July 21, 2014 / Seth Richardson

Seeking Authentic [ally Redeemed] Manhood

In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33.

Presently, we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we do see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. ” Hebrews 2:8

In my region of the country (that glorious land south of the Mason Dixon), many male church leaders have gathered other males around the pursuit of “authentic manhood.” This pursuit is motivated by the premise that society and family have taken a drastic turn for the worse, which is intimately related to men failing to be men in a manner consistent with God’s design. Men are, overall, confused about what it means to be men, which has disastrous effects. The church’s best response to the predicament, these leaders proclaim, is to ignite a movement of men pursuing authentic, biblical manhood.

Although the rhetoric surrounding this movement would tickle the ears of those who desire to be “gospel-centered,” when the flurry of videos and talking points settle, the basic message is clear: Reject passivity; Step up and be a man!

It’s true – we do live in a world where confusion and brokenness reign in regard to masculinity (although it’s not popularly named that way), and one of the primary indicators of this confusion and brokenness, it seems to me, is the flourishing of the “male enhancement” market. Whether through drugs that increase testosterone levels or one of many ridiculously intense exercise programs, the culture of male enhancement seeks to address the dissatisfaction, disappointment, and guilt surrounding male embodiment by pumping information, techniques, or hormones directly into the lack.

I wonder to what extent the pursuit of authentic manhood unintentionally mimics this larger, cultural pursuit of male enhancement. Does the quest for an “authentic manhood” simply speak to the longing for fulfillment and identity present in the world, or does it seek to address that longing in the same way. What does the (intentional) similarity (i.e. the shared topos) between authentic manhood material and programming for ESPN, for instance, reveal about the goal of this pursuit?

The quest for “authentic manhood,” in concert with the culture of male enhancement, seems to operate as if the truest thing about us is our broken masculinity, which means that the primary starting point for wholeness is well-crafted management of our lack. The label on the bottle is changed, but the goal, essentially, is the same: deliver a product by-men-for-men that equips them to take control of their gendered angst.

The narrative of “authentic manhood” tells me this story: I need to step up and overcome – to take responsibility for my passivity. “You’re not a man unless you do something about this,” is the primary announcement that lingers in my soul. And this script aligns with another popular narrative especially prevalent throughout evangelicalism: it is impossible to acknowledge your brokenness without becoming a slave to it.

The abiding thought I carry in my heart in regard to my masculinity, which this narrative massages, is that I am broken, and if I want to do something about it, I need to fight to overcome it. The quest to address broken masculinity through an energetic appeal to the very thing I already know is broken perpetuates my tendency to live in my gender entirely in light of condemnation.

But if God’s kingdom truly has broken into the world in Christ, the good news is that Jesus has overcome the world through his death and resurrection. Jesus has redeemed my masculinity. The truest thing about me is that, while I may not yet see the fullness of my true humanity, I do see Jesus, who, because he became like me in every way, invites me to participate in the New Man.

If Jesus has overcome the world and the kingdom of heaven is breaking into the world, then I’m already a (hu)man in Christ. If Jesus has already made atonement by sharing in my masculinity, then I am no longer a slave to the brokenness particular to my gender. What would change if I lived in light of the announcement that Christ has overcome the world?

In Christ, all of the disappointment, dissatisfaction, and guilt surrounding my embodiment is not something I overcome by “stepping-up.” Inasmuch as I seek control over my gendered angst as a starting point for recovering something “authentically” masculine, I crowd out space for receiving what is most true about my masculinity by turning toward the lack and away from the cross. Rather, my broken masculinity is the place where God wants to teach me most about who I am in Christ.

If I take my cues from Jesus and operate in dependence on him in regard to my masculinity, then the operative posture for living into that redeemed masculinity is weakness. The question is not so much, “how do I need to man-up,” but rather “How can I offer my body unto the redemption that God is already working in Christ? How can I walk in agreement with who he declares me to be?”

Moreover, this posture is possibly the only sufficient witness to a world that does not seek transformation of gender in Christ – a world that only knows how to live in constant management of brokenness.

Where is my Masculinity headed? One Suggestion…

If our starting point for spiritual transformation is new creation – that is, creation recapitulated in Christ, then the proper image of masculinity is not what we were before we were stupid and sinned, but what we will be because Christ redeemed it by living it. This means that, along with the rest of creation, my gender is headed somewhere.

How, then, do we orient the pursuit of masculinity toward new humanity in Christ? Here is one suggestion:

If masculinity in any way complements femininity (non-hierarchically), then we must take seriously the reality that living into God’s redemption of masculinity takes place in community with women – living alongside, in mutual submission and dialogue. In other words, my redeemed identity as a male gets worked out as I encounter the other.

Why is it, then, that many of our practices of male formation happen in isolation from women – on a three-day retreat in the woods? Does this compartmentalization not create a self-affirming feedback loop by separating us from a crucial piece of the community in which we learn to live into the new humanity? What do we miss when this kind of practice is the primary or only intentional space for gender formation?

What say you? How else can we orient the pursuit of femininity and masculinity toward the new humanity in Christ?

[Image by ☻☺, CC via Flickr]