"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, June 10, 2011

God, Sex, and Gender

Adrian Thatcher's new book, God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), xii+271pp.
came to me in a hardcover textbook format. And that, indeed, is how it is written, as he makes clear in the introduction: for use as a textbook in an introductory or undergraduate survey course in theology or religious studies.  It is written with admirable clarity by an author who clearly takes almost nothing for granted--as one cannot do today with students, even those claiming to have grown up in a Christian home. Knowledge of Christian history, of doctrinal tradition, even of basic catechesis can no longer be assumed, alas. So students starting out with Thatcher's book will find it helpfully explains terminology and assumes little or no previous knowledge.

The book is, therefore, to be commended for its clarity and accessibility, at least as far as its prose goes. But students and others will find their knowledge of orthodox Christian doctrine--both East and West--darkened by the author's relentless agenda in pursuit of what he at least honestly calls "progressive or revisionist themes" (x) from his own Anglican background. If you were to re-title this book "An Apologia for Anglicanism's Sexual Heterodoxy" you would not be amiss.

Nevertheless, the author helpfully raises a number of important and useful questions about how Christians understand sex and gender. E.g., he rightly notes that "modern theological views of gender are essentialist" (19), and that raises all kinds of problems, as many others have noted over the years. He raises some interesting questions about what it means for Jesus Christ to be male and these questions have the salutary effect of at least disturbing people out of their mild, polite bourgeois notions of Jesus as this anodyne, perhaps even vaguely androgynous figure. At one point he discusses briefly and vaguely artistic representations of Jesus, but does not pay any attention to many important books treating icons of Christ, some of which often raise curious questions about "gender."

Thatcher helpfully--but too briefly--avers to the essay of Miroslav Volf in Gospel and Gender: A Trintarian Engagment with Being Male and Female in Christ. There, Volf argues that we cannot deny sexual difference between men and women, but ultimately we should look for its meaning not in cultural conventions, or extra-biblical, very modern, and, frankly, poorly argued theories of "complementarity." Rather, we should try to find "the significance of difference within God" (152). That is very true, but very much remains a desideratum in almost all such theological reflection today that I have seen.

Eastern Christian traditions are generally ignored unless they can be made to fit with Thacher's agenda. Section 3.1.1, "The Churches and the Sources" inexplicably and totally ignores the entire East, and instead concentrates on Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists--with a brief note about Southern Baptists preceding it. In general, one cannot rely on him to explain adequately or well traditional and o/Orthodox doctrine. In one place he writes, confusingly, "blessings are not marriages (even though the Orthodox Churches regard the blessing of the marrying couple as the priestly act that makes them married)" (179). It is not clear what that sentence is supposed to mean, but it seems that only a Western Christian could have written it. Western Christians, especially from the scholastic period onward, seem fascinated with (bothered by? obsessed over? guilty of fetishizing?) which "act" or "moment" is the one when the sacrament "really" happens. (To be fair, some Orthodox Christians, especially converts from Western traditions, are just as obsessive about, e.g., an "epiclesis.")

In sum, then, this book raises a few helpful questions, and offers some decent bibliographies at the end of each chapter for people wanting to read further. But it is, as noted above, very limited for all the reasons mentioned.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this review, Dr. DeVille. I was waiting for someone to review this book before I bought it. I am familiar with Thatcher's revisionism and wanted to know if his bias will obscure the subject matter. After reading your review, it does. Nevertheless,I probably will purchase this book and use as a reference.


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