Sunday, May 20, 2007

fishing around for some answers

So I happened upon this article in the Vancouver Sun on Monday: "Fishing around for a religious connection". It 'caught' my attention because it was about both fishing and the church, two things I'm always interested in reading about. I work at a commercial fishing nonprofit organization, and so I always pay attention to what is being said about fishing in the media.

Once I began reading the article, I realized it hit on a topic that seems to have been bleeping on my radar screen fairly regularly in the past few months: "the feminization of the church". My first, sarcastic response is: "And they say that like it's a bad thing?". But as I think about it more and more, I wonder what exactly that phrase means. What do they mean by "feminization"?

The Sun article by religion columnist Douglas Todd talks about a man who conducts fishing trips for men looking for a Christian, religious experience, men who are not finding satisfying experiences in churches.
From the article:
"'Church is too boring for men,' says Ed Trainer, head of International Fishing Ministries. 'Church is set up like a country club for women.'"
"The author of Why Men Hate Going to Church, David Murrow, says studies show the average U.S. congregation is 61-per-cent female. Alaska-based Murrow says many men see church-going as soft, uncomfortable 'womanly' behaviour."
"Barb Trainer, 46, who runs International Fishing Ministries with her husband, says, 'The church has been feminized. It appeals to women in that it focuses on emotion and children and coffee. It's not bold enough for men.'"

I really am curious about what issue these complaints are trying to diagnose. Apparently statistics show that more women are going to church these days than men, but does sheer numbers really a 'feminization' make? And when that word 'feminize' is used, it is used in a very traditional, non-deconstructed very pejorative and almost antiquated way of characterizing certain ideas or practices. Is there a way we can articulate what is going on in the church without resorting to polarized, stereotypical gender norms that not only assume what 'feminine' is but assume it must be bad?

I can agree with the idea that the bulk of Christianity in North America has, in fact "gone soft" in many ways. Most of mainline Christianity doesn't require or request much of its adherents: from the talk in many churches, as long as you make a financial contribution to help keep the institution on life support, you are doing fine. Yes, that is the cynic in me talking, but even my most optimistic self agrees that it is an accurate diagnosis. Radical, sacrificial discipleship is rarely required or even suggested. In my opinion, discipleship and sacrifice could be integral to overcoming contemporary issues such as global warming and global poverty. Instead of being a public witness of a different way of living and engaging with the world, Christian faith has become a matter of private devotion, and disengagement from the world.

But even though I agree with the "softening" of Christianity, I don't call it "feminization". I can see why popular thought would equate the two: there is the very basic idea that stems straight from the sexual realm that hard is good and soft is bad, and man is hard and woman is soft, and man is good and woman is bad. (I have just terribly over-simplified a huge area of study of which I could be much more articulate, but I am tired and this is not an academic paper and hopefully you get the gist of what I'm trying to say) The other part that leads to the "feminization" label is what could more accurately be called "privatization", but since the feminine has long been associated with the private realm, there too we see how matters get convoluted.

Yet another aspect that can be clarified by using terms more specific than masculine/feminine is the sentimentalization of religion. The sentimental has long been associated with the feminine, in opposition to higher masculine rationality/reason. As religion becomes less rational and more sentimental, there is a tendency to again name it as a gender binary.

All of these dualisms where one is privileged over the other are in the end inadequate because in reality all are always at work and what is needed is balance between extremes. For Paul, Christianity was a religion that broke down dualisms: In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female.... And yet we still resort to naming what goes on in the body of Christ as one of those aspects being privileged.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that considering what a lousy time women have had in churches in general for the majority of the history of Christianity, could we cut the churches a little slack in the feminization department? And can we please, please, try to describe what is going on without attributing it to a gender? Can we say that the church is too private or too disengaged or too soft, or too sentimental rather than saying it is too feminine? But then I also wonder whether we haven't actually deconstructed gender norms enough to unhinge those adjectives from the feminine at all....

I also want to know what men who are involved with churches think about this whole feminization thing - is it an accurate diagnosis? Why? Why not? What is going on in the churches, why don't men want to come? Why is being religious or going to church not seen as a good thing to do? And even if it is "weak", why is that bad? Is weakness a bad thing? Christianity's "saviour" is a crucified man who refused to fight back - is that strong? Can a lamb be victorious? I wonder if deconstruction of gender norms and turning-over of the world actually runs very deeply in this religion....

What do you think?



  • Wow, a lot to think about.

    I was reading Newsweek this morning, an article on transgendered children, and the thing I kept coming back to was the triviality of their descriptions of "gendered behavior." They kept saying things like, as an infant Jane reached for a truck rather than a doll, or Jimmy gave his toys feminine names, or Billy as a toddler wanted to wear dresses and play with make-up. These things seem so rediculously trivial that they neuter (pun intended) the idea. But then again... that's the whole basis of "gender" after all, isn't it? Proscribe some behaviors or preferences or norms to one set of people, and different ones to different sets of people. (This is also, I suppose, the basis of racism, too.) Base the proscriptions on assumed qualities of the person extrapolated from observations of their physicality. (Without noting, conveniently, that even the observations are assumed - one doesn't know how a person self-identifies regardless of one's opinion of how they look.)

    On a somewhat other note, your post reminded me of that quote I referenced earlier, where a Seattle mega-church pastor says things like: I can't worship a guy that I could beat up. This is macho-Christianity (like jumbo-shrimp, if you ask me). This seems an attempt to put Christianity on hormone therapy or steroids, to change its DNA. (Ironically, I'm not opposed to humans transgendering. My analogy breaks down pretty quickly.) My point is that there seems to be a lot of macho pastors who are pushing this "feminization of Christianity" thing.

    And frankly, I find your adjectives much more helpful in diagnosing the situations in churches today that lead more men to say no. So, thanks. ;-)

    By Blogger Christian, at 12:10 PM  

  • I think a lot of men are insecure about a lot of stuff...more than just on gender issues. Unfortunately, a peace-advocating man does not get a lot of respect. When I was in the military, it was hard to fit in because of guys trying to be the most macho he-male around, as if they had something to prove. I personally think it's more courageous to strive for peace, and having dialogue with people who are different than waging war.

    The congregation in Atlanta had a mens group going that I refused to participate in because they were using books put out by "Promise Keepers", which is an organization that I definitely do not support.

    I wish more guys would not worry so much about what constitutes feminine and what's masculine. Save the gender labeling for the Latin languages (I never could remember which noun used "la" and which one used "il/el/le"). :)

    By Blogger Sansego, at 6:38 PM  

  • Thanks for the comments. I do sincerely want to hear from men about what they think is going on in "the churches" today.

    I just had to say something about Promise Keepers since N brought it up. I heard a fascinating presentation in January on "hegemonic masculinities" and Promise Keepers, and the presenter had discovered that, fascinatingly, the behaviours that men are told to ascribe to are actually more traditionally considered "feminine" behaviours: letting their feelings show, listening patiently to their wife, trying to be flexible in catering to their wife's needs, and being a part of the moral and religious education of children.

    As much as I dislike the Promise Keepers "men must always be the head of the household" approach, these other qualities are in fascinating contrast to that. Additionally, sociological studies have shown that among men who are involved in Promise Keepers, there is a dramatic decline in domestic violence.

    Another lesson in ambivalence for me.

    By Blogger Shannon, at 11:50 AM  

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