What’s the deal with Exodus 90? My interview with James Baxter

 
It’s a highly regimented program that requires guys to commit to daily holy hours and structured weekly meetings with other enrollees for prayer, accountability, and encouragement. But it’s the ascetic practices that get the most press. For ninety days, men who enroll take cold showers, exercise vigorously, sleep seven hours a night, don’t consume alcohol, sweets, snacks, or sweet drinks, don’t watch TV or movies or sports, and don’t play video games; they don’t make non-essential purchases, they only listen to “music that lifts the soul to God,” they only use the computers and mobile devices when necessary, and they fast and abstain on Wednesdays and Fridays.
 
The non profit program “summons men back to the foundations of their faith, stripping them of worldly addictions and reinvigorating their devotion to Christ.” The ninety days may not be long enough to conquer a lifetime of bad habits, but it’s long enough to establish a “roadmap to freedom.”
 
I’ve heard Catholic men say that the program turned their lives around and redirected them toward Christ and family when they’d let bad habits and even grave sin take over their lives. I’ve heard women say that their husbands finished the ninety days more grounded, humble, prayerful, and focused on family life than ever before. 
 
And I’ve heard men say that they were bullied and shamed into joining, and that they found the program to be just one more muscle-flexing club of swaggering and one-upsmanship, with a thin spiritual veneer. I’ve heard women say that they didn’t want their husbands to do it, but he insisted he needed to for his spiritual health, and now he won’t watch movies with her or have a glass of wine; he harasses her to get off her phone because he’s not on his, insists on special meals, and never has time to help her with the kids because there’s always a meeting to go to with his spiritual brothers; and on top of that, he’s cranky all the time because of the things he had to give up. 
 
I’ve heard holy and sensible priests rave about the wonderful spiritual fruits it’s bearing for their flock, and I’ve heard arrogant and foolish priests rave about how it’s transforming soft, effeminate guys into Real Catholic Men. 
 
I didn’t know what to think, so I called up James Baxter, the 28-year-old Executive Director and Co-Founder of Exodus 90, and asked him some questions. Here’s our conversation. 
 
How did you come to be involved with Exodus 90?
 
I went to seminary right out of high school, at age 18. A mentor started me on [this program]. He had been doing it [with seminarians] for about three years, and he said that this program had been fruitful. I discerned the Lord was calling me to secular life. He said, “What if we share this with laymen who don’t have the community of the seminary? Maybe you could get to work on that.” 
 
Was the original program for all seminarians, or some particular group with particular struggles?
 
At the beginning, from what I understand, it was just five guys, all young men who had been struggling with purity in one form or another. It was so fruitful for them, the priest started ten other groups with fifty men over the next few years. It started as an experiment, and multiplied from there. 
 
What changes were made when it was adapted for laymen?
 

To be honest, we didn’t change much [at first]. That was partly due to my ignorance, because I was newly out of seminary. I didn’t know any better. I never saw my role to change what was working, but to share what was working, with one exception: They were meeting more frequently, and that was untenable. 

Most [enrolled men] are laymen, married with children. We encourage our men to meet one time per week, in a short, structured way. 
 
Is there some particular reason this program is especially needed in the year 2020?
 
No one knows about the ascetic tradition of the Church. Few people can even say the word. We had a decision to make. We ended up redefining and re-presenting it. In 2020, it’s been important for us to re-present that important part of our faith, reframing asceticism in a positive way, not a self-demeaning way. 
 
Set the clock back 100 years, and a lot of what we’re proposing [would have been] baked into daily life. Life is now easier, quicker, faster, more comfortable. Sometimes Exodus can be framed as very intense, but it’s very simple stuff. It’s not that challenging once you get into the rhythm of it. 
 
We’d been going along just fine, with a few thousand guys doing the program. Then things broke out last year, and about 10,500 men joined between January and March. With the sex abuse crisis blowing up, men wanted a way to kind of channel their desire for greater holiness and reform in the Church, and they looked to Exodus to accomplish that. I didn’t expect that. That really drove the attraction to the message of freedom we’ve been trying to share. 
 
Is there some specific kind of man who would especially benefit from going through the program?
 

The values of prayer, asceticism, and community, with accountability and encouragement, are so important for every tradition. These values are important for every Christian. But we’re not claiming, “Do this or you’re not Christian.” We would never say anything like that. 

But if these values and principles are not in your faith, then let it begin, and you can let Exodus be your springboard. 

Are there people who would not benefit from the program or who should steer clear? 
 

It’s not for guys with scruples. When we meet men that struggle with that, it could cause them greater anxiety, and that’s not what God wants for you. 

Some guys come to it as if it’s a twelve-step program. We’re front and center that it’s not an addiction program.

My goals are not only about reaching more men, but about supporting men better, and offboarding men who are looking for something, and they found Exodus, but it’s not for them. [We want to be] getting them with a therapist, a spiritual director, support resources within their communities. 

 
What role does a spiritual director play?
 
At the beginning, the ideal was to have priests leading all these groups, but that became untenable. The director is there to keep the train going, to keep presenting the fundamental message of freedom, to offer basic exhortations. To remind everyone what this is about and to keep their eyes fixed on the Lord. In parishes, we’ve seen all kinds of interesting models.
 
Diocesan priests who don’t have great community have been really blessed using Exodus to form priestly communities. We encourage priests to do it with other priests for greater accountability and vulnerability, with men who understand their circumstances. 
 
Is there oversight to keep the experience uniform from group to group, or is there a lot of variation in how it’s carried out? 
 
Here is what makes for a successful fraternity: One, you know what you’re getting into; two, you’ve got a good fraternity of solid men, and it’s not just some machismo exercise; and three, you have the “why.” [You ask:] Is the Lord calling you? What do you want to get out of this? If you’re just going through the motions, it’s not going to take you anyplace you need to go. 
 
When I meet guys through our program, sometimes they’re disappointed by how not-hardcore I am. They expect me to be chest beating. That’s a stereotype of men generally and of ministry for men in the Church. But if you know anything about me, that’s not who I am or how I work. It’s certainly not informing what we’re trying to do. 
 
We’re not trying to be this elite group or the Navy Seals of Catholics. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The common thread is a desire for greater freedom, and that takes humility. If I’ve got idols that keep me from intimacy with the Lord and my family, I need to offer that to God so I can be a better spouse and family man. 
 
Yet I’ve heard women say that the program harms their marriage. Their husbands refuse the food they prepare, harass them not to spend time on their phones, don’t get up to help with childcare at night because they need their 7 hours, and seem to value brotherhood with the group more than family time, and that it alienates them because they can’t watch movies together, can’t have a drink together, can’t text. They also say that the required time for study, exercise, and fellowship means time away from family. Is this a problem you’re aware of?
 
Yes, I’m aware. Yes, I’m concerned. I just had my first son, and the idea of not getting up with your son at night hurts me, it pains me. I’ll be thinking about that. 
 
This [was originally] a seminary program, and the frame of marriage and family wasn’t there from the start. For example, the first program didn’t say anything about going to confession or going to the Eucharist. We presumed they would, because it was the seminary. It was the same kind of thing with marriage. 
 

So last year, we overhauled the onboarding. We have this comprehensive section about the Exodus man and his bride. One, how important it is to communicate what this entails with your spouse. If she’s not on board and it’s going to cause a rupture, don’t do Exodus!

Two, Exodus is your sacrifice. It’s not meant to be this burden you throw on anyone else. That’s basic. That’s how the Church presents penances. It’s not meant to be a show. 
 
Say your wife does something . . . say she prepared a meal and she wants you to eat meat, or she wants you to watch TV with her. You should do it. We highlighted that from the feedback we got.  
 
But if guys do struggle with distraction, or working too much, or watching too much sports, [their wives] are going to appreciate this [program]. But [if she doesn’t want her husband to do it], it doesn’t matter if her reasons are great or not. It shouldn’t be disruptive to the marriage. 
 
Why do you say this program is not for women, and you don’t endorse any program that’s been adapted for women?
 
The business folks in my life said it was a huge opportunity, and we should do that. But the whole program presumes you’re a man, and fatherhood is your destiny in one form or another. There’s nothing exclusive about prayer or asceticism or community; but we’ve written this expression of it for men. 
 
Last year this came to a head. “Where’s your women’s program?” There’s only three full-time guys on this, we’re already trying hard to keep up. We’re a bunch of men. You don’t want us writing a program for women. So we got a religious order we respected. Their whole mission revolves around feminine identity. We asked them, “Would you study Exodus, and if you think this is a model of healing for women, would you write a program, if you feel called to? “
 
Six months later, they said they didn’t believe this structure is a model of healing for women. 
 
All the women in my life are so much more rooted than most of the men are. Suffering is increasingly absent from most men’s life, but that’s not true for women. They are much more in touch with their own spirits than men are with theirs. It’s not that this is below women, but they’re kind of above this.  
In terms of the spin-offs: I’m not sure what to make of it. There are many each year. Some of them get bigger than others. 
 
My frustration goes back to what we said earlier: The Church has done a beautiful job of teaching about the complementarity of the sexes. But in application, it doesn’t get fully lived out. 
 
What happens if you start the program and you’re still in the middle of it when Easter comes? Do you just keep on being ascetic, despite what the liturgical calendar says?
 
On Sundays and solemnities, you relax a single discipline during the course of Exodus. Our encouragement it to follow the liturgical calendar. The vast majority of men come in at the beginning of the year. 
 
If most people are honest with themselves about how they celebrate solemnities, they’re not doing it well. They’re doing whatever they would like. In the past, solemnities didn’t run roughshod over ascetic practices. If what you call “celebration” looks like gluttony, then Exodus is going to be a threat.
 
It’s important to listen to why people are so much more excited about Advent than they are about Christmas. Advent is so great, but then you get tired of Christmas after you do it for six days. Some of it has to do with our religious practices getting thrown to the wind in the spirit of celebration. 
 
 
It looks like it’s pitting men against women. Did you change this because of criticism, or because you no longer believe it represents what you do?
 
That article is not on our site for a reason. I took it off. It’s not a great representation of where we are today and where we want to go. That article is from the first site, from 2016, and I guess it just stayed there. I don’t have much to say other than it’s not on our site now for a reason.
 
Over 50% of our guys are under the age of 34. That’s an anomaly in men’s ministry. When we look at what attracts young men, I don’t think that kind of [masculinity vs. femininity] stuff really speaks to young men’s hearts. They crave authenticity, a place to be real, a place to be known. This is why we’re flourishing in a way that few other men’s apostolates are. 
 
When we look at the sexes as though it’s a war, and not through the lens of complimentary, we’re not seeing them through the eyes of God. I don’t want to defend that article. That’s why it’s not on our site. 
 
And yet, for instance, Taylor Marshall’s name is on your site, and he’s known for talking a lot about rejecting feminization in the Church. He did that thing where he made fun of seminarians for making gingerbread houses. So you can see why people make the association between Exodus 90 and the kind of men’s groups that do seem to be at war with women. 
 
We rely on media partners to get the word out for us. I don’t do enough telling of our own story. If you listen to that podcast I did with Taylor Marshall, it’s [about] a presentation of freedom through the lens of his testimony. It’s for freedom that Jesus Christ set us free. He didn’t bring up anything like what you mention. 
 
People are going to try to frame the work we’re doing, because of the media partners that share our work. But I hope they listen to us
 
EDIT Jan 15, 5:28
Baxter has asked me to amend his answer. The original version as published is accurate transcription of our conversation, but I am adding his additional commentary as a courtesy, as he does not wish to distance himself from Taylor Marshall. Baxter’s addition is as follows:

Your question presumes that Dr. Taylor Marshall is on a “war with women” when he speaks about the feminization of the Church. That’s not true, nor do I believe that to be a fair treatment of him or his work or his mission in the Church today. If you listen to the interview I did with Dr. Marshall, it’s [about] a presentation of freedom through the lens of his testimony. Not many know this, but his testimony (in our first year) shaped me profoundly and how we are going about our work. In it, he shared about the movements he experienced through the ninety-day process. And we have observed them now in thousands of other men. This is why we call Exodus a spiritual exercise and not another program. There’s a spiritual depth to Dr. Marshall that matches his intellect and that has always struck me. I am grateful for him and his help in sharing our mission with men that otherwise would not have heard it.

 
Are you affiliated with Legion of Christ in any way? Is your program inspired by Legion spirituality? 
 
We are not. We have a relationship, but not an affiliation. Frankly, a lot of guys in the Legion of Christ took to Exodus in past year, and the Legion priests took notice, and supported it in their apostolate.
 
That’s what’s been so amazing to me in the last five years. We promise we’re not the next Knights of Columbus. We’re not trying to take your men away. Your men will be more free for the charism or mission you have for them. Exodus layers beautifully into preexisting apostolates. That’s why our site has a lot of partners. We don’t even list half of them. 
 
I’m frequently in contact with people who, if they knew who else I was in contact with, they would be skeptical. But there’s nothing political about us. We are entirely independent. 
 
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My take: In our conversation, James Baxter struck me as sincere and forthright, and very focused on doing the Lord’s work. He answered all my questions as thoroughly as he could, and humbly thanked me more than once for asking the more probing questions.
 
I looked through some of the materials that members have access to, and they look solid, thorough, sensible, and sometimes very illuminating, and they are clear that they provide a roadmap for freedom, not a guarantee of success; and I liked that it strives to exhort men to goodness without resorting to shame as a motivator. 
 
The portion guiding men through talking over the program with their wives was okay but limited, and perhaps overly optimistic about how easily couples communicate and solve differences. I could easily imagine a selfish or immature man distorting the recommendations to bulldoze over her wishes and the good of the family.  I hope that future programs will put more emphasis on the idea that the wife may be a better judge than the husband about whether the burden on the family is too great.
 
I was very encouraged at Baxter’s insistence that the program is not for everybody, and by his awareness that they need to put more emphasis on helping men discern if the program is right for them before the sign on, and more emphasis on helping men find other programs or help if Exodus 90 isn’t right for them. This is one of the marks of a real apostolate that seeks to serve, rather than hungering for more members at any cost. 
 

Because of the rapid growth of the program, and because it’s for laymen and doesn’t involve trained leaders, the information they put out is very vulnerable to misuse, and I’m not sure what can be done about that. There will be some bad groups full of bad guys encouraging each other to do bad things; and there are almost certainly groups that are overly focused on fitness and self-improvement, rather than on sacrifice and surrender to God. I believe this happens. I also believe that some of the groups are places where the Holy Spirit does great things and really transforms lives and families. 

  The group does seem to be taking surveys and making changes accordingly, which is a very healthy sign. They are at pains not to affiliate themselves directly with anyone, left or right, and seem willing to be misunderstood if it allows a wider net to be cast. 

I loved that they refrained from slapping together and marketing a women’s version, and that, when exploring the possibility of making a women’s version, they did not ever intend to write one themselves, but instead sought out the discernment of other women they trusted. (He told me the name of the order of sisters, and they are trustworthy.)
 
I agree with the notion that modern men can very easily fall into a life without physical or spiritual challenges; but that modern women still tend to encounter early on the idea that suffering is inescapable. There are, of course, female ascetics, and modern women do live relatively comfortable lives; but I take his point that this is something that men especially need. I could use some ascesis myself, but I doubt this particular program would do much besides mess with my head. 
 
I wish they would insist that men get their wives’ permission before signing up. (For the record, I would also wish a wife to get her husband’s permission before signing up for something that would affect the family for three months.) If I understand the materials right, a husband is supposed to prayerfully discern whether signing up would be in the family’s best interest, and then do his best to explain his decision to her, and reassure her that it won’t be a bad thing. I wish they would make it very clear that pressuring your wife to agree to something serious but optional is never a loving act. They do a pretty good job of reinforcing the idea that a married man’s vocation is served by serving his family; but since it’s the kind of program that will naturally appeal to more conservative types who are perhaps less prone to listen to their wives, I think they have a special obligation to make it crystal clear, over and over (not just in the beginning and the end) that it’s unacceptable to decide to make your wife unhappy in the name of God. 
 

The marketing overpromises, and is a bit obnoxious. “90 Days to a More Holy, More Healthy, More Manly You!” says a social media ad.

“In just 90 days, you’ll
-get rid of the habits that enslave you
-find true freedom in Christ
-strengthen your spiritual life and relationships”

says the poster in the parish kit.

I mean, maybe you will, maybe you won’t. I guess a little rinky dink is just how you sell stuff, and I don’t really have a problem with that. I do have a problem with the way some guys are pushing other guys to join, insinuating (or just stating) that only lesser man would refuse to take up this challenge. That’s pretty prevalent, unfortunately; but it doesn’t seem to be coming from inside the program itself (at least not since they took down that garbagey page about men who don’t want to be impotent and domesticated). Maybe that’s something they need to swat down more explicitly. I know it drives a lot of guys away, and maybe some of them would really have benefitted from signing on. 

The merchandise and website designs are clean and rugged, but not studded with ludicrously macho imagery (swords, grenades, targets, barbed wire) like so many Catholic men’s organizations. This may seem trivial, but I think it’s significant. 
 
Overall, if my opinion counts for anything, I think Exodus 90 looks like a potentially good thing that should get better as they continue to develop it. It sounds like it can be distorted to harm people, but what valuable thing cannot? It sounds like you will get out of it what you put into it. 

On St. Joseph’s femininity

The other day, Taylor Marshall tweeted, um, a bunch of things. But stay with me! This post isn’t really about him. I just don’t know how else to talk about what I want to talk about, except by starting with what he tweeted.
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First, apparently understandably distraught over an interview with McCarrick’s first victim, he tweeted some foul garbage about how gay it is that seminarians had a gingerbread house-building contest. Seriously, he did the f*ggy lisp and all, and included a name and photos of the men engaging in this “effeminate and puerile” activity, because that’s how you act when you’re a serious Catholic theologian and scholar.

It was wildly gross and offensive (and since he asked, can you imagine Basil and Gregory tweeting at each other?), and insanely insulting to gay people in direct contradiction of the catechism.
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But it also threw into high relief how poorly so many people understand what it means to be masculine. Many of his followers apparently believe that any time you’re not studying Latin or logic, building fires, chopping something, or shooting something, you’re a whisker away from of sliding into that dreaded horror, effeminacy.  In order to save the Church, we must stop having . . . gingerbread.
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His tweet was thoroughly trounced by many others, so I left it alone. But then he followed up with something that really nagged at me:

“The womb belonged to Joseph and he set it aside for Christ. The tomb belonged to another Joseph and he set it aside for Christ.”
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 I guess what happened is he read Fr. Longenecker’s tweet about wrapping Jesus’s body, and thought, “Whoa.  Joseph-Joseph . . .  womb-tomb!” and, despite not being Dylan Thomas, he went with it, rather than doing a quick heresy self-check. When readers responded to that phrase “The womb belonged to Joseph” with revulsion and dismay, he dug in with this:

He clarifies that Mary ruled over Joseph’s body, as well as vice versa: that there is mutual self-gift in marriage. He meant, apparently, that Joseph gave over his reasonable expectations that he’d be able to have sex with Mary, because he was willing to make a sacrifice to God of that privilege. And this is true enough.
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But the trouble is first in the way he phrased it. Saying Mary’s womb “belongs” to Joseph is just . . . gross. Things belong to us; people (including their organs) do not belong to us, not even if we’re married. If you want to hear how absurd and unseemly it is to phrase his idea as he did, say instead: “The penis belonged to Mary, so she went outside and peed with it.”
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I’m sincerely not trying to be crude. I’m trying to point out that a womb is an almost indescribably personal, intimate thing for a woman, and it’s bizarrely wrong to say it belongs to her husband. It doesn’t. It is hers. A woman rightly gives herself to her husband, over and over and over again, but he never owns her, no matter how much it may feel that way, no matter how many times she gives herself to him.
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And there we have the second, much more serious problem with Marshall’s thought. Joseph did not, in fact, consent to give Mary’s womb over to the Lord. How could he? It was hers to give, and she gave it at the Annunciation. Joseph only found out about her decision after the fact. He didn’t give anything, because there was nothing for him to give. The consent had already been given by the time he found out she was pregnant.
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Joseph’s choice wasn’t to give or not to give; his choice was either to get rid of her quietly, to get rid of her noisily, or to accept the situation with love, trust, and awe, because God told him not to be afraid to accept it.
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And that is what he did. There was no transfer, no consent, no free will offering originating from Joseph. Mary was never going to be “his,” because she had already given herself to God in a real, radical way.
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If Joseph gave Mary to God, then what did Mary’s “fiat” mean? Not a hell of a lot. More like when a child is allowed to sign a document that needs an adult’s signature to be official. No, it was Mary’s choice to make, and what she said to the Lord changed the course of . . . everything.
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But Joseph’s whole deal reminds me of the concept that “we are all feminine in relation to God.” I’ve been wrestling with this idea my whole adult life, and most days, the best I can do is set it aside and do whatever job’s in front of me.
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But so much of being a woman is being asked to accept things after they have already been decided, rather than being asked if you want them to happen or not. Yes, of course we decide many things, and make many choices. But women also very early confront the idea that things happen to them which they are not truly free to change or avoid. Ten times I have labored to give birth, and ten times, when the true agony set in, I have changed my mind. I decided I didn’t want to do it after all. Didn’t change a damn thing, thank God.
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It’s not that women are passive. It’s that humanity in general is far more helpless than it realizes. It’s mankind in general that’s the damsel in distress; mankind in general that sits weeping in a tower, waiting for the savior to come. Women’s lives show this reality in high relief, largely because of our biology, and so women tend to realize much sooner than men that none of us is really in control of their lives. On a good day, we’re in charge of slightly changing the trajectory of little chunks of life as they fly past us. Freedom very often consists not in choosing what will happen to us, but in choosing how to respond to what happens to us.
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And that sounds very much like what Joseph knew. He listened, a lot. He decided, out of love, not to fight things that had already come to pass. He worked with the system as long as he could, and when it wasn’t working, he gathered his family and ran away. He was willing to play a supporting role. He decided not to insist on taking what he could reasonably argue was rightfully his. And he was silent. In other words, Joseph’s behavior in the Gospels is like what we today normally think of as feminine — trusting, waiting, nurturing, self-sacrificial, chaste, modest, and quiet. This may account for how weirdly effeminate he looks in so much religious art, and it probably accounts in part for Marshall’s weird attempt to put Mary’s fiat in Joseph’s hands: Because he doesn’t behave in a way that checks off boxes in our modern understanding of masculinity.
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We get St. Joseph wrong because we grasp that he is not what we commonly think of as masculine; but correct our mistake by assigning to him what we wrongly think of as feminine, or by refusing to face how wrong we are about what it means to be feminine. Mary’s behavior is what we should think of as feminine; but it’s so hard to grasp that we saddle her with a simpering passivity, turning her into a virgin too fragile to deal with men, rather than a virgin strong enough to deal with God.
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Hell if I know what it all means, except that most of what we commonly think of as masculine and feminine is garbage, which probably accounts for why so many people think it doesn’t mean anything. In other context, my sister Abby Tardiff said this (and this was just part of a Facebook comment she dashed off, not some polished work of prose):
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[S] ex and gender have to be understood first as cosmic paradigms. So, “feminine” doesn’t mean “like a woman.” It’s the other way around. A woman is someone who embodies the eternal archetype of femininity. But she won’t do it completely, because she’s an instantiation [a representative of an actual example], not the archetype itself. She’s a particular, not a universal. Also, her instantiation of the feminine will filter itself through her personality, through tradition, through society, etc. For these two reasons, you can’t pin down any one characteristic that every woman has. Any time you try to say what characteristics women have, you’ll find exceptions (often me).

However, if you start from the archetype, and say (for example) that the feminine archetype involves the taking of the other into the self, then you can conclude that every woman is cosmically called to do this as well as and in whatever way she can. So the point is not to say what women are like, but what their vocation is.

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Taylor Marshall and his ilk are rightly angry that McCarrick and others have so smeared and ravaged human sexuality with their crimes and perversions. But Marshall’s brutal, puerile urge to squash all men and all women into small and clearly defined boxes of masculinity or femininity is, in its way, just as disastrous. More than one abused woman has told me that, early on in her marriage, before the beatings began, her pious Catholic husband railed at her for not being sufficiently archetypically feminine, as if any one woman could or should be. As if he had married womankind, rather than an actual person. This is the trap Marshall et al fall into: They want individual human beings to be the embodiment of all of their sex (“all seminarians must be masculine”); but since no one can or should achieve that, they reduce an archetypal reality to a few small, individualistic traits, and then rage at anyone who doesn’t reduce himself to those traits, as if they’ve failed at being human.
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It’s a way of making sense of the world, and it’s intensely depersonalizing. We do not love by making what is large small, and we do not love by railing at what is small for not being as large as the whole universe. But people who behave this way don’t think they’re being cruel to individual people; they think they’re being noble by upholding ontological truths. But first they have to squash those ontological truths into bite-sized pieces.
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Dressed up as respect for God’s creation, this way of thinking turns men and women away from our vocation, which is, in our particular ways, to be open to God: To be feminine in relation to God.
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Yes, that looks different for men and for women, and it looks different for for one particular women compared to another, and one particular man compared to another; but in some very broad way, this is the true feminine, what both Joseph and Mary did.
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I saw it myself yesterday, dozens of times, at Mass, at the Eucharist, men and women. They walked up to the front with all the burdens and glories of their particularities, and then opened up to receive God. How? Because He alone can take ontological truths and make them, as it were, bite-sized. He has made small what is larger than then universe, larger than masculine and feminine. Love makes itself small. Never to make others small.
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Our vocation is to be open like Mary and open like Joseph, and neither one of the two of them look like anything I’ve ever seen before on this earth, except in brief flashes like at the altar rail. Hell if I know what it means. My kids were asking me about the Second Coming today, and all I could say was everyone who thinks they know what they are talking about is in for a surprise.

 

Selfie culture, the male gaze, and other moral panics

Lots to unpack in this meme:

The thing about this is that sculptures like this in art history were for the male gaze. Photoshop a phone to it and suddenly she’s seen as vain and conceited. That’s why I’m 100% for selfie culture because apparently men can gawk at women but when we realize how beautiful we are we’re suddenly full of ourselves . . . .

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” — John Berger, Ways of Seeing

The second quote has a lot more on its mind than the first. I haven’t seen or read Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but this short excerpt raises a topic worth exploring. Women are depicted, and men and women are trained to see women, in a way that says that women’s bodies exist purely for consumption by others. If anything, the phenomenon has gotten worse since the 1970’s, when Berger recorded his series.

The first comment, though, about being “100% for selfie culture,” is deadly nonsense.

The first thought that occurred to me was: Anyone who’s set foot in a museum (or a European city) knows that manflesh is just as much on display as womenflesh, if not more; and all these nakeymen would look just as “vain and conceited” with a phone photoshopped into their marble hands. Thus the limits of education via Meme University.

I’ve already talked at length about the difference between naked and nude in art — a distinction which has flown blithely over the commenter’s head. But let’s put art history aside and look at the more basic idea of the gazer and the gazed-upon, and the question of what physical beauty is for.

I saw a comment on social media grousing about pop songs that praise a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. The commenter scoffed at men who apparently need their love interest to lack confidence or self-awareness, and she encouraged young girls to recognize, celebrate, and flaunt their own beauty, because they are valuable and attractive in themselves, and do not need to be affirmed by a male admirer to become worthy.

Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But, like the author of the first quote about selfie culture, she implies that there is something inherently wrong with enjoying someone else’s beauty — specifically, men enjoying women’s beauty; and she implies and that it’s inherently healthy or empowering to independently enjoy one’s own beauty and to ignore the effect that it has on men.

(I must warn you that this post will be entirely heteronormative. I am heterosexual and so is most of the world, so that’s how I write.)

Beauty is different from the other transcendentals. At least among humans, goodness and truth are objective (they can be categorized as either good or true, or as bad or false); and they exist whether anyone perceives them or not. Not so beauty — at least among humans. Is there such a thing as objective beauty? Can a face be beautiful if everyone in the world is blind? I don’t know. Let’s ask an easier question: Is it possible to enjoy one’s own beauty without considering or being aware of how it affects other people?

I don’t think so; and I don’t think that’s only so because we’ve all internalized the male gaze and have been trained for millennia only to claim our worth when we are being appreciated by someone who is comfortable with objectifying us.

Instead, I think we are made to be in relation to each other, and physical beauty is a normal and healthy way for us to share ourselves with each other.

Like every other normal and healthy human experience, beauty and the appreciation of beauty can be exploited and perverted. But it does not follow that we can cure this perversion by “being 100% for selfie culture.” Narcissism is not the remedy for exploitation. It simply misses the mark in a different way; and it drains us just as dry.

Listen here. You can go ahead and tell me what kind of bigot I am and what kind of misogynistic diseases I’ve welcomed into my soul. I’m just telling you what I have noticed in relationships that are full of love, respect, regard, and fruitfulness of every kind:

A good many heterosexual girls pass through what they may perceive to be a lesbian phase, because they see the female form as beautiful and desirable. As they get older and their sexuality matures, they usually find themselves more attracted to male bodies and male presences; but the appeal of the female body lingers. When things go well and relationships are healthy, this appeal a woman experiences manifests itself as a desire to show herself to a man she loves, so that both can delight in a woman’s beauty.

This isn’t a problem. It doesn’t need correcting. This is just beauty at work. Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living. It is a healthy response to love, a normal expression of love. Beauty is there to be enjoyed.

Beauty — specifically, the beauty of a woman’s body — goes wrong when it becomes a tool used to control. Women are capable of using their beauty to manipulate men, and men are capable of using women’s beauty to manipulate women. And women, as the quotes in the meme suggest, very often allow their own beauty to manipulate themselves, and eventually they don’t know how to function unless they are in the midst of some kind of struggle for power, with their faces and bodies as weapons.

That’s a sickness. But again: Narcissism is not the cure for perversion or abuse; and self-celebration very quickly becomes narcissism. Self-marriage is not yet as prevalent as breathless lifestyle magazines would have us believe, but it does exist. And it makes perfect sense if your only encounter with, well, being encountered has been exploitative. If love has always felt like exploitation, why not contain the damage, exploit oneself, and call it empowering? People might give you presents . . .

The real truth is that selfie culture isn’t as self-contained as it imagines. The folks I know who take the most selfies, and who are noisiest about how confident and powerful and fierce they are, seem to need constant affirmation from everyone that no, they don’t need anyone. Selfies feed this hunger, rather than satisfying it.

As a culture, we do need healing from the hellish habit of using and consuming each other. But selfie culture heals nothing. Selfie culture — a sense of self that is based entirely on self-regard — simply grooms us to abuse ourselves. A bad lover will grow tired of your beauty as you age and fall apart. A good lover will deepen his love even as your physical appeal lessens, and he will find beauty that you can’t see yourself. But when you are your own lover, that well is doomed to run dry. Love replenishes itself. Narcissism ravishes.

In the ancient myth from which the clinical diagnosis draws its name, the extraordinarily beautiful Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, and refuses to respond to the infatuated nymph Echo, who then languishes until nothing remains of her but her voice. In punishment for his coldheartedness, Narcissus is driven to suicide once he realizes that his own reflection can never love him in the way he loves it.

So, pretty much everyone is miserable and dies, because that is what happens when love and desire are turned entirely inward. It simply doesn’t work. That’s not what beauty is for. We can enjoy and appreciate our own beauty and still be willing and eager to share it with a beloved. But when we attempt to make beauty serve and delight only ourselves, it’s like building a machine where all the gears engage, but there is no outlet. Left to run, it will eventually burn itself out without ever having produced any action.

I’ve seen the face of someone who is delighted entirely with her own appeal; and I’ve seen the face of someone who’s delighted with someone she loves. There is beauty, and there is beauty. If it’s wrong for a man to be attracted to a woman who delights in her beloved, then turn out the lights and lock the door, because the human race is doomed.

Beauty, at its heart, is for others. Selfie culture, as a way of life, leads to death. You can judge for yourself whether death is better than allowing yourself to ever be subject to a male gaze.

 

The Myth of the Macho Christ

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Last week, I talked about the masculine qualities of protecting the weak, and exercising self-control, sexual and otherwise.  One reader responded:

If an affinity for babies and not having sex is manliness or courage or masculinity then some anemic nerd virgin gamer who babysits his cousins on the weekend is literally more manly and masculine than Achilles or Alexander the Great or Gengis Khan, since they fornicated. It’s absurd, but it’s truly the best approach to manliness people can come up with today. Actual manliness is unacceptable, so it has to be redefined as babysitting and not having sex. But described with real strong words. People want to throw men a bone because they care about their sons. But they can’t. They fail because actual manliness and masculinity imposes on women, and that’s officially out of bounds.

In charity, we’ll overlook the facts that Alexander the Great almost certainly had sex with men, and is best known for sitting down and crying, and we’ll  address the point that the commenter meant to make: that “actual manliness” means having sex whenever you want it; that “actual men” get women (and other weak people) to do what the men want, because that’s what’s best for everyone; and “actual men” don’t have time for little, feminine things, like children, or other people, or inaction. His point is that men have, until the last few decades, been admired mainly for their muscle and their ability to dominate.

So I asked:

What’s your opinion of Jesus? I’m sincerely curious. He didn’t fight back like a real man would. He just let them hang him there. And He was one of them virgins, too. Thoughts? Still holding out for a more masculine savior?

He responded:

No, I’m not saying virginity or holding babies precludes masculinity, but that it doesn’t define it at all. Not having sex didn’t make Jesus masculine. Sacrificing himself to crush the enemy and prevent group extinction is masculine, though, like Thermopoly. Maybe Alexander the Great was a bad example, but what about Achilles and Gengis Khan? The point is that virginity and taking care of babies isn’t manliness or masculinity. It’s the exact opposite—both virginity and holding babies are archetypal feminine things.

There’s a lot of confusion here.

First, there’s the statement that virginity is an “archetypal feminine thing.” I’m having a hard time  picturing a world where the women are all real women by being virgins, but the men are all men by being not-virgins. Even if we’re getting sheep involved, it just don’t add up. 

He also, possibly willfully, misunderstood me. No, there’s nothing especially masculine about taking care of babies or being a virgin. I never said there was. My point was that there’s nothing especially masculine about despising babies, and nothing especially masculine about despising virginity. That there is something very masculine about having the power to kill and rape, and deciding to use your strength for something else, instead.

The confusion here is a very old one. I mean very old, as in pre-War In Heaven-old. It’s the classic mistake of falling for a parody — of confusing a distortion for the real thing. We’re too smart to do the opposite of what we should do, but we’re dumb enough to fall for a disastrously bad imitation.

I remember hearing a Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Don Giovanni, where some gabbling announcer said, “You know, despite everything, you really have to admire the Don. I mean, look how he stood up to that statue! He really held his ground and didn’t let it push him around!”

Yarr, this is true. And then the demons with torches dragged him down to Hell, and the opera ends with a cheerful chorus of survivors, singing, essentially, “Boy, did he deserve it.”  The opera opens with the servant Leporello complaining about what a terrible boss he has, and at the end, he creeps off, presumably to find an employer who uses his noble birth justly and wisely, rather than as a license to murder and rape.

One of the main services that Christianity provided to the world (besides, you know,salvation) was to correct our model for femininity and masculinity, which got distorted almost as soon as the first man and woman were made. What needed correcting? Well, before Christ, the rest of the world was still laboring under the pagan delusion, the lapsarian distortion, that women are weak and that men are basically penises with swords. That’s what we revert to, when we listen to the distortions of sin.

And what was the correction that Christ give us?  He gave us woman clothed with the sun, queen of the angels, crusher of serpents. And a savior who poured out His life, not as a symbol, but for real. Who made Himself powerless, immobile, transfixed on the cross, open to shame, to spitting, to insults and humiliation. When Jesus died on the cross, no one said, “Look at this display of strength!” They saw Him fall; they saw Him overpowered. They saw Him dead. Ecce homo.

What do we know about this model of masculinity? He chose to let it happen. He had strength, and He chose to put away His strength, His manhood (never mind His Godhood). He chose to reserve it until it could be used the right way. He didn’t come to make unmistakable display of His power and might. There are still millions who don’t see it! He came, instead, to strengthen us, to protect us, to empty Himself out so that we might have life.

This is the new model of manhood. This is the kind of strength we’re talking about when we hold up Christ as a model for men. We glory in the risen Christ, but it’s the crucifix that we hang in our homes and above the altar.

If I were a man, I wouldn’t like it, either.

So I don’t blame the commenter for trying to go back to the old pagan ways, where men are expected to be walking, fighting, self-serving penises. That’s a hell of a lot easier to understand than the crucified Christ. Even my dog can understand that model of masculinity.

Even a doglike man, or a doglike woman, or a doglike angel can fall for a distortion, a grossly simplified counterfeit. This is what Eve did when she was offered wisdom, and instead chose information. She chose the clever counterfeit. This is what Adam did when he had Eve to advise him, and instead used her as someone to blame. He chose a clever counterfeit.

This is what Satan did when he refused to serve. The angels were created to glorify God, but Satan mistook his free will a sign that He was too good to serve God. He thought his freedom meant he was made to be independent of God.

God knows, he’s on his own now.

Hey, men. It’s really easy to go raging around, hitting stuff, yelling at people, and stuffing your penis into anything that doesn’t fight back.  It’s really easy to impose on people, especially if you are bigger than the people you’re imposing on.

But that’s not what Jesus did. That’s not what Jesus did.

As long as we were talking about opera, let’s remember the Marriage of Figaro, where the faithless count uses his wealth, his power, and his charm to seduce his way through the first four acts. He only repents of his philandering ways when the masks are removed, and he discovers that the woman he was trying to seduce was his own betrayed wife in disguise.

The moral of this story, for those who have ears to hear is: look out for those disguises. Watch out for those counterfeits you think you want so badly. Maybe you’ll be lucky, and it will be your long-suffering spouse under the mask. Maybe she’ll forigve you, and maybe you’ll repent, and maybe all will be well.

Or maybe you’re not in an opera, and when the mask is pulled away, you’ll see who you’ve really fallen for. And then the demons come to take you away to your chosen home.

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