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Published Date: July 31, 2008

Published Date: July 31, 2008

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Beyond Damsels and White Steeds

It is rare to encounter people in the United States who understand what I do. “You’re an anthropologist?” They say. “How interesting! Is that like Indiana Jones or more like Jurassic Park?”

I exaggerate (a bit), but anthropology is not a widely understood discipline in this country. I would also say, based on my highly unscientific study, that it is even less understood in the church. Anthropology’s traditional anti-missionary bias, combined with a general distrust of “-ologies” of various sorts, has led anthropology to be a weak voice in U.S. Christianity.

I am sure it would not surprise anyone that I think this is a shame, particularly when it comes to conversations about gender. Anthropology has a long and illustrious tradition of popping pompous generalizations. Just when someone thinks they have some human trait all figured out, the anthropologist pokes her head out to declare, “Not in my tribe!” For the U.S. church, where generalizations about gender abound, it seems that it could be rather useful to provide a few of these counterexamples.

First, the very concept of gender needs a bit of complicating. Social scientists use the terms “sex” and “gender” to distinguish the biological differences between males and females (sex) from the meanings people attach to those differences (gender). To even speak of “gender and culture” is, in this sense, redundant because the category of gender presupposes a particular cultural context.

In this way, it is very easy to see that there are problems with characterizing all men or all women as having a particular essence that can be pinned down, such as declaring that all men have medieval battle fantasies or that all women crave more foot wear. Many women may love their flirty heels, but it is not hard to see how this requires a fairly specific cultural—not to mention economic—context.

But in everyday life we believe that our biology does matter. It matters a lot. If you have ever accidentally identified your friend’s baby as a boy when it is a girl (or vice versa) and faced the uncomfortable—or even hostile—response, you know that we place a great deal of importance on these biological differences between males and females. We dress our babies in tiny baseball uniforms or pierce their infant ears to make sure people know what biology they have under their diapers and, most importantly, that they respond accordingly. People everywhere place a great deal of importance on these biological differences; however, the specific expression of that importance is driven not by biology; but by culture.

Dating and Marriage in Cultural Terms

For instance, at the Christian college where I teach, dating and marriage are topics of endless interest to our students. The discussion often starts with, “Is it okay for a girl to ask out a boy?” Answers range from “heck yeah!” to “heavens no!” Some young women find themselves caught between their egalitarian commitments and a feeling that somehow, they just don’t want to date a boy if he is not pursuing them in some way. Their commitment to independence seems undermined by their desire to have a boy call them up for a “proper date.” Their inability to reconcile their feelings with their theological commitments makes some question if there might be something innate, even God-given, in their desire to be pursued. Likewise, some young men committed to egalitarian principles are uncomfortable with the idea of a woman taking romantic initiative. Surely, they reason, if gender was so culturally-formed, they could adapt their emotions to their intellectual commitments with ease.

I point out to them that the issue goes beyond rejecting images of helpless damsels and men on white steeds, to some wider cultural implications of dating. Anthropologically, I emphasize the principle of holism, which is the idea that cultural features are not isolated from other cultural norms and ideas. Then I provide a counterexample: Dating is culturally rather new in human history and, until very recently, the profound exception around the world. Arranged marriages were the norm. In those cultures, then and now, a boy’s pursuit of a girl may be unseemly. It is up to his mother (or uncle, or father, or some other proxy) to do the pursuing. For the groom himself to pursue his own bride suggests that he is selfish, disloyal to his family, and a renegade who cannot acknowledge his youth and inexperience. In those contexts, women and men would have quite different reactions to the idea of “pursuit” or “response.” Commitment to egalitarian theology would not necessarily contradict the right of the parents to “pursue” marriages for their children.

In the U.S., for a boy not to pursue a girl may also have implications beyond his lack of a wild heart or her insufficient feminine allure. If he is not willing to ask a girl out, does he lack initiative? Is he socially inept? Immature? Or perhaps he’s just not that into her. The actions of the boy to initiate a date are surely rooted in a cultural norm of men as the sexual aggressor, but it has wider implications for the young women of the twenty-first century. Placing her feelings in her specific cultural context (“For a guy raised in this culture, maybe his unwillingness to initiate the date does mean something about him”) allows her to see that her own views of femininity and masculinity have more of a cultural context than simply sexism on the one hand or human nature on the other.

Church Leadership in Cultural Terms

In the same way, reactions within the church to the roles of men and women in leadership must be understood as embedded in the cultural context in which they occur. The very notion of a “head pastor” is a culturally-specific—and even a theologically-specific—innovation related to the Protestant and American heritage of evangelicalism. In some denominations, the pastor has become a combination of CEO, president, and Chief Development Officer. Some are discomfited to think of a woman there, not because of any particular theological commitment, but because it just does not seem right. The pastor is a person who tells you what to do, the decider, the disciplinarian. It is no fluke that in the Western tradition we have called this person “father.” In images of the shepherd, we like to see a man carrying a sheep (preferably a big heavy one) back to the fold. Even as some come to be convinced by the theological and scriptural arguments in favor of egalitarianism, they may find themselves held back only by the cultural connotations of these images and ideas of the leader as “father.”

The metaphor of the family is a powerful one in Scripture and in the church. Most families in the United States operate on a fairly distinct division of gendered labor. I admit that in my home, I do the taxes, load the car, clean the gutters, and mow the lawn—or I did until our daughter turned eleven and involuntarily took that over. My wife does more laundry than I do, makes Halloween costumes for the kids, and arranges their dentist appointments. It is no surprise that in the church, women often get the job of organizing the nursery while men manage the finances; our families often run very similarly.

Other families, however, have other cultural traditions. Indonesian families do not trust men with money. Men are too easily swayed by their emotions, they say. Men are full of passion and behave erratically. Women are more stable, better able to think rationally and handle money or business transactions. In this case, it would be the women of the church who are more likely to sit on the finance committee. Perhaps men would be selected for arranging the entertainment at the church’s anniversary celebration.

Understanding and Changing Culture

I do not say all this to argue that some cultures are better than others. What an understanding of culture’s influence should do is put gross generalizations about the nature of men and women out of reach. Moreover, it challenges us to think about how and why we value particular attributes connected to these gender stereotypes. So often we believe that we are reacting to Scripture or that the powerful feelings we have about particular gender activities are our created nature. Rather, we need to realize that we are exhibiting the cultural context in which we live.

The good news is that our deep involvement in our culture means that we can also be involved in its change. As people embedded in culture, we can be—must be—agents of change as salt and light. We do not stand outside culture, in some culture-free zone; the American church is every bit as much a part of American culture as MTV, “Friends,” and Hamburger Helper.

Nor can we claim some universal Christian culture issuing forth directly from God. To imagine that there is a singular Christian culture would be to think that all Christians in the world live (or should live) in a single way. Not only does that go against what we all know to be true about the beauty of Christian diversity throughout the world, but it also goes against the words of Scripture (e.g., Acts 15:1-21). Just as family roles or dating relationships exist in diverse and complex webs of beliefs and assumptions, so too must our lives in the church be lived out in culturally meaningful and diverse ways.

Working together, with brothers and sisters around the world and throughout the ages, we must continue to come back to the Scriptures. This is our source of truth to understand gender in the light of the gospel that has set the captive free and loosed the chains of the oppressed (Luke 4:18). Understanding, challenging, and critiquing the culturally-specific terms used by some to pronounce universal gender norms is one way to see Christ bring that freedom.