The other day, a wide-ranging conversation with a Christian friend touched down briefly on the subject of Biblical arguments for and against women in ministry. She herself is fully supportive of women clergy, but has long attended a church that would not hire a woman pastor, and whose elders are all male. In what she no doubt intended as an uncontroversial observation, my friend said, “Of course, female as well as male imagery is used for God in the Bible, but Jesus himself was clearly male,” and I, only half in jest, volleyed back, “Or so he appeared.”
Kittredge Cherry’s Jesus in Love Blog has widened my horizons with respect to female and genderqueer reinterpretations of Christian imagery. Add that to my growing friendship with our local transgender community, and you can see where I came up with the notion that maybe, just maybe, one could picture an intersex Jesus who merely presented as male! I’m not saying that I believe this as a historical fact, but I’m exploring its usefulness as a devotional aid, a poetic gloss to make the “facts” more accessible to a non-patriarchal reading, a teasing detail that supplements and enriches the gospels without directly contradicting the eyewitness reports.
This imaginative experiment was definitely a bridge too far for my friend! She struggled to articulate why she found “Christa” images such a troubling departure from authentic doctrine. The best wording we could find, after a fascinating and all-too-brief discussion, was that the female Jesus “disrespects the specificity of the Incarnation”.
In other words, she was concerned that “Christa” dismisses the unique Lordship of Jesus Christ, implying that “Christ” is a mere role that anyone could play. A woman on a cross with a crown of thorns is not the real Jesus, the historical personage traditionally worshipped by the church, but only an actor with props.
I do see how messing with traditional depictions of Jesus can inch us closer to a liberal watering-down of the Incarnation as merely one among many possible manifestations of the “Christ-nature in us”. I don’t want to go there any more than my friend does. But still, I pushed back a little bit.
How, I asked, is a female Jesus more heretical than the black Jesus in the devotional art created by African Christian communities–or, for that matter, more heretical than the European transformation of their Semitic messiah into Warner Sallman’s blond beauty queen?
We were stumped. My friend realized she was more comfortable with Jesus crossing racial lines than gender ones, but we both needed more time to consider whether this distinction made sense.
Let me note here that “Christa” isn’t my preferred way to picture Jesus. Having grown up in an all-female household, I need the balance supplied by the masculine or gender-transcending side of God. I also find that contemporary goddess spirituality can emphasize the unindividuated, nurturing, sentimental aspects of womanhood in a way that I find cloying. Kali the Dark Mother is more my kinda gal.
However…I would insist on the legitimacy of “Christa” because I believe the spirit of the New Testament is against hard-wired inequalities. The Christian tradition has shed many of the particulars of the man called Jesus: his artistic icons and his clerical representatives don’t have to be Jewish, Middle Eastern, younger than 33, or working-class. Let’s pass over, for now, the assumption that Jesus had a heterosexual orientation, for which there’s no evidence in Scripture either way.
Is gender alone more fundamental than our shared humanity, the one aspect of human nature that even Christ could not take on? Is what made Jesus different from women more important than what he had in common with us? That’s a prescription for permanent second-class citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. Definitely not what the gospels are about.
Maybe the sexism is easier to spot outside the emotionally fraught context of sacred imagery. A quick tour through popular culture shows us that the female role is the one imaginative leap that little boys must never, ever be allowed to make. Your three-year-old son can pretend to be a little
soldier, a dinosaur, or a monkey, but God forbid he tries
on a tutu. When a kid dresses up as a washing machine for Halloween, we don’t worry that he’s going to start eating detergent and dirty socks, but we become strict and panicked literalists about children’s imaginative reinterpretation of props that adults have gender-tagged.
Personally, I think this sends the message that girls aren’t human. A boy in a tutu is like dressing up as a turd. A turd can’t help looking like a turd, in fact it should, so we can avoid stepping in it, but why would you want to be one? What’s wrong with you?
Check out the discussion on this parenting blog. Even the parents who don’t personally have a problem with their kid’s explorations admit that they’ve told him to keep this side of himself private because of school bullies. Now, I agree with teaching your children that it’s not dishonorable to be discreet in unsafe environments. But it troubles me that these parents aren’t sharing their critique of the bullies’ prejudices with their child, an omission that can shame a child about his non-masculine play.
If Jesus were a little boy, would Mary let him paint his toenails pink?