Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Evangelical Masculinity: On the Christian call to "Act Like Men"

“Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in Love” (1 Cor 16:13-14, ESV)

Mark Driscoll preaching at Mars Hill Church, set against a large backdrop that reads "Ten Commandments: set free to live free," 24 Oct. 2013.  Image via Ruthanne Reid and has been distributed under the terms of this license. It has not been modified.

In 2013, over six thousand men – and only men – gather in Hamilton, Ontario for the ‘Act Like Men’ conference. They’ve come to learn how to be real Christian men. To reclaim a sense of biblical masculinity. To be told that, to be strong, they must not act like women.

After all, the conference speakers preach, when God wants something done, He calls a man to do it.

I say preach because these speakers are the leaders of some of the largest, most expansive Evangelical networks in the US. Pastors and church planters like James MacDonald of the Harvest Bible Chapel, Eric Mason of the Epiphany Fellowship, and, most infamously, Mark Driscoll the (former) pastor of Mars Hill Church – though now he’s probably better known for his comments about the “pussified nation” or women as “penis homes.”

But this is still 2013, a year before Driscoll’s fall from grace. A year before he is disowned by the organizations he founded, and before his church has dissolved. And this year, on this stage, he is energized.

He is alive like lightning, casting sharp, electric, verbal bolts. A wave of nuclear frisson that moves through the crowd as he yells into his mic about Abraham and Abraham’s father -- about the generations of the godless before Abraham who are “stacked like kindling for the eternal fire.” Shaking his chains – he’s brought real metal chains on stage with him – making them look weightless though you can hear their heavy clanking through his mic. To him they are light. They weigh nothing compared to God’s judgment.

A real revivalist preacher, a ‘bro,’ and easily the most charismatic speaker here. A prophet shouting out in the desert of secularism, the spiritual desert of “pussified men,” of soy milk, and organic honey. And what is his prophecy?

It’s emblazoned on the banners lining the entrance to the stadium. The name of the conference: “Act Like Men.” Each banner outlines one of its four pillars. I open the booklet they gave me at registration and read.

Act Like Men Means:
1. Don’t Act Like A Woman
2. Don’t Act Like A Boy
3. Don’t Act Like An Animal
4. Don’t Act like A Superhero

Let’s leave aside, for now, the awkward association of femininity, immaturity, animality, and fiction. Focus on 1. What does it mean to tell men that to be real Christians they must not act like women?

Technically, pastors like Driscoll and MacDonald are complementarians. They hold to the idea that the Bible lays out that gender roles are separate, equal, and different. Equal dignity between the sexes is supposed to be emphasized in this theological view, though it’s hard to imagine that considering what “Don’t Act Like Women” seems to mean.

The speakers break it down: men don’t follow, they lead; men are not to be the weaker vessel; emotional self-control is a sign of real masculinity (insert joke about our wives crying at movies, followed by laughter). Therefore, we “don’t need birth control – we need self-control.” A piece of rhetoric that treats the reality of pregnancy as merely a way of attacking or defending men’s pride.

They emphasize, Driscoll especially, that God is the Father. The ultimate Father. Therefore, to act like a Christian is to act like a man, to act like a father. And in this move, far from the idea of equal dignity of the sexes, women are pushed out of their collective imagination. Pushed out of the public sphere (they don’t lead), out of agency in sexuality (don’t need birth control but self-control), out of the highest sense of spiritual communion (God is the Father – the Father – and he calls on his sons to act).

Fatherhood is an obsession at the conference. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that fatherlessness is. One of the speakers, Greg Laurie, puts it directly: modern society is suffering from an “epidemic of fatherlessness.” Almost every social ill, from divorce, to domestic violence, to substance abuse, to homosexuality, to atheism, is traced back to a lack of real fathers, real men, and real Christians.

Like the message “Act Like Men,” this sense of masculinity-under-assault is one of the first thing that greets you in the conference. A banner with the message, “Godly men are absolutely an endangered species” hangs at the entrance. To fix men is to fix society. To save men is to save society. To attack men, masculinity, and fatherhood is to attack society. It’s hard to see this rhetoric as gender ‘complementary.’

Driscoll leans on this idea too, emphasizing that men are called to be fathers within their family, and fathers (leaders) to a nation. In fact, the two are linked together. He yells at the crowd, as if to baptize them in spittle and passion, shaking his chains for emphasis, about the importance of lineage and biological legacy, about Abraham and his father, about Abraham and his many, many sons. Christians must beget Christians, each one a link in a chain of patriarchs. Every man comes from another man – and again, women disappear even from the fact of reproduction.

But many here are fatherless, if not literally then spiritually. Some are the first links in the chain – new Christians from faithless families. Others are broken links seeking repair, or the sons of broken links, the children of absent or abusive fathers. And for many what makes this call-to-masculinity so persuasive, so necessary, is the reality of toxic masculinity that they are intimately familiar with.

Driscoll speaks to this too, and from personal experience. He describes himself as the son of a wife-beating alcoholic from generations of wife-beating alcoholics. A different kind of legacy, but redeemed through his conversion. His faith converted his father. He yells into the mic, again and again, with the same fervor as when he talks about eternal damnation, his message of hope: “It does not matter who your father is as long as God is your father.”

This is what these men have come to hear, especially those who are as familiar with domestic violence as Driscoll. That they are not damned to a lack of manliness, a lack of self-control, to inevitable violence and abuse, as long as God is their father. As long as they become real fathers.

This is the softer edge of their message but it still cuts to their spiritual cores. Driscoll, Laurie, and Lacrae all talk about their absent/abusive fathers. Their struggles to break this chain of abuse and negligence, and remake their lives into something holy. Their commitment to a new non-violent kind of masculinity. In a sense a similar project to this blog -- an attempt to ‘rethink’ masculinity.

And this is where James Macdonald leans in. Almost as charismatic as Driscoll but taking a different approach. No chains, or readings from Genesis, or reminders of eternal fire. Instead, ending his sentences at times with ‘bro’ or ‘yo’ (“Don’t go out without your sword, yo” when reminding people to bring their Bibles). He reads out 1 Corinthians 16:13-14: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”

He leans on, repeats, reminds us that men are called to let all that we do “be done in love.” Reminds us that to act in godly love means to be communicative, patient, kind. Reminds us that godly men can hug too. Calls on us to eschew the violence, temper, and insensitivity that defined the upbringing of many men here. Calls on us to be better fathers than our fathers, to be something other than the wolf at the dinner table. Reminds us that to act in anger is not to act like men. And he cautions us against the false love of socialism, of pornography, of feminism, of permissive, secular culture. Reminds us that God has called men to act like men and not women. Cautions us against the spiritual weakness of letting women lead. Calls on us to act in love.

To genuinely rethink masculinity is a radical project, one that neither Driscoll or Macdonald – different as their styles are – are willing to undertake. It is not quite enough to be against violence – rarely are people actually pro-violence. Instead, it’s a call to the difficult work of questioning masculinity altogether, not simply trying to redeem it. Otherwise, we risk simply reproducing the same ideas that make gender-based violence both possible and invisible – all while attaching it to a rhetoric of anti-violence and biblical love.

1 comment:

  1. I am all about rethinking masculinity, especially in a time where domestic abuse is booming. However, no mater how radical the change of masculinity is, it is still insulting that their number 1 rule is "don't act like women." Also, Why can't both men and women lead? We are ALL children of God, and just because men in the Bible held more powerful roles than women does not mean in today's society that women aren't fit to lead or should not hold powerful positions. That is not weakness, it is just reality that the female race has a lot more to offer to benefit the world than simply being followers of the male race.