I’m sure many of you have now at least heard of the book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, the tongue-in-cheek record of US blogger Rachel Held Evans’ twelve months of rigid adherence to the Bible’s many rules and prescriptions for female behaviour. The book gently pokes fun at the idea that there is (or indeed can be) such a thing as ‘biblical womanhood’. (Right-wing evangelicals have missed the point and criticised it for mocking the Bible, and Christian bookstore Lifeway missed the point even further, refusing to stock it as it contained the word ‘vagina’.)
Is there then such a thing then as Biblical Masculinity, or Scripturally-mandated Manliness – a Bible-based version of what a man should be like, that all godly men should conform to? I confess that I shudder inwardly when I hear any phrase starting with the qualifier ‘Biblical’, whether it be Biblical leadership, Biblical cookery or Biblical flower-arranging. It seems to imply that the Bible is a homogeneous text, an all-occasions manual presenting single, simple one-size-fits-all prescriptions for all available aspects of life. It’s sola scriptura stretched ad absurdum to cover subjects on which the Bible was never designed to be the authoritative textbook.
That’s not to say Scripture has nothing to contribute to the discussion – far from it – but that we can’t simply read a ‘biblical’ prescription on any given subject from its pages. And that includes the subject of masculinity, or what a man ‘should’ be like.
An adjective that works slightly better for me than ‘Biblical’ is ‘Christian’ (in the sense of Christ-like, Christ-modelled or Christ-redeemed). Christian Masculinity is a concept that I might be able to travel with awhile.
Clearly if Christian masculinity has a model or exemplar, it’s Christ himself. But of course Jesus is a notoriously enigmatic role model. For a start, he never married (at least not that we know about), so we can only make guesses about what kind of husband and dad he might model, based on his treatment of women and children.
There are just so many things we don’t know about Jesus. We only really know about him as a baby, as a devout (if slightly thoughtless) 12-year-old lad in one isolated episode, and then the 3-year window of his teaching and healing ministry as an unmarried 30-something.
We assume that he followed his human father Joseph into the carpentry trade based on one passing derogatory reference in Mark 6:3 ‘Isn’t this the carpenter?’. However, the same episode in Matthew 13:55 is reported just as ‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?’; and either way we have little evidence of his working life. If he was a carpenter, carpentry is a skilled trade, not merely a muscular one; it combines a degree of physical labour with care and artistry.
So we don’t really know if he was a strong, sporty type or a more studious, intellectual sort. His words and actions seem to contain elements of both. He was clearly an authoritative speaker, a charismatic leader who people wanted to follow; but also in some ways a contemplative character, deeply thoughtful and prayerful, very much a rabbi rather than a ruler or war-leader. He just seems to have broken the mould, evading all stereotypes.
What we do know about Jesus
Assuming for now that the gospels do give us a reasonably accurate (if partial) view of Jesus, there are some things we can say about what kind of man he was.
Jesus was clearly highly intelligent mentally, but also (more importantly) spiritually and emotionally. We know he expressed his emotions publicly (‘Jesus wept’) – clearly real men do cry. He was also comfortable talking about flowers and birds just as much as about ‘manly’ things like fishing and feasting. On one occasion he even described himself in feminine terms (‘Jerusalem… how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings’, Luke 13:34).
We know he allowed women of means to support his ministry, which might upset some who feel that men should always be the provider and breadwinner. We also know he welcomed children, so we could hazard a guess that he’d have made a good child-carer (and maybe even stay-at-home dad). 😉
We know that he accepted the titles ‘Lord’ and ‘Master’, but that he did not lord it over his followers (though if anyone had a right to, it was surely Jesus). Instead he modelled a ‘servant leadership’; as Philippians 2 puts it, ‘though he was by nature God, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.’ He seems to have been entirely devoid of the aggressive competitiveness and one-upmanship which marks (and mars) alpha-male masculinity.
We know that Jesus was deeply courageous, but that reassuringly he nonetheless balked at the idea of his martyrdom, pleading that ‘this cup of suffering be taken away from him’. It’s not cowardice to wish not to go through intense pain, or to want to live. It’s not even cowardice to be afraid.
Jesus and anger
We know that Jesus was deeply compassionate and kind, but also forthright and at times downright offensive when he felt it was needed (generally to the religious elite and powers-that-be). Indeed the two aspects may be two sides of the same coin. Because he was moved by compassion for the poor and marginalised, he was also moved to anger against the religious authorities who should have cared for the poor but instead only made their burdens heavier.
We know that he also got exasperated with his friends and followers when, despite his constant presence and example, his teachings and miracles, they consistently failed to get it. ‘O you of little faith… How long must I put up with you?’ He was no plaster saint, gliding through life with beatific smile glued serenely in place.
We know that on one isolated (exceptional?) occasion he was actually moved by righteous zeal to use physical force – violence even – in driving corrupt moneylenders from the temple courts. But he also clearly didn’t see violence as a solution, as a means to an end or a way of life. He taught his followers to ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘not to resist an evil man’. He himself did not use force to resist capture, and he told Peter to put away his sword, for ‘those who live by the sword will die by the sword’. He submitted to the violence of others but did not respond with violence himself, instead forgiving his tormentors. Many of his followers wanted him to restore Israel by force, but that was never his way. It’s hard then to see Christ sanctioning earthly wars or leading troops into battle, nor pursuing aggressive foreign policies.
(There’s also the slightly bizarre incident where Jesus blasts a recalcitrant fig tree for failing to bear out-of-season fruit. I tend to take this is a symbolic parable about Israel rather than a mere fit of bad temper.)
Jesus and women
What about Jesus’ attitude to women? It would seem that he was about as far from a chauvinist as it’s possible to get for 1st century Palestine. It’s true that he didn’t include women among his twelve hand-picked apostles, and we can speculate all sorts of reasons for that. But every time we see him talking to women, he treated them as equals – intellectually, socially, spiritually. He did not patronise or belittle, nor did he exclude.
He also clearly had close and equal friendships with a number of women including Mary and Martha of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene. And he chose women for some of the most important roles in his life: bringing him into the world; preparing him to leave it (anointing him for burial); supporting his ministry; missionary work (e.g. the Samaritan woman at the well); and as the first witnesses to his resurrection. He also allowed women to test him and challenge him (the Tyro-Phoenician woman for example), and cited them as examples of faith and generosity (the Widow’s mite).
Jesus and men
Jesus was no loner; he knew the need for human companionship, though he also spent much time alone in prayer. So what kind of men did he choose to be his bosom friends and companions, and also his first representatives? They seem to have been a completely mixed and motley bunch.
There’s Peter the rough diamond, a bluff and uneducated fisherman with chronic foot-in-mouth syndrome. There’s John the beloved, the odd poet-mystic (despite also being a fisherman, if the gospel writer was also the disciple), and James his fellow ‘son of thunder’. There’s Matthew the tax collector (probably more brains than brawn), and Thomas the doubter, a welcome early model for rational scepticism. Later there’s the somewhat abrasive and ascetic Paul, the educated theologian and devout ex-Pharisee, and Luke the scholarly doctor and meticulous researcher.
Jesus doesn’t seem to have been looking for a particular type of man, macho or otherwise. It seems he was just looking for people who would trust him and follow him, regardless of what kind of man or woman they were.
So all in all, if Jesus does model masculinity, it’s clearly a complex and nuanced kind. It’s not just a macho model of hunter-gatherer, fighter, sportsman, breadwinner, mighty ruler – ‘Muscular Christianity’ if you like. And where it is those things at all, they are subverted, even inverted – turned on their head. He leads by serving; he fights evil not with swords but with goodness, forgiveness and healing. He ‘hunts’ people only to heal and restore them (‘fishers of men’; ‘I have come to seek and save the lost’).
Jesus takes all that is good in masculinity and redeems it, breathes new life into it. It seems to me that there’s room in Jesus’ masculinity for great variety and diversity – for men who like flowers and nature and poetry as well as men who like cars and hunting and football.
It’s also worth noting that our western ideal of muscular manliness is by no means a universal concept but is (at least partly) a cultural construct. Visiting Mumbai in the 1990s I was surprised to see heterosexual Indian men holding hands without discomfort, and decorating their rickshaws and working spaces with flower garlands. We shouldn’t be too quick to read our stereotypes into the Bible or to assume that our model is the only available variety.
Finally, it seems a shame we have no ‘female Christ’, an equivalent model of what a completely redeemed femininity would look like (Catholics point to Mary, but I can’t fully buy that). But perhaps (just perhaps) femininity was never in such dire need of redeeming as masculinity, at least not in quite the same way. Maybe what it needed more urgently was to be released from the long dark shadow of male dominance and abuse – of which more in the next post, on the Bible and sexism…