Essay

Men Behaving Goodly

By December 15, 2017 7 Comments

If I heard it once, I heard the story a dozen times. It was all about the gendered shape of conversation.

Went like this. One of his early novels included a racy scene or two the relatives, his own kith and kin, found distasteful. And there were such.

His first homecoming after publication was not particularly heartwarming, a bit chilly, in fact; but the family waited until Sunday dinner to force open the discussion. “There are things you write in that book, Feik, of which we really don’t approve.” Some aunt, maybe even his step-mother, was cast as Jeremiah. One simply doesn’t <I>not</i> mention such grave offense.

No one looked up or spoke. All sipped soup determinedly. The reproof son Feike received just then was immediate; it was rapt silence, its own species of excommunication.

If he tried to explain himself or legitimize the scenes they’d determined off-color–well, let’s be frank, indecent, dirty, and downright wicked–the novelist never talked about it. Maybe he let well enough alone. His set-up moment for this favorite story was the deep silence, as if on cue, that followed the Jeremiad.

That wasn’t the end of the story. Later that afternoon, when it was time to milk, Fred Manfred claimed he went out to the barn with the rest of the men (he was the oldest of the Feikema boys–six in all). Once they were busily milking, that spurious novel came up again. “You know, Feik, my favorite part was right there on page 105, you know, where the guy. . .” The boys were all in.

Frederick Manfred loved that story, even used it as a forward to a later novel. He loved it not only because he lived it, but because it legitimized his sometimes graphic descriptions. Women may have hated that stuff, he used to say, but the men?–they liked it, even memorized the page numbers of the hot spot pages.

It just seems to me that the story isn’t as funny as it once was, but neither was Fred Manfred wrong in telling it. It wasn’t, at base, evil. Today, a century later, gender differences still exist. I didn’t mind skipping the baby shower down in Oklahoma when my wife and daughter took a couple of days to go up and back.

But the plague of powerful men behaving badly right now is not only embarrassing, it’s unnerving. If you’re male, it’s a curse. Once in a while some female teacher gets fired for dallying with her male students, but over and over and over again it’s men who do the madness, men who are out of control, men who belittle, who strike fear, who abuse again and again and again. Men are the ones with power, of course, and it’s men who are the sickos.

A couple weeks ago now, a choral group–all men–performed a piece of musical theater that was beautiful, not simply because of the virtuosity of their music or the poignant story they told, but also because that performance offered me–and other males–a moving and blessed picture of men behaving well.

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 told the story gloriously and was, for me at least, a bromide of gender therapy. What happened in the trenches of France, when German and British soldiers celebrated Christmas together, featured more than its share of drinking and smoking and carrying on; but for a moment at least, that Christmas Eve threw a spotlight on men who quite miraculously put war and death behind them, if only for a day.

Instead of shooting, they sang carols. Instead of machine guns, they brought out the grog. Instead of killing, they helped each other bury their dead. Instead of death, they chose life.

All is Calm was, for this male at least, a Christmas gift for which I’m greatly thankful. If, when the curtain went down, those nine men stepped back out to say they were going to do the whole show over again, I’d have sat back down in a heartbeat. It was great theater, awesome music; and, in this world of ours, a world of men behaving badly, it was a blessed reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way.

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

7 Comments

  • Lisa Tice says:

    James – I first saw All is Calm last week. Tomorrow, I will take my son to see it. If we could require this as part of large denominational gatherings, I wonder if it could encourage decent talk on difficult issues. Thank you for this wonderful insight into the Hunan capacity to seek peace.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    I appreciate your desire for and attempt at offering a counter-narrative to the “men behaving badly” theme that has become so prevalent. But even in this little piece, you seem to fall into the trap of acting as if men have somehow cornered the market, or at least dominated the market, on evil behavior. Sure, women have a trespass here and there, but it’s the men, those awful men. The endless parade of Christian authors parroting the pop-culture narrative and tut-tutting all those evil men for their evilness (yes, even finger wagging as they encourage) is tiresome and really trite. “If you’re male, it’s a curse.” Poppycock! It’s no more a curse for men than for women – both bear the curse of sin. Sure, the generalized trappings of women: the conniving, the gossiping, the manipulating, the lying, the sexualized flaunting, etc., are harder to pin down and are more culturally acceptable. The Christian lens really ought to operate in in different way than the cultural panic of the moment. There is nothing new under the sun. There is no current plague of men behaving badly, only humans sinning as they always have, and the cultural spotlight currently has found a convenient target in men. It never ceases to amaze me that the culture around us is shocked (shocked, I tell you!) that men bathed in a sexualized, power hungry, morally compass-less society act in evil ways. And it never ceases to amaze me that the culture around us simultaneously thinks that encouraging women to be more power-hungry and excusing women’s self-sexualization are core elements of the cure. And it generally makes me sad when the church follows suit. Grace, mercy, redemption, forgiveness, new life, etc – all these are God’s gifts to men *and* women, neither needing it more than the other. Would that the church would concentrate less on the categorization of people into competing gendered, colored, and generally “othered” groups, and focus more on the gospel truth for all and what unites us: both our sinful condition and the freedom from slavery to the impulses that the culture around us cannot make sense of. Yes, even in telling us a “see, men don’t always behave like pigs” story, you have unfortunately furthered the dominant narrow-sighted narrative. Also, to be sure, the hope for men is decidedly *not* found in balancing stories of evil with stories of goodness – it is found in Christ alone.

    Jim, thank you for countenancing my little rant.

    • P says:

      First, thank you, Mr. Schaap, for this lovely meditation. To Mr. Van Dyken, let me offer a reply to your response to Mr. Schaap’s essay in defense of the cultural moment that’s going on right now. I grew up in the CRC and have been a member of the denomination now for four years. I completely agree that both men and women sin, and that each person is responsible for their own actions. I dispute your implication that women are particularly prone to the sins you have described above; I think both genders do these things. In addition, as a woman I must say that I have a “metoo” moment as well, and I think it is high time that our culture addresses “humans sinning as they always have” in this particularly egregious way. While there are, of course, many issues we might focus on, sexual harassment and assault are often life-destroying acts, and evidence shows us that are most often perpetrated by men against women. I myself was raped earlier this year by a man who is a member of the CRC. I hold him responsible for his actions, but I also see how the culture he was raised in (in this instance I mean secular American culture more broadly) contributed to the way he treated me and hurt me. Frankly, though, I don’t think it’s only secular culture that contributes to the morass of disgusting violence against women that occurs. The church, too, must work to root out the vestiges of patriarchy that so often contribute to a similar diminishing of women’s personhood. It is this reduction of another’s personhood, I believe, that is part of what creates the mental space that allows for rape to happen. Rape changes you irrevocably; it results in an indescribable suffering that I cannot begin to convey. So yes, forgiveness and redemption, but also (and for me more urgently) justice and a reckoning with the horrors of sexual violence. And I really don’t think it’s fair to say that women are encouraged to be power-hungry. I think what’s happening is a reclaiming of women’s fundamental dignity and worth and equality — I think every human being is equally valuable — and the community and encouragement we need to feel confident in our God-given gifts and talents. It’s a shame that we’ve been pressed down since time immemorial, and I am grateful to the women who came before me to open up so many possibilities for me, and I will continue to work to keep those possibilities and further gender equity on behalf of the generations to come. Of course people get it wrong a lot of the time — I’m not on board with the sexual laissez-faire attitude that has become so prevalent — but at its core I think feminism is a God-honoring movement; it’s just deeply misunderstood, and complicated in its iterations. Yet we need only look towards the way Christ treated women to see that God values us, and that we are all equal in his sight. It is that belief in fundamental equality that constitutes the core of feminism’s tenets. I pray that our culture will change in such a way that sexual violence lessens and maybe even disappears. I doubt that it will fully disappear, but until then, I say, “Come, Lord Jesus.”

    • P says:

      I would also like to add that the culture is NOT advocating for women to self-sexualize and be power-hungry as part of the cure. It’s encouraging the men who sexually harass and assault women to stop doing that.

      • Eric Van Dyken says:

        Hello P,

        I am sorry to hear of your experience. It no doubt colors your response, and I don’t begrudge you that. I pray that you will experience healing.

        You are assigning much more meaning to what I wrote than I have. Specifically, you have jumped off into a defense of feminism, which I did not speak of or critique. I have not here, nor anywhere argued against the equality of women. I also said nothing about #metoo. I have never dissuaded anyone from speaking about nor seeking justice for any harm done to them.

        It is quite undeniable that our culture encourages women to self-sexualize and openly approves of women’s use of their sexuality to obtain what they want. Our culture also specifically advances the notion that the solution to male evil is more power for women. If you aren’t willing to acknowledge these basic societal phenomena, I’m not sure that we will connect much in a discussion. Our society is saturated with all manner of sexual immorality, the breadth and depth of which springs from the heart of women and men alike. The world does not know what to make of this. The church does, and should speak in ways that are decipherable from the world and offer hope rooted in our only source of hope.

        • P says:

          Hello Mr. Van Dyken,

          Thank you for your gracious response. I think you are right that I read too much into your reply with respect to feminism — my apologies; and certainly I do agree my response is colored by my experience. I think we still differ on the point of our culture advancing the notion that the solution to male evil is more power for women. So I suppose we must leave it there, agreeing to disagree on that point while agreeing — because I think you make a good point here — that the church should offer hope.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    It seems to me that the Virgin Birth of the Lord Jesus (no men involved, thank you very much) sustains the author’s point.

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