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Malestrom: An Interview With Carolyn Custis James

Who gets to define what it means to be a man? Pop culture? Church culture? Jesus? Evangelical thinker and author Carolyn Custis James has spent the last two years examining these questions, and she’s now calling Christians to the urgent task of recapturing God’s vision for men. The title of her new book, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Current of a Changing World (Zondervan, June 2015), alludes to the dangers of whirlpools in the open seas, maelstroms. She chose this powerful title to help readers grasp the destructive and disorienting forces that took root as humans turned away from God’s original vision for men.

Named as one of Christianity Today's "Top 50 Women to Watch" for her impact on church and culture, Carolyn James thinks deeply about what it means to be a female follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. She travels extensively as a speaker for churches, conferences, colleges, and theological seminaries. She is an adjunct professor at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and blogs on

ConversantLife asked Carolyn five questions about her new book.

Who do you see as the audience for Malestrom?

Although men read my books, my base has always been female. But I believe there will be a bridge between men and woman in this book. I would hope men would be drawn to it. The issues for men are huge. For me it’s been a learning process. Women think men have it easy, so it’s been an eye-opener for me. On the other hand, men are not the enemy. It’s important to us as women that they flourish and do well.

Everybody is impacted by the fall, but men have had to swallow and deal with it because the expectations are great for them. They haven’t been allowed to show how they struggle, which I talk about in my book. Already I can tell you that the men who have read this book have felt nurtured by it.

You write that historic patriarchy is the principal expression of the malestrom. What is patriarchy and how is it harmful to both men and women?

When I researched this, it became clear that the patriarchal influence exists in all cultures, stronger in some places than in others. But it is a continuum. It centers on male rule and male authority. The very name, patriarch, means “father rule.” It speaks to the privilege of men just because they are male. It takes on sinister forms in the biblical culture, and we hang on to pieces of it to this day.

The problem is that a patriarchal system puts pressure on men.  It dictates that who you are as a man depends on other people following you and doing what you say as they come under your leadership, as opposed to something that is inherent in who you are as a human being.

The more I looked at Scripture, the more I saw that this way of functioning in relationship to women and to other men is dismantled by the Bible. In Genesis 1 and 2, the rule is outward toward the creation in order for there to be flourishing. In Genesis 3, after the fall, this notion of rule is turned against other human beings.

The basic elements of patriarchy are that men are the providers and protectors and impregnators, and anything that is female is antithetical to being a man. It puts all of these burdens on men that women are able to do as well. They can provide and they can protect. Women have historically done those things, and it doesn’t diminish them at all.

Is this what you mean by the “blessed alliance” between men and women?

The message of the creation narrative is that men and women need each other. We’re better at what God calls us to do when we join together to do it. When God says it’s not good for the man to be alone, he’s not saying he needs more work. And he’s not saying there’s anything wrong with him. It’s that the mission is so great, and the walk of faith is so difficult, that we need that kind of unity as we move forward, that kind of encouragement of one another, of not being alone in this world, whether you’re single or not. There’s a community of believers who join together. By contract, patriarchy causes us to pull apart because there are roles you need to assume, and if you don’t assume them, then you’re less of a man or less of a woman than you ought to be.

This happened to me. As I was growing up, I was taught that my primary roles were to be a wife and mother. And then I hit a long period of singleness and I wondered if I was missing what God created me to be. That’s why it’s important for us to not look at the nuclear family as the only way it’s supposed to be. Those who aren’t part of that feel lost in terms of who they are. It leaves single men feeling that manhood is out of reach. Patriarchy is at the bottom of it because it demands that men prove who they are as men. In contrast, what God gives us is indestructible.

On page 144, you write, “The call to follow Jesus is not magical. It marks the beginning of a long journey that entails working hard at change, at shedding the kingdom-of-this-world entanglements layer by layer, and making intentional strides toward becoming a new and radically different kind of man.” Expand on that a bit, because it seems that can apply to both genders.

I think our basic calling as both men and women is to be God’s image-bearers. The blessed alliance is something that comes out of that. We can’t image God individually as fully as we can together, and we can’t image God as all-male or all-female as fully as we can as male and female together. God is one, but He’s also diverse. He’s a Trinity. Man can’t image God alone as fully as he can when he’s joined with the woman.

I’m looking for the bottom line in my work. If you tell a man that his manhood depends on his being a father and a breadwinner and being the one who attacks the intruder in the house by himself, there are so many men who can’t do that. So what is the bottom line? What can we tell every single man no matter how broken he is, no matter how his life is playing out, no matter what his circumstances are or his history has been? We can tell them, this is who you are. And it’s not just a label you are given. It’s a mission you are called to.

The more I look at all of this, the more I see that it’s easy for us Christians to stick a stake in the ground and say, “I’ve got this figured out. This is what it means to be a Christian, this is what it means to follow Jesus, etc.” I like what Bono says in the song, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” It is a journey, it is a process of learning and growing and discovery.

We think horizontally rather than vertically. We look at our culture and try to improve on that, but the more I look at Jesus, who says “My Kingdom is not of this world,” the more I think we have work to do to understand what that means.

You talk about breaking the cycle of violence and injustice that the malestrom perpetuates. Toward the end of the book, you write that the malestrom shows no signs of abating: “It will wreak havoc in men’s lives until Jesus comes.” How do young men who can’t relate to those qualities process this?

I don’t see men that way, but when I see how men are drawn into gangs and into ISIS, or even what’s happening on our city streets, it’s easy for us as Christians to feel that these things are far away from us. But we need to ask, "What is the message the church conveys to men that counteracts all of that?"

When I read that young men are being drawn into ISIS because it offers purpose and identity, I wonder about the message that we can offer men that would give them a true identity and sense of belonging. Are we just silent, or do we have something to offer men that’s better. Not to browbeat them and tell them to “man up,” but to invest them with this rich identity, this high calling, this significant purpose.

I struggle with that. I don’t have the solution, but I know this. Jesus didn’t come to make men more manly, but to reconnect them with their Creator and put them back on mission as God’s image bearers. He didn’t come just to tweak things, but to overthrow the kingdom of this world. We are slow to learn and need more stories to help us catch God’s kingdom vision and even to help us make sense of the example Jesus sets for us.

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