My husband and I have a young son. And this son is not like his brothers. This son is emotional, empathetic. He likes a song and a story and a snuggle. He doesn't much care about winning and sometimes wanders away from the backyard ball game by the second inning. He's neither adventurous nor loud. He is still, however, a boy.
When he grows up, he's unlikely to be the next Tim Tebow. But I'd like to think he might be the next C. S. Lewis. And I hope the Christian community will still have a place for him.
In his recent biography, C. S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, Alister McGrath presents the young Lewis as a boy who wasn't very boyish. Sent to English boarding schools from the age of 10, Lewis "does not seem to have fitted into the public school culture of the Edwardian age." Instead of participating in the athletic competitions, Lewis listened to opera and read poetry.
And his differentness caused him trouble. "Boys who were not good at games," McGrath writes, "were ridiculed and bullied by their peers. Athleticism devalued intellectual and artistic achievement and turned many schools into little more than training camps for the glorification of physicality. Yet the cultivation of manliness was seen as integral to the development of character."
Boy Poet and Girl Athlete
Our world after the Supreme Court has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act seems far from those Edwardian standards of manliness on the rugby pitch. But I am concerned that a similarly narrow standard may be gaining popularity among Christians. In standing against the gender and sexuality blur that characterizes our world today, Christians may unwittingly require our young people to prove themselves men or women. And I'm afraid the conservative Christian community may no longer have room for the young people who are different, for the boy poet or the girl athlete. That would be a great loss.
Lewis, of course, went on to become one of the most influential theologians of the modern era. In June, even The New York Times acknowledged this with a column entitled "C. S. Lewis, Evangelical Rock Star," an epithet that surely would have startled Lewis's childhood classmates. From an imaginative and artistic boy, Lewis grew up to accomplish great things in God's kingdom. And there are boys and girls in our churches today who have similar potential.
The current, widespread acceptance of homosexuality complicates our position. The Christian community has to stand against the sin of homosexuality (and dozens of other sexual aberrations) with a degree of focus and energy that it has never before needed to devote to this issue. Against the backdrop of shifting cultural norms, conservative Christians must make definitive stands. The situation requires it.
But this need for definition gives rise to its own set of problems. In 2005 Anthony Esolen explained the difficulty for young people and, in particular, boys:
The prominence of male homosexuality changes the language for teenage boys. It is absurd and cruel to say that the boy can ignore it. Even if he would, his classmates will not let him. All boys need to prove that they are not failures. They need to prove that they are on the way to becoming men.
Esolen argues that a culture of homosexuality forces young people to define themselves to their peers in a conspicuous way that was unnecessary in previous generations.
That was 2005. Now, in 2013, the situation has changed somewhat. Post-DOMA, in a world where a transgender first-grader uses the girl's bathroom, the culture at large is no longer so obviously forcing people to be either one thing or another. Gender and sexuality are fluid concepts in today's world. They are a journey of personal choices and preferences, subject to change at a moment's notice. As far as the world is concerned, our young people do not have to define themselves as anything.
But in the conservative Christian community, we are still holding firm. We are pushing back against the blur by proclaiming the creation pattern, the beauty and complementarity of gender differences, and the need for young people to embrace their gender responsibilities.
Such an emphasis incurs dangers for the church like those that Esolen previously attributed to society at large. By standing against gender and sexual ambiguity, we risk over-defining and forcing our young people to prove what does not need to be proven.
Nothing to Prove
And so I come back to my sensitive son, with his preference for imaginative games over competitive ones. I wonder if he will soon find himself a misfit in the Christian community, pressured to prove himself—not by his neighborhood friends, who won't care what he is—but by other Christians, who want him to stand up for a certain kind of disappearing manliness.
In 2005, Esolen suggested that young people would find heterosexual fornication an easy option for declaring their sexual identity. We still face that danger. Sexual acts, thoughts, and desires are rightly cultivated only in a marriage (and that between a man and a woman). I don't expect to see Christians condoning fornication. But I can imagine a quasi-righteousness being attached to childhood or teenaged expressions of attraction to someone of the opposite sex. Good, we'll think, at least they aren't tempted to homosexuality.
Young people also need to learn the skills necessary to fulfill their adult responsibilities. Boys are, little by little, training to be heads of households as Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23). Girls are working toward the development of a character that will eventually take on the responsibility of "working at home. . . submissive to their own husbands" (Titus 2:5). Much of the current emphasis on this counter-cultural teaching is valuable.
But these skills, like any of our other holy duties, are harder for some individuals to learn than for others. It is unloving and unbiblical to assume that every Christian boy will naturally take on leadership roles or every Christian girl will immediately enjoy homemaking duties. Just as each one of us struggles to put on certain requirements of the Lord (say, patience and contentment) the personalities of some young people will make mastering their gender responsibilities hard work. We ought not to make easy facility in these tasks a test for true piety.
Finally, the Christian community should intentionally celebrate the amazingly diverse spectrum of personalities and talents that God created. Stand against sexual sin, we must. But let us not declare a certain kind of girl or a certain type of boy to be more godly than any other.
Christian young people—thinkers and feelers, musicians and rock-climbers, wrestlers and poets alike—have nothing to prove.