Friday, 6 February 2015

'Man Up'

I went to see the musical 'The Book of Mormon' recently. It was brilliant -  I laughed virtually the whole time, until my belly hurt. At the same time as being laugh-out-loud funny, it was remarkably theologically astute and thought-provoking.

And there were several points where, as well as snorting with laughter, I was also wincing. The FGM subplot was one. The 'man up' song was another.

The song comes at the turning point in the plot - Elder Cunningham (the wet you'll-never-amount-to-anything one: 'I'm a follower!') has been deserted  by his golden boy mission companion Elder Price ('We'll do it together - but mainly me') and has to decide whether to give up his mission, or to attempt to make a difference on his own.

'What did Jesus do?' He asks himself. 'Did he give up? No - he manned up, grew a pair, and took the cross on the chin!'

The very, very funny song that followed had my sides hurting, but also made me think: 'this is what we are up against'. Because the musical doesn't really take the piss out of Mormonism per se - it holds up a mirror to, among other things, all religion; evangelistic techniques (even theories of mission); Western attitudes to Africa; Biblical exegesis and much more. It is brilliant, as I said. (How many musicals have you mentally referencing the 5 Marks of Mission and Vincent Donovan?).

The 'Man up' song was a piercing expose of a certain type of hearty Christian chauvinism - in which the answer to Christian feelings of weakness is to 'man up' and 'grow a pair' - because that is, allegedly, what Jesus did.

Where does this leave women? No wonder sexism is so engrained in the churches.

In real Mormonism, all men can be priests - and a woman has recently been excommunicated for suggesting that women might be too. But this isn't just about Mormonism - in the Roman Catholic church, too, public discussion of women's ordination is an excommunicable offence. We have only just agreed that women can be bishops in the Church of England - and even then at the price of accepting that those who don't agree with that will be officially protected from us and deliberately promoted as a 'sign of good faith'. No wonder, if the basic theology of 'man up and grow a pair' is as common, and as fundamental, as it seems to be in our society.

This obsession with testicles is fascinating. I've noticed it recently in the Apprentice - male contestants are constantly telling us they've 'got balls', which they seem to be mainly 'putting on the line'. Those who complain are told to 'grow a pair'. Nobody seems to notice that this is a metaphor that literally and deliberately excludes the women candidates. I actually shouted 'oh, shut up about your testicles!' at the TV one week. (The next week, to my joy, my 13 year old son shouted it first).

In classical culture, the balls - and the semen they contained - were not just metaphorically but also literally believed to be the seat of virility. Eunuchs had their balls cut off, of course, often as a result of losing in a war (presumably, this is what might happen to those balls 'on the line'?). But what uncastrated males did with their balls - or what they contained - was also important. One of the major arguments for celibacy was based on the belief that ejaculation - emitting your semen - literally lessening your manhood. Retaining all that precious virility-juice meant that your manliness would all stay with you.

We don't believe that now - if anything, ejaculation (preferably into a handy female, willing or unwilling, conscious or comatose) seems to be the current standard by which 'virility' is proven. Perhaps to prove that a pair have indeed been grown.

But we still seem to be obsessed with testicles as a symbol of manliness.

So what do women in the church do?

There seem to be two alternatives. One possibility is the historical solution most identified now with Roman Catholicism - men 'man up' and try to imitate Jesus, women 'woman up' and try to imitate Mary. (Interesting, though, isn't it, that 'woman up' isn't a thing.) Womanly religion becomes about being willingly receptive - literally and metaphorically - to the seed (hence no contraception, and no women teaching, are linked theologically). Women are allowed to be strong, so long as that strength is shown in patiently enduring suffering. But any form of initiative, leadership or authority is 'unnatural', because it is not 'womanly'. We don't have a pair (breasts don't seem to count in this taxonomy), and shouldn't try to grow them.

The second possibility is that we challenge this whole 'man up' paradigm. We point out it is based on faulty, medieval biology - which believed that the womb was simply a ploughed field in which the seed was planted, and knew nothing of the ovum and women's 50/50 participation in the act of conception and the child's genetic inheritance. We point out that a pair of breasts was needed for the incarnation to work (otherwise the infant Jesus wouldn't have lasted long) - whereas, at least on an orthodox understanding of the virgin birth, a pair of testicles wasn't. We can note that Jesus didn't, really, 'man up': rather he 'womaned up' on the understanding of the time, as he became passively receptive to his fate (some commentators suggest that disappointment at his lack of manning up is what led Judas to betray him). We could remind ourselves, indeed, that the male disciples waited fearfully in a locked room, while the women braved arrest and execution by going to his tomb, which they knew to be under armed guard.

We might even point out - not least to contestants on the Apprentice - that testicles are remarkably weak, vulnerable things. By contrast the breasts, ovaries and uterus are remarkably strong, resilient organs.

Oh, but if we say these things we are feminists out of control.

Which rather begs the question, Out of whose control? Sounds like a good thing to me.