Renouncing Masculinity (and reclaiming my humanity)

In my previous blog about John Piper’s so-called complementarianism, the key issue at stake was assumptions about sex and gender roles. Complementarians assume that human relationships are (or should be) shaped by a binary structure. According to Piper and Gruden (in their truly horrible Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), “masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.” Conversely, “femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.”

It seems to me obvious that human relationships resist binaries such as that proposed by Piper and fellow complementarians; people are just too diverse to be classified in simplistic ways. More to the point, a person’s sex has very little to do with whether he or she is gifted to lead, provide for, and protect – or affirm, receive, and nurture – and ideally every person should develop a character capable of each of these traits. Any assertion that one’s sex predetermines leadership or its complementary “disposition to affirm” (by which is meant submission) is inherently sexist. It’s just as bad as saying that a white person is gifted to “lead and protect,” and a black person to “affirm and receive.” It’s not good enough to pretend that men and women are equal in being but subordinate in function, when what we assume that a person can (or should) do is central to their being.

I’ve always resisted binary definitions of masculinity and femininity. Secular versions such as John Gray’s Men Are from Mars and Women from Venus are just as dumb as the Christian equivalent in books such as John Eldridge’s Wild at Heart, with their warrior/hunter/rescuing men and princess/passive/longing to be rescued women.

But my abstract reflections on gender have been made personal by the accident that left me a quadriplegic. This was brought home to me recently by an insightful question by my friend Lauren. We have shared the reading of a book by Tom Shakespeare, Sexual Politics of Disability: Untold Desires, which, among other things, reflects on the implications of disability for masculinity. In response, Lauren said:

That’s one thing I wondered about after reading Shakespeare. He goes through a process of recreating masculinity in the light of disability.  Is this something you’ve considered too?  You were always a rather different man anyway.  What sort of man are you now?  Do you have alternative gender practices?  I find this statement quite hopeful:

“Men with disabilities who rejected or renounced masculinity did so as a process of deviance disavowal.  They realised it was societal conceptions of masculinity, rather than themselves, that were problematic. In doing so, they were able to create alternative gender practices.”

It’s interesting to consider alternative masculinities.  Have you done any thinking about this? There seems to be a dearth of thoughtful literature here, but I suppose your memoir touches on these themes.

My memoir does touch on these themes (there you are – another instance of blatant self-promotion), and indeed I’ve spent many hours mulling over the issue. I’d probably have to admit that for all my feminist rhetoric, prior to my accident I was a stereotypical male – self-confident, sports obsessed, a leader.

Disability, however, asked questions about my manhood. It’s not only the impact of the injury on sexual capacities, although, let’s be honest, masculinity is inevitably tied up with sexual potency. More substantially, it’s the extent to which disability displaced my strength with weakness, confidence with uncertainty, independence with dependency. Far from being a rescuer, I found myself (and still find myself) needing to be rescued, carried, supported, strengthened – all the things John Piper would think of as feminine; and of course it’s been mostly women who’ve done the rescuing, carrying, supporting, and strengthening.

Perhaps Piper would claim that the exception proves the point – that the cost of disability is masculinity. But I think that disability teaches us what is true of our universal humanity; that to be a human is to be vulnerable, fragile, dependent, and in need of rescue. To quote Shakespeare, it’s only when I renounce masculinity (at least as Piper, Eldridge, and Gray understand it) that I can face up to my humanity, and maybe then become the man that I was always meant to be; utterly unique and free from binary straitjackets.

And when I let go of the pretenses of masculinity, I can also dispense with shallow views of femininity, and see my wife and female friends for what they really are; at one and the same time vulnerable and fragile, and incomprehensibly powerful.

cover
Husbands Should Not Break will be in print and available on Kindle in late September.

passionate worship

The ecstasy of St Theresa – an angel of the Lord (eros?) Piercing St Therese with the arrow of passionate desire for God.
The ecstasy of St Theresa – an angel of the Lord (eros?) Piercing St Therese with the arrow of passionate desire for God.

Lately, I’ve been reading about the intersection between disability and sex. This thinking has led me to reflect upon our identity as sexual and passionate beings, and then to wonder about what that says about our relationship to God. What follows is an exercise in creative thinking – not a systematic analysis of worship. If you hate it, please don’t beat me up too much. But at least I hope you find it stimulating…

Contemporary Christian worship music is framed by a subliminal eroticism, revealed in song lyrics, musical style, and the body language of Christian bands and recipient congregations. This eroticism reflects the long history of sensual language in the Christian spiritual tradition (see the picture and of St Therese above), with its expressed longing for union with Christ and the loving embrace of God. A passionate, ecstatic, and experiential sensuality was central to the worship of the charismatic renewals of the late 20th century, and remains prominent in contemporary worship, with songs emphasising God’s overwhelmingly powerful love for us, and our passionate longing for him.

To cite a recent example, consider one of my favourite worship songs, Hillsong United’s Oceans (Where Feet May Fail). To complain that this song might as easily be directed at a lover is to miss that that is precisely the point. Written in the first person, the song draws on passionate human eros and directs it to God: “my soul rest in your embrace, for I am yours and your mine.” Its sensuality is contained not only in the lyrics, but in the beauty and purity of vocalist Taya Smith’s voice, gently supported by the (sexy) timber of male backup singers. It is a song sung by beautiful people, who celebrate the mystery of divine beauty with eyes closed, and hands raised, symbolic of both submission and embrace. Surely this is not something to be decried but, rather, it’s what worship is all about.

Eros, sexuality, is fundamental to what it is to be human – to be a passionate person. Too often in its history the church has sought to suppress sensuality for the sake of boring, cold, and rigid agape – self-giving love. Self-giving is, of course, central to love, but it is self-destroying if it is not accompanied by passionate eros. And this has been the story of the church, which has demanded that people love by subjugating passion. Yet all the while it has failed to realise that its self-flagellation was a sign of eros suppressed and distorted – a celibate priesthood corsets the Bride (i.e. the church), telling her to ‘suck it up and think of God (or England).’ Repression on one side leads to oppression on the other.

If contemporary worship is subliminally erotic, then at its best it’s a celebration of human passion and a longing for intimacy and touch. As such, it’s a celebration of bodies, bodily sensations, and ardent emotion, all of which should be brought to bear in worship.

Where it goes wrong is when passionate worship (human to divine) functions exclusively, as a replacement for the thrill of human to human passion.

If worship can be erotic, then is it possible for sex to be worship? There is obvious support for this idea in Hinduism and Tantric sex, as well as in various animistic traditions and pagan spiritualities. Although less prominent in Jewish and Christian tradition, the canonisation of the Song of Solomon stands as an especially potent sacralising of sexual desire. That church theologians have often analogised Song of Songs as a symbol of the passion of Christ for the church is telling, even if, thereafter, Jesus is generally imagined as asexual. In fact, the incarnation is itself a divine embrace of embodied humanity – and Jesus had sexual organs that presumably functioned in much the same way as ours. Jesus’ particular vocation may well have kept him a virgin, but he was constantly in trouble for ignoring the sexual proprieties of his day by welcoming women and men as friends and lovers (in the broadest sense of that term). This is not to say that we can model our sex lives on Jesus (sometimes WWJD really is absurd), but it is to say that Christianity should celebrate the body, in all of its wondrous, sensual, and messy absurdity.

Might we go further, embracing the idea that we could learn something about what it is to worship by thinking about our sexuality (and, of course, doing more than just thinking)? I’m not primarily talking about fantasy, (although I’m not excluding it, since imagination is surely part of the divine image), but about exploring what our passions have to say about us, our self-transcending capacity to love and be loved. These passions are ultimately reaching for transcendent beauty; that is to say, our passion seeks the divine.

But if that’s so, what might be the implications of our assumptions that certain groups of people are or should be asexual? Of course I’m thinking about disability, but the logic (if there is any) has much broader implications. Precisely what those are is a topic for another day.

That damned LED clock

My eyes opened and I stared at the ceiling. The red LED laser clock told me it was 2 AM. My brain was fried but I’d been woken by a spasm that had travelled from my toes up through my calf and thigh and into my stomach. I shut my eyes and tried for a quick return to oblivion, but my legs were twitching. My spinal injury is incomplete, so I have sensation in my paralysed legs and hands – but it’s muted and warped. If they’ve been still too long, the tension in my legs burns and builds, and then fires, like a bolt of electricity, causing my knee to kick up and bend tight. Sometimes they’ll fall to the side, so that I lay like a twisted chalk-drawn outline of a corpse. Last night, they kicked up and then straightened back out, before shaking crazily in spasm, like an out-of-control orgasm, but one that brought no relief. And so began a cycle that continued until I eventually lost consciousness; twitching, spasm kick spasm, momentary respite, and then twitching again. It is not painful. Just annoying.

What I wanted to do while all this was going on was to get up and take a piss; to stand at the toilet bowl in the dark and hear the twinkle on the water. Or I thought about sneaking into the kitchen, finding some fresh bread, dropping it in the toaster, and when it was smoking hot, smothering it with butter and Vegemite. Or (because I can’t help but torture myself), I imagined crawling over to Elly’s bed, and straddling her while she slept, waking her with a kiss on the neck. But my legs were lead weights, trapping me in bed, so I had no choice but to stare at the ceiling and hope that I’d fall asleep quickly, before that damned LED clock ticked over too many minutes and I started to worry about how tired I’d be tomorrow.

The last time I noticed, the clock read 2:45 AM. At 7 AM I was woken by the smiling face of my carer. I’d soon be out of bed and in my chair ready for the day. At night I’m a cripple, but in my chair I’m a freewheeling lunatic. Bring on the day.

Rigoletto: disability and the fool

Elly and I were on the train headed to the city when five half drunk middle-aged men wearing blue joined our carriage; obviously off to the rugby final, Waratah supporters hoping for the club’s first premiership. With the joy of alcohol dimming their inhibitions, it wasn’t long before they directed their attention to us, jealously admiring my chair, and then noticing Elly’s faux fur-lined jacket and my suit, “where are you going tonight?”

I hesitated, embarrassed, before responding, “to the opera house to see Rigoletto.” And then to make it clear that we weren’t actually opera-snob type people, Elly added, “it’s our first time – you’ve got to try it once.”

And so we made our way to the opera house, where we found our seats three rows from the front (a real treat, since wheelchairs are normally squashed into the back corner). The orchestra swelled and the curtains were raised on a darkened set, where a hunchback with a gamy-ed arm and twisted feet was being dressed into the outfit of a court jester – the fool Rigoletto.

The first act is set in the Duke’s Palace, where the courtiers are cavorting with half naked girls (my boys were excited to hear that the opera included some explicit views of nicely shaped pert breasts). Most lecherous of all was the Duke, who went on to seduce the daughter of Count Monterone. In the midst of this riotous debauchery, the fool’s role was to amuse the court, mostly by mockery – laughing at the courtiers as they mocked him in return. Act 1 finishes with Count Monterone being sent to the gallows after denouncing the Duke for the affair with his daughter. As he is dragged away, Monterone pronounces a curse, which the Duke laughs off but Rigoletto takes to heart. Act 2 moves to Rigoletto’s home, where we meet his beautiful daughter, Gilda. And you can guess what comes next (hint: it involves kidnap, sex, revenge, murder, and tragedy).

It was surprising good fun. The plot was engaging and camply melodramatic, and of much more importance was the transcendent voices harmonising with the orchestra (sung in Italian with a screened translation). Emma Matthews’ (Gilda) range, tone, power, and control was angelic, especially when in play with Jose Carbo’ (Rigoletto) and Diego Torre (the Duke). It was a wonderful spectacle, and I had a rollicking good time.

What I hadn’t realised, though, was that the central character was going to be disabled. It took me a while to decide whether to be annoyed or delighted by the portrayal. On the one hand, Rigoletto was a fool, a character whose disability characterised him as laughable and put him on show. Such has always been the place of disability, a fact I’ve discussed earlier in my blog about “inspiration porn.” In Rigoletto, though, the social construct of disability is unmasked, a point made explicit in the song that opens Act 2:.

O man! — O human nature!

What scoundrels dost thou make of us !

O rage! To be deformed — the buffoon to have no play !

Whether one will or not, to be obliged to laugh !

Tears, the common solace of humanity,

Are to me prohibited!

Youthful, joyous, high-born, handsome,

An imperious master gives the word —

“Amuse me, buffoon,” — and I must obey.

Perdition! How do I not despise ye all.

Ye sycophants — ye hollow courtiers !

If I am deformed, ’tis ye have made me so;

But a changed man will I now become. What scoundrels dost thou make of us.

From a disability perspective, the genius of Rigoletto is not only that the central character is disabled, but that he is neither rendered as weak or idolised as perfectly virtuous. Instead, we are given a man who plays the role expected of him (fool), who is no hero (in fact, a murderer), but who nevertheless takes a stand against the courtiers, and seeks vengeance against the Duke. He is a complex character, and the expanse of his soul is revealed in songs of power.

But while Rigoletto rises above the typical view of disability, the same can’t be said for its treatment of gender. Admittedly, the opera is a reflection of its context, but even so, it presents women as either worthless whores or saintly virgins, in each case mere playthings for lascivious courtiers and controlling fathers. It’s certainly a reminder of what feminism has accomplished.

When I mentioned these things to Elly she laughed at me. “Shane, just watch and enjoy the show.” Of course she is right. Next time I am asked by a drunk football fan what I’m doing dressed up for the evening, I won’t be embarrassed to say that I’m going to the opera.

Rigoletto: I highly recommend it (five stars).

A Second Perspective– Guinness friendship and piss

on Jay McNeil’s blogs, Growing Sideways, he gives his perspective of our day out:

So how do I explain this? Lets start when the phone call came at 8:00 am Saturday morning:

“Jay, its Shane – in a spot of bother… my Carer is sick and can’t lift me so I can shower, any chance you could help out? I am not sure who else to reach out to in Melbourne and I am guessing your experience with your daughter Sunshine means you’d be used to the mess of disability.”

 “Yeah, of course Shane… will be there in 20 minutes.” …

To read on, check out J’s blog,  Guinness, friendship and piss.

The Dark Side of Prayer for Healing

My latest journal article, “The Dark Side of Prayer for Healing:,” Pneuma 36, no. 2 (January 1, 2014): 204–25, has just been published by Brill. if I can be forgiven a boast, I received the following response to the paper:

I have to say that in the twelve or more years I’ve been copyediting Pneuma, this is the best article I’ve ever read. Nancy de Flon, PhD

To give you an insight into its content, the abstract reads:

  • This paper explores the relationship between disability and pentecostal theologies and practices of healing. First, it draws on the testimony of people with a disability, describing the challenge of being the “elephant in the room”: the obviously unhealed in a social space in which supernatural healing is understood to be connected to the gospel, a reward of faith, and a central part of a life and ministry of the church. Second, it deconstructs pentecostal theologies and practices of healing, identifying their potentially alienating effect. Finally, it proposes an alternative orientation, replacing the emphasis upon divine healing with a focus on well-being. To this end, it draws on the holistic intention of the pentecostal Full Gospel and relates this to the virtue tradition, with its concern for long-term flourishing in the midst of the hardship and fragility of life.

I know that journal articles are not everyone’s cup of tea (especially in this era of five-minute attention spans), but I do hope that some of you take the time to read it– available here. I’m certainly happy to engage in any discussion/criticism in the comments section below.

don’t spend the day in my wheelchair!

one of the more common assumptions about wheelchairs is that they are entrapping. You will often hear it said, “you must long to escape that chair?” Or, alternatively, a well-meaning person might make the observation, “every able-bodied person should spend a day in a wheelchair to know what it’s like to live with disability.”

In fact, the wheelchair is a liberating device – and far from entrapping me, gives me freedom.  yesterday, on my way home from work, my wheelchair broke down halfway up the hill. I was trapped, and my poor son Lachlan had to push me home – all 260 kg of chair and body (champion). at least I’d made it home, but the next day (today as I write) I needed to make an important meeting at midday in the city. so, at 8 AM I called wheelchair service to arrange a fix. I was fortunate that a repair man was available,  and he came to fix the chair. By 10 o’clock, he’d finished and left and I was up and ready for my meeting – only to discover as I was heading out the door that the error had repeated, and I was going nowhere. So back to bed, meeting missed. And here I wait for who knows how long?

My point is, that the chair is my liberation. It does give me some complications. I can’t transfer, so I’m stuck in it.I can’t get in to a normal car, and there are some buildings with steps that are inaccessible – personal homes are the worse – with more than 80% disability unfriendly. but aside from minor inconveniences, I love my chair. Think of the following:

1. Speed – I can get around at 10 km an hour, which makes you lot with legs seem slow. on a pavement, I can be downright dangerous to people who walk with their heads in their phone.

2. Carry – I might not have much arm strength, but my chair makes a handy (pun intended) trolley. I’m brilliant with grocery bags, and make light work of a picnic.

3. Seating – I never have a problem finding a seat. Last on to a packed train – no problems.

4. sleeping – my chair tilts back almost 90°. That means I have a bed with me wherever I go. I’m notorious for falling asleep on the train, having to be woken up by the guard when I arrive at my destination. other passengers are downright jealous (especially retirees and mothers of young children).

5. barging – I never have problems making my way through a crowd. My chair has a steel foot plates and acts like a snowplough when people are in the way.

6. Entertaining – my nephews and nieces love sitting on my lap and going for a ride. They grow out of it of course, but the young ones think it’s brilliant. When a ride is on the offer, I’m the favourite uncle.

If you want to know what it’s like being disabled, spend a day in my bed, and get hoisted and showered by my carers,  and tie your legs together halfway up a hill. but don’t spend a day in my chair, because I need it.

Jeremy just a little bigger than my nieces
Jeremy just a little bigger than my nieces
a bed wherever I go
a bed wherever I go