What do drums, earthy masculinity, and gender quotas have to do with the gospel?

Early one morning, while studying that depository of contemporary culture, the university bulletin board, I learned of a coming “Journey into the Male Wilderness.” The event was billed as a “Men’s Soul-Making Weekend.”

The poster described the weekend as “a time for men to recall their boyhoods, become animals and heroes, and honor their ancestors and elders. We will meet, eat, talk, tell stories, drum, play together. We will address such issues as work, family, friendships, spirituality, community, relationships with women, father, men’s feelings, earthy masculinity, sexuality, addiction and recovery, and initiation.”

As best I can tell, a “Journey into the Male Wilderness” is akin to a Boy Scout camping trip (except that this weekend costs $200). I cannot tell what is to be gained by a group of males who would “become animals and heroes” or “drum, play together.” (What does a drum have to do with it? I will leave “earthy masculinity” to your prurient imagination.)

All this drumming, playing, and animal earthiness is based upon “the ideas of such men as the poet Robert Bly, Jungian analyst James Hillman, and mythologist Joseph Campbell,” the poster told me, “who have been influential in the development of this approach to men’s work.” Men’s work?

The entire, wonderful, Jungian, drumbeating weekend is led by someone who says his name is “Shepherd Bliss.” (Is that a real name, or is it something like Will Willimon?) Male soul-maker Bliss is “Professor of Psychology and Men’s Studies, JFK University, California; Literary Director, The Sons of Orpheus: A Men’s Drumming Troop; Ex-Army Officer; Author.” Men’s Drumming Troop?

Rally Around The Drum, Boys

It was only a matter of time until we would be subjected to a “Journey into the Male Wilderness.” We live in an age where people are interested in very little except themselves. When they possess no vision beyond the confines of the identity with which they were born, suddenly “gender issues” become very important. With women’s weekends, gay weekends—why not male weekends?

One objection might be that, whereas women are actually oppressed by our society, men are not. Because the oppressed are often denied the opportunity to express their culture and aspirations, they need to get together and do so.

But that argument is too easily perverted by the oppressor. With Women’s Discovery Weekends implying that there is something ultimately interesting about being women, it was inevitable that Mr. Bliss would come along proclaiming that it was similarly significant to be men. Rally around the drum, boys.

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For lack of anything better to name ourselves, it is perhaps understandable that we get excited about being male or female, gay, American, Republican, or whatever label promises to give some significance to our lives.

“Hello, I’m Will and I’m heterosexual.” Where do we go from there? In the words of Oscar Wilde, who, while he was not of my orientation, said some wonderfully funny things, “Come over here and sit next to me, I’m dying to tell you all about myself.”

My being male (though not a drummer), heterosexual (though not particularly earthy), a South Carolinian, and a Democrat make for designations that are intensely interesting to me, but are as scintillating for you as watching an ice cube melt. And rightly so. Because as interesting as my gender or race might be, it is never ultimately, eternally interesting, particularly in light of the Christian faith.

A major claim of the Christian account of human nature is that Jesus Christ means to fairly well obliterate all of the superficial, natural, sinful, culturally bound labels by which I identify myself and wall others out.

How can Paul mean otherwise when in Galatians 3:27–28 he writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”?

In this strange initiatory rite called baptism, all the old, rather silly distinctions get washed away. We find ourselves within a new community that is accountable to a new story. This community now calls us by an inclusive, infinitely more interesting name—Christian—a name borne as well by women as men, by blacks and whites, by Gentiles or Jews. As Paul says, “With God, there is no distinction.”

The Problems With Pigeonholing

This makes it all the more incomprehensible that the church, of all societies, should now be found attempting to order its life on the basis of distinctions that belong to the old order rather than the new. One can understand why, say, the U.S. government should attempt to solve its social problems by dealing with us on the basis of race, gender, educational level, or age. After all, the state needs to keep all of us pacified and suitably conformed to a society that lacks an account of human life beyond that of freedom for everyone to be equally self-interested. But why on earth has the church adopted the same myopic world view?

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My own denomination now has racial and gender quotas. We say we do it in the interest of “inclusiveness.” Inclusiveness is not what we got.

Recently, I was at a meeting in which we were putting together a pool of possible nominees for our church’s various boards and agencies. The categories were white male clergy, white female clergy, Native American, Asian-American, African-American, Hispanic, and persons with handicapping conditions. We argued ten minutes over whether a person who moved to South Carolina from Brazil was really an Hispanic. (“Portuguese is close to Spanish, right?”) We had a debate over whether a woman was black or just appeared to be black and whether a man who walked with a limp qualified as having a “handicapping condition.” We voted 34 to 12 that the woman was black and 40 to 6 that the man was crippled because, by doing so, each had a better chance of getting on a national United Methodist board.

This sort of thing is positively sub-Christian. Whatever good intentions lie behind such labeling, pigeonholing, and divisiveness, it is unworthy of a people who are baptized and who should therefore be able to see beyond such worldly labels, and simply call someone “brother” or “sister” in Christ.

In a culture that is also a wilderness, the gospel gives us the one means whereby we are enabled to overcome our suspicion of strangers. Having been received by that stranger, Jesus, when we had absolutely no claim of gender, race, class, or nationality by which to be received, we learn to call him brother. Those whom he receives we call family.

The labels may work for a government that has no way to bring justice other than to give power to those who demand to be treated on the basis of a racial, gender, or physical label. (Although we are really stuck, as a nation, with what to do about people who cannot jump into the fray and assert their rights—people with labels such as severely retarded, unborn, and elderly.)

For the church, the old labels are unhelpful except as a reminder that baptism is a lifelong process, that we still fall back into using the old, sinful distinctions of our former lives, and that we therefore have some more washing to be done.

Recently, one of my denomination’s conferences was afflicted with a debate among ethnic minority caucuses over who had suffered the most and therefore deserved the most consideration in church budgets and elections. Japanese-Americans justifiably had nasty things to say about their internment. Korean-Americans were none too charitable toward the Japanese. African-Americans debated whether genocide was worse than slavery. The only point of consensus was that whites were lousy. Then the white women expressed outrage that they were being tainted with the injustices perpetrated by white males. Guilt has become the new version of “The White Man’s Burden.”

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I ask of you a favor, then, as my sister or brother in Christ. If ever I should invite you to join me for a $200 weekend with Shepherd Bliss to beat drums, speak of earthy sex, and tell you how deeply significant it is for me to be a white male from South Carolina—act bored. Then remind me that all of that is ultimately uninteresting. Tell me again the story of the Jew from Nazareth who came and reached out beyond race and gender, summoned forth a new people by water and the word, and called me Christian. My little life only has significance within his light.

Without that story, and my place among the peculiar people it creates, I do not need the help of Shepherd Bliss and his all-male drums to take me back to the wilderness for a weekend. I will not have left in the first place.

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