Created or Constructed? Part One
Wednesday, 20 July 2011
In my post on Mark Driscoll's response to the 'effemigate' furore, I briefly discussed the statement he used as a standfirst. When Driscoll wrote:
"Gender. Is it a socially constructed reality or a God-given identity?"
he started a lot of discussion about what it means to be male or female. Although he acknowledged that it's a very complex issue, the feelings he outlined about the debate appeared to be insinuating that this is a mutually exclusive dichotomy and that he firmly believes that gender roles are God-given. I don't entirely agree. While I agree that our gender identity is God-given and that the Bible does have plenty to say about men, women and the church, I do not believe that this brings with it specific desirable personality traits, emotions and skills, rather that the majority of those promoted by Driscoll and others who are strong on 'traditional' gender roles are heavily influenced by society and cultural trends. Indeed, perceptions of gender roles and responsibilities within Christianity differ, as can be shown by comparing official statements on three main strands of teaching.
Contrasting perspectives on gender roles:
Patriarchy (typified by Vision Forum) - The Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy
Complementarianism (typified by the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) - The Danvers Statement
Egalitarianism (typified by Christians for Biblical Equality) - CBE Statement on Men, Women and Biblical Equality
So, to what extent are Christian views on gender roles and gender-appropriate behaviour defined by cultural factors? It's obvious that there is major influence, whether we're talking about the hold the 19th century 'cult of domesticity' or 'cult of true womanhood' still has over society, the hyper-masculine all-American action hero (with added super-Godliness) promoted by Driscoll or the crusading warrior/waiting for Prince Charming stereotypes of books like 'Wild At Heart' and 'Captivating', which tell us:
"Little boys want to know, Do I have what it takes?...Little girls want to know, Am I lovely?"
Some who believe in distinct gender roles and behaviours feel it is important to emphasise these when raising children - for example encouraging girls to enjoy personal grooming and wearing 'feminine' clothes, or encouraging boys to play sports and take 'leadership' roles - so that they will grow up with an awareness of what it 'means' to be male or female. This is echoed by our society in general, which stereotypes children from almost the minute they are born, judging every movement, cry and aspect of behaviour as evidence of being a 'proper little boy' or 'proper little girl'. Despite the case against so-called 'hard-wired' gender differences, explored by Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender, society dictates that even as babies, girls and boys and to be treated according to socially constructed ideas about what it is to be male or female. Before the recent birth of the Beckhams' daughter, the BBC ran a feature which showcased all the old stereotypes to the extreme.
Describing girls as 'manipulative', 'evil' and 'hell-bent on showing off' while underlining a predilection for all things pink and princess-related. Referring to boys solely in conjunction with mud, football and dinosaurs while discussing their lack of 'hidden motives'. Thankfully we also hear from those who believe such differences are mainly the product of parents' imaginations:
"According to Dr Helen Barrett, developmental psychologist and research fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London, studies suggest even when baby boys and girls are lying in a cot kicking their legs at the same rate, boys are seen as more energetic.
And a newborn boy's cries are seen as more forceful and may be responded to quicker, even when there is actually no difference."
Undoubtedly, Christian thinking on gender is influenced by 'the world' in this respect - and we can see further parallels with views on 'roles' in the family, the home and the church. In US Christian culture, it's more obvious that some aspects of these views are a direct response in opposition to what's seen as the un-Biblical and nefarious influence of feminism, which if you believe some critics is directly responsible for promiscuity, failed marriages, deadbeat dads, emasculated men, manipulative women, domestic abuse and indeed the majority of social problems you can think of. The traditionalist view of gender roles is not only 'Biblical', but if accepted by society in general might herald a return to happier and more righteous times, when 'men were men and women were women' (and presumably, marriages were blissful, homes were happy and everyone knew their place). The anti-equality perspective is obviously present in other countries, but it's the US which seems to have spawned the majority of the backlash.
There's a real resistance to the word 'equality' in a way which makes me uncomfortable. Equality as the way of the devil, if you like, because it 'denies difference' and shockingly, emphasizes similarities. I find it incredibly hard to get worked up about this denial of difference, possibly because I'm one of those feminist egalitarians, but I think it's also because I don't believe equality 'denies difference', rather that it describes worth and purpose, male and female being created 'in his own image'. Equality is not an insult, or a dirty word, as I have seen implied. I wonder, when I read comments to that effect, just how deeply certain gender roles have been ingrained so that despite clear teaching on equality of worth in God's eyes, there is real horror at the suggestion of 'sameness' between men and women. I often wonder if it has much to do with the same views on gender roles which lead people to say "Well I LIKE cooking and babies and shaving my legs so I am HAPPY to be a REAL woman, thank you very much, feminists!'
I think it's very easy to get bogged down in perceived similarities and differences which actually have little to do with relationships, gifting and a call to ministry - and are not hard and fast to begin with, easily dispelled by countless people who do not 'fit the mold'.
As part of this ongoing exploration into gender in the church, I've ordered a copy of Elaine Storkey's Created or Constructed? The Great Gender Debate, which I've been meaning to read for a while. I'll be reading and discussing it here.
Image via Steve Rhodes's Flickr