Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The War Against Boys

“Okay, now everyone take the hand of the person next to them.”

I glanced over at Brooke and tried to hide the surprise on my face.

“What are we doing?” I whispered.

Brooke shrugged.

“They always do stuff like this. Church unity or whatever.”

It was my first Sunday at Faith Tabernacle, a Pentecostal church near my home. Ever since I’d come back from college, I’d been looking to find a church. I’d decided that God was something I wanted to pursue, and so Brooke, who’d grown up in the evangelical church, said he’d come with me to find one to my liking.

This was my first stop.

I watched in consternation as the people in the church all started holding hands. Even the men were holding hands. And apparently, it didn’t bother them! I glanced over at Brooke, a fellow jock, but he made no motion to grab my hand. At least he hadn't lost his sanity. The whole thing felt like I was suddenly back in grade school and the teacher was forcing us to dance the Virginia reel – with a girl. By now, of course, the thought of dancing with a girl wasn’t as repugnant as it had been as a ten-year-old. I looked over at my friend again to see how he was responding to this bizarre ritual, but it didn’t seem to faze him.

Brooke and I played together for the Welland Indians, an all star baseball team for guys aged 18-21. Brooke was a legitimate college talent, recruited by American schools for the last two years. Sturdily built, with an athlete’s jaw line and ready laugh, there was nothing feminine about him. It amazed me how easily he let this whole hand holding thing pass.

Fortunately, I found other reasons to stay at Faith, and soon became involved in Youth Leadership. But I’ve never forgotten that first Sunday, my first impression of the church, and how the years have desensitized me to all the feminine aspects of church life, much as they had with Brooke. And as we look at a gender gap that has done nothing but grow wider over the last century, it’s time to take a look at what we do in church, and see what we can do to change things.

The balcony outside my apartment reminds me of a southern porch, big and wide, its timbers old and worn. Tall bushes strike up to my third floor apartment between the buildings. And in the distance, a large patch of trees rise from the swill of dilapidated structures like some sort of magical green forest. I've spent many nights out there. I love to sit out and watch the orange fire seep across the horizon, watch as the violet sky fades to black, wait as the stars appear in the night sky. It’s the reason I immediately took the apartment when the landlord showed me the place. I felt the inner writer in me come alive as soon as I stepped outside.

I’m standing out there now, although not for long. The wind is particularly cold, too cold to do any reading or work this night. Still, I’m enjoying the soft snowfall and the sparrows’ song from the bushes. I’ve been asked, more than once, why I tell people that I’m a writer when my day job is working with disabled students. It’s a good question, but my answer is always the same.

Writing is a vocation, a calling. It is not a job. Writing is a mindset, an attitude, a personality. It is a worldview, a passion, a love. I would be no less a writer if I wrote a diary than if I wrote literary fiction or won a Pulitzer Prize. For me, there is always separation between culture and perception and involvement. As a writer, I am an observer, and as such, I work hard to preserve that sense of otherness. Have you ever wondered why artists and writers are so neurotic? So quirky? We have to be, because the culture we live in, no matter where we are, is always looking to assimilate us, and it is impossible to write, to create art, if you’ve been swept up into the cultural mainstream.

I tuck my hands deep in my pockets. The snow has begun to fall harder now, thick fluffy flakes that cover my jacket. I think about sticking my tongue out, but I’m pretty sure there’s an age limit for my gender when it comes to that sort of thing, so I decide against it. As a pastor, I remember how the church had similar struggles in wrestling with the idea of culture, in not getting caught in the swamp of a mainstream consistently trying to push God to the sidelines. It’s a much bigger debate than I have time for tonight, but the truth is that the war against boys started many years ago in Western culture.

And the church has joined the wrong side.

It’s with reluctance the cold finally sinks in and I head back inside to make some coffee. I can hear the murmurs of protest as I talk about those ‘poor boys’.

“Men have everything! Steve just wants the church to go back to when women were nothing! Sure, give a little, and the next thing you know, men will be telling women to ‘submit’ all over again!”

I sigh, because even as the arguments run through my mind, it’s easy to see how the church has become swept up in the cultural mainstream. No wonder a pastor’s job is so difficult. If a pastor believes in a more masculine church, he has to quantify his thought process to four hundred people, many of whom haven’t even bothered thinking about it.

I smile as I shake in the sweetener and add some cream to my coffee. Fortunately, I’m a writer, and I don’t have to worry about that. But then, maybe that’s the problem, isn’t it? Do you see the bias? “Don’t rock the boat” is not a particularly respected idiom in my gender. And in our culture, it starts in the schools. I’ve spent the last six years working in public schools, and I can tell you that the approach is becoming increasingly soft and feminine.

From the “quiet, please and sit still” approach in the classroom to setting softer boundaries to cutting phys. Ed out of the curriculum, boys are being left behind in the schools, and every study backs that up. My question then, is in a time when the church is crying for more men, more Godly men, why are we consistently tailoring church for women. From books to services, it has even affected our theology.

I head into the living room with a glance out the window to watch the snow. It's slowed down some, and seems to drift and float now rather than fall, as if pulled gently from the sky. Someone asked me recently how I could possibly say that church is geared towards women. My response was simple. Name one thing in the church that, as a rule, is inherently uncomfortable for women? I can think of about twenty things that make men cringe.
I take my coffee to my desk and open up my laptop. The problem is not just this culture. (When was the last time you saw a man portrayed on television as a respectable father in a sit-com) And the problem is not post-modernism. The problem is us. The church you see, well, we started our war against boys a long time ago. Nothing will change, however, unless we are willing to back away from our preformed ideologies and become an observer. We need to see just how feminine we have made Jesus, whether it's in our language or our choice of colours. Most importantly, we must give men permission to be men. Flawed, rough and courageous men. Until we do, the gender gap will continue to grow, and the only people holding hands will be women.