Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Joseph: Be a Man

Whenever I think I have a fix on what we are talking about when we talk about gender, the terrain shifts. If I'm in a group of people and I utter what I think is a truism about gender, the supposed truism is frequently (and immediately) challenged.

For example, just the other day I was on the playground with a bunch of first graders. I was the only adult male outside with the kids for recess (this all by itself gives some indication regarding gender roles in our culture). A large group of children, perhaps thirty, mostly boys, decided to dog pile me. It was really fun, if also a bit dangerous. It was something I tend to think only or mostly a group of boys would do, and only to a dad they perceived open to the idea. My stereotype is that boys roughhouse more than girls, and dads roughhouse more than moms.

But when I told this story to a mixed group, most of my gender assumptions about the scenario were questioned at various levels.

Then this week I've been preparing my sermon for mid-week Advent worship. I'm offering a meditation on Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25). Joseph plays a crucial role in the early chapters of Matthew. He repeatedly receives messages in dreams, and responds faithfully to the angelic messengers. He keeps his family together, first into exile in Egypt, and later in a politically savvy fashion back to safety in Nazareth.

Then he disappears from the rest of the gospel of Matthew, without a trace. We don't know if he dies, or remains alive but unmentioned. All of which (in addition to the fact that Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus) has made it rather difficult for the church over the centuries to engage Joseph as a model of faith or faithfulness in quite the same way as the mother of Christ.

This has me thinking about men. And men's ministries. And the connection between faith and gender. I invite you to ponder with me...

First, I have various gender-based assumptions. We all do. For example:
  • I think young males, placed in a cabin for the night in the woods, will after about 30 minutes stop speaking any human language, and will instead transition into animal noises, fake farting noises, and burps.
  • If you put a group of girls in a cabin in the same woods, they will stay up late talking about their day and how they felt.
As a former camp counselor and camp director, I have a bit of experiential data to back up these assumptions.

The church also has some gender stereotypes. For example:
  • Men tend to join the spit & shine crew and work on building and grounds projects. They are more likely to be council president. 
  • Women serve on altar guild and make quilts. Women do more personal care ministries (except that pastors, who do lots of care ministry, are more often men).
And many of those who watch demographic data on the church say these stereotypes contribute, overall, to a situation where there are more women in churches than men.

Which is why people write books like Why Men Hate Going to Church. Conversely, people also write awesome books like this one, Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives, giving indication of the great strides that have been made in terms of justice for women and the voice of women in the church.

Some church leaders try to address this situation by making church more masculine. My most widely read blog post of all time was addressed to Mark Driscoll, a shock jock pastor who encourages strongly stereotyped forms of masculinity in the church to try to correct the over-feminization of the church.

Other church leaders are addressing another set of questions by trying to make the church a safer and more just place for women.

But aside from the quite obvious reality that gender is very amorphous and diverse (we all know women who are masculine and men who are feminine, and seem just fine as they are), there is the identical reality that some of our gender-based assumptions are descriptively accurate and strategically helpful. And some forms of intentionally gender-focused ministry are truly helpful (like our current high school break out groups, where the guys gather with me, the pastor, and the girls gather with some volunteer moms--it's a win-win for discussion, faith development, behavior, and more).

So how are we supposed to think about gender in the church? I think there are four ways to speak faithfully about gender in the church that will prove helpful.

1) Accurate description of realities is helpful, as long as description isn't translated into constricting stereotypes. It is possible to describe without prescribing. The ELCA Social Statement on Human Sexuality is one such attempt. Good ethnographic and sociological research into gender-roles, nature vs. nurture, and more, are also helpful. Awareness is the key, without turning that to which we are aware into a strait-jacket for how everyone should be.

2) Let the Scriptures speak on their own terms, and learn from them. So, for example, in the opening birth narrative of the gospels, we can learn quite a bit about Mary as a mother, Joseph as a father, the disciples as men, the women followers of Jesus as women. We can understand them as being models for faithfulness, and we can even emulate the faithfulness of those of a different gender than our own. Furthermore, we can remember that although everyone is gendered, Paul also says in Galatians that there is longer male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:8). If we can maintain the paradox that we are both gendered beings, and that eschatologically speaking the body of Christ is beyond gender somehow, we will do well.

3) It will not help to reinforce gender stereotypes to try and recover some supposedly lost golden era of Christianity when men were "real" men and women were "real" women. This typically is simply us projecting our own gender biases back onto previous eras that likely didn't even hold the same assumptions about gender we now hold.

4) We can probably learn something from all sides of the conversation. I tend to think the people who are concerned about the lack of male participation in the church have a point. There's something missing in current North American church culture that leaves many men uninspired and marginalized. There is also something about current North American church culture that continues to be oppressive to and dismissive of the very real experience of women.

This last and final point is probably a liberationist perspective (argument from experience) with a catholic bias (taking a wider entirety of experience than typical). I hope all of it is helpful.

And if nothing else, this blog post has helped me prepare that sermon on Joseph for tomorrow.


  1. What a horrible postmodern world the average individual is imprisoned by. Feminism, Mark Driscoll, and you quoting Galatians to mean androgyny... Joseph was simply a man.

  2. Well, what I actually said was that our life in Christ is somehow "beyond" gender, which is simply a riff on what is really there in Galatians--there is longer... This is not just a Pauline concept. Jesus himself says in the kingdom we will not be given in marriage. So I don't think this is saying Paul means androgyny, it's more an eschatological point.

    And yes, Joseph was simply a man. Which may or may not be the kind of fact available for us to allegorize. That's part of my point. Thanks for your comment. I hope you can also engage the posts here without simply attacking them. Thanks.

  3. As always, PC, you've given me something meaningful to consider here. How have my own understanding/ideas/perceptions about gender roles played into my read of Joseph (or any other Biblical figure, for that matter)? In what ways, to what effect does revisiting scripture with this fresh insight change things?

    Your "cabin-in-the-woods" analogy reminds me, too, of so many camp and youth events over the years (and in my professional work with young adults since that time) where I have seen the same outcomes. As with so many things about that developmental stage of life, individual behavior among peers can be heavily-influenced by how we feel others view/respond to us. Even if things don't start off in stereotypic gender role territory, I've watched the dynamic slide into it over the course of hours/days, frequently in an attempt to preserve in-group behavioral norms. As if mimicking the "expected" behavior might herald: "Hey, I'm one of you, just like you. See? We do/say/laugh at/like/participate in the same things." Despite well-meaning intentions and desire to make a positive, safe, welcoming and comfortable environment, I wonder how many members of our church family(ies) feel constrained when the way we arrange activities or ministries reinforces or in fact draws on those expected roles.

    Feminism as horrible, imprisoning postmodernity does not compute in any rational, nor meaningful way for me.

  4. The book I linked to above on Transformative Lutheran Theologies is a wonderful resource. I recommend it highly.

  5. Will check it out. Had it bookmarked already on my Amazon list and can only think that you must have mentioned it to me before now. :) Time to read it, it seems.

  6. Anonymous11:59 PM

    Men don't like church because it's boring. Really, really boring. Why bother?