I’ve been digesting the amazing article “Male Shame” (posted right here recently, and if you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?) and it’s definitely been provoking some thoughts in me. I’d like to talk about how I saw male socialization happen while involved in Christianity and how that socialization affected my own life as a woman. We’re going to spend a few posts on this topic, I think. Here’s the first, about the narrative that patriarchy offers men in extremist Christianity.
One thing I think Christianity gives people is a very firm life script. I call that script a “narrative” because it’s almost a storylike, linear progression of how people’s lives will work if they do what the religion’s ideology tells them to do. Depending on the flavor of Christianity that narrative can be a mild suggestion (liberal/progressive) or a full-blown set of marching orders (evangelical/fundamentalist) or anything in between those extremes. And the more insecure the person involved with the religion, the closer to the latter extreme that person will gravitate.
Even as a Catholic, I got taught that men and women were different and had different roles in life. It didn’t escape me even as a little girl that women had to be nuns while men got to be priests (my word choice here is deliberate), and that if I intended to make a life as a clergyperson it was going to be wearing a wimple and not vestments. Right after I married Biff, we visited my grandparents and he was most terribly to make a good impression. I offered the idea that he help clear the table and wash dishes after the huge feast my grandmother had made in our honor. But when he tried, my eldest aunt–that nun I’ve talked about–slapped his hand as he reached for some dirty plates, telling him in great annoyance, “You’re a man. Men don’t do kitchen work. Go sit in the living room with Dad and let us work in here.” And I got ordered to take his place clearing the table and washing dishes. Indeed, every time he tried to lift a finger around that house, my grandmother or aunt would shoo him out.
Though it distressed him that this traditional gesture of male largesse was not being accepted, Biff thought this division of labor was an absolutely awesome deal, which it was–for him. It was exactly the division that our own Pentecostal church taught, and you may rest 100% assured he never did that kind of thing at home. He’d engaged in a strategy of strategic incompetence to the point where I was completely deceived about his ability to do any housework without destroying something dear to me. You might wonder just how loving this tactic is, and I’ll let you know right now that it is not loving. It is the mark of someone who views relationships as a battle, and housework as the score. He didn’t like housework. Well, neither did I. He went to school full-time. Well, so did I, and I worked part-time besides (in fairness, I don’t think he would have been able to keep up his grades if he’d had a job as well; there were some learning difficulties involved). And yet despite having a much higher workload than he had outside the home, somehow I’d gotten roped into doing every bit of housework.
How had this even happened?
He’d grown up with parents who hadn’t really expected his birth and who’d been both kind of over the whole parenting thing. I don’t think he got a lot of attention from his dad, who was a bigshot in a technology industry, or his mom, who had a booming small business of her own to attend. Both his siblings were significantly older than he was and starting professional careers that were doing really well. Meanwhile, Biff was a goofy, undisciplined young man with learning disabilities that hadn’t been caught and a positively aching case of insecurity–but he had somehow grown to be dashingly handsome and well-spoken.
When I met him, I had just turned 17 and had no idea how to tell the difference between a raging case of narcissism and genuine self-confidence. He was a college guy a few years my senior and quickly figured out that I had no experience at all in dealing with guys like him. Our courtship was quite the whirlwind, marked by frequent arguments and stormy dramas. For your reference, he was the kind of guy who deliberately did things that got me angry just because he liked the makeup action afterward. I can look back at what he was doing and see the classic signs of a narcissist reeling in a victim, but at the time I had no idea that I was being massively manipulated.
This act of his was wearing quite thin, though. If he hadn’t converted to Pentecostalism and dragged me back into it in his wake, we’d have broken up well before things got too serious. As it was, he was smooth-talking and persuasive enough that I found belief enough to join the church alongside him. When he said that Jesus had changed him into a better man, I believed him–for a while. By the time I figured out how untrue that was, it was too late and we were lawfully married.
Our church taught a number of things that didn’t fit reality, but the main teachings that impacted my life were these:
* Becoming Christian made a convert into a new person–and a far better person at that.
* Our god–the author of the universe and creator of every single thing–had some very firm ideas about just how men and women should act and what they were each supposed to do with their lives.
It would take me a very long time indeed to realize that the first of these teachings was purest nonsense. At the time, we didn’t have the internet, so I could easily hand-wave away the transgressions I heard about as just individuals sinning or Being Bad Christians™. I don’t think it’d be quite so easy for me to dismiss hypocrisy now that it’s in the news almost on constant rotation. As it is, I hear that claim still from Christians and it just makes me snort in derision. If you ever hear a Christian piously talk about a testimony full of lying, cheating, and stealing, it is a wise idea to immediately put one hand on your wallet. And for the love of little tabby kittens, don’t ever get involved with a Christian whose testimony involves physical violence. Euphoria and emotional catharsis can temporarily halt some entrenched habits, but there’s quite clearly no permanent change involved, much less supernatural change. I wish I’d known that when I first got involved with Pentecostalism.
As to the second, I began to suspect early on that my church’s teachings on gender roles and division of labor existed simply because its male masters liked it that way. Though the men in charge of my denomination positioned themselves as “serving by leading” and painted this rigid division of labor as a huge imposition to themselves, it was abundantly clear that they liked their domination over women and wouldn’t have had it any other way. And no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that my servitude was THE BONUS PLAN, which is what the men over me dearly wanted me to think of it as, I couldn’t make myself believe it entirely. If housework and subjugation really were so wonderful, then these men would have taken them both away from women long ago as their rightful due.
First, they defined their maleness by how non-female they were. I’m certainly not the first person to notice that if one really wishes to insult a patriarchal man, one should accuse that man of being female in some way. Men were not allowed to have female attributes and had to conform to a very rigid conceptualization of manly-manliness. They were to be square-jawed, disciplined, brave, strong both of spirit and body, straightforward, and of course protective. Even back when I was Christian this narrow conceptualization of masculinity disturbed me, but I perceive that it’s only gotten more ossified over time. Men were from Mars, and women were from Venus, or so went the book that was already hugely popular among my crowd.
Second, they defined their maleness by how obedient and compliant their womenfolk were. Women were treated like these strange alien creatures who could scarcely hope to be understood after decades of practice; our demands were bemusedly humored when it suited the men above us, or outright denied if not. Though we were put on pedestals and told we were important and that our gruntwork was valuable, men’s actions told us every minute of the day that these pedestals were a false height–one that we could be knocked down from any second our male masters thought we were getting a mite too used to being up there. I was often accused of undermining Biff by not falling into line with one of his crazy ideas; I’ve mentioned before that when he wanted to join that Waco cult, both he and the cult’s leader held my disobedience as a direct sign of my rebelliousness. That was only the first time I’d brush up against this patriarchal idea. My deconversion had a serious impact on Biff’s hopes of joining the ministry in that denomination. They could put up with him being a pathological liar and schemer, but they could not put up with him not being able to control his wayward wife. When he joined the military, the evangelical chaplains there apparently convinced him that he should take any measures possible to get me back into line–a suggestion that would have disastrous consequences for us both. After I wised up and fled from him in fear for my life, he blamed me for losing his license to preach in that denomination and tried in a variety of other ways to guilt me into returning, all centering around how awful it was that he’d lost all these perks and benefits because I’d left him.
Someone like Biff–who was raised without strong role models and who had a gaping sense of insecurity and churning neediness where his heart should have been–fell into extremist Christianity like a duck into water. He had never really had a strong sense of self, and the kind of Christianity he gravitated to gave him a definition of self that he could easily objectively see and achieve. He would never have gone for one of the more liberal denominations, no, never; he needed a black-and-white, clear as crystal outlook that permitted no scary ambiguity or questions. The self-definition he gained from that kind of Christianity was both flattering and convenient for the kind of life he really wanted to lead.
Worse than giving him an overly-simplistic, patently unfair definition of masculinity that all but required him to victimize women, though, religion gave him a mantle of authority that he simply couldn’t have gotten any other way. He didn’t deserve to rule over anybody but himself. Giving a lazy, conniving, dishonest, undisciplined, manipulative person like that free rein to rule over a whole gender just by dint of his sexual identity as a man was like pouring gasoline on a brush fire. He loved it–reveled in it, even. He began to think of my subjugation to him as his rightful entitlement, and reacted explosively when he at last realized that I no longer agreed with that idea.
I genuinely think that he found encouragement in fundamentalism to be the way he was, and furthermore I think that this encouragement egged him on to become far worse than he would have been without religion’s influence. In the same way that conspiracy theorists are a much bigger problem now than they used to be thanks to the internet and easy methods of communicating with each other, in the same way that they shine each other on to be even weirder and more outrageous, Biff only found reasons to become more and more rigid and patriarchal as time went on. When he finally got it through his head that I wasn’t Christian anymore, his attempts to “woo” me back into religion got more and more alarming, extreme, and frightening–because they were all based on his assumptions that he was my spiritual master, that I was somehow compelled to obey him, and that the ends justified the means.
As for Biff, his effort eventually paid off with my grandmother, if you’re wondering. He spent that whole trip bashing his brains out trying to figure out how to impress her; there wasn’t much that drove him crazier than someone who seemed immune to his charms. Then, right before we left, we discovered she’d completely mended his aging wool trenchcoat’s torn lining, replaced its buttons, and rehemmed its lower edge. Offering her labor to him was the closest my crusty German grandmother could come to telling him he was now part of our family, though the translation for this act of love fell to me to explain later. And once he realized what her labor meant, she fit easily into his worldview again and he was at ease. Though she expressed her adherence to patriarchal ideals differently, she fit perfectly into his conceptualization of how men and women should act–a conceptualization that, by the wildest of all wild coincidences, his god shared.
People tend to gravitate to the vision of Christianity that most suits their own desires.
They hear a trumpet calling them to rally underneath the banner that belongs to their self-identification and that fits best with their own ideas of how the world should work. If you run into someone with a punitive, vicious, monstrous conceptualization of the Christian god, there’s a good reason why that person thinks their god looks that way. People make their gods in their own image.
And men in our culture who feel stung and indignant over their loss of privilege–and confused over just what masculinity means in a culture where more and more men and women pursue a cross-section of interests and display a cross-section of competencies and attributes–will hear the trumpet rallying them beneath a banner that gives them clear definitions and duties even if it’s all done at the expense of half the human race.
There’s a lot of fear forming a black cancerous mass at the heart of patriarchy, and that’s where we’ll be taking up next time. I hope you’ll join me.