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Framing the Gender Debate, modest but significantly balanced. (Featured Reviews).

Elaine Storkey (2001)

Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. Paperback. (157 pp.) ISBN 0-8010-2260-6.

Elaine Storkey is a sociologist and theologian of international renown. She is the author of many books, including What's Right with Feminism.

Elaine Storkey begins her very helpful introduction to, as well as overview and critique of, the gender debate by identifying two of the most common questions she has been asked during the years she has spent researching and lecturing on the issue of gender. These questions are: "In what ways are women and men really different, and where do the differences originate?" (p. 7). While one might wish that she would provide the definitive answers to these questions, she instead devotes the vast majority of her slender work (just 121 pages of text) to providing the reader with a philosophical and historical framework for understanding the nature and progression of the gender debate. She states that her "aim has been to question assumptions and challenge presuppositions, especially when those making them have taken them for granted" (p. 7). She skillfully does so by identifying "the various strands of the discussion" (p. 8) including the historical, sociological, philosophical, psychological, and theological, devoti ng one or more chapters to each. She describes her book as "an edited, expanded, and updated form of the lectures [she] delivered to New College in the University of New South Wales in October 1997" (p. 8). She identifies it as a work that gestated over a number of years beginning with notes she generated for the London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity in 1993 and nurtured by the interaction she experienced during her visit to a number of American colleges throughout the 1990's.

Storkey's first chapter entitled "History Lessons" observes that though significant changes in women's roles were observed to begin to emerge in the 1950s following the profound impact of WWII, the roots thereof can be seen in the "hidden history of nineteenth-century women" which became visible in the writings of history only in the years thereafter. It is here she begins her historical survey, noting the impact of women's immigration to Australia and New Zealand where there was still a woman shortage, the rise of higher education for women in Europe and the West, the role of women in foreign missions, and the suffrage movement. She then identifies the l950s as the "last era in which public attitudes were consensual and largely premodern" (p. 22).

At this point in her narrative, Storkey draws upon the articulation of Jean Joseph Goux's (11994) conceptions of the relatively recent philosophical periods (i.e., the premodern, the modern, and the postmodern). Her summaries of his descriptions are very helpful to one's understanding of the characteristics of these philosophical perspectives, particularly for the less initiated. Chapters two, three, and four are given to an examination of sex and gender in each of these periods. Significant events, perspectives, and representative writers from various disciplines, all illustrating the predominant as well as varying gender perspectives of these periods are both noted and critiqued. This author found Storkey's comments about postmodernism particularly affirming to his concerns about this latest perspective as she notes that at this point, "our journey [of historical examination] thus arrives at a place of ambiguity and uncertainty" (p. 59). Discussing the deconstructive nature of postmoderism, she asks,

... how do we know when to stop deconstructing and accept the position we have now arrived at? Nothing within the process of deconstruction can help us with that. Instead, we are caught up in an infinite regress, where each deconstruction can he further deconstructed, and no single text can ever make a definitive statement, including the text I am writing here. (p.60)

Yet, Storkey also wisely observes that postmodernism has made a very helpful contribution to the consideration of the meaning of gender. She essentially concludes the next chapter in which she discusses gender and difference in popular writings by commenting,

The category of gender is a responsive category: It changes in relation to other ideas or attitudes in both personal and public domains. We have to acknowledge that a multiplicity of factors combines to shape gender differences and their interpretations at any given time. At this level, the postmodern deconstructionists are saying something crucial: If we reify gender and regard it as something fixed and definitive in the nature of relationships, we misunderstand it. We have to recognize that what is sometimes spoken of as gendered behavior is not simply gender-related but an interplay of many different social constructions. Furthermore, since the gender we are interested in is attached to people, we cannot ignore the interplay between gender characteristics and those of temperament or personality styles. If we do not acknowledge all of this, we simply reinforce stereotypes. (pp. 71-72)

Expressing thanks for the fact that there are "people in between the postmodern scholars and the mass paperback writers, Storkey turns to an examination of research in the fields of psychology and sociology done by feminist scholars. A number of enlightening studies are considered which provide evidence of gender differences as "virtually incontrovertible fact" (p. 85), though she makes it clear that this conclusion does not require resorting to biological essentialism. She goes on to note that, as is true of any reasoning endeavor, it is the philosophical assumptions underlying the thinking of theorists and researchers that is critical, observing that few social scientists "have explored any of the key theological questions implicit in this discussion" (p. 85).

In the next three chapters, Storkey transitions from social science to theology examining theological thought regarding gender, again within the three philosophical periods. She first sets the stage by briefly exploring the theological context within which people of faith examine critical issues, noting the collaborative roles of Scripture and church tradition as well as the contributions of philosophy and culture to this enterprise. She concludes this transition by observing that the Bible is inevitably read within the context of "our own minds, perspectives, ideas, attitudes, location, history, culture, nuances, and concerns that are all, themselves, extra-scriptural. We also absorb biblical teaching in the context of our own embodied situation as persons, with regional, ethnic, and gendered differences" (p. 92). Storkey observes that the questions of sex and gender in theology occur at the levels of (a) tradition built up over the history of the church, (b) Scripture which is subject to the fallibility of human interpretation, (c) influences on our thinking such as culture and mind-sets, and (d) power and privilege in which decisions "made by the powerful in the church [are] influenced by the very fact of their own power" (p. 95). These are questions that she addresses in the next two chapters, again within the framework of the premodern, modern, and postmodern perspectives.

Storkey's final chapter is, for this reviewer, the genuine and rich frosting on the proverbial "cake." Having been blessed by a highly informative and balanced overview and critique of the gender debate going on for the last half century, the reader is granted a brief consideration to what Storkey, herself, uses to pursue answers to the questions with which her introduction began. She begins the chapter by summarizing both the strengths and weaknesses of each of the three philosophical positions thus far examined, noting that, "The categories of premodern, modern, and postmodern have not given us fine details or delineation, but they have given us the shape of the landscape, drawn out the patterns clusters for us to observe" (p. 126). She states that while she could argue that a Christian perspective does incorporate elements of all three positions, she concludes that, "They have done a useful job, but they have their limitations. They are adequate for a rough sketch but far to vague and nebulous if we are tr ying to copy a masterpiece" (p. 126). This last phrase provides a clear hint at her ultimate position, namely, that there is a Master behind the entire issue of sex and gender, the infinite, omnipotent, and all wise creator of the universe,

The God whom the Christian Scriptures, in an unfolding revelation, reveal to us. This God is a God who is relational, a God whose name is love, a God who is interpersonal and involved with the creation. This creating god is one who set boundaries and breathes morality into the creation and who constantly offers us the opportunity to change our lives for the better. (p. 127)

Storkey goes on to observe that from a biblical perspective,

We can accept that our sexuality is indeed a given, part of the deep created structure of our humanness. The differences in our sexual makeup are part of the rich complementarity that God has breathed into creation. Yet, a creational perspective is different from a "natural" one; sexuality is not simply that which defines our "nature." Creation is ordered, not by something people used to call the laws of nature but by complex normative structures that define and delineate our various relationships.... God has created a norm for the structure of reality and breathed an ethical order into it, and that has implications for our sexuality. Far from being driven by the unremitting desire to procreate, we have the responsibility to use our sexuality responsibly and to act always in love. How we express our sexuality matters, and we remain accountable to God. (p. 127)

She notes that we must address the various forces that confound and have a destructive impact on our obligation to live out our sexuality responsibly as Christians. To assist ourselves in this effort, we must "resist crippling stereotypes whether they are racial or gender or whatever else" (p. 128). We must also recognize that "despite popular exhortations, the Bible does not say a great deal about being masculine for God or feminine for Jesus! So many of the stereotypes that proliferate in 'Christian' literature are far from biblical. In fact, the New Testament does not tell us how to be feminine or masculine at all" (p. 128).

Storkey comes to the climax of her thoughtful and challenging work by stating that, "The Bible offers a diverse response and does not focus exclusively on any single resolution" regarding the gender issue. She observes that "woven as it is through the many different kinds of biblical literature, a biblical narrative or analysis of male-female relations is very complex" (p. 129). She then offers four paradigms she discerns in Scripture "which are used interchangeably to describe the relationship between men and women" (p. 129). The first of these is difference in which men and women are clearly identified and described as manifesting a variety of differences in such variables as their anatomy, physiology, reproductive roles, differing but changing spheres of influence, and dress. The second is sameness or similarity with many biblical examples being given of how similar or the same we are as men and women in both our humanness and in our functions as men and women. The third is complementarity and Storkey illu strates from the biblical text how well men and women "'fit' together; they each reciprocate and fulfill something in the other" (p. 130), and how they are interdependent. She goes on to observe that, "Complementarity does not imply hierarchy, therefore, as many have taken it to imply. It is premised on the reciprocation and completion of female by male, and male by female" (p. 130). The final paradigm is observed in the Bible's emphasis on the issue of "union. Women and men are together the image of God" (p. 131). The union of their humanness is noted, along with the union of disobedience and redemption, the union of the "one flesh" relationship, the union of being the "body" and "bride" of Christ, the union of being "living stones and the "royal priesthood."

Storkey observes that

When we fail to grasp that the Bible contains each of these themes, we inevitably distort the full biblical message. In turn, that distorts our theology and leads to vehement reactions and repudiations. If we focus on only one, say difference or complementarity, as the biblical perspective, then we distort the male-female relationship and inevitably end up with hierarchy and subordination. If we focus on another, for example, sameness, we again distort the full biblical picture and reinforce androgeny and lose the significance of our differences. But when we work with all four, then we see the sweep of the biblical revelation and the space and scope it gives us to develop our relationships faithfully and creatively. (p. 131)

Storkey concludes this final chapter by drawing upon significant New Testament illustrations of how Jesus refused to be bound by the gender norms and codes of the day. For example, he spoke with the Samaritan woman and requested a drink of water, leading her to the place where she exercised the role of being the first gospel evangelist. He ministered to the woman with menstrual problems with no concern for her "unclean" condition, affirming her faith and initiative and telling her to "go in peace." Several other examples of Jesus' interaction with women are cited as further illustrations of his freedom to deconstruct the normative codes of the day and relate in terms of love, grace, and redemption. She notes that we cannot address those fundamental gender questions by starting from within a premodern, modern, or postmodern position. Rather, we must apply the key themes of Scripture to

help us to make sense of our relationships with each other. The narratives of creation, sin, and redemption offer us an alternative journey to that which our culture has been making. They give us a cogent framework for putting together the story of our humanness and our identity. Sexuality and gender are a crucial part of that story, as we see the damage that has been done to women and men alike and the distortions that still pervert our relationships and societal structures. But we do not see things aright by elevating our own autonomous experience, or by walking down a dead-end road to relativism. The uniqueness of the biblical alternative is that the answer to the brokenness of the past, or present, does not lie ultimately with us at all. It is in the gospel of Christ that all things can be made new. (p. 133)

This reviewer has noted elsewhere (Strauss, 2002) that finding and maintaining balance is one of the most difficult achievements for human beings to accomplish, and for Christians are not excempt. It is his opinion, however, that Storkey has done just that with her present book, modest though it may be in length and scope. All Christians for whom gender and the relationships between men and women are concerns cannot help but be both informed and challenged in their consideration of these issues. Origins of Difference is recommended wholeheartedly and without reservation.


Focault, M., & Goux, J.J. (1994). "Irigaray vs. the utopia of the neutral sex." C. Burke, N. Schor, & M. Whitford, (Eds.), In Engaging with Irigaray. New York: Columbia University Press.

Strauss, G. (2002). "The Real Thing": A Perspective on sexual revolution and a challenge to christian professionals. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 30 (2), 144-157.

STRAUSS, GARY H., EdD, is Associate Professor of Psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University. His interests are in human sexuality and the integration of psychology and theology. He is Guest Editor of this Special Issue of JPT.
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Title Annotation:Elaine Storkey, 'Origins of Difference: The Gender Debate Revisited'
Author:Strauss, Gary H.
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Theology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2002
Previous Article:Reminiscing about "Portraits of Freedom". (Featured Reviews).
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