Monday, August 27, 2012

Be a Man!

We were walking the booths at Middletown's famous Peach Festival a couple weeks ago and I was bombarded by an eager pamphleteer pushing his local congregation. He didn't ask if I worshiped anywhere or even if I cared, but went on happily extolling the virtues of his congregation. "We've got a great children's program," he said, like noticing the stroller I was pushing, "and we're starting up an awesome men's ministry where we're going to do cool man stuff, like wrestle alligators." (I did not make that up.) I politely took his half sheet of paper, glanced at the address (ten miles away in another town) and put it in my pocket to recycle at home.

I could make bones about how his sales pitch had no mention of Jesus in it or how he didn't seem to care who I was (other than a male with a baby), or what exactly wrestling alligators has to do with "ministry," but that would be a lame, lecture-y post.

I wasn't going to write about this incident at all, except later on in the week I read an article somewhere (I really forget; this is what happens when I don't write on the blog regularly). It is likely a common theme and something well documented; it seems overly simple. Yet I had never considered it quite this way before - the article's contention that basically every societal definition of masculinity has to do with dominance, which runs counter to the gospel of submissive love. The result being that when men hear a gospel sermon, it proclaims their very existence as sinful or evil.

If you think about it, this idea of masculinity as dominance makes a lot of sense. We focus on sports (and not those wussy ones where people tie, but the real manly sports where someone has to win - even if it's in "sudden death!), we win at work, even in relationships it's the language of competition. Manly activities include killing animals (and the closer to the extremes of the "with your bare hands - with a bazooka" scale you get, the more manlier the kill). Men are encouraged to shrug off pain - to dominate their own body. It goes on and on.

It's also true that the gospel is often completely counter to these notions. Service, mutual submission, and cooperation are all hallmarks of Christ's teachings. The vision of the Kingdom is one, essentially, where there are no losers (I imagine that makes March Madness much less exciting).

There's a growing faction of pastors out there pushing the "manly" Jesus as a way to recapture the hearts and attention of men so shaped by these societal demands and definitions. All this really does is conform the gospel to the expectations of the culture.

So how do we begin to re-imagine a definition of masculinity which embraces the gospel, but also avoid the wimpy, effeminate portrayal that well serves neither men, nor Christianity?

I think we have to begin with the notion than humanity was created to be disciplined. We have many different impulses and ambitions, but while letting these roam free often benefits us in the short term, the long term effects can be deleterious. I think about the struggle in the NFL between players taught to go all out, but also to be conscious of the places and ways in which they're hitting an opponent in light of recent understandings of head injuries. It's tough to be both brutal and controlled at the same time. James Harrison believes it impossible; I will not argue with this man.

Society seems to want a man who is kind, compassionate, loving and caring - until all hell breaks loose, then they want someone who can knock a few heads.

I'm not sure it works that way.

Strength does not have to go hand-in-hand with domination. I think of Michael Clark Duncan's character in the Green Mile - someone strong and gentle. One of my favorite definitions of "meek" is "strength under control." A Christian definition of "manliness" is more akin to someone who would never use strength, under any circumstances, to benefit himself.

Can we even go far enough to differentiate winning from dominance? Is this why trash-talking is so prevalent in sports? When you reach the highest levels of competition, everyone is good. The games are more an exhibition of skill and not a contest. Trash-talk adds an element of dominance - the attempt to anger or humiliate an opponent. I'm not talking about eliminating pick-up basketball, just the need to use it as a means of proving one's worth.

Maybe that's the answer? Perhaps our equation of masculinity and dominance has something to do with worth. Does our society teach that men are only worthy in proportion to their dominance? Richest, strongest, smartest, nerdiest - men seek out their niche for domination as a way to prove worth. It happens all the time.

The men I know who most embody a gospel masculinity are those with a strong sense of who they are and that they are valued irregardless of what they bring to the table. They are men whose weaknesses are not insecurities, who cannot be threatened by force or dominance; they are men who stand up for what they believe in, even if it means refusing to stand up and fight over who's more dominant.

Isn't that what Jesus did? The Roman Empire challenged him for dominance and he just took the beating and the execution and still came out on the other side. The gospel is about refusing to dominate or be dominated. That's a tricky row to hoe and I'm not sure how well any of us can navigate the space in between.

Instead, let's watch this Oscar winning best song in a motion picture for 2012; I think this sums up my perspective on this issue well:

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