helpful is to see again that what we in the West tend to unthinkingly regard as ‘normal’ and morally correct ain’t necessarily so. So it is no surprise if when we turn to the non-WEIRD world of the Bible there are things that appear toxic to us. It may be that they are not actually poisonous, but they will probably take longer to chew through than is possible in ten minutes during a school lunch break. The question is, will we submit ourselves to this?!