A lot of my reading at the moment is around the subject of difference. This week I've been looking at the concept of masculinity and femininity. Or rather concepts, I should say. Because the one thing that emerges from even a quick scan of history is that whether it is about race, gender or background we are constantly trying to create categories. To make a mould and stuff people in it. This partly comes from a natural desire to categorize and make sense of the world but the problem comes when our understanding of the world is far too small.
Masculinity and femininity is a great example. The idea that there is one way to be a man and one way to be a woman is, quite frankly, utter tosh. And yet the desire to force people to conform to an idea that we as a society have developed as ideals can easily be seen when you look at the labels for those who don't fit. Enter the tom boys and effeminates, the geeks and the goths, the power women and the under the thumb man.
All these are considered aberrations. Deviations from the norm and, on some level, from what is natural and right. But natural is a massively over stated idea. Studies in cultures around the world tell us that what we assume to be natural for men and women in our culture is by no means the case in all cultures. In some cultures men raise the children, in some women do the bulk of the manual labour.
Historically it is possible to trace ideas about men and women changing over time. Our modern idea of femininity seems to have emerged during the Victorian Era. Before that women were considered to be sexual predators who needed to be contained by marriage (quite like men are often depicted today) and by their very nature inferior, intellectually and morally. By the end of the Victorian era women were held up as sexually disinterested and the ultimate example of piety.
Unfortunately a lot of these boxes have been religiously sanctioned. In fact my dissertation is about one such concept of the ideal male and female and how the Victorian ideal has been seen, in recent decades, as God's design for humanity. You would probably have guessed that I am not a great fan of this idea already but this week I particularly found myself thinking about what my faith really does have to say positively about these issues. Is it just a modern, gut instinct in me that says we should accept people in all their difference or is there actually anything to back it up?
Well this is where I am thankful for the veritable feast of oddballs whose stories are recorded in the Bible. Women leading the battle, men weeping, prostitutes saving the day, women four times divorced, pregnant teenagers, they're all in there and all held up as examples. Battered by life, a bit of a mess sometimes, but utterly beloved by God.
I deeply believe that the gospel is, at its core, a great big yes to us in all our variety. Jesus has no problem associating with those society considered to be abnormal or outcasts. The Apostle Paul who wrote most of the letters of the New Testament makes the bold claim that, drop the labels, we are all one in God. Jew, Greek, Male, Female, Slave, Free, Rich or Poor.
So what do you say? Shall we smash up the boxes? I think that the world might just be so much more interesting than our boring old norms and stereotypes would have us believe.