Manhood™ or, how the Evangelical obsession with manliness is weird and worrisome

IMG_0171If you want to make big bucks and become a popular speaker within evangelical Christianity today, apparently you need to speak on manhood. Of course, you need to give a wink and a nod to the typical spiritual traits such as being a good father, providing for your family, and so on. But really, you need to encourage men to grow beards, watch football, hunt things, shoot guns, and watch Clint Eastwood movies. Men who worry about their shoes, about their appearance, or about their smell need not apply because they’re pansies.

Let me say, the growing trend in the cult of masculinity – specifically of a very American West variety – is really weird. I say this as someone who has a beard (and will always have a beard), loves sports, and has seen every single Clint Eastwood movie out there. But I don’t do those things because I’m a man (with exception to the beard), I do them because I just happen to enjoy them. Yet, we have books that obsess over men being men. We have The Dude’s Guide to Manhood, which seems to have some pretty good chapters. Same with Manhood Restored. After all, there’s nothing wrong in telling men to be responsible adults; but how does that constitute manhood?

Now some might say, “Well, these books encourage spiritual aspects of being a man and don’t really play up the physical aspects.” Yet, that’s just not true. Notice who endorses the books; hunters, NFL players, college football coaches, outdoorsmen, and so on. You never see these books opining and writing of the virtues of baking or cleaning house. They tend to focus solely on the American ideal of manhood, of a tough, gruff, kick ass and take names kind of man. While it’s nearly impossible to divorce what it means to be a man from the culture one is in, we shouldn’t let our cultural views of manhood dictate our Biblical teachings on manhood.

Consider Al Mohler’s “Marks of Manhood,” where he explains what a man ought to look like. Upon first glance it seems like a really good list, but further review points out some pretty big holes. For one, why is almost every single point tied to the family unit? Are we implying that men who are single are somehow not men? What does this say about the numerous godly men (not to mention Christ) who never married or who are not called to marriage? Are they somehow lesser men? Likewise, how is the list exclusive to manhood? Are we saying that women ought to lack courage under fire (tell that to the numerous female martyrs or single moms who have the courage to raise their children and hold down a job). What about men who lack physical strength due to disease or some other ailment? Are they somehow disqualified from being a man? What about men stuck in a nation without a strong economy who therefore cannot provide for their families, or men in this nation which has a weak job market? They can’t hold “adult jobs” because the economy simply won’t allow it. Are they not men?

See, anyone can come up and say, “Well, those are exceptions to the rule,” but in the case of manhood we are talking about the essence of a thing, meaning there can’t be exceptions. The essence of a thing is the definition of a thing; the definition of a thing cannot change without the essence changing. Thus, the essence (or nature) of humans is a “rational animal.” All humans are rational animals, which is to say they’re both physical and immaterial. There are not and cannot be any exceptions. When we talk about manhood, we’re talking about a universal definition that requires universal applicability, but what Mohler (and many other evangelicals) offer lacks universal cohesion.

Think of it this way:

Someone claims that to be a human person one must be a rational animal that has white skin. We then run across a man who is a rational animal, but has dark skin. We must then conclude that either our definition is wrong, or the man is not really a human person. This is actually what we see in the abortion debate. People provide the definition of human as, “viable outside the womb” or “looks like a human.” Of course, when the issue of viability or looks (are any of us truly viable outside of the womb? do any of us truly look human?) arise, the definition falls apart because it lacks universal application, that is, it’s subjective and arbitrary. The same game is played with the evangelical pursuit of manhood; all definitions offered tend to be subjective and arbitrary, or are non-exclusive to men (such as, “Must be godly” or “able to raise a family,” these attributes apply to women as well).

When we begin to elevate manhood as some independent virtue with arbitrary standards, we are left to do the same thing with womanhood. In such instances we begin to revert back to olden days where women weren’t allowed to hold careers, find education, or speak up for themselves. A good woman is at home raising kids, baking bread, and doing house chores while the man is out earning a living for the family. Such a view of men and women, however, is antithetical to how the Church functioned prior to the rise of American manhood. After all, such definitions of “manhood” and “womanhood” depends on there being a family, but the existence of a family is not always the case. If a woman has no family, or a man has no family, what then? We cannot continue to tie our understandings of what it means to be a man to a sexual act that results in offspring.

Another problem with our approach to manhood and womanhood is that when applied to a marriage, men inherently end up being spiritually superior to their wives. Many conservative evangelicals would look at the previous statement and think, “Yeah, and?” They’d see it as an interpretation of Ephesians 5, where men are to be the leaders within the home, or the “head” of the family. Yet, this is a bad interpretation of Ephesians 5, where though men are called to be the head, they are called to be like Christ. One constant throughout Paul’s writings to the Church is that we are to take on a mind like Christ, we are to become as Christ; in other words, spiritually speaking, we are to be Christ’s equals, not inferiors. Thus, if we take a literal understanding of Ephesians 5, then the husband is to be spiritually equal with his wife, not superior to her. However, our pursuit of the cult of manhood tends to elevate the man spiritually above his wife.

Consider the words of St. John Chrysostom in his advice to men concerning their wives:

“Pray together at home and go to Church; when you come back home, let each ask the other the meaning of the readings and the prayers.” (p. 61 in On Marriage and Family Life).

Notice how he has them seeking meaning from each other. While their spiritual manifestations of roles within the relationship might look different, this implied idea of men being the “spiritual leader” in that they are more spiritual than their wives runs against Scripture. Prior to this sentence, he advised husbands to pursue things which please God and the matters of the family would begin to handle themselves. He didn’t tell men to be men or to pursue some “manhood,” but to please God.

One aspect of Christianity is that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female…” While this calling doesn’t erase certain distinctions between cultures or genders, it does mean that ultimately we’re all called to the same thing (unity with Christ). It means that Christianity calls men to balance. Within the Orthodox tradition of Christianity, if you walk into a cathedral you’re immediately struck by the Theotokos (God-bearer, Mary) with Christ in her lap. Here we have the ideal woman giving birth and raising the ideal man. In such a situation, one sees that while manhood does exist, it exists in balance with womanhood within the Christian tradition. Here we see a distinct difference between men and women, but see that Christianity unifies the two in equality without destroying the distinctions.

Certainly, “manhood” and “womanhood” exist, but they exist as cultural types and not absolutes. Most men tend to view life and the Church differently than most women; that is what makes the two sexes distinct. These differences, however, are never absolute and universal, but tend to be types. Most men want a Church that challenges, involves them, isn’t sentimental, and gives a clear goal. This isn’t to say that all men want this or that women don’t want it, just that most men want a Church that offers these things and does so in a way that appeals to them.

Ultimately, Christianity is about taking imperfect humans and making them perfect. This is accomplished via following Christ, regardless of if one is a man or a woman. Pursuing the Christian virtues and doing all one can to become like Christ, to unify with Him, is ultimately what it takes to be a true man (or true woman). While there are distinctions between being a man and being a woman, those distinctions are more cultural than scriptural (though they will always exist in every culture), which is why it’s better to simply pursue Christ and proper Christian living than to pursue some arbitrary standards of “manhood.”


One thought on “Manhood™ or, how the Evangelical obsession with manliness is weird and worrisome

  1. Thank you, this is an excellent crystallization of many of my own thoughts. This obsession with ‘Biblical manhood’ strikes me as very strange and Biblically unsupported. Not sure where it came from or why people are so hung up on it.

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