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... Jenner: Gender, Sexuality & the Image of God

Monday, June 8, 2015

Maybe we should just start doing what the Indonesians do and go by a single name.

And Malay languages like Indonesian, Malaysian (properly known as 'Bahasa Indonesia' and 'Bahasa Malaysia') and even the many dialects of the Philippines all lack gender in their pronouns, so maybe this problem of gender is a problem of language...  Looks like us Anglo-phones got a raw deal when our forebears gave up on that tower-thingy they were all building some years back...

But seriously - we're getting all tongue-tied over Bruce Call-Me-Caitlyn Jenner and all of the implications it has for a dynamic many among of us (meaning social conservatives) have come to call the 'culture wars'. The easy way out, of course, is to harden the walls of our ideological fortresses. I think there is a better - albeit much harder - way to respond.

First Things First - The Culture of Celebrity

In some ways we are simply reaping what we have sown. We Evangelicals have, in a significant sense, all but created the celebrity culture that now turns on us and our values.  From what passes for 'Christian' television today to church services which amount to little more than just another episode of Entertainment Tonight, to the selling of raffle tickets for the privilege of having dinner with a 'celebrity' pastor, we have taken the one thing that is actually guaranteed to be redemptive - the image of God with which we have been created - and bartered it for the opportunity to live someone else's charmed life for an hour or so.  If we grew up living vicariously through that heroic image on a box of Wheaties in the morning, why are we surprised that no one is waiting for us at the cultural finish line with that cultural championship trophy?  What were we running for, again?  A medal for living someone else's life?

This really isn't about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner or even about gender identity.  It isn't even about the 'culture' more broadly thought of.  It is, rather, about our proper place in the lives of the people that surround us today.  For us that place should be rooted in a relatively simple - but very profound - observation from the story of creation in Genesis.

Our uniqueness as persons comes from being created in the image of God.  But we have also been created 'male and female'.  And so our attention is divided between the ways in which we are like the animals - gender and sexuality - and the ways in which are like God.  Which of these two commands our greater attention, then, tells us everything we need to know - regardless of the gender-assignment decisions some celebrity decided to make.

A 'Hopefully Ordinary' Sense of Spirituality

On the back end of the Flood story in Genesis God promises not to destroy the earth again, but is also crystal-clear about requiring something of mankind.
Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man. (Genesis 9:5-6)
Something was lost when Cain murdered his brother Abel.  And it seems mankind stopped even looking for it by the time of the Flood.  But there was something about Enoch and later Noah.  The story tells us they "walked with God."

It is impossible to know exactly what this means.  I can perhaps imagine a literal walking alongside God.  And while I'd love to be thought of in such a rarefied spiritual sense, my own Christian life seems a bit more ordinary than that.  This is probably for the best, because if I did actually "walk with God" I am rather certain there would be a mega-church somewhere ready to make a spiritual celebrity out of me.  I wonder what we would call the cereal - 'Breakfast of Spiritual Superheroes'?  But I digress...

Even in that ordinariness, there is a sense in which I can see in myself the image of God - and then at least try to present that image to the people around me by seeing in them, too, that same image of God.

Might it be that "walking with God" is no more complicated, nor any more rarefied, than simply choosing to present in ourselves the image of God to others?  And to see in others that same image?  Maybe what was remarkable in the Genesis story had less to do with how "spiritual" Enoch and Noah were, but rather how the rest of the world had utterly abandoned this simple sense of being His image to each other.

So in choosing to see in ourselves and others the image of God we choose to be redemptive - that is, we choose to live the life God has given us to live (not someone else's for a hour), where he has given us to live it (rather than in the walls of a spiritual fortress), and among whom he given us to live it.

And this is hard.

Being Redemptive Means Being Uncomfortable

I do not know anyone personally who has undergone gender reassignment, so I am not quite sure how I would handle it if Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner were someone close to me.  What I am sure of us is that while manning the rhetorical ramparts of the culture wars might gain me some spiritual street cred, nothing of the image of God is guaranteed to show through the winning of an argument.

My wife and I went to a funeral the other day, and on the way home dropped by my parents' grave site.  Before that we went into a little grocery along the way to see if they had flowers.  The clerk I approached - if I am to be honest about my judgment of body language and behavior - was probably a gay man.  I am no more in agreement with the naturalness nor moral equivalence of homosexuality than I have at any point been, but I did notice in myself the desire to simply make the exchange between me and him a pleasant, polite exchange devoid of the baggage of cultural arguments.  I had no control over his affect.  But I certainly had control over mine - and the opportunity to have it reflect the image of God.

I suspect the course of time will only make being the image of God in my world more and more uncomfortable.  I suspect, as well, that meeting the challenge with the choice to be redemptive will then only become more and more important.

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