A friend of mine on Facebook observed that there seems to be a new procedure for writing on the subject of masculinity: 1.) Pick a typically masculine trait (say, strength). 2.) Create a false dilemma between this trait and an approved trait (say, gentleness). 3.) Pen an article expounding this false dilemma by using corruptions and exaggerations of the masculine trait to prove its incompatibility with the approved trait (for example, “traditionally strong men cannot be gentle”). 4.) Redefine the masculine trait as equivalent to the approved trait (e.g., “The Strongest Men Are Gentle”).
This in fact was the headline of a recent article at Desiring God, which isn’t that bad taken on its own terms, but turns on the bizarre premise that gentleness is in short supply among today’s Christian men (it even includes the awkwardly allusive subheading: “Let’s Bring Gentle Back”).
Here’s the thing: I don’t think gentleness went anywhere. To put it in modest terms, if a visitor from an exoplanet orbiting the hypergiant Arcturus landed in the average evangelical congregation this Sunday, I doubt he would say “Whoa, testosterone overload! It’s like a WWE match in here, you guys need to rediscover gentleness.” On the contrary. Drowning in tensile denim, man-buns, vocal fry and uptalk-inflected sentences that begin almost exclusively with “I feel like,” this extraterrestrial would likely wonder how our species ever found the courage to sail across oceans and colonize new continents, and where we mustered the intestinal fortitude to visit the moon.
All of this makes it even odder that so many Christians are in such a tizzy over “toxic masculinity.” It is, quite obviously to anyone with two working peepers, the vice of which we are least in danger. As premiere news source The Babylon Bee reports, “Least Masculine Society In Human History Decides Masculinity Is A Growing Threat.”
I’m not just picking on one writer, here. Aimee Byrd of Carl Trueman’s popular “Mortification of Spin” podcast recently shared how “triggered” she is by the “pervasive” emphasis on masculinity in the evangelical church. In reaction to a Patheos blog post by one pastor who advised men to give firm handshakes and limit how often they touch other men’s wives, Byrd heaps 1,600 words of scorn and 1950s caricatures on the very idea that we need to raise men to act differently from women. This is the same Aimee Byrd, by the way, who thinks the “Mike Pence Rule” is “pickpocketing purity,” and argues in a recent book that men and women ought to have more frequent and intimate one-on-one friendships with one another (what could go wrong?).
Byrd zeroes in on the American Psychological Association’s new guidelines for boys and men, which John Stonestreet criticized on BreakPoint for pathologizing masculinity. She thinks much more highly of the report. Instead of pointing out how it attacks a straw-man (equating “traditional masculinity” with violence and disdain for femininity), Byrd joins the APA in targeting the more legitimate traits of manliness—traits which your grandfather would have had in mind when he told you to “be a man.” Byrd balks, for instance, at the idea that anyone would identify “stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression” as features of manliness.
I wonder if she believes a nation would stand a better chance on the battlefield with men who are defined by the opposite of each of these traits—men who are emotionally expressive, cooperative, submissive, and gentle. Of course, cooperation with brothers-in-arms and submission to ranking officers is essential in a military. But such “softer” traits should hardly define men whose job is killing in defense of others. The kinds of ferocity, control over emotion, and drive to win that Byrd seems to find so distasteful and intrinsically disordered are precisely the virtues that make good men uniquely capable of defeating evil, and which Paul calls for in 1 Corinthians 16:13 when he tells his readers to “act like men.” The apostle could say this and expect it to make sense because men are real creatures, and there is a way in which we act (or are supposed to act).
To employ the parlance observed by our Arcturian visitor, I feel like something is amiss, here. It’s not hard to see how Byrd is employing the same false dilemma as the Desiring God article, pitting laudable traits against the worst possible understanding of typically masculine traits, and then insisting that real manliness means being like Jesus, who only exhibited the former. The problem is that in my Bible, Jesus sometimes behaves in ways that are anything but gentle and peaceful. As one popular meme quips, “When someone tells you to be more Christ-like, remind them that using a bull whip and turning over tables is within the realm of possibilities.”
This is the root of the issue: Byrd and those with similar tendencies hear talk of manliness, and can think of nothing but Yosemite Sam in a wife-beater. When she writes of “dominance” and “aggression,” she seems to be identifying these with abuse. Then, quicker than you can say “hermeneutics of suspicion,” she condemns without qualification the very idea that “biblical manhood” (or “biblical womanhood”) are things worth striving for or understanding. In line with Gillette’s recent and much-talked-about ad, everything that makes men unique is pathologized, and our job is to teach boys to suppress not only their sinful appetites, but their masculine natures, themselves.
In a must-read essay over at The Calvinist International (a favorite haunt of mine), Steven Wedgeworth argues for a radically different understanding of masculinity rooted in God’s primordial affirmation of “very good”:
“There will always be inordinate desires, intemperate appetites, and plain old misogynistic pigs. However, the condemnation of those sins will only be intelligible and persuasive if their contrary virtues can be demonstrated and extolled…Toxic masculinity can only be defeated by actual manliness, and so manly virtues need to be unapologetically embraced.”
Abuses of manliness exist. That’s why the caricatures are so easy to draw. But unless we’re also willing to admit that manliness exists, and that it’s not only approved but commanded by God, we will continue turning the males who attend churches into something God never intended. Oh, they may be gentle, emotionally-expressive, and compliant, all right. They’ll have all the approved traits! But they won’t be men.