Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Current of a Changing World

By Carolyn Custis James

~ Reviewed by Amy N. Felt for The Marcella Project

July 8, 2015

Freedom and flourishing are not just for the victims, but also for perpetrators. This gloriously hopeful message is the foundation of Carolyn Custis James’ most recent release, Malestrom.   James contends that the storm of patriarchy is responsible not only for the oppression of women and the marginalized throughout history, but has recklessly diverted the image of true manhood from God’s beautiful intention into a narrow, non-fulfilling competitive playing field where only the strongest survive. While each era has its unique stipulations, the demands and expectations for men to “man up” have always sidelined some and transformed others into tyrants. Malestrom takes a brutally honest look at the inception of manhood and offers a radical new definition.

Malestrom            To enter the discussion, it is helpful to understand James’ definition of “malestrom” which she asserts is “the particular ways in which the fall impacts the male of the human species – causing a man to lose himself, his identity and purpose as a man, and above all to lose sight of God’s original vision for his sons.”[1] The only true cure for this storm – which sidelines men in the currents of injustice, poverty, racism, classism, and homophobia – is to return to the ontological origin for a reconciled vision of what it means to be human, and specifically male.[2] James rightly cautions that the questions asked here need to encompass a global view of humanity since “the Bible is not an American book.”[3] Returning to the first chapters of the Bible, one cannot escape the unified calling and interwoven charge of the Creator to his precious created ones to reflect his image throughout his kingdom and promote flourishing together. This postulate strikes at the very heart of patriarchy, which James contends is the antithesis to God’s missional objective for manhood (and truly all humankind).

In an attempt to construct a theology of gender, James is careful to lay the foundation with pre-rebellion texts, thus avoiding the critical error of a truncated systematic. If the goal is to return to the ideal for humankind, beginning with God’s relational interactions with Adam and Eve and their pre-sin gender interactions provides crucial insight. While the devastating results of patriarchy on women and the marginalized are common knowledge, one of Malestrom’s great strengths is exposing the pervasive repercussions of patriarchy on men. James honestly asks if the presence of patriarchy in the Biblical narrative affirms and requires patriarchy for Jesus followers.[4] To this, the answer is a resounding no! Beginning with the stories of Adam and Abraham and following through to Jesus and Paul, one sees “the Bible is replete with examples where patriarchy is rejected.”[5] Stepping clear of the complementarian versus egalitarian controversy and refusing to erect a straw man fallacy, James moves toward a beautiful picture of reconciliation where “Jesus is making something new” and abolishing the “who is over whom” debate.[6] Furthering the patriarchal paradigm shift, one realizes “illusions of superiority and inferiority have no place in the kingdom of God.”[7]

Malestrom further illumines the impact of patriarchy on primogeniture and the penetrating ache of the father wound. This is not simply a static look back at ancient customs of inheritance laws and first-born male preference, but an ongoing crisis which deludes men’s view of their worth and essence today. The unrequited hunger for paternal acceptance drives many to unhealthy perspectives of self and, in some instances, to violence.

The most challenging portion of James’ work is her meticulous exegesis of the Deborah, Barak, and Jael account in Judges 4-5. Here she shows the blessed alliance in harmony as they refuse to play the “zero-sum game between the genders where gains for women represent losses for men.”[8] James carefully navigates the pitfalls of both the standard complementarian and egalitarian perspectives on this episode, thus avoiding “the inevitable consequences of reading the Bible through a gendered lens” that impels God to the margins.[9] She highlights the central issue: God revealing himself to us, rather than being sidelined with a confused focus on the roles of wifely obedience, whether men or women can be leaders, or ancient Near East customs of hospitality.[10] As a wise Hebrew exegesis professor of mine is fond of saying, “Context is king.”[11] Through the example of Deborah, Barak, and Jael, the context of the seriousness of the kingdom battle demonstrates that there is no time to sideline willing and abled soldiers solely for the sake of gender preference. Returning to the creational mandate in Genesis 1-2, humankind has one unified calling. Therefore, all hands (male and female) on deck!

Through detailed portraits of Boaz, Matthew, and Joseph, James unveils the diversity of manhood and their use of power for the good of others and the forward momentum of God’s mission for the world. James unearths surprising details about the highly revered Boaz, who welcomes new observations about the law from the foreign-born, uneducated, female voice of Ruth. Matthew is shown as one rejected by the Pharisaical religious society, whose life is upended when he follows Jesus. The trajectory of this Machiavellian tax collector to become a brave warrior for those with a backstory and the outsiders of society is unexpected.[12] Further, Malestrom explores the often-overlooked story of Joseph and draws implications from yet another example of gospel-infused manhood.[13] While Mary’s sacrifices are courageous and rightly extolled, a vast portion of the Advent story hinges on Joseph’s obedience.[14] In a shocking countercultural gender role reversal, Joseph closes his carpenter shop to “get behind God’s calling on his wife.”[15] The hesed love, righteousness, and just use of power in the lives of Boaz, Matthew, and Joseph epitomize courageous, outrageous, adventurous, and arduous manhood.

The four gospels tell a partial story of Jesus’ earthly life, yet “the stubborn fact remains that the quest to know and understand Jesus is always an unfinished and ongoing business.”[16] James focuses on the question of how Jesus’ life shapes all aspects of Christian theology, rather than falling into a quagmire of trying to recruit Jesus to a polarizing viewpoint.[17] The questions raised in this section are hard hitting like “If Jesus is the perfect image bearer of God and our exemplar, the real question is: Are we radical enough?”[18] As the God-man and preeminent imago dei, Jesus shows the Father to the world in every word and deed, including his interactions with the ezer-warriors in his life. Jesus inverts the social pyramid and pushes the parameters of our servant leadership models to extremes unimagined.[19]

At the close, James invites a nuanced look at Paul’s response to Jesus’ gospel in crossing gender, racial, and socio-economic divides. In Paul’s ministry, he does not merely include women, but becomes “a new and different kind of man, for whom patriarchy is no longer the obligatory social structure.”[20] As Paul sees systematic hierarchy abolished, he recognizes that “belonging to Christ renders negligible every other source of security – wealth, education, noble birth, or political or ecclesiastical power. One stands tall in the world because one is God’s own.”[21] Bearing God’s image inevitably demands paramount kingdom responsibilities and a progressive stance against cultural pressures.[22]

Malestrom releases the societal pressure to be the typecast man, esteemed by a shallow list of superficial expectations, while at the same time it raises the standard of manhood to defy bloodlines, privilege, and power for the promotion of full flourishing of all of God’s cherished creation. Anthony Hoekema summarizes this call to live in a way in which “God becomes more and more visible in our words and deeds…living in love is an imitation of God.”[23] The blessed alliance soars when we pursue the Creator’s perfect design with intensity and battle the destructive distortions that threaten to overwhelm us.[24] This work reminds us “Jesus didn’t come to make men more manly, but to reconnect them with their Creator and put them back on mission as God’s image bearers.”[25]

[1] Carolyn Custis James, Malestrom: Manhood Swept Into the Currents of a Changing World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 18.

[2] Ibid., 20-21.

[3] Ibid., 65.

[4] Ibid., 61.

[5] Ibid., 68.

[6] Ibid., 69.

[7] Ibid., 73.

[8] Ibid., 98.

[9] Ibid., 108.

[10] Ibid., 107.

[11] Attributed to Dr. Jay Sklar of Covenant Theological Seminary.

[12] James, 143.

[13] Ibid.,161.

[14] Ibid., 160.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 175.

[17] Ibid., 176.

[18] Ibid., 177.

[19] Ibid., 184.

[20] Ibid., 201.

[21] Ellen T. Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 42.

[22] Ibid., 204.

[23] Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 89.

[24] James, 29.

[25] Ibid., 30.