Monday, April 16, 2007

Which Church Father am I?

Because I know it's been the burning question on everyone's mind . . .

You’re St. Justin Martyr!

You have a positive and hopeful attitude toward the world. You think that nature, history, and even the pagan philosophers were often guided by God in preparation for the Advent of the Christ. You find “seeds of the Word” in unexpected places. You’re patient and willing to explain the faith to unbelievers.

Find out which Church Father you are at The Way of the Fathers!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Fight club, violence, and culturally derived notions of masculinity

I've been reading a little this morning from the revised and expanded edition of William Romanowski’s “Eyes Wide Open: Looking For God in Popular culture.” This is a great book that offers some good basic direction and insight for Christians looking for thoughtful and discerning ways to engage popular culture and popular cultural works. I own the original version of the book and I admit that I was not overly excited when I first saw there was a revised and expanded edition coming out. I assumed that the changes would be relatively minor and not necessarily worthy of my repurchasing the book. When I had the chance to look at the new edition, however, I was pleasantly surprised by how substantial the reworking of the material was. Almost every chapter of the book seems to have been reworked, and a substantial amount of new material has been added. Some of the original examples of popular cultural works have also been replaced by more relevant and up to date works. All these things make the revised edition worth purchasing for anyone who enjoyed the first edition, as well as for those unfamiliar with the original edition.

The section of the book that my eye happened to fall upon this morning dealt with the topic of our definitions of masculinity and how it is portrayed in popular cultural media. In particular, the author looks at the movie “Fight Club,” and how it relates to cultural stereotypes concerning masculinity and violence. This section of the book was both interesting and exciting for me, as I have blogged about both masculinity and about “Fight Club” previously. The topic of masculinity, especially in relation to Christianity, has become a topic of more intense interest to me over the last year or so.

In this brief section of the book, Romanowski argues that “Fight Club” is indicative of contemporary cultural associations between masculinity and violence. The main character, played by Edward Norton, feels emasculated by the cubicle culture of his workplace and the wider consumer culture in which he is a participant. To counteract this sense of the loss of his masculinity he creates an alter ego and founds an underground society, the Fight Club, in which men participate in the brutal violence of bare-knuckled fist fighting in order to recapture a lost sense of manhood. While many cultural observers have commented on the modern fixation with violence and sexuality, exemplified in films such as Fight Club, as a protest against the nihilism and meaninglessness of so much of modern life, I confess that this is the first time I had thought of the film as reflecting on the issue of gender identity. Romanowski observes that notions of masculinity as intrinsically violent are based largely on socially and culturally constructed myths rather than any necessarily objective understanding of masculinity. This is especially the case when such notions of masculinity are compared to a biblical understanding of manhood.

What really intrigued me about all of this was the immediate connection it created in my mind between these socially constructed and culturally promoted versions of manhood and particular notions concerning gender that have become very popular in certain sectors of the evangelical church. I am particularly thinking of the Wild at Heart phenomenon, in which the notion of men as necessarily violent or aggressive is elevated to the level of a universal, ahistorical, and even biblical norm. If Romanowski is correct, however, that such notions of manhood are more the result of social and cultural mythologies than they are of any objective or biblical notions of manhood, then the Wild at Heart phenomenon represents an example of how easily the church can be infiltrated by the values of the surrounding culture, which are then given a scriptural gloss and, in some circles, elevated to the level of moral and spiritual norms.

Flipping to another section of the book, I then discovered that Romanowski specifically addresses the Wild at Heart phenomenon in a chapter that deals more thoroughly with images of gender in popular culture.

Wild at Heart perpetuated Hollywood stereotypes, casting men as warriors wielding swords not plowshares, and not ambassadors for Christ carrying on a
ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:17-20).

In critiquing this view, Romanowski observes, “Christians—male and female alike—are expected to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23)

I am particularly interested in this topic for the simple fact that I have never been a Wild at Heart kind of guy, nor do I have any interest in being such. I am deeply concerned about the possibility of those who embrace such views marginalizing, in the church, myself and others like me who do not fit into such gender stereotypes. My concern, however, is not only personal, but also theological and ecclesiastical. It is my genuine belief that promoting such stereotyped views of masculinity in the church will be directly destructive to the church’s embodiment of the gospel and its being the sort of community God intends it to be.

In the Beatitudes, given as part of Christ’s majestic Sermon on the Mount, Christ initiates what is sometimes referred to as “the great reversal.” As Dallas Willard points out in his book The Divine Conspiracy, the beatitudes flip typical human assumptions about who can be blessed by God on their heads. Whereas typical human wisdom views the wealthy, the happy, and the powerful as blessed and successful, Christ declares the poor, the mournful, and the meek as blessed in the in breaking of the Kingdom of God which accompanies his life and ministry. As Willard points out, the Beatitudes are not a list of traits to be cultivated, but rather the recognition that in the Kingdom of God, those formerly thought to be unblessable are now capable of receiving and living a blessed life. The church then, as the manifestation of this in breaking kingdom, is to become the place where the reality of God’s rule and reign is most truly manifested and those formerly considered unworthy of blessing are welcomed into God’s blessed life in Christ. Christ now becomes the model for a new kind of humanity whose character all believers, both men and women, are to seek to emulate. The fruits of the Spirit, as listed above, are one example of what this character looks like.

My problem with the Wild at Heart phenomenon then, is that it promotes certain socially and culturally based notions of manhood as necessarily definitive of what masculinity should look like. This means that, implicitly, if not explicitly, all those who don't fit this stereotype are considered defective or lacking. This means that the cultural status quo comes to define what is normal for the church, and, in effect, re-reverses the great reversal that Christ came to bring about by declaring unblessed all those who don’t fulfill its culturally based stereotypes of gender. Our churches then become places that can no longer truly embrace the stranger and where we marginalize all those who don’t fit our narrow and rigid stereotypes. As such, our witness to and embodiment of the gospel is damaged, if not destroyed.

In summation then, the dissatisfaction so many men (and women) experience with contemporary life will not be cured by conformity to socially and culturally defined notions of gender, which we then attempt to baptize and bring into the church. In fact, such notions lead to the opposite of the blessed life and undermine the gospel and the church. The blessed life comes from entering into the kingdom life made available in Christ and in seeking to cultivate the character of Christ as manifested in the fruits of the Spirit.