ACT LIKE MEN by James MacDonald
Into the world of broad upheaval and fluid transformation in matters of understanding gender and the corresponding roles that characterize our lives, James MacDonald brings a perspective of self-assured clarity that will be a relief and inspiration to some and a troubling retreat into the past for others. For men who are looking for a straightforward and confident reassertion of traditional views on masculinity, with a strong and definitive voice that presumes an unquestionable interpretation of the "biblical" message, Act Like Men: 40 Days to Biblical Manhood may well resonate and create a sense of welcome order into a confusing world. As MacDonald asserted clearly at the October 2013 "Act Like Men" conference that I attended, his goal is to "take back ground that has been taken by the enemy" via the "attack on men."
Rather than responding to the crisis of masculinity in our society as an opportunity to reflect deeply on the multiple factors that fuel this uncertainty and to engage in a collaborative conversation about healthy change, MacDonald reverts to traditional and limited understandings of sin, to bold pronouncements of what constitutes "quality men," and to the assumption that the bear-hunting, Rambo-watching, danger-seeking, personal growth-avoiding man is a biological given instead of a construct of our society.
Speaking to "Joe Screwdriver," who MacDonald suggests represents "real men…facing real issues," he develops his vision of masculinity around 1 Corinthians 16:13-14: "Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love." Though giving a faint nod to the applicability of the verse to all Christians, he indicates that the "purpose of this book is to call men to lead the way in exhibiting these characteristics that reflect God's creative intent for masculinity." Based on the presumption that men and women are created by God with mutually exclusive characteristics and roles, he asserts that to "act like a man means don't act like a woman." He suggests that though women are stronger at relating, nurturing, and connecting, they are thereby made vulnerable, requiring the protection of men. He further asserts that "protection sees relationship as a potential threat and makes men aggressive," which is "why men need help with connecting."
It is a serious shame that this perspective continues to endorse a belief that men are by nature incapable of healthy relationships, while it increases men's fears that they might in any way be seen as vulnerable (i.e., like women) and blames outside forces for men's aggression. While acknowledging that men are fearful of exposing themselves and that they suffer because they hold things back, MacDonald paints a restrictive picture of acceptable masculinity, and his willingness to make sport of men who are outliers in any way does not create a place of welcome or safety for men, especially those who may be hurting as the result of others' or their own actions.
Neither MacDonald's token condemnation of men who abuse women and children nor the closing chapter on love compensates for the more dominant message that men must power up and control those who are their charge to protect.
Men are struggling in our society, and there are parts of this book that offer helpful perspectives on dealing with temptations and fatalism. Watchfulness, firmness, and strength are all characteristics that are helpful for men (in fact, all people) in responding to the many forces that operate contrary to God's created will for human thriving. But so are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Why is it that the fruit of the spirit is so often forgotten when masculinity is being defined by Christians? Neither MacDonald's token condemnation of men who abuse women and children nor the closing chapter on love compensates for the more dominant message that men must power up and control those who are their charge to protect. Sadly, in the context of a clear belief in the subservience of women, MacDonald's prescription suggests a love of condescension, not a love of mutuality and equality.
Underlying MacDonald's approach to masculinity appears to be a view of God that is both striking and perplexing. Midway through the book he makes the following statement: "God trains His children on a foundation of fear, and later, perfect love casts out the fear." While alienation from God as our heavenly parent clearly has significant consequences, I fail to see where the biblical message lays out a "foundation of fear" as God's intention. I would wonder whether this perspective, infusing the souls of many in our world, is not part of the underlying insecurity that generates much of the world's misuse of power and abuse of others in a clamoring for some semblance of safety. God's love pervades creation, his unending invitation is to find rest in him, and his work of salvation in the life, death, and victory of his Son is our source of hope!
As Christian men and women, we are called to actively seek reconciliation and healing in all things, including the areas of gender justice and equality. When Christians continue to advocate a vision of inequality and fear, then our existence as gendered people becomes a source of strife and division. Women and children, as well as men, are harmed by continuing to encourage the traditional positions that are presented with such urgency in MacDonald's book. May God help us find a way as Christians to engage more constructively with those voices in our society that are leading the cause of justice and respect for all people, regardless of gender.
Don Neufeld has been a clinical social worker for 23 years, currently in private practice as a general therapist with individuals, couples, families, and groups. A specific growing interest is working with men, and speaking and writing on issues related to men, masculinity, and gender justice from a faith perspective. He is a husband and the father of three sons, and he lives in Virgil, Ontario.