I had mentioned in a previous post how I had read and discussed Aimee Byrd's Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood with the pastoral staff at my church. One of our early questions/critiques was that Byrd never defines what it means to be a man or a woman. Our initial discussion surmised that she did not want to define that in her book because she was being culturally sensitive, recognizing that it could take various forms in different cultures and communities. But later on I started to think, maybe that wasn't it. Maybe her reluctance to define this stems not from cultural sensitivity, but because it's not a question she's asking to begin with!
Somewhere in the book and her discussion of her identity and behavior, she plainly said -- almost in passing -- "When I do [some activity], it is 'womanly' because I am a woman." (I don't have the book in front of me now to get the exact quote but it's something that stuck out to me in my reading.) She was not looking for some an external idea/model of femininity. Her understanding of femininity started with her knowledge of herself. It didn't seem like she needed an external model to know she was living truly into who she was made to be. This transferred my thoughts onto a different track... but let me back up a little bit.
If there's one thing I've learned about the Modern Western ethos (especially in the last two years), it is that we are very resistant to self reflection. I see this regularly in our hyper-polarized public discourse. It is far easier to characterize others in extremes rather than work out the complexities of our respective points of view. We'd rather summarize and jump to conclusions about everyone and everything. It's faster. And everything in our daily lives comes instantly. We consume the news through headlines or tweets, rather than articles. We have litmus tests to determine how to judge others. I could go on, but I believe this way of life is fairly self evident. Self reflection is too slow. Honest wrestling with our selves is too difficult or painful (and we like to avoid uncomfortable thoughts).
With this in the back of my mind and this track-change brought on Byrd's in-passing self-reflection, I started to see how our need for an external model of masculinity or femininity (the question we were initially asking) may be a byproduct of our lack of self-reflection and real self-knowledge. We'd rather (maybe not rather, but it sure is faster to) be told who we should be or what standard we should measure up to, rather than do the hard work of knowing ourselves. So many of us are strangers to ourselves. And when we think we know ourselves, many soon discover that we only know who we wish we were, rather than who we actually are (maybe a mix of both but we surely don't know ourselves well enough to know the difference!). But we want to know! Each of us has an innate desire to know the person that God has made us to be. We want to know and be known.
So when someone comes along and tells us they know who we're supposed to be, we, weary of the hard work of getting to know ourselves, latch on. They seem to have already figured it out. Some of it seems to ring true... them all of it must be true! Why do more introspection? It's even more complicated when the same people given us these models of being have told us other good things too and have become authorities in our lives. But when they tell us these models are from God the stakes are raised. We think, Well, if God said so, who am I to argue? And we cling to these words.
And maybe for a short while, we feel like we're on the right track. We feel like we're fulfilling our purpose and we start to see how we fit this definition/model of who we're supposed to be (which means that something is good in those models; it's not completely bad). I can think of a few people in my life who have felt some level of satisfaction, coming back from some retreat or conference where they felt like they were becoming an "authentic man" (which meant they were taking steps to be more assertive or pushing themselves to be risk takers. Wild at Heart vibes anyone?). I can think of women who have made life changing decisions to orient their lives around Jesus and the kingdom rather than chase after worldly ideals. Even now, I recognize that some of these milestone moments were genuinely good moments -- real seasons of growth. While there has been some good, many have also been really hurt by these imperfect ideals. Unfortunately these models in our quick answer culture can make us so dependent that we stop trying to discover who we are and who God made us to be. We want someone to tell us what God's will is for our lives rather than see what God is revealing to us in our hearts through his Spirit.
When we are uncertain or anxious, we tend to cling onto anything that seems solid and stable -- we're looking for an anchor in our unstable lives. When we are newlyweds, new parents, joining a new community, starting at a new school... we will naturally cling to what's established in order to get our footing. We are most susceptible to external impressions in these moments. I don't think there is anything wrong with starting there. There is wisdom to be gleaned from others and we need to be humble enough to posture ourselves to receive from others (some of us really need to hear this in our hyper-polarized discourse). But at the same time, these extra biblical norms -- these gender roles -- ought not be our final authority to discern our true selves.
Jesus taught his disciples that he would give us his Spirit to guide us in all truth, and that includes the truth about ourselves. Scripture acts as a mirror to show us ourselves. Sometimes, in our reactionary culture, we assume that being fully ourselves means being the opposite of traditional gender roles. That's not what I'm proposing here at all. There are good practices that the historical church has employed to help us understand and see ourselves through the eyes of our Loving Heavenly Father. The end of Psalm 139 expresses such a prayer and desire. Scripture helps us see which parts of us are in rebellion against God and it shows us Christ, in whose image we are to beautifully conform more and more. It is an image that will not leave us wanting. It is a fullness that will not leave us feeling like we're not right in our skin. As we're in this period of deconstruction, decolonization, and, I hope, reconstruction, may we continue to seek the help and comfort of the Spirit, who Jesus promised would guide us in all truth. May we better see Jesus as we work through these times.