Grayson Perry or Jesus Christ – what does it mean to be a man?

Grayson Perry In ‘Grayson Perry – All Man’, a series of documentaries for  Channel 4, artist Grayson Perry spent time with men in three different sub-cultures to explore  what it means to be a man. As he said of himself in the introduction to each episode there was something about Perry’s slight detachment from masculinity, as a transvestite and self-confessed ‘life-long sissy’, that gave him a unique vantage point to observe men and their behaviours in a wide variety of contexts. Perry’s immersive look at the worlds of cage-fighting, sink estate gangs and investment banking gave us insight into cultures that are pretty alien to most ‘normal’ men. And yet they revealed a great deal that was truthful and telling about the reality of what it means to be man in today’s world. The MMA (mixed martial arts) fighters of the north east seemed to be taking on much of the anger and loss of a whole generation of men whose identity and power had been destroyed in the closure of the coal mines. The youth of Skelmersdale fought violent and pitiful battles over the minutiae of local geography and criminal hierarchy. The bankers of the city played clever and charming games of power and control behind facades of elegant marble. But in all of these hugely diverse worlds the men involved had found ways of creating structures to avoid something that all men, in any context, find hard – vulnerability.

It is human to prefer order to chaos, control to disempowerment. But it has perhaps been the overwhelming inheritance of men to expect to be in control of order and in custody of power to the extent that its loss, and the resultant vulnerability it brings, is something we almost pathologically avoid. Perry referred in one episode to men having constructed a ‘carapace’, a kind exoskeleton of toughness, or charm, or aggression to keep the world and all its complexity and uncertainty at bay. That carapace might be violent posturing, gangster dress, sharp suits and gentlemanly honour. But it still has the same aim –  to hide the truth about ourselves, to present order and control to the world, to hide the soft abdomen of vulnerability from sight.

In a church I once attended there was a very prominent sculpture of Jesus which tried to capture that moment when he stood before Pilate. The striking thing about this piece was that the artist had portrayed Jesus as a remarkably muscular man. In fact so muscular that Jesus had the distinct look of a body-builder.  There was something very powerful about this in terms of what kind of man we think Jesus was. Here was a strong, muscular, and distinctively masculine Jesus. And yet portrayed in a moment of utter vulnerability when he comes, already flogged within inches of his life, to confront Pilate, the most potent local symbol of Roman power and strength. To be a man, Jesus shows us, in that moment, is to put one’s power and strength aside and offer nakedness and vulnerability to the puppet powers of the world.  Jesus before Pilate

The thing is we have defined masculinity very much in terms of strength, aggression, assertiveness. ‘It takes a man to take a life’ says one of the young people of the Skelmersdale estate that Perry visits. In the square mile, whilst the language of ‘aggression’ might not make it into CVs and application letters any more, Perry’s analysis suggested that it is still very much there, simply driven under the skin, under a thin patina of charm, honour and political correctness. To be a man in the modern world is still to fight, to assert oneself, to dominate, to climb to the top of the hierarchy, to win.

In a church where the gender imbalance is still stark, what kind of masculinity are we seeking to embrace? Often men’s ministry seems like nothing more than an attempt to reemphasise vaguely masculine themes and values often borrowed from general secular definitions of what it means to be a man. A gathering with some beer, some football or a full English breakfast. Is that all that it means to be a man?  

Might we not do better than that and actually begin to define a brave and courageous vision for Christian masculinity.  Jesus before Pilate might well be a defining image for a Christian man – the power and strength of one man laid down in vulnerability and defiance to the false power of the age. Power and strength offered in service to the most vulnerable, the weakest, the least. This is courageous vulnerability. In this vision power and strength are not ignored or devalues, but they are ennobled by a willingness to offer them vulnerably in the sacrificial service of others, particularly the poor and the marginalised.The willingness to withhold power, aggression, violence, is an act of power in itself – vulnerable power, sacrificial power, downward power. This is the way of the Kingdom in which the courageous vulnerable man can show others what it really means to be a man.

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A song of the wild

Nightingale‘There is a tendency for us to flee from our wild silence and the wild dark, to pack up our gods and hunker down behind city walls, to turn the gods into idols, to kowtow before them and approach their precincts only in official robes of office. And when we are in the temples then who will hear the voice crying in the wilderness? Who will hear the reed shaken in the wind?’ Chet Raymo

I recently invited a group of people via Facebook to come and listen to nightingales. It was on a bit of a whim. I didn’t really expect anyone else to drive an hour from where I live to listen to a bird signing from the depths of a bush. I was also careful not to guarantee even hearing one at all. Nevertheless about 12 of us wandered into a wood in north Dorset at dusk and were treated to 10 minutes of a single nightingale unfurling his full and utterly fantastic repertoire. Some of his vocal acrobatics made us gasp with astonishment, others made us laugh. It just doesn’t seem possible for one small brown insignificant bird to be able to unleash such a symphony of sound.

It really was quite an evening. Most of us had never heard a nightingale before. The faces of most of the urban dwellers we were with opened up in wonder. It was magical and utterly life-giving.

And it reminded me of why I took up birdwatching 10 years ago. A counsellor I was seeing at the time asked me about life outside of work. The reality was at that stage in my life that time for interests that had sustained me at other times had been squeezed out. ‘So why not take up something else?’ ‘What would you do if you decided to do something you’ve never done?’

So I began birdwatching with a cheap pair of sports binoculars and it was one of the best decision I’ve ever made. Perhaps the greatest revelation in this growing passion was the world that opened up to me when I began to learn the songs and calls of birds. Suddenly the background sound world of birds that lies there unobtrusively but consistently in even the most unwild of environments began to reveal its secrets. It was like learning a new language. Like switching to short wave and discovering a foreign station suddenly making sense. It was as though this dimension of wilderness that had seemed so distant had crept closer and I was party to its presence whilst others carried on regardless. It was a transforming discovery.

Much has been made of the loss of darkness in our urban world. But less has been made of the loss of the sounds of the wild in a world increasingly noisy with the drone of traffic and the roar of jet planes. A recent article however argues for birdsong to be taught in schools as a means of trying to reconnect us with a wilderness we are increasingly estranged from. This is in response to a sense that we are losing the ability to hear, recognise and appreciate the sounds of the natural world. It argues; “We are conditioning ourselves to ignore the information coming into our ears, and as a consequence we are losing the ability to engage with the environment in the way we were built to”

I agree. It’s not just that those sounds are being pushed more and more to the margins, though that is part of it. There is still an abundance of birdsong in even the most intensely built environment, indeed some birds (swifts, gulls, even peregrines) have learnt to thrive in it. It is that our senses have become dulled to the point of deafness to these sounds that were once part of the very day experience and knowledge of most people. The sheer volume of noise we encounter everyday means that our ears and brains make a choice and our attentiveness to the irrelevant noises of birds gets unlearned.

And with it something else gets lost. Something of our humanity, something of our soul, that is made to engage with the natural world. All spirituality starts with attentiveness. It starts when we lift our attention away from our little universes, stop and pay attention to something beyond us, something which doesn’t need us, something that just is. For me learning birdsong opened up a world that helped me reconnect with the wonder and diversity of the natural world that had been there all the time if only I had stopped to listen. It also helped me enhance my ability to forget myself and my petty concerns and pay attention to something else.

As the world of birdsong continued to open up to me I was constantly reminded of those words of Jesus in concluding many of his parables; ‘He who has ears to hear, listen…’. It is not that we cannot hear the call of the wild, the invitation of the natural world, the beckoning of something sacred in creation. It is simply that we have stopped listening. And when we stop listening the danger is we actually lose the ability to listen at all. I wonder to what extent along with birdsong we are losing the ability to hear other things, our true selves, others, and even God himself.