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.

10 comments

    1. I think the dichotomy that you are touching on here can be summed up by an increased specialization of categories — either you an athlete or a poet; a man’s man or a metrosexual. I think it was Updike that lamented, “athletes nowadays don’t smoke or quote poetry anymore..” We still live in a modern paradigm even though postmodernity has set in, where categories of manliness or not-so-manly are rigidly put in place, effectively alienating the fuller attributes which naturally accompany cultural practice.

  1. Hi
    I’m the wife of enigmaocean and I wanted to say that I thought what you had to say was very intresting. One thing that comes to mind. God created them male and female. He did not create them football player and ballarina. I do not think God says males you have to act this ways and females you must act this way. I think he just wants us to be ourselves and to use the gifts and natural talents he has given us for HIS glory. When we choose not to use those gifts are life feels meaningless. We feel we have lost our identity. My husband is not a football warrior go off to war type of guy. That does not make him less male. It just make him who he is and I love him just the way he is a computer whiz and hammer dulcimer player. Plus millioms of other things that describe my husband maleness.

    1. You are so right. Thank you for putting it that way. I agree that we are all our own selves and God made us to be what we are. We are each male and female, but we are also able to be ourselves and my wife is (of course you are my wife!) many things that do not just say you are female, but it says you are a creation of God.

  2. Interesting post, but it seems heavy on stereotypes and short on tangible details. What men are you referring to as emasculated? Have you actually encountered these emasculated men who idolize old, white, dead actors and fictitious characters as idealized masculinity or are you projecting your own fantasy of manliness? While I understand that you’re talking about the extremes, I think few men would actually consider themselves emasculated or genital-less.

    What the bible does talk about is putting away child-ish things. Instead of talking about hyper-masculinity or emasculation, I think the bible calls us to maturity, responsibility and leaving the our manly action figure fantasies in our boyhoods.

  3. I have been waiting for a chance to read this and finally got it today. As always, you have great thoughts. I had a great discussion years ago with several Eldredge fanbois about a Biblical view of manhood. We never found any concrete suggestion of a gender specific quality of either gender. There were references to what we do, but not character defining differences. So I am waiting with anticipation for your next article.

  4. Chuck, love these thoughts. There is something to be said here for sure. And you’re speaking into it very well. Though allow me to say I had a much different experience of Wild at Heart. As an effeminate, emasculated (especially at the time) man myself, I read Wild at Heart and found immense compassion for my dilemma. I never heard John calling me a sissy or telling me to move to Denver.

    I would also add to the discussion that somehow masculinity must be defined as musculinity. Its a biological fact that men as a whole have more muscle than women. At puberty, testosterone increases for men creating more muscle growth. We Obviously, certain women will be stronger than certain men. But in general it is true. Its why olympic times in men’s events are always faster than the women’s times. We may not like this biological difference and fear it could lead to condescension to women or, worse, misogyny. But I believe God intended this muscle to be a metaphor for something, just like the our sex organs are a metaphor for our gender expression.

    Thoughts?

    1. Sam, I hear you. I wouldn’t ever want to dismiss anyone’s story and the power of a book and any writer to have an impact. I think it’s particularly impactful a certain segment of men. And I agree with your thoughts on biological differences. I think there is a whole lot to say for the initiatory tradition, in general, but I’d like to see the whole thing re-thought in a more biblical way. I read a book recently on male grief that called men to rituals that seemed so contrived to be ridiculous. I think we’ve got a rich liturgical tradition which includes lament that can be tapped into. Moreover, I think that men who’ve lacked strong male figures in their lives especially need to be invited into masculinity, though what we mean by that might be a bit different. I have a good friend who is as strong as an ox, but hates sports, hates ‘the wild’, and loves the opera and the symphony. Wild at Heart is a huge turn-off, and if he wasn’t as secure as he is, he’d probably be questioning his masculinity. I’m not wanting to be reactionary, just tweaking and nuancing in what I think might be a more biblical direction.

  5. A most insightful commentary on the issue of the emasculated Christian man. Thank you. I look forward to your next post.

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