For Christians the prototypes of Adam and Eve establish a foundational narrative for gender identity, but does this make it any easier to determine what is intuitively masculine and feminine?
Whether or not you affirm a literal Adam and Eve you likely agree that their role in Scripture has something to do with establishing the “norm” of gender distinction and gender identity. Male and female are different. There is much that is shared, but at a very basic level we are different biologically. It is from this difference that we humans construct gender distinction through cultural expressions. And while many cultures share similar traits it is hard to find many things that transcend cultures and epochs as universal “masculine” or “feminine” traits.
In Scripture the Apostle Paul seems to argue that head-coverings or possibly uncut hair are norms taught to us by nature (unless he is quoting something said by the Corinthians as some argue). He writes that nature itself teaches us that men should have short hair and women long hair, but does it (οὐδὲ ἡ φύσις αὐτὴ διδάσκει ὑμᾶς ὅτι ἀνὴρ μὲν ἐὰν κομᾷ, ἀτιμία αὐτῷ ἐστιν, γυνὴ δὲ ἐὰν κομᾷ, δόξα αὐτῇ ἐστιν; ὅτι ἡ κόμη ἀντὶ περιβολαίουδέδοται, 1 Corinthians 11.14-15)? What if Paul would have encountered people groups in Africa or modern women in the United States? Why don’t they seem aware of this?
What may seem obviously masculine or obviously feminine in one culture is not so in another. There was a time when it was masculine to join the army and go to war. Women and children remained behind, likely because one man can produce many children, but every pregnancy requires an individual woman, so we humans learned that our survival allows for many men to expire, but not many women. For various reasons this is not a convincing argument for preventing a woman from joining the United States Army. What changed?
If you’ve read anything from people like Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, et al., you realize that there are many male Christian leaders and thinkers who are concerned with the changes they see in culture. Often they appeal to a “biblical manhood” that looks more like something you’d see on Mad Men than first century Galilee or ancient Israel (remember: the “Proverbs 31 woman” is an entrepreneurial figure who works, does business, does politics, and finds herself fully integrated into ancient Israelite society…she is no Betty Draper)!
I sense that Christians are quite confused at this juncture in the history of western society. We are transitioning out of the industrial age, many men seeing their manual labor jobs given to machines, and many more women are entering the workforce (rightfully so). I know of some youth pastors who say that it is difficult to know how to teach young men how to embrace and express their maleness. I assume this is why some of the aforementioned folk gravitate toward expressions of gender from a more black-and-white era. Yet anyone who knows anything about the 50’s and 60’s is very, very aware that it was unfair to both men and women. Women weren’t allowed to fulfill their full potential as humans and neither were men who were taught that their role was that of a “bread winner” whose sole job was to “provide.” Many of these men found themselves retired as strangers to their wife and children. Many of these women found themselves experiencing an existential crisis realizing that there is more to life than reproducing and washing dishes (though there is nothing wrong with those tasks, obviously, there is more to being a woman than those things).
So returning to a “golden age” to recover “the way we never were” (as sociologist Stephanie Coontz describes it) is not the best idea in my estimation, nor a realistic one.
Yet (!) we know as men and women we are different, even if it is at a very basic, minimal level. What does it mean to create and maintain healthy gender distinctions so that people can develop a gender identity? Surely it has nothing to do with boys wearing blue and girls wearing pink or boys playing with trucks while girls play with dolls. This is inculturation, whether good, bad, or neutral. It has little to nothing to do with being ontologically male or female. If a girl wants to play baseball and a boy wants to be a pastry chef we know this is fine, even if there are gender stereotypes associated with them. A boy can do ballet while retaining a masculine identity. A girl can joined the armed forces while retaining a feminine identity.
So what does it mean to be made in the image of God–male and female? What makes masculinity and femininity? What role does culture have in establishing norms and how to we avoid “othering” people who don’t align to our superficial stereotypes?
I think what makes masculinity and femininity is all going to depend on how this is defined—are we talking biological or cultural (gender roles/expectations)? Biologically, there are obvious differences; but culturally, that definition is quite diverse. Most of what I’ve seen folks like Mark Driscoll posit, comes right out of the 50s, which seems to have its influence from Victorian era middle-class values. I watched a video once where Driscoll believed that the Bible mandated women to stay at home, and men must be the providers lest they be worse than sinners! This of course fails to take into consideration the historical context of the New Testament and its reflection of Roman culture (he posited that we live in a perverted culture, failing of course to take into consideration the culture of the Bible). Women for example, were responsible for the slaves and household virtues (at least for aristocratic women (patrician)…whom coincidentally were the ‘ideal Roman women’). As far as the plebeians (lower classes); well, those women were working just as hard as the men. There are cases of women gladiators/athletes—and I would say that lower-class women, at least in some regard were more free (they could for example, pick their own husbands, and work a various assortment of jobs). The aristocratic women were usually married via political deals and agreements, and were expected (at least on paper) to uphold the Roman virtues of sexual fidelity and respectability—male children were a must as well. More could be said of course, but I think taking in those considerations while reading the Bible, we begin to make sense of the context. Another problem that I noticed in Driscoll’s case, is his not actually putting the verses he used into context.
Indeed, Driscoll and others are very blind to their own contextualized approach to gender. He ignores the plight of the lower class who cannot survive with one income. In fact, many in the middle class cannot survive with one income. In many circumstances women have more earning power (my wife has always made more than me since she works in banking while I have been in non-profit/education). It would be asinine for me to tell her to stay home because of her gender.
Also, it is impossible for me to take the pastor of a mega church seriously. He likely has a good income. He is taken care of. I disagree with him in principle about women, but his blindness to his own situation in comparison with others makes it seem even more insensitive.
These questions deserve more thought than I can give at this point, but I think within our answers to each one, we might also have to come to accept ourselves (whether or not it aligns with what others think) as we are. I think all of us can feel anxious and afraid when we sense that we don’t belong. The question we seem to wrestle with is whether to conform or not to the status quo of our given culture. If conforming means we deny a part of ourselves that seems to be “natural” to who we are, is that really healthy? There are parts of who I am that “fit” within certain societal expectations and those that don’t. I am slowly beginning to accept that, knowing that culture, familial background, spiritual beliefs, etc. all influence my views. Gender is clearly one that plays a huge role in all our lives, but how much should it? The unique pattern of our lives includes gender, but also many other aspects of personhood. As we come to define gender, I believe we must remember it is one part, and not the sum.
You bring up how to avoid “othering” people. Perhaps we can begin to do this by truly listening to the deep desires and dreams of others. Our own views might or might not change in the process, yet I believe the only way to know the truth is to listen.
I was a bit surprised when I saw a short article by Michael Horton this morning about ‘muscular Christianity’. He took several of Piper and Driscoll’s statements and pretty well showed that they are quite wrong (although maintained a basically conservative approach to gender roles.) Overall it is a move in the right direction by someone that Piper and Driscoll’s listeners might pay attention to.
Very true, we must begin with loving a human as a human. I think gender matters, but it derives from our identity as gender humans, nothing less!
I saw that article too. I felt as you do about it. It is a step in the right direction.
Could it be that the nature of each gender is defined in its relationship to the other. So the exact form ‘masculinity’ takes is shaped by whatever females are doing at the time? And vice versa?
That protects the ‘otherness’ of gender without nailing down how each ‘must’ be.
That is an interesting proposal. I wonder what that would look like. Since men tend to wear pants should women wear skirts, or do you think that is a bit too superficial? What would be an example?
“He ignores the plight of the lower class who cannot survive with one income. In fact, many in the middle class cannot survive with one income.”
A agree with your comment, copied above, regarding Driscoll’s contextualized approach to gender. However, the cause for this situation is women fulfilling their full potential through further education coupled with affirmative action which guarantees women jobs that traditionally were held by men, such as in accounting, engineering, etc. In the 50’s and 60’s jobs traditionally held by women were in elementary school teaching and nursing. The result of this fulfillment was greater household income which raised the standard of living of the family. At least initially, this was desirable until the greater household income was reflected in greater prices because there was more disposable income. Today we are living in an economy that has removed all the excess income (based on a two income family) through increased prices. Therefore, the family is really no better off (and actually disadvantaged) because it is struggling to maintain a standard of living that requires two incomes to survive. In fact, women in their quest for equality, fulfillment, etc. have actually cause their own demise.
I understand what you are saying about inflation, but your conclusion that women seeking equality caused their own demise seems like a great leap. I think many would argue that is has caused no such demise. Economics are economics, but it seems like your saying, in essence, women should have remained satisfied with the limitations placed on them by society because it has become as difficult with two incomes as once was with one. Is that what you are suggesting?
@Joe – I’m not certain what you mean by your last sentence. If the price to fulfil our potential in all respects has been high most women would think it worth paying. If the consequences of full equality have not all been good, the consequences of living in a clearly defined female role were even worse.
@identity – our identity is found in Christ, not in anything we are or do. Men who are comfortable with women who do not fit what may be termed a ‘traditional’ persona or role, seem to be those who are most secure in who they are as people and as men. Much of the attempts to redefine masculinity are coming from men who appear to be poorly equipped to handle a changing society – they are desperately trying to hang on to the familiar definitions because they can’t handle the consequences of women as equal partners. This debate is not really about women at all – it’s a deflection of angst onto the obvious scapegoat.
Wow, ‘more to life than reproducing and washing dishes.’ Was that meant to be incredibly offensive to the generations of women who, both throughout history and now, have been responsible not for just dropping babies and robotically performing necessary household chores, but for shaping babies into fully functional, caring, responsible and educated adult people, and for creating homes–very complex vocations. Remove one blogspotter from the earth and hardly anyone will notice. Remove one mother, and for someone, or for several people–the whole world crumbles. Ask anyone who has actually lost their mother.
Let’s not read more into that statement than is present. It is shorthand that is supposed to allude to the generalization that women have two roles: (1) being a mother and (2) caring for a home. As I stated quite clearly there is nothing wrong with those things, but to say that they encapsulate all that a woman can do or be is false. Please be a fair reader and avoid attacking a point that obviously was not being made.
Also, I am sorry for the loss of your mother, assuming you are referring to yourself. I want to be clear that I am not saying a woman who choses a life as a mother or home maker is inferior to one who does business or politics. That is very far from the point I am making. My point is that women should be able to chose rather than have their callings and vocations predetermined by men.
Sarah – I didn’t take Brian’s post as rubbishing women who have spent years mothering and caring. I spent many years at home as a full time mother – it is one of the most important roles I have ever had. The difference now is that I am also participating in life outside the home as well as continuing to mother my children the youngest who is now 8. I am not someone who functions well solely as a home maker so I would never want to remain in that role when I am now able to explore other gifts, interests and talents that I have. There is much more to me than one role.
What is most concerning about the rhetoric concerning gender issues is that some people are wanting to define what is right and normal for women and men in ways that rubbishes who they actually are. For some people it is about keeping women in a certain place ie the sphere of the home and that is simply wrong. I do not see Jesus asserting such a defined role either.
@Brian (from way back).
I think it works in all sorts of different ways, and indeed is fluid. So in some circumstance the women will be wearing the pants.
I guess I’m trying to say that the realisation that out identity is gendered doesn’t have to mean that we can fix the ‘essence’ of masculinity and femininity. Part of realising that my indentity is gendered is realising that I am not in complete control of my identity. I am someone who is defined (at least partly) in relation to someone else who is different to me.
So what it ‘means’ for me to be a male, is how I relate to actual, flesh and blood females around me. The grumpy conservative reaction to say, women working, is ironically a denial of the actual bodily reality of gender (what they always accuse others of).
So gender is a reality, but it is a reality that is going to work itself out in all sorts of different ways in different cultures and times.
The question then isn’t , ‘what does it mean to be male?’, but, as a male, how do I live in a Christ like way to the females around me (and the males too!)
Thank you for the clarification and I agree with your starting point. You make an interesting point about not being in complete control of your identity. Our outworking of maleness is something culture offers us. Sometimes it may be healthy; sometimes not so much.
sorry, brian, not buying your ‘save.’ i find your ‘shorthand’ short shrift for the many thousands of things women at home do every day–incorporating quite a variety of intellectual challenges. Running my home is like running a small business, and a lot of the questions i get are way more challenging than those you field on this site–all under the umbrella of ‘mother.’ Washing dishes hardly even gets a thought, any more than it probably does for you. it’s also widely acknowledged that the phrase ‘not that there’s anything wrong with that’ has a bit of a mixed message, meaning pretty much the opposite. From one internet definition: Usually invoked as a weak saving throw and an attempt to prevent losing fans and coming across as a bigot.
a friend has posted up a talk on gender which outlines a lot better the position I was trying to articulate. (and I think possibly similar to where you are coming from.)
Anyhow, here is the link
Apparently you are going to find what you want to find in what I said. Funny enough one of my designated chores in our home is dishes. I hate them but I do them all the time. What is quite apparent is that you don’t know me and you are unfamiliar with my views on gender equality. If you’ve.decided upon a posture that assumes what you want to assume then you are going to hear what you want to hear. I cant change that. Blessings to you.
Interesting discussion! I liked the points about cause/effect of women entering the workforce and fluidity of gender definition.
@Joe: I challenge the causality given in your comment’s final sentences; I assert it is not the desire of mid-20th century women that changed the cost of living, rather the problem of idealizing the mid-20th century lifestyle is a fundamental belief that most idolaters overlook: the belief that man (or any human for that matter) is the provider instead of God. I expound on this in an article you might find interesting: “Gender Roles: Two Faces of the Same Coin” which is posted on my own blog, sailingspirit.wordpress.com
And regarding Mike’s posit (that gender definition might be based on the relationship to another rather than specific, self-determined characteristics or actions), I see some scriptural things that lend a little bit of credibility to that. Adam’s gender was meaningless until Eve was made, and even after that was based solely on what God said it ought to be. No other precedent existed, nor other people via which any culturation could be given. Secondly, God’s very nature of being Love is moot if not also trinitarian, for there must be someone to receive the Love. Likewise, being the Christ is meaningless if there is no one to save. Thus, even Holy Identity is defined–at least in part–by relationship. Think of how many names God gives us to describe Himself that refer to relationship, such as Protector and Provider and Healer. Lastly, I would point out that as followers of Christ in honor of God, our genders–perhaps even our specific identities–wane as we inch ever closer to being like Christ. As we all aim to become more like Christ, we are also becoming more like each other. So, then, as we crucify ourselves time and again, our identities separate from Christ are overtaken by Christ-likeness, and the definition of our being is more about our relationship to Christ and displaying that via relating to other people the way He would. First gender, then perhaps even later personality, becomes more moot. As Christ is the head and we are the body, we are all becoming one so all notions of division have to end, whereas they prevent us from operating as one body. Very interesting, Mike. Perhaps this should be put out there more, to maintain perspective and prevent us from wasting too much time on trivial things.
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