Musculinity, Emasculation, and the Masculine Soul : Part 3 : Royalty

There is much more we could say about the relational aspect of the image of God, but a second and no less important aspect is critical.  In his wonderful work called The Liberating Image, Richard Middleton suggests that royalty is a primary expression of the image.  He sees the image as “the royal function or office of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world, given authorized power to share in God’s rule over the earth’s resources and creatures.”  Before the distortion of rule and the abuse of power, men and women, together, were given the royal ambassadorship (Gen. 1:28-30).  In a world that sends muddled messages (men are perverts, men are power hungry, men are abusive, men are addictive, men are distant, men are emotionless), a man’s identity is regal, dignified, and purposeful.

When the younger son returns in Luke 15, the father races to him in order to bless him.  Theirs is a relational reunion.  But it is so much more.  The father restores the son’s dignity.  He gives him the family ring, signifying his royal sonship.  He robes him, covering his old and tattered garments, his wounds, his nakedness, his palpable signs of undignity.  He puts sandals on his feet.  He organizes a celebration feast fit for royal dignitaries.  It’s all very regal, and it’s all very important in the symbolic world of Scripture.  Original hearers would have noted the resonances with the royal image in Genesis 1.  This should have brought joy to all who heard it.

I had a client whose family modeled life after the hit 80’s and 90’s television show Married with Children.  His Dad was much like Al Bundy, a bumbling idiot who lived for sex, beer, and television.  Emerging into his 20’s, my client was unsure of what real masculinity looks like.  He’s internalized something very real, however.  He is unstable, unsure, even bumbling, at least in his own estimation.  He critiques his every move.  He lives mired in self-contempt.  In front of women, he clams up and becomes immobilized, believing he has nothing at all to offer.

At his church, he’s told that self-esteem is not language that can be found in the Bible.  He’s managed to find a church where all of his worst fears are confirmed.  He’s reminded each week that he’s a sinner, that there is nothing good in him.  The God he knows does not lavish love and bestow dignity.  The God he knows barely tolerates him.  He’s depressed.  And confused.  And has no sense, at all, of what it means to be a man.

Men like this work 8-6, and can’t wait for Fridays.  They live the curse in Gen. 3, as they work not out of some inherent sense of dignity or royal ambassadorship in the world, but out of survival.  They numb to and cope with the pain of life in any number of ways, some which are stereotypical (sex, alcohol, tv) and some not often discussed (suicidality, eating disorders, gender confusion).  Or perhaps they can’t work.  Self-sabotage plays itself out in constant job changes or instability.  Or maybe they’re addicted to work, using it as a drug, unable to separate themselves from their accomplishments.  No matter how it plays, it’s a different story than the one God intended, a different trajectory from that of royal dignitary to the King of Kings.

What does this mean for men?  At a societal level, it means that part of what it means to see the Kingdom come and God’s will be done is seen in men becoming who they are – ambassadors of the King.  We see ourselves caught up in a larger mission, a mission to see the reign of God expand in the world in which we live.  This begins where we live, work, and play.  It begins in our homes and our offices, on the playground and in the pub.  It means that no action we can take is somehow neutral, unaffected by the King’s reign in our hearts and in our world.  Our “faithful presence” in the world, to borrow J.D. Hunter’s language, manifests in lives of fruitfulness, flourishing, integrity, justice, wisdom, and love.  Our strength, as men, becomes a source of blessing, not aggression or violence.  Our vulnerability manifests itself in self-surrender, not passivity or avoidance.

I, for one, do not prefer this vision for men growing out of an ancient initiatory tradition manifesting today in the warrior man, championed by those who call men to their primitive wildness.  There is an element of truth in this.  But God bestows his image to men and women, and its particular royal manifestation in a man invites not wild, outdoorsy masculinity, but purposeful, engaged, and missionally-driven masculinity.  Whether in the cubicle or in the wild, men are called in a particular way.  You don’t find masculinity outside of yourself, but the Spirit reveals it as something born in you, bestowed to you in the original image.  At a societal level, it could be extraordinary if men regained a sense of missional passion as royal ambassadors of the King.

At a personal level, this bestowed identity counters the narratives we learned in our homes growing up, or on the playground, or even in our subcultures.  When a man asks, “Who am I?” his answer is generally derived from a combination of influences, not least from his father and other key relationships in his life.  How masculinity was defined in your family or culture, at some level, influences your answer to the question, “Who am I?”  I’m a nobody.  I’m a failure.  I’m a breadwinner.  I’m a success.  I’m a sissy.  I’m a lawyer.  I’m gay.  I’m wealthy. No matter the answer, it does not touch the deeper identity as a child of the King, a royal benefactor called to bless, to love, to steward, to suffer.  As men, we’re ruled by a variety of cultural scripts which we often bless as normative, in large part, because it is what our traditions taught us to be.  But there is something deeper, our truest humanity anchored in God’s image, seeing restoration and renewal as we participate in the life of God through the Spirit.  The most truly human person ever to live, Jesus himself, embodied this royal life as God’s kingly Son sent in love and for mission.  He invites us to embody it in our time and place today, whether in a cubicle or on a cliff.

Musculinity, Emasculation, and the Masculine Soul : Part 2 : Relationship

Picking up from last week’s first blog in this series, at least one trajectory among biblical scholars in recent times is to understand the image as primarily relational.  Indeed, it is not the case that men are from Mars and women from Venus, one task-driven and the other relationally-driven.  If the image is bestowed to both men and women, then both are relational.  In this expression of the image, it is understood that we, as men, cannot fully enjoy our unique expression of true humanity apart from relationship.

For this, I take as a starting point the well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, but not for obvious reasons.  In fact, I see one of its potential applications as a story of redeemed male relationality.  The great New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey, who has lived in the Middle East for many years, argues that the story is not merely about a wayward younger son, but a relationally inept older son.  Bailey contends that at multiple points in the story, the older son failed to step into his relational responsibility as the older son, neglecting his duty to protect his father, to engage his brother, to provide hospitality, and ultimately to enter in to his brother’s homecoming.  A relationally avoidant man, his failure only magnifies his father’s stunning grace toward the younger son.  The father defies cultural custom, leaving his seat of judgment and running (as only a woman would have done in that day!) to restore the relationship with his son.  This may be the most startling example anyone can find of the so-called ‘feminization’ of the faith.

You see, men are designed for relationship. What it means to be a man-in-relationship is to live out his unique maleness for the sake of God and others, to bless God and others, to know and be known, to love and be loved.  Contrary to the hyper-masculine storylines which situate real men in the wild, men do not ‘find themselves’ in the fierce terrain of the wilderness, among snakes and scorpions.  They find themselves in the fierce terrain of relationship, where real fear and self-protective hiding emerges.  Over the years, I’ve found that a man can feel very strong with a gun in his hand, or in a competitive sport, or with a task to complete.  But fear emerges when he is called to move toward his spouse, or into a difficult relationship, or into the tender souls of his children.  This is wilderness territory.

This requires a wonderfully beautiful and complex interplay of strength and vulnerability, a uniquely male embodiment of it. Think of pair’s figure skating, where the strong male lifts his partner into the air as they both spin, an act that does not make one better than the other, but which demonstrates the unique blessing of each.  That kind of beauty could not happen without both partners intimately engaged, trusting and risking together.  It’s an act that demonstrates male strength.  But, within it we also see male vulnerability.  It’s a vulnerability which surrenders for the sake of another.

You will find real strength in a man as he surrenders himself for another (see Eph. 5), as he sacrifices for another, as he blesses another, as he risks humiliation (as the father did in Luke 15) for another, as he intervenes for another.  You’ll find male strength as he enters the frightening wild of relationship.  Men, in fact, cannot enjoy the full blessing of their masculinity without entering into relationship.

Now, this does not mean, as certain family-focused organizations have told us, that marriage is normative?  Marriage is a uniquely joyous expression of relationship.  But it’s not the only expression.  Men were created to enjoy and be enjoyed in relationship, to know and to be known.  Human beings can find profound connection in relationship outside of marriage.  One of the great experiences of my life was in college, enjoying the camaraderie of the same roommates in my Junior and Senior year.  We became brothers.  And so the research goes, as well, that men (and indeed, all human beings) have a better chance of surviving together in pairs than alone.  Studies drawn out of the holocaust and from wartime indicate that together we survive better than apart.  Attachment theorists, sociologists, and even biologists have shown through different lenses that men thrive in relationship.

Lisa Graham McMinn, a Wheaton College sociologist, explores gender scripts in her wonderful book Sexuality and Holy Longing. She contends that the hyper-masculine script that pictures manhood in terms of John Wayne or James Bond ultimately distorts masculinity, picturing men as self-sufficient, isolated individuals defined by their sexual prowess rather than their relational engagement.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution, men and women often worked alongside one another, raised children together, and shared leadership together.  This vision neither neuters human beings, nor requires some kind of hyper-masculinity.  That said, it’s nearly impossible to take one cultural moment and show it as normative, as demonstrating ideal human relating.  We’ll always find distortions, results of the curse of humanity alongside displays of the glory of God’s image.

McMinn’s point, however, is that men cannot be reduced to their wildness, their sexuality, or to their proclivity toward sport.  As I’ve counseled men over the years struggling with sexual addiction, I’ve found this to be true.  Sexual addiction, as most theorists today will tell you, is not primarily about sex.  Indeed, the desire at the core of sexual acting-out is a longing for relational connection, for intimacy, for oneness.  The ultimate act of sexual violence seen in rape and child abuse is ultimately a reflection of radical relational disintegration, of profound dehumanization.  These men no longer see human beings.  Their capacity to relate empathetically is radically broken.

Though men sexualize intimacy for biological, cultural, psychological, and sociological reasons, we are created, at our core, to be connected intimately in a way that cannot be reduced to an orgasm.  Indeed, studies show that men in vulnerable relationships with other men are far less likely to struggle with sexual addictions than men who are alone and isolated.  Men, in the end, are not sexual because they can have an orgasm.  A man’s sexuality leads him into vulnerability, into relationship, into co-creation.  Healthy sexuality for a man does not emerge from becoming more ‘wild’, in some abstract sense, but from engaging relationally.

I had a friend who spent a summer in the wild.  He went, as he said, to “find his heart.”  He didn’t find it.  He learned a lot of ranching, about mountain-climbing, about fly-fishing, all good things.  But his most poignant experience was on the plane, returning home, when he had the opportunity to engage and be engaged at a relational level with a complete stranger.  Something came alive within him at 50,000 feet and in a relationship that was not present while fly-fishing.  In fact, I’d say that if he would have enjoyed fly-fishing with a friend, he might have noticed the difference.

But we’re afraid.  Adam says, “I was naked, so I hid,” and shame is introduced into the cosmic storyline.  Creation affirms relationship.  But the Fall introduces isolation, shame, fear, and self-protection.  And men know this very well.  Gen. 3:16 describes a part of the woman’s curse, saying, “Your desire will be for your husband but he will rule over you.”  In male shame and insecurity, we will respond often with either a diminished and neutered masculinity or a hyper-masculine, exaggerated maleness, both resulting in misdirected rule and/or domination.  Sadly, much theology regarding gender relations and roles has been built on the theology of the Fall rather than the theology of Creation.  Warped relating, in the end, dehumanizes, devalues, and ultimately diminishes the fullness of masculinity.  It doesn’t set the trajectory for redeemed masculinity.

If Kenneth Bailey is right, Luke 15 paints the picture of redeemed relating, men who demonstrate strength and vulnerability.  The father’s humiliation in running toward the son, a picture of Christ’s Incarnation, is something only a woman would have done in that culture and context.  Indeed, if Bailey is right, we have a lot to learn from women about this kind of strength in vulnerability.  That’s something critics of the ‘feminized church’ might balk at.

Do you want to be a wild man?  Don’t look for your answer in the mountains.  You’ll find it in the person sitting right in front of you, the person who calls you to risk, to vulnerability, to a fierce resolve that refuses to settle for cheap imitations of ‘the real man.’

Next Blog :: The second aspect of God’s image in men :: Royalty

Musculinity, Emasculation and the Masculine Soul: Part 1

God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Gen. 1:27

I received an email recently asking why I don’t quote or recommend the author John Eldredge more often.  Though I’ve enjoyed and benefited from much of what John has written, I’ve been hesitant to endorse his ‘constructive’ view of masculinity.  To be sure, it’s an attempt at a corrective, as John reaches down off his cliff to pull the emasculated, “nice” Christian out of the abyss of genderless asexuality.  I get that.  And I agree with John when he writes:

The problem with men, we are told, is that they don’t know how to keep their promises, be spiritual leaders, talk to their wives or raise their children.  But, if they will try real hard they can reach the lofty summit of becoming…a nice guy. That’s what we hold up as models of Christian maturity: Really Nice Guys.

Yet, Eldredge proposes a different model that I find to be a stretch when thinking about biblical masculinity.  It’s man as wilderness warrior.  It’s Donny Deskjob finding himself depressed and dominated in his relationships moving to the Denver mountains in order to find his inner Wild man, a noble nod to the ancient rituals of initiation, but a distracting divergence from a biblical theology of manhood, which finds God not in the wild but descending on man by his Spirit right where he is.  We’ll get more into the strengths and weaknesses of male initiation in a future installment, as well as the radical revolution of God’s locale in the sending of the Spirit.

Then, there are things too ridiculous to mention, but we must anyway.  In his great Christianity Today article, Brandon O’Brien analyzes the men’s movement, talking about the organization GodMen, who provide men with an experience of masculinity which includes “videos of karate fights, car chases, and songs like “Grow a Pair!” whose lyrics read:

We’ve been beaten down
Feminized by the culture crowd
No more nice guy, timid and ashamed …
Grab a sword, don’t be scared
Be a man, grow a pair!

And then there are the critics of an increasingly feminized church, pastors and theologians who find that the slippery slope of liberalism follows the women.  The rhetoric is usually strong and dramatic, calling “dudes” to follow a Warrior Jesus.  What I find particularly troubling is the public use of language describing men as “sissies” or “limp-wristed” or “effiminate” or “queer,” language that has no place coming from pastors or theologians who follow a Messiah who was found, most often, among the outcasts of society.  Having counseled many men who wrestle with their gender identity, I’ve seen the power of this kind of mocking, shaming, and emasculating language, a power to bring a man to the brink of suicide.

I remember talking to a man at a men’s retreat.  The language of “real men” permeated the weekend – “real men are rugged,” “real men are competitive,” “real men won’t shy away from a fight.”  The testosterone ran high that weekend.  If you didn’t play paintball or throw a football with a tight spiral, you were shyly watching and wondering if God had made a mistake with you.  So it was with Randall, who contemplated leaving because he didn’t fit in.  Randall was gay, and there was no place for him in this group of real men.  Randall would fight suicide, in large part, because he was all alone, a stranger among Christians, a movement that began among the marginalized.

This clarion call to men, however, is not new, nor is it an evangelical Christian phenomenon.  Bly, Keen, Gilmore, Hicks, Levant, Gillette and Moore, and others have been challenging men to inhabit the ancient ways of the warrior for three decades.  Prior to that, however, the Muscular Christians of the English Victorian Era brought about radical changes to public schools, and men’s secret societies such as the Masons and Oddfellows.  A public school manual envisioned men “going through the world with rifle in one hand and Bible in the other.” Men were defined by their inherent superiority, by their work, by their larger contributions to society, and in contrast to the clear weaknesses of women, evidenced in their inferiority in sport and in physical combat.  Curiously, the real man was defined as the hunter, the adventurer, and the national patriot, categories with extraordinary resonance in the Christian men’s movement today.

I call this version of masculinity musculinity. After doing some extensive research in 2006 while working on my Ph.D. in Psychology, I saw the modern (re)emergence of wilderness masculinity in many, many writings.  For those skeptics who’d point the finger at prominent evangelicals in the men’s movement, the seminal thinking was done by those outside the camp, pioneered in large part by esteemed mythologist Joseph Campbell and the Harvard poet and scholar Robert Bly.  Musclinity was not necessary a theologically conservative invention, but a deliberate movement among prominent intellectuals to expose the futility of a feminized culture.  For those fundamentalist Christians who continually lament cultural accommodation, I’d challenge them to consider their intellectual influences.

That said, there is an equal and opposite extreme.  On the one side, we find the musculine man (no, not the Michelen man).  On the other, we find the emasculated man.  Of course, the old-fashioned notion of emasculation refers to the removal of the male genitalia, something the GodMen, as we’ve seen, clearly disagree with when they sing “Grow a pair.”  In the world of sociology, this is called ‘feminization’.  But we all know what this really means.  Many men tell stories of being called a sissy or a fag.  Homosexual men fear coming out because of the torment they’d experience.  A man I knew confided in me at a men’s retreat that he’d dare not avoid participation in the paintball wars and locker room conversation for fear of being exposed as effeminate.  The emasculated man looks at John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and James Bond and wonders, “Why am I so different?”  It’s a lonely place for him, but it’s also a place where many men reside.

The emasculated man, I’d argue, has had his genitalia cut off, figuratively at least.  No doubt, he continues to use his primary sexual apparatus in procreation.  But, he is embarrassed to be a man, at one level.  But, this existential reality leads some to call for an an end to all gender talk, spurring an intellectual movement among Christians and non-Christians alike for androgyny.  In a recent CNN Beliefnet blog, a writer advocated for an androgynous future, a genderless culture where the uniqueness of male and female fades into the background, a distant remnant of an earlier and less progressive time.

At a recent conference on a Christian view of marriage, several couples were frustrated by the speaker’s distinctions between men and women.  “We’re human,” one man commented.  “Gender distinctions only serve to forward an agenda which prioritizes a majority over a minority.”  And his life served to demonstrate this lack of distinction.  He works and she works.  He cooks and she cooks.  And perhaps eventually, with scientific advances, he’ll bear children and she’ll bear children.  In today’s parlance, he’s a metrosexual.  He’s a trendy, sophisticated, culturally-advanced human.  And he hopes that one day he’ll live in a genderless society, a sign of true progress.

But I worry that his passion for being a genderless human clouds his identity as a unique man.  This neutered identity is not, in fact, more human, but ultimately less human.  It robs him of becoming a wonderfully particular manifestation of God’s image.  He pushes back, though, citing the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:28 in his oft-cited “there is no longer slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, male and female,” God’s vision of androgyny.  But Paul not so much has in mind the erasing of male and female identity as much as the distorted stereo-typing that prevented full inclusion, full equality, full humanity.     

Genesis 1:27 reads, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  The fullness of God is caught up, in some mysterious way, in both male and female, living out their unique identities in the dance of relationship.  The emasculated man, at some level, fears his masculinity, though.  He has tucked his head in the sand, withdrawn into his shell, cut off his genitalia.  While the musculine male displays a kind of hyper-masculinity, the emasculated man denies his masculinity.  And both extremes are distortions, robbing a male of both the strength and vulnerability which enables him to live out his call and identity uniquely in the world.

In the next post, I’ll offer a picture of man as the image of God – as both relational and royal.  This, I’ll suggest, gets at the heart of masculinity.  No, not the wilderness man.  No, not the genderless human.  Man…relational and royal.  Stay tuned.