Image Bearers

A caricature is an exaggerated representation of someone. Sometimes the books about Biblical Manhood & Biblical Womanhood toe the line of caricaturing masculinity and femininity. There’s a dedicated book-shelf to the subject in one of the more neglected corners of this house, name any well-known book and odds are it’s there … sitting unread. I never really felt the need to read them, but after seeing a review of such a book, I thought: “As much as I hate the idea of that book; I’d better read it so I can tell the person exactly what I don’t like.” I found my copy and opened it’s pages. I skipped the introduction and started on page 1 …

And made it to page 3. Page 4 crossed the line into too much information territory and I threw the book across the room in frustration. I was confused. This book is supposed to be about people like me, so I should be able to relate to it, shouldn’t I? I should be able to imagine myself in it’s anecdotes or get whatever the authors mean by the pop culture references and nod in agreement with the facts that the authors chose to elaborate upon.

I could only conclude that this book and the ones like it are not made for me. They’re made for the person that the authors think I ought to be, but I’m not. They expect me to have the same or similar life experiences as they do, but I don’t. They believe that I’m comfortable sharing every tiny detail because they are, but I’m not. They wrote the book for people who are in many respects close versions of themselves and I don’t fit the bill.

What bothers me most is that who I am, the me that I’m comfortable with being is almost inadvertently subhuman because these books are too irrelevant to be helpful. These books might be billed as being gender-related, but it’s all about life experience. It has nothing to say for singles other than they haven’t arrived, aren’t fully matured, and will never be unless they marry and have children as the fullest expression of their gender; being a husband and father for men and being a wife and mother for women. Only then, according to these books, will men understand the nature of authority and women will model the beauty of submission and they will have ‘all the answers’ one could ever need for all the questions someone might ever ask on the subject.

Aside from that, there’s usually some stereotypical filler; men are logical, women are emotional; men are pursuers, women are the pursued; men are this, women are that; in endless variations eventually using different synonyms to describe the same traits common to men and women as if they were two distinct things: men are kind, women are gentle; as if women ought not be kind or men ought not be gentle or they’ll break the laws of nature.

The alternative would be to accept these book as the source of all wisdom of knowledge, to learn that I’m not sufficiently masculine or feminine and am therefore disappointing God or confusing angels. That God didn’t know what he was doing when he knew that I’d like activities that are neither masculine nor feminine nor am I drawn to anything typically feminine or typically masculine. But He had these books written as a lamp to keep me on the correctly colored road.

I know that there are men and women who can’t get enough of these books – I’m happy if you find them useful and helpful because you can relate to them. I just don’t think that anyone needs help to be more or sufficiently masculine or feminine to measure up – as if it’s a quantity and some people naturally hit the mark, some people come up short, and some people surpass it. What we really need is permission to see ourselves differently as many different times and ways as it takes until we reach that moment when we realize that we are in and of ourselves satisfied, that we have something like self-confidence and self-assured-ness, are comfortable with who we are and not who others want us to be; we are content with where we are at in life even if it doesn’t look like a fairy-tale story or isn’t an exemplary form of masculinity or femininity. Masculinity and femininity are besides the point – and oftentimes a distraction – from what it would take for us to consider ourselves as satisfied with who we are because it’s all too easy to say ‘women are x’ and ‘men are y’ and for anyone who lacks those traits or has the wrong trait to view themselves as less than a woman or less than a man and then become dissatisfied with ourselves for never being enough.

Being human is far too complex than hitting all of the rites of passage at the correct ages. Being feminine or masculine can’t be captured in a two or three hundred page book and I’m not convinced that the meaning of life and the sum of our experiences is irrevocably tied to the gender we are born with nor can it dictate the course our lives take as it unfolds day by day. A world where a man’s existence was to exemplify masculinity by purifying himself of femininity or a woman’s existence was to exemplify femininity by purifying herself of masculinity in the same way as dross is removed from purified silver would be a cruel world with no common ground for men and women to relate to each other as members of the same human race with the same traits and characteristics that are fully human and not either masculine or feminine.

It would be best to admit that over all the centuries from all the cultures that have ever existed, we haven’t figured out what are the common elements of masculinity and femininity that are universally true; but Biblical Womanhood and Biblical Manhood ties itself to a specific time-frame, that of the Bible. It limits itself to a rather narrow space and time as if it were the one point and time that remains true all the time. Imagine it; Iron age concepts about gender,marriage, and family meant to govern even into the information age and beyond even when we know better than to accept Iron age concepts about medicine or science. Realizing that it isn’t enough information to go by, many authors fill in the gaps with concepts from the Fifties that most closely match what they already believed while writing these books a few decades after the fact and after the Civil Movement had drastically altered society; it made for flawed arguments from flawed premises which could only result in a caricature.

I had always thought that if you believed that something was hard-wired, then it would be evident even when it lacks the cultural fingerprints of any given region and it would be evident even when it goes counter to what culture would have us believe. But the evidence from all the eras of history and all the cultures of the world shows that one culture’s feminine trait is another culture’s masculine trait and vice versa. “Men are leaders …” except for places where the women are the leaders. “Women are emotional …” except for the places where the men are the emotional ones. If these generalities aren’t generally true, then they mustn’t be true at all!

On some vague level, I think all of us understand that masculinity and femininity is something more than these books describe an intangible idea of some sort; but they always make it seem as if the two concepts are tangible concepts of opposite ends that pull away; the common ground of Christ-likeness is viewed to be as ‘beneath’ their dignity. Masculine men should never be as vulnerable or as emotional or as accessible as Jesus; why such things are almost feminine. Feminine women should never be as uncompromising or as theologically deep or as in charge as Jesus; why such things are almost masculine. Or are they?

Ultimately the essential-ism aspect of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood seems to be guilty of most of the disconnect; the idea that there are deep, hidden, and unchanging properties about properties that make their members what they are. It leads to either one or the other type thinking. The evidence just doesn’t match up though; masculinity and femininity aren’t two distinct all-or-nothing concepts, but both are a continuum: a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, although the extremes are quite distinct. (This makes for fascinating reading if you have the time. )

We really don’t need these books to paint us two caricatures of what men are and women aren’t and what women are and men aren’t; we need to realize that we’re long past due to stop shaming people for not matching up to whatever cultural ideas we have about what it is to be a man or a woman. We need to realize that men and women really aren’t that different and we have the data to back that up. That’s why we can’t really paint an accurate picture of what it means to be a man or a woman – we would have two mostly similar pictures and that makes it difficult to use to our advantage to influence people to behave a certain way and we just can’t have that. Fear of not being masculine or feminine enough and shame for being too masculine and feminine are the only reason that these books fly off of the shelves. When we learn to be confident in who we are without constantly checking whether or not our masculinity or femininity is intact, then we learn how to tune out the voices of fear and shame and that just doesn’t sell their message. I think it’s long past time that we stopped buying it.

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