In my last post, I talked about how Christianity taught me to be a Nice Guy. Here’s how that ended.
Towards the end of my degree, I became friends with a woman who still went to an evangelical church. At this point I wasn’t really sure what I believed. I knew most of what I’d believed all my life was rationally untenable, but those ideas just wouldn’t die. My friend lent me a book, John Eldridge’s Wild At Heart, which she loved. Here’s the official blurb:
God designed men to be dangerous, says John Eldredge. Simply look at the dreams and desires written in the heart of every boy: To be a hero, to be a warrior, to live a life of adventure and risk. Sadly, most men abandon those dreams and desires-aided by a Christianity that feels like nothing more than pressure to be a “nice guy.” It is no wonder that many men avoid church, and those who go are often passive and bored to death. In this provocative book, Eldredge gives women a look inside the true heart of a man and gives men permission to be what God designed them to be-dangerous, passionate, alive, and free!
Eldredge basically presents a caricature of the all-American macho man and says this is what all women want. And from the far away look in her eyes and the faint sighs that accompanied her talk about it, I concluded my friend basically considered this book some top-grade erotica.
Wild At Heart begins with a kind of Christianised version of the feminism-has-ruined-masculinity narrative (the author approvingly cites Christina Hoff Sommers, now better known as GamerGate’s favourite academic). According to John Eldredge, guys these days are a bunch of nancy boys who couldn’t even wrangle a bison. Women want a man who’ll ride into the woods bareback and bare chested, returning home with a fresh mastodon for the family dinner, before dragging the woman into his tent to make deeply heterosexual love and cover her in man scent. This is what God made you to be. Gender roles are divinely ordained, and men are programmed to desire ultra-feminine women. If we are not living out our divinely ordained roles, we will never be truly satisfied and women will never truly want us.
This explained why women weren’t interested in me. It explained why I was unhappy. The book explained that men these days are inadequate was because our fathers failed us. And, wouldn’t you just know it, my dad was rubbish too. Everything fitted.
Eldredge had an answer though, and the answer (of course) was Jesus. Only Jesus could help us overcome the gaping hole in our hearts left by our excuses for fathers. Jesus would make us feel complete, and then Jesus would teach us how to make a bow and arrow and wrassle an alligator and plough our wives so hard that they’d never complain about making us a sandwich again.
(You may have gathered my versions of Eldredge’s arguments are somewhat paraphrased. Look at the preview on Google Books to see how much I’m not exaggerating.)
This was a problem, because I’d never been a real boy. I’d never cared about sports or climbing trees and I had very little desire to mount a buffalo. Now Eldredge told me that I could never be satisfied until I became a real man, and only Jesus could make me that man. I was Pinnocchio, Eldredge was Jiminy Cricket, and Jesus was the Blue Fairy. The problem was that after years of wrestling with it, I couldn’t believe in fairies. I desperately wanted to. I called out to God. Like Paul, I prayed “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.” But soon even the first part of that prayer wasn’t true anymore. I was just desperately searching for an answer that wasn’t there.
This was towards the end of a long process, and soon I found I didn’t believe any of what the church had taught me—about science, about history, about the Bible, about God. It was all wrong. But I carried on believing a lot of what the church told me about gender, because the stuff about gender didn’t look like dogma, it looked like fact. It’s so culturally ingrained that it becomes unquestionable. It never occurred to me that things could be any other way.Around six months later, I read The Game by Neil Strauss, which is the book that launched the world of pickup artists (PUAs) to international attention. This book was revolutionary for me. Eldredge had convinced me I was damaged, but I just couldn’t accept the answer he was peddling. He left me utterly hopeless. The Game looked like a solution.
PUAs essentially believe the same stuff about gender as evangelicals. A lot of them sound a great deal like John Eldredge: Women are tired of beta boys and nice guys, because they want Real Men. Most PUAs explain gender in terms of evolutionary psychology, arguing that it’s hardwired into humanity by natural and sexual selection, while John Eldredge teaches that God designed it in, but both claim gender has the status of scientific fact. And both claim the way to be satisfied with who you are and to make women want you is to become an Alpha Male (although Eldredge doesn’t use that phrase). The PUA vision of masculinity seems to involve less camping than Eldridge’s, but for both of them, men who are ‘passive’, ‘wimpy’, or ‘effeminate’ are simply denying their true nature.
A couple of years after that, I got heavily involved with one particular pickup school. On our forum there was a semi-liberal evangelical pastor who was adapting the school’s seduction teachings for a Christian audience. At the time, I still had a leftover belief that Christianity was generally moral, so I found this reassuring. With hindsight, it seems both unsurprising and damning that our material fitted well with church teachings about relationship dynamics.
The Game was life-changing for me because it told me there was an answer which didn’t involve the supernatural. My social skills, almost drowned by years submerged in an evangelical subculture, could recover. But the PUA view of relationships is just as problematic as the Christian one. It still has no reasonable explanation for gay people, let alone those who are bi, trans, asexual, or genderqueer, so it just pretends they don’t exist. Even the company I worked with, which tried to tell men to be themselves, had mixed messages that women needed you to be a leader, to be dominant in the bedroom, and to take charge. To work, it just had to ignore anyone who didn’t fit into this schema, or tell them there was something wrong with them.
Both PUAs and Christians treat relationships between men and women as always inherently sexual. That’s why conservative Christians won’t allow an unmarried man and woman to be alone together in the same room, and why all the PUAs I knew thought that men could never have a sincere and honest platonic friendship with a woman.
Becoming a PUA did cure me of Nice Guyness, but it did it by making me no longer a nice guy at all. I’d just like to bring it to the attention of all the PUAs and evangelicals how much they have in common, in the hope that they’ll look at each other and see that something must be going badly wrong.
Related reading: Samantha Field has done a multi-part review on John and Stasi Eldredge’s Captivated, which seems to be more of the same gendered bullshit but aimed at women. Here’s the archive of the whole thing (posts come up in reverse order). Here’s one part I especially liked.
Related on Leaving Fundamentalism: