Friday, October 7, 2011

Christian Male Identity

This post is an invitation to a conversation, because I don't have all the answers. If you've found this blog, I'd like to know what you think.

J.K. Gayle over at Aristotle's Feminist Subject has brought up the current fear among many Christians that the empowerment of women is emasculating men. He cites the new book by William J. Bennett (former U.S. Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan and former Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush) called The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood. Bennett appears to voice a concern I've read in several places on the Web, that women's social and economic gains are somehow leading to a male identity crisis.

My first reaction is to ask myself, why should it matter to men, ultimately, what women are doing? When Peter to said to Jesus, "Lord, what about him?" referring to Jesus' plans for John, Jesus answered, "What is that to you? You follow me." John 21:21-22. Shouldn't following Jesus be enough?

And yet as a follower of Jesus, I myself must not be selective in doing unto others as I would have them do unto me. What I would have done unto me is for my concerns to be taken seriously and listened to. So I must listen to my Christian brothers.

One thing I'm certain of. Men should not define themselves by whom they get to be in authority over. Is a man in slavery, beaten by a master, any less a man? Is a man interred in a concentration camp any less a man? So, even though the Christian Patriarchy movement seems to want to define men in terms of their "leadership" in the home, I cannot feel that a man must be in charge of someone else, in order to feel like a man.

Two Friars and a Fool, makes this point rather well. But the other thing they're saying also should be heard:

"Patriarchy is not masculinity. The two aren’t the same. But, apart from patriarchy, what is masculinity? The thing is, none of us know, because almost no one is thinking about it. Or worse the only people thinking about it are the ones who just want to push patriarchy in disguise... What is it to be a man, apart from either being part of patriarchy or being told how evil you are for being part of patriarchy? If I knew, I would tell you, but I don’t. I’d like to, though."

There is an interesting thing going on here. Women (except perhaps those embracing Christian Patriarchy), because we have traditionally been the "other" sex, tend to want to be viewed primarily as just people. We don't want to be defined by our sex, but by our humanity. But the question being asked here by men is, "what defines us as men?"

Traditionally, men have been the "default" sex. To be human has been viewed primarily in terms of being human as a male. The traditional name for humanity is "man." What humans do that makes them human has, through history, been seen in terms of what men do. Until recently, being a man meant just doing what men-- that is, people-- do. Working, resting, praying, having a family. Self-expressing through art or literature or craft or sport. Being in charge too-- but that was only part of it.

Now men are finding that the meaning of words have changed, as a concerted effort has been made in the last few generations to include women as part of the default of what "human" means. We no longer say, "man," we say, "humanity." And now many men seem to feel themselves at a loss. If "humanity" is no longer, by default, male humanity, what does it mean to be male, as opposed to being female? Particulary since women, who have always worked, rested, prayed and had families, just like men (only without being in charge, and with their self-expression largely suspected, suppressed and devalued), want to be defined mostly as just "people"? And maybe to get to be in charge sometimes too?

If you're a man, only you can be a father. And if you're a woman, only you can be a mother. And those are different things, and the differences are important. And there are physical differences, and hormonal differences. And they tend to affect the way we behave-- but not universally. There are always exceptions. And there are no good traits that are the exclusive province of one sex or the other. For Christians, Jesus is our example, and he modeled all good traits, all of what it means to be human. And Jesus was male, but was not afraid to describe himself as spreading wings like a mother hen and taking chicks under them!

Perhaps the answer is not to come up with a certain set of traits and call them "manhood," and another set of traits and call them "womanhood," whether the word "biblical" is attached to these terms or not. Perhaps men as well as women need to simply look to the humanity of Christ for an example of what being a human ought to be. If you're doing your best to be like Jesus, then you are a biblical man. You are also a biblical woman. Not because there are no differences. Males and females are different, and the differences should be celebrated. Christianity is not a religion that calls the spiritual good, and the physical bad. Our bodies are good, and they are part of who we are-- and our bodies are gendered.

But the problem my Christian brothers are expressing-- those who don't want to embrace patriarchy as part of the definition of manhood-- is not fully answered by saying, "Let's just all follow Jesus and not worry about it." One of the commenters on Two Friars and a Fool, Douglas Hagler, put it this way:

"I would say that I have been thoroughly taught to see masculinity as bad. Only recently have I begun to see the possibility of another view. That is, obviously, part of my motivation here. I guess I would also say that I have also been taught to see certain things as associated with masculinity - violence, domination, unconscious privilege, etc. - and that all of those things are negative things."

The problem also goes deeper than mere perception. There is also the fact that unconscious privilege is apparently now actively hurting men, particularly in education. MaryAnn Baenninger, in her article in The Chronicle: For Women on Campus, Access Doesn't Equal Success, notes that women are not really "winning" in the way William J. Bennett seems to fear-- but she also notes this:

"And while we were focusing on gaining access for girls and women, we neglected the needs of boys and men. We didn't plan well for the consequences of a society that taught one sex that it had to work harder to gain access, and the other sex that access was guaranteed. We find ourselves surprised each time we learn that the educational system is not serving boys and men as well as it might."

So though I disagree with the Christian Patriarchy movement as the right solution to the problem, I do not deny that there is a problem. Many men-- even egalitarian men-- feel a sense of disorientation. The traditional ways they have always acted are now associated with negative things such as domination and privilege-- even violence. Maybe it's not so much that men don't know who they are, as it is that they don't know how to act; they don't feel it's ok any more to just be themselves. And maybe it's not as easy for them, just living life, as it used to be.

Can we, their egalitarian Christian sisters, help them, without having to be ourselves forced into traditional, subordinate roles that we don't feel reflect the nature of the New Creation kingdom? Brothers, do you have input on how men can learn to be comfortable with themselves without returning to the patriarchy of the past?

If you have thoughts to share, please keep them respectful and accepting of others who may differ. Thanks!


J. K. Gayle said...

My first reaction is to ask myself, why should it matter to men, ultimately, what women are doing?

Women (except perhaps those embracing Christian Patriarchy), because we have traditionally been the "other" sex, tend to want to be viewed primarily as just people.

For Christians, Jesus is our example, and he modeled all good traits, all of what it means to be human. And Jesus was male, but was not afraid to describe himself as spreading wings like a mother hen and taking chicks under them!

Thank you very much for your thoughtful post. You have given us much to think about and have focused on the problem of men's thinking in general: it's this notion that our sexed biology or even our psychology is what's the norm (the default as you put it)!

Isn't this some like right handedness (as opposed to left handedness), the majority, the default?

And isn't is some like other defaults encoded into our English language? For example here's one from the world of us parents (especially parents who must grieve the loss of a child):

"There is a word for a woman who loses her husband – widow. There is a word for a man who loses his wife – widower. There is a word for a child who loses her parents – orphan. There is no word for a parent who loses a child."

Notice, in grief, the norms or the defaults in English run in a different direction from the supposedly "normal" state of outliving one's children. Grief is horrible no matter who you are or what your relationships, but to have it "marked" and as some aberrant. Now, was Jesus somehow lesser because he was never a parent, and somehow even more lesser because he wasn't a parent whose child died before he did? We do such strange things with "marks" in our gendered language, with our non-default special cases, as if they're lesser. And men tend to panic when they are not default. How arrogant.

verity3 said...

I think part of the solution to the problem of devaluing men or women is to find a healthy way of incorporating an appreciation of the *individual* into all of our relationships, both personal and public.

To me, it seems like the new patriarchy is partly a reaction to the reality that Western culture, particularly American culture, has had a tendency to overvalue individuality and independence. So patriarchy's elevation of group identity (in the form of gender roles) offers some needed push-back -- the problem is that it goes too far. Normative gender roles end up ignoring the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals who comprise these groups, and can actually end up suppressing strengths and magnifying weaknesses in these individuals.

I think that what we need, to move forward, is a more holistic approach: valuing the individual as a part of community. For Christians, this should mean, at a minimum, valuing each individual as someone created in the image of God, who has something to contribute to the world God created. And when relating to our brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to add the encouragement to follow Christ above all else... including ourselves.

Is there a balance to be reached in valuing the individual while valuing community? I'm not sure. But I believe God values both, so I believe we are somehow supposed to attempt to do both.

Anonymous said...

Wow. That is very interesting. I'm going to have to chew on it.

My initial reaction is what it always is when faced with a focus on masculinity and gut lurches. (Am I the only one this happens to?) I really don't like conformity for conformity's sake. I'm okay with it when it serves a greater purpose like keeping order or loving another. I just don't see the importance of teaching men to be "men" and women to be "women;" to want the genders to conform to some cultural expectation for a random reason. Maybe that is the core of the issue. Is the desire for gender conformity based on a valid reason? The "biblical" camps says yes...its the way God designed it. Hence we get "biblical" roles. I don't believe that. But, could their be another valid reason for conformity to gender traits?

Possibly there the secular world. In Christ's family, I'm not sure there is since Jesus doesn't make an issue of it. He makes an issue of conforming to His likeness.

My husband says that in ancient , more violent times men had use their brute strength and aggresion to protect and provide in a way a woman couldn't. It is only in modern times, with is conveniences, that the inherent physical weakness of women is not a limitation for them. That makes sense to me. So, I guess modernity could be more at fault for the manliness crises than feminism.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen Mars Needs Moms? I think that illustrates the frustration men are feeling. Women can do it all, what can the men contribute?

Kristen said...

I really appreciate everyone's input.

Kbonikowsky, you're not the only one who cringes at the masculinity/femininity binary, especially when it's put in terms of behavior or definition. What I'm trying to do is get away from that binary while at the same time acknowledging the difficulties faced by our brothers, which I think egalitarianism often fails to do. Sure, they're privileged. But they're also experiencing disorientation at the loss of privilege they were raised to expect. J.K. Gayle, I see how there is arrogance in males expecting to be the default, but I also think the panic is real, and I have compassion for it. The ground is shifting under their feet. Patriarchy is, in many ways, a desperate attempt to regain ground that is rapidly being lost.

Verity, you make a very interesting point. Community is part of what is being lost in modern culture-- and with it, the security of knowing your "place" and where you fit into society. All of that is being upended. I completely agree that we need to restore community, but in such a way that the individual is valued as an individual, not expected to fit into a predetermined role.

As for the Mars Needs Moms movie-- I haven't seen it, but I agree that many men do feel like they are somehow becoming superfluous. This link:

shows that men do have a unique role as fathers that mothers cannot replace. The idea that women alone can do it all is just as much a myth as the idea that men belong in power by virtue of their maleness.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

I was asked by Wordgazer to comment on my sense being a man. so here goes.

We guys get our sense of what it means to be a man form our fathers. If we don't have fathers we get it from the men who mentors us or to whom are the closest in terms of a learning relationship. If a guy's father was a jerk that doesn't guarantee he will be one, it depends upon the other factors in his life that shaped him agaisnt the jerkiness of his father. Yet somewhere in the deep recesses of his subconscious or unconscious will be a sense of the incomplete. This might be counteracted if he finds a good man who mentors him or otherwise serves as a role model.

My father was a great guy. He was was all the things a kid wants his father to be; strong, unafraid, smart, protective, knew all about traditional masculine things. He knew all about hunting, fishing, fixing cars (he was the Michelangelo of the internal combustion engine)he was an architect. He never cheated on my mom, elder in the church. I would not choose him to head the federal reserve board but I would let him fix anything on a house, car or plane. He was also an aircraft engineer.

I can't do any of those things. I went in the liberal arts direction. Theology, history of ideas. I am also not attractive to women. not handsome, not tall, but fat. My father was short and stocky but that didn't' seem to be a problem for my mother. My mother was really beautiful as a young woman. I always notice this look on beautiful woman's faces the fist time they see me, like they are smelling cabbage burning on the stove.

I have no doubt that I'm a man. My father instilled within me a deep sense of who I am and what it means to be a man. He didn't ever say "Now Joe, here's what it means to be a man." I just know because he was one. I saw him living life everyday for 45 years. He didn't have to sit my brother and I down and say "this is how to be a man." We got it from being around him.

What I measure being a man buy is not the obvious things I admire so much in my father, such as physical strength and lack of fear and proficiency in sports. I admired my Dad for those things. In college he played both offense and defense in football and marched in the band at half time (and he played a horn--he had big lungs).

The things that I measure manhood by are the qualities that were not s obvious but that one must observe over a life time. He was honest, he was dependable, he cared. He loved his family tremendously. He loved my mother, he loved his mother and never got over her death. She died the year I was born, 1956; in 2000 he was 92 he was crying about her being run over by a car. There were times throughout my life that both he and his brother would become chocked up talking about her.

He had guts, and that's not defined by pushing people around. I define it by who you stand up to when they are pushing you or others around.

Men have been trained to think if they don't have the top spot they are no good. So stepping down form top spot, even to assume equality, feels like being made subservient. That feeling wont last and it doesn't matter, it's a necessary to corrective to the abuses of society after thousands of years.

What I find dangerous and offensive is the image in which men are portrayed in advertising; useless doufuses who can't think,spinless boys who can't grow up. There are no positive role models being presented to men in advertising. The useless garbage of false images of manhood lifted from bad Hollywood movies such as the "manlaw," "man card" and all the other BS of beer ads.

The message given boys in modern advertising is "nothing more is expected of you but that you be a selfish pig and guzzle our beer."

this is turning into a guest editorial.

Kristen said...

Metacrock, this is interesting. You say your father showed you what it was to be a man, and you have no problem with your male identity-- and that's wonderful. Yet you also say you didn't follow after your dad in doing the things he did that are traditionally associated with manhood. You define manhood in terms of honesty, dependability, caring and courage. Yet clearly a woman can be all these things too. You do not, in fact, seem to be actually defining manhood in terms of traits that distinguish it from womanhood. Instead, you relate it in a much more basic way to being like your father. This is pretty much in line with what I was saying about how there is no specific set of traits that belong to "manhood" or "womanhood," but that men and women are still different and needed for their differences, particularly when it comes to fatherhood and motherhood. Even though you are not a father, you identify with your father as the basis for your masculinity. He was a good model to you of what a man can be, since he didn't model domination, arrogance, and other negative traits that have come to be associated with masculinity. Neither did he fall into the entertainment media's stereotypes of manhood (I agree, they are mostly quite negative).

Perhaps the problem with male identity today is not so much a problem of "what traits make me a man?" as a problem of role models. Manhood and womanhood need not be reduced to stereotypes, when we have individuals in our lives who live out their gendered humanity in courageous, honorable, caring ways.

I do wonder why, when there's so much fuss raised about the negative images of women raised by such things as Barbie dolls, no one says anything about the dumb, selfish, childish father figures portrayed so much on TV. Perhaps this is simply the pendulum swinging back from sexism against females, towards sexism against males. But I don't think it's doing our boys any good.

I think we will know we are really, as a society, done with patriarchy when we cease not only to support it, but to feel the need to backlash against it. In the meantime, the counter-backlash by the Christian patriarchalists is understandable, but isn't helping the problem.

Guy said...

In a society where egalitarianism is an ideal, it's simply the case that the rise in women's status because of their career success will displace men who otherwise might occupy those positions. Truth is, there are only so many "status" jobs out there, and they don't automatically double just because women are entering the workforce in greater numbers.

The result is that, for men who find their greatest worth in being the financial provider, they have to find some other way to bolster their egos, and provide for their families faithfully.

This is all part of the lessons of mutuality, where men have asked women to find their greatest worth in their household careers, and now have to face the prospect of having to find at least some of their worth in the same thing. This is good; men can no longer justify being the "distant" or "absent" fathers that many of them had while growing up. This creates a bit of a "vacuum," as men once again need to recover the intimacy of true fatherhood that can only come from being intimate with their heavenly Father.

The "enemy" is half-hearted relationships with the Father, as feelings of inadequacy derive from there for men. Many faithful female spouses these days have a hard time relating to the sense of emotional disconnect that many of their good husbands are reeling from.

Encourage them deeper in their walk with God, and be sure to remind them of the reasons why you love and respect them. They ought to be doing the same with you, but they may be feeling a bit wounded by false cultural expectations.

Kristen said...

Thanks for posting that, Guy. It does seem that social changes in the roles of the sexes have, if nothing else, been of great benefit in encouraging men to become more hands-on fathers.

Guy said...

For all the "benefits" that inure to men about having a "male-oriented" image of God, one of the weirdest is that it might be harder for a man to want to desire intimacy with their "Father." In many ways, young men have to come to learn to dislike what they don't like about their earthly fathers, in order to individuate more deliberately into their own person, while retaining a basic respect for them.

Is it wrong to conjecture that women might have an easier time seeking intimacy with a good "Father?" For many young girls growing up, it was easier to bond with their dads than with their moms, and I suspect that the opposite is the case for young men. It is only as we mature further that we come to love and respect both parents for who they are, and for the roles they've played in our upbringing.

That is, we learn to transcend our gender biases, while still maintaining our gender identities, because they are a gift from God. We come to see the world in all its variety, without feeling threatened in our own identities.

One of the more comforting things for me in my Christian identity is to see that God is as much a Mother as a Father --that basically, we are all created in God's image, and that it's only in gregarious fellowship with each other that we can enjoy the full range of God's gifts to us. There may be good reasons why God chooses to use the "Father" image more predominantly, but that doesn't change the fact that God is all that we think of when we think of both male and female, and it doesn't have to be "icky" in any way to draw close to God as a Lover.

One of the other things that both men and women wrestle with, is the "war-language" built into the description "the opposite sex," when in fact, we are the "complementary sexes" given by God as a gift to each other.

These difficulties may account for why men seem to be less prominent in the church these days. There was a time, in Catholic theology, for example, when the church was described as a "mother." I wonder if, in those times, it was more difficult for women to want to attend.

In any case, I think the "gender wars" are only mitigated, and finally, transcended, in a proper egalitarian understanding of God's heart and good desires for all creation.

Don't know if any of that resonates with you, but it's what I've been wondering about for some time.