The Real Adventure for Men

Part of what I’ve been addressing in this series on masculinity is what I view as a cultural movement which, in response to feminism, attempted to re-ignite a conversation on masculinity.  I’ve referred to the pivotal work of Robert Bly, a Harvard poet whose distaste with radical feminism led him to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, and the great archetypal stories of the hero, the warrior, and the wildman.  Bly’s work was followed up by many others like Keen, Gilmore, Hicks, Levant, and Gillette and Moore, writers interested in incorporating the mythic initiatory tradition to emasculated men in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Alongside this movement came Christians who grabbed hold of the banner of masculinity for the sake of restoring male integrity in what was deemed to be a Church Impotent and feminized, a church that (if left to the hormonal wiles of women) might fall into the pits of quietism, bridal mysticism, and universalism (which may explain Rob Bell’s recent thinking!) I’m not convinced of this threat, nor am I convinced the Christian men’s cultural movement has sustainability in the future.

Now, as someone who has very much appreciated the insights of Campbell, Jung, Bly, and others, I’m convinced there is something very important to be explored here.  8 or 9 years back, a book called Mothers, Sons, and Lovers seemed to be on every man’s reading list at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, where I was then teaching.  I really enjoyed much of the book, and found its application of the initiatory traditions unearthed by Campbell, Bly and others to be insightful.  But as many therapeutic ways go, even ancient initiatory-therapeutic ways, I found it leading to a kind of individualism, a solitary healing journey that could be done apart from participation in the cruciform life of Jesus.  And it, too, seemed to move the ball down the court, but fail to score.

Part of what I see needing to be done by theologians, psychologists, liturgists, and sociologists, all in community, is thoughtful work around the Christian tradition (and particularly the Christian liturgical tradition) as it relates to male spiritual growth and maturity.  I think we’d find many interesting things to explore:

1.  Much of the initiatory tradition as it relates to men contributes valuable themes which, I believe, can be found, and re-animated, in the very Christian story and liturgical tradition in which we find ourselves.  Themes on the male initiatory way such as leaving home, stepping into a story larger than yourself, experiencing failure, understanding that you’re not in control, and more have clear connections to the Christian Gospel.  Interestingly, though, much of what I read in Christian ‘masculinity’ literature often fails to envision strength in and through weakness, a Gospel-reality which cannot be minimized or denied.

2.  Following Christ, as witnessed in the lives of the disciples, meant entering into a Beatitude life (Matt. 5).  I think that the significance of this early teaching moment (right after Jesus calls the first disciples and engages the public) should not be missed.  These young disciples were invited into an adventure which would include poverty of spirit, mourning, wilderness hunger and thirst, mercy, peacemaking, and persecution.  Men’s retreats which over-emphasize what I call “ra-ra masculinity” (lots of male super-charged energy which sometimes includes roaring, paintballing, and more…yes, seriously) miss the Beatitude emphasis.

3.  Following Christ means engaging the cruciform life, a life of self-sacrificial commitment.  When I think about real adventure, I imagine the courageous men and women of the early church, sacrificing for the sake of the budding mission, rescuing the outcasts of society, defending the poor, relinquishing status and sharing wealth and sacrificing powerfully for the community.  Sometimes, the male vision I see in recent men’s literature seems more Emersonian, the lone male in search of Walden Pond, entering the wilderness to find himself.  To be sure, journeying into solitude is extraordinary important.  But I’d argue that a man will “find himself” by losing himself, crucified to his own self-serving agenda for the sake of others…and not, necessarily, on the back of a horse or repelling down a cliff.

4.  This notion of the feminization of the church is, to me, a dramatic over-reaction motivated by fear.  Men ought to be championing the women.  Simply look to the ministry of Jesus as the most radically progressive approach to women in its time.  The strong emphasis of the New Testament is on men self-sacrificially laying down their lives (agendas, manipulation, fear, and so much more) for women (see Eph. 5).  One Christianity Today writer refers to some of the latest manifestations of hyper-masculine rhetoric, including the very popular Mark Driscoll, whose public comments seems to draw much attention.  I’m persuaded, though, that fear drives a kind of ‘musculine’ agenda which often comes at a price, and does not privilege women and fight for their dignity, as Jesus did, but seems to speak more of their inherent weakness, their tendencies to draw the church toward liberal theology, and their role limitations.  My friend Caroline James offers a necessary corrective.

5.  We would be significantly helped by exploring genuinely unique manifestations of male spiritual character, as diverse as Bernard of Clarivaux, St. John of the Cross, Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, Samuel Rutherford, Soren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Stott, and J.I. Packer.  Some of these men, I fear, would fit Driscoll’s caricature of the limp-wristed sissifed male without adequate biceps.  (Not that I’ve recently felt J.I. Packer’s biceps…I’m sure they are sufficient…nay, spectacular!)

6.  We would benefit from an exploration of uniquely Christian rituals of initiation and incorporation, asking ourselves whether or not reviving these practices might not get us down the court on these things.  Let’s explore the role of catechesis and baptism, the liturgical year and its invitation to discipleship, the participation in Christ’s upside-down strength-in-weakness through Holy Communion, and the real call of blessing (benediction) and sending which call us out and into the Empire, to subvert and to redeem.  This is an adventure worth engaging.

7.  Finally, I think we’d do well to significantly re-think what we mean by “men’s ministry.”  Much of what I’ve seen done is more reflective of a recent cultural phenomenon than really good thinking on what men need.  Men I talk with are hungry for something more.  I’ve spoken at a good number of men’s retreats, and I’m simply not convinced the ‘sports-event, get ’em revved, now confess your porn addiction’ kind of stuff that is sustainable.  And, that’s not to minimize at all how much men have been helped…jolted out of complacency, engaged in relationship, confronted with addiction.  I’m interested in thinking about what’s next.

Maybe you have some thoughts, whether you agree or disagree…

5 comments

  1. Thanks for these good thoughts. I appreciate how you are calling us past culture and to centering what we do on the gospel. Have you seen http://www.wellspringgroup.org/men/ ? I see men in my PCA church being changed deeply, becoming tender and strong. I thought you’d want to have Battle for Men’s Hearts on your radar screen.

  2. “Men I talk with are hungry for something more”

    I agree with you Chuck. I think the starting place for all of the things you have listed here is encouraging men to seek deeper connection. I think about Brene Brown’s research on shame and how that applies to men. Men – perhaps already with a disposition towards isolation – are shamed when they do not align with culture’s musculin expectations and plunge further into isolation. Shame is alienating and as the church continues to shame men for their lack of biceps, it becomes a dangerous speak to talk about your shame.

    Posts like this will continue to pull the emusculated man into conversations that MAY just ease some of the shame they feel.

  3. Hey Chuck. Regarding “#1” in this post: A sentence that’s been running through my head recently is “A man’s vulnerability is in his strength; a woman’s strength is in her vulnerability”.

    I find femininity to be a very powerful thing – and it seems to be at its most powerful when a woman is vulnerable.
    Masculinity, on the other hand, is called to put itself out into the world with strength. But this requires great vulnerability for the man, knowing that his strength may be rejected or may be insufficient for the task. (Ultimately, it will *definitely* be insuficcient.)

    This gets at what you’re saying about “strength through weakness”: For a man to put the fulness of his strength on the line, knowing that it really won’t be enough: That is extremely vulnerable, and requires an embracing of a cruciform life.

  4. I’ve recently been reading some stuff by Richard Rohr about Christian masculinity and initiation. If you haven’t read anything by him I highly recommend it, this is his passion and specialty. His book, “From Wild Man to Wise Man,” is a really good overview on his thoughts about masculinity and initiation.

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