Jesus and gender

Jesus and gender

It’s been nearly 25 years since Saturday Night Live showed its final skit of “It’s Pat.”

The series of skits centered around the (so-called) androgynous main character named Pat, who is placed in settings (e.g., a salon or doctor’s office) where all interlocutors struggle–and inevitably fail–to discern whether Pat is a man or a woman.

The wildly successful SNL skit is quite instructive when considering the topic of gender in at least three ways, which can help guide us toward asking helpful questions about this intensely personal yet unavoidably public matter.

1. Gender is pervasive.

Some things are so big we don’t really see them, and for many (but, I believe, fewer than we might think) gender is one of those things.  All of the “Pat” skits are set in very familiar, everyday contexts, like a birthday party or a business office, yet Pat nevertheless trips people up, demonstrating gender’s pervasiveness in social interaction.  In short, often without us even realizing it, gender is regularly at play in how we interact with others.

2. Gender is instructive.

The skit effectively communicates how quickly even the most basic human interaction grinds to a halt when we can’t identify a person’s gender.  Pat’s character, of course, has been designed to be in every way androgynous, creating an altogether extreme example. But the point is fairly made:  even at the level of language, the binary nature of pronouns (he or she) brings communication to a halt.

3. Gender is exclusive.

However, what the SNL skit completely fails to show is the incredibly alienating power of gender.  To my recollection, in all the skits Pat is, overwhelmingly, at relative ease, while “the rest of us” struggle, awkwardly but (it would seem) humorously, to navigate Pat, who is apparently unaware of the social problems that are being endlessly created.

In short, it shows others’ awkwardness but never Pat’s alienation.

In truth, precisely because gender is so incredibly pervasive and instructive, it is also incredibly exclusive.  And, the skit’s deliberate humor aside, it is surely Pat’s ease and unawareness that make the skit’s androgynous character truly a fiction.

And in this sense the skit simply isn’t funny.

Now before we go any further, by way of clarification, it’s important to recognize the distinction often made between gender and sex.  Sex concerns reproduction:  whereas some organisms can reproduce asexually (e.g., some jellyfish), most organisms reproduce sexually–i.e., they require the genetic material of two biologically distinct parents, a female and a male.  Gender, on the other hand, concerns not sexual reproduction but social role, defining not female and male but man and woman, masculinity and femininity.  To be clear, I’m not (yet) affirming or denying this distinction, only asserting its frequency.

Even when gender is framed in this binary way (i.e., as either masculine or feminine), these two categories nevertheless reveal a spectrum:  e.g., one could be regarded as more (or less) masculine than another.  Consider such common phrases as “You da man!” or “Man up!”  Behind these phrases are very real–even if somewhat nebulous–conceptions of what masculinity is.  But today (indeed, for some time now) critical discussion  about gender has, to say the least, called this binary conception into question.

Due in part to the news media, we often but, I think, unwisely associate the topic of gender primarily with persons like Caitlyn Jenner.  Without wanting to take away from the complexity and struggle of such persons (in fact, we’ll return to Jenner below), I would want to focus on the more pervasive, anonymous struggle of  the person whose parent or older sibling (or athletic heroine or hero) held out often unspoken criteria for being a “man” or “woman,” criteria that we (or another person) found always just out of reach:  from posture to hair line and hair texture to depth of voice to one’s laugh to shoulder breadth to jaw line to foot or breast size to circumcision (or uncircumcision) (to name just a few physical characteristics) to social aggressiveness (or passivity) to hobbies (hunting, crocheting, baseball, decorating, etc.) to one’s favorite color to style of dress to athletic or academic prowess–and much more, these all shape in very real ways how gender can be defined.

So pervasive are these ways of conceiving gender that they can be taken as “givens,” unalterable truths for any particular 5- or 15-year-old.  Sociologists and game theorists sometimes call it “common knowledge.”  This “givenness” can be devastating for the one who, try as hard as they may, will simply never meet the standard.

The logic is as simple as the famous Sesame Street rhyme:  “One of these things is not like the others / One of these things just doesn’t belong.”

The startling pervasiveness of gender raises a vital question:  could we ever hope to live in a gender-blind society?

The realistic answer is No.  As Stanford researcher Cecilia Ridgeway states, children begin to gender-identify “adult faces and voices in their first year” and do the same for themselves “at around 2 1/2 years of age” (see Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World, OUP, pp. 41-42). In fact, one could argue that even in utero little ones are making gender distinctions when contrasting mom and dad’s (higher vs. deeper) voices.

If true, this means that, unlike the possibility of a future “color-blind” society (with the present author appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of the term ‘color-blind’), gender differentiation is here to stay.

In other words, the question isn’t, “Will gender continue to be defined or not?”  It surely will. The question is, rather, “By whom will it be defined?”

The most common (and criticized) answer is one’s culture.  In fact, gender is usually presented as precisely that–a cultural construct (hence, the above distinction between sex and gender).  Like a school of fish or a herd of buffalo, culture can exert significant influence not only upon an individual’s actions but upon their identity, and for the fish or buffalo that can’t keep up, the result is alienation:  if I can’t act like a fish, then what am I?

What “we” so often take for granted as “normal” for masculinity or femininity is in fact culturally determined.

For example, it would seem a given to us that parents are to dress their little ones in either blue or pink to indicate gender, yet in Victorian England little ones wore the same clothing until around age seven (!), at which time the boys were “breeched”–i.e., put in breeches (or, informally, britches), signaling a stage when the father would become far more involved in the boy’s development (teaching him “how to be a man”). Similarly, today the ideal man’s physique is the lean V-shaped back and broad shoulders and chiseled abs, while as late as the 1890s (again focusing on the culturally dominant British empire) the ideal man’s physique was heavyset or, to use the outdated (complimentary) term, portly (the OED has an “archaic” definition for portly that is unambiguously positive: “of a stately or dignified appearance or manner,” while its main definition is decidedly more negative: “having a stout body; somewhat fat”).

Given the seeming whimsical and altogether shallow character of these gender norms, it makes good sense to subject them to strong critique, especially if they can be so deeply exclusionary and defeating:  culture, it is urged, must not be allowed to define an individual’s gender.

What if we brought the towering figure of Jesus into this discussion?  Though we would have to speak in rather generic terms (aside from the fact that Jesus himself did not fit the gender norms of his day, as discussed in a previous post), the man from Galilee had much to say against unwarranted and oppressive cultural norms.  In this regard his critique of the cultural-religious elite was devastating:

“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding fast to mere human traditions. You have a fine way of rejecting the commands of God in order to maintain your traditions.”

Ouch.

In fact, the example that Jesus gives as evidence has to do with parent-son relationships, such that their tradition directly influenced how a “good son” should be defined.

If we move from Jesus to Paul, we find a similarly severe critique of cultural norms:

“Since you died with Christ to the fundamental norms of this corrupt world, why, as though your life were still identified with it, do you submit to them?”

Now that’s a strong critique–both of the cultural norms and of the Christians who are (ahem) still, it seems, adopting them.  In fact, in the verses that immediately follow, he has more to say (the Greek, it must be said, is difficult and the paraphrastic translation is my own and could surely be contested, yet would find support by several church fathers):

“…Such ‘fundamental norms’ will surely run their course, as do all merely human commands and teachings, for in them is only an appearance of wisdom, having (as they do) a self-styled piety, self-deprivation and severe constraint upon one’s physical identity,  yet are worthless for actually satisfying the human body.”

Such radical language of a Christian’s “death” to the useless norms of a corrupt world is central to the apostle, who boasts “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

Paul is speaking of how the world, precisely because of its utterly corrupt norms, condemned Jesus as worthy of crucifixion. The one who was the Answer was treated as the Problem–why?–because of this world’s perverse norms.

And on multiple occasions both Jesus and Paul insist that the true Christian must be rejected by the world along with Jesus:  for Jesus, this insistence is expressed in the language of “taking up one’s cross”; for Paul, it’s expressed in the language of “sharing in the sufferings of Christ.”

Thus, there is so very much in our own culture (or any other) that Scripture–and, therefore, the church–ought to be critiquing as “merely human traditions and teaching,” and its gender norms are no exception:  biceps, beards, beer or big bank accounts don’t make a man any more than a career, curves, or cashmere make a woman.

Yet the whole “don’t-let-culture-define-gender” critique falters, not least when the critique is made by . . . our culture.  Consider:  am I really doing what I want, when my culture is, on the whole, inviting–even urging–me to do what I want?

Further, if gender really is as pervasive and instructive as has been suggested, simply doing your own thing is far more easily said than done–not too much different from ending your cell phone plan with your carrier so that you can “do your own thing” with your phone. Good luck with that.

Beyond (yet related to) this is the specter of gender’s brutal history, which looms large over anyone who would strike out on the path of culture-defying self-identification:  while Bruce-now-Caitlyn Jenner’s switch was hailed by many as an act of undaunted courage, can a person who has reaped the benefits of being identified as a man suddenly declare themselves to share the identity of those who are, overwhelmingly, an exploited gender (any more than a white person could simply one day decide to declare themselves black)?  On this Elinor Burkett’s June 2015 piece “What Makes a Woman?” in the New York Times is well worth the read.

As much as we hyper-individualists of (so-called) late modernity would like to think of our identity as beginning and ending with “me,” it simply doesn’t.  As ancient (not to mention modern non-Western) cultures knew well, we share in the identity of those who have gone before us.

But all this aside, what is perhaps most grossly and tragically overlooked by those desiring to throw off gender’s slavery to society is the potentially equally cruel slavery to “self.”

With rare exception, in discussions of gender today the self is altogether innocent, immutable and always all-wise, not to mention independent of all external influence.

Um, no.

Even when we (rightly) allow for human conscience (if we can call it that) and human creativity, when thinking of the basic “ingredients” of the “self,” can we leave out human craving?

Who hasn’t craved sugar, binged on some Moose Tracks, and then regretted it?  Only to do it again and again, and regret it again and again.  How many of our friends and acquaintances have craved a tattoo, only to come to wonder why in the world they got that tattoo?  (Um, actually, I want one, too, or so I tell myself.)  And we’re just talking ice cream and ink.

Far too often in the gender discussion, an unasked question is this:  Which “self” should I trust to define my own gender?  My Monday self? or my Tuesday self?  My 2015 or 2017 self?  My work self or my play self?  My family self or my friend self?

Just as there are a cacophony of cultural voices around us so there are a cacophony of conflicting voices within us.

A second often-unasked question is this:  Can I really make a truly independent decision about my gender (or about anything, really)?  Judging from the cover of Vanity Fair, Jenner’s own gender choice was unmistakably influenced by cultural norms.  (To be fair: this is hardly to suggest that there isn’t far more to Jenner’s gender choice than a corset and mascara.)  Even the parents who decide to let their child determine their own gender are nevertheless choosing how (not whether or not) they will influence their child.

The genius of the ancient Jewish and early Christian diagnosis of humanity was to identify the power of human craving (without ever once condemning craving per se) and identify it for what it can be–namely, slavery:  we can’t stop wanting what we want, until it’s too late. And, even then, we go back for more (if we can).  Indeed, what is so deceptive is that we don’t even feel like we’re enslaved, precisely because we are a slave to craving.

So right alongside our (for the most part, justified) outrage against gender’s slavery to society is the very real possibility of gender’s slavery to self. Alongside our healthy suspicion of cultural constraint should be a healthy suspicion of craving constraint.

Emphatically, this is not to condemn craving:  what is basic need not be base; indeed, it can be altogether beautiful.  We must pay attention to our cravings, asking, “Why are they there, and by what or by Whom can they best be satisfied?”  Do they articulate deeper longings and even an alienation from . . . whom?

Friends, counselees and congregants of mine who struggle with a sense of gender displacement or dysphoria often express in a very poignant manner a deep sense that they are not who they are supposed to be.

And is this not the human experience?  Our experience?  A universal experience that we may well feel in very unique yet in very profound ways that gnaw away at us all?

Where does this leave us?  If, as we said, gender isn’t going away, so that it must be defined, by whom should it be defined?

By the shifting voices of our culture?  By the shifting voices of our cravings?

Is there a sure voice to whom we can listen regarding our gender?  A voice that can not only critique cultures but speak across them?  A voice that can tell us not simply how to curb our cravings but how to quench them?

The voice not of our culture or of our own craving but of our Creator?

A Creator who chose incomprehensible self-constraint by coming down to be enculturated and unjustly crucified and undeservedly condemned–all in the name of incomparable love and costly commitment.

We’ll explore that together in an upcoming post.

One thought on “Jesus and gender

  1. Wonderfully, I’ve had several persons contact me to say, “Hey, this is very similar to what Tim Keller says about gender in his book Making Sense of God.” I’ll take that as a compliment. I wasn’t familiar with the book myself, but I’m encouraged that someone else would have similar things to say.

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