The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity. By Leon J. Podles
The Church Impotent is not one more wearisome tract about goddess worship at convocations of Christian organizations. This book is a scholarly analysis of an appallingly misconstrued metaphorical theology beginning as early as the 13th century and continuing through the medieval period, the Reformation, and into the present, all within presumably orthodox Christianity. The author has done his research diligently, and page by page he documents literary imagery that in its milder forms makes men squeamish and in its excesses becomes the kind of masochism that condemns many men to lives of antipathy for Christianity.
Well before the dislocations of culturally approved feminism and homosexuality, the founder of Christianity had been domesticated into a strangely androgynous being in Christian devotional literature. Nearly everybody has had sufficient exposure to Sunday school art to be aware of the strange incongruity of the carpenter from Galilee — who must have had weathered skin and enlarged hands like others of his craft — being portrayed with womanly hair and skin, looking more like an advertisement for hair coloring treatments than an atavistic Jewish male.
This was not always the norm. For centuries the Church was a manly enterprise, and brotherly love a virtue like wartime militancy. Jesus’ disciples labored under the continuing threat of persecution or martyrdom. In canonical and patristic literature, military idioms abound. The warfare is not only against worldly powers and the tribulations of the flesh but is a battle with spiritual powers intent on destroying the faithful. How all this metamorphosed into the sentimentality of modern gospel choruses — and into Christian bookstores that look and often smell like bed-and-bathroom boutiques — is elucidated in The Church Impotent. It begins with an analysis of what Podles calls bridal mysticism.
Passages from the works of St. Bernard of Clairvaux contain references to the individual soul as the bride of Christ in contradistinction to canonical and patristic references to the whole Church as the bride. Origen’s commentary on The Song of Songs also contains this subtle departure from earlier literature. Podles suspects unexamined Platonic influences in both Bernard and Origen. Origen’s heterodoxy is sufficiently documented, but it is worth noting in this context that his spiritualistic rigor was of such severity that he altered his anatomy, literally becoming a eunuch for the Kingdom of God.
As residual Platonists, Origen and Bernard both cautioned against passionate indulgence in bridal mysticism, but the medieval period brought a massive influx of women into religious orders and a flowering of the sublimated eroticism lurking in such images. There is now a substantial literature on feminine spirituality in the Middle Ages, much of it laudatory regarding metaphors that were considered dubious as soon as they appeared in religious orders. Podles is able to draw on it revealingly.
Scholasticism revived Aristotle and brought logical analysis to theology. Podles notes that “Aristotle followed Pythagoras in organizing reality into polar opposites.” Male and female became a dichotomy in which male attributes were castigated as inferior because of a disposition toward assertiveness and formative power as opposed to acquiescence. Mary was idealized for her receptivity to the formative power of God. Consequently, men had a new battle to fight with their inherent disposition, for if men already have a form that is inclined to resist molding, they must become more like women in order to receive the imprint of the Holy Spirit. This ethos explains the greater numbers of women in churches and religious orders. Why one still hears this kind of reasoning from 20th-century Evangelicals and feminists, who are unlikely to agree on much else, is a question that Podles examines, with a compounding effect.
Having begun a literary analysis of the motif that posits that men can be Christians only when they suppress their inherent assertiveness, Podles engages in some psychologizing along the lines of how a man normally develops. Podles’s education, apparently in literary criticism, is perhaps the reason he does literary analysis well. Probably because he is not a psychologist, he also analyzes masculine character development well. He says boys grow to manhood partly by separating themselves from their mothers and from conformity to other nurturing influences. Men, he reasons, confront the dangerous and often violent obligations of their clan or culture. Therefore they separate themselves from dependencies that hinder them in hunting, war-making, and other activities involved in protecting and provisioning their kin and country.
Podles recognizes that this is a circular trajectory. Men separate themselves from maternal influences in order to commit themselves more profoundly than is otherwise possible to the well-being of their wives, families, and communities. The initial impulse for distinction is necessary but not sufficient for the fulfillment of male identity. More than anything else, men seem to want to be heroic. Early Christianity provided them opportunities to demonstrate strength of character in opposition to countervailing forces. A medieval religious culture that glorified feminine passivity and acquiescence alienated men from the Church. The remedial theology that would make it possible for large numbers of men to return without emasculation has yet to be fully elaborated.
Male assertiveness without the moral center and heroic self-abnegation found in early Christianity and stoicism, as opposed to feminine malleability, is not a stable element in human psychology. It can become a nihilistic will to power. For example, among Italian Futurists of the 1930s, artists glorified war and scorned women. They hated pacifism and cheered Mussolini. Fascism had a self-conscious element of nihilistic masculine power.
Churches continue to be refuges for women under the influence of an ancient bridal spirituality or some later equivalent. And many Christian men, even among the Promise Keepers, will tell you that the way to spiritual maturity is in the surrender of the will. But while these newly sensitive males are working on that, the Protestant ministry is becoming a woman’s profession. This seems a fitting conclusion after centuries of majorities of women being involved in the activities of churches. And, as has been the case for ages, despite the hullabaloo to the contrary, the churches are still refuges for homosexuals.
That it has taken until now for somebody to write a book about this centuries-old problem of so many men being repelled by a maudlin Christianity is extraordinary. Thank God, Leon Podles has finally spelled it out. He has a few suggestions as to how the situation might be rectified, but more than once he concedes that new activities designed for men will not bring very many back from an indignant exile that long ago became reflexive for them.
Among the Christian virtues are manly self-denial, not amorphous receptivity; moral restraint, not moral passivity; and courage, the antithesis of acquiescence. Military stoicism again comes to mind, but what is needed isn’t some kind of religious boot camp or more strenuous witnessing by Christian athletes, though these might help. The damage, if Podles is correct, has been done by a settled habit of misusing metaphors.
If the seduction began with a subtle change in references, so that the soul of the believer (instead of the Church) is the bride of Christ, then sermons, hymns, and prayers are going to have to take pains to avoid the saccharine images that are exacerbating the damage. Christians are going to have to re-inject masculine metaphors into discourse about our Faith. Justification is by the grace of God, but true peace comes from overcoming moral challenges and from disciplined pursuit of real values, not sentimental indulgence.
Art embodies the metaphors by which we live. Art is not the cornerstone of the Christian church, but the artistry in worship and devotion are more significant than the cornerstone of any building in which that church assembles. A cathedral can’t be built on slimy sand and be expected to stand for a thousand years. But a thousand years in Purgatory engendered by slimy metaphors does appear to be a possibility.