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Redeeming Men: Religion and Masculinities.

Stephen B. Boyd, W. Merle Longwood, and Mark W. Muesse, eds., Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. 293pp. $29.00 (paper).

Redeeming Men investigates "masculinities" and male experiences as specific and varying social-historical-cultural formations. Such studies situate masculinities as objects of study on a par with femininities, instead of elevating them to universal norms" (Harry Brod, xiii). Its twenty-one chapters owe "a tremendous debt to the influence of feminist theory" (xiii), which has disclosed the previously obscure historical and social construction of gender for women and men, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.

Given these starting assumptions, the editors have deliberately designed a volume with a diversity of approaches and interests. Of the twenty-two authors, two are gay men, three are women, two Jewish, two African American, one Native American, and twelve apparently heterosexual European American.

This unity and diversity works as readers are encouraged to see the various masculinities in United States culture as historical and social constructions with a range of choices available for individual men. Once that happens, a new curiosity about men's issues can emerge. When we abandon the search for an essential masculinity, then the imagination is free to explore many possibilities.

For example, does a masculine god feminize men and the virtues of love in a way that promotes hypermasculinity and violence? Do the metaphors of Hebrew and Christian Scriptures that rely on sexual images of God and the marriage with Israel, or Christ as the bridegroom of the church, make religion problematic for heterosexual men? These usually taboo questions are addressed directly in this book. The answers suggest that male violence toward women, children, and nature might abate if religious images with implicit sexual content were made more explicit and other religious options, even goddess religion, were explored.

All the essays are built on the assumption that the options for masculinity as currently constructed are problematic and need to be revised. Moore and Gilette argue for a "mature masculinity" in which men do not need violence and domination of women and children to buttress their insecure egos. Parsons retrieves an image of John the Baptist as a wild man who identified with the oppressed and whose masculinity was excised from the scriptural canon. Jocks remembers his grandfather, who worked steel on skyscrapers yet shared affection and power with his family because of his Native American heritage. Brantley witnesses to the transformation of his gay male identity through the struggle with AIDS, which purified his soul and gave him an inner confidence that transcends his inherited masculinity. Munir and Pollard explore the images of male identity in Malcolm X and Howard Thurman in the '40s and '50s when traditional masculinity was denied African American men. The "al-hajj" of Malcolm X and the spirituality of Thurman show a depth of compassion and resilience which inspired many men in their own struggles.

Three women make significant contributions to this volume. Wiethaus's study of Bernard of Clairvaux shows one of the roots of the split between the "ascetic monk" and the "wild animal" (51). In response to this split which threatened to disempower men as a social class, Bernard "tried to resolve such anxieties for men by reinforcing male hegemony with help of religious symbols" (59). Kirkley shows how contemporary men's movements, especially the Men's Studies in Religion Group of the American Academy of Religion and Promise Keepers, repeat the nineteenth-century search for a tough, self-reliant yet compassionate manhood that laid the basis for patriarchy in the twentieth century. This is a historical reminder of how stubborn gender constructions will be. Carter Heyward confronts men with their current choices: to be "embedded in patriarchy" with its male violence (264), to become men "who lean on women too much" (266), or to "do as they damned well please." (267) Heyward, of course, rejects all three options in favor of partnership and vulnerability between women and men.

In the end, readers are left with many questions which the editors acknowledge. The volume delivers on its promise to introduce multiplicity and ambiguity into the search for a normative masculinity. Recovering or constructing a "true masculinity" which would make most men more comfortable and secure would be a mistake at this time in history. For the sake of love and justice in gender identity and relationships, men must continue to deconstruct the harmful images of masculinity from the past, and be content with discovering fragments of strength and compassion in ourselves for building communities of solidarity between genders, races, cultures, and economic classes.

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Author:Poling, James Newton
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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