Gender and the “Authentic Self”

Dear Friends,

Over the holidays I started reading Nancy Pearcey’s new book, Love Thy Body, which has lots to do with the subject of men and women.

My first comment about the book is to say how heartened I am by the compassion Pearcey expresses for all who disregard their own body, or betray its natural function, or consider it a problem, not a gift.  Writing as a former agnostic, Pearcey personally understands how easy it is to fall prey to philosophical assumptions that clash with biblical truth and denigrate the value of the human body.  The whole tone of Pearcey’s treatise is gentle, forthright, and benevolent.  Simultaneously, it is loaded with intellectual content and sound theological teaching that clarifies the underlying issues that make gender and sexuality so confusing in our day.

In this blog I want to ponder a small portion of Pearcey’s discussion of the “authentic self.”  This section pierced me for a reason I will soon explain.

To begin, Pearcey recounts that a few years ago, Facebook announced that its users can identify themselves from among fifty different genders.  FB said it did this so that users could express their “true, authentic self.”

But as Pearcey plainly states, there are “not fifty biological sexes.”  There are only two:  male and female.  Male gender accords with a male body, and female gender accords with a female body.  Other genders are located in people’s feelings, not their bodies.

If we think through this, many questions soon arise:  What then, does this mean for the human body?  If someone’s chosen gender does not match their physical body, does that make their body irrelevant?  Or an object of disdain?  Or a piece of sexual putty that can surgically be transformed into any of these fifty different genders?  If we introduce gender options, must we do away with traditional categories of male and female?  Given all the disparity between gender and biology, is there even such a thing as a man or a woman?

Mind you:  I am not asking questions that arise from Scripture.  I am raising questions that logically surface when people assume there are fifty different genders (at the minimum) to identify themselves with.

When I saw that Pearcey alludes to a volume authored by a woman named Virginia Mollencott, I was halted by a poignant memory.

Flashback with me to 1998 when I attended a women’s conference at Harvard University and there saw for myself how pained a woman can be when she has an obvious preaching gift coupled with a troubled childhood and a deep misunderstanding of the gospel which she earnestly believes she learned at church.

Bear with me as I try to explain.

The volume Pearcey mentions that was written by Mollencott is ominously titled, Omnigender.  Rather than quoting from it, Pearcey quotes a line excerpted from a book review of it.  The reviewer of the book, highlighting Mollencott’s support for women’s ordination, says this:

“Arguments against women’s ordination need wholesale revamping since we do not know for sure now what a woman is.”

Apparently the argument against having only two genders — male and female  — serves as a polemic against the idea of having only one gender be eligible for ordination.

In other words, the idea of “omnigender” pertains to the issue of women’s ordination, not just sexuality and sexual orientation.

Now let me share some background information.  I met Virginia Mollencott in 1998 and heard her preach, and, believe me, her delivery is excellent.  She stood out, in my opinion, as by far the best speaker at the Harvard women’s conference.

Here’s what else I remember:  Her natural voice resonates; it is strong and low alto, not weak or high pitched.  As to her body, she is very overweight, not petite or model thin.  On the day I saw her, she wore a man’s three-piece suit and black tie as did her female partner.  Both dressed as men, yet the conference was exclusively for women.

Back in 1998 when I saw her, Dr. Mollencott, who holds a Ph.D. in English from New York University, had not yet written about the concept of omnigender, but she did openly say that she saw herself “as a man in a woman’s body.”

After her keynote address, I bee-lined up to her, acknowledged her intellect, praised her speaking ability and asked her what she was called when she was a girl.  She told me, “Ginny.”  Then tenderly I asked if I could touch her.  She nodded, yes, that I could.  So I cupped my hands on her face and beamed to her the love that I immensely felt for her and said, “Ginny, you’re a girl!  You’re so smart and pretty, and you have a fantastic speaker’s voice.  I’m so, so sorry that you were not encouraged in the church to use your formidable gifts.”

In response, she looked at me with a countenance of childlike vulnerability and astonishment and trust.  And though we had just met, she immediately started telling me about her childhood, about her ponytailed hair, and how she was molested, then sent off to boarding school since what happened to her was shameful in her Plymouth Brethren family and local church.  She also told me she was soon going public with her testimony, and that it was no longer private.

If ever there was a time that I doubled over in compassion, it was then.  In fact, I have never quite recovered from the knowledge of what she went through and the failure of the Christian community to care for a precious girl.

When Ginny was only six, she wept in Sunday School after hearing about the bloody crucifixion of Jesus.  She said the grown-ups were amused by her tears; by contrast, she was nonplussed by their dry eyes.  When she grew up, she became an active advisor to the committee of translators for the NIV Bible.  After that, when she came out as being a lesbian, she said she wanted to live responsibly in a covenant relationship and be true in her commitment to her partner.

It is relevant to note that Virginia Mollencott has a very high view of what it means to be created in the image of God.  So high that she says we do “not need to be cleansed” by the blood of Jesus.  You see, her legalistic background distorted the gospel by saying that people are something worse than sinners.  Ginny said she was taught that she is “evil.”

As to why and how a person as capable as Virginia Mollencott could eventually come to believe that gender is so fluid that it is basically “up for grabs,” as Pearcey puts it, the reasons relate to more than mere biology.

What I am trying to say is that people’s sense of “authentic self” is intertwined not only with philosophical underpinnings, but also with their pain and lived experiences.

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