On Biblical Manhood: A Q&A with Author Carolyn Custis James

On Biblical Manhood: A Q&A with Author Carolyn Custis James June 1, 2015

BC_CarolynCustisJames_bio“For me, writing this book has left me as disturbed about what is happening to men and boys today as I have ever been about women and girls. I hope anyone who reads this book will end up deeply concerned about the message the church is offering men and boys.” — Carolyn Custis James, author, Malestrom

Carolyn Custis James is a popular speaker for women’s conferences, churches, colleges, seminaries, and other Christian organizations. She’s the founder of Whitby Forum and Synergy Women’s Network (now partnered with Missio Alliance). Her many books include Half of the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women and Lost Women of the Bible.

Here, she answers some questions about her newest book, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World.

(Watch a video Q&A with the author here.)

How you came to title your book Malestrom?

When I started researching what is happening to men and boys in today’s world, I was stunned and disturbed by what I found. Powerful currents are bearing down on them, causing them to lose sight of who God BC_Malestrom_1created them to be as his sons. These currents can be overt and brutal leading to the kinds of atrocities and violence we witness in the headlines—wars, school shootings, beheadings, and the trafficking of men and boys for sex, forced labor, and soldiering. The number of male casualties on the giving and receiving ends of the violence is beyond epidemic. But these currents also come in subtle, even benign forms that catch men unawares yet still rob them of their full humanity as God intended.

The repercussions of such devastating personal losses are not merely disastrous for the men themselves, but catastrophic globally as the world is depleted of the goodness and gifts men were born to offer. The maelstrom—a powerful whirlpool in the open seas that threatens to drag ships, crew, and cargo down into the ocean’s watery depths—offered the strong image I needed to represent the power and seriousness of what men are facing. A slight alteration in the spelling, and Malestrom was born.

How is Malestrom different from other books you’ve written about and for women in the past?

I don’t see this book as “different” from my other books, but as a vital continuation of that discussion. Granted all my earlier books focus on God’s vision for his daughters, and Malestrom turns the focus to God’s vision for his sons. But there is a profound connection between those earlier books and this one.

My previous books center on questions facing women and girls in the 21st Century. The impetus for that quest started with questions I was asking about my own identity and purpose as a woman when my life didn’t follow the script I was handed by the church. Those questions soon mushroomed well beyond my personal story to encompass every woman and girl—from the powerful to the powerless, and even those who suffer the worst atrocities and human rights violations imaginable. The vision I found—articulated most fully in Half the Church—was larger and more powerful that anything I could have imagined.

Malestrom isn’t starting a “different” discussion, but expands that original discussion to include men. God doesn’t have separate visions for women and for men. His vision for humanity includes both men and women. We can’t adequately understand or fulfill the one without the other. Men have a lot at stake in the discussion I’ve been having with women and (as I have argued) are beneficiaries of what God is doing through his daughters. But there is also lot at stake for women if we don’t have an equally robust discussion of what is happening to men and how the Gospel speaks with power and purpose into their lives.

What are some of the struggles of purpose, identity, and meaning that men are battling today?

Something as ordinary as a diagnosis, a job loss, a divorce, or simply the realities of aging can dislodge a man from his sense of who he is as a man. It is telling that the worst year in a professional football player’s life is the year after he retires. No more cheering crowds. Cameras and microphones are aimed at younger players. Aches and pains remove the illusion of invincibility. Unless his manhood rests on sturdier ground, he faces an identity crisis and struggles to redefine himself.

Changes taking place in today’s world are creating new challenges for men. With women on the rise, men can no longer assume the place of privilege will default to them simply because they are male.

Malestrom takes up topics that can undermine a man’s identity and purpose when manhood definitions rely on shaky foundations—such as the opinions of others (especially his father), his priority over women, physique, athleticism, good looks, achievements, competitiveness, leadership over others, earning power, etc. What puts this whole discussion in an entirely new and alarming light is the fact that Middle Eastern experts now are linking “the struggle for identity, meaning, purpose” as a major factor that explains why disenfranchised young men (even from the West) are being drawn into the ranks of ISIS and other radical organizations. Social scientists describe an “insidious link” between masculinity and violence that fuels many of the wars that rage across our world.

This is not an issue the church can afford to ignore or to address within the narrow confines of church walls in isolation from the rest of the world. It is a global issue and an opportunity to speak prophetically into the lives of men and boys with an indestructible identity, meaning, and purpose that comes from their Creator and that leads to their flourishing and to the flourishing of many others.

Has the Evangelical church embraced a fallen notion of manhood?

To answer that question, I point to the fact that there is a chapter missing in the Bible—the chapter that would show us what unfallen manhood is supposed to be. The Bible opens with a spectacular display of God in creative action and issuing the exalted mandate for human beings—male and female—to reflect him and to do his work in the world together. But before we witness a single moment of unfallen image bearer living, the Enemy invades and God’s image bearers rebel. They are cut off from their Creator and divided from one another. We are left in the ruins of a fallen world to figure out what God had in mind for us. If our reference points are broken, our conclusions will be broken too.

So to answer this question, yes, I believe we have embraced fallen notions of manhood. The Creation narrative doesn’t contain the slightest hint of one image bearer ruling over any other image bearers. Humanity’s call is outward to rule and care for creation for the good of all. Jesus didn’t come to endorse any human social or political system, no matter how we may try to “Christianize” or improve it. He calls those who follow him to a kingdom that is “not of this world.” Not a kinder-gentler version of how the world does things, but a Jesus, gospel way of living that is foreign to us and to our world. Malestrom is a call for the church to be fearless in putting anything and everything on the table that may stand in the way of reconnecting with God’s original vision, including patriarchy.

You write that historic patriarchy is the principal expression of the malestrom. What is patriarchy and how is it harmful?

Trace any current of the malestrom to its roots and you will end up talking about patriarchy. Patriarchy (“father rule”)historically gave men authority over women, children, and property. Patriarchy includes polygamy, arranged marriages, child brides, honor killings, enslavement of women and of men, the priority of sons over daughters and of the firstborn son over his younger brothers, to name a few characteristic features. The harm this poses to women is self-evident—from limiting their horizons, to devaluing them from birth, to outright abuse, oppression, and violence.

What isn’t often acknowledged is the fact that not all men are beneficiaries of patriarchy, for patriarchy also places some men over other men. Patriarchy organizes human society by hierarchal pyramids with only limited (and ultimately temporary) room at the top and where the top is only sustained by a well-populated base that includes not just women and girls, but a majority of men and boys.

How does patriarchy color the understanding of men’s stories within the Bible?

The fact that patriarchy is on virtually every page of the Bible means that in some way patriarchy matters. And in fact, patriarchy is an essential and powerful tool that helps to unleash the Bible’s radically transforming message. Here’s the crucial point: Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Patriarchy is the backdrop to the Bible’s message. Against this fallen cultural backdrop, the Bible’s message stands in sharp relief, and we begin to catch eye-opening glimpses into that missing chapter. Interwoven in the stories of women I have been studying in the Bible are the stories of remarkable men whose stories have been eclipsed by someone else who attracts more attention or who have been downsized because we’ve looked at them through an American/western lens. These missing men battle the malestrom and emerge to embody a brand of manhood that reflects the newness that Jesus brings. One of the reasons I wrote Malestrom was to recover the stories of these incredible men.

How does the Old Testament story of Barak, Deborah (a judge and prophet), and Jael exemplify the “Blessed Alliance” of God’s sons and daughters for kingdom purposes?

The story of General Barak, Judge and Prophet Deborah, and the hammer-wielding Jael has been distorted into a gender struggle where all three come under fire—Barak for cowardice, Deborah as a punishment for men and not a fitting role model for women and girls, and Jael for violating the laws of hospitality and for wifely insubordination. The Bible doesn’t contain a whisper of criticism for any of them. Their story contains fortifying fuel for our faith, which we forfeit when we obsess over the fact that God calls one woman to leadership (which surely must mean the men are wimping out) and a second to finish off Israel’s cruel oppressor. Sooner or later all of us need this kind of story. This trio also put on display the Blessed Alliance God intended for his sons and daughters to forge when he first created them and the power that is unleashed for God’s kingdom when his sons and daughters join forces to advance his purposes.

How did Jesus violate and confront the “power status quo” when he called Matthew to become his disciple?

Once you start looking closely at Jesus’ life and interaction with all kinds of people—especially with people like Matthew the tax collector—it’s hard to find a place where Jesus isn’t countering the power status quo.

In the first century, Jewish tax collectors were despised by the Romans because they were Jewish and despised by the Jews because tax collectors got rich by collecting taxes for the occupying Romans, over-taxing their own people and pocketing the difference. It is highly likely that Matthew had been taxing the fishing industry in Galilee, meaning Peter, James, and John would take a dim view of Jesus adding Matthew to their group. Things got even worse when Jesus and his disciples were honored guests at a banquet Matthew threw and invited his tax collecting cronies and other “sinners” to attend. Jesus spends inordinate amounts of time in the margins of society. His actions invert the human power pyramid, for he gives deference to the outcast, the widow, a dead girl, a blind beggar and blesses the poor, the meek, the mournful.

How did Joseph, the husband of Mary, defy his culture’s idea of manhood?

If Joseph had marched to the beat of the patriarchal drum, Mary’s story and ours would have turned out differently. Mary was a young girl—around thirteen years old—whose marriage had already been negotiated and money (the bride price) had changed hands. Her betrothal to Joseph was legally binding. What happens in patriarchal cultureswhen a young betrothed girl turns up pregnant and her husband knows he isn’t the father of her child? Joseph’s manly honor is the main casualty here, and his culture would expect him to vindicate his honor. Mary could well have been facing the prospect of an honor killing.

Matthew tells us that Joseph was “a righteous man”—not the exacting righteousness of the Pharisees, but the self giving, merciful righteousness of God. Before Joseph learns the truth about Mary’s pregnancy, he’s already defy in cultural pressure by planning to spare embarrassment for Mary by divorcing her privately. In the world of patriarchy, this is a scandalously spineless choice for a man to make. Joseph’s counter-cultural choices don’t stop there. To protect Mary and her child, he shuts down his carpenter’s shop and gets behind God’s calling on his wife.

In what ways do you believe Jesus has gone missing from the church? How did he battle the maelstrom during his years on earth?

Historically the church has focused on the signal events of Jesus’ story—his birth, death, and resurrection—because these were the center of early church controversies. This has had the unintentional effect of deemphasizing the middle part of Jesus’ story—his life and ministry—which takes up roughly 75% of what the four gospel writers thought we should know. When we look at the middle part of Jesus’ story, we find a mysteriously complex, unsettling, and paradigm-shattering Jesus who is not always easy to understand. Which simply means there’s always more to learn and understand about him.

What we do know is that Jesus went against the grain in such significant ways that it cost him his life. At the age of twelve, he abandoned Joseph who rightly expected Jesus as firstborn to take up the family business. Jesus never married or produced sons—which was the honor-bound duty of a son, especially the firstborn. He rejected the religious and political powers that be and instead gave priority to the marginalized and devalued. He openly engaged women in conversation on deep theological matters, allowed a menstruating woman to touch him, dropped what he was doing to rush to the bedside of a dead twelve-year-old girl and touched her corpse. Instead of providing for his family, Jesus relied on the financial support of women who also traveled with him and his disciples. He was afraid of expressing his emotions, but sobbed openly with a woman over the death of his friend. Try to line Jesus up with the patriarchal culture’s way of being manly, and Jesus is perpetually and resolutely out of step. But here’s the kicker—

Jesus is the perfect man. Biblical writers describe him as the perfect imago dei. He even said so himself. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” Jesus is the ideal male. His brand of manhood sets the standard for men and boys and throws off cultural assumptions of what it means to be male or female. But really, none of this should surprise us. Jesus didn’t come just to tweak things, but to overthrow the kingdom of this world. We are slow to learn and need more stories to help us catch God’s kingdom vision and even to help us make sense of the example Jesus sets for us.

It is unusual for a woman in evangelical circles to write about men, yet you believe women are in an especially good position to offer insights into manhood. Why is that?

Actually, this is familiar territory for us. For decades women have been wrestling with what God calls us to be as his daughters against the tide of cultural and church expectations. The focus of gender discussions and debates has been almost exclusively on us. We want to know what is God’s calling on our lives and how, in this fallen world, we have been disconnected or prohibited from answering that call, and what we can do to get back on track. I’ve searched for a vision, and what I’ve found is moving us in that direction.

The assumption has been that men don’t experience similar restrictions; that they really didn’t have problems with identity, purpose or meaning, until women started speaking up. But men are also disconnected and hindered from answering God’s calling on their lives. All of them are. No human being can escape the effects of the fall. Even men who live at the top of the power pyramid can seem to “have it all” one day and plummet to the bottom the next because of a misstep, a bad decision, or because another man (or woman) displaces them. Manhood definitions even lock them off from essential aspects of themselves that should characterize every Christian—love, mercy, gentleness, kindness, compassion, and the readiness to weep with those who weep.

Not only have I come to this discussion with the conviction that we need to ask the same questions for our brothers that we’ve been asking for ourselves, I’m convinced that part of God’s calling on me as a woman is to battle for my brothers. I don’t have all the answers, but I am willing to open the conversation and raise questions. The stakes are high, for this is in many, many situations a matter of life and death. Not only that, but the very purposes of God in the world are hindered until God’s sons and daughters answer his call together. Daunting as all this sounds, it is a venture that is saturated with hope—for we have it on good authority that God loves his sons and has empowered them along with his daughters to be agents of good and blessing in the world and we have plenty of powerful stories in the Bible where that is actually happening.

How can churches do a better job of presenting God’s vision for manhood?

My hope is that Malestrom will foster honest, robust discussions about how the church can engage this manhood crisis. For me, writing this book has left me as disturbed about what is happening to men and boys today as I have ever been about women and girls. I hope anyone who reads this book will end up deeply concerned about the message the church is offering men and boys.

This crisis calls for more than reevaluating and reshaping men’s ministries to make the church a “more manly” place. This is an opportunity for the church to regain her prophetic voice and speak a compelling message to men and boys globally and to put on the ground actions behind our message. Why are young men being drawn to ISIS instead of to Jesus? What are we missing in how we reach out to men and boys? What can we do about the fact that so many young men are disenfranchised? Surely there is more to this than man camp, making church décor more masculine, and scolding men for failing to “man up.”

I recently spoke with a man who grew up in Northern Ireland when guns and bombs and bloodshed were the order of the day and unemployment had skyrocketed. He knew his options were either to join the I.R.A. and fight or to immigrate to a country where he could find work. Prolonged unemployment left him disenfranchised with a deep sense of worthlessness and a lack of hope. Learning he is God’s image bearer was a game-changer for him. It was marvelous to hear him reflect on how knowing his true identity as God’s son changed everything.

We have a compelling message for men that gives them an unrivaled and indestructible identity, meaning and purpose. They know it when they hear it. I pray the church will seize this incredible opportunity to draw them in.

Read an excerpt from Malestrom – and more conversation – at the Patheos Book Club here. 


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