Posts tagged ‘Masculinity’

The Measure of a Man


When the American Psychological Association published its “Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men,” a maelstrom ensued.  Some decried the guidelines as an attack on men generally.  Others defended the report as long overdue so a new kind of masculinity can rise from an older masculinity’s ashes.  Throw in an ad by razor legend Gillette that exhorts men to do better, and you have all the makings of a cultural explosion that feels like, ironically enough, a testosterone-laden WWE wrestling match.

The APA is right about this much:  many men are struggling.  In its summary, it explains:

Men commit 90 percent of homicides in the United States and represent 77 percent of homicide victims.  They’re the demographic group most at risk of being victimized by violent crime.  They are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide, and their life expectancy is 4.9 years shorter than women’s.  Boys are far more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder than girls, and they face harsher punishments in school – especially boys of color.

The challenges are real and broadly agreed upon.  The disagreement comes in what we should do about all this.  On the one hand, I struggle with statements like these in the APA report:

Psychologists strive to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural, and contextual norms … Psychologists aspire to help boys and men over their lifetimes navigate restrictive definitions of masculinity and create their own concepts of what it means to be male, although it should be emphasized that expression of masculine gender norms may not be seen as essential for those who hold a male gender identity.

It is true that certain masculine norms are culturally conditioned.  At the same time, it is difficult to deny that some of men’s drives and desires seem to be innate.  It wasn’t that long ago when we were claiming that the innate differences between men and women ran so deep that it was like men were from Mars and women were from Venus.

There is a drive in many men toward things like physical strength, risk taking, and stoicism.  To lump traditionally masculine traits like these into a category of “nurture” while denying components of “nature” is a relatively recent philosophical and psychological development, and, I would add, probably wrong.

On the other hand, I am also adamantly opposed to any attitude that revels in masculinity’s baser manifestations. Even if men do have certain innate desires and drives, this doesn’t make all their desires and drives moral.  Many men, for instance, couple their desire for risk with a desire for sex – with disastrous results.  Drives and desires, like everything else, have been degraded by sin.  Indeed, Scripture has story after story on what happens when men succumb to their twisted innate desires.  LamechSamsonDavid.  All of these men may have looked manly, but they were also fools.  Just because you feel something internally doesn’t mean you should act on it externally.

Christianity takes a unique approach to masculinity.  While not denying that men have certain innate drives and desires, Christianity teaches that these are not determinative of what it means to be a man.  Instead, Christian men are called upon to harness these drives and desires to fulfill a higher calling.  True masculinity is about vocation.  This is why, in the Bible, the word for “man” can be either a noun or a verb.  On the one hand, the Bible refers to a man, in Greek, by the noun aner, which denotes someone who is of the male sex (e.g., Matthew 14:21).  On the other hand, the apostle Paul exhorts the Corinthian men with the verb andrizomai, which can be translated, “be manly” (1 Corinthians 16:13).  Men are called not just to act out of who they are and what they want, but out of who God has called them to be.

My favorite description of manhood in the Bible comes when Paul is talking to men about marriage:  “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).  On the one hand, Paul encourages a traditionally masculine virtue of sacrifice, even to the point of death, on behalf of a man for his wife.  This takes true toughness.  On the other hand, Paul also calls husbands to love their wives, which takes plenty of intentional tenderness.  In other words, the biblical calling of masculinity is not mindlessly macho, but it is not particularly woke, either.  Instead, the biblical calling of masculinity looks like Jesus.  And if there’s anyone who knows what masculinity should look like, it’s Him.  After all, He was not only born a man, He willingly became a man.  And He not only willingly became a man, He created men.  That means He has the blueprints.  Perhaps, then, as men, we should follow them – and Him.

January 28, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Art of Manliness

Victorian Men“I see some men that are men in mind and body and a great many that are only men in body.”[1]  So said a Union soldier who fought in the Civil War.

In her book, The Gentlemen and the Roughs, Lorien Foote, professor of history of Texas A&M University, outlines two distinct types of masculinity prevalent during the Civil War.  One was a gentlemanly type of masculinity, centered on self-control, character, and faithfulness.  This type of masculinity embodied what we might think of today as “the family man.”  The other type of masculinity was that of the “roughs” – those who are “rough around the edges,” so to speak.  This type of masculinity focused on physical domination and sexual exploitation.

Writing for The New York Times, David Brooks outlines these same two types of masculinities when he writes:

The ideal man, at least in polite society, gracefully achieves a series of balances. He is steady and strong, but also verbal and vulnerable. He is emotionally open and willing to cry, but also restrained and resilient. He is physical, and also intellectual.

Today’s ideal man honors the women in his life in whatever they want to do. He treats them with respect in the workplace and romance in the bedroom. He is successful in the competitive world of the marketplace but enthusiastic in the kitchen and gentle during kids’ bath time.

This new masculine ideal is an unalloyed improvement on all the earlier masculine ideals. It’s a great achievement of our culture. But it is demanding and involves reconciling a difficult series of tensions. And it has sparked a bad-boy protest movement and counterculture.[2]

Brooks’ “new masculine ideal” is not really all that new.  It shares much in common with the older masculine ideal of what it means to be a gentleman.  Foote, in her book, writes about Francis Lieber, a nineteenth century political philosopher who outlined some rules for warfare that eventually came to serve as the basis for the Geneva Convention.  Along with rules for warfare, Lieber also outlined traits essential to being a gentleman that included “self-possession,” “calmness of mind,” “a studious avoidance of giving offense to others,” and a refusal to indulge “in careless vulgarity, unmanly exaggeration, or violent coarseness.”  The New York Illustrated News, in a fawning review of Lieber’s gentlemanly characteristics, wrote, “Let us have a new chivalry instituted – a new order of intellectual and moral knighthood.”[3]  Lieber’s ideal masculinity was nothing short of a perfectly balanced chivalry that shares much, though not everything, in common with Brooks’ “new masculine ideal.”

There is much for us, as Christians, to learn from these two types of masculinity.  Although neither comports perfectly with what it means to be a Christian man, one certainly comports better.  A masculinity that is crude, sexually exploitive, and ostentatious not only does not make a man, it hurts a man because it is flatly sinful.  On the other hand, masculinity cannot simply be reduced to a list of traits, as Lieber and Brooks attempt to do, no matter how virtuous those traits may be.  After all, not every man is the same, so different men will inevitably display different traits, and not every life situation calls for the same masculine characteristics.  Ultimately, to be a Christian man is much more about living out a vocation – a divine calling – than it is about living up to a checklist of virtues that inevitably changes, both in content and in emphasis, with each successive generation.  To be a Christian man means to reflect Christ.  To hearken back to the Union solider quoted at the beginning of this blog, being a man is not about only your body biologically, it is also about your mind.  You can be a man in body without being a man whose mind has been renewed by Christ (cf. Romans 12:2).

In his column, David Brooks’ concern lies in how faulty masculinities affect the political arena.  He notes that in this election cycle, there has been “a revolution in manners, a rejection of the civility codes.”  This is certainly true and it is certainly troublesome.  But what is even more troublesome is not how faulty masculinities affect our politics, but how they affect our families.  Study after study has shown how men who reject their vocation to reflect Christ adversely affect their families.  Faulty masculinities do not just plague national elections, they plague your neighbors down the street.  And, if you’re really honest, they may even plague you.

So gentlemen – and I hope you do fashion yourself as and aspire to be gentlemen – the next time are tempted toward a masculinity that does not reflect your Savior, remember, to quote one more time from David Brooks, “This is the world your daughters are going to grow up in.”

That alone should be enough to make you stop and think.


[1] Cited in Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs:  Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army (New York:  New York University Press, 2010), 3.

[2] David Brooks, “The Sexual Politics of 2016,” The New York Times (3.29.2016).

[3] Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs, 55.

April 4, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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