By Jason Coker
Only a couple of days after my firstborn child came into the world, I was in the hospital room with him when he did what all new babies do. So I carefully laid him on the changing table and started to change his diaper. As odd as it sounds, it was a holy moment (you fill in the blanks with your jokes). Seriously, I was a father for the first time and, as nasty as it was, this was one of the first father-son moments. I was there with him, we were sharing an intimate life moment together, nothing else in the world mattered, and then a nurse came into the room.
The nurse looked at me, then looked at my son, then threw her head back and laughed at us both. She walked over and nearly nudged me out of the way while she said smugly, “Let me do that!” Maybe it was defensiveness or something along those lines, but I was offended! Her gaze, here matronizing tone, her dismissiveness were all terribly offensive. She was stealing a moment from me — a moment that I wanted — and for what? It was clear that she didn’t believe that I knew what I was doing. I filled a stereotype of men who have no idea what to do with infants, especially poopy infants. I let her know, “I got this!” (In my mind, I was saying, “Holy poop! I got this!”)
I was nearly 30 years old and this was the first time I was cognizant of being stereotyped as a man. Let that sink in for just a moment. What a place of privilege (and power)! My story is full of blind spots and open to various critiques, but I use it only to explore this question: What does it mean to be a man? That’s a serious and loaded question, but important for an audience of all genders. Gender matters and gender means something. It means something to be a man. But we (all of us) get to determine what it means. We are the ones who define not just the term, but the cultural spectrum of what this term signifies. Gender is more than anatomy and physiology. It carries cultural assumptions and definitions that include, but are greater than, the gendering of pink and blue.
We all have our own natures and personalities, but we are also all cultural products. The toys I played with as a child were He-Man and G.I. Joes — toys specifically made for boys. He-Man had a massive sword and was anatomically, impossibly ripped. G.I. Joes were loaded with guns, explosives and a ton of other ammunition. We all know this, so I’m not trailblazing here. Gendered toys, however, haven’t changed all that much in the past three decades or so, specifically related to the violence and power of toys for boys. Today, John Wayne just has a different name.
I live less than 20 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The massacre of innocent children there affected our whole nation — as it should have. Gun violence and mental health became two important issues in a national debate that continues to rage. These two issues deserve all the attention that we can give them, so I am not trying to deflect from those two critical items. I was, and have been, overwhelmed — maybe underwhelmed — that gender hasn’t shared any of that focus. I am not aware of any young woman that has committed a mass shooting. According to a very short article in Time magazine , 98 percent of all mass killers in the United States are male. What are we doing as a society to prevent our boys and young men from doing this? If we back away from mass killings and only focus on domestic violence, we only ask the same sorts of questions. What it means to be a man has serious ramifications for our entire society.
As a Christian, I feel like we have important responsibility — even a moral imperative — to be a part of changing our culture regarding masculinity. If we are part of our culture, then we can participate in changing it so that we don’t perpetually produce violent men. I am certainly not espousing the notion of affirming traditional manhood. These “men movements” do just the opposite of changing culture; they dig in and attempt to exemplify masculinity as power and authority. When I ask, what does it mean to be a man, what I really mean is what does healthy and life-giving masculinity look like? How do we, as a culture, begin to produce a masculinity that is safe to itself and to others?
There are a host of scholars who are asking this question in a host of fields. Judith Butler (cultural theorist), Stephen D. Moore (New Testament scholar), and Maud Gleason (classics scholar) are just a short sampling of scholars who are working on the issue of masculinity in the academy. I want to hear more of us in the church asking these questions and working on these solutions without a wholesale drive into traditional manhood. Our lived past doesn’t give us a ton of examples for how to proceed into the future of this inquiry.
We are standing at the cultural frontier of masculinity in the 21st century. What are we going to make of it? By “we,” I specifically mean the Church in the U.S. How are we going to construct a masculinity for our future that is healthy? What does it mean to be a man?