What’s the Symbol? (Review of The Genesis of Gender, Part II)

(The following is Part II of a two part review. Part I is here.)

Academic Accolades

This book is a story of deep thinker who embeds her narrative in her life situation. Dr. Favale’s current situation, that of being a working academic married to a stay-at-home dad, shapes her thoughts. I always enjoy hearing from couples in such an arrangement. They are not the norm, but can be Biblically faithful and happy, provided they are clear on the asymmetries God commands for the relationship. I say, “Biblically faithful,” because the husband’s job, according to the Scriptures, is securing, which does not necessarily mean providing. The stay-at-home dad will never be the norm because providing is a chief way of securing most women. And most women want to put it all down to focus on their young children. But not all. Including, it seems, Dr. Favale. I wish her (gleefully large) family well.


The book displays many examples of clear thinking often found in the academy. But the professor unfortunately falls short when she gets to gayness, where she accepts the category of orientation to describe the same-sex attracted. With all her emphasis throughout the book on scientific evidence, it is surprising she whizzes right by questioning this category, merely asserting:


There are certainly people for whom the directionality of attraction is fixed toward the same sex (p200).


Her advice for them is to remain celibate and find a higher purpose to their desires. This position would make her an unfortunately limiting counselor to those who struggle. But then, she lives in the academy where, despite the lack of scientific evidence, this view goes unquestioned. And with the Catholic Church’s long history of comfort with celibacy, the need to question it does not press so strongly.


Places to Grow

Unlike the Bible’s treatment of women and men, which typically addresses distinctions of both at the same time, men are not recognized for their distinction in Dr. Favale’s writing. It may be that she feels this a distraction from her project. Or she may have felt it would unnecessarily alienate some in her audience she would like to win, some who are yet laboring in one of the previous phases of feminism she outlines having passed through. It may also be that the jury of her mind is still out on these things, that she is still trying to understand.


Whatever the reason, she remains quiet on how the genders, especially the masculine kind, work beyond child-bearing, in the home or church. She recognizes no asymmetry between man and woman in the creation: “There is no sense here [in the Genesis account] of hierarchy between male and female, but rather a shared benevolent governance over the rest of creation” (p36). That statement highlights an important cooperation preached in  the passages, but does not faithfully represent the taxis the text portrays between the two co-regents. In all of this, Dr. Favale is doing justice to Genesis 1 but not Genesis 2. The absence in her treatment of a fuller statement could mislead one into thinking that there is no original ordering at all. Which seems to be Dr. Favale’s position. She will only introduce the concept of asymmetry (hey, great word!) when it comes to the fall in Genesis 3 (pp48-49). Like many modern writers, she expands on the consequent breakdown of relationship in the man’s sinful domination, “he shall rule over you,” for several paragraphs, but ignores the woman’s part in the breakdown “your desire will be for (over) him.”


In this, the professor is like much of the church currently, really bothered by trans but unwilling to connect the dots to gayness and behavioral asymmetry in men and women toward one another. If we do not connect these dots, we do not do the Bible justice. Therefore, we do not effectively restore the true and beneficial image in peoples’ lives. So, though she does a good bit of good theology, Dr. Favale fails in achieving the comprehensive theory (or theology) of gender she seeks.


A Fuller Picture

A fuller picture would aid her key concept of telos, that is, the purpose or end of our bodies should guide our lives. This mother does not talk about her body’s telos as intimacy, but only childbirth. So Sons come before Husbands in the sentence. Her breasts are gifts to her children, but she is silent about the gift they are to her husband. It leaves the impression that covenantal lovemaking is a necessary but maybe not entirely pleasant job along the way.


If the Church (Catholic and Protestant) is going to make it through the gender maze, She must recognize all these problems as one and the same. She must be willing to understand trans, gayness, intimacy failure and the denial of gender difference in church and family as different parts of the same elephant, wherever of it our hand might be momentarily touching. This is why I, for one, refuse to separate them in teaching and preaching. Leaving these subjects as disparate islands leaves those with ears to hear without what they actually need for a bright future.



What’s the Symbol?

The last chapter of most books is filler. Maybe the author will tie some strings together or offer inspiration. But I found the last chapter of The Genesis of Gender most rewarding—here Pr. Favale lets herself go. With the help of Hildegard of Bingen and Wendell Berry, the fertile thoughts fly furiously, each of which could be a book on its own:


Christianity…is thoroughly teleological. The “whatness” of a thing [like our body], its essential identity, is connected to its purpose.


It is not possible to embrace oneself by rejecting one’s body.


Women’s bodies are [considered] too porous, too open to the selfhood of another…Thus female fertility is…treated as a disease. Sexuality and fertility become disconnected.

Many of the self-told stories from within the gender paradigm express a desire to feel at home with oneself…I hear…the clamor of genuine human longing.


The human being contains the likeness of heaven and earth within her.


She intuitively recognizes the need to vision-cast for our gender-demolished culture, and so launches an incisive discussion of symbol. She suggests that of which the Genesis gender paradigm of conjugal union is symbolic: the relationship between God and humankind. This certainly has a Scriptural case behind it. The woman is a symbol of humanity, designed to receive the love of God. The man is like God, standing apart and transcendent and endowing life from himself. She skirts over the masculine quickly (to avoid detection?) and stresses that this is only metaphor. Her skilled descriptions are nuanced enough that they should not be misunderstood to imply that men are better than women. But they likely will be. It can be a beautiful analogy, but does this by itself do justice to woman made in God’s image?


This is the reason, I think, that God gives us another mirror, with another Scriptural case to be made, rooting gender even more deeply in God Themself. The Divine “In Our Image” stresses the equality of men and women and highlights the value of each, as well as maintaining the taxis that orders them, like that among the Divine Persons of the Trinity, which we symbolize.


Dr. Favale ends the book with Mary, the willing mother of Jesus, though without using her name. This is understandable, given all that has come before, and the presentation of woman as the paradigm of humanity receiving the life of God within us. The handmaiden of the Lord conjures a fitting close to a call for us all to say ‘yes’ to God and receive the gift of our gendered bodies.


Let us rejoice over this important offering, and how this repentant gender studies professor helps the whole Church’s exploration along.



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