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Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World
By Carolyn Custis James
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2015 Carolyn Custis James
All rights reserved.
The Genesis of the Malestrom
This is a man's world!' —James Brown
Historically, men have had a monopoly on positions of power and leadership in the world. They have dominated the public sphere and until recently (still in some cultures) held a virtual monopoly on education. The news is filled with their achievements, debates, and conflicts. World history and church history are largely comprised of stories of men. Even in the twenty-first century, it's still considered breaking news and something of an anomaly when a woman appears on the global stage, as happened in the 2013 election of South Korea's eighteenth president, Park Geun-hye. The big news was not simply that South Koreans had elected a new president and what this change means for the country's future, relations with North Korea, and international affairs. The big news was that this president is a female—South Korea's first—with the double distinction of being also the first woman to become the head of state in Northeast Asia's modern history.
Little wonder that soul singer James Brown belted out: "This is a man's world!" Evidence supports his claim. Even the Bible can give the impression that we live in "a man's world." A good 90 percent of the characters are male, and Jesus, who of course is male, used father-son terms to describe his relationship with God—which led one evangelical leader publicly to embrace James Brown theology when he confidently asserted that Christianity has "a masculine feel."
Even this perception reflects the destructive presence of the malestrom, for the "man's world" mind-set is symptomatic of a world that has lost its center. The assumption that men own the stage or that the Bible gives preeminence to males over females positions men at the center. Inevitably this means men have turf to protect from each other and from women. It implies that women are to center their efforts on supporting and maintaining what God is doing through men. Women who rise to prominence today are perceived as threats; consequently, strong women in the Bible cannot be taken as exemplars for they are deemed aberrations and "exceptions to the rule."
The pervasive impact of the malestrom is as fundamental as how one sees the world. Any meaningful discussion of what it means to be male is hopelessly off track before it even starts if questions of male/female equality or who leads and who follows become the starting point. The malestrom will outwit us, and we will be thrown off in our attempts to fill in that missing chapter if we don't ground ourselves at the outset by asking the foundational question: Whose world is this?
The Bible doesn't risk the possibility of our getting off to a false start. It opens by plunging a stake in the virgin ground of Planet Earth that is the basis for understanding everything that follows, including who we are and why we are here. The Bible's story launches by proclaiming: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."
This statement is not mere rhetoric or tribal folklore and certainly is not meant to inspire scientific debate. In the field of higher education, scholars Jan Meyer and Ray Land have coined the phrase "threshold knowledge," which refers to "core concepts that once understood, transform perception of a given subject." We are standing on the threshold of human history, and the Bible does not leave us guessing at whose world this is or who stands at the center.
These inaugural words anchor us "in the deepest reality about which we can speak," establishing the Creator God as the uncontested referent for all reality, including and most especially what it means to be male and female. God is at the center. Gloss over the significance of this one statement, and thereafter, everything is hurtling off course. Absolutely nothing is more important or definitive than words this Creator God will say about male and female. This "threshold knowledge" transforms everything else—our self-perception as well as our perception of gender. These first words are theological in the deepest sense of the term, because they center our attention first and foremost to the study of God and his ways.
The creation narrative is the first place we must go to recover the missing chapter. This is the world before the fall, before the brokenness, before the battle of the sexes, and before the malestrom began to distort, distract, diminish, and deprive men and boys from the high calling God entrusts to them.
The first two chapters of the Bible give us God's original blueprints for humanity—the purest unedited version of what God had (and still has) in mind for us and for his world. This text must be given primary weight in any meaningful discussion of what it means to be male or female. If we merely employ these chapters to establish basic human equality or to argue for the primacy of male over female based on whom God created first, we will miss the big vision God is casting for his image bearers. To leap forward, as many do, to construct a theology of gender based on words of a post-fall curse or even on New Testament texts written thousands of years later, is to back into the subject from within the context of a fallen world. Such an approach is to attempt construction of an edifice without first laying the foundation.
The creation narrative escorts us back to the beginning—to the missing chapter and the world as God envisioned it. This is where God is defining kingdom strategies, identifying realms, and empowering all creatures great and small (and even celestial bodies) to fulfill their divine callings. This is where the Creator speaks powerful governing statements that define what it means to be human and that hardwire into his sons an indestructible identity, meaning, and purpose that even the malestrom is powerless to undo. Ironically, instead of diminishing Adam or any man-child born subsequently, the Bible's inaugural statement will have an extraordinary exalting effect on what it means to be a man or a woman.
Created in God's Image
We're only one sentence into God's Story, human beings haven't even been mentioned, and already we have the first big clue in understanding what it means to "be a man." Before we even get to the creation of male and female, we have already witnessed God in creative action in ways that ultimately define and shape what it means to be human. This God is an artist. He has incomprehensible power, but he uses his power to nurture and empower others and to create a world that is conducive to their flourishing. His actions embody love, wisdom, generosity, and grace—and everything he does is utter goodness.
This staggering display of God's character and heart for the world leads up to the climactic event of God's creative genius: the creation of human beings. Human beings, we soon learn, are created to be like this God. We need to take a moment to try to absorb what we have just witnessed.
The pivotal importance of the creation of human beings is dramatically signaled by an abrupt halt in the action that up to this point has acquired the steady predictable rhythm of a drumbeat that shifts into drumroll. Without warning, we are drawn behind the scenes where we become privy to a divine strategic planning session and the dramatic unveiling of God's final blueprints for the human race. It is a sacred moment of unparalleled significance. No one could have seen it coming:
Then God said, "Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
It is unfortunate that the notion of human beings as God's image bearers has taken on the overfamiliarity of a cliché. Even in Christian circles, we toss "image bearer" language around without weighing the revolutionary visionary and missional nature of God's pronouncement. It should take our breath away to realize the enormity of the honor he bestows on us.
God's decision to create human beings in his "image and likeness" is the single most important statement about men we have. The imago dei is the starting point and the overarching governing presupposition for any meaningful discussion of what it means to be male. Without this radical pronouncement in the forefront of gender discussions, men are left groping in the dark for answers, taking horizontal clues from fallen cultural mores and traditions, and settling for earthbound definitions of manhood that fall appallingly short of what God envisions—definitions that render men perpetually assaulted by threats to their right to be called a man.
The imago dei is not a sidebar but the centerpiece of the discussion of who God created his sons to be. It locates male identity in an entirely different category from every other definition of manhood. Gender debates too often fail to grasp the revolutionary implications for manhood. Instead, we take sides and seize on proof texts in an attempt to defeat and diminish the arguments of opponents. The result is a stalemate and a kind of trench warfare with little hope of progress. The imago dei is reduced to a secondary issue instead of the essential visionary centerpiece. Editors may have had their reasons, but I find it ironic, not to mention theologically anomalous, that the classic complementarian volume whose title declares as its goal, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, does not get around to devoting a chapter to the imago dei until chapter 12.
Systematic theologians all too often turn the discussion of the imago dei into an abstraction. The imago dei is framed as a list of bullet points—of moral, spiritual, intellectual, and relational attributes that human beings have in common with God. It is the equivalent of trying to grasp a clear sense of what a man is like by studying his medical chart.
Biblical scholars point to the ancient Near Eastern practice of rulers placing statues of themselves to assert their sovereignty in regions of their realm where they were not physically present. But even while the concept may be helpful at some level, it ultimately is lacking. Statues are fixed and unchanging. Statues are to the imago dei what a wooden Pinocchio is to a real boy.
What ultimately happens is that instead of being shaken by a visionary calling that will take everything we have to offer and more, we end up with a static list of attributes that are echoes of the divine in us. Efforts to pin down the precise meaning of image bearer (which the text does not do) ultimately box up the subject. We are sitting on the launch pad of God's vision for the world talking about nuts and bolts and heat-resistant tiles instead of buckling up for the ride of our lives. As a result, we brush right past some of the most important statements in the Bible and miss the breathtaking vista God is spreading before his daughters and his sons.
God steadfastly resists this kind of thinking. The imago dei is not static and cannot be condensed to a list of attributes. God is not engaging in taxonomy. He isn't merely defining a new species or embedding certain qualities in men to distinguish them from other life forms. He is giving identity, meaning, and purpose to his sons and calling them to undertake a global task.
The significance of the imago dei is impossible to overstate, much less fully comprehend. I daresay we will spend all eternity unpacking the rich meaning involved in bearing God's image. But this much is perfectly clear already: image bearing is not a spectator sport. God is calling his sons to action and counting heavily on what they do. God did not create the world or his image bearers in finished form—that is to say, everything in this new world is raw, untapped, and undeveloped, and the potential for growth is immense. This grand global vision will require much of his image bearers.
Even in an unfallen world, bearing the image of the Creator was a never-ending challenge that demanded the full engagement of his sons. This calling draws their eyes God-ward to find out more about the God whose image they bear and to learn new ways of extending his reign on earth. Like the astrophysicists who probe the universe with increasingly high-powered telescopes, satellites, and interplanetary land rovers, and after thousands of years of access to information about ourselves, we are forced to admit that we are still standing on the edges of an infinite frontier—with new ground to gain and much more to learn.
The Bible itself offers help on how God's sons live into their image-bearer callings. After Cain's horrible fratricide of Abel, we are told that Adam fathered a third son "in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth." The text employs precisely the same Hebrew words that describe God's creation of human beings, only this time it describes human offspring. This provides us with a parallel that helps us flesh out the meaning of the imago dei.
Usually, when we speak of a son's likeness to his father, we are at the very least talking about a physical resemblance. That's what we mean when we remark, "He's the spitting image of his dad." He looks like his dad or he has a gift for music or science, just like his dad. A boy inherits these genetic likenesses to his father by birth. They're coded in his DNA.
A son inherits his father's genetic characteristics at birth. But there are characteristics a son only acquires by spending time with dad—characteristics that result from relationship, understanding, and imitation.
Nigerian attorney and American immigrant Samuel Adewusi heard his father say that "a man's true strength comes from his character." Adewusi internalized his father's words and then sought to emulate his father's example. He remarked that he often watched his father cook for his hungry family and then endure being scorned by his community for doing "women's work." But Adewusi learned from his father's example that cooking for his family had nothing to do with gender roles. He was seeing his father's strong character as a man in action—an example he followed.
The imago dei invites this kind of familial relationship, and right from the start, God grants unparalleled access to himself by "walking in the garden"11 where his image bearers live. Even after the fall, God's commitment to be known remains unchanged and even seems to ramp up. All creation speaks of him. He empowers prophets to speak the clear message and expose how God's image bearers have lost their way. Best of all, he sent Jesus—the perfect imago dei—"the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being"—who alone can say, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." What is more, we have God's Spirit as our teacher, opening our understanding and giving the courage to become part of that missing chapter and to live as citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world.
No man or boy is equal to the challenge of bearing God's image. It will take him out of his comfort zone, raise the bar in entirely new ways, and require the power of God's Spirit as he makes God his study and resists the allure of the malestrom. Even in Eden, before the fall, this wasn't an easy assignment.
The Imago Dei Overturns Patriarchy
In contrast to patriarchy's fluctuating continuum of cultural definitions of manhood, the Bible's definition of what it means to be a man is universal and unchanging. From Adam to the present, every boy-child born into the world is the imago dei—already armed with his God-given identity and marching papers. He is born to know and reflect his Creator and to do God's work in the world. No man or boy is excluded. Every square inch of the earth and every season and vocation in life are encompassed in this overarching global calling.
The imago dei does not require rites of passage. It is a birth-right. It cannot be earned. It is a gift bestowed by the Creator and hardwired into his DNA that must be lived.
One does not have to convert to become human according to Scripture. One is born human, born with the image of God imprinted on one's soul. Every single human being on the face of the earth—from Timbuktu to Time Square, from the halls of the Church of England to the halls of Willow Creek Church, from the synagogues of Israel to the mosques of Baghdad, from the Hindu temples of India to the Buddhist temples in China—every single person on earth is made in the image of God.
It is permanent and accompanies every male from his first breath to his last. Nothing can erase it or take it from him. He can't even shed it himself. He can ignore it, violate it, or believe he's lost it. Others may try to demean or beat it out of him, but because it is grounded in God, it is impervious to destruction. In fact, his imago dei identity alone means atrocities and injustices perpetuated against him take on cosmic dimensions and are an offense against the Creator himself.
Excerpted from Malestrom by Carolyn Custis James. Copyright © 2015 Carolyn Custis James. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Frank A. James III 9
Introduction: The Malestrom 17
1 The Genesis of the Malestrom 39
2 Patriarchy Matters 59
3 The Father Wound 77
4 The Rise of Women 95
5 The Power of Power 113
6 The Marginalized Man 133
7 Gender Role Reversal 155
8 The Manhood of Jesus 173
9 Liberating Men from the Malestrom 193
What People are Saying About This
God’s intention for the appropriate flourishing of human life has been severely thwarted by culturally captive expressions of masculinity that have oppressed both women and men. Malestrom offers us a reminder from Scripture that God’s intention for men was not for a dysfunctional masculinity that devastates the image of God within us. Thank you, Carolyn Custis James, for your historical and theological insights that will reshape how I live out my faith in the world. Thank you for a book that benefits both my son and my daughter. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism; author of The Next Evangelicalism
Women aren’t the only ones bombarded with conflicting and harmful messages about their identities. More than ever men face an onslaught of expectations, both from the culture and the church, about what it means to be a ‘real man.’ Through this treacherous landscape, Carolyn Custis James proves a trustworthy guide. With her characteristic warmth and wisdom,
she examines manhood through the lens of Jesus Christ and offers a better way forward for men, a way characterized by partnership, joy, and humility. There are few writers who bring as much clarity and conviction to their work as Carolyn Custis James. This book is biblically faithful, immensely timely, and delightfully readable. Every last page is charged with healing power. Rachel Held Evans, author of A Year of Biblical womanhood and Searching for Sunday
Malestrom takes a close and provocative look at the dangers of patriarchy by taking a close look at what Scripture says about it. This book will lead you to ponder the type of person God asks all of us male and female to be. It is a good question to meditate on. Darrell L. Bock, Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary
Malestrom is not of this world, just like God’s kingdom to which it bears witness. Carolyn Custis James is a modern-day Deborah, whose work serves as a prophetic challenge to all men to image Jesus. Against the backdrop of patriarchal and radical feminist perspectives that degrade and discount men, James invites Adam’s progeny to display profound courage and dignity as they gain a biblical sense of their true identity. This is not a book for the faint of heart: liberated male readers will join forces with women to conquer despair and celebrate the transformative power of God’s cruciform and unifying love. Paul Louis Metzger, Professor of Christian Theology, Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University
In Malestrom, Carolyn Custis James takes us by the hand and leads us through the story of how God dismantles patriarchy in the Bible. By the time we’re done reading, a new space has been cleared. Men can now be men. Women can now be women. And together we can live God’s gendered salvation. It is a remarkable accomplishment. David Fitch, B. R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology, Northern Seminary
Finding a crack in the door of patriarchy, which still patterns the life of both the church and the world, Carolyn Custis James swings it wide open, redirecting the gender conversation towards its rightful focus: the malestrom. Through careful biblical exegesis and an intersectional awareness of the actual social currents that daily sweep over men and boys, this book rightfully articulates a vision for men rooted in the imago dei particularly revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. The church is indebted for this resource for opening up a new set of questions at an accessible level, and for remembering that ultimately what makes something Christian is its ability to conform image of the Son. Drew Hart, writer for Taking Jesus Seriously, a Christian Century hosted blog
Carolyn Custis James writes with urgency, clarity, and meticulous research about issues that don’t just concern every man, but relate to the health and stability of the entire church and our wider world. This is a call for men and women to live in the health and freedom of God’s calling for both genders. Ed Cyzewski, author of A Christian Survival Guide and Coffeehouse Theology
Men have indeed lost sight of who God created them to be as human beings and as men! The signs of this reality are visible all around us. From bloody violence on an international scale to the abuse of the most vulnerable little child in the privacy of a home, from ‘fatherless’ children to abusive marriages, there just seems to be no end. Malestrom does a masterful job of first articulating the catastrophic mess we are in, and then walks the reader through a journey unfolding God’s divine vision and plan for man through an engaging study of the men of the Scriptures. I simply could not put this book down. Does it offer a final and definitive solution to the problem that began in Genesis 3? Perhaps not. Has it begun a conversation in my mind? You bet! And this conversation is long overdue within the global church today. A timely, well-articulated, and thought-provoking book! Abraham George, Director of International Church Mobilization, International Justice Mission
With wisdom and fresh imagination, Malestrom challenges business-as usual patriarchy and calls men and women of faith to a deeper and richer Blessed Alliance. In this inviting and absorbing book, Carolyn Custis James probes the narrative of Holy Scripture and concludes that patriarchy is ‘in, but not of’ the Bible. As I read, I began to envision what masculinity might mean when redefined from a kingdom perspective that inverts the social pyramid that so distorts our gendered lives. With more in mind than just a kinder and gentler patriarchy, James opens up the Scriptures, directing the reader through the pitfalls of traditional thinking about men, women, power, and hierarchy. As you turn pages you’ll meet anew people like Abraham, Judah, Barak, Boaz, Matthew, Joseph, and pivotal women of the Bible who, through God’s grace, come to stand against the malestrom and enter into the new hope of Jesus of Nazareth. A bracing book for an embattled world; I read hungrily and came away nourished. Matthew S. Vos, Covenant College, Department of Sociology
This is the book I’ve been waiting for as a wife, as a mother of a son, as a woman committed to the blessed alliance God intended between men and women. This book will be healing and restorative for so many. It’s a beautiful invitation to manhood in the Kingdom of God. Sarah Bessey, author of Jesus Feminist and Out of Sorts