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Being a man today

This book, on the problems of being a man in today’s world, complements the author’s earlier work on womanhood, Half The Church: Recapturing God’s global vision for women. It is Malestrom: Manhood swept into the currents of a changing world by Carolyn Custis James (Zondervan, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-310-32557-4).   

That the writer is a woman is, I reckon, an advantage: she brings a degree of objectivity to her observations that a man might find more difficult. What is beyond dispute is that she writes with wisdom and has clearly done extensive research, both sociological and biblical, and the book reflects a balance of passion and intellectual rigour.

Convinced that all cultural concepts of what it means to be a man are tainted, she presses back to find the true definition in God’s original plan for human beings, revealed in Scripture: the imago dei. On that basis, patriarchy—even the patriarchy found in the Bible—is flawed, she concludes, and her arguments are persuasive. ‘According to patriarchy’s definition,’ she writes, ‘neither Jesus nor Paul ever achieved “true” manhood because they never married or produced male offspring.’

This book offers far deeper examinations of characters like Abraham, Barak, Boaz, Joseph (husband of Mary) and Matthew than the average book on gender issues. In fact they are brilliant, in both their simplicity and the cogency of the conclusions the writer draws from them. And why, she asks with some justification, does Jesus ‘go missing’ in the church’s gender discussions?

If you are looking for a sound and meaty treatment of what it means to be a man today, this is the book to read—and reread.

…the crisis of identity and purpose facing men and boys globally that I have dubbed the malestrom. (p14)

Sociologists are all too aware that there is an insidious link between masculinity and violence that fuels many of the wars that rage across our world. (p18)

The Bible doesn’t present different or competing visions for God’s sons and daughters. God’s vision for his world is singular, whole, and unified. Male and female callings are not separate issues. They are interwoven, interdependent, and inseparable in the Bible. (p26)

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. (p30)

We shy away from men in the Bible who share the stage with strong, courageous women or who don’t fit the typical hero profile that reinforces traditional patriarchal cultural values. (p33)

If we are honest, we must admit that Abraham was a human trafficker. He owned human beings — slaves he “bought,” slaves given to him as “gifts,” and slaves “born in his household” (which means he took ownership of children born to his slaves). Slavery was an accepted practice within patriarchy and is a common but hideous thread that winds through stories of leading figures in the Bible. That fact alone is enough to give us pause about patriarchy. (p66)

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. (p68)

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. (p79)

Barak’s story reminds us that patriarchy is not God’s design, but merely the cultural backdrop against which we see powerful glimpses of the gospel. Barak does not see the prophet Deborah or the death blow of Jael as threats to his manhood. He has seen too much. When God raises up, not just one, but two women to heroic status, Barak celebrates their actions. (p109)

King Jesus is a radical — he knocks down all barriers between male and female, male and male, Jew and Gentile, as well as slave and free. Amid these radical revisions, Jesus also redefines what it means to be a man. The inclusion of a man like Matthew into the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples is a striking demonstration that patriarchy does not belong to the kingdom of King Jesus. (p143)

The kingdom of God is always at odds with malestrom currents that hold men captive to fallen cultural expectations and in the process cause men to lose themselves and forget who God created them to be. (p159)

Joseph’s actions under duress demonstrate what righteousness looks like in a man whose culture pressures him to act one way but whose righteous heart leads him differently. (p165)

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. (p203)

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