As a young violinist, I had to practice with recordings that helped me get the notes of the piece in my ear and fingers. Honestly, these practice recordings were uninspiring to hear. They were useful and accurately represented the notes, but they weren’t beautiful. My Suzuki practice CDs sounded nothing like a virtuoso violinist playing the same music, because the virtuoso is not simply trying to play each note accurately. She is putting herself into that concerto. In turn, an audience connects with her honesty and self-revelation and is moved by the beauty of the piece.
For me, this serves as an analogy that can illuminate some aspects of the gender debate.
In the gender debate, you will typically find two sides in opposition. No, not male and female, but “constructivist” versus “essentialist.” A constructivist views gender as socially created according to cultural customs and mores. Essentialists, on the other hand, view gender as inseparable from one’s very being as human. So, when an essentialist says, “I am a woman,” she is saying “my womanhood is my humanity.” When a constructivist says, “I am a woman,” she is saying “my womanhood is defined by my culture.”
I find both sides of the discussion troubling. I believe gender essentialism comes from an earnest desire to affirm what Genesis 1:27 says: “God created humans in his image, male and female he created them.” Unfortunately, gender essentialists have distilled the female image of God to certain roles, quite different and often inferior from what they perceive to be the male image of God. This has justified the subjugation of women and their exclusion from full participation in church and public affairs.
Constructivism, then, seems attractive because it allows women to recognize that their gender does not restrict the way they live their life. If gender is a social construct rather than a divine mandate, it is easier to discard cultural ideals and embrace one’s own freedom. The strength of constructivism is its recognition that culture has the power to shape what it means to be a man or woman. There are plenty of sociological studies that demonstrate that the gender roles as we understand them are not the only way it has to be (Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen has written about this in Priscilla Papers and elsewhere, and consider the central African Aka tribe, where women hunt and fathers care for children). But is this all there is to say? As a Christian, I cannot simply dismiss the reality of creation—that God did, in fact, create “male and female.”
Perhaps there is a way to harmonize both sides by rejoicing in God’s creation while at the same time not letting culturally prescribed roles define us. I find that the best counsel begins and ends in God and God’s redeeming action in the world—God’s musical composition and performance, if you will. So that’s where I am going to look.
Creation: the music
I see gender essentialism as my Suzuki CD. Useful, in some ways, but limiting our capacity to flourish as intended. Constructivism, on the other hand, would be like a musician improvising in a different key and time signature than the original piece. Interesting, perhaps, but not congruent with the rest of the composition.
The first and most basic characteristic of humanity is that we were made in the image of our Creator, made male and female. How do we reflect God’s image as male or female? Should we pour ourselves into the music, hopefully making something beautiful? Or should we play note-by-note, accurate if uninspired?
God is like a good musician who composes a piece of music to be shared. Bach, for example, wrote his music intending that it be improvised upon. At some concerts you can still hear musicians improvising as they play a Bach fugue. Improvisation, when done in the spirit of the work, enhances the piece and gives it depth much better than a completely accurate, note-by-note performance.
In order to improvise well, a musician must so deeply internalize the melody and framework of the song that they can create their own interpretation of that melody without betraying the original composition. We begin with our created selves, male and female, as God’s created melody. Then, we bring the music of God’s creation to life in our context. My femininity will look different than my neighbor’s or Joan of Arc’s or Priscilla’s, and that is good. It allows me to represent God faithfully in my context.
To improvise well, we not only need to know the music well, but we need a good teacher. We need a relationship with our Creator, who is both the composer and our teacher.
Christ: composer and teacher
I could not have learned the violin on my own. I am indebted to my teachers for patiently instructing me and challenging me, serving as guides as I learned where to put my fingers and how to hold my bow. I studied the way they played, and slowly, I began to increase in skill. I have since reached a point where I am able to improvise and play with my own unique voice. Without the guidance of my teachers, I would likely never have reached this point.
Jesus Christ is our teacher, and this changes everything. Jesus displayed God’s glory by becoming flesh and living among us (John 1:14). He shows us what it means to be fully human. And, Jesus’ redemptive work releases us to live the life God intended for us.
Gender is a part of the life that God intended for us, but God’s intent and society’s intent may look very different. When we become members of the kingdom of God, we are both accepting the score God has written for our lives and accepting Jesus as our teacher to help us interpret that score. Jesus, the Good Teacher, does what all good teachers do: he listens to his students. He knows that while certain techniques are necessary for all students, each student has unique needs and motivations.
Listening and practicing are the main ways a musician grows. As students in Christ’s kingdom, we must be in constant dialogue with our teacher concerning how we are to faithfully steward the life God has given us. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to gender. But, by being in conversation with our teacher, we learn how to live as gendered beings within our context. We learn how to live in his kingdom.
Kingdom: the performance
My least favorite part of being a musician is performing. I get terribly nervous and my hands start to shake. If you want to hear me play my best, you had better come to my practice session right before the recital. The reality is, however, that music is meant to be shared, so eventually, you just have to let go, forget about the audience, and play your best.
While the Christian life is not a “show” per se, it is more than play-acting until we go to heaven. We must live the lives we’ve been given. If we want to know what God’s kingdom looks like, we need only look to our teacher, Jesus.
Jesus welcomed poor fishermen, the lame, the blind, the bleeding. He did not seem to care that the world deemed these people ill-suited for the life that he saw in them. Jesus looked past the worldly categories imposed upon them and saw through to their worth in the image of God. We are called to do the same—to “regard no one from a human point of view” (2 Cor. 5:16). This extends even to the human perceptions of gender that we have for one another.
I am not suggesting that we ignore how we were created, as male and female. I am suggesting that part of recognizing that we were created also means recognizing that we live in a created world. Even our expectations of gender are created, and in this case they are created by us. As agents of Christ’s kingdom, we do not have to ignore what it means to be a man or woman in today’s society—to do so would be to divorce ourselves from our world, and therefore from our call to bring God’s kingdom to the earth.
Instead, we can affirm each person’s creation in the image of God, created by and for God’s love. What it means for one person to live as a man made in God’s image may be very different than what it means for another man to live out his creation in God’s image. This does not mean that one man is right and the other is wrong. It does mean that the image of God in him, not his maleness, is what is fundamental to his humanity. And it means that he is not defined by, nor should he be confined to, culturally prescribed roles based on gender.
By allowing each individual to live and flourish as one fully created in the image of God, the composer, we all more richly experience the beauty and diversity of God’s kingdom.