True Christian manliness? CVM & The Code

Posted on November 10, 2011

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Back in the day, I led my share of Boys’ Brigade parade services. Now, I’ve nothing at all against the BB (I’ve known, indeed chaplained, companies that worked astonishingly well as Christian youth organisations), but that bit in the service where we went through the organisation’s old object, ending with ‘and all that tends towards true Christian manliness’ was, I confess, always a struggle. With some rehearsal, and a resolute refusal to look at certain friends in the congregation, I got through each time without collapsing in helpless laughter; without even smirking, indeed. The aim of that ‘object’ was truly noble, but the wording was, shall we say, not phrased in the vernacular of this generation (or the last one, or the one before that…).

There have been times recently when I’ve longed for ‘true Christian manliness’ to re-appear. I try to avoid contemporary Evangelical discussions of Biblical manhood – not for fear of laughter, but of despair. I will acknowledge that I have heard one sensible discussion of ‘Biblical headship’ in my life, but of the several dozen I’ve come across, that is not a good average. I’ve read Driscoll, Grudem, Piper, Mohler, and the rest on the subject because I’ve had to; I find them unhelpful and unedifying; there have been moments when my gut reaction to a particularly poorly expressed thought has been a sudden irrational desire to embrace my feminine side with an energy that would make Frank N Furter or the travellers aboard Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, look positively macho (darling!). (And to put this into context you need to know that I generally refuse to buy shaving foam with moisturiser in it because to do so would be uncomfortably metrosexual…)

I say all this because I want here to praise a book on Christian masculinity, and it is appropriate context to indicate that this does not come naturally to me. Carl Beech, Andy Drake, and Ian Manifold are all leaders within Christian Vision for Men (CVM), and a year or so ago they published a little book called The Code: It’s time for a new kind of man. Codelife is a programme CVM are running, inviting blokes to sign up to a series of ethical commitments, The Code (you can see the list here); The book is a series of brief chapters illustrating each commitment in The Code.

What’s so good about it? First, it does not fall into the trap of defining masculinity against femininity. For Carl (who – full disclosure – is a friend), Andy, and Ian, being a man is not primarily about not being a woman. So it is not about headship, or leadership, or protection, or strength (or indeed inability to multitask, or a pathological hatred of Strictly Come Dancing – that last is just part of being properly human, surely?). Or, rather, there is discussion of leadership (Codelife IX: ‘I will lead as He would lead…) and protection (Codelife X: ‘I will use my strength to protect the weak and stand against the abuse of power.’), but this is not cast in binary gender terms, but as a positive account of a well-lived life. It is certainly not gender-indifferent, but nor is it controlled by a simple opposition. As Gen. 1:27 points out, we are human before we are male and female; to narrate being human solely in terms of that binary opposition is a serious mistake.

Second, however, it is serious about (contemporary, British) masculinity. This is subtle, but obvious. Carl, Andy & Ian recognise that living as a man in C21st Britain is different from living as a woman, and The Code, and their explications of it, are alike constantly alive to that. They – perhaps wisely – make no commitments about which (if any) of the differences are down to a fundamental gender divide, and which (if any) are down to contemporary cultural mores, but they are alive to the lived reality of being male in Britain today. (How far might this extend, culturally? I don’t know; I’d be interested to know, for instance, the extent to which British Asian or Black British men might feel the need to shape and nuance what is said here to make it real for them.) For me, however, this book speaks to the world I live in, to the expectations and complications and (significant) privileges of being a man in British society today.

Third, their vision of ‘true Christian manliness’ is holistic. It is about creation care, as well as about unashamed personal evangelism; being a man, for these three brothers, means taking with utmost seriousness the injustices of the global financial system, as well as acting with scrupulous honesty in our own dealings; it means being alert and attentive to the sickening reality of people-traffiking that drives so much of the sex industry, as well challenging the availability of pornography in our local culture.

Fourth, there is an uncomfortable immediacy here. The examples shared in the book are examples, not exhaustive ethical proposals, but they are directly relevant to the lives we live as British Christian men today. Sure, they are alive to the problems of internet porn, but they are also aware of binge-eating and lack of exercise. ‘…being a couch-potato may not be much different in God’s eyes to being addicted to porn. It’s just more acceptable to the church.’ (p. 66) Ouch! (Yes – I didn’t get to the gym this week again; I paid my membership – does that count? No? …) But this is a real challenge, not a ‘this lets me feel smug and condemn my neighbour’ challenge. And a real challenge is far, far, more Christian. Equally, this is not about imagining a perfect society; instead it is about living well in the one we inhabit. Some proponents of Biblical headship tell me I shouldn’t have a female boss (like I get to choose?); The Code invites me to discover how to live Christianly under any boss.

I can’t say I always enjoyed reading this book: there are many delightful turns of phrase and examples (on a temping job: ‘We … were racked along a line of desks like the rowers from Ben Hur. Instead of oars, we had keyboards and instead of a drummer we had a line manager.’ p. 84), but too often it was too close to the bone to enjoy. You don’t enjoy a book that challenges you quite so directly. I picked the thing up, recognised the power of it, but hesitated several weeks before signing up to ‘The Code’ personally because I could see that it asked real and specific change of my life. (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood never did that – it just asked me to change certain things I thought and said, which is so much easier.)

But then there’s their last principle, Codelife XII: ‘If I fail I will not give up. He never gives up on me.’ Above and before everything else, this is a deeply Christian, gospel-soaked presentation. Carl, Andy & Ian get the old Evangelical vision that a firm belief in the gospel allows for a gracious and generous expression of an uncompromising standard of holiness; if we are genuinely, completely, possessed of the assurance of salvation, we can raise our ethical standards to the stratosphere; indeed, to the Horsehead nebula. Back in the day, a bunch of Christian blokes (mainly – Hannah More played an important part) got together down in Clapham, a few minutes walk from where Heather and I once lived; names like Zachary Macaulay, Henry Venn, William Dealtry, and Henry Thornton may not mean much now – William Wilberforce perhaps more so – but between them they transformed the international economy, changed decisively the history of three continents, ended British involvement in the slave trade, founded the Bible Society movement, and, in the great words of Charles Simeon, ‘succeeded in making goodness fashionable’.

That’s true Christian manliness. And that’s the vision of which I catch the authentic echo in The Code.

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