This past February, I had the great opportunity to be a part of an Applied Theatre workshop titled Man Question that was put on by graduate students at the City University of New York. Applied Theatre is the term given for Theatre of the Oppressed, which Wikipedia describes in this way,
In the Theatre of the Oppressed, the audience becomes active, such that as “spect-actors” they explore, show, analyze and transform the reality in which they are living.
It’s an opportunity to engage in different interactive techniques that raise a social issue, which provides a more open space for conversation over the issue. I was amazed by Applied Theatre because of how quickly it broke down relational barriers that often impede necessary, but difficult societal conversations. It created community faster than any group I have been a part of, while allowing the conversation to involve disagreement, yet acceptance, frustration, yet peaceful dialogue. I’ve never seen anything like it and it caused me to wonder how can we use this in the church, in teaching, in leadership development, etc. (That may be a blog for another day, but this is about Man Question)
In Man Question, the premise was asking what it means to be a man today, is manhood or masculinity a social construct or are there principles of being a man that transcend culture.
It was a 4 session workshop over 4 consecutive Tuesday nights that consisted of 12 guys that I now call my good friends here in the city. We continue to hang out and are planning more time together to discuss this and many other issues.
The great thing about it for me was being a part of a group that approached masculinity and identity from a different perspective. I was the only Christian and the only straight and married man. After the sessions, we went to dinner together one night and to a bar the next week. I’ve learned more about the gay community in the last few months than ever before and have had some of the most amazing conversations with these guys. We discussed the history of the gay rights movement, religion (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity), what in the world a pastor does, and much more. Easily some of my favorite nights in NYC.
I’m grateful for these relationships and for the workshop. The workshop itself really had no predetermined definition of manhood that it was working toward, it was merely to raise the conversation and see where it went. I think we all walked away with various thoughts regarding masculinity, but all incredibly thankful for the conversations. I left the workshop with a couple primary thoughts in my head.
Culture can be an oppressive master in defining masculinity.
The images of masculinity in our culture can be presented as demanding that all men conform to a specific stereotype and if you don’t, then you’re not a man. Submitting to this idea, based solely on the approval and definition of others in society is oppressive for a few reasons. It’s always evolving from culture to culture and generation to generation. Masculinity is and has been expressed different in every culture.
So if the winds of culture define my ability to be a man, I must conform in ways that may seem uncomfortable or see myself as ostracized and unaccepted. Even if I achieve masculinity in my culture, I have no choice but to maintain and never change. Both sound like oppressive options.
One thing that culture does help us with is in expressing the principles of masculinity in our context. My worldview is oriented around Jesus Christ as Lord and definer of all life. He is the ultimate man. His character and His ways are what I aspire to, He transcends culture as the definer of masculinity. My expression of His masculine character can look different from another male, but I must consider culture in expressing masculinity.
Abuse should not cause us to aim for gender neutrality, but understand our distinct nature.
When things are seen as oppressive, we usually swing the pendulum before asking what the real problem is. Gender neutrality is seen as a way to end the oppressive nature of gender issues. One family is even raising their child genderless until he/she chooses which gender they prefer. This is seen as freedom in their eyes. The thought is that identifying with a gender can be seen as choosing inferiority or superiority.
I obviously differ based on my belief in one God, who has created all things with a purpose and distinct nature. That we are all equal as created and love by God, yet made with distinct roles and functions to play. There are also very evident differences between men and women as evidenced by the immense amount of surgery and hormones that have to be used to truly change your gender.
It seems most appropriate to ask, “Are our definitions and expressions of masculinity to narrow?” Can we make room for the expressions of masculinity that are not typically ascribed as masculine in our culture? Can we focus more on principles of masculinity, being initiators & creators, providing, protecting, being benevolent leaders, owning responsibility, than on stereotypical archetypes?
It’s not always clear-cut, which makes conversation necessary.
If masculinity is based on principles, rather than stereotypes, then cultural expressions make the conversation necessary. This requires facing the reality that we all have prejudices and stereotypes that may or may not be rooted in truth.
As a result, it’s important that we have these ongoing conversations, facing abuses of the past and present, pushing forward to understand the current truth. That’s one of the reasons why Man Question was so fascinating. We faced past abuses that were harmful, discussing them candidly in that small community and all of us left wanting more. We came from different backgrounds and experience not knowing what to expect. We left realizing that these conversations are unfortunately rare where disagreements can be made on peaceable grounds as we seek a conclusion. We left as a community ready to continue the dialogue.
I can’t wait for the next conversation.