Monday, January 6, 2014

Three Models of Manhood

Alright ladies, let’s start off the new year with a couple of jokes about men:

·      What do you call a man with half a brain?  Gifted.

·      What is the difference between a man and a catfish?  One is a bottom-feeding scum-sucker, and the other is a fish.

·      Why are blonde jokes so short?  So men can remember them.

·      One day a husband decided to wash his sweatshirt.   Seconds after he stepped into the laundry room, he shouted to his wife, “What setting do I use on the washing machine?”  “It depends,” she replied.  “What does it say on your shirt?”   He yelled back, “University of Virginia.”

And finally this little gem: 

·      What does a woman’s perfect breakfast look like?  She is sitting at the kitchen table drinking gourmet coffee.  Her son is on the cover of the Wheaties box, her daughter is on the cover of Business Week, her boyfriend is on the cover of GQ, and her ex-husband is on the back of the milk carton.

What does it mean to be a man in 2014?  If you asked a hundred different people you wouldn’t get a hundred different answers, but it might be close.  Clearly defined gender roles once held that to be a man you needed to be a simple, stoic, breadwinner – nothing more, nothing less.  But once our society began to question its assumptions about the role of women that neat and tidy definition of manhood began to erode.  Today, two-thirds of all men say they that if they could afford to they would make their work schedule more flexible or even stay home full-time in order to be with family.  In fact, a market researcher learned that most men rate providing emotional supportive for the family every bit as important as providing financial support. 

Last year Esquire Magazine put out a photo gallery called the “Life of Men” with interviews and answers to a questionnaire for each subject.   Its goal was to create a “living portrait of the American Man right now.”  Most of the subjects are very accomplished athletes, entertainers, business professionals, or politicians.  It is telling that these alpha males consistently identify their children as being their greatest achievement and the best day of their life as being the day they met their wife.

What does it mean to be a man in 2014?  Well, one direction the answer may take points toward a person who is in relationship with others, values those relationships, and contributes to those relationships in a myriad of meaningful ways. 

Another possible answer is more sobering.  A marketing analyst surveyed ads in magazines aimed at teenager boys and young men, publications such as Maxim, Game Informer and Wired.  The analyst found that these magazines promote what is known as hyper-masculinity, a gender-based ideology of exaggerated beliefs about what it is to be a man.  These exaggerated beliefs focus on four inter-related values:

  Toughness is portrayed as emotional self-control.

  Violence is manly.

  Danger is exciting.

  Calloused attitudes toward women and sex is normal.

On average, 56% of ads featured at least one aspect of hyper-masculinity, but for one particular magazine it was 90%.  Advertisers don’t use these images because they are trying to shape our culture’s understanding of masculinity.  They use them because it sells.  But, in the process, they are influencing our society in tangible ways.  For instance, the way they portray manhood is a contributing factor in the rise of violence against women.

With the “Life of Men” project at one end of a spectrum and hyper-masculine advertising at another, we begin to see why a hundred different people could come up with a great variety of answers to the question what does it mean to be a man in 2014.

Here is another question: is there a biblical model of manhood and masculinity?  The answer, I think, is not really.  There is no single coherent passage that provides a timeless ideal for all cultures and generations.  In fact, a careful study will reveal how cultural ideals and norms related to masculinity changed throughout the bible.  This should not surprise us, what with it spanning about 2000 years of history and multiple cultural settings.

What the bible does give us is stories about various men who in their day and setting embodied specific ideas about manhood that we can see, understand, and evaluate.  Through this morning’s gospel reading we encounter three different models of manhood.  Each is based on specific values and assumptions and thus each gives us something to ponder.  How could men incorporate or reject these models in our own day and time?

The first model of manhood is presented by the wise men.  They are educated, inquisitive, and open to mystery.  They recognize something is at work in the world that is bigger than us; something spiritual, something profound.  They make a significant commitment to pursue this dimension of life.  I like that they visited King Herod.  It suggests that they expect to encounter goodness in every person they meet.  I like too that they went home another way.  They know who can be trusted and who cannot and they act accordingly.  I like that they visited the king, but worshiped a baby.  Greatness, for them, was not about title or wealth or power.  The gifts they present to Jesus indicate that they are generous and understand the power of symbols. 

What do you take away from their example that you would like to lift up for men in our day?  For me, I value their spiritual awareness; the way they are connected to the things that lie beyond the material world. 

The second model of manhood is presented by King Herod.  In many ways he is the embodiment of hyper-masculinity, isn’t he.  And yet, the first detail we learn about him from the text is this: he was afraid.  That was his reaction to the news that a king had been born to the Jews.  I suspect that anyone who builds their life and their status and their wealth through ruthlessness and treachery will always view everything as a threat to their ill-gotten gain.  They will always view everything through the singular, egocentric prism of how it affects me.  For Herod, no lie and no act of violence is beyond the pale of what is acceptable to defend and to maintain his own place in the world.  What does it tell you that Herod had to inquire of others with regard to where scripture foretold the Messiah’s birth would be?  It tells me that he was not well-educated, or at least he was not intellectually curious.  He reminds us that there is a connection between ignorance, arrogance, and a narrow perspective. 

Ultimately, power and position and authority are neutral values.  They are tools that can be used one way or another.  A businessman or a banker or a politician can use his/her resources to bring to fruition a vision of a better world.  Bill Gates didn’t become the richest person on the planet by ripping off everyone.  He amassed his wealth by creating something that made everyone more productive.  But still there are those Herods out there who have no vision for the world and whose only concern is what is in it for me.  Did you notice that of all the people in today’s reading Herod is the only one who does not receive a message from God?  I don’t think it is because he unworthy.  I think it is because he is too wrapped up in himself to listen to anyone else, especially God.

What do you take away from Herod’s example?  For me, it is a cautionary tale.  Whether you rule a country or a business or a family or just yourself, you have power and authority.  How will you use it to advance yourself?  How will you use it in the service of others?  How can you recognize when you have become abusive?  How do you repent and amend your ways?

The final model of manhood we encounter is found in Joseph.  He foregoes his prerogative to have his fiancĂ© disgraced once he learns that she is pregnant.  He is a man of mercy.  He sets aside his home, his family, and his career in order to get Mary and her son to a safe place in Egypt.  Joseph is selfless.  He uses what power and authority he has to protect the weak and vulnerable.  He embraces the difficult and challenging word he receives from God.  We see these traits lived out through Jesus in his adult life.  What might he have been like without Joseph’s witness?    

What do you take away from Joseph’s example?  For me, I value his relational awareness; the way he is connected to the people around him.  He is a man of character, discipline, integrity, and godliness.  He is also nobody’s fool.  He knows how to read the tea leaves and is decisive in doing what is necessary.

Today’s reading gives us three different models of manhood to ponder.  Throughout the year, as we continue to read from Matthew’s Gospel, we will encounter even more.  Through what Jesus says and what Jesus does we will see what it means to be a Christian man.  Here is a hint – it does not look much like hyper-masculinity.  What it will require is great.  What it will offer is satisfaction, dignity, and peace.