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 Some of the original examples of popular cultural works have also been replaced by more relevant and up to date works.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.


David Fitch said...

awesome post ... I shall relook at the Romanowski thanks to this keen observation
David Fitch

Gordon Hackman said...

Thanks Dave for the encouragement. Glad to know you still look at this blog and glad to hear that you've been persuaded to check out the new edition of the Romanowski book. It really is worth getting.


Anders Arnerlöf said...

Eyes Wide Open sounds like an interesting book. I have seen the film "Fight Club" and it was a quite entertaining. Which is scaring (and strange in some way) since the film was filled with meaningsless violence which I really don't like. I liked however some parts of the film and some comments in it. It's frightening that the society seems to become more raw and vilent and that people are doings more extreme things in all areas. When I read Swedish/Stockholm newspapers I'm shocked about how much bad things that happens in Stockholm, a city with about 1 million people and I feel it is accelerating. One of the worst thing that happened a few years back was a murder case where one guy was beaten to deaths in a public place early Saturday morning. The reason was that he told a guy that was peeing on a house to stop and use a toilet nearby instead. People saw the fight but did not help the poor guy. In the South of Sweden have the police had problems of fights clubs inspired by the film. I wonder how much connection it is between more violent movies and a more violance in our society. Some people say no connection but I do think that violence on films has some negative longterm impact on people.

Many people seems to fill up their life with meaningsless activities when time on earth is quite limited and they are plenty of good and important things to do and wonderful things to discover.

Anders Arnerlof

Gordon Hackman said...


Thanks for the comments!~ I agree that it is both perplexing and sad the amount of time people choose to spend focusing on the ugly, banal, stupid, trivial, and meaningless in our culture. Especially when there is so much beauty in the world to discover and see, as you pointed out.

I also agree that media violence can have a negative, desensitizing affect on us. I think it can not only lead us to be more inclined to see violence as an acceptable solution to conflict and problems, but it can also cause us to have a detached and unreal attitude towards real violence . Maybe that's why no one tried to help that guy in Stockholm. We're all so accustomed to being spectators to fake violence, that we have difficulting taking it seriously when we see it in the real world.

I don't have a problem with all media violence, though, as long as it is shown in a proper context and not glorified or just put there for the sake of titilating the audience.

Eyes Wide Open is a great book. I recommend picking up a copy, but be sure you get the revised and expanded edition as it is the one with the material on violence and gender.

thekid said...

The book sounds interesting to me too Gordy.

Thinking about the whole men as warrior champions idea - Jesus was a victor, THE VICTOR but "The forms under which the Christ conquers are the Palm Sunday donkey, the slain Paschal Lamb, and the failed messiah, mocked and crucified." Peterson, of course :), and he goes on to make the point that the these means by which Christ has chosen to conquer are victorious against their appearances. Again we see the great reversal at work.

Seeing Anders' interest expressed in his comment above, maybe he will be all the more enthusiastic about toting suitcases packed with good books back to KL after we visit Virginia this summer... :O

Peace brother!

Gordon Hackman said...

Hey Sis,

Thanks for your comment. Love the Peterson quote. Exactly the great reversal.

I think the reason things like Wild at Heart are so popular is, in part, precisely because the great reversal is so hard to accept fom a purely human point of view. It doesn't "make sense." Frederick Buechner observes, "According to what the world calls sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot."

It is far easier to baptize the status quo than it is to follow consider the possibility that Jesus might ask us to do things that are hard and that go against our desires and natures. G. K. Chesterton once remarked that, "Christianity has not so much been tried and found wanting as difficult and left untried." I know this is true because I frequently see my own resistance to the way of Christ.

thekid said...

I love that Buechner quote. The Chesterton too. And I know what you mean about our own resistance to Christ's ways.

Jeff's Blog said...

I guess I will cancel my reservation to the "Wild at Heart" seminar and pig roast. Now what will I do this weekend?

Great post and it made me think.


Nate said...

So, I am here in China, and the men's group I joined is going thru a 'wild at heart' (WAH) series, from some field guide or something. I do need to be in an accountability group. Since I missed the first few sessions in the series, and someone in the states was not enchanted with WAH I acquired a copy and read it.

So what do I do with this input. First of all I think if you look past all the cliches, chauvanism, stereotypes and misconceptions (unfortunately from what I see that is about 85% of WAH) there really *appears* to be something in WAH that is worthwhile.

I have been struggling with this, I am not a classic MAN's MAN, but there is something to said about having men who are strong and can resist the evil temptations that take them (and me) away from doing the work G *d has for us to do.

I agree with the great reversal, but I don't think it was meant to allow evil to saturate the kingdom. And currently WAY to many leaders cause the kingdoms witness to suffer by there actions that indicate a lack of the strength I refer to. WAH does try to build this strength and that is good. But it could easily have been done with less romantics - no reference to movies, more b*bl% v*rs%s, and less cliche, chauvanism and stereotype.

One last WAH comment - many people mistake masculine for male and feminine for female. IMHO that is soooooooo wrong. Every one of us has some masculine and some feminine in us - it's a balance, and I'm sure we have all met people who have too much of one or the other, and even if it's the right one for their gender, it's still feels way wrong. WAH appears to make the assumption that 'men' are 'masculine'.

That said WAH has helped me to realize some things about my own weakness and where the real battles are being lost daily. I try to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water (there...a cliche I use for good measure)

Gordon Hackman said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Sorry I haven't responded sooner. I don't have the time to fully respond now but I would like to soon.


Paul and Marika said...

Just wanted to say, thank you so much for your post. I read part of Eyes Wide Open for a Contemporary Christian Belief class, and really enjoyed it. Just today, my pastor (after questioning him about the passage in 1 Tim. about women not teaching), he encouraged me to read Wild at Heart. I told him that I had heard that book just perpetuates cultural stereotypes about gender...and he looked at me like I was crazy. I couldn't remember where I had heard it, and when I got home, I remembered it was from Eyes Wide Open. Anyway, I really enjoyed your post. It was well articulated, and I don't feel crazy...