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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

"Malestrom" (Carolyn Curtis James)

TITLE: Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World
AUTHOR: Carolyn Curtis James
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, (224 pages).

The Bible, especially the Old Testament has often been accused of patriarchalism. For many contemporary ears, the language, the culture, and the social status of men in the ancient near east have become out of date with modern sensitivities. Not only that, most people nowadays will be up in arms with women over equal rights and equal treatment, anyone using the Bible to justify masculine superiority will be in for a big fight. Worse, when we let cultural norms both past and present to define how we read the Bible, we will fail to interpret what the Bible is actually saying to us. The single biggest point in this book is this: Reject distorted models of patriarchy. Beware of the hidden dangers of the "malestrom" which is a play of words of a wind whirlpool phenomena called "maelstrom."  Carolyn Curtis James writes out of her comfort zone to write about males issues, stating what "malestrom" is. She writes: "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. The repercussions of such devastating personal losses are not merely disastrous for the men themselves, but catastrophic globally."

Right from the start, Carolyn lists the uncomfortable historical background of violence in this world. From our modern terrorism in the Middle East to angry shootings in the West; from human trafficking to world wars; from religious wars to the spat between Cain and Abel; violence is overwhelmingly male. This is because men everywhere have lost sight of what it means to be a human being and what it means to be a man. When this happens, "malestrom" has triumphed. The humanistic definition of manhood typically means one or more of three things: Father, Protector, and Provider. While it has its advantages, it unwittingly results in the polarization of male and female. For males, there are human rites to observe as boys become men. With society putting a premium on recognizing men for their conquests, it also creates an unhealthy competitive arena that pits male vs female in various ways. People ask: What about women? If there are so many expectations on the male species, is society leaving behind the needs of women? In one powerful statement, the Carolyn declares that the "principal expression of the malestrom is historical patriarchy." Under this umbrella, there are various symptoms of the problem:
  • Anything that threatens a man's authority is a threat to his manhood
  • Anything that dethrones male headship is a failure of male responsibility
  • Anything that is "kinder-gentler" does not reflect mandom
  • On why women leaders are perceived as threats to the male gender
  • The various ways in which battle of the sexes is played out every day.
  • ...
The Fall has impacted our view of gender in a far deeper way than we think. It disfigures our idea of what true manhood means. It distracts us from the true view of what it means to be human toward the false dichotomy of God's different destinies for male and female. Most significantly, it derails us from seeking after the gospel of Jesus Christ and the true meaning of what it means to be a new creation. She then describes how it all began; why patriarchy matters; the deterioration of the father figure; the rise of women; the problem of power; and the reasons behind malestrom. Gradually, as she helps us turn the corner from the false model of manhood toward the true nature of what it means to be a person in Jesus Christ.

Carolyn asks the question on what it means to be created in the image of God. Strength comes from character rather than gender. God's plan for man also includes women. Our accomplishments in this world are given to us, not earned by us. On the creation narrative in Genesis, we note that the creation of Eve after Adam was created was not because God made a mistake nor is it simply to fullfill the man's need. We ought not to think of God's creation as male versus female but in terms of what is God's good purpose versus anything that runs against this purpose. Even when many parts of the world still suffers under the tyranny of malestrom, even in the West that champions egalitarianism, there are interpretive challenges pertaining to patriarchal passages in the Bible. One way to interpret is to see the Bible passages not in terms of gender affirmation but in terms of re-orientating our perspectives toward God's. Like circumcision, which is not about maleness but about transformation of one from the old to the new covenant. Perhaps, one reason why there is a lot of "patriarchal" languages is not for males to lord over the rest but because they have to deal more with the issues of power and control.

There is a strong father theme in the Bible. Wounded fathers pass down the wounds to their children in some way. In our Heavenly Father, we learn to learn upward in surrender to God rather than to pass downward our brokenness to fellow humans. The "unforeseen situation" is when women outperform men in all sectors of society; from education to public speaking; from society to churches; etc. Carolyn, in looking at the way women were raised in the Bible, disagrees that the success of women are due to the failures of men. Every situation that has women in a leadership capacity is not because men at that time failed, but because the contexts needed the best person available. Ultimately, whether the leadership is male or female, God is God and we need to focus on glorifying God no matter which gender is in charge. There is a good chapter on the reflection on power. Godly use of power is never about subverting people according to gender. True use of power is about using it for the glory of God. It is not pulling our ranks on others as a form of control to prevail over people. It is to prevail over the forces of darkness and principalities that war against God.

Interestingly, Carolyn flips over to the other side about the "marginalized man." Whether it is a discrimination against a minority or human rights abuses like human trafficking, the malestrom has affected how men treat other men. The way Cain murdered Abel is just the beginning of atrocities man continue to inflict on people. Even in churches, people are marginalized whether directly or indirectly. When individual spiritual gifts are ignored or eligible people passed over for leadership, or the distinction between clergy and laity, malestrom affects the way we do church. The good news is when people at the margins learn to see things from God's side. God never gives up on us. That is why He sent Jesus, who was then marginalized by sinful people. We see the righteousness of God demonstrated in Jesus, to point to us what true manhood looks like. We need to follow Jesus in order to be real men and women for God. It refuses to be conformed to the world of expectations but to be transformed in Christ.

Carolyn has incorporated several theological themes in this book. Sin is definitely a big explanation for malestrom, which has corrupted the original nature of man. The first murder in the world is only the beginning of much worse things to come. From physical wounds to spiritual wars, people have become distracted by gender issues and warped views of gender matters. People using (or misusing) their status as a way to lord over, to manipulate, or to control others is already abusing the power given to them. The creation theme is frequently referenced. There is the theology of man and creation. There are theological ethics and historical theology. Toward the end, Christology is brought to the forefront of discussion where true manhood and freedom is about following Christ fully. For a book that seems to be talking about male issues, it is a pleasant surprise to be lifted beyond male-female controversies or patriarchal distractions toward the righteousness and beauty of Jesus.

There are many similarities to Nate Pyle's "Man Enough" which also talks about how men can be fully men when they follow Jesus. The big difference is that Malestrom is written by a women, giving us a different perspective from a women's angle. Why should we read this book? Three reasons.

First, Carolyn not only writes well but develops her points with good biblical reflection. With historical and biblical theological reflection, she helps us understand that the ideas are not her own, but have been spelled out in the Bible all along. Sin is not new. Corruption and abuse of power are not new. Neither is the way humans inflict harm on one another. Second, we are reminded that the malestrom cuts much deeper than many people think. Even in churches where people are expected to love one another, there are power tussles and marginalization in subtle or indirect ways. In fact, we learn to see that this problem is much more pervasive in society, and reaches far deeper mere debates about patriarchal issues or feminism concerns. If we allow it to linger and to take root, we would end up hurting one another, and fail to obey God's commandment to love our neighbour. Third, when we are liberated, we will live as free people to follow Christ and in our following Christ, frees others from the tyranny of the malestrom. We are reminded once again that the enemy is not one another. The enemy is as described in Ephesians 6:12. This is important as we all have limited resources. If we use up this small reservoir on fighting the wrong battles, we end up hurting the people we are supposed to love, and waste the opportunity to work together to bless even more people. May this book re-direct us to channel our energies for more fruitful endeavours.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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