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