Under Construction: Reframing Men’s Spirituality
Gareth Brandt. Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2009. 225 pages.
If you were to choose a biblical male role model to emulate, whom would you choose? Abraham? Moses? David? Peter? Paul? There might be good reason to choose any one of the above; however, Brandt dismisses them for one or more reasons. Abraham’s culture, which included polygamy and human sacrifice, was so different from ours. Moses was a primary leader and difficult for ordinary men to identify with. David’s sins make him less than an ideal role model. We know very little about the personal life of Peter, and Paul’s idealizing of the single life might be too limiting.
Thus Brandt decides on Joseph, partly because the biblical narrative covers his entire lifespan including adventures, family relationships, and career. “Joseph is a real person with a real life that many of us can identify with” (53), he concludes. Brandt also likes the fact that incidents in Joseph’s life provide metaphors that allow us to understand his spiritual development.
Brandt identifies ten metaphors from Joseph’s life story. His is approach is not exegetical, but begins with a loose paraphrase of the chosen part of the story and then reflects theologically and personally on the issues it raises. These chapters are meant to be read meditatively.
In choosing a biblical character, Brandt rejects the route of some writers who have used male archetypes to characterize male spirituality. Modern men’s movements have tended to use the four classic archetypes of king, warrior, lover, and magician. For Brandt the archetypes are limiting in that each has a dark side and can easily give assent to violence, domination, abuse, and addictions. The strength of Brandt’s approach is that metaphors have transformative power when the reader is open to understanding them in light of the Spirit. Rather than making universal claims, metaphors make it easier to identify with the truths they illuminate.
The ten metaphors (beloved, dreamer, wounded, journey, sexuality, gifts, builder, reflection, reconciliation, legacy) illustrate the developmental spirituality of Joseph. Integrating personal reflections with an incident in Joseph’s life is one of the strengths of this book. Brandt is not afraid to be vulnerable and share some of his painful past. For example, the incident of Joseph’s abandonment by his brothers in the chapter entitled, “Wounded” becomes the occasion for him to share an experience of sexual abuse that he experienced from a boyhood hero. This pain was repressed until it resurfaced in adulthood and had to be faced at a time when he was successful by all external appearances in a career and as a husband and father. Here and at other times, he shares personally and deeply from personal experience and often includes poems he wrote during such times.
To further illustrate Brandt’s approach, the attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife leads to a discussion on sexuality, celibacy, fidelity, and marriage. He brings in biblical texts to show how sexuality and spirituality are inextricably linked. This chapter in particular illustrates how an incident in Joseph’s life leads to a biblical and theological reflection on an important issue that all men (and women) face.
Perhaps his greatest contribution is that he resists the temptation to stereotype male spirituality. While his quest begins and ends with the question, “What is a spiritual man?”, it goes beyond the gender specifics of what it means to be spiritual. For Brandt, “spirituality is the quest for relation to the Other. To be spiritual is to be in touch with the self, with God, and with others” (23). He assists readers in understanding how we express faith in all we do, through our work, play, daily routines and primarily through relationships. “Men’s spirituality reaches its height when it shows compassion to all people, beginning with those close to us” (201).
Brandt relates that his quest led him to write this book within the context of community by engaging in monthly conversations with a small group of men. He would write a chapter and they would meet to discuss the contents. I believe this model would be the best way to enter into its contents—to read and discuss one chapter at a time within a small group of men who desire to be on this quest together. It will certainly generate conversation and lead to personal growth when experienced in that manner.