Discussion of Malestrom by Carolyn Custis James (Part Four)
Here I will be responding to Chapters 4 and 5 of Malestrom: “The Rise of Women” and “The Power of Power” respectively. Some of what I say here may not make sense unless you have read the chapters and my previous responses to Malestrom in parts one through three (Introduction through chapter three).
Again, I find myself in general hearty agreement with James. In Chapter 4 she skillfully examines the Old Testament story of Deborah and Barak and demonstrates how it is often misinterpreted—especially by conservative evangelical complementarians. She treats it as a biblical example of a “rise of women” (or at least of this woman—Deborah) as God’s will. Nothing in the story even hints that Deborah should not have been a prophet or a warrior or that God only called and relied on her “to the shame of men” who “should have” stepped up to take those roles but did not. She’s responding to the kind of nonsense I heard in a sermon about a year ago. I blogged about it. I visited a large church and heard a conservative evangelical pastor preach this story of Deborah and Barak and tell his congregation that Deborah should not have been a leader and that her leadership was only because Barak (and perhaps other men) refused to take leadership. Nothing in the story even hints at that—as James correctly and powerfully points out.
James begins Chapter 4 with stories and statistics about the current “rise of women” in cultures around the world. As a husband and father of two daughters and grandfather of a granddaughter I applaud the rise of women. The only point where I diverge from James is (so it seems to me) that I see the situation as becoming unbalanced. The rise of women is resulting in the decline of boys and young men. There’s a line in the great Clint Eastwood movie “Gran Torino” where an Asian immigrant young woman tells the Eastwood character that in her community there’s a saying: “The girls go to college; the boys go to prison.” Indeed. As I have pointed out here before, help offered to boys and girls should not be viewed as a zero sum game. But it often is so viewed. Whenever I advocate for more attention to boys’ needs in schools, for example, I am accused of advocating neglect of girls. Not at all. That’s zero sum game thinking. I would like to see James and others like her acknowledge that there is a growing problem with boys and men “dropping out” (of school and society in general) and more resources need to be devoted to helping them stay in school and even flourish there. I recently had a conversation with a university professor who told me that he knew for a fact that one of the major reasons for boys/young men dropping out of college/university is addiction to computer games. I have never seen a program designed to counter that. There are numerous programs in American schools of all levels designed to help girls and young women students. There are very few, if any, designed specifically to help boys and young men students. The general attitude is that boys and young men just need to “man up” and if they aren’t succeeding as well as girls and young women it’s their own fault.
The rise of women doesn’t bother me; I’m all for it and I want to see it continue to the point where power and advantage and privilege is equal between the sexes—around the world. I would love to see a woman be president of the United States (which should not be interpreted as an endorsement of any particular candidate). In fact, everything else being equal, I would vote for a woman over a man—just to promote the rise of women in leadership in American government and in politics. What bothers me is the decline of boys and young men and the lack of concern about it on the part of those who could help them.
Chapter 5 (“The Power of Power”) is a deconstruction of traditional interpretations of the Old Testament story of Ruth and Boaz. James holds up Boaz as a great example for men. I agree; he is. He bucks the patriarchal culture and breaks the rules in order to help Ruth and Naomi. The only problem I have with this chapter is James’ seeming view that Boaz is a great exception among men; that most men are corrupted by power and influence. She begins the chapter with a story from her own life where she was in a situation of desperate need of emergency help and, surprise of surprises (!), several men came to her aid selflessly and did not abuse her—as she feared. The overall impression one gets from this chapter is that the male norm is exercising bad power and abusing women. “It is through his encounters with Ruth that he [Boaz] becomes a masculine exemplar of the kind of creative, flourishing, multiplying power of the gospel that the world so desperately needs.” (122) Really? Are we to assume that apart from his encounter with Ruth Boaz was a bad example of masculinity? Is it that “Behind every good man stands a better woman?” Do women get all the credit for good men? Are no men already good? What if the story implies that Ruth encountered a good man in Boaz?
Earlier in the chapter James says this about boys (and by extension men in general): “Young boys are socialized to adopt a ‘dominant, aggressive, controlling, and sexualized version of masculinity.’ In extreme cases, this kind of masculinity weaponizes power and becomes the basis for social status and personal identity.” (116) Anyone who grew up among boys, say in school gym locker rooms (!), knows there are two kinds of boys and young men. Many are not like that at all and resist such socializing by their peers. Many suffer at the hands of boys like that. But James seems to believe that all boys are so socialized. I wasn’t. I know many boys and young men who weren’t. Sure, we were pressured by some peers to be that way, but we resisted that pressure.
Are there no men who are just nice and good in general (not perfect)? I would suggest there are many but that our culture likes to portray boys and men as either stupid and weak or “manly” in the way James describes above. Sure, there are exceptions in literature and entertainment, but overall and in general the portrayal of boys and men is that they are dangerous to the well-being of others unless they are tamed which often means being more like girls.
I grew up among boys. And there were bad boys and good boys. The bad boys were actually the minority, but they got most of the attention. The boys’ school gym locker room was a hellish nightmare in the 1960s when I was in junior high school and then high school. The vast majority of the boys resisted the pressure to join the bad boys’ clubs—cliques or gangs that fit the stereotype of “dominant, aggressive, controlling, and sexualized” to the detriment of girls and women and “weaker” boys (“nerds” and “girly-boys”).
My complaint about James is that she seems to have bought into a stereotype about males in general as people to be feared by women. Of course there are males women should fear and because they don’t know all the stranger men around them they have to be careful. I ask my wife not to go to any store after dark without me and if she has to, to park under a light near an entrance and move quickly. Why? Because most men are animals to be feared? No. Because some are. But they are a tiny minority of men. I would venture to say that most men are like the ones who came to James’ rescue when her car broke down. And I would venture to say Boaz was not an “exception” who only became good through contact with Ruth but an example of good men.