Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Masculinity Panel

We had a masculinity conference at Wheaton where questions were posed. (Yes, women were invited and we're glad they joined us; and yes, we also have an ongoing conference called "Where are the Women?") There were some great contributions from my fellow panelists, but I only have my own notes and was asked to post them. Here are my answers (elaborated a bit for this format): 

What does biblical manhood mean to you? 

Essentialists believe maleness is real, but (generally) that there’s one way to be a man, and THIS (insert masculine ideal here) is that way. Constructivists believe "maleness" (they love scarequotes) is a cultural invention, and so we should discard the category completely. I count myself a Strategic Essentialist (I borrow the phrasing from theologian Serene Jones, who offers a very helpful critique of Judith Butler's hyper-constructivism). This means I believe there IS such a thing as the masculine (and feminine), and that these are not pure social constructions; instead they are parts of the mystery of God who transcends both categories (see Gen. 1:27); AND no single culture, even Christian cultures, gets them exactly right.

This means I believe maleness is real, there is a variety, albeit a finite variety, of ways to be a man; you don’t have to own a pick up, you don’t have to be married (Jesus wasn't), you don’t have to like football, you don’t have to listen to Joe Rogan – you can do those things, but you might find yourself fulfilling genuine masculinity in other ways as well (like, say, being an art historian who writes books about Mary, heh). So there's freedom for men to be men in Christ, yes; but freedom not to escape authentic manhood but to realize it.    

Once you believe that masculinity is a real thing (and I assure you it is, and this truth is denied at great peril), there are five truths that surface, truths that hypermasculine "machismo" or hypomasculine "effeminacy" (I can use scarequotes too) are actually seeking to avoid. These truths show up in a lot of masculinity literature. These truths are as follows (I borrow them from the book Adam's Return, which was an attempt to Christianize the men's movement of the 1990s launched by Robert Bly's Iron John): 

1.     Life is hard
2.     You are not important
3.     Your life is not about you
4.     You are not in control
5.     You are going to die 

Though of course all these truths also apply to women, generally speaking it is uniquely difficult for men to receive these truths (which is why global male initiation rituals have long attempted to impart them). Biblical manhood, in my view, does not deny these truths, but nor is it satisfied with them. And so (again, borrowing from Adam's Return)....

1.     Life is hard, but "[Christ's] yoke is easy" (Matt 11:28)
2.     You are not important, but "your name is written in heaven" (Luke 10:20)
3.     Life is not about you, but "it is not [you] who live but Christ who lives in [you]” (Gal. 2:20)
4.     You’re not in control but “can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life span?” (Luke 12:26)
5.     You are going to die, but “neither death nor life… can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39)

I hope you all agree that these five truths go far deeper than another internecine "complementarian" or "egalitarian" debate.

Have you ever struggled with thinking you aren’t man enough?

I've learned a lot from Carl Jung, but I am not a neopagan Hillmanian Jungian, as many contemporary proponents of masculinity are. James Hillman unfortunately de-Christianized the Jungian tradition, and for that reason I don't think he's that helpful. For such persons, manliness might evoke the licentious debauchery of Dionysus, the erratic philandering of Zeus, the blinding mental clarity of Apollo, or the cuckolded industriousness of Hephaestus, or all at once. No thanks. 

Instead my view of manhood is shaped by reading the Gospels, which confirms the good in the pagan masculine archetypes and corrects the worst. Poseidon never said, “The greatest among you shall be your servant" (Matthew 23:11).  As Chaplain Wilson suggested this morning, the Christian tradition radically revises pagan understandings of masculinity, counseling service, selflessness, sacrifice and surrender instead. If this is one's view of masculinity, of course I fall short, and will continue to fall short, over and over again. Thank God for grace! 

What negative messages about masculinity have you seen in our culture?

I've written before about what happened to me after I read a good amount of the now traditional men's literature, namely Moore and Gillette's fascinating series of books (the summative volume is here, but they are all of interest). Then I tried to meet Moore and realized he died in a murder-suicide. I realize this was a tragic circumstance, but it is a reminder that the Christianization of the 90s men's movement is not exactly optional, in my opinion. It's a process we're witnessing all over again with Jordan Peterson. Those who don't take him seriously, I believe, are deluded; those who stop with him are as well (I expect Jordan Peterson would agree). 

In essence, I believe the four masculine archetypes uncovered by Gillette and Moore—Warrior, Magician, Lover and King—are not simply replicated by Christ, but they are instead baptized, transformed, even transfigured. 

Not all agree. Books from the 90s men's movement like Aaron Kipnis's Knights Without Armor took a different approach to transfiguring masculinity, and I think charts such as the one below remain instructive, to a point. 

But again, as a Christian, I would amend this chart dramatically. For example, saying a priest is part of the old order and can't reflect integrated masculinity is a holdover of a now outdated secularized view of the world. What Kipnis is looking for in the polytheistic (that is, Hillmanian) model, I believe, won't work. (I tried to explain why in a piece on Dionysius and sexuality here.) What Kipnis is looking for, I think, is the Trinitarian category instead. So I would revise the first of his string of adjectives in the "Spiritual" category this way:

(HYPER)MASCULINE: Patriarchal  // (HYPO)MASCULINE: Matriarchal  // (INTEGRATED)MASCULINE: Trinitarian (but this, of course, would apply to the integrated feminine as well).

But really, a critique of the polytheistic model is itself embedded in Kipnis's book. He describes going to a goddess festival where masculinity was trashed - torched in fact. A wicker man was lit on fire as shirtless women danced around it, the statue's phallus blazing amid the shouts and screams. Kipnis was revolted, as were most men present:

The road of my initiation into Earth Mother mysteries had ended. It is no better to burn wicker men than it was to burn witches. Suddenly I no longer found amusing the antimale bumper stickers I had seen on women 's cars as we hiked in. They said, "if god created men, who can you trust" "The more I get to know men, the more I love my dog," and , more ominously, "Dead men can't rape."...The Goddess showed a dark face that night, which felt as just as dangerous as the so-called patriarchy.

At this festival, they then put some kind of communion bread in the mouths of the men who had joined the proceedings, and Kipnis says he spat it out. I'm glad he did. Goddesses, I've argued elsewhere, don't get anyone very far. What Kipnis is looking for is a meal that brings men and women genuinely together as men and women; and the only meal I'm aware of that consistently does this (in an amazing array of different global conditions), is the Eucharist.   


Please offer one suggestion or piece of advice you would want to leave the audience with today as they go and live as a man in the world.

Some believe in the "Billy Graham rule," namely, that men should never have an appointment alone with a woman not his wife. I admire the intention, but not that particular rule. Of course, anyone with a sister or a mother should know how to interact with women in a non-erotic, non-possessive way; and there is a reason the Bible counsels men to treat women who are not their wives as mothers or sisters. Instead, I believe in a different "Billy Graham rule." Namely, I once heard that Graham was asked if he worried about ever committing adultery and the public scandal that would follow. His reply was "I pray that Lord would take me home than that ever happen." That's a Billy Graham rule I can get behind.
But that's not the single piece of advice I'd end with. It would instead be to get to know the Grail Legend. It is the chief way that errant masculinity of medieval knights was Christianized in the West (that's part of why I wrote about it in the early chapters of my book). The legend (call it literature if you choose) still works that way today. The Grail myths are inexhaustible. 
But unless you're a medieval literature specialist you probably need a guide. There are several, but the single most efficient guide I'm aware of if Robert Johnson's little book He: Understanding Masculine Psychology, which began as a series of church talks. As I've said before, those classical Jungians sure can be helpful, precisely because they're more Christian. The more pagan ones, well, not so much.