Archive for October, 2009


On Reformation, Karl Barth, and Manly Theologizing

31 October 2009

reformationhammerHappy Reformation Day, for those of you delivered from the concurrent secularized-Catholic holiday.

Perhaps the greatest modern reformer was Karl Barth (d. 1968), whose protest against natural theology and insistence upon Christ-centered Christianity was, in its own way, a prolonged hammering of theses against church doors.  I find it interesting the way that one commentator describes Barth’s work:

To some, his writing appears to be an attempt to create a world of theological reality by sheer power of language, convincing by overwhelming rather than demonstrating.  To others, it seems an act of wilful defiance of modernity – doing at inordinate length what the Enlightenment had disallowed: talking of God with fluency and delight.  To others, again, the cumulative power of Barth’s writing can seem an exercise in unbridled – male – forcefulness, its repetitious and boundless energy wearing down the reader into submission  (John Webster, Barth [London: Continuum, 2000], 52).

Indeed, Barth’s Church Dogmatics are “overwhelming,” “inordinate,” “unbridled” and “repetitious” even as they are “fluent” and filled with delight.  I think there is something to the claim that Barth’s manful energies were more often than not expressed quantitatively. 

This avalanche method is nothing new, considering the frustrations of the pope with the 16th century reformers.  With the advent of the printing press, it was impossible to burn books and pamphlets fast enough to keep them at bay.  Even John Calvin, himself unwanting for words, griped that the Lutheran theologians were simply writing too much.  Which leads us back to Barth, whose demanding style feels much like a submission hold.  Moreover, like the more radical Zwingli, in him there is something unrelentingly iconoclastic, a systematic breaking of rival avenues and false gods. 

Yet I wonder if there is also something simple in the midst of Barth’s style, the economy of concepts and the summons to purity in Church Dogmatics, that also has something forceful, even masculine, about it.  Barth writes about Martin Luther’s program, which, marked by a certain theological restraint that he describes as “manly, healthy, and simple” (Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 102-3).  Luther restrains himself from excessive complexity.  He restrains himself from the violence of pan-iconoclasm.  Like a real man, his extrovertive force is matched by an internal gravity.  The same could be said of Barth.  Not that this sense of restraint hardly makes his writings any less dominant and terrifying.  There is much to be lauded – and feared – in this reformational manliness.


Husbands Need Wives…

28 October 2009

This month in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a number of billboards went up in town, featuring homely looking men and reading simply, “Husbands Need Wives.”  It got the whole town buzzing. 

husbands_need_wivesA pro-family message?  An anti-divorce message?  Something to do with peace among the sexes?  A traditionalist message?  Or something progressive?  Everyone was stirred up by them.  Within a couple of weeks even the gay rights activists had contacted the newspaper, anticipating some manner of discrimination afoot. 

The punchline came out later this month.  “Husbands Need Wives… to Get an Annual Mammogram.”  It is breast cancer awareness month, after all.  The billboards were funded by Avera McKennan Hospital, and their spokesman assured everyone that there were no subliminal messages intended in the billboards (there was, he reminded everyone, a billboard reading, “Boys Need Mothers.”  Men simply need to get invested in the health of their wives, especially when it comes to breast cancer.

Kudos to Avera McKennan on this one.  Aside from staging the most successful publicity ad campaign in Sioux Falls years, they also managed to get men invested in women’s health.  More specifically, they opened up the door for men to talk with women about breast health.  Admittedly, it’s difficult for us men to dialogue about this.  Mentioning this intimate body part seems to be socially inappropriate.  Talking about breasts this was also seems to demystify them; men can admire them or even giggle about them, but discussing metastasis of cancer cells in them seems unholy in every way.

But the truth is that breast cancer is an unholy reality.  My aunt’s early death is just one example of this most unwelcomed fact.  Men need their these women in their lives.  And women need their men to be committed and aware.


Permanent Bachelorhood Loses One of Its Leaders

9 October 2009

swingersvaughnVince Vaughn, one of America’s most outstanding bachelors, announced this month that is tying the knot with Canadian real estate agent Kyla Webber.  It seems that Vaughn’s movie, Couples Retreat, may have been therapeutic.  What happened to the lovable party animal from Swingers?  What will become of the Frat Pack? 

Interestingly, he told that he decided to get married not in order to find greater fulfillment, but to have kids.  He is actually sprinting towards responsibility.  He isn’t letting out many details about his relationship, but seems excited mostly excited about the new possibilities of a responsible life. 

On the other side, he has expressed ambivalence about whether the relationship is going to change him.  Good luck on that. 

The anthropological observation of importance here is that many men in America today are experiencing a mid-life crisis.  In contradistinction from a generation ago, however, these men are making moves towards resposibility, not irresponsibility.  Men today get married and have a child, where the boomer escapees were running from their wives and kids.  The midlife crisis today is not a new adolescence.  It is the late departure from it.

The political right – as in Kay S. Hymowitz’s recent article – continues the drumbeat for earlier marriages.  Certainly a wife and child and mortgage will force men to grow up.  Maybe.  But in a world where marriages are dissolvable as aspirin tablets, will this really do this trick?  Besides, men like Vaughn are going into marriage these days with the caveat that they don’t have to change their immature ways.  The a-woman-will-whip-me-into-shape days are over.  Which is why bearing children has become the real test of maturity.  Offspring are so, well, concrete.

In the end, maybe the only weapon the cause of maturity can wield is the promise of a better life.  Being a man is better than being a boy.  Attending a city council meeting is better than watching Southpark.  Wooing a woman is far superior to beating off to Maxim magazine.  Raising a child is more satisfying than being one.  If Vince Vaughn can come to that realization, why not others?