Three anecdotes (and one report) give us an unsettling glimpse at the precarious state of modern manhood:
- My son came to me carrying the New Testament given to him by a popular men’s ministry. Sandwiched inside the pages were pictures and biographies of “great” Christian men. They were all rough-and-tumble men; Olympic champions and professional athletes. He was in art school. “If this is the definition of a godly man,” he said, “I don’t have a prayer. Where are the artists, the musicians, the authors?”
- She was attracted to him because there weren’t many interesting young men in her church. He had a good job and seemed to take his faith seriously. She thought they had agreed to get together on Friday night, but when he hadn’t contacted her by Thursday she gave him a call. He said, “No, you misunderstood. I would never go out on a Friday night. That’s my videogame night with my friends. Nothing could ever get in the way of that.”
- A local private university spends a couple days of its freshman orientation week on gender and sexuality clarification issues. These exercises are meant to help recent high school graduates discover who they really are, without the constraints of what they’ve been told they are supposed to be.
- The US Census Bureau reports that one of every three children in the United States is being raised without a father present. Millions of boys grow up without a dad to pass down what only dads can.
What do all of these stories have in common? They point to an important cultural conversation taking place both outside and inside the church: Is manhood under siege? What does a real man look like? What do we do about the growing cultural dynamic of protracted boyhood? Who will teach our boys to be men? In teaching boys to be men, how do we avoid narrow cultural stereotypes? What does the Bible say about gender distinction? What does it teach about a man being a man? How different are men from women?
These are ongoing debates whose conclusions will shape the lives of thousands of boys who are in the process of becoming men. The "manhood" conversation is something no serious Christian can avoid.
Books on Manliness
The contemporary conversation on manliness is unfolding on a myriad of blogs, websites, and books. Perhaps the most popular and influential work on manhood right now is The Art of Manliness, a website founded by the husband-and-wife team of Brett and Kate McKay. (The McKays have also written a book with the same title, which features similar material as the website.)
The Art of Manliness offers the ultimate one-stop shop for tips on staying in shape, dressing sharply, unleashing your inner handyman, and many other street-level skills that every man supposedly needs. Articles feature step-by-step instructions on how to tie your neck tie with a four-in-hand knot, how to shave like your grandpa, how to give a man-hug, to how to teach your kid to ride a bike, and everything in between. But reading this work made me sad, and I’ll tell you why: I learned many of these things (at least the more practical ones) from my dad. He taught me how to polish my shoes. He taught me to look in a man’s eyes when I shook his hand. He taught me the value of hard work. He taught me how to grill a good steak. I wonder if the reason The Art of Manliness is so popular is that fathers just aren’t passing these things down to their sons anymore.
In recent years, evangelical publishing houses have released several books touching on issues and challenges of manliness. Jonathan Catherman’s The Manual to Manhood: How to Cook the Perfect Steak, Change a Tire, Impress a Girl, & 97 Other Skills You Need to Survive (B&H) covers similar terrain as The Art of Manliness. Also contributing to the conversation are Darrin Patrick’s The Dude’s Guide to Manhood: Finding True Manliness in a World of Counterfeits (Thomas Nelson), Stephen Mansfield’s Mansfield’s Book of Manly Men: An Utterly Invigorating Guide to Being Your Most Masculine Self (Thomas Nelson), and Eric Mason’s Manhood Restored: How the Gospel Makes Men Whole (B&H).
If you ask Darrin Patrick (lead pastor of The Journey church in St. Louis) what makes a man a man, he won’t give you a set of skills. No, he’ll immediately say that it’s all about character. You respect a real man because of who he is, not because of what he’s able to do. Patrick captures the essence of manhood with catchy phrases: “Get It Done.” “Train, Not Just Try.” “Feel Something Without Crying at Everything.” “Find the Right Arena.” Each of these phrases is the doorway to a discussion of crucial areas of character in the life of any serious man. Patrick says in a hundred different ways that it’s what’s inside of a man that counts, no matter how much he knows about tying a four-in-hand knot.
Stephen Mansfield, the bestselling author and biographer, sees manhood in strong, active, heroic terms. His book is built on four maxims: Manly men do manly things. Manly men tend their fields. Manly men build manly men. And manly men live to the glory of God. Mansfield illustrates these maxims with a hero’s gallery of men: Winston Churchill, George Patton, Jedediah Smith, and Theodore Roosevelt, to name a few. Mansfield’s list of character traits is quite helpful, and his biographical sketches were convicting and motivating. But deep down, I kept thinking, “If these guys are examples of ‘real’ man, then I’m cooked! I’ll never measure up.”
Eric Mason is pastor of an urban Philadelphia church in a very tough neighborhood. He is both a firsthand witness to how manhood is broken down and a driven and articulate champion of seeing it rebuilt. On the sidewalks he travels every day, he sees evidence of the destructive power of sin on the lives of boys and young men. The experience has convinced him that only God’s grace is capable of reversing the tide. In many ways, Mason’s advice is not unlike Patrick’s or Mansfield’s. But his book stands out in that it contains a strong “something has been broken in men and only God’s grace can restore it” emphasis on every page. Manhood Restored is not so much a work of cultural analysis, but a pastor’s heartfelt plea to see men in his care living out their manly callings once more.
A Biblical Response
I would love to eavesdrop on a conversation between Brett and Kate McKay, Darrin Patrick, Stephen Mansfield, and Eric Mason and listen to them discuss what makes a man a “real man.” They’re all concerned with the present state of “mandom.” But they approach the topic from very different places and with very different priorities. It would be a charged and informative conversation, to say the least.
Well, I’ll probably never get them all in the same room, but examining their work—examining it alongside Scripture, the ultimate resource on the meaning and purpose of manhood—has left me with the following conclusions:
It’s foolish to ignore this issue. The work of every generation of Christians is to examine significant cultural issues through the lens of the worldview of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our job is to bring the sanity that can only be found in Scripture. The manhood conversation really does need an infusion of biblical wisdom.
God created men and women to be different. To the Bible believer, this may seem obvious. But our culture no longer assumes that it’s true. Amid the raging societal debate about gender and sexual identity, it’s not hard to see that many young men lack the strong, formative male influences in their lives that previous generations enjoyed. Gender does matter. Manhood and womanhood matter because the Creator decided that they should matter. By design, the self-image God planted in all human beings has a male and a female expression.
It is a rejection of God’s plan for a man to reject his identity as a man. The blurring of gender and role distinctions is but another place where modern culture has walked away from the Creator’s design. If we as a culture have moved away from a street-level belief in the existence of God, is it really surprising that we would be less committed to his design for humanity? Whether he is aware of it or not, it is an act of worship for a man to cultivate and celebrate his manhood. In so doing, he is bowing his knee to the wise choice of his Creator.
Christian culture machoism is not the solution. Google “Tattooed Jesus,” and you’ll see how some Christians have chosen to respond to a culture that appears to have manhood under siege. Giving young men a muscle-bound, tattoo-laden Jesus to worship distorts both the nature of Jesus and the nature of manhood. It takes a limited, physical definition of a “real” man and treats the Messiah as its finest embodiment. This tends to introduce another form of cultural confusion to the rising generation of Christian young men.
The Bible doesn’t say much about what makes a man a man.Perhaps many of us wish we could open the Book of Man chapter 1, verse 1 and begin reading about what really makes a man a man. But the Bible doesn’t say much about this. The Bible clearly distinguishes men from women. It has essential things to say about God’s design for the roles of men and women. But when it comes to the fine-grained detail of masculinity and femininity, the Bible is largely silent. This silence is not some tragic omission. No, it is by divine intention. God’s Word really does give us everything we need “for life and godliness.” In this way the Bible is comprehensive, but it is not exhaustive. It is always dangerous to ask it to speak in places where it is silent.
Manly skills do not make a man. It’s certainly useful to know how to keep a journal, survive in the wilderness, keep yourself fit, plan a date, cook a steak, and do home repairs. But mastering these arts doesn’t make you a real man in the deepest sense. My father taught me how to polish my shoes, tie a tie, and match a shirt to a suit. He taught me how to shave and impressed upon me the importance of deodorant and cologne. He taught me how to look a person in the eye when you shake hands, how to safely handle and shoot a gun, how to look for a job, and how to keep the job you have. But ultimately, he lived a double life, and he left me unprepared for the weightier responsibilities of manhood.
Regarding the deepest issues of the heart, men and women are the same. As I read The Dude’s Guide to Manhood, (a book that would be helpful for all men to read) it hit me that Patrick’s advice applies across the board: The majority of what he rightly says makes a successful man would also make a successful woman. His advice to men is to “be determined, teachable, disciplined, hard working, content, devoted, connected, properly emotional, forgiven and forgiving.” Isn’t this equally good advice for women? Sin pushes all of us in the direction of being selfish, entitled, lazy, demanding, and lacking in perseverance, patience, and love. These things rob men of their manhood, but they weaken women as well.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer. The quest for true manhood ultimately drives us to the cross of Jesus Christ. We run to Jesus not just as the ultimate example of what a man looks like, but more importantly as our Savior. Here’s the bottom line: As a man, I don’t just need to be rescued from the pressures, deficiencies, prejudices, and imbalances of the surrounding culture. No, I need to be rescued from my sin—from myself. It is humbling to note that the greatest danger to any man exist inside of him, not outside of him. Sin makes me willing to be less than the man God designed me to be, and for that, I need forgiveness and transforming grace. The next generation of men need may need to be challenged to be real men. But more than anything, they need to be introduced to the Savior who alone can make that possible.
Paul David Tripp is a pastor, author, and president of Paul Tripp Ministries.
Image credit: James Morley, Flickr
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