altMalestrom:   Manhood Swept Into the Currents of a Changing World  by Carolyn Custis James (Zondervan, 2015)

Malestrom is the fifth of Carolyn Custis James' books I have read and reviewed.  (Most recently, Half the Church; you can find links to my other reviews there.)  It's similar in style to her other books, which is both good and bad.  Actually, I'm getting a little tired of that style, and of her confidence that she has discerned the feelings and motivations of Biblical characters.  Trivially, may I say again how much I dislike questions at the end of the chapters?  And what was she thinking with the title?  I like wordplay as much as anyone, but we didn't need another excuse to be confused about the spelling of "maelstrom."

Okay, whining over.  The great thing about Carolyn James is that she is an intelligent, seminary-trained, Christian woman who focuses all four of those attributes on questions that the church has not done well at answering.

Such as, What have we done to our men?  As society has redefined what it means to be a woman, and what roles women can successfully fill, has that changed what it means to be a man?  Has the cultural definition of manhood ever been satisfactory?  How can we help our boys to become men when we don't even know what a man is supposed to be?

Not that James provides any down-to-earth, practical answers; she herself states that she reached the end of the book with more questions than when she started.  But she has erected a framework on which to build, and offers several fresh insights to assist with that labor.

Here is my take on that framework:

  • The purpose and role of all human beings, male and female, is to be—in life, in action, in relationship—the Image of God that they are.
  • The Image of God cannot be revealed without both male and female.  Not male and female individually, but "male and female" together.
  • There's an important blank space at the beginning of Genesis.  We see Creation, we see the Fall—what we don't see is how life and purpose were fleshed out for human beings in the time between those events.
  • One of the tragic consequences of the Fall was the near-universal development of patriarchical systems of power—the Malestromwhich have pitted men not only against women, but also against other men in a scramble to be at the top of the power pyramid.
  • Just because God worked through a patriarchical system to reveal himself and bring about restoration of his image-bearers, that doesn't imply the system itself was good.  In many ways the history of God's interventions is a history of exceptions to the rules of patriarchy, especially once Jesus comes on the scene.
  • Jesus is the true Image of God, and the ultimate revelation of the "missing chapter" in Genesis.  He is therefore also the truest and best example of what it means to be a man.  (Or a woman, for that matter, but Malestrom is largely about men.  Women are covered in James' other books.)

You may not agree with all of James' conclusions.  You may groan for less theory and more practice in her writings.  I'm with you on both counts.  But that doesn't change the fact that Carolyn Custis James is a vital voice in the Church today.  She's asking important questions, providing new insights, and challenging us to consider how well our assumptions, our traditions, our words, our policies, and our actions reveal the Image of God to a world that's in a world of hurt.

And now for the quotations.  They're pretty random, but that's where the sticky notes fell.

The malestrom is the particular ways in which the fall impacts the male of the human species—causing a man to lose himself, his identity and purpose as a man, and above all to lose sight of God's original vision for his sons.

For Christians the prominence of patriarchy on the pages of the Bible means patriarchy is important for a variety of reasons, regardless of what our personal views may be of that cultural system.  First, patriarchy matters because it is the cultural backdrop of the Bible.  Beginning with Abraham, God chose patriarchs living in a patriarchal culture to launch his rescue effort for the world.  Events in the Bible play out within a patriarchal context.  But patriarchy is not the Bible's message.  Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible's gospel message.  We need to understand that world and patriarchy in particular—much better than we do—if we hope to grasp the radical countercultural message of the Bible.

Second, patriarchy matters because the prevalence of this cultural system on the pages of Scripture, in cultures around the world, and throughout history can easily lead (and has led) to the assumption that patriarchy is divinely ordained.  Many believe this is the way God wants us to live, even though westerners who embrace patriarchy are selective about the few patriarchal elements they retain from the Bible—which is itself an admission that something may be wrong with the system.  Most throw out slavery and polygamy, along with associating disappointment and failure with the birth of a daughter, child brides, honor killings, and inheritance laws, for example.  But they cling fervently to male leadership and female submission in the home and in the church.  Some extend these male/female dynamics to include the wider culture.

The years my family lived in Oxford, England, were life-changing for all three of us, and I wouldn't trade them for anything. But to be honest, the whole time we were there I longed for the day when we would pack up and move back home to the States.  Most of my friends shared that sentiment.  We were all eager to return to our country of origin and threw parties for each other when the dissertation was successfully defended and one of us was moving home.  We looked forward to the day when friends would celebrate us.

But two of my friends didn't share our enthusiasm for leaving.  Both came from worlds very different from mine and from the life we all enjoyed in England.  One was a Muslim from Pakistan; the other a Hindu from India.  Both were intelligent, educated, and articulate.  One had earned a PhD.  Both came from patriarchal cultures.  Both were successful mothers of sons.  Yet both expressed serious dread as their time in Oxford neared a close and they contemplated returning home.  Why?  Because "home" meant living with their husband's family where they would come under the thumb of their mother-in-law and be treated as a child.  Patriarchy was no picnic for these educated and talented women.

My two friends would have been dumbfounded to read the words in Genesis that follow God's creation of the ezer kenegdo and usher her into marriage.  "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh."  This is not just a romantic statement about marriage that gets repeated in wedding ceremonies in our western culture.  Within the patriarchal world where a man's wife becomes family property, this one sentence in the Bible violates patriarchal tradition and dismantles it.

The Bible is replete with examples where patriarchy is rejected.  Regarding the rights of the firstborn, God repeatedly transforms power relations to invalidate patriarchal priorities.  It happens in stories when God bypasses the firstborn and chooses a younger brother to inherit his covenant promises.  God chooses Abel and then Seth, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau.  Jacob favors Rachel's sons, Joseph and Benjamin (sons eleven and twelve), over their older brothers, but the kingly line goes to Judah, Leah's fourth son.  And when Jacob blesses Joseph's sons, he gives the greater blessing to Ephraim, not his older brother Manasseh despite Joseph's protests.

Patriarchy is the cultural background against which God reveals the newness of his kingdom breaking through as he overturns cultural norms that issued from the fall of Adam and Eve.  In the final analysis, the gospel and the kingdom of God are not endorsements for any world system that is familiar to us in this world.  Jesus is making something new—recovering that missing chapter and the kingdom we lost sight of in the fall.

We are mistaken to try to salvage pieces of a fallen human system like patriarchy.  And while some readers may think this means egalitarianism wins out, even that system doesn't go far enough.

The "iron law of primogeniture" is one of the first and central pillars of the patriarchal system that the biblical narrative demolishes.  Even today primogeniture is a major argument used to bolster patriarchal thinking in the church concerning male leadership and male/female relationships.  The fact that "God created Adam first" is seen as a biblical warrant for male priority over female.  But as we mentioned earlier, God is no respecter of primogeniture, and with astonishing regularity inverts it to carry his purposes forward with a second or third or eleventh son.

Historically men have held physical, social, and political power over women—many in benign ways, but even "benign" falls woefully short of how God intends for us to use this gift.  Young boys are socialized to adopt a "dominant, aggressive, controlling, and sexualized version of masculinity." ... Instead of a gift that multiplies and blesses, power has been distorted into a zero-sum game.

Jesus' message has a double-barreled impact on [gospel-writer] Matthew who lived at both ends of the fallen world system.  He had unjustly oppressed others, even the poor, and was himself a target of abuse, discrimination, and exclusion.  Matthew presents a Jesus who does not inaugurate a kingdom of weakness, but a new kind of power that doesn't flinch in the face of evil but also refuses to engage on evil's terms. ... This is a brand of masculinity that breaks the cycle of violence with mercy ... and peacemaking.  This redefines power in far more subversive terms.

After Joseph takes Mary as his wife, he "shuts down his carpenter shop, gets behind Mary's calling, and adapts himself to his wife and God's calling on her life."  His whole life will be committed to making sure she succeeds in carrying out the mission God has entrusted to her.  Even according to today's egalitarian standards, this is radical.  [This is an example of where I think James goes too far in her interpolations.  Yes, Joseph had to leave town when young Jesus' life was endangered, but there's no indication he stopped working—the family still had to eat!]

Jesus is the ideal man.  Any conclusions we draw about what it means to be a man must begin with Jesus. This does not minimize in any way the fact that he was also God.  But his identity as a human male should never get lost in his divinity.  Jesus' maleness embodies God's vision for how his sons are to live and holds the key for combatting the malestrom.

What is more, it is also profoundly important for women that Jesus was male.  His maleness was integral to the completion of his redemptive task, for it facilitated his ability to expose "the radical difference between God's ideal and the social structures of his day."  Let us not forget that in the ancient patriarchal culture, "only a male could have offered an authoritative critique of those power structures."  And Jesus' regard for women was truly earthshaking.  His actions and relationships as a man vis-à-vis women carry more weight than we can possibly give them and prove even more culturally revolutionary than we generally acknowledge.

One of Jesus' final acts was something only a slave would do—he knelt and washed his disciples' dirty feet.  This is not like today's annual foot-washing services where everyone shows up with clean feet and a fresh pedicure.  Peter's appalled and indignant refusal at the mere thought of Jesus washing his feet demonstrates just how completely unacceptable a thing this was for someone like Jesus to do.  Jesus' reply wasn't to institute seasonal foot-washing ceremonies, but to explain this was how he expected them to live.  I'm not sure the contemporary discussion of "servant-leadership" captures the full intent of what is going on here.  Jesus is being far more radical than merely nuancing male leadership.  Jesus is not telling his disciples to be kinder in their station at the top of the human pyramid.  He is directing them to see themselves at the bottom and to conduct themselves accordingly—just as he has done for them.

Jesus also frees men to express the full range of human emotions, not just in private prayer but in public.  For starters, Jesus displayed love, compassion, sorrow, fear, courage, strength, vulnerability, anger, and dread.  He wept publicly ... in grief over the death of his friend Lazarus and wept openly over the resistance of Jerusalem.  Instead of men becoming pent-up emotional islands, Jesus gives men permission to be fully human, to admit that they struggle and are hurting, and to embrace the wholeness they were created to express as men.  The fruit of the Spirit—"love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control"—are not "chickified" qualities that need to be corrected with hyper-masculine traits, but the manly relational attributes of Jesus.

Like all of Jesus' disciples, Mary [of Bethany, Lazarus and Martha's sister] struggled to understand the upsetting things he was saying about laying down his life.  His words conflicted with her messianic expectations too, especially with daily reminders of the Roman occupation.  So when Mary invades an all-male feast intended to honor Jesus and anoints him with nard—a perfume the ancients used to pour on a corpse and an aroma everyone present recognized—her actions are intentional and infused with meaning that isn't lost on Jesus.  She was his student.  As she sat at his feet, he taught her the same things he told his male disciples about his approaching death.  ...

In the midst of a party atmosphere, six days before the Passover that goes down in history as the Lord's Supper, with the looming battle ahead weighing heavily on Jesus and his male disciples in denial of what awaits him, Mary's anointing breaks his isolation and affirms the mission he's been telling his followers about for a long time.  It's the only time anyone stood with him and said "Yes" to the cross and to the mission his Father has given him.  In contrast, Peter's response was, "Never, Lord!...This shall never happen to you."  At Mary's anointing of Jesus, the disciples all chime in with Judas Iscariot to criticize her and point to the terrible waste of "expensive" perfume.  In utter contrast, Jesus not only defends her actions, he interprets them.  "When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial" adding, "She has done a beautiful thing to me."

Jesus was on a mission to restore the world God created and loves deeply.  He didn't come to make slight adjustments to the way things work in a fallen world.  It was not his intention to offer men a kinder, gentler patriarchy.  His mission was to turn this fallen world right side up. ... To bear God's image inevitably means going against the cultural grain.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, September 28, 2015 at 12:28 pm | Edit
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Thanks for the quotes. There's some powerful stuff here! I never realized that Mary intended to anoint Jesus for burial, though it seems obvious now.

How beautiful that she stood by Jesus even though she didn't understand or want to accept his death. What an example for how to live our lives.

Is it okay to use something expensive to bless someone in a first world culture when we could spend it to build schools in Africa? Mary's answer is YES and Jesus confirms, calling it beautiful.

I'll keep giving to aid organizations, but this has given me permission to use my money to bless and stand by people in my life who are carrying their own cross.

Money spent on beauty for people who are hurting is not a waste, it's a high calling. I love it!

Posted by Janet on Monday, October 05, 2015 at 3:36 am

You're welcome! James' take on Mary's actions is one of my favorites, but you brought out a beautiful aspect that I had missed. Thank you.

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, October 05, 2015 at 3:09 pm

You can now buy the Kindle version of Malestrom at this month for $3.99. I just did. :) (The copy I read for this review was from the library.)

Posted by SursumCorda on Tuesday, March 01, 2016 at 7:48 am
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