Reacting to Toxic Masculinities

We saw in the last post that currently, in our culture, two pictures of masculinity are being promoted, both of which are truncated, even toxic.  Here’s how peoples in the culture and in the Church are responding.

Reactions to Marlboro Man

As I write this, it is the year 2019.  There has now been a several years long attempt by much of society, at large, to devalue or redefine manhood.  They believe that they are achieving progress in leaving old stereotypes of gender behind.  Recent news exposing the rampant sexual abuse that has occurred throughout sports, Hollywood, and even the Church seem to demand a new definition of manhood.  They wonder how we can make men be less violent and less sexual.

And because of that, some Christians also wonder if 2000+ years of teaching on gender differences should be jettisoned so that we can have a masculinity that is a little more gentle, a little more relational.  And when men who hold to some traditional form of masculinity walks in the Church, they find that they are not welcome. Watching the news of abuse, we can understand the desire to snuff out bad masculinity, but we believe that this approach starts from and ends up in the wrong place.  They are reacting to bad masculinity by advocating a different, but still bad, masculinity.

Reacting to a Feminized Masculinity

Others in the culture reject the feminized picture of masculinity.  Perhaps it’s because of their own upbringing, where generation after generation of men lived out the ideal of machismo.  Maybe it’s cultural. Perhaps it’s subculture, passed from military father to military son. There are non-religious reasons for wanting to guard the image of Marlboro Man.

But others in the Church is guilty of promoting a false picture of masculinity as well.  In an attempt to stem the cultural tide, pastors and other Christian leaders have often slipped past Biblical masculinity into forms of patriarchy or downright misogyny.  Some haven’t necessarily tried to fight in the arena of ideas on this issue, instead they’ve opted to start literal fight clubs within their churches.  Nothing is as manly as punching another guy in the face, I guess.  Instead of calling men to a robust picture of masculinity, they’ve settled for roughhousing.

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

We meet two brothers in the book of Genesis destined to compete.  One brother, Esau, was a hunter, an outdoorsman of great ability. Jacob was described as “a quiet man, dwelling in tents.”  While not quite “nancy boy” or “girly-man,” the description is intended to show that in contrast to Esau, an animal of a man (even covered in hair as thick as a goat), Jacob was much more at home, actually, at home.

Here’s the thing, neither man was a good man.  Neither exhibited traits of mature masculinity.  They were both BAD examples of manliness. Because manhood isn’t found in things like temperament, facial hair, interests, personality, athleticism, or preference.  It’s found in Christ-like character that results in Christ-like behavior.  Esau was rash, petulant, and selfish.  Jacob was a liar, a cheat, and a thief.

Right now, some in the culture and Church are trying to sell Jacob to us.  Likewise, people inside and outside the Church are promoting Esau.  But those are both bad choices.  Both are toxic options. Don’t sell out to either truncated picture of masculinity. They are selling us a house on bad foundations.  If these two men fit, so well, the descriptions from each of these camps, and yet are bad men, then the definitions must be wrong.

That means it’s not about how much you cry or how much your bench press.  It’s not how deep a voice or how effeminate a voice is.  Don’t choose Jacob or Esau, choose Jesus.  He made man, His Word instructs us as men, and He lived the perfect life as a man, showing us what a real man is.

On both sides of these stories is the decision between being, seemingly, not manly enough or not womanly enough.  That’s a false dichotomy. Let’s leave that behind and move into robust, Biblical masculinity.

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Two Popular and False Views of Manhood

Before we can dive into understanding God’s view of manhood, we need to understand that we already have our own view of it.  Likely, we didn’t formulate this understanding after methodical reflection and study. No, chances are you were given your philosophy of manhood by others.

For some, it happens in an instant, perhaps when a parent or other relative decides it’s time for you to “understand how things work.”  For others, it’s a slow development, pieced together over time through what is said by family, teachers, schoolmates, at home, in the classroom, and on the playground.  Along the way, perhaps, you reject some pieces you hear and synthesize the others into a composite picture of manliness.

In one set of circumstances, the picture that may emerge, especially for young men who really enjoy sports and other outdoor activities, and from a family that does as well, is that of the Marlboro Man.  A self-sufficient, adventurous, unemotional, rugged man’s man. There are some good things about this man. He’s reliable and hard working. He’s brave and knows how to get things done.  And yet, something’s missing.

When this masculinity is taken to extremes, it can become misogynistic.  It can be cold. It’s hard for those around this man (and for the man himself) to know how he feels at any given time.  He’s an emotional guessing game for them.  By the time you realizes that he’s overwhelmed, he’s half way to a divorce or a mid-life crisis.  And he may not truly feel like a man unless he’s doing something that feeds the image he has of himself.  So, changing diapers takes a back seat to fixing up an old car. This is a truncated masculinity. Some of it is true and beautiful, but it is insufficient.

In a completely different set of circumstances, a boy may be given a picture of manhood that looks strangely foreign to Marlboro Man.  Perhaps he is raised by a single mother and/or his grandmother. Or perhaps he is raised in an environment that is simply trying to blur (or erase altogether) the lines between boys and girls, between masculinity and femininity.  The picture he acquires looks strangely like the picture of a female in his life. She’s kind and gentle. Relationships are important. Her interests aren’t sports or machinery, but shopping and coffee dates.

Perhaps this boy only has women role models in his life, perhaps he naturally gravitates to areas often thought of as feminine, or perhaps he’s been told explicitly that boys and girls are the same OR that boys should be more like girls.  However it happens, he comes to see that real men behave like real women…that there’s no such thing, really, as masculinity. This, too, is truncated – partially wonderful and partially destructive.

Both of these pictures are toxic.  In the next post, we’ll look at how different people are reacting to them and start to see a way forward.