This review was originally published in the Journal of Urban Mission. It is republished here with permission.
Reviewer: Stephen S. Taylor, Associate Professor of New Testament at Missio Seminary. His comments regarding how we interpret the Bible are alone worth reading this review, but hopefully his review will also encourage readers to read Malestrom 20220 as well.
Malestrom is actually the Second Edition of Carolyn Custis James’s 2015 book, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World. The “Introduction” and the nine titled chapters remain the same. Yet so finely tuned was the original argument that the subtle changes introduced in this Second Edition have an outsized impact on the clarity and persuasive power of the original. As insightful and transformative as the First Edition was, this is the edition to read, study, and recommend to others moving forward. I will explain why at the end of this review.
First, let’s look at the unchanged substance of the book. In a word, the book is a sustained attack on global and historic “patriarchy.” James adopts what is now the standard definition of the term, originally articulated by Sylvia Walby,
“Patriarchy is a social system in which the role of the male as the primary authority figure is central to social organization, and where fathers hold authority over women, children, and property. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and is dependent on female subordination.”1
The inexorable pull of patriarchy, based as it is in a potent brew of the will to power, male pride, and physical strength, and inter-generational cultural patterns, James likens to a maelstrom, the dangerous whirlpool that sometimes develops in the open seas trapping unsuspecting sailors in its vortex and dragging them down to watery graves. By the clever transposition of only two letters, the maelstrom becomes the malestrom and the central metaphor of the book.
“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.”2
The power of the malestrom lies in its initial subtlety and gradualness; boys are given role models that embody competitiveness, domination, and entitlement and by imperceptible degrees, as the rotation of the current becomes tighter and faster, they become misshapen incarnations of patriarchy, exhibiting and purveying its deadly results.
James effectively develops a thick description of these results: a manhood that turns in on itself, shrunk-wrapped around the narrow roles of “impregnator-protector-provider” and “sustained by the submission and obedience of others.”3 (As James wryly notes, such manhood would exclude Jesus and Paul!) The dark depths of the malestrom “lowers men’s sights and aspirations to a horizontal competitive quest for male power to win and achieve preeminence over other men.”4 And deeper still, the suction of the abyss reduces womanhood to a means to male ends: “the value of a wife is gauged by the number of her sons”5–a value that can be supplemented by the practice of polygamy6 and other forms of exploitation. The list goes on.
The malestrom robs the sunlit freedom of the sons of God: a freedom to see the horizon and to look toward “the loftier calling and the greater dignity of imaging God and walking faithfully before him,”7 a freedom “selflessly to invest [one’s] powers and privileges to promote the flourishing and fruitful living of others.”8
Sadly, James’s book is prompted by the fact that the ark of the church is spinning in the same vortex. This persistent and ugly truth is underscored not only by James in her “Introduction” and “A Concluding Unrepentant Postscript” but also by the timely observations of Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s “Foreword” and Dr. Frank James’s “Afterword.”
Most tragically, many sailors in the churchly ark insist that the powerful currents are not dangerous and that they have navigated to their coordinates using divinely-given Charts. James wisely sounds the alarm: the navigators have misread the Charts (a.k.a. the scriptures)!
“[T]he prevalence of this cultural system [of patriarchy] on the pages of Scripture… can easily lead (and has led) to the assumption that patriarchy is divinely ordained. Many believe this is the way God wants us to live, even though Westerners who embrace patriarchy are selective about the few patriarchal elements they retain from the Bible – which is itself an admission that something may be wrong with the system. Most throw out slavery and polygamy, along with associating disappointment and failure with the birth of a daughter, child brides, honor killings, and inheritance laws, for example. But they cling fervently to male leadership and female submission in the home and in the church. Some extend these male/female dynamics to include wider culture…. [S]o long as patriarchy is enthroned as the gender message of the Bible, it poses a significant barrier to a strong and flourishing Blessed Alliance between men and women and a healthy, fully functioning body of Christ, which in turn inevitably hinders God’s mission in the world.”9
James sets out, then, in the central chapters of the book, to correct this misreading of Scripture and, thereby, set a new course for the church by examining the stories of six men narrated in the scriptures: Abraham, Judah, Barak, Boaz, Matthew and Joseph (husband of Mary). All of these men journeyed after the birth of the malestrom (treated in Chapter 1), after the Fall that compromised the “Blessed Alliance” God has planned for his male and female image bearers. And all of these men resisted in one way or another, to one degree or another, the pull of the patriarchal malestrom.
- Abraham gave up his prerogatives as the eldest son of his father, followed the divine call to be a landless wanderer, accepted God’s claim upon his procreative manhood and patriarchal legacy by submitting to circumcision and by being willing to sacrifice Isaac, his only son and heir. (Chapter 2)
- Judah, both a victim and a perpetrator of patriarchal caprice, accepted the rebuke of his daughter-in-law, Tamar, and recovered thereby a measure of true manhood that propelled him to offer his life in exchange for a rival brother. (Chapter 3; I will return to Judah later.)
- Barak, though a renowned warrior in his own right, recognized his limitation in the middle of a military crisis and insisted on the help of a spiritual superior, the Prophetess Deborah, and unexpectedly but gratefully received the help of another woman as well. (Chapter 4)
- Boaz, at real risk to his own standing and legacy within the local patriarchy of Bethlehem, had compassion on an embittered widow, Naomi, and married an excluded Moabitess in order to preserve a family line, not for himself, but for his cousin, Elimelech. (Chapter 5)
- Matthew, though a hated tax collector, contextualized the gospel about Jesus for the very community that had excluded him, testifying to the transforming hope offered by Jesus. (Chapter 6)
- Joseph, already a kind and honorable man, became willing to sacrifice that honor in the awkward pregnancy of Mary and in a life-long commitment to playing a supporting role to Mary’s higher calling. (Chapter 7)
About all of these counter-cultural models of manhood, James writes with verve and insight. Did you know, for example, that circumcision of the male sexual organ was not simply a random covenantal sign, but actually constituted a divine claim on the foundational patriarchal prerogative of procreative sovereignty? James’ prose frequently achieves an enviable balance between concision, poetic expression, and measured scholarship. This balance is nowhere better seen than in the last two chapters, “The Manhood of Jesus,” and “Liberating Men from the Malestrom.” The second of these is obviously the “what now?” part of the book. James calls Christians, particularly Christian men, seriously and consistently to follow Jesus. Using the examples of Jürgen Moltmann and Paul of Tarsus, James demonstrates how the way of Jesus decisively defeats the ethnic and racial exclusivism that stems from patriarchy. In fact I would venture to say that there is no more powerful description in the English language of the impact of the gospel on the identity and self-understanding of Paul than the compressed account given by James.10
But this is the denouement; the climax is the previous chapter—a passionate description of the manhood of Jesus. There all the lines of the discussion converge: not only what perfect manhood should look like, but also what being human is all about. Accordingly, this chapter cannot effectively be summarized in a book review. Readers of this review will have to buy the book themselves and recommend it to their friends, Sunday-School teachers, and pastors.
It is in connection with the Jesus chapter and its framing that I finally hope to justify my earlier claim about the Second Edition’s superiority: “the one to read and recommend going forward.” I once heard an accomplished church historian minimize the impact of slavery on the moral fiber of the Southern states because, after all, “the agrarian way of life was much more biblical than the urban-industrial way of life of the northern states.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that the Old Testament tends to glorify the herdsman way of life over the agrarian (witness Abel [Gen 4:2] and the Rechabites [Jer 35:6-7]) and that the goal of human history seems to converge on a city rather than a tilled field or garden (see Rev. 21:9-27), this use of the Bible has persistently bedeviled biblical hermeneutics. It trades on an equivocation between what is said or assumed in the Bible and what the Bible says or teaches. An honest reader of the Bible finds many things in the Bible that should be judged or dismissed in the light of the gospel, not merely in the words, deeds, and attitudes of imperfect actors in the story but also in a range of instructions placed in the mouth of God or his agents. The Bible, for example, contains legislation assuming and regulating (but not proscribing) slavery, divorce, and the rules of primogeniture–all with a distinctly patriarchal cast. Examples of these could be multiplied many times over.
But with “The Bible says…” we are making a normative claim which presumably carries some divine authority even for us today. Such claims should never arise from the citation of isolated texts. They cannot safely be made even from multiple texts gathered according to some logical scheme. God, after all, has actually chosen to give us a story arising from an unfolding history whose enduring meaning (or takeaways for our lives) can only be prayerfully discerned or inferred in the light of the climax or goal of the story.
For lack of better terms, we might call the first way of reasoning from the Bible the “Biblicist” way: the Bible constitutes a flat field of unchanging truth within whose bounds we are free to seek normative truths for our lives. If we can find multiple points of support, all the better, but any point will do. The second way of reasoning from the Bible is what we might call the “Christotelic” way: normative truth (in our case, about manhood) can only be ascertained by reading the full story and by thinking through apparently relevant texts through God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus Christ.
The Biblicist way continues to predominate in evangelical hermeneutical reasoning. James, however, is astute enough to break from this in the First Edition. She carefully articulates the distinction between what can be found in the Bible (what it assumes) and what it says:
“Patriarchy matters because it is the cultural backdrop of the Bible. Beginning with Abraham, God chose patriarchs living in a patriarchal culture to launch his rescue effort for the world. Events in the Bible play out within a patriarchal context. But patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message.”11 (emphasis added)
But James goes even further: she recognizes the story-like nature of the biblical revelation. Using the creative motif of a “missing chapter” between the creation of gendered humanity in Genesis 1 and 2 and the Fall and punishment of the first pair in Genesis 3–a chapter that might have described the life and community of innocent humanity–James observes that we need that missing chapter,
“[its] omission is not a mistake or a publishing snafu, but an Authorial decision intended to make us dissatisfied and hungry for something more and better than anything we’ve yet seen. It makes us hungry for Jesus, who is the missing chapter and embodies the kind of image bearer God created all of his sons (and daughters) to become.”12 (emphasis added)
Yes, this is a story carefully told by the Author. So here is the problem–and it is largely a rhetorical one–the numerous (and fascinating) chapters on Abraham, Judah, Barak, etc., as they stood serially and discreetly in the First Edition, tended toward a flat Bible and Biblicism. Consider this moving description of the chastened Judah, largely attributed to the impact of the Tamar incident:
“Judah pleads for Benjamin’s freedom with the passion of a prodigal who is utterly redeemed and transformed…. Patriarchy is still entrenched, but the malestrom’s power over Judah has been dismantled. Sacrificing himself as a slave in place of his father’s darling Benjamin is perhaps the freest choice Judah has ever made. For the first time in his life he is walking before God faithfully and being blameless. A very different selfless “not of this world” brand of manhood emerges…. He is an utterly changed man–the kind of man who has directly connected with the Center and now seeks the kingdom of God. Judah embodies the radical, self-sacrificing way of Jesus that is “not of this world” and gives us a startling glimpse of that missing chapter.”13
James’ moving depiction of Judah’s substitutionary speech threatens to undo the “Authorial decision.” Jesus simply becomes the fullest elaboration of the “missing chapter,” whose essential lines can already be glimpsed and understood in the lives of certain biblical anti-heroes like Judah. Judah’s failure to make a full confession of his own guilt to Joseph and the later insecurities that festered (see Gen 50:15-21) suggests that James credits Judah with too much. Did she need to, in order to make her case against patriarchy? No, that case rests on Jesus. Judah did grow, but his halfway measures should leave us dissatisfied.
So here is the superior virtue of the Second Edition. Although it leaves the central chapters unchanged, it puts them in a better framework by means of a different title: Malestrom: How Jesus Dismantles Patriarchy and Redefines Manhood (emphasis original). From the get-go, the relationship of Jesus to the other characters is clarified: he is not merely the best example of a well-understood ideal, but rather the ideal itself and the necessary goal of all the other stories. Lest this hermeneutical point should be lost, James underscores this “Christotelic” clarification in the very last words of the Second Edition:
“The fundamental question Malestrom addresses is straightforward: Does the Bible teach patriarchy? The answer can be tricky. Patriarchal abuse in one form or another appears on nearly every page of the Bible…. So is the Bible teaching patriarchy or does patriarchy serve a different purpose? In Malestrom, I concluded that patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather it is the cultural backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical potency of that gospel message…. All too often Jesus seems to go missing in evangelical discussions of biblical masculinity. But Jesus is the perfect imago Dei and should be front and center in any biblical deliberation of what it means to be a man in God’s world.”14 (emphasis added)
Amen, Carolyn Custis James! For the Christian, Jesus should indeed be front and center in any deliberation that purports to be biblical. There is no stronger hermeneutical basis–and no more certain dismantling of patriarchy.
1 Sylvia Walby, Theorizing Patriarchy (Oxford, London: Basil Blackwell, 1990), xxxvii.
2 James, p. xxiv, emphasis original.
3 Ibid., 10.
4 Ibid., 49.
5 Ibid., 79.
6 Ibid., 83.
7 Ibid., 49.
8 Ibid., 10.
9 Ibid., xxxvii-xxxviii
10 Ibid., 158-164.
11 Ibid., xxxvii, emphasis added.
12 Ibid., xi, emphasis added.
13 Ibid., 54-55, please note the ellipses.
14 Ibid., 179-180.