Arm-pit hair: what do we mean by masculinity?
I was recently sitting in the foyer of a hotel in Tuscany with a bunch of students from the Nuremberg Music Conservatoire in the wee hours of the morning following our performance of The Marriage of Figaro (in Italy they don’t start shows until after 9pm, which makes it a late finish!) and they got around to talking about guy’s underarm hair. German guys, it seems, either shave or trim their arm-pit hair. For myself and a Japanese guy who was there, we thought they were kidding, and much hilarity ensued as we pointed out that in our cultures, most guys wouldn’t think of putting a blade near their pits. What is consider masculine is different, even between two western cultures.
French guys will kiss other men on the cheek, because that’s their culture – there’s nothing ‘effeminate’ about it to them (maybe French Christians are better at following Paul’s numerous calls to greet each other with a holy kiss!), and men from middle-eastern cultures are far more likely to hug each other than Aussie blokes. Any talk about what constitutes biblical* masculinity or femininity needs to move beyond cultural norms. In fact I think it requires a paradigm shift. I think it’s not so much about what we do and look like, but our attitudes and qualities. I think it’s not so much about ‘natural’ things, but the kind of character we’re called to have.
Because I’m a guy, I’m going to talk about masculinity. One of the big dangers in this issue is that guys start telling girls what they should be like, and vice-versa, and I want to avoid that as much as possible. In fact, I don’t want to ‘tell’ so much as think about and suggest (though I suspect the principle is the same for women as well).
While most of us would recognise that in general there are physical differences between the sexes (we’re built differently) I’m not sure how much of ‘biblical’ manhood is based on this. I wonder, though, if biblical manhood is more about character than it is about physical attributes and actions.
In terms of ‘manhood’, does God care if we prefer reading and drawing and tending gardens to football and hunting and monster trucks? Or does he prefer that each of us, whatever our interests, are men who have integrity, who are faithful, who seek him, who lead by serving, and value and build up those around us?
I think it’s easy to confuse character traits with other things, for example, courage does not equate being bulked up and fighting bears, it means standing up for those who are being wronged, and for that which is right, even when it is not popular. There is no all-american hero attitude or physique needed for that.
I am aware that it’s easy to burn strawmen on this issue – to create a false picture that there are those who think being ‘real’ men is to act like Tim Allen on Home Improvement, and I’m aware that we have gender stereotypes because there is a grain of truth to them: a lot of men do feel ‘manly’ when they’re doing physical things. I’ll admit to the feeling that such things can sometimes bring**.
Please hear me: there’s nothing wrong with liking sport and hunting and ‘blokey’ stuff, but let’s not confuse that with biblical manhood. You can be as macho as you like and still fail to be a man that honours God. I might point out that I’m not really talking about gender roles either – I think that my point here is applicable in both complimentarian and egalitarian views.
Perhaps, in the spirit of Godwin’s law, we should invent Driscoll’s law, which would be that in any discussion of biblical gender issues, someone will mention Driscoll – and no doubt the inference was already obvious. Following his inappropriate facebook comment I’ve read a lot of comments about his views lately, and I suspect there is a tendency for hyperbole in presenting him as having, essentially, a neanderthal-esque view of biblical masculinity. What Driscoll meant by worship leaders who are ‘effeminate’ is not exactly clear: guys who look like girls – I don’t know of any cross-dressing worship leaders, so I can only assume he is referring to perhaps emo hipsters or something.
Well, I’m no hipster, and I’m certainly not emo, but I do have a really big make-up kit, and I know how to use it. Fashions change, and what is consider masculine in one generation or culture may not be in another (would Driscoll grow a moustache in order to preach in India?), because it is not about what you wear so much as what your attitude is. Worship leaders who spend too much time preening their hair and following hipster fashion trends might like to ask if they’re perhaps a little vain and proud, but then isn’t dressing a certain way to be ‘manly’ also just as much a case of pride?
When we think about what constitutes biblical, Godly masculinity, let’s remember what God looks at – our heart and our attitudes. Let’s remember to value those character traits that God values and recognise that they’re not tied to any one cultural view of what being a ‘real man’ entails.
And you know what? When I look at what those characteristics and responsibilities are, I realise just how much harder it is to have Godly masculinity than it is to be ‘blokey’.
*This is probably another post in itself – but it’s worth asking what we mean when say ‘biblical’? Not everything in the bible is necessarily an example to follow! Perhaps ‘Christian manhood and womanhood’ is better as it indicates clearly that we’re talking about what it means to be men and women in Christ.
** It’s worth noting that creative labour is something we do because we’re made in the image of God, so it’s not surprising that it can be rewarding and tough at the same time.