Discussion of “Malestrom” by Carolyn Custis James (Summing Up)

Discussion of “Malestrom” by Carolyn Custis James (Summing Up) September 6, 2015

Discussion of Malestrom by Carolyn Custis James (Summing Up)

Here I will be responding to Chapters 8 and 9 of Malestrom: “The Manhood of Jesus” and “Liberating Men from the Malestrom” respectively. Some of what I say here may be confusing if you are not reading the book and have not read my previous discussions of the book here.

These chapters bring the book to a close. Here I will respond to them and to the book as a whole. Let me say first how much I have enjoyed reading James’ book—just as I enjoyed meeting her and interacting with her earlier this year (2015) at the MissioAlliance gathering Alexandria, Virginia. It was there, from her, that I learned about the book and decided I must read it. Serendipitously or providentially a complimentary copy of the book arrived from the publisher during the summer.

I think and hope that James’ perspective and my own overlap considerably. She is concerned about the plight of men in today’s world; so am I. My focus tends to be especially on boys and the ways in which contemporary society treats them. James is concerned to liberate men from distorted images of masculinity imposed on them by society (especially the media) and I agree completely. We agree that all human beings, both male and female, find their human fulfillment in living out the image of God and becoming more Christlike. Jesus Christ was a radical liberator of both men and women—from cultural stereotypes and power relationships that demean them. He models true humanity as servanthood­.

We agree on so very much that I hesitate to discuss our disagreements. But I do feel something is missing from her book. Her particular angle of vision toward men/maleness is both helpful and partial. In my opinion, both women and men find their humanity fulfilled in being redeemed through Christ by faith and by following his perfect model of humanity. In this book, however, James focuses nearly exclusively on how males need to be more like Christ and certain Old Testament male heroes who overcame cultural stereotypes of “masculinity” and lived lives of humble service to others—especially women.

In Chapter 8, “The Manhood of Jesus,” James makes abundantly clear that, for her, “manhood” is being like Jesus. What Christian can argue with that? My problem is not with what she says but with what she does not say. I assume she believes that all people find the fulfillment of their very humanity in being like Jesus. One might read her chapter as implying (she doesn’t say) that men in particular have further to go to adjust their humanity to being like Jesus. This would be, I assume, because patriarchy tends to cause them to think of themselves as needing to exercise dominating power-over others in order to fulfill their manhood. Admittedly, this is an argument from silence and I’m not actually making it as an argument against James; I’m only raising it as a question because she doesn’t say anything about women needing to adjust themselves to be more Christlike.

My question in this series has never been about whether men or women need to become more Christlike to discover fulfillment of their humanity. That’s simply a given—something the vast majority of Christians assume. My question has been and remains whether there is anything distinctively valuable about manhood as manhood. Is being male a good gift from God, something to be proud of, even if it is broken and distorted by the fall and by patriarchy? We Christians say (hopefully) to all people, men and women, boys and girls, “Look to Jesus and become more like him.” But can we also say to men and boys “Your maleness is good, a gift from God, with distinctive qualities and traits, that, if used for the good of others, can make a powerfully positive difference in the world?

It seems to me the Genesis story of creation more than implies that male and female humans are equally human, equally created in the image and likeness of God, but different and complementary to each other, that “humanity” needs both and not just for reproduction. Patriarchy is, indeed, a result of the fall, not part of the created order or God’s intention. And yet, in creation, God saw the male and said “Not good alone” and created the female as his counterpart, intending the male to be her counterpart. Who thinks that the only reason God created woman (in the story, whether taken literally or as myth or saga) is for reproduction? That does not seem to be the given reason why man alone is not good. He needs a counterpart—equally human—for fulfillment of his own humanity. This is one reason (besides the rest of the Bible and experience) why I say that male humanity and female humanity are different but equal. They are equal but different expressions of humanity each with certain gifts from God to contribute to his historical project.

I resist two interpretations of this. One is the traditional conservative one that often goes under the label “complementarianism” and says that the male is to be dominant over the female and the female is to be subservient to the male. That’s not real complementarianism. This is a case where a good word has been co-opted and used to promote an ideology that actually contradicts the word. We observe that happening all the time. The other interpretation I resist is the traditional feminist one that in evangelical circles sometimes goes under the label “egalitarianism” and says that affirming ontological difference between “male” and “female” inevitably leads to or strengthens patriarchy. Because feminists/egalitarians rarely, if ever, criticize females (except for submitting to patriarchy) but often criticize males (except those that adopt feminism) the impression given is that maleness itself is little more than deficient or distorted femaleness. My experience is that if one affirms and celebrates distinctive, innate qualities of femaleness, one rarely if ever is criticized. But if one dares to affirm and celebrate any distinctive, innate qualities of maleness, outside of complementarian circles, one receives cold stares if not argument.

Let me illustrate again using imaginary scenarios. Image a world without females. (There are at least a couple of novels that do this.) Only male humans exist in this imaginary world and cloning is the means of reproduction. What would be missing besides breasts, internal genitalia, etc.? No one I know thinks this would be a good world; it would be missing some very essential qualities. I think everyone agrees with that. What would those missing qualities be? I suspect we don’t even need to answer that; everyone has his or her list. This is why there is such a push in academic circles to get girls and women into STEM disciplines and careers—because those professions (it is said) will be “better” with more women in them. Women as women contribute much to the world and every profession in it. I have never met anyone who would argue with that other than patriarchal “complementarians” (neo-fundamentalists).

Now imagine a world without males. (Again, there are a couple novels that do this.) Only female humans exist in this imaginary world and some means has been discovered for reproduction without males. What would be missing besides external genitalia and Adam’s apples? I think many people think this could be a perfectly good world; it would not be missing any essential qualities. And those who think it would be missing some essential qualities are reluctant to say what they are. I am—because the push back can be very harsh (in my world). Could this be why nobody is saying that any discipline or profession would be “better” if more men were in them? At least I have never read that in The Chronicle of Higher Education or any other journal or article or book about gender in academia and the world of careers and professions.

Here is the question I seek an answer to: If it is the case that females as females have certain natural tendencies, traits, inclinations, dispositions that, while sometimes distorted, are in and of themselves good and valuable, even necessary for the betterment of professions, are there certain natural tendencies, traits, inclinations, dispositions of males as males that, while sometimes distorted, are in and of themselves good and valuable, even necessary for the betterment of professions?

I am not asking or talking about “masculinity” which I agree is, as James says, a constantly moving target and socially defined. I’m asking and talking about human maleness.

It seems to me there are only a few possible answers to the question as I have put it here. One is that, no, neither maleness nor femaleness have any innate, distinctive traits, tendencies, inclinations, dispositions—beyond their bodies. (The way I worded the question rules out answers based on socially-assigned roles.) A second one is that femaleness has certain innate, distinctive traits, tendencies, inclinations, dispositions—beyond physiology—but maleness does not. (A vice versa answer is conceivable but never said or heard.) A third answer is that both femaleness and maleness have certain innate, distinctive traits, tendencies, inclinations, dispositions—beyond physiology—but female ones are superior to males ones or males ones are superior to female ones—in terms of overall value for the world. A fourth answer is that both femaleness and maleness have certain innate, distinctive traits, tendencies, inclinations, dispositions—beyond physiology—and they are equal in value and complementary (though both can be and often are distorted). Finally, a fifth answer is that both femaleness and maleness have certain innate, distinctive traits, tendencies, inclinations, dispositions—beyond physiology—and they are ideally equal in value and complementary but due to patriarchy (or whatever) maleness is more damaged and needs more help to contribute positively to the world than femaleness.

I can’t think of any other possible answers to my question.

In her comment here, on my blog (September 2/3) James stated “So, no, I don’t think there are distinctly male traits.” My question to her, then, is do you believe there are any distinctly female traits? If the answer is no, then I refer her (and others who agree with her) to my above described imaginary worlds. The idea that, no, there are no distinctly female or male traits inevitably implies that a world with only males and a world with only females could be perfectly good worlds so long as some means of reproduction is found and practiced. If someone says “No, because God created both male and female and intends them both to be this world,” my question is “Why do you think he did that?” That answer just raises more questions. God apparently created certain species that have become extinct without ruining the world. Why would the world be less than good without men or without women—so long as reproduction continues?

I’m asking for some deep theological thinking here. I’m asking a question tied into the realism versus nominalism difference in metaphysics and theology. But I’m also asking a socially important question.

My question is addressed primarily to evangelical egalitarians but also to all who consider themselves feminists in more than just the sense that men and women should be equal in terms of privilege and power. (Real feminism goes much deeper than that.)

I doubt that I will get clear answers because any answer other than mine (fourth) raises some very difficult issues. The first answer (above) implies that a world that contains only men or only women could theoretically be a good world. The second answer (above) implies that a world that contains only women could theoretically be a good world. The same is true of the third answer (above). The fifth answer, I think, is what is really in the minds of many people, and is probably the reason females are generally considered morally superior to males—why, for example, Mothers Day gets much more attention than Fathers Day and the media tend to portray men as profoundly flawed in a way, to an extent, not true of how women are usually portrayed.

The fact that the only answer I can accept is four reveals to me that I do believe maleness and femaleness are different ways of being human even though there is much overlap. Our common humanity is what is most important and becoming Christlike, from a Christian perspective, is fulfilling of both maleness and femaleness. But even apart from Christ, both maleness and femaleness are different but interdependent for humanity—two sides of one coin of “humanity.” This is why I call myself an “egalitarian complementarian.”

I’ll finish with what I think is an inconsistency in Malestrom—found especially in the final chapter (9: “Liberating Men from the Malestrom”). There James says the Apostle Paul brought “strong” women into his life—“women he will need and depend on as co-workers and fellow-sufferers for the gospel.” (201) Then she says that Paul “depends on them as indispensable allies in his ministry (which is how God designed for things to work between male and female in the beginning).” (201) I agree with what she says there, but I don’t see how that is consistent with her claim that there are no distinctly male traits. If there are no distinctly male traits, then there are no distinctly female traits (I assume), which would make men not necessary for women and women not necessary for men—except for procreation. Why would Paul “depend on” women for his ministry—if there are no distinctly female traits? Why would males and females be indispensable allies if they are the same—except for bodily differences? I just do not see how affirming maleness and femaleness as different but equal is wrong—so long as one does not make them “boxes” into which every individual must fit but spectrums along which people fall without prejudice. In fact, I think it is implied in much of what egalitarians say–when talking about the “indispensable” contributions of women to society, the professions, and ministry.

In my opinion, obviously, there are certain observable typical male traits, characteristics, tendencies—needs. Also there are certain observable typical female traits, characteristics, tendencies—needs. In some males one finds both; in some females one finds both. But overall and in general males tend to display male traits more or less and in general females tend to display female traits more or less. And these are not merely physical or results of socialization. Neither is “better” than the other. Denying it is almost always aimed at males; rarely aimed at females. Denying it to males makes them question the value of their maleness and, in the end, results in male confusion and resentment.


Note to potential commenters: Please stick to the central ideas and questions of this post; avoid tangents. Do not misrepresent what I have said. Please state your answer to my central question(s) and explain and defend it. But be brief, please. I will not post comments that include caricatures, insults, blatant misrepresentations, or that display an argumentative (as opposed to dialogical) spirit or that go off on irrelevant (to the issue I raise) tangents.

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