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.”


Death of Virtue or, Here Once Stood Virtuous Men and Women

IMG_0352There is no escaping the fact that we live in a society that is void of virtue. The title of this post is not meant to be read literally as virtue, being abstracted, cannot die. We do not live in the aftermath of virtue’s death, rather we fail to live because we ignore the life of virtue. For those wanting a more in depth understanding of virtue, you can see my thoughts on it here, here, and here. For an example of this, we can look to a young man in Calgary who stood up for a friend who was being bullied and even had a knife pulled on him. Rather than being celebrated by the school for an act of bravery, he was chastised (though not punished) for intervening. The school went so far as to say that it wasn’t necessarily a case of another kid being bullied, but rather was two students just fighting and one pulled out a knife.

Let us assume that one kid was not being bullied. Does that mean the young man should not have intervened? We are told that he put his safety in danger, but since when does doing the right thing come with a promissory of safety? Certainly in standing up for justice, or love of one’s neighbor, or courage one is likely to face danger to one’s safety. That is, after all, the entire point of virtue; this life isn’t about you, but is about the Good and the pursuit of the Good, meaning that sometimes you must take risks.

A fulfilled life is not the safe life, a fulfilled life is full of scrapes and bruises, it’s full of struggle and pain; it is what weak-willed adults called unstable and what playful children call adventure. We lack adventure in our world. We create the simulation of danger, a simulacrum of courage, we tell people to jump off bridges with a bungee cord attached, we encourage rides on amusement parks, we pump money into the artificial stimulation of adrenaline. We are rational animals and our body, being a beast, can be easily tricked. Provide enough simulation and the body will react and think it is in a dangerous situation when it really is not. After all, with the bungee cord, though there is some danger, it is controlled. The same stands true for rides on amusement parts or any other “adrenaline junkie” favorites.

Jumping from an airplane with safety equipment and a tested parachute with a low to no fail rate doesn’t require courage, at least not true courage. Jumping from an airplane with that same equipment and parachute into an occupied territory in an attempt to deliver liberty to a people, knowing that you may have to give your life to advance the cause of liberty, now that takes courage. True courage doesn’t exist unless there is a little bit of danger involved, unless there is a little risk of personal harm; after all, if harm (either physical or emotional) is not a risk in doing something then how does it take courage to do that something?

Thus, the boy in Calgary was courageous and rather than saying, “You could have gotten yourself hurt,” we should applaud him for acting as he did in lieu of the knowledge that he could have been harmed. The “it’s not my business” mentality and “I don’t want to suffer harm” is what has allowed perpetrators to continue to have victims. But not only did this boy show courage, he also showed love. He showed love not only to the potential victim, but also to the victimizer.  Continue reading

I’m not a “Christian” Writer: Revisiting the Secular/Sacred Split

A couple of weeks ago I wrote several posts encouraging Christians to stop investing in what I termed ‘top-down’ approaches to cultural transformation.  Instead, I argued that cultures are transformed from the ‘bottom-up.’  Only when virtue is cultivated, faith is engendered, and the hearts of the people are changed, shall we see true cultural transformation.  Today I’d like to examine another facet of the problem of cultural transformation which is intimately related with the above issue: the so called secular/sacred split.

The late Francis Schaeffer often spoke about modern man’s unfortunate tendency to compartmentalize life—that is to separate, or segregate, the various fields of knowledge and human experience into non-overlapping boxes.  We see this problem among the various academic disciplines which are often taught as if they were completely isolated subject matters.  Consequentially, many scientists fail to understand the philosophical underpinnings of their discipline, many artists and musicians know absolutely nothing about the scientific aspect of their work, and so on and so forth.  When we become so specialized that we fail to see the intimate connection points between the various fields of knowledge we have fallen victim to this harmful form of compartmentalization.

The secular/sacred split is somewhat similar to this.  Evangelical Christians often segregate the things they perceive to be ‘secular’ and the things they perceive to be ‘sacred’—and act as if there are some things which are ‘spiritual activities’ and others which are simply neutral or ‘non-Christian.”  For instance, many would consider going to church on Sunday morning a ‘sacred’ activity—in contrast, few Christians would consider going to eat at McDonald’s ‘sacred.’  Now, I’m not arguing that these activities are one and the same (clearly there are huge differences); however, there is a problem when we fail to see the sacred aspect of even the most mundane parts of our life, like going to McDonald’s.  We are still Christians when we go to McDonald’s, we are still called to live out our faith at McDonald’s, to honor God at McDonald’s, to respect and love people at McDonald’s . . .

This split happens in other more subtle ways too.  For instance, Evangelicals have created their own subculture by attaching the label ‘Christian’ to art, music, film, and literature.   For many Evangelicals music, to use an obvious example, is ‘secular’ unless we attach the descriptor ‘Christian’ to it—hence, we now have Contemporary Christian Music.  The same has happened with all of the above categories—we now have Christian Fiction, Christian Movies, and Christian Artists.  We’ve created our very own subpar, subculture.

When I was a teenager I used to be proud of the fact that I didn’t listen to ‘secular’ music.  I would tell my friends that I only listened to ‘Christian’ music.  The truth is, however, music is neither secular nor Christian—people are.  That is to say, people can be Christians not music (although, I would add that music, by nature, is a great good, in virtue of the fact that God created it).  Christ calls people, like you and me, to help redeem the culture through living out our faith in the culture.

To redeem a culture, to transform it from the bottom-up, we have to break through the secular/sacred split and allow our faith to penetrate every aspect of our being.  This takes far more than merely “Christianizing” the arts and sciences—that is, duplicating what the general culture is doing, badly, and attaching pithy scripture verses to it to make it sound spiritual.  Rather, it takes Christians approaching their individual vocations with the heart and mind of Christ.  It means striving for excellence, striving to attain virtue, and striving for truth in all that we do.  Most importantly, it involves doing this in the general culture.

A Christian who is a musician should not, by default, assume the only way he can pursue his vocation is by writing and performing “worship” music.  Rather, he should strive, first and foremost, to be a good musician.  He should seek to cultivate virtue through his music.  He should think about and theorize about music through the lens of the Christian worldview, he should develop his skills and abilities (striving for excellence), and honor God through the work of his hands (or mouth if you sing or play a wind instrument).  He should conduct business honorably—with honesty and fairness.  He should use his music to support the weak and less fortunate.  Music can be, and should be, sacred even when we don’t sing the words “Jesus loves you.”  And this is true of all of the arts and sciences.

Christians should be on the New-York Times Bestsellers list, not as “Christian Authors,” but as authors who are Christians.  Their faith should be evident in the quality and depth of their work, in the nobility and justness of their business practices, in the way they treat others and use the money they make, etc…  Christians should be at the top of their academic field, not because they are “Christian Biologists,” or “Christian Psychologists,” or “Christian Philosophers,” but because they strive for excellence in all they do, live lives of holiness and virtue, and bring their faith to bare on every decision they make or theory they propound.  Christians who are artists should strive to have their work on display in the world’s top galleries–not merely paint quaint landscapes to be sold as household decorative items at Lifeway Christian Bookstore.

If we truly want to transform our culture we’re going to have to break free from our subculture—tear down the divide—and allow the Holy Spirit to use us as a source of renewal and life.

The Government, Tax Hikes, and Public Virtue (Part 2)

In our economic collapse, we must find a solution that gets us on the right track. This stands true for economies around the world and not just the American economy. Yet, in many ways, we are responsible for our own state of being; in our support and promotion of hedonistic ethics, or “do whatever feels right,” we’ve created a climate that produces the kind of government corruption that we see. In short, no economic system will work until we have a consistent, virtue-based ethical system; ethics comes before economics, ethics dictates economics.

Consider the corruption within the government. During any sex scandal for a politician, someone generally raises the point that what a politician does behind closed doors doesn’t matter. So long as a politician does a good job in office, who cares what he does in the bedroom? But such a sentiment ignores several things.

For one, if a politician is willing to break a vow with his spouse, a covenant with the one that he loves, how more likely is he to break his vow to his constituents? After all, his spouse is the one he’s come to love, the one he’s been intimate with (in more than a physical way), the one he’s spent quite a bit of his life with, and so on. If he is willing to cast her aside for something a bit better, then why would he remain faithful to his constituency, who are nothing more to him than a voting base? In other words, not only should we pay attention to what a public leader does in the bedroom, we should care quite a bit that he’s upholding vows in his private life so we have some assurance he will uphold the vows in his public life.

Or we can consider a multi-million dollar CEO and how he only gives a tiny fraction of his income to the poor. He is simply doing what feels right, or following his own ethic. If we each decide what is true for us, then he has decided what is true for him and there is nothing anyone can do about it, at least not without upholding some absolute moral standard. Yet, we’ve been told for so long that absolute morality is passé, out of date, oppressive, tyrannical, and so on. Yet, when it comes to the rich exploiting the poor, we quickly want to create an absolute standard!

If we truly want to save our government from corruption and save our economy from the elite (whether that elite be in our government via socialism or in the private sector via an oligarchic capitalism), then we must begin to promote an ethical way of life for all, and then shame public officials who consistently refuse to live up to that ethical standard.

Whether we like it or not, the only solution to our woes is to embrace an absolute ethic, something that all humans at all times in all places can follow. The solution isn’t smaller government, more regulation, bigger government, a freer market, or so on; in all of these instances, if we have men who love vice setting the rules, then the rules will ultimately be subverted. If we have men who love virtue setting the rules, however, then at some point there is no need for rules, because they wouldn’t dare shame themselves by showing themselves to love vice.

When people aren’t interested in doing the right thing, or are only interested in what’s good for them, then a society cannot last. When elected officials put regulations on businesses in order to secure a vote, then they don’t really intent to stick by those regulations, especially if it’ll cost them campaign donations. Rather, the regulations become lip-service. Or, worse, what if the government officials do exert their power and regulate a business, but they exert the power in order to demonstrate their authority? Then we have traded in one form of tyranny (an oligarchy) for another (an authoritarian government). In both, powerful and rich individuals do what makes them feel right and do what is in their own interests.

We must move back to some form of moral absolutism, to some moral standard where the rich and powerful realize they have an obligation to others. We must move to a place where men are valued not by what they own or by their vocations, but by what they do in virtue. If we cannot reform our ethics, then we will never reform our economics.


The priorities and consequences of an empty culture

As I write this, major newspapers are accepting the idea that we are heading into a great economic depression. Though we don’t know how bad the depression will be, the fact we are heading into one becomes more and more apparent each day. Likewise, we currently have an administration that simply is not adequately tasked to handle a depression. Though we must continually pray for President Obama and show respect towards the office of the presidency, we must admit that Mr. Obama has shown himself inadequate to deal with crises, whether they be domestic or foreign.

In light of the economic collapse, we have all but lost the Gulf Coast to oil. Fishermen cannot fish, tourist attractions are shut down, and the economy is being hit even harder in our Southern states. We are now sitting almost four month out after the oil spill and the well has yet to be capped, which prevents clean up. Where is the Federal Government to help protect our shorelines, to help protect our borders? Where is the public out cry that the Federal Government has failed to secure our borders once again, which is their Constitutional imperative.

We are shutting down parts of Arizona because our government has failed to prevent drug traffickers and human traffickers from coming across our border. By being inactive we have become complicit with the action that enslaves thousands of humans every year. Believe what you will about illegal immigration – for those that follow this site they understand that I am in high support of immigration – it is the duty of the government to protect the borders and they have failed in that duty (and this is not just Mr. Obama’s fault, this spans back through multiple administrations).

We are facing a justice department that is out of control, threatening to violate the Constitutional right to be protected from double jeopardy just so the administration can pander to a voting base. This same justice department is suing Arizona for the belief that Arizona is overstepping its Constitutional bounds (which I do believe Arizona is doing that), but then doing nothing to fulfill their own duty to protect the borders.

We have multiple states on the verge of bankruptcy and in fact our own nation is on the verge of bankruptcy. We have citizens who’s entire lifestyle is based upon what has been loaned to them. They do not truly own most of their toys and were the economic rug pulled out from under them, they would have nothing to fall upon.

We are engaged in two wars with the potential for two other major conflicts to open up (Iran and Korea). Our diplomatic currency is so low that we are struggling to negotiate peaceful terms with either nation. Were war to break out, we would not be in a position to aid our allies or prevent a greater evil. Continue reading

From Virtue to Vice (part 3)

We now come to the 7 Vices, which have become virtues in the modern day. These are the things that traditionally have been viewed as the seven major categories for sin; though there are multiple sins, they can generally fit within one of these seven categories (and all fall under pride).

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From Virtue to Vice (Part 1)

Lately, conservative voices have been talking about how we’ve lost our “societal values” in the West. President Obama, alternatively, has announced how America has no right to promote its values overseas. What I’m struggling with on both sides, however, is the idea of using the word “values.”

The word “value” carries within it almost a subjective application; it is what one finds important for one’s own life. “Values” are what we as individuals, families, and communities hold to, but these are subject to change. We view “values” in terms of their usefulness; do they aid in achieving the end(s) that we want? We place different “values” on different objects; what is valuable to one may not be valuable to another. Thus, the very word “values” tends to lend itself toward a subjective stance.

This might be because “virtue” is almost an archaic word in the English language. We’ve made the two synonymous, but this is hardly the case. In Latin (where we get the two terms), “values” comes from the word valere, which can mean to be in good health or to be strong. The word for “virtue” is virtus, which means to be of strong character, or to have worth. In other words, to be “virtuous” in Latin means to be of worth. To have “values” simply means to adhere to the virtus.

Inherent within both claims is an objective and subjective claim. Virtue is the objective standard to which all humans are to strive. All humans are to attempt to be virtuous and lead lives in accordance with virtue. When our lives match up with virtue, then we are displaying our values, or the subjective aspect of our lives. How we apply the virtues will depend on the culture we are in. Thus, virtues are the objective and absolute source of morality whereas values are the manifestations of those realities within our personal lives.

So when we focus solely on “values” without an objective or absolute standard, we really remove the purpose of values. What this has led to, unfortunately, is a value-based society with hardly any virtues. If anything, we have taken the 4 Classical virtues and 3 Christian virtues and turned them into vices. These 7 virtues, three of which anyone can follow, are both truthful, and Scripturally supported.

If we want to redeem our culture then we must return to these seven virtues (or at least the 4 Classical virtues). Though there are more virtues than the 7, the 7 are the main virtues and in some way all other virtues are tied back to these 7. But what are they, why they are good, what is their scriptural support, and how are they now vices?

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