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?