Masculinity, identity, spirituality, religion

Just a few thoughts about issues of masculine identity in the context of spirituality and religion… please dont let is be a soliloquy, let me know your thoughts in the comments box.

There have been a few articles written recently about the disengagement and disappearance of men from places such as church sanctuaries and missionary agencies.

Two notable recent articles on this are: Steve Davies, writing about men and the mission field, and Vicky Beeching (current Christian uber blogger) on feminisation of worship music.

I’m left feeling though that in both cases, what the writers describe are symptoms of a greater malaise, and while both are interesting and important, they arent quite catching the very complex causes.

These causes are complex, and I would categorise them as essentially psycho spiritual and sociological.

For a very long time the church has been deeply patriarchal, as indeed has society. Both church and world remain in thrall to patriarchal hegemony, but arguably less so than ever before. The place of men in society generally has become more confused and unclear, as traditional manufacturing and ‘muscle based’ industry declines in a form of freefall, and women push for a more equal place in corridors of power, the man’s place as ‘provider’ and ‘governor’ is challenged – and quite rightly too.

I am an advocate of gender equality, in fact I’m probably a feminist, I dont bemoan the rise of feminine power in society, rather I celebrate it. What I think it requires however is a movement of masculinity which accepts and understands the role of men in society and church as changing or readjusting. Without this kind of rethinking, we’re in for a prolongued crisis.

Recent attempts to’turn Jesus into a cage fighter’ as some people have described the language of the likes of controversy courting Mark Driscoll and others are evidence of one attempt by some to deal with this issue. This seems like an attempt to claw back ‘traditional’ male imagery. The man as tough and rough, but still loving and fair, and importantly in charge of his world.This sort of imagery is so problematic in so many ways, that it deserves to be discarded as soon as possible. It is precisely this which has led to the denigration of women, homosexuals, people of other colour/creed and religion as ‘less than they should/could be.’

Other men choose to discourage that kind of language and imagery, and opt instead for a kind of image of Jesus which is described by others as feminine.I verge more towards this for sure, but even so, find it troubling at times, Jesus was a man, a real person, not some sort of floating presence who hovered over the earth sprinkling flowers and butterflies. More, Jesus was a man of his time, a physical man used to hard ground and conversant with hard work.

Recent songwriters have written love songs which sound as though Jesus is a boyfriend to be crooned at. I personally dislike most of these songs, not because of their love song type sentiment, but more because of their banality and the ease with which they trip from tongues and fail to engage with brains and hearts. But this kind of music is popular with many, and I dont feel it is putting people off as such, rather I think its a symptom of an overswing away from the kind of ‘masculine’ ‘battle’ imagery prefered by song writers as recently as the 1980s/1990s (Noel Richards et al).

So what is the cause of this crisis situation? In parenting there is a theory which says that for a child to be content, and to mature into a spiritually/emotionally balanced adult, their parents should enable them to have feelings of security, significance, and self worth.

I think that perhaps what we are seeing is that for too long men have had too much of the significance aspect, and as that diminishes they/we are losing our feeling of security, and of self worth. Women on the other hand have for too long been considered less significant than men – a clear fallacy which in Christian terms is not even born out biblically. Consider among so many examples the primal woman ‘Eve’ who had to be whispered to by a snake before giving into sin, her male counterpart the primal man ‘Adam’ needed only a couple of words from Eve to bite the fruit. Consider the female disciples, who without being endowed with the apostleship ‘status’ stayed loyal to the crucified Jesus when his male friends were in hiding. Looking at the history of the church women have been incredibly significant throughout, from Deborah in the Jewish scriptures, to Theresa of Calcutta in 20th century religious life.

Men too have been significant, but seemingly have too often felt the need for status and recognition, developing hierachies with abandon, I fear some of our greatest leaders have been guilty of this. Israel the people of God, kept prefering earthly kings to the leadership of God, such was their downfall. They have even said inspiring things which on reflection are none too helpful.

An example of this is the classic quote attributed to William Carey, and taken from his address to the Baptist Association in 1792:

‘Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.’

I have long found this troubling, and was pleased to hear it addressed roundly by the Australian writer and speaker Dave Andrews who encouraged his audience to consider a more humble approach, paraphrasing the Welsh patron saint David in his encouragment to:

‘do the little things’.

I am fairly sure that one of the biggest problems with male engagement with church, mission, worship etc is this issue of change – it has removed the psycological security we’ve come to rely on, it has threatened the significance which we have based on a false idea of pre-eminence and special authority, and has dented the male self worth.

In parenting terms, if a child is having difficulties of these sorts, one would expect abberant behaviour, disengagement, and quite possibly retreat (in to his or herself). I think we can probably demonstrate that these things are evident within Christian western men.

These are not the only factors of course, there are a great range of issues at play here, but as we go through immense societal changes, which are deeply impacting the church, we need to understand the fact that while masculinity is in crisis, symptoms are going to show up.

The only solution for this that I can see is for more men to model a more wholistic form of masculinity, building on the humility, gentleness and piety which has been attributed to women over the years, whilst accepting the physicality and earthly strength which goes with being male. The essential point is that we must resist the urge to dominate and control, and learn to give of ourselves in quietness where necessary.

So what do you think?

Are Christian men just wimps who need to pull themselves together?

Are churches too feminine, and too full of love songs and men in frocks?

What are the deeper societal issues which are at the root of the disappearance of men from mission and church?

Do men just not like singing anymore?

Are there some traditions where men outnumber women? Where and why?

Church at the movies part 1: Zombie attack

One of the wonderful things about our society is that it does a good line in metaphor. Although I dont personally like horror movies as a genre, I do appreciate some of the wonderful totemic images that horror fiction and films have produced.

Horror’s early appropriation of the Frankenstein story for instance is a good one – Frankenstein’s creation of the monster as a metaphor for  technological advancement works very well. Whenever there is a scare about GM crops for instance, they are instantly dubbed ‘Frankenstein Foods’ – alliteration aside its a perfect shorthand image.

But the image I want to consider today is not Frankenstein or his creature, but rather that ever present symbol of the dreaded undead – Zombies.

Dawn of the dead

I am not sure if I witnessed it myself, or just remember hearing about it, but I have a distant memory of a ‘visiting preacher’ turning up to lead an evening service at the Baptist church I went to as a kid, and declaring: ‘It’s a good thing that Jesus can raise the dead, because there are a lot of dead people in here tonight!’

On reflection that was probably unfair, I very much doubt there were a lot of people at the meeting.

However, after having observed a number of congregations, in all kinds of different settings over 30+ years of church attendance I can kind of identify with the idea of having seen the undead in church.

Lets head back to the question of metaphor – what do zombies represent? Well the usual cultural reference point in this case is George Romero’s 1978 Classic ‘Dawn of the Dead’. It is not to be overlooked that Romero chose to set his Zombie movie primarily in a shopping mall. The mall, invented in the 1960s and by the late 1970s already a symbol of humanity’s slavery or liberation (you choose) by consumerism. Yes that’s right, consumerism, whichever way you look at it, whether it empowers the individual or enslaves society, that is the setting for Zombies.

Zombies are wonderful representatives of the consumer. They stagger through the mall, mindless and drooling and desperate to gorge themselves on the flesh of the living. Rather like the queues which form outside new year sales, where people line the streets desperate to get in and get the bargain (never mind the blood shed and evnironmental devastation in the making of the product) there have even been a number of instances where people have been injured in the crush of such shopping frenzies.

So, back to the pews. Are there zombies in church? Well for most of us there’s comfort in knowing there arent all that many people in church anyway, so its easy to spot a zombie hoard – but if were to extend the metaphor, have we created a church which is an attractive mall for drooling consumers?

One of the problems with trying to create ‘seeker friendly’ services and ‘church experiences’ is that we can, conciously or unconciously, adopt the consumer model. How can we entice the passing trade? What can we do that’s eye catching and entertaining? How can we increase brand awareness? What are the best deals and offers we can promote? These are variously shown to be be effective or ineffective at enticing people through the doors, and in some cases the passing buyer may take up the special offer and choose to buy into the brand. But is that a healthy way of creating new life?

Are we, instead of asking people to be ‘born again’, sometimes encouraging them to be undead? Many churches are more concerned with how many people are in church on sunday, how many bums are on seats, than how well the core of their fellowship are developing as disciples.

This seems at odds with the early church. In many cases these were very small groups, flying under the radar to keep themselves from being persecuted or killed, using secret symbols and hiding out underground, with members so full of life and so dedicated to their God that they were willing to risk the horrific fate they were assured of if caught. Nobody got a special offer, there was no seasonal promotion, no money back guarantee. As a result the Zombies, who are/were naturally put off by the idea off by the prospect of having their consumer power reduced to the point of extinction tended to steer clear.

Zombies, I fear, dont tend to make productive members of church, they arent too interested in serving the community, in developing spirituality, or in recognising Jesus in those around them. They also dont tend to be too keen on going through suffering as a path of spiritual growth. Your average Zombie prefers a quick fix, and prefers to gorge rather than fast.

They may give money into the collection, particularly if they are encouraged to by talk of greater blessing or more consumer experiences. They are likely to turn up regularly, and even to be actively involved in large meetings.

However, Zombies on the whole, are not to be trusted or encouraged. I reccomend you consider carefully whether you are encouraging the undead in your fellowship. The good news is that I reckon God loves Zombies too – and a Zombie needn’t stay undead, but they will need some encouragement to make the transition, traditionally a stake through the heart or a beheading ought to do it. Alternatively you could try making your church less of a consumer experience, and more of an expression of mission – then see if the zombies will leave or change of their own accord.

It was funny recently to hear about the FOI request Leicester city council received about their readiness in the case of a Zombie attack – but perhaps its something church needs to take seriously, a bunch of Zombies turning up can really make life difficult, if you dont believe me, watch Dawn of the Dead.

Next time in ‘Church at the movies’: Vampirus Nosferatu…

Damien the Leper

Today is the feast day of the Roman Catholic Saint Damien – or Damien the Leper.

Damien was a Beligian, who took a religious vocation which led him eventually, at the age of 33, to the island of Molokai, where a community of people lived who suffered with Leprosy. This community was abandoned, shunned, by a world which feared the contagion of the ancient disease.

Damien spent his life on Molokai, serving the people of the island, and living as the poor among the poor. Eventually, after living among on Molokai for 12 years, he too contracted leprosy, and four years later he died.

He is a true inspiration for all of us.

In case you weren’t aware, leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, is still a scourge of many developing countries. In 2009, there were nearly 134,000 new cases of leprosy in India alone. Major efforts to ‘eradicate’ the disease have yet to prevail, but many people I speak to don’t realise that it still exists.

If you are interested in learning more, have medical, research, or other skills you could contribute to the ongoing battle, or feel able to make a donation towards the work, you could start by visiting The Leprosy Mission if you are UK based, or the American Leprosy Mission if you are in the US. There are also a number of other excellent Leprosy charities.

In the meantime, consider Damien’s life an object lesson in self denial and Christ like determination to serve the poor and downtrodden.

Endo’s Silence, and the problem of the impossible question

Whenever one has a discussion about an issue like pacifism with somebody who doesnt share the same convictions, there usually comes a point when an impossible question is posed. In that case, the question is usually something like: ‘What would you do if your family were being horribly slaughtered, and you could only stop it by shooting the assailant dead?’

The question is intended to demonstrate the futility of the pacifist position, the basic faulty thinking that lies behind a pacifist response.

But of course, just because there is an obvious thing that one probably would do – doesnt mean that it would be morally ‘right’.

In his incredible novel ‘Silence’ the Japanese writer Shusako Endo tells the story of a Christian missionary in Japan a few hundred years ago. This was a time when the Japanese were extremely antithetical towards this foreign religion, and there was a great deal of persecution of both missionaries and converts.

Part of the plot revolves around the question of whether the main character should deny Christ, in order to save others from torture. The already suffering peasants are put through terrible pain, because the priest won’t ‘step on the fumie’ or apostasise.

So one could ask a committed Christian, who is sure of his or her faith – ‘but what if your family were being tortured and killed, and you could stop them by blaspheming and renouncing Christ? What would you do then.

This impossible question is perhaps a sister to that asked of pacifists – and demonstrates (perhaps) the futility of a faith position.

What they really demonstrate though are the impossibilities of asking such questions. Endo’s ‘Silence’s is a fantastic book for anyone interested in pursuing such thinking, and meditating on the silence of God amidst pain and hardship. But do consider the pointlessness of such questioning if you are ever challenging a pacifist – what might be thought ‘necessary’ or ‘the only choice’ is not necessarily the right one.

community life – and my sunny weekend

I spent most of Friday and Saturday at the house of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, near Leeds. It’s the second trip I’ve made there this year, and I enjoyed it even more than last time.

For one thing, this time I was joined by my friend James, who blogs here and tweets @n0rma1 – this was James’ first visit, and I was really encouraged to see how much kinship there is between his kind of new monasticism and the older monasticism/religious life that is to be found there.  It makes me think that my book was about right on that.

It’s great to see how links are forged between communities, and principally between individuals who represent different communities. It is sometimes only by making those face to face visits that we recognise the humanity in one another, and see past the preconceptions or societal stereotypes.

I also relished the opportunity to spend some time in quiet, and feel reinvigorated now, ready to dive into more preparations for meditation workshops, MBS fayre stuff, books, community projects and so on.

I was also encouraged by something I read in the Tablet, which was an article by Christopher Jamison in which he wrote about the way that so many people try to minister to those around them by inviting them to Mass – or to a general church service if you’re a protestant. What we are doing, points out Jamison, is adding another level of busyness to already overburdened lives – people genuinely have a lot to do. What we would be better doing is finding ways for people to experience peace in their everyday lives, rather than adding a new level of activity.

I agree with this – only this weekend I heard somebody talking about how we should be inviting people to church, by which this person meant a church service. For many of the people I know though, Sunday morning is about the only time of rest they get, going to church would put the kiebosh on that too. I’m much more interested in finding ways to help people create oases of peace in the everyday, to experience the justice, peace and joy which we talk about often, but dont tend to generate in sunday morning meetings.

Dont get me wrong, I’m not trying to abolish church ‘services’ only trying to encourage us to make more of our ‘service’ to others, and not to limit church to congregational meetings.

People who have heard me talk recently about ‘post congregationl church’ will perhaps see what I mean here – our view of what it means to be church is too often stuck in a rut of ‘meeting attendees’ – lets make our church wider and broader, and turn our towns into temples.  (Also our villages, cities, estates etc, just that towns and temples scan nicely.)

It was so good to spend time at the monastery this weekend, I can thoroughly reccomend it as a great place to visit – especially when the weather is good, as the garden is glorious.

One of the brothers there also mentioned this piece from the guardian by Toby Jones, a lovely chap whose own community is a great example of what it might mean to create something along kind of new monastic lines. His column in the observer is now over, but it makes great re-reading, and you can look back through it to see just what sort of journey Toby and his family have been on recently.

In our case of course, the reality is somewhat less glamorous. We’re yet to see whether we will stay here beyond the summer, or whether there will be pastures new on the horizon. The house we want to move into here hasnt yet become available – although we’re still hoping. But even if it does, there’s no saying what rental price tag it will come with. Presumably somewhat more than our current abode.

We’re also really in need of more people to work alongside us – ours is a new monastic vocation really, and if you’re calling is partly to prayer, partly to study, and partly to service – then you’re in the same groove as us – so why not get in touch.

Did you believe in Jebus?

It was great to meet some wonderful people over the weekend, many of whome came along to my seminar about Jebus. Because of the interesting way the conference is structured I repeated the seminar three times, and each time we had a great crowd and a whole different set of discussions. Topics covered included: the rights and wrongs of voluntary poverty, why it should be harder to become a Christian, why we should or shouldnt give up on the established church, and a whole lot more. Very good stuff indeed.

I even managed to sell all the books I took with me, which just about covered my own conference fee! Marvellous.I also sold some CD’s of recorded scripture readings which are to be used in meditation. These are part of a new venture I am working on called Emmaus Encounters, I’ve started building a website here. It will be finished sometime before too long.

I had to laugh when someone asked if ‘as a speaker’ I was in a nice, ensuite room – just goes to show how little they understood about our movement. We dont really distinguish between speakers and cleaners (not that I was a speaker in any case) we all pay the same, we all get the same, whether we’re going to speak, to make the coffee, or to listen. There’s a rightness in that.

That said, I was fortunate enough to get a room to myself, not because of my exalted (ha ha) status, but because the person I was to have shared with decided to bring his wife at the last minute. Just as well for him really as I was in bed late and up early every day. A good time was had by all I hope.

If I met you at the conference, then welcome to the blog – this is home to my ramblings, and perhaps some statements which are about as provocative as those I made in the seminars. I do like to get a bit of discussion going.

Some people asked me if the seminar material may form the basis of my next book, well that’s something I’m wondering about too. I’ll let you know.

If you’re here looking for ideas concerning exploring spirituality with young and/or unchurched people – then do have a nose around on the site, you may find some stuff, and also look out, I’ll be back soon with some links for you.

If you’re here because you’re considering inviting us to come and facilitate some kind of training, seminar or other such event – then please be advised I expect ensuite rooms and breakfast served by a butler! LOL.

I don’t even believe in Jebus

I used to occasionally watch a documentary program/series about an American family, who in many ways are the archetypal family – two young children and a baby, Dad works in industry and ‘Mom’ looks after the baby.

The son is something of a lovable tearaway, fond of skateboards and catapults, who often finds himself in a spot of trouble. His sister is studious and sensible.

Anyway, in one particular episode of the series, which was entitled Missionary: Impossible, the dad whose name is Homer, via a rather implausible set of circumstances ends up becoming a missionary in Microasia – unfortunately for him however, there is a problem. As he points out ‘I can’t be a missionary, I don’t even believe in Jebus’.

For Homer, a life of religious vocation was not ideally suited. After all,  if he doesnt believe in Jebus himself, (despite the faithful witness of neighbour Ned, and the dutiful ministrations of local vicar Rev Lovejoy) then how could he hope to talk about Jebus with others.

Homer is not the only person in the western world to have lost touch with exactly who is supposed to be the son of God – our whole society has become post Christian. You may say this is welcome, or you may not. Whatever your view, a society which doesnt even believe in Jebus is an interesting place to be a Christian worker.

If you want to discuss this with me, I’ll be hosting a seminar on this very topic at the Annual World Horizons Conference which is not far off, I’ll be at Cefn Lea park, Mid Wales, on the weekend of the 25th and 26th of March. I’ll also be playing some music, and doing some meditative stuff.

There’s bound to be plenty of interesting things going on, and all kinds of weird and wonderful people, so register now and let’s talk about Jebus.

Classic Homer Simpson quote: “I’ve always wondered if there was a god. And now I know there is, and it’s me!”

And that wonderful moment from Missionary:Impossible…

Apologies if this post is strewn with errors, I was called away during the writing on an unrelated hot cross bun based emergency, and the editing may have suffered.