Larry Crabb’s book Fully Alive purports in its subtitle to “live beyond stereotypes.” Unfortunately, readers are almost immediately confronted with a view of gender essentialism, which suggests that men and women, or even young girls or boys, all essentially act along certain gender-determined ways. For example, after noting we must move beyond stereotypes of what it is to be “masculine” or “feminine” (25), he goes on to discuss how he wonders “God will welcome my wife by warmly saying, ‘Well done! You lived your life as a beautiful woman, feminine to the core.’ I think he will” (36).
Of course, this is quite telling, because the very first word used to describe woman is “beautiful,” a focus upon the appearance (or perhaps the “inner beauty” of femininity) instead of on woman as an image-bearer of God. Shortly after this quote, Crabb argues that “Holy women make themselves beautiful” (37). Again, it is telling that this is the word used as primary to describe what makes a woman a woman.
Going further, we discover that women are to be “open” to being filled. “By what?” one may ask. The answer, according to Crabb, is twofold: “Physical femininity is centered in the capacity to receive and give, a body opened to be entered and to bring life through procreation… Relational femininity is a way of relating that both invites life-giving connection from another and nourishes life-giving relating in another” (47). Later, he fleshes this out by arguing that women are to submit to men in “attitude” by having a “gentle and quiet spirit,” which he takes to mean that women are to have the capacity to say no, but in ways which are quiet in attitude and respectful (see especially 63–64).
Men, by contrast, are to “seize… opportunity” (71, contrast this with women passively being “open” to it; see also the same language 170–172).
Gender essentialism continues throughout the book, as it is suggested that men and women have necessarily different fears due to their genders (96, compare to 104). Moreover, Crabb suggests that gender essentialism should be taught from conception onwards (178).
The above summary of the work’s content has shown Crabb’s central thesis is gender essentialism. From an egalitarian viewpoint, there are a great number of difficulties with Fully Alive. First, one must wonder why gender essentialism must be taught from birth if it is, indeed, something inherent to men and women. Second, Crabb’s view is presented as a kind of middle ground between complementarianism and egalitarianism, yet he opposes strong opposition from wives to sin in their husbands’ lives and suggests that the only recourse is quiet refusal to participate (63–64). Third, there is little exposition as to exactly why one should accept the notion that all women behave one way, while all men are to behave in a different way. Fourth, readers who do not meet the criteria set out for masculinity (strong, seizing opportunity, leading) or femininity (passive, open to accepting others) have little recourse from this book other than to assume that they are not adequately meeting alleged biblical standards for their gender roles.
Fully Alive ultimately falls victim to exactly what it professes to avoid in its subtitle. It claims to move beyond stereotypes, but not only enforces them, it also sets them against a pseudo-biblical backdrop which turns one particular, culturally-bound view of gender into a universal application for all people everywhere.