Our theme for the month of June is “Sex and the Church.”
Gender is not the same as sex. A bedrock maxim of contemporary gender studies, the statement won’t strike many as a pillar of an evangelical education. But it was one of the first things I learned at my Calvinist high school. Like the history of the American Revolution and Donut Wednesdays, you could say it played an outsized role in my high school life. I was taught to commit it to memory. Even today, it revisits me at times. Gender is not the same as sex.
I was making my way through my teens, surrounded by twentysome post-pubescent teens in sitting in a room with painted walls—a white, blossoming rose to our left, Victoria, the goddess of victory in a chariot drawn by four horses painted in front of us, black-and-white silhouettes of four tortured faces to our left, and a host of smiling faces standing atop a crumbling wall to our rear. Taken together, the images evoked a strange mix of elation, mystery, and fear. I guess they made for an apt backdrop for our curious refrain. Weekly we repeated the words. Gender is not the same as sex.
We were learning German, which, contrary to popular belief, is one of the world’s sexiest languages when spoken correctly.* Many people are saying this. Here’s the background. German nouns are all assigned a gender. Some words are masculine (der Ball—the ball), some feminine (die Tür—the door), and the rest are neutral [das Haus—the haus). The genders take on different forms depending on the case in which they’re used, enabling the speaker, depending on her mastery of the genders, one more potential pitfall or an extra degree of precision when reading or writing.
German is a compartmental language. To speak it well, you need to know how to recognize the elements—tense, gender, word order—and put them together in a form that makes sense. Mixing up the genders in German is a mistake equivalent to misemploying tenses in English. You can say, “I was kicking the ball through the door every Tuesday” and people will know what you mean, but the native ear is trained according to different rules.
And the rules are peculiar. Occasionally they are bound to some lasting truth and occasionally they seem arbitrary, as if Martin Luther got creative one ale-fueled evening and starting assigning verbs to the end of sentences as he saw fit.
The German word for “man” (der Mann) is masculine. The German word for “woman” (die Frau) is feminine. The German word for “boy” (der Junge) is masculine. But, as it adopts the diminutive suffix chen which always claims the neutral gender, the German word for “girl” (das Mädchen) is neutral. Mark Twain once said, “In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.” To that, my German teacher would have one reply: Gender is not the same as sex.
Every week, my post-pubescent peers and I sat in neat rows and repeated that refrain. Like the walls of our classroom, the language was a surround-sound swirl of syntax and separable prefixes in my head. In the midst of that chaos, these rules, these taught and repeated truths, were both a challenge and a comfort. They triggered further questions and offered a harbor for further study. They provoked learning and curiosity. They made German sexier.
Many people share a sense that the Church is obsessed with sex, that it’s all we talk about. My experience has been different. In the twenty-eight years I’ve spent as a churchgoer, I doubt I’ve heard enough sermons about sex to count on two hands. When I think back to experiences when I’ve been addressed about sex by a person of spiritual authority, I remember only interpretations of Song of Solomon, the requisite youth pastor youth group message, and a host of awkward times when wannabe cool worship leaders employ innuendo-laden verbs like “love on” (i.e. Jessica’s going through a lot right now so we’re just gonna love on her).
I would welcome a Church that speaks more about sex, a Church that teaches and repeats its truths, that is challenged and comforted by them. I would welcome a Church that, like a teenage student of a foreign language, surrounded by competing emotions and stirred by uncertainty, listens to its teacher and then opens its mouth to speak.