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Against Macho Posturing: Watering the Roots of Christian Masculinity

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In case you hadn’t noticed, “manly Christianity” has become somewhat of a thing. From the broad and boilerplate Braveheart analogies of John Eldredge to the UFC-infused persona of the now embattled Mark Driscoll, evangelical Christianity has been wrestling with how to respond to what is no doubt a rather serious crisis of masculinity.

Such responses vary in their fruitfulness, but most tend to only scratch the surface, prodding men to spend more time with the wife and kids (good), provide more steadily and sacrificially for their household (also good), spend more time in God’s creation (also good, I suppose), and eat more chicken wings and do more Manly Things™ (debatable).

Yet as Alastair Roberts artfully explains in a beautifully written reflection on the matter, the fundamental problem is, well, a bit more fundamental. (HT)

Due to a complex web of factors, some more controllable than others, society and culture have increasingly promoted a full-pronged infantilization of modern man, driven by or paired with its increasingly hollow philosophy of love and life. Thus, Roberts concludes, “The recovery of Christian masculinity will only occur as we commit ourselves to the restoration of biblical Christianity and the recovery of the weight and stakes of its moral universe.”

I have routinely written about the challenges of raising kids (particularly boys) in an age where economic prosperity, convenience, and a host of other newfound privileges make it easier than ever to insulate ourselves from external risks and skip past formative processes that were once built-in features of existence (e.g. manual labor). When it comes to the cultivation of the soul, our character, and the human imagination, what do we lose in a world wherein work, service, and sacrifice have been largely replaced by superficial pleasures and one-dimensional modes of formation?

Here, Roberts echoes a similar sentiment, albeit with far more meat on the bone, placed within a much richer context alongside a host of other forces and features:

The crisis of masculinity is in many respects prompted by economic and political factors, resulting from the combination of several developments: the movement from a production to a service-based economy, the rise of a unisex workforce and society, the triumph of the model of gender neutral companionate marriage between individuals, the movement from labour to consumers, the rise of the ‘pink police state’ (with its aversion to risk and responsibility), the valuation of ‘empowerment’ over the responsible exercise and development of our own power (moving us from a population that responsibly exercises power in self-governance and over against other agencies to one that relates to state and business more as children might do to their parent), the ascent of a therapeutic understanding of human nature, the resistance to and diminishing of the figure and authority of the father, the shrinking of the size and realm of the family, etc.

The general effect of all of these things has been to infantilize the population and to create a situation within which masculine identity will find it hard to articulate itself. Whereas in most human societies masculinity is associated with adult traits, roles, and functions involving responsibility, agency, production, authority, protection, and provision, within our society masculinity and its associated forms of homosociality tend to be associated with an adolescent irresponsibility—with such things as sports, beer, ‘banter’, computer games, casual sexism and pornography. Masculine identity starts to become focused upon the things that we consume—the movies that we watch, the clothes that we wear, the music that we listen to, the beer that we drink, the games and sports that we follow, the pornography that we jerk off to—rather than upon the things that we produce and the responsibilities that we have. Even the ‘transgressive’ modes of masculine identity in our society tend to be puerile.

If this is true, and society has indeed pressed us toward our current set of status-quo superficialities, what does an ideal environment actually look like? What kind of world allows for, enables, encourages, and unleashes masculinity as God designed it? Outside of returning to a production-based or male-dominated economy or some other such (mostly undesirable) fantasy, what is the way forward?

On this question, Roberts offers a remarkably rich way forward, avoiding the surface-level trifles of Jesus-tattooed chest-bumping and instead painting a vivid picture of a world that summons men well beyond their church’s fantasy football league:

Men’s identity is more directly contingent upon, has thrived against the backdrop of, and is more fitted to symbolize an external realm of risk, danger, and meaning, a world with high spiritual stakes, of meaningful action and production, a world where differences and oppositions exist and matter, a world of authority and duty, a world that stands over against us, with its own moral order that we must uphold and advance, a world where claims are pressed upon us and which demands our loyalty and commitment. Men have a hunger for their work to have meaning: such a world answers this hunger. Such a world summons men to such virtues as they know that they were born for: to resolution, responsibility, strength of principle, confidence, assertiveness, determination, decisiveness, dedication, moral and intellectual seriousness, uprightness, firmness, dependability, bravery, courage, enterprise, honour, practicality, authority, dutifulness, heroism, daring, intrepidity, leadership, fortitude, perseverance, longsuffering, accountability, forthrightness, diligence, self-discipline, justice, self-controlled passion, independence, thickness of skin, self-mastery, strength of will and nerve, purposefulness, self-sacrifice, resourcefulness, loyalty, toughness of mind, grit, moral backbone, etc. Such a world calls us to become much more than we already are.

Strong masculinity depends heavily upon the existence of such a world and it also brings such a world to light, much as femininity has a unique capacity for bringing the world of society’s inner bonds and communion to light (this world has faced many assaults of its own, assaults that merit their own treatment, infantilizing women in different ways). Robust masculinity can reveal a world with differences, oppositions, and struggles that matter, with high spiritual stakes, with truths and authorities that demand our loyalties, with an existence that must be lived from a position of dangerous commitment, and with life and death decisions that must be made.

As Roberts makes clear, we don’t need a world that affirms us where we are and rushes to give therapeutic mani-pedis to our personal passions and desires. We need a world that calls us “to become much more than we already are,” and does so across all areas of God-ordained stewardship, whether in our work, families, educational pursuits, churches, neighborhoods, institutions, and so on.

Recovering the “weight and stakes” of the moral universe this inhabits, as Roberts puts it, will not be easy, particularly when the wheels of those same old economic factors continue to find grease and the prevailing moral voice expands its already-impressive vacuum. In such a setting, “genuine masculinity is a threat to the contemporary social order of nice and safe enjoyment,” Roberts writes, “a sanitized social order predicated upon the denial of such a world.”

But recover it we can, in those very same areas of stewardship. Prosperity, opportunity, and freedom can indeed be used for greater good driven by increased avenues for risk and sacrifice. But this requires fundamental transformation of the spirit, soul, and mind, pressing forward obediently and heeding the Holy Spirit as we recover a fuller, broader Biblical vision of what it means to be a Godly man amid modernity.

In the workplace, which virtues are we exhibiting and which God are we ultimately submitting our hands to? How are we transforming the drivers and determiners of the economic order, and how are we defining “meaning” for ourselves, our work, and others as we innovate, exchange, and create value? Are we helping to reveal a world where, as Roberts puts it, “differences matter”? In our families, are we leading and shepherding those in our households in a way that sows life and illuminates the struggles we’re called to navigate, impressing which loyalties we ought to reject and which we ought to cultivate? As we pursue knowledge and wisdom, as we pause to behold the glory of God, as we seek to shape the levers of power and justice in government bodies and institutions, are today’s men moving society toward the creation of a world wherein the weight of sin is recognized, the weight of glory is revealed, and the spiritual stakes of calling and vocation are higher than we might personally prefer?

We can begin that process now, and though more chicken wings and chest-bumping might be nice ornamentation for a book tour or inspiration for the long and tough fight ahead, the church would do well to heed Roberts advice, seeing the “macho posturing” for what it is, and keeping busy Wwith watering the roots.

Read Roberts’ full post here.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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