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RE and Masculinity

Last night I came across these two excellent blog posts (here and here), exploring the tension between masculinity and our English curriculum and, secondly, our approach to dealing with the (social and physical) challenges of being a teenage boy. I commend them both fully – well written, thoughtful, and admirably honest.

And they rang true for me for various reasons. In the first instance, it reminded me of something I had read a while back by Cardinal Burke, talking about the ‘man-crisis’ in the Church. For Burke, the root of the problem stems from radical feminism, which in an American culture-war context might make sense, but which I’m going to steer well clear of here, not least because I’m not even really too sure what feminism means anymore, with each subsequent wave seemingly disagreeing with those previous in ever more acrimonious circumstance. For Burke, however, it is a key issue, and he has been at the forefront of a new cultural movement within the Church trying to appeal to the masculine, purposely using the language of (spiritual) warfare and militant service as his perceived antidote to the crisis he identifies. Whether one agrees with his diagnosis or his cure is moot – he is surely on to something in identifying the problem.

765438276292d90a29c0add0a4a5833eA little closer to home, it also reminded me of a chat with a parish priest, during a 40 hours’ devotion we held last year. For non-Catholics, the 40 hours is a period of continuous prayer and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, day and night. I remember the priest telling me how the night/early-morning ‘watching’ used to be known as the ‘Dads and lads’ slots, as the males of the community took it upon themselves to do the more anti-social/difficult hours, an act of service but also responsibility traditionally expected within the community. In this sense it was both a ritual and a rite of passage – it shaped and identified the role of the male within the community. One might bray at this nowadays, but it was considered an act of service rather than superiority, or the suggestion that ‘Mams and lasses’ were incapable. Alas, this practice had fallen away now and, along with it, so has the attendance of ‘Dads and lads’ more generally.

There is nothing much new in any of this – Benedict’s reform of the liturgy was itself often framed as a return to the kind of ritualism that appealed to the minds of young men (the context being a catastrophic drop in seminarians in the West) – and the idea that the Church has abandoned a consideration of the masculine is a long and well-tested thesis.

But it had me wondering about what we do in our schools too – and I should say at this point that I’m thinking about Catholic education, the only type I really know. Have we done the same? How often is faith deemed to be a bit, well, un-manly? How often are prayer groups and social justice projects female-dominated? How often do boys see it as an assault on their masculinity, rather than an affirmation of it? Increasing the general involvement of boys in our academic and spiritual programme is a constant source of discussion – is this unique to our particular locale, or is this a wider trend?

And one wonders if our RE curriculum can sometimes be the same. RE is often very good atRE-logo tackling difficult issues, but how good are we at proposing difficult solutions? Generally speaking, it is all too easy for RE to be transformed into a gospel of nice – think ‘gospel values’ and the Golden Rule and you’ll be getting close – but does this talk to all students equally? Do the general tropes and slogans and images, common to all RE, have equal appeal across the board? Does the drilled repetition to ‘Love thy neighbour’ get through the gender gap? And why is it so tempting to edit out the less fashionable things Christ talked of – his vision of hell, his call for sacrifice, his bringing of the sword (and the spiritual warfare, but also Judgement, it pointed toward)?

Indeed, therein lies a good example: God is Love, I’m certain all students will know that, but He is also Judge – do we hold both equally? And if we don’t, what is the impact of that?

Or to bring this down into my own practice, how often have we explored the gospel through the lens of heroic sacrifice? How often have we really thought of why Christ might have flipped those tables, or Peter slice that ear? How often do we speak of heroism of martyrdom, the joy of sacrifice, or the sheer bloody-minded revolution it really is to proclaim a gospel of Love in a world that despises it? Christ said we should expect to be hated for His sake, and that takes some guts. Do we make faith something altogether much easier than that? A kind of safe-space spirituality where nothing should be allowed to be difficult? And how often have we discussed whether that is justified? Indeed, how often have we challenged males with just such an injunction, a calling to sacrifice – an important virtue whether one holds faith or not – as a choice that is (dare one say it), ‘manly’?

Of course, I fully understand why some might think this exclusionary – there can certainly be no suggestion that women do not also fully take upon themselves heroic sacrifice, dutifully and joyfully. But is our language unwittingly exclusionary is another sense, too, that being in its appeal to masculine self-image? One must tread carefully here; there are potential landmines all over the place (policies aimed at boys, despite their huge comparative underachievement in school, often seem less popular than one might hope for). But at the very least, this: is this issue something of which we even take account?

And with all these questions, I have no easy answers – I’m not decided one way or the other. But it’s got to be a perspective that warrants inspection. Any thoughts?


  1. Matthew Livermore says:

    I teach in a Catholic boys’ school so I have thought about this a lot! The boys have mainly got the message that it’s not important. I try to emphasise the sacrifice/spiritual warfare/heroic virtue element!


  2. I recently reread Moshe Halbertal’s superb book On Sacrifice, within which he highlights the human impulse to seek self-transcendence through sacrifice and the profound and terrible dangers of misguided sacrifice (i.e. idolatry). He argues against those who regard self-interest as the greatest obstacle and danger in the path of morality, claiming that the greatest evil arises through idolatrous sacrifice (the brutality of war being a good example). Sacrifice binds people together and commits us to giving meaning to past sacrifices (‘people died for X, therefore we can never come to any compromise on it!’).

    Practised properly, sacrifice is the means by which we become part of a good that is greater than ourselves. However, many great pitfalls lie in the way of the quest for good sacrifice. Reading the book, I was struck by how powerfully and particularly relevant understanding true sacrifice and the dangers posed by both misguided sacrifice and non-sacrificial self-interest are to young men in particular, who seem to have a peculiar natural drive to seek self-transcendence through sacrificing themselves for a cause (women have a more natural form of self-sacrifice in child-bearing and rearing). Unfortunately, I don’t think that such lessons are generally taught in RE lessons, despite the immense importance of understanding our drive to idolatry (and not just in the flat consumerist forms that most focus upon today).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed this blog Michael. I get what you mean about RE as a whole, and certainly find myself being put off the subject when people try to whitewash the difficulties and suggest that religious love is the sort advertised by Hallmark. Perhaps because of that, I find in my own teaching that I tend to be into subverting the idea that there is much nice or comfortable about religion. In three schools I have found that more boys than girls migrate towards RS GCSE and A Level once I get the chance to toughen things up! Perhaps this, as a case study, makes your point.


  4. nancy says:

    I think you raise important issues here Michael. I found myself often wondering, in my previous church, how many men felt about some of the songs sung there. So much of the worship, certainly of the more evangelical churches, is couched in the terms of personal love songs, in the end, it began to feel a bit icky.
    Do you know much about the muscular Christanity of the Victorian age? That might interest you and give you some food for thought.


    • I know a little of it but obviously there are issues that way too. I also wonder where this comes with worship. I tend to go along to the Latin Mass – I know I know – and the gender balance there seems to swing the other way, with more men than women. Anything in that? I don’t know, but it does go along with that Benedict passage I was referencing earlier. Still, all this anecdotal really; just thinking aloud.

      Liked by 1 person

      • nancy says:

        My current church is very high – higher than I personally like, but there we go – my feeling is that it feels more ‘priestly’ if that makes sense? More relevant to the priesthood than to me in the congregation? (I tend to go to the less high services. More participatory.)


    • Mike Tyler says:

      As a non-conformist (boo, I know!) I’ve struggled with this precise issue within my circles. I’m frustrated by the tenor of a lot of the lyrics we sing, and have a preference for the older stuff (Isaac Watts is a hero!) because it seldom falls into this trap. That said, I’m not a blokes’ bloke. I don’t care about cars, bikes, beer or punching people in the head, and I can walk away from a fight without the slightest twinge of shame!

      I also happen to teach PE, and have done some reading about Muscular Christianity. I feel that its a bit of a blind alley as far as it being used as a tool for instilling men with morals. This is similar to the church’s attempts to create a cultural movement to appeal to the masculine, as you put it.

      My view is that these strategies often sell masculinity short. I wrote about it here if you can be bothered: http://thisseriouslife.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/non-muscular-christianity.html

      I enjoyed your blog, Michael. Thanks for taking the time to write.


      Liked by 1 person

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