Monday, May 16, 2011

Review: The Hidden Spirituality of Men

Every now and then I would stumble across the name Matthew Fox, so I finally went to the library and checked out a copy of The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine. I was excited, at first, because Matthew Fox is a former Dominican who became an Episcopal priest after his expulsion from the Catholic Church. Episcopal: That's Catholic-Lite; twice the ritual with only half the guilt! And Starhawk had dropped his name once or twice, so I thought as I cracked the book, "At last, something about male spirituality with some theological teeth in it."

I became uneasy as I read; the paragraphs seemed to be fuzzy and disjointed. Sort of like, "Purple is a color between red and blue. 'The Color Purple' is the name of a book by Alice Walker. Donnie Osmond liked purple socks, and Prince had an album called 'Purple Rain.' As you can see, purple has an attraction to artists of all genders and orientations." Except Fox would have used chakras, Robert Bly, Meister Eckhart, and Native Americans.

I flipped ahead to the chapter on The Green Man, where I read "The Green Man is an ancient pagan symbol of our relationship to the plant kingdom." My earlier vague misgivings crystallized. I checked in the index, and failed to find Lady Raglan, the British folklorist who wrote in 1936 about the foliate heads she'd notice in English church architecture, and who started the Frazierian theory that they were were symbols of pagan fertility and tree worship. There followed some more loosely related paragraphs, ending with Greenpeace.

The Green Man is an icon, and the cultural meaning of this icon has changed throughout the centuries: from ancient Bacchus, through the medieval images of the Tanglewood and renaissance agents of festival crowd control, to Lady Raglan's theories about restored church architecture in the twentieth century. To make assertions about ancient pagan interpretations of the Green Man is about as valid as asserting that motorists in the modern age worship Pegasus because they gather underneath an icon of a red winged horse. Certainly, Neo-Pagans today use the Green Man as a symbol of the interconnectedness of Nature and Humanity, as a male avatar of Nature's spirit incarnate, and as a paragon to emulate.  However, this contemporary use begins with the assumptions of Lady Raglan. I don't mind so much that Matthew Fox wants to imagine new scripts for the Green Man, but I do wish he hadn't grounded them in outmoded folklore theories.

Moving along, I flipped forward to the chapter on Masculine Sexuality. By the fifth paragraph, I read about Toaist practices of controlling seminal fluids (code for "orgasm without ejaculation") and how there's chi stored in the testes. At least Fox did spend some time addressing issues of infertility and male sexuality -- but then out came the berdaches and winktes. This section made me angry because it was titled "Honoring, and Learning From, The Gifts of Homosexuality." It was so old-school-Harry-Hay-elitism: "because we're a persecuted minority we've got special powers." Okay, Fox gets points for saying a Spiritual Warrior must exorcise homophobia, but then he loses points for implying that doing so will give access to, among other things, the homosexual gift of spirituality. Here's a special note for all of you Spiritual Warriors: when I'm having hot, throbbing, man-to-man sex, my primary motivation isn't to bring straight allies a spiritual gift. (And by-the-way: I'm a white guy, not a First Nations person). Muttering "Magic Negro" under my breath, I flipped forward.

By this time my attitude toward "The Hidden Spirituality of Men" had deteriorated into a mix of "Ha, where is your Goddess now?" "Someone is wrong on the internet!" and the feeling of looking/not-looking at a traffic accident. My eyes fell randomly on the end of Chapter Eleven: The Sacred Marriage of Masculine and Feminine. Yep, there it was, a reference to hieros gamos, and the Jewish tradition of Yahweh consummating a marriage with Shekinah, feminine bride. Which is fine, except Shekinah wasn't formulated as feminine, much less a cosmic bride, until probably sometime in the ninth century, and was first written in the "Book Bahir", written around 1185. Earlier writing presented Shekhina as an ungendered concept to enable limited humans to perceive Deity.

As with the Green Man, I don't have a problem with a modern reworking of Shekinah as a Cosmic Bride; but Fox seems to have confused medieval Shekinah with Sophia or ancient Ashera. Shekinah's sexing a thousand years ago by rabbis was done to develop a spiritual toolkit to fix the imbalance in the emanations of the Tree of Life. Fox is looking for a metaphor of the union of two cosmic opposites; but originally, Shekinah was the facade Deity wears so that the Nation of Israel might comprehend the divine.

Yes, I'm knit-picking on this last example, but by now it was too late. I felt betrayed. What I'd hoped for was a Priestly Ronald Hutton or a poetic Margot Adler. What I found was an odd grab-bag of "ancient" and "native" "wisdom," a Frazierian regurgitation of art history presented as archeology, and a kinder, gentler Men's Mythopoetic movement. The symbols and icons of the Divine Male are active and available; use them, re-work them - and if the re-working is a good one, it doesn't need a populist pedigree to justify it. I'm sure Matthew Fox has given us some symbolic gems, and the divine male does need to explored -- but for me, the Spirituality of Men was too well Hidden for this book to be useful.
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