Readers of Carolyn Custis James are familiar with her recurrent challenge to believers to pattern views of gender not after cultural descriptors but after the unblemished design God gives in the first two chapters of Genesis. In books like When Life and Beliefs Collide, The Gospel of Ruth, and Half the Church, she carefully mines God’s blueprint and insists that it should define what it means to be female.
James now turns her focus on men for the first time in her latest book, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World. Manhood, she claims, is under siege and not because there are women in the board room and men in the laundry room. The crisis that threatens men has ancient roots according to James, and the only real solution is to recapture the even more ancient imago dei we find revealed in those first two chapters of Genesis.
She tags this crisis "the malestrom" and defines it as “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 else, to lose sight of God’s original vision for his sons” (18). Her solution for men is strikingly similar to the solution she offers women in her other writings. This is not surprising, given James’s point that man and woman were equally and jointly tasked at creation with ruling and subduing the earth.
On one level, this call to image God is simple foundational gospel. God made humankind in his image. We fell. Christ came to return us to God’s original design so that by knowing him, we might reflect his very nature and thereby glorify him. This is equally true for men and women. But for James, man’s lostness shows up in ways that are strikingly different for men than for women. This is nowhere more evident than in her discussion of patriarchy, a system she says not only marginalizes women, but sets men vying for power with one another, and locks them in violent competition. According to James, patriarchy is the primary expression of the malestrom, and dethroning it is a significant focus of her book. Unflinchingly she argues that it is destructive and, worse, “runs counter to the gospel of Jesus” (30).
This will sound like heresy for many in the evangelical culture wars. But James makes a strong case that “patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message” (31).
Her take on Abraham, that most quintessential of patriarchs, is revealing in this regard. His boldest act of obedience is actually quite un-patriarchal, James points out. Abraham comes within inches of killing his son Isaac, that long awaited heir on whom Abraham’s legacy depends (Genesis 22:9-10). It is significant that in this act, Abraham powerfully images the nature of God the father, pointing to the future sacrifice that will save us all. This undergirds James’ thesis that imago dei overthrows patriarchy. But Abraham is not unscathed by the malestrom. James reminds us that this same Abraham in sheer self-protection, uses his wife Sarah not once, but twice, as a human shield. (See Genesis, chapters 12 and 20.)
Lest we be tempted to think patriarchy is a strictly historical fixture, James identifies its many current manifestations. Honor killings and human trafficking are just two. She also goes to lengths to point out that patriarchy is bad for men as well as women. The malestrom promises purpose and identity for those who can accrue enough power to scramble to the top of the heap. But this sort of power brings destructive self-centeredness for those at the top and oppression to those at the bottom. The growth of Isis and its success at recruiting young men from affluent Western nations is one potent example James gives.
Malestrom is organized into nine chapters, each of which includes a biblical example. While several expose the malestrom’s destructiveness, most illustrate ways God’s people have beautifully and powerfully overcome it by embodying God’s image. Several illustrate James’s “blessed alliance,” a term she has coined to describe God’s original design of men and women supporting one another to accomplish God’s will. The story of Deborah, Barak, and Jael is notable in chapter four.
James is nothing if not passionate about the need to address the crisis of the malestrom. There are times, though, when her brush stroke is so broad it seems to encompass every ill on planet earth. And those looking for a laundry list for godly masculinity will be disappointed in Malestrom. The book refuses to address this anxious obsession of many evangelicals. It is significant; however, that by exploring the unique ways the fall has profoundly damaged the masculine, James affirms a distinction between male and female. This book in conjunction with James’s earlier books suggests that the only way to know exactly what gender should look like is not to dictate rules and roles, but for each believer to put God at the center of his or her life and allow God’s image to shine through.