For Christians the prototypes of Adam and Eve establish a foundational narrative for gender identity, but does this make it any easier to determine what is intuitively masculine and feminine?
Whether or not you affirm a literal Adam and Eve you likely agree that their role in Scripture has something to do with establishing the “norm” of gender distinction and gender identity. Male and female are different. There is much that is shared, but at a very basic level we are different biologically. It is from this difference that we humans construct gender distinction through cultural expressions. And while many cultures share similar traits it is hard to find many things that transcend cultures and epochs as universal “masculine” or “feminine” traits.
In Scripture the Apostle Paul seems to argue that head-coverings or possibly uncut hair are norms taught to us by nature (unless he is quoting something said by the Corinthians as some argue). He writes that nature itself teaches us that men should have short hair and women long hair, but does it (οὐδὲ ἡ φύσις αὐτὴ διδάσκει ὑμᾶς ὅτι ἀνὴρ μὲν ἐὰν κομᾷ, ἀτιμία αὐτῷ ἐστιν, γυνὴ δὲ ἐὰν κομᾷ, δόξα αὐτῇ ἐστιν; ὅτι ἡ κόμη ἀντὶ περιβολαίουδέδοται, 1 Corinthians 11.14-15)? What if Paul would have encountered people groups in Africa or modern women in the United States? Why don’t they seem aware of this?
What may seem obviously masculine or obviously feminine in one culture is not so in another. There was a time when it was masculine to join the army and go to war. Women and children remained behind, likely because one man can produce many children, but every pregnancy requires an individual woman, so we humans learned that our survival allows for many men to expire, but not many women. For various reasons this is not a convincing argument for preventing a woman from joining the United States Army. What changed?
If you’ve read anything from people like Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, et al., you realize that there are many male Christian leaders and thinkers who are concerned with the changes they see in culture. Often they appeal to a “biblical manhood” that looks more like something you’d see on Mad Men than first century Galilee or ancient Israel (remember: the “Proverbs 31 woman” is an entrepreneurial figure who works, does business, does politics, and finds herself fully integrated into ancient Israelite society…she is no Betty Draper)!
I sense that Christians are quite confused at this juncture in the history of western society. We are transitioning out of the industrial age, many men seeing their manual labor jobs given to machines, and many more women are entering the workforce (rightfully so). I know of some youth pastors who say that it is difficult to know how to teach young men how to embrace and express their maleness. I assume this is why some of the aforementioned folk gravitate toward expressions of gender from a more black-and-white era. Yet anyone who knows anything about the 50′s and 60′s is very, very aware that it was unfair to both men and women. Women weren’t allowed to fulfill their full potential as humans and neither were men who were taught that their role was that of a “bread winner” whose sole job was to “provide.” Many of these men found themselves retired as strangers to their wife and children. Many of these women found themselves experiencing an existential crisis realizing that there is more to life than reproducing and washing dishes (though there is nothing wrong with those tasks, obviously, there is more to being a woman than those things).
So returning to a “golden age” to recover “the way we never were” (as sociologist Stephanie Coontz describes it) is not the best idea in my estimation, nor a realistic one.
Yet (!) we know as men and women we are different, even if it is at a very basic, minimal level. What does it mean to create and maintain healthy gender distinctions so that people can develop a gender identity? Surely it has nothing to do with boys wearing blue and girls wearing pink or boys playing with trucks while girls play with dolls. This is inculturation, whether good, bad, or neutral. It has little to nothing to do with being ontologically male or female. If a girl wants to play baseball and a boy wants to be a pastry chef we know this is fine, even if there are gender stereotypes associated with them. A boy can do ballet while retaining a masculine identity. A girl can joined the armed forces while retaining a feminine identity.
So what does it mean to be made in the image of God–male and female? What makes masculinity and femininity? What role does culture have in establishing norms and how to we avoid “othering” people who don’t align to our superficial stereotypes?