07: Spirituality cont’d

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The Problem

It doesn’t take much examination to discover that the foundations upon which Christian masculinity bases its concerns are rather shaky. The concern is that men are disappearing from the church as a result of rampant feminization, and that the church therefore needs to man-up to get back to masculine basics. The reality is that yes, men are underrepresented in church attendance (statistics of congregations being two-thirds women are commonly quoted). But a quick look at who runs the church (including even the most progressive of denominations) shows a massive weighting towards male leadership.

Also, it seems a rather selective approach to history to claim the feminization thesis, as some of the identifying aspects of the Christian era such as monasticism and mission have a very masculine flavor. It is interesting to note, too, that those forms of Christianity that buck today’s trend and flourish tend to be those which resonate more with conspiratorial models of masculinity (evangelicalism in the United States with its appeal to servant leadership, and conservative Anglicanism in Nigeria with its homophobia, for example). What we are witnessing is not a feminization of the church, rather an overwhelmingly masculine church responding anxiously to an increasingly vocal opposition that demands justice and questions the conspiratorial grip of masculine power (at a systemic if not personal level).

However, this doesn’t speak specifically to the kinds of masculinity promoted in the conspiratorial texts at hand. Coughlin wants men to be inspired by a tougher vision of Jesus, rather than that of a “bearded woman.” The obvious ramification of such a statement is the reiteration of conspiratorial models of masculinity, chiefly violent and combative. Coughlin can use more constructive words like “assertive” if he likes, but these gloss over the simple truth that contemporary Christian masculinity is largely a military masculinity. And just like the argument about “noble warriors” and “spiritual warriors” in the previous Archetypes chapter, there is no getting away from the fact that this is all about killing (whether spiritually/metaphorically or literally). Various forms of the Christian men’s movement are effectively paramilitary organizations, framing their language, aesthetics and even props (everything from symbolic swords to target practice) in military terms. Further still, I have recently undertaken a study analyzing how Christian masculinity is also framed by animal hunting and meat consumption, which puts a very real bloody spin on otherwise metaphorical activities.

The appeal to “Biblical masculinity” is itself also problematic. As demonstrated in the previous Archetypes chapter with the story of King David, the Hebrew Bible is populated by all manner of nutters, rapists and murderers, dating right back to the story of Cain and Abel. God Himself in this text is often wrathful, patriarchal and unforgiving. Following the critical points of the History chapter, just because we have seen such precedents for thousands of years, it does not mean they are natural and inevitable (let alone divinely ordained).

When we get into the New Testament, Biblical masculinity gets more complicated. Yes, just as Coughlin argues, the kick-ass assertive Jesus does exist (we all get a thrill out of him driving the moneychangers out of the temple, for example). But both Jesus and other men in the Gospels are also often gentle and wracked with doubt. Indeed, contemporary scholarship of masculinity across all Christian sacred texts (and historical periods) demonstrates one big counter-conspiratorial claim: Biblical masculinity is wildly diverse, encompassing almost every point you can imagine (including eunuchs and men who may or may not even be human!). So ironically, the contemporary Christian claim about there being some kind of singular and authentic Biblical masculinity does nothing but expose a fundamental lack of understanding when it comes to reading the Bible. (Don’t read this an anti-Christian statement, by the way. I’m largely pro-God: I just get annoyed by the kind of thinking that refuses to acknowledge the epic complexity of Christianity and most other faiths.)



Written by Joseph Gelfer

August 7, 2011 at 2:32 pm

2 Responses

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  1. ” the Hebrew Bible is populated by all manner of nutters, rapists and murderers… God Himself in this text is often wrathful, patriarchal and unforgiving…just because we have seen such precedents for thousands of years, it does not mean they are true or natural (let alone divinely ordained).”

    Actually, the world _is_ full of ‘all manner of nutters, rapists and murderers’, which does suggest that the Bible represents ‘truth’ in this sense. Whether it’s ‘natural’ or not is another matter.

    Both this representation of violence, and the wrathful God seem perfectly ‘true’ to me in that they are the folk history of an oppressed nomadic people coming to know God, incrementally, in a way often strikingly similar to today. I take it you’ve read Girard’s stuff about the Bible, scapegoating and violence? He calls it, rightly, a ‘text in travail’. Like us, in a way

    Not having read the book, I agree that it shouldn’t be taken as a normative masculine path though… sounds like the usual dimwitted stuff.

    Luke Devlin

    August 7, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    • That’s a good point: I’ve made an edit there from “true or natural” to “natural and inevitable”


      August 7, 2011 at 5:09 pm

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