Books In Review

The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 96 (October 1999): 57-59.

Separation Anxiety

The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity. By Leon J. Podles. Spence. 350 pp. $27.95.

Reviewed by Daniel P. Moloney

Leon Podles has his finger on something very important. A symptom of the problem Podles has discovered is this: men don’t like church. To be more precise, masculine men have a problem with Christianity, at least in its Western forms. In Eastern Orthodox churches (at least according to Podles) men participate in services and other religious activities as much or more than do women, while in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches the women outnumber the men, sometimes by wide margins.

Podles does not believe sociology can explain this disparity. Instead he argues that Christianity itself has become "feminized." During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, he says, Christian piety underwent a dramatic change, so that where before it appealed to masculine ideals, it has appealed to feminine ones ever since. Podles attributes this change to St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s introduction of bridal mysticism, a way of praying in which the believer uses "erotic" language from the Song of Songs to express his love for Christ. Bridal mysticism appealed to women very much; from the thirteenth–century explosion of women’s orders until today, the image of being the spouse of Christ has been a favorite of Christian women. To men, however, praying as if one were the bride of a male Christ took on "sexual overtones that sound peculiar to the masculine ear." As more women filled the pews, and as the more masculine realm of theology became too scholarly for use in homilies, Podles believes, preachers leaned on bridal mysticism to appeal to their congregations, thereby perpetuating the feminization of Christian piety begun by St. Bernard.

In response, he tells us, men have done their best to avoid churches, sublimating their religious instincts into sports, soldiering, fraternal organizations, and even fascism. Insofar as they do express their religious impulses, they do so outside the churches through extreme penances (Podles tells with relish of the men in some Latin countries who will actually hang on crosses for a short time), or by joining men’s movements like the Knights of Columbus or Promise Keepers. Podles thinks this pattern will persist indefinitely and that men will continue to attend church only grudgingly.

The Church Impotent breaks new ground in identifying and explaining this phenomenon. For this reason, the book has received considerable attention and praise. Too much, perhaps, for Podles’ argument is riddled with contradictions, historical inaccuracies, and errors in reasoning that almost entirely undermine his central thesis.

To begin with, there’s the historical evidence that bridal mysticism predated Bernard of Clairvaux. Podles recognizes one antecedent, claiming that Bernard got his inspiration from the Commentary on the Song of Songs of the early Christian writer Origen, "whose heterodoxy makes him a dubious authority." The problem with this historically is that Origen wrote in Greek, and Bernard probably did not read Greek. He is more likely to have had access to the Latin works of the unquestionably orthodox St. Ambrose, who spoke of the individual’s soul conubii foedere copulatur, "joined in bonds of matrimony" to God, and who often used the Song in his homilies and liturgical works.

Bridal mysticism can be found in the patristic period in both the Greek and Latin Churches, and has its roots in Scripture (especially in the Song of Songs and 2 Corinthians 11:2). If bridal mysticism is responsible for scaring men away from the Church, then it should have done so much earlier than the twelfth century, and in the Eastern Churches as well. Furthermore, it cannot be the explanation for the "feminization" of twentieth–century mainline Protestantism, which lacks any hints of bridal mysticism, except, perhaps, in some forms of feminism.

Podles needs to locate the beginning of "feminization" in the twelfth century with Bernard rather than in the fourth with Ambrose or the third with Origen because he wants to show that Christianity is not inherently off–putting to men. Podles has constructed his argument on the premises that 1) if Christianity is not attracting men it must be because it is feminized, and 2) Christianity is not inherently feminized. He can hardly acknowledge the possibility that attracting men has been a problem throughout Church history. We have no idea whether men in antiquity showed a greater commitment to Christianity than did women, although Podles assumes this to be the case. We do know of prominent early Christian men (Timothy, Constantine, Augustine) who were brought to the Church by their wives or mothers, just as many men are today, but we don’t know whether this was the norm.

In the absence of hard evidence, Podles presents something of a transcendental deduction over the middle chapters of his book to support his conviction that in its first millennium the Church was more attractive to men. Surveying the psychological literature of child development and the anthropological literature of tribal societies, Podles develops a not–implausible theory of masculinity. He then takes this notion of masculinity and finds it all over the Bible. From this he concludes that the early, more biblical, Christianity must have been masculine, because it reflected what, thanks to modern social science, we now understand to be masculinity.

Masculinity is not a mere function of biological maleness, Podles tells us. According to the developmental psychologists he cites, it is a state boys achieve through a difficult three–stage process. In infancy boys and girls both identify psychologically with their mothers, existing "in an oceanic consciousness, in which the mother and child merge into one, blissful, erotic identity." Boys become masculine only if they break this oedipal attachment, thus opening a "psychic wound" that is the basis of their inchoate masculinity. If a boy fails to "dis–identify" with his mother and identifies instead with his father, he fails to achieve masculinity, and is likely to become homosexual, masochistic, misogynistic, or pedophilic. Podles cites anthropological research which sees tribal initiation rites as the paradigmatic way for boys to separate from their mothers and to be socialized as male. In more complex modern societies, however, boys undergo "no such rites of passage, and they must face every test afresh, not knowing whether they have yet proved themselves men." Only after the initial union and the separation from the mother can a boy learn to love a woman as another distinct human being rather than as another version of himself.

Podles takes these scientific conclusions and misapplies them, essentially arguing the following: Psychoerotic separation is characteristic of the masculine; a psychoerotic separation is a separation; therefore, separation itself is characteristic of the masculine. He implausibly generalizes that any separation of any sort indicates masculinity—and he perpetuates this logical error throughout the book, reducing his argument to a kind of caricature: Because He transcends creation, "God is, therefore, utterly separate from creation. . . . A transcendent God is a masculine God." Podles claims that God’s separating the light from the dark proves his masculinity. The Israelite patriarchs sinned whenever fleshly "communion with the wife" led one of them to "feminization, to the loss of separation that makes him a man," as with Adam, David, and Solomon. Abraham "fell prey to uxoriousness" and had to recover his separation by sacrificing Isaac. In Exodus, God makes a distinction between the Israelites and Egyptians, continuing "to act in a masculine way."

One might think that the unprecedented "communion" of the persons of the Trinity might indicate that the New Testament offers a less separate, more "feminine" version of God. Not so, says Podles. The New Testament tells us explicitly that God is Father and Son, and that we are all called to "initiation" (i.e., baptism) and martyrdom. Jesus introduces "a new principle of separation: no longer observance of the Law, but faith in him," and takes the cross like a man. ("Masculinity entails initiation; initiation involves pain—the greater the pain, the more profound the initiation.") In the Apocalypse, we discover that Christ’s enemy is Satan, and the true Christian life is shown to be spiritual warfare (a masculine image).

This is pretty silly stuff. Podles has other historical missteps as well, too numerous to mention here. (My favorite is his discussion of the Scholastics. If he is right about the identification of masculinity with the making of distinctions, these hyperprecise university professors would have been the alpha–males of the Middle Ages!) Part of his problem comes from relying entirely on secondary sources, particularly historians who, in this area, are mostly feminists. Throughout his argument, he allows the feminists to set the terms of the debate, all the while decrying the "feminist spirituality" they claim to have discovered.

Podles should be commended for asking a provocative question provocatively. If we want a plausible explanation for the phenomenon he addresses, however, we will have to wait for a different book.

Daniel P. Moloney is Associate Editor of First Things.