Review of Malestrom

It wasn’t long into the reading of Malestrom: Manhood Swept Into the Currents of a Changing World before I figured out that I don’t have a dog in this fight.

Carolyn Custis James, adjunct professor at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and contributing editor for Leadership Journal, has offered a creatively titled and poetically written offensive against the global epidemic known as patriarchy. That’s right—patriarchy. 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. Patriarchy, as she defines it, is horrible.

Defining the Terms

Definitions are the best place to start. The two organizing terms are “malestrom” and “patriarchy.” Malestrom is James’s pun-loving readjustment of maelstrom, a maritime word that refers to a powerful whirlpool in the sea. It carries the idea of confusion and tumult, and the malestrom, according to James, is precisely that in regards to manhood. She explains:

The malestrom is the particular ways in which the fall impacts the male of the human speciescausing a man to lose himself, his identity and purpose as a man, and above all to lose sight of Gods original vision for his sons. (18, emphasis original)

In short, for “malestrom,” think: the way sin distorts Gods vision of manhood.

Then, regarding her understanding of “patriarchy,” James writes:

The prevalent features of manhood definitions are man as impregnator, protector, provider, and polar opposite of women. These are distinct characteristics of the patriarchal social system. . . .

All forms of patriarchy are not equally bad—patriarchy is a continuum. It ranges from radicalized violent fundamentalists, such as the Taliban and ISIS (but that exist in every religion, including Christianity), to kinder, gentler versions embraced and promoted by cultural traditionalists and some Western evangelicals. . . .

This book argues that the principal expression of the malestrom is historic patriarchy.

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. (30–31, emphasis original)

In short, for “patriarchy,” think: the main way sin distorts Gods vision of manhood.

Demolishing Patriarchy

James’s book is an attack on this distortion. With helpful clarity, she makes demolishing patriarchy the overriding concern and theme. Consider these six ways she refers to it:

1. “The hallmarks of patriarchal masculinity—man as impregnator-protector-provider—put every man on shaky ground. . . .  According to patriarchy’s definition, neither Jesus nor Paul ever achieved “true” manhood because they never married or produced male offspring. Worst of all, patriarchy turns a man’s focus on himself—his abilities and authority over others. His manhood is sustained by the submission and obedience of others. Patriarchy fails to reinforce God as the center or to call a man selflessly to invest his powers and privileges to promote the flourishing and fruitful living of others.” (48)

2. “Under patriarchy, a son remains under the same roof as his father, and his wife is absorbed into her husband’s family.” (50)

3. “[Patriarchy] lowers men’s sights and aspirations to a horizontal competitive quest for male power to win and achieve preeminence over other men. It distracts them from the loftier calling and the greater dignity of imaging God and walking faithfully before him.” (87)

4. “Patriarchy is a worldview in which the value of a wife is gauged by the number of sons.” (117)

5. “Patriarchy is polygamous.” (121)

6. “Patriarchy at its core is an unjust system that advantages and empowers some men and disadvantages and disempowers others.” (135)

Once again, not my dog. Call it whatever you want, but I’ll never defend that view of manhood. She calls it “patriarchy,” but whatever that is, I’m against it, too. And so, to my surprise, and most likely to hers, I discovered James and I to have a common enemy. The final remedy is even the same, at least on paper: follow Jesus.

How we both get this remedy, though, is what differs so dramatically. Let me show you, beginning with a review of the book’s structure, followed by my constructive critique of the project as a whole.

Malestrom’s Warp and Woof

The book includes an introduction and nine chapters. The introduction and chapter 1 aim to diagnose the problem of patriarchy. James puts her demolition project in the context of patriarchy’s global reach. There is a continuum when it comes to patriarchy, as quoted above, but readers won’t see much of that continuum throughout the book. The sledgehammer is mostly wielded against the most extreme examples found in non-Western (especially Muslim) cultures—and, along with James, I am outraged by the bloodshed of communities and the subjugation of women patriarchy has wreaked.

Chapters 2 to 7 feature character studies from the Bible of men who James says resist the malestrom: Abraham, Judah, Barak, Boaz, Matthew, and Joseph. This sort of character focus is the warp and woof of the book. James argues the Bible is filled with men “whose stories are diminished, downsized, or distorted because we view them through a Western lens” (34). She says we gravitate toward the stories of “Joseph, who rises from slavery second only to Pharaoh; David, who slays Goliath; Joshua, who leads the march on Jericho; Daniel, who survives the lions; Peter, the rough and blustery fisherman; and James and John, the notorious ‘sons of thunder’” (34). We gravitate to these characters because, she explains, “these are the kinds of muscular stories we want our sons to hear and the brand of manliness that we want them to embrace” (35).

Regrettably, I ran into more than a few sentences like this. I think “fluff” is the gentlemanly word for it. Simply put, it’s nonsense to suggest that we gravitate to these characters—especially these Old Testament characters—because of their brand of manliness. The gravitation to David, for example, is actually the Bible’s problem, not one of evangelicals. It’s hard to argue with his importance in the biblical narrative in light of God’s promise to him in 2 Samuel 7, not to mention that he’s central to the identity of King Jesus at the beginning and end of the New Testament (Matt. 1:1Rev. 22:16). And as far as David’s manliness goes, the beginning scene of David introduces him as the qaton (youngest, smallest; 1 Sam. 16:11)David is basically the dweeb. I’ve personally been affected by his story not because I want to grunt and scratch and swing my sword like him but because, as Samuel tells us, God doesn’t look at the outward appearance; he looks on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). God can even use runts like David. That’s the message in 1 Samuel 16, which then bears itself out on the battlefield with Goliath. It’s emphatically not the muscular story James glosses it to be.

Slanted caricatures of biblical figures turned out to be a trend in Malestrom. 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. The writing on the wall is when James explains, concerning the biblical characters she selects, “They picture for us a wiser, radically new, gospel-brand of man—incontrovertible evidence that God is at work in his world, that Jesus has come, and that his Spirit is alive and active” (35).

‘Gospel-Brand of Man’

What this “gospel-brand of man” eventually means is that, in chapter 2, Abraham is converted from patriarchy by his circumcision. Circumcision, James explains, is “not an affirmation of male power and priority, but a transformation of both. The act of circumcision doesn’t glorify male power; it awakens a man to his vulnerability” (71). (And I was thinking the whole time it had more to do with those offspring promises in Genesis 3:15 and Genesis 12:1–3.)

In chapter 3, Judah, damaged by daddy issues, is converted from patriarchy by Tamar, evidenced by Judah’s pleading for Benjamin’s life in Egypt (92). In chapter 4, Barak is unbothered by a cultural gender inversion because he doesn’t complain about “sharing the limelight with two women who bracket his story by starting and finishing the war he fights in the middle” (110). In chapter 5, Boaz “proves unwilling to allow patriarchal views of male power over women to get in the way of listening, learning, growing, and changing” (129). In chapter 6, we’re called to notice how Matthew’s “social alienation smolders beneath the surface of his writing” (139). In chapter 7, Joseph is lauded as a leader in gender role reversal because he left his own job to “get behind God’s calling on his wife” (160).

Finally, though, we come to chapter 8, which is about Jesus. James has so many beautiful things to say here. “Jesus is the ideal man,” she writes. “Any conclusions we draw about what it means to be a man must begin with Jesus” (177). She continues, “Image bearing is the sum and substance of manhood” (179). And because Jesus was the ultimate image bearer, true manhood means we follow him (181–82):

Jesus’s definition of manhood is every man’s true identity and calling—his birthright. It encompasses everything about who he is and every second of his life. . . . Manhood according to Jesus means a man lives knowing he’s being watched, and nothing matters more than to be in step with his Father in heaven. (182, 183)

James concludes the book in chapter 9 with a final call to resist patriarchy and follow Jesus.

Common Remedy, Different Routes

Follow Jesus—this is where James and I not only have a common enemy in patriarchy, but also a common remedy. In fact, I want to go a step further in explaining more of what following Jesus means. I think a helpful summary of Jesus’s definition of manhood is to “gladly assume sacrificial responsibility.” This sticky phrase captures precisely what Jesus did. He answered God’s call to serve others at enormous cost to himself. Though the calling was hard, he didn’t grumble (Heb. 12:1). Rather than throw around his weight, he made himself nothing (Phil. 2:7). Instead of everyone bowing before his dominion, he put on the apron and washed the dirtiest of feet (John 13:5). When the disciples had been so slow to learn, and would have failed every performance review, Jesus called them his beloved (John 15:13–15). Jesus shows us what manhood is, not by eradicating the role of leadership, but by defining leadership as servanthood.

And this is where I differ from James and the project of Malestrom. Where I define Jesus’s example of manhood in terms of sacrificial leadership, she discourages any specific role (especially leadership) as intrinsic to gender. Both our approaches, I must add, reject patriarchy. If patriarchy (men over women) is one extreme, and feminism (women over men) the other, the egalitarian approach of James attempts an alternative route that has nothing to do with anyone being “over” another.

Therefore, on the grand spectrum, the complementarity approach I advocate isn’t too far from the egalitarian approach of James. Complementarity also doesn’t advocate men over women, and, like the egalitarian approach, men and women are on equal ground. But there’s a crucial distinction. Rather than bleach the differences of the two genders, complementarity shows how they interlock in a beautiful design.

What has traditionally, or patriarchally, been described in the rugged terms of “male dominance” and “female submission” is transformed by complementarity—and practically outworked—as male servanthood and female trust. In other words, it really is like a dance. My wife and I stand shoulder to shoulder, and when we move, we move together. When those moves go well, we both smile. When those moves go bad, I tell her I’m sorry.

Far from patriarchy, and any cultural definition of manhood, the men I know who live this vision take their cues from Jesus. By all means, as James exhorts us, follow Jesus—but as for how that actually looks, there is a better way than what we find in Malestrom.

This review was originally published July 13, 2015 at The Gospel Coalition. For more on this topic, check out the recent book, Designed for Joy.