As students revolved in and out of the girl’s bathroom a poster of the Genderbread Person greeted them. Scotch-taped to the tile, the smiling “cookie” offered a clever guide to discovering identity. Scanning the silhouette figure from head to toe, girls learned that identity is a complex synthesis of how their brain thought, heart felt, and genitals appeared. A made-for-scissors dotted line encircled the figure emphasizing that they could shape these psychological and biological phenomena into whatever expression they chose. For at least one student the chart’s progressive take on gender was a painful reminder that her teachers still had much to learn: she scribbled across the wall, “I hate this f—— poster! How is it that teachers hang this up but make me, a trans boy, use the girl’s bathroom?!”
First, it begs for compassion. Killermann developed his tool out of care for confused kids, and although his anthropology is painfully problematic, this irenic bent ought to call forth properly disposed hearts in respondents. Forget for a moment the poster and any agenda it represents, and instead think of the fifteen-year old girl looking at it. She’s inundated with messages about sexuality and gender everyday, each suggesting she can be anything she wants and try anything she likes. The pressure on her to “look within” and “express without” a sexualized identity subtly cast her upon her sexual fortunes. Whatever identity she may choose, she lives under the tyranny of being her own author and creator—not always liberating for a teenager. If this poster elicits a response from the church, it must be imbued with compassion.
Second, the poster offers a wonderful opportunity for awareness. By awareness, I mean being in tune with what is really at stake when categories of gender and sexuality are revolutionized: our humanity. The Genderbread Person is a lesson in postmodern anthropology, the logical outworking of philosophical anti-foundationalism and deconstruction.
The Judeo-Christian architecture that supported the Western world was not merely helpful for ethics, but established foundations for understanding humanity. As the Western world loses its story, humanity loses a meaningful origin and distinct purpose. To use a few dense terms, the Genderbread Person proves that post-Christian humanity lacks an organizing epistemology, ontology, and teleology—identity is self-authored, being is fluid, and one’s purpose issues from within. In this sense, Killermann’s anthropology is coherent in its incoherence. There is no obvious continuity between body, mind and desire when it comes to identity. To say one’s body dictates identity makes it a fleshly straightjacket.
In her seminal book, Gender Trouble, feminist scholar Judith Butler forcefully articulates the philosophical foundation for this new version of humanity. Butler sets out to deconstruct the “myth” of binary sex and compulsory heterosexuality, and to exposes as fictitious the traditional link between biology and identity: the “epistemic/ontological regime of presumptive heterosexuality” had as “its logical precursor, binary gender,” she explains (fn1). Her major emphases include, 1) being female or male is not a natural fact, but social performance; 2) no essential continuity exists between sex (biology), gender, and desire; 3) and the traditional idea of a simple binary of maleness and femaleness (a two gender world) is “a fable irreducible to fact” (fn2) “The purpose [of this book],” she summarizes, “is to trace the way in which gender fables establish and circulate the misnomer of natural facts.” (fn3)
The Genderbread Person is the “incarnation” of Butler’s work, and reminds us that natural facts (biology) alone were never adequate foundations for human identity; grasping the mysteries of human existence and purpose have typically required divine Revelation. From Butler’s philosophical tome to Killermann’s cookie, we become aware of mankind without a Maker. A theological response requires, therefore, a turn to the doctrine of Creation.
Gender and The Doctrine of Creation
Moses begins the Pentateuch with creation not only because it makes for an epic introduction, but also because it establishes the epistemic and ontological foundation for the biblical worldview, especially when it comes to anthropology. The doctrine of creation “differentiates Christianity from other religious and worldviews” comments Millard Erickson (fn4). It also establishes at least three fundamentals to anthropology that deeply undermine the modern notions mentioned above.
1. We are our bodies:
When God creates man “in his own image,” we are immediately informed that, “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26 – 27). Significant is the shift in verse 27 from the more generic Hebrew term adam (humanity), to the gender specific zakar (male) and nqebah (female). This text is then followed by the command to “be fruitful and multiply” in verse 28. We can assume, therefore, that Genesis 1 understands human beings as either male or female, and grounds this identity marker in the concreteness of the body—the command to procreate could not be predicated on a psychological and fluid notion of maleness and femaleness, but requires anatomy.
The Bible clearly accounts for a more complex humanity than mere physicality—we have souls, hearts, minds, passions, etc.—however identity is never less than the body. Modern notions of transforming the body’s gender are not unlike the proto-Gnosticism Paul encountered in Corinth: they proceed on the assumption that the body does not determine human identity; it can either be discarded entirely (Gnosticism), or reshaped indefinitely (postmodern anthropology). Paul’s response to the Corinthians is helpful for us to hear: “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit . . . glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19 – 20. See also 1 Cor 15). The Genderbread Person, fit with scissor and scalpel, is the latest expression of Gnosticism.
2. We are not the authors of our bodies:
Human’s are irreducibly embodied, and a corollary to this is that we are not the ultimate authors of our identity, our Creator is. Genesis 1 and 2 are replete with verbs of creating; God is always the subject, creatures and creation the objects. The bible does not offer maleness and femaleness as a choice, but rather a gift. In a mysterious way, the bestowal of gender and the subsequent stewardship of it are part of one’s invitation to bare God’s image in this world (see Gen 1:26-27). This requires a posture of humility, obedience, and gratitude.
3. We have freedom, but within limitations:
The fact that God creates us in his image, either male or female, and invites us into co-creative stewardship of his world (Gen 1:28-29), suggests both purposeful boundaries and shocking freedom. On the one hand, God is turning over the care of his beautiful world to creatures. This represents real dignity and a shocking freedom to creatively tend to the Garden we call home. On the other hand, it is not an absolute freedom—we are finite, fragile and gendered. It was not Adam’s decision to represents his Maker as man; nor was it Eve’s decision to obey God as woman. In this sense, our gender calls for a deep trust in God’s goodness. It is neither arbitrary nor malleable, but part of how he designed us. Our created gender is integral, not incidental, to our identity.
Admittedly, the news that one’s body is a permanent marker of identity is not experienced as good news to those suffering with gender dysphoria (fn5). For those suffering with this very real psychological trauma, the doctrine of creation must be accompanied by a careful explanation of the Fall, Redemption and Restoration—all of which involve our embodied identity. Our Creator took on a body and by His resurrection forever affirmed the goodness of the body. One can assume, likewise, real continuity between Jesus’ pre- and post-resurrection body. Jesus’ identity is far more, but never less, than embodied. So too for us; we our, and always will be, our body.
This article in no way sets out to solve the complex issues of caring for dear friends with gender dysphoria. It also has left unaddressed important questions of the biblical guidelines for expressing, socially, the masculinity and femininity that is part of our gender. However, its aim has been to establish one essential thing regarding gender: it is rooted in the doctrine of Creation, and Christian engagement in the modern conversation must, winsomely, articulate this. We would do well to remember that when we affirm our faith in the words of the Creed, we begin with a statement not only about God, but also about us: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”
Fn1: Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, NY: Routledge, 1990), xxx.Fn2: Ibid. xxxiv.Fn3: Ibid. xxxiv.Fn4: Millard J. Erickson, Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), 393.Fn5: Gender Dysphoria is the technical term for an experience of gender identity whereby one’s birth sex does not cohere with their psychological and emotional sense of gender. For a helpful overview of this topic, by a Christian psychologist, see Mark A. Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015). Go here for a review of the book: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/book-reviews-understanding-gender-dysphoria-transgender-mark-yarnhouse
This post was written by Rob Sturdy