My college made much of rituals. Being at a conservative Christian school with strict rules (no movies, t-shirts in class, or staying out after 11), students created ways to push the boundaries. You could see this especially in our rituals.
One ritual I’ll never forget was R.A. initiation. I had just been accepted as a new resident assistant, but on what floor or dorm I didn’t know. I’d only find that out at my initiation, as was the custom on all dorm floors at my school.
In my case, R.A. initiation went like this. I was in bed around 3:30am, dead asleep. Suddenly, fierce banging on my door roused me. “What do you want?” I said.
Gruffly someone replied, “Unlock the door, Vaden.”
“I don’t think so.”
Feet shuffled and voices whispered. 3 minutes later, I heard a sloshing sound. My roommate, who by this time was also fully awake, said, “Hey, they’re flooding us!”
Sure enough, water was being poured through the door’s crack at the floor. They must have been using several buckets-worth.
When I still refused to open the door, they tried another tactic: yelling at the top of their lungs. This woke every man on my floor, and one in particular got so mad he almost threw punches. Realizing a brawl might ensue, I relented. And as I opened my door, flood lights beamed in my face, blinding me, and in seconds I was hooded, tied up, and being carried who-knows-where.
I’ll spare the further details. Don’t worry, I wasn’t hazed, just initiated into a dorm floor at a Christian college. To give you a sense, part of the ritual process involved several guys asking me difficult Greek questions, e.g., “What’s the perfect tense of εἰμί?” Yes, I know, Christian colleges can be strange.
By the end of that day I was exhausted, but also happy. I’d been sleep-deprived, bound hand and foot, interrogated, and forced to wear a ridiculous costume to my classes that day, but I’d also been ‘welcomed’ into a new fraternity of men.
A Fraternity of Men
Men make men. Every man needs to be accepted as a man, by other men.
In the movie Emerald Forest, young Tomme is a caucasian boy captured and raised by a Brazilian tribe. One day the chief notices Tommy’s interest in girls has sparked. So, the chief calls him out, “Tomme, your time has come to die!”
That night, the men of the village take Tommy away. He is forced into the jungle vines, where ants cover him and clamp their tiny jaws into his flesh. He spends the night in pain and sleeplessness. But in the morning, the men carry him to the river and wash him; he revives. The chief proclaims to all, “The boy is dead and the man is born!”
From that point, Tommy is allowed to take his place as a brave in the tribe, and to take a woman in marriage. He has become a man, with a man’s privileges and responsibilities. But to do this, he had to be initiated into manhood by other men.
My own experience in college was not a true initiation into manhood. It was more fun than forming. But it was a taste of fraternity, a hint of initiation. What it lacked was not ritual or intentionality, but maturity. I was initiated, but not by mature men. Not to put any of them down, but that wasn’t the aim of the initiation anyway; it was meant simply as the entryway to be on their floor, as their R.A., but not as a man among mature men.
Boyish initiations of this kind aren’t bad, but they only hint at something greater. That something is mature masculinity.
The mature masculine is largely missing from our culture. False forms of it abound in the domineering “alpha-male” image of men who dominate women and other men, and in the “successful” CEO who’s made his way to the top by keeping others down, stifling the progress and creativity of his subordinates.
I once worked for a carpenter who was like this. I joined his crew one summer for work, and I was really enjoying learning to frame houses. So one day when I saw him working out the angles for the rafters on his square, I asked how he was doing it. He looked up with one eye cocked, as if I were asking for trade secrets, and said, “Why do you want to know?” I realized he didn’t have any desire to help me become a better carpenter, because that might put him at a disadvantage somehow.
Every man has his boyish insecurities to deal with. That’s part of growing up. To be initiated into manhood doesn’t mean that one’s desires for strength and power are done away with, but that they are transformed:
“Effective, transformative initiation absolutely slays the Ego and its desires in its old form to resurrect it with a new, subordinate relationship to a previously unknown power or center. Submission to the power of the mature masculine energies always brings forth a new masculine personality that is marked by a calm, compassion, clarity of vision, and generatively” (Moore and Gillette).
How to Initiate Men
People are realizing the need for the mature masculine in our culture. But how do we get it?
Here are three ways it can happen.
1. Create space for it.
Men need to be together. They need space to intentionally focus on maturing, on growing up into manhood.
Churches aren’t oblivious to this need. One church in Ohio named Crossroads has instituted “Man Camp,” a weekend retreat for men that includes camping, drinking, splitting wood, arm-wrestling, and listening to heavy metal.
But more is needed than just bringing men together to do “manly” things.
2. Platform the elders among us.
Ask a man if anyone introduced him to pornography, and most of the time he’ll point to an older man.
This is terrible. The fact that older men lead boys away from strong, mature experiences of their sexuality into porn, masturbation, and objectifications of women is one of the biggest reasons for our culture’s gender crisis.
But the solution isn’t taking away from the influence of older men. Rather, it’s to platform the right ones, to those who are living out a vision of mature masculinity.
We need to give honor and station to our elders who have proven their maturity–not merely by their achievements in business, but by their character and faith.
3. Center it on the Son of Man.
There’s got to be a standard for mature masculinity. And it has to be higher than men. While elders can show us the way, no mere man can give other men entrance into mature manhood.
It’s at the cross that people find their identity. For men, coming to the cross of Christ gives them their true selves, including their true manhood.
If we want to initiate other men into manhood through spaces like Man Camp or something else, we need Jesus at the center of that ritual space.