A Review of
Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God
Megan DeFranza is a visiting professor at Boston University, and she has taught at Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God is her first book. It rose out of her dissertation at Marquette University. In this book DeFranza wants to offer conservative Christians of both worlds she inhabits (Evangelical and Catholic) a biblical and theologically anthropology that includes intersex people as full human beings made in the image of God.
In the first part of the book she describes in both medical and sociological terms what intersex is, and one of the most powerful parts of this book are the stories she tells of intersex people. She doesn’t just give us the dry facts about the different intersex conditions. She lets the people who live in the “in-betweeness” of male and female speak for themselves, describing their lives and their relationships with both God and the church. She then goes on to offer an insightful and theologically incisive discussion on Jesus’ statement about eunuchs in Matthew 19:12. She unpacks the way “eunuch” was used in the ancient world, showing it could be used for people born with ambiguous genitalia. She describes the different roles and functions eunuchs played in both society and the church in ancient society and the Middle Ages. Her last chapter in the first part traces how the definitions of male, female and eunuch, and what it means to be made in the image of God have changed through the history of the church and Christian thought and theology. DeFranza does a great job of unpacking theological jargon and presenting some complex theologies of human anthropology in language that the average layperson can understand. Her overview of the theological theories of what makes us human and made in the image of God through the last 2,000 years is both comprehensive and understandable.
In the second half of the book, using post-modern theologies of both human anthropology and the Trinity, DeFranza offers a way for conservative Christians to remain true to their biblical values while embracing their intersex brothers and sisters without viewing the intersex as medical problems to be fixed. Using the theologies of Pope John Paul II and Stanley Grenz, she deconstructs the gender binary of male and female, using theories on Jesus’ gender as a way to show that being made in the image of God can include intersex people. Here is where the book bogs down. DeFranza covers so much ground on what other people have said about intersex and being fully human that her own argument gets lost. This is also where the book reads most like a dissertation. Which is a shame as this is the place where she is bringing her own theology of what it means to be made in the image of God together, but it takes a couple of readings to pull out her strands of thought and weave them together.
Her final chapter explores Jesus as the true image of God and holds up an eschatological vision that all of us are working to become more Christlike, not more man-like or woman-like. The call for all Christians is to be Christ-like, is a call all human beings – male, female and intersex – can strive towards. In Christ identities are put to death, decentered and recentered around Christ alone. Once again the power of DeFranza’s theology is voiced by the testimony of an intersex woman:
I too am intersexual. I lived in anonymity for years, sincerely committed to a scripturally conforming role, while denying my own existence…. God’s grace alone has compelled me to step into the light, in accountability, and declare who I was, who I am, and who I am in Christ. The genetic purée of my life is simply the way God has formed the “clay pot” (Isaiah 64:8), only now with the “broken handle” removed. My heart’s desire as a woman of God, a spiritual being, (not merely physical), is that the work of God might be displayed in my life. By eternal perspectives the whole jumbled genetic stew just doesn’t matter.
God created the eunuch (intersexual) unique. Join me to stop destroying unique lives while demanding conformity to a standard that is genetically impossible.
We must conform to Christ’s Image. (281)
Her work showing that we don’t have to view Jesus as a man, but as a whole human being – encompassing male, female and intersex – and that in the end we are to be conformed to Christ and not to a cultural ideal of masculine or feminine, is work that is needed in conservative thought and theology, and her work needs to be built on.
I wish she would have had the space to devote more of her Trinitarian theology to the Holy Spirit. In an incredible footnote in the final chapter, DeFranza recognizes that ambiguity of sex and gender in the third member of the Trinity. In Hebrew spirit can be either masculine or feminine, in Aramaic the spirit is feminine, in Greek neuter, and in Latin masculine. DeFranza notes that the Spirit is “the One who remains invisible and uncategorizable as male, female, or intersex” (288). Unfortunately, as in most Trintarian theologies, the Holy Spirit gets glossed over in DeFranza’s theology. She notes in her footnote that we Western Christians do not like the ambiguity of the Holy Spirit, preferring the incarnation of Jesus, but she herself gives into the Western preference to analyze and explain everything as instead of diving straight into the ambiguity that I believe would give her most firm theological ground to stand on.
Sex Difference in Christain Theology is a much needed theological reflection on what it means to be made in the image of God, and that male and female do not have to be the binary straightjacket of what it means to be fully human. There are gray areas of sex, gender, and sexuality in our world, and our theology needs to reflect those areas to be faithful to how all of us are created in the image of God and image God in this world. DeFranza has provided a good biblical and theological foundation for this work, and I hope others will build on what she has begun.
Shawna R. B. Atteberry is an author, speaker and theologian who lives in Chicago with her husband Tracy. She attends an Episcopal church, and when she’s not reading and writing, she loves to cook for her friends and take long walks through downtown Chicago and along Lake Michigan.