Brian Zahnd recently tweeted something I found so profound and now I’m thinking…

Babel was about everyone speaking one official imperial language. Pentecost is about the borderless God who speaks in every language.

— Brian Zahnd (@BrianZahnd) May 22, 2013

I was prepared to dominate English 101 at university; I had read almost every single book in the catalogue, I had high honours from high school, I was confident (okay, fine, an irritating slip of a teenage know-it-all). English 101? In the words of Kristen Howerton, come at me, bro.

The very first book we studied was new to me; a collection of essays by well-known writers and linguists about how we use and mis-use words, co-opting our language for political, marketing, and ideological purposes. Culturally, we use our words, and yet their meaning is muddy. It was my first foray into the outer limits of postmodern thought, and I remember reading these essays like I was drinking from a firehose: it was too much new information all at once. I remember one essay in particular; the author argued that we cannot use subjective words such as “feminine” as a descriptor of women because, by very nature of womanhood, if you are a woman, then it is, in fact, regardless of stereotypes, feminine.

If I am a woman, and I am doing it, it is, by statement of fact, womanly.

My eighteen-year-old mind was blown.

I had a very clear – and narrow – idea of what femininity or womanly meant in those years. Those beliefs were more informed by culture wars than Scripture. I came to realize that my understanding of these words was based more on pop culture, bad theology, and advertising than on the actual words themselves. And years later, when I began to study the kaleidoscope of womanhood in Scripture, and experience the freedom of Christ with the broad gorgeousness of the church, culture, and terrible beauty in the world, I began understand that words, so easily tossed around, matter. Words matter, particularly when we apply them to people, and words have power.

I have had an uneasy and respectful relationship with words, particularly words of religion, sex and gender, politics and ideology ever since.

Language is a responsibility. Scripture affirms this truth: our words have power.

A few weeks ago, we were at a Christian bookstore. There is only one in our city and it’s an independent shop. Brian gets most of his commentaries from retiring pastors in the area who have off-loaded their life’s work to the used book section, and I do like to prowl through the stacks while he’s weighing the entire new arrivals section. In the women’s section of the store, I again noticed the trend of divisive language cloaked in soft colours.

Critical thinking is one of the better habits I picked up in higher education, along with an awareness of my own ignorance, an appreciation for the humanities, and the ability to cook an entire meal using only a hot pot and the expired contents of a communal fridge. My critical thinking went into overdrive in that bookshop because there is actually no such thing as true womanhood or real femininity. We only have our culturally and contextually conditioned versions of those words, they are not clear.

We use words like “true” and “real” in reference to womanhood or motherhood or marriage, and I think it’s wrong to do this.

We use these words like they are freeing or universal or helpful, but they are forging new chains for a new law.  There is no such thing as “real” woman or a “real” man. If you are a man, you are a real man. If you are a woman, you are a real woman.

Love of a ChildThe funny bit of perhaps-irony is that from the outside, my life even likely affirms those narrow descriptors of “true” womanhood. After all, I married young, I am a stay-at-home mother of three tinies, I care for our home and family, I cook, I clean, I fold laundry, and I honour my husband. And yet, the doing of these things do not make me a “real” woman. If I worked outside the home or if I never got married or if I did not or could not have children or if I burnt supper, it does not make me less of a real woman, particularly when one is in Christ. One need only open their eyes (or more radically, read their Bible) to see women all around us who do not meet these narrow and misleading definitions of “real” or true” and yet live and move and have their being in their full womanhood, affirmed as daughters of the King. Womanhood in Christ must mean more than these words propose.

And that wholeness, that realness, that trueness, is not represented by marital status or income level, adherence to a sitcom society that never existed or a division of modern labour. You are a true woman. You are a true man. Already.

The implication of words like “true” and “real” is that if you do not meet their arbitrary standard, then somehow you must be a fake woman or an unreal woman or less-of a woman. Maybe these words are used more to affirm our own beliefs and life choices, maybe it’s out of fear, or a loss of power, or a lack of real thoughtfulness. Rachel Held Evans wrote an entire book about how the word “biblical” is a pretty terrible adjective in front of “womanhood” for this same reason.

This is why words matter, and why I don’t like the use of subjective language to burden and divide in the name of God.

I believe that part of God’s Kingdom includes the wholeness of restored image-bearers of God, working and living and loving in beautiful communion together. Carolyn Custis James calls it “the blessed alliance” and it’s not exclusive to married couples by a long shot. The blessed alliance is what happens when men and women are both walking in the fullness of their unique gifts and callings, in wholeness and in right relationship with God and each other, it’s what happens when we are restored in God’s Kingdom.

I celebrate the differences between men and women, I do, although I’m wary of universalizing traits, temperament, and personalities for entire genders. In our culture, we do use words like “womanly” and “feminine” to describe certain types of women, and there is a tacit agreement about what those words mean. But in the Kingdom of God, we are not reliant on the world’s culture to affirm and celebrate each other.

And words like “true” and “real” in reference to womanhood or manhood are not celebrating the differences. They are narrow, misleading descriptors, a one-size-fits-all paper-thin straw man argument.

They are words that divide and agitate and burden, there is no freedom in this language. This is cookie-cutter language, this is not the language of the Cross, and it is not the language of the Kingdom of God. There is no Gospel in a new law with extra requirements and add-ons to life in Christ.

I believe that in the Kingdom of God, true womanhood and true manhood is not so different from true personhood. Christ came to unveil what it means to be fully human, and to reconcile us with our Father, and to save us, set us free, heal us, to walk us out into our created purposes and wholeness. He calls us by name, not by a number. Words have creative power, words can build up or tear down, set free or forge chains. Words matter, and words mean things.

image source: Judy Drew, Love of a Child

(These musings were also helped along this morning by a Twitter convo with @JesusRockStar@CarisAdel, and @SarahBostAskins.)


In which it's an ordinary Pentecost
In which I'm into some things (May 2013 edition)
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  • Yes, I love this! Sometimes when people say “A real man does…” I like to say “Whatever you’re doing, that’s what a real man does. Because you’re a real man. And you’re doing it.”

    I think sometimes we all need the reminder/affirmation that we’re real and true humans.

  • I’m just going to lay here and take this all in, because this is fabulous!

  • Chuckled at the bit about critical thinking skills gained from higher ed and the subsequent awareness of our own ignorance. Just had the “okay, thank you, you were right” talk with one of my old profs the other day. We both smiled and hugged. It was great. I’m so thankful for the ways that actually studying language didn’t just change my writing or reading comprehension, but my politics, relationships, and spiritual understandings. Anyway, beautiful post, friend.

  • Verdekt

    I don’t know how to say this exactly, and I want to be careful because it is a tricky issue. You have stated some really beautiful ideas here, and I agree with the uselessness of defining a “real” man or woman as an arbitrary standard. I think what I most want to do is invite the consideration of our transgendered brothers and sisters, who may want to expand this to include physical characteristics. If I feel lost and hemmed in by discussion of “real” manhood and womanhood as someone who has never experienced conflict about my gender identity, I cannot imagine how it must be for them. So statements like “If you are a man, you are a real man. If you are a woman, you are a real woman.” seem to me like they must also be made with a due amount of responsibility.

  • This is such an important post. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the gender debate recently, from both sides, and I have to agree with you. Obviously the use of words is not something confined to the gender debate, but it’s a debate where labels and words like ‘real’ and ‘true’ do get tossed around a lot – often with the best of intentions. But we really do have to be careful how we use our words. I recently wrote a guest post on a female friends’ blog which was a letter to the women of the world (from me) – and despite being a feminist and egalitarian to my core, I still found there were words coming out which could easily be misinterpreted, and it took a few drafts to get the final post out – which rarely happens with my writing.

    My hope is I will be writing more on this topic in future, and this is a post I will refer to again and again, because we must bear our language in mind.

    One major conclusion I have found on the debate itself though is when you live in an egalitarian world, a world of true equality, then the same values apply in our treatment of the all people, whatever their gender. We should not feel the need to say ‘men should be empowering women’ or ‘women should be encouraging men’ for example – it should be ‘we should all empower and encourage one another’ – and labels no longer apply. Obviously men and women will always be men and women, and thus be different in some ways. But the essential values – love, respect, dignity, grace, justice, mercy and forgiveness, apply in our treatment of all people, whatever gender. And calling is not limited to gender either, both genders can be called to whatever God chooses and equips them for. When equality comes, gender ceases to be an issue, or a label.

    Really thought provoking post Sarah – now even more excited by your upcoming book. 🙂

  • “I believe that in the Kingdom of God, true womanhood and true manhood is not so different from true personhood. ” I’m good with that.

    Blessed Pope John Paul II, a.k.a. Karol Wojtyła wrote “an entire book” on that called “Love and Responsibility” where he also talked about the nature of “betrothed” love, i.e. true love which is grounded in a total and mutual giving of self to the other which itself is based in a proper understanding of “unique unrepeatable human reality”. That was in 1960. Yup.

  • This is a breath of fresh air today.

  • So much strong, gorgeous freedom here.

  • I love this so much! The whole concept of the “real” hearkens back to the Platonic forms. Do we really know the “real” table? Or just how the idea has been interpreted by culture, religion, gender, etc? Glad to help spark some good ideas, dear friend.

  • sarah

    whenever i talk about gender roles, particularly in the context of the church, what seems most true and shining to me is the proclamation that our understandings of what is “normal” and “appropriate” for men and women MUST not get in the way of the call of God. you say it beautifully here: “(The Kingdom looks like men and women) walking in the fullness of their unique gifts and callings, in wholeness and in right relationship with God and each other…”

    it is more important to heed the call of God than to fit perfectly into a cultural prescription of what it means to be a woman or man.

    we are so easily taken in by language that shames and puts us into tiny little boxes. thank you for reminding us that living in the Kingdom of God, here and now, means being restored into wholeness, on God’s terms, which usually turn the world’s assumptions on their heads…

  • Preach it, Sarah. Amen.

  • ReJoycingToday

    I just hollered out “Yes!” at the top of my lungs. Good thing I’m home alone. I’ve tried so many times to say that (if you’re a woman then what you do is by default, feminine) and people just look at me like I’m nuts. I’d give you a big hug if I could. Thank you.

  • ((hugs)) to you Sarah Bessey! Our words have power. I need to be reminded.

  • Abby Turner

    I was just expressing those exact thoughts to a friend this last weekend. Glad to hear I’m not alone in this train of thought.

  • Amanda B.

    I am summoning every ounce of self-control to not simply comment by caps-spamming “THIS” about a hundred times. Excellent post.

  • Ack! I’m guilty! And that is NOT the impression I want to give my girls, who are by nature completely different than me or each other. They need to know who God created them to be, not what a Christian society expects them to be.
    Great Post!!

  • Your words breathe peace and courage and joy, and I’m so very glad that you write them.

  • Miles O’Neal

    This is so good! And real and true. 8^) I shared it on FB before commenting.

    Words matter. Language matters. I deplore the way we constantly destroy or rearrange the meaning of words in detrimental ways such as you discuss here.

    Recently I was the victim of an abuse of the word “love”– perhaps the most egregious word abuse. Telling someone you love them every time you do something that tears them down (or worse) is abhorrent.

  • I mean really I do. Nuff said.

  • Sarah, this has been the basis for much of my emotional anguish about my infertility problems–questioning whether I am a “real woman.” These thoughts have been the worst tyranny in my life.

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  • pastordt

    Oh my goodness, YES. Thank you for this fine thinking, this good writing. EXACTLY right – true womanhood/manhood IS true personhood. And yes there are differences to be celebrated and enjoyed. But there truly is no one-size-fits-all definition of ‘real’ or ‘true’ or ‘biblical.’ Just lovely, Sarah. And helpful, too.

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