Too often discussions on gender devolve into questions of hierarchy and power. Are men more important than women? Are women exactly equal to men? Who is in control? Who has more authority? Fully Alive sidesteps that issue, looking for a Biblical center that bypasses the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate. Sadly, it doesn't quite make it.
Author and well-respected Christian psychologist Larry Crabb heads back to scripture, attempting to find out “what God had in mind when he made a woman feminine and when he made a man masculine.” Gender, he says, is a way that humans, made in God's image, "reveal something wonderful about God," specifically through the way men and women relate. A man who is relating the way a man should is a "masculine man;" it has nothing to do with stereotypes. So far so good.
But how should a man or woman relate to others? The answer, Crabb says, can be found by examining... the meaning of the two Hebrew words for male and female. Wait, what?
From the book:
With these two Hebrew words, zakar and neqebah, the idea of gender is introduced as the relational expression of a person's sex.
From a Christianity Today article:
Neqebah (female) means one who is open to receive, has an invitational style of relating. And zakar (male) means one who remembers something important and then does it.
According to Crabb, women should relate to people by being "open" and "inviting." Men should relate to people by "moving" into people's lives. Women want others to come and be nurtured. Men want to make a difference. Women invite movement; men move. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with this theory, setting aside his shaky exegesis. Generic claims like "all women fear invisibility" and "all men fear insignificance" are really two ways of expressing the human need to be wanted, and he acknowledges that.
The problem is with his conclusion, or more specifically the language surrounding his conclusion. Men and women, he claims, who are not living as fully feminine or masculine are in some form of "relational sin." When a women is "closed off" she is in relational sin. When a man is "stopped" he is in relational sin.
In general terms, yes, people who are closed off from others and who are complacent about approaching others are probably in some form of sin. But the way Larry Crabb frames his argument, one gets the impression that this form of sin is wrong simply because one isn't living up to his standards of gender. He repeatedly claims that one can be an unmasculine or unfeminine Christian and probably still be saved. But he believes that God is more pleased with Christians who are truly masculine or truly feminine.
When Crabb talks about the gospel he is right on track, and quite inspiring. When he starts using verses that are about the gospel as proof that one must live as a "moving" man or an "open" woman he begins to fall off the track and head into the ditch of legalism. The truth is we are already fully alive in Jesus Christ, and the gospel is transforming us into better men and women as a result of our sanctification, our moving into conformity with Christ. Being truly "masculine" or "feminine" is not the end goal.
In many ways, this is an important and needed book. That's why it's frustrating that Dr. Crabb's exegesis is so shallow, and on that shallow basis dips into legalism. The Biblical texts that actually talk about the responsibilities of men and women are either eschewed entirely, or brought into submission to his theory. Frankly, the responsibility to open our hearts to others, to move toward others, and to do good works applies to every Christian. Are there differences in the way men and women will act on this responsibility? Of course. And there's a great deal of practical and helpful advice in this book that Christians need to hear. Just keep the unhelpful aspects fully in mind.
Review by Lauren Shearer
Lauren Shearer writes words for fun and profit. She also makes films, but everyone knows you can't make a profit doing that. Her other hobby is consistently volunteering way too much of her time. You can read more of her reviews here
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