April 1, 2008

Male Spirituality: Is There Such a Thing?

I often joke that my career goal is to become a pastor's husband. Wait, is it still a joke if I'm actually serious? As someone who attended private Christians schools for all but three of my K-12 years and grew up in a home filled with Focus on the Family paraphernalia such as Breakaway magazine (yes, I was a devoted subscriber), my adolescent years were largely shaped by a full portion of James Dobson, I Kissed Dating Goodbye and DC Talk. Come to think of it, I still remember the full lyrics to "I Don't Want It" and "That Kinda Girl" from their historic 1992 album, Free at Last.

All CCM nostalgia aside, my evangelical upbringing as well as my college years at Wheaton have made me very familiar with the supposedly "Biblical" reasoning for why "manhood" can be used as a code word for spiritual authority while "womanhood" or femininity is often defined as little more than providing a supportive, nurturing role to men. Many evangelical churches (including the one I attend) hold to the the basic view that there is something intrinsic about men (by God's design of course) that makes them more qualified than women to be leaders in the home and in the church. Although it's become trendy now for evangelical Christians to promote the idea of men as 'servant leaders', it is still largely men (I almost said "large men") who retain positions of authority in evangelical churches.

The debate over gender roles in the evangelical church will not likely be resolved anytime soon. While the mainline denominations have largely reached a consensus that women can be ordained as ministers and their access to positions of church authority should not be limited strictly on the basis of being female, the evangelical world remains very divided on the matter. The debate over the women in the evangelical church doesn't get the airtime of say, homosexuality or abortion, but it's still a very polarizing issue with well-respected scholars and pastors on both sides.

If you're not familiar with the vocabulary, the terms most commonly used in the debate are complementarian (the position of those who believe in male headship) and egalitarian (those who say that women can be pastors or hold other positions of spiritual authority such as a church elder). For example, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) is a complementarian denomination that was formed in 1973 largely in response to the ordination of women in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that began in the 1960's. More recently, The Vineyard USA, one of the country's largest charismatic denominations, changed their stance in September 2006 to begin allowing the ordination of women. I should also note that the terms complementarian and egalitarian are only useful for the most part among evangelicals- a term which itself has become increasingly devoid of any helpful meaning as it now commonly tossed around by political reporters in an attempt to label a particular group of conservative voters as opposed to a stream of Christianity distinct from Mainline Protestantism, Catholicism and the Orthodox Church.

For those on the outside of the evangelical world looking in, it remains a mystery why women are welcomed and even encouraged to become CEO's, politicians and community leaders, yet they are simultaneously prohibited from preaching the Sunday morning sermon or serving as members of an Elder Board. A woman's leadership role in the church may range anywhere from Sunday School teacher to Co-Pastor with her husband, but the phenomenon of evangelical women pastors whose husbands are not also pastors is rare. For those of us who are trying to change things from the inside of the fish bowl, there can be the temptation to abandon the evangelical church altogether or at the very least throw up our hands in denial and distance ourselves from "those people."
I may not be able to provide the correct definition of true masculinity, but I certainly know what it is not. I am increasingly weary of Christian slogans, trends and movements that attempt to summarize my masculinity as little more than a gender role that somehow entitles me to positions of leadership in my church, my home and my marriage- usually at the expense of intelligent and gifted women like my wife.

A couple years ago, Christianity Today featured a spot-on article by Agnieszka Tennant entitled "What (Not All) Women Want" in which she described her frustration with a narrow definition of femininity espoused by John and Stasi Eldredge in their book Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul. If you're wondering why John Eldredge's name sounds so familiar, it's probably because you've heard someone at church (if you attend a conservative evangelical church like I do) discussing his books such as Wild at Heart and The Sacred Romance, which in a nutshell, encourage men to embrace their inner warrior and re-discover the lost art of rescuing the princess and leading her, with God's blessing of course, on an adventure filled with romance and dragon-slaying. It all sounded fun and exciting until I realized that it was just the latest adaptation of the hierarchical ideology that promotes men as the active leaders by default and women as the faithful followers.

To be clear, I don't have a problem with flourishing marriages and I applaud the efforts of organizations like Eldredge's "Ransomed Heart Ministries" that provide much-needed inspiration and counseling for couples who are trying not just to preserve an unhappy marriage, but make it truly thrive. However, I have a serious problem with the idea that men have to be in charge in order to be spiritually healthy husbands and church members.

In fact, a good way to make me cringe would be to show me a book description, sermon outline or conference brochure with the phrase "MALE SPIRITUALITY" prominently displayed. When I hear the word "male" coupled with any type of religious term, my Christian sexism alarm goes off. After all, complementarians are the usually the ones who draw distinctions between male-ness and female-ness while egalitarians like myself are so paranoid and wary of hierarchical oppression that we shy away from almost all spiritual comparisons between men and women.

Both complementarians and egalitarians agree that American culture has corrupted the church with a warped idea of maleness- a lazy couch potato who has little to offer beyond crude humor and sports trivia. Everyone knows that church services, seminars, retreats and youth groups are filled with a disproportionate number of females. There is little debate over the need for men to become more intentional about their spiritual journeys; the disagreement comes over how to fix the problem. The complementarian model offered by "family-oriented" groups who publish marriage/parenting books and broadcast radio programs has been to provide identity-starved men with more authority and responsibility so that they will 'step up to the plate' into their leadership role as intended by God. The egalitarian approach has been to include more women in the male-dominated circles of authority so that the Body of Christ can be more balanced from top to bottom which will hopefully lead more male involvement at the lay level.

But there may be a third way. I have recently discovered the work of a Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr who seems to describe a unique understanding of male spirituality that is neither hierarchical nor afraid of gender distinctions- could there be such a thing? In his book entitled Wild Man to Wise Man, Rohr says that "we know instinctively that masculinity cannot be the same as patriarchy." Ok, sounds good so far. He also says that men must seek "honest mutuality" in their relationships with women as well as "recognize and critique their own power with regard to women." Now I'm intrigued.

A quick scan of his website, malespirituality.org, reveals a program called M.A.L.E (Men as Learners and Elders) that I can only describe as an ecumenical/anti-patriarchy/monastic version of Promise Keepers. It should be noted that Rohr uses the term 'elder' to describe wise spiritual mentors, not men in authority over women. It sounds like an active, yet contemplative brand of male spirituality that seeks to "initiate" men (sort of like a fraternity?) into contemplative practices that are largely practiced by women these days. Rohr says that the idea of masculine spirituality is not "just for men", but it is actually an approach that many women are more in touch with today than men because women have been encouraged and even forced to work on their inner lives more than men in our culture.

In another interesting twist of fate, Rohr will be speaking at Honolulu's 2008 H.I.M. Conference this weekend which I'll be attending. I am looking forward to finally discovering what it means to "be a man."

No comments: