Sometimes reading a book can completely disrupt your sleeping habits.
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide did that to me and to a lot of my friends. Sex trafficking, honor killings, child marriages, FGM, rape as a weapon of war. Instead of shrugging my shoulders with relief that “none of those problems” affect me, I was shaken to my core to learn how women and girls are suffering both here and abroad and was determined to do something. Even on the best of days, I am dogged by a nagging awareness of the terrible suffering and atrocities being inflicted in the lives of other women and girls. It makes it hard to sleep, as well it should.
Researching Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World had a similar effect on me. It’s hard to rest easy, knowing the relentless downward drag that the fall brings to bear on men and boys, the destructive effects of patriarchy on all of them, and the suffering, violence, injustices, and deep wounds that result. So I was mystified when Jonathan Parnell, a Christian brother who is also a pastor and a father of sons, read Malestrom and remained unconcerned, asserting, “I have no dog in this fight.”
Even though in his review of Malestrom for The Gospel Coalition, Parnell concedes agreement with Malestrom on two major points—that patriarchy is “horrible” and that Jesus as the perfect imago dei embodies true manhood/humanity as God intended—he parts company with a lot of complementarians by disassociating his complementarian views from patriarchy. He writes,
I have no attachment to the term. In fact, because of all the baggage, I would recommend it not be used in reference to God’s vision for men as expressed in Christian complementarity. Even if some proponents of its use envision a “kinder, gentler” version, as James recognizes, it’s not a term worth salvaging. Malestrom convinced me of this all over again, and therefore, her repeated jabs at “patriarchy” left me unscathed. I even shared her disgust for what she described.
His stance is not unique among complementarians. In fact the very name “complementarian” was chosen by the formulators of complementarianism to put distance between themselves and patriarchy. But denying their patriarchal foundations, puts Parnell and others at odds with fellow complementarians, such as Russell D. Moore, a complementarian stalwart and President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. While Moore distinguishes and rejects “secular patriarchy” that abuses and objectifies women, in an article entitled “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians are Winning the Gender Debate,” he goes on record insisting that “Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy” (573) and that reclaiming “authentic biblical patriarchy is necessary” (574) for the movement to survive.
This internal struggle within complementarianism is one they’ll have to sort out for themselves. But so long as complementarianism embraces classic elements of patriarchy—male authority and female submission, and man as Impregnator-Protector-Provider and polar opposite of woman—the old adage applies: “A rose by any other name is still a rose.”
This is, however, not what troubles me most about Parnell’s review. I think he’s skirting the real issues. I will mention two.
The first concerns his discussion of the biblical narratives presented in Malestrom. Despite his agreements, Parnell rejects and at time even ridicules the use of biblical narratives discussed in Malestrom, describing them as “slanted caricatures of biblical figures,” a statement he bolsters by caricaturing them himself when he lifts statements out of context that create misperceptions of the power and richness of these redemptive stories. For example, he trivializes the father wound as “daddy issues.” That remark undoubtedly strikes close to home, for the intense and sometimes debilitating struggles plenty of men (women too) suffer because of a distant, missing, or abusive father is undoubtedly present in surprising numbers within the congregation he pastors.
But more concerning is his statement that “The preoccupation with character-studies, in my opinion, is risky in any case. It can often lead the writer (or speaker) to go beyond the biblical text to emphasize minute details and speculations that the biblical author didn’t intend.”
Are biblical narratives an unreliable source of instruction and good theology? Is any part of scripture more “risky” and subject to “speculations” than any other? Didn’t the great Apostle Paul himself point us to biblical narratives when he wrote that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)? “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Indeed, evangelical scholars everywhere acknowledge that Paul is specifically referring to the OT scriptures which, as it turns out, are rather full of narrative stories. Narratives are a valuable literary vehicle that God deemed good and wise for his divine revelation. Surely Rev. Parnell still preaches from the OT. The challenge for narrative, as well as poetry and epistles, is rightly to interpret them.
The real problem with these narratives is not that they are risky or subject to speculation but that they challenge our thinking about what it means to be a man. That makes us uncomfortable. They raise the prospect that Jesus didn’t come to endorse any social or political system, but to establish his kingdom which is “not of this world.” That means we have ground to gain, more to learn, and changes to make. All of us do.
The radical changes that take place in the lives of Abraham, Judah, Barak, Boaz, Mathew, Joseph, and Paul go against the grain of patriarchy and of their own human fallenness. Their stories challenge flawed conclusions we’ve all drawn about gender—conclusions that lock us in an endless gender debate or that create gender roles for men that many of their lives don’t and can’t fit. We need these stories. They are freeing and empowering and they give men a larger vision of how God can and will work through them.
The second dodge completely baffles me. How can anyone read about what is happening to men and boys in today’s world—the appalling levels of violence and warfare, staggering rates of the human trafficking of men and boys, wildly disproportionate incarceration rates in American prisons, illiteracy, poverty, sexual abuse, discrimination, racism, injustice, marginalization—and have the audacity to say, “I don’t have a dog in this fight”?
A lot is at stake with what is happening to men and boys globally and right under our noses here in the states. These are life and death matters. Sociologists identify an insidious link between masculinity and violence that fuels many of the wars that rage across our world. Experts on ISIS tell us that young men are being radicalized and drawn into the ranks of ISIS because they are searching for identity, meaning and purpose. Isn’t this a battle Jesus calls us to engage? Don’t we have more to offer men and boys than a kinder gentler patriarchy or some toss-up between complementarians and egalitarians? I’m convinced we do. And I’ve written about in Malestrom.
One can only hope that for his own sake, as well as the sake of his sons and the men and boys in his congregation, Parnell would rethink his rash assertion and realize that as a follower of Jesus he does “have a dog in this fight.” If that happens, I suspect he’ll be joining the ranks of those who are finding it hard to sleep at night.