Sometimes life gets ahead of my ability to keep up. Working on a post, an extension of the Biblical Decency theme I’ve been pondering, I accidentally posted it Sunday night before it was ready to go live. I quickly took it down, but those of you who receive this blog via email or rss feeds would have received it as it was and those can’t be erased. For what it is worth, then, you have a post that is in progress and half-baked. You can toss it, read it, or do whatever you want with it, but when I get a chance, you are going to see some form of it, hopefully improved, again. My apologies.
At a political rally a Christian pastor proclaims,
“In a manly time of struggle one cannot get by with effeminate and sweet talk of peace.”
One can imagine his comments receiving a vigorous supportive response. Men, even Christian men, are to be marked by strength and aggression. We are to fight for our rights and never back down. Real men pack heat and and kick ass when called upon.
And I wonder if we’ve read our cultural biases into a Christian script and gotten off track somewhere. Perhaps way off. The Christian pastor spoke these words at a 1937 rally in Frankfort, Germany, in support of Adolph Hitler.
Christianity’s current determination to make sharp distinctions between masculinity and femininity is, while aimed at a good goal, wildly off the mark. Nostalgia leads us to imagine a time when men were men and women were women. We feed off that nostalgia, no matter how inaccurate, and then find in our Bibles verses that seem to anchor those claims in scripture. That’s a bad idea all around.
And yet the motive is a good one. Christian men are wondering how to shape their character and how to be obedient as a man to their Christian discipleship. It is good to give them direction. But the issue is not masculinity but decency. Let’s guide men toward decency.
But isn’t the word ‘decent’ too tepid? Isn’t it too broad? Perhaps. I know there are those who sense some of the same things I do who rightly prefer to speak of ‘godliness.’ I don’t quibble with that. To be godly is to be decent. But the language of decency speaks to a broader public and includes within its boundaries people of virtuous character who make no claim to Christianity. Christian men seeking to be godly men will be decent men, will be good men. That is language I think we can understand and live with.
Such decency will be for us defined by Scripture. It is modeled by Christ. It is outlined in the gospels and the epistles. It includes attributes we ordinarily attribute to masculinity – courage, for example, and integrity – and those we see as more feminine – compassion and gentleness. We should pursue these things not because we want to be men, but because we want to be like Jesus. And in our current context, to aim to be simply decent men will be to run against the tide, politically and culturally. It is an act of rebellion.
When the question is asked, “What kind of people do you associate with the church?” I want the answer to be, “Decent people.” There is a certain appeal to looking at a person, man or woman, and noting their fundamental decency and longing that more of us might evidence such character. My appeal as a pastor speaking to men who want to be men is simply this: let’s be decent men.
I could be drawn to a community, a church, a nation, and a world comprised of decent men. I’m not sure how to seed the world that it might sprout such men, but that would be the world in which I’d like to live.
Note: The quote with which this post begins appears on page 262 in Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a book I hope to review here soon.
Standing in the serpentine line guiding us to our luggage after a cruise, my wife and I passed and re-passed a confident and athletic looking man wearing a t-shirt that broadcast his vision of masculinity. It said, “Cool story, Babe…now make me a sandwich.” He was not one to be pushed around, this one. He knew his place as a man and was going to assert it. Or, at least, he wanted others to THINK he knew.
We are told, though, that many men these days aren’t quite sure what their place is. And so books for ‘dudes‘ are written to guide them (with endorsements by real men like pro athletes). Charismatic pastors speak directly to men, using strong and colorful language, to shape their thinking of manliness. Defining what is called ‘Biblical Masculinity’ has become the rage and I’d like to make a modest plea that we stop trying to define what isn’t there.
My plea may arise from my not being very masculine. Yes, I can grow a beard, so there is that. And I like to hang out in my garage when I can. So far so good. But I don’t hunt. And if I do go fishing (once every decade, at least, just to keep the skills fresh), and if I were to catch anything (not likely), my wife is the one who would clean it. She likes that kind of thing. I do the grocery shopping in our family and have to be reminded how to start the lawn mower should my wife not be able to take care of the lawn some week. So perhaps my dismay over the search for biblical masculinity arises from my own confusion.
That may be so. But I like to think it arises from the fact that the Bible shows a complete lack of concern for such a thing. I don’t see Jesus or Paul or any of the gospel writers or apostles overtly concerned with teaching men how to be men. Yes, we are given some direction as husbands and fathers, but many fine men are neither.
I would plea that we simply get over trying to be men and replace that with a passion to be decent. How about we champion the admittedly rather bland and gender inclusive goal of biblical decency? We could stand for this, couldn’t we?
I don’t think the book on this has yet been written, but certainly it would include a chapter on kindness. And for sure there would be one on the courage to stand for the weak. Another would encourage integrity and fidelity. And it must include one on owning our wrong and making it right. It would cover all the essentials of what makes for a decent, if not ‘manly’, man. Compassion. Patience. And the meekness with which one will inherit the earth.
I’m open to correction here. Maybe ‘biblical masculinity’ is a genuine biblical thing. But even so, should not the pursuit of ‘biblical decency’ be an even more noble cause? To embrace that is my plea.
I’m sure my sons would have loved to have had a more manly dad. They had to have other guys show them how to fish and to take them hunting. I did go backpacking with the older two once, so maybe that counted for something. But as I recall, none of them ever sat me down and urged me to do more ‘manly’ things.
One, though, did sit me down and ask me to be more gentle. I think he wanted a dad who was a more decent man. And that is a good longing.
Go think about it, men, as you make your sandwich. Make one for your wife as well. It would be the decent thing to do.
There are two (or three!) ways you can help this blog map its future. The first is easy. I’ve created a simple survey which shouldn’t take you more than a minute or two to complete. Please click here. This will help me think through what has resonated with my readers and how this content gets to them. (A link to this survey is also on the sidebar.)
The second is a bit more difficult. I am deeply grateful to those of you who have generously supported this blog over this past year. Your generosity is enabling me to take the steps that are necessary to move forward. The need for financial support will continue on into the future. So, if any would like to help us as we move forward, you can contribute by clicking here. I am very grateful. (There is a link to this also on the sidebar.)
Finally, any time you can direct traffic to this site, do so! If something strikes your fancy, pass it on to others. It’s the only way, really, any will find their way here. This will especially be true when we kick off the new site.
I love writing this blog, and I am gratified by the kind words many of you often pass my way in response. Some of what has been written here has resonated in an encouraging and helpful way with some of you. When “Somber and Dull” lay dormant for a couple of years, a few of you kept prodding me to resurrect it, and so I did. I like to think I have things to say that are worth saying, and this blog gives me the space to say them. I am trying to contribute something positive and helpful regarding how we are to live as Christians and the church in the modern world.
So far, I have written for a core of very loyal readers, a core who either are fond of the name “Somber and Dull” or who are not put off by it. But as I consider ways to grow the readership of the blog, I think the time has come to put the title out to pasture.
The title and its ironic sensibilities grew on me and a few others. Others, however, are puzzled by it. In fact, the title confuses even internet sales algorithms, one of which thought this week that it would be suitable to inform me that the domain name ‘somberandstupid’ was available if I wanted to purchase it.
I’ll pass, but the point was received. The title is too obscure.
Soon, therefore, I will be giving this site a good makeover christening it with a new name and a new URL. You won’t see the changes soon, and I’ll give plenty of warning.
As I was thinking through this, I drove by a pond and watched a duck start at one end and madly flap his wings trying to gain altitude and speed. That will be me trying to move this blog along. I may crash into the far end of the pond, but that’s okay. There may also be a chance to soar.
My friend Roy (whose blog should be added to your regular reading list as he will one day publish a book and become famous and you will be able to say your were a fan before being a fan was cool) has not read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, the novel from which the title of this blog is (ever so inaccurately) lifted. Apparently the novel had been assigned to him as a high school student and been therefore mentally blacklisted ever since. I hope to change that for him, and for whomever else I can. It’s simply a great novel that bears multiple readings. It is one of my favorites.
Paton constructs a story of two men whose lives are lived in geographic proximity and cultural isolation. One is a poor black Anglican priest, Stephen Kumalo (“a parson, so(m)ber and rather dull no doubt, and his hair was turning white”) and the other, James Jarvis, is a wealthy white farmer living nearby. Events in the crumbling 1940s culture of South Africa bring these two men together in a dramatic and surprising and tragic way. South Africa was on the cusp of formalizing the racial divisions that were existent in the policy of apartheid and against that backdrop, lives play out, mercy is displayed, and reconciliation is glimpsed. But much here breaks the heart.
The Rev. Kumalo is genuine, a pastor who loves his God and his people. His heart breaks for his country, his land, his parish, his family, and his church. He is honestly drawn as a man who struggles with temptation, loses his temper, and is not above acts of manipulation, but who also repents of his anger and acts with great compassion to those who cross his path. Like the friend he meets in the city of Johannesburg, he is “a weak and sinful man, but God put His hands on me, that is all.” There is a potent reality to these men.
With these men, the heart breaks for the beautiful land that is South Africa.
There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.
The land is beautiful but it and the people living on it are broken. For that, there is mourning.
Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart.
But the crying and the fear can lead to something greater, even to something beautiful in small acts of grace and in the softening of the hearts of men.
Yes the book breaks the heart, but it heals it as well. It leaves us hopeful, knowing that even though there is death in the land, and that things are not as they are supposed to be, yet small acts of grace can bring significant reconciliation, and sacrificial love can bring life in the midst of death. Maybe we are to realize as well that we are weak and sinful people on whom God has put his hands. One can hope.
As one can hope that my friend and many like him will finish that high school assignment that they might be blessed by this book.
For the first nineteen years of my life, I attended Methodist churches in which we possessed ‘trespasses’ needing to be forgiven, according to the form of the Lord’s Prayer we regularly recited. For all but three of the years since (I’m now sixty) I’ve attended Presbyterian churches where the ‘trespasses’ had become ‘debts’. I’ve been confessing debts twice as long as trespasses. And yet…
Some months ago I was sitting in my study troubled by many things and seeking to pray. I prayed, as I am prone to do in such times when I don’t know how to pray, the Lord’s Prayer. In the intensity of that moment, I found myself praying for the forgiveness of my childhood Methodist trespasses and not my adulthood Presbyterian debts. Praying from within the context of desperation, those childhood liturgical forms welled up from deep within me where they had been disciplined to reside until needed most. Liturgy has an ability to shape the young and formative mind in powerful and lasting ways.
“I spent my youth hearing the cadences of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer repeated roughly one zillion times and still feel they are my main guide to the proper shape and pacing of a sentence.”
Somehow our youthful liturgical exposure is formative in ways that transcend the merely spiritual.
And yet, we’ve persuaded ourselves that children get nothing from public worship. I beg to differ.