Carolyn Custis James Shares Why Our Notions of Manhood Matter

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What does the Bible have to say about gender roles and masculinity in particular? Most importantly, does the Bible’s message on these issues have any relevance to both local and global events? You’ll find plenty of weighty Biblical reflection on these questions in the new book from Carolyn Custis James: Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World.

I had a chance to preview the book and shared the following endorsement:

“Carolyn Custis James writes with urgency, clarity, and meticulous research about issues that don’t just concern every man, but relate to the health and stability of the entire church and our wider world. This is a call for men and women to live in the health and freedom of God’s calling for both genders”

Carolyn was gracious to respond to a series of questions about her new book:


What prompted you to write this book? 

My motivation for writing underwent a transformation in utero as it were. Initially, I wanted to tell the powerful stories of men in the Bible who have gone missing because they’ve been eclipsed by larger figures or downsized because we’ve viewed them through American eyes or a gendered lens. Men like Judah, Barak, Boaz, Joseph of Nazareth, and Matthew.

I thought it was time to take another look at these men.

As I began to research, my eyes were opened to a global male crisis of epic proportions—a powerful force that bears down on every man and boy as they battle to achieve and maintain their right to call themselves “a man.” Manhood, so it seems, is not a birthright. It must be earned by conforming to the prevailing definition of manhood in one’s particular culture. Definitions of manhood vary from culture to culture and tend to be a moving target in cultures like our own, where the definition changes from one generation to another and is never a one-size fits all definition. Inevitably some men and boys never make the grade.

The malestrom is the particular ways in which the fall impacts the male of the human species—causing a man to lose himself, his identity and purpose as a man, and above all to lose sight of God’s original vision for his sons.”

Patriarchy (“father rule”) lies at the heart of the malestrom. Trace any of the malestrom’s currents. Inevitably you’ll end up looking at patriarchy—a fallen human system that bestows power, authority, privilege, and leadership on men over women and children and also over other men. It’s destructive impact plays out in devastating ways in the lives of both women and men.

Christians tend to avoid the subject except to promote certain aspects of patriarchy (a “kinder-gentler” version) deemed “biblical.” From what I was seeing, I couldn’t in good conscience sidestep putting patriarchy—an issue so deeply problematic (to put it mildly)—on the table. It isn’t overstating things to say every man and boy is a victim of the malestrom.


Linking this male crisis to the maelstrom—those powerful whirlpools in the open sea known to drag hapless ships, crew, and cargo to the bottom of the sea—underscores the deadly seriousness of this crisis. When God’s sons forget who he created them to be and operate off-mission the effects are both devastating personally and catastrophic globally.

Here are just a few examples of the malestrom’s currents that cause men and boys to lose themselves.

  • Men and boys represent a staggering 30% of the millions of humans enslaved today. That’s roughly the population of New York City proper—men and boys trafficked for sex, forced labor, and soldiering.
  • A man’s sense of who he is as a man can be undermined by something as commonplace as a job loss, a demotion, a diagnosis, a foreclosure, a divorce, or simply the inevitable realities of old age.
  • Every Sunday in our churches, men are marginalized if they don’t show up with the right portfolio or pedigree. They are shamed in tongue-lashing sermons if they don’t happen to “man-up” to whatever definition of manhood a pastor embraces.
  • Even men who seem to “have it all” are just a coup or a phone call away from being dragged under by the malestrom. A man can hold the reigns of power in his country, only to be ousted or defeated by voters the next election. Then, who is he?

As I probed deeper, I discovered even more disturbing indications of just how serious a crisis this. Here is what the experts are saying:

  • Anthropologist David Gilmore linked “masculine pride” to violent conflicts in the world. He asserts that “such violence is ‘as much a product of a manhood image . . . as political and economic demands.”
  • Sociologists agree. They identify an “insidious link between masculinity and violence that fuels many of the wars that rage across our world.”

As I wrote in Malestrom,

“The need to establish and maintain one’s manhood drives men into violent action and exerts constant pressure for men to prove themselves. It fuels aggression, competition, and self-interest, and creates countless casualties at the giving and receiving ends of violence and injustice. It feeds the illusion that behind every change in the culture, every alteration in circumstances, lurks a threat to one’s right to call himself a man.”

The most bone-chilling discovery came when I read Middle Eastern experts, like Georgetown University Professor John L. Espiosito, who now are saying that young men are being drawn into the ranks of ISIS in “a search of a new identity, and for a sense of meaning, purpose and a sense of belonging.”

As one young ISIS recruit put it, “You go overnight from being an unemployed nobody to being a headache to the most powerful man in the world.”

Just this week, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisian Islamist party, made a comment with reference to politics and government that has profound relevance to a challenge the church needs to engage regarding masculinity and manhood: “The only way to truly defeat ISIS is to offer a better product to the millions of young Muslims in the world.”

This is the pressing challenge facing the church and the one I take up in Malestrom. What message does the Bible have that speaks into this crisis to give every man and boy an indestructible identity, meaning, purpose and belonging that will cause them to thrive as human beings? Will that message trump (apologies for using that word) other voices speaking false, inadequate, and ultimately destructive messages into the lives of men and boys?

I’m convinced that the insular debates in the church over rules and roles, who leads and who follows, and the “kinder-gentler patriarchy” currently embraced in much of evangelicalism ultimately miss the mark. But the powerful, counter-cultural stories of those missing men in the Bible help us to gain insight into the brand of manhood Jesus’ gospel brings.

I believe the church has a prophetic responsibility to address this crisis.

Malestrom is an effort to begin that discussion.



I love how this book has a very personal and global focus at the same time. Share a little bit about that. 

Considering the issues and the realities at stake, it’s hard to treat this crisis in a detached academic way. I’ve lost sleep (still do) over the crises, injustices, and atrocities against women and girls in today world. This project raised my level of concern for men and boys to full equality with my concern for women and girls. It’s hard to fathom the loss to the church and to the mission of God when my brothers set their sights too low and miss what God has in mind for them. As a woman and as a Christian, I have responsibility to do something about it. So yes, Malestrom is profoundly personal for me.

The global perspective is one of the distinctives of Malestrom and other books that I have written. The Bible is not an American book. It is a global book, and so is its message. Maintaining a global perspective changes the questions we ask. They get bigger and the stakes go up. Conclusions we draw from scripture must be applicable anywhere in the world.

Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message, as many of us have been taught. In fact, the Bible actually dismantles it. Patriarchy is the cultural backdrop that sets of in the boldest relief the radical, not-of-this-world kingdom message of the Bible. As Americans and westerners, we are as foreign to the patriarchal world of the Bible as anyone can possible get in today’s world. That ought to give us a massive dose of humility when we open the Bible and a willingness to seek help from people who know that world and can enlighten us.

Years ago I had the first of many aha moments in a conversation with a Tanzanian seminary student. When I asked him about his culture and what it meant for him to be the firstborn son in his family, his answer changed forever how I read the word “son” in the Bible. Understanding the world of patriarchy restores the power of the gospel message in extraordinary ways.


How would you address women who may say, “This is a book for guys”?

I would agree with them. I hope every woman who reads Malestrom will say that. In fact, Malestrom will make the perfect Christmas gift for the men we love. Sarah Bessey’s endorsement says it all:

“This is the book I’ve been waiting for—as a wife, as a mother of a son, as a woman committed to the blessed alliance God intended between men and women. This book will be healing and restorative for so many. It’s a beautiful invitation to manhood in the Kingdom of God.”

Frankly, I hope women say that about all of my books. Men need to read them too. As one man commented after reading my first book, “I know you wrote this book for women. I didn’t read it for women. I read it for myself.”

At the same time, Malestrom is absolutely also a book for women. We need to understand the issues facing men and boys and join in calling the church to engage this crisis.


What would you say to guys who don’t think this book applies to them because they’re egalitarian or progressive? 

I’m glad you raised this question.

It is a sad fact that, when it comes to gender issues, evangelicals tend to think in binary terms. We classify people, books, and ourselves into one of two camps—Complementarian or Egalitarian, traditional or progressive, as though this is the crux of gender issues.

Malestrom rejects that binary mindset by raising different questions. If you read my books through that binary lens, you’ll miss the whole point. A self-defined complementarian did. In his review of Malestrom, he wrote, “I have no dog in this fight” and proceeded to disavow patriarchy as having anything to do with his complementarianism. Instead of seeing the very damaging and dangerous global crisis that actually threatens him too, he shrugged and walked away without noticing real human lives are at stake. The issue I’m raising is deeper and far more serious that the issue he was trying to dodge.

To be more explicit, this complementarian/egalitarian debate places the church on a continuum that, if taken to its extremes, ends up with religious fundamentalism at one end and radical feminism at the other. I’m convinced that Jesus’ gospel takes us off that continuum to a radically different counter-culture way of living and working together as male and female.

It is a frightening reality, but the egalitarian message is actually dangerous if preached in a full-fledged patriarchal culture. If a woman embraces an egalitarian manifesto in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, she could lose her head—literally. Complementarianism and egalitarianism can’t be lived out everywhere. But the Gospel can be lived anywhere. Even under burkas.

As Christians, we have important work to do that goes beyond deciding which camp we’ll join. There are deeper, global questions that need asking. How does Jesus’ gospel speak into the lives of every man and boy with indestructible identity, meaning, purpose, and belonging that is bestowed on him at birth by his Creator? How does Jesus’ gospel radically transform what it means to be male or female? And how are we supposed to be joining forces to advance his kingdom?

The issues at stake are global and alarming—no matter which camp you embrace. We have ISIS to consider.




Learn more about Malestrom here or visit Carolyn’s blog


3 thoughts on “Carolyn Custis James Shares Why Our Notions of Manhood Matter

  1. Malestrom is spot on about the vortex of violence and power that is fallen masculine identity. The Gospel is truly the answer. I can understand her avoidance of labels such as egalitarian. But when Custis James points out that men and women serving TOGETHER in the kingdom of Heaven is God’s restoration vision, she is being egalitarian! Saying that egalitarian thinking falls outside of the gospel is like being pro-Civil Rights but denigrating Martin Luther King’s activists. I wonder whether Custis James is afraid to align herself with egalitarians because of her ties to the infamously ” complementarian” New Reform Calvinists? Good message, but she shouldn’t leave her fellow egalitarians out in the cold.


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