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Unpacking the Gender Paradigm

June 27th, 2023 | 4 min read

By Casey Shutt

Abigail Favale, The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2022).

One of the refrains in Jesus’s teaching is: “You have heard that it was said…, but I say to you…” (Matthew 5:21-48). Jesus sets up the truth of the matter by first stating the lie of the matter. This refrain highlights the radical nature of Jesus’s teaching by contrasting it with the dominant cultural understanding. Light shines brightest in the dark, and so the truth of Jesus’s teaching pops against a backdrop of lies. Good teaching, I believe, follows this (“juxtapositional”?) approach to teaching, which is what I appreciate about Abigail Favale’s The Genesis of Gender.

Favale, writer and professor in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, approaches the topic of gender, what she calls the “gender paradigm,” with a keen sense of how this paradigm represents a sharp departure from the Christian vision of life. Initially, Favale did not see much conflict between the two. When she converted to Catholicism in 2014, she assumed she could “[lug her] cherished progressive beliefs into the Church and tak[e] shelter under the canopy of conscience” (11). Favale’s conscience, however, did not cooperate with the plan as she found herself increasingly uneasy with progressive beliefs about gender (which began feeling more like “baggage”). Favale weaves her own biography into the story which makes for an engaging read (I couldn’t put the book down), a biography that includes years spent studying and teaching gender studies. This experience gives the book clarity, accuracy, and understanding when it comes to our culture’s dominant understanding of gender and sex .

The strength of Favale’s book is not simply the unpacking of the gender paradigm, but how she contrasts it with the Christian understanding of embodied existence as gift . The book is full of these contrasts: the biblical creation account (highlighting the complementary and climatic differentiation between the sexes) contrasted with the Babylonian account (highlighting a domestic conflict between male and female gods). A foundational assumption of the gender paradigm is its godlessness, which means that “[r]eality, gender, sex—everything, even truth—is socially constructed” (82). This contrasts sharply with the Christian vision of life (not to mention the ancient world, generally) as given and teleological. The gender paradigm’s teleological tabula rasa means that individuals bear the heavy burden of meaning-making. This meaning-making endeavor is pursued largely by wielding technology and the careful manipulation of language. If Christianity assumes life is to be received as gift, the gender paradigm understands life as a conquest that must be built (with technology and linguistic maneuvering) from the ground up.

Favale gives the gender paradigm “color” with several biographies and historical examples, including the Danish artist Einar Wegener, George William Jorgensen, and the experiments of John Money. The story of Margaret Sanger looms large because of how Sanger’s efforts gave real-world traction to the ideas being developed by gender theorists (et al) in the academy. The advent of “the pill” was a major technological development propelling many of the ideas in development forward. It is hard to overestimate how powerfully birth control has obscured our understanding of the sexes and sex. Birth control, Favale writes, was designed to deal with this disorder: “[t]he normal function of a woman’s body” (92). The underlying assumption is that “women, to be ‘healthy’ and ‘free’, must function, biologically speaking, as much like men as possible” (92).

Many of us feel the disorienting, often contradictory, shifts taking place around us. With biological men dominating women’s sports, drag queen story hour at your local public library, and its celebration by corporate, political, and media powers, it is easy to feel like the young child who upon seeing the naked emperor, states the obvious: “he has no clothes.” Like the emperor’s courtiers, these various powers celebrate a mirage and damn those who, like the child, call their bluff. Christians (and others seeking rootage in their embodiment) might think we stand apart from this culture, like the hearers of Hans Christian Andersen’s timely story whose detachment makes for an obvious rejection of the charade. Truth is, however, we are not as detached as we might think. We swim in the waters of the gender paradigm too and have no doubt embraced (in varying degrees) many of its assumptions.

Which brings us to one Favale’s shining achievements: how she “speaks the truth in love” on a topic where one or the other usually gets left out. Her deep and personal dive into the gender paradigm alerts readers to the faulty and fragmenting ideas that shape the movement, but she does so lovingly. In this way, Favale provides a model for much needed Christian engagement on the matter, especially from ordinary Christians (pastors, teachers, medical professionals, parents).

Notwithstanding a few quibbles, Favale has written an engaging, brief, and substantial tour of the gender paradigm that shapes (to some degree) all our lives. C. S. Lewis famously spoke of the difficulty of the Christian sexual ethic and concluded either Christianity was wrong or our sexual desires had gone wrong; Lewis opted for the latter. Still, many Christians may wonder about the goodness of the Christian vision of human sexuality. By drawing upon the Scriptures, recent Catholic teaching, Hildegard, and Wendell Berry, Favale offers not only a true Christian vision of sexuality but a beautiful one, which shines even brighter against the backdrop of cosmic and anthropological confusion that marks the gender paradigm.

Casey Shutt

Casey Shutt is pastor of King’s Cross Church in Oklahoma City. To learn more about Casey, visit his website: