Manliness Reconsidered

by Ben Bartlett

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I grew up reading tales of King Arthur. The Knights of the Round Table exemplified who I wanted to be: strong, heroic, unafraid, and, of course, chivalrous. In my own way, I sought out battles against the strong (the jocks and popular kids, in my world) in defense of the weak (geeks and unpopular kids). But more than anything, I longed to be a hero in some girl’s life.

Today, as an adult, I see women kicking men’s butts in every phase of education, in many industries, and in nearly every job that requires schooling. They are generally more disciplined, more conscientious, more observant, and more detailed. They think just as fast, work just as hard, and care just as much as any man ever has. And they have done this while maintaining their traditionally central role in management of the home.

All this makes me wonder if the hero I longed to be as a boy is still needed—or wanted—today. Are those days gone?

This new reality is also causing the Church to re-evaluate some basic assumptions about gender roles and the theology behind them. We are realizing the many things Scripture does NOT say about women. It does not say they cannot be fully functional and participating members of the workforce. It does not say they can’t get a great education and climb the corporate ladder. It does not say they need to let the man take the lead on everything under the sun. And it does not say men’s lust problems are women’s fault.

That’s good. I love that conservative Bible scholars, despite good intentions, are being called to account for proscribing more than the Bible does. I love that women are bringing more creativity to the office, more wisdom to secular leadership roles, and more depth to politics. I’m perfectly happy with the fact that my last three bosses were women (one of whom is a godly spiritual mentor in my life). And I think it is wonderful that my daughter will have more than nursing and education to choose from as a career.

Still, I feel discouraged, for somewhere in the throngs of voices speaking to a thousand different gender topics, I am picking up these messages: You don’t matter. Your chivalry is and should be dead. You are not unique. Your lack of domestic knowledge makes you a failure. Your protective attitude toward women is rude. Your desire to be a hero is immature. Your wife is more important and valuable to your family than you are.

In other words, I feel the manhood I have aspired to all my life is viewed by society as backward and wrong. It is the last vestige of the old boys’ clubs patting themselves on the back. It is dead and gone, and I need to grow up.

This hits home especially hard when I consider my InterVarsity friends from college. My (male) best friend and I moved heaven and earth to care for that group. We met with people, served as shoulders to cry on in times of stress, and stepped in if we felt someone was being mistreated. We took the lead on serious theological questions and in moments of crisis. If a girl in our group felt scared or threatened, we showed up. Our group had more women than men, so there was definitely a sort of chivalrous tone to the venture. We viewed ourselves as protective older brother figures, even vetting our female friends’ potential boyfriends according to our shared standards of faith and character quality.

Eight years later, I look back and wonder if we mattered. Every woman in that group has gone on to be more successful than me in some way: they are doctors, businesswomen, auditors, moms. Perhaps they never needed us. And here I am, with my big words and ideas, barely creeping above entry level for the first time and barely supporting my family. Why was I there? Who did my so-called “manliness” ever benefit?

These deep uncertainties are frustrating enough, but where the rubber really meets the road is when I look at my earnest, funny, mischievous, problem-solving son, Isaiah. In looks, in personality, in communication style, and in a thousand other ways he is quite similar to who I was at that age. I desperately want to be a good father to him. But I am left with this question: Should I train him to view his role as any different from that of women? If so, how? And on what basis?

I spend much thought and prayer on this issue. My definition of manliness has real outcomes when I show, explain, and describe the world to my son. It comes through in the way I discipline, and it is apparent in the way I live. Make no mistake: your approach to questions of gender will display itself in your life and in the lives of your children.

My search for answers led me to three reflections.

Reflection #1: One of our greatest failures in defining manhood has been to set up an image of the “ideal” man as something all men should aspire to.

The scenario goes something like this. A man—be he real or fictional—does something heroic and manly. Other men appreciate and admire this action and wish they could have done the same thing. They find ways to enact generic brand copies of the manly action. They encourage their sons and every other male they know to do the same. They fall in love with this form of imitation heroism and eventually teach all those they influence that the generic brand heroism is both biblical and godly and that, therefore, all men should do it.

I saw this often in seminary. Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, did a heroic and manly thing in accepting an extremely difficult leadership role. He took a school from a place of extreme theological liberalism back to a place of mostly faithful theological orthodoxy. That is good.

However, many young men take that example and try to unhelpfully emulate it. They zip around the Internet, picking theological fights and taking radical stands on minor aspects of faith. They overly politicize church governance, organizing conservative coups of church leadership teams or statements of faith without regard for building up the Church Body in love. They harden scriptural teaching to the point of legalistic, performance-based standards for “true” Christianity. And as they do these things, they justify themselves with the notion that these are the works of Christian manhood.

In addition, many Christian men wrongly appropriate secular ideals of manhood and act as though the Church should be beholden to those as well. This is where we hear foolish concepts such as the glorification of interpersonal violence, the condemnation of qualities of nurture (i.e., not allowing sons to play with dolls), and discouraging wives from pursuing any passion other than development of the home.

Finally, some Christian men demean and ostracize other men whose strengths and qualities don’t match the expected ideal. If a man has a strong predisposition toward so-called “womanly” interests, they make him feel like crap for it, cheapening the quality of his manhood. This is not the love Christ called us to, nor is it an accurate understanding of manhood.

Real Christian wisdom recognizes that the glorification of a brutish and often unhealthy ideal of manhood bears more similarity to the idolatry of pagans than worship of the Suffering Servant.

Reflection #2: Real manhood is about spending unique strengths in service of unique burdens.

Describing the ideal man—”real men look like this”—is an exercise in futility. However, framing manliness in terms of its burdens and the willingness of a man to meet those burdens makes a lot more sense.

After all, men’s lives are filled with opportunities for burdens. How we accept those burdens responsibly is a far better measurement of our commitment to obeying God’s unique call on our lives than comparing ourselves to an Indiana Jones poster.

One burden we accept is the burden of simplicity. Men are less complex biologically than women. Often we are less emotionally complex, as well as being simpler in our loyalties and less affected by necessary sacrifices. This is a powerful tool, but real manliness recognizes the need to use this tool in a godly way: sacrifices are to be made for the good of others rather than self, simple focus is to be used for the protection of the weak rather than the ambition of the strong, simple biology allows the opportunity to serve rather than using it as freedom from responsibility.

Another burden is accountable authority. Scripture clearly gives authority to men in two very specific, limited locations: the Christian home and the eldership of the Church. Single men are to prepare themselves for those two roles, and the men who hold those roles are to use their authority for the good and service and protection of those in the family or in the Church. These are not opportunities to increase the privileges of power. They are not blanket rights for authoritarianism. And they are not the same thing as authority in the workplace. But they are burdens that are unique to men.

One final example (although there are many others) I’ll share is the burden of physical strength. It is the case that the average man is stronger than the average woman. Men are more often in a position to physically impose their will on a woman than vice versa. For the godly man, rightful administration of this burden means never using that advantage physically impose your will on someone who is weaker (this applies to bullying as well, but it is more often applied between a man and a woman). It also means being vigilant when you see signs that someone else is violating their responsibility and then proactively protecting the weak when it happens.

***

Years ago, I was walking toward a banquet hall, and a woman came out, closely followed by a heavyset man. She was drunk. He violently pushed her to the ground, cursing and yelling. She tried to stand, and I could see the bloody cuts on her knees through the holes torn in her nylons. I was about one hundred yards away, and fear shot through me, demanding that I turn away. At 135 pounds soaking wet and with no fighting experience, I would be pounded by this monster.

But I was raised by men who exemplified acceptance of responsibility and protection of the weak. I was raised to think that a man shoving a woman is an abuse of power. I began to run toward them.

Before I could get to the hall, another man who clearly knew the couple came out and intervened. He forced the first man inside, and then came back to help the woman. It was all over before I could get there. But I will never forget that moment, in which my responsibility and my burden were all too clear.

***

The burdens of manhood are a helpful frame for understanding ourselves, because it doesn’t try to limit women in areas Scripture nowhere prohibits them. Instead, it focuses on how we can spend whatever gifts we have in service of others. A man who doesn’t like sports is still just as much of a man, because he accepts the burdens God gives him. A man can be perfectly comfortable taking care of his kids while his wife builds her career (assuming that is their desire), as long as he is accepting accountability before God for guiding and leading his family well. A man can respond to directives from his female boss or mayor with joy, because he understands that her authority is derived from God and it is his responsibility to obey it.

At the same time, we continue to celebrate the men who accept those burdens well. King Arthur and Cory Booker, Robin Hood and Joshua, Chuck Noll and John Glenn; all these can still be appreciated for what they did with what God gave them. They exemplify a manliness not threatened by the accomplishments of others, women in particular. Instead, they embody the acceptance of responsibility.

Reflection #3: Training sons for manhood is about helping them identify and accept their unique burdens in the world.

My son will be what he wants to be. I will lose control more rapidly than I care to admit. I want him to be a godly man. Is it really worth it to focus on war and karate and football? Do I really want him to be the guy who can’t be alone in a room with a woman in the workplace because of some hyper-protective standards? Am I doing him a favor by teaching him to celebrate MMA while taking away the play kitchen?

I say no. And that’s not to say that football is bad. It’s just that it doesn’t automatically represent training for a life of godly manhood. Instead, I need to have awkward conversations like Gus and Lars, in the movie Lars and the Real Girl:

Gus: Well, it’s not like you’re one thing or the other, okay? There’s still a kid inside but you grow up when you decide to do right, okay, and not what’s right for you, what’s right for everybody, even when it hurts.

Lars:Okay, like what?

Gus:Like, you know, like, you don’t jerk people around, you know, and you don’t cheat on your woman, and you take care of your family, you know, and you admit when you’re wrong, or you try to, anyways. That’s all I can think of, you know—it sounds like it’s easy and for some reason it’s not.

I want my son to see the world’s pain. I want him to recognize the ever-changing power dynamics, and I want him to spend his strength in defense of the weak. I want him to accept the burden of loving others and being accountable for their well-being. I want him to be the kind of man that Elizabeth Elliot celebrated when she said, “The world cries for men who are strong—strong in conviction, strong to lead, to stand, to suffer. I pray that you will be that kind of man.”

The man she called for was not one who modeled himself after Anderson Silva or Tom Brady or Mick Jagger. And though I intend to read the stories of King Arthur to my son, even he is not the true ideal. The true man is one who models himself after Christ. My prayer is that in my life and in my guidance for my son, I would be like and celebrate this Man.

But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
1 Peter 2:20–24

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries.


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