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Men's Studies in Religion


MEN'S STUDIES IN RELIGION is part of the unfolding concern within religion to address the effects of gender and sexuality upon religious faith and practice. As a new field of scholarly inquiry, it reflects upon and analyzes the complex connections between men and religion, building upon gender studies, feminist theory and criticism, the men's movement, and the increasing number of subdisciplines in the academic study of religion. Methodologically men's studies in religion is an open field; its object of inquiry is "men" as gendered beings in relation to religion. But the precise delineations of this inquiry are not yet determined. Distinctions between the academic study of men in religion, on the one hand, and affirmation of socially accepted forms of male religiosity, on the other, are not always drawn with sufficient clarity.

The compelling simplification that this new field is constituted by "men writing about religion" is misleading because it does not recognize that the sphere of the sacred has been traditionally male-centered and male-dominated. In many religions, religious norms and male experiences are indistinguishable, making men the beneficiaries of religiously sanctioned hierarchies. The task of men's studies in religion is to bring gender consciousness to the interpretation and analysis of men in relation to any aspect of religion. Simply put, the writing of a religious man is not the same as the scholarly study of a male author's gendered text and context.

Studies in this new field are, on the one hand, critical of normative models of masculinities and, on the other, also supportive of men struggling to find their place in religion and society. These studies may examine male religious authority, analyze societal attitudes toward men, or study religious practices that enforce gender norms. They may probe theologies that justify patriarchal hierarchies or investigate men's participation in religiously sanctified oppression. They may also suggest alternative devotional and spiritual practices for men and reenvision men's roles as caregivers in both the profane and sacred realms.

Historical Precedents

A trajectory can be identified from secular feminism to the current concerns of men's studies in religion. Feminists of the 1960s and 1970s drew attention to the devastating effects of patriarchy and heterosexism in Western culture. Their analyses deeply influenced women scholars of Christianity and Judaism so that by the 1980s feminist interpretations of Scripture and theology had become part of the theological norm. Also in the 1980s men outside religion began to respond to the feminist critique of patriarchy and to study the effects of hegemonic masculinity upon men themselves, drawing particularly on the fields of sociology, anthropology, and psychology.

Within the field of religion, in response to secular feminism, religious feminism, secular men's studies, and the rise of the gay liberation movement, gay men's issues in religion began to be addressed in the 1980s. One of the early controversial academic works was John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980). By 1988 gay men's issues in religion became a recognized group within the large, North Americanbased organization of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). Finally, in the 1990s men's studies in religion emerged as a field in its own right at the AAR. Stephen Boyd's "Domination as Punishment: Men's Studies and Religion," published in Men's Studies Review (1990), was probably the first public articulation of the need for such an inquiry, arguing that "in light of recent research in and theories of men's studies, the relationship between religion and male experiences" must be examined (Boyd, 1990, pp. 89).

Generally speaking, there is a difference between the men's movement (secular and religious) and the academic study of men in religion. Whereas the former tends to favor biological, essentialist, and archetypal models, the latter tends to see men as culturally constructed, gendered, and performing contradictory roles due to constantly changing ideologies of masculinity. Men's studies in religion then analyzes and understands "the role of religion in supporting or resisting unstable masculine identities" (Boyd et al., 1996, p. 286). The following trends within the field can be observed.

Men Reclaiming Religion and Faith

In the twentieth century the mythopoetic movement and various conservative men's movements have attempted to reclaim spirituality and faith-based attitudes toward male identity and toward larger social issues, such as family values. These movements can be viewed as essentialist responses to a perceived threat of feminism.

Mythopoetics is based on the archetypal theories of C. G. Jung, James Hillman, and Joseph Campbell. It was made popular outside Christian churches by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette's King, Warrior, Magician, Lover (1990) and remained relatively marginalized in Christian communities until the writings by Robert Bly and John Gray. The mythopoetic movement generally assumes that biological and genetic differences between men and women preordain irreconcilable differences in gendered behavior and thought, often presuming an essential masculinity that can be threatened when men become too much like women. In response men need to be nurtured socially, religiously, and spiritually in ways that match their masculine nature, generally with a preference for male images of the divine.

Evangelical Christian men's movements arose in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the Western world out of the panic that women were moving into the sphere of the sacred and were taking over religious institutions. The first such development in the first half of the nineteenth century was known as Muscular Christianity. It was followed by the Freethought movement (18801920), which characterized Christian churches as feminized, numerically dominated by women, and therefore weak, sentimental, and irrational. The third development, the Men and Religion Forward movement (from about World War I through to the 1950s), coined the slogan "More Men for Religion, More Religion for Men." The fourth movement was spearheaded by the evangelist Billy Sunday, who uttered the famous statement at a sermon in Chicago in 1916: "Lord save us from off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, ossified three-karat Christianity" ("Sunday, the Fighting Saint," Trenton Evening Times, January 6, 1916). Finally, in the 1990s two prominent movements emerged in the United States that strengthened the faith of their male constituencies: the Promise Keepers, intended to draw men back to Christianity, and the Million Man March, organized in 1995 by the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, that mobilized African American men to commit themselves to religiously based values. Both argued for man's rightful position as head of the family.

Spiritual and Confessional Writings

The religious traditions have accumulated a wealth of spiritual journals and autobiographies, mystical journeys, and confessional testimonies written by men. They constitute a vast source for examining individual as well as collective presentations of the male self. Bringing a gender-conscious perspective to these texts yields critical insights into the male psyche and forms of male embodiment, intimacy, and sexualities.

The literature reflecting on men's spiritual and autobiographical voices often blends scholarly analysis with a more personal and existential style. The borders between critical analysis and an envisioned spiritual renewal are intentionally porous. Areas of concern in the Jewish and Christian traditions are issues of embodiment, sexual theologies, and the deconstruction of traditional masculine roles. The male body is reclaimed as a positive part of a male religious identity, so that the threats of impotence, disease, aging, mortality, and homophobia are turned into valuable spiritual resources. Rather than denigrating men's sexual nature, the sexual body is demystified and understood as an important source of theologies of intimacy and friendship with humans and the divine. These writings usually shun the privileging of hegemonic masculinity in order to engage otherness in the form of race, class, and sexual orientation. Particularly they counter the crippling effects of homophobia and abusive behavior toward women as well as culturally or sexually marginalized men. Instead, new forms of masculine spirituality are located in relationality, shared power, the aesthetics of the male and female body, creativity, ritual, and the living out of social justice through quiet service.

Another aspect of men's studies in religion is to reflect critically on confessional modes of male discourses on religion. Still an underutilized approach, most of this work is located within the Christian tradition, largely due to the lasting influence of Augustine's (354430 ce) Confessions and the thought of the French philosopher Michel Foucault (19261984). In his History of Sexuality (1978) and "The Battle for Chastity" (1982), Foucault mapped out an influential theory about the Christian monastic roots of the modern concern over sexual practices, desires, and politics. The monastic orders, especially as envisioned by John Cassian (360s430s ce), created intimate male-male spaces for the confession of sins that developed into "very complex techniques of self-analysis" (Foucault, 1982, p. 195). A Foucaultian framework helps analyze religious men's desire for intimate self-revelations; at the same time it can be used to investigate both subjugated and liberating knowledge of male sexualities as revealed in confessional, spiritual, and autobiographical writings.

Theological and Biblical Investigations

Men's studies in religion investigates the scriptural traditions as well as the Christian and Jewish theological heritages. Boyd (1995) identifies six cultural barriers that prevent white Christian men from enjoying true intimacy with the multiplicity of God's creation: classism, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, sexism, and femiphobia. This list can be completed by adding men's obsession with work as a source of identity, disappointments with biological fathers (and by extension with monotheistic father gods), tolerance of violence, body unconsciousness, and emotional deadness. By accepting such restrictive constructions of masculinity, men inhibit themselves from living into their potential of a creatively embodied imago Dei.

A number of writers interact critically with Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Matthew Fox, Alfred North Whitehead, Richard Niebuhr, Malcolm X, Desmond Tutu, and Howard Thurman. Other writers focus more on the psychology of male characters in the biblical Scriptures, highlighting the problems of contemporary men struggling with relationship and identity issues. Christian writers in this field generally focus on Jesus, Jewish writers on God and the rabbinic tradition when addressing such issues as boyhood and parenting, friendship and intimacy, community and accountability, and the experiential dimension of the male body, pain, and sacrifice.

Another trend in men's studies in religion is to examine how Christianity and Judaism have framed the discourse on masculine ideologies, especially in their formative periods of late antiquity. Following feminist scholars, who have reconstructed the complexity of religious women's lives, new studies show that notions of masculinity were far from stable in the culturally diverse Hellenistic world. During the waning of the Roman Empire and the rise of new religions (Catholicism in the West, Orthodoxy in the East, Rabbinic Judaism in the exilic communities, and eventually Islam), male identities had become fragile and contested, even among the educated upper-class men who were still the beneficiaries of male privileges. As inconsistencies grew between ancient ideals and new social realities, Jewish and Christian men began to redefine male sexuality and manly virtues. Christianity succeeded in replacing the Roman ideas of vigor and military strength with the virtues of a spiritual strength and sexual constraint.

While scholars of masculinity in early Christianity and late antiquity have stressed the rapid rise of a subordinate ideology of manliness to dominant status, Jewish scholarship has described rabbinic masculinity as subjected to and colonized by first the Roman then Christian supremacy. Talmudic discussions of what it means to be or to become a man differed greatly from the theologies of the Christian Church Fathers, not at least due to their profoundly different assessments of male celibacy. But both Jewish and Christian discourses converged on the issue of the male desire to be close to God. Positioning themselves as symbolic "woman" in relation to a (male) God, men excluded actual women from the sacred sphere. To hide the homosocial and homoerotic nature of this relation to the divine, they inscribed heterosexual norms by effeminizing subordinate and disloyal men. In Christianity the desire for male humility was a gesture of submissiveness toward God, not women. In Rabbinic Judaism, Jewish men saw themselves figuratively in the place of woman in the presence of God. Torah study itself became a highly eroticized passion from which (actual) women were excluded. Although the feminization of Jewish men is one of the enduring anti-Semitic stereotypes in Christianity, one scholar has suggested embracing "the feminized Jewish male" as an act of resistance to dominant Christian masculinities (Boyarin, 1997, p. xiv).

The debate about male-divine relations is echoed in a number of writings about the theological conundrum that both Christianity and Judaism posit a God who is ungendered and unsexed. How do men reconcile a craving for a male God when hegemonic masculinity demands that desire be felt and expressed (or denied) only between men and women? The monotheistic traditions offer no clear models for such homosocial desire. Judaism sees penile circumcision as a theological and covenantal act of mature obedience, while Christianity offers a more metaphorical interpretation: the circumcision of the heart. Neither religion answers the question about whether circumcision is a part of the imago Dei or an act of male violence toward males.

Gay and Queer Studies in Religion

Gay men's religious studies have generally developed separately from men's studies in religion despite some significant overlap. Gay studies challenge hetero-normativity by focusing on diversity, pride, and liberation. Some writers understand gay spirituality as a theology from the margins, defining itself by difference, otherness, and intimacy. Sexuality is often conceived as an act of sacramental Eros and gay spirituality as an act of political protest. Gay men's studies walk a fine line between mainstream integration and resistance to Christian scriptural and theological heterosexism. They may focus on mapping out gay spirituality, developing theodicies on AIDS, or criticizing the attitudes of religious institutions toward homosexual clergy and faithful laity.

The work of the British clergyman and poet Edward Carpenter (18441926), a gay theologian of the early modern period, was not really built upon until after three disasters hit the international gay community: the trial of Oscar Wilde (1895), the Nazi extermination of gay men in the concentration camps (19401944), and the Stonewall riots in New York City (1969). In the early 1980s the theologian James Nelson may have been the first nongay in the men's movement to adamantly oppose double standards in sexual ethics that separate straight and gay. Others have divided gay men's spirituality into four types: the apologetic (the reasoned defense of homosexuality), the therapeutic ("coming-out" as a spiritual journey), the ecological (emphasizing liberation theology and right relation), and the autobiographical (Boisvert, 2000). This typology must be expanded to include the growing repertoire of transgressive and queer theologies and spiritualities. In general gay spirituality is earthed, embodied, daily mundane, and informed by feminist and Native American spiritualities.

Just as there are no fixed demarcations between men's and gay men's studies in religion, gay studies overlap in multiple ways with queer theory. Queer theory, which made its public debut in 1990, is less concerned about the same-sex orientation of men but instead focuses on sexualities in their multitudes. Queer theory questions any theoretical or practical system that claims sexuality as natural or biological categories, and it moves beyond the binary restrictions of men and women, of hetero- and homosexuality. Queer theory refuses hetero-normativity because it "recognizes that human desire is queer, excessive, not teleological or natural" (Boyarin, 1997, p. 14). Scholarship on queer theory that engages issues of religion and masculinity includes biblical studies, Jewish studies on masculinity, and queer theology (the latter defined as a political theology that questions theological assumptions about sexuality).


Men's studies in religion as an emerging field of inquiry is still heavily located within the scholarly traditions of the West, specifically Christianity and Judaism. It has not yet sufficiently engaged other religious traditions and been tested seriously as a topic of interreligious dialogue within an increasingly globalized community. Men's studies in religion has the potential to offer a sustained, gender-conscious critique of foundational religious texts and practices in order to envision nonhegemonic models of masculinity and to allow all men and women to participate in religious life fully and equally.

See Also

Feminism, article on Feminism, Gender Studies, and Religion; Gender and Religion, overview article, article on History of Study; Gender Roles; Homosexuality; Human Body, article on Human Bodies, Religion, and Gender; Patriachy and Matriarchy; Spirituality; Women's Studies in Religion.


Boisvert, Donald L. Out on Holy Ground: Meditations on Gay Men's Spirituality. Cleveland, Ohio, 2000.

Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Chicago, 1980. A study by a Yale historian of the treatment of gays and lesbians throughout the history of the church. Consulting theological, literary, legal, and cultural sources, it offers a witty and unrelenting argument for tolerance and repentance.

Boyarin, Daniel. Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley, Calif., 1997. A Talmudic scholar interprets ancient and modern Jewish sources with the aim of articulating an alternative rabbinic model of masculinity. Rather than objecting to the image of the feminized Jewish male, the author employs queer theory in his intertextual readings to argue that such an image provides a new space for being male without submitting to the Christian (and later European) hegemonic notions of masculinity.

Boyd, Stephen. "Domination as Punishment: Men's Studies and Religion." Men's Studies Review (Spring 1990): pp. 1, 49.

Boyd, Stephen B. The Men We Long to Be: Beyond Domination to a New Christian Understanding of Manhood. San Francisco, 1995. A historian of Christianity consults a range of traditional and contemporary theologians about their assumptions about masculinity. Rather than arriving at conclusions that defend traditional gender roles, he uses his critique of Christian sources to envision a Christian masculinity which is authentic, nurturing, caring, and challenging of cultural socialization.

Boyd, Stephen B., W. Merle Longwood, and Mark W. Muesse, eds. Redeeming Men: Religion and Masculinities. Louisville, Ky., 1996. This collection of essays demonstrates some of the diversity of the scholarly research on and methodological approaches to issues of men and religion. The contributors investigate dominant religious and historical constructions of masculinity by taking seriously the challenges posed by the feminist critique.

Burrus, Virginia. Begotten Not Made: Conceiving Manhood in Late Antiquity. Stanford, Calif., 2000. This book is a study of manhood in late antiquity presented by a feminist cultural historian of the early church. It is a close reading of texts of the Christian Church Fathers Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Ambrose of Milan. All three were instrumental in further interpreting and disseminating the Nicene Trinitarian doctrine.

Claussen, Dane S. The Promise Keepers: Essays on Masculinity and Christianity. Jefferson, N.C., and London, 2000.

Comstock, Gary David, and Susan E. Henking, eds. Que(e)rying Religion: A Critical Anthology. New York, 1997.

Culbertson, Philip. New Adam: The Future of Male Spirituality. Minneapolis, 1992. The author employs his experience in pastoral theology and biblical studies to re-examine the psychology of five masculine role models in Scripture. Based on close textual readings, he explores a number of stumbling blocks to the development of a healthy male spirituality and ends with a critique of Robert Bly's mythopoetic approach.

Culbertson, Philip. The Spirituality of Men: Sixteen Christians Write about Their Faith. Minneapolis, 2002. Scholars in men's studies in religion explore in this collection of essays the gendered nature of their own journeys in Christian faith. Intended for both academics and Christian laity, the essays take a broad approach to the empirical nature of masculine thought and behavior among men committed to the church.

Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard. God's Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism. Boston, 1994. A Jewish studies scholar explores how the concept of masculinity has been affected negatively by the disappearance of God's sexual body in the narrative corpus of ancient Judaism. Close readings of passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, Talmud, and Midrash are frequently informed by psychoanalytically informed styles of interpretation.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York, 1978.

Foucault, Michel. "The Battle for Chastity." In Religion and Culture, selected and edited by Jeremy R. Carrette, translated by Anthony Forster, pp. 188197. New York, 1999. First published in France in 1982.

Goss, Robert E. Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up. Cleveland, Ohio, 2002.

Hall, Donald, ed. Muscular Christianity: Embodying the Victorian Age. Cambridge, U.K., 1994. A professor of English traces the development and long-term effects of the mid-nineteenth-century religious and social movement known as Muscular Christianity. The study's emphasis is on hypermasculinity as a response to spiritual and class anxieties about faith, gender, and national identity.

Krondorfer, Björn. "Revealing the Non-Absent Male Body: Confessions of an African Bishop and a Jewish Ghetto Policeman." In Revealing Male Bodies, edited by Nancy Tuana, William Cowling, Maurice Hamington, Greg Johnson, and Terrance MacMullan, pp. 245268. Bloomington, Ind., 2002.

Krondorfer, Björn, ed. Men's Bodies, Men's Gods: Male Identities in a (Post-) Christian Culture. New York, 1996. Contributors to this volume reflect on the complex and often ambiguous religious forces that shape male bodies and identities in the Christian traditions and post-Christian cultures. Questions of male spirituality are raised in view of men's diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. Visual and textual representations of men in contemporary religion and culture are also addressed.

Kuefler, Mathew. Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity. Chicago, 2001. This historical study explores the manly ideal of emerging Christianity in late antiquity. It examines how Christianity was able to reformulate the virtues of manliness and convince Roman men to transfer their allegiance from the one to the other. The book also addresses Christian and pagan notions of eunuchs, castration, holy transvestites, and gender equality.

Lippy, Charles. "Miles to Go: Promise Keepers in Historical and Cultural Context." Soundings 80, nos. 23 (Summer/Fall 1997): 289304.

Moore, Robert, and Douglas Gillette. King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. San Francisco, 1990.

Moore, Stephen D. God's Beauty Parlor: And Other Queer Spaces in and around the Bible. Stanford, Calif., 2001. Written from the perspective of a New Testament scholar, this book brings queer theory and masculinity studies into conversation with biblical studies. It is critical commentary and cultural interpretation of select biblical texts and theologies, addressing issues of sexuality, violence, homoeroticism, and ideologies of beauty and of masculinity.

Nelson, James B. Between Two Gardens: Reflections on Sexuality and Religious Experience. New York, 1983. One of the earliest books to examine the relationship between human sexuality and Christian experience, the author asks what sexuality says about faith. He argues for the liberation of men from the gender assumptions of traditional Christianity and exposes Christian hypocrisy in holding out conflicting standards for heterosexual and homosexual men.

Nelson, James B. The Intimate Connection: Male Sexuality, Masculine Spirituality. Philadelphia, 1988. Seeking to promote "whole men" as opposed to "real men," Nelson discusses the human need for intimacy and sensuousness. He asks why men have trouble establishing deep friendships and how God's transforming love can work among men who take risks. In particular this book is known for offering a healthy spirituality of male genital desire.

BjÖrn Krondorfer (2005)

Philip Culbertson (2005)

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