Archive for August, 2009

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Sexually Ambiguous 800m Champion under Investigation

26 August 2009

After her impressive victory in the 800m at the World Championships last week, crushing the competition by a good two seconds, South African teenager Caster Semenya was rewarded with a gold medal – and an investigation into whether or not she is female.

Semenya

This is, of course, not unheard of. Ever since people found out that Stella Walsh, the 100m Olympic champion in 1932, had ambiguous genitalia, sporting boards have kept an eye out for this sort of thing.

Very rarely does a man pose as a woman athlete. Much more common are abnormalities in the determination of one’s sex, either because of chromosomal disorders, overproduction of androgens, non-responsiveness to certain hormones, or other conditions which result in some degree of intersex identity. Very occasionally a woman will find out, often in the midst of fertility testing, that she in fact has an XY combination. I recommend Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s My Brother’s Keeper for a good summary of just how many things have to be working normally in order for the XY chromosome pair to result in clearly expressed male physiology.

But that’s not what interests me about this case. It’s more the reaction of the South African athletic federation, Leonard Chuene. He was furious that the sex-testing procedure had been made public, and rightly so. That’s a pretty big breach of confidentiality in the sporting world. But Chuene was also indignant about the test being run at all, saying that there was no basis for it – then going so far as to claim that racism was behind the inquiry: “It would not be like that if it were some young girl from Europe,” Chuene told The Associated Press by telephone. “If it [sic] was a white child, she would be sitting somewhere with a psychologist, but this is an African child.” At a news conference he spewed the same accusation: “We are not going to allow Europeans to describe and define our children.”

Think about how fascinating this is. Chuene is defending his own masculine pride through nationalist posturing – over the issue of an athlete who looks insufficiently feminine. Is he trying to appear more assertive and masculine than Semenya? And why does he feel so obligated to defend her at all costs? Is this also a tactic to “feminize” her, by playing to her youth, making her appear helpless and unable to speak for herself?

Moreover, Chuene describes sex as a matter of a society’s authority to “describe and define.” This is a considerable claim. Scholarship in the twentieth century, from Margaret Mead to Julia Kristeva, explained how gender is a matter of social construction. Only recently have intersex peoples (formerly called hermaphrodites) contended for the non-objectivity and pliability of sex itself. Calling into question the basic binary between male and female pulls the carpet out pretty much from under every society. Which is strange that it’s being declared from the mouth of Chuene, who strikes me as – oddly enough – patriarchal and paternalistic.

For the record, I’m not willing to concede the category of sex simply because of the possibility of biological variance. Neither will the World Championships athletic committee either, I’m sure.

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Karl Barth: The Alpha Male Years (1886-1911)

20 August 2009

In tandem with this year’s Karl Barth Online Conference, I have provided an attenuated, early “masculine biography” for those interested in this man, who was clearly the greatest theological mind of the last century.  Why a masculine biography?  Because, frankly, the guy wrote so little about men and masculinity.  It’s more relevant to my blog this way – and yes, folks, it’s all true.

red pastor

Karl Barth was born in 1886 in Switzerland, descending from a long line of pastors and tobacconists.  His siblings describe him as a completely dominant older brother, using anything they did as grist for his mill.  A troublesome child, “Karli” came to head a local street gang of boys, and wreaked havoc at school and in the neighborhood. 

Though raised and catechized in the Swiss Reformed church, the closest thing Karl experienced as a conversion was in the pages of Immanuel Kant, the renowned philosopher.  He was remarkably like his father in his theological outlook.  Nevertheless, Karl rebelled against the more conservative, “positive” elements, and so studied under the master of biblical criticism, Adolf Harnack, and the pious systematician, Wilhelm Herrmann. 

Known as “Skinny” to his peers, young Karl took up heavy drinking and smoking as some of his chief activities while in college.  A member (and ultimately president) of the group Zofingia, he can be found in the club picture next to the beer keg.  He didn’t have much of a stomach for dealing directly with abject poverty, yet championed progressive socialist causes, for which he earned grudging respect from his mates.

Finally came ordination, which was not without a little tension, considering his un-liberal father was leading the ordination service.  Karl ruled the roost at his first church, at least after the senior minister left for greener pastures.  For the first and only time in his life, there at Geneva he was unrivaled in his male dominance, if only because there was hardly a man to be found in the pews.  Attempts at controversies – denying the bodily resurrection of Christ, preaching socialist causes, etc. – hardly phased the congregation or the regional parish.  He did, however, snag a 17 year-old hottie out of his catechism class as a fiancee.

Then, in 1911, he moved to his new post, an electricity-less village called Safenwil.  While the militaristic rubberstamping by his theology professors of the Kaiser’s war effort would rupture Barth’s religious hubris, his manly pride was buckling before that: there he was as a sophomore preacher in the middle of nowhere, daily confronted by the holy scriptures, and living with Fräulein Hanna and her host of cats.

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“Jesus Is the Big Guy”: Power Force Night

17 August 2009

Sometime back in the early nineties I remember seeing pictures about an organization called Power Team, a traveling group of hypertrophied Christians smashing bricks, lifting absurdly heavy things, and ripping phone books in half. Even at that time I felt conflicted. Isn’t the kingdom of God a matter of power? Yes. But isn’t the 1:1 parallel between physical strength and spiritual strength a little, well, crude? Add to the skepticism my growing awareness about religious forms of male posturing.

John JacobsSo when I saw a sign advertising their arrival in my hometown, I attended their recent performance more out of interest in identifying men’s issues than for the possibility of spiritual edification. But as it turned out, I got a serious helping of both. My family and I arrived at Church at the Gate (Sioux Falls, SD) a good fifteen minutes late, by which time the church had been packed out. Parking had been extended onto their lawn. Inside the church mayhem had broken out, volunteers shuffling children to the appropriate nursery area, church members trying to set up seats in the foyer as quickly as possible. It was our good fortune that an usher took hold of us and placed us in the last two seats available in the sanctuary – which happened to be the front row. A band had just finished leading a few raucous worship songs, and a leader had stepped up to rile the crowd with a raffle drawing for insignificant gift cards. The crowd, nearly half of them minors, had little interest in the prizes, but were amped by the packed audience. Notably, the one good prize the church gave away, a Nintendo Wii, was given back by the girl who won it; she explained that she already had one and wanted someone else to have it. That alone should have convinced me that the Spirit of God was brooding over the place.

HickeyFinally, Steve Hickey, the pastor of Church at the Gate, stood up to introduce the main act. Pastor Steve’s pasty white visage was a marked contrast to the behemoths about to take the stage, something he highlighted by ripping his button-down shirt open to reveal another shirt, air brushed with bodybuilder’s muscles. The self-deprecating humor was disarming – “My wife told me maybe I should cut a few strings first…” – but I recognized in him a trend in many charismatic churches, the way pastors and teachers are conscious of masculine standards, and often seek to meet them by incorporating manly language and themes into their ministries. Such leaders teach the art of spiritual warfare. They claim and exercise authority over the earthly and heavenly realms alike. They instruct men on how to be good husbands and fathers. While women are often given “stronger” roles and religious expressions too, the categories of power are especially gendered towards men. Where so many Protestant churches are just now beginning to organize attempts at re-masculinization, charismatic and Pentecostal pastors have been charting these waters all along. More on that later.

The pastor introduced the act. Formerly called Power Team, they now have the more cumbersome name, John Jacobs’ Next Generation Power Force. Jacobs came out, an imposing figure of 270 pounds of muscle that overshadowed his agedness. With him was John Eskridge, a former linebacker with the New England Patriots, and – shocker here – a woman by the name of Kathy Bertram.

Crap. There goes the men’s studies element.

Or maybe not. John Jacobs began explaining what they would be doing that night and also why they put on these performances. He assured us that we would be impressed. But we were not to marvel at these things too much. “I’m not the big guy,” Jacobs asserted with all soberness. “Jesus is the big guy.”

Bending SteelThe spectacle that ensued was impressive. Bertram broke a baseball bat on her knee, bent a bar of steel around her body. Eskridge lowered pick axes down to his eyeballs multiple times. There was the tearing of a phone book, ripping of license plates in half, rolling up a frying pan Power Force Esklike a tortilla. Keep in mind that these guys are the small ones on the Power Force squad. The kind of affection and support within the group was also impressive. Events a member couldn’t complete would be taken over by another: “That’s what Christians do; we help each other.” I thought there was great respect shown between the men and Bertram, who treated each other as genuine peers without pretending that one’s sex was invisible.

Towards the end Jacobs roped pastor Steve Hickey back into things. He was to have an unopened can of soda smashed on his forehead. It’s one thing to talk like a man – show us you’re a man, pastor! After much build up, a team member drove a can of Sprite onto the his forehead, blowing the can in half and spraying all of us in the front row. The right reverend seemed alright, if a little dazed.

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If only ordination ceremonies could integrate such hazing.

Interspersed throughout the night were the team members’ testimonies. Bertram shared how her devastatingly low self-esteem from her unpleasable father landed her in a psych ward as a suicide victim. She experienced a radical, life-altering encounter with Jesus Christ there. Eskridge shared how ministering in Christ’s name has been truly fulfilling, and in total contrast to the selfish, idolatrous culture into which he found himself sinking in the NFL. (Those two testimonies, my wife and I agreed afterward, were enough to cut to the heart of any teenager.) John Jacobs finished the night with one of the most arresting messages I’ve ever heard. He spoke about his conversion as a child, the miraculous physical healing he experienced, the thousands of people he has seen saved from utter hopelessness through the Power Force ministry, exorcisms he himself has witnessed.

PF6The amazing thing was that for all the spectacle of that evening, all the physical stunts and rhetorical displays, the Power Force stayed the course. Everything led back to Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. As someone who has spent some time in the midst of numerous revivals, crusades and rallies, I want to assure you that this is no common or easy thing. Speakers usually devolve into emotional manipulation. Stunts and charismata become the object of attention. But this group had an unmistakable gravitational core in the gospel.

The night finished out as all evangelistic crusades do. During the closing prayer an invitation to receive Christ as one’s Lord and Savior was issued. With all eyes closed, Jacobs asked people to raise their hands if they were making a decision of faith. Then, the prayer concluded, Jacobs turned it into an altar call, asking people to demonstrate the decision they just made by coming forward. Everyone on stage had shown courage and risked themselves. Now it was the new converts’ turn. “I’m going to say it South Dakota style,” Jacobs quipped. “This is where the men are separated from the boys.” Muscles don’t make the man. Instead, the courage to confess Jesus publicly becomes the touchstone of Christian masculinity.

The music sounded, and a mass, perhaps over a hundred people, flooded forward. As with every crusade, there were plenty of souls who were clearly converted years earlier (e.g. the boy in the t-shirt that said “Jesus has reserved MySpace in heaven”). It’s hard to pass up getting saved all over again. Even so, if only one of five were making first time commitments, it was a considerable harvest.

The new converts were led out to the foyer, and everyone was dismissed. My wife and I, a little winded and a little sticky from the soda, were finally able to weave our way out, past the splintered wood and ripped phonebooks and bent steel. Could it be that people met the strong arm of Jesus Christ here? Did God show up in this whirlwind?

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The Masculine Journey according to Corduroy

2 August 2009

Having reached the age of two, my son has discovered the pleasure of obsessing on forms of entertainment, in this case the Scholastic Video rendition of Don Freeman’s children’s book, Corduroy. It seems proper for me as his father to guard him from the world’s messages, especially when those messages are actually mythic sets of values disguised as obsequious feel-good plots. As it turns out, Corduroy is in fact a pornucopia of Freudian themes.corduroybook

The story starts out in a department store, where a charming young girl bolts from her mother and scampers into the toy section. Lisa quickly spots a teddy bear wearing corduroy overalls with only one button, and asks the lady clerk to see it. To her mother’s exasperation, her daughter latches onto the deficient specimen, begging to “have” it as her plaything. She doesn’t care if he’s missing a button.

Missing a button is a serious thing in the real world. The girl may not care at first, but lacking buttons cannot be tolerated. Buttons connote dignity. Buttons keep clothes on – and so govern one’s ability to take them off. Why do modern men and women continue to wear buttons even in the age of the zipper? Because buttons show intelligence, even erotic intelligence, power, self-will over one’s body. “Lisa,” the girl’s mother says at last, “we’re late.” The girl refuses to listen to all her mother’s cajoling until the real reason for her anxiety comes out: “Your father is waiting for us.”

No more need be said. They leave together. For all their disappointment, the basic reality of their world is that the father has laid claim to their lives. He has ordered the world so; they as women must respond to him. They know this. And now Corduroy knows this.

This is how it begins for all boys, cradled in the maternal nest, safe among the playthings. But boys come to understand, consciously or unconsciously, that their claim to the happiness of the womb is only temporary and provisional. Only the male figure with his god-like powers can command the female affections. How can a young lad obtain such power over women that he might dictate those who oversee the realm of pleasure? Certainly not by sitting on a shelf without a button.

So Corduroy leaves the toy store late that night, intent on asserting himself as a man, that is, manning himself through assertion. The initial foray (according to the film, which is far more instructive than the book by the way) is to climb through a dark tunnel. There he discovers a control board, for a toy train, though he doesn’t know this at the time. He manipulates the dials for a while, then dares to press the button – a different type of button, granted, but still a thing concerning control. Corduroy quickly finds out that he is not in control, however, when the locomotive screams through the tunnel towards him, picking him up and carrying him about in an endless loop.

Too many young lads find themselves ill-equipped for the task of self-control. Either because they have felt no initiative or because others have restrained them so well, they have no awareness of their own powers and what they are able to emit. In this anal phase the boy learns the boundaries of his own output, and what is acceptable and what is not. In this case Corduroy loses rein on the process. But there in the tunnel or cave (which has marginal, inchoate sexual significance) a boy finds out how his powers, even if used destructively, are real powers. Some boys continue to ride that train, pulling others into the dizzying ride, living out of their chaos. Corduroy cuts his losses and acknowledges his lack of control, latching onto a lifesaver and falling into a soft, maternal pile of beach balls. This forfeiture of power is in its own way a claim to it. Repression must harness intention.

But a disturbance rarely goes unnoticed. The department store’s security guard hears the sound and begins the investigation. The father has been roused. Corduroy hides. It is no surprise that Corduroy is ashamed by all this, Eric Erickson might comment, since initiative and guilt are the operative poles in western culture and religion. A man is responsible for his actions, for penetration into the world and cultivation therein. But the inherent failures built into this course of action lead one into a long stream of groveling, repenting, hiding. One reaps the harvest always with a look back over one’s shoulder to the flashing swords guarding Eden. There stands the “security guard,” goading and tempting and belittling and shaming the boy all at once. The authority figure calls for action, but smites the child in the child’s action. The security guard, the Lord Protector, preserves the ordered, masculine realm. This is not done cruelly: the father is kind in all his dealing. But kindness does not mean forgiveness. The father can never be contested directly by the son, and will never regard him as a peer so long as the boy is in his house. The son cannot supplant the father, or kill him in order to steal the affections of the mother.  So the boy minimizes himself, hiding.

Once the security guard has passed, Corduroy steps onto the elevator for a new adventure. This time he finds himself in a more adult-like and manly arena, the sporting and camping section. Here he discovers a self-inflating raft. Choosing to ignore the “CAUTION” written next to it, he presses yet another button. How many buttons must a boy press in his search for the button? Again, Corduroy’s proactivity results in mayhem as the raft is erected to many times its size.

By the time the security guard arrives to investigate the ruckus, the raft blends in with the rest of the scene. There are manly products everywhere: hunting equipment, tents, basketballs, and everything else pertaining to the recreational world of men. The guard does not even detect the raft which Corduroy has inflated, just as a father will miss the many little crossovers the boy makes into the world of men. Is Corduroy a builder or a scheister? A champion or a trickster? He is, at the very least, a poser. He hides there, wearing a fisherman’s hat and holding a fishing rod, never moving a muscle. He can only tinker with responsibility, not enter into it genuinely. Again the father passes him by.

The final foray into wish-fulfilment occurs when Corduroy sees a sign announcing the sale of beds on the fourth floor. He notices with glee: bed mattresses come with buttons on them! Not only out of curiosity and conquest but out his concern for self-repair, Corduroy takes the escalator up. He climbs atop a mattress, and sure enough, there are buttons aplenty.

The bedroom holds a sense of mystery for children from the very beginning. They are not usually welcome there. Mother and father go there and close the door – and such noises! For young men sexual encounters come like an epiphany, and afterwards become an obsession, in large part because there adolescents can prove themselves as whole. They realize that their missing button was there all the time, and that a girl possessed it. Of course! Needless to say, he must get it from her. He must win her or subdue her or both, then what she has will be his again. The combination of proving himself – getting the notch on his belt – and satisfying his desire is almost too much to resist.

But getting the button does not come without a struggle. Corduroy pulls and tugs, thrusts and flails in an attempt to remove the button. The excitement is replaced by frustration, and then, with a final effort, the button flies off the bed – and Corduroy with it. Victory! Release! – and with it, all loss of control. He careens into a lamp, which slams to the ground, and the button rolls far out of reach.

The security guard stomps in, and the young bear pulls himself beneath the bed. But this time it is too late. The father-figure finds him and drags him out. But, as if the man knows the whole necessary drama, he chides him softly. “You shouldn’t be up here, now?” the guard asks, adding with a smirk, “You wouldn’t know anything about this, would you? No, I guess not.” Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Men are acquainted with the dance of desire and loss, pursuit and shame, and they must acknowledge this in other men, especially young men. With all its pride and embarrassment it is the shared male secret. The security guard undoubtedly has his missing button too, does he not? And so he returns Corduroy to the toy store with paternal, even fraternal, kindness.

The next morning the store owner (a man, of course) unlocks the door to the department store. In bursts Lisa, the girl who loved Corduroy so much the day before, now with the money to purchase him. She is disappointed when the lady clerk is unable to find the bear. Corduroy has moved, of course, and ultimately been placed in a different location. The clerk offers to order a new one, but Lisa replies, “But I wanted that bear.” What? Real acceptance? A buttonless bear the object of desire? As the girl mopes out of the toy store, Corduroy takes a timely initiative, kicking a box of crayons onto the ground to get her attention. It works. She takes him, buys him, and brings him upstairs into her bedroom.

In the final scene Corduroy has a second button sewn onto his overalls. (Lisa: “That [missing button] doesn’t matter – I can take care of that.”) Corduroy’s assertions have been met with reception. He looks smugly into the camera as the film ends. But one wonders how long this will last. After all, has he really merited this conclusion? Is it really his button he wears? Does Lisa belong to him, or he to her? Will she resent him the next day for the deficiencies she has to mend? And will he really be content to sit on her shelf or sleep in her bed this evening?