Free to Be He


MANHOOD SEEMS to be in crisis today, for a host of reasons ranging from silly (a feminized church because of too many altar girls?) to serious (a porn and video game epidemic, alienating boys and men). Carolyn Custis James’ Malestrom gives needed context by pointing this crisis of masculinity back to humanity’s very fall into sin and the patriarchy that sin generated. She calls this patriarchy the “malestrom”—a societal whirlpool that sucks men into a broken way of life and destroys them.

The malestrom is unfortunately familiar to us, although James explores its contours in compelling detail. Sin manifests itself in men through a patriarchal hierarchy that leads us to resort to violence to establish status. The dominant model of what it means to be a man is to father children, provide for them economically, and protect them from the outside world. In light of this, how can we be surprised that we have hurting men and boys in our church who don’t fit in that model?

James tells biblical stories of men who pushed back against the patriarchal order to better reflect the image of God—men and women together in a “blessed alliance” to bring God’s kingdom. These stories culminate in the example of Jesus as the ultimate man who lived fully into a healthy masculine identity. 

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New & Noteworthy

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Collage Created via Pic Money

For Cartel Land, filmmaker Matthew Heineman embedded himself with two vigilante groups battling Mexico’s drug cartels on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The vigilantes believe that they are stepping in for their countries’ failed institutions, but must try not to “become the criminals [they’re] fighting against.” The Documentary Group

She Who Believes
The new Women in Religions series from New York University Press offers accessible primers on ways women have shaped and been influenced by various religious traditions. The first three volumes published include Women in New Religions, by Laura Vance, and Women in Christian Traditions, by Rebecca Moore. NYU Press

No Easy Way
In Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines, Sandhya Rani Jha, a pastor, activist, and anti-racism trainer explores our complicated racial landscape through several people’s stories, illuminating the difficult but vital path to the hope of the Beloved Community. Chalice Press

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Real Life, With Superpowers

Ms. Marvel

I REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME someone told me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. I was in preschool, preparing for an epic game of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with a group of boys. I was playing April O’Neil, the Turtles’ journalist ally. As we started our game of pretend, my teacher came over to ask what we were doing.

“Playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” I responded.

“Oh, you shouldn’t be playing that.”

“But I’m April,” I explained. “I’m a girl.”

“No, girls don’t play games like that,” she told me, and directed me toward the finger paints.

Whatever my teacher’s intentions, the damage was done. From that day on, superheroes and all things related were a “boy thing.” That meant the X-Men, Batman, Superman, and, yes, Donatello and his human-reptile hybrid team were all off-limits. I eventually grew to love comics as a teenager and an adult, but I was aware that they rarely featured anyone other than white men (or, occasionally, heavily objectified women) as the heroes.

Thank goodness for Kamala Khan.

Kamala is the teenage protagonist of Marvel Comics’ rebooted Ms. Marvel series. She’s a clever, funny 16-year-old living in Jersey City, N.J., who, in addition to having superpowers, writes superhero fan fiction, plays video games, and struggles with parent-enforced curfews. She also happens to be the second-generation daughter of Pakistani immigrants and a practicing Muslim.

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Athletic Feminism and the Women’s World Cup

Screenshot of USA-GER goal celebration

Screenshot, USA-GER goal celebration

Feminism and athleticism were one in the same to me. Four square matches, pick-up basketball games, and soccer scrimmages were all opportunities to prove that women were as valuable and gifted as men. Brandi Chastain with her shirt off and body flexed in uninhibited celebration was my Betty Friedan and my Bell Hooks.

But then puberty arrived, and brought with it hormones, testosterone, and different images of female athletes as the boys in my classes got their hands on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition (I’m a much bigger fan of the feminine strength displayed in ESPN’s “The Body Issue”). The Women's United Soccer Association — the world’s first paid professional women’s soccer league — closed down, and suddenly it seemed to me that the U.S. only cared about women’s sports when women traded in their sports bras for bikinis.

So when I read that this U.S. Women’s World Cup brought in 285 percent more viewers in its group stage play than ever before, and when I heard two twenty-year-old men at a jam-packed bar in D.C. rattle off statistics about Morgan Brian’s college scoring stats and Tobin Heath’s signature moves, I got excited.

Amy Schumer’s Feminism: And Then What?

Schumer’s strong, emphatic, and well-intended words once again have reduced the feminist cause to the act of sex and a woman’s appearance. She rails against sexual restrictions on women, male sexual dominance, and that weight and beauty define a woman’s worth, all worthwhile topics. But in this extremely powerful and culturally influential speech, I wonder: where is any mention of actual equality?

A Recipe for 'Greater Works'

BY THIS TIME in the church calendar, the liturgical highlights feel like they’ve slowed considerably. The excitement of Easter is gone, not to be replaced by another holy season until Advent. Pastors and parishioners, who all stayed away the week after Easter, hopefully have returned. The holy days seem to have drained away into the season of counting the weeks, depressingly named as “ordinary time.”

Ecclesially speaking, however, the holy days are amping up considerably at this point. Easter season hits a crescendo with these latter weeks. The ascension of Christ used to be marked as one of the greatest feast days of the year, up there with Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost. It signifies Christ’s rule over all things, hidden now, to be full-blown and publicly obvious to all in God’s good time. Christ himself insists that he must go away in order that the Advocate would come and, in John’s language, to enable us to do even “greater works” than Jesus ever did. Pentecost is a new outpouring of the triune God to empower the church to do those greater works. There is much here to be celebrated. A crescendo, not a tapering off.

These texts present a reign inaugurated with resurrection in which the poor eat and are satisfied. One built on friendship and common love. It suggests a God who likes getting born enough that God decided to go through the experience and told the rest of us we should go through it all over again. Is that bodily enough for you?

Jason Byassee is pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., and a fellow in theology and leadership at Duke Divinity School.

[May 3]

Joined as One
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

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Vatican Drops Image of Bound Woman after Complaints

Photo via dade72 / Shutterstock.com

Detail of the Palace of the Vatican. Photo via dade72 / Shutterstock.com

Following complaints, the Vatican’s cultural office has removed an image of a naked female torso bound in ropes that was used to advertise a women’s conference.

The Pontifical Council for Culture had chosen a photograph of the 1936 “Venus Restored” sculpture, by the late American artist Man Ray, as befitting for its Feb. 4-7 conference titled “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference.”

But the choice of a sculpture bound in ropes to discuss women’s emancipation was deemed inappropriate in some quarters. The Pontifical Council’s president, Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, initially defended the choice. Ravasi was seen as a contender going into the conclave that elected Pope Francis two years ago.

“Cardinal Ravasi has chosen not to remove the image as it speaks clearly for one of the central points of the document: many women, alas, are still struggling for freedom (bound with rope), their voices and intellect often unheard (headless), their actions unappreciated (limbless),” according to a statement that appeared alongside the controversial image.

From the Archives: April 1976

THE DIALOGUES I am having with others in my late 30s are in contrast with the ones I had in my 20s when I was a single suburbanite. ... My aroused feminist perspective tempts me to say that traditional evangelical theology was adequate when I was living with a primarily masculine (in the Jungian sense) orientation to life, but has revealed deficiencies as I have related to life out of a more feminine consciousness.

Being pregnant, lactating, and caring for infants and toddlers; knowing isolation in an urban apartment; seeing the effects of racism, affluence, sexism, and waste—these are very concrete experiences and ones that have been often so exhausting that the necessary energy for abstract, focused thinking has often not been available. Life has become more responsive to the pragmatic, and the help that really helps must relate more to my being and my doing than to my thinking.

This is, of course, a false dichotomy, but how it cannot be a dichotomy is troublesome to me. I have been taught that correct doctrine, orthodoxy, is the source and prerequisite to correct living. ... In my saner moments, I hold to the analysis that evangelical doctrine is correct as far as it goes, but it often does not extend far enough into the life situation of women and men and children who are oppressed and bound by realities that rarely oppress evangelical theologians. 

Judy Brown Hull was co-chair of Evangelicals for Social Action when this article appeared.

Image: Lantern,  / Shutterstock

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Can Women Have It All? Pope Francis Says They Need 'Freedom to Choose'

Photo via Catholic News Service / RNS

Pope Francis greets auditors of the Synod on the Family. Photo via Catholic News Service / RNS

Whether women can, or should, “have it all” —  both work and family — has been one of the most contentious cultural debates of the modern age and one any secular or religious figure engages at his or her peril.

But Pope Francis is nothing if not intrepid, and on Feb. 7 he plunged in by arguing that the Catholic Church should help “guarantee the freedom of choice” for women to take up leading posts in the church and in public life while also maintaining their “irreplaceable role” as mothers at home.

In his remarks to the Vatican’s Council for Culture, which has been holding meetings on the role of women in modern life, Francis sought to carve out a “new paradigm” in the gender wars.

He said Western societies have left behind the old model of the “subordination” of women to men, though he said the “negative effects” of that tradition continue.

At the same time, he said, the world has moved beyond a model of “pure and simple parity, applied mechanically, of absolute equivalence” between men and women.

Muslim Women in Los Angeles Start a Mosque of Their Own

Photo courtesy of Alexa Pilato / RNS

Friday prayers at the Women's Mosque of America. Photo courtesy of Alexa Pilato / RNS

A downtown Los Angeles interfaith center that once served as a synagogue was the site of a historic worship service last week, as dozens of women gathered for Friday Muslim prayers in what is being dubbed the first women’s-only mosque in the United States.

M. Hasna Maznavi, founder and president of the Women’s Mosque of America, and co-president Sana Muttalib, said they are following the example of women pioneers at the forefront of Islamic education and spiritual practice.

“Women lack access to things men have, professional or religious,” said Muttalib, a lawyer. “I think this is our contribution to help resolve that issue.”

Maznavi, a filmmaker, said women-only spaces have been part of Islamic history for generations and still exist in China, Yemen and Syria. In the United States, nearly all mosques separate the sexes. Women pray in the rear of the prayer hall or in a separate room from male congregants.

About 100 women attended the jumah or Friday prayer on Jan. 30 in a rented space at the Pico Union Project, just a few minutes from the Staples Center.

Edina Lekovic, director of policy and programming at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, gave the sermon.