The problem with generalization

The problem with generalization July 12, 2011

I have been unable to avoid thinking about the issue of gender roles in our society and in the church.

A few days ago, a famous pastor posted a facebook status calling people to mock “anatomically effeminate males,” and reactions to this brought up some interesting discussion in the blogging world. “What gives us the right to call a man effeminate?” people wondered. Where do our standards come from?

Inspired by others (especially Tyler L. Clark and Dianna E. Anderson) who were frustrated with the church’s traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity, I began to explore the issue myself.

I began a few discussions on facebook, and wrote a blog post myself, and some good conversation resulted.  However, I was left with unanswered questions.

The Bible doesn't lay it all out for us like this (fortunately)

“God, not society, defines gender,” was one criticism I received on Facebook, and several people “liked” it. But this simple answer ignores the fact that the Bible gives no such simple answer. The is no one way given to be masculine and one way given to be feminine.

So, do we follow the example of bold female leaders like Deborah, Esther and Phoebe? Or do we assume that Paul’s advice to the Corinthians about women keeping silent in the church is God’s wish for all women of all time?

Should men be rough and tough war heroes like David or gentle peacemakers like Jesus?

Should the church treat women as property, like Old Testament law did by enforcing a “you break it, you buy it” policy for men who rape virgins? Or should the church treat them as Jesus treated them- as friends and as people?

Should men be the leaders and breadwinners while women stay at home? Or should women follow the example in Proverbs 31 and be the ones providing food for the household?

Some of these questions seem to have more obvious answers then others. But all of these questions are based on Biblical accounts. Which accounts should bring us to our conclusions about gender roles (as Rachel Held Evans points out, we ALL pick and choose when it comes to the Bible. It’s not about whether we pick or choose. It’s about what we pick and choose)?

I’m sure God does define gender. But I think the diverse accounts in the Bible make it clear that gender does not place a person in one of two boxes.

“People are too complex to generalize,” said one friend of mine. I couldn’t agree more.

Humans aren’t commodities.

There isn’t a man factory and a woman factory in heaven. We don’t come off of one of two assembly lines. We were created, not manufactured.

NOT how the female brain works.

I am a woman. But that doesn’t put me in a box with all the other women in the world. My womanhood doesn’t require me to have specific character traits, abilities, or desires.

I am happy to accept my femaleness as part of my identity. But I will not let my femaleness detract from the other details that God has painted me with.

I am a work of art. And God is no minimalist. My femaleness is just one brush stroke of who I am.

What about you, readers? Do you ever feel like a single aspect of the work of art that is you gets more attention than it deserves? Perhaps you share my frustration with gender roles. Perhaps a physical or mental “handicap” prevents people from seeing the other details that God has given you. Perhaps people attempt to limit you based on your race, social status, or orientation. I’d love to hear your stories and thoughts!

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  • Hearing people talk about God’s intent for all women makes me feel like I have a rock on my chest.

    Have you read Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is? Johnson gives a critical examination of social & cultural expectations of gender, and how Christianity has baptized those expectations and projects them onto God.

    • Unfortunately Christians have taken the cultural and historical contexts in which the Bible was written and projected them into the Bible (eisegesis). They commit the fallacy of confusing what is (was) with what ought to be. And they do this in spite of the texts to the contrary.

      It was this misogyny, the subjugation of women that is seen in the Bible/Christianity that kept me away for so long. Then I read the Bible…. I think those who try to defend the misogyny and try to subjugate women based on what the read in the Bible seriously misunderstand what they are reading. And taking isolated verses out of context. Bad exegess based on a faulty hermeneutic (IM not so HO)

      • Hurray for people commenting on my blog that know big theology words that I don’t understand! Thanks! You make my position seem more legitimate. haha

        I do understand this, though, “They commit the fallacy of confusing what is (was) with what ought to be.” A great point. So true.

    • I agree with you- rock in chest. Gross. 😛

      I have not read that book, but I just put it on my fall reading list! It seems like a fascinating read!

  • Lex

    Your friend is half-right, gender isn’t defined by society, at least not exclusively. It’s also defined culturally, generationally, and economically.

    Imagine three families, all living in or around the same city at the same time, both with married husband and wife, all with three children, but in three different socioeconomic conditions: poverty, middle, and wealth. Imagine that the family in poverty rents a house, and the other two own houses, and they all have lawns. What are the expectations for the men in the families with regard to their lawns? Forgive me for generalizing (while commenting on a post called “the problem with generalization,” of all things), but I suspect that the man in the middle socioeconomic class will be expected to do the yard work himself (and to teach it to his son, as his father taught it to him). I suspect the wealthy man will be expected to hire landscapers. I suspect the man in poverty will be expected to do his share with his wife, and won’t be particularly threatened in his sense of masculinity if and when his wife mows the grass, or does anything else the middle class associates with “man’s work,” or if he has to do anything we stopped calling (but still silently associate as) “woman’s work.”

    This is a very rough way of saying that there are different gender expectations within one society and at one moment in time, without even taking into account different societies at different times.

    Nice blog, by the way!

    • Poverty is a great equalizer. My brother and I can both handle housework, basic cooking, and minor household repairs, but my husband is clueless and just sort of assumes that somebody else will do those things. I blame the au pairs.

      • Very good points! Hadn’t thought of it that way.