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Patriarchy, the Gospel, and the Meaning of Manhood

Categories Theology Ministry

Men are in serious trouble. They have been for some time.

One could argue the problem of manhood has been with us from the beginning; of course it has been. Recently, however, the problem has mushroom-clouded thanks to a series of events, beginning with the Women’s Movement and accelerating post-Great Recession. In it’s wake are so-called Single Young Men, who are increasingly adrift without a life script, exemplifying the problem of manhood.

Enter Carolyn Custis James. She has made it her urgent task to do for men in her new book Malestrom what she did for women with Half the Church: help us recapture God’s global vision for his sons. She frames the problem thusly:

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. (18)

In her opening chapter, James confronts the prolonged, perennial issue of patriarchy that sits at the heart of malestrom and the matrix of manhood—which, in her words, is no match for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Manhood Matrix

Simmering beneath the surface of the problem of manhood is a deeper one: how we define it in the first place.

James notes that manhood is a cultural construct that bears a range of meaning, from the machismo extreme to the modern urban western version. And “Evangelical definitions of manhood…are scattered all over the that continuum.” (22)

Traditionally this matrix has encompassed three core responsibilities: “to father children, to protect the family, and to provide for their sustenance.” (22) Yet manhood is also a moving target, one that has undergone tremendous redefinition in recent decades, confusing male identity, meaning, and purpose. Consequently, we’re left with a sort of options paralysis as we sift through a variety of manhoods to decide which cultural definition is right or final.

James argues such sifting has diverted our Christian attention from the deeper systemic issues, “the consequences of which are a destructive distortion and loss of what it means to be a man or boy designed to reflect the Creation.” (29)

Leading such systemic issues is the deep, abiding root of patriarchy.

Malestrom and Patriarchy

“Trace any current of the malestrom to its root, and you’ll end up looking at patriarchy (‘father rule’).” This abiding root includes the prevalent features of “man as impregnator, protector, provider, and polar opposite of women.” (30)

Men and boys are on quest to discover identity, meaning, purpose, and belonging, answers to which patriarchy proposes. Answers that fundamentally define the malestrom:

the principal expression of the malestrom is historic patriarchy. (30)

Christians must address this issue not only because it’s the taproot of malestrom, but because it’s a prominent feature of the Bible. James suggests two reasons patriarchy matters:

  1. The Bible’s cultural backdrop. “Beginning with Abraham, God chose patriarchs living in a patriarchal culture to launch his rescue effort for the world. Events play out within a patriarchal context.” (31)
  2. The false assumption of divine ordinance. “The prevalence of this cultural system on the pages of Scripture, in cultures around the world, and throughout history can easily lead to the assumption that patriarchy is divinely ordained.” (31)

Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. It is the fallen cultural backdrop to the problem of manhood, one which the gospel counters at every turn because of what Jesus warned us about: the original sin of self-interest, privilege, dominance, and power over others. (30)

Maelstrom and the Gospel

Malestrom by Carolyn Custis JamesWhile “the malestrom poses one of the most serious historic challenges to the gospel,” there is hope: “the malestrom is no match for the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (33)

The problem of manhood belongs to the life of the fallen world. The matrix of manhood, hammered and honed through history, replete with rank patriarchy, is not the way it’s supposed to be.

As with everything, the gospel is the remedy for the vandalized shalom of male identity; it is more than equal to the challenge:

Not a triumphalist American gospel that relies on prosperity—but a gospel of indestructible identity, hope, purpose that will preach in the smoking ruins of Iraqi cities, in the slums of Nairobi, on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and to the utterly lost men of ISIS. (36)


Yes, men are in trouble, but there’s hope. Carolyn Custis James charts a way forward through the malestrom with this deeply revelatory, gospel-drenched, compassionate solution to the problem of modern masculinity.

Whether you're a volunteer student leader or youth pastor, a college professor or lead pastor, Malestrom is a must read. Engage it, digest it, discuss it to offer hope for the men who God has entrusted to you.

Next week we will dive deeper into the gospel solution James offers.

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