“The Demise of Guys” – a book review that’s going places”

Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan have written a marvelous little book called “The Demise of Guys”.  In reality it’s little more than an expanded version of this TED talk, and is far more diagnostic than prescriptive.  Still, the first step in fixing anything is determining the extent to which it’s broken, and what some of the causes of that brokenness might be.  If exposing dysfunction and it’s underlying causes is important, these two shine bright, relentless sunshine on the state of men, and what we see isn’t pretty.  Each chapter is a short, footnoted documentation of some aspect of male identity crisis.  Chapter titles themselves are enough to give you an orientation to the problem:  “Get Everything, Do Nothing”, “Unstable Role Models, tarnished trust”, “Where’s Dad?”, “Why buy the cow when you can have the milk free?”, “School’s Out – now what?”, “High on Life, or High on Something”, “Back away from the doughnut”, “Just Press Play:  Porn and Video Games”, “Dynamics of Porn”, “Chronic Stimulation, Chronic Dissatisfaction”, “Billy is in his room”… and many more.

Here are a few quotes:

“…society is not giving the support, means or places for young men to even be motivated (towards good citizenship, healthy relationships, positive self-care)… All of society – from politics to media to classroom to our very own families – is a major contributor to this demise because they are inhibiting guys intellectual, creative and social abilities right from the start.”

(Many men)…”love to excape the so called real world and readily slip into alternative worlds for stimulation.  More and more they’re living in other worlds that exclude girls – or any direct social interaction, for that matter.”

“It is predicted that women will earn 60 percent of bachelor’s, 63 percent of master’s and 54 percent of doctoral degrees by 2016.”

(Relationship with) “…girls equals likely failure; safe equals the retreat into online and fantasy worlds that, with regular practice, become ever more familiar, predictable and, in the case of video gaming, more controllable.”

There is oh so much more to share, but perhaps you get the point.  The convergence zone of technology, obesity, global economics, and dysfunctional families and educational systems are creating the perfect storm of a “world system” which erodes the male identity.  All of this reminds me of Ephesians 6 and the “cosmic powers” of which Paul speaks.  These powers aren’t always personal demons – sometimes they’re systems that become entrenched in cultures and remain blindly accepted or tolerated in spite of the fact that they’re destroying people.  Such systems, throughout history, have ranged from temple prostitution and female circumcision to the celebration of smoking, in spite of its known health consequences.  Presently there are numerous systems in place that are each, individually, destructive.  Taken together these systems have a negative synergy that make things even worse.

The church can play a role in addressing this and, just off the top of my head, here are some things we can and must do:

1. Cast a vision for holiness as wholeness. I’ll address this more fully in a separate post, but the reality is that we’re boring an entire generation to death in the church, through the language we use, and the emasculated vision of successful Christian as nothing more, really, than “sin management”.  In truth, we’re called to help each other live abundantly, body soul and spirit, so that out of a wise, robust, healthy, joyous, and full life, we can become servants to our world.  This of course is what Jesus had in mind when he said we’re called to be rivers – pouring blessing into the world.  Instead we’re offering people escape from hell as the big benefit for following Jesus.  It’s a benefit, surely – but our failure to address the here and now, the kingdom and the whole person, is pushing the church into the land of meaningless activities.

2. Turn of the TV, and the Internet, and your Video Games – and fill the void with something real.  It’s vital to see that we don’t yet know what’s happening to our brains as we begin spending more time in the virtual world than the real world.  We do know this, though:  the real world is where real intimacy, and transformation, and meaning happen.  So all of us need to invest in relationships, and spend some time learning new skills like rock climbing, or dancing, or skiing, or playing on a soccer team, or doing whatever it is you do.

And now, without commentary:

3. Dads need to be strategic about spending time with their sons, both talking and doing stuff.  It’s never too late for this.

4. Get outside.

5. Step away from the doughnut.

6. Break the porn habits

7. Eat real food.

8. Exercise.

9. Work at enjoying a real relationship with God – this can become the staring place for other great relationships.

10. Find ways to serve.

The book I’m reviewing makes me sad because I see the effects of these dysfunctions all around me.  Increasingly I’m convinced that the church’s limited view of holiness, which addresses the spirit to the neglect of the soul (mind, will, and emotions) and body, is part of the problem.   But a life deeply rooted in Christ begins with transformation of the spirit and spirals outward until everything, spirit, mind, will, emotions, food choices, exercise habits, socialization processes, sexuality, are all transformed, made new in Christ.  I’m looking forward to seeing how following Christ wholly can help address this crisis.

I welcome your thoughts….

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Ted Trigg

    I think you are right on. I work with elementary students and see the destruction of kids from an early age. If I could attribute it to anything it would include things on this list – overuse of video, lack of an active lifestyle, avoiding the outside, distant or absent parents (moms and dads). It seems to have become a deeply rooted problem in our society and if we don’t get down to solving it then we will continue to sense a void in our communities.

  • reneeg

    This is *such* a refreshing take on the subject. (I’m surprised there aren’t more comments!!) So often I hear pastors yelling at the men in their congregation to “man up”. Apparently it works – I’ve heard some convincing testimonies from friends. But this just seems so much more reasonable. And I like your appeal to the “caveman principles”…. I think that would be interesting and motivating to me if I were a dude. (Why is it “manly” to eat junk food??)

    I relate well to the picture you selected too. I remember visiting some guys’ dorm suite in undergrad with a few of my girlfriends. We asked them if they wanted to hang out, but they were too absorbed in their video games. I don’t think they would have noticed if we were in bikinis! Unbelievable.

  • Lara

    Why is the quote about women’s advancement in education necessary? Men absolutely need to work against their cultural expectation and performance of gender. However, I wonder why you don’t suggest that men should ask women how this is done? Thanks to the feminist movements, women have a well of experience and practice identifying things about womanhood both performed and expected that need to be rejected in favor of a more faithful discipleship. It seems to me, that if white men want to move beyond their malaise they need to make empowered women who have fought against their own disempowerment their teachers.

    I would also suggest you reading Amy Laura Hall’s article about masculinity in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics edited by Stanely Hauerwas and Sam Wells. If you truly desire to address masculinity, it can not be done over and against women’s own empowerment (especially because even the laziest white male has more social power than an educated woman.) Please read up on masculinity from other sources than those who endorse a return to the traditional. Otherwise, my heart might just break.

    • reneeg

      I find your criticism insightful, and it certainly puts my enthusiasm in check. I have not read as much on the subject as you, but I’ll check out the sources at some point. I agree that the quote comparing men and women’s educational advancement is odd, and it leaves out quite a bit of the picture. But I’d like to point out that the recent attention drawn towards “the demise of guys” has been led by Dr. Philip Zimbardo – the same academic heavy-weight who led the Stanford Prison Project. I’d hardly call him, in general, anti-progressive, reductionist, traditionalist… any adjective that I’d assign to typical “traditional” commentators who tackle the issue of masculinity. I think the blog post offers excellent, healthy suggestions for men *and* women who are dealing with escapism – perhaps an added bullet point would be an exchange of ideas and experiences between the genders. But I don’t think the exclusion of that point makes this post “typical” or uninformed.

  • dpw

    This blog post is like a good daily checklist…exercise, eat right, holiness, service to others. Who couldn’t benefit from this list?

    I think the way that it applies to men specifically may be that there is a sense of entitlement in our culture. But I as a guy I can’t speak to whether that is mostly for “guys” or “guys and gals”. For men specifically there may be a sense of fear to fail, since there is a set of historical social norms that are not financially feasible for many men these days. The old norms…(and still being pushed at many churches) are to buy a house, get married, have kids, and earn enough so that your wife doesn’t have to work. Have you seen the price of houses? Living on one income in this city! It’s crazy…but some families make it work.

    And I know for myself coming out of school it seemed like a crazy insurmountable set of social expectations, and maybe there is this sense to either give up before you start…or the entitlement that it will just work itself out somehow. Either way I don’t think it’s a healthy approach. I’m not sure what the social norms are for men at Bethany even though I’ve been attending for a few years. I still feel like I’m “recovering” from going to MH. And I only mention it because it’s a very different experience, and the gender roles are much more strictly defined there.

    But in general it does seem to work to call men to “man up”, but contrary to the earlier suggestion it will NOT work for a woman to do that calling. Men want to be called into the “tribe” of other successful men, not the tribe of successful women. That’s not to say that we can’t learn plenty from women and their plight…but we ultimately need and want to be called into a group of “comrades” for lack of a better term. Think “Wild at Heart”, by John Eldredge. (I don’t know a brother who reads this book and walks away without some serious soul searching, and connection to the message in this book).

    I do wish more guys would post about this also.

    • reneeg

      I’ll just be honest – I listened to the “Captivating” audiobook about 6 years back, and I just remember cringing the whole way through. While many women may have resonated with it…. I saw it as more of a starting block. I think true wisdom, strength, success are found outside of the shape cultural stereotypes mold us into when we’re young and impressionable. I’m not denying gender differences… I’m questioning which of the the ones we see and feel today (and were evident in the Eldridge books) are healthy and genuine.

  • Josh

    What a great post, and hopefully I can add and not detract from the conversation. There is so much I’d like to say, just not sure how to state it succinctly. I don’t see this as a culture problem or a technology problem, but as a sinful passions problem. As sins grow and take root in our heart, they become passions. As such, these same passions have been at work since the fall in Eden. churches often seek to control them or even endorse them, but rarely to heal them.

    CS Lewis depicts we men in our culture so well with a young boy venturing into a dragon’s cave and playing in the gold, but the boy doesn’t know that he can’t participate in wages of dragons without becoming one himself. And once he becomes one, he can’t de-dragon alone. He must participate with Aslan.

    The healing of the passions comes not from faith alone, or by works but through participation in the life of the Holy Trinity. The fulness of this participation is to be found in the life of the Church.
    Our culture offers men participation with death. Is the church offering participation with Life?
    Here is an article that discusses possibilities of what attracts men to Church http://www.frederica.com/writings/men-and-church.html


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