Carolyn Custis James is president of the Whitby Forum, a ministry dedicated to addressing the deeper needs that confront both men and women as they work together to extend God’s kingdom in a messy and complicated world. She is also the founder of Synergy Women’s Network, a national organization for women emerging or engaged in ministry leadership. She is the author of six books, including Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, and Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World, which is scheduled for release this month. In Malestrom, Carolyn explores how our culture’s narrow definition of manhood is upended when we consider the examples of men in the Bible and Jesus’ gospel. She shares with us today how Jesus’ gospel liberates men from the strictures of patriarchy and restores them to their true calling as God’s sons.
What is the malestrom?
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 and boys are facing. A slight alteration in the spelling, and Malestrom was born. Put simply,
“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.”
These currents can be overt and brutal, leading to the kinds of atrocities and violence we witness in the headlines—wars, school shootings, ISIS 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 originally designed to offer.
Your prior works have focused on women in the Bible, the world, and the church. What caused you to switch gears and focus on men?
I actually didn’t “switch gears” to write a book about men. There is a profound connection between my earlier books and this one. Malestrom isn’t starting a “different” discussion, but expands that original discussion about women 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 and for men 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.
Ironically, the women I’ve written about in my earlier books were the ones who led me to write about men and the malestrom. As I studied stories of women in the Bible, I kept encountering incredible men whose stories have been overlooked, downsized, or distorted—men who battle the malestrom and emerge to display a gospel brand of manhood that can only be described as “other worldly.” They give us hints of what Jesus meant when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
I wanted to tell their stories.
Also, as I researched what is happening to women and girls globally, signs of the malestrom were already surfacing. If 70% of human beings trafficked are women and girls, then a staggering 30% men and boys are trafficked for sex, forced labor, and as soldiers—roughly the population of New York City proper. Every Sunday in our churches countless men are marginalized because they don’t arrive with the right portfolio, bank account, academic pedigree, social status, or passion for books. Every day, countless men are on both the giving and receiving ends of violence in wars, on city streets, and behind closed doors. When Middle Eastern experts began linking the stream of young western men into the ranks of ISIS to a search for “identity, meaning, purpose, and belonging, ” I realized I was looking at a global crisis of epic proportions that the church needs to engage.
You write that patriarchy is the principal expression of the malestrom and marginalization of men. How can a system by men, for men, push men to the margins?
Trace any current of the malestrom to its roots and you’ll end up talking about patriarchy (“father rule”). Patriarchy is a fallen social system that establishes the male as the primary authority figure over females and depends upon female subordination. Half the Church discusses the destructive impact this has on women, both in biblical times and globally today. But patriarchy is also destructive to men at both ends of the power continuum by establishing the rule of some men over other men. Cain’s murder of his brother Abel (a crime of violence sparked by jealousy when the younger brother bested the older) was the beginning of patriarchy’s violence, abuse, and injustice toward other men.
However, because patriarchy is on virtually every page of the Bible, it is easy to assume that patriarchy is divinely ordained. In Malestrom, I argue that patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the cultural backdrop to the Bible’s message, that the Bible stands in sharp relief to that cultural system and actually dismantles it. So it is essential for us (especially as Americans and westerners who are foreign to that culture) to understand patriarchy better if we hope to grasp the power of the Bible’s message.
Is the church a complicit and/or active participant in perpetuating the fallen notion of manhood you’ve described?
To the degree that we embrace and promote even mild forms of patriarchy, yes, we are complicit. When Jesus said “my kingdom is not of this world, ” he meant it. He didn’t come to give his sons a kinder-gentler version of any cultural, social or political system, but to put them back on mission—the global mission God unveiled when he created them to be his image bearers. No matter how we nuance patriarchy, any version falls woefully short of the gospel of Jesus and of the kingdom Jesus calls us to embody and advance.
The fact that a milder form of patriarchy is embraced by the church and in many sectors of evangelicalism is viewed as a pillar of the faith means this crisis requires the courage of us to ask the hard questions and engage this important discussion honestly. This is no academic matter. Lives are at stake. The church needs to reclaim her prophetic voice in a world of violence and injustice. If any of our beliefs are wrong, we should be the first to admit it. If our beliefs are true, the truth will hold firm.
In what ways do western notions of maleness and power color the American church’s reading, interpretation, and application of the Bible and the imago dei?
American manhood is only one of a myriad of manhood definitions throughout the world. “Anthropologists describe a continuum of manhood that ranges from machismo … at one extreme to cultures completely unconcerned about masculinity issues at the other.” American evangelical definitions of manhood (all claiming to be biblical) are scattered all over that continuum.
To complicate things further, manhood is a moving target. Throughout our relatively brief American history, manhood has transitioned from man as the head and legal representative of the household, to centering on a man’s occupation, to today’s celebrity, athletic, and ornamental manhood as exemplified by People Magazine’s annual “Sexiest Man Alive.” Many American men are juggling more than one definition, as they move from one cultural context to another.
According to these definitions, manhood must be earned. It can be missed or lost or forfeited. In contrast, the imago dei is a birthright that no man or boy can ever lose, no matter who he is or how his story plays out. It gives them an indestructible identity, as well as meaning and purpose. Not only does it elevate every man and boy to the highest possible dignity and significance, it defines his mission. He is here to reflect who God is and his heart for the world, and to look after things on God’s behalf. This mission encompasses all of life and is shared with God’s daughters. It also raises violence, injustice, and atrocities perpetrated against men and boys to a cosmic level as an offence against the Creator whose image they bear.
The imago dei places Jesus at the center of the discussion of manhood as the perfect image bearer and the only antidote to the malestrom. Jesus defines and embodies true manhood. He is every man’s perfect role model. His brand of manhood will challenge the best of men and runs counter to every other version of manhood.
What practical ways are there for us—everyday people of the church—to begin dismantling patriarchy, forging a blessed alliance, and reinserting the life and example of Jesus into our lives?
As basic as this sounds, we have to start with the gospel. The gospel is not a call to power over others, but a call to sacrifice and servant-hood, to put the interests of others ahead of ourselves. It is not a call to build our own power base, but is antithetical to claims of power and authority over others. Jesus was uncompromising and rebuked his disciples’ thinking when they raised the question of who would be first in his kingdom. Following Jesus means to be the kind of man he was—in how he related to women, to children, to men in the margins, to the powerful and to the powerless.
“Jesus’ gospel liberates men from the strictures of patriarchy and the power of the malestrom. It restores them to their true calling as God’s sons. And when the gospel gets hold of a man, the world will know that Jesus has come and his kingdom is not of this world.”