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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Taming of the Modern Mormon Man (Part 3)

by Russ Peterson:

Note: This is Part 3 of a multi-part post. Continued from Parts 1 & 2 here and here.

Gender Equality versus Gender Sameness

For our purposes, the “taming” of the modern man refers to a growing expectation that men should refrain from traditionally masculine behavior. It includes the expectation—whether realized or merely perceived—that a man must hold back from exercising leadership or authority for fear of being seen as a “male oppressor.” But the issue far transcends LDS concerns of “unrighteous dominion” as we have discussed it. In larger Western culture, we are so sensitized to the historical imbalance of power between men and women that we have moved beyond seeking gender equality to insisting on gender sameness.

As I understand it, the ideal of gender equality recognizes complementary differences between genders but equally values both. On the other hand, gender sameness (my term) pursues equality of the sexes by ignoring or attempting to eliminate the differences between the two. Gender equality may be difficult to assess or achieve when men and women assume different roles; if so, gender sameness proposes a solution: rather than organizing men and women according to different roles, we can pretend they are the same.

For a frame of reference, consider three examples that illustrate the degree of shift in societal thinking about gender during recent decades:
  1. Women in combat. As the US military has struggled with its pursuit of gender equality, it has become increasingly apparent that combat experience is directly related to opportunity for advancement. Those in command have had to (in some cases forcibly) abandon long-held notions that men are better suited for combat.

  2. Gay marriage. Advocates of traditional (opposite sex) marriage held that the two different genders formed a complementary unit. Arguments about equality aside, gay marriage advocates have downplayed the importance of gender in marriage, contending that gender should not factor into marriage privileges.

  3. Ordaining women. As women have asserted their right to lead congregations, many protestant denominations have started to ordain women to the priesthood along with the men.
Our purpose is not to argue the merits or liabilities of any of the above; rather, it is to highlight the degree to which gender constructs have changed in recent years. None of our three enumerated examples would have been likely or possible were it not for the current focus on gender sameness. Whether fair or not, gender used to be an organizing element in the division of labor and assumption of roles between the sexes. In our latest cultural calculus, however, gender must be discounted or entirely ignored.


Honorable as it may seem in the pursuit of gender equality, gender sameness is not without problems, the first of which is biology.

For all of our high minded theories, gender sameness flies in the face of human biology. We might have noble reasons for discounting or ignoring gender in industry, on the battlefield, or elsewhere, but these intentions don’t keep sex or gender from being among the very first things we notice about a person when meeting him or her for the first time. Gender has its roots in biology, and ignoring it is unwise, perhaps precisely because it is impossible.3

Case in point: women in combat. For purposes of our discussion, let’s set aside the differences in physical strength or emotional constitution between men and women. We’ll further take it as a given that regardless of circumstance, men must always take responsibility for their own sexual advances and behavior. All of which begs the question: if the entire purpose for which we have a standing military is to fight and win wars, is it wise to introduce into combat—already one of the most stressful and chaotic experiences known to humankind—an element of sexual tension such as will inevitably be present when men and women are fighting in the trenches together? Would doing so be setting our military up for success, or would it divert resources from its most essential purpose? If you think this is merely an academic concern, you might wander on a US military installation and see how far you can go without seeing a poster outlining the basics of the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) protocol.

Peculiar Doctrine

Into this discussion—and in light of all of the above—we insert a doctrine peculiar in our time. In The Family: A Proclamation to the World, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve have taught that “gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” The Church teaches that gender is a defining and valued characteristic of each individual, essential to both identity and purpose. Far from being discounted or ignored, gender differences should be respected and appreciated as part of our physical and spiritual DNA. Peculiar doctrine indeed.

What are the ramifications? They are many and varied, but here I will focus on those that pertain to our previously introduced war on masculinity and the taming of the modern Mormon man. Contrary to society’s current insistence on gender sameness, I take the Proclamation’s teaching on gender to mean that gender differences are created by God and that they should be valued and respected equally by His children. If the Church is to be a light to the world in the latter days, this is certainly one of the defining differences by which the Church will be that light as the world increasingly departs from principles and practices that have undergirded human society for millennia.

Pursuant to the larger war on masculinity, we earlier defined the “taming” of the modern man as the growing expectation that men should refrain from traditionally masculine behavior, to include holding back from the exercise of leadership or authority. Fair enough, but what did men do before they were tamed?

Men’s Movement

Before addressing that question, let me provide a brief introduction to the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, which, for purposes of our discussion, I will simply refer to as the “men’s movement.”

A detailed history of the men’s movement is beyond the scope of our discussion. Suffice it to say that the movement arose partly in response to the cultural war on masculinity and the subsequent push for gender sameness. As envisioned by those that framed and defined the movement, men and masculinity weren’t the problem. Rather, problems increased with the arrival of Industrial Revolution due to the loss of traditions, rites, and institutions by which grounded and mature masculinity had always been passed from one generation to the next. The movement further makes a compelling case for what men have to offer the world when they are grounded in culture and history and have been prepared to act for the benefit of humankind.

One book in particular is so fundamental to the men’s movement that it bears particular mention. King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine (long title) is derived from Jungian psychology, but it discusses roles traditionally fulfilled by men throughout history. The book—like the movement it helped define—examines both the reasons why men often go awry with the power they possess, as well as the contributions men stand to make when they aren’t afraid to act like men.

In their book the authors develop a historical and literary framework to discuss the archetypes of mature masculinity. They speak of the man as king (leader), warrior (protector), magician (spiritual guide), and lover (husband). In defining these roles, the authors assert that masculinity can and should exert itself as a force for good in the world; of course that can only happen when we stop maligning it as the cause of all the world’s ills.

In LDS culture and tradition we see congruence with many of the principles espoused by the men’s movement. Consider, for instance, the example of King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon. He was the epitome of mature masculinity in the discharge of his duties as king of the Nephites. A great leader, teacher, and prophet, he worked with his own hands to avoid imposing taxes on his people. His example serves as a powerful illustration of how one man can serve and lead people in the way of truth.

Much of the men’s movement focuses on recapturing the energy of the noble warrior. Our modern culture has been so focused on war that we may forget that, in history and literature, the warrior served his community principally by defending women and children. Nowhere do we have a greater departure from the values and conventions of traditional masculinity than in the abrogation of this protective role. Let me provide an example.

I recall a discussion I had with a friend who is not of our faith. As we were becoming acquainted, I inquired about his position on abortion. He seemed hesitant to answer, but when he did, he said that although he thought abortion was wrong, it was not his place to tell a woman what to do. This has become the default position of the majority of men in our generation. Many years of professional counseling have taught me, however, that if unwanted pregnancy victimizes a woman once, abortion will victimize her twice as the woman is most often left without the resources to deal with the profound emotional and psychological consequences that accompany the termination of human life. With regard to abortion, the tame men of our generation—instead of protecting women and children—fail both, ironically in the name of not being (or being seen as) male oppressors. Men have few problems setting boundaries and limits with other men, but standing up for (or to) women is something they are not generally prepared to do.

For all the supposed progress in the “taming” of modern men, would we be surprised to find that most women are unhappy with the end result? As it turns out, many women appreciate strength and principled leadership in men—to the point that they are put off when they see men as passive, weak, or indecisive. Thus men get a double message: they aren’t supposed to act like men, but neither do they generate respect when they are tame.

Wild and Untamed

Can a man be wild and untamed and a follower of Christ? Can he be wild and untamed and be a faithful member of the Church in good standing?

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, these were questions posed to me during childhood as I read C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. When Lucy, one of the principal characters, first learns that Aslan is really a lion, she asks her friend, Mr. Beaver about him:
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you” (Lewis, 80).4
By the time I read that, I had figured out that Aslan was C.S. Lewis’s literary symbol of Christ, but I was stymied by the description of Aslan as someone/something not 100% “safe.” Such was not in line with my childhood perceptions. Jesus was gentle, meek, and mild. Or at least that’s all I knew. But as I kept reading, I encountered other passages whereby Lewis further developed this concept. In the last chapter, after a victorious outcome, the narrator records:
But amid all these rejoicings Aslan himself quietly slipped away. And when the Kings and Queens noticed that he wasn’t there they said nothing about it. For Mr. Beaver had warned them, ‘He’ll be coming and going’ he had said. ‘One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down—and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion’ (Lewis, 182).4
C.S. Lewis knew something about Christ with which I had yet to reckon: that there is a difference between being “tame” and “good.” I had always equated the two, but Lewis knew they are not synonymous. Lewis beheld the Christ who forgave the woman taken in adultery and who drove the moneychangers from the temple. Lewis’s Christ was/is not tame, nor is he safe. But He is good.

As I have pondered the subject since, I have come to understand that “wild” in the best sense has several meanings: Christ was wild in the sense that He was unpredictable, meting out justice and mercy in accordance with the unobserved feelings and desires of those who met Him, some of whom desired to follow and worship Him, and some of whom were plotting to kill Him. He was fiercely loyal to His Father, and His behavior was not governed by custom, nor did He live to please anyone but His Father. Finally, Christ was capable of irrational behavior in the service of righteousness. I’ll come back to that later on.

Rediscovering Wildness

That the 1999 movie Fight Club could become a cult classic is testament to the growing sense that men want something other than the tame existence that has been prescribed for them. Countless other films and books have explored essentially the same theme: What else is there? How can I escape the mundane? How do I live life to the fullest?

I’m not going to attempt a direct answer to these questions. Suffice it to say that this is not likely to be the subject of a lesson in the standard Elder’s Quorum curriculum any time soon. Amid the countless lessons on unrighteous dominion and overcoming the natural man, the Church preaches that men must be tame—or at least that is a common theme. The rest of this discussion is for those who wonder if there isn’t something more.

How does a man discover wildness and become/remain a disciple of Christ? I’m not sure there’s one right answer to that question, but I will recall some personal experiences as I explored this question. I will be introducing the reader to a particular organization that has facilitated my search for more. As I do so, be it known that I have no financial ties to this organization, nor do I stand to profit in any way by referring men to it.

Earlier I briefly referenced the men’s movement and one of its formative books. The movement has a central metaphor developed by Robert Bly in his book, Iron John. Based on the Grimm’s Fairy Tale “Iron Hans,”5 Iron John recounts the fairy tale and relates it to the modern man’s search for essential wildness—the capacity for something more.

“Iron Hans” is old, foundational literature, and recommended reading. It is the story of a king’s son who is properly socialized and “tamed” in the royal court, but who could never harness or summon true strength until he discovered a “wild man” who taught him everything that civilized society couldn’t—or wouldn’t. As the boy grows and becomes a man, he learns that the wounds he received on his journey (of which he was initially ashamed) can provide him with wisdom and power necessary to conquer his foes. He learns to draw strength from the dark and wild parts of his nature, whereupon he employs that power in service of the greater good.

(to be continued) ...

Some theorists had proposed that gender is primarily a learned experience; this theory has been widely discredited. For further reading, see
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1950).

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Russ Peterson grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho and is an avid outdoorsman with interests ranging from astronomy to wilderness survival. When not camping or backpacking, Russ is a mental health counselor with interests in gender and suicide prevention. He lives in the Intermountain area and enjoys spending time with his five children. Reach him at rhpeterson <at> gmail dot com.

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